Archive for ‘Black Isle’

April 27, 2019

Oh look there’s a creepy guy in camouflage breeks with a mighty big weapon picking on a little unarmed roe deer

Good mixed shooting was once the boast of Aberdeenshire – perhaps it still is – bagging pheasant, partridge, woodcock, snipe, mallard, golden eye, pochard, tufted duck, ring-dove, brown hare, rabbit, curlew, golden plover, green plover, dunlin, little stint, purple sandpiper, turnstone, redshank, moorhen, water rail and coot were given as examples of the sheer variety of species taken on a typical shoot in an article in the Aberdeen and District British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1934. Several of those birds mentioned are now struggling for survival.

Over millennia changing climate patterns in association with human interference have led to the disappearance of Scotland’s elk, the extinction of the auroch, an ox (Bos primigenius) which looked similar to our Highland cattle, lynx, arctic fox, bear and wolf as human habitation encroached on habitats and animals regarded as dangerous or simply fair game were hunted to extinction.  Wolves, greatly feared by folk in the countryside and probably with good reason, found a source of meat fairly easy to access were human corpses which drove some communities to bury their dead offshore if an island was handy. Obviously eating already dead people was preferable to attacking the living and not unlike human practices of picking up bits of animal corpses from butchers and supermarkets though without producing payment, of course. In 1427 a law was introduced in Scotland for three annual wolf hunts during spring and summer to help control/wipe out the creatures at a time that would be most effective – when they were producing and nursing young.

Several claims exist over when and where Scotland’s last wolf was slain. One killed at Kirkmichael in Banffshire in 1644 was certainly not it. Another last wolf turned up in Moray in the middle of the 18th century and that might have been the sole survivor till then but it’s likely the odd one hung on after this.

Capercaillie

There were herds of little wild horses roaming Aberdeenshire’s forests into the 16th century. Evidence found at Birse suggested they were likely crosses with domestic horse – similar to the state of our wildcats. How many true wildcats remain is open to speculation but surely scant few. As with practically every other species these lovely creatures have suffered vicious persecution by farmers, gamekeepers, estate workers and the usual suspects that take potshots at anything that moves. It is said the last wildcat on Donside was killed at Alford in 1862 and on Deeside at Glentanar in 1875 but it’s possible they weren’t all wiped out or that some migrated to the area, perhaps from Speyside, for there have been sightings of what may be the wildcat in more recent years.

Gamekeepers have earned a bad reputation as exterminators of wildlife – with good cause. We are all familiar with the curious coincidences of our raptors meeting their deaths over shooting estates while the courts continue to treat such crimes as minor, failing to impose deterrent sentences on those found guilty of illegal killings.

While about the worst that happens to an estate employee convicted of illegal killings is exposure in the press for a day or two life was once far more comfortable for them. Dealing with vermin aka wildlife was part of the job. In 1863-4 a single Donside estate keeper killed 30 polecats. Thirty years later it was extinct in the area. Pine martens were likewise persecuted and are now protected because of their scarcity. There are pine martens around today, including in Ross-shire but they aren’t common.

Outrage over the vast numbers of mountain hares being shot on sporting estates has been met with insistence from estate interests that there are plenty stocks of hares. That they cannot come up with reliable figures for their claims is worrying but not surprising. That Scottish government ministers consort with sporting interests is also worrying but not surprising.

The encroachment of human habitation and agriculture, the drainage of muirs and removal of large tracts of ancient forests force out birds and animals dependent on those habitats.  Vestiges of the old Caledonian forests can be found at Glentanar, Ballochbuie, Deeside and Speyside but what remains is a mere trace of the woodlands that once provided areas of safety and food for our wildlife pushing them upland to less suitable territory which lack food and reduce the chance of survival.  

The red squirrel has become a great focus for protection to the extent that its grey cousins are eradicated by local authorities around the country – the same local authorities who removed trees used by red squirrels so reducing their chances of survival. However, it isn’t so long ago the red squirrel had the same reputation as the grey and was regarded as a pest – rats with long bushy tails and a popular target for the pot-shotter. On the subject of rats the black rat notorious for spreading the plague in the early middle ages having arrived on ships from the East was in time ousted by the common brown rat another immigrant, this time from Asia in the 18th century.

Rats have proven themselves pretty damn indestructible although many people wish they weren’t. It’s interesting that there aren’t tweedy types who go on rat shoots on a Sunday afternoon but choose something a whole lot prettier and a whole lot less capable of escaping their shotguns.

The capercaillie is/was fairly spectacular with its dramatic plumage provided welcome variety in rural parts of Scotland but they have all but gone. The menace of an armed idiot has all but wiped them out.  Indeed they succeeded in the 18th century for the capercaillie vanished around 1760 and was reintroduced from Sweden in 1837. By the 1960s these large birds were numerous again and said to be common. I saw one once – in the 1970s near the Cairn o’ Mount. It might have been one of the last ones in the area for they sure aren’t common now. Their future here is on a very shoogly peg.

