2007 Summer in the Straths

The Ceardannan – Summer Walkers


“The Summer Walkers” is the poetical name that the crofters of the north west Highlands give to the Travelling People – the Tinkers, hawkers and horse-dealers who, for centuries have passed through their villages buying, selling and entertaining.  These Scottish nomads are not Gypsies.  They are indigenous, Gaelic-speaking Scots who, to this day, remain heirs of a vital and ancient culture of great historical and artistic importance to Scotland and the world beyond.[1]

 

Travelling Families in Mackay Country

 

Within living memory men, women, children – grandparents, mothers, fathers, teenagers, toddlers, babies – travelled across the north of Scotland making a living by pearl fishing, tin-smithing, horse dealing, buying, selling and bartering. Many people in Mackay Country can remember these visits when as children they all played together while the adults got together to do business, drink tea, talk, make music and barter food for goods and labour. One of the best known and best loved of these families in the far north was that of Essie Stewart and her grandfather Ailidh Dall (Alexander Stewart, Lairg) – tinsmith, piper, soldier, singer, storyteller – a man remembered with love and respect.The Ceardannan – Summer Walkers “The Summer Walkers” is the poetical name that the crofters of the north west Highlands give to the Travelling People – the Tinkers, hawkers and horse-dealers who, for centuries have passed through their villages buying, selling and entertaining. These Scottish nomads are not Gypsies. They are indigenous, Gaelic-speaking Scots who, to this day, remain heirs of a vital and ancient culture of great historical and artistic importance to Scotland and the world beyond.[1] Travelling Families in Mackay Country Within living memory men, women, children – grandparents, mothers, fathers, teenagers, toddlers, babies – travelled across the north of Scotland making a living by pearl fishing, tin-smithing, horse dealing, buying, selling and bartering. Many people in Mackay Country can remember these visits when as children they all played together while the adults got together to do business, drink tea, talk, make music and barter food for goods and labour. One of the best known and best loved of these families in the far north was that of Essie Stewart and her grandfather Ailidh Dall (Alexander Stewart, Lairg) – tinsmith, piper, soldier, singer, storyteller – a man remembered with love and respect.

Tradition Bearers

 

Like the people of our Mackay Country communities, Ailidh Dall and Essie Stewart were brought up in the oral tradition.  Over the years history has tended to be written by powerful, literate classes.  The stories and experiences of people brought up in an oral tradition were written out of these kind of histories.  Over the years a few people with great foresight have challenged this through recording and publishing stories and experiences from all sorts of people who are important tradition bearers in Scotland.  In Sutherland and in Scotland, the Stewarts are important tradition bearers.  Hamish Henderson was a very important advocate for this ‘carrying stream’.   Recordings of the Stewart family, particularly Ailidh Dall, were made throughout Mackay Country in the summer months during the 1950s.  These recordings were made in Tongue, Skerray, Borgie, Naver Bridge, Bettyhill, Kirtomy, Armadale, Strathy and Altnaharra.

 

Ceardannan What’s In A Name?

 

In Gaelic the Travellers were known as the ‘Ceardannan’, the Black Tinkers, and recognised as a tribe, separate to the settled population.

In ancient times there was ‘a caste of itinerant metal–workers whose status in tribal society was probably high.  One of the trades associated with them from early times was that of tin smith, and it is clear that to primitive man the ability to use metals seemed very close to magic; consequently both ‘black’ and ‘white’ smiths for long enjoyed immense prestige, not only as craftsmen but also as wielders of secret powers’.’[2]

 

Travelling People

 

The word ‘Tinker’ has sadly come to be a term of abuse or insult and is no longer used by the Travellers.  It’s’ use today constitutes ‘fighting talk’.  Its’ use in the past referred to an important part of the Travellers’ work – metal working and tin-smithing.  Today these important tradition bearers prefer to use the term ‘Travelling People’.

On the Road

 

The aim was to follow part of the old route used by the Stewarts.  The group left Altnaharra in May and spent a few weeks traveling the route focused on the remaining single track roads – Altnaharra to Syre; Syre to Borgie; Borgie to Braetongue; Braetongue to Melness; Melness to Hope; Hope to Laid; Laid to Durness; Durness to Rhiconich; Laxford Bridge to Stac; Stac to Achfary. 

