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Bruach Blend
by Lillian Beckwith

Bruach Blend, Chapter 1
You can purchase Bruach Blend from
You can purchase Bruach Blend from

Bruach BlendSpring Cleaning

It was such a good-looking day; blue-skied and smiling with sunshine; tuneful with sandpipers, and with a shimmering breeze stirring the sea into foam-tipped ripples which, as they reached the shore, rose to throw themselves over the sharp-pointed rocks like white hoopla rings. The sea itself was busy with gannets diving, terns swooping and splashing and tysties bobbing, while between the outer islands there emerged the shapes of homeward-bound fishing boats, mistily distorted as if one was seeing them through fogged glass.

On the Bruach crofts early orchis grew sturdily among the struggling new grass, and in the boggy hollows infant reeds speared fresh and green above the scythe-beheaded tussocks of the previous year. There were still snow-filled corries among the dark hills, but as each day the light lengthened by ‘a hen’s stride’ the moors shed more and more of their winter brown like a partial moult, revealing patches of new spring green. The Bruach sheep stock, still heavy with lamb, fed greedily, indifferent to the honking ravens chaperoning their new brood; to the reciprocal calling of cuckoos and to the discursive twitterings of larks and pipits which were only now seeking suitable nesting sites.

May in Bruach was usually a good month, providing us with at least a few days of sun and calm, but this year the spell of good weather had come exceptionally early. Already the peats were cut and lying beside the bog awaiting the hot June sunshine which, hopefully, would dry them to almost coal-like solidness; the potatoes had been planted and the oats sown and now we awaited the first green spikes of corn and the dark green leaves of the potatoes to appear above the soil. The byres had been cleaned; and the cattle had been de-loused, an undertaking which is not so disagreeable as it sounds since we merely shook louse-powder prodigally all over the cows, particularly in the area of the neck and behind the ears where the lice were most likely to breed, and rubbed it in vigorously. Then, as Erchy put it, ‘We could just watch the spiteful wee buggers go mad with their dyin’.’

Outdoor work being so well advanced I, like my neighbours, was indulging in the usual frenzy of spring cleaning. Doormats which had been caked with winter mud had been beaten and were now lying well weighted down with boulders in the burn. Upstream of the doormats lay the hearth and bedroom rugs, similarly weighted, and there I intended they should stay until the swift-flowing water had restored the doormats to their normal ginger-brown shagginess and the hearth and bedroom rugs looked as if they had just come back from the cleaners. The earth dykes around my croft were draped with sheets bleaching in the sun; newly washed blankets hung from the clothes rope where they responded to the caress of the breeze which, as it dried them, teased their fibres into downy softness and filled them with the good fresh smell of pure Highland air.

Perhaps because sunshine is scarcer in the Hebrides we tended to assess its qualities seriously. Thus May was traditionally the best month for bleaching and blanket washing. The hot summer sun, if and when it came, was welcome for drying the peats, but it turned woollen blankets yellow and hurried the drying of linen. To bleach successfully one needed the slow-drying, spring sunshine. A sheet put out to bleach in June or July would need to be sluiced frequently with clean water to ensure it did not dry too quickly, and as clean water had to be carried from the well it was far too precious a commodity for such ministrations. So we made the most of any good May weather, leaving the spread sheets out over several days and nights to be soaked repeatedly by the abundant May dew and subsequently dried by its benign sunshine. When the time came to gather them in, even the most obstinate stains had disappeared and the sheets were almost eye-dazzling in their whiteness.

Such knowledge I had of course acquired since living and working with the Bruach crofters, for once they realized I was in earnest they were eager enough to teach me not just the essentials I needed to know and practise to survive the crofting life but the simpler more esoteric crofting lore. One of the most important things I had to learn was how to be ‘kind to myself’ when lifting and carrying the many loads which in Bruach had to be carried on one’s back because there was no other means of transportation. So well versed did I consider myself in this particular skill that, while visiting a mainland art gallery, I found myself looking appreciatively at Caravagglo’s Christ Bearing the Cross and musing with irreverent practicality, ‘He’s not being kind to himself carrying it like that... A crofter could have shown him a much easier way of doing it...’ By precept and example, sometimes by good-natured mocking of my mistakes, the crofters continued to teach me, and undoubtedly the assimilation of their tutoring enabled me to adapt far more easily to the crofting life than I might otherwise have done.

