Dalmore Daytime

Dalmore Daytime
Sandy Beach

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Thistles and Peats - Very Big Jobs.

When we, Glasgow Highlanders(well,actually Renfrew Highlanders)travelled to Lewis on our long summer vacation,"a`dol dhachaidh"(going home)was what we believed. Given that only 8 weeks out of 52 were spent in Lewis,why did we look on this island of moor and heather as our "home",when in reality, the city,with its slickness and "otherworldliness",was where we were raised? It was,as they say,The Land of Our Fathers,and that is not something you can easily shake off.Being back home,we sort of metamorphosed into "little islanders" almost entirely. A well known saying in Lewis ,according to my Uncle Shonnie,was that "all play and no work is fine if you live in Stornoway". I never grasped this aphorism,and suspect he just invented it for us. These long summer days offered young hands many job opportunities,and on a croft at that time of year,work could be varied and interesting. Anyway, that's what Shonnie always maintained. Actually,he was correct,and being, even then the budding businessman,he always paid us an agreed rate for the job. Tending the cattle,for example,or helping with the harvest involved every member of the family from 9 years to 90. These were not looked upon as "jobs" by us. These were essential to the life of every crofting family. When my brother Donald and I had attained the "age of responsibility",my uncle,being the sole judge of when that was,would allocate us a large task,which,spending 3 or 4 hours per day on it,would take up a good part of the vacation. For this kind of "job",a price was agreed between my uncle and us. The tools of the job were always provided by the employer,my uncle. Two of these "Big Jobs" stick in my mind. My uncle had a half acre down by the machair which produced that year a bumper crop of hay,but unfortunately mixed in with the hay there was a bumper crop of thistles. He had scythed the hay and our Big Job was to remove all the nasty thistles,because cows and sheep are not too keen on them.But you couldn't fault Shonnie,even then, on health and safety grounds. He had purchased two pairs of huge leather/padded gloves,just for us,and these he presented to us in the middle of the thistle field. Our wee hearts sank at the enormity of the task,but ,as it happens(especially when you're young),we had lots of laughs,lots of sun and the gratitude of my uncle,when the job was done. But ,honestly,I can think of better ways of getting a laugh.
The biggest "Big Job" we were ever given was when I would be about 12 and Donald my brother was 15 years old. The peat which is burned in these island is a fossil fuel "half way" to being coal. It is cut,dried and stacked, and in these days(early 1950s)one needed a lorry to carry the peats home from the peat bogs,which might be a few miles distant. Over and above the cost of the lorry and driver,you would need perhaps 12-15 people to lend a hand for the day,providing lunch and dinner for them,and when it came to their turn "for the lorry",you were obliged to reciprocate by turning to,on that day. All in all,it could be a costly business! Now,if two willing souls were engaged and were provided with a good strong horse and a suitable cart,and if time was available,well,would that not save a lot of money,and provide two young men with the best ever opportunity of demonstrating the presbyterian work ethic.Shonnie had made extra high sides for the cart to eliminate "steidhich" ie. building the outside of the peat stack on the cart,using peats as interlocking "bricks" to hold a greater load. "Steidhich" was beyond us anyway(an art in itself),and all we required to do was to throw hundreds of peats into this voluminous cart,and Jimmy, our beautiful horse, would do the rest. Of course, this the biggest of the Big Jobs would have to be agreed upon,and an appropriate fee set through negotiation. Shonnie sent us outside to discuss a price for the job,and then to put it to him. Donald(aged15) suggested ten shillings(50p). "Are you crazy?", I(aged12) said."We are not doing it for anything less than a pound(100p)each.Donald's eyes lit up and suggested we return to the negogiating table immediately. I ,of course as head honcho, told Shonnie that we would not take on this project for anything less than £1. "Well,well" he said "you drive a hard bargain,but I agree - £1 each." I wondered many times afterwards why, in agreeing to our stiff terms,a faint smile played on his lips. It took many trips, many miles and many weeks before Jimmy,Donald and I got all the peats "home" to 5 Dalmore. The strange thing was that we each got a bonus of £9. Imagine!

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Iain Shoudie. Dalmore's Doctor Dolitlle.

