The Two Stories of the Houlin Girls


The First Story of the Houlin Girls

 Many of my songs are a mix of reality and fantasy. But the song about the Houlin girls was based entirely on reality, but turned out to be nothing but fantasy.

My father was born on the Isle of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, in 1912. His father was a shepherd on the island and his mother ran a hotel at Laig Farm. The farm is in a stunning setting at the western end of the beautiful Laig Bay. At the other end of the Bay there is a house called Houlin, and it was here that my great grandfather, Duguld McCallum lived.


With my father, Pat MacNab, outside Laig Farm House, where he was born in 1912

Howlin (formerly Houlin) was one of 8 farms on Eigg leased to Clanranald tacksmen. The farm was leased in 1770 to Lachlan MacKinnon who, reportedly, built the present house with his son, Hector. It was said to be the first house of lime and glass on the island, with a byre and hayloft at one end. Records suggest that the house was the only one on the island with an orchard and walled garden.

Houlin in 2002, prior to a major renovation.

My father once told me a tragic story about Duguld and his family and I found it sufficiently moving that I chose to write a song about it. The story was that Duguld and his wife lived at Houlin with their three daughters. It came to pass that Duguld was taking some calves to the mainland to sell at market. Bad weather delayed his return to Eigg and several days past before he got home to Houlin. On his return he discovered his wife and three daughters dead in the house, all having died of diphtheria.


Whilst diphtheria was a common killer in the mid 1800’s, I could not imagine the horror of finding your entire family wiped out without warning like that. The story stuck in my head and whilst it was a sad and tragic tale, I wanted to use it in some sort of ballad.

Laig Bay


I looked at various ways of writing the song and settled on a mix of the tale and the local myths that surround a stretch of sandy beach that is over looked by Houlin. At the eastern end of Laig Bay is an area of sand known as the ‘Singing Sands’. If you walk across the sand it makes a strange sound under each footfall. The noise is a natural phenomenon generated by the unusual shape of the grains of sand as they rub together.  But over the centuries there have been many theories put forward as to the cause of the singing. Some said it was like the sound of a baby crying. Others thought it was the sound of seal pups calling for their mother or mermaids crying.

Because of the proximity of the singing sands to Houlin it occurred to me that the three daughters would have played there. That led to the thought that the ‘singing’ might be a ghostly echo of the girls playing, singing and laughing on the beach. But there again it might be an echo of Duguld walking across the bay singing a lament for the loss of his family.

Houlin’s location on Eigg


With those thoughts bouncing around in my mind, I wrote the lyric of the song. The tune was something I struggled with, and I eventually gave the words to my friend Stan Ginter to see if he could come up with something suitable. Stan is a banjo player unlike most other banjo players. He uses the instrument delicately and gently to accompany ballads and could not be further away from the traditional image of a banjo player.

Stan Ginter

Stan eventually came up trumps and we started to learn the song together. It was a powerful story and we thought that it might do well in competition. So, we entered it into a song writing event at Kirkcaldy Folk Club in 2001. The prize was a day in a recording studio to record the winning song. The song had an obvious impact on the audience and we were confident that we would triumph. However, the judges thought differently, and we were placed second. We did receive lots of positive comments at the end of the night which was reassuring. One of those comments came from the owner of the recording studio who thought the winning song was nowhere near as good as the Houlin Girls, and he insisted that Stan and I come along to his studio so that we could record it free of charge. It was a generous offer and one that we both appreciated greatly.

 Later on that year we entered it into the annual song writing competition at the Edinburgh Folk Club. As in Kirkcaldy, we did not win, but neither did we go away empty handed. The competition was judged by a panel of three, but it was also judged by the audience. The Dougie McLean Real Music Quaich was to be awarded to the favourite song based on the audience vote, and at last, the song won its first silverware.

Here are the words to the song, followed by the second story of the Houlin Girls.


