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Chronicals of Stratheden
Heathfield House and the People's Friend


HEATHFIELD is picturesquely situated among the majestic hills of Blackburn, in an upland district of Stratheden, and all around there reigns the calm repose of a grand solitude. The present tenant of Heathfield House and farm is the Honourable Arthur M'Alpine, heir of a noble Scottish house memorably and brilliantly associated with not a few of the more famous events of British history. Though seemingly a somewhat romantic choice, Arthur at a very early age adopted the profession of a farmer, and right well does he know his profession and attend to its requirements. It would not, perhaps, be difficult, among the nobility and various others of the wealthier classes of the country, to find some parents and friends who would rejoice---and with good cause-if some of the sons of the home would, like Arthur M'Alpine, turn their attention to useful work, such as farming, and thus not only learn the dignity of labour, but fall into the way of cultivating a healthful physical and moral life. Be this as it may, Arthur M`Alpine is a farmer from choice — very early choice, too, as has been said ; and lie himself likes to tell how some of his relatives teasingly call him the Gentle Shepherd,—sheep-farming being the department to which he specially devotes his attention.

Arthur loves work for its own sake, and his life is one of constant useful activity. He is too genuine, too sensible, to be ashamed to do any work that may turn up in the usual requirements of his profession ; and though he works with his shepherds, they never forget his position—nor does he himself. They invariably, as do all others that know him, accord him that respect which they feel to be due to him for his noble qualities of head and heart, as well as for his rank. He, though, as is right, knowing his position, and the respect due thereto, is happily no empty boaster of nobility, and looks on his fellow-creatures as brother men having their feelings and their rights.

Though enthusiastic in his devotion to his calling —carefully directing its minutest details, and lending a helping hand in the carrying out of the manual portion of the work—Arthur finds time for taking a share in the direction of parochial affairs generally. At first, when he came to reside in Stratheden, some six or seven years ago, he seemed disinclined to take any part in matters outside his farm. This, however, was not owing to any dislike to giving time and counsel in such matters—for indeed it seems to be his very nature to be doing good—but to a modest shrinking from putting himself forward, as if he merely wished to make himself officious. As chairman of the School Board, his shrewd practical way of looking at matters is of great value; and his excellent business habits and large-hearted intelligent interest in the best welfare of the community, justly entitle him to the high opinion entertained of him as a leader in matters affecting the management and prosperity of the parish.

The style of Arthur's immediate surroundings at Heathfield House is in keeping with the man. No vain display is visible—no feeble strivings after mere costly grandeur for its own sake. Everything in furniture and other household belongings is plain, yet elegant and rich. Usefulness and reasonable comfort have evidently been the objects aimed at in the general get-up of Arthur M'Alpine's home. Prominent among the wall decorations at Heathfield House are relics of Arthur's travels in foreign lands. He has travelled more than most men of his age—Arthur is not yet thirty—and his foreign reminiscences are often intensely interesting.

To spend an evening with Arthur M'Alpine in his sanctum at Heathfield House is a veritable treat. His smoking-room, in which we have been privileged to spend many a happy hour, is a cosy cabin, and the mere look of it readily makes one feel at home—more especially after a look at mine host's kindly face. Though much alone at home, his busy life affording but spare leisure for company, M'Alpine always entertains, and certainly seems entertained by, a large company of—ye haters of the feline tribe shudder not! —cats of various sizes, ages, and colours. Whether it is, as a clerical friend, with a deplorable weakness for punning, puts it, that Arthur M'Alpine entertains so many cats because he is fond of mews-ic or whether it is that, like all of us, he has his peculiar fancy, which takes this shape,—it is not necessary to inquire; certain it is the cats are there. Happening to be at Heathfield one evening lately, we observed three of these mews-i cal quadrupeds—as the parson referred to would say—in the smoking-room: one, a big, fat, and at-home-looking animal, purring contentedly on the floor; while the other two were indulging in a wrestling exercise, indicative of possibilities, if not probabilities, of positive warfare. Taking occasion to remark that he was well provided with cats, Arthur replied with a smile that these were only a few of them; and shortly afterwards—lo and behold !!—cat after cat came gradually dropping in through an opening in one of the windows,—an arrangement specially designed by Arthur,—until, wonderful to relate, no fewer than thirteen cats occupied the floor! Some were purring in a reclining posture, some wrestling, some administering—old to young, or big to little—something of the nature of a castigation for some supposed or actual error, and one here and there indulged in an exercise of playfulness on its own account. The reason for this rather unusually large collection of cats seems to be that their play, with its manifold manoeuvrings, its sly glances, its sudden pouncings, and its amusing collapses and disappointments, affords positive amusement and delight to mine host of Heathfield House.

