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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter II. - Luchd-Siubhail or Gangrel Bodies


THE people who travelled about in these far off days were all newscarriers, who helped to keep widely-apart Highland districts in living touch with one another. They could be roughly divided into two classes traders and beggars. But drivers of cattle to Falkirk trysts and harvesters formed another class, and so also did the drovers and cattle dealers. In our district John Macdonald from Badenoch, called the "Marsan Mor," or big merchant, was seventy years ago at the head of the traders. John travelled about with a cart of drapery goods from Inverness to Callander on the Lowland border. His twice a year visit was something like an event in every glen between the two places. He had been trained to the business, for his father, Alasdair Baideanach, had been long on the road before him. John might have prospered like others to the west of his district, who, starting in the same way, developed into Glasgow merchant princes, landowners, and the fathers of sons who took high positions in State and Church affairs. But John gave long credits, and finally failed to gather in the gear once within his reach. At a long distance behind this honest, and too jolly and careless "Marsan Mor," came the eident and also honest Irish packman, Peter Bryceland, from Glasgow, and the worthy northern packman, Iain Friseil. The pedlars who came carrying boxes containing reels, cotton balls, scissors, needles, thimbles, watches, chains, and Birmingham jewellery were a less individually marked because a more variable class. Some of them came out as pedlars on commission for the benefit of their health, or from love of scenery and travelling, and they were sure of finding food and lodging without money and without price, except perhaps a trinket to a child or a thimble to the good-wife wherever they went.

I rather think our gipsies, although they had a sprinkling of Romany blood, and a knowledge of the Romany lingo, should properly be called tinkers, or travelling artisans. It seems to me that the tinkers had been a feature in the life of the Highlands long before any "Lord of Little Egypt" with his followers came to Scotland and imposed on James V. and his Parliament, and that afterwards gipsies and tinkers got to some extent intermingled in the Highlands, but to an infinitely less degree than they did on the Borders. In my young days tinkers mended pots and pans, and made spoons out of the horns of rams and cattle. In the time of my grandfather, and even later, they still retained their old repute for being capable silversmiths to whom people brought silver and gold to be melted down and to be converted into brooches, rings, and clasps for girdles, or to decorate hilts of swords and daggers. The "Ceard Ross," whose grandson, Donald Ross, I knew in Balquhidder, was famous over a large district for the highly finished articles with old Celtic designs which he turned out, specimens of which were to be found in many households as long as the old social order lasted. The tinkers of my early days mended old ornaments but made few or no new ones. With the end of plaid, girdle, and buckled-shoe fashion among the Highland men and women came the end of the demand for the neatly finished and artistically designed ornaments the tinkers had been making for untold generations, and when the demand ceased, the art was soon lost. In 1800 there were four corn mills in Glenlvon where there is none now. The sheep regime extinguished the little one in the Braes soon after that date, and when I was about ten, a spate from Ben Lawers destroyed the Roro one, which was not rebuilt, but St Eonan and Invervar mills were kept at work many years later on. Of the two, the oldest, named after St Adamnan or Eonan, and said to have been built by him in the seventh century, was the last to give up the ghost. It continued to grind on till 1880, or perhaps some years after that date. The successive disappearance of the mills shows how the sheep regime and large farms operated to restrict the arable cultivation of the former times. This digression about the corn mills is not so irrelevant as it looks. The grain was dried for grinding in kilns on the farmsteads, and these kilns provided better lodgings for tinkers than tents, which few of them carried about with them. The kiln which my father and the neighbouring farmer had in common was a fairly spacious and well-thatched building, in which thirty or forty old and young tinkers could lodge in what they called luxurious comfort. As it was situated near the middle of the Glen, and at the only bridge over the river, it suited them better than any other "ath" except that at Innerwick, which ranked second in their estimation. In child-hood I looked on the coming of the tinkers as a great and welcome event. They usually had a donkey or two with them, and I got liberty to ride these animals. Peter Ruadh was a good piper, and set people dancing. I liked to sit on the steps leading down to the fire-place and watch them at their work, men roasting horns and shaping spoons out of them; women scraping and polishing the moulded and sliced spoons, the better sort of which were not without embellishment; other men making tin lanterns and cans, and old cunning hands mending pots, pans, or rings and brooches. When trade abounded, they were quite industrious. But when money for work came in, they were apt to indulge in a spree and be noisy. Still the quarrelling within a band seldom went beyond words. The serious fighting took place when one band trespassed on the province of another. A ferocious fight took place on one occasion between our kiln band, who were old and usual visitors, and a band of new-comers in the Innerwick kiln, and I think we were all glad when the trespassers were well bruised and beaten off the ground. The tinkers could well have saved some of the money they earned at their trade if prudence had ruled their lives, for their living cost them nothing. They lived on the country where-ever they settled for a time. Their old women and young children were persuasive and scientific beggars. Their honesty was curiously crooked and depended on locality. Our kiln band would not touch a hen roost or steal anything within a pretty wide limit of their dwelling-place. But beyond that limit, say two miles on either side, let people be on the watch against small tinker foraging.

Here may be related an exception which goes to prove the rule of limited and crooked tinker honesty. Elijah was a lanky, delicate boy, who, both his parents being dead, became attached to our kiln's hereditary band, through his grandmother, a widow with her two sons in the army, who properly belonged to them. My grandmother had great pity for Elijah, who, besides being then physically a weakling, was supposed to be mentally wanting a penny or two in the shilling. Elijah was therefore invited to come up night after night to get a more substantial supper than he was likely to get in the kiln, where he was a sort of encumbrance, although not ill-treated, but, as my grandmother thought, was carelessly neglected. One winter night, when it was snowing hard, Elijah came and had his supper before the family sat down to table. Our farm servant, Peter, had given the horses and cows their fodder, and was passing the door with four bundles of straw for stirks which were in another place, when he was called in to supper just as Elijah had finished his and was rising to depart. Our "scalag" had left the straw at the door when he was called, and Elijah on going out found it there, thought it would be nicer than dry fern to sleep on, and forthwith lifted it and took it with him. The "scalag" did not hurry over his supper. On going out he was astonished to find the straw missing. It was clear enough who had been the thief, and he wished to go at once to re-claim it. My father said that by that time tinkers would be sleeping on it, and that it was not worth while to rouse the kiln at that hour of the night. My grandmother wanted the kiln to be raided at once, but other straw bundles were given to the stirks and the kiln was allowed to sleep in peace, much to her vexation. As she had specially patronised Elijah, she was burning with indignation at his treachery and ingratitude. Next day when an old crone from the kiln came to beg a drop of milk for her tea she was angrily refused, with the biting explanation "Gabh thusa sin airson braid Elijah" "Take that for Elijah's theft!" The crone protested, when she was told how Elijah had taken the straw, that she had gone to sleep early, and till that minute had known nothing about the theft, which was probably true. The crone's report of our old dame's rage about Elijah's little lapse from honesty must have caused commotion and discussion in the kiln, for without delay two younger women came as a deputation to say that Elijah had misled the kiln people by saying the straw had been given to him. The excuse only added to the flames. "And if the scamp said so, do you pretend to have believed his falsehood?","In a hard winter, when food for beasts threatens to be scarce, was it likely that, without your even asking it, freshly-threshed straw should be sent to you when you had already as much dried fern and rushes as should content you? Be off with you, and never come here again begging for anything! What you deserve is to find on your next visit the door of the kiln barred and locked against you." "Gabhadh sibhse sin airson braid Elijah" "Take you that for Elijah's theft." The men of the band then took the matter in hand. They came to her with abject apologies, pleading for "mathanas" (forgiveness), urging that she knew well that no such lapse from localised honesty had occurred for forty years before, and promising that nothing of the kind would happen again. So peace was made at last, but "gabh thusa sin airson braid Elijah" became a proverbial phrase when a favour was refused to anyone who had given previous offence.

Elijah grew out of his early delicacy, and in time got a wife and family. He lived to a patriarchal age, with a very good name and character. In the latter part of his life he was a sort of high priest among his people. He married the young ones who entered into wedlock with religious solemnity, for he had learned to read the Bible and had a strong turn for religion. The register might be the legal glue in these unions, but they were not thought complete without Elijah's religious seal and blessing. "The craftsman of the kiln" which is "ceard na h-atha," literally interpreted was no respecter of the game laws, but, as he had no fire-arms, his poaching did not go beyond snaring hares and snaring or digging out rabbits. He was an expert angler both by day and night. He added the deft busking of hooks and making of horse-hair lines to his tinker industry. He fished sometimes for pearls in the Lyon, and to the indignation of our old bell-man, who looked on that fishing as his own monopoly, seldom failed to get some. It was assumed that the kiln craftsman restricted himself to trout fishing, which was pretty free to all at the time of which I write, but I suspect that early in the season salmon fresh from the sea was consumed in the kiln when owners of streams and lochs could not get that luxury for love or money. Whatever they might do elsewhere, the tinker women did not dare to spae fortunes in our district, because they feared church denunciations. As herbalists they had a knowledge which was frequently useful to sick persons and beasts. Their eolasan or charms, spells and incantations, had, if spoken at all, to be muttered in dark corners and under promise of secrecy. They were old heathen things to which Christian labels had been incongruously attached many centuries before the Reformation.

The tinkers that travelled back and forward, plying their vocations, called themselves by Highland clan surnames Maclarens, Macarthurs, Macalpines, Camerons, Toiseach or Mackintoshes, Rosses, Mackays, Gunns, etc. If they were, as I think they mostly were, the descendants of native travelling guilds of artisans who, late in their history, became very slightly mixed up with the outlandish Romany gipsies, their right to clan surnames may, in many instances, have been genuine although the clans were unwilling to admit it. At any rate they went by the same surnames during successive generations. But those of them who called themselves by the royal name were too numerous for credibility in their Stuart descent. Perhaps it was in consequence of James the Sixth's legislation against "broken men" that so many tinkers put themselves under the protection of the kingly surname. The tinkers took their clannish pretension seriously, and were hotly loyal to the surnames they had inherited or long ago assumed. My grandmother, Catherine Macarthur who flared up about poor Elijah's theft had, because of her surname, and because she knew much about their past history, the controlling influence of a patroness over the band of Macarthurs that once or twice a year visited our kiln, as long as they stayed there. She spoke with respect, and so did others, of Duncan Macarthur, the former patriarch of the band who were nearly all his children and grandchildren and their marriage relations. Duncan, it seems, read his Bible, went to church in handsome clothes wherever he stayed, managed in some way to get a little education for his folk, and kept them under such strong moral discipline that they behaved well during all his days. Duncan's influence survived his death, and sons and grandsons of his, I am informed, took to farming and boating in Argyllshire, where they levelled themselves up to honourable positions among the population of that county. About 1800, John Mor Macarthur, my grandmother's brother, who was fifteen years younger than she was, took a turn at buying and selling cattle. At Dalnacardach Inn, then a great station, he and an Atholl man got into a fierce dispute with half-a- dozen men from the other side of the Grampians who were boasting about their own districts and pretending to run down the southern Highlands. The local patriotism which Tacitus describes as existing among the Caledonians, continued to be the source of many a quarrel over drink down to modern days. In the fight John and the Atholl man would eventually have got the worst of it, if tinker Duncan and his band, who happened to be crossing from north to south, had not unexpectedly appeared on the scene and threateningly intervened. When Duncan declared that he and his would not allow Robert Macarthur's son to be ill-used by any set of men in their presence, peace had to be made on the spot, for Duncan was master of the greater force, and although not a quarrelsome, he was a resolute man who would carry a warning to deeds. However welcome it might have been at the time, John did not at all like to be teased afterwards about the way in which he had been rescued by "his tinker clansmen." He had a high and noble traditional origin for the Macarthurs of Breadalbane and Glenlyon, and refused to entertain the idea that through that traditional origin they might also have some far-off tinker clansmen.

Dr John Stewart of Fyndynate was by no means so squeamish about admitting tinker claims for clan ranking according to their surnames. He had been a navy surgeon for many years, and when he came home to reside on his small ancestral property in Strathtay, and to establish for himself a medical practice over a large district, he was found still to be a Highlander of the Highlanders in language and sympathies. He was one of the small lairds of long descent who helped much to link all classes together and to sweeten the social life of their locality and their age. He gave the tinkers a camping-place on his property, where they took care to comport themselves so well that no fault could be justly found with them by Justices of the Peace of which body he was himself a member nor by ministers, kirk sessions, or the country people. When they encamped on his ground he looked to it that they should send their children to school well cleaned, and as decently clothed as circumstances allowed. The camping ground was open to bands of all surnames, but if two bands came at the same time they had to keep the peace among themselves, or woe to the offenders. The tinkers who used the royal surname of Stewart and they were numerous looked up to Fyndynate as their special or almost heaven-born chief, and those of other surnames were not much behind them in their devotion and obedience to him. When the country had no rural police, and kilns were numerous, and there was a large and steady demand for horn spoons and tin-smith's work, the tinkers had a tolerably good time of it, although their old silversmith work had come to an end with the eighteenth century in most places. As his part of the country was as orderly and as law-abiding as could be wished, Fyndynate did not see the necessity for Sir Robert Peel's blue-coated police. He soon came into collision with the one who was stationed at Aberfeldy. He was driving in his dogcart one day to visit a patient whose house was some twenty miles up the country, and when he reached the Weem toll-bar he met the new policeman with a little tinker widow woman in tow. She was a daughter of old Duncan, and her proper name was Jean Macarthur, but she was known on both sides of the Grampians by the nickname of "Co-leaic," whatever that strange com pound word might mean. Amazed at seeing the harmless Co-leaic interfered with, Fyndynate pulled up his horse, and in fiery wrath for his just indignation at anything which looked to him like oppression of the weak flared up like kindled tow shouted to the policeman, "Let that woman go. Why have you dared to stop her?" "I have stopped her," replied the policeman, "because she is a vagrant." "She is," was the stern retort, "what she was born to be. She was at school with me. She has brave sons in the British army. I know her history, and will be her warrant that she has always been a decent, harmless body. Let her go at once if you do not want to get into trouble for being over-officious." Then turning to the Co-leaic, he asked her, "Where were you going when this man stopped you?" She mentioned a farm some miles further up the water. "I'll be driving past it," said he, "so get up on the back seat and I'll take you there." In this manner demure little Jean was carried off triumphantly, and the over- zealous policeman was left discomfited.

Politically a Tory of the Tories, our worthy doctor was practically a democratic feudalist with a sympathetic heart, unpaid services, an open hand, a voice loud in denunciation of oppression, and persuasive in pleading for the poor and afflicted. To take the tinker class as the lowest, I verily believe he did more good among them by blending kindness with scoldings and quarter-deck discipline than any of the agencies for redeeming them which have been since then set on foot. And they repaid him with reverential devotion and worshipful loyalty. I had in later years, when schoolmaster and registrar at Fortingall, a singularly touching proof of the feelings his tinker people entertained towards him. On a winter day, when the roads were slushy after a heavy fall of snow, and showers were still falling, a young sprightly tinker girl of twenty or thereabouts, who, if well washed and dressed, would have been called a pretty girl anywhere, came to ray house. She had a newly-born, well-wrapt babe clasped to her bosom, and her errand was to get it registered. She sat by the kitchen fire crooning in the pride of young motherhood to the pink morsel of humanity while I went for the register, and my sister made tea for her. When questioned as to the date of birth and other usual particulars, the story, in all respects a true one, which she had to tell was an amazing one. The child was not yet forty-eight hours old, and yet she had, through the slushy roads and snow showers, walked with it that day four long Scotch miles to get it registered. She made quite light of that feat of hardihood, but shuddered a little when telling what preceded the child's birth. She and her young husband were with the band to which they belonged in Bunrannoch when she began to think that it was nearly her time, and insisted on going away with her man at once, that their child might be born on Fyndynate's Land, where she had been born herself. "When more than half way over the hill the snowstorm," she said, "burst suddenly upon us, and after struggling for a while with the storm, I became weary-worn, and my trouble began. Happily the hill barn above the Garth farmhouses was near, and my lad, the dear fellow, carried me and laid me therein. He ran himself panting 'le anail na uchd' to the farm-houses for help. And good women, with blankets and lights, for it was now mirk night, came to me, and could not have been kinder if they had been angels from heaven. My bairn was born in the barn, but they soon carried us both to a comfortable bed and warm fireside. It is a pity that the bairn was not born at Fyndynate, but it is a mercy he is a boy, and that he is to be baptised John Stewart." "But," I hinted, "your husband does not call himself a Stewart?" "Well," she replied, "I am a Stewart, and my first-born is to be baptised John Stewart." When the entry was completed, she was getting to her second cup of tea, and I asked her if she would like an ember in it. "Oh," she said, "I want to be a strictly sober woman all my life, but to-day a drop of spirits would go down deas-taobh mo chleibh the right side of my heart." So the second cup was laced with whisky, and having merrily thanked us and drunk it up, she went on her way rejoicing. I hope John Stewart grew up to be a hardy soldier; but I never afterwards came across him or his parents, probably because when I went to Balquidder I was outside their travelling ground.


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