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Deeside Tales
Chapter VII

Octogenarian—“How many folk are in the parish this time, maister?”

Enumerator of 1871—“Not so many as yon have seen, Charles.”

Oct.—“Fye, fye ! No ane for sax that I hae seen; an' sic men tee I Ye’re naething but ablachs to the pretty men that were in my young days. Fye, fye!”

Enum.—“Oh, yes, Charles, you’re going over the score now. There are more than one for six. I grant yon the country parts have much fewer people now than then. But look at Balia ter—I dare say you remember when there was scarcely a house in it.”

Oct.—“ Ballater ! I mind when there wisna a house ava in’t; an’ the first house was a wearie heather housie doon near the water side. Ballater I umph! an’ what about it? I mind, man, when there was achteen reekan’ houses i’ the Daugh; an’ noo there’s only twa; an’ a’ ither toons sic like. Ballater, awyte 1 umph I ”— Veritable Conversation.

OF late years we have had much sentimental writing regarding the depopulation of the KS/J Highlands. The subject has been viewed both in relation to military and agricultural interests; and widely different conclusions have been arrived at respecting the matter in both relationships. Some have contended that, however cruel or oppressive these clearances, as they are called, may have been, it was for the advantage of the poor people that they should be removed, as in the altered condition of the nation they could have remained only to be a burden on the country, or to be once every three or four years subjected to the pinch of famine; and that, as a nursery for soldiers, the time had passed away when Britain required such a nursery, the surplus population of our large towns being more than sufficient to supply our military wants. On the other hand, it has been maintained that the cruelty was great at the time, and the injury to the nation irreparable, inasmuch as the loss of so many hands has been the cause of the great rise in the wages of agricultural labourers and farm servants, and consequently, in order to sustain this rise, a corresponding increase in the price of provisions has taken place, so that the labouring classes are now, not better, but worse off than they were in the olden time. As to the army, being composed as it is now of the scum of our city back slums, it has degenerated so far that no respectable person is to be found in its ranks; and that it will be an evil day for this country when it has to rely for its safety on its atmy as at present constituted.

Without attempting to solve so knotty a point, the object of the writer of these pages is merely to exhibit the change that has taken place in respect to population, as well as in other respects, on Deeside since the middle of last century. The district embraced by these observations consists of the parishes of Aboyne, Glentanner, Glenmuick, Tullich, Glengairn, Crathie, and Braemar, with the district of Cromar, comprising the parishes of Coull, Tarland, and Logie-Coldstone. The population of the whole, according to the census of 1871, amounts to 7782; and there is no very marked disparity between this number and what the same district contained in 1801, the first year in which we have reliable statistics. The difference, therefore, within the century, though noticeable, has been gradually effected, and is still going on in the same direction, viz., an increase in the £ villages, and a decrease in rural districts.

The great Highland clearances began about twenty years prior to 1801, and continued for ten or twelve years to be practised in the northern counties with great rigour. The depopulation of Upper Deeside was effected with less severity, because the course adopted was a gradual dispossession extending over a much longer period of years, but it began quite as early.

At what date the population of Deeside reached its maximum is not quite clear, but it is certain that the pressure of surplus numbers was felt before the ’45. As, however, up to that time the strength of a chief consisted in the number of broadswords he could bring into action, no effort was made to reduce the occupants of his lands, but rather the reverse—to increase their numbers irrespective of the capability of the district to maintain them. This state of things could not long continue. Want of employment gendered habits of idleness, at the back of which stood poverty and famine. To provide against this was the duty of the chief, and, more frequently than anything else, drove him to desperate courses, cattle-lifting, raids, and other spulzieing expeditions. Long before the ’45 the law had become too strong for the chiefs to provide for their followers in this reckless manner with impunity, but they winked at it when practised by their dependants, and even made money out of it by pretending to restrain them in consideration of receiving blackmail.

