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Chronicals of Stratheden
The Crofters of a Highland Parish of To-Day


THE Highland crofter system has for some time past been receiving considerable attention. Eager theorists of the sentimental order are in this, as in other matters, apt to forget the plain teaching of facts. This is noticeable in the case of some writers in the newspapers who propound generous-looking but impracticable theories for the amelioration, as they call it, of the condition of the Highland crofter. These persons forget that the average crofter is quite satisfied with his lot. This, of course, is no reason why outsiders should not consider that there is little cause for the crofters being satisfied, or why efforts should not be made to improve the existing situation. At the same time, it is a fact worth remembering by such as recommend changes in the condition of Highland crofters. It is difficult to induce the crofter to aspire to anything better than his existing lot. There need be no pedantry in reminding the reader that happiness is a relative term, and consequently there is no reason why the average crofter should not feel as happy in his own way as any other sort of person. When the news of the diabolical attempt on the life of the Emperor of Russia in 1880 reached Stratheden, we heard a Stratheden crofter say: "Whatna' meesurrable life that Emperar o' Rooshia must hey. Wi' all their grandar and riches and all that, some o' them big people are no happy. Oorselves is happier, though we're poor, and hesna' but oor wee hooses and bitties o' lawnd." This style of comment is quite common, and might be usefully pondered over by those who mourn over the "miseries" of Highland crofters, and propound theories of reform. Certain tourists, knowing little or nothing of the actual condition of crofters, but influenced by sentiment and afflicted with a fondness for seeing themselves in print, happen to come across a wretched-looking hut—a sorry fabric of earth and heather—such as some of the West Highland crofters continue to live in. Thinking themselves capable of showing how the supposed misery can be removed, they at once proceed to ventilate their generally crude schemes of reform. But the problem—if problem it can be really called — of the crofter system cannot be settled in this emotional and hasty fashion. Time at least is needed for removing real drawbacks. Let us now look at the general circumstances of Highland crofters.

The surroundings of the crofter are not the same in every district of the Highlands. One prominent difference must be noticed. The crofters of the eastern districts of Ross, Sutherland, and Inverness, as a rule, depend entirely on the croft; while the crofters of the western seaboard of the same counties are crofter-fishermen, depending for a living as much on the fishing as on the croft. For about half of the year these crofter-fishermen are engaged in fishing. Their boats are usually manned by six persons—five men and a boy, the latter being a sort of multum in parvo institution, combining the functions of cook, message-boy, and general servant. In some instances these boats are the property of one individual, the others manning the craft being hired men; but frequently the boat is a joint-stock concern, and the profits of the season's fishing are divided, share and share alike, among the joint owners. Sometimes they make a good thing of it; and it is quite common, to hear of a boat's crew earning in a season one hundred and fifty pounds sterling, which, though it may have to be divided among five, represents a decidedly successful fishing. Most of these crofter-fishermen are of a saving turn. They fare simply—chiefly on fish, potatoes, milk, and meal—and rarely cultivate expensive tastes. At the same time, we have frequently heard shopkeepers in the districts where crofter-fishermen are to be met with, say that the dress fabrics ordinarily purchased by the wives and daughters of these people are of a more expensive kind than that commonly used by many in higher positions of life. Tea is a favourite beverage in most of their homes; and within recent years there has been a considerable increase in the use of the "cup that cheers." The other cup, that does more than cheer, is not, of course, universally despised; but these crofter-fishermen are, as a class, sober people.

From about the end of September until the middle of May the greater number of them are at home, during which period—harvesting is generally late in these districts—the requirements of the croft are attended to. For the rest of the year they are away at fishing-stations in Wick, Stornoway, Peterhead, and Fraserburgh. Their winter is a comparatively idle one. Some of them prosecute the ling and cod fishing; but they don't often make this a busy or prolonged work, and the principal winter work consists in threshing a few sheaves of oats or barley daily, to keep themselves in meal and their cattle in fodder. Their crofts, as a rule, are not too productive, but this is sometimes the fault of the crofter as much as of the croft. Though some crofters are too poor to expend any money in improving their crofts, there are many of them who, by the exercise of a little industry in the matter of drainage and collecting manure, might materially improve their holdings. Many of them say that if they had leases instead of the year-to-year occupancy which, with the exception of one or two districts, is the rule among these crofter-fishermen, matters would improve, because of the greater security of tenure. Besides the fact, however, that few of them wish for leases, probably fearing that increased rents would follow, it is doubtful whether leases would very materially alter their general circumstances. They lack the feeling of entire dependence on the croft, and hence the absence of a powerful motive to improve it.

