Laxie's Shop
(Our gratitude to Mrs Kenina MacDonald who willingly gave of her time to share her memories with us)

 

Left: Aonghas Chalum ’An Dhomhnaill (Laxie) with Calum and Kennag
Right: The Avery weighing machine and the big bacon slicing machine. What bliss……

How often one's mind strays back to the days of one's childhood; those glorious, carefree days of yore. Mine were often spent at 34 South Bragar and what wonderful, happy memories I have.

One aspect of my earliest years that I remember in particular is the shop and all the hustle and bustle that it entailed.

My father opened the shop in the 1920's when he decided that life on the open wave was not for him, and settled down ashore. It continued to be run as a family concern until it closed in 1980.

Looking back it seems to have been a grocer, baker, chemist and hardware shop all rolled into one. Most of the stock came from the two wholesalers in Stornoway - Tods and Kenneth Maclennan, while Charlie Morrison - Bùth Theàrlaich, which sadly closed earlier last year - supplied the hardware goods. He was also the stockist for the more seasonal items, items only in demand at certain times of the year, such as sheep dip, sheep markings, rope and of course spuinnean, better known as sìoman Theàrlaich, for the corn stacks and the thatching. These goods were brought from Stornoway on a regular basis by Aonghas Uilleam the local bus operator. When he ceased operating Dòmhnall Beag Dhomhnaill Toudie provided the service for many years.

As the oil lamp was the only form of lighting in these days, Charlie Morrison's fuel tanker was a familiar sight, filling up the two big galvanised tanks housed at the back of the shop, with the handy 3 bottle measure beside them at the ready. As people graduated to tilly lamps, mantles, vaporisers and methylated spirits - for which a licence was needed before it could be sold on the premises - were added to the shelves.

Whenever I pass a bakery the aroma of newly baked bread always reminds me of these faraway times when Calum Sgitheanach, J & E Macleod, and Maclean Brothers used to come to the shop with their batches of freshly baked loaves. Other days it would be the Ròigean Brothers with their own special brand of biscuits. And, just in case one needed something to cool one down on those beautiful summer days we used to have, another Niseach, Louis Murray, would roll up with his lorry loaded with crate upon crate of different flavoured fizzy drinks.

But all this buying and selling involved money and the Royal Bank of Scotland realised how much rural communities would benefit from a "Traveling Bank". Weavers could get their pay packets on their own doorsteps and all bank transactions could be made without the long and tedious bus journey to Stornoway.

Top: Calum Laxie’s car (1953)
Bottom: Peigi Tharmoid ’An Bhàin (Bean Laxie) with Calum and Kennag

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," they say, but Alick Murdo had the remedy in his hands. In the early 1950's he became a welcomed and familiar sight with his mobile library. Alick soon got to know all his clients' literary tastes and sent each and every one home with a supply of enjoyable reading tucked under their arm.

Nowadays as I wander around the village shop or supermarket it occurs to me how easy life has become for a shopkeeper. You fill up your basket or trolley and then all he does is run up your bill on the till - but keep your fingers crossed there's no power cut ! It's a far cry from those earlier times when practically everything came in bulk and had to be weighed and measured to the customers requirements. Even the weighing needed a bit of wizardry as you fiddled about with different weights until you got the right balance. I can still see these big chests of Ceylon Tea all beautifully lined with silver paper and very much in demand when empty as they were ideal for storage. Maybe this was recycling in the making!

But as time went on the system became more sophisticated with the advent of the Avery weighing machine and the big bacon slicing machine. What bliss just to stand and watch these robots doing the work.

But my fondest memories of all are of the times when the shop seemed to cease being a shop and became the ceilidh place. If a few of the local characters happened to be there at the same time - which occurred quite often - one was guaranteed a good half hour of lively comedy. What talent, what wit and what humour there was - all completely unrehearsed, good clean fun without spite or malice. Many a time I relive these moments and think about the lovely people all now passed on - "footprints in the sands of time.

Ach tha am fuaran làn - bùrn èirigh gu leòr. Sweet memories.

We are not sure who these two ladies snapped outside Laxie’s shop are. Can anyone identify them?

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The incident of the otter board and the washtub

Alastair MacLean was born in Shawbost, educated at the Nicolson Institute Stornoway and qualified with a BDS from Edinburgh. He worked in General practice and in 1990 he became Scottish Secretary of the BDA and judging from the many tributes paid to him by his Colleagues on his retirement, he was a well liked and a much respected member of the community.

Alastair has written a few well remembered “adventures” that he had as a boy growing up in Shawbost.

I was born in 1940 and brought up at 28 New Shawbost, in a house designed and largely built by my father, Kenneth MacLean, Coinneach a’ Mhisionairidh, in 1937. It was the first shuttered concrete house in Shawbost, if not on the West Side and I believe that the traditional stonemasons were very sceptical as to whether it would stand for any length of time. Possibly influenced by these doubters the walls were about three feet thick, I suspect that using up considerably more concrete than was necessary; considering that all the concrete was mixed by hand the additional labour involved must have been considerable. As it was it survived until it was largely demolished in the early eighties to be replaced by the current house on the same site.

Sadly my father died when I was barely a year old and consequently I never knew him.

The upstairs rooms in the house were such that substantial storage spaces were available in the eaves and to a curious youngster this area was literally an Aladdin’s Cave, full of the dumped detritus of the past. One of the finds was an Otter Board (Biasd-Dhubh) complete with line and flies- this was an illegal trout fishing apparatus consisting of a board about 18 long inches by about 12 inches deep, with a lead weight on one of the longer edges and the shorter edges shaped like the bow of a boat. A line was attached to a wire inserted about 4 inches from the top of the board and about twenty or so flies attached with transparent fishing line at intervals along its length.

The family home at 28 New Shawbost

The board was used on lochs by pushing it, with the weighted edge down, rather like a yacht, while gradually releasing the line to allow the board to progress in a graceful arc out into the loch so that the series of flies floated just on the surface. At least that was the theory, In practice it was not quite as simple or else the board was not as well designed as it might have been, which could account for its relegation to the attic. At this time my pal or in this case my partner in crime was Donald McLeod, 52 North Shawbost (Domhuil Chuilich); Donald was about a year younger than me so I can only assume that I was the ringleader, although I do remember that Donald was also very inventive when it came to diversions and past times.

Anyway Donald and I carried out some running repairs to the otter board and resolved to try it out on Loch a Bhaille; I don’t know whether it was to be less obviously identifiable or that we thought the South Shawbost side of the loch as the better fishing beat that that was where we headed that day.

Initially the launch seemed to go well and the board was heading smoothly out the loch- that, at least is my memory of it- but, unfortunately some thirty yards off- shore the board snagged on a rock or something and got firmly stuck.

At this time before the days of electricity, washing machines and tumble driers, it was the habit in most households to wash the family blankets either by the river or the loch where water was boiled on a fire in a large three legged black cast iron pot and this added to cold water from the loch along with some Rinso or Persil in a cut down barrel where foot power, rather similar to the traditional way of pressing grapes in wine making, was used to thoroughly wash the blankets.

Anyway near the site of our calamity there happened to be available such a barrel, which Donald and I decided we could use to retrieve the otter board. A suitable stick to act as an oar was also requisitioned and probably because of seniority and ownership, I was launched in the barrel with a push from Donald on the shore. The craft proved to be extremely difficult to manoeuvre and steer with a strong tendency to go round in circles but I seemed to be making some progress, until, horror of horrors, the barrel began to ship water at an alarming rate and becoming even more difficult to control. By this time I had almost reached the otter board and the difficult decision had to be made whether to rescue the board or try to make it back to shore before the barrel sank completely, not a pleasant prospect for a non swimmer, especially in Lewis in April. I can’t remember any conscious decision being made but I made it back to shore abandoning the illegal otter board forever.

