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Braemar Highlands
Part the Fourth - Chapter VII


Social Usages of the Braemarians—Dress, Food, etc.—Last Case of Witch craft—Cheese-peel.

THE next and last point of interest in Braemar history was the auspicious event of it becoming again, as in days of old, a royal residence—a change conducive to its highest interests.

But, before touching upon that subject, I may notice briefly the state of the people as to social usages, dress, food, etc., about the end of the eighteenth century, as at that time the old habits, customs, etc., had but begun to give way by the introduction of Saxon usage and modern improvement.

And first as to dress. After the defeat at Culloden the soldiers had orders to oblige the people to lay aside their ancient costume. This in Braemar they entirely failed in doing. But a kind of compromise was made. The kilt they did not, and would not lay aside; but they agreed to have it of other material than tartan. They adopted instead a greyish sort of colour, with a few narrow stripes of white round the bottom, by way of border. This was a great concession; for in Braemar, as well as in other Highland districts, they had attained to a great proficiency in the production of those beautifully bright and permanent colours, for which very old tartans are famous.

It has appeared to some surprising that the Highlanders should be able, from the scanty materials which their country afforded, to, produce such brilliancy of colouring. In those days, good housewives distinguished themselves not only by the superior quality of cloth they produced—for all was home-made—but also by the brightness and variety of their colours. From the descendants of one thus distinguished I had the whole secret; and a simple one it was, both as to the process and material of dyeing.

Black was produced from aurn ; green and yellow from heather, the green being first dyed blue with indigo. From ‘white crottle' a species of lichen, a beautiful crimson was produced. The ‘ crottle ’ or lichen producing this colour had to be kept in soak for at least a twelvemonth before use. A more common red was produced from madder; brown from 'rough crottle,’ another species of lichen : the fixing matter for all these colours being of the most primitive nature.

Shoes also were of home manufacture, being made out of skins prepared by themselves, in very primitive fashion, sewed in the inside and turned over.

The number of the people at that date was much greater than at present : for instance, in Glen Cluny there were forty-one families, now only six ; in Glen Ey nine, now only one, a gamekeeper’s; in Glen Lm there were six, now there are none ; in Glen Dee eight, now I think none ; in Glen Quoich eight, now none. This was exclusive of those dwelling in Strathdee, Castleton, A uchindryne, etc. Eight meal mills were also required at that time ; now there are only two, and one would be sufficient for the work required. One of the mills was at Invercauld\one at Allen Quoich, Inverey, Kill-a-Coll\ A uchindryne, Castleton, Coldrach; and the eighth at Stron, Gaelic Stroon-een. The millers were paid with so much of the meal.

‘How was it' I inquired on hearing this account, ‘that so many could subsist then, when the few now, with a much better system of farming, can scarcely manage to lived he answer to my question was given as follows, brought out fully by one or two other queries :—

‘Weel, it has been supposed, and said, that it was principally through poaching in the woods and rivers that they contrived to subsist. Now, that was not correct ; for at the time when so many were in the country, James Farquharson, the fifth laird of Invercauld, and last of the direct line, had all his tenants sworn in not to touch his wood or water; and the tenure by which they held their lands was, that it was to be term-day when they were found doing either. They had no other lease, and never were removed but in the event of such trespassing; and then he was inexorable: no man needed to plead for them.

‘I min’ well a gey queer story of this kind. There was a man they cad Grigor Riach, and ane o’ his laddies was at a place they ca the Red-banks, where Major Ross’s house is building, gathering tapins ae day: that is a kind o’ supple twig that sometimes springs from the bottom or root of the birch-trees: it was to mak’ a creel or something. The laird, he happened to be riding that way, and saw the boy, who ran. But the laird gave chase; and having found out who he was, his parents were immediately ejected. And though the people went and pleaded for him that the tapins were of no use, and that he was but a boy, and that his father did not know of him taking them, etc., the laird was not to be moved: they had to remove to Glenshee,and the father died there soon after. That was the way poachers on the very smallest scale were dealt with; and, of course, those on a bigger scale were not treated more leniently.

