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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter V - Youth

When I was about eight years of age a tutor was got for me, and I had one with me from then till I was eleven, when I left Gairloch for Germany. I was very keen about sport of every kind, and one day, when I was about nine, my mother told me that as soon as I could swim twenty yards she would order a little gun for me. I quickly learned to swim at the lovely big sands at Gairloch, being taught by two or three girl cousins who were expert swimmers; so one day a twenty yards length of rope was bought, each end was held by a very pretty lassie, and after a fearful struggle I accomplished my task. That night a little single-barrelled muzzle-loader weighing only three pounds was ordered from a gun-maker in London. Some wise folk thought my mother was making a great mistake by letting me start shooting so early, one of the chief reasons brought forward being that I should soon become quite blase and should not enjoy sport when I grew up to manhood. But all these prophecies were completely falsified, as I was the keenest of sportsmen all my life, until I gave up the gun when I was over seventy.

Few men have done more shooting in the course of their lives than I have. Before I began to shoot I used to love to go out with our old butler, Sim Eachainn, with a single-barrelled flint gun. I fancy there are few now living who can remember the use of flint guns, but I am one of those who can, and this special gun invariably misfired when some rare or interesting bird was shot at. But this was not so much the case, I fancy, when my grandfather and his sons all shot with flint “Joe Mantons,” because their flints worked better.

It is interesting to note what there was to shoot in those far-back days of my grandfather. Well, there were grouse, but not too many, my father and his brothers always going to Leacaidh, in the heights of Kenlochewe, which was the best grouse ground then. There was nothing like the number of grouse killed in the parish of Gairloch in those days as in the seventies and eighties; and there were not so many deer either. But there were lots of black game in the woods, and ptarmigan on the high tops, and a good many partridges; and though there were plenty of fine, fat brown hares all round the crofter townships and wherever there was cultivation, there were few blue hares to be found except as great rarities on the summits of the highest hills. As for rabbits, they were unknown in the county until my grandfather introduced them to Conon from England. I give my uncle’s account of this introduction of the bunny:

“My father, alas! sent for rabbits to England. In due time they arrived, having finished every turnip with which they had started and seemingly none the worse of their travels—the darling lovely little pets! Our minds were distracted wondering how best we could protect them from the nasty, greedy foxes. We carried the hamper to some sandy banks in Dugarry, and, as the rabbits might weary if left to dig holes for themselves, busy hands and spades soon built up twenty or thirty foot refuges of turf, like six-inch square drains, at the end of which, if they pleased, they might in due time dig holes for themselves. To our great joy, the dear little innocents every morning showed plenty of new holes dug, so that they soon were safe from their enemies. In a very short time we found troops of little bunnies trotting about, so that one or two were shot as samples of such a wise investment in game. This took place over seventy years ago, and from this colony the whole north is now swarming with the pests. And yet I have never heard of anyone, planter, farmer, or gardener, who has suggested a monument to my father for conferring such a benefit on the Highlands!”

There was so much vermin in those days that the so-called gamekeepers were in reality only game-killers, and vermin trappers were only just then being started. In the old times all the lairds had in that line was a sealgair (hunter) who provided their big houses with venison and other game; for, until my father and uncles started stalking, not a Gairloch laird had ever troubled himself to kill deer either for sport or for the larder. The vermin consisted of all kinds of beasts and birds, a good many of which are now extinct. The fork-tailed kites swarmed, and I have heard that the first massacre of them that took place was when my father poisoned with strychnine the dead body of a young horse which had been killed by falling over a rock on Creag a Chait (the Cat's Rock), behind the Tigh Dige. The last kite had disappeared before my time. There were plenty of pine-martens and polecats and some badgers even in my young days. My mother used to have an average of forty or fifty skins of martens brought to her by the keepers every year, of which she made the most lovely sable capes and coats for her sisters and lady friends. The pine martens, the polecats, and the badgers are all quite extinct with us now, but they were all still in existence when I bought Inverewe.

My uncle in his Notes says that when he was a lad the Magnum Bonum plums were being raided from off the south wall of the Tigh Dige garden, and to try and guard them the gardener covered the tree with several folds of herring-net. On the following morning what did my uncle see struggling in the net but a big marten, which he shot. Its inside was found packed full of the yellow plums, but it was clever enough to avoid swallowing the stones, which were found in heaps on the top of the wall.

