Dougie MacDougall’s Islay Stories

From the booklet As Long as Water Flows. For Christine and her Mother, Lily MacDougall.

Dougie MacDougall: The Sound of Islay with its six knot tides can be very treacherous – the surrounding hills and glens are the sources where strong winds spring from, sometimes without trace until they hit the water. This you must know when under sail. On the other hand, the Sound can be most charming with its beautiful surrounding hills and glens and scenery that well can be admired according to the fulfilment of your views.

When my father retired I was appointed as boatman for Rhuvaal and McArthur’s Head. This of course included attendant for minor lights and gas buoys. It was a twenty foot launch with spray hood aft with petrol paraffin engine, a good sea boat in which we had to carry out all trips. I am telling you now, the launch had to be a good sea boat, for when you got the call, no matter what the weather was like, you went if at all possible. If there was a patient at either lighthouse during the day or night, you were obliged to go if the weather permitted, and that if you could find a doctor to attend.

For instance, there was this lightkeeper at Rhuvaal, a very nice man, got very ill sometimes with blood running through him. The doctor attended him twice but failed to understand what was wrong, for each time that he examined him he seemed to be alright. The doctor at the time was Dr MacIntyre, an exceptionally clever man and one you could depend on in an emergency. Everything went on quite well till this wild night a phone call was received from Rhuvaal advising that the keeper took a bad turn and the doctor had to be summoned at once. I hired a car to go to Bridgend, ten miles distant, to see if I could get hold of the doctor. Eventually I found out that he was at a rifle shooting practice in Bridgend Hall. I told him that the keeper had taken a severe turn and that his presence was required at the station. ‘Och,’ he says, ‘I am not going to Rhuvaal tonight, for I have been there twice and I failed to find anything wrong. What do you think yourself?’ Continue reading.....‘Well, doctor, as far as I’m concerned, the message has been delivered so its up to you.’ He considered quite a while and again asked what did I think. ‘Well, doctor, I know the keeper very well. The fact is, there is something very far wrong with him and perhaps if you attended him tonight you would be lucky enough to find the complaint.’ ‘Right.’ He decided to be at Port Askaig in half an hour and everything was ready when the doctor arrived. We slipped away from Port Askaig at twelve thirty that night. Regardless of weather we made a good trip. The doctor stepped ashore saying that he would not keep us long. With the ground swell being so heavy at the landing we cleared out to wait the arrival of the doctor. Hours passed, there was no sign of him coming, so I decided to get ashore and walk up to the station to find out the long delay. The delay was, he was trying to get in touch by phone to the Northern Lighthouse Office, instructing them to send the ship to take the patient to hospital on the mainland. The ship arrived next day and conveyed him to Oban. The doctor, by the way, was happy that he had gone to see him after all.

I remember well on another occasion, a keeper’s wife was taking haemorrhages and the doctor was called quite a few times to attend her. In the end the doctor advised the husband to take his wife to a mainland hospital. I received word of this at eleven o’clock at night in the dead of winter to take her by boat from Rhuvaal to Port Askaig and from there to Port Ellen by car, en route to the mainland by MacBrayne’s passenger boat. This was a long journey for the patient; in all the mileage would be roughly thirty – it must have been very tiring for her. We set off at twelve o’clock at night. A relieving occasional keeper was on board because the lightkeeper was attending his wife on the trip to the mainland.

The tide was flowing to the north, the wind had suddenly veered due east, right on top of us. All we could do was to keep the bow of the boat right into the wind and heavy seas, the rest was up to the tide to gradually take us to our destination. We could not do anything else because if you let her go off course she would immediately fill up with the angry seas. There was a lot of water coming on board, all the time the bilge pump was working continually to keep the boat from being waterlogged. We carried on until we came opposite Rhuvaal but the weather was so bad that it was impossible to make a landing, so we kept her heading into it till dawn. It was one of the worst trips that I have ever experienced.

At six o’clock it suddenly took off, so in we went and made quite a good landing. There was no sign of anybody so I ran up to the station but the keeper said that he was not going owing to the weather. ‘Not going, after us battling against it most of the night! You had better come, for the weather has moderated a great deal.’ In the end he consented and we carried his wife on a stretcher along to the boat. We were lucky to get a good trip back to Port Askaig where the car was waiting. So ended another mission accomplished.

Tag: history tales

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