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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XV - Smuggling and Sheep Stealing


A book dealing with the Highlands could not be considered complete if it omitted to tell something about the drinking habits and about smuggling in the old days. So I quote once more from my uncle:

“I never saw or heard of champagne, hock, claret, etc., on our table, only madeira, sherry, and port of the best quality that could be procured. In my father’s day, and long after, doctors and every other person were satisfied that health depended greatly on the quantity of 'good' liquor a person swallowed daily.

I have seen, though not in our home, men of note glad of the help of the wall on entering the drawing-room after dinner, until a chair or a sofa came within reach.

“I heard him say that once, going unexpectedly to Gairloch without sending notice beforehand, he was surprised by the want of the usual joy on his appearing, and was sure something was wrong. It turned out that a vessel loaded with brandy, claret, etc., had been chased into the bay by a revenue cutter, and willing hands had carried the cargo into Tigh Dige, into which my father had to enter by a ladder through a window. The revenue folk never dreamed of looking for the casks in Tigh Dige,

“Once, when there on my Edinburgh holiday, the Rover's Bride anchored in the bay, and the skipper. James Macdonald, as popular a man as ever stood in leather and a distant connection of ours, was of course hailed for dinner. He was bound for Skye, and hearing I was longing for a chance of getting there to visit our friends, the Mackinnons of Corry, Mrs. Mackinnon being sister to Aunty Kerrysdale, James offered me a passage. When on board next day he asked me to guess his cargo. I said 'Salt for herrings' but his reply was: *Tubs of brandy! I'm straight from Bordeaux, and the cruiser is not afloat that can lay salt on the Bride if there is an air of wind".

"Even so late as then, say 1820, one would go a long way before one met a person who shrank from smuggling. My father never tasted any but smuggled whisky, and when every mortal that called for him—they were legion daily—had a dram instantly poured into him, the ankers of whisky emptied yearly must have been numerous indeed. I don't believe my mother or he ever dreamed that smuggling was a crime. Ere I was twenty he had paid 1,000 for the *superiority" of Platcock, at Fortrose, to make me a commissioner of supply and consequently a Justice of the Peace and one of the about thirty or forty electors of the county of Ross; and before it had occurred to me that smuggling was really a serious breach of the law, I had from the bench fined many a poor smuggler as the law directs. Then I began to see that the "receiver*—myself, for instance, as I drank only *mountain dew" then—was worse than the smuggler. So ended all my connection with smuggling except in my capacity as magistrate, to the grief of at least one of my old friends and visitors, the Dean of Ross and Argyle, who scoffed at my resolution and looked sorrowfully back on the happy times when he was young and his father distilled every Saturday what was needed for the following week. He was of the same mind as a grocer in Church Street, Inverness, who, though licensed to sell only what was drunk off the premises, notoriously supplied his customers in the back shop. Our pastor, Donald Fraser, censuring this breach of the law, was told, ‘But I never approved of that law' which was an end to the argument. He and the Dean agreed entirely that the law was iniquitous and should be broken.

“Laws against smuggling are generally disliked. People who if you dropped a shilling would run a mile after you with it, not even expecting thanks, will cheerfully break the law against smuggling. When I was young everyone I met from my father downwards, even our clergy, either made, bought, sold, or drank cheerfully, smuggled liquor. Excisemen were planted in central stations as a terror to evil-doers, but they seemed to stay for life in the same localities, and report said they and the regular smugglers of liquor were bosom friends, and that they even had their ears and eyes shut by blackmail pensions from the smugglers. Now and again they paraded in the newspapers a 'seizure of whisky' to look as if they were wide awake; wicked folks hinted that the anker of whisky was discovered and seized when it was hidden in the gaugers’ peat stack! This saved the gauger much trouble searching moors and woods for bothies and liquor. I was assured that one of our old gaugers, when pensioned off, retired rich enough to buy a street in a southern town, and I believe the story was quite true. Indeed, in my young days few in the parish were more popular than the resident gauger. Alas! when the wicked Commissioners of Excise went in for ‘riding officer ’ and a squad of horrid coastguard sailors with long, iron-pointed walking-sticks for poking about wherever earth seemed to have been lately disturbed, it ended all peace and comfort in smuggling, for these rascals ransacked every unenclosed bit of country within their limits each month; accordingly, the gauger soon began to be the most detested of men.

“In the good old times, when we were going to shoot, my mother often called Hector Cameron, our dear shooting help, gave him a tin can, and desired him to bring it back with barm—i.e., yeast. It never occurred to her that we might fail to meet with a bothy where brewing was carried on ere we came home. I have been in several during an ordinary day’s walk in moor or wood, and of course had a mug of sweet 'wort’ or a drop of dew and drank to the brewer’s good luck. In those days we baked at home, and as barm from the recognised beer-makers was generally bitter from the hops used, and my mother and we children could not eat bitter bread, what could the dear soul do but prefer barm from the smugglers? On the watershed between Strath Bran and Eannich, in sight almost of the road in Strath Bran, between Dingwall and Lochcarron, and on the hill road from Strath Bran to Lechky, within a few yards of its many passengers, I have been in a bothy with regularly built, low stone walls, watertight heather thatch, iron pipes leading cold spring water to the still-rooms, and such an array of casks, tubs, etc., as told that gaugers never troubled their owners. They sometimes troubled malt barns, or rather caves. Once when shooting I fell through the cunningly concealed roof of such a cave into a heap of malt, within fifty yards of the present high-road above Riverford.

“Once in the Dingwall court a criminal came before us Justices accused by two cutter-men of being caught making malt. On the way to Wyvis by a country road, the cutter policemen observed a grain or two of barley, then some more, and at length a continuous stream of grain, which had evidently dropped from a hole in a sack carried in a cart or on a horse. In due time the grains ceased opposite to a steep heather-clad hillock close to the road. A poke from their wicked iron-pointed sticks showed that the heather belonged to a pile of blocks of turf nicely arranged, and when these were pulled down, lo and behold! there was the door to a hillock cave in which malt was being nicely made. In the absence of the maltster one of the cutter-men got into the cave, while his comrade built up the turf neatly again as if no one had touched it, and then hid himself behind a heather knoll ready to pounce out when required.

“Soon after this the maltster came up the road, stopped at the hillock, pulled down the turf and got in, all but his feet. In a second these were flourishing in the air, while fearful shouts came from the cave, and in a minute out came the maltster, coatless, and away he ran down the road like mad, while his opponent emerged from the cave with the coat in his hand. He and his comrade ran after the maltster, and caught him in his house. One can easily imagine the maltster’s thoughts when, sure that all was safe as usual, he was grappled by two hands the moment his head was in the cave. He admitted he knew it must be Satan who seized him. It is very seldom the Bench is so convulsed with laughter as it was when listening to this smuggling story.

“Many years after, when I was factor for Gairloch, I had to support the anti-smugglers, and I warned the crofters that anyone convicted of smuggling would be evicted; for, irrespective of law-breaking, no person who works in a smuggling bothy is ever a well-doing, rent-paying tenant. One day the riding officer and his two helps came to complain that Norman Mackenzie, a Diabaig tenant, had been caught brewing ‘dew' and after beating him and his two men badly had escaped and absconded, and that as I could, of course, lay hands on him, I must, as a Justice of the Peace, do so, and commit him to Dingwall, eighty miles off! I could only promise to do what I could, and, getting word to Norman, who was about the smartest and best young crofter on the estate, I had an interview with him. His excuse was that he was going to be married, and that he could not ask his friends to drink the horrid Parliament whisky. So he was making some proper stuff for them merely for his marriage. He could not imagine that this was a reasonable cause for eviction.

“Alas! in spite of my desire to protect Norman, I could not help telling him he must go to Dingwall and give himself up to the Sheriff, our law agent going with him and explaining matters. So he was landed in the gaol, and in a day or two I had a letter from our agent saying Norman was fined 30 or thirty days in gaol, and that he feared Norman would ‘go out of his mind' with the public disgrace of the thing. But, like many well-doing crofters, Norman had a poke of money in my hands in case of a rainy day, people like him dreading their friends knowing they were ‘men of money' which would leave them no rest till it was all borrowed from them; so I wrote to our agent telling him, if he got Norman's consent, to pay the fine and put to my debit his 30 fine, then loose him, and let him go home. But the few days in the far too cosy gaol had quite dispelled Norman's sense of degradation, so he declined to pay the fine, and at the end of the month he came home, if a sadder and wiser man, at any rate not a poorer one!

“Why does any accident happening to a gauger give general pleasure—far more so than an accident to a policeman? I have heard of a Strathglass gauger being quietly murdered. It was known he would on such a day and hour be riding to where he knew a bothy was in full work. One part of the road wound round a corner where a step missed would probably land horse and rider one hundred feet below in a horrid rocky ravine. As he came round the corner a woman rose up’ from the side of the road and suddenly threw her gown over her head in an apparently innocent fashion to shelter herself from the wind; the horse instantly lurched over into the ravine, and both it and its rider soon died from the accident to the sorrow of the smugglers.

“Sometimes the Dingwall Sheriff was not so ready to imprison law-breakers as he was in Norman's case. One day when I was factor for Gairloch a boat's crew from Craig brought before me at Tigh Dige one of their neighbours who had been caught red-handed killing their sheep. They had heard of a sermon to be preached at Shieldaig, of Applecross, on a week-day, and, there being only four tenants at Craig township, were surprised when the fourth refused to take the fourth oar and go with them on the ground that he was not well. When they reached Shieldaig they found the preacher had not come, so they turned home, and were there too early for ‘number four,’ whom they found, though he had told them in the morning he was poorly, coming down the hill by the peat path with a creel on his back, which, of course, could not contain peats, as that drudgery was left to the inferior animals, the women. The three were soon alongside of their friend, and, lifting some heather from the top of the creel, there they found a sheep-skin belonging to one of the anxious enquirers, and below it the sheep cut up for the salt cask. Then they made him take them to where he had left the head, etc. They had often missed sheep before, and, seeing wool so over-plentiful with number four, were satisfied he was too fond of mutton!

“A Sassenach may doubt our west-coast crofters being able to catch sheep by running them down on the open moor or hill, but it is constantly done when they need wool and have no sheep-dog, and at night sheep are quite easily handled when sleeping. So next morning the criminal, with his head low enough, was brought before me; and, not having in these degenerate times the power of pit and gallows at my command, I had after examination to issue a warrant sending him to Dingwall gaol for trial. He made no defence, but when I asked what possessed him to kill the sheep he replied, ‘The devil!’ The end of the story is that he was home in a few days, the Sheriff, without any enquiry, beyond the statement in the committal warrant, informing me that the Lord Advocate did not think it a case for prosecution! So all I could do was to eject him, and I learned he was welcomed on the neighbouring Torridon estate, where no doubt he found the mutton as good as at Craig!

“A somewhat similar case occurred to our stalker, Watson. At Badachro my father had long ago given a site for a house as a feu. A mutton-lover had been ejected from Aultbea, and got a room belonging to the feu.' Watson had a tame ewe always feeding near his house, well-marked by half her face being black. She was *there yesterday, gone to-day". He was sure his neighbour had taken it. The neighbour and his wife and family always looked well-fed, though no person knew where their food came from. One day one of their children, five years old, was inveigled into Watson's to get *a piece". Asked how they were getting on, the child answered, ‘Very well'. ‘ What had they for dinner yesterday? ‘ Mutton and broth.' *Did they eat all the mutton? ‘No; the rest of it was salted." *What did they do with the skin?' ‘It's below the bed.' Instead of getting a search-warrant, Watson waited till he saw me a week after, and by then nothing was found.

"About that time a great flood had changed the course of the Kenlochewe River. On the bank stood the bothy of a strongly suspected mutton-lover, a pauper with a wife and well-fed children, he himself being sickly and on the poor roll. His sole occupation lay in keeping two collies, and they provided a constant supply of puppies, which he carried about and used to sell, for the amusement of the children to the poorest crofters, for the more prosperous ones rarely have dogs. Now, his bothy, before the rain changed the gravelly course of the river, stood on the bank of a deep black pool. This pool soon lost all its water, and was then exposed as the cemetery for innumerable bones of sheep, which had undoubtedly been thrown in there from the bothy, where the mutton had been consumed, though never bought for the family supply.

“I had been joking once with Rory Oag about his never improving his stock, as all others did, by buying new rams. He decided to follow my advice, and actually bought a good ram and sent him off to the hill among the ewes. A few days after, longing for a look of him, he took a walk on the moor, where his dog directed his notice to—his new ram’s head! A mutton-lover had caught and killed it, and carried off the body, but had left the huge horned head as being too heavy for its value in broth! The thief was evidently sorry to see such an unusually fat sheep on Rory’s moor, and probably 'borrowed’ him the very night he was turned loose. Rory never threw his money away again to improve his stock. In cases so strongly suspicious as these I have mentioned, I always saved Sheriff, Lord Advocate, etc., all trouble, by merely evicting paupers and crofters who had no visible means of support to make them fat and rosy, at the request in private of all their suffering neighbours.

“Sheep-stealing on a different and large scale was then general all over the north. Ere I became tenant of Wyvis, a Mr. Mitchell had it stocked with blackfaced wedders. He lived in the south generally. Stock going south from Ross-shire must cross the Caledonian Canal bridges. One day Gillespie, tenant of Ardachy, being at the Fort Augustus bridge, came upon some hundreds of black-faced dinmonts driven by two ordinary shepherds. Sheep have marks on the face or ears made by their owners to prevent theft or the loss of stragglers. Many sharp sheep-farmers know the marks of each farm, and Ardachy at once knew these were Wyvis dinmonts. So he said to the driver, ‘Where are you going with Mr. Mitchell's dinmonts?' and was answered, ‘To the south.' Months afterwards, happening to meet Mitchell, he said: ‘So you're changing your stock on Wyvis.'

*Indeed I am not,' was Mitchell's reply. ‘Then go and count your dinmonts,' said Ardachy, ‘ and you’ll be surprised.' And so Mitchell was, for they were nearly all gone!

“I had a flock of four hundred to five hundred dinmonts (cheviots) on one part of Wyvis, herded by George Hope. They were always on the same ground, and were all safe one Saturday afternoon, but not a tail was to be seen on the following Monday morning. Hope spent days travelling all round the country looking for them before I heard of the theft. By that time they were ‘over the hills and far away.' We traced them across the canal bridges and into Morayshire but not a hoof ever returned to Wyvis. The great sheep-farmer, Walter Scott, told me he gave up sheep-farming in the Lews, as he could not count on having less than five hundred or six hundred ‘missing' sheep every year."


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