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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXXXII. - Deer Forests and Sheep Farms


IN 1860 the deer forests were few and far between. They were mere remnants of the old forests of the time of James IV., who first put sheep in Ettrick forest, and was ashamed to own it, although he gained thereby. He also had brood mares summering in the Inchcallan forest, of which the Black Mount was an appendage, which mares and their followers he removed in winter to Falkland and other Lowland possessions of his. Along the ridge of Alba, and in mountains elsewhere, deer and shealings held their own stiffly, although with many changes, down to the institution of the sheep regime after Culloden days. Even after 1770 scattered deer were to be met with wherever the shealings still existed; and by a "timchioll mor" or great circuit drive-in they could be gathered together at the "co-sheilgs" and "iollcraigs," which had been the slaughtering-places from immemorial times. The Jacobite rebellion of 1715 received its baptism of deer blood at such a great circuit drive on the Braes of Mar. When James VI. went to England, the royal forests in the Highlands were still of large extent. Bit by bit they were given out or sold to private owners, and after 1770 nothing but a shadowy ghost of them remained. It must be acknowledged that, in the old days, the royal forests and the forests belonging to the great nobles were often refugees for outlaws and thieves, and that the sheep regime marked the full establishment of the reign of law in what had been the deer forest solitudes of the olden times.

The vacant shealing huts, within and on the skirts of the forests, provided the outlaws and thieves with winter residences, and they killed the deer for food. When in peril in one place they could shift off readily to another place. This shifting about gave rise to a sort of trade-union between the outlaws of districts widely apart. The Clan Grigor, with their certainly real, although to this day not clearly ascertained grievances, from the turmoils consequent on the disaster of Flodden to the death of Rob Roy, furnished the outlaws with the leaders that are most notorious in song, legends, and Privy Council minutes such as Duncan Ladosach Gregor of Glenstrae, beheaded at Bealach in 1570, Alastair, his son, who officiated at the gruesome ceremony over the head of the murdered King's forester in the kirk at Balquhidder, and fought with the Colquhouns at Glenfruin, Gilderoy and John Dubh Gearr of Charles the First's time, and Patrick Roy, brother of John of Glenstrae, who seized upon Menzies of Weem's Brae of Rannoch lands during the Covenant War disturbances, when almost all the outlaws, hoping for spoils, made themselves inlaws by taking the side of the King, and fighting for him most manfully. Lochaber, Glencoe, Moidart, Arisaig, the islanders, and Gunns of the North were much associated with the Clan Gregor, and the whole of the lawless had a market in Ireland for such of their spoils as they did not need for themselves. Until Jacobitism received its death blow, loyalty to the dethroned dynasty secured the protection of great chiefs and landowners to raiders and outlaws. The law-abiding population could defend themselves, and did defend themselves in their winter towns, but were never quite safe from having their cattle stolen from their shealings. It was not so much as a robber as an insurer against depredations by other robbers, that Rob Roy raised his "blackmail," and in Perthshire and Argyleshire, in a unique way, gained far from ill-deserved popularity.

When outlaws and raiding bands were put down, and individual thieves were got well in hand, thanks to the combined forces of law and religion, sheep could for the first time be safely put upon shealings and on ancient forest lands. Imperative economic reasons the sure hope of making much profit for themselves, induced the larger number of the Highland proprietors of the last thirty years of the eighteenth century to do so. But still not a few of them were so tenacious of use and wont that they declined to move on with the main body of their class, and went down to their graves leaving their estate to their heirs much in the same condition as they found them. The men, however, who would not go in for change were not the owners of large farms and shealing stretches, but owners of small or moderate-sized estates with, for the Highlands, liberal shares of arable land.

Enlightened self-interest induced Highland nobles, chiefs, and other landlords, between 1770 and 1800, to convert the mountain solitudes into sheep runs until there was nothing left of them unstocked but the few old forests, or bits of them, which a few magnates kept still under deer for their own and their friends' hunting. But I question if any of them thought then of ruthlessly breaking and brushing aside the thousand kindly ties with the people who lived on their lands. They were, like these people, for a long time blind to the impending doom of the domestic industries on the profits of which the coal-less districts fairly well participated, until new machinery driven by steam power, division of labour, and concentration in towns and mineral districts, changed the whole industrial order. If evictions were thought of as they must have been by the foreseeing they were not much spoken of or carried out until after Waterloo, when the Highlands lost their previous value as a nursery for soldiers, and when the calanas was already suffering from the blight which was slowly and surely killing it.