I would be sitting on the "being" (pron. baen-ke)in my uncles'house "suas a'leathad",as folks referred to Taigh Shoudie (Gael. up the slope). The "being" could be found in all black houses of this vintage. It was a long sturdy wooden bench that ran down half the length of the living room wall. It was where visitors on ceilidh would find a seat(6-8 persons).It was also where you would find two adults,toe-to-toe,enjoying a well earned "forty winks". Sitting on the end of the being nearest the door,the picture in front of me was one of warmth,mutual trust and happiness.You don't see a picture like this very often.On either side of the peat fire sat my uncles,one reading a book by the Tilley lamp,the other humming a pipe tune,his fingers playing an imaginary chanter. Lying or sitting in front of the fire,you would often see the three house cats, and Julia the "sheepdog". You might think that Julia was a strange name for a "Gaelic speaking" dog,and you would be right. To call Julia a sheepdog was truly a misnomer - she looked the part,but showed little aptitude in doing what was laid down in her genes. To be fair to Julia,a working dog usually has a name of one syllable( Sweep,Ben,Toss). Julia,with three syllables,would have been handicapped from the outset,other things being equal. Anyhow, Julia looked on herself as "cu`daonna"(a human dog). Sitting beside her pal Iain, was Kenny(Coinneach)Iceland,who would appear if the weather was rough or the rabbits scarce. He was a big grey tabby cat,whose boxer's nose and "moth-eaten" ears were testament to his past scrapes in the rabbit warrens.Iain would give him warm milk and bits of fish and would seat him in front of the fire,beside his leg. Iain would call his name "A' Choinneach!" and Kenny would respond with prolonged purring that simply said "Thanks". After a day or two,Kenny would leave and might not return again for some weeks. We called him Kenny Iceland,"the cat who came in from the cold" A good cat was Kenny! The second cat was Rupert(but always called Rupie),a thin black female with a splash of white on her nose,and four matching white "spogs"(Gael. paws). I like that word "spog" - more evocative than "paw". Stroking Rupie's back caused her to arch it in a high and unbelievable curve. She longed to talk and Iain knew what she was saying. The stories that Rupie and Iain shared - incredible! For those thinking that Rupert is not a familiar name in Gaeldom,I should point out that Iain Shoudie was wont to giving his animals strange and exotic names. The name "Rupert" came straight from the pages of the "Daily Express" newspaper,in which there was, at that time, a cartoon strip of "Rupert the Bear". The Boss,the "Springsteen"in this taigh dubh was a wee thin jet black feline called variously So-sally,Soho and Killy-soho. I have no idea in this case how she came by these names,or what inspired them. The other two cats and Julia had no problem with Soho as numero uno.She had been mother to many kittens in her time and was fiercely protective of them. She was unbelievably territorial,not merely in and around the house,but across the whole croft,and I do believe across the whole of this side of the village. If a dog,minding its own business,happened to walk past the gate at the bottom of the croft,Killy-Soho would take off,tail poker stiff in the air,and land on the poor dog, screaming and clawing like the legendary Kilkenny cat. This proved embarrassing if another villager,who was minded to gather in some sheep,saw his trophy dog disappear out the road at a rate of knots.
Iain Shoudie really did speak to the animals,and they to him. Iain loved to play around with words and names eg. water waffer or Bar Mars,and he had plenty of time to devote to his unique lexicon. He'd be looking into the flickering blue flame of the peat fire, smoking a roll-up,and mulling over a word or name. He would try all sorts of "variations on the same theme". To illustrate this,Julia the dog was rarely,if ever called by that name. She was always called "Stowlia"(pron. Stow(as in "vow")-li-a). Other variations,but on a different theme,were "Dullita" or "Gullita",but Stowlia was not so keen on these names,which sounded as if they had the ring of Johnnie Walker about them. I've seen Iain sitting on a bench outside,beside the pails of spring water,and calling "caora-caora" to a ewe and its lamb,beckoning them over to him(caora-caora means "sheep-sheep"). Granted,this was a bottle fed lamb of a previous year,and he was offering the ewe a piece of bread.The sheep would come right up to Iain accept the bread,give a little bleat,as if to say "It's OK,kid,this is an old friend of your mum".
Yes,Iain Shoudie was a bit of a Dolittle,with more than a touch of Peter Pan. Actually "Dolittle",when I think of it,was a very apt name for my uncle Iain Shoudie,but he was a tonic for many,and we would not have had him any other way.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Iain Mac Shoudie.

