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Chronicals of Stratheden

WE have endeavoured to describe the general features of the average Highland parish of our own times. There are a few peculiarities long associated with the Highlands—such as witchcraft, second-sight, and certain other superstitious beliefs—to which some may think a distinct chapter should have been allotted. Such beliefs, however, are all but vanished, being very much scared by railways, newspapers, and schools, not to speak of the influence of the pulpit, though this latter has not always been so helpful as might be wished. As, however, such beliefs widely prevailed until within a recent period, and as isolated traces of them may yet exist, a few general remarks on the subject may suitably occupy a part of this concluding chapter.

Reputed witches and uncanny ones of that ilk, that "took away" the milk, as was alleged, from cows, and that dealt in other mischievous practices, were by no means rare in the Highlands about twenty years ago. We remember some score years ago having seen a representative of the hated sisterhood. She was old, and had a wrinkled and somewhat sable face,—all which features, of course, are ordinarily considered requisites in a witch. She invariably carried about with her a small tin pail, and it was in this pail the appliances for her alleged diabolical artifices were believed to reside. She was peculiar among witches because of the pail. Other witches went about without a pail, and were not supposed to be engaged in evil-doing beyond the pale of their homes, whereas the pail witch was believed to be capable of doing injury anywhere with the pail. Schoolboys half trembled at the sight of her when she came from her home in the hills to the little village; and certain owners of cattle no sooner saw her than they deputed a special messenger to go to look after the cows, lest by her odious charms, as was alleged, she might "take away," or take the virtue from, the milk. In such houses as she honoured with a visit it was thought prudent to be kind to her ; for—so thought those that made her peace-offerings—who knew what she might do to man or beast, or both? She and her pail have disappeared some dozen years ago, and though she had several rival witches in her day in her neighbourhood, it will to-day be difficult in the same district to find even one successor.

We also remember having frequently seen in a Highland parish some twenty years ago an old man, one of several believed in the district to possess second-sight. He said that he "saw" funerals weeks before the event; and it was alleged that at church, and other gatherings, he at times "saw " on some one or other a shroud!—a sure sign that the person was soon to die, the nearness of the event being in proportion to the extent of the body covered by the shroud. If to the waist, a month or two might elapse, but if to the neck, a few days only, while if reaching the head, an early sudden death might be expected. Others again, not however persons credited with second-sight, alleged that they saw and heard premonitions of death,—such as hearing noises and seeing lights in a joiner's shop when it was known the workmen were away—these sounds and lights being taken as a proof that a coffin would very soon be made in the joiner's workshop. Some years ago we heard a somewhat intelligent shopkeeper in a Highland parish gravely saying that one afternoon in his shop lie saw a bundle of white cotton moving voluntarily on a shelf and unfold itself along the floor! which automatic exercise he explained by saying that part of the cotton was soon after used as a shroud.

A remarkably tenacious superstition is the belief in "the seventh son" being able to cure scrofula. We knew some dozen years ago two cases where this, so to speak, inherited royal-touch cure was being tried. In one of the cases the seventh son, called the "doctor" by the other members of the family, and a very smart little fellow, was so young that he had to be carried a part of the way to the residence of his patient. The "doctor" is to-day a big boy—a young man, indeed—and right heartily does he laugh at the elaborate farce in which he was wont in early life to play so important a part. In some districts there is no small credence given to the allegation that certain days are unlucky, and many persons consider it unlucky to find a pin or meet a toad on the road; and there are instances of people avoiding meeting certain persons, whom to meet they consider unlucky. These and suchlike time-honoured beliefs and customs, we repeat, are fading. A few yet believe in them, encouraged in some instances by remarkable coincidences and the wish to believe; but the growing doubt regarding them among grown-up people generally, and the utter disbelief in them, as a rule, among the young and the educated, clearly prove these beliefs and customs must soon altogether yield to the progress of to-day.

Some may have desiderated in these pages more special attention to the subject of education and schools. This is unnecessary. The matter has been incidentally referred to in one or two portions of the book, and such other features as are special and important may be briefly told.

Gaelic schools, once common in the Highlands, are now exceeding rare. Ten years ago we visited a Gaelic school taught by an intelligent old man,—who, by the way, expressed but slender faith in the necessity of his special work. The district is a populous one, containing some three hundred inhabitants, but there were only some half-dozen pupils. To-day there is not one pupil. A few hundred yards from where the Gaelic school used to be there is a large Board school, with two teachers, but Gaelic is not taught; and it is worth mentioning, that while thirty years ago the great majority of teachers in the Highlands could speak Gaelic, today very many are unable to speak it,

The changes brought about in educational matters by the Act of 1872 are, as yet, not marked. 1 Zany parishes have more schools, but the compulsory clause does not in every place show improved attendance. In the matter of religious instruction in schools, "use and wont" may be said to be universally required, School Boards usually deputing the clergy to inquire into the manner in which this important matter is attended to.

