Guest Writers

This is one of a large number of Scottish related articles by Guest Writers which have been added to Rampant Scotland. The pages were previously part of the "Scottish Radiance" Web site and there are many more articles in this series being added over a period of months.

Memories of Northton - and My Grandfather

By Christine Cleal

Background to the author: Christine Cleal, is from South Africa. She was born in London to a Harris man and an Englishwoman. Eventually she went to live in the Hebrides as a small girl, attended Northton, Manish and Sir E Scott, before going on to Inverness and getting a degree at Glasgow University. Her family emigrated to Australia, while she went to Zimbabwe and South Africa. She teaches History and English in a Girls' High school in Stellenbosch at the Cape. Her interests are theatre, drama, and the Hebrides PLUS going on safari. After the cows nothing on four legs has ever frightened her. She married a Zimbabwean who does not mind being dragged off to game parks and the Hebrides. Two of her aunts still live in Harris and she has lots of cousins there. Her uncle Neil Macdonald was the first curator of the Museum of Culloden Moor, and is an amateur historian and genealogist. He inspired her to start putting the family story into print.

Memories of Northton - and My Grandfather

I went back to the island in July. It was almost exactly forty years since I first set foot on Harris, and thirty years after I left it for greener, but not dearer pastures. As we drove into Northton, I remembered... (Graphic of Northton on the right by Dave Fergusson via Wikimedia)

My grandfather's house still stands halfway down the road. He has been gone these thirty years, and my cousins live there now. Electricity and running water have arrived, but the dog rose that bloomed so sweetly in the little garden has gone, and so have the children.

Children - so few of them now. Long ago the little school housed a gaggle of children of every age from five to twelve. I remember my first day there, and for all the wrong reasons. It was the first time I had seen a child beaten at school. In the years to come I was to see plenty of corporal punishment, and to gain an aversion to education that was to last until adolescence. But indeed, there were other reasons for wishing myself outside the walls! Northton, to me and my ever-enlarging family, was a paradise where larks rose in the flowery machair, and the white beaches beckoned; where my father gathered cockles for family feasts, and we danced barefoot into endless summers. Coming from the grimy streets of postwar Newcastle, I was gripped by an enchantment that still holds me.

There was, of course, my grandfather, dignified in his dark suit and his cap (weekdays), and his bowler (Sundays). Chewing, and occasionally smoking his pipe, he ruled his household with a rod of iron, but hiding, I know now, a heart of purest putty. How else could he have put up with a dozen grandchildren not only in summer, but sometimes at Christmas as well? And eight of them English speaking into the bargain! He fascinated me. I would stare at him with the unblinking stare of childhood, for he was blind in one eye, and the opaque milkiness was a source of fascination that never palled. He bore the scrutiny with patience, but occasionally I could see something like a grin behind the tobacco smoke.

The world knew when grandfather had woken up. A bellow like a wounded buffalo echoed through the house - and usually the village. "I-I-I- na-a-!" My teenage aunt would eventually emerge with the tea, or look for the cow, or drag us out of whatever mischief we were inventing.

When he - or she- had had quite enough of us, there were always the cows. In those days every crofter had one or two, for without their milk we were condemned to Evaporated, or, worse still, National Dried. We had two, Morag and Peggy, and I was terrified of them. To a city bred child, they were the size of elephants, and one only had to shake her head at me, and I would take to the hills with a turn of speed that Sebastian Coe might have envied.

As I had a complete aversion to physical activity, I always had a delighted audience. Cocky English kid bites the dust! Anyway, Grandfather's command: "Fetch the cows!" came, like cod liver oil, with dreadful inevitability. The cows spent their days on the machair at the end of the village, when they weren't snatching à la carte in my grandfather's prized corn field. As the afternoon waned, my sister Flora and I would set off. After a couple of diversions such as throwing jellyfish at one another, or seeing how far I could get Flora down a rabbit hole, we would engage the enemy. Stage one was sneaking round to outflank them, stage two was to get Flora, a born victim to my miniature Napoleon, to shoo them in the right direction. Not always willingly (every cow was a bull to Flora), she would oblige, and the whole herd would move into the village, each cow making for her own residence - the malodorous byre without which no croft was complete.

Not ours! Of course, to city children, all cows look alike, and the only way we knew which were ours was when the last two had got to the far end of the village and were making their way into some one's corn for an alfresco snack. And there was always some terrible old man, yelling strange Gaelic curses and shaking his stick at us and the cows impartially.

Application to headquarters was duly made, and I know where I got my problem solving genes from. As Morag and Peggy departed next morning,round one of each was a ribbon, pink for Morag and brown for Peggy.

Rest well, Donald, son of Neil; Donald, son of young Mary, as you lie in peace beside the sands of Scarista, below the church you served so well. I am bringing my grandchildren to your island and only hope they can share just a part of the paradise you made for me.

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