Now a tranquil haven on the Sound of Sleat, Eilean Iarmain was once the Isle of Skye’s busiest port, with several steamers arriving every day from all over Scotland, and a thriving shop serving customers from Glenelg, Broadford and further afield, selling everything from an anchor to a needle. King Edward VII landed at Eilean Iarmain around the turn of the century. Unfortunately the tide was out, but he was carried ashore, and spent around £80 in the shop – a vast sum in those days. The bay once supported a fleet of herring smacks, but with the gradual decrease in the shoals of the Silver Darlings there was the subsequent loss to local livelihoods.
It’s no surprise then, with the decline of the fishing fleet, that the able-bodied young men of the area – who had the sea in their veins and an inherited disposition of Celtic wanderlust – found work on ships further afield, and it was a Hebridean crew who ran into difficulty one squally winter’s day, blown off course by a fearsome storm.
They had set out from Port Glasgow, where hasty repairs had been carried out on one of the old engines of the venerable “Pibroch”, and were bound on a course across the Atlantic. Bearing a precious cargo of gin – intended for the speakeasies of America’s prohibition years – they were cheerful with the heady thought of adventure. However, as “The Pibroch” broached the open sea they were hit by the full force of an Atlantic storm. As the day wore on the unfortunate vessel was driven further and further north, valiantly battling on after the hastily repaired engine had failed. As darkness fell, the strengthening winds swung round to the west, and limping on one remaining engine, the gale blew “The Pibroch” on a course back towards the mainland. The storm raged on throughout the night…
Squinting through the storm driven rain from his post at the helm, the skipper, whose family had belonged to Sleat for countless generations, recognised the coastline. It was familiar to him from his boyhood days. As the lighthouse of Isle Ornsay hove into view he felt confident that they would be delivered safely onto dry land, but with a further stroke of misfortune the remaining engine spluttered into silence: they were at the mercy of the wind and the waves. With a thundering crash, “The Pibroch” hit the rocks.
As the tide turned the boat was left high and dry, teetering precipitously on the rocks below the lighthouse and listing to starboard, but miraculously undamaged. The wet and weary crew managed to clamber ashore, crossing the spit of dry land at the Dornaidh. In the misty light of a chill winter dawn their hearts lifted at the sight of Tigh Òsda Eilean Iarmain, making the storms of the night seem but a bad dream.
The welcome warmth of the Tigh Òsda greeted them as they walked in the unlocked door. “Gu sealladh an t-àgh orm!” exclaimed Morag, as her eyes fell on the bedraggled crewmen. And then, with cries of joy and amazement, she recognised her father’s cousin, the skipper! “Thigibh a-steach! Come on in!” she cried. As the light of day fell over the landscape of Sleat the whispered word was already travelling on the wind through the township of Eilean Iarmain… “there’s a vessel run aground on the island, and her hold is full of gin!”
The crew, thankful that they had been spared, thought it an opportune occasion to broach a bottle or two and raise a glass in celebration of their deliverance. The folk of Eilean Iarmain – who had a fine appreciation of mountain dew and the like – were happy to assist in making sure that the quality of the spirit was up to the expectations of their Celtic brethren across the broad Atlantic. The ceilidh lasted long into the night, it was a “Ceilidh gu madainn”, and Eilean Iarmain’s association with gin was born.
The legend of the lighthouse continues today… with a story of Gaelic Gin galore!