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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXIX. Memorable Years


Some years stand out from others, and are remembered and talked of when the rest are forgotten. The world has its eras, nations have their epochs, and communities have their memorable years. "What are the events," says the Antiquary, "which leave the deepest impression on the common people? These were not such as resemble the gradual progress of a fertilising river, but the headlong and precipitous fury of some portentous flood. The eras by which the vulgar compute time have always reference to some period of fear and tribulation, and they date by a tempest, an earthquake, or burst of civil commotion." One of the memorable times that used to be spoken of in our parish was The Famine of King William (Gort Righ Uilleam). This famine was like "the seven bad years" of Egypt, for it lasted from 1695 to 1702, and was "very grievous" and "consumed the land." According to tradition, the condition of the people was very piteous. Each winter their straits became worse, till the poor were driven to eat the lichen from the rocks and the nettles from the church-yards. Lorimer says "many tenants died, and the lands lay unpossessed."

Another memorable year was The Pease Year, 1782 (Bliadhna-na-peasarach). It got this name from the fact that the people had to depend almost altogether on pease meal, imported from abroad.

The years 1814, 1815, 1816, were years of much distress. The crops almost entirely failed, and there was great destitution. Even in the low country there was scarcity, and people who went down to "the Laich," like Jacob’s sons to Egypt, to buy corn, returned empty. Sir James Grant did much in these hard times for the relief of his tenants. Meal was imported, and sold out at reduced rates from the Castle Grant granaries; while assistance was given freely to the poor. Seed con was also supplied. In 1816 prices of grain rose rapidly. In January wheat cost 52s 6d the quarter, in May it rose to 76s, in August to 82s, and in December to 103s. In June, 1817, it reached the extraordinary height of 111s 6d. The prices of other grain were correspondingly high. 1816 was the year of the Earthquake. One curious belief exists that several infants were on the occasion stricken with paralysis.

The year 1826 was memorable as the year of The Short Crop (Bliadhna-bharr-ghoirid). There bad been a sharp storm in November, followed by intense and prolonged frost. On old new year's day there was a thaw. Then drought set in. Month after month passed and no rain fell. The grass was burnt up, and the corn was so short and stunted that in many cases it could not be cut, but had to be plucked up. The story is told of Charlie Fraser, Boat of Garten, a noted character, that when he had thrashed the few sheaves brought into the barn, he was heard to say—"There you are again, and there’s no more of ye than when ye went out!" Some more recent remarkable years were 1863, when there was a remarkable frost on St Swithin’s day, 15th July; 1865, when there was one of the longest and heaviest snow storms since 1795, the snow lying on the ground from two to three feet deep, and lasting from December to the end of March, interrupting all labour, and causing much privation to man and beast; 1872, which was the wettest year on record. The early promise was good. Never was there prospect of richer crops, but disappointment came. The harvest failed. It might be said, with Shakespeare:-

"The ox bath, therefore, stretched his yoke in vain;
The ploughman lost his sweat; and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard."

In 1881, there was intense and long-continued frost, reminding old people of 1809, the year Mr Patrick of Duthil died, when, owing to the depth of the frost, it was necessary to keep up large fires in the church-yard before the grave for the parson could be opened. There was also a remarkable frost in 1895, which was severely felt over the whole country. The years 1846 and 1849 were notable for disastrous floods. On the morning of Saturday, 8th August, 1846, there was an outbreak of thunder and rain. At breakfast-time there came a lull. Then, shortly after, the rain began to fall in torrents, accompanied by the most appalling thunder.

"Since I was a man,
Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never
Remember to have heard."

This fall lasted only about two hours. When the sky cleared the scene was extraordinary. On the hills every gully was a torrent, and every cliff a waterfall. The streams rose with marvellous rapidity, carrying destruction along their course. The bridge at Congash, and five others in this parish were destroyed. The potato disease broke out immediately after, and many people connected it with the thunderstorm. The flood of 1849, by which the old bridge at Inverness was carried off, was very destructive. The Nethy undermined and swept away some 50 to 6o feet of the gravel bank at the Causair, and made a new and straighter channel, abandoning the old course, which, in the form of a gigantic S, it had followed previously, by the Dell Island and Heather Brae. In February, 1893, there was an alarming ice-flood. The Nethy and Dorback had been covered with thick ice, which gave way suddenly.

"Resistless, roaring, dreadful down it comes
From the rude mountain and the mossy wild."

This happened at night, and the darkness added to the confusion and terror. At Nethy the bridges were choked, and some of the houses flooded, but, though there was considerable damage to property, no lives were lost. 1804 is memorable as the year of the loss of the soldiers on the Lang. About the end of December seven militiamen left Edinburgh on furlough. They rested at Castleton, and, as there was heavy snow on the hills, and signs of an approaching storm, they were urged to wait for an improvement in the weather; but, eager to reach home, they would not be persuaded. They started on the morning of old Christmas Day, some of their friends escorting them for a mile or two. Soon snow began to fall, but they pressed on bravely. In the Valley of the Avon they met the full fury of the tempest, and they found it hard to keep together and make way. It was here, near Lochan-a-bhainne, they made their great mistake. In the gloom and stress of the storm, they took the wrong turn, following the Glasalt instead of breasting the Larig. Gradually their strength gave way, and they were separated, or sank to the ground overpowered, to sleep the sleep that knows no waking. Donald Elder and Alexander Forsyth alone escaped. They fought their way over the hills till they reached the Drum, where they found shelter. Their comrades, John Tulloch, Donald Cameron, Donald Ross, Peter Mackenzie, and William Forsyth perished. The body of John Tulloch was found in a moss-hag at Ruigh-allt-an-fheidh, near the junction of the Glasalt and Uisge-dubh-pollchoin. Peter Mackenzie came by Carn-tarsuinn, and his body was not recovered till some 18 months after. It is said that Cameron of Caolachie was looking on the hills for a lost horse. He saw something white at a distance, which he took for the bones of the carcase. But when he came near he discovered it was the remains of poor Mackenzie. The body was a ghastly sight, as the flesh was torn and the head severed from the trunk. Cameron never recovered from the effects of the shock. One pathetic incident is remembered. The two Forsyths stuck to one another. At last the younger grew faint, and lay down, saying, "I can do no more." His brother, seeing he was lapsing into unconsciousness, took him on his shoulders, and gallantly struggled on. The rest and warmth revived him, and when his brother set him down he was able to make his way alone. He escaped, but his brother, who had so nobly tried to save him, perished. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." The three bodies first found were buried in the Church-yard of Abernethy, a little to the right of the gate. It is said that, before the coffins were lowered, Mr John (the parson) threw some silver into the grave, as if to purchase the ground for the strangers.

Another sad loss from a snowstorm occurred in 1826. The Tomintoul market used to be held on the Friday before Martinmas, and as the weather was often cold and stormy at that time, it was known as the Feill-fhuar, the Cold Market. In 1826 there was a great gathering from all the parishes round. The morning was fair, and business went on briskly, but in the afternoon the sky darkened, and snow began to fall. At first it came down gently in light flakes, but soon there was a change. The snow fell as if in masses, and a tempest of tremendous fury burst upon the town. The square was soon cleared, and people driven for refuge to the houses. For hours the blizzard raged without intermission, and there was great anxiety as to the people who had set out for their homes, and who might have been caught by the fierce wind and blinding drift amidst the wilds of the mountains. Next day the storm continued, and as the village was crowded with strangers, there soon arose a cry of scarcity; both food and water failed. It was a terrible time, but the sad results of the storm were only discovered by degrees. Donald Cameron, Culdunie, had, as was his custom, attended the market for the sale of quick-fir. He left early, and had got beyond Bridge of Broun before the storm broke upon him. He pressed on up the hill, turned off by the old road, but near Lynebeg his strength failed. He took off the empty panniers, put them on the ground beside his horse, and lay down between them. Here he and his horse were found dead together. John Tulloch and his wife made their way by the Lecht till they were near home. Then Tulloch gave way. His wife sat down with him under a rock, and tried by rubbing and every kindly art, even putting his chill hands into her bosom, to restore him.

By God’s mercy she succeeded. With some words of love and good cheer they parted—he to seek help and she to await what doom might be appointed for her. Her husband soon returned, but too late. His dear wife was frozen to death. The words of Thomson, slightly altered, may be quoted—

"Alas! nor child, nor husband more shall she behold,
Nor friends, nor sacred home. On every nerve
The deadly winter seizes, shuts up the sense,!
And o’er her inmost vitals, creeping cold,
Lays her along the snow, a stiffen’d corse,
Stretch’d out and bleaching in the northern blast."

Another couple, Alexander Grant, Lynbeg, and his wife, were more fortunate. They had struggled on through the blinding storm, but had lost all traces of the road. Coming upon what seemed a wall, they took shelter there for a little. Then the wife said, "I think I know where we are—this is the lime-kiln of Sliabh-chlach." Her husband answered, "It cannot be." She shrewdly replied, "Let the horse go, and he will find his way." This was done. The poor brute floundered on, the couple holding to his tail, and in a little, to their unspeakable joy, he brought them to their own door. It was a wonderful deliverance. While they thanked God, they could sing, as never before, "We were like them that dream. The Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad." There were other hairbreadth escapes on that awful night. The story is told of one party, that they were in great straits, and one asked another, "Do you know where we are?" The answer was, "No more than I know the night I am to die." "Well, as to that," said her companion, "there can be no doubt, for it is this very night" But after all they escaped, and Mary Grant, "Mallag Ratmhoine," as she was called, lived to marry and to see her children’s children.


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