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A Highlander Looks Back
My Boyhood Days

ON the morning of 2nd July, 1877, I first saw the light of day. I was born in a small cottage near Cluny Castle, the seat of the Chiefs of Clan Chattan for many generations. My father, Malcolm Macpherson, was at that time Piper to the Chief, succeeding his father Angus Macpherson in that position, to which I and three of my brothers later succeeded in turn.

It may truly be said that I was born with the sound of the piobaireachd ringing in my ears, as in after years my mother told me that as I was being ushered into the world my father was rehearsing his piping programme for that night’s dinner at the Castle. At that time Cluny was at the height of its splendour and activity, but, alas, like so many more of our beautiful Highland estates, the glory of Cluny has departed upon the winds, but Craigdhu in its majestic grandeur still stands to tell the story of men of valour and undying historic glory.

Soon after 1877 my father retired and was given a cottage on the opposite side of the River Spey, granted by Cluny in perpetuity to our family. There now only remains the foundation of this little cottage, which during my father’s lifetime had become a veritable College for Bagpipe Music. From far and near pipers came for instruction in the classic music of the bagpipes, called in Gaelic Piobaireachd or Ceol Mor.

On the braes of Catlodge where our home was situated, I spent my boyhood days in an environment which was bound to play a part in my as yet uncharted voyage of life. In those far back days school regulations were not so binding and imperative, and at the age of seven years I was marched off with my elder companions to Gergask Public School, which is near Laggan Bridge, a distance of some three miles from Catlodge.

A new teacher, Mr Alexander Douglas, had just been appointed, taking over from a Mr Mackintosh, a very dear old gentleman who had retired. The latter, however, for many years continued to visit the school, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than giving instruction to a class of boys and girls. As a stimulant to our intelligence he usually had a baggie of sweets to be distributed to the deserving ones. Those visits were always hailed by us boys and girls for a sweetness which still survives in the mouths of the few now remaining who partook from the hands of that truly good man.

As a disciplinarian we found Mr Douglas somewhat different in his methods and were it not for a deformity of one of his legs he was admirably fitted for a Generalship in the Army. No lax methods for him, and when need be, and only then, the tawse and very often the cane were his instruments to enforce firstly, courtesy and good manners and secondly, sound study by day and home lessons at night. In reality he had a heart of gold, as we discovered in after years and as long as the records of that school are preserved, his memory will never die.

The Parish of Laggan in my school days was thickly populated and had four schools, Balgowan, Gergask, Kinlochlaggan and Garvabeg. Now it has but two, Gergask and Kinlochlaggan. Balgowan scholars now attend at Gergask school, and alas! at Garvabeg there is no longer need for a school. The once thickly populated glens produce but deer and sheep, and a hydro-electric water dam has taken the place of the once beautiful dell of Sherrabeg. In my day Gergask was a one-teacher school although in later years it became a three-teacher school, but now I understand it has been reduced to two teachers.

The School Examination day (annual) was the day in the life of the pupils. All turned out in their best clothes, kilts of various tartans with the Macpherson tartan predominant; slates were washed and in the adjoining burn their wooden rims whitened with sand. From Garvabeg the teacher, Mr Mackintosh, walked his flock past the old Chapel, Dalchully, and along the bank of the river Spey. No motor bus or transport of any kind save that with which they were born—a distance of at least six miles. After the inspection they walked home again, and no aching feet either.

Incidents of those days can never be forgotten, and here I must relate a few. Near the school there was a ditch or water drain, which was infested with wasps. These were looked upon as enemy number one. The older boys were appointed Generals, with their respective subordinates, the younger lads of whom I was one, as the rank and file. After the campaign was fully planned we were given the order to attack, with sticks or any other weapon we could lay hands on; there must be no retreat, the Commander keeping at a safe distance in the rear. Imagine the state of our limbs and faces when the order to retire was given and the battle won, if indeed it was decisive, for I must confess that the wasps had a good share of the glory. Our wounds can better be imagined than here described.

On the first of May, whatever the weather, boots and shoes were carefully put away until the winter blasts and the snow appeared on the surrounding hills. Bathing in the river Spey on a hot summer day was often resorted to and after a dip we rolled our bare bodies in the sun-bathed sands with after-effects often unbearable.

Church life in my young days had to be strictly adhered to, and little did I think that my new fishing rod, which I acquired when eight years old, was to be the means of getting me into serious trouble. We boys were true disciples of Izaak Walton, but on the Thursday preparatory to the Church Communion, which was always observed as a day of meditation upon the greater needs, my chum, Alick Macpherson and myself stole away with our fishing rods. We had a jolly good basket of trout on our return, but alas, this did not alleviate the punishment awaiting me for breaking the family rules,

My father was there to deal out what was thought the necessary, correction in no uncertain manner and in words which I shall never forget; I was truly chastened. This I believe was the only time in our happy life that he had cause to do so, but the sequel made matters worse: I hid my fishing rod, but forgot to take the worm off., and one of my mother’s best-laying hens helped herself to the bait, the hook causing suffocation and sudden death.

My school years, like that of many boys, were few. There were no bursaries nor family allowances and so the family exchequer had to be supplemented. The order was "earn something in the summer months, and return to school in the winter”. School session was generally a full year except six weeks’ summer holidays. School attendance was compulsory although not so severely enforced as now. Of course we got holidays at Church Communion periods, and on special occasions a day was granted at the discretion of the old School Board.

