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Dalmore Daytime
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Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dalmore - A Few Tails More.

This blog, "Dalmore - Tales of a Lewis Village", will be taking a rest, for a while.
However, in the meantime, may I recommend that you take a look at that other Dalmore blog, "Dalmore - A Few Tails More". With a wee twist, the word 'Tales' morphs into 'Tails'. Neat? Well I thought so! In these stories, we will share in the lives of some of Dalmore's celebrity animals - So-Sally, Rupie, Kenny Iceland, Filax, Stowlia and Fancy and some others.
To access this other Dalmore blog, go to


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Catch Me If You Can.

Each year, Shonnie would send a hen to his brother and sisters in Renfrew, always for New Year (never Christmas). I can still see that badly stained parcel delivered by the postman, a parcel which would in those days deliver up a special meal for my family. Nowadays, we deliberately misrepresent what we know to be a hen, by calling it a "chicken", or for that matter, we never eat mutton now, only "lamb". What Shonnie sent was unquestionably an old "cearc",whose laying days were spent,or her husband the "coilleach", now old and exhausted. A real chicken was small, chirpy and probably yellow, and might have no fear of the pot. It was always soup that was made with the hen, and very tasty the old "cearc" or "coilleach" was, served with the "chicken" soup and potato.
You will remember from previous posts, that Shonnie was an innovator, an entrepreneur, a man of ideas. You see, Shonnie wasn't married and could devote time to his schemes. How the "guga" became the focus of this enterprise, I can only guess at. The guga is the solan goose, whose fledglings are harvested annually by the Niseachs on their visit to Sula Sgeir, a small island in the wild seas north of Lewis. Shonnie had observed that out the Pentland Road,about 3 miles from Carloway, the many lochs there provided excellent breeding grounds for various species of water fowl, mainly ducks and geese. Shonnie had it in his mind that the geese on these lochs were the young "guga", and that, should they be caught and fattened up, they could be sent out to Renfrew, instead of the scrawny "cearcan" we received each New Year. He was excited about this "guga" scheme, and so were we in Renfrew at the news. I am no ornithologist,but I doubt that the geese in question were solan geese, but were more likely to be barnacle geese or Canada geese, the kind I see when fishing Loch Awe. Whatever kind they were, they were definitely geese, and by mid summer they were getting to be quite a size, but were as yet unable to fly.
Shonnie's plan was to capture possibly half a dozen of these geese,keep them in a large cage beside the house, and feed them up, to give him and each of us on the mainland a huge goose for New Year. He decided that, for his purposes, Loch Laxavat Ard, about 3 miles from Carloway, would be "the locus of action". The loch was teeming with water fowl, and at one particular point, its waters are very close to the road, from which a small boat can be launched.
Shonnie approached the Ness man, who had built the 14 foot clinker- built boat (SY 92) for him, and ordered a small boat, with which to bag some geese on Loch Laxavat. Shonnie always had some interesting "plan" in hand, maybe because he wasn't married, and had the time to dream ! It was a beautiful little boat,clinker-built and about 7/8 feet in length. This was the very thing, mused Shonnie, which could easily be man-handled onto the tractor's trailer in Dalmore, and as easily launched at the loch side. The new boat, though smaller than "its big sister", was still a fair weight,and proved a lot more awkward to handle, than theory had allowed (it always is). Shonnie started the reliable 4HP British Seagull outboard engine, and he and his bonnie wee boat moved away from the lochside at a respectable speed. Unbeknown to the big "guga" hunter, the bush telegraph among the loch's water fowl, was in a state of high alert. Geese and goslings quickened their pace, with one eye on the "guga" boat, another on the nearest landing. But Shonnie was patient with so much at stake, and attempted to sail parallel to the little trains of geese, with a large net at hand. When Shonnie would get as close as he could, he would turn the boat through 90 degrees,give the Seagull full throttle,heading towards the "gugachean" at full speed. The theory was that parent geese would be put to flight, leaving the young gosling, still not fledged, at the mercy of the hunter's net. Well that was, as I've said, the theory. If Shonnie's boat was propelled by the four horse power of a seagull, it struck Shonnie that, at that moment, the young "guga" had at least 20 horses under the "bonnet". The young geese, using their webbed feet and near perfect wings, would disappear in a blur of spray across the surface of the loch, well out of reach of Shonnie and his net. After a few more tries, he knew that his theory of catching the young "guga" was full of holes,and the project was abandoned forthwith. I don't think Shonnie was too happy with the outcome of events, that day on Loch Laxavat Ard, nor did he realise that the "gugachean" were not what he thought,but some other species of geese, raising their young on those remote Hebridean lochs.
We continued for a few more years receiving a "cearc" for New Year dinner, until we adopted the steak pie, which was the norm in Renfrew, and we discovered, in the rest of Scotland.

Friday, 2 October 2009

There Had to be an Easier Way.

"Iain Glass",my uncle John Macleod, emigrated to Canada in 1923,and rose to be Superintendent of High Schools in the Province of Saskatchewan. He was commissioned from the ranks during WW1 and won the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross. He won the Battalion's Cup as top marksman in a shooting competition, and this was celebrated with a dinner in the Lewis Castle in Stornoway. Amazingly, the runner-up in this competition was another lad from Garenin. My mother, Anna Glass, was all of 17 years his junior, and adored her brother John. Many's the time she told us about her favourite brother,his achievements and the many stories relating to him.
One thing she would often relate to us was that, while at the Nicolson Institute(around 1910-1913), there were occasions when he had to return home to Garenin, whether for provisions or during holidays. I wonder if John's weekend visits required him to return to Stornoway with a boll of meal, like every other "lad of pairts" we've read of. According to my mother, John would travel across the moor between the town and Garenin, and back again during the same weekend, a distance of possibly 30-35 miles. To this 10 year old, this was an amazing feat which only added to the aura surrounding my Super Uncle, and which would exercise my imagination for a very long time into the future.
During the late 1980s, I took up sub-Corbett hill walking and invested heavily in brand names like Berghaus and Tissot. I was at least determined to look the part. My intention was to retrace John's youthful forays "tarsuinn air a' mointeach" (across the moor). I would set out from the Dalmore road end on a bearing of 130 degrees, hill walker's compass in hand, leaving details of my walk with Murchadh a'Bhoer who looked at me in wonderment. I authorised him to raise the alarm if he had not received a phone from me by a certain time. I was feeling good,all shipshape and Munro-like! Murdo would have been reluctant to call in the police and the RAF rescue,as instructed,and was probably by now questioning my sanity. It was a sunny morning when I launched myself onto the moor, heading out in an approximate South East direction, on as close to a straight line as lochs, peat bogs and other unknown impediments would allow.
For those interested in such things, or are prepared to retrace my steps, here briefly are some locations along the way.
Dalmore road-end -----> southern end of Loch Rahacleit(area of very many ruined sheilings)---->straight thro' between Loch Galavat and Loch na Leac(4 mls out)------>
north end of Loch na Breac---->north end of Loch Gaimheach na Faoileag(just north of Stacashal)---->between Beinn Mholach and Beinn Chailean(9mls out)---->headwaters of the Laxdale River---->follow the Laxdale R.---->Laxdale Bridge---->Caberfeidh Hotel,Sty.(Total approx 14/15 miles). Things to be aware of, if you care to try this journey.
1. Don't do it! but if you must :-
2. The number of "airidhean"(sheilings) on the moors here is considerable. Ruined now, they must have been like a string of little hamlets, with people from Bragar up to Barvas, perhaps, looking after their cattle during that eight week period when they had by law to move their livestock from the crofts. There was a relaxed lifestyle on the "airidh" as long as the children were vigilant in keeping the cattle from fighting(and possible injury). Children might be born here, lovers arranged trysts and people died out here(refer to blog on the Dalmore Church). My mother once sang to me songs of the sheilings,which were beautiful, but I regret to say that I didn't record them. On one of his visits to Lewis, my uncle Iain from Canada visited his family's sheiling about 2 miles out on the moor at Loch Tom Liathbhrat
3. The old peat workings of the people on the West Side,so far out on the moors, have now been so eroded by the elements, that what is left is a vast array of giant pinnacles of old peat like the termite mounds you see in Northern Australia. With the soft spongy ground in between, this is a hellish area through which to navigate your way.
4. When you pick up the "source" of the Laxdale River, The Ordnance Survey map would have you believe that it's easy now, downhill all the way to Stornoway. The terrain here is another spongy expanse of moss and rushes, difficult if not dangerous to cross. I had to walk on the very edge of the river, following every last meander. This was a gruelling time, and possibly the worst part of the whole traverse of the moor.
5. When rest/lunch breaks were subtracted, the total time was 6.5 hours. I was picked up in Stornoway at 5 pm and Murdo Bear was informed that I had survived.

On returning "back home to Glasgow", I visited my mother, and bursting with pride I told her how I had retraced Uncle John's cross country trek, and how difficult it was, and how much I admired him for it. My mother listened to me for a little,and then asked the fairly obvious question "Why would John, who lived in Garenin, travel up to Dalmore to start his journey?" It hadn't dawned on me that John started out from Garenin. I had put myself in John's shoes forgetting that I, and not John, came from Dalmore.
The words that my mother uttered next nearly floored me.
"Iain,A'Ghraidh, your uncle John travelled the Pentland Road to Stornoway, like everyone else; how else?" I forced a smile,gave a nod of my head,and never again mentioned my trip to Stornoway, "tarsuinn air a'mointeach", UNTIL NOW ! Much,much later she asked if I had encountered Mac an t-Stronaich out there on those desolate moors. Thankfully, my sense of humour had been restored by then!
NB. The building of a road from the "busy fishing port of Carloway" to Stornoway was approved by John Sinclair, 1st Baron Pentland while he was Secretary of State for Scotland(1905-1912), just in time for wee John Macleod from Garenin to find an easy, quicker way to Stornoway.
NNB. Mac an t-Sronaich was supposedly an evil man and murderer, who hid out on the Lewis moors around 1830, a fugitive from the law, for crimes committed on the mainland. The stories surrounding the "Fantom" (sic) were debunked in James Shaw Grant's book, "The Gaelic Vikings".

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Good Reasons to Remember Rothesay.

