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Chronicals of Stratheden
Introduction


IT is the aim of the writer of the following pages to sketch a Highland parish of our own times, just as it is; and in doing this, there will be made such references to the past as may enable the reader, to some extent at least, to compare a Highland parish of to-day with that of a past of from twenty to forty years ago.

While there is little or nothing sensational to chronicle, it is hoped that these sketches will not be lacking in interest to such as care to glance at the changes that have taken place within recent years, in a part of the country long, on account of its remoteness, invested with a sort of romance, and now largely frequented by many, not only for the invigorating benefit of its bracing air, but also for the richness and variety of its natural scenery.

Stratheden is a fairly representative Highland parish, and possesses the interesting features of being at once materially influenced by the changes of recent times, and of retaining a few of the special characteristics of a Highland parish of other days.

Though not a sound particularly inviting to the lover of harmony, the whistle of a passing railway train may now be heard along with the bleating of the sheep that pasture on the hillsides of Stratheden; and those of the inhabitants who can, from personal knowledge, compare the present with the past of twenty years ago, reckon this fact alone as a marked sign of the progress of the age, and as a patent enough proof that the remoteness of the past has vanished.

There are many yet living who remember a time when Stratheden was essentially remote in respect of the limited means of communication between it and the larger world outside. A journey from Stratheden to Glasgow or Edinburgh, not very many years ago, occupied four days, and such a journey was then thought as great an undertaking as a journey across the Atlantic is considered by many in the present day. Railway trains were unknown, and telegraphic communication undreamt of. The mail-coach was the principal means of communication; and though it was tardy, compared with the rapid travelling of to-day, there are many—and these by no means slow people—not ashamed to look back with a sort of fond regret on the days of the mail-coach. No doubt there were many bleak journeys,—days and nights when drifting snow or pelting rain had to be encountered; but, generally speaking, these uninviting experiences were soon forgot, and there was a kind of pleasing excitement in the halting at the stages on the way, the chattings as the travellers walked up the steep brae, and the rest in the cosy best room of the wayside inn. Along with all this, the coaching days possessed another feature which many, probably with a sigh, will feel as an advantage indeed. There was not, as a rule, that exhausting excitement which the very rapidity and haste of to-day so much, and, it is to be feared, so injuriously occasion. Time then, as now, perhaps, was money; and though people took more time—or, as the disciples of the modern estimate of proper travelling may think, lost more time—the older generation managed to get along wonderfully well, and we are not sure that money, relatively that is to say, was not as plentiful as it is to-day. Be this as it may, our travelling, in its means and its rapidity, is widely different from that of the period alluded to. London is within twenty-four hours of Stratheden; and as for Glasgow or Edinburgh, not very long ago literally far away, they are to-day considered to be at the very door. The whistle of a railway train several times a-day echoes along the glens of Stratheden, and the telegraphic wire is at hand to flash its message at any moment at the bidding of the wondering inhabitants. A letter posted in London on the evening of one day may be read in Stratheden next evening ; and now that so many sportsmen and tourists, having important interests to attend to in the great metropolis and other places, frequent districts as far away as Stratheden, such facilities of communication must be of immense value. No doubt many persons, on the other hand, may luxuriate in the quiet retreat afforded by places like Stratheden, happy in the thought of getting away "from the madding crowd," away from the anxious worry of a busy life with its letters and telegrams; but where, as is sometimes the case, the interests far away must be kept in hand in the quiet Highland straths and glens, the benefits of train and telegraphs must be highly prized. There was a time, about thirty years ago, when letters came but once a-week to Stratheden, and that by a circuitous and tedious route. Letters were not then so numerous as they are now; and as for newspapers, not more than half-a-dozen copies came to the parish, though the population was as large then as at present. At this moment letters arrive thrice daily in Stratheden ; and, judging from the bulk of the postman's bag as he passes along the strath, it excites a little wonder to think of the large number of letters that constantly come to our peaceful solitudes. The increase in the number of newspapers is equally remarkable. Instead of half-a-dozen copies, to-day fully fourteen dozen, including weekly and daily papers, regularly come to the parish, all duly subscribed for.

The same element of change is apparent with reference to the garb popularly understood to be worn by the native Highlander, and with regard to the language so long spoken in so many of our Highland parishes—indeed, the only language used by the great majority of the inhabitants of a Highland parish of some forty years ago. However commonly it may have been used in other days, the philabeb (kilt) cannot be said to have been in general use at any period within the last fifty years. Twenty years ago three - fourths of the school-boys in a Highland parish were kilted loons, and many of them continued to wear the kilt until they were close on twenty years of age. To-day, taking an average Highland public school, we look in vain for even one in five wearing the ancient garb—a fact suggestive enough of the slender likelihood of its ever again becoming the popular costume.

And so with the Gaelic language. The use of it too, beyond all dispute, is dying out; and much as many of us may regret it, the time cannot be far distant when, even in the remotest Highland parish, Gaelic accents will be rare indeed.

Another marked change in a Highland parish of the present day is visible in the greatly improved aspect of the dwelling-houses. The houses as they now are, with very few exceptions, bear little or no resemblance to those of, say, forty years ago, —and even within the last fifteen years a somewhat marked change in this respect has taken place. No small proportion of the homes of the people have within the latter period been converted from earthen-walled, heather-thatched, imperfectly-lighted, badly ventilated habitations, into substantially-built, stone-walled, slated, well-lighted, well-ventilated, and neat-looking cottages. No doubt from beneath the sooty ceiling of the humble unpretending hut of other days there frequently emerged as true, good people, and as successful in the larger world outside, as ever sat in spacious gorgeously-furnished dwellings; but this does not alter the fact that there was room for improvement in the matter of both architectural design and internal comfort. The thatched roof of other days, composed of earth and heather, is now rapidly giving way to the slated roof, though the former type — the earth-and-heather structure — enjoys a lingering existence among the crofter-fishermen on the western seaboard of the counties of Ross, Sutherland, and Inverness. The proprietor of Stratheden, and many other Highland lairds, desirous to promote the comfort of the crofters, give considerable material encouragement to house-improvement by supplying wood and lime, the crofters themselves having thus to provide slates and labour only, which most of them are able, and all willing, to provide.

For obvious reasons the names employed in the following pages are fictitious, but the persons spoken of, or allowed to speak for themselves, are veritable persons well known to the author, and the beliefs and opinions set forth are such as he has heard, and hears, expressed in various Highland parishes of to-day.


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