The croft ordinarily consists of from three to seven acres of arable land, in addition to the right of pasture for some half-dozen head of cattle, a dozen or more sheep, and one horse. The "rent," generally speaking, is very moderate —sometimes under ten shillings an acre, though there are cases where it may be about double that figure. Some crofts can yield the annual meal requirements of the crofter's family, but many fall short of this, and some crofters have to buy considerable quantities of meal, for which, however, their fishing profits come in conveniently.

Their method of harvesting barley is peculiar. It is pulled up by the root—not, however, as some teetotallers might suspect, with thirsty designs after extracting some "barley-bree" from the uprooted stalk. It is applied to quite other purposes,—for doing, indeed, what the "barley-bree" is credited with often undoing—namely, thatching their houses, and making their homes comfortable. The barley-straw, root and all, is placed as thatch on the dwelling-house; and whatever may be thought of the general design of the house, the use to which this barley-straw is ultimately applied shows something like utilitarian leanings in the crofter build,— the crofter mind, we mean. Annually, as spring-time comes round, this thatch, enriched with the smoke of many peat-fires, is bodily removed and used for manuring the land,—so that, after all, the barley-straw arrangement by no means ends in smoke.

The sales off the croft, in the case of crofter-fishermen, generally speaking, are not large. Those among them that can annually sell two head of cattle, representing from £4 to £8, and about three bolls, or twelve bags, of potatoes, will reckon themselves as having had a pretty good year. A counterbalancing circumstance, however, is the often scanty return of oats and barley available for meal —the meal-purchases thus rendered necessary absorbing any profits resulting from other gains.

Some of the homes of these crofter-fishermen, as seen from without, are not suggestive of comfort, though on entering, in spite of the smoke, the irregular earthen floor, limited space, and scanty light, one is inclined to conclude that the inmates are comfortable in a way, if not happy. Several of the houses consist of an earthen wall, a roof of earth and heather, or the barley-straw alluded to, covering some half-dozen rafters—these latter of a glossy black, from long acquaintance with dense volumes of smoke "struggling to be free." Though within recent years improvements have been taking place, the internal arrangements, even to-day, are in some instances primitive enough beyond all dispute. The floor is an earthen one; and whether because of the removing tendencies of time, or of a defect in the original construction, frequent hollows make it irregular, and render locomotion difficult to the inexperienced. The fire is in the centre of the apartment—ordinarily there are only "a but and a ben"—and whatever other comforts may be absent, there is usually sufficient warmth. Peats are plentiful; and as the moss is near at hand, scarcity of fire ordinarily means laziness. The available space is, or seems to be, limited. The windows are small—very small; and the ventilation is intrusted to the care of a bottomless barrel, or suchlike contrivance. It is only necessary, however, to remind the reader of the barley-straw arrangement to conclude that it is not specially desired that all the smoke should find its way through this barrel. Prominent among the furniture is what is locally called a dresser—a large square piece of wood, with shelves, resting on a plain table, and placed against the wall: this dresser bears a varied burden of plates, bowls, teapots, cups and saucers, jugs, spoons, knives with or without handles, as also a kettle, and one or two pots and pans.

The crofters of Stratheden are not fishermen: they depend entirely on their crofts, and their general circumstances are, in several respects, quite different from those of the crofter-fishermen we have been speaking of. Their homes, both in architectural design and internal comfort, are as a rule much superior to those of the latter; their crofts are more valuable, and the style of agriculture more advanced. Most of the crofters' houses in Stratheden are slated, and can boast of well-lighted, roomy apartments, and grates, as well as chimneys, of modern make. The croft, generally speaking, consists of from four to eight acres of arable land (in most cases very good land), with the right of "pasture" enabling the crofter to keep a horse, half-a-dozen cattle, and a few sheep. The "rents" are very moderate, and the productiveness of the croft in many instances is such that the occupier is often able, by the sale of potatoes alone, to pay his rent, and leave a surplus besides.

Iron ploughs are now common: one rarely, if ever, meets with a wooden one. A common practice in the matter of ploughing is, the average crofter having but one horse, that two neighbouring crofters enter into a joint arrangement by which the land of each is ploughed by the horses of both. What was locally considered a vast advance in the department; of agriculture---a ploughing-match—took place in Stratheden this year (1880); and being the first that ever was known among the crofter population, it naturally attracted a great deal of attention. It is quite understood that ploughing-matches will now rank among the usual and ordinary institutions of the parish.

