Crotal and White by Finlay J MacDonald

First published 1983.

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

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This is the second part of MacDonald’s memoirs of growing up in the southern part of the isle of Harris between the two World Wars, his recounting of a way of life that was on the way to extinction. There is no running water, no electricity – though here battery powered radios make their appearance – and no indoor plumbing; but the island’s first aeroplane sighting occurs. The Great Recession has brought poverty – sales of Harris Tweed have declined to zero – and the author’s father is reduced to killing the family’s pet sheep for food, despite his reluctance at killing anything due to his experiences in the Great War, principally as a sniper. MacDonald contrasts poverty with being broke as broke is a temporary situation, but poverty grinds unremittingly on.

The end of the author’s preliminary schooling is in sight as he sits the exam for the bursary which will allow him to carry on with education beyond the village; an education which Government and parents desired for the children but which will ensure that those children would leave the island in pursuit of the opportunities which it brought. In the meantime he wins a competition organised by Gibbs’s Dentifrice to promote their wares. Sadly the prize was not the bicycle he hoped for. Life in the family is loving but not indulgent and in amongst the nostalgia are some light moments – one involving a piss-pot laced with Andrew’s Effervescent Liver Salts, another where we are told, “There is something irrevocable about a botched haircut.” – words and deeds may be forgotten or forgiven the haircut, “lingers on for an eternity, reproachfully.” As a result of his, MacDonald suffered the nickname “convick” – a Gaelic approximation to the English word – for months. We are also treated to the author’s first (and unsatisfactory for the girl concerned) sexual experience at the hands of a teenager MacDonald describes as one of a band of tinkers. The author also has that Scottish gift of an eye for landscape.

The crotal of the title is the name of a lichen that was scraped off the local rocks to be processed to provide a brown dye for Harris Tweed.

Towards the conclusion of this instalment things are beginning to look up economically but the threat of another war has begun to loom large.

Pedant’s corner:- crochets (crotchets,) “before by mother” (my mother,) “which we were lead to believe” (led to believe,) “a rift in the family lute” (??) “coom ceilings” (I have never sen this spelling before, it’s usually comb or coomb,) “the rest of the community were attending” (the rest … was attending,) “ o tell me” (to tell me,) “Callernish stones” (usually Callanish,) Niklaus (Nicklaus.)

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