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.

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