Dougie MacDougall, who lived in Caol Ila, next to Port Askaig, was 20 years old when he inherited his father’s position of Lighthouse Boatman. He served the Sound of Islay lights for 45 years until his retirement in 1977. Dougie was married to Lily MacDougall, locally known as Lily Fish. They lived at Yellow Rock Cottage, next to Caol Ila Distillery. Lily passed away in 2014 at the age of 100. Dougie MacDougall died years before Lily did.
One of Dougies hobbies was writing. He wrote many short stories which were eventually bundled into two booklets; “Islay Sixty Years ago and more” and “As Long as Water Flows”. To my knowledge these booklets might still be available at C&E Roys in Bowmore.
In these short stories Dougie gives a humorous and factual account of the times he worked as a lighthouse boatman. They are a joy to read and give an lovely account of Islay Life in the olden days! Below is an extract of the book “Islay Sixty Years ago and more”:
Islay Sixty years ago…. And more!
Dougie: ‘In those days on Islay there were very large families in each house – say roughly about seven or eight, perhaps more or less according to circumstances. Most of those houses did not have fresh water on tap, no baths and no inside toilets. In some cases the fresh water had to be carried in buckets from the nearest well and this had to be done in all kinds of weather, day and night. Most of the washing had to be done outside in suitable tubs. Hot water had to be boiled in a big iron pot on a fire which had to be well stoked with peats and logs. If there was a fast flowing burn nearby they used that for the blanket washing – a few families helped each other on such occasions.
The houses in those days were mostly all thatched which was replaced every year; help was always at hand when doing so. Most of the houses were whitewashed annually and most gardens were kept in first class order, for you depended on the yield of potatoes and vegetables – shops were few and far between in those days. Each house, as a rule kept hens, ducks, a few geese, and at most times reared a pig which when killed they prepared and hung from the kitchen ceiling in readiness to slice a rasher of ham when required. The cutting of peats in early summer was a must, as they had to be completely dry before stacking after being carted home by horse. Fishing again was always their main concern, for nearing the end of the season they salted quite a quantity of saithe and lythe and ate that with boiled potatoes in the winter time.
Survival of the Fittest
Most of the older people on the island of Islay remember the style of living in the bygone days – mostly it was survival of the fittest. The people were hard working at all kinds of jobs to make ends meet. Wages, when you got them, were just a few shillings a week. There were no lorries or cars, planes were not thought of, even bicycles were few and far between.
The people worked to work, starting off at five a.m. in readiness to start work at six in the morning until six at night, winter and summer; it was very hard going. The farmers had their ponies and traps as their mode of transport which, along with horse and cart, helped in the carrying out of the island’s industry. The distilleries employed a good few men and women because at that time their was no machinery like there is today; most of the tasks were carried out manually.
Barley Shipping to Caol Ila Distillery
Barley was shipped from the Clyde to Caol Ila Distillery by the good old sailing ship ‘Texa’, and whisky was carried back in the same ship, twice weekly, weather permitting. The barley was carried in bulk and the women first of all bagged it in readiness for sending ashore in horse-drawn carts where it was weighed in the malt barns, and lifted to each floor on the men’s backs. Those bags contained 2cwt. Of barley, so it was no mean feat of strength to handle and carry them all day.
In later years they installed hoppers to convey the barley automatically up to the malt barn floors. This made a big difference to the hard labour. The ‘Texa’ carried all the coal required, and materials of every kind to the distillery from the Clyde. In those days the peat was cut in the peat moss beyond Bunnahabhain, three miles distant, carted to the shore and conveyed by the ‘Texa’ to Caol Ila Distillery and unloaded into the peat shed. The women did their fair share of this work, filling the bags and working at the storing of the peat in the shed. This went on most of the summer when the weather was kind.
In those far off days there was no television, no wireless or gramophone. The only source of entertainment was the playing of instruments such as the fiddle, bagpipes, melodeon etc., and concerts were held in neighbours’ homes and were much enjoyed by everyone. There was no electricity; lighting was mostly by paraffin lamps and very poor, dirty lighting it was, but people were quite content with their lot. There was many an old Gaelic song sung and story told to while away the hours, sometimes very ghostly ones at that!
Busy Port of Port Askaig
Many years ago, Port Askaig was a very busy port, trading with most of the islands to the north and the mainland to the south, also Northern Ireland. In those days it was sailing boats, big and small, which traded all along the coast; their business was a sort of livelihood for them. They carried cattle to the islands of Jura, Colonsay and Mull or wherever they were required to go. The fishing round Islay at that time was very good so that boats came from all over to carry away salt cod, salted herring, also skate, haddock, whiting and all kinds of shellfish, not forgetting flat fish which was very plentiful.
Sound of Islay
Farm produce was always a big item for shipping in and out of Port Askaig. Boats sailed to the Clyde and brought back required food stuff of every kind. There was always a good trade between Port Askaig and Jura; cattle were shipped both ways when weather was suitable; most of the cattle in due course would be sold on mainland markets. The strong tides running in the Sound of Islay made the crossing very difficult for the boats depended on sail and oars. They would drift with the tide for at least one mile. Landing was made as a rule at a place named ‘Daimh-Sgeir’, which was quite a good landing on an ebb tide. There is no doubt that they required to have another shipping port south of Port Askaig to suit a crossing on the flood tide.
There is a suitable place one mile from Port Askaig and its name is ‘Port-an-t-Seilish’, a well sheltered harbour. There are still traces of a stone built landing; this could have been for loading and unloading vessels. This place would have been suitable for boats to cross the Sound of Islay on a flood tide to land their cargoes at Feolin Ferry, allowing a driftage of one mile. In the vicinity of the port there are traces of a large building like a ‘change house’, which was very necessary to welcome travellers, for no doubt there would have been delays according to weather and tides.
To be continued…..