The Courier & Advertiser (Fife Edition)
Ardnish Was Home Episode 5
We felt heady and excited as the train stopped especially for us at Polnish, and the procession headed off over the hill in single file towards Ardnish and home. My father was on the grey garron with his wooden leg sticking out at the side. Mother, Sheena, myself, Mairi and Sandy shot off ahead to get some fires going and water boiling before everyone else arrived.
It was all done, though. The neighbours from across the peninsula who hadn’t come to the service had been hard at work.
Those from all over Ardnish and friends and cousins had arrived, armed with bottles of whisky, haunches of meat, and bread. There must have been 100 people present, and almost all of them were at pains to point out their relationship to us.
“I’m your grandfather’s sister’s daughter from Bohuntin,” said a white-haired cailleach. “Your great-auntie Lexie had two boys, of which I am the youngest,” declared a man whose name I never caught. The whisky was opened, savoured and complimented; the smiles became broader and laughter louder.
The Auch boys were urged to get their fiddles out and then the ceilidh was in full flow. Faces grew red from the exertions and the alcohol, and clothes were shed as the May warmth was exacerbated by the sheer number of us cramped in the front room. Children danced with grandparents, teenage boys tried to unbalance the girls as they spun round the room, and not a single person sat on the sidelines.
My father, Father Angus and myself played eightsomes on the pipes; it would probably be the last time we would all play together, what with my brother heading off to the church.
My father was a doer, rather than a talker. My mother’s genes, on the other hand, had been inherited by Sheena, so without much persuasion she was up making a speech.
“My goodness, isn’t the church lucky to have got Angus? There isn’t a girl in Lochaber who wouldn’t have him in a trice! I hope they care for him...” And so on. There was much shushing from our brother and whoops from the audience as she recounted how his determination to join the clergy had been given a serious wobble when that young hussy Maggie Wilson came up to stay with the Macphersons two or three years ago.
Her speech was well received, and after Angus stood up and said a few words of thanks to everyone, the party really buckled down into something quite serious.
Every stick of furniture had been removed from the croft house and still there wasn’t an inch of space. Food was handed out to a big table outside, while indoors, haunches of venison and mutton, piles of steaming potatoes and cabbage, and a big stack of herring rolled in oats lay beside a big salmon that had been caught on the Ailort in the nets only the day before and donated to the celebrations by the estate.
The dance now was the Highland Schottische, where Jimmy and Hazel Macdonald always showed the way. And, with the exuberance and giddy excitement always encouraged by whisky and dancing, romance was in the air. Girls would be twirled off their feet and the lads would relish the chance to hold them tight.
As the evening wore on, the moon came out and bathed the shore with a light you could see to read by. My brother and I walked along the beach, talking as dawn broke; both of us were aware that it would never be the same again: us, the village, and the gathering of friends and kin like the night just gone.
“What will you do for a job, Donald Peter?” Angus asked. I talked about getting a fishing boat; fishermen never starve.
“There will always be plenty of fish around these waters,” I said.
“But I might join the army for a few years. I’ll know in a couple of years when I have finished my schooling. Mother wants me to go to university, to better myself, to move away.”
I sighed. “I’ll never be away from Ardnish for long, Angus, I’ll promise you that. Father says I should go and help out old Tearlach Maclean, our mother’s cousin on Canna. There is great demand for his whisky since Lloyd George put his tax up to 15 shillings a gallon. He’s in his 70s now and is finding it difficult to manage.”
“Aye, but it’ll be lonely for you, DP,” Angus. said
“I might just do it, though. It’ll be fun getting one over the excise men. Those Mackinnon girls on the island are easy on the eye too,” I said, giving him a playful punch on the arm.
The hooded crows were cawing as they wheeled above us in the early morning. Gulls floated on the sea, and a seal poked its head up amongst them to survey the debris of the party. The village was full, with comatose bodies lying on the floor in every house. The whisky would surely help them sleep despite the lack of a blanket.
I was sweet on a lass called Kirsty McAlistair from Glenuig at the time. Kirsty and I had danced like mad March hares; there was hardly a reel we’d missed apart from when I’d had a spin with my mother, and Sandy’s, too. I felt the heat from Kirsty’s body through her cotton dress, but although I yearned to kiss her, I never had the chance.
That night, I pushed her boat off the beach and watched the McAlistairs row, unsteadily, the three miles across to their house. It was the last time I saw her. Her father worked for the estate, but it had laid him off, and the family moved to Glasgow shortly after.
Louise is silent for a long time. I wonder if my storytelling has sent her to sleep, but I feel her hand touch my arm.
“Did you ever get that fishing boat?” she whispers.
“Not yet, maybe I will yet, though,” I say, although with my injuries we both know it is unlikely. “I went off to Canna for a couple of years to help Tearlach make whisky. It would take a bit of time to tell you about it, Louise, but I think you’d enjoy the story. It was illegal whisky, we were on an island, and we spent our time avoiding the Customs and Excise men. I’m tired now, so I’ll tell you another time if that’s all right.”
“Of course, DP. I won’t let you forget . . .”
Mother wants me to go to university, to better myself.” I sighed. “I’ll never be away from Ardnish for long, Angus, I promise