There was a shorter route round Assynt on the single track road culminating at the old camp site at the Cascaig in Rhu Stoer.  This is part of the traditional route and so this project is in partnership with Comunn Eachdraidh Asainte.


The traveling was in horse and cart, using the traditional campsites.  At each key site the bough tents were put up and there was feis and ceilidhs.  Musicians, an artist, an oral historian and a film maker traveled in the group.  Other visiting artists and musicians will were invited to the local feis and ceilidhs along the way.  Essie Stewart lead the way.  Events, recording, filming and art work was in Gaelic and English.  The core stories were the ancient Gaelic tales told by Ailidh Dall; new stories emerged from the trip and the events, art work, music and writing created.


Autumn 2007:

Stories from the Straths Exhibition – Strathy Hall, Achfary Hall, Lochinver Hall
Artists, writers, musicians will be asked to focus on the theme of Movement and Identity in their work.


The history of the Gaidhealtachd is a history of movement.  In the earliest times people settled on these shores.  Wave after wave brought a range of settlers and cultures over the centuries.  Until recently the sea was the main transport route and the settlements on the northern and western edges of the mainland bordered that trunk route, linking Scandanavia and the Baltic with the Mediterranean and Africa.  During the 18th and 19th centuries out-migration became the dominant theme as individuals and sometimes whole communities left for southern industrial cities or for what they called the ‘New World’.  In the late 20th century in-migration once again became significant.  At the same time awareness of the global aspects of Gaidhealtachd culture have been strengthened through modern communications.  The Gaidhealtachd diaspora has resulted in communities in Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand which share language, music and oral history.  Over time these cultural groups have diverged and yet they continue to share common themes and a sense of connectedness.


As a theme movement and identity is uniquely inclusive.  Everyone either has family who emigrated out of Mackay Country or family who emigrated into Mackay Country.  Some families have both.  This theme aims to tackle the often negative focus on movement and migrations – and instead seeks to highlight the creative and social strengths which come from a range of movements and migrations.  The autumn events provide an opportunity to view the art work, showing of the film and story telling – all materials created as a result of the spring trip. 

Beurla Reagaird or The Cant

 

The Travelling People in the Highlands and Islands are native Gaelic speakers – though as in many communities, use of Gaelic has fallen away in recent decades.  Traditionally the Travellers also have a language of their own, sometimes called a ‘cover-tongue’ or cant.  In Gaelic it is ‘Beurla Reagaird’ – the lingo of the cairds.

Working and Travelling Lives

 

Until the last decades of the twentieth century the Ceardannan in Mackay Country still made a living buying and selling horses, working tin – or ‘white metal’ – hawking and working as seasonal labourers.  Individuals from well-known Travelling families like the Stewarts also served in the army, made music and told stories.

 

The Stewarts kept to a traditional route each year –

 

‘From Altnaharra we travelled north, in convoy, to Brae Tongue, down to Coldbackie sands, on through Naver Bridge, Armadale, Bettyhill, Strathy, Melvich to Caithness.  We hawked, traded, tinsmithed and ceilidhed our way through Sutherland to Janetstown – where we turned back.  The Stewarts never went further east than attendance at the horse fair there in Janetstown.’[3]Essie Stewart

Memories from Kirtomy

 

“Oh yes, the Ceardannan coming.  Oh, I loved it when they used to come!  There were the Stewarts and the Williamsons and they were quite admired.  The Williamsons used to come for the pearl fishing, the freshwater pearl fishing.  Very good-looking people, they were, and so were the Stewarts – and very clean.  The Stewarts would have beautifully-painted carts and everything.
And then on the other side from Caithness we had the MacPhees.  They didn’t speak Gaelic but they had a cant.  It wasn’t the same as the cant that the Stewarts had – they had a different one.  They were very humorous – they had a lot of humour in them.
We got quite friendly with some of the Stewarts and would play with the kids.  There was a lot of them very musical too, and we used to go along to listen to the accordions and that.

You knew when they would come, and then one morning you came past and they were gone, and everything was gone with them as if they’d never been there.
And the Stewarts and the Williamsons, they settled, kind of, and you don’t see them now, you know … there’s a sadness about that people going.”[6]

 

Memories from Strathy

 

“That’s where they put their stance, just right beside the river, and they had the camp there.  You’d hear them playing the pipes and the accordion and dogs barking and bairns yelping, you know!  It would be the Stewarts from Lairg.

