The rearing of their cows, and caring for their welfare, was a matter of great importance to the Highlanders of the past. Milk, in its different forms, was the food on which they chiefly depended for their existence. Tea had not yet unstrung the nerves of our great-grandmothers, nor given dyspepsia to our healthy and long-lived forefathers. Their only beverages to refresh or strengthen - besides the "eanaraich" of beef and venison - were from the cow; and their store of butter and cheese largely represented their winter provision. It was therefore of great consequence to them to have their cattle so fed that their yield of milk would not only be increased but enriched. Deer forests or large sheep farms did not then shut them out from the glens of their native hills. The people formed the wealth of the chief, and the stronger and more numerous they were, the greater was his importance as one of the decisive forces of his native land. There was therefore no restriction, only that they arranged among themselves concerning the different places of summer grazing that would belong to each township. This place of pasture was known as the "àiridh," and the cots built thereon for their summer sheilings were known as "bothain àiridh." The houses in which they spent the winter were poor enough, but it mattered much less for these summer sheilings: if they kept the wind and the rain out, that was enough. They spent the most of their time among their herds on the hillside. They had the fresh mountain breezes, and the pure rills of stream and fountain, and beauty and grandeur around them to gladden the eye; and what if they had no couches of down, they were no Sybarites. The "cuaran," or old Highland shoe, was only required to keep out a stone or a stick laid crossways. "Tha i gu math ma chumas i 'mach clach, no maide air a tharsuing." And they were as regardless in other things that concerned their personal comfort. Sometimes the summer grazings were within a couple of miles of the homes, and although they shifted the cows there, they did not require to leave their own homes, and they went morning and evening to milk them and feed the calves. This place of pasture was known as "buaile," and the milking hour that, morning and evening, divided the day was known as "An t-Eadar-adh." The maidens went there in bands, and carried the milk home in the "milk-nut," or "cno-bhainne," which was a wooden dish, made in the shape of a nut, and having a hole in the side large enough to let the hand in to wash it. Afterwards the milking-cog, or "cuach-bhleoghain," took the place of the nut, but now the tin pail is oftenest carried, even where the "buaile" is to be seen. It was customary for the milking maids to offer a drink from their foaming cogs to the passers by, and it was considered mean and inhospitable not to offer a stranger this "deoch-rathaid," or "deoch-ròid."
Flora Macdugald, a daughter of "Ailean Dan," the poet, told me that she spoke often to an old woman who had given a drink of milk from her cog to the beloved but unfortunate Prince Charles Stuart - the "Bonnie Prince Charlie" of song and story. She was a young girl at the time, and in her return from the "buaile" she had to walk over a plank that bridged a foaming burn. The plank was unsteady, and a gallant-looking gentleman, who stood on the opposite bank, jumped into the water and held it firmly until she passed over. He had wet his feet, and she felt ashamed and sorry, and when she got near him, after he came out of the burn, she offered him her cog that he might have a drink. He took it freely, and, having unbonnetted, he shook hands with her, and they parted. She saw him again when he was in hiding, and knew that it was Bonnie Prince Charlie who had stepped into the foaming brook to steady the plank for her. She spoke of it always until her death in old age. She could never forget his kind face and smiling eyes when, regardless of his wet hose, he took off his bonnet and shook hands with her.
It was customary with the gentlemen-farmers, and proprietors of estates even, to go in the morning at milking time to see the cattle, to gladden their hearts by seeing their calves "thrive bonnie," and to get a draught of rich warm milk from the foaming cog. One of the chieftains of the Camerons of Glen-Nevis met his death in a dreadful manner in his "buaile." Some foe, of small dimensions - it is said to have been Iain Beag Mac Aindrea - got himself secreted by his wife in a large burden ("eallach") of heather, and rolled down a hill. The "eallach" rested in a heathy hollow, within arrow-shot of the "buaile," and when the chieftain came and went his rounds among the cattle, and afterwards went to get his drink of milk as usual, he lifted the cog to his lips, and Iain Beag let his arrow fly. The chieftain fell dead, with the cog pinned to his forehead by the too well aimed arrow. The dairymaid screamed when her master fell at her feet, with the milk spilt over him, and the cog so unaccountably pinned to his forehead. Her cries brought the herdsmen, and in the commotion Iain Beag escaped, having with his dirk cut the heather rope that bound the burden in which he had lain hidden with his fatal messengers. He fled up the mountain side, and was out of reach ere he was noticed, and the chief was carried home to his family in sorrow, amidst the lamentations and wailings of those who sang the "coronach," or, as it was known in Gaelic, "a' chaoidheanaich."
