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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter IV. Glimpses of Social Life in the Parish of Kingussie in Bygone Days


IN 1784 the estates of Cluny Macpherson, which had been forfeited in consequence of the active share Cluny of the time had taken in the Rising of the ’45, were restored. Colonel Thornton of Thornville-Royal, in Yorkshire, published in 1804 a most interesting journal of a visit which he paid to Badenoch and other parts of the Highlands in 1784. The colonel “was the son of a Mr William Thornton who is mentioned in Hargrove’s ‘History of Knaresborough’ as having, on the outbreak of the Rebellion in 1745, raised a company of soldiers and marched at their head ‘against the rebels in the mountains of Scotland.’ It was probably in consequence of this exploit that Colonel Thornton received part of his education at one of the Scottish universities, and formed friendship with several Highland gentlemen. About ten years before the date of the journal he paid a visit at Castle Grant, and in 1783 he paid a short visit to Badenoch for the purpose of sport, living during the time he was there in tents. This visit appears only to have whetted his appetite, and he resolved next year to pay a longer visit, and his preparations were on an elaborate scale. He hired the house of Raitts from Mrs Mackintosh of Borlum, with grass and other provisions for twenty horses, and he provided himself with a camp-equipage suitable for four or five gentlemen and their attendants, with two boats, the Ville de Paris and the Gibraltar, with every requisite for sport of all kinds, provisions for three or four months; and he engaged Mr Garrard, a rising artist, to accompany him, and take pictures of the scenery, and of the wild birds and animals of the chase. The camp-equipage, boats, &c., were put on board a ship at Hull, to be conveyed to Forres, as the nearest convenient port for Raitts; and having seen the vessel sail on the 4th of June, the colonel and Mr Garrard started on the land journey, which they made in a gig with two horses driven tandem. The journey was made by way of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Loch Lomond, Loch Dochart, and Taymouth to Dunkeld, and thence by the Highland road to Raitts, where the party arrived on the 10th of July, and were received by Mrs Mackintosh and her family, and by Captain Mackintosh of Balnespic, an old acquaintance, who came to arrange matters for the colonel. The transport of the baggage from Forres was a more difficult affair. Exclusive of the boats, about which there was considerable difficulty, and which ultimately came on carts also, a train of forty-nine country carts was employed, and these did not arrive at Raitts till some days later. From the 10th of July till the 26th August the party resided principally at Raitts, but made excursions to Loch-an-Eilan, Loch Ennich, Loch Laggan, and Loch Va, near Aviemore, at the last of which they encamped for a day or two: on 26th August the camp was pitched in the upper valley of the Dulnan, at the foot of Knock-Franguich, for the purpose of grouse-shooting, and there they remained until 17th September, when the camp was struck, and they returned to Raitts, where, with the interlude of a visit by the colonel to Gordon Castle, they remained until 4th October, when the return journey commenced.”

“In more than one place the colonel, who evidently was fond of good living, enlarges on the advantages of the Highlands in the matter of the necessities and the comforts of life. He says: ‘Everything for the comfort of life may be had in the Highlands at least nine months in the year, superior, if not to all, to most countries. Nature has given to the face of the country a large proportion of barren heath, but in the valleys every luxury of animal food, and that of the most excellent kind, abounds during most of the winter months. Indeed, the mountain cattle are too fat in summer, and, with little attention and some expense, might no doubt be enjoyed during the whole winter, as they suffer less from the snows than is imagined.’ And he makes some severe animadversions on the slowness of the natives to make use of their advantages, remarking that he had never seen fresh-water fish at any of their tables. He remarks that the table of Mr Grant of Rothiemurchus was, like his estate, the most enviable in the world; adding that he had added to every other luxury, ‘roebucks, cairvanes, hare, black-game, dotterel, white-game, partridges, ducks, and snipes; salmon, pike, trout, char, par, lampreys, and eels, all which are in abundance upon his estate.’ That the colonel had no mean idea of good living may be judged from the following bill of fare of what he calls a ‘purely accidental’ dinner, to which he invited some friends in his camp on the Dulnan:—

“A Hodge-podge.
Remove.
A Roast Pike of seven pounds.
Sauces.
Greens. Reindeers’ Tongues. Potatoes.
Chickens.

Second Course.
Loin of Mutton.
Black Game and Partridge.
Currant Jelly, Capsicum, Elder, Garlic, Vinegars.
Powderade and Char.
A Carving.
Biscuits, Stilton Cheese, Cheshire Butter.
Goats’ Milk.”

