Caught by the River

A Postcard From the Outer Hebrides: Netty’s Tree

John Maher | 25th September 2018

Vote for Netty’s Tree!

The Woodland Trust have launched their search for 2018’s Tree of the Year. One of the contenders is a scraggly-looking spruce, which until recent years was the only tree on the tiny windswept Hebridean island of Eriskay (population: 150).

Planted more than 100 years ago, Netty’s Tree was standing tall long before the island made the headlines in 1941, when 8,000 ton cargo ship the SS Politician sank off Eriskay’s north coast with 28,000 cases of whisky on board. When the crew told locals what the ship was carrying, a series of illegal but well-organised salvage operations took place before His Majesty’s customs and excise officials turned up on the island. This real-life drama inspired the classic Ealing Studios film, Whisky Galore! Starring Gordon Jackson and James Robertson Justice, it was filmed on the nearby island of Barra in 1948.

Netty’s Tree was planted by Hebridean poet, priest and land rights activist, Father Allan Macdonald – a significant and much-loved character in the history of Eriskay. More about Father Allan in my next post card.

Netty Macdonald grew up on the croft where Father Allan planted the spruce. She encouraged all the island’s children to play on the tree. She said their chatter and laughter reminded her of her own family, who had grown up and moved away to work. The tree has been climbed by children from across the island ever since. Netty passed away in 2010, aged 88. Her daughter Anne returned to Eriskay in 2007. She can see her mother’s favourite tree from her kitchen window.

When the Woodland Trust asked me to photograph Netty’s Tree to announce its appearance on the shortlist, I was advised it could be a challenging subject. They hadn’t chosen the tree because it was a magnificent specimen – it was the tree’s history that appealed to their selection committee.

A couple of weeks ago I made the hour-long ferry crossing to Berneray from Harris, followed by a scenic 60 mile drive, crossing a series of causeways that take you through North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist. The final causeway in front of me (completed in 2001), was the road to Eriskay…

I arrived at Anne’s house in time to meet up with seven young volunteers who were going to help make the tree look like it did back in Netty’s day. I couldn’t help thinking the task might be a little more difficult than expected when I noticed that four of them were wearing the team colours of their favourite football club. Eriskay FC’s kit is predominantly green!

We all set off for the tree at the bottom of the croft. The kids needed no encouragement to start clambering.

After rattling off several shots, I asked Anne to come and join the children for a group photo. Fortunately she wasn’t wearing Eriskay FC colours.

Back home the following day, I sent the pictures to the Woodland Trust. On September 17th they announced the shortlist. There are six contenders. Eriskay’s competitors are much grander affairs, sited in castle grounds and large country estates. Netty’s Tree is the underdog. I’m making an unashamed plea for help from Caught by the River readers. The winner is decided by public vote. If you’d like to see Eriskay in with a shout, please visit the Woodland Trust site and vote for Netty’s Tree. You’ll make a bunch of young islanders very happy!

Here’s a direct link to the voting page for Netty’s Tree. Check out the full shortlist here. Note: voting closes at 9am on October 8th. The winner will be announced a couple of weeks later. I’ll send another postcard from Eriskay in October to let you know how it went. I’ll also have a few more stories and photos to share from one of my favourite Hebridean islands.

Credit to the Woodland Trust for recognising something special about Netty’s Tree. Thank you to Eòina Rodgers – the person responsible for nominating the tree in the first place and doing so much behind the scenes to make things happen. Eòina’s an Eirisgeach (native of Eriskay) and former climber of the tree in question. Unfortunately Eòina couldn’t join us on the day – she lives and works away from the island nowadays – but her mum was there to witness proceedings. A huge thank you to Anne for making me feel so welcome, and last but most certainly not least, a big shout out to the kids of Eriskay who brought the tree to life. Hopefully the pictures convey that. Thumbs up to Katie, Lily, Jude, James, Alastair, Daniel and Jonathan.