Education, generally speaking, is undoubtedly making rapid strides in the Highlands, and did so likewise under the old parochial system, which, as a rule, worked admirably in the Northern Highlands. Thirty years ago, in a Highland parish of say fourteen hundred inhabitants, it would have been easy enough to find three hundred, or nearly one-fourth, unable to read or write, while in a similar parish to-day it will be difficult to find sixty persons thus uneducated. No doubt, just like other people, some Highlanders that take up the pen make at times .a slightly remarkable figure with it. During the taking of the census of 1871, a West Highland crofter, 46 years old, wrote down his age at 406, the adding of nothing, strange to say, giving him an antediluvian venerableness. But since the last census there has been as, marked progress educationally among the crofter population, so that in future there will be less likelihood of a similarly inaccurate ciphering taking place.

It may be thought by some that a special chapter should have been devoted to an account of the general character of the residents in a Highland parish of to-day. This would have been advisable, and even necessary, were the character-peculiarities of such residents numerous or marked. Such peculiarities of character and disposition as were associated with the Highlander when the Highlands were remote have very much faded, along with the individuality of the Highlander of that period—an individuality now very much, because of the growing communication with the larger world outside his native hills and glens, merged in the national life and character. Bravery, hardihood, and endurance yet characterise the better type of Highlander; but, happily, the isolation and local misunderstandings, to put the latter mildly, that so often long ago called forth these qualities in uninviting fields, are altogether, in the case of the latter, and all but in the case of the former, gone. The perseverance and determination implied in the qualities mentioned are to no small extent observable to-day in more peaceful walks of life; and it is well known that, because of these two latter features, Highlanders going to push their fortune in southern towns and in foreign lands are often especially successful. As to other features of character little need be said. For a long time Highlanders were believed by many to be a simple-minded if not guileless people; while others in recent times speak of them in quite a different strain. Each estimate, very probably, is partial truth. We suppose that, so far as guile and guilelessness are concerned, Highlanders are very much like their fellow-creatures the whole world over, and neither better than they ought to be, nor perhaps so bad as they themselves allege of each other,—so that it is unnecessary to discuss the matter. To-day we occasionally meet a veritable Nathanael in a Highland parish; but though, as a class, as genuine very probably as their neighbours, to call them guileless as a people would be to say what few, if any, of themselves believe. It is common enough in a Highland parish of today to hear such expressions among the natives as "the people are getting much sharper and smairter like than they were before;" and such sharpness and smartness, though referred to as evidence of progress, are mentioned in a tone and manner calculated to convey the impression that there is no wish or reason to claim for the people a prevailing guilelessness.

It may be worth noticing, also, that some who can compare the Highlands past and of to-day declare that the people are less social to-day, less kindly interested, indeed, in each other's welfare. It would be foreign to our purpose to discuss this matter at length. It may be observed, however, that the fact of the people to-day being busier, and competition greater, may partly explain the change, if change there be. We do not think that, beyond what might be thus accounted for, there is any marked absence of the sort of kindliness indicated ; and even should the people seem to be less kindly, which we fear is true of some, to some extent there is a real widening of healthful sympathies, brought about by the changes that have diminished what was a merely local, and often only an apparent, attachment. Some people, more prejudiced than enlightened, allege that at the period of the Secession of 1843 from the Church of Scotland, practical Christianity was at a low ebb in the Highlands; but the general character of the Highlanders at present in the matter of purity and truthfulness cannot be said to prove that any moral improvement has taken place in the Highlands as the result of that Secession; nor, besides, is it easy to avoid the conclusion that if pulpit utterances in a certain quarter had been less devoid of Christian charity, a greater measure of friendliness, and consequently of straightforwardness, might to-day characterise the people generally. That there are kindly and straightforward ones among Highlanders, and, relatively, as many as among other people, we rejoice to believe; and notwithstanding that some of themselves regettingly allege that "the people are no what they were,"—that, in other words, deterioration in general character has taken place, and especially in the matter of truthfulness and purity of life—we believe that under intelligent, manly leadership in matters religious, and with definite encouragement towards self-improvement and the bettering of their general circumstances, Highlanders, as many of them have already done, would, as much at least as other people, reflect credit on themselves, and constitute no small help to the promotion of the national welfare.

And now we have done. With reference to any subject which may have been either omitted or only slightly referred to, it will, we think, be found such matter is either not peculiar to Highland parishes, or if peculiar, will soon cease to be so. We trust we have succeeded in describing the actual circumstances of the average Highland parish of to-day, and it has been our endeavour to make the description representative, with the view of including the Highlands generally, and, more especially, the rural districts.

Should any enthusiastic Highlander have desiderated more detailed reference to the heroic deeds in which Highlanders in days of yore took part, or have liked less confident forecasting as to the prospects of Gaelic as a spoken language, and more exhaustive treatment of beliefs and customs long associated with the Highlands, we must remind such enthusiastic one that, while sympathising with him in what is virtually a fond patriotic remembering of other days, our aim has been to describe a Highland parish of to-day.


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