Monday, 26 October 2009

Tom Warrener Comes to the Rescue.

Vicky, the beautiful Persian cat, and her grown daughter Tigger, were, you remember, the city cats staying with their cousins at Taigh Glass at No. 5 Dalmore. Knowing their way around a bit better, they decided to explore the hills above the house on their own - neither Filax nor the dogs Fancy and Jura would be with them. Vicky said that they could move faster, and see more without the solicitations of Jura their "guardian", who would always caution them to be careful, and not take any risks. Well, thought Vicky, how utterly boring life would be if all you cared about was avoiding risk. Jura was a lovely dear, but could be a teeny bit conservative.
They had heard people say that the quickest way to the top of Beinn Dhala Mor was through that long passage called Sgorr Domhnall Duncan, which comprised an enormous split in the rock above Taigh Glass. Goodness, they thought, what a dreadful place. It was dark, cold and damp in the passage, and everything was covered in wet moss or lichen. It was difficult to maintain ones balance, the floor being so slippery. After a few spills in that hell-hole, they eventually emerged into the fresh air at the top of the Beinn. Tigger resolved never to take that short-cut again, and both wondered why Donald Duncan, the shepherd in times past, had chosen this awful place to say his prayers. Vicky and Tigger jumped from stone to stone to cross the Allt Garbh, which that morning did not live up to its name (fierce river), and climbed further to Beinn Bhrag, the highest point of these hills. ( Gael. 'brag' Eng. herd of deer). Deer? - not for a long time. There is another place in Dalmore with a 'deer name' called "Cnoc na Fheidh", (hillock of the deer) beside the east side of Loch Langavat. So, in times past, there were certainly deer here in Dalmore. The view from Beinn Bhrag was magnificent, the more so because our cats were city born and bred. Tigger and her mum rested here for a while, less through tiredness, more in appreciation of the vista before them. From this very spot they could see lochs, rivers, hills, sea cliffs and two beautiful beaches. As they sat there they became aware of a large bird circling high above them, making high pitched cries which left them feeling uneasy. This was no blackbird nor finch which they often hunted around the neat hedgerows, back in suburbia. This was a huge bird which came ever closer each time it swept past them. Vicky and Tigger came to the same conclusion and at the same time. Here was a giant raptor which was capable of taking and killing either one or both of them. This was not a raven or a hawk, and they decided to move away quietly and hide from this fearful bird. It was only later that Iain Shoudie told them that what they had witnessed was a golden eagle over in the Ghearraidh, where it often builds its huge eyrie. The golden eagle is the largest bird of prey in Britain.
Later, they made their way out the beinn, until the big bird dropped out of sight. Here, Tigger decided to climb down from the Beinn and explore the hill opposite, Cnoc a' Choin (The hill of the dogs). She did not expect to meet any, but what a strange name for a hill, in the back of beyond ! Below the hill on the other side was a slow flowing "allt" (stream), and on it what had been a building erected a long time ago. There were two large granite stones still in place, and later she was to learn that this was a corn mill used by the old people of Garenin in times past. Tigger spent some time here on Allt na Muilne ( The River of the Mills), only to realise that she hadn't heard from Vicky for some time now. She retraced her steps to the point on the Beinn where she last saw her mother. Vicky was not there, nor anywhere else along the length of the hill. She did not respond to Tigger's repeated loud cries, and this began to worry her a lot. At times like this, it is natural to think of worse case scenarios. Up here on Beinn Dhala Mor, home to the giant golden eagle, it was easy to conjure up a dreadful outcome. Then there were mink, ferocious and deadly killers, whom some said had escaped from their "farm". Our beautiful Victoria was in mortal danger, if not found soon.

Tigger returned to Dalmore at great speed, and raised the alarm. Every cat and dog from every house was mobilised, and search parties organised to cover the whole of that side of the village. Many hours were spent on these searches, but to no avail, and darkness was falling fast. If she was still alive, Vicky would have to spend a cold dark night out on the hill alone. At dawn next morning, as the parties were organising that day's search, Kenny Iceland, the rabbit hunter from the other side of the glen, cleared his throat and asked permission to speak. Jura said that this was a democracy, and of course they would all listen to what Coinneach(Kenneth) had to say.

Kenny:" Let's all think now ! Who knows the Beinn and the Gearraidh best of all ? Who virtually spends all their time there, knows every hillock, every peat bog and of course every rabbit warren."
Everyone knew to whom Kenny alluded, but that guy wasn't here.
Filax: " Kenny, we all know whom you mean, but Navy Tom is a bit of a loner, and can be almost impossible to find in the hills. To be sure, if anyone can locate Vicky, Tom is our man. We would have to find him, before we stood a chance of finding Vicky."

