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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Fording a River


Fording a River

THE streams which descend from a mountainous country are difficult to be passed, and when swollen it is often impossible for a considerable time to get across them, where no bridges have been erected. Channels, which in summer are almost dry, become raging torrents during winter, and continue full until the summer is advanced, from the melting of the snow in the mountain hollows.

The heavy falls of rain, also, which frequently take place, bring down the waters so suddenly as to cause great damage, and they rush onwards with such rapidity that instances are recorded of loss of life from being surprised by the impetuous flood; but a Highlander can distinguish the peculiar noise of the coming stream before it emerges from the mountains.

Water spouts occasionally burst in the hills, when trees, corn, cattle, and houses, are carried away, gravel and stones of enormous size being left on the fertile haughs, or meadow land; and sometimes a new channel is formed for the stream, and where in such case it is the march or boundary of estates, disputes have arisen as to the proprietorship of the dissevered portion of land.

On the broader rivers, where boats are used, they have not unfrequently been swamped in the passage, and this was more particularly the case in the olden time, when Curraghs, or small vessels constructed of hides, stretched on a wicker frame work, or boats formed from the massive trunks of trees were used, as was the case within memory of man in Strathglas.

An ingenious contrivance is to be seen at the castle of Ahergeldie, [While the ‘cradle’ at Abergeldie existed until recently, much of the danger and romance which survive in the story and legends of the Highlands in connection with the fords and ferries by which the ‘crossing of the stream’ was effected has been swept away by the onward march of civilization. Many of those ferries, deep and rapid rivers, and innumerable smaller streams, subject to frequent and sudden floods or ‘spates,’ have long since been provided with the requisite bridges and necessary roads leading thereto, chiefly provided for by statute labour. The first result of this was the substitution of carts and other wheeled vehicles instead of ponies for the internal commercial intercourse of the people, and consequently partial disuse of the ‘fords.’ In more recent times still, the utilitarian spirit of the age has provided, either at the public expense or by private generosity, bridges almost wherever they were required. Thus all the glamour and mystery connected with nearly every fordable Highland stream will henceforth only exist as legends and traditions preserved in local history.] in Braemar, where the passenger takes himself across the Dee in a basket, or ‘cradle,’ suspended from a rope passed from each bank of the river; stilts are, also, sometimes used where the bottom is not rocky and uneven, which seems a practice introduced from the south, where it is quite common; but it being necessary for the Highlanders to ford the streams without artificial assistance, great strength, fortitude, and particular skill, are required to do so with safety.

If the river is very rapid, the stones and pebbles are rolled violently along its rugged bed, which renders the passage more dangerous; and as a means of strengthening his resistance to the water, the Highlander will carry a heavy stone in his plaid as ballast; but when two are in company, they are enabled by their joint energies to ford deep and strong rivers, by grasping each other at arms’-length and using a strong stick in the other hand as a support. If the ford admits it, the more who are thus locked together, ‘gualibh ri cheile,’ or shoulder to shoulder, as it is expressed, so much the better, although their confidence often exposes parties to great danger.

A company returning from a funeral in Strathglas, resolved to ford the river, a practice which the more spirited Highlanders prefer, even when a bridge is nigh. It was then greatly swollen, or in a ‘spate,’ and they arranged themselves as usual with the strongest men towards the stream; but when they reached the middle, so insecure was their footing, that, afraid to proceed, and unable to retreat, they came to a stand still.

Those who had accompanied them to the water, and the others, who, having passed round by the bridge and awaited their landing, beheld in anguish their imminent and helpless situation, as they stood in the raging flood, which every moment threatened to carry them off.

The cries of the friends of Ian môr, who stemmed the torrent, were, that he should loose hold of his neighbour, and seek to save his own life : advice to which the generous Celt no ear. Some of the weaker occasionally gave way, but were upheld by their companions: and a short, thick-set fellow, Cailain dubh, or dark Cohn, who flanked the lower end of the line, having fastened a heavy stone across his shoulders with the rope that had been used to lower the coffin, firmly kept his feet, until, towards nightfall, by cautious steps, they all got safely over!

Ian mòr’s brogs, by the effect of the gravel and water, had lost their soles and worked up to his knees; but he and his friends were becomingly thankful that the coffin rope, to which they owed their salvation, had been brought with them.

The Spean, through which the figure in the illustration is passing, discharges in a rapid stream a great body of water, and as the fords in most places are narrow, and bordered by pools of great depth, it is a very dangerous river to those who may attempt its passage. Some years ago a party, consisting of Mr. Fraser, sheriff of Fort William, Mr. Mac Donald, of Inch, and their ladies, with the author of these illustrations, were nearly lost by fording it in the night. Since this mishap, the place has been pointed out as glac an t-Siorra, ‘the sheriff’s pass.’

The figure of the Highlander here represented is taken from an old but sturdy fellow, called Mac Gillie Mhantich, and it is very usual to ford the river in this manner; a plaid being put around the woman, the ends are taken over the neck of the man, who, provided with a stout staff, or as here shown, the Cromag, or Crook, makes his way, with the female on his back, steadily through his watery path. When there are two men, by grasping each other as before described, a person can sit securely between them, the arms being put around their necks. This way is more particularly suited to females in delicate health.

There is a Gaelic rann, or verse, which celebrates the most fearless forders of their native streams in these words

"Mac Garranich, Mac Glasich’s, Mac Uthich,
Triur ‘s fhear a chuireas
An Amhuin an Alba,"

which signifies, that, ‘The men of the Garry, the Glass, and the Ewe, are the three best to cross any river in Britain.’


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