Sunday, 28 November 2010

Fred and the Eagles.

When the "Fear Dubh" was around, and he had been around for some time now, no young animal, bird or fowl was safe from him. His territory stretched from New Shawbost in the north through Dalbeg and Dalmore, to Upper Carloway and Garenin in the south. The "Black One" in question, was a large black male mink, a long-term escapee, and these were his" killing fields". He was the sole ground predator in the area, and didn't always kill for food. Killing was often sport for the mink. Normally the mink will kill and eat fish from the river, nesting birds and their chicks and very often hens, cooped up in the hen house. It is in this latter situation that you see the mink at its deadliest and most ruthless. Within a few minutes the mink will dispatch up to twenty hens in a gratuitous orgy of killing. It will feed only on the viscera of perhaps three birds, eschewing totally the flesh. In such circumstances, the large part of his kill is "for sport". In a short time, he might be a long way off, indulging his sport in some other killing field. With an ongoing supply of food, the mink can range far and wide, and is almost impossible to locate, never mind eliminate. For the most part it travels unseen, and often strikes under the cover of darkness. The bloody carnage it leaves in its train is unmistakably the mark of the mink. So, people and animals in Dalmore were alert to the dangers posed by this escaped mink, and took whatever measures they could to trap or kill the "Black One". This could be very difficult, and even fatal for a small animal to attempt.
One morning, a week into the alert, So-Sally and Rupie took a walk down to the "traigh" (the shore), for nothing more than a stroll along the golden strand, caressed by the waves of the Atlantic and overlooked by the oldest rocks on earth. On the way back past the Allt, they noticed that Mrs Tunnag and her family of ducklings were not swimming in the river, as was their wont. Climbing down the sandy "bruach", they followed the river's course, well into Lot a' Bhoer (the Boer's croft), and it was only after a thorough search, that they discovered Mother Duck and her off-spring hiding under a bank of peat, well away from the river. Soho approached the ducks, and could see that Mrs Tunnag was in a distressed state. Her ducklings were hidden from view beneath her. Her beautiful black beak was streaked with tears, and her voice was just a whimper. She told how the previous day she was leading her little ducklings along the river bank, when out of nowhere and in an flash, a large mink attacked and killed two of her offspring. She asked that Soho and Rupie search along the river and bury her beautiful "tunnagean" by the allt where they were reared. The Shoudie cats tried as best they could to comfort Mrs Tunnag and her three remaining ducklings, but in any case, they led them to the safety of the barn at Taigh a' Bhoer.
The animals in Dalmore and Dalbeg convened a parliament the following morning, on the "Creagan" behind Taigh Glass to discuss all matters relating to the "Fear Dubh", the black mink, which in a short time, had brought fear and death to the "Dailean". People might lose a few hens which would cost them some money, but for the animals, this was something else altogether, a seriously frightening situation which would not be easily resolved.

Stowlia : I spoke to 'An 'Houdie about this grave situation, and asked him to alert Shonnie, Murchadh a' Bhoer and Iain Beag na Cnamhan, the three men in the village with shotguns, but the real problem is locating the mink, before a shot is fired.

Rupie : I can't see any of us cats, even So-sally, being a match for an adult male mink. This one, the Fear Dubh, is a particularly "bad stick". We will of course do all in our power to help, but I fear that it falls to the dogs to take the major role in this business.

Jura : Such fine prose, Rupie. I can see the influence of James Shaw-Grant in the Stornoway Gazette. The Sunday Times of London rated the "Casette" very highly indeed.

Fancy : Shonnie has a wee white ferret with red eyes, which he uses to catch rabbits, but it would be useless against this natural born killer. I fear that we must devise a master plan to trap and kill our foe, and one which minimises the risk to us all. There is no time to waste, so thinking caps on, everyone.

Victoria : As experienced and as tough as Tom Warrener and Kenny Iceland are, our hillbilly friends are still cats, and this mink is bigger, faster and extremely vicious. However, they could play an important part in our plan, if and when we devise one. Fancy is right in saying that we have no time to waste. We owe it to those ducklings and hens, to rid our villages of this unnatural predator. He's an American, for goodness sake !

It began to sound like the deliberations of The Famous Five on one of their picnics, with lashings of ginger beer.

Jura : The land cover in the village is a mix of heather, short grass,' machair' land and 'feannags' of corn or potatoes. He must be flushed out from hiding into the open ground. If we can't see the mink, we have no way of trapping him. But, help might yet be on its way. I had earlier asked Shonnie if we could invite my wee friend, Fred, from Renfrew up for a couple of weeks, and Shonnie said 'Yes', if Fred can make do in the weaving shed.

Stowlia : Pardon me, but who is this Fred, and how can he help us ?

Jura : Fred is a "Parson Russell Terrier". Basically, he is a Jack Russell Terrier with longer legs, and, in his case, a rough coat of white, black and tan. He has, as they say, " a nose like God knows". He is very swift, can turn on the space of a sixpence and is both fearless and tenacious. The Reverend John Russell crossed his terrier with a fox terrier to get a dog with longer legs, who could keep up with the hunt, and of course flush out the fox from its bolt hole. I am hoping he can do the same for us with the "Fear Dubh".

Fancy : For aerial reconnaissance, we have enlisted the help of our friends, the golden eagles. Gilleasbuig and his brother-in-law, the Kaiser from Harris are delighted to be part of our mink hunt. Gilleasbuig has asked that the gunmen refrain from shooting at them, as they usually do when the eagles fly high across Dalmore. They are now here to help, not harm.

The next morning, Fred the Terrier was introduced to the rest of the hunting party, and nodding in the direction of the eagles, he whispered very quietly to Jura "Big Man, who the hell are they ?" Although Fred was a dog with attitude, he and the eagles seemed to bond in no time. (a little time, perhaps) This really had to be seen to be believed. Iain Shoudie and Murdo rehearsed them thoroughly in what would be required in the hunt for the Black One. Fred and the eagles would have the leading roles, while everyone else would act as beaters, but only when directed to by Jura, overall coordinator of manoeuvres. The eagles and Fred rehearsed call signs that would be used. The shrill cry of the birds and Fred's piercing bark announced the start of the hunt. Yet they realised that they could not underestimate the guile and intelligence of this deadly animal.

Kenny Iceland and some of the "beaters" kept to the northern parts of the village and hill, familiar to Kenny. He and his party would move in a line, raising hell by barks and mewing, in order to force the Black One towards the "machair" where the grass was short. Kenny would inspect any rabbit burrows or overhangs, as the hunt progressed. Tom Warrener and party covered the other half of the village. Jura, hunt coordinator and Fred, occupied the centre ground, at all times ready for action. Gilleasbuig and the Kaiser were" the eyes in the sky", as they say, taking long slow sweeps across the glen. With these lads flying high, shotguns were now redundant, for which the boys from Beinn Bhragair were thankful. Having done one sweep of the valley, it was repeated by broadening the net.

