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Food and Clothes

THE economy, or want of economy, domestic and otherwise, of the inhabitants of this northern desert may well be a source both of interest and instruction. Ways and customs long since banished from the more accessible portions of the empire yet hold their ground in the remoter districts, and the celebrated and still prolific mother of invention brings forth her peculiar offspring.

As you pass along some quiet path, a bevy of strapping damsels with uncovered limbs issues from the rude doorway of a “black house.” Those same limbs have been dexterously plied “waulking” a new-made strip of blanketing, or so-called “kilt,” as they name the homemade cloth of any or no colour, whether for the trews of the master, or the petticoat or skirt of his dame.

Towards the north-east the spindle and distaff may still be constantly seen at work, but in our immediate neighbourhood the spindle is only used in twisting the thread, the wheel having entirely surperseded the more primitive distaff as a spinner. Formerly the girls, when employed out of doors during the summer, made the warp with the distaff and spindle, as it made a more regular and better warp than the wheel, and could be worked at by fits and starts between other outdoor labours. Then, during the winter, they worked at the weft on the wheel itself, by which to complete the materials for the weaver.

Near the mouth of Loch Carlo way is a long cliff, barely out of the perpendicular, which was pointed out to us as having been scaled by a woman, who continued to work her distaff and spindle during the ascent. Although the rocks were very smooth and exceedingly steep, we can almost credit the tale, as we have ourselves seen women carrying creels of seaware up almost inaccessible cliffs. Of course, they are greatly assisted by the prehensile action of the bare feet—boots being too valuable to be worn among rocks or on the moor.

Place aux dames ; let us first consider in detail the domestic arrangements in the hands of the women, and trace in order the result of their industry, which is untiring, if not always regulated to the best advantage.

As soon as the family is astir in the morning, the grown-up girls, or whoever is entrusted with the duty, prepares to go to the stack of peats on the moor for a supply of fuel. Before setting out with her creel, she partakes of the roasted potatoes which it is the common custom of the country people to place in the ashes of the day’s fire before turning in for the night. On her return the fire is made up, and cooking commences, which consists in boiling a huge pot of potatoes, to be eaten with butter or milk by the family ; or perhaps a piece of fish, fresh or salted, should the men be fishermen; or a few herring, brought over last season from Wick or Fraserburgh. If the potatoes are finished, as they will be in spring, porridge takes their place, this breakfast being eaten about ten or eleven in winter. These dishes form the principal part of their diet, to which may be added, when the family is well off, eggs from their poultry, together with the universal, wholesome, and palatable barley bread, and of late years an occasional cup of tea. A repetition of this meal again about six in the evening may be said to constitute the customary diet.

It may be here observed that, as the white oats does not grow well in most parts of the Lews, the old native black oats is still cultivated; it has a much smaller grain and smaller yield generally, and is too dark for porridge. This, then, they principally consume in the form of sowens, made thus—As the meal comes from the mill it is steeped in water, until the grain dissolves and the whole sours: this takes from three days to a week. The mixture is then strained, and the fine allowed to settle, while water is added regularly to keep it to a right consistence. This is kept for making a kind of pudding called sowens, which, when well strained and not allowed to become too sour, is a most agreeable and exceedingly nourishing food. Eaten with milk, it is a favourite supper both among the natives of the Hebrides and many parts of the mainland of Scotland. Occasionally they slaughter one of their small sheep or some of their chickens, and therewith make soup, adding a few cabbages from their gardens. “Gardens” is certainly a dignified title for the small patches of land surrounded with high dykes, containing a few scared-looking cabbages, and overtopped by an interior circle of lank willow wands destined for the ribs of creels. Excepting pots for boiling, which is an Hebridean’s only mode of cooking, a gridiron for firing the cakes of oatmeal or barley is the sole utensil. It is set on two long hind legs and two short fore ones —like a kangaroo—and thus suited to the fire on the floor. Potatoes, now so universal, have only been introduced about a century, and tea has not been at all used in the West more than twenty years. A field at Dalbeg is known as the “tea field,” from having been once manured by the tea thrown ashore from a wreck, no other use being found for it. Before the notorious root brought life or laziness to the now numerous population, the inhabitants were necessarily scant and red deer numerous. Venison, game, fish, milk, and the produce of the land they chose to cultivate, and the cattle or sheep they could afford to keep, enabled them to keep the wolf from the door. At present they are of necessity omnivorous; no fish comes amiss to them. Skate kept for such a length of time that when raised to the mouth it attacks the nostrils like a bottle of smelling salts, and known and beloved as sour skate, is a favourite with all. Indeed, it often exercises after a time a fascinating influence over the originally contemptuous Sassenach.

