Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Parish Life in the North of Scotland
Chapter VII - Donald Sage; His Childhood


1789-1800.

MY RETURN to the incidents of my father's life and ministry. Both my sisters were natives of Caithness, and were, at the time of my father's settlement at Kildonan, the one a year and a half and the other about two months old. On the 31st day of August, 1788, my elder and only brother Eneas was born at the manse of Kildonan. There, too, I was born on the 20th day of October, 1789. Six weeks after my birth I was baptised by Mr. David Mackay, the minister of Reay. I was named Donald, after my maternal, as my brother was called Eneas after our paternal, grandfather. My brother was nursed by one Marion Poison, the second wife of Donald Mackay, catechist of the parish. My nurse was Barbara Corbett, the wife of John ,Murray, who lived at a secluded spot in the parish of Loth, to the west of the rock of Marril, called Lonn-riabhach, or the speckled loan. Barbara took great care of me; her daughter Barbara was my foster-sister. She was latterly my servant when at Achness, and one of my first servants when I came to this parish.

I can now, at the intervening period of fifty years, distinctly fix upon the very first exercise of my memory. In the apartment in which I was born, and directly before the window, when I was about two years of age, I was asking something which I do not now remember of my mother. Like the usual demands of children, it was unreasonable, and therefore could not be granted. Yet three things are impressed upon my memory—the motherly tenderness with which my childish request was refused, and the petulance with which that refusal was received; connected with these comes the remembrance of my mother's personal appearance, especially the features of her countenance. My recollection suddenly stops here; but the memory which thus so suddenly slept was destined, in a few months afterwards, as suddenly to reawaken. The cause was my mother's untimely death. She died in childbed, of her sixth child. Of the circumstances connected with her illness I have no recollection; but I have been told that, about an hour before her death, we were all solemnly summoned before her, and ranged round her dying bed, to take our last farewell of her and to receive her blessing. She took particular notice of me, appeared deeply affected, and, in broken accents, prayed that I might yet be useful in the vineyard of Christ. Of this solemn scene I have no recollection, but of that which very soon followed my memory has, at this moment, a most distinct hold. On the evening of the 27th of November, 1792, when 1 was three years and a mouth old, I recollect entering in at the door of the room where my mother, but a few hours before, had breathed her last. It was the low easter-room of the manse. A bed stood at the north-east corner of the room, with dark curtains folded up in front. On the bed lay extended, with a motionless stillness which both surprised and terrified me, one whom I at once knew to be my mother. I was sure it was she, although she lay so still and silent. She appeared to me to be covered with a white sheet or robe; white leather gloves were on her hands, which lay crossed over her body. At the opposite corner of the room sat my father. He had, previous to my coming in, been indulging his grief in silence, and giving vent to the " bitterness of the heart " in half-audible sighs. My sudden and heedless entrance seemed to open up the flood-gates of his grief. I was the favourite child of her who now lay stretched in death—the last surviving pledge of their affection. It was too much for him. He sobbed aloud, the tears rolled down his face, his frame shook, and he clasped me in his large embrace in all the agony of a great sorrow. That sobbing still rings in my ears, although then my only feeling was that of childish wonder. I gazed, now at my mother's body, especially at her gloved and motionless hands, then at my father, as I could not conceive that any but children could weep at all, or at least weep aloud. My mother died in the 42nd year of her age. Of the subsequent events—the freshness of my father's sorrow, the solemnities of my mother's funeral, the necessary arrangements in the household consequent upon her death—of these, with many other circumstances, I have not the slightest remembrance. But the scene I have just described retains its place like a framed picture in my memory.

When my recollections of these juvenile years again awaken, I find myself and my brother placed under the tutelage of a young man named Fraser, and under the care of one named Elspat Mackay. or "Eppy," as housekeeper. Hugh Fraser's attainments as an instructor of youth were as slender as could well be conceived. He knew all the letters of the alphabet, he could, without much spelling, read any ordinary English school book, and as for his pronunciation of that language, it would have warmed the heart of any Sutherland Highlander had he heard it on the banks of the Ganges, so strong did it smack of the "accents of the mountain-tongue." A slate-and-pencil knowledge of the four cardinal rules of arithmetic, too, was an essential part of the education which constituted Hugh's stock-in-trade. The only recollection I have of him is in connection with an object which, from the first consciousness that I had of the working of my mind, made an impression upon me, and that was the corn-mill of Kildonan. The resolutions of the waterwheel occupied far more of my waking, and even of my sleeping, thoughts, than the revolutions of kingdoms do now. The mill was distinctly visible from the manse windows, and its stillness or its activity were among the first unusual objects that attracted my attention. I was standing one day at the glebe dyke, right opposite the water-wheel, whilst it was in full career. I was intently gazing at it—at the rim, the spokes, and the circular shower of drops which, by the rapidity of its motion, it threw up around it. The spokes of the wheel were double, that is, four on each side of the rim, parallel to each other, and as the wheel revolved with great rapidity it seemed to my mind to present an interior chamber. Hugh Fraser tapped me on the shoulder. "What do you do here?" said he; "your dinner is almost cold, and Eppy is calling for you." "What would happen me," said I, "if I were within that wheel just now?" "You would get your crown cracked," said Hugh Fraser, "that would be all." This is the only information given me by Hugh Fraser that I can recall.

