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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XVIII. Sidelights on the Social Life of Last Century


LETTERS may become history. Now and again, from desks, and cabinets, and charter-rooms, and even from ruins of ancient cities, as, for example, the Tel-el-Amarna Tablets, Egypt, 1500 B.C., correspondence is brought out which throws light on the past, and puts us in touch with people who have long passed away. The following extracts are mainly taken from letters in "The Chiefs of Grant." Mr Donald Mackenzie, minister at Aberlour, in a letter to the Laird of Grant, dated 25th May, 1716, gives a touching account of the evils brought upon Strathspey by the rebellion of 1715. He says that when in Badenoch he had used his "utmost skill and industry" to dissuade his friends from taking part in

"The pernicious design, proposing that if they stood firm to the Government, they and Strathspey being their nearest neighbours, might establish such a barrier as would considerably weaken the rebells, and defend the countrey from their incursions till the King’s troops would come for their relief. But when I found all my essays to no purpose, with deep regrate I considered the melanchollick situation of your countrey, being surrounded on all hands by superiour numbers in arms against the Government and then nothing appear’d but that they must either join in the conspiracy, or fall a sacrifice to the first eruptions of their fury.

"Can any deny the imminent hazard to which your countrey was expos’d, being I may say, inclos’d with powerful numbers engadged in the rebellion, haveing the Earl of Huntley on the East, the Earl of Marr, and Marquis of Tullibardin on the South, the Earl of Seaforth and the Mackintoshes on the North, and all the Highland Clanns on the West, besides a number of private gentlemen with their followers interjected on all sides, particularly in Murray? Does any man pretend that none in that confederacy had any bloody inclinations towards you and your friends, or thought that they had the opportunity long’d for of retreiving their dissasters at Crombdale Hill with interest? Under such circumstances, not to admire the providence of God in their safety, were ane unaccountable complication of ingratitude and stupidity."

The following extracts from correspondence between Mr James Grant, younger of Grant, and his factors, are interesting, as shewing the state of agriculture in the country, 1764:-

"You are to acquaint the tenants that I am extremely desirous they should all begin to improve, at least some parts of their grounds with lime, which, by the confirm’d and repeted experience of all the Highlands of Scotland—is found to be the best of all manures. . . . I know that all country people, whose minds are not enlarged by proper education, are great enemies to all innovations, which they think will ruin them. This I am well assured, was the case with regard to Kail or cabbages, which was introduced into the Highlands not above 100 years ago. When the Heretors, who had seen the advantages of Kail in England and Holland, proposed to their tenants to plant them in their yards, they first resisted, and when the Heretors planted them, they pull’d ‘em out by the roots, till the Heretors at last compell’d ‘em by fines in their Baron Courts to allow them to grow, and now they could not live without them." Then later he says :—"As I am desirous of introducing the use of lime universally into Strathspey, let me have your opinion of the best method of doing this. I should think there should be quarries broke up at convenient places, and in the most accessible places, and that immediately after the bear-seed is closed, the tenants should enter upon making roads from the quarries to be so contrived as best to suit every farm. I want to destroy as much as I can the bad custom of carrying loads on the backs of horses, and in place of that, to introduce wheel-carriages both to the mill and the moor, and would have therefore good roads made out to both and so contrived as to meet or join in one another, and rendered as convenient as possible for all the tenants."

In 1776, Mr Grant, yr. of Corriemony, advocate, writing to Sir James Grant, with reference to Urquhart, says—"There are about 1700 acres of arable ground in your estate, each of which, with the grass annexed to them, is undoubtedly worth twenty shillings sterling. . . . Your estate of Strathspey is still further removed from its value than your estate of Urquhart." Mr Grant recommended the appointment of Mr James Macgregor as factor for Strathspey, and he says as to this :—Forres, 28th September, 1778—" The farm of Balliemore is esteemed one of the best in Strathspey, and it will be of capital importance to you that it be in good hands. . . I see many advantages to be derived from Mr Macgregor’s possession of that farm, during your pleasure; it will be of great importance that he be near the woods. I am afraid some examples must be made by criminal prosecutions against wood stealers. Your wood sells cheaper at Inverness, after being floated down to Garmouth, than Rothiemurchus’s wood sells at Rothiemurchus." The result was that Mr Macgregor was appointed factor, and resided at Balliemore. He appears to have met with considerable difficulties, as is often the case when a stranger has to effect changes in the way of justice and reform. Mr Grant writes, 1780—" I find that Mr Macgregor has incurred the odium of many people on the banks of the Spey, not on account of any part of his conduct in regard to his own patrimonial interest, but merely on account of his fidelity towards you, and the dutiful execution of the trust you have reposed in him." The malevolent feeling against Mr Macgregor shewed itself after a rent collection, 1779, when he was stabbed in the side by a man, Allan Grant, who was tried for the offence at Inverness, and punished. Lorimer says in his notes that limestone began to be used after the rebellion of 1715. Strathspey men saw in Fyfe the good effects of lime, and took to the practice themselves. As to improvements, he says—" The old Highlanders cultivated very little ground; they lived on milk, cheese, a little flesh of sheep or goats, and on the blood of their cattle, and, most of all, on the plunder and booty they took from one another, and from the Lowlanders, and, lastly, in shooting deer and roes." He also says that "of old it was reckoned unlucky for a son to plough one foot more ground than his father."

