As a lead up to a series of interviews with the characters in my novel The Butterfly & The Bull, I am posting the following account of the early life of the hero of the story, Donnie Mclennan.
My name is Donnie McLennan. As in “Donald, Son of Lennan.” Although where old Lennan comes into the picture is lost in the convoluted and bloody mists of Scottish history. All I know is that my early ancestors probably came over from Ireland sometime in the fifth century. The first people known by the name “Mac Ghill’ Fhinnein” occupied Lorn and the area around Glenelg on the west coast. Later, but still many generations before me, some of the clan moved to the Isle of Lewis, a land of endless peat bogs where the reefs of ancient bedrock emerge from a sea of thin topsoil. On its western strand, beaches of pure white sand, mile upon mile, edge this wasteland and the eastern coast is a rocky moonscape heavily indented by lochs and inlets. It is a wild and beautiful place, dark with superstition and mythology. And it was on this Lewis that I was born, in a two-storey croft house which stood on the west coast of the island and stared out sightlessly on the Atlantic Ocean.
“The wind here,” my father would say, “comes all the way from America.”
My mother had sworn, after giving birth to my sister three years previously in Raigmhor hospital in Inverness, that she would birth her next child at home. Her husband was vehemently opposed to this plan, but mother prevailed (“As bloody always” he would later mutter when the subject came up), citing the almost legendary capabilities of Ealasaid McDonald, the midwife. Sadly for all of us, Ealasaid suffered a major cardiac infarction and died just hours before her patient’s waters broke and contractions began. She was hurriedly replaced by a much younger woman with only the barest of experience. The subsequent birthing was a disaster. The doctor was called, but by then matters were beyond even his skills and the dying woman and her almost dead son were helicoptered to Raigmhor. There, I finally emerged into a world of stainless steel and bright lights and peeling emulsion paint, thanks to the skill of the surgeon. But there was nothing he could do for my mother and she died without regaining consciousness, deprived of the joy of holding her newborn son in her arms.
It is a piece of McLennan family lore that father barely grieved for his departed wife, although my sister Susan and I were obviously too young to have adduced any evidence for such a story. Whatever the truth of the matter, we were not long without a woman in the house that we could call “Mother” (or, in my case “Mamamama”). The day after the funeral, father arranged for Jessie Corrigan, a young Irish woman who lived in Stornoway, to come in and clean the house, do the laundry and cook the meals. No doubt in the early days she was paid for her travails, but she soon moved in with us. As father in his dotage so crudely put it “I quickly promoted her from paid help with benefits to full family member.”
As far as my sister and I were concerned, Jessie proved to be a wonderful choice. She was warm-hearted, imaginative and quick-witted. Her notions of child rearing, looking back on it now, were inspired and we had a joyous early childhood as a result.
My father was a crofter. By this I mean that he was someone who farmed so little land that it was impossible to make a living by that alone. He tilled beds in the grassy plain which stood between the croft house and the moody ocean, where crops were wrested annually from a nutrient-hungry soil. He tended his few cows and a little flock of brainless sheep whose sole aim in life appeared to be seeking out the nearest high cliff and flinging themselves from it, or using some ancient instinct to locate pieces of wire or plastic bags and become hopelessly entangled or choke to death.
Father also had a half share in a fishing boat, with his brother Andrew. The pair of them would talk proudly and lovingly about this doyen of the ocean, but in fact it was an antiquated wooden scallop boat named “Star of the Sea” with a temperamental engine and a tendency to leaking seams. The success of this harvesting of the sea enterprise was hit and miss, even on a good day.
Childhood was defined by the pleasure of being part of a happy family and by our intimate closeness with Nature. We were free to play as we pleased on the rocks, the sandy beaches and the moor. I still have vivid memories of Iong summer days and of nights when it never quite got dark ; of the skylark rising over the moor, singing its inspirational song as my father and I tramped to the peat hags to cut next year’s fuel; of peewits and plovers over the lochan ; and of oystercatchers crying frenetically around the bay as we searched for edible seaweed for mother’s soup. We rejoiced in summer evenings when we would walk through the glorious sea of flowers which exploded annually on the grassy plain, our ears filled with the rasping of corncrakes, to explore the “old women’s house”, an ancient ruin on the shore, believed to be a nunnery. My father brought these remains to life for my sister and me, describing the early religious orders from Saint Columba’s time when disciples of the great man spread up the west coast, occupying wild places and building monasteries, nunneries and lonely cells in unlikely locations and living hard lives on the edge of world.
When I was six years old, my father announced that he was going to give up the unequal struggle, leave the croft in the safe hands of our Uncle Andrew and move us to Oban, where he had got himself a job with Caledonian Macbrayne, the ferry company. Jessie told us that she was going to return to teaching, a profession she had abandoned in her native Ireland (to run off to Stornoway with a married man, as we later discovered).
Susan and I were in a state of shock. The news caused a dramatic shift in the plate tectonics of our existence. This lifequake seemed certain, we thought, to cause devastation in our daily lives. Of course, it did nothing of the sort. We hadn’t realized that the warm, loving and confident relationships we enjoyed were a sure buffer against such disturbances.