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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXXIII. Parish Characters


It is a common remark that the kind of people called "Characters" are becoming fewer and fewer. This seems the natural effect of education, and of the constantly increasing intercourse between all parts of the country. As Tennyson sings. "The individual withers, and the world is more and more." Even in our remote Highland glens the change is felt. The old "Characters" that gave romance and interest to a district are dying out, and they have no successors. ln our parish we have had to lament the passing away of not a few of this class within the last sixty years. JOHN FRASER, Tulloch, commonly called "The Doire," might be taken as representing the "Bards." He belonged to the Balliefurth Frasers, and claimed kin with the late Colonel Malcolm Fraser of Quebec. He received a fair education, and when a young man paid a visit to his cousins in Canada, but he soon returned. Having learnt the trade of an upholsterer in London, and being an excellent workman, he might have done well if he had settled in one of the towns; but he was never happy save when his foot was on his native heather. Again and again he came back, from working excursions, to his "humble hut" in the wilds of Tulloch; and there he spent his latter days, struggling against poverty and the growing infirmities of age with a sturdy spirit of independence. He was remarkable for his strong attachments. Nothing vexed him more than the changes which were being introduced into the country for the advantage of sportsmen and strangers without regard for the people. He mused much on these things, and as the fire burned he would pour forth his feelings in indignant letters to sundry high personages, and, at times, in passionate bursts of song. His eccentricity had a dash of genius, and his poetical pieces, mostly in Gaelic, had very considerable merit. "The Doire" had a great fund of local traditions and stories, and was a good genealogist. The changes in the country in his time had been so great, that he used to say "he had lived in two worlds." During his stay in England he had acquired a certain air of distinction. His accent was good, and his talk intelligent, "with something of a lofty utterance dressed." His stately step would have attracted notice anywhere. Latterly he kept a donkey, which he called his "Jerusalem pony"; and, as he always wore a black coat and hat, and had a grave and reverend aspect, he might have been taken for some Rabbi on his travels. Once, when slowly riding past Nethy Bridge, some schoolboys tried to frighten the ass, but "The Doire," quietly patting him on the cheek, said, "Friend, don’t be disturbed; it’s only your brother." One of his poems was entitled "The Child of Destiny." It told his own story. The moral was that of the old poet Daniel: "Unless above himself he can erect himself, how poor a thing is man."

It was customary at one time for tradesmen of various kinds to go round amongst the people, stopping for work here and there as they were required. Thus there were the cobbler, the saddler, the jobbing tailor, and so on. One of the best representatives of the latter class was NIEL GRANT, of Glenbroun, who claimed to be the Cean-tighe of the Achernack family. He had served in the army (42nd Regiment), and was stationed for some time at Gibraltar. Subsequently he started business in London as a master tailor, and was doing well; but his health gave way, and he had to seek new strength in his native air. One of Niel’s favourite haunts was the Dell. Here he bad an attic to himself, where he plied his trade, making and mending the boys’ clothes with great zest and skill. In the evening he always had visitors, and charmed them, especially the young folks, with his tales of soldiering, and of the wonders of Gibraltar - the impregnable fortifications; the mysterious caves, and the strange monkeys that lived on the upper part of the rock, and which were said to have come across, under sea, from Barbary. At times he would relax to have a turn at his favourite game of draughts, of which he was a master; but his greatest delight was an excursion with "the boys" on the Saturday to troll on the Spey for pike—"Jack," as he called them in the English way—or to fish for trout on the Dorback or the Nethy. Nights with Niel were much liked, and it is worth noting the beneficial effect which the society of such a man, who had travelled and seen something of the world, but was unchanged in his integrity, modesty, and love of home, had upon the young people and others with whom he came in contact.

