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Chronicals of Stratheden
Shopkeeping in a Highland Parish of To-Day


BEFORE railway and steamboat communication became widely developed in the Northern Highlands —up till about twenty years ago—shopkeeping in the average Highland parish was rather a good business. The carrier—whose cart, as a rule, was of very limited dimensions—the sailing sloop, the small coasting steamer, and the coach, supplied the ordinary means of importing goods; and the facilities thus afforded left but a scant margin for competition in each district. The commercial traveller was comparatively unknown, and local competition was slight indeed. As a rule, there was but one or at most two substantial shops in each Highland parish of those days; and the merchant, with which designation the shopkeeper is almost invariably dignified by the native residents of a Highland parish, had the field almost entirely to himself. He was a general dealer, and sold tea, sugar, coffee, cloth, bonnets, ribbons, pots and pans, treacle, salt, tobacco, pepper, mouse and rat traps, fishing-hooks, eyes for other hooks, and these latter hooks themselves, and various other articles literally too numerous to mention. He was able at all times to meet the ordinary local wants. He might not and did not, feel any great alarm at the rumours periodically circulated that some one intended starting an opposition shop ; and yet he did not feel absolutely secure in his monopoly, for the increasing travelling facilities introduced the commercial traveller, and the merchant of the period we speak of indicated no strong wish to cultivate the acquaintance of the "trayvullar." The latter might encourage, might actually set agoing, competition, and as for his own supply of "goods," the merchant himself could go to "Glessga " twice a-year for that purpose; so that really, so thought the merchant, "the trayvullar micht stay at hoam."

But the growing facilities of communication gradually began to modify the supremacy and curtail the trade of the merchant, who, hitherto, had matters very much his own way. By the aid of large and powerful steamers, and the extension of railway communication, our remotest Highland parishes were soon brought within comparatively easy access of the great centres of commerce. Commercial travellers, representing retail as well as wholesale houses, now frequently visit every nook and corner of the Highlands. Not only do these travellers transact business with the shopkeepers, but those of them that represent retail houses take orders directly from the native and other residents. In this way a new, and, from the local shopkeeper's point of view, a less promising, era began to dawn in the commercial sky of the Northern Highlands.

Nor was the competition confined to that caused by the frequent visits of commercial travellers, and the growing facilities for getting "goods" direct from the south. There are other competing agencies that, very much in consequence of the facilities alluded to, soon appeared on the scene, and some of them, to this day, receive no small patronage. There is the packman, with his ready-made men's clothes, handkerchiefs, collars, and neckties; and there is the packwoman, endeavouring in like manner to meet the female requirements in dress and other commodities. Then there is the travelling merchant, who calls himself a jeweller, carrying a box containing a very varied assortment of watches, chains, knives and forks, thimbles, pins, hooks and eyes, and needles,—all which articles are, as a rule, far higher in price than in value. For a long time these peripatetic vendors succeeded in driving a flourishing trade. In the days when the average native had little capacity or inclination for scanning certain features of the packman's commercial creed, the latter and others of a similar calling contrived to make it a matter of established belief that a transaction with them meant a bargain—and hence very much their success. The growing habit among families, however, of getting goods direct from Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, which goes so far to curtail the trade of the local shopkeeper, must, and does, very materially interfere with the success of the travelling vendor's trade.

Within recent years an additional opposition to local shopkeeping enterprise has made its presence known, in the shape of what may be called a travelling bazaar. This institution visits many of our Highland parishes twice yearly. Ordinarily three or four persons conduct the "business." They come by train with large boxes and hampers containing a great variety of goods, such as clocks, looking-glasses, pen-knives, spectacles, watch-chains, knives and forks, purses, pocket-books, combs, and brushes. They transact business in somewhat of the lottery fashion, and by their haranguing and their manner of displaying the commodities for sale, make elaborate and often ridiculous efforts to impress the residents with a sense of the marvellous bargains to be had—of the unparalleled cheapness of the "goods." Large bills are posted on prominent places announcing the arrival of this institution of marvellous bargains ; and the bazaar, so well do the elaborate and even the ridiculous efforts succeed, is literally crowded during the two or three evenings it remains open. It is proper to observe, as a reason why the various institutions spoken of constitute opposition to the local shopkeepers, that the various commodities sold by the former are, as a rule, sold by the latter.

