A tale of Port Ellen police station, an unexpected guest and community…
It was the winter of 1948 and an utterly miserable night on Scotland’s rugged west coast. A dishevelled man making his way from the vast, barren island of Jura to the mainland found himself landing temporarily on the neighbouring island of Islay.
Unable to find anywhere to stay, he presented himself at Port Ellen police station, where Constable George Robertson, his wife Marion and two young sons were coorying down out of the storm.
My grandfather (he was the policeman) remembers the stranger as being tall, gaunt and soaked to the skin. He invited him into the station — also his family’s home — and offered the only accommodation that was available: a prison cell.
The following morning, as the unexpected guest prepared to leave — full of porridge made by my grandmother and now dressed in dry, warm clothes — my grandfather asked him to sign the book, just to keep the administration in order. The guest scribbled ‘E. Blair’ and went on his way.
Eric Arthur Blair was, of course, better known as George Orwell. At the time, he was completing 1984 at a remote farmhouse in the north of Jura and in deteriorating health. He died a couple of years later, only 46 years of age.
I was back at Port Ellen police station this weekend, with my dad and uncle, who were both born there, and my brother and the eldest of my three sons. The police moved out many years ago and for a while it seemed that the imposing and austere construction, which sits in the heart of the pretty coastal village overlooking the bay, might be left to fall to ruin. The Hebridean landscape is littered with such broken-down ghosts, but this would be much more of an eyesore than an old croft on a remote hillside.
A local landowner, Sir John Mactaggart, and his now late uncle Sandy, had other ideas and after many years of trying managed to buy the station. The two men had identified that an important resource lacking on Islay was suitable, affordable accommodation for young people who were ready to become independent.
So with a committed team of architects, builders and the West Highland Housing Association, they set about converting the building into six self-contained studio flats. On the ground floor, the prison cells, one of which gave shelter to George Orwell nearly 70 years ago, have become a bathroom and a kitchen. The old cell doors apparently failed a modern day safety test, so they’re gone.
The project was supported in part by Argyll and Bute Council, although its bureaucrats lost the opportunity to have another facility, purpose-built for disabled people, by insisting the old garage at the back of the station be demolished and replaced with eight car parking places. It is not obvious to anybody on the island who will park there, but it raises the suspicion that the Scottish local government planning system requires at least one ludicrous condition written into every (delayed) approval of important community facilities.
For my family, Port Ellen police station is an important landmark. We don’t drive or walk past it without thinking of the life our father and his brother and sister enjoyed there in the late 1940s and early 50s, before my grandfather was promoted and the family moved to Dunoon.
At a small event on the island last weekend, a ribbon was cut and Port Ellen Station was named Robertson House. I’m glad I made the trip to be there and to see for myself the manifestation of John Mactaggart’s love of Islay and the care he and his family hold for its young people.
The Mactaggart family has had a markedly positive impact on the island, supporting causes from the Port Ellen Cyber Café, established 20 years ago to give young people a safe, modern place to go, to the Gaelic choir, highland dancing and the swimming pool in Bowmore.
There is a lazy caricature drawn of Scottish landowners, and I’ve no doubt that some of them live up to it: red trousers and absenteeism. But there are many — and John Mactaggart is one — who make a deep and lasting contribution to the communities in which they live, and have a much more profound impact on local lives, young people especially, than those who spend so much time traducing them. As a nation, we should strike a greater balance about the good things that happen in our most remote places, and care more about the infrastructure that they need to thrive and grow.
As the small event drew to a close on Saturday night, the Hebrides presented us with one of those big showstopping skies (see above) that are a hallmark of those islands. We retreated to the Islay Hotel and its brilliant hospitality, with a soundtrack of live traditional Scottish music from the bar next door.
I’ve written before about the intoxicating beauty of the islands. There is something special about these communities: the sense of togetherness that comes from being as isolated as they are, from often being completely cut off from the mainland by heavy seas. When the tourists depart in the late autumn, give or take a few hardy visitors, only the locals remain to endure the long, difficult winters.
In Port Ellen Station, or Robertson House as it is now known, Islay has a valuable new community resource, thanks to the vision and doggedness of a determined family and some hardy local builders and many other supporters. It’s a facility that might allow some of the new generation to stay on Islay and become more independent in their own community.
Not quite a George Orwell novel, perhaps, but it’s a story that will make a difference in a wonderful little corner of Scotland.