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


POLITICS rarely disturb the dream of the average native resident of a Highland parish. The subject is spoken of now and then by the people generally, but very often this is more because of the wish to be considered capable of appreciating "what the papers are saying," than from any clear or earnest interest in the goings on in the political world.

"Men, not measures," is practically the political maxim of such as affect any interest in the matter. As with many others, the man, Whig or Tory, whose name is associated with cheapening tea, sugar, or tobacco, or with reducing the dog-tax, is the favourite politician.

The meaning of even the most rudimentary terms in the political vocabulary would appear to be by some Highlanders rather imperfectly understood. An old woman in a Highland parish not very far from Stratheden, it is said, once expressed her astonishment at, the very great age apparently reached by "that man Goavurmant" (Government). Not only had she heard a great deal about his doings in her early days, but her father used to tell her about the same aged "personage" as being spoken of as far back as even he could remember. There is a still more remarkable instance of political ignorance which has been related to us as occurring in a Highland parish not fifty miles from Stratheden. A few years ago the then Chancellor of the Exchequer—a peaceably-inclined man, it is necessary to add, in view of what follows—was on a visit to the proprietor of the place, a nobleman famous for his generous and splendid hospitality. On a certain evening during the stay of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at this nobleman's Highland home, a meeting of some kind or other took place in the district, at which, among others, there was present Peter Macgregor, a decent old man, and an elder in one of the churches. At the close of the meeting, and in the ordinary course of conversation, some one happened to mention in Peter's hearing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was at Dunedin Castle; whereupon the elder, unlettered in the nomenclature of party or office, to the amusement of all that heard him, said,—"Och, dear me! oar own proprietor, he's a goot laird and a goot kind man, but, mercy me! he's an awful man, for there's no a wild beast that's in't but he wull get one of them!" Poor Peter evidently imagined the visitor at the Castle was another trophy of adventurous travel in foreign wilds.

These, of course, are exceptional instances; but so far as the average native resident of a Highland parish of to-day is concerned,—while the age of a Government is pretty generally known, and while the mention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's name does not bring up wild suggestions of a rnenagerie,—of clear appreciation of party distinctions, or of the significance of the changes in the political atmosphere, there is very little indeed.

So far, however, as can be gathered from such declarations as are ventured upon, so-called Liberal leanings are observable among the younger crofters, farm-servants, and working class generally in Stratheden; while among others the "old way," or as some call it, the "way long ago," understood to signify Conservatism, is rigidly adhered to.

The news of the dissolution of 1880 afforded a special opportunity for ascertaining the political leanings of at least one native resident. A day or two after the news came, we met Angus Sutherland, one of the native residents, a man of fifty years of age and a person of some intelligence, but, as the sequel will show, not specially learned in matters political. "Is this Baykansfield to be put-ten oot?" was the question put to us by Angus, in order to know what was doing—a question followed, however, by the statement, before we had time to make any observation, "I don't know myself who's best to be in; it's no for the likes o' me to be speaking aboot them things,—it's scholars and people o' that kind it belongs till better to be speaking aboot them things." Being little inclined for a political discussion, we merely made the observation that a few days would tell who would be "oot" or in. At this stage, however, such political leanings as Angus had were beginning to appear, and we began to suspect that, after the manner of some people found in Lowland and Highland parishes of to-day and other days, Angus was assuming ignorance merely in order to hear what we had to say. "Am feared," observed Angus, "this Baykansfield is ower fond o' war—and it's an awful thing war—and forbye the praisheous lives that are lost, it runs away wi' an awful sicht o' money; and now them .papers are saying —I reads my newspaper of coorse—that it was an awful baad thing o' Baykansfield to be going to fight them Solon chaps; he should have letten the black lads alone. Now, Maister Mackenzie, won't you say yourself that was no richt? but I don't know myself indeed very weel,—the likes o' me canna oonderstan' them things at all." It will be seen from this last observation that Angus was lapsing into his sounding ways, and indeed he seemed most anxious to know what manner of person we were politically. "Well, Angus," we replied, "war is always a sad business ; and, no doubt, rightly or wrongly, a great many persons are of opinion that the Government of Lord Beaconsfield might have prevented some of those wars in which our country has been recently engaged abroad; and you may depend upon it, Angus, all that think so will do their utmost to send Lord Beaconsfield and his party to the right - about." "Weel, sir," was the reply of Angus, "that's what I was thinking myself, although, as I was telling ye, the likes o' me doesna oonderstan' just much aboot them things; but I put no doot you'll know all aboot it; but, Master Mackenzie, is there a pairty wi' Baykansfield? I thocht there was none but himself for them wars, and that this Gladstone was the other way, just cornplete contrary like to Baykansfield." A little elucidation now obviously became necessary, and we resolved to attempt the matter, although the very rudimentary political education seemingly possessed by Angus was slightly discouraging. "You must understand, Angus," we proceeded to observe, neces sarily using the simplest possible style of explanation, "Beaconsfield could do nothing unless there was a large number of the members of Parliament of the same opinion as himself, and helping him to carry out his plans. The British Parliament is made up of two kinds of persons ; they call the one party Liberals, and the other party Conservatives." "Am a Reebural," exclaimed Angus; "am that indeed, sir, because the paper is saying—I reads my newspaper, of coorse—that the Reeburals, not the other chaps, is the richt sort o' fellows, and that they'll give the poor man, and every other body, everything they'll be wanting. Och, yes, Maister Mackenzie, am a Reebural, although the likes o' me doesna know much aboot it; but Gladstone's my man; he's the man for me." "Very well, Angus," we replied, "you're quite right to have your own opinion in the matter; but wait a little," we added, "till I explain matters further. The chief man in the Government is called the Premier, or Prime Minister." "Och, dear me!" interposed Angus, with an air of anxious astonishment; "I didna know that munnistarrs was in Parliament at all. My word, these munnistarrs, you'll find them looking aifter all kinds o' high places and the likes o' that. They should stop at hoam and be more humbler and give longer sermons. Och, the munnistarrs are no what they were in my younger days, Maister Mackenzie; am feared they're getting ower prood and high kind, and they're crabbed kind and that, if you'll no please them and give plenty money at the collekshans." "Dear me, Angus," we replied, "what is all this for? the Prime Minister or Minister of the Crown is not the same as a preaching minister or church minister. The real meaning of minister is a servant, and, speaking of the Government, the term "prime minister" means that the person so named is the chief servant of the Crown or of the Queen. But, Angus, I am quite surprised to hear how you speak about ministers. Of course they have their faults, and some of them are proud enough, and some greedy enough; but you speak very strongly, almost bitterly, against them. I always thought you had a great regard for the clergy, and that you were a very regular attendant at church." "Ah, weIl," replied Angus, "I attends church,—that's my duty, Maister Mackenzie; but matters aboot churches are no what they were in my younger days; but oor own munnistarr, Maister Nicolson (Angus adhered to the Free Church), am thinking is a quate man, and preaches longer nor some o' them, and I must say this for him forbyc, that he's awful against that fearful fellow—is he Robert Smuss, or Robertson, or Smuss, or what is he?—the fearful fellow that they're say-in- wants Deuturranoamy putten oot o' the Bible; and that's a grand quaality in oor munnistarr. But, och, I shouldna be speaking aboot munnistarrs. I used to hear my daesant ould faither saying it wasna canny to be speaking aboot munnistarrs, and the likes o' me doesna know much aboot it."

At this stage of our interview with Angus Sutherland we had reached the Stratheden post-office, near which, as is usual on the arrival of the evening mail-train from the south, there was a considerable number of persons—including some half-dozen ploughmen, as many crofters, seven or eight tradesmen (tailors, shoemakers, and joiners), one or two individuals of no occupation, and half a score of boys. This varied assemblage, of course, arranged themselves into small groups for purposes of gossip. But--and this bears out the remarks, made at the commencement of this chapter—although it was now some days after the announcement of the dissolution of Parliament had been known in Stratheden, the political situation was very little, if at all, referred to by these people. There were, however, two men at the post-office of Stratheden that evening who affected some interest in the elections, and seemed eager to speak about the matter. One of these was Angus McLeod, a Stratheden crofter, a consequential and somewhat opinionative individual; and the other was George Mackay, a mason in Stratheden, a less dogmatic person, and not so well up in politics as Angus McLeod—a fact which, notwithstanding the readiness displayed by the latter, placed George Mackay's political knowledge at a decidedly low ebb. Angus considers himself a Liberal, but George Mackay is not pronounced either way. "Weel, Maister Mackenzie," observed Angus McLeod, "George and me here was speaking aboot them speeches in the papers them days — whatna tormendous long speeches they're puttin' oot just now — them two chaps Gladstan and Dissurally: but that's no Dissurally's name now—he's gotten a new name—it's Bickensfield, is it no, Maister Mackenzie? Myself is a strong Leeberral, — am that indeed; am terrable for that fine chap Gladstan; am no for interfering with them Solloo fellows at all, at all. It would be better to give the money to help the poor man than send it for fighting them black ones." Having complimented Angus on his eloquence, we were going to offer a brief observation of a general kind on the question of the hour, when Angus, fond of hearing himself speak, and evidently proud of what he considered his own superior knowledge, went on,—"I canna make oot whatna side my freend George here is on, Maister Mackenzie." George, who, at the time in question, had been working at his trade at Woodfield, the residence of General Howard, put in the rather remarkable observation, "I'm no thinking them civeclans will keep the Parlimant very richt at all. I was hearing the General speaking aboot them—lie's a fine scholar the General, forbye being a kind man—and he was saying them civeelans doesna just know the ways of matters very weel at all, at all!" It will be seen George's political education was decidedly neglected. General Howard, in commenting on the political situation in the hearing of George, would, very probably, have made some allusion to civilians, in contradistinction to persons of his own profession; and George, thinking it right any time and all times to quote the General uttered the word "civeelans" as mentioned. Angus McLeod seemed utterly confounded by this specimen of political nomenclature advanced by George. Whatever else he might be ignorant of, Angus knew the party names, and evidently felt proud at his own superior information side by side with George Mackay's vague observation about "civeelans." "Gladstan's my man," exclaimed Angus; "Bickensfield is raither foand o' war, and that's no the way to spend the money the poor man should get. We wull soon hey chape tobawca; and I was saying to the wife she would get a cup o' the tea for almost nothing very soon, for Gladstan was to be in."

