Aig còig bliadhna dh’ aois bha eòlas agam mu-thràth air a’ bhàs.
Cha robh dad a-mach às an àbhaist mu bhith a’ dol a-mach còmhla ri m’ athair airson cearc fhaighinn airson dìnneir na Nollaige ged nach b’ e Sainsbury’s no Tesco ceann-uidhe ar turais. B’ ann ann an seann loidse sealgaireachd a bha sinn a’ fuireach anns na làithean sinn aig deireadh nan caogadan agus bha na cearcan againn air an cumail ri taobh na tràghad. Tron là bhiodh iad a’ dol air seachran am-measg nan creagan no nam preasan rhododendron a bha a’ fàs cha mhòr sìos chun a’ chladaich. Chuir iad seachad tòrr ùine gu math taitneach a’ sporghail am-measg na feamainn cuideachd, ‘s iad a’ rùrachadh bhiastagan beaga innte agus bha m’ athair air innse dhomh gum b’ e seo a’ chuir an dath soilleir orains air buidheaganan nan uighean. Bhiodh esan ‘s mi-fhèin a’ trusadh nan uighean gach madainn an-dèidh am biathadh agus air an oidhche bha na cearcan uile air an cruinneachadh agus gan cur anns na seann taighean-chon far am b’ àbhaist do na coin-sealg a bhith.
Là no dhà ron a Nollaige, ma-tà, bhitheamaid a’ dol le chèile sìos don tràigh airson cearc fhaighinn airson an dìnneireach mòir. Cha robh e a’ cur dragh sam bith orm oir bha mi mothachail, aig ìre air choreigin, gum b’ e rud gu math sònraichte a bha sinn a’ dèanamh. Dhomhsa b’ e rud gu tur nàdarra a bh’ ann, a bhith a’ marbhadh chearcan airson biadh agus nach mi bha dèidheil air cearc ròstadh co-dhiù! Cha robh truas sam bith agam mun deidhinn na bu mhotha oir, feumaidh mi aideachadh nach robh mi uabhasach dèidheil air cearcan beò. Bha e do-chreidsinneach gun robh na h-iseanan beaga buidhe air an robh mi cho measail a’ fàs suas gu bhith nan creutairean mi-thaitneach sin – le an cinn bheaga, casan lannach agus spuirean salach, na fuaimean gòrach aca agus iad a’ dèanamh an cac sa h-uile h-àite.
Nuair a’ ràinig sinn an tràigh bhiodh m’ athair a’ sealltainn dhomh a’ chearc a bha e an dùil a’ mharbhadh. An uairsin dh’ iarr e orm seasamh ri aon taobh fhad ‘s a ghabhe greim oirre. Bhiodh e ga dhèanamh gu math clis agus an uairsin, leis a’ chirc fo achlais, bhiodh e a’ dol a-steach am broinn nan taighean-chon airson ath cheum a’ ghnothaich. Cha robh e ceadaichte dhomh a’ dol a-steach còmhla ris agus mar sin chan fhaca mi idir dè rinn e.
Nuair a’ thàinig e a-mach a-rithist bhiodh sinn a’ coiseachd air-ais dhan loidse, greim teann aige air casan na circe agus a corp air bhogadan ri a thaobh. Bha a dhleastanasan crìochnaichte agus b’ ann le mo mhàthair a bha cùisean a-nis.
An toiseach chaidh a’ chearc a crochadh taobh a-muigh airson là no dhà anns a’ phreasa bheag fhiodha a bha faisg air an doras-chùil. Air an oidhche ron na Nollaig chuir i còmhdach math de phaipear-naidheachd anns an t-sinc mhòir dhùbailte anns a’ chidsin. An uairsin bhiodh i a’ spìonadh nan iteagan uile bhon chirc agus gan cruinneachadh anns a’ phaipear le làmhan comasach sgiobalta. Às aonais naniteagan bhiodh coltas lomnochd fuar air a corp - ged a bha criomagan beaga nan iteagan fhathast foilleasach an-siud ‘s an seo mar bhun feusaig air a craiceann. Bhiodh mo mhàthair a’ fàgail a’ phaipeir fosgailte anns an t-sinc agus an uairsin bhiodh i a’ cur naclosaich gu faiceallach air bòrd a’ chidsin far an robh sgian mhòr a’ laighe mu-thràth.
Bhithinn a’ seasamh air cathair ri a taobh, air bhioran airson a’ mhìorbhail a bha a’ dol a thachair air mo bheulaibh fhaicinn. Bha uidh mhòr agam anns an dìomhaireachd a bha am broinn corp na circe oir bha mo mhàthair air mìneachadh dhomh mu-thràth gun robh mòran ann a bha dìreach co-ionnan ris na rudan am broinn mo chuirp-sa. Mar sin cha b’ e uabhas a bh’ ann idir nuair a ghèarr i dheth a ceann is a casan agus chuir i iad gu aon taobh o chionn ‘s gun robh deagh fhios agam gun robh an rud a b’ inntinniche buileach a’ dol a’ thachairt a-nis. Fhad ‘s a bha mo mhàthair a’ toirt a’ mhionaich aiste, bhiodh i ag ainmeachadh gach pìos mus do chuir i iad ri chèile anns a’ phaipear anns an t-sinc. Mar sin, fhuair mi a-mach glè òg mu sgamhanan is dhubhagan, an cridhe is a’ ghreallach a-bharrachd air na rudan nach robh agamsa mar an sgròban agus na h-adhan-eòin.
