Wednesday, 5 January 2011
In Lewis, as in other islands of the Hebrides, there was little in the way of motorised transport to be seen on the single track roads, except for vehicles with a very specific purpose. In the early 1950s, each district could boast of having a few buses and lorries, usually owned and run by an established family of entrepreneurs, who probably also had the local shop. There was a small number of vans which" brought the town to the village" - essential groceries, clothes (Co-op Drapery), post office van, mobile library, travelling bank, fish van (herring mostly) and of course the Harris Tweed lorries, keeping the weavers supplied, and returning to the mill with the finished tweeds. To get about the district, you hoofed it, or, as was becoming increasingly popular at this time, you bought yourself a sturdy bicycle, a Raleigh or a Rudge. There was perhaps the odd motorbike, but saloon cars were frankly rare, the local doctor's being such a rarity. The ministrations of midwife and nurse were usually accompanied by bicycle (doctor's car in emergencies). Non-urgent religious matters could normally be dealt with by the minister on the Sabbath. In Dalmore, with its cemetery-by-the-sea, we often had occasion to see a long black carriage passing slowly through the village. Glass-sided to reveal a fine oak coffin, this was a hearse on hire from the Stornoway undertakers, which transported the deceased to their final resting place by the "traigh". In many respects, you could say that this was a van, albeit a very special van, which no one stopped, because it had nothing to sell. Now, a different vehicle had arrived in the village, and it had not come alone. This morning, Rupie was the first to emerge from Taigh 'Houdie. Murchadh had just got the fire going, and there was a good deal of bluish smoke rising from the stone chimney, snaking its way up the "beinn" at the back of the house. Rupie went through the elaborate cat ritual of cleaning herself with her tongue and the deft use of her white spogs. Looking around her, Rupie's eyes happened on a strange scene at the corner of the cemetery nearest the "Allt". There were two round tent like dwellings, with wisps of smoke coming from the top of one, and a small lorry parked at the side of the tents. There was the sound of children's laughter and the barking of dogs. At that moment, Iain Shoudie, cup of tea in hand, came out to sit on the bench, and immediately lit a Senior Service. So-Sally sat close to Iain on the bench, which amounted to a long heavy plank supported at each end by some breeze blocks. At the end nearest the door, there were two white enamel pails used to hold water from the old spring well situated below a large rock at the base of the beinn. Very cold and pure, this water had the reputation of being the best in the village. Iain Shoudie : "A' Ghille, thoir suil air sinn. It's good to see them back in Dalmore. It's a few years since they made camp here." Rupie : " I don't remember seeing them here or anywhere else, but Soho, being that bit older than me, may well know who they are. There was a hint of a smile on Rupie's face as she turned towards Soho. Soho : "I've seen them here twice before, and they camped in the same place by the river. They are the travelling people, probably the Drummonds or the Stewarts from outside Stornoway." Iain : " The travelling people, sometimes referred to as tinkers, are people skilled in the use of tin, making or repairing pots from tin or tinplate. They are often called Highland tinkers, and move camp from place to place in the months of spring and summer. The Gaelic for tinker is 'ceard', but the word has been so misused by some people, that the tinkers themselves dislike this word. They are not that keen on the name "tinker", for much the same reason, and prefer to be called travellers." The two cats, Soho and Rupie, followed Iain down the leathadh, and they headed towards the traigh to speak with the tinkers, if that was possible. One got the feeling that Iain knew these people, because frankly, 'An 'houdie knew everyone (almost). Iain : " Seamus Drummond, I believe ? Drummond: "Yes, Seamus Drummond, and that is my wife and children, and some of the grandparents. We'll be in the Carloway district for the next week . We haven't been here for a few years, so I suspect that we will be able to sell some new tin pails and mugs, and repair any old ones that are leaking." Rupie : " You don't seem to have any cats here with you, only dogs," Drummond : "We never take cats on our travels. Cats prefer a settled existence and our three stay in our home in Stornoway. But, come over and meet the dogs, Cormac the Irish wolfhound and Billy the border terrier. You are quite safe - are they not, boys ?" Tentatively, Rupie and Soho approached the dogs, and were surprised to see Cormac and Billy offer up a spog for them to shake. Even Iain Shoudie had never witnessed such amazing animal behaviour. Cormac was a giant of a dog who towered over Soho and Rupie, but his calm demeanour and measured movements put our cats at their ease. His hair was long and grey and he had bushy eyebrows and a neat beard. The wolfhounds had been the hunting dogs favoured by the ancient Irish kings. The border terrier was a braw wee lad, who went everywhere with his big pal, Cormac. Billy loved this gentle giant, and he looked up to him, in more way than one. Cormac : " Of course, we hope your dog friends will feel free to visit us