The Courier & Advertiser (Perth and Perthshire Edition)
Ardnish Was Home Episode 10
Three days a week, a teacher would come across from Arisaig and teach us in the smartest building. The school board built it at about the time I was born. Well, the school board paid for it; it was our fathers who built it.
It had cut stone, rather than the round field stone that all our croft houses were built from, and a slate roof rather than heather thatch. Two rooms: one of which the teacher lived in, then the school room. There was a privy out the back, with running water. We had nothing so smart at our house.
There were four of us pupils, from all over Ardnish. We took a piece of lunch with us and a bottle of milk if we were lucky, and in the winter we had to bring an armful of wood or peat for the stove.
All classes were in English, and we were forbidden to speak the Gaelic. Learning Latin from English, when we didn’t speak either, wasn’t that easy.
Mr Erskine, our teacher who hailed from Glasgow, seemed to be no more than a boy himself, but he worked us hard, and we were in a good position by the time we were 14 and ready to go to work. Or 16, as I was; my mother made me stay on so that I could go to university if the opportunity arose.
Six of the best
The school building was by the sea, and I remember our indignation when a few days after Mr Erskine started at the school he turned the room around so that we couldn’t look out of the window at the sea.
Sandy, always the daring one, turned it back again the following weekend. Mr Erskine gave him six of the best with his trousers down.
Mairi, or Aunt Mairi as we called her when we were young, was a great maker of tweed. Being from the Hebridean island of Eriskay, she had learned the craft from her parents and had got everyone in Peanmeanach into making it.
The spring was the collecting of the crotal, the lichens which give the tweed its peculiar orange colour. The crotal was scraped off the rocks with spoons and piled into a basket. Mairi would buy about a hundred fleeces after the clipping of the sheep.
She was very particular about which fleeces she chose: no black wool, and none with brambles or muck in it. Then the wool would be washed, combed, dyed and spun into a yarn.
She would get everyone from the village to help tease and wash the wool, and even got them singing the waulking songs from the islands. There was an old pedal-driven loom that she worked into the small hours.
The Astley-nicholsons were very taken by her distinctive orange tweed and would take as much as she could produce for the Arisaig estate tweed.
It may seem an odd choice, but for eight months a year, when the first frost arrives, the grasses on the mountains turn a surprising shade of orange, so the tweed is perfect for the stalkers and their guests to approach the deer unseen.
I was delighted when Sandy joined our Company, and we had a tremendous three days’ leave after our two months’ training in the Scottish Borders. Armed with our sleeping kit and some fishing lines, we spent the day on a river, caught lots of fish and then went to the local pub.
Apart from a rare trip to Mallaig or Fort William we had rarely experienced a pub before.
The weather was unusually lovely and we lay soaking it all in. We built a good fire every night and sat up talking about home and how we were going to go back as soon as we could. We talked about girls and what it would be like to make love.
We talked about my injured father, who Sandy had seen only a short while before. I laughed when Sandy told me how cranky he was becoming and how he kept my mother running around doing errands for him. That wouldn’t last, we agreed.
Sandy was from a family called Ferguson that had left St Kilda at the time of his grandfather. St Kilda is a series of islands 60 miles west of the Scottish mainland. The 50 or so inhabitants live a harsh life, enduring wild weather in the long hard winters.
Tragically, almost all the babies died shortly after birth, but a Nurse Barclay spent time on the island and soon discovered what the problem was.
She watched in horror as the islanders practised a Christian ceremony of anointing the umbilical cord with oil from the body of a fulmar bird.
Nurse Barclay realised that the babies were being given tetanus and immediately soon put a stop to it.
Sandy told me a story of a crew of four oarsmen taking five men and two boys, including an ancestor of his, in their big boat from the main island, called Hirta, to a 500-foot-tall rock, Stac an Armin, which lay four miles away. The seven of them were deposited with food and supplies for a couple of weeks. The plan was that when they had done their work they would light a grass fire and the boat would come back and fetch them.
There, Sandy’s ancestor and the others used nooses on the end of long poles to snare fulmar seabirds, swiping at the birds as they flew past and catching them in nets until they had accumulated a big enough pile. The oil would be used for lighting in those days, and the feathers were sold for bedding.
They also harvested guillemots, gannets and puffins by the hundreds of thousands. After two weeks they were ready to finish and get home. Day after day, they lit the fire, and still there was no movement on the main island.
They were there from September throughout the winter, putting up with 100mph winds, snow sweeping across the Atlantic, and just a small bothy for shelter, largely underground, with a stone roof sealed with turf they could just crawl into.
Imagine – no fuel for a fire and just raw seabirds to eat. Eventually, in the spring, Macleod of Macleod’s factor came to collect the rent, and the men frantically waved the boat down as it passed.
They got back to Village Bay on Hirta to discover that there had been a terrible dose of smallpox, and so many had died that they hadn’t been able to launch the boat.
The spring was the collecting of the crotal, the lichens which give the tweed its peculiar orange colour
Ardnish Was Home is published by Birlinn. The third novel in the series, Ardnish, was published in 2020. www.birlinn.co.uk