Notwithstanding this fondness for large gatherings, Arthur is not particularly fond of company. No one, however, likes better to meet a few select friends occasionally, and in such a situation Arthur M'Alpine undoubtedly shines. His one great aim, evidently, is to make his visitors happy—to make them feel at home. Though by profession a farmer, he is quite up in other subjects; and, with great tact and good sense, he directs the conversation by turns into such channels as will suit the profession, or elicit the opinions, of the several individuals of the company.

Arthur is quite a master in the art of teasing. He is so pointed with it, anti yet so generous, so gentlemanly, in short, that even those against whom his banter may be directed cannot but enjoy it. A few weeks ago we happened to be one of a few spending an evening at Arthur's hospitable home. Mr George Maxwell Hay, a young gentleman from the south of Scotland—a representative of a good old Scottish family, and a friend of Arthur's — was one of the company. He was staying at Heathfield, having come there for the purpose of getting some insight into sheep-farming,—and certainly in no better hands could he have been placed than in those of Arthur. The Rev. Mr Cameron, parish minister of Stratheden, was also one of the party. Somehow the parson and Hay got into a conversation about the now pretty venerable question of " the antiquity of the Gaelic language." The conversation was gradually assuming something of an argumentative turn, and M'Alpine by this time was anxious to learn what it was all about,—not but that the reverend gentleman and young Hay were conducting the conversation in a perfectly friendly and agreeable manner. The parson, indeed, is not understood to be a contentious man, though, like most of us, he has considerable faith in his own opinions. Nor is Hay, to all appearance, an irritable or opinionative young man: on the contrary, he seems a most amiable, good-tempered youth. But Arthur M`AIpine, being in teasing mood, thought here was a grand opportunity; and addressing Hay, he remarked: "Well, young man, are you really trying to enlighten Mr Cameron with some of your mature opinions? May I ask what the subject of conversation is?" "Oh yes," Hay readily replied; "it's about the Gaelic language,—about how old it is, and matters of that sort,—only we were not disputing. All that's in it is, that I don't quite feel sure if the language is so very old as some people, imagine!" Arthur quite understood that Mr Cameron was somewhat at home on this subject; and he knew, besides, that Hay did not pretend to have made the question a subject of anything like special study, so that mine host was intensely amused at the somewhat incongruous aspect of the supposed debate. "Oh, well, Hay," Arthur replied—the irony causing much laughter, in which Hay good - naturedly joined—"you know Mr Cameron cannot be supposed to know much about the matter; and as for your own attainments in that direction, why, you are of course quite learned in the question, and therefore it is pretty evident who must yield." The Rev. Mr Cameron, greatly enjoying Arthur's banter, and admiring Hay's apparently imperturbable good - nature, wound up the "debate" by remarking, that very probably on questions more practically useful than that of the antiquity of the Gaelic language, however philologically interesting, Mr Hay would yet be able, by a careful use of his talents, to pronounce a mature and sound opinion.

It is not alone to select friends that Arthur is kind: hospitality ever reigns at Heathfield House. The wandering wayfarer on begging bent never calls at Heathfield in vain. Arthur, beyond a doubt, has the blessings of the poor, and his name is a household word in the cottages of the crofters of Stratheden. The reader will soon see there is good cause why it should be so.

In common with other parts of Scotland, Stratheden felt the depressing sweep of the disastrous snowstorm of 1878-79. Large farmers and crofters alike suffered from the hardship and perplexity of the situation. The crofters' supplies of fodder were all but gone, before the storm—which lasted some twenty weeks—had half run its course. Provender in most cases was scarce, and so was money. Arthur M`Alpine was equal to the occasion. He was both able and willing to help, and, being a far-seeing young man, took time by the forelock. Soon after the snow showed signs of lingering, and when the local supplies of hay and straw were becoming alarmingly short, he, with his usual good sense, thought it might be better to provide for probabilities of the most bleak description. He arranged for bringing to Stratheden a supply of hay and corn sufficient to feed his flocks, even should the snowstorm last far into the spring; and at the same time leave a considerable margin of a surplus, wherewith — and Arthur's generous heart had this in view all along—to supply crofters and others with fodder, for their cattle and sheep, and horses. The reader does not require to be told that Arthur was willing to help. He was eager, indeed, to be of use in the distressing anxiety of the hour, and gave decidedly practical and substantial evidence of this eagerness.

