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History of Caithness
Pref. 2nd Edition
Memoir of Author
Appendix 2 Roads
App 2 - Superstition
App 2 - Extracts
Notes To 2nd Edition
Caithness In 1887
ANCIENT STATE OF HUSBANDRY, HANDICRAFTS, ETC., IN CAITHNESS.
IT is a curious circumstance that in the reign of David II. of Scotland, more than five hundred years ago, the weights and measures of Caithness were the standards of Scotland. By a royal ordinance, or Act of that monarch, entitled time ‘‘ Regiam Majestatem,” it is statuted, “that ane common and equal weicht quilk is called the weicht of Caithness (Pondus Cathaniae) sall be keeped and used be all men in buying and selling within this realm of Scotland.” ‘I’his is a sufficient proof that Caithness, notwithstanding its remote situation, was, at the early period in question, a place of considerable commercial importance. The inhabitants had already begun to apply themselves to agriculture; and at a later period they carried on a regular traffic with Norway and Denmark. Thurso, on account of its safe and excellent roadstead, was the principal sea-port. From it great quantities of malt and meal were annually shipped for the Baltic, from which wood, iron, etc., were imported in return. This is the more remarkable, when we consider how imperfect must have been the system of agriculture, and all the operations connected therewith, at the time. Previous to 1780, there was not a single cart in the whole county of Caithness. “Crubbans,” a kind of wicker baskets, were the principal substitutes for carts. Two of these, one on each side of the horse, were hung front a wooden saddle, called a “clibbar,” beneath which was a cushion of straw to protect the animal’s back. A sort of bags made of straw, called “cazies,” were used instead of sacks for holding corn. Two of these, capable, when filled, of containing each half a boll of grain, were fastened to the crook saddle on the back of a garron, and hung down, one on each side of the beast. “Six or seven horses; thus loaded,” says Henderson in his Agricultural Survey of Caithness “might he seen going in a kind of Indian file, each tied by the halter to the other’s tail, a person leading the front horse, and each of the others pulled forward by the tail of the one before him. After the driver arrives at the destined place, the horses are unloaded, and the halter of the front horse is tied to the tail of the rear horse, by which means they cannot run away, as they can only move in a circle where they stand.” Such was the simple mode of carriage before the introduction of the cart into the county.
The old Caithness plough, called the “thrappie plough,” was of a very primitive construction. With the exception of the coulter and ‘‘sock,” it was entirely of wood, with wooden pegs for nails, and it had only one stilt. To this machine four miserable garrons, with perhaps a pair of oxen, were yoked abreast. The person who held the plough had a sheep-skin tied round his right thigh, to which he held the stilt to keep the plough steady in its course. A second person pressed his whole weight and strength on the middle of the beam, to keep the plough in the soi; and the third, the driver, walked backwards between the two foremost beasts, leaning his arms on their necks to prevent him falling. The driver was not unfrequentiy a woman. The price of the thrapple plough was only four shillings, and the quantity of soil it turned up in a clay was not much above a quarter of an acre. ‘‘The one-stilted plough,” says a statistical writer, ‘‘ though a fertile subject of ridicule, was the ancient plough of Rome, Egypt, and even England.”
That Caithness, long before time introduction of time present improved system of husbandry, produced no inconsiderable quantity both of grain and stock, we have time recorded testimony of three intelligent tourists. Brand, who formed one of a deputation sent by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1700 to visit the north, says of Caithness:—‘‘ The county is very fertile, abounding with grass and corn, hence yearly there is a great quantity of victual exported, as anno 1695,1 there were sixteen thousand bolls embarked and taken out, for which end it is much frequented by barks from the Forth, Clyde, and other places, for ordinarily, when there is no scarcity or dearth, the meal is sold here at 3 or 4 or at most 5 merks per boll.” He then adds—” The cattle and fish also are to be had very cheap, as good kine often in the shambles, such as time country doth afford, for 3 or 4 shillings sterling, and sometimes they say for 2 shillings ; so that, as I have heard some of time more intelligent inhabitants observe, here is the cheapest market in the worid. And the gentlemen can live better here upon 1000 merks than they can do in the south upon 4000 per annum.”
