Peasant Life in
Argyllshire in the end of the Eighteenth century From the Scottish Historical Review
The following paper by
Mrs. K. W. Grant of Oban gives an account of life in her native village
as related to Mrs. Grant many years ago by her grandmother
I WAS born in the year
1774 at Barichreil; a small village of Nether Lorn.
My father was a
descendant of that McCallum of Colagin, the sight of whom, as he entered
Kilbride Church one Sunday, followed by his twelve sons in order of
their age, provoked the Lady of Dunollie to exclaim: 'A third of Albyn
were none too much for McCallum of Colagin!'
My mother's family, the
Macnabs, belonged to Glenorchy. Her forefathers had been armourers and
silversmiths for seven hundred years, the son stepping into the father's
place throughout the whole of that long period.
My mother had a training
such as fell to the lot of few Highland girls of the period in which she
lived. In early girlhood she went to live in the family of a relative,
whose wire had been educated in one of the best schools in Edinburgh.
This lady delighted to teach my mother not only all that a good
housewife ought to know but also the spinning of wool and flax, and the
working up of both from the raw material to the finished web.
My childhood was cast in
that transition period when the domestic life of the Highland people was
gradually adapting itself to modern civilisation. To-day one can hardly
realise a time when there were no railways, no steamboats, no penny
post, no telegraph, no looms driven by machinery, no wheaten bread nor
tea in country districts, no newspapers giving us the news of the wide
Clive had just laid the
foundation of our Indian Empire. Canada had become one of our
possessions. The first ominous mutterings were heard of the storm about
to break over our American colonies. Australia and New Zealand began to
loom on the horizon. That was abroad. At home the forces which were to
overturn social life were already set in motion. Watt was busy improving
his steam-engine. Arkwright's spinning-jenny had penetrated into the
In the Highlands the
spinning-wheel was beginning to supersede the spindle and distaff;
schools were being established in every parish; the New Testament was
translated into Gaelic, and the books of the Old Testament were in
capable hands for translation.
At the same time the
daily life of the people continued to be what it had been for ages. They
had not outlived the simple life which had been theirs from time
immemorial; the shielings were still theirs; nor were they restricted
from fishing the risers, or from taking a hare from the hill.
Our village was an
important place in its own estimation. It consisted of a group of
sixteen thriving families, whose boast it was that every known trade
required in the district was represented among the men. That was
something to be proud of in those days, when to be a first-rate
tradesman meant that a man possessed as thorough a knowledge of every
branch of his craft as a master-workman is expected to have in these
The town of Oban did not
exist except in the brain of the then Duke of Argyll and his
Chamberlain. The first time I walked into Oban there were but three
houses on the bay : the Custom House, the Inn, and a farmhouse.
The edict that made the
wearing of our national costume punishable made a tailor of my father.
The finest linen underwear as well as upper garments were made at that
time by the tailor. When some thrifty dame brought a web of linen and
another of woollen material to he made up, my father turned the web of
linen over to my mother, who could manipulate it as well as any tailor.
When, on the other hand, my father was out boarding with a family till
all the household sewing was finished, he received 7½d. per day, which
sum was considered to be very good pay.
When I was old enough to
attend school my brothers pled with mother to allow me to accompany
them. It was an unheard of thing for girls except the daughters of
'gentlemen' to be sent to school. But my mother came of a family that
loved learning, and she knew how to value education, so :t did not take
much coaxing to get her to consent to my taking a winter at school.
So I trudged there and
back in company with my kind brothers, who, if the weather proved
severe, took turns in carrying me, so that I might sir dry and cosy at
It was always during the
six winter months that we attended school. Each boy carried a peat under
his arm to keep the fire blazing. One of the older lads provided a good
broom of long, wiry-stemmed moss from the marsh, wherewith to sweep the
earthen floor. All had helped to gather the thatch and cover the roof
before the winter session began.
That season in school
would, I was confident, enable me to go on by myself afterwards, so I
made the most of my time. For I doubted whether there would come another
opportunity. When could a woman find time for schooling with the
clothing of the whole family dependent upon her knowledge and skill in
working wool and flax; even the sewing thread had to be manufactured by
her deft fingers. The women had also the care of the cattle to a great
extent, and oftentimes they were obliged to grind the meal before baking
it. How could time be spared to read and write?
