Friday, May 29, 2015

A Cobbler’s Adventure - Article IX - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea and Neighbourhood – Part C

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 25 December 1879 – Part C

"It was common practice for shoemakers to itinerate from house to house and make or mend the shoes of the family from the leather tanned by themselves. It was no uncommon thing for a shoemaker to start work in the morning and by bed-time to have made shoes for the household."

Highland Brogues
"Brogues were the fashion in those days, and they were not so difficult to make as the shoes made now-a-days. The tailor also plied his trade on the same principles, and he, too, if a clever hand, would make garments for a whole household in a day. It was no uncommon occurrence for a tailor to make a pair of breeches while the pot of potatoes was boiling by the fire. I crave your reader's indulgence while I relate a story about a shoemaker who plied his vocation in the manner referred to. The cobbler in this case was of the name of Smith, but "Birsy" was that by which he was familiarly known. He had an invitation to go to a farmer's house early on a Monday morning and was promised a week's work. He gladly accepted the invitation, but there was a rather serious difficulty in the way. It was winter, and the farm was at some distance, and being of a timorous, superstition turn of mind, he did not like to travel in the dark, which he required to do to be in time for starting his work by daylight on Monday morning. He therefore determined to take his journey on Sabbath afternoon, and to creep into the house in the dark unobserved, as he was unwilling to show himself to the family, lest he should be railed for his cowardice."

"Birsy" performed his journey, entered the house by stealth, and secreted himself in the loft immediately above the kitchen. The fireplace in the kitchen was in the middle of the floor, and the smoke ascended through a wide opening in the roof. In the centre of the loft was a wide square opening which looked down on the fireplace beneath, and from which persons sitting round the hearth could easily be seen. On entering the loft, "Birsy" stretched himself on the boards along the edge to enjoy the heat, and just so far back as to avoid the smoke. The farmer was a religious person, and spent the evening in instructing the household from the Catechism, and in devotional exercises."

"Before retiring to rest, the good man engaged in family worship, and when the family were gathered around the hearth, and were singing the psalms of David, they were startled by a cobbler's awl which fell with a "birle" [rattling noise]."

Shoemaker's Awls
"Those who sat near the place looked with astonishment, and there was a momentary cessation in the singing. How an "elshin" [a shoemaker’s awl] could make its appearance at such a time and place, they could not divine. The good man proceeded with a reading of a portion of Scripture, when a broad-bladed knife, firmly engrafted in a thick wooden shaft, fell with a rebound on the hearth. The consternation was now extreme, and the household rushed to the opposite side of the apartment. The consternation in the kitchen below awoke "Birsy" from his sound sleep on the edge of the loft. The poor man, forgetting where he was, began to bestir himself, and in the act of turning, fell plump, bodily into the fire among the smoking peats. All was now uproar, and everyone fled as for life. Not one was found possessed of sufficient courage to inquire into the matter save the head of the house, who laid hold of the object before him, and dragged him from the burning pile. On examination, it was found to be the veritable "Birsy" who in dust and smoke had made his descent into the kitchen of the godly farmer on the quiet Sabbath evening."

My Comments:

  • Whilst Gunn’s story of “Birsy” seems far-fetched and a little ridiculous it has interesting echoes in George MacDonald’s (1824-1905) novel Sir Gibbie - the story of the ragged little baronet Gibbie who runs through the streets of the old grey Scottish city then up the lonely slopes of Glashgar with the heather and the sheep. I recommend the 1963 version edited by Elizabeth Yates. So in Ch 3 we find Gibbie in a farmhouse loft over the peat fire looking down to the kitchen, ‘When Gibbie awoke, he clambered up to the loft…Creeping again along the ceiling, he discovered himself to be over the kitchen…’ As with Gunn’s story of a household in consternation the household Gibbie is hiding in are convinced there is a ‘Broonie i’ the hoose’ and get very alarmed and even vindictive.

  • Most Caithness crofter’s houses did not have lofts but rather roofs like this one at the Laidhay museum (minus the electric light) but Gunn’s story is set in a farmer’s house so maybe that house was more substantial and had better storage. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Gauger in a Fix. Article IX - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea and Neighbourhood – Part B

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 25 December 1879 – Part B

“In olden times country folk tanned their own leather, but there was a duty on tanned leather, which made home tanning rather a dangerous proceeding, as the “gauger” [tax collector] searched diligently for a home tanned hide as he would go for an anker of smuggled whisky. A “gauger” at Helmsdale once got himself into an awkward predicament with a hide of tanned leather which he seized in the neighbourhood of Helmsdale, and which he was carrying away in triumph, but of which he was deprived in a very ingenious manner.”