Eppy Mackay made a longer, as well as a more vivid, impression upon me. As a housekeeper, or upper and confidential servant, Eppy was a model. She had everything to do, and undertook to do everything. She was cook, chamber-maid, nurse, governante, and housekeeper, all in one. If things went on well, my father, who was an easy man, praised her; if things went in the contrary way, my father, who was also a hasty man, reproved and censured her. Both the praise and the blame Eppy received with the same placidity and imperturbable spirit. But in all this she did not act upon the abstract principle either of meekness or fidelity. There were certain advantages connected with the situation she held and the trust reposed in her, as the minister's housekeeper, which supported her under any irritability of temper, not to say fear, which she might occasionally have felt under the sudden but short-lived explosions of my father's anger. She possessed, for example, some little measure of parish patronage, and this she was careful to extend at least as far as on the occasion it would go. It was therefore reckoned advantageous for any of the tenants or their wives to have Eppy's ear. Then there was at her disposal, or under her charge, certain articles, such as soap, tea, or sugar, with which, after the family wants were supplied, she made herself gracious among her neighbours who could not come at such things in any other way. These articles, no doubt, were her master's property, but Eppy and her friends reconciled themselves to this rather questionable way of disposing of them, on a principle of Highland expediency of very old standing, namely, "that they would be the better for it, and he would not be the worse." By dispensing her favours after this method, Eppy succeeded in gaining for herself a "good name" among the old, and a goodly array of "cake-and-pudding" admirers among the young. Of the number of these last was John Ross, the miller of Kildonan, a stout young fellow who held the mill in lease from my father. He was Eppy's declared admirer, and to pay court to her, he had presented me with a windmill. His present rivetted my affections to him, and I followed him like his shadow. To put my attachment to the test, some of the servants one stormy evening, as I was seated by the kitchen fireside, told me that John Ross was dead—that he had been drowned in attempting to cross the burn when heavily flooded. I can even now remember the tumult which the intelligence excited within me. My breath came suddenly thick and short. With almost a feeling of suffocation, I appealed to Eppy for the truth of it. She sorrowfully shook her head, and pretended to be deeply affected. This to me was tantamount to proof positive, and, giving full vent to my feelings, I made the kitchen rafters ring with my roaring. As the instigators of the scene, however, were busily employed in soothing me, John Ross entered the kitchen. When he was told of the proof I had given of my childish fancy for him, he was much affected.
Of my father, at this period, or of my sisters, I have no recollection. My only brother, with whom 1 played all day, and slept at night, did attract my notice. I recollect one circumstance respecting him. We had both crossed the burn, and, for our own amusement, had called in at almost all the tenants' houses, where we met with a kind and cordial reception. We came at last to the schoolmaster's house, a Mr. Donald MacLeod. I was a greater favourite with the people than my brother, and, as a proof of this, Mrs. Macleod, in treating us to a lunch, whilst she gave him some bread and butter, gave me as a very special delicacy, a half cake of oat-bread, larded over with cream. V4 e were to remain at the schoolmaster's house until Eppy should come to bring us home. It was getting late and dark, and whilst I was quite content to remain until it was Eppy's pleasure to call for us, not so was my brother. He insisted upon being taken home, and all good Mrs. Macleod's remonstrances to the contrary were in vain. He was, from, his earliest years of the most indomitable and determined resolution; and his will, in opposition to all that could be urged against it, he laid down by the usual arguments of a wayward child, that is by tears and bellowing. He carried his point, and Mrs. Macleod and her eldest daughter were under the necessity, not only of setting out with us both, but moreover, and in obedience to my brother's most sovereign will, of carrying us on their shoulders, and safely landing us at the kitchen-door. These comparatively trivial circumstances I merely notice as the terminating points of my memory at this distance of time. My father was at the period I speak of, much engaged in the discharge of his public duties, and frequently from home, so that he seldom came into such immediate contact with me as to make any impression on my memory, I was then in about my fourth year.

On the 11th day of December, 1794, my father married a second time. The object of his choice was Miss Jean Sutherland, third daughter of Major George Sutherland of Midgarty. This gentleman was the second son of Sutherland of Langwell in the county of Caithness. After having seen much service in the army, he retired on half-pay, and took in lease from the Earl of Sutherland the farm of Midgarty, in the parish of Loth. His lineal descent from the Sutherlands was ancient and respectable. His family had, not only the estate of Berriedale, but formerly also that of Swiney, which last came in process of time to be settled on a second son, from whom descended the Sutherlands of Swiney. Of the last of these, and of the circumstances which necessitated his selling the property, and of its purchase by Charles Gordon, of Pulrossie, I have already written. The last of the lairds of Langwell was the elder brother of George Sutherland of Midgarty. He lived on his property, at the beautiful and romantic place of Langwell, on terms of amity and friendship with all his relatives and fellow proprietors, and in the exercise of an unbounded hospitality. His estate furnished him with the choicest luxuries of the table, such as mutton, beef, salmon, venison, and game of every variety, while, from a well-stocked garden, he had the best fruits and vegetables which the soil and climate could produce. He was himself an epicure in no ordinary measure, but so social was his disposition that, even if his table groaned with good things, he could not eat a morsel with relish or comfort, unless he had one or more gnests to enjoy them along with him. He was, besides, an excellent landlord, and, the desolating system of sheep-farming being then unknown, the straths of Berriedale and Langwell were the happy homes of a numerous peasantry, all of whom were ardently attached to their warm-hearted landlord. His eldest son and heir was, however, unworthy of his father and of his race. He was a determined prodigal. During his father's lifetime, he married Miss Sinclair, sole heiress of Brabster and West Canisbay, which, united with his paternal inheritance, afforded him the prospect of a very handsome income. But his extravagance and profligacy blasted his prospects. His loose habits so alienated the affections of his wife, that she felt herself compelled to sue for a divorce, whilst, by his extravagance after his father's death, he found himself so overwhelmed in debt that lie was obliged to sell his fine paternal estate far under its value. Separated from his wife and family, and cast upon the world, he died in obscurity in London. His son George, inherited after his mother's death, the estates of Brabster and West Canisbay. Langwell was purchased by Sir John Sinclair, and when he too got unhappily involved, was by him forfeited, at a valuation of £44,000, to a Mr. Horne, the son of a blacksmith at Scouthel in Caithness, but who had prospered as a lawyer in Edinburgh.

