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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XL. All The Year Round


VIRGIL, in the second Georgic, gives a charming picture of the husbandman’s life:—"O! too happy husbandmen," he says "if they only knew their blessings. For them, of herself, far from the clash of arms, the earth, all righteous, pours from her soil an easy sustenance." Then he shows that though they have not the noble mansions and the manifold luxuries and pleasures of the rich, they have what is still better:—"Yet a life secure and quiet; a life that is free from guile, and enriched with various treasures; yet hours of ease in open fields, grottoes, and living lakes, and cool Tempe vales, and the lowing of kine, and soft slumber beneath the trees are not wanting; theirs are the woodlands and the haunts of wild beasts, and youths inured to toil and accustomed to little; the sacred rites of the gods, and fathers held in reverence." Cowper, Thomson, Burns, and others of our poets have also sung of the pleasures of a country life. Ruskin says:—"To watch the corn grow or the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to pray—these are the things that make men happy."

The object of this chapter is to give a sketch of home life in our parish as it was lived in the first quarter of the century. The old people were careful to keep up old customs. The week between Christmas and the New Year was regarded as in a sense sacred. No labour was done, unless looking after the beasts, and other works of necessity and mercy. To give a survival of this old belief. Said Lachlan Macbean to his neighbour Thomas Grant, on Christmas morn (1800), "M bheil sibh deas Thomais?"— "Are you ready, Thomas?" that was, to go to the games. " Chan eil, Lachlain; gun toireadh Dia maitheanas domh, b' eiginn domb greim chuir air mo brog mu'n burrain mi falbh"—"No, Lachlan, may God forgive me, I had to put a stitch in my brogue before I could go out." "Dia, eadar misc ‘s do chuideachd" - "God be between me and your company," was the reply. Even such simple work as mending a shoe was regarded by these old folks as putting a man under ban, so that his company for the day was not desirable. It was a happy time. Kindly greetings were heard everywhere. "Bliedhna mhaith uir dhuibh"—"A good New Year to you," was what one said to another as they met. Out of doors the time was spent in target-shooting, playing ball (camag), and other games, the young taking an active part, and the old looking on, with kindly interest, and many a backward glance to the days that had been. In the house the feast was spread, and friends met and made merry together. Scott says:-

"A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year,"

and this agrees with the Gaelic proverb, " Ollaig dhon gun bhrigh, m' nach maireadh i dhuinn gu feill Bride"—"Christmas poor and sapless, that did not last to the fair of St Bride (1st February)." No doubt the time had its temptations. Evil was mixed with good, but that, alas, is the common danger wherever people come together. The Rev. Mr Martin used to speak of Christmas as "An Ollaig dhubh" - "the black Christmas," perhaps it was from his experiences in Skye and Inverness rather than Abernethy. The time for beginning work in the fields depended upon the weather. Sometimes in open seasons the plough would be going in January or February, but usually little was done before March. The old saying is Biodh e fuar na biodh e blath, bi glic as cuir do shiol sa Mhart," "Be it cold or warm, be wise and sow in March." Another common word is "A chiad Mharl leig seachad; an dara Mart ma 's eudar, an treas Mari cuir sa pholl" "The first March (Tuesday) let pass, the second if need be, the third sow in the pool." This was according to the old style, and the third week of March would be the first week of April new style. When the sowing was over, mossing began, an important time before coal had been introduced, and when people were dependent on peats for fuel.

The School Examination was an important event. It was generally held about the end of March. Some have spoken in derision of these examinations, but there can be no doubt that, as a rule, they were of the highest advantage and had a salutary effect both upon the master and the children. In our parish, prizes obtained by subscriptions from parents and friends were always given to the most deserving scholars, and in this way not only were life and emulation kept up, but many a good book circulated when books were rare, fitted to exert a healthy influence upon the young.

