This account of the gathering of the sheep into the Gisla fank for the clipping was written by David Henderson and first published in the Scots Magazine in August 1995. These large-scale community gatherings are now, sadly, a thing of the past. There are more pictures in the gallery, and of the fank at Loch Suainebhat here.
In the diffuse crofting culture of the Western Isles, the summer gathering of the sheep from the moors is one of the main highlights of community life. The practice has remained virtually unchanged since the arrival of the sheep in Lewis, and is a ritual I, as an incomer on holiday from Musselburgh, was priviledged to take part in. The gathering made the highlight of my stay.
My uncle Jim and I woke at dawn. The weather looked poor – drizzle and mist hid the view of Loch Roag from the kitchen window. I was sure the gathering would be put off – wet weather meant damp fleeces, difficult clipping and hours of drying for the Blackface wool we were to harvest.
Donald Calum Morrison, our crofting friend from Valtos, arrived at 7am as planned, refusing tea and looking skyward. “It looks awfully dull,” he said, “but no one’s phoned me so the gathering’s still on.”
Soon I was huddled in the back of Donald Calum’s austere van, sharing floorspace with an excited sheepdog who seemed to know what was in store. We rattled and bounced down the single track road, through Miavaig and on to the road south, pulling into passing places from time to time for a competing car, Donald Calum waving to them with the easy grace of one used to the island etiquette. Then we reached Gisla for the start of the walk into Morsgail Forest, a barren moor between Lewis and Harris where the Valtos crofters’ sheep roam their common grazings.
More than a dozen cars were gathered there. A brief discussion took place in the rain. All the crofters were annoyed that the weather had closed in – during the fortnight before, it had been “just like the Sahara,” as one local put it. There were pensive faces, shaking heads, pursed ips and whistling through teeth. “If it doesn’t dry up soon, the wool will be soaked,” said one man.
Dol’ol at the loom (photo by John Blair). From an article for Uig News by Dave Roberts:
After the First World War there were ex-servicemen who had lost a hand, and one of the reasons for introducing the Hattersley domestic semi-automatic treadle powered loom to the island, was to give them an opportunity to make a living for themselves. Originally designed for the Balkans, Turkey and Greece, these looms eventually caught on for everyone in Lewis and Harris, because of the superior speed of cloth production and the more intricate patterns they could weave. Lord Leverhulme’s interest in the industry, coupled with the serious decline of the herring fishery and the poor price of cured fish from the long line fishery, meant that weaving became a much more important part of the island economy. He had great plans to build weaving sheds close to townships to house a number of Hattersley looms. The weavers would be employed from nine to five, six days a week, weaving tweed for a wage. However this arrangement did not suit crofter-weavers, who would only weave when the croft work allowed, and the idea was eventually dropped.
Hugh Mackay, Carishader, bought the very first Hattersley loom in Uig; it was a single shuttle model. He was a marine engineer, trained in Glasgow, and could strip down the loom and reassemble it without difficulty. If he had a problem, he had no one locally to ask for advice, so he would get on his motorbike and go to Stornoway. However he admitted that quite often he had forgotten the solution, by the time he got back home! In 1936, John Buchanan of No7, Valtos, organised a meeting at Valtos school for local people. Pat Skinner from Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd was there and they arranged for Alasdair Hare from Lochs (mac piuthair Tharmoid Doinn), known as ‘am Breabadair’, to stay in the village for a few weeks. He went from shed to shed teaching as he went.