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Scottish Reminincenses
Chapter VII

Old and new type of landed proprietors in Scotland. Highland Chiefs—Second Marquess of Breadalbane; late Duke of Argyll. Ayrshire Lairds—T. F. Kennedy of Dunure: ‘Sliddery Braes’; Smith of Auchengree. Fingask and Charles Martin. New lairds of wealth.

The most outstanding change in regard to landed proprietorship during the last half century has been in Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain, the successive extinction or displacement of families that long held their estates, and ‘ proud of pedigree, but poor of purse,’ have had to make way for rich merchants, bankers, brewers, iron-masters, and manufacturers. Of the great landowners the most striking personality in my time was undoubtedly the second Marquess of Breadalbane. Tall and broad, with a head like that of Jupiter Tonans, having the most commanding presence combined with the most winning graciousness of manner, he was the incarnation of what one imagined that a great Highland chief should be. When in i860 at the head of his Highland Volunteers, all in kilts of the clan tartan, he marched to the great review held by Queen Victoria in Edinburgh, one’s thoughts travelled back to the days of Prince Charlie, for since that time there had been no such mustering of warlike men straight from the Highland glens, and no such chieftain in command of them. When in the autumn he established himself at the Black Mount, and filled his hospitable house with guests, he would start off for a day’s deer-stalking, mounted on the box of a large drag, with the reins and whip in his hands, his friends seated around him and his gillies behind. No one of the party was a keener or more successful sportsman than he. A liberal and enlightened landlord, he had done much to improve his vast estates, and was beloved by his tenantry and people. He never could understand why the Scottish mountains should not supply abundance of metallic ores, and afford a source of wealth to the country. For years he employed a German expert to prospect all over his property, and he continued to work his mines at Tyndrum even at a loss. Among his acquirements he had gained some knowledge of mineralogy. Sir Roderick Murchison, when visiting him in i860, after a tour through the western Highlands, remarked to him at dinner that one great difference between the oldest rocks of the north-western and those of the Central Highlands lay in the presence of abundant hornblende in the former and its absence from the latter. ‘ Stop a bit, Sir Roderick,’ interrupted the Marquess, ‘You come with me to-morrow, and I’ll show you plenty of hornblende.’ Next day a walk was taken across a tract of moor near the Black Mount, Sir Roderick accompanying some ladies, while the chief marched on in front. At last when the rock in question was reached, the Marquess shouted out in triumph, ‘Here’s hornblende for you.’ And he was right, as Murchison, with a queer non-plussed look on his face, had to admit. Nevertheless the geologist’s generalisation, though not universally applicable, had in it a certain element of truth.

Another distinguished Highland chief of last century was the late Duke of Argyll. Gifted with great acuteness and versatility of intellect, he directed his thoughts to a wide range of subjects, and having a remarkable command of forcible language, he was able to present these thoughts, in such a form as to compel attention to his reasonings and conclusions. As orator, statesman, historian, poet, naturalist, geologist, agriculturist, chief of a great Highland clan, and landed proprietor, he was undoubtedly one of the living forces of his country during his active career. Moreover, he never failed to show that, like the long line of his illustrious ancestors, he was an ardent and patriotic Scot. In the midst of his conversation he would every now and then throw in a Scottish word or phrase, as more tersely expressive of his meaning than anything he could find in English. He knew the West of Scotland better than most of his countrymen, for not only was he born and bred there, and passed most of his life in the midst of his ancestral possessions, but for many years he kept a yacht on which he peered into every bay and creek among the Western Isles. He had considerable artistic power, and was never happier than when sketching some scene that delighted him. After a great speech, or during the intervals in the preparation of one of his published volumes, he found rest and solace in working up his sketches, of which he left a large collection.

Though cast in a smaller bodily mould than his burly kinsman of Breadalbane, he carried himself with a singular dignity of bearing. His finely formed, expressive face and his abundant golden hair made him a conspicuous figure in any assembly. But he was perhaps best seen under his own roof at Inveraray entertaining the landed gentry of Argyleshire, when met for the transaction of county business— including many of the Campbell clan who counted the Mac Callum More as their chief, and from some of whom he could claim feudal service. One of them in particular used to be prominent from the massive silver chain which he wore with a key hung at the end of it. His castle was now a ruin, but, in accordance with ancient usage, he was bound to present the key of it when he came to see his chief. The Duke moved about among the guests as the grand seigneur, entering into animated talk, now about land and rent, or improvements in the county, or some recently opened tumulus, dredgings in Loch Fyne, the political situation of the country, or the probability of getting fossils out of his schists and limestones. He was keenly desirous to preserve every relic of antiquity on his property, and had made a kind of museum in the central hall of the castle in which he kept the smaller objects that had been picked up. Among these he was especially proud of an old knife with what he believed to be Rob Roy’s initials on it that had been found near the place where that Highland freebooter lived, when he placed himself for a time under the shelter of the Argyll of his day.

