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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter IV - Boyhood


My dear mother was indefatigable in finding amusements for me and for all the rest of the young people. Collecting gulls' eggs on the islands of Loch Maree was a favourite pastime. We went on many an expedition in May and June, and, under the best of guides, Seumas Buidhe (Yellow James), the weaver at Slatadale, and his big apprentice, we used to get from 150 to 200 eggs in an afternoon. With the exception of perhaps three or four pairs of herring gulls and about the same number of the greater black backs (which always bred singly on isolated rocks), the whole gull population consisted of thousands of lesser black backs, which are, I believe, our only migratory gulls. Now, alas! they are all but gone. Before my time the great breeding-place of the gulls was the big island of Eilean Ruaridh Mor (Rory's Big Island). Then the gulls suddenly left, the popular belief of the cause of their desertion being that some party had gone birds’-nesting on a Sunday ! But I believe my father cleared up the mystery; he found out that a shepherd with his dog had landed on the island in the winter following the desertion of the gulls, and that the dog had caught and killed a big pine marten. The animal was so thin as to be little more than a skeleton; it had evidently driven the gulls to such a pitch of exasperation by eating their eggs and young ones that at last they had suddenly deserted Eilean Ruaridh Mor and made for Garbh Eilean, Eilean Suthainn, and other smaller islands where we used to go. It is interesting to speculate how the marten got to the island, seeing that Loch Maree never freezes.

How certain memories stick to one through life! Never shall I forget one birds’-nesting expedition when I was a very small boy, perhaps about six. I was wandering alone through the tangle of dwarf trees and tall heather intent on trying to get more eggs than anyone else of the par by, and had managed to fill every pocket I had, besides having two or three eggs in each J little hand. Suddenly I slipped among the rocks, and my reader can imagine the state my clothes and I were in when I rose to my legs!

In June and July our expeditions consisted in going to one of the best trout lochs in Scotland, Loch na k-Oidkche (the Night Loch), so called because the trout in it were supposed to take all night long. Fly was never thought of. We had three or four stiff larch rods with rowan tops, string for lines, and a hook at the end baited with earth-worms. Two men rowed the boat, we trolled the lines behind, and we used to get perhaps from 80 to 100 lovely golden-yellow trout, from half a pound to a pound in weight. They ran rather heavier on the Gorm Lochanan (Blue Lakelets) a little beyond Loch na h-Oidhche. Sometimes we put up at the Poca buidhe (Yellow Bag) bothy, but its roof in those days was very leaky, and there was little to be gained by being under its protection.

I used sometimes to long to pass the night instead in Uaimh Bhraodaig, a spot where my father and uncles had spent many nights when deer-stalking, and where there was room for two or three fellows to lie down close together. IJaimh is Gaelic for “cave,” but it was hardly a cave: it was only a sort of hole under a gigantic fragment of rock in the wildest cairn I ever saw, with, perhaps, the exception of Carn nan Uaimhag, at the back of Beinn Airidh Charr. I shall give my uncle's description of it:

“When we went to the hill for deer, expecting to be home at night, after an early breakfast, we never dreamt of taking anything but a heel of cheese from the dairy with some thick barley scone, a favourite bread downstairs, and handy as never crumbling in one's pocket. But it happened to me when I came on deer late at night, as I have often done, I could not get home till next day. Once night fell on me when alone ten miles from home with a stag and hind that I had not finished gralloching ere it was so dark that I could hardly see my way to a large stone called Uaimh Bhraodaig,' which gave tolerable protection to two or three people in need from the rain and wind in those hills. I managed, however, and on my way startled a foolish old grouse, who, not caring a straw for me, perched on a great stone so nicely between me and the evening star that he got a little round hole from my rifle that qualified him for supping with me, when skinned hot and made into a spatch-cock that needed no sauce to be enjoyed extremely, the cheese and scone having disappeared by midday. My friend and I just reached Uaimh Bhraodaig in time to gather some of the large heather sticks found near such rough ground, and with my flint and tinder box (for lucifers were a pleasure yet to come) I got up a little fire for cooking and warming my wet feet before I rolled my plaid about me as bed and bedding. That reminds me that, often as I have slept on the hill sound enough till cockcrow, I never saw anyone who could sleep through the early morning chill, even though dry and stuffed into a heap of dry heather. Uaimh Bhraodaig was half-way up the eastern shoulder of Beinn an Eoin (the Bird Mountain), and for, say, 500 yards all round it was a heap of great stones left there by Noah, bad enough to clamber over in daylight, but detestable in the dark, and only to be endured in preference to a long, cold, wet night on the open hill. I had roasted and finished my much-admired grouse, and had, of course, taken off my wet shoes—wet leather ensuring cold feet all night, whereas even with wet stockings, if I stuffed my feet into a bundle of dry heather they generally got warm enough not to prevent sleep. I was just dozing, lulled by the croaking of some ptarmigan (their song sounds so different from that of the red grouse or black game) as they flew from the hill-tops in the evening to sup on the heather they can only get lower down. A Yorkshire farmer who had been sent to our parts used to insist that gravel must be their food, as nothing else was within their reach on the hill-tops! Suddenly I heard a very different music from that of the ptarmigan, evidently the voices of people, some of whom were so out of temper that it was anything but psalmody which in the dead calm night floated up some hundred yards to my annoyed ears quite clearly. The sweet songsters of the hill were benighted poachers making for Uaimh Bhraodaig, and as we were alone and preferred having no bed-fellows, I handled my rifle and went outside. I distinctly heard very ugly language regarding the quality of the road over which they were scrambling and stumbling much more than they liked in their iron-shod shoes; so, making my voice-sound as unearthly as possible, I groaned out loudly in Gaelic, "Who is there? Wait till I get you". There was instant silence, and then such a scrimmage and capering about on the big stones as sent me back to my bundle of heather delighted to be left with no comrades but the ptarmigan till daylight. Years after I learnt that two lovers of venison more than of law had been out on a private stalk, and had a miraculous escape from Satan, who nearly got them on the hill at night.

I myself was told as a boy a terrible story connected with Uaimh Bhraodaig, and I give it here as told to me. A brocair (fox-hunter), being benighted on the hill somewhere near the upper end of Beinn an Eoin, thought the only thing to do was to pass the night in Uaimh Bhraodaig. Some time during the night a terrible apparition appeared to him, and he fled before it, accompanied by his two lethjjioin (lurchers), and ran as never man ran before. Across his path was the Garabliaig River, which flows into Loch Maree. He took a flying leap across one of its chasms, which was quite beyond the powers of any ordinary human being, and landed on the other side, but both his dogs, which attempted to follow him, fell into the river and were drowned. The brocair was quite a young man, and had not a grey hair in his head when he entered Uaimh Bhraodaig, but by the time he reached the first house in Talladale his head was as white as driven snow. This story was believed to be quite true by everyone when I was a boy.

Birds’-nesting expeditions were also made to the islands of Loch Maree after ospreys’ eggs. There were two eyries there, one of them in a real curiosity of a place—namely, in Eilean Suthainn, one of the biggest of the islands in Loch Maree. There is a small loch, and in this loch (the depth of which is about double that of the neighbouring Loch Maree), there is an island on which stood one big Scots fir. In it was the ospreys’ nest, as large as a waggon-wheel, with three eggs. It was lined with lumps 'of wool and bits of cow-dung, and lying at the foot of the tree I found a dead mallard, which appeared to have been freshly killed by the ospreys! There was another fir-tree where they bred on a promontory nearly opposite Isle Maree, from which I got two eggs. But, alas! the birds have been extinct in that region for at least sixty-five years.

There were expeditions to eagles’ nests on the Creag Cheann Dubh (the Black-headed Rock) in Beinn a Bhric and on a rock opposite the Garbh choire of Bathais Bheinn. There, wonderful to say, we were able to walk into the nest. We were too late for the eggs, but we found two good-sized eaglets, and there were five whole grouse, quite freshly killed, lying near them, as beautifully plucked by the parent eagles as any well-trained kitchen-maid could have done.

I had often heard that shepherds made great use of eagles nests to fill their larders, and my uncle corroborates as follows: “Eagles sometimes built where not even a rope-dancer could get at them—a sad case for shepherds, who were accused of concealing the whereabouts of their nests when in accessible places. It was said that they tethered the eaglets to the nest long after they could fly, because until the young birds left the nest the parents never ceased to bring quantities of all sorts of game to feed them, quite half of which was said to go to the shepherds larder. A shepherd admitted to me that he once took a salmon quite fresh out of a whitetailed eagle's nest. Fawns, hares, lambs, and grouse were brought in heaps to the nest for months—an agreeable variety at the shepherd's daily dinner of porridge and potatoes and milk."

We also made expeditions seawards to Eilean Fuara and the Staca Buidh (Yellow Stack). My pet terrier Deantag (Nettle) was the first in my time to discover the stormy petrels nesting in large numbers in the cracks of the dry, peaty soil. None of the natives had been aware of this fact, because the petrels when breeding never show themselves in the daytime. Fuara thus became quite famous among ornithologists, but of later years steam drifters have been in the habit of leaving their herring-nets stretched out on the island for days to dry, and that finished the poor little “stormies," which, like so many other birds, have disappeared.

This is what my uncle says about stormy petrels in Longa: “On Sundays when there was no service in Gairloch Church my father often booked us boys for a sail in his charming thirty-foot-keel barge to visit some of the townships round the coast and have a kindly word with the people, or even a scold, though that was rarely needed. Sometimes we landed for a walk on Longa Island. It was about half a mile in diameter, all glens and moor, with good grass, which was kept for wintering for the young of the sixty Tigh Dige cows, so that they might be in the best of condition when ready for market the following year, dressed in their beautiful long, shining coats, the pride of Highland cattle. We often came home with faces nicely painted with blaeberry juice and also crowberries, for that most coveted wild fruit grew in Longa. When it was found out that Longa was our destination, a little dog was often put into the barge to help us to discover if one of the stormy petrels ("Mother Carey's Chicken"), who loved wild Longa as a breeding-place, was at home in the peat-holes or under flat stones, which were generally chosen by 'Mrs. Carey' as a waterproof covering for her wee white egg or little black, tiny pet. Doggie always knew by the wild, fishy smell whether 'Mrs. Carey' was at home or not, and thus saved us much Sunday digging in our endeavours to bring her to Tigh Dige to be shown to the dear mother."

In winter and early spring, when there were no birds’ eggs to be got, my mother and I used to fish vigorously. We had a good crew always ready, and setting cod-lines was great sport. I remember that on a certain fine sunny February morning the long lines had been set as usual overnight close off Longa Island, and we thought it a good opportunity to try for otters. There was a spring tide, and big George Ross, the keeper, with his gun and terrier formed part of the crew. We lifted our lines, and our small fourteen-foot row-boat could hardly contain the fish—sixty full-sized cod and two giant haddocks. Then we landed and tried the cairns along the shore without success, so we began cutting off the cods’ heads and getting rid of their insides to lighten the boat. While engaged in this we missed the terrier, Bodach (Old Man), and soon we heard a faint yelping high up in the interior of the island, where he had discovered otters. We followed him, and the keeper, leaning down and peering in, thought he could see the eyes of an otter a good way inside the cairn, so he let off the gun into the hole and killed it! Immediately another otter bolted and made across the heather for the sea. Everyone tore downhill after it, and someone giving it a lucky blow with a stick, it was secured before reaching the water. We came back with a nice mixed cargo.

My uncle was not so lucky. He says: “ We boys had offers out for young otters which we meant to train to fish for us at command, and one day, to our great delight, a lad brought to Tigh Dige a creel with four young otters. They were the size of kittens a month old, such dear little pets, and we instantly procured a tub of their native element, into which we emptied the little darlings. To our amazement, they yelled and strove like mad to get out of the tub. Then came old Watson the keeper and took a look at them, and he ruined all our hopes by quietly telling us they were young polecats!''

In this manner the days and the years passed by very happily. Nor was my education being neglected. I was always being taught a little, first by my old nurse, and afterwards by my mother's lady companion, who taught me English and Gaelic. I also went to a Gaelic Sunday-school class and thoroughly learnt my Gaelic Shorter Catechism; and the French boy read French with me under the direction of my mother. It was not the fashion in our family for the boys to be sent to school. My grandfather's plan was to have tutors, who spent the summers and autumns with the boys at Gairloch, and who went with them during the winter to Edinburgh, where they attended classes. None of my four uncles nor my father was ever at school, and it was my father's special wish that his sons should be brought up in the same manner.

I do not think it could be possible for any two young men to turn out greater successes than my two half-brothers, the late Sir Kenneth S. Mackenzie and his brother. Sir Kenneth was far and away the most esteemed man in the county of Ross. He was appointed Chairman of the Commissioners of Supply and Convener of the County Council, was at the head of everything that was good, and, like his grandfather, was Lord-Lieutenant of the County. My second brother, Francis, was quite as great a man, and equally beloved and respected. I quite agree with my grandfather and father that Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, do not by any means produce the best men as Highland proprietors; such training just turns them into regular Sassenachs! It is surely better that a Highlander should be something a little different from an Englishman. When they are sent to English schools as small boys of eight or nine years old, and their education is continued in the south, they lose all their individuality. They may be very good, but they have nothing Highland about them except the bits of tartan they sport, which were probably manufactured in the south and their kilts tailored in London! My uncle writes that his father, Sir Hector, and his wife, the bliantighearna madh (the auburn lady) as she was always called, spoke Gaelic to each other as often as they did English. Today my daughter and I do the same. Why should the present chiefs and lairds call themselves Highland if they can't speak a word of the language of their people and country? One would not call a man a Boer in South Africa if he could not speak a word of Dutch, nor call a man a French-Canadian if he could not converse in the French of his country, even though it be something of a patois. Then, again, many of the lairds are so unpatriotic as to have forsaken the Church of their forefathers. Instead of worshipping with their tenantry and their servants in the Presbyterian Church in their neighbourhood, they motor great distances to some chapel where they can find very ritualistic services and probably hear only a very poor sermon.

A distinguished lady remarked to me quite lately that the three best educated and most intelligent and most charming men she had ever come across in the course of her life had never been to a public school; and if I were asked who was all round the most intelligent and best educated man I ever came across, I should say it was my uncle John Mackenzie. He also was never at a public school.

One of the charms of the good old times in the Highlands was the strong family affection shown to relatives, even if not very near kin. My grandfather, Sir Hector, had two younger half-brothers, General John Mackenzie and Captain Kenneth Mackenzie. The General was known as “Fighting Jack,” and had distinguished himself in the Peninsular War and fought also at the Cape, India, Sicily and Malta, while the Captain was in all the great battles of his time in India. When they were disbanded after the great war they were naturally drawn to the homes of their youth, and my grandfather gave the younger one, Captain Kenneth, the farm of Kerrysdale, A Chathair bheag (the Little Throne or Seat), which then included part of what is now the Gairloch deer-forest. There he built a house and reared a large family of children and grandchildren, and thus he resided within about a mile of the Tigh Dige for, I think, about seventy years. General John passed a good part of his life at Riverford, and at Balavil Farm, close to the east-coast family mansion of Conon. In these modern times I often hear the horrid and unnatural assertion that it is disagreeable having one’s relatives all round one. So much for the twentieth century!

How I loved my two old grand-uncles! They were such pattern gentlemen of the old school. The General always accosted me in Gaelic when I was taken to see him in Inverness, where he latterly lived, and would ask me which parts of Loch Gairloch were fishing best. He said his heart was in Gairloch, and a common saying of his was that he would rather meet a dog from Gairloch than the grandest gentleman from any other place. I always felt it a feather in my cap having known so well my grand-uncle, who had served under the Earl of Cromartie, who had fought at Culloden on Prince Charlie's side! General John raised a whole company of a hundred men for the 78th Regiment of Ross-shire Highlanders, every man of them from the Gairloch property, and he died in 1860, aged ninety-seven, honoured and beloved by everyone. He had been sent to France as a boy and spoke French like a Frenchman, and his good Gaelic was a great help to him among his devoted men when fighting the French in the Peninsula. Speaking of his manners, my mother often told me that when living at Riverford, near Conon, he used to look in constantly in the afternoons, and, after a chat, when he left the room he always found his way out without turning his back on his hostess.

It was such a joy to me as a child walking over to Kerrysdale and being spoilt there with the kindness and hospitality of old Uncle Kenneth and Aunty Flora and their charming daughters and grandchildren. I remember so well in 1861 or 1862, when I was about nineteen, going to call on my old grand-uncle Kenneth at Kerrysdale, he being then past ninety. On my telling him that I was thinking of buying Inverewe, he brightened up, and told me that, when he was an ensign of only fifteen, one of the first jobs he had to do after getting his commission was to go with a party of non-commissioned officers and men to get recruits from Aird House, the home of the laird of Gruinord. The lady of Gruinord, the Baniighearna bhuidh (the Yellow Lady), was at the time very keen to get a commission for her son. This could be managed if she provided a certain number of so-called recruits, so she turned her ground officers into a press-gang; they kidnapped a number of lads, sons of her numerous small tenants, and these she had safely confined in a black hole under the Aird House staircase. It has always been said that she greased the soles of the feet of these lads and semi-roasted them opposite the fire until they were so tender that even if they escaped from the black hole, they could not go far! And it was to fetch these unfortunates that my grand-uncle was sent as a boy with his armed force. They made a very early start from Aird House, and he breakfasted with our relatives, the Lochend Mackenzies, at Inverewe, where they then lived in a long, low house thatched with heather. I give the menu of his breakfast, which he distinctly remembered. It consisted of a roast leg of mutton and a big wooden bowl of raspberries and cream. And he finished up his story by saying: “And if you, Osgood, make a garden there, I guarantee you will grow good raspberries in it."

We were not very expert at flowers in those days in the Baile Mor garden, but Lios na cathraclia bige (the Kerrysdale garden) was more up to date, my grand-uncle being, like most of the Gairlochs, keen on flowers and trees. I shall always remember the smell of Daphne and Ribes there, and the big clumps of Gladiolus cardinalis, which was not common in those days, and the lines of Christmas roses, which flourished and bloomed in winter and early spring and formed edgings to the garden walks.


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