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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Highland Shepherd


THE Highlands are the natural breeding-grounds for black cattle and sheep. The inhabitants were not inattentive to agriculture; but their herds and flocks were the staple commodities, either for their own consumption or disposal to the dealers of the south, and the extensive proprietor of kine was formerly synonymous with a rich man.

The Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers drove in from around the neighbourhood a herd of 20,000 in the short time during which they lay at Killi-Chuimin, after the battle of Culloden.

In the north of Ireland, the people being of the same race as the Scots Highlanders, were in a similar state of Society; and an expedition sent, in 1585, by Queen Elizabeth against Sorle buidh, a celebrated chief, carried off no fewer than 50,000 head of cattle!

The hurricane which burst from the Highlands in 1745, spreading consternation and fear as it swept victoriously along, was followed by measures of coercion, which were characterised by neither statesmanship nor humanity. The legislative enactments which followed, and dissolved the patriarchal state in which the Highlanders had lived, repressed their warlike propensities, and secluded them long from the public view.

The country was scarcely known, save from the numerous droves of well—pastured cattle, which supplied the southern markets, but a great revolution in its social state was going on. The altered state of chiefs and gentlemen required other means of preserving their position in society than by a numerous clan of humble tenants, who were no longer wanted for service in war, and could add little or nothing to the increased exigencies of the proprietor, nor do anything to better their own dependent condition; and as the land was found admirably adapted for rearing sheep, long ranges of glen and muir were thrown into extensive Sheep-walks, yielding a greatly increased rental.

The Store farmer now occupies the place of a very superior order of tenants called Tacksmen—blood relations of the chief and men of education, who in many cases had seen much of the world by military service, either in the British army or that of foreign states. To this class portions of land were leased on moderate, and occasionally nominal terms, and besides maintaining a number of servants for management of the stock, proportionate crofts were sublet by them to a numerous body of poorer cottars, who claimed with them, a propinquity of blood.

From this change, unhappy for the people, the ruins of houses and hamlets are so frequently met with throughout the Highlands, and as every farm had its Bothan-Airidh, or mountain Sheilings, where the dairy-maids sojourned during the months of summer, preparing their cheese and butter, the number of abandoned dwellings is more strikingly increased.

Those solitary ruins, around which the green sward and marks of cultivation may still be seen, impart a melancholy character to the view, and one is more prone to fancy the desolate sites, where hundreds dwelt, were the scenes of continued peace and comfort, rather than the witnesses, mayhap, of warlike feuds and predatory forays.

Much has been written on the system of sheep-farming. The expatriation of a race, who may be called the indigenous possessors of the land, is a subject which painfully touches the chord of human sympathy; but the Act of 1748, which abolished the hereditary rights of clanship, made so complete a change in the constitution of Highland government, that the natural and reciprocal bonds of service and protection were violently dissolved, and the country, under the regal law, seemed no longer suitable for the disheartened people, or the people for it.

The introduction of sheep-farming has not, it must at the same time be noted, been the sole cause of depopulation. Many proprietors, whose pecuniary wants were above the requirements of such means of increasing their rental, gratified their other desires in a different manner. A gentleman writing lately, says :—

"In Glentilt, we counted, in a few hours’ walk, upwards of thirty ruined villages, not one house of which has been rebuilt, so that that fine and once cultivated district, is now a solitary waste, used only as a huge Deer— forest with a few sheep farms."

The loss of the Kelp manufacture, by the introduction of Barilla, was a heavy blow to both landlord and tenant; but the fleeces of the numerous flocks now pastured throughout the Highlands, would furnish material for a manufacture which the country is in every way adapted for, and which would give useful employment to thousands who now are so often subject to great distress.

Sheep-walks are sometimes of incredible extent, many farms being thrown into one, and their tenants are generally from the southern districts of Scotland. The wages of a shepherd vary in different localities, and are dependent on the extent of the duty to be performed. He usually receives between 10/. and 12/. yearly, if he live in his master’s house. If he occupy one of his own, he will be allowed ground for raising potatoes, three to five or six bolls of meal per annum, grazing for two or three cows, a horse, and perhaps fifty to seventy sheep, with ground sufficient to raise winter fodder.

The shepherds wear the grey plaid common in the great sheep districts of the border counties, and now so well known everywhere as a material of general use. It is not, however, of Highland origin, but was first seen on the shoulders of the southern farmers, who visited the north in the way of business. The late Mac Leod of Luskintire asserted that the first plaid of this pattern seen in Skye, was worn by Hogg, * the celebrated "Shepherd" poet; but even the gamekeepers and foresters on the estates of some Highland nobles and gentlemen, are seen at the present day, arrayed in dresses of this homely hue.

The sketch was made from Duncan Mac Niven, or Doncha’ môr Mac Gille Naomh, in the vernacular; a shepherd in the service of Campbell of Monzič, at that time dwelling in the farm of Dalness.

* We know that the great shepherd poet wore his plaid during his journey through the Western Highlands and Islands in 1803. He says, "On the twenty-seventh of May I again dressed in black, put one shirt, and two neckcloths in my pocket; took a staff in my hand, and a shepherd’s plaid about me, and left Ettrick on foot, with a view of traversing the West Highlands, at least as far as the Isle of Skye. I took the road by Peebles for Edinburgh, and after being furnished with letters of introduction to such gentlemen as were most likely to furnish me with the intelligence which I wanted respecting the state of the country, I took a passage in the ‘Stirling Fly’ for that town. I got only a short and superficial view at the old palace of Linlithgow, and satisfied myself with only making my uncle’s observation on viewing the Abbey of Melrose, "Our masons can mak nae sic houses now-a-days."

Again in Glenfalloch he says, "Musing on certain objects I fell into a sound sleep, out of which I was at length awaked by a hideous, yelling noise. I listened for some time before I ventured to look up, and on throwing the plaid off my face, what was it but four huge eagles howering over me in a circle at a short distance; and at times joining all their voices in one unconceivable bleat. I desired them to keep at a due distance, like Sundhope’s man, for I was not yet dead, which, if I had been, I saw they were resolved that I should not long remain a nuisance amongst the rocks of Glenfalloch."


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