Posts tagged ‘sporting estate’

October 22, 2017

Who owns this landscape? The Braemar poacher who would not be a rich man’s flunkey.

The year is 1843 and on the 25th of August a party of gunmen come upon a corpse; cold and stiff on the moors of Glencairney at Creagan Sgor in the wilds of Glenbuchat, a pointer dog docile at its side.

“Brave Sandy, art thou dead?” Word spread like wildfire through the Highlands.

Sandy – Alexander Davidson – a poacher, famed, renowned, notorious and, aye, a dancer of great reputation had lain down one last time never again to rise up at first light and set out over the springy heather to claim his dinner.  

Sandy was a mountaineer – a mountain man – whose home was the purple heather-clad hills of Scotland. He rejected the habiliments (clothing) of the Sassenach preferring ‘the garb of Old Gaul’ which he would close about him at night under the shelter of a rock or thicket to sleep the sleep of the just, his dog Charlie a quiet and attentive guard.

deer stalking 2

It’s easy to romanticise the poacher of the past and in truth there is a difference between those who took an animal from need and those men and women who take to the hills for the thrill of the kill, a handsome payout for a saddle of venison from a none-too-fussy restaurant owner or in other parts of the world those who indifferently help wipe out whole species for the sheer fun of it or slaughter to satisfy a yearning for horn for remedies or decoration – and I accept some of that is done by very poor people who have few alternatives to scrape a living.  

I like to photograph the graceful roe deer I encounter near here and hate to hear blasts from rifles I know are targeting these little creatures and shake my head when I come across their tiny hooves and discarded hides at a roadside. I’m fairly sure I know someone round here who does this, and it isn’t from want.

Poacher and Dancer

Alexander Davidson was born at Mill of Inver by Crathie (close to Balmoral) in 1792 and as a child was put to learn the art of gamekeeping possibly with Farquharson of Finzean*. Farquharson was a reluctant politician preferring to while away his time taking pot-shots at game on his lands. He was great friends with Lord Kennedy, a fellow ‘sportsman’ by choice who one October (of many) was ‘much amused with a wild boar hunt’ at which he shot both tusks off a fine specimen eventually felled by volleys of shots from his gentlemen companions ‘but so tenacious was he (the boar not Lord Kennedy) of life, that he did not yield it until after receiving six shots through the head and body.’

In a normal week of ‘sport’ Kennedy, Farquaharson and their gentrified mob would bravely slaughter several ‘very fine red deer’ from the safe end of a rifle and at the end of a good season would go on to celebrate at a grand ball in Braemar’s Fife Arms Inn.

Sandy Davidson also loved the thrill of a chase and kill but he had the misfortune to have been born into poverty and not upon a soft bed belonging to a family whose lands and titles came to them because of battles fought long ago or ‘arrangements’ between similarly fortunate families. Having grown up knowing these people Sandy developed a healthy loathing of toadyism and proclaimed he was not designed to doff the cap to the gentry, “sooner than be in any way a flunkey, I’d rather go and beg my bread” – admirable sentiments which upped my opinion of the man, albeit he was a poacher. And being something of a Sabbatarian, though lapsed due to his way of life on the muirs, Sandy Davidson objected to being ordered out to shoot on a Sunday by the laird so turned his back on paid employment as a gamie. Having to live somehow, Sandy – Roch Sanie – turned to smuggling of which opportunities were ample up Deeside and Donside – for venison but mainly for whisky and while his new occupation was fraught with more dangers than that of a rich man’s flunky it was very lucrative and did not involve humiliating himself in the service of another man who regarded himself superior.  

Sandy was fit, well-built and handsome with a ‘finely chiselled face’ and ‘hairy as an ox.’ In summer he dressed himself in a kilt, cotton shirt and thin tartan coat with Forfar brogues on his feet and when winter came he changed into trousers; a style of clothing he adopted out of patriotism to Scotland he explained and possibly for that same reason he generally spoke the native Gaelic although his English was very good. Gaelic was the language of the glens up Deeside until the ’45 and the Union of Parliaments determinedly set about undermining it by insisting on English being spoken in schools until most traces of it, bar place names, were near completely eliminated.   

Sandy was also renowned as a dancer; a graceful dancer with great lightness of feet and wouldn’t that be an advantage in a poacher? His Highland reels and other dances won him prizes at Highland Games and competitions around Scotland including the Caledonian Hunt Club in Edinburgh, an organisation designed to preserve Highland culture – dance and games – after decades of attempts by government to snuff it out.

At a time when Deeside’s forests provided vast amounts of timber for building and ships felled tree trunks were dragged to the banks of the River Dee strapped together in great rafts and floated down river with men on board to provide timber for Aberdeen’s shipbuilding yards. Sandy Davidson leased a section of forest from the Earl of Fife at Glen Derry and hired men to help with the treacherous river journey but this attempt to earn a legal living came to nought when the Earl of Fife was made bankrupt and failed to pay Sandy.

Having been burned once too often by the titled and wealthy estate owners Sandy picked up his bag and gun and for 20 years roamed the Highlands as a ‘free forester’ of ancient times claiming privilege of the unalienable right of a free-born Scot.

Each March found him fishing the best salmon pools on the rivers Dee and Spey and fearlessly he would walk into the water, up to his neck, irrespective of the cold and wait till he caught something or it became clear he would catch nothing.

Charlie was trained to remain quiet at the approach of strangers for the last thing Sandy Davidson wanted was to alert a gamie of his hiding place when he was in possession of a bag filled with hare or fowl. But one time Charlie did his job too well and Sandy was discovered fast asleep in the heather by a laird who demanded his name.

“My name is Alexander Davidson; what is your name?”

“My name,” replied the other, “is George MacPherson Grant of Ballindalloch, and I require you to follow me.”

