A Dog is for Life: A Skye story in three Taliskers
Updated: Mar 2
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A dog is not just for Christmas, but for life. So the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals used to say, in television advertisements that grew more and more frequent as December progressed. Of course, dogs tend to live far shorter lives than humans, so we have to learn to say goodbye to our canine friends. And it can often be very hard to do so. Dogs steal our hearts. Or they can do. Some hearts are immune to theft.
For a number of years I was in the habit of renting a cottage each October on the Trigonish peninsula on the island of Skye. Just for a week or so. I would go there to write, to think and walk about in the autumnal fading of the year, enjoying the mists, the spectacular sunsets and the local whisky.
Talisker was in those days Skye’s only distillery, although the late Sir Iain Noble had founded his Gaelic Whisky company just by his wonderful boutique hotel at Eilean Iarmain, near the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig. The various Poit Dubh bottlings, named after the Gaelic for Illicit Still, the Black Pot, are very good indeed, and Sir Iain’s own distillery, Torabhaig, will soon have its own whisky on the market. However, Talisker in its various expressions speaks of Skye’s rugged and wild character, salty and in every expression, pungent without being excessively peaty, with something of a ragged edge. You could never describe it as smooth. Although there are regular attempts to blend various casks into something less abrasive. It remains to be seen what the new distillery on the neighbouring island of Raasay will come up with. Its gin is just that. Gin. Flavoured vodka. Perhaps the whisky, when mature will reflect Raasay's equally ragged and rugged character.
Ragged. Rugged. like the coastline of Trigonish, which I walked every morning and night, rain hail or sunshine, and most of those occurring one after the other in the course of a hike. I traversed two or three different crofts on these tramps, and of course, one of the hazards you have to deal with in any crofting area of Scotland is sheepdogs.
Sheepdogs are usually some variety of Border collie, and they range in temperament from docile, lovable pets to psychopathic monsters intent on death and destruction to every creature not their master, mistress or the sheep they own. I well remember the policeman I met once on the Island of Vallasay. A transfer, and an unhappy one from the city of Edinburgh, he met the little pedestrian ferry from South Uist which disgorged myself, the Secretary of State for Scotland and his retinue. There was no room for me in the official minibus, so I travelled with the policeman. Who, it quickly became evident, was somewhat deranged.
“I hate dogs,” he said. “ I hate this place. In particular I hate the crofters, but most of all I hate their dogs.” He turned to me, simultaneously increasing his speed as we travelled alarmingly fast down a single track road. “Just watch this.” He slowed down slightly.
I could see a small dwelling ahead, the byres and abandoned vehicles of a typical croft. And a dog, a large, mud-matted collie, barking furiously and running towards us. My chauffeur accelerated, one hand on the wheel, and with the other opened the driver’s door, holding it slightly ajar. As we reached the dog, he swung it fully open, sending the astonished dog cartwheeling through the air, right across the bonnet, landing on its back in the ditch on the other side of the road.
The barking stopped, briefly and then began again, matching the hysterical laughter from the policeman. I glanced back. The dog, miraculously uninjured, was pursuing us, outraged. There was no sign of the owner.
“That," said the policeman, “that will teach him. I hate dogs.”
Many farmers and crofters treat their sheepdogs in ways that would appear to most pet owners as showing cruelty and sometimes hatred. Some, it should be said, are the souls of kindness to their animals, but the truth is that these are working dogs and for at least some owners, they are nothing more than tools. They need to be fuelled and trained, and if that training involves pain, sometimes inflicted by the likes of electric cattle prods, so be it.
There is a kind of indifference in some sheepdog owners, especially when dogs become too old to function, to breed or turn out when younger to be unable to fulfil their assigned role. Then they can be ruthlessly shot, or worse. The putting of a dog to sleep by the local vet is a rarity.
The three crofts I would cross on my morning and nightly rambles all had dogs. The first one, Ardtornish Number 5 - crofts are often numbered parcels of estate land - had two clearly loved, well-fed and placid semi-Collie sheepdogs who did not work with sheep - there were none on the croft. A couple, the Williamsons, retired lawyers, had moved up from London, and they kept pigs and pygmy goats. Both species were regarded by the dogs, whose names were Sammy and Sheba, with amicable disdain. Their tails wagged as | passed; they would sidle up for snuffle and a pat. And I’d be on my way
The second croft, Ardtornish Number 2, was a professional operation run by a young local man, Seamus Gallagher, and his dogs were basically with him all the time, in the house, in the back of the pickup truck or quad bike, or at night locked in a barn with - as I saw during one of several visits to the affable Seamus - clean straw, plenty of water and adequate food. They were completely indifferent to me, did not respond to expressions of friendship and regarded me with cold contempt. They obeyed their master like automatons. They presumably had names. If I ever knew, I don’t remember them now.
