The Past is different here. I am standing in the abandoned, cliff top village of Mealasta, on the far western edge of the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a day to die for – a sunlit, blowy day, when the Atlantic looks like Homer’s wine-dark sea and there are more misty islands rising up out of the water than in the whole of the Odyssey.
Back home in London the Past resides in city streets and buildings – and also in museums. But up here on this island you find it in cairns and bothies built as memorials, in graveyards dug into the soft sand that fringes the western edge of the island, in the Iron Age house in Bostadh and the Viking kiln at Bhaltos, in the houses round here whose roof timbers came from the wreck of the Ezra at the end of the 19th century, and in the endless, ruined villages, whose inhabitants were evicted during the Clearances and whose houses were left to rot until all that’s left of them are the gable ends with the ghost outlines of their fireplaces.
Mealasta could stand in for all the cleared villages of the Outer Hebrides.
Before the evictions the people lived by fishing and farming, by planting potatoes, oats and barley, and by salting meat and fish. And although life was tough they were intensely attached to their land.
But then, at the beginning of the 19th century, Lord Seaforth and the other big landowners saw that there was more money to be made by turning the land over to sheep, and so they began to clear the land of people. Mealasta was emptied out in 1838, and its inhabitants sent to other, already crowded and impoverished parts of the island. More than 700 people were crammed into four villages on the Bhaltos peninsula. When the potato harvest failed and famine followed, the landowners opted for mass forced migrations. On May 15th, 1851, the Marrquis of Stafford sailed from Bernera Sound, the nearest deep water harbour, with 400 emigrants on board. The Mealasta families would have been amongst them. Only seven families went willingly.
We are standing by the old village graveyard. Back in the 1980’s you could still read the writing on the grave stones but now it’s been erased by wind and rain. Behind us some of the broken walls represent a pre-reformation nunnery. Make your way down through the ruined village and you’ll find the Fishermen’s Grave – the grave of two brothers who were drowned at sea in the 19th century and whose bodies were washed up, one here and one at Bhaltos up the coast. The brothers were buried together within a stone’s throw of a tiny cove, in a grave that is still picked out with round, white stones and with a small, white cross on top. It is still tended to this day.
Usually I go to a local museum to try understand the places that I’m visiting – and that makes sense down south where the Past is more containable. But up here the Past is everywhere and if you want to understand the Outer Hebrides then Mealasta, or any of the other cleared villages, is the place to start.
(With thanks to Joni Buchanan who took me there.)