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How we lived in the Lews

NOW you just pour the potatoes, and see that the fish is properly done, while we put on a fresh table-cover and set the table.—“Where will I pour them?”—Outside, round the corner; look about you, and see that you pour out the water, and keep the potatoes.—“Raining,” you say! Of course it is raining! You would like to do as our native did, who poured the water down a rat’s hole in his earthen floor, to save the lazy rascal twenty steps.

Well! now put on the pot again for a minute or two, while we throw out our note-book. Our linen-chest consists of a weekly supply of Glasgow Heralds, which are quite invaluable. First, as table-covers they require no washing; next, they are most convenient note-books when any “happy thoughts” strike one under the gentle stimulus of a cup of tea, or the solace of merry memories; and also they prove an ever-present literary attraction for the eye to wander over, perhaps to withdraw the mind from the occasional scantiness of the repast.

But this morning we cannot complain, for cod steaks fresh from the adjacent deep, and mealy potatoes from the neighbouring lazy-beds, are settled in their places by the cup that cheers. For here, as in Australia or Russia, a meal is not a meal without a potent bowl of tea. It seems a concomitant of semibarbarism, for our teapot is never at rest, and already we have worn out two.

Hand over the loaf, please. Don’t you suppose we want for bread, although twenty-five miles from a regular baker! Bread? Yes, the best of bread. This loaf is baked with sea-water, soured flour for yeast, and best American flour for sole ingredient. Cut and come again! There is no alum to spoil your teeth, you need not fear any internal objections, and you may eat it fresh from the pot with pleasure and impunity. “The pot?” Why, you don’t expect we carry about a baker’s oven ! Mix smartly, knead thoroughly, drop it into the well-greased pot, and when it has risen, sink deep in the hot peat ashes.

Nothing like hot peat ashes for a cook, if you only properly appreciated them, ye Hebrideans! Do you wish to ramble off for a day, and come back to your lone apartment tired and hungry, but with hope still alive within you ? Then pluck a pair of the fowls of the air—or water—stuff them nicely; say simply with bread crumbs, chopped onions, minced liver and gizzard, with plenty of salt and pepper; and lay on the bottom of the pot with a lump of suet for company. Now fill up with peeled potatoes, well spiced, and sink the closed pot in the hot ashes. Then be sure and bring a friend or two back to help you, unless you wish to be found playing boa-constrictor!

Hot peat ashes!    “See how they run,” like quicksilver. Just watch that heap, and you will understand all about the sounding sands of Jebel Nagus.

“All very fine,” you say, “but what have we for dinner?” Hope, fresh air, and boundless possibilities. There are three hundred hooks on our spiller in the bay; but if we don’t catch more than yesterday it won’t be over-weighted. We had four hundred hooks out and only got one flounder—which can scarcely be called a fair return for some hundred molluscs, several hours of labour, and a fair allowance of really hard toil. Dinner? If we are in luck, then expect a fish pie; if feathers are about, trust in fried pigeons or an Irish stew.

Thou potent salmon-fisher! dost remember our Christmas stew? How the peats and the day were so damp, but your humour ever so dry; how your experienced camping-head made the most of the tag ends of vivres in that tag end of creation; and how merrily you taught our hands to cook and our fingers to fry?

But about our dinner? You did get dinner; but how many hours’ stalking did it take to get that duck, “o’er muir and mire,” while you waited magnanimously “on spec”? You old Californian camper-out, how you whipped off the feathers, and neatly severed the joints, and fried her, “cheek by jowl” with a golden plover, till we felt for once as if we lived to eat—and really what else do we? We are savages for the nonce when provisions or dainties run low, and the end-all and be-all of our existence is to worship our domestic god.

Food! food! What shall we eat and what shall we drink? That is the worst and the best of exile from civilization. If you run out here, you might as well be in Africa, so far as the aesthetics of diet are concerned; and we who ever ate what came, without consideration, have to consider much ere we can eat at all.

Yet who could fear want of supplies, with hospitality on either side, and Garynahine, the large-hearted, within a “Sabbath day’s journey”? Alas, that the Grimersta and Blackwater should know your rod no more; that the sport you made and opened up to others should be closed so ungraciously to you! Can the Lews be the Lews without you to the slayer of deer, the player of salmon? A free-hearted Southerner should not go too far North; an ever-warm hearth may thaw out enemies!

But the northern day has passed, and we have retired to our needed rest; when suddenly “there is a sound of revelry by night,” and we are startled out of our first sleep by oil-skinned apparitions who have been belated on the deep, and now crowd about our peat fire to light the calumet of peace. For no one has more than a latch on the door in these regions; and quite enough in general too. Rarely did we turn the catch on the door, and although articles of value to the fishermen ever lay about in profusion, nothing whatever was purloined. So general is the habit of open doors at all hours, that we have heard of the girls waking in the morning under their neighbours’ blankets, which had been mischievously exchanged by some larking youngsters during the hours of darkness.

Well! friends! is the Carloway shore still lonelier than of old, since there is no live peat in the Dunan, and the smoke curls no longer from the hearth of “the stranger”? Do you ever miss a familiar face from the shores, or a friendly participator as you “putt” the stone beneath the well-known window? And you, boys! you merry, intelligent, inquiring Celts! do you miss the evening boxing-matches where you had such fun; the shoals of Illustrated News that repaid your willing assistance? We are tired of you all; go away and herd your cattle, poke about the pools for little fishes, or bring us news of the whereabouts of the restless doves!

