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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Carrying Fern


Carrying Fern

THIS beautiful plant, the Filix of botanists, is found in the greatest abundance and luxuriance in most parts of the Highlands, rapidly spreading wherever it takes root, a single leaf often bearing no less than one hundred millions of seeds, and when it gets into land under cultivation for grass or crop, it is a matter of great difficulty to expel it from the soil. It is chiefly found in wooded situations, but it is otherwise seen overspreading large tracks, forming a contrast to the brown or purple heathy muirs. In autumn, when it assumes a deep golden colour, some of the small uninhabited isles of the west present a pleasing and a singularly gorgeous appearance.

The Fern is called Raineach in Gaelic, and receives the name of Braikens in the south and east of Scotland, a term which is properly applied to the female plant, and is evidently derived from the word ‘breac,’ signifying spotted, the seeds appearing in numerous brown specks or clusters beneath the leaf.

The Raineach is applied to different purposes by the economic Highlanders. It serves as a ready and excellent litter for cattle, and it forms no unpleasant bed for a weary traveller. It is highly valuable as a compound in manure, either of itself when green or taken from the cowhouse. It forms an excellent covering for corn stacks and houses, being much cheaper, while it is greatly superior for this purpose, to straw or rushes; it is next to Heath in durability as an article for thatching, and if well laid on it will last without requiring any repair, from fifteen to twenty years, heather being equal to slate and standing as long as eighty to a hundred, if the timber do not decay!

The practice in thatching, Tughadh in the vernacular, is to lay an under covering of Foid, scotice, divots or thin cuttings of turf, which are placed with care and regularity in manner of fish scales, on cabers or pieces of wood laid transversely on the rafters or great beams, which in the houses of old construction spring from the ground, giving great strength to the building. On this the Fern is carefully spread, but it is frequently the sole covering. The plant is first laid at the top of the side walls, the stems being usually placed downwards and successive layers are added as the work advances upwards to the ridge, where it is terminated by a fastening of divot or turf; sometimes also its security is increased by ropes of straw or birch twigs, held in their place by wooden pegs.

To the above applications of this useful plant may be mentioned that of having it burned when green, to procure a lye for the process of bleaching.

It has been observed in a former number, that in all primitive society, a large proportion of work is performed by women, more particularly that which appertains to the management of flocks, and the domestic regulation of the household. The same practice is continued to a great degree in the Highlands, and from observing the performance of duties which, from their severity, seem to devolve with more propriety on the men, travellers have taken frequent occasion to charge them with the harsh treatment of the females, an assertion altogether groundless and uncharacteristic of the people. When travellers observe the women engaged in what appears hard work, in fishing villages and habitations on the coast, they must recollect, that the men are spending their weary days and nights seeking a precarious livelihood on a stormy sea. Many duties in rural life necessarily fall to the care of the females, by whom they are performed with cheerfulness, however laborious, and such, indeed, is the force of habit, that they would not willingly be prevented from these acts of attention, which they believe it incumbent on them to perform. One of these employments is conveying home Ferns. From their lightness a quantity of great bulk may be easily carried, and the Highland girl, with a light heart and an agile step, bounds along the dusky plain and across the roughly rushing brook, with her sylvan load. The Raineach stubble and the wiry heath are not, to be sure, the softest materials on which the naked feet may tread, but habit has inured the peasant to the practice, and shoes would sadly cramp the elasticity of gait so observable in the Highland population: in fact, the females have a dislike to the use of shoes and stockings, although they may have them.

The visit of Her Majesty to Badenach, last year, afforded the artist an opportunity of sketching one of many girls employed to cut and carry from the hills the choicest Ferns to ornament the rustic arches raised in honour of the Royal landing at Fort William. The dress is that which is now worn, and has nothing in it more particular than what has been shewn in the illustrations of some former numbers. Heretofore the gown was open in front, which allowed it to be tucked behind with a degree of grace and convenience. In this figure it is partially pinned up, loose, and negligé, without the appearance of scantiness; neat, and befitting the nature of alpine and pastoral life.

In elder times, while the men marched bare thighed to the field of honour, the better part of human creation went with uncovered leg to those employments which threw comfort and happiness around their mountain dwellings, and enhanced the solace of their "am fire side."


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