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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century


"THE places in this country which produce sheep and black cattle have no provision for them in winter during the snows, having neither hay nor straw, nor any enclosure to shelter them on the grass from the cold easterly winds in the spring; so that the beasts are in a dying condition, and the grass consumed by those destructive winds, till the warm weather, about the middle of June, come to the relief of both." These words were written of date 1698, and they present a vivid and graphic, as well as, in the main, a truthful sketch of the conditions under which the live stock of the country existed about the close of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century. At that time the native breeds of both cattle and sheep were poor in character and poorly kept. Improvement in the rearing of neat stock seems to have begun in the south-western corner of the land. Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon, in Galloway, the very tragic story of whose wooing and wedding furnished Sir Walter Scott with the central incidents in " The Bride of Lammermoor," and who was himself killed in 1682, was "an active improver of the wretched rural economy of his day." And amongst other things, he formed a famous park, two and a-half miles in length and one and a-half in breadth, which could "keep in it summer and winter a thousand bestial." Part of these, we are told, he bought from the country,

and part were of his own breed, "for he hath nearly two hundred much kine, which, for the most part, have calves yearly." Sir David sold yearly to drovers, or sent to St. Faith’s and other fairs in England, about eighteen or twenty score of bestial. " Those of his own breed," the chronicler adds, "at four years old are very large; yea, so large that in August or September, 1682, nine and fifty of that sort, which would have yielded between £5 and £6 sterling the piece, were seized upon in England for Irish cattle; and because the person to whom they were intrusted had not witnesses there ready at the ptecise hour to swear that they were seen calved in Scotland, they were, by sentence of Sir J. L. and some others, who knew well enough that they were bred in Scotland, knocked on the head and killed."

This extract throws a somewhat curious light on both the cattle trade and the political economy of the time. Whether the Baldoon cattle were the ancestors of the native " Galloways" of the present day, we know not; possibly they were. But it does seem rather odd that a set of English magistrates (as presumably Sir J. L. and his friends had been) should seize upon a number of them and have them killed upon the mere suspicion, or pretence rather, of their being Irish cattle. The offence, even though it had been proved, would not seem a very grievous one, there having apparently been no dread of contagious cattle diseases then. But not only did Ireland possess a superior breed of cattle at that time; it was also against the law to import them into Scotland. We find1 Sir David Dunbar’s successor at Baldoon petitioning the Privy Council for permission to import from Ireland " six score young cows of the largest breed," for making up his stock in the park of Baldoon; he "giving security that he would import no more, and employ these for no other end."

Various others followed the example set at Baldoon,

and a considerable trade in droving cattle from Galloway and other parts of Scotland to England seems to have sprung up. Sir George Campbell of Cessnock, in Ayrshire, had also a park "furnished with ‘ane great brood of cattle’ and a superior brood of horses, both from: Ireland," and he, too, asks permission to import from the Green Isle.

The Union between England and Scotland, which took place in 1707, gave a stimulus to various branches of manufactures and trade, and among other things to the trade in cattle, which then began to be sent southward in greater numbers and from further distances oft’ than before; the profits derived leading certain gentlemen, members of families who considered commerce in any shape rather below them, to become cattle-dealers. Amongst these was the Hon. Patrick Ogilvie, brother of Lord Seafield. Seafield, as Chancellor of Scotland, had taken an active part in bringing about the Union, a measure very unpopular at the time north of the Border. And accordingly, on the Chancellor remonstrating with his brother, on his undignified business of cattle -dealer, the latter drily replied, "Better sell nowte than sell nations."

