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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXXIX. Old Highland Arts and Industries


It is said that in India certain arts were confined to certain families or castes, and that as these families died out, the arts were lost. The same thing has happened, though in a different way, in the Highlands. When the people were divided into clans, and lived by themselves, many arts and industries were in use amongst them, which, from social changes and the progress of commerce and civilisation, have passed away. The making of cloth was once largely practised. First the wool was prepared in the carding—mill, then it was spun into thread, then it was dyed, and various kinds of bark and lichens were employed to produce different dyes, then it was woven, loom weavers being then common, then it was ‘‘ waulked," and when all was finished, it was turned to use as required. These operations were mostly carried out by women, and they used to lighten their labours by song. It was said of the Roman matron, ‘‘ Domum mansit, lanam fecit,’’ well rendered by Robertson of Struan, ‘‘ She keepit weel the hoose, and birlit at the wheel." This was true also of the Highlands in the olden time. The wheel was found in every house, and pleasant it was to see matron or maiden plying her task at the fireside with simple grace and joy.

"Verse sweetens toil, however rude the sound,
All at her work the village maiden sings,
Nor while she turns the giddy wheel around,
Revolves the sad vicissitudes of things."

Fuel had to be provided, and this was chiefly taken from the mosses. Peat may be said to be arrested coal. It is found in abundance in the cold north. Before the days of railways the people were largely dependent upon it for their fire. Mossing, which was in May or June, was a lively stirring time. The cutting was done by men from a bank with spades, and the carrying by women and boys in light barrows. First the peats were set up two and two together. Then when well dried they were put in little heaps, and afterwards built up into stacks, or carted home for use. The making of charcoal for smithies was a more complicated business. David Laing, Causair, who came from Kinloss in 1806. used to make his coal at Plotta, near time old Tonmintoul road, as the moss there was found most suitable for the purpose. Calm weather was chosen for the work. First three or four pits were dug, and these were built up with dry peats to a height of 5 feet above the surface of the ground, leaving an air-hole in the centre, and then carefully thatched. Fire was applied by the vent. Soon a kind of sough was heard, and then the vent was covered with small peats and dust. The fire spread from windward. The heaps were closely watched, and wherever the fire threatened to break through, the weak places were strengthened by divots and gravel. But no pressure or undue weight was applied. Soon the heat became intense. The heaps were allowed to burn for about a week. Then the charcoal was taken out, and carted to the smithy, where it was carefully husbanded. The work of the bellows and the anvil could not go on without it. Hence the Gaelic proverb, ‘‘An uair a theirigeas gual, sguiridh obair," When coal ends, work stops.

Tar was much used in former days, not only for sheep and cattle, but for carts, then made entirely of wood, and for domestic purposes. It was made in this way. First a pit was dug in firm mossy ground, with a round hole at the bottom about 18 inches deep, to hold a cask or jar, covered with a flag resting on stone supports, so as to let the tar run in from above. The pit was then filled with cut quick—fire, rich with resin, and covered with divots packed close with moss. The fire was lighted from the top, but allowed to burn slowly for two or three days. The resinous sap oozing out dropped into the central hole. When carefully done, the tar thus obtained was of the finest quality. The quern was still in use sixty years ago. Another important implement was the knocking-black. In most parts of the Highlands it was made of stone, but in Strathspey, where wood was plentiful, it was generally made of wood. The mode of manufacture was simple. First, a fir tree, well matured, was chosen, and a piece sawn off of the proper size. Then holes were bored in the centre with an auger (G. Tora), and the wood cut out with a chisel (C Glib) so as to form a cup-like hole of sufficient depth. Then the hole was smoothed and hardened by burning peat-coals inside, care being taken by means of a damp cloth to prevent the wood from being burnt or cracked. The mallet was also of wood, with the point rounded, and generally studded with nails to make it the more firm and durable. The block was called in Gaelic "An Cnap Eorna," the Barley Block, and often for shortness the Cnap, or Cnotag. The mallet was called An teangaidh, the tongue - probably from its shape, but perhaps with a cunning reference to the purpose to which it was applied. It was sometimes called "An slachdan," the Beater. The block was worked as follows:—Some barley was put into a dish and damped with water. It was then rubbed with the hand, and when so far cleaned and moistened it was put into the block and beaten with the mallet. The operator, usually a woman, was seated, and carried on the process very methodically—first giving a stroke downwards upon the barley, and then a lighter stroke on the side of the block to shake off any grains that might have adhered to the mallet. So on she went, with a sort of musical rhythm, often with the accompaniment of song, till the grain was loosened from the husk. The next step was to winnow the grain, which was done with a fan (an dallanach). The barley was then put into a dish with warm water, and carefully worked about with the hand, till it was perfectly smooth and white. It was then fit for use, and was called "Cnots," pronounced "Grots." Perhaps this may be the origin of the English word "groats." A specimen of a knocking-block and mall, from Lynamer. Tulloch, was presented to the Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh. Stone blocks are common, but a wooden block is a great rarity.

