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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XXI


"They said they were an hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs—
That hunger broke stone walls; that dogs must eat;
That meat was made for mouths; that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only:—With these shreds
They vented their complainings.”—Coriolanus.

The autumn and winter of the year 1740 were, like the black years which succeeded the Revolution, long remembered all over Scotland, and more especially to the north of the Grampians. One evening late in the summer of this year, crops of rich promise were waving on every field, and the farmer anticipated an early harvest; next morning, a chill dense fog had settled on the whole country, and when it cleared up, the half-filled ears drooped on their stalks, and the long-pointed leaves slanted towards the soil, as if scathed by fire. The sun looked out with accustomed heat and brilliancy, and a light breeze from the south rolled away every lingering wreath of vapour; there succeeded pleasant days and mild-evenings: but the hope of the season was blasted; the sun only bleached and shrivelled the produce of the fields, and the breeze rustled through unproductive straw. Harvest came on, but it brought with it little of the labour and none of the joy of other harvests. The husbandman, instead of carousing with his reapers, brooded in the recesses of his cottage over the ruin which awaited him; and the poor craftsman, though he had already secured his ordinary store of fish, launched his boat a second time to provide against the impending famine.

Towards the close of autumn not an ounce of meal was to be had in the market; and the housewives of Cromarty began to discover that the appetites of their children had become appallingly voracious. The poor things could not be made to understand why they were getting so much less to eat than usual, and the monotonous cry of “Bread, mammy, bread!” was to be heard in every house. Groups of the inhabitants might be seen on the beach below the town watching the receding tide, in the expectation of picking up a few shell-fish; and the shelves and ledges of the hill were well-nigh stripped by them of their dulce and tangle: but with all their industry they throve but ill. Their eyes receded, and their cheekbones stuck out; they became sallow, and lank of jaw, and melancholy; and their talk was all about the price of com, bad times, and a failing trade. Poor people! it was well for both themselves and the Government, that politics had .not yet come into fashion; for had they lived and been subjected to such misery eighty years later, they would have become Radicals to a man: they would have set themselves to reform the State; and, as they were very hungry, no moderate reform would have served.

The winter was neither severe nor protracted, but to the people of Cromarty it was a season of much suffering and with the first month of spring there came down upon them whole shoals of beggars from the upper part of the country, to implore the assistance which they were, alas! unable to render them, and to share with them in the spoils of the sea. The unfortunate paupers, mostly elderly men and women, were so modest and unobtrusive, so unlike common beggars in their costume, which in most instances was entire and neat, and so much more miserable in aspect, for they were wasted by famine, that the hearts of the people of the town bled for them. It is recorded of a farmer of the parish, whose crops did not suffer quite so much as those of his neighbours, that he prepared every morning a pot of gruel, and dealt it out by measure to the famishing strangers—giving to each the full of a small ladle. There was a widow gentlewoman, too, of the town, who imparted to them much of her little, and yet, like the widow of Zarephath, found enough in what remained. On a morning of this spring, she saw a thin volume of smoke rising from beside the wall of a com-yard, which long before had been emptied of its last stack; and approaching it, she found that it proceeded from a little fire, surrounded by four old women, who were anxiously watching a small pot suspended over the fire by a pin fixed in the wall. Curiosity induced her to raise the lid; and -as she stretched out her hand the women looked up imploringly in her face. The little pot she found about half filled with fish entrails, which had been picked up on dunghills and the shore; her heart smote her, and hastening home for a cake of bread, she divided it among the women. And never till her dying day did she forget the look which they gave her when, breaking the cake, she doled out a portion to each.