The colonel gives the following lively sketch of the rejoicings which took place at Pitmain—the old coaching stage near Kingussie—on the occasion of the restoration of the Cluny estates. There is no year mentioned, but apparently the entertainment took place on 18th September 1784. The colonel previously records, in his journal of date the 17th of that month, that on returning to Raitts that evening he “found a very polite invitation from Colonel M'Pherson and the clan requesting me to dine with them the next day, which was set apart for general festivity and rejoicing on account of a late public event, considered by them as a most advantageous revolution in their favour.” On the 18th he records that “the morning was taken up with ordering illuminations and bonfires in honour of the day; and the housekeeper was directed to send to Colonel M'Pherson whatever Raitts afforded, that might in any respect prove acceptable at the feast intended to be given.” He then proceeds:—

“On our arrival we found a large party of gentlemen already assembled, and the area full of the lower class of the Clan of M'Pherson. Other gentlemen were likewise continually ushering in from all parts, some of whom came about sixty miles, so happy were they to testify their regard for the present possessor of the estate; in short, no words can express the joy that was exhibited in every countenance. The ladies, too, not that I think it singular, seemed to me to enter more heartily if possible into the joys of the day than the men; the tout etisemble made this meeting interesting enough. At most public meetings there are some discontented mortals who rather check than inspire mirth; the case here was quite the reverse: with that perfect innocence which abounds in the Highlands, joined to the clannish regard not totally removed by luxury and knowledge of the world, every individual added something, and exerted himself to promote the common cause. At five o’clock dinner was announced, and each gentleman, with the utmost gallantry, handed in his tartan-drest partner. The table was covered with every luxury the vales of Badenoch, Spey, and Lochaber could produce, and a very substantial entertainment it was; game of all kinds, and venison in abundance, did honour to Mr M‘Lean, who supplied it. I had no conception of any room at Pitmain large enough to dine one-tenth of the party, but found that the apartment we were in, though low, was about fifty feet long, and was only used, being a malt-kiln, on such occasions. When seated, no company at St James’s ever exhibited a greater variety of gaudy colours, the ladies being dressed in all their Highland pride, each following her own fancy, and wearing a shawl of tartan: this, contrasted by the other parts of the dress, at candle-light presented a most glaring coup-d'ail. The dinner being removed, was succeeded by a dessert of Highland fruits, when, I may venture to say, that ‘George the Third’—and long may he reign!—was drank with as much unfeigned loyalty as ever it was at London: several other toasts were likewise drank with three cheers, and re-echoed by the inferiors of the clan in the area around us. The ladies gave us several very delightful Erse songs. Nor were the bagpipes silent; they played many old Highland tunes, and, among others, one which is, I am told, the test of a piper’s abilities, for at the great meeting of the pipers at Falkirk, those who cannot play it are not admitted candidates for the annual prize given to the best performer. After the ladies had retired, the wine went round plentifully, but, to the honour of the conductor of this festive board, everything was regulated with the utmost propriety; and, as we were in possession of the only room for dancing, we rose the earlier from the table, in compliance with the wishes of the ladies, who in this country are still more keen dancers than those of the southern parts of Britain. After tea, the room being adjusted and the band ready, we returned; and, minuets being by common consent exploded, danced with true Highland spirit a great number of different reels, some of which were danced with the genuine Highland fling, a peculiar kind of cut. It is astonishing how true these ladies all dance to time, and not without grace; they would be thought good dancers in any assembly whatever. At ten o’clock the company repaired to the terrace adjoining to the house to behold as fine a scene of its kind as perhaps ever was exhibited. Bonfires in towns are only simple assemblages of inflammable matter, and have nothing but the cause of rejoicing to recommend them; but here the country people, vying with each other, had gathered together large piles of wood, peat, and dry heather, on the tops of the different hills and mountains, which, by means of signals, being all lighted at the same time, formed a most awful and magnificent spectacle, representing so many volcanos, which, owing to their immense height, and the night being totally dark and serene, were distinctly seen at the distance of ten miles. And, while our eyes were gratified with this solemn view, our ears were no less delighted with the different bagpipes playing round us ; when, after giving three cheers to the king, and the same to Mr Pitt, &c., we returned into the ball-room. At one I withdrew, took some refreshment, and then returned home, highly delighted at having passed the day so very agreeably.”

Speaking of Pitmain Inn, where the entertainment described by Colonel Thornton took place, Dr Garnett, in his ‘Observations on a Tour through the Highlands,’ &c., published in London in 1811, says: “It is a very good house, and adjoining to it is a better garden than I ever saw belonging to an inn, if we except some of the public gardens near London. It contained abundance of fruit, of which we were invited to partake by our landlord, a good-natured man, and very fond of boasting of his intimacy with the nobility.”

