A search of the wild landscape of a remote island continued yesterday for a young Merchant Navy cadet who went missing early on Boxing Day. The disappearance of Simon MacMillan, the son of a well-connected local organic fish-farmer, has baffled police and the South Uist community.
Hundreds of people gave up Hogmanay celebrations to travel from neighbouring Hebridean islands to scour the tussocked moorland of this ancient and windswept place. This week, divers from the mainland joined the search teams hoping to exploit the unusually favourable weather to probe the deep lochans that dot the area.
The arrival of reinforcements armed with hi-tech equipment demonstrates the growing sense of despair over the wellbeing of the popular local man. The physically fit 21-year-old set out into the night just 20 minutes from his home in Ardmore as he returned from a Christmas Day dance.
Mr MacMillan's parents and brother are clinging to hope but the student seaman has simply disappeared without trace. "This is the mystery; this is the absolute mystery of Simon's disappearance," said his father, Angus, chairman of the Storas Uibhist, which administers the 92,000-acre former sporting estate on behalf of islanders.
"We can only continue looking and asking for any information that somebody may have, regardless of how small and insignificant to them. There is a gem of information out there that will hopefully help to find Simon. We need people to come forward with that."
Islanders and police are furious at rumours claiming that Mr MacMillan, part of a close and well-established Hebridean family, may have been the victim of foul play or a local feud. Church leaders in this Gaelic-speaking predominantly Catholic community have also denied sectarian tensions could be behind the disappearance.
The cadet had returned to his home island only by chance, after his ship was forced to put in for repairs. But in the early hours of Boxing Day he got out of the minibus in which he was travelling to help a friend suffering the effects of too much alcohol to get home safely. Since then there has not been a sighting or piece of evidence concerning him.
"He knew the area really well," said a family friend. "He was not far from home and he spent a lot of time round that area. Some of the reporting has been very distressing for the family and unhelpful in the search."
The family's local priest Father Michael MacDonald has been saying prayers at St Michael's parish church. "This has cast a terrible pall over things. This is a very small community and everybody knows everybody else. We have people of all different denominations and none out looking for the whole of their holiday. The whole community is behind them."
It is almost exactly four years to the day that the same community was searching for a local family of five that lost their lives crossing a flooded causeway during a ferocious storm. Among the searchers that day was Angus MacMillan and he is adamant he will never give up until he finds his son.