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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XIV - Church and State

The Disruption in the Church of Scotland took place about the time when I was born, and I never worshipped in the old Parish Church of Gairloch, as our family entered the Free Church. No wonder the people rebelled when worthless men were appointed to big parishes by lay patrons, quite regardless of their being suitable or unsuitable. This was the case at Gairloch when an old tutor, who had hardly a word of Gaelic, tried to make up for his want of the language by the roaring and bawling he kept up in the pulpit while attempting to read a Gaelic sermon translated from English by some schoolmaster! On one occasion when my grandfather and his party were in church, our Mackenzie cousin, who was tenant of Shieldaig, and his family were among the congregation, and were, as usual, invited up to the Tigh Dige to luncheon. Among the Shieldaig party was a small boy of four or five summers who had been brought to church for the first time in his life. My grandfather, wishing to say something to the little chap, asked him what he saw in church, and his reply was much to the point: “I saa a man baaling, baaling in a box, and no a man would let him oot.”

I think I must give my uncle’s description of the Communion gathering in his time. Those gatherings were much the same in my young days, and I regularly attended with my mother in the famous Leabaidh na ba baine (Bed of the White Cow), where Fingal’s white cow calved.

“My father and mother always communicated in Gairloch and Ferintosh, going through the whole five days’ ceremonies, for they were unwilling to appear in opposition even to unreasonable customs so long as these were harmless. Owing to want of roads, wheels, or steam, the Gairloch Communion used to be held only once in three years. Consequently it became a very great holy fair. I never remember it but in midsummer in fine weather. For days before the Fast Days every spare hole and corner was got ready for the mob of people that came from the neighbouring parishes, some fifty or sixty miles distant. This was considered a pleasant walk, not by the communicants merely, but by crowds who came, not to communicate, but to see the people and to hear the many clergymen.

“In Gairloch every hole or corner with a roof over it was got ready by strewing it with straw for the visitors’ beds during the six nights of their stay. Undressing during that time was never dreamt of by the crowd, and washing was impossible! Our barns and stables were all scrubbed out and ready for visitors, and for days before the feast there was much killing and cooking of cattle, sheep, and salmon, for all the hungry visitors who were expected. Such really hard labour for the house servants all through the five days would, if I were to detail it truly, hardly be believed as occurring in a Christian land in connection with religion. It was simply fearful. On Sunday, as soon as breakfast was over, every hand set to work preparing for the grand, popular, open-house cold luncheon, to which all ‘the upper crust’ and the clergy were invited. When I remember the condition of the Tigh Dige lower regions in those days, before, during, and after the Sacrament, and the cruel hard labour involved in feeding everybody, I should thank God that I was then merely looking on with amazement, and glad it occurred only every third year.

Yet I was something more than an onlooker, for I had to form part of the wonderful out-of-door congregation that assembled daily in that most charming Leabaidh na ba baine! The bed is close to the Parish Church, being an exact oval in shape, lined with the finest short grass, and able to hold, it is said, three thousand people. In the bottom of the deep oval hollow at one end was the clergyman’s preaching-box, giving him shelter from the sun and rain. Wind could not blow there, and even a weak voice would float over the whole hollow clearly. In front of the pulpit the Communion-tables extended to the farther end of the bed, the soil was pure drifted sand dating back thousands of years, and so porous, that were rain to fall for a month not a drop would be seen, while the sheep kept the grass as short as a mowing machine could do. I should be surprised indeed if a stranger passing along the road, which merely separates the Leabaidh from the church, on hearing, say, three thousand voices floating up out of this wonderful deep hollow, and chanting beautiful ancient Gaelic psalms, could help being perfectly charmed with the solemn sound and feeling that he had never heard the like before. A little farther on I could have brought the stranger back to earth pretty quickly, for on the side of the road he would find very ordinary tables covered with gingerbread and kebbucks of cheese and goodies, etc., to suit hungry mortals, and well-frequented at the week-day services. It is even reported that for a penny certain outside knaves allowed us urchins to have a shy with a stick at a kind of Aunt Sally on which gingerbread was set up for the knocker-off to pocket, while a miss left the penny a prize in the knave’s possession. Who knows if this gambling was known to the saints in the Leabaidh?

