Anyone who knows me will not be in the least surprised that dogs feature in all my books. The true story of Friday, the famous sheepdog, was one of the reasons I first became interested in the legend of James Mackenzie. Friday features in The Wideawake Hat and Shepherd’s Delight, along with her mate Roy and pups Ruby and Blue. Friday’s legacy lives on in the wee pup, May in Shepherd’s Delight and in Leda, Jakob’s puppy in ‘The Cedar Trees’ (to be published soon).
For all you dog lovers, I give you an occasional dog-related excerpt. The first is from The Wideawake Hat, and just a warning – you may need tissues for some of these……
Some of you may recognise the ‘real’ dog in this image. Our Skye – the digital collie – never an easy dog to own, but much loved anyway, despite the remaining scars!
August 3rd 1867
In one small miracle, two ewes had taken shelter behind one of the rocks Samuel had pushed into place. Both were dead, but their bodies had fallen in such a way that it provided a dry and warm space for their two tiny lambs. James tucked a shivering wee body under each arm and strode away back to the farmhouse before the other men could see his tears. Heather and Vicky would love to feed these hungry orphans, he was sure, and with the luck that had kept them alive, they deserved to be given the best chance.
That night James sat down after supper to take stock. The lake had been a disaster he could have avoided and he would never forgive himself for being the cause of so many unpleasant deaths. On the whole, though, things could have been worse. The barn and yard were crowded with all the survivors and he rather suspected it would be a noisy night as ewes sought out their offspring and lambs bleated for their mothers. The two little orphan lambs had been given a bed in a wooden crate by the fire tonight. Heather and Vicky had, as he suspected, jumped at the chance to nurse them. They girls had spent much of the afternoon coming up with names while they passed a feeding bottle backwards and forwards between their two patients. In the end they had chosen Snowflake and Raindrop for their new pets. He never ceased to be amazed at his children’s capacity for naming things. He chuckled to himself when he remembered Heather and Adey Rose once calling one of the new pups Stick. What kind of a name was that for a working dog?
“What are you laughing about?” asked Sophia as she came back into the kitchen having been to make sure the children were all in bed.
“I was wondering at the girls’ ability to name every living creature. Do you remember Bud and Blossom and Stick?” replied James. “Heather and Adey Rose are just like their mothers, who both wasted a good deal of time on choosing names for their children.”
“Well, you can talk,” said Sophia with a smile. “You are the one who named a dog after a day of the week, after all. Friday is not a dog’s name really.”
“Aye, but you must remember the old girl’s name meant ‘far sighted’, which made perfect sense in my mother tongue. It is only you English speaking folk who misunderstood it,” replied James. He loved reminding Sophia that she was not a true Scot, having been born in the north of England, even though she had been very young when her family had moved over the border.
2nd August 1867
James and Freddie, along with most of the men who had seen out the storm in the barn, set about finding the sheep, who would now be in urgent need of food. It was no easy task. The snow was no longer soft enough to sink into, instead it had formed giant pieces of impenetrable ice requiring pickaxes and shovels to clear a way to the fields. The rain fell steadily, getting in everyone’s eyes and they were all soaked to the skin despite their oilskin coats. The sheep who had been taken to the barn were the lucky ones, warm and dry with a good supply of hay. James split the men into two teams and directed them to work their way around the edges of the closest fields where he suspected the sheep would have sought some shelter. This proved to be the case. There was a cheer from the first team to come across a huddle of three ewes and a single lamb protected by a bushy shrub where the snow had left them enough room to move about. How the poor ewe had managed to give birth to a healthy lamb in such conditions baffled James, but mother and baby appeared to be doing very well indeed. The little mob were led back along the path made by the men and headed straight for the freshly prepared hay. The other team were not so pleased with their first discovery. Two pregnant ewes had found some shelter to start with, but at some point water had washed into their icy room underneath the frozen snow. Both beasts had moved round and round until they had worked the ground into a muddy swamp, so deep their fleeces had become encrusted with it, weighing them down so much that they couldn’t move. Neither had survived the night and stood stone dead where they had succumbed to the cold. It was an unpleasant task to drag them out one by one. James cursed to himself as their sodden bodies were lain against the wall of the orchard. Two deaths turned into four, if you took account of the lambs they carried too.
