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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter IV. - Tempora Mutantur


IF, during the twenty years between 1828 and 1848, with which I am now discursively dealing as memories serve and thoughts arise in my mind, a stranger like Dr Johnson in 1772, and Leyden the border poet in 1800, passed through the glens, hills, and straths from Stirling to Caithness, he would naturally conclude that except in orderliness and means of education, the Highlands still remained essentially unaltered. And that conclusion would not be without justifying facts. Within the old Highland Lines Gaelic was still the language of the people, and the people themselves, as their surnames, and the traditions, customs, and superstitions which had come down to them on the wings of untold centuries plainly indicated, were, taken as a whole, of genuine Celtic descent. But the old and the new were already beginning to hustle and jostle one another, and the observer who looked below the surface could see that a great change was in progress, although he might not foresee the revolutionising effect of the railways which were to open the Highlands up in after years. Before the Highlands were penetrated by railways, the changing forces at work were economic, educational, and religious. From the unrecorded days of antiquity, Highland farming proceeded unintermittingly on simple lines the cultivation of every bit of soil on which crops could be raised, and the keeping of large stocks of cattle, horses, goats, and small flocks of little sheep, which produced sweet mutton and fine wool. Cows, goats, and sheep were all milked, for next to stock increase, crops, and on the sea- coast fishing, dairy industry took its place in the family reckoning, although domestic spinning, dyeing, and weaving, besides providing clothing and linen, also supplied the money needed for purchasing what could not be made at home, and much more. Under the ancestral farming dispensation, Highland tenants had in township companies two holdings namely, winter towns and shealings or summer grazings. The shealings might be adjacent to the winter-towns, or ten or twenty miles away. But whether near at hand or far off, the young and yeld animals were sent to them in the spring, and women, children, and the main stock migrated to them early in May, and remained there till fairly on in the autumn. I saw the last of the shealing life and shared in its romance, and also in its weirdness, when we herd-boys slept in the lonely huts before the spinning milkmaids came up with the cows and the dairy utensils. The ruined mills on many streams dumbly testify, and the records, in which rents in kind are enumerated, bear written evidence to the fact that under the old husbandry the scanty arable lands of the Highlands produced heavier crops than they produce at the present time. The old farmers had plenty of farmyard manure, and, speaking in particular for my native district, the tenants used far back a good system of rotation, burned much lime, and so planned that every field that would be the better of the lime application got a dose of it every eight or ten years. Farming implements were simple and rude compared to what they are now, most of them being made at home, but in result cultivation was much better than it is now, and much more land was under crops.

Although Jacobites might still hope and plot for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, within twenty-five years after Culloden the Highlands, by garrisons, military roads, and, immediately after the battle, by Cumberland atrocities, were brought into the firm grip of law and order. "Creachs" and clan feuds were put an end to for ever more. No room was left for even another Rob Roy. The Church of Scotland, which had all along stood firmly for the Revolution Settlement, and had in many a district of Gaeldom to encounter the hostility of Jacobite chiefs and potentates, was now able to assert a dominating position in regard to matters of faith, morals, and education. Clannishness retained much of its pristine vigour, and still survives as a sentiment of kinship and brotherhood from far off times. The feudal power of nobles and landowners had, however, its tap-root cut by the abolition of heritable jurisdiction. Therefore proprietors turned their attentions to the management and improvement of their estates. It was not till well on in the next century that they realised the letting value of their fishing and shooting rights, which they were far from enforcing strictly as long as they kept them in their own hands. But they were easily persuaded by Lowland advisers that they could get higher farm rents by abolishing the shealings, as far as they were separable from winter-towns, and by stocking them with blackfaced sheep from the Borders, which were much bigger and hardier then, whatever they may be now, than the small native breed, which in hard winters had to be housed and hand-fed. Economically, or from the higher rent point of view, the advice was good, and it held good for the subsequent hundred years, until colonial and foreign wools reduced the value of the home product, and the cost of wintering the home sheep had run up to almost the equivalent of a second rent. Pacification of the Highlands next turned the attention of the Lowlanders to the chances opened to the Lowland sheep-farmers and shepherds, who, acting as proprietors' grieves and instructors of native tenants in Border sheep-farming, gathered gear and courage to take shealing farms themselves. The Lowland invasion of estate-managers, grieves, shepherds, and blackfaced sheep began in 1770. On the part of most proprietors who were continuously resident on their land, excepting for winter visits to Edinburgh, and who had kindly sympathies and relations with their people, the social revolution involved in the abandonment of the old system was fully realised and dreaded. Noblemen who, like the Earl of Breadalbane, had wide stretches of old deer forest lands, turned them into sheep-farms, and on them the blackfaced sheep from the Borders, under the care of Lowland managers and shepherds, were placed and found to be profitable. But tenants' shealings were in most cases left undisturbed for the next thirty years. Old Culdares, who was an agriculturalist beyond his age, put blackfaced sheep on his home farm of Gallin and its far away Ben-vannoch shealing, but did not disturb the tenants' double-holdings. In bringing into the Glen Walter Grieve from Huntly, Selkirkshire, and Walter Scott from Wester Buccleuch, Roxburghshire, his avowed object was the teaching of native tenants how to manage club-stocks of southern sheep for themselves. That object was fully attained, although he did not live to see it. In 1779 a temporary backset was given to the new sheep regime by the price of wool falling from 5s to 2s 2d per stone; but the blackfaced once introduced very soon superseded the small native breed. The native farmers formed club-stocks of them, while their other animals, like the arable land, remained as before in individual ownership. Old Culdares was pressed by debt. His chief adviser, Mr Anderson, afterwards minister of Old Deer, proposed to divide the barony into a few large separate farms, but however pressed for money and tempted by what Mr Anderson assured him was a certainty of gain, Culdares was too much of a Highlander to adopt a plan so radically revolutionary and so harsh to his native tenants. The Lowlanders who came with the blackfaced, and later on with the Cheviots, remained in most cases in the Highlands and drew others after them; but the conquering Lowland invasion only began with the railway era.


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