My memory does not extend to the excuse I made to my mother to explain my wet clothes but I thought the incident would be completely forgotten but, unfortunately, Ian Bàn (Bimbo’s grandfather) observed the whole incident from his croft and despite our subterfuge of moving to the South Shawbost side of the loch he was able to identify us and report our misdemeanours The mist of time, fortunately, have dimmed the subsequent punishment meted out to us both.

On second thoughts I now remember that it was another of our expeditions that Ian Bàn interrupted, our swimming expedition into the river at the foot of the croft at number 50 North with Dòmhnall and Callum Angus a’ Gobha (the late Donald and Callum Angus Gillies) one March day!

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Interview with Leod Murray

Leod Murray, or Leody as many know him fondly, was born on 13 of March 1915 and, as many will know, is the regular face of the Shawbost Post Office where he has lived all his life. At the age of 88 he has many interesting memories and stories to share. Still living in the house he was born into he fondly recalls his childhood and the memories he has gathered over the years. He can still remember them all clearly, stretching back over 80 years, and he has a great insight into the changes in the community.

One of the earliest memories he has is that of the night of the Iolaire disaster. As a young boy his understanding was that New Year was meant to be a time of celebration and, as so many were returning home from war, that New Year was to be the kind of celebration that they had not had before, but as we know it turned very much the other way with the deaths of nearly 200 people. Even as a young child he understood that that was to have an effect on every village and as Leod himself recalls the effect he noted that it had on those around him was to shape his childhood views in very particular ways, beginning with the strong bonds that grew between people in their village and those around them.

One of the best examples of this in more recent terms is to be seen in his own family, with the family run Post Office, which has been in his family since 1883 when his great grandfather ran it. Leod himself has been involved in its work since he was a little boy, helping out his mother if and when he could and taking over the business once she passed away in 1953. As he himself admits though he was often more of a hindrance than help, often getting under his mother’s feet and causing trouble more often than not. One of the stories he recalls is that of him and a friend stealing a packet of cigarettes from his father’s shop and smoking one, which made them so ill that he had to come straight back home. Being a typical young boy though when asked by his mother what he had taken he refused to tell and had to put up with how ill he was feeling for days, as he was scared that he would receive a far worse punishment if he were to tell her the truth. This, as Leod himself says, was but one of the many happy memories he had as a child.

As a young boy he also remembers the photographer coming to school to take their school picture and their being about 180 pupils in the school itself, a far cry from the numbers of children we see attending schools across the island today. He also recalls walking to school and reaching the crossroads, looking one way and then the other all he could see was other children coming to school too. Leod believes this is one of the saddest changes within communities and he places a great emphasis on the contribution the young make to the present and future. As he so rightly puts it “a street without children, is a street that is dying.” It seems then that the education he received as a child has stood him in good stead in more recent times and while talking with him it is obvious that he is indeed very intelligent and a good judge of character and the moving times.

However, Leod says when he left school there was limited opportunity for them due to their expected call up to the army. The war he says spoiled so many lives, and returning from the war often meant an upheaval in routine and they were promised that they would be looked after when they returned, but as Leod says that is not how promises go. Leod himself was a prisoner of war for 5 years, and as he says has deserved such a long break over the last number of years! He can recall the day he was sent home so clearly. He was in the south of England, on a Thursday night, and they were due to be released on the Friday. He was called to see an Officer and he recalls saying to himself, as you often do, “what have I done now?” Leod remembers the officer telling him “I know where you come from” and then being told that he was being sent down to Houston Station to catch the train home there and then. Leod remembers, on reaching Houston Station, walking down the platform and someone calling his name, turning around and finding a boy he knew from the next village. On entering the carriage he then found two other boys from Shawbost that he knew and pretty soon the whole carriage was filled with those from Lewis. Leod describes that night as being one of the best and he felt so grateful to those in the army who made sure that they would reach home on Saturday night as promised. Coming back to the island, however, was not hard he says, though he had fears that Saturday night that after spending 4 years not speaking a word of Gaelic that it would no longer flow as smoothly as it had previously done, but he saw no difference and quickly settled back in. He recalls the party they had thrown in the Town Hall in Stornoway for the returning prisoners of war, which itself would have been a welcome change.

