Jonathan & Denise >
Then – Summer 1934
Ciorstaidh [Kirsty] MacDonald and her older daughters Mary and Annie are making hay in the field below Carrick – which we refer to as Field 1 or Home Park. Ciorstaidh seems to be wearing a gansey : it might well be an Eriskay gansey, as she was renown as a knitter. Her mother in law is dressed according to the island norms for a married woman – but as those norms were before the 1st World War : she has turned her back to the camera, because she is superstitious about having her image ‘taken’.
The young boy sitting on the grass is Alasdair Lachlainn [Alexander Lachlan – or just Alex] : as a young man he emigrated to Canada and made a good life for himself there. Here he is sitting back to back with his slightly older sister who became a nun, being thereafter known as Sister John Vincent ( in later life she became head of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul). Alex’s older brother, Iain ‘Beag’ [Little John – typical of the Gaels, that signifies that he was in fact big!] does not appear in this photo – he may have been out fishing with his father (Iain Mòr) on their fishing boat – one of the Zulu type, named St Vincent.
When Iain Mòr died, it was Iain Beag – as eldest son – who inherited the tenancy of the croft ; though by all accounts he didn’t do much with it ; in fact he allowed it slip into a state of ruin. Iain died nearly twenty years ago, bequeathing the tenancy to his brother Alex, who came back to Eriskay – for the first time since emigrating – to bury his brother and take possession of the croft : which he promptly put up for sale. The first attempt at selling fell through, but a year or so later we became the new tenants of the croft (we’re now owners), and the first generation to actually work the croft since the the days of Ciorstaidh and her daughters gathering the hay.
Now – January 2021
The sloping ground on the left of the photo : that’s exactly the same spot. The profile of the hill on the far side of the Sound of Eriskay – just to the left of centre – confirms it’s the same. Even if left ungrazed, and even in a good year, the grass grows little more than 10 to 15cm ; that’s nothing like the long-stemmed hay of the 1930s.
If you look carefully, you can maybe just make out, amongst the grass, a slight ridge-and-furrow pattern : this is the result of attempts, in past times, to improve the ground. Scalp the turf, and there’s a few inches of poor subsoil, and then the hardest of hard bedrock. By digging shallow ditches, and putting soil and rotted seaweed on the patches of ground between, along with manure from the byre, it may be possible to get a worthwhile crop of hay, from small patches of similar ground scattered around the croft. There are many such patches on our croft, some have been dated by archaeologists to the Middle Ages.
The last time such labour-intensive work was considered at all worthwhile was during the Great Depression – when Ciorstaidh and the children were photographed, by a visiting ethnologist, gathering hay.