There was no "result" on Day One, but towards the end of the second day, the eagles spotted the undulating movement of a black animal at Geodha an Uillt, near the cliffs on the north side of Dalmore Bay. Jura barked her orders that everyone, except Fred and the eagles, were to fall back. Fred was soon in place by the cliffs, waiting for instructions from Gilleasbuig, who with the Kaiser, was circling on high. At the word, Fred nosed his way from one rabbit hole to another, partly entering each, and giving a muffled bark. There was an explosion of action now as the Fear Dubh emerged from a burrow. Fred moved quickly and carefully towards the mink, who turned menacingly towards him. As Fred halted, he heard and felt this phenomenal rush of air behind him, to see Gilleasbuig carry off the Black One in his mighty talons to a high "creag", a little way off. The eagles were left with their prey, and the animals could live their idyll of life in the "Dailean". Mrs Tunnag resumed her life on the "allt" with her ducklings, the eagles went back to Beinn Bhragair, and Iain Shoudie sat on the bench outside the "taigh dubh", smoking his Golden Virginia, and holding his animal audience in thrall with tales of derring-do, "always new, and always true". Stowlia just smiled.


Allt - river/ bruach - steep bank/ tunnagean - ducklings
taigh a' Bhoer - the Boer's house /Murchadh - Murdo
Iain Beag na Cnamhan - Wee Iain "Bones"
machair - shoreline grass land/ feannags - strip fields
Geodha an Uillt - the cove or creek of the burn /creag - rock
Dailean - the Dales (Dalmore(big dale) and Dalbeg(small dale) )
taigh dubh - "black" or thatched house.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Tha dithis cait a posaidh an a Siabost ( Two cats are to marry in Shawbost )

"Two cats are to marry in the village of Shawbost". This was the headline in the Stornoway Gazette, and if Donnie Large had not written the article, people would have taken this as some sort of April Fool, even in mid July. "Could this be true," people asked, " and if it is, God help us all. Can you imagine what the Daily Express will make of this ?" " Well," said Catriona Bheag, "the Express features the adventures of a walking, talking bear called Rupert, who wears a 'guernsey dearg agus briogais buidhe', and yet everyone I know thinks nothing of it. Two of his friends are Bill Badger and Edward Trunk; so if you can believe in a bear, who lives in a cottage with his mother and father, and travels to fantastic places around the world with a badger and an elephant, then why are you so surprised at two young Lewis cats getting married ?" Everyone agreed loudly with Catriona, ( they usually did) and wished the couple a happy life together.
Of course, every cat ( dog and bird too) on the West Side knew of the forthcoming wedding between Eilidh (Helen) and Uisdean (Hugh), two of the nicest cats one could ever know. Many of them had attended the "reitich" (betrothal) the previous year in Shawbost, and that was a night to remember. " O, A' Bhalaich", said Donnachadh Bronach, " Poor Uisdean will need all of his nine lives from now on." With the withering look on Catriona Bheag's face, Duncan was quick to point out that it was joke ( "A joke, Kate, a joke, for goodness sake !") Kate smiled. "You seemed to have forgotten, Duncan, that Helen too has nine lives, and, I'd wager, a few more more besides." Those from the mainland might have been surprised that the Leodhaisaich and the Lewis born animals were so good "aig A' bheurla" (at speaking English). People in Shawbost were nowadays very much at ease with English. The bilingual programme had been a great success in this district. A facility with English, and particularly as it related to the finer points of bureaucracy, was well established, and thoroughly rehearsed in the popular evening classes. Photocopies of blank forms relating to grants and subsidies were issued repeatedly, and the class required to fill in the appropriate answers in English, until all were word perfect. Carloway had mastered the nicities of "the English", a long time ago,
The day of the wedding had arrived, and the "Dalmore Crew", all of whom had been invited, were getting themselves washed and spruced up, over at Taigh Glass, with Dolly and Shonnie in attendance. Washing, drying, brushing and combing were the order of the day. Victoria, our recently crowned beauty queen, was carefully brushed and her "fur coat" sprinkled with Lily of the Valley talcum powder. A little pink bow was attached on top of her head, between her ears. She looked a picture ! The three lady dogs were thoroughly washed down at the Allt. After a good shake, and a dry-out in the wind and sun, Stowlia, Fancy and Jura went up to the house, where Dolly gently brushed their coats. There was a sheen on Soho's beautifully black coat, like a panther in miniature. Guinness and Rupie were attended to, and were now eager to make their way to Shawbost. Down from the hills came Kenny Iceland and Tom Warrener, our two rabbit hunters, who normally shied away from crowds, but who now craved the company of their own kind. They had come "down from the creeks" , and were happy to make the acquaintance of some old friends. Seoras (George Macleod) had offered to transport them all to the wedding in his dinky little Austin van.
They were singing" puirt- a- beul" on the way to Shawbost. Tom Warrener was up on his hind legs doing a hornpipe, holding his front spogs high enough in the air to touch the roof of the van. What happy times this brought to mind, the times he danced on the mess table to entertain the sailors during the war. Kenny Iceland wondered what had possessed his pal, Tom. Perhaps he had descended from the hills too quickly- "the bends", so to speak. As they approached Shawbost, there were white flags to be seen, all along the sides of the road. The crowds of animals were growing apace; They were in the main cats and dogs, but there were some sheep and lambs, and a fair number of birds. Mrs Tunnag from Dalmore was quacking loudly, and presumably happily, as she waddled down the road past Loch Grinabhat, with her ducklings in tow. While Helen and Hugh's wedding did not quite have the cache' of a Burton-Taylor extravaganza, there is no doubt that it would be the largest "latha posadh" ever seen on Lewis. To say that this wedding was unique in the annals of the animal world, did not quite do justice to this marvellous event. But the national press and television companies knew that this was a story that would run, and run. The Stornoway hotels were full. Journalists like Mary Marquis, Magnus Magnusson and Ludovic Kennedy were translated to Stornoway to cover the big show in Shawbost. David Attenborough was there to interview the young feline newlyweds, from the mammalian perspective, of course. They were to be married in the Avian Free Church at Fibhig in Shawbost, because it was a huge building and because it was the only animal church in Helen's village. The Dog and Cat Church was too far away in Doune. The service was to be conducted jointly by the Reverend MacCraw of the Shawbost Free and The Right Reverend MacCollie of the Established Church in Doune.
The crow family were gathering in numbers, as were many species of sea birds. Dogs and cats of every description and from every place were heading for the Shawbost Avian Church. The wee birds like the wrens and sparrows had flown in early for front row seats. Gilleasbuig Mor, the golden eagle from Beinn Bhragair appeared, out of the blue, so to speak, with his wife and her brother, the Kaiser from Harris. O, Man- What a sight that was, as they appeared out the mist like three massive Vulcan bombers. The Dalmore group were by now very excited as they entered the church. There was a capacity congregation, and anybody who arrived now would need to take a pew outside on the "creagan"(no pun intended). The ushers at the church were a group of very cool rooks , in their shiny black attire, collectively known as the "Blues Brothers", and inside, on either side of the pulpit sat a dozen carrion crow, elders of the Shawbost Avian Free Church. You could not say that these lads were "cool". There would be no organ nor hymns, only the Psalms of David, precented by that Nightingale from Ness, Kate Mhor, sister of the bride.
Eilidh and Uisdean made a fine couple as they took their vows in front of the two reverend gentlemen, and as they walked out the church as a married couple of cats, a ripple of applause spread through the church, which actually brought a smile to the faces of the two ministers - in a Free Church, mind you !
Press and television were there in numbers, but Donnie Large was the first to interview Eilidh and Uisdean for the "Casette". They were all there, the BBC in Stornoway with Neen Mackay, BBC Scotland with Mary Marquis and Ludo Kennedy for the "Tonight" programme in London. The Sasunnaich found this story hard to swallow - Imagine! Iain Shoudie did well as interpreter for the animals, who were constantly interviewed by the media scrum. Doing his " Dolittle" job, Iain was making a "packet" of money - "torr airgead, a' bhalaich, torr airgead". He spent some of it(most, actually) with his brother, Murdo down at Doune, in the company of Fyfe Robertson and Ludovic Kennedy. Iain did enjoy this kind of attention.
The wedding dinner was al fresco (a new departure), and to accommodate the vast number of guests, multiple sittings were required, right into the night. Helen and Hugh attended each sitting, seated at either end of a long white sheet. People came forward and placed their gifts in front of Helen. Of course, the married couple did not eat at all the sittings. The food was excellent and the entertainment and dance would be remembered for a long time to come. Everything prepared for that day and everyone who attended, were testament to the love the people had for Eilidh and Uisdean
Our little friends from Dalmore arrived back home in the early hours, exhausted but elated. The electric light(the only one in the house) was still on in Taigh Shoudie, and from the music and laughter, one might think that the wedding ceilidh had shifted from Fibhig over the beinn to Dalmore.
No one could say when this ceilidh would end.