Fastern’s E’en (G. L Inid), though it had lost its meaning as the evening before the first day of Lent, was notable as the time for the annual Cock-fight. Probably this was a survival of the carnival revels which used to he held at that season in Roman Catholic days. It is said that cock-fighting came from Greece, and that it owed its origin to a speech by the great soldier Themistocles. It was very popular in England from the days of Henry II. It is said to have been introduced into Scotland about the beginning of the eighteenth century by a fencing master named Mackric, and spread rapidly. With the milder manners of our time it has been abolished, but it continued in the Highlands till recently, and there are people still living, the writer being one, who took part in these contests in their youth. In this parish the custom was observed in the following way:— Lists were made out the day before Shrove Tuesday. Tickets were then drawn from a bonnet, for which each boy paid fourpence. Next day the competitors assembled with their friends, girls were excluded. The end of the school was fitted up for the fight, and the head scholar generally presided. He called out No. 1, No. 2, and those who held these tickets set down their cocks. Perhaps two combats went on at the same time. When all the cocks had their turn, judgment was given. An Righ, the King, was the cock that had vanquished the greatest number. Then came the Bhan-righ, or Queen, then the Ballach, or Knave, and last the Saighdearan, or Soldiers. The cocks that were killed, and such as did not fight and were declared fugies, became the perquisite of the Dominie. The entry money also fell to him. The owner of the King was duly crowned with a tinsel crown, decorated with ribbons, and used to be kirked on the Sunday, and also to claim certain privileges in the School, such as interceding on behalf of culprits for some time after (till Donaich na Cisge). The last cock-fight in Strathspey is said to have been held at Cromdale about 1837.

The two principal Fairs were George Fair and Figgat Fair. The former properly belonged to Abernethy, and used to be held at Balnagown, and in earlier days in the churchyard but when the new village of Grantown was established, it was transferred to it. These fairs were largely frequented. They broke the monotony of the year, and old and young flocked to them, some for business, all for pleasure.

Baptisms, Weddings, and Funerals diversified life then, as they do still. Baptisms were at the homes, but marriages were generally performed in church. Down to the beginning of the century, Lykwakes were common. Sir AEneas Mackintosh says in his notes:—"The body is dressed and laid out, as in other countries; during the night all the deceased’s Relations and acquaintances convene to watch the Body, and this ceremony is called Late Wake; a good fire is put on (if in winter), plenty of whisky and snuff goes round, the young folks play at several Country Games, while the graver sort tell tales of Ghosts and Hobgoblins, every word of which they believe. As late as the year 1740 Music was introduced, and the nearest Relation began the dance. It must have been really ridiculous to see a Widow taken to dance, with tears in her eyes." This agrees with the custom still in use in Spain, as shewn in Philips famous picture of the "Gloria." One of the games common in Strathspey was called Marbhadh a Bhodaich—-Killing the Bodach. It was played in this way:—First a stout pin was fixed in the floor. This had a bonnet placed on it, and was called the "Bodach." The challenger stood at the further end of the room. Two short sticks were given him. Taking one in each hand, he bent forward till they reached the ground, and he could rest his weight upon them. Then he called out to the "Bodach" that he was coming. Carefully poising himself, he lifted one stick and made a step forward; then he did the same with the other, and so on. Some one of the bystanders asked him, "What did the ‘Bodach’ do to you?" The answer perhaps was, "He murdered my father," or such like. This led to further dialogue. There was ample scope for wit and satire. Under the convenient form of the "Bodach," popular feeling as to ordinary persons and things, even as high as lairds and factors, found an outlet. Perhaps the first who tried the adventure failed. Others also came to grief. At last, in spite of inequalities in the floor, and all the flouts and jeers that could be brought to bear on him, the hero of the night makes his way close to the "Bodach." This was the crisis. Face to face with his victim, he addressed him by name, proclaimed his crime. and poured out on him his wrath and scorn. Then deftly raising his right hand, he smites him to the ground, amid the shouts and laughter of the spectators.

