The Cruel Sea

A fraught relationship

The people of Tolsta have always had an ambivalent love-hate relationship with the sea. Their crofts were small, the weather was changeable and the growing season was short. By contrast, Broad Bay and the wider expanses of the Minch were teeming with fish.

If a man was a member of a boat-crew with well equipped fishing gear he could sustain a reasonable life-style, together with enough cash to pay the rent and save enough to survive in the prevailing subsistence economy. If he relied solely on the land there were hard times when he had to survive by supplementing his diet with shellfish from the shore. Resorting to ‘maorach a'chladaich' was regarded as a case of extreme poverty. It is very ironic that this formerly-despised shellfish now fetches high prices in the best restaurants throughout Europe and beyond.

However, this reliance on the sea was to take a heavy toll of human life, both in war and peace. When I was growing up in Tolsta between the two World Wars the atmosphere was palpably depressing and oppressive. I would meet many women dressed in black and wearing the customary widow's black ‘bonnet' adorned with elaborate layers of black crepe. At the time I considered them old, but they could only have been middle-aged. They were walking to the Thursday prayer meetings, which were then held at midday, before they were relegated to the evenings. Even when motorcars became prevalent some back-woodsmen frowned on their use, except for secular occasions. How customs and ancient observances have changed in contemporary society!

One such old lady was Annabella Maciver, who became Mrs Macleod on her marriage, and whose house I passed several times a week, when going and coming from school. She lived with her family of two – Murchadh Barabail and Doileag Barabail . The fact that her daughter was called Doileag suggested that her husband had perished before or shortly after the girl was born. It was the custom to give a female version of a man's name after the death of a father or near relative.

This old lady is cited as an extreme example of a life, which was haunted and devastated by a series of tragic deaths connected with the sea. In all, there were six drownings in her immediate family, at intervals throughout her long life. Each event is recorded here in historical order.

The first tragedy was that of her grandfather, Angus Murray Aonghas Alasdair Gobha , who was drowned while rock-fishing somewhere between Tolsta and Gress. His body came ashore at Traigh Sheilibhig and was buried there because he was so badly decomposed that he could not be taken home for a normal funeral.

The second tragic event was that of her father, Murdo Maciver, who was drowned while fishing off Wick in August 1881, at the age of 52. He was a son of Donald Maciver Dòmhnall Mòr an Lodain (1796 – 1873), who came to settle in Old North Tolsta before moving to Croft 26.

By the third calamity she became a widow when her husband Donald Macleod (1850 – 1890) was drowned in a boating accident off Glen Tolsta. He was a son of Dòmhnall Mòr a'Ghlinne who was, at one time, the shepherd at Glen Tolsta.

Her brother, Donald Maciver, Seaman R.N.R., who was married in Peterhead, was the fourth victim to be claimed by the sea. He was lost on H.M.S. Newmarket on 17 th July 1917 aged 53, having subtracted five years off his age in order to enlist.

A second brother, Murdo Maciver, was drowned off the Australian coast on 4 th December 1924 at the age of 54.
Fate was to strike the sixth and final bitter blow when her son-in-law, John Maciver Iain,mac Iain Mhic Aonghais Ruaidh (Cobbers) was drowned in the Iolaire on 1 st January 1919 at the age of 33. This tragedy left her daughter Doileag a young childless widow.

In later life she had the consolation of her son Murdo surviving the war and living to draw his old-age pension. He was a skilful and intrepid fisherman, who had several narrow escapes while skippering open boats in gale-force winds out of Cladach Ghìordail.

Aonghas MacLeòid