The ordinary daily life of the average crofter in Stratheden is essentially uneventful. His ambition rarely soars beyond the monotonous routine of his immediate surroundings. Except for a few weeks in spring and autumn, his life is not a busy one. It is not one of constant toil, though, occasionally, a case may be met with where a crofter of improving tendencies gets possession of a piece of waste land to reclaim, and thus, for a time at least, he is busy enough. Winter, with most of the crofters, is a perpetual holiday. They rise late, and the principal morning requirements of the croft at this season are the letting out of the cattle and horses to water, and the doing up of the byre and stable for the day. During the day they have the oats or barley to thresh, and this is the crofter's principal winter work. Threshing-mills are unknown among the crofters generally, and, indeed, it is only within the past ten years that they have come into general use on the large farms. The steady, heavy beat of the "flail" is a familiar sound in Stratheden during the winter and spring. Sometimes the flail's duties are light. A wet harvest diminishes the number of sheaves available, and there is reason to suspect that sometimes the crop returns suffer a diminution from defective drainage or scanty manuring, or both,—defects ordinarily in the power of the crofter to remedy. The average Highland laird is very willing to grant money for drainage at a reasonable rate of interest; and the quantity of manure available might in many cases be increased by the exercise of a little care and industry during the end of autumn, and all through the winter and early spring.

The day's instalment of threshing over—and it is never hard work except when in arrear—the crofter feels he has the remainder of the day for himself, and he meditates how to spend his leisure hours. One goes to the shoemaker's shop, another to the tailor's, and a third wanders off to the smithy, while a fourth visits the shopkeeper, or "merchant," as the latter is called by many in Stratheden. The subjects and manner of conversation usual on such occasions are described in another part of this book.

The Stratheden crofter rarely goes far from home and though railway excursion trips and other facilities for cheap travelling have modified this long prevalent feature, there are some crofters in the parish, persons of sixty years or thereabouts, who have never travelled more than ten miles beyond Stratheden, their native parish. The younger people are getting initiated into travelling ways. Several natives of Stratheden, and like places, are in the south in various situations, and when at home, during the holiday season, their descriptions of the "big places" far away excite a curiosity which induces their untravelled brothers and sisters to see something of the world. Fairs, or as they are called in Stratheden, and in the Highlands generally, markets, constitute another attraction to the younger crofter people; and these institutions, especially those that take place only once in the year, or half-early, are very popular. Some parents, dubious as to the propriety of allowing their sons, and especially their daughters, to visit "them kind o' places," reply to the request of a daughter for leave to go to the market with an authoritative and peremptory refusal. "There's such an awful lot o' all kinds of people at them markets, and there's some bad people going aboot; it's no a place for young lassies at all, at all," is the reason offered for the refused permission. It seems strange, however; that in some cases the same dislike exists to allowing the young people, especially the daughters, to go to the Communion in distant parishes. Very probably it is the "awful lot o' all kinds o' people" at the Communion gathering that awakens misgivings in the parental heart, but it surely cannot be thought that the other and special portion of the paternal warning anent the market is applicable, to any great extent, to the Communion gatherings. The refusal in question is felt to be a sad deprivation, not so much because of the market itself, or even of the Communion or "Saycriemant" itself, as because of the opportunity some of the fair sex may thus lose of improving their prospects in the matrimonial market. A strict paterfamilias of the class referred to must have been a little taken aback by an observation once made to him by his daughter. Half in fun, half in earnest, he said to her: "Merran" (Marion), "am wunderin you're no getting a husband; I was thinking it wull be near aboot time you was getting merrit;"—to which the daughter's reply was: "It's your own fault, father; how can I get married when you'll no let me to the market nor to the Saycriemant in other places?"!

But let us return to the crofter and his surroundings. Many of the crofts march with the "big fairmer's" ground, and this fact tended to perpetuate a sort of unpleasant feeling between the "big fairmer" and the crofter, more especially some fifteen or twenty years ago. The latter often enough was envious of the former, and the former too often selfishly indifferent about the crofter. The crofter's cattle, after the manner of most cattle, would occasionally find their way to the "big fairm," and take a more or less extensive feed of the pasture most suited to their taste. The "big fairmer," or his shepherd or other official, would send the cattle home, with a dog as convoy, and the crofter would see his cattle rushing as if for dear life, at a rattling break-neck rate, along the strath or down the hillside, and then —well, what then but what was natural in the circumstances? Why, the crofters' love for the "big fairmer" would not be increased, and the latter's murmurings about "these troublesome crofters" would grow the louder. To-day, owing to the growth of public opinion, and to the more prosaic fact of the growing use of wire-fencing, a better feeling, in this respect at least, exists between the farmers and crofters; and we are glad to chronicle that Stratheden stands creditably high with regard to cordial relations between the two classes of farmers.