I was stalking when a boy of sixteen on the steep j braes above Loch Langabhat in the deer forest of Morsgail, in the Lews, and as I was crawling along on my hands and knees I saw in front of me, jammed up against a low gravel bank, a dead sheep. It happened that owing to the formation of the ground my keeper and I and the Morsgail stalker were able to raise ourselves to standing position without spoiling the stalk, and on turning over the sheep what should we find under it but a large marten squashed pretty flat. We understood at once what had happened. The marten had pinned the sheep by the throat, the sheep had torn downhill, and just as it was on the point of giving in from loss of blood had jammed itself with all its might against the gravel bank. Unfortunately for the marten, there was a sharp stone sticking out of the bank, and the sheep, with more luck, I fancy, than good management, had rammed the marten, about the region of the heart, against this stone and so had its revenge. I doubt whether anyone else has ever had such an experience.

Before finishing my marten stories I shall tell what happened at Inverewe about the forties. Lambs and sheep were being killed, and the fox-hunter was sent for. Right up on a very wild part of the property in Carn na craoibhe caorainn (the Cairn of the Rowan-tree), near the Fionn Loch, the hounds had several times lost the scent of what was supposed to be a fox at the foot of an enormous perched boulder which we now call Clach mhor nan Taghan (the Great Stone of the Martens). To look at the boulder one would imagine it was impossible for anything but a bird to alight on its top, but a pair of martens had managed to do so by making tremendous springs from the ground on to a slight ledge half-way up the stone. There was a huge mass of peat and heather on the top of the boulder.

Spades having been sent for, the martens were unearthed, and, as they sprang from the diggers, they and their young ones jumped into the mouths of the fox-hounds and lurchers. Thus ended the martens of “Castle Marten,” as a friend of mine, the late Dr. Warre of Eton College, christened the boulder. Readers will wonder that martens would kill sheep. I was once, however, informed by a very intelligent brocair (fox-hunter), who had been head fox-hunter for the whole county of Sutherland, that when a marten started killing sheep it was worse than a fox, and would kill even three-year-old wedders.

My uncle tells of a fox-hunter’s pack which found the scent of something that was supposed to be a fox on the hillside above the Tigh Dige. The hounds ran the track for three or four miles, the fox-hunter and his gillies following as best they could, until the pack came to a dead stop on the shore of Loch Tollie, just opposite the small island where the awful tragedy connected with our family in the days of the Macleods took place. Thinking it was a fox which had crossed to the island, the fox-hunter swam over, followed by his mongrel pack, and what did they find there but a huge wild-cat, still dripping wet, and its six kittens, the latter hard at work eating a freshly killed grouse which their mother had brought them. They needed no more grouse after that interview ! What a deal of thought pussy must have given to the matter before she made up her mind that the only chance of saving her kittens from the detested fox-hunter was to keep on swimming across Loch Tollie, until they were old enough to leave the island.

My uncle used also to mention the case of a gauger searching for a sack of malt or the copper worm of a still he had heard was hidden in the Castle Leod Raven Rock above Strathpeffer. He poked his stick into a wild-cat’s nest among her kittens, and in a second, unable to escape past him, she flew at him, so that he missed liis footing, fell to the bottom of the rock, and broke his leg. Had not some tourists visited tke rock two days afterwards he would have lain and died where he fell.

A fox was lately found dead and quite fresh on an island in one of the lochs on my own property. There was no doubt that, though foxes are not fond of water, this one had made the island his home during the daytime. On his way back after a night's ramble he had eaten an egg containing strychnine, and had only just managed to swim over to the island when he dropped down dead.

I soon became a good shot with my little gun, though it weighed only, three pounds, and, strange to say, I started on snipe. Of course I could not kill them flying, but to help me there came a very severe snowstorm and hard frost, and whilst the grown-ups were shooting woodcocks in the coverts my tutor and I went snipe-shooting at the few streams and springs which were still open. I had very good eyes, but my tutor's eyes were even better, and he could generally see the snipe squatted among the dead grass and bits of ice, and he would call out, “Shoot two inches to the right of that red leaf,” or “three inches to the left of that black stone,” and as soon as the smoke had disappeared (and there was a lot of smoke in those days of black powder) there would be a dead full-snipe or jack-snipe, and very occasionally a woodcock. In this manner I got fifty or sixty snipe in a week, which I was proud of being able to send to friends in England. Before I grew old enough to use a big double-barrelled “Dickson” I did perfect wonders with my little three-pounder, and was the cause of the death of two wild swans and several roe, my mother having persuaded Eley to make me little half-charged wire cartridges loaded with BB shot and slugs. As I grew older and became a better shot I was given a small rifle, and ornithological expeditions of several days were made to the Shiant Islands in a smack with a tent, etc.