A dairymaid was the mother of an illegitimate son, who was known as "Donull du Diolain." His patronymic was "Donull du Mac Alasdair," but he continued to be known to posterity as "An gamhain maol donn" - "the polled brown stirk" - and his descendants are spoken of still as "Sliochd a Ghamhna," a name which was given to him when, in his early boyhood, he used to go with his mother to his father's "buaile." This branch of the Glen-Nevis family live chiefly in Onich, and the following lullaby and milking song was composed on one of them: -
Where the summer grazings were too far away to go to them at milking time, the people flitted to them, with all their herds, flocks, and store of necessaries. This exodus took place generally in June, after the peats were stacked, and the potato fields left in good order, and it was a time of much bustle and excitement and much expectancy, especially for the young people. When Lord Dunmore was a young man, he was out one day deer-stalking in Harris, and when he and his men approached the ruins of a sheiling, his excellent but eccentric henchman, Donald John Mackenzie, exclaimed, pointing to it, "There's where my father courted my mother." Many a Highlander could say the same thing of the "bothan àiridh," and many a young man could sing heartily,
It was a matter of great concern to them to get away without any evil omen, and without meeting an unlucky foot, as they set out. "Codhail mhath dhiubh" was always a welcome salutation, and "droch codhail ort" was dreaded as much as the wildest malediction. They hated a lean, hungry-looking person to meet them, or a covetous man, or anyone known to be even distantly related to a witch, or suspected of having any communication with witches or evil-disposed fairies. Those witches could not only kill their cows, but they could make them cast their calves. They could take their milk from them, or take the virtue out of it, so that no butter could be made, and people with the evil eye could injure them in the same way. It is also said that fairies can shoot cows with those flint arrows so frequently found on the hills. They did not like anyone to praise a cow without their wetting their eyes with their own saliva, taken up on the point of the finger. Nor did they like anyone to count their cattle without invoking a blessing upon them. There were also some animals that they considered a bad omen if they came across them as they set out. A cat was an unlucky creature, as the demon was said to take its shape, and a hare was sure to be a witch in disguise. The snipe was the most blessed creature that could come across them, because it was believed to have met the Virgin Mary when on her way to her Son's grave on the morning that He had risen from the dead. It was considered very unlucky to lend anyone the churn, and a neighbour who would be rude or daring enough to seek the loan of a churn on the first day of any quarter of the year would be regarded with grave suspicion; and there was a special repugnance to lending it on Beltane Day, for if the borrower had any evil power, she might take the "toradh," or substance, out of the butter for the next quarter, and, of course, it would be more disastrous if that should be done at the beginning of the milk season. I have heard the following rhyme repeated by some of the old people whilst churning; -
And as this was repeated if splashes of the cream came out through the hole in the lid of the churn as the "lonaid" was worked, it was a sure sign that the evil influences were leaving the cream, and that good butter would come. The more ancient vessel used for making butter in the Highlands was called "imideal." In ordinary cases two women sat on a bed shaking the vessel until butter was produced. It was a long, narrow, wooden keg, made of staves and covered with dressed skins, fastened on it by twelve strings of horse hair. Another keg of the same kind, and shaped narrower at the bottom than at the mouth, was made for the salting of the cheese, and was named "an sailleir càise." The new-made cheeses were laid in it with a sprinkling of salt between them, and they were, after a few days, laid out to dry.
When going to the hill grazing the women took the "imideal" on their backs with their store of cream in it, which, by the warmth of their bodies, was kept at due temperature, and by the time they got to the "airidh," it was turned into butter, and thus the beginning of a store for housekeeping was provided in butter and buttermilk. The "imideal" was also made to serve another purpose on the journey. The young calves were enticed to follow them by getting the outside of the vessel occasionally to lick, which made them eager to follow in hopes of getting the contents. This was known as "buille imlich, latha imrich, air imideal maol dubh."
They all carried heavy burdens on their way to the sheiling. The men carried the heaviest things, but even the children had their loads, which they carried tightly, veritably wearing the yoke in their youth; and the women went on their way, spinning their distaffs or knitting their stockings, happy in being surrounded by their beloved ones. And what bard would not sing of the Highland maiden voicing her Gaelic lilts, light-hearted and free from care - barefooted, perhaps, treading the heather as if it were a carpet of velvet -
After getting to the summer grazing ground, the cattle were turned to the pasture and the calves housed in a "cro," or pen known as "cro-nan-laogh." This "cro" is often spoken of in the old songs of the country. The following is a fragment of one which has a most pathetic and beautiful melody: -
It is also mentioned in another very plaintive song, of which this is a part: -
The cows were not every year put to pass the nights in the same place, for the thrifty owners of the cattle frequently went in the spring to the hills to make small rigs and furrows, and sow corn or barley in them where, the cows had passed the nights of the previous year, as the soil would have been enriched with their droppings, and they had that to take home with them at the end of the season, as well as their stores of dairy produce. With permission, I quote the following from Mr A. A. Carmichael's paper on the grazing and agrestic customs of the Hebrides, written at Lord Napier's request for the report of the Crofter Royal Commission: -
"Having seen to their cattle and sorted their sheilings, the people repair to their removing feast - "Feisd na h-imrich," or "Feisd na h-airidh." The feast is simple enough, the chief thing being a cheese, which every housewife is careful to provide for the occasion from last year's produce. The cheese is shared among neighbours and friends, as they wish themselves and cattle luck and prosperity -
Every head is uncovered, every knee is bowed, as they dedicate themselves and their flocks to the care of Israel's Shepherd.