Towards the end of the month of February, when the sufferings of the people seemed almost to have reached their acme, a Mr. Gordon, one of the most considerable merchants of the town, set out to the country, armed with a warrant from the Sheriff, and backed by a small party in quest of meal. The old laws of the sheriffdom, though still unrepealed, were well-nigh exploded, but what was lacking in authority was made up by force; and so, when Mr. Gordon entered their houses to ransack the gimals and meal-chests, there were many attempts made at concealment, but none at open resistance. The magistrate found one ingenious gudewife buried in a mountainous heap of bedclothes; the gudeman, it was said, had gone for the howdie; but one of the party mistrusting the story, raised the edge of a blanket, and lo! two sacks were discovered lying quietly by her side. She was known ever after by the name of “the pocks’ mither.” The meal procured by the party was carefully portioned out, a quantity deemed sufficient for the farmer and his household being left with him, and the remainder, which was paid for by Mr. Gordon, was carried to town, and sold out to the people in pounds and half-pounds.

In the midst of the general distress, a small sloop from the village of Gourac entered the Firth, to take in a lading of meal, which, by dint of grievous pinching and hoarding, had been scraped together by some of the farmers of Easter Ross. The vessel was the property of a Mr. Matthew Simpson, who acted as skipper and supercargo; and she lay on the sands of Nigg, the creek or inlet to which, in the foregoing chapter, I have had occasion to refer. Twice every twenty-four hours was she stranded on the bottom of the inlet, and the wicker carts, laden with sacks, could be seen from the shore of Cromarty driving up to her side;—it was evident, too, that she floated heavier every tide; and many were the execrations vented by the half starved town’s-people against Simpson and the farmers. Plans innumerable were formed among them for seizing on the vessel and disposing of her cargo ; but their schemes fell to the ground, for there was none of them bold or skilful enough to take the lead in such an enterprise; and, in all such emergencies, a party without a leader is a body without a soul. Meanwhile the sloop left the creek deeply laden, and threw out her anchors opposite the town, where she lay waiting a fair wind.

Towards the evening of the 9th of April 1741, a shopkeeper of Cromarty was half sitting, half reclining, on his counter, humming a tune, and beating time with his ellwand on the point of his shoe. He was a spruce, dapper, little personage, of great flexibility of countenance, full of trick and intrigue, and much noted among his simple town’s-folk for a lawyer-like ingenuity. He was, withal, a man of considerable courage when contemplating a distant danger, but somewhat of a coward when it came near. His various correspondents addressed him by the name of Mr. Alexander Ross—the town’s-people called him Silken Sawney. On an opposite angle of the counter sat Donald Sandison, a tall, robust, red-haired man, who wrought in wood, but whose shop, from the miserable depression of trade, had been shut up for the last two months. He had resided at Edinburgh about five years before; and when there, with another man at Cromarty named Bain, had the satisfaction of escorting the notorious Porteous from the Tolbooth to the Grass-market; and had been much edified, for he was in at the death, by the earnest remonstrances and dying ejaculations of that worthy. A few days afterwards, however, he found his services to the commonwealth on this occasion so ill appreciated, that he deemed it prudent to quit the metropolis for the place of his nativity. No one had ever heard him boast of the exploit; but Bain, who was a tailor^ was not so prudent, and so the story came out..

“Weel, Sandison, what are we gaun to do wi’ the meal ship?” said the shopkeeper, laying down his ellwand, and sitting up erect.

“Do wi* the ship?” replied the mechanic, scratching his head with a half-perplexed, half-humorous expression; “man, I dinna weel ken. It’s bad enough to see a’ yon meal going down the Firth, an’ folk at hame dying o’ hunger?”

“But, Sandison,” rejoined the wily shopkeeper, “if it does a’ go down the Firth, I’m just thinking it will be nobodie’s wyte but your ain.”

“How that, man?” rejoined Sandison.

“I’ll tell you how that, an’ in your ain words too. Whig as ye are, ye say that all men are no bom alike. Some come intil the world to do just what they’re bid, an’ go just where they’re bid, and say just what they hear their neebours saying; while ithers, again, come into it to think baith for themsels an’ the folk round them.—Is that no your own sentiment?'

“Weel, an’ is it no true?”

“Ay, an’ I’ll gie you a proof o’t. What takes the townsfolk to your shop when any thrawart matter comes in their way that they canna redd up o’ themselves? And why do they ask your advice before entering into a law-plea? or whether they should try the fishing? or whether the strange minister gied a gude discoorse; you’re no a lawyer, nor a boatman, nor a divine. Why do they call for you to lay a tulzie when you’re no a magistrate h and why do folk that quarrel wi’ everybody else, take care an’ no quarrel wi’ you? Just because they ken that you were born wi’ a bigger mind an’ a bolder heart than themsels— bom a gentleman, as it were, in spite o’ your hamely birth an’ your serge coat; an’ now that the puir folk are starving, an’ a shipful o’ meal going down the Firth, you slink awa from your proper natural office o’ leader, an’ just let them starve on.”

“Sawney,” said the mechanic, “ye have such a natural turn for flattery, that ye fleech without hope o’ fee or bountith. But even allowing that I am a clever enough chiel to make an onslaught on the shipman’s meal (a man wi’ mair wit, I’m fear’d, would be hungrier than ony o’ us afore he would think o’t), I may hesitate.a wee in going first in the ploy. I have a wife an’ twa baimies. Were there naething to fear but the stroke o’ a cutlass, or the flash o’ a musket, I widna muckle hesitate, maybe; but the law’s a rather bad thing in these quiet times ; an’ I daresay ’twould be better to want cravat an’ nightcap a’ thegither than to hae the ane o’ brown hemp an’ the ither o’ white cotton.”

“Hoot, man, ye’re thinking o’ Jock Porteous—we can surely get the meal without hanging onybodie. Hunger breaks through stone walls, an’ our apology will be written on the verra face o’ the affair. Besides, we’re no going to steal the meal; we’re only going to sell it out on behalf o’ the inhabitants, as Mr. Gordon did the meal o’ the parish. An’ as for risk—gang ye first, and here’s my hand I’ll go second :—if I had only your brow, I would willingly go first mysel.”

But why record the whole dialogue? Sandison, though characteristically wary, was, in reality, little averse from the scheme: he entered into it; and, after fully digesting it with the wily shopkeeper, set out to impart it to some of the bolder townsmen.

“Now haud ye in readiness,” said he to the man of silk as he quitted his shop; “I shall call ye up at midnight.”

The hour of midnight arrived, and a party of about thirty men, their faces blackened, and their persons enveloped, some in women’s cloaks, some in their own proper vestments turned inside out, marched down the lane which, passing the shopkeeper’s door, led to the beach. They were headed by a tall active-looking man, wrapped up in a seaman’s greatcoat. No one, in the uncertain gloom of midnight, could have identified his sooty features with those of the peaceable mechanic Sandison ; but there was light enough to show the but-ends of two pistols stuck in the leathern belt which clasped his middle, and that there hung by his side an enormous basket-hilted broadsword. Stopping short at the domicile of the shopkeeper, he tapped gently against a window;—no one made answer. He tapped again. “Wha’s there?' exclaimed a shrill female voice from within. “Sawney, man, Sawney, wauken up!”—“Oh, Sawneys frae hame!” rejoined the Voice; “there came an express for him ance errand, just i’ the gloamin’, an’ he’s awa to the sheriffdom to see his sick mither.”—“Daidlin’ deceitfu’ body!” exclaimed Sandison; “wha could hae reckoned on this! But it were shame, lads, to turn back now that we hae gane sae far; an’ besides, if ill comes o’ the venture, he canna escape. An’ now, shaw yoursels to be men, an’ keep as free frae fear or anger as if ye were in the parish kirk. Launch down the yawls ane by ane, and dinna let their keels skreigh alang the stanes ; an’ be sure an’ put in the spile plugs, that we mayna swamp by the way. Let ilk rower muffle his oar wi’ his neckcloth, just -i’ the clamp; an\ for gudesake, skaith nane o’ the crew. Willie, dinna forget the nails an’ the hammer; Bernard, man, bring up the rear.” The cool resolution of the leader seemed imparted to his followers; and, in a few minutes after, they were portioned into three boats, which, with celerity and in silence, glided towards the meal sloop.