And yet, strange to say, shopkeeping seems to flourish in Highland parishes. With all the competition specified—and it is growing where it is most powerful—the noteworthy fact remains, that within recent years the number of local shops has been increasing. In Stratheden there are to-day over a dozen shops ; and twenty years ago, when the population was larger than to-day, there were only two, while some few years previously one shop did duty for the whole parish. And how is this rather remarkable phenomenon to be explained? It is just because, as a Stratheden shopkeeper remarked to us a few days ago, there is a belief prevalent in the community that shopkeeping is a sure and an easy way of making money. Some native and other residents see the shopkeeper, his wife, and bairns, donning the "grawndest kind o' clothes in the paereesh," and, with a strong faith in appearances, the wondering observers conclude the shop must be something of a veritable mint. "Why toil," say some of these wondering ones, " when a shop, which brings in money so quickly and with so little trouble, may be so easily put up?" It is very much in consequence of such short-sighted reflections and rash conclusions that so remarkable an increase in the number of local shops has taken place within recent years. A crofter's son goes south, lays by a few pounds of money, returns to his native parish on the decease of his father, to take possession of the croft, and gets himself established in the old home. He is not long at home until he thinks the few pounds he has managed to save cannot be more profitably employed than in the purchase of some groceries and the other usual equipments of a Highland shop, and he launches on a commercial undertaking. A crofter dies, and his widow, preferring to give up the croft, converts the stock of the croft into money, by means of which a shop is started, and hence another addition to the local commercial establishments. George, son of Angus Morison, a Stratheden crofter, went to Glasgow some ten years ago, and though his ambition soared no higher than that of being a "hand" on board one of the Clyde dredgers, he managed to save some little money. A kind of home-feeling, which certain shrewd ones say is akin to laziness, seized George, and coming back to his home in Stratheden, he started a shop in a small wooden shed at the end of his father's house. Old William Nicolson, a Stratheden crofter, died, leaving a widow and an only daughter, the latter called Janet. There was a small apartment on the premises, in which the father, who was somewhat of a carpenter, used to work whenever the requirements of the croft admitted. It was now unused, and Janet Nicolson and her mother came to think that it might be profitably occupied. Why not buy some pounds of tea, a hundredweight or two of sugar, and some other commodities, and start a shop? And these two did start a shop. Nor was the strictly commercial aspect of the venture the sole ambition. By the opening of the shop, a twofold object is gained. The unused carpenter's room again becomes useful, and—so at least think herself and her mother—Janet's mats-imonial prospects are improved. blight not one or other of the Stratheden young lads, who do not by any means despise money or a croft, nor for that matter a shop, consider Janet, whatever her former and other charms, doubly attractive in or with the shop? What although certain ones in the parish—envious young women, disappointed mothers, and, it may be, rejected suitors—might say all sorts of malicious things whenever Janet's approaching marriage is announced? Events of this nature, of course, are freely commented on, especially in rural districts, and it is scarcely to be expected that all the observations made will be unprejudiced. The wife and daughter of Alexander Maclean, a Stratheden crofter, "from the first"—as they said—and, ostensibly, in no degree influenced by the news of the coming marriage, considered it foolish, if not daring and utterly reckless, of the aforesaid Janet and her mother to start a shop. "What were They going to do wi' a shop?" observed Mrs Alexander Maclean—"there's plenty o' shops before; and Jennat Neeculsan wi' her pride, and tryin' to be grawnd and that, you'll see she will soon broke, and what will the grawnd shop do then? It wud look more liker her, the hussy, to work. wi' a spade .on the Iawnd nor a shop," But Alexander Maclean's wife and daughter have no money—no possible means, indeed, of starting a shop, however much inclined—so that it is perfectly unnecessary narrowly to scan the motive under which these two critics gave their verdict anent "Jennat N'eeculsan's" mercantile undertaking.

Some of the shops thus suddenly appearing, as suddenly vanish from the scene—an announcement for which, doubtless, the reader is well prepared. It is consoling to think, however, that beyond the few pounds embarked in the too rash venture, no serious loss accrues, and that some of these adventurous would-be shopkeepers restore their undivided attention to their crofts, or other occupation, wiser, if not richer people.

