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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter VII - The Lews


I shall now have a good deal to say about the Lews, and I may mention that the oldest story that I know concerning that interesting island is the following:

About 1780 Lord Seaforth persuaded my grandfather, Sir Hector, to accompany him over to Stornoway. The Seaforth Lodge, which then stood nearly on the site of the present castle, happening not to be in a very good state of repair for the reception of its owner and his guest, they repaired to the Stornoway Inn, and a queer sort of hole it must have been in those days. It was a great day for the landlady, and she did her very best. For dinner she proudly uncovered a big dish of boiled grouse, but nearly fainted at the outcry made by his lordship on seeing that his grouse had been poached; in May!

Let me now quote my uncle’s experience of a Stornoway whale-hunt:

“One day when I was fishing for salmon in the Ewe a lawyer came to me with a letter from a political coterie saying a county election was imminent, and I found it was decided that I was the proper party to go with this limb of the law to canvass the voters in a distant island, as being well known by name, person, or reputation to them all. A yacht waited to carry me there and back again at my command. That abominable yacht made it impossible for me to say, ‘But I’ll not go. I’d rather catch salmon than voters.’ So with a heavy heart I left my country—for my country’s good we shall hope, but, at all events, for an aquatic battle such as I have never seen and never shall see again. As the old ballad did not appeal to me which says—

“Up in the mornin’s no for me,
Up in the mornin’ airly;
I’d rather gae supperless to my bed,
Than rise in the mornin’ airly,’

It was soon after dawn on a calm grey morning that I found myself parading Stornoway Pier, whence the I long harbour was. visible down to the open sea about three miles away. I observed people looking seaward with their spy-glasses, and wondered what they were taken up with. In a few minutes all but myself and some of the wise men with glasses were scampering away up the town like mad bulls, roaring their loudest for all hands to get out the boats, and ere one could cry ‘Peas’ every male in the town seemed gone crazy, shouting out, Mucan mara, Mucan mara!’ (‘Whales, whales!’) many, half-dressed and hatless, were carrying oars and tuns. boat-hooks, old broadswords, and other kinds of weapons, one of them even bearing a kitchen spit with its wooden wheel at the end like a gallant lancer’s spear. They all tumbled into the many boats at the pier and on the shore, first throwing into them heaps of smallish stones, evidently to be used as round shot for me enemy. I just sucked a finger of astonishment, wondering if I was living in an asylum, until a telescope-holder kindly told me the people were expecting a catch of whales.

“Then between tongues and telescope I became aware that a line of six or eight boats were acting in concert with the harbour boats, some of the men rowing and others standing up on the thwarts and waving hats and jackets to indicate something not yet visible to us landlubbers. In a few minutes some thirty boats were steering down the harbour close to the land on our side, rowing as if for dear life or a £1,000 prize. We saw them very soon pass the eight boats at the harbour mouth, which, it seemed, had gone off early to their Ordinary long line fishings, when they fell in with a great school of whales that were capering about like lunatics in the sea. The moment the supporting boats passed those which had discovered the whales, we saw them wheel round outside them from the shore, and soon a regular barrier of boats was formed quite across the bay about one hundred yards beyond the original fishermen, who then left their stations to join the new flotilla. Meanwhile another line of boats, arriving later, formed a second barrier one hundred yards or so nearer the ocean than the first one. All this time our telescopes showed us that the chase was going on vigorously The crews of the boats were waving coats and throwing stones at the coveted mammals, and the sea was boiling with the capers of the monsters, who were growing alarmed at their danger. Oh dear, dear! they have dived under the first line of boats and are off back to sea. What a loss of booty! But all is not over, for the fugitives have taken fright at the second line of boats and the first line has divided in the middle, passed farther out in two columns, to reform their line again beyond the second. This game went on for rather longer than the fishers desired, for the demands upon wind and limb were severe, and they had started early, without food or liquor, their only breakfast being deferred hope, which does not take long to digest.

“However, about noon the whales seemed to have had enough of men and boats, and their leader, distinguished by the name of Delphinus deductor—or caaing, that is, ‘driving whale'—steered up the harbour and was soon nearly opposite the town. All was most quiet and silent there, lest any noise on shore might frighten the whales out to sea again. The harbour grows so much narrower near the town that the boats came gradually closer together, and showers of stones were thrown at every whale who showed above water. I fetched my double rifle and its ammunition from the hotel, and became so excited that when the leading whale raised his head high enough to show his eye, I fired without asking anyone's leave, feeling certain I could extinguish it. A universal groan and some unmistakable bad language from land and sea rather shocked me for a moment; but I am- certain the shot was a wise one, for the leader, instead of turning away to sea as my groaners were sure he would do, quietly continued his course up the harbour till he grounded. It was high water or nearly so, and ninety-five others of his large followers ran ashore also or hung about him like a swarm of bees round their queen, I though there was nothing to prevent all of them going back to sea if they had resolved to do so.

