Generations of Driftwood

18 Apr 2012 in Ian Stephen Blog

I’ve a bit of driftwood that’s built into bookshelves on the upper floor of my house at the harbour. My eldest son, Sean, gave me it. He knows I like to sense the stories behind found timber.

He picked this up from Fladda Chuinn, one of the Islands off the near coasts of Skye. He had been on a sea-kayak expedition, making the shortest crossing of the Minch. Sean told me how I couldn’t imagine the stockpile of generations of driftwood, built up by the tides in that place.

Wreck © Ian Stephen

This piece has bent timbers, probably oak. I don’t want to scrape the weathered surface to inspect the grain. The fastenings are iron. It’s certainly older than me and probably older than the two of us put together.

If you can kayak across from our Long Island to Skye, you can see how a story could cross, given the right breeze. Donald Morrison, a cooper, born in 1787, says that this story is from Skye. When I say “says” we’re both writing but we’re trying to speak.

In the edition of the Morrison manuscript, edited by Norman Macdonald “under the direction of Alexander Morrison, District Librarian, Public Library, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 1975” the story is titled A Judge who Pleased Both Clients. It begins on page 105.

I’ve read it often, but I’ve gone back to it again. I’m also thinking of phrases I’ve heard when I’ve been working on Skye. Some years ago, I worked with the artist Caroline Dear, installing art in Uig woods. The school pupils of Uig told their versions of this story and others and we installed slabs of slate with their phrases engraved, in a dyke which was rebuilt.

And I’m seeing the lines of the North Skye Coast, sailing the Eilean Trodday gap to make a landfall in poor visibility at Duntulm bay.


There were two crofters, neighbours, both of them happy men. Each had a great passion in his life. I’m sorry to say that we’re not talking about the crofter’s wife, in either case, though each of them was married happily enough. No but one was very fond of a particular boat and the other had a very fine cow.

We’re very fond of beam in a boat, on the west coasts and this vessel had ample. She’d looked after this man, all their lives. Many’s a thumping lythe and haddock came over her gunnels and she had always found the way home, through the reefs to the secure geo where she was always drawn up the shore.

Now the crofter did not venture out to sea as often as he used to but he’d be content to take a stroll in the evening and just stand back from the cliff, admiring her lines.

His neighbour would just pat the cow’s rump in the morning and she’d wander out and find her own grazings. He never even had to send the dog. She’d be home in good time in the evening and give a good yield of quality milk. She always found her own good grazing. She’d never kick or bump the pail. You knew what to expect and it would be the same every day, whatever the weather.

But this night the cow did not appear home, back at the croft. Right away, our man knew something was wrong. He went out, along the cliffs there and then. He was stopped in his tracks, just at the edge of his own ground. There was mud and hoof marks and signs of a struggle but the cow had slithered over the edge. Now these are gradual grassy cliffs and she might have survived. But she’d gone stumbling into the very spot where his neighbour’s boat was kept. She must have panicked. There were split planks and broken timbers everywhere. The splinters of the boat had finished her off.

Now pain sometimes shown itself as anger. This man who’d never had a bad word with his neighbour goes shouting and banging at his door.
“Your boat has killed my cow.”

“What are you talking about man? You’re making no sense.”
But then, when the other fellow realized what was behind the words, he said, “And what about my boat. Is she all right?”

“Of course she’s not all right but it’s my cow we’re talking about here and your boat has done for her.”

Wreck detail © Ian Stephen

Well, first there was arguments and then silence and then a court case. Neither of these men had much money behind them but it looked as if they would ruin themselves at law. There was no legal precedence for this case and no court could decide who was responsible for the losses.
 The case was much discussed and gained the interest of Macdonald, the laird of much of Skye at the time. It was due to go to the Court of Session and we all know how long that could take.
“Gentlemen,” said Macdonald, “Do you not think there’s enough men putting claret into the mouths of the Edinburgh lawyers without us contributing more?”
He suggested putting the case to a factor on the neighbouring estate. This man was widely known for his wisdom and for his deep learning.
So they all agreed to meet.

“Now,” says the factor, “I’ve no letters after my name and no legal qualifications whatsoever.”
They all nodded their understanding.
“And I’ve no reason to say why my judgement should be better than any other man’s but there’s no point in having this discussion unless we all agree to abide by the finding.”
He looked to the man who had lost his cow. He nodded. And the one who had lost his boat. He nodded too. And then he asked Macdonald, the Laird if he would also abide by the finding.
“Well I do not see what that has directly to do with myself but yes, of course, I’ll abide by what’s decided.”

“In that case, “ says the factor, “I can clearly see both sides to the argument. The cow might well have survived her slip had the boat not been in that exact place. And clearly the boat would still be intact had the cow not fallen. But we must look a little deeper into the very cause of the accident. Now it seems to me, that a section of coast like that has inherent dangers to man and beast. Therefore a dyke should have been established to offer that protection. And so I find against the laird for the value of a replacement cow to this man and boat to that. And for the cost of instating a suitable dyke so that an accident like this may not happen again.”

To his credit, Macdonald accepted the finding and paid out the sums required. And that’s the story of the wise factor.

When I told this one, or something like it, to Seamas who was rebuilding the dyke in Uig woods, incorporating the engraved slabs, he told me he’d heard it before. His grandfather told a story very like it. Only it was a horse that went over the cliff.

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© Ian Stephen, 2012