ON the first day of May the people of the crofter townland are up betimes and busy as bees about to swarm. This is the day of migrating, 'bho baile gu beinn,' from townland to moorland, from the winter homestead to the summer sheiling. The summer of their joy is come, the summer of the sheiling, the song, the pipe, and the dance, when the people ascend the hill to the clustered bothies, overlooking the distant sea from among the fronded ferns and fragrant heather, where neighbour meets neighbour, and lover meets lover. All the families of the townland bring their different flocks together at a particular place and drive the whole away. This miscellaneous herd is called 'triall,' procession, and is composed of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. In the 'triall' the sheep lead; the cattle follow according to their ages; then come the goats, and finally the horses, with creels slung across their backs laden with domestic gear of various kinds. The men carry burdens of spades, sticks, pins, ropes, and other things that may be needed to repair their summer huts, while the women carry bedding, meal, and dairy utensils. About their waists the women wear a cord of wool, or a belt of leather called 'crios-feile,' kilt girdle, underneath which their skirts are drawn up and fastened, to enable them to walk the moor with greater ease. These croffer women appear like Leezie Lindsay in the old song-
'She kilted her coats of green satin,
And she kilted them up to the knee.'
When the people meet, they greet each other with great cordiality, as if they had not seen one another for months or even years, instead of probably only a few days before. There are endless noises in the herd: sheep bleat for their lambs, lambs for their mothers, cows low for their calves, and the calves respond, mares neigh for their foals, and foals whinny in reply to their dams as they lightly skip and scamper, curveting in and out, little dreaming of coming work and hard fare. The men give directions, several at a time; the women knit their stockings and sing their songs, walking free and erect as if there were no burdens on their backs or on their hearts, nor any sin or sorrow in the world so far as they are concerned.
Ranged along on either side of the procession are barefooted, bareheaded comely girls and sturdy boys, and sagacious dogs who every now and then, and every here and there, have a neck-and-neck race with some perverse young beast, unwillingly driven from his home, for, unlike his elders, the animal does not know or does not remember the pleasures of the heathcry knoll, the grassy dell or fronded glen, and the joyous freedom of the summer sheiling. All who meet them on the way bless the 'triall,' and invoke upon it a good day, much luck and prosperity, and the safe shepherding of the Son of Mary on man and beast.
When the grazing ground is reached, the loads are laid down, the huts repaired, fires kindled and food made ready. The people bring forward their stock, each man his own, and count them into the fold. The herdsman of the townland and one or two more men stand within the gateway and count the flocks as they enter. Each crofter is restricted in his stock on the common grazing of the townland. He may, however, vary the number and the ages of the species and thus equalise a deficit in one species by an excess in another. Should a man have a 'barrsuma,' oversoum, he may arrange with a man who has a 'di-suma,' undersoum, or with the townland at large, for his extra stock. Every facility is given to a man in straits, the consideration of these intelligent crofting people towards one another being most pleasing. The grazing arrangements of the people, complex to a stranger, but simple to themselves, show an intimate knowledge of animal and pastoral life. Having seen to their flocks and to the repairing of their huts, the people resort to their sheiling feast. This feast consists principally of a male lamb, without spot or blemish, killed that day. Formerly this lamb was sacrificed, now it is eaten. The feast is shared with friends and neighbours; all wish each other luck and prosperity, with increase in their flocks :-
'Ann an coir gach fireach
Piseach crodh na h-airidh.'
(Beside each knoll
The progeny of the sheiling cows.)
The frugal feast being finished and the remains divided among the dogs, who are not the least interested or interesting actors in the day's proceedings, every head is uncovered and every knee is bent as they invoke on man and beast the 'shepherding of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.'
Protestantism prevails in Lewis, Harris, and North Uist, and the people confine their invocations to the Trinity :-
'Feuch air fear coimhead Israil
Cadal chan aom no suain.'
(The Shepherd that keeps Israel
He slumbers not nor sleeps.)
Roman Catholicism prevails in Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra, and in their dedicatory hymn the people of these islands invoke, besides the Trinity, St Michael of the three-cornered shield and flaming sword, patron of their horses; St Columba of the holy deeds, guardian of their cattle; Bride of the clustering hair, the foster-mother of Christ; and the goldenhaired Virgin, mother of the White Lamb.