Major George Sutherland of Midgarty was universally esteemed. He was twice married. By his first wife he had a family of eight daughters and two sons. By his second wife, whose name was Robertson, he had a son and a daughter. This lady was inadvertently poisoned. She had been invalided, and by her medical attendant she was recommended to take medicine. Instead of Epsom salts, a dose of saltpetre was accidentally administered, and the consequences were fatal. All Major Sutherland's daughters, with the exception of one who died at an early age, were well married. The eldest, Janet, married Mr. Gray of the Grays of Skibo, a West India planter, who amassed a fortune; the marriage, however, was an unhappy one, the parties separating by mutual consent. Mrs. Gray resided in London, and, after her husband's death, sued for a jointure, of which his executors contrived, in a great measure, to denude her. She lived to a great age, and died in rather limited circumstances. Esther, the second daughter, married, some years after her father's death, Lieut. Sutherland, son of Sheriff Sutherland of Shibercross. Their marriage was kept secret. Mr. Sutherland did not survive his marriage above a year; and it was after his death that it was publicly promulgated in order to secure to his wife her annuity as an officer's widow, her only means of support. During the years of my attendance at college in Aberdeen, where she then resided, I was intimately acquainted with her, and experienced much kindness from her. Major Sutherland's third daughter Jean married my father. Williamina, the fourth daughter, married Robert Baigrie, who had been captain of a merchantman in the West India trade, and who, after realising a competency, and after the death of his first wife, by whom he had one daughter, took in lease, from the trustees of the then Countess of Sutherland, the farm of Midgarty. It was at the time in the possession of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Sutherland, previous to her marriage, and some disagreeable altercation in consequence took place between them, which produced a coolness that was not removed during the remainder of their lives. Charlotte, the fifth daughter, married a Dr. Macfarquhar; they resided in the West Indies, and had a son and three daughters. They sent their son to Britain for his education, while yet a mere boy; but while romping about on the deck during the voyage, he, unobserved, dropped overboard and was drowned. His mother, who doted upon her only son, when she heard of his death, suffered so severe a shock, that it brought her to an untimely grave, and the loss of wife and son terminated her husband's existence in a few months thereafter. Elizabeth, Major Sutherland's sixth daughter, and one of the most beautiful women I over saw, married Joseph Gordon. This gentleman was the second son of Mr. Gordon of Carrol, and younger brother of John Gordon, the laird of Carrol. He was tacksman of Navidale on the east coast of Sutherlandshire. He realised a few thousand pounds, as a coppersmith in the West Indies, and resided for a considerable period of his life, first at Navidale in the parish of Loth, and afterwards at Embo, Dornoch. He died at Edinburgh in 1799. Roberta, the youngest surviving daughter of Major Sutherland by his first wife, remained for a considerable time unmarried; latterly she married Robert Pope, son of Peter Pope, and nephew of the Rev. Alexr. Pope, minister of Reay. The Major s only daughter by his second wife, also called Janet, married, after her father's death, Captain Kenneth Mackay of Torboll. The sons, by both his wives, all died unmarried. George the eldest attained to the rank of major in the E. I. Co.'s service, and died in India. James died in the West Indies. Robert the youngest, and only son by the second marriage, went, at a very early age, to the West Indies, where he succeeded in making a very large fortune as a planter. He intended to purchase the parish of Loth, which the Countess of Sutherland proposed to sell; but the sale being postponed, Mr. Sutherland extended his speculations, arid, sustaining great losses in business, he soon found his whole fortune dissipated. He afterwards went to St. Domingo, about the year 1810, and was the chief counsellor of Christoph, king of Hayti, crowned in 1811. Mr. Sutherland only survived his removal to St. Domingo a few years. He left a natural son Robert, who was reared and educated at Torboll.

Major George Sutherland of Midgarty died at an advanced age. His sons, at or before his death, had all gone abroad, and the farm was managed, first of all, by his eldest daughter Mrs. Gray, and, after her marriage, by her next sister Esther. It was during her management that Captain Baigrie first got acquainted with Williamina, and afterwards became her husband. On his marriage with her, which might be about the year 1784, he took the farm in lease for himself, and it was owing to this circumstance, I am inclined to think, as well as to the division of Mr. Sutherland's property, that the permanent coolness arose, not only between him and Mrs. Sutherland, but between her and her three sisters, Mrs. Baigrie, my stepmother and Roberta, who were then residing at Midgarty, and supported Capt. Baigrie in the dispute. Mrs. Sutherland then left Midgarty, and never afterwards returned.

