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Deeside Tales
Note VII

AN estimate of the number of inhabitants about the beginning of the 18th century can be made from the Poll Book. In Braemar and Crathie, there were then returned as taxable 1200 individuals over the age of 16. This excludes poor persons living on charity. From evidence of a slightly later date, 200 may be added for these, and perhaps 100 for “children” whose age was really over 16. This would give 1500 as the number aged 16 and over. Using the proportions which are supplied by census returns, we may calculate that there was a total population of at least 2300. If these figures are approximately right, the population continued to grow during the next half-century. At various dates it stood as follows:—

1700 (calculated from P.B.) - - 2300?
1755 (Webster's estimate) - - 2671
1791 (Old Stat. account) - - - 2251
1801 (Census) - 1876
1851 ( do. ) - - - - 1788
1901 ( do. ) - - - - 1452

Thus the inhabitants of the two parishes have diminished by nearly a half within 150 years, and the decrease has been continuous.

Such evidence as we have seems to point to the conclusion that it was sometime in the first half of the 18th century that the maximum was reached. The Civil wars of the 17th century, which led to destruction of life, both directly in the field and indirectly by the destruction of the means of living, doubtless helped to keep down the natural increase of population. At a still earlier date there survives one bit of information which throws some light on the state of matters in the district. The accounts of the lands of the Earldom of Mar, which were kept by the Chamberlain on behalf of the King, give the names of all the tenancies and the rents payable during a large part of the 15th and 16th centuries. Again and again the Chamberlain has to report that there is no rental forthcoming from certain possessions, because they are lying uncultivated. Interesting as it would have been to hear the cause of this, he gives no explanation. Possibly the derelict lands were due to bad harvests, or perhaps to the insecurity and destruction of clan warfare, but the most likely explanation—however surprising it may seem to-day—is that the country was suffering from lack of people owing to the ravages of disease. It has to be remembered that during the middle ages, and later, the rural parts enjoyed no immunity from the epidemics of fever and pestilence that periodically decimated the towns. Traditions of the galar mor (the plague) survived in Braemar dll quite recent times. In fact, the mortality in the Highlands, as in Scotland and Europe generally, seems to have been so high that the population increased very slowly till about the beginning of the 18th century. Occasionally, in unhealthy seasons, there was actual retrogression. At anyrate, it is plain from the Chamberlain’s rent rolls that the lands of Braemar and Strathdee needed all the people they had and more, to cultivate them.

The figures for the other three upper parishes, Glenmuick, Tullich and Glengaim, calculated in the same way, are as

1799 - 1800?
1755 - 2279
1795 - 2117
1801 - 1901
1851 - 1984
1901 - 2347

Here an actual growth of population has taken place. It will be observed, however, that after 1755 a decline similar to that in Braemar and Crathie set in, which has continued since, though in the returns it is masked by the growth of the village of Ballater. In the purely rural parts of the parishes, there has been an uninterrupted shrinkage.

About the middle of the 18th century, the population of the five upper parishes was about 5000 souls, a number that was certainly far in excess of the resources of the district The agricultural improvements that have doubled the returns from the soil were yet to come, the cattle and sheep were much inferior in size to the stock of to-day, and except for domestic requirements, productive industry was unknown. The large farmers or tacksmen, who were often the relatives of the lairds, generally had an easy bargain of their holdings, and a comfortable enough subsistence, but the smaller tenants and landless cottars had a hard struggle. In good seasons they just managed to make a living, and in bad many of them were on the point of starvation. That the congestion reached its height soon after Culloden is confirmed by a statement in one of the pleadings in a lawsuit between Invercauld and the Earl of Fife in 1760, that never within the memory of man had there been so much land newly taken into cultivation. About the same time too, the author of a Description of the Parish of Birse complains that the forest, which properly belonged to the Birse people as a grazing, had been encroached upon by “Highlanders from the head of Dee,” who were living there as squatters. Evidently the reservoir of humanity in the upper glens was spilling over.

Soon after this time the population began to decline. The processes by which the reduction was effected were gradual but continuous. The chief of these were the enlargement of holdings as opportunity offered, and the elimination of crofters and cottars. The introduction of the new breed of sheep and the displacement of the old Highland black cattle operated in the same direction, as the sheep required fewer people to look after them. The first enemy of the crofter was not the deer, but the sheep. A verse of a Gaelic poem, composed by a Badenoch crofter who was lying under threat of eviction* about the time of the Napoleonic wars, recalls this phase of Highland history. M Rams will not turn the battle,” he says, “nor will herdsmen with cloak be of use; sheep of the glens will not keep off the French; and alas! at this time I’m in woe.”

Before long the deer forest completed what the sheep farm had begun, and gradually the higher glens were given over to sport entirely. The case of Gleney, whence nine families were removed about 1830 at the request of the shooting tenant, a Jew, is typical of what gradually took place all over Upper Deeside. Less than a hundred years ago, Dalvorar in Glen Dee, for example, carried a great stock of cattle and sheep, and in the remotest parts of the Mar forest, the people had their summer pasturages and shielings, full of healthy human activity.

“And so there grew great tracts of wilderness,
Wherein the beast was ever more and more,
But man was less and less.”


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