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Coigach peninsula, Scottish Highlands

A Highland Calendar

In a traditional Highland community, the year is measured by life's natural rhythms,
not pages on a calendar.

BY JACK MALONEY

When our children grew up and left home, my wife Barbara and I escaped from our "empty nest" in Middle America to live for three years in the wilds of Scotland. We settled into an isolated crofting community on the Coigach peninsula on the northwest coast of Loch Broom. Traditional methods of fishing and sheep raising were still in use when we arrived there in 1981, though fading. Village life had not been dramatically impacted by the outside world. Old men still spoke Gaelic in the pubs, most homes were traditional white stone cottages and people still gathered in the evening to talk, sing and play music by the firesides. It was a natural, unhurried way of living – and we were eager to immerse ourselves in it.

But a Highland crofter's life isn't defined by the calendar pages pinned on the kitchen wall. Instead, the important times of the year are those brief and passing dry spells when work must be done with the sheep – glorious days framed by the unpredictable progression of howling gales and roiling clouds, sleety snow and slashing rain and changing tides. And so, we put aside the wristwatch and appointment book and learned the natural rhythms of sky and sea, tide, season and weather.

EARLY SPRING: THE ISLAND SHEEP The first major event of Coigach's spring calendar – when weather and tides permit – is the time to bring the one- and two-year old ewes in from the Summer Isles just offshore. Too young for breeding, they spend the winter well beyond reach of lusty breeding rams on the mainland. The low-lying islands, warmed by the Gulf Stream, grow good grass close to the sea even when the hills are locked in snow.

One fine day in April we set out with a gang of crofters on the lovely wooden fishing boat Hectoria. We were half of the working crew – the other half was a raucous mob of border collies.

Our destination was Eilean a' Chléirich, Priest Island, the least accessible of the Summer Isles. The remote island is uninhabited now, but local crofters' grazing rights predate its establishment as a national bird sanctuary.

The landing on Priest was narrow, steep and rocky so Hectoria anchored offshore and we rowed her dinghy into the shadowed cove. Men and dogs scrambled up steep barnacle-covered rocks to reach the greensward above. We split up into two teams to gather sheep from the hills and drive them down the valley to the landing. The sheep were quite wild after wintering on the island, but we eventually cornered them all at the head of the rocky cove. Men and dogs forced the ewes down to the water's edge, where they were packed solid into the waiting dinghy. Two men rowed the dinghy out to Hectoria and hoisted their struggling passengers one by one over the rail, then came back for another load. It took three trips out with the sheep, and two more for the men and dogs.

We picked up a few more ewes from Bottle Island, then unloaded them all at Badenscallie and dropped anchor at Old Dornie late in the day. As usual after a successful day's work, the whole gang went off to the pub for more than a few pints and drams, while outside the hard-worked dogs waited patiently in the gathering darkness for their owners.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2010 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Drumlanrig Castle by Richenda Miers.

Click here to preview our feature article on Scotland's Ancient Registry of Heraldry by Jim Gilchrist.

Click here to preview our Bagpiping Column by Robert Wallace.

Photos of lambs ©Mark Hicken/Scottish Viewpoint; Scenic photo ©Darren Miller/Scottish Viewpoint; Sheep shearing photo (upper right) ©Doug Houghton/Scottish Viewpoint.