Memories of Ardhasaig: Murdo Macleod

By Murdo Macleod - Added 12/07/2014

When Donald Martin suggested I put some memories of my early life in Ardhasaig on paper, I thought that this was indeed a timeous moment to do so. With the decline of Gaelic and people who speak it, many of the topographical and other features are becoming lost. Also oral traditions, activities tied to the crofting and fishing are almost memories now among a quickly decreasing number of folk. This very modest attempt at recording some items will, it is hoped, help to preserve some of this. Recalling such memories brings us back to childhood redolent of locales, their names, and particular houses such as the ceilidh house, folk that stayed in them and so on.

I’ll start with the name of the village itself, ARDHASAIG, which must be Norse in origin. ARD in Gaelic is a promontory or headland and AIG is Vik, a bay or inlet. The early settlers were dependent on the sea for their living so took an interest in good harbours and safe anchorages. The Norse were adept at naming natural features which played an important part in their economy such as hunting so we have mountain names like VAL ( from FJEL O.N) a mountain, so GEILAVAL we are familiar with and we have the GIL a ravine. The names we grew up with were part of our daily vocabulary, but sadly now falling out of use along with the culture that they were part of. It is hoped that this may remind some of the newer generation to reflect on a few of them, a reminder of the richness of our past culture, albeit, in a small self contained community we knew as townships.

In my boyhood we regularly walked to Tarbert for as we called it “messages” carrying the “ruxin” bag. So early on we learned many of the names of the features we passed on our way. From Road Side Cottage, I would look down on a compact village. At the far end was Am Camp and Gob a’ Champ. There must have been a fair amount of stock contained here at one time and a name RAON-NA-MONA behind Toman’s house tells of peat cutting. I seem to remember vestiges of peat banks there? Toman’s house, TIGH THOMAIN – was divided into two with Rodaidh Thomain and Anna at one end with their large and wonderful family, who were my school mates. Tomain’s (Ruairidh) sister was the mother of the distinguished poet, Norman MacCaig. Anna’s house was, I well remember, where you always got tea and a piece. Kind people who shared what they had despite the hard times of the “hungry thirties”.

Donald stayed with his father in the other end. Donald was a great favourite with the younger folk of the village as his ready wit and affable nature appealed to us. Despite his disability he could ride a bicycle most adeptly to Tarbert, where, I think, he was employed for a time as a tailor? He could also, I remember, take a tune out of a melodeon and he was a very able draughts player! For some reason I remember being at Dolaidh’s shop one day and Toman there and saying to me, no doubt for a reason, “Another day, another dollar”! It must have made a strong impression on the young mind. Only the tobhta remains as a silent reminder of a warm, cosy and hospitable home. What I do remember, and that very well, was being in Roddy’s end at the last reiteach in the village. This was on the occasion of Barabel’s wedding and her uncle Johnny did the honours in the ritual of ancient days of giving the bride away. It was an occasion filled with good humour, grace and fun. We shall never experience that like again. So, I must be one of the last to experience the ritual of the reiteach. (For those who wish to know what is involved in the reiteach, I would refer you to the book, Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J Macdonald adapted for TV a few years back).

Along by the cladach from here was Taigh Alasdair Ruaidh, which I remember visiting and no doubt getting that tea and a piece. Alasdair Ruadh had 5 sons, Aonghas Beag, Aonghas Mor and Donald John who lost his life tragically in the Merchant Navy. Murchadh Ruadh married in Meavaig and Sheonaidh a Steisean who lived in a unique house in Bunabhainneadar – what had been the testing laboratory at the Whaling Station. Alasdair Ruadh was a great stock man who each year walked the hoggs and the muilt to the sales in Stornoway. Donald Angie an Toe had a wonderful tale of canine fidelity which is worth reciting. Alasdair would walk the leisurely walk with his faithful collie bitch to Stornoway up over the Clisham- the old road then – being entertained by old friends all the way to Stornoway. One gets a vision of the genuine droving days. The sheep would be penned for the night at Gearradh Chruaidh until the sales next morning. The dog would be lodged in an outside shed. After the return journey home, Alasdair’s wife told a remarkable tale. During the night, she saw the faithful bitch coming in and feeding her pups and then depart to join her master! He was of course unaware of the faithful animal’s attention to her pups….”.mas breug bhuam e……..”