1. guernsey dearg agus briogais buidhe...... red jumper and yellow trousers
2. O, a' bhalaich ..... O, boy!
3. Donnachadh bronach ..... Duncan, sad and mournful
4. Leodhaisaich .... Lewis people
5. puirt a' beul .... mouth music, when there are no musical instuments
6. latha posadh .... wedding day
7. creagan .... hillock
8. torr airgead, a' bhalaich .... lots of money, boy
9. Sasunnaich .... English people

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Carloway Agricultural Show, otherwise known as the Cattle Show.

The biggest event in the District of Carloway was the Annual Agricultural Show, held each summer on the first Wednesday in August. Better known locally as the "Cattle Show", it drew large crowds of people from all over the Island of Lewis, and competitors from Shawbost to Garynahine (indeed, "all points West"). It was the longest surviving show on the island (since 1911), known affectionately as "Lewis's Premier Show". By dint of sheer numbers, it could easily have been called "The Sheep Show". The title "Agricultural Show" was possibly to appease those in the Board of Agriculture or the Crofters Commission who were keen to see crofting adopting more modern agricultural methods, but obviously, on a smaller scale, by introducing better breeding programmes in cattle and sheep, mechanising hay making for winter feeding, and reclaming the moorland using fertilisers, sand and surface seeding. Still, it would always be known as the Cattle Show.
The weather was fair when the big day came around, (old memories, fine weather?) and many animals would be transported to Carloway to compete for prizes at the show. Dalmore's "Famous Five", Soho, Rupie and Stowlia from Taigh 'Houdie and Fancy and Filax from Taigh Glass were going along for the first time, as were their city cousins, Jura, Victoria and Guinness. I know - they were domestic animals, but the show committee had decided in their wisdom to include, this time round, competitions for Best Dog in Show, and for Best Cat. Victoria, the blue-cream Persian was entered in the Cat Show under her pedigree name of Victoria Chantelle Lautrec, and , as they say, she was definitely 'up for it'. Jura, the Black Labrador Retriever, was not so keen, but Fancy said that it would be a "hoot", or something "cheery" like that in Gaelic. The main competition animals, cattle, sheep, horses and poultry were either walked down to the showground at Carloway or ferried there by tractor and trailer. Donald John would be in charge of Daisy, Shonnie's beautiful brown Ayrshire milk cow, and Donald, his older brother, would accompany Morag, the young heifer, the finest specimen of Shorthorn you would ever see, this side of Stornoway. She had already been sold to Angus Macdonald, well known auctioneer and butcher from town, for a princely sum. Daisy and Morag and their two "buachaille"(herdsmen) left early to walk to Carloway. Jimmy, the horse, didn't have the necessary "hands" to compete. He wasn't bothered. Everyone in the district took pride in their sheep, and consequently, entries in all sheep categories were high. Shonnie was entering some wedders, lambs and a powerful looking Blackface ram. They would go down by tractor, in some cages improvised for the purpose. Getting them onto the trailer had been difficult, until Guinness the Gall (stranger) suggested that digestive biscuits were regularly employed as bait by the shepherds on the hill farms of the mainland. And it worked. They mounted the trailer and entered the cages, just like sheep, as the saying goes. Shonnie gave Guinness a gentle clap, in way of thanks, and Guinny-Goo was happy to advance farming know how, in this crofting community .
"Balaich Shoudie" went along with Stowlia, Soho and Rupie, their "domestics". Kenny Iceland, the" cat who comes in from the cold"(occasionally) was capable of making up his own mind whether to go to the show. 'An 'houdie would leave him a "Dolittle" note, but it was unlikely that Kenny would come. Like Garbo, he wanted to be alone. The Shoudie Boys made quite a show as they emerged from the "taigh dubh", wearing their special visiting clothes - newish cap, black polished shoes etc. Iain wore his "Chicago" hat, with the brim pulled down over one eye, just like that fellow Dillinger in America. There would be many old friends at the Carloway Show, and Murdo and Iain knew that the "comhradh" (conversation) flowed more easily with a few drams of whisky ; it also made them better judges of the cattle and sheep paraded in the ring, they believed.
The show wasn't just about animals. Experts were at hand to judge knitwear, articles fashioned in wood or metal, woven Harris Tweed, vegetables grown on the croft, scones and cakes baked in the croft house and a variety of other categories. There was an open piping competition with entries from Callanish to Canada and from New Shawbost to New Brunswick. Highland games were in most cases trials of strength as was the final event of the day, the inter village boat race involving perhaps a dozen boats down on Loch Carloway, by the Dunan. In fact, the last event of the day (by rights it was night) was the Cattle Show Dance in the Drill Hall, which started around midnight, when none of the Dalmore crew would be present.
Usually a noted personage was invited to open the show, a person who had advanced his standing during his lifetime, people like lawyers, scholars, journalists and even teachers, of which there was no shortage. Even a peer of the realm deemed such an invitation a great honour. This year, for some reasons, the "Comm-it-tee" had failed to engage a "duine mor", a man of stature to perform the opening ceremony. Why? No one could, or would say ! Fancy however heard from some of the Garenin dogs that a last-minute replacement had been found, an Aberdonian of no particular note, whose instant acceptance amazed some members of the committee, leaving them no time to reconsider their invitation, if that was their wish. Word of this spread quickly among the animals at the show. It would be a little later before the people learned that a Mr. Grant would open the Carloway Agricultural Show. His name was understandably absent from the show programme, a name which otherwise would have meant little to the people of the district, bar a few, to whom it meant something else again. A tall, heavy set man, Grant projected a faux bonhommie, and a barely disguised bombast. He had been involved in a variety of businesses, but never for too long. He would never risk his own money on any business venture, preferring to invest in other people's . There was not a grant nor subsidy which he didn't know about, and for those who asked, he was generous with advice, since this increased his standing, but at no cost to himself. His reputation grew among those who were like-minded. His meanness was a study in pathology, but this was not easily discerned, as it was masked by his largesse, using multiple expense accounts. He would often tell people that he was a millionaire, which he probably was. No matter where, he would regale perfect strangers with stories of his business acumen and his wealth. "I'm a millionaire, you know." This became his mantra. He would shortly open the show.
" Fancy, who told you so much about Mr. Grant ?", asked Filax. " It was one of the Garenin dogs, whose master got useful advice from Grant about a sheep subsidy" replied Fancy.
Mr. Grant's cri de coeur was "I love Carloway", a bit like the sycophants who extol their love of America, yet he was only in Carloway for two weeks a year. He was jocular, in a "hail fellow, well met" sort of way, possessed of a host of jokes, which he had honed over the years. He did not allude directly to his millionaire status, but the crowd were left in no doubt that here was a man of import. Finally, the Show was declared Open. Stowlia was awakened by the ripple of applause around her.
There was much to see at the show, and Iain 'Houdie would be guide and interpreter to the Dalmore animals for the rest of the afternoon, unless Iain was called away on an urgent matter of state, which could be settled, he said, with a small libation. Over at the sheep pens, the judging was taking place. Large men of rosy complexion, tweed jacket and plus-fours, were pulling and prodding the sheep, examining their teeth, and engaging in other technical procedures, unknown to anyone other than the big man in the fore-and-aft- hat, who was probably your head man (no pun intended). Shonnie's sheep lost out to some beautiful specimens from Breasclete and Garenin, but they would not return to Dalmore in the trailer disgraced, by any means. Anyway , there was a whole packet of digestive biscuits to ease the pain. Stowlia, Fancy and Jura were keen to help them on board ! However, in the cattle ring, Shonnie was doubly successful with first prizes(and money) for our lovely Ayrshire cow, Daisy and that superb specimen, Morag the heifer. Some moments to savour !
Horses measured in hands (why - asked Jura ?) and hens and cockerels all came under the scrutiny of an appropriate expert. The large blousey lady handling the poultry was known to all as "Cailleach a' Chearc" ( the Old Hen Lady). Sloppy pronunciation could lead to the lady being called "Coileach a' Chearc" (" coileach" - cockerel) and that would not do.
The Dog and the Cat Shows were not as per Crufts etc., but were only small local "beauty contests", not to be taken too seriously. Jura, the smooth coated Labrador Retriever, pipped Toss Macarthur for top dog, but to be honest, this wasn't Jura's thing at all. Now, the Cat contest was very much Victoria's thing. As a pedigree Persian, with a fabulous blue-cream coat and blazing orange eyes, she was the feline equivalent of Zsa Zsa Gabor. This was a more bitchy, back-biting affair than the Dog Show, and after much scratching and caterwauling, Victoria Chantelle Lautrec was declared the winner. Away at the back of the crowd, the unmistakable head of Kenny Iceland appeared, with the hint of a smile. A few eyes popped as Vicky moved towards the judge to receive the red rosette as first prize. Her studied walk, with her bushy tail prescribing a figure of eight, might be thought of as "sexy", but I'm sure that was not her intention. The male moggies at the front of the cat walk were too excited to care. However, the result did not suit the small cat-coterie from Garynahine. "That c-et is a ringer, Sylvia. I'm sure I saw the bugger at the Tolsta Show". The old bodach from Shawbost could not get his head around the idea of blue cream. "They must be getting a subsidy for that. I wonder if Bodach Grant knows anything about this"
The traditional island games of tossing the sheaf, putting the stone and lifting the weights was dominated by the success in all of them of young Alex Beag from Heather Street- this was a great feat considering the strength of his opponents. Tossing the caber is never a feature of Lewis games, because there are no trees on the island, The inter village tug-of-war resulted in victory for the men of Upper Carloway. The final event of the Show was the boat race down on Loch Carloway, to which the entire show crowd repaired. This was no Henley Regatta, but an event requiring strength and tactics. They were rowing for their village - reputations were at stake. These were large wooden, clinker boats requiring six oars to propel the vessel a measured distance down a sea loch. The oarsmen were Lewis bred and many of them would have had sea-going experience. As the boats surged through the waters, it was easy to transport your mind to a time when the birlinns of the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles, could be seen coming up Loch Carloway, oars moving as one, and banners stiff in the breeze.
" What a day, what a day", said Iain 'Houdie which Soho, his cat, thought might have been slightly slurred. "And why not", she mused, "air latha a' Chattle Show"

PS. I nearly forgot. The men from Doune won the boat race.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Turus ag iasgaich anns a Ghearraidh. A FishingTrip to the Gearraidh.

