Category Archives: True Tales From The Hebrides

Truer than something blue.


Back in the Magnificent Days, on the Isle of Lewis, there lived a housewife called Lola who may or may not have been my great, great, great grandmother. (Great + great + great = magnificent, ergo the Magnificent Days. Look it up in Wikipedia; it’s right there.) At any rate, it was back in days of either yore or lore, one of the two; and if consonants should get mixed up occasionally through the mists of time? Well then, so be it. Yes, so be it.
(Smokes pipe thoughtfully, nodding.)

Lola MacLeod was a study in contrasts. One eye was brown, one blue. Her petticoats were of finest French silk yet she wore great man-boots and scanties made from Highland-cowhide from far-off Inverness. They itched and chafed something dreadful but that was as nought to a woman like her. She laughed at chafing – Hahahahaha! she thought. She mooned at itching, cackling wildly. Cackle! she thought.

She taught Sunday school but once tore out a man’s throat with her teeth for saying that silence is golden. She could win both the village best eggless-sponge and tractor-pulling competitions in the same day. She cried over sonnets and babies stillborn but, if there was a emergency outbreak of warts anywhere on the island, she could, without blink of either coloured eye, gore a passing rabbit with a spoon to harvest its wart-curing appendix juices. Lola was loved and feared in equal measure. She was also dumb as a post.

You see, Lola had never spoken a word since her husband, Wee Kenneth, had been lost at sea. Often the villagers would see her wandering out on the black sea-battered rocks to weep silently and alone, as the gulls skirled and screamed around her and occasionally did their business on her biannac.* The villagers would see her raise her arms in supplication as if to ask the world, the heaving, roaring sea, e’en God Himself: Why? Why? And sometimes she’d let the salt-tacked blast take the thin shawl from her thin shoulders to the same watery grave as Wee Kenneth’s – her own brave Coinneach Beag.** Then would mothers lead their children away saying, don’t look, darlings, you’re too young to know of breaking hearts. Come away now, come away!

All children loved her, and all animals, save for the rabbits. The children would follow her through the village and although she couldn’t speak to them if they misbehaved, she could still give them a good tongue-lashing with her much-feared Spaniard’s-tongue-on-a-walking-stick stick.

The story goes that a visiting Spanish Captain got a bit too Spanish with her one night at a ceilidh so she took a pair of pinking-shears and with a mute howl of fury (which she managed to convey silently with her terrible rolling eyes), she cut his tongue out. The Spaniard fell in love with her immediately, of course. He’d never met a woman with such fire before – but alas the poor wretch could no longer roll his rrrs in a sexy way and she was unimpressed with his gurgly cooing.

He sailed for home the next day with a starey, starry look in his eyes, sorrow in his heart and great gobs of blood and tongue-bits in his mouth. Lola was a fair woman though and in return for his tongue, she had given him some kippers and a lock of her hair (leg) according to The Law of The Book which mandated “an eye for an eye and some leg-hair for a tongue.”

And, do you know, to this day, in Southern Spain, the children still eat red frothing sherbert and smoked fish paella, and ritually shave a goat’s legs on the Feast Day of Great Lola of The North. Church bells ring and, for a moment, two great sea-faring nations are united again in lore. Or yore. One of the two.

So Lola’s fame spread far and wide and pretty soon kings and princes had heard of her wisdom, her half-savage bravery and her fierce loyalty to a dead husband. This really turned the kings and princes on and pretty soon they all wanted to marry her.

Mmm-hmm, oh yes. The Tales of Lola are great and many. Maybe one day I’ll tell a few.

((Sighs. Coughs. Puts out pipe. Filthy habit))

*biannac – sort of head-scarf or covering.

** Wee Kenneth

How I Came To The USA. Part 1.

Being a fur’ner in a strange land, people sometimes ask me “How did you wind up here?” or “How did you meet your Problem Husband who is twice your age but we’re good-hearted people so will pretend that’s not odd?”

Here is how it happened:

My parents sold me at the age of 12 for a John Deere tractor, a pair of nylons and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Weaving drunkenly off down the road, my parents turned and yelled “Take care, young’un, and be sure always to be kind! Yeeehaaa, this rig rocks, Seonaig! Next stop, Ullapool!” They honked their horn as they turned the bend in the road and that was the last I ever saw of them.

Weeping silently, I turned and looked into the cold, fish-like eyes of my new life, but not before looking into the cold, fish-like eyes of my new “owner”. Her name was Mrs. Billingsgate, like the market, and she ran a boarding house “for those wot weren’t welcome elsewhere”. For this was Near London and they talk like that Near London.

We left Near London straight away. Mrs. Billingsgate (how I would come to hate that name!) drove and I rode with her spotty son Roland on the back of a wooden cart and, through my woe, was almost oblivious to the anachronism of this as Toyota Avenses and Nissan Micros sped past us on the highway, spooking the cart-horse, Ted, who passed away from nervousness soon after that trip. I wept for Ted because he was my only friend in those early days in London.

At length we arrived at the boarding house which was in a dark, gloomy lane (it’s the gloomy lane on London’s famous “Take The Gloomy Lane Tour!” tour for which the bus-drivers demand extra compensation on account of the screamings and stabbings and wailings and, unexpectedly, the cluckings.) Ted, (God bless that horse!) parallel-parked our cart skillfully between two similar carts despite being lashed all the while by the boy, Roland (a more odious youth, I have yet to encounter).

