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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XXXI. - Farewell to the Old industrial System


THE eviction notices gave rise to much commotion in the Glen. Astonishment, indignation, and consternation were all mingled together. The opinion they had formed of the young laird was wholly contrary to his unexpected action; and yet that favourable opinion was upheld by his future conduct. Hot indignation arose that Culdares, who, unlike his father, was not a Presbyterian, should use his power as a landlord to punish people for exercising their religious liberty, with which none but themselves should have anything to do. The consternation was momentary, but bitter while it lasted. The Glen people were accustomed to take the blows of evil fortune standing, and to seek at once for self-help as a means of recovery and an outlet of escape. For forty years they had been unwillingly feeling that the old industrial system was slipping off its ancient foundations cattle and calanas and migrants and emigrants were going out from among them to seek their fortunes in Lowland towns and in the Colonies. When the huge shealings of the Braes and of Lochs had been turned into sheep runs, a fatal blow was given to the old system from which it could never recover again, although the high prices of the war times and the still very flourishing state of the domestic flax-spinning industry threw a veil over the approaching fatality. In 1845 it was obvious enough that in the Highlands sheep-farming now paid best, and that the domestic industries were being made unprofitable and killed by mill machinery and steam power. The flax industry, however, might have been kept as it was in Ulster had it not been given up in despair when large sheep-farms became the rule, and when the old communities were upset by changed estate management, con- formed to changed conditions of profitable labour, and, finally and worst of all, by the self-evictions of the people themselves, who poured into the towns and manufacturing and mining districts, with chances of disappointment if they went away in large groups and in families, for town-life is not natural to Highlanders, nor do they take readily to urban industries. As for individual Highlanders who migrated to towns sixty years ago, they found free scope for their various ambitions, and as a class they took with them, from their glens and isles, moral and mental qualities which, as a rule, ensured moderate and, in exceptional cases, eminent success. How completely sixty years have reversed the then state of affairs; cities, towns, manufacturing districts, over-crowded, and urban life and habits undermining the national manhood; the rural districts desolated by their people deserting them for uncertain wages, amenities, and vices of towns; Highland large sheep- farms no longer lettable at half the former rents, and not a few of them converted into deer forests, while "back to the land" is the cry of the people who would not know how to work the land if they got it for nothing, and would undoubtedly prefer the fate of Poplar and West Ham paupers to the simple and hardy life of well-to-do Highland farmers of the first half of last century!

Naturally, in consequence of the loss of the shealings and the lessening value of domestic industries, there was more congestion of population on the Roro and Chesthill estates, in the lower part of the Glen, than there ever was on the Culdares estate. The Marquis of Breadalbane took advantage of the impoverishment the losses of sheep in the hard years had brought upon the Roro tenants to make a clearance there. On the Chesthill estate it was impossible that the Innervar crofters should get on as they did before, when the flax and other industries helped to keep them in frugal but cheerful contentment. Their welfare depended on the now superseded ancient industrial system which had existed without any important variation from the time of which we have any fairly full written records say the reign of Alexander III. until the sheep regime invaded it in the last thirty years of the eighteenth century, and manufacturing machinery and steam power gave it its death blow in the next century. Highland proprietors and the Highland people were flotsam and jetsam in the swirling eddies of a resistless stream of change. In this twentieth century we are in the back-flow of that stream, and, horrified by urban congestion, and the moral and physical degeneracy it entails, we take up the cry "Back to the land."

Before the 1845 disturbances, the estate of Culdares would have suited the present-day land reformers who wish to see the country divided into moderately sized farms, interspersed with artisan and crofter villages. Its farms, where there was arable land, were large enough without being too large. The crofters, who were not many, comprised a carpenter, a smith, a weaver, and some working men families. As for the Braes, which formerly were shealings, they have no arable land worth maintaining, and can only be used as shealings or deer forests, or sheep runs. Mr Charles Stewart had them, along with the farms of Cashlie and Chesthill on the Chesthill estate, until he was knocked out by the losses of the hard years. He was a famous breeder of Highland cattle, and his blackfaced sheep stock was ranked among the best in Scotland. When he failed, through no fault of his own, but through the inclemency of the seasons, which ruined many large sheep and stock farmers, the Braes, after a few years, fell into the hands of Border incomers, who never resided there permanently, and who, to the end of their long holding, never assimilated with the rest of the people.

Speaking of the hard years reminds me that in one of them, 1839, I nearly lost my life in a snow- storm. The harvest of 1838 was not gathered in, and late black oats were not cut, when frost and snow came early in November, and the grouse left the hills to cluster on the stocks. A short-enduring thaw, however, allowed the harvest work to be finished in a hurried way; but the ice on the river never broke up. For eleven weeks at a stretch people who wished to shorten the distance to church in some places crossed the river on the ice; and no plough could turn up the frozen glebe until the seventh of April. There was a succession of snow- storms up to the end of March, with intervals of cold winds and sunshine between, which left the high tops of the hills and the sharp hillocks on the lower ground bare, while the rest remained under a heavy snow cover. I think it was at the end of February, but it may have been March, when I was sent early one dreadfully stormy morning to tell the Craigelig men to turn out to gather in the sheep to sheltered places, and to dig out such of them as they found in hollows covered with the drifting snow. I was then a boy of eleven, and, like all Glen boys of my age, wore the kilt, which is a good dress for summer mountaineering but not for deep heaps of snow in which one sinks up to the knees at every move. I had only a mile to go, and although the wind had risen to hurricane pitch, and the falling and drifting snow were blending together, I did not think of danger, nor did anybody else. The first and larger part of the distance I got over without much difficulty, but when I was so near my journey's end that in calm weather I could send a shrill cry for help to the nearest farmhouse, I got stuck in a soft, newly-formed wreath of snow, and when I at last ploughed through it breathless and exhausted, it was to find another and bigger wreath barring further passage. The whistling, hissing wind and drifting snow affected me curiously. I feared nothing. The only wish I had in the world was to rest and sleep. But I was the bearer of a message which ought to be delivered without delay, and so must struggle on. It then flashed on my mind that as those heaps had gathered at a bend of the park wall near the road, if I got to the wall I could walk on the top of it. That thought saved me. I managed to struggle in the hollow between the two snow barriers to the wall, which I reached in a dazed condition. But as soon as I got upon its rough, uneven, slippery stone-coping, strength, confidence, and care of life, absent before, at once returned. There was no further difficulty. I reached the houses and delivered my messages. The sheep rescuers turned out and marched away, not on the blocked road on which I had so nearly stuck, but by the wind-swept fields within the park wall. I remained behind resting and recovering until the hurricane abated, and followed in their tracks.

One youthful recollection recalls others. I think it was in the same winter of 1838-39, the worst of the whole bad series, that the following incidents occurred. I had been reading "Robin Hood" stories, and also hearing from local seanachies the tale of a wonderful feat of archery when one of the Malcolms or Calums was king, and Glenlyon was a royal hunting ground and a place in which there was a summer mustering of the Feinn. The mound from which the famous shooting took place is called "Tullach Calum," or the mound of Calum, to the present day, and the far away spot on the other side of the river which the arrow reached is, or at least was then, kept in remembrance. The archery stories which took such a hold of me I passed on to my schoolmates, with the result that a mania for making bows and arrows seized on us. With the help of Peter, our ploughman, I made for myself a stiff hazelwood crossbow, and three arrows with heads hardened in the fire, and feathered in a kind of way too. We were forbidden to tip them as we wanted to do with big pins or headless nails, lest serious accidents should be the result. Even with the blunt arrows we were a nuisance while the craze lasted. We tried shooting straight and shooting compass, and sometimes killed a crow, but usually our arrows failed to hit the object aimed at, although they always struck pretty near it. I only once in my school life played truant, and this archery craze was the cause of my doing so. My cousin, Duncan Macintyre, was my companion in this affair. We slunk early past the schoohouse with our bows and arrows, and went away to where we knew crows to be diligently working for their daily bread, and sure to be found. We did find the crows, and worried them with our arrows, which on a few occasions hit but never killed or disabled them. In pursuing the crows we came to heath- clad sands and gravel hillocks on which grouse gathered, it being a sunny day between storms, and, tops excepted, nearly the whole land was lying under snow. We knew well that it was a high offence in the eyes of our parents, as well as in those of the gamekeeper, who rather encouraged us to kill rabbits, and could wink at the killing of hares, to meddle in any way with the grouse. But how could boys in possession of bows and arrows resist the temptation of shooting at birds that gathered in clusters like targets? We let fly again and again, and our arrows always fell among them or very near them, but not one of them lost a feather by our archery. That day's experience cured our craze, and our truancy escaped detection and the punishment it deserved.

My other bit of poaching that year was no poaching at all, because I went to tell my grievance to Donald Stalker the gamekeeper, who lent me a trap and said I was free to kill the depradator if I could. From my earliest years I had a strong instinctive, but wholly uninstructed, liking for gardening. How that came to me I do not know, for, like most Highlanders, the Glen people, although the best of farmers, were negligent and bad gardeners, who cultivated hardly anything more than curly greens and cabbages, with some gooseberry and currant bushes among them. At the same time they were full of nature feeling, and had a wonderfully wide knowledge of plants, as well as of wild creatures. Now my father had two gardens, one close to his house, and what we called the "Garadh Dubh," or Black Garden, below the churchyard, which had for hundreds of years been the garden of the alehouse or inn of Bail-na-h' eaglais. When the Bridge of Balgie was built, the inn was removed to the end of it, and a new garden and croft provided for it. Through the removal of the inn my father came to have two gardens. He gave me a part of the Black Garden, in which I pottered away with my amateur experiments. I dried potato apples on strings, and raised new potatoes from the seed of them. With onions, leeks, and peas I had likewise fair success. I sowed little beds of cabbages and curly greens for planting out next spring, and it was to save these beds and other things that I got a trap for killing a hare which had made night ravages among them. I set the trap at dusk with much care, and when I went to see it next morning what did I find in it but my mother's best cat with a fore leg broken and the bones protruding. The poor creature, furious with pain, scratched my hand pretty badly when I was opening the trap. When freed he hobbled painfully to a hollow tree-stump at the churchyard wall, into the hole of which he sank out of sight ; and there, being so much damaged, he must soon have died in the freezing weather. I re-set the trap and kept silent, hiding as best I could my wounded hand. Next day when I went to see the trap I found the robber hare in it, and when I triumphantly handed over the second catch, I told all about the cat affair, and having confessed, felt a weight off my conscience.

Of all the wild creatures the badgers were the least troubled and distressed during the hard years. They had their usual fare in the open season and slept comfortably in their lairs throughout the long and stormy winters. We had two badger lairs on the Eight Merkland hills, one in the Faradh above Craigelig, and the other three miles away at the further end of Larig Bhreissladh. Crows and rooks as well as all the tribes of small birds, pushed them- selves among the hens and pigs to snap up some food. The gulls, fortunately for themselves, always got away to the sea in time to escape the early winter storms and did not come back until spring ploughing was going on. I believe it was in the winter of 1839-40 that a pole-cat came down from his hiding place on the high hills to forage among the hen-roosts. At most farm-steadings the hen-roost was placed over a heap of peats at the inner end of an open cart shed. Now this foraging pole-cat one night killed six or seven of the elder's hens, and the very next night killed seven or eight of ours. He did not eat much of their flesh but merely sucked their blood and left them. There were lamentations over the ravaged roosts, and fears about the yet unvisited ones. This sly and rare pole-cat unless hunted down and killed, would be a perfect vampire for the Glen poultry. Therefore men and dogs gathered to hunt him down. The first day's hunt was not successful. Perhaps he needed to sleep and rest after having gorged himself with so much hen's blood. But, if so, he was in a day or two awake and out at night for further mischief. This time he killed three hens in the inn byre, and was disturbed before he could proceed to kill more. Unluckily for him he had to run away to his hole under the roots of a tree on the river bank, leaving foot-marks on the thin cover of new snow. There in his temporary stronghold he was besieged in the morning by men and dogs. The tree was cut down, but he still remained safe in a recess behind it until he was smoked out and killed on the ice of the linn when trying to run away. In the final struggle he had no chance, but he did not allow himself to be killed before he gave the dogs and men malodorous proof that he belonged to the skunk class of animals notwithstanding his fine fur.


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