It was after lunch, and everyone in the Shoudie house was just coming round after his/her siesta, which in Lewis translates as "norrag" or "forty winks." Stowlia, the Shoudie dog, had been sleeping outside on a small knoll of sweet smelling grass,and wakened to see Iain climbing up the outside of the house, and onto the "tobhhta", where he disentangled a long bamboo rod from a covering of rye grass and nettles. The rod was upwards of twenty feet long, thick at one end and tapering to a narrow point at the other. Those bamboos may have come from distant lands, but in the isles they were used for fishing. They were called "slats", and in Dalmore, no one had to second guess where a man was going with a "slat". The best place was over in the Gearraidh, on a rock known as Bandaberie, situated in the wild inlet called Sheilagadh. Bandaberie would normally yield a good catch of fish, but one was always aware of the dangers of fishing there - an exposed rock surrounded on all sides by dangerous swirling eddies.
Stowlia had often gone with Iain to Bandaberie, and she knew how difficult it was to negotiate the descent down a shear rock face. Fancy and Jura could come along if they wished, as if they would miss out on such an adventure. They would have to wrap up against the cold winds, as they could be out on Bandaberie for some time. Stowlia was endowed with a thick coat of hair, but Fancy and Jura were not so well padded. Fancy had her pilot's outfit, of course, but Jura, the labrador, with its smooth black coat, would need some extra cover. Aunt Dolly came up with the ingenious idea of adapting an old Harris guernsey(minus sleeves) as a body warmer for Jura. It was a coat of many colours, knitted from a mixed-bag of bobbins.
They crossed high above the beach," outside the fence", heading for Geodha na Muilne and the Gearraidh. Here. on these green slopes, known as Nan Eilidean, they encountered Tom Warrener emerging from a rabbit burrow, covered in sand from the top of his head to the tip of his tail. They exchanged a few pleasantries with Tom, but they could see that he was eager to return to the work in hand. The fishing party eventually reached Bandaberie, and although there was a bit of a swell on the sea, it was decided that fishing was possible, but only if a lot of care was taken. Generations of the women folk of Dalmore feared for the men who fished on Bandaberie. Iain Shoudie decided that it was better and safer for Stowlia and Co. to stay up top, and to watch the operations from a clear vantage point, 25 feet up the sheer rock face. The waves hitting the rocks were moderately strong, but the plinth on which Iain stood was as yet safe. Ground bait of cold boiled potato tossed into the ravine had spectacular effects as Stowlia, Fancy and Jura witnessed Iain's bamboo bending time after time, the line alive with wriggling fish. Of course, Jura had never witnessed anything like this (understandably so), but her excited barking drew smiles from her country cousins. This was something to tell Solas and Fred back in Glasgow. With his bag full, Iain stopped fishing, and carefully scaled the rock face. "Well, my friends, we'll have a great fry-up tonight, along with Murdo and the cats," said John.
" Since Jura has come all the way from Labrador," said 'An 'Houdie, "we must show her round this little bit of Lewis." Jura appreciated Iain's stab at metaphor! "Firstly, I must find a place to leave the fish, as it's quite a heavy load to carry." He deposited the hessian bag of fish behind a large rock, well out on Rudha an Trileachan, where man never ventures. The attention of the three dogs was drawn to the large amount of sea shells strewn across the ground here. It was like a "midden", a word known to both archaeologists and Glaswegians alike. This was the drop zone where sea birds would release their newly caught shell fish from on high, smashing them on the rocks below. Moving downhill a little, Fancy was first to reach Allt na Muilne where in past times the people would grind their corn or oats in one of the two corn mills located on the steeply descending river (Allt na Muilne - The stream of the mills). Fancy and her two friends explored inside the old stone walls of the mills, splashing about in the semi-darkness. The cool waters of the "allt" was a footbath like none other.
Over at Sheilagadh, a broad deep inlet with a rocky beach, they could see from the powerful wave movements , that this was a dangerous place, on whose shore all sorts of flotsam and jetsam were strewn - reminders of the position that Lewis occupies at a crossroads of the Atlantic's waterways. Sheilagadh is an ugly, unforgiving place. They rejoined the "allt" further up its course, where now it is called "Allt a' Ghearraidh". There were some small trout in the river, and Stowlia tried her hand("spogs" actually) at guddling, much to the amusement of her companions. Result? A wet dog, no poissons.
At this moment, they espied three horses emerge from behind "Cnoc a' Choin" (The Hill of the Dogs). Jura asked if Stowlia or Fancy knew any of these dogs. Iain Shoudie laughed and awaited their reply. " Jura, that was a long time ago," replied Fancy "but I think my grandmother may have known one of them." Charlie, Jimmy and Tom were Dalmore's three horses, who were free to roam the common grazings, unless they were needed for work on the croft - ploughing, carting peats and hay etc. Charlie was Shonnie Glass's horse, a chestnut stallion, a tireless worker with an excellent temperament. But he also valued his freedom, and played hard to get when summoned for work. Shonnie would send his nephew, Iain, up into the hills, to find the horses and bring Charlie back to the croft for a spot of work. Charlie often shares this story with Jimmy and Tom.
" You can see wee Iain approaching from afar calling my name - very touching, really. Bare-footed, he wears a pair of long short trousers, a tweed jumper, of course, and his hair is cut in the mandatory pudding-bowl style. He carries a bridle and bit in one hand, and half a Stornoway loaf in the other. Tearing the bread in two, he approaches nearer, calling me, and proffers the bread. Just as I take the bread, he tries to get the bit into my mouth and the bridle over my ears. Jerking my head to the side, I gallop off to join you two. Now, I know that should he fail again, the lad would have a long trek home for more bread, with no guarantee of success the next time. So, a while ago I resolved to allow my capture on the second offer of bread. I shake my head, neighing loudly, but I open my mouth to accept the bit, and my surrender is complete. For Iain, the wee Glasgow boy, there is great pride in this achievement. For me, it's a harmless piece of fun, and I'm only too happy to oblige the wee fella'."
"Time to head back home", said 'An 'Houdie as they made their way across the old lazybeds in the Gearraidh. Climbing up towards Rudha an Trileachan, they could hear the hellish shrill cries "of a thousand birds". There, in front of them, huge gulls were engaged in a battle royal over the contents of Iain's bag of fish, hard won at Bandaberie. The seagulls dispersed, leaving a sorry mess of fish strewn across the grass, but on closer examination, about half the catch was untouched and would be on the frying pan later. A grand banquet and soiree was planned for the old "taigh dubh" that night.

A little information/explanation.

" tobhta" In the traditional Lewis thatched house ( 1830-1900 ), sometimes called a "taigh dubh" ( black house), there were double walls, and in between a turf infill. The walls were about 6 feet thick and rose to a similar height. The timbers which supported the thatch originated at the inside edge of the inner wall. When complete, there was a turfed "path" all the way round the "taigh dubh". This was the "tobhta".

"guddling" (a Scots word) involves fishing for trout/salmon in a river, by gently placing your hands under the fish and tickling its underside. When the fish is in rapture, you sweep the fish up, and onto the river bank. Poachers sometimes guddled a salmon - "one for the pot"

"lazybeds" In early days, with only a spade or "croman"(hoe) for digging, parallel ditches were excavated to afford ground drainage, and the soil was heaped up on top between ditches to give ground for growing some crops. Lazy - I think not.

"Nan eilidean"   Fallow grounds.   Here the short grassy ground fell away steeply to the sea

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Awayday On Loch Roag.

The weather had been cold and wet these last few days in Dalmore, and strange to relate, it was mid July. I suppose it was no better in Shawbost or Bragair, but today it was calm and the sky was blue. Over at No.4, Taigh 'houdie, Iain called a meeting of the resident cats and dogs. Soho, Rupie and Guinness were discomfited at the sound of the word "meeting". "A meeting," mused Stowlia, "this must be serious. Never heard of a meeting in this house before." Murdo could sense their anxiety and tried to reassure them with a smile.

Iain. " Shonnie, over at No.5, wants to discuss a proposition with us, which will also involve the cats and dogs in Taigh Glass".

"O, bhobh( Dear me), a meeting - now a proposition. Whatever next ?" Stowlia had more than a little of the Jeremiah in her, and was uneasy with what she had heard. The rapid movement of her eyebrows betrayed some anxiety, which in turn unsettled the cats. The meeting was convened outside Shonnie's weaving shed, opposite the hen house.

