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Farming and Fishing

STEPPING out of doors for a time, we shall examine into their mode of working their lots, or allotments, which in general stretch in narrow patches parallel to each other, and outward from the row of dwellings constituting the customary clachan. A few small stones erected at intervals form the only divisions; so that in the autumn, when the crop is housed and the potatoes pitted, one common stretch of barren-looking land, over which the cattle and sheep roam at will, surrounds the various villages. Dotted over this are the circular walled gardens, to prevent the ingress of halfstarved stock, and resembling the mouths of Eastern wells sprinkled over a desert. About the beginning of spring every man who goes to Stornoway re-appears with a new spade over his shoulder, to replace that worn out during the last season ; their spades being only made to last one season. Immediately the beings who have been half dormant during the winter may be seen hard at work in the fields until the ground that has been untouched since harvest has been all turned up and is ready to receive the barley, oats, or potatoes reserved as seed. The whole family is employed at this time, and few crews can make up their complement of men “until the potatoes are in.”

The vast mass of putrescent matter formed by the litter and bedding of cattle, sheep, or horses during the whole winter, is carried out to the fields in creels, thus turning up a malarious hotbed in the very heart of their dwellings.

The roof is next taken off, and likewise borne in creels to the land. Everything betokens unnatural activity, but, notwithstanding pure air and plenty of work, how they manage to escape pestilence is not apparent to the uninitiated. The roofs are thatched with the barley. This crop is always drawn up by the roots; the heads are then cut off, and the roots and straw used to thatch the dwellings. When removed, after having been thoroughly impregnated by the soot from the heavy winter fires and half rotted with the winter rains, it is spread on the surface of the potato ground as the most favourable manure for producing a dry root crop. It is only employed as a top-dressing when rain is expected, and is a great difficulty in the way of improving their dwellings, seeing they value this manure at from fifty shillings to three pounds per roof, and consequently look upon tile or slate innovations as robbing them of their potato crop, which is their main subsistence.

During the winter, after every stormy night, the women may be seen at early dawn climbing the steep cliffs from the shore, with heavy creels of seaware on their backs, or rather their hips, for there the weight chiefly rests. This they place in some comer of the lot, and cover over to form a compost along with any fish garbage that may be procurable from the boats. This seaware is seldom used for potatoes, as it is too wet, but is principally employed on the barley ground. When the barley ground is turned up the manure from the stock is simply spread over it, the seed being sown on it, and then harrowed. The rotation crops are potatoes with soot manure, barley with seaware and litter, and oats without any dressing whatever.

No sooner is the hard work of seed-time over than their play-hour supervenes, the time looked forward to by all as the “ merriest time of all the glad new year,” when the whole household may be seen with a few staves wherewith to erect a roof to their shieling, a creel or two of peats, and a few utensils, driving their cattle and sheep to the distant moor. Here they have erected small dome-shaped dwellings, about six feet in diameter. They are formed of low stone walls, with a turf roof on a framework of sticks, and two opposing doors, where you have almost to creep in order to enter, resembling nothing so much as Esquimaux snow huts. One of these doors is turfed up when the wind blows in that direction; and as soon as it changes to the other side the turfs are taken down, and the other doorway filled up. In the thick walls are openings in which the milk-dishes are placed, and sometimes also an opening next the floor for the head of a sleeper, the feet of any ordinary-sized mortal reaching the opposing wall.

In these primitive hovels do the girls of the family spend six weeks or two months gipsying during June and July. The men take every opportunity to go courting them, as their sweethearts on those occasions always deluge them with the richest of milk and sweetest of butter. It is almost impossible to get girls to go to service at this time, seeing it is looked forward to as par excellence the “ courting-time.” No inducement will entice them to forego this long period of free picnicing amid the heather. The coolness with which a strapping youth will excuse his yawning laziness during his forenoon’s work, by stating that he had been away on the moor courting the night before, is most amusing.

The quantity of milk the little Highland cattle will give, when thus feeding on the fresh sweet grass of the distant moors, is very great, and of the richest quality. A large portion is soured or thickened, and carried home across the moor to the rest of the family, while a portion of the butter is salted for winter use. We may say none of it is sold, as the little that is not consumed, or given in kindness to some neighbour who has no lot, is carefully laid by.

But, Credat Judaeus! how they do tuck in, and what a change comes o'er the spirit of their dream during those two months. See them step along, light and active, as they set out on their picnic, and you would scarcely believe it was the same party returning, rolling in fat, contributed as rent by the four-legged tenants for their winter lodgings.

Hark! there is great stir and bustle about the port, long ere the picnic time is over. What is it all about? They are pulling up their cod and ling boats for the season, preparatory to setting out for Wick. There is all the wild excitement and shouting inseparable from any general activity among the nervous Celts, lasting for some days. Then the men are scarcely to be seen for a day or two, as they overhaul their clothes and prepare their kits; their little canvas bags are carted over to the steamer, and the place is desolate of its defenders for a time. Only a few old men and young boys are left;and, indeed, no one will remain who can raise a few shillings to pay his passage, and has the necessary strength for the labour at sea. The following lines convey a just idea of the importance attached to this annual trip among the young men and maidens:—

"As the sun went down, with golden crown,
O’er Bemera’s rocky ridges,
And threw his rays o’er bights and bays,
Like fancy fairy bridges,
A maiden sat, without her hat,
All in the evening breezes
Upon the hills, despising chills,
And not afraid of sneezes.

“How now? my dear, what dost thou here?
Have quarrelled with your vain beau?”
“No lover I; while in the sky
Miss Cloud has got a rain beau.”
“Just wait a bit, my little chit ”—
I chucked her ’neath the chin—
“’Tis kiss and go with a fancy beau;
Miss Cloud is taken in.”