The Stratheden crofters well know that we are not exaggerating Arthur's praises. Were we to submit our observations to them, we feel sure they would say, "Oh, that's no near praise enough at all : put a lot more of praise in it." But, since we have not seen cause to ask them what to say, the reader must rest content with our unassisted estimate of Arthur's good qualities,—not an estimate, be it noted, of unmeaning praise, but one that, if erring at all, does so on the side of being under rather than over the mark.

The crofters' provender was becoming alarmingly scanty soon after '79 came in. To add to the anxiety of the situation, money was scarce—somewhat scarcer than usual. In the case of the Stratheden crofters, as already indicated, the potato crop, generally speaking, is a source of considerable income,—as is indeed the case with the crofters of most Highland parishes of to-day,—many of these crofters being able, out of the proceeds of the sale of this commodity, to pay their rent and have a surplus besides. The potato crop in the harvest immediately preceding the memorable winter referred to, however, was not a profitable one, returns being small and prices low—fifty per cent, indeed, lower than for some time previous.

Arthur M'Alpinc ordered word to be sent to the Stratheden crofters that he Would supply them with hay and corn at a cheap rate — so cheap, indeed, that it signified a considerable personal outlay to himself—to be paid whenever they were able. In order to understand the full extent of the kindness thus shown, it is proper to mention that on a previous occasion, after an unusually poor harvest, the same generous friend supplied large quantities of hay and corn, in many instances virtually a gift.

It may be as well to observe that the Stratheden crofters were in no way in more trying circumstances than those of other parishes. In ordinary years their circumstances are certainly as comfortable as those of any crofters in Scotland. Their noble landlord takes a kind-hearted, thoughtful interest in their welfare, and offers them considerable encouragement towards the improvement of their holdings. But the winter of 1878-79, as already explained, was an exceptionally trying one.

Arthur's message of kindness gladdened many a heart and home in Stratheden. From far and near —from the far-off heights of the parish, and from the most distant corners of the straths and glens—the crofters came to the Stratheden railway station, where Arthur's bounteous liberality was being given out,—one getting a bag of oats, another some hay, some both hay and oats; and none really needing help was sent empty away. "Be am beannachd dha'n sgire e!" (What a blessing he is to the parish!) we have heard more than one of the Stratheden crofters say of Arthur; and well might they say it.

When the strain of the anxiety of the season was beginning to give way, and when people, as it were, got time to think of all that took place, it occurred to many, as a very proper and desirable thing, that there should be some public recognition of Arthur's generosity. The matter merely required to be mentioned to be at once universally and enthusiastically taken up. Not a few, however, dreaded that the idea of any public display of such a kind would be distasteful to Arthur. It was well known he did good at the prompting of a generous heart, and not from the weak vain love of being spoken of. This was a preliminary difficulty. But the people were in earnest, and they would risk the difficulty. They concluded that he would not disappoint, not to say vex, them; and that, for once at least, he would overcome his dislike to such a public display, and yield to the hearty unanimous wishes of the people. Arthur did consent, simply because he knew the people were in earnest, and because he did not like to disappoint them. The acknowledgment of Arthur's kindness took the shape of a very handsome piece of silver plate—a salver with suitable inscriptions in Gaelic and English—a gold locket, and an address. The day of presentation came, and certainly no more memorable day stands in the annals of the parish. The place of meeting, capable of .holding several hundreds, was crowded, and the utmost enthusiasm prevailed. Old and young were there; and many came that rarely, if ever, countenance public gatherings. All were evidently bent on testifying their gratitude to the hero of the hour. Mr Malcolm Macgregor, the farmer at Burnside, was chairman, and he did his duty well, remarking how happy and proud he felt at being present at such an interesting gathering. The two parsons of the parish—the Rev. George Cameron, parish minister, and the Rev. Norman Nicolson, Free Church minister—were also there. They both, as was most meet, took a sort of lead in the matter; and while it is not our business to inquire -what measure of regard the two reverend gentlemen cherish for each other, it was highly gratifying to see them co-operating in promoting a meeting got up to do honour to a genuine friend of the parish at large. Mr Nicolson read the address, the parish minister made the presentation, and both made suitable speeches.

