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."

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