Calum Nicolson (Calum Beag)

AIG AN OBAIR – From an article in Tional April 1994
When I left school in Lemreway in 1934, I got a job as a postman, delivering letters to thirty-two crofts in Lemreway, thirteen crofts in Orinsay and four crofts in Stiomreway.  This was a departure from the accepted custom as boys usually took a job in a fishing boat on leaving school.  There were plenty of opportunities, as there were nine boats fishing our of Lemreway at the time, all requiring a crew of five adults and a boy.  The boats left Lemreway on a Monday and were based in Stornoway until they returned the following Saturday morning.
Delivering the mail to Stiomreway was quite an arduous task.  It was over two miles from Orinsay over rough moorland and around lochs.  In those days, most of the mail comprised of catalogues and parcels from J. D. Williams and similar mail order firms.  The catalogues were often ordered for the girls in the Village by boys under pet names and I became quite expert at spotting the fakes and most of them found a resting place at the bottom of the loch about a mile out of Orinsay.  Stiomreway was eventually abandoned in 1941.
This occupation was only available when the regular postman was on holiday or ill.  Between times, I found work at one of the road building projects going on at the time and soon felt I was well on the way to becoming a millionaire.  With our newly earned wealth, five of us ordered brand new bicycles from – wait for it – J. D. Williams, of course.  They cost £5 each and we paid them up at ten shillings per week or 50p in to-day’s currency.  They were called ‘Flights’ and we were very proud of them.  We collected a few cuts and bruises before we mastered them, but we soon got the hang of them and felt very proud of ourselves riding to Church at Gravir on Sunday, scattering the rest of the congregation as we sped by on the four-mile journey.  I suppose we were as popular as the Red Arrows are to-day.
When the regular cook on my father’s boat took ill, I was recruited for the job.  We steamed up the Minch to the Butt of Lewis and set our fifty nets about 9 o’clock in the evening, cut the engines and let the boat drift on the tide.  Everybody slept except one man who kept watch, as there were hundred of boats and nets at sea at the same time.  There were six ‘hole in the wall’ bunks in the cabin, with two blankets and a pillow on each.  We slept fully clothed, except for our sea boots.
Though the Minch can be very beautiful in summer, there is always a swell and the rocking motion soon brought sleep.  Babies in Lewis at that time never had prams or cots and were rocked to sleep in a cradle, the more the baby cried, the more vigorous the cradle was rocked so it was never a problem for fishermen to sleep in turbulent seas when they had to.  The call to hit the deck came at midnight and I would approach the capstan bleary-eyed and semi-conscious to start hauling the heavy, thick tarred rope as the nets were hauled in.  Before starting, we took a cup of tea and a Ness biscuit.  Hard, Ness biscuits and the crews’ teeth must have been sound, for they were devoured very quickly.
As soon as I got down into the hold, the first thing I did was to empty my stomach, fresh Ness biscuits and all!  The pervading stench of tar, paraffin fumes from the engine room and rotten fish from the bilges all combined to envelop me in a cloud of nausea, so it was not an un-natural thing to do.  I was down there coiling for at least three hours and anything up to five if we had a fair catch.  By the time I got up to deck level, rising on the coil beneath my feet, I was ready to fall asleep from exhaustion and lack of fresh air, but a well-directed sea booted foot always persuaded me to stay alert and on the job.  How pleased I was to get back on deck and enjoy the fresh sea breeze, for I never experienced sea sickness while I was up on deck.
As soon as the nets were hauled in, we would build up a head of steam and set off for Stornoway with our catch and a hard day’s graft was just beginning.  The crew would start to clean the nets, while I scrubbed the tar off my hands and face before gutting and cleaning twelve herrings and setting them to the boil.  By the time we reached Stornoway, everyone would have been fed and I would be sent off to the fish market with a sample of our catch as soon as we tied up at the quay.  Another member of the crew would go and see what the price for a cran (four baskets) of herring was that day – it was usually around the £2 mark, rising and falling according to the amounts being landed.  When the catch was unloaded, the crew would turn in after mending the rips or tears in the nets.
While the rest of the crew slept away the afternoon, I had to go ashore and buy provisions and prepare the dinner on my return.  This was always soup, meat and potatoes followed by tea which was eaten before we set off in the late afternoon or early evening.  Most of the boys working as cook/coilers used to set aside a dozen herrings and when we got a chance, we sold them to the local people at a place called “Billingsgate” at the harbour wall.  On one of my first ventures there, my aunt, who stayed in Town, came on the scene and I sold her the lot for 1/6 (7 1/2p).  I didn’t know she was entitled to them free until I got a severe reprimand from my father for offending his sister.
My cousin and my father were both practical jokers and used to perform mischief on the sleeping bodies of other members of the crew.  It was not unusual to wake up with a moustache made with soot from the pans or a crab stuck down the front of your trousers.  One day, I got my own back and put a moustache and goatee beard on both my father and cousin while they slept.  One was laughing at the other as we sat around the cabin table later, neither knowing that the other was the same, while the rest of the crew never let on.  As they were both going ashore into the Town, I had to tell them eventually, but not before they were at a safe distance standing on the quay.
I served in a similar capacity on two or three other boats and the customs and lifestyles were very much the same – except one, which I took on in desperation.  The boy who was on before me only lasted a week and no wonder, for the crew were all a bunch of miserable people who were never satisfied with anything you did for them.  They wanted their herring fried in the morning – imagine!  It is not an easy job frying a herring straight out of the ocean and it was usually served to them in fragments like peas on a plate.  The skipper smoked about three yards of black twist tobacco every day and God help us if he ran out.  Once I remember sheltering from a gale in Scalpay and he sent me ashore to buy some black twist in the local shop, but they did not have any.  When I told him the news, he went into an uncontrollable rage.  A cook from one of the other boats was visiting when I broke the bad news and he, being older and wiser than me, told the skipper that Woodbines smoked two at a time would ease his craving.  I was sent back to the shop and soon returned with twelve packets of Woodbines.  There was method in my friend’s madness, for after smoking five cigarettes, the skipper realised they were no substitute for the real thing and discarded the other eleven packets to our mutual benefit.  Despite the storm, we had to let go and head for Tarbert – a Town with plenty of black twist.  It was blowing a force nine gale, but we made it!
While I was on that boat, I was very unhappy.  Nothing was allowed except by the book and there was no tolerance for mischief and fun, although many a time I felt like black polishing the lot of them.  I was with them for the summer season from May to September and was rewarded with a wage of £2 10/- (£2.50).  It’s doubtful if any of the crew earned more, as they were an unlucky lot and it was a good job for me that I had ‘Billingsgate’ to supplement my meagre earnings.