The Fall of the Braigh Wall

15 11 2009

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in the Eastern Europe. Many events have taken place to commemorate this occasion and the worlds media have focused on the various concerts, speeches and Coffee Mornings taking place throughout the former Soviet territories.

It’s sad that a little known local event connected with the fall of communism has been overlooked by the worlds media. Even Isles FM has hardly commented on it and Bono never mentioned it once in his 10 hour-long ‘in between song’ speech in Berlin.

Very few people remember about the ‘Fall of the Braigh Wall’ , which took place in 1975, and set the scene for the reunification of Point with the rest of Lewis.

Following the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Second World War, the whole of Europe was divided up between the  Allies. Russia was quick to stake a claim on the majority of Eastern Europe and to set up a series of puppet states . However, due to a bureaucratic oversight in the Allied Headquarters, the Point district of Lewis was unexpectedly allocated to the Eastern Bloc.

It was thought this was due to the traditional high levels of socialist Rudhachs voting Labour in General Elections and the in-bred ‘Bolshie’ tendencies displayed by most inhabitants of the Eye Peninsula.

So it came to pass that late in 1945, under secret orders from the Kremlin, the Peoples Democratic Republic of Point (PDRP) was established and all diplomatic ties with the rest of Lewis were cut off. A Soviet style political structure was created and a communist way of life was imposed on everyone, even the sheep. Huge collective crofts were established across the district and bronze Stalinist statues started to appear in every village. People were forbidden to go into Stornoway for the messages and songs by Calum Kennedy were outlawed. (The Lochies were still permissible).

To reinforce this new Soviet ideal, and to keep Communism pure in Point, a huge wall was constructed across the Braigh isthmus,  effectively leaving Point isolated and alone. (A situation which suited most people in Stornoway and the rest of Lewis).

The imposing Braigh Wall was located more or less where the car park and toilets are now located and if you look closely enough you can see the last remaining piece of the wall just behind where the toilet portacabin is.

The Wall was patrolled 24/7 (except on Sundays) by armed guards, supported by a series of watch towers with search lights and machine guns. There was only one ‘official’ crossing place on the Wall, called ‘Check Point Chrissie’, where it was occasionally possible to cross over into the Eastern Bloc – if you had the correct permits or were doing a delivery from Hughie Matheson’s Bakery.

It was Check Point Chrissy which came to symbolise the conflict between East and West. The barriers and barbed wire, coupled with the spy scandals and intrigue,  lent an air of mystery to the border post and the secretive Soviet state of Point.

The power of this Soviet style state was reinforced by the infamous Secret Police. Based on the East German ‘Staszi’, the Secret Police was chosen from the membership of the various Grazing’s Committees  (the most secretive and terrifying organisations known in Point) and were known as the ‘Grazzi’. The Grazzi were all-powerful and kept files on almost everybody. Nothing was overlooked and no-one was above suspicion of being a ‘Capitalist Spy’. Annual sheep subsidy claims were recorded in great detail and even how much people put in the Church collection plate.

A number of imposing Soviet style buildings were constructed in Point including Bayble School and the Point Orthodox Free Church building in Garrabost.

All of the villages were renamed to reflect the new regime, such as  Garrabostograd, Shulistalin and Chernknockle. All tractors had to be Trabant Tractors imported by visiting Klondikers from East Germany, and all school children had to learn Russian (however, Point Gaelic is so hard to decipher, visiting officials from the USSR were none the wiser that it wasn’t Russian being spoken).

Every year, on the first of May, the Point Politburo declared that there had to be a May Day Parade, going through the streets of Garrabostograd, to show off the might of the Point military. However, as this was traditionally the day everyone in Point took the peats home, these parades were usually sparsely attended. Many people recall the year Leonid Brezhnev was invited to Point to take the salute of the Rudhach Guard and ended up helping load a trailer of peats instead.  This was marginally better than the previous year, when the Point Politburo had mistakenly invited Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek.

It was only in 1975 when Local Government reorganisation was taking place that the British Government realised that Point was part of the Eastern Bloc and a member of the Warsaw Pact. As this could have caused immense embarrassment to NATO, it was thought prudent to try and resolve the situation as quickly and quietly as possibly. Local Government reorganisation in Scotland was chosen as the most effective way to save face all round.

As the new Comhairle Nan Eilean took control of the islands, representations were made to the Russian Embassy in Garrabostograd (which still exists to this day) to release Point from the shackles of Communism. The Russians were only too glad to get shot of the truculent Rudhachs and gave orders for the Point Politburo to stand down.

As the news spread of the collapse of Communism, and as the dreaded Grazzi disappeared into the night, the people of Point made their way to the Braigh and amidst scenes of rejoicing started tearing down the Wall. Many of the bricks in the wall were snaffled by Rudhachs eager to build new houses, as they now had access to the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme.

Within days, no trace was left of the Wall. Statues of Stalin and Grazings Committee Chairmen were swiftly toppled over and sign posts were hastily altered. Soviet ID cards were torn up and Grazzi surveillance records were soon going up in smoke at a big bonfire on Bayble Hill.

The event that came to symbolise the fall of Point Communism was the image of the first Point bus to leave Stornoway at 11.30pm on  Saturday night for almost 30 years, making its way unhindered across the Braigh, carrying a cargo of drunk Rudhachs, chicken suppers and half bottles.