Bowmore is recognized as the Capital of green grassy Islay, the Queen of the Hebrides, and certainly the village looks lovely when viewed from the other side of the loch. Set on a slope, with the houses looking as if they were built on steps and with big trees growing in the centre, it is situated on the south side of Lochindaal, a word which means “blind loch”, or perhaps “the loch of delay”, as in stormy weather the loch would be full of vessels seeking shelter until the storm was over.
Bowmore is almost in the centre of the island, ten and a half miles from Port Askaig and Port Ellen. It is not a very old village. There are records which refer to ‘The village about to be built called Bowmore ‘ and it sprang into existence somewhere around 1765. The people came from the old village of Kilarrow, and from various parts around. Most of them were granted a piece of ground, with permission to quarry enough stones to build their houses, and agriculture and fishing were almost their only livelihood.
There were no water rates to pay in those days, as each householder had a well at the back of the house. Most people kept a cow and followers, a pig, some sheep and a horse and cart. In fact they were self supporting. They spun their own wool and made their own blankets and clothes.
Barley, oats and potatoes were their crops. The barley was sold to the Distillery, the oats were sent to the Meal Mill at Bridgend to be made into meal, and with meal and potatoes there was never a shortage of food. The sea and shore also provided food. There was always plenty of fish, mussels and cockles, as well as a sea-plant called “carrageen ” (known elsewhere as Irish Moss), which grew on the rocks in certain parts of the island. This was used to make a milk pudding and as it contained iodine it was considered very beneficial for various complaints. Tea was very expensive in the old days and was considered a luxury. Whisky, I suppose, would be a cheaper drink. No wonder there were so many smugglers!
The old part of the village is in the centre, the new mostly in the east, and standing at the top of Main Street with a fine view all around is the round, whitewashed Parish Church, a fine old building. Rumour says it was built round so that the devil could not lurk in its corners and this certainly proved true in the case of Paul Jones, the “bloody Yankee”, who came to plunder. When the villagers saw his ship sailing up the loch they took to their heels, driving their livestock before them, some carrying little pigs under their arms, and they hid in the hills. The women and children took refuge in the church. Paul Jones, the “Bloody Yankee”, plundered seven boats, set them on fire and then departed.
This round church was built by Daniel Campbell of Shawfield at his own expense and dedicated to ‘the Supreme Deity 1767’. The architect who designed it was a Frenchman who also wrote the Latin inscription on the tablet on the wall, the translation of which is “For the study of piety and the culture of truth and honour.” Its steps provide a favourite seat for the older natives.
Main Street is very wide, probably because all business and marketing used to take place in the open. As time went on, shops opened up and markets became less and less, until only three main markets were held, one in February, one in August and one in November. It was a great sight on market day to see the horses lined up on both sides of the street, right down to the pier. If they weren’t sold in February or August they had to be sold in November to help to pay the rent, which was collected at the village inn. Great quantities of salted fish, cod and ling, were also sold on Market Days. Most of the streets branch off Main Street.
Bowmore can boast of a fine School, some of it old and some new, on the west side of the village between the tops of Flora Street and School Street. The old name for School Street was “Cnoc-na-Faira” meaning “hill of the fairies”. The housewives in the olden days used to spread their washings on a hill above School Street and sat up in turns to guard the washings as sometimes things disappeared and the fairies were suspected. Hence the name “Hill of the Fairies “.
Coming down School Street we come to the pier, which was greatly improved by the R.A.F. during the last war, though unfortunately the water is still too shallow to allow large boats to come in. The top end of the pier is now used as a car park. From there we come along past more shops in Shore Street and arrive at the dear old original Post Office, which has stood in Shore Street for centuries and is still a fine building. Much better situated for the villagers than the present one, it was the centre of attraction in the evening when the mails arrived. In the old days the mails and passengers were carried by horse-drawn brakes, with Mr Neil Macgibbon the Mail Contractor and Mr Joss the Postmaster, and the community had splendid service from these two gentlemen.
Old Bowmore is being gradually swept away to make room for the new way of living. Gone are the old Highland people and their hospitality. Bowmore is now like any other place, bad and good reside in it now.
The Highland people are supposed to believe in fairies. Personally I have not seen any myself but my parents used to tell me about them when I was a child. There is a round green hill about one mile from Bowmore and at midnight it is supposed to open. A piper is supposed to march out, followed by a host of fairies who dance around the hill for a while and then follow the piper back into the hill again. When the fairies all go in, the hill closes up until the following midnight. Incidentally this particular hill is usually green all the year round.
People used to believe that, when a cow gave very little milk in the morning, the owner’s granny had come during the night in the form of a hare and sucked the milk from the cow. Perhaps this is why so few people here will eat hare. Perhaps they are afraid they might be eating a bit of their granny.
It was also believed that some people had the “evil eye,” though sometimes they were not aware of it themselves. In cases like that, if you were buying a cow or a horse from such a person, it was considered wise to let him have it at his own price, as otherwise the animal would die and you would get no price at all in the end.
To the passing visitor, Bowmore must appear a very quiet village but in reality there is always something going on. All the year round, concerts, dances and film shows are held in the Village Hall. The youths have their Boys’ Brigade movement, the girls their Guides. There is also a Football Club, and a Sailing Club has recently been formed. For the women-folk there is the Guild and of course the good old “Rural” which has brought great pleasure to most of us.
For drinkers the public houses are now open until 10 p.m. but it is to the everlasting shame of the people of Bowmore that they are also now open on the Sabbath Day.
No one appears to know what the name “Bowmore” means. Some say it should be “Poll Mor” (Great Pool), as there used to be a piece of bog land covered with reeds opposite Douglas House. Personally I think it means Big Curve, as the village is in the curve of Lochindaal.
The Gaelic language used to be freely spoken in Bowmore but now-a-days one scarcely hears it and although it is taught at school the school children usually answer in English when they are spoken to in Gaelic.