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Deeside Tales
Chapter XXI

OF such ancestors as are described in the previous chapter was descended the last of the old poachers. Though little is known of his boyhood, he early began to display a touch of that chivalrous and generous nature for which he was afterwards distinguished, as well as a contempt for walking in the paths usually trodden by humanity, for which he was still more remarkable. An incident is recorded of his early manhood, which made people apply to him the old saying, “Sic like father, sic like son.” There were in those times, and even down to a year ago, when the present Chancellor of the Exchequer’s gun tax put a stop to them, shooting matches at which each competitor contributed a certain sum, and the money so collected was given in prizes to the best shots, or more frequently in the olden time expended in the purchase of articles of various kinds that some poor man had made for the occasion, which articles then constituted the prizes.

Sandy had been at one of these, probably one of his first appearances on such occasions. The prizes were to be “cogs” made by some poor cooper, to earn a little money thereby. He had won a large number of the cogs; but instead of carrying them home in triumph, he set to toss them up in the air, and shot balls into them. After thus destroying his own, he turned round, and seeing a young fellow looking with blank astonishment at such a proceeding, offered to purchase the few he had won. The offer being accepted, he treated them in the same manner; and handing the young man something to drink his health with, remarked, “If all the cogs were to be done that with, the poor man we have been helping to-day would get more work.”

About the time Sandy attained manhood, the most stirring gentleman on Deeside was Lord Kennedy, son of the Earl of Cassillis. This young nobleman was devoted to sporting of all kinds, and along with Mr. Farquharson of Finzean and two or three more of like disposition, led a very fast life. The party had shootings in various parts of the Highlands, but their principal quarters were at Falar, a deer forest and grouse shooting near the sources of the Tilt Sandy’s first engagement was as gamekeeper to his lordship at this place; but he did not remain long in their service, being “disgusted,” as he often said, “at the fast and godless life led by his employer and party.”

The Duke of Atholl, from whom the shootings were rented, had found it necessary to put certain restrictions on the party which were considered vexatious and oppressive. This roused their ire, till the feeling between them ran so high that one day when passing Blair Castle and seeing the Duke sitting in front of his mansion, Lord Kennedy, probably in jest, though it was not so understood, said to Sandy, “Now, Sandy, if you go and shoot that man, I will give you five hundred pounds.”

“Though your lordship would give me five thousand pounds, I would not do it,” replied Sandy, manfully; “for I have a soul to be saved as well as your lordship.”

His spirit was not of a temper to endure gentlemen’s service, even under the most favourable conditions, having frequently been heard to remark, “Sooner than be in any way a flunkey, Fd rather go and beg.” But especially odious to him was the service of such a man as Lord Kennedy, since to the degradation of the position must be added the shock his religious feelings often experienced through the life led by the party, especially through their profanation of the Sabbath, a day always held in high esteem by Sandy. His master insisted that he should go out with him and his companions to shoot on that, as well as on other days; and Sandy’s stout resistance to such an order was probably the reason of his giving up his situation. The party, however, often went without him; and when they did not go, they betook themselves to other sports, equally offensive to Sandy’s feelings, such as playing cards and shooting at targets. Sometimes they would lie on their backs and shoot their rifles sheer up into the air, to test the truth of the natural law that a bullet so shot will come right down again. This practice Sandy used to denounce as “not only a violation of the Lord’s day, but a tempting of Providence as well.”

At this period of his life he was a money-making man; and though he attended the balls and other merry-makings in his neighbourhood, he did not acquire the too common habit of excessive drinking, which is all the more to his credit, as he was “much taken out at them.”

Smuggling was then the ordinary means resorted to, to earn a little spare cash. There were, however, two departments in the illicit trade, one the production of the whisky, in which the population generally, both male and female, engaged; the other the transportation of the manufactured article to market in the large towns, which, though more perilous, was also perhaps more lucrative than the other; but it required more daring and caution in those who embarked in it It was to this branch of the traffic that Sandy gave his attention; and in conducting it had many a hairbreadth escape, and many a brush with the gaugers, even, it is said, encountering the dreaded Gillespie himself.