The extension of farming, grazing sheep and cattle and the prevalence of mono-culture grouse estates that treated every other animal and bird as vermin have been instrumental in stripping away so much of Scotland’s native wild species. We are all too well aware of the targeting of birds of prey over these areas with lots of tall tales circulating about the extent of lamb predation and insistence that high numbers of disappearing raptors over sporting estates is purely coincidental. Rambling types around Alford are only too familiar with aggressive heavies employed on Aberdeenshire estates, other similarly run estates are available, – same gun-toting, shooting jacketed gamies. Ordinary folk out to enjoy the freedom to roam in their own country are most definitely dissuaded from doing just that by these bullies and heaven help any wildlife straying over their property.

I’ve written before about the insatiable desire of types who crave to destroy life. My mother used to tell of fox cubs being bred near Dingwall which were transported down to England and released for fox hunting there – putting to bed the myth that the hunt was to eliminate local vermin. Another myth is that hobby shooters eat or sell to butchers and hotels what they kill. Regulations have all but stopped the hotel trade and huge numbers of birds and animals killed for the sheer hell of it are either dumped or buried.

Rabbits – they are everywhere, mostly dead on our roads, were imported from southeast Europe. In Aberdeen they were first released at the links near Donmouth. Another import this time from Asia is the exotic-looking pheasant. It proved so popular they were shot out of existence and had to be reintroduced

Some creatures turned up accidentally on these shores such as the tropical loggerhead turtle that was picked up in salmon nets at Pennan in 1861. It never made it home, somewhere equally dangerous but farther south, and numbers are now dwindling.  The purple heron that flew to Donmouth in 1872 never made it home either to southern Europe, Africa or Asia but was inevitably shot. A glossy ibis discovered at Fraserburgh was so strikingly beautiful it was also shot. It along with an American killdeer plover, which doesn’t kill deer but got its name from its call, ended their days as curiosities in Aberdeen University’s Natural History Museum – post execution.

Nowadays our Scottish golden eagles are pretty rare and exotic. In the ten years between 1776 and 1786 seventy of them were killed in five Deeside parishes alone, severely affecting their numbers. As for the white-tailed eagle, Scotland’s largest bird of prey, it was once numerous but determined persecution of the bird resulted in its extinction in the 20th century. It is being reintroduced, to the chagrin of some farmers.   Another recently reintroduced species is the red kite which has become a  fairly familiar sight over Donside and once more around Conon Bridge following a disgraceful episode in 2015 when a large number of raptors including kites were killed, many poisoned, around there. A couple of weeks ago I was thrilled to watch six of them soar over Strathpeffer. Meanwhile those criminals responsible for targeting them are keeping a low profile. The species once so common around Scotland were all killed off by the end of the 19th century. Peregrine falcons and ravens were all once very common and hen harriers, too, eventually succumbing to shooting and trapping.

It is not only large birds of prey which have fallen victim to the determined farmer, gamekeeper and the odd brainless wonder. Smaller birds have suffered from being labelled as farm pests. In 1930, Aberdeen County Council was responsible for the deaths of vast numbers of them including: 65,000 rooks, 3,563 eggs and 601 nests; 7,442 wood pigeons, plus eggs and nests; 1,992 house sparrows and 704 eggs; 1,108 starlings; 897 gulls and eggs along with 1,500 brown hares and everyone’s favourite – although not Aberdeen County Council’s evidently – 175 red squirrels.

Britain’s biggest rookery was at Hatton Castle near Turriff where some 6,000 nests were counted in old beech trees and coniferous plantations during the 1960s. Each year around 10,000 of them were shot by local farmers. In the 1960s the curlew, lapwings, skylarks were very common and winter visitor, the snow bunting. I still see the odd one but not flocks. I spotted a curlew recently near Kemnay but those I used to see near Alford have disappeared. There’s a skylark hereabouts. Singular.

 Before 1850 the starling was a non-breeding migrant in Aberdeenshire, one of our rare visitors. It liked what it saw in beautiful Aberdeenshire and stayed – actually because the spread of land cultivation inadvertently provided food for starlings such as daddy long legs and grass beetles which meant they did well and so their numbers increased to the extent that within a decade it was classified as a pest. Their numbers have since declined greatly with modern methods of farming. Our farmers plough right up to fences and dykes leaving virtually no green areas to provide habitat and food for birds and small animals. With the disappearance of the starling goes their spectacular mesmeric murmurations.

Whether it was on land, in trees, in the rivers or seas animals and birds have been hunted down and systematically killed for profit, for food, for fun and for fats. Think fat think whales and seals. Northeast Scotland dominated the 19th century whaling industry in the Greenland Sea and Davis Straits – a dangerous business for all involved. On October 13, 1830 the Aberdeen Journal lamented the decline of whaling and loss of whaling vessels from Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Aberdeen and Aberdeen’s final whaling ship sailed in 1865. Of course that wasn’t the end of whaling, as we know.

A century later there was talk about the disappearance of mountain hares from our higher hills. This was a blow for the sportsman and woman who made do with blasting at the less prestigious brown hare, still numerous on the muirs. Despite being not much valued they were shot in their thousands. Social media has provided reminders that wildlife are not taken in penny numbers with pictures of trucks loaded up with mountain hare carcasses being taken off hillsides for disposal by sporting estate workers who say numbers of the mountain hare are high but have produced no credible evidence to back up their claims.

