Notes from a Niseach

‘Twas Christmas Day in the crofthouse

There is no doubt that, in my younger days, Christmas Day was when my native village was at its most peculiar.

All around the other parts of the United Kingdom, people opened their presents, gorged themselves on turkey and Christmas pudding, watched the Queen’s annual message, and then S-T-R-E-T-C-H-E-D-O-U-T and R-E-L-A-X-E-D for the rest of the day: snoozing, perhaps, in front of a roaring fire.

But South Dell was different. In that one place, the normal sequence of events we all expect on Christmas Day did not occur. It was true that in some households much of that familiar routine took place. A few people opened presents; a few feasted on turkey and Christmas pud; fewer still watched the Queen’s annual broadcast to the nation. However, after this, life took on a new and interesting pattern. Instead of S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G-O-U-T and R-E-L-A-X-I-N-G, the inhabitants of our village hauled themselves from their fireside chairs and journeyed out to perform one of the most important tasks in life.

Drive sheep.

It was a ritual that happened every year, and one that I also annually resented. I would slip on thick socks and welly boots to go out and fetch the family’s flock of sheep from the far end of the croft. My mission? To explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and common grazing; to boldly go where no ewe had gone before. Or in this case, to join in with all our neighbours and take the animals along the road to a large fenced-off stretch of land at the edge of Aird on the southern end of the village.

I can still recall the scene – the dogs barking; a neighbour occasionally cursing; the sheep bleating as they swerved from one side of the road to the other, their tails flapping (a la Bo Peep) behind them.

I must confess I used to bleat too – and do it every year that passed. It all began with me being coaxed/urged/driven/expelled from my fireside chair. “Aaawww, Dad . . .” I would moan. “Not now . . .” The substance of my complaint never varied for every single year that passed: the annual “round up” of the sheep took place at the same time as that annual “round up” of songs from the pop charts – the Christmas edition of Top Of The Pops. That star-spangled show was one of the year’s highlights. Marc Bolan of T.Rex urging us to “bang a gong”. The pop group Sweet summing up all our uncertainties with the words “I just haven’t got a clue what to do.” Suzi Quatro with her leather motorbike gear. Jimmy Saville. Dave Lee Travis: the man who rejoiced in a nickname that was strange even by our standards – The Hairy Cornflake.

There is no doubt that this day in the calendar was the absolute “winter of my discontent”. I would look at the village crofters and wonder what exactly possessed them to drive sheep down the road at this time of year, interfering with this, the “holiest of hours” in my early teenage years.

Outsiders might imagine there was a reason for this – that our undertaking of this task on this day was evidence of a certain anti-Catholic tendency among the Free Kirk elders who lived within the village. “This is the most sacred time of year for them. Let us go out and ruin it.” After all, we had overheard them often enough in conversation; their pedantic declarations that the whole day wasn’t really a Christian festival anyway, that it had its beginnings in a pagan feast.

Others might have argued that it was all the responsibility of the crotchety old bachelors in our midst. “Bah, humbug!”, they probably muttered to themselves every Christmas morning, finding no present under their non-existent trees, no turkey roasting in their Raeburn stoves. The next thought that must have come to their minds was a question.

“Oh, after all that, how can we ruin the day for the teenagers of the village?”

A moment later and their answer appeared, switching on inside their heads like a Christmas fairy-lights.

“Oh, I know. We’ll gather up the sheep when Top Of The Pops is on the telly . . . That’ll be good fun. That’ll be exciting.”

But I must admit I prefer a more charitable explanation – one that chimes more with the spirit of the season. They deprived me of that programme for the best of reasons – their strong, platonic love for the animals that were their closest companions throughout their lives. For them, a corkscrew-fleeced ram was the equivalent of corkscrew-haired Marc Bolan; the bleating more rhythmic than any rock band. And on Christmas day, they came together to give these animals the finest present they could imagine.

New pastures. Rich grazing. The finest stretch of viridian cloth they could be granted, laid out with the most fabulous spread imaginable.

And who am I to criticise them for that?

* * *

PS – Those Shetlanders who skim-read the Stornoway Gazette might have discovered something else interesting about South Dell over the last few weeks – that an ancestor of Barack Obama, on his mother’s side, left the village in 1850 to cross the Atlantic for the New World. Apparently his surname was Murray.

For a time, I must admit I trembled, contemplating this piece of information. The thought that someone who could even be a distant relative of mine – an 11th cousin at least – might have his finger on the nuclear button filled me with dread. Too aware of my own fault and failings, I felt terrified that some might have passed to him through our shared bloodstreams, surviving even the long passage west to the American continent.

I’ve recovered since. Anyone who’s ever had experience of life in a crofting village, with its endless squabbles over peat-banks, sheep and crofting land, albeit at a couple of generations distance, is ideally qualified for the task of being the President of the most powerful nation on earth. After all that, the Arab-Isrealli conflict, the machinations of Putin and other politicians, will be relatively easy to set right.

You have my support, Cousin Obama. I have full confidence in you.

Donald S Murray


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