Kenny: " Tom and I are in the same game. We are warreners. Tom does one side of the glen, and I do the other. Our hunting techniques are identical and I feel that I could find Tom up there on the Beinn in pretty short time, since time's of the essence."
It didn't take Kenny long to find Big Tom. He emerged from a rabbit hole, his big smiling face covered in sand, looking very much like that cratur Bagpuss we hear the children talk about. The hunt was on, Tom in the vanguard, and the others at a distance behind, so as not to prejudice Tom's amazing sense of smell . After a little time, on top of Beinn Ia' Ruadh, Tom was seen to freeze where he stood, and then made a sort of low strangled call. To the amazement of every one in the search party, they heard a faint call from a cleft in a rock, close by. It was our Victoria, and she was stuck fast between two rocks, with only her tail protruding. She was in a dreadful state, but still in one piece, as far as Tom could make out.
Tom: "Now, Vicky, the only way we're going to get you out is if I get a grip of your tail in my mouth, and someone takes hold of my tail, and we pull together. What do you think, Old Girl ?""
Vicky: "Never mind the "Old Girl", Tom. Do what you have to, but do it quickly and go easy on that gorgeous Persian tail. " Tom had to smile to himself.
Vicky was soon out,and the large group of cats licked our lady clean, well, as clean as a "cat lick" could. Auntie Dolly gave Vicky a proper bath and dried her at the big peat fire with a warm towel. Hot milk and a lovely piece of haddock, and our beautful Persian was fast asleep.
When Tom, Kenny and the others thought of what might have happened, they were chastened but comforted to know that Vicky was now safe and sound asleep by the fire. But no one ever again mentioned that Navy Tom had our Vicky by the tail, unless he did so himself !

Thursday, 22 October 2009

How Did The Romans Get Into Our Story ?

Three cats and a black labrador dog from a city suburb have exchanged the home comforts of their neat estate semi for a wild glen on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Here in the village of Dalmore, their home for the coming weeks will be the "taighean dubha" ( black houses ) of their animal "cousins", houses built with walls six feet thick, thatched roofs, in which man, cows and other sundry animals are housed under the same roof. The contrasts between the city and their holiday destination could not be more stark. During their time in Britain, the islands in the far north and west, such as the Hebrides, were known to the Romans by the designation, "Ultima Thule"; literally the 'ends of the earth'. With a gale blowing the rains in from the sea in mid-July, the Romans understandably did not tarry long exploring these densely forested, unforgiving islands. There is however some evidence ( coins,pottery shards) that the Romans attacked some brochs on the west coast, but this was probably no more than a bit of lively action, ballista practice for their soldiers, in order to alleviate the boredom . So-Sally wondered how the 'bloody' Romans ( Latin: cum sanguine ) got into this story, which the animals thought had been going so well. Fine, so it's back to Dalmore !

The total tally of tails (so to speak) , all the cats and dogs in "Taigh Glass" and "Taigh Shoudie". had agreed to meet this morning, with a view to some adventure, but only if it were dry ( cats don't do rain). It was dry, with the sun promising to show. Some of the other cats and dogs in Dalmore often joined this troop, but unfortunately I can not recall their names . These happy souls met that first morning on "liathad Shoudie" (grassy slope outside No.4) , and as they passed in the road towards the "traigh" (beach), it was obvious the form their adventure would take. Whether man or beast, everyone always spent their first morning on Dalmore's famous golden strand. On their way in the road, they laughed and played, happy to be in each others company again. By now the sun was out, and a few wispy clouds were gently moving across the sky, encouraged by a very light breeze. One could be excused for using the word "Caribbean" to describe the warm, balmy morning on Dalmore beach. The tide was well out, but Fancy, Stowlia and Jura, our "ladydogs", reached the small waves that rippled past their "spogs" only to die away. Floating in the sea further out were bundles of different sea weeds, which powerful waves had torn from the rocks in recent stormy weather. Our Dalmore dogs did a few tastings for Jura to show how tasty and nourishing some sea weeds could be. Jura's favourite was the beautiful red fronds of what is locally called"duileasg" (dulse) - nice and crunchy,and reputedly full of iron and iodine, which they say are "good for you". They headed much further out and went crashing into the high waves,which inevitably carried them back in. They coughed and spluttered and laughed, but they were happy, as happy as ever a dog could be.
The "ladycats" were engrossed in things on the drier stretches of the "traigh", where there were large areas of salt water pools, left behind by the receding tide. There were a number of jelly fish,which Vicky, Tigger and Guinness had never encountered before, and whose dangers were explained by their country cousins. Still, Guinness tentatively touched one with a "spog", which drew a rebuke from Tigger, her self-appointed "mother". There were many other things that the sea had jettisoned on the beach, which were quite safe to examine, and that included a dead sea bird. Unpleasant as this was, it was unlikely to sting you. The dead bird was covered in sand and small jumping flies, and it proved to be an interesting anatomical specimen for our cats to examine. They didn't smell too good on they way home. The lady dogs walked home a good few yards up wind from them. Had they been dogs, instead of cats, "someone" would have suggested a long bath in the "allt". There would be more days like this, weather permitting - but weather has always been a problem in Ultima Thule.

Monday, 19 October 2009

" A Doll Dhachaidh." Going Home.

