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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
Industrial Life in the Highlands in the Olden Time
By William MacKay, F. S. A. (Scot.)


There is a general belief in these times that the old clansman spent his life chiefly in fighting, and that, with the exception of rearing black cattle on natural pasturages and sending them to southern markets for sale, he supported himself and his family by "lifting" the stock of Lowlander and unfriendly clans. That there was much feud and foray in the Highlands in the old days is true, just as there was among the dalesmen on both sides of the English border. From his early youth the Highlander was trained to fight, and, as is seen from such records as those of the Burgh Court of Inverness in the sixteenth century, it was his custom to carry arms of some kind, even when labouring in the fields. He did not look upon himself as a mere man of peace, and the raids in which he was from time to time called upon to take part, and in which the Lowlander saw nothing but masterful robbery, were in his own estimation legitimate warfare, giving lawful opportunity for deeds of bravery to be gloried in in his own time, and remembered in the tales and songs of the ceilidhs of future generations. But, after all, fighting filled a small part of his life, and the pursuits of peace were not neglected. In this paper an effort will be made to briefly show what those pursuits were.

The industrial life of the old Highlander was mainly pastoral and agricultural. At what period land cultivation was introduced into his country, it is impossible to say. Dio, who wrote in the third century, informs us that in his time there was no tillage in what we now know as the Highlands, the people living "by pasturage, the chase, and certain berries." But we ought not, perhaps, to accept his statement as literally true. In the time of St. Columba - the sixth century—the state of agriculture was such as to prove that the art of tillage was not then of very recent introduction. In the Saint’s time the right of private property in land was already known, and not only was Iona conferred upon himself, but from his day downwards gifts of lands were all over the country granted to the churches founded by him and his successors; and the clergy of the Celtic Church, and after them the Roman Catholic clergy, became the great teachers of husbandry in the Highlands. In the thirteenth century we find the country divided into large holdings consisting of comparatively small portions of arable land, and extensive tracts of pasture. These holdings were down to the end of the eighteenth century possessed by large tenants or tacksmen, having under them small sub-tenants who paid them mail or small rents—hence the names malanaich and "mailers" for small occupiers of the soil. In addition to the money rent, the mailer paid the tacksman in cain sheep, goats, poultry, etc., and rendered personal services to him in seed time and harvest, and in casting and bringing home his peats. The mailers were in the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth generally converted into crofters, holding direct of the proprietors.

The crops which we find mentioned in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are oats, barley, bere, and rye—and wheat in the Inverness district and the rich lands bordering on the Moray Firth. The potato was introduced into the Highlands about the end of the seventeenth century, and turnips and rye-grass a little later. Flax was also an important product in the old days.

As might be expected, the Highland tillers of the soil did not produce sufficient corn to enable them to sell any. On the contrary, the inhabitants of the glens and the islands were under the necessity of bringing in large quantities of meal, which, in the case of the southern Highlands, came from the Lowlands, and, in the case of the north and west, from the districts of the Moray, Beauly, and Cromarty Firths, and the county of Caithness. What they mainly relied on for a return in money was their live stock, consisting of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs, which found their way into the Lowlands and England. The great cattle markets were held at Crieff. In 1297 large droves of cattle, sheep, and pigs were sent to Edward the First of England at Lochindorb in Strathspey. In 1502 the Laird of Grant supplied the King of Scotland with 69 cattle. Some idea of the number and variety of the stock raised in the glens is given by the legal proceedings which followed "the Great Raid" made by the Macdonalds and Camerons on Glen-Urquhart in 1545, in which was taken a magnificent spoil, consisting of 1188 fullgrown cattle, 392 young cattle, 525 calves, 2 plough oxen, 383 horses and mares, 1978 sheep, 1099 lambs, 1410 goats, 794 kids, 122 swine, 64 geese—in addition to 3006 bolls of oats, 1277 bolls of here and barley, furniture and household goods of the value of £533 2s., £312 in money, twenty pieces of artillery from Urquhart Castle, ten stands of harness, three great boats, and a quantity of linen and woollen cloth. Until long after Culloden, great nurnbers of horses were reared in the Highlands and Islands—especially in the Long Island. In a report made in 1804 by Dr. Robertson to the Board of Agriculture, on the estate of agriculture in the county of Inverness, he writes: "In Glenmoriston alone, a district of no great extent, a gentleman of veracity told me there were 900 horses till very lately." During the summer and autumn mouths, the herds and flocks were kept on the high moorlands, which were separated from the arable lands and lower pastures by head-dykes, or, iii the distant shielings, to which a certain number of the people annually migrated, and which were the scenes of much sport and mirth. Later in the year the stock fed on the hitherto preserved grazings within the headdykes, and, after the corn was secured, they wandered over the stubble fields. With the exception of the milk cows, animals were seldom housed in winter, and in severe winters and springs many perished. From the milk was made much butter and cheese, which found its way to the markets of Inverness, Perth, Inveraray, and other centres.

The annual yield of wool and hides was an important source of revenue. There are references to the wool and hide trade as early as the thirteenth century, and it no doubt existed long before then. Large quantities of wool, hides and leather were sent to market, but much wool was spun by the housewives and their daughters with distaff and spindle—the spinning-wheel having only come into general use about 1750. Many hides were "barked" into leather at home. The yarn was dyed also at home, beautiful and lasting colours being produced from various lichens (crotal), and from heather, berries, dulse, alder, furze, broom, dandelion, and other plants and herbs. Local weavers wove the yarn into blankets, plaids, tartans, and such cloths as are now known as "tweeds," for home use and for sale. The records of Inverness show that in the sixteenth century that town, which by royal charters had a monopoly of trade over its then extensive shire, which embraced the present counties of Inverness, Ross, Sutherland, and Caithness, and the portion of Argyllshire lying to the west of Loch Linnhe and to the north of the Sound of Mull, collected large quantities of these commodities from that wide district, and sent them to the south of Scotland, England, and the Continent. The trade of Inverness with the greater part of the Highlands in cloth, hides, and leather was very extensive. Leather, as has been said, was made locally, but the bulk of it was manufactured in Inverness, where there were many tan-yards in the sixteenth century, and earlier. The burgesses of the town sent it to Leith, England, Flanders, and France.

There was for centuries a large traffic in beef from the 1-lighiands, the meat being sent in barrels to the Continent. The trade is frequently referred to in the sixteenth century, and it is in full vigour in 1715, when, for instance, one ship carried 73 barrels of pickled beef from Inverness to Rotterdam.

The linen industry was also considerable, flax being grown by the people, and dressed and made into linen for themselves and their households. We still find in the possession of old families, home-made linen sheets and table-cloths of very fine quality.

There was one industry in the olden time of which hardly a trace now remains. Down to the seventeenth century the Highlands supplied much of the furs and finer skins which were in demand among the well-to-do people of the Lowlands, England, and parts of the Continent. In 1526 Hector Boece writes that, in the district of Loch-Ness "ar mony martrikis [martens] bevers, quhitredis [weasels], and toddis [foxes]; the furrings and skinnis of thaim are coft [brought] at gret price amang uncouth merchandis"; and the records of Inverness in the same century show that the burgh had a large trade in such furs and skins. The trade was badly affected by the discovery of America and the development of the fur trade with Canada and Northern Europe; and it gradually dwindled and died.

In the districts in which timber grew, the timber traffic was of great value; and it afforded employment to many of the people in, for example, the Highlands of Perthshire, Strathspey, Strathglass and the glens which branch from it, Glen-Urquhart, Glenmoriston, Glengarry, and Stratherrick. The timber was floated down the rivers Tay, Spey, Ness, and Glass, and their tributaries, to the sea, and transported to the Lowlands, where little timber was then to be found. The natural firs of Strathspey, Glenmoriston, Glen-Affaric and Glen-Cannich are still noted for their size and quality. Excellent oak, as well as oak bark for tanning, was sent from Loch-Ness-side. In consequence of its timber supply, Inverness was early noted for its shipbuilding trade. In 1249 the French Earl of St. Pol and Blois had built for him in the Highland capital a "wonderful ship" which carried himself and his followers to the Holy Land. In 1643 John Scot built there "a ship of prodigious bigness which became the terror of Mahommedan navigators in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic" (Wardlaw MS.); and, for centuries, native timber was made there into trading vessels, and into galleys for the chiefs and chieftains of the Hebrides and the West Coast.