On the 11th day of December, I794, my father was married at Midgarty by his co-presbyter, Mr. MacCulloch, minister of Loth. Weddings, or marriage-feasts, were highly in vogue in these days, and there was, in every case, a double feast, one at the bride's father's or friend's house, where the ceremony was performed; at this feast the bride and bridegroom sat as the principal guests, remaining one or more days. The next feast was at the bridegroom's house, on the arrival of the happy pair at their own home. This was called "a'bhanais theth," i.e., the heating of the house, or, as the men of Sutherland literally rendered the phrase from their native tongue into English, "the wedding hot." At my father's marriage none of his children were present—we were too young. But all the particulars of their arrival at the manse, of the bustle of preparation to receive them, of our first and formal introduction to her who was henceforth to fill the place of our departed mother, of her looks and personal appearance, and of the feasting and dancing with which the whole scene was finally concluded, are still as distinctly within the reach of my remembrance as any past events of my life at a more advanced period can well be. First of all then, Eppy the housekeeper, in my memory's eye, occupies the foreground of the reminiscence. On that occasion all her varied tact was put into requisition. When the happy pair arrived in the close, we were, after a long previous drilling in the nursery, marshalled by Eppy to the kitchen-door, in breathless expectation of the great things that awaited us. There she left us to gaze, in dumb wonder for a time, whilst she herself, with all the solemnity of a Highland seneschal, moved forward to meet, and duly to receive, her new mistress --curtsying and bobbing at every third step of her progress in advance. Her measured movements filled me with-wonder and admiration. My father was mounted on a strong grey horse, his bride on a long-tailed Highland garron. My father first alighted, then helped his spouse from off her horse, while Eppy stood bolt upright before them. I still remember my father's voice saying, "This is Eppy Mackay, my dear." She was acknowledged by her new mistress with a smile and a slight bow of the head, and then they all walked into the house. Soon afterwards Eppy made her re-appearance among us to usher us into the parental presence. But, before I mention our introduction by Eppy, I must notice the habiliments extraordinary in which we were clad. Both my sisters were dressed in tartan gowns of home manufacture, their hair was braided on the forehead, and saturated with pomatum, and they were made to look, upon the whole, just like two young damsels from a Highland nursery, making their first appearance in public life. My brother and I were clothed in the same identical tartan, but of a make and habit suited to our age and sex. This was a kilt after the most approved fashion, surmounted by a jacket, fitted tight to the body, and to which the kilt was affixed by a tailor's seam. The jacket and kilt, open in front, were shut in upon our persons with yellow buttons. Our extremities were prominently adorned, and Eppy, who was a first-rate Highland dressmaker, had exhausted her skill upon their, and even outdone herself. We were furnished with white worsted stockings, tied below the knee with red garters, of which "Alalvolio " himself would have approved. Our feet were inserted into Highland brogues, while our heads were combed and powdered with flour, as a substitute for the hair-powder which was the distinguishing mark of all the swells of that fashionable age. Thus accoutred, we were all four marshalled by Eppy into the presence of our father and stepmother, and nothing is, at this moment, more vividly impressed upon my memory than the interview. I distinctly recollect the first impression which my stepmother's appearance made upon me. She had rather a fine countenance, full dark eyes, and regular features, expressive of intelligence, but also of quickness of temper. When we were all standing in a row before her, she received us very graciously. Her keen eye went over us all, until it lighted on the powdered heads of my brother and myself. So long as my sisters were the only objects of her scrutiny, an arch smile played over her face, but when we, with our white stockings, red garters, kilts and jackets, and, above all, our highly-powdered heads, met her eye, she could no longer contain herself, but burst into an incontrollable fit of laughing, in which my father, and even Eppy herself, were obliged to loin. To the feast which followed, with its delicacies, all the sub-tenants on the farm of Kildonan, which my father held in lease, as also the elders of the parish, were invited; and afterwards, to the heart-stirring strains of the Highland bagpipe, the guests, young and old, "tripped it heartily on the light fantastic toe." Below stairs Eppy was mistress of ceremonies. She danced with the elders and with the tenants, married and unmarried, each in turn. One of the elders, Roderick Bain, rises to my recollection; he was turned of sixty. I was present in the low caster room whilst the dance was in full career. The room was crowded, and I was comfortably seated on a large meal-chest, placed in the north-east corner of it, near the chimney. From this elevated position I. noticed a very amusing rencontre between Epps Mackay and Rory Bain. Rory had participated largely in the merriment with the younger members of the group, and this was keenly observed by Eppy. The flour, with which she had already so profusely adorned my brother's head and mine, stood in a small barrel close at her hand, and she evidently was of opinion that what was good for the heads of the young would not be unsuitable for the old. Accordingly, as Rory was dancing with as much gravity as if he were engaged in something more important, Eppy served him such a plentiful goupen of good white flour, right on the top of his bald pate, as covered his head, face and eyes, and what was harder to bear, set the assemblage in a loud roar of laughter at his expense. Rory could not speak, as the flour had entered his nose and mouth, and had set him a-coughing; but resenting Eppy's benediction, he immediately gave chase. One after the other flew out of the room, and their exit draws down the curtain between all my present recollections and what subsequently took place at my father's wedding. I recollect, however, the daily arrangements of the family, as well as its amusements, soon after the marriage.

