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Lewsiana
Carloway


OF some places, as of some people, it is hardly safe to trust the hand to write. Who can be trusted to indite an article on the wife of his bosom, or write without apparently uncalled-for emotion about the home of his childhood?

So is it with us in respect to Carloway, with its pleasant bay, its rambling clachans, its cheerful cliffs, and, last of all, the many friendly faces we left beside its rocky shore.

The Carloway River, a good-sized stream, runs into the sea-loch of the same name, a broad tract being left bare at low water where it enters. As it passes seaward it narrows and deepens, takes a sudden bend at right angles round a rocky bluff, and resumes its westward course.

In this bend, sheltered from the direct action, of the sea, the fishing-boats lie at anchor, exposed, however, to severe squalls down the gully from the river. The sea-loch is nowhere very wide, and everywhere irregular and rocky; but we understand it has been taken note of as an excellent harbour for a British fleet, in case of war with America.

The vicinity of the boat-anchorage has an extensive slope carefully cultivated, and in spring and autumn presents a pleasing and picturesque appearance. Many brilliant shades of green combine well with the tawny rocks and blue waves.

Sea, cliffs, and clachans—nothing wonderful —and yet, and yet it is a pleasant place. For nature here, as elsewhere, has her gala days when she dons her gayest apparel. Every one who has written of the Hebrides has described the terrific hailstorms swept along by a demoniac wind, that, more especially in the late autumn and early spring, sweep over the weather-beaten, tanned, and everlastingly embrowned face of this sadly abused land. No one fails to enter minutely into details of the hail, snow, sleet, and rain, now alternating during a single day, now giving their whole minds to their work during a whole twenty-four hours—not working steadily any more than the Celtic inhabitants, but with boisterous and recurrent pertinacity. All this is it not written in the chronicles of “Sixty-one" than whom few are remembered more kindly in the Lews?

But who has described the Lews in its real spring? Not boisterous February or March, but when all nature suddenly awakes, like the half-torpid inhabitants from the long nights of winter, and rushes to its labour like a giant refreshed. It presses out the primroses, and many a lovely wild flower, over the faces of the cliffs, hurries the laggard ferns into life by many a lonely watercourse, and decks the late sad-looking country in a lively suit of varying green.

One who has only looked at the Lews in winter has not the remotest notion of what this dismal tract is capable. A week or two of suitable weather, and the growth is almost supernaturally rapid and luxuriant. As there are no divisions over most of the country from harvest to seed time, the cattle and sheep roaming uninterrupted over the land, every blade of grass is cropped up by the more than half-starved anatomies that wander eager-eyed around. But, the seed time over, they are carefully tended on the neighbouring moors, and the struggling vegetation springs with a bound into activity and beauty. With what affectionate fondness do the lovely primroses and purple rock-daisies nestle in every creek and corner of those bold western cliffs, while the scrambling silver weed looks over from the edge of its bed, spread along the upper slope. The dweller in the sunny South naturally supposes we are in a flowerless wilderness, but see what we are walking through now as we stroll along the borders of this pretty little loch, a few miles from Carloway, waving with flags and decked all over with lovely water-lilies. The grass is green and luxuriant, and studded with orchis of the most brilliant purple and of large size. Beds of the yellow iris cover the damper spots, and the marsh marigold grows in the little streams. The crowfoot, the silver-weed, buttercup, and yellow clover show every shade of yellow, while the sober gowan and white clover sit demure amid their more gaudy friends.

The many species of delicate grasses give elegance to the green banks, and beautiful ferns, amid which may be seen the stately royal, adorn and border the stream beside us. The forget-me-not refuses to be forgotten, and the presence of the thistle makes itself felt; while violets and variegated vetches contend for a subsistence with many a less known and less respected brightener of the wayside. The lovely eyebright and the flowering nettle, and even already an occasional sprig of the bell-heather, are peeping at us from the rocks. For this is the charming little green vale of Dalebeg, charming both on account of nature and human nature, and, like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, the sojourner in the wilderness is ever sure of a kindly welcome in its hospitable shade.

Between Dalebeg and Carloway there is a renowned and very extensive beach of disintegrated gneiss, unprotected in the slightest from the rolling Atlantic, which hurls its hollow breakers continuously over the dancing sand. A valley of rich pasture leads down to the bent-grown “macher” that borders the bay, handsome soft-contoured cliffs closing it in on either side.

For a few miles on either side of Loch Carloway lies the snuggest and warmest and one of the most pleasing districts we have seen in the Lews. Northward of this it opens out into a bleak rocky moorland, swept over by every wind of heaven. Southward it becomes tamer and more contracted, with flatter land and a confined inland sea. Here it is snug; bold to landward, and open to seaward.

Numberless lochs in the neighbourhood abound with brown trout, and those whence the Carloway River is fed are well supplied with sea-trout and salmon. These latter, however, never rise to the angler in the Carloway River.

