Another Man’s Croman

(A belated tribute to the late Eachann Dòmhnallach)

I like a laugh as much as the next miserable Calvinist, if only to take my mind off the doctrine of predestination for a minute. Any longer would be too long, even in the context of eternity. Unfathomable immortality may lie before me, but it’s still a sin to waste any of it on frivolity. 

It was in this grudging spirit that I dislodged ‘A View from North Lochs’ from the bookcase where it had been languishing, and took a flip through. Well, it fairly brought me back to the days when I would, as a geeky teenager, eagerly buy my illicit copy of the WHFP purely for Hector Macdonald’s offbeat look at island life. I had seen him once, shaking his fist at an SNP election cavalcade of which I was part, but he otherwise maintained – for me – an air of mystery and legend. He was smart and funny, with a voice that was nothing if not authentic.

Also subversive. A radical, if you will. And even if you won’t. Indeed, especially if you won’t, for isn’t that the way with radicals?

One of my favourite things about him was the way he managed to be a voice for the maws. Any Leòdhasach over a certain age knows that for long enough particular things ran unquestioningly along established lines. Certain roles were to be fulfilled by townies of a specific caste – it was not merely enough to be born within the samh of taigh nan guts and òcrach Bheinn na Dròbha, but it was a start. You certainly couldn’t have the country Maoris with their turned-down wellies traipsing into the town hall or clarting the carpets of Amity House with  anything unmentionable.

Eachann poked fun at this attitude without mercy. He feigned an exaggerated humility and tugged his forelock in such a way that one knew, somehow, exactly what he really thought. Don’t imagine, however, that this was wanton iconoclasm. In those heady days before the faceless nastiness of social media, this man had the art of satirising without giving gratuitous offence. 

And, as I reread the collected columns, published by Birlinn a number of years after his death, something else came back to me. Last week, in the course of my day job, I had to garner a view from Kinloch. (They will honestly do anything to try and provoke my resignation, but I stand firm). This latter-day Lochie commentator had useful insights to offer on the past and present of the crofting community. One thing really stood out, however.

We talk of schemes to regenerate the crofting community and the Gaelic community . . . and in the process, we overlook the common denominator. All these earnest attempts to revive the language and keep an historic system of land tenure alive, they fail to take account of the way in which community has changed.

One of the proofs that what I say is true is the ebbing away of island humour.
Not long ago, I tried to persuade a neo-crofter that he should keep his hens (I may have called them ‘chickens’ to ensure he understood me) to himself, and that if I was the kind of deviant who wanted hens, I’d get some of my own. He has taken the notion of ‘free-range’ to include my weed-killer infested property, so if the egg consumers of Tolsta start to display odd traits (sorry, odder), you’ll know why.  Not totally au fait with the notion of personal responsibility, he replied unconvincingly that he’d try. I, in turn, suggested that a man who is outwitted by hens probably shouldn’t have any in the first place, lest they overpower him with their superior intellect.

This gentle rejoinder was greeted by apoplexy of the sort normally reserved for hauliers ringing the Calmac booking line. He didn’t get island humour. Of course, why would he? And clearly he thinks that’s the worst I’ve got, so I’ll try to be gentler. Any crofter who wears a safety helmet on a quad probably should be handled with sensitivity, right enough.

I’d have had more respect for him if, instead of throwing a hissy fit, he’d replied as the other fellow did when his neighbour complained of a similar feathery invasion.

‘Tha na cearcan agaibhse staigh an seo a-rithist agus ag ith biadh nan cearcan againne’, the first maw complained.

‘O, tha mi a’ creids’ – tha iad glè bheag umhail mar sin’.

People don’t think of others like they used to, relate to others like they used to or, dare I say, know one another like they used to. It’s ironic that when it was merely ‘sa bhaile againne’, we were more of a community; and now that we no longer know or care for each other as we did, we just can’t stop using the word, ‘community’. 

I’m not all that sure who it is we’re trying to convince. What I do know is that most of the wisest people I’ve ever met had the same answer for dealing with the common or garden amadan – laugh at him. Whether he is an amadan sporting the chains of high office, an amadan with a pen, or an amadan on a grazings committee, he is underneath it all, just an amadan. 