My uncle,John Macleod (Iain Glass) was an intelligent,educated man, held in high esteem by all who knew him. The story which follows was told to me by my uncle personally,on one of his trips to the U.K. in the late 1950s.For one who has grave doubts (unfortunate pun) about the supernatural, I still wonder at what he told me that day,the more so because you knew that he was an intelligent man,and certainly not given to lying or romancing. The following happenings occurred in the town of Rothesay in the Firth of Clyde,sometime during World War One. The address and number of a house in Rothesay were chosen by me,without knowing this town at all,and having forgotten any address which John may have used. The address for our purposes is No.13, High Street,Rothesay,which Google Earth tells me does in fact exist. So,if you live at present at 13 High Street, relax - it's only a story !
During this war,soldiers would return home to Britain for rest and recuperation in the homes of ordinary households,while still under the command of their officers. Lieutenant Macleod and his company of men were billeted in the homes of the good people of Rothesay,and it was John's duty to place the men in the homes according to a list he was given. Each soldier had to present himself at the designated billet,and hand over his ration book to the head of the house who would buy the soldier's groceries etc. The Army would answer for the bills.
With all the men now placed in their "new homes",for a time at least, John saw to his own billet with a family residing at 13 High Street. This was a large detached house situated in an overrun garden of about half an acre. Here was a large family, and John was told that he would have to sleep beside their eldest son,in an attic room at the top of the house. Not what John would have wished, but a dreadful conflict was taking place,all over Europe and beyond,and so, when needs must! John was obliged to shop for his foodstuffs in the shops around Rothesay,for as little as his rations would permit.and hand it to the mistress of No.13 High Street, that she might cook his food at the same time as she saw to her own family. A strange thing happened in each shop which John visited. When John handed over his ration book,he noted that invariably the address was read aloud in a halting fashion,with a murmur or a facial grimace from an onlooker. After a couple of days,John confronted a shopkeeper about the events surrounding the ration book and the address printed on it. "Don't you know ,sir,that there are ghosts in the house at 13 High Street". That evening at dinner,around which the whole family were seated, John broke the silence by making the bold statement "I am told that there are ghosts in this house". No one looked up from the table,nor did anyone say a word. Later that evening when John and the eldest son were preparing for bed,the young man said in quite a relaxed way,"John, would you like to see the ghosts? They usually appear in the early hours so if you wish,you get some sleep.and I will give you a shake as they are about to come". God knows how John enjoyed any sleep,but it seems he did until he was wakened by the young man of the house. It should be noted that the bed was hard against a wall,with the youth on the outside,and John behind him placed next to the wall.The following were John's words,as best I remember. He had barely heard the words "John,they are coming!" when a cold white mist began to form at the foot of the bed. This continued and now out of a dense mist evolved the figure of a very old man with long white hair and beard,who made his way up the side of the bed,leaning over the youth with his watery eyes fixed on John. "What did you do ?",I demanded. John told me that he was at that moment paralysed with fear. He could not move. The old man left the bedside,only to be replaced by a succession of "spirits"each younger than the last (John reckoned there were about 20 different spectres). The penultimate "visitor" was a beautiful young child dressed in a fabulous costume,who had to rise on tiptoes to gaze into John's face. There was a return visit from the self same old man who had petrified John at the outset,before finally disappearing into the aether. Before anyone asks, Iain Glass neither smoked nor imbibed alcohol throughout his life. Often,as a secondary school teacher,nearing the end of a term,pupils would ask to hear my "ghost stories" This story was often repeated to a hushed audience, but what happened at the end of one such telling amazed me. A young girl,over on the left in the front row,waited until there was quiet and then said." I have an aunt who lives in Rothesay,and I often stay with her on holiday. She has told me that there is a house in Rothesay which is haunted with many ghosts".So there we have John's story about "13 High Street,Rothesay",and I am none the wiser.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Canadians Do have a Sense of Humour.

My uncle,John Macleod (Iain Glass),finally graduated M.A.(Hons)at Glasgow University just after the First World War,which had interrupted his course. John had contracted tuberculosis in his youth,and this had recurred at various times thereafter. The doctors now told John that the only betterment which he might see was if he settled in a country which experienced a cold, dry climate eg. Switzerland. There was a teaching position in Lima,Peru,which is located at a high altitude in the South American Andes. The climate was perfect for him,and he would be teaching English and Mathematics to the English speaking children in that city. He informed his parents of his decision, and that his ticket was bought and paid, for passage to Peru. His father(Bodach Glass)was sad to hear how far John felt he had to travel for his health and a teaching position. Glass gave it some thought for a few days,and finally he proposed the following. If John were to consider going to Canada,where incidentally Glass had a brother in Preston,Ontario,then Glass,his father would pay his passage to Canada. I believe John was able to recoup his fare to South America. John settled in the Province of Saskatchewan,where conditions were perfect for his health. John "rose through the ranks" in the province's educational establishment,as one of their most experienced Inspector of Schools. In the 1950s and early 60s John was to visit the U.K. many times as part of a team, recruiting trained teachers here, for jobs in that prairie province.
It was during these visits to the U.K.that we got to know our Uncle John so well,and he always finished his recruiting drive in Scotland in order that he could spend time with his kith and kin in Renfrew, and especially in Dalmore,which always readied itself for a mini invasion of some of John's Canadian team,all Ph.Ds as befits an island replete in doctorates viz. Dr.Tait,Dr.Titus and Dr.Jim Pfeiffer,a young man who encouraged me to stay on in school,when I was bent on leaving.
When they came ("Na duine uasail") ie.the toffs, all doctors, you know, everything had to be spick and span, manners had to be burnished, and a toilet was specially erected in the Creagan for the use of the doctors only - no scraggy wee "tons" would sit down here ! They would eat fine dinners of minced beef and potatoes, followed by tinned fruit and thick Cremola custard, while we ate the usual fare of fish and boiled eggs, and porridge, if you were unlucky. The dog, Fancy, and Filax(new spelling!) the cat, were barred from the house while the toffs were in residence, and had to remain outside especially during meals. Two humorous occasions come to mind while the Canadians stayed at 5 Dalmore.
The first occasion was when John, and the usual posse of doctors,were seated for "one o'clock dinner" with us Hebrideans at the big table in the middle of the kitchen. My mother was serving mince from a large pot, as she circled the table,asking each in turn if they wanted mince or salt herring. I guessed that this situation was not quite kosher,as the North Americans were alone in having cutlery in front of them. The situation was quickly clarified when my mother asked the first Hebridean(me,as it happens) in a confident voice, "Would you like mince, Iain ?", followed immediately with the whispered Gaelic advice "Can nach 'eil" (Say you don't). I complied with the "faux egalite'". This charade continued, with my Auntie Dolly following behind my mother with a sooty pot of salt herrings ie. until my mother came to serve Donald, my older brother. By now "les Canadiens" were aware of the developing situation. "Would you like mince,Donald?"/"Can nach 'eil" were the question and answer which were hysterically anticipated by the fifteen or so people round that table. "Mother,you know that I would prefer herring and potatoes every time !!",said the Big D. My mother was the first to explode in laughter,followed by the Canadians and then us Hebrideans. None of the doctors opted for herring - strange,knowing how they were weaned on pemmican. What I'd give now for a feed of salt herring and potatoes and a bowl of thick milk.
The second occasion occurred in 1956, I think, when John's wife Mary from Canada,and her daughter Ilona, my first cousin, paid their own visit to Dalmore,without the presence of a single Ph.D. The situation was as above,with everyone seated round the table, and Mary and Ilona served the obligatory mince. It was Shonnie,I think,who noticed that Fancy, our faithful tyke, was in the "dining room" along side the Canadians, and he promptly ordered her outside the door which was jammed open, it being a warm day. Fancy went outside, but only as far as the threshold,where she stood with a clear view of the dining room. What she noticed was that Filax,the cat, was seated inside the dining room,between the table and the fireside,a fact that seemed to have escaped the notice of all the diners,including Shonnie. As witnessed by us all,Fancy crept in,and very carefully picked Filax up "by the scruff of her neck" and trotted outside into the sunlight and gently deposited her pal Filax over by the fence. Talk about laughter and amazement! The dramatis personae were amply rewarded for this amazing show,but not with mince.

Monday, 13 July 2009


My blog "Dalmore - Tales of a Lewis Village" is now available as an online book,containing 222 pages and illustrated with many photographs. So far,it has been very favourably received. To obtain copies of the book:-
Go to the website "www.blurb.com"
then click on "bookstore"
In the vacant window type "dalmore",and click on "search"
Click on "preview",then "about book".

You are now in the position to order and pay(by credit card)for copies of the book.There is also information on the book and the author.
Paperback copy £12.50 (plus postage)
Hardback copy (with dust cover) £19.95 (plus postage)

Note. Cost of shipping (postage) is greatly reduced when ordering
multiple copies of the books.
Example. Ordering 10 paperback copies,reduces postage to only £0.80 per

If you have a problem with the instructions above on how to order the book,please e-mail
OR "Dalmore - Tales of a Lewis Village" is now for sale at these three Stornoway outlets :-
The Baltic Bookshop,8-10 Cromwell Street HS1 2DA
Hebridean Jewellery,63 Cromwell Street HS1 2DD
An Lanntair Arts Centre,Kenneth Street HS1 2DS
and at Calanais Visitor Centre,Calanais,Lewis HS2 9DY
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village,Carloway,Lewis HS2 9AL

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Lewis Corn Mill ( "Norse" Mill )