When my eldest brother
was old enough he was allowed to go to the harvest work in the Lowlands.
On his return he brought with him an English Bible ; he read t aloud to
us in the evening, not in English but as if written in Gaelic.
My brothers learned
trades. John became a farmer; another brother built many of the houses
in Oban and the Congregational Chapel, which was the first place of
worship in Oban. He erected also the high wall around Iain Ciar's grave.
One morning our quiet
village was greatly startled by a rumour that we might have a visit from
the press-gang. A friendly warning was sent us to the effect that the
press-gang were in the vicinity and would be certain to pay us a call in
the passing as we were quite near the highway.
The good wives of
Barichreil were not in the habit of overstepping the bounds of modest
conventional womanhood, but on this occasion they took the law nto their
own hands. The husbands, with all the sons and brothers old enough to be
impressed, were ordered off to make peats, and forbidden to return until
sent for. Boy scouts were stationed here and ther to keep us women
informed of the appearance of the enemy, and report his movements.
Meanwhile, a supply of ammunition was prepared in the shape of clods and
At length the press-gang
arrived, and looked greatly astonished on finding. a village composed of
women and children only. Before they had time to ask, 'Where are the
men?' the wives attacked them with such a volley of clods and turf that
they wheeled right about and marched off, the officer saying he 'wasn't
going to fight with women,' and there was no time to go about the mils
searching for the men.
Our village lay in a
green glade, flanked by two low, brown hills. The houses were clustered
on both sides of a burn that divided the glade in two and fell into the
river Euachir just below the highway. The Euachir is a fine salmon
stream running through a deep channel between steep banks covered with
birch and hazel.
My brothers were keen
fishers. There was a beautiful salmon that haunted a deep pool in the
Euachir; all the fishermen about had tried in vain to catch it. My
brothers were determined not to be baffled; they would blaze the river.
They got up during the night and sallied forth with torches and
fish-spears. I was suddenly awakened at daybreak by the call, 'Get up
and see our fishing!' In a twinkling I was up, dressed, and in their
midst. There among smaller fish was the great big beauty !
Salmon was so plentiful
that when a farmer engaged a ploughman he was bound to promise not to
give him salmon oftener than four days in the week.
Each family in Barichreil
owned a few sheep and cows. The sheep provided us with wool for
clothing, the cows with milk, butter and cheese.
The sheep were the native
sheep of the Highlands; small, intelligent creatures covered with fine
wool, each answering to its name, and milked as well as the cows. We
were obliged to fold them at night, because of the numerous foxes and
wild cats that prowled about freely. Our fowls, too, had to be carefully
closed in for protection.
Our household utensils
were made of wood and a few of pewter. Bowls of all sizes were made of
hard wood, preferably birch, because of its sweetness, also because it
was easily kept clear. Tubs, too, were of all sizes; shallow tubs for
holding milk and for working butter in, as well as wash-tubs such as are
still in use. There were cogues for milking, luggies for feeding calves,
pails and stoups for bringing water from the well. Our spoons were of
horn, some thin and finely ornamented, and used only on special
Each croft had a plot set
apart for the cultivation of flax. On it we depended for linen for
household use as well as for underwear.
The cloth of which the
men's suits were made was very much the same as that called tweed or
homespun nowadays. The women wore drugget. Their best dresses, as well
as the cloaks of the men, consisted of a firm shiny material called
temin, which lasted a lifetime, being manufactured of the longest and
finest wool, and treated in the working exactly as flax was. The temin
for dresses was often watered to look like silk. A softer cloth was
called caimleid, which was as fine as temin. It was, however, dyed in
the web, and dressed so as to have a nap on the cloth.
The dye-stuffs for all
kinds of cloth were gathered, each in its season, all the year round.
Berries, flowers, leaves, bark, roots, heather, and lichens formed our
principal stores of dyes. There was hardly a plant on hill or meadow
that was not laid under contribution for dye, or medicine, or food. Even
the autumn crowfoot had its use as a substitute for rennet, when no
rennet could be had; nettles were prized when the 'curly kale' was
exhausted in spring.
