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The Long Glen
Chapter III - Going to the Shealing


THE Eight Merkland folk are going to the shealing.

The yeld cattle and queys and stirks have been for weeks three miles up the hills, in the care of two herd boys who sleep on fragrant heather in one of the shealing huts, and cook their own food, until the women folk will come and take the management. Some times when the storm rages, and they hear shrieks and wails in the bosom of the blast after going to bed, the boys feel rather eerie, especially if the dogs sit up on their tails and raise a lament, or show fear by rushing whining upon the bed. But, notwithstanding such trials, the boys like the wild, free life, and now they are reckoning on being very merry indeed.

The cows and calves have been sent off, after the morning milking, in two detachments; and now the men and women folk are packing the shealing "arnais," [Furnishing] milk vessels, kirns, cheese presses, and so forth, with bed-clothes, pots, food, and some planks and beams to repair the huts. They pack them upon the light peat carts, which can be taken wherever a horse can go, on no road at all.

Until near the end of last century, the upper, or brae end of the glen, for ten or twelve miles, was forest and shealing land altogether ; and there was, moreover, a side glen, some seven miles long, to which the people of the other barony sent their cattle and families. Under the old order of things, going to the shealing meant, therefore, a general migration of women, children, and cattle about the beginning of June. The tenants and their men servants remained at home, to take care of the crops and secure them ; but they ever and anon went to see their people in the heath-covered huts, fifteen, twenty, or more miles away. Although there was much herding to do, the young boys and girls enjoyed shealing life amazingly. So did the grown-up girls, who laboured incessantly at their wheels, until the long daily task of many dozens was accomplished. So did the matrons, although the milking, butter-making, cheese-making, and flax and wool spinning, not to mention cooking and oversight in all things, left them very little leisure. So likewise did the husbands and sweethearts left behind, whenever they were able to pay a visit.

At the time when the shealing system still remained in full force, blackfaced sheep were not yet generally introduced. Cattle, horses, and goats were kept in great numbers. The small, reddish-faced, indigenous breed of sheep still maintained its ground, and yielded good wool, but rather poor mutton. These sheep were hardy animals, but, for all that, each farmer housed his own little flock in dead winter, while the shaggy young cattle had to fend for themselves on the open pastures as long as the grass and heather were not covered with very deep snow. In some respects the system of farming followed by the Glen people for many centuries might be called rude club farming, but it was very efficient for producing the maximum of food for man and beast. It ensured the careful cultivation and sufficient manuring of every bit of cultivable land, and it left for the sheep-farmers, that followed the old set, the green shealings and improved hill-side grazings, which they have been exhausting ever since.

The Glen braes were turned into large sheep walks early in the present century, and about the same time the shealings of the side glen, to which the thirty tenants of the Marquis of Inchaddin, on his Glen barony, used, ever since the Bruce's time, if not before, to send their women folk, children, and cattle every summer, were also put under sheep. With the disappearance of these two great shealing tracts, the poetry of the Glen life diminished much, and so did the production of food for man and beast. It was in vain that the forester bard, Duncan Ban of the Songs, invoked blessings on the foxes, in the hope that they would keep down the blackfaced sheep. The flocks flourished, and the old system decayed even more rapidly than he presaged.

But thevfolk of the Eight Merkland, although they had now a large stock of blackfaced sheep, did still, at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, keep up the shealing system in a small way. Far up their own proper hills, there is a patch of green grass, sweet to the taste of calves, and excellent rough pasture, on which all kinds of cattle thrive well in summer, but which is of very little use to the sheep in winter. By sending the cattle some three months to this shealing grazing, the wintering for the sheep on the lower grounds is protected from being eaten down to the roots, and herbage on the high pastures which would have been wasted is utilised.

A few days after Kate Ruadh's wedding the airidh [Shealing.] migration day comes round; for all communal matters, weather and Sabbath permitting, the same things are done on the same day of the month or moon, year after year. So, after the morning milking, the cows and calves are sent off to the uplands in two bands, under sure control. On the migration day almost all the inhabitants of the two "toons" that hold the hill in partnership go to the airidh, although only two old women with spinning wheels, the herding boys, and the dairymaids remain to be inhabitants of the shealing huts. The old women and the boys are to be in permanent residence there for a couple of months; but the maids go down to the hay harvesting on good days, and return in time for the evening duty at the buailidh.* In fact, as already mentioned, the bigger boys have been living in the shealing huts, and herding the queys, stirks, and horses, for some weeks before this time. The boys who have gone through this experience, and cooked their own simple food for several weeks, feel warranted to assume vast superiority over the little calf-herds that only come up the hills with the women.

It is a day of noise and bustle. The children are in their own and everybody's way, and try to be everywhere at the same moment ; the dogs, in a similar state of excitement, keep barking, and making senseless little runs about the quiet, meditative, old mares that are being yoked into the light peat-carts, which can be taken where there is no road at all. The packing is done at last. Kirns, cheese-presses, milk vessels, bed-clothes, oatmeal, salt, pots and pans, and crooks, with different sundries, including the indispensable "baigein leasaich," or curiously pickled calf's stomach, which yields the rennet for curdling the milk, are stowed in the carts.

