Scotland – Helmsdale To Meikle Ferry

“He once asked a roomful of divines why white sheep eat so much more than black sheep. One person advanced it as his opinion that, black being a warmer colour than white, and one which never fails forcibly to attract the sun, black sheep could do with less nutriment than their white contemporaries. At all these profound speculations Dr. Whateley shook his head solemnly, and then proceeded with imperturbable gravity to explain—’ White sheep eat more, because there are more of them.’ “—ARCHBISHOP WHATELEY’S LIFE.

A Walk down Kildonan—The Cheviot Flocks of Old—Foxes on the Gibbet—Mr. Hadwin’s Stags’ Heads—Gideon Rutherfurd—Kildonan Churchyard—Sutherlandshire Flockmasters —Shows in the County—Sheep Farming—Heather Burning—Sporting in Sutherland—Strath Brora—The Dunrobin Herd —The Museum and Kennels—The Dunrobin Dairy—Climbing Ben Vraggie—The Meikle Ferry.

HELMSDALE, which was built by the late Patrick Sellar, is not exactly a paradise amid the moil and offal of the herring season, and never was change more welcome than a walk down Kildonan. Seagulls seemed to be acting as rural police over acres of nets which were laid out to dry ; while a black bull from Dunrobin, with that especially royal sit of the head which marks the West Highlander, stood and looked the very warden of the strath. We followed the course of the Helmsdale river, where an angler (dressed in a suit in which his college dons would have disowned him) was patiently guiding his fly ; and found the ground all lea, with a strong tendency to fog and rushes. Some of it gets top-dressing, but it is terribly rough, and the Norwegian harrows will hardly touch it. The roadside was almost honey-combed with rabbits, which lead far too merry a life of it among the fern. In fact, we hardly heard a shot all day, and were too late for some capital wild-goose shooting on a chain of lochs farther up. Thirty brace out of some five hundred fell to six guns ; but they are very hard to hit, and when they are disturbed they will dive and float along with their dark nebs just above water, and if they do take to the heather they run as low as an otter.

Once upon a time, nearly the whole strath was held by the late Mr. Reed and Mr. Houstoun. The former, who had i 8,000 sheep, began at Edruble, about four miles beyond Helmsdale ; and with the exception of Major Gilchrist’s farm, he occupied the whole eighteen miles by eight on the left bank of the Helmsdale up to Aulton Down, the point where it joins the Brora. His farm also ran with the river down Strath Brora ; and he held Balnakiel in Durness parish, near Cape Wrath, as well. With such scope and choice of pasturage, it is no wonder that for nineteen successive summers the celebrated Jamie and Watty Scott of Hawick wrote and took about 2,006 wedders and 1,500 cast ewes. The late Duke of Sutherland gradually broke up this gigantic flock system. At first the rents ranged from eighteen-pence to half-a-crown a sheep ; but, since then, the rate has increased on many farms to five shillings, and three only obtains in the current leases. The strath of Kildonan springs early, and there is nothing in the lower part under three shillings, and nothing in the higher under five.

We did not pursue our own wanderings beyond Mr. Hadwin’s shooting-lodge, in front of which two foxes, killed in no fair chace, and then stuffed with straw, creaked like felons on a gibbet. No Oulton Lowe or Cream Gorse for them ; no cheery view-halloo from Jem Hills or John Walker ! But there was no help for it ; the cubs cannot be dug out of the rock, and the old ones make as much havoc with the lambs and hares as they did of late among the roe-calves in a Morayshire wood, and “grew too fat to trot.” Still extremes will meet even in appetite ; and if they do love one trap-bait better than another, it is a rotten rat. There were far more pleasant trophies inside the lodge, where scores of antlered heads did peg duty in passage, hall, and bedroom. Many of them had their forest epitaph duly labelled below. August, 1859, had witnessed the crash of a 19st. 2lb. hart on Ben Dune at 295 yards; Glass. come could boast of ” 24 stone clean ” ; and Aultongrange beat it with a stone in hand.

