DURING the years 1888 to 1898 my life was
occupied much as already stated, my home being in Laggan, and most of
this period was spent there. The recollections of those years would take
many pages to record. Here let me state a few.
At that time, like all other Highland parishes, Laggan lived its own
life with little communication or interference from the outside world.
Nevertheless, it was the natural life, and the people made their own
pastime and enjoyment. A neighbour in need of a helping hand could
always depend upon getting it and without remuneration of any kind save
the goodwill that always prevailed.
There were many farms and crofts. From Breakachy to Laggan Bridge, a
distance of three miles, there were eight with large and good sheep
stocks, whilst from Craigdhu to Laggan Bridge, on the opposite side of
the Spey river, there would be at least treble that number. Crathie on
the west was a regular hive of crofters, Sherrabeg and Sherramore
opposite, boasted their beautiful farm lands, and of Kinlochlaggan
district the same could be said.
The situation today bears no comparison, in fact my Highland sentiment
rebels and refuses to make any comment. “Oh! where, tell me where, are
our Highland Laddies gone?” If only our derelict crofts could speak they
could tell the story.
We had three tailors, three shoemakers, an equal number or even more
carpenters and masons, all with their assistants, and plenty of work for
all. We had a sawmill and a meal mill; to the latter I brought many a
quarter of the best of oats. Today one can hardly recognise the spot
where it stood, but the memory of the good old miller and his hospitable
wife still remains.
We had a lime kiln too, and a blacksmith at the smithy where there would
often be a queue of horses waiting to be shod. The sparks would be
flying from the anvil, whilst the dear old smith Hugh Macdonald, with
his countless stories, and 'his wonderful personality, kept everybody in
the best of spirits, and to his undying memory, never forgot in parting
with his customers and friends to remind them that there were greater
gains than those of materialism.
We had six shops where provisions of all kinds could be had. in fact
anything from a needle to an anchor, and perhaps something else too.
Happily, living was cheap, sugar, l£d to 2£d per lb.; tea l/6d to 2/-
per lb.; butter, 7d to 8d per lb.; best oatmeal, 1/- per stone. There
were no butcher shops, but prime beef could be bought at 6d to 8d per
lb., and mutton at 3d to 4d per lb.
Men’s clothing: the best tailor-made suit for £2 10/-; men’s boots,
handmade, guaranteed for two years, (and it was leather too, and not the
spongy material of today) for £1. A kilt of any tartan with eight yards
of material from £3 to £4. Children’s requirements were correspondingly
cheap. Eggs from 5d to 6d per dozen, and a barrel of Lochfyne best cured
herring for £1, now costing £5.
Wages admittedly were low, but there was thrift in the home, and it took
little to create a spirit of contentment and happiness. At that time
things were stable, and with a pound note one could do much; even with
2/6d, one could treat a friend, and have a good spree if so inclined,
and a good smoke for 3d per oz. of best Bogie Roll tobacco. The evil of
chain cigarette smoking is well known. What then for the “bad” old days?
Surely something in their favour can be said!!
Today with the ever-increasing wages demand, with consequent rises in
costs and general discontent, and with less production, one wonders
where we are getting to, and State control and subsidies to my mind,
will never cure the evil.
Laggan had its own two hotels—now only one—and well conducted they were
I can remember the smearing of the sheep stocks before the introduction
of dipping. The smearing took place twice a year for the purpose of
keeping the sheep clean and improving the wool. This was a tedious job.
It was later learned that this method was not so effective as the
dipping. Besides our own local men, many came from the islands of Skye
and Lewis. Every man had to do his quota, and the work was often done to
the light of tallow candles until late hours at night. I need not deal
with the process excepting to say that the wool had to be carefully
shedded in strips, and with the fingers the smearer put into it the
required mixture of tar, a cheap kind of butter, and other ingredients,
until the animal was well and truly done.