Shonnie. " We were thinking that, weather permitting, all of you might like a sail in my boat tomorrow afternoon, out on the "caolas"(Gael. " estuary, strait") to Loch Roag and the islands off Bernera. It will have to be a very calm day, and we must all behave responsibly while on board. We will have ourselves a picnic on one of the islands, and we may even catch a few fish, for later on."
Any doubts that our wee friends might have harboured were now removed. A general outcry of barks and meowing ensued, partly from relief, but more in excitement at what tomorrow held in store. The cats brushed against Shonnie's and Iain's legs, and Fancy, Stowlia and Jura went barking mad, howling their delight in unison. This, the animals thought, must be the most exciting thing that ever happened to them. Well, to be fair, it isn't often that cats go on a cruise, although dogs have been known to go fishing.
The big day arrived, and the weather was perfect. Well that's what everyone thought - everyone, that is, except Iain Shoudie.
Iain Shoudie. " If one looks out there on Dalmore Bay, the sea appears calm, from here to the far horizon. A good day to go fishing out of Loch Carloway, you might think. That is not always the case. In this village, by tradition, we were told to examine the state of the waves out there at Rudha na Trileachan, the point out there on the far left of the bay ( the Oyster Catcher's Headland). It could be that the sea looks calm, but if the waves are breaking strongly on the rocks at Rudha na Trileachan, then fair weather cannot be guaranteed out on Loch Roag. But, as you can see, things are fairly calm out there, so the sail is on!
It was by good fortune that Shonnie's cat, Tom, decided to come down from the Beinn (hill) on the very day of the boat trip. You will remember that Tom served on His Majesty's ships during the war (Ratter RNR), before retiring to Dalmore as a warrener. Normally a private individual, Tom was persuaded to join the rest of the "crew" aboard SY 92, moored at the Dunan at the head of Loch Carloway.
In case you are wondering, Shonnie's little address to the animals was in fact simultaneously translated by Iain Shoudie for his little friends.

The boat eased itself round the Dunan Pier with Shonnie "at the helm", and with the little outboard on full throttle, the boat gently cut its way through the flat-calm of Loch Carloway. They passed the little village of Doune on the port side, and a few minutes later the deserted hamlet of Laimishader appeared on the opposite shore. Shonnie told them that before the pier at the Dunan was built, the remains of an Iron Age fort occupied the site, built nearly 2000 years ago. The beautiful little village of Laimishader had been occupied until about 100 years ago, and had always been known in Lewis as an early Christian site, where miracles could happen. Long after it was a ruin, and up until more recent times, a mother with her sickly child would shelter in the ruins of the church overnight, hoping her prayers would bring healing to her child. Victoria asked Shonnie if sick puppies and kittens were ever taken there by their mothers. Shonnie noted how earnest was Vicky's question, and with a smile, assured her that it was likely - why not.

A gentle breeze passed over the boat, and occasionally one of the crew would have a fine spray of water lick their face. Fancy was properly attired for this sea voyage, wearing, as he was, his full motorcycle gear - leather pilot's jacket, leather flying helmet and a pair of American aviator goggles. She sat beside her master, Shonnie. He gave Fancy a short "spell at the wheel", but it was difficult, having only "spogs"(paws). Victoria asked Guinness if her blue-cream coat looked OK, what with the wind and the sea spray. " You look smashing, hen", replied Guinness who came from Glasgow. Passing the lighthouse at Aird Laimishader, they were now in the "caolas" proper, where the wind was fresher and the waves a little livlier. Iain Shoudie remarked that the sea was fine, but Jura and Stowlia lay together at the bottom of the boat, feeling a little light-headed.
"We are nearing the island of Little Bernera", said Shonnie. "We will go ashore there to picnic, to look around and to relax." The boat slowed as it passed between rocky spurs to reveal the most delightful little golden beach. This little lagoon was home to a number of Atlantic seals, who started barking at the boat's approach. " Do you dogs understand what the seals are saying?" asked Soho. " But of course," answered Stowlia. " The Big Fella. there on the rock is asking if we know his cousin, Ronnie in Dalbeg Bay." "And do you?" said Soho, with the hint of a Cheshire-like smile on her pretty face. The boat finally beached on the golden sands of little Bernera. To be honest, the wee folk were happy to be back on terra firma, and they enjoyed exploring the island with not so much as a house on it. But there once was a farm and house here.
In fact, said Iain Shoudie, the first Maclennan to arrive on Lewis, was granted the lands of Little Bernera by the overlord of the island, Lord Seaforth, Chief of the Clan Mackenzie.
" And all of the Maclennans on Lewis had their beginnings here, back in around 1700. Murdo and I are descended from that very first Maclennan, the Tacksman of Little Bernera. And before you ask, So-sally, you are descended from the first Maclennan cat on Little Bernera.
" You will have seen the small graveyard above the beach. That used to be resting place of the Carloway people before the cemetery in Dalmore opened in around 1910. The burial party would have to row all the way out here to bury their loved one. If the weather was stormy, and lasted more than three days, then the body was interred in the little cemetery in Cirbhig, across from the Dunan."
"I could listen all day to Iain Shoudie," said Vicky. " He has a way of making the old times come alive."
Tom Warrener had been fairly quiet throughout the day, and Shonnie noticed it. This would be the first time Tom was at sea, since he served along side his friend Shonnie in the Royal Navy at the end of the war. Shonnie invited Tom to sit at the stern with him, recalling the time they served together down in England. Shonnie cradled Old Tom in his arms as they turned for home. The men started fishing with the hand-lines and invited the crew to step forward to assist. They struck lucky almost immediately, and within a short time they had enough for a fry-up. Seoras met them at the Dunan with his van, and transported skipper, bosun and crew back to Dalmore.
This was a day that they would fondly cherish for years to come. Think about it - cats and dogs fishing for haddock. Quite unbelievable !

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Dogs Have Their Day..