The first was piloted by Sandison. It contained nearly two-thirds of the whole party; and when the other two boats prepared to moor close to the vessel, one on each side, and their crews, as they had been instructed, remained at their respective posts, Sandison steered under the stern, and laying hold of the taffrail, leaped aboard. He was followed by about twelve of his companions, and the boat then dropped alongside. Every manoeuvre had been planned with the utmost deliberation and care. One of Sandison’s apprentices nailed down the forecastle hatchway, and thus imprison'ed the crew; the others opened the hold, unslung the tackling on each side, and immediately commenced lowering tlie meal-sacks into their boats; while Sandison himself, accompanied by a neighbour, groped his way down the cabin stairs to secure the master. Simpson, a large powerful man, had got out of bed, alarmed by the trampling on deck, and, with no other covering than his shirt, was cautiously climbing the stairs, when, coming in sudden contact with the descending mechanic, he lost footing, and rolled down the steps he had ascended, drawing the other along with him. “Murder, murder, thieves!” he roared out; and a desperate struggle ensued on the floor of the cabin. The place was pitch dark, and when the other Cromarty man rushed into the fray, he received, all unwittingly, from his Herculean leader, who had half wrested himself out of the grasp of Simpson, a blow that sent him reeling against the vessel’s side. Again the combatants closed in an iron grapple, and rolled over the floor. But the mechanic proved the more powerful; he rose over his antagonist, and then flinging himself upon him, the basket-hilt of the broad-sword dashed full against his breast. “Oh, oh, oh!” he exclaimed; “mercy, hae mercy—onything but the sweet life and coiling himself up like a huge snake, he lay passive under the grasp of the mechanic, who, kneeling by his side, drew a pistol, which he had taken the precaution to load with powder only, and discharged it right above his face; disclosing to him for a moment the blackened features that frowned over him, and a whole group of dingy faces that now thronged the cabin stairs. Meanwhile the work proceeded; the sloop gradually lightened as the boats became heavier, and at length a signal from the deck informed Sandison that the object of the expedition was accomplished. Before liberating Simpson, however, the Cromarty men forced him upon his knees, and extorted an oath from him that he should not again return to the north of Scotland for meal.

Before morning, about sixty large sacks, the lading of the three boats, were lodged in a cellar, possessed, says my authority, by Mr. James Rabson, a meal and com merchant of Cromarty; but James, though fully authorized by all his neighbours to dole out the contents to the inhabitants, and account to Simpson for the money, prudently lodged his key under the door, and set out for the country on some pretext of business. In the meanwhile Simpson applied to the Sheriff of the county, a warrant was granted him, the meal was seized in behalf of the proper owner; and the pacific Mr. Donald Sandison was appointed, on the recommendation of the Sheriff, to stand sentry over it. On the following day, a posse of law-officers from the ancient burgh of Tain, the farmers and farm-servants of Easter-Ross, and Simpson and the sailors, were to come, it was said, to transport his charge from the cellar to the vessel. Sandison, with a half-ludicrous, half-melancholy expression of face, took up his station before the door; and enveloped in his greatcoat, but encumbered with neither pistols nor broadsword, he stalked up and down before it until morning.