What is the reason for this? Is it not merely another form of necessity for something tasty and stimulating to the palate, to relieve the monotony of porridge or potatoes?

Dog fish (Spinax) kept for a short time and half dried, like the skate without salt, is by some considered a tit-bit, by others of more delicate stomach eaten for lack of something more tasty. Perhaps desire for revenge for the ravages committed on the ling, and to utilise the myriads of these savages dragged perforce into their boats, may influence some. The belly should not be eaten by any unaccustomed palate, nor allowed to enter any ordinary stomach—it is so rank and oily. The back, however, when kept a short time and properly prepared, we found not uneatable. All sea-fowl they eat with avidity, the cormorant being eagerly sought for. In some parts the Solan goose, fearfully offensive and rank though it be, is eaten when young, fat, and tender, like “little Billee.” Even some species of gulls, by the enterprising, are found to be eatable when skinned. Almost every kind of shell-fish is willingly received, and limpets are eaten in great quantities by the poor when they run out of better food. They are understood to be very strong and sustaining food, but the intestine, which they declare to be injurious, is always drawn out before eating. Cockles boiled in milk, cockle soup, pickled cockles, are all held by connoisseurs to be super-excellent when well managed. Sufficient may be had in Stornoway for a few halfpence to form a most delicious repast. Scallops are always heartily welcome, and, besides their edible properties, the shells are in general use—the convex as a butter-scoop, the flat being delegated to the milk-basin as a creamer.

The sea, the sea, the generous sea, has not yet done its best for the native gastronomy. Sea birds, sea fish, shell-fish—these are not all. Besides dulse, so well known on the mainland, they peel and eat the fresh stalks of the tangle. It tasted to us like a hard turnip, but is much liked among them, and is doubtless beneficial medicinally as an adjunct to their diet. Then there is a dark ware called here “Slochgan” (Nitophyllum punctatum?) that they boil with butter, and which meets with approbation even among civilised diners. These latter, however, are more partial to carageen, found in quantity on some parts of the coast, and in common use among the educated inhabitants as a pudding. This ware—the Irish moss of commerce—when gathered, is carefully washed, and then bleached for some days in the sun and rain until perfectly white, when it is dried for use. The dried plants when carefully picked so as to be free of impurity, are boiled with milk, and form a pleasant and well-known dish.

Strange to say, although mushrooms are very numerous in some districts, the natives will not eat them. Faery rings are likewise common in the “macher” near Broad Bay, and the most plausible explanation we have heard of them is, that they spring up like other fungi on the outer circumference of cattle-droppings of old standing, which have been washed out by the rain in regular circles. When they are found on sloping ground they depart from the circular and assume the elongated form in which the manure would run on the slope. The observant salmon-fisher, to whom we owe this explanation, has entirely divested it of all romance.