There are in Stratheden, as already mentioned, over a dozen shops —but, with three exceptions, they are very small and unassuming institutions. In almost every instance the shopkeeper has a croft, and in more than half the cases the shop is a mere accessory of the croft. The shopkeepers, without exception, do what is called a general business or trade. Parcels of drapery fill one shelf, biscuit-boxes another, and a mongrel collection of confections, nails, thread, buttons, needles and pins, a third. The universal tea-chest adorns one corner, and the accompanying sugar-barrel another; while, in addition to a host of other commodities, metal pots and pans and other kitchen utensils are suspended along the shelves in a way not particularly complimentary to the shopkeeper's idea of harmony or arrangement. A few of the shops; as has been indicated, are of a very unpretending character—so far as both edifice and merchandise are concerned, and in such instances no "sign" adorns the building to tell the passer-by or would-be customer what commodities are for sale, or that any are for sale. Such establishments, however, must soon disappear. Larger shops than those that in other days were found sufficient to meet the local requirements in the average Highland parish are making their appearance, and these must of necessity soon swamp the smaller fry.

There is one shop in Stratheden very much larger than the largest of the others, and its existence is another proof of the contrast the Stratheden of to-day presents to the Stratheden of even fifteen years ago. In most respects this shop eclipses the smaller establishments that used to do duty before the ceannaiclze mor (big merchant) opened what some of the native residents, proud of local enterprise, admiringly call the "big warehoose." The other shops in Stratheden have two elements in common—scanty light and limited space; but the "big warehoose," built in 1879, is well lighted and roomy. The windows, relatively speaking, are of immense capacity—the panes indeed being, according to the local idea, so large that some of the older natives, credulous, and yet doubtful, for a long time hesitated to believe that there were panes at all ! Another sign of progress is observable in the almost elaborate advertising displays and other decorations with which the said windows are done up by the "big merchant." The new shop is also roomy enough—not merely in the space devoted to the "goods," but as well in the space ordinarily allotted to customers. This latter is an important fact in such a place as Stratheden, where customers are not, as a rule, in a great hurry in making their purchases, and where it is usual to make the shop a place of concourse for gossip, sometimes harmless, but not seldom low and despicable. This latter custom, however, like the kindred one of going to ceilidh in neighbours' houses, is on the wane; but those that yet respect the habit will warmly appreciate the roomy feature of the "big warehoose." The "big merchant" is a man of some enterprise, and, indeed, is somewhat of a credit to Stratheden—his native parish. The son of a crofter, he left home for the south in early life, and pursued his trade of house-carpenter, making some little money by his industry and prudent economy. Returning to Stratheden, he opened a small shop; but finding his trade increasing, he resolved to build a large shop, and hence the "big warehoose." Ronald Macgregor—the big merchant —is a shrewd, sensible sort of individual. Not only was he his own architect in planning and carrying on the building of the house—a substantial, neat-looking modern cottage—but he himself wrought most of the carpenter-work. And not only so; the furniture — chairs, sofas, tables, and basinstands—have been made by Ronald; and these articles of furniture would bear favourable comparison with some articles in the more elaborate displays of some city cabinetmakers' and upholsterers' galleries. Certain of the wiseacres of the parish—who knows but some of the occupants of the smaller shops are of the number?—have been freely commenting on what they call the folly of having built so large a structure and opened so large a shop in a place where there were so many shops before. Be this as it may, the building and the shop are there; and whatever, be the success of the shop, it seems likely it will work in the direction of absorbing some of the smaller commercial establishments.

It is a noteworthy fact, that the ancient custom of" barter" to this day holds in many Highland parishes. It is daily honoured in the shopkeeping ways of Stratheden. The tea-loving matron, whose live stock consists of a dozen or so of barn-door fowls, will go to a shopkeeper with a dozen of eggs, and get in exchange an ounce of tea, a small package of sugar, and a few biscuits. The barter transaction is not seldom of a very unpretending kind. Not many days ago we saw a little girl enter a shop in the parish with a couple of eggs, and get in return for these two eggs "a heppany's worth o' washin'-soda and a heppany's worth o' pins." Nor are eggs the only commodity offered in barter. Butter, potatoes, and wool do duty in perpetuating this lingering custom; and a week or two ago we were told of a rather special case of barter that occurred in Stratheden a few days previously, where a cart was exchanged for a sheep and a pig!