Old Gideon Rutherford, whose son Richard now holds part of it, is the venerable sage of the strath and there was the light of battle in his eye, when he recalled how many ” braw lads ” it had “given to the 42nd Highlanders, who beat the Invincibles in Egypt.” There have always been men of sturdy fibre up Kildonan. One of them, when past eighty, was begged to keep warm in his cabin during his last sickness and yet he would argue, ” It’s keeping fra the wet Mat maks me ill.” ” The Sheeperd Swingle over the remains of his beloved son ” raises a simple stone and his own name is not found on it till he is 107. Nettles and foxgloves were growing over the threshold of that deserted church. The door was off its hinges, and the hole in the floor of the pulpit told how the portly minister used to emphasize Sunday after Sunday with his right foot. Earth lays in turn its heavy load on him, and he sleeps among his shepherd worshippers with ” Mistress Isabel and Jean, late deceased spouses, both judicious, worthy, and amiable characters, and attentive to the interests and comfort of himself and his children.”

The flocks are larger on the west coast than the east, and some of them muster nine thousand or more. No patriarchal pride seems to be felt respecting their extent ; and the owners are wonderfully taciturn and costive on the point, though the salesmen form a pretty accurate notion from the annual ewe drafts. We should as soon presume to reveal these crook mysteries as to report the general wedder criticisms of the Cumberland and Yorkshire feeders—how some are becoming rather fine-bred ; how others are grand in size, but not such good travellers ; how a third are good grazers, but going off in size, and so on through all the Cheviot chronicle. Still the critics seem to hold the balance very equitably between the Highland and Lowland flocks. On the west coast of Sutherland they are all wedder farmers and Patrick Sellar of Strathnaver (who has now the farm in Lewes, which Wattie Scott held for nineteen years), Patterson of Mellness and Bighouse, Clarke of Eribol, Gunn of Glendhu, Clarke of Stronchrabie, John Scobie of Lochinver, M`Kay of Kinlochbervie, Reed of Salnakeil, and Sangster of Coignafern make up a strong bede-roll. On the east coast, the ewe and wedder farmers are nearly equal in strength. John Hall of Seibers Cross, Reed of that pleasant spot down Strath Brora, which the gods call Kilcalmkill and men Gordon Bush, Houstoun of Kintradwell, Marcus Gunn of Kilgower, Murray of Kirkton (whose ewe draft goes annually to the Royal Home Farm), Andrew Hall of Blairich, and Hadwin of Kildonan keep wedders ; while Dudgeon of Crakaig, Hill of Navidale, Rutherford of Kildonan, George Ross of Torboll, Barclay of Davochbeg, and Major Weston of Morvich have ewe farms, and sell their wedder lambs.

The East Sutherland Farmers’ Club holds its show at Golspie for sheep, West Highland cattle, ponies, and pigs ; and the men of the West decide their wager of battle at Aultnaharrow. The combined county show is at Lairg, where a silver medal is given by the Highland Society, open to proprietors, factors, and farmers, for tups which have won a prize at a previous competition. The Sutherland men care very little for showing out of their county ; and at the Highland Society’s annual meetings, the Lowlanders —with Aitchison, and then Brydon, as their champion —have had the Cheviot classes pretty nearly to themselves.

The late Mr. Reed, of Gordon Bush, was the first Sassenach who brought the Cheviot into Sutherland. His flock came with him from Reed Water, on the South side of the Cheviot Hills and when the Rob sons followed him, the knell of the black-faces in Sutherlandshire was rung, and there was no farming against the Borderers. Although in the shepherd’s mind the Sutherland sheep live on heather, and the Border ones on grass, the latter changed the venue in one respect for the better. The cotton plant or mossy grasses in the lower range of Sutherland lie very little above the sea level, and tide the sheep through the winter and spring months, when those on the Border hills are generally hid in snow-wreaths on the summits. This plant is, in fact, as much the making of Sutherland as its prototype is of Manchester. On the west coast more especially, deerhair follows the mosses most opportunely for six weeks before May-day; and the ” flying bent,” sometimes to the extent of hundreds of acres, is won and built each August into piles on the muirs, to feed the sheep with in winter. Wedders take the stormier ranges ; and in a very severe time, the sharp spirals on which they mainly subsist bring on pining, and nothing but a change of food restores them. The black winter of 1859-6o, like that of 1838-39, was very equitable in its ravages. Some Sutherland farmers lost nearly a third: of their flock ; and the ewes got so low, for lack of food on the hill, that they were mere cabers in point of milk, if they did bring their lambs. They had hay for more than eight weeks, and in many instances sheaves were let down to them, and scores of the most weakly just struggled through on warm oats and bay. In England, the hoggs do not rise to that rank till they have been clipped ; whereas Iamb promotion is speedier in Scotland, and takes place about October. 20th with the smearing. Olive and castor oil have been tried instead of the conventional butter and tar but although the wool brought a higher price, it of course weighed less, and rather impoverished the mutton by not turning the rains of winter and spring.

To prevent braxy, which is generally induced by eating diseased vegetation during the frost, the wedder hoggs are turniped, in or out of the country, from the beginning of. December to the end of March, along with the tups and the worst of the dinmonts, to make them equal to the lot on the hill. The wedders are always sold (like the ewes, of which about a third are cast each year) by the clad score, or 21 as 20, and if they kill to’ 20lbs. a quarter, as three shears, after four months on turnips, it is considered capital. The bargain is generally made at the Inverness Character Fair, where the Cumberland,, Dumfriesshire, Yorkshire, and Lothian men buy most freely ; and several lots change hands at the September Falkirk, on their way south. The closing chapter of wedder history comprises. another course of turnips for three or four months, and then many of them are consigned . to the Liverpool and Newcastle fat markets. When the brothers Scott were in the, height of their trade, and the markets happened to be cheap, they would buy more than forty thousand wedders and cast ewes on the plane stanes at Inverness, in addition to those of their own breeding, and pitch the majority of them at the September and October Falkirk trysts.

A barren ewe is marked with ruddle on the back of her head, and the token is renewed with tar at clipping time, which enables the shepherd to put her among the draft, if she misses the next- year. The trace of the black-face sometimes peeps out in horns or a black foot and ears ; but, provided the bone is nice and sclef, the breeders do not dislike grey legs, and consider that they indicate good provers. Red or white noses or a pink ear invariably show softness, and for this and hairy wool there is no benefit of clergy. The weight of the hogg fleeces depends so entirely on their keep that it is difficult to strike an average, but even fine sheltered turnip land cannot send them to scale above 4 1/2 to 5lbs. A three-shear ewe which has brought up a lamb will average 4lbs., wedders of that age 5 to 6lbs., and tups which have been on turnips all winter 7lbs. The wool varies with the winter, and in very severe months it hardly grows at all.

Shepherds begin as lads of eighteen, and serve a four or five years’ apprenticeship, at £16 to £25 wages and their keep. At the end of that time, if they become master-shepherds, they have a cottage and grass for two cows and a horse, and a pack of eighty sheep. Sometimes they have only. half-a-pack, and the other moiety in wages. The pack is quite a miniature flock, with a separate mark, and the cast ewes go with the master’s. They also get an allowance of 61 boils * of meal for themselves, and the same for their lad where it is “a double herding,” to wit, 1,000 sheep, “be the same more or less.” Their two-acre farm is generally in a course of cropping for potatoes or barley, and a few turnips for the broth-pot ; and a braxy victim,, when it has been skinned, well pressed with stones- in a burn to extract the inflammation, and then salted, makes no contemptible hung mutton. The shepherd has a hard six weeks of it, to see that the ewes do not wander away from the tup ; but it is nothing to the lambing season, which begins about April 18th and lasts for a month. Fifty ewes are generally apportioned to each tup on the hill, who needs to be a good traveller, and is generally preferred when two years old. No one save Mr. Dudgeon, on his fine seaside farm of Crakaig, tups his gimmers as a rule but some will select a score or so of the strongest, and put their lambs on ewes which have lost their own. The ewes are brought on to the strath to lamb, and in fair average seasons eighty-four lambs to a hundred ewes is not bad. There are different bits in the marking system of the east and west coasts , and on the latter, where the flocks are more liable to be mixed, the face is marked as well at an agreed angle. If, on the east coast for instance, a man’s land marches with another, he will mark his ewe lambs with a double forebit on the near ear, ‘to begin with. The next summer it is double backbit on the same ear, then ditto on the off ear, and so round to double forebit again. The wedder lambs are marked in this ear order,’ but on the single-bit system, and his neighbour pursues the same process, but exactly reverses it.

The conflict between the sheep and the shooting interests is sometimes pretty hot over the heather burning, as the shepherd is anxious to burn as much and the shooter as little as possible. The old system was a peculiarly expensive one, as a whole cohort of broom-men had to be paid and kept for several days, waiting for the wind to set in from the right quarter. Mr. Houstoun’s system, which has been adopted to a slight extent by Colonel Hunt in Kildonan, is far more economical and effective. The heather is cut into squares by means of drains 3 inches deep and 28 inches broad, and burnt on a three or a five course rotation. Thus the reversed sod goes to make up a 56-inch barrier, and prevents the fire from spreading down wind, while the drain furnishes drink to the grouse in a dry season, and is never too deep to drown the broods. The squares in all their varied rotation hues look very beautiful on the side of a hill, and in the third summer after burning they will always hide a grouse.

The coast road from Helmsdale to the Mound, with its dark masses of crag and verdure, is quite our favourite stretch upon Scottish ground. We like to scramble about the hillocks at Crakaig, and watch the Shetland cows, with their lusty, long-haired, black-roan calves, feeding in a troop along the beach, and a Shorthorn yearling bull in command, as white as Europa’s love. The evergreen gorse, from which the Kintradwell Clumber scorns to flinch, flourishes with the wild willow hard by those rabbit-haunted links. The otter glides up Collieburn, and calls after its loch-fishing, to enjoy a trout under the ledge of the bramble-fringed rocks, where the kestrel has its eyrie, and from which the wood-pigeon sweeps forth with a strong rushing flight, as if an East Lothian price were set on its eggs and head. Partridges scurry along among the sand-hills, where the sheldrake builds in the deserted rabbit-hole, and hatches her brood of sixteen ; and the notes of the plover, the oyster-picker, and the ring-dotterel break in all their varied cadence on a naturalist’s ear.

As night draws on, sea-birds of every form are “crushing. the air to sweetness” with their strange fishing-cries ; and the cormorants choose their stones as gravely as if they were Martello towers, and themselves part and parcel of a regular coast-guard. Even the mild porpoise of the beautiful wave-line is busy chasing- the herring-fry ; and the seal, which is whelped with a brain as big as Bunsen’s, or “plain jock Camp-bell’s,” in some rugged Caithness or Iceland cave, glides quick as a shadow through the waters to the Brora mouth for a salmon, and will hardly quit it for small shot. The salmon spawn from the bridge of Brora, and when the water is warm they take the upper fall to Benarmin, at the foot of whose deer-forest the north branch of the Brora comes out of the springs. Strath Brora has not the width nor the same amount of grass as Kildonan, but it has far more for the eye in its richly tangled copses of mountain birch,’ with their ground-work of faded breckan. The stillness of its loch is unbroken; save by the jump of a trout or the ever-widening ripple of the golden-eyed duck. The Carol Rock stands out boldly like a bastion above the Duchess’s drive, dwarfing the hut of the watcher into a mere speck at its foot, and throwing its green and purple shadows over .the waters while behind it, stretching away in the grim, grey distance to the head of Rogart, is the mighty Ben Horn, that very unicorn of deer-forests. The grave of Malcolm near Kilcalmkill is marked by a few flagstones, and beyond, over ford and fell, is the lonely Seibers Cross, so great in wedder history.

But we retrace our path once more, and bidding a reluctant good-bye to Kintradwell, we ride on past the deep, copper pool at Brora Bridge; seven miles by the coast to Golspie. Along the hillside to the right are the cottages with their plots of ground, which were allotted to those Highlanders who would not emigrate when they were ordered to quit the glens. It was doubtless a sharp sermon, and rendered doubly so by the stern opposition ; but even the traditions of ” hame ” will, as years go on, melt before the conviction that chronic snuffing and shin-toasting and rearing a few potatoes within a tumble-down wall are not the mission of a Highlander. They Were taken from that useless existence to a spot where they have full exercise for their energies both by sea and land. It was a readjustment, very bitter to the Highland heart, but still wholesome and right, as sheep were placed where there ought to be sheep, and men where there ought to be men.

Beyond Brora we skirt the Uppat woods, and for the first time in our life we scan a roebuck, ” a perfect form in perfect rest,” actually standing motionless under a fir-tree at twenty paces. With all the wisdom of the rook, it calmly surveys our gunless friend, William Houstoun, who, almost tortured to frenzy at the sight, gasps out that it has a -three-year-old head, and begs us, out of sheer mercy to him, to halloo it away. ` West Highlanders, black faces, and “ponies for the hill ” are the joint-tenants of the Dunrobin policy; and a turn up an avenue to the right brings us to the castle steading, whose dun and brindled breed has long been known in the land, and fetched top prices at the northern markets for nearly two hundred years. The herd consists of thirty-four pure -West Highland and twenty-three cross-bred cows. – Some of the latter are between the West Highland and the Ayrshire, which makes a rare first cross taken rather to the Ayrshire, and gaining in quality of milk what it loses in quantity. Comparatively few Ayrshires are kept in Sutherland, as the climate is rather too keen for them, and both for flesh and milk the first cross between the West Highland and the shorthorn is the favourite. The Dunrobin system is to let the calf have one side and the dairymaid the other ; but if the West Highland cow is a crack, she and her calf wander off to the Big Burn field, which gives them a rough bite all the winter ; while the cross cows are kept in the house, and their calves reared by the pail. The former are brought in for a day or two before calving, to accustom the calf to be handled but that is all the shelter they get. In coarse weather the bullocks have an open fold, and, with turnips and a little cake to help, they are generally killed when rising four, at about i i cwt., with ” a good deal of the steelyard inside.” The first-prize ‘cow at Paris in ’56 was bred by Mr. Stuart, of Duntuim, and prepared for show by Mr. Tait, who subsequently became Her Majesty’s Home Farm bailiff at Windsor. A dozen beasts were added from the Breadalbane sale; and the brindled ox; which was third to the late Duke of Athole’s yellow and dun Breadalbanes at Kelso, was bred by Dr. M’Gillivray at Barra. The herd are not intended for showing, but to keep up the breed or a stout cross ; and five or six bull-calves are reserved every year to fill up the ranks of the thirty, which are dispersed on service from July to October among the tenants, as far as Tongue and Lochinver.

The head of one of them, with horns three feet from tip to tip, guards the entrance of the Dunrobin Museum, which is quite a key to the natural history of the country. Assynt seems to have been a fatal haunt both to the fox and the ring-tailed eagle, which is irreverently labelled “carrion.” Near them is the wild-cat, one of the old die-hards which haunt the cairns in the snow time and form the Duke of Sutherland’s crest. The marten-cat is nearly extinct ; but a polecat specimen is more easy to get, when it has been routed by the aid of a muzzled ferret out of its winter magazine of broken-spined frogs. Jacko, the monkey, and late of the duke’s yacht, is the comic countryman of this still-life piece, and, with upraised eye-glass, he cons ” my marriage lines.” Feathered wanderers from over the sea—the roller (which looks like the kingfisher of the east), the hoopoe, and the Bohemian waxwing—have all come to grief on their arrival, and share this dainty Morgue with every Sutherland bird ; and crystals from Dunrobin Forest mingle harmoniously with an elfin arrow-head of flint, and a ball from Montrose’s last battle. The very wasps are represented by their filagree home, and each bird’s nest in the county must have been rifled once on a time, to furnish materials for egg lore. They are to be found of every hue and size in those cases-the large balloon-shaped chocolate with black spots of the guillemot, the white-marble ones of the wild-goose, the round and pale-blue hieroglyphics of the curlew, the snow-white ellipses of the rock-pigeon, and so gradually down in the scale to the white with brown dots of the willow and the still tinier products of the golden-crested wren.