But with every shift that could be devised, the prospects of the Highland chiefs at the opening of the 18th century were of the gloomiest They were surrounded by an indolent, starving crowd of tenants, for whom they could find neither work, money, nor victuals, and whose services in the only employment they were willing to engage in the Government had declared to be a capital offence, and was sufficiently powerful to carry its threat into execution on both chief and follower. Matters had come to a crisis at the accession of George I., and the rebellion of the Earl of Mar was felt to be a positive relief by many a chieftain who was at his wits’ end what to do with his people. Though the insurrection failed in restoring the exiled king, it for a time relieved the pressure on the resources of the chiefs, many of whom, seeing little help from risings of the kind, turned their attention to other means of extricating themselves from their difficulties. An attempt was made in many parts to employ the people in improving the property of the lord of the soil, but though a wise, it was at first an unpopular step and was nowhere very successful.

A second time within the century the chiefs had an opportunity of utilising their followers in military service, and when Prince Charles invited them to give employment to their retainers in helping him to the throne of his forefathers, he made liberal promises to them that, if they succeeded, he would take care that they should be rid of all their difficulties for the future. Yet strange to say, there was much more backwardness manifested in rallying round the standard of the Prince himself, than thirty years before had been displayed in bringing forward the clans under the Earl of Mar. In the space of two months Mar assembled a force of 10,000, all Highlanders. During a campaign of eight months’ duration Charles Edward was never at the head of an army of more than 7000, and of these a good many were Lowlanders. The reason was that during these thirty years several Highland proprietors had directed their attention to, and endeavoured to engage their followers in peaceful avocations, and were finding that, though a slow, it was a sure way of turning the tide of their fortunes, and were therefore unwilling to sacrifice the hope that had dawned on them, for so hazardous a speculation as the Prince held out to them. But in the districts—and Deeside was one of them —that went pretty heartily into the rebellion, we may infer from the number of men contributed, that our glens were then teeming with a warlike population.

A rule which was the growth of ages, like the patriarchal system of government in the Highlands, could not be destroyed by one disaster, or by the enactment of an imperial law. The latter puts an end to its actual exercise, and admits of its being disputed; but, sentimentally, its decay must be like its growth, the work of time. Hastened it may be by many circumstances, but the passing of a bill will not destroy it in the hearts of the people. Neither the defeat at Culloden, the severity of martial law that followed, nor the Act abrogating the jurisdiction of the chiefs, was sufficient to drive the people from looking to their former rulers for protection and support Some few, both high and low, mostly the former, had to escape for their lives; others, from the wreck of their fortunes, were compelled by destitution to emigrate to the colonies, but there was no desire* on the part of the inhabitants generally to quit their native glens, and none on the part of the proprietors to drive them away. But as little progress was made in agriculture, and the population was largely increasing, there began about 1755 a period °f distress arising from excess of inhabitants.*

The nation was now preparing for war both on the continent and in America, and had little time or inclination to think of the poor Highlanders; in fact, had no sympathy with their sufferings, and they might have been left to be reduced to a sustainable number by famine, but for the wise, consideration of a single man. That man was Lord Chatham. So early as 1756 he proposed to the government of George II. to employ the Highlanders in the King’s service. President Forbes had done the same thirty years before, and, had his advice been followed, in all probability there would have been no rising in 1745. Lord Chatham was more successful; royal letters were issued to Sir Archibald Montgomery, son of the Earl of Eglinton, to try whether the Highlands might not be relieved and his Majesty’s Service promoted by giving the overcrowded glens an opportunity of sending to it their surplus men. Deeside profited largely by this offer. Within a month more than 200 had joined the regiment in which Charles Farquharson, younger of Balmoral, held the post of first Lieutenant The following account of the enrolment of this regiment has come down to us: “Battalions on battalions were raised in every part of the Highlands among those who a few years before were devoted to, and had too long followed the fate of the race of Stuart Their chiefs or connections obtained commissions; and the lower class, always ready to follow, with eagerness endeavoured who should be first listed.”