Some of the natives—those especially that have travelled but little—have a high estimate of the importance of the local shops. We know of an incident that at once illustrates this consciousness of local importance, and that shows how vague the ideas are that are prevalent among some people in the far North regarding the size of such places as Glasgow. A few years ago a Highland shopkeeper went to Glasgow to bring home the half-yearly supply of "goods." Among those at the shop on the day of his return was his father, an aged man who had never been much away from the remote solitudes and the simple ways of his native parish. As the goods—an assortment of the usual belongings of a Highland shop, and worth, in the aggregate, about £60 — lay at the shop - door, the amazed father, proud no doubt that so many of the neighbours were seeing what he considered the enterprise and importance of his son, observed—"Cha'n fheumadh Glaschu gum biodh mo mhacsa dol tric ann" (Glasgow could ill afford that my son would go there often)! The poor old man evidently thought that, if his son made many such demands on the resources of Glasgow, it would be time to consider whether the city could really continue to flourish"!

It must be confessed that, in ordering "goods," a rather peculiar specimen of letter-writing occasionally finds its way from the Highland shopkeeper to the "Glessga merchant." As is the case in other places, and with some other people, the shopkeeper is not always at home either in grammar or spelling; nor indeed is his English always clear. An old shopkeeper in the West Highlands, it is said, in ordering a quantity of shoe-tacks, put the order in this form: " Wull you be so boot and for to sent me a mile of tacks." The number of tacks he wanted was one thousand, and the Gaelic for a thousand and for a mile sounds the same. And even in the matter of addressing letters, persons of this description have been known to display some rather amusing eccentricities. Not many years ago a Highland shopkeeper, in writing to the master of a small coasting-sloop, made a somewhat remarkable addition to the address. It had been arranged that the shopkeeper was to write the captain of the sloop to some port at which the latter was to call, and "to be kept till called for" was to be added to the address. The shopkeeper adopted an independent plan of indicating the direction agreed upon, and addressed the letter thus:—

"Capteen Funla Cawmurran,
Slup Jeen and Mary,
Glenellag
Proatford,
Skye

Shopkeeping in Stratheden and like places is not. ordinarily a toilsome occupation. The principal transactions take place in the forenoon and late in the evening. It is probably owing to the procrastinating tendency prevalent in other places than Highland parishes that so many seem to find a peculiar fascination in going to the shop at, or very near, closing - time. The practice, of course, lightens the duties of the day, so far as the shopkeeper is concerned, but unnecessarily prolongs the late hours that form a common feature in the shopkeeping, or rather the shopping, in at least the more rural of Highland parishes. No doubt for a large portion of the year the croft duties, in the case of many customers, occasion late shopping, and this may suit the shopkeeper well enough too; for, in several cases, he likewise has his croft, and it might be irritating enough, even to the greediest of shopkeepers, to be called from the field on a fine harvest-day, in uncertain weather, to sell "a heppany's worth o' washin'-soda," or even to give an ounce of tea in exchange for half-a-dozen eggs.

In the case of the shopkeeper that has no croft, the time, as a rule, passes wearily. Ordinarily, he is not what one would call a great reader, though he considers himself, as some others do "acquent with lots o' maiters, and a persan o' eddikayshan." He, of course, gets his newspaper—is not seldom, indeed, a local news-agent—and his reputation as an "authority" might suffer did he not keep himself posted up, in a kind of way, in "what the papers are saying." He does not, however, spend much time over his paper. He soon reads all he feels an interest in — all, perhaps, that he can understand ; and, inasmuch as his shop duties do not ordinarily occupy much time, his life, generally speaking, is idle beyond dispute. In rural districts, where there is so much stillness, and where so many have little to do, there is a strong curiosity to see what is going on around, who is on the move, and the phenomenon of a stranger often excites this curiosity to a very high pitch indeed. The shopkeeper largely shares in this peculiarity. He has plenty of time, and has at least as much interest as any other person in the local movements —and a stranger is a possible customer.

