This is one of my favourite places in the world – the Old Graveyard, on Eriskay. It lies on an exposed headland jutting right into the Atlantic, and the land around is being continuously eroded away - you can see how the stone wall has protected the burial ground itself resulting in a raised hummock. We may call it the Old Graveyard, but underneath it lie four graveyards older still, and beneath them a Viking homestead. From the beach, where the land has been cut away, you can see a Viking midden, and you can simply walk up the sand face and filch shells from a Norseman’s rubbish tip.
Inside the graveyard is the grave of Father Allan MacDonald, who was called ‘The Lord of the Isles’ by the people of Eriskay – a priest, poet, scholar and humanitarian. As is traditional, his gravestone, a Celtic cross as high as man, faces west, out towards the sea. All the other gravestones face east, obeying another ancient tradition, whereby Gaels die facing the rising sun: the beginning, rather than end of the cycle. It is for this same reason that houses in the Catholic Hebrides are built with main doors facing east (as well as the more practical reason of being sheltered from gales!).
At the westernmost end of the burial ground, buffeted by the elements, lie three unmarked graves, sailors ‘known unto God’ who washed ashore on Eriskay during the War. It is humbling to note that of all the gravestones, only the three sailors and Father Allan are in any good condition. Someone , somewhere, is taking care of a hundred and fifty year old priest!
To this day, Father Allan is venerated in Eriskay as a cross between Jesus and baird-baile. It is said that upon Father Allan’s death, the islanders refused to use spades when digging his grave, and instead used their bare hands, in tribute to the hard work and devotion Father Allan had given to this island at the edge of nowhere. Father Allan built the Church, and the first road and nursed the people thru epidemic after epidemic. He worked so hard, he died an untimely death in his 40s – of exhaustion.
Frederick Rea writes in A School In South Uist how surprised, but moved, he was, after taking a trip to Eriskay with Father Allan, priest in Daliburgh at the time. Father Allan told the schoolmaster ‘I want to die here, among these poor fishermen and crofters. These are my people.’ He got his wish, and was buried here on Eriskay. But he will live on in the history books and in the hearts of the people here, long after anyone else from the island is forgotten about.
Father Allan was a simple generous man. I don’t share his Faith, but I do share his faith in humanity, and in the potential of all men. In his time he was – and still is – renowned as one of the most important scholars of Celtic to have ever lived. Yet he chose to work, not in a dusty university library, not in a glittering mainland cathedral, not in an Edinburgh publishing house, but on a little rock, perched precariously at the edge of the Atlantic.
I like to sit, sheltered from the wind behind the graveyard wall, where no one can see me. There is but one inch of soil covering Eriskay, a bare, barren battered, rock. But sitting there, above all those bones in the rock, I feel the rock in my bones. Eriskay is the Island of Youth, steadfast and strong.