The milling of corn and barley,the main crops of the old Lewis townships,was an essential requirement(as anywhere else)in producing flour and meal. Hundreds of these simple mills were built and operated throughout Gaeldom. Wherever one finds a loch feeding into a stream below,then an old mill ruin will lie close-by. In some cases,the head of the loch(the reservoir)was dammed to give a better outflow of water. Any school pupil(well,some) will know that the potential energy stored in the water high in the loch,is converted to kinetic energy,as the rapid flowing waters of the stream pass through the mill down below. I suspect that, even back then,there were some Ph.Ds around who could tell you all about it! I notice that there is little archaeology in Scandinavia(Viking or Norse)to show that this type of mill ever existed there,or that the design has anything to do with the Vikings who conquered and settled the Hebrides. The simple design of this "muilean"(cf.French "moulin") had been around for a very long time,I think, and has even been referred to as a "Greek" mill. Still,it's a great advance on the quern stone. In a 1898 map of the area,the Shawbost "norse mill",which is today a favoured tourist attraction,is in fact only one of two "corn mills" on"Allt nam Breac"(trout stream)which flows from "Lochan Tioram"(small dry loch)near Beinne Cloich and ends in "Loch na Muilne"(the loch of the mills).Note the use of the plural here, suggesting that both mills were operational at the same/different times. The map shows that at this time a channel or mill lade had been constructed,taking the mill water from the east end of Loch Raoinavat,beside the road,along parallel to the stream and passing through two corn mills in turn, before joining Loch nam Muilne. The mill lade was possible here because for much of its course,the terrain is fairly level,and it was only as it approached the mills,that the level ground gave way to a considerable downward slope.This is the mill race whose fast water flow is responsible for driving the mill stones. The early corn mills for long and weary had retained the same basic design.and had always been considered "fit for purpose" by the people who built and used them. Here, the Shawbost mill of 1898 seems to be a "later model",with its mill lade and mill race.
The corn mill was built and thatched in the usual way,but this was a small building comprising the dry upper level where the millstones ground out the oats and flour,and the "wet" lower level where the incoming water torrent turned the shaft of the millwheel. The wooden blades of the wheel were arranged horizontally and consisted of 6 or 8 of them arranged symmetrically around the shaft,usually perpendicular to the axis of rotation. The blades in today's wheel at Shawbost are angled to the axis to give a smooth flow of water,which is an improvement,but devised of course in hindsight. The "engine room" of the mill was often located below ground level(after a bit of digging),and this,together with the down slope,led to a very fast millrace. The rotating shaft was of wood,and would be strengthened with further blocks, bound by iron braces. Above in the dry milling area,directly above, were the two large millstones,one on top of the other,but only the upper stone was connected to the rotating shaft. It was the turning of this stone on the fixed stone beneath which produced the milling action. The corn was fed into the centre of the top stone by means of the "brog"(shoe),a leather container which was slightly shaken as it was suspended from a moving part of the mechanism.This ensured that the corn was fed into the mill at an even rate. The ground corn or barley spewed out between the stones to be collected by the miller. It seems that at some stage a "corn kiln" was added to this milling complex to dry grain that was damp,before moving it to the mill proper. Was there no end to the ingenuity of the Shawbost men? But it took a Garenin man to raise the Shawbost mill from a heap of stones in the late 1960s. Robert Macleod MBE,a cousin of both my parents,was at that time a technical teacher at Shawbost School. The first complete rebuild of this mill was undertaken by Shawbost pupils under the able guidance of "Rob Calum".
I remember that it would be around this time, that I took my young brother,Gordon, to show him the rebuilt Shawbost mill(it wasn't so well patronised in these days),and ,of course,to give him the complete guide of a Viking/Norse/Greek mill, as related to me by George Dalmore. After a mind-numbing "Time Team" style lecture,which I'm sure he appreciated,,we retraced our way back along the mill lade to the lapping waters of Loch Raoinavat. There was a sort of sluice gate(I think),composed of various wooden slats which,if removed,would allow water to leave the loch and enter the mill lade. I removed 2 or 3 slats and started back towards the mill. The channel(lade) at first filled slowly, but as we approached Rob Calum's mill,we could see that the volume and rate of flow was growing exponentially by the second. A tsunami was about to enter the mill race,and when it struck the whole mill roared,as if it were being tested to destruction! The rotation of the blades was just a blur,and the upper millstone threatened to take a walk. Running back to the loch,I replaced the slats in the sluice,and prayed very hard. The waters subsided,the water wheel survived its most extreme test,and after 33 years,I'm glad I've got that off my chest!
For more on the norse-type mill,see the post "An Gearraidh. Some other stories."

You may be interested in the other Dalmore blog,
Blog address :- www.dalmoretails.blogspot.com

Monday, 16 February 2009

The "Taigh Dubh" (Black House). # 2.

In an earlier post(Clann'ic Iain,"Long","Glass"),I described how, with my mother,I visited the home of my great-uncle,"Long" as he lay on his death bed. This was one of the early blackhouses,with none of the partitions you find in later versions(Gearrannan 1860),or it may have been that,since "Long" and his wife had no family,the "open plan" of the "sean taigh dubh" would serve them just as well as their forebears. "Taigh Shoudie"(my father's house,No.4 Dalmore),had in fact been occupied by a family, before Dalmore was cleared around 1852 to make way for a sheep farm. This would mean that the house was possibly built around 1830,an early "taigh dubh",we may assume.I was told that the walls of this house were in good shape when "Shoudie",my grandfather came across from Garenin to take over the croft at No.4. Walls, traditionally built nearly 100 years before,had weathered all the storms the Atlantic had thrown at them,and yet there they stood,waiting for a roof, absent for over 60 years. In 1920,some new design features were incorporated in the "conversion" of the older 1830's house. But first,let us try to describe how the old style black house would have looked inside - the house itself, we "built" in the previous article.
In the old "taigh dubh",there was just one entrance, which was used by people and animals alike. On entering,the animals(we mean mainly cattle)took their place down in the "todhar",while the people occupied the greater part of the building at the upper end. The cow dung("todhar") accumulated there until it was removed in spring to be spread on the "feannagan"(rig/strip field). The slurry from the "todhar" issued from a purpose-built hole at the bottom of the building. The whole "taigh dubh" was built on a gentle incline,sloping down towards the "todhar". In heavy rain,any water which came through the thatch,formed little rivulets that joined the slurry. Keep in mind that the standard of thatching bore little resemblance to what we see in the typical English country cottage,where thick bundles of reeds and wooden pegs were employed(or in the Gearannan houses,which had eventually to be thatched in the "English style"). Harking back to "taigh Long",you will remember how little there was in the way of furniture.There was a spring well inside the entrance door(unusual)and the peat fire was located in the middle of the earthen floor,with only a small hole in the thatch to allow the smoke to escape. It was not an efficient air conditioner,as the interior of the "taigh dubh" would often be thick with smoke. Modern theorists say that the smoke was a powerful disinfectant,and maybe that's just what was needed! Chain and "striolla" hung from a roof timber and were located above the "teine"(fire)for cooking. In early spring,all of the thatch(but not the timbers)were stripped from the roof,but this was not a spring clean,as we know it. The thatch, laden with a year's build-up of peat soot and tars, was an exceptionally rich source of fertiliser. Bales of corn straw were at hand,that same day, to thatch the roof anew,as the rain is never far away in these parts. This old thatch was used in conjunction with the cow dung as a very rich fertiliser on the croft. In some places,seaweed,mainly sea wracks was also used. It was stored in circular walled enclosures known as "torran poll". (See the post "An Ghearraid.Dalmore's Little Jewel"). It has been said that when the fire was in the middle of the old black house floor,many at a ceilidh could find a seat round the "teine". When the fireplace made its appearance in the "modern" black house,only a semicircle of people could ceilidh,unless you were prepared to contribute a song or story from the byre. The long roof beam, covered in fingers of soot and tar,was known as the "cabar suiche"(soot covered beam). There is a song of yester years which laments the gradual decline in the ceilidh, and the intimacy and warmth of the old "taigh dubh"
"A'Charaid ghalabh a h-uile rud,bho ghalabh an cabar suiche" which said that "Everything went,my friend,when the "cabar suiche" vanished". Yet,in my opinion,nothing destroyed the ceilidh more than the arrival of television in Lewis. "Ghalabh a'cheilidh mar bha sinn eolach." (The ceilidh which we were used to,has gone forever).
Over at No.5 Dalmore,we lived in what I coined a "taigh dubh-geal" a 1923 version of a black house,which now had two entrances(the cows now had their own),fireplaces,separate rooms,barn and stable. There later followed the "taigh a'bhord",the bungalow and later the T.V. I would have to echo the sentiments of the song in repeating that line:- "A'Charaid,ghalabh a'h-uile rud". The Dalmore I remember has changed forever. Every single thing I knew and loved has gone,and the clock can not be put back for me.
N.B.(a) The timbers used in building the roof at No.5 Dalmore in the 1920s were all transported from the previous house in Garenin.
(b) The main beam of the old Dalmore Church was reused in the roof of the mission hall in Tolsta a' Chaolais in 1848,and it is there until this day.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Building a "Taigh Dubh." ( A Black House.) # 1.

The Hebridean black house (Gael."taigh dubh"),one might suppose,gets its name from "the darkness and the thick smoke" within the walls and beneath the thatch. Some have suggested that thatch ("tughaid")has been mistaken for"dubh". It is possible(ie. dubh <--> tugh )but unlikely. Like Gearranan,I think that the name "taigh tughaid" is a more apt name for these old Hebridean houses. When,in the middle of the 19th century,many of the black houses were being built,doctors,ministers,estate factors etc.were already being housed in modern two storey houses that boasted glass-paned windows all round,slate roofs and a couple of chimney stacks.It was cement/mortar built and might be pointed in white lime. It was, to all intents,a modern house,which would not be out of place today. This modern edifice was understandably known as a "taigh geal" (a white house),and I think that it's at this juncture,the old house,by comparison,would have been dubbed "dubh" (black).
Because the prevailing winds in Lewis are westerly/southwesterly, and can often be gale force, dwellings were necessarily of a low build and positioned to afford maximum shelter from the strong winds. When the Hebridean sought to build a "taigh dubh",he would have in mind the maxim "Cul ri gaoth,aghaidh gu ghrian" (Back to the wind,face towards the sun). Of all the black houses which I knew in Dalmore,all obeyed this maxim (ie. long axis of each house was perpendicular to that of the glen,with the back of the houses facing towards the shore). Two exceptions were Taigh Shoudie and Taigh Murchadh Sgiobair,built high up the crofts under the hill, which afforded protection from the constant westerlies. If a young man intended marriage,it might take him 2 or 3 years to assemble a quantity of suitable stone to build the marital home. Roof timbers, and what little wood was required for "furniture"(eg. beds), was always a problem in an island with no trees. They would have to depend on what was thrown up by the sea,lost or jettisoned by passing ships - timbers,planks or even oars. Being at the "receiving end" of the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Drift,at times they might salvage some logs from the Caribbean or the Labrador coast. If one had to,then there were always the old fir stumps in the peat bogs(from the days when the whole island was covered by trees).
Even when the building materials were assembled,you had to be au fait with the considerable skills that went into building a "taigh dubh",but failing that, there would always be a "clachair" (stonemason) in the district,probably a relation of the wife-to-be. The walls of a black house consisted of a double drystone dyke,broad at the base and narrowing towards the top,where it was capped by "closing stones". There was a cavity of several inches between the walls,where the infill could be turf,pebble,rubble or sand, according to their availability. You now had walls which were extremely well insulated (warm in winter,cool in summer) and sound proofed ("an gaoth agus an cuan-t-siar" ie.the wind and the Western(Atlantic)Ocean). The house's outer wall was tapered in such a way which allowed rainwater to drip off,and not permeate the interior. Any little gaps that caused draughts within the house were dealt with using a plug of wool,what else? The walls were as broad as they were high(5 or 6 feet),strong,low lying and durable. The end walls were rounded(as was the thatched roof) which allowed the prevailing wind a "streamlined flow" over the "taigh dubh". It has been said that the black house resembles an upturned Viking longboat or its cousin, the Celtic birlinn. I think they may be right! The roof of the house would pose a lot more problems,not least the paucity of wood on the island. The roof timbers rose from the inner wall line to support the roof of turf or thatch. Because of this,there was a grass covered "path" all around the house,between the outer wall and the roof. Sheep could often be seen grazing up there,the better climbers,that is. Often,flat "stepping" stones were incorporated in the outer wall in the form of an outside staircase,which gave easy access to the roof(eg.for thatching). I think some of the sheep knew this trick! The roof covering would probably be two layers of turf overlain with cereal straw. To prevent damage by wind, the thatch might be covered here and there with old portions of fishing nets found on the shore. For double insurance,heather ropes weighed down by large stones,were draped over the thatch on the roof. Because of the shortage of wood,and the toil involved in collecting stone,houses were often built back-to-back,sharing a common wall(eg.father/son or brother/sister). The house described here is of the 1860 vintage but there were versions of the "taigh dubh" long before this period and certainly after 1860. The Gearrannan thatched houses belong to this time(my mother born in No.4 and father born in No.9). The house at No. 5 Dalmore,where I was born, was really a "new build" black house, finished in 1923,and possibly the final version ever to be built - a sort of "taigh dubh-geal". Even then, the black house was slowly morphing into a white house,with all mod cons,but with walls 6 feet thick,cattle down in the toilet and rats "in the belfry".
There's the inside of the house still to do,and much,much more. To be continued....