"In Barra, South Uist, and Benbecula, the Roman Catholic faith predominates. Here, in their touching dedicatory old hymn, the people invoke, with the aid of the Trinity, that of the angel with the cornered shield and flaming sword, St Michael, the patron saint of their horses; of St Columba the holy, the guardian over their cattle; and of the Virgin Shepherdess and mother of the Lamb without spot or blemish.
In North Uist, Harris, and Lews, the Protestant faith entirely prevails, and the people confine their invocation to 'the Shepherd of Israel, who slumbereth not nor sleepeth.'
As the people sing their dedication, their voices resound from their sheilings here literally in the wilderness; and as the music floats on the air and echoes among the rocks, hills, and glens, and is wafted over fresh-water lakes and sea lochs, the effect is very striking."
There was a great deal of importance given to invoking blessings on the herd and singing dedicatory songs, not only when on their removal journey, but at all times, and we give the following "sgeulachd" as illustrative of this, translated closely: -
"There was a king once upon a time, and his wife died, leaving him with one daughter, who was a beautiful little maiden, and, being anxious that she would be well trained, he married again. The second wife had a daughter also, but she was very plain and unattractive, and, as she grew up, was more than jealous of her fair sister. She was also jealous of her being her father's heiress, and the favourite of all who came near their house. The stepmother was neither loving nor tender to the maiden, although she dared not be harsh to her for fear of her husband, and also for fear of what people would say. One day, however, as she was pondering over the difference between her own daughter and her stepdaughter, for they had then grown up to be young women, who came in but the 'Eachrais Ulair.' (a very wicked sort of witch) and she said to her 'What a pity it is for you to see another woman's daughter heiress of the land when, if you but acted courageously and wisely, your own daughter might have it all.' 'I cannot help things being as they are,' replied the king's wife, 'I am not going to risk my own life and my daughter's by any rash act that they would be sure to find out.'
"'Oh!' cried the 'Eachrais Ulair,' 'if you make it worth my while I will put you on a plan, and you will be sure to get rid of her, and you will never be found out.'
"'What plan will that be?' asked the king's wife, for she was more willing to get rid of her stepdaughter than she wished the other to know.
"'I know a glen,' said the 'Eachrais Ulair,' 'out of which no human being ever returned to tell their tale; a black, dark, desolate glen, and the way leading to it full of holes, and precipices, and quagmires - "Gleann dubh, dorcha, fasail lan tholl 'us chreag 'us shuilean-crithich." Send her there with the cows to the summer grazing, and send a dairyman and herdsmen with her. Send them away when the king is out hunting, and tell him it was her own desire to go for a short time to the sheiling, and you may rest assured, if she goes there, that you will never see herself or any of her companions again.'
"The king's wife promised the 'Eachrais Ulair' a rich reward when her daughter would be heiress to her father; and she got the cows set apart, and the servants appointed that were to go with her to the sheiling that was so far away and so difficult to reach. She gave them directions for the road, and they started when the king was in the hill hunting.
"They travelled on, and at last they came to the glen that was so black, dark, and desolate, full of holes, precipices, and quagmires, and they felt frightened and full of awe as they gazed upon the journey that lay before they would get to the floor of the glen, 'ular a' ghlinne.'
