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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


Z, Page 146.  Ancient Cultivation

Of this there are numberless proofs in all parts of the Highlands. I remember many old people, who, in their youth, saw corn growing on fields now covered with heather. Among many traditions on this subject, there is one of a wager between my great grandfather and four Lowland gentlemen. These were the then Mr Smythe of Meth-ven, Sir David Threipland, Mr Moray of Abercairney, and Sir Thomas Moncrieff. The object of the wager was, who could produce a boll of barley of the best quality, my ancestor to take his specimen from his highest farm, and Sir David Threipland not to take his specimen from his low farms on the plains of the Carse of Gowrie, but from a farm on the heights. Marshal Wade, who was then Commander in Chief, and superintending the formation of the Highland roads, was to be the umpire. Methven produced the best barley, Sir Thomas Moncrieff the second, my relation the third, Abercairney the fourth, and Sir David Threipland the fifth and most inferior quality. This happened in the year 1726 or 1727. It is said that the season was uncommonly favourable for high grounds, being hot and dry. The spot which produced the Highland specimen is at the foot of the mountain Shichallain, and is now totally uncultivated, but of a deep rich soil, only requiring climate and shelter with planting to produce the best crops. Some hundred yards farther up the side of the mountain, and more than 1400 feet above the level of the sea, the traces of the plough are clear and distinct; also the remains of in-closures and mounds of stones, which had been cleared away from the lands, when prepared for cultivation in more ancient times. In the present state of the climate and the country, bare and unsheltered from the mountain-blast, those fields, once smiling with verdure, woods, (the underground roots of which still exist in vast quantities), and cultivation, now present the aspect of a black desolate waste. This extension of early cultivation was the more necessary from the numerous population, of which there are so many evident traces. Although the more remote ages are called pastoral, the value and importance of cultivation seem to have been well appreciated. Forest trees of large size have flourished on those high mountains, as is fully proved by their remains, which are still found in mosses more than 1500 feet above the sea. Recent experience, in several instances, has shown, the Scotch fir and Alpine larch will prosper in those high regions.

[The larch is now spreading over the whole kingdom, and has proved a valuable acquisition to the produce of many barren moors in the Highlands, where the climate is found more favourable for this species of pine than in the plains. The wood is of an excellent quality. The Atholl frigate, built entirely of Atholl larch, is expected to show that it will prove a good substitute for oak in ship-building.

The larch was accidentally brought to Scotland by a gentleman whom I have had occasion to mention more than once. Mr Menzies of Culdares was in London in 1737, and hearing of a beautiful pine shrub recently imported from the Alps, procured four plants; he gave two to the Duke of Atholl, which are now in full vigour at Dunkeld, and may be called the parents of all the larch in the kingdom ; he gave a third to Mr Campbell of Monzie, and kept the fourth for himself, which unfortunately was cut down forty years ago. It had then been planted 45 years, and had grown to seven feet nine inches in circumference. The Duke of Atholl's plants were placed in a green-house at Dunkeld, where they did not thrive, and were thrown out, when they immediately began to grow, and quickly showed the consequence of being placed in a proper climate.

The Duke of Atholl sold one thousand larch trees of seventy years growth for L. 5000. If they had been planted and grown regularly, they would not have covered more than nine Scotch acres of the light soil on which they thrive best, allowing 32 feet square for each tree, more than ample space for the larch.]

An experiment to try how far their shelter would improve the climate, so as to make the soil productive and cultivable, as in former times, would, in the opinion of many intelligent men, be preferable to the modern system of improving our mountains and glens, by removing the ancient hardy race, that have peopled, for so many ages, extensive tracts which are now to be left in the state of nature, never to experience the influence of human industry. These regions might be improved into arable productive soil by humane and considerate proprietors, who retain their people, which are the wealth and capital of the country, and, in the opinion of Sir Humphry Davy, on the Improvement of Moss and Moorland, there is "strong ground to believe that the capital expended (in the Highlands the manual labour of the people is their capital) would, in a very years, afford a great and increasing interest, and would contribute to the wealth, prosperity, and population of this island."

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