Friday, 30 January 2009

A Radan S' Iolaire.

Iolair(fem.iolaire)is the Gaelic for "eagle",and in the Island of Lewis we are talking of the "golden eagle", a majestic and beautiful bird. It is pronounced "yoo-lir". Unfortunately in Lewis the word "iolaire", when pronounced as "eye-oh-lare",takes on a different meaning altogether(an anglecised pronunciation). This was the name of the boat (M.V. "Iolaire")which went aground on the dangerous rocks outside Stornoway, known as the Beasts of Holm. The Iolaire was requisitioned to bring home hundreds of Islanders who had survived the Great War of 1914-18. 205 brave lads died that New Year's Day,January 1st.1919,the greatest disaster ever to befall Lewis.
When I was a child,the golden eagle had a terrible reputation on our side of the island. It was responsible for the killing of lambs,they maintained,and its appearance high above Dalmore elicited a form of blind panic in the people.I heard repeated cries of "Iolaire,Iolaire",and shotguns discharged in an effort to scare the eagle away from our village. The eagle soared past, well above the "beinn". With what we know now,this behaviour was irrational and bore the hallmark of mistaken beliefs from the past.Today you will find pairs of golden eagles throughout the Highlands and Islands. I used to enjoy lying down on a heather hillside, and with powerful binoculars, watch the eagles soaring high above, or just coming and going from their eyrie - truly,magnificent birds which should be respected,and not shot or poisoned, as still happens in some quarters. Ravens are in fact a bigger threat to sheep and their lambs.
While one can go along with a story about the great golden eagle,one is definitely uncomfortable with anything to do with "a radan",which appears in the title of this post. Gaelic speakers will know this word "radan", but if I had titled this post "Rats and Eagles",some might have recoiled in disgust,and now that wouldn't do! You see,humans living in "black houses"(traditional/thatched)were never more than a few feet away from a rat(Rattus rattus,the black rat or the "Norwegian" species,Rattus norvegicus,the brown rat). It was common to see rats scattering when the stooks of corn were being dismantled, or occasionally when removing a peat stack,but only in a black house did one realise how close we lived with these brown whiskered rodents. Night and day,but more so at night,one could hear the noise from that other world, just above the pink painted wooden ceiling. There was the odd squeak,but the main noise came from the rats scurrying to and fro throughout the full length of the "taigh dubh". At times there would be no noise,but often when I lay in bed at night, the whole rat population seemed to be engaged in a ho-down. Later, I would gently slip off to sleep, seduced by the gentle sound of squeaks and scrapings.For all their proximity to us,I only once saw a rat inside the house,and this happened one morning when I awoke in my box bed to see a rat eating corn seed, which had spilled from one of the bags kept down in the closet,where I now slept. As I moved my head the rat vanished. You might say we lived in harmony with the rats,or more probably, that humans and "radan" had no other option in a "taigh dubh".
One place where you might see a rat was in the hen house,whose roof was merely an extension of that of the main house,although if you entered, there was never a sign of them. There was however plenty of evidence that they had been there, in the number of damaged eggs and empty shells. Action had to be taken to rid the hen house of rats. Shonnie bought 3or 4 cages to trap the rats alive. I remember them as large metal traps, which looked like, and functioned like a lobster creel. Whatever the bait was, those traps filled regularly with our egg-eating rodents. We carried the traps to the "leathad"(slope)under the "beinn",and there Shonnie released the rats one at a time,with Fancy our collie dog yelping in anticipation. It was no contest as, one by one, Fancy caught the rats and disposed of them by shaking and breaking their necks. I have to admit that as a small boy I enjoyed this gratuitous slaughter,but nowadays I think I'd call Rentokil. I would not mourn for Rattus rattus as they have been here as long as man ,and are certain to be here long after our demise, which we seem hell-bent on.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

A Cute Little Loop and a Curly Tail.

I suppose that my formal education started in Dalmore,in a small way,it has to be said,and at an early age - another of these childhood memories. This was a sort of kindergarten,just for me, in a "taigh dubh"(black house),with a slate,slate pencil,newspaper and scissors. The curriculum was tight, and based on what was known as the "3Rs" ( Reading,wRiting,aRithmetic ).
Two memories of my pre-school experiences are as clear today as they were over 60 years ago. It was a summer's evening and "Aonghas Dhomnull Mhor" was over on a ceilidh from Dalbeg,which is about a mile away,across the moor,"as the crow flies"(which we used to say!) Angus Macarthur,a cousin of "Old Glass",was a regular visitor and had consummate ceilidh skills ie. he was "good company". As the adult "comhradh"(talk/ceilidh)continued around the peat fire,I was busy at the large table in the centre of the room,cutting strips of newspaper of varying lengths from a copy of the "Daily Express",which was ubiquitous in Lewis homes at that time. Were the Leodhaisich all Tories at that time? Were they still full of the war-time spirit of John Bull,Beaverbrook and Churchill? So I'd be fashioning capital letters using the scissors viz."A",using two long strips,and one short "crossbar". Rounded letters,such as "S"or"G" were still composed of short straight strips. The letters were posted on the two wooden uprights supporting the mantlepiece,using saliva,mine of course. Angus Dalbeg was,between cups of tea and a bit of "craic", taking an interest in the letters that were beginning to cover the black painted surfaces beside him at the fireside. He was impressed,I think. However,at one point ,Angus thought that the "child wordsmith" had slipped up. I had approached the fireside,with a long strip and one short one. I wet the long strip with saliva and stuck it in a vertical orientation.The short one was attached to it half way down and making an angle of 45 degrees to the vertical(clockwise). To Angus, this looked like a lop-sided "Y",but I wasn't quite finished..I had one more short strip,and under "Dalbeg's nose" the one-legged Y became a fully fashioned "K". Old Angus was taken aback. He hadn't thought of a K. He was duly impressed and my reputation was intact.
Then,I had nursery maths under my Uncle Shonnie's tutelage. With the slate and pencil,I had to reproduce the numbers 1 to 10 as often as I wished on the slate until I tired,or my spine chilled with the screech of slate on slate. Notice that Shonnie did not ask for the numbers from 0 to 9. Shonnie was the budding business man,and did not recognise the "zero",unless it was tucked in behind some other digits (eg. 200 sheep or £3ooo ). For each number I scratched out correctly on the slate,Shonnie would place an "old" penny on top of it. He had a huge banker's cloth bag full of pennies,and as long as I was willing,he would cover the numbers with copper. But there was a snag,more a difference of opinion,concerning the number "2". Shonnie did not recognise a "two" like this "2",with a straight stroke along the bottom. He demanded that the oblique downward stroke of the "2" be followed by a cute little loop and a curly tail. How ridiculous,but try as I might,I could not do this "other"two. I was definitely angry at this.and took my problem over to my Maclennan uncles on the other side of the valley. Using a Daily Express and the stub of a pencil, my Uncle Iain showed me how to do those strange "twos",and had me fill a full page until he was certain that I'd mastered what Shonnie demanded. I raced back to No.5,got Shonnie out of the weaving house and scratched out a multitude of "curly" twos on the slate. Give him his due,for every "2" I inscribed,and there were a lot,Shonnie slapped down another penny. I think that in retrospect I was more concerned with pride than with pennies.I never again wrote a "2" with a"cute little loop and a curly tail".

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Skies Above Dalmore.

Back in the 1940s and 1950,the romantic or the delusional might convince himself that the sun always shone on Dalmore,but the pile of wellies and oilskins behind the closet door would suggest otherwise. What I am certain of is that the air was pure and extremely clear,albeit tinged with the aroma of peat smoke. That is not the case today,despite appearances .
On warm summer days I would lie down on the long grass of the Creagan,a small mound behind our house at No.5. Lying on my back,with my head on a pillow of buttercups and clover flowers,I would look far into the blue heavens,blue as far as one could see except for wisps of cirrus or high stratus clouds. What really entranced me were the long white trails which crossed Dalmore very high up, and headed out across the Atlantic. These were the "jetrails",the vapour trails,caused by the first transatlantic jet-engined airliners on their way to America. Later,when I worked as a student at Renfrew Airport,I discovered that the Isle of Lewis was directly below the flight path of planes from London and Continental Europe. These early "jetliners" like the De Havilland Comet came into service in 1952 when I was 11 years old,and I was one of the first to see them. Now there's a thing! When the "plane spotting" was over,I would drift off in a beautiful sleep in the warmth of the sun, with the gentlest of breezes caressing my face.
On a clear night,just before sunset,I sometimes made my way to the highest point on Beinn Dhal a' Mor(directly over our house)to witness a wonderful spectacle of lights,because from that vantage point,it was possible to see four different lighthouses each with their distinctive sequence of flashes. Towards the west,and in the near distance,was the light at Luimishader at the head of Loch Carloway,and much further west and on the horizon,the flashing light on the Flannan Isles. Turning in the other direction,it was easy to make out the lights at the Butt of Lewis and Tiumpan Head. For me it was a real thrill,and my mind was engaged with the light sequences that identified for me the different lighthouses. While we are talking about the night sky, I will always remember the glorious sights to be seen in the sky above ; the firmament of stars and planets in the Milky Way,the "shooting stars" and above all,the spiral galaxies of our infininite universe. Since these days I have never again witnessed such spectacular skies in Dalmore(or anywhere else),which can only be due to the pollution spreading throughout the entire atmosphere. As things are now,I might not even be able to see the four lighthouses from the top of Beinn Dhal a'Mor.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Early Childhood Memories.

