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Deeside Tales
Chapter III

THE previous chapter contains a brief outline of the rise, progress, and fall of the caterans on Deeside, whose depredations are not to be confounded with those more military expeditions, the dan raids and forays.

Though, owing to the circumstances related, the name of the Macgregors is principally associated with these rievers, they were not much worse than many of their neighbours; and, on the suppression of cattle-lifting, they almost as readily adopted the manners of civilised life.

It was about this time, when they had made some progress towards respectability of character, that an unexpected outbreak of the old propensity occurred, not indeed in one of their own name, but in a kinsman, and fellow indweller of Morven Glen.

The name of this person was James Coutts, but he was known only under the sobriquet of Morven Jamie.

When Jamie first saw die light is not recorded in any register; nor have we any account of his upbringing or education. His first appearance on the stage of this world’s

transactions was as a wild Arab, going where and doing what he listed, without much regard to civil or sacred institutions.

Whether these evil ways of his were due to his inheritance in an irrepressible degree of the spirit of his ancestors, or to the disease which modems call kleptomania, or to some peculiar conformation of cranium or cerebral development explored only by phrenologists, or to early training, or to want making him mad, or to demoniacal possession, or to circumstances over which he had no control, or to circumstances over which he had, neither history nor philosophy has as yet positively affirmed. All that is known for certain is that, having fallen into these irregular practices, his course was no exception to the general rule—

“Steal a needle, steal a preen,
Steal a coo or a’ be deen.”

He only attained notoriety when he had reached the last stage noted in the above quoted proverb. A cow had been stolen, perhaps several cows, from the subjacent lands of Cromar, and suspicion fell strongly on Jamie. He was henceforth a marked man; but as he was known to be of a reckless disposition, people preferred to “flench” rather than fight him; and he was not slow to see the advantage which this opinion of his recklessness had gained for him, and resolved to improve it to the utmost.

A man of the name of MacRobbie, in the Braes of Crbmar, found on going into his byres one morning that the stall where his best cow had stood the night before was empty. He succeeded in getting on the footmarks, and discovered that during the darkness his cow had, nolens volens9 taken to the mountains. He had now no doubt as to the depredator, and resolved to go at once to Morven, and beard the lion in his den. He would fain have got one or two of his neighbours to accompany him, but as none of them seemed to relish the adventure, he set out alone. Encountering Jamie, in company with two of the Macgregors, he at once charged him with having stolen his cow, and demanded restitution under pain of the severest penalties of the law. Jamie scorned his imputations and threats, and had the effrontery to tell him, that unless he went home immediately and said nothing about his cow to anybody, it would be the dearest business to him he had ever in his life been engaged in. High words followed, and blows would have been dealt but for the interference of the Macgregors.

Finding himself overmatched, MacRobbie departed; but smarting under his loss and the impudence of the thief, instead of returning home, he went straight to Aboyne Castle to lay his complaint before the Earl. His Lordship assured him that the matter would be looked into, and despatched a messenger to cite Jamie to appear before him to answer the charge laid against him; but before the messenger’s arrival the accused had absconded. The Macgregors, to clear themselves of complicity in his crime, now repudiated all connection with him, and, as he well knew, would gladly have sacrificed him in order to gain the favour of the laird.

The Earl, finding his commands set at nought, procured a warrant for his apprehension, and the myrmidons of the law were soon upon his track. Hunted about in the neighbouring glens, he so skilfully eluded his pursuers that they soon got wearied of the fhfitless chase, and gave up the attempt to capture him, contenting themselves with obtaining a formal decree of outlawry against him in the Sheriff Court of Aberdeenshire.

A few days after this, poor MacRobbie and his family only saved their lives by rushing from their flaming tenements at the dead of night Jamie to the last denied that he had any hand in the fire, but when the subject was referred to in his hearing, he never forgot to remark—“Ye see nae good ever comes to onybody that’s been ower hard on me.”

His name now became a terror over a pretty wide district If cattle were missing, the owners, under fear of greater calamities, spoke of their loss only in whispers. It was, however, well enough known that the animals found their way into the Highland droves, which at that time north country dealers brought in great numbers to market in the south. These dealers were by no means fastidious as to the character of those from whom they purchased, provided they got good bargains. Jamie was always on trading terms with them, which, if it did not add much to his fair fame, procured him the means of subsistence.

By the proceedings instituted against him at the instance of MacRobbie, he had been thrown out of house and hauld of his own. For lodgings, therefore, he usually took undisputed possession of some outhouse, seldom staying more than one night in the same place. He had a great aversion to passing the night in a dwelling house, or, indeed, in any house that might be secured by locks and bars. His favourite dormitory was the bam, a building very different from its successor the modem threshing mill.