Perhaps no county in Scotland could furnish an ampler list of landed proprietors than Ayrshire, both of the old stock and of the new comers. The former included both titled possessors of large estates and smaller lairds who could trace their genealogy back to a remote ancestry. One of the best examples of these landed gentry whom I have known was the Right Honourable Thomas Francis Kennedy of Dunure. Educated in Edinburgh under Pillans and Dugald Stewart, he was associated from his youth with the brilliant literary coterie which then flourished in that city, and delighted to recount his reminiscences of the men and the clubs of the time. As he was born near Ayr, and had passed much of his life in Ayrshire, where he possessed considerable estates, he retained a lively recollection of the state of the south-west of Scotland in the closing years of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century. I have heard him tell of the hardships of the peasantry and small farmers in his boyhood, how in severe winters they were compelled to bleed their cattle and mix the blood with oatmeal to keep themselves in life. He used to describe the cuisine of his early days, and the contrast between it and modern cookery. One of the dishes, rather a favourite in Carrick, was roast Solan goose from Ailsa Craig. But his account of it was not itself appetising, for he told how they had to bury the bird for some time in the garden, and when it came to be cooked, all the windows in the house had to be kept open, to let out the ‘ancient and fish-like smell.’ White and black puddings, now almost entirely banished, still maintained their place, together with ‘ crappit heads,’ ‘singed sheep’s head,’ and sundry other national dishes which have long been banished from the tables of polite society. He used sometimes to revive a few of these dishes, and I thought them excellent, but he never, so far as I experienced, tried the Solan goose again.

He was a gentleman of the antique cast, courteous and stately in his manners, proud of his descent and of his ancestral possessions, and tenacious of his rights, which he was sometimes thought to insist upon rather more than he need have done. When I came to know him about the year 1863 he had retired from public life, and devoted himself to the care of his property. He looked carefully after his breeds of cattle, and was keenly alive to new inventions for the improvement of agriculture, which he was always ready to test on his own land. Part of one of the smallest coalfields in Scotland underlay his estate of Dalquharran, and he worked the mineral according to the best known methods.

Yet he had been an active politician in his time. He was for sixteen years in Parliament, as member for the Ayr Burghs. In association with Cockburn, Jeffrey, Horner, Murray, Graham, and others, he took a leading part in the preparations for the Scottish Reform Bill. On retiring from Parliament, he obtained an official appointment in Ireland, where he spent some years, until in 1850 he received a commissionership in the Office of Woods and Forests. Owing to some dispute in the staff, he retired from this appointment in 1854, and thereafter lived entirely at his Ayrshire home, save that for some twenty years he continued to come up for the season to London. The Government of the day would not grant him a pension, a decision for which he believed that Gladstone was mainly responsible. His friend Lord Murray thought him so badly used that he settled a pension of ^1200 a year upon him, which he enjoyed up to the time of his death. Though no longer actively interfering in politics, he continued to take the keenest interest in the events of the time, kept himself in touch with his old Whig friends in and out of Parliament, and gave free vent to his disapproval when he had to criticise their policy.

His wife, a daughter of Sir Samuel Romilly, was a singularly gentle and gracious old lady. They had been married twenty years before a son, their only child, was born to them. Kennedy used to remark on the curious coincidence that he himself was also an only child, born after twenty years of wedlock. The inhabited Dalquharran Castle is a large modern mansion, built in a massive but rather tasteless style,- a strange contrast to the older castle which it replaced, and which now stands as a picturesque ivy-clad ruin a short distance off, near the river. The laird remembered when this ruin still had its roof on, and was partly habitable.

Another Ayrshire laird had a row of fine silver firs in the avenue to his romantically-placed old castle. As several of these trees had been struck by lightning during a series of years, his wife asked me one day if I thought it possible that the lightning was attracted by a seam of ironstone in the ground beneath. She hoped it was not, for if her husband suspected such a thing, she knew he would have lawn, avenue, trees, and everything else dug up in order to get at it. I was able to assure her that there was no ironstone there, and that the attraction was in the trees themselves.

In the same county I was acquainted about forty years ago with a bachelor laird who possessed a fine estate, on which he lived with two maiden sisters. He had a large collection of minerals, and more particularly of gems, many of which were mounted as rings. When low-spirited, he would array himself in his dressing-gown, retire to his library, cover his fingers with rings, and lay himself out on a sofa to gaze at and admire them. He dabbled a little also in water-colours, and it used to be said of him that ‘ he painted a picture every day, and on Sundays he painted a church.’

