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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter VII.—Ways and Means


THE principal sources of livelihood of the Gairloch people are their crofts and stock and their fisheries, both treated of in separate chapters. Of course a number of men have regular engagements, as farm or other servants and gamekeepers; whilst a few carry on trades, as tailors, shoemakers, weavers, boat builders, thatchers, dykers, sawyers, carpenters, and masons.

Some young men of the parish go south, and obtain situations either for the winter season or all the year round, and they often contribute towards home expenses.

The women of Gairloch, like all other Highland women, are noticeable for their industry. It is they who carry home heavy creels of peats for the household fire,—peats in the treatment of which they had taken an active share the previous summer; they herd the cow, and manage the house. But, more than all, it is the women who are mainly instrumental in producing the only manufactures of the parish, and very excellent manufactures too they are. They card and dye and spin the wool, they knit the Gairloch hose, and they prepare the various coloured worsteds which the weaver converts into tweeds of different patterns. Large numbers of the stockings are sent to Inverness, Edinburgh, and London (see last chapter). Some of the tweeds are worn in the parish, and some are sold to strangers.

It will be remembered that the early Pictish inhabitants of Gairloch dwelt in the brochs or round houses of what may almost be called the pre-historic period. These were succeeded by turf-built huts, the roofs of which, rudely framed with boughs, were covered with divots or turfs. The last turf house in the parish is said to have been at Moss Bank, Poolewe, and was occupied by an uncle of John Mackenzie (Iain Glas), whose improved dwelling stands on the same site. The turf house was gradually replaced by the style of dwelling which now prevails in the parish. The present cottages have their walls of stone, the better ones cemented with lime ; the roofs of timber, thatched with heather, rushes, or straw; divots are also still frequently used in roofing. Some few superior crofters' houses have slated roofs, and modern grates with flues and regular chimneys. But many of the crofters still have their byres under the. same roof; still have no chimney in the living room, whence the smoke from the peat fire escapes only by a hole in the roof; and still have the heap of ashes, slops, manure, and refuse just outside the door. Sir Francis Mackenzie, in his "Hints" (1838), has some suggestive remarks on the subject of these dwellings. He writes:—"I must at once protest against human beings and cattle entering together in your present fashion at the same doorway. . . . I will not raise a laugh at your expense by describing your present smoky dens, and the hole in the roof with sometimes an old creel stuck on it in imitation of a chimney. The smoke you now live in not only dirties and destroys your clothes and furniture, but soon reduces the prettiest rosy faces in the world to premature wrinkles and deformities. . . . Let there be no apology for want of time for carrying away ashes, sweepings, or dirty water, and adding them to your dunghill, instead of sweeping all into a corner till you have more time, and emptying the dirty water at your door because you are too lazy to go a few yards farther."

The houses of the crofters are certainly undergoing gradual improvement, but the majority cling tenaciously to the type of dwelling their fathers occupied before them. Perhaps the villages of Strath, Poolewe, and Port-Henderson contain the most improved houses in the parish. Very few of the crofters — have gardens worthy of the name, so that, of course, they lose the advantage of green vegetables and fresh fruits. Still more rare is it to see trees planted about their dwellings, though pleasant shade and shelter might thus be had, and though, it is understood, saplings might be obtained for the asking from the proprietors.

As a natural consequence of the proximity of middens to dwelling-houses, and other unhealthy arrangements, cases of fever occasionally occur. In the Old Statistical Account, 1792 (Appendix C), the writer, speaking of Gairloch, says that fevers were frequent, and an infectious putrid fever early in the preceding winter had proved fatal to many. Pennant had previously noticed how spring fever used to decimate the west coast. Such outbreaks have happily become rare since the potato famine of 1847 led the people to depend more on imported meal for their sustenance in spring.

Few of the crofters' houses are floored, so that the inmates stand on the natural ground, or put their feet on a loose plank. In wet weather the ground often becomes 1 damp. From this and other local causes pulmonary consumption is common among the crofter class. It is only right to add that this fatal disease often appears among some of the young people who go to work in southern towns, and come home to die.