He was now in his prime; and his personal appearance was so remarkable that the writer remembers well how, when a boy, he and his playfellows used to gaze upon it with admiration. Yet it was not for any gigantic proportions his frame exhibited—he was only 5 feet n inches in height—nor yet for the idea of strength and muscular power it displayed, though that was striking, but for its wonderful symmetry of mould, and the noble bearing and lordly demeanour of the owner. How we used to steal up to where he might be sitting or standing, that we might enjoy the feeling of wonder which an inspection of his leg was always sure to inspire! It measured 17 inches round the calf, and yet, was so neat and “ clean in the bone,” that he could clasp it at the ankle with his hand. We knew by inquiry—it was a matter on which we had a craving for the fullest and most exact information—the length of his foot, the girth and length of his arms, his breadth between the shoulders, and his girth round the waist; in short, the exact measurements of his frame were to us matters of great importance, because they formed in our opinion the standards by which to estimate the perfection of other human forms. Add to this physical development a face so finely chiselled that it might have formed a model for Grecian statuary, a luxuriant, jet black beard and moustache, thick curly hair of the same colour, a dark hazel eye with an eagle glance, and we have a pretty correct idea of the personnel of the last, if not also the best, of the old poachers.

Sandy had too much sense to be vain of his personal appearance, but he cannot be acquitted of a consciousness that nature had cast his frame in her finest mould, and that it was his duty to invest it with suitable and becoming setting. He was therefore almost always clad in the garb of Old Gaul, which he had also strong patriotic reasons for wearing. His step was singularly elastic, and his movement when walking so light and graceful, that it might have served as a model to lady students of calisthenics. To the same feeling is probably to be ascribed the style he adopted in conversation. His mother tongue was Gaelic, which he used on all suitable occasions. When, however, this was unsuitable, he adopted pure English, which he spoke with the ease and accent of a real English gentleman. He never spoke Scotch, and seldom did a Scotch word escape his lips, and when it did, it was always tinged with an English accent

The Forest of Mar, which anciently filled both sides of the valley of the Dee, from Mar Lodge upwards to the slopes of Caimtoul and Braeriach, with the tributary glens of the Lui and the Derry, had been much reduced in its vast extent since the time when John Erskine, Earl of Mar, assembled on its confines the chiefs of twenty powerful clans with their followers to waken its echoes with the sound of the huntsman’s horn, and then to march at their head to place the “auld Stuarts” on the throne of the three kingdoms. But there was still a large quantity of valuable timber in these glens, especially the Derry, which the late Earl of Fife desired to turn to cash, and accordingly offered it for sale. Sandy Davidson, having made a considerable sum of money by the illicit traffic in which he had been engaged, turned his attention to this new speculation, after the smuggling days thus early fallen under the suspicion of being an occasional poacher in the Invercauld forests. The factor on the estate, Mr. Roy, had accordingly put him under ban of house and hauld, with the view of driving him from the country. It is probable that Sandy was not quite guiltless. He was too good a shot not to hanker after the sport which his gun afforded him, and too fond of excitement calmly to calculate the consequences to his temporal interests; for morally he held he was entitled to the indulgence. Mr. Roy’s action in the matter wounded him deeply; he resented what he deemed his tyranny, and took revenge by more frequently invading the forest than he might otherwise have done. That he was now an extensive contractor in the interest of the Earl of Fife had no tendency to mollify the feeling of hostility entertained towards him by the factor to the neighbouring chief, but rather tended to make him the reverse of accommodating to the floaters.

