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Behold the Hebrides
An Island Flower Show


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 spectators.

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 war.

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.

The Lewisman is a traditional soldier.


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