Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Click go the shears, boys...

The best of the summer days were spent at the shearing. Jack was originally a Chicago boy, used to ethnic restaurants, concerts, theater, some of the best museums in the world - a city lad through and through. He'd never known the soft contours and sharp edges of something as foreign to his experience as a real sheep. But he fell in love with a pair of shears and the smell of warm wool and the company of men in touch with the earth. So he learned to clip a fleece with the hand blades - and over the course of the next 3 summers became a creditable shearer.

He apprenticed himself to Alisdair West, who was a model of patience and forbearance as Jack went through the first, sometimes disasterous, ascent of the learning curve. He was bloodied when his shears were driven into his arm by a poorly tied ewe, causing an emergency trip to the village nurse who kindly bound up his wounds. He was embarrassed when the ewe he was clipping escaped and went dancing over the hill trailing a veil of half-sheared fleece behind her. Once, while he was taking so long to clip one of those first sheep, one of the other men came over with a handful of grass which he gave to the ewe saying "I was afraid she was going to starve to death".
Jack could take it all in good humor. And he loved every minute of it.

As for me - I learned to roll fleeces which came off each animal in a sheep-shaped blanket of warm, lanolin enriched wool. I would fold and roll each fleece into a cylinder, twist the neck wool into a rope long enough to tie around it to make a neat package and place it with others by the wall or stuff it into a wool bag for collection by the Wool Board. It was hard work but those days in the sun with the sea and mountains as a backdrop, a cool breeze to keep the midges off, a welcome dram of whisky or a break for tea and sandwiches brought out by Alisdair's wife, Margaret, were wonderful. Those were days in our lives.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Up the republic

Celebrating the 4th of July became a tradition at Castlehill. We would fly old glory from a staff made from an old oar that Jack found in the barn and attached to the gate posts at the bottom of the garden. Jack started the tradition in the 1st year we were in Polbain - and by the second and third year it was expected - and everyone would be at the Summer Isles Pub, waiting for the festivities to start. We would begin by buying 50 whiskeys - one for each state - and passing them around to all gathered. The first year it was a surprise and as the glasses filled, conversation dropped and all attention was riveted on the growing array of golden glasses. Then Jack would raise his glass and say "Who will drink a toast with me to freedom from English rule?", and there would be a cheer and all would drink.

The second year everyone in the village had heard about it and were there to partake. They would start singing "The Star Spangled Banner" or "America the Beautiful" when we came in the door - at least as many of the words as they could remember. We would then all repair to Castlehill for a real American 4th picnic supper - ham, potato salad, chocolate cake (chocolate imported from America) and dill pickles (found in Inverness at a specialty store). One year a friend came dressed in cowboy hat and boots with a star pinned to his shirt that said "Deputy" (he didn't know how to spell "Sheriff"). And the music would start, and the ceilidh would go on through the night. What fun!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Summer friends

And so the spring wound into summer - and the light came back full throttle. In fact, it never really got dark. By midsummer you could read a newspaper at midnight, and the ceilidhs would start and end in sunlight. The rythm of life picked up and the B&B's were full of visitors - many of whom returned year after year and became familiar faces around the village. Neville and Mavis, who owned the Lord Nelson Inn down in northern England, made it known that we had usurped their favorite cottage (they'd rented Castlehill for their holidays for years). We were sorry - but not very. So we had them to lunch, became friends, and stopped to visit them at their pub one summer when we went south (we were delighted with its traditional cozy ambience).

We met people who owned croft houses in Coigach but only came up for their holidays - and we forged friendships that have lasted through all the years since we left - friends that we still meet when we can, and talk and write to between visits. Some have visited us here, and we have been made welcome in their homes, scattered now throughout the UK from north to south. We have shared their lives from when they were young and single, through marriage and growing families. They have made our lives infinitely richer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another island

One fine warm day we took a picnic and went up the coast to see if we could get to the island of Handa - a bird sanctuary and breeding ground. We took a small boat from Tarbet and landed on a beautiful beach. There's a path that goes across the middle of the island where the great skuas nest on the open hilltops. Half the island is rimmed with cliffs and sea stacks hundreds of feet high. Sea pinks, many different kinds of seedum, and beautiful wild flowers in all colors cling to the cliff sides and cover the tops of the stacks. Puffins dig their burrows and build their nests on the stack tops - and I had never seen a real puffin. But I had heard about them all my life and wanted desperately to see one. When I was little I would often ask my mother to recite my favorite poem:

"There once was a puffin just the shape of a muffin,
and he lived on an Island in the bright blue sea.
He ate little fishes, which were most delicious,
and he had them for supper and he had them for tea.