In a sketch given of a great cattle fair at Crieff, in 1723, it is said there were at least 30,000 cattle sold there, most of them to English drovers, who paid down above 30,000 guineas in ready money to the Highlanders; "a sum they had never seen before." The Highlanders, it is added, "hired themselves out for a shilling a day, to drive the cattle to England, and to return home at their own chargel." The connection of the Highlanders with the cattle business was not always quite so accommodating or creditable as this. Yet it is somewhat curious to find that the famous Rob Roy Macgregor, cattle lifter and outlaw, began his career as a legitimate cattle dealer, buying cattle in this very Grief market and other fairs, and

droving them to England. The first public notice we bave of him was his being advertised as a fraudulent bankrupt, who, having been "intrusted by several noblemen and gentlem6n with considerable sums for buying cows for them in the Highlands, has treacherously gone off with th~ money to the value of £1000 sterling, which he carries along with him." The real explanation was undecstood to be that Rob had been placed in serious pecuniary difficulties by the defalcations of a subordinate agent or partner, and to avoid the penalty of a harsh law, desired to keep out of the way for the time. But the Duke of Montrose, who had advanced money, as a sort of sleeping partner with Macgregor, having got Rob’s wife and family turned out of his poor property of Inversnaid, Rob took to the rough country round Ben Lomond as his retreat, assumed the outlaw’s life, and took sweet revenge by pouncing down as occasion served upon the Duke’s Lowland farms, and making booty of meal and cattle; and on one occasion of his factor, along with the rents he was engaged in collecting.

But Rob Roy was not the originator of the practice of cattle lifting, any more than he was the last that lived by it. A contemporary description of the Highlanders of this time, and which is more forcible than complimentary, speaks of them as "a people who are all gentlemen, only because they will not work; and who, in everything, are more contemptible than the vilest slaves, except that they always carry arms, because, for the most part, they live upon robbery." And truly the Highlander’s habits gave not a little countenanc6 to the accusation. Long before Rob R&y’s day, the unceremonious Celts were wont to come down in force upon the Lowlands, and carry off "spreaths" of cattle and other goods. We read of such expeditions as that made in 1689, by a dozen wild Lochaber men, who had come down to the heart of Aberdeenshire—.-more than one hundred miles—and

"lifted" six score black cattle. They were pursued by a body of nearly 50 horsemen, well mounted, and armed, and each carrying bags of meal and other provisions, both for their own support, and to offer in ransom for the cattle, if peaceful negotiations could be carried through. On through the hills, over marshes, rocks, and heather, the spirited horsemen followed, under their leader; and guided by a herd boy whom they encountered, they traced the robbers by Loch Erricht side into the heart of their own country. At nightfall, they came upon them at Dalunchart, encamped and busily engaged roasting a portion of the flesh of one of the cattle they had stolen. They offered, after some parley, to give each of the freebooters a bag of meal and a pair of shoes in ransom for the cattle. The Highianders treated such an offer for cattle driven so far and with so much trouble with contempt; the herd was gathered in, and the fight began in deep earnest, the result being that the Lochaher men were all shot down, killed or wounded, except three, who escaped unhurt to tell the tale; and the cattle were, of course, recovered.

In 1691 a certain Hugh Thaine, messenger, makes declaration that he is unable to go "the length of Edinburgh" from Elgin "by reason of sickness and inabilitie of bodie," from "the hard usage" he had met in Strathspey, in the wood of Abernethy. And he "supplicats" the Privy Council or other judges to "apoynt some way for redressing and punishing the abusses committed against the law and Government" upon his person and those in his company. Some Strathspey 1{ighlanders had lifted cattle belonging to Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstone, and Hugh, in his official capacity, had been sent to cite the Laird of Grant, as answerable for his clan: when he and three men who accompanied him "were seized upon be a pearty of armed men, who most maisterfullie and violently struck me with ther gunnes, gave me a stobbe with a durke in my shoulder, and a stroak with my owen sword; robbed me of my money, my linens, some cloathes, my sword, and provisious." They also took Hugh’s letters, bound him and his company, and "allways" threateued him with "present death" for executing "the foresaid letters." They offered his life to any one of the company who would hang the rest; and finally, haying secured them with "horse roaps," left them ia the wood, where they lay on the ground "in cold, hunger, and great niiserie for four days and three nights." Such was the treatment of which cattle lifters deemed the myrmidons of the law fit subjects.