As a rule, the sea-loch affords few fish, more particularly when the river is high and the season has been wet, the fresh water seemingly driving out sea-fish.

In Loch Roag, outside, however, a fair quantity of fish may be taken at most seasons, and few more picturesque sea-coasts can be found to set a drift of hooks along.

Let us run out and set our spiller line, and toss our black buoys on the wave, take careful bearings, and tack about for an hour or two. Our companions at sea are stupid guillemots, or quick-witted, sprightly, elegant sea-pigeons. The “bishop,” or great northern diver, laughs and disappears as we seek to approach him, or an eider duck on a visit from the Flannan Isles tempts us in vain from our course. There a long-necked cormorant goes hurrying past with its strong inelegant flight, or a solan goose stops in its sailing course, and drops headlong with a splash into the deep. With what force the goose descends! On one occasion a boat was on its way from St. Kilda, when, it is said, one of these birds miscalculated its progress, and, in place of dropping on its prey, went crash through the bottom of the boat. The boatmen found it so jammed in that they left it sticking through the planks until they reached the shore.

But see that strange turmoil on the waters ! A large flight of gulls are tumbling over one another again and again, in their frantic endeavours to get at a shoal of young herring. Not until we row right up to the spot do we observe any assistants, but on arrival we are amused to see the heads of dookers shoot funnily up, with a startled expression, from under the water all about us. These had been diving amid and under the shoal, whose silvery jackets thus rudely shaken off were dancing all through the surrounding waters. The gobbling gulls, unable to follow the prey under the waves, hastened to take advantage of the assistance thus providentially afforded them. The wild screeching and rude jostling and tumbling of the gulls was most ridiculous, and the whole flight might have been covered with a blanket, so close were they atop of one another during their rivalry.

We have time still to run along by the bold cliffs, with now a natural bridge, now a huge cave, now an isolated rock like a fortalice; or, tacking about again, run across Loch Roag to the island of Little Bernera, with its beautiful beaches and rich pasturage. The prevailing shells here are of the genus “patella;” about Stornoway the most common genus is “car-dium.” The varieties of both are great. Look at the bent turned into compasses! some one calls out; and sure enough the stiff-pointed grasses growing through the sand have been caught in this eddy by the strong wind, and the points have described beautiful circles in the sand all about! Lazy herons are flapping, active sandpipers running, and curlews are as fond of hearing themselves screeching as young ladies just “finished” from a boarding-school. But our buoys have been dancing long enough on the waves, and we seek our home.

Let us now turn landward. News has come to the cottage this morning that the people are gathering for the Carloway fank.

A stroll of half a mile over the moor, or rather constant leaping over peat banks, brings us to the green margin of a pretty-little loch, dotted with clumps of reeds. By its side the stone fank is placed, where the cotters’ sheep, grazing on the moor in the vicinity, are periodically gathered. We are first on the ground, so must wait for a time beside the little pool, with the rocky hilly moorland spreading away on every side, diversified by an occasional loch, and enlivened by the little Highland cattle of the cotters dotted here and there over it.

At length the people begin to gather, and when next we raise our heads from tales of other lands, we find quite a multitude of men, with occasional women and girls, sitting on the knolls around. But where are the sheep? Patience! Hist! there comes the bleating of the pioneers, and, ere long, the flock of the clachan, several hundred strong, or weak, makes its -diversified appearance. Every age and sex, almost every species, indigenous or acclimatized, are there; from the aged Cheviot ewe, with scarce a tuft of wool left, to the frizzy, black-faced lamb.

On they come ! with plenty of vocal music as they proceed, and at length are enclosed within the rude walls of the fank; a crowd of bipeds surrounding it outside.

Now commences the robbery of the innocents —the shearing of the various fleeces. If any accustomed to Lowland manners, or shearing on a farm, expect similar regularity and decorum, they will be sadly disappointed. Here are no wooden stools of open spars with the shearers seated in—waiting for the victims; but in two minutes a rush has been made into the fold by wild-looking, bare-legged men and strapping, handsome, laughing girls. Each of the cotter horde seizes his or her one or two sheep, and drags them, bleating and struggling, amid the furious and constant vociferations of all, to the grassy bank outside the fank. The legs of the bleaters once tied, a dozen shears are plied by as many parties, each more or less, particularly less, skilful; and the bank is ere long covered by prostrate scores of nondescripts being denuded of their coats, or awaiting their turns, neither silently nor patiently. One consolation to the humanitarian arises from the fact that most of the sheep are pets, accustomed to being housed with the family to which they belong. So that, however anxious for wool, and unskilful at procuring it, they rather fail on the side of kindness and extravagance than of economy and cruelty. The reckless wounds indispensable from shearing on a great scale, as in Buenos Ayres or California, are nowise possible here.

Ascending the hill alongside, we look down on the busy scene in the midst of the desolate-looking hills. The snip of the shears reaches our ears, through the shouting of the men, the shrill screaming of the women, and the piteous calls of prostrate mothers to their terrified and equally noisy offspring.