Speaking of crofters there are two personages to whom it is right to refer in passing—we mean the factor and the ground-officer. The ground-officer's duties are various, such as seeing that the crofters are cultivating their land in orthodox fashion; inquiring into disputes that may arise between neighbours about marches, rights of pasture, and the like; notifying the date of the factor's coming to the parish to collect the rents, and giving a reminder to such as may have forgot the rent-day, or otherwise neglected to pay.

The ground-officer is so far an important personage, and the factor depends a good deal for information about the crofts and other matters on his subordinate. It is understood that the ground-officer keeps a sort of daily record of crofter events, and some other matters occurring in his district, which record is submitted weekly or fortnightly, as the case may be, to the factor. It is said that other matters than such as might be supposed to come within a ground-officer's jurisdiction occasionally find, or at least used to find, their way into this official diary. We have been told that a few years ago a ground-officer in a Highland parish, in filling up his diary for a certain day, took occasion to chronicle the following item of intelligence: "Met the parish minister walking on the road to-day. His hat was very old-looking: he must surely have had it for a long time." While admitting the soundness of the logic with reference to the hat, it is impossible to think what this ground-officer might have inserted in his record had the parish minister met him walking elsewhere than "on the road."

The ground-officers of to-day, as a rule, are better liked than were those of other days, just because, for reasons which it is unnecessary here to mention, the feeling between the crofters and the lairds was less kindly in many cases than now, the ground-officer being viewed, of course, as the laird's local representative. To-day, matters are in every way more satisfactory. The laird and the crofters seem to understand each other better; and, though here and there a grumbler—a pretty loud one too—may be met with among the latter, for no other reason than that the laird cannot please every person, any more than other people can, a kindlier feeling, generally speaking, prevails. The ground-officer of to-day, accordingly, has more agreeable times of it, though occasionally his experiences are the reverse of pleasant, his position is in some respects a difficult one. Some crofters are too ready to think that special estate enactments must be made to meet any grievance that may crop up; and when they have stated their case to the ground-officer, for submission to the factor, if an unfavourable verdict is pronounced at headquarters, the ground-officer, as the channel of communication, comes in for no small share of the blame. The Stratheden ground-officer, Mr David Gray, is a shrewd, intelligent man, who knows his work well. He seems pretty largely endowed with the valuable quality of being "quick to hear and slow to speak," and ground-officers, like all others, will find this habit essentially useful.

The factor within whose jurisdiction Stratheden is situated is Mr David Pemberton. He knows as well as any can how the crofters regard him officially—that few of them fondly love him, and that many of them are prejudiced against him, simply because he is "the factor," and, perhaps, because he cannot please everybody. Mr Pemberton seems a sensible man. If, sometimes, his expression is not too amiable, it is but just to remember that the worry incident to a factor's life, the frequent and sometimes unreasonable applications made to him, and the perplexing amount of business often demanding his attention, would go far to give a sour, if not an angry, expression of countenance to persons of average capacity for amiableness. Mr Pemberton is an excellent man of business and a straightforward man; and whatever some of the crofters may think of him, some others in Stratheden and in neighbouring parishes, in which he acts in the same capacity, are deeply indebted to him for the valuable assistance he affords in school board and parochial board matters. He is not quite so terrible a personage as certain crofter estimates might suggest. He might perhaps cultivate the suaviter int mode a little more extensively, but it is not easy. So many ask him so many favours with respect to their crofts, and so many ask him so many impossible favours, that having to say "No" so often, he is apt to say it with a quite unnecessary bitterness—and, indeed, it may be, sometimes when he might have said "Yes." But he is human, as perhaps even the most prejudiced of the crofters will admit; and it is proper to remember that a just estimate of his manner necessitates a knowledge of his actual position, and to charitably conclude that he has his kindly feelings beneath the apparent sourness of his official face. So much for the crofters of a Highland parish of to-day, and their general surroundings.

These crofters, as a class, are a steady, law-abiding, and peace-loving people. Though in some cases not so ingenuous or truthful as might be wished, such insincerity or sneakish tendency as is met with, though to be deplored, possesses neither the depth nor the venom that would incite to deliberate opposition to law and order. They are loyal to the core, proud of their Queen and country, and entertain a sincere respect for the time-honoured institutions of the land. So far as their treatment of each other is concerned, while the rivalries of the increasing competition of to-day may render displays of envious hatred and its unworthy accompaniments more common than of yore, we still think there is an appropriateness in saying of the better type of them that

"Nowhere beats the heart so kindly
As beneath the tartan plaid."

