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The Northern Highlands in the Nineteenth Century
Appendix 2

West Highlands and Skye in 1782.


[From the “Courier,” January 26, 1854.]

The following are extracts from a MS. journal or narrative, written by an English servant who came to the north in 1781, with his master Captain (afterwards Major) Macleod, whom he had served in America. Major Macleod died at Fort-George, March 24, 1782, leaving a widow and four children— the eldest of the latter a son. Captain in the 59th regiment. It was the dying request of the veteran officer that his servant should remain with the widow and family. Their means were very limited, but Captain Macleod, the son, assisted his mother, and she had also her pension. It was arranged that they should all go for a time to reside with the late Major’s relatives in the Highlands; and, accordingly, they sold off their effects and went to the House of Mr Macleod, a brother of the deceased, who lived at the farm of Arnisdale, in Glenelg. There they remained for about fourteen months. They were then invited to spend the winter in Skye with Mr Macleod of Gesto, a sister’s son of the late Major’s. At length, Captain Macleod, the son, came to Scotland, and took a house in Inverness for his mother, where she resided with her family till her death. Abram (for this was the servant’s Christian name; his surname does not appear in the MS.) seems to have been a faithful domestic, strongly attached to his mistress and her children. He had a dislike to the West Highlands, and complains of hard work, poor diet, and harsh treatment—his mistress not being able to do much for him. His journal is written in a good hand, but is ill spelt and ungrammatical. He had the feelings and prejudices of an illiterate English servant, with apparent honesty and simplicity of character: —


After the auction (March 1782) I went to Inverness and got a chaise to take us from Fort-George. Mr Macleod had gone some time before to get horses to meet us at Fort-Augustus, for a carriage could not go farther than there. We left the Fort in the afternoon, and slept at the New Inn in Inverness. The next day we went to Fort-Augustus, and got there early in the afternoon. Governor Campbell had been so good as to write to Governor Trepaud, acquainting him with our coming and where we were going to, so that he and his lady were no strangers to us, though they had never seen us before. We got to Fort-Augustus on the Wednesday, and stayed there until the Monday following. On Tuesday the horses came and we began our march. My mistress and Miss Susy had never rode on horseback before, so Mr Macleod and I expected we should have a great deal of trouble with them. I was stationed at the head of my mistress’s horse for fear of her falling off, and Mr Macleod had Alexander before him, and we had two baggage horses besides. The road from Fort-Augustus to Glenelg was all made by the military, and the same has been done south and east for many miles. From Inverness to Bernera is, I suppose, eighty miles, out through rocks and carried along the sides of almost inaccessible mountains. In some places the road is made zig-zag in such a manner that where you rise a mile in height it will be three miles in travelling.

The first day we went no farther than Anoch, in Glenmoriston, which was about ten miles, and we got into quarters early, such as they were. On Wednesday we had one of the most long and tiresome day’s travelling that ever my mistress or her children had. There was no place to call or rest at from Anoch to Glen-shiel, a distance of 30 English miles; and the road was always going either up hill or down, which makes it disagreeable to the best of riders, and much more so to such as our party consisted of. It rained hard the whole day, and wet us all through our clothes. I luckily had a big coat, which I accommodated my mistress with, and I also give my hat to Miss Hannah, and walked bareheaded all the way. The wind and beating rain made my face and eyes swell, but I did not mind it. On the tops of some of these mountains there is snow all the year round, and in the valleys it is either raining or snowing almost every day.

Before we got to Shiel House, my mistress began to be very much fatigued; but though she was so wet and had rode so far, she bore it remarkably well. Here we bade adieu to wheat bread, there being nothing but oat-cakes and barley bannocks. The next day, after a short but disagreeable day’s journey, we came to a gentleman’s house in Glenelg. His name is Mr Murchison. He treated us very kindly, and we stayed a day or two to recruit from the fatigues of the journey. We were now in the Laird of Macleod’s country, and all of them being akin, we were consequently among the family’s relations. The next stage we made was to a place they call Island-riach; the owner’s name was Macleod, and we stayed there two or three days until Mr Macleod went to bring us a boat to carry us to Arnisdale, there being no crossing these mountains for such riders as ours were, and hardly any for the best of jockeys, as the mountains rise one above the other to an amazing height—the tops of them being almost always lost in the clouds. We went by water, seven or eight miles, as I suppose, and then we came to our journey's end, to Arnisdale, Mr Macleod’s farm, at the foot of a very high mountain inaccessible on the side next the water. The house is about a hundred yards from the loch, which is called-Loch-Hourn, or Hell’s Loch, and not very improperly called so, for it is a remarkably rough sea—always high winds and rains, and seldom a day without storms or hurricanes. There is little communication from one place to another except by water; and I have known neighbours, when they came to Arnisdale on pleasure or business, obliged to stay several days on account of the weather.


