Donald and the Drovers
The Outer Hebrides are off the north-west coast of Scotland. These are the Western Isles, wild, lonely, beautiful islands - the Isle of Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Barra... Even their names are beautiful.
Many years ago there were no bridges between the islands, only fords. When the tide came in and the sea covered the ford, travellers had to take a boat...
In the Outer Hebrides drovers were men who came to the island markets to buy cattle. Most of these drovers were farmers from the mainland, making the long journey twice a year. It was often a dangerous journey too, because of the fords between the islands. You could only cross the ford when the tide was low. If you were late and you were still walking across the ford when the sea came in, you were in trouble. Luckily, there were sometimes very small islands nearby, where travellers could sit and wait for the sea to come in, and go out again. A long wait.
Between South Uist and Benbecula is the South Ford, with just one small island, a short way from the northern Creagorry shore. And that is where the famous story about Donald happened, sometime in the 1890s.
Donald was a ferryman, who lived in a little house near Carnan Inn, at the southern end of the ford. He had a boat on the beach for any travellers who had missed the tide. He worked as a shoemaker usually, but there were many late travellers, so Donald earned more from his boat than he did from making shoes.
He had never even travelled to the mainland himself, but he had met many travellers - different kinds of men, speaking different kinds of language.
There were the gentlemen fishermen, who spoke good English and kept their purses open. They were friendly with Donald, and he was happy to take them out in his boat, teaching them about the lochs and showing them the places where the big fish hid.
Then there were the travelling salesmen with their big heavy cases, which made the boat low in the water, and caused Donald much worry in rough weather.
Sometimes another kind of traveller went through the islands, looking for old songs and stories. Donald liked them because they were friendly and had the Gaelic. But weren't they foolish people, coming so far just to hear an old song about Fionn and Ossian, dead hundreds of years!
And the drovers, of course. They came west for the big cattle market twice a year, to buy the Highland cattle. Always in a hurry, the drovers passed through the islands, never once looking at the lovely mountains and deep blue waters of the lochs. Mountain, sea, history, song, and story meant little to them; there was no money in it. On the ferry they talked only between themselves, and only about cattle. Strange men, thought Donald.
In the evening of an autumn day three drovers from eastern Scotland arrived at Carnan after the ford had closed. To reach the market on Benbecula early the next morning they must sleep at Creagorry on the northern side.
It was nearly high tide when Donald left with them in his ferry. Halfway across one of the drovers asked:
'What is the fare?'
'Six pence each.' Donald's first language was Gaelic, but he knew enough English for the needs of the ferry.
The passenger held up three fingers. 'Three pence, that's all ye'll get,' he said.
'Ach, perhaps I'll let ye have the night's part cheap,' said Donald. The passenger quickly collected the pennies and laid them down on the seat.
Donald's pull on the oars was strong, and soon the boat was touching the shore. As the drovers got out, Donald pushed his boat away from the shore, and threw their pennies after them.
'Ye can have the night's part for nothing!' he called mysteriously.
The drovers climbed the small hill in front of them, only to discover that they were on a little island, and between them and Creagorry beach was deep sea. It would not be possible to cross the ford until morning.
'Come back, come back, and we'll give ye a shilling,' they called out to Donald.
'We'll make it two shillings and six pence,' they cried.
There was only an echo in reply. Donald had disappeared into the darkness. The sound of his oars slowly died away, and the soft silence of the Hebridean night came down, broken only by the clear call of a seabird flying overhead.
The travellers sat close together with their backs against a large rock. They were not happy men.
'We'll not get to the market early enough,' one said.
'We'll miss the best cattle,' said another. 'They're always sold first.'
'The best cattle in the Western Isles,' said the third, miserably, 'and we'll not be there to buy them.'
Talking was the only way to pass the time. There was nothing else for them to do. They couldn't argue; they had all agreed on paying only three pence for the fare. Now they could only talk, and stare fearfully into the sea-mist blowing up from the shore. They had heard stories of the wild men of Benbecula. And were there not ghosts in these islands of the strange language? In Uist, stories were told of water spirits, and of lights flying through the darkness, held in the hands of the undead. What a place to come to, even for the best Highland cattle at excellent prices!
The drovers had bought many Highland cattle over the years, but they never felt comfortable in these islands. It was hard to understand or speak the language for one thing.
What stranger could pronounce the terrible place-names of Sgarraidhleoid, Sliabhnahairde, or Bailenancailleach? No one, of course, except those who spoke Gaelic. Eilean Chreag Ghoraidh was the name of the small island where they now sat. It was clearly a place of ghosts and spirits, set in a circle of silver sand, with the sea all around. There was nothing to do but wait, wait in the cold night air, wait for the tide and the slow return of another autumn day.
Meanwhile, Donald had reached home and was warming himself slowly and calmly at his fire. He ate his supper, then said to Catriona his wife: 'Long enough' - long enough for the drovers to learn their lesson. So Donald got out his boat again and set off for Eilean Chreag Ghoraidh.
When they heard the sound of oars across the water, the excited drovers ran down to the shore, shouting:
'Oh, take us awa' from here, and we'll give ye a crun!'
Crun is good Gaelic for five shillings, and was very good money in those days. But Donald never asked for a fare as big as that, day or night, king or drover.
'Keep your cruns, you like them so much,' he said, 'but ye will every one put six pence in my hand before you put a foot in my boat.'
The drovers climbed into the boat, silently and thankfully.
Donald took them to the northern Creagorry shore, where the road meets the sea. He shook hands with each man and said:
'Goodnight to you. You'll know now that me and the boat are old but honest, not like drovering.'
As he rowed his boat home, he smiled to himself: 'Long enough, long enough - they've learnt a good lesson tonight.'
The small island of Chreag Ghoraidh is no longer cut off by the sea. On it stands a leg of the great new bridge. Benbecula can now forget the high tides and low tides on the South Ford - but no one will forget the story of Donald and the drovers.
- THE END -