It was late in the afternoon now, time to give the hens their evening mash and almost time to begin preparing my own meal. But though it was not croft work I was involved with at the moment, I was loath to leave the task of giving the final coat of paint to a newly acquired but very secondhand chest of drawers which I had bought some time previously at a mainland auction and which I was refurbishing, ready to go into the spare bedroom. The bedroom itself was presently empty of furniture save for the bed, which had already been painted in situ, and the mattress which was reared on its side sunning itself before the wide-open window. The walls and ceiling had been repainted in a colour scheme of blue and white, and tomorrow I planned to scrub the floor and put everything back in place, re-hang the fresh laundered curtains, replace the sun-bleached white bedspread and move in the newly painted chest of drawers. The rugs would not be dry for some days, but by then the room should be well aired and free from the smell of paint, ready for the rugs to go down and ready for the visitors I was soon expecting.

The chest had already been rubbed down and given its first two coats of paint while it was in the barn where it had stood since the carrier had delivered it, but rather than risk it being marred by hayseeds or chaff I had brought it into the porch of the cottage for its final painting. I wielded my brush as painstakingly as time permitted, working into joints and crevices, covering up the last traces of its life of abuse, and when I stood up, the painting finished, I was pleased enough with the result. After putting away the tin of paint, I went round to the back of the cottage where I wiped the paintbrush first on a boulder and then more thoroughly on a patch of rough grass before immersing it in a jar of turpentine. That done, I wiped my paint-sticky hands on a turpentine-soaked rag and, bending down, likewise cleaned my hands on the grass. This was another simple crofter trick: another way of saving water and paper and even rags, all of which were scarce in Bruach. As much as possible one used grass for cleaning, but even so one did not pull up a bunch of grass to clean one’s hands; one simply dragged them several times through the growing grass, which was not only a much easier and quicker method of cleaning but an infinitely more effective one. The only time a crofter pulled grass for cleaning was when he was using it as toilet paper.

Going into the kitchen I prepared the mash for the hens, and while thus engaged I heard a flapping of wings and the questioning cluck of a hen. Turning quickly to investigate, I saw to my utter dismay that Blackie, one of the tamer members of my flock of poultry, had become impatient for her evening feed and had escaped from the hen run. She had made her way to the door of the cottage where, no doubt hearing the telltale sounds of mash being mixed and wanting to urge on the proceedings, she had flown up on top of my newly painted chest and was even now stamping it with the skimble-skamble of her feet.

I shouted and lunged towards her, brandishing the wooden mixing spoon, and with a panic-stricken squawk she flew outside, shedding several of her feathers as she did so. In her wake the black feathers floated lazily down to settle on the wet paint. I picked them off, silently inveighing against the despoiler and against my own mismanagement, since if I had not kept the hens waiting for their mash it was unlikely Blackie would have become so impatient. Though the feathers had left barely a trace on the paintwork the top of the chest was in a fearful mess and I decided that the best thing to do was to try and brush out the marks as quickly as possible before the paint began to dry. With this in mind I rushed off to the hen run, gave the hens their feed, ensured they were all safely penned in behind the wire netting, rushed back to the house and took up my paintbrush once more. My own meal would have to wait until the painting was finished, just as Bonny would have to wait to be milked and given her reward of a potach. I set to work with resolute haste and again when I had finished I was not too dissatisfied with the result, though Blackie’s skidding claws had marked the chest with easily perceptible scratches which I knew ought to have been left to dry and then rubbed down with sandpaper before being repainted. But I could not face the thought of starting the whole process again. Already I was beginning to begrudge the time it had all taken, since by temperament I am a slap-happy painter just as I am slap-happy at most tasks, always wanting to get them done with speed rather than skill or, as my grandmother used to reprove me, ‘Always in too much of a rush to get a job jobbed.’

Belatedly I set about preparing my own meal and ate it while listening to the radio. The weather forecasters promised us a calm, dry spell, so confirming the portents of the evening sky, and mentally I listed how many of the more urgent jobs I should be able to get ‘jobbed’ before the fine spell came to an end.

After a leisurely cup of coffee I got out the washbowl, filled it with hot water from the kettle and washed my few supper dishes. A midge sealed on my bare arm and I annihilated it with a sharp slap. But then there was another and yet another. Damn! I thought. It was just my luck that the breeze which all day had kept the midges at bay had apparently now dropped away completely, which meant I should have to make my way through swarms of the little pests when I went out on the moors to milk Bonny. Though I kept a supply of anti-midge lotion handy, no matter how lavishly it was applied the voracious midges could always find some area of flesh that was insufficiently protected.