WOOD MANUFACTURE.—For long this was the chief industry of our Parish. In winter the men were employed in felling trees in the forest, and in bringing the logs with horses to the river bank, and to the saw-mills. There were dams or reservoirs on the Nethy, and, by letting off the water from them, the river was raised sufficiently to admit of the logs that had been laid down at convenient points being floated to the Spey. The men employed in this way were called "Floaters." The scene on a floating-day was very picturesque and lively. From thirty to forty men met at the appointed place, each of them with his "deck," a wooden pole with a two-pointed head of iron, fitted for pushing or hauling. The logs had been rolled into the bed of the river, and, when the rush of water came, the utmost endeavour was made to keep them afloat and moving. From pool to pool the men plied their task. Sometimes a block took place. Two logs got fast across a stone, or in some narrow place; then others were caught and heaped up. In a second or two there was a huge pile, jammed and locked together in seemingly inextricable confusion. But the men knew their business. Some stalwart lad dashed in, fastened his cleek in the log that formed the key of the lock, tugged and strained till he got it free, and then in a moment the huge pile broke up. and the channel again was clear. At the Dell intack, Benjamin Lobban might be seen standing near the sluice, and deftly picking out such of the finer logs as he fancied, to be sawn into deals. But the bulk of the logs were taken to the mouth of the Nethy (Broomhill), to be made up into floats or rafts for Garmouth. These floats were formed after the improved pattern by Aaron Hill. They were made up of logs fastened together, with, perhaps, a cargo of deals, and were managed by two men, one at each end, with long oars. When the floats were buckled, and the Spey was of proper size, one after another would start on their 40-mile voyage. For the first four miles the water was sluggish and the progress slow. Beyond Kirkton the river runs more quickly, and there are strong streams here and there, all the way to Ballindalloch, so that the pace was more satisfactory. The fork and shallows at Advie, and the rapids at Dalgarvan and Dundurcas, had to he carefully watched. Mishaps and losses happened at these places, but the men had attained, by long experience, to such skill and expertness that accidents were very rare. The cruives, or braes, used by the Duke of Gordon’s fishermen, sometimes gave trouble. Once a well-known floater, of the name of Clarke, was asked by a watcher how he got over the brae. " Never better, never better," was the cheery reply. The fact was the worth floater had carried his float right through, making a big gap in the brae! The best floaters would make the trip to the sea in about twelve hours. Starting early in the morning from Broomhill, they would be able, not only to get to Garmouth by the evening. but to reach Rothes on their home journey before night. The number of tenants employed in this industry in Abernethy was about 90, and their earnings were considerable—often more than enough to cover the rent of their farms. In 1839, 91 tenants were paid the sum of £452 ; and in 1840, 95 tenants received among them £636. It is evident that great advantages to the tenants accrued under the system, and the landlord had not only the satisfaction of giving employment in a way that encouraged industry and thrift, but also of obtaining a safe and easy settlement of rents. The old system was abolished in 1843, and now the manufacture of wood is mostly in the hands of strangers.

With reference to some of the old industries, such as dyeing, spinning, carving, and others, it may be observed that they were practised when work was slack, and filled up leisure hours which might otherwise have been spent idly and unprofitably. In the Black Forest, in winter, men are busy manufacturing wooden clocks; in the Tyrol, in making and painting dolls; and in Switzerland, in various forms of wood-carving. These industries are supplemental to the ordinary work of the place, and do good in many ways. Something of this kind is much needed in the Highlands, and the efforts being made, as by the Highland Industrial Association, to establish such crafts, are deserving of every encouragement. It is desirable also that our system of compulsory education, which is becoming harassing and oppressive to small farmers and labourers, should he somewhat modified, and that it should be recognised that boys and girls, above 12 years of age, who are employed agriculturally, are really receiving a technical education, which may be of more advantage to them in after life than much of the learning of the schools.


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