In the seventeenth century certain industries were started locally, such as slate quarrying in Mull, at Easdale, and at Ballachulish; and, early in the following century, bloomeries, or small iron works, in Glengarry, Glen-Urquhart, Gairloch, and other places where wood was to be found for smelting purposes. The letter-books of Bailie John Stuart of Inverness, a cousin of Prince Charles’s famous officer and bard, John Roy Stuart, and the grandfather of Sir John Stuart, Count of Maida—the victor of Maida, where to the surprise of the world, "the veterans of Napoleon fled before the British steel "—shows that in 1722 and 1723 he brought to that town cargoes of slate from Mull and Easdale. Those letter-books are in the writer’s possession. In 1725 the Bailie brings a cargo of 30,000 slates from Mull. In the same year he supplies Colonel Urquhart of Newhall in the Black Isle with 20,000 Easdale slates; in 1734 he delivers to Lord Seaforth 20,000 slates, and, in the following year, 12,000; and in 1737 he sends a cargo of slates from Easdale to London. Lead and small quantities of copper found at Strontian, in Gleneig, and at other points on the west coast of Ross and Sutherland, was, as a rule, sent south. Some of it found its way direct to Holland. The iron from the bloomeries was partly used locally, but was mainly sent to the south of Scotland and to England.

Ale for local consumption was brewed by the housewives of the Highlands from very early times, and there were brew-houses on certain estates which were of such value that they were specially mentioned in the title deeds. In the sixteenth century frequent mention is made of "brogac," a malt liquor, probably sweetened, which was brewed so extensively that the Town Council of Inverness was repeatedly under the necessity of restricting its production, to prevent a grain famine. Early in the sixteenth century whisky began to encroach on the ale and brogac. To begin with, such whisky as was used in the then extensive county of Inverness was manufactured in the county town. But gradually the demand for it became so great that, before the time of Culloden, private stills were started by lairds and tacksmen all over the Highlands. The result of stringent revenue laws was to suppress these small distilleries, and to give rise to illegal distillation which continued until far into the nineteenth century, and has not yet quite disappeared in certain localities. Between 1700 and 1745 Bailie John Stuart sends his correspondents in France and Spain an occasional present of whisky, which he calls "mountain wine," and "Skye champagne."

The fishing industry on sea and river was very valuable. The sixteenth century records of Inverness show that the Spey, Ness, Beauly, and other rivers on the East Coast, as well as the salmon fishings on the West Coast, yielded large quantities of salmon, which, as a rule, found its way into Inverness, and was sent to the Continent. The Tay and the Dee and the Don must have been equally valuable. Many found employment as salmon fishers and curers. Between 1715 and 1745 Bailie Stuart continually sends salmon in Inverness-built ships to Holland, France, Venice, and Leghorn; and other merchants joined in the traffic. Stuart chiefly bought from the Duke of Gordon (on the East Coast and at Inverlochy), the Earl of Moray, the Earl of Seaforth, Lord Lovat, Mackenzie of Gairloch, and other Highland proprietors.

Of more importance than the salmon fishing was the sea fishing, both on the West Coast and on the East. The Inverness records of the sixteenth century frequently refer to the trade in herring, cod, ling, and skate, and important information regarding the industry is found in Bailie Stuart’s letter-books. In 1722 he buys from Mackenzie of Gairloch from 24,000 to 25,000 cod, and in 1723, 4000 cod in Gairloch and the Lews—the Gairloch fish being, he declares, better than that of Newfoundland, where the Gairloch curer gained his experience. His herring purchases were extensive—mainly in the Lews, Assynt., Loch Broom, and Gairloch—the principal sellers to him being Mrs. Mackenzie of Assynt, the Earl of Cromartie, Sir Alexander Mackenzie of Gairloch, and Sir Colin Mackenzie of Coul. In the Lews Zachary Macaulay, a remote relative of Lord Macaulay, was his agent. In connection with the sea fishing on the West Coast he was frequently forestalled by Dublin traders, as he was by Glasgow merchants in connection with the salmon of Inverlochy. The fishing boats were, as a rule, owned by the lairds, who employed the inhabitants in connection with the industry. The fish was sometimes paid for by the merchants in money, but more frequently in oatmeal, iron, wine, brandy, and tobacco. Stuart sent the bulk of his purchases to London, Holland, France, and the Mediterranean.

In most districts the people built their own houses, and frequently made their own pottery and shoes. There were carpenters, however, in every district, as well as blacksmiths and armourers; and, in addition to the weavers, who have already been referred to, there was hardly a township without its tailor and shoemaker, who travelled over their districts, making suits and shoes in the houses of their patrons, and carrying the news of the country, and of the world as they knew it, from glen to glen, and from township to township.


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