For Dalmore's cats and dogs, the summer months of July and August were always eagerly anticipated. This was when the Islanders from every part of Britain would return "home" to the village of their birth; "leis na'daoine againn-fhein" (with our own people). Often, they would bring with them their "pets", a strange name mainlanders had for their animals, but perhaps not so, when you observed the miscellany of creatures that descended on Lewis. Rupie asked Murdo about "pets", but was none the wiser for his explanation. She was to learn much later, that the only time one would hear this word, was if Iain Shoudie had to hand feed a young lamb, whose mother had died, or had "not taken to" her lamb. Bottle fed in the house, such a hand reared creature was called a "pet lamb". In no other sense was the word "pet" used, with regards to animals, as far as I know. Pets or not, these strange cats and dogs were like a breath of fresh air in the village, and many were the friendships that were forged between Dalmore's animals and the mainland "crew". Among many of the cats and dogs it was a case of renewed friendship, as the majority of the "Gall"(strangers) had been in Dalmore before.

The regular visitors to Nos. 4 and 5 Dalmore were free to stay in either house, which they regularly did. Prominent among them was Victoria Chantelle, a blue-cream Persian cat, the epitome of feline beauty, who hated her pedigree second name, Chantelle, which she thought sounded like that yellow mushroom favoured by chefs. Blue-cream was fine, but yellow, no. She was always called Vicky, except on the odd formal occasion she attended with Mr. Dow, her boyfriend. Vicky's grown daughter, by Mr. Dow, of course, was a beautiful large tabby, with a white front and white 'spogs' on an otherwise striped fur coat. She was a very bonnie cat, with a delightful nature. She answered to "Tigger". Bringing up the rear, so to speak, was Guinness, "the Cardonald Cat", a small slim black cat, with white markings on her mouth and paws("spogs"). She did not enjoy any mention of "Cardonald", unlike the Reverend MacCollie, who never failed to mention that place in every testimony he gave. In charge of these holiday cats, was Jura, the black Labrador who had travelled up with her" three sisters" from Glasgow by" train and Macbrayne"(their little joke). It should be pointed out that their master accompanied them, since the rail and boat authorities had some strict rules vis a vis animals in transit. Jura would venture that these companies might take a closer look at the state of the poor craturs that stumble in and out of that favoured room, the "saloon bar". Still, they were so happy to be "home" once more in Dalmore, with all their "cousins". A lot of parenthesis in that last sentence,but you know what I mean !
Tigger and Jura mostly stayed at No.5 with Filax and Fancy. Tigger and Filax looked alike, and were simply two of the gentlest of creatures - what you might say, "real pussycats". Fancy and Jura were straight out of Burns' poem, "The Twa Dogs"
Her hair, her size, her mouth, her lugs,
Shew'd she was nane o'Scotland's dogs,
But whalpet some place far abroad,
Where sailors gang to fish for Cod.
Burns here is describing a "Labrador" dog, or it might be a "Newfoundland" dog. Same difference, I'd say.

The tither was a ploughman's collie,
A rhyming, ranting, raving billie.

Her gawsie tail, wi' upward curl,
Hung owre her hurdies wi' a swirl.
No explanation needed here, except that the original dogs in Burns's poem, Caesar and Luath were male, and
Nae doubt but they were fain o'ither.
Victoria Chantelle (sorry, Vicky) that beautiful blue-cream Persian cat boldly stated that she would reside only at No.5, a modern "taigh dubh" cared for by two maiden ladies, a house beautifully appointed with dressers, settees, fireside chairs, curtains and some wally dugs. As nice as the Shoudie Boys were, and even if they could talk to the animals, Vicky couldn't see herself spending eight weeks up the hill at No.4 - no way, a' ghraidh !
Guinness always knew where she would stay; up the "liathad" at "taigh Shoudie" with So-Sally,Rupie and Stowlia the dog, and Kenny Iceland, if he was actually "in from the cold." It might be a tad primitive ( two old bachelors) but this was a house full of fun, music and ceilidh. Iain Shoudie was the Master of Ceremonies in this theatre of laughter, because all agreed that Iain was best placed to talk to, and understand the animals. You might recall that 'an Shoudie was, if you like, "Dalmore's Doctor Dolittle" possessing a very rare gift, and his brother Murchadh (Murdo) to a lesser extent.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Rt.Rev.MacCollie ministers to the animals.

