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!

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