James, second Earl of Fife, gives a lively account of a visit paid to Strathspey, in a letter to Lady Grant :—

"Mar Lodge, August 17, 1784.

"DEAR LADY GRANT,—I had a great mind to see a country I had gon through about a few years after you was born. I came to Belivard the 11th, just as the sun had got behind the Mar hills. I directly walked down to Castle Grant. There was just light enough to shew me that Sir James had don a great deal to cultivate the grounds and cover the moors, hedges and a new road to the house. . . . I then found light enough to carry me to the inn, where a very civil Mrs Cumming, with a very stupid husband, gave me a good chicken and a clean bed. At six next morning I set out pass’d the industrious city of Grantoun: the inhabitants mostly brokin windows, and in bed with shut doors. A little from it my guide told me was Lady Grant’s tea house and garden. I almost dropped a tear to see it so forlorn. I proceeded to Abernethie—John Grant the Minister—a fine situation, a Kirk standing betwixt him, and Factor MacGrigor, which must have cost Sir James much money, the doors oppen, and all the large windows broke. I wished the minister set on the stool and the factor in the pillory. I proceeded forward, and at a place called Lettoch, on the road, a man knew me, and forc’d me into his house. The face I remember’d perfectly, Sir James’s old Servant and Sister Ann’s maid. I was more than I can express surpris’d at the eligant cleanness of their little habitation and the farm wonderful. The man cannot be too much encourag’d. He worry’d me to eat and drink, but having breakfast at Belivard my stomach was uncivil and would receive nothing. From thence I proceeded through hills and glens and got to Mar Lodge by four o’clock. I resolv’d the first day I rested from shooting to give you an account of my journey, and to express my wish that Lewis Grant in the early part of his life may be a little us’d to Strathspey views and climate. It will turn out wonderfully for his interest. If he knows nothing of it before he is of age, I am afraid after that period he will not relish it."

The sarcastic notice of the neglected state of the Parish Church indicates a condition of things which was sadly common in those days. Tennant said that the Scotch not only believed that our Lord was born in a stable, but act on the assumption that he should be worshipped in one. Bums indignantly exclaims—"What a poor business is a Presbyterian place of worship—dirty, narrow, squalid, stuck in a corner of old Popish grandeur, such as Linlithgow, or how much more Melrose." But things were just as bad in England. Cowper in one of his papers in the "Connoisseur," 1756, "Letters from Mr Village," says—" The ruinous condition of some of these edifices gave me great offence, and I could not help wishing that the honest vicar, instead of indulging his genius for improvements by enclosing his gooseberry bushes within a Chinese rail, and converting half-an-acre of his glebe land into a bowling green, would have applied part of his income to the more laudable purpose of sheltering his parishioners from the weather during their attendance on divine service. . . . The noise of owls, bats, and magpies makes the principal part of the church music in many of these ancient edifices; and the walls, like a large map, seem to be portioned out into capes, seas, and promontories by the various colours by which the damp has stained them."

The following quotations are from "The Old Statistical Account," by Rev. John Grant, and are interesting for comparison with the state of things at the present time:—

"The Crops here are, barley, oats, rye, potatoes, chiefly the small black oats; on some farms pease, and a good deal of white oats. The Crops here are often precarious, and frequently misgive to a very distressing degree. There are only five farms in the parish in any degree of improvement. On these are good houses, offices, and some good enclosures, limed and prepared with green crops for grass, which answers well." . . . "The produce of the parish is corn and potatoes; it never maintains its inhabitants, and often, when a failure happens in the crop, falls far short. Some often buy meal for six months in the year. After a pretty strict calculation, it is found, that only about 6 firlots of meal grow, at an average of years, in the two parishes, for each person in them." [The population was then 1769.] . . - "Men Servants get from £2 10s to £3 in the half-year; women 18s and £1, and some more; men labourers generally 1s the day; women 6d, when engaged for the day for peats." . . . "There is a class of people much neglected, at least little attended to, not only here, but in most countries in the Highlands, i.e., The Cottagers. They not only have their houses from subtenants, but sometimes from the subtenants of subtenants; and few of them allowed to keep a milch cow, or a horse, even for paying for them. This, in a country where there is not constant employment for such, by daily labour, must of course keep them miserably poor, and force them often to beg, or tempt them to pilfer. If heritors were to assign small spots of land for them in centrical places, near the principal farms, from which labour might be expected most; and let each of them have a house and garden, and about two acres of ground for corn and potatoes, this would maintain a cow, and perhaps a small horse, and they might join about ploughing their spots. Four or six would be enough together; crowding a number of poor people together might defeat the design. This might answer well for small tradesmen, such as country shoemakers, tailors, weavers, &c., and promote their comfort, honesty, and usefulness to the neighbourhood."

Mr Grant seems to have anticipated the modem cry of "Three acres and a cow." Unfortunately, his wise and kindly suggestions were not acted upon, and now the number of cottagers or cottars, especially in connection with farms, is smaller that ever, much to the loss of the country.


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