By R M Murray
It’s hard to say when the Rodel Hotel began its decline into decrepitude. In the 1960s, on an exceptionally rare family excursion to Harris in a borrowed car, we arrived there late one sultry summer afternoon for high tea. By then, I had given up hope of ever getting there.
The dining room tables were laid out with silver service on heavy white cotton tablecloths and the waitresses had crisp, starched aprons like the staff of a stately home. There were carriage clocks, porcelain ornaments, portraits in gilded frames and lace doilies. Most arresting of all, was the dish in the middle of the table with scrolled scallops of creamy yellow butter.
Intermittently in the following couple of decades I would return, usually when showing friends from college round the island, seldom if ever going in. Most other times, it was just going for a drive and ending up there.
Because I had such a vivid, imprinted memory of it, the encroaching decay was contrasted not against the last, but that first childhood visit. Gradually, rooms and entire wings became dilapidated, redundant and were closed-off. The salt-saturated gales whipping up the Sound of Harris ripped the slates and the felt from the roof, prised the sarking from the rafters and marinated the interiors.
In this climate, everything disintegrated and dissolved. Even the carved stone figures on the 15th Century Rodel Church up the road had blurred like soap in a bath.
The most resilient and enduring area, the surviving heart and core of the old hotel was the narrow, unadorned, windowless public bar with its v-lined walls. As if to attest that time had no jurisdiction there, it had a clock that went backwards. It was insulated against dreary present-day laws on weights and measures, opening and closing times, lock-in bans, fire-exits and till-reconciliations. Nobody bothered.
Its clientele was small, resolutely loyal and local, and the overhead minimal. It didn’t have to rely on the summer visitor boons; it didn’t have to shore-up and store-up against the winter dearth.
From the outside, you wouldn’t even know it was still open for business. Yet, remarkably, the hotel still had a regular resident. We’ll call him Robert Swanson. A heavy, hairy ex-soldier from Sunderland. Divorced, two kids now grown-up and living away. Hard to imagine anyone less like the hotel’s clientele in its golden age.
He was a scallop diver and when he came to work the Sound, he stayed in the only room left that wasn’t by now derelict. Not that he had many, if any, demands. Like a shower, for instance. He didn’t have to pay: what he spent at the bar covered the rent and that suited everyone.
Scallop diving might not be that lucrative but it can be a way to make a sort-of living. ‘Hand-dived in the Hebrides’ it will declare on the superior menu. The tourists love that. Like fishing though, or fur-trapping, or other jobs that depend on harvesting wild resources, it’s unpredictable. It just depends what’s out there. Or, these days, what’s left.
As a profession it’s also equipment-intensive and can be hazardous. The limits are determined by the laws of physics and how they apply to human biology. The longer and deeper you are down, at pressure, the more nitrogen is compressed into your bloodstream and tissues. If you surface too quickly, an effervescence of tiny bubbles is released into your vascular system. Think of opening a can of beer after you’ve dropped it.
It’s called the bends and there are degrees of severity from minor ‘niggles’ to crippling pain to fatality.
No one was about when Rob left that morning. It had been a heavy night and he met up with Kenny ‘Sponge’, another thirsty mid-life marital refugee, on the pier at Leverburgh. After crowbarring himself into his wetsuit they loaded the tanks, weight-belts, a rucksack with oilskins, a flask and a couple of sandwiches. Nothing much was said, never was, and they pushed off and headed out. It was a bright day, a bit brisk and blustery. In as much as it ever was, it was routine.
Soon enough they reached a let’s-try-here stretch, just off a tidal reef. Time to go to work. He rolled backwards over the side and drifted down through the slatted green light to the sea floor. Despite all the years and innumerable drops, there was always a flutter of anticipation and hope.
And sometimes that was rewarded. Like now. Not too much at first, but then all along the receding sandy bottom, a huge scallop bed. Shells like dinner plates. He began stuffing them into his net bag. Whenever he got ready to stop and surface, he saw more. In no time he had filled his bag, tied it to a marker buoy and started a new bag. Making the most of this rare pay-day.
He didn’t even think he’d been down that long when a glance at his air gauge told him that - Jesus - he was at the limit of his supply. Like a plummeting parachutist pulling the ripcord he flew up to the surface. A close thing. But worth it. They hauled up the first bag and headed back.
Long before they reached the pier though, Rob was hurting. More than niggles, now there was numbness down one side. With half an hour gone, he had a tearing pain in his chest. And what scared him, was the certain knowledge that it was going to get much worse.
And it did. His bones creaked on the rack of his own body. As if a ratchet was being turned, each breath became more searingly painful. God knows he didn’t want to die, he just didn’t want to have to breathe to stay alive.
The Sponge had already radioed the emergency services. He kept telling him it would be okay, but it was as much to reassure himself as Rob. They both must have known.
The only treatment for a severe bend is re-compression followed by a controlled decompression in a hyperbaric chamber. The nearest of those though was in Oban, 200 miles away on the mainland. And the nearest helicopter to take him there had to come from RAF Lossiemouth, almost as far away again, on the east coast of Scotland.
It was never going to happen. Several hours later Rob died on the floor of a Search & Rescue. Probably an embolism. Maybe by then it was a relief. Nothing anybody could have done but they had to try.
Heads shaking, they talked about it that night in the hotel bar. Raised a glass or two. Or three. Reminisced. Remembered, as the night went on, other tragedies back to the war like when Angus Iain and his two sons were lost with their lobster boat in 1971.
But life goes on. And the half-life of the hotel did go on and the days accumulated into years. The walls drew in, the tight knot of regulars grew smaller, the little money and the minimal admin needed to stock and run the bar ran out. There was nothing left to sell or anyone to sell it to. It was the end of the road.
Those who remembered it in the splendour of its heyday mused on how the Queen had visited in the 50s. How, outside of Buckingham Palace and the Monarch’s personal domiciles, it was the only place in Britain you could get Royal Household whisky. And what with the new money now being spent by visitors to Harris, a great business opportunity. A perfect anchorage for yachts.
Others who’d only heard about it spoke wistfully about a more respectful, more decent age. And how people were willing to pay for that depth of tradition, that authenticity, that class.
In due course someone who thought the same thing decided to do something about it. He bought the property and persuaded the Enterprise Company to invest in its renovation. Given the state of the economy in Harris, it wasn’t a hard argument to make. The hotel would be restored, rebuilt, reborn.
So it began. A skip was manoeuvred into the old car park and a crew began to fill it. They took out the window frames and doors, ripped the rotten v-lining off the walls and as the days went on, hacked their way through the building, taking it back to its bare bones.
There were a few laughs and salty yarns when they got to the bar. Remember the clock? Oh man, you couldn’t make it up.
Later that afternoon in the dying light, Murdo ‘Shingle’ groped his way down a murky, somehow familiar passage, and found himself paused in front of a grimy door. He hadn’t thought about it but now it came to him. It was Rob’s old room. He’d known him a bit and standing there made him realise. There probably hadn’t been anyone in there since it happened. So he turned the doorknob and went inside.
If you can call a squalid, stinking shambles untouched, intact or undisturbed, it was just that. It was, anyway, exactly as Rob had left it that last morning thirteen years ago. His holdall was on the bed and there were still a couple of drams left in the half-bottle by the bed.
For a bitterly cold day, the room was warm. Stuffy even. Little wonder. In the corner the single bar electric fire was still on, glowing deep orange in the gloom.
R M Murray is from the Isle of Lewis. A native Gaelic speaker, he is a graduate of Glasgow School of Art. He is Founding Director and Head of Visual Arts & Literature at An Lanntair, Stornoway, where he also curates Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival.