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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Tacksmen and Tenants


THE "upper" and " lower" classes in the Highlands were not separated from each other by a wide gap. The thought was never suggested of a great proprietor above, like a leg of mutton on the top of a pole, and the people far below, looking up to him with envy. On reviewing the state of Highland society, one was rather reminded of a pyramid whose broad base was connected with the summit by a series of regular steps. The dukes or lords, indeed, were generally far removed from the inhabitants of the land, living as they did for the greater part of the year in London; but the minor chiefs, such as "Lochiel," "Macleod," "Raasay," "Lochnell," "Coll," &c., resided on their respective estates, and formed centres of local and personal influence. They had good family mansions; and in some instances the old keep was enlarged into a fine baronial castle, where all the hospitality of the far north was combined with the more refined domestic arrangements of the south. They had also their handsome "birlinn," or well-built, well-rigged "smack" or "wherry;" and their stately piper, who played pibrochs with very storms of sound after dinner, or, from the bow of the boat, with the tartan ribands fluttering from the grand war-pipe, spread the news of the chief's arrival for miles across the water. They were looked up to and respected by the people. Their names were mingled with all the traditions of the country: they were as old as its history, indeed, practically as old as the hills themselves. They mingled freely with the peasantry, spoke their language, shared their feelings, treated them with sympathy, kindness, and, except in outward circumstances, were in all respects one of themselves. The poorest man on their estate could converse with them at any time in the frankest manner, as with friends whom they could trust. There was between them an old and firm attachment.

This feeling of clanship, this interest of the clan in their chief, has even lived down to my own recollection. It is not many years ago—for I heard the incident described by some of the clan who took part in the emucnte—that a new family burial-ground was made on an old property by a laird who knew little of the manners or prejudices of the country, having lived most of his time abroad. The first person he wished to bury in this new private tomb near "the big house" was his predecessor, whose lands and name he inherited, and who had been a true representative of the old stock. But when the clan heard of what they looked upon as an insult to their late chief, they formed a conspiracy, seized the body by force, and after guarding it for a day or two, buried it with all honour in the ancient family tomb on

"The Isle of Saints, where stands the old gray cross."

The Tacksmen at that time formed the most important and influential class of a society which has now wholly disappeared in most districts. In no country in the world was such a contrast presented as in the Highlands between the structure of the houses and the culture of their occupants. The houses were of the most primitive description; they consisted of one story—had only what the Scotch call a but and a ben; that is, a room at each end, with a passage between, two garret rooms above, and in some cases a kitchen, built out at right angles behind. Most of them were thatched with straw or heather. Such was the architecture of the house in which Dr Johnson lived with the elegant and accomplished Sir Allan Maclean, on the island of Inchkenneth. The old house of Glendessary, again, in "the parish," was constructed, like a few more, of wicker work; the outside being protected with turf, and the interior lined with wood. "The house and the furniture," writes Dr Johnson, "were ever always nicely suited. We were driven once, by missing our passage, to the hut of a gentleman, when, after a very liberal supper, I was conducted to my chamber, and found an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets. The accommodation was flattering; I undressed myself, and found my feet in the mire. The bed stood on the cold earth, which a long course of rain had softened to a puddle." But in these houses were gentlemen, nevertheless, and ladies of education and high-breeding. Writing of Sir Allan Maclean and his daughters, Johnson says:—"Romance does not often exhibit a scene that strikes the imagination more than this little desert in these depths and western obscurity, occupied, not by a gross herdsman or amphibious fisherman, but by a gentleman and two ladies of high rank, polished manners, and elegant conversation, who, in a habitation raised not very far above the ground, but furnished with unexpected neatness and convenience, practised all the kindness of hospitality and the refinement of courtesy." It was thus, too, with the old wicker-house of Glendessary, of which not a trace now remains. The interior was provided with all the comfort and taste of a modern mansion. The ladies were accomplished musicians, the harp and piano sounded in those "halls of Selma," and their descendants are now among England's aristocracy.

These gentlemen-tacksmen were generally men of education. They had all small but well-selected libraries, and had not only acquired some knowledge of the classics, but were fond of keeping up their acquaintance with them. It was not an uncommon pastime with them when they met together to try which could repeat the greatest number of lines from Virgil or Horace, or who among them, when one line was repeated, could cap it with another line commencing with the same letter as that which ended the former. All this may seem to many to have been profitless amusement; but it was not such, amusement as rude and uncultivated boors would have indulged in, nor was it such as is likely to be imitated by the rich farmers who now pasture their flocks where hardly a stone marks the site of those old houses.

