The Goat Island Centre

10 11 2009

The fuss and controversy about where the St Kilda Centre should be located has seen the normally polite diplomatic relations between Uig, Harris and Uist tested to breaking point. (And the Faroes putting in a bid hasn’t helped things very much either).

It brings to mind a similar situation which arose in the late 1930’s when the Stornoway Town Council decided to build an interpretive centre to honour the last residents of Goat Island*. Goat Island had been evacuated in 1930 following a particularly bad goat harvest the year before. The destitute islanders who lived on this remote Stornowegian outpost gathered together for a meeting of the Goat Island Parliament and weighed up the options. There were no longer any young folk on the island, all of them having left for the bright light of Stornoway; the islands only source of income was a goat – plus the goat kept escaping the island and swimming away to the ‘mainland’.

The islanders had no option but to write to Stornoway Town Council asking to be evacuated. The Goat Island ‘Mail Boat’ , a hollowed out plank of wood (just big enough for a letter or the football pools) with an old sheep’s bladder for buoyancy, was solemnly launched from the Goat Island foreshore. As the Mailboat drifted away on the evening tide, the inhabitants climbed to the highest point on Goat Island to watch for rescue and to gaze into the distance where the street lights of Stornoway glimmered tantalizingly.

The ‘Mailboat’ was carried on the tide across the Newton Basin and under Number Two Pier. Some wee coves on the King Steps of Number One Pier chucked some ollacs at it as it drifted past and almost sank it. However, the swell of a passing fishing boat caught it and it was sent further up the Inner Harbour, eventually coming to rest on the muddy bit beside the YM Bridge.

As chance would have it, the Mailboat was discovered by one of the Goat Island residents who happened to be on the ‘mainland’ to try and catch the goat, (who had jumped off the side of the island and was now heading towards Goathill Farm to visit its relations).

The resourceful Goat Islander, (only stopping for a dram in the Lewis), immediately took the message and popped it in the letter box of the Provost, before continuing his hunt for the goat.

The Stornoway Town Council sprang into action almost at once and arranged for a rowing boat to go out to Goat Island at the weekend to assist the Goat Islanders.

It was a sad sight to see, as the rowing boat tied up at Number Two Pier, and the four Goat Islanders disembarked with their few worldly possessions (the goat already having jumped overboard and swum up the Bayhead River). The Town Council gave the islanders a council flat on Seaforth Road and thus ended another chapter in the annals of Goat Island.

Goat Island was to lie uninhabited for many years. The National Trust for Scotland took over the island, because of its rare goat droppings and the local Territorial Army built a wee target on it so they could practice their shooting.

In 1937 the Town Council decided to honour the island and its hardy islanders by building an Interpretive Visitors Centre. A firm of consultants was hired to find the best location for the Centre and a number of places submitted bids to host the Centre. Newton Street had a very strong bid as it was but a stones throw from the island. Goathill Road also submitted a bid because of the strong historical ties with the islands goats. But in the end Mangersta won.

*Goat Island is a small island located in Stornoway Harbour