"The king's daughter invoked a blessing on herself and on her companions and on the cattle, and she made the others do the same. They invoked blessings, and sang on every step of the weary way, and with every step they took new courage - 'ghlac iad misneach ur' - and, in spite of holes, rocks, and quagmires, they got to the floor of the glen without losing a single creature of their herd, and without damage or injury to themselves. Full of thankfulness for their preservation, they got the flocks arranged for the night, and as there was no sheiling bothy ('bothan airidh') to be seen, they looked about them for a house in which they could stay. They saw in the distance one solitary house - a big, long, grey house - and as they saw smoke arising from it, they knew it was occupied; and, taking their milk cogs full with them, they entered the house. There was no person to be seen in the house but one very, very big old man, who was in a bed opposite the fire. They blessed themselves, and then ventured to ask the old man if they could stay there during the time they were to remain in the glen. The 'bodach mòr mòr' was very sulky, and said 'No;' but they told him they would be very good to him, and, instead of injuring him, he would be the better of them. They gave him a large basin of the warm milk to drink, and gave him to eat a large bannock, and then the greater part of a small bannock, and he gave them permission to make beds for themselves on the floor. In the morning again, when they milked the cows, they gave him the same, and, seeing that he was not very tidy, they washed his hands for him before giving him his bread and milk. He was very grateful, and on the second night he proposed that the women would sleep in his bed, and that he would make a shakedown for himself on the floor, near the men. This was done, and before they were long in bed they heard a great noise without, and a heavy foot coming to the door. Then they heard a voice saying, 'Am bheil m' urraball stidein mòr, mòr, a stigh?' ''S tamh leam, 's tamh leam, m' urraball statain," was the reply from the bodach within. Then the voice from the one without cried, "M' urraball stidein mòr, mòr, an tig mise a dh' itheadh ri d' thaobh a' nochd?' 'Cha tig, cha tig,' was the reply, 'a nochda no gu brath, a nigheadh mo lamh 's mo bhainne blà mo bhonnach mor mor's mo leth mhor de 'n bhonnach bheag,' which may be translated as follows: - 'My big, big pussy's tail, are you in?' 'I am at rest, my statain's tail.' 'Can I come to eat by your side to-night?' 'No, no, not to-night, nor at any other time. They wash my hands, give me warm milk, a large, large bannock, and the biggest half of the little bannock.'
"They were not molested again during the time they remained, and the old giant was on the best of terms with them, and that protected them from others who might seek their hurt. At the time for returning home they had more butter and cheese than they could carry home, and they had to get assistance to carry it, and, blessing themselves as at the outset, they returned home safe and well, and the king's daughter was more beautiful than ever, and her fame as a maker of butter and cheese spread far and near, and all admired how she managed the herd so well, and made a friend of the giant, who would otherwise have eaten them, with his brother giants.
"On the following year the king's wife resolved that her own daughter would go to the same glen, and earn the same fame as her sister. So she got her ready, and got the best cows for her, and the 'Eachrais Ulair' had to go with her as dairymaid. They set out for the glen grumbling and miserable; they sang no hymn, nor did they invoke a blessing either on themselves or their herds; and they lost some of them in the holes and quagmires, and others fell over the rocks. When they got to the floor of the glen with the few cows that were left to them, they saw the same long, large, grey house that the others had stayed in when there. They went in and took everything without asking leave of the 'bodach mor mor,' who was in his bed opposite the fire. They offered him no milk, nor did they show him any kindness, and after they went to bed at night the same giant came knocking to the door that came when the others were there. When he cried to his brother giant 'Am bheil m' earrball stidein mor, mor a stigh?" The ready reply was an invitation to enter, and they slew and devoured them all; and neither the king's youngest daughter, the 'Eachrais Ular,' nor the herdsmen, ever returned again from the black, dark, desolate glen full of holes, precipices, and quagmires."
A Gael's wealth was always, in those old times, represented by the number of cows he could turn to his summer pasture -
A proverb also sayeth thus - "Fear an ime mhoir 's e 's binne gloir." "The rich owner of cows, or he who has the most butter, has the sweetest voice." Marriageable maidens were also valued according to the tocher they were to have - not in money, but in cows. Twenty milk cows was considered a good tocher for a tacksman's daughter, and twenty cows, with their calves at their feet, was very good; and for a crofter's daughter, a cow and her calf or stirk was a fair tocher, along with her blankets and other paraphernalia, and a girl who had such a tocher in prospect was apt to give herself airs, unless she had very good sense. There is an old story, of the Alnaschar type, that illustrates the importance the possession of a cow gave a woman. It is known as "Cailleach Cath na Cuinneige." A certain old woman, who still felt young, got a stoup full of milk, which she was going to sell in a town that was some distance from her. She sat down to rest on the way, and began to count the amount she would gain out of the selling of the milk, for which she had paid her only pennies. After that she meant to buy two stoups full, and make a larger profit, and she would go on trading thus until she would buy a calf, and she would feed the calf well, and it would soon be a cow, and it would then have a calf, which would in a year or two be a fine young heifer, and then a man would come the way, and say, "You have a cow, old wife;" and she would reply, "I have a cow and a heifer." "Tha bo agad air a nasg, a chailleach." "Tha bo 'us agh agam, their mise." "He will marry me then, and we will soon get rich, and I'll have a servant, and I'll make her do my bidding, and if she would dare refuse I would give her a kick!" The kick was directed by the dreaming woman to her milk stoup, and all her aerial castles came tumbling about her ears. There was no cow, nor heifer, nor husband, nor servant.
The habit of giving cows as a tocher to the daughters of the house made them in the olden time very anxious that they would marry among their own kinsmen, or at least in their own clans, as it would be an enriching of the enemy to give their cows to them, and hence the frequency of elopements in those days. A young man sorely exercised about which was the better thing for him to marry, an old woman who had a tocher, or a young one who had none, went to his father and spoke thus -
Cattle were of so much importance to the Highlanders because they represented, in a special manner, their food supply. Milk, in its different forms, was their chief sustenance. Instead of the morning cups of tea, now indulged in by all classes of the community, they began the day by taking drinks of milk. Among the better classes, the morning drink ("deoch-maidne") was what is known as "old man's milk," which was an egg switched into a glass of milk, with a little whisky added; and even the herd-boy got, if nothing better, a cup of whey to his piece of barley bread before turning out to tend the cows. When milk was scarce, the morning drink of the poorer people was "sughan," which is the juice of oatmeal or bran steeped so long as to become sour, and in very hard times they took it to their porridge. "Sughan" was spoken of in song and story as a sign of poverty, as it indicated a scarcity of cows, and certainly it is not very palatable. The bard who spoke of the Fencibles of Oban in a disparaging manner, could not find any thing more contemptuous to say of them than, "Tha neul an t-sughain air gnuis n'an Latharnuich." And some nurse, who seems to have had a grudge at the Stewarts of Appin, said to her nursling -
Milk was taken to the potatoes, porridge, or brose that was their breakfast; and for a good substantial dinner, milk porridge, or milk brose was frequently given, not only as a luxurious, but as a good, strong, sustaining meal, that kept hunger long at a distance, and for that reason such meals were given to men going on long journeys. Milk, in some instances, was often taken with the potatoes for dinner, and at times butter, cheese, and milk were all on the table, and when taken with good, dry, well-boiled, mealy potatoes, it was a luxurious, as well as a delicious, meal, and considered by themselves food fit for a king's table. The "Ceapaire Saileach," or "Kintail piece," was butter thickly laid on cheese of equal thickness, and was not only taken with potatoes, but, when meal was scarce, it was taken with milk instead of bread and butter, and sometimes a sprinkling of oatmeal was laid on the butter to make it stronger eating. A careful housewife was much more lavish with her butter and cheese to her household than she would be with either her warm milk or cream, as she took great pride in the quantities of dairy produce in her" cellar" at the end of the season. Yet there were times when even the richest cream would be freely produced, and this was especially at the demands of hospitality. Water was never offered as a drink to the meanest wayfarer. "Deoch fhionna-ghlas" was the most effectual drink for quenching thirst. This "whitey-grey" mixture was milk and water in equal proportions, and the sour thick milk that was under the cream that was kept for butter was churned into a froth, and it made a cooling drink. It was called "sgathach." When strangers had to be entertained, "fuarag" was made plentifully, and curds and cream were laid out with oatcake, butter, cheese, and whisky. They made the yearning, or yeast, that turned the milk into curds, by putting milk and salt into the stomach of a calf. The he-calves were generally killed, and their stomachs supplied them for this purpose. "Fuarag" was made of the sour thick cream, churned into a froth, with a "lonaid" made for the purpose, and some oatmeal stirred in it. The meal made on the quern was considered by far the best for making it. This is a most delicious luxury, and a favourite with all classes. It was the dish that was expected to be given in every house on Hallowe'en, and great was the excitement when all, old and young, sat around the cog, after the goodwife had dropped her ring in it, for whoever found the ring would be the first of the company to marry. The curds given with cream were very different from the ordinary curds that in the present day go to table as a substitute for pudding. The Highland hostess squeezed the curds for her guest, and thus partly freed them from the whey, making them much pleasanter, as well as more substantial. The women were wont to twit the men about their desire for these luxuries, and yet that, though they would get all the cream, they would still expect the usual quantity of butter. The following proverb is a fine piece of sarcasm on this: -
There was another luxury better loved on bread than all the jams and jellies ever made, and that was curd-butter, or "gruth-im" - half butter, half curd, finely mixed. This was very different from the ordinary crowdy, which also is dignified by the same Gaelic name as the other, although there is very little butter in it to make it palatable or nutritious. When the Highlanders dined late, the supper often was a thick gruel, known as "liath-bhrochan." It was made of milk and oatmeal well boiled, with a piece of butter in it, and of a consistency that they spoke of as, "bu tiugh am balgam e, 's bu thana an spàin e." When butter was scarce, a thrifty housewife made a very good substitute with milk and eggs and a little salt stirred together over the fire for a few minutes. This was very pleasant when spread hot on the bread, and it was very useful in the latter end of spring, when the store of butter was exhausted. It was known as "im-eigin." There was a proverb that said that one teat of a cow was better than a boll of white meal - "Is fearr aon sine bò no bolla dhe 'n mhin bhain." And the milk was not only their food, but also to a great extent their medicine, and it had a valuable place in their art of healing as butter. For chest complaints, a cog full of butter was melted down, and after the juices of certain herbs were mixed with it, they placed it to cool, and it was administered in small quantities, as cod liver oil is now. This was called "cuach ghorm." For colds in throat or chest, salt butter, mixed with oatmeal, was laid on wool and applied, and salt butter was considered the most effectual cure for a bruise. It was also applied to a cut, if they feared there was any rust about the weapon that caused the injury. For any eruption on the skin, sulphur mixed with fresh butter was applied, and a little melted butter in its liquid state was taken instead of the castor oil now so common. Fresh butter was melted with bees-wax and the roots of dockens to heal a burn, and this was used freely for chopped hands or lips. In fact, butter was the principal article in a Highland woman's pharmacopia. If even one of her fowls were ill, it was caught and a piece of fresh butter forced into its bill, which was sure to cure it.
