Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J MacDonald

Warner Books. First published 1982. In The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus, 1988, 174 p.

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This is MacDonald’s memoir of growing up in Harris, (which is known as the Isle of Harris even though it’s only the southern half of an island: ditto the Isle of Lewis, the northern half.)

Between the Twentieth Century’s two great wars the south of Harris was being repopulated with the aid of a Government intiative but this was still a harsh time when there were few amenities in the temporary turf-roofed dwellings the families occupied while they built their own stone ones – and not many in those – though the remains of the houses whose occupants had been cleared several generations earlier were a stark reminder of worse. There were no inside toilets – the great outdoors sufficed. Water for drinking and cooking was drawn from a nearby burn. In the times Macdonald is remembering the more convenient Tilly lamp superseded paraffin lighting and its whiter light was a source of regret. Electricity and gas were not even a dream.

The book embeds a history of Harris as the author explains his family’s circumstances and delves into the customs of the islanders while the delights of Toffee Cow (McCowans Highland Toffee, now sadly no more) become one of the author’s pleasures as he grows.

A lot of the narrative describes MacDonald’s schoolroom reminiscences, especially the initial tribulations of being solely a Gaelic speaker till he attended school (whose medium was of course exclusively English -inevitably the tawse features at times) and despite this not being published till the author was in his fifties he still manages to retain (or simulate) a child’s perspective. “Gillespie and I had long since learned to distrust adults when they were trying to sound reasonable.” He also comments on the curious circumstance by which the education all the parents desired for their children would most likely ensure that those children would leave the island in pursuit of the opportunities which that education had brought.

The coming of the Great Depression brings further hardship as the Harris Tweed trade declines. (Its use of human waste to fix the dyes require for colouring the tweed obliging everyone – visitors included – to avail themselves of the pee-pot when nature called is matter-of-factly described.)

There are several moments of humour, the new schoolteacher’s Word Game foundering on the definition of an organ, the kilted Dr MacBeth misunderstanding the question asked of him by a new father – this last had me giggling for about half a minute; not the usual response to reading tales of bygone Scottish life.

Like many a Scottish novel this autobiography is another of those laments for a past time, of the loss of a way of life, a documentation of things past. MacDonald certainly has an eye for it, and a way with words – even if they are in his second language.

Pedant’s corner:- Port Sunlight in Lancashire (it’s in the Wirral peninsula, not traditionally considered Lancashire,) “ ‘grace and favour ” (this opened quote was never closed,) while pages later we had “ away down in the south’ ” (a closing quote mark for an unopened quote,) bye-blow (by-blow,) “having failed to illicit information” (elicit,) another end quote that had not been opened, another opened quote remaining unclosed, “until we were hustled off the bed” (off to bed,) liguistic (linguistic,) “to smoothe them” (smooth them,) “even the Prince of Wales wears it” – the kilt – “whenever he ventures north of the Caledonian Canal” (I don’t think Balmoral – or Braemar – are north of there,) goloshes (my dictionary gives this as an alternative spelling but it was always galoshes in my day.)

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