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Reminiscences of Cromar and Canada
Chapter VIII - The Fletcher Family

THE remote origins of the Fletcher family and of the Grays who intermarried with them, are practically unknown to me. My mother had an impression, derived as I understand from her father, but whether traditionally or hypothetically I do not know, that the Fletchers were originally of French descent, and as Huguenots sought refuge in Britain from the terrible persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The name "Fletcher" signifies arrow maker, and is of French origin. The time of their presumed flight, and the date of their first landing in Cromar are alike unknown to me. My earliest information regarding the Cromar Fletchers is derived from a tombstone in the old kirk-yard of the parish of Migvie (now united with the parish of Tarland) which reads as follows:

"Here lies the body of William Fletcher, sometime Master of The Society School in the Parish of Migvie, who died 23rd January 1769, aged 48 years.

``Enough Cold Stone; suffice his long loved name:
``words are too weak to pay his virtue`s name
``Temples and tongues shall waste away,
``And Powers vain pomp in mouldering dust decay,
``But ere mankind a more laborious teacher see,
``Eternity and time shall bury thee.

Also lie here of his children:

Chalres Fletcher. Schoolmaster in Tarland. who died in 1775.
Margaret, who died 22nd November, 1773, aged 24.
William, who succeeded his Father as Schoolmaster in Migvie, died April 23rd. 1779, aged 31.
Lewis, who died April 13th, aged 13. And
James, who died Nov. 25th, 1760, aged 4 years."

From the William Fletcher named on the monument who succeeded his father s schoolmaster in Migvie the branch of the family to which we belong, traces its descent, he had two sons, James and David, the former being my mother's father, and the ancestor of all the Fletchers claiming Coldstone, Migvie or so far as I know any part of the district of Cromar as their birthplace. James and David were both born in that part of the parish of Migvie in the immediate vicinity of its ancient church, which, though merely a clachan was usually accorded the name borne by the old parish as a whole. The farm on which they were born, if I mistake not, was that still known by the name of "The Meadow."

Of Charles, the brother of William. who appears from the record on the stone to have been for some time schoolmaster in the village of Tarland, about three miles distant from The Meadow, I have no other information. I have no doubt, however that he was the father of the paternal uncle of Grandfather James Fletcher, who, in the younger days of the latter, as my mother often told us. held some important position which she understood to he head of the Inland Revenue Department for Scotland, with residence in Edinburgh.

David, my grandfather's brother above named, left one son and three daughters. His son, Rev. Charles Fletcher, died at Goderich, Ontario, several sears ago, leaving, I understand, daughters but no sons. His (David's) daughters were, Susan who died unmarried, and other two who became respectively Mrs. Watson and Mrs. Scott.

Mrs. Watson's only child was John who was an engineer, and married Annie Gordon, the oldest child of my mother's sister Helen. He died many years ago, leaving one son and at least two daughters. The son became a medical doctor, and I understand still maintains a practice in England. The widow, with one of her daughters, retired to Ballater where she died some years ago.

Of Mrs. Scott's family I have lost all trace. Herself I never saw. One of her sons who was captain of a merchant vessel visited us once at The Parks, but I have heard nothing of any of them since.

Beyond what has already been stated, I have no information regarding the Fletcher family anterior to the birth of Grandfather James Fletcher and his brother David.

After their father's death at the early age of 31, the two boys were left in charge of their mother, who some time afterward married a farmer of the name of Thos. Nicol. The fruit of this union was two sons, whose names were respectively Thomas and John.


Grandfather Fletcher seems to have learned the trade of carpenter at Migvie his native place. In pursuing this trade as a journeyman he had occasion to travel some distance afield, and once found work in the distant highlands. There he found occasion to cross a bridgeless stream, and to his amazement was accosted by a woman who offered to carry him across on her back. He declined the service, although assured by the gallant lady that she did not like to see him wade when she was there to carry him across. From the way my mother told the story I feel sure that she had never suspected what probably wan the fact, that the woman was in the literal meaning of the word the "Ferry," or carrier, at so much a passage. I have learned on the authority of a Ghatham citizen, that the North Sea fishermen at Cromarty, where until recently they had no dock at which to land their boats, so were compelled to leave them anchored some distance out, when returning would wade ashore, yet when outward bound, and no change of suit practicable, were carried to their waiting boats, on the backs of their women folk. No doubt such conditions, like those before referred to in Caithness of the women carrying the barnyard manure on their backs to the fields, were a remnant in unsunned places of a barbarism that had a few generations earlier been universal.

