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Personal Glimpses of Gravir VI: Gaelic Seasons & Celebrations
Personal Glimpses of Gravir VI: Gaelic Seasons & Celebrations
An account of life in Gravir, by Calum Macinnes, 8 Gravir.
VI The Gaelic Seasons
What is the Gaelic for it?
At this time when educational theory and practice in Scotland recognise the need to educate children through the medium of their native language, it is difficult to understand why we were required through the medium of a foreign language, English. The practical and psychological advantages of schooling through one's native language are now universally accepted but children of my generation - and of my parents' generation - did not have these advantages.
The result was that our knowledge of Gaelic was uneven and, in my own case, had many lacunae which have only recently been filled. For instance, I grew up knowing the names of the days of the week and the names of the seasons but not the Gaelic words for the months of the year. I could recite the names of the days of the week at a young age and I write then here to show myself that I can still do so and spell them correctly: Diluan (Monday): Dimàirt (Tuesday); Diciadain (Wednesday); Diardaoin (Thursday); Dihaoine (Friday); Disathuirn (Saturday); Là na sàbaid or Di-Dòmhnaich (Sunday). The seasons are: An t-Earrach (Spring); An Samhradh (Summer); Am Foghar (Autumn); An Geamhradh (Winter). In the case of the names of the months I was a late developer: I memorised them about the same time as I became an old age pensioner! They are: Am Faoilteach (January); An Gearran (February); Am Màirt (March); An Giblean (April); Am Màigh (May); An t-Ogmhiòs (June); An t-Iuchair (July); An Lùnasdal (August); An t-Saltuin (September); Am Dàmhair (October); An t-Samhain (November); An Dùbhlachd (December).
And, would it not have been preferable to have a Gaelic mnemonic to remember the number of days in each month instead of the following, effective though it is:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November,
And all the rest have thirty one
Excepting February alone ....
Spring (An t-Earrach)
Spring has always been a busy time on the croft. It is the season of lambing, of cultivating and of peat cutting. Lambing is generally later in the islands than it is on the mainland. This is arranged by keeping the rams away from the ewes until later in November. The conscientious crofter visits his breeding ewes daily and equips himself with adequate knowledge to help the ewes which have lambing difficulties. I remember helping in this work at an early age when, under my father's direction, my small hand was easier to insert and so help to eliminate the ewe's lambing difficulty.
The really hard, back-breaking work was the planting and sowing. The plots were cultivated in a three-year cycle. Potatoes were planted in the first year. Manure from the byre was carried in creels to the plot; sometimes the manure was supplemented by seaweed. All the digging and trenching was done by spade because the plots were too small and too steep to allow the use of a plough. Seed potatoes were placed 15 inches apart in the row; they were then covered with manure and soil.
In the second year the plot was dug by spade and oat seed planted. The soil was smoothed using that quintessentially Lewis type of hoe: the croman. In the third year the drains at the sides of the plot were cleared of the accumulated humus and vegetable matter which was then spread over the plot, followed by the sowing of oat seed. This operation was referred to us 'à taomadh'. This was hard work and I must admit that I didn't like it, although it was essential to maintain the shape of the plot and to allow rainwater to run off. Incidentally, the word 'taom' was applied to the baling of a boat: 'a' taomadh an eithear'.
Peat cutting was usually a co-operative venture. Friends and neighbours helped one another and formed a team (sgioba) to cut one family's peats. The operations required two people round one custom-made peat iron. One person cuts and the second person throws the peat to cover the adjacent ground. Obviously, the greater number of pairs the quicker the work is completed, the elements of competition and light-hearted Hebridean badinage helping to speed it on. A picnic meal was an added incentive. Tea was brewed on a fire using last year's peat and duff and maragan (white and black pudding) were usually added to the usual flour and oat scones.
