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A History of Rannoch
Land and The People

The account of the activities of the early days in Rannoch gives us an overriding picture of an area beset with strife and lawlessness.  We must bear in mind that at the same time there many people striving to live peaceful lives.  But life was hard.  How hard it was can only be realised when we understand fully their conditions.

Before 1700 they lived in huts of 'stake and rise' with walls only five feet high.  They had to creep in through the door, and once inside they could not stand upright.  The roof was of heather and turf with hole for the chimney, and the floor was of trodden earth. There would not be much in the way of furniture, perhaps a three-legged stool, and they would sleep on the floor on a bed of heather and bracken.  'The mair dirt the less hurt' was a common saying, but in fact they were so dirty that skin diseases were very common.  Particularly when seasons were bad, and crops, such as they were, blighted, then the people were reduced to extremity.  There were frequent years when many of them starved to death and others only maintained life by bleeding their cows several times a year.  They mixed the blood with meal and ate it as bread.

There was a lack of good oil for the land was rocky and at over six hundred feet, as Rannoch is, the summers are short.  In addition to this the people suffered even more because of their barbarous ode of agriculture.  The low ground tended to be marshy and instead of draining it the early inhabitants dragged their ploughs far up the steep hillsides because it was the only dry space they could find.  Signs of cultivation and remains of their primitive shelters can be seen on the flanks of Schichallion.

Cattle were the main form of farming.  Each household 'milked a cow and scratched a bit of ground', but because the land was so unproductive (lime was not known here until after 1750) the crops were meagre.  Later they learnt to drain the low lying ground.  Those that had crofts (small farms) had their land divided into 'infield' to which all the care was devoted.  Here they grew oats one year and barley next in constant succession.

Six times larger was the 'outfield'.  It was ill-kept and wretched.  Each portion of which was put to oats for a year or two and then it lay fallow for the same amount of time.  There were no dykes or hedges between the rigs or strips and at harvest time or when the cereals were young, the cattle belonging to all the crofters were collected each morning by the 'herd' (usually a small boy), whose job is was to keep them away from the cultivated areas.  He usually took them on to the hill, probably over the same route each day until it was time for them to come in in the evening, by which time they were famished and exhausted.  There was so little on which to feed the cattle during the winter that they became so weak at the time of their return to pasture in the Spring that they had to be carried and supported to the grass.  This was known as the 'lifting time'.

Although the people looked wretched in their rags among the dirt and squalor it is maintained that they were not generally unhappy.  They were content to lounge about in the long winters by their peat fires and they enjoyed dawdling in the summer sunshine.  It was also a good time for them at the beginning of the summer when they moved up to their sheilings to the pastures in the hills.  First the men would go to repair the juts and when the women and children would spend the summers up there with their animals, returning to the villages at the end of the summer.  The Sheiling Custom prevailed in Rannoch until the middle of the 19th century and hundreds of these sheilings can be seen even now in the hilly glens around the loch.  High up the burns the green patches and the clusters of ruins remind us of a people and a way of life that have disappeared for ever.

Although the majority of people were involved in this simple agricultural life, iron smelting has been a busy industry throughout the centuries.  Mr W.G. Aitken who has located and examined many of the 'bloomeries' in the district considers that it was very much a going concern in the 15th century.  Twenty-two hearths of the ironworkers have been found, but he considers that there are hundreds more.  These men, working twos and threes, were responsible for the disappearance of man of the woods of the area.  As soon as they had used up the nearby trees they moved on to the next ones.  They burned the trees to produce the charcoal and then with this and the bog iron which they obtained locally or which was imported from elsewhere, they smelted the iron, throwing the slag to one side.  It is these piles of slag that the observer nowadays encounters on the hillsides that gives the clue to the position of a nearby hearth.  One such place is the Aulich where the remains of their simple harths can be seen and where there are also the outline and post holes of a Charcoal-burner's hut.  It was on the burn here that Andrea de Ferrara had his smithy and taught the art of making fine sword blades, a skill for which he acquired world fame.  He was a much travelled man because many districts claim the distinction of having him among their inhabitants.  This primitive form of iron smelting ended when coke replaced charcoal, about 1800, which is just as well for there would not have been a single tree left in Rannoch had it gone on much longer.

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