While in the Highlands he landed one night after a long tramp, tired and hungry, at a public house, indicated as he said was the custom in that region by a bunch of straw wound around the chimney. On his inquiry he was told that the house was full and that there was no accommodation for him unless he would take a room that was haunted. He was very tired, and being assured that the room was otherwise as good as any in the house, he resolved lo risk it. Dropping into bed he was soon asleep. Toward midnight, however, he was wakened by a dull thud on the floor which seemed ominous of evil. Hastily opening his eyes, he saw confronting him a pair of bright shining eyes, a night vision no doubt somewhat disconcerting. Determined however to see the thing through, he soon found that he had in the room no eerie visitant but an ordinary flesh and blood cat, which in prosecuting her usual nocturnal avocations, had come down the chimney. Thus reassured he addressed himself to sleep, and knew no more until morning.

In those days. especially in remote places, tea was still something of a rarity. One morning, while enjoying breakfast of which tea was an accompaniment, a woman entered the hotel dining room. This poor body had never seen a teacup and saucer in her life, and for some time looked on in silent wonder at the unwonted display. Soon curiosity overcame reticence, and she asked eagerly. "And is the cuppie joined to the platie now?"

Some time early in the century, during the withering progress of Napoleon, Grandfather Fletcher made a journey to Edinburgh to visit his brother David and also his uncle then residing there. During that time of national peril not only were all men capable of military service liable to be drafted into the national militia, but commissions had been issued tinder authority for the impressment of fit men, indiscriminately for service in army or navy. When he reached Brochty Ferry which makes connection with the city, over the Firth of Forth, he found that

the ferry-boat had just gone. Soon, however, another boat offered him passage which he gladly accepted. This boat had not proceeded any distance when the boatmen began to be exceedingly abusive, even to the extent of spitting on their passenger. This abuse he was resisting as manfully as he could until warned by three lady passengers that he was dealing with the Press-gang. Thus warned, he restrained his temper somewhat and quietly moved toward the prow of the boat, from which, as soon as the quay was struck, he leaped ashore. A heavy rope, swung by a boatman who had sprung after him brought hint to his knees, but a well delivered blow from his oaken cudgel, which he was able to land on the head of his assailant before the latter had time to close on him, gave him time to get out of sight. In this he was ably assisted by the ladies he had met on the boat who helped him over a high thorn hedge, behind which he hid until the hue and cry had subsided.

As he was leaving the City in company with his brother, they called on a friend who gave them a glowing recital of the manner in which a Highlander had foiled the Press-gang. For prudential reasons neither of the brothers gave any sign that they knew anything of the incident, much to the regret of their friend when afterwards informed that one of his visitors on that occasion was the hero of the story,. The time was full of alarm, and the need of sailors great, but that method of enlisting men would seem not to have commended itself to the conscience of the nation even at such a time of extremity.


Some time about 1806 Grandfather quit the carpenter trade, and on the Muick, a tributary of the Dee, and near its confluence with the latter, not very far from Ballater, settled down as oatmeal miller and small farmer. His mill was not likely, of great capacity, but full employment would be secured to him in terms of his mill lease, to the extent of the produce of a specified number of farms on the same estate. In Scottish law this obligation was known as a "Sucken," and the tenants under lease conditions subjected to its operation were known as "Suckeners." Locally, at least, it was known as a ''Bon Sucken," which probably had reference to the word, "bond," rather than to the French word ''Bon,' or good. In early times, if not so late as Grandfather's days, it seems to have been required that the whole grain crop on a suckener's farm should be ground at the proper mill, no allowance being made for the disposal of unground grain. However that may have been in later times the obligation applied only to such grain as was necessary for domestic use on the farm. In that mitigated form this legal obligation remained in force under the terms of all the lenses on the Invcrcauld estate until 1806, and probably so continues. When the miller was steady, competent and attentive to business it made little or no difference to the tenants, but secured business to the miller without effort on his part, and to the proprietor, a higher rental for the mill.

Grandfather's eldest child was born in 1806, and I suppose that his tenure of the mill commenced at or soon after the time of his marriage, which would not be very long before that time. His wife was Betty Gray. Her father carried on a grocery or general store at "The Fit (foot) o' Gairn" which was a little north-west of the village of Ballater, near the north westerly shoulder of Craigindaroch. In childhood she had the misfortune to lose an eye from the cruel bill of a mother hen with whose chicks her little hands had been taking liberties of which the watchful biddy had not approved.