“I frequently observed great politeness from the young men to the girls, and often I saw a lassie, semi-fainting owing to the heat, much gratified by her beau presenting her with his shoe full of water from the well above the burying-ground! The people got strong advice from the preachers, the Rev. Kennedy, of Killearnan, being a great favourite. One who was present at a Communion where he was helping told me that, after the fencing of the tables to prevent the young and timid from communicating, when all were seated he suddenly shouted, ‘I see Satan seated on some of your backs,’ whereupon several screamed and more than one fainted and had to be removed. None of your milk and water preachers! The sensational is alone of use.”

Even I can remember not so many years ago being present at an Aultbea Communion where a Free Church minister, when fencing the tables, forbade anyone communicating who was “a frequenter of concerts or dances". It was said in Gaelic, and this is an exact translation of his words, which show how very rigid and narrow is the creed of the Free Church, and also of the Free Presbyterians, even at the present day.

Few in the south could believe their narrowness also as regards the keeping of the Sabbath.

How well do I remember as a young lad, when living at Inveran Lodge on the Ewe, our Free Church minister, whom we liked very much and whose manse was at Aultbea, coming every alternate Sunday to preach in the little old meeting-house at Poolewe. We loved having him to dine and sleep at Inveran, and I know he enjoyed being with us; but as he was very laidir (violent) in the pulpit, he naturally perspired very freely, and required a change of underclothing if he passed the night with us. Well, he could do this only if there had been a chance during the preceding week of getting the small brown-paper parcel containing a shirt, etc., conveyed to Poolewe; for though he was driven to church in his own dog-cart, nothing would induce him to carry the smallest parcel in his trap on the Sunday.

At the yearly Communion-time at Aultbea how hospitable the minister and his wife were, and how the luncheon-table in the manse groaned with the very best of everything eatable and drinkable! How they used to implore of us not to think of drinking water, because it had necessarily to be brought from the spring on Saturday and consequently would be flat, but to stick to port and the sherry wine (as they called it); and if water must be taken, to put plenty of whisky in it to counteract its flatness and make it more wholesome! It would have been an unpardonable sin to go to the spring, which was quite near the manse, for a jug of fresh water; anyone guilty of doing so would render himself liable to undergo Church discipline and censure from the Kirk Session.

How well I remember also, hearing of the case of a big boat returning from the Caithness herring fishing, which was long delayed on its voyage by storms and adverse winds, and managed to get to Loch Ewe only on a Sunday forenoon shortly before church-time. The owner of the boat was an elder in the Free Church, and very much respected, but even he could hardly solve that most difficult question of the moment—which would be the greater sin, viz., to shave off some of the ten days’ growth of hair on their faces to make themselves look respectable, or to keep away from church? At length it was decided that, shaving on Sunday being a quite unpardonable sin, it would be less wicked, perhaps (just for once in a way), to stay away from church!

My uncle, who had quite a model farm on Isle Ewe, with a byre of thirty pedigree Ayrshire cows, required turnips to be barrowed to them twice a day, but on Sunday the cattleman could not think of using a barrow, as it was on a wheel; so, in his best Sunday suit, he carried in all the muddy turnips for the cows in armfuls, and though a martyr to turnips in this world, he looked to being recompensed accordingly in the world to come! I also well remember how my dear mother, when we lived at Gairloch, always went to her school at Strath, about two miles away, to teach her Sunday class. She might start going there by daylight, but in winter it would be pitch dark before her return. My mother had a favourite old servant who always accompanied her, and who also taught a class. Now, it was necessary to have a small hand-lantern for coming home, and this old Peggy was quite willing to carry when lighted, but nothing would induce her to carry it unlighted, so the lantern had to find its way down to the school some day during the week, otherwise there would be no lantern to light them on their way on Sunday night.

What a pity that such superstition should have been fostered and encouraged in the Highlands by the clergyI If the ministers would preach less about predestination and abstruse dogmas of that kind, and would sometimes take as their text that “a merciful man is merciful to his beast," and persuade their people to clean out their byres and stables on Sunday, they would be doing far more good in my opinion.

