Thursday, 16 July 2009

Last Sunday sailing, or the first one recalled.

Quite a busy political day today - Gordon Brown in front of the Liaison committee, a Commons debate on Afghanistan, a rushed committee report on the helicopter situation, and an advance on a Lords report on the Barnett formula.

With unerring timing I have a few days off so I leave all of Westminster in the capable and overworked hands of Michael Settle.

I've just stepped off the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness and into the BBC Radio nan Gaidheal newsroom, from where I file this. I'm heading to Skye for some R&R but here all the talk is of which reporters are heading to the Isle of Lewis to cover the first Sunday sailing from Stornoway.

I'm only slightly tempted but I reckon the media circus, combined with the Heb Fest hangover atmosphere will outweigh any sense of historic occasion. That's certainly how it was on the first Sunday sailing from the Hebrides, from Lochmaddy to Skye, in the early 1990s.

I recall the sun was cracking the stones as the media party arrived North Uist on Saturday. The man from the News of the World complained that the 'vicar' wasn't in and the entire Scottish press corp turned as one to tell him that that the minister was at the General Assembly.

There wasn't much else to do, except hire bicycles and tool around at the Sponish factory, which had closed in mysterious circumstances, and wait for the day to pass.

Sunday dawned with equally brilliant sunshine and the ferry sailed with, I think, 42 fare-paying passengers . That was two passengers for every one journalist, photographer or camera person. There were no protests. We did our interviews, organised a group shot of hacks on the upper deck for the Gazette (that's the UK Press Gazette not the Greysheet) and watched people disembark in Uig.

They were greeted by two early version white sterilisers waving a painted sheet in protest at their peace and quiet being disturbed. I reckon they would have complained had it been a Thursday morning too.

It was such a lovely day that a few of us, including the inestimable David Ross of the Herald, decided we really ought to take the return trip to North Uist, just in case there was some protest greeting the first ferry to the Hebrides and on the off-chance that there might be some lobster thermidore left at the Lochmaddy Hotel.

We were just getting ready to tuck in to our dinner when the real drama of the day happened. Tom Kidd, then a photographer now a helicopter pilot, turned up extremely late for the job in his flying boat which he succeeded in pranging on landing in the bay.

Tom lost a spontoon, a float at the end of the wing, off his small plane and blipped in to shore where he managed to recruit the local hairdresser to roll up his trousers and wade in to hold the aircraft up out of the water.

He came ashore dry, the hairdresser might have carried him, to phone for help (we had no mobiles then) only to be stopped by the underworked local policeman. The sight of the officer taking a statement from Tom while the bleached blond hairdresser held the aircraft wing stable was the image that made it to the Scotsman the next day.

All this action drew the attention of a local church elder who said he would help out with his boat, just as soon as he came back from the evening service. By then another flying boat had arrived and the more experienced pilot aboard planned to take off in Tom's plane by leaning out of the cockpit and using his bodyweight to hold the broken wingtip out of the water. Back on the mainland he could land on the wheeled undercarriage.

It was a risky plan but he was up for it and so was the churchman who had finished his psalms and whose task it now was to tow the plane out into the bay with his wee boat and face it into the wind for take off.

We watched them leave the safety of the pier with some trepidation. Somehow, between the drone of the inboard and the roar of the flying boat, they made it. The boat let the line slip, the pilot gunned the engine and he was off - on one wing and an elder's prayer.

The lobster was well cold by the time we got back to the hotel and - as I recall - it was the West Highland Free Press paid the bill. On second thoughts I might go to Ullapool this Sunday for dinner with Mr Ross when he comes off the Isle of Lewis. Do Herald expenses run to lobster these days?

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