The presentation having been made, Arthur M`Alpine rose to address the audience, and was, of course, most enthusiastically received. His speech was—like himself-sensible and genuine, and it was very pointedly expressed. He thanked the people of Stratheden for their handsome present, and modestly added, with reference to the occasion of the meeting, that he had only done his duty. After referring to the trying times they were passing through, and saying that people should help each other according to their ability, he expressed the hope and belief that better times would soon come. At the conclusion of his remarks a most enthusiastic and prolonged burst of applause made the place of meeting ring and ring again from floor to ceiling. So excited were the people with the enthusiasm of the occasion, that persons who, in ordinary circumstances, would shudder at the mere thought of being called on to make a speech, were actually impatient to hold forth, so as to add their testimony to the universal feeling of sincere gratitude to Arthur M'Alpine. William Sutherland, an old native resident—rarely, if ever, present at any public gathering except such as is of an ecclesiastical nature —was one of the audience, and there was no mistaking the fact that William wished to speak. In this there was something almost alarming to those who knew William and his usual ways. He is a shrewd enough old man, having a considerable endowment of pawky common-sense, but with some marked prejudices of a past age deeply rooted in him, such as a sort of, perhaps envious, dislike to fraternise with or countenance "big fairmers," and a doubt as to the propriety of any public gatherings of what William would call a worldly nature—that is, not specially religious. But on this occasion—and it is a pretty clear proof of how the universal heart of Stratheden was moved by Arthur's kindness—William overcame his prejudices, and was present. More than that, William wished to speak, and accordingly rose to address the audience. When William's voice was heard, great astonishment seized the greater number of those present, and some, especially of the younger people, as young people will do, giggled somewhat. The older natives, however, were proud of William, and admired his pluck. Some of the latter were heard to say, "Weel done, William Sutherland ; surely them young men needna keep all the speakin' for themselves; and," added they, with a touch of local patriotism, "there are strenjars speaking here the day, and surely one o' oorselves micht speak for Stratheden as well as any strenjar." "Them munnistarrs," some of the less reverent were heard to say, "are kind o' like as if nobody could say a word at all but them. Some o' us canna preach a sermon, of coorse; but surely some o' us can speak for all that, whatever."

It was evident from the first that public speaking was not a matter with which William was familiar. He discarded the usual and ordinary preliminaries of addressing the chair, and respectfully announcing his presence to the audience. He may have intended to do what was right and proper, but very probably forgot it in the excitement of the rather novel situation in which he found himself. Indeed we have reason to believe the omission was unintentional—for the natives of Stratheden, like Highlanders generally, have a sort of instinctive politeness about them, instances of which the observer of their ways cannot fail to take notice of. William began by saying: "A'm no a speaker, and I canna speak, but a'm prood to be here, and a'm an ould man in the paereesh ; and we should all thank the Giver of all good for giving to the paereesh such a freend as Maister M'Alpine. He's there himself, and a'll say this; a'm thinking the people o' Stratheden—and so they should—are thinking more of Maistcr M'Alpine than of any other body in the place; and," added William, giving a knowing glance towards the Rev. Mr Nicolson, his own minister, "a'm sure they are thinking more of Maister M'Alpine than they are of Maister Necculsan here. It's a mercy Proavidcnce put in his heart the kindness that's in't, and that Maister M'Alpine, the noble young man, is making such a wise good use of his money." Great applause followed the close of William's remarks, and he himself looked as if he felt he had made a bold successful venture. There were other speeches: persons ordinarily not likely to dream of speechifying became eloquent under the inspiration of the universal enthusiasm, and they would have their say. All were grateful—genuinely so; all felt proud that the parish had such a friend, and that Stratheden could turn out such a large, respectable looking gathering. And at the close of the proceedings a very decided mark of the popular enthusiasm was seen. As the crowd had been retiring, Arthur's carriage was coming towards the door, when, after the briefest deliberation, the horses were unyoked, and Arthur having taken his seat, off went the carriage at a splendid rate, drawn by a dozen or so of stalwart Stratheden Highlanders having willing hearts and strong arms, accompanied by a crowd, from which, at short intervals, a fresh contingent was supplied to drag the carriage along. They halted not until, over a steep and sometimes difficult road, five miles in length, they reached Heathfield House, the hospitable home of the Honourable Arthur M'Alpine, in the picturesque solitudes of Blackburn. Quite in keeping with the place and the hour, a Stratheden piper, playing appropriate airs, accompanied the procession all the way, and the proceedings ended with a hearty good Highland dance on the greensward in front of Heathfield House.


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