‘Dark and brutal tales of men who lived and travelled alone.’
Svörður (eastern Iceland) – Turf, Peat
My great-uncle Allan was the one man I associated more than any other with the moorland during my childhood. During the last days of his life, however, he spent all his days lying in his bed, his old and grizzled face looking up briefly from his pillow when I entered the room.
‘Hello, Dan, ’ he would say, using one of the diminutives that were sometimes employed in the village for those with my forename. *
And then the conversation would slowly come to a halt. With the way his breath rattled and wheezed, he had little strength for conversation. Instead, my legs dangling from the edge of the bedside chair, I would sit and scan the names of the many books stacked beside him. Their spines bore titles like The Empty Land , To the Far Blue Mountains and Where the Long Grass Blows ; their authors were names like Max Brand, Louis L ’ Amour and W. C. Tuttle. Within their pages, characters called Hondo, Edge or Sudden stalked the open prairie or desert, rode across the Rocky Mountains with shotguns or Colt 45s fixed in their holsters, intent on mayhem or revenge for whatever rough hand fate or the local ranch-owner had dealt out.
The young men of the village used to go down to my great-uncle Allan’s bedroom in his home in South Dell in the Isle of Lewis to read these stories to him. He lacked the energy to turn the pages himself, forced to listen instead to their Hebridean voices struggling with such alien terms as Appaloosa, renegade, showdown at the OK Corral. No doubt there were times when he must have sniggered quietly as they tried to pronounce the names of the Native American tribes – Comanche, Mohican, Mohawk – or the odd places, like Tombstone, El Paso or Shiloh, where cowboys and rustlers lived.
Much of Allan’s life had been spent out on the Lewis moor – the largely flat, brown ‘prairie’ that stretched between Ness and Tolsta at the tip of the island. He would scramble over peat bank and tussock, skirt loch and bog as he journeyed across land that was dangerous and deceptively difficult to cross. Mist would sometimes descend on it, moist earth would suck at a man’s feet, more water than land even when appearance might suggest otherwise. Its heather covered ridges can give way suddenly to uncanny black.
These walks had not been purposeless rambling either. Allan had been gifted with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the sheep that grazed there for much of the year. He could recite the colours, for instance, that daubed and banded the backs of different flocks, identifying their owners, even if they lived on the other side of the island. He was able, too, to tell which crofter they belonged to by the way their ears were cut and marked. ‘Toll‘s beum air cluas taisgeil, ’ he might say, part of the litany of cuts, nicks and holes that showed on which croft they had been born, the name of the man who had taken his blade to that part of their anatomy to claim ownership of a particular ewe, lamb or wedder.
Later, he might limp with that knowledge to a crofter’s house, telling them, perhaps, that one of their ewes had gone down in a peat bog near Loch Diobadal or far out near Muirneag or that a flock might have wandered far from the village, grazing on the outskirts of North Tolsta on the island ’ s eastern side. ‘You’ll need to go out and bring them in,’ he would advise the owner.
This usefulness would have surprised those who had seen him in the early days of the Great War. He had been taken home from the mainland on the passenger boat the Sheila, at that time with one whole side of his body paralysed. He was unable to use his left hand or leg; his smile touched only half his lips, the other part curling in a permanent grimace. Unlike his brother, John, killed in France at the age of 22 on 22 May 1915, Allan’s injuries had not, however, been caused by a bullet. Instead he was the victim of rheumatic fever, caught – according to family folklore – when he slept, wrapped in a damp blanket, in a boarding house in Liverpool. He had never even stepped on board the ship where he was due to serve for the duration of the conflict.
Yet he staggered on, living with his sister and her husband in the blackhouse where they raised their two children, and employing that strong right hand of his to help them on their croft. It was, perhaps, for this reason that he was always ‘out’: to give them peace and privacy to be with one another. To be without constant reminders of how much of his manhood had been lost through his injury. To be on his own, far from other people’s eyes and pity. In order to keep his dignity, there was always one last act he performed before heading out the door each day: using his right hand to place his left one in his jacket pocket, he would try and conceal his disability from view.
He continued these moor walks of his until he was in his seventies, gaining an expertise which none of his people own today. In this way, he came to know the names of plants and landmarks on the moor, each sign and omen of the coming weather. It was for this reason, too, that I took pride in him. My primary schoolteacher used to ask about him regularly.
‘How’s Allan? ’
As best as I could, I would give an answer.
‘The best shepherd in the district. Always on the go.’
It was a freedom he enjoyed until the day he slipped from the stones that acted as steps on the outside wall of a blackhouse, helping others thatch its roof. His other leg was shattered that afternoon. It was an injury that had forced him to lie sprawled in his bed for the remainder of his life, listening to the young men reading aloud the western books they had brought him, these tales of Hondo, Sudden, Edge – all these dark and brutal tales of men who lived and travelled alone.
* Another was ‘Dolly’ or ‘Dolaidh’. I was always spared this. For such small mercies…
The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands by Donald S Murray is out now published by Bloomsbury priced £14.99.