Iain Shoudie(Murdo's brother,and younger by two years),you will remember had sent his brother's paramour,back home to Breasclete,together with the calf. The war had ended,and no one would ever again come between the brothers,neither Hitler nor Hitler's wife. It could be quickly ascertained that Iain( John) was the dominant in this menage a`deux. The "big decisions" were always Iain's,and the "Red One" never demurred. Iain had a kind of savoir faire,which Murdo acknowledged. Iain was gregarious and possessed of a well-honed sense of humour."He had been around",and having served in the navy during the war,"had seen a bit of action".Murdo admired his younger brother,and was happy that he be the boss.
Iain could find the humour in most situations and run with it. He came up with sayings and composed ditties which others adopted. The taigh dubh,high up under the beinn,was a favoured house for ceilidh( Dwelly's dict."gossiping,visiting" ). There would always be tea,as black as Satan's waistcoat,some Dundee cake,"water waffers"(Jacob's Cream Crackers) or, if Iain had been rock fishing with the "slat"(long bamboo rod),there might be saithe, fried in the morning's bacon fat.This was excellent for dealing with the drams of whisky that were passed around. There were always people dropping in for a chat,and leaving with a smile on their face. Being a bachelor's house,it has to be said that, in the main, the visitors to Taigh Shoudie were men,but not exclusively.For many years their black house was the only one in Dalmore,and one of the last on the island. People from different countries(USA,France,Scandinavia,Germany),usually those who could afford the expensive ferry fare to the Hebrides,would pass through the village on their way to the well publicised beach at Dalmore. They couldn't help noticing the "authentic" black house with blue peat smoke licking the hillside. They were "just dying" to see inside the taigh dubh,and who could blame them. Murdo and John would always welcome these people who often showed their thanks in the form of a postcard,a letter or even a bottle or two, from various foreign parts.If it was entertainment you craved,then No.4 Dalmore was the taigh ceilidh,bar none. It is nearly 30 years since the roof fell in on the floor of taigh Shoudie,but people of a certain age, including myself,still remember that house with great affection.These were happy days. Iain had a way with animals which I'll mention in the next post.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

The Wedding of Mary and George in Dalmore.

I would be about 6/7 years old (1947/1948),and my two month summer idyll was just beginning in Dalmore. There was going to be the grandest of weddings ever held in this village, at any time in the past. Problem was that my sweetheart,Mairi Long (Mary Macleod from Borriston)had decided to marry Seoras Dhomhnull Chalum (George Macleod from No. 8 Dalmore). I had mentioned to "my Mary" that consanguinity could be a problem,but she assured me that they came from different "branches" of the clan . There's a lot of Macleods in Lewis. My mother was a Macleod who married a Maclennan,and they were second cousins! I should have read the signs during previous summers as I watched the most beautiful stone house rising beside the old black house at No.8,under Seorais' supervision.The stone came from the hill above the house,transported downhill by horse and dry sled to be fashioned by the stonemasons.I can still picture perhaps half a dozen fires burning on the hillside and can still smell the sweet smell of peat smoke.They built those fires around the larger stones,where the heat and the deft use of a crowbar would split the stone along the desired line. Even back then,I realised that George had more to offer Mary, and so I gave them my blessing!
Mary and George were a popular couple in the district, and their wedding would be on the grand scale. The wedding in these days was a three day affair. Firstly there was the "village wedding"(Gael. banais a' bhaile),the following day,the wedding proper(in church,never a civil ceremony),and finally on day 3,the wedding honouring the relatives of both sides(Gael. banais na cairdean). Of course,the evening of the church wedding was a massive affair which could cater for hundreds of guests.A person would be sent out to issue an invitation to a whole village,simply by word of mouth. That person issued the invitation to those in the first house he came to,and the good news spread from there. It was possible that perhaps four or five villages would descend on Dalmore for the marriage of Mary and George. This was a form of "firey cross",with love taking the place of war. Another attractive custom was, that every house on the route between the wedding house and the church,flew a white flag(sheet,pillowcase) by the road. This was an emblem of purity,and not ,as some cynics suggested,one of surrender.
People attending the wedding would hand in a chicken,some would bring a wedder(near relatives or close friends). These gifts of food were essential if the multitudes were to be fed,and were usually handed over,a day or two in advance of the nuptial feasts. The chickens were dispatched by women sittng in the open - feathers plucked,gutted and washed ready for the large steaming cauldrons,placed here and there on the hillside. Men dealt with the sheep. A great many sittings were required to feed the large number of people,and the barn in the old house is where the bride and groom entertained their many guests. The barn was transformed into a long white "cocoon" with the stone walls and roof completely covered with white sheets. Lit by oil lamps and storm lanterns,it was a truly beautiful venue. Each sitting could accommodate perhaps 30 guests and Mary and George would be present at the top of the table. It was also the custom then for people to place money in front of the bride,perhaps a one pound note,which was a decent sum in 1947/48.
The guests would be served a tasty chicken broth,chicken and mutton with potatoes and some vegetables,and "pudding". Scones,pancakes and cake were then served with tea. A whisky and a glass of beer were given to all at the table to toast the newlyweds.There would be many more sittings and a great many more "drams" before the night would end. There would be music and dancing in another part of the old "taigh dubh",eased along with some barrels of ale, and whisky, that had escaped the wives' notice. Even some ministers were known to have a "wee sensation" on a night like this.
That was certainly a wedding to remember, and what passes now for a wedding, is but a pale imitation of one of the great Highland celebrations of the past.