“As soon as the boat people learnt the leader was ashore, the boats dashed in among the shoal, busy with every deadly weapon they could lay hands on, till the sea was mere bloody mud. I saw my spit-bearer poking his spit into shining backs as they emerged from the water alongside his boat, and I saw also a leather-cutter busy with his knife, imagining he was killing whales also, while in reality he was only spoiling their leather, for below the skin, which naturally he cut, was a mass of blubber. I soon expended all my bullets at point-blank distance. The sea seemed pink, nearly scarlet.

“Every now and then a boat was upset by a whale rising to the surface underneath it, and the noise of the killers and the semi-drowning people and the onlookers on the shore was astounding, a whale sometimes getting his head so much above water that he could join in the uproar, which he did with a will. One boat stuck near the shore, and a badly wounded whale took to spouting blood in a stream as thick as my arm from his blow-hole. He anchored exactly astern of the stranded boat, and rather astonished its crew by regularly deluging them with a continuous stream of pure blood. The water was too deep for the men to jump : ashore, and in a few minutes, in spite of their seeking shelter under the thwarts or at the side of the boat, any one of them might have applied for a place as the Demon clothed in scarlet in Der Freischutz; and instead of their receiving pity from the spectators, the shore just rang with yells of laughter.

“When it was low water I went among the ninety-six captives, and forgetting that they were not fish, who died when out of water, got rather a start when one of them, which I poked, opened his mouth and gave an alarming roar, making me feel quite sorry for him and his. They were of all sizes, most of them about twenty to twenty-four feet long, but some were down to four feet, and in several places in the mud I could have taken up bowls of milk that had run out of the mother whales. One of them opened its mouth and spat out an eight or nine pound salmon as fresh as if taken out of a net, and I doubt not it made a dinner for some people that day, after having itself dined with a whale. It was evidently a salmon that intended to go up the River Creed, but had fallen in with the school of whales as they passed along, and had very naturally been gobbled up. The whole of the townsfolk were busy as bees making sure that there was no risk of any of the whales swimming out to sea again at the next high tide, and in due time slices of whale were being boiled for oil in every hole and corner of the town. For many a day everything smelt, if it did not taste, of whale oil! It was a wild mess, ending most childishly in each whale being towed out to sea after its blubber was pared off and cast adrift, whereas if made into manure it would have made a great piece of land grateful for years.”

When I was ten years old I paid my first visit to Lews Castle with my mother, accompanied by our keeper, and I brought my new little rifle. We were sent to Morsgail, the deer-forest on the west side of the island, about thirty miles away, and were to remain there some time till I got a stag. Although no one believed such a small boy could kill a stag, I got two the very first day, one of them with a funny little head of twelve points which I still possess, and on the third day we returned to the castle in triumph. For years afterwards I went there for long visits, and what bags I used to make of grouse and golden plovers, besides stags ! One day I got five stags right away on the Harris march. I remember as a lad of fifteen or sixteen starting on foot from the castle, and on the home beat shooting thirty-six brace of grouse over dogs with my muzzle-loader, and after my return dancing all night at a ball given in the castle to the townspeople.

The Lews was a wonderfully sporting island in those days. A connection of mine, a Captain Frederick Trotter, used to get as many as twelve hundred brace at Soval, besides endless snipe and golden plovers, while hundreds of woodcock used to be shot out on the open moors over dogs in the winter. And now, as on the opposite mainland, game is nearly extinct.

That summer, when I was ten, I made my first attempt at salmon-fishing in the Ewe, and was much more successful than I have ever been since. There had been a great drought, and towards the end of June came a big flood, and I was given a small new salmon-rod and put in the charge of Sandy Urquhart. He and his older brother Hector, whom he succeeded, were the best hands who ever cast a fly on the Ewe. Wonderful to say, I killed twelve fish in the first two days, the heaviest 27 pounds, and my little arms were so tired each day by about two or three o’clock that I could fish no longer and had to go home. But I got thirty fish in those nine or ten days. If I had been eighteen or twenty years of age and an experienced fisherman, what would I not have caught if I had fished from six in the morning till ten at night! My first salmon-fishing took place in the year 1852, and I do not think my record has ever been beaten, though before my time I have heard of my grandfather doing wonders and getting sometimes as many as thirty fish a day to his own rod.

I have heard a story about my father and Fraser of Culduthel fishing the Ewe. Culduthel was catching fish after fish, and declared they would take any mortal thing. He removed his fly, put on a bare bait-hook, to which he tied a small tuft of moss, and cast with it. No sooner had the hook with the tuft of moss touched the stream than he had a fish on. When the fish was landed he threw down his rod in disgust, saying it was no sport fishing the Ewe, as the salmon would take anything.