A blue sky, a few wispy clouds, and it was already warm in Dalmore, this early in the morning. A perfect day for it, but in truth wasn't it a perfect day for just about anything . The Dalmore and Dalbeg fank had happily been arranged for this day. Late July was the time when the sheep and lambs were gathered in from the moors, and the people of the villages always made a day of it. An American lady once stopped to ask what was going on, and why it was called a fank ( Gaelic "faing"). She dutifully entered the information in her travel diary and spent some time with Seoras perfecting various Gaelic pronunciations. She maintained that a lexicon of Gaelic pronunciations should be included wherever necessary, if the language was to be "popularised". Seoras said that Gaelic was still popular enough in Lewis.
Back in Dalmore, preparations were being made for the fank, located in an old gravel pit below Cnoc Na Cartach( Carters' hill) on the main road to Stornoway. Bar a few additions, it was "ready made" as a fank. Ropes, sacks, shears and dye sticks were gathered, and the women folk prepared some food for the day. The sheepdogs were indispensable in this undertaking, for as ever, where sheep are being worked, there you will always find dogs possessed of remarkable skills. Victoria, the blue-cream Persian, asked if cats could be of any help at the fank. Iain Shoudie thanked her kindly, but told her that a fank could be a dangerous place for cats, and that it is better that they remained within the village, just for today. Jura the black labrador, like Vicky, home on holiday from Glasgow, could come along, but purely as a spectator, and must not get involved with the sheep under any circumstances. It might prove very tempting, but she must stay well away from the throng of sheep, lambs and sheepdogs. The Shoudie dog, Stowlia, would be at the fank, but she was a sheepdog in name only, and would be better employed chaperoning Jura for the day. Of the three, Fancy was the only dog of any ability around sheep, but even then was in the second division compared to heavyweights like Toss, Sweep or Moss. The success of the massive sheep-drive would be down to those three. Stowlia told Jura that there could be as many as twelve dogs involved, and to note how competitive the men were with their dogs. They determined to get a good view of the men and the working dogs as they gathered the sheep from disparate parts of the moor. "Beinn na Cloiche" (the stony hill), a little way out, stood 525 feet in height, and was perfect for the panoramic view it afforded. Stowlia and Jura watched with excitement, tinged with a little envy, as the men gave their dogs the commands that sent them on the long outrun. These were a mixture of Gaelic, English and whistles - "Mach a' seo", "Way out" and some more. They had a large area to cover; as far out as Beinn Bhragair, Loch Raoinabhat and Beinn Horshader. The dogs were so far out, that they now had to depend on instinct, each working in concert with the others. They would collect stray groups of sheep to add to the drive, and working back and forward, this huge bleating mass was inexorably moving in the direction of the fank, where their masters would take over command for the close quarter work with their dogs. Jura, that gentle dog, whose normal daily exercise was a forty five minute stroll in the local woods, was standing on the high vantage point of "Beinn na Cloiche", in awe of the scene before her. Hundreds of sheep and lambs now driven together, uttered a continuous cry, as the more skilled dogs worked back and forward, right and left, helping to shepherd this massive flock through the entrance of the fank. This was a crucial time, when the most determined sheep were wont to break away. Other than Jura and the Shoudies, I wondered who else noticed dear old Stowlia running about at the rear of the other dogs, making out that she too had a contribution to make. She now felt like a real sheepdog, and the wink from Iain Shoudie meant so much to her. Actually, the top dogs like Sweep and Toss could always expect a late foray from Stowlia, but they were happy to oblige her in this yearly flight of fancy. Talking of Fancy, she had acquitted herself well, according to her peers, and Shonnie her master was best pleased with her performance. The fank got under way as the men slowly made their way through this large body of sheep, identifying their own, and passing them out to be tied and sheared. Lambs were set aside to be returned to Dalmore. There was much banter and laughter around the fank, and a little beer and whisky was at hand to slake the driest of throats . Some food was taken, sacks bulged with newly shorn wool and the animals were finally released to be driven towards Dalmore, where the sheep and the lambs were parted, and the lambs brought inside the village fence. The constant bleating of the lambs and the response of their mothers would fill the valley for days to come. Only the hardest heart could fail to be touched by their cries.
As we now know, cats don't go to fanks, nor do they mix with sheep - not as a rule. But we are aware that there may be "exceptions to the rule". Among the lambs which came back to the Shoudie house, was a tiny blackface, who had either been rejected by its mother, or the mother had recently died. Iain and Murdo started bottle feeding right away. The cats took this wee lamb to their hearts, and in time this small soul started to follow Soho, Rupie and Victoria about the croft. Stowlia the dog could only marvel as the cats gambolled with "Eobhann an Uan" ( Ewan the Lamb), its name the product of Iain Shoudie's fertile imagination. On cold wet days, Ewan would join Kenny Iceland and the others at the fireside, courtesy of the Boys. A lamb warming itself at an open fire - unbelievable, I know, I know.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Heroes of the Airidh (shealing).

Iain Shoudie rose from the "being" (bench) after a refreshing "norrag" ( like forty winks, but much shorter ). Using the tongs, a relic of the Iron Age, Iain rearranged the glowing embers of the fire, and strategically placed a few peats on top, with the know-how of the seasoned Gael. He managed this despite the presence of various domestic animals around his feet, pets who were settled "ri taobh an theine" ( at the fireside). It would be around nine in the evening, and soon Murdo (John's brother) would arrive with the two Galloway cows that had grazed all day in the hills over towards Dalbeg. So-sally, Rupie and Stowlia could hear Murdo opening and closing the gate to the croft up at the back of the house. O Man, what a sight as those two majestic black creatures negotiated the doorway to the house, turning left to occupy their own stall in the byre. With the cows tethered to the wall, Murdo was usually the one who did the milking ( a gentle touch, soft comforting words). Those gentle cows would give two large enamel pailfuls of premium milk. There was no skimming, no pasteurising and for a while no tuberculin testing. There was plenty of milk to go around and Soho(aka So-sally), Rupie and Stowlia waited around the byre, with the odd meow from the cats. Murdo would assure them that milking was near an end, and in time they all had their bowl or saucer full of that rich warm milk. Murdo and Iain had some supper - bully beef and some water waffers (Jacob's Cream Crackers) and they were all settling to a quiet evening when "dithis Glass" arrived from over the way. Fancy, the collie, and his friend, Filax, the cat were made welcome at the warm fireside, just as Iain got the Tilley lamp going. This had the makiings of a good "taigh ceilidh", and there was an air of expectation among the animals. Stowlia, the house dog, looked squarely at Murdo, moving his eyebrows up and down, knowing how this rarely failed to take a trick with the boys. "Murchadh, innis 'inn 'storrie'. " (Stowlia had asked Murdo for a story), Murdo being the better "seanachaidh"(story teller) of the two Maclennan men.
