Crofting Life and gathering sheep in Uig, Isle of Lewis
Preparation for a Lewis Fank Day, now means ensuring that quads and mobile phones are ‘topped’ up. In most areas, gone are the long days of trekking the moor on foot. With one man and his dog gathering wayward sheep over a large tract of rough moor land, allocated long ago as the designated village grazing. Not that long ago every crofting family had sheep grazing on the moor.
To gather the sheep on an extensive moor land area such as Uig on the West of Lewis was a mammoth task that needed careful planning. The village men turned to and worked together to complete the scheduled plan. Thereby saving time and labour, by trying to ensure each piece of moor land in the entire area was only walked once.
At shearing time in the summer and for separating the lambs from their mothers, in September, the Breanish and Islivig men, in the upper end of the district, spent three consecutive days gathering on their own villages’ grazing area. Then the Mangersta grazing’s around Cheann Chùisil in the middle of the moor was cleared.
The next gathering was for Ardroil or Capadal with the sheep taken all the way from their allocated moor land, to the fank at the Abhainn Dearg ,Red River. The crofters of the adjoining area known as Na Bàigh the villages of Geshader and Ungeshader, always supported the Capadal men on gathering day, as they too had stock on this moor land.
The men from Na Bàigh were collected at the crack of dawn and transported by the only bus in the area, Bus an Taillear. An Taillear travelled to Stornoway every day except Wednesday, which was traditionally the half day closing in the town. Therefore the Capadal fank, was always on a Wednesday.
On the Thursday nothing happened and crofters got a chance to catch up on the croft work. The next day, weather permitting, the villages of Crowlista, Aird, Valtos, Geshader, Ungeshader and Enaclete cleared their own designated moor.
At this gathering a stout lifeboat washed ashore at wartime in Camus Uig, came in handy, as it was moored on Loch Suàinabhat. At shearing time this boat did two trips, the length of the loch, carrying wool bales, people and dogs up to the pier belonging to Dickby the landlord.
Next day’s event was a well earned rest.
In 2005 one of the men who has been witness to the changes in this very necessary communal crofting activity, is eighty year old Finlay Maciver of Geshader, Uig. “All the gathering was continuous, to stop any sheep they may have missed from wandering, and it saved the men having to go over old ground”.
In Na Beannaimh the extensive mountainous area bordering Uig and Harris pastures, several days were required to meticulously search the steep moor around the head of Loch Resort.
The stretch of moor land from opposite Scarp to Gob na h-Àirde Mòire was the most difficult grazing to scour for animals and around 1952 the Valtos crofters fenced off one of the most difficult parts to traverse. The fence was from An Aonaig Ruadh near Loch Ealasaidh to Geàrraidh na h-Àirde Mòire.
Finlay continues “The Scarp people took the fencing materials by boat from Hushinish and landed them at both ends of the proposed route. A workforce from other townships were called on and I remember three of us left Geshader, on bicycles before five in the morning, to cycle to Morsgail. We had tea at nine o clock, at Gearraidh na h-Àirde Mhoire before beginning to take the fence posts the long steep climb up the bank.
We worked there all day till nine o’clock at night, when they chased us home. We were young and fit then, it was the height of summer and darkness did not fall.
We were back in Geshader by one in the morning.
When that fence was completed it saved a lot of bog trotting. Out of all the fence builders I am probably the only person left now”.
Finlay also remembers taking the sheep home from Luachair on the border of Harris, in late October early November, when the day was short. Having to travel out there in the darkness of the early morning to make maximum use of daylight hours. When the area was cleared and the animals secured in Crola fank, the married men went home to the villages.
The men that were single, remained as overnight guests in the three or four houses at Luachair as they were to walk back with the sheep the next day.
Finlay reminisced “I had some of the best ceilidhs of my life out there, particularly one time when I stayed in the gamekeeper’s house. Six of us had remained and it was
the only time I ever saw a peat fire in the middle of the floor. That was at Calum an ‘ic Asgaill’s house in the early 1950s.
When I opened the door I saw Calum an ’ic Asgail sitting in his socks by the cosy fire. Then I couldn’t see him, he’d disappeared in the smoke. But when I sat down, the blue peat smoke was above me and I could see him again perfectly. They were generous and hospitable people, serving endless cups of tea and telling the sheep gatherers great stories”
In 2010, seventy six year old John Buchannan of Valtos is one of the few traditional crofters left in the Uig district John says “ The moorland allocated to Valtos is probably the furthest distance from the any of the Uig villages, except perhaps for the grazings of the village of Crowlista.
For the Valtos gathering we used to leave Gisla and walked to Gob na h-Àirde Moire. I estimated this once as a distance of twelve miles, than we walked the sheep back to the fank at Gisla. This was before Hamnaway road was built in the 1990s, after the road came, it was easier to get to the Valtos moor”.
Also included in the Valtos village grazings, are the slightly closer to home, islands of Pabaidh, Pabaidh Bheag and Siaram. When the village used to hire a Department of Agriculture bull, each one came for a spell of three years. The bull over-wintered with a heifer for company, on Siaram from October to July, with the crofters maintaining a stone walled bothy for them, as shelter from the winter storms.
The excellent grazing on Pabaidh Bheag was and is still used, to fatten twenty one wedders from July till October each year. The rich grazings on Pabaidh has a souming of eight sheep and twelve yearlings, originally measuring the fertile ground into shares between the 40 crofts allocated in Valtos and surrounding area. In 2010 John Buchanan is one of the Valtos crofters who still transport sheep by boat to Pabaidh a couple of times a year.
Today there are less sheep grazing on the Uig moor, a landscape dotted with obscured ledges and hollows making sheltered hiding places for wayward sheep. Modern day shepherding is easier due to quads, powerful binoculars and mobile phones aiding the vision of the few eagle eyed men, maintaining the indigenous crofting tradition.
Recorded, translated and transcribed by Maggie Smith 2006