I put the dishes away, concealing them in a cupboard, for much as I liked to have my china displayed on the dresser I had found it too costly and too difficult to keep replacing dishes which were rattled from their places and shattered when, as frequently happened, the cottage door was either blown or flung open allowing the gale to thrash its way in. It was with a feeling of tired resignation that I slipped on my old milking coat, tied it as always with a short length of rope and picked up the milk pail and the stick I should need to discourage the more aggressive cows from coming too dose in the hope of sharing Bonny’s potach. It had been a long day and full of work and, there being a promise of good listening on the wireless that evening, I was planning to relax for a couple of hours’ knitting and listening before it was time for bed. At this time of year the cattle were all out on the moors and as I closed the kitchen door behind me I was hoping Bonny would not have wandered too far from the crofts so I should not have to waste time looking for her. The cottage door was still open as I had left it when I had finished painting and as I glanced at the chest in passing both pail and stick dropped from my hands.

‘Oh, no!’ I groaned aloud. ‘Oh, no!’ I repeated, and stood staring dejectedly at the chest. How could I have been so stupid? Why, oh why, when the first midge had settled on my arm had I not instantly realized that if the midges were coming through the open window into the kitchen then they would most certainly be coming through the open door into the porch? Now the proof of their invasion was plain enough; the pale blue paint was speckled all over with thousands and thousands of tiny black midges. I glowered at the ruined paintwork. There was nothing else for it now but to leave the paint to dry thoroughly and then begin again the process of stripping and sandpapering and painting. Even I, expert as I am in disguising shoddy workmanship, could see no alternative course. Bitterly disappointed I again picked up the milk pail and the stick. At that moment a figure appeared in the doorway.

‘Why, Miss Peckwitt, but you look as cross as if you’d just cacced in nettles,’ Tearlaich greeted me compassionately.

The days when I might have been embarrassed or even shocked by Tearlaich’s remark had long since passed. Now, tired and angry and dejected though I felt, the innocent indelicacy of his greeting triggered off a bubble of laughter that rose and then exploded, making me shake with mirth. I was accustomed to the forthright earthiness of many of the Bruachites but Tearlaich was frequently so artlessly apt that even when stirred to eulogy he usually managed it with consummate impropriety.

‘Tearlaich!’ I chided him, still gurgling with laughter. ‘The things you say!’

‘It’s true enough,’ he retorted. ‘It’s the way you looked, just.’

‘Maybe I did,’ I conceded. ‘But I’m sure no one else would have thought of saying it.’ His eyes widened with pretended surprise. ‘Anyway,’ I went on, ‘I had something to look upset about,’ and I showed him the chest with its cargo of midges and explained that this was the second time within a couple of hours that disaster had struck.

‘Ach, that’s a shame, right enough,’ he commiserated. ‘Can you no paint over the beasties all the same? It would look kind of different.’

I grimaced. ‘Too different.’

‘Then touch them up with that brush of Ian’s an’ some different coloured paint. It would look as if it was meant then. Kind of stippled, they call it.’

I shook my head emphatically. There had been a brief outbreak of stippling in Bruach when Ian Mor had returned from a visit to Glasgow and brought with him a stippling brush which he declared was a quick and attractive way of decorating the walls of a room. Despite his mother’s protestations he had set about stippling the smoke-darkened wood of their kitchen with bright green paint. Some people admired the result but I found the impact of the room made me almost gasp, as if I was in danger of drowning In a weed-covered pond. Fortunately the outbreak was limited to only two or three homes but even these were quickly masked with plain colours once It was known that the missionary had given his opinion that he thought it frivolous.

For a moment or two Tearlaich and I looked steadily at the chest as if waiting for a flash of inspiration.

‘Aye, weli, you’re lucky,’ he said at last.


‘Aye, indeed you are so. See how many thousands of midges you have trapped there that can no longer take a bite out of you.’ He took a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. ‘Here you are,’ he said, ‘here’s the receipt for your croft rent an’ I’m tellin’ you maybe next year you won’t find a one that’s keen to take it for you.’ He sounded disgruntled, and as I glanced at him enquiringly my mind registered the fact that for a rent day he was surprisingly sober.