And in a community like ours, we’ve all been the amadan at some point. Some come from a long line of amadain, others strike out for themselves. It would be nice if we could remember that, and learn how to laugh at ourselves – and each other – without it causing a fence.

Life Should Mean Life

My employers, in their wisdom, decided that I should learn the dark art of genealogy, believing that it would augment the other subjects I teach. They would not listen as I protested, tears streaming down my cheeks, and they turned aside from my plaintive cries of, ‘my grandfather was a Hearach, I don’t need to know any more’. Nothing else would do but that I should be forced to gaze upon the full horror of my own private gene pool, without so much as benefit of clergy.

The clergy, as it turns out, would be no good anyway. I confided in the minister on Sunday that I had been wading in the murkiness of my ancestry. He told me that he had discover a forebear of his own was someone fairly horrifying. My best guess was Genghis Khan, but he shook his head solemnly, ‘worse, even, than that’.

And so, if the person I might otherwise have turned to for counselling is, himself, traumatised by the past, what am I to do? I am left to confront the worst that Miavaig, Achmore and (whisper it) Ranish, have to offer.

To be honest, I had approached this research with some trepidation and not because of my mother’s bizarre network of Deasaich and Lochies. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re descended from werewolves and move on.

It was my father’s side that was causing the real concern. He was the product of my granny’s liaison with a man she met while working at the herring fisheries in Fraserburgh. All my life, he had been a taboo, an unmentioned and unmentionable shadow; he was a gap in the family tree and likely to remain so.

Still, I had a few clues. Armed with those, I went looking in earnest last week, and found more than I ever expected. He married six months before my father was born – another lady who was also expecting his child. Tracing back from there, I discovered that his own mother had a child to another man before finally marrying my great-grandfather.

So much personal and social turmoil in one line – and so many repetitions of that hateful word: illegitimate.

I realise that it was a legal term, but it carried so much weight of disapproval in society that the child could be forgiven for thinking that he or she was indeed ‘not lawful’. But, then, that all depends on whose law we are following.

When I try to imagine how hard it must have been for my granny to tell her parents of her condition, in Doune in 1927, my heart goes out to her. She had to face their disapproval and disappointment, while also facing up to her own fear, and the heartbreak of finding out that the man she had hoped to marry was married to someone else.

And I wonder, if it was now, whether she would just quietly book herself into a clinic, and end the life she was carrying. Would she be crushed by her mother’s anger, devastated at being made unwelcome in the family home? Or, would the thought of gossip in the small village where everybody knew each other drive her to blot out the mistake as quickly and as cleanly as she could?

See, there are many who would say that, had that option been open to her, it would have been my grandmother’s right to take it. Her body, her choice.

But, she did not have the option, and so she had to suffer all those things I mentioned. It could not have made for an easy life, but neither did it kill her. It’s said that, when she bravely went to seek baptism for her baby boy, the minister was kind. The fact that I even know that speaks volumes. There would have been precious little kindness, little softness in how she was met, as someone who had so spectacularly breached the rules of society.

She weathered the storm. My father not only survived his upbringing, but grew into a man that any mother could be proud of. He was a good father to his sons and his daughters, a good husband to his wife, and a very kind human being. It was not unusual for people to turn up at our house, just to thank my father for how he had dealt with their loved ones when they had been in his care.

He was actually, for me, the epitome of human dignity. Not just because of his own character, but because of how it was formed. Unplanned, illegitimate, inconvenient – but a life, with all the potential that holds. My granny could probably only see the heartbreak of her own dashed hopes, her ruined reputation, and the expense of another mouth to feed. Who knows what all that pressure might have led her to do, had she been due in 2018, instead of 1928.

Nobody knows what the child in the womb might become.

John the Baptist recognised his Saviour, and leapt for joy, though they were both as yet unborn. Life is precious from the moment it is conceived, and its destiny belongs only in the hands of its Creator. It may be inconvenient, it may be frightening, it may be painful, it may be difficult.

But, then, that’s the point of this wonderful life – in God’s hands, it may be anything.