I was deeply touched by all the lovely welcoming words for Erin on my last post. I am sure she will be featuring quite heavily in this space from now on. I realise from some of the comments, that, in my starry-eyed and dazed state, I did not really clarify the family dynamics, so I will do so now. It does mean more pictures of Erin, but really, there can never, ever be enough. So, here is Erin's family.
Her parents. Karen and Daniel - my elder daughter and her husband.
Her big brother, Finlay - my grandson. Three years old on Saturday.
Her Papa and Gran (John and I)
Her Uncle Kenneth, Aunt Kristine and Uncle James, my younger children
Her Great Grandfather - my dad, Kenneth.
Uncle Kenneth's girlfriend, Louise, was also there to welcome her home.
And she carries her Great Grandmother's name, Helen, alongside her own.
It's not as if we have a huge flock to herd around. I mean - it's only two sheep! How hard can that be?
Hmmm - with zero shepherding experience between us - okay, John had a summer holiday job on a hill farm in 1971 but .... the nearest we normally get to our pair of lovely ladies is shown above.
Sometimes, though, you have to get a bit closer - feet have to be inspected, drenches have to be given, and fleeces have to be sheared. So, after several months of a semi-wild existence, it was time get them used to being herded and handled.
Observing a neighbour being followed by her large herd of Hebridean sheep, I asked how she had managed that feat. She said it was all done with a bucket of barley meal. Off we went to the Crofter's co-op and returned with a fine red trug and a bag of barley. Mixing a handful in with some of their hay, we headed down the field. They were intrigued - definitely! Slowly they approached, then Maddie Mor cautiously went to investigate - closer - slowly - is she going to....nope - she's off!
But we came two or three times a day, with our red barley bucket, left it in the same place, and departed - no pressure girls. And pretty soon, they came running up when we climbed the fence, and happily tucked in. Always Maddie Mor first - sussing out the menu, then stepping back to allow Maddie Beag a taste.
Once they were happy with these arrangement, we introduced a set of hurdles - very cunning. But they seemed to accept these new additions to the field decor, and ignored them. Success - now it was time for some action! A liver fluke drench has to be given at this time of year, so on Monday morning we headed down to the croft with a dosing gun and a determined air.
Merrily they came trotting up and soon busied themselves in the barley. Softly, softly we closed the gate. They looked up, concerned, and started to look around for the way out. We looked at each other nervously with a "What do we do now?" expression (you can't see that in the shadow, but I'm sure you can imagine).
"We can do this - we are health professionals" said the bold John, as he louped the fence and tried to catch hold of what were now white blurry streaks whirling round and round the pen. I stood by helplessly waving the syringe around, waiting...
But not for long. It may have been 40 years ago, but the shepherd boy is still in there. And, like giving your first injection, the second one is always easier! Phew -we had done it - another step along the road. Can't wait until shearing time now. Well - thereby will hang another tale :)
And they are still talking to us, so no hard feelings. Aren't they gorgeous girls?
We awoke to a beautiful morning; clear, cold and still. We have learned that here, we must take advantage of the weather right away, as later may be just too late, so with a few jobs to be done while the sun shone, we headed down early to the croft.
Collecting seaweed has been on the agenda for a few weeks now. The shore around the township is deep in seaweed, cast up from the Winter storms. In fact, there are a few Winter's worth here, as no-one seems to gather it in anymore. This surprises me a bit, as it is such a rich source of nutrients and is alkali too, so excellent for our slightly acidic soil. Traditionally this was one of the first tasks of the crofting year - gathering the seaweed to compost for a short while, before spreading on the field.
As we came down the hill past the shore, we noticed that the tide was out and the beach was frozen. The beauty of the ice on the seaweed and the glassy water was breathtaking. being here just makes me feel so alive! But, no tarrying - we had other jobs to do first, so on we went.
And - task accomplished, (but more on that in another post), back we went to the beach with our various trugs and fish boxes to collect our treasure. Another tangible connection with the past is the tool collection that was left in the barn. I love to think that the last hands that touched these (rather lethal) implements was Dubhghall himself. They certainly did the job! We all worked away, slipping and slithering around, gathering in this bounty. In the past, the seaweed would be loaded into creels, which the womenfolk would fasten to their backs, with a strap around their head, and carry them up the hill to their blackhouses.
We now have a very large pile of seaweed in our compost bay, beside an equally large pile of rotted horse manure. In a couple of months time, this should be a wonderful mixture to add to the crop beds.
I forgot to take a picture of the compost bay, so to make up for that disappointment - here is a picture of the office instead.
I have mentioned the old barn on the croft before. We intend to renovate it as a working part of the croft. It is a long building with a living room at the far end, a storage area with a couple of animal stalls in the larger end - a fairly typical arrangement, and one we will probably stick with.
The room at the far end may have originally been an actual family living area, but latterly it was used as a weaving shed.