The fulling of a web of
woollen material was the least agreeable as also the most toilsome
labour connected with the manufacture of cloth. When the web came home
from the weaver, word was sent out to the most experienced women and
girls to the number of from sixteen to eighteen. A fulling-frame of fine
wickerthe common property of the villagewas set on trestles of the
proper height. It was from two-and-a-half to three feet wide, and eight
or nine feet long. The most experienced and careful woman was installed
mistress of ceremonies at the head of the frame, to deal out the web and
watch over the working.
Seven women stood on each
side of the frame, care being taken that each couple were of the same
length of arm. There was one at the foot of the frame to fold the cloth
as I was passed along, and to attend to it being kept soaked with liquid
as it was being thickened.
About a yard of the cloth
was unrolled to begin with, by her who stood at the head. It was soaked
at once with ammoniated liquid, then drawn slantwise across the frame;
that is No. one on the hither side worked with No. two on the opposite
sidenot with the woman directly in front of her, for that would bring
no nap on the cloth, and it would be streaky, because the treatment
would not be equal. Then the cloth was rubbed and pounded to thicken up
and drawn backwards and forwards till it was ready to be passed on for
the next two couples to thump, and rub and see-saw it and pass down
farther to undergo the same process.
The whole of this toil
was set to music. Every movement of the hand was regulated by a waulking-song,
sung in perfect tune by all. If a part (or the whole) of the cloth
needed more working, the women never said, 'It will take another
half-hour, or hour's work,' but 'It will take another song,' or 'It will
take so many more songs.'
The tweed being thickened
and smoothed to the satisfaction of the experts, a thin straight board
three inches wide was brought, on which to wind the web. This process
was called 'winding the cloth into a candle.' The board was necessarily
a little longer than the width of the cloth. The winding of the web was
done with the minutest care, lest there should be a crease or a wrinkle
or an unequal overlapping of the selvedges anywhere. In this winding the
cloth, the women kept slappirg every inch of each fold with all their
might, with the open palms of their hands. The song sung during this
performance required a different measure from the other. It was called
Port-nam-bas, the palm-chant, or rather palming-chant. Those who sang it
were well acquainted with the gossip of the country-side. They knew who
was the favoured laddie of each lassie, present or absent. In the song
the names of the maidens and their real or supposed sweethearts were
coupled, thus adding to the merriment and the interest. Such songs are
termed 'pairing' songs. The candle of the cloth was left lying as it was
till next day, when it was soused in water and left to dry.
Here is a specimen of one
of the 'pairing songs' sung on such an occasion. The title is, 'An Long
Erionnach,' The Irish Ship. It begins with the lines :
And so on to any number
of couplets, as long as there were names in the district to be linked
together. When those gave out the next district yielded a fresh supply,
till the web was rolled into a 'candle.'
Very gradually during
these years, potatoes were becoming more and. more an article of diet,
but so little were they used that we set aside only one creelful as seed
potatoes against the following spring. Turnips, too, were slowly coming
into general use. Tea was still a rare treat; baker's breadsoft, spongy
stuff!was not to be thought of. Until then it was honey that was used
for sweetening. Salt was very expensive, being taxed to more than forty
times its value.
There was one kind of
food used occasionally which is probably unknown nowadays. Some of the
stronger cattle were bled in spring by an expert; the blood was
carefully prepared, salted in a tub and set aside for use. We called it
We had no winnowed
rye-grass or turnips in those days to feed the cattle; we were entirely
dependent on the natural grass. When the lower pastures became bare it
was necessary to take the cattle to be fed once, or in some districts
twice, a year to those higher pastures where sweet hill grass was
plentiful. This relieved the lower pastures, allowing the grass on them
to grow afresh.
A green, grassy hill was
called an Airigh (pronounced ah-ry). When spring work was over, the men
of the village went to the airigh to get the sheilings, that is the
huts, into order. Being built of turf they required to be put into
thorough repair, so as to make them habitable after the storms of winter
and the rains of spring, which were sure to dismantle the roofs.
One end of every hut was
banked up some eighteen inches from the rest of the floor, and part of
it covered with heather-tops for a bed. The heather made a fragrant
springy couch, and, as it was to be used in June weather, a thin blanket
to covet it, and another to cover the sleeper, were all that were needed
for comfort. The remainder of the banked up space served for a seat. We
did with as little furniture as possible for our six weeks' picnic.