Before the manse was built at Gairloch (and I may perhaps mention that the famous geologist, Hugh Miller, was one of the masons who helped to build it as a young apprentice), Cliff House at Poolewe, which my uncle described as Poolewe Inn, a mere dirty smoke-hole reeking of whisky, was the parish manse, and the incumbent at one time was a good man, but not a very brilliant one. He possessed as his glebe nearly all the arable land on the south side of the Ewe. The minister also had a summer shieling for his cows at the back of the hill, where now stands the derelict mill of Boor.

When the minister’s corn was ripe every male and female in the neighbourhood was pressed into his service with sickle in hand, and to cheer up his squad of perhaps not very willing workers he always had a piper to play to them. Before leaving his gang of harvesters to go back to the manse for his dinner, he used to walk forward a good bit in front of his reapers, and plant his walking-stick in the corn, and call out to the squad: “Now, good folks, I shall expect you to get the reaping done as far as my stick by the time I return from my dinner, so do your best.”

No sooner was the minister out of sight round the corner than someone ran forward, removed the stick, and planted it a good bit behind instead of in front of them. Then the whole gang would start dancing, and would dance furiously till the time drew near for the minister’s return. In this way they imposed on the stupid old minister, who on his return would say: “Well done, my squad. You have not only reached my stick, but have got a good bit beyond it.”

On one occasion his reverence thought he would like to pass the night at the shieling, where two young girls were in charge of his cows. The shieling consisted of two very small bothies, one of which contained the wooden dishes with the milk, and the other had just room in it for the two girls to pass the night side by side on a bed of heather with a plaid over them. The girls were in the habit of finding just sufficient room close behind their heads for the big wooden receptacle which held all the week’s supply of cream, so that it might ripen sooner from the warmth of their bodies, and turn more quickly into butter in the churn! That night they had to pass in the open; in fact, they had to sit up all night with the cows, but they were determined to have their revenge. Peeping into the bothy about four in the morning, when they felt sure the minister would be sound asleep, they noticed that he had hung up his red wig, which, according to the fashion of the times, was large with longish curls, on a peg in the wall just above the receptacle containing the week's cream. So they got a long stick and managed to dislodge the wig from its peg and to drop it into the cream. In the morning the wig could not be found, and the girls suggested it must have been carried off by the fairies, as they were always particularly troublesome about that shieling. But at last the wig was discovered, and the upshot was that the minister never bothered them at the shieling any more.

I am now going to describe three funerals which took place about a hundred years ago. The first two were conducted in the old, old way, and the wrong way— namely, with whisky flowing like water. The third funeral was without whisky, and was, I think, a pattern funeral, taking into consideration the long distance to the place of interment, and the fact that no wheels could be used for want of roads.

A laird of Dundonnell (which is the southern portion of the parish of Loch Broom) died in Edinburgh, and his remains were brought by sea to Inverness, and from there on wheels as far as Garve, where the road ended. At that spot it was met one evening by the whole of the adult male population of the Dundonnell estate. They were to start carrying the corpse early the following morning. There was no place where even a twentieth part of this crowd could sleep, so they all sat up through the whole of the night drinking themselves drunk, as there was any amount of drink provided for them, though probably but little food! Early in the morning a start was made by the rough track—the Diridh Mor— which led to Dundonnell, some twenty-five miles away. The crowd of semi-drunken men had marched several miles of the way, when one of the mourners, who was rather more sober than the rest, suddenly recollected that they had no coffin with them, they having left it behind them at Garve, and so back they all had to trudge to fetch their beloved laird.

Now for one of our jovial funerals. My uncle writes: “The wettest I ever remember was the Chisholm’s, the brother of our good old *Aunty General". My father went off early to reach Erchless Castle in time, alone in our yellow coach, with Rory Ross driving and Sandy Mathieson, our butler, on the box beside him. About 8 p.m. of a fine summer evening we boys were playing about the Conon front door when we heard the carriage coming, but, to our great amazement, on the box beside Rory sat our father, dressed in full mourning, though we had never heard of or seen him on the box before! The inside seemed packed full of people, whose identity was soon revealed to us at the front door. Out came Mathieson, and then, helped by my father, two seemingly dead mortals were dragged out of the carriage and laid down at the stair-foot, to be promptly rolled up in coverlets and carried upstairs to the double-bedded room. There was an amount of silent secrecy about the business that quite sobered our spirits, which were usually raised to a very high pitch when drunkies met us. I suppose our father considered both cases very serious, and felt their only chance of surviving was to take them home with Mathieson planted between them inside the carriage to keep up their heads and prevent their being suffocated.