My reminiscences from 1794 to 1801, the year I went with my brother to school at Dornoch, I may here introduce. Our step-mother must necessarily occupy the first place in the record. She was a person of no ordinary powers of mind. Her understanding was solid, clear, and comprehensive. The conclusions to which she came, respecting the dispositions and principles of those with whom she became acquainted, were drawn with perfect accuracy, and she seldom, if ever, was mistaken. She could discover moral weight and intrinsic value of principle under the most disadvantageous outward appearances, but she could also detect deceit and cunning under covert of the most specious professions. She had a native generosity of spirit which shone out with peculiar intensity when she came in contact with kindred dispositions; and straightforward honesty of intention, even when directed against herself, she acknowledged and respected. But she had her failings. Her keenness of temper was, like her mind, of more than ordinary strength. When thoroughly excited, it swept down upon her with the force of a tempest. She was naturally a proud woman, and cherished, especially, pride of family. It was not long after the marriage when the sad fruits of this sharpness of temper became visible to us children. At times our step-mother would absent herself from meals, and even from family worship, and lock herself up in a room for days, and even for weeks, together. I recollect on one of those gloomy occasions that, whilst we were at dinner, I was sent by my father with a pacific message to her. She at once entered warmly with me on the whole ground of dispute between herself and my father —a subject of which I could comprehend nothing but the painful externals. The effect of all this upon the children was what is, I believe, usual in such cases. Naturally looking up to those who occupied the place of heads of the family, and leaning upon them, their differences filled us with alarm. We all had an instinctive dread of our step-mother's temper, and the measures of defence which we set up against it were simply to do all what we could to please her, and to deprecate her anger. My eldest sister Elizabeth, or Betty as we called her, was remarkable for her good sense, and she viewed the differences so often taking place between the beads of the house with apprehension of the worst consequences. She was always planning some conciliatory scheme by which my step-mother's irritable spirit might he mollified. On one occasion, towards the close of spring, we happened to be very scarce of fuel. The peat-stack was nearly exhausted, and the only fuel to be had was wood. A fit of ill-humour had settled upon my step-mother's mind for nearly a fortnight, when Betty proposed, as a good deed that might propitiate her favour, that we should all turn out after breakfast to the Dalmore, and gather sticks and rubbish which the river floods had thrown upon it. This proposal was joyfully adopted, the happiest consequences being confidently anticipated. We had to gather the drift-wood in heaps, tie it up in bundles, and thus carry it home on our backs. We toiled at this work for some five •hours. We were often on the point of giving it up, but the hope of being approved of cheered us on till we had finished our task, whereupon, exhausted with fatigue and hunger, we wended our way home. When we arrived we triumphantly threw down our bundles in the close, taking care to do so right before the parlour window, that they might be seen, and we entered the parlour with keen appetites, and full of expectation and hope. We found our father and step-mother finishing their dinner in moody silence. Plates, each containing little more than •a spoonful of broth, and almost cold, wer e already set for us, to which we sat down without any recognition. No sooner had we finished this prelude to more substantial fare, than my step-mother asked my father to return thanks. This was accordingly done, and we perfectly understood it to be the signal that her dinner was ended, and that ours, scarcely begun, must end too. She rose from table, and so did we. I still remember the look which Betty gave us on this issue of our scheme of conciliation—a scheme which had cost her so much thought and us so much toil. My brother Eneas fell a-crying when the dishes were being removed, and my father, feeling for us all, said, "Give him some bread, poor fellow; I daresay he is very hungry." This I felt to be the most heartless act of my step-mother's life.

Comparing the years of my boyhood with those of my own children, under the tender sway of a mother, I can see that in many ways we were made to feel that our father's wife was not the mother of his children. Our food was but sparingly dealt out to us, and that at long intervals, and I often felt so exhausted before the dinner-hour that, like Jonathan in the wood, I felt my eyes grow dim from abstinence. But whilst I record these instances of hasty temper and of a spirit calculated to bring odium on the name of step-mother, it would be unjust in me not to add that they were but like the smart frosts and gloomy tempests of winter, preparatory to the genial warmth of .spring. With all her asperity and heat of temper, none that ever stood in the parental relation to children discharged its moral duties more efficiently than did my excellent step-mother, and when her temper was stilled, none could be more agreeable and engaging in manner. Her advices and instructions, given when she assembled us in the parlour, remain engraved on my mind, and, by their plainness, perspicuity, and justness, made such a profound impression upon me at the time that I attached a sort of unerring perfectness to everything she said.