The thefts and depredations committed upon some lands by Rob Roy and his followers are said to have been equal to the rents of those lands. The practice of cattle lifting had indeed come to be a well-systematised business, and the freebooting Higblanders had their own code of honour in conducting it. When cattle were stolen, one means of recovery used was to send an emissary into the region where tbe thief was supposed to be, and offer a reward for bis discovery. This reward was looked on with great abhorrence. With the high-minded Highlander, who scrupled not to rob his Lowland neighbour’s byres and his girnal, tascal money, as he called it, was the "unclean thing," and he and bis fellows would solemnly swear over their drawn dirks that they would never defile their consciences by taking any such reward from the vile " Lallander." " Black mail" was exacted with very peculiar coolness. When a district was almost ruined by the depredations of a band of thieves, their leader or some friend of his would generously propose that for a certain annual payment he would protect it from plunder. There was no help but comply, as those who refused were made special victims; and it occasionally happened that some of the thieves themselves, liviug within the district, were hypocritical enough to pay black mail to keep up appearances.

In the reign of William III., there had been an armed watch established, and severe measures taken to put down this system. But for a time this had been given up, and in 1724 Government established six companies of native soldiery, consisting of 480 men of the clans believed to be loyal, to prevent these cattle robberies and suppress the disgraceful impost. The men were dressed in plain dark-coloured tartan: and hence were called the Releudan Dhu or Black Watch. And such was the origin of a regiment since then highly distinguisheci in many a well-fought field—the. gallant 42nd Highlanders. They were formed into a regular regiment in 1735 for foreign service; and a consequence of the removal of the companies from their special posts as the Black Watch was the revival of the old practice of cattle lifting, which had been pretty effectually kept down by them. The caterans in 1743 came down again into Badenoch, into Nairnshire, and Banffshire, "harrying" as they could, and not scrupling even to kill those who resisted the driving off of their cattle. And in ~he following year Macpherson of Cluny had to raise a body of armed retainers, and take active measures to put down the determined incursions of the Highland robbers. Down to 1745, though the Highlanders may have confined their raids to nearer home, there does not seem to have been much abatement of the practice of cattle lifting. Mr. Graham of Gartmore, writing about the close of the Rebellion, says :—" It may be safely affirmed that the horses, cows, sheep, and goats yearly stolen in that country [the Highands generally] are in value equal to £5000, and that the expenses lost in the fruitless endeavours to recover them will not be less that £2000; that the extraordinary expense of keeping herds and servants to look more narrowly after cattle on account of stealing, otherwise not necessary, is £10,000. There is paid in black mail or watch money, openly or privately, £5000; and there is a yearly loss by under-stocking the grounds, by reason of thefts, of at least £15,000, which is altogether a loss to landlords and farmers in the Highlands of £37,000 a-year."

If Mr. Graham’s statement can be accepted as even approximately correct, the business of cattle lifting had clearly been of considerable extent. At that date the animals stolen would not have exceeded £3 in average value, so that sixteen hundred at least niust have been stolen annually. Only in certain cases the Il-lighianders apparently regarded reiving in the light of a serious duty. Captain Burt speaks of their holding the doctrine that they had a right to plunder their Lowland neighbours, particularly the Moray lairds, on the ground that their ancestors once owned the lands of these same neighbours. A letter addressed by the laird of Lochiel to the laird of Grant, the terms of which follow, bears out this view, and at same time shows that these forays were sometimes dangerous to both the aggressors and their victims :—

RALPH AND LOWING COUSIN.—My heartly commendations being mentioned to you. I have received your letter concerning this misfortunate accident that never fell out the like between our houses the like before in no man’s days; but praised be God, I am innocent of the same, and my friends, both in respect that they went not in your bounds, but to Murray lands, where all men taken their prey nor knew not that Moynes was ane Graunt, but thought he was ane Murrayman, and if they knew him they would not stor his land more than the rest of your bounds in Strathspey, and, sir, I have gotten such a loss of my friends, which I hope you shall consider, for I have aught dead already and I have 12 or 13 under cure quhilk I know not who shall die or who shall live of the saming; so, sir, whosoever has gotten the greatest loss I am content that the same shall be referred to the sight of friends that loveth us both alike, and there is such a trouble here amongst us that we cannot look to the same, for the present tyme, until I witt who shall live of my men that is under cure. So not further troubling you at this tyme, sir, you shall not be offended at my friend’s innocence, so I rest you.

ALEXANDEr CAM. of Lochyle.
Glenlacharkeg, 18 October, 1645.

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