The Smiddy Folk

From Moriston Matters, Issue 20, August 1980.

Willack and Dunc. Photo by Bill Owen


Part 1

Near the well associated with Saint Columba, close to the Village Hall with its immemorial bark-carved beech and a fairly venerable ash, just across from the Falls Wood with its well-trodden path, its gazebo overlooking the Falls of the Moriston and salmon ladder, and just up from the old Wade bridge, where the Falls begin, lies the building (now Allan Nairn's Pottery) (several words missing) dwarfed physically now as then by a pair of age-old oaks. To this hub of a bygone agrarian age, built perhaps about the 1860s , came , perhaps within the decade following the turn of this century, the Smithy folk. They migrated to Invermoriston from Lagganbane, up the Glen, replacing at the Smiddy and the old Smithy Cottage members of their own clan of MacDonalds, some of the descendants of whom are still alive in Invergarry. Among the many things Willie told the young boys often drawn to the smiddy, fascinated by the activities that took place around the anvil, was that as a boy he remembered being taken down the Glen in a "barrow". The "barrow" was probably a hand-cart, used to transport belongings and bairns on the occasions when old Highland families moved into a new country for one reason or another.

The following article on the Smithy folk was kindly provided by Mrs Christina Strachan:

One wonders how many people now resident in Glenmoriston can remember the Macdonalds, Smithy

Cottage. Surely, they were unique. Their own special kindness and courtesy to all whom they met and their neighbourliness to all those around them was an example to us all. Tourists who visited the Old Bridge and the Smithy on coach trips when such holidays were very much in vogue still come back to the village hoping to see Willie the Smith and his brother Duncan, who, although older than Willie, was the (several words missing)

It was Duncan who, as the trainee, passed the nails and hammer and shoes to Willie while the horses were being shod. On a fair day all this took place outdoors with the horse tied to a hitching ring at the Smiddy door. Rut in bad weather the scene shifted into the Smiddy itself. It was necessary to have most of the day free if one was taking a horse to be shod, because Willie and Duncan were very thorough and speed was not their "forte".

Jessie and Jeannie, the two sisters, kept house for their brothers and as the brothers had in the Smiddy, so the ladies each had their own special indoor tasks. Jeannie was the cook and Jessie the chambermaid with the door brasses her particular baby! Jeannie also looked after the "books" and rendered accounts to all the customers. Her hand-written accounts were amazing. The writing was extremely difficult to read and at the end of the line there would sometimes be a cryptic message such as "gratis" or "in lieu", but it was not always clear why something was "in lieu" or what it was "in lieu" of!

The Smithy, Invermoriston. A sketch by Mrs Clare Grant.

The payment of the accounts generally took place on the same day as the annual payment of rents to the Glenmoriston Estates. On such an important day, Jeannie was very busy bustling around dispensing Highland Hospitality and receipting accounts and was often heard to remark, "Oh well indeed, and how would you like to be a master farrier's clerk!”

The first break in the family came in November 1965 when Jessie, who was the eldest, passed away at home. In March of 1970, Duncan who was a very staunch old soldier finally succumbed to an illness which he refused to admit he had. Then on Christmas Eve 1974, .Jeannie died quietly and peacefully while attending Midnight Mass in her beloved Abbey Church. Three weeks later Willie, who was the youngest of the family, died in the Royal Infirmary in Inverness.

Their passing has left a great void in Glenmoriston. However up at Clachan Merchard in the peace of that truly lovely place we can visit their grave and pause a while to remember them. It would be impossible for those of us who were privileged to know them ever to forget them.

Christina Strachan.


Part 2

The stories which have grown and accrued over the years about Willie and Duncan, Jeannie and Jessie are legion. One of the most interesting concerns Saint Merchard, the patron saint of Glenmoriston. He was a contemporary of St Columba.

The legend of Saint Merchard and the three bells is probably well known. Briefly, Saint Merchard and two of his missionaries were once preaching and teaching in the Strathglass area.

This concerns the time when the young boy paid a visit to the smiddy for once under some duress because it was ordained that he take part in a ritual.

To start at the beginning, Willie the Smith was then, as so many other worthy personages of the time were, an amateur barber. Now, he was as thorough at cutting hair as he was at shoeing a horse. The whole operation took a long time. It was especially long when it took place caring the long hot summers which occurred then, it seems now, with tidal regularity. It was even more especially long then because Willie fervently believed that young boys should have a special kind of haircut for the long hot summer months of the then long summer holidays . He would scrupulously make sure that you were left with a respectable dossan. The rest of the head was a different matter. That part of the head which began where the dossan sprouted and ended about two inches over the crown was given the semi-crew treatment. From where that section ended to above the ears, the sides of the neck and the nape, was shorn to scalp level. And what of your head was still visible above the collar emerged from the smiddy as if it had been clean shaven. Though Willie did not use a razor. It was all done by scissors and clipper ( what he called "the machine”) . So you can imagine the pressure on your head, held by Willie at times as if it were in his vice, to achieve this combination of skinhead and Yul Brynner effect. People said Willie placed a bowl over the head to ensure accuracy.