I know only one surviving gentleman-tacksman belonging to the period of which I write, and he is beyond ninety years of age, though in the full enjoyment of his bodily health and mental faculties. About forty years ago, when inspecting his cattle, he was accosted by a pedestrian, with a knapsack on his back, who addressed him in a language which was intended for Gaelic. The tacksman, judging him to be a foreigner, replied in French, which met no response but a shake of the head, the tacksman's French being probably as bad as the tourist's Gaelic. The Highlander then tried Latin, which kindled a smile of surprise, and drew forth an immediate reply. This was interrupted by the remark that English would probably be more convenient for both parties. The tourist, who turned out to be an Oxford student, laughing heartily at the interview, gladly accepted the invitation of the tacksman to accompany him to his thatched house, and share his hospitality. He was surprised, on entering "the room," to see a small library in the humble apartment. "Books here!" he exclaimed, as he looked over the shelves. "Addison, Johnson, Goldsmith, Shakespeare—what! Homer, too?" The farmer, with some pride, begged him to look at the Homer. It had been given as a prize to himself when he was a student at the university. My old friend will smile as he reads these lines, and will wonder how I heard the story. [Since the above was written, he has passed away in perfect peace, and with an eye undimmed, though he was in his ninety-fifth year.]

It was men like these who supplied the Highlands with clergymen, physicians, lawyers, and the army and navy with many of their officers. It is not a little remarkable that the one island of Skye, for example, should have sent forth from her wild shores since the beginning of the last wars of the French Revolution, 21 lieutenant-generals and major-generals; 48 lieutenant-colonels; 600 commissioned officers; 10,000 soldiers; 4 governors of colonies; 1 governor-general; 1 adjutant-general; 1 chief baron of England; and 1 judge of the Supreme Court of Scotland. I remember the names of 61 officers being enumerated, who, during "the war," had joined the army or navy from farms which were visible from one hill-top in "the parish." These times have now passed away. The Highlands furnish few soldiers or officers. Even the educated clergy are becoming few.

One characteristic of these tacksmen which more than any other forms a delightful reminiscence of them, was their remarkable kindness to the poor. There was hardly a family which had not some man or woman who had seen better days, for their guest, during weeks, months, perhaps years. These forlorn ones might have been very distant relations, claiming that protection which a drop of kindred blood never claimed in vain; or former neighbours, or the children of those who were neighbours long ago ; or, as it often happened, they might have had no claim whatever upon the hospitable family beyond the fact that they were utterly destitute, yet could not be treated as paupers, and had in God's providence been cast on the kindness of others, like waves of the wild sea breaking at their feet. Nor was there anything "very interesting" about such objects of charity. One old gentleman-beggar I remember, who used to live with friends of mine for months, was singularly stupid, and often bad-tempered. A decayed old gentlewoman, again, who was an inmate for years in one house, was subject to fits of great depression, and was by no means pleasant company-Another needy visitor used to be accompanied by a female servant. When they departed after a sojourn of a few weeks, the servant was generally laden with wool, clothing, and a large allowance of tea and sugar, contributed by the hostess for the use of "the mistress," who thus obtained supplies from different families during summer, which kept herself and her red-haired domestic comfortable in their small hut during the winter. "Weel, weel," said the worthy host, as on one occasion he saw the pair depart, "it's a puir situation being a beggar's servant, like yon woman carrying the poke." Now this hospitality was never dispensed with a grudge, but with all tenderness and the nicest delicacy. These "genteel beggars" were received into the family, had comfortable quarters assigned to them in the house, partook of all the family meals; and the utmost care was taken by old and young that not one word should be uttered, nor anything done, which could for a moment suggest to them the idea that they were a trouble, a bore, an intrusion, or anything save the most welcome and honoured guests. This attention, according to the minutest details, was almost a religion with the old Highland "gentleman" and his family.

The poor of the parish, strictly so called, were, with few exceptions, wholly provided for by the tacksmen. Each farm, according to its size, had its old men, widows, and orphans depending on it for their support. The widow had her free house which the farmer and the " cottiers" around him kept in repair. They drove home her peats for fuel from "the Moss;" her cow had pasturage on the green hills. She had Iand sufficient to raise potatoes, and a small garden for vegetables. She had hens and ducks too, with the natural results of eggs, chickens, and ducklings. She had sheaves of corn supplied her, and these, along with her own gleanings, were threshed at the mill with the tacks-man's crop. In short, she was tolerably comfortable, and very thankful, enjoying the feeling of being the object of true charity, which was returned by such labour as she could give, and by her hearty gratitude.