MURDOCH MACKENZIE, Garlin, was a weaver, but his chief trade was in midwifery. Hence he was called ’Murrach-nam-ban. He was said to have a "gift," which had come into the family far back from the Fairies, for some service rendered to them. When called in, he pretended to relieve women in labour by taking their pains on himself. He would stroke the patient’s hands, and then lie down in front of the fire, and roll and roar as if in agony. His sufferings seemed to increase as things reached their climax. Many people had faith in him, and he was sent for from far and near. But some had doubts as to his sincerity. It was said he had been seen tickling his throat with a feather, and using other arts to bring on the appearance of sickness and labour. One curious story is told of him. He had been called in a bad case to Glenmore, and was making his way there riding on his white pony. The husband who had summoned him was eager, and urged him again and again to make haste, lest his wife should be dead before they reached. Murdoch at last lost patience, and turning upon the man in a rage, he said, with one of his horrid grimaces, "On you be the pains." According to report, the poor man had to lie down in the heather in great distress, and the spell was not taken off till the woman was delivered. Pennant in his Tour (1712) refers to a similar belief that prevailed at one time in the west: "nothing less than that the midwife had the power of transferring part of the primeval curse from the goodwife to her husband. I saw," he says, "the reputed offspring of such labour, who kindly came into the world without giving her mother the least uneasiness while the poor husband was roaring with agony in his uncouth and unnatural pains."

The Pensioners were formerly an important class. Many a long winter night was enlivened by their talk, and many a youthful heart stirred to martial ardour by their tales of "moving accidents by flood and field." Among others well known were Sergeant RATTRAY, 78th Regiment, DUNCAN GRANT, elder, 79th Highlanders, who had a medal with six clasps for services in the Peninsular War; and Sergeant Roy (GRANT) of the 42nd Royal Highlanders, who had served under Abercromby and Moore, and thought them better soldiers than Wellington. Sergeant Roy was one of the men who helped to carry Moore from the field of Corunna, and the tears used to run down the veteran’s cheeks as he told of the death of his beloved General. He was also present when Abercromby received his fatal wound. Dr Brown, in "Horae Subsecivae," gives an interesting reminiscence of the glorious victory of Alexandria. When the dying General was being carried on a litter to the boat of the Foudroyant he was in great pain. "Sir John Macdonald (afterwards Adjutant-General) put something under his head. Sir Ralph smiled, and said—’That is a comfort; that is the very thing. What is it, John?’ ‘It is only a soldier’s blanket, Sir Ralph.’ ‘Only a soldier’s blanket, Sir,’ said the old man, fixing his eye severely on him. ‘Whose blanket is it?’ ‘One of the men’s.’ ‘I wish to know the name of the man whose this blanket is ‘—and everything paused till he was satisfied. ‘It is Duncan Roy’s, of the 42nd, Sir Ralph.’ ‘Then see that Duncan Roy gets his blanket this very night,’ and wearied and content, the soldier's friend was moved to his deathbed."

Another pensioner, who lived at a later date, was JAMES GRANT, Rivoan, of the 79th Regiment. He enlisted at a Figgat Fair, in 1804, when only 16. His first engagement was at Copenhagen, 1807. Subsequently he served throughout the Peninsular War, and received a medal and three clasps for Corunna, Busaco, and Fuentes d’Onor. In the latter battle he was brought to the ground by a ball in the leg, but he managed to get upon his knee, and to discharge his musket at the French. This he used to call his farewell shot. On coming home, he married and settled at Rivoan. His wife, Elsie Grant, was one of the great beauties of the parish. The others were Margaret M’Intyre, wife of John Black, Clachaig, and Jane Blair, wife of Grigor Cameron, Tulloch. Mr Martin used to say of the latter pair that they were the handsomest couple he had ever married, and during his pastorate of upwards of fifty years he must have married hundreds. Marriages were then performed in Church. Rivoan died in 1876. He was then, perhaps, the oldest pensioner in the British Army—1812-1876.