here in camp." Iain : " Of course, Seamus, pots and pans is not your only business. You are famous for trading in horses, and buying quality scrap metal." Drummond : "Absolutely. As they say 'Man can not live by bread alone.' In our case, we can no longer survive solely on our traditional skills. The world is moving on, and we must move with the times. Yes, we buy certain metals, and in this village, for example, there is a young lad who trades with us in those metal floats which detach from fishermens' nets at sea. I buy them from him at a shilling a time, and sell them on to the fishermen in Stornoway at a profit, of course. Most of the horses bought and sold in Lewis are traded through us. In fact, tomorrow I am going to see a horse in Upper Carloway, and you are welcome to come along. If it is as good as they say it is, then I have a mind to buy the horse. The following day, Seamus Drummond, with his son Angus, stopped to pick up Iain Shoudie and the dogs, Stowlia, Fancy, Jura and Fred in his little lorry, which he happened to call the "pickup" - a very appropriate name, thought Jura. With Cormac and Billy already in the back of the pickup, the addition of the Dalmore dogs, made for a barking mad and excitable crew as they passed through Carloway. When they reached their destination, they all caught sight of this magnificent chestnut horse, a young stallion in full gallop in a field by the road. Cormac intimated that he was pretty sure that Seamus would buy this beautiful horse, if the price was right. Seamus gave the horse careful scrutiny, looking at his teeth and hind quarters and there was also some mention of fetlocks and withers, which must have been important to Seamus, but which even 'An 'Houdie had never heard of before. The price was agreed, and Seamus asked his son to lead the horse back to Dalmore. A few days later, when they went down to see the Drummonds, Seamus was making new pails and mugs from sheets of tinplate. Cormac : " I think that you'll find this interesting, folks. Seamus uses the shears to cut out the shapes of tin he needs. He uses these metal compasses to form circular shapes for the bottom of the pail or jug, and special cone shaped anvils to form the sides of the various vessels. He does this using a hammer with a leather covered head." Billy : "That small lump of silver-coloured metal is called solder which is used to join the various parts together. The soldering iron is heated in the fire and when applied to the solder with some soldering paste (called "flux") the solder melts and is guided along the seam with the iron. The solder must be lead-free as the vessels will carry items of food. The "raw" top edge of the pail or jug is "rolled" to remove its sharp edge, and finally a hooked handle is attached to finish the tin vessel. Jura : They are very skilled, the travellers, at what they do, and I don't believe they would change their way of life for any other. Iain : "Now, Seamus, a lot of people are afraid of travellers. They say that you ask people for food for your children, and being afraid that a refusal would result in a curse on them or their home, people do your bidding." Seamus : "It is true that some travellers have played on the superstitions of people that we can "put the spog" on them. They confuse us with the Gypsies or Romany who did claim these powers. We don't have these powers and I doubt if the Romany have them either. I think people see us an alien race, with a different life and customs, and are a bit wary of us. We have lived the travellers' life now for generations, and will continue to do so into the future. No one needs to have any fear of us. We will be leaving tomorrow, and you're all invited down here tomorrow evening for a bite to eat. I hope you can come." Iain Shoudie : " Dha-riribh, we will be there, Seamus." The following night, Iain and Murdo with their retinue of dogs and cats joined the Drummond family around the large fire in front of the tents. Mrs Drummond and her eldest daughter had prepared various small cakes and other sweetmeats. Seamus produced a bottle of malt whisky which found favour with "Balaich Shoudie," There was much talk and laughter around the fire that night, and the animals entered the spirit of the occasion, playing games that were taught to young travellers (and their animals) from time immemorial. As the evening drew to a close, Seamus pointed in the direction of the traigh, and with the help of the light from the roaring fire, all could see young Angus Drummond riding the young stallion in their direction. Everyone cheered the young rider and his beautiful chestnut horse. The night was almost over, but there was one more surprise in store for the company. Again, looking towards the sea, they could hear something approaching, but couldn't make out what it was in the darkness. Suddenly, lit by the fire, they were amazed to see Billy the terrier riding towards them on the back of his friend, Cormac, very steady at an even trot. There was uproar and applause at this humorous jape. There were fond goodbyes that night, but they all resolved to get together when the Drummonds came again to Dalmore. Glossary. traigh - shore / Taigh 'Houdie - the Shoudie's house / Murchadh - Murdo / beinn - hill spog - paw / allt - river / A'Ghille, thoir suil air sinn - O, Boy, have a look at that leathadh - a slope / braw (Scots) - handsome / put the spog on them - curse them dha-riridh - indeed / balaich Shoudie - the Shoudie boys.