Saturday, June 11, 2016

George Ellan-nan-Roan: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part C

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 13 January 1881 – Part C

 Island Roan or in Gaelic Eilean-nan-Ron

"Another of these poor people was George Ellan-nan-Roan. He belonged to an island in the Kyle of Tongue, called Seal Island. He was a big stout fellow. When the herring fishing season came round, George was always landed on the mainland, and left to shift for himself, and he was taken back again to his island home at the end of the fishing when the male portion of the population returned. There are, or were, nine families on the island, and during the fishing season there was not a man left behind, and it was not considered prudent to leave George monarch of the island during the absence of the rest of the men."

George’s route from Tongue to Helmsdale

"George, when landed on the mainland, knew how long he was to be in exile, and made tracks for the Caithness coast, travelling around by Reay, Thurso, and then along the coast all the way to Helmsdale, taking the road by easy stages." 

"Once at Helmsdale, George was amongst his friends. He was a regular visitor there for about 20 years, and everybody knew George, and he was a general favourite, especially with the coopers."

"He could appreciate a glass of good whisky, of which he was passionately fond, and the coopers gratified his appetite pretty often with a glass."

The Navidale cemetery near Helmsdale where George probably went. 

"George was a regular attendant at funerals, where he was also treated with a glass, like all the rest of the people. On one occasion there were two funerals in the place in one day, which he declared not to be according to justice, as he could not attend to both at the same time."

"He was a regular attendant at the public preaching of the Word in the little park above the bridge at Helmsdale. He would take up his position in front of the tent, fold his arms across his breast, and stand on his feet during the whole sermon. He was a regular attendant at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as he went on his rounds. Being at Reay on an occasion of this kind, and while the elders were distributing the elements, George pressed forward, and asked to be treated with a drap, but, of course, was refused, when he replied, “You are not like the Helmsdale coopers.”
The park above the bridge at Helmsdale

"This class of people has disappeared entirely, and are now confined within the walls of the poorhouse. I am of the opinion, however, that they would be a liberally provided for by calling from house to house, as in the days of old, and the public would be nothing the poorer."

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Tee Names

Tee names or nicknames names were common in the north of Scotland where there were often people with the same name living in the same place. They were usually to do with the place, a physical characteristic or a personality trait. In the previous blog the poor fellow called Johnny Moozie had quite a number of tee names or nicknames, such as “Glossey,” “Starney,” “Buckteeth,” and “Rotten Legs.”

I have discussed in earlier blogs the tee name “Badbea” that was added to several Badbea characters eg John Badbea Sutherland and David Badbea Sutherland.

Alexander Gunn tells us that this character George Ellan-nan-Roan belonged to an island in the Kyle of Tongue, called Seal Island. Connecting the dots, Island Roan or in Gaelic Eilean-nan-Ron (which means “Island of Seals”) is about a mile off shore from Skerray, near Tongue. So my guess is that George’s surname was a tee-name and it’s useful because it tells us where he came from.

 Island Roan or in Gaelic Eilean-nan-Ron

A Google search will find several sites with fascinating information about Island Roan.

Not surprisingly the history of Island Roan is bound up with the Sutherland Clearances when people were evicted from their homes and moved to coastal communities. Many evicted Sutherland families moved to Skerray and had to learn to rely on the sea to make a living. In 1820 four families moved across to the windswept Roan Island and established themselves there. Again, like other newly settled coastal communities they fished and farmed sheep and cattle on what land they could, grew some crops and built stone houses. Life was incredibly tough, the wind never stopped blowing, the sea always had to be considered before crossings to the mainland were made.

Over time about 70 people lived on Island Roan. In the summer months the men left Roan to fish further afield and the women did all the work including their own fishing and farming. The population eventually dwindled, the fishing was not so bountiful, and young people emigrated to new places. In 1938 the last of the population where evacuated.

Port na h-Uaille, Eilean nan Ron

So George Ellan-nan-Roan – described as a “silly, harmless idiot” was put in a small boat and escorted off the island when the men left for the summer. Being a “big stout fellow” suggests he was looked after well enough when he was home. He also seemed to have a particular fondness for whisky – which could have been part of the problem if he was left on the island for the summer.

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