“The county,” says Pennant (this was in 1769), “produces great quantities of oatmeal ; and much whisky is distilled from barley (bere). The great thinness of the inhahitants throughout Caithness enables them to send abroad much of its productions.” What Pennant says in regard to the distillation of whisky is fully confirmed by the following extract from the county records:—‘‘At a meeting of the Justices of the Peace and Commissioners of Supply of the county of Caithness, held at Thurso, 21st May, 1776, it was, inter alia, agreed to discountenance, as far as in their power, the pernicious practice of distilling whisky,2 so very prejudicial to the morals end the constitutions of the people, there being from eighty to ninety stills in time county, which, at a moderate computation, consume from 100 to 150 bolls of barley each.” Before whisky began to be distilled in the county, the great beverage of the people was ale. It may be here mentioned, as a curious statistical fact, that in the year 1668, no less than 1749 bolls of malt were brewed into ale in Caithness—a goodly quantity certainly, considering the limited amount of population at the period in question. The duty charged to the revenue, at 2 merks per boll, was £156 Os 6d sterling, which, from the great difference in the value of money, would be nearly equal to £1000 at the present day.
Wright, author of the “Husbandry of Scotland,” has the following statement regarding the county, which he visited about the year 1783 —“The inhabitants are reckoned at 25,000, and yet, from the parsimony of the people and the want of manufactures, there are exported annually about 25,000 bolls bere and meal. In Wick, curing and salting fish is a considerable branch, as also salting and exporting beef. Provisions are cheap and plentiful: beef at salting time a penny per pound ; mutton three halfpence. There is a good inn, everything at a moderate rate, and excellent claret for half-a-crown the bottle.
The farms at the period in question were generally small; but one gentleman would seem to have occupied, as middleman, the whole of Murkle. “Mr Macleod, the Sheriff-Substitute of the county,” says Wright, “rents the farm of Murkle, for which he pays £275 of rent. Has under him thirty sub-tenants, and eighteen cottagers. The rent is paid partly in money, and partly in victual. The cottagers pay of rent from one to two boils of victual, and perform services—shearing in harvest, for example—which they are obliged to do without any victuals. Here is slavery in perfection, without any alleviating circumstance.” When the imperfect state of husbandry at the time is considered, the wonder really is that the county produced so much grain as it did. As has been already observed, the tenantry had only small patches of land; and these were intermingled in the oddest way imaginable—one having a piece here, and another a piece there — in what was called rig-and-rennel, or run-rig. This barbarous custom was originally adopted, it is said, in order to prevent neighbours at enmity from setting fire to each other’s fields of corn, and to cause the whole of a township to band together to protect their crops and their cattle from the Highland reivers.
As nearly the whole of the rent was paid in kind, the grain exported belonged solely to the proprietors, who had storehouses or granaries for receiving it. When the Earls of Caithness lived in the Castle of Girnigoe, they had two large storehouses for this purpose at Staxigoe. These contained four meal-girnels, each capable of holding 1000 boils of meal; and four lofts, each capable of holding 1000 bolls of bere. About the year 1770, says Captain Henderson, the wages of farm servants., such as were fit to hold the plough, &c., did not exceed from £6 to £8 Scotch, that is from 10s to l3s 4d stg. in the half year. Women servants had only from 3s 6d to 5s in the half year. In 1790, a fat hen was bought at from 3d to 4d, a cock at 2d, and a dozen of eggs might be had for a penny. All the other necessaries of life were cheap in proportion.
The following account from the Old Statistical History of Caithness, published in 1793, will give some idea of the extent of services and of time customs, as they were called, which time lairds exacted from their tenants. They tilled, dunged, sowed, and harrowed a part of an extensive farm in the proprietor’s own possession. They provided a certain quantity of peats for fuel, carried feal and divot, thatched a part of his houses, and furnished ropes made of hair and simmons (straw ropes) for that purpose, as well as for securing his corn in the stack-yard, weeded the land, led a certain quantity of midden feal from the common for manure to his farm, mowed and ingathered his hay, the spontaneous produce of the meadow and marshy grounds, and cut down, ingathered, thrashed out in part, manufactured, and carried to market the growth of the farm. Besides these services, the tenants paid vicarage, or small teind, viz., meat, lamb, wedder, poultry, and eggs out of each house, with teind geese and mill gault. Grass farms in the Highlands paid veal, kid, butter, cheese, &c. Tenants on the sea-coast paid a certain quantity of fish (kater fish, as it was called) and oil out of each boat belonging to them, and carried sea-ware for manuring the proprietor’s farm. Amongst other articles of rent, the parsonage or great teind — being the tenth sheaf of the tenant’s produce — was also till lately drawn by the laird in some places in the county. Tenants also wintered a beast or mote, each according to the extent of his possession; and their wives spun a certain quantity of lint for the proprietor’s lady, who likewise had from them a certain portion of woo1 annually. All these different payments obtained generally in the county of Caithness previous to 1793. Nor were the towns exempt from their share of burdens. “The inhabitants of Thurso,” says Dr. Henderson, “were formerly liable to be called out by the superior to cut down his crops at Thurso East, and for other services. This was done by tuck of drum, and under pain of poinding the tongs or best blanket. This vassalage was rigidly enforced by Lady Janet Sinclair, Sir John’s mother, till at length a sturdy citizen named Sandy Murray put an end to it by driving his staff through the drum and desiring the drummer to tell Lady Janet that he had done so.”