The Beggars were another class, belonging to the olden time. There were not a few of them who made their rounds from time to time, and at certain farms they knew that there was a bed for them in the barn, and a welcome at the kitchen fire. GILBERT STEWART was one of them. He claimed a certain respect from his name, and from having been an old soldier. He lived to be over 100, and latterly had to be carried about in a cart or barrow. CAPTAIN FERGUSON was a grey-headed tar. His distinction was that he had fought under Nelson, and that he had a silver plate on his head to cover a hole made by a bullet. KING JOHN was another curious character. He dressed fantastically with a hat decorated with peacock feathers, and used to carry a wooden sword. Another character, better known in the low country, was MAD CHALMERS. He dressed decently, with long hair hanging in curls, and speckled buckles fixed with pins on his collar, He claimed to be of the same spirit as John the Baptist. One day when holding forth, he was interrupted by another wanderer, Eppie Laing, who cried out, "I see noo what the Almichty never seed." Chalmers shook his head at such impiety, but Eppie answered, "It’s true at ony rate, for I see my ain equal (you’re a feel, and am anither), a thing the Almichty never seed." "Wonnerfu’ woman !" said Chalmers. Another beggar of a somewhat different type was a man whose name was not known, but who was called after one of his songs, "Philip O’Sogan." He used generally to come to the Dell on a Saturday, and stayed over Sunday. He was well educated, and always had some books. He claimed to be a poet, and used to say that now that Burns and Ramsay were gone, he was one of the only Scottish bards left! It was a peculiarity with him to dislike heat, and he used to keep as far back as possible from the fire-place, sitting upon a meal girnel, but when he sang he stood on the floor, and made the rafters ring with "Fye let us all to the Bridal," and other songs. He spoke remarkably good English with a good accent. Once on a cold wintry day he was offered a dram by the mistress of the house, and asked how he would take it. His answer was, "In its pristine purity," which became a saying in the country. Another time he was asked if he would have some gooseberries. "Thank you, madam," he said, "I should like much to have some, they are considered a good aperient." And to give one reminiscence more of poor old Philip. On a certain Sabbath he was seen by the lady of the house reading a newspaper, and she gently reproved him, but Philip answered calmly, "Madam, I cannot see that there is any more harm in my reading a newspaper on Sunday than in your giving orders to your cook as to the dishes for dinner." PETER MACKINTOSH, called Peter Bain, was a celebrated piper and violin player. He came of a family eminent for musical talent. His father, born in Tulloch, gained the office of piper to Sir James Grant at a public competition, and others before him had a reputation as musicians, Peter, therefore, had the advantage of good training, and not only possessed a wonderful stock of excellent tunes, but could play them in a style which Niel Gow or Wandering Willie, "the best fiddler that ever kittled thairm wi’ horse-hair," could hardly have surpassed. None that heard him in his prime can forget the spirit and magic power of his "Tullochgorin," "Highland Donald kissed Katie," and other favourites. Some sixty years ago there were few Highland parishes that could boast of such society as Abernethy, and there was much pleasant intercourse between all classes. Peter used to get a boll of meal annually from each of the principal families, and for this he made due return by playing at Harvest Homes and other festivities, and by giving a "spring" to the young folks now and again on a Saturday evening. On special occasions Peter showed wonderful tact in the tunes he selected. When the gentlemen came in from dinner he would play "The Bottom of the Punch Bowl." In compliment to Captain Gordon, he would give "The Bonnie Wife o’ Revack," and to gratify Captain Macdonald, Coulnakyle, he would strike up "Mullochard’s Dream." He always finished with the Gaelic air, "Mhuintir mo ghaol, thugaibh am bruach oirbh" (" Dear people, it is time to take to the hill"), which agrees with the Scottish tune "Good Nicht." Peter was a man of an honest and kindly heart. He had the appearance of simplicity, but behind there was considerable shrewdness and a sort of dry humour which flashed out sometimes in sayings still remembered. At the time of "the rejoicings" on the late Master of Grant visiting the country, a ball was given at the Dell in his honour. When the Master retired, a party of Highlanders with torches, and Peter as piper, escorted him to the house. He asked for a last reel on the green, and when this was over he bade all good-night, and turning to Peter, with that graceful courtesy which won all hearts, he said, shaking his hand warmly, "Peter, you have done well; I am much obliged to you." Peter’s heart was full. He tried to answer, but words failed. He could only say, "Sir, sir," and then with a gasp, "I canna speak !" The Master used to say it was the best speech he ever heard. The scene realised the words of Shakespeare :—" Only my blood speaks to you in my veins," and "Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity in heart, speaks most, to my capacity." Peter lived to be upwards of 80, and died in 1873. His life was quiet and inoffensive, and his latter days marked by genuine if unobtrusive piety. There are some Abernethy boys still surviving, in whose hearts his name will awaken kindly thoughts and dear memories of home and of the happy days of "Auld Lang Syne."


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