Never shall I forget the joy of those trips in lovely hot days at the end of May or beginning of June. The Shiant Islands are in the Minch about thirty miles from Gairloch, and much nearer the shores of the Lews and Harris. They were a revelation to us, not only on account of the myriads of sea-birds of every sort and kind on them, but because their geological formation was quite different from that of our mainland or that of the Long Island, for they are composed of trap rock and are basaltic, and show columns like Staffa and the Giant's Causeway.

On each of these expeditions to the Shiant, before reaching them we ran into Loch Na Shealg (Loch Shell) in the Lews, and landed at a big crofter township named Leumrabhaigh (I believe the Sassenachs now spell it Lemmerivay). There we got a good supply of herring; partly for our own consumption, but chiefly for bait for our long lines, which the crew set and we lifted, in , the sort of horseshoe bay formed by the three islands, though according to my recollection two of them are joined together at low tide. What hauls of fish we got I Often there were cod and ling and huge congers on almost every hook; but the best of all in our eyes were the Bradanan leathan (broad salmon, as the halibut are called in Gaelic). It is a rule among the fishermen that if one feels something extra strong on a long line, which might be a halibut, the name Bradan leathern or halibut must never be uttered until the monster is safe at the bottom of the boat, otherwise it is certain to escape!

The natives of Leumrabhaigh told us they made expeditions to the Shiant Islands for puffins, and brought back boatloads of them because they valued the feathers. They also enjoyed big pots of boiled puffins for their dinners as a welcome change from the usual fish diet. They told us how they slaughter the puffins. They choose a day when there is a strong breeze blowing against the steep braes where the puffins breed, and the lads then lie on their backs on these nearly perpendicular slopes holding the butt-ends of their fishing-rods. These stiff rods would be about nine or ten feet long. Holding them with both hands, they whack at the puffins as they fly past them quite low in their tens of thousands, and whether the puffin is killed outright or only stunned he rolls down the hill and tumbles on the shore or into the sea, where the rest of the crew are kept busily employed gathering them into the boat.

The puffin-killing reminded me of the way I used to get hauls of rock-pigeons in a cave at night on the wild rocky coast beyond the crofter township of Mellon Charles, and actually in sight of the Shiant Islands. There are a number of caves which used to be well stocked with rock pigeons in the sixties and seventies, and one of them had comparatively smooth sides with a square mouth. Just before dark we used to drive the pigeons from the other caves into this one, which we called the netting cave, and then, when it was pitch dark, a herring-net weighted with stones at the bottom was let down from the top of the rocks over the cave's mouth. By lifting the net our boat glided in. We were armed with two short, stiff fishing-rods, and carried a big pot of burning peats and splinters of resinous bog-nr, which lighted up the cave. To make the pigeons fly out of the innermost recesses, we flung burning peats from time to time in as far as we could, which made a fresh batch of birds fly out against the net. Oh, the excitement of it as we whacked away at them flying round and round the big cave! The pigeons had a good sporting chance of escape, for the net could never be made to fit the inequalities in the edge of the cave, and we were quite contented if we got from twenty to twenty-five birds. To add to the excitement there were generally several shags (cormorants) roosting in the cave besides the pigeons, and we always did our best to get them, though they very soon found out that their safety consisted, not in fluttering up against the net like the pigeons, but in taking a header into the water and escaping to the ocean by diving under the net.

In 1851 my mother, who was always fond of showing me everything, planned a little tour in Normandy, finishing up with Paris, and this was a real joy. It was mostly done in diligences; we generally had the coupe, while Sim Eachainn (Simon Hector), the butler, swore at the beggars in Gaelic from the banquette. What an amount of delicious greengages and pears I consumed on that journey! The only drawback to the trip was the remarks of rude little French boys, who, because I was dressed in the kilt, mistook me for a Chinaman, and called me le petit Climois. What a lot of good that trip did me, and how it opened my eyes! If my dear mother had not had me thoroughly taught French in Gairloch I should not have benefited by it half so much.

That summer also we visited the first great Exhibition in London. How well I remember seeing the Duke of Wellington and other celebrities! I thought more of the Duke than of any of the others, because my dear old uncle, the General (Fighting Jack), had fought and done such great deeds under him in Spain.

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