Soon after this marriage, we were sent to the parish school. The master, Mr. Donald MacLeod, was a native of Tain. He began life as a pedlar. I do not know when he first settled in Kildonan, but he married the widow of his predecessor, a person of the name of Gunn. I scarcely remember anything of my schoolboy days under his care, except his own personal appearance. Mr. MacLeod had a very grim visage and a long beard, and, with a leathern strap in his hand, he predominated in stern rule over a noisy assemblage of tatterdemalion, cat-o'-mountain-looking boys and girls. I remember my first effort at printing, for which, ever since, I have had a mechanical turn. On a leaf of my copy-book 1 had, and as I believed with success, printed the names of my brother and sisters and my own. My school companions were loud in their praises, and, not a little elated, I showed my work to the schoolmaster. He, however, gathering his brows into a frown, threw it from him, pronouncing me an idler and a blockhead. My father did not long leave us under the tutelage of the parish schoolmaster. He became our teacher himself, and the various branches which he taught us, as well as the room in which we assembled, are most vividly impressed upon my memory. The room was the little back closet upstairs, and in it were my father's library, his study-chair, and a large table placed close to the window, the view from which extended from Torr-na-Croiche and Clach-an-eig in the west to Torr-an-riachaidh, with a peep of Craig-an-fhithiche in the east. The elementary branches taught us were English reading and grammar, Latin and arithmetic. Our primer was all contained on the first leaf of the Shorter Catechism, and after it we were promoted to Fisher's spelling-book and grammar, and Mason's " Collection." Well do I recall the feeling of joy with which I received the intimation from my father that next day I was to begin the Latin language. He pulled out the table drawer and showed me a new copy of Ruddiman's "Rudiments" which he had purchased the week before at Brora. My sisters had been sent, sometime before, to reside at a Society's school in Strathnaver. With my father I read Cordery's Colloquies, Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Sallust, Ovid, Virgil, Livy, and Horace, and along with these I was so carefully instructed in the rules of Watt's Latin Grammar that I shall not forget them as long as I live. In addition to our week-day tasks, we all had our Sabbath lessons. At first they consisted of so many questions from the Shorter Catechism, and a paraphrase or psalm. After tea on Sabbath evening, we all assembled round our father, at the fireside in the parlour, and after we had repeated our tasks, he taught us sacred music. The psalm tunes of St. David's, St. Ann, Bangor, London New, Dundee, Stilt (York), Martyrs', and St. Mary's were amongst those thus learned. As I advanced in the knowledge of Latin, my father prescribed my Sabbath tasks in that language. I began with Castalio's Dialogues, and, when farther advanced, I learned Buchanan's Psalms. I still feel the salutary effect of the classical studies pursued under my father's tuition. The Latin authors which I read brought me into the knowledge of Roman history, as well as into that of their precursors and rivals, the Greeks. I attached a locality to all the various incidents recorded by the classic writers of Greece and Rome, placing them in the midst of the scenes around me. The place or township of Kildonan, with the tenants' houses grouped around, resembled a village. The round knoll, Torr-buidh, rose in the centre; on the east was the schoolhouse, with a green plat in the front of it. When therefore I first became acquainted with Greek and Roman story, local associations began immediately in my mind to stand connected with persons and events. The gay and elegant Athens, with its orators and heroes, its classic buildings, its Acropolis, and its thoughtless and polished mob; Lacedaemon, with its double royalty, its abstemious citizens, its rigid and fantastic morals ;—Thebes, raised to notice by the victories of Epaminondas ;--Corinth—literary, mercantile, and voluptuous—were all located in the village of Kildonan. Then also lordly Rome, with its Kings and Consuls, its Tribunes military and popular, its Decemvirs, Dictators and Censors, its Praetors, soldiers and Emperors, its wars abroad, its ferments and intrigues at home—all were to be found in Kildonan. The esplanade before the old schoolhouse was the Forum; there the popular assemblies met, there the Tribunes vetoed, there the infamous Appius Claudius seized Virginia, there the Decii devoted themselves to the fancied good of their country, there the Gracchi died, there "Tully spoke and Ceasar fell." The Roman poets, too, had their peculiar localities. Ovid's " Daphne in laurum," his "Io in vaccam," and many more of his fantastic scenes, I laid among the steeps of Craig-an-fhithiche, or the hazel groves of Coille-Chil-Mer. The scenes of Virgil's Eclogues—Tityrus' cottage and flocks, and his entertainment for his expatriated guest and countrymen Dlelibeeus—my fancy laid at the foot of Tigh-an-Abb'; Damoetas and Menalcas' singing match I placed on the summit of Craig-an-fhithiche, whilst the heifers, calves, goats and kids, contended for as the prize, browsed on the neighbouring steep of the Coire-mor. I began the Georgics, with their antique lessons on husbandry, at the very time that my father's man, Muckle Donald, made his first bold attempt to plough the Dalmore, which for fifteen years had not been under cultivation. With a plough and harness scarcely less primitive than that with which Virgil himself might be familiar in his boyish days at Cremona, Muckle Donald turned up the green sward of the Dalmore, sowed it with black Highland oats, and finished it off with a scrambling sort of harrowing. This was in the month of May, and whenever I was done with my Virgil lesson, I became a constant attendant of Muckle Donald at his toil in the field. His team, three Highland horses and a cow, "groaned " most piteously while the ploughshare, pressed down by the hands of two attendants, "gleamed" as it opened up the furrows. [The rude harness used was of the following description:—The collars of the animals were of straw, with hems of wood, to which were attached side traces made of horse-hair. The plough was a light wooden implement with an iron sock, on which two men had to lean with all their weight to keep it in the ground, if the land was stiff, while another guided it from between the stilts. The harrow was made of wooden spikes set in cross bars of native birch.—Ed.] What wonder that, as in the tilling, sowing, harrowing, and ultimate growth, ripening, and reaping of the Dalmore crop of oats I realised the meaning, so there also I fixed the locality of these beautiful lines

Vere novo, gelidus, canis cunt montibus humor
Ligluitur, et Zephiro putris se gleba resolvit,
Depresso incipiat jam turn wild taurus aratro
Ingemere, et sulco attritus splendescere voiner."
GEORG. I., 43-46.

To other incidents of "the days of yore" I must now refer. My brother and I, while still very young, made a journey under our father's guidance to the "Coast side," as we usually called that part of the county of Sutherland which lay by the sea-shore. It was called by the natives " Machair Chatt' " (or the Sutherland coast), extending from the Ord of Caithness to Dornoch, in distinction from the inland and mountainous part of the county which was generally designated "An Direadh" (or the ascending side). In this expedition, our object was to be introduced to our step-mother's near relatives at Loth. Two of her married sisters resided there, the one at Navidale, the other at Midgarty. This being the first time I ever was out of my father's house for more than a day, I have a vivid remembrance of the preparations for the journey, and all the incidents connected with it. My father, with saddle-bags manufactured not later than the year 1748, was mounted upon his grey horse—a noble steed for road or ford. My brother and I were seated on pillows behind two of the men-servants, mounted the one on a black garron, the other on a strong tun-bellied dun mare. Thus accoutred, we bent our way down the strath. When we approached Helmisdale, an object, unknown and extraordinary, suddenly presented itself to my view. Its first impression upon me was that which I could conceive might be produced by a miracle, or like the flitting of unearthly objects in the semi-consciousness of a dream. At the first glance, I was struck dumb with surprise, and in vain I tasked my childish powers to ascertain whether it belonged to earth or air. It had the appearance of a low but distant hill, its distance being particularly expressed by the deep blue colour. But then it had something about it quite different from any distant hill which I had ever seen. As we drew nearer, I thought I could perceive something like motion upon its surface, and then white specks appearing and disappearing upon it like spots of snow. I saw that it must be water, but, if water, why so blue? I could contain myself no longer. Riding close up to my father's side, I stretched out my hand in the direction of the object of my wonder, and eagerly cried out, "O, what's that long, blue, moving hill'? " "O," said he, "Donald, that's the SEA."