Now it is time for making the start ; but how are the excited children and dogs to be got into marching order ? A dens ex juachina descends from the oak copse, in the shape of Donnachadh Amadain, who has been watching all the preparations from the beginning like a quiet philosopher. Duncan has been roaming the Glen since Kate Ruadh's wedding. He likes cream and crowdie, and he knows that there will be a cream and crowdie feast at the Eight Merkland shealing this evening, before the people that are to come back say good night to those they will leave behind them. Just when Duncan appeared on the scene, with his pipe under his arm, the children were reduced to a state of quiet, and so were the dogs, by Gilleasbuig Sgoilear, an old man from another "toon," who had come to renew his youth by going with the rest to the only, or next to only, shealing now in the Glen.

Gilleasbuig, whose to-name of " Scholar" was exceedingly well deserved, although he never got much benefit out of his curious and most miscellaneous store of information, knew how to fascinate children, as well as grown people, by his wonderful stories, which, if necessary, he was able to improvise on the shortest notice. He has held these unruly children quiet and spell-bound for an hour at a stretch by two fairy tales; but he wishes to recover his own natural liberty, and the moment he sees Duncan, he calls out to him, " Good health to the piper—seid suas." Duncan obeys at once, and, turning his face to the hill, the children and dogs follow him in most orderly procession, and give no more trouble to mothers burdened with the cares of the flitting to the airidh.

Duncan and the children reach the shealing huts long before the carts and the older people. Gilleasbuig Sgoilear who, with two or three others, come a little in advance of the second brigade, is astonished to find Duncan seated on a small mound, busy at some kind of odd work on a shepherd's crook, and the children quietly watching him. He had got a piece of cloth, and stuffed it with moss and heather, then made a close tie round its end, so as to produce the appearance of a round head and short neck, with a fat round body below. He next bound the figure to the crook, and lifting up his work, and surveying it with half-shut eyes, he pronounced it "ro math," or very good.

"And what may it be at all, at all?" asked Gilleasbuig, who had been observing his proceedings for some minutes.

"Domhnan a bheannachadh an fheoir" (a Domhnan to bless the grass), replied Duncan, without hesitation.

"Ah, for sure! Duncan, hast thou words?"

"Ugh, yes. Make a circle."

The other people were come up by this time, and they thought it rare good fun to make a circle round the Fool, who, standing high on his bit of mound, or tolman, held the Domhnan above his head, at the utmost stretch of his arm, and, to Gilleasbuig's particular delight, repeated words much to the following effect when turned into English: —

Ghair an Doire!
Be it so,
Where sunlight beams
On men below,
Where dry lands be
And waters flow,
Let cattle thrive,
And green grass grow;
Let fishes seek,
In serried row,
River, loch, and shore.

Ghair an Doire!
Peace and store,
Meat, milk, and corn,
And gifts, galore,
Day's golden orb,
Oh, scorch not sore
Blight, rot, and plague,
And winds that roar,
Snow, hail, and flood,
And strife and gore,
Spare hopes and homes—
For evermore
Be off to Ifrinn, wet and frore.

Ghair an Doire!
Be it so!
We say it high,
We say it low,
Facing eastward,
Facing westward,
Facing southward,
Facing northward—
All the puirt the winds can blow.

Gilleasbuig (much delighted)—"Well done, Duncan. It is my thought there is more in thy block of a head than folk suppose. But the words are not Domhnan words. No, no; they are much older. They are Druidheachd words—that they are air Muire."

Peggy Bhuidhe (horrified)—"Keep us all! It is troking with Satan to be listening to witchcraft words!"

Angus, the shepherd (slyly)—"Aye, Peggy. It is by the Domhnan that Finlay Combach did his buidseachd. Is it not well known that in every trouble he used to say to his wife, 'Turn the Domhnan?'

Gilleasbuig—"Peggy, thou art a foolish woman ; and Angus—well, he is a fox; just look at his red head, and the jink of fun in the tail end of his eye!"

"But whatever was the Domhnan?" asked a middle-aged farmer, who was repairing a hut door.

Gilleasbuig—"What was the Domhnan, indeed! Why, the Domhnan was the patron saint. Every parish had a patron saint before the faith of the Cuigse was established, and the priest went forth with the image of the saint to bless the grass. Domhnan is just the Latin word ' Dominus,' which means lord, that being the style in which the saint was asked to aid the prayers of the people that honoured him as a friend at Court."

Peggy—"Save us all! It is Papistry, and that is worse than witchcraft."

Gilleasbuig—"The patron saint of this parish was an excellent Culdee. You may be sure that nothing representing such a good man, not even Duncan's image, which is not much like a human being at all, can cause any evil to man, beast, or plant."

Angus—"But you said the words were not Domhnan words at all?"

Gilleasbuig—"For sure, they are not Domhnan words. I know what the priestly blessing of the grass was, and I wished to learn whether the meaning of the words used came down from lip to lip, in spite of the condemnation of these things by the Kirk, near three hundred years ago."

Peggy—"And you say there is no harm in black druidheachd?"

Gilleasbuig—"No harm whatever, when it is not black at all. Do you think our heathen ancestors never prayed from their hearts to the All-Father? Duncan, my good fellow, wilt thou tell me from whom thou didst learn the Ghair an Doire words? Try, think, and remember, man." Duncan could not tell, nor would he even try to remember. Having blessed the grass, he could think of nothing else now but the coming feast of cream and crowdie.


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