About the year 1820 Mr Macpherson of Belleville (a son of the translator), and others connected with the district, interested themselves in collecting subscriptions for the erection in Kingussie of the handsome and commodious Assembly Rooms of two storeys, which were completed in 1821, and stood for many years on the site of the present Court-House. Before the building was erected the Duke of Gordon of the time (Duke Alexander) agreed with his usual generosity—in addition to contributing largely to the building fund—to give the Kingussie people a perpetual feu of the site free of charge. Unfortunately, through some inadvertence no formal charter was ever obtained either from Duke Alexander or from his son, the fifth and last Duke, and shortly before the death of the latter in 1836 the Kingussie property, to the great regret of all the inhabitants, passed by purchase out of the hands of the Gordon family. For some years afterwards the ground-floor of the rooms was used as the infant school, long so well known and so successfully carried on by its devoted teachers the Misses M'Culloch. About thirty years ago the building was sold by the superior of the time to the county authorities without any previous warning, and without one copper of compensation being allowed or any equivalent given to the community, to whom the property really belonged. It is but just to add, however, that Mr Baillie, the present superior, besides giving a handsome subscription towards the building fund of the Victoria Public Hall and Reading Rooms, erected by public subscription in Kingussie two or three years ago, arranged that the site should be conveyed to trustees for behoof of the community free from any feu-duty.

In the ‘Inverness Courier’ of the time the following account is given of the opening of the old Assembly Rooms in 1821 by the last Duke of Gordon, then Marquis of Huntly :—

“These rooms were opened on Friday last, the 14th current, by a brilliant assemblage of the ‘ native aristocracy ’ of Strathspey and Badenoch, and several strangers of the highest respectability. In the morning there were pony and foot races, which afforded the gentlemen good sport. Six hardy Highlanders started for a prize of two guineas. The second best runner received a guinea from the Marquis of Huntly. The Marquis of Tweeddale was the judge of the races. A party of from thirty to forty afterwards dined at the Inn of Pitmain, where the Marquis of Huntly presided with great spirit and eclat. The ball in the evening at the opening of the New Rooms was attended by a brilliant party, amounting to nearly one hundred ladies and gentlemen. The dancing was kept up till five in the morning with true ‘Highland glee.’ The Marquis of Huntly retired before supper, but the Marchioness continued to honour the ball-room by her presence. Mr Grant of Rothiemurchus presided at the supper-table, animating this festive meeting by the sprightly wit and convivial talents for which he is distinguished. We regret to say that Mr Macpherson of Belleville was detained from the meeting by indisposition. His absence was much felt by the company on this occasion. He had projected this agreeable rallying-point for all that is refined and elegant in the central parts of Inverness-shire, and had been most active in procuring subscriptions for completing the rooms. After supper the following appropriate verses, composed by one of the company, were read by Rothiemurchus :—

“Of late Father Spey, in his grey mist arrayed,
As he slow and majestic arose,
His wood-tufted valley1 with fondness surveyed,
Where his stream, as if loath to depart from the glade,
In thousand meanders is sweetly delayed,
And abundance and beauty bestows.

As he traversed his confines, delighted he sees,
In the valley below and above,
Or tow’ring aloft, or embosomed in trees,
Retreats that fastidious grandeur might please—
The abodes of content, and of elegant ease,
And of peace, and of joy, and of love!

‘How unlike are these scenes to the horrors,’ he cried,
‘That in past times polluted my shore ;
When plunder and wrong did with vengeance preside,
And when savage ferocity reigned, and my tide
With the blood of my sons, or their foemen, was dyed,
And these fields were deep-drenched with their gore.

Of this change let there rise as a witness a dome
To festivity sacred,' he cried,
‘Where my sons and my daughters exulting may come,
And my Huntly, and with him a fair one, than whom
A better or brighter did never yet bloom
On my borders, shall o’er them preside.’

He spoke, and behold! with the quickness of light
The parts in due symmetry close;
The walls spring in view, and assume a just height,
The beams range in order, the rafters unite,
The roof closes in, and fair to the sight,
And finished, this fabric arose.

Then his sons! meet the wishes of good Father Spey,
Who has thus been so mindful of you ;
Let mirth have full scope and good-humour his way,
And mingle in soul, while you moisten the clay;
But drink not of waters, he charges me say, .
For that he in tribute to Ocean must pay,
And why rob the sea of his due?

And with you, his fair daughters, so formed to delight,
And make captive the soul and the eye,
Let gaiety reign on the festival night,
Whilst the loves and the graces meet, mix, and unite,
As you move in the dance as pure, sportive, and bright,
As the lights of the Boreal sky.”

