Hello and a very warm welcome back to our third #IslandLifeDistilled feature which brings us to Benbecula for a chat with Crofter & Stonemason Niall MacPherson.
Hello Niall, can you start us off with a little peek into what you do?
I was always interested in stonework from a young age tottering about with old walls and rebuilding some. I wasn’t formally trained as such but then the agricultural training board ran courses when they were doing the cemetery at Nunton and I gave it a go. The basics are all quite simple but it’s just patience.
Once you get involved in it every time you see a stone your eyes go…. you’ve always got to look at it and look at the different ways people have of putting stone together. You think a stone is stone but it’s not there are various places where you get long big flattish stones and others are just funny shapes. But when you start working with it you get a great satisfaction if you have rough stone and you manage to put something together.
How did you learn these skills?
The more you do the more you learn. Trying to shape stone I’m just learning myself. I was never taught but it’s almost another skill itself. With the tools there today it’s a lot easier although when some of the hammers get bad there’s no blacksmith on the island to re-temper! When it’s in a forge the iron has to go from different colours - when you hit the stone it’s either just going to go flat and splay out or if it’s too hard it’ll break. I’ve got a good collection of hammers because if no one is using them anymore... they end up in my collection!
You teach at the local secondary school…why is that important to you?
I’m teaching on the crofting course and we try and teach a wee bit of stone and cover as much as we can. There was only one that was really keen, he had the eye for it. It’s not for everybody, but it is very therapeutic when you’re doing it. Some days you’re really struggling and then you just get it. It’s like a really big jigsaw with no picture to follow! Any stone can be worked but it just takes a lot more patience.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
When you see a job finished and you like it. When you’re working so close to something, it’s difficult to see all the details, so it’s as well to now and again take a step back and if you see something you don’t like you can move it.
Talk me through what happens on an average day?
First thing first, I go to the houses and have a cup of tea! No two days are the same because you’re on another bit of the wall. You always say this is the toughest course and then when you’re finished you look at it and think well that was easy.
What is the most important material or tool that you use?
Hands! Also, you have to have a picture in your own mind of what you want to do. Most of the hammers I’ve got are ones that I got given, you get a favourite depending on what you’re doing. I’m just starting to use the plug and feather which was done through the years and for me. It’s easy to make a hole with a drill but for them they’d be lucky to make just two holes a day. When they were doing that labour was plentiful.
What do you enjoy about living in Uist? (One perk, one disadvantage)
I couldn’t live anywhere else. I’m not a city boy and I don’t like towns just wide open spaces where the way of life is far more relaxed.
For me the disadvantage is the freight getting anything across here. And weather in winter. In days gone by they weren’t as dependent because they were all self-sufficient. It’s easier to go to the shop and get a carton of milk than to go and milk a cow.
Have you got a favourite drink?
Tea! Milk and tea.
Is Gaelic and local heritage and culture important in your work?
YES. I think in Gaelic but then when you turn around and then I go the opposite way so I think about how it sounds in both English and Gaelic.
Why do you do what you do?
Basically because I enjoy it! I started as an apprentice painter and I didn’t like it. One of the mentors came around and asked all the apprentices ‘are you happy at your work?’ that’s what I tell the kids – if you’re not happy at what you’re doing you won’t do a good job of it. I was doing painting but I wasn’t enjoying it. He said we’re all different you can have someone sitting at a computer and you can have someone shovelling shit but the one shovelling shit might be happier. I don’t even do my own painting now I get someone in to do it – I can’t stand the smell of it. I was always happier outside.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I am very happy the way my life has turned out – yeah there’s one or two things beyond we couldn’t do anything about but I wouldn’t think of changing my life other than the way I’ve done it.
And you have an interesting relationship with the Barley grain on the island?
I started growing the barley about 42 years ago. I got my first bag (from Willie Shepherd) and I’ve been selling the seed since. Uist was famous for the barley when they were milling it but when they stopped milling it wasn’t used so much. There were mills all over the place. I always liked barley, I like to see barley blowing in the wind.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Well that’s a question you could answer differently every hour because it depends what you’re doing at the time. The biggest thing that was drawn into us as youngsters was always to respect your elders and respect who has come before….it doesn’t matter what you think of people but they were there before you and they’ve been there and done that already.