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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter VII. - Glenlyon and its Neighbourhood


THE old system of farming was yet making a stiff fight with the new one, although flocks of blackfaced sheep were on all the brae shealings and on all the hills connected with arable land in the lower end of the Glen. One large shealing called Rialt was, till after 1840, held by Breadalbane tenants whose winter-towns were a good distance away, and the Roro tenants had a shealing in the shadow of Ben- lawers on their own hill, and so had the four tenants of the Eight Merkland of Kerrumore and Craigelig, of whom my father was one, in their own Conaglen. The population was thrice as numerous as it is now. The people were industrious, well clothed, comfortably housed, and sufficiently supplied with simple frugal and healthy food, such as meal, butcher meat, milk, butter, cheese, and potatoes. Up till 1845, potatoes were at their best and so abundant that, with fish on the Islands and the West Coast, and with mutton, braxy, pork, and milk, butter, and cheese on the mainland, they formed the chief item in the dietary of the humbler classes; oatcakes, barley scones, and porridge taking secondary rank, especially after the short crop of 1826. As much land as their little middens would manure was given to cottars freely by the farmers, who also bestowed gifts of potatoes on the poor and helpless out of charity. There was a wonderful amount of charity, mutual help and sympathy, among the Glenlyon inhabitants of my early years. No doubt it was so throughout the Highlands generally, as the conditions and connections were so much alike everywhere. According to their surnames, our Glen people were descended from twelve or more different clans. But by centuries of inter-marriage they had all become a kind of one clan through affinity and consanguinity. They did not approve of the marriage of first cousins, but unless a man, as happened pretty often, brought a bride from another parish, he could not marry a Glen girl with whom he was not related more distantly than first cousinhood. While kinship near or far made it the duty of the comfortably off to help those that were badly off, usually through no fault of their own, it likewise filled the strugglers with such pride of independence that, however hardly tried, none of them took the road as beggars going with meal-pokes from door to door. What a lonely woman did was, at clipping time, to go round the fanks "air faoigh ollatnh"; in other words, to ask for puckles of wool, which she took home and spun and so turned into money. Men who drifted into helplessness often quartered themselves for the end of their days on well-to-do relations who did not grudge them their keep.

In our Glen a clannish community through inter-marriage was thus formed by people of many surnames. It was much the same in the neighbouring glens and districts. There never existed on the south side of the Grampians a parish or barony or estate of many farms that was inhabited by people of one surname. I question whether the ideal of one-clan or one-descent ever existed any- where on the Highland mainland, or in the larger islands, whatever might be the case in the smaller islands. The one-stock clan idea came out of a precedent Celtic system which was superseded by the feudal system. When the clans in the fourteenth century began to raise their heads, they had, in order to succeed, to graft their idea on feudalism, and to accept the mixed population that had gathered themselves under it. On the other hand holders of feudal charters like the Seton-Gordons, the Frasers, Menzieses, Chisholms, etc., had to act like Celtic chiefs to make their charters good.

The abolition of the large brae shealings, and the consolidation of some of the lower farms, almost put an end to the summer life romance so dearly remembered by my seniors, and cramped a growing population on the part of the Glen which had most of the arable land. The coming necessity for voluntary emigration or landlord eviction of people for whom there was no room or opening in the Glen was plainly foreshadowed, and understood by the people themselves, who, besides the chronic drifting southward, had sent off swarms of emigrants to Canada before 1820. But until the abolition of the club-farms, which was completed in or about 1850, the old industrial order struggled to hold its ground. It was, however, for the last ten years of that struggle, being pressed to death between the two millstones of sheep rule and the lost value of the "calanas" or spinning industry of the women. The manufacturing inventions of the preceding century led to the putting up of water-mills for wool and cotton; but until steam power was introduced the coalless parts of the country did not realise that they were doomed to lose their domestic industries, nor did they lose them at once, although gradually they began to be less and less profitable. Flax- growing, followed by its spinning and weaving, was a great and very ancient industry in Glenlyon, and indeed in all parts of the Highlands where good flax could be grown in suitable soil, which was as carefully prepared, manured, and weeded as garden beds. Splendid flax was grown in Glenlyon, and fine yarn and linen were produced therefrom, by following the processes of cultivation, steeping, scutching, heckling, and spinning, which had come down from the days of old, and which were carried out by simple means, without any innovation, until towards the end of the eighteenth century, scutching mills relieved the home workers of part of the initiative drudgery. The lassies, who went with their mothers and the milch cows to the shealirigs, were early taught to spin on the hillsides while they were tending calves, by distaff and spindle, while their elders were busy at their wheels within the huts, between milking times. The cheapness of Manchester cotton goods never so wholly destroyed the value of the Highland flax-spinning and weaving that it should have been abandoned. In spite of the discouragement caused by the cheap cotton industry, Ulster kept its linen industry and made it pay all through. It never was more flourishing than it is at present. But it is an industry which can only thrive in a well-populated rural district ; and Ulster was never depopulated by a sheep- regime invasion and a craze for large farms like the Highlands. Should the central Highlands ever go back to farms of moderately small size something much larger than crofts the linen industry might be revived with much advantage.

To return to the old order in Glenlyon, all the hard field and hill work was done by the men, while dairy-work, house-work, and the important "calanas" by which all were clothed, and chests were filled with blankets and webs of linen, and revenue secured by the export sale of linen and woolen yarns, fell within the special domain of the women. As long as the large far off shealings remained, the women had a smaller share than they had afterwards in harvest work or field work of any kind. But before and afterwards there was plenty of work for both sexes although the remuneration was not in proportion to the care and labour bestowed on the work. It fell as a heavy task to the men in addition to the legitimate farm work, that they had to thatch, repair, and rebuild homes, byres, barns, and stables, proprietors giving nothing but the timber as it stood uncut in the woods. The cutting and winning of peats formed part of the ordinary farm labour. The manifold calls on their ingenuity and forethought made both sexes very diligent and resourceful. They formed, as it were, a self-contained, self-sustained, self-sufficing community. Whether they went as small feuars to dig out Flanders Moss, or emigrated to the Canadian forests, they took with them a hundred self-helping arts and qualities which in most cases ensured success. They were not, as a class, so well fitted to prosper in manufacturing towns, although some of them did prosper there both as merchants and manufacturers. I do not think that there could possibly be better nurseries for soldiers and pioneers of empire, or better training schools for agricultural emigrants to the colonies, than were the Highland mainland communities that remained substantially under the old order for a century after the reign of law was established on Culloden Moor and the Church of Scotland covered the country with schools. Soldiers, Hudson Bay Company servants, adventurers and emigrants, took with them everywhere self-helpful resources of many kinds, and a standard of morals which even the wastrels among them could never forget nor violate without prickings of remorse. That standard of morals had Shorter Catechism teaching for its back- bone, but that steel-like backbone was invested in the warm flesh, skin and blood of Highland chivalry and undying love of native land.


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