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).