Just as I feared, he disappeared
Like robber down a skylight,
And poor Miss Cloud wept not aloud,
But faded in the twilight.
“But who is this, my blushing Miss,
Comes swinging with his stick?”
“That’s only Jim; I don’t count him—
He hasn’t been to Wick.”

“This skipper here, my naughty dear,
Looks sweeter than he ought.”
“Why, don’t you see he’s nobody?
He hasn’t got a lot.”
I turned aside with humbled pride—
My heart was very sick;
No lot I had, and, twice as bad,
I hadn’t been to Wick!

The usual mode of engaging at Wick is for a definite wage, along with board and lodgings. After paying their passage to and fro, and expenses until an engagement is secured, the men can generally return with two or three pounds or more, according to their skill and experience. Down the East coast, on the other hand, the principle is for the men to pay their own board and lodgings, and take the chance of the fishing, being paid so much per cran. This is the mode of arrangement at Fraserburgh, and to this place a better class of men go—men who are able to pay their way and remain out of their money until the end of the fishing. If the fishing is good, they often return from their trip to this place with £20 to £30—a very large sum for a Lews man, and sufficient to support his family in comfort for the remainder of the year.

After six or seven weeks in Caithness, the men return home about the end of the first week in September, improved physically and financially. Thenceforward for some time they are very idle—a few boats, perhaps, prosecuting the lobster-fishing on the west. Fishing for lythe and saithe, the young of the pollack and coal-fish, is now looked forward to as the evening employment of the younger members who can manage to procure a seat in a boat. The former fish is very numerous along this rocky coast, and, although soft in the flesh, is a welcome addition to the Lews diet at this season. Besides the usual white fly, the most killing bait used here for this species is a hook busked with a piece of the tail of the dog-fish ; in ordinary weather it is most destructive. The proper mode of fishing lythe in the loch is to row a boat slowly with flies attached to strong rods dragging behind the boat, the ends sunk a foot or two under water. The boat must be kept close to the rocks, and the best time for capture is in the evening, when it is half-tide and rising, at which periods they may often be captured as fast as the rod can be drawn in, the two or three hooks each occupied by a fish from six inches to a foot or two in length.

About this time the harvest operations are carried on mostly by the women, as in seedtime. The potatoes are dug up and creeled home to be pitted near the houses ; the oats are cut down with the sickle, and the barley drawn up by the roots. Many hands make light work as well as quick work; and as the climate is so variable and untrustworthy, they never halt in favourable weather until the grain is all housed. The whole household is engaged in this work, the children being withdrawn from school both at seed-time and harvest.

Nowhere more than in the Lews is the compulsory clause of the Education Bill demanded, as the work of the children is merely nominal in most cases, and could well be dispensed with, to their advantage. During the autumn and winter the grain is prepared at leisure, as the potatoes are first consumed, or nearly so, before the meal is much run upon. When in urgent need of meal, the grain is sometimes dried in an iron pot on the fire, and then taken to the quern or handmill, where, however, a great quantity is necessarily lost, from the difficulty of collecting it as it issues from between the stones. This meal is called “gratanach,” is much liked by some people who could not well digest the common meal, and is the ancient way of preparing it. In old times, also, the barley heads were taken, and the grain “switched” out of them, as is done occasionally in some parts even now, and kiln-dried in the husks. To-day, however, the most usual way is by the flail, when the grain is winnowed in the breeze that is always ready for it, and then taken to the kiln. Every six or eight cotters join together and build one of these little huts for their mutual benefit. A hole is dug in the centre, with a trench leading to it. This is covered over so as to support a quantity of straw, on which the grain is laid. The heat from a peat fire is led under the straw along the trench, and the grain thus dried. After this the grain is taken to one of the little mills, also erected by the joint efforts of a portion of the cotters.

Follow one of the narrow mill-lades from some stream, and you arrive at a little Esquimaux-looking hut. Crawl into this, and you find two good granite stones; suspended over the centre is a stout bag of woven rushes; through one corner of this the grain trickles into a wooden shoe. As the stone revolves, a projecting stick strikes this shoe and tilts the contents into the hole in the stone, the shoe being refilled by the next revolution. The grain is deposited in a hole in the stonework on which the millstones rest, the hut itself being in most cases built of turf. The stones are cut with great labour and patience out of the granite rock by the village mason or blacksmith; and a granite cliff near Dalebeg, on the road from Carloway to Barvas, is often occupied at the base by an industrious millstone hewer. Here and there modern mills have been erected by the proprietor, and let to tenants; all the cotters within a certain district are obliged to send their grain thither, or pay the miller the same as if they did. This is rather a high-handed mode of introducing civilisation. For instance, the people of Uige have to forward their grain to Callanish Mill, either going upwards of twenty miles by road or crossing Loch Roag by boat, when, on arrival, the mill may be full of work, or the weather too stormy to return. Such eventualities often occur. In this way several days are always, and many days often, spent away from home, while the families are awaiting the meal they might have had ground , at their doors. A great many people prefer paying the penalty and grinding at their own little mills, and all complain of the great tax thus imposed upon them to enable the worthy miller to pay his rent. The meal once ground, they have provided themselves with sieves through which to take off the rough. These are made of sheepskins, stretched over strong wooden hoops until they are tight as a drum; the perforations are made with a small awl made of a straightened cod-hook with the barb chipped off: this is stuck in a handle of tangle stem, which enables the hand to grasp it readily when heated in the fire. These simple and useful little instruments are in universal use in the Lews for this and similar purposes.

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