Some time ago I obtained from Mrs Mackintosh—a most estimable old lady, now settled in Ireland for more than half a century, but still intensely interested in everything connected with Badenoch—a quaint diary or memorandum-book, which bears to have belonged to her great grandfather, Mr Blair, “who was Minister of the Gosple at Kingusy, Ruthven of Badanoch, from 1724 to 1780.” The following extract from that diary, giving an account of two remarkable hens which flourished in Badenoch last century, and had evidently imbibed the warlike spirit of the times, may be of interest to the curious in natural history :—

“Two hens lyen on a certane number of eggs in the same house, it happened one to bring out seven chickens, and the other but three. It was not long when the hen who had the seven chickens was perceived to have two of the number amissing, and herself hurt and bleeding in a cruel manner, in so much that an eye could scarce be perceived in her head, and the other hen was perceived to be equally abused who had the three chickens, and at the same time five followed her. But this, as evidently appears, they had equally divided the chickens, after a most fierce and bloody engagement. The one, not bearing to see herself so far exceeded by her antagonist, had determined, as appears, after having made the demand first civily, and being peremptorily refused by the one whose number exceeded. The other was determined to have them by force, and consequently having challenged her antagonist to single combat for her refusal, gained in the end her desire, and victoriously triumphed over her rival.”

A ‘Survey of the Province of Moray,’ the “conjoint labour” of the Rev. John Grant, minister of Dundurcas, latterly of Elgin, and of the Rev. William Leslie, minister of St Andrews, Lhanbryde, published at Aberdeen in 1798, gives such a picture of the general condition and housing of the old parishioners of Kingussie that we have reason to be thankful—even struggling as we have to do with such hard times as the present—that we can now exhibit such a favourable contrast. Speaking of the “state of property” in the parish at the time,—“the cultivated farms,” it is said, “are in general of inconsiderable extent; and the habitations mean black earthen hovels, darkened by smoke, and dripping upon every shower. Barley, oats, rye, and potato are the produce of the cultivated grounds; but the quantity obtained is not sufficient for the support of the inhabitants. Black cattle is their primary object for the payment of their rents and for other necessaries. The whole number of sheep does not exceed 7000; part of them and of their wool, with a few goats and horses reared in the hills, are also sold. Blacksmiths and weavers excepted, there are few mechanics of any kind : there being no village, they have no centre of traffic nor place of common resort, so that a variety of necessaries must be brought from the distance of more than forty miles. The wool, which might be manufactured in the country, must be sent by a long land carriage to buyers invited from another kingdom; and flax, which might prove a source of wealth to both landlord and tenant, must be neglected because people skilled in the various processes of its manufacture are not collected into one neighbourhood.”

Adverting to the ecclesiastical state of the parish, “the people,” say the reverend authors of the ‘Survey,’ “are in general distinguished by their moderation in religious opinions. Instances of theft,” it is added, “are very uncommon: more flagrant crimes are now unknown. They are brave, but quarrelsome; they are hospitable, but addicted to drunkenness. . . . Their genius is more inclined to martial enterprise than to the assiduous industry and diligent labour requisite to carry on the arts of civil life.” Singularly enough, while the parishioners of Kingussie are thus described as predisposed so much to “martial enterprise,” of their neighbours in the immediately adjoining parish of Alvie it is stated, in the account of that parish in the same work, that the people “regret entering into any service, and are extremely averse to that of the military.”

In view of the “sweet reasonableness” which, according to the ‘Survey’ of 1798, generally characterised the people of Badenoch towards the close of last century, pity it is that the “moderation in religious opinions” should have been so sadly marred by so many of their descendants in the present century. Not a few of their number appear not only to have violated, in almost every word and thought, the humility, charity, and brotherly love of the Gospel, but to have acted as if they possessed an indefeasible right to the grace of God, to the absolute exclusion of any of their neighbours, who, in the face of much scorn and odium, had the courage to adhere to the old Church of their fathers. Truly noble — viewed in the light of the sacrifices made by such a large number of the most godly and faithful ministers of the time—as the Secession of 1843 undoubtedly was, and overruled, as I believe that Secession has been, in some respects for good, in no part of the Highlands perhaps did it produce a more bitter crop of sectarian animosities than in Badenoch, among a people previously happily united as the children of one race. Alas! that so many of our spiritual guides—inheriting, as they so unfortunately do, such an itch for hair-splitting—should still make themselves so active in the way of perpetuating miserable divisions among the Highland people, unworthy of neighbours and fellow - Christians. How different the spirit which animated the genial, large-hearted, and gifted pastor, Norman Macleod! Speaking two or three years after the Secession,—“I am not conscious,” he said, “of entertaining any angry or hostile feeling towards the Free Church as ‘ a branch of Christ’s catholic Church.’ I desire that God may help all its labours, both at home and abroad, for advancing that ‘ kingdom which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ I respect many of its ministers, and I enjoy the friendship of many of its members. I admire its zeal and energy. I have no sympathy with the alleged attempts to embarrass any of its ministers, or the ministers of any Church on earth, when seeking accommodation for themselves or their adherents. My remarks are directed solely against that proud and intolerant spirit which says to the Church of Scotland, ‘Stand back, I am holier than thou,’ and which has corroded so many hearts formerly kind and loving. I detest Church controversy: it is rarely profitable to writer or reader; it is apt to darken our minds and injure our best affections. Let these men, in one word, love Christians more than Churches, and the body of Christ more than their own, and they will soon discover that separation from a Church, and protesting against a Church, ’are quite compatible with union with that very Church on the ground of a common faith, and co-operation with it for the advancement of a common Christianity.”