One would never think that our friends, the animals, could have religious beliefs. However, about this, a paradox has always existed. Noah was commanded to save the animals in the Great Flood, and yet we are told in scripture, that there will be no room for earth's animals in the heavens above. Not a little bird falls to the ground, we are told, that Heaven does not know about. These contradictions, and some more, have , since time began, forced the animals to play it safe, and follow mankind in their numerous religious beliefs. All over the world, the religious practices of their masters, are mirrored in those of their animals. eg. Hindu/Hindu or Buddhist/Buddhist etc.
In "Taigh Shoudie", Murdo and Iain were nominally Church of Scotland, but their attendance at services was almost nil. But the "boys" were almost uniquely aware that the animals might have religious leanings, and because of that,they were encouraged to attend church, if they so desired. Dogs and cats were adherents of the Animal Church in Scotland, by far the largest in the country. There were now many foreign breeds of dog and cat in the Church, but this church was all-inclusive and that, everyone believed, was a good thing. Services and prayer meetings were held in an old abandoned house in Doune, down by the loch, and these were generally well attended. The human population would not be aware of these large gatherings which commenced at 3.00 am. on Sunday mornings, and mankind seemed deaf to the baying and eldritch shrieks of the animals in their Psalm singing. A big attraction at the Animal Church in Scotland here in Doune was undoubtedly the minister in charge, the Right Reverend John MacCollie, an evangelical and, something of the "charismatic", some professed. This huge dog had very humble beginnings. In his testimony, he speaks of his first memory being with his two brothers, all three of them pups, at the "Cat and Dog Home" in Cardonald in Glasgow. This was not an auspicious start in life, but, as a minister here in Lewis, he now occupied a position of respect among the people at large . Rev. MacCollie was a humble man, "eagalach diadhaidh" ( terribly godly), people said . He was converted during one of the many "awakenings" that had swept through the island in times past. His master took the "curam" and Big John MacCollie followed in his wake.
The Dalmore animals, with a few exceptions (the hill cats, Tom and Kenny Iceland), were fairly regular attenders on Sundays, but rarely went to the Wednesday prayer meetings, which were for the truly committed and the "curamach" ( the converted ) . In any case it was a fair distance down to Doune. The Precentor, who lead the congregation in singing the Psalms, but never, ever hymns, was an old grey moggy, called "Donnachadh Spagach"( hen-toed) . Old Duncan was an irascible old tom, who started every psalm with the tune of "Amazing Grace", irrespective of the psalm that had been called. Talk of caterwauling; old Duncan's "singing" was a painful experience for those, like Fancy and Rupie, who knew every psalm by heart, and enjoyed singing.
The Right Reverend MacCollie (the title Rt. Rev. was conferred on him for being Moderator of the General Assembly of the Animal Church in Scotland in 1950), was a humble big soul who felt a little awkward when addressed as the Right Reverend, by any one of his congregation. During the week, he was like any other crofter's dog, whether at a fank or at the peats. There was however one thing which puzzled other animals about John MacCollie, and So-Sally was definitely one of them. No matter where he went, or the work he was involved in, MacCollie always wore his dog collar, whether grappling with sheep or cutting peat out on the moor. For such a humble dog, others could not understand the ever present dog collar. He seemed to be very attached to it. Well, in a way he was.
For the Dalmore crowd, it was time to return home, but there would be no singing or laughing, as it was still the Sabbath. Someone once "reported" Soho and Rupie for just that,and Iain Shoudie was very cross with them - well, not really. He just shook his head, gave a wink and smiled.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Aig Reitich an a' Siabost.

It is always an occasion on the island, when two cats decide to marry, because, in truth, it doesn't happen very often, and hardly ever in Shawbost. Uisdean (Hugh) was from Upper Carloway, a fine big ginger tom (there's those Norse genes again), and Eilidh (Helen) was from New Shawbost, her hair almost all white, with a neat little pink nose and a rear right "spog"(paw) of charcoal black. Eilidh and Uisdean were third cousins, who had known each other for some time now, and we all thought that if there was to be a cat wedding in our lifetime, then it would be theirs.