One of the oddest specimens of a laird I ever personally knew was the owner of a small estate to the north of Kilmarnock, where he lived with two unmarried sisters. He had nicknames for everybody and everything. His mansion-house, owing to the steepness of the approach to it, he always called ‘Sliddery Braes.’ His sisters, he used to speak of, the one as the ‘Mutiny at the Nore,’ the other as the 'Battle of the Baltic,’ because they were born in the years when these two events occurred. He used to take whims, pursue them with great earnestness for a time, and then change to something else. Many of these occupations had a theological cast. At one time he devoted himself to a serious study of the Book of Revelations, and in order to get the better at its meaning, he took to the Greek original. He found that Dr. Sloan of Ayr had a more modern lexicon than that at Sliddery Braes, so he would come down day after day, and work with this volume in the doctor’s consulting room. His presence there, however, becoming troublesome, the book was sent upstairs to the drawing-room, and instructions were given to the servant to take the laird there the next time he came. On entering that room one day, he found the doctor’s sister sitting at the window, engaged in some needle-work. With apologies for his interruption, he begged her not to allow him to disturb her, for he would be engrossed in his study of the chapter on which he was then engaged. After some time he turned to Miss Sloan and said, ‘ I’ve been investigating the account given in Revelation of the White Horse, and I think I now understand about it. The animal must have been a large beast, for standing in the street there, its back would be up on a level with the window you’re sitting at.’ And he proceeded to describe in the most whimsical way the look and qualities of this wonderful horse. His narrative was so comical, that the poor lady could hardly repress her laughter. At last he noticed that his discourse had not in the least solemnised her, and he thereupon started up remarking, ‘Ah, Miss Sloan, you may laugh, but it’s no laughing to some of them; good day.’ So ended his Greek studies.

His eccentricities at last became so great, that Dr. Sloan thought it right to send a letter to the elder sister, pointing out the desirability of having her brother watched, and provided with an attendant, for his own sake as well as for that of others, since the doctor did not think it was safe to allow him to go about alone. The lady thoughtlessly left this letter inside her blotting-book, where it was soon afterwards found by the laird himself. He immediately sat down and wrote a long letter to Dr. Sloan, beginning, ‘ I am not mad, most noble Festus/ and maintaining that he knew what he was about, and could manage himself and his affairs without the help or interference of anybody. The doctor told me that for a long time afterwards he himself went about in some fear of his life, for he never could be sure what revenge 'Sliddery Braes’ might be prompted to take.

But the laird had really no homicidal mania. He grew, however, queerer every year. One of his last crazes was to hunt up all the graves of the persecuting lairds of covenanting times. On one occasion he set out on horseback for Dunscore, to see where the notorious Grierson of Lag, ‘damned to everlasting fame' was buried. As he made his way through the lonely uplands of Dumfriesshire, and was nearing his destination, he overtook a pedlar with his pack, and asked him to mount on the horse behind him. When at last he reached the grave-yard, tying the horse to the gate, he insisted on his companion accompanying him to look for the tombstone of the persecutor, and on finding it, proceeded to read out and sing a Psalm, in which his companion was also instructed to join. At the end of this performance, the laird turned suddenly round, looked the pedlar sternly in the face and exclaimed, ‘Now, sir, d’ye ken whaur ye are? Ye’re sitting on the grave o’ a man that’s been in hell mair than a hundred years. It’s a long time, sir, a long time.’ The poor pedlar, now convinced that he was in the hands of a madman, made his escape from the place, and left the laird to complete his devotions and execrations.

About the same time that this whim possessed him, he determined to see the portrait of a certain member of the Cassilis family who had likewise distinguished himself for his zeal against the Covenanters. But the difficulty was how to get access to the picture, which formed part of the collection at Culzean Castle, the seat of the Marquess of Ailsa, and was hung in a room reserved for private use. Watching for an opportunity when the family was from home, he succeeded in prevailing upon the housekeeper to open this room for him and let him see the portrait in question. He used to describe his experience thus : ‘ I stood looking at the picture for a while; it was really a good-looking face, not what I thought a persecuting laird would be like. But at last I saw the truth in his eyes, for as I watched them, I could see that they had the true twinkle of damnation.’

Another crack-brained laird in the same county has left inscribed on a stone monument upon his property a record of his eccentricity.

I came upon it standing by itself near an oak tree at Todhills in the parish of Dairy. On the west side of the stone the following inscription has been cut;

‘There is an oak tree a little from this, planted in the year 1761, it has 20 feet of ground round it for to grow upon, and all within that ground reserved from all succeeding proprietors for the space of 500 years from the above date by me, Andrew Smith, who is the ofspring of many Andrew Smiths who lived in Auchengree for unknown generations.’

