Long ago on the Isle of Lewis, it was traditional for the women to take the cattle to pasture on the moor during the summer months. They would live in rough huts or “sheilings” equipped with bare furnishings and would spend the summer away from home. Even although lifestyles changed and they did not keep cattle anymore, many people of my grandmother’s generation continued the practice of spending the summer out on the moor. It had been my Granny’s way of life since she was a girl, and she continued to spend her Summers in a ramshackle hut on the moor (the shed) until the end of her life.
As she got older she needed to take someone with her for company and to take care of her, and so her daughters took turns in spending a few weeks with her “out on the moor”. As children my sister and brother and I spent a few weeks each summer there staying with Granny in her shed on the Pentland Road. Up until I was nine, that was our only summer holiday. As we got older we complained that it was “boring”, and we longed to go to the city for our holidays, but while we were there we always managed to entertain ourselves and find something to do. Looking back, these days on the moor are some of the strongest memories of my childhood.
The shed in which we spent our summers had three rooms, a bedroom with two big double beds, a living room, and a kitchen. There was no electricity or running water. We used oil lamps, cooked on a small coal-burning stove, and got our water from several natural wells. We had four wells near the shed, these were just natural pools in the moorland, surrounded by heather and grass. We used to mark where they were with old iron pots so that we could find them easily. Most had an opening the size of a large plate–you could accidentally step into it with one leg but there was no danger of falling in completely. My cousin once lost a shoe in Granny’s well, but was too scared to tell her about it and so the shoe stayed there. There was only one well that was big enough to pose any danger and my mother warned us off that one by telling us about a boy who fell into it and was never found again. This was sufficient to scare me away from that well completely, which was the whole point of the “story”. Strangely enough, none of us ever asked “if there’s a dead body down there—why are we still drinking the water?”. I only thought of that question years later.
We were miles from anywhere and had the freedom to run and play wherever we wanted to. There was a loch in front of our shed with a stony shore, and one behind with a small sandy beach, so we spent many happy hours by the water. There were also a few old abandoned sheds that we would use to “play house” in. In one, we cleaned out the main room and used it to perform concerts. Our favorite performances were short sketches, usually involving at least one old woman “the cailleach”, played by one of us dressed up in my Granny’s old clothes and bloomers. So we spent our days either in or near the water, playing house, exploring on the moor, or telling each other scary stories and letting the atmosphere of the brooding moorland frighten us into running all the way back to the safety of the shed.
Usually we were accompanied by my Granny’s dog “Sheila” as we wandered. And we were surrounded at all times by sheep. In Lewis the crofters let their sheep roam free on the moor during the summer—so there were plenty sheep wandering around grazing on the heather and short grass that covered the moor. Usually the sheep gave us a wide berth, running away if we got too close.
At night we piled in to the two available double beds. We were three small children and two adults (my mother and Granny), so two people got to sleep with mum and one unlucky person had to sleep with Granny. I say unlucky because Granny went to bed swathed in crocheted blankets and accompanied by a hot-water bottle, regardless of the weather. And she took up more than her half share of the double bed—so it made for a hot and claustrophobic night. The moor was absolutely silent. I remember waking up one night and hearing a noise—someone was creeping about outside! My mind filled with thoughts of ghosts and ghouls. What else could be making that rasping rhythmic noise outside the window? It must be the horrible breathing of a ghostly boy shivering and dripping with the residue from his watery grave. I called to my mother in alarm. Do you know what it was? It was the sound of a couple of sheep scratching their backs on the out side of the shed!
One more sheep memory—early in the summer the shepherds rounded them up for shearing in a fenced enclosure (fank) on the hill behind our shed. In our quiet world, this made for a day of great entertainment. We hung onto the outside of the fences and watched as the sheep were manhandled and expertly shorn of their heavy coats, dipped and then sent off out onto the moor again looking strangely vulnerable and naked. My brother in particular loved the fank. He was so inspired that once he got back home he “sheared” our cat with a scissor while it slept in a chair. Luckily he was spotted and stopped before he managed to complete the job.
My Granny died when I was 11, and we never went to the moor again. All in all, being there for a few weeks each summer amounted to a very small part of my childhood, yet the memories are among the strongest. Back at home we had all the comforts of the modern world, and all its entertainments, and as we grew older we enjoyed much more exciting holiday destinations. Out there on the moor we had no tv, no distractions, no conveniences. Yet we made our own entertainment, and in doing so made memories that outlasted the passing years and created shared experiences that forged deep connections within our family.
I think that many families could share similar memories of camping or hiking holidays where all but the necessities were left behind. I hope that my children will remember our camping and fishing holidays with the same fondness. It seems to me that it is in these times, when we have nothing to do but be with each other, that we can create some of the best memories and generate some of the connections that make us into strong families.