If you were brought up on a croft, in the Hebrides in the 1960s and 70s, the moorland was very much part of your extended landscape. The panorama of lochs, hillocks, streams and their Gaelic names became part of your psyche.
From a young age, one of your roles, in family life, was to gather, chase or shush cattle and sheep on a daily basis.
Hazy long summer evenings retrieving the cows from Loch a’ Chaoran and the long walk home through the heather to the croft, where the cow was milked by my mother, wherever the cow decided there was a tasty morsel. In the morning, after milking on another tulach, the cow would make her own way back to the sweet grass bordering Loch a’ Chaoran.
On village fank days, children played a minor part in the extensive moorland sheep gathering team. Watching the large white ribbon of sheep appear on a certain high point, you would set off, out the Blar, to meet the flock and the trusadh. Your job was to cajole, push, pull, those stragglers, the long in the head sheep, that had kept the wooly caravan from reaching the village, in the record time, set by the sprightly three year old wedders in the frontline….
Our sheep grazed on Scaparaid on the Mointeach a Deas, where Faing a Bhox was. One day as a child of about 11 or 12 ,I went to Scaparaid with my father to gather sheep and unbeknown to me there was the well known ciobair, called Malone from Callanish in the vicinity. Some years later as an adult, I met Malone again and every time I saw him, without fail, he would greet me with “Cuin a bha thu a Scaparaid?”
Even after his sight had failed, he was so keen to know that someone still walked that moorland grazing, he was so familiar with. He would enquire whether the grass was still plentiful. Whether there were many sheep grazing there and who’s sheep they were, what condition they were in, and if it had been a poor winter whether had they lost their fleece etc.
There was a mutual understanding of which gathering, would have taken me to Scaparaid depending on the time of year. Togail nan uan, dupadh, toirt dhachaigh nan caoraich, trusadh na seasgaich. Malone kept me on my toes, I had to store any news about the state of the grazing, muir burns and flooded areas, despite not having trudged to Scaparaid myself for years.
I felt I would let him down badly, if I didn’t have some Scaparaid updates. I am quite sure he knew full well that I had not been there myself, but we always managed to have a meaningful conversation having the shared Scaparaid experience so many years before.
Today I was reminded of Malone and some of the 1960/70s ciobairean we met as children, while we attended other village sheep fanks to collect our own beasts. As Achmore grazings are bordering the grazings of many other villages, we got to know other families, men and children, from the surrounding villages who also came to retrieve their own sheep in Achmore. Both from the fank’s comhndal pens, or our own croft pen, in the tobht, half way down the croft, with the individual sheep having to be dragged uphill to the roadside, no mean feat I can tell you.
With my father, John Murdo Eachainn, I used to go, on regular occasion to fanks in Lochganvich, Garynahine, Callanish, Linshadar, Laxay, Faing Cheois at Soval, Leurbost and Faing an Rudha on the Pentland Road. The bush telegraph having reported that one of our sheep with: green and magenta keel mark, the earmark “Barr taisgeil, beum os a chionn s geugan iosal taisgeal” and the 16 ACH brand in the horn had been sighted.
What an education it was, what networking, a time in my life which established lifelong friendships, with the children of men like, Calum Dan Callanish and Murdanie Linshader.Then Om Breasclete, Artair a Phaddy Callanish, Roddy Chalan Balallan and Iain Harry Callanish, all merchants, would appear with their grocery vans to collect their own one or two wandering sheep. Could you imagine that today?
This meander down memory lane, was sparked of by revisiting the Achmore grazings landmarks, as part of the Laraich project in recent weeks.
Laraich is a village, moorland and shore-line Gaelic place-names related project. I have been working on Laraich as part of Cabraich Community Arts in conjunction with the North Lochs Historical Society. The geographical area of interest are in the villages of Achmore, Crossbost, Grimshader, Leurbost, Lochganvich and Ranish and their respective grazings.
One of the project outcomes is a documentary film called Laraich, recorded and edited by Kenny Macleod MacHD of Ranish, which can be found on youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwI6wxEaTJ0.
A small exhibition of maps and place-name related stories, gathered from over thirty participants was available for viewing one day a month during January, February and March 2017 at the North Lochs Community Centre, Leurbost.
There is just the tip of the iceberg if we all lived to be one hundred, we would never be able to complete the maps and listings. Sadly today not many men walk the moorland gathering sheep, but those of you who do, please please record your knowledge one way or other, before that knowledge and our ties to the moorland places are lost forever.