Empty Houses, Iona MacLeod
Empty houses is a site specifc installation located in an uninhabited farm on the Isle of Lismore called Tir na Choirche (the land of oats). At its peak in 1831 the island of Lismore had a population of 1,500 people, today it has a population of around 175 people. The depopulation of the highlands and islands is often thought of as an historic issue, however access to land, afordable housing, and work in rural areas are still major obstacles faced by communities like Lismore and present very real difculties for population sustainment and growth.
These sculptures are meant to encourage conversation around this issue by repopulating one of the depopulated spaces on the island! And encourage people to think about how the historic context of this issue has evolved to set the scene for whats happening within the community today.
Each of the fgures in the installation is based on a person from the island's history. Each person along with their story was selected as they related to the topic of access to work and housing within the community. Texts containing their stories have been included below.
For more information about the project visit ionamacleod.co.uk
Cailleach an t-Sibinn - The Old Lady of the Shebeen
On the south-western tip of Lismore (Fiart) stands a ruined cottage dating from
the late 18th century, lone guardian of many lost secrets. Here lived 'the Old Lady of the Shebeen. She moved here after being evicted from the northern tip of Lismore. That was her punishment for illigal distilling where by the Laird or the Excise Ofcer remains unclear! Anyway, she very soon resumed her former trade. The whisky produced at Fiart was said to be of singularly high quality surly this old shebeener should have been regarded as an entrepreneur not a common criminal!
The Excise Ofcers (guagers) soon took the trail again, hoping to capture her red- handed. They failed miserably, no evidence being visible anywhere. Nevertheless, they were patient, and cunning! A change of routine was decided upon which would ensure success, and the remorseless net of authority would end - once and for all - the Old Lady of Shebeen's activities.
Now the waters of Ruba na Fiart are notoriously dangerous: here are many reefs and conficting currents which are sure to trap the unwary if they venture near. The revenue cutter suddenly appeared from the sound of Mull, and her inexperienced helmsmen made an error just one and stranded the vessel on a semi-submerged reef. To complicate matters, the tide was ebbing, endangering the cutter even further.
There was no lifeboat service in those days, yet their prayers were answered by none other than their adversary, the Old Lady of the Shebeen, who was familiar with every reef and swirling current. Soon they were looking towards her with very diferent eyes. This criminal whom they had hoped to arrest had become their guardian angel. All were rescued, and maybe, if they were lucky, they were even given a wee dram to speed their recovery and drink to their rescuers health!
Ever afterwards the gaugers turned a Nelson-like blind eye towards Rubha na Fiart when sailing past!
Domhnall MacIlleDhuibh. (2006). A Tale or Two from Lismore. Glasgow: The University of Strathclyde. Page 74.
'Let me tell you about a young girl who left this island for the frst time about a hundred and ffty years ago. Mary MacDonald was only thirteen years old when she left her home, her family, and her native isle for the frst time. She didn't travel all that far – only across the Firth of Lorne to a small farm at Achnacree in Benderloch. She was employed to look after the children, a boy and a girl little younger than herself. Unfortunatly, Marry's employers, the master and mistress, were hard-hearted and penny-pinching, but with aspirations to gentility!
One very special day, very important visitors were expected to call, and everything was set out to create an appearance of wealth. For efect, a pot of jam was placed on the servants table, which for Mary and the herd-boy, Donald MacCaul, was their frst time meeting with such luxury. The jam tasted so exquisite that one spoonful led to annother, and the jar was soon empty. This was the frst time, and indeed the last time that jam was on the menu! Incidently, Donald was also an islander from Lismore.
One of Mary's duties was to take the children to the Sunday School, which was situated in a large cave in Ledaig. Their teacher was rather unusual: John Campbell, well-known as the bard of Ledaig. There is no evidence now of this caves existence, as it was destroyed during the building of the railway to Ballachulish, what a loss. This line is now overgrown with scrub: it was closed in 1963, when trains had gone out of fashion and the car was the favoured mode of travel.
Wee Mary worked at Achnacree for a year, often carrying a basket of eggs to Oban – a round trip of twelve miles and two crossings of Loch Etive at Connel Ferry. There was little consideration given to her extreme youth.