“When Mathieson had got the clothes off the poor fools and bedded them, we were allowed to come into the room and got a lesson on the evil of moderate drinking and I shall never forget their fearful purple faces and stertorous breathing. We then learnt that they were two great friends of ours, the famous Dr. W. of Dingwall and one nicknamed Sandy Port, the British Linen Company banker (then the only bank in Inverness)—a very noted judge of port wine and a great drinker thereof. In about twenty-four hours they recovered sufficiently to have wheels to take them home quietly without tuck of drum.

“Afterwards I learnt from some who were present that after the funeral a grand dinner was eaten in a granary. My father, I think, was in the chair, and the drinking was something quite extra, and as one by one of the diners stepped away quite tight, the others sat up and closed ranks, and peepers in at the end door of the granary, seeing empty seats and heaps of full bottles, quietly became part of the mourning drinkers. In time so many intruded that Mackenzie of Ord and Mackenzie of Allangrange got their blood up, and, each seizing a wooden chair, belaboured the thieves so vigorously—both were extra able young fellows then— that they rushed to the granary door, and, there being no railing to the stair leading up to it, the chairmen belaboured them over the stair-top till they lay in a heap reaching right up to it from the ground, to the uproarious delight of all the mourners. We learnt that the intruders poured over the stair-head, say nine or ten feet above the ground, like turnips being emptied out of a cart. Then the two chairmen returned to the merry party inside, locking the granary door for peace.

“At that funeral every farmer that could muster a horse and saddle within, say, ten to twelve miles attended, and, as stalls for horses in Beauly could then easily be counted, the horses were picketed in rows side by side. The country was more populous then than now, when so many proprietors have cleared away their people to make room for big farms; so, as every crofter felt bound to attend the funeral, the crowd was by the thousand. In those times it was common for the farmers and crofters to tan their own leather, and then make their own shoes, but the leather was not always A1, and the sight of such crowds of horses, each with a saddle whose flaps would make first-rate shoe soles, produced such a thirst for leather that it is asserted that no rider brought home with him that night any flaps to his saddle; indeed, the scallywags seldom had such a good chance for shoe soles!”

I quote again from my uncle: “In April, 1830, Frank and his wife (Sir Francis and Lady Mackenzie), who were both devoted to Gairloch, settled to go there for her confinement, and as these things had given her no trouble previously, and as I, a doctor, was at hand should any help be needed, she and Frank had no fear of danger. But a week before the time when I was told to be at hand, as I was riding along the rough track by Loch Maree to Tigh Dige, I met Kennedy, the gardener, riding with such a dreadful face of woe that I hardly needed to ask for Kythe. Alas! she had gone to heaven the previous day. A dear little girl had come ten days too soon. Then, as Frank was quite unable even to think of any arrangements, I fixed the invitations for friends to meet us at Conon and go thence to Beauly to a very different funeral compared with the one I have already noted. As we had no wheel roads nearer than Kenlochewe, I decided on carrying the body shoulder high from Gairloch to Beauly, willing hands being more than plenty. I sent out word all over the parish for men between twenty and thirty to attend at the Tigh Dige on Monday evening ready to help us to Conon next morning, and I had quite a thousand from whom to choose the five hundred I wanted, those who were not chosen being anything but pleased.

“So I picked out four companies of one hundred and twenty-five strong men, made them choose their four captains, and explained clearly to them all the arrangements. I was to walk at the coffin foot and Frank at the head all the way to Beauly, resting the first night at Kenlochewe and the next night at Conon, say twenty-four miles the first day and forty the second; the third day we were to reach Beauly and return to Conon, say nine miles. I sized the companies equally, the men in one company being all above six feet, and the others down to five feet nine or so. I had a bier made so that its side-rails should lie easily on the bearers’ shoulders, allowing them to slip in and out of harness without any trouble or shaking of the coffin. We started with eight men of No. 1 company at the rear going to work, four on each side; the captain observed the proper time to make them fall out, when the eight next in front of them took their place, and so on till all the one hundred and twenty-five had taken their turn. Before all the men in No. 1 company were used up, the second company had divided, and the fresh bearers were all in front ready to begin their supplies of eight; the first company filing back to be the rear company. Thus all had exactly their right share of the duty.