Forp, the dog of Sutherland, which is supposed to have run a match with the best of Ossian’s, has a stalwart namesake in the kennels (whose yards are built on the slope) ; but though his stern is that of a half-bred, Macdonald the keeper assures us that he ” can make a deer’s bones crack again.” Hector, on the same authority, “always takes them behind” ; and Fan, who has more of the bloodhound in her features, has lived, like him, to prove that it was a good day’s work when their puppy lives were begged at Meikle Ferry, and they arrived at Dunrobin in the pockets of Macdonald’s velveteen. The rifles, German, Purdey, and Double Lancaster, which stand in such tempting array, along with the deer-saddle and all the other belongings of hill craft in the gun-house, have not for ten seasons past given an account of more than ” 23st. 2lbs. clean.” This deer was shot at Balblair Wood by Lord Delamere, and is only proximus intervallo to those of 29st and 30st. clean, which are credited at Dunrobin to Mr. Holford and the late Lord Ellesmere. The venison house, which resembles a small chapel at first sight, is a most happy combination of thorough draughts, Welsh slate, and polished pine, and has space for five deer and sixty-two quarters on its pulleys and side-hooks.

The Duchess’s dairy is across the road, in the glade beneath the castle. The bunch of heather in the grate, and Landseer’s Milkmaid over the chimney-piece of the sitting-room, are in quiet keeping with the white delf-bowls, the butter-pats floating leisurely round the water-lily fountain, and the rotatory oak-churn with its burnished brass hoops. A flight of rustic steps, thick with honeysuckle, leads to a balcony in the steading. There are stalls below for twelve half-Ayrshires, with what looked like wine-bins at one side for their calves, and a still more suggestive milk-hoist for the visitors. Ribbon-borders with the pale pink saponarium, the white nemophylia, the blue salvia, gardener’s garter, and the never-failing variegated mint, run coyly from the castle gardens to the sea. Fuchsias, hollyhocks, and dwarf dahlias blend with ” the red, red rose” and the hardy spray-sprinkled green of the buckthorn ; and we hail the presence among them of M’Alister the duke’s piper, not for his family skill, which falls dead on English ears, but because he is the only Highlander, save two, that we have met in full costume north of Inverness.

Then we are seized with a desire to scale Ben Vraggie, and find that reaching the Duke’s Statue by a short cut through the deep dingles of the Mound Wood, so dear to woodcocks in the season, is certainly not the shortest way ; but the view of the Moray Firth, and the whole of that silent coast along which we have wandered three summers, and felt each time more loath to leave it, soon made us forget the toil and the brambles. It is easy enough sliding down again on to the clay lands of Kirkton, and then comes a very Mamelon of a crag, beneath which Hugh Miller, in his mason days, is said to have first pondered over the Story of the Rocks, within sight of ” his own loved Cromarty.”

The goats and kids can hardly crop the lichens and moss on it, and, falling over, leave their skins to their country as purses for Highland regiments. But the sun is sinking behind a chain of hills, miles away near Strathfieet, and Thin is the goal to-night. Quiet little Dornoch, with its cathedral, the resting-place of the old Earls of Sutherland, is hardly visible on the left, and the dreaded Meikle Ferry is in front: We have seen it under three different aspects : once when the rowers had ” been i’ the sun,” and the coachman, guard, and passengers were all fain to take an oar ; again, when Croall and Son had set up a small steamer ; and on this occasion, when at the fifth and last attempt our recusant mare was bundled into the boat like a sack. No wonder the process had haunted us, by anticipation, all day ; but once in, we had nothing to do beyond deadening her ears against the sail-rustle, and she “jumped out sharp” into Ross-shire at last.