In not a few cases the shopkeeper is considered by some iii the parish to be a veritable " authority." It is on local matters especially that he is considered so; and very probably he owes his investiture with this character in a great measure to the fact that his position enables him to hear most of the local gossip. News of most things that happen in "the paerecsh," and, of course, news of things that never happen, seem to gravitate rapidly towards the shop as the central local news-office. "They're saying this," and "they're saying that," are ordinarily the prefaces to the bits of news circulated in such places, and no one is hungrier than the merchant to hear what "they're saying." He can tell others, and these will inspire third parties with a wish to visit the shop to hear what "they're saying," and somehow it may help the trade of the shop. The shopkeeper at least seems to think so, and accordingly countenances—nay, strongly encourages—the news-vending practice. He invariably assumes the bearing of an utterly impartial listener of the shop gossip. In fact nothing else would pay; for unfriendly comments are, of course, sometimes made on absent customers, and these latter would soon hear if "the merchant" said anything unkind about them.

Archibald Morison is one of the principal shopkeepers in Stratheden, and a good representative of the fraternity. He is a man of some sixty years of age, and, though not a native, is somewhat popular—more so, indeed, than those whom some of the people call strenjars usually are. His shop, which occupies central position in the parish, is often largely frequented—not, however, so much by customers as by loungers and gossips—and contains the usual varied commodities already referred to. Archy possesses somewhat of what is called the "gift of the gab," and is considered smart by the sort of people that usually visit his shop on business, or for hearing what "they're saying." Some of his so-called smart sayings are weak, and some indeed are vulgar—coarse, perhaps ; but then, as in all other places, some of the frequenters of his shop are weak, some vulgar, and a few, it may be, are coarse. Archy, no doubt, is a decent enough sort of fellow as the world goes, being, indeed, of a kindly disposition, and, comparatively speaking, liberal-minded, while many of his customers are intelligent and highly respectable people; but other types of humanity, of course, frequent Archy's shop, so that he must try to be "a'body's body," and have a word for all.

The character of the conversations usually taking place at Archibald Morison's shop is mixed, and, as a rule, unedifying and profitless rather than otherwise. Such questions and comments as the following are often heard: "Was it at Sandy Macgregor the munnistarr waas last Sawbath? Loash! didna he get it fearfell? Sandy shouldna be running away to that Moaderat church whatever; am sure, thotigh there wasna preachin' in oor own church, people shouldna be wantering to the Moaderats. Loash, try wull Sandy go again! Messtur Neeculsan was nearly mat aboot it. Ach, Mcsstur Neeculsan can speak strong—it's hum that can; and he's a quate lad, though he was speaking so angry agenst the Moaderats; but it's no easy for hum to be seeing his people wantering to some places. Och, no indeet." Such is a specimen of the ecclesiastical comments ordinarily ventilated in Archy's shop. The ecclesiastical, however, form but a portion of the observations usually advanced. National politics receive a kind of attention, and petty local prejudices and paltry personalities are too often ventilated. The political observations sometimes take the following shape: "They're battlin' terrable in Parlimant aboot wars, and Soloos, and black lads, and places far away foreign, and that; it would be wiserlike o' them to send us the tobawca and the tea chape, and send a lot o' the money to the poor mail." Local prejudices manifest themselves in such expressions as: "Mercy me! isna Donald Ferragussan's wife a nessty hussy wi' her silks? It would be better for her to send a grainy, o' meal, to her ould father and the rest o' her poor freends." Another says, "Did you hear of the awful quarrall atween the wife o' Angus Maclean, the shuppard, and the wife o' William Fraser, the plaisturrar? Angus's wife was sayin' fearfell things aboot William Fraser—that he's a nessty man, though he's so foand o' speakin' aboot releejan and goin' to meetins; and, indeed, myself thinks she wassna far wrong. William's a very wicked man, and he shouldna be askin' the `croft' that my father was in." These must suffice as specimens of the shop conversations, and we gladly pass from them in the hope that a growing culture and a more edifying use of time will elevate the character of at least some of the sentiments now too often uttered in such places.

Such, generally speaking, is shopkeeping in the average Highland parish of to-day. One of the principal elements in the changes of to-day—the increased facilities of communication with the centres of commerce—has greatly modified its character; and this influence will very probably continue to be even more powerfully felt, and that chiefly in the direction of removing what even the natives themselves now call "the wee bits o' shoppies" to the domain of an unreturning past.


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