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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter III - Childhood


I cannot say I can remember my first coming to Gairloch, as I was then only about two years old, but there were soon to be very trying times there, during the great famine caused by the potato blight. I have quite clear recollections of my own small grievance at being made to eat rice, which I detested, instead of potatoes, with my mutton or chicken in the years 1846-1848, for even Uaislean an tigh mhor (the gentry of the big house) could not get enough potatoes to eat in those hard times. Certainly things looked very black in 1846-1848 in Ireland and the West of Scotland, though, but for the potato blight, when should we have got roads made through the country? My mother never left Gairloch, not even for a day, for three long years when the famine was at its height!

In Ireland a very stupid system was started—namely, the making of roads beginning nowhere in particular, and ending, perhaps, at a rock or in the middle of a bog. It was thought that working at an object which could never be of any use to anyone would be so repugnant to the feelings of the greater portion of the population that only the dire stress of actual starvation would induce them to turn out for the sake of the trifle of money, or one or two pounds of maize meal, which constituted then the daily wage. My mother was totally opposed to this ridiculous plan in our district, and also against merely giving miserable doles of meal, which were barely sufficient to keep the population alive. Her plan was to pay all the able-bodied men a sufficient wage in money or food to enable them to do good work themselves and to support their dependents. So with the help of Government and begging and borrowing (I think) £10,000, she and my uncle undertook the great responsibility of guaranteeing that no one would be allowed to starve on the property. Thus the Loch Maree road was started, and this was about the only thing which could possibly open up the country.

Both my half-brothers were absent from the country at the time, so I, as a small boy, had the great honour conferred on me of cutting the first turf of the new road. How well I remember it, surrounded by a huge crowd, many of them starving Skye men, for the famine was more sore in Skye and the islands than it was on our part of the mainland! I remember the tiny toy spade and the desperate exertions I had to make to cut my small bit of turf; then came the ringing cheers of the assembled multitude, and I felt myself a great hero!

I must have driven or motored past that place thousands of times since that day, but I never do so, even if it be pitch dark, without thinking of the cutting of the first i turf, and the feeling of great gratitude to the Almighty for His having put into the hearts of my mother and uncle the strong determination to carry through the great work. Nor did they cease with the finishing of the Loch Maree road, but went on with local roads, such as from Kerrysdale to Red Point, Strath to Melvaig, and Poolewe to Cove; and instead of the little narrow switchback road from Slatadale to the Tigh Dige, an almost entirely new road was made from Loch Maree to Gairloch through the Kerry Glen. After the good example of the Gairloch trustees, other neighbouring proprietors followed suit, and the lairds of Gruinord and Dundonnell in course of time made a road the whole way from Poolewe, via Aultbea, Gruinord, and Dundonnell, to join the. Garve and Ullapool road at Braemore. This gave the whole of the coast-line from the mouth of Loch Torridon to Loch Broom the benefit of more or less good highways, which are all now county roads. How well do I remember the first wheeled vehicle, a carrier’s cart, that ever came to Gairloch, and the excitement it caused!

My uncle says: “There being no need of wheels in a roadless country in my young days, we had only sledges in place of wheeled carts, all made by our grieve. He took two birch-trees of the most suitable bends and of them made the two shafts, with iron-work to suit the harness for collar straps. The ends of the shafts were sliced away with an adze at the proper angle to slide easily and smoothly on the ground. Two planks, one behind the horse and the other about half-way up the shaft ends, were securely nailed to the shafts, and were bored with holes to receive four-foot-long hazel rungs to form the front and back of the cart and to keep in the goods, a similar plank on the top of the rungs making the front and rear of the cart surprisingly stable and upright. The floor was made of planks, and these sledge carts did all that was needed for moving peats, and nearly every kind of crop. Movable boxes planted on the sledge floor between the front and back served to carry up fish from the shore and lime and manure, and it was long ere my father Sir Hector paid a penny a year to a cartwright. The sledges could slide where wheeled carts could not venture, and carried corn and hay, etc., famously.”

My readers will perhaps wonder how we got our letters before the Loch Maree road was made. Well, there was a mail packet, a small sloop which ran between Stornoway and Poolewe and carried all the Lews and Harris letters for the south, and which was supposed to run twice a week, though, as a matter of fact, she seldom did it even once. There was a sort of post office at Poolewe, to which the Gairloch and Aultbea letters (if there were any) found their way, and the whole lot was put into a small home-made leather bag which Iain Mor am Posda (Rig John the Post) threw on his shoulder. With this he trudged, I might say climbed, through the awful precipices of Creag Thairbh (the Bull’s Rock) on the north side of Loch Maree, passing through Ardlair and Letterewe, and so on at one time to Dingwall, but latterly only to Achnasheen. Imagine the letters and newspapers for the parish of Gairloch and Torridon (part of Applecross), with about 6,000 souls, and the Lews, with a population of nearly 30,000 inhabitants, all being carried on one man’s back in my day!

The only possible way of getting baker’s bread in those days was by the packet from Stornoway, and a big boy, John Grant, came over to us at Gairloch with the bread and the letters once or twice a week. How well I can remember him standing, usually dripping wet, shivering in the Tigh Dige kitchen, while the cook expressed lively indignation because the bread-bag was soaking wet. That lad served me as a man very faithfully for many years as grieve after I bought Inverewe in 1862.

Only a few years ago a party of us went from Inverewe and back in order to visit the Bull's Rock. In more than one part of it we could let ourselves down and pull ourselves up only with the help of our stalwart stalker ! On one occasion a Post Office overseer from London, who was being sent to Stornoway, and was following Big John on foot, fainted en route, and Big John managed to carry the fat official on the top of the mail-bag for several miles till he reached Ardlair.

When the first Sir Alexander built the Tigh Dige the timber was all cut in the natural Scotch fir forest of Glas Leitir (the Grey Slope) on the shores of the upper end of Loch Maree, and boated down the loch to Slata-dale, and from there dragged by innumerable men and ponies for seven miles over that wild hill that separates Loch Maree from the sea at Gairloch. There was not a single mark of a saw to be found on the timbers of the roof of the Tigh Dige, and they are squared only by the axe.

I spent the nine years of my childhood, from 1844 to 1853, in the Tigh Dige, and did ever boy spend a happier nine years anywhere? When I was between three and four, my dear mother, who was enthusiastic about Gaelic, started me with a little nursemaid who did not know a word of English, Seonaid nic Mhaoilan (Janet MacMillan). Well do I remember her first lesson. She took me to a looking-glass, and, turning the glass up opposite me, she said, “Thainig e” (“He is come”), and then, reversing it, “Dufhalos e” (“He is gone”). I learnt Gaelic in a very short time. My good old English nurse, Emma Mills, I fear, felt very much snubbed, as she was told when out with us to sit on a stone and merely watch us two playing together, but not to interfere. Nurse Emma’s favourite walk I was to what she was pleased to call the "Heagle ’Ouse” (where a tame eagle was kept), and she did not at all approve of my calling it Tigh na h-Iolaire (the Eagle House), which was much prettier and more appropriate.

My mother was one of the very few instances of a grown-up person learning to speak Gaelic quite fluently, but in this she succeeded thoroughly, though she always retained a little of bias na beurla (taste of the English). She started going regularly to church when she understood only the one word agus (and), and she ended by understanding every word of the longest and most eloquent sermons preached by ministers like Dr. Kennedy of Dingwall and others of that calibre. How i I always bless my mother for her determination that she herself and her two stepsons and I should know Gaelic ! Life for me, living in the west as I have done, would not have been worth living without Gaelic. No servant on the place, inside or outside, was allowed ever to speak

English to the young gentlemen under pain of being dismissed. Dinner was ordered in the kitchen in Gaelic, and all meals were announced by the butler Sim Eachainn in Gaelic—“Tka am biadh air a bhord le bhur cead a bJiaintigheama” (“The food is on the table, by your leave, my lady”), so the whole atmosphere was thoroughly Gaelic. My younger brother Francis, who was very fluent in the language, did not lose it whilst for some years in the Navy. When he took a big farm in Orkney, where no Gaelic is spoken by the natives, he had so many Gairloch workmen there with him that Gaelic was the order of the day; and how proud he was when John Mackenzie, the clachair mor (the big mason), and his three stalwart sons were able to beat seven of the best picked Orkney men at dry-stone dyking! It was a race between Gaelic and English, and Gaelic always won in a canter! At the death of my elder brother, Sir Kenneth, one of the doctors in attendance, Dr. Adam of Dingwall, told me that he went out of this world and entered his eternal rest repeating verse after verse of the Gaelic Psalms, which had been taught him by my mother in his childhood.

I ought to mention here that when my mother took charge of the property there was only the one parish school, but she started nine or ten, and her rule was that no child should be taught English until he or she could read simple Gaelic first. What a success her schools all were, and what intelligent scholars they produced ! Not long ago I was in a school where the teacher was an Aberdeenshire woman and the infant class all Gaelic-speaking. They were being taught a little story about a dog running after a lamb. How could the poor teacher instruct intelligently when the little pupils did not understand what dog and lamb meant ? I had to come to the rescue and tell them that dog meant cu, and lamb meant uan. Now, this sort of thing would never have happened in my good mother’s day, when all teachers were bilingual.

And now for some more about those delightful nine years of my life spent in the old Tigh Dige. The house used to be full up every summer and autumn. My uncle, John Mackenzie, who was factor for the estate, with his wife, two sons, and five daughters, were often there, and lots of Hanbury relations from the south also came. We were such a merry party. On one or two occasions when Gairloch was let my mother and I resided at Poolewe, either at Pool House or in Inveran Lodge, and that gave me the opportunity of acquiring a wider knowledge of the enormous Gairloch property and its population. I saw comparatively little of my mother for some years at Gairloch, owing to her being away on horseback from Monday morning to Saturday night superintending the making of those miles of road I have spoken of. She was also engaged in abolishing thei old runrig system, under which the wretched hovels' of some five hundred crofters had been built in clusters or end on to each other like a kind of street, so that when typhus or smallpox broke out there was no escape. All the new houses had to be built each one in the centre of the four-acre croft.

There had never been a doctor in Gairloch, and my mother doctored the whole parish for over three years—

a population of about 5,400. She was most successful, and so famous did site become that on one occasion they brought a good-sized idiot, carried on a man's back in a creel from Little Loch Broom, to be healed, such was their faith in her ! But after the doctor arrived her work became a little easier, and she began to take me constantly with her on her riding expeditions, my little Shetland pony carrying me everywhere. I then started fishing, both on sea and loch, and took up ornithology and egg-collecting, in which she encouraged me in every possible way. When I was about seven and knew Gaelic perfectly, she sent for a French boy of twelve from a Protestant orphanage at Arras to come as a sort of page, and to go out with me, and I never had any trouble in learning French, which seemed to come to me quite naturally. Edouard, the French boy, learnt Gaelic as quickly as I learnt French, and could be sent all over the country with Gaelic messages.

How different from nowadays many things were when I first remember Gairloch! Such a thing as a lamp I never saw in the Tigh Dige. Only candles were used; paraffin was quite unknown and had not even been heard of; and the black houses depended for light chiefly on the roaring fires in the centre of the room, with, perhaps, an old creel or barrel stuck in the roof to let out the smoke. For use in very exceptional cases the people had tiny tin lamps made by the tinkers and fed with oil made out of the livers of fish which were allowed to get rotten before they were boiled down. But the main lighting at night was done by having a big heap of carefully prepared bog-fir splinters full of resin all ready in a corner, and a small boy or girl did nothing else but keep these burning during the evening, so that the women could see to card and spin and the men to make their herring-nets by hand. I do not remember hemp being grown, as it was, I believe, at one time in special sorts of enclosures or gardens, and prepared and spun for the making of the herring-nets. But it was commonly done in the west. I do not think they grew flax to any great extent, but on the east coast they grew it quite extensively, and all the Tigh Dige sheets and damask napkins and table-cloths in lovely patterns were spun in Conon House, our east-coast home, and woven in Conon village!

I shall now quote from my uncle to show what a good housekeeper my grandmother was. He says: “I doubt if there ever was a much better housekeeper than my dear mother, or more busy and better servants than in those times. They cheerfully put hand to work, the very suggesting of which would startle the modem ladies and gentlemen who serve us. A common sight in the Conon kitchen after dinner was four or five women all the evening busy spinning and carding flax for napery, or putting wicks into metal candle moulds in frames holding, say, a dozen, and pouring the fearful smelling tallow into the moulds. In those days I seldom saw any candles but of tallow anywhere, unless in chandeliers or against walls where they could not easily be snuffed; so my wise mother made heaps of as good candles as she could buy from the spare suet in the house. Then, where could a storeroom be seen like my mother’s at Conon ? The room was shelved all round with movable frames for holding planks, on which unimaginable quantities of dried preserved edibles reposed till called for. There were jam-pots by the hundred of every sort, shelves of preserved candied apricots and Magnum Bonum plums, that could not be surpassed in the world; other shelves with any amount of biscuits of all sorts of materials, once liquid enough to drop on sheets of paper, but in time dried to about two inches across and half an inch thick for dessert. Smoked sheep and deer tongues were also there, and from the roof hung strings of threaded artichoke bottoms, dried, I suppose, for putting into soups. In addition, there were endless curiosities of confectionery brought north by Kitty’s talents from her Edinburgh cookery school, while quantities of dried fruit, ginger, orange-peel, citron, etc., from North Simpson and Graham of London must have made my dear mother safe-cased in armour against any unexpected and hungry invader. Then every year she made gooseberry and currant wines, balm ditto, raspberry vinegar, spruce and ginger beer. I remember they were celebrated, and liqueurs numberless included magnums of camomile flowers and orange-peel and gentian root bitters for old women with indigestion pains.'

My dear old foreman of works, Seoras Ruairidh Cheannaiche (George of Rory Merchant), who was at the head of everything, and who did everything for me at Inverewe when I began there in 1862, used to tell me the difficulty there was in his grandfather’s and even in his father’s day in getting any kind of planking and nails for coffins. It was a common tiling, he said, for a man going to Inverness on some great occasion to bring back a few nails for his own coffin, so that they might be in readiness whenever the last call came. The ordinary way of interment in the time of George's grandfather was to have the dead body swathed in fine homespun, carried on an open bier to the graveyard, and slid down into the grave. His grandfather could remember when, if one lost a hook when trout-fishing, the only way of replacing it was to go to Ceard an Oirthire, the old tinker at Coast (a little hamlet on the bay of Gruinord) and to get him to make one, and to tell him to be sure to put a barb on it! And in the days of old Jane Charles, who was a sort of connection of the Gairloch family, there was only one looking-glass in the district other than in the Tigh Dige, and the girls had to arrange their hair for church or for a wedding by looking at their faces in a pail of water ! I can quite well remember when not a sack made from jute was to be seen, and one saw the big sixteen or eighteen feet rowing-boats on fine winter days arriving from the outlying townships at the mills at Strath or Boor piled up with bags of oats and barley (or rather bere), all in sheep-skin bags, with a certain amount of wool still on their outsides to remind one of their origin. It was rare then to see such a thing as a hempen rope. Ropes for retaining the thatch on the cottages were called seamanan fraoich (heather ropes) and made of heather. Ropes to hold small boats were generally made of twisted birch twigs, while the very best ropes for all other purposes were made of the pounded fibre of bog-fir roots, and a really well-made ball maith guithais (a good fir rope) could hardly be beaten by the best modern ropes.

I never saw a wire riddle for riddling corn or meal in the old days; they were all made of stretched sheep-skins with holes perforated in them by a big red-hot needle. Trout lines were made of white or other horsehair, and • when one stabled a pony at an inn, it always ran the risk of having its tail stolen ! Also, the only spoons in the country were those the tinkers made from sheep and cow horns melted down. How one used to smell the burning horn at the tinker encampments after dark!

Knives and forks were hardly known in the crofter houses, and everything was eaten with fingers and thumbs. Even now I hear them say herrings and potatoes never taste right if eaten with a knife and fork. My mother was one day visiting some poor squatter families who in those days resided on Longa Island, and one woman was very anxious she should partake of something. My mother was hungry, for she never carried luncheon with her on her long daily expeditions from early morning to night, trusting to her chance of getting a bowl of milk and a bit of oatcake or barley scone from those she visited. Well, the poor woman confessed to having no meal in the house and consequently no bread; all she had was a pail of flounders just off the hooks, and she asked if the bantighearna (lady) would condescend to partake of one of them. My mother said she would, and a flounder was instantly put in a pot. When it was boiled the woman took it out, neatly broke it in two or three pieces, and placed them on a little table without plate or cloth, knife or fork. My mother set to it with her fingers, and afterwards declared it was the sweetest fish she ever tasted. When she finished the woman brought her a pail of water to wash her hands in.

When people chanced to have a bit of meat they could not make what we should call broth, because they had no pot barley and no turnips or carrots, onions or cabbage, to put in it; so they thickened the water in which the meat had been boiled with oatmeal, and this was called in Gaelic eanaraich (broth). It was placed in the middle of the table, and everyone helped themselves with their horn spoons.

Perhaps a few of my readers are aware that almost within my own recollection the blacksmiths on our-west coast did all their own smithy work with peat charcoal. Coal was rarely imported before 1840, and all the oak had been cut down, turned into charcoal, and used by Sir George Hay in his small furnaces or bloomeries towards the end of 1500 and the early years of 1600, so there was nothing to fall back on but peat charcoal, which I have always been told was quite a good substitute. I can just recollect the Gobha Mor (the Big Blacksmith) at Poolewe. He was the last smith who used it, and with whom died the knowledge and skill required to make it.

I wonder also if it is known that on our west coast, before tar was imported from Archangel, the inhabitants produced their own tar. When the late Lord Elphin-stone bought Coulin in Glen Torridon he used a great deal of the old native Scots fir in the building of the lodge. One day, after a large number of the trees-had been cut down, he and I started counting the natural rings on the stems of the trees, and found that they averaged about two hundred and fifty years old. My attention was drawn by Lord Elphinstone to the fact that nearly every one of the trees had had a big auger-hole bored into it just above the ground-level. He was told by the old folk in the neighbourhood that these holes had been bored by the. Loch Carron people to produce tar for their boats. We could see the marks of the auger-holes in numbers of the trees that were still standing, as well as in those that had been cut down.

What far happier times those good old days were than these we are living in now ! Even the seasons seemed more “seasonable” and the summers far hotter. What an abundance of cherries there was at Gairloch even in my days in the forties and fifties, and these crops were supposed to be degenerate in comparison with the grand fruity years of the twenties ! There were about four' or five big trees of red early cherries and one of black late Guines, and never did they seem to fail. No amount o blackbirds, ring-ouzels, nor any number of boys and girls, seemed to have the slightest effect on them, and they never, in my recollection, failed to be laden. At long last, however, they had to give in to old age and were blown down one by one; but though my elder brother took great trouble to plant new ones of specially good varieties, there has never, I believe, been another cherry in the Baile Mor garden, the new kinds evidently failing to suit the soil or climate.

I now quote from my uncle as to the seasons in his day: “What long, hot days we used to have then compared with the present short, lukewarm ones, that no sooner begin than they end disgracefully! Astronomers tell us their registers show that the present seasons are just the same as in, say, 1812—seventy years ago. What stuff and nonsense! In those happier times everybody had summer as well as winter clothing. Who dreams of such extravagance now in the north? Not a soul at least of the male animals, who for months in summer wore nankeen jackets and trousers; I was grown up ere I could give up my large stock of Russian duck summer clothes. How a clothier nowadays would „ stare if I asked for a suit of nankeen or duck for summer clothing ! Well do I remember days before we migrated to the west in May, going down to the Conon River to bathe with my brothers and dawdling away our time naked, making mill dams or dirt-pies on the sandy shore, and on putting on my shirt feeling as if there were pins inside. On examination there were several big water blisters on my back, needing a needle to empty them, and many days elapsed before they were healed up. : Whoever nowadays hears of such blistering sun? Then!, in our Conon garden, the extensive walls of which were I covered with apricot, peach, and nectarine trees, every year there were loads of fine and well-ripened fruit for five most healthy urchins who had a free run of the garden to eat up as fast as it ripened. And where, in that garden, or now in my own still warmer garden, : is a living, growing peach or nectarine to be found ? Every one dead for want of sun to ripen the wood ere winter killed it. In our Conon garden a splendid filbert-tree, perhaps twenty-four feet high, with a stem as thick as my body, every year bore bushels of as fine full filberts as were ever exhibited, till old John Fraser, ruined by having a vinery put up for him about sixty feet north of the filbert, actually cut it down on the sly when we were in Gairloch, from an idea that it might possibly shade the vinery! I never saw my father in a hurry or passion or heard him swear, but sure I am that when he came to the vacant site of the filbert, friends would have avoided listening to his sotto voce comments on that day. But old John, perhaps, was only looking forward to the shocking seasons to come, when money could not discover a ripe common hazel-nut. There have been no nuts of late years in our woods, which used regularly to produce splendid crops. Hundreds of sacks of nuts, every one full to the neck, were sent in cartloads to the Beauly markets and to every town and village; the nutcrackers became a regular nuisance, paving every street and road and room with shells for months; the whole people in the country seemed to live with their pockets full of nuts, and the price was fabulously low. What utter nonsense to talk of the temperature now being what it was seventy years ago! It might do for the marines, but the sailors won't listen to it.

“We used, I believe, as a matter of duty always to be settled in the west for the summer before the 4th of June, which was the King’s birthday, and on that day we never failed to have a big china bowl after dinner with a pail of cream that “wad mak a cawnle of my fingers” to wash down the first strawberries of the season. Don’t I remember their delicious smell in the house, and their taste too! North Carolinas the gardener called them. And now in the same garden, but certainly not the same climate, no strawberry thinks itself called upon to ripen until a month later. The same temperature as seventy years ago! What fools we must be supposed to be by those rascals of astronomers!

“And we always had a few cherries to serve up on the 4th of June also ! Was there ever such a mass of cherries either before or since as in the Tigh Dige garden, sheltered from every cold wind and held up to the sun by all that could be desired in woods and mountains? And were there ever five boys and a tutor better able to make an impression on the cherry-trees? Our beloved tutor told me years afterwards of one thing that was a weight on his mind—namely, that having dropped one forenoon 999 cherry-stones from his mouth into his fishing-bag, he was suddenly called away and prevented finishing his thousand at one go. Our old Nathaniel, John Fraser, our eastern gardener, having two sons at Conon with the same turn for fruit as we had, schemed to save the peaches and nectarines he wanted for his employer. Every night before stopping work he raked nicely all the soil borders ere he made himself cosy at the fireside with his slippers on instead of heavy wet shoes. Yet he was much surprised to miss many a lovely peach he was sure he left on the tree the previous evening. And lo and behold, there were the thief’s footmarks all over the raked border! So he out with the foot-rule and thought he would soon discover the criminal. But the mystery deepened when he found that the shoes which fitted the footmarks on the border were his own. It never occurred to the old innocent to imagine that his son had put on his shoes while he was at tea, and thus safely supped on apricots and peaches, without any risk of the footmarks betraying the thief!"

Before bringing to an end this talk about our changed climate I shall give one more proof of it—viz., the almost entire disappearance of the wild bee.

I often heard, when I was young, that in the Lews (whose poetical name in Gaelic is Eilean an Fhraoich (the Heather Island) bees were so plentiful in the olden times that the boys were able to collect large quantities of wild honey, which, by applying heat to it, was run into glass bottles and sold at the Stornoway markets. Hunting for wild-bees’ nests was one of the great ploys for the boys in the autumns, but nowadays this amusement is never thought of. Even in the sixties my good and faithful grieve John Grant, when at the head of his squad (long before mowing machines were ever thought of), used to be quite annoyed at the continual hindrance to the scythe work through men stopping to raid bees’ nests in the grass, and losing time in eating the honey and the ceir (bee-bread), and pretending they could not go back to their work owing to the attacks of the infuriated bees ! Nowadays, even if one by any chance comes upon a wild-bees’ nest, it contains little or nothing in the way of honey. My old sheep manager, Alexander Cameron, better known to his many friends as the Tournaig Bard on account of his being such a good Gaelic poet and improvisatore, owned a collie dog in the sixties which learned to point at bees5 nests. On one occasion when he was taking quite a short turn on one of his beats on my property his dog found thirty bees5 nests for him, some of which contained quite a saucerful of honey and bee-bread. Nowadays an egg-cup would hold all the honey one could find in a long summer’s day.

Cameron tells me that, as a young boy, before he left his home, there was an island in Loch bhad a chreamha (Lake of the Clump of Garlic) where there was no necessity for hunting for bees’ nests, as the whole island seemed under bees, the nests almost touching each other in the moss at the roots of tall heather. As may be imagined, that island was a very popular resort of the Naast boys. My stalker, too, informs me that his home at Kernsary used to be quite famous for its wild bees, but they finally disappeared just nineteen years ago.

So much for our degenerate climate!


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