Reformers’ Troubles by Colin MacDonald

The late Colin MacDonald was one of the first to support this clan venture. Although prevented from writing by illness, he kindly offered an abstract from any of his books, which portray, in a delightful style, life in the crofting counties. This story is from Highland Journey (The Moray Press).

It was with no little self-complacency I read over one of my early annual reports before dispatching it to headquarters. The section dealing with Suggestions for Schemes of Work and Future Developments was particularly satisfactory. It had afforded full scope for my genius in that direction. A less biased reader might have detected in it signs of that smug arrogance which emboldens some people to make rude intrusion into the affairs of others by advocating fundamental changes in their customs, habits and beliefs.

But such sobering reflections were to come only later. In the meantime, there was my report with its masterly survey of “defects” and of the required “remedial measures”…

I determined to make pigs my first concern. I recommended that three breeding sows should be placed with selected “custodians” at convenient centres. In course, piglets would be made available on such attractive terms that every crofter in the neighbourhood would be in the new industry. From small beginnings a big industry would develop. Even the necessity for a bacon-curing factory was visualised.

Unaccustomed as I then was to the strain which so revolutionary a proposal would place on the Departmental digestive system, I was much hurt when at the end of a fortnight no official approval of my pig scheme came through; indeed it didn’t even receive any official acknowledgment, In a month I was enthusiastic about something else. In three months pigs had faded from my immediate outlook. Then one morning I received a telegram: “Three farrowing sows left Oban by Lochiel to-day arrange with custodians.”

By the way, the SS Lochiel was due to arrive at midnight, but oftener than not she would sail in around three a.m. One of the custodians I had in mind lived six miles from the pier, another eight, and the third a good ten miles away. Weeks ago they had given up any idea that the pigs I had spoken of would ever come. Besides, they were far from enthusiastic in the matter at any time, and sensitive as to what their neighbours would say about them.

From forenoon till after dark I cycled feverishly from place to place arguing and cajoling crofters -the wives had to be won over too- to agree to take a sow and -when a grudging assent was finally extracted- helping to build suitable accommodation in the steading for the unwelcome addition to the live stock.

As per usual in such matters, news of the coming of the pigs went round the island like a broadcast. There was a record gathering that night to meet the Lochiel. Thank heaven, my three “custodians” had come with their carts, but they were anything but happy in their role of pig-pioneers and I was mortally afraid the chaffing of their neighbours would send them off home before the boat arrived. From midnight to three a.m. that night was for them and for me a nightmare of discomfort and apprehension. It required considerable liquid bribery (“closed” hours were then and there happily unknown) to keep my men till three-thirty, when Captain MacDougall, after one of his worst crossings of the Minch, at long last berthed up at the pier.

The Captain met me at the top of the gangway. “The sows . . .” I began. “Blast the sows!” said he, with a horrible heartiness. “Squealing stubborn brutes; and one of them can go back home: Her young ones were born in the middle of the Minch. They were all dead and were thrown overboard.” “Say not a word about that on the pier,” I warned him sternly. “There’s plenty trouble without that!”

To the accompaniment of blood-curdling porcine protests, the terror of the horses (which had to be held by half a dozen men apiece), and the humorous comments of the crowd on the pier, each pig was put into her cart. It was ten o’clock next morning when I got back from seeing each sow established in her new home.

The fortnight that followed is one which I would fain forget. From the custodians came daily complaints. The sows’ appetite was far in excess of anything they had anticipated. Then one day a telegram from No 1 custodian demanded my immediate presence at the croft. There I was met by a distracted couple. Their sow had given birth to seven young ones but not a drop of milk had she for them. In major grunts and minor squeals old and young bewailed their lot. Neither the crofter nor his wife would keep the brutes another hour. I must take them away that very day!

Just then along came the wife of custodian No 2. A wrathful woman! Her sow had eaten them out of house and home and no signs of having any young ones. This -God forgive me!- caused me to express surprise. While I was frantically trying to extemporise a solution for this peck of troubles along came a boy on a bicycle with a message from custodian No 3. His sow had given birth to nine. She had made a breakfast of five, smothered the remaining four, and was now troubled with an unwanted flow of milk!

Grateful for small mercies, I collected the seven starving piglets in a box and had them straightaway transferred to the now desolate and penitent cannibal, in whose milk I soused them so that the fostering was soon successfully completed. That fortuitous combination was the only bright patch in my precious plan for establishing pigs in the Hebrides. But even for the survivors there were no bidders on the island. Within a year the pigless Hebrides were pursuing their wonted blissful way. That year, too, I came across a book written just a hundred years before my advent in the Hebrides. There had been an “improver” there then too; and he too recommended the keeping of pigs. And just as I write this -thirty years after my own disillusionment- I have officially submitted to me “for observations” a report from the present-day Agricultural Organiser in the Hebrides – and he sees a great future for pigs there. Good luck to him!

Footnote to the online edition:

The Mercat Press has recently reprinted Colin MacDonald’s delightful books. Echoes of the Glen and Highland Journey are published in the same volume under the title Life in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Croft & Ceilidh with Highland Memories as Highland Life and Lore. You can purchase these books through our Clan Donald Bookshop at Amazon. -R.K.W.M.