Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Births and Deaths, Rockets and Phones - the strange story of Scarp's demise

Many of the buildings on Scarp are now ruins.  The community, like many in Eilean Siar (The Western Isles) gone.  Scarp's story is stranger than most though, and boils down to the difficulty of accessing the island from the "mainland" of Harris.  At the start of the 20th century the population was well over 100 but was already declining.  Opportunity in the wider world, whether that meant Scotland, America, Canada or Australia beckoned and many of the young folk chose to turn away from the hard life of an island crofter.

One of the most interesting sites on the island is the burial ground.  The older graves are simply marked by boulders with no inscription, but there are some newer, inscribed headstones including two erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The first of the headstones we encountered marks the grave of Pioneer Donald MacLennan of the Royal Engineers. The date is interesting - 15th November 1918 is 4 days after the Armistice.  A very informative post on the "Arnish Lighthouse" blog adds detail to this headstone

Nearby, another CWGC headstone marks the grave of Donald John MacLennan, a Deckhand in the Royal Naval Reserve.  He died when his ship, the paddle minesweeper HMS Duchess of Montrose was sunk by a mine off Gravelines, northern France.

The Western Isles suffered greatly, as did all areas of Europe and beyond, from the Great War.  The terrible toll of young men undoubtedly contributed to the decline of these marginal communities.

The graves of these two Scarpachs face out over the Caolas an Scarp, the storm beach below giving an indication of the severity of the weather here.

Scarp made headline news twice in 1934.  On 14 January a Mrs Christina MacLennan, attended by an 85 year old midwife, gave birth to a child.  On the following day she was in considerable distress and as there were no telephones, an islander crossed to Huisinish on Harris to call the doctor.  The phone there was out of order so the postman's son was sent to Tarbert to get assistance.

It was decided that Christina should go to hospital.  This involved her being strapped to a stretcher and taken across the stormy Caolas an Scarp, then on the floor of the local bus from Huisinish to Tarbert (17 miles away).  From here she was taken by car to the hospital at Stornoway, where the trouble was swiftly diagnosed.

Mrs MacLennan gave birth to a second healthy baby, much to her relief.  The twins were therefore born on different islands, in different counties and in different weeks!

The papers made much of the story and it was read with interest by a young German by the name of Gerhard Zucker.  He was interested in the applications of rockets, and saw an opportunity in Scarp.  He had invented a rocket capable of carrying mail; the island looked perfect for a trial.  Special stamps were printed, preparations made and on 28 July 1934 the fuse on a rocket weighing 14 kg and capable of carrying thousands of letters at 1500km/h was lit. 

Unfortunately, the rocket exploded prior to launch and scattered the letters over Scarp.  Although a later launch from Huisinish to Scarp was successful, the damage had been done and Gerhard Zucker came in for some gentle island humour.  It got worse for him; on his return to Germany he was arrested, accused of selling rocket technology to the British, jailed and then consigned to an asylum.  On his release, Gerhard was banned from conducting rocket research.  He served in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War and died in 1985.  The story is engagingly told in the film "Rocket Post"

Scarp continued to live in isolation.  in the 1930's the islanders got help to build a small jetty, but no equivalent facility was provided on Harris.  The Hydro Electric Board consistently refused to provide an electricity supply and in 1966 the Church of Scotland declined to replace the lay preacher.  Worse, in 1967 the small school closed, followed by the Post Office in 1969.  It was clear that Scarp was a community in it's death throes, and in 1971 the final blow fell.  The telephone line severed in a storm and the GPO refused to repair it. 

In a very literal sense this was the end of the line.  The last two families left the island in the same year.  It was the end of a community which had made a living in this stark but beautiful island for hundreds of years.

As beautiful as it is, as gorgeous as the colours of the sea and sky are, there is a sense of something lost in the village at Scarp - I don't think any of us felt truly comfortable there.

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