I alit from the cart, clutching my thin woolen shawl around my shoulders as the settling London fog was making the air nippier than a bowlful of teething pirrhanas. As we had travelled straight from the island that morning, I was still wearing our traditional garb of a long, plain but becoming dress with crinolene petticoats, thin-woolen shawl and a biannac (a kind of headscarf that speaks Gaelic). I also had my Nike trainers on because when I heard we were ” just going to take a wee trip down South” I decided I wasn’t going to let these London kids think we don’t know about fashion in the Hebrides. Upon lifting my skirts to avoid a puddle, Roland spied my Nikes and his piggy little eyes shone greedily in his scone-like face. Later, he would steal them for money to support his absinthe habit.

I looked up at the grey, lowering building in which I was to be indentured as a scullery maid, patting Ted’s nose absently, and an iciness took its unforgiving grip on my soul and squeezed.

“‘Ere, watch aht, young miss, that’s moy naahose you’re squeezing”, said Ted, sounding not unlike Dick Van Dyke’s cheerful sweep, Bert.

I doubted my ears, but they were still there, and then my sanity, but I didn’t know where that was and I thought it might be squishy to go poking for it. So I thought the only sensible thing to do was to reply politely, as I had been taught always to do. (My parents may have sold their own daughter into a life of servitude but they were lovely really; quite irreproachable people – when not on the mainland, which, after all, is known to temporarily turn even the most stoic of island heads – in possession of impeccable manners, and there were always paper doilies at teatime. I’ve never held my sale against them.)

“Oh, I do beg your pardon!”, I said.

“Don’t worry, ” said the inestimable Ted (may choirs of unicorns neigh him to his rest!) “I expect it was the iciness gripping your soul and squeezing. Best run along now, dearie. Roland’s in a rum mood, tonight and I’m already terribly nervous from that big-rig back at the M25.”

Roland whipped and yeehaed Ted round a corner and I was alone in the street. I could have run then. Don’t think I haven’t replayed that moment over and over in my mind. But I still had hope at that point, contrary to my every instinct, that I might find some small measure of kindness in my new life with the Billingsgates.

“Well gerra move on, you dozy bint!” cried Mrs. Billingsgate from the gate. “There’s supper to fetch for 22 ‘ungry men and you ain’t no use to man nor beast gawping out there.”

I went in.

I’m sorry. I’m going to have to finish this another time. I can’t go on right now. Too awfully moving and difficult, you know, revisiting these dark chapters.

Vegetable Beauty

My last post got more comments than usual. Obviously the potato stirs something in all of us. I have, therefore, attempted to unravel in verse-form, something of our recent tangled history with the spud.

Once, man yearned for the potato, through famines. My God, through wars! But recently, with carbohydrates falling out of favour and more exotic side-dishes to tempt our taste-buds, the proletarian potato has declined in popularity. But is showing signs of rising gloriously again!

Many poems have been written about the potato famine and I am not fool enough to essay the paths that wiser people than me have trodden. Instead, the scope of my poem is limited to this last troubling period where the potato has struggled to find its place at the feast, once again. I have named my poem “Vegetable Beauty” although reading it over, it could equally be called “Britney Spears” and, oddly, she seemed to pop into my mind as I was pondering potatoes. It would be easy to be cruel about that, but I know none of you will sink that low.

Vegetable Beauty

Your starchy consistency consistently pleases,
You go well with carrots, swedes, turnips and peases,
Now waxy, now floury, now mealy, now bitty,
More common than Paris but smarter than Britney.

Good boiled, baked or fried, or basted and roasted,
“The queen of the plate!” Pop culture once boasted…


Men, testing your nature with tongue and with mind,
Have sometimes been cruel, elitist, unkind.
“How starchy!” “So bland!” Though they ate and they ate
And worried o’er waistlines, and spoke of their weight.

Some say your carbs aren’t complex “They’re too simple!
Peristalsis will halt and they’ll make my thighs dimple!”
My colon will not be sufficiently cleansed,
Too many tatties will lead to us wearing Depends*.

Your popularity has taken a shakin’,
As people go wholegrain, veggie or vegan,
They’ve forgotten your fibre, your Vitamin C,
Your love-song with Ketchup, your conveniency.

But within each breast, if we’re honest and true,
Beats a heart and a stomach that loves, above all, you!
A once guillty secret, you’ve climbed out of the larder,
In favour, in flavour, now posh, wiser, harder.

Like Madonna you’ve reinvented yourself as a russet,
(Folks forget how she once rudely grabbed at her gusset),
“What artistry, texture!” We wonder again why
We’d forgotten the delight of a simple french fry.

So move over rice and pasta and legume,
Spud’s back in town; side supremacy resumed,
A recovered staple, a comfort, a friend
I’m off for a chippy- goodbye and The End

* Depends” – an incontinence shield sold to the elderly and unfortunate of North America.


Happy Independence Day, American pals!

Wherein I Hiate!

I hiate. I flit, I flee. I vacate to Stornoway (Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Go United!)

For some 3 weeks I will be back in the land that birthed me. I will attend the wedding of an old friend; I will be Godmother to the child of another old friend, I will drink heartily and merrily with many old friends. I will be daughter, grand-daughter, niece and old chum. And mother, now, too. I can’t wait.

Dave will be with us for a week or so but he gets claustrophobic on an island and will probably go travelling in Europe for the remainder. It goes to show what the landscapes of our up-bringing will do to us. When I was in the Midwest, where Dave grew up, I could never yet feel quite settled. I couldn’t ever locate myself on any internal map because there were no coasts, no identifying rivers or natural borders to define where I was in my head. I liked Minnesota but couldn’t feel anything other than itchy there.

Too much identifying coastline, however, too little vast, scriptless expanse is what does for Dave. The very idea of being on an island that he has to wait ’til Monday (no Sunday sailings) to get off, drives him insane. It might be different, now we have broadband.

If time allows, I will most certainly be keeping up with you all from Stornoway. It might be some time before I post again, though. So, still not dead, and not planning a death of any sort for the next 3 weeks. I’ll just be on my holidays.