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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Highland Foot Post


Highland Foot PostTHE conveyance of written communications is one of the most important objects of civilized society, and without the consideration of telegraphic dispatch, it is accomplished by railroad in these days with a celerity and certainty altogether astonishing.

The only written correspondence which took place in former ages was between princes on matters of state, or the more powerful nobility, on matters of consequence to themselves, and the functionaries to whom the responsible duty of its conveyance was entrusted, were called Nuncios. Edward IV. of England, during his war with the Scots in 1481, established Posts twenty miles distant from each other, where relays of horses were stationed for the transmission of letters from one to another, which was duly performed at the rate of two hundred miles a day. From this early arrangement, it would thus appear, arose the name of the national establishment which has now attained such universal magnitude.

Long after this time the public conveyance of literary correspondence remained in the hands of private individuals, but letters were transmitted by special messengers among the higher classes, who did not choose to commit them to the dilatory progress and uncertainty of the stage-waggon, or horseman; for the injunction which so frequently accompanied the superscription, ‘haste poste, haste,’ indicates an occasional want of punctuality in those carriers of the good old times.

It was soon perceived that the ‘promiscuous use of transmitting or taking up of letters, whereby the secrets of the realm might be disclosed,’ ought not to be entrusted to private enterprise, but that it was of political and pecuniary importance for Government to assume the sole management of epistolary conveyance. A proclamation of Charles I. was issued in 1635, for regulating the ‘letter office,’ and a running post was established between Edinburgh and London, to go thither and return in six days. The city of London and other parties, nevertheless, maintained for a considerable time a rivalry with the Government ‘master of the posts, messengers, and couriers,’ but all opposition was finally put down in 1656, by an Act which instituted ‘one general post-office and one postmaster-general of England.’

The post-office of Scotland was settled by Act of 1698, but it was so troublesome and unprofitable, that a grant of £300 a-year, with the whole receipts, would not induce Sir Robert Sinclair to retain his situation of superintendent! The penny postage which had been established in Edinburgh by Peter Williamson, a person who attained celebrity by having lived many years among the American Indians, into whose hands he had fallen, was purchased by Government about 1760.

From the nature of the country, it was much more difficult to establish a regular system of post conveyance in the northern part of the kingdom; and at this day the transmission of letters in many Highland districts is accomplished with considerable difficulty and delay. It would seem, at the same time, that the post—office authorities decline the conveyance of letters to parts of the country which do not pay the expense, or are considered too insignificant to receive the favour, for the proprietors of remote districts, as the Isles of Lewis, Barra, etc., are obliged to keep yachts for the purpose of communication with the mainland!

It is said that the first Duke of Gordon, who received the title in 1684, was accustomed to dispatch a confidential retainer to the south country, in order that he might glean in his travels all news of importance, which he was to relate faithfully to his Grace on return, and traditions exist as to the same practice in other families. These messengers were expected to bring home an ample budget of various information from ‘beyond the month.’

The Gille-ruithe, or running footman, was a member of the Luchdtachd, a body of personal attendants kept by a Highland laird, and his most important duty was to carry throughout the country, at his chief’s behest, all missives and messages.

The Highland postman must be qualified for his toilsome occupation by great activity and hardihood, having to traverse unremittingly, in all weathers, a country, in many parts very uninviting in the finest season. He has not often the advantage of a regular road, but knowing all the localities, he urges his way even in the darksome night, through hill and glen, fording the streams when they cross his path. This last is one of his greatest perils, for the mountain torrents come down so suddenly, that the wayfarer is often surprised by finding a flooded river when it is quite unlooked for.

The post bags sometimes get wet to the damage of their contents, and it is said that one of those useful and adventurous couriers, in passing a river while her Majesty sojourned at Ard Ferigie, having got the mail packet wet, the circumstance gave rise to the idle story of some of the royal letters having been opened in transitu!

An old man, who died about thirty years ago, carried the letters for Braemar during thirty-six years, in which time it was calculated he had walked no less than about 260,000 miles!

The postman here represented is a specimen of these hardy pedestrians, who, it will be seen, are occasionally loaded with other property than letters or papers. He is always a welcome visitor,—except, indeed, when he unhaply brings evil news. When he has any time to spare, he gratifies his eager hearers with all the news he has acquired; and as those for whom he has letters are often in remote localities, the epistles are frequently left with others, who cheerfully undertake to transmit their charge to the proper parties, either by some one going the way of their dwellings, or personally delivering the letters on meeting them at kirk or market.


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