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A Highlander Looks Back
Early Days in Laggan


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 too.

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 carefree days.

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 circumstances demanded.

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 market stance.

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.


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