The success of this attempt at recruiting in the Highlands was so signal, that within the next three years five regiments were similarly enrolled, draining from the overpeopled glens a larger number of men than were present under the Prince at Culloden. Of one of these regiments, Keith’s Highlanders, we propose to take more particular notice afterwards. It was raised almost entirely .from the districts of Braemar and Atholl. In addition to the two above-mentioned regiments, the northern contingents of which were enlisted mostly in the upper parishes, another regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, was raised in the same year (1759), was largely recruited from the Gordon estates in the lower parishes. Deeside must have been in a strange condition, when within two years it could not only spare 400 of its adult male population, but when the opportunity to enlist was eagerly coveted.

Well might Lord Chatham, many years after, in his celebrated speech on our differences with America, say: “I sought for merit wherever it was to be found; it is my boast that I was the first minister who looked for it, and found it in the mountains of the north. I called it forth, and drew into your service a hardy and intrepid race of men, who, when left by your jealousy, became a prey to the artifices of your enemies, and had gone nigh to have overturned the state in the war before the last These men in the last war were brought to combat on your side; they served with fidelity, and they fought with valour, and conquered for you in every part of the world.’

The repeated drains to which we have alluded, had at last the effect of reducing the population almost to a number that could be fairly supported. In 1762 peace was concluded, and it was evident that if the Highland regiments were disbanded and the soldiers returned to their native glens, a worse state of matters than anyone then living had yet seen would be brought on. There was great reason to apprehend such a result; the Government was reducing the military establishments of the country to a peace footing, and many regiments were already discharged. Such, however, had been the services of the Highlanders in the late war, and such were the representations made from many quarters of the evils likely to arise from sending back the men to their poverty-stricken glens, now only beginning to show symptoms of peaceful industry, that it was resolved to disband as few of these regiments as possible, and to offer the discharged soldiers free grants of land in Canada. Under this wise policy the dreaded evil was averted.

Meantime, however, the home population was again becoming excessive. The nine years of peace that followed to the nation were not years of prosperity and quiet to Deeside. The proprietors had embraced the opportunity afforded by the drafting of so many of their tenants to the late war to enlarge the holdings of those who remained, and had reaped the advantages of the plan by an increase of rent They were not, therefore, disposed to revert to the old system of subdividing the holdings among the children of their tenants; but, notwithstanding the increase in the population, and the lack of military or other employment for the daily increasing surplus, they resolved to embrace and make occasions for still farther adding field to field and house to house. The consequence was that the district began again to swarm with idle and discontented men, who rather obstructed than aided the progress of industry. Seeing no hope of getting rid of these by drafting them off to the army, several proprietors, and one at least on Deeside, attempted to eject them from their estates, by serving upon them warrants of removal; and when these were disregarded their domiciles were pulled down about their ears. Many were thus forced, much against their inclinations, to emigrate to foreign lands.

But a relief was at hand for those landlords who did not choose to follow this cruel line of treatment The revolutionary war in America broke out, and at the same time the Mahratta war in India. Great exertions were made by the Government to increase the numerical force of the regiments already on the military list, and as many of these were Highland regiments, recruiting companies were sent into the parts where the regiments had originally been raised to complete their numbers. But besides these, in the course of one year alone (1778) no fewer than five new Highland regiments were added to the line. The number of recruits obtained from Deeside cannot be accurately ascertained, but it is noticeable that the honour of contributing to the first Highland regiment enrolled after the '45 (Montgomery’s Highlanders) fell to Braemar and Atholl; and singularly enough the command of the new levy was given to Colonel James Murray, son of Lord George Murray, who had the command of the old rebel army at Culloden. This is enough to show how great had been the change which these thirty-two years had effected in the sentiments of both the Government and the Highlanders.

Whilst the Braemar contingent of the Atholl Highlanders, or 77th Regiment of the line, was being raised in that district, a new regiment was receiving large additions to its ranks from the parishes of Glenmuick and Aboyne. This was the 81st or Aberdeenshire Highlanders. The full number of men for both regiments was enlisted in less than two months. The terms on which they took service were that they should be bound for three years, or until the war was ended.


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