Some people have very early childhood memories,while others have no such recall. I don't know if this confers any special attributes on those who have,but whether this is a blessing or not,some of my early memories are particularly vivid,all those years on. My earliest memory is sitting in one of these large coach built prams(Silver Cross/Marmet type),which for my mother must have been a welcome hand-me-down. It was a beautiful summer's day,and a young neighbour's girl,May Macinnes was in charge of me,while she sat on a bench in the Robertson Park in Renfrew. To this day, I know the exact spot where the pram was placed.I remember the beautiful show of flowers nearby,and being about 10 months old ( first summer after 1941),I was in one of those embroidered white frocks,which even little boys were wont to wear,back in these days. This would be the summer of 1942. I remember the air raid siren being tested (the siren was on the roof of the police station,next door to us on Inchinnan Road ),and I recall very clearly burying my head beneath some pillows. I remember the drill of pulling on that awful stinking gas mask.I can still see my uncle(Iain Shoudie)home on leave,and visiting us in Renfrew in his navy uniform and hat. For the long period before D-Day,there was a great build-up of US naval personnel in the Firth of Clyde,and when off-duty they were transported by naval trucks "up country" to the towns on the Clyde. I had my own American pals who gathered nightly at McShane's fish and chip shop at the end of our tenement building. I would entertain them with my take on Churchill and Hitler,which they seemed to enjoy, and for which I'd be rewarded with "candy" or sticks of American spearmint chewing gum(not those Chiclets of British Beechnut!).These Americans had little cameras,and I often had my photograph taken "to show the folks back home" in Idaho or Virginia this "delightful Scottish child". My mother would come downstairs to fetch me, and lead little Churchill home for his bath in the "sink". The sink overlooked the main road,and I was always conscious that the girl Macaskill,directly opposite, might catch sight of me during these ablutions.
I have early childhood memories of Dalmore,although one or two are now a bit tattered with age. I have already told the story(in a very early post)of the death of Monty,Murchadh a' Sgiobair's dog, and my part in his burial. As pall-bearers go,I was very young indeed. When I was 3 or 4,there was small dump inside the village fence,in "lot na Cnamhan" which fascinated me.I presume that the dump was entirely of the Bones Family's making,and that the rubbish therein rightfully belonged to them. Undeterred,my eyes noticed an old lead-acid battery lying there,and I instantly saw a use for it (Don't ask,please). I manhandled it onto the road and using a bit of rope I dragged it very slowly through the village. The journey was long and the battery was heavy,but finally I got this trophy back home to No.5 Dalmore,where my grandfather,Glass and my mother just happened to be standing. "Where did you get that,A Ghraidh?" asked Old Glass. I told him that it was just a bit of rubbish from the dump at Taigh na Cnamhan,but while I felt that it might not win favour with the bodach,I hoped that it might just squeeze past my "modern" mother,Glass's favourite child. "Now,A Ghraidh,take the thing back to where you got it". A "modern" plea was entered on my behalf by my mother,but to no avail. "Rud nach buin thut,na buin dha" is what he told me (and my mother,too)and I never forgot it. A translation would be "If something doesn't belong to you,don't have anything to do with it". Well, I had to drag the bloody thing all the way out to Old Bones' dump,and what pained me was that I couldn't even remember what I was going to do with it(the battery,that is). These early memories are like small gems at the bottom of a trinket box.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

A Bright Light Goes Out In Dalmore.

Some years ago,on a visit to London (I crossed Foster's "bouncey" bridge,newly opened,but soon to close),I was walking along the Thames Embankment, when I noticed this old steamer moored on the riverbank,bedecked in colourful bunting and advertising itself in neon lights. This old lady was now a floating restaurant,but it has to be said that she was still looking good. When I looked at the name on the bow,I could hardly believe my eyes. It was the "Queen Mary II",a beautiful ship on which my Uncle Shonnie worked when I was a boy,and which I often saw,standing at the Ferry Green in Renfrew. She was the largest "pleasure steamer" belonging to the Caledonian Steam Packet Company(CSPC), capable of carrying over 2000 passengers each day(including Sundays,would you credit it)from Glasgow "doon the watter" as far as Rothesay,or beyond. Shonnie worked as an A.B. on board the Q.M.2 for some years after the war,and my mother and "her boys" were at times non-paying guests of the CSPC,on the days when brother Shonnie was at the head of the "gangway" taking tickets and clicking each passenger on, with a small hand held comptometer. Of course,he didn't "click" for us. I should add that I went on board the "Queen Mary Restaurant" and was shown around. It would be 1951 when Shonnie returned home, to take over the running of the croft at 5 Dalmore,after my Aunt Peigi died that summer. He took over the weaving of tweeds,which Peigi had done so ably in the past. Shonnie has been mentioned many times in previous posts,and so here I'd like to show another facet of his personality. Shonnie was an able mimic of local "personalities",and coupled with his own brand of humour, could "invent" stories which were extremely funny,but never hurtful. People would repeat these stories knowing full well that their author,Shonnie,was wont to take a good bit of licence,however "believable" the plot and its characters might be. An example of this was the story(told previously) of the two young women from Bernera who stayed overnight in "taigh Shoudie" in Dalmore,while making for the communions in Shawbost. It was true that these women did arrive in Dalmore,but the conversations and events which took place inside No.4 Dalmore bore the imprint of Shonnie's humour. Still,it's his story which lives on. He often put on a "show" at meal times. One of his best pieces of mimicry was of a local worthy,who would wade through the sheep in a fank looking for his own. With arms outstretched and the fingers on his hands splayed wide,he would abruptly turn the sheep's head to one side to check its ear markings,moving from one beast to the next. Well, the large number of people round the table were Shonnie's fank of sheep,and he moved slowly around the table twisting heads and checking ears. There were peals of laughter and slowly he moved nearer his sister Dolly,our aunt. Having been so often at the receiving end of this jape,Dollag would give him a very stern warning to steer clear of her in the fank ! He would pass her by,and then, without warning,he would wheel round, turning her head to one side,just like all the other sheep. "I warned you",Dollag cried as she chased her brother around the "fank".
When we heard the news in Renfrew,it was received in shock and disbelief. Shonnie,it was said,had been involved in a serious accident involving his own tractor,down by the cemetery in Dalmore. Shonnie had just driven out of our small field above the cemetery,and had stopped the tractor to close the gate to the field. He could not have secured the handbrake properly,and being on a steep downward slope,Shonnie saw the tractor beginning to roll towards the cemetery fence,with visions of the destruction of various gravestones. By running alongside the moving tractor,he had hoped to jump aboard and apply the tractor's brakes. Instead,one of the large rear wheels caught Shonnie in the small of his back,and severed his spinal cord. Shonnie died one week later at Killearn Hospital,Glasgow on the 21st of March,1960. He was just 52 years old. As when people ask "Where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated ?",I know where I was when Shonnie died. I was sitting the Dynamics Paper in my 6th year at Paisley Grammar School. At intervals throughout that exam,it kept coming to me. "Shonnie is dead".
For me,a bright flame had been extinguished in Dalmore,and I could never afterwards rekindle the happiness I once knew there.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Stornoway Bread - "The Best". Ask the Cows.

A newly baked Stornoway plain loaf(a variety of bread once favoured by all Scots)is undoubtedly one of the great culinary experiences this sadly homogeneous world can still offer up. It is no exaggeration to assert that once a person has tasted the Stornoway plain loaf,one sets a benchmark which no other bread can ever match. The words "manna" and "ambrosia" come to mind. You might say that it is the Haagen Dazs of all breads. A "breid heid" from Glasgow,on first tasting the Stornoway loaf,lost his reason altogether. People returning from the island remove as much "tat" from their cars,to ensure room for the Stornoway loaves. One family from Liverpool sent their 16 year old back home by 'plane,to make room for a dozen loaves.People in Glasgow ask that you bring them back "just a couple of loaves". I have to remind my new-found "friends" that my car will be returning with five adults,a dog,an outboard engine and a mini wardrobe(on the roof rack,of course)to be returned to Ikea. But,of course I'll do my level best for them, to be sure, "a nise",ahem........ Suffice to say that the Stornoway bread has a fine reputation,yes,the world over. Surely if the Stornoway "marag" can be exported to Glasgow or Edinburgh,then the bread could travel equally well in the same van. Now,if you think this eulogy to a plain loaf is a bit OTT,then I suggest you "make your way to Stornoway",and buy a loaf for yourself at the "Stag Bakery". I know for sure what the outcome will be.
In previous posts, the Stornoway loaf and the Stag Bakery received a couple of mentions. In that regard,Iain M. ("The Croft")told me that his grandfather,known as "Willie Og" from Stornoway was Master Baker at the Stag Bakery. In my young days,I don't think there was a bakery in town of that name. I know that Hughie Mathesons baked bread,but as for other bakeries in Lewis producing this delicious loaf,I simply can't recall. The "Stag" raised its antlers last year in a most unexpected place. With a lady friend of mine,I visited Douglas in South Lanarkshire to visit the Cameronians Museum (closed for refurbishment,at that time),and the Chapel containing the tomb of the "Black Douglas",Robert Bruce's right hand man in the Scottish Wars of Independence. As we made our way along a street of old houses,we stopped outside this cottage to "converse" with a very lively little terrier . Our conversation was picked up by a young lady and her stepfather who were doing renovation work in this cottage,dated around 1590,and by far the oldest house in Douglas. She invited us in, to see her house which she had bought to escape the grind of working and staying in Glasgow. The conversation initially concerned old buildings and somehow it moved to "tighean dhubha",and finally coming to rest on a shared knowledge of the Isle of Lewis. This lady was well acquainted with Lewis and informed me that she was related to the owners of the Stag Bakery in Stornoway. It's a small world,Miss Maclean.
When we were in Dalmore during the holidays,as many as 17 people might be accommodated/fed at the one time in the house at No.5. This took a lot of bread,man(as the Americans say). Donald,my brother,and I would be sent down to the "shed" in Carloway to pick up our bread order. Two sturdy upright bikes,four large canvas bags.and we arrived at Shed a'Hech(Shed a'Bhraseach),where one could expect a little gentle ribbing from the natives. "Well,boyths.how many loafths are needed today at Taigh Glass?" Domhnull a'Bhraseach had a lovely sense of humour,and an attractive lisp. A little embarrassed, I would say 19(23 is the house record),while the Big Yin,my brother lurked outside pretending not to know me. "Tell your Uncle Shonnie that in future we will divert the bread van into Dalmore,to save you boyths the trouble"
I remember once, with a joint cargo of about 12 or 14 loaves,we were heading out towards the Doctor's House,when my fitba'daft brother noticed a "bounce" game in progress on the football park. We lay our bikes carefully by the river,the bread sacks still draped over the handle bars. The game was very enjoyable,until one of the local lads directed my attention to the bicycles "taobh an abhuinn". Cows,that were not there at the start of the game, were feasting on 5 Dalmore's complete weekend bread supply. Well what a mess,and how to explain this away! Some of the loaves were untouched,others had the imprints of bovine dentistry, while still others languished in one of the ruminants' many stomaches. Well,you could only laugh(or cry) at the situation,and fortunately for us, our adult relatives decided,that in the scheme of things,it was better to laugh. Shonnie,my uncle,couldn't quite appreciate the hilarity in the house,and his laugh,when it came, was short and muted. The only worry now was facing Domhnull a'Bhraseach next time around."Well,boyths,how did you get on last week?". O Man,Man!!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Dalmore Tales - 100 Blogs,Not Out.

