11 02 2012

Hello again

This is a short article I wrote some time ago about three Hebridean ladies to whom I am closely acquainted. It was published in Scottish Home and Country, the magazine of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes.


In 1950 the Labour party won the General Election and Princess Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter. Life is a series of significant moments.

“We got the electric in 1950. I was 14” says Ina Morrison. “We couldn’t believe it. It was one of the best things that happened”.

Women in this Gaelic-speaking corner of Scotland, on the Isle of Harris, spoke to me about significant moments, mishaps and milestones that have shaped their lives. The traditional image of women spinning wool and the accompanying click-clack of Harris Tweed being woven on Hattersley looms is fast disappearing. The quiet revolution from crofting to tourism gathers momentum.

Ina, 65 (when I conducted this interview) described her childhood as significant:” I was only 6 when my mother died. My youngest brother was one-and-a-half and he went to live with my aunties over the hill. Father gave up his job to look after the three children.

He bought a loom and started weaving Harris Tweed at home. After school we all had our different chores to do. Saturdays were busy, blacking the stove and collecting water from the well. Every pot and pan had to be cleaned, which we did in the river with Brillo until they sparkled. Nobody went to the well on the Sabbath.  To me singing the psalms in Gaelic is part of our culture. It’s uplifting. It does your heart good”.

Despite the changing lifestyle, Gaelic culture remains strong. “I’m part of a community” says Marie a 35 year-old crofter. “It’s not as tight as it used to be, but tight enough….I used to do the lambing but I pay someone to do that for me now”. Marie keeps 100 breeding ewes on her 16-acre croft at Seilibost. “The biggest change for me is being myself and having to go out to work. My husband died five years ago, leaving me with four children. The youngest was 7 and the oldest 12. I cook at the cafe in Tarbert [capital of the Isle of Harris], I’m a waitress, I’m a barmaid and two nights a week I work at the Harris Alcohol and Drugs Group. I’m busy all the time but I wouldn’t say I have a hard life….One significant moment in my life was being told my daughter has cerebral palsy. I came to terms with it. She’s 12 now and getting on fine. Inner strength? I don’t see myself as any different to anyone else. You just look at other people who are worse off than yourself. Yes, I would say I’m a survivor”.

To many, the Outer Hebrides is a place on the Shipping Forecast! Hebrides…wind southerly, gale force 8 veering westerly. And it’s these harsh conditions that form the backcloth to a rare way of life.

“The weather? In my job I have to persuade the guests it isn’t like this all the time” says Sarah Morrison. “If we’ve got people staying for a week and it’s rained for four days, you’ve got to try and not let them get down-hearted. I have to be optimistic. Sarah, 29, studied for her degree in Rural Resources at agricultural college in Edinburgh. Today she manages the world-famous Harris Hotel in Tarbert.

“I’ve brought youthfulness and an eye for detail to the business. If dining room chairs aren’t lined up I’ll staighten them….The biggest change for me is the position of responsibilty. That came four years ago. Being in control of 50 employees is quite a challenge.I didn’t see myself carrying on the family business but I’ve grown to enjoy it. If there’s a complaint the buck stops with me. I get over it. Life’s too short to worry….I like to be involved with anything that’s happening on the island. I sing in the Gaelic choir. It is important to retain our culture. In a standardised, centralised world, we must preserve our identity. We’ve clung on to our culture for so long, if we were to lose it now we’d lose so much. But there’s a wind of change and we must move forward. There’s been doom and gloom about high unemployment and the island’s brain-drain. But there’s things in the pipeline. There’s a petrol station opening, a new school being built and a Harris Tweed Centre being developed”.

Meanwhile at Ina Morrison’s home in West Loch Tarbert, hail is falling like a thousand pebbles on a corrugated roof. Ina reassures me, “It’ll be getting better soon”.