“At first there was not that precision that was so surprising afterwards, but, once started, had the men been drilled at the Guards Barracks in London, it would have been impossible for them to have gone through their willing task more perfectly and solemnly. Not one word was audible among the company on duty, or, indeed, in the other three; every sound was uttered sotto voce in the true spirit of mourning, and I am sure every man of them felt highly honoured by the service entrusted to him. All of us being good walkers, we covered, once we fairly started, about four miles an hour. With the help of Rory Mackenzie, the grieve at Conon, and James Kennedy, gardener and forester at Gairloch, we had prepared plenty of food for the five hundred before we started; the food was carried in creels on led horses for each halt on the way. We had plenty of straw or hay for beds at night, and charming weather all the way.

“Our first halt was at Slatadale, on Loch Maree, where a regular flotilla of boats, drawn to the loch by men from the sea at Poolewe, was waiting for us. They landed us all safely, like an army of dumb people, at Taagan, whence we marched again to the inn at Kenlochewe, where we fed and went to rest for an early start next morning. The captains had their men trained so quickly that really, had I been blind, I could hardly have known when a new company went on duty. Not one word was spoken, but all changed places at a wave of the hand; there was nothing to tell of the change but the tramp, tramp of the new company stepping out on each side of me to reach the front. I have never been, and never will be again, at such a wonderful scene; I have never heard of the like, and were I to live a thousand years I never could forget it. Had the five hundred dreaded being put to death if heard to speak one word, they could not have been more silent. Many years after I had the great pleasure of reading the beautiful lines on the ‘Burial of Moses ':

That was the greatest funeral that ever passed on earth,
When no man heard the tramping, or saw the train go forth,
Noiselessly as the springtime her crown of verdure weaves,
And all the trees on all the hills paint their myriad leaves;
So without sound of music, or voice of them that wept,
Silently down from the mountain’s crown the great procession swept.

“I doubt if ever a more silent, solemn procession than ours was seen or heard of, and, though it was nearly a fifty years ago, I never can think of that wonderfully solemn scene with dry eyes. On the second day, some distance east of Achnasheen, we halted to give the men a little rest and some food. And as I spread them out on the sloping grassy braes above the road and saw food handed round by the captains, it was difficult not to think of the Redeemer when He miraculously fed the thousands who came to Him in a wilderness probably not very unlike the bleak Achnasheen moor. Before we moved away again every man had added a stone to the cairn on the spot where the coffin had rested. Is it not there to this day? Among those five hundred surely there were some not faultless in head or heart, yet sure I am that had more than a word of kindly thanks been offered to any one for his loss of a week’s work and about one hundred and thirty miles of most fatiguing walking, it would have fared ill with the offerer. Every man was there with his heart aching sadly for us. All were substantially and well dressed in their sailor homespun blue clothes, such as they may be seen wearing going to or returning from the herring-fishing. They were all dressed alike and quite sufficiently sombre for mourners; not a rag of moleskin or a patched knee or elbow was visible; all were in their Sunday-best clothes.

“Our next halt was at the west entrance to Tarvie Wood, opposite to Roagie Island, where another cairn still tells where the coffin rested while the bearers had some more food. There Tulloch met us with his detachment from Loch Broom, about thirty in number, and had he not just sold the Gruinord property he could and would have met us with a regiment like our own, but I fear our men would not willingly have given up their places. Indeed, I had an unpleasant time getting them to allow the Conon tenants to carry the body from Conon to the Highfield march towards Beauly. So our next halt was at the door of Conon, once dearly loved by our charge, and all of us were glad that we had got over so much of our undertaking so wisely and well. We rested till next day at one o’clock, when what some would think a more impressive procession accompanied us, in a crowd of carriages and riders, to Beauly. We had a very long day’s walk at not under three and a half to four miles an hour between Kenlochewe and Conon, and though all our men were trained to boating and not to steady walking, not one fell out of our ranks all the way; but a crowd of them lay down on the Conon lawn the moment we halted, and some were hardly able to move to the straw-bedded Conon granaries, where plenty of the best food gave them fresh strength for their last march.

