Muhammad Ali

How Muhammad Ali taught crofters the wonders of electricity

In the darkest depths of an Hebridean night, two little boys wearing pyjamas crept out of the house and headed down the road, drawn by the light glowing through their neighbour’s windows.

There, via the crackling speaker of their neighbour’s wireless, the brothers were transported to Madison Square Gardens in New York.

While Cassius Clay slugged it out in the ring on the other side of the Atlantic, in South Uist, the boys conjured pictures in their minds as each punch, shuffle, duck and dive pierced the stillness of the Hebridean night.

It was the early 1960s, and the wonder of electricity had gradually opened a world for crofting families that had previously been confined to the pages of books, newspapers and letters home, and in tales exchanged at the roadside, over a dram or at the ceilidh.

But while this new ‘power to the people’ came with a host of benefits, it would also forever disrupt island life – just as it had for countless others already on the mainland.

For with connectivity and the benefits of light at the flick of a switch, instant warmth, and sound and vision to break up those long dark Hebridean nights, came a whittling away of generations of storytelling, of person-to-person communication and human contact.

Award-winning writer Angus Peter Campbell, whose new novel, Electricity, reflects on the gentle way of island life before the bustle and demands of the modern world took over, recalls listening to his neighbour’s wireless that night, with the commentators’ description of events in the boxing ring igniting vivid pictures in his head.

HeraldScotland: Angus Peter CampbellAngus Peter Campbell (Image: Liondsaidh Chaimbeul)

“The wireless had much more of an impact than television,” he says. “I remember standing there, listening to the noise of the crowd coming and going; it was Cassius Clay at Madison Square Garden and it must have been 3am in the morning.

“Our family didn’t have a wireless – we didn’t have electricity – and I remember my brother and I creeping out in our pyjamas to our neighbour’s house to listen to it.

“As a child, you don’t have a notion of ‘oh my goodness, why don’t we have electricity too?’,” he adds. “It was just the way it was. We had our stove, we went up to the hills to cut peat for the fire and used Kelly lamps, with their wonderful smell of paraffin, to read with.

“But then, I was on a bus last week, and a group of teenagers came on with iPhone, watching football and I think I would have paid a fortune for that when I was their age.”

Campbell grew up on South Uist before moving to Oban as a teenager where he was taught by poet and novelist Iain Crichton Smith at Oban High School. Later, at Edinburgh University, he was mentored by giant of Scottish Gaelic literature Sorley MacLean, and went on to write award-winning novels and poems, often drawing heavily on Hebridean life, myths and folklore and history.

For his new novel, he writes through the eyes of a Hebridean grandmother, sharing memories of life before and after the mixed blessing of electricity.

Campbell says the gradual arrival of electricity in South Uist and its impact on the traditional crofting way of life was not embraced by all.

“Uist wasn’t properly connected until the late 1960s,” he says. “That was partly down to geography, but it was also political: we were on the periphery and the last people to get a service.

“The Western Isles were divided between two councils, all the power and administration and decisions were taken by landed gentry in Inverness.

“Which is why when the family in the last house at the end of the village, furthest away from electricity pole, were visited by the man from the electric company asking if they want electricity, they said ‘no’.

“The airport was being developed at the same time, so I suppose it was all very unsettling for people.”

The delivery of electricity across the Highlands and Islands was a painfully slow process. In South Uist, the first 50 homes and crofts were connected in March, 1949, when, in a ceremony carried out at seaweed factory, Cefoil, Father Neil Mackellaig flicked a switch and brought into operation a new diesel-powered generator.

HeraldScotland: South Uist

The seaweed factory had already used electricity for five years at that time: North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board had previously installed a diesel generating plant to provide for the new industry; homes would have to wait.

Eventually a 75-kilowatt ex-Air Ministry generator added to the plant, finally bringing power to Lochboisdale and Daliburgh and crofts on the route of the Board’s Orosay to Lochboisdale distributor line.

Others, however, remained in the dark. The electricity board had laid down schemes to provide power in North Uist and Barra in 1947, but by 1963 they had still not been carried out.

Elsewhere, electricity was making an impact: with television to watch, islanders retreated into well-lit, warm homes and the traditions of gathering to share stories, song and memories fractured.

“When we didn’t have television and there were just a couple of radios or gramophones, you told your story in real time, either at a ceilidh or when you went through the village. There was a sense of being part of the story,” says Campbell.

“And now we have become the recipient of the story rather than the participant.”

Electricity also impacted on our concept of time, he adds.

“I had a childhood where in winter it got dark at 5pm. They were days when you had a candle or Kelly lamp at night, and things were much more slow and seasonal: there was morning, afternoon, evening; day and night; spring, summer, autumn and winter.

“The knowledge we had came from our parents and grandparents and the community we lived in. We did certain things according to how it was done by them.

“Electricity made the world instant, everything became ‘now’,” he says.

While the benefits released women from the drudgery that came from backbreaking work to keep crofts warm and clean, television and modern media overwhelmed Gaelic language and culture.

At the same time, it also helped bring distant families closer.

HeraldScotland: Shifting cows on the machair in South Uist on a windy autumn day (Pic: Derek Mcintosh)

Campbell recalls an old man who lived near his family in South Uist: “He would say his birth date in English – the only English he’d speak because anything official had to be stamped in English rather than Gaelic.

“He told me how in 1923, the Marloch took 600 emigrants from Lochboisdale to Canada. None ever returned.

“They didn’t have phones or emails or computers to communicate, but now I have a daughter in Copenhagen and one in Canada, and we are constantly communicating.

“I realise the benefits electricity has brought but it’s also a symbol of losing that sense of slowness and time to talk to one another, to see one another and learn from one another.”

For some rural communities, electricity was anything but fast. Campbell recalls working for Grampian Television in the 1970s: “We were filming at Coire Garth, 30 miles west of Aberdeen in 1979. “Aberdeen was the oil capital of Europe, and it was odd that we were there to film being lit up for the first time and being connected to the National Grid.

“It was like being back in South Uist in 1960.”

Subsea cables would eventually distribute energy from the Grid to the islands, while soon the balance of power will shift in the other direction.

Plans are being developed to lay a powerful 1.8GW subsea cable from the Western Isles to the mainland – a link which the National Grid says is needed by 2030 to meet offshore wind energy targets.

While a shift among some to return to more basic ways of life – growing their own food and generating their own wind powered energy – gives Campbell hope that there is a drive among some to switch off.

“The folk I know who grew up in rural Scotland don’t want to go back in time,” he says, “they want an environmentally friendly and greener way of living that doesn’t destroy the world around us.

“In a sense we have gone full circle.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button