Of the family to which she belonged, Mr. John Coutts, senior, late of Tilbury East, who knew them well, used to say that the Grays, with some exceptions, were exceedingly bright. I do not remember any of the old people except Mother's aunt, Mrs. Peter Coutts who lived on a farm on Gairnside known as "Tullochmacharrick." being the same farm on which had formerly resided John Coutts, the father of the said John Coutts, the elder, late of Tilbury East, who, in the year 1834, with his family, consisting of his sons William, John. Alexander and Allan, and his two daughters, the then future Mrs. McGregor, and Jane, emigrated to Canada, and in the following year took up land in Tilbury East.

My grand aunt Mrs. Coutts I never saw but once, and that when a boy of six. On that occasion my father bundled his whole family, then consisting of Mother, my sister Betty, brothers James, Charles and myself, Charlie being then a baby in arms, into a farm cart, and took us over the southerly shoulder of Morven by what was known as "The Roar Road," and thence to Tulloehmacharack. Aunt was by that time confined to bed which she was destined to leave only for her last resting-place some years later. All the Others of her generation I believe have gone before them except Grandmother Fletcher, who passed away a few years later, following her husband and daughter Jane, who both died within six months next preceding her decease.

On our way home from that visit we crossed the Dee near the Castle of Abergeldie, my father first halting his horse to allow freer passage over the narrow bridge for Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Kent, the mother of Queen Victoria then pregnant. The Duchess, noticing the farmer with his Humble outfit and precious charges as she passed them, stopped her carriage and sent her footman to see us safely over the bridge. My father appreciated most fully the kindly interest of the mother of our queen, and was fond of relating the incident.

Of the Gray connection I do not know very much. Two women of the name, Helen and Eliza, full cousins of my mother who had long their home in Leith, for several years up to the time of our leaving for Canada, made us a yearly visit and were always welcome. Eliza married a man of the name of Candlish, who kept a little shop in the town of Aberdour near Edinburgh, where I had the pleasure of seeing her in 1908. Her sisters Helen, Marion and Annie I also saw in Edinburgh at the same time. Since that visit I have heard nothing of any of these good friends on all of whom age had even then set its seal, and I fear that some if not all have ere now gone to the long home which awaits us all.

One of the Tullochmacharrick Couttses, a cousin of my mother, married a man whose name and surname were both identical with that of her own father, and he, strangely enough, became ultimately tenant of the farm formerly occupied by his father-in-law. Tullochmacharrick would thus seem to have a peculiar attraction for the name of Coutts, no fewer than three of that name, not known to have been consanguineously related to each other having successively come into its possession.

The stream that turned Grandfather's mill-wheel would always prove sufficient for his purposes, for mountain streams in the highlands, fed by never failing springs, maintain their music and their motion, though with diminished flow, in the driest seasons. Notwithstanding the faithfulness of waterpower, and the absence of strikes, the mill-wheel's dizzying round would nevertheless even there have some intermissions through the failure of the life-giving streams of the harvest-field.

Of one such season my mother used to tell (though happily it had passed before her day) in which gaunt famine was abroad in the little glen. No less than sixteen youths without food, it was said, fared forth to the field from day to day trying to sustain life on a weed common in Scotland, popularly known as "souricks." As the name implies it has an extremely sour taste, though not unpleasant, but is most likely inadequate to sustain life for any lengthened period. The whole sixteen are said to have ultimately perished of starvation. When the mill was fortunate enough to be entrusted with a little grist the poor fellows would come at the first turning of the wheel to lick the dust that might, in the grinding process, accumulate around or adhere to the machinery. Hence they earned the name of "mill hogs" which, in the vernacular, meant young sheep, and not twine.

Probably the crop failure had been caused by frost, due to the higher altitude more even than to its northerly latitude. Help from the outside was very hard to net. only were there no railways, but even the highways of the day were of the poorest; and to crown all there was lack alike of cash or credit to induce the movement of grain, and to make possible the purchase of food. In such a year, prices through the country generally would no doubt be high, and that condition, always the result of scarcity, would be artificially accentuated by the high duties imposed under the com laws of the time which were inexorable in operation, and as yet knew no sliding scale by which when grain was dear the duty might be reduced, or for the time entirely suspended. My own father who was born in 1810, never experienced want, neither did famine lay its cruel hand on the miller's household, but I have heard from people older than my parents of the terrible straits the people were reduced to in the bare years around the dawn of the nineteenth century, when grim hunger stalked at home and war abroad devastated the nations.