Certain families served the lairds in the good old times generation after generation. For example, my teacher in salmon-fishing, Sandy Urquhart, and his brother Hector were grandsons of my grandfather's head herdman, Domhnall Donn, who had charge of Sir Hector's sixty black cows at the Baile Mor of Gairloch. How well I remember their mother! Such a handsome old woman, and of such size and strength! I have heard that as a girl, when helping her father with the cattle, she could catch a heifer by the hind-leg and hold her. Many a good lunch I have had from her when fishing the Ewe! Her boiled salmon was better cooked and tasted better than that of anyone else. Her recipe was to boil the salmon overnight and leave it all night in the water it was boiled in. In the morning each slice was encased in its own jelly. There were few flour-scones in those days, only either good hard oat-cakes or softer barley-scones, generally made with a mixture of potato. Nothing nowadays can come up to Bantrach Choinnich Eachainn's (Kenneth Hector's Widow) salmon and barley-scones, with those most delicious of all potatoes the seanna Bhuntata dearg (old red potatoes), which, alas! did not resist that awful plague, the potato disease, and very soon entirely disappeared.

Describing salmon-fishing fully one hundred years ago, my uncle says: “Our father at breakfast would say: ‘Boys, salmon are crowding into the bay now and we must help some of them out. See and get your lessons finished and we'll dine at two, and have a haul of the seine-net at Inverkerry.' ‘Hurrah, hurrah!' was the ready response, and by three we were off in the long-boat, and soon found the net people with all set ready for a haul, and quite cross at our being so late for a shoal of salmon had cruised all round inside the bight of the net laughing at them, but they dared not begin till we came. So we sat down on the Scannan rock, and in a few minutes there was a grand fish springing in the air close to the net and a crowd of his admirers hauling on at its shore-ropes like mad. Old Iain Buidh was furious at us urchins for making such a row, as he knew noises often frightened away fish. One end of the net is always close to shore, but the other end of the semicircle may be over one hundred yards out at sea, and it was the rope from it to the shore that we were all hauling at like demons—not nearly such tame ones as old Iain would have liked. The smaller people were set to throw white dornagan (fist-sized round stones) along the line of the hauled rope to prevent fish swimming away from the net as it kept closing in. Both ends of the net are now ashore, but much caution is needed yet, lest it be raised above the ground ere all is high and dry; for Mr. Salmon has a good eye, and would instantly dart out to sea through the gap!

“Hurrah! they are all safe. There is the leader springing in the air, just to see what all this contracting of their sea means. Alas! very soon he is capering on the rock with all his friends, while many of his young admirers are busy as bees with their shillelaghs, made for the purpose of administering vigorous head-whacking opiates to ensure the peace. At one such haul I once saw over three hundred salmon, grilse, and trout, from 2 or 3 pounds up to 25 pounds, brought ashore. Usually two or three hauls of the net landed as many as our father cared to take home, for all but the few needed for home use were that evening allocated for tenants or poor people. It takes more planning than folks would imagine, first to settle where each fish is to go, and then who is to take it.

“By the time the net was hung up in the boathouse roof, sledges were up at Tigh Dige with the fish, which were always laid out on the grass in front of the house, that the dear mother might admire the really beautiful sight, and with paper and pencil, supported by her devotee and housekeeper, Kate Archy, plan the fishy distribution. I have sometimes wondered how my father and mother would have looked at anyone who suggested their selling salmon or game ! So when Kate had selected her fish for kipper-smoking—and no one ever matched her at that trade, for the Tigh Dige breakfast without hot plates of kipper was not to be tolerated—and when Mrs. Cook had secured her share, every other fish was despatched to the tenants and crofters, and they were legion, within reach. And now, instead of those happy, exciting times, there are horrid bag nets all round the coast, which keep up a melancholy stream of fish, all going to greedy London in exchange for horrid, filthy, useful lucre* My father, luckily for him, died ere the Gairloch salmon came to such degeneration!’

Kate Archy was widow of Fraser, our gardener, and mother of a daughter who succeeded her and remained with the family all her life. I see her now in the high white mutch, herself considerably above ordinary height, stalking over the lawns and along the roads with a strong apron fastened round her, containing, perhaps, seven or eight live chickens, and at her right side a huge pocket. With her right hand she hauls a squalling chicken out of the apron. In a second the left hand holds the feet, the knuckle of the right thumb (did she not teach me herself carefully?) dislocates chicky’s neck, and a large handful of feathers goes into the pocket, till in an amazingly short time the featherless victim is thrust away among the survivors in the apron. Then another suddenly goes through the same ceremony, till all are served. When Kate's walk round the place ends in the kitchen of the Tigh Dige seven or eight chickens, merely needing “flamming," are lying on the table for the housekeeper's orders. And don't I remember her sometimes allowing me, as a reward for being good, to flam the feather-plucked flesh, passing the bird suddenly through the flames of some paper, which burnt off all the small feathers or down?

