By James Irvine RobertsonF
or most people these straths were their only experience of the world. We enrich our own knowledge and understanding through travel and the media, but they were largely confined to the locality, illiterate and could only know what they saw for themselves or heard from the mouths of others. And the tales were rich and tall. 300 years ago the hillsides were dotted with little townships huddled round a good spring or well. Peat smoke leaked through the crude thatch of the tiny stone cottages. The land around them was striped - curved strips of barley adjacent to oats, barley or flax demarcated by a weedy furrow. Higher up the slopes were chequered by meadows of grass in various shades of green and rankness. A wall of turf or stone ran along the flanks of the hills, and above this, the head dyke, lay the moors. There were patches of trees but the strongest impression on the traveller would have been human activity, for the land carried a much greater population than today. The little hamlets were intersected by a network of paths; dozens of ferries plied across the rivers and, higher up, the land swarmed with cattle, ponies, sheep and goats.
Into one of the cottages of a winter's night would crowd the inhabitants of the surrounding township. In the middle of the floor would be the peat fire. At the far end would be the cow and the sheep, tethered in their stalls, issuing a medley of contented sighs and belches. The beasts added a cosy background warmth and enriched the tang of peat-reek with the comforting stench of dung.
A cosy fug would build against the snows outside and the whisky jug would be passed round whilst men made baskets and womens' fingers would be busy with whorl and spindle. If they were lucky someone would pull a harp or a fiddle from beneath his plaid and a singer would strike up in accompaniment. Often the ceilidh would be just gossip, a bit of company on a cold night - babies bundled up in their mother's bosom and the children piled up on a couch of deep heather. Always there would be tales of Fingal and the other legendary ancestors who first peopled the land, and the stories of clan raids, the ferry disasters, the doings of the lairds, and how each round the hearth was a cousin to some degree to everyone else.
Highlanders farmed their township's lands in common. They ploughed the fields round their little hamlets and planted their oats and bere, a variety of barley. When these began to sprout the great migration up to the shielings took place. For century after century, men, women, and children drove the stock up to the mountain pastures. The ramshackle huts of the summer towns high in the hill corries were rebuilt and the beasts took advantage of the flush of seasonal grass. Below in the straths the precious crops were thus left to grow free from marauding cattle and sheep. In the corries the dung of generations of beasts built up the fertility and even today the old shieling pastures stand out as much for the vivid green of growth in these high remote places as in the humps and hummocks marking the foundations of the old summer homes.
The long sunlit days at the shielings were the make weight for the dark winters. Sweethearts had privacy in the accommodating depths of the heather. Children tickled trout from the mountain burns and guarded the livestock against foxes and eagles, or helped their mothers make cheese and butter from the abundant milk to pay their rents, or spun flax and fleece. Taught by their fathers, boys learned the use of broadsword, targe and dirk for a man must be vigilant to protect his wealth which was his livestock, particularly his cattle. Wild marauders might avoid the sentinels of Clan Donnachaidh in Rannoch or the MacGregors of Glen Lyon and swoop down to raid Atholl. Sometimes those sentinels might try to rustle the odd cow from a neighbouring estate for themselves.
The high moorland was muir fowl - grouse - and deer country. The moors also held peat, a critically important resource. This was the fuel of the Highlands since coal was too expensive to transport from the Lowlands and the few patches of woodland too valuable to be squandered. Amongst a family's most precious possessions were the timber crucks which supported the turf and heather roof of the cottage. When the thatch became impregnated with soot, it would be dismantled and spread across the fields for manure, but the roof trees were used again and again.
Peat cooked the oatmeal and heated the cottages. Taking weeks to cut in early summer, it was stacked to dry until collected in the autumn. If the summer was wet, it might never dry out and people faced a cold and hungry winter - unless the menfolk raided some neighbouring glen more fortunate than their own. Imagine one of those winter weeks with sixteen hours of darkness each day and endless curtains of chilled rain sweeping across the hills. Imagine, lit by the single wick of an oil crusie lamp, a family of a dozen trying to keep out the wet and the cold, trying fill the chinks to keep out the icy draughts, trying to dry clothes each evening, keep warm, and cook round the single, smoky fire. In such conditions diseases like tuberculosis were easily spread and all too often a small child would crawl or fall into the glowing peat and be seriously injured or killed. The amount of fuel required for a season would not be far short of the size of the cottage it serviced. Most of Highland Perthshire was rich in peat but in some areas it was running short and only the emptying of the glens prevented a serious crisis.
