We are in the final decade of the 18thC, observing activities on the shore involving the inhabitants of one of the Bays of Harris. It is low water at one of the Spring tides of the month and all the people are gathered in that portion of the shore that the proprietor, or the principle tacksman, has permitted them to utilise for the gathering of sea-ware. This sea-weed is the principle, in many parts the only, source of manure with which to fertilise the land.
Working together, the men cut the weed, load it into their creels, and carry these on their backs to well above where the highest tides can reach it. Here a pile is made for each tenant but it is only when the collecting is complete that the men draw lots to allocate each pile. A neat way of ensuring that, during this communal activity, all piles are attended to with equal regard.
Each man then carries his sea-ware to the ground that he is to cultivate that year, the allocation of which is also made by the drawing of lots. No horses are used, partly because many of the paths taken to reach these growing-grounds are impossible for them to navigate but mainly because there is insufficient pasture to support them.
The ground might be a straight ridge, but is more likely to follow a ‘ circular, serpentine, or zig-zag direction, round the intervening rocks, pools, or bogs’. The sea-ware is then spread, very thickly, on the surface of this narrow strip.
Next, taking a ‘casdireach’, a straight-handles spade, he cuts from the adjoining furrows as much suitable turf as is available. Another person, if one is available, collects these turves and packs them on top of the manure, sealing it from sight.
The feannagan are left like this until very late Spring when they are prepared for sowing. A heavy hoe is used to break the clods down which is almost as intensive a task as that of all the earlier operations. Only then can the barley seed be sown, or the potato cuttings planted closely together using a dibble. The harrowing is performed using a two-foot long hand-rake set with half-a-dozen wooden teeth.
The whole family, or at least those over 12, take part in this process, which is replicated throughout those parts of Harris that cannot be ploughed. The only exception is that, where they can be used, horses will carry the sea-ware and do the harrowing.
The quantities involved are prodigious, it taking 200 large creels of sea-ware to yield one boll of barley, or 12 to 14 barrels of potatoes.
‘LAZY-beds’? – I think not!
“University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow. (1999) The Statistical Accounts of Scotland Account of 1791-99 vol.10 pp.352-354: Harris, County of Inverness . Available from: http://edina.ac.uk/statacc/