Our native red deer have consistently been popular with those who take to the hills for a spot of blood sport. In the 1960s around 10% of the red deer population was shot annually i.e. c.2000. There have been conflicting estimates of their numbers and the best means of controlling what are thriving numbers of them.

Roe deer are tiny animals; very timid. They are popular with creepy men in camouflage breeks, wax jackets and flat caps armed with huge guns that look like they’ve done a heap of damage in Iraq or Afghanistan.  In case you were wondering the little roe deer are unarmed.

The encroachment of humans, the adaption of the countryside to provide economic value will always put pressure on our wildlife. Add to this blend hobby hunters and climate change and the mix becomes toxic. Survival for so many species has been easy/tricky/impossible depending on so many circumstances but human interference arguably poses the most deadly threat to nature and that will only increase.

July 31, 2017

Scottish World War I poetry #1 Recruiting

                    Recruiting

images.duckduckgo

‘Lads, you’re wanted, go and help,’
On the railway carriage wall
Stuck the poster and I thought
Of the hands that penned the call.

Fat civilians wishing they
‘Could go out and fight the Hun.’
Can’t you see them thanking God
That they’re over forty-one?

Girls with feathers, vulgar songs –
Washy verse on England’s need –
God – and don’t we damned well know
How the message ought to read.

‘Lads, you’re wanted! over there,’
Shiver in the morning dew,
More poor devils like yourselves
Waiting to be killed by you.

Go and help to swell the names
In the casualty lists.
Help to make a column’s stuff
For the blasted journalists.

Help to keep them nice and safe
From the wicked German foe,
Don’t let him come over here!
‘Lads, you’re wanted-out you go.’

There’s a better world than that,
Lads, and can’t you hear it come,
From a million men that call
You to share their martyrdom.

Leave the harlots still to sing
Comic songs about the Hun,
Leave the fat old men to say
Now we’ve got them on the run.

Better twenty honest years
Than their dull three score and ten.
Lads you’re wanted. Come and learn
To live and die with honest men.

You shall learn what men can do
If you will but pay the price,
Learn the gaiety and strength
In the gallant sacrifice.

Take your risk of life and death
Underneath the open sky.
Live clean or go out quick –
Lads you’re wanted. Come and die.

E. Alan Mackintosh (1893 – 1917) Seaforth Highlanders

July 22, 2017

If the CAP fits: time ticking on down on EU subsidies the gift that kept on giving will be no more

Brexit shambles continues apace. That overused phrase of politicians going forward is not applicable to the current state of Brexit negotiations which appear to consist of nothing more than each side eyeballing the other. And is that a nervous tic on the collective face of Britain’s farmers I detect?

A cursory riffle through May’s fantasy Brexit filing cabinet only as far as A for agriculture reveals something of the complexity of the task ahead, as a politician might say.

cap_reform_wordle

For an outsider like me it was hard to understand why so many farmers and landowners were quite so keen in voting to leave the European Union and the increasing murmur from these bodies suggest one or two are becoming a little bit sweaty that the future is not as rosy as it appeared when they voted to leave the reviled EU. But hope emerged for some in the guise of the ambitious Michael Gove with his promise of  a ‘green Brexit’ and promise, if qualified, of continuing subsidies. He is not the first person I associate with a commitment to green policies and suspect the green he’s contemplating is a fig leaf and his ‘earned subsidies’ is an early warning that not all will be as it was under CAP.

That it was never on the cards that the generous EU subsidies would continue post-Brexit either didn’t occur to Brexiteer farmers or else they assumed the British government would step in and fill the void left post-CAP – such blind faith.

The National Farmers’ Union of Scotland has pounced on Gove’s words as recognition of its position on the need for continuing support for certain farming communities. It welcomes Gove’s ‘must be earned’ statement and with another leap of faith declares Scottish agriculture  must receive –

‘the same levels of funding as it currently receives ring-fenced and spent in new and more effective ways to improve productivity, efficiency and resilience.’

The NFU Scotland talk of making farming and crofting more profitable but just what that will mean is anyone’s guess – family farms already operate with minimum labour comprising mainly of the farmer and any family he or she has – working from before dawn until late into the night seven days a week. How that could become leaner is not apparent. Food prices could rise, as they are doing, bringing about even more squeeze on farmers by supermarket chains. Where does that leave Scotland’s crofters and hill farmers already eking out scant livings? How persuaded will Mr Gove be that they are deserving of financial support once that falls into Westminster’s lap?

Farming subsidies were introduced in the UK a century ago by the government concerned by severe food shortages during the First World War when 60% of food was imported. Minimum wages for those involved in agriculture and guaranteed produce prices were imposed until 1921 and during the 1930s protectionism was again high on the agenda. At the end of World War Two government intervention guaranteed payments to farmers to encourage an expansion in food production while rationing continued long after the end of war.  

It was in 1958 the contentious Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the then European Economic Community was introduced to boost food production across the EEC and provide reassurance to food markets. (This was long before the UK joined it.)

The CAP worked well. Too well. It led to a grim landscape of beef, butter, fruit and vegetable mountains and wine and milk lakes as a means of keeping up prices for farmers. Some of this food was simply destroyed to maintain food prices at acceptable levels and some was dumped on poorer countries at a cost to their small-scale farming which could not compete against the collective might of the protected farmers within the EEC.