“Were they ever troublesome?” you ask. As well ask the careful housewife if “lady callers” are always welcome; or a coal-pit manager if his men are always pleased. Here is a groan caught as it issued from the burdened soul. It tells its own tale of woe :—

“Singularly free from sickness of all sorts, considering their mode of life, there was yet one epidemic of a most virulent character, which at the time of our visit had laid violent hands upon the usually healthy inhabitants of the West. Not content with attacking and fixing its poisoned fangs into the weakly and the young, destroying their appetite for healthy amusement, and causing them to rise hurriedly from untasted tea, and turn contemptuously from smoking suppers, it inserted its insidious virus into the minds of the apparently sane and vigorous, the sturdy fisherman, and lumbering mechanic. Neither liberal Moderates, nor the more constrained Free Churchman, could elude its deadly influence; but young and old, rich and poor, the comparatively wise and the superlatively foolish, alike fell a prey to the poisonous reptile that crept into their peaceful homes, and drew the fascinated victims into its deadly embrace!

“‘Catch the Ten' [Card game—called ‘Scotch whist.’] indeed! Catch the multitude! How often have we struggled in your folds, you hideous reptile!  ‘Double dummy too, by all that’s pathetic; for all had eaten of the ‘ insane root that takes the reason prisoner the root of the tree of the knowledge of ‘Catch the Ten.'

“Is it a wet winter morning, and you are chuckling on having a day to yourself amid the few books that the wilderness can furnish? Your simple breakfast has been cooked and disposed of, fresh peats are heaped on your little fire, the domesticities of a lonely bachelor, hermetizing, got over, and thanking that Providence that tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and sends the rain to the student, you shake yourself, tome in hand, into a chair.

“A forenoon’s quiet! don’t you wish you may get it ? Two forms darken the window, and the demon of ‘ Catch the Ten ’ lurks in their very step, and fanatical resolution in the twinkle of their eyes; can we not exorcise the evil spirit? Is it not possible to divert the channel of their thoughts for an hour or two ? Not in the slightest! They are wholly possessed by it, and, willy nilly, you are drawn under the influence, and made to suffer for the sins of the people.

“Their good temper is imperturbable, their resolution as immovable as their broad shoulders; their appetite so insatiable, that game after game only whets it the more, like potatoes at dinner when they come from Wick. How often have we wriggled in vain to escape it, how often have we lied, how often insulted our most esteemed friends : and all the time they were possessed with the sublime idea that they were kindly whiling away the hours of idleness of a poor exile from civilization, and all representations to the contrary were regarded as arising from a delicacy on our part in occupyingtheir valuable time. Ah, Job ! Job ! you might thank your Eastern stars that your condoling friends never carried a pack of cards, and played ‘Catch the Ten’ on your cinder heap.”

This is the luxury of complaint; the world must grumble, and it is well, you say, when we find our worst cause to do so, in the kind hearts and easy laughing natures of those who surround us. Is that so? Is it not rather the truth that the “old men of the sea,” who sit upon the shoulders of struggling humanity, are the easy-tempered, easy-going friends who accept all your efforts as their due, and cling affectionately round your neck until you sink exhausted under their selfish amiability. You good-for-nothing Celts, why are you so pleasant? How liberal and free you are,—what a strange mixture of the little and the great!

You never know how ignorant, impracticable, and helpless you are until thus set down at a distance from markets, away from the kind and skilful female hands that have hitherto ministered to your wants. Not a woman you could ask to cook a meal, or who could cook a pleasant meal if you could ask her; while, as for sewing a button on a shirt So, from feeling dependent, you become supremely confident in that dangerous thing, “a little knowledge,” till, like the schoolmaster in “Adam Bede,” you fancy woman ignorant of her simplest duties, and yourself fully competent to teach your mother to bake, your grandmother to spin, and your wife to darn stockings.

Feel lonely? never think of it. Whose mind can harbour unrest with the lullaby of the sea at the door? who give way to despondency with the great ocean mother crooning their heart to rest?

“There is a rapture by the lonely shore,” but it is the calm rapture in unison with the throbbing of the mighty heart of the universe, not the frantic frenzy that strives to emulate the little world that circles in the city. And if the receding tide does leave stagnation, if the time between the throbs is so great that man’s little soul almost seems to cease between the mighty vibrations, is there no smaller world beside you to stir your little pulses? Turn up the seaweed of life beside you, see the robber crabs in their stolen dwellings, see crustacean meet crustacean in combat a outrance. No; there is no stagnation even here, but battle, murder, and sudden death. We have no fear of circulation ceasing, and seek not little signs of life. Rather will we lie on the sloping caps of the beautiful cliffs, and listen to the melodies of the mavis, forgetting that the music streams through a “valley of death,” or view the circling peregrine ascend to its azure kingdom, nor remember that it, too, is but a sickle of the reaper.

Roughing it! forsooth, rather smoothing out our life; for rough indeed must “the world” ever appear to one who has laughed and lolled so long by the shores of the swinging Atlantic.

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