The "big fairmers" of Stratheden, with one or two exceptions, appear to hold pronounced Liberal opinions, and Mr Malcolm Macgregor, the "big fairmer" at Burnside, happening to be an elector in a neighbouring county where there was a contested election in i88o, travelled some hundred miles to record his vote for the Liberal candidate. Mr Gabriel Langton, Meadowbank, another of the "big fairmers" of Stratheden, though at one time believed to hold decidedly pronounced Conservative opinions, changed his political creed some time or other during the agricultural depression that fell so heavily on most of the farmers,, within. the last four or five years. Mr Langton suffered severely from this depression, and, somehow or other, he came to associate the Government of the period, the Beaconsfield Ministry, with the hardships of the time, his indignation at the Conservative Ministry reaching a crisis during the sadly prolonged and severe snowstorm of the winter of 1878-79. Notwithstanding that Mr Gabriel Langton's normal style of speech is kindly, and innocent of all bitterness, he, several times in the course of the winter referred to, was heard to utter very strong denunciations of the party in power at the time.

One evening in April i88o, when the election excitement was at its height, the Rev. Mr Cameron, parish minister of Stratheden, Mr Malcolm Macgregor, Mr Langton, and one or two others, including ourselves, happened to meet, and naturally the political doings of the hour soon became the subject of conversation. Mr Langton, who, somehow, thinks he makes an exceedingly clever hit if he says anything of a teasing nature regarding the clergy, observed, at an early stage of the conversation, "The parsons "—Mr Langton is very fond of the word "parson"—"winna like the turn the tide has taken. Dizzy (Mr Langton liked to say "Dizzy") is getting a most terrible, drubbing with these elections, and let the old fellow take it. It's awful like to think of the way matters went back while he was in office, and the winter before last crowned everything" Mr Cameron seemed more amused than anything else at Mr Langton's way of putting the matter, and particularly at his appearing to address him specially. The clergy of the Established Church of Scotland have long been popularly understood to be Conservatives, and it was on this assumption that Mr Langton made special reference to the "parsons." We may mention, in passing, that the great majority of the Highland clergy—Free and Established—are understood to be Conservative in politics. So far as the parish minister of Stratheden's political sentiments can be ascertained, he is what is ordinarily termed a Liberal-Conservative, and seems to take very good-naturedly the remonstrances of some of his acquaintance—Liberals and Conservatives alike — who persist in advising him to adopt what they call a more decided tone; but the reverend gentleman, whether from stubbornness or indifference, or from an unalterable faith in the soundness of this sort of middle path, smiles at the earnest remonstrances addressed to him by partisans of either side of politics, and, up to this moment, so far as we can learn, he is a Liberal-Conservative. After Mr Langton's reference to the "parsons" supposed dislike to the turn the tide had taken in the political world, Mr Cameron indicated a wish that Mr Langton should explain why he thought the parsons would not relish the altered situation. "Och, you're a' Conservatives, and you're afraid o' your Kirk," was the reply; whereupon Mr Malcolm Macgregor, a stanch Liberal, and an equally stanch member of the Established Church of Scotland, observed, "There's no fear of the Church; there's no person worth mentioning seeking to touch the Church at this moment." Mr Macgregor takes what many will be inclined to think a thoroughly sensible and practical view of the Church question. He deprecates mixing up the matter with politics so-called, alleging that there are many decided Liberals—and he instances himself with some pride and enthusiasm—strong supporters of the Established Church of Scotland. "It's the people," Mr Macgregor added, "that will decide the Church question when it comes up; and if the majority of the people of Scotland demand disestablishment—which I don't think will be the case in a hurry—whatever Government there is, they must agree to the people's wishes. Let the Church continue to do good useful work, and she's sure to stand many a long day." "I think, Mr Langton," observed the Rev. Mr Cameron, " Mr Macgregor has put the matter in a very sensible light, and besides heartily endorsing our friend of Burnside's views on this matter, I think it unwise of such as are friends of the Church of Scotland to speak and act as if the existence of the Church depended on the support of any political party. Let the ministers and people of the Established Church, by doing and giving"—the reverend gentleman