Sandy was duly taken to court and fined £5. In retaliation Sandy made sure he poached the moors of Ballindalloch thoroughly after that.

He was polite and his manner encouraged the gentry to treat him with more care than they might otherwise but their laws were there to protect their property so they wouldn’t let him away with taking anything that had a price. On his ‘annual tour’ around estates he would sometimes approach a big house and ask permission to cross the land, to keep to a straight line and only kill what he required. Any laird who refused him could expect him to take his revenge in bagging as many animals and birds as he was able for cross the estate he would irrespective of an officious owner.

Said to be fearless, generous and kind-hearted Sandy Davidson became the stuff of legend.

His foot was foremost in the dance,

His laugh the loudest rang;

Nae e’e could match his mirthful glance,

Nane sung so sweet a sang.

 from Norman MacCaig ‘s A Man in Assynt

Despite tensions in his relationship with lairds several had a sneaking regard for him and invited him to entertain their guests with his dancing; his notoriety no doubt adding to his attraction.

Many a chase on a muir ended with him slipping into a bog, a moss-pot, his nose all that remained above the water till a perplexed gamie gave up the chase. But he did not always evade them and whenever he was overcome he offered no resistance but would go with the laird’s lackey for another appearance before the law. The last time this happened Sandy Davidson was apprehended near Dufftown and taken by his pursuers to Elgin via every public house along the way.  

This “perfect child of nature – as complete a Hawkeye of the old country as the times would admit of” had no home but everywhere was his home across the broad bonny face of the Highlands. One day his gun would ring out in Perthshire, another in the wilds of Lochaber, or on the muirs under the black shadow of the Cairngorms, around Inchrory where the Avon** and Don gather water or at Strathspey and the hills of Moray and Inverness.

Like Walter Scott’s Bertram he possessed:

“The steady brain, the sinewy limb,

To leap, to climb, to dive, to swim;

The iron frame, inured to bear

Each dire inclemency of air,

Nor less confirmed to undergo

Fatigue’s chill faint, and famine’s throe.”

 

In 1820 Farquharson of Finzean and Lord Kennedy had a £50 bet – £50 in 1820 was worth around £1500 in today’s value – with Davidson that he would not run without clothing from Barclay Street in Stonehaven to the gate of Inchmarlo near Banchory, a distance of around 20 miles, within a given time. Davidson had almost made it but the men had paid a posse of women under the stewardship of a Mrs Duncan to guard the Brig o’ Feugh at Banchory to prevent Davidson crossing. Duncan was paid a generous 20 shillings and the others something less to fill their aprons with stones and other missiles to chuck at the exhausted man as he attempted to run over the bridge. Mrs Duncan was also armed with a heavy knotty stick she intended to use against Sandy Davidson. As Davidson neared the brig and paused to catch his breath he noticed the trap and at the same time his enemies spotted him and began pelting him with their stones but bounding with renewed vigour the fleet-footed Davidson evaded them and crossed to the other side of the river. Later Mrs Duncan complained Sandy Davidson to be “not a man but a beast” whether from his hirsute appearance or from peak because he had foiled her efforts who knows. At any rate Sandy Davidson reached Inchmarlo within the given time and pocketed the £50.

Brig o Feugh

Behind occasional sport of this kind Davidson’s chosen lifestyle was fraught with danger. He had to go out of his way to make himself into a character to evade the tyranny of Britain’s Game Laws passed by members of parliament who as landowners created laws to benefit themselves and preserve their property rights including the wildlife that passed across the lands they claimed as theirs. Their lackeys, game keepers and river ghillies, rarely shied away from carrying out their duties irrespective of whether a rabbit or bird was being taken to prevent a family starving. For those caught a hefty fine awaited and for any who repeated the crime the prospect of transportation somewhere across the oceans. Magistrates and sheriffs fulfilled their roles to serve the wealthy, their own people, and rarely extended sympathy to the impoverished and desperate brought before them.  

Temptation must have been great for a parent living close to land teeming with food denied to them wholly on grounds they were the property of one family and were wanted for sport, a pastime, for their exclusive enjoyment. Out of necessity many risked capture and the courts to take something for the pot, and sometimes more, from under the noses of the gentry and were loudly and soundly condemned by the great and the good who regarded poaching as the nursery of robbers and murderers and poachers as desperate characters who infested the hills.

As for Sandy Davidson he lived a charmed life in many ways. He refused to kowtow to those accidentally privileged whose fortune was to be born with political rights they could use to enhance their own interests at the expense of the rest of the population.

John Stuart Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

 

Radical, humanitarian and Scottish nationalist John Stuart Blackie commented in the mid-1800s on how far removed were the privileged few from the morality of the New Testament. He was writing about the hypocrisy of the landed interests who trotted into church on a Sunday to sing psalms and pray about goodness and mercy who went back to their mansions to dine while their lackeys denied a starving child a mouthful of food. And Blackie implicated the church for its willingness to conspire with the ruling classes to maintain such inequality.

“A minister of sacred things,

He bound together, by higher ties than human law,

The men that shared his faith with awe;

He had his seat at power’s right hand,

And lords and ladies of the land

Did call him brother.”

 John Stuart Blackie’s The Cottage Manse

Sandy Davidson has long gone and so too has John Stuart Blackie but their sentiments that emerged from a different time have echoes today for here in Scotland the landed estate maintains its swagger as it endeavours to retain the privileges of power of a rotten system of elitism and inequality.

“Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?”

 from Norman MacCaig’s A Man in Assynt

(Sandy Davidson 1791 – 1843)

*Finzean – pronounced Fingin

** Avon – pronounce An

See also for John Stuart Blackie – O Albin! O my country!

 

 

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.

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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.

eigg-looking-to-rum

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.

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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.