But this was not true - the undeniable accuracy was the result of meticulous thoroughness.

So it would come to pass that you were placed on a box on the floor of the smiddy. You were tucked in and the box of main instruments and accessories produced. The first part of the operation wasn't too bad, for while Willie did the dossan you were positioned so that you were looking out into the outside world of a hot summer's day. But that did not last long, the major part was to come, and for that you were turned so that your back was to the light of the door. You stared and stared at horse-shoes, nails, lengths of chain, coils of wire, bolts, screws, pins, parts of ploughs, harrows, reapers , spates, shovels, graips, mattocks, rakes, axe-heads, saw-blades, hinges, shafts and a whole range of indeterminate pieces of metal and machinery. Local worthies would call in to pass if the time of day, and the various exchanges would delay the hair-cutting. Of these callers, inevitably one was a gentleman in a pair of "wayward plus fours'' who would complicate matters terribly, suggesting to Willie, for example, that your haircut when it was still far from finished "would do". People would come with parts of implements to be repaired or altered ; and while Willie got what was required exactly right. the hair-cutting was set aside. Now Jeannie comes to throw scraps to the hens. She would engage you in reluctant conversation. Her questions about the health and welfare of the members of your immediate and wider family were searching and exhaustive. Then someone “taking the road" would attract the attention of Willie and/or Duncan, which would trigger off seemingly endless debate and discussion. There was the question of identity first of all - Who could it be who was taking the road? That eventually established, the question of destination was examined - Where could so and so be going today? And that deduced probable motives were probed - Why was so and so going there today?

Nevertheless, surely though slowly the hair-cutting was being done. But then calamity of calamities! Willie’s ''machine" began to play up. You knew it when it began to stick in your ;hair and he had to work it free. The discomfort was bearable at first - at any rate, better some discomfort than a major breakdown. But when the "machine" began to wrench whole tufts from your scalp you had a sinking feeling that the operation was going to be a very prolonged one - You were right. Willie would cease and retreat to his bench. Time passed, oh so slowly, while you strove to stay, statue-like or like a gymnast frozen in mid-exercise, in the latest position he had twisted you into. But flesh and blood weakened - you sneaked a look over your shoulder. The "machine" had been completely stripped; there on the bench were strewn all the parts that were once the intricate whole of a clipper. When Willie - eventually - located the fault and began to reassemble it you noticed he was applying to it a pungent, unappetizing, very thick grease.

But at long last the cloth you had been tucked into was removed and shaken. What a profound heave of relief you breathed! But you always forgot that the precision scissors work was still to come, the cloth was replaced. At first the scissors snip-snipped quite fluently. But the process was gradually slowing to a snip and a snip until it became a case of Willie snipping once, stepping back to view your head from a distance and from all angles, stepping forward to snip once and so on.

Bu t the operation did come to an end. And as you made ready to bolt, having handed over your half-crown, he would say, "Now boyan, be sure and wash your head in cold water”.

So you were free again. Ah, not quite. There was still this business of washing your head in cold water. You went home to Rose Cottage. Did you have to wash your head in cold water? Yes, said Aunt Kate. Yes, said Uncle Alivick. And yes, said Donald Fraser. There was nothing else for it. There was a stroup projecting from a dry-stane wall in the garden of Rose Cottage. You let the water splash over your head. Now you were free. The ritual had been completed. And the sun-hot evening of a hot summer day soon dried the little hair Willie had left you with.

As we have said there are many, many stories about the Smithy folk. This one illustrates their old-world virtues, A young person of Invermoriston happened once to lose some money. It was found by Willie and Duncan while on their way to an interment in the cemetery, and of course the young person got the money back safely. Her mother insisted that she go to the Smiddy to thank them for their honesty. She was solemnly told by them tha t they were taught as a family to be honest from the age of six, and furthermore; they had been able to find the money because they were on their way to attend a funeral and were therefore looking down at the ground.

One remembers the kindliness, the obligingness of the Smithy folk, and their very genuine interest in the families of the Glen as they were born, grew up, went away, came back. But they were characters. Perhaps we may let such, a doughty warrior as Jeannie have a last word. There was one occasion after a function, in the hall or wherever, when Jeannie was unable for once to give an acquaintance the benefit of her usual powers of observation. This was because, she stressed, they, the Smiths, weren’t among the "ordinary five-eights" at the function, they were "at the top table" along with "the other aristocracy" . Aristocrats of a kind perhaps they were. R.I.P.