The Life and Work of the Croft
|The 'Coll View' croft is located precisely at the square marked 'Caolas'!|
This aerial view shows the boundaries of Nos 5 and 6, Caolas, which are
marked in yellow. The area designated '1' is No 5. The house site and
garden ground are designated '2'. The main road runs along the northern
boundary of the holding.
|The township of Caolas, Tiree, as seen from Croish, looking east to Gunna (with Rum behind) and Coll.|
'Coll View' is the first house from the right.
Definition and creation of crofts
At the outset, it may be useful to get rid of some persistent misconceptions about 'crofts'. Some people think of a 'croft' as a 'cottage' or house. How often have we seen a photograph of what claims to be a 'croft', when it is actually a building? Without an aircraft and a photographer capable of taking aerial images (of the kind produced by Angus and Pat MacDonald - above), it would certainly be difficult to provide a photograph of a Tiree croft, which can be as large as 60 acres (or more) of land (not 'house'). Crofts are basically small 'farms', units of land which sustain families in the Hebrides and parts of the north-west Highland mainland in what used to be termed the 'Crofting Counties'. Crofts vary in size in the Highlands and Islands, from the small five-acre (or less) sheep-strewn rockeries which can be seen in some of the Outer Hebrides, to the substantial, and predominantly arable, holdings in Tiree. The Tiree crofts were originally 'large' by Hebridean standards, but they increased their size through processes of inheritance and assignment of crofts beyond, or contiguous with, the first family holding.
The second misunderstanding about crofts - even more durable than the first one - is that 'crofting' has been here since time began. In fact, crofting is a comparatively recent 'industry'. The roots of what may be termed 'classic' crofting in the Highlands and Islands go back no further than the opening years of the nineteenth century, when certain Highland and Hebridean landlords decided that, while reducing the overall populations of their estates, it would be wise to look to their own interests and preserve a work-force capable of harvesting the 'fringe of gold' (kelp or 'tangle') round their coasts. Because of blockades imposed during the Napoleonic War, it was difficult to import Spanish barilla, and ash made from 'tangles' (duly hauled up from the shore and burnt in pits) was a useful, wealth-creating substitute - 'wealth-creating', that is, for the landlords, who believed (erroneously) that the coastlines belonged to them. Had they realised then that they did not own the coastlines, the history of the Highlands and Islands might have been very different indeed. Crofters were meant to work on the shorelines, cutting and landing and burning tangle, while having their own patch of land to sustain their own needs. Thus, crofts in the kelp-rich areas were often strips of land with their lower 'edges' on the shoreline. Later, of course, crofts assumed a variety of forms, sometimes without direct shoreline access.
Crofts were created by dividing previous large holdings called 'tacks', farms held 'in tack' and on lease by tenant-farmers of the landlord. Although many tacks were 'broken' in the early nineteenth century, a considerable number remained, and these became a bone of contention in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when land-hunger again became a major issue, notably in the Outer Hebrides (as in Lewis, during the Leverhulme era). Thus a fair number of Hebridean crofts, including a conspicuous amount in Tiree, are as recent as the 1920s or the 1930s. The process of 'breaking' the tacks and creating crofts in this latter period was often preceded by 'protest' and what was called 'land-raiding', whereby land-hungry cottars 'raided' tacks, and sometimes planted potatoes on the land that they had occupied. The land occupied as a result of raiding (for example, in Raasay) was sometimes assigned to the 'raiders' as a croft by the Department of Agriculture. In other instances, the 'new' crofts were created from tacks and assigned without previous 'protest'.
Crofts encouraged the growth of individualism, and were subject to the wider vicissitudes of economic life, sometimes very sharply so. The collapse of prices for kelp, following the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, had serious consequences for the large population which had come into existence in what was something of a 'boom time'. Difficulties were aggravated by dependence on monocultures such as the potato. When the potato crop failed in 1836 and more seriously in 1846, a major exodus, sometimes enforced by landlords, took place from several islands. The ups and downs of the wider economy have affected the viability of crofting from the very beginning, right down to the present day. Even if people were not technically 'cleared' (by the use of force on the part of the landlord), economic circumstances often determined their futures. In the case of the 'Coll View' MacDonalds, for example (see Chapters 2 and 4), emigration took place without 'clearance' - at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. It was induced primarily by the search for work. This has continued to be an important factor in determining the demography of the crofting communities of the Hebrides, including Tiree.
The map above, originally drawn by James Turnbull as part of a 'geometrical survey' of Tiree in 1768-69 and copied by James Fergusson in 1863, shows the configuration of 'Kelis' (Caolas) when it was assigned as a tack to a tacksman, 'Fear a' Chaolais' ('The Laird of Caolas'). The main settlement was then the 'baile' ('fermtoun') shown as a collection of houses and forming a distinct 'block' more or less in the middle of the township. The precise location of this 'baile' is well known to me, as I broke or bent many a ploughshare on its stones when ploughing part of the 'Coll View' croft! It was situated on the very left edge of the photograph below, where the green field is cut off by the edge of the picture. That field was known to us as 'Am Bruthach' ('The Brae') for obvious reasons. When the crofting township of Caolas was created, the old 'baile' was levelled, and its stones spread out on both sides of what is now the main road leading into the township. It was situated where maximum drainage was available, and where there was a constant breeze of wind - no doubt to help in fumigation! The 'crest' of the gentle hill on which the 'baile' stood is still known as 'Bealach na Gaoithe' ('The pass [or 'roadway'] of the wind'). The boulders and ash from the old 'fermtoun' created much frustration, as I well remember, as we often had to go to the smithy, set the fire, apply the bellows, and straighten the bent share on the anvil, or fashion an entirely new one.
The farmer who held the tack - the tacksman, also known as 'an duin' uasal' ('the gentleman') - had subtenants ('tuath'), who worked his tack, using the run-rig system, whereby small plots of land were assigned to specific crops (grown in 'feannagan', 'lazy beds'). The subtenants would have cultivated their own 'rigs', which would have been subject to regular rotation. The subtenants lived with the tacksman in the 'baile'. The cattle were grazed beyond the township on a piece of ground known as 'an coitcheann' ('common [grazing]' or 'outrun'), which was subsequently used by the new crofting tenants, and remained as pretty well the only survival from the run-rig era. This area of land, also known as 'An Sliabh' ('The Rough Ground') was in Milton (immediately south of 'Down Kelis' on the map) and was accessed by the 'utraid' (the 'out road', a term derived from the Norse language).
The landlord of the time, John 5th Duke of Argyll, who was responsible for creating the crofts in Tiree, did so as something of an experiment. He realised that crofts, with a tenant in each, would provide a better commercial return than large tacks let out to tacksmen. The middleman of the old structure was therefore removed from his position of landholding privilege, and that privilege was re-assigned to others - the 'tuath' - down the social scale. This was a major social revolution. At the same time, the reassignment of land as crofts wrought a transformation in the demography and appearance of the township of Caolas, as it did elsewhere. It reduced population size initially, but it also caused the houses to be dispersed and pushed outwards from the centre of the township, rather than forming part of a nucleus of buildings or nucleated settlement. These houses stood within their own parcels of land - the crofts. The dispersal of the houses can be appreciated from the aerial photograph above. In spite of the dispersal, however, the core of the township of Caolas remained relatively tight. 'Coll View' stands on the southern edge of that core.
In addition to crofters with their own parcels of land ('their own' only to the extent of being rented from the landlord, the Duke of Argyll), social reorganisation created two other categories of 'holder' - cottars and squatters. A cottar had a house site on a croft, usually near the shore, but he was usually a fisherman. He had no land of his own. The cottar was permitted to take potatoes and other vegetables from the croft. In payment for the privilege of having a cottage on the croft, the cottar gave the crofter several days of service, usually when potatoes were to be planted, or crops sown, harvested or stacked. The squatter set up house on the common grazing, and had no croft or allocation of land or supportive relationship with a crofter. In some townships the number of squatters on the common grazing increased, when crofters or cottars were displaced. The 'Coll View' croft had a family of cottars, the MacFadyens, who lived in the cottage now owned by Sir Raymond Johnston and known as 'Eyebrow Cottage'. We shall meet them again in Chapter 7, when we go round all the houses of Caolas and identify their occupants as I knew them, or heard about them.
The alteration of tenure from tacks (though some survived the shake-up) to crofts changed not only the landholding configuration of Tiree, but also its cultural configuration and the nature of its most prominent 'literary' artefacts. The 'fir-tac' (tacksmen) were the glue of the old-style society of the island, and were 'well-connected' by having links with the family of Argyll. They were patrons of the poets and doubtless also of the storytellers, but pre-eminently of the poets. One of the best-known natives of Caolas, who hailed from An Urbhaig (Urvaig) in the north of the township, namely John MacLean, 'Iain mac Ailein, Bard Thighearna Cholla' ('John son of Alan, Poet to the Laird of Coll'), composed songs in praise of the Laird of Coll, but also in praise of tacksmen in Tiree. In his verse, composed before he emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1819, we can also see songs to the 'new' crofters, who are not given the designation 'Fear' bestowed upon the lairds. His early years spanned this very major 'restructuring' in the life of his native township and of Tiree generally. Subsequent Tiree poets composed with the crofting townships principally in mind.
