Carters and Their Horses
Way back in my boyhood, in the years just before and after the first World War, I estimate that, give or take a hoof or two, there would be a legion of about forty horses in Tolsta, all colours, all sizes, some active, some lazy, some gentle, some bad tempered; the latter two characteristics shared by their owners.
Most were owned by the croft owners, i.e. the men who held the NUMBER. If he gifted for use by a younger brother, or other deserving relatives, part of the croft, he naturally kept the larger part to himself and this enabled him to keep a horse, which needed extra pasturage and hay to keep him in working trim. The relative would have to be content with keeping a cow and not aspire to the prestige of a horse.
There were many more croft numbers than there were horses, for firstly, some number holders could not be bothered to keep one and some crofts e.g. the moine were a bit short of roads or some like New Street, with the crofts on both sides and sloping gently downhill, had to rely on the creel power of the women folk to get the tothair ‘scrìobwards'.
Some other ‘number' holders, ex fishermen, skippers of note, probably thought it beneath their dignity to steer a horse with us faladair to hand.
My grandfather fell into both categories, an ex-fisherman of note with a ‘near-the-house' croft, Macleòid of No.6 would probably have hoisted a sail, one for the cart and one for the horse so rested on his mariner's dignity and refrained. So did Sgodaidh Maclennan of New Street and Aonghais 'An Bhàin of No 35 and Frank Campbell of 62 New Street.
Those who did have horses may have divided into two classes, those who kept one mainly for croft work, and secondly, those who trekked as carriers to and from Stornoway bringing necessary stuff, meal, barrels or half barrels of herring and right down to tacks for boots or bottles of castor oil. The village could not have done without them.
On the latter class were:
Donald Mackay (the Oladh ), whose name is on the birth certificate of Annabella Lordaidh ; for the carriers did all sorts of jobs in Stornoway for folks who were not keen to travel all the way to town and back if the carrier could do it.
Alex Maciver (the Gliogan ) of No.15 trekked all the way for Bean Mhastair of No.72 because Master himself was first away in the war and secondly not in good health.
I think Iain Ruairidh was carter to Dòmhnall Aonghais Saighdeir , who had his shop near the school and needed to be on the spot for business.
John Murray (Searagain) of No. 30 was, one would think, capable of going round the world sitting at the back of his horse and cart, up and down to Stornoway umpteen times a week.
After the Iolaire and demob Donald Murray (37) tried his hand at the Tolsta–Stornoway trade, but was never really at home away from the sea so, as soon as possible, he made a Comrade of a fishing boat instead of a horse – not that he got rid of the horse until the latter had worn out all the pages in his pension book.
Further north there were two stalwarts, one of whom, my uncle Donald Morrison Daol of No.46, would on my own biased opinion take the gold medal for the Tolsta–Stornoway run. One strange thing about him was that he travelled in a rainless vacuum for, however hard it was pelting down in Tolsta, he always maintained that there had not been a drop from Ceann-a-Bhàigh to Blàr na Fala.
At No.43 was Shonsaidh who was to horse and cart what his brother Iomhar (Fortaidh ) was to a bus. Had there been eight days in the week and no Sabbath, Shonshaidh would be up and away at the crack of dawn everyday. He was good tempered and seemed to think what the horse was thinking, like Lester Piggott.
Other horse owners sometimes went to town on some special business of their own, but the carriers battled through all weather, though the Sneachda Mòr of spring 1919 (I think) had them stuck for a while.
On a higher rung than common or garden carters, were the ‘Gig' owners such as Carnaidh (41) and Coinneach Red (38), the Camerons (68) and Coinneach Obhar of 56 New Street. The ‘gigs' had springs and so avoided the teeth – jarring bumping suffered by some sore–bottomed cart travellers.
The ‘gigs' were usually hired by telegram from someone who had done well at the herring fishing or by a young couple going up to town for the pressanan prior to a wedding. They would in lordly fashion pass and wave to cart people at Tong or Coll or Gress and think lordly thoughts.
Croft work for the ordinary stay–at–home horses, was seasonal as was the case with the Orduighean. Firstly, the spring quarter to transfer the accumulated todhar from byre or ocrach to the planting and sowing areas.
If the house had a toll innearach the loading of the cart was direct by gràpa power backed by sweat and muscle, mostly men's work. As most houses of the dubh variety did not have a toll innearach the loading was by creel i.e. carried out by the normal beasts of burden, i.e. the ladies, about eight creel loads made a cart-load. Sometimes it was alleged that slyly, creels had their load tamped down to get more into the cart-load. This practice if detected was frowned upon by both horse and carter.
In the summer season it was the peats being carted home – no tractors in there days – so over the village there sounded the jingle of harness and at the moor end the jolly badinage of the ‘crew' during loading, enlivened by an unuttered curse from folk doing the steidheadh up top, when an ill bred fad of moine dhubh fell foul of defenceless knuckles.
As the time taken at horse power from dun to home and back again could be quite considerable depending on the location of the blàr monach , there was plenty of time for assassination of character by the females, in which the men took little or no part. Total result of operation Toirt Dhachaidh na Monach - a beautiful symmetrical stack destined to mock at winters of snow and ice.
Having now got through two thirds of the year's work the horses sleek and fat were harnessed for the final chore, viz. bringing home the sheaves to the iodhlann and after that the potatoes to the cùil bhuntata, where rats and mice licked their chops and marvelled at the kindliness of humans in their minding with Christian charity of the four-footed beady-eyed friends in barn and stack.
An iodhlann with some half dozen well made cruachan was a delight to the eyes of man and beast, a castle for rats and mice and of winter store for cattle and horses.
During the non-working periods, horses lived the life of Reilly, nothing to do and all day to do it in. They galloped about all over the place in squadrons or battalions. Now and again with a leader like the Great Train Robbers, they would breach the village wall, Garadh a'Bhaile , when barley and oats were there to be raided and the dread cry would go up here and there “Na h-eiche as a chorc.” There followed a helter skelter of men, women, children and dogs till peace was restored. Not a single robber horse showed any shame any more than the chief train robber in South America.
However much they transgressed in season they were always pampered beasts, at which ever house they were working inviting buckets or miodars of bran, third or Indian meal were both expected and forthcoming.
Of all the household they had a place of their own, a stàbull, while humans, cows, sheep and hens had to live cheek by jowl without privacy to lay an egg.
Oh me!! The day came when only three horses lingered on, their diminished youth and strength gone and kept from gun or knackers yard only by sentiment. I am not quite sure which was the last to go, maybe that of Dòmhnall Brus, that great lover of animals. What the late Fortaidh called ‘peetrol' had taken over and now tractors and lorries and cars rule supreme needing neither bran nor barley.
No sitrich , no ruisg , no adag , no geum ba , no calgan , no ath , no toll fhasgain , no criathar , but take heart there are still fences for rabbits to tunnel under like prisoners of war from a stalag .
Seoras Iag, The Breve