It was in the beginning of August when we arrived at Arnisdale. It was their hay harvest, and I was set to work at the hay. Indeed they always found a succession of labour for me. After the hay, there was working amongst the peats for firing, and then came on the corn and potato harvest. The gentlemen farmers in the Highlands, who rent of the laird a farm of £60 or £70 a-year, have poor sub-tenants under them, sometimes twenty or thirty families oa such a farm. These are the most abject and servile creatures that can be, and the poor little huts they live in are built by themselves without any art or cunning; it is generally but one room, and the fire in the middle of it, without either chimney or window. A hole or two in the” wall and the doorway answer both to let in the light and let out the smoke. The whole furniture of such a house is not worth twenty shillings. Exclusive of pots to make their brochan and boil their potatoes in they have nothing of worth. The seats round the Are is a stone or perhaps a block of wood. Their beds in summer are made of heather, and in winter of dried fern or straw, and their covering is the plaid or striped blanket thrown over them. In winter the cows and sheep come in along with the family, and they are huddled together.

Their masters will not allow them to keep horses, so everything they do out of doors in the fields is done with their own hands. They do not pretend to work for more than a bare subsistence, and sometimes in bad seasons they fall short of it. During frost and snow the cattle must eat their little corn to keep them alive, as there is little hay got in so far north as this. The master allots them their small pieces of land up against the hill sides, or betwixt the clefts of the rocks, where his own people cannot plough; and they act very partially towards some of the poor people, as their little spots are changed yearly, and they have to dig or delve, as they call it, with as unhandy an instrument of husbandry as ever I saw. This is made of a crooked piece of wood, with an iron sock at the end of it; a wooden pin goes through it just below the crooked part, which they set their foot against. The small end comes up about five feet and makes the handle. The instrument is called the crooked spade (cas-chrom), and with it they dig their ground for oats and here (an inferior kind of barley), and also for potatoes. The dung is carried out by the man and his wife upon their backs in deep baskets or creels, and when they reap their little harvest, it is carried home in the same manner upon their backs.

Thus are these people continually employed in uninterrupted and fruitless labour, which can never free them from want. They cannot pay money to their masters, but they are obliged to do his work and to answer his calls. If it is to reap his harvest they must come though their own corn should be shaken by the wind, for whatever they have themselves is but a secondary object. If they should refuse to go when they are called, their master would turn them off his farm, and no other would allow them to live upon theirs. Besides their labour, they give one-half stone of butter and a stone of cheese yearly for every cow they keep. For sheep and fowls they pay more or less in wool and eggs, and if they go a-fishing some of the fish they get must be brought to the house. A young man-servant will get no more wages than £1, or £1 4s a-year, with leather for brogues. A young woman gets seven or eight shillings a-year, and if she is a favourite she may receive a pair of brogues and a neck handkerchief. What seems most strange is that they make no improvements in their husbandry. They are so prejudiced in their ancient customs that they will not leave them off. Their barley they pull up by the roots; then wrap it up in small handfulls; and when it is dry they cut off the stubble and thatch their houses with it. With their oats they burn the straw from the grain, and the women tread it afterwards in a straw tub until is is shelled; it is then ground in a little mill, which they call a quern, turned by a woman, who feeds it with her hand. I do not believe the woman will grind above two or three pecks a day. Sometimes the oats are thrashed to feed the cattle when the snow lies on the ground. Heaping and cleaning the corn are done by the women, and all kinds of labour is accompanied by singing. If it is leaping the women sing; if it is rowing in a boat the men sing. I think if they were in the deepest distress they would all join in a chorus.


