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The Park Fank
The Park Fank
Faing na Pairc
The people of Kinloch first put their sheep out onto the hills of Park for grazing at the time of the war, around 1942. The Park hills are part of the Eishken Estate, which sits on the South East corner of Lewis, and are probably noted for the clearances and the infamous deer raid of 1886. The sheep of Habost and Kershader in South Lochs had gone out a couple of years previous to this, around 1940. Miss Thorneycroft was the proprietrix of the Eishken Estate at this time and the north Eishken graziers were required to pay her a sum of 2 shillings per head per sheep and 1 shilling for a lamb under 18 months of age. A rent of 140 was then put on the land around 1950, which was divided between the graziers. That system still stands today. Although the Park Deer Forest extends to 43,000 acres in size, the north Eishken graziers have got the use of 9,128.5 acres of that (equivalent to 3,651.4 hectares), excluding the Beinn Mhòr. Although Beinn Mòr is not part of the grazing area, however, it still has to be gathered, as the sheep wander there. Gathering could, in the past, only take place at certain times throughout the year as a result of this as the Beinn was designated by the Eishken Estate as part of a deer sanctuary. Today, the gathering dates are arranged around the availability of gatherers.
In 1943, the first fank was erected by the graziers at Beul an t-Sruth, in the narrows opposite Airidhbhruaich. This required boats going back and forth to ship the wool across Loch Seaforth. Some time later, a second fank was built, opposite the house that still stands at Ceann na Carradh. This fank was built as the shearing fank, "faing a' rùsgaidh", and meant that the men had to carry the full wool bags on their backs to the Eishken road, a full quarter of a mile anyway. On one occasion a flood came in the area so bad that a river came down through the old fank and washed away some of the fence. The men had to go out the next day to re-gather the sheep that had got away. The rain was so heavy that the run-off also caused a large landslide on Sithean an Airgead, leaving a scar that is still visible today. What made this even more remarkable was the fact that it took place in July - the wool was so wet that it took weeks to dry, hanging out on the fences throughout the villages.
Finally, in 1981, during the time of the Islands Development Project in Lewis, a road was built from Ceann na Carradh out to Brenigil where a third fank, "an fhainge dubaidh" had been erected. (In total, the graziers of Park were able with the I.D.P to build a road, up-grade two fanks and a erect a fence around the Ard Dubh, which provided somewhere for the sheep to go out to the ram during the tupping season in November). Before this road was built the sheep had to be walked to the various homes in Kinloch - in winter time the last few miles being completed in darkness. From the fank at Brenigil to Laxay was a five hour walk; four hours from Seaforthhead. Those staying in the East End of Balallan would take a short cut across the Shieldinish moor to Ceann a' Loch. The thought of taking sheep even 200 yards today with the traffic on our roads would be unthinkable, far less travelling some ten miles, in all weather. It is also change days now from when Seonnaidh Shòbhal used to phone from the lodge to the house at Ceann na Carradh and ask "a bheil sibh a' cluinntin na coin a' comhardaich?" (can you hear the dogs barking?). Now the only thing that prevents the gatherers from being in touch with one another is the loss of mobile phone reception around Beinn Mòr!
Although this fank at Brenigil was initially used as the dipping fank, it is now used for all the gatherings. There are three fanks held out at Brenigil each year. In April the ewes are taken home for lambing and those not in lamb are dipped and sent back out onto the moor. In July we have 'faing a lumaidh' where the sheep are sheared before being sent back out onto the moor. Thirdly, in November the sheep are dipped and most taken home to the ram. In the past there would also have been a fourth, held around the 15th of August, where the sheep would be gathered in so the lambs and wedders could be taken home.
The clerk, as well as arranging the fanks, is responsible for paying the rent of the land to the Eishken Estate once a year, for notifying the Estate of when the gatherings are to be and also for keeping a note of all the sheep put out onto the moor.
In the past gatherings were quite an expedition, with tea parties the order of the day. There would normally be two teas per 'trusadh'. The first would be out Gleann Airidh Thormoid, before starting to climb Beinn na h-Uamha. Then, after gathering the far end, the second tea was had at Muaitheabhal. Those coming in along the shore further down would stop at Cithis. These tea stops were a big thing, not only because they were so refreshing, but also for the 'crack' that would flow as the tea was brewed. On one occasion, a group of men sat for three hours waiting for a heavy mist to lift out at Druim Sgianadail. They were gathered under a footbridge, made from the old desktops from Balallan School on which the many names that had been carved into the wood were still visible. For many years even the ink bottle had survived, jammed in one of the inkwells. Today, with the pressures of work, the thought of wasting 3 hours sitting on a hill would be unthinkable.
The tea was usually brewed in a tin can, very often the old carbon-tetrachloride fluke capsule container - tunna plugaichean a' phluc! That container would be placed over candles wrapped in hessian strips, a smokeless but effective heat source created and perfected by poachers not wishing to be detected! While the candles melted slowly onto the hessian it would give ample opportunity for the gathering squad to try and compete as to who would tell the best yarn. These pitstops offered a rich source of anecdotal historical tales, from the exploits of village worthies involved in working on the estate to the far prairies and smelters of South America. It didn't matter how often the same stories were repeated, they never lost their appeal. The site at Muaitheabhal was more upmarket, with stones strategically placed to provide dry seating and china cups stored in the "dreasair", a turf bank in which the cups were stored from one gathering to the next.
A fire was also made down by the fank at Brenigil, which remains a permanent feature to this day. The water for the tea is taken from the stream that runs down alongside the fank and, along with the usual over abundance of tea bags, undoubtedly makes the best brew anyone has ever tasted. There are many things that are "better felt than telt" - the smoky tea at Brenigil has most definitely got to be sampled to be appreciated. It has often been suggested that it's the number of dead carcasses lying further upstream that gives the tea its unique taste...who knows?!