In the depths of the peat bogs lay the remains of the prehistoric Caledonian forest. Only the richest of lairds could afford tallow or beeswax candles but splinters from these ancient pine stumps were packed with resin and provided fir candles, the cheapest form of lighting. Their drawback was the speed with which they burned and, on ceilidh night, a child or an old granny would be employed full time to keep them alight.
In summer the high country teemed with the wealth of Atholl - the hordes of scrubby cattle. Hay was a rare extravagance and in winter the beasts often survived in their owners' cottages on what wisps of dead vegetation the women could rescue from the winter landscape. Routinely the animals would be tapped for their blood to add protein to the diet and by spring would be so weak they must be carried outside on hurdles to rebuild their strength on the first grass. Early in the year drovers would come round the townships, pledging to return in the autumn to take the shieling-fattened cattle to the great autumn markets at Crieff or Falkirk when up to fifty thousand beasts from all over the Highlands were sold.
All, save the laird, must grow his own food. It took two bolls of oatmeal to sustain a man's life through the winter; this could be held in a meal chest 2ft by 2ft by 4ft. One and a half bolls would suffice for a woman, whilst a child made do with one. In summer this dreary diet was supplemented with what could be grown in the kale yard, a tiny turf-walled enclosure by each cottage. Meat, and that was likely to be an ancient little ewe or a cut from a pony killed by accident, was a rare luxury because livestock must be turned to cash to pay debts or rents. Even for the lairds, beasts were too precious to be casually consumed. Cheese, butter and hens were also used to pay rent but milk and whey - skimmed, sour, sheep, goat or cow - was available for home consumption. The more hair or wool in the butter the better. It added strength.
By the late eighteenth century the great cash crop after cattle was linen and in summer the heather round the townships would be covered by webs of fabric bleaching in the sunshine. None was ever stolen since theft was unknown - cattle rustling did not count. Others supplemented their income by working for their neighbours as tailors, shoe makers, smiths, barbers, creel makers, or carpenters. By the nineteenth century some ran little shops. Beforehand anything that could not be made on the estate must be bought from pedlars or at the local fairs which were held every year on the same saints' days. The ostensible business of selling lambs, or goats, or ponies, would attract stall holders and sideshows from the Lowlands to milk Highlanders of their few coppers.
Cash was rare and its lack a real hindrance to trade or development. The promissory notes of the gentry were often the only means of exchange and an IOU from an Atholl laird might be passed from hand to hand to end up months later being used by a Sinclair trading with a Fraser in Caithness. Often these bills would become weapons in the battle for supremacy between clans. The power of magnates and chiefs depended on the state of their finances as well as their armed following. If you had too many bonds out, your rivals could buy them up, foreclose, and send in his warriors to take over your lands.
Life was hard for the Highland man at plough time and peat cutting, but his womenfolk did most of the remaining chores. They harvested, looked after the livestock, spun the wool and linen, and were housewives and mothers. As in all tribal societies, the main duty of men was to sit down, drink ale and deliberate on matters too important for the womenfolk, usually disputes involving the common township lands.
By the eighteenth century ale was being replaced by whisky and this grew in popularity until it lubricated every aspect of life. No visit was complete without its dram, and no task or piece of business too small not to be sealed or celebrated with a nip. The gentry drank claret and at one dinner party given by the laird of Foss, the guests sat down on Sunday afternoon. It was not until they heard the church bells ring the following Sunday morning that they realised, still drinking, how time had flown.
The very bottom of the social scale was occupied by the broken men. These were people who had lost the protection of a chief or laird, and been cast from their lands. Many were dispossessed during the turbulence of the seventeenth century when the rise of Clan Campbell plunged the Highlands into chaos. The broken man and his family might live on marginal land in Rannoch. His hut would be a turf igloo with an entrance so small that he must crawl in the mud to enter. This was home for him, his wife, and whatever children were tough enough to survive in such conditions.