Bruach croft rents were paid annually in the spring when the factor left his office in the town and came to the estate manager’s house to preside over the collection. In Bruach the paying of rent was regarded as being in the nature of a ceremony and since rent days, like burials and calf castrations, were exclusively male occasions and as such ended with the reward of a good dram of whisky, there was always a noticeable degree of elation in the air despite the fact that the crofters were being called upon to part with a relatively meagre portion of their carefully hoarded cash.

Leaving the women behind, the men, dressed in their best clothes but taking their cattle sticks and their dogs along with them, set out in groups to walk the six miles to the manager’s house where at a white-scrubbed table in the kitchen they handed over their dues to the factor. In return for each croft rent they paid they were given a dram of whisky with which to drink the health of the absent laird. If a man paid the rent for a single croft he received only one dram but a man paying the rent for two or three crofts would be able to toast the laird accordingly. Not surprisingly, therefore, there was never any shortage of volunteers to deputize for any invalids or widows who either could not undertake or were tacitly discouraged from undertaking the twelve-mile walk.

I thanked Tearlaich and put the receipt away in a drawer. ‘Dare I ask how many other rents you paid today?’ I grinned at him.

‘Amn’t I after payin’ eight of them?’ he replied indignantly. ‘The most I’ve ever paid an’ here was me thinkin’ what a fine happy fellow I’ll be likely when I get home. I took an empty bottle with me this time, thinkin’ to myself I’d take only two, maybe three drams at the manager’s house an’ have the rest put into the bottle to drink with the lads on the way home. Ach, but that bugger of a factor.’ His voice grew bitter. ‘They’re tellin’ me he’s made It a rule that it’s to be no more than one dram for a man no matter how many rents he pays.’ Tearlaich’s expression was one of outrage. ‘I couldn’t believe it at first. The manager gave me my first dram as he always does but then when I handed back the empty glass for him to fill it up he shook his head Just an’ made signs behind the factor’s back. When I got the manager to himself for a minute I asked him what was the matter an’ showed him the bottle I’d brought. He said he daren’t give me more because the new factor had made this rule an’ now he had to keep to it.’

Tearlaich paused to scrutinize my expression, no doubt assessing whether I was registering a suitable degree of shock. Satisfied, he allowed himself to continue, ‘Indeed the old folk would be turnin’ in their graves if they knew. Such a thing never happened in this place fill now.’

I murmured consolingly, ‘He’s going to upset more folks than you.’

Tearlaich ignored my remark. ‘I mind there was a factor came once that tried waterin’ the whisky in the bottles before we got our drams. Now I ask you, Miss Peckwitt, what would be the use of watered whisky to a Bruach man? A man that knows poor whisky as quick as he knows there’s a hayseed in his eye? Aye,’ he continued, his resentful expression giving way to one of grim satisfaction, ‘but we were a match for that one. We made it up among ourselves that instead of goin’ in to pay our rent one at a time an’ havin’ a few words of that we’d kind of make a queue, one directly behind the other, so there wasn’t a chance for the bottles of whisky to be moved from the table once they were opened. Not with all those eyes watchin’ there wasn’t.’ He ended with a grunt of malevolent laughter.

‘And what happened the next year?’ I asked.

‘Ach, we got our whisky neat as ever an’ nothin’ said. He didn’t try them tricks again.’

‘Then maybe the factor was aware how you all felt this year and next year you won’t be limited to one dram.’

‘Damty sure we won’t,’ returned Tearlaich emphatically. ‘We’ll find some way of bestin’ him. We’re no doin’ without our proper drams.’

‘You and your whisky,’ I challenged him. ‘I believe you think more of whisky than you do of religion.’

‘As much as anyway,’ he retorted. ‘An’ why wouldn’t I? There’s things whisky can do for you that no religion can do.’

‘Such as?’ I prompted.

‘Such as take the fire out of a fever; the ache out of lovin’ an’ the meanness out of a miser. Tell me anythin’ else that will do that now.’ But of course I couldn’t. ‘We think that much of whisky I reckon we ought to have our own blend of it. Bruach Blend. What would you think of that now?’

I smiled. ‘It’s occurred to me, Tearlaich,’ I said, ‘You may be blaming the factor when it isn’t his fault at all. Whisky costs so much nowadays the laird himself may have imposed this new rule.’