Funerals were decently conducted, but sometimes they were marred by excess in the use of whisky. The people came from great distances, perhaps in cold and stormy weather, and it was thought mean and unkind not to treat them liberally, but this was sometimes carried too far. On one occasion of a funeral, the men were assembled in the barn, and being served with refreshments. Already two rounds of whisky had been given, and one of the attendants asked the master if he should give any inure. Wait till I see," he replied. Then he went and listened at the door, and came back saying. Give them another round, for I like to hear a loud buzz among them before we start, like bees in a hive before they swarm!" There has been a great improvement as to the conducting of funerals; there is not only sobriety, but more of solemnity, and there is almost always prayer at the grave as well as in the house.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was usually dispensed in July. The services began on the Thursday, as fast-day. On the Friday a prayer meeting was held, but the custom of "speaking to the question" was not in use. Saturday was the preparation day, and Monday was set apart for thanksgiving. The Sabbath was the great day of the feast, "Latha morna-cuilm." The congregation would be very large, as not only did all parishioners able to come out attend, not a few coming who were seldom seen on other Sundays, but also many people from all the parishes round. The services were in both Gaelic and English, the Gaelic being in the church-yard and the English in the church. All the tables were served in the church. The minister had always the aid of two or three of his brethren Mr Kennedy, Redcastle; Mr Fraser, Kirkhill; Mr Maclachlan, Moy; Mr Shepherd, Kingussie; and Mr Grant, Cromdale, were the ministers who usually assisted Mr Martin. Their services were greatly appreciated. The week was a holy week, like the Passover among the Jews. It was looked forward to with hope, it was passed through with sacred awe, and it was remembered with thankfulness, as a time of refreshment and blessing from the Lord. By many its hallowed influence was felt through all the year.

The Harvest was a time of much anxiety. When all went well there was gladness, but if frost came early, and the season was cold and inclement, the hearts of many were made sad and fearful. The corn was cut with the hook—it was before the day of reapers, though scythes had begun to be used—and a pleasant thing it was to see a band of shearers at work, and to watch their progress from day to day, till the last sheaf was cut, and the "Clyack"‘ was carried home, to be set up in some honoured place till the next season, as a token of rest and hope. The harvest closed with Harvest Home, when master and servants, old and young, feasted and made merry together. Nor was the "joy of harvest" seen only in the home gatherings, it was also shewn, in a higher manner, in the Church, when the people came together to render thanks unto the Lord for His goodness and His wonderful works.

The historian Lecky tells us that Sea-bathing was brought into repute by a book on consumption, by Dr R. Russell, published in 1750. Cowper refers rather slightingly to this new custom in his poem on " Retirement "

"But now alike, gay widow, virgin, wife,
Ingenious to diversify dull life,
In coaches, chaises, caravans, and hoys,
Fly to the coast for daily, nightly joys;
And all, impatient of dry land, agree
With one consent to rush into the sea."

Highlanders were great believers in the virtues of salt water, and going to the Coast, "dol thun na Machair," was an annual excursion with many. It was thought a good thing if even a day could be spent by the sea-side, or even a single dip got in the sea!

The Killing of the Mart was a great day in the farm-houses. Much had to be done, in cutting up, in salting, in making white and black puddings, in preparing the tallow for candles, the horns for spoons, and the skin for brogues and waistcoats. There was always "fullness" in the house at such a time, and while friends were remembered, the poor were not forgotten.

The winters were long, and often severe. What work was done was mostly indoors. Then might be heard the cheerful sound of the flail in the mornings, and the busy hum of the spinning wheel at night. When supper was past there would be a pleasant gathering by the fireside. Perhaps some neighbour came in, and the news of the place was talked of, or some casual guest, like Josie Watt, enlivened the evening with his whistle and his songs. Many of the country girls were good singers, and some may remember how eagerly they listened, in the days of long ago, to the good old ballads of Sir James the Rose, the Trumpeter of Fyvie, and the Baron of Brackley. Crodhchailan was seldom left out, and on Sabbath evenings the hymns and spiritual songs of Dugald Buchanan, and our own Peter Grant, were often sung. There are two Gaelic sayings, which may be cited to illustrate the custom of our fathers at their "ceilidhs," or social meetings. The first is, "A chiad sgeul air fear-an-tighe, 's gach sgeul gu lath air an aoidh"—"The first story from the host, and tales till morning from the guest." This saying is one, like not a few others, that forms a link with the East, and the days of the Arabian Nights and the good Haroun Alraschid. Another is, "Am fear a th' anns a chuil biodh a shuil air an teine"—" He that’s in the corner let his eye be on the fire." ‘‘That is a pleasant reminiscence," says Sheriff Nicholson, ‘‘ of the old Highland life, calling up a picture of a cosy gathering round the central peat fire, when stories were told, riddles proposed, or songs sung. The person in the corner, where a heap of peats was piled, was bound to keep his eye on the fire, and throw peats on when required." (Gaelic proverbs, p. 17).

"Hanc olim vitam coluere Sabini."

"This life of yore the antique Sabines lived, and Remus too, and his brother; so I ween brave Etruria grew, and Rome became the mistress of the world."


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