With all their saving and care they want spirit to venture, for none of these farmers will attach themselves to fishing, which would be more beneficial to them than either raising corn or cattle. Herrings come in such shoals that vessels might be loaded with them. In September after we went there, the herrings were so plentiful that a fleet of ships might have been freighted with them. The country people had no salt to cure them, and they were left to rot and putrify, when they might have been boiled for oil. At our house they got some boat loads and gutted them, afterwards hanging them up by thousands in the barn, so that the wind could get to them and dry them, but they smelt so for want of salt that I wondered they could make a dinner of them. It is in their barns that they dry everything, as it is constantly raining. The barn is made of a framework of timber, thatched at the top, and the sides wattled with hazel rods. The wind drives through it, and in this way they dry their corn and hay, which they bring into the barn wet, and place it on a kind of sloping scaffold, adding fresh portions as the former dries.


The victuals being so poor, the people cannot work well. A peck of oatmeal, or 9 lbs., is the allowance for six men in the day. Part is made into cakes and part into brochan. The women’s allowance is one-half that of the men, and when they get meal they have nothing else allowed them. I could not eat their brochan and bad fish, and all I could get was milk mixed with whey or buttermilk. I am sure a farmer’s servant in England, with proper food and wages, will do more work than four of their stoutest men. They also spend much of their time in telling idle stories, and singing doggrel rhymes and nonsense; for when they used to explain them as well as they could in English, I could not perceive that there was much sense in their songs. Neither time nor season will make them exert themselves the more, though the loss of what they are about should be the consequence.


In December we went to the Island of Skye, to the house that young Mr Macleod of Gesto had provided for us. It had been the residence of the Dowager Lady Macleod, but was sadly out of repair. There were no windows in the lower rooms, and the rain came in at the roof. But there was a middling good room and a closet above stairs, and there was no family but our own in the house. My mistress got a servant maid that could speak English. Provisions were dear and scarce almost to a famine, and I had great distances to go for everything, acting the part both of man and horse. I used to go for butter and cheese to a place called Boreland, which was seventeen miles from our house. I once made this journey and back again the same day with 75 lbs. of butter and cheese on my back, but the creel blistered me severely. I have several times, when meal was to be sold at Dunvegan, brought a boll, or 160 lbs. weight, home on my back, a distance of five miles. I often used to cross the mountains to Portree to buy tea and sugar, with any other articles I could get, and this journey would be betwixt thirty and forty miles for me. There are no bridges over the many rivulets in the island, and there was no other way of crossing but by fording them, yet though

I was thus continually on my feet and out in everlasting rains, I cannot say that I ever had colds. The Highland gentry are fond of going about from place to place to visit one another, sometimes being a fortnight or three weeks from home; and when they return they perhaps carry along with them those they have been staying with. This they call hospitality, but it is only paying them in their own way by killing time together. A stranger such as I was, and in a humble situation, need not go to the Highlands and Islands. If the Highland servant’s master rides anywhere, the man must run after him on foot, be it ever so far; and when they come to the place they are going to, he may be for hours without getting any thing to eat or drink, although he is melting with heat and wet with running through bogs and fording streams. In the summer of 1784 we began to live better. We got two cows to milk, and we began to provide for ourselves. We cut peats and dried them. We also commissioned a barrel of flour and a barrel of biscuit from Liverpool. In November we bought a cow and killed it for winter keep. Oatmeal was very dear, being at the rate of £1 8s the boll. I went in a boat and bought six sheep, giving 4s 6d a-piece for them, afterwards killing and salting them. We also laid in our stock of butter and cheese for the winter; and fortunate it was for us that we were so provident, for the winter of 1784 was a dreadful one in the Highlands. The crops were poor, and the snow was so deep and lay so long on the ground that numbers of the cattle died, some of the farmers losing eighty and a hundred each. Everything was so scarce that the people eat the meat of those cattle that died, many of them without any salt to it. It was a distressing sight to see in every place you came nigh the men skinning the dead cattle, and cutting off the fleshy parts for food.

