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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XLIX. - Conditions of Parish and People


IN 1857 the nearest railway station was at Dunblane, but the line from Dunblane to Callander was in course of construction, and when opened it brought railway communication as near as ten miles to Balquhidder Church. As long as the railway stayed at Callander, the summer visitors to Balquhidder might still think themselves far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife, in a purely romantic Highland district. But even before the passes of Leny and Glenogle were forced, profaned, and vulgarised by the Callander and Oban railway, the old was slowly giving place to the new. The occupancy of the land did not much differ from what it had been a hundred years before. There were large grazing farms, with little arable land or none at all worth speaking of, which took up a big portion of the area of the parish, moderate-sized, well-managed, and diligently cultivated farms in the occupancy of good tenants, crofts, and Strathyre village feus. As the old spinning industry no longer brought in a revenue, the smaller crofters had to be craftsmen or labourers to make ends meet, and had to send their children out to service. There was not much pauperism among them as long as they were blessed with health and found work to do. Before the coming of the railway, which caused renovation and the building of better houses for the accommodation of summer visitors, Strathyre village was a row of stoutly-built and slated peasant feu houses, with a good space of land attached to each, which might have been but, except in a few cases, were not made into excellent gardens. Over all the Highlands gardening was shamefully neglected, as it yet is in so many places. Ownership of the feu properties often changed, but there were some who held on for three generations. Selling out took place when owners died, and what they left had to be divided among children or relatives. The resident feuars of my time were a respectable class of industrious men and women who had small independent means or were supported by wealthier friends. The village had two inns, and thereby got the nickname of Nineveh, by which it was known to drivers and drovers from Falkirk to Skye, and which its inhabitants deeply resented. They said the name was given it long ago by a traveller, who, when bound to hasten elsewhere, lost himself there for three days, not preaching repentance, but getting drunk, sleeping, and getting drunk again. Whatever abuse of drinking facilities existed was mainly due to way-goers and the tenants and lodgers of non-resident feuars. Resident feuars and the people of the neighbourhood were far from being habitual drinkers or frequenters of the two inns. The other two licensed places in the parish were the hotel at Lochearnhead and the Kingshouse half-way between it and Strathyre village, which owed its name and existence to General Wade's road-making, as did Kingshouse in the Black Mount, and several other places of public entertainment. The Highlands had still to be thoroughly penetrated by railways, and years after that had to elapse before railway transport and sales in central towns interfered with local fairs and cleared the roads and passes of the droves and herds driven southward to Falkirk trysts.

Mr Robertson, minister of Callander, an erudite Highlander, as can be seen in his description of his parish in the old Statistical Account, anticipated the Wizard of the North in expressing appreciation of the scenery of Loch Katrine, the Trossachs, Loch Vennacher, Loch Lubnaig, and the Pass of Leny and Callander districts. But it was Sir Walter who made that district and Rob Roy's country known to all the world. Ever after the publication of the "Lady of the Lake" and "Rob Roy," many visitors from Edinburgh and Glasgow, besides pilgrims from afar, came in summer to see the glens and lakes and hills on which the revealing light of Sir Walter's genius had flashed. By - and - bye steamers were placed on Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine much to the annoyance of superseded boatmen and hotels were built and stage-coaches run to accommodate the ever-increasing stream of tourists. Anglers made incursions when and where they could ply their gentle craft. Artists and wearied professional men sought out private lodgings wherever they could get them, and business men sent wives and families to Callander, or preferably to capacious farmhouses when they could be got, coming to see them on what would now be called week-end visits. In my time Balquhidder was its own Highland self in winter, while in summer it came much in contact with the outside world. In the winter of 1858 or '59, however, on a sunny winter's day when the whole landscape was white with snow, and ice covered lochs and streams, Balquidder was shaken out of its repose for a moment by the unexpected passing through of a very distinguished personage in the Duke of Atholl's open boat-carriage. This was the Empress Eugenie, the half-Spanish, half-Scotch, and at that time wholly beautiful consort of Napoleon III. She had come to visit the country of her maternal ancestors, the Kirkpatricks, as a private person, and wished to be as little noticed as possible in her winter wanderings. Word was sent to me to put on good fires in all the rooms of my house, as the Empress was to come to see Rob Roy's grave a few hours later, and might wish to warm herself at a fireside while the horses had a feed of corn and a short rest. The order was obeyed, but for some reason the Empress gave up the visit to Rob Roy's grave, and the horses stopped at Kingshouse, where a small gathering of parishioners saluted her respectfully, who afterwards raved about her good looks and especially of her glorious hair, which, when the sunlight shone upon it, lit up into a halo of gold. Poor lady, what trials and sorrows were in store for her! How impossible it was then for her or anybody to foresee the tragical end of the Napoleonic dynasty and the calamities which France had to go through!