But all this was changed when those tacksmen were swept away to make room for the large sheep farms, and when the remnants of the people flocked from their empty glens to occupy houses in wretched villages near the sea-shore, by way of becoming fishers—often where no fish could be caught. The result has been that "the parish," for example, which once had a population of 2200 souls, and received only £11 per annum from public (church) funds for the support of the poor, expends now under the Poor-law upwards of £600 annually, with a population diminished by one-half, but with poverty increased in a greater ratio. This, by the way, is the result generally, when money awarded by law, and distributed by officials, is substituted for the true charity prompted by the heart, and dispensed systematically to known and well-ascertained cases, which draw it forth by the law of sympathy and Christian duty. I am quite aware how very chimerical this doctrine is held to be by some political economists, but in these days of heresy in regard to older and more certain truths, it may be treated charitably. [In no case can a poor-law meet the wants of the deserving poor. In every case it must be supplemented by systematic benevolence. If it attempts, by means of a few officials, to deal kindly and liberally with every case of poverty, it will soon pauperise and demoralise the country. If, on the other hand, it applies such stringent tests as starvation and extreme distress alone can submit to, a vast mass of unrelieved suffering must be the result. Christian charity has yet to fill up, as it has never clone, the gap between legal paupers and the deserving poor.]

The effect of the poor-law, I fear, has been to destroy in a great measure the old feelings of self-respect which looked upon it as a degradation to receive any support from public charity when living, or to be buried by it when dead. It has loosened also, those kind bonds of neighbourhood, family relationship, and natural love which linked the needy to those who had the ability to supply their wants, and whose duty it was to do so, and which was blessed both to the giver and receiver. Those who ought on principle to support the poor arc tempted to cast them on the rates, and thus to lose all the good derived from the exercise of Christian almsgiving. The poor themselves have become more needy and more greedy, and scramble for the miserable pittance which is given and received with equal heartlessness.

The temptation to create large sheep-farms has no doubt been great. Rents are increased, and more easily collected. Outlays are fewer and less expensive than upon houses, steadings, &c. But should more rent be the highest, the noblest object of a proprietor? Are human beings to be treated like so many things used in manufactures? Are no sacrifices to be demanded for their good and happiness? Granting, for the sake of argument, that profit, in the sense of obtaining more money, will be found in the long run to measure what is best for the people as well as for the landlord, yet may not the converse of this be equally true—that the good and happiness of the people will in the long run be found the most profitable? Proprietors, we are glad to hear, are beginning to think that if a middle-class tenantry, with small arable farms of a rental of from £20 to £100 per annum, were again introduced into the Highlands, the result would be increased rents. Better still, the huge glens, along whose rich straths no sound but the bleat of sheep or the bark of dogs is now heard for twenty or thirty miles, would be tenanted, as of yore, with a comfortable and happy peasantry:

In the meantime, emigration has been to a large extent a blessing to the Highlands, and to a larger extent still a blessing to the colonies. It is the only relief for a poor and redundant population. The hopelessness of improving their condition, which rendered many in the Highlands listless and lazy, has in the colonies given place to the hope of securing a competency by prudence and industry. These virtues have accordingly sprung up, and the results have been comfort and independence. A wise political economy, with sympathy for human feelings and attachments, will, I trust, be able more and more to adjust the balance between the demands of the old and new country, for the benefit both of proprietors and people. But I must return to the old tenants.

Below the gentlemen-tacksmen were those who paid a much lower rent, and who lived very comfortably, and shared hospitably with others the gifts God had given them. I remember a group of men, tenants in a large glen, which now "has not a smoke in it," as the Highlanders say, throughout its length of twenty miles. They had the custom of entertaining in rotation every traveller who cast himself upon their hospitality. The host on the occasion was bound to summon his neighbours to the homely feast. It was my good fortune to be a guest when they received the present minister of "the parish," while en route to visit some of his flock. We had a most sumptuous feast—oat-cake, crisp and fresh from the fire; cream, rich and thick, and more beautiful than nectar, whatever that may be; blue Highland cheese, finer than Stilton; fat hens, slowly cooked on the fire in a pot of potatoes, without their skins, and with fresh butter—"stoved hens," as the superb dish was called; and, though last, not least, tender kid, roasted as nicely as Charles Lamb's cracklin' pig. All was served up with the utmost propriety, on a table covered with a pure white cloth, and with all the requisites for a comfortable dinner, including the champagne of elastic, buoyant and exciting mountain air. The manners and conversation of those men would have pleased the best-bred gentleman. Everything was so simple, modest, unassuming, unaffected, yet so frank and cordial. The conversation was such as might have been heard at the table of any intelligent man. Alas! there is not a vestige remaining of their homes. I know not whither they are gone, but they have left no representatives behind. The land in the glen is divided between sheep, shepherds, and the shadows of the clouds.