It is as difficult to forecast the future of the crofter system, as it is to see the practicableness of certain suggested schemes for the reform of real or supposed defects in the system. Rents, generally speaking, are moderate; but on the death of a crofter an increase takes place—except in the case of the widow of the deceased crofter. Assuming—which is scarcely probable, however—that the increasing process will become too great a strain on the profitableness of the croft, its fate may be easily foretold. If near a large farm, it would be added to the farm; or if far removed from such a farm, and forming one of a group of crofts, it would probably be added to another of these crofts, which would be another step in the direction of the absorption of the present crofter system into one of larger holdings. But judging from present appearances, and assuming the lairds wise and generous enough to see the reasonableness of enabling the crofter to feel he has a home-interest in his country, and patriotic enough to realise the usefulness of a prosperous crofter peasantry, it is not easy to believe such a result possible in the near future. And higher interests than those of the laird render it desirable that encouragement be given to a well-regulated crofter system. For various reasons it is the interest of the nation to promote it. Much as war is to be deplored, it is, of course, possible that it may be unavoidable; and those that know anything of British history must be well aware that on those battle-fields on which Britain fought most bravely, and achieved her grandest victories, no small share of the credit was due to the genuine loyalty, brave determination, and hardy endurance of her Highland soldiers. Waterloo and the Crimea are enough to instance in proof of this remark. If nowadays less is heard of the bravery and hardihood of the Highland soldier, in listening to the details of conflicts on modern battle-fields, it is not because the loyalty, the bravery, or the hardihood has vanished, but because the assimilating process so marked in recent times has so far caused the individuality of the Highlander to be merged in the national character, that the brave Highlander is known merely as the British soldier. And whence is the type of Highlander possessing such loyalty, bravery, and hardihood most likely to be procured? Unquestionably from the ranks of a healthy and prosperous crofter peasantry. May the day be far distant when Britain's honour or indignation at oppression will force her into war! But should that day come, no better soldiers could be found than the type of persons referred to. It has been so of yore. We need only mention Rannoch in Perthshire, Strathspey, Lochaber, Sutherland, Ross, and the island of Skye, as proof of what Highlanders did in other days—the latter district (Skye) contributing an unusually large number of soldiers of various ranks towards maintaining the fame of the national military greatness.

But the crofter population supplies an excellent nursery for more peaceful scenes—for more attractive spheres of life. It is well known that many of them. have risen to a high place in the callings of trade and commerce, while not a few have occupied and are occupying highly respectable positions in one or other of the learned professions. Many Highland parishes might refer with pride to the success of some of their crofter youths in one or other of these spheres. We may here refer to a successful Stratheden crofter boy, Mr Alexander Trongray Cameron, a civil engineer, who, by a diligent use of his time and talents, has risen to a position of considerable eminence in his profession. He is a splendid specimen of the genuinely enlightened Highlander. Determination and perseverance are prominent features in the real Highland character. Mr Cameron is strong in these qualities, as his very successful professional career amply proves. Love of country, which includes that other patriotism which makes the true man love his native parish, is deeply rooted in Mr Cameron's heart, and no one loves Stratheden more than he does. And his affection goes further than the cheap regard of words alone. He helps with pen and purse to promote the social, intellectual, and general wellbeing of the inhabitants of his native parish. He is a true Celt—fond of the Gaelic tongue, and very unlike those weaklings that affect ignorance of, and are clearly indifferent towards, a language which though it be disappearing, no true man will be ashamed of. Besides the material help he gives towards promoting education and general progress in the parish of Stratheden, Mr Cameron procures important situations in the south for several of the more intelligent and deserving youths of Stratheden. He is respected by all who know him. The noble Iaird of Stratheden, a most acute observer of character and a hater of shams, greatly respects Mr Cameron, and has more than once shown him special marks of appreciation of his good qualities and successful career. Such is a sample of what the crofter system can accomplish. No doubt Mr Cameron's career has been to some extent exceptionally successful, but it was in the crofter atmosphere of Stratheden he breathed the manly perseverance and shrewd common-sense he afterwards turned to so good account. And what has been done may be done again. Let a prosperous crofter peasantry be encouraged — towards which many think larger crofts, Ieases, and instruction in scientific land cultivation would be very helpful—and many possible workers in the trades and professions of the country will be met with in crofter homes. And though this very reason for perpetuating the system may to some appear to be a sure way of causing the crofter system to fade, in reality it is far from being so. The love of the old home is strong in the crofter heart, as in other hearts; and though some may leave the old place for wider spheres of usefulness, it is all but certain the feeling referred to will secure that some one of the family, or one not far removed in the ties of kindred, will wish to occupy the ancestral home and croft.


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