Early history of the 'Coll View' croft
The 'Coll View' croft as it appears today is a 'consolidated holding', consisting of two crofts, Nos 5 and 6 Caolas. No. 5 Caolas lies on the west side of the road south to Milton, and was originally owned by MacFadyens, a family who also owned the croft at 'Croish', which shares the western boundary of No. 5. It did not become part of the 'Coll View' holding until the early 1900s, when the wife of John MacFadyen, Iain mac Neill ('John son of Neill'), passed away. The above photograph, which was taken looking eastwards from the raised rough ground on the western boundary of No. 5, shows the Milton road running down from north to south. The original 'Coll View' croft lay on the eastern side of the Milton road, and consisted of the land on which the black cattle are seen grazing in the photograph. It ran directly down to the shore of the Sound of Gunna, and was bounded on the south by the croft belonging to another MacFadyen family in Aird Deas. It seems that Hector MacLean was the first tenant of the croft, which measured about 25 acres, all of it arable.
The rent receipts for 'Coll View' are extant from 1865 to 1923, with a couple of gaps in the 1920s. These form the only surviving set of Tiree croft rent receipts known to me, and their preservation demonstrates the care that was taken to retain proof that the annual rents of the croft had been duly paid, just in case the factor for the Duke of Argyll might feel inclined to extract a second payment. It is also an indication that useful record-keeping was a particular feature of the MacDonald family, which began as soon as my great-grandfather inherited the croft. The rent receipts span his lifetime, more or less.
From 1865 to 1867 (and presumably from a much earlier stage), the rent was normally paid in two instalments, on Whitsunday and Martinmas, in the name of Hector MacLean, father of Ishbel and Mary, Hector MacDonald's aunts on his mother's side (see Chapter 2). The procedure was that an invoice was issued by the Duke of Argyll's factor, resident in Island House, Crossapol, in June or July and in November or December, and payment fell due on the respective quarter-days. When the rents were paid by means of a personal appearance by the crofter or his representative at Island House, the invoices were receipted and signed over a one-penny stamp by the factor, John M. M. Geekie. The first surviving rent receipt, issued on 10 June 1865, shows that 'Hector MacLean' carried an arrear of rent, namely £5.17s.6d, from the preceding half-year, but that he was able to pay the entire year's rent of £11.15s at Martinmas. A similar arrear was noted on 'Hector MacLean's' last payment, made in December 1867.
However, the Register of Deaths for the Parish of Tyree (Statutory Deaths 551/01/0004) shows that Hector MacLean had been dead for over a decade when these payments were made in his name! Designated 'farmer' in the register, he died at the remarkable age of 94 on 25 January 1856, and was buried in Kirkapol. His death was recorded by his nephew, also Hector MacLean. It would therefore seem that Hector MacLean (snr) had no male heir, and that his croft was held in his name by his daughters, Ishbel and Mary, for about 11 years. When my great-grandfather became the rent-paying occupier of the 'Coll View' croft in 1868, it appears that the croft was assigned to him three years after his marriage to Effie MacLeod in 1865. By that stage, he would be considered 'well settled' by his aunts. He was then regarded as if he were Hector MacLean's 'son and heir', while his aunts waived their interests. His first rent receipt in his own name shows that he had to provide proof of his identity to the factor, John Geekie, in the form of an abstract from his Birth Certificate. The abstract is still attached to the rent receipt, as shown in the photograph below.
The receipts show that my great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald paid his rent regularly, the amount remaining at £11.15s per annum until the second half of 1882, when it became £6.8s.2d per half-year. At that point, he began to have difficulty in paying the rent, and in 1883 he paid both half-yearly amounts in two instalments. He was in arrears by 1886, and did not pay the rent for the second half of 1885 until May 1886. Following the passing of the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act in 1886 and the establishing of a Crofters' Commission, the annual rent was reduced to £4.15s per half-year from 1887. Hector MacDonald, however, had to carry forward a significant amount of arrears from 1886, which the Crofters' Commission ordered him to pay as stated on the rent receipts, providing settlements of £2.10s with each of the half-yearly payments until July 1889, when the debt was cleared.
Rent receipt showing Crofters' Commission order of arrears
to be paid by Hector MacDonald in 1889.
These difficulties go far to explain why my great-grandfather became a member of the Highland Land Law Reform Association, popularly known as the 'Land League', in the 1880s. His certificate of membership is reproduced in Chapter Two. High rent was the major challenge to Tiree crofting identified by John MacFadyen, then tenant of No. 5, Caolas, when he represented the east end of his island before the Napier Commission at Kirkapol Parish Church in 1883. The land issue in Tiree, and especially the failure of legislation to provide land for cottars, reached a peak after the passing of the Crofters' Act of 1886, when cottars occupied the farm of Greenhill at the west end of the island. As a consequence, marines were dispatched to Tiree, and detachments patrolled the island (see Chapter Two). Nevertheless, apart from my great-grandfather's staunch adherence to the 'Land League', there is no record within the family of animosity between Hector MacDonald and the factors who represented the Duke of Argyll and collected his rents. He appears to have remained on good (or at least non-confrontational) terms with the factor, to the extent that his eldest daughter, Mary Flora, worked as a servant in Island House (below), until she contracted rheumatic fever. The fever became so bad that, as family tradition relates, her father had to set out with horse and cart to bring her home, a journey of 10 or 11 miles each way.
Island House, apparently on a day of some importance, to judge by the cars!
The rent receipts show that my great-grandfather had some minor difficulty in paying his rent in the period from 1891 to 1893. This can be explained in terms of the additional outlays which he would have incurred with the building of 'Coll View', completed in 1891. The account submitted by the mason, Donald McInnes, Uig, Coll, is shown (receipted) below, and came to £13.8s in January 1891, with an additional £1 for pointing payable in May. To this we must add the cost of timber for the roof and other parts of the house, which amounted to £6.13s, payable to Brownlee's City Saw Mills, Glasgow, with a freight charge of 18s.9d pencilled in. The receipt is likewise shown below. In all, the cost of wood and skilled labour for 'Coll View' amounted to about £21 - almost two and half years' rent for the croft, even with the reduction of rent authorised by the Crofters' Commission.
The evidence of these rent receipts demonstrates that the 'Coll View' croft functioned on a financial knife-edge in the nineteenth century, with very little money to spare when the rent had to be paid (or not fully paid, on occasion). Income would be based largely on the return from livestock, with a 'souming' (number of animals allowed to graze on the croft) in the region of four cows and their 'followers' (calves, stirks), and perhaps ten to a dozen ewes and their lambs. When No. 5 Caolas (on the west side of the Milton Road) was added to the holding, the 'souming' doubled: the number of cows carried was usually about eight (plus their 'followers'), and the number of sheep about twenty-five (plus lambs from spring to late summer). The 'Coll View' croft (No. 6) was good for raising cattle, and its large amount of arable ground produced rich crops of oats, barley and potatoes. However, it was not wholly suitable for sheep, as flat machair was the principal land form, and did not provide sufficient variation for the effective rearing of sheep. Because of lack of grazing variety and the absence of hilly or rough ground, they tended to suffer from searg ('pine'), caused by mineral deficiencies. The grazing for sheep improved with the assignment of croft No. 5, which had about half an acre of rough ground on its western boundary, but it was still not enough to produce sheep of the fine quality evident in the cattle stock, even in my time. Dosing of sheep and lambs with drench and cobalt bullets was standard practice on this holding in the 1960s to counteract the lack of appropriate minerals in their diet. Even then, and in spite of a marked improvement, the lambs did not attain the very best marketable quality. By contrast, cattle, and especially beef cattle, flourished.
This was apparently the notice by which the Crofters Commission,
meeting in the Baptist Chapel, Baugh, on 19 July 1887 summoned
John MacFadyen and 'another' (presumably Hector MacDonald) to
attend a hearing relating to their complaints about high rents.
