My Island Sheep-Farm
A December Scene in Lewis


At this time of year I am tempted to tell you something about the old sheep-farm at Galson, where the tall, massive chimneys that rise loftily above the gray lichened roofs, and the blue peat smoke that curls up from them, are to the passerby the only indications that, in the mossy-green and sward-covered hollow near the sea, there lies anything in the nature of a human habitation.

Galson always seems to me to be so many miles from anywhere. I suspect that this is really its charm; it is, in fact, a place apart—a place where, in the depth of winter, when the long hours of darkness are stretched out like a pall over the bleak, sombre moorland, there is a muteness that is only disturbed by the soughing of the wind through the frost-stiffened reeds that fringe some peat-stained pool, or by the babble of the swollen mountain streams in winter spate.

It is here that not so very long ago dwelt my dear Gaelic friend, lain MacGhille Mhuire, am Piobar, the piper; and it is a real piper that he is!

Many were the winter ceilidhs we held round lain’s cosy fireside; and many were the tales of old Scotland that he told us, as we sat well into the small hours of the morning, sipping at odd moments from the plenteous supply of milk that stood unfailingly, and by a sort of prescriptive title, on the edge of an ancient mahogany sideboard near at hand.

And I remember an afternoon in December, when one of the shepherd lads came in with the disconcerting news that three sheep had gone astray; and, och, och, mo thruaighe! off we set with lain to look for his sheep among those wild places, wherein there was no evidence of any life, except for the coveys of grouse and the winter-coated ptarmigan that in search of food sped lowly and swiftly over the swampy moorland.

I can recall, too, our delight when, after having picked our way for a couple of hours across a sleet-sprent track that seemed to have no ending, we at last descried the missing sheep, and sent Caileag of the fleet feet bounding over the hillside to bring them back to the fold, for night was quickly approaching, and the wind was piercingly cold.

And as we came down near the sandy, coney-burrowed terraces by the seashore, the fiery sun, suspended like an orange-red ball of light in the misty and overclouded sky, was gently sifting down into the west, whither over windless seas of gold and emerald and sapphire the great Grail Galley was yearly bearing the souls of the blessed into the light of everlasting day.

When night had fallen, and I again found myself seated by a ruddy peat-fire in the old farmhouse, there flashed at regular intervals across the tiny western window the pale gleamings of two lighthouses—one on the Flannan Isles far out in the Atlantic, and the other at the Butt of Lewis. And the quietness and the loneliness were only emphasised by the neighing of the ‘white horses’ that shattered themselves in a thousand splinters on the rocks and foam-drenched sands a few hundred yards away, and by the fretful and plaintive cry of the seabirds, that wheeled peevishly and disconsolately around the shore.

And, as I was falling asleep, I could hear the shrill siren of a great liner on its way from America to some eastern port, and the throbbing of the engines of a persistent little tramp steamer that felt her way through the drizzling mist and the darkness.

That night I dreamed of the pilot and of the lowly pillow of the sailor far, far at sea; and in my dreaming ear there sang a dulcet sea-music, whose harmony was fraught as with some tender memory of bygone years, and whose cadence was like unto that of an old fragrant psalm-tune long since unsung.

And in the morning I arose, fresh and invigorated, and with a renewed veneration for those who go down to the sea in ships.


Alasdair Alpin MacGregor