‘Now how could the woods or the water serve under such circumstances to keep people alive? No, the real secret of it was this : every croft or small farm had so many sheep. They had so many of what we call withers, so many hogs, and so many ewes, kept in their different enclosures. These enclosures were never cleaned but in spring, when the ground was preparing; and then the manure was taken out, saft and warm, and laid upon the ground, and ploughed in, or delved in, and then the bear was sown. And it was nathing uncommon to have twelve bolls for every boll of seed. The heads would a’ been that length (measuring about half a foot on his hand); and the sheafs that heavy, that one would not have stood up till ye brought anither to pit aside it at the harvest, but would fa’ doon wi’ the weight o’ the ears. And then it was a’ cut wi’ the hook ; there was nae scything. It was a’ bear that was sown maistly, except only the weest puckle oats ; for there was no oatcakes used but at Christmas.

‘Weel, then, as I was tellin’ ye, there would be a grand big kailyard, and that served generally for dinner. First they were boiled, and then some brose made of the bree, and then the kail would be chapped sma’, an’ supped after. In the morning, for breakfast it would be brose and milk to them ; and if there was nae milk, it would be raw sowins. For supper it would be sowins again, boil’d, or knothing, or something like that; and of course it was only at extra times that there would be a sheep killed, or onything of that kind. That was the way they lived, an bra’ men they were, stronger and better - looking than mony to be seen now-a-days. For instance, the twa brithers, the Invereys, that selt Balmoral about fifty or sixty years ago, the ane was sax feet four, the other sax feet twa, and stout in proportion. Of course there would be a’ sizes ; but strong, stout men they were generally.’

‘They would have few dainties then,’ I said jocularly; ‘they would not drink tea in the morning, I suppose?’

‘Na, they didna dee that,’ said the old man, laughing; ‘I could tell you gey funny things about the tea when it cam’ first in fashion. There was a woman lived up by there, Bell M‘Gregor they ca’it her: she had been a servant to the Farquharsons of Allen Quoich. When the two sisters were left, Miss Peggie and Miss Nancy, Allen Quoich was selt; an’ they gaed to Edinburgh, an’ had a house in George Street. They were auld maids, ye ken, but had plenty to keep themselves comfortable. I used to wonder often that Miss Peggie was never married, for she was as fine a looking woman as ye would hae seen : the ither wasna that.

‘Weel, when I gaed to the south wi’ my sheep, I aye called on the Misses Farquharson ; an’ as regularly as I called, I got a pun o’ tea for an auld school-maister in Glen Cluny. There was fouk that I thoucht mair o’ than that man; but I wouldna refuse to tak’ it for a’ that. Weel, there was ae year they asked if I would tak’ half a purt o’ tea to Bell M‘Gregor also, as she had been a faithful servant to them, and they wished to send some token of remembrance to her. Weel, I took the tea to Bell. '

‘“Heich!” said she when I gae it to her, “they micht a sent something that would a been o’ mair use.”

“ Weel, hoo cam’ ye on wi’ the tea, Bell?” I speir’d some time after.

“Heich, the tea!” said she. “I kenna what’s the guid o’ that stuff. I pat it into a pottie, an’ boiled it, an’ boiled it; but never a bit safter grew it. Syne I pat in a good slake o’ butter, and boiled it again; but it was just as teuch as wands after a’.”’

‘Did she pour out the liquid?’ I inquired.

‘Weel, I did not speir; but that was her very words to me. I assure you I did not wait to speir muckle mair, but made oot as fast as I could, an’ took a guid lauch to mysel?

About 1782 the first ‘English-speaking’ family came to settle in Castleton. They must have had considerable difficulty in communicating with their neighbours, as up to that period Gaelic universally prevailed. A laughable instance of the difficulty they had in communicating their ideas was thus related to me: ‘ The brither of the new innkeeper and one Alastair M‘Donald had a great wark wi’ ane anither/ said the old man; though the one could speak no Gaelic but a few words he had picked up since coming, and vice versa. The incomer taught this new friend to smoke—no common thing in those days. When any accident happened to the pipe, it was rather a serious matter to get a fresh supply. Such accident happened to the Braemarian one day: he broke his pipe, and soon as possible sought out his friend, to see if he could help him in the emergency.

