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Chronicals of Stratheden
Big Days in a Highland Parish


THE "big" days in the average Highland parish are not numerous. Monotonous sameness has almost universal sway, and such days as show any features different from the ordinary round maybe briefly told.

Fairs will naturally occur to many as likely to hold a high place among such "big" days as may exist. The fair—or the "markatt," as some of the older natives call it—was for a long time a great institution in the Highlands. In most Highland parishes, indeed, up till within the last fifteen years or so, it was the only big day, or series of days, for the "markatt" often extended over two, and even three, days. Of course, the Communion season was then, as it yet is, looked upon by very many as a great event,—not chiefly because of the grander thoughts it is calculated to suggest, but as a time for, meeting relatives and acquaintance, for purposes of getting news and exchanging gossip, which latter was often unprofitable enough. No doubt there were many then—more, perhaps, than to-day—who looked forward to the Communion season under the inspiration of feelings appropriate to the event ; but of the other sort there were, and are, many, as all that know the Highlands are aware.

The "markatt," however, was the big day properly so called. It suggested no idea of restraint, no necessity for assumed gravity of demeanour, and was therefore more generally and eagerly looked forward to as a big day. There were, of course, as is yet the case, only a few parishes that could claim the dignity of having a market "stance," and to which the people flocked from the surrounding districts. One locality was the market-place for some six or seven parishes, and, generally speaking, the "markatt" took place twice a-year. It usually began on a Tuesday, and often extended over three days. The first day was the principal business-day, - the day on which the buying and selling of cattle and horses took place. The Wednesday turnout partook greatly of the character of variety. Lads and lasses were out in strong force, and, just as to-day, there was no small flirtation—in some cases very demonstrative. The Wednesday of the market was a general holiday, and shepherds, ploughmen, and others, with their wives and families, strolled along—the young people looking with special interest at the "sweetie" vendor's spread, the temporary toy-shop, the merry-go-round, and a few other attractions. Towards evening some in the crowd displayed leanings in the direction of boisterousness, as the result of too frequent visits to the "tent" or extemporised dram-shop; and later on, some of the boisterous ones might be found figuring prominently at something of the nature of a free fight, at which wild and often disgusting exclamations largely prevailed.

The "markatt" of to-day, in many respects, is much the same as it was at the period referred to. There are changes, however. The market is not to-day so prolonged an event, so far especially as districts having railway communication are concerned ; and this is well, because those that remained longest were ones, as a rule, under the spell of a decidedly injurious attraction —strong drink. Not that they were perhaps drunkards, but in meeting friends, or closing a bargain, they got into tasting, and unfortunately tasting too much. The railway in this respect has been, and is, a temperance reformer. The people may leave home in the morning for the market, buy and sell, see friends and acquaintance, visit the "sweetie" stall, hear the strolling violin-player, and return home by train the same day. Again, the attendance at the market of to-day is not quite so large as of old. The travelling facilities of the present time explain this. When travelling was difficult, and especially when trains and steamers were comparatively unknown, the people looked on the market as a time to meet to transact the greater part of the business of the year. Now it is different. The train is so convenient that people can go from home at any time. Then where no train is, the steamer, and where neither is accessible, the mail-coach, facilitates going from home at any time,—and altogether the "markatt" gathering has become a secondary event.

We remember one or two big days of some twenty years ago, and even later, that are now swamped in the changes of to-day. There was the examination of the parish school by the Church dignitaries of the district, and which took place once a-year. The examination, which was conducted by the parish minister and one or two of the neighbouring clergy, was long and eagerly, if not anxiously, looked forward to by the scholars. Parents came out in considerable force in those days to witness the event ; and, as with the pupils themselves, on the examination-day some parents were proud and some disappointed, and, doubtless, a few envious. Under the new system the examination or inspection day is not, to outsiders at least, so great an event. To the teacher, no doubt, it is quite as important a day—perhaps, indeed, in some cases more so—as her Majesty's Inspector of Schools does not necessarily accept the indulgent estimate of the school's appearance which some of the clergy may have been wont to take. Be this as it may, in the average Highland parish the examination by the inspector does not seem to be attended by nearly so many parents and others as used to be present on the examination-day under the old system. We wish to take this opportunity of testifying to the very general satisfaction which the school inspectors visiting the Northern Highlands afford in these districts. They are all gentlemen of ability and culture, and undoubted integrity; and the fact of their being Highlanders, and so knowing the ways, and what yet is, to some extent, the language of the Highlander, constitutes an additional element of efficiency in this highly important department of our educational arrangements.

