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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter I - Parentage


I was born on the 13th of May, 1842, at the Chateau de Talhouet, not far from the little town of Quimperle, in the Morbihan, Brittany. It seems I was destined from the very beginning to pass through life in the atmosphere of the Gulf Stream and among the Celts, for my dear mother told me the servants in the chateau all spoke Breton among themselves, and were like west-coast Highlanders in every way, except that they had the fear of wolves added to that 01 ghosts and goblins when they had to go out at night and pass through the Forest de Barbebleue which surrounded the chateau.

As I left France when I was only just a year old, I cannot tell much about our life in Brittany, except that the family consisted of my father, Sir Francis Mackenzie, fifth baronet and twelfth laird of Gairloch; my mother, Mary Hanbury, or Mackenzie; and my two half-brothers —Kenneth, who became the sixth baronet and thirteenth laird, and Francis, who was just a year younger, the boys being respectively ten and nine years of age.

There were in the household a young French tutor and a Scottish maid, and my father had brought an Aberdeenshire salmon-fisher with him, with the usual appliances, such as nets, etc., for the capture of the salmon in the River Elle. But though there were, and doubtless are, salmon in that river, I do not think the fishing enterprise proved much of a success.

My mother told me that immediately after my birth I was taken in charge by the accoucheuse, a Madame Le Blanc, but during the first night my mother’s sharp ears thought they heard some small cries from a distant room. So, not thinking for a moment of herself and the danger to her life, she sprang out of her bed and made straight for our room, where she found Madame Le Blanc sound asleep and no one attending to her precious son, whom she snatched up in her arms and carried back to her bed; no one else was allowed to have charge of him from that day forward.

Although my father had a big extent of clicisse to shoot over, there was no game to speak of, and the bags consisted chiefly of squirrels, which it was the fashion there to eat, and of which pies were made until the Breton cook struck against preparing them, declaring they reminded her of skinned babies ! The food in those days was very poor in Brittany, and the peasants subsisted chiefly on porridge made of ble noir (buck-wheat). Often, to get decent rolls and bread, my father had to drive to the town of L’Orient, a good many miles away.

I was registered in Brittany by the name of Hector, after my paternal grandfather, Sir Hector, but afterwards my father, recollecting that the eldest son of my Uncle John Mackenzie was called Hector, thought two of the same name in the family might be confusing, so, when we reached England and I was christened, the name of Osgood was given me, after my maternal grandfather, Osgood Hanbury, of Holfield Grange, Essex, and also after my cousin, who was my godfather. The eldest sons of these Hanburys were always called Osgood from 1730, when John Hanbury, son of Charles and Grace Hanbury, of Pontymoil and other estates in Monmouthshire, married Anne, daughter and heiress of Henry Osgood, of Holfield Grange, who held 3,392 acres of land in the parish of Coggeshall. I have always rather regretted that my original name of Hector was not adhered to, as our family has, since about 1400, been known as Clan Eachainn Ghearloch (children of Hector of Gairloch), and Eachainn MacCoinnich would have been so much more appropriate when writing my signature in Gaelic.

My readers may wonder at my writing anything about a place which I could not possibly have viewed with intelligent eyes when I left it, but I renewed acquaintance with it many years later. When I was about thirty my mother and I made a tour through Normandy and Brittany, one of the chief aims of which was to visit my birthplace. I remember we arrived at Quimperle on a Saturday evening, and I soon found out that the following day there was to be a religious festival, what they called in Brittany a <e Pardon,” finishing up in the evening with unlimited music and dancing in the Grande Place of the town. Thousands of peasants had come in from the surrounding country, many of the older men in the native costume—their nether garments being like the most voluminous of knickerbockers—and the women with their wonderful coiffes. Dancing was in full swing to the music of the biniou, the Breton bagpipes, and the music and dancing were certainly first-cousins to our Highland bagpipe music and reels.

After a struggle I managed to make my way through the crowd to the side of the old piper, and during the short intervals between the dances 1 carried on a brisk conversation with ljim in French on the subject of bagpipes. I informed him that we had nearly the same kind of pipes in the North of Scotland, and that we also spoke an ancient language related to the Breton. He suddenly brightened up and became quite excited. Talking of Scosse, he said, reminded him of days long gone by, when he was a lad, and there was a Monsieur Ecossais living in the Chateau de Talhouet not far away, a big gentleman with reddish hair and whiskers. Whilst monsieur was there, a baby son was born and a dance was given, for which he was hired as musician. My mother could well remember that dance being given and the hiring of the piper, and here was the very man who had played all night in honour of my birth!

Another curious coincidence I must mention here in connection with the Chateau de Talhouet, which was in olden times the seat of a great Breton nobleman, the Marquis de Talhouet. About two years ago, during the late war, when Lochewe was a naval base, a French warship came in, and as none of the naval officers stationed at Aultbea happened to be very fluent in French and the French officers were said not to be very good at English, I was asked to entertain half a dozen of them at luncheon. It turned out that the mother of one of these officers was then actually owner of the Chateau de Talhouet and was residing in it!

On the Monday after the gay scene in the Grande Place of Quimperle, my mother and I drove out to the chateau that she might show me the very room in which I was born; but though the then owner, whose name was, I think, the Comte de Richemond, was most kind and hospitable, he had so much improved and altered the chateau that my mother could hardly make sure of the actual room where I first saw the light. One thing, however, she did recognise, which she had often described to me, and that was a magnificent specimen of the tulip-tree which grew on the lawn. How well do I remember the dinner in the inn at Quimperle, where everything was very old-fashioned, and where the host sat at the head and the hostess at the foot of the table. There was great excitement over something unusual which had occurred that morning—namely, the catching by the Gendarmes of a young priest poaching the river, with a fresh-run salmon in his possession. The ladies all took the side of the priest, whilst most of the men supported the authorities. The salmon was to be sold by public auction, and the ladies all swore solemnly that none of them would bid at the sale, as it was monstrous that their Father Confessor should be deprived of the fish which he had captured so cleverly.

When my father and his family left Brittany, we stayed a short time in Jersey, but all I can remember to have heard of the visit to that charming island was that I there first showed a love of music, which has continued all through my life. I was told that when a brass band played I almost jumped out of my mother's arms. A friend of my father, a Colonel Lecouteur, gave a dinner, and the dessert consisted of pears only, there being thirty dishes, each containing a different variety. So it seems that their culture was pretty well advanced even as far back as 1842.

And now my memory of the events that happened for a couple of years is more or less vague, and I can depend only on what I was told by others. Soon after our arrival in England my father became very ill, and, according to the stupid practice of doctors in those days, he was bled in the arm, erysipelas set in, and he died in the course of a few days. His remains were taken north by sea, from London to Invergordon, by my mother and her brother and sister, to be buried in the family burying-place in the old ruined Priory of Beauly. I was just a year old when this calamity happened, and consequently can remember nothing of the voyage north or anything else for some time after. But subsequent voyages of a like kind when I was four or five years old made impressions on me which have never been forgotten. How well I remember, as though it were only yesterday, a horrible voyage from Invergordon to London in a kind of paddle-boat, which lasted nine whole days! We called at every small port along the Banffshire and Aberdeenshire coasts for dead meat for the London market. Stacks of it were piled up on the deck, and consisted chiefly of dead pigs. By way of amusing me, our butler, Sim Eachainn (Simon Hector), cut off many of the black and white tails and presented them to me as toys! Then we were stuck for some days in a dense fog at the mouth of the Thames. It was a never-to-be-forgotten voyage, though it was not as long as a voyage my uncle took as a young man, when he was seventeen days in a smack sailing between London and Inverness, and even then he never reached it, but had to disembark at Findhorn.

