Atholl, The Time Of Change

By James Irvine Robertson

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raditionally lairds and chiefs measured their wealth and importance in the number of armed men in their tails. After the '45 this was irrelevant. Power became synonymous with money and this came from rents. Sheep and improved agriculture yielded more than people. During the latter half of the century, many lairds made efforts to bring each township into a single tenancy. Until then they might collect rent in labour and kind from three or four in each clachan who in turn were paid by their subtenants.

Tenants' superfluous sons joined the Highland Regiments. Forming these had been a stroke of genius by the government. The bagpipes, the kilt, tartan, the broadsword and all weapons were banned - except in the service of his Majesty. In the Highland regiments and only in the Highland regiments could the young Gael enjoy, like his honoured forefathers, the warrior culture and all its trappings. At least fifty thousand young Highlanders, who would in other times have been warriors in the tails of their chiefs and lairds, were siphoned off to fight for the crown in the Americas and in Britain's colonial wars of the nineteenth century.

With the suppression of his culture after the '45, the Highlander found that time hung heavily on his hands and he developed a taste for theological disputation. Dugald Buchanan who came as a teacher to Rannoch in 1755 found its inhabitants to be licentious heathens and converted them through his pious example and preaching. By the time of his death, the old stories round the peat fires at ceilidhs had been joined by dogged and dogmatic religious arguments while sects flourished and withered with the passing seasons. A dozen mile walk to church on Sunday was quite acceptable, but parts of Rannoch were twenty miles or more as the crow flew or the Highlander tramped - up one side of a mountain and down the other because it only added on the miles to go round.

Four times a year, in rotation in each parish church, was held the Great Event or the Occasion when communion was offered to thousands of folk from all over Atholl. Dressed in their best clothes and harangued by relays of preachers, they made a long week end of it, and there are moving accounts of the hymn singing of such vast concourses of humanity echoing off the crags and lochs. The lairds chose the parson, his Grace of Atholl having the greatest say. This was at the root of the Disruption of 1843 when the seceders walked out of the General Assembly to form churches whose ministers were chosen by the congregation. Lord Breadalbane, the great Campbell magnate whose seat was on the Atholl border at Taymouth, was a strong supporter of the Free church. He and other lairds gave land so that the new chapels and meeting houses could be built, but most of the proprietors gnashed their teeth at the erosion of their power.

The Clearances

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eing aware of their ambivalent status in law, tenants had always relied on dutchas, the old concept of Gaeldom which said that those who farmed the land had rights to it, and the longer they and their forefathers had worked it and fought for it, the stronger those rights. Further north, even the clan chieftains, the equivalent of the Atholl lairds, had no title to their lands and trusted on dutchas when they came to pass their estates to their descendants.

In face of a chief demanding cash rents to cut a dash in society, these men were ousted from their little mansion houses and often led their tenants to the New World. The duke of Atholl was one of the pioneers of mass clearances when he removed the thriving population of Glen Tilt in 1784 to improve his deer stalking. In the following century the duke cleared Glen Garry and much of the land between Dunkeld and Dalguise. Other lairds cleared north Tummelside and parts of Rannoch. The earl of Breadalbane expelled the tenants from both sides of Loch Tay in the nineteenth century and emptied Glen Quaich.

Highlanders had always kept goaty little sheep similar to today's St Kildas but the so-called great sheep - akin to the modern Blackface - came to these straths in about 1770 and so did the potato. The former produced a greater return than Highland tenants and land was cleared for them. As in Ireland, the latter allowed more people to live on the restricted holdings. Another reason for the population increase came from the introduction of inoculation. Smallpox was the most readily fatal of the myriad of diseases that culled half the children before they reached adulthood. More quickly than in the Lowlands, Gaels realised the value of the remedy and took to it with enthusiasm.

The old standards of agriculture were lamentable. Seed was saved from grains not worth eating; ploughs were wooden and needed a gang of five men and two ponies to operate them; each year lots were drawn to decide who would farm what land for the year, which gave no incentive to invest in fertility if it would be farmed by someone else the following season. Lairds began to introduce agricultural reforms but, even where the great sheep were not taking over the higher farms, better agriculture gave employment to fewer people.

