Keep Keeping On

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A new post in my short series of blogs about my time on the Hebridean island of Barra.

Castle Kisimul haunts Castlebay, speaking of romance, loss and a severed connection to an older more rugged existence. For a long time this bird of prey has perched on a little rocky outcrop keeping a brooding eye on the village and another on the ocean waves. Hundreds of years ago the inhabitants of Barra discovered a fresh water spring on this lonely bit of rock. With the ability to catch fish whenever it was needed and a ready supply of fresh water it became the ideal strategic location to hold out against enemies and defend the island. It was perfect, so inviting, irresistible. Many generations of men have taken the same journey I took, leaving the comfort of Castlebay and heeded the call to the keep. All I lost was some money in the gift shop, many of them lost much more.

From the 18th century it gradually fell into disrepair and disuse, echoing the island’s decline into unjust management and economic and social turmoil. The MacNeil clan sold the castle and the island to increasingly distant (emotionally, socially, culturally, spiritually and yes geographically) landowners who deprived the locals of the land they needed to tend to live off and installed disinterested tenants. The keep like the islanders, was once proud and confident but was now broken and being left to neglect. It stood by while several of the villagers it had guarded sailed past it across the ocean to Canada, forced to leave their homeland. Local campaigners of men who fought and lost their lives in national wars fought and won the rights to reclaim enough of their land to make a modest living. Gradually the island’s confidence grew once more. All the while the keep cast its shadows on the waters.

In the 20th century the clan chief of the MacNeils, an American architect, couldn’t resist and so travel east across the Atlantic and bought back the castle in order to restore it. It took a long time but eventually he transformed the castle to the way it looks today and it was his wish to be buried there and that is where he now remains. Next to him is a blank slab intended for his wife to join him but she chose to be buried in America and so the chief lies alone. His grave and the empty one next to him a testament to all consuming endeavours, those who undertake them and those that they leave behind. I wonder how many men have heard romantic call and given their lives for Castle Kisimul over the past several hundred years, leaving behind women unable or unwilling to follow them. How many more will the keep claim, to keep its own…

And so the keep keeps on.

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