emphasised the giving, with a significant look all round—"help to make the Church of Scotland a continually increasing power for good, and the friends of the Church need not trouble themselves about disestablishment." Whether it was that AIr Langton thought his reverence was proceeding to sermonise on the subject, or whether it was that he was afraid it was not well enough known that he had become a Liberal some time during the snowstorm of '78-79, AIr Langton abruptly observed —"But you're all afraid Gladstone will be at your Kirk, and pull it down." At this stage Duncan Kennedy, a Stratheden "small fairmer," an adherent of the Free Church, and a somewhat intelligent man, who had been listening attentively to the discussion, seemed desirous of stating his views on the matter. "Am thinkin' mysel'," observed Duncan, "that the munnistarr is perfectly richt aboot this dussisstawblishment; and forbye that, I waas very gled to hear Maister Macgregor speaking the way he did. The dussisstawblishment wunna be in oor day. Am no o' the Estawblish Church mysel', but I wud be very sorry to see the day—I hope I wunna, and I wunna see the day—the good ould Church of oor fathers will be putten doon: I don't think mysel' there's mony wants it putten doon. Look among the people o' this paireesh itsel',—all the Free Church people in it, am sure, would be doonricht against puttin' doon the Estawblish Church; and it's the same in other paireeshes, am sure. Ali ! we wunna pairt wi' the Church o' Scotland though we doesna go to it; we goes to the Church we were brocht up in, — am thinking that's the way wi' all of us." Duncan's observations being, by universal consent, accepted as the close of the comments on the Church question, Mr Angus Ferguson, Braeside, a farmer in the parish, proceeded to offer a few comments. Some one had told him farmers were soon to have better times—it might have been Mr Langton, who expected a great deal from the return of the Liberals to power. "I wunder," observed the tenant of Braeside, "what will Glawdstane and them chaps do for us people that's dependin' on the lawnd, and so awful hadden doon them times." (Angus had been long away from Stratheden, and acquired a peculiar accent.) "Ye see, wi' a' their talk and poaleetics and Goavurrments, they canna bring doon oor rents ae bawbee ; and forbye, am no shair they can haud thae Amarrican fellaes frae sending sic tremendous cargoes o' meat and a' kinds o' stuff to oor country—and it's they Amarrican lads that's keeping a' things doon i' the price. Am feared nae Goavurrment can mend that, freends." Mr Gabriel Langton, a convert of depression times to Liberalism, as the reader will remember, scarcely seemed to relish Mr Angus Ferguson's blunt way of putting matters, and, in reply to Ferguson's observations, said: "Wait, Angus, and you'll see all things getting into right order when Gladstone and his party get into power, though it's not just an awfully easy business to put right what Dizzy (Gabriel would call him Dizzy) put wrong."

Just as the conference was breaking up, Hugh Fraser, an aged native, understood by a certain class to be a "good" man, happened to be passing, and, having asked one of those present what the subject of conversation had been, was supplied with a brief summary of the discussion. "Am no going to say anything aboot Goavurrmants," observed Hugh; "but perhaps if the big fairmers wouldna be setting their hairts on the big sheep and the cattle and the land, they would get better weather, am thinkin'; and they needna be speakin' aboot price —they're gettin' price enough already—that's what they are. `Naas the Moaderat munnistarr" (Hugh adhered to the Free Church) " speakin' aboot big sheep and prices? Och, indeed I needna ask that —am sure he was; for they're fairmers, plenty of them Moaderat munnistarrs wi' their 'glebes, and some o' them hessna much more to do." (This last observation was meant as a sneer at the fewness of adherents of the Established Church in some Highland parishes.) "Ochan, ochan! it's the day that's int that's no easy to be thinkin' of when munnistarrs will be speakin' aboot big sheep and prices with the big fairmers." No one seemed inclined to interrupt Hugh Fraser in his silly harangue. The reader may be curious to know why Fraser passed as a "good" man, seeing he could utter such unmitigated sillinesses as were embodied in his comments on the conference. A perusal of the second chapter of this book may enable the reader to solve the problem. Happily, however, persons of Hugh's way oft-thinking are becoming a small and rapidly diminishing class. He wound up his rambling comments by saying, "But I needna wunder aboot Moaderat munnistarrs. With my two eyes I saw one o' them walkin' aboot his glebe on Saitu day, and lookin' at the cattle and the fields and the gress —fine preparaishan for Sawbath!"


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