The Great Book of Skye 3 – book review

Is it really fewer than five years since Norman Macdonald and Cailean Maclean published the first Great Book of Skye?

Apparently so, for I see that I’m quoted on the back cover telling readers to buy that book or I’ll go round and kidnap their hamsters. “This book should be possessed by anybody with the remotest interest in Skye,” I wrote in this space in October 2014.

In January 2019, with the third volume of the Great Book of Skye weighing down the desk beside me, there is no reason whatsoever to amend that verdict. If anything, it should be amplified.

It turned into a trilogy. There was a Great Book of Skye Two in 2016, and now we have the ‘Great Book of Skye Three’.

That was perhaps predictable. In the first volume, Cailean Maclean commented that he had two problems in persuading Norman Macdonald to prepare the book. The first problem was to get him to start; the second was to get him to stop.

Three books and 1,500 pages later, the prof has stopped — or so he says.

The three volumes comprise a Dictionary of Skye Biography. The lives of almost 1,100 people are profiled and illustrated inside their pages. They have all “been Skye born or bred or are people who have had an intimate connection with the island. They have all been noteworthy in one way or another… ”

There has never been more than 23,000 people living in Skye at any one time, and for much of history — particularly recent, recorded history — its population has been much smaller than that.

Nobody, however, will be too surprised that Norman and Cailean uncovered and portrayed over a thousand eminent Sgiathanaich. Without wishing to kickstart Norman once again, the miracle is that they enumerated so few. The island, like almost all Hebridean islands, has been a breeding ground of talent and character.

The only other qualification for entry in the Great Books of Skye is that you must be dead. You, dear reader, however, accomplished you might be, will not be able to read your entry unless metaphysics permits you access from your celestial cloud. These are obituaries, not panegyrics.

That lends a sombre tone to certain pages of the Great Book of Skye Three. There are people featured here who, we are sharply reminded, were alive when volume one was in preparation.

Skye-born Dr Vicky Galbraith was an outstanding rugby internationalist.

Here, for instance, is the smiling face of Dr Vicky Ann Galbraith, who was born in Portree in 1972 and who died at home in Aird Bernisdale of brain cancer in 2013.

Vicky Ann was achievement personified. A leading scientist for Roche Pharmaceuticals, she also played for Scotland’s national women’s rugby union team on 34 occasions. Following her fatal diagnosis, she raised thousands of pounds for cancer research by leading sponsored walks from Portree to Glasgow, up the West Highland Way and elsewhere.

Here is Thomas William Mackenzie. You may have known him as Tommy. He was born in 1947 and he died last March. He was, in the GBS abbreviated subheading, a “printmaker, etcher and gallery owner, Chieftain of Skye Highland Games, boat race devotee, tug-of-war revivalist, shinty enthusiast, and half-marathon runner.”

That just about covers it, as a dictionary of biography is forbidden to indulge itself and cannot add that for very many people, Tommy Mackenzie was the face and personality of modern Portree.

As Chieftain of the Skye Highland Games, Tommy Mackenzie was a recognisable figure.

These volumes, these hefty Great Books of Skye, are a leisurely parade along Wentworth Street and then out to the peninsulas, pausing to wave at or pass the time of day with Victorian land reformers, clan chiefs, bards, teachers, surgeons, fishermen, and climbers. It’s a verbal Skye equivalent of the cover of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

Sir Harold Boulton was not a Sgiathanach. He came from Hertfordshire and was educated at Harrow and Oxford.

In 1889 he married into the Highland quality via a Dingwall military family. Boulton already had an interest in Gaelic song and music.

He enters the Great Book of Skye because, in the late 19th century, Boulton seems to have heard a Gaelic rowing song and put his own, English, words to the tune.

Those lyrics and that tune have become internationally known as ‘The Skye Boat Song’. Norman Macdonald digresses wonderfully on Boulton’s creation of a supposed Jacobite anthem.

Sir Harold Boulton was not only the author of the Skye Boat Song but also a major industrialist, who owned the Dominion Tar and Chemical Company in Sydney, Cape Breton, Novia Scotia.

We are still left with the dilemma of the bonnie boat’s journey. The original Gaelic version may have celebrated a voyage from Torrin to Loch Coruisk. For most of the 20th century, it was assumed to refer to Charles Edward Stuart’s post-Culloden flight by sea from the mainland to Skye.

As Charles never made such a journey directly by sea, pedants have more recently suggested that Boulton must have been referring to the Pretender’s actual sea voyage (while famously disguised as an Irish maid named to Skye.

It really, really, does not matter. We are in the realms of mythology. Charles may as well have been sailing from Papua New Guinea. Harold Boulton invented the whole damn thing — the misty isle’s most famous song is a Victorian concoction — and in recognition of that, he deserves his entry in the Great Book of Skye Three.

And finally, here we are back in Portree. William Cowie was born in Kiltarlity in 1921 and became an agricultural advisor in Skye in the 1950s. The brother of a professional footballer, Cowie devoted himself to shinty and became one of the greatest players of his era.

Fittingly, he married in 1959 a grand-daughter of the captain of the Skye shinty team which had won the inaugural MacTavish Cup in 1898.

William and Margaret Cowie had two sons, Ross and William. He died too young, at the age of 40 years, while playing badminton in Portree Drill Hall.

William Cowie, a formidable sporting talent.

William Cowie would, therefore, have been shy of his 70th birthday had he led his natural course to June 1990 and a day in Fort William which would have caused him, more even than the rest of Skye, unimaginable pride.

It is tempting to say of all three Great Books of Skye that they are for dipping in and out rather than reading as a single narrative. The trouble with that suggestion is that once you’ve dipped in, it is very hard to dip out again.

As a trilogy, they are a phenomenal publishing achievement. They should take their place, alongside the inevitable Tommy Mackenzie print, in every home in Skye.

Book review by Roger Hutchinson

Photographs by Alasdair and Ann Galbraith, Willie Urquhart, Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre

The Great Book of Skye Three, From the Island to the World, Retention, Retrieval, and Reflection on a Scottish Island’, by Norman Macdonald and Cailean Maclean; Great Book Publishing, £35