However as Leod explains, even when you were home the army were still not done with you. Luckily for Leod himself though, he was given more than his due leave – having returned home at the end of May, he was still on leave until the end of January. What Leod does clearly remember, however, are the changes that were being made even in those early times in that he was then sent on a course that was meant to make you suitable for any kind of job but his heart was not in it and he returned to make a living in the community he had been raised in, working in the loom trade as was so popular in villages at that time and he continued to do this until the death of his mother when he himself took over the Post Office.

In contrast to this though, Leod has come to note over the years one of the sad changes within communities, in that not many people choose to stay here, especially due to opportunities on the mainland. He himself has seen the changes in work opportunities between past and present. In the days of the Harris Tweed, Leod recalls the prospering millwork available in the village and how it benefited not only Shawbost, but also the rest of the island and how the lives of the people in the villages were improved as they were self-reliant and created lives for themselves which he believes meant they were better off then than they ever were. It seems such a vast difference to modern day when the balance between work and expenses is so hard to maintain.

Leod has seen this in his own experiences. During his time at the Post Office, he has seen many changes. He remembers in the 1920’s the pensions being just 10 shillings, but people being so happy with that. He remembers many people choosing to spend half of their pension on ordering from mail order catalogues – such as J D Williams, Oxendale, and Greaves etc. And many others choosing to play the pools by putting a shilling or so bet on in an attempt to get rich quick!

It was not only work that Leod has noticed a difference in however, it was in the normal community routine too. He recalls that fank days were one’s to look forward to as the whole village came together, as were the Communions and as Leod recalls the daily task of drawing water for the Communions was a regular occurrence. It was these special occasions that Leod believes created that feeling of community and it was in celebrating them that people came to realise their value. Nowadays, however, Leod believes that these days are not as sacred and special as they used to be. In the past there was often 3 or 4 buses full of people from all over the island going to the Communions and he remembers the buses dropping the people off in Shawbost and then coming back to collect them on the Monday. In recent days however it is a rare occurrence that you will see such a sight.

There are many such traditions within the villages though, and there was many a ceilidh to be enjoyed. The dances on the road were a common sight, which were enjoyed by many and Leod believes for many this was a welcome change. There were also many beliefs people had, particularly in relation to ghosts and such like. As a child, Leod was lead to believe many stories about women who had special powers and of whom you had to be wary as if you upset them you could expect a worse punishment to come your way. He recalls being warned about parts of the road between Shawbost and Bragar, which he was told not to go near and also being told about many women who were thought to be able to curse you should they not like you.

One famous story is that of the Kings Evil which Leod himself believes in. It is the tale that the seventh son in a family is believed to have special healing powers. His own daughter Mairi had a mark on her face, which no doctor could heal and which no antibiotics could cure. She suffered with this for months on end but one day a friend of hers who was a doctor (and a seventh son) told her to come down to him first thing every morning for three mornings, before either of them ate anything, and once there he would dip his hand in water and then dab it on her mark. On the third day he put a chain on her neck of a sixpence with a hole in it and the mark fully disappeared leaving no scar or anything. This “doctor” remembered, as a child, his mother taking him to people’s houses and having him heal people in the same manner.

But despite all these beliefs and changes, Leod believes that there are still many more changes to come. He would like to see more of a population settling in the villages, especially the young and that feeling of community being as it once was. He believes there is a need to create more community-based projects and he himself is involved in the development of a war memorial in Shawbost and cares greatly that it is seen through and we wish the committee the best of luck with that. Having seen so many changes over the years Leod himself has a better understanding than most about the local community with its history and people. Change is inevitable but as Leod says where he is now is indeed a nice place to be living in.