At Helmisdale, we lodged under the hospitable roof of Mr. and Mrs. Houston. Mr. Louis Houston was an amiable man. He occupied the small farm of Easter Helmisdale, and the places of Scalbisdale and Suisgill in the parish of Kildonan, both of which he had sub-let to small tenants. The disorder of which in a few years he died had just begun, and he was very nervous. Now, for the first time, I met with Mrs. Houston, his kind and motherly wife, with whom my acquaintance continued for upwards of twenty years. During our stay at their house that evening, as we were all seated round the parlour fire, I was particularly struck with the substance which burnt so brilliantly, and sent forth so strong a heat from a low iron grate in the chimney. `When it burned, it melted like resin or sealing wax, and every particle of it which lay untouched by the fire shone like so many pieces of polished iron. Being accustomed to see only peat, or moss-fir, and the wood rubbish of the Dalmore burned as fuel, I could not conceive what this new substance might be. In answer to my eager inquiries, I was told that it was English coal, and that it was used in England for fuel instead of our familiar peats. Next day we set out for Midgarty. There was then no bridge across the river at Helmisdale. Travellers got over it either by a boat or coble when the stream was in flood, or by a rugged ford when otherwise. At the mouth of the river stood the Corf House, a store built for the purpose of containing the corn-rents of the tenantry. It was almost surrounded on the south by the buildings of the salmon-fishery, a low tier of houses, roofed with red tiles, which particularly excited my wonder. I have a distinctly vivid recollection of our passage across the Helmisdale river by the boat, which was the first I had ever seen.

The distance between Helmisdale and Midgarty is three miles. The road then lay close by the shore all the way. It was a wretched, scrambling, bridle-road, scarcely fit for a horse to get through, and almost impassable to carriages, although it was at that time, and for many years afterwards, the only public highway through the whole county. As it passed Midgarty, access from it to the house was by a private path, which, at its junction with the main road, was shut in by a barred gate standing between two rounded stone-and-lime pillars, to which my youthful associations clung like ivy, under the name of the "gate of the shore." The path from the gate passed between two steep banks with a slight ascent, and afterwards through the centre of a corn-field straight up to the house. This path became familiar to me under the name of the "avenue." When we rode up the avenue, the house presented itself to view. I regarded it with awe as the finest house I had ever seen. It stood close to the base of a hill which rose up on the north to the height of 700 feet above the sea-level. The body of the house, originally erected by Major Sutherland, was a plain, ordinary building. Capt. Baigrie, who then possessed the farm, had added a large wing, and this addition contained two very handsome rooms, both being lighted by two large bow-windows, which gave the house an elegant appearance, whilst the rooms within, lighted in this manner, very much resembled the cabin of a large West-Indiaman. Indeed Captain Baigrie, who was master of a West-Indiaman, had planned the rooms in imitation of a ship's cabin. To the west of the house flowed a burn which issued from a well at the top of the hill. As it neared the house it was enclosed by a warren thrown across its channel, from which a considerable part of its waters were conveyed by leaden pipes to the house. The burn, after escaping from this monopoly of its current, wended its way through a rural dell, and passed through a plot of ground which had once been the garden and was now an orchard. The stream then passed between two very steep braes to the sea, which it entered through a bed of shingle, almost 200 yards to the west of the shore gate.

We were most hospitably and kindly received at Midgarty. My father, next day, went home, leaving us for a time to remain on the coast side. I rejoiced in my new quarters, and conceived myself to be in fairy-land. I may here introduce the heads of the family with whom I afterwards became so familiar. Captain Baigrie, a native of Buchan, had gone to sea as a cabin-boy on board a trader, and afterwards as a seaman on board a West-India-man. His voyaging was extensive; he had been, at one time, within a few degrees of the North Pole, where he experienced great privations, arising from scarcity of provisions and intense cold. He ultimately became captain of a West-India-man, and by several successful voyages realised a
genteel competency of two or three thousand pounds. During his cruises from London to Jamaica, he married a Miss Hadden, by whom he had a daughter. His wife died, and he came to reside with his friends in Aberdeenshire, leaving his daughter with her maternal relations in London. How he first became acquainted with his second wife I know not; but after his marriage with her he took the farm of Midgarty, and resided there until his death in 1809. In his manners and habits he was the seaman out and out, generous, hasty, given to banning, and fond of diversion. In his diet he was singularly abstemious, and his privations at sea had so taught him to value food that he was not only systematically moderate in his meals, but he would also eat the coarsest food rather than have it wasted. He was bred a Scottish Episcopalian, and in his younger years he was inaugurated into that Christian sect by John Skinner, Episcopal minister at Langside, near Peterhead, better known to the Scottish public as the author of "Tulloch-gorum," and "The Ewic wi' the crookit horn," than as a gospel minister, or as the author of the theological works which bear his name. Captain Baigrie's second wife—my stepmother's sister—was one of the mildest and gentlest of her sex. She resembled one of the inland lakes of her native country, surrounded by giant mountains on every side, its smooth and placid surface seldom or never disturbed by the hurricanes which act so powerfully on the expanse of the ocean. Her pale countenance and spare, shadowy form gave but too sure and ominous indications of that insidious disease which, before the days of my boyhood were fully passed, consigned her to a premature grave. Captain and Mrs Baigrie had six of a family, three sons and three daughters. Robert, the eldest son, was now about sixteen years of age, and the idol of his parents, but, either from ignorance, or from culpable inattention to ultimate consequences, he was indulged to all the extent that an ardent temperament and youthful rashness might demand.

