Am Bratach No. 324
by John MacDonald
Not all playmates of the early post-war years were blessed with the freedom to roam that was enjoyed by Wee Jimmy and me. One such was Bert. His defined boundaries, outwith which he dared not stray, comprised the lands surrounding his granny’s house, but a lot of fun could be had with a good stream, a bit of dense thicket, a couple of knolls and the duck house.
This structure was quite spacious and, as far as I can remember, devoid of occupants. It was well within the bounds of our imagination to see in its dark tarred timbers of overlapping slats and split swing door, the ideal cowboy bunkhouse. We were both, at that time, avid readers of Westerns and followed the exploits on radio of “Dick Barton, special agent,” with abounding devotion, while Bert would copy the surreal comedy of “The Goons,” who were in vogue at the time.
Music was a common ground and we both had a mouth organ from which we could take forth of a tune of sorts. But my eyes opened wide one day when I went over and there was Bert sitting on a chair by the fire playing a double row, black dot, Hohner accordion. “Wow!” Already, he was a dab hand at it and I recall that the tune he was playing was “The Atholl Highlanders”. I was not entirely new to this musical medium as Father had an old, rather battered single row melodeon with knob couplers on top. He occasionally took a tune out of it and, even more occasionally, when he found time and patience, endeavoured to teach me a tune. So while I was struggling with “Scots wha hae”, there was Bert in a different league.
Bert’s circumstances were the result of his parents occupying one of the more remote sheep holdings within the parish. It lay deep in the valley of the Upper Brora river, a green, open area of unlimited space, the only other house being that of the shepherd at Aultimult, directly across the strath.
The hillsides were strewn here and there with the moss-enshrouded stones of former buildings, the strath having been cleared in the early nineteenth century. Bert’s family, in common with many others, had been affected by this social upheaval and were unforgiving in the memory of it. Some seventy years later, Bert’s grandfather returned from working on building sites in New York. He took on the small sheep farm of Upper Grumby and, with the assistance of his brothers, built a spacious new farmhouse and steading and brought a spark of life once more into the interior.
On the plus side was the spacious freedom it enjoyed, but the down side was its access. While the homestead itself was sheltered, to get there necessitated a mile climb up from the end of the public road and then downhill a mile to the homestead. The top of the hill was the problem. Its summit lay just over 1,000 feet, making it one of the highest roads in the county and, as such, it was very exposed and frequently blocked for weeks on end with snowdrifts. The meadows were another concern, as they flooded easily and stock had to be taken off at short notice.
At that time, the customary method of educating children living in such out of the way places was to engage a resident teacher who would often be a bright young girl just out of school herself. And so it was with Bert and his brother Neil. However, after a year or two, his parents thought it best that he attend school in Rogart which, although over ten miles away, was only half a mile from where his granny lived. So to stay with his grandmother Bert went, with strict instructions to stay within bounds.
It was always my ambition to get Bert over to my patch as I had so much that I wanted to show to him, or perhaps it was to show off to him. Anyway, it never happened: he wasn’t allowed out of bounds except on school or other legitimate business, and certainly not to disappear like a will o’ the wisp on some dubious ploy.
Saturday was the day when I usually went over to play. You always got a welcome from Bert’s granny, and you certainly would not come away hungry. Her house was the standard croft house of the area, built probably on the site of an earlier thatched house, and on land which took away as little arable as possible. It had one feature which made it a bit special — it was built into the hard hillside and onto solid rock, so much so that this rock was in evidence on the north-east corner of her living room and presented a problem during very wet spells.
The passing years brought maturity and an introduction to adult duties. Jackie Mackay the post had been down visiting Father, for his usual haircut and ceilidh, and asked if I would give him a hand to take home his peats. Decision time: over to play with Bert or help Jackie? The peats won and I went up to Jackie’s place come the Saturday morning, picking up Wee Jimmy on the way. We met up with Jackie as he was turning into the hill in front of the library at Culdrain, heading over the burn which served the common grazings dipper, up past Jean Grant’s little croft and out into the hill road that led to the peat bank behind Cnoc na Har.
Jackie did not have a horse of his own, so he would borrow a neighbour’s when he wanted the use of one. Payment would be in kind — a hand given when needed. Other people would share a horse, but the problem with this system was that various bits of harness got spread around and I well remember Father expressing frustration as he spent valuable time searching the neighbourhood for a bridle, a saddle, collar or hems.
The weather was good and the day passed pleasantly, we enjoying the ride in the empty cart with the distinctive sound created as its iron-rimmed wheels rattled over the stones and rocks. Returning with the cart filled with peats, we did not wait to stack them once we got to Jackie’s house at Tote. The cart was just couped and away we went for another load. The important task was to get the peats home from the hill while the conditions were dry. To build a peat stack takes time and care and is a task reserved for another day.
The day went by and I returned home come the evening to have Mother tell me that “Bert had been over”. It was a sign that we were both growing up and that work was an optional activity. The duck house was looking rather small and had lost its appeal.