In the little community on the banks of the Muick it was a difficult matter to maintain a school of any kind in the early part of the 19th century. To raise the salary of a competent teacher was beyond their means. The regular parish school was at the village of Ballater which was too distant, especially for the little ones, and if any kind of education was to be acquired by the children, it was necessary that a teacher who would be satisfied with a very meagre salary should be employed to carry on a school and then perhaps only for the winter months. That of course implied a teacher of qualifications proportionate to remuneration. I understand that the teacher so employed, whose name was George McNaughton, but who was familiarly known as "Geordie Nochty," was "boarded around" in the little community, each home sending pupils to school engaging to provide him with board and lodging, week always, gratis, by way of a contribution toward the maintenance of the school. His remuneration would be primarily secured by fees though there would doubtless be a stipulated minimum amount, plus board stated in the agreement. Sometimes, perhaps always, the pupils' fees would fall short of the minimum objective, and the deficiency in that case had to be made good by some means.

In order that the desirable object might be attained easily, pleasantly and without a burden to any, report was had to a cockfight. That mode of raising school funds, I understand had been common in Scotland during the eighteenth century, but so long had it ceased in Cromar that I had never heard any tradition that it had ever had existence in that locality, "Graharn's Social Life in Scotland in the Eighteenth Century" gives some idea of this inhuman and brutalizing practice. "Up to the end of the eighteenth century the popular pastime of cock-fighting and cock-throwing by the boys at Fastern's E'en brought no small gain to the teacher. Every boy who could afford it brought a fighting cock to school, and on payment of twelve pennies Scots (one penny sterling) to the master, the cocks were pitted against each other in the presence of the gentry of the neighbourhood. Then the cocks slain in mortal combat became the teacher's property, while those cocks that would not fight, called "fugies," were fixed to a stake in the yard and killed one after another at cock-throwing, at one bodle (about one sixth of one penny) for each shot. The school-master got the bodies (in later years, the half pennies) and sumptuously feasted his family on the corpses for days together, as a pleasant relief to the monotonous diet of oat meal, having regaled the scholars in modest hospitality with liquor (ale, and it occasionally happened whiskey, later in the century) in recompense. This custom produced no inconsiderable addition to the teacher's livelihood; in some districts, indeed, it is said the dues exacted from the pupils amounted to a sum equal to a whole quarter's fees."

In some such fashion, no doubt, had been conducted these contests in the out-lying glen tributary to the Dee. Mother used to tell that on one occasion she was called on to provide and bring to school a rooster for one of these contests. At her home no suitable bird was available so she had recourse to a neighbour who had a bird of good fighting quality and breed. The neighbour was willing to accommodate her, but at the same time extremely anxious that neither Mother, nor the flock and farm which her rooster represented, should be put to shame. In order to put proper mettle into the bird, she fed him well with a mixture of oat meal and Scotch whiskey which was the composition of the famous Athol brose. Assurance of victory being made thus doubly sure, Mother marched proudly off to put her champion in the lists. What the order of procedure was I do not know, nor do I particularly care. Enough to know that Mother's bird came off the field in glorious triumph, much to the satisfaction of the owner of the bird as well as of her little friend.

Mother was born in 1815, so that contest took place more than one hundred years ago. At that time such exhibitions did not seem to shock the amoral sensibilities of any one. Today, the thought of such a thing is abhorrent to all save a few of the most depraved in any community. This tells of the tremendous advance made by what is known as the civilized world in a single century. Progress measured by the day or year seems scarcely observable but, measured by the century it sometimes amounts to a revolution. Many abominations are with us still, but the Spirit of Galilee ever working silently is leavening the whole lump, under this silent influence, by the Grace of God, betting, drinking, boot-legging, war and kindred abominations by and by will stink in the nostrils of society. In the procession of the centuries, and the acceptance of the Light from Heaven, the obligation of love and service will be universally accepted by rich and poor alike, the cowardly slogan, so often heard, "The world owes me a living," will cease to debase the thought and speech of mankind, and in its place will come the acknowledgement and the purpose "I am debtor to humanity, and to it I owe and consecrate my service."

Grandfather Fletcher's letters to his son John who came lo Canada some time in the thirties of last century, a number of which have lately been discovered, disclose a keen intelligence, with a knowledge of public questions surprising to me, in view of the conditions of his time and the scarcity of newspapers in the country. His library, too, in which were such books as Baxter's "Saints Rest," Boston's "Four Fold Estate," Willison's Works, and others of like quality, show that he had a devout, as well as an enquiring mind. I question if any of his family except John .and William acquired an education equal to their father's. His grammar was not perfect and his orthography was not faultless, but, from a literary standpoint, he had been far ahead of my own father, though he also could write a letter as fast and as intelligently as could any of his family.