The Houlin Girls

Houlin was a happy home on the Small Isle of Eigg

For Mary and for Ina and their eldest sister Meg

They worked hard wi’ their faither on the croft throughout the day

But as the sun sank in the evening sky on the sands of Laig they’d play

The crofting life was a hard life and the work was never done

But the Houlin girls they grafted as hard as ony son

Turnin’ o’er the lazy beds or bringing in the hay

But as the sun sank in the evening sky on the Sands of Laig they’d play


Do you hear the sound of the Norlan’ wind or is it the curlew’s cry

Can you hear that sound of singing as you cross the Sands of Laig

Do you hear a father’s sad lament as you walk around thy bay

Or do you hear the sound of the Houlin girls singing as they play

Wi’ the Irish Blue Grey heifer the crofter he set sail

He was bound for the mainland market as he left Glamisdale

And the Houlin girls would tend the croft while their faither was away

But when the sun sank in the evening sky on the sands of Laig they’d play

The market trade was good that day and they young Blue Grey sold well

But the weather it was on the turn and the wind it blew like hell

For six long days and six long nights no boat would leave the quay

And how he missed his Houlin home, his wife and family


At last the crofter did return to his island home once more

No wife or smiling daughters to greet him at the door

Diphtheria had visited and ta’en their lives away

Nae mair they’d see the evening sun or the sands of Laig Bay

Nae mair he’d hear his daughters singing as they played

Nae wife tae hold and comfort him – he was broken and afraid

And the money from the young Blue Grey he took down to the bay

And threw it hard as e’r he could into the surf and spray


 The Other Story of the Houlin Girls

The Houlin Girls proved to be an unusual song in that the story it was based around, turned out not to be entirely true. Around the time I had written the lyrics I was also doing some genealogical research into my family tree. With the story of the Houlin girls in mind, I headed for New Register House in Edinburgh to search through the records for the date of their deaths.

It seemed an easy task to find four entries recorded in the Small Isles register of deaths, all on the same day. I knew that Duguld was born in June 1832 and so I started searching the records from 1850 onwards. I went over and over all the deaths on the Isle of Eigg but could find no trace of the Houlin girls, or their mother. A member of staff had noticed my puzzled expression and came over to offer assistance. I related the story of Duguld’s family and explained that I could find no trace of the tragic events.

“Maybe the story isn’t true.” he said.

I explained that this was a story that was well known to the family and folk on Eigg so it had to be true. After all, I had been told the tale from my father and Duguld was his grandfather.

“Just because someone thinks it is true, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true.” He sat down and asked me what records I had that could be verified. From that starting point, the two of us started to trace the true story which proved to be quite different from the one my father had related.

By the end of the afternoon we had established exactly what happened to Duguld and his family. He had married and left Eigg to move to Glasgow where he and his wife had a son – not a daughter. Tragically, within a week of the birth, both his wife and son died from diphtheria. Duguld then returned to Eigg and moved into Houlin. At some point he took a housekeeper and the two of them eventually got married. They went on to have  a family of three daughters – all of whom went on to lead a healthy and happy life. Duguld passed away on Eigg in 1915 aged 83 and his wife, Helen died five years later in Glen Artney aged 78.

How the false story of the Houlin girls came into existence remains a puzzle. Whilst there are parallels in that he lost a wife and child to diphtheria, it is still a big leap to arrive at the story in the song. So the tragic tale of the Houlin girls is nothing more than a falsehood.

The song also taught me a couple of good lessons. Firstly, don’t believe all you are told, and secondly, get your facts right before committing them to song. The facts I had been given were false, but even so there was a discrepancy in my account of them within the lyric.

After performing the song one night at Glenfarg Folk Club, I was approached by a lady called Alison Wilson. She explained that although she thought it was a wonderful song, she did have a problem with it. She had an issue with the line, “The market trade was good that day and they old blue grey sold well”. Earlier in the song I referred to the “Irish blue grey heifer”.

Irish Blue Grey Heifer

“How,” Alison asked, “can it be an old blue grey, if it’s a heifer?”

A heifer of course is a young cow, yet to have a calf. It was a valid point and as a result, the word ‘old’ was changed to ‘young’. Thanks Alison.

Below is a YouTube link to Stan Ginter and myself performing The Houlin Girls at a fund raiser concert for the R.N.L.I.

The Houlin Girls

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