r2vyln3rdioj14u-rld0ska where mountains meet the sea: December 2010


Hogmanay! I turned on the wireless and listened to the habble of excited crowds milling round in a city square and I turned it off again to hear the silence. The clock ticked into it irrevocably, like drops of water wearing the year away. The kettle hummed and was silent again, as if regretting its momentary conversation. It was five minutes to twelve.I opened the door to let the old year go, and stepped towards the loch. The black water was like a dish of stars stirred with a giant's spurtle. It "lapped" with a crisp sound as if it were more alive than usual, yet no breath of wind disturbed the air. The woods that arise abruptly above my little cottage were obviously waiting, with a million twig-hands upheld to receive unquestioningly what the new year might bring. A lone oyster-catcher gave a sharp disturbing cry, "Bi glic, bi glic"(be wise), sound advice.

Again there was silence except for the gentle swish of the water, but something moved. At first I could neither identify nor locate the sound, then I realised that it came from a bunch of bracken on the mound beside me, and I knew who it would be. I tried to be as completely immobile as the rock on which I sat; then I saw her, the roe deer who brings her Bambi every spring to drink at my well. The moon outlined her slight form, her delicate little head turned in my direction, but she did not flee; she stood there expressing faith in our mutual kindliness. I wonder if she too feels the drama of the turning year?

A cloud passed over the face of the moon and when I looked again she had disappeared. Somehow she had given the night a legendary quality, as if the black Morvern hills remembered the hind that was the mother of Ossian. I felt suddenly small in the immensity of the night, in the infinity of history, on a star among stars in the profundity of space. The doe and I were insignificant atoms suspended in wide, deep, peace. A breeze ran up the loch, the trees whispered, and right across the firmament, like a finger drawn across a darkened pane, a meteor streaked. So came the new year to the western Highlands.

Wendy Wood, excerpt From a Highland Croft (1952)

a Highland Christmas

I have been up the wood to get my Christmas decorations. I am sorry for people who have to buy their evergreens in a shop. The wood always invites. Its fascinating depths draw one on, over boulders, up rocks, with always the brotherly trees to touch, each an individual though standing among thousands. As for decorations, there are plenty of holly trees, some a hundred years old, their smooth grey trunks contrasting with the dark glossy leaves. There are few berries this year, yet one tree is so covered that it shines out scarlet. Some of the oak trees appear at a distance to be in full leaf, till you are close enough to see that it is ivy that clothes them. I also gathered some moss, for I never cease to delight in its softness and in its bright green fronds like tiny faerie ferns. The Douglas firs seemed to be spreading down their dark branches as if they asked to be picked and wanted to come into the house to be a part of the happiness that is Christmas.

It was dusk when I arrived back with my arms full of greenery, and with a specially large branch of holly without berries to hang over the cottage door. I say "without berries" because one year I put a magnificent branch covered with berries over the door, and the whole hen tribe concluded that it was a Christmas gift for them and flew up to feast off it. The big cock caused a tremendous uproar as he climbed rather than flew up for his share of the spoils, and people coming to the door in the gloaming might have thought that they had let off a burglar alarm. On Christmas Eve, when the candles are lit, when the kettle is boiling on a log fire, when the cards on the mantelpiece look like fluttering butterflies bearing good wishes, Christmas is something to say "thank you" for indeed.

I cannot believe that townspeople get half as much of the reality of Christmas as we do who dwell in the country. It is true that their festivity begins sooner with shopping and last longer with pantomimes. They have a variety of friends and neighbours which we well might envy, but how far from their daily life a real Christmas card depicting the stable and manger must seem. To them it may be a miracle that happened in an unfamiliar place, to us it is the completion and fulfilment of our daily darg. The shadow of the byre, the sweet milky odour of the cow, the friendliness of the beasts, the rustle of straw, are shared by the everlasting miracle of motherhood and childhood, and the message which the diplomats still cannot swallow, "i give you a new commandment; love one another, even as I love you".

Everything in a byre sings of generosity. The free herbage of spring and summer went to the making of the calves, and they were no mean gift in themselves. The seaweed and dung that went on the hayfield was free. In my case, as on many another croft, the assistance with the cutting of the hay was freely given. The bracken in which the cows are so warm and dry and comfortably bedded grew free upon the hill. The cows freely give their milk for drink, for butter, for crowdie. Above all, from grip to rafter there is the warm and simple affection between beast and man.

I am sure that Mary had many a drink of warm milk straight from the cow, and that the Bairn would profit from it. The first sounds that Christ would hear would be the deep breathing of the cow and the rustling noise as she nosed among her portion of hay for the best bits. The sound of the milk "pinging" into the pail would often be his lullaby, and the contented grunt a cow gives as she lies down to chew the cud. But the most complacent cow will give an occasional bellow that would scare a child the first time. I wonder how long in His life He remembered that sound? I very much doubt whether the full inn with its stir of strangers would have been half as kindly a birthplace for the Bonny Bairn as the homely byre.

Wendy Wood, excerpt From a Highland Croft (1952)

Tales of the Ceilidh House

Though the wind of the wolf-days should blow
With all the keeness of a snell north wind,
Though the snow should stack against wall and the banks,
Though like steel it should lock on the top of the hills -
Nothing will keep us from the Ceilidh House
Where song, tale and rhyme will be heard.

Though rain should come ferociously in squalls,
Though sleet and hail hammer from the skies -
Nothing, not flood, nor deluge will hold me back!
Nor will there be tiredness or gloom about any one of us
When the stories begin - and from the seat by the fire
We hear the rich calm voice of the seanchaidh.

The genealogy of our people will be uttered,
The history of clan and family recited.
There will be debate about the places and process
Of fishing, about the hardship and skill
Of the fisherman's art on the water -
Talk about mishaps and drownings at sea -
And remembrance of friends who the seas took from us.


But better to me were the tales of the shielings
Where the young men and women learned music and song;
Where the cattle were tended on the summertime grasses
And herding was easy for the young as of old:
Unfenced was the sward where freedom was ours
And timeless the peace as we walked home to the fold.

But those days and the Ceilidh House are now in the past
New fashions and habits have forced change on the glens:
The old folk who sang in the houses i knew
Now moulder in earth they once trod so lightly.
New ways and new merriments have replaced the old ceilidh
And the houses of youth have long shut their doors.

Donald MacDonald
translated from the Gaelic Sgeulachdan nan Taighean Céilidh by Ronald Black