Let us be thankful that among the people themselves the sectarian animosities to which the Secession so unhappily gave rise are gradually disappearing, and that in this respect, at least, a more Christian and tolerant spirit is now taking root in our midst. Although there is still room for improvement, it is gratifying to be able to add that in no district in the North has the growth of this spirit been, upon the whole, more marked within the last few years than in Badenoch. The results of our long unhappy ecclesiastical divisions have, to all sober-minded, reasonable Highlanders, been saddening in the extreme. The brain-waste, the money-waste, the loss of temper, of charity, and of every good thing, that have taken place for so many years in consequence of these divisions, are simply incalculable. All honour to the Free Church for what has been justly termed the splendid liberality of her members, the wisdom of her organisation, her devoted labours, and the great good she has accomplished during a period now extending to half a century.

While we cannot with truthfulness overlook or fail to deplore the evils which have accompanied the Secession of that Church in 1843, let it be frankly and cordially acknowledged that the Church of Scotland has to a large extent profited and been stimulated by her example. The differences now existing between the two leading Churches in the Highlands are, to use the words of the worthy ex-chief of this Society,1 Professor Blackie, so infinitesimal as to require “ the use of quite peculiar idiopathic microscopes ” to distinguish. It is nothing less than a scandal, not only to our common Presbyterianism but to our common Christianity, that the Churches should carry to heathen lands the wretched differences which divide us a few yards at home. One of the objects of this Society is to further the interests of the Highlands and Highland people. In no way, I honestly believe, can the Society more materially advance these interests than by the members doing what lies in their power, as true and patriotic Highlanders, to bring about a reconstruction of the old Church of John Knox on such a fair and equitable basis as would enable the great body of the people, without any sacrifice of principle, to share in the benefit of the religious patrimony handed down to us by our forefathers. To destroy the Church of Scotland “would be to destroy not merely an ancient institution with endowments, which would be taken from it only to be uselessly squandered, and with opportunities for Christian beneficence which no wise man would willingly take away in an age where material progress is so disproportionately active,—it would be to destroy, as far as human efforts can destroy, the special ideas of freedom, of growth, of comprehension, which are avowedly repugnant to the very purpose of the Seceding Churches, but which are inherent in the very existence of a National Church.”

The power in Church and State now belongs to the people, and it rests with themselves, and not with the clergy, to make the old Presbyterian Church of our fathers all they would wish it to be. There can be no doubt that the whole problem of the better arrangement of our distracted Presbyterianism is one requiring large consideration, generous treatment, and a grand burial of old sores and prejudices. Let the laity in this spirit take the matter more into their own hands, and the hope, I believe, may still be cherished that a consummation so devoutly to be desired, especially in the interests of the Highland people, will yet be accomplished. To quote the noble and patriotic words of the late Dr Donald Fraser, one of the most eminent Presbyterians on the other side of the Tweed, so well known and so much esteemed in the Highlands as a devoted minister for some years of the Free Church in Inverness,—“What a blessing a comprehensive union would be to our dear old land! What a burial of strife and jealousy! What a lifting of men’s minds out of narrow antipathies! What an opportunity to economise resources and turn them to the best advantage! What a concentration of evangelical life and power! What an answer to those who taunt us with our disputations and separating propensities! Yet the word goes first for more contention, and few seem to care for the benediction on the ‘peacemakers.’”

But without “improving the occasion” further in this direction, I pass on to the session records of the parish of Alvie, which, through the courtesy of Mr Anderson, the present minister, I have recently had an opportunity of examining.


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