In my great-grandfather's day, calves and stirks (usually a year old) could be sold locally to other crofters or to tacksmen such as Tom Barr, who held the tack of Balephetrish before it was broken for crofts in the 1920s. There were many stories of crofters' ruses to get an additional penny or two for their stirks, especially if they happened to be heifers! Trying to outwit the drover became a standard motif in the Gaelic story-telling tradition, because it was a well-known convention, not unlike trying to sneak home-produced whisky past the eyes of an exciseman. On one occasion, Barr was offered a 'stirk' with a seemingly masculine pseudo-tuft fixed neatly to its under-belly. Barr, however, was not to be fooled, and gave the 'stirk' some immediate gender-reassignment surgery! There is no evidence that Hector MacDonald practised any such happy deceptions, but he was aware that, to obtain the best prices, he sometimes had to send his cattle to the mainland to take advantage of much more competitive trysts and markets, like that at Falkirk (by then located at Stenhousemuir). In the nineteenth century, this presented challenges, as the cattle had to be transported by sea to the Ross of Mull, walked with a drove across Mull to Gras Point, and then shipped again to Kerrera, and from there to Oban. My great-grandfather had his own large Fifie skiff, the 'Peace and Plenty', which he used for transporting animals, and also for shipping a cargo of potatoes to Ardrossan or Irvine, where he exchanged the potatoes for an appropriate amount of coal for the return journey. Peat could be cut in the Ross of Mull, in accordance with long-established Tiree practice, as the island did not have an adequate supply. Tiree crofters, however, soon became accustomed to the use of coal, which they themselves would haul from the Lowlands by means of Fifie skiff or gabbart or smack, before and even after steam lighters ('puffers') became the standard form of conveyance for coal. The use of one's own skiff kept costs to a minimum, although there were inevitable dangers in sailing so far from home. It says much for the initiative and innate seamanship of Tiree crofters that they were prepared to take such risks as a matter of course. The box compass of the 'Peace and Plenty' was preserved in 'Coll View', where it was a constant reminder of the navigation beyond well-known waters that an island demanded of its inhabitants in the days before travel by steamship and its successors became the norm.
The MacFadyen-owned smack, 'Mary & Effie', discharges coal into carts
at An Acarsaid ('The Harbour'), Milton, Caolas, about 1920.
Fishing in 'well-known waters' helped to supplement the family income. The Sound of Gunna and the various 'banks' off Tiree were rich in saithe, lythe, flounder and cod, and lobsters were readily available too. For such purposes, my great-grandfather had a smaller boat, which was replaced about 1900 by a Fifie-type yawl some fifteen feet long on the keel. It was built in Vaul by the MacKinnons, na Bhallaich ('the Vaul folk'), who were very well known for producing fine working boats. Also named 'Peace and Plenty', this boat remained operational until the early 1970s, when it was allowed to decay gently by a baca (bank of sand on the machair) above the Port Ruadh, and overlooking the Sound of Gunna. It was an appropriate end for a trusty friend, whose brown-barked dipping lug-sail was to be seen regularly in the sound, and also - no less frequently - crossing to Arinagour in Coll with a cargo of lobsters for the well-named Mr Sturgeon, the merchant who specialised in shellfish. With a good breeze of wind, this could be a pleasant voyage, but it could also have its less attractive dimensions, especially in boisterous or misty weather. The real challenge, however, was dead-flat calm, when my great-uncle Donald and his friend Malcolm MacDonald (Calum a' Ghobhainn, 'Calum son of the Smith') had no option but to row all the way to Arinagour and back again. Family tradition related such times of calm with horror, but never as much as mentioned days of storm and swell! As a working boat, the 'Peace and Plenty' was broad-shouldered, and no doubt hard to row in proportion to its beam. It was not the kind of 'cutter' that my father loved to construct in his boat-building days! Nevertheless, it was a delightful geola mhor ('big yawl'), which I used to 'dock' and overhaul with joy in early summer, in preparation for the fishing season. Many of my happiest memories in late teenage years are of fishing in the Sound of Gunna in that Tiree-built Fifie-style boat, with its double ends, clinker strakes and big belly, seemingly unassailable by wind and tide.
The second 'Peace and Plenty' lies above the Port Ruadh,
Stories about visits to Coll, fishing adventures (including encounters with rogue waves, sharks and other 'obstacles') were a delight to hear, and never tired in the telling. These were passed down from one generation to another, and were doubtless told and re-told at the ceilidh house in Caolas, as well as within the family. The toil of crofting was relieved by regular meetings in Taigh Iain ('John's House'), the home of John MacFadyen, Iain mac Neill, the crofter of No. 5, Caolas. This remained the cultural centre of the community well into the 1930s, acting as the venu for exchange of news, impromptu recitals of songs and tales, and increasingly the reading of the newspaper, principally The Oban Times. This was the real traditional ceilidh, which bears little or no relationship to the sanitised, stage-managed song-recitals of the present day, with their immaculate performers, rows of seats, clapping audiences, clean floors, pianos and cosmetic frippery. In the Caolas of the nineteenth century, there in Taigh Iain, we have to imagine toil-worn men in their workaday clothes, and women too in their home-made drugget dresses, sitting on chairs, girnals (chests for holding flour and grain) and wooden boxes, eagerly exchanging the local gossip and turning naturally to entertainment, whether a song or a tale or some witty ripostes, with John MacFadyen as the presiding genius. We see them through a haze of pipe-smoke, and now through the mists of distance in time and possibly even place, as we try to grasp the fragments of their lives that have been preserved for us.
My great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, Eachann Ban, was one of them. He refounded the MacDonald family in Caolas, and rooted it again in a thriving, though never 'prosperous', croft. He and his wife Effie produced a family of ten, no less, eight of whom lived into a good old age. It took immense effort to refound the dynasty in a century of great upheaval, and we can see its effect on his physique in surviving photographs. It can be said of him that he lived frugally, and died accordingly, simply and without fuss, with all his affairs in order. He instilled into his family a capacity for hard work, combined with a sense of their place in the world in Tiree and beyond, and an appreciation of song, story, history and record-keeping. In December 1921, at the age of 86, Eachann Ban summoned the Tiree minister of the time, the Rev. John Stewart, called witnesses (two neighbours, namely Hugh Hector MacArthur from Caolas House, and Lachlan MacLean, possibly Lachainn na h-Urbhaig), and drew up his Last Will and Testament. Given what we know of the struggles of his life, it is a moving document, not least because it leaves a sum of £30 'to my grandson, Hector Meek', who was later to become my father. His will is reproduced below, and can be read clearly by clicking on the photographs. Hector MacDonald died two years and two months later in February 1924, old and full of days - and full also of achievements, even if the world beyond Tiree knew nothing of them.
Life and work of the croft 1900-1950
My father, Hector Meek, arrived in 'Coll View' in 1913, and in so doing 'lost' his own parents. He never saw them again, nor did they visit him. In some ways, he was an 'orphan' of emigration. In addition, he was potentially the sort of youngster who, in moving from town to island, could have gone badly astray, and whose defence solicitor in a court of law (if he were acting today) might well have claimed that any misdeeds had been exacerbated, if not caused, by his peculiar circumstances as a boy. My father, however, was blessed indeed in his grandparents, who took over the reins in place of his parents, and gave him a spendid upbringing. He had ten years of Hector MacDonald's guidance, and often spoke of what he owed to his grandfather's sterling example in keeping him clear of unhelpful 'friends' or 'events' that might have ensnared him. He told me of one occasion when he wanted to go to a concert of some kind that was likely to be noisier and more prone to liquor than the standard kind of ceilidh in the island. He was desperate to go, and felt aggrieved that his grandfather would not allow him to do so. He went outside, and then stomped back into the house, only to hear his grandfather's voice raised in earnest prayer, in Gaelic, asking that his grandson Hector would be kept safe and that he would not come to any harm. My father never forgot seeing his grandfather on his knees at a kitchen chair, the chair trembling with the strength of his entreaties, as he implored God to keep the young man from temptation. Eachann Ban knew the point at which his own strength, great as it was, reached its limit, and at which he had to ask for the intervention of a power beyond his own. This made an enormous impression on my father, and in the longer term it was unquestionably a transformational moment, a signpost to security on a difficult road.
In asking that young Hector's grandparents should be responsible for his upbringing, especially as they were well into their seventies when he arrived, the Meeks were making no small demands. They assumed that the grandparents would keep well for a further good few years, and raise the lad with the assistance of his Aunt Maggie, Uncle Donald and Aunt (by marriage) Marion. They would hope too that the youngster would adjust effectively to his new environment. Their expectations were fulfilled, and my father appears to have adjusted remarkably well. It has been said that he was by far the 'most Highland' of the Meek siblings, with a particular yen for the Tiree croft. The earliest photograph taken of him in his new context in 1913 shows him in the stackyard, leading a horse and a cart well laden with hay, accompanied by his grandmother and Aunt Maggie, and his Uncle Hector on top of the load.
The setting is perhaps more significant than may appear at first sight. The harvest, and the annual ritual of bringing the hay and corn into the stackyard, were the focal point of the crofting year. It could even be argued that the stackyard was the power-centre of the croft, as it was essential for sustaining the cattle throughout the winter and into the spring. The statement being made by the photograph is that my father has been 'initiated' into the workforce of the croft in its core activity, and that he now belongs to the 'team'. He is learning how to handle a horse, and shows no sign of fear or shyness. The photograph may be 'posed' to a certain extent, but the fact that the stackyard was the chosen setting says much about the expectations that his grandparents had for the young man now in their care.
These expectations were shared by young Hector's Uncle John, who had arrived from Vancouver in 1914, and had been living at 'Coll View' before he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1916. In a letter to his brother Charles dated 3 November 1915, John described the harvest weather and crop for that autumn:
'The weather kept up fine and we have finished the stacking. We have 10 [corn stacks] and a hay one this year. The crops were not so good. On account of the dry summer we have had almost every place is dry, and we had to open tobar na feinag ['Tobar na Feannaig', a well in one of the main fields] as the pump went dry and nearly every well in Ruaig.'
'Coll View' about 1920. The superbly thatached corn stacks of 'Caolas House'
can be seen at the right of the photograph, with their very sharp 'toories'.
John corresponded with Hector from France, and in one of his first postcards, dated 12 June 1916, he wrote: 'I suppose you will be busy at the Harvest and doing all the work you can...Are you always fishing [?] Wish I was there to go sometimes.' John's later letters to Annabel and Maggie (see Chapter 5) show a concern with that year's harvest, and a very strong expectation that my father, then no more than a boy of nine, would be making a significant contribution. One senses that, in leaving the 'Coll View' croft for the trenches of France, John had more than a twinge of conscience about this absence at what was a particularly busy time of year. The departure of men to join the war effort had serious implications for the agricultural routines of farms and crofts.
Harvest was indeed a strenuous time of the year, but the weather was usually good, even fine, during the summer months, as John indicates, and would normally break only in September, with the arrival of equinoctial gales. On 8 October 1934, for instance, Aunt Maggie wrote to her niece, Effie MacDonald, Minnedosa: 'We have very rough weather for a long time here, gales or rain. At long last we got our harvest all secured, a good crop too.'
The good weather of harvest provided many photo opportunities. Commonly these show men and women hard at work or sometimes relaxing between bouts of cutting, gathering or stacking the crop. Several such photographs, featuring my father, exist for the 'Coll View' croft in the 1930s. This was the period (1930-39) when he was minister of Colonsay Baptist Church, and he returned regularly to Tiree during his leaves, in order to assist with the harvest, or carry out repairs or extensions to 'Coll View'. His somewhat improved circumstances are evident in his rather smart dress.
My father rests while stooking sheaves in September 1933.
My father gathers the corn crop from stooks with the help of James Tooick,
who was brought up in No. 5, Caolas, in September 1932.
The photographic record for the 'Coll View' croft in the 1920s and 1930s shows Donald at the peak of his powers. He was responsible for ploughing, harrowing, sowing and reaping, and he was an expert handler of horses. It must, however, be remembered that he could call upon the wider resources of the community of Caolas to help with seasonal activities, an important aspect of the corporate life of the township which will be discussed further in the next chapter. The following sequence of photographs of Donald in action requires little explanation, except to note locations in captions.
Donald is harrowing a field on the machair in front of 'Coll View', right
beside the road to Aird Deas. 'Carnan' is in the background.
'A sower went forth to sow'. Donald is sowing by the traditional method, using
hand-distribution. The seed is contained in special bag. He is at work below
'Coll View', just to the east of the Williams' house.
Harvest time has come, and Donald is cutting corn using the horse-drawn reaper.
His wife Marion and his sister Maggie may be the ladies in the picture. The
bearded gentleman may be Lachlan MacLean, 'Caolas House'.
Donald is now reaping a fine crop with his team in the very field where he was
seen sowing the seed!
Donald and Marion in the hayfield, where Donald has been scything.
Marion probably brought him a cup of tea.
Donald and Marion in the stackyard behind 'Coll View'. The
corn stacks have yet to be thatched. Marion has evidently been 'to town',
as she is very well dressed, while Donald is in his crofter's gear.
In my father's absence, Donald was ably assisted by his wife Marion and by his sister Maggie, who was more than capable in the fields and also in looking after the hens and the geese, the horses, cows, pigs and sheep.
Maggie with the hens and geese behind 'Coll View', with the old byre,
stable and animal shed to the left. These have now been demolished.
The relatively small flock of sheep (about 17 here) in front of 'Coll View'
in the 1920s.
As the pictures of my Uncle Donald's agricultural activity demonstrate, 'Coll View's' implements were dependent on horse traction until the late 1940s. The croft latterly sustained a couple of medium-sized crossbred mares ('Polly' and 'Winnie' in my time), though the horses shown pulling the reaper for Donald are evidently related to heavy-draft Clydesdales. The photograph below suggests that the complement of mature horses on the croft would usually be three.
The photograph also shows foals (perhaps two), and a foal appears in the pictures below. The 'Coll View' convention seems to have been to keep mares, and to take these to a stallion as required, under the terms of the Heavy Horse Breeding Scheme of the Board of Agriculture for Scotland. If the mare was proved in foal by the stallion, a fee was payable to the owner of the stallion. Two receipts for £3.5s paid to Malcolm McLean in 1921 and 1922 survive, the first of which is shown below.
Foals had to be broken in for pulling carts and for riding. My father was an expert at this rather frightening equine rite of passage, as he had a way with horses. He was still involved in this in the 1950s, when - to my great horror - I observed him being thrown from a young horse, as he tried to teach it how to accept a rider on its back. What astonished me was that my father knew how to fall without injuring himself, and that he mounted the horse time after time, fall after fall, until eventually he stayed on its back, and the horse was evidently resigned to its new duty. Teaching young horses the correct speed and pace for pulling carts was not always easy. Some horses accepted their duties without difficulty, but others could be badly frightened by the noise made by the carts and their loads. This was well known to naughty local lads, who sometimes went out of their way to frighten a horse, by throwing barrels and other 'resounding items' into a cart. When frightened, a horse would set off at a gallop, and would not stop until it was exhausted, having disposed of the cart, its trams and its wheels in the course of its 'great escape'.
My father with a pony at 'Coll View' in September 1936.
You can't keep a good pony down - unless you happen to be
Aunt Maggie, and you sit on top of it! Maggie is enjoying
her equine seat at the back of 'Coll View'.
In addition to the agricultural duties illustrated above, the variety of high-profile, essential tasks performed by horse and cart included taking seaweed from the shore for use as fertilizer for crops, the 'carting' of manure for similar purposes, the hauling of coal from puffers, the carrying of goods to and from Scarinish (where the service steamships called), and the conveying of grain for grinding into flour at the mill at Cornaigmore. Such labours required that the horses should be shod regularly, and the 'Coll View' croft had its own smithy, with fire, bellows and anvil, and all the necessary tools. My father was skilled in the shoeing of horses. Just like their horses, crofters had to be adept at what is nowadays called 'multi-tasking', as it was only by being multi-skilled that they could survive. Most townships had their own smiths, but, if the job could be done 'in-house', both time and money were saved.
Brothers Roderick (left) and Donald (right) MacDonald take coal home
from the puffer Anzac at Port an t-Sruthain, Caolas, about 1953, using
Roderick's horse and cart.
A horse remained on the 'Coll View' croft until about 1962, but in 1947 another very different 'horse', made of steel, with four wheels rather than four legs, appeared and began to contest the supremacy of old 'Polly'. It was the tractor known as the Ferguson TE 20, 'TE' standing for 'Tractor England' and '20' representing its horse-power. The brainchild of the Northern Irishman, Harry Ferguson and his associates (including William Sands), the tractor that was to make Ferguson's name famous had had a long and painful evolution, which involved its creator in numerous production agreements with well-known companies, such as those of David Brown and Henry Ford. These agreements soon produced acrimonious partings and disputes, the most notable being a celebrated court case which Ferguson won against the younger Henry Ford, before the tractor finally arrived 'home' in the United Kingdom and took up residence at Banner Lane, Coventry. The Banner Lane factory produced a steady stream of what became known affectionately as 'little grey Fergies'. The Ferguson tractor was tailor-made to meet the needs of the agricultural sector after the Second World War. It was small, compact, superbly designed with an unostentatious elegance, and equipped with a brilliant three-point hydraulic link, by which it could be connected to a controllable plough and numerous other implements. It was also relatively cheap, and could be purchased by small-holders.
There is, so far, no evidence to show why my Uncle Donald decided to invest in a Ferguson TE 20, but part of the reason must surely have been the declining state of his health because of the onset of Parkinson's disease. He could no longer walk easily behind a plough and pair of horses, or go through the physically demanding ritual of harnessing two horses each day when work had to be done. The Second World War had taken its toll of manpower more generally in the United Kingdom, generating an awareness that, if agricultural production was to be increased, something more than the strength of 'Polly' was required. With the financial assistance of his brother Charles, who paid the £200 price, Donald acquired the first Ferguson tractor to arrive in Tiree. It is highly likely that my father gave every possible encouragement to the venture, as he was a very keen mechanic and well aware of the power of machines.
It is fascinating to see Donald, who was such a fine handler of horses, sitting in the driving-seat of the Ferguson tractor. He seems to have taken to it with considerable enthusiasm, to the extent that some fine photographs were taken of him on the tractor.
The Ferguson tractor becomes king of the harvest, and pulls the old
ricklifter, with my great-uncle Donald at the wheel.
When the Meek family arrived from Islay in 1949, they too were photographed beside, or in the context of, this icon of a new agricultural era. It was clearly something of a status symbol.
Left to right: Maggie, Charlie (with rake), Donald (on the tractor),
Morag MacDonald (brought up by Effie MacDonald, Milton) and my mother.