Soho and Rupie had invitations to the wedding, through friendship or kinship, while Kenny, "Cat a' bheinn" (Gael : hill cat) was persuaded to tag along, having come down from the creeks for a spell. Anyway he might just find a brammer there ( "brammer"- girlfriend - perhaps Gael.) , although rabbits were really his thing, if you get what I mean. Now this wasn't the wedding as such, that they would be going to, but the "reitich", which in the Hebrides is an event celebrating the betrothal of the couple about to marry. Relatives and close friends of Eilidh and Uisdean were invited to the "reitich" to celebrate their forthcoming nuptials. There was a great deal of cat cleaning going on in taigh Shoudie that afternoon. Spogs and rasping tongues were very busy, and old Murchadh Shoudie had to smile as he watched Rupie trying to lick a centre parting into the forehead of a strangely shy Kenny Iceland. Murchadh (Murdo) placed a piece of broken mirror against a table leg, for the ladies to take a look, and off the three Shoudie cats went, laughing and cavorting as they climbed up the beinn. As they descended the Cleit into Dalbeag, they encountered a worthy lady of the village known as "Banntrach Cu Aonghas Dhubh". This was a lengthy moniker for anyone to carry, but this old lady dog revelled in her name because of her love for her recently departed husband, that is to say - departed this earth, and not up the road to Shawbost. Her Gaelic name tells us that she is the widow of Black Angus' dog. She was rightly proud of her husband's action a few years back, when villagers witnessed his brave rescue of a young child who was being carried away from the beach by a strong rip tide. His name was Ben, and his dear widow was named Sine(Gael : Jane). When they were together, she was known as "Beinn Ben Aonghas" - literally "the wife of Angus' Ben."
Skirting the beautiful beach of Dail Beag, they climbed the "leathad", and arrived at the northern side of Loch Raoinavat, below Cregan Loch an Iaruinn, where in the past, the ancients built a circle of stones, which now lie flat in the rough grass. They moved at speed now to the other end of the loch, whose waters join Allt na Breac, which powers the old mill further down the river. Here they joined the road into Shawbost. They were looking forward to the "reitich" of their good friends, Eilidh and Uisdean, two of the nicest "cat people"you could ever know. "Cat people" was what Iain Shoudie called cats that spoke to humans. They didn't have to, of course, and some chose not to. As they neared the village, they saw some large crows sitting on a fence, who greeted them courteously enough, but from behind a "cruach mhoine" (peat stack) appeared an altogether different crow, a black feathered, big beaked guy whom you would not normally see "air a' Taobh Siar" ( on the west side)
He was wearing a narrow brimmed leather cap, pulled low down over one eye, and a multicoloured scarf around his skinny neck, weighed down by a large metal cross. He stood there in the middle of the road, his legs akimbo, leaning back at a pronounced angle, and with one wing of shiny black feathers fully stretched and pointing downwards, he muttered "Yo, man, what's going down ? Where yo beeches goin'? " Well, the Dalmore group had never seen or heard anything like this anywhere before, although, if it were to happen anywhere, Shawbost would be high on the list. One of the other crows apologised for his "friend's" bizarre behaviour, and our party continued towards New Shawbost unmolested, but a little bemused. Later that night, they learned a little from Eilidh about this manic crow. She knew his people well. "Broinein bochd", she whispered in low tones, which just about says it all ! ( Eng. "poor sick person" ) . "It seems that he once flew out to Glasgow to stay with cousins in White Street in Partick, and was never the same again. He sits around all day chewing straw, and listening to "rat music". He's really a nice crow, just different. His friends look after him.
Soho, Rupie and Kenny Iceland had a wonderful time at the "reitich". There were lots of cats there(naturally) ,but not exclusively. They noticed Toss and Tiny, those two Carloway canine worthies in the barn giving it big licks during a "Strip the Willow". The food was very tasty, and the bowls of cream kept coming. Everyone raised their spog held glasses to the future happiness of Eilidh and Uisdean. As they made their way home in the early hours, the full moon lit up their path, as if it were daylight. They had to agree that there were some very nice people in Shawbost, albeit they were descended from the "Lochlannich" (Norsemen) . They had lots to tell the "boys", Murdo and John, back in Dalmore.
Glossary. Gaelic/ English

Cregan Loch an Iaruinn/ Hillock of the Loch containing Iron
Allt na Breac /Trout river
Others /On request

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Tom the Cat RNR (Royal Naval Ratcatcher)

World War Two was all but over,when Shonnie was drafted to a small naval vessel at Devonport on the south west coast of England. It was there he first clapped eyes on Tom, who was weaving his way through the legs of the sailors in their mess, picking up a morsel here and there. This big tomcat had attitude and his sailor "oppos" had great affection for the big fella. A ratter of extraordinary ability, no one can recall ever seeing any vermin below decks. Tom(no time for fancy nancy names in the Navy) had been a member of the crew for a few years now, and was a source of comfort to the men, eager to return home to Blighty. They had a small sailor's hat made for him,with navy blue ribbons which tied under his chin. Tom was proud of the honour his crew mates had bestowed on him, and when the mess table had been cleared, he would parade on top, tail held high and erect as a poker; he moved with the prancing steps of a Lipizzaner horse. There was much cheering and laughter which further encouraged our thespian moggy to reprise. Shonnie could not believe his eyes,the more so when some of the crew began singing "The Drunken Sailor". When it came to the chorus,"Hooray and Up He Rises",Tom would rise up on his back spogs ever so gingerly, sway with the music, and punch the air with his two remaining paws. Grown men were seen to weep with laughter. The captain was a frequent visitor to this floor show below decks.
How Shonnie managed to adopt Tom when he left the Navy,I don't know,but home together they came to Dalmore in 1946. Shonnie gave Tom a glowing testimony to his father,Bodach Glass, and his two sisters, explaining how fortunate they were, to have exclusive use of the greatest rat catcher in His Majesty's Senior Service.They were much impressed. Tom was himself impressed with his new home in the glen, a far cry from his former station among the darkness, the dirt and the smell of the ship's bilges. Here were high hills and fertile fields, a place where in the past, he could only dream about. There may be some rats in the roof space of No.5, his new home, but if he were not mistaken(and he wasn't), he could count a dozen or so rabbits leaping about the hill with impunity. He would need to renegotiate his contract with Shonnie, which he did, on the understanding that he would tutor the resident cats in the best practices of ratting.
This was indeed a home fit for heroes.