Towards the end of the century the Highlands began to be fashionable. James Macpherson produced a volume of poems purporting to be by the ancient Gaelic writer Ossian and these took Europe by storm, even becoming Napoleon's preferred campaign reading. Rousseau introduced the concept of the Noble Savage which fitted the Highlander admirably. Dr Johnson met Flora MacDonald who had helped Prince Charles to escape and published his account of the meeting and his tour of the Highlands in 1775. The courage of the Highland regiments in the British army attracted the admiration of the world. The penal legislation introduced after the '45 was lifted in 1782, but a generation had passed and folk were unaccustomed to the old ways.

The campaign for the repeal of the proscriptive laws was led by the gentry, particularly the Highland Society of London. They sponsored piping contests and Highland games to encourage manly pursuits amongst the people. It was these lairds who set out the framework of what we now consider the traditional culture of Gaeldom. An example of their inventiveness can be found in tartan. In the old days, the ordinary Highlander used the colours she could find in the neighbourhood to tint the wool and there is some evidence to suggest that the prevalence of certain dyestuffs in an area gave raise to a similarity in local tartans. This was taken a stage further. In consultation with the chiefs the Highland Society came up with the idea that each clan had its own tartan. In 1822 George IV visited Edinburgh and, in an astonishing pageant orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott, much of the nation decked itself out in kilts and plaids and declared itself Highland.

But agricultural prices had crashed at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Many of the old lairds with their old paternal attitudes were swept away by their debts and their tenants faced new landlords who needed to rationalise their estates if they were not to go the way of their predecessors. At the same time the rising expectation of the people drew them from the poverty-stricken clachans to the cities or to the colonies where life was easier. The sorry emptying of these glens began in earnest.

Of course people remained in the straths, but the culture was no longer theirs. The extravaganza of George IV's visit could only work because the society it glorified and caricatured was no longer a threat. It had already gone. Scholars were collecting the fragments that remained and writing books to explain the customs of the mountains to a growing audience. The huge success of the romantic movement and Scott's own novels did much to publicise the Highlands and the Highlander.

The influx of southern tourists coming to view the scenery found that discerning sportsmen were already sampling the delights of the Highland grouse, deer, and salmon. But the music of Gaelic was no longer to be heard in the high shieling pastures where now the only sound was the croak of the grouse and the crack of the deer stalker's rifle. From being master of his world, the Gael was now the picturesque gillie with a fund of amusing anecdotes with which to entertain the visiting sportsman.

For another century the slow drain of the people from these straths continued. Nowadays Perthshire Gaelic, one of the three or four dialects of the language, is never heard and survives only in the memories of a tiny handful of old men and women. With the old Highland culture gone, it was the incomers who invented the new. Queen Victoria's interest in Scotland ensured that the fashion for all things Highland intensified. She visited Taymouth and Blair Castles, and made several tours incognito in the neighbourhood. She crowned her enthusiasm for Atholl by presenting the duke with the colours of the Atholl Highlanders, Britain's only private regiment.

The railway brought more visitors. Dunkeld was on the wrong side of the river for its station, and Birnam expanded to take advantage. The people of Moulin moved down the hill to meet the railway and turned the clachan of Pitlochry into a thriving tourist town. The jute barons of Dundee or English aristocrats built substantial stone villas or bought the estates, and the cream of nineteenth century society would fill King's Cross station with rods and gundogs at the beginning of August and decamp to the shooting lodges that sprawled in every glen. The aristocracy and royalty of the world admired the scenery, shot the wildlife, put on kilts and reinvented Highland dancing in the ballroom of Blair Castle - and slipped a guinea to the quaint characters who were gillies and did the portering before they went south.

Today Atholl is peaceful and prosperous. No Robertson or Menzies owns an estate in their clans' old territories and just two Stewart estates are still held in the female line. The dukedom is now held by a South African, but the lands at the heart of the old Atholl estate are now preserved for the people of Scotland by a trust set up by the 10th duke just before his death in 1995. But life for the Gaels' successors is fundamentally different from all the generations that have gone before. Control of the land was at the centre of everything for from it came the food that sustained life. Now that link is broken and farming is but one of the many uses, mainly recreational, to which the countryside is put.

Although it was already under threat, before 1745 the Highlands held a unique culture - virtually unknown beyond the protective rim of mountains. The Rising was its death knell, but its dying gave birth to a strange pastiche of itself now adopted by the Lowlanders and the rest of the world as representative of the nation. It may not owe its legitimacy to the ancient and honourable civilisation of Gaeldom, but it has a vitality and shameless eclecticism that serves Scotland well.