This poor little puffin, he couldn't play nothin',
cause he hadn't anybody to play with at all.
So he sat on his island and he cried for a while,
And he felt very lonely and he felt very small.

Then along came the fishes, and they said if you wishes
you can have us for playmates instead of for tea.
Now they all play together in all kinds of weather,
And the puffin eats pancakes like you and like me."

I always wondered how they made the pancakes but the story was very satisfactory to a young animal lover.

Anyway, the island has huge, high cliffs where thousands of birds were nesting, flying and fishing. The skuas lived off the eggs and young birds - the divers, kittywakes, razor bills, guillemots, and gulls eat the many small fish swimming below. The water was so clear we could lie on the cliff edge and watch the guillemots playing games in the water below. They fly under water, chasing eachother, and sneaking up behind eachother to tweak a tail as they surface.

Every ledge, nook and cranny was packed with birds, some on eggs, some courting, some pairs grooming eachother. We found two broken eggs up where the skuas nest - one a greenish blue with brown spots, the other white with brown spots. The whole island was so beautiful - and we picnicked, hiked and sunned ourselves on the white sand beaches until the last boat back to the mainland took us away.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Of ceilidhs and books

This has been a good week so we're still on a bit of a high. Saturday we went to the McCracken Ceilidh - a Scottish Club celebration of the life of George McCracken who for many many years taught and promoted Scottish ceilidh dancing in the Twin Cities. The dancing mantle has fallen on his son, Andy, and a tradition has developed of holding a typical ceilidh evening in his memory with dancing and amateur music, readings etc. This one was held at Kieran's Pub in Minneapolis and we ate shepherds pie, drank good ale, and as part of the program, Jack did a short reading from our book. It was a delightful evening.

On Sunday Jack and I gave a talk at the St. Paul Public Library downtown. In spite of the beautiful fall weather and a Vikings game, a fair number of people came - some of whom were friends we hadn't seen for many years. Liz and Paul had visited us when we were living in Coigach, and we had been in a cross-country ski club together for many years before that. The audience was very responsive, asked a lot of good questions and we had a lot of fun. As usual our dear daughter, Eileen (knotallthat.blogspot.com), came and helped out with the book signing afterwards - she has been a great help and supporter!

And then this morning we got another wonderful e-mail, this time from a reader in Australia who had been captured by Coigach as we had, and had spent at least a year there - something she hadn't planned on at the time. She had been a good friend and helper for Alasdair West (Jack's mentor during our Coigach years, and a beloved friend) and had stories to share. She had come across our book while visiting Coigach this summer and since every copy was sold out there, had to order it when she got home to Australia. It is such a day brightener and joy to hear from people who knew the folks we tell about in the book - and to have them say that yes - these are the people they knew and loved - and our stories brought them some tears and laughter. That's really why we wrote the book - to celebrate the lives and stories of a passing generation that was so very special and so worth remembering.

Friday, October 17, 2008

All that glistens......

Our friend, Jim Muir, who lived just down the road from us in Polbain, kept us supplied with salt herring, salmon and stories. We would be walking down to the store and Jim would be working out in his shed - usually mending salmon nets since he had the rights to the wild salmon fishing around the coast. We would stop and say hello and before we knew it we would be in Jim's kitchen with a cup of tea, caught again in his web of Coigach lore.

He told a story about a ship that had been torpedoed off the coast during WWII, its cargo floating away on the tide. Some of that cargo was found by Murdo and Angus who were out fishing in the area some days later - a wooden crate bound with brass. The men were excited - they thought the contents must be valuable - and sure enough, when they pried the crate open it was full of money! Bundles of bills, consecutively numbered. Although they didn't recognize the bills, they thought they had made their fortune and took a sample to the bank in Ullapool. Unfortunately they were told that what they had was newly minted Nationalist Chinese currency - virtually worthless in Scotland. What they did with some of that money is a story told in our book - it did afford them some fun - but it was a fortune quickly found and lost. Sort of like our 401K's.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Life is good

This is my favorite season. It is fleeting and beautiful and full of memories. Both of my parents died in autumn so the gorgeous display of color is tinged with some sadness and the feeling that the season - and life itself - passes all too quickly. But while it lasts we can "seize the day" and take off along the river to revel in what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful drives in the country.

