Happy Memories of Strupersaig: Katie Macleod (nee Martin)
By Dona Johnson - Added 04/08/2014
Growing up in the rural coastal village of Struparsaig proved trying at times for the inhabitants, however the memories that Katie holds close to her heart are those of happy times.
Kenneth and Mary Martin on Croft 1 had a large family of one boy and seven girls of whom Katie was the youngest. During the 1930’s and 1940’s the majority of families on the Isle of Harris did not have much in the way of luxury, however they always had food on the table, shoes on their feet and most important of all, family devotion.
The young children would start their long day with a quick wash in a stream at the end of the house. Their mother would hand them a towel and a lump of carbolic soap and off the children would go to the little over-flowing pond in the river. During the cold winter months they would wash with water that had been warmed up over the kitchen fire. Faces washed and breakfast had, it was time for school.
The early morning walk along the 3 mile foot path to the school in the village of Manish was not looked at as much of ordeal by the youngsters as they were accustomed to this way of travel and knew no differently. Katie recalls running most of the way to school rather than walking, especially when she would spot the children in Geocrab in the distance and then it was a mad dash to see who would make it to the school first.
One of the teachers at this time was Mairi Mackenzie from Leverburgh. She was especially nice to her pupils and she would encourage them to reach goals by treating them to brightly coloured boiled sweets which she stored on a shelf in an old cocoa tin.
Lillian Macsween was another of the Manish School teachers who is remembered for being very up to date with her dress sense. The children were mesmerised by her fancy crepe sole wedge shoes which were the latest fashion. The novelty of the posh crepe shoes soon wore off as it was soon discovered that they made walking up the corridor so quiet that the children would not hear Miss Macsween approaching the class-room.
Mid-morning break was time for a bit of fresh air and a run about followed by a tumbler of National Dried Milk. Katie remembers the thick layer of oil-skim floating on the top of the glass, but enjoyed the drink never the less. Lunch-time was when the better-off pupils sat down to a hot meal which was prepared by Peigi (Peggy) the cook and the remainder of the children sat with their home made packed lunches parcels. The school meals, at 5 pence a child per day, was a big expense and understandably the parents with larger families were not in a position to afford such high costs. The Martin family amongst many others would get tucked into their home baked lunch and perhaps be lucky enough to get a spoon of jam to put on their piece from the paying children’s lunch table. A pot of tea from time to time was made in the cookery room by the older school girls and this was always welcomed by all the pupils with only home-baking as their meal.
The Martin children were very fortunate to have such a wonderful baker as their mother Mary. Each packed lunch for her children was prepared daily from various baked items which she would slave over the fire for hours preparing. Mary would get up especially early in the morning to set the home fire in order to get the home warmed up and her first batch of scones baked before her children would awaken. Katie remembers clearly items which her mother would effortlessly prepare for the family but she especially recalls the pancakes, scones, oatcake, maze bread, egg bread, and the yummy sponges and cakes which were baked under the fire above the ash-pan.
Very few food items required purchasing as the family were almost self-sufficient. Their hens supplied the eggs, the cows provided milk, vegetables were home produced on the croft, their sheep kept the family in meat and father Kenneth caught fish in abundance. When tea, flour and oatmeal was required, this meant a boat trip along the coast to the nearest shop in Stockinish village.
Although the family had sheep, they only slaughtered one beast each year and this would happen around Christmas time. Every part of the animal was eaten or utilised in these days, even the lining of the sheep stomach was scrubbed and scraped clean before it was used for the making of black, fruit and oat “marag” - pudding. The children watched and learned and until this day, Katie makes “marag” in the same way her mother taught her many moons ago. Their mother Mary was a vegetarian but this did not stop her from preparing meat dishes for the family. As long as Mary knew that she had a separate cooking pot for preparing her own meal there was never a problem
The remainder of the year, the family’s diet consisted mainly of fish which was caught by Kenneth and various types of vegetables which were painstakingly grown in fenced patches of ground and in feannagan (lazy beds). The heavy rotted seaweed which was required to fertilise the earth, was taken up from the shore on your back in a wicker creel. This would then be mixed into the already prepared soil with a spade. This was again exhausting work, but necessary if the family expected any chance of growing healthy crops.
