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Lewsiana
A Funeral in the West


THERE has been a funeral in the village.

“The best and truest man inside the road” has passed away, probably from want of medical advice, against which he was bigotedly prejudiced; nor would he taste medicine that had come from a doctor. “They can give you stuff that will kill you in. a moment,” he said, and put no trust in the Faculty. This part of the coast has the credit of being very healthy, and very seldom is the attentive physician resident at Stornoway called over to Carloway on business. The neighbouring populous clachan of Garnin has only been twice visited by the doctor in forty years—a visit made during our stay being the first in twenty years.

But to the funeral. Down the hill in solemn procession comes the party, all showing true grief and impressive sobriety of manner.

The coffin, of common deal, stained black, is fastened upon two old oars, and one of the large open fishing-boats swings on the beach, ready to receive the remains of him who has set his last long line amidst the Western waves, heard the keel grate for the last time on the pebbly shore. About forty friends, all stout fishermen, have met to convey the remains of their companion to his last home by the sounding sea, on the island of Little Bernera, where the fishermen of the West all hope to rest. The sail once set, a smart breeze carries us across the Sound to the little sandy creek in close proximity to the graveyard of the island. As there is no proper landing-place, some of the men spring out on the rocks bordering the sandy beach, and hold the boat steady with ropes, while the remainder clamber ashore, and accompany the coffin up the rocky knolls to the cemetery. This is merely a little sandy patch closely packed with mounds, only two or three possessing a stone with the names of the occupants. Here a consultation takes place as to the proper place of burial; and this agreed upon, spades are produced, and the friends around soon excavate a grave a few feet deep in the sand. The bitter November blast, that had often borne the dead to his labours on the deep, now shrieks the only requiem over his grave, and hurls the driving sleet in the faces of the mourners. A passionate burst of heartfelt grief breaks from the sons of the deceased as they lower the coffin to its place on the edge of the cliff over the sea. The grave is then filled up, the friends bear turfs from the neighbourhood and neatly cover the mound, a rude stone is placed at the head and foot, and we thoughtfully wander back from the little island cemetery, where the winds and the waves keep watch and ward over so many “toilers of the sea.”

No one has any distinct charge over the cemetery, but certain scarcely definable portions of the ground are understood to appertain to certain families. The deep feeling with which the fishermen pointed out some rugged mound as that over a beloved relative, showed how strongly affectionate was their Celtic nature; and yet there is not a cemetery in the Lews worthy of the name, in which the slightest care is bestowed on the graves after interment. The enclosure of rude stones here is very small, the sea having curtailed it, while it threatens still further to reduce it within a short period.

On our way back to the boat we halted under the shelter of a rock, and were supplied by the friends with a glass of whisky and piece of biscuit, as the wind was strong, bitterly cold, and opposed to our rapid return.

No clergyman whatever was present, and no ceremony took place, nor is it customary, so far as we understand. It is usual, however, to have prayer over the coffin, in presence of the female mourners, before leaving the house.

The boat is again drawn close up to the slippery seaweed-grown rocks, and the party re-embark. They sit shivering with their heads drawn into their jackets, and pipes, lit under every disadvantage, in their teeth. Now and again they rouse themselves to shift the heavy sail as we tack the boat on our zigzag way across the Sound. Everything was conducted with propriety and sobriety, Highlanders always displaying true good feeling on such occasions; and as we jumped half-frozen on to the beach once more, we felt pleased to have joined in the last mark of respect to the kindly face that so often, creel on shoulder, had passed our door.


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