Steadily the pile of corpses grew, although the majority of beasts made it back to the barn and to a welcome meal. It was exhausting work, but the men all kept going with barely a break. They were all keen to reach as many animals as they could.
By mid-afternoon they became aware of the rain stopping and the wind dying down. What they couldn’t tell, because they were sweating from their labours, was that the temperature was falling fast. The storm had not quite done with them yet. Sophia noticed an odd snowflake falling gently when she went to call the men in for an early supper, and by the time they made their way back along the paths they had cut around the fields, snow was falling steadily.
“It can’t go on much longer,” said Sophia to James. They were sitting together at the kitchen table, the children having long been in bed. They had both lost track of time and had no desire to sleep after being cooped up in the house for some days. Even Freddie had left them to it and gone to his room, shutting the door behind him so that James and Sophia could talk without disturbing him.
“No, I hope not,” replied James. “We have no way to know how widespread this snow has fallen. But I daresay there will be a great many losses of animals in the area, and livelihoods will be in danger if it goes on much longer.”
“Even if it stops snowing and things warm up. It is going to take many days for the frozen snow to melt,” said Sophia.
“I am growing a little concerned about the melt water too,” replied James. “Imagine all this snow melting into the rivers. There will be flooding, that’s for sure.”
Sophia stood to fetch the teapot and topped up both their mugs. She was worried for James. He wasn’t getting any younger and even though he had a good team of workers, she knew he would want to be out there helping to rescue his animals. They had both been through all sorts of ups and downs in the years since they moved into the basin, but she was beginning to feel like this could be one of their biggest tests.
“Hark,” said James suddenly. “The wind has come up. That means it will warm up and maybe start to rain again.”
He had hardly spoken those words when they could hear water coursing from every surface, and it wasn’t long before the increasingly heavy rain had started to shift huge chunks of snow off the roof. James ventured to open the front door and got a drenching for his action, but they could see by the dim light of the lantern that the snow was already being washed away in channels.
“This will wake the children,” said Sophia as there came yet another crash of snow slithering down the roof and hitting the ground.
It had indeed woken Freddie who came out of his bedroom rubbing his eyes and wearing only his pyjamas. “I can’t sleep for the sound of that stupid tree hitting the roof,” he complained.
Sophia pulled a knitted blanket from the back of her chair and wrapped it round her son’s shoulders. “Here, put this round you and I’ll pour you some tea,” she said.
The third day began in much the same way. As far as they could tell, it was still snowing and James wondered if the whole house was now buried. He had no contact with his men, and no idea whether his animals were dead or alive. Sophia was concerned for James’ father, who was on his own in the cottage, and all the other families who depended on Applecross for a living. There was very little she could do but assume they were keeping as warm and dry as possible and sitting things out as best they could.
Over breakfast they all sensed a change in things. There was the sound of water running in trickles down the windows and when James opened the door he could see at the very top of the doorway that rain was falling instead of snow. Already the level had fallen, there was a six inch gap at the top of the door. So James and Freddie got their coats and boots on and began to shovel as much as they could away from the entrance. Sophia had already chipped a sizeable chunk of snow away to be warmed in a pot over the fire for water, so they began in that gap and made good progress. By lunchtime they could both stand on solid ground outside the door. The weather had warmed up, even though rain still fell. There was the sound of water running everywhere around them. When they reached a point where they could look back at the house James was astonished at how much snow lay over the place, but the warmer temperature and the rain had already begun to form cracks in the deep snow on the roof. They heard an occasional crack and slithering noises as sheets of snow slipped down a few inches at a time.