What a joy it was to us boys to be in the company of thosa incomparable
Highlanders. It has often been argued that since dipping came into force
the fishing has steadily declined, and with this I feel I must join
forces, for today in the mountain burns where as a boy I could always
get a good basket of trout, with few under a pound weight, one can only
get tiddlers, and few even of these. Dipping, undoubtedly, harmed the
life of fish by getting into the various streams as proved by the
decline in subsequent catches.
The bringing back of the cattle to the hills, which is being tried now
at Inverlochy, Beaufort and elsewhere, may stop the decline and boys of
the rising generation will, I hope, have many happy days and full
baskets from the mountain streams which I loved so much and fished in my
Seedtime and harvest were always looked forward to with great glee, and
there was no scarcity of labour. Sheep clipping was another great event
eagerly anticipated and greatly enjoyed by us boys. I have seen more
than twenty clippers take their seats on the braes of Catlodge, and who
could ever forget the midday dinner on the green beside the old fank. A
good three-year-old wedder (more than one if required) would be killed
for the occasion, and after Grace was said reverently as those good old
men could, it was a great feast with plenty of the wine of the country
to wash it down for those who cared to indulge, and to be truthful they
were not in the minority.
I can remember the old cattle-droving days when herds of the most
beautiful Highland cattle used to pass to Perth and Falkirk market from
the far North and West, and the islands of Skye and Lewis. These herds
passed over the Pass of Corrieyairack where today they are erecting
pylons to carry electric power, which soon will be connected to the
homes of the people throughout the Highlands—a great undertaking. To us
boys it was great fun helping (as we thought) to drive the cattle to
their nearest recognised stance a distance of three miles on the main
road to Perth.
On the stance the cattle grazed and rested for the night. There was a
cottage nearby, “Tigh-an-Uilt” (Burnside Cottage), where the drovers
were put up for the night and attended to as only the worthy occupants
of that cottage (Angus and Mrs MacKillop) could. Angus was farm grieve
on the farm of Breakachy (a distance of three miles from Burnside) then
tenanted by a Mr McCall-Smith. Every morning Angus walked to and from
his work—never later than 6 o’clock in the morning to get his horses
fed, groomed and prepared for the, day’s duties—ten hours or more as
Angus MacKillop had a large family. I can remember nine, with whom I
went to school. The oldest (Donald) got married and settled down in
Braemar, and it was a great joy for me over a period of nearly a quarter
of a century to visit Donald on my annual trip to judge at the Royal
Gathering. We talked of the old days in the mother tongue, and of scenes
we shall never see again, but this year a short time before the
Gathering, my old friend had passed away at the good old age of 81
years, and so another link with the past is broken.
To hear the good folks of Braemar talk of my old friend as “one of the
most conscientious and best of men ever stepped in leather shoes” was
indeed a great tribute to that homely cottage adjacent to the cattle
In Laggan we had bonnie lassies too who could always do their share of
the day’s toil. On one I early cast my affections, which never cooled
off, and she is today scurrying around as my devoted wife whilst I jot
down in reminiscent mood these fragmentary lines.
Here, in Laggan, I had my courtship and one day on a bright but chilly
morning in the month of April, my bride-to-be and I conceived the idea
that a day on Loch Dhu would add to our joys, and so, well armed with
the necessary equipment and a good supply of sandwiches, we set off on
our trek of five or six miles. Distance was no obstacle. In due time we
arrived at where the loch was supposed to be. The precipitous rock all
round convinced us that we had made no mistake, but what did we find,
not a loch to fish on, but a frozen lake, with ice inches thick. In her
own jovial way, my companion said: “Instead of fishing we should have
brought skates”. I felt a little embarassed after taking my lady such a
long distance and over a difficult route. However, there was the burn to
fish, and this we did in the environment of the Hills of Cluny and in
the sweetness of love’s young dreams, our fishing baskets testifying or
our return that we were truly fishing.