On the south side the stone bears the subjoined lines :

My Trustees Robert Glasgow Esq of Montgreenan William Cochran Esq of Ladyland I stand here to herd this tree And if you please to read a wee In seventeen hundred and sixty one It was planted then at three feet long I’ll tell more if you would ken

It was planted at the byre end I’ll tell you more you’ll think a wonder It’s alloud to stand for years five hundred It has twelve yards a cross and round about It belongs to no man till that time is out But to Andrew Smith tho he were dead He raised it out of the seed So cut it neither Top nor Tail Least that the same you do bewail Cut it neither Tail nor Top Least that some evil you oertak Erected By Andrew Smith of Todhills Octr 1817.

When in the year 1867 the British Association met in Dundee, some of the members were entertained at Fingask—that charming old Scottish chateau, with its treasures of family and Jacobite antiquities. Among the visitors was Professor Charles Martin of Montpellier, who so delighted the Misses Murray Thriep-land with his enthusiasm for Scotland and everything Scottish, that they bade him kneel, and taking a sword that had belonged to Prince Charlie, laid it on his shoulder and, as if the blade still possessed a royal virtue, dubbed him knight. Some years afterwards I chanced to meet him on a river steamer upon the Tiber, bound for Ostia with a party from the University of Rome. He was delighted to be addressed as ‘Sir Charles Martin,’ and recalled with evident enthusiasm the charms of Fingask and of the distinguished ladies who so hospitably entertained him there.

The new lairds include many excellent and cultivated men well worthy to take their place among the older families. Their command of wealth enables them to improve their estates, and to beautify their houses in a way which was impossible for the impoverished owners whom they have replaced; their taste has created centres of art and culture, and their public spirit and philanthropy are to be seen in the churches, schools, and village-reading rooms which they have erected, and in the good roads which they have made where none existed before. On the other hand, among their number are some of whom the less said the better, and who make their way chiefly in those circles of society wherein ‘a man of wealth is dubbed a man of worth.’

Many incidents have been put in circulation regarding the race of coal and iron-masters who, starting as working miners, have made large fortunes in the west of Scotland. A good number of these tales are probably entirely mythical, others, though founded on some original basis of fact, have been so improved in the course of narration, that they must be looked upon as mainly fabulous. Yet the alterations have generally kept to the spirit of the story, and represent the current estimate of the character and habits • of the individual round whom the legend has gathered. According to one of these tales a wealthy iron-master called on a country squire and was ushered into the library. He had never seen such a room before, and was much impressed with the handsome cases and the array of well-bound volumes that filled their shelves. The next time he went to Glasgow he made a point of calling at a well-known bookseller’s, when the following conversation is reported to have taken place.

‘I want you to get me a leebrary.’

‘Very well, Mr. I’ll be very pleased to supply you with books. Can you give me any list of such books as you would like?’ ‘Ye ken mair aboot buiks than I do, so you can choose them yoursell.’

‘Then you leave the selection entirely to me. Would you like them bound in Russia or Morocco?’

‘Russia or Morocco! can ye no get them bund in Glasco’.’

One of these men went to see Egypt, and took with him as a kind of guide and companion, an artist of some note. When they came to the Great Pyramid, the magnate stood looking at it for a time, and in turning away remarked to his friend, ‘Man, whatna rowth o’ mason-wark not to be fetchin’ in ony rent!’

On the same occasion the iron-master, now getting tired of sight-seeing, was with some difficulty persuaded to cross over and see the Red Sea. He made no observation at the time, nor on the way back, but after getting to bed he found vent for his ill humour. Opening the mosquito curtains, he blurted out to the artist, who occupied another bed in the same room, ‘Dye ca’ yon the Red Sea? It's as blue as ony sea I ever saw in my life. Gude nicht.’

It is told of a Paisley manufacturer that at the time of one of the meetings of the British Association at Glasgow, he entertained a large company of the members, a number of whom invited him to visit them when he came to London. He had noticed that his guests had various initials printed after their names on the programmes of the association—F.R.S., F.C.S., D.C.L., LL.D., etc., and, thinking that this was customary in good society, he selected three letters to affix to his own name on his visiting cards. In due time he made his appearance in the south; and presented his cards. Some of his southern acquaintances ventured to ask what the letters after his name were intended to signify. ‘O,’ said he, ‘I saw it was the richt thing to hae the letters, and as I didna very weel ken what a’ you fowk’s letters mean, I thocht I wud put just L.F.P.; that means, Lately frae Paisley.’

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