“Oh, my cuttim pipe!” said he with great vehemence, “I'll brak him!

 oots, man,” replied the other, “what for would ye brak yer pipe ? you’d better nae dee that, in case I ha’na anither.”

“But I’ll brak him already! ” cried Alastair, pulling 'out the fragments, to make the extent of his misfortune manifest. Of course the only response was a hearty burst of laughter; but it did not disturb the harmony between the friends, as their mistakes were mutual.’

Somewhere about this period an English teacher was settled in Braemar. ‘An’ a’ body,’ said my old friend, ‘was so anxious to learn English. We were forbidden to speak Gaelic; an’ when we were at the school, mony a threshing did we boys get for deein’ it aye. We thoucht it was gey hard’ and it our mither tongue.’

A curious custom prevailed also in regard to teaching : only the eldest son and youngest daughter of a family were taught to read. The schoolmasters fee was a peck of meal in the year—I suppose for every child in the family. In respect to his fee, the teacher was quite on a level with the tailor and blacksmith, who also had a peck of meal from every family for doing all their work for a year. When any one wore out their clothes sooner than usual, it was not the parents who provided the material that made any complaint, but the tailor, who was bound to do all the work of the family on the terms stated ; and he used to grumble sadly when they were not careful.

The blacksmiths duties, however, could not have been very onerous, as the horses used for agricultural purposes only got shoes for their fore-feet once a year, when the spring labour commenced. Ploughs were all made of wood, excepting the ‘sock,’ i.e. share. When any one took a job to the blacksmith, he remained until it was finished, however long. He was expected also to take food enough with him to supply his own wants, and the blacksmith’s too, all the time he remained.

At one time the belief in witches, fairies, ghosts, etc., was universal in Braemar; now such ideas are all but exploded. A few, however, still think more about these things than they care to confess. One man with whom I conversed not long ago, attributes this great change to want of faith among the people.

Their forefathers, he thought, were remarkable for the greatness of their faith, which fully accounted, he believed, for all the supernatural appearances, etc., of former times.

The last case of witchcraft in Braemar occurred in this wise: The innkeeper had sown a large bed of onions, in which a neighbour’s hens made sad havoc. As his frequent requests that they should be kept out of the way for a time were quite unheeded, he resolved to rid himself of the nuisance by shooting them. But as the woman had the reputation of being a witch, he could not get either his sons or servants to meddle with the hens. One lad was at length prevailed on, by the promise of a sixpence, to shoot either one or two of them.

Having shot them among the onions, he had to carry them to the woman, and tell her why it had been done. 'He was terrible unwilling.’ At last he took them up, went to her door, and threw them in, shouting at the same time his message not over politely.

‘Shortly after the young man grew ill, an’ pined away; naebody could ken what was the matter.’ So they came to the conclusion that he was witched. The only remedy, therefore, was for the lad to draw blood of the witch above the breath. ‘And I think,’ said my old friend, ‘that the funniest thing I ever saw was the lad watching like a cat for his opportunity; and when he had got her in a suitable place, tearing the mutch aff her head, an’ scratching her face till the bleed cam’. He grew better after it, tho’; and I can assure ye that it was looked upon as a case o’ realwitchcraft.’

It is pleasing to turn from this instance of credulity to one of very opposite character—that of a strong but totally uncultured mind bursting the shackles of superstitious belief which at that time held the mass of the Braemarians in thrall. I give the account in her own words :—

‘The first place I gaed till, they had a great fear of the fairies coming down the lum through the nicht an’ takin’ awa the bairns. So I got strick orders every nicht afore I gaed to my bed, to pit a bit fir in the links of the crook. They thoucht the spirits and fairies cam’ doon the lum, but when they came to the bit fir they could na get farther. So I began to consider, lassie as I was, that if they couldna come owre a bit fir, they couldna hae power to dee a body muckle ill; but then, ye see, being a servant, I had just to dee as I was bidden, but that was my ideas o’ it.

