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DAN MACKAY: Grab life as you can – and increase ‘the mutual delight’

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The Emigrants statue at Helmsdale is a reminder of historic challenges.
The Emigrants statue at Helmsdale is a reminder of historic challenges.

‘The first year had been the worst. Many had died. A great number had perished on the sea.'

'But a greater number, it was believed, were alive in Nova Scotia and elsewhere in Canada and other lands. Though fighting against dreadful tribulations and adversities.’

For those who remained, life was never the same. Not after the enforced clearances from their ancestral homelands.

They faced their own daily misfortunes, not least the challenges of rebuilding a life for themselves after the evictions.

It was a dark period.

And it was in Helmsdale that the next chapter of the story began.

They were crofters – more used to tending sheep – and as such the thought of carving a livelihood from the sea was a daunting prospect.

But they had no choice.

A few small boats were hastily prepared and set out in search of the silver darlings.

They cast their nets on open waters away from the Bunillidh shoreline.

On calm days it is said that the psalms of David rang out across a sea that glittered from Berriedale Head to Loth.

The sea, at least, they had believed was free…but they soon learned, the hard way, that they needed eyes like hawks in the back of their heads.

The King’s press gang prevailed upon unsuspecting crews.

And, again, by force they were seized and, this time, conscripted into the service of the Crown.

They had been stolen away by Nelson’s Royal Navy!

For the families waiting on the shore it was the unknown that tormented them.

Maybe a derelict boat had been washed up with no sign of any crew member...

Perhaps in later years, after the Napoleonic war and word of a great sea battle at Trafalgar, a weary Jack Tar would make it back home to tell their story.

Fast forward two hundred years and how are we to carpe diem – seize the day, before it seizes us?

There is a timespan to everything.

And there is ‘a tide in the affairs of men’, we are told, ‘which taken at the flood leads on to fortune or if omitted is bound in shallows and miseries’.

It seems we are all afloat on such a sea and must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

In the church above the shore a eulogy was delivered for all to hear.

It was of a life well lived. Of a man of the community. Well respected.

He had once lived at Marrel, just up the Helmsdale strath. He had a wife and family. Their home became a gathering place. A place of hospitality and entertainment. A ceilidh place.

Instrumental in setting up the local Highland Games he had one day served as its chieftain.

He had contributed what he could ‘to increase the mutual delight’ of hos community, as the novelist Gunn, oft quoted here, once reflected.

The church folk sang how ‘swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day’.

Later a lone piper led the silent procession down to the babbling riverside grave.

And there the final committal took place in the sure and certain hope of resurrection to an eternal life.

Life, which gives with the one hand and takes with the other, had now come for him.

In memory of Ian Sinclair, Helmsdale, 1947-2023.

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