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When I looked at who are recent recipients of the EU’s agricultural subsidies I was astonished to find not only was it a list of the ultra rich but topping the list of payout recipients was sugar manufacturer Tate & Lyle. Along with the British sugar giant were French sugar giants, Spanish sugar giants, German sugar giants and a lesser giant from Poland. Sugar processors have attracted much criticism for their contribution to junk foods and their association with the huge rise in diabetes and because of pressure placed upon these industries in Europe to reduce their output they have been amply compensated by CAP subsidies.

Dairy companies have also been winners in the great EU scoop a fortune lottery. Along with sugar they are implicated in the junk food market and have attracted the attention of aid agencies for being supported at the same time they are dumping milk powder and butter on vulnerable markets and consequently undermining small producers in poorer nations.

In Scotland Balmanno Farms Ltd are lucky recipients of EU subsidies- qualifying for quite a bit in subsidy. Their ultimate parent company is Streetfield Property Company of the same address, presumably property developers.

What struck me was the number of recipients of public handouts who don’t sound like the everyday image of our local farmers: Broadway Tower Country Park Ltd; Execs of the Late Mrs C Campbell, Isle of Sky; Gisburne Park Estates Ltd; J and V Casey and son Ltd of New York – hang on a minute – New York? There is it appears a New York in Lincolnshire.

Because of difficulties some farmers have surviving by traditional agriculture diversification is encouraged and rewarded: rented out land; farm shops; tourism; woodland; improved land management so while Highland Grain Ltd of North Kessock  a cooperative mainly made up of  Black Isle and Easter Ross farmers who grow malting barley for whisky and get considerable amounts of cash from European Agricultural Fund fall firmly into the category of genuine farmers Flamborough Holidays Ltd must surely fall into the diversity grouping also attracting aid. Likewise Tongue and Farr Sports Association at Bettyhill, a community venture running a pool, spa, sauna and fitness suite in the north of Scotland. As for O’Neill’s Caravan your guess is as good as mine – and the same goes for Shield Engineering Syston Ltd. Then again Hound Parish Council at somewhere called Netley Abbey, Southampton appears along with The Royal Farms Windsor. Hello? What? The Queen picks up loadsamoney through her Sandringham Farms.

Trawling through the CAP list is time-consuming for it is very, very long with no fewer than 19,613 recipients listed in the UK and not a few, in fact quite the reverse, millionaires and zillionaires which suggest the EU CAP system is something of a money printing press for powerful agencies. One in five CAP handouts goes to toffs.

Khalid Abdullah al Saud, owner of Frankel the racehorse.

Prince Khalid Abdullah al Saud

The last thing you might imagine a Saudi prince really needed was a cash handout from the people of Europe but that’s because you aren’t a Saudi prince. Prince Khalid Abdullah al Saud has expensive pastimes – breeding racehorses and hobby farming on his Juddmonte Farms (registered offshore in Guernsey.) He enjoys CAP pocket money of around £400,000 a year.

the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/29/the-queen-aristocrats-and-saudi-prince-among-recipients-of-eu-farm-subsidies

Who is/was – delete as appropriate – the richest landowner in the UK? Easy question – it is of course the Duke of Westminster and wouldn’t you know it he is on the list as is vacuum cleaner man Sir James Dyson – sorry, the billionaire Dyson. Why?

From my neck of the woods is Frank A Smart who has done very nicely out of EU subsidies. He is described in the local press as a slipper farmer for he buys up land with subsidies attached and there is nothing at all illegal about this. On being questioned over the huge sums of money he receives each years Mr Smart replied to BBC news, “I don’t want to discuss any part of my business with the media, thank you.”  And why would he.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37493956

Here in Scotland we are forever being told how much money shooting estates bring to the economy but not what the EU brings to grouse moors. Imagine how much good could be done with equivalent handouts to these barren areas of land preserved for the dubious activity of slaughtering defenceless birds and beasts by improving conditions to develop diversity of flora and fauna. The specious argument that subsidies can be justified as a reward to landowners as caretakers of land hardly applies to grouse moor lairds especially those whose gamekeepers persecute our magnificent raptors and other birds and animals, many of whom are protected (in theory.)

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/28/grouse-shooting-estates-shored-up-by-millions-in-subsidies

Farming in the UK is struggling if figures are to be believed and the average farmer, whatever that may be given who appears on the CAP list, could not survive without hefty payouts. Figures for last year indicated that the average farm made £2,100 from farming and £28,300 from subsidies.

In Scotland the average farm (excluding pig and poultry) made £23,000 profit from their business in 2014/15 which includes subsidies. They lost c £21,800 on agriculture but took in £39,900 in subsidies and other payments.

https://fullfact.org/economy/farming-subsidies-uk/

I noticed this year farms around Alford were ploughed and sown right up to dykes and fences with virtually no wild margins left for birds and wildlife. Is this the future? So much for Gove’s ‘green Brexit’ when cereal farmers post-subsidy will turn over every inch of their land and to hell with nature. Anyway out of the EU those pesky controls over pesticides will be lifted and production will be increased to make up for payout losses at no cost other than to our health and the environment.