About two hours after sunrise, four large boats, crowded with people, were seen approaching the town, and, in a few minutes after, seven-eighths of the whole inhabitants, men, women, and children, armed with stones and bludgeons, were drawn out on the beach to oppose their landing. Such an assemblage! There were the parish schoolboys, active little fellows, that could hit to a hair’s-breadth; and there the town apprentices of all denominations, stripped of their jackets, and with their aprons puffed out before them with well-selected pebbles. There, too, were the women of the place, ranged tier beyond tier, from the water’s edge to the houses behind, and of all ages and aspects, from the girl that had not yet left school, to the crone that had hobbled from her cottage assisted by her crutch. The lanes were occupied by full-grown men, who, armed with bludgeons, reserved themselves for the final charge, and now crouched behind their wives and sisters to avoid being seen from the boats. A few young lads, choice spirits of the place, had climbed up to the ridges of the low cottages, which at that time presented, in this part of the town, a line parallel to the beach. Some of them were armed with pistols, some with satchels full of stones; and farther up the lanes there was a second party of women, who meditated an attack on Rabson’s cellar. Dire was the combination of sound. The boys shouted, the girls shrieked, the apprentices, tapping their fingers against their throats, bleated like sheep in mockery of the farmers, the women yelled out their defiance in one continuous howl, interrupted occasionally by the hoarse exclamations and loud huzzas of the men. The boats advanced by inches. After every few strokes, the rowers would pause over their oars, and wrench themselves half round to reconnoitre the myriads of waving arms and threatening faces which thronged the beach. As they creeped onwards, a few stones flung from slings by some of the boys went whizzing over their heads, “Now pull hard, and at once!” shouted out Simpson; “we have to deal with but women and children, and shall disperse them before they have fired half a broadside.” The rowers bent them to their oars, the boats started shorewards like arrows from the string, there arose a shout from the assembled multitude, which the distant hills echoed back to them in low thunder, and a shower of stones from the boys, the apprentices, the women, the men—from the shore, the lanes, the cottage roofs, the chimney tops, came hailing down upon them thick and ceaseless, rattling, pattering, crashing, like the debris of a mountain rolled over its precipices by an earthquake. The water was beaten into foam as if lashed by a hurricane. Every individual of the four crews disappeared in an instant; the oars swung loose on the gunwales, or slipped overboard. At length, however, the boats, propelled partly by the wind, partly by the force of the missiles, drifted from the shore; and melancholy was the appearance of the people within, when, after the stones began to fall short, they gathered themselves up, and looked cautiously over the sides. There were broken and contused heads among them beyond all reach of reckoning; and one poor man of Easter-Ross, who had been marked out by a young fellow named Junor, the best slinger in town, had carried two good eyes with him into the conflict, and only one out of it. They rowed slowly to the other side, and the victors could see them, until they landed, unfolding neckcloths and handkerchiefs, and binding up heads and limbs.

The attack on the boats had no sooner commenced, than the female party, who had been stationed in the lanes, proceeded to Rabson’s cellar. “We maun hae meal!” said the women to Sandison, who was lounging before the door with his arms folded in his greatcoat, and a little black tobacco-pipe in his mouth. “Puff,” replied the mechanic, shooting a huge burst of smoke into the face of the fairest of the speakers. “We maun hae meal! ” reiterated the women. “Puff—weel nee-bours—puff—I mauna betray trust, ye ken—puff; an’ what else am I stationed here for, but just to keep the meal frae you?—puff, puff.” “But we maun hae’t, an’ we will hae’t, an’ we sail hae’t, whether you will or no!” shrieked out a virago armed with a huge axe, which the mechanic at once recognised as his own, and who dealt, as she spoke, a tremendous blow on the door. “Gudesake, Jess!” said the mechanic, losing in his fear for his favourite tool somewhat of his self possession; “Gudesake, Jess, keep the edge frae the nails!” Stepping back a few paces, he leisurely knocked out the ashes of his pipe against his thumb-nail; and with the remark, that “strong han’ (force) was a masterfu’ argument; and that one puir working man, who hadna got his night’s rest, was no match for a score o’ idle queans,” he relinquished his post, and took sanctuary in his own dwelling. In less than half an hour after, the whole contents of the cellar had disappeared. There was a hale old woman, a pauper of the place, who did not claim her customary goupens for two whole years thereafter; and a shoemaker named Millar was not seen purchasing an ounce of meal for a much longer time.

