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Deeside Tales
Introductary Chapter


“Faces and footsteps, and all things strange.”—Mrs. Hensons.

THE remark has often been made that the progress of civilization tends to reduce individual peculiarities, and assimilate all men to a common model; and there can be no doubt that the circumstances of a primitive state of society are more favourable to the development of whatever idiosyncrasies nature may have bestowed than those of a more refined condition.

In times such as ours a high and uniform system of education lays hold on the infant character, rubs off its angularities, and, by sheer dint of training, reduces all but the most indocile minds to a certain degree of sameness; and what is thus begun in youth is, through the intercourse of men in business and commerce, perpetuated in riper years, so that his peculiarities must be very strong, or his nature very stubborn, who can resist the combined power of all these influences to cast his character in the common mould.

But in less artificial times nature was the principal nurse of her own gifts, and under her training they not only escaped bondage to the hard and fast lines of red-tapeism, but received encouragement to shoot out and branch off according to their original bent They had thus, even before reaching maturity, assumed forms as different from those produced by model schools and Revised Codes, as that of the oak of the forest from the espalier pippin of the orchard

“The difference is, that in the days of old
Men made the manners—manners now make men.”

At the beginning of the present century, and for long after, the natives of Highland Deeside and its tributary glens were primitive and unsophisticated to a degree of which southerns, who have known them only during the last twenty years, can form but a very faint conception. The aspect of the country has not undergone a greater change—great as that has been—than the feelings, the manners, and even the morals of the people. The visitor of to-day can scarcely believe, as he passes through this beautiful valley, and sees on every hand neat and comfortable farm steadings, fields cultivated after the most approved methods, forests clothing the sides of the mountains and climbing to their summits, and the mansions of the chief, the peer, the prince, and the sovereign bespangling the scene, that little more than half a century ago, with the exception of two or three gentlemen’s residences, there was scarcely a white walled house in the district; that the peasants’ dwellings could at a little distance hardly be distinguished from the surrounding heath-clad hillocks; that what are now fertile fields were then but uncouth wastes of bog and heather, or at best but narrow poverty-stricken ridges of arable, with huge baulks and heaps of stones intervening; and that a fenced field was not to be seen in the whole country.

To give an idea of the manner in which the small patches, that with some latitude of meaning might be called arable, were farmed, the following in reference to the parish of Glenmuick is extracted from the Old Statistical Account of Scotland,\ published in 1794:—

“The ordinary crops are bear and oats, some rye with a mixture of oats, and a few pease. When the weather will permit (which has not been the case for some years) the seedtime is begun about the 20th of March, and finished about Whitsunday. Harvest is begun towards the end of August, and is generally over by the middle of October. Where the soil is late the tenants endeavour to obviate the disadvantage by sowing their bear after their oats without any interval.*

“One bar on improvements in farming is a number of services which the tenants are obliged to perform to the proprietors, such as carting, winning, and leading their peats in summer, harrowing in seedtime, reaping in harvest, and long carriages from Aberdeen and other places.

“Of course the mode of farming has undergone little variation here, excepting on some farms where there are outfields (lands only occasionally cropped), the tenants generally go over all their arable land with dung once in three years. This is followed by two succeeding crops of oats, after which the ground is dunged again, and the same rotation of crops observed as before; and thus the greater part of the arable land here has been treated time immemorial, without rest or any other cleaning than throwing off some of the weeds raised by the harrow in a dry season. Very good crops, however, both of bear and oats, are raised in this way.

To ascertain when the soil was in suitable condition to receive the bear seed was often a matter of considerable difficulty with these farmers, and in default of a thermometer to test the temperature, they had recourse to various experiments, some of which were more primitive than elegant.

“In good years the parish produces more victual than is sufficient to supply the inhabitants, and affords a considerable surplus of butter, cheese, black cattle, and sheep. The butter and cheese are generally carried to market at Tarland."

“Creels only are used for carrying both dung and peats. In the lower parts of the parish carts have been introduced, and one gentleman keeps a carriage. In the whole parish there are 170 ploughs, some of which are drawn by eight, some by ten, and some by twelve cattle; some by cattle, and horses before them, and a great many by horses alone. The tenants mostly yoke four horses abreast, the driver, who holds the halters in his hand to regulate their motions, walks before the horses, after his back.

“Agriculture may be said to be only in its infancy here. The country is open, and winter herding is unknown, or, at least, it is looked upon as an intolerable grievance, and therefore not practised From the time that harvest is over, which is generally about the middle of October, they neither yoke a plough nor do anything about their farms till the seed time comes on, when man, woman, and child are employed in huddling over the work in the most superficial manner— and when the bustle of sowing is over, all concern about the farm is again laid aside till harvest begins.

“Their farms, or rather crofts, are by far too small, few of them exceed twelve, and in general they are from five to eight acres. But whilst I accuse the men of indolence, I should do great injustice to the women if I did not exempt them from the charge, by whose diligence and industry their families are in great part supported”

The Cheese Market of Coldstone was the principal fair in the district for the exchange of this article of dairy produce, and generally bore ample testimony to the skill and industry with which that department at least was managed.

Since the above was written, man has been busy with external nature, and has stamped upon it indelible impressions of his skill and refinement. Yet, though not so patent to the eye, no less wonderful changes have been effected on the social character and habits of the people. Their ideas and opinions are quite different, their feelings and sentiments are now so much the opposite of what they then were, that one frequently hears the rising generation refer with affected horror to the customs of seventy years ago, as if their grandfathers had then only begun to emerge from barbarism and idolatry. The political measures of late years, and still more the great advancement made in education, and the immense spread of knowledge by various means among the humbler classes, have, within a short period, produced the most radical changes in their social habits, their objects of pursuit and interest, and modes of living. This is true of the Scottish peasantry generally, but it is especially true of those of Deeside, on whom these influences and others have been brought to bear with greater force than perhaps in any other part of the kingdom.

It has been already stated that at the close of last century there was not, in the whole of the united parishes of Glenmuick, Tullich, and Glengaim, but one carriage, by which was meant any wheeled vehicle from a gig upwards. Now they are to be counted by scores, and those that pass along the roads by hundreds if not by thousands.

At that time, “men servants’ wages for the year was £6; women’s ditto, £3.” Now they are, for the former, £24; and for the latter, £9; that is to say, men servants obtained one-fourth, and female servants one-third part of what they now receive.

But, whilst admitting the social improvement effected, it may be questioned whether we have not also lost something in the decay of that chivalrous and generous spirit which distinguished our forefathers. The worship of mammon, which forms so large a portion of the religion of the present day, has in no country or age been favourable to the growth of high and noble sentiments; and in the interest of truth it must be admitted that even on Deeside that species of idolatry has not failed to produce its usual effect Whether we be, as a foreign potentate once described us, “a nation of shopkeepers ” or not, it cannot be denied that even in our Highland glens the “almighty dollar” has displaced the feudal or patriarchal superior, and usurped his functions.

Take a glance at the old dynasty as it existed only half a century ago. Chieftainship, though legally shorn of its ancient authority, was neither forgotten nor repudiated. Its spirit and all its finer features survived, and to a great extent regulated the relations and intercourse of landlord and tenant The bondage of military service had indeed given place to the payment of an equivalent in money, and the power of pot and gallows had been commuted into the milder jurisdiction of the Justice of Peace; but these remnants of ancient authority were sufficient to keep alive in the bosom of the chief the feeling that he was still the father of his clan. His tenants and followers reciprocated the kindly sentiment with a heartiness, that showed anything but a disposition on their part to break loose from their former allegiance.