The implements which had previously been fitted with two trams for horse traction were now refitted with a single central tram which could be connected easily to the tow-bar of the Ferguson tractor. Among these was the Albion binder, used for cutting and binding corn, which was a major advance on the old reaper, but very heavy and hard to pull in soft ground.
The Ferguson tractor pulls the Albion binder, with my father at the wheel.
By the binder are Maggie, Donald (with stick) and Hector (Donald's brother, on the binder).
The Ferguson tractor arrived at a critical juncture in the life and work of the 'Coll View' croft. The old epoch of horse power was coming to an end, just as one of its most skilful practitioners, my great-uncle Donald MacDonald, could no longer muster the physical energy to undertake the very demanding work of the croft. When my father returned in 1949 to help his uncle, the Ferguson tractor was to prove its worth in abundant measure, and to pay for itself many times over as the principal energy-provider in sustaining 'Coll View' and its family from 1949 until Hector Meek himself passed away in 1984 - likewise the victim of Parkinson's disease.
Life and work of the croft 1950-1990
Unlike the First World War, the Second World War was comparatively good to 'Coll View'. Far from being depleted, the workforce grew, and a good foundation was laid for the next thirty years. During the war, my father was minister of Tiree Baptist Church, and lived in the old home from 1939 to 1944, when he left again, this time for Islay. He met my mother because she had been posted to Tiree to work with the Air Ministry, and they were married in December 1946. I was born less than three years later. When my father returned to Tiree in 1949 to assist his Uncle Donald, he was able to bring the first gleam of twentieth-century optimism for the future of the 'Coll View' croft, as a potential heir had put in an appearance (see Chapter Four). In the 1940s too, three of the older 'Coll View' siblings retired to Tiree - Hector, Charlie and Annabel - and they were able to help with the work of the croft as long as they had the strength. From 1949, when they returned to Tiree from Vancouver, Charlie and Annabel both gave a dozen years of their remaining spans to the maintenance of their old home. The temporary increase in the team is evident in the photographs (above) featuring the new star in the agricultural firmament, the Ferguson tractor.
As soon as my parents settled in 'Coll View', history repeated itself, though with different players and 'props'. I took the place of my father as the new boy on the croft. A tractor had stolen the show from the horses, but the stackyard still acted as the stage for the theatre of initiation into crofting life. The earliest surviving photographs of me as a baby were taken in the stackyard, where we can sense something of a party mood, even in an afternoon cup of tea.
Front row (left to right): Jo Hardie (Milton), Mrs Hardie (?), Neil MacLean ('Carnan').
Aunt Annabel, my mother (with myself!). Back row (left to right): Uncle Charlie, Aunt Maggie,
and Uncle Hector (on the cart). The increase in personnel is very evident.
The last straw has arrived? My Aunt Maggie looks her years, while my mother's smile
is irrepressible (at this stage). I appear to be quite relaxed about my new environment!
The art of making a haystack! A youngster willing to climb
and to stamp around the top of a stack was very useful! Hugh MacFadyen,
the cottar subject on our croft, keeps a watchful eye on proceedings.
The tractor, like the horse in the photograph featuring my father shortly after his arrival in Tiree in 1913, was an indispensable part of the harvest and the general life of the croft. The earliest possible introduction to the Ferguson was therefore arranged for me, the first being in July 1949, when my father, looking somewhat harrassed, was carrying a load of thatch in the trailer. When I had sufficient stability to sit without support, about the age of two, I was allowed to take my place in the driving seat. I was evidently born with a silver gear-lever in my mouth, as the Ferguson tractor and I formed a deep friendship which endured for well over thirty years of work, and continues to the present day.
A young lad on a croft, from at least the age of six or seven, if capable of handling machinery safely, could render great assistance, almost the equivalent of that of a man. This was more than apparent in the hayfield, where my ability to drive the tractor, while adults operated the ricklifter and hauled the ricks on to the trailer by means of a windlass mounted at the front, was greatly appreciated. And I enjoyed it too!
Lest any of my readers, compelled by their dutiful allegiance to twenty-first century ethics, feel inclined to grab their mobile phones and report the 'Coll View' family to the relevant social authorities for the exploitation of a child within its care some sixty years ago, let me hasten to assure them that nobody was more willing or more delighted than I was to participate in adult work from the earliest possible age. Work became a natural part of play, and throughout my life I was able to enjoy both, to the extent of not always observing their boundaries. I also developed a broad and lasting range of practical interests and skills which have stood me in very good stead across the years. I was never a one-job worker; life was, and remains, full of fascinating challenges. When accidents occasionally happened in my boyhood, I learned important lessons, and I would hate to think that anyone other than myself would be blamed for those essential moments of personal limit-setting and sense-acquisition. Blame-transfer is now a standard part of our society, but as no more than a 'big toddler' in the early 1950s, I was fully aware that I was responsible for my own actions, even when these led me into difficulties.
Photographs from my early boyhood show how closely my play imitated the work of the 'grown-ups'. The wheelbarrow, the symbol of the somewhat less romantic side of crofting life and associated pre-eminently with the cleaning of the byre, was a very special toy. I used it to transport the sgainteagan (dried cow-pats, which were my speciality) from the machair to the 'boiler' in the pump-house, where they were used as fuel (see Chapter Four). The possibility that this was somehow unhealthy, or that I could contract an illness from the 'poo', never occurred to me - or to anyone else. I also adapted the wheelbarrow as a 'cart' for Norman, the dog, who became a horse as required, and showed infinite patience with his demanding young master.
In later years, cleaning the byre became a natural part of life. Falling headlong into the drain when the big byre brush somehow slipped over the top of the 'stuff' was accepted with equanimity as no more than a croft required, and if the result was less than consistent with the best principles of aromatherapy in the present day, that too was considered to be no more than a normal occupational hazard. In the early 1960s I used to milk cows and clean byres before I left for secondary school in the morning, and occasionally the fragrance of my labours accompanied me into the classroom.
I was initiated early into the delights of sheep-rearing. One of my earliest encounters with my woolly friends was when my father was shearing, and I appear to have assumed a supervisory role, with my arms folded nonchalantly behind my back.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, I myself was thoroughly familiar with sheep-shearing by means of hand-clippers. I have many memories of shearing sheep in swelteringly hot days in June, when my forearms were scorched by the sun, and I would have to plunge them into a barrel of cold water when I had completed each task. I enjoyed the challenge of getting a sheep to sit comfortably between my legs, and to relax as I took off her winter coat. It was exceptional to use a halter of any kind. When I became adept at shearing, I would go to help other crofters in the township (see Chapter Seven).
Feeding sheep and looking after lambs became second nature. I well remember how, when I was about four or five, one of our sheep had triplets, and she and her lambs had to be given a 'booster feed'. The sheep herself appreciated a slice of bread, and her lambs liked a 'top-up' from a bottle. My role in their upbringing was recorded by the ever-present Brownie Box camera.
Pet sheep and pet lambs were not uncommon, though not encouraged, if a viable sheep-centred alternative could be found. When the spring weather was bad in the lambing season, lambs suffering from hypothermia were often brought into the house, and placed in a cardboard box in front of the fire to 'thaw out'. They were bottle-fed, or even nourished initially with a 'dropper' from an eye-drop bottle (containing a spot of brandy!), if they were unable to move their jaws. Such lambs were either happily reunited with their mothers or kept in a 'lamb bank' for fostering with other sheep that my have lost their own lambs. Occasionally a lamb would remain and become a 'pet lamb' or a 'pest lamb', as some (and even I myself) might have called it if it transgressed!
The story of my pet lamb, 'Melonian' (a Tiree word for a rather laid-back, nice 'rogue' - possibly derived in jest from 'Maol Eoghanain', 'St Adomnan's servant'?), illustrates the very thin line between a 'pet' and a 'pest'. 'Melonian' was a cross-bred lamb, with Blackface origins, which had been given to me by our fine neighbour, Neil MacFadyen, Niall Ailein, in Aird Deas. The lamb was a delight, full of good humour and as fine a friend as I could ever hope to find in any sheep. I loved it dearly, and fed it until it looked like a four-legged barrel. It was gregarious and sociable in the extreme. Indeed, it was even inclined to jump into my lap for a cuddle when I visited my Aunt Annabel in Taigh a' Mhachaire - thinking that it had perhaps the status, if not the attributes, of a cat or a dog. Such confusions of identity could occur.
When Melonian matured, it was clear that she had a mind of her own - for 'she' it was! She would leap over any dog that tried to head her off, defy the dog with a head-butt as required, and generally look after herself in a way which no other sheep would dare to do. The other sheep, however, clearly appreciated 'Melonian's' boldness and startling new strategy for handling human beings and dogs - and saw an opportunity. A flock will elect its own leader - a 'leading sheep' - and, as fate would have it, 'Melonian' was elected chief of the flock. As 'Melonian' was in the habit of coming to the back door for some bread or meal in the morning, she soon taught the same habit to her flock. The result was that the entire flock would assemble at the back door, and, if the door was opened, the sheep would even consider pressing their way into the house. This happened on one occasion when a Suffolk ram called 'Panda' had joined the flock - a fine fellow with an equally docile temperament, who was quick to ally himself with 'Melonian' and with her (willing?) owner.
