Robert Hay

Lismore    The great garden

bob hay

In bright summer sunshine on the museum deck, Catherine Gillies introduced a large crowd to Robert Hay and his newly published book “Lismore – The Great Garden”. She mentioned its predecessors: Ian Carmichael’s “Lismore in Alba”, Margaret Lobban’s  “Lachann Dubh a’ Chrogain (Lachlan Livingstone and his Grandsons) and Donald Black’s Sgeul No Dha As As Lios (a tale or two from Lismore) all of which have earlier written Lismore  into history. She also said that, as Bob had written a most comprehensive and readable account, there would interest in it well beyond Lismore.

Indeed Bob’s “Lismore” is a guidebook to its history which shows just how important a part the island has played in the prehistory and early history of the WestHighlands and Islands, not least as the headquarters of the community of Celtic monks founded by St Moluag. Lismore’s fertility as a limestone island and its position at the mouth of the Great Glen, have also contributed to this fascinating story.

Bob lives on Lismore and is one of the curators of the island museum (Ionad Naomh Moluag). As a professional agricultural and environmental scientist he has a  particular interest in the history of land use, so Lismore was a natural subject. He stressed that this was not a tale of people who had taken their fate lying down. He had encountered resourcefulness and resilience in every page of island history and he mentioned in particular that when the island became overpopulated in the 1700s,  several families had taken themselves off to the Carolinas, Nova Scotia, and Ontario and flourished.

Even during the clearances there were those who had hired lawyers to fight their corner and others who had seen off more than one party of evicting henchmen.

After the wine and the speeches  a long queue snaked through the museum shop into the library where Bob signed newly purchased books. Later wine and snacks were served in the café to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his marriage to Dorothea.

The event was supported by the publishers Birlinn, and Waterstone’s in Oban.



Interview with Bob Hay

Q         When did you first get the idea for the book?

A         When we first visited Lismore in 1991 – we were on holiday at Ardtur in Port Appin – and I realised there was no real guidebook to all that we could see on Lismore.

Q         You say in the Acknowledgements that you were “impelled” to write the book by David and Catriona White. Can you explain?

A         I had been discussing my ideas for the book with Donald Black and David White, and in the end they said, “For goodness sake get on with it!”

Q         Can you briefly tell us what is the purpose behind the book?

A         Just look around you – how do we interpret this rich heritage of prehistoric and historic monuments? And how does this relate to Lismore today?

Q         You are now retired and living on Lismore full-time. How did you first come here?

A         I first came here in 1991 on a day visit to Port Appin. We had known Archie Campbell for a long time and made several visits to Carnie Cottage in the 1990s.

Q         Where did you stay on that first holiday?

A         We didn’t actually stay on the island until we bought Park Steading in 2001. Before that we were day visitors.

Q         Tell us something about the work to convert the Steading. Were there any particular problems?

A         It was a long project, but there were no particular problems because it’s a very sound building. The design work and most of the first phase were done by my son Tom, with Marie his wife. Yorick  Paine completed the second phase.The steading was actually built for the lime trade. It provided stabling for four horses and a cart shed. The farm itself wouldn’t have required that. The operation of the lime kiln at Park was part of the farm business.

Q         What was your first impression of Lismore?

A         As a visitor crossing by ferry I was struck by the peacefulness of the island and its great beauty and outstanding mountain vistas.

Q         What made you keep coming back and eventually decide to retire here?

A         It was an opportunity to live in the country again. I lived in the country as a child  by the River Findhorn near Forres. Some of my family history is related in my other book, “Lochnavando No More”.

Q         Can you tell us a little about that book?

A         It’s about a traditional society of small farmers, and how the community was broken up and dispersed around 1800. It was a small-scale clearance. My ancestor was a crofter and heather-thatcher. He died young and his son joined the army. There was no employment left for him.

Q           How long did it take you to write” Lismore: The Great Garden?”

A         Collecting the information took five or six years, maybe more. The actual writing of the book didn’t take so long – a few months.

Q         The book has a wide scope ranging from pre-history to present-day land use. Which aspects of your research were the most challenging?

A         There was a cathedral here for 400 years yet we know very little about the bishops and clergy – who were they, where did they stay, what was their impact on the life of the island?  I’m working on that now and it requires a lot of digging into dry and dusty tomes – in Latin!

Due to the Reformation so much of this stuff has been forgotten about. Historians also need to make a concerted effort to work through the Argyll Papers in Inveraray. The Glenorchy Campbell papers on the other hand are in the National Archives and are a very rich source.

Q         Your book is going to help put Lismore on the map. What improvements would you like to see for Lismore in the future?

A         I would like to see the Lismore Community Trust flourish. This would make many projects possible. Also the Heritage Centre is such a wonderful asset to the island – I wish it success, and growth and development. And we must not forget to look after and develop the public hall, which is the centre of so many activities.

Q         Are you planning any more books about Lismore?

A         In collaboration with Valerie and Niall Livingstone, I am hoping to arrange the publication of 86 letters from the Baleveolan factor to the Bachuil ground officers from 1831 to 1846, which I think are of national importance.

They give a real insight into the island at that period – in farming, social structure and human interaction.  For example, the ground officer Coll Livingston was offered a bonus for every cottar he could evict from the Baleveolan Estate!  I have written about this in “Lismore, the GreatGarden”.

Q         How has your life changed since coming to live here?

A         We’ve established a good balance between physical and mental labour! I enjoy being part of a living community.

I also appreciate being part of the team at the Museum. I have never worked so easily with a group of people as I have with the Homecoming Team.

Q         Thank you very much for giving us this interview, Bob. Have you anything you would like to add?

A         Just that I am very pleased at the acceptance of my book on Lismore.

Interview took place on Monday 8th June 2009 at the Heritage Centre. Many thanks to Bob for being so helpful.

Jennifer Allan