Am Bratach No. 304
February 2017

View from the croft gate
by John MacDonald

Another year, and probably a false dawn for those of us looking for a year of peace from mankind-induced tragedy. We can but hope. On the croft front everything has been very quiet, as has been the weather. The named storms seem to have given us a miss, and for that we are truly thankful. Quite satisfying to see on the telly news reporters braving the elements with umbrellas as they attempt a broadcast while we can look outside and say, “well, it’s not raining here.” But I had best not tempt providence.

The animals are faring well, with the sheep going for the wrapped haylage, of which we have a good supply. They were glad to get off the parks where we had them over the tupping period and get loose on the bit of hill ground that we have.

We were very glad that the weather was benign over the New Year period and not only from a crofting perspective. We had put word around that we were planning one of our Heritage Music events in the old school. That unleashes problems (“will the weather be open?”), the school being in what is called “the top of the parish”, a very exposed spot were one of the snowy spells which used to mark New Years of old decide to return for 2017. The next problem is who will turn up and how many. But, as usually happens, everything fell into place and all went well with an excellent night of music. Getting the old open fire well stoked up set a good atmosphere which, along with new curtains, helped to keep the draught at bay and the place cosy. I like to think of it as good heritage in that we seemed to capture the atmosphere that prevailed at such events pre-1960 and before the arrival of modern media. We do not charge admission, but a raffle attracts donations and covers expenses. Tea depends on what people contribute and usually there is more than enough. Booze rules are relaxed and plain common sense, neither neglected nor exploited.

The old ceilidh nights were ruled by the Master of Ceremonies. There were always people whom you could depend on to be there and give the event backbone by providing a song or playing an instrument. Once a ceilidh gets warmed up a good MC will entice a turn from members of the audience should he get the hint that a latent talent is there to be tapped. Often this brings surprising results, e.g. “I never knew so and so could sing.” Anyway, our music evening went well, and it was nice to have some of the youngsters of the parish participate and to pass on to them the ceilidh atmosphere which we used to enjoy when I was of their age. I think that one or two were a bit apprehensive of the BBC chaps recording proceedings, but assurances were given in that if you did not wish your contribution to be recorded, that was respected. Not that it mattered, the BBC were there to document a year on the croft of our neighbours, visiting at specific periods, and obviously this was the “what happens at New Year” spot. So our ceilidh will probably just be used to set the atmosphere. Time will tell. I just hope that they give us a decent long shot of our neighbour playing his fiddle along with his talented daughter on her cello.

Apart from that, New Year passed quietly, with no attempt by me to wind the years back and hold things in the “old style,” although we did call in on immediate neighbours. Then things went downhill when my cold turned into bronchitis or something similar. All energy disappeared. Fortunately the antibiotics seem to be working and I have found the strength to turn on the computer. But I doubt if antibiotics will help look for a topic to write about. I just wonder if the flu jab was any good. But perhaps without it my cold would have turned into full-scale flu and then you would not need an article: an obituary would do.

With spare time to pass, thoughts turn to tasks to keep me occupied which do not require much physical exertion. Foremost must be some of the heritage projects that are long on the back burner. One such regards a series of letters which were sent home by a local lad from the Boer War. They provide a window on this period, so often overshadowed by the subsequent 1914-18 war. I have in mind to write the story from the letters, then get someone to relay onto it where the story fits into the history of the war and round it off with someone playing the fine pipe airs that were being composed at that time.

Our soldier had been a ghillie in Ben Armine before he left to join the Seaforths and wondering what John Mackay had to say when he heard of him signing up. The Lovat Scouts arrive on the scene and among them are names from our parish past with which I can still identify. Indeed, I remember some of them. It is interesting to have him write about these old worthies and his opinion of them. He is trying to get a transfer to the Scouts as they get almost double his pay. He is writing to his younger brother who is a ghillie in neighbouring Loch Choire. In the letter that I am at present typing out he is lying in the Veldt and rather wistfully writes that he wishes he were back at the season.

“What women are at Loch Choire this year,? Chummy Bella McRae, Pockets, I would like to take a flying visit, if I could, for a feed of beer and venison. (The beer most preferable.) I would like a good drink, just to see how it feels to have a spree. We get rum every night now on the march and that helps to brighten us up a bit, for it is horribly cold and stormy weather here just now.” Has anyone an idea who “Pockets” could be? By-names often outlive the person and get passed on to the next generations. Whoever Pockets was, I suspect that he was one of the regular Loch Choire ghillies. Chummy Bella would be the gamekeeper’s daughter. It makes fascinating reading. It’s a pity that my father is not still around; he would enjoy it. Another extract is a foretaste of what the British Army will face some twelve years hence: “One of our generals in command of a column lost four big guns last week and I don`t know of the time that they may be used against ourselves. To make it worse two pom-poms are in the captured lot. They are the real terror of the war for the fearful damage. I would rather face the fire of a whole battery of guns than one pom-pom.” The Pom-Pom was an early design of machine gun.

I had best shoot off now.

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