The consequences were, perhaps, predictable. I was rudely awakened one morning by yells from my mother to 'come and deal with your friends, and get them out of here'. When I found my way downstairs, I discovered about half-a-dozen sheep in charge of the kitchen, with 'Melonian' and 'Panda' at their head, and the rest of the flock watching the proceedings. I eventually managed to push them all out of the door, and close it firmly. Thereafter, the sheep were not allowed to come near the house grounds, and all gates to the machair were kept firmly closed. Nevertheless, 'Melonian' and 'Panda' will live in my mind as the best of their respective breeds, productive in all respects and fine examples of how sheep should behave (or not, as the case may be!).
I can be seen sharing some 'down time' with 'Melonian' (above)
and 'Panda' (below)! Friends for life!
It was not easy to handle sheep like 'Melonian' even with the help of a dog, but it would have been infinitely harder to operate a croft without a dog! A sheepdog, and sometimes two, were kept at 'Coll View'. I was very fortunate indeed to have the company of a dog which had come into the world about the same time as myself. 'Norman', as he was called in accordance with the traditional family name, was a black and white collie, which had been acquired as a puppy from the MacKinnons at 'Farm House', Balemartine, soon after we arrived in Tiree, about 1950. 'Norman' was a superb sheepdog, with a natural sense of duty and a brain that was easily trained. He was also very good with cattle. His all-round usefulness on the croft was complemented by his genial nature and playfulness. 'Norman' and I bonded immediately, to the extent that, if my mother raised her hand to smack me, 'Norman' would occasionally get ready to protect me. We were inseparable companions, both of us young and abounding in playful energy. He loved catching balls, and was a more than adequate substitute for the missing brother or sister in most of my solitary ball-games. I spent endless happy hours throwing a ball to him; however high it went into the air, he would catch it with his unerring eye and adroit mouth, and return it to my hand, playing 'fetch' until his red tongue hung dripping from his mouth. He would then take a drink and lie in the sun until he had recovered his energy.
'Norman' thoroughly enjoyed human company, and was with me in all my plays and ploys. The cows went to the common grazing in Milton in the summer months, and 'Norman' and I would fetch them in the evening. I have many memories of sending him across the sliabh to find the cows. Even if I couldn't see them, he would know where they were. Sometimes he would bring them back in a leisurely manner, but on other occasions he would decide that a nip of their heels or a tug of their tails would speed things up. Cows and dog would then come careering through bogs and lochs, the cows' udders swinging and slapping between their hind legs, and 'Norman' disappearing in the spray. Such speedy fetching was not to be encouraged, though I have to confess that I enjoyed the fun! 'Norman' was present wherever and whenever there was a hint of activity, from shepherding to haymaking, and was constantly at my heel. As a result, he appears regularly in photographs.
The common grazing was about a mile to the south of the 'Coll View' croft; so a bicycle was a considerable help in covering the distance to fetch the cows. I learned to ride a bike by trial and (frequent) error, using an ancient 'machine' that was extremely rusty and far too big, with irreparable punctures and flat tires. It was, of course, made originally for a large adult. No child-size bikes were available, and, like many others, I had to 'make do' with discarded ramshackles. At first, I learned to keep my balance by standing on one of the pedals with one foot, and propelling myself along with the other. Then the moment came when I leapt astride the bicycle, and went flying down the gentle slope behind 'Coll View', past the water-tank (a former Second World War mine!) at the end of the pump-house, through the outflow from the ever-fragrant byre drain - and straight into a bed of nettles which were sprouting luxuriantly at the borders of the equally fragrant dunghill. Needless to say, the bike had no brakes worthy of the name, and control was minimal, indeed non-existent. Stopping was not an option, if natural features and events did not intervene - as they were bound to do at some point. When the wheels entered the soft grass in the nettle-filled hollow beside the dunghill, I fell off and was duly stung in more places than I care to mention, but I was elated by my new achievement. Thereafter, with some adjustments to the position of my body, I was able to navigate my two-wheeler more successfully and with some semblance of control. I then fell heir to a better bicycle (seen in the photograph), which was somewhat more 'stylish' and less of a wreck, but it too was too large. Regardless of my inability to sit on the seat, I used it regularly on the road to Milton, my body moving from side to side in conjunction with the pedals. From time to time, the front wheel would catch the verge of the track, and I would be thrown head-first into the ditch by the side of the road. Falling off and 'ditching' were all part of experience; if I needed any assistance in clambering out of the ditch, 'Norman' was always there to lend a paw. Nobody worried about such hazards in those far-off days, when 'illness and danger' (rather than 'health and safety') were the operating words.
A sense of balance, whether literal or metaphorical, was an important dimension of crofting life. It was useful when working with horses. In the early 1950s, the 'Coll View' croft carried two horses, the older one 'Polly' and the younger 'Winnie'. One of my earliest recollections is of helping my Uncle Charlie to harness 'Winnie' by crawling under her with the 'belly-rope', which was passed between the trams of a cart and below the horse's stomach to keep the trams from lifting under pressure from the cart. I can still see the enormous fetlocks, with their frills of white hair, as I moved quickly beneath that broad expanse of equine body! I had no sense of fear in those days, though I have often wondered (needlessly!) how my mother might have reacted if she had known about some of my adventures.
'Winnie' was a placid pony, and she and I became the very best of friends, working happily together for more than ten years. I was trained to handle her, and I did so with delight whenever our services were required. I would take her down to the shore for a cartload of gravel or seaweed, the cart moving slightly crosswise and back again, in tune with the rhythm of the horse's step. 'Winnie', however, had a bit of a 'water phobia', and was very reluctant to go down the rough track to the shore. I had to coax her on her journey, and, when she reached the sand, I had to humour her with a treat or two, as the breaking waves frightened her. I discovered that she liked dulse, and I would gather a little bundle of the choicest kind, which she would eat from my hand. This seemed to calm her nerves, and take her mind off the waves. When going home, I had the opposite problem. 'Winnie' would set off at a considerable trot, and the cart would trundle and bump and leap over hollows and holes in the rough track, spilling gravel or seaweed over one side or the other. I kept the reins very tight, but 'Winnie' was not in a mood for slowing, as she escaped from the dreaded water.
'Winnie' was a playful pony too, and enjoyed a bit of fun. I would sometimes stand at the gate of the field where she grazed, and turn my back towards her. I would pretend not to see her. Soon I would sense some very hot breath at the back of my head, and a velvet muzzle with grass-green lips and very large, soft, flat nostrils would come alongside my cheek. Still I would refuse to respond. Then I'd feel a very gentle bite on my shoulder, as 'Winnie' announced in her own way, 'I'm here, and don't you dare ignore me!' A stroke of the brown nose, with its white central stripe, was enough to reassure her that there had been no breach in our relationship. I was always fascinated by 'Winnie's' great strength and her equally great gentleness. Occasionally, though, she confused the two qualities, particularly when she had an itchy backside, and would reverse up to a metal gate, and use the bars of the gate as a backside-scratcher. The result was that several of our gates had a very gentle 'deflection' in their frame, something that was not appreciated by the adults, who found it difficult to straighten the tensile steel in each gate. Poor 'Winnie' was gradually outstaying her welcome, and one day in 1962 I came home from school to find that she had vanished from her field. Where was 'Winnie'? 'Winnie' had been sold quietly without my knowledge. I well remember how angry I was with my parents for not telling me that my dear friend was about to depart to a new owner. I never saw her again.
The Ferguson tractor now ruled supreme as the king of crofting power. Not that its status was in much doubt, as it had been demonstrated on many occasions, but never more obviously than when it performed the last rites for 'Winnie's' much older colleague, 'Polly'. 'Polly' was a large white mare, which had been on the 'Coll View' croft long before I arrived with my parents in 1949. In the autumn of either 1955 or 1956, she began to fail, and was given the best possible attention by my relatives, but especially by my Uncle Charlie, who was extremely fond of horses. I can well remember the large pails of special drinks, sprinkled with oat-meal, which he carried over to her as she lay covered by a large tarpaulin in the field. Sadly, her treatment was inadequate, and she died on a Sunday evening. We were all heart-broken at the loss of a very dear and valued friend. Next day, as I looked out of the kitchen window, I saw an image which has remained indelibly impressed on my mind, and will not be expunged until I myself pass on. There, on a wooden sledge, lay 'Polly's' white body, and the sledge was being towed by the Ferguson tractor. I will never forget seeing the live Ferguson hauling the dead mare to her last resting-place, an enormous grave dug like a cavern in the machair, near the shore. As the Ferguson strained at the chains, 'Polly's' straggling tail, now limp and lifeless, its once-white hair tinged with the yellow of the years, streamed out on the grass. There was no Brownie Box camera to record that historic cortege, but my mind was there to photograph it, and every detail remains sharply focused in my memory. It was one of those defining events, a deeply symbolic scene, which had a meaning far beyond the physical. The horse, for generations the principal source of physical power on the croft, was quite literally on the way out. The fact that 'Winnie' survived for another six or seven years says much for her, but also for the affection in which she was held, especially by my horse-loving Uncle Charlie.
