This morning from a village that nestles quietly at the
head of a great sea-loch on the west side of the Long Island came my
periodical bulletin of what has been happening in Lewis during the past
few weeks. But apart from a detailed account of the annual flower and
cattle show, which has just been held there, it contains very little news
that would be of interest to the general reader. This is the first show in
distant Carloway at which I have not been present for a year or two; but
my recollections of previous events of this nature will enable me to give
you some idea of how we do things in the remoter parts of the Hebrides.
I want you to imagine, therefore, that you are spending
the late autumn in a thatched cottage far away on the moor, where there is
nothing to disturb the peace and solitude of your croft—except, perhaps,
the gurgle of a mountain stream that tumbles headlong into a rocky fern
and bracken covered cavern near by; or the whimpering of a golden-crested
plover that seeks to break his fast round the reedy edges of some elfin
pool; or the breathless murmur that drifts up from the sea not very far
off. I want you to imagine, also, that it is the early hours of a keen
October morning, and that you have been awakened from your sleep by the
occasional barking of a collie dog as he eagerly assists his master in
driving some cattle and a few sheep along the old drove-road that passes
beneath your bedroom window.
And, in the meanwhile, the day is dawning over the
hills and across the sea; and the last night-shower has fallen, and the
gray mists are lifting before the rising sun. You see you must have
atmosphere and colour if you mean to understand a Highland scene. First of
all you must try to visualise its setting.
Let us say, now, that the afternoon has come, and that
the animals and flowers have been judged and awarded the places that they
merited. Although most of the crofter-women are concerned to some degree
with horses and cattle and sheep and poultry, and frequently saunter along
the lines discussing these creatures, they are usually more interested in
the dairy produce and in the flowers and vegetables.
But for them the chief attraction is the inspection of
such home-made eatables as oatcakes, scones, jams, and crowdies. Baking
forms an important feature at a Hebridean flower and cattle show; so does
the exhibition of homespun tweeds and of woollen garments, at which the
womenfolk work diligently throughout the summer months. At an island show
much of the afternoon is devoted to outdoor athletics; and races are
arranged in order to suit all sizes and ages. Competitive events are
announced in two languages, and the eager entrants swarm round on every
side. Putting-the-weight is usually very popular, while tossing the caber
attracts the manhood of the village and draws a large number of
I remember that last year the sports were temporarily
suspended for a few minutes by a couple of incidents of a somewhat minor
nature. To begin with, a cow had succeeded in breaking away from its
tether and dashed off in the direction of home. This instantly resulted in
a commotion, and nearly a hundred people gave chase and brought the
terrified animal to bay at the church door close at hand. The other
incident was the only heartrending occurrence of the day. It was caused by
a duck which had managed to wriggle out of its wire-netted show-box and
had put to death a young duckling amid great distress and lamentation.
In truth, it was really surprising that fewer accidents
occurred, for my much respected friend, lain Domhnullach, the only limb of
the law present, spent a tiresome day in keeping young, inquisitive
children away from the hoofs of frisky Highland ponies, and from the
somewhat uncertain trajectory lines in the putting-the-weight contest.
A feature which was interesting, if not actually
amusing, was the arrangement of the cattle. The animals were tied to
posts, which were placed on the outside of a circular space enclosed by an
untidy netted fence. It is still obscure in whose methodical mind this
idea originated, but they continued to extend this improvised fence with
every additional arrival of cattle. One would have expected that the
animals would have been tied within this enclosure; and I was unable to
ascertain for what purpose the central space was reserved. I inquired of
several, but no one was able to enlighten me.
At a Hebridean show there is usually at least one tea
tent in evidence, although its capacity is often very limited, and the
folks are obliged to visit it in relays. But most of those who come a long
way, bringing their cattle and their smaller exhibits with them, are
accustomed to carry their own provisions, and to light a small peat fire
in the shelter of an old dyke, where they prepare a simple repast for
themselves and for their friends.