At long last the year ended, as most of the triles which afict mankind do! On a warm and mellow autunm morning, Mary gathered her meagre possesions and left. She had three miles to walk to a place called Dun Bhachallaich on the northern shores of Benderloch, which looked to the little port of Achnacroish on Lismore. From this point a traditional ferry could be allerted by lighting a bonfre. As most islanders owned a dingy, almost always someone would respond to this signal and row across. Mary lit a fre with a few sticks, but it was just a tiny fre, and sadly, it sputtered to extinction and no friendly boatman appeared. Our friend had, as was often the custom, been paied partly in kind. For Mary this 'kind' was
represented by a piglett in a sack. All day long theu waited... she and the piglet waited and waited, and the sun was shrinking behind the hills of Mull. With a heavy heart, Mary was forced to walk back to Achnacree, for nobody had seen her little fre.
Good fortune smiled on her the next morning, and, being much better prepared, she lit a beautiful bonfre. Very soon she saw the morning sun fash over oar blades as they rose and fell, propelling a row boat which was nearing with every stroke. “Not long now” Mary said to her piglet friend. One island lass had returned from her frst great journey to the mainland. Mary MacDonald became my much loved grandmother and was to encounter many a storm in a long and eventful life. Though she was physically small, within her beat a strong and courages heart.”
Domhnall MacIlleDhuibh. (2006). A Tale or Two from Lismore. Glasgow: The University of Strathclyde. Page 19-20.
The tenants did not all go quietly. In the summer of 1843, the death of Archibald McColl, one of the farmers in Baligrundle, ofered an early opportunity for Cheyne to clear the McColl family but it appears that his 27-year old son, Malcolm, resisted the attempt of the police to serve notice of removal – the crime of “deforcement”. On 26 July, a warrant
for his arrest was issued by the Sherif Substitute and a party of fve, led by Donald MacDonald, police constable in Oban, descended on the McColl home in Baligrundle, apprehended Malcolm and marched him of to Achnacroish, where their boat was lying. However, they underestimated the solidarity of the Lismore community. Malcolm McColl (another Malcolm, 42, mason in Tirlaggan), Duncan Connell (27, farmer’s son in Balnagowan) and Donald McLachlan (22, joiner and boat builder in Balnagowan)
“did all and each or one or more of them ... near the heights above the Bay of Achnacroish ... in concert with a great number of other persons amounting to ffty or sixty or thereby wickedly and feloniously obstruct & deforce Donald MacDonald in the execution of the ... warrant knowing him to be an ofcer of the law then engaged in the execution of his duty, and this they did by pulling ... Malcolm McColl from the grasp of ... Donald MacDonald and his assistants ... and by threat of personal violence to Donald MacDonald and his assistants ... and by other violent and riotous conduct by all which or part thereof the said Malcolm McColl was rescued from the custody of Donald MacDonald”
The minutes of the Argyllshire Constabulary Committee indicate that the forces of law and order were outraged at this behaviour. On 27th September, the procurer fscal, in person, arrived on the island, supported by a superintendant and ten police ofcers, and took the three ringleaders prisoner, sending them away successfully to Inveraray. Later in the day they tried to arrest a further man (not named but probably the original Malcom McCaul) but the party was assaulted by the local residents and he escaped. McCaul, Connel, and McLachlan had to wait until December
2nd, when they were found guilty for deforcment and sentenced to a further 60 days of imprisonment in Inveraray prison. In spite of their criminal records, they appear to have returned to normal life on the island. However Malcom McCaul and his family Baligrundle disappear from view after 1843 when he emigrated to Canada.
Robert Hay. (2009). Lismore: The Great Garden. Edinburgh, Birlinn Limited. Page 137-138.
How To Find It
Directions: Leave the main road and head down a track at clachan between the the barn and the old manse (between the fre station and the church). Head through the gate and follow the track across the feld to another gate, then head down the hill and following the signs to the castle. You’ll pass through one more gate at the bottom of the feld the sculptures will be in the ruins to the left of the track. Please follow the country code and close all closed gates behind you and leave any open gates open. The installation is a 60 minute walk from the Appin ferry at Point, and a 60 minute walk from the Oban ferry at Achnacroish.
I would like to give thanks to Archie and Inna McColl for kindly allowing me to exhibit the sculptures on their land, along with Arthur Cross for having the sculptures around while he is working the land. Although he is no longer with us I would like to thank Donald Black for sharing his wonderful stories and memories in his book A tale or Two from Lismore, and Robert Hay for sharing knowledge and research through his books Lismore The Great Garden, and How an Island Lost it's People. All of these books can be found at the islands heritage centre.