In those early days, before the advent of radio weather forecasts, we went fishing if the day appeared fine, but sometimes we had to take emergency action to row the boat home if a strong wind sprang up. I remember once battling against such a wind blowing from the west. My brother Finlay and I, and our friend Calum MacMillan, No 33 Gravir, were fishing happily in calm weather when the wind sprang up. Calum and I struggled with one oar, and my brother Finlay, who was bigger and stronger, pulled the other. Our efforts were of little avail and the boat was being carried backwards out of the loch when, providentially, the wind abated and we were able to row safely home. We were luckier than my father and friends who, several years earlier, were blown right out of the boat by such a westerly gale. They saved themselves by beaching the boat at Mol an Eich, to the south of Loch Ghrabhair. On another occasion we were caught in a summer thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain. The thunder reverberated between the high surrounding cliffs and seemed to become louder by resonance inside the boat. I can still see my younger brother Donald John, who was with us on this occasion, sheltering in the stem space with a gunny sack over his head.
In the calm water at the end of the loch we used the boat as our base for swimming. We learned to swim when quite young and this undoubtedly gave us greater confidence in the water and in boat handling.
Season of midges, mists, gales, ripening of corn and browning of potato shaws, season of grass cutting using the sickle or scythe, of hay making, of fun in the making of hay ricks, of delicious local potatoes and the salting of herring for winter. Jumping and somersaulting in the hay rick - to compress the hay and help to achieve its typical tapering oblong shape - was the job allocated to little boys. It must have provided as much fun as jumping on a trampoline does nowadays.
In late September or early October the summer herring fishing ended and boats settled their accounts for the year. If earnings were good every member of the family, boys and girls, were supplied with a new pair of tackety boots. I can still feel the smell of their new leather in my nostrils. The boots had to last for a whole year - until next year's settling of fishing boat accounts - but they could do so only be constant repair, chiefly the replacement by my father of missing heel and toe plates, and missing tackets. I learned to do this work when aged ten or eleven.
Overdue accounts in Domhnall Moil's shop were settled. These accounts were for such basic items as tea (measured in half stone quantities from a large gunny sack and placed in large brown paper bags), as well as baking soda and cream of tartar for making scones. Margarine was measured in pound weights by scooping it from a large slab and wrapping it in grease-proof paper. Luxuries could not be afforded.
Autumn communions in the Free Church followed, but the young ones were usually debarred because of the lack of what was considered suitable attire for church attendance - a case of the trappings for religious worship being considered more important than its practice.
Winter was not a time of doom and gloom for the younger generation. It had its own excitements: moonlit nights and meteors speeding across the starry sky; the aurora borealis at the time of sunspot activity; skating, on the road and the river at times of severe frost; playing unrestrained in the wide open spaces of the village; running, jumping and teasing the girls who did their own teasing in return; watching an older group cavorting at danns an rathaid to the music of the melodeon; savouring the warmth of a good kitchen fire and the taste of freshly made scones and hot tea before going into a shared, warm bed.
The girls had parties at Halloween (1st November) and the boys celebrated Oidhche Challuin at the Old New Year (12th January). The parties were held in barns or sheds which were swept and tidied for these occasions. Lemonade, gingerbread, apples, oranges and hazelnuts were the usual fare at these times.
During my early years Christmas was not celebrated to any great extent although we did hang up our stockings on Christmas Eve. Toys were generally nonexistent but, with luck, we got an orange or an apple or a wrapped penny in the stocking in the morning. Our parents did not take the visit of Santa Claus too seriously, but, to their credit, they gave us whatever little they could afford.
New Year's Day was celebrated enthusiastically - clearly a throw back to pagan practices of the past! There was a competitive element in conveying New Year greetings - Bliadhna Mhath Ur Ort' and not 'Bliadhna Mhath Ur Dhuit'! Whisky was much in evidence and it was regarded as a matter of honour to be able to give a dram to others. This practice is still strong even to the extent of giving drams to known alcoholics who seem to interpret the practice as giving them the necessary social permission to go on another binge.