Aonghas Beag inherited his father’s stock-keeping skills and was so engaged into his 80’s or 90’s. His wife, Mairi Ceit, was a favourite of mine from whom I learned a lot of local lore. Then taigh Alasdair Thormoid where lived my hero Ruairidh Ailig, his brother Tormod Mor and Mairi Anna a lady I hold very dear in my heart as she was one of the kind village girls I remember who looked after my own mother in her final days. Mairi Anna it was who became Seonaidh’s (of the Reiteach) second wife and made a lovely home for him. This house was one which attracted us young lads as Tormod was an entertaining character who taught us to “box the compass” in Gaelic! What a snug warm house it was and beautifully thatched.

Then along to Taigh-na-Balaich where lived the two brothers sharing either end of the substantial new house. In one end was An Ceigean, Donald John with Chirsty his lovely kind wife. They had a son Calum and a daughter Ceiteag. Calum was a talented boy and gained entrance to Glasgow University but sadly was called up in his first year there. I well remember Calum in his smart military uniform dropping down the road on this first and final leave before going to Singapore where he was captured and was to endure the hell of the Burma Railway for the six last years of that dreadful war. Maybe it was because she was missing her own dear son that she took to myself and I often sat on the seise and having that welcome tea and piece – often crowdie and cream. How excited she was one day when she told me that things were going better for us Allies as Benghazi had fallen! I did not know or where Benghazi was but I knew instinctively that it was some crumb of comfort for dear Chiorstag. Most grievous fate was to decree that Calum’s mother died just very shortly before he arrived back and Lizzie Dolaidh’s wife, had the sad news to deliver to him as he came off Mitchell’s bus at Dolaidh’s shop. Cruel fate indeed.

Calum happily was able to resume his educational career and became the very respected and much admired Secretary to the National Mod, having the honour of introducing the late Queen Mother to the Mod stage in Aberdeen in 1955. His wife was Seonag Campbell the distinguished Gaelic Gold Medalist, and one of the famous Campbell singers from Greep in Skye.

There is a metaphysical tale attaching to the period of Calum’s missing in the prison camp. Ceit Dhomhnall Bhig, who stayed next door, had a remarkable experience one night. She woke up to “see” Calum at the foot of her bed. She went to see Chirsty in the morning and told her “don’t worry, Calum is alright”. And sure enough word came that he was. That was the sort of communications we as villagers, young and old, shared quite naturally with each other because we were all so close and at one with another. Ceit became my own sister-in-law and a most dear and kind one to the family later. She was also the mother of my bosom pal Duncan who “roamed”, traversed and visited each nook and cranny of the village with me. The daughter was Ceiteag a Steisean and I was able to visit her in Harris House as can be seen in one of the old photographs. Her sons, Iain and Donald John carry on the tradition of stock-keeping which was such a part of their grandfather’s occupation – a great sheep man. In the other end was Ruairidh “Raffy”and his wife Bellag. It was also a home I was often visiting and remember well sitting on the seise and listening with fascination to the beautiful “Granny” clock hanging on the wall and proclaiming the hour with lovely chimes. Was it a wedding present? In later years, I visited Calum who retired back there and being told that the lovely clock he had serviced was there hanging in the wonted place. Where is it now? I hope it is preserved as it is part of the village history.