The UK government says it will retain subsidies until 2022 by which time the money will have run out. In free-for-all post-Brexit Britain agriculture crops will be even more intensively sprayed with pesticides in attempts to compete with the big boys and will fail because then we will be the little brats. Our grass reared cattle and hill sheep will be reared for a niche market for they will be too expensive for most of us who will have to tuck into US beef pumped full of growth hormones, chlorine washed chickens and Frankenstein GM foods of every description. Gove’s green Brexit Britain will be a poorer and nastier place with horrible unhealthy food where the government will have to sit down and negotiate support for food producers at levels that will enable them to compete not only with the US but the EU as well.  

Last time the UK government stopped subsidising farming agricultural wages fell by 40 per cent in 12 months and then the threat to British cereal producers didn’t come from the US but from Canada. As a consequence people were thrown out of work, poverty increased and fertile land was abandoned and did not greatly improve until after World War Two with the introduction of guaranteed prices.

Back at the list at least one 14 year old received CAP payments but that’s not a category I could fit into although two folk over 100 years old also made it in so there’s a ray of hope for me. The centenarians were both dead – hope for us all – although if I were a farmer, especially a crofter or hill farmer in Scotland, I would be very very worried as 2022 approaches.

 

 

November 14, 2016

Hugh Miller stepped off the Betsey to find lands visited by terror and evil (Rum and Eigg)

 

Were the people willing to go?

Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

isle-of-eigg

Isle of Eigg

A recent discovery of an anchor believed to have belonged to a floating kirk that sailed around Ardnamurchan from the time of the Disruption  coincided with me reading about a floating manse from the same era.

When the Church of Scotland split in 1843 its breakaway congregations set themselves up as the Free Kirk.  When they tried to build their own churches they were often denied permission by lairds still attached to the Church of Scotland, men who governed the lives of those who lived on their land, and so worship was frequently carried out in the open air in all weathers in places they could not be chased off by landlords. However, Free Kirkers at Loch Sunart found money to have a ship built to sail the Western Isles so providing a watery kirk for the folk in the islands out of reach of controlling lairds. The anchor found is thought to have come from it.

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Towing the iron church into Loch Sunart

I don’t know how many such vessels were used in this way but loathe to let a coincidence pass by I was pressed to retell a little of what struck my ancestor, Hugh Miller, when he voyaged around the Inner Hebrides on a floating manse in 1858 – a journey recorded in his book, The Cruise of the Betsey.

Miller was a journalist, a newspaper editor, an evangelical Christian, a folklorist and an archaeologist. From Cromarty in the Black Isle he travelled around the Sound of Mull – to Rum and Eigg looking for fossils, the bloodstones of Rum included, and discovered more than a pile of old stones.

hugh-miller

Hugh Miller

The evangelical Christian was immensely moved by seeing the impact of the Clearances on these isles. He was, as a Highlander, familiar with the Clearances and, indeed, his own family had been cleared from their glens so he was sensitive to the evidence revealed by the land from some eighteen years earlier when nearly 400 men, women and children, virtually the entire population of Rum, were dragged out of their homes and shipped off to a foreign country leaving behind all they knew and loved.

Ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs of Bosnian Croats and Muslims rightly aroused outrage at the end of the 20th century when people were thrown off their homeland because they were despised for having a different religion and culture from their oppressors. In Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries people were thrown out of their communities, off the land they worked, to make room for sheep and later deer in acts of economic cleansing that involved a wholesale disregard for them as human beings. Both these despicable acts involved the imposition of cruelty by one group upon another and enforced deportation.

As he stepped ashore on Rum (pron. room from the Gaelic now anglicised to sound like the spirit) from the floating manse, the Betsey, Miller noticed patches of green on the island’s hillsides – places once home to people for generations who had been summarily cleared out as if that was of no significance – “cleared off to the backwoods of America” as Miller phrased it. Several homes were razed to the ground in 1826  so the men, women and children dragged from them would not be able to live there anymore while others were left to fall down over time. Miller was struck,too, by the little patches of corn still growing where once farming had followed the seasons and provided food for islanders. He stared at abandoned cottages; homes that once rang out to the sounds of christenings, weddings and New Year celebrations – and the land about them where the peoples’ loved ones were buried.

“…it seems a bad policy,” Miller remarked, despite the chilling argument from economists at the time “that there are more than people enough in Scotland still.”

On population size being a determinant for clearances Miller commented –

“There are, I believe, more than enough in our workhouses, – more than enough on our pauper-rolls, – more than enough huddled up, disreputable , useless, and unhappy, in the miasmatic alleys and typhoid courts of our large towns, but I have yet to learn how arguments for local depopulation are to be drawn from facts such as these.”

Miller mentioned a solitary shepherd’s house standing at one end of the island where the shepherd and his wife lived-

“the sole representatives in the valley of a numerous population, long since expatriated to make way for a few flocks of sheep, but whose ranges of little fields may still be seen green”.

As the party that disembarked from The Betsey searched the hills for Rum’s renowned bloodstones they were spotted by island’s shepherd and soon he and his wife had clambered up, she carrying a “a vast bowl of milk, and he a basket of bread and cheese” out of kindness and hospitality.

