Peat Home Alabama – A Wreck at Arnish and A Lynyrd Skynyrd Obsession.

23 07 2022

For many years, visitors to Stornoway have remarked upon the unnatural obsession with Southern boogie legends Lynyrd Skynyrd that seems to grip both the town itself, and the rural districts beyond the cattle grid.

From the giant “Skynyrd Rule” graffiti that graced the harbour for many years, to the 1974 licencing law that compels every musical artiste appearing at island venues  to play “Freebird” at least twice during their set, the Hebrides’ fascination with one particular rock band from the faraway Southern states of the good ole US of A has long been a puzzle to many.

But recent discoveries at the bottom of Glumaig Bay during work on the new Arnish deep water port have shed light on this mystery.

Divers surveying the wreck of the steamer SS Alabama, which sank at Arnish in 1904, have discovered that the ship was carrying a secret cargo of 120,000 newly cut wax cylinders of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first album “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd” from a factory in Copenhagen. The ship’s stated destination of “Baltimore” was, it now seems, a cover. The vessel was really bound for the band’s home port of Jacksonville, Florida, from where the cylinders were to be distributed to wind-up gramophone shops across the Southern states in a carefully planned  launch campaign. 

The vessel had stopped over in Stornoway to pick up an additional cargo of top quality peats at the behest of the band’s manager Balallan Walden (a homesick Lochie suffering from the lack of damp fàds and smùir in the Deep South). Walden had belatedly realised that the ship’s route would take it near his native island, and had hastily telegraphed the skipper with the succinct message “Peat! Home, Alabama”. 

The Captain of the Alabama enquired in Stornoway about getting a couple of cart loads of peats but wasn’t impressed with the prices he was quoted. Mishearing the heartfelt advice from Side 1 Track 4 of Skynyrd’s album, he decided instead to be a “Sinful Kind of Man”, and formed a plan to sneak ashore to Glumaig Harbour by night and raid the peatbanks of the Arnish Moor. No-one would miss a few bags taken here and there, surely… 

Once the Alabama crew discovered how easy the pickings were on the moor, though, a few bags weren’t enough. Greed took over and the sailors couldn’t stop themselves. Soon they had just about cleaned out every peatbank North of the  Grimshader road and were working their way towards Ranish.

But despite the addictive thrill of their peat-thieving excursions, life at their remote anchorage left the crew impatient for the comforts of civilization – decent food, drink and female company. They could see the bruight luights of South Beach twinkle tantalisingly across the bay every night, but were forbidden shore leave in Town in case somebody had a few too many deochs in the Star and blabbed about the skipper’s peat-thieving scheme. 

Every night while they were anchored in Glumaig, on the captain’s shouted signal, the lonely crew would drop to their knees in prayer asking the good Lord to cause young ladies who were at the prayer meeting on Kenneth Street to get lost on their way home and stumble upon the anchored ship instead (while maybe accidentally picking up a carry-out from Henderson’s on the way). This tradition lives on with every live band that play in Stornoway, when an audience member at some point in the set will yell out the captain’s cry, “Pray Free Birds!”

Eventually the volatile combination of crew frustration and compulsive greed was to be the Alabama’s undoing. The ship became so overloaded with stolen peats that she sat perilously low in the water. Furthermore, the crew were in so much of a rush to get back home across the Atlantic, that they did not wait long enough for the peats to dry properly on the moor. Even worse, since the crew were all from Away, none of them knew how build a decent cruach, so the peats were stacked aboard in an unstable and haphazard fashion.

Under these conditions it was inevitable that the Alabama’s cargo would become unbalanced. One evening, she slowly but inexorably began listing to starboard while the crew were at their prayers. And to make matters worse, a strong wind blew up from the Minch, causing the anchor chain to snap and leaving the Alabama grounded on a hitherto unknown sgeir. 

Seeing that she was unsavable, Captain and crew took to the boats, rowed across to Stornoway and headed straight for Mac’s Imperial to console themselves. But rather than foundering right away, the deserted vessel defied expectations and continued to sit precariously on the rock where she’d grounded. 

Consequently it wasn’t long before a fleet of bodachs from the Battery spotted the opportunity for plunder, and rowed across under cover of darkness to check out the abandoned vessel. By the time the Alabama finally slipped off the sgeir and into the murky depths of Glumaig bay, the peats and almost all the wax cylinders had been ‘salvaged’ by the Battery bodachs, in a daring operation later immortalised in the classic 1949 film from Sheiling Studios –  “Poison Whiskey Gu Leòr”. 

The peats were returned to their rightful owners in North Lochs, but the rescued wax cylinders were quietly distributed all over the islands, and soon there wasn’t a house between the Butt and Barra that didn’t have half a dozen copies of “Pronounced” secreted up in the thatch or hidden under a gog-gàc in the henshed. 

Melodeon players across the islands could be found adding “Gimme Three Steps” and “I Ain’t the One” into their danns a’ rathaid sets, and Coisir Bhan na Hearadh swept the boards at the 1905 National Mod in Dingwall with an innovative Costello arrangement of “Dh’fhalbh Di-màirt Leis a’ Ghaoith”.

Meanwhile, way on down in Dixie, Lynyrd Skynyrd and their management were entirely unaware of all the success their debut album was having in the distant North Atlantic archipelago. The loss of the SS Alabama proved a great setback to their career, and it took the band another 69 years to save up enough money to get “Pronounced” pressed up and released again, in 1973. By that time, of course, it had already been a fixture of Outer Hebridean culture for several generations.


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