Castlebay, Barra at the MacNeil Gathering in August 2016 was a happy place, people going about their business with a smile, for every one of us, whether we came from Canada, Australia, South Africa or Britain.
Not so this week.
Crowds gathered again on Barra for a more sombre occasion. On May 22nd 2017, 395 miles away in Manchester, England a suicide bomber caused havoc beyond belief. On blowing himself up he took with him twenty two innocent lives, among which was Eilidh MacLeodwho had just turned fourteen years old on February 1st.
One resident remarked, ” On a normal day you’d have music, and people would be having a laugh and a joke. There’s none of that”. The normally bustling Co-Op and Post Office was silent and melancholy.
Eilidh was with her good friend Laura MacIntyre.They had journeyed to Manchester with Marion MacLeod, Eilidh’s mother to go shopping, eat out at nice cafes, go to the cinema and take in an Ariana Grande concert. Then tragedy struck. Laura badly injured, with a broken leg, head wounds and burns struggled to the rushing paramedics. But Eilidh was not so lucky.
Eilidh’s father Roddy went straight to Manchester to help Marion in her search for their daughter. The island of Barra with just 1,000 inhabitants were behind them all the way and could not believe it when news came that Eilidh had not survived.
Eilidh grew up on the Isle of Vatersay which is connected to Barra by a causeway and it was there that she was buried this week. The family had moved onto Barra about two years ago.
She grew up with her two sisters and longed to play the bagpipes. She started to play them at an early age and won many prizes in her short life.
Her coffin left Manchester via a small chartered flight. On Sunday, as her coffin landed at An Traigh Mhhor (the big beach) which is the only airport, on Barra, a piper played to welcome her home. Her coffin was placed in a hearse and taken to its resting place over night.
On the day of the funeral mourners flocked to Barra. Because of very few accommodations on the island, the ferry, Caledonian MacBrayne altered it’s timetable to get people to Castlebay and back the same day. It left the mainland at 5.20am arriving in Castlebay at 10.05am. Leaving again at 5pm to arrive back at Oban, on the mainland, at 9.45pm. Aspokesman for the ferry company said,
” We are happy to help out in any way we can, knowing that there will be more mourners than could possibly stay on Barra overnight”.
The funeral itself started at 11am and was held at The Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Castlebay. Businesses on the island closed for the day to allow people to go to the funeral. So many attended they had to listen to the mass over speakers while they stood in the Castlebay Community Hall close by to the church. The coffin was preceded by a piper and then led by Eilidh’s father who carried a white rope attached to his daughter’s coffin. The coffin itself was carried at waist height by several extended family members, who took turns, as they made their way up the hill leading from Kisimul Castle to the church.
The service was conducted by the parish priest Father John Paul MacKinnon who told the congregation, ” Our loss isHeaven’s Gain “, and a special song by Ariana Grande, ” My Everything ” was played. A recording of Eilidh playing ” Both Sides the Tweed “ on the pipes was played as the coffin left the church and was softly accompanied by the church choir who sang the words in Gaelic. Again Roddy, Eilidh’s father took up his rope and Marion, her mother and her two sisters followed holding onto another rope.
On the way to Vatersay the funeral procession passed by Castlebay Community School where both Eilidh and her friend Laura attended. The school’s green and white flag of Barra, as with all flags on Government buildings, were lowered to half-mast. After the service the school was opened up to the mourners to rest before they journeyed home.
Eilidh’s, Great Uncle, remarked,
” In contrast to the hate that took her life, Eilidh’s life was and now stands as a testament forever of the world of love, innocence, goodness, kindness and faith. We will look after each other, we will chase our dreams, we will love one another ” .
Out of the 1,000 mourners at the church about 500 of them followed her journey to her resting place on Vatersay. There in the graveyard it was a great contrast to how she lost her life. The people stood in silence, broken only by the quiet sobs, and the rasping call of the corncakes, and with the skylarks singing as they flew higher and higher into the sky, until they were suddenly out of view. No longer seen, but the earth and air ringing with their loud shrill of delight, just as Heaven overflows with moonbeams when the moon shines from behind a lonely cloud. And in the background the constant, gentle lapping of the sea telling her she’s home.
A floral tribute was sent to Barra from Ian Hopkins, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, and Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, In a message, they said,
” We may not have known you, but you will forever be in the hearts and thoughts of all at Greater Manchester Police and the people of Manchester “.
Her good friend has only just recently been taken off the ventilator and spoke to her parents. She has had several surgeries all ready and is making good progress they said, but she still has a long way to go.
“ You need to remember how few children we have on Barra to start with, and Eilidh was vivacious, so full of fun, stunningly beautiful, talented, a lovely girl who will be missed by all, ” said one mourner, and ended, ” gus am bris an la”. It means, ” until day breaks and the shadows flee”
The parents of both Eilidh and Laura want to thank everybody for their support, and all the kind messages they have received. Crowdfunding campaigns have raised nearly $ 100,000 for both girls families, with one well-wisher on Lewis giving $ 9,000.00 but of course none of this will bring Eilidh back to her family and heal Laura’s body to how it was before the hideous attack.
The tiny Hebrides Island we knew last August, where we talked, laughed, and enjoyed the company of our friendly hosts is now in shock, numb and struggling to come to terms with the deep sadness that has stretched throughout their whole community.
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