Goat's milk was considered the best for restoring lost strength to the sick, owing to the herbage they lived on, and it was considered the most nourishing for even the strong, according to the proverb -
All the goats' milk was turned into cheese, which was considered a luxury, and particularly good for invalids. Goat's milk must also have been considered a good cosmetic, for a proverb sayeth -
"Rub thy face with violets and goat's milk, and there is not a king's son in the world but will be after thee." The panacea recommended in another proverb is -
The milk of the white goat was considered the richest for an invalid, as also the milk of a red cow. Goat milk whey was considered very wholesome, and the milk of a white goat preferable to that of a black or brown one. The tallow of the goat, next to that of the deer, was considered the most efficacious for rubbing to stiff joints, but even for that the best remedy came from the cow, in the neat foot oil. The proverb that said if the oil of the cow, without and within, would not cure the Highlander, there was no cure for him, was one on which they placed perfect faith - "Uilleadh na ba am mach 's a steach mar leighis sin an Gaidheal, cha 'n eil a leigheas ann." It was a singular habit of the Highlanders to class the cows according to the part of their bodies that happened to be white. The black, red, dun, or grey cow was spoken of as such, but a white-footed cow was "cas-fhionn;" a whitefaced one, "ceann-fhionn;" a white-shouldered one, "gual-fhionn;" white-backed was "druim-fhionn;" and the white-bellied, "bailg-fhionn," and as such they are frequently spoken of in the old songs, thus -
And in the bribes that the "great grey hag" offered to Kennedy of Sianachan - "An gille dubh mor Mac Uaraic" - for letting her go free, when he had her bound before him on horseback, threatening to show her to human eyes - she offered him a herd of cattle, giving the different kinds their distinctive names - "buaile de chrodh bailg-fhionn, druim-fhionn, ceann-fhionn, cas-fhionn, agus dubh." And he replied that he had all these already. The term "cas-fhionn" came to be applied latterly to cows that had only the tip of the tail white. I have not found out why the term "cas-fhionn" was applied to the Macintyres, though I often heard them called "Cloinn an t-Saoir chais-fhionn."
The dishes they carried to the hill grazings were - wooden basins, "measraichean;" milking cogs, "cuachan bleoghain," or "cummain;" the churn, "muigh," or "imideal;" the cheese press, "fiodhan;" the sieve, "siolachan;" the cheese salter, "sailleir caise;" and the butter tubs. It was customary when salting the butter to put a cross of rushes here and there, to keep evil influences from spoiling it. The skimmers they had were generally the deeper shell of the scallop, which was also the ancient drinking cup -
The shallow shell of the scallop, which was the badge of the pilgrim of old, was the one used to slice the butter, and its lamilli-branchiate formation gave the butter a pretty ribbed appearance on the plate, or on the large scallop shell that served as a plate.
The life at the hill grazing, or shieling, was a free and a jolly one. The change of air was good for man and beast, and although they carried human passions in their breasts, there was very little in the circumstances of their surroundings to develop them. All things tended to calm and gladden; their strongest emotions were called forth by the voices of love, devotion, and sympathy. They were a pious people. They were devoted to their chief, who was both their father and friend, and they loved their wives and children, and came as near to the loving of their neighbour as themselves, as is possible for frail humanity. The township might almost be said to have a family life at the shieling, for each bore the others burdens; they rejoiced in each other's joy, and when tears had to be shed, they mingled them in brotherly fashion. As far as the children were concerned, although the schoolmaster was abroad, their winter education at the "ceilidh" was carried on in a most effectual manner. They romped among the calves, the kids, and the lambs, laying in large stores of the health and strength to be required in the future. And as they lay on the hillside, at the feet of their sires, they learned the songs of their country, and listened to the tales of the chase and of love and war. The boys learned to make and repair the milking and dairy utensils, to tend the flocks, shear the sheep, make and mend their own shoes; and to thatch, and make the heather and hair ropes so largely used by them; and perhaps the most desired part of their education was the shooting of a blackcock, the stalking of a deer, and the spearing of a salmon.