There’d be maybe two carts, and horses and they’d spend some time there – a week maybe – before they’d go off to the next place.  It was great.  A lot of music.  Pipes and accordions, and they had great ceilidhs down there.

We were just that bit in awe, you know.  I suppose my mother would be afraid – there was a lot of us – young girls.  She wouldn’t want us at the river anyway, for a start.  You were told not to go near the river.  I’m not sure when they would have stopped coming, but I remember them in my primary school days.”[7]

 

Overscaig in a Blizzard

 

‘It’s wild mountain country to the west of Loch Shin and we went out into the wind.  At Fiag Bridge it started to snow.  It was so cold no-one could sit for a rest in the cart, we had to keep moving – the old man was getting on and I was just seven or eight.  Michie was leading the horse, Granda holding on to the back of the cart and me walking behind him, holding his coat.  I remember our fronts plastered thick with snow.  We got to Overscaig – that’s about eight miles.  We uncoupled the horse and brought it round by the cart with its back to the wind and mother scraped the snow as fast as she could, so we could heave up a lean-to against the back end of the cart.

 

Arriving at Achfary

 

Two days we were stuck at Overscaig, then we went on to Achfary – we knew we’d get help there.  We were in quite a bad way – so when I saw the flag flying up over the castle, I shouted  to Grandad, “The flag is up!” and he said “It’ll be alright now”.  The flag meant the Westminsters were in residence.  And before the tent was up Hughie Morrison, the chauffeur, came down to the camp in a Rolls-Royce with a box full of dry clothes and food!  And we asked how he knew what was needed and he said that the Duchess had seen us come into the campsite and asked who we were.  “I told her”, he said “It must be Mary Stewart and Blind Ailidh Dall, and she said ‘I’ll make up a box – and you take it down when you’re passing.’”  And in ten minutes the box was there by the front door and Hughie brought it down straight away.  There were even chocolates in it.  That was the kind of people they were.  The Achfary kitchen was ordered never to refuse food to the Travelling People.  There was a French chef who would heap up our baskets full with delicacies.  Coming back in the autumn I’ve seen our carts leave Achfary with the venison tied on with ropes.  So much.’[8]

Essie Stewart

 

The Achfary Horses

 

We got a lot of horses from the Duchess of Westminster at Achfary.  They had horses up on the hill just running wild.  She’d Alec Ross out to bring the horses down to a big fank  where we’d take our luck with four or five – some young mares, but mostly stallions, young colts, because up on the hill, at eighteen months or two years, they’d be mounting the mares and serving them and the Duchess wanted rid of them – she didn’t want inbreeding in her stock.  She was a good woman to us like.
The Traveller men would go down to the fank and look them over.  We’d lean over the wall and watch them round: then we’d lay nooses down, and whip them tight like a lasso – capture each horse by a front leg.  Then we’d take them by the nose and put a bag over their heads; after that we’d get a halter and a rope on.  “A devil rope”, we used to call it, one man on either side.  It would soon slip tight down round the nose, to close the nostrils.  The horse would kick and rear but soon get winded.  As it got weaker, we’d slacken the rope.  That was it!  After a few days they’d be calm enough to be tethered behind the cart and on we’d go.’[9]

Gordon Stewart

 

Melness and Kinlochbervie

 

‘Out on the road, ceilidhs would break out every time several families met up at a big campsite.  The local people would come and join in, especially up at Melness, and at Kinlochbervie we had huge ceilidhs.  Ailidh Dall would play the pipes, there would be signing, melodeons, tin-whistle sometimes, dancing, stories.’ [10]

Essie Stewart

 

A Campsite in the Strath

 

… Come the spring we’d always be ready for the road again.  First it was up the Naver we’d go, just like the Stewarts in the old days, and we’d camp at Rhifail, north of Loch Naver, past Altnaharra.  Ooh that’s a grand, well-sheltered camping ground, trees all round and the river there runs clear, early in the year.’