And then there was Croikendinny. The nightmare croft. Run by a man who had once, perhaps been a fine, upstanding example of the Highland worker of the land but was now broken by...well, bitterness, beer and the kind of bad whisky you got in a supermarket own label bottle. A dead wife, a sprawling mudbath full of bad land and animals that ranged from the unkempt through the painfully underfed to the simply dead. The authorities had already removed his two horses, Shetland Ponies reduced to mere stick insect parodies of the breed. He only had a few sheep left, and they wandered, emaciated, waiting for the inevitable visit of the cruelty officer and a presumably blessed end at the slaughterhouse.
The crofter's name was Allan Macleod. In a Hebridean world of Macleods and indeed of Allans, he was universally known as Squeegee. And he looked like a mophead, one that had been left unrinsed in a bucket of slops for weeks. He smelt that way too. And of course he had dogs.
Two of them, rake-thin scavenging slivers of black and white. Used to eating what they could find, be it animal dung or the corpses of birds and even the beasts they were supposed to protect and herd. They were as close to snakes as dogs come, slithering along the ground in utter silence. And they hated me. Perhaps they hated every human being. Fear was all they had for Squeegee. He wielded a crummock, a shepherd’s crook, with fearsome force and accuracy. They would be sent birling like that Vallasay beast, but never make a sound.
Both dogs would sidle out from behind a wall and launch themselves at my ankles. I had strong leather boots but still, sometimes they managed a nip or two at my calves. Any kick would always miss. In humiliation, I would often have to run from them, at which they would stop, satisfied by my fear and watch me go. Attempts to bribe them with biscuits failed. Mostly I would take convoluted detours to avoid them.
One morning i was walking along the cliffs at Arnafiskaig when I saw Squeegee ahead of me. He was being followed by a soft undulating shadow in the grass. One of the dogs. Over his shoulder he had a squirming sack. Swaying as he approached the cliff edge, he carelessly swung the bag around his back and then released it. There is a rocky beach at that point, perhaps 600 feet below. As I watched, the bag, which had been loosely tied, opened, and as if in slow motion, the shape of a dog emerged from it, scrabbling in the air for purchase like some cartoon. Then it hit the rocks. It did not stop moving, though. It twitched until I could bear to watch it no more, and turned back the way I had come.
For that reason and others, I cut my stay at Trigonish short that year. I took my half finished bottle of Talisker Storm and went home, Two days' rental at the cottage unused.
Talisker Storm is one of the no-age bottlings the distillery - owned by multinational Diageo - have come up with to use up stocks and broaden their appeal. It’s inexpensive, comparatively speaking, and I think it’s really quite good. Storm by name and by nature, all salt and peat and breaking waves when you crack open the bottle and the aroma leaches out. Yet your first taste, while carrying more peatiness than you might expect to find from the distillery, settles quickly into vanilla, caramel, warming smoothness. It tastes of Skye at its best, I think. On a nice day with some of the ruggedness of Cuillin and cliff edge tamed.
I returned the following year, the events at the Arnafiskaig cliffs if not forgotten at least diminished in my mind. Seamus Gallagher arrived the first night with a bottle of the classic Talisker 10 year old and we cracked it open as he brought me to up to speed with a year’’s worth of gossip. Chief among the news was that Squeegee was dead.
The 10 year old Talisker is seaweed and salt, ozone and wind, kind of uncompromising and old fashioned. There’s the salted caramel of old, and then that unexpected prickle of heat as you swallow. It has a bit of an attitude.
“You know he killed his dog?” said Seamus. I said nothing. I had never discussed what I’d seen that morning at Arnafiskaig, but this was the kind of place where observing each other through binoculars was not just popular but almost compulsory. Somebody had been watching Squeegee. And now everybody knew. Had probably known within hours.
“He threw one of those poor beasts of his over the cliffs at Arnafiskaig. Weren’t you...I thought you might have seen something yourself. Apparently it had reached the end of its tether and bit him. So he knocked it out with a cattle prod turned up to full, one of the old ones you can’t get now, put it in a sack and threw it over.” Seamus took a sip of whisky, “I thought you used to like to walk around the coast there?” I nodded. “Well, after that, and you know he was a drinker, a bad drinker, the cheap and nasty stuff? After that there were stories. Winter stories, ones from out of the darkness. People would say they’d heard dogs barking in the night from the shoreline at Arnafiskaig. That maybe the poor animal hadn’t died, had lived on , scavenging for dead fish and birds, sheltering from the sea and the weather in caves.
