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Field and Fern
Or Scottish Flocks and Herds by H. H. Dixon (1865)


“Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away:
Young blood will have its swing, lad,
And every dog his day.”
- Professor Kingsley.

"He came back with a blood filly which had put out a curb, lialf-a-crown in his pocket, and his hat stove in.” Such was the fraternal narrative of the return of a prodigal, who had gone leather-plating for a season. Head in lieu of the above an Orkney garron, just four-pence out of a good round sum, and two fat, little note-books filled to the gorge, and it pretty nearly describes my belongings, when I reached home in the snow of a February night.

The original idea had been quite royal—“My pleasure in the Scottish woods three summer months to take.” After working hard among the flocks and herds of England for four years, I was naturally anxious to be over the Border, and find new scope for pastorals. I wished to visit past and present Highland Society winners, in their own stall or fold, and to gather evidence from those breeders who stand high in its annals, not only as to the present progress of the stock on which England depends for such extensive supplies, but also as to the thoughts and labours of men who have done Scotland good service, and then passed to their rest. Grouse shooting, deer stalking, and salmon rod-fishing have their own liege lords of the pen; but still there were many little points connected with hunting, coursing, racing, and otter hunting, which seemed calculated to work into a picture of Scottish life, and to vary the monotony of mere beef and mutton chapters.

Fancy soon faded into reality, and I found that I had set myself a very serious task. I had to pluck the heart out of three summers, a winter, and a spring, to travel some 8,000 miles, to sleep away from home about 250 nights, and change my bed 146 times, before I wrote a line. The Government. Eish Commissioners, coasting jauntily along in the. Salamis, had quite the best of me, as I worked my own commission on Flesh and Fowl, through sunshine and shower, with no secretary to cut out the line. It is very easy to draw up a programme, but not so easy to hold to it. I often found a new and valuable witness where I least expected to do so, and had to throw over every plan rather than leave him; but there was still, in spite of all the hardship and harass, quite a pleasant soldier-of-fortune feeling in never being sure whether you would turn up at night by the fireside of “ a golden farmer,” or in a hole in the wall at a wayside inn. Mere scenery I was obliged to disregard. In fact, it was of no use to me, unless it served as “setting” for some crack sheep or cattle; and acting on this purely-practical view of things, I sternly held my line, regardless of the most glorious combinations of water, wood, and mountain, for which other tourists were ever turning aside. I did not even spare a day for the Trossachs, but went “ hot trod” past the guide post after black faces towards Rob Roy's grave; and my eye might never have rested on Killiecrankie, if I had not passed through it on my way to the West Highland herd at Blair Athole.

“Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose,”

was my motto, and I enjoyed one between two and four a.m., in the saddle, during a night ride over the Ord of Caithness, while the rain poured and the mare grazed. “Cockade”—so called from persistently wearing her mane on the near side—was not my companion in the summer of '62. I thought at first that I would walk, but it was a great mistake. It may answer for a mere light-hearted saunterer, who wants to take a few sketches, and his ease in his inn, but not for one who has a responsible task in hand.

Coaches and railways aided me in a measure, but I wearied sadly under a very heavy knapsack; and such long cross-country walks were not especially favourable to framing cross-examinations at night. Hence I soon found that I was merely cutting time to waste, and, after making the discovery, I pushed my way to the Orkneys, just to get a notion of the work before me, and asked my good friend Archer Fortescue to buy me a garron before that day twelve months.

Another summer came round, and there were only two garrons of the size for sale in Pomona—one at JJ10 and the other at £7 10s. The brown was just the thing, although it was rather ugly; but the bay looked, when I met it by chance on the deck of the Vanguard, as if it would have come in half with me. Condition was everything at such a crisis; and, thanks to “Mode's Dietary of Corpulence” (which is very nearly the same, but several years senior to the “Banting system”), I was enabled to take 20lbs. of flesh off my back, and carry it behind me in the much pleasanter shape of macintosh and luggage. “Just fifteen four the lot" was the announcement of Provost Bell of Dumfries, when, grasping my pad, valise, book-bag, and macintosh, I sat in his bacon-scales. Many and various were- the suggestions about saddles ; but a pad seemed best, on three grounds: it would fit almost anything if my mare died or was disabled; it was far more easily carried; and as it folded round the valise, it sometimes served for a pillow on the heather.

“He'll never get to Lunnun, malster" said Dick, the first whip and kennel huntsman to the Orkney Harriers, sotto voce, as I took the mare from his hand in the Orkneys; and 1 was not quite sure on the point myself. Because we didn’t go with him from Kirkwall to Wick, Captain Parrot will have it to this hour that we swam the Pentland Frith, just by way of a relish at starting. The journey, to a man who has a good horse and can send his luggage on to points, must be a remarkably easy and pleasant one ; but when you have only a shy half-bred nag quite out of condition, and have, perforce, to spend so many months roughing it, in a country to which you are not acclimatized, it becomes no May game. Still, with fine weather, and a steady practice of getting off to lead for every third or fourth mile, it is a grand independent way of travelling. I may say it was positively exhilarating to put the mare’s head straight across Scotland, during a hard frost, from St. Boswell’s to Ayr, and cut down the hundred miles at four-and-forty a day; or to rattle from Athelstane-ford nearly to Kelso over the Lammermoors, with two shirts and three pair of stockings on, and the cold cutting your cheeks to the bone.

Being asked “How’s your wardrobe?" &c., as you ride through a town, is as nothing; but there were sundry disadvantages connected with this ancient mode of locomotion. It is a weary thing sitting three-quarters of an hour on a corn-box at night, to be sure that the ostler does you justice. Every ferryboat in the Highlands was fraught with a fresh difficulty, and even the master-minds of Meikle Ferry quite thought that they must have sent me many miles round by Bonar Bridge. Every railway-train produced a fresh run-off; and I was lucky if I could put my mare's head in the right direction, so as to get a three-hundred-yard gallop to the good. It was equally objectionable having to blindfold her and stuff her ears, and twist her five or six times round, to make her forget which way you wanted to go, when you found a Lanarkshire or Ayrshire blast furnace roaring like a lion in the path, late at night, between yourself and your inn.

Still, all these were very minor troubles in comparison with the collection and sifting of book materials. Most Highland places seemed to be spelt in two if not three different ways; and the Gaelic names of bulls and cows almost drove me to despair, even with the Gaelic dictionary at my elbow. After all my labours, the most that I can lay claim to is to have given a general sketch of Scottish farming from that prize-stock point of view which is being gradually worked out so ably in all its details, not only by those which make agriculture their speciality, but by local newspapers as well. I have already profited not a little by their labours when I compared their notes with my own; and I have drawn many a hint from the Transactions and Records of the Highland Society, whose Secretary, Mr. Hall Maxwell, has lent me, both in this and other respects, most invaluable aid.

To ensure accuracy as far as possible (though I «ee with regret that I have not given the Marquis of Tweedale credit for the first private introduction of steam-ploughing to Scotland), I have not sent a sheet to press without previously submitting it to those most conversant with the herd or the district, on precisely the same system that all witnesses before a Parliamentary Committee receive their evidence to revise. As regards the vein of sporting, which runs more especially through the “ South” part, I may mention that the whole of the coursing was kindly looked over for me by that eminent ex-judge, Mr. Nightingale, and that the quoted descriptions of the styles of many of the great winners are nearly all from his lips. To him and scores of other friends, who have cheered me on in my labours, and greatly smoothed my way by their hints and hospitality, I owe a very deep debt of gratitude.

I originally named, and in fact advertised this work as “ Field and Fold,” and then found that the Religious Tract Society had already issued a sixpenny publication of that name. Perhaps, however, “Field and Fern” has a more strictly Scottish application. The division of it into two independent parts, “North” and “South” of the Frith of Forth, seemed most natural, and calculated to meet the wishes of such Highland and Lowland purchasers as might have no interest in each other's stock lore.

As readers never by any chance look at a table of errata, I have adopted a totally new plan, viz., correcting any little thing that specially called for it in a foot-note to the text, when I saw an opening in the course of the work. Six or seven notes of the kind will be found. I may also add that I have used the name of the parish “Coultar” when I ought to have said “Culterallers,” that “thin for plantations” in reference to the Renfrewshire country should be “thin fir plantations,” and that "Edinburgh town” has crept in for “Edinburgh toun.”

As regards the portraits, I have chosen Mr. Hugh Watson, Professor Dick, Mr. Nightingale, and the late Duke of Richmond as representatives of the cattle, horse, greyhound, and sheep interests. Mr. Gourlay Steel], R.S.A., has kindly presented me with the head of “Duntroon,” one of those Highland chieftains of the heather, which will long survive their sirloins on his canvas. The Master of the Teviotdale sits among his equally hairy darlings, with his Lord Chancellor “Sandy” at his side; the scene at Knockhill typifies the Turf, the Leash, and the Chase in Scotland; and my own mare stands hooked to an out building, and, to all appearance, quite resigned to her sadly vagrant life.

From first to last, this work has been very nearly three years in hand; but, spent as much of them has been among such new and varied scenes, they seem to comprise a lifetime. No one but those who have been regularly “in the mill" can tell how difficult it is to reconcile and winnow conflicting opinions given by men of mark on the same point, and to put some light and shade into the history of flocks and herds, which has an infallible tendency to degenerate into mere vain-glorious invoice-lists of males sold and prizes won.

“Men have no faith in high-spun sentiment,
Who put their trust in wedders and in beeves

and no one would “try it on” with them. Still, on the other hand, it is only just that readers should remember that an author who is obliged to put such very matter-of-fact objects as “wedders” and “beeves” in his foreground, instead of human beings, with their joys, and their sorrows, writes at fearful odds, and has virtually no scope either for language or fancy. Hence, in racing phrase, he is clearly “entitled to claim an allowance.”

However, the book is done, after many interruptions from illness and other causes; and I seemed to breathe quite freely when I signed the last proof-sheet. I can only trust that it may prove to me the little scarlet pioneer of a still more extended tour through England, Ireland, and a portion of the continent; but go where I may, every August will bring with it the old yearning to be across the Tweed, and all the pleasant memories of my journey.


“From the Orkneys to Kensington with Punctuality and Despatch.”

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