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Isle of Rum

It struck Miller that the more remote places were the greater the hospitality – that is certainly true of friendliness among people in Scotland’s small villages where few would walk by another without a nod, smile or a hello.

Miller put it more eloquently –

“[that]…hospitality dwindles and disappears, like fruits in the thick of a wood; but where man is planted sparsely, it blossoms, and matures, like apples on a standard or espalier. It flourishes where the inn and the lodging-house cannot exist, and dies out where they thrive and multiply.”

The 400 souls of Rum were crammed on board ships, Highland Lad and, oh the irony, the Dove of Harmony  to Nova Scotia in Canada to begin their lives from scratch. They left behind their island, one sheep farmer and 8,000 sheep.

“All the aborigines of Rum crossed the Atlantic; and at the close of 1828, the entire population consisted of but the sheep-farmer, and a few shepherds, his servants.”

Those who survived the shocking conditions and overcrowding on-board during often rough passages across the Atlantic had to find whatever way they could to house, feed and clothe themselves and families in unfamiliar territory while back in their homeland the sheep experiment to make money for the laird failed when the price of mutton plummeted. Rum was sold off – another piece of property, like the people who once lived there. At his time of writing Miller believed the new owner was an Englishman looking for an opportunity to make money by turning the island into a deer forest – a sporting estate to amuse wealthy gunmen from the mainland.

map-rum
Rum had been populated by human beings since the 8th millennium BC. It is surely understandable that succeeding generations of the island’s inhabitants regarded the island as theirs but others held a different perspective so the folk of Rum lost out to speculators investing in “wool and mutton” and then deer. Islanders were pawns in a bigger game that turned a once thriving island into a desert. Rum would be sold several times over in the search for  profit.

The island’s streams that once provided food for its people were found by Miller to be full of fish with no-one to take them. Rum’s former fishers not possessing fishing nets used to bunch heath roots together which they arranged in mounds across burns, securing them in place with boulders then one or two involved would walk downstream beating the water  and driving trout towards the dam where they would get caught up in the heather roots. The bigger fish were scooped out for food while the immature ones were returned to the burns.

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Isle of Eigg

The Betsey called in at the island of Eigg whose people were also evicted and shipped abroad and here Miller and his associates came upon the site of notorious mass murder that took place from an earlier time – remnants of civilisation: straw beds, human bones, household objects, the handle of a child’s wooden porringer (a bowl with a handle) with a hole through it to hang it to a wall, strands of grey hair.

One winter, possibly during the 16th century, members of the clan Macleod from Skye sailed to Eigg and having offended the native people, the Macdonalds,  the raiders were strapped to boats and pushed out into the sea. Following their rescue they plotted vengeance on the people of Eigg and returned to the island, well-armed, and so terrified the people they ran away and hid in a large narrow cave. The Macleods searched the island but not finding anyone they contented themselves with ransacking the islanders’ houses and were about to leave with their booty when one of them spotted a figure on the beach. They renewed their hunt and as this was in the winter-time a light fall of snow exposed the lookout’s footprints. The footsteps led to the mouth of the cave. Because the cave’s entrance was very narrow the Skye men were unable to enter it safely so they gathered heather and ferns and packed them into and around the entrance and set fire to them so that in time those hiding – the entire population of Eigg – elderly to babies were smothered to death by the smoke.

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Narrow-entranced cave where the population of Eigg took shelter and died

Sir Walter Scott raised money to provide Christian burials for these sad remains when he found out about the massacre.

Miller did discover samples of the bloodstones he was after on Rum – the hard stone once used to shape into tools and weapons by the island’s early settlers. The populations of Rum and Eigg survived centuries of hardship, Viking invasion, occupation by Scots but coarse, selfish, inhuman lairds finally destroyed civilisation on the islands.

Evidence to a government select committee on enforced emigration in 1827 recorded this question:

Were the people willing to go?
Answer:
Some of them
Others were not very willing, they did not like to leave the land of their ancestors

A witness to the deportation of the people of Rum recalled hearing plaintive echoing cries from aboard Atlantic-bound ships as their human cargo watched their homeland disappear from view forever.

preaching-at-the-seaside-copy

Preaching to a breakaway Free Kirk congregation at the seaside

Rum was sold to Nature Conservancy in 1957 as a nature reserve, now under the control of Scottish Natural Heritage.

February 29, 2016

The Black Isle Poorhouse

Coping with the poor has long been a problem for governments and local communities and, of course, let’s not forget enduring the indignity of relying on others for something to eat and a place of shelter has never been much fun for the poor themselves.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when times are tough those with the least take the biggest hit – an attitude gladly adopted during these austere times by the UK government.

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In the not-so-distant past help for the poor came through charities, mortification funds or bequests, personal handouts and assistance usually undertaken by the local presbytery. In the 19th century Poorhouses were introduced to provide an alternative to outside support for those incapable of surviving on nothing: no job, no income, no home. Today we have the safety-net of benefits -albeit they are being whittled away – but before universal benefits were introduced poor relief was applied on a one-to-one basis and was of the merest kind.