The girls learned to emulate their mothers in skill of the dairy work, as well as in spinning wool for future webs on the distaff, and knitting stockings and hose of brilliant hues and rare patterns. They learned to know the herbs that were medicinal for man and beast, and the different plants used in dyeing the colours of their tartans. They learned to become useful wives, following in the footprints of their mothers, as helpmates in the struggle for existence, neither fearing the snows and storms of winter, nor ashamed of the tawning of the summer sun. They danced and flirted and sang their sweet lyrics, and forgot amidst their labour that sorrow had an existence, or that pain was awaiting them. The old manner of going to the sheilings belongs to the history of the past. Where such summer grazings are had still, as in some parts of the Hebrides, only some of the daughters of the families go with their cows, and in Lewis I have seen them carry the milk home twice a-week, all sour, of course. And I have seen the girls, on their return to the hill, carrying with them creels of seaware for their cows to eat. I have seen in Mr Carmichael's house in Edinburgh a small stool used in one of these sheilings, probably a milking stool, and Prince Charles Stuart sat on it. When wandering about, after Culloden, he entered a sheiling in which three girls were, and sat down, and got a drink of milk. They did not know who he was, and after he left they knew, and then they playfully fought for possession of what they called the throne, "An righ-chaithir." In the course of the struggle, one of them lost a tooth, and the others generously let her have the stool, as she had suffered the most in the cause of their beloved Prince. A descendant of hers gave it to its present appreciative owner, in whose hospitable house it has a place of honour in the drawing-room.
I have given here but little of what I meant to write on this subject, but if it will embalm any of the ancient usages of our noble-hearted and pure-natured forefathers, it will fulfil a good purpose, and make my heart glad.
The maiden of the sheiling has been an object of special interest in all pastoral countries, and was frequently the theme of the poet, in all ages and in all countries -
So sang the Lowland bard, but no song on the maid of the sheiling can surpass that of our own Alexander Macdonald - "Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair." Was ever a maiden's hair praised more than in the following verse? -
In another verse he says -
This reference to the churning the butter on the bed indicates that it was the vessel known as the "imideal," that I explained about in my former paper, that is referred to here, for two girls sat on the bed shaking this vessel until they produced butter.
It is interesting to know that our first recorded romance of the sheiling is to be found in the Book of Genesis, when Jacob met his fair young kinswoman, Rachel, as she tended her father's flocks. The first meeting, with its tears and kisses, is full of romantic interest. Afterwards, the years of service given for her, and, notwithstanding her waywardness, the poetic love with which the patriarch clung to her memory to the end of his long life, must command our admiration. "As for me," said he, "when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way, when yet there was but a little way to come into Ephrath; and I buried her there in the way of Ephrath, the same is Bethlehem;" and the patriarch was then dying in extreme old age.
Another ancient romance of the sheiling is that of Cormac, King of Ireland, which is worthy of being commemorated. Cormac, son of Art, was the grandson of Conn of the Hundred Fights - Conn-ceud-cathach - from whom his descendants, the Macdonalds, take the title of "Sìol-Chuinn." Cormac was one day riding through a forest near his own castle, when he beheld a lovely young maiden milking cows at some distance. He reined in his steed under the boughs of a tree, and with admiration watched the grace of the maiden's actions as she, with a cheerful manner, went about her humble duties. She went home with her milkpails to a little cot that stood near, and then returned singing gladly in a low sweet voice whilst attending to the wants of the milky mothers. She had not noticed him, but he approached her cautiously lest he should alarm her. She attempted to flee away when she saw him, but with his adroitness he set her at ease, and soothed her into confidence. He pretended ignorance of cows and dairy labour; he asked her about the separating of milk from strippins, and was surprised that she preferred fresh rushes to rotten, and clean water to brackish. The girl modestly gave him all the information he wished, and in the course of conversation she mentioned the name of her foster-father, and then he knew that Eite, the daughter of Dunluing, stood before him, and that her foster-father was Buiciodh Brughach who had been a rich glazier in Leinster, and was ruined by the munificence of his hospitality. The Leinster gentry who used to be his guests began to consider his goods their own, and when they left his house they took whatever number they fancied of his cows. They soon ruined the princely farmer, and so he left home quietly, and travelled until he came to a forest in Meath, resolving to spend his days retired and unknown with his wife and Eite, or as she is sometimes called Eithne. The meeting of Cormac with the fair girl led to her becoming his wife, and her foster-father got ample land and herds near the palace of Tara. The daughter of Cormac and Eite became the wife of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Mac Treuna-mhoir, and thus the maid of the Sheiling was the grand-mother of Ossian, the royal bard.