Friday, 24 April 2009

The Gang of Five Picnic on the Traigh

It was a truly beautiful morning. The sun shone bright and warm, with only a few wisps of cloud to be seen in the blue above the horizon. The view from the door of the old "taigh dubh" at No.4 was as beautiful as anyone could imagine. Your eyes took in the "feannaigan" (strip fields) of corn and potatoes, and were inexorably drawn to the golden sands of Dalmore beach. There was a very light breeze and the waves in the bay were shallow, and barely audible as they reached shore. It was not always like this. In winter huge waves could be seen to break through the cemetery wall, and tidal floods would rush all the way up the "allt"(small river).
But today was different. The house animals of "taigh Shoudie" were sitting or lying on the grassy "leathad" (slope) in front of the house. It was going to be a glorious day, and one did not need the BBC to confirm this forecast. You just had to study the wave activity out at "Rudha 'an Trilleachain" (oyster catchers'point) to determine the weather for that day. Iain Shoudie sat beside his three friends,smoking a roll-up and drinking strong tea from a mug. Cigarettes bought in packets,he called "ready mades" They were like smoking a page of the Gazette, he would say. But when he ran out of Rizla papers, then a page of the "Cassette" it would have to be. So-Sally, Rupie and Stowlia would occasionally turn round to look at Iain, who guessed what might be in their minds.
Iain: "What a beautiful morning, ladies. All the chores are done, and it would be a shame to waste the day up here, when a picnic down at the "traigh" (beach) would be just the thing". Notwithstanding the weather, the animals could picnic any day they liked, as there never were any chores to do in "Taigh 'houdie", not even for the the "boys".
So-Sally: "That's a grand idea, Iain, and it would be even better if Filax and Fancy were invited. They are so nice and such good company. Rupie,would you mind nipping over to "taigh Glass" at No.5 and letting them know about the picnic this afternoon.
"Right away",said wee Rupie.
Filax and Fancy were the cat and dog who stayed with Shonnie and Dollag in the beautiful "taigh dubh" on the opposite side of the glen. They (ie.the animals) were an easy going pair, on whom you could always rely. The Glass and Shoudie animals had historically been close friends. Filax was a well-fed brown and white tabby cat who generally stuck close to the house, but she was delighted at the thought of a picnic with her good friends, the Shoudies. Fancy, the dog, had gone up to the shop in Carloway riding pillion behind Shonnie on the motorbike. Dollag expected them back soon.
Back soon, they were. Fancy jumped off the pillion seat, and the Shoudie trio did well to stifle their laughter at Fancy's new get-up. She greeted them all with a smile on that bonnie sonsie face of hers.Over her head with the ears tucked in, Fancy was wearing a brown leather flying helmet and some snazzy aviator's glasses.
"Well,what do you think ?" enquired Fancy.
" O, A'Ghraidh, you look the part!", said Stowlia, her face frozen in the rictus of a smile.
Filax: "Annie in Renfrew got a job lot of American airforce surplus in a large store in Glasgow. What her boys can't (or won't ) wear, she sent home here to Dalmore. Don't you think Fancy looks the bees' knees in that get-up?. She will be the talk of the district"
Rupie: "Se sinn a'firinn." ( that's for sure!)
The "Gang" would be well provided with victuals. There were some saithe and cuddies left over from lunch at the "boys" table. Iain had caught them at Banderberie and they had been fried in this morning's bacon fat. Milk and cream,boiled potatoes and some "grey" soup completed their picnic "hamper".
Down at the "traigh", Fancy and Stowlia played their usual game of "Pursuits", in and out of the small waves, making sure they stepped over every little roller which approached (bad luck if you didn't) . After that, they made their way out to where the waves were taller, and diving in,they allowed the surf to carry them back to shore. It was great sport and one which just might catch on here in time.
Soho and Rupie were encouraging Filax to dip her spogs in the allt (river). Although this is normally anathaema to cats, there are circumstances when a cat must brave the waters, and if they were to dam the river, then they would have to take onboard a little water. But surfing the waves like Stowlia and Fancy was a no-no, of course. In the end, more than their spogs were wet,but that didn't dampen their spirits.
After a tasty repast, they all decided to go up river to where Allt Dhail a' Mor emerges from "Lot a' Bhoer", in order to start the Boat Race. This would be the highlight of the afternoon, when Mrs.Tunnag and her brood of ducklings would play such an important part in the proceedings. In times past the boats were simply small pieces of driftwood, but oft times in the course of a race, boats would maroon themselves on the bank or behind some obstacle. Now, of course, five little ducklings, with Mother Tunnag's blessing, presented themselves at the start line as self propelled river jockeys, each bearing the favour of one of the "Gang of Five". As the race progressed, the excitement was palpable, and more than once a bit of shoving, ducking and diving was observed. Fancy stated that it was the taking part that was important, but the dishevelled wee bundle of feathers that crossed the line ahead of the rest was having none of that Olympic nonsense.
After a celebratory dinner, everyone made their way home, very tired but very happy. They resolved to do the same again, some other day.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Bha Soho agus Rupie a' comhradh. (Having a Cat Chat)