“His dogs never barked, in my experience,” I said.
“Well, no, that’s true. But anyway, I don’t know if it was drunken remorse or what, but something seemed to draw Squeegee back to the cliffs, back to Arnafiskaig. It was as if he could hear the dog barking, and he would head down there at night, when it was dangerous to walk near the sea, especially in high winds.”
“What about the other dog? The one that was left?”
“Well, in fact he began to treat it with a little more...maybe kindness is not the right word. It was allowed to sleep in the byre, maybe given a handful or two of oatmeal. And it would follow him on his trips through the darkness to the cliffs. I was out there looking for a stray tup one night with the quad and I caught the two of them in my headlights. It was if the dog was leading him home.”
“It sounds as if there might be, well, if not a happy ending, at least something a little encouraging,” I said. “A little chink of light.”
“Not really,” said Seamus. And he refilled our glasses. No water. That Talisker Ten burned as it went down. It felt like swallowing firelight. Or ashes. “One morning the postie had a registered parcel for him, and couldn’t raise anyone on the house. No dog in the byre. Animals unfed, the whole mess. He went in and it was empty. You can imagine the state of the place. Came back the next day - the same. So he raised the alarm. I went and fed the animals. I remember that dusk was falling, and the mist was coming off the sea, that cold rolling haar you get in the winter. Ceo na mara, in Gaelic. I was standing there with your man Williamson when we both heard, as clear as day in the night, dogs barking. Not one dog, but two. Not our own. And coming from Arnafiskaig. Very distinctive barking, too. Like ravens croaking. Or crows.”
There was a silence, broken only by the chink of glass agains teeth; liquid on gullet. Seamus continued:
“Next morning, i went to Arnafiskaig with the volunteer coastguard team and one of them abseiled down the cliff. He found...well. He found the body of Squeegee. He had fallen to his death. I suppose it was only a matter of time. But the curious thing was, there were also the bodies of not one, but two dogs. One gave every sign of having been killed recently by the fall from above. It was crushed beneath Squeegee’s body, as if...as if it had been wrapped in his arms. But the other...” and this robust young crofter gave an involuntary shiver. “The other one looked as though it had starved for a long time. One of its legs had been badly broken and healed. It looked as if the dog Squeegee had thrown over had somehow survived. Until it was joined by its master and its companion. It’s fellow sufferer under Squeegee’s ownership.” He sighed. “They were once well-known dogs, you know and Squeegee was once a great triallist, He won cups all over the country with Pluto and Orcus. It just all went wrong.”
“When did this happen?”, I asked. “The death. Deaths.”
“February I think. Just at the point when the deepest of the darkness starts to lift and we can begin to see spring on the horizon.”
I felt easier in my mind walking Trigonish that October. I avoided Croikendinny, which was shuttered and empty, up for sale. Doubtless someone like the Williamsons would snap it up, install their Agas and satellite TV, their internet and insulation, and its sad history would gradually fade. For the moment, it glowered like a suspicious animal, hunched and hurt.
I said hallo to the Williamsons, patted their fat and and complacent dogs. I drank a dram of Talisker Skye, with them, which is as bland as that particular single malt gets, I think. It’s yet another of those no-age blendings, oddly inoffensive, with a hint of old gymshoes and harbourside rope. Oily and hot as it goes down, but by no means unpleasant. A tourist’s whisky, I suppose.
I was ignored by Seamus’s cold-eyed beasts. I remember on my last evening that year, feeling winter in the air, and taking a final wander down to Arnafiskaig, looking out to sea and saying a kind of farewell to Squeegee.
It was only as I turned back to the cottage, among the sounds of waves crashing on the rocks, and the wind sighing through the heather, that I heard the sound of a dog, barking, faintly, far away. Or perhaps more than one. Pluto and Orcus, I thought, Peculiar names for sheepdogs. The Roman Gods of the Underworld.
There was a bottle of whisky, almost empty in the sideboard of the cottage. I didn’t stop to savour it, or even look at the label. I opened it with shaking hands and drank a large glassful down. And then another, and another, until oblivion overtook me, and the ever fainter sound of barking finally disappeared in rumble of wind through the chimneys, the constant hiss of the sea..
Copyright Thomas MacCalman Morton, 2020. All rights reserved. for more Strange Tales from Scotland's Thin Places, go to Scotland Correspondent Magazine.