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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XII - Reminiscences


Now I want to say something about my grandfather, Sir Hector Mackenzie, the fourth baronet, generally spoken of among Highlanders as An tighearna Storach (the buck-toothed laird). My uncle writes:

"I always think of my father as well on in life perhaps because we never saw him excited about anything, but always going about quietly, as if thinking deeply. If a dog pointed at a covey, he of course shot a bird with each barrel, but he never showed a trace of anxiety as to whether we picked them up or not, or where the other birds went. He was as quiet and composed as if it were none of his business, but only ours. I never heard of his having gone deer-stalking or taken part in any exciting work, but, though so quiet, he was always ready for a *twa-handed crack" and was bright and cheery about past, present and future. He enjoyed his meals and was a good hand at breakfast, being especially fond of smoked salmon and venison collops, at which none alive could match Kate Archy. If a dish met him with pepper in it, which he detested, he would quietly give it up, saying, perhaps, "I wish pepper was a guinea an ounce" or *The Lord sent us meat; we know where the cooks come from." On the sideboard there always stood before breakfast a bottle of whisky, smuggled of course, with plenty of camomile flowers, bitter orange-peel, and juniper berries in it—‘bitters' we called it—and of this he had a wee glass always before we sat down to breakfast, as a fine stomachic.

“It is impossible to imagine him mixed up with any jolly, rackety ploy, but I can see him now plainly standing on the edge of a drain for hours, directing every spadeful of earth thrown out or stone put in—for tiles were long after his day. He always held in his hand his double Joe Manton with flint-locks, in case of some vermin showing itself or a hare asking for a sudden shot; and as he was never in a hurry to fire and never fired till the animal was covered by the gun-button, the distance at which his gun killed seemed incredulous. At other times he would be busy directing the gardener about some plant, or would sit at his desk going over his rental ledgers, or listening to some complaint from a tenant. About Martinmas-time he would ride of! to Gairloch from Conon on his pony to collect rents, with saddle-bags behind him, but no valet, groom, factor, or clerk to help, and before Mackintosh's waterproof days, with no better waterproof cloak than a camlet. What a blessing it would be to landlord and tenant were all lairds now as well acquainted with their tenants and their circumstances as he was! He was the only son of his mother, and, I may add, the only child, and was left an orphan when a mere infant. His Uncle Mackenzie of Millbank, near Dingwall, had charge of him, and he seems to have grown up anyhow, till he fell into the hands of a tutor —the only one he ever had—the Rev. Mr. Robertson (afterwards Dr.), Minister of Eddleston in Peeblesshire.

I have no doubt this gentleman cared for him as well as he could, else my father would never have chosen Robertson's son, the third successive member of the family to be Minister of Eddleston, to be tutor to us five boys.

“I think my father was born about 1758. He was short in height, only about 5 feet 5 inches, but in breadth and strength few of any height could match him. His juniper walking-stick, now beside me, is only 2 feet 6 inches long. It is said that some celebrated athlete, hearing of his great strength, contrived to meet him and shake hands with him. My father had heard of the boaster, and on their meeting gave him such a wild squeeze that he just howled to be let go, and took care never to try another. I don't believe any person ever saw my father visibly out of temper or in a hurry. My mother and he spoke Gaelic as freely as English— a great tie between them and their people. I never heard of his wearing a kilt or tartan in any shape. Tweeds were unknown seventy years ago, and I remember him always in iron-grey shooting-jackets, lighter trousers, gaiters and shoes, his waistcoat loose enough to hold easily his large leather snuff-box, divided in the centre, one end full of Eribourg and Pontees'

*Yellow Irish Blackguard,' which he used himself, and the other containing *Black Rappie' for friends who preferred that more filthy powder. Whether or not it was owing to my father always using *Irish Blackguard,' no one ever could tell that he was a snuffer, or saw a spot on his always displayed shirt-breast ruffles. As a great favour I was sometimes allowed by the maids in the laundry to plait the ruffles with an old blunt pen-knife aided by my thumb, and in return for this favour I suppose we ceased sometimes to plague and worry the maids on all suitable or unsuitable occasions.

“For full-dress, he wore a blue swallow-tail with gilt buttons, a buff or white waistcoat, and black trousers with grey-marble silk stockings. He wore no shirt collars, but round his neck was any number of unstarched, soft white muslin neckerchiefs rolled round and round till I suppose he could have endured no more, without losing all power of turning his head. There was a wee knot on the last roll in front, and below that a grand display of my plaited shirt-ruffles sticking through his waistcoat (I admit I never got much praise from the laundry-maids for my starching abilities). His shoes were suited to gouty feet, although he suffered that misery more in his knuckles than his feet. I have even seen him with nankeen trousers during our old-fashioned summers, to which I have alluded before. I don’t believe he ever owned a dressing-gown or a pair of cosy slippers. At least, I have seen him shaving with nothing on him but a day-shirt, and that in winter. He despised cosiness, but liked to lie on a sofa in the afternoon or evening after a long day occupied in superintending farm work. I seem to see him now on the sofa in the parlour at Tigh Dige, reading newspapers with his head towards the fire and light, and when one was thoroughly read he nipped a bit out of it to prevent a second reading. Except for small mutton-chop whiskers, he was always clean shaven, and never used warm water or any such fine nonsense. His income was about £3,000 a year. The shootings were not let in his time, in the Highlands at least. Landlords then were not so often hard up as now, when with three times their income there is homoeopathic hospitality very different indeed from the lavishness in his house. All is now stored up for cutting a splash in London or abroad, just as a couple of big game battues in the year replace the continuous moderate shooting throughout the season which people formerly offered their friends.

“'Father/ Frank would say,‘ they tell me there is an officer come to-day to the inn at Ceann-t-saile.‘ Frank, run and find out his name,’ was the reply. 'Give him my compliments, and say I hope he will come up at once with his things and remain here till he is obliged to leave.’ The idea of a gentleman—ladies in those days never inspected our country—being allowed to remain at an inn was contrary to all rules of Highland hospitality and thought disgraceful. The entertained were not always angels unawares, but one day there arrived Major Colby, of the Engineers, who, with a sergeant and some privates, had been sent to the northwest as pioneers of the Government plans for the Ordnance Survey of Britain, a great work, hardly completed yet, though I must be writing of about the year 1816. My father caught many a fish on his hospitality hook, but never one like Colby, a highly educated man of science, from astronomy all the way downwards, full of every kind of information, and most able and glad to pass it on to others. He had been all through the wars with Buonaparte, yet was always ready to come shooting or fishing in burn, loch, or sea with us if his men were carrying on routine work which only needed his presence occasionally. He was with us nearly the whole summer, and I remember what high spirits he was in one day when one of his people won a prize by throwing the sun's rays from a concave mirror from, I think, the top of Slioch to the Clova Hills in Kincardineshire through some glen or other, thus enabling these spots to be fixed accurately for mapping. He was much interested by our dear Uncle Kenneth's account of the war with Hyder Ali and the siege and taking of Seringa-patam, at which Uncle Kenneth was present. He retired afterwards to Kerrysdale, and seemed to be more peaceful and happy than anyone I ever knew.

“My father never went out to kill a .heavy bag. Such things were never boasted of in those times as now, when a man who shoots, say, one hundred brace in a day is looked up to as quite a hero. Except to vary the house diet and to give some game to a tenant, killing grouse was mere waste, there being no way to dispose of it, no steamers, no railways, no wheels to Gairloch to send the game broadcast all over the kingdom. There was then as much game as could be expected when the gamekeeper was merely a game-killer and never dreamt of trapping vermin. My father shot any kind of vermin that happened to come in his way or hunted them with the dogs. When he went to shoot some grouse we small boys always begged to be allowed to carry the dead. One day I remember so well his astonishing us. From a small bit of water and reeds behind Badachro up got five mallard in front of us; his first barrel brought down two, and after a long wait for the second shot, away it went, and brought down the other three. The cool old hand did not pull trigger till the ducks crossed each other’s flight, as ducks often do. A hasty gunner would have fired at once and bagged probably only one. Those were the days of flint-locks. What trouble I have had on a wet day trying to keep the powder in the outside pan dry, or hammering a blunt flint or enquiring for a new one! When I fired I really had to keep the gun for a time pointed at the mark till the explosion took place, whereas now the whole is off like greased lightning. My father always carried his gun on his left arm behind his back, and when a bird or a hare got up unexpectedly before him he took things so coolly that I have seen him use up a pinch of snuff he had between his right thumb and forefinger ere ‘Manton’ went up to his shoulder and he touched its trigger; but ‘Joe’ could not scatter his shot, and if the gun were held straight no bird or beast was safe in front of my father at eighty yards’ distance.

“Our dinner hour at Tigh Dige was 5 p.m. Beyond washing face and hands, there was no dressing for dinner, as there was always some evening ploy unless it was very wet; indeed, people soon became careless about rain in the warm west, and semi-amphibious. At 9 p.m. a tray with curiously contrived dishes was brought in, four forming the outer ring on the tray and one on a raised stand in the centre. Potatoes and minced collops, rumbled eggs, some cutlets and patisserie, etc., exhausted the housekeeper's ideas of variety in the supper dishes. The meal was soon over, and when the tray had been removed a rummer tumbler, hot-water jug, milk-jug, sugar-bowl, and whisky-bottle, with sufficient wine-glasses, were placed on the table. My father put just one glass of 'mountain dew' into the rummer, then sugar, and then one toddy ladleful of milk. Though the 'dew' would be coarse and fiery, its toddy was made essentially mild as cream; only I nowadays would advise drinking the milk without the ‘dew.'

"My father was a great planter of trees, and all the big hard-wood trees scattered about the Baile Mor policies were planted by him. Wire fences were unborn in his day, and enclosing by paling every tree he took a fancy to plant here and there would have been impossible, so he adopted a most simple and effectual protection to his young trees wherever planted. He had a nursery whence hard-wood trees about eight to ten feet high were always ready to be transplanted into carefully prepared pits. In Gairloch in pre-sheep days thousands of wild roses grew everywhere, often eight to ten feet high. For every hard-wood tree transplanted a wild rose with many stems was carefully taken up and planted in the same pit. The rose stems were fastened to the hard-wood tree by wire ties, the result being that the most itchy cattle beast would go a mile for a scratch rather than touch a tree so thorn-protected. Every tree thus planted by my wise father was perfectly safe from injury by cattle, the briers living many years —indeed, almost for ever.

“My father had a poor opinion of those landed proprietors who, though quite aware that their heirs’ bread depended on their managing land and tenants successfully, gave them no chance of acquiring much information on the land that was to be their own some day. So, instead of giving his eldest son Frank an allowance of, say, £500 a year, which he could draw from the bank and use in capering about the world idle and useless until his father died, or in going into the Army to learn how easily life is wasted, he gave him a slice of the estate to manage for himself under his father’s eye. This portion, if properly cared for, would produce £500 a year, and the son could stay at home with his father and mother and help in many ways where needed. Part of Frank’s farms were Bogdoin and Tenahaun of Conon and the Isle of Ewe in Gairloch. There was plenty to do in these then wildernesses, and Frank put them into a very different condition from what he found them in, before his father’s death. He managed his property wisely and profitably, and my father’s expectations were entirely fulfilled. No young northern proprietor that I ever heard of gave his mind so entirely to agriculture as Frank did all his life.

“My memory shows me my father after breakfast standing on the edge of a drain he had lined out in a. field of the home farm, directing the men carefully, with ‘Joe Manton’ in his left hand. Many a small crofter would come and ask advice on rural matters, and my father would answer as carefully as if the £5 croft was a £200 farm. He would then move from the drain to some other improvement in progress, stopping a partridge or a hare if it unwisely crossed his road, or a grey crow or magpie which foolishly, unaware that a 'Joe’ killed at eighty yards, had the impertinence to set up their chat within what they believed was a safe distance. The boys were perhaps at lessons, and their mother deep in household matters with the housekeeper or cook at Conon. She might have arranged to meet father at a certain hour to inspect the flax crop, and see whether it was ready to pull, or, if pulled, had been long enough in the retting (rotting) pool, and was fit to take out for drying and scutching. When ready it was spun by the maids, and old Junor, the sheet and tablecloth weaver, finished it off for the well-stocked napery press.

“Only the other day I was using a towel of Junor’s make, still quite sound, marked ‘C. M. K., 1806' by my dear mother when I was three years old. It was part of the present to my wife on her marriage visit to Conon in 1826, which all young daughters-in-law in those days expected to get from their mothers-in-law. It is painful to contrast the placidly peaceful, happy life of my parents then with the rush and splash and constant feverish excitement all round us now in the same ranks of society. How eager is the pursuit of fancied happiness, which people imagine cannot be found in the peaceful life their wiser parents lived. One is reminded of the contrast between the light of a good steady lamp and the blaze and rush of a rocket, which too often ends in an explosion and sends the ancestral acres and home to smithereens! Then the wreckage is gathered up by wiser, quiet-going people, as we have seen in too many northern homes which are now occupied by people quite unknown in my young days.”

To show the enthusiasm of the people in past days for their lairds I must tell the following story. Very soon after my father’s death, my uncle, as factor for the estate, had occasion to come up to Gairloch, and took along with him my two half-brothers, aged twelve and ten. The Tigh Dige and the sporting rights of the whole Gairloch property had been let to an Irishman, Sir St. George Gore, for £300 a year on a lease, so my uncle and the boys put up at the small Ceann-t-saile Inn. When the crofters heard this they were frantic at the idea of an t’oidhre agus an tanaistar (the heir and the next in succession) not putting up in the ancestral home, and a mob of them came and surrounded the Tigh Dige, and threatened the Irishman that, if he did not at once invite my uncle and the boys to come and stay with him, he would find himself with a rope and stone round his neck at the bottom of Loch Maree! My uncle had the greatest difficulty in pacifying the people, and had to apologise most profusely to Sir St. George Gore, who was terrified and very nearly started shooting into the crowd. Before long, Sir St. George having proved himself a very unsatisfactory tenant, my uncle gave him notice to quit. This surprised him very much, as he knew he had a pretty long lease of the place, and was quite unaware that, in the case of an entailed property, by Scots law any lease of a mansion-house comes to an end on the death of the proprietor, so that the heir of entail can at once take possession of his home.

The Gairloch people were indeed devoted to their proprietor in those days. How often has my mother described them to me, and how often did she extol their very great merits! Still, when she and my uncle were ruling these five hundred to six hundred families of crofters it was an extra hard time for them, for first of all there was the potato blight—and want generally brings out the bad and not the good qualities of a people; then there was the great upheaval caused by the trustees deciding to do away with the runrig system and dividing all the arable land into crofts of about four acres. They forced the people to pull down their old insanitary houses, where the cattle were under the same roof as human beings, and where the fires were on the floor in the centre of the dwelling-room, with only a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, and made them build new and rather better houses on their crofts, the proprietor providing the timber. My mother told me many a time that, with very few exceptions, the one desire of the whole population seemed to be to learn how they could please the young laird, and how they could best fulfil the wishes of those who were managing this huge estate for him to the best of their abilities.

There is no doubt that the people of the west coast went through periods of terrible hunger in what we now speak of as “the good old times,” especially before the introduction of the potato. How they lived in prepotato days is a mystery. But even prior to the destruction caused by the potato blight, when the potatoes usually grew so well, there was hardly a year in which my grandfather and my father did not import cargoes of oatmeal to keep the people alive, and those cargoes were seldom, if ever, paid for by their poor recipients. One has only to look at the sites of the shielings even some miles from the sea, where great heaps of shells tell their tale. Shell-fish boiled in milk was a great stand-by in those days. I sometimes wonder that they did not carry the milk downhill to the coast, rather than carry the shell-fish up to the hills.

I remember my old faithful servant, George Maclennan, telling me a story which shows how scarce anything in the form of bread was even in comparatively modem times. George’s father was the postman at one time who carried the Lews and Poolewe mails through Creag Thairbh to Brahan Castle and Dingwall, fully sixty miles, and a good part of his salary consisted of boils of oatmeal. Consequently his house often had meal in it when the neighbours’ houses were empty. George as a boy was for some reason wandering over the wild moors up on the Fionn Loch side when he met a very old man, whom even I can remember, who was there with his cows at the shieling near the Airidh Mollach. The old man seemed very faint, and he admitted to the boy that he had not tasted anything in the form of bread for some days, living entirely on milk and the trout he was able to catch with his rod. George had a good supply of oatcake in his pocket, and he gave it to the old man, who was more than grateful.

Shell-fish must have been good strong food if there was something to take along with it, for I was always told that the finest and strongest family of young men ever known at Poolewe—Gillean an Alanaich (the Lads of Allan)—were a family who above all other families in the place were brought up on Maorach a Chladaich (the shell-fish of the shore). But there were shell-fish and shell-fish, and long ago, after sheep had been for some time on what are now my lands, a change was made by the then proprietor, Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, and the place was let to a lot of crofters from Melvaig, a township right out on the point of the Rudha Reidh. Well, as there were no stretches of sand and shingle out on this wild promontory and only rocks and precipices, the shell-fish they had been accustomed to eat was the limpet and that white whelk whose English name I do not know, but which is known in Gaelic as Gille Fionn (white lad). So when they shifted their abode to the head of Loch Ewe and had to live on oysters and mussels and cockles, they thought the change of diet did not altogether suit them, and, like the Israelites of old, they pined for the shell-pots of Melvaig. I was quite lately at the Rudha Reidh Lighthouse and passed through the sites of the old Melvaig shielings, where masses of limpet and whelk shells were still to be seen all around.

Here is another story of hard times. A very old friend of mine, who was always known at Poolewe as Mackenzie of Cliff House, told me that a great-uncle of his who had a farm at Kenlochewe suffered so badly one spring that he lost all his cattle, with the exception of one black heifer; the meal was done, and starvation stared him in the face. Early in May the heifer calved, and he and his wife put up a kind of bothy in Coire mhic Fhearchar between Meall a Ghiubhais and Beinn Eidh, in the very heart of what is now the Kenlochewe deer-forest, and there they lived on the milk of the heifer and venison. A deer would be killed from time to time, but not very often, as they were scarce in those days, and the venison would be hung up in the spray of a great waterfall, which entirely prevented any blue flies getting at it. Thus they spent five or six months, the happiest, they always declared, they ever spent in their lives, till the corn and potatoes ripened down in the glen in October, when they returned to their home in Kenlochewe.

I once asked an old man, Ali Dubh, who used to work for me, and who as a boy was often with grandparents living in one of the inland crofter townships of the parish of Gairloch, whether they did not sometimes suffer great hardships and hunger. His answer was as follows: “Oh, sometimes we had plenty. I remember one year when there was a terrible snow-storm early in the winter before Martinmas, and all the tenants' stock of goats were smothered at Meallan nan Gabhar. That year we had salted goat and smoked goat hams right on till near Whit-Sunday.” “And what about the following years?" I asked him. “Oh, indeed, it was many a long year before the tenants had meat, as it took so long to get up a stock of goats again.”


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