He snorted. ‘I doubt the laird doesn’t know a thing about it,’ he replied. ‘The man’s always provided a dram for every croft so why would he be stoppin’ now? How would he be after knowin’ that all the crofters aren’t goin’ to come an’ pay their own rents?’ His voice became suspicious. ‘An’ where does all the undrunk whisky go, d’you think? Back into the laird’s stores?’ We exchanged dubious glances. ‘Ach, I’ll tell you one thing for sure,’ he asserted. ‘This new factor we have is no gentleman. Not to my way of thinkin’ he’s not.’

Since coming to Bruach I had worked out that to qualify for the description ‘gentleman’ a man had to be liberal in the bestowal of whisky. Thus the laird qualified in his absence. He would have been even more highly regarded had he been present to drink alongside his tenants though the undertaking would doubtless have been a formidable one. In much the same way a woman qualified as a ‘lady’ if she graciously provided whisky in return for any help or favour she might receive from a crofter, the difference then being that if she drank along with him she would more likely have been regarded as a ‘cow’.

Being neither ‘lady’ nor ‘cow’ I had no whisky in the house to offer Tearlaich, and as the only recompense for taking my rent and suffering what he lugubriously regarded as the factor’s ill-usage I could only offer him a glass of my home-made bramble wine. He accepted with some caution but after one sip he drained the glass at a gulp.

‘My God! You wouldn’t dare put that in a baby’s bottle,’ he complimented me and accepted another glass. His glance fell on the milk pail. ‘You’re away to milk your cow then?’

‘I am,’ I told him, glancing not at the clock but at the sun which was making its languid way towards the peaks of the hills. ‘It’s high time I was away too.’

‘Indeed then, you’re in for a long walk,’ he told me. I looked at him, hoping he was teasing, but my spirits sank when I saw no trace of a smile on his face. ‘I was seein’ your cow over the other side of the strath a wee while ago an’ I’m thinkin’ from the look of her she’ll be there yet.’

The strath was about three miles away across the moors. ‘I wonder whatever has taken her over there?’ I asked, but even before I had finished putting the question I knew the answer. Until that moment I had forgotten that ‘Crumley’, the Department of Agriculture bull which had spent the last two summers in Bruach siring all the calves, had arrived the day before from the mainland and had, as usual, been put off the lorry on the other side of the strath. The strategy of putting the bull so far away from the village was to give the animal a few days of peace and quiet in which to recover from the journey before he discovered the sex-starved cows of Bruach or, as was more likely, they discovered his presence. But such tactics were always thwarted by Bonny, who had developed a most uncowlike passion for Crumley which even the Bruach crofters found remarkable. Although there was an estate bull available Bonny would have none of him and indeed she showed no signs of coming into season until Crumley arrived in the vicinity. But the moment she winded him off she would go in pursuit and for the rest of the summer she and Crumley were rarely out of each other’s sight. It was not just a mating, it was a love affair and when the autumn came and Crumley had to return to his quarters on the mainland Bonny’s protesting ‘moos’ as she watched the lorry take him away were heart-rending.

‘They behave more like humans,’ observed Anna Vic with a laugh. ‘I’m thinkin’ you’ll be glad when the Department of Agriculture send us another bull instead of Crumley. Maybe she’ll not get so fond of the next one.’

Admittedly the ‘affair of the heart’ between Bonny and Crumley was inconvenient from the point that Bonny, having had two early calvings, would undoubtedly be calving early again next year and in Bruach, though the occasional early calving was allowable for a winter milk supply, the lateness of spring grass and the consequent sparsity of feeding made a succession of early calvings undesirable. Any crofter who allowed it to happen was considered to be guilty of a reckless disregard for the wellbeing of his animals.

I ought to have agreed wholeheartedly with Anna Vic’s observation but Bonny’s love for Crumley was so touching I could not really be sure that I would be glad when another bull was substituted.

‘Did you not notice she was bullin’ this mornin’ when you saw her?’ Tearlaich asked. I shook my head. I had not noticed presumably because I had no long experience in the detection of such conditions. However, on reflection, I remembered she had been a little restless when I milked her.

‘Aye, well I doubt you’ll be seein’ your bed before sunrise,’ he confirmed.

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I suppose I’d better leave this stick behind me,’ I said. ‘People tell me a stick is like a red flag to Crumley.’

‘Aye, he’s cross right enough when he wants to be,’ Tearlaich admitted. ‘But, ach, I doubt you’ve any need to worry yourself. When Crumley’s been with your cow for a while he’s too shagged out to care.’

You can purchase Bruach Blend from
You can purchase Bruach Blend from

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