When snow lies long in the Highlands a great many cattle are always lost. No provision is made for them in the summer, the farmers depending entirely on the openness of the winter in that part of the country from its proximity to the sea. They have a great deal of rain, and though the oats and barley may grow well enough, it is often spoiled in the getting in, owing to the winds and rains at that season. For this reason the gentleman farmers, instead of raising corn, breed droves of black cattle, which they sell every year. The drovers come and purchase them, and drive them to the south country. There is a great want of method in their management, and it keeps a number of idle fellows about a farm-house who could be dispensed with, but then the system in time of war gives the gentlemen more consequence. The heads of clans obtain leave to raise regiments, and are successful, though many of the men are taken sorely against their will.


In June 1785 old Mr Macleod of Island-reach died. When a gentleman dies in the Highlands the funeral is attended by all the people of that part of the country; and at the place of interment there is a great quantity of meat and liquor provided. At Mr Macleod's funeral I suppose they baked four or five bolls of meal and killed two or three cows, besides several sheep and fowls; and there would be ten or twelve ankers of spirits. The provisions and drink are distributed promiscuously among the people, who are seated out of doors, and those who are fond of liquor return home intoxicated enough.


Captain Macleod, son of my old master, arrived in Skye in the latter end of May, after he had stopped some time in Inverness, and taken a lodging there for the family, and left orders with a Miss Fraser to buy furniture for the house. The first time we heard of his being in the island was at the Portree market; and I went and met him at Grishernish. He was soon tired of Skye, and impatient to be gone. He made me easy on account of my wages for past services; our baggage was packed up, and in the beginning of June we left Balmore, having lived there a year and a-half. Our baggage was carried in a boat as far as Drynoch. We itayed the first night at Gesto; next morning the family went up to the head of the loch by boat, and the horses were sent round to meet them at Drynoch. There were, as escort for the family, Mr Macleod of Gesto and Mr M’Caskill, a lieutenant in the army. After some time we got all ready, and our caravan began to move. We were soon at Sconser, where we took boat to Scalpa, and lodged there that night. Next day it blew and rained hard, but we were in such poor quarters and were so impatient to be gone that we took the boat again. At Broad-ford we got a larger boat, but the wind was much against us, and it came on a thick fog At last we got to Kirkton, in Glenelg, and stayed in the tavern all night. In the morning we went to Mr Murchison’s. The weather being now fine, we got to Shiel House that afternoon; and next day we travelled through Strathlong, being much fatigued ere we reached Anoch. The following morning we got to Fort-Augustus, and were made welcome by Governor Trapaud. The captain was so impatient to be in his own house at Inverness that we got a boat that day to carry us down the loch. At the bottom of Loch-Ness the Captain and I left Mrs Macleod and the children, and we walked on to the town, putting up at John Ettles’s New Inn. Next day we fetched the 'family in a chaise, and took possession of our lodgings on the 21st of June 1785. The house was pretty well furnished, better than we had seen for some years. We had four rooms on one floor, with a garret and a cellar for £8 10s the year; likewise a small garden, for which we paid £1. I hired a maid-servant at £1 4s the year.

Abram was now comfortably settled, with only regular domestic duties to discharge. The Captain paid him his arrears of w ages, and he had a windfall of £55—a legacy which he received from Yorkshire. He had also £20 by the death of another relation. In 1793 his young master—the second son of the family—obtained a commission in the army, and Abram withdrew his money from the bank to lend to the young officer. “If I had been master of thousands,” he says, “he would have had it all from me, for my heart was bound up in him. I went with him to Cromarty, and stayed with him from Wednesday to Sunday morning, the 10th of November. I left him about seven in the morning in bed, for I had not the courage to wait for his getting up, but came away without any refreshment or breakfast. I went crying through the streets like a child and the day being windy and boisterous, I did not get to Inverness until two in the afternoon.” This money was faithfully repaid, and Abram must have been comparatively wealthy in his old age, for in 1803, when the journal breaks off abruptly, he had £325 saved. His mistress, whom he had served so long, died on the 4th of January 1803, “and was buried on the 7th of the month in Inverness burying-ground, in the Laird of Macleod’s burial-place.”

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