On one occasion four of my school chums, my brother and myself got into disgrace. On the road to the school in a nearby little stream there were small fish, which we named sticle backs. We thought how lovely it would be to catch some of those little creatures and transport them to our waterwells at home. The plan was laid by our imaginative leader, Alick Macpherson. There were three brothers Mackintosh in the ploy. The scheme was that we would stay behind the other scholars and after the tinkling of the school bell commence operations.

We had empty bottles to put the catch in and after a couple of hours we had them well filled. But our consciences began to bother us, and after serious thought our leader addressed us in words something like this: “I think, boys, we should go to school for the half-day, and when asked by the Master for the reason for our absence have a united answer:—that our mothers were baking this morning, and consequently we were held up until the luncheon piece was ready”. We poor innocents acclaimed the story with unspeakable satisfaction, and together we set off for school.

The teacher, however, had his scouts, and our best laid scheme got, as we afterwards appreciated, its richly deserved consequence. We boldly entered the school making for our desks as though nothing unusual had taken place. The old dominie was on guard and quickly brought us to the floor in front of his desk. There we stood in line, gaped upon by all the other scholars, and that we were guilty of misbehaviour could easily be seen by the most inexperienced detective.

The first question put by the Master and to our leader was: “What kept you this morning, Alick?” Answer: “Please, sir, my mother was baking, and I had to wait until my luncheon piece was ready.” “Oh yes,” said the Master. Next boy. “What kept you?” The same answer was given, and so it continued down the line. “It must have been a busy morning baking this morning in Catlodge,” said the Master. “Now it is my time for correction, for well do I know the true reason for your absence,” and with the tawse and the cane he belted us and taught us such a lesson that never again would we find ourselves in such a humiliating position.

The bold Alick Macpherson still survives, and is in comfortable retirement after long and faithful service to the Caledonian Bank and Bank of Scotland. My brother, too, has survived the rigours of three Wars, Egyptian, South African, The Great War of 1914-18, and is contentedly spending the eve of his days in the fair town of Perth. The boys Mackintosh have passed over, but to us who are left their memory will never fade.

At the age of ten I had my first employment on a farm. I hesitate to mention the remuneration, but listen, you young people who may read this book, it was the handsome sum of two pounds for the six months’ agreement, with a day of the farmer’s horses to take home my father’s peats.

It was hard going, up at 5 a.m., no eight-hour day, but oftener twelve. But, what mattered, we were content. There was something being earned for Mother at the end of six months, and after several such engagements with increasing wages I gained valuable experience that was to stand good in after years.

From the age of 14 years my schooldays were finished, and regretfully did my dear old teacher see me go, for he had mapped out for me a career in one of the professions, as affectionately stated in a letter he wrote me in after years, which is still in my possession. Here with modest pride I quote the letter referred to:—


“My dear old pupil and esteemed friend,

“Your letter of 23rd inst. with enclosure duly received, but words entirely fail me to convey to you my gratitude not only for your very handsome and quite unexpected and tangible expression of your feelings towards me—but your appreciative terms of any little thing I ever did for you—were a great revelation to me. and they have made me ponder over old days. Had the same Bursaries been in vogue in your day—as obtain now—certainly it’s not in Inveran you’d been to-day, but in the pulpit of a Church —as that was my ideal of your future when you were a mere boy— aye, a boy of great latent ability but Providence willed it otherwise. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your very kind letter, and will hand it down as an heirloom to my son, (who is fighting in Arabia) as a memento of the estimation in which his father was held by one of the best pupils he ever taught in his long teaching career of 54 years. Twelve Bursars in Gergask, and six in Glentruim have been accorded to my efforts in Badenoch and I’m quite pleased with the results. Please give my kindest regards to your dear wife and Bonnie Boy, and accept the same from Mrs Douglas and I to you and all your dear ones. It’s 40 years to-day since we were married. Many a time I sit dreaming and thinking about my dear ‘old’ boys, all their little plots, and many kindnesses. With love to you all and may prosperity and happiness attend you thro’ many long years to come is the earnest wish of your old Teacher and friend.

(Signed) A. Douglas.”

I had, however, ambition. I applied for a clerkship in the old Caledonian Bank, now the Bank of Scotland. I passed the necessary examination but here again frustration met me. No pay for three years’ service. Poor encouragement surely, and one which only the well-to-do could cope with. I then turned my attention to the Highland Railway service, which was then the Highland Railway private Company. Mr Andrew Dougall and Mr Garrow were then the managers of the line. On a bright summer morning in June, I was ordered to Inverness, the first time in my life to be in a town. From Catlodge to Kingussie I walked in order to catch the early morning train, returning to Kingussie at 5 p.m., when I walked home to Laggan, having done twenty miles on foot. A few days afterwards I was informed that I had passed the required examination—a pretty stiff one—successfully, and was duly appointed clerk at Dalnaspidal Station, wages to be at the rate of twenty pounds, twenty-five pounds and thirty pounds per annum, for three years. The station-master had only sixty pounds per annum. For a time I carried on, but finding it hard to make ends meet, I left the railway service, and turned my attention to the arts I had already acquired, piping and dancing, which never let me down.

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