Iain Shoudie smiled as Murdo lay his book down on the dresser, and on top he placed his bendy wire spegligans. Murdo adopted a serious demeanour as he returned Stowlia's stare. Stowlia waited a moment before again doing her eyebrows thing. It never failed. A smile began to break over Old Murdo's face, and he was as good as "hyooked", as Iain would say.
"Am math leat mise a-dheanadh so ? ("Do you want me to do this?")
There was a chorus of barking and meowing, whose meaning was unequivocal. Murdo stirred the peat fire, and its yellow glow lit up the faces of his expectant wee friends. Murdo began his tale of a time past.
Murdo : " You may know, or perhaps not, that our people in the Highlands and Islands. a long time ago, fought for the right to own a few acres of land, where they could build a house for their families, and grow a few crops. They would no longer fear the heartlessness of the landlords, under whom they were mere serfs. Now they could tend their crofts without interference, but there were still a few conditions attached. An important part of the Crofters' Act was the requirement that each summer for a period of six weeks, all animals, mainly cattle, were removed from the crofts to allow the grazings to recover. Crofts of approximately four acres needed a period of regrowth to protect the valuable grasslands. All the cattle were herded onto the adjacent moorland and it is here that generations of people lived out their summers at the "airidhean", the shealings, so dear to the hearts of successive Lewis families.
The father, grandparents and some children would remain behind on the croft to look after the crops, and perhaps to do some essential repairs about the place. The mother and the rest of her children would travel out to their own "airidh", basically a small bothy of stones and turf to afford shelter from the rain and the winds, and where they could lay their heads at night. Out there on the airidh, the prime concern was the welfare of the cattle, a precious and expensive asset at any time. It would usually fall to the children to tend the cows, moving them to the best pastures and ensuring that they were kept away from other cattle with whom they might fight. This is known as "buachailleachd", the herding of cattle, a very important responsibility it was.
"Now, my little friends", said Murdo, " this story will be of particular interest to Fancy and Filax since it involved the Glass family from Gearrannan while at their airidh at Tom Liabhrat. The shealing was about a mile south-east of the Dalmore road end, and was located on a small grassy knoll overlooking Loch Tom Liabhrat, a small lochan. Shealings were usually grouped together in small moorland hamlets of people from the same village. Most of the normal activities of the croft were engaged in here, but to a lesser degree. The cooking, baking, milking and washing were carried out in the open, when the weather was fine. There was much to-ing and fro-ing between the croft house in Gearrannan and the airidh at Tom Liabhrat. Milk and bread were taken back to the people at home, while peats, flour and other essentials made their way to "Airidh Glass". At the airidhean, lifelong friendships were forged here, and romantic trysts might one day end in marriage . Children were born at the airidh, sometimes people even died here. People went visiting their neighbours to ceilidh or perhaps just for a "strupag" (drop of tea). There were banks of blaeberries where the children would sit for hours picking the tiny black berries, sweet and laden with colour. When the sun went down and the oil lamps began to be lit in the airidhean, this was truly a wonderful sight, so far out on the lonely moor.
There were many new sights and sounds out here. There were peat workings abandoned long ago with tall towers of turf and heather isolated on the soft floor of peat. For the children of the shealings, this was a magic land inhabited by the "little people" ( Ni sithiche ). The cry of the corncrake and the lapwing were ever present. There were a few lochs in the area other than Loch Tom Liabhrat around which many of the Gearrannan airidhean had been built. Its waters were shallow and it was deemed safe for the children to play in, with so many eyes on them. The little loch provided water for drinking and washing. You couldn't ask for a better site for the shealings.
There were one or two bigger lochs in the vicinity, Feath Loch Gleaharan ( "Feath" Gael. dead calm.) being no more than half a mile distant. One hot summer afternoon, two young children, Calum Macleod and his sister Catriona, aged four and six respectively, had made their way to Gleaharan, and were feeling hot and tired. Against all the warnings that had been given, they decided to cool off in the cold waters of the loch, venturing out until the water was waist high. They were happy cavorting and splashing each other with water. If you only have two legs, these moorland lochs can be very dangerous, what with the cold water, the bottom currents, algae covered stones and all types of plant growth. Nearby, Glass's dog Glen and his pal, Shoudie's Clyde were trying to free some rabbits from their underground homes when they heard a girl's cry for help. Catriona and Calum had lost their footing, but while the little girl had regained her footing, her brother Calum was being carried out into the loch beyond her reach. Just at that, Glen and Clyde were by Catriona's side, who pointed frantically towards her brother, now about thirty yards out and his head barely above the water. Glen,who thankfully had all of four legs, plunged into the loch and swam straight for Calum. Holding onto this dear dog's back, Calum was soon safely on the shore with his sister, with whom Clyde had stayed throughout the rescue. Apart from a little spluttering and shivering, the children were safely back in the bosom of their family. Needless to say, our four-legged friends were feted as heroes.
"If this heroic act had taken place now," said Murdo, " then Glen (and possibly Clyde) would have been given the Dickin Medal, the highest award for animal bravery, the equivalent of our Victoria Cross.
" Well, my friends, I hope you enjoyed the story, but it is now bedtime," said Murdo. Actually, Iain Shoudie was already fast asleep up in the room, and one or two of the wee folk were nodding off in front of the fire, beside their pal, Murdo.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Eaglais nan Eoin ( The Birds' Church )