Ninety years after the year of the meal mob, and when every one who had either shared in it or remembered it were sleeping in their graves, I was amusing myself, one wet day, in turning over some old papers stored up in the drawers of a moth-eaten scrutoire, which had once belonged to Donald Sandison, when a small parcel of manuscripts, wrapped up with a piece of tape, which had once been red, attracted my notice. The first manuscript I drew out bore date 1742, and was entitled, “Representation, Condescendence, and Interlocutors, in the process of Matthew Simpson against the Cromarty men.” It contained a grievous complaint made by the town’s-folk to the Right Hon. Lord Balmerino. “Simpson was a person of a rancorous and very litigious spirit,” urged the paper; “and it was surely not a little unreasonable in him to expect, as he did in the suit, that the people of a whole country-side, indubitably innocent of every act of violence alleged against them, should be compelled to undertake a weary pilgrimage to Edinburgh to answer to his charges, when, from the circumstances of the case, anything they could have to depone anent the spulzie, would yield exactly the same result, whether deponed at Edinburgh, Cromarty, or Japan.” It went on to show that the people were miserably depressed by poverty and that, if compelled to set out on such a journey, they would have to beg by the way; while their wives and children would be reduced to starvation at home, without even the resource of begging itself, seeing that all their neighbours were as wretchedly poor as themselves. Next in order in the parcel followed the statements of Mr. Matthew Simpson, addressed also to his Lordship. He had been robbed, he affirmed, by the men of the north three several times; twice by the people, and once by the lawyers; and having lost in this way a great deal of money, he could not well afford to lose more. It was stated, further, by the master, that Edinburgh could not be farther from Cromarty than Cromarty from Edinburgh; and that it was quite as reasonable, and fully as safe for the weaker party, that the conspirators should have to defend themselves in the metropolis, as that he, the prosecutor, should have to assail them in the village. Both manuscripts seemed redolent of that old school of Scotch law in which joke was so frequently called in to the assistance of argument, and dry technicalities relieved by dry humour. A third paper of the parcel bore date 1750, and was entitled, “Discharge from Matthew Simpson to Donald Sandison and others.” The fourth and last was a piece of barbarous rhyme, dignified, however, with the name of poetry, and which, after describing mealmongers as “ damned rascals,” and “ the worst of all men,” assured them, with a proper contempt for both the law of the land and the doctrine of purgatory, that there is an executive power vested in the people, which enables them to take summary justice on their oppressors, and that the “ devil gets villains as soon as they are dead.” Silken Sawney, the first projector of the spulzie, did not escape in the process, though he contrived a few years after to save his coin by running the country. He was the only person in Cromarty who, in the year 1745, assumed the white cockade; and no sooner had he appeared with it on the street than he was apprehended by a party of his neighbours, who were kings-men, and incarcerated in an alehouse. A guard was mounted before the door, and, on the morrow, the poor man of silk was to be sent aboard a sloop of war then lying in the bay; but as his neighbours, when they took the precaution of mounting guard, did not think proper, to call to memory that his apartment had a door of its own, which opened into a garden behind, he deemed it prudent, instead of waiting the result, to pass through it on a journey to the Highlands, and he never again returned to Cromarty. The other conspirators suffered in proportion, not to what they had perpetrated, but to what they possessed. A proprietor named Macculloch was stripped of his little patrimony, while some of his poorer companions escaped scot-free. Sandison contrived to pay his portion of the fine, and made chairs and tables for forty years after. He was deemed one of the most ingenious mechanics in the north of Scotland. I have spent whole days in the house of his grandson, half buried in dusty volumes and moth-eaten drawings which had once been his; and derived my earliest knowledge of building from Palladio’s First Book of Architecture, in the antique translation of Godfrey Richards, which, as the margins testified, he had studied with much care. At a sale of household furniture, which took place in Cromarty about thirty years ago, the auctioneer, after examining a very handsome though somewhat old-fashioned table with minute attention, recommended it to the purchasers by assuring them, in a form of speech at least as old as the days of Erasmus, that it was certainly the workmanship of either the Devil or of Donald Sandison.


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