'Winnie' hated the sea, but I loved it. The sea was all around, playing different roles at different times, friend and foe, facilitator and opponent, sustainer and (occasionally) taker of life. Boats were essential in such a context, and I cannot think of a moment when I was not aware of their existence. As soon as I could fold paper, and preferably silver paper, I would shape it origami-fashion into a boat. That, to me, was as natural as breathing, and it has remained so. I went to 'rowing school' quite unconsciously at a very early age, using a flat-bottomed 'punt' that my ever-active great-uncle Charlie had built . A rather innocent photograph shows me pressing ahead - backwards, and on dry land! - as I tried to master the techniques of using oars:
By the time I was in my early teens, I could be trusted to take a boat a short distance out into the Sound of Gunna without the presence of an adult 'skipper' (as in the photograph below, taken in August 1962). The sound was not an easy stretch of water; it was far from being a tranquil lake made for mere 'boating'. With a strong ebb tide and an adverse puff of wind from the west or south-west, it could be dangerous, at times even frightening, and any sensible boatman had to learn to read the various alignments of houses and rocks and landmarks on shore to navigate safely in its channels. These alignments were used to find the 'banks' where fish were feeding.
I have very happy memories of fishing with my father in the Caolas Ban, the stretch of water between Gunna and Coll, renowned for its lythe. It lived up to its reputation, when on one occasion we each caught a very large lythe at the same time, and found that our long lines had become entangled. Suddenly we were stuggling to pull in the catch, as the catch pulled us, and caused the boat to rock markedly in the sea. For a moment we thought that we had hooked a passing seal, and were preparing to cut the lines when we saw the two fish zig-zagging below the surface. Somehow or other, we disentangled the lines, and brought our respective fish on board. Sometimes we caught very little, and always blamed the 'big trawlers' for hoovering the seas; but, at other times, we all but filled our large boat, 'Peace and Plenty'. With our friend Hugh MacFadyen, who often accompanied us on such trips, we would make heaps of our catch above the shore, and then cast lots for each pile. Thereafter we would go round the township, giving some fish to each home.
|'Taigh Eoghainn Anna': Hugh MacFadyen's house by Gunna Sound.|
Skills such as harnessing and handling a horse, or rowing or handling a boat, were acquired naturally on a croft like 'Coll View'. Our 'de-skilled' twenty-first-century contemporaries think in terms of 'courses' in this, that and the next thing, because important learning processes have been omitted from the 'skills portfolio' of the 'student' in the formative years, or there is some 'catching-up' to be done. Perceptions like these, with their range of mental short-cuts of various kinds (including the notion that adults cannot learn without being treated like children behind a row of school desks), were unknown in 'Coll View' in my boyhood. There was time to learn, and also places in which to learn. All the world was a stage, but also a classroom or several classrooms, a prelude to what Higher Education (in a huge fit of self-discovery) later termed 'life-long learning'.
On the 'Coll View' croft, I had my very own 'classroom', where I would adjourn for the afternoon - provided there was a free afternoon! Sometimes, after the mid-day meal, I would go there, and lose myself in a glorious cavern of creative activity, surrounded by benches and tools and wood. This veritable Aladdin's cave was the ceardach, the smithy or workshop, where the crofting hardware was repaired, built or enhanced. This was where, in earlier days, the horses were shod, and where boats were built. As originally constructed, the workshop was only about half its current size. It was extended by my father so that he could use it to build boats of up to twenty feet or more in length.
|The 'ceardach' or 'smithy, workshop', with signs of work all around it.|
At its eastern end, it had two large leaf-doors, or sometimes three, depending on the period; and at its western end, in large overarching fireplace, stood the bellows, with a hammering-block and an anvil placed close alongside, as can be seen in the photograph below. On each side of the bellows was a workbench, with a vice on each bench, and a whetstone. Tins of nails and roves and rivets and bolts, all of different sizes, sat on shelves beside the benches, and hammers, drills, saws, awls, planes (including wooden jack-planes) were readily to hand. Ropes were suspended in coils down the inside walls of the building, while on the rafters above rested planks and poles and leaves of wood, all of different thicknesses and lengths. Everything that was required to effect a repair could assuredly be found there. I saw and savoured a horse receiving a new shoe, the horse's hoof smelling like burnt cheese as it was scorched by the hot metal. I can still see my father holding the horse's lower leg between his knees, while he drove in the nails. I can see the steam rising from the tub as the red-hot shoe, shaped to the right dimensions on the anvil, was plunged into cold water. The Ferguson tractor came into the workshop to have its cylinder-head cleaned, its plugs replaced, its mudguards strengthened, its tyres renewed and much else - and the tractor itself was often accommodated in this 'garage'. Similar processes were available for cars and vans. I was perhaps the last to use the workshop in this way, when I fashioned new sub-frames for the Mini-van that we had on the croft in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
In my boyhood, however, this glorious building was my shipyard, and there I built model after model in a spirit of adventure and happiness which has not been surpassed in my later experience. I learned unconsciously to use all the tools; an adult seldom intervened, and trial and error were my best teachers. If I made an error which might result in a serious cut to a finger or its near-amputation, as I did on one occasion while trying to use a very sharp chisel, I would not be inclined to repeat the mistake.
In the workshop, cutting myself with a chisel or hitting my thumb with a hammer gave me a taste of reality. Life on a croft was not child's play; it was very, very hard work, with numerous risks and dangers (which were scarcely noticed at the time, but could occasionally spring a nasty trap). The pleasure of play gave way gradually to greater involvement in the regular routines, some of them daily, some weekly and others monthly or seasonal. The seasonal chores have impressed themselves most firmly in my mind, because they demanded special attention to time and also the application of much greater effort. These included the hauling of seaweed from the shore in early spring; the carting out of the dunghill, latterly filling the trailer by means of a hydraulic grape mounted on the front of the Ferguson tractor, and then spreading the dung by hand-grape on the fields; planting potatoes with a traditional (non-hydraulic) plough pulled by the Ferguson tractor, putting seaweed in the drills, placing the potatoes in the furrows, and then closing each furrow in the process of opering another. In the autumn, the potatoes would be lifted, using the same basic process in reverse. The traditional plough would open the furrows, and my mother, father and I would set to work to lift the potatoes, place them in wire baskets, and then pour them into sacks, ready for lifting on to a trailer. My father purchased a hydraulic potato-digger which was mounted on the rear bars of the Ferguson, but, although it was useful, it did not function as well as expected in the sandy soil of the croft. Some of the potatoes were stored in bags in the 'potato-house', which was part of the byre behind 'Coll View', but the bulk of the crops would be buried in a pollag ('potato-pit') excavated at the bottom wall of the garden.
Weather was an all-important consideration, and extreme weather-events are indelibly imprinted on my mind. Lying well out into the Atlantic, Tiree was liable to be hit by the tail-ends of Atlantic hurricanes, among them the dreadful 'Hurricane Betsy' of 1961. When I was asked to provide an essay rooted in my boyhood experiences for Volume 2 of A Scottish Childhood in 1998, I described 'Hurricane Betsy' and its devastating effect on the harvest which had already been gathered with great effort.
Another immense storm swept in from the Atlantic in January 1968. On that occasion, I was in digs at 31 Beechwood Drive, Broomhill, Glasgow, while attending the university. I noticed that the wind was rising when I went to sleep on the Sunday night, but I slept through the storm. Next morning I set off on my regular walk to the university along Dumbarton Road, where I was shocked by the devastation - chimney-heads in smithereens on the pavements and streets, cars flattened by falling debris, holes in the roofs of houses where chimneys and chimney-heads had fallen through, and in one instance a completely collapsed gable. I telephoned Tiree immediately, to be told that the storm had gusted to 118 mph over the flat island. Damage was, however, relatively slight, compared with the horrors inflicted by 'Hurricane Betsy' in 1961. The press for the next few days was filled with pictures of seaweed strewn along Oban pavements, and fishing-boats sitting propped against telegraph poles, where they had been deposited by the high tide and strong wind. The low-lying profile of Tiree had probably saved it from serious harm. Severe storms afflicted the island early in 1975, and prevented the Claymore from reaching the island from Oban for an entire week.
|The cargo-boat Loch Carron heads westwards to Tiree in a westerly gale in early 1975.|
Gales and storms linger long in the mind, but so also do excesses of rain or even sunshine. The weather is frequently subjected to vast generalisations, which assert that the summers were always long, sunny and hot when 'we' were children, but that something has gone wrong within the last twenty years or so, and that 'we' now have nothing but rain and clouds. Oddly, as I look back to the early 1950s, I can remember very hot summers (or more particularly very hot summer days) but also some very, very wet ones. The summer of the Coronation in 1953 was very fine in Tiree, and I well remember playing with the children of friends from South Africa who had come back to Tiree and had found the island just as hot as the land they had left! When the Queen visited Tobermory, Mull, in July in the late 1950s, however, the heavens opened and poured forth an immense deluge, long remembered in the Inner Hebrides. The summer of 1967 was grim, with prolonged rain in July and a very damp autumn. This affected work on the croft, and especially the harvest. It was almost impossible to dry the hay thoroughly, and, when we made large stacks in the stackyard, they began to 'warm up' in a matter of days. They had to be dismantled and rebuilt once more, this time using a tripod made from large stobs of wood. The centre of the stack was kept free, allowing air to circulate, and thus drying the hay more effectively. It was dispiriting work - and 're-work'. The hay for that winter was dark and matted, and smelt of rank dampness; it came off the haystacks in dusty slices, rather than in fluffy forkfuls smelling like China tea (or better).
|My father, with the two dogs, 'Ben' and 'Norman', at work in the middle field|
of Croit Iain on the west side of the Milton road. Hugh MacFadyen, Eoghann
Anna, our cottar neighbour, was helping my father to stook sheaves of corn.