There, a spanking girl, gaily bedight, springs into the fank, and soon re-appears with a sheep under each arm. They struggle in vain in arms accustomed to swing on her hips a creel of peats, under the weight of which many an athlete of my acquaintance would stagger like a giant in drink. There, a bare-legged girl of ten speeds like a fawn after a startled runaway, and turns it lightly on its back, as if turtle-turning had been the business of her life. The freed and wretched - looking creatures, already stripped of their winter coats, rush bleating to the hills, the lambs helplessly seeking their comfortless mothers, amid the miserable and scattered parties spread over the neighbouring moorland.

Verily! if those excitable Celts did not manage to carry a sparkling interest into the very simplest affairs of life, could they dwell so happily and contentedly on this “floating peat”?

Near us, in the rolling land between Carlo way and Tolsta Chulish, is the celebrated Dune Carloway. This is the best preserved of any dune we have seen in the Lews. These circular dry-stone Pictish forts, or places of security, are very numerous in this country. At least a dozen are in the parish of Uige, and many of them have formerly dotted the sea-coast as far as Ness. They are generally built close by a freshwater loch, not far from the sea, and are always innocent of lime or mortar. Still they have been so strongly built as to reach the Lews of to-day from distant times, and would doubtless have done so in much better preservation but for the ready quarries they have proved to the cotters.

Dune Carloway is built on a slight elevation, overlooking a fine freshwater loch abounding in trout; while, at the same time, it affords a capital view over Loch Roag and out to the Atlantic.

On the road to Ness, a number of villages border the sea on the left hand, and a few ruined dunes are to be seen beside the lochs on the right. These villages merit observation from the peculiarity that they are built generally beside embouchures of rivers. The sea, in almost every case> has thrown up a magnificent bank of gravel at the river-mouth, thus spreading it out into a freshwater loch, with this great gravel bank between it and the sea. On the top of the bank the fishing-boats of the community are ranged, while the river skulks round the corner seaward. This is quite a distinctive characteristic of this part of the coast. Beside Dalebeg, there is a cliff apparently of good granite, much used for millstones, which shows no sign of stratification. As the neighbouring formation, however, is gneiss, it does not seem exactly in order, any more than the weird tales told of its boduch-haunted environs.

The other day, we obtained the complete appurtenances of a veterinary surgeon. These consisted of a “serpent stone” and a serpent’s head. The stone was simply a disc with a hole in the centre, and two plain circles cut out on it. Such are held in great esteem, are very rare, and their appearance is accounted for in various ways. The commonest account given is, that the hole in the stone is caused by the passage of a serpent through it, a Harrisman having found one on the way through. A more fanciful and complicated belief assigns their origin to nine times nine snakes passing continuously round a heather bush? An idol-breaker from the mainland insists that such stones were common at the end of the spindles formerly, in place of a swelling in the wood, or an extemporised potato, as at present.

However this may be, the people have great faith in these stones as a cure for cattle, when bitten by snakes, as well as in many other ills that bovine flesh is heir to in the Lews. One of these stones is placed in water, or water is poured over it, and then given to the cattle to drink. Only three or four were known to be in the Carloway district, and these were in constant requisition for swelling in cattle, and other ailments. In default of the stone, or as an additional security, the head of an adder tied to a string was used in the same way, and for the same purpose. Such heads were more common, and in constant use. Will Mr. Phen6, who is acquainted with the Lews, claim these customs as a relic of widespread serpent-worship?

A medley of ancient superstitions and modern bigotry exists universally among the people. The boldest by day fear to go about at night, and endless tales of Boduchs, or spirits, distend the eyes of young and old round the peat fire. Here a water-horse revels in some roadside loch to the terror of the wayfarer. There, a “head” trundles along the hilly road all alone, and taboos the whole vicinity to travellers. Now, mysterious lights about the kirk disturb the repose of the whole community ; and again, some stalwart fisherman wrestles with the “Boduch Mohr ” — Satan himself — a whole night long on the moor, and “ has never been the same man since/*

You are passing along the road at Callamish. Hasty steps are heard behind, for no one is so bold as to pass within a mile of the stones alone in the gloaming, and your company for the present is in urgent request. The pedestrian may have travelled in far lands. Were you afraid there? you ask. “Not in the least”— only in the dread land of his birth, darkened by the tales of the “cailliachs.”

Then there are no musicians whatever among the people, as the ministers and elders as a rule proscribe such pure enjoyment. One lame lad at Shawbost had bought a fiddle to solace himself during the long winter evenings, but the elders forced him to dispose of it, and now not a man plays anything but a Jew’s harp among the natives of the west. Indeed, only lately have they relaxed so far as to have even dancing, and many ludicrous scenes have we witnessed from the holy horror of the elders. Everything that dark superstition and a severe creed can do has been done to oppress the minds of the people; but Celtic blood will show, and, with happy homes and minds at ease, they are “merry and wise,” in spite of all ghostly interference.


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