Feudalism arid clannishness in the Highlands the two always by a mysterious process amalgamated together, simple habits of life, and simple tools of industry, gave the superseded order a stability which the lapse of centuries did not essentially change. The case is now entirely different. Who of the landlord promoters of the sheep regime foresaw that in a century sheep-farming should commence to be superseded by deer forests in more than the places which had been of old devoted to shealings and deer? Change follows change in endless chain. To change the metaphor, rural life is tossing on a heaving sea of changes in a badly-equipped boat striving to struggle to land.

When I went to England in 1860, mountain sheep-farming had reached its highest point of expansion. Grouse moors and fishings were also paying high rents, and shooting lodges were being run up. A few derelict Highland estates had passed into the hands of new owners, but there was yet no reason to suppose that the change of ownership should proceed very far when the rent-rolls of Highland properties had so remarkably swelled up, and when old landed families were, or should be, tenacious in keeping a firm hold on the ancestral lands. After twenty years' absence from Scotland, I found when I came to Inverness that the 1860 situation was undergoing a series of changes, the end of which has not yet been reached. For one thing the profit and loss scale was turning decidedly against sheep-runs, the rents of which were falling, and in favour of deer forests, the rents of which were rising, and the purchasing demand for which was far exceeding the supply.

The Earl of Dudley, as tenant of the Blackmount Forest, was paying a rent of 4500 to the Earl of Breadalbane. It was, however, an American millionaire, Mr W. L. Winans, who "topped creation" by his taking of moors and forests between Beauly and Kintail. He took all he could get regardless of the huge cost he had to pay, and was vexed that he could not get more. He paid a rent of 5750 to Lord Lovat, of 2940 to the Chisholm, and of 1104 to Mr Mackenzie of Kintail. And for all this extravagance he could not be called a true sportsman. He believed in drives of deer and grouse, and in sumptuous hill picnics. Others of his countrymen who rented Highland forests, shootings, and fishings, were true sportsmen, and so, too, were his own sons. Sir John Ramsden, who purchased 138,000 acres of mountain land in Upper Badenoch, including Ben Alder Forest, may be taken to represent the class of new proprietors who bought estates in the Highlands, mainly for sporting purposes. Sir John Ramsden was not indeed the first English purchaser of a great Highland estate, for Lord Dudley had been before him as owner of Glengarry, which, however, he did not keep long before he sold it to the good Scotsman, Mr Ellice. The earlier purchasers got better bargains than the later ones. Prices rose as if bidders had gone mad, and the temptation to sell was too strong to be resisted by many old owners who were either burdened with debts and settlements, or anxious to provide their children with means for making new starts in life under promising conditions. So all over the Highlands and Islands land has, bit by bit, and, sometimes, in big lumps, for now a long period, been passing from old families to new owners. The boom is yet on districts where sheep-runs can easily be changed into deer forests. But I doubt whether it can last much longer at its present height. It has slackened already in crofter community districts. Mr Andrew Carnegie got the estate of Skibo at a price much reduced from what his predecessor, Mi- Sutherland, had paid for it.

The same economic reason natural love of profit which, at the end of the eighteenth century, caused shealings and forest lands to be stocked with sheep, led to the reversal of that process at the end of the nineteenth century. But when an almost mad demand arose for the creation or purchase of deer forests it could not be suddenly and completely met. Owners who would gladly sell for the fancy prices readily offered were tied down by strict entail restrictions, until heirs, born after 1848, succeeded their father, and regained liberty of sale by compounding with expectant heirs. Sheep farmers of lands wanted for making new deer forests, had often long leases, for the expiry of which impatient sports- men, and profit-expecting landlords wishing to sell, could not wait. Their tenants had therefore to be bought out, and between compensation for giving up their leases and high valuation for their stock, they went off to pastures new with full purses and rejoicing hearts.

Lest I should otherwise overlook a subject which not long ago was of first class importance, and has not yet lost all its importance, although restricting conditions in new leases have changed matters, I will digress a little to make a few remarks on stock valuations. It was proper that an acclimatised stock on a farm should be bought at a higher rate than an unacclimatised one in open market. From the first, in granting leases, landlords had made it a condition that the out-going tenant should deliver at valuation the stock to the incoming tenant, or failing such a tenant, to the landlord himself, who was bound to receive it and pay for it. Up to 1860, or some years later, in the delivering of sheep stock, the allowance made for acclimatisation was so reasonable that landlords and incoming tenants had little or nothing to complain of except it may be that in some few instances out-going tenants so managed that they delivered more stock than the grazings could regularly carry. I am not quite sure, but have some reason to believe, that it was in the hot haste to make new deer forests an upward hitch was given to valuations, which went higher and higher over the whole land, until incoming tenants could not stand it, and landlords thought they had good reason to think themselves swindled.

The sheep farmers having their own grievances and sore trials, defended themselves as they best could against ruinous losses. Their best weapon of defence was the high valuations for stock on going out of their farms, which, having once been established on the principle of a great difference between farm-bred stock and flying market stock, could only be adjusted by resort to new forms of contract. Looking forward to recovery of losses by high valuations, they took care to have very full stocks for delivery. As a class the only relations between them and their landlords were the purely commercial ones of contract buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest markets. They had invested much capital in their stock. 1000 meant quite a small farm, and 5000 a good regulation one, and 10,000, or upwards, a topping one. In taking long leases they had not foreseen the frightful fall in the prices of wool, which fall was but wretchedly compensated by a rise in the value of the carcase. Then, as the years rolled on, the wintering rents rolled up, and so did servants' wages. The sheep likewise lost much of their old foraging hardihood, and new diseases got in among them notably the "crithein," or "trembling." This disease was unknown, or so rare as not to be marked, when cattle and horses and goats ate the coarser grasses, and sedges, and when the ferns they did not trample and destroy, were pulled for thatching and cut for bedding. A steadily, if stealthy, progressive deterioration of hill grazings went on, which old natives were the first to notice. They remembered the days when herds of cattle, with many horses, were mixed with the sheep stocks, and when every bit of arable land was carefully cultivated, and even the last of the shealings had not been left vacant in summer. They said that the bigger animals manured the ground behind them, and consumed the rougher herbage; that the droppings of the sheep had no manurial value, and that, while incapable of keeping down the rougher vegetation, they nipped every patch of fine grass so close to the ground as to lay its roots bare to be destroyed by winter frosts. The green spots which marked the old hill shealings, and abandoned spots of old cultivation, have certainly, within my own memory, much contracted or effaced themselves, while rushes arid ferns and sedges have spread themselves into nuisances. I have no doubt that there was much truth in what the ancient natives said. The sheep farmers of shealing regions, and of big holdings formed by the turning out of old communities of winter towns, where arable and pastoral pursuits used to be conjoined, profited for a long time by the unexhausted manures and other leavings of the old system which had been superseded by the sheep reign. Whatever were its passing fluctuations, and whatever happened to individuals who did not know their business, or hazarded beyond their means and credit, that reign for a hundred years was a profitable one to landlords whose rents were doubled or trebled, and to farmers who knew how to make good use of their opportunities, and secure themselves from losses by wintering out the young of their flock.

At the end of a century of prosperity for both, appeared the Nemesis which threw landlords and large sheep farmers into fierce conflict all on commercial lines. Smaller sheep farms with arable land continued to be easily let, generally to the old tenants, on moderate reductions of rent, but the big sheep-runs, on the expiry of lease, were thrown on landlords' hands, because that was the only way in which the outgoing farmers could hope to recoup losses, and retire if old to live on that capital, or if young to take farms again on new conditions if outgoing, and rents so reduced that they could be fairly sure of profits, or safe against losses, and with comfortable homes and the occupations which suited them. Some who went out came back after a while into their old farms, on rent reduced from what they had once been by a third, or in some cases by a half.