Speaking of artist visitors in the Highlands, I met at Fortingall, besides other aspirants who afterwards became well-known, Mr then, in days to come, Sir John Millais. He came on his marriage tour to visit his brother, Mr William Millais, who was then painting Allt-da ghob, a burn which from high up the hill top all down to the river Lyon is one white chain of cascades in rainy weather, and which in all weathers attracts the attention of everyone who has an eye for scenery. Handsome young Mr Millais was at that time too much wrapt up in his art and his bride to have much to say on other matters. The Pass of Glenlyon impressed him much. He walked up the hill to have a look at Sithchallion from a distance, but when he returned it was not of the mountain he spoke but of a flowering plant which grew abundantly on the Fortingall grazings at Fanduie. This was the misnamed Grass of Parnassus, a plant he had never seen before, and which, I believe, he afterwards introduced into one or more of his pictures. Fionnsgoth (the lovely flower) is the Gaelic name, and a beautiful flower it is, whose place among the orders of plants is difficult to determine, although it has been assigned to the saxifrages. At Balquhidder I had Mr Waller Paton lodging with me one summer, while he was making an oil painting of the waterfall above the Church-yard bought when finished by Mr Carnegie and many exquisite water-colour sketches of other places. He gave me one of these water-colours, which I have ever since highly prized. It is a capital sketch of the main valley taken from a place east of the manse and looking westward to the blue-purpled brae hills. What a wonderful facility he had for knocking off in a short time an artistic and faithfully true sketch of land and sky and light and shade. But he had little of the poetic mysticism and creative power of his more famous brother, Mr, afterwards Sir, Noel Paton. Their sister, Mrs D. O. Hill, took a considerable rank among sculptors. Their father was a splendid designer in his day, and an out and out admirer of Queen Mary, a collector of curios and old furniture, and what perhaps had more than all to do with giving a special colouring to the varied gifts of his artistic family, a fully convinced Swedenborgian. There was also a strong Celtic source of hereditary inspiration on the maternal side. The maternal grandfather of these gifted people was a native of Glenlyon, Archibald Macdiarmid, who was a schoolmaster in Atholl, and married a daughter of Rob Ban Robertson, who was a near relation of the Struan chiefs. Archibald Macdiarmid could not paint pictures, but he could make as well as sing Gaelic songs. It seems to me that Sir Noel Paton's poetry, fairy and allegorical pictures, and Arthurian chivalry tendencies reveal Celtic heredity.

The only things the Kirkton of Balquhidder had in common with the general run of clachan villages were the church, churchyard, and school buildings. In my days there were only four dwelling-houses, the farmer's, the schoolmaster's, the gardener's formerly an inn and the cottage occupied by a weaver's widow and her mason son. The old school buildings were situated on the top of the bank above the road, and so close to the churchyard wall that Rob Roy's grave was within a few yards of my kitchen window. They were old buildings, and would have been unsightly, too, if ivy, roses, and tropaeolum, and a good position had not redeemed them. The schoolroom, which had two bedrooms over it, was fitter for condemnation than the dwelling-house, which had four bedrooms upstairs, and downstairs a good room, kitchen, and small closet. Mr Carnegie, soon after I left, caused new up-to-date school buildings to be erected on another site, and the old ones were completely obliterated. So the part of the churchyard wall which they screened was laid open to view. The old church and church-yard were exceedingly well placed on elevated ground, but in an over-crowded space. When Mr Carnegie gave the parish the fine new church, he added new land to the crowded space, had gravel walks made, and used brain and money to make the Balquhidder burial and worship-place the finest of its kind anywhere to be found. If any sweet, romantic spot in splendid scenery could make one in love with death, this Balquhidder churchyard should do it sooner than any country churchyard I have ever seen in Scotland or England, and I have seen not a few that had various strong charms of their own.


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