Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 05.03.20

Donald (Doikes) and Agnes MacAllister, Tobermory.

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In April, Doikes and Agnes would migrate to their summer quarters at Craignure to be close to the shore where they gathered whelks when there wasn’t much forthcoming in the way of money in Tobermory. Here they lived in the corner of a field under a temporary structure covered by a tarpaulin which they called ‘Canvas Cottage or Hayfield Hotel – no door and no bell.’ Doikes was a tall, well-built man who habitually wore a cheese-cutter cap. He roamed Tobermory, looking for a likely person to practise his irresistible charm on and to extract the price of a dram or two. One day he went to the island plumber and asked him if he had a soldering iron. Thinking that Doikes wanted to borrow it, and that if he met his request he would never see it again, the reply was: “No, I don’t.” Whereupon Doikes, opening his jacket, produced one and announced, ‘You’re in luck, because I’ve one to sell.”

Angus Macintyre, the well known story teller and bank manager in Tobermory, enjoyed Doikes’s craic and shared his love of the country-side and the sea. Angus retired in the 1970s but still the locals believed if it had been “Angus’s bank” in Tobermory, then the recession wouldn’t have hit Mull. Angus’s son Lorn, a former reporter with the Oban Times and a gifted poet and author whose latest book, The Summer Stance, is available from Waterstones and on Amazon, tells me that his parents were very good to the MacAllisters. “Doikes wore my father’s cast-off business suits as if he were a financier, when he had nothing in his pockest. His wife Agnes, was from Oban, I believe, she wore my mother’s cast-offs, including silks and walked several paces behind her husband.”

Doikes was a first class seaman. In the summer he and Agnes, whom he called his long-haired mate, would often cross over to Tiree in their small open boat pushed along by a bit of a sail and an old Seagull outboard engine in search of new whelk beds. I first met them at Lochaline where they had come to pick whelks. They had just walked along from the hotel and were in good form and no wonder. Earlier in the day the proprietress of a small guest house along the Drimnin road, had taken pity on them and given them a dozen bantam’s eggs which they managed to convince the new hotel owners from the south, were plover’s eggs collected from the moors that very day and were a rare delicacy. I was not told how much they made but it must have been worth more than a couple of bucketfuls of whelks.

About the late 1970s Doikes decided to give up their nomadic lifestyle – at least during the winter months – and he and Agnes retired to a little house at Rockfield in Tobermory. It was from here that one of the best stories I have of them came. It seems the old Seagull engine was giving trouble so one day when he was in the MacDonald Arms in Tobermory, Doikes asked a friend, who was a bit of a mechanic, if he would go up to the house and look at it. He did, and there found the engine clamped to the bed end – and why not and where better when you have no tool shed or a bench to work on? What the friend didn’t realise was Agnes, a small lady, was lying in the bed under a heap of blankets recovering from a ceilidh they had been at the night before. Finding the problem he started the engine but somehow or other in amongst the general untidiness the propeller got caught in the bedclothes and round and round went Agnes!

The history of tramps, wanderers, vagrants and tinkers – whatever you want to call them, goes far back in history. The late Calum Iain Maclean of the School of Scottish Studies tells us in his wonderful book, The Highlands, published in 1959, that Dr Alexander Carmichael of Lismore in his monumental work, Carmina Gadelica, the prayers, charms, runes, incantations, and legends of the Gael, narrates how it was that these folk came to be:

When Christ was being taken to the tree of crucifixion, in the hurry the Jews forgot to provide themselves with nails. They went to the blacksmith and asked him to make nails to nail the hands and the feet of the Saviour to the cross. But the blacksmith refused to make nails for such a purpose. The Jews went to the whitesmith (tinsmith, tinker) and asked him to make the nails. The whitesmith did the work as they Jews asked of him. This why the blacksmith is esteemed and honoured among men, while the whitesmith is condemned and despised, and this is why the race of the whitesmith is spread and scattered here and there throughout the great world.

Friends of mine, Graham and Rosemary Bonnalie, who leased a cottage in Moidart, used to relate an interesting experience they had in Glenmoidart in 1965. On a day when rain threatened, Graham walked up the ancient track which leads across the hill to Loch Ailort, to meet his wife who had gone to visit Assary and Ulgary – two ancient settlements near the head of the glen. From the highest point Graham caught sight of their fox terrier Riska and another dog, smaller and grey in colour coming towards him. Soon afterwards he saw his wife and another woman walking a short distance ahead of her. When she and Riska reached him he asked her who the woman was who had been with her. “There was no one with me,” she said. “But I saw a woman with you and what has happened to the dog that was with Riska?” “What are you talking about? There was no one with me except Riska. Who was the man with you?” “Man? there has been no one on the track since I came onto it.” “I saw a man in a dark coat and wondered why he was walking so fast.” (Graham was wearing a light-coloured raincoat.) They told this story to Sandy MacDonald, a friend and neighbour of theirs who had lived in the area for the past fifty years. “You are not the first ones to have seen them. Have you not heard the story?” “No Sandy we have not heard any strange stories of the glen during our twelve years we have been coming to it.” “I will tell you then. It happened at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteenth century. People in the glen are said to have murdered a pedlar and his wife for the contents of their packs. Since then many have seen them in the glen. One year at the gathering the woman and her dog were seen among the sheep.” As the late Lord Macleod of Fiunary, founder of the Iona Community, used to say, “In the Gaelic speaking world the veil of the intangible is easily parted.”

Wanderers, such as those I have written about, have an important place in the social history of the Highlands. I would be pleased if any readers who knew of others in their own area, would contact me so that their history can be recorded and coordinated for posterity.

Iain Thornber