There were annual festivals of the Highland tenantry, which deeply moved every glen. These were the Dumbarton and Falkirk "Trysts," or fairs for cattle and sheep. What preparations were made for these gatherings, on which the rent and income of the year depended! What a collecting of cattle, of drovers, and of dogs,—the latter being the most interested and excited of all the members of the caravan. What speculations as to how the "market" would turn out. What a shaking of hands in boats and wayside inns by the men in homespun cloth, gay tartans, or in the more correct garbs of Glasgow or Edinburgh tailors! What a pouring in from all the glens, increasing at every ferry and village, and flowing on, a river of tenants and proprietors, small and great, to the market ! What that market was I know not from personal observation, neither have I any desire to know.

"Let Yarrow be unseen, unknown,
If now we're sure to rue it;
We have a vision of our own,
Ah, why should we undo it?"

The impression left in early years is too sublime to be tampered with. I have a vision of miles of tents, of flocks, and herds, surpassed only by those in the wilderness of Sinai; of armies of Highland sellers trying to get high prices out of the Englishmen, and Englishmen trying to put off the Highlandmen with low prices—but all in the way of "fair dealing."

When any person returned who had been himself at the market, who could recount its ups and downs, its sales and purchases, with all the skirmishes, stern encounters, and great victories, it was an eventful day in the tacksman's dwelling! A stranger not initiated into the mysteries of a great fair might have supposed it possible for any one to give all information about it in a brief business form. But there was such an enjoyment in details, such a luxury in going over all the prices, and all that was asked by the seller and refused by the buyer, and asked again by the seller, and again refused by the buyer, with such nice financial fencing of "splitting the difference," or giving back a "luck-penny," as baffles all description. It was not enough to give the prices of three-year-olds and four-year-olds, yell cows, crock ewes, stirks, stots, lambs, tups, wethers, shots, bulls, &c., but the stock of each well-known proprietor or breeder had to be discussed. Colonsay's bulls, Corrie's sheep, Drumdriesaig's heifers, or Achadashenaig's wethers, had all to be passed under careful review. Then followed discussions about distinguished "beasts," which had "fetched high prices; "their horns, their hair, their houghs, and general "fashion," with their parentage. It did not suffice to tell that this or that great purchaser from the south had given so much for this or that "lot," but his first offer, his remarks, his doubts, his advance of price, with the sparring between him and the Highland dealer, must all be particularly recorded, until the final shaking of hands closed the bargain. And after all was gone over, it was a pleasure to begin the same tune again with variations. But who that has ever heard an after-dinner talk in England about a good day's hunting, or a good race, will be surprised at this endless talk about a market?

I will close this chapter with a story told of a great sheep-farmer (not one of the old "gentleman tenants" verily!) who, though he could hardly read or write, had nevertheless made a large fortune by sheep-farming, and was open to any degree of flattery as to his abilities in this department of labour. A buyer, knowing his weakness, and anxious to ingratiate himself into his good graces, ventured one evening over their whisky-toddy to remark, "I am of opinion, sir, that you are a greater man than even the Duke of Wellington!" "Hoot toot!" replied the sheep-farmer, modestly hanging his head with a pleasing smile, and taking a large pinch of snuff. "That's too much—too much by far—by far." But his guest, after, expatiating for a while upon the great powers of his host in collecting and concentrating upon a Southern market a flock of sheep, suggested the question, "Could the Duke of Wellington have done that?" The sheep-farmer thought a little, snuffed, took a glass of toddy, and slowly replied, "The Duke of Wellington was, nae doot, a clever man; very, very clever, I believe. They tell me he was a good sojer; but then, d'ye see, he had reasonable men to deal with—captains, and majors, and generals that could understand him,—every one of them, both officers and men; but I'm no so sure after all if he could manage say tweny thousand sheep, besides black cattle, that couldna understand one word he said, Gaelic or English, and bring every hoof o' them to Fa'kirk Tryst! I doot it—I doot it! But I have often done that." The inference was evident.


 


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