“After the luncheon in Conon House, and after thanking our sympathising visitors, I marshalled our men and we walked off, the six-foot company leading, just as we had left Tigh Dige and Kenlochewe, the carriages and riders following. At the lodge gate the Conon tenants and hundreds of others disorganised us, as they wished to carry the coffin, and had our Gairloch men had but the least drop of whisky there would have been a serious fight. However, I compromised matters by getting them to let the Conon people carry the body to the Highfield march, and then we resumed our arrangement of the two previous days till we entered the Beauly Priory, where we found old John Fraser, the Conon gardener, our sexton when needed, with the grave all ready. After a Burial Service, we gently laid all that was earthly of dear, dear Ivythe to rest in the grave till the Resurrection."

I should like to finish this chapter with a description of a contested Parliamentary election in the county, which, of course, included the Lews. I was but a boy of six-at the time, and my mother took a keen interest and part in the contest.

The Gairlochs had always been strong Conservatives, and had invariably voted for old Mackenzie of Applecross, who had, I think, been M.P. for the county for many years. Now, my mother did not happen to like old Applecross; and besides, she was of a Quaker family herself, and, like most of her people, a strong Whig; so she set herself heart and soul to help the opposing Liberal candidate, Sir James Matheson, who had just before this come back as a very rich man from China, and had bought the Lews from the Seaforth Mackenzies. My mother got, I believe, every voter on the Gairloch estate to vote for Sir James, and Sir James's majority in the county exactly equalled the number of the Gairloch voters. Lady Matheson and he never forgot the good turn my mother had done them, and, from the time I was a boy of ten till I was a middle-aged man with a nearly grown-up daughter, I was always looked upon (as dear Lady Matheson expressed it) as enfant de la maison, and welcome to stay at the castle as long as I liked.

Before saying more about this election I must tell a story of another Ross-shire election, which, though it was much farther back in the century, concerned the same old Applecross. In those far-back days, it appears, votes could be handed to the candidate in the form of letters or mandates. Well, there was an enterprising man called Macdonald of Lochinver, and he had noticed on the Applecross property a beautiful native Scots fir wood in Glenshieldaig, on Loch Torridon, which he wanted to buy and ship away south. Now, he was canny, and, as he knew there was a county election coming on, it struck him votes would be more acceptable to Fear na Comaraich (as the laird of Applecross is called in Gaelic) than cash, so he asked him if he would sell the wood for the Stornoway votes. Applecross agreed. Macdonald sailed away in his yacht, the Rover's Bride, for Stornoway, and by threats, and bribery, and cajolery of every kind, he evidently got every vote in Stornoway, and, recrossing the Minch with all the paper votes in his pocket, he handed them to the laird a few days before the election. He then immediately started cutting down the wood. This is the story as it was told to me, and I believe it to be true.

I have heard also that the same Macdonald once got a wood for nothing by a trick. It was a natural fir forest opposite Ullapool, on the Dundonnell side of Loch Broom, belonging to the wife of the minister of Loch Broom. The bargain was made, and what did Macdonald do but go to the manse with payment on a Sunday. The minister refused to accept money on the Sabbath, and thus it is said Macdonald got the wood and never paid anything for it!

How well I remember the fight between Sir James and Applecross! We were living at the time in Pool House, at the head of Loch Ewe, and Sir James actually sent a steamer (one of the first, if not the very first to enter the loch) with my mother and all the voters in the parish of Gairloch to the poll at Ullapool. I was one of the party, and also my dear old uncle, Captain Kenneth of Kerrysdale, attended by a faithful daughter. The Captain was then nearly eighty years my senior. We got back to our homes that night. Still more wonderful, the same steamer took a number of us over the following day to Stornoway with the latest news of the poll, and back in the evening. I doubt whether there were many living in those days who accomplished such a feat as to go from the mainland to the Lews and return the same day.

I remember the great castle was hardly finished then, and the Mathesons were not yet resident there, but my Mother was presented by the castle gardener with a bouquet of scarlet geraniums and bits of yellow calceolaria. My astonishment at the latter'’s resemblance to little slippers was great, for I had never seen a calceolaria in my life! My uncle mentions having seen his first fuchsia when he was a lad at Brahan Castle in the last Lord Seaforth's days.

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