If 1967 was a wet summer, it was eclipsed by that of 1985, which remains in my memory as the wettest summer I have ever experienced. The rain poured down solidly for most of July, and flooded areas of the 'Coll View' croft and adjacent holdings to an extent that I had never previously witnessed, nor have I seen the equivalent since. I remember this deluge particularly clearly because it occurred the year after my father passed away. The summer of 1984 had been truly glorious, and had allowed me to cut and burn large piles of thistles in the field below Croish. My mother had gone off to visit relatives in Canada in the summer of 1985, and Rachel and I and our two girls returned to 'Coll View' for a 'holiday'. In the couple of weeks that my mother was absent, the chairs had contracted a blue mould - a symptom of dampness - on their legs and seats. This was unknown in my experience, and I have not seen its equal since. A very large pool of water lay between the southern gable of 'Coll View' and the pump-house. Mercifully, we were not producing a hay crop in that year, but other crofters were, and they faced grim prospects.
|The Aird Deas ('South Height') portion of Caolas, as viewed from Croish in 1976, looking across to Ben More, Mull.|
The summer of 1984 was not, however, as splendid as that of 1976, which enjoyed a remarkable spell of unbroken sunshine. Rachel and I were married in that year, and I well remember how the weather seemed to complement (or even compliment!) our happiness. We went back to Tiree for the summer 'vacation', and participated in the cutting and stacking of a fine hay crop. The outstanding weather allowed me to take an album of photographs recording the township and our harvest. This was to be the last occasion when our stackyard was filled with haystacks made in the traditional style. I remember sensing that significant changes might be in the offing, and I waited until I could photograph the stackyard in the evening sunshine. 'The Last Stackyard' remains one of my most treasured photographs.
|The last traditional stackyard on the 'Coll View' croft in 1976, with a crop of corn in the field behind.|
The 1970s were to be the last decade of active, traditional-style crofting at 'Coll View'. Various factors contributed to this. In crofting as a whole, a new wave of mechanisation was gradually transforming traditional methods. Larger tractors with much greater power - diesel Massey Ferguson 65/365s (and upwards) rather than the small petrol/petrol-paraffin Ferguson TE-20s - were coming into the area, leading to, or accompanying, the purchase of balers and the production of hay bales. This has remained the standard method of hay-packing, but nowadays with large round bales, rather than the small rectangular bales of the 1970s. Crofters were moving towards the production of silage because of the overall tendency for summers to be moister, and that required implements other than the standard hydraulic mowers of the Ferguson era. Gradually too crofters were carrying more beef cattle, which grazed for themselves on the croft. Fewer cows were being milked, as they were now suckling their own calves in the fields. UHT milk arrived in soft cardboard cartons from the mainland - something of a shock to those of us who thought that the only proper milk was fresh milk, straight from the cow's udder. Dairy cattle were being phased out, though some crofters might keep a couple of milking cows.
|'Coll View' and its main buildings have been photographed in 1976 from the machair, looking west, with 'Croish' on the higher ground.|
Changes were taking place in our family too. My father was no longer as strong as he used to be, nor was he as sure-footed. This became evident in February 1973, when he had a major accident with the Ferguson tractor. When feeding animals single-handed with hay on a trailer, my father (and no doubt many other crofters too) was in the habit of putting the tractor into first gear from the ground, by depressing the left-side clutch pedal, and pushing the gear-lever into the upper-left notch. The tractor would then move slowly and driverless, pulling the trailer while my father off-loaded the hay in neat piles for the cattle. As has been noted earlier in this chapter, there was scope for many accidents on a croft, although these were seldom envisaged before they 'sprang a nasty trap'. My father was wearing a heavy oilskin coat on a wet day, and his coat became caught on the hydraulic ram of the tractor, just ahead of the back wheel. He could not remove the coat or break free, and he was dragged under the large rear wheel. He was run over by that wheel, which was, in turn followed by the corresponding rear wheel of the trailer. The tractor carried on until it was stopped by a fence, while my father lay on the ground.
Nothing daunted, he picked himself up, and, aided by a stob, walked home. Later we were to discover that he had a double fracture of the pelvis, and that he should not have been able to walk at all in such a condition. He had numerous broken ribs, and his lungs were punctured. However, his strong muscular build and his comparatively light frame allowed him to 'hold together' until he walked into the kitchen of 'Coll View', sat down on a chair, and calmly informed my mother that he had had an accident with the tractor. It was nothing serious, he claimed. Nevertheless, as soon as he sat down, his colour changed so dramatically that my mother concluded that the accident had been very serious indeed, and telephoned the doctor at once. By mid-day he was on his way to the Intensive Care Unit of the Western Infirmary in Glasgow. The prognosis was poor. I was then in Cambridge, and later that afternoon (a Friday) I received a message from the hospital in Glasgow informing me that my father had 8 hours to live, and that I should come to the hospital immediately. I had a frantic evening, as I headed for London and Heathrow. With no flights available, I had to take the rail-sleeper north, and arrived in Glasgow early on Saturday morning. I was met by the Rev. Donald P. MacCallum, minister of Adelaide Place Baptist Church, as my mother was staying with the MacCallums. Their kindness to us in our time of distress can never be adequately described.
By the time I saw him, my father had been given a tracheotomy to allow breathing, and he was on a ventillator. To visit him, I had to dress in a hospital gown, remove shoes, and wear large white 'slippers' and a mask. It was indeed a challenge to see my father lying helpless, with tubes and wires sprouting from every part of his face and body. Yet, to our astonishment and in response to the prayers of many people, as well as the great skill and unstinting care of doctors and nurses, he began to recover. I was able to return to Cambridge until the Easter vacation, and at the end of March I returned to Glasgow to accompany my father home to Tiree. He had made history as the first accident-victim with a double fracture of the pelvis to have walked home from the scene of the accident, and also the first to have made such a miraculous recovery from such serious injuries. He was duly warned not to go near his tractor again, but within a few days of returning to Tiree, he was back in the driving-seat. I can still see him going off down the Milton road and into the fank, as much as to say, 'I can still do it, and I will!' However, he could not engage in heavy croft work, and I remained in Tiree until at least early May to attend to the spring labour.
|My father drives the Ferguson tractor again and turns the hay, soon after his very serious accident in the early 1970s.|
My father was sufficiently robust to conquer the 'acute' consequences of an accident which would have killed many younger men, but, sadly, he was unable to overcome the onset of a progressive, 'chronic' illness. Parkinson's disease, which had caused the death of my great-uncle Donald in 1960, had begun to attack my father too by the early 1970s, possibly hastened in its effects by the accident of 1973. To my dismay, I witnessed the slow, painful decline of a very strong, self-sacrificing man, as the symptoms of Parkinson's gradually appeared - sore shoulders, mask face, impaired mobility, and loss of more general articulation of mind and body. He fought a losing battle very bravely until the early 1980s, and seldom complained, though, on one occasion, as we carried out a repair in the workshop, he sat down suddenly on a bench, and stated simply in Gaelic, 'This illness is going to kill me.' He remained as active as he could throughout the later 1970s, but photographs reveal the strain on his body. A picture taken in the stackyard in 1976, when we were securing the last traditional hay crop, is very telling. My father leans wearily on his fork in a pose which became the hallmark of his last years.
|Using a telephoto lens, I took this photograph of my father in crofting attire|
in the mid-1970s. He had been repairing the Ferguson tractor, and had oil on
his face. I developed and printed the portrait.
|My father and I are pictured in April 1982 on the bench at the back of 'Coll View', one of my father's favourite seats. This was to be the last photograph of the two of us working together on the croft.|
My father, Hector MacDonald Meek, passed away peacefully in 'Coll View' with my mother and myself sitting on his bed at 7.30 pm on 6 September 1984, at the age of 78. Our tears flowed copiously over a face which had turned grey with the pallor of death, and was no longer responsive to our presence. This was more than the end of an era. It was, to a large extent, the end of the 'Coll View' croft, at least as an active unit within the family. As close friends gathered to help me to lay my father in his coffin, and as I finally secured its lid, I could hear a voice far beyond myself saying, 'Well done, good and faithful servant'.