We did know this, and indeed most of the crofts would have had weaving sheds complete with looms at some point. In fact, our neighbour from across the road, who is a woman in her 30s, said she still finds it strange on Summer nights not to hear the sound of the looms. Now, there is only one weaver left in the village.
A few days ago, as we were pottering around outside the barn, clearing the path, a man came walking along the road. He is a local builder and was working at a house up the road. He said his father had worked for the weaver here, as a boy, setting up the warper, and he wondered if the warping frame was still in the shed. Of course it was - and he was delighted. He explained to us how the warp threads were arranged on to this frame and then transferred to the loom. It was wonderful to have such a live connection to the past, and to imagine the work that went on in that very room. We were left with the delightful feeling that, here we are, yet another colour being woven into the warp and weft of the history of this croft.
A subtly different shade, perhaps - a slight variation in the design, maybe,
but still in tune with the colours and patterns of the land.
So much has been happening on the croft in the last few weeks - good things - so it is time to step off the wheel take stock, and share some of the goings on
Fencing and drainage are the biggest priorities, and we have accepted quotes for this work from local men - a father and son. Some jobs are best left to the men with the proper machinery. Good stockproof fencing is certainly required - especially since we will be growing crops. New gates and improved access to the fields will also make a big difference.
We have two fields - the top field and (surprise) the bottom field. Although this year we will grow on the top field, and keep the sheep on the bottom (until they go back up the hill) - we do intend to rotate. Our predecessor, who regularly used to win the award for best kept croft at the local show, when he was 'at himself'', grew on both fields.
Both fields are arranged in a pattern of rigs, or - feannags, which are formed by drainage ditches. The land is a mildly acid soil - lots of peat, but on a clay base. Both fields slope downwards, so as you near the bottom, there are a great many rushes, and the ground is marshy.
We have had no shortage of advice, and everyone assures us that good ditching should bring the land back into production, and we will be able to deal with the rushes easily. Watch this space to see how that works out!
And we are getting some help with the cultivation! These chaps are happy to come along, and for free board and lodging, they will plough, dig, root up, and fertilise enough ground for us to grow some vegetables and oats this year. They belong to one of the neighbouring crofters, but they will be living with us for now.
Talking of growing oats, I have been in touch with a lovely lady from the Machair Life project - based mostly on the Uists. She has very kindly put me in contact with one of the crofters there, who will supply me with some native oat seed. Although this is not likely to keep us going in porridge, it will be interesting to see how it does. It also ties in nicely with another project that we are planning for this year.
Bees! Oh yes. Not the bumble bee as pictured, but honey bees. I have ordered two nuclei from a wonderful beekeeper near Inverness, who assures me that bees should do well enough here. I will get my bees in the Summer. Indeed there are already several beekeepers on the island, and a couple of week ago, I went to my first meeting of the Lewis Beekeeping Association - lots happening there.
Ciamar a tha sibh? Tha mi ag ionnsachadh gaidhlig. (How are you? I am learning Gaelic) Yes, I have gone to my first Gaelic class in a nearby community centre. Along with eleven other beginners I managed to get my head and tongue around some easy conversational phrases, among lots of fun and laughter. My husband has been learning for over ten years and is fluent enough to attempt speaking to some of our neighbours in the 'language of heaven.' James (or Seumas as he is known here) has been enjoying going along to a Gaelic playgroup. At lunch today he told us off for asking if he wanted milk. "At the croilligean we say bainne!" I will have to run to keep up with the conversation methinks.
And all that spinning around? Well - here is a tangible result. My very first ball of handspun yarn. The lovely and very kind Dawn, who writes the beautiful blog - Raising Seedlings, sent me a fat parcel full of zwartbles fleece, some ready carded for spinning. I had been struggling with my wheel and frustration was setting in, when I discovered a spinning and woolcraft group meeting not far from where we live. I went along, and was warmly welcomed by everyone: there are some extremely talented and creative ladies there. At the meeting, one of the members gave a demonstration of felting, and showed some amazing creations - slippers, hats, wall hangings. So inspirational. And they helped me with my spinning technique! Just to have someone sit with me and give a few pointers, and I was away. So - my first wool - not bad. I am assured I will get better - and I will.
So - what next? Well, trying to tame these two wild sheep is next on the agenda. We have to give them their fluke and worm dose, and check their feet. At the moment, all we have seen is their feet disappearing away over the park at a very fast pace, so.... Well - plenty photos of distant white dots on green coming up soon.
We are waiting for a storm to hit the Hebrides this afternoon. Winds of up to 90mph are forecast. It feels as if the whole island is battened down, ready and just - waiting... Public buildings are closed, schoolchildren home early, just - waiting...
No one is about - everyone snugly inside - waiting.... I spoke to someone is South Uist on the telephone this morning. Her first question was - "How is the wind there?" We are all, together - waiting...
We have candles and torches ready, peats brought in, blankets to snuggle into. And now we hunker down in the East facing side of the house. We read books, play and knit. We eat warming parsnip, rosemary and bay soup, make pictures in the fire, listen to music on the radio...