There’s slight confusion between Poorhouses and Workhouses. The terms are often conflated but in Scotland indoor relief was provided through the Poorhouse and the more familiar Workhouse was in fact an English institution somewhat different in that inmates had to work for their keep hence the name. The impression is the same system operated throughout Britain which is not true but a legacy of careless and misinformed teaching in our schools. Another difference was that the poor in England and Wales were expected to pay towards their keep whereas that was not so in Scotland.

Scotland’s poor relief was less weighted down by regulation than in England and Wales so that a body looking into improving poor law there looked at the Scottish system before implementing its 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. And despite another myth taught in schools Scotland was not regulated by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

The Act of Union of 1707 preserved poor relief within the laws of Scotland which gave rise to differences in attitude and application across the nations. However being poor and dependent on charity was no more fun in Scotland than elsewhere.

BlackIsleMap1871-2500
Prior to the inauguration of Poorhouses which it has to be said only helped a tiny fraction of the destitute the degree of poverty among the people is difficult for us to imagine today. Most people lived on practically nothing but some literally had nothing beyond the clothes they stood up in.

In Edinburgh in 1826 it was found in one beggar’s hotel down one of the city’s closes thirty people sharing one room with each paying between 1 penny and 3 pennies a night.

Twenty years later provision for the poor in Scotland underwent major changes with the introduction of the 1845 Poor Law Act which called for parochial boards to be established to organise local poor relief with the boards’ overall management retained in the capital, Edinburgh, and made up of representative from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Renfrew and Ross and Cromarty. The Act allowed for neighbouring parishes to join together to build Poorhouses for the needy in their vicinity – those who could not be sufficiently helped through outdoor relief (money, food or clothing and such.) Soon after the 1845 legislation was passed permission was given for building eight new Poorhouses.

Prior to the Act little Rosemarkie on the Black Isle had 39 paupers out of a population of 350 with poverty increasing. The poor at Rosemarkie may have lived in turf houses like many in their condition but were said to be better fed and clothed than in some other parishes and reasonably well educated with most children attending school though occasionally they didn’t because it was suspected from lack of clothing although this was never admitted to by families. The next village of Fortrose recorded 49 on the poor roll from its population of 559. Losing your job was the quickest way to becoming a pauper then but age was an important factor as was desertion of women and children by men.

In an echo of recent times when the poorest in our society have been charged more for gas and electricity through pre-payment meters the poor during the 1840s  – unemployed labourers – had to plead credit from shopkeepers and were charged more than 5% interest on their meagre purchases, certainly in and around Fortrose.

By the end of the 19thC, in the 1890s, Scotland had Poorhouse provision sufficient to accommodate more than 15,000 paupers although the actual numbers living in Poorhouses at any one time was never near that number.

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Poorhouse at Aberdeen

The Poorhouse for the Black Isle was built at Chanonry between Rosemarkie and Fortrose, in the parish of Rosemarkie, and designed by William Lawrie of the Inverness office of Aberdeen architect James Matthews. The Chanonry Poorhouse looked similar to the company’s other Poorhouses at Inverness, Bonar Bridge and Nairn only smaller. The Matthews office designed several Poorhouses, some as Mackenzie and Matthews, notably one for the parishes of St Nicholas and Old Machar in Aberdeen following a blueprint for Scottish Poorhouses that aimed to make them less oppressive in appearance, to give them an air of domesticity and so limit the impression of them being what they were, heavily regulated institutions.

Back in the Black Isle a Combination Poorhouse for some fifty poor souls from the parishes of Rosemarkie and Fortrose, Avoch, Cromarty, Killearnan, Knockbain, Resolis and Urquhart was erected at Chanonry where folk now go to observe dolphins. There may have been a start on a Poorhouse as early as 1856 but the Lawrie one materialised in 1859 and opened its doors only in 1861. Domesticity is surely in the eyes of the beholder because the Poorhouse remit of an H-form, two-storey building plus attic does not soften its severity, although that might be reading into its appearance what is known of its purpose. Staff were accommodated in attractive single-storey cottages alongside.

The familiar H-shape Poorhouse enabled easy separation of male and female inmates. There was further separation of able-bodied (fit for work) and the infirm. Children were removed from their parents and separated again by sex so that each group had its own area within the H-block. Work areas were provided, again according to women’s or men’s work- a bakehouse in the male part and a laundry in the female area.

Poorhouses were run like prisons without the enforced stay. You entered through a public area where you were checked – your identity and for diseases both physical and mental. Your belongings were searched and your clothes removed for washing and put away until you left, if ever, and you were bathed and provided with a uniform.

The central front area housed the offices of the Poorhouse master and matron along with a kitchen and dining-room which also served as a chapel. Also at the front was a room that could supply clothing to those on outdoor relief who did not stay overnight in the institution. In the yard outside areas were designated for male and female activities and a privy was provided in one corner. The whole area was enclosed by a high stone wall.

The Poorhouse provided both refuge for those incapable of fending for themselves and as a hospital of some kind. You could not just walk in but had to be referred, usually by the local Inspector of the Poor, and although you were free to leave you did not automatically get re-admission so a person had to think long and hard what was best for them for there might be even greater hardship to endure on the outside.

