Grosebay Way of Life

By Donald A Mackay & Kirsty Macleod - Added 17/04/2014

Audio: Brother and sister, Donald Alex and Chirsty chat about everyday life in Grosebay when they were growing up in the early years of the 20th century.

Dur: 10.35

At the beginning of the 20th century fishing was still an important industry in the islands. There were numerous fish-curing stations and herring sales were booming at home and abroad. Donald Alex, who was born in 1888, and was a good age when this interview was recorded in the 1980s blamed the trawlers for depleting fish stocks and he was concerned too at the way the sea bed was being swept clean of clams.

Chirsty sees how different life is for women nowadays (the recording took place in the early 1980s) with mobile shops coming to the door with groceries, something unheard of in her younger days. Their income came mostly from weaving Harris Tweed. People were happy, and if there were men in the family at sea it contributed greatly to the family income. Donald Alex gives an example of how healthy the fishing actually was. He wasn’t fishing himself but his uncle was on a boat that had a crew of four. After one particular fortnight’s fishing they came home with 12 guineas each which was a lot of money at that time. The fish sold for half a crown per cran and there were four baskets in each cran so it was a very good fishing trip. The boat didn’t have an engine; it had sails and was about 21feet in length.

They both insisted that the climate was much better in their young days. Chirsty could remember getting the harvest dried and stacked without a drop of rain falling on it. This was important as each family had cows that needed feeding through the winter. She could even remember gathering the harvest by the light of the moon – the weather was so lovely.

Chirsty thought the diet of salt herring contributed to their general good health although nowadays everyone is told to avoid salt. In spite of all the work they had to do people still had time to visit neighbours and friends and she blamed television for killing off the tradition of the ceilidh.

People would walk to Stornoway and back if they had good reason to go or even just to visit family. Chirsty told about how her grandmother Rachel, after milking her two cows in the morning, walked to Aline to visit her brother and sister and walked back home that same evening.

There were plenty tradesmen in the village and surrounding area. Donald Alex and Chirsty’s uncle, Neil was a stonemason who built houses. There were thirteen carpenters in Grosebay at one time, busy building houses, boats and even furniture; all things that would also need repairing from time to time. There was a dresser in Donald Alex’s house that another uncle had made but Chirsty maintained it would have looked better if Donald Alex hadn’t painted it.

There was an old byre by the shore being used as a shed for sawing. This was where the large saw used to prepare planks for boatbuilding was operated by a couple of men, one above and one below. The shed was full of sawdust that the children loved to play in after school, much to the disgust of their parents when they came home with their hair covered in it. The bay at Grosebay would always be full of boats, new ones being built and some coming for repair from Scalpay and other places.

There were two shops in the village at that time, one where Angus MacLennan’s house is, it was Neil MacDonald’s house then. He had a big shop there and there was another one in the middle of the village that had everything you could need in it. Chirsty described the fashion of the time, especially for the older ladies. Her grandmother and other elderly ladies wore white caps with a pleated edging and long ribbons to tie it that required a special iron to keep it crisp. These ladies wore long clothes that swept the floor. Chirsty remembered going to church with her aunt who wore a bonnet with crepe down the back. She’d wear a suit, or costume as they called it, with a short jacket that had a flared fishtail back and a long skirt that she’d have to hold as she walked, if the road was wet.

Donald Alex had a story about a lady from Leac a’ Lì who bought a hat from a local shop. She went to church on Sunday wearing it but the following morning she returned to the shop with the hat. Calum, the shopkeeper asked her what the problem was. “Well,” she said, “I went to church wearing my new hat but some people in Leac a’ Lì told me it didn’t suit me and it looked cheap.” Calum replied, “Even if you went to Leac a’ Lì with the crown of glory on your head there would be some folk in Leac a’ Lì that would say it was cheap!” The poor lady went home with her hat.

Donald Alex and Chirsty would walk the three miles to school in Stocinis and back each day, taking a large peat with them for the classroom fire. It would have been a greater crime to forget the peat than their schoolbooks. They’d have a “piece” of oat-cake in their pocket which they would quite often eat before they got to school. A road was eventually built through Collam and Cluer to Kyles Stockinish but the school-children of Grosebay never took that road, preferring to take the old footpath which is still known as the scholars’ road. There were three teachers in Stockinish school at that time. The children left school at 14 but there was plenty work to keep them going at home. Donald Alex did all kinds of work from lobster fishing to working on the road. Chirsty was set to work helping her mother with the tweed making. The cloth was of a thicker quality than is generally produced today and Chirsty remembers the description they used. They would say, “It’s as thick as a calf’s ear.”