Once upon a time in the Outer Hebrides, there was a cough Going Around, a nasty, phlegmy, be-streaky-sputumed cough. Those who caught it and coughed it sounded like a troop of asthmatic tapdancers dancing in a long echoey hall each time they were moved to expectorate. Their lungs bubbled and wheezed and, once it struck the pestilence could not be shifted from the sufferer’s body for at least a year and left the victim in a significantly weakened condition for perhaps several more.
The curious thing about this cough was that small children, people over 60 and those with compromised immune systems went completely unaffected by it, while otherwise strong and healthy adults were laid low. Not only were they laid low, but they were also laid less and less. They simply did not have the puff to manage it any more.
The only strong and healthy adults not to be affected were The Ruddy. In the same way teeny-tiny, microscopic way as the sickle-cell anaemia allele protects against malaria, something in the rosy-cheeked gene was acting as a lung-protectant against the Hacking Cough.
In the Outer Hebrides there is no such thing as Performance Anxiety. Everybody can do it just fine, left to their own devices, and some don’t even need devices. What we do have though, is Population Anxiety. Many a promising evening has been cut short by one or other partner (heterosexual partner that is, of course – God has blessed us such that gay people don’t exist in the Hebrides. Nope, not a one.) … where was I? Many’s the promising evening that has been cut short by one or other partner rolling dramatically off to one side and rubbing their temples, saying “It’s no use, a’ghraidh, the pressure to produce the next generation so we won’t be a top-heavy population, graphically speaking, is just too much. O, unhappy demographic! If only Westmister hadn’t mandated an uptick in our breeding!”
You can imagine then that a year or more out for members of the breeding population was a hard blow for everyone. Without more young people, there would be no more grants from Europe, no more Crofting Development Programmes and no more lovely, lovely subsidies to spend down at the Legion. What was to be done?
An emergency meeting was called with the sick being wheeled in by variously The Very Young, The Very Old and The Ruddy so that a full community vote could be cast. What with the hacking of the ill, the bawling of the very small and the dozing of the old, things were proceeding very slowly. It was left to The Ruddy to take charge. Fortunately there were some natural leaders among them who now saw that their time to shine was nigh, only this time the shining would be metaphorical. They were being called to do something for their island, something noble, something magnificent, a selfless gesture of defiance against the blight that plagued their people. The motion was put by Rubicund Rory:
“I move that The Ruddy, being of sound lungs and florid cheeks, be called upon to lay themselves down for their countrymen and women, and for the duration of this Hacking Cough, endeavour to make as many babies as possible,”
Rosy Rosie seconded and the proposal was put to the vote.
“All in favour say Aye!”
“Huh, what was that? Oh, aye, aye, right enough then,” said The Elderly
“Aboohoo aboohoo waaaaaahaye aye aye!” said The Very Young
“Ackh ackh ackh wheeze!” said The Sick, nodding.
“Aye!” said The Ruddy solemnly, flushing with pride and responsibility and taking the full brunt of island expectations on their ham-dappled shoulders.
Noone could know the Hacking Cough would be Going Round for another 10 years. In that time, The Ruddy surpassed all expectations. Ruddy ladies turned out 1 and a third babies a year and ruddy men ran hither and yon making sure that The Ruddy Young didn’t wander near clifftops or drink bleach.
That was years ago, but even if you go to Lewis today, you will see everywhere the legacy of that love in the time of a hacking cough. From the blowzy drunk on the corner to the raw-headed, black-clad, turkey-vulturesque church elders at the Seminary; from the florid florists on Cromwell Street to the sanguine sailors on the quay; from the bloom-cheeked merry folk to the face-like-a-slapped-bum dour contingent, the extraordinarily high proportion of The Ruddy in the Outer Isles is one of the first things a visitor will notice. Right after she notices that some people have more than ten fingers and all of the clocks are moving much…more…slowly…