For the convenience of winnowing the grain, the old bam was provided with two doors, one in front and the other directly opposite behind. The operation of winnowing was performed by throwing both doors wide open, and letting the com drop from a sieve or bolter in the current of air passing between them. The chaff was thus swept out at the one door by the draught entering by the other, and the winnowed grain was left on the earthen floor in the intermediate space.

It was just in this space that Jamie usually took up his quarters for the night, so that if his retreat were attempted to be cut off at one entry he might have a chance of making good his escape by the other. In this manner he lived for some years, not, however, without several attempts being made to apprehend him. These sharpened his wits, and put him under the necessity of adopting such precautionary measures for preserving his liberty as have been noticed.

He chiefly somed on two brothers of his own surname, who held conjointly a small farm on the skirts of Morven* coming and going without let or hinder as he had a mind, and exacting food and other necessaries of life by way of Blackmail.

But Jamie’s career as a cateran was drawing towards its close. So long as he only meddled with the property of ordinary mortals he managed to escape with impunity. But success in crime is dangerous. Emboldened by his, he had the audacity to lay sacrilegious hands on some cattle belonging to the minister of Strathdon, and under cloud of night to unite them to a Highland drove lying on the GlaschoiL In those days he might defy the arm of the civil power, but he had miscalculated the puissance of the ecclesiastical, and mistaken the sort of men the ministers of Strathdon generally were. His information on this latter point was probably more defective than ours, thanks to the Baronet of Ulbster. Take the following sketch, from the Old Statistical Account of Scotland, of the men and ministers of Strathdon—

“The proprietors, who were very numerous, appear, at least some of them (for there are exceptions in the worst of times), to have been haughty, resentful, and cruel; nor were they at any loss for assistants in executing their most mischievous projects; as their example was followed and their commands implicitly obeyed by their tenants and followers. They had their feuds and family quarrels which they prosecuted in the most violent manner without regard to time or place. Even the churchyard was on a Sunday sometimes the scene of action, where two hostile lairds with their respective adherents rushed upon one another with their durks and shabbies. The ministers in particular felt the effects of their savage barbarity. One minister—Mr. Baxter —had his head cut off at the manse door, with a Lochaber axe, by a laird in his neighbourhood. Another—Mr. Mac-sween—towards the beginning of the present (18th) century, after repeated insults, was attempted to be smothered with a wet canvas when at family prayers; but being a man of considerable bodily strength, he extricated himself from the toil, and some others met not always with the respect due to their character and functions.”

As Jamie’s bad fortune would have it, the incumbent of Invemochty of the time was highly popular with both lairds and vassals, and it was considered by them as an insult to the parish to allow their spiritual head thus lawlessly to be despoiled of his temporalities. Some of the most active men of the glen accordingly placed their services at his disposal. For two whole days Jamie ran before them, doubling and earthing like a fox before the hounds. At the middle of the second night he presented himself at the house of the brothers Coutts, in a state of great exhaustion and terror, and in a meeker manner than usual, begged a little refreshment

After hurriedly devouring what was set before him, he thus accosted the elder brother—

“John, I’ve got meat, and drink, and lodgings here when my ain kin drove me starving Pae their doors. Ye micht aften hae betrayed me, but ye never did. Ye’ll no be troubled wi’ me mair. I see the minister’s beagles are determined to hae me, an’ I maun flee the country. Will ye promise me ae thing, an’ no deceive me at the last? Will you come to Aberdeen the day after the mom an’ see me shippit?”

Simple-hearted John promised, and his terror-stricken guest again plunged into the darkness from which but a few minutes before he had emerged.

At the time appointed the two met on the quay at Aberdeen, where die good ship had her sails already set There the c&teran gave John Coutts an inventory of his affairs, no very heavy document it may be presumed. Some little thing also by way of keepsake was pressed upon his acceptance.

“An* noo, John,” said he, “I'm awa’; but where I'll go, or what I'll dee, I little ken; but the bonnie braes o’ Morven I'll see nae mair.”

And though for many a day he had been there but a miserable vagabond, the thought of parting with his native glen for ever brought the tears into his eyes and his voice got husky. After a pause, he continued—

“But, John, wherever I go, if ever I come to onything, I'll mak you my heir, mind that”; and after grasping by the hand the only human being he cared for, he leaped on board, and was soon out on the billows.

Honest John’s cogitations on his companion were somewhat serio-comic—

“Aifter an’ a’,” said he to himself, as he wended his way homewards, “aifter an’ a’, the peer rascal's nae that ill-hearted. ‘ If ever I come to onything, I’ll mak you my heir.' If ever ye come to onything, Jamie, my man, I muckle fear it'll be the gallows, and I dinna want sic an heirship as that Hoo-somever, ye're awa’, gweed be thankit; the countra could weel spare ye, honest man!”


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