A little beyond the bridge of Invercauld, and in view of the mansion house, there was in the channel of the river a large fragment of rock, highly prized by the proprietor for its picturesque appearance, and as affording harbourage to salmon, but very obnoxious to the floaters, as it caught their logs in a part of the river where, on account of the dangerous rapids with which it was surrounded, it was impossible to reach them when the river was in floating condition. A huge cairn had collected on the summit of this rock, designated the “big stane o’ the Cluny,” and all efforts to move the logs and cause them to pursue their journey had been unavailing. When the river was high they could not be reached, and when low they were too firmly matted together and too heavy for human effort to produce much impression. The floaters therefore resolved to blast the obstructing rock, so that, when the next flood came, the whole cairn would be carried clear over the top of it. To this work they addressed themselves without leave asked of the factor, whose permission they knew they had no reason to expect Could it have been accomplished in the course of one night, it would have been done without his knowledge; but he had a sharp eye on these wild fellows, and learning early in the morning what had been going on while he slept, he lost no time in interposing his authority to stop the destruction of the favourite “ salmon rock.” An altercation took place, in which personal violence was threatened to the factor if he did not desist from his vexatious visits, and defiance was hurled in his face. An interdict was procured from the Sheriff of the County, but there was some difficulty experienced in serving it, and it too was set at defiance. Meanwhile the floaters had become desperate, and a plot was formed among some of the more lawless that, should Mr. Roy and his myrmidons dare to come on the cairn “he should be thrown into the river, sink or swim.” An insecure temporary gangway of logs had been constructed to afford a passage from the bank to the cairn, and it was planned that should Mr. Roy venture to come on this gangway, the log should be slipped, and he should be left to his fate. Sandy Davidson was no party to this murderous plot, but he had heard of it and resolved to frustrate it, though the intended victim was the man who had exercised towards him every species of persecution in his power. He took care, therefore, to be on the cairn next day, when the factor's visit was expected. The river had risen overnight and was in a very dangerous condition. When the factor, attended by a few followers, appeared in the distance, Sandy heard one of the men, not one of his company, swear that if the “tyrant” should come on the bridge he would never go back. He remonstrated against any personal violence being offered to him, however tyrannical he might be, but all to no purpose. Mr. Roy, on reaching the bank, determined, against the advice of those who were with him, at once to cross to the cairn. Sandy, observing his intention, bawled out in a voice that rose shrill over the roar of the stream—

“Don’t come, Mr. Roy; your life is in danger.”

“I’ll take my chance of that,” replied the courageous factor, and continued to advance, cautiously balancing himself on the unsteady logs.

“For God’s sake and your wife’s, if not for your own,” cried Sandy, “don’t venture on the cairn.”

But by this time Mr. Roy was midway across, with the foaming torrent beneath him.

“Slip the log,” said the leader in the plot, and suiting the action to the word, set his spoke in rest to hitch it off.

“On your life, don’t,” interposed Sandy, endeavouring to push the man from his rash act But finding that he was not supported by the other men, he leaped on the gangway, caught Mr. Roy in his arms, and by superior strength bore him safe to the bank. In another second the fabric swept down the river.

Whatever may be thought of Mr. Roy’s want of gratitude for his kindly act, there is but one opinion about Sandy’s conduct in sinking all differences, and braving all dangers to save the life of the man who had endeavoured by harsh means to drive him from the country. As a Justice of Peace, and as factor to an employer in whose eyes poaching was an unpardonable offence, Mr. Roy was justified in taking the most vigorous measures to prevent the destruction of his master’s property; and even, on finding that the usual legal steps were unavailing, in calling in the aid of the military to enforce the authority of the law; but he might have dealt a little more leniently with Sandy afterwards, without violating any part of his duty.

This floating business was the ruin of Sandy. The speculation proved unprofitable. The cost of conveying the heavy timber of Glen Derry 70 miles to market in Aberdeen far exceeded his calculation; and to put the cope-stone on his misfortune, he had re-sold to the Earl of Fife two hundred pounds’ worth of timber, the cutting down of which his lordship thought would be destructive of the amenities of Mar Lodge, soon after which the Earl became bankrupt, leaving poor Sandy unpaid and without any acknowledgment of the debt. When Sandy would be asked, “How were you so simple as to trust the Earl, when a report that he was on the point of failure was current?” he would reply with a degree of surprise at the question, “What! not trust a Lord of the Realm?” pronouncing the word in two syllables to give it more importance.


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