On our return journey north my mother wished to go by land, but it was, if possible, even less successful. I cannot remember how we got to Perth, but from there we travelled by the Highland stage-coach. It was mid-winter, and we managed to get as far as Blair Atholl, when a violent snowstorm started, and a few miles beyond the village, the coach was suddenly brought to a standstill by trees being blown across the road both in front and behind us. A runner was despatched for a squad of men with saws and axes, but the blizzard was so severe that by the time help came the coach could not be moved on account of the depth of the snow, and we got back to Blair Inn by the help of a very highwheeled dog-cart. How well I remember being lifted by our faithful Simon and carried in his arms to the trap ! After being kept prisoners at Blair for several days, we managed to get back to Perth, whence we got to Aberdeen by the newly opened railway, and from there to Inverness by steamboat. Thus the land journey was not altogether a success, and we had to fall back upon the sea after all to get us north.

My father in his will had appointed my mother and Thomas Mackenzie, the laird of Ord, as trustees for the Gairloch property during my elder half-brother's minority, and my father's brother, John Mackenzie, M.D., of Eileanach, was to be factor on the estate. For the first six months or year after my father's death my mother resided at Conon House, near the county town of Dingwall, which was the east coast residence of the Gairloch family. The Conon property was a comparatively small one, with a small population, whereas Gairloch consisted of some 170,000 acres and a large crofter population of several thousand souls; so my mother felt it her duty to remove there and make it her permanent home. It was not very easy getting from Conon to Gairloch in those days, for, though a road had been made from Dingwall to Kenlochewe, or rather two miles farther on to Rudha n' Fhamhair (the Giant's Point), at the upper end of Loch Maree, there was still no road for some twelve miles along the loch-side, and often it was stormy and the loch difficult to navigate in small rowing-boats.

But Gairloch was far more difficult of access in the days of my grandfather and my uncles. I shall now quote from what my uncle says regarding the annual migrations to and from Gairloch. In those days the larger tenants had, if required, to provide several days" labour by men and horses for the journey. My uncle writes: “My eyes and ears quite deceived me if those called out on these migration duties did not consider it real good fun, considering the amount of food and drink which was always at their command." A troop of men and some thirty ponies came from Gairloch, and would arrive, say, on a Tuesday night, and all Wednesday a big lot of ponies, hobbled and crook-saddled, was strewed over our lawns at Conon, with a number of men and women helpers hard at work packing. Everything had to go west—flour, groceries, linen, plate, boys and babies, and I have heard that my father was carried to Gairloch on pony-back in a kind of cradle when he was only a few weeks old. The plan usually followed was to start the mob of men and ponies about four o'clock on the Thursday afternoon for the little inn at Scatwell at the foot of Strathconon; and as there was a road of a kind thus far and no farther, the old yellow family coach carried “the quality ” (i.e., the gentry) there before dark.

There were several great difficulties in those days. One was the crossing of the various fords over the rivers, and the next was keeping dry all the precious things contained on the pack-saddles, including the babies. The great waterproofer, Mackintosh, was unborn and rubber was still unknown, so they just had to do their best with bits of sheep-skins and deer-skins, which were not very effective in a south-westerly gale, with rain such as one is apt to catch along Druima Dubh Achadh na Sine, the Black Ridge of Storm Field, as Achnasheen is very properly called in Gaelic.

Next morning the start was made at six o’clock right up Strathconon and across the high beallach (pass) into Strath Bran, and on and on till Ivenlochewe was reached, which ended the second day at about seven o’clock at night. I have been told that my grandfather was always met at the top of Glendochart, where one first comes in sight of the loch, by the whole male population of Kenlochewe, every man with his flat blue bonnet under his arm, and they followed the laird’s cavalcade bareheaded till it crossed the river to the inn. The old inn in those days was on what we should now call the wrong side of the river, and the crossing was often a great difficulty. Sometimes the children were carried over by men on stilts, which was thought great fun by them. The welcome at the inn my uncle described as “ grand.” The poor landlady was twice widowed, both her husbands having been drowned in trying to get people across this wild river on horseback when it was in flood. My uncle fancied that what made the widow suffer most was perhaps the fact that neither husband was ever found, both being at the bottom of Loch Maree, and that she had not had the great relief and even “pleasure” of burying each of them with unlimited whisky, according to custom ! I can well remember one of her sons. He was by far the most skilful carpenter in our part of the country, and was always known as Eachainn na Banos-dair (Hector of the Hostess). My uncle says that if ever the Gairloch family had a devotee it was Banosdair Ceann-Loch-Iubh (the hostess of Kenlochewe), and he believed she would cheerfully have gone to. the gallows if she were quite sure that would please the laird.

The following morning the party had only two miles to go to Rudha n’Fhamhair (Giant’s Point), where the family and all the precious goods and chattels were stowed away in a small fleet of boats and rowed or sailed some ten or twelve miles down the loch to Slata-dale, where the then comparatively new narrow bit of road, more or less adapted to wheels, ran from this bay of Loch Maree to the old mansion of Tigh Dige nam gorm Leac, which, as my uncle says, “ was looked upon by us Gairlochs as the most perfect spot on God's earth." Eor the sake of the boys a halt was always made at one of the twenty-five islands in the loch for a good hunt for gulls' eggs, but in truth it did not require much hunting, for my uncle says he and his brothers could hardly keep from treading on the eggs, the nests were so plentiful among the heather and juniper. I can remember them equally numerous till I was about fifty years old, when the lesser black-backed gulls very gradually began to go back and back in numbers, until, alas ! they are now all but extinct.

I shall give my readers my uncle's description of the arrival of the cavalcade on the Saturday evening at the old home, the most perfect wild Highland glen any lover of country scenery could wish to see. No sheep, he says, had ever set hoof in it; only cattle were allowed to bite a blade of grass there; and the consequence was that the braes and wooded hillocks were a perfect jungle of primroses and bluebells and honeysuckle and all sorts of orchids, including Habenarias and the now quite extinct Epipactis, which then whitened the ground, and which my uncle says he used to send as rare specimens to southern museums. May I remark here that in the course of my long life in the parish of Gairloch I have only twice had the pleasure of seeing the Epipactis ensifolia—once near the Bank of Scotland at Gairloch about thirty years ago, and one other specimen on the edge of the stream of the Ewe fifty yards above the boathouse at Inveran. I found plenty of them in the woods of the Pyrenees.

My uncle continues: “Having arrived at long last at the end of our three days’ journey, we boys wanted but little rocking ere we were asleep in our hammocks. Next morning (Sunday) before six, all who were new to the place called out c Goodness gracious, what’s the matter, and what’s all this awful noise about V for sixty cows and sixty calves were all bellowing their hardest after having been separated for the twelve hours of the night. They were within eighty yards of the chateau, and, assisted by some twenty herds and milkers screaming and howling, they made uproar enough to alarm any stranger just waking from -sleep, who expected a quiet, solemn west-coast Sabbath morning. This was a twice a day arrangement. Eventually the grass in the Baile Mor Glen was eaten pretty bare, and then the whole lot of them went off to the shieling of Airidh na Cloiche (Shieling of the Stone) for the summer.

There was a dyke about one hundred yards long between the entrance-gates at the bottom of the lawn and the Allt Glas burn which kept the cows and calves separate, to the great indignation of both parties, who bellowed out their minds pretty plainly. Domhnall Donn (Brown Donald), the head cowman, brought his wailing friends the cows to the west side of the wall, and his subordinates brought the calves from their woody bedrooms where they had passed the night on the east side. And then began an uproar ofc Are you there, my darling V ‘Oh yes, mother dear, wild for my breakfast/ Then the troupe of milkmaids entered among the mob of bawling cows by one of the small calf-gates in the wall. They carried their pails and three-legged little stools and buarachs (hobbles) of strong hair rope, with a loop at one end and a large button on the other. The button was always made of rowan-tree wood, so that milk-loving fairies might never dare to keep from the pail the milk of a cow whose hindlegs were buarach (bound)!