I began this blog "Dalmore-Tales of a Lewis Village" on the 29th of December,2007 which,barring a few days,is almost one year ago. This is the 100th posting of the blog,but,as I said a long way back, I am grateful and relieved to have been able to document some of the history, and stories relating to Dalmore. I was happy to "resurrect" the people I knew,when I was on my summer holidays in Dalmore(mainly in the years 1945-1960). Had it not been for Google, and the services of an excellent software engineer,my son Alasdair,then the Story of Dalmore would have languished in a large plastic bag at the bottom of a wardrobe,or locked in my memory,as I am the last person alive who remembers this beautiful glen,and the great characters that inhabited it. Some other postings will follow,but another blog, not unrelated to Dalmore,is being hatched "for your delectation".

Monday, 22 December 2008

Preparing the Minks'Feed - An Offal Business.

You didn't get "mink-feed" in large paper sacks from the Crofters,or "The National Mink Breeders Federation" or any other source. By the way,that federation didn't exist. It was created for effect! Unlike feed for sheep(of course they harvested hay etc.in 1956!),the feeding of mink was an elaborate affair,where the main constituents had to be fresh,quantities had to be carefully calculated,and various additives had to be sourced outwith Lewis. We would go over to Stornoway once,sometimes twice a week for the protein rich fish and animal offal. The Broad Bay Fish Shop provided the fish,which was in reality the carcass remaining after the fish fillets had been removed. (mainly haddock and whiting,in these days!). The boys in the fish shop kept our fish aside,presumably for a "bung" from Seoras. Our other visit to town on such days was to Stornoway's slaughterhouse(they had one in these days!). The word "slaughterhouse" is very emotive,and one immediately understands what takes place therein. Today,we send our sentient animals to an "abattoir",which derives from a French word(abatre) meaning to "destroy/put an end to".It seems to have gained currency (even in Stornoway) with those of us who prefer to see our sirloin steak tastefully packaged and displayed in the shops. An abattoir by any other name is a gruesome and hellish place,and yet as a 15 year old with George,I didn't really flinch at what I saw.I once visited Dachau "extermination" camp,near Munich in Germany,and I can tell you that I would never visit such a place again. After what I saw in Stornoway's slaughterhouse,I could never ever revisit such a place,nor will I now recall what I saw there. Suffice to say that we collected two bags of sheep/cattle offal to feed the minks in Dalmore. After collecting the usual "proveeshons",only obtainable in the town(for the womenfolk,that is),a visit to the Star Inn was the rule(for the menfolk,that is). In our case,it was whisky for Seoras and a"sarsaparilla" for the boy. Remember,this 15 year old boy had to drive the A.35 van over to the West Side,but was only allowed to steer until we reached Dalmore road end,when I took over full control for the last mile into Dalmore. After a "te bheag" or two,we were off back home, and another batch of mink food had to be prepared. All of the equipment needed for the feed was housed in a purpose built "house" which we called "taigh na mhink",what else. The correct amounts of fish and offal were minced/ground in a large machine,and to this mulch,various other things were added to maintain the mink in the peak of health - an oil(perhaps olive oil),a coarse grain,and a mixture of minerals and vitamins essential for animals that lived entirely in captivity. This slurry mixture had to be of the right consistancy to be placed on top of the cage for the minks to feed,and perhaps for a few death defying seagulls.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Mating of Minks - Lost in the Blink of an Eye.

The mating of minks is said to be the "fastest" in the animal kingdom,but I've heard murmurs among the matrons of Shawbost. When the season is right,the designated male has his box attached to the far end of her cage(the mating hasn't started yet - although the wording might suggest it). The metal doors on each cage are simultaneously opened, and the big male gets the first look at his "brammer". In a few seconds,it appears that a maelstrom has inhabited the cage. There is a chase in progress,covering every inch of the cage,including the "roof", but to us all,it is a blur. Somewhere, and at a time known only to the minks(of course),union occurs and the male instantly high-tails it to the safety of his home,thereby avoiding a severe mauling from his "girl friend". "Ruith na oidhche" was a bit like that, if the father got a hold of you. If the mating went to plan,one could expect between 6 and 8 kittens. In theory,two amorous mink could return 3 or 4 times their own number. In practice,survival rates were nowhere near such ratios. Selective breeding gave rise to many different colours and hues of mink offspring. I used to know many of the colours'names,but only "sapphire" and "breath of spring" come to mind now. The mink were "humanely" killed using a special box and carbon monoxide from the car's exhaust. No physical means of killing could be used,as this would damage the mink's pelt and render it useless for sale. All of this took place(thankfully)when I was not in Dalmore,but Seoras told me how difficult it was to remove the mink pelt in exactly the way that was prescribed by those in London, who graded and valued them. I remember that a pelt on average would fetch about £12(a fair sum in 1956). The pelting and the curing of pelts required a lot of skill,infinite care and a lot of experience. If you got it wrong,you stood to lose a lot of money. So,no matter how well you cared for your mink when alive,it was the colour and quality of the dead mink's pelt that determined success or failure in this endeavour. I remember George saying that ,all things being equal,he would need about 500 mink for a viable farm,and that alone would take a lot of money.
A wild mink, after a kill,prefers to eat the internal organs of its prey ie.its heart,liver,kidneys etc. It rarely bothers to eat flesh. I remember once (the only time I can recall) a male mink escaped from its cage in Dalmore,unbeknown to us. Within a short time(perhaps 1 or 2 hours),an irate crofter arrived from Garenin(which is about 2 miles across the moor), to tell us that the black(****)mink had slaughtered over 20 of his hens, before he realised a carnage was taking place in his hen-run. The mink had only eaten the offal of a few hens - the remainder he killed "for sport". This cost Seoras quite a bit,and I don't recall what happened to the mink.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Mink - A Ruthless Killing Machine.

The mink's box was a wooden hutch,with a sloping roof and a waterproofed felt cover,hinged to open, to allow handling of the mink (only with special large gloves). A sliding metal door was built into the front of the box,when the mink required to be isolated eg.when cleaning the cage or after a "supersonic" mating session. Again,Seoras had everything worked out for me assembling the mink boxes. Measurements and angles were standardised,and all the tools were at hand - Black&Decker rotary electric saw(with angle guide),hammer,nails,felt tacks,sheet metal cutters,Stanley knife.I'm only giving these details for those DIY aficionados that enthuse about such matters,because I myself was very enthusiastic about the mink boxes and cages back in 1956. So,five years after "the electric" was switched on in the "dailean",there was I ripping up planks of pine with an electric saw! The mink boxes/cages were housed over in the "leis" in croft No.6 in long roofed stands,in parallel arrangement. The female mink were much smaller than their male counterparts,and were lightening fast in their movements,and could traverse their cage in a matter of milliseconds. You did not stick your finger through the hexagonal mesh,as a test of reaction speeds - never,ever! What I am about to recount illustrates the speed and tenacity of the female mink. The mink's prepared food was placed at a top corner of the cage furthest from its box,so that it stretched up to feed,with its sharp little nose protruding no more than one,perhaps two centimetres(at a push)through the wire mesh. Being beside the sea,there were always gulls around,and some of these would swoop to take a beakful of the mink's feed. One day while we were feeding the mink,a seagull,descending very slowly and hovering just above a cage, allowed one of its webbed feet to enter the top of the cage through the mesh,just for an instant. The mink's response was immediate;it now held the seagull's leg and was pulling it further into the cage. The gull's wings were flapping wildly,aiming to escape,but in a short time the mink's teeth had transferred to the bird's "undercarriage" and was eating its vital organs,with the gull still flapping its wings,albeit very slowly now. The death of this seagull occurred when it offered the mink a very small "window of opportunity",about 1 or 2 centimetres of the mesh's diameter. The death of the unfortunate bird was not intended as a piece of gratuitous violence. It merely illustrates the deadly killing machine that is the mink.

Friday, 5 December 2008

A Home Fit For Courting Minks.

You will remember that each summer,during our holiday in Dalmore,our Uncle Shonnie would set us up (an unfortunate phrase)with a "Big Job" that would take up a good proportion of our holiday time viz. taking home the peats by horse and cart. You will recall that in negotiating a price for this contract,Shonnie knew that he could not engage us for less than £1 (each)."You drive a hard bargain",was all he would say.
Doing the bobbins for the tweeds(5 shillings per tweed)or selling fishing net floats to my "agent" in Stornoway(1 shilling each)were looked upon as private enterprise,which was encouraged.as long as it didn't interfere with the "Big Job" or the "iteachan".Working for George at the minks was to see my income double, because making a box and cage, together earned me another 5 shillings.The young kids in the village could only stand and stare at the sight of "Spangles" and "Palm Toffee" sticking out of all the pockets of my dungarees,when I returned from town "on business". At times like this,my young friends appreciated my largesse with the "siucarean". I could appreciate how Carnegie must have felt!
I was involved in most aspects of George's mink business. To start with,I made the hutches and cages for the mink,and in doing so,earned good money. The mink cages were made of a strong hexagonal wire mesh,whose diameter would allow only about half an inch of mink nose to poke through. Any more than that - it would be goodbye fingers. Wire cutters, pliers and metal ring ties were employed in the construction of these cuboidal cages,which were big enough for the mink to move about freely. They had to be carefully made to prevent escape,with no sharp protrusions that would damage the animal's pelt. The hutch (or box) would be attached at one end,and a door provided at the other end when the male mink came "a'dean suiridhe" (came courting).
Now you must not think that I devised and planned the cages and boxes myself. Seoras had all the measurements and templates written down for me,and when he saw that I could do a proper job,he let me get on with it. By doing this,Seoras inspired confidence,and you felt a useful member of the team.
I'll continue with the minks in my next post.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Fifty years later, We meet on Loch Awe.

