Domhnall MacIsaac arrived on Prince Edward Island in 1802. The following year, he travelled a short distance from there to Cape Breton Island, where MacIsaacs have lived ever since. Domhnall is my great-great-great-great-grandfather. He arrived in East Bay and was likely the first Scottish settler on the island. The Highland Clearances in Scotland saw him and many others taken off their land and replaced with sheep, which must have stung. He was just about one year older than I am now. His native tongue was Gaelic. Although crossing the Atlantic was somewhat blasé by that time, he would not have known as much as some others, given where he came from.
Cape Breton might be small, but a bastardized version of it still usually appears on a Risk board. The island of South Uist, however, is basically impossible to find unless you are looking at a map exclusively of the British Isles, and it is only easy to find if you are looking at a map of Northern Scotland. It sits in the Outer Hebrides and is home to less than 2,000 people. Yet the island has been continuously inhabited by humans since the Neolithic era, at one point by Vikings and at another point by Domhnall MacIsaac.
So it seems to have some sort of appeal.
In the summer of 2013, MacIsaacs set foot on the island for the first time in over two centuries. My family and I travelled there ahead of my sister’s graduation from the University of St Andrews. We went by ferry from Oban into the only thing on the island that could be called a community, Lochboisdale. It became rapidly apparent to me that even though displacement generally sucks, it definitely worked to our personal advantage in the long run. Which is not to say it is a bad place, it just isn’t a place that fits in with what most of Western civilization has going on.
South Uist clearly was not put together by any planner, urban or otherwise. The single-lane roads meander without confidence, like the original pavers couldn’t decide between making things as straight as possible or moving with the terrain. Essentially, all the roads aside from the main one are long driveways. This looks particularly odd since the island is so literally windswept that there is almost zero vegetation that climbs higher than your waist; you can see most of the island from any given spot. One resident had gone to seemingly great pains to grow the only trees, a small group of saplings. Early 3D videogame landscapes look natural by comparison.
The dune-iness of the land also made it feel bizarre. It’d make sense if it were either all flat or all hills, but it was just “machair”—a term used to describe the bumpy plains of the Hebrides, which support only grass and wildflowers. You were never not standing on some incline, aside from the coast and beach where most people had settled. Their houses were sparsely arranged but were of modern design, so it looked like some SimCity deity had decided against certain roads and residences, leaving a skeleton of what used to be. Outside of the port we arrived at, the only consistent sound was wind in your ears.
My interest in the island’s structure has come mostly from remembrance rather than experience. While we were there, of more interest to us tourists were the signs of older life. The inn we stayed at featured proximity to a Neolithic stone as a selling point. Imagine Stonehenge, but shrunk down to a third of its size. Also take away all but one of the stones, and you have the Polochar Stone, which the tourist’s page for the Hebrides claims “probably dates to around 2000 BC.” A visit to a cemetery yielded no long-lost MacIsaacs. Ormacleit Castle, which once housed the chief of our clan (technically we’re also a branch of a larger clan, and neither clan is actually called MacIsaac…never mind, I don’t really get it either), turned out to be more like a decent-sized farmhouse, albeit made of stone, ruined, and totally unadorned.
Spending time on South Uist didn’t really feel like being far away from civilization. Rather, it felt like seeing civilization for what it really is, without any tricks. One evening we went to a site near a beach where there were remains of ancient roundhouses. The plaque said one had been inhabited continuously from around 1100 BCE to 200 BCE, making it one of the longest inhabited prehistoric houses on the globe, rebuilt only seven times. Once the consistent pressure of human existence was taken off it, all that was left was a general imprint of a circle and a few stones.