“All was soon ready to begin. A young helper stood at each gate with a rowan switch to flick back the overanxious calves till old Domhnall sang out, looking at a cow a dairymaid was ready to milk, named, perhaps, Busdubh (Black Muzzle), ‘ Let in Busdubh's calf/ who was quite ready at the wicket. Though to our eyes the sixty black calves were all alike, the helpers switched away all but young Busdubh, who sprang through the wicket; after a moment's dashing at the wrong cow by mistake, and being quickly horned away, there was Busdubh Junior opposite to its mother's milker sucking away like mad for its supply, while the milkmaid milked like mad also, to get her share of it. The calf, I suspect, often got the lesser half, for the dairy people liked to boast of their heaps of butter and cheese, leaving the credit or discredit of the yearly drove of young market cattle to Domhnall and his subordinates. I have seen young Busdubh getting slaps in the face from its enemy the milker, who thought she was getting less than her share of the spoil; and then calfy was dragged to the wicket and thrust out, and perhaps Smeorach's (Thrush's) calf halloaed for next. This uproar lasted from six till nine, when justice having been dispensed to all concerned, Donald and company drove the cows away to their pastures, and the junior helpers removed the very discontented calves to their quarters till near 6 p.m., when the same operation was repeated.

“And then the procession of milkmaids stepped away to the dairy, which was a projecting wing of the Tigh Dige and is now part of the garden, carrying the milk in small casks open at the top with a pole through the rope-handle of the cask, the two milkers having the pole ends on their shoulders. And now as to the dairy. No finery of china or glass or even coarse earthenware was ever seen in those days; instead of these, there were very many flat, shallow, wooden dishes and a multitude of churns and casks and kegs, needing great cleansing, otherwise the milk would have gone bad. And big boilers being also unknown, how was the disinfecting done, and how was hot water produced ? Few modern folk would ever guess. Well, the empty wooden dishes of every shape and size were placed on the stone floor, and after being first rinsed out with cold water and scrubbed with little heather brushes, they were filled up again, and red hot dornagan (stones as large as a man's fist), chosen from the seashore and thoroughly polished by the waves of centuries, which had been placed by the hundred in a huge glowing furnace of peat, were gripped by long and strong pairs of tongs and dropped into the vessels. Three or four red-hot stones would make the cold water boil instantly right over, and the work was then accomplished. But oh, the time it took, and the amount of good Gaelic that had to be expended,

and more or less wasted, before the great dairy could be finally locked till evening came round again!”

In my grandfather’s day no colour was considered right for Highland cattle but black. The great thing then was to have a fold of black cows. No one would' look at the reds and yellows and cream and duns, which are all the rage nowadays. Though the blacks have since become unpopular, I have been told by the very best old judges of Highland cattle that there is nothing to beat the blacks for hardiness, and that the new strains of fancy-coloured cattle are much softer, and have not the same constitutions.

The Tigh Dige (pronounced Ty digue), or Moat House, was so called because the original house belonging to us, which was down in the hollow below the present mansion, was surrounded by a moat and a drawbridge. The first Sir Alexander, my grandfather’s grandfather, the Tighearna Crubach (the Lame Laird), finding it inconvenient, started building the present house about 1738, and as it was the very first instance in all the country round of a slated house, the old name Tigh Dige was continued, with the addition given to it of nam gorm Leac (of the Blue Slabs). I believe iron nails were used. But I remember the late Dowager Lady Middleton telling me that when they bought Applecross and had to take off a part of the old roof of the house they found that the original slates had been fixed to the sarking with pegs of heather root. She had been told that a man had been employed a whole summer making heather pegs with his knife, right up in Corry Attadale, in the heart of the Applecross deer forest. This shows the difficulty of getting nails in those days!

It was long after this that some English tourists, finding the lovely Baile Mor Glen peculiarly rich in wild-flowers, proposed to my ancestor that it should be named Flowerdale! I am thankful to say I have never once in the course of my whole long life heard the house called otherwise in Gaelic than the Tigh Dige and the place am Baile Mor (the Great Town or Home). The cause of the flowers being so plentiful in the good old times was that neither my grandfather nor his forbears would ever hear of a sheep coming near the place, except on a rope to the slaughter-house. The stock consisted of sixty Highland milk cows and their sixty calves, besides all their followers of different ages. These were continually shifted from place to place, and this gave the plants and bulbs a chance of growing. I never saw the black cattle on the Baile Mor home farm, but my mother, who was married some years before I was born, saw the whole system in full swing, and has often told me all about it.


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