For some years now I have fished Loch Awe for trout , on a boat hired from Donald at Ardbreknish. The loch is about 25 miles long,and it takes a "dog left" at its northern end, past the Cruachan Power Station outflow,terminating at the barrage in the Pass of Brander.Here the loch is very narrow,where the hills plunge almost vertically into the waters. This allows us to fish very close to the loch's sides. Two months ago,near the end of the trout season,we were in the Pass of Brander fishing close to its south side,when only a few yards from me,I "espied" a long sleek black animal travelling parallel with us,and in our direction. It had been a long time(nearly fifty years)since I had seen a mink,but never in the wild. I recognised this long black "weasel-like" animal as a male mink, with its neat whiskered head and its undulating gait as it moved alongside us. We observed it at close quarters for about five minutes,and throughout, it was was completely unfazed. As I said, I'd seen minks a long time ago,hundreds of them,but all were in cages(well,most of the time)and all of them in Dalmore. Fifty years on,the American mink has acquired a very bad press indeed,and nowhere more than in the Outer Hebrides,where a programme of eradication was instituted some years ago. Mink farms were set up in Lewis in the period 1955-1960,but there were only a few. This was a labour intensive and costly enterprise in which Seoras wholly immersed himself, over a period of years. With the rise of the anti-fur lobby,and the vast financial investments needed to push the business into profit,the future looked bleak for Britain's mink farms. Over this period,mink did accidently escape into the wild,but there were accusations that during the closure of some farms,mink were deliberately released,as the killing and pelting of these mink would incur a lot of expense, with no return. I find that hard to believe, as farmers especially would know how vicious and destructive the mink can be,and how devastating it would be for indigenous wildlife.
We will see how Seoras' minks fared in Dalmore.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Learning to Drive the Usual and the Unusual.

In Dalmore,I got the opportunity to drive various motorised vehicles,without any licence and with no interference from the authorities. Anyway, you could not obtain a licence at 13 years of age. In a way,I had gained some experience with the horse and cart taking the peats home from "cul Dhaile Mor". It was only natural to progress to the "horseless carriage",the motor car - Seoras' motor car,the only one in Dalmore,an Austin A35 van,grey in colour with windows all round. I loved that little car with its flying A "mascot" at the front of its bonnet. Firstly I learned to steer the car by leaning across from the front passenger seat,while George operated everything else - gears,clutch,brakes and accelerator. Such dual controlled driving was restricted to the Carloway district,where the local police constable might not notice,or might even turn a blind eye! Later,as my steering competence improved,this dual controlled little van might be found on any single track road on the island. At times,as we motored past another car in a passing place,it could prove disconcerting for the other driver,as George acknowledged him waving both hands in the air. In time I was shown how to operate all of the controls,and by driving to and from the Mullach Beag just outside the village, Seoras was confident I could handle his Austin van. I often took it for a spin out to the Dalmore road end,and back.
George certainly was an innovator, and if proof were needed,his purchase of a two-wheeled tractor settled the matter. This was a miniature machine less than half the size of your regular tractor,whose engine,gearbox etc. was mounted centrally between two dinky wee tractor wheels and shod with wee tractor tyres. Red in colour,it had two long handles like those you'ld see on the lawnmowers they used at the Oval Cricket Ground,brakes as on a bicycle's handlebars,and you steered it carefully like you would any powerful wee two-wheeled bogie. Also on the handles were the clutch lever,and a lever for setting direction and speed - forward slowly,forward very slightly faster, and reverse. As far as I know Seoras only used this strange machine for carrying things. He connected the mini tractor to a trailer he had built himself, with a platform seat up front. It was a powerful wee thing which served us well at the peats and the hay. These were happy times with Seoras, my pal.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Daffodils in Dalmore.

One of Seoras' projects was "na bulbichean",a crude gallicisation for "the bulbs",being of course daffodil bulbs,which were to be propogated, and the resulting harvest sold for profit. I was surprised to see that there is a Gaelic word for the "daffodil" which can only have come into our lexicon,when in times past, Gaelic was spoken throughout a large part of mainland Scotland. I have seen the yellow iris down by the allt,the honeysuckle growing on the side of the beinn,and even some beautiful little orchids growing out on the mointeach,but I don't believe the daffodil to be indiginous to Lewis(I may be wrong). I've looked up the dictionary,which says that "a daffodil bulb" is succintly expressed in Gaelic as "bun cruinn a lus-a-chrom-chinn". I'm sure Seoras knew that,but if you were in a hurry, "na bulbichean" would do. The bulbs project was one of George's later enterprises,when I was a student hitch-hiking on the "Continent"(today it's called An Roinn Eorpa). So Seoras was without my "help" during the next successive summers. The original daffodil bulbs must have come from the Fens of East Anglia,and since the daffodil is propogated by the creation of further bulbs,in theory one should obtain a substantial yield on one's outlay. Seoras made use of that fertile half acre down on the machair,where the bulbs were cultivated and harvested. The "Daffy project" was not a success(I know not why), and after a few years was abandoned. I believe that there were some others in Lewis who were seduced by the lure of gold in "bun cruinn a lus-a-chrom-chinn". Some bulbs(overspill from the machair)were planted in front of George's house at No.8 Dalmore,so that for many years thereafter,there was/is each spring/summer a beautiful display of narcissi "anns a'leos bhuidhe Dhail a'Mhor". What better memorial to Seoras'enterprise than the yearly show of daffodils in front of the house built for George and his wife Mary.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

George Macleod. Innovator and Craftsman.

In recent years, a new breed of crofter has settled in Lewis,people with no ancestral ties to the island who came seeking a better life for themselves and their families. They may be called "na Gall" (Gael.foreigners),but in some villages they were like the blast of oxygen sometimes needed to revive the patient. As a general rule,the "good lifers" domain is readily identifiable. Attached to the end of the croft house is a small "greenhouse" fashioned from wood and plastic sheeting,where tomato plants and peppers are grown. There may be half a dozen cloches in the near vicinity and a variety of farmyard animals free to wander the croft - goats,poultry,ducks and for those with equestrian ambitions for their children,a horse. I wish such people "bon chance" in their search for the "good life".
Actually, Seoras Dhomhnull Chalum (George Macleod,8 Dalmore)was quite a breath of fresh air himself. He brought to our village things that had never probably been seen there before.He acquired ducks and drakes, and for his efforts got beautiful eggs of duck shell blue,of course,and sometimes little ducklings which went swimming in the "allt" with their mother. Later he bought a pair of nanny goats(for milk,I suppose),and I remember they were called Daisybelle and Marybelle(I think) and I can still see them standing at the corner of the house to be milked by Mairi Long, Seoras'wife. They were smelly creatures who would gladly eat your Harris Tweed guernsey,given the chance. True to goat mythology,they could give you a fair "dunt" from behind. I didn't like the taste of goat's milk then,and I don't like it now. Still,the goats were a novelty for me,and a first for our village in the district. In such things,Seoras was "ahead of the curve" - a phrase so often used today. Seoras would have given today's good lifers a run for their money. He was a skilled craftsman in wood and metal and many of his artefacts can be found in homes,far and wide. George's piece de resistance was the spinning wheel,which he so beautifully crafted in different sizes and in a variety of woods. I remember being asked by George to deliver a full sized, working spinning wheel to the textiles department of the Glasgow School of Art,which they had ordered. It was an exact copy of the spinning wheel that had been used by Bodach Glass,my grandfather. The art school were delighted to receive such a beautiful piece of George's craftsmanship.
Still to come - hosts of golden daffodils,sapphires,a breath of spring and a two-wheeled tractor - and then some more.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Seoras Dhomhnull Chalum.

In previous posts,I have acknowledged the influence of certain people I knew, for whom the stories of times past were important, and who would happily recount these in the ceilidh house or to an eager student like myself. These were the "seanachean" of my times(those who recorded,recited the histories and traditions of the past). Some were stories of this world,but in the birthplace of the Brahan Seer,one would expect tales of the "second sight", prophecies uttered,and strange supernatural happenings. No one influenced me more in these and other matters,than my old friend,the late George Macleod,8 Dalmore(Seoras Dhomhnull Chalum). I always found Seoras to be a very interesting man,a person of many talents who was entrepreneurial,who was by definition a "modern man"(not too many of those around in the Lewis of the 1950s and 60s). Seoras taught me many things, with a quiet patience, and in a way which was instructive,interesting and often useful. Seoras would regale me with the tales of old Dalmore,the people he'd been told about and their way of life. As many people may be aware,Seoras composed many songs about our village and its people,and in them it is clear how much he loved Dalmore. George was an intelligent man,who never received the school education which he and others deserved. Seoras would always talk to me as an adult,explaining things and showing me how they worked. Essentially,George had all the qualities to be found in a good teacher,and I was a dedicated pupil. I will have much to say about Seoras in the posts that follow.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Murdo has a Taste for "Drambuie".

Murchadh Shoudie(remember Murchadh am Phost)would take his turn on alternate years,going to Stornoway with the wool. Well,that was the arrangement until shame and opprobrium befell Murdo, "a fear ruadh"(the Red One). I witnessed his fall from grace. On this trip to Stornoway to sell the wool,everything went as one would expect until Murdo,with Seoras and me in attendance,passed through the portals of the Star Inn. Murdo did not have the capacity for liquor that his brother Iain had,but it has to be said that he relished its taste. Iain was "urbane and socially adept" and always kept an eye on "Red". I can still see Murdo at the top end of the bar,getting in the first round for Seoras and himself. Mine was a half pint of "lemonade". Murdo went all posh,and ordered a double Drambuie (yes,I know,a liqueur). It seemed that when Murdo was in town, out of sight of brother John,he liked to imbibe the Jacobite spirit of Charles Edward Stuart. He ordered these double Drambuies,pronouncing their Gaelic name with gusto - "An Dram Buidheach" . After a few more doubles,Murdo was becoming a cause for concern. After his ninth double Drambuie,Murdo collapsed backwards like a falling chimney stack,and it was good fortune that someone was there to break his fall.Seoras was more than concerned now,as blame in these situations is often unfairly levelled at the "innocents". 'An Shoudie's "hooch" had still to be bought at "Buth Henderson",and "Red" delivered to 4 Dalmore in one piece. I still remember Seoras' van approaching the gate at the bottom of the long grassy "leathad"(slope)at No.4,not knowing what to expect. Looking up the hill towards taigh Shoudie,I could see Iain standing in the doorway,and looking over to taigh Glass,I could see my mother(The Commander)standing at the barn door. I don't think they had invented the saying at that time,but if they had, Seoras and I were truly "between a rock and a hard place". Murdo somehow got out of the van,navigated his way past the gate,all this time carrying the precious cargo,with his arms holding it to his chest. A few steps further,and Murdo toppled forward on the grass,still holding the "proveeshons" to his chest. Before we could come to his aid,'An Shoudie was racing down the leathad and was now standing over his brother,"Red". He very carefully turned Murdo over,prised the bag from his grip,and started slowly back up the hill,leaving Murdo lying there looking up at the sky. Seoras and I decided against visiting taigh Shoudie for a good couple of days. Later, we found out that the Glenlivet etc.had survived the crash,and that the giant pork chops went as usual into the soup.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Balaich Shoudie sell their Wool.

