Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Town and Country.

Neil and Donald spent more time with Seamus Macdonald who had acquired the rented cottage for them near his father's farm in Stornoway. The three of them would go horse riding on the Braighe, or even further out, past Coll and Gress to Traigh Mhor Tolstadh, whose long white sandy beach is among the most beaautiful in Lewis. The horses broke into a gallop for this twelve furlong 'race' through the surf, at the end of which all were thoroughly wet, but flushed with excitement. During these outings they might buy bannocks and cheese at a house on the way, and a small jar of whisky that the revenue men had overlooked. Illicit whisky distilling could be found on every moor and by every loch and burn throughout the island. The gaugers (customs officers) had a tough time policing the illegal whisky trade that flourished in Lewis in the mid 18th century. There was no doubt that depite what the label said, the whisky in the taverns in the town would have dripped from the 'worm' (copper coil) of some local 'micro' distillery. There were few, if any, licensed distilleries anywhere in Scotland in 1745. Now with some shooting and fishing, the boys had a full sporting programme. Sadly, this left little time for work, if they were so inclined. It could be hot and tiring, all these exertions, and in the summer the lads would find a river pool in which to relax and cool off. Often they would sleep on the river bank for an hour or so. In discussing what they might do that night in town, Seamus said that everything was in hand for an enjoyable evening, and alluded to one place they would be of paricular interest to the Dalmore lads. In preparation for a night out, they all repaired to Annie Sinclair's place on Cromwell Street, where the fare was simple but plentiful - fresh and salted herring, that day's ling and turbot,and sweet Lewis mutton, all served with a large terrine of potatoes. Annie Sinclair came from the Orkney Islands, but I'm sure we all know where Cromwell came from ! They went to a few taverns, but spent the latter part of the evening in this lively hostlery called the "Seaforth Vaults", whose host was a tall, heavy set man called Alex. Whisky was the drink of choice with the older Gaelic speaking men, but the younger clientele, including our lads, drank claret served in pewter pots. You might say that the drinks sold here embodied the old alliance between France and Scotland, impotent since the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. Many of the wars and insurrections which took place against the English were on the strength of the "Auld Alliance" between Scotland and France. I don't think that it was ever likely that the French would come to Scotland's aid by landing forces on British soil. I think the lads quaffed a good deal of claret, before rounding their evening on "uisge beatha", the 'water of life'. Big Alex kept a fatherly eye out for the boys, helping them avoid trouble in what was now an ugly heaving morass of violent drunks. Eventually Alex ushered them outside and steadied them as they wandered off into the dark of the night. They made their way across South Beach to what is now called Newtown, and Seamus stopped in front of this large two story white house. There was soft candlelight coming from every window at the front of the house. " This had better not be another bloody soiree which you didn't mention earlier," said a tired, disgruntled Donald, "because if it is, I'm going home." Seamus smiled and shook his head, and beckoned on the Dalmore Lads to follow him. The door of the house opened, and in front of them stood a stout woman of questionable age, draped in a colourful gown, shod in embroidered slippers from the Orient. Her hair was big and very shiny, and her cheeks were as red as a ripe apple. "Hello, lads. My name is Margaret, and I hail from Glasgow." The way she said her name, it sounded like 'Mag-ret' They were seated on a chaise longue covered in a rich purple satin, and offered a drink from a fancy bureau. Neil and Donald were amazed at what they saw, but had no wish to leave. Margaret said that the boys looked tired,but assured them that in her house, known in Gaelic as "Taigh a' Gairdeachas" they would be comforted. At a signal from Mag-ret, three young women entered the room and stood in front of the seated lads. They were quite alluring in their own way, but different from any women from the West Side. They wore diaphanous gowns which left little to the imagination, and like Mag-ret, their cheeks were painted a bright red. Each offered a hand to one of the boys, who followed them upstairs with a puppy-like obedience. Next morning. on their way home to Manor Park, they discussed their night in Newtown. Neil's soft smile said it all. "Comfort and Joy," he whispered, "Comfort and Joy."

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Stornoway Delights.