For the last two days we have enjoyed the best of what autumn has to offer and wound our way down the Mississippi from St. Paul to Wabasha. All the way the high bluffs are covered with flaming reds and yellows, and little farms nestle in hidden valleys. Hawks and eagles fly above the river - and in Wabasha at the National Eagle Center we were lucky enough to walk in just as the program was starting.

Here they nurse injured bald and golden eagles back to health and release them if they can - and the program was fascinating. Minnesota has the largest number of nesting eagles in the lower 48. In March the native population is joined by migrants and there are hundreds of these majestic birds gathered along the open water at Wabasha. We plan to go back at that time to see it.

Two of our favorite lunch places are also there - one is in the Wisconsin town just across the river at Nelson. The Cheese Factory has great ice cream, soup and sandwiches and - our favorite - bags of garlic cheese curds (squeek, yumm). The other is a charming old inn - the Anderson House in Wabasha. (Wabasha is where they filmed "Grumpy Old Men" by the way.) The rooms here are all decorated with different quilts and antique furniture - and come, if you choose, with a complimentary cat for comfort. For two days in a row I got to eat their lemon meringue pie - not too sweet or too sour - with a cloud of perfect meringue. It is to die for.

Life is good.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A perfect day

Our friend Bill, whose family owned the cottage above Old Dornie Harbor, had a buddy up for the summer to help do some building and repairs, and the four of us often shared dinners, boat trips and long evenings solving the world's problems - along with a fair bit of silliness. Bill had a boat, which he took out among the islands to set lobster traps and do some fishing - and he would often share his bounty with us. Picture meals with platters heaped with fresh lobsters, prawns and crab - as much as you could want to fill the empty spaces. It was fantastic!

One of my most treasured memories is of a day we spent with Bill and Ian on the boat - a day as idylic as I will ever have. We started out in the morning packing a picnic - potato salad, home-baked bread, fresh raspberries, and wine. We set out for Bill's family island, Glas Leac Mor, stopping along the way to check Bill's lobster traps and catch a few nice fish for grilling. The sea was calm so we had no trouble landing and climbing the rocks to our picnic spot with our booty.

The day was warm but with a cool sea-breeze. The views back toward the peninsula and out at the islands and mountains across the loch were stunning - as always. We grilled the fish and spread out our picnic - a most sumptuous repast - the raspberries with double cream serving for dessert. We lazed around in the sun and hiked a bit to explore the island - then back with the evening sun glowing on the horizon and turning the islands to soft green velvet. Funny how clear it is after all these years - and how sweet to remember.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Escape to the north

One of the great things about being retired is that you can jump into your car when you get up one morning and the sky is blue and the air is crisp and the leaves are glowing - and you can just go. Which is what we did last week. We packed up the bad dog and a change of clothes and high-tailed it up to the north shore of Lake Superior, stopping along the way to visit friends and do a little grouse hunting and a lot of leaf-peeping.

With all the uncertainty in the world right now, it's life affirming to see the trees blazing on the high rocky cliffs, the rivers tumbling down the rocks in falls and cascades to the great lake, and to hear the breakers beating on the rocky shore. Life is good.

We found a funky little lodge at Cascade River with faded tartan carpeting, a grand piano in the lounge, lots of "Up North" kitsch, and a comfy porch with a great view of the lake. And with helpful, friendly hosts - what more could one ask? I'm sure we'll be back.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The scent of remembrance

Why is it that the sense of smell seems to bring on the most vivid visions of the past? I am making oatmeal bread - probably for the first time since we came back from Scotland. The yeasty smell of the rising dough brings me back to the kitchen in Castlehill and I remember....and I miss it.

I can see the view from my kitchen window - the old stone shed with the wall full of bright birds coming to the seed I'd put out for them - the rowan tree with its red berries - the fence between us and our neighbors croft (visions of little Christopher climbing over that fence, coming to visit and savor ice cubes). Remembering kneading bread at the table and watching Jack sprinting out of that shed with his pail of coal, pursued by an amorous, very determined ewe (if you want the full tale - it's on our website).

My kitchen today has all the mod cons - but I miss the white wainscoating, the wellies by the door, the old wooden cupboard with it's array of flowered crockery, the far view of mountain and sea - a room warm and cozy and smelling of fresh-baked bread and self-sufficiency. I do miss it.