Eddie Davies

 

Loch Eriboll – Wartime Memories

 

‘I mind us meeting the MacPhees up at Laide, on Loch Erriboll, at Eriboll Farm.  It’s deep water in the loch.  We went to sleep in our tents and when we woke up there were battleships there, cruisers, destroyers anchored in a great row down the loch.  That was 2nd September 1939.  They’d come in to hide, waiting for the war.  The Williamsons were camped not far along.  … We were boys then and we cheered and waved our bonnets at the sailors.  They must have wondered who the hell they were fighting for!’[11]

Eddie Davies

 

Tradition Bearers

 

Like the people of our Mackay Country communities, Ailidh Dall and Essie Stewart were brought up in the oral tradition.  Over the years history has tended to be written by powerful, literate classes.  The stories and experiences of people brought up in an oral tradition were written out of these kind of histories.  Over the years a few people with great foresight have challenged this through recording and publishing stories and experiences from all sorts of people who are important tradition bearers in Scotland.  In Sutherland and in Scotland, the Stewarts are important tradition bearers.  Hamish Henderson was a very important advocate for this ‘carrying stream’.
Recordings of the Stewart family, particularly Ailidh Dall, were made throughout Mackay Country in the summer months during the 1950s.  These recordings were made in Tongue, Skerray, Borgie, Naver Bridge, Bettyhill, Kirtomy, Armadale, Strathy and Altnaharra.

 

Ailidh Dall – Storyteller

 

Hamish Henderson described his first encounter with Ailidh Dall in Timothy Neat’s book:


‘The first song I recorded from Ailidh Dall “The Sweet Sorrow”, Am Bron Binn, is one of the oldest songs in Europe.  It tells of Arthur, “King of Britain” and makes a unique and direct link between the worlds of P Celtic and Q Celtic, the two great branches of Celtic language and history.  To start at the beginning is always good but to get started in 500 AD was the stuff of dreams!  Needing mains electricity, I set up my first “studio” in Tongue Hotel.


Calum MacLean, who was responsible for work in the Gaidhealtachd when the School of Scottish Studies was created in 1951, called Ailidh Dall ‘the best Gaelic storyteller ever recorded on the mainland of Scotland’.
Hamish Henderson said of recording him:


‘Ailidh Dall was a piper too of course, and a singer.  But it was his stories, told with Homeric gravitas, that take the biscuit.  I have never heard the haunting, slow, deliberate rendition of Ailidh Dall equalled for archaic authenticity.  I held a bucket there, as it were, beneath the sky, a rusty can – to crystal water cascading down the cataract of day!’

 

Ailidh Dall – My Grandfather

 

Essie recalls her grandfather for Timothy Neat:

‘Alexander Stewart, Ailidh Dall, that means Blind Sandy, was born in 1882.  He was my grandfather but he was more like a father to me.  He came from a family of seven.  He had no schooling.  As a young man he was a tinsmith, and a much respected horseman, he did four years in the artillery, he was a very good piper and a singer.  He couldn’t read or write.  He, and the Williamsons of Ardgay, were the last of the real old style Travellers in the north west and they were very well thought of.’[12]

 

Essie Stewart A Traveller’s Childhood

 

‘Every summer we would set out for five or six months on the road with the horses, dogs, one to three carts, our big bow-tent, and two or three bantams for eggs.  By that time Ailidh Dall could no longer make tin, so everything depended on my mother selling round the doors.  She took whatever was wanted and needed bringing in – overalls, trousers, shirts, socks, underwear, needles, pins, brushes, combs, frock-coats for women.  All the Highland women wore them – with the flower patterns on.  She would take orders, or know from years of selling what particular crofters, shepherds, keepers would be wanting.  Most of the women were so pleased to see her.  They would meet perhaps two or three times a year and many of them would see few other folk.  There was real isolation in the Highlands then.  We were friends and very welcome – we were travelling shops ahead of time!  There were still very few cars in the forties.  On the road I normally had to stay behind at the camp to look after my grandfather, do the washing, tend the horses, prepare the food.’ [13]

Essie Stewart

  [1] Preface to his important book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh. – 2002

 