corps in Stratheden, over fourscore strong—generally speaking, a stalwart, handsome set of men ; and who will blame the Stratheden people if they speak with pride of the creditable appearance the Stratheden Volunteer Corps usually makes at the annual inspection by the captain—a young nobleman in the neighbourhood, deservedly esteemed by the Stratheden volunteers—and at the big review that yearly takes place in the district? The Stratheden volunteers have big days—such as the captain's inspection, friendly matches between married and single men, Christmas competitions, and the like, — all, comparatively speaking, modern big days in the Highlands.

We had another big day, or rather big night, in Stratheden lately—very big, indeed, because the first of the kind in the parish. It was a concert got up by local talent, and the singers at which were almost all natives. Some enthusiastic Celts, naturally enough, missed the Gaelic element from the songs; and, though the singing of Gaelic songs is becoming very rare, it is said the programme of the next concert will contain one Gaelic song at least.

Another big day in Stratheden is the railway excursion day—"La'n Scurshan," as some of the older people call the cheap-fare day in the Gaelic tongue. This, of course, is comparatively modern, and is largely patronised, being a day to which many in the parish look forward long and eagerly. Some go as far as Glasgow or Edinburgh, but the great majority content themselves with visiting friends some ten miles, or thereabouts, distant.

Another big day seems to be—it is an ecclesiastical day—the day of signing the "call" to a clergyman selected to fill a vacant charge. It has already been noticed that the great majority of the native residents in Highland parishes adhere to the Free Church, and hence it is to this Church our remarks in this instance refer. We have seen on such a day the neighbourhood where the event of signing the call was taking place very largely peopled, giving the day a very big appearance indeed. Lessons of the fickleness of crowds, however, may be gathered from contrasting this apparent enthusiasm with events that take place afterwards in the relations between these eager-looking "calling" ones, and their, for the nonce at least, popular, very popular pastor. We remember, some half-dozen years ago, seeing a very large crowd assembled in a Highland parish for the purpose of signing the call to a clergyman who, when candidating, made a very great impression. A year passed, and another year went with it, but by this time more than time was vanishing. The preacher's popularity was fading; and whoever was to blame—we suspect the fickleness of the multitude had more to do with it than any collapse in the preacher's powers—by the time three years had passed we believe there would be a not inconsiderable number of the original and enthusiastic crowd quite prepared to turn out to call upon their pastor to vacate his charge. We need not wait to make reflections on the cooling of the enthusiasm of the big day of a call-signing. We cannot help remarking, however, that it would be unwise, in every case, to put it down to any want of sincerity at the time of signing, for Highlanders are just as sincere, as honest, as any other people. The fact, however, of their being easily led, and especially so in matters ecclesiastical, may partly explain such a phenomenon as we refer to.

Another big day is the crofters' rent-day — on which, usually, no small excitement is observable. As a rule, there is a praiseworthy ambition to be prepared for this day; and as the crofters pass homewards after paying their rents, there is, in many cases, discernible the commendable consciousness of duty done. In no district that we know of is the crofter's rent thigh, and it should be, generally speaking, an easy matter to meet the requirements of this big day.

Such are the principal "big" days in the average Highland parish of to-day.

In some central districts with special privileges, games, such as tossing the caber, dancing, and suchlike, take place at stated seasons; but those other events we have referred to include the big days generally known in the Highlands of to-day.


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