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Calum Beag (I): Beginnings
Calum Beag (I): Beginnings
Reminiscences by Calum Beag, Malcolm Nicolson, of Lemreway and Glasgow.
I We never used to get out of the house on Sundays....
I was born on Monday, the 30th of March, 1920, on croft number 27 in Lemreway, Pairc, on the Isle of Lewis. My father, who was a crofter fisherman, was known as Calum Neill (Malcolm Nicolson) and my mother's name was Mairi Aonghais Mhoir (Mary MacPhail) before her marriage. Our house was a stone walled, thatched, black house. It comprised a bedroom with two large covered beds, kitchen and living room with bench chairs and a huge dresser where all the food and milk was stored.
Off this to the rear, with access from the kitchen cum living room, was the byre where the cow, calf, hens and sometimes sheep were housed. There was also a covered-in bed in the kitchen and the floor was stone, covered in places with calf and sheep skins. The peat fire was in the middle of the floor with a chain suspended over it for cooking purposes. In a part of the byre not occupied by the animals was a store with barrels of salt herring, salt mackerel and quite often salted venison which my father acquired in his travels. Sometimes the villagers would go to the Shiant Isles and we would have a barrel with salted puffins -- a great delicacy. My father was part owner of the two-engined boat Kebbock Head.
The occupants of the house were my father, mother, grandfather and me. My mother died when my brother, Angus, was born and I was two years of age. He was taken in by my father's sister in Lemreway and I was taken to Gravir to my mother's mother and sister, Mrs Angus MacPhail, and her daughter, Dolina, who lived on croft Number 19.
This was completely different -- very modern at that time. There were two rooms upstairs, three below, kitchen range and fireplaces built in everywhere. My uncle, who had a house adjoining, had children of his own, so I had plenty of company. My father was away from Monday to Saturday but he seldom missed a Saturday without coming to see me. I was devoted to him and would be very sad when he left. I stayed here till my father got married again when I was eight years of age.
My guardians were very good to me. They were very religious and we never used to get out of the house on a Sunday after Sunday School and Church. Once I was caught teaching my young cousin, Kenny, a few swear words I had picked up on one of my trips to Lemreway. There were no swear words in Gravir. We were in a quiet part of the henhouse -- yes, the hens had a pad of their own -- when my auntie overheard us. I was immediately brought to trial. I was placed bare-bottomed in a creel and hung over a fire till I had learned my lesson.
My uncle had a small fishing boat with a sail and he used to take us fishing with him. He was not working as he had been wounded in the 1914-18 War. I went to school in Gravir. We had to walk quite a distance. Although I was looked after very well, I always pined after my father and it was with great joy that I learned I was to leave. When the day arrived, the postman brought a horse and cart and I was on my way. My father had built a house in the meantime and it is still there to this day. My sisters were born then and I was very lonely when my father used to leave on a Monday.
I got to know boys of my own age and we soon started to form our own amusements. Nearly every boy had his own pet rabbit. By the time I was fourteen, I was quite good at the melodeon and we used to congregate on the road and have dances. There were no discos or halls we could go to but in the winter we used to hold concerts in the Schoolhouse in aid of the Lewis Hospital. That was a great occasion as people used to come from all surrounding villages to sing and dance till the morning.
Another great occasion would be a wedding. The bride was not showered with electric things or furniture like nowadays. They were given hens and money by those that had, also eggs, baked scones, etc. There used to be plenty of whisky at 12/6d a bottle. Here, also, the dancing would carry on till the next day. The bride and groom used to walk with the guests, sometimes the whole village, to Gravir and back led by a piper. There was no minister in Lemreway then. There would be rifle and gun shots to make a noise.
It was a joyous time for us fifteen year olds when they were boiling the chickens for the weddings. This took place in huge vats in the barn the night before. We noticed, without being seen, which vat was nearly ready and when the elderly women adjourned for a cuppa to the house, we struck. One or two chickens were never missed. I remember on one occasion a rather clumsy fellow tripped while making his escape and his hand, and the hen, went into the sewer coming from the byre. He immediately took it back, threw it into the pot and emerged with a new one. Strange that none of our gang took chicken at the wedding feast.
Pocket money was never heard of in those days but we all smoked -- Woodbine at five for 2d. We were known to go round the barns when all was quiet and for a dozen eggs we got six packets of 'Woodies'. The grocer never used to question our honesty -- unless he was an old hand at the game. We used to select the best turnips and carrots for snacks. As there were no street lights, we often could not see what we were eating. If 'Friends of the Earth' had been around then the maggots would have been thriving.
Hens and eggs were better paying than to-day's Supplementary Benefit. On a Saturday morning, about a dozen boys and girls would leave the village with a hen or two and a pail of eggs and head for the Lodge at Isginn which was six miles away over very difficult terrain. They hoped to get 2/6d for the hen and l/6d for a dozen eggs.
On one of these safaris an argument started about a hen's swimming prowess. When we arrived at a big pool the hen's legs were freed and we threw her into the water. As she fluttered nearer the centre we were unable to reach her and she drowned. Of course the Lodge did not buy dead fowl and the owner had to take her back to his mother where summary justice was seen to be carried out. They certainly were hard times but oh so happy.
Our games at School were usually camanachd (shinty) and playing with buttons. My uncle's trousers were never seen with buttons on. I was a heavy loser! Most boys of my age could play a musical instrument and on a summer evening you could hear pipe and accordion music echoing in the hills. Every house had a cat and a dog. There were guns in most houses and we could get a rabbit or a duck any time we felt like it. There were lines and nets in each house and we were never lacking for fresh fish of every description. We had a few sheep, but they were only for supplementing our food supplies.
The wool was gathered and spun on spinning wheels which were a must for every household. My uncle and one or two others had old fashioned looms which were very hard to work and made tweed. When it was ready, the process of 'waulking' it took place. This was also a special occasion. Eight of the village maidens would perform the ritual. A long wooden table was placed in the middle of the floor and the tweed placed on it. The girls, four on each side, would then start pounding the tweed against the table, accompanied by singing to mark time. The men would come along and be served tea and oatcakes and it would seem that one or two of the more affluent ones would partake of something stronger. The idea of waulking would be to harden or shrink the tweed. The hostess could be seen to be doing some measuring with her knuckles, so I presume it was shrinking.
We were usually barefooted from April till November when we were issued with heavy, tackety boots. It was not that we could not afford them, but by choice. Barefooted we were freer and I think the weather was better in those days. Also football was not that popular. We got our shinty sticks off tree branches and the finer ones depended on the sharpest knives. Of course we all had toy boats which we sailed in the loch below our houses.
Then the day arrived when we were to leave School. What a joy! Books that we had been given to study were made into paper boats complete with paper sails and launched on Loch Shell. I was told by the Schoolmaster that I was very lucky as I was fourteen that day had I been later, I would have had to do another six months. I got home and was presented with my first pair of long trousers by my big cousin who was a crew member on my father's boat.
Our Headmaster was married to my first cousin and he was very strict with me. I suppose he thought he could knock something into my head. Most of the time he was trying to take it back out with the pointer and lifting me off the floor by the ears did not help. To be fair, he was really a good teacher and a few of the literally-minded took advantage of it and went on to better things. Almost all of my holidays were spent in Gravir where by now my uncle had four boys and three girls plus another twelve who used to come from my auntie in Inverness. I did not really appreciate the freedom I had had in Lemreway, especially on a Sunday.
I remember one escapade when Kenny and I were excused Church for some reason and they were away for their two hourly session. Uncle John had a ram with enormous horns. We were tickled pink by the ram next door newly acquired from the mainland which had no horns at all. How on earth could that daft looking thing fight? We managed to get them together behind the fence. Rams fight by running at one another and butting. They were still at it one and a half hours later when we had to separate them for fear of being caught 'breaking the Sabbath'.
Next day the bewildered neighbour was furious at his prize ram and could not understand how the back of his head was in tatters. My uncle, who was a comic sort of chap, looked at his ram and had a fair idea of what had happened. It was years later that I related this tale to him but he had known all the time.
By now, in my long trousers, it was time to get a job. Most of our ambitions were to get to sea. Most of the boys got jobs as 'cook and coiler' on the local fishing boats. This job entailed cooking and coiling rope in a smelly hold next to the engine. The rope was attached to the bottom of the nets to make them sink. It was the length of fifty herring nets and made of tarred four inch rope. You were down in the bottom of the hold and coiled it round you in the place you were standing and so on until you finished up on deck. The job also entailed collecting the stores and keeping the cabin tidy.