After growing up in Dalmore, Neil and Donald thought they knew everything about the Island's West Side, and when they sallied forth in search of excitement , they knew that they were merely repeating ad nauseum the same entertainments, as pleasurable as some were. They could not alter circumstances surrounding their father's wealth and position and this kept them somewhat apart from the youth of the district whom they genuinely embraced. They often felt that when they got all dressed up, there was nowhere to go. Their thoughts turned to the town of Stornoway ( the only town on the island), which the lads had visited on occasions, but where they had rarely stayed overnight. They were acquainted with certain people of their own age in the town, and had been introduced to their parents. Neil and Donald had received much of their education there, often with the same tutors as the town's youth. They were aware of the social milieu which existed among the town's professional and trades people. It would be among such people that the Dalmore lads must imbed themselves. Stornoway was a busy little town of no more than a couple of thousand souls. A lot of industry centred around its quays and piers, as fishing and fish curing were by far the town's main activity. Catches of herring and ling were abundant, and a large part of that was exported to Russia and the Baltic ports as pickled or salted fish. This trade had made some Stornoway citizens rich on the proceeds, and it was noticeable that not all of them were Lewis born. People followed the shoals, and it was not unusual to hear fishermen and coopers speak in a 'foreign tongue', the slow lilt of the Skye man, the sing-song cadences of the Buckie lads or the strange accent of an Orcadian . The lingua franca of trade in the town was English, or some approximation thereto. Gaelic was still spoken in the streets,the shops and the taverns or anywhere Lewis folk would meet. Their old school friend, Seamus Macdonald, whose people owned the Manor Park Farm, arranged for the Dalmore lads to rent a small cottage near the farm with stabling provided for their horses. Neil and Donald were young farmers, if in name only. Now that they were 'townies', agricultural matters could be dismissed from their mind. They were here to sample the delights of Stornoway, and would not be hurried in their pursuit. The town of Stornoway, originally a small port, had spread as a series of parallel roads and streets where you could find churches, small shops and a fair number of tighean osda ( hotel or pub ). The lads were caught up in the excitement of townlife - new faces, new sights and some pretty strong smells. The sound of boats disgorging their catches,the raucous call of seagulls as they fought over fish spillage were in themselves sounds new to the boys from Dalmore. The fish curing bays, and a couple of kippering sheds were responsible for a very powerful odour in the port area. There were genteel gatherings organised by the matrons of Stornoway to which Neil and Donald would be invited, intimate buffet dances and song recitals all of which seemed to fall under the collective name 'soiree'. Out of politeness, and in order to seek some introductions, preferably with the young ladies, the lads attended some of the soirees to which they had been invited. However they did receive a strange and different invitation, and in the strangest of places. A very gauche approach was made to the lads in the piss house of a tavern on Bayhead. A very drunk man asked them if they believed in God, and, after looking quite bemused, the lads left the man to his drunken rant. They discovered later that they had escaped a life of Freemasonry. The lads had secrets of their own and had no wish to to be embroiled in the secrets of others. Was this drunk the best ambassador for the Masonic cause or was he the only man available that evening ? But perhaps it takes a lot of whisky to utter the name of God in the piss house of a tavern. Neil and Donald were not much taken by the events organised by the Stornoway matrons. It was hard to see these events as anything other than an attempt to find husbands for their daughters, in a town of few young gentlemen. There were a few families in Stornoway who looked on themselves as gentry, but in reality most were nouveau riche on the back of the herring. Donald and Neil would seek out soirees of a different kind, in venues unknown to the good men of this town.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

