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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXXIX. - The Procession of Changes


IT was my intention when I began to scribble these "Reminiscences" to stop short at 1881, and leave what I may call contemporary history alone. Now, however, I feel tempted to string loosely together, in a sort of epilogue, some detached observations on new outcomes or further developments of the industrial revolution, with its compelling economic changes, which I have endeavoured already to describe as I saw it.

When I left for England in December, 1860, the sheep-farming regime had reached its zenith. Wool was paying the rent, and the wintering expenses had not yet risen very high, nor had shepherds and other servants wages; for although self-evictions had followed and far exceeded the previous landlord evictions, the clachaus and crofter villages supplied all the servants the farmers wanted. On coming back to the Highlands exactly twenty years later, the servant-supply in the southern and central parts of the Highlands had become scanty, and wages had risen. The process of joining farm to farm was still going on, but after 1870 rents were steadily falling, for colonial wools and foreign wools were swamping the value of the home-grown wools, and the importation of live stock and preserved meat from other lands came in competition with the home butchermeat productions, although the carcase prices all through remained high.

In 1860, railways had not yet penetrated the Highlands. The stage coaches were running as before, and cattle, sheep, and horses were driven by the ancient routes to Falkirk trysts and other southern markets on their own feet. Twenty years later the situation was radically changed by the opening of the Highland Railway and the railway connection of Inverness with Aberdeen, while, in subsequent years, further railway extensions and new lines called for hosts of navvies. Lawyers also shared in the general prosperity of that time of activity, for rival companies warred with one another about predatory invasion of each other's spheres of monopoly, and especially about getting or keeping a grip on Inverness as a centre of appropriating activity in regard to the whole North.

Money circulated freely all round, and there was plenty of employment both for skilled and unskilled workers. So, when I came to Inverness, and for a number of years after that date, the Highlands, as a whole, were full of unwonted employment and prosperity. The two main springs of that prosperity flowed from the capital of the railway shareholders, and from the heavy burdens laid on the rates for building school premises and other objects deemed necessary for advanced civilisation, which had been dispensed with and not missed by previous generations. Besides the ordinary railway shareholder, who had, at the end of a period of prosperity, to put up with small dividends or, once or twice, none at all and the school buildings, for the somewhat profligate outlay on which ratepayers were heavily burdened, proprietors of fishings and shootings were putting up shooting lodges for sporting tenants, or, when new owners, sumptuous mansions for them- selves. For upwards of a quarter of a century, whenever and wherever railways extended, buildings of a superior kind rose up along the lines at chosen spots, where feus were to be had, as if by the magic of Aladdin's lamp. In the neighbourhood of stations in the wilds, new villages sprung up, and old ones were improved beyond recognition; and, like Pitlochry, Kingussie, Grantown, Aberfeldy, and places north and west of Inverness, enlarged from humble clusters of heath, fern, and straw-thatched dwellings into towns with large populations, big hotels, hydropathics, stately streets, fashionable shops, and no end of lodging accommodation for summer visitors.

Owners of woods, land to feu, and lime and stone quarries, shared in the profits of the building trans- formations. So, as carriers, did the railways.

Money flowed and work abounded as long as the building and railway-making activity went on. But in the nature of things that activity could not last for ever. In this twentieth century, although the stream of summer visitors has not diminished, and is, indeed, likely to go on indefinitely, the fall in the value of buildings and house-property has been serious everywhere, and disastrously so where feu-duties are high and where over-building has been carried on to a mad extent. The Highland building trade, which, up to 1890 or so, engaged so many hands, may now be said to be almost dead, and without much hope of an early or large revival.

Highland railways have done far better for the Highlands than they have been able to do for their ordinary shareholders. With the cessation of building activity, their carrying trade diminished. Compared with Lowland and English lines passing through centres of industries and dense population, and bridging spaces between such centres as ports for export, or internal places of demand and exchange, Highland railways far from coal and iron, and passing through long spaces with scanty resident population, were from the start disadvantageously placed. When they had no longer to carry building materials, what steadfastly remained for them was the carrying of passengers, cattle, and fish. Fast steamers competed for part of the fish trade. Bicycles, and then, with more serious effect, motor cars affected their passenger traffic. Coal became dear, and workmen's wages increased, and it required exceedingly good management to secure very modest dividends to the ordinary shareholders that represented the people by whose capital and credit the lines had been constructed. Traction engines, noisy, slow, dangerous to weak bridges, have taken in hand much of the work for carrying timber and stones, and other heavy materials, in places where shipping ports are near, or local building is still going on by small spurts and starts. Bicycles, motor cars, and traction engines have come to stay. To the many changes caused by railways, new inventions are daily adding others, which, while not reversing, alter and modify some of the previous changes.

Railways soon put an end to the running of stage coaches on the roads which General Wade had made passable in the eighteenth century, and which were perfected in the early part of last century. More slowly, but surely and steadily, railways and steamers put an end to the driving of animals for sale from the islands and mainlands by roads and by prehistoric routes, over moors and through mountain passes, to Falkirk trysts and other markets. The markets, national and local, which showed their antiquity by being named after saints, either lost importance or died out entirely. Dying out has been for local fairs the rule and not the exception. The cause of all this was the transport of our animals and produce by railway to cattle sale centres and town markets.


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