Darkness had just fallen on Dalmore. As always, the roar of the Atlantic rollers could be heard hitting the wide sandy beach down at the "traigh"(shore). The ever present west wind was strong, and hurried the rain directly up the glen which is Dalmore ("dail mor" - Gaelic, big dale ). Even at the "Mullach Mor", about half a mile out, you could taste the salt in the raindrops which passed your lips. Weather like this was not unknown in the "dailean".
High up on croft number 4, a single yellow light could be seen, but only with difficulty could one make out the outline of the long "taigh dubh", directly under the "beinn". On a night like this, the light coming through that single skylight was comfort indeed to any passing stranger. Inside this house of thick walls and thatched roof, it was warm, and the illumination came from a single 100 watt bulb, when before it would have come from the glowing mantle of the Tilley lamp. The two boys (the "men" in the house) were having a wee "norrag" to themselves (forty winks). Murchadh had lain down his book and his bendy, rimless "spegligans" and was fast asleep sitting by the fire, his back to the dresser and his head leaning against the wall. By the way,"spegligans" is not the Gaelic for spectacles, although one might think so. It is one of the word corruptions used in this house, baffling to some, but appreciated by the initiated. Iain was stretched out on the "being" (bench), sleeping soundly, his head resting on his rolled-up bib overalls .
The peat fire was burning nicely between the stacks, radiating a warm heat. Sitting close to each other, with their eyes half-shut, almost hypnotised by the flicker of the yellow flame, sat So-Sally and Rupie, the resident cats in "Taigh Shoudie"(the Shoudie Boys' house). As the "boys" slept, Soho and Rupie would discuss matters concerning only themselves, without Old Dolittle giving "fatherly advice". After all, there were certain cat issues which were easier to discuss on their own, without the distractions of man or dog. Occasionally they would hold their front "spogain"(paws) up to the fire to toast their pads, something they had seen the "boys" do. You may have noticed that Killy-Soho has had a few name changes in a pretty short time (ie.So-Sally,Soho) This was the doing of Iain Shoudie, who was wont to play around with words and names, just as one finds the names changing so disconcertingly in the Russian Novel.
Soho: "Isn't this just nice, now, A'Ghraidh (My Dear). Listen to the sound of the wind whistling through the thatch and the rain hitting the window pane. We have a good home here, Rupie, and we are very fortunate that the "boys" can speak our language and understand us. It makes life so much easier for all concerned."
Soho was the alpha female by dint of age and experience, and when required, had demonstrated well honed fighting skills, but not among her own household, to be sure. She was sleek, with a very shiny black coat, and moved like a miniature panther. She liked mankind, but was not so keen on dogs, unless she got a nod of approval from the "boys" for a visiting dog. Julia,the resident dog, was obviously an exception, and if truth to be told, she loved Stowlia to bits(Stowlia, a patronymic for Julia).
Rupie:"You are right, So-Sally. We have a good home here, and Iain and Murdo are so kind. I am glad we can have this wee chat while the others are asleep. Last week in the morning, I accompanied Murchadh (Murdo ) as he took the cows out to their usual pastures, over the other side of the Beinn. On the way, Stowlia and I listened to Murdo regale us with some old Gaelic proverbs. He is good at the proverbs, but some of them I've heard a few times now! I was feeling very happy, and content to let Stowlia lead through the tall heather. When Murdo stopped at Loch Dubh na Cleit to water the cattle, and have himself a cigarette, I decided to strike out on my own and bade farewell to them both as I headed down the Cleit towards Dalbeg. I had never been as far from home before, and this would be a new experience for me. And yet I felt that old Stowlia was uneasy at me going to Dalbeg on my own. As I descended from the Cleit, I reached the edge of the Village Loch, beautiful in its massive show of white water-lilies. In what spaces there were between the extensive floating lily rafts, brown trout made many "rises", some clearing the water completely in a great show of acrobatics. Dail Beag (Gael: small dale) is Dail Mor's wee sister, and some would attest to its greater beauty. I was crossing high above the little golden beach along a rabbit run, when a little ahead of me I saw something which made me freeze to the spot. There, dead ahead was a very large male mink, bigger than any I'd seen at George Macleod's mink farm in Dalmore. Long, with a black glossy coat, this animal had escaped from an island mink farm, and looked good on it. Those who bred the mink never acknowledged that it could be a farm escapee. Old Archie used to say that, in that case, they must have flown in from North America by plane."  Mink are ferocious killers, deadly in their entrapment of prey, and if free to roam at will, they will wreak havoc with nesting birds, rabbits and domestic fowl. Rupie did not move a muscle as she observed the mink's nose twitch below a pair of beady red eyes. Rupie had only ever seen mink behind the secure mesh of a cage, but here out in the open she had no idea what this big mink might do. Her wee heart was pounding against her rib cage, and she could only hope that the mink would not notice. Then the strangest of things ! The mink looked Rupie straight in the eye, climbed unhurriedly out of the rabbit run and vanished into a field of hay. As soon as she realised her good luck, there was a massive adrenaline rush which carried Rupie at speed around Loch Dalbeg, and up the hill to the safety of the Cleit. Soho, that wise old cat, was sitting outside No.4, as was Stowlia the dog, when Rupie arrived home. Stowlia was a little upset with Rupie, and only shook her head when they met. Soho asked Rupie in a quiet voice to sit down beside her. She asked her about her solo trip to Dalbeg, and cautioned her against repeating this "adventure" again on her own.
Soho : "Rupie, did you realise how concerned we would be about you ? As bad as that meeting with the mink was, it could have been so much worse if it had been a female mink, especially if her young had been close by. The female is much smaller than the male mink, but in agility and speed it is fearsome. It might not have attacked you, but had it done so, you, Rupie, were in mortal danger. Please, A' Ghraidh, always say where you are going, and if it's out of sight of home, make sure that I or Stowlia are with you." Rupie nodded agreement, and Stowlia gave her a warm smile."
The Shoudie Boys had just awakened from their "forty winks". Murdo threw a couple of peats on the fire, and the old black kettle was put on to boil for their "copan teatha" (Gael : cup of tea). All was hunky dory once more, the more so because Kenny Iceland, their hill cousin had "come in from the cold" and was warming himself "aig an teine" ( Gael : at the fire ).
Post Script.
Murdo was knowledgeable about the history of these parts, and had this to say to his small assembled audience, which included his brother John, who knew less about history and more about humourous ditties and nonsense rhymes.
Murdo :
We must not forget that not so long ago, around 1750, the Isle of Lewis was a lawless and dangerous place,where the rule of law had hardly taken root, and any religious awakening would have to wait some seventy years. It was in such times that an awful incident occured in the bay at Dalbeg. A tall sailing ship known as a clipper was shipwrecked during the night on the large rocks at the Ard on the northern side of the bay, during a furious storm. Its cargo was mainly tea, held in hundreds of chests, which were destroyed on the rocks. Witnesses said that the seas in Dalbeg Bay were now a deep brown colour. The piles of tea leaves heaped on the shore were later gathered by the villagers, and spread on their feannagain, thinking it a good fertiliser. It was said that nothing grew on that ground for quite a few years. The men of Dalbeg were not there to save lives or to show mercy to those sailors struggling ashore. They were there for booty and plunder. Those poor souls who reached the beach were slaughtered as they lay there. Others of the crew who could see what was happening, attempted to climb the high cliffs to reach the Ard. Those who made it to the top were systematically murdered, usually by chopping their hands off at the cliff's edge. One man is said to have escaped that night with only one hand, the other having been amputated, but not before putting a curse on the village, a curse which has never been raised. Remembering that Dalbeg (Gael : Dail Beag) means "small dale or valley", the sailor said
"Dalbeg, as small as you are now, you will be even smaller in times to come. No grandfather will ever see a grandchild born during his lifetime" And to this day, that has been the case in Dalbeg. Rupie, Dalbeg is a very strange place."