In The Beginning

Dalmore and Dalbeg are adjacent villages, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Their golden beaches in the past provided sand blow which gave rise to very fertile machair lands. This made the Dailean very desirable to cotters and farmers throughout the ages. And for that reason there are various written references to land tenure in Dalmore and Dalbeg. Macleod is the most common name in Lewis, but in Carloway and its satellite villages, Garenin and Dalmore, there is high proportion of people bearing the name Macleod. One must remember that for hundreds of years, until 1610, Lewis was owned by Clan Macleod of Lewis. There is a written record of 1615 stating that the Macleods of the Carloway area are descended from one, Tormod Uigeach (an illegitimate son). Tormod (Norman) held the "farm at Dalmore". He was given the tack at Dalmore by his proud father, Rory Mor. Murdo, another bastard son of Rory Mor, by the sister of Uisden (Hugh)the Brieve, was given the tack of Shawbost. It has to be said that these two bastards did alright for themselves. In the year 1745, the Macleods, descendents of that same Tormod Uigeach, now rented Dalmore and Dalbeg from their overlords, the Mackenzies, enobled later as the Earls of Seaforth. The rental for this tack was much higher than any adjacent place. There was a good living to be made on this farm, which grew barley and oats, and which could support a large number of cattle and sheep. You could say that the Macleods of Dalmore were well-to-do, with a lifestyle which reflected their relative wealth. The present incumbent of the farm of Dalmore and Dalbeg was Murdo Macleod whose wife was Margaret Murray, and she came from Ness, in the far north of Lewis. They had a large family of five daughters and four sons. The eldest of the family were the brothers, Neil and Donald who were respectively 23 years old and 22. The nature of this story only involves Neil and Donald, and with no disrespect to the rest of his family, they hardly feature at all. Neil and Donald were adored by their parents,and these lads wanted for nothing. They had travelled in the Hebrides and much of Scotland, and had visited Edinburgh and Glasgow, two fashionable cities of the times. They had beautiful bay horses, adorned with the most exquisite harnesses, presents from their parents. Riding breeches and knee length leather boots spoke to the sartorial elegance of the Macleod lads. With a long riding cape and a tricorn hat, many pieces of their expensive apparel could only have been bought in the big cities. For all their wealth and position, Neil and Donald were very popular with the ordinary people of the village, and were known for the helping hand they gave to anyone falling ill, or experiencing hard times.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

A Small Pond.

Margaret Murray, the matriarch of the family, was raised in a home of strict Presbyterian values, and she never faltered in living her life by these principles, even after twenty five years of marriage to Murdo Macleod, who was not remotely religious, like most of the people in Dalmore and Dalbeg. Even one hundred years into the future, when great tides of religious revival were sweeping the whole of Lewis, it seems that they always bypassed the villages, so much so that they were the only villages on the island where no prayer meetings were held. This was a serious business in the eyes of the great revivalists such as the Reverend Alexander Macleod, who referred openly to Dalmore and Dalbeg as "fithich nan Dailean" (Gaelic 'ravens of the Dales'). So what, one might ask, persuaded Margaret Murray to remain in the Dales and dine with the ravens. The boys, Neil and Donald, were always referred to as "Balaich Mhurchadh" ( Murdo's Boys )and frankly they were supernumerary on the farm, but for entertainment value, they could not be bettered. The stories of their exploits in other villages, and especially in the Big Town of Stornoway, had the other village lads ( and a few lasses ) in tears of laughter. They could spin a good yarn, but were careful to be the models of decorum around their mother. In truth, their mother often wondered why her "balaich" were often the cause of great hilarity. Handsome and rich, Balaich Dhalamor were looked upon as 'good catches' by young girls and their mothers. But Neil and Donald had no intentions of being caught, and in that matter they were very careful in the company of young damsels, especially in their bed. There was a custom in the Hebrides at that time and since, called "ruith nan oidhche" (Gaelic literally 'running the night'),a form of courtship in which the partners lie in bed together with their clothes on. Elsewhere, this custom was called "bundling". In some cases, the couples were not necessarily "a suirghe" (Gael.'courting'), and often pieces of apparel were removed in the friendly tustle. In most cases the young man would be known to the parents as a future son-in-law, but sometimes this tryst would have been arranged by a young couple without the knowledge of her parents. To make it into the maiden's bed required a subtle approach and all the arts of the cat burglar. Tall horsemen in long capes and tricorn hats were not common on this windswept isle, and Neil and Donald had to use all their guile to flee a taigh dubh (thatched house)in all states of dishabille. There were discarded tricorns to be found in peat bogs up and down the west coast. The Dalmore Lads, "Balaich Mhurchadh", would have to find a bigger pond to fish in. Distance, opportunity and anonymity were all to be found in Stornoway. Very few people from the west side had reason to go to town. Donald and Neil would blend in with the variety of people that inhabit this bustling fishing port, at least at weekends.