Northwords Now

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Issue 35 - Non-fiction reviews

A Review by Kenny Taylor

Walking with Cattle: In search of the last drovers of Uist
By Terry J Williams (Birlinn) 2017

The Whisky Dictionary
By Iain Hector Ross (Sandstone Press) 2017

The Hebrides
By Paul Murton (Birlinn) 2017

Nowadays, it can be hard to imagine how noisy some straths and glens would have been a couple of centuries ago, as drovers and their herds passed by. Cattle by the thousands, bellowing and snorting; herders’ dogs barking to chivvy any beasts that strayed off the track or paused too long to grab a mouthful of grass; shouts from the drovers and the click and spark of iron-shod cattle hooves: those would all have been part of it.

Droving of cattle to ‘trysts’ – former livestock markets in Perthshire and Stirlingshire and then onward as far south as London - was an important part of the Highland economy until expansion of railways and improved shipping made the activity shrink in the late 1800s and fade to near extinction early in the 20th century. In common with many people, I’d assumed that was the end of the story. Not so, as Terry Williams shows in her lively account of the later years of droving.

In this, she describes how island cattle continued to be bought at small sales in the Uists, walked to ferries and taken onward to markets in Dingwall and Oban as late as the 1960s. Part of her story is a personal narrative of journeys by campervan to old market stances and drove routes, taking with her as talisman an old cattle shoe gifted by another droving expert, Janey Clarke. Part uses extensive quotes from interviews with former drovers and people still involved in the sale and transport of cattle in the islands and mainland.

‘Places and people lose their purpose and eventually disappear and are forgotten,’ says Terry, ‘unless they are somehow recorded.’

This farmer’s daughter from Cumbria, long resident in the Highlands, is to be congratulated on providing such a readable record of an aspect of Hebridean history recalled by some still alive to share their stories.

If you love the roll and timbre of words, dictionaries can often beguile. The surface rhythm of syllables fascinates even before you read the definition. And if the meaning refers to something arcane or finely nuanced, so much the better.

Couple those universals of dictionary pleasure with Uisge bheatha and the combination can be heady as a sherry-casked malt. That’s how ‘The Whisky Dictionary’ reads if you’ve an eye and ear for sometimes obscure words and phrases and a friendly acquaintance with the cratur.

A few examples to savour include ‘gysen’ (dried out, as in the wood of a barrel that is parched, warped and leaky); cauld straik (a dram of raw, cask-strength spirit); miraculous (very drunk); and ‘tosie’ (a cheery glow on the cheeks). With witty pencil sketches by Ben Averis, this is a book to keep and uncork from time to time for the pleasures of its words and facts.

From Gigha to North Rona and St Kilda to Lismore, the Inner and Outer Hebrides hold Atlantic-washed riches by the score. Both as a former resident of Mull and now a multi-seasoned presenter of TV documentaries, Paul Murton has been lucky to visit more Hebrides than most.

This book draws on Paul’s decades of experience to inform accounts of recent visits to more than 60 different islands, from populated and easily accessed to the downright challenging to reach. Meetings with contemporary islanders enliven the text, which is realistic about present day island politics and aspects of local scene, giving the book value as both a good read and for future reference. There’s a fine range of photographs that should please both island-dwellers and would-be travellers alike, and although I’d have preferred slightly fewer of these with the author centre stage, perhaps that’s just me letting my island-goer’s envy show.


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