One of the romantic incidents of the sheiling was the fairy lover, and some of the songs concerning those are still to be heard among the old people. This "leannan-sith," or fairy lover, was able at times to win the love of the maid of the sheiling in no ordinary manner; and fairy women, in the guise of milkmaids, have been known to win the affection of the herdsman who on the mountain side attended his flocks. There is a fairy lullaby of which I only know a fragment. It was composed by the "leannan-sith" when the maid of the sheiling, who was the mother of his child, had become cruel and laid his little baby-boy to cry himself to death on the hill-side near the father's uncanny home. The poor unhappy man came to the relief of his child, and in his song he is promising every thing good to his "Morag" if she obeys nature's call and comes to her son. Morag it seems went to look after her herds, and turned a deaf ear to his weird singing and his deep distress. The melody of this song is very sweet and plaintive, as are all those known as "Fonn-sìth," fairy melody. The words run as follows: -
Another unfortunate girl was at the sheiling with her companion; and, when out on the hillside, she made the acquaintance of a fairy lover, to whom she was most devoted. She used to steal away every evening to meet him in a cosy hiding place surrounded by trees of holly and mountain ash, and although her companion watched her, she could not find out where she was going. At last she asked her to confide in her, promising that the secret would come through her knee before it came through her lips. The maiden then told her where she went every evening, and the other soon revealed the secret; and the girl's brothers went to the place, and found the lover resting on a bed of straw that the maiden had made for him at their trysting place. The lover, who was probably human enough, was slain by the angry young men, and the girl, on getting near the place, saw them ride away; and on going to her lover, she found him slain.
The poor girl died of sorrow, and composed the following song, in which she bitterly reproaches her companion for unfaithfulness: -
There is another fragment of a song of this kind which is said to have been composed by a young man who was travelling the mountain side, when he met a young woman of great beauty, who pretended to be a maid of the sheiling. She fascinated him with her charms of looks and manner, and when she asked him to become her herdsman, he followed her, to find she had deceived him, and her beauty was only seeming. She was one of the weird women of the fairy hills, and he regrets having met her. We have heard this sung as a lullaby, and also as a waulking song. The melody is very fine -
Weird women of the fairy race were said to milk the deer on the mountain tops, charming them with songs composed to a fairy melody or "fonn-sith." One of these songs is said to be the famous "Crodh Chailein." I give the version I heard of it, and all the old people said the deer were the cows referred to as giving their milk so freely under the spell of enchantment: -
Mrs Grant of Laggan gave a free translation of this old song, and it had the distinction of having given its name to a distinguished Literary Club in Edinburgh. This club met regularly at a tavern in the Anchor Close, kept by one Daniel Douglas, who knew Gaelic, and whose favourite song was "Crodh Chailein." He was called upon to sing it at the close of every jovial evening. Robert Burns, when in Edinburgh, was a regular attendant at this club, and he celebrated it in more than one song. It was of Smellie, the antiquarian, that he sang -
Burns visited Edinburgh in 1787, and on the 1st of January, 1788, the death of Mr Daniel Douglas was announced in the public papers, and he is deserving of some notice from us, as he made our simple little song of the sheiling a classic; and Burns, who delighted in "Crodh Chailein," gave the song to the world that superseded it, and that ends every meeting of Scotsman in good fellowship - "Auld Lang Syne." Of all influences to soothe an irritated or sulky cow, and make her give her milk willingly, this song is considered the most powerful. Highland cows are considered to have more character than the Lowland breeds, and when they get irritated or disappointed, they retain their milk for days. This sweet melody sung - not by a stranger, but by the loving lips of her usual milkmaid - often soothes her into yielding her precious addition to the family supply. There are other verses sung to this melody which have rather a tragic story. A man was suspected of having killed his wife, and the unfortunate woman's brothers came to charge him with the murder, and to avenge her death. As they came to the door late at night, they heard the man whose life they sought crooning this plaintive song to his little motherless child. As they listened to his words of sorrow, they sheathed their dirks, and returned home, convinced that he was not the slayer of the woman he mourned in such pathetic verses. This set of the words became as popular with milk-maids as the "Crodh Chailein" set: -
To sing to the cows was always a sure sign of a good dairy-maid. Sometimes the song was improvised in praise of the particular cow; sometimes there was not much sense in it, but words strung together to a pleasing air, such as the following: -
When a dairymaid in Mull was milking a young cow, of whose pedigree she was proud, she sang to her saying -
Mac Iain Ghiarr was a wild reaver of the seas on the West Coast. He was of good family, being of the Macdonalds of Mingarry in Ardnamurchan. His mother had been early left a widow, and she married a farmer in Mull; and one of Mac Iain Ghiarr's feats was - in after years, when his mother died - to steal her body away by night, in order to bury her with his own father. He had a boