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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XXXVII. - Fortingall


MY predecessor and namesake, who drifted south to Lesrnahagow, left the Fortingall school in an excellent condition. During the months of vacancy its teaching was carried on by the parish minister, Mr Stewart, assisted by Duncan Macgregor, Don-nachadh Ruadh, who had been one of the best pupils of my predecessor. On taking possession of the dwelling-house, which was connected with the schoolhouse, I found that when it was unoccupied all the rats of the village had made it their stronghold and nursery. It was no easy matter to overcome the rat nuisance, for they had drains and a space under the schoolroom floor to take refuge in, and to resort to poison produced another trouble when they died and rotted in their secret places of abode. I never saw a brighter school than the one at Fortingall. During my nearly eight years of labour there three of its pupils passed out of it to become ministers, four to become doctors, two bank agents, and half-a-dozen or so to become schoolmasters. Others drifted south to enter into commercial life and various business callings. There was a responsiveness of youthful eagerness between the teacher and the taught that made work enjoyable. On the occasion when the Celtic Society of Edinburgh sent down a heap of books to be competed for by the schools within the Presbytery of Weem, my pupils made me very proud, for they nearly carried all before them. But it was said for the other schools that the competition was scarcely fair to them, because their pupils were younger than several of the Fortingall prize-winners. To some extent that was the truth, but the juniors in Fortingall ranked up pretty closely with their seniors. In winter it was the custom in Fortingall to send back to school lads and lasses above fourteen years of age who had other employments during the outdoor working season, and these came back very eager to advance after having pondered on what they had learnt before when at other work. Owing to this habit the schoolhouse was overcrowded with about a hundred and forty pupils in the winter months. This number diminished to seventy or eighty in summertime. In the winter season the scholars were far too many for one teacher, and I often had prickings of conscience in regard to the younger children, who had to be left to the teaching of advanced pupils whose fees were remitted. Their income debarred parish schoolmasters from getting any help from the Government Grant, and were it otherwise the space of the Fortingall schoolroom was insufficient in winter, according to the regulations of the Education Department. Perhaps there should have been less strict space regulation for the country than for the town schools; for although inconveniently crowded, the Fortingall schoolhouse did not appear to have a bad effect on the health of the pupils, a good number of whom came from places three or four miles distant. The little ones were brought fairly well forward on the lower steps of the ladder of learning by the hearty efforts of my upper class assistants. But there was no need for their being sent to the parish school at all until they had learned to read easy books, and to do a little writing and arithmetic, for there were three salaried dame-schools in the district, in which infants were taught English as well as sewing; and this double work was well done at the Keltneyburn and Tynayare dame-schools.

The valley of Fortingall had no resident proprietor when I was schoolmaster there, unless Mr John Stewart Menzies of Chesthill a true hearted Gaelic-speaking Highlander of the old stamp might be reckoned as one because he owned "Fearan na Craoibh," or Moncrieff's land there, and his residence up Glenlyon was not far away. He had only recently sold Duneaves to the Marquis of Breadalbane, who thus became proprietor of both sides of Drummond Hill. The Garth or East End belonged to Mr Macdonald of St Martin, and the Fortingall end to Mr Gardyn Campbell of Troup both of them absentees. There was one large farm and three or four well-sized ones. But the bulk of the arable land was divided between forty small farmers and crofters, who had the hill grazings as a community under old regulations. I had a small croft myself with horse, cow, and some twenty sheep, not to mention pigs and poultry. The minister had one also, besides his glebe. We both followed the example of our predecessors, no one could say how far back. Sheltered by two low hills in front of high ranges, warm, fertile, and soft-featured, Fortingall always looked curiously like a bit of romantic English scenery, set like a gem in the rough bosom of the Grampians. It looked more so than ever when I saw it last (1907), for Sir Donald Currie, proprietor of the whole of it except Duneaves, had so transformed the village and farmsteads by new buildings, which harmonise with the scenery, that the natural beauty of the whole has been increased. Unlike depopulated Glenlyon and Breadalbane, Sir Donald Currie's Fortingall property has still a full population who are, in the main, descendants of the native stock. When I was schoolmaster of Fortingall one or two swarms of emigrants went off to Canada, and a southward migration of the more energetic and ambitious young people was ever going on. That process of depletion was required to keep the population from extending beyond the local means of subsistence. Congestion would have been more felt than it was ere then by the stay-at-home ones had it not been that a large number of them found employment and wages near at hand in the Marquis of Breadalbane's woods, and in the trenchings on his Comrie home farm. The Fortingall people were benefited by the Marquis's evictions. They also sent out farm and domestic servants of the best brand over a wide district where the depopulating effect of the big sheep farms was already being felt. At home they were good farmers, and for a good many years their surplus potatoes nearly or altogether paid their rent. Up to 1842 the kirk session funds and the benevolent help of friends and neighbours sufficed for the support of the poor, and indeed till about then the kirk session had money out on heritable bonds, paying interest. In my time pauperism was increasing, but, on the whole, it was confined to old men of honest records, who had been left lonely and had become helpless, and to diligent old women who had now lost the old value of their spinning industry, or to mental or bodily afflicted sufferers. There was occasionally too much drinking, but habitual drunkards were few, and strangely enough the few included some of the most capable men of the community.