There was a time when a sheep's fleece would fetch a decent price ,which made the business of shearing sheep worthwhile. Today,a pound of wool fetches a mere few pennies,and the only reason one can see for using the "deamhais"(shears)is for the comfort of the animal. Why the price of wool has all but evaporated, I am not sure,but try buying a Pringle woollen sweater and it is impossible to reconcile its inflated price with the pittance paid for the wool.
Back in the mid 50s,wool commanded a good price,and for my Maclennan uncles("Balaich Shoudie"),the day they went to sell the year's wool at the Stornoway tweed mills was a day to remember,or not ,as the case might be. Murdo and Iain took it in turn,year about, to sell the wool in town,and undertake some other essential business.For such an outing,smart/casual was the dress order of the day - light pullover over what they now call a "grandad" shirt,navy blue jacket,grey trousers and black shoes. The best cap(not the everyday cap with the stained sweatband)topped all,and was worn at a jaunty angle. It was amazing that the "balaich" could emerge from that "taigh dubh" looking so clean and smart. On the big occasions like weddings or trips to Glasgow,Iain Shoudie donned full "Chicago" dress of dark suit,paper collar and tie,and his wide brimmed hat was worn with the brim pulled slightly over one eye at a rakish angle. Between times,the Chicago suit was kept up in the room,hanging from a nail on the "tallan",and covered by several pages of the Daily Express. I would usually go along on this jaunt with my uncle,who would "hire" the services of Seoras and his Austin A.35 van. After all,we had a large cargo of wool going to Stornoway, and possibly a very different cargo on the way back.
Seoras would have some business of his own in town,but the first stop would be "Moulin Stickey"(Kenneth Mackenzie's mill) to sell the large bales of wool. I never went in to the mill,nor was I privy to how much the wool fetched that day. I just knew that that wool paid well,and that an enjoyable day lay ahead.Certain bills had to be paid,and "proveeshons" acquired,mainly meat, which was not readily available in Carloway.In Willie John Macdonald's shop, beef and beef sausages was the order of the day.Then it was up to Dougie Maclean's butcher shop,and here was purchased two giant pork chops,the likes of which I'd never seen before or since. Onions,carrots.turnip and possibly cabbage completed the shopping list for now,and we all would have lunch in the Royal Hotel,courtesy of the "wool man". If it was 'An Shoudie who was in town,it has to be said that I never came across anyone as well-kent in Stornoway as "himself" . Anywhere 'An Shoudie went,men from different districts seem to know him,and would engage Iain in conversation, mainly of a light hearted nature,and possibly suffused with a little gossip. "Gaireachdaich"(laughter) - it must have been heard in Portnaguran. I'm not sure why 'An Shoudie was so well got with people. He was in the RNR ,did his stints at the Battery and was in the Navy during the war. But so were many other Lewismen. Basically Iain was an extrovert and "a very funny guy",He enjoyed a drink and was very clubbable,and it was guaranteed that your day was better for having met him. It could take half an hour,sometimes,with 'An Shoudie by your side, to travel the short distance from the Royal Hotel to the Town Hall.But I didn't mind-"torr gaireachdaich"
The penultimate stop of the day was always the Star Inn on South Beach Street,where the clientele was in these days mainly "balaich a'Taobh Siar"(West Side Boys). Quite a few nips vanished "down the hatch" and at breakneck speed,while a single half pint of beer seemed to last forever. How do I know such things? Well, this young lad sat in the far corner,watching the action and nursing my own half pint of "lemonade". On the way out of town,somewhere along Bayhead,George's van came to a halt,as if through conditioning. On the opposite side of the road was "Buth Henderson",Stornoway's only licensed grocer(as far as I know),and no sheepman straight from a sale, could pass it by without stocking up. Murdo,Iain's brother,would expect a carry out,and in this he was never disappointed. It invariably consisted of a bottle of Glenlivet whisky,six screwtops of beer, a 20 packet of Capstan Full Strength and another pack of Senior Service cigarettes. And of course,there were the giant pork chops to look forward to.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Iain Mor na Cnamhan.

Iain Mor na Cnamhan was a big man in every sense of the word. After an education in Carloway and at the Nicolson in Stornoway,John Maciver left Dalmore to join the Metropolitan Police in London,and within time,rose to high rank, in this his chosen career. He married a beautiful and delightful lady,a Londoner called Celia,who worked as a telephonist with the B.B.C. They had twins,John and Joan,who like us,spent every summer holiday in Dalmore. More so,they spent the whole of WW2 with their grandparents in Dalmore,away from the Blitz and the frightening V1 and V2 bombs. Through necessity they spent this time away from their mother,Celia, who related to my mother the impossible situation which arose when the twins were returned to London at war's end. Here was a mother who could not understand a word spoken by her children(they spoke only Gaelic),and children transported to an alien environment,now living with a woman whose language was utterly foreign to them. Celia spent a couple of years of hardship,getting the children to accept her,and educating them all over again in English. The strange thing is that ever after,John and Joan could neither speak nor understand a word of Gaelic.
Big John rose to the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent at Scotland Yard and was in charge of many high profile cases including the "Jack Spot" London gangster case,and the Ruth Ellis murder investigations. Ruth Ellis was the last woman to hang in Britain,in 1955. John Maciver was in his time Master Mason of London. Any time we were staying in London or travelling on to mainland Europe,we would stay in Colindale with Celia and John,and we were always welcomed like family. I remember once being driven by John, with Celia at his side, to Euston Station to catch a Saturday evening train back to Glasgow.It was the end of the Glasgow Fair Holiday,and the station was packed with a multitude of people. John navigated his large black saloon through this throng to the station's main entrance. A young London bobby approached the car,and told John firmly but politely that he could not enter and would need to reverse. John said nothing,and his expression remained unchanged. Reaching into a waistcoat pocket,John showed the bobby what was obviously his warrant card."Just follow me,sir.Make way for this car".I felt like a thousand pounds.
P.S. The first time I tasted a mushroom was in Dalmore. Celia,on holiday one year in Dalmore,had espied large mushrooms high up on croft No.10,under the hill. I asked John and Joan why they were harvesting those large saucer like objects. "Come over to the house and you'll see". When I tried my first fried mushroom,it tasted like a juicey piece of steak - truely delicious,although it would be many years on before mushrooms appeared on my plate again.

The Two Annies and the Horse Treatment.

Anna na Cnamhan (Annie Maciver)was one of my mother's best friends,the other being Phemie Galbraith from Acharacle,whom she met during her days in the New Club in Glasgow. Anna na Cnamhan was also known as Annie Bones or Annie Smith,her own proper married name. Ages with my mother,and coming like her from Dalmore, they were in the same class throughout their time in Carloway School. In a class photograph(courtesy of the Carloway Historical Society),Annie appears as a sweet faced "doll"in ringlets,and attired in the most beautiful dress. These were the words of my mother,who had straight hair and no ringlets. "She was the only girl in the Cnamhan's family,and the youngest,and they really treated her like a doll",said my mother without the least hint of jealousy. They both went to Glasgow,where their friendship was further cemented,and they were regular visitors in each other's house. Annie would come to our house in Renfrew for a "sleepover",and bless them,they were just like two young girls again,crying with laughter underneath a pile of Harris Tweed blankets. I remember visiting my mother one Saturday afternoon and noticing that she looked very tired."A graidh,I'm knackered(unaware of this word's etymology,I think).Annie Smith was here yesterday, and we talked and laughed right through the night". I didn't stay too long.
I recall that one of the two Annies came across an article in the Sunday Post,concerning a treatment used by veterinary surgeons in equine "arthritis". The Annies were fellow sufferers of arthritis,and were always on the lookout for novel treatments. The Sunday Post was an invaluable source of modern medical advances. Now,Lewis ladies are never far from expert advice(there are many Ph.Ds around),and through the offices of one such person,they acquired a winchester full of this potent liquid,which would see to their aches and pains once and for all. The fair skin of these ladies are far removed from the hide of a horse,as they were to discover,and the experiment was immediately abandoned. No further mention was made of "the horse treatment" by Anna Glass or her pal Anna na Cnamhan That did not stop me and others from enquiring if there was anything new in the Sunday Post.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

John Maciver. "Na Cnamhan"

While I could never understand the origins of the names "Glass" and "Shoudie" for my two grandfathers,the nickname, "Na Cnamhan", for old John Maciver(10 Dalmore)was at least explicable by virtue of his rangy appearance. Tall and thin, Iain was known as "Na Cnamhan",which translates as "the bones". Note the use of the plural here. We are not talking of a single bone,but a collection. Addressed in the first person,he was known as Iain,but otherwise it was always "Na Cnamhan"(Bones). "Taigh na Cnamhan" was the last house as you left the village,and was the only other "taigh gheal" (white house)in Dalmore, when I was a young boy. Na Cnamhan and his wife had connections in Carloway and Doune(I think),and he was one of the original ten to secure a croft in Dalmore in the early 1920s. I only knew Iain and his wife to see them in the kitchen of No.10,but I do recall his slow sonorous voice. Seoras and Iain Shoudie,my uncle,were testament of Na Cnamhan's quick,and at times acerbic wit,delivered in a slow monotone.
They had a family of four boys(Donald,John,Murdo,Archie) and one girl,Annie,the youngest,who was ages with my own mother(Anna Glass). Donald married one of Seoras'sisters and they settled in Stornoway. Mudd na Cnamhan(Murdo),whom I often spoke to while he was weaving, married a beautiful woman from Shawbost called Mairi Anna,and they went off to live in Barvas. The one member of the family who looked like his father and with a similar physique was Archie,who inherited the croft,and whom I got to know well. Archie lived up to the "Cnamhan" moniker. He was tall,thin and gangly,but could he move on these long legs of his? He had a fine turn of phrase,very dry and very witty. He was a likeable man. Archie obtained his driving licence later in life(like many others in the district)and bought himself a Bedford Dormobile van,de rigeur among the fashionistas of the island,the whaling fraternity. Archie,I don't think,ever mastered the proper use of a car's clutch,and consequently his van travelled along the roads in a peculiar series of leaps and shudders. One tended to pull into the first available passing place at the sight of Archie's chariot in the distance. Maybe this was the reason for Archie's unblemished driving record. Archie often called into Taigh Shoudie for a wee bit morning ceilidh,and even the odd dram.
Archie was called up as a private in the Cameron Highlanders during WW2,and he was one of the unfortunates to be captured at St.Valery in France,when the entire 51st Highland Division were taken by the Germans in 1940. When Archie returned to Lewis after his captivity,he was literally a bag of bones, and very weak. Still,years of good Lewis feeding,especially from his wife Chrissie,was to put that to rights.
N.B. It was only recently that I realised that the Gaelic for Archibald was "Gilleasbuig",which means the "follower of the bishop". Now boys,don't fret. This was in pre-reformation days. A bit more on Clann na Cnamhan in the next post.