An old tanner at work A home cured hide

“There was no bridge on the river at Helmsdale in those days – only a ferry boat on a deep pool above where the bridge now stands; but people who lived higher up crossed over by fording the river. Some of the inhabitants were famed for fording the river even when in considerable flood.”
Helmsdale River near Kildonan OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Helmsdale River upstream near Kildonan The Telford Helmsdale bridge

“One of these was a woman of the name Shean Bhervach, or Berriedale Jean – one of those harmless, silly creatures whose reasoning powers were defective, but displaying a considerable amount of cunning at times. The “gauger” made his seizure on the north side of the river, and was going to cross it to the opposite side, where he resided. He encountered Jean on the river side where he intended to ford, but discovered that there was a pretty heavy flood in the river, and did not like to attempt it himself, and he therefore asked Jean if she would ferry him across. This Jean  consented to do at once, and kilting up her petticoats as far as possible, got the man of the law on her back and the hide under her arm.”

“She then waded into the water with her burden, and when she reached the middle of the stream, where there stood a large boulder, the top of which was not under water, Jean told the “gauger” to stand a minute on the stone while she trimmed her petticoats. As soon as she got him planted on the stone, she made to the other side with all speed, and ran away out of sight and concealed the hide in a drain. What could the poor “gauger” do? He dare not attempt to follow her, as it would be to the risk of his life, and he had to remain a prisoner there until Jean returned and took him on her back again, and set him down on the bank of the river; but all the “gaugers” in Scotland could not compel her to show him where she hid the tanned hide.”

Fisherman Fording a river
A Nairn fisherman being carried to his boat on the back of his wife Fording the River - McIan

My Comments.
  • Crossing rivers especially in flood was a problem in the Highlands long before bridges. Well-off masters had a person called a ghillie to assist with hunting, fishing and various other tasks. A ghillie-weetfit was the ghillie whose duty it was to carry his master over streams on his back
  • McIan’s Highlanders At Home. Fording a River. The figure of the Highlander here represented is taken from an old but sturdy fellow, called Mac Gillie Mhantich, and it is very usual to ford the river in this manner; a plaid being put around the woman, the ends are taken over the neck of the man, who, provided with a stout staff, or as here shown, the Cromag, or Crook, makes his way, with the female on his back, steadily through his watery path.
  • In fisher towns like Nairn it was common practice for the wife of a fisherman to carry her husband on her back to the waiting fishing boat so that he could start the day with dry feet. Picture source: Nairn Fishermen’s Society by Hugh Wilson
  • The Helmsdale Bridge was built during 1808-9 (yes it is a Telford bridge) so this incident must have taken place before that – in fact well before Alexander Gunn’s own birth in 1820. To outsmart a gauger (or tax collector) in such a fashion was obviously the stuff of legends. This incident is so delightful it probably was one of the cherished stories that were told and retold round the winter fireplaces in the Highlands.
  • From an early period leather had been subject to a duty, and the manufacture was accordingly carried on under the surveillance of the Excise. Up till 1812 the duty was at the rate of 1d. a-pound; but in that year it was raised to 3d., and was continued at that figure until 1822, when it was reduced to the old rate. The reduced duty amounted to L.360,000 a-year. In 1830 the duty was finally repealed.  Source: The Industries of Scotland, Their Rise, Progress and Present Condition By David Bremner (1869) Electric Scotland
25 12 1879 NE (Article IX) part ab copy OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1879, 17 July NE Original 1 copy B Helmsdale township across the bridge in 2009

Friday, May 15, 2015

Primitive Ploughing, Article IX - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea and Neighbourhood – Part A

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 25 December 1879 – Part A

plough electric scotland plough electric scotland 4
Source: Electric Scotland Source: Electric Scotland

“In my last I described the process of plough making. It would be interesting to describe the process of ploughing commonly practised in those days. One man held the stilts of the plough, to which two or three oxen were sometimes yoked, or it might be as many cows in place of oxen. A second person led the team, walking backwards with his face to the plough, and a third bent over the plough, grasping the beam with both hands, and pushing it down with all his might, so as to keep the plough in the ground. As might be expected, the quantity of the ground turned over in a day was not very great.”

“I once saw a very curious team engaged in ploughing a small field on a croft at Mid-Garty, Sutherlandshire. It consisted of a mare and a cow yoked to the plough - the gudewife leading them walking backwards, and the gudeman holding the plough. Another curious thing in connection with this team was that the mare, the cow, and the wife were all approaching a time when each would be making an addition to the numbers and wealth of the humble cottar.”

My Comments:

What an intriguing story. I have had an interesting time trying to find pictures of an in-foal mare, and an in-calf cow, yoked together, being guided by an ‘up th’ duff’ gudewife walking backwards, while the gudeman steers the plough. It cannae be dain. These below are bonnie.