“I don't believe Kate was ever aware of what she was doing when stalking about with an apron full of chickens. It never for a moment stopped her singing or holloaing any advice or warning to A, B, or C, who crossed her path or eye. Was there ever a more valued, entirely trusted, loving family friend? I doubt it. Christie, her daughter, was hardly behind her. What did Kate and Co. care for their own interest compared with ours? Not a straw! These were the kind of people that cheerfully gaed up to be hangit' just to please the laird.

“How ashamed Monsieur Soyer would have been had he competed with Kate in a dish of venison collops for breakfast at Tigh Dige! Such collops were never made before or since. And as for her kippers, who nowadays could settle like her the exact quantities of salt, sugar, and smoke each dried salmon and grilse required, to suit the date of their consumption, whether immediate or deferred, confidentially imparted to her by the dear calculating mother. Until salmon close time ended the family was never disgraced through being out of salmon or wonderful kipper, not to mention venison and venison hams.

"Our father, Sir Hector, took much interest in our fishing and shooting, even planning our expeditions and sometimes taking a drove of us on ponies to fish in the then celebrated Ewe, a seven-mile ride from the Tigh Dige. We were always off by 6 a.m., so as to have fresh salmon cutlets for breakfast in the old inn. He would land six or eight fish before we went to gorge ourselves, keen with hunger, at breakfast with dish after dish of fried slices of salmon. One day I remember he landed, besides many others, two fish each about 40 pounds weight, one of which took him right down into the sea, whence it was landed. Nowadays salmon are all killed (at least, on the Ewe) ere they approach that weight, for there are nets everywhere.’ In the old times there was a haul of the salmon-net, twice a day or so, at the mouth of the river opposite Pool House, and once in the evening in the pool below the cruives. Heaps of salmon were caught every day but Sunday in the cruive-boxes, and I once helped to draw ashore over three hundred in one sweep of the net from the cruive pool.

“I must admit that I removed the cruives to please the Government Drainage Commissioner, who would not in 1847 sanction drainage in Kenlochewe till the cruives, which he said dammed up Loch Maree, were removed. Since then there has been no trouble taken to make pools in the river. The salmon scoffed at our efforts and rushed up to Loch Maree, very few resting so long in the river as to get hungry, and running fish seldom care for fly or bait. I never would have removed the cruives had I imagined the river, which is not a mile long, was not to be made into a series of pools instead of flowing in rough runs broken up by big stones, behind one of which, when the river was furnished with cruives, a fish was obliged to rest and get a good sight of our flies. There was no bridge on the Ewe until, I think, 1836 or so, and the present much altered Cliff House was then the smoky, whisky-perfumed Poolewe Inn.” '

Apropos of salmon-fishing, my uncle tells a story of a lawsuit his father had: “My father was his own factor and clerk, as every wise landlord will be till too old for work with mind or body. He just pitied landlords who knew not the pleasure of guiding their tenants through all the many difficulties, which no factor can remedy like their landlord, and when the factor was a mere lawyer his pity was greatly increased. He detested law and kept out of court with wonderful success, till all at once a litigious fool of a neighbour drew him into no fewer than seven lawsuits. The River Ewe was the Gairloch march in one direction, and Seaforth had bought Kernsary, which was on the north side of the Ewe. Like many people who are very clever but not wise, he discovered that my father was using rights belonging to Kernsary, etc. He soon found lawyers glad enough to back him in his folly. I need not detail more than one of the complaints to court— namely, that my father drew the seine-net at the mouth of the Ewe on the Kernsary seashore. No use telling him that this had been done without any objection for more than a hundred years. He would soon make people wiser, and into court he went ding-dong. Then he discovered that a ship pier erected on this, the only spot where a net could be drawn at the river mouth, would be a grand thing to upset the netting, so Brahan Quarries were all busy and ships were loaded with dressed freestone for the pier, and were instantly discharged into the sea on the pier site. When the lawyers had seen him well into the courts they suddenty advised Seaforth to throw up the sponge, and the result was that he offered to withdraw the seven lawsuits and pay all the costs. These, of course, were no trifle, but the fishing up of all those ship-loads of stone out of the deep below at the river mouth (for every one had to be removed) must have been a wild expense. He also had to pay my father damages for the loss of two seasons of fishing there, and the affair became the standing joke of the county wherever the parties were known.”


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