I think we would agree that almost everywhere, there are many more birds than cats and dogs. The West Side of the Island of Lewis is no exception. The religious fervour of the birds in these parts has long been talked of, and many would say that their devotions even exceed those of Eaglais a' Choin s' Chait, the Dog and Cat Church in Doune, in charge of which is the Right Reverend MacCollie, the minister who is very attached to his collar. Eaglais nan Eoin was situated in the village of Shawbost, which could accommodate large numbers of birds, which flocked to the various Sunday services. They had acquired a large barn of a place in Fibhig, an enormous shed no longer used by the local Harris Tweed mill. Beams and shelving used previously in the mill afforded ideal pews(perches,really) for the large congregations that foregathered there every Sunday. The birds liked their Calvinism dour and unadulterated, and this was reflected in a succession of old time avian ministers. Predestination and damnation were favourite themes of these preachers, and favourites too of the congregations. Such were the numbers who came to the Shawbost Church at Fibhig, that multiple meetings of perhaps one thousand birds were required to service this multitude. The Avian Free Church had the largest congregation on the island, by far. Every bird from the wren to the raven attended these popular services, and all were seated in the "pews" according to size. There were always a large presence of the crow family (carrion crow, rooks etc.) and, as one would expect, a great variety of seabirds, especially gulls. There were lapwings,sparrows,blackbirds, and, up high at the rear of the church, a bevy of buzzards fresh in from the creeks. There was a loft( not an organ loft, mind, you) high above the pulpit which was reserved for a particular church member who commanded a lot of respect from others, if not a little fear. This was Gilleasbuig, the golden eagle, who would fly in from Beinn Bhragair to attend these services. Before the Reformation, Gilleasbuig might well have been proud to mention that he was descended from a long line of bishops, but this was something he never spoke of now, and to be sure, neither did anyone else. Gilleasbuig was definitely a presence in the church and he ruffled a few feathers, so to speak, when he flew in to take his pew in the loft. On the few occasions that Gilleasbuig's wife could be persuaded to come (she was not of his persuasion), they said that it was as though the Holy Ghost had passed through the church. The "eoin oig" ( young birds ) were always well behaved when Gilleasbuig Mor was in church. His eagle eye could take in the whole congregation without so much as turning his head. The young birds looked straight ahead, wings folded, and not a chirp or a peep from anyone. He was a godsend to the minister and the elders.

The minister of Shawbost Avian Free Church was renowned as a great preacher, and was very often asked to "guest" at other churches throughout the Hebrides. He was not large of stature, but his presence always dominated any company he was in. A carrion crow born in Stornoway, the Reverend Kenneth MacCraw was said to be the "most powerful" preacher ever heard in the Isles. He was known by all as "MacCraw Mor", whose powerful message could bring tears to the eyes of the hardest-bitten buzzard. During the communions, a few years back in the Ness Church, it was said that a number of herring gulls had collapsed with the fervour of his preaching, and later became communicants of the church. MacCraw Mor took most of his lessons from the Old Testament, which he felt best reflected the time and travails of his people, much like the Children of Israel long ago. Some people aver that the Celtic peoples are descended from the "lost tribe of Israel". The Reverend MacCraw had no doubts about this.
With their souls well nourished, the large congregations would disperse, each bird returning to its own habitat. For Big Gilleasbuig, the golden eagle high up in the loft, an exit strategy had been devised to save the big fella' and the church from damage, as he took his leave back to Beinn Bhragair.
In Dalmore, Iain Shoudie was always abreast of matters, and with regards to the events above, his "coilleach",Calum and Calum's wife the "cearc", Fiona were regulars at the Shawbost Church. Iain Shoudie, as you know, could talk to the animals, and it was he who told me this story. If it were possible, I would loved to have heard MacCraw Mor in full flight, no pun intended.

Gael. "coilleach" Eng. cockerel
Gael. "cearc" Eng. hen
Gael. Gilleasbuig Eng. Archibald - literally "the follower of the bishop"
Gael MacCraw Mor Eng. Big MacCrow