A mere list of the tenants’ names on the different properties will show how this feeling operated. The lands of Glenmuick and Abergeldie were owned by cadets of the great house of Gordon, and Gordons the occupants were, almost without exception. They considered themselves under the special protection of their proprietors; and the proprietors had, from a similar feeling towards them, allowed them the sole tenancy of their estates for generations. By the mutual, though tacit consent of both parties, the patriarchal institution, in so far as it wrought for good, was in full vigour amongst them. Even some points of clanship of questionable benefit were still clung to. These Gordons were rather prone to club together on all occasions and for all purposes, and an injury offered to one brought the whole tribe on the hapless offender. This is not much to be wondered at, since they were all more or less connected either by blood or marriage, frequently by both ties till their inter-relationship had become proverbial People were wont to say of any inextricable problem, “ye might as soon unravel the sibness o' the Gordons o' Gimock.”

The same principle of clanship regulated the occupancies on the other estates, though the tenants were not so exclusively of the clan surname. From Coilacreich to Monaltrie the Browns held almost as complete a monopoly of the holdings under Invercauld as the Gordons on the other side of the river under Abergeldie. The MacHardies, Mackintoshes, and Abercrombies, all claiming kindred with the Farquharson clan, were equally favoured in the upper glens.

As another instance of the prevalence of clan feeling may be adduced the difference of language in contiguous districts. The Gordons were not of Celtic origin, though they had many Highland possessions, yet such was their influence with their Gaelic speaking tenants, that in the whole district on the right bank of the Dee, from Balmoral to Glenmuick, of which they were resident proprietors, the old language had completely disappeared long before the beginning of the century, while on the opposite bank of the river, where the proprietors were either Celtic or non-resident, the Gaelic continued to be the household language of almost every family down to 1830 at least, a state of things which could not have long subsisted had proprietors been given to change their tenants.1 Indeed, it has long been a point of honour with the Invercauld family, and it is believed is so still, never to dismiss a dependant or remove an old tenant, except for some flagrant offence, or the most hopeless incapacity. The honour and influence of the chief was, in the days of our grandfathers, the pride of the tenants; and the prosperity of the tenants was equally the pride of the chief.

This fine feeling is now almost extinct The relationship between them has become an entirely commercial one. High rents and not high sentiments are what proprietors want in return for the use of their lands. They might have secured both had they exercised their influence, in a kind friendly way, to foster in their tenants habits of industry and enterprise. But in too many cases the enterprising tenant finds himself at the expiry of his lease more harshly dealt with than his neighbour who had done nothing to raise the value of his farm. His industry is turned against himself, no adequate consideration being allowed him for his improvements. “ Foolish man! ” is the general remark, “ he is laying out money for the laird.” A single example of such treatment has gone far to damp the energies of a whole neighbourhood, and repeated examples have alienated the kindly feelings of the tenants, who now too generally, and in some cases with too much reason, regard the proprietor in the light of a heartless taxgatherer, if his vexatious proceedings in respect of game preservation have not presented him in the light of a still more unfeeling oppressor.

From whatever causes, a most unhealthy state of feeling has arisen between them—one which all must regret, but which only one of the parties has the power to remedy, and that in a few things by

“A return to the ways
Of the good old days."

The question has often been discussed with various objects in view, and consequently with widely different conclusions arrived at, whether the morals of the peasantry have kept pace with the amelioration of their condition, the diffusion of knowledge, and the improvement in arts, or whether there has not been a corresponding retrogression. There are difficulties in the way of estimating the full amount of the change that has taken place in the morals of the people. Session Records deal but with cases of notorious delinquency, and only indirectly supply information regarding the general, social, and domestic life; besides, national or class morality is a plant of slow growth, and rapid decay. There can, however, be little doubt on the mind of any unprejudiced individual, conversant with the details of our Session Records about the middle of last century, that, while in some respects the labouring classes have not made that progress in morality which might have been expected from their advantages, the grosser violations of the decalogue, then so common, have now almost disappeared from among them.

But whether we be better, or better off, than our forefathers, there can be no question that we are very different— so different in many respects, that the following authentic narratives will now with difficulty be believed to relate to persons who have lived, and events which have occurred.


 


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