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.