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Behold the Hebrides
An Island-Harvest

I ALWAYS think that in many respects life in the Outer Isles, though it has its innumerable encumbrances and disadvantages, is sufficiently unlike the life of any other part of our islands as to merit our interest and our curiosity. Whatever the folks do they seem to do in a manner different from that of most peoples; and in some ways it may be said that the islanders live their lives in an environment which is at least unique.

By a large variety of causes can this difference be explained; but, broadly speaking, we might conveniently classify them in two groups. In the first group we will include causes arising from natural conditions over which the islanders themselves have no control. This group would embrace insularity and remoteness, climate, and infertility of the soil.

In the second group we will take into account causes that are the result of human nature, and over which the islanders have had control. Under this heading we must consider the influences of heredity and tradition, as well as the persistence of archaic customs and usages, many of which, from an economic point of view, have been a serious handicap to progress in the remoter parts.

I would say that no form of human activity illustrates more clearly the effects of these two sets of causes than does the agricultural system obtaining in the Hebrides.

But autumn in the Hebrides is a most beautiful time of year; and, though the falling of the leaves, which we associate with harvest-time, is not one of the many signs of a departing season, still a Hebridean autumn has its own interest and peculiarities.

You see, in the Isles we have so very few trees. In Lewis, for example, the only wooded area is in the precincts of Stornoway Castle, where most of the trees are conifers. It is true that occasionally one comes across an odd mountain ash or, perhaps, a birch in the Isles; but such remnants of the age when the Long Island was covered with vast forests never grow very tall. This is partly owing to the fact that the roots are frequently unable to penetrate deeply enough into a fertile subsoil, and partly to the withering and blasting effects of the cold and unsympathetic winds of winter. For the latter reason shrubs and bushes seldom rise more than a few inches above the shelter afforded them by some old dyke of stone or of turf.

Autumn in the Western Isles has distinct characteristics, which, though they are quite different from those of thickly wooded areas, are just as rich in colour and in variety. To commence with, we have an extraordinary blending and harmony of moor and loch and sea and sky, which in the sunlight of a calm and peaceful autumn day produce a real sense of magic and of fulfilment. And, although we have no trees to speak of, the heather and bracken and machair grass take on hues quite of their own, and in some degree compensate for the want of deciduous trees.

It must be admitted that the people of the Islands has been moulded more by the conditions of its environment than by strict adherence to old methods and customs simply because they are old, and because its ancestors had been accustomed to no other routine in agriculture.

In the light of this, let us imagine ourselves in a Hebridean harvest-field in the late autumn. In Lewis we are only thinking of making a start with our harvest when most communities on the more favoured mainland have completed theirs. October, therefore, is often the most suitable month in the Hebrides, because the crops, which in the very best of years are poor and usually unremunerative, are sometimes so late in ripening.

On the other hand, if the island-crofter sees that there are no prospects of better weather conditions, and that the probability is his corn will rot if left uncut any longer, his harvest may begin a week or two earlier, in order that he may avoid the possibility of a wet season later on. Torrential rains have repeatedly destroyed the islanderís harvest, and when they are accompanied by the violent winds that not infrequently sweep over the Hebrides in the late autumn, the crofter - harvester stands a very poor chance of laying in much winter fodder for his animals. Last year at Ness, for example, the harvest fields were visited by a terrific gale which carried hundreds of stooks headlong into the sea.

It must be borne in mind that much of the cultivable ground in the Western Isles is near the sea, for obvious reasons into which we do not require to enter here; and that, as there are no fences and comparatively few dykes, there is no real obstacle to prevent sheaves being scattered in all directions. You can imagine how such a loss would occur where a small patch of high ground is cultivated to the very edge of precipitous cliffs beneath which the sea rolls.

Then, again, the boundary between two adjoining crofts may be defined by no more than a shallow ditch a foot or two in width. The result is that after a storm the villagers are obliged not only to rebuild their stooks but to collect their own sheaves, which have become confused with the sheaves of others. This, as you can understand, is often a tiresome business; but it is seldom that there is any real difficulty entailed, because the isles-women, who bind the corn, are able to recognise their own particular sheaves.

There are no large cultivated fields in the Western Isles, such as those with which we are familiar on the more favoured mainland, because natural conditions render the cultivation of extensive contiguous areas impossible. A Lewisian harvest-field is necessarily small therefore; and the womenfolks, who usually attend to it, are obliged to work very hard indeed if they expect even the meagrest return for their labour.

Where the natural conditions are such as to make the cultivation of even a small field impracticable, the grain is sown at seeding-time in little strips and patches, wherever it is thought it will take root. In the parish of Lochs these patches are often no more than a couple of square yards in extent, for the island - crofter scatters a pickle of seed in spring-time in every reasonably convenient corner.

In spite of all these disadvantages a Hebridean harvest is a beautiful thing. As I write I can see in my mindís eye the assiduous harvesters at Carloway. This township, which lies at the head of Loch Carloway, an arm of Loch Roag, is thickly populated, and the hillsides are besprinkled with countless crofts which are surrounded with the golden hue of autumn.

But the most picturesque island-harvest I have ever witnessed was seen from a fishing-boat about half-a-mile out at sea one late autumn afternoon in October. The actual harvest was at a place called Sandwick, near Stornoway; and these were the main features of the picture.

There was a wonderful sunset across the water and behind the purple mountains of Barvas; there was a stillness upon the sea, and in the purpling the women from the crofts around were busy in the harvest-fields. And out to sea came the echo of many voices, and the laughter of many children, and the swish of many scythes, and the sound of many whetstones. And through the corn-fields dawdled groups of brown and speckled hens, and across the stook-dotted skyline one solitary shawl-clad figure, with a sheaf under one arm and a sickle in her hand, moved against a deep sunset background.

And, when darkness fell, the blue peat smoke and the smell of many smooring fires were wafted gently seawards, long after the reapers and the gleaners had gone. Later on a harvest moon arose, and it diffused a silver glow upon a shimmering sea and over a sleeping hillside.

But the harvest itself was a labour of love.

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