An Innocent Nearly Abroad

Oxford to Aird Uig by Train and Boat. January 1962

Imagine a callow youth of just 18 years and 4 months,not having been north of Oxford in his life except to go to basic training camp for the Air Force at RAF Bridgenorth for two months, then spending three months near Weston- Super-Mare at the RAF Locking radio school . Just before Christmas in 1961 I went to the general office in Locking to get my posting along with the other members of my class. I was given a travel warrant to a place called Stornoway.. “Where’s the camp?” I asked. “Well, you get on the chair and go to the top left of the map of Great Britain and look for a promontory sticking far out into the Atlantic and you will find it.You will be picked up and driven to RAF Aird Uig. You have to be there for the 4th of January.”  When I looked it was on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides,as far out to sea as you could get.

I set off from Oxford railway station on the morning of the 2nd January with my complete kit packed in my RAF holdall. I got to Birmingham and changed trains for Glasgow. Little did I know at the time I was launching myself into a voyage of discovery beyond my wildest expectations.

Finally getting to Glasgow Central Railway station at about 4.30 in the afternoon I got out and saw a porter standing beside a hand trolley. I went up to him and said ‘Where can I get the train to Mallaig?’ He replied “I dinna ken” in what I now know to be a broad Glaswegian accent. He pointed up the platform to the station master. I went up to him and had exactly the same conversation only this time I was pointed to the Tourist Office. I went in and found a young girl and repeated the question yet again. She laughingly informed me that I had been saying it wrong.

Although spelt Mallaig it was in fact pronounced Mallig. Having discovered this and also the fact that the train left from a completely different station at at some ungodly hour the next morning I set off for Queens Street railway station.

Arriving at this station I eventually found the waiting room and settled in to eat my sandwiches and have the last of my flask of coffee. Two more blokes walked in with RAF kit bags and we began to talk, all of us were very young, on our first posting and we were all going to somewhere called Aird Uig. As we chatted so it became around 9 pm. and two of the the most enormous policemen I have ever seen,  before or since, came in and started to speak, I could not understand a word they said, fortunately one of the other blokes was from Aspatria, pronounced Spiatri,near Carlisle and he translated the fact that we were to be moved to the ladies waiting room which had a toilet attached. We would be locked in and released at the train departed around saw three unshaven, shagged-out airmen, who had slept fitfully with heads on kit bags while lying on wooden benches woken by another enormous policeman. We had a sort of wash in the ladies and made our way across to the platform.

After waiting for a while in a corridor compartment train complete with racks above our heads and pictures of the highlands below that, it was still dark when we pulled out of Glasgow. Settling down to snooze for a while we were awoken first by the ticket collector and then later by the waiter from the dining car, we decided to breakfast in the car. How prescient we were. On entering the dining car the first impression was like stepping back in time to a bygone age. There were net curtains on the windows and the table had an immaculate white linen table cloth with what appeared to be solid silver cutlery, lots of it.The was a solid silver cruet set, the jams and marmalade were in dishes with a silver spoon in each. Absolving myself from the porridge, eaten by one of our members with salt!, we had an enormous fry up on huge platters, then as much toast and coffee as we could eat. We kept the waiter busy for some time.

By this time it had become light and we could see the snow covered moors stretching for miles. As we were the early morning train it was slow going and we stopped at many stations. We passed the Monessie Gorge albeit in the opposite direction covered in ice and snow and into Fort William and then onto Mallaig arriving at about midday. We strolled down to the quay and waited to board the boat for Skye and Stornoway.

The boat was the ‘Loch Seaforth’, 1126 tons and 241ft long! Having got on board we awaited the last of the cargo to be derricked aboard, eventually leaving at about three pm. Although breezy, it was an invigorating trip over to Skye, no bridge in those days. We docked after about three parts of an hour and the wind had got up quite quite strongly, causing a slight problem with docking. All the passengers except we three got off at Skye.

There were some problems with loading the stuff on board and all this took time. Eventually all the cargo was on board as were now three ministers of the cloth and six women dressed in macs against the now falling rain. We set off into the Minch, the stretch of water between Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. At the start it was still blowy and as we left the shelter of the land so the seas started to mount.

The accommodation was restricted to a large state room and toilets, the rest of the boat was cut off by ropes across the space leading to the ladders to the upper deck, leaving only a smallish space just outside the door where there was a certain amount of cargo stored beneath a tarpaulin. Within the state room there were just three servicemen and the ministers and what were now six women dressed from head to toe in black. These women were now unilaterally wailing at the tops of their voices and the ministers were preaching loudly,alternately in a foreign tongue. I believe they were speaking Gaelic or The Gallic as it is pronounced.There were only basic toilets available, the rest of the boat was shut off.

In the meantime the seas were getting up and the wind considerably stronger. I took to going outside by the cargo as best I could because I could not abide the continuous wailing and the preaching of the ministers. As the seas mounted so the wailing was reduced to two women at a time and one minister. The stench in the toilets was becoming overpowering with the smell encroaching into the stateroom.

By now the weather had dissolved completely into a January gale plus. With still mounting seas corkscrewing the boat in all directions and the wind doing its utmost turn the boat over, about 1.00 am the captain decided to deploy a sea anchor. I say that advisedly because I could see nothing but only hear the anchor chain being released into the sea, it did not seem to go on for long enough to reach the bottom.

The boat seemed to steady a little, lacking the extreme sideways tilt of before. In my little hideaway with the back cargo I could now hear it sliding across the deck and hitting the side with a heavy ‘crump’ followed immediately by a scrunching sound coming from within. This continued for a few hours until the canvas slipped sideways to reveal three coffins sliding across the deck and back. The noise was made by the coffins hitting the sides and their contents being scrunched up inside.Backwards and forwards they went relentlessly. But somehow they must have had a direct line from above to the deck hands as after about half an hour one of them appeared and fixed the tarpaulin, the only deckhand I saw all trip.

We were well over due at Stornoway, with the engine running just to maintain services we rode out the storm until daybreak, I call it day break if a lightening of the blinding wind driven rain and spume is daybreak. After several hours the seas seemed to abate slightly and the wind dropped almost imperceptibly. The captain ordered the anchor in and we continued in our battle to achieve our goal. The state room was silent now all had succumbed to sea sickness to the greater, not lesser, degree.

Plunging headlong into the easing seas, slowly but surely ‘Lock Seaforth’ edged towards the Outer Hebrides and its destination, the longed for Stornoway; during this time there was nothing available to eat or drink. We docked at about 6.00 pm (about one day late) in darkness and rain, happily to be met by an MT driver from camp in a people carrier, an old J2. He took us to a cafe and ordered coffee for all of us. We were immediately surrounded by girls our own age, all speaking the same peculiar language. The driver laughed and said that they were only teasing for the first meeting. Later one of them spoke English and introduced us all.

After a short while it was off to camp, little realising this was forty miles across the moors on a single track road with no markings, nor bend indications. In fact I subsequently discovered that the three-tonner and the forty seat coach only passed over it with the inner two wheels touching. On our arrival we went straight into the transit block, had a bite to eat and then sleep. I slept the sleep of the dead until gone 11.00 am the next day. On either side of me in the room was a Geordie and a Glaswegian, both of them listening in tears to Billy Connolly Live at the Glasgow Theatre on a 33.r.p.m. disc.It was to be some months before I understood them naturally.

What had I come to, a land far across the sea where all the inhabitants spoke in a foreign language? Apparently I was still in the British Isles.

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