‘Then they had a great wark about dogs seeing things, i.e. spirits or ghosts. Weel, there was ae day that we were coming along the road, and there was some rags hung up on sticks for a “tattie bogle". The dog, he was trotting on the road afore us bravely; but whenever he saw the bogle, he crouched awa in at our backs, and seemed quite in a terror.

"Noo,” says I to them, “dee ye see that? Ye say dogs see things that fouk disna see. Weel, we see the bogle, an’ we ken what it is, and it disna trouble us. The dog, he sees’t tee, and it’s fu’ o’ terror to him, because he doesna understand it. Noo, that’s the way that they see things,” ’ etc.

Another curious practice existed. In summer the flocks and herds were taken to the upper glens to have the benefit of the richer pasture they afforded. The women and children tended them ; and a sort of temporary dwelling was put up to shelter them, called 'shiels.’ Most of the men remained at home to labour the fields, etc., but paid many visits to the shiels in the evenings. They also repaired to them on Saturdays, and remained till Monday.

Many customs then obtained which we would now think very curious; for instance, at nights there would be a promiscuous gathering of fourteen, fifteen, or more, into one bed,—not constructed, of course, on the same plan as our modern ones. They extended along the whole breadth of the shiel, and were formed of heather packed very closely on end. This afforded a resting-place deliciously soft and fragrant.

Into this style of bed were convened at nights the heads of the family, the children—young and old— servants, and visitors; and yet, at the time when this custom prevailed, the morality of the people was high to a degree unknown in modern times. An old man, still living, who had thirty years’ experience of this glen life, ere it became a thing of the past, says that during all that time not a single breach of modesty occurred, at least not to his knowledge.

There was, when he was quite a boy, one man whose life was suspected of not being so pure as it ought to be : he was consequently looked down upon, and avoided particularly by the young ladies. There was one very pretty girl he had quite a fancy for, and would have paid her frequent visits while in the glen, but was prevented in the following manner :—

‘This young woman,’ said my old friend, ‘was very good and kind to the herd-boys, giving them a drink of milk, cheese and bread, etc., occasionally. She was consequently a great favourite. One day she came up to us, and said, “ Now, boys, I’ll give you a good dish of curds and cream if you’ll stane--

"owre the hill when ye see him coming the nicht.”

‘We had no idea then why she wanted us to do that ; but it didna matter: we were willing to please her, and win our curds and cream. So we gathered two or three great heaps o’ stanes ; and whenever we saw him coming, we set tae and pelted. He tried sair to get by us, but we mastered him. I suppose he was puzzled to know why we did it; but at ony rate we got our curds and cream. It wasna for some years after that I understood the true meaning o’ the stoning ; and it was just that she thoucht mair o’ hersel’ than hae the name o’ a licht character like him coming about her.’ It is very different now. Yet still, in the scale of morals, they are much in advance of Lowland districts.    .

With another droll little incident I sum up this account of glen life. When the season was over, the cheese, butter, etc., which had been made during the summer, were taken home and stored up for winter use. On one occasion, when a servant-man had brought home his cart full of such treasures, he asked his master where he would put them. There must have been something unusually provoking in the question, or the  good-man ’ must have been in an unusually cross mood, for the answer was Into the peel' meaning the deep pool in the Cluny, near the Established Church.

The servant, who no ’more lacked fire or contumaciousness than his master, went straight to the place, took the back-door out of the cart, and tumbled the whole into the water. ‘Ye may be sure nae little ado was made; and the place was aye called the “Cheese Peel” after.’

This incident must have taken place subsequently to the year 1796, as about that time carts were first introduced to Braemar. They were of very primitive structure—just a framework of wood, with rapes or ropes made of tow, pob, or horse-hair twisted round it, to keep in the load, of what kind soever it was. There was not a bit of iron on the wheels or any other part. The price of the whole was also very moderate, as the first three carts used in Braemar cost, horses and all, only two guineas.


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