Monday, 31 October 2011

Billy Dubh.

It was a strange sight to see two huge golden eagles circling the Beinn low above Taigh ' Houdie. Equally strange was the fact that the people in the village below, mindful of the great birds' presence, were not in the least perturbed, which they certainly would have been in the past . Then, the sound of gunshot and the hysterical cry of "Iolaire" would have filled the air (Gael. "Eagle") Possibly, they remembered how an eagle had played an important role in ridding the village of a killer mink, not so long ago. The great birds landed at the top of a feannaig (Gael. strip field) beside Taigh ' Houdie, and the Shoudie "boys" ( Balaich ' Houdie) and their animal friends could only marvel at the majestic sight of two golden eagles approaching them with a waddling gait, reminiscent of a capercaillie, if you ever saw one. If any of the observers felt like smiling, then the great beak and talons, not to mention the camera-like flicker of their wild eyes, persuaded them otherwise. Here in front of them stood Gilleasbuig of Beinn Bhragair and a young male eagle, who was introduced to the company as Ailpein. Gilleasbuig approached Iain 'Houdie, perhaps too close for comfort, and addressed him in heavily accented Lewis Eaglese. "Mr. Maclennan, your understanding of animals is legend in these parts, and it is because of this that we are here today." At this he unfolded his mighty wings to reveal a passenger clinging to the feathered neck of this awesome bird. It was a pigeon, thin and scrawny, unlike the large, plump specimens inhabiting the woods. Iain 'Houdie could see that one of the pigeon's wings was trailing, possibly fractured. That was why Gilleasbuig had brought the pigeon over to Dalmore, hoping that the Shoudie Boys could help. The bird was a racing pigeon en route from Thurso to Edinburgh, but strong easterly winds had greatly altered its course, and the bird was found injured by the eagles at Tom an Eoin near Beinn Bhragair. Gilleasbuig said that his name was Billy Dubh (well, that's how it sounded like to him), but Billy insisted that his second name was "Doo", with the emphasis on the 'oo', as in 'too'.
Billy : " My name, as recorded in official documents at the Edinburgh Dovecote, is William Doo. I am a racing pigeon nowadays, but before that I had a very unusual career. My lineage goes back a long way, to France, my mother told me. There was in the Mortonhall district of Edinburgh a unique group of 'doocots' where the resident pigeons were employed in a very old business indeed. We were carrier pigeons who were trained to carry messages between people and places. Everything depended on our well known homing instinct, used so often during wars, but the Mortonhall pigeons were involved in a more romantic and pleasing way. Specifically, we carried love letters between people, the lovesick and the lovelorn. We worked every day of the year, not just St. Valentine's Day. Rupie helped Billy down from off his own eagle "nest", and a comfortable corner was found for him near the fire. Iain 'Houdie had already arranged with Seoras to drive him and the injured pigeon over to the vet's surgery in Stornoway.
Iain 'Houdie : " Billy Dubh or Billy Doo, we'll have to take you to the veterinary surgeon in Stornoway, who will see to your injured wing." The vet was a kindly old gentleman, who had treated quite a few hens, some ducks and a grey parrot belonging to a Dutch seaman, but never a pigeon. With the use of a splint and some tape, the vet was positive that the wing would heal within a short time. As this was an unusual case, whose history amused him greatly, the vet said that there would be no charge.
Billy was very happy that he had come across such kindness here on the Island of Lewis. He was given some corn seed and a small saucer of water. So-Sally and Rupie were amused as Billy seemed to toss more seeds about him, than he consumed. Stowlia reminded them that this was no different from the behaviour of the hens at feeding time.
Billy's wing healed and there was no reason now for him to hang about Dalmore. The thought of leaving this idyll of a place, leaving all his new found friends made Billy very sad. Iain 'Houdie picked up on this, and asked his brother Murdo if a place could be found for Billy on Lot a' Houdie ( the Shoudie croft). Murdo said that Billy Dubh was welcome to stay as long as he wished - forever, if he had a mind to. Small tears of happiness formed on Billy's beak, as Soho, Rupie and Stowlia moved closer to embrace the latest member of Taigh 'Houdie - Billy Dubh, Calman Sitheil. (peaceful dove)
Seoras built a dovecote for Billy which was second to none. In all Edinburgh, where pigeon fancying was strong, Billy knew of no dovecote that could match the one which Seoras built. Billy was ecstatic with joy.
Rupie : "Billy, tell me. When you were flying about carrying these love letters, did you carry the paper messages in your beak ? Didn't you suffer from "lock beak" and did the paper not get wet from the drooling."
Billy : "No, not in my beak ! Around my neck I wore a fine silk ribbon, to which was attached a very small silver cylinder, into which the paper message was placed and the top closed. When we were out flying on these love missions, we weren't aware of the gear around our necks. At the receiving end, the message would be removed and read. If there was to be a reply, we often got a small feed of corn, a message would be attached, and we were released from whence we came. It was a good system, but the telephone more or less did away with it. The telephone is faster, but far less romantic, and for the shy or the tongue-tied, the pigeon post was sans pareil".
Soho : "Was that French you spoke just now, Billy ?"
Billy : "I think it was. This happens from time to time, and I never know why."
Soho : "Didn't you say that your ancestral pigeons came from France ?"
Billy : "That's what Mother always maintained."
Soho had been thinking about Billy, and his past involvement in a very specialised branch of the pigeon post. He asked Murdo about it, who was the village postman, but Murdo knew nothing about an equivalent service offered by the General Post Office. The Post Office did deliver Valentine cards, but I don't think pigeons were involved.
Soho : "Billy, do you think you could carry messages again, except here in Lewis ? I take it that you intend to stay here with us in Dalmore !"
Billy : "I am staying here, and, of course, carrying messages is not something a pigeon like me forgets."
Soho : "I think you would be in great demand. There are many spinsters and bachelors in the district, who are possibly too shy to make a move on their own, but on paper, can be quite bold in stating their case. There are many lovelorn souls around here, Billy, who would use your services. In Upper Carloway and Garenin alone, there are enough clients to keep you flying for months at a time. Shawbost would keep you going for years to come."
Seoras fashioned a beautiful little mahogany cylinder to carry the love notes, and Mairi, his wife, fashioned a narrow tweed band for round Billy's neck. The love enterprise was ready to be launched. Small adverts were placed in the "sheds" in Carloway, and Coinneach Uilleam even displayed an advert in his post office. The charge was six pence per letter, and moneys would be collected each Friday night, by Stowlia or Fancy. Billy was in his element again, but on two occasions he was blown off course, as the winds here on the west coast can be hard work for a wee Edinburgh doo. There was one young man from Ceann a-Staigh nan Ghearranan ( inner Garenin) who spent a fortune on pigeon post, with excellent results, he maintained. It has to be said that love was in the air, and there was a surge in betrothals among persons you would never have thought of.
On a day off (and did he need it), Billy, Iain 'Houdie and the Dalmore Crew took a walk down to the traigh. There was a family staying in a large tent by the allt, and on the way back, greetings were exchanged. The people were from France, and were amazed at Iain's ability to interpret for this disparate collection of animals. He introduced them one by one, but when he mentioned Billy Doo, the French woman smiled.
French Lady : " That is a very sweet name, Billy, mon petit. It sounds exactly like the phrase we have in French - " billet doux" which is a love letter, literally a "soft, sweet letter".
Well, Billy could hardly believe what the woman had said, and everyone cheered.
Billy : " My mother was right about my French ancestry. My name is Love Letter, and my French ancestors were probably in the business of carrying messages long ago. Imagine finding out about 'billet doux' here in Dalmore !"