Bhiodh mo mhàthair ag obair air a’ chirc ann an dòigh sgiobalta, clis. Chaidh cha mhòr am mionach gu lèir a’ chuir anns a’ phaipear agus an uairsin bha a h-uile rud air am pasgadh suas airson a’ chuir don bhin. Bhiodh i a’ glanadh nan adhan-eòin agus na h-amhaich gu math faiceallach agus gan cur air falbh gu cùramach airson sùgh a’ dhèanamh agus an uairsin bhiodh i gu bhith deiseal. Cha robh ach aon rud eile ri dhèanamh airson crìoch a’ chuir air cùisean. Las i coinneal a bha steigte ri sàsar agus an uairsin ghluais i a’ chlosach thairis air, a’ losgadh criomagan nan iteagan a bha fhathast air a craiceann. Bhiodh fàileadh tioram geur anns an adhar – fàileadh àraid nach dìochuimhnich mi gu bràth. Nuair a bha i deiseal, chaidh a’ chlosach athrusadh suas gu teann airson a dhol anns an àmhainn an ath là agus an uairsin chaidh am bòrd a sgùradh - a’ comharrachadh gun robh Là na Nollaige a’ tighinn na bu dhlùithe.
Dhomhsa bha marbhadh agus deisealachadh nacirce mar phàirt de dhraoidheachd agus dìomhaireachd na Nollaige. Nam inntinn-sa bha e dìreach coltach ris a’ chraoibh Nollaige le a coinnealan snìomhte dearg a’ bhiodh a’ nochdadh nas fhaide air adhart air an fheasgar no na tiodhlacan mìorbhaileach a bhiodh rim faighinn ri taobh na leapa no na mo stocain air Madainn na Nollaige.
At five years old, I was already acquainted with death.
It was completely normal for me to go with my father to get a chicken for Christmas dinner – though our destination wasn’t Sainsbury’s or Tesco. In those days, at the end of the fifties, we lived in an old hunting lodge and our hens were kept down beside the seashore. During the day, they would wander off amongst the rocks or the rhododendron bushes which reached almost down to the beach. They also had a good time scratching about amongst the seaweed, looking for little beasties. My father told me that this was what gave the yolks of their eggs such a bright orange colour. He and I would collect the eggs each morning after they had been fed, and in the evening they would all be rounded up and put into the old kennels where the hunting dogs had been kept.
So, a day or two before Christmas we would go down to the beach together, to get a chicken for our big dinner. It didn’t bother me in the slightest, as I was somehow aware that we were doing something very special. To me, there was nothing unusual about killing hens to eat – and anyway, I loved roast chicken! I didn’t feel any sympathy for them either because I have to admit that I didn’t really like live hens. It seemed unbelievable that the little yellow chicks of whom I was so fond of grew up to be such unattractive creatures, with their small heads, scaly legs and dirty claws – and who made such stupid noises whilst leaving their excrement all over the place. When we arrived at the beach, my father would point out the hen he had his eye on. Then he would ask me to stand a little way off while he caught her. He did this very quickly and then, with the hen tucked under his arm, he would disappear inside the kennels for the next part of the proceedings.I wasn’t allowed to go in with him, so I never saw what he did.When he came back out again, we would walk back to the lodge with my father holding the hen’s legs and its limp body dangling at his side.
This marked the end of his duties and my mother now took over.
The hen was hung up for a day or two in a little wooden cupboard which hung on one of the outside walls. Then on Christmas Eve she would line the big double sink in the kitchen with a good covering of newspaper. She would pluck the hen and collect all its feathers in the newspaper with her nimble, capable hands. The hen looked cold and naked without its feathers, although remnants of them still remained here and there – like stubble on its skin. The paper would be left open in the sink and my mother would carefully lay the carcass on the kitchen table, where a large sharp knife would be waiting.
I would stand excitedly on a chair beside her, awaiting the miracle that was about to unfold before my eyes, as I had a keen interest in the mystery that lay within the hen’s body. Indeed, my mother had already explained that there were a lot of things inside a hen’s body that were very similar to my own. Thus, it wasn’t a dreadful shock when she cut off the hen’s head and legs and laid them to one side as I knew the most interesting part was about to take place. While my mother gutted the hen she named each bit that she removed from the inside before she put them all together in the newspaper in the sink. And so I learned all about the lungs and the kidneys, the heart and the intestines – as well as the parts that humans didn’t have, like the gizzard and the giblets.
My mother dealt with the chicken quickly and neatly. Almost all of the insides were put into the newspaper which was then wrapped up, ready for putting in the bin. She would carefully wash the giblets and the neck and save them for making gravy and by that time, she would be nearly finished. There was just one other thing to do. She lit a candle stuck to a saucer and then she moved the carcass over it, singeing the remnants of the feathers which remained in the skin. There would be a sharp, dry smell in the air – a strange smell which I will never forget.
When the job was done and the carcass neatly trussed for going in the oven the next day, the table would be scrubbed, a sure sign that Christmas Day was fast approaching.
To me, the preparation of the chicken was just another part of the magic and mystery of Christmas. In my mind, it was just the same as the Christmas tree with its red twisted candles which would appear later in the day, or the wonderful presents beside my bed and in my stocking on Christmas morning.