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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XII. - Social Life and Morals


I HAVE read much, seen much, and lived long, and I do not think it within human nature possibilities that there ever could be or can be a more morally blameless community of a thousand people than was the one in which I was born and brought up. Of course there were a few wastrels, and not every one of the honestly industrious people was either a born or a converted saint. My friends the Gray Egyptians said that too much religious rule and teaching had done more evil than good, that it had knocked joyousness out of life, and rather lowered than raised the standard of honour, truthfulness, and sense of duty which existed in their own young days and in the days of their fathers. And I think the history of the Glen after Culloden, to a certain extent, bore out their contentions.

Between 1830 and 1843 the spiritual power ruled without a check. Of the three proprietors none was resident. Culdares was a minor away in England at school and college. Chesthill resided down at Duneaves, Fortingall, and Lord Breadalbane had no residence on his Roro estate, which he seldom if ever visited. Divided into wards, each of which had an elder or two, the Glen was wholly ruled in the years mentioned by minister and kirk session. It was good, wholesome rule, although needlessly intolerant in regard to the dancing, fiddling, song- singing, tale-telling amusements, and shinty play, putting-stone, and hammer-throwing games of pre- ceding generations. It was a rule which regularised wakes, and put an end to excesses at weddings and funerals. "Render to Csesar" preaching did more than excisemen and cuttersmen to convince Glen farmers that smuggling was sinful and should be discontinued. It was not easy to convince any Highland growers of here and barley that the English Parliament had not done them gross injustice in the whisky business, and that they had not a perfect moral right to convert their grain into malt and whisky, which found a ready market in the Lowlands, and made it easy for them to pay their rents.

Glenlyon smuggling was almost brought to an end before I began to range over hills and to take note of the secret places in which, not long before, whisky used to be secretly distilled. The old Highland smugglers, unlike modern ones, turned out splendidly manufactured whisky, which, how- ever, required some maturing delay before it attained its perfection. My dear old friend, Mr Murray-Macgregor, minister of Balquhidder, gave me more than once a taste of smuggler's whisky, distilled in Glenbuckie thirty or forty years before then. It was singularly aromatic. It did not grip the throat like raw whisky, but it sent quickly a pleasant feeling of warmth through one's whole body. The excise people had seized the smuggler's big barrel when he was taking it to the Lowlands. After having been declared forfeited by the Gallander Justices of the Peace, it was sold, and one of them, Captain Stewart of Glenbuckie, bought it. In 1846 Captain Stewart's son sold Glenbuckie to Mr David Carnegie, and went to Argyllshire, where he bought the Island of Coll. On leaving Balquhidder, he gave the minister what remained of the smuggler's whisky a half-dozen bottles or so which for the next twenty years the minister doled out to friends as a real curiosity.

This leads me to another little story of smuggled whisky. In 1826 Archibald Stewart, Craigelig (Gilleaspa Mor), one of the four partners in our Eight Merkland club farm, was about to marry my aunt, Mary Campbell. He was as strictly honest and honour- able a man as ever stood in shoe leather, but he thought it then no sin nor shame to make the whisky for his own wedding out of his own "eorna." He made a good deal more than \vas consumed at the wedding. He put the surplus I forget how many gallons in a big earthen jar, which, carefully stoppered, he carried on a dark night to Car Dunshiaig, and buried it there in a peat bog where it was to stay hidden until wanted for sale or use. Weeks or months elapsed before he went to see in daylight the place in which he buried the jar on a mirk night. He then searched for it in vain, for in the interval a great flood had washed away his marks and very much changed the whole face of the moss. For the next nineteen years at every sheep gathering he took the beat that led him through Car Dunshiaig, and in passing he searched for his lost jar with a long iron probe, but he never found it.

Gilleaspa Mor, with a large family, a mother ninety years old, and two widowed sisters with large families, emigrated in 1846 to the London district of Ontario, where there was a brother previously settled and glad to give them all a hearty welcome. Now, 1908, there is a large clan of Stewarts, exclusive of the many descendants of daughters, representing the two brothers in Ontario and Manitoba. Gilleaspa Mor was perfectly sure that no one but himself knew about the burial of the jar in Dunshiaig moss, and almost equally confident that if by chance anyone found it, the discovery would have been revealed to him. From the anti-septic, hermetically-sealing nature of peat, it is likely that the whisky is still contained in the buried jar, and if so, and it is ever found, a bottle of it would be a gift for a king. It must not be supposed that much of the whisky illicitly distilled before smuggling was cried down by the Church was consumed in the Glen itself, for that was not the case. It was made for export and profit, and the very magistrates who sat in judgment on detected smugglers had a good deal of sympathy with them.

The obstinate belief of Glenlyon men that they were wronged and robbed of an ancient right, in being prevented from freely making the most profitable use of their fine "eorna" had a good deal of historical justification ; for the making of malt for sale was a Glen trade from the ancient times when kings came there to hunt in their own prehistoric forest. Until he went to reign in England, James VI. came annually with many followers to hunt in the then much reduced belt of that old forest which still stretched across the heads of Glenlochy and Glenlyon to Bendoran and the Coireachan Batha, or Blaek Mount tops, about which the Marchioness of Breadalbane has lately been writing in "Blackwood." The royal hunter and his party were a drouthy lot. John Dow Malster, the Laird of Glenlyon's "maor," or land steward, was busily employed before the hunting season in converting the laird's rent in kind "eorna," and the purchased surplus "eorna" of the tenants, into malt and ale. When royal demand failed and finally ceased, the tenants had to carry the malt to Perth and Stirling to be sold there. James II. had a "pubal," or wooden hunting lodge in the braes of Glenlyon, but it was in the days of his grandson, James IV., who had his court at Insecallan, on the Glenorchy side of the watershed, that the whole district profited most from the annual coming of the King and his followers and many visitors from adjacent Highland districts. With his free command of their language, appreciation of their music, songs, and heroic poetry, and chivalrous if not wholly faultless personal qualities, James IV. was the king for the Highlanders, and had his reign not been cut short by the fatal error of rushing to meet his fate at Flodden, the subsequent history of Scotland would certainly have been of a less disturbed and regretful complexion. His descendant, the British Solomon, was not a man of noble or fascinating character, but he was affable, homely, shrewd, and accessible, and, as the last king who spoke Gaelic, "Seumas Mac Mairi," was fairly popular in the forest lands. It was through the forest that the potato got into Glenlyon. I was told that the introduction took place when Seumas Mac Mairi was king, and in corroboration manifest signs of old lazy- beds were pointed out. If the introduction took place early in the 17th century, the next century was well advanced before the potato was ranked as a main crop in Glenlyon agriculture.

The "Gray Egyptians," on information from their seniors and personal knowledge, asserted that for the century before the religious revival the inhabitants of the Glen were as temperate drinkers as it was physically and morally wholesome for any community to be. In my time that was truly the case, a few ne'er-do-weels excepted. The smuggling had been cried down, but there were three small licensed inns, one at Innervar, one at Innerwick, and one at Bridge of Balgie. The Innerwick one was the provision Old Culdares made for the clans- man who was his officer son's piper, and who brought an Irish wife with him from Ireland. The other two represented alehouses with crofts, which had been in existence for hundreds of years. The whole three disappeared years ago, and now tourists have reason to complain that in the forty miles westward from Fortingall to Tyndrum, and in the cross-country line of twenty miles from Kinloch-Rannoch to Killin, there is not a single licensed house for the entertainment of man or beast. As far as I can see, there never was much general need for the Innervar inn, although it existed as an alehouse from time beyond memory. Until railways and large Inverness and Perth cattle sales changed the whole situation, there was clamant need for the Bridge of Balgie inn, which, till the bridge was built in about 1780, was situated a little further east, near the churchyard ; and for the later inn at Innerwick, which never was an old alehouse, there was general utility justification likewise; for these two places of public entertainment were placed at the entrance to Larig-an-lochain, and where the eastern and western passes came together by which the stock of the North was driven to Falkirk trysts and other southern markets. The driving time created no small stir in Glenlyon, and all along the old line of cattle tracks and immemorially appointed stopping stations. It helped to make northern and southern Highlanders known to one another.

With differences which were generally of a trivial nature, the social and moral life of the Highlands eighty or seventy years ago was very like what I have been describing from information and observation as being the social and moral life of the people of my native Glen at that time. A high ideal of individual responsibility and obligation, reverence for age, family affection, love of children and care in training them up to be good men and women, mutual helpfulness of kinsfolk, and ready sympathy with the afflicted were characteristics of the whole race. Primogeniture backed by entail which was profitable to the eldest sons of landed, families imposed a self-sacrificing duty in the eldest son of a tenant, whose father happened to die when his children were young. The son had to take the father's place, to keep a roof tree over his brothers' and sisters' and mother's heads, to labour, sweat and struggle, remain celibate until the brothers were launched on their own careers and the sisters were married. Even when the father lived to old age, the eldest son did not escape the bearing of the burdens peculiarly his own. But he generally had his reward in the fealty and patriarchal position he had won by self-sacrifice.


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