Taigh-na-Balach a wonderfully evocative appellation probably carried over from the old house – the tobhta of which is beside the staran near the port. On a ceilidh at Iain Dhomhnall Bhig’s many years back Iain regaled us, Duncan and myself, with an amusing tale of how the three young lads as they were at the time – my own uncle John Norman, Donald Alick Dhomhnall Ailean (Macaskill) and one or two others had played a trick by filling in the window with a “ploc” to prolong the night of darkness for the occupants! The next time they visited they were chased out the door with one of them exclaiming “chan e mise a bha ann” to be told “Chan eil e gu diofar, ‘s thusa dhiolas air a shon!” What wonderful fun we enjoyed listening or taking part in such repartees! Sadly, again there is only another tobhta to mark our dear friend’s house. Tragically, Iain lost his life in a house fire many years ago. Next was his brother Angus’s house, taigh Aonghas Dhòmhnaill Bhig who was married to Dolly Aonghas Ian t-Saoir from Bowglas. Before the war, Dòmhnall Beag and his sons made a great effort to save enough money to buy a boat for the lobsters, the Water Lily, with its Kelvin engine. Then across from Taigh an Aonghais was Dolaidh’s old house. I seem to remember that the first shop was contained in a back room and being served with my mother by Lizzie, bean Dholaidh. I suppose that originally this was taigh Dhòhmnall Ailein – Dolaidh’s father. Then the new shop was built. A very substantial building of corrugated iron with, D MACASKILL, LICENSED TO SELL TOBACCO, above the door. I have fond memories again of being served with my mother. The other end, a registered slaughterhouse, was where Dolaidh slaughtered sheep and I remember carrying a big 2 handled basin with the duis and offal with my sister Effie up to the house and what glorious maragan dubh my mother made.

Across from the shop was Taigh na Banntraich where Duncan lived with his widowed mother. Every morning from Monday to Saturday the old lady sat in a sidecar and Duncan drove like JEHU up the RATHAD BEAG. They both of course had adjacent shops in Tarbert where Duncan became the oldest shopkeeper in Europe! This house is now the famous Ardhasaig House Hotel run by Mrs Macaskill’s great granddaughter, Katie.

Up from this house was the house I was born in over eighty years ago. It was originally built for my grandfather as the first white house in the village round about the latter part of the 19th century. Here were born five boys and three girls including my own father George. My grandfather was called Murchadh Fidhleir but properly called Murchadh Ian ‘n Fhidhleir. As a boy I used to play down at the port where there were two tobhtaidhean one being Iain Fidhleir’s and the other being Uilleam Donn whose daughter Cairistiona Uilleam was the famous singer whom we still hear on the radio. In the mid 1930’s Dolaidh built the new house beside the main road and of course the shop and petrol pumps. This was a really modern concern which brought luxury goods to the village. By this time the steamer Lochmor was regularly calling at Tarbert so that we got regular bakery goods from BEATTIES with loaves in waxed wrapping. And there was a supplier in Stornoway called Todd’s which delivered weekly supplies of up to date groceries. How many of you remember a famous brand of tea “Sun Ray Tips”? specially blended for Harris water and what tea! And I watched in wonder as Lizzie opened a smart wooden box which contained, wrapped in foil, delicacy of delicacies – KRAFT CHEESE, which she sliced into required weight. Everything was sold from the proverbial needle to an anchor as well as haberdashery to castor oil! Beyond the shop and on top of the hill was Taigh Iain Dholaidh. Iain was Dolaidh’s bus driver who drove the Ford bus to Stornoway once or twice a week. Their two sons, Donald John and John were playmates in their garden. Just beyond was the pillar box where Calum Maclean collected the mail. There was always a substantial collection as so many then regularly sent away to Oxendales or J D Williams (simply known as JD) for everything from our school clothes to wedding dresses. An apocryphal tale among us referred to a certain old lady sending a dozen eggs to Mr Williams for being such a nice man and so obliging! And, of course, poor Calum the Post had his work cut out delivering all these goods COD –Cash on Delivery. A wonderful means of shop-to-door and fully dependent on honest customers. Then there was an Ceum going down past taigh Aonghas Mhòr where Una lived. During the war her son Ruairidh served in the worst convoys in the world, I think it was called. This was the terrible Russian Convoys. When Roddy got Autumn leave to bring in the crops, Duncan Sandy and I helped to pull in the bundles in return for a sumptuous feast from generous Una but probably even more acceptable was the copious amounts of Senior Service cigarettes to Duncan and I, - naval issue in those sealed tins! I survived the nicotine onslaught! Una was the last teacher in Taransay, I believe, and I often wonder if she had a hand in the education of a well known minister and scholar Colin Mackenzie who was crowned Bard at the Rothesay Mod in 1952. He wrote a very interesting book called “NACH NEONACH SIN”. I read it with interest as he gives a graphic account of the strange supernatural light that used to be seen at Leachkin descending from the hill and falling into the sea at the BRUST. Coming home from Tarbert late I would like BURNS keep glancing behind fearful of what I would see!!. I never did! Just beyond taigh Una was an old tobhta which we were warned against touching as it had had the FIARUS. This would have been Typhoid, I reckon.