The little village of
turf huts was a woman's township. Only one man, the aireach (herdsman)
was there to help about the cattle in all matters that needed such
experienced aid as his special knowledge could afford.
The sheilings were
generally ready for occupation by the first week of June; then a day was
fixed upon for the setting out. Of course the whole village set out
together. The children were welcome, boys as well as girls, at that
first outset. There were so many articles to be carried that all alike
could be of help. There were the utensils and implements needed for
making butter and cheesecogues, churns, lyggics, milk-tubs,
cheese-vats, a large iron pot for heating the milk in, and a block of
iron which, when heated red-hot, was used to sterilise the milk. The
women took their distaffs and wool, for they were in the habit of going
among their flocks twirling their distaffs as they minded them.
Household provisions were taker, clothing too, and a few dishes and
cooking utensils, and each company carried a milking-stool.
The cows and the little
sheep knew the way and gave little or no trouble. To prevent any bother
about the calves, a churn called an imideal (butterer) was carried on
the back. This special make of churn was flat on one side, so as to fit
on to the back, and was covered with a skin. The lid also was secured
with a skin round it; but on such an occasion as this setting out it was
not so tightly fastened but that a few drops of milk we-e jolted out of
it while climbing the hill, and trickled down over the skin covering.
The calves, lured by the dropping milk, followed the imideals of their
respective owners, licking the skin as often as they were able to
overtake the climber, and thus they arrived at the airigh.
There were frequent
journeys to and from home during those six weeks. As often as a certain
quantity of butter and cheese was ready it was carried home to be stored
for future use. When the home was not too distant some of the stronger
young women were accustomed to put the proper amount of cream into the
imideal, then, strapping it on to their backs, they thus carried it to
its destination, the churning being done by the jolting in going down
the braes. The butter in this case was washed and salted after arrival.
The churn did not slip off when it was humped up and down so much,
because it was held securely by two stout straps, and rested on the
bunched gathers of the drugget, skirt as on a cushion. When several of
those heavy drugget and plaiding skirts were worn, as was the habit
then, there was quite a shelf for the churn to rest on.
Every meal taken in the
open air was a feast. We rarely took our food indoors. We had whey
porridge very often, which I liked better than the rich milk porridge,
which was our Sunday treat. What a wealth there was of wild strawberries
and blaeberries, as many as we could eat! We had children's rhymes to
repeat too for almost everything we met.
When we children came
upon a bed of cuckoo-stockings and primroses, we sang out:
wood-sorrel, white clover;
Food for all the little children ail the blight summer over!
Did we come upon a bird's
nest, we covered our mouths, believing that if our breath came near the
eggs it would ta::it them and so scare the bird away. In leaving the
nest we sang:
Who spoiled my nest so sweet, O?
Should he be a tall man,
Fling him headlong from the keep!
Should he be a small man
Toss him from the rocky steep!
But a clownwho doesn't care!
Turn him over to his mother
And leave him there!
If a corra-chosaga
wood-lousecrossed our path, we instantly stopped and asked it gravely :
Will to-morrow be a lovely day?
If you tell me quick and true,
A pair of brogues I'll make for you!
When the cuckoo was due
to return in April we were careful to eat a bit of bread before turning
out in the early morning, as it was deemed unlucky to hear it for the
first time in each season with our fast unbroken. But in June, it was
bound to forsake its summer haunts, so we addressed it thus :
'Cuckoo!' cried the gowk
on a spray,
'I've missed thee yestre'en and to-day's
'Cuckoo!' cried the cuckoo, ' farewell!
By the hunter I'm chased from the dell!'
The little blue scabious
was treated rudely, I don't know why. Holding it by the neck firmly
between the root of the thumb and the palm of the hand, we twisted the
stem with the other hand, then, loosening the pressure of the thumb, the
flower began to turn slowly round. As the flower began to turn round we
Gillie, gillie blue-boy,
if thou turn not round, down comes my fist upon thee.
Suiting the action to the
word, at the emphatically pronounced word I 'down' we crushed the head
of the flower by the violence of the blow.
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