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Behold the Hebrides
By the Peat-Fire Flame


THERE is a warmth and a welcome about a peat fire that those who are habitually obliged to use coal are always denied. Just imagine yourself suddenly transported for a moment from the prosaicism and monotony of your city house, with its glaring electric lights or its objectionable incandescent gas burners, to a twilit croft by the sea, where the soft crimson glow of a ruddy peat fire is reflected on the window-panes, and upon the low, white rafters, on the nails in which a couple of guns and a quantity of fishing-tackle are tidily hung.

As I write, I can picture a ceilidh round the widely-vented peat fire in the house of my dear cousin, Mary, in Lewis. I feel certain that at this moment old Cairistiona, her next-door neighbour, and a number of friends who dwell close at hand, have come to spend the evening with her, and are knitting and spinning and weaving by the glow of her cruisie, while Mary’s kettle sings on the hob above which swings a girdle of oatcakes and scones. It will be time for tea directly; and I can just fancy myself coming in drenched and cold, as I have so often done, when a storm has overtaken me on the old shore road that leads round to her neat little home by the sea.

Along that old shore road it can be ever so wild, particularly when in the darkness the wind and the rain are beating mercilessly against your face, and the great, chilly billows of phosphorescent water are dashing up and breaking in countless fragments around you.

Mary’s door is seldom locked: her home on a dark wet night is a place of retreat for friend and for stranger alike; and the storm-stayed wayfarer among the Isles knows that at her peat fire he will be made welcome, and will receive the customary kindness and hospitality that behove the Macdonalds of the Isles.

At her ceilidhs, too, you will hear some really thrilling stories if at any time you should care to visit her with me. Somehow or other a peat fire would seem to create that atmosphere which is so indispensable to the telling of good stories, especially when they are of a weird and eerie nature; and no one with any sense of imagination worth speaking of could possibly sit quietly round a hearth of smouldering and glowing peats, while the wind of a cold winter’s evening is howling in the chimney and the rain and sleet are battering pitilessly against the window-lattice, without at once being tempted to believe that ghosts and goblins and trolls and fays may have a real existence after all.

And, as I tell you of Mary, whose heart is where a true Isleswoman’s heart always is, there occurs to my mind the opening lines of an ancient Celtic smooring beannachadh, or blessing, which was, and, I should think, in some parts of the Western Isles and of Ireland still is repeated at the rekindling of the peat fire after the day’s work is over, and when the soft night closes in around those who toil among the Hebrides and in the lonely places of old Erin:

Smaladh mise ‘n nochd an teine,
Mar a smalas Mac Moire.


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