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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXXVII. - Back to Scotland


THE first issue of the new paper at Inverness was to take place in the first week of 1881, but I thought it would be well to make a preliminary survey of my new sphere of labour by personal observation and conversation with people of different classes and callings. With this purpose in view I left England about the middle of November, 1880. My wife, with our large brigade of young children, remained with her own people until I got a house for them. As it happened, the house was ready for them several weeks before they could get to it, because of the snowstorms and blocks on the Highland Railway. But they were happy where they were, and Mr and Mrs Aspinall were glad to have them for a longer time they had been foreseen by us when I left England.

My first halting place was Dunmore. Mr Archibald Campbell, the Earl's factor, one of my dearest friends from the time he was a little delicate pupil of mine in the Keumore school, until his premature death, after a bright and most honourable career, when factor of the Colquhoun estates, had pressingly invited me to diverge from the direct route to the Highlands and stop with him a couple of days. He threw in as an inducement the information that "Manitoba" would be my fellow guest, and would come by my train with me from Edinburgh to Larbert, where he would meet us with a dogcart and drive us to his picturesque factorial residence. "Manitoba" and I missed one another in the murky dark of the station in Edinburgh, but our host picked us up quickly enough when we emerged from our different carriages at Larbert.

"Manitoba" meant Mr Robert Campbell, a Glenlyon man, who, in his modest way, had done more than he was aware of for the extension of the territories of the Dominion of Canada, and the establishing of British authority over the Indians of the great North-West. I was quite a small boy when Robert went away from shepherding his father's farm of Dalchioinch to Hudson Bay, to enter the service of the old Royal Charter Company of traders and hunters. In that service he passed through many adventures and hardships, and proved his sagacity and tough powers of physical endurance. But he was one of those men of action who are sparing of their words. The best way for getting a full story out of him was to spread a map before him, and to make him describe his march, stage by stage, from commencement to finish. By means of a very imperfect map, Archie and I got him to tell us, stage by stage, the story of the expedition into the unknown wilds, of which he was chief, which discovered the Yukon Valley, and penetrated under great difficulties into Alaska, which was then Russian territory, with an undefined boundary between it and British territory. If first discovery counted in the settlement of the boundary, the whole of the Klondyke hinterland should belong to the Dominion, because no white man's foot had ever traversed these regions before Robert Campbell led his hardy little party over it. He rose, as he deserved, to be one of the Company's chief officers, and was in charge of Fort-Garry on the Red River, where the large city of Winnipeg now stands, when the rebellion of Riel and the half-breeds took place. He was, however, far away on his annual trading expedition, with the best and most faithful of his men, when the outbreak took place. He had some years before then married Miss Stirling from Comrie, and she and their children were left behind in the fort, which was in the charge of Thomas Scott, and could not be held against the rebels within and without. Mrs Campbell rallied together some fugitives and faithful Indians, who seized upon boats, and with them escaped, while "President" Riel and his half-breeds were employed in looting the stores and in condemning Scott by mock court-martial, and most barbarously murdering him. Mrs Campbell took care to bring away with her the books and papers of the factory when she and her children and companions slipped away out of Riel's clutches, and hastened to put between them and the "President" as much distance as they could.

There was, however, no real safety for white loyalists until Colonel Wolseley came with his Red River expeditionary force of 1200 men of all arms, by lakes and hitherto pathless forests, from Canada. Two-hirds of that little, hardy, well organised army were volunteers from Quebec and Ontario, formed into two battalions the 1st or Ontario Rifles and the 2nd or Quebec Rifles. From Glengarry and other places not far from Montreal, there were among the French and English-speaking riflemen of Quebec, a good many second and third generation men of Gaelic-speaking descendants of the old-time emigrants. The men of the Ontario battalion were mostly all Scotchmen, and the younger men of the recent emigrations from Highland glens, straths, bens, and islands were particularly conspicuous both by number and readiness to endure fatigue and conquer difficulties, which now can be scarcely understood by those who travel in their trail by railways and steamers. Among the Ontario Highland volunteers were several descendants of the old dame of ninety who marched off with her band of children, grand-children, and other relations from Glenlyon, as I have previously related. When the rebellion of 1870 was put an end to, and Kiel, by timely flight, escaped to the United States, whence, in after years, he returned to give fresh trouble until he was captured, tried, and executed, a good many of the Scotchmen of the Ontario Rifles, Highlanders and Lowlanders, seeing the capabilities of the virgin soil, and comparing its easy cultivation with the clearing of forest land, resolved to take up farms in Manitoba, and to bring their lares and penates from Ontario to establish them in the boundless and fertile prairie regions. Among those who so resolved were two stalwart grandsons of the old dame, Donald and David Stewart, the former being my first and the latter my second cousin, and in addition my mother's godson. Other relations and acquaintances from both Ontario and Scotland soon began to join the ex-riflemen. So the farming colonisation, which assumed at first a strong Scottish colouring aspect, steadily progressed, and the city of Winnipeg rose where Riel had hoisted the flag of half-breed rebellion and murdered poor Scott. It so happened that the new Scotch settlers found themselves among previous settlers of their race who, on retiring from the service of the Hudson Bay Company, took to farming patches of land near the forts, and hunting and trading routes.

Altogether dear Archie's friendship is to me one of my most unalloyed pleasures of memory, although shadowed by sadness because of his early death. We were a clannish little gathering in the factor's house at Dunmore. Our host was the young man of the party, I the middle-aged one, and "Manitoba" the patriarch of three-score and ten, who lived to be over eighty, without much abatement till past the four-score of mental or physical vigour. Then Archie, who never married, had his youngest sister, Jessie, a bright, genial, lovable girl, not yet out of her teens, as housekeeper, who listened with interest to our feast of reason and flow of soul when we spoke in English, but having been born at Monzievaird, when the old language was dying out there, could not follow us when we launched out into Gaelic. I dwell on this visit to Dunmore because, besides being a pleasant remembrance, it much widened my views in regard to the agricultural wealth which yet slumbered, waiting for colonising farmers, in the vast plains between Winnipeg and the Rocky Mountains. From early youth I had been pretty well posted in the history of Lower and Upper Canada and Nova Scotia, and of the life and environment of Highlanders, who, from the capture of Quebec downwards, had been settling in these regions. All I had read about the Hudson Bay Company's hunting and trading regions, and about those of the other Company which was its rival for a time, and then united with it, left me quite unprepared for Robert and Archibald Campbell's astoundingly high estimate of the agricultural and pastoral potentialities of the huge area of land lying west between Winnipeg and the Rocky Mountains, and south and north between the boundary line of the United States and Athabasca.

Both of them were the sons of Highland farmers who had grazing and arable land; and both of them had increased their initial and hereditary farming knowledge, Archie as factor, and Robert by taking to farming in Manitoba on retiring from his Company's service. In that service Robert had travelled over much of the land from Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains, and while rather sorry that, outside Athabasca, the buffalo was doomed to extinction, and the hunting area to be restricted, and the roving Indian to be sent into reserves, confessed that on the fertile prairie lands the whole population of the United Kingdom, if they took to farming and went there, could not cultivate all the cultivable lands of that region. Archie had quite lately been to Manitoba and further westward, commissioned to select and buy blocks of land where the Canada Pacific Railway, then in course of construction, was to pass. I think the chief of the purchasing gentlemen was Sir J. Elphinstone, but probably the Earl of Dunmore, who had before then been hunting and exploring in the then Wild West before railway-making had got far from Winnipeg had also a share in the enterprise. At any rate, Archie executed his commission so satisfactorily that he was rewarded by a generous slice of the purchased land for himself. He stayed for some time with my cousin, Donald Stewart, at Totogan as the Earl of Dunmore had done before him, saw many of the 1870 settlers, heard their opinions, and their practical experiences confirmed the view he had taken himself of the future importance of that part of the British Empire.

We left Dunmore early on the sunshiny morning of a fair winter day. Our host drove "Manitoba" and me to Stirling and saw us entrained there ere bidding us "good-bye." But we parted at Dunblane, for "Manitoba" was going round by Crieff to see his late wife's people at Comrie, and from afar the snow-capped top of Benledi, shining in sunlight, was giving me a cheerful invitation back to Balquhidder, where I had long ago spent the three most restful years of my life. I only stayed a night and a day at Balquhidder, where I found twenty years had brought about fewer changes than in most places. My former pupils were now heads of families, and in their turn beginning to get grey. Owing to the coming in of the railway the village of Strathyre had increased in size, architecturally improved, and adorned itself with flowers for attracting summer visitors. Farms were much the same as before, and the old population stock continued to flourish. The only other thing which struck me was that the children were insensibly beginning to lose firm hold of the excellent Gaelic of their forebears the Gaelic of Kirke and Dugald Buchanan.

From Balquhidder I passed on to Killin, where, as usual, I enjoyed the hospitality of my staunch old friend, Mr Charles Stewart. Retired from banking and wool-stapling business, Tighnduin as he got by this time to be called was now engaged in gathering up broken threads of ancient history, and in making his valuable "Killin Collection" of Gaelic poetry and music. Oh! what an ardent Highlander he was, and what natural talents he had! And how many Highlanders owed him grateful thanks as I did myself for acts of kindness and helpful counsel and guidance! He had much experience, and saw below the surface of things pretty far. He crammed me on this occasion with useful information on the agricultural situation, the social situation, and future prospects of the diminished, and still diminishing rural population. If his judgment on some few questions might be warped by prejudices inherited or acquired, his facts were always reliable and his knowledge of the state of the whole Highlands was extensive.

My cousin, Iain Ruadh Macnaughton, drove me in his dogcart from Killin, over the hills of my youth, to the farm of Cashlie in the braes of Glenlyon, of which he then was tenant. After a stay of two or three days there, during which I was told all that had to be told about Glenlyon affairs, I got to Fortingall, stopped there a day, and made Aberfeldy my next stage. Thence I went by railway to Birnam, where my cousin, William Macnaughton, met me, and drove me to his farm of Ridhop, some four miles above Dunkeld. There I had been resting for two or three days, and enlarging my information, when I got a message from Mr lnnes, who wished me to hasten on to Inverness. It was snowing when I got this message, and I narrowly escaped being blocked by snowdrifts by setting off next day. That winter the Highland line was twice or thrice seriously blocked, and the disastrous one, in which fat cattle for the Christmas London market perished at Dava, took place just after I passed through from Grantown to Forres.


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