  1. [2] From ‘A Companion to Scottish Culture’, edited by David Daiches, Edward Arnold 1981.  Quoted on Page 229 in Alec Finlay (editor) 2004 Alias MacAlias: Writings on Songs, Folk and Literature – Hamish Henderson.  Polygon, Edinburgh.
  2. [3] Page 74  – Quoted by Timothy Neat in ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  3. [4] Page 95 – Quoted by Timothy Neat in his book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  4. [5] Quoted by Timothy Neat in ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  5. [6] Mackay Country Oral History Recording 2004.
  6. [7] Mackay Country Oral History Recording 2004.
  7. [8] Page 12 – Quoted by Timothy Neat in his book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  8. [9] Page 95 Quoted by Timothy Neat in his important book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  9. [10] Page 13 – Quoted by Timothy Neat in his book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  10. [11] Page 35 – Quoted by Timothy Neat in his book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  11. [12] Page  6 – Quoted by Timothy Neat in his book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.
  12. [13] Pages 6 and 7 Timothy Neat in his book ‘The Summer Walkers’, published by Canongate, Edinburgh  – 2002.

Gordon Stewart – Apprentice Smith

 

Essie’s step-brother, Gordon Stewart, has lived in Bonar Bridge for many years and worked for the ‘County’ Roads Department.  Below he remembers his travelling days.

 

Eddie Davies – Pearl Fishing in Mackay Country

 

The Davies family lived by the ancient trade of pearl fishing in rivers like The Naver and The Laxford.  Eddie Davies recalls fishing Mackay Country rivers.

 

Tinsmithing

 

“Six years I was tinsmith on the road.  It was my uncles, Brian Stewart and Peter Stewart who learned me the craft.  But mainly it’s a thing you learn by doing, and most of all you learn by your mistakes.  The first things that I made were the cups the crofters would leave behind at the well.  And I used to make mugs for the children; from Tate and Lyle syrup tins, green and gold, with the lion and bees all round.  I’d just turn the lip and fit a handle on.  Going to a party, the children would take their own mugs, and syrup tins were just the thing.  The mothers used to keep them for us, for when we came round, and old corned beef tins: we’d burn them to get the solder out.


By the age of twelve, I was near enough as good as Brian and Peter, and the womenfolk started selling everything I made.  One day the orders would come in, the next day the women would take the orders back.  We made three different kinds of milking pails, we made big pails for water, small pails, skimmers, milk-basins, creaming bowls, steamers for cloutie dumplings, sieves, basins, baths for babies and for washing clothes.  Those were the big things.  Then we made jugs, cups, ladles, spatulas for the frying pans.  I’ve known us at it from half-past seven in the morning till late into the evening, when a rush was on.  Work like that was hard on the eyes.”[4]

 

The Rivers

 

‘The Tay gives you the big white pearls, but they don’t have the lustre we have on the rivers up here in Sutherland.  The Oykel is a beautiful river, it’s there you get the coloured pearls – salmon pink, rose-pink, beautiful, beautiful pearls in the Oykel – but they tend to be small.’


‘The Laxford was always a great river for me like.  There’s less colour in the Laxford, beautiful white pearls, satin-white, silver-grey, moon pearls I used to call them.’


‘The Naver is a great river for pearls, the river ‘of the great cleared Strath’.  The colours you get are white, the satin grey and sometimes a soft pink/grey.  And the Mallard, Borgie, Inverkirkaig, they all have their different sheens.’

 

The Fishing

 

‘A pearl-fisherman needs a  “rod” and a “glass” and that’s it.  We always made our rods of hazel wood.  One wood we never used was rowan, a rowan tree must be left to stand in the ground where it grew.  The Travellers would never cut a rowan bough for a bow-tent; hazel or ash, yes, but not for us the rowan tree.  It’s a superstition, goes way back.  It’s a beautiful tree.

 

Pearl-fishing, of course, is prohibited today, illegal by Act of Parliament.  The river-mussel is a protected species.  You see, we pearl fishers had to open up the shells, and so the fish were killed.  Now when the number of pearl fishers was small, that was OK, but when they came up here like an army – that was it!  … what the cowboys did was kill the goose that laid the golden eggs!’ .”[5]
Eddie Davies

Mackay Country Community Trust Limited is a company limited by guarantee registered in Scotland No. 331267

and a registered Scottish Charity No SCO38792

To provide a structure to allow the development of partnership between the communities and community groups operating in and comprising Mackay Country.

Registered Office: Farr Edge 2000 "The Hut" Bettyhill by Thurso Caithness KW14 7SS.

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