Grandfather's family were all born in the parish of Glen-Muick, the youngest in 1821, so that the moving to the farm of Belgrennie in the parish of Coldstone must have been subsequent to that date. All the leases on the Invercauld estate to which that farm belonged, had by that time begun to run for a uniform term of nineteen years, the whole throughout the estate running concurrently. The next letting-term following 1821, would occur in 1828. Unless a break in the tenantry of Helgrennie, by death or otherwise, had meantime occurred, the likelihood, or rather perhaps the certainty. is that his lease commenced in that year. The farm was in poor condition, with wretched buildings and fields run down by moor and slovenly farming.

Uncle William and Auntie Jane who were still mere children were sent to school under the tutelage of Mr. Beattie who would be then at his best. Mother was thirteen, but was needed at home, so her school education was limited to what she had acquired during the fitful periods of two or three winter months each year under the crude and unmethodical tuition of the incompetent Geordie Nochty.

John, then nineteen, who had been lame since ten years of ago, as the result of some accident through which he had lost completely the use of one of his lower limbs, was preparing himself for a pedagogical career. David and James, then 17 and 15, respectively, could not be spared from the farm, so their education also had to be considered as completed. Helen and Ann, 22 and 20 respectively, came also to the farm but both were soon thereafter married.


Mention has already been made of the universallity of the operation of the illicit still for the manufacture of whiskey in the district of Cromar in the early days. I do not know whether or not Grandfather put one in operation at Belgrennie, though I am under the impression that he did. However that may be, it is quite certain that he had not failed to put one in operation under his mill on the Muick. Mother used to tell us that a preventive officer called there one day unannounced and without invitation made immediately for the trap-door that led to the underground apartment where the illicit outfit of which he had no doubt received information, was located. As soon as his head disappeared under the floor, Grandfather slammed down the trapdoor, thereby closing the only means of egress, and called down through the floor, "Stay there till the rats eat you." The poor fellow soon came to the conclusion that he had enough of that kind of imprisonment, and pleaded earnestly for release. On promise solemnly made that he would not report the occurrance, or what he had seen, he was allowed to go, and no more was heard of the matter.

In my youth, stories were current of dodges employed to evade the hated excise men. Charles Forbes of Pittelachie, an uncle of the late Harry Forbes of the township of Tilbury East, was understood to be an offender, and a warrant had been issued for his arrest. The officers charged with execution of the warrant found him at home, and escape seemed impossible. However, Charles craved for, and was allowed, time to enter an adjoining room to change his clothes. The prisoner, however, had no intention of allowing his captors to bear him off without an effort made for liberty. So, instead of carrying out his avowed purpose, he made his escape through a hack window, while his wife remained in the room to assure the officers from time to time that their prisoner would soon be ready. At last, the officers, becoming suspicious, entered the room only to find that their prisoner had escaped. They immediately mounted their horses, and set off in pursuit.'Meantime Charles had made considerable head-way and was energetically making his way through the bogs of Kinaldie through which he well knew horses could not follow, speeding toward the farm of Grodie. Reaching that objective, he hastily exchanged coats with the farmer there (Mr. Patterson, I suppose) who immediately took to the adjoining Morven hill, as if in flight, leaving Forbes behind. In hot pursuit the diverted horsemen followed and finally overtook the fleeing figure, only to find that they had the wrong man. In that way Forbes for the time escaped, though I believe he was ultimately caught.

Just over the hill in a glen called Corgarf, whose waters are tributary to the River Don, the people forcibly resisted the officers of the law, and had to be put down by military force.

Lawless as smuggling was in its day, and vile as is the liquor industry in our own, whether prosecuted under and by the protection of law, or contrary thereto, neither the violation of statute law enacted for its suppression, nor the prosecution of the industry itself, which today is realized to be in its very nature productive only of evil, brought home to the minds and consciences of our fathers of a hundred years ago any conviction of moral wrong-doing. The best men in a parish would engage in the business, and I have it on authority which I consider reliable that the minister of Coldstone, himself a magistrate, and in that capacity meting out tempered and reluctant justice to other offenders, had a still in operation in his own manse.

The Divine law which distinguishes right and wrong, is immutable and eternal but the guilt of transgression is largely dependent on the degree of light in which the transgressor works. Conduct in yesterday's darkness which, viewed in the light of today, may seem most iniquitous and reprehensible, may nevertheless to an impartial and understanding eye compare favourably with conduct today, regarding which we have no consciousness or suspicion of guilt.

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