Dalmore Daytime

Dalmore Daytime
Sandy Beach

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!!