Dr Elizabeth Ritchie is a Lecturer at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. She blogs about the history of Easter Ross and the Northern Highlands, in a collaboration between Historylinks museum in Dornoch and the Centre for History. Part 1 of her blog on the ‘Canoe Boys’ may be found here.
Seumas Adam and Alastair Dunnett needed a way to restore their fortunes while acting on their ideals. Their adventure paper, intended to inspire young lads to a robust masculinity saturated in Scottish national pride, had collapsed. They wanted money to pay their creditors, they wanted to get out of the office, but most of all they wanted to develop a Scottish national identity firmly focused on the Highlands and solving its problems. They would combine their love of adventure with their journalistic talents by paddling up the west coast, and across the open waters of the Minch to the Outer Hebrides. They would get to know the people, the places, the issues, and report on them. Alastair felt that the writing about the ‘Scottish rural scene up to that time had depicted the countryside as a bracing background to physical adventure, but playing no significant part in the story.’ They would do things differently: ‘the land and the people, and not we, would make our story.’
They chose the Daily Record to be their mouthpiece which at that time ‘had the best developed social conscience on Scots affairs [v]igilant in the country’s welfare, and while predominantly the paper of the industrial West, had a knowledgeable eye on the rural areas where four out of every five Scots town dwellers have their roots’. In an initial piece for the paper, Seumas explained their philosophy which drew deeply upon sense of a pastoral past yet escaped romanticism through their practical concern for the present:
From our earliest days as a people we have been building and sailing boats. We are a maritime race in the completest sense. But intensive industrialisation has lost us our contact with the sea. Steamers have made us forget the thrills of small-craft sailing. We want to taste the zest of physical living that town life denies us.
But there is something more. After the sailing comes the seeing. We want to see the Western Isles thoroughly, to complete our own picture of them. Not the Isles of the guidebooks, but the real isles – the Isles of Opportunity, peopled by a vigorous race with an unrivalled climate for some types of products; islands capable of supporting more of our surplus population in large-sized holdings yielding an adequate return.
Therein is our real adventure – exploring the possibilities for expansion and development in our own country.
In the 1930s the countryside’s population streamed into cities, so sentimentality about the rural past and a fear of enervating city living could be expected from those middle class town-dwellers concerned with national identity. Where Alastair and Seumas were unusual was in their utter faith, undimmed by rural depopulation and large-scale emigration to Canada and Australia, that there was economic hope for the Highlands. Few others were calling the Hebrides ‘Isles of Opportunity’! But before new enterprises could be established, before articles could be written, and before exploration could begin, Seumas and Alastair needed canoes.
The newspapers declared that the young men were ‘expert canoeists’, but the facts were somewhat otherwise. They were experienced in rowing, and Seumas had a little experience sailing, but they relied on strength built up at the gym, basic seamanship, and derring-do. The plan had been formulated in something of a hurry and their canoes built by an acquaintance, and many questioned the wisdom of undertaking an open water trip at the tail end of the summer. Mr John Conn, editor of the Evening News, enquired ‘Have they been photographed? You know, in case…?’ A friend from Stornoway chimed in: ‘You’ll never come back. We’ve seen the last of you!”’ Again and again they heard from sea-going Highlanders ‘It’s too late in the year’.
Denied the ideal publicity-seeking start in Glasgow’s city centre at the Broomielaw because of their lack of a pilot’s license, they embarked amidst a modest crowd at Bowling Harbour. ‘At last we got aboard, stuffing our kilts down the sides of the cockpits like shirts into trousers. … it was already clear that we had no possible expectation of travelling dry. Any sort of sea would constantly search its way through the deck lacing’. They made it to their first campsite at Rosneath where they divested themselves of half their gear and spent the night under canvas with their friends. They did retain their nationalist attire and wore the kilts consistently throughout their trip.
Alastair and Seumas didn’t get all the way to the Western Isles. But they got as far as Skye. They stayed with people and talked to them, they observed, they wrote and they paddled. And they continued to put their theories into practice, even developing a sock-making business in partnership with Highland knitters. Their trip and the success of the business confirmed in their minds that a strong sense of Highland identity should be developed, not out of patronising, tartanised, backward-looking sentiment, but out of a positive attitude towards and from the region’s people. Highlanders need not be poor cousins and the Highlands need not be only for the leaving. Secure in a confident regional identity and given a fair chance at investment, Highlanders could take their place as an integral, contributing and successful part of Britain. ‘The experiments are all done; there is a successful technological answer to all the claims that “it can’t be done”: “the land is useless”: “the people won’t work”: “it’s too late in the year”. If the British people and their nourishment is a present concern, the proofs are overwhelming for a confident investment of faith and works. Not a tenth part will be necessary of the faith which inspired any one phase of the development of the Empire … There is not a part of this Empire but would rejoice in its bloodstream to see the Highlander, armed with the resource which he has displayed in every spot but where his heart lies, enter upon a new and splendid season of fruitfulness.’
Alastair Dunnett, The Canoe Boys: From the Clyde Past the Cuillins (Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 1995) [reprint of 1950 original]