George William MacKay

It was early morning, 12th April 1912.  The house was slowly coming to life and George was wide awake, in his excitement he had hardly slept. Some last tearful farewells to the early morning maids, a final check that his tickets were secure in his pocket and quietly he slipped the safe moorings of 11 Queens Gate, Kensington and his life as a footman.  Emerging from the collonaded porch, he touched the iron railings one last time, turned left and then right onto Prince Consort Road, heading for Waterloo and the 07:45 train to Southampton.  He was dressed in his Sunday best suit and wearing a Sunday smile, he did not look back.  The city was already bustling with the clatter of hooves and the too familiar smell of horse manure, soon to be replaced by the salt sea air he had known as a boy.

The young George had only just turned twenty but already he had travelled far from his humble beginnings on a croft near Tongue, in Sutherland.  One of twelve children to William and Christina MacKay, he was determined to better himself.  Too often he had heard tales of regret, of lives half lived in the bitter north. George, the Heilam Ferryman, spoke of nothing else, his plans as a young man to travel to Canada and how he was persuaded to stay by the Duke of Sutherland – this George would not make the same mistake.

The third class boat train from Waterloo pulled into Southampton Docks at 09:30, stopping at 43/44 berth. Clutching a small brown suitcase and ticket 42795, George alighted into the Dockside sheds, crossed the road, controlled by a man with a red flag and momentarily stood awe-struck by the sheer overwhelming size of the ship – it was beyond anything he could have imagined.  Nothing like this was ever seen in the Kyle.

As a third class passenger George had a simple berth, shared with six other passengers.  Keen to escape the claustrophobia of steerage and the company of strangers, many of whom could not speak English, he quickly found his way to the open decks.  He was there when the ship cast off and was towed into the River Test by tugboats, there for the near collision with USMS New York, there when Cherbourg appeared on the French coast and there when the ship set sail for Cobh in the dim light of an April evening.

All the while he grasped ticket 42795.  It had cost £7 11s, all his savings, but he was bound for Rochester and a new life in Detroit.  Of one thing he was certain, he was never going back.

… the memorial at Torrisdale Cemetery, Skerray, Tongue

Erected
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
GEORGE WILLIAM MACKAY
CLAICKBEA
SON OF
WILLIAM AND CHRISTINA MACKAY
WHO WAS LOST IN THE TITANIC
DISASTER, 15TH APRIL 1912
AGED 20 YEARS
“BLESSED ARE THE PURE IN HEART
FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD,” MATT V, VIII
PUT UP BY HIS FRIENDS IN LONDON

George’s body was never found.

This imagined story is based on information kindly supplied by my friend and researcher Gillean Ford.  The details are gleaned from various sources including encyclopedia-titanica.org, nmni.com (National Museums Northern Ireland), titanicfacts.net and alookthrutime.wordpress.com – Third Class Life on the Titanic.

The Kyle of Tongue

I know this place.  I remember the many days along the edges of the Kyle.  I remember scrambling at low tide to the feathery eider nests on Talmine Island while nervous mothers sat tight; the night a pod of dolphins performed aquatic ballet in Tongue Bay, between Midtown and Scullomie; the dunes as high as water towers with sand so soft you could run down their steep faces, safe in the arms of gravity; the day on Rabbit Islands in the company of seals and the nervous wait on the shore – would the fisherman remember us; spinning off the rocks near the causeway as oystercatchers, in faithful pairs, skimmed the fast running tide near inquisitive selkies, heads bobbing in the water, watching our every move; the sad sight of the lone grebe, too exhausted to fly from its watery grave beneath Ard Skinid; the evening walks to the little that remained of Port Vasgo and the abandoned boats along the shoreline at Talmine; the busy otter, scurrying across the sands at low tide beneath Tongue Lodge, late, so late for a very important date; catching a first brown trout on Loch a Mhuilinn – a fish so young, it knew no better than to rise to my inexpert fly; always, a harem of seals sunning on the sandbar.  All this, and the reminder of how fragile we are – the beautifully sculpted, poignant headstone at Melness cemetery.

The young man had memories like mine and more.  Staying out too long for one last cast across inhospitable waters, he never made landfall again.

Melness graveyard ...Tongue Causeway and Bridge ...Memorial to a fisherman ...

The text is an extract from Golf in the Wild – Going Home – the sequel to the first book.

(as most will know, the film excerpts are from Local Hero – the appearance of the helicopter, like a rising moon, and its subsequent arrival on the beach at Camusdarach is one of cinema’s great moments).