Beyond here was taigh Dhòmhnaill a Cheannaiche, another fine old lady for whom we ran for the occasional message to the shop. In return for a penny or two which was not that inconsiderable at that time as you could buy a goodly stick of liquorice in the shop unaware of its purgative qualities!

Next house was Tormod Beag and his lovely and kind wife Sine. Often did I sit by her warm stove partaking of her tea and piece. Her too early death cast a gloom over the whole village. How good to see her son Alasdair, a star of the current BBC Alba TV programme, Chi mi’n Tir (From Harris with Love”), still to the fore.

In my day there were three beartan mòr in the village. Morag Aonghas Dhomhnaill in Cul na H-Arde and Tormod Beag which Sine skilfully handled. Later on Chrissie, Bean Iain Thomain, was a renowned weaver. After the war Fionnlagh Bellag broke new ground with the modern Hattersley and I used to help fill the bobbins for him in return for a fag or two!

Next house along was our favourite calling place, Taigh Dhòmhnall Thormoid where lived the wonderful Anna Bheag. As you entered the house you passed by an inner place in which was stored all the accoutrements for lobster fishing. This was a genuine black house with the fire not in the middle of the floor but at the gable end. It was always cheerily aflame with the slabhraidh which often had a three legged pot boiling buntata ‘s sgadan. A delicacy. There was a seise along the wall where Duncan and I often were a bit playful. Anna one day was brewing a cup of tea in a disused marmalade earthenware jar, slowly maturing in the ashes. Our unsettled rowdiness threatened the stability of the jar and she warned us “tha mi faicinn manadh air a phoit” whereupon it was dislodged and a hasty exit with Anna after us with her stick ensued! But soon we were running to the shop for her to collect a loaf or a can of paraffin. At home with her son Ruairidh Dubh who was a wonderful spealadair. When he was employed by Duncan Macaskill it was a marvel to see him with great vigour demolish swathes of clover.

At the other side of Cnoc Buidhe was Cul na h-Airde and two very memorable houses – taigh Mairi Shoay and taigh Aonghas Dhomhnaill where lived my favourite of that fine family of girls – Morag the weaver. I would stand by her loom marvelling at her deftness. Her vigorous swing of the spàl with its accompanying click clack was music in my ears and remains in the memory to this day. Her genial smiling face revealed her kindness to this young boy beside her. The youngest girl, Chirsty Ann, was a fellow scholar in Bunavoneadar School. Her older sister Margaret, it was she who took me along with my sister Maggie to school on my first day there. Margaret was a talented mathematics teacher in later life. Their house in Cul na h-Airde is now occupied by one sole person, Alasdair, who we see on Chi mi’n Tir.

Finally, a house which was a remarkable one. Taigh Mairi Shoay. Very early I got to know this fine Christian woman with all the virtues of such a person. Her’s was the house which always seemed to have visitors for a ceilidh and which was an exciting place for a boy to participate in. It was especially attractive during the war in that it had one very valuable asset namely the wireless. In a community where so many of the folk were away on war service it was so important to be up on what was happening in the outside world. It was Mary’s son, Sandy, who would be in charge of it, I suppose, when he was home on leave from his merchant navy duties. Looking back, how did she manage to feed all those visitors when things were so scarce? I never left her house without a bottle of milk or eggs to take home. Life must have been silently sad as her son Fionnlagh was long years in a German prison camp. After the Second World War, Fionnlagh did come back home and became the genial postmaster at Ardhasaig Post Office, which establishment was a hive of good craic and humour. Fionnlagh Mairi was one of nature’s gentlemen.

These are just a few of the people who I remember with great pleasure who had an influence on a young life and whose memory is indelibly fixed in the mind. Wonderful people who belonged to a generation that we owe so much to.

Murchadh Sheòrais (Murdo Macleod) 2013