How the poor people contrived to live under all these burdens is not a little surprising to us at the present day. The condition of the slaves in America and the West Indies was infinitely preferable. And yet, as the balance of happiness is pretty nearly equal in all conditions of society, we have no reason to think that they were without their own share of the comforts and enjoyments of life.
Some sixty or seventy years ago comparatively little corn was grown in the Highlands of Caithness, the inhabitants thereof having chiefly devoted their attention to pasturage and the rearing of cattle. They kept a number of cows, and made considerable quantities of butter and cheese. These valuable products of the dairy were usually manufactured in the summer season, at what was called the shielings, that is, places affording abundance of common hill pasture, and frequently situated a good many miles distant from their own habitations. This seems to have been quite a common practice also with the peasantry in Norway and other hilly countries. The author of the Agricultural View of the County gives the following graphic account of the Caithness shielings:—“ About the 20th of June, the housewife and maid set out with the milch cows, perhaps from ten to twenty in number, to the shielings, where a booth or cabin was previously prepared for their reception; another for the milk vessels, and a small fold to keep the calves from the cows during the night. There they passed a complete pastoral life, making butter and cheese, and living on curds and cream, or a mixture of oatmeal and cream, seasoned with a glass of whisky before and after meals, dancing on the green and singing Gaelic songs to the music of which, at milking time, the cows listened with apparent attention and pleasure. Here they remained for a. month or six weeks at least, while there was good pasture for tie cows.” Potatoes were introduced into the county about the year 1754, and for some years after were cultivated only in the gardens of the better classes. From 1760 till 1786 the tenantry planted a few of them annually in what were called “lazy beds.” Regarding this valuable esculent there is the following curious note in Chambers’s Traditions of Edinburgh - “There was long, as we have been told by a very venerable personage, a prejudice in Scotland against the potato for two reasons— lst, That it was a species of the night-shade; 2nd, That it was a provocative to incontinence.
During the latter half of the last century, and even down to about 1809, the handicrafts in Caithness were in a state of primitive simplicity. Shoemakers and tailors were itinerant, and were fed and lodged by those who employed them. The farmer generally found both the leather and the cloth. The leather, which was tanned b himself, cost very little ; and the whole family were furnished with “brogues “ at the rate of twopence per pair, and with shoes at from one shilling to one shilling and sixpence per pair. Farmers and their servants wore also in the labouring season a kind of half-boots, called rillens,” made of untanned horse or cow leather, drawn together round the foot by thongs, and with the hairy side out. For clothing, every farmer and cottager had a small flock of sheep of the native breed. “These,” says the local writer”3 from whom we have already quoted, “ annually supplied a fleece or two of good wool, which the gudewife and her family carded and spun into yarn either for blankets or blackgrays (a kind of broad cloth), or for Highland tartan for the wear of the family. When the web was returned from the weaver it was washed in warm water, and if it was necessary to full it, that operation was thus performed:—The house door was taken off the hinges, and laid on the floor; the web was then laid on it hot out of the water; then three or four women sat down around it on a little straw at equal distances, and all being ready bare-legged, by the signal of a song, each applied her soles to the web, and they continued pulling and tumbling it on the floor with their feet until the web was sufficiently fulled ; then it was stretched out to dry, and was ready for the family tailor or for sale, as the case might be.”
1. As a farther prom! that the export trade of Caithness was very considerable at the time, I may mention, on the authority of a Morayshire paper, the ‘ Forres Gazette,” that in the year 1694, there was purchased by Sir James Catder of Muirton, in that county, from Bailie Robert Calder, and others in Wick, beef, tallow, tongues, and salt hides, to the amount of £8678 19s. 4d. Scots, the whole of which commodities were, according to the bill of lading, to be shipped for “Camphore, in Zealand, by the good ship the Ludovik & William of Findhorn".
2. Whisky is mentioned for the first
time in the Session records of Wick in 1758. That would appear
to be the period when it began to be distilled in the county,
3. “ Henderson’s Agricultural View
of the County.”
3. “ Henderson’s Agricultural View of the County.”