“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.”
|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.”
|A Nairn fisherman being carried to his boat on the back of his wife||Fording the River - McIan|
- 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
|Helmsdale township across the bridge in 2009|