Colin MacIntyre: The headless horseman of Mull helped make me who I am

Tobermory, famous for its colourfully painted houses, was where Colin MacIntyre's childhood band help their practices
Tobermory, famous for its colourfully painted houses, was where Colin MacIntyre's childhood band help their practices
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Despite living in London, Colin MacIntyre, of Mull Historical Society, says he will always be an islander at heart.

I find I often appreciate the landscape in which I grew up even more when I’m away from it. The Isle of Mull – the voices of the people, the glassy-blue of the Atlantic and the mystery of the glens – seems to travel with me.

Currently I live in London and I am constantly surprised that the Thames is not the sea; that the voice over the speaker on the Tube is a driver from London Transport, and not the familiar tones of the CalMac ferry announcer; that the Piccadilly line stops are interspersed with warnings to ‘Mind the gap’ and not the availability of trinkets in the ferry shop. And all this then replayed in Gaelic. That’s what I hear.

I increasingly appreciate how my storytelling in both book and song (I record and perform under the moniker Mull Historical Society) owes much to where I come from and the people I grew up around. The land, the sea stay the same. So it must be the people who define a place, especially an island, where everything floats and you are more bound.

I have recently published my ‘Hometown Tales’, a memoir about growing up on Mull, and it has left me with a greater understanding of this attachment to where I belong and how it has influenced my work. On Mull, my two grandfathers inspired me. One for his words. The other for his lack of them. One was the island’s poet-come-Clydesdale Bank manager, the other its plumber. One was keeping the island afloat, the other stopping it from sinking.

The poet-bank manager, Angus Macintyre, was the island’s very own ‘Bard of Mull’. He wrote about the curlew’s call, the brander pass and the days that passed too soon. He retired in the 1970s but still the locals believe if it had been “Angus’s bank” in Tobermory, then the recession wouldn’t have hit Mull. I need to keep them alive, and the other characters I grew up around. Although some, like old Dykes, who wore his skipper’s hat even on the Mishnish’s bar stools, were not so encouraging. He once coaxed me across Tobermory Main Street, where my friends and I were rehearsing our teenage band, ‘The Love Sick Zombies’, to utter the only three words he ever spoke to me: “What a racket.” But even that was material. Something I could use. I had rich pickings on my island.

For an islander, arriving in the city can be a fertile creative environment too. The mass populace, public transport, the sheer amount of culture, sent this islander’s head in a spin. For many years I tried to get my music going in Glasgow, but it was only when I took the advice of my late father – Kenny Macintyre, the former BBC Scotland political and industrial correspondent – to embrace where I came from, that things started to happen.

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After he died, I ‘borrowed’ my island’s historical outfit’s name, and well, the rest is history. (To make a distinction, they are now the Mull Historical & Archaeological Society).

Folklore is also important to the fabric of a place. This be particularly so on islands. It must be the surrounding sea that keeps mystery alive, or our suspicion of the mainland, bound up in the people and the half-light of teenage evenings. I recall one such night very clearly. My cousin Paul and I were perched on our BMX bikes, riding around the outskirts of Tobermory, when we saw something menacing materialise from the darkness up on the hill. We were certain it was the Headless Horseman. The whole island knew about the Headless Horseman – a character of local myth who rode the hills all the way to Bloody Bay. Nobody I knew had ever seen the horseman. Paul and I were treated like celebrities the next day at school, even though the sighting was completely unverified by anyone else. But whatever we saw on that hill – real or imaginary – some 20 years later I knew I needed to write about it.

And there was the evening my friends and I were spectating at the Tour of Mull car rally. The night was so black we could have been part of the mainland. Mark Thatcher had recently got lost in the Sahara in the Dakar Rally and we were hoping he might pass (also the subject of one of my grandfather’s poems). We were huddled together, lit only by torch-light, swigging a few cans of cider. A local man beside us spoke into the darkness about the day previous when he’d picked up a hitchhiker on a stormy evening on the very glen road we were spectating alongside. It is a bleak stretch of moorland that cuts across the middle of the island, from the Atlantic to the Sound of Mull, more lunar than earthly.

He told us his passenger had a jumper tied around his neck (an actual offence on Mull, we nodded). It was raining like falling spanners, he said. The hitchhiker spoke only infrequently and then was dropped at the end of the glen. Our narrator maintained that for the entire journey there had been something odd about the man, beyond his obviously inappropriate attire. But he couldn’t put his finger on it. “This’ll do here,” the hitchhiker said over the windscreen wipers. I’ll never forget the shivers up my spine at what we were told next: “He was bone dry,” the man told us. “After I let him out of the car, I knew what was wrong: he was bone dry. And it was bucketing down when he got in.”

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This story has also found its way into my fiction, with some of my own mythology added. Maybe that’s it: for a story to be passed on successfully, you must add to it, make it your own. You yourself must fish from the Atlantic. Could it be we have more time on islands – more space generally in regional, less-populated places – to elaborate these tales? I think they are important to our identity and must be voiced to survive.

One of the themes of my music and writing to date is the island versus the global. I continually endeavour to try and tell a universal tale by focusing on a community, on the personal. I’m biased, but I think the mainland can learn something from the fabric of an island. That belief has led me to venture under the skin for my forthcoming MHS album too. The title, Wakelines, refers to migration. It is my attempt to get under the skin of my own life, but also those of refugees trying to find safe havens from war. I believe storytelling can be done most powerfully this way. The characters must have something we can identify with. I think we can all relate to this because ultimately we all come from smaller communities (even if raised in a section of a city), and in us our homes travels. I wouldn’t change where I come from for all the money on the mainland. It gives me too many words. Like part of the sheep’s coat left on the barbed wire fence, I am always an islander.

There is a light that hits Tobermory Main Street around 5pm I’ve never seen anywhere else. Sometimes walking the Thames I try to imagine it. The island visiting the mainland. Then I’m almost home.

Hometown Tales: Highlands & Hebrides by Colin MacIntyre and Ellen MacAskill is published in hardback by W&N, out now. Colin’s new MHS album ‘Wakelines’ is out in September when he will be touring the UK. His first picture book for children, ‘The Humdrum Drum’ is out now with accompanying songs on CD.