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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XXX. - Eviction


RONALD STEWART-MENZIES of Culdares completed the twenty-first year of his age on the 3rd of January, 1845. His minority had been a long one. He was a five-year-old boy when his father died, and on his mother's death soon afterwards, was taken away from the Glen, to which he only returned on attaining his majority. He was educated in England and came back from Eton and Oxford as much a stranger to the people on his property as they were strangers to him. Had he been educated in Scotland and spent his holidays on his own land many things might have been different. The reason for his being brought up thus like a stranger was that his excellent mother died so soon after his father. She was an Appin Stewart, a daughter of the Laird of Fasnacloich, and a Gaelic speaking lady with all the kindly old Highland sympathies which knit gentle and simple together. Her husband Avas an amiable man and a j ust and considerate land- lord. It was naturally hoped that the young Laird would, as a landlord, tread in the footsteps of his father and mother, notwithstanding his English education and alien rearing. As soon as it was made known to them by the Maor Ruadh that he was coming to Meggernie Castle with college companions and local gentry to celebrate his coming of age, preparations were made for giving him a hearty welcome. Tar barrels and logs of birch and pine were hauled up the steep "leacuin" to the top of Craig-an-fhaoraich to be piled in a high pyramid there for a grand bonfire that would throw its light far up and down the Glen. On the day of his coming the tenants met him at the march of his estate on horseback, and escorted him to the castle. On his birthday the Laird gave a great feast to guests and tenants in the long empty peat-house forming one side of the court-yard, which the Maor Ruadh, who had a genius for such matters, had transformed with evergreens into a summer bower. The dinner was followed by a ball, to which all the people on the estate were invited, and between dinner and this ball there was a display of fireworks on the wide lawn which lighted up the fine old trees round the castle. Old Duncan Dewar and I had been told off to light the bonfire. The signal for applying the torch was to be the firing of a gun at the castle. And we were scolded by the Maor when we got to the castle for lighting it a quarter of an hour too soon. It seems the shot we heard and mistook for the appointed signal was fired at Milton-Eonan by some one who, in the dusk, took a pop at partridges lying among the stubble. The Maor swore terribly at the unknown poacher, but his adjutant hinted it was a lucky accident because the premature firing shortened the after-dinner drinking before it had gone too far. At any rate the bonfire blazed splendidly, and with the undeserved scolding for a blessing, old Dewar and I had a good dinner and then hastened to see the fireworks.

Outdoor and indoor Highland music of the best was supplied by pipers and fiddlers of more than local celebrity. At the ball the dancing was kept up with spirit throughout the long winter night. I never was a dancer, and never felt that I had been wronged in not having been taught dancing in early years. As an onlooker I enjoyed this ball very much, which was not the case with the lads and lasses of my age, who took the floor and came away from the merry gathering full of vexation, and in a spirit of revolt against ministers, elders, and parents, who, on mistaken religious grounds, had prevented them from being regularly taught dancing like the generations before them. Dancing' had been so strongly preached down that there had been no dancing school held in the Glen for twenty years. It was only surreptitiously that boys and girls were taught to dance to the Jew's harp or to "ceileireachd" in out-of-sight places by a few of their elders who loved the old ways, and were looked upon by the godly as frivolous persons or incorrigible sinners, although they were as honest, industrious, and moral as the best of the pious. As soon as I got into my teens, I was an outspoken rebel to the authority of ministers, elders, Baptists, and the "unco guid" of both sexes in regard to song-singing, fiddling, and dancing, and I could be all the more outspoken because I did not care to dance, and because I was unable to sing ; having, strangely enough, consider- ing my father's fondness for scraping a fiddle for his own amusement, no musical gift whatever. I think the gloomy, ascetic piety which looked upon innocent joyousness of life as either sinful or leading to paths of sin was more genuine and wide-spread in Glenlyon before than it was after the Disruption. Ecclesiastical controversy is not conducive to the advancement of real piety of any sort; for it fills the minds of the controversialists with other thoughts than those of introspection and supererogatory analyses of positive and relative good or evil. The spirit of the Disruption was not a spirit of mystic asceticism, but one of holy war, sacrifice, and construction. It was, in modern form, the spirit which sent Crusading armies to Palestine, and impelled mediaeval Europe to build grand churches and monastic establishments. The Meggernie Castle ball was an eye-opener to the young people who had not been allowed to learn dancing properly though most of them had surreptitiously practised steps and got some idea of figures. They felt shy and awk- ward because of their ignorance of the art, but they went in for the dancing with all their heart. A spell was broken, though what had been lost could not be restored. The young people were all the more vexed because parents who formerly yielded to or sided with the prohibitionists now danced as merrily as if the days of their youth had been brought back to them by the fine fiddling of their Roro countryman, and coeval little Mackerchar of Dunkeld, and the rest. The dancing of the elder people was so excellent as to put that of their sons and daughters to open shame. I watched the kirk-session elders who were present, to see whether the music and dancing excitement would so thoroughly renew their youth as to compel them to take the floor. They resisted the temptation, but they looked on with beaming faces.

A great shinty match concluded the coming of age celebrations. In the Glen we called shinty "camanachd" from "caman," the bent stick or club, and football we named "creatag," which simply means ball. In both forms the game was a favourite one with schoolboys. The Kirk had very rightly put down the Handsel Monday cock-fighting at the school, but left the other games untouched. These were shinty, football, rounders, duckstone, terzie or "eun-corr" (odd bird), races, wrestling, etc. As a very little boy I was present at the last cock-fight held at Innerwick, and did not like it at all, though seemingly the grown-up people who came to see it liked it well. But to revert to the Meggernie Castle "camanachd"; boys under fourteen being rejected from the ranks of war, divided themselves into rival teams, and went off to play in a separate part of the long, level haugh. Culdares and a friend of his divided the multitude of adults between them, and the battle, which began early in the morning of a frosty day, was finished by moonlight. Among the players were several heads of families who would not see fifty again. Pipers played stirring war-music, which warmed their blood. The spirit of fun and frolic seized upon them, and they entered the lists feeling their youth renewed. But the reverse of what happened at the ball happened on the field. In the dancing the young were put to shame by the better-taught, elderly people; on the field the young men and lads showed the "bodaich," who strove their best, that their sons were the better players. We called Culdares and his company the Castle Defenders, and their opponents the Invaders. I myself belonged to the Invaders. Victory was to be decided by the winning of two of three goals or "taothalan." The companies were evenly matched. I think all the Glen people wished that Culdares should fairly win. I am sure that such was my own wish, but I played my best for the Invaders, and so did the rest of my side. Our captain was good at arranging his men and retrieving defeat. Culdares and his company won the first "taothal" easily. We (the Invaders) struggled hard to win the second, and very barely succeeded. Then came the concluding struggle, which was the longest of all, and which, as the light was failing, ended in our favour rather by accident than merit. As we confessed that it was accident and bad light which gave us the victory, both sides were pleased, and we parted with loud cheers of mutual good-will and pleasure. On the Sunday which came after the Camanachd, Culdares and his guests, among whom it was said there was not a single Presbyterian, went in carriages, as in a State procession, to the parish church. It was known beforehand that this was to take place; but if the idea was anywhere entertained that people who had joined the Free Church would be led by sycophancy or curiosity to go that day or ever back to the church they had left, it was at once proved to be a delusion. The Castle party only saw the desolation the Disruption had wrought there. Young Culdares was much mislti if he was made to believe that his temporary patronage of a church to which he did not belong would have any influence in changing the opinion of the Glen people on church questions; opinions which they had deliberately formed for themselves, and deliberately resolved to act upon. In secular politics they were not so stiff-necked. At the 1841 Election, all the tenants on the Culdares estate, with a solitary exception, voted willingly for the Tory candidate, Mr Henry Drummond, who won the seat for Perthshire, because they relied upon Sir Robert Peel, little foreseeing his 1846 conversion, to resist the abolition of the Corn-laws. The exception was the oldest elder in the Glen, Duncan Macalum, who was one of the four partners on the Eight Merkland club farm.

When the short visit came to an end the people on the estate thought themselves blessed in having a young laird in whom they saw blended all the good qualities of father and mother, and who had far more advantages on entering on his inheritance than fell to their share. Glen people were sharp readers of character. They read their young Laird's character very correctly. He possessed all the good qualities they ascribed to him; yet, when they wished he would soon make a happy marriage and find a wife with strong will and plenty of common sense, they hinted that they suspected that he was one of those amiable well-intentioned people who are easily influenced by those who are their intimate companions. The happy marriage came and the suitable wife was found, but ere that happened the young Laird had made haste to do something which could never be undone, and which there is good cause to believe he much regretted afterwards. In January the people on the Culdares estate were boasting loudly of their Laird to their neighbours on other properties. They saw no cloud on their own sky, for although the last short leases granted by the trustees were to expire in May, they had no doubt but that they would be renewed on just terms. They were ready to offer the former rents, because seasons and prices were mending, but as the trustees, during the six hard years, had not been able to give abatements of rent like proprietors who were free to do what they thought right, and as the losses incurred in these hard years were yet a heavy weight on them, they hoped the Laird would listen to their request for a small lowering of the rents which had been sent up to war price thirty years before and had been kept up ever since. But if he would not give that small reduction for the ensuing nine years' leases, they would struggle on to pay the old rents, or even more, rather than be turned out of their holdings. During the life-time of the young Laird's father, they had been accustomed to bargain face to face with him and his factor. When leases terminated the trustees advertised the farms to let, which the late Laird did not do, but continued the practice of giving the old tenants an opportunity for mending their offers; so while the trust lasted there were no changes at all, except such as must always occur by the dying out of families or their resignation of holdings.

The young Laird took good care that the old tenants should not get the chance of having a personal conference with him. He held his setting or re-letting meeting in the offices of the Edinburgh firm which did his legal and factorial business for him. The Maor Ruadh was called to Edinburgh, and came back with his own dismissal notice in hie pocket. What the Laird decided to do was to turn eight farming families out of their holdings, and three crofters out of their small bits of land. The four farmers of the Eight Merkland, of whom my father was one, were among the evicted. The whole big club farm was let to one tenant, who offered a small advance on the old rent ; but gave up the farm at the end of his nine years' lease, and left the Glen. At that time there was a craze for making large sheep farms out of holdings in which the arable land was divided among tenants who had the adjoining hill-grazing in common. The Marquis of Breadalbane and the Duke of Sutherland had above all others set this fashion. In this year of grace (1909) the cry is for sending people back to the land. And a very good cry it is, but all the same it was much easier to send them off the land in last century than it is now to induce them to go back to it. Here I may, in passing, make a remark or two about club farming and crofter farming, as in my youth I was necessarily well acquainted with the large club farms in Glenlyon, and in after years, when schoolmaster of Fortingall, was one of forty who had hill grazings in common and arable land separately. The crofter township system is so well known that I may pass over my Fortingall experience, and as regards large club farming I shall at once confess that in my opinion separate holdings would on the whole be much preferable, if they could be obtained in such a way that there might be some proportion kept between arable and hill distribution. What I have in view is the formation of farms large enough to give employment all the year round to an average farming family, and a chance of profit sufficient to provide simple life subsistence, and modest fair wages for labour and a small return on the tenant's invested capital. There are few places in the Highlands in which separate farms of moderate size can be so conveniently parcelled out as in the Lowlands. Club farming in one or other of the forms used of old is the only way by which a due apportionment of the small arable and meadow land, and of the large hill grazings and rocks, can be in a measure obtained. Now the club farming of Glenlyon, to which I was in early days accustomed, worked well and smoothly. The arable land was much better cultivated than it has been ever since. The sheep stocks were well managed, and the stock of cattle and horses, kept and wintered, was very large. What made the losses of the hard years so heavy was that at that time too many sheep were wintered at home.

Consolidation was not believed to be the Laird's sole motive in turning out the four tenants of the Eight Merkland without as much as giving them an opportunity for mending the offers they had sent in. Duncan Macalum, the premier elder, who voted against the Tory candidate in 1841, was a marked offender, and all the four tenants had joined the Free Church. As for the tenant of Innerwick, there could be no mistake in his case. His farm was a one man's farm, and remained so ever afterwards. He was himself the best tenant that farm ever had. He sinned beyond forgiveness by letting the Free Church open air communion be held, in spite of the Maor Ruadh's threats, on the bank of the burn opposite the Innerwick Church. As for Gallin and Ross, it was subsequently alleged that the former was to be taken to enlarge the Meggernie home farm. Ross, strange to say, was soon let to the evicted Innerwick tenant and his partner, Hugh Maclaren, who had taken the big sheep farm of Lochs on the Breadalbane estate. The poor Maor Ruadh had acted seemingly on his instructions in trying to browbeat the people at the time of the Disruption. He meant well by them although he acted injudiciously. Though too fond of strong drink and strong language, he was a clever estate manager and a faithful servant to his employer. It was his unhappy fate, on behalf of an absent employer who knew not the nature of the Highland people, to have to intermeddle unsuccessfully in the Church question. If his bullying had prospered, perhaps his unsteadiness might have been forgiven. He took a pledge of total abstinence when he left Glenlyon, and kept it during a long period of service in Isla as an estate official. He came back from Edinburgh in 1845 in a most dismal mood, lamenting the eviction of old tenants much more than his own dismissal. He admitted enough to show that he fully believed the eviction had been pre- determined, but he would neither deny or corroborate the story which gained currency to account for the young Laird's precipitate action. That story was to the following effect.

In 1843, some cause probably the Atholl Gathering had brought about a large assemblage of landed proprietors. Such of these as were of the new post-Reform Bill school of Toryism put their heads together, and agreed to hold a secret meeting at some place I think Pitlochry was the place named to discuss the Disruption and the best means for counteracting its apprehended Radical tendencies, and effect on party politics. The men who attended this secret meeting were either young proprietors like Culdares, or the heirs of old gentlemen whose lives were nearly ended. The conclusion come to was so ran the report that Free Church tenants should be driven in Church matters as they had already been driven to vote as their proprietors asked them to do. A resolution to this effect was passed and signed by all present, excepting two or three who protested and pointed out that what was contemplated could not be carried out, and that if it could, its consequences would be disastrous to just and reasonable landlord influence. Culdares was the first member of the secret conclave who, by the expiry of leases, had power to re-let his farms as he liked. He probably thought himself in honour bound to act in accordance with the iniquitous policy of the foolish compact. He did what he thought he was in honour bound to do; but he was the only one of the conclave who did so. When the others had the freedom of re-letting their farms they had not the courage or unwisdom to do as he had done, and as they had bound themselves to do. I believe this story had a solid foundation of truth, although there may not have been a written and signed, but merely verbal, agreement to push the driving policy of the new Toryism beyond party politics into the ecclesiastical sphere. Such an extension Scotch people, whether Highland or Lowland, were dead sure to resent and to resist victoriously, and keep in resentful remembrance ever afterwards.


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