The need for Poorhouses grew through the 19thC because of differences in the social makeup of Scotland, its landholdings and changing work practices and, of course, tied houses – those that went with a job and were taken away once the worker died, left or was sacked. By 1868 Scotland had some fifty Poorhouses, mainly around the central belt.

At Chanonry Poorhouse four staff members are listed in the 1881 census but presumably others were involved working with inmates but living outside. The master of the Poorhouse then was John Fraser of Avoch (pronounced Och) and his Glaswegian wife Agnes as well as two young women housemaids, Ann Mackenzie from Avoch and Kate Noble from Durnish who was also the Poorhouse cook.

The committee running the Poorhouse in 1907 was headed by the master or governor of the Poorhouse, John McKay, and met there at 12 noon on every fourth Monday of May, August, November and February and involved the doctor assigned to the house; A. H . Mackenzie from Fortrose as well as committee secretary Robert Gillanders who was also the local Inspector of Poor.

poorhouse committee
Medical relief for paupers was often provided freely at the discretion of doctors, certainly in Rosemarkie, Fortrose, Avoch and Cromarty although some parishes such as Kilearnan did grant small sums to pay for medicines.

When the census was taken in 1881 Chanonry Poorhouse housed 21 people ranging from 90 year old farmer’s widow Ann White from Avoch to two abandoned little children – Isabella McIver and Hugh McLennan both 2 years old and both from Rosemarkie.

The sorry list of their fellow-inmates reveals how awful life was for working people before old age pensions were brought in, especially those only scratching a living while fit and others who were vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. Back in ’81 the majority brought low enough to turn up at the door of the Poorhouse were women, and most of them were over 60 years of age though not all. Amongst the 21 recorded at the time of the census we find a fisherman’s widow, a woman shoebinder, a porter, farm workers, a domestic servant, a laundress, a housekeeper, the widow of an iron moulder, a needlewoman, a weaver, a shoemaker.

Widows were liable to find themselves with nothing to live on once their husbands died and especially if they stayed in accommodation tied to their husband’s job and both men and women had to keep working into old age or severe infirmity because until the 20thC there was no alternative. At Alford agricultural workers who did not rent land were found to be particularly vulnerable to hostile landowners who would not let cottages without land attached which the poorest could not afford so became homeless. A couple of miles away at Tough it was found most day labourers did keep a tiny piece of land, a croft with one or two cows, so were better protected from destitution.

Poor relief outwith from the Poorhouse was managed by kirk-sessions. At Rosemarkie old paupers who were not confined to bed were given 4 to 5 shillings annually for their upkeep but widows and children received less. Mostly the poor in the Black Isle lived on nothing much more than potatoes and with the tiny allowances allotted them often turned to begging (which in Rosemarkie was not punished as it was in many other places.)

Poor funds were supplemented by legacies, mortification money or sometimes pockets of land, and these attracted people to move to areas where it was known they had funds for distribution, such as Fortrose.

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Looking towards Rosemarkie from Chanonry Point

Cromarty too had mortified funds which attracted its fair share of folk from surrounding areas as well as people in search of work at the town’s hemp manufactory. Ropemaking and fishing were main sources of income for people in that town but many supported themselves gathering sea weed which they sold to farmers for fertilisers and widows could find work baiting hooks for 4 pennies a day for Cromarty’s fishermen. Seasonal work such as harvesting was also a source of employment for women around Cromarty who might earn 6 pennies a day in the fields. That said Cromarty’s poor were said to suffer more extreme poverty and destitution than in other areas. Among those requiring help were people suffering mental illness who were supported from locally raised funds. Amounts paid to recipients varied widely from as little as 2 shillings a year and rarely exceeded 10 shillings but a few payments of 20 shillings were made at Rosemarkie while the average in Cromarty was 12 shillings annually.

Mary Ann Cumming from England was 76 years old and a resident in the Chanonry Poorhouse in 1881. Her fellow-countryman, Ely Thimpeny, a former weaver, was a year older. He was there with his wife, a local woman from Kilmuir in Ross & Cromarty, but of course they would be mostly separated from each other as long as they remained in the Poorhouse. Another originally from outside the area was Charlotte Mackenzie from Glasgow. Donald McDonald was only 18yrs old and described as a pauper on the census. Donald was blind and presumably unable to fend for himself and so found himself at such an early age an inmate of the Poorhouse.

In 1894 Poor Law in Scotland was replaced by the Local Government Board and then in 1919 a Scottish Board of Health assumed responsibility for poor relief. After the end of the Second World War and the start of a proper welfare system Poorhouses became relics of the past. By then the need for the Black Isle Poorhouse had diminished and its name was changed to Ness House in the late 1930s but long after continued to be known as the Poorhouse.

Wi silver in ma pocket an oatmeal in ma scoo
Ah’ll tramp gladly homeward like cadgers always do
An when Ah reach the bothie so sair an tired I am
Ah’ll keep the home fires burnin an fry the ham

An then to bed as usual, three, four pints o beer
It’s best to tak things easy, we’ll no be always here
Oh wha would slave like Storum or stare like Jessie Poose
There’s little sense in savin pence for Chenrey Hoose.

verse taken from The Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect http://wanderengland.com/images/The%20Cromarty%20Fisherfolk%20Dialect.pdf