Smallpox is said to have been fatal in Gairloch in the eighteenth century, at the time when it ravaged the adjoining parish of Applecross. The soubriquet "breac" (i.e. pock-pitted), so often met with in the history of Gairloch, is an evidence of the former frequency of this epidemic. Thanks to vaccination, it is now almost unknown.

The chief articles of diet of the crofter population are scale-fish, either fresh or cured, oatmeal, potatoes, and milk, "'"" " with a little butcher meat occasionally. Eggs are not much eaten, but are exported to Glasgow in considerable quantities. None of the crofters keep pigs, which they consider to be unclean beasts; it is singular they should entirely neglect a source of food and profit so universal among their Irish congeners. Captain Burt, in his day, noticed the absence of swine among the mountains; he said, "those people have no offal wherewith to feed them ; and were they to give them other food, one single sow would devour all the provisions of a family."

The principal intoxicating beverage in Gairloch is whisky. Very little beer is consumed by the natives. Whisky became known in the Highlands during the sixteenth century, and soon found its way to Gairloch; but it is said that the mania for illicit distillation did not reach the parish until the year 1800. The first whisky was distilled in Gairloch by the grandfather of Alexander Cameron, the Tournaig bard, in Bruachaig, on the way up to the heights of Kenlochewe. The mother of George Maclennan, of Londubh, was at that time servant at the Kenlochewe inn, and long afterwards told her son how the innkeeper bought the whisky and the plant as well.

James Mackenzie says that it was in his father's house at Mellon Charles, in the same year (1800), that the first Gairloch whisky was made by a stranger, who had craved and obtained his father's hospitality. Probably both accounts are correct, but it is impossible at this distance of time to determine to whom the questionable honour of having commenced the illicit distillation of whisky ought to be assigned. The mania for smuggled whisky spread very rapidly throughout the parish, and is not yet extinct. The larger islands of Loch Maree were the scenes of illicit distillation in the early part of the nineteenth century. They say a regular periodical market for the sale of whisky made on the islands, used to be held at the large square stone on the shore of Loch Maree between Ardlair and Rudha Cailleach, called Clach a Mhail (see illustration).

Peats are the only fuel used by the crofter population; they are cut from the peat-mosses by means of an instrument admirably adapted for the purpose, called the "torasgian," or peat knife (see illustration). Before the cutting is commenced, a spit of turf is removed from the surface of the ground by another implement called the "cabar lar," or turf-parer (see illustration). Each tenant has a portion of a convenient peatmoss allotted to him. The peats are K ^BirfS^ cut wnen tne spring work is over,—

in April, May, or June, — if the weather permit. After being cut the peats are reared on end to dry, and when thoroughly dried are stacked for use. The stacks are ingeniously constructed, with the outside peats sloping downwards, so as to throw off rain-water. Some twenty years ago there was a season of such continuous wet weather that the peats never dried, and the people were put to great straits to keep themselves warm during the succeeding winter.

The peat creel (see illustration), called in Gaelic "cliabh moine," is used for bringing home supplies of peat as needed. Creels are made by the people of willow and birch twigs.

There are very few carts among the crofters, and they have no other vehicles.

Dr Mackenzie gives the following account of the curious sledges which were used in Gairloch instead of wheeled carts in the beginning of the nineteenth century:—" There being no need of wheels in a roadless country, although we had a six-mile road to the big loch [Loch Maree] and another six miles to its exit at the sea [at Poolewe], we had only sledges (in place of wheeled carts), all made by our farm-bailiff or grieve. He took two birch trees of the most suitable bends, and of them made the two shafts, with ironwork to suit the harness of back belts and collar-straps. The ends of the shafts were sliced away with an adze at the proper angle to slide easily and smoothly on the ground. Two planks, one behind the horse and the other about a foot from the shaft-ends, were securely nailed to the shaft, and bored with many augur-holes to receive many four-feet long hazel rungs to form front and back of the cart to keep in the goods, a similar plank atop of the rungs, making the front and rear of the cart surprisingly stiff and upright. The floor was made of planks, and these sledge-carts did all that was needed in moving crop of most kinds. I think moveable boxes, planted on the sledge-floor between the front and rear hazel rod palings, served to carry up fish from the shore, lime, and manure, &c. And it was long ere my father [Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch] paid a penny a year to a cartwright."


 


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