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Oor Ain Folk
Chapter II


The Glen Folk: their Characteristics—The Clachan of Tarf-side— Primitive Farming—A Fine Peasantry—The Eviction Policy denounced—The Expatriation of the People—Drinking Habits —Excellence of the Whisky—Sandie's Eulogium on his Dram —Turning the Tables on the Minister—' The Beam in the Eye'.

The Glen folk, as a rule, corresponded very much with their environment, being a stalwart, shaggy-haired, bright-eyed, clean-limbed, active race of hardy men; and the women, quite accustomed to take their share in all the customary avocations of such a Highland parish. There were few large farms in those days, as I have said; but every little bit of arable land, every little strath, through which some clear running brooklet ran, contributing its quota to the main artery, the North Esk—every low-lying bit of ground, swept down by winter floods and storms from the flanks of the mountains, and every encouraging level stretch of heather— all these were sufficient, each to sustain one or more families in rough comfort; and although the living was rude, the houses not much to look at, and the tillage perhaps of the most primitive character, yet each family was above the reach of want, as all possessed at least one cow and sometimes more, and certainly most of them had the run of more than the proverbial three acres.

The population, scattered as it was, amounted to a pretty fair total when the census of the whole Glen was taken. The scanty crops of barley and oats, with sometimes a patch of rye, potatoes, and turnips, eked out the winter forage for the live stock—this gave work sufficient for the 'cottar' and his family; and then there was always the annual task of cutting the peats in the peat-moss up the hillside, drying them, carrying home, and stacking them; thus laying in an ample supply of that delightful old Highland fuel for the long cold nights of winter.

In sober truth it was rather a hard, unlovely life; not much of the aesthetic about it from a modern point of view; and yet the entire peasantry was of such sterling character, that very simple pleasures sufficed to meet their social wants; and a deep love of all the beauties of nature, scattered with such lavish hand on every side, warmed the hearts of these homely people. Indeed all the old-fashioned virtues of thrift, plodding industry, absence of pretence, genuine hospitality, and deep, sincere piety, were characteristic of the Glen people as a whole. Of course there were here and there some exceptions to the usual rule. The more lawless spirits, for instance, did not think it morally wrong to spear the salmon, or snare a hare, or even bring down a royal stag, if the opportunity came in their way; and, as I have already hinted, their notions in regard to His Majesty's revenue in the matter of excise were very lax.

The little clachan of Tarf-side was the centre of what corporate life there was in this secluded region. Here was the house of the factor, the little, low-roofed, heather-thatched, general store licensed for the sale of tea and tobacco, the stock of which was of the most oddly miscellaneous and incongruous character imaginable ; presided over by an ancient snuffy dame, possessed of a high mutch and a shrill voice, who knew every item of gossip in the Glen, took charge of the Post-Office, and concerned herself with the domestic affairs of the whole of the population generally. Then there was the Masonic Hall, mysterious rites being celebrated at intervals in the same, which were spoken of with bated breath by all the youngsters in the place. There were also an Episcopal Church, a blacksmith's shop, and one or two other little dwellings. To this little clachan innumerable footpaths converged from every mountain spur and secluded valley in the tumbled chain of the Grampians, that rolled their crimson slopes like billows of fire all around when the heather was in flame—as happened once a year, when the great heather-burnings took place, so that the sheep might have a feast on the fresh young sprouts, that took the place of the old tangled 'hagg,' after the purifying flames had passed over it.

The ploughing was of the most primitive character, sometimes the 'coo' and the l cuddy' being yoked together; and not unfrequently the mother of the family would take the place of either 'coo' or 'cuddy' and drag the wooden plough during the long weary day, so that the not over-kindly earth might be prepared to receive the precious seed that had been stored over the rafters from the last year's crop.

Porridge and brose composed the ordinary fare. Trout of fine quality could always be had from the burns and river. Rabbits, hares, partridges, grouse, blackcock, wild duck, and other winged denizens of the heathery wastes, might always be procured. In those days game-preserving had not become the fine art that it is now. The little garden, or kail-yaird, supplied abundance of humble vegetables, while small fruits of various sorts, such as gooseberries, red and black currants, raspberries, strawberries, etc., were the never-failing adjunct to the garden; and every cottar's wife made it her pride to lay in annually a stock of jams and preserves, which, with honey and beautiful butter, formed the relish to the substantial bannocks and delicious scones, in the baking of which every housewife was an adept.

There were no horticultural societies in those days to encourage cottage gardening by gifts and prizes. None of the modern stimulants which seem to be found necessary to induce industry of any sort amongst the so-called lower classes then existed. Industry and thrift were the ingrained habits of the people; and the dividing line between pinching poverty and the modest supply of daily-recurring wants was so thin, that the people always had borne in upon them very practically the full meaning of the old scriptural adage, 'He that worketh not, neither shall he eat.'

Of course there were large sheep farms, embracing all the heather country unfit for tillage, and on these large farms many of the cottars found employment as shepherds; and where there was arable land in any quantity, there would be a few ploughmen and general farm-labourers; but as a rule the people were essentially resident peasantry, each cultivating his own little holding, training his family—and they were generally large families—in habits of thrift, industry, self-denial, self-respect, earnest piety, sturdy independence, and living patriotism, with a genuine contempt for everything artificial, unreal, and meanly conventional. In countless glens, such as these, the hardy, frugal, industrious peasantry of Scotland were reared—the race which was the crowning glory of their poor but beautiful country; and no words of mine can adequately express the disgust I feel, when I think of the greed and ruthless coldblooded cruelty, which depopulated so many of these beautiful glens; turning busy haunts of rural industry into sheep walks and deer forests; banishing thousands of God-fearing, noble-hearted patriots, for ever from the land they loved so well; and scattering the ashes on many a hearth, around whose genial fire so many fine traditions had clustered, and so many of the noblest attributes of the genuine, kindly, old Scottish character been manifested.

To the thoughtful traveller, even now, it is a sad, sad sight to come across the evidences of former habitation. In many of the lonely glens, where now no peat-reek curls peacefully into the clear blue sky, a few blackened hearthstones and rotting door-posts, mournfully protruding themselves from the rank wilderness of nettles and docks, are the last sad remains of what was once a bright and happy home, giving shelter to a hardy, industrious, patriotic people, whose descendants, scattered far and wide, still look back with a loving, lingering fondness towards the bonnie heather hills, from many a backwoods home in far-off Canada, torrid India, or sunny Australia.

Whole chapters might be written of the sheep-washing, sheep-shearing, the merry harvest-time, and the long, chill, winter nights, when song and story kept time with the monotonous whirr of the spinning-wheel, around the great wide ingle, where the peat fire burned steady and low. But this of course is an oft-told tale, though the memory of it is fast fading away in the minds of many of the rising generation—the more's the pity. No matter though princely revenues be still further swelled by the high rentals extracted from American millionaires and factory plutocrats, the much-vaunted advantages of game-preserving and big farming areas can never make up for the loss of the kindly-hearted, simple-minded, patriotic old peasantry, who through the cupidity and selfishness of a privileged few were expatriated from the land whose pride and stay they were.

In every such little clachan there was generally some old veteran, returned from foreign wars, bearing honourable marks of loyal service for king and country; and dozens of eager recruits would annually go forth from these glens to fight the battles of Britain; but now, alas! the Queen's soldiers have to be culled from the spindle-shanked, pigeon-chested, tallow-faced, undersized striplings that haunt the purlieus of our great manufacturing towns.

Much has no doubt been said, and many extraordinary stories have been told, of the drinking habits of the people; but it should never be forgotten that if the libations to Bacchus were plentiful, the whisky was pure and good. The frugal fare of oatmeal must have necessitated marvellously robust digestive powers; while the free, open-air life, and exposure to the breath of the mountains, enabled men to assimilate whisky in a way which in these degenerate times seems amazing and almost incredible. As a matter of fact, to this day, in those parts, no man would ever think of adding water to his whisky—that would be an indignity to the king of liquors which were altogether unpardonable. But even in those times there must have been qualities and degrees of excellence amongst the various local centres, as certain brands were always more prized than others.

A good instance of this is recalled to me by a humorous little anecdote of one of my good wife's aunts, who was the thrifty housewife of a large farm near Tarland, in Aberdeenshire. It seems that an old carrier from Aberdeen had made his usual weekly call, and the frugal lady, who kept two kinds of whisky— one for the men and one for the goodman par excellence —happened to have run short of the more potent and fiery decoction with which she was wont to satisfy the less educated palates of the ploughmen; so she said to Sandie the carrier: 'I suppose, Sandie, you will be nane the waur o' a dram?' Sandie responded with alacrity: 'Deed, mem, ye may weel say that, for I hinna slockened ma drouth this haill blessed day'.

'Aweel, Sandie,' said the guidwife, 'I'm sorry I'm oot o' yer usual, but I hae some fine Lochnagar here that I keep especially for the maister.'

'Eh, mem,' said Sandie, with a pleased twinkle in his eye, ' aweel awat it'll be nane the waur for that!' at the same time smacking his lips in pleased anticipation.

The good lady produced a big-bellied bottle and ample glass, and pouring out a full measure of the mellow nectar, she handed it to the expectant carrier, who took off his cap and devoutly wiped his lips, as if he was saying a mental grace over the expected treat. Gently poising the glass in his fingers, he looked at it with loving eyes, slowly threw his head back, reverently raised the glass to his lips, and then with a sudden jerk the mellow fluid gurgled down the gratefully-receptive thrapple. A long, deep sigh of exquisite content followed, and then with a tremulous voice, pregnant with the deepest feeling, he murmured to the good lady: 'Losh, mem, I wonder ye can hae't i' the hoose an' no tak' it!' A similar eulogium is mentioned by Dean Ramsay in one of his inimitable stories. Another good story, I believe of the same carrier, is told: that on one occasion he had just been the recipient of rather a pompous and long-winded reproof from the minister of a certain parish in these parts, who had been lecturing him on his intemperate habits. The divine, who was in truth rather fond of a dram himself, and whose nasal organ bore ample testimony to the frequency of his libations, received the quite unexpected and rather disconcerting reply:—

'Weel, meenister, there are mair broon pigs comes tae the manse than tae ony ither hoose i' the pairish.'

The rather crestfallen cleric had nothing more to say, as in his conscience he was forced to acknowledge the truth of the old carrier's rejoinder. For the benefit of any poor benighted foreigner from 'South of Tweed' who may honour me by perusing these pages, I may interpret that 'a broon pig' is 'a greybeard' or demijohn of whisky.

Another retort of much the same kind is one which I have seen in print, but which needs no apology for being reproduced here.

'John,' said a clergyman to one of his flock, 'you should become a teetotaller—you have been drinking again to-day' 'Did you never take a wee drop yourself, sir?' inquired John. 'Ah, but, John, you must look at your circumstances and mine., 'Verra true' quoth John; 'but, sir, can you tell me how the streets of Jerusalem were keepit sae clean?' 'No, John, I cannot tell you that'. 'Weel, sir, it was just because every one keepit his own door clean!' replied John, with an air of triumph. John was never catechised after that.


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