Saturday 14 October 2017

The Outdoor Man

Another of my friends has recently pegged out. We first met him when he and M'sis were living on Erraid in 1997. Or rather we met his legs, because that’s all we could see of him poking out from under the Erraid tractor trailer as he welded its broken axle.  Getting to Erraid, an island, off an island, off the West coast of Scotland, was the trekkiest one day journey (from O.Fr jornee a day's march) we made with two small children. Taxi to airport; plane to Prestwick; train to Glasgow Central, shuttle to Glasgow Queen Street, train to Oban, ferry to Mull, minibus to Fionnphort, row-boat to Erraid, wheelbarrow for luggage to house. You may be sure that the Erraid community of candle-dippers and wiccans really appreciated having one good pair of hands about the place.

For the next tuthree years, “McAndrew” (because we encountered him in Scotland) and McSis would come to visit us in Knockroe for about a week.  He was kindly and avuncular with the girls but had little patience for kitchen chit-chat and catch-up. Sometime early on day 2 of any visit, he’d ask if there was something useful he could do, preferably outside, preferably with his hands.  We’d set him some task which seemed incredibly daunting to me and he’d quietly set to: scoping out the problem, thinking about it briefly, then gathering tools and starting work. He’d come in when called for dinner or if his hat bowled away on a really wet gale but otherwise quietly plugged away at the job. Very occasionally he’d ask me to supply some brute force – heaving up a bigger-than-one-man rock or holding the other end of a long timber – but generally he preferred to be unencumbered with ‘help’. Unless it was Dau.II, he was always happy to have 5-6 year old Dau.II pass him nails.

I’ll give a couple of anecdotes because respect is in the details.  In scrabbling about the farm, we had unearthed a huge flat kidney-shaped stone and conceived the idea of raising it on 3 granite piers to make a garden table.  The stone was really flat on one side but undulating on the other. McAndrew coursed around the farm locating three sufficiently long piers [they had to be down in the ground at least 15 inches and we wanted to get knees under the table too]. He then carefully measured the underside of the table-top, dug three holes, dropped in the table legs and back filled them so they were immovable.  The tops of the three legs were at slightly different heights, so that, when the granite table top was flipped over, its undulations would complement the piers and the table-top would be perfectly horizontal. And it was so.

On the other side of the lane from the house we own another 3 acres of fields in the middle of which are The Ruins a.k.a. Hickey’s after the last family to dwell in them. When we took over, only one building had a (corrugated iron) roof and we used that as a reasonably convenient, reasonably dry, wood-store. As well as a roof it had an ivy-covered gable-end which loomed ominously over the lane because the ivy had penetrated the fabric of the wall and lifted the stones up and outwards. This was a source of 3AM-screaming anxiety for me because our lane is used by hundreds of hill-walkers a year getting access to Mount Leinster and the surrounding uplands. The nightmare was that our wall would crush a group of boy-scouts as they adventured up the lane.

McAndrew did things rather than worried about them and he hunted out a packing-box and a beer-crate that together would just give him access to the topmost stones of the disintegrating wall. Let’s start small, he thought, at the top he thought and carefully lifted out one stone . . . pause . . . there was no roaring avalanche, so he stepped up again and removed another stone. By lunchtime the wall was down to shoulder level and he could put the beer crate out of harm’s way. He then removed the last sagging 8 ft of the roof: carefully, to keep the corrugated sheets for recycling. Having dealt like a dentist with the cause of the decay and dug back to sound foundation, McA then rebuilt the gable-end wall 8 ft back from the lane (and the innocent walkers) – the neatest, solidest, and most functional dry-stone wall on the property. He finished off the apex of the shed-wall with a hit-and-miss wooden curtain (like we built our woodshed last year) made of creosoted match-board recycled from the house’s original kitchen. That solution kept the wall to head-height and allowed draft to circulate through the wood shed behind the wall. It was triumph of recycling, appropriate technology and getting on with things. He was really happy with the result; I was delighted.

The next year we decided to recycle one of the wrought iron gates that had been thrown into a ditch on the property. Painted up it would make a nice entrance from the lane into The Ruins. That meant straightening the existing pier so it would hinge the gate and sorting out some recycled ironmongery to hold gate to pier and allow it to open. That required a lot of patience, WD40, a lump-hammer and a vice-grips. But the icing on the cake was finding another pier for the new gate to close against. I was useful here because the only suitable granite pier was 150 m away, so I was allowed to help push/pull/drag the stone on a sack-trolley up the hill to its new site. As with the legs of the stone table, you may be sure that when the jamb-pier was dropped into its foundation hole, the top was precisely level with the top of the gate. It didn’t have to be like that for function, but, for McAndrew, it could be none other.
That’s the thing about McAndrew, he made a difference to the things around him and by doing made other people happier. I learned a little from his confidence that the sky wouldn’t fall if you stopped thinking and just made a start; I have fewer nightmares now and do more about the place. McAndrew’s changes to the landscape will be there, unsigned but appreciated by those who use them, long after we are all gone.

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