115b19f450d453e2ae2beb540f0b6385 Spring work at Uig electric scotland
Cow-drawn plough, Caithness.                      Source: Pininterest by Cy Dorr Spring work at Uig. Source: Electric Scotland

These photos from the 51st Scottish Ploughing Championships 2013 - Stanstill Farm, Caithness, by Bill Fernie of illustrate the help given by the person walking backwards guiding the team especially when they get to the end of the row and need to do a U turn.

Ploughing Bill Fernie Ploughing Bill Fernie 3

To put the comments of Alexander Gunn into the Badbea context it seems likely that he was referring to ploughing at other villages nearby, as Badbea was so steep and rocky it was not possible to plough there. 

John Badbea Sutherland writing to his friend David Steven says:

Badbea, 13 December, 1849

“There is no place in my acquaintance so unlike my case in every respect as where I am  [Badbea]. It is seven miles from any means of the very form; and I am sickly and delicate; since many years I am almost confined to the house in the winter season, and my only sister that is with me has been in the fiery furnace for 26 years: my niece also is broken in health, as the crofts are so difficult to labour, no plowing [ploughing], no cart, and the place is shut in to the rocks, while I am paying four times as much as mother was paying when we came here..” John Sutherland

25 12 1879 NE (Article IX) part a copy image copy
1879, 17 July NE Original 1 copy B

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Beautiful Berriedale, Article VIII – Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea and Neighbourhood – Part B

Article VIII written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 4 December 1879 – Part B
Beautiful Scenery – Primitive Ploughs

Berriedale Bridge Berriedale Walk
Berriedale Bridge, Highland The view from the approach on the A9 from the north Berriedale walk
Wooded walk from the old bridge and war memorial at the confluence of the Berriedale and Langwell Waters, to Langwell House at the top of the hill. To the left of the picture is a steep drop to Langwell Water.
“Now, this is a great mistake." [This comment connects with the previous blog where Gunn refers to new security measures, and gamekeepers on Langwell keeping people out]

"Berriedale possesses scenery unrivalled in any district in the north of Scotland. I have come in contact with persons who have seen all that is worth seeing in the three kingdoms, and who declare that they saw nothing to exceed Berriedale. Approach it from either side, and the scene is beautiful – the old inn on the level down, near the junction of the two rivers: the high wooded grounds at the back, and the river winding behind and whirling into the deep pool above the bridge; then take your stand on the west bridge and look up the narrow gorge, where the trees meet over the river, and you hear the water as it rushes, in boiling foam, from shelf to shelf and from rock to rock, till it loses itself in the deep pool below the bridge. Or let the traveller take the road to Langwell – either of the roads, the high or the low road, as pleasant and picturesque, as he could find in broad Scotland. When he reached Langwell, let him take the path down to the riverside to the east side of the garden, and he will see trees there of very large dimensions, although not equal to some of the largest in our Scottish forests.”
Bridge over Langwell Water copy Langwell Water from the old bridge
Bridge over the Langwell Water Langwell Water from the old bridge
“But it is vain for me to attempt to describe the beauty of the scenery of Berriedale. It far surpasses any description I can give of it.”
Berriedale water from the fisherman's track just above the village Berriedale Water Looking upsteam from the village
Berriedale Water from the fisherman's track just above the village Berriedale Water Looking upstream from the village
"There is very fertile land on the Straths of both rivers. I will first take the east river, or the Berriedale, as it is sometimes called, beginning with “ault-mheore,” then the Cairn, Rinsary, Knockfin, Millary, Glut of Berriedale, Borgue, Ray, and Upper Borgue, and two or three other places the names of which have escaped my memory. All of these had large tracks of arable land attached to them, as well as large tracts of hill pasture."
The Valley of Berriedale Badger sett in Berriedale
The valley of Berriedale showing land Alexander Gunn thought should be farmed by needy families A Badger sett in Berriedale also showing unproductive valley and hills.
“The quantity of arable land could be very easily increased in some instances tenfold, at very little trouble and expense. All that would be necessary would be a good plough, such as is now in use – not the sort of plough once common in these straths, and which, with the exception of the coulter, was constructed entirely of native timber. It was a common thing for a man to set out with his axe, saw, and augur, cut down what suited him, apply his tools, and return in the course of a few hours with a new-made plough – primitive enough, but it did its turn, and he knew no better.”
Cas Chrom am baile Crofter & wife plant potatoes
Turning ground with a foot plough or Cas Chrom as it was called. Source: Am Baile Facebook A crofter and his wife planting potatoes at Sconser, Skye in the late 1880s. On steep rocky land this foot plough was the most efficient way to dig the ground.  Source: Am Baile Facebook
4 12 1879 NE (Article VIII) part b copy extract 4 12 1879 NE (Article VIII) part c copy