The financially-embarrassed landlords, on whose hands sheep-stocks at high valuations were thrown all in a row as leases usually expire in batches- saw nothing before them but trouble likely to end in bankruptcy unless they sold their estates. Some have done so, and others may follow their example, which, indeed, is worldly-wise, while fancy prices can be obtained for Highland forests ; yet it hurts one to see old landed families disappear from the places which had so long known them. Political economists look only to money profit and loss, but the sentimental associations which they scorn are binding cords in social life, the value of which cannot be estimated in pounds, shillings, and pence. On the political economist's code rules, the embarrassed landlords who take advantage to sell out when the market boom for Highland estates lasts are certainly acting very wisely. They get rid of their burdens, and recoup themselves like the sheep-farmers who have pushed them to the wall. Probably when they have paid all their liabilities, they will find them- selves financially in a better position than they had been before. The purchasers, in giving such fancy prices for Highland estates, thought more of sport than of making profitable investments. They wanted forests of their own, spent money freely on planting, fencing, and other improvements, and some of them, like Sir Donald Currie on his Glenlyon estate, by joining large grazing outruns to arable and meadow land, and putting deer fences between these outruns and the forest hills, formed separate farms of size enough for giving employment to families all the year round, with chances of steady and just returns on capital and labour, and have initiated what is undoubtedly an improvement on crofting communities the plan of separate holdings of the moderate and manageable size to which it would be most desirable to resort. There are few obstacles now to sales and transfers, because successive Acts of Parliament have, in a majority of instances, put an end to entails, and in all cases reduced their operations to a minimum of obstruction.

The owners of estates equal in area to small English counties, who had no wish, and, if they lived within their incomes, no need to sell portions of their land, found themselves "held up" by their larger tenants when they, in self-defence, took to giving up their holdings, on high valuations, unless they got rents reduced by a third or a half, and the other concessions they demanded, so to speak, at the points of their conquering spears. It was a hard choice between taking over farms and stocks and agreeing to accept such heavy reductions of pastoral rents as had not been heard of for a hundred years. But when the outrageously large farms turned into white elephants, why were they not at once divided by landlords into small and moderately -sized, separate holdings, for which there always continued to be a good demand by a very good class of people who had, by industry and frugality, saved sufficient capital for stocking and equipping, and knew all which concerned utilising grazings and arable lands? To hereditary landlords there was a formidable difficulty in going back to smaller holdings by dividing the big ones which had turned into white elephants. They or their predecessors, chiefly the latter, had made heavy outlays on building steadings, and farmhouses that might be called gentlemen's modest mansions, on the big holdings. When these were sub-divided there would only be one division of them which would have farm buildings on it, and to that division the buildings on it would be a vast deal more than it wanted. The thatched houses, barns, and byres of former days, which tenants built for themselves and kept in repair, getting nothing more than timber from their landlords, had been swept away. The new tenants of sub-divided huge holdings expected, as a matter of course, that the landlord would put up new boundary fences and comfortable storie-and-lime and slated buildings when they were to pay rents which, in the aggregate, would far exceed what he could now get for the undivided big holding. From such an undertaking hereditary landlords recoiled, and having re-let at much reduced rents the more manageable farms, and having, at a heavy loss, sold at market prices the stock of the practically unlettable mountain sheep- runs, they turned them into deer forests for which, after a stocking interval, they thought themselves sure to get high rents, or they made sure at once by selling such lands to people who had made large fortunes in business and trade, and who, looking less to investment than to sport, and the strangely attractive social status of landed gentry, did not much care what price they paid for their Highland forest, shooting, and fishing purchases.

Imperative economic causes brought the old industrial system of the Highlands to an end and established the reign of sheep. At the end of a century similar reasons are, to a great extent, superseding sheep by deer. Those who hold Cobden-Club views in logical purity should, there- fore, rest content; for if true to their professed creed economic reasons ought to be accepted and acted upon, without respect to cherished sentiments. Cobcleuism and science are much alike in excluding from consideration the innate principles of human nature and the soul-side of the universe. They have undoubted truths to teach, but without those complements they are too liable to be used or abused as poisonous because imperfect truths. The sheep reign deeply hurt the Highland people. The present phase of reversion to deer and the coming in of new sporting landlords with plenty of money, and willingness to expend it on their sporting pleasures, and on such valuable improvements as planting, fencing, and buildings, are materially beneficial to the native population. Employment as foresters, gamekeepers, home-farm servants, and gardeners has great benefits for young Highlanders, and keeps them from going away from their birth- places to towns and colonies.