After spending some weeks at Midgarty, my brother and I left to go to Navidale, about four miles to the eastwards. On our way thither, we rested a day and a night at Lonn-riabhach, the house of my nurse, Barbar Corbet. We proceeded from thence to Wester Helmisdale, the house of Mr. Alexr. Ross. He was tacksman of the place; and although I knew but little of him then, I had occasion, as I advanced in years, both to hear and know of his eccentricities. He was the brother of Mr. Walter Ross, minister of Clyne; they were both natives of Ross-shire. Mr. A. Ross had come to Sutherland, and into possession of the farm of Wester Helmisdale, about the time of his brother's settlement at Clyne. He married Miss Pope, daughter of Mr. Peter Pope, brother of the minister of Reay, and by her he had a large family. "Sanny Ross," as he was usually called, was, in regard to all practical matters, abundantly shrewd. But whenever he indulged himself during fireside hours on abstract subjects, he was the living representative of Baron Munchausen. His brother of Clyne dealt pretty extensively in the marvellous, but compared with Sauny, he was but a tyro in invention. Mr. Walter, when " the cock of the club," loved with the incredible to embellish a story, but his brother carried matters much farther. With invincible gravity, and a solemnity of countenance which could not be surpassed, Sanny poured forth such a torrent of absurdities, that the most marvellous thing of the whole was how he could bring himself to think he could be believed. He was wont to tell a wonderful story about his passage of the river during a dark and stormy night. Sanny related that, coming to the brink of the river about midnight, he found the stream flooded over bank and brae, and the ferrymen were "all in their own warm beds, just where they ought to be on such a night and at such an hour." He had some thoughts of returning, but he said he was resolved " to trust in Providence," and accordingly, fixing his sagacious eyes on the roaring stream, he just waited to see what Providence would do in his behalf. " And 'deed," said Sanny, " He did'na keep me long, for as I was looking as I best could, what did I see, think you, but just the largest salmon that ever I saw, close by the bank of the river. So I threw myself stride-legs across his back, and he just brought me over the river as well as any two men with a coble in the whole country could do, so that, though with wet shoes and stockings, I got safely home!" He used also to tell a story about a turbot which the Helmisdale fishermen had hooked upon their lines and which drew after it the boat with twelve men in it for the space of twelve miles to the eastwards on the Moray Firth! These and many such marvellous incidents Saunders often related in a style peculiar to himself. He spoke with a lisp, and with a shrill, whining tone of voice, strongly marking his words with the Highland accent, which rendered his palpable absurdities irresistibly ludicrous. When my brother and I arrived at his house, we were most hospitably received. The house, a small cottage, stood on a considerable eminence, and I was much struck with the view from its windows. From the front might be seen the Helmisdale, pursuing the last two miles of its course, and making its embouchure into the sea. Just at its mouth, on a steep and elevated bank, stood the ruins of the castle of Helmisdale, with, as a background, the blue expanse of the German Ocean.

We next came to Navidale, a beautiful sequestered spot nearly surrounded with hills, while to the south it looks out on the Moray Firth. About three miles to the east is the celebrated Ord of Caithness, a bold, rocky precipice jutting out into the sea, and directly on the boundary line between Caithness and Sutherland. It is called the Ord because, on being approached from the west, it resembles a smith's or mason's hammer. The Gaelic name for this promontory is "an t'Ord-Ghallaobh," or the Caithness hammer. ["Where the Norse element is strong among the Gaelio•speaking people in the north, O is commonly used for A, e.g., Ord for Ard.10 (See paper on "Oghame on the Golspie Stone," by the Right Hon The Earl of Southesk, in Proceedings of Soc. Ant. Scot.) The mountainous and precipitous aspect of the coast of Caithness at the Ord presents a marked contrast to the sandy beach of Sutherlandshire extending immediately to the south, while the surface of the county of Caithness is flat or undulating.—Ed.] The house of Navidale was a plain building, too wide to be a single house, and too narrow to be a double one. It was furnished with the usual wings, extending outwards from the front, and forming a sheltered close or court. Mr. Joseph Gordon and his amiable and beautiful wife are, from the moment I crossed their threshold, indelibly impressed upon my memory. Never did I meet with any one, young or old, who could more readily command entrance into the mind of a boy than Mr. Gordon of Navidale. I became enthusiastically fond of him. "This world was made for Caesar," and so, as I thought and felt, was Mr. Gordon made for me. First of all, he made a " totum " for me of a bone button-mould, which from its size, colour and rapid revolutions, I thought the most wonderful toy I had ever possessed. Then there was a parrot in the house. Its wooden cage stood at the upper stairhead window, close by the drawing-room door. It was the first I had seen, and its gorgeous plumage, its hooked bill, and outlandish screams riveted my attention. Mr. Gordon brought me one day close to the cage, and began to speak to the bird. I thought nothing of what he said, as there was nothing which I less expected than that the parrot should reply to him, unless by its usual harsh and unmeaning screams. But what was my astonishment and terror when I heard the parrot reply in words of human language to its owner, "No dinner, no dinner for pretty Poll!" Lawrence Sterne considered the starling in France, when it cried, "I can't get out, I can't get out," to be an incarnation of Liberty—I considered the parrot to be an incarnation of the Devil. Mr. Gordon did enjoy my fear and wonder as he saw me twist my hand out of his, and rush downstairs as if for dear life. I do not remember Mrs. Gordon at this time, although I had sufficient tokens of affection on her part warmly to recollect her afterwards. Miss Roberta Sutherland, her sister, lived with them at Navidale. She was there when we arrived, and being a gay, sprightly, good-humoured young lady, and very fond of children, she, my brother, and I got quickly and intimately acquainted.


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast