Scotland – Thruso To Helmsdale

The late Sir John Sinclair—Caithness Sheep Farming—St. Mary’s Mass—Georgemas Tryst—Shorthorn Crosses—Barrogill Castle—Barrock Plantations—Shorthorn and Galloway Crosses—Bringing-up of Calves and Yearlings—Sir George Dunbar’s Leicester Flock—Mail Journey along the Coast—A Night Ride on Horseback.

The mare was fully two stone below her Orkney . form, when we saddled her once more, and led her off the packet at Scrabster Roads ; but a few hours of stable-quiet brought her round, and we were soon jogging leisurely past Thurso Castle. Sir George Sinclair does not farm his estate, but is content with the heritage of a great name, which meets you in every page of the early history of the Highland Society, and which will live as long as a Cheviot ewe crops the heather of Langwell. A ballad is never really popular till it is whistled at the plough or set to the barrel organ ; and we overheard the quaintest Lowland appreciation of that unresting baronet’s labours in the denial of another tumbler of toddy to a toper, unless he could say, ” Sir Yohn Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland,” with proper emphasis and correctness.

” If the living serpent went forth ” from Caithness ” to carry its youth and vigour into other lands,” it left something more than its cast-off skin to the county. The open winter, combined with good grass and turnips, has made it quite a rich store-house of Shorthorn crosses, and big, fine-woolled half-breds for the feeders and breeders in the south ; and a Howard steam plough is working well at Barrogill Castle, within a few miles of John o’Groats. Mr. Smith, of Olrig, has a flock of ” Shrops,” and crosses them for early lambs with his half-bred ewes ; but with this exception, the sheep-farming of the arable part of the county may be said to consist in breeding half-breds, and turniping Cheviot hoggs from its mountain ranges or from Sutherlandshire. Leicesters came in with the late Mr, William Horne of Scouthal, more than forty years ago ; but the want of draining and sufficient enclosures was against them.

We found their first traces on the Crown lands at Scrabster, which are held by Mr. Hay. Sir George Sinclair ‘s farm, which is close to Thurso, carries a large number of half-breds, and its present tenant, Mr. Donald M`Kay, also rents other farms, for turniping the Cheviot hoggs of his Skelpick flock. Another well-known Sutherlandshire flockmaster, Mr. Patterson, occupies the Rattar Farm of the late ” Shirra Traill, in connection with his Bighouse Farm, which was once held by a son of the celebrated Patrick Sellar, and extends some twenty by eight miles from the west coast to Strath Hallidale. The late Mr. Gunn, of Glendhu, pursued the same plan at Greenland, a farm of Mr. Trailrs, who has been the knight of the shire for nearly a third of a century, and whom we blessed most heartily for a little shade, as we made the turn near Castle Hill. Weary as we were of the sea, there was no resisting the graceful wave curl of the Dunnet Head, on whose sandy links, St. Mary’s Mass, once the great fair for Orkney cows, woollens, and garrons, is still held in August’ There was a day when its garron average touched £14; but even ” Swifty Stewart ” is not found there now, and it is at Georgemas, Kildary Great Fair, and Bonar Bridge that he goes in for the colts and the horse ponies under fourteen hands, which he takes down thrice a year to his Banffshire and Morayshire customers.

At the Georgemas tryst in 1863-64 Mr. Train made the highest figure for his half-bred hoggs. The scene both of it and the Caithness county show is a piece of enclosed hill ground five miles from Thurso, on the high road to Wick, and the tryst is held on the Tuesday; before the Character Fair at Inverness. Buyers of cattle, sheep, and wool crowd the hill that day from every part of Scotland, and the -North of England as well ; and since their secretary, Mr. Geddes, of Orbliston, bore his testimony so decidedly before the Morayshire Farmers’ Club as to the superior length, strength, and hardihood of the Caithness gimmers, the breeders have begun to separate them from the wedder hoggs. The sheep number between seven and eight thousand and on the last occasion the Castle Hill half-bred hoggs were quoted at 42s., and the half bred lambs from Latheron Wheel at 22s. 6d. Mr. Train, buys his lambs ; but the great majority of the farmers breed their own, and sell them fat as hoggs off. turnips (folded or on the grass) in the spring, or in good store condition ” on the hill.”

Major Home of Stirkoke is a very large breeder of half-breds, and it was by his kinsman, the late Mr. William Home, of Scouthal, who was urged on by the counsels and example of Mr. Rennie, of Phantassie, that Shorthorn bulls. were introduced upwards of forty years ago, to cross the West Highland, or the large red or black, with brown tinge cows, which seem to have existed for ages in Caithness. ” Shirra Trail,” who, like his coeval, Lord Duffus (then known as Sir Benjamin Dunbar), will always be remembered-as one of the veritable old Caithness worthies, was equally ealous in the cause, and so were their factors, Mr. James Purvis and Mr. William Darling, both of them Berwickshire men. The red or roan crest of Sittyton now marks the monarch of many a herd ; and from cows of Shorthorn crosses, Anguses, Galloways, and Shetlanders, which Mr. Dudgeon (now of West Lothian) first introduced at Greenland, the yearlings and twoyear-olds spring, of which about seven hundred are shown at Georgemas. These are generally only the second-class beasts, as the best lots are seldom pitched at all, but lifted at once from the farms. Many of the yearlings leave little short of a pound a month behind them in the scrips of the higher feeders. They are taken by the dealers to the Muir of Ord, and find their way from thence chiefly to Morayshire, Easter Ross, and the Black Isle.

But whilst we are wandering off to Georgemas in the spirit, we are really drawing near Barrogill Castle, the home of the Lord-Lieutenant of the county. A rustic cross on a mound attests the friendship of the late Earl of Caithness for his relative George Canning ; and the reclaimed wastes and the new steading at Philips Mains prove that the present peer is no laggard in his generation. His lordship is also a great mechanic, and the steam-carriage which he steered so deftly, with the countess by his side, from Inverness to Barrogill, contrives ” a double debt to pay,” and is now working as a stationary engine at the stone quarry, and yet ready to take to the road once more at less than an hour’s notice. Art has here, as in Shapinsey, triumphed over nature in the matter of trees, which formed more than one of those leafy alleys which we had missed so sorely for weeks ; but it was not until we reached Barrock, and its snug beltings of thorn, ash, and elm, where the red berries of the rowan-tree are vying with the graceful clusters of the laburnum, and the purple beech with the black Austrian pine, that we began to doubt the saying that there is ” no natural wood north of Berriedale.” It is given to few men in Caithness to sit under the shadow of the trees they have planted ; and this felicity has been attained by Sir John Sinclair (whose zeal for improvement is nearly as ardent as his great namesake’s), through trenching, draining, and enclosing, in the first instance, and then forming plantations in masses, and transplanting from them after eight or nine years’ growth. Sheep and cattle both thrive bravely with such shelter ; and to this, and a very generous diet, ” never allowing the animal to retrograde,” no medicated food, and no bleeding and physicking except in cases of unmistakable inflammation,much of Sir John’s success as a breeder may be traced.

It is nearly thirty years since he followed in Mr. Horne’s track, and introduced Shorthorn bulls principally from Thornington and Sittyton. Galloway cows were his fancy a few years later, and from one of them he bred Mr. Owen of Blessington county Wicklow’s gold medal bull. Mr. Miller, of Lower Downreay, still holds by ” the heavy blacks,” and uses an Angus bull ; but Sir John merely keeps black cows, gentle and simple, as the two breeds are sometimes called for distinction, for the sake of a capital cross with the Shorthorn. The Galloways are perhaps better suited to a county which has, as a herdsman observed to us, “sometimes three climates a day.” Both the first and second crosses with the Shorthorn bull lean a good deal to the female in shape, although the black coat is not unfrequently transmuted into red or bronze. They seldom put out horns before the third cross, and then very often mere scurs ; but at this stage the Shorthorn fairly wins the colour, and the white nose comes as the fringe ear vanishes. Beyond the third cross breeders very seldom venture, as the produce is too delicate and leggy to breed from. Sir John does not keep so many cows as Mr. Henderson, of Westerseat (who has generally 30o acres under turnips on this and his Bilbster property, much of which is reclaimed from moss) ; and he makes up his numbers with calves from his tenants, who have the use of his bulls. These tenants’ cows are a mixture of West Highland, Orkney, and old Caithness with Shorthorn; and about a fourth of the yearlings, which Sir John sold last Georgemas at £14 each, were full of Shetland blood on the dam’s side. Sir John has had very few Shetland cows through his own hands ; but a trio which he once purchased for L7 10s. brought him three calves each, and averaged ten guineas when sold fat. Of late he has principally depended on Sittyton for his bulls ; and it was from there that he purchased Malachite, who formed for us, with Whipper-in, Forth, and Royal Butterfly 11th, quite a chain of first-prize Royal English bull-beacons between Barrock and Keir.

Grass in Caithness is generally ready towards the latter end of May, and continues up to the middle of September. The long gap is very hard to bridge over, and high feeders have sometimes to help out their swedes with strong supplies of corn and cake. No county carries out more consistently the late Mr. Boswell, of Kingcausie’s maxim that “you must feed from the very starting-post.” It is the general practice of the country to rear calves by hand ; but both Sir John and Mr. Henderson consider that a quart from nature’s bottle, and taken at the calf’s own pleasure, , is more valuable than twice the quantity gorged three times a day from a pail. Hence their calves are dropped early, and suckled till the Wick herring fishing begins in July, which gives them from three to four months with their dams. At Wester-seat ten or twelve of the best, queya are always put to the bull at fifteen months, and are allowed to suckle their own calves the first season. Half of the remaining cows and three-year-old queys come within the milkmaid’s province, and the other half have, if possible, two calves put upon them. In winter they are never let out before nine o’clock in the morning, or allowed to touch a turnip with the frost rime on it The system of Mr. Henderson (whose nephew at Stemster also stands high as an agriculturist and exhibitor of stock) is so good, and so well put in the Irish Farmers’ Gazette, that we may well quote it in full:

“After being weaned, the calves are turned out on a piece of old grass which is kept for the purpose, but are always housed at night, and vetches or the second cutting of clover given to them, with half a pound each of artificial food, consisting of a mixture of bruised oats and oilcake. This quantity of cake and corn is continued until January, turnips and straw having meanwhile taken the place of the green food, when the allowance of mixed oilcake and oats is increased to one pound per head. In April it is again increased to two pounds each, with hay or oat straw, until the grass becomes ready for cutting. It must be observed that the young stock do not get, during winter, as many turnips as they would eat. The first feed in the morning is their allowance. of oilcake and oats. At 9 o’clock a.m., turnips are given, and again at 3 p.m. ; but there is no restriction put on the quantity of straw, and what they do not consume between the feeding times is used for litter. In addition to keeping the young stock in a constantly improving state, which is a most important consideration in any system of rearing, the Westerseat mode of feeding has proved to be a complete antidote to the quarter-ill or blackleg, which at one time prevailed on the farm. Calves which have been kept in the manner described never lose condition, but are always getting better, and the result is that they fetch from L12 to £15 each when a year or fourteen months old. A lot of twenty-four of that age were sold last April off the farm at £13 a head, and were considered cheap at the money. If kept on till they are eighteen months old they will weigh 40 to 48 stones—that is 5 to 6 cwt. ; and such have been sold by Mr. Henderson in October at £18 a head. The usual quantity of turnips given to young beasts is about 40lbs. per head daily. Some keep their young stock tied up in the house, turning them out for an hour or two into the foldyards ; while others keep them in open courts or yards, having sheds attached, to which the cattle have at all times free access. These yards hold five or six beasts, and great care is taken that the partners in each court shall be equally matched ; for it would never answer to have a weakly animal put among others which were stronger.”

Sir John’s system differs from Mr. Henderson’s in this, that the calves are weaned on lb. of oilcake, and as soon as the weather is cold and they come into the yards the allowance is increased by i lb. of bruised oats. Where the calves do not suckle, each has about eight quarts daily of warm milk direct from the cow, and divided into three meals. After the first three weeks, a little oilcake made into jelly with hot water is put into the milk, and gradually increased in quantity up to a pound per day. When they are nearly four months old, skim-milk is substituted for new, and they are carried on with it and the oilcake for a month, and are then well grazed and generally sheltered at night.

Sir George Dunbar was, like Sir John Sinclair, one of the first followers of Mr. Horne in the Shorthorn crosses ; and we found some promising prize pairs in his meadows at Ackergill Tower. During the earlier times of the local agricultural shows, he carried off the prizes for a series of years with one and twoyear-old crosses. He has since then been successful with the cross between Shetland queys and Shorthorn bulls, selling the bullocks for 11 gs. at sixteen and eighteen months old, and keeping the quey calves to try a second cross. Latterly Sir George had given his attention much more to breeding Leicesters. He began with ewes purchased upwards of thirty years since by his father, through the English ” Nestor of Shorthorns,” Mr. Wetherell, from Mr. Davidson, of Cantray. To these succeeded some ewes and a tup from Mr. Compton of Learmouth, and then a lot each from Mr. Thompson, of Haymount, and Mr. Cockburn, of Sisterpath. One of the Brandsby tups did not answer, as Caithness declared itself early in the day quite as strongly as ” the little kingdom of Scotland and Northumberland” against the blue-faces.

The size of the Border tups was what the breeders yearned after as well ; and hence Sir George has generally gone on the system of buying a couple every year in the Kelso ring, Lord Polwarth’s round-ribbed and flat-backed type is what he has held by, and he was the last bidder but one for the top L62 shearling of “‘Sixty-three.” The clay loam of Caithness suits turnips, and wool-staplers aver that the clayslate rock, which in many parts lies close to the surface and sorely foils the drainer, communicates a peculiarly lustrous quality to the fleeces. No wool commands a higher price than the Caithness in the auction-room, and Sir George’s gained a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of ’62. His pure Leicester flock numbers about eight score, and have the run of the fine pasture land round the Tower. The waves beat up to the base of this massive keep, which on one side breaks the outline of Sinclair’s Bay, and on the other looks out on choice vineries, and green-houses, rich ribbon borders, and two ancient dovecotes with acacias twining round them, and prize rams busy with “their little white ivories ” below. About fifty shearlings were sold last year at five guineas each, and several of them went into Inverness-shire and Aberdeenshire. In ’63 a lot of twenty departed for Edinburgh, and fetched the second highest average at its first tup sale. With the exception of Mr. Brown, of Watten, there is no other Leicester breeder in the county, and between them and a few arrivals from the Edinburgh and Kelso ram sales the ewes of Caithness find partners enow.

The mail ride of the year before, from Wick to Golspie, had been novel in its way. In this era of ” Stokers and Pokers,” and Post-office van pierced inside with a hundred labelled holes and armed outside with a cunning catch-net, it was a relief to renew one’s youth, and sit behind with the guard. He pitched out his bags with admirable precision ; he caught up others from the point of the official-forked stick ; he dispensed his nod and wreathed smiles to ” nearly seventy miles of females,” until it grew dark and his fascinations were lost upon them; and he treated us in the intervals of business to divers essays, clerical and lay. No man suffers less, apparently, from leakage of memory. He knew something about every one, from the minister who came and met his friend, to the bride of three weeks on the “knife-board.” One of his primest August uses seemed to be carrying news of the overnight’s fishing from village to village ; and an emissary of the beach was always starting up at some corner of the road with the eternal cran query. Fishing-boats were boxing up towards Wick, either to verify the news of a good bank of herrings or to try and mend their luck with the Lammas Stream. A yacht raced us, and we never could shake her off till she took to tacking near Helmsdale, and then stood across the Firth. The road was dreary and Irish-looking enough for some miles out of Wick. A bourtree or elder-bush attached to the tumble-down cottage compound was the only shade till we reached Lybster, where the nightingales with which the late Sir John Sinclair once vainly strove to make Caithness vocal might have trilled their notes in a pleasant grove. A yellow caravan was bearing along a dwarf and “the Hottentot Venus” ; little girls girded their kitties up to their knee, and chased us for fully two miles, as clear-winded as ” Deerfoot ” to the finish ; but the poor idiot, who watches year after year at the same gate for the up and down mails, had grown so plethoric on coppers that he could hardly stay two hundred yards for all the guard’s spiriting. Three shepherds and four dogs came in procession to see a pup off in a basket ; and of all horsekeepers we voted. David Ross, of Begg, quite the sprucest and the best. Well might we contrast his style of turning out his team, and his anxious consultation with the coachman about a stable invalid, with that of the boor who had left the shoeing pretty much to take care of itself, and who blurted out, when he was begged to, be “canny” with the leader, ” It’s no the flies-it’s bad manners.”

On the occasion of our second visit, there was nothing for it but to steel ourselves against all bed regrets, and face the muirs at night. We wended our way by a series of zig-zags across from Barrock to the high-road between Thurso and Lybster, and then struck straight for the coast. The sun went down, and the rain took no half-measures with us. Soon every door was barred, and every light put out in the few cabins along the road ; but one family at last responded to our hail with biscuit, cheese, and milk, besides offering a bed and abundance of tares. There are many dreary passages in a man’s life ; but wiping down a mare very short of condition in your shirt sleeves and a cow-house, on a wild muir, by a dim, spluttering dip, at midnight, with the wind sighing through the broken panes, the heavy rain-drops pattering on the door-sill, and a forty miles’ ride before you, has very few to match it. Still it had to be done ; and ” if I mun doy, I mun doy.”

The mountain burns, which soon began to run right viciously, made ” music in our sorrow;” and as the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, and shone on the long pools which were fast gathering by the roadside, they seemed like polar bears craftily stealing along. We hailed the mail-road at Lybster and the roar of the sea as quite old friends, and felt a little comforted. As for the mare, she was like a whole troop of them rolled into one. Though she had only been with us two days, she had got so accustomed to our voice, that, if we fell a little behind, she would stop when she was spoken to, and look round, first to the near and then to the off-side, in the gloom, to be sure we were at hand. Weariness at length defied all face-washing at the roadside springs, and two hours of that night are best accounted for in the preface. Be that as it may, the mist wreaths began to curl lazily up the deep mountain ravines, and away to that vast, granite deer ” forest ” behind. Morning broke, and the rain was gone, and the rainbow was spanning the Berriedale valley. There were all the varied purples of the heather, and the rich green livery of fir and Iarch, to brace us up for the dreaded Ord of Caithness ; and the mail, as it rattled cheerfully past us, was quite “the missing link ” with mankind. Morayshire, on the opposite coast, looked like the outline of a new world, beyond a calm, blue-dimpled sea and as we rounded the last crag near Helmsdale, the gently curving sands of Sutherland lay at our feet, white and warm in the early sunshine.