Previously unsuspected causes so often lead up to unexpected results, that it is quite within the wide range of possibility the placing of mountainside glens, corries, and hill-tops under deer, may turn out to be the means for creating a great number of desirable small separate farms, far larger than crofts, but not too large for being taken and advantageously worked by people who possess a few hundred pounds of saved money. The process has began in other places, as well as in the one already referred to. It is a natural process to form farms of the arable lands and hay meadows where cultivation can be carried on, and to give each of them grazing outruns, divided from the forest wild lands by deer fences. Wild talk has been plentifully indulged in by radical agitators and newspapers, about the wickedness of dedicating to sport land fit for cultivation. It would be certainly wicked to do so. But is the Highland land put under deer, land fit for cultivation? People who talk so loudly, should try to know what they are talking about. Before the installation of the sheep reign in full form, cultivation was pushed to the farthest limits, within which it was possible to find small patches of suitable soil. But even before the sheep put an end to the shealings, the cultivators of patches of promising, exceedingly well-manured shealing land, discovered to their cost that there was a line beyond which crops would not grow and ripen for the harvest. Let the decriers of wickedness inspect the existing Highland forests before denouncing them on a false cry. Let them watch the making of new forests, and if they find that cultivable land, to the extent of an acre in a thousand, is being included in them, shout for penal legislation. At present they have no case for calling out for penalising the owners and tenants of forests by differential rates and taxes. They are already paying rates far above what their places would have to pay if they remained under sheep, and the rents of them fluctuated down to the lowest pastoral level. It is safe to confidently predict that the reign of deer will not last so long as the reign of sheep has done, and that it will never extend beyond uncultivable mountain and moor lauds. Were it to spread itself out, so as to include areas fit for mixed grazing and agricultural farming, it would, no doubt, be dealt with by prohibitive legislation. But there !s no need for legislative interference, as long as only uncultivable spaces are placed under deer, because that is the most profitable, selling, letting, and rating use which can be made of them in present circumstances. Grouse moors and fishing are in a different category, and may retain their value indefinitely. People who are not ranked among the wealthy, have grouse, hare, rabbit, partridge, and ptarmigan shootings, and salmon and trout fishings within their reach. Deer forests are luxuries in which only rich people can indulge. They are bought at fancy prices, and let by old proprietors who do not sell lands at fancy rents. Happy are the owners who have well-stocked deer forests with good lodges in these days to let. But the new ones which are being formed in places cleared of sheep, take five or six years, with care and expenditure, to stock with imported deer, and partly, too, with deer that have strayed in from neighbouring forests. Straying away to pastures new, from which they do not come back, calls for the erection of deer fences between adjoining forests. Between forests and farms the need for such fences is still more clamant. The deer ravage crops and meadows to an intolerable degree. Fences and walls which shut in or shut out other animals are not barriers to them. Out of their own grounds, they are wild beasts of nature, whose raiding ravages are to be stopped by getting killed and eaten by those who suffer. So deer must be shut in by deer fences in their own grounds if they are to be saved from the fate they deserve. And when fenced in they have still to be guarded by hosts of foresters, reinforced in the hunting season by many gillies.

After new forests have been fenced, stocked, and furnished with sumptuous lodges, the heavy cost of upkeep will remain; and the more new forests are made, the less will become the letting value and the less the selling price of former forests. It is quite easy, by multiplying them, to exceed the demand for deer forests, for that demand will always be restricted to the very rich, who can afford to please themselves, or to the reckless who march on the road to ruin. There are changes of fashion in sports as well as in ladies' dresses. With fast steamers on sea, airships in view, and railways, and roads for motor-cars opening up formerly sealed countries, and bringing all parts of the earth in close proximity, it is not at all unlikely that hunting elephants and other large game in what used to be called "Darkest Africa" will come into deadly competition with deer- hunting in the Highlands. All things considered, I look upon the present process of converting sheep- runs into deer forests as a passing phase in a period of general transition, the end of which it is impossible to foretell. But if nothing more than a passing phase, it is, at any rate, for many reasons a good one for the children of the Gael, and it promises, if left to run its course, to be a helpful factor in keeping Highlanders on their native land, and in leading up to the formation of much-to-be-desired moderately-sized, separate farms.


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