I THINK that in many ways the women
of the Hebrides are unlike the women in any other part of our Islands. To
one who knows the Western Isles and is familiar with the conditions under
which the people live there, this difference is requiring of no
explanation. At the best, life in the Hebrides is severe, particularly in
the remoter parts, where the inclemency of the weather and the poorness of
the soil render the lot of the island-crofter anything but a happy one.
Like the men, the women in the Isles
have throughout the centuries become hardened and accustomed to their
environment. They are able to face all weathers; and, indeed, when the
harvests on land and sea fail, as they so frequently do, they can endure
hardships and privations which the average mind would find impossible to
Let us consider for a moment how the
Isleswoman toils each year at the peat-moss, in order that an ample store
of fuel may be laid in for the cold, wet winter with its long, dark
nights. A great deal of labour is entailed in the cutting and stacking of
peats; in fact one often wonders if economically they are really worth the
trouble expended on them. The peats are invariably cut by the women-folk,
especially in those parts where, at the time of cutting, the men of the
townships are absent at the fishings. Then there is the setting up on end
of the peats in small groups, so that they may dry. This is followed by
the building of huge stacks at the roadside, or at some convenient place
from which they can be ultimately carried home in a cart.
The carrying of the peats is done
almost entirely by women and children, who trail all day long with laden
creels between the peat-moss and the spot where other members of the
family are busily engaged in stack-making.
You must bear in mind that the peats
have to be attended to in all weathers; and the days which have been
assigned to them are seldom spent otherwise, unless torrential rains,
which are anything but uncommon in these regions, have made the peat-moss
inaccessible, or impossible to work.
In some parts of the Western Isles
the home-bringing of the peats depends on the state of the tide, as in
Uist, for example, where cartloads are conveyed across a wide sandy ford
when the tide is far out. At other places, perhaps, the women
creel-carriers are obliged to arrange their journeys to and from the
peat-moss when the stepping-stones across the narrows of some sea-loch are
above the surface of the water.
The cutting and stacking of peats a
few miles north of Stornoway affords an interesting example of how the
island women work according to the state of the tide, because they set out
for the extensive peat-moss on the other side of Loch an Tuath, or Broad
Bay, when the tide begins to ebb. If the tide should happen to be full in
the forenoon they go to the peats in the early morning, and spend the
whole day at the moss, returning home barefooted across a great stretch of
sheen-white sands in the evening, when the tide is low again. This route
is considerably shorter than walking round the head of this broad, flat
bay, because the tide recedes for many miles and leaves a vast area of
what is practically dry land, except where one or two streams have to be
The folks at Steinish and
Coulregrein, two little villages at this side of Loch an Tuath, usually
bring their peats home in boats, which they load during the daytime, and
which they row across the bay in the darkening, when the tide is suitable.
Thus they are enabled to unload their peats almost at their doors, and are
saved the trouble and anxiety of carting home their fuel along difficult
roads and pathways.
But the women in the Western Isles
do many other things. They spin and they weave; they are in attendance at
the shielings; they assist at the fishings; and they work earnestly at
garner-time, even though the harvests are never too abundant.