By far the most amusing part of the programme was the
dance which followed. Crowds flocked from the many townships around, and
several parties had driven in cars from Stornoway, a distance of nearly
twenty miles over a benighted moor. How they all managed to gain
admittance I will never understand, for the accommodation was strictly
limited, and late-comers were arriving hourly from all directions! The
dance was conducted in two of the schoolrooms, between which was a solid
partition of stone and lime. In this partition there was a small window as
well as a door. I managed to find my way to a tilted bench immediately
below this window, and from it I had an excellent view of what was
happening in both rooms.
They danced incessantly hour after hour, and no one
seemed to get the least weary. Refreshments were served in a side
apartment, and from time to time drouthy dancers forced their way to the
lemonade table, while their still more drouthy friends allayed their
thirst outside with the aid of the proverbial ‘four-and-a-half.’ At odd
intervals I peeped through the little window behind me to see how things
were going on in the other room. Every dance appeared to be a Scotch reel.
Only twice to my knowledge did they depart from that dance; and they were
dancing reels when I left them swinging dizzily about 3 am. I admit that,
incidentally, they introduced a waltz or two as a slight variation, and
because it required less exertion; but the unpopularity of the waltz was
soon recognised, and, when a little rested, they readily resumed the reel
with renewed vigour.
In our room, however, things were somewhat different.
The variety of the dancing as well as of dancers was quite considerable.
They danced everything from polkas to one-steps and fox-trots. A party
from Stornoway had practically monopolised the floor of this room, and it
continued to chassé from one end to the other and from corner to corner in
the most metropolitan fashion. This ultimately caused a little jealousy,
and the Carloway representatives, in their endeavour to break up this
small but offensive clique, introduced a noisy, local element at odd
moments, much to the chagrin and disappointment of their urban visitors.
There was no official master of ceremonies, and anyone, who was bored with
the dance which was in progress, jumped up on a seat and declared what the
next dance would be. This queer method seemed to meet with the general
approval of the dancers, because they immediately scrambled for new
partners, and resumed without the slightest demonstration of any kind.
These gentle interruptions were as frequent as they were harmless; and no
one expressed any surprise at being unable to complete the dance in which
he was already engaged.
The orchestra amused me intensely. The melodeon was
indispensable; and, taking them all round, the musicians were the
‘rummiest’ upon which I had ever cast eyes. One little fellow sat in a
corner and played on his melodeon screeds of modern dance music, to which
he added a number of queer local variations. When he was utterly exhausted
at the end of two hours, he was relieved by a still more energetic
musician. Change of orchestra resulted in a quickening up of the music,
and the dancing was resumed at an abnormally rapid pace. Shortly
afterwards the music was augmented by the arrival on the scene of a youth
with a mouth-organ. His cap was several sizes too large for him, and was
drawn over the front of his face. Behind a great protruding peak he
successfully evaded being seen. Only once did I get a proper view of him;
he had entered into a short casual conference with his colleague while
endeavouring to suggest a tune with which they were both familiar.
Again the music was started at top speed; and no one
would ever have guessed that they were attempting to render the same air.
The mouth-organ was pitched about two tones above the melodeon, and the
inadaptability of their instruments denied them the option of an
alternative key. No one, however, seemed to observe this serious musical
defect. On the rarest occasion two notes here and there happened to
harmonise accidentally, but the general impression throughout was as weird
as it was disconsonant. The whole thing sounded like an exercise in
chromatic scales played in opposite directions. But it had its redeeming
features too, for both players started together, kept an identical pace,
and, above all, stopped together. Indeed, they followed closely the
procedure observed by the orchestras in modern city dancing-halls by
making an unmusical noise in strict time.
It seemed incredible that most of the men, whom I left
dancing so aimlessly on the floor of that school-room, had served with my
own county regiment, and had survived the fiercest fighting of the late
These were the proceedings at and after a flower show
in the remote village of Carloway; and from such humble districts as this
were voluntarily recruited the bravest fighting troops in Europe.