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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Threshing Corn

Threshing Corn

The agricultural state of society succeeds the pastoral. Mankind, in the earliest stage of social existence, is found rearing herds and feeding numerous flocks; but the practice of agriculture indicates a considerable advance in civilization. On the formation of settled communities, the occupations of the shepherd and tiller of the ground are pursued at the same time, as a double means of providing for comfortable subsistence; and nations, in the practice of both, frequently pay more attention to the former than to the latter, which is attended with a greater amount of care and labour.

We find from the Commentaries of Caesar that the Britons, on the first Roman descent, raised ample stores of corn, a proof that they were not in the savage state which some writers have represented. Caesar arrived in Britain on the 26th August, B. C. 55, according to Dr. Halley, and the harvest was then almost finished, as only one field was seen uncut, having been later than usual in ripening. The ingenious method by which the Gauls reaped their fields is described by Pliny; but the inhabitants of Britain do not appear to have made any improvement on the sickle.

Both Gauls and Britons, however, used a Flail in separating the ears from the straw, when among the Romans the clumsy and dilatory practice of treading it by cattle was still in use. The Flail consists of two pieces of hard round wood, about four feet in length, loosely fastened together by thongs of sheep-skin, or other hide; and a dexterity, acquired by long practice, is necessary to perform the work, and save the workman’s head, as he whirls the implement around in making each successive stroke.

Threshing is usually performed in the barn, but, in fine weather when the corn has been sufficiently dried, and the weather is favourable, the Highlander performs the operation on the field; by which he is enabled speedily to remove the crop, a matter of no slight importance in a watery climate, like that of the West Highlands. For this purpose a floor is constructed of planks, on which is placed a sail or piece of canvas, where such may be had, and in many places a mat of sufficient size is spread underneath, formed of rushes, woven or plaited, as we find similar articles of furniture from India. On this platform, in general temporary, called Làr-bualadh, the vigorous workmen very cleanly and expeditiously detach the grain from the stalk, contriving in the operation to cast the straw to one side. It is then carried home and stored up until a suitable time for the Fasgna’, or winnowing from the chaff, preparatory to grinding. The Threshers are called Buailtearan, from Buail, to strike, or beat.

Women in the Highlands perform most of the operations of agriculture, and they may be seen carrying on their backs, from the field, loads of the straw or the corn sheaves; but this is not to be considered a proof of any disrespect to the fair, for the Gael have a high regard for their females; it is one of the many practices derived from their ancestors. M. de Cubieres, writing on the services rendered to agriculture by females, shows that in all primitive nations, while the men were employed in hunting, fishing, and in war, the women attended to agriculture, the dairy, and their domestic avocations—an onerous accumulation of duties.

If the use of oats is not now so exclusively prevalent among Scotsmen in the low country as it was in the days of Dr. Johnson, it is still so in the Highlands. His definition of this grain, as being "the food of horses in England and men in Scotland," gave an offence which has not yet been forgiven; but the Doctor, without intending it, passed a high eulogium on this grain, for it is well ascertained, and recent scarcity has drawn particular attention to the subject, that it is a much more nutritious substance than wheaten flour, being lighter and more digestive; and hence the use of oatmeal is often prescribed by medical men to patients of weakly stomachs. It has been observed that the products of a country have been adapted by Providence to the circumstances of its inhabitants. In this respect the oatmeal and milk of the Gael have served on many an occasion to carry them through severe and protracted exertion, and prolonged their health and lives to a goodly term. It is farther proved that a Scottish labourer will perform a greater amount of work, with unabated strength, on his humble fare, than that of an Englishman in similar employment, say field labour—on a much greater proportion of his wheaten bread, dumpling, and bacon; and it has been wittily remarked, that the horses of England and workmen in Scotland, fed on the same materials, are the most useful and best specimens of their kind.

The subject of illustration is from a party at work near the old castle of Inverlochie, in the county of Inverness, within twenty yards of a spot where thirteen gentlemen of the Campbells lie buried, side by side, having fallen in the battle which took place in the vicinity, anno 1645, when the Earl of Argyle, with the whole power of his clan, opposed the Marquis of Montrose in arms for King Charles, whom he thought to subdue with facility, but suffered an unexpected attack and complete defeat, with the loss of i500 men, leaving the royalists to proceed southwards to further conquest. This plain was battle ground from an earlier period.

The turbulence of Clan Donald induced the government to commission the Earls of Caithness and Mar to attempt a pacification, taking the precaution, at the same time, to back their persuasions with a powerful army; but the energetic Donull du’, or black Donald Ballach of the Isles, landed in 1431, and with inferior numbers, he at once engaged his enemies, defeated and compelled them to a speedy retreat. Very different are the pursuits of the group here represented; their swords, if not converted into Suistean, or flails, are, happily, no longer required to guard the produce of their labour.

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