Considering its social and personal significance, the arrival of the sewage disposal tanker on Coll is never really afforded its due sense of occasion. Somehow, more should be made of the moment: a little festive bunting perhaps, children waving flags on street corners and, of course, a dance at night in the village hall. But there is none of this. The lorry quietly comes and quietly goes, but not to be seen again for another year or more. Even village gossip, which normally encompasses all life, leaves these visits unremarked.
Being low-lying and relatively flat, the island has evolved an erratic tracery of drainage ditches and, at one time, a mere generation or so back, it was customary for these ditches to receive the contents of household toilets and to convey this load, by degrees, to the sea. In these enlightened times, of course, all homes outside the one village of Arinagour have their own septic tanks, the emptying of which awaits the coming of the sludge lorry. Somewhat unexpectedly, this event can often be experienced as spiritually uplifting, as though, with the scouring of each tank, there were some parallel cleansing of those responsible for its contents. Perhaps, as with confession, there is a sense of purging and of being able to start afresh. As with New Year celebrations, it may be that the ushering out of the old and in with the new is also a time of hope and bold resolve. At a stroke, all that is impure, black and uncivilised is sucked away and each tank owner quietly vows to sin no more.
Sadly, the tanker, once replete, makes its way to the end of the main pier and pumps the waste out – into the sea – and in so doing, serves as a mobile metaphor for one of the problems of island living, namely: how to get stuff away from the place. Nor is the problem inherent in the use of septic tanks as is evident from the fact that Arinagour itself has its own sewage system terminating in two outfall pipes which, naturally enough, lead away from the village – but also into the sea.
Another such symbol can be recognised in the tractor and trailer which, each Saturday, tours the entire island collecting household refuse, the final destination of which is a designated site among the island's abundant sand dunes. At one time, each dwelling would have had its own midden for normal household waste and more unyielding items would have been dragged into the nearest sea-riven gully, there to be progressively broken down by the action of sea and stone. Indeed, there are still parts of the island where the Atlantic swell continues with this task. More recently, the island's communal tip has served to distance each person from their waste and, for a while, it seemed to work. Over time, the wind blown sands would draw a shifting veil over the heaps of forsaken possessions and discarded food, to form a restless broken landscape of whining, dying metal and fluttering plastic sacks. Nowadays, however, the growing number of derelict vehicles in particular has proved too much for the dunes so that a periodic cleansing of the island by the Territorial Army has become necessary.
The population of Coll is around 160, about 80% of whom own cars. There being no local garage to carry out MoT vehicle testing, these cars are exempt and may be driven on the island without an MoT certificate. In consequence, MoT failures from the mainland tend to gravitate to Coll, where they are often driven until they collapse so that it is not unusual to find them, at the end of their lives, ungratefully abandoned in the corner of some field. Those vehicles that do function constantly contest the tortured roads and the salt sea winds so that many come to display a certain world-weariness, somewhat reminiscent of 1940s post-war Britain. In part, this high rate of car ownership can be seen as inevitable since all the facilities are located in the one village and nearly 60% of island dwellings are widely dispersed away from that village. Indeed, some islanders regularly cover miles of trackless beach, through darkness, high tides and winter storms, to meet the ferry or to buy a tin of beans. It must also be said, however, that walking anywhere is increasingly viewed as an eccentric pastime and it is not uncommon, for instance, for children to be driven just a few hundred metres to school, in spite of the roads posing little danger.
The problem of exporting from the island is further evidenced when it comes to local trades and manufacturing and many an evening is spent, particularly with those newly arrived on the island, discussing and scheming over how to establish any sort of viable business. Clearly, any raw materials used must either be available locally, i.e. rock, sheep and heather, or must be light and small enough to avoid excessive incoming freight charges. This touches on the second major problem of island living, namely: how to get stuff into the place. The same constraints apply to the end product which should ideally be small and light i.e. not rock or sheep, otherwise it cannot compete with similar mainland products. To some extent fishing for crab and lobster meets these conditions although few do this full-time and, even so, the waters are in danger of over-fishing. More promising is the tourism business, fickle though it is, and perhaps also the growing interest in art and craft work. Farm work continues, of course, but needs to be heavily subsidised and tends not, nowadays, to be sufficiently labour intensive to offer wide employment.
It seems little more than chance that the recent years of recession have passed almost unnoticed on Coll. This has been due to a period of intensive building and renovation work which has provided temporary employment for many islanders. Most notably, the local authority Housing Action scheme has transformed the face of the island by largely funding the upgrade of many of the houses, an undertaking which, due to the cost of importing raw materials, would otherwise have been impossible. A little later, the main pier was substantially rebuilt to cope with larger and more modern ferries. However, this bolstering of the island economy is ending and, as work from such undertakings diminishes, so anxiety over an uncertain future grows.
More typically then, there is a high proportion of casual and seasonal labour and a tendency to earn income in a variety of ways, one person having perhaps five or more 'jobs'. In consequence, most islanders need to be opportunistic and be prepared to be generalists rather than specialists. A further consequence is that individuals are unlikely to see themselves predominantly in terms of what they do; their function doesn't clearly or uniquely define them, so that the familiar visitor's question, 'How do you spend your time?' or 'What do you do?' doesn't make much sense here. How nice it would be sometimes to reply 'I'm the baker, the plumber or the joiner,' but there again, what a relief not to be. Traditionally, each islander's identity has been more in terms of place than of work, even to the extent that surnames often become replaced by house names. Even today, this practice persists. Even today, the question, 'Who are you?' would prompt the answer, 'I'm Tom; I'm from Coll,' rather than, 'I'm Tom; I'm a baker.'
There are just two days to the island week. On one of them the ferry calls; on the other it doesn't. On a ferry day the island is alive, the village buzzes with good cheer and people drift with undaunted expectation to the pier – to see what the day will bring. Will the food arrive? What about that part for the washing machine? Will the 'club' parcels come today? Why not? What's the delay? Who has ordered all that furniture? What new faces will we see, who are they and where will they stay? Let's see who’s going away.
Sometimes the aged leave, never to return. Sometimes the children go away; that taut time of ambivalent separation that stretches from the age of 12 years till the end of your days. That unimaginable time when the mainland high school eventually claims some small part of each island family. The ferry is both artery and vein to the island and from the shelter of the pier shed curious fingers probe the uncertain pulse of island life for, to some extent, each person's days are structured by this flow. Possibly, it is this same uncertainty that breeds a measure of patient fatalism in those who wait.
Along with the building materials and animal feed, the ferry brings food for the shops and it often comes as a surprise to the visitor that so much food is imported and so little is produced and sold locally. Surely, a population so small can barely sustain one such outlet, far less two? However, the presence of two shops does at least allow the harmless practice of partisan shopping as a mute and more or less dignified expression of the various factions which inevitably thrive in small communities. This in turn promotes the use of the shops as meeting places where those of like allegiance can exchange their various rituals of bonhomie with acceptable brevity and often messages are left in the shops for others who will come that way. Certainly, without such convenient segregation, interactions might well become uneasy, brittle and perfunctory.
In a way, such situations are symptomatic of the strains that attend a changing community, for the island has had to undergo not only a steady influx of incomers but a marked increase of seasonal tourist traffic. In consequence, a community that may well, at one time, have been strongly cohesive, molar and cooperative, now increasingly shows signs of anomie, a loss of norms and mores, as disparate lifestyles and world views jostle for space. Some mourn and oppose the changes, as, of course, they must to the extent that identity is rooted in place, for to change the place is akin to a change in one's own body. It is hardly surprising then, that at least one official concerned with local grants and development has commented on the seeming obdurate resistance to change shown in many small communities such as this. However, anomie communities are typically only unstructured and directionless for as long as it takes for new commonalities to replace the old. One of Coll's possible futures is that a growing spirit of vitality and enterprise will become apparent as concern for place breeds common purpose.
The regrettable absence of local produce results largely from the regulations relating to the sale of meat and dairy products, so that practically all provisions are imported by ferry. Retail pricing then becomes a function of freight charges and population size so that, in a twice yearly survey of cost of living throughout Scotland, Coll prices regularly feature in the top three, alongside remote Shetland communities. That so many islanders seem to absorb knowledge of this inequity with a degree of dour satisfaction may say much for the power of adversity to bond people and for the personalities that are drawn and bound to this peripheral place.
Unusually, this year young people returned to live on the island following their schooling. Several marriages took place and a modest baby boom has been noted but this is no way to increase population; it's far too slow. A working population needs to be attracted, large enough to sustain service industries and professions. For this to happen, however, both work premises and housing are required, neither of which currently meet with planning approval. The housing situation is further compounded by over 30% of housing stock on the island being held by absentee owners, either lying unoccupied or serving as holiday homes. Indeed, another possible future for the island is increasingly to become a site for second homes so that it serves as a sort of seasonal off-shore leisure centre. A further alternative is for the whole island to be designated for conservation and sites of special scientific interest.
Not surprisingly, vacant properties are more in evidence during the winter when the island is wrongly thought to be too hostile for comfortable habitation. Certainly, during these months, there can be times when arrogant displays of raw natural force play at will across the land so that the coastline cowers lower into the sea and work and leisure become subordinated to the elements. At such times, dwellings seem more remote and plans less certain. Mostly, however, the bite of winter here is rarely deep.
During the summer months, the island's population can be doubled, the visitors bringing colour and variety as well as profit. Some come with specific purpose, to visit the extensive RSPB reserve, to kill fish or to walk. Most, however, seem content to let time pass as they watch the changing sea and the stark, rock strewn landscape. In case entertainment is sought there are various shows and competitions and the associated weekly dances provide a taste not so much of a social event as of a rumbustious ritual, dissolving the barriers of age and station. Sometimes, to make visitors feel at home, a traffic jam in the village is organised.
Interestingly, many visitors return again and again, sometimes over several decades, but when quizzed about this, usually fail to offer a convincing explanation. Certainly, many have family roots on the island and may find here a sense of home whilst for others it is unashamedly an adopted home. Indeed, it may be that, with the modern divorce of work from home, with the dilution of family ties, with the increased mobility of populations, notions of 'home' and 'family' are becoming lost; fading vestiges from bygone times. Perhaps here then, where every face is known and one's own face is, in turn, familiar and accepted, it becomes possible briefly to recapture that secure sense of family and belonging. Perhaps here is a place to feed sweet illusions, to conjure dreams, and we are made the witting accomplices of myth, the artificers of soothing fantasy.
In this way, we may have become the victims of the romantic fallacy: the fallacy that the man of the soil is somehow more honest and more real, and that the simple natural solace of the land will bring us at last to vast untapped truths and inner peace. Our honeyed sentiment knows no bounds but all too often mirrors the candy box contrivance of the rustic poet and the tourist brochure. And yet the effect of the island is far from fanciful; it is real. In common with most wild and remote areas, it has the ability to unsettle minds shaped by the modern high-tech world; to challenge and to question; to heighten uncertainty and sometimes fear. Certainly, many who are by temperament islanders, display a robust individualism and self-sufficiency which finds ample expression here. Beyond this, however, such settings have the capacity to stimulate a peripheral awareness so that the imagination of each person can roam more wildly; so that the mystical becomes more possible. In a sense, where there is this interface between two worlds, the one can haunt the other, so that many people will feel touched by echoes from another place, by long shadows from a time outside the community, outside the common round of their day to day lives. For always, beyond and remote from the people, there is the harsh, timeless reality of the land.
The images that haunt us vary. Distantly, brown waters shimmer around the causeway that leads to a rocky island stronghold, a crannog, from which anxious eyes search for the flames of the invader. It is the time of the raised stone; there is blood on the rocks; the language is beyond time. Less dimly, a traveller shelters where a castle will one day stand, watching the sand dunes writhe and tumble before a winter storm. It is the time when a village is being buried; the language is early Irish; there is hunger and despair. Even now, today, a farm hand stops his tractor to watch strange cloud formations twist uneasy omens from sun, wind and rain across the vast sweep of island sky.
The scenes and the people change but the question stays the same: 'What will survive?' The same sentiment is commanded: one of subdued awe at the disproportionate presence of this small place.
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