The Outer Hebrides, an archipelago of 200 islands off Scotland’s northwest coast, are wind-scoured and rugged — bleak but at the same time beautiful in a haunting way. Growing up in Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands, I had heard much about Scalpay. My family is from Scalpay. My father was born there, and he and his family left when he was 5 years old.
To me, the island was like a fairy tale, an unknown land, far away on a distant planet, with stories of crofts, religion and herring fishing.
My Uncle David Morrison has lived his entire life on Gaelic-speaking Scalpay — Norse for “scallop island” — on the east side of the Outer Hebrides, about 35 miles from the Scottish coast. The island is just 4 kilometers long — one of 15 in the archipelago that are inhabited.
I first visited Scalpay several years ago to see my relatives and to see for myself where I had come from. When I arrived, I was told that there had been no births for seven years and that the fishing traditions and the people who had kept them alive were fading away, too. The last corner shop closed in 2007, along with the preschool. The island has no grade school or high school, either. Over the years, its population has shrunk to 250. A third of the islanders are pensioners. The rest cling tenaciously to fishing or crofts — small tenant farms — to earn a living in what most people would say is a harsh and unforgiving environment.
The corners of his eyes creased from squinting, Uncle David scans the gray waters of the North Atlantic, as he has just about every day since he was old enough to fish. And for a native of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, that means for most of his 70 years. His face is as rugged as the island of his birth, and he still wakes around 5 o’clock in the morning five days a week to go down to Scalpay’s small harbor. There he meets up with Tappy, his longtime first mate, and together they go out to challenge the northern seas and net prawn on my uncle’s small fishing boat, Family Friend.
Uncle David talks of the prawn fishing — hard, unpredictable, modest in its financial return — as a painful plummet from the 1960s and ’70s, when Scalpay’s fishermen were infected with “herring fever.” Back then, he ran the powerful ring-net fishing boat Hercules, which hauled in tons of “silver darlings,” as herring — a fish of legend and song — were called. The vessel would go to sea for days at a time and net my uncle and his six crewmembers a tidy profit.
In those halcyon times, villages such as Scalpay that had a strong fishing tradition thrived, while those that didn’t depend so much on the sea’s bounty declined. Before the stocks dwindled, the herring fishery supported not just the village economy, but also a way of life and a vibrant network of buyers, sellers, harvesters and processors, who forged a strong bond and formed a caring community that looked after one another.
The collapse of fishing — the traditional livelihood of many of Scalpay’s men — has led to the collapse of a way of life here and elsewhere around the world. These coastal and island communities can hardly sustain themselves as more and more young people leave their home and heritage to look for work. Dependent on the ocean and traditional fishing methods, they are being swallowed by the modern world.
Uncle David is not optimistic. “Far nach bi an-o’g cha bhi an sean,” he says, quoting a Gaelic adage that means, “If there is no young, there will be no old.”
On days when their boats are storm-bound at the docks, the fishermen who are left in Scalpay gather at my uncle’s house at 10 a.m. sharp for a “tea party,” a tradition that began decades ago. But instead of talking about their catches, they talk now about the good old days, when they could go out and come home with a hold full of silver darlings.
Yet when the weather is fair and the sea beckons, Uncle David and Tappy still motor out of Scalpay’s harbor on Family Friend to do what they’ve always done — the only thing they know how to do to earn a living. They fish.