I had hard enough work to do in the crowded Fortingall school, work which would have been exhausting if its hardness had not compensations and relaxations. But I was young and ardent, and the eagerness of bright scholars made the labours of the teacher light and enjoyable, for he was rewarded by the progress due to combined efforts. And in teaching the upper classes of such a school his own self-education was ever expanding. Then at the end of the session came seven or eight weeks of holiday time, when health and strength were recruited by open air life, and botauising excursions, although private studies were never wholly neglected. At the back of Fortingall lies weird Sithchallion, and westward, towering in the not far-off distance, is Ben Lawers, which, with the whole range of which it is the chief, has many rare plants and, in general, a rich flora. How it came into existence I know not, but we had an informal botanical club or excursionary association in our district, of which an Aberfeldy college student, Hugh Macmillan, afterwards Dr Macmillan, the Free Church minister of Greenock, and distinguished author, was facile princeps. The majority of us were content with a knowledge of the flowering plants, but he pushed his researches deep among the crotals or lichens. We were rather a numerous band of mountain climbers and rock and ravine searchers, but, as far as I know, only three of us are alive to-day (August 25, 1908). How vividly the recollections of those botanising days, with the perfumes of mountain flowers and the inspiring freshness of the Ben Lawers' breezes, come back to site at the fireside, an old decrepit man! I was never a systematic botanist, but at one time I had a good unsystematic knowledge of most of the flowering plants in the flora Britannica. Even yet I recognise the plants when I see them and remember where we got the rare ones, but I stumble over their names chiefly, I think, because we had Gaelic, English and Latin names for them, and those three nomenclatures have become mixed. However, I have thus three chances, and after an effort rarely fail to make one hit. Old Highlanders had names for all the plants and the crotals also, and knew their qualities and the uses that could be made of them. They had likewise a system of grouping them more on natural than on Lumean lines. But, as I have said, I was never a thorough botanist; my inclinations were indeed leading me in another direction local history and the conditions of life in former days. From youth upwards I had a slight connection with newspapers, especially with the Perthshire Advertiser and the Edinburgh Ladies Journal. To the former I sent many contributions on local history, and to the other verses which I thought were poetry, but afterwards discovered to be only rhyming without any poetic afflatus; while sending articles on local history to the Advertiser I overhauled kirk session records, and furnished the paper with gatherings of extracts, some of which threw light on the obscurities of family and genealogical affairs, some on the Covenant war times and on Cromwellian occupations as they affected that part of the Highlands. My friend, the late Mr John Cameron, a native of Lawers, fortunately gathered the Gaelic names of plants, before they had been swept away by the deluge of changes and depopulation. I did a little towards the rescuing of traditional lore from complete oblivion.

The overhauling of written records and the gathering of oral traditions were, like the botanical excursions, recreations during the holiday weeks. But there was also something of a more exciting kind hare-hunting in which I took part. How it came to pass I cannot tell, but three evils potato disease, grouse disease, and a plague of white hares came closely upon one another's heels. In those days fishing rights were not so much valued and not so strictly enforced as they are now, and, moreover, the parish schoolmaster was usually a sort of privileged person. I could have had wide permission to fish for trout on rivers, burns, and lochs, had I been an angler, but I never took to the gentle craft. Shooting and hill-walking I enjoyed intensely, and during the vacations I had plenty of both. The estate of Culdares was the first and, perhaps, the worst infested, but the hare invasion extended over all the big sheep farms of Perthshire. The evil came to such a height, and the tenants complained so loudly of the damage done through the eating and fouling of grass by the hares, that exterminating hunts had to be resorted to in many places. In not a few of such hunts I was one of the shooters.

The schoolmaster of Fortingall had also a right to cut peats in a certain place on the East-End hill. I do not know when the parish school of Fortingall was first set on foot, but it was in existence when Charles the Second recovered his father's throne. I do not know when the Fortingall people first took it upon themselves to gather in force and cut the schoolmaster's peats thirty peat cart-loads or more in one day but my predecessor and I enjoyed the benefit of that custom, which seemed to be an old one. The cutting of the schoolmaster's peats was an annual event which was looked forward to with pleasant anticipations as a social as well as a working function. It was the duty of the schoolmaster to provide an abundance of oat-cakes, cheese, and milk, and an ungrudging but not dangerously large supply of whisky, for the workers, and, whatever the weather, the work went on merrily; and I would not vouch for it that understandings, which sometimes led to marriages, were not come to by some of the young people. Peat-winning, and thatching and repairing or rebuilding dwellings and outhouses required much time and labour when I was at Fortingall. When it could be got, broom was the thatching preferred, but ferns and straw were used when broom was not to be had. Heather was used largely in Rannoch and parts of Glenlyon and Breadalbane. It was the most picturesque of the thatching materials, and it was almost or wholly as lasting as broom.

Peat-cutting has now been almost altogether discontinued in most parts of the Perthshire Highlands. Perchance, dearness of coal may force people, where peat abounds, to resort to it again. But it was well, in view of such an event, that the peat deposits should have rest and time to fill up and condense, for in some places they had been so run upon that they were wholly used up, and, in others, pretty nearly exhausted as far as good black peat was concerned. It is well for the future that while old woods are being cut down, the area under trees is yearly increasing. The planters may not see more than the beauty of their improvements, but their successors will find the value of that long unprofitable investment. Considering how American and Russian forests are being cleared, and the care Germany and France bestow upon the prevention of timber scarcity by State protection of forests, and considering the rate at which our British coal deposits are being worked out, it is surely full time for the Government and the proprietors of this country to pay close attention to arboriculture. While areas newly planted with trees must be a deferred investment for a long stretch of years, they are certain, after they produce useful timber, to pay owners high profits, with compound interest for delay, and give country people a permanent industry. Fortingall was comparatively well-wooded sixty years ago, and it has now been much further enriched in that respect by Sir Donald Currie's new plantations. Sixty years ago it was a good place for keeping bees, and no doubt it is so yet. I found it very profitable myself. The school children seemed to be as much interested in watching them in swarming time as I was myself. On week-days no swarm could escape, but my bees were Sunday-breakers, and occasionally went beyond bounds when people were at church, and the village quiet, and the sun shining.


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