Friday, 17 April 2009

In Dalmore, Some People Talk to the Animals.

In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, a belief in apparitions and spectres ( Gael."tannaisg") was almost universal in the past, and it would be a brave soul who would rubbish these ghost stories, after leaving a black house on a moonless night to make his or her way home. Many of the stories told around the peat fire in that ceilidh house would send shivers up and down your spine. Rigid with fear, it was better  to feign belief in ghosts till you reached home.  A few people have always been endowed with the ability to see or hear these spirits , and of them, some failed to understand the torment of these tortured souls. It might take a hundred years or more , for another person to finally lay the spirit to rest. In Lewis there were people who were gifted( some might say cursed) in their ability to "see into the future". We call such a person a "seer", while in Gaelic he was known as "fear fiosaiche", literally "one who knows". The most celebrated Highland seer was reputedly born long ago in Baile na Cille, in the parish of Uig in Lewis. His name was Kenneth Mackenzie,"Coinneach Odhar" or "Coinneach Fiosaiche" ("odhar" - sallow complexion). I have known some people from our own district who, by repute, possessed this "gift".
There is another gift, and very rare it is, which is bestowed on some people. This is the ability to talk to animals, and to put themselves out there, to listen to them with the same patience and understanding which we proffer to our fellow man. From the days of St.Francis of Assisi, we harbour a deep desire to believe that animals can speak, and that there are people who can understand what the animals are saying, and so respond in kind. You can, if you like, call this anthropomorphism, where we attribute to animals the personality and feelings of mankind. But in truth, there are a rare few who can speak to the animals, people who can respond to a dog's bark, understand the insistent mews of a cat, or appreciate the whinny of the old grey mare.
As a young boy in Dalmore, a beautiful village on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, I was privileged to know one such "Dr.Dolittle", for the want of a better title. "Iain Shoudie", my uncle, John Maclennan was that man , truly gifted in the art of animal talk. His brother, Murdo ("Murchadh") had this power, but to a lesser extent. They lived at No.4 Dalmore, a "taigh dubh" (traditional thatched house) located high above the road, nestling under the "beinn" (hill). These two brothers were my father's older siblings, unhurried, unmarried and as happy as the day was long - no hurry, no worry. In harmony with each other (well,most of the time), they were at one with nature and in commune with their animals. As time goes by, we will be privy to the conversations and thoughts of So-Sally, Rupie, Stowlia and Kenny Iceland, just a few of the animals who shared "Taigh Shoudie" with the "boys".
Stay with us to hear what these animals and their friends had to share with Iain and Murdo. You might not believe it, but it is all true ('An 'Houdie told me so).