The fish, when very plentiful, would be salted in barrels and the remainder dried-out on newspaper on the wooden beams above the kitchen. These preserving methods were necessary to ensure that the family would never go hungry. Kenneth was a diligent working man who spent much of his life as a fisherman to provide for his large family. After many arduous hours out at sea, he and his fellow fishermen would evenly divide their catch on separate rocks on the shore before selling part of their catch for small return. For one large basket of fresh herring, the pay was a solitary £1. Luckily for the fishermen, the fish was plentiful therefore there was a little money to be made.
Each season of the year had its own gruelling necessary annual jobs in store for the inhabitants of the hamlet. The good weather would arrive, but there was no word of sun bathing, as it was time for the yearly peat-cutting. The Martin family often had to take a short boat trip out to the island where they cut the peat, but if the tide was in their favour, they could cross over the rocky shore by foot. This was a family day out when everyone went to the peat cutting together and helped out before the picnic meal would be served. On one occasion, Mary decided to work a little longer at the peat-bank after the family headed home, but when she decided it was time to follow the others, she noticed to her horror that the tide had come in and that there was no way of getting off the island. Knowing that Mary would not sail in the boat, the family had no option but to leave her there until there was an ebb-tide. Luckily for Mary, there was plenty to keep her going in the picnic basket.
The family home although quite small, was always clean and tidy. Mary with the help of her girls would regularly give the home a thorough clean and in particular the annual Spring-clean which meant that every stick of furniture was taken outside and scrubbed down while every nook and cranny of each room in the house was dusted and given a good old-fashioned scour with disinfectant. At this time each year all the stuffing in each mattress was thrown away and newly dried coarse grass was gathered by the girls and used to replace the old stuffing. The mattress covers, pillow-cases and bottom sheets were made from recycled flour sacks which had been washed and bleached for days out on the ground in the sunshine. Flour sacks and oatmeal sacks were all used in one way or another and often used as vest tops and bodices for the girls.
All of the clothes the children and adults required were either, knitted, woven or sewn by Mary. Being a tweed weaver, this enabled Mary to produce fabric for clothing and bedding. The wool that Mary used in producing her knitted garments came from her own sheep. This wool would be dyed using crotal, a lichen which had to be scraped off the rocks with a spoon before being soaked in hot water to produce the yellow/brown dye. She in time handed down her knitting and sewing skills to the younger lassies of the family and they also became talented in this art, so much so that they would send away their finely knitted garments to mainland retail companies, and in return they would receive beautifully embroidered sheets, bed throws and many other household items.
This attractive little cottage with its bright red roof was made even prettier by the hand painted pebbles that framed one of the windows. They were the handy work of Bill Burles when he was courting Katie’s sister Rachel, who would later become his wife. One time, whilst on a cycling holiday to Harris with his brother Kenneth, Bill carried the stones he had previously collected in Canada in a back-pack all the way from Perth on mainland Scotland to Struparsaig. Bill had painted the names of each member of the family on a stone and on another stone he wrote “God”. The stones were all fixed down the sides of the window with the latter stone looking down on the others. These stones remained on the wall for many years afterwards, and although they eventually came away from the stone window-sill, they are still on the house site, fixed into a circle shape with the stone that has ‘God’ on it sitting in the centre.
On the rock face above the remains of the old dwelling, there are two plaques. The beautifully worded plaques were positioned on the rock by Bill, in memory of his beloved wife Rachel whose ashes in more recent years were scattered in and around the old family home in Struparsaig.
As Katie relaxes back in her chair, she slowly looks up and with a cheeky little smile and a glint in her eyes, she says, “Oh yes, there are plenty wonderful stories I could tell you about life in Struparsaig, but they will have to wait for another day.”
By Dona Johnson