We have so far considered a few of the “internal” comforts, and will now examine the outward adornment of a Lews inhabitant. From the fact that every cotter owns a few sheep, wool is naturally the first and most important article in use. This is often torn from the animal, Shetland fashion, in place of being clipped. More wretched-looking creatures than these poor little sheep, hanging in rags, cannot be conceived; and one wonders if it is a source of satisfaction to the cotter children to see something more hopelessly ragged than themselves sharing the bleak moor with them. The natural grey wool from the grey sheep is much sought after, as it makes the best stockings without requiring to be dyed. It is also considered to be much softer and warmer than the coloured wools. The wool thus torn or shorn from the sheep gives employment to the family in the winter time, in preparing it for use, and making it up into various garments. Enter a dwelling about this time and you are sure to see it undergoing some manipulation. Here an old woman is carding, there a more vigorous damsel is singing at the wheel. Perhaps a whole side of the room is occupied by an extensive framework of so many ells, about which the yarn is coiled into hanks from the reels; or a smaller framework, like a double triangle, is held in the left hand, and the yarn twined thereon with peculiar and great celerity. The wool is manipulated with the black oil from fish livers, so as to work more readily, and when spun into thread is ready for the further process of dyeing. At the present day, when the thrifty indigo blue is in great demand, both for the jacket and trousers of the fishermen and the strong outer petticoat of the women, other dyes are not so much employed. The extensive knowledge of native colours formerly possessed is thus by no means so common, while at the same time the people are showing an inclination to purchase a few pounds of colour from the shops in town, to save the little trouble necessary to procure the, in general, much better and more lasting native article.

Amongst the dyes still in use is the grey moss called “crotul,” which covers the surface of the outcropping rocks throughout the country. It yields a fine, rich brown dye, much used for stockings and other such articles, seeing it is so easily obtained and always at hand. Soot, more especially that scraped from the iron pot suspender, gives a capital maroon colour, and the wives of those farmers who still indulge in home-made clothes often make a good lasting mixture of these two colours. A first-rate black is extracted from the root of the water lily, with which plant many of the small lochs are overgrown; heather, that rare plant becoming in the Lews, yields a good yellow; goatsbeard, a green; the root of a small yellow plant growing in the “macher,” a fawn colour. It is called rue, and is said to be a species of madder. The root of a small yellow species of cinquefoil or potentilla, abundant all over the country, was formerly generally employed in barking nets and lines, and is also in use as a yellow dye. It is said to be superior to cutch, but the latter has almost entirely superseded it.

Thus any cotter is really independent of civilisation for his clothes, the wool coming from his own sheep, spun by the women of his house; dyes are good, and easily procured ; and the yarn is woven into cloth by his neighbour or himself. Besides the common mordant, they use “sooriks” (wood sorrel) with blue and black; alum with yellow; while common salt and sea water are sufficient for others. Dulse is also used to give a fine purple colour to blue, and otherwise improve it and make it clearer. You often see newly made clothes of capital quality held together by wooden skewers or nails in place of buttons; and, as nearly all are independent of boots or shoes, and many men as well as women never wear them except on Sundays, there are families that scarcely require to enter a shop from year’s end to year's end. A shop! Beg pardon! there are none in the country; all are merchants. And why use boots, where your first step outside the door takes you to the knees in mud and filth, and your first step inside sends you as deep in manure?

The light of the fire is in most cases the only one that irradiates the hut of the Lewsman, but when occupied by a fisherman's family the iron lamp may be found hung from the thatched roof or some projecting beam, filled with fish-liver oil, the wick formed of twisted rag or the pith of rushes.

But before we leave the family blinking round the peat fire, telling interminable tales, or “crooning” never-ending songs, we will introduce the reader to a favourite bonne bouche. Take two eggs, with a little butter and meal, whip them all well up together, and place on the top of a hot barley bannock. Spread evenly over, and hold a live peat above until it firms sufficiently to allow the cake to be toasted before the fire. This done properly, no instructions are required as to its disposal. It is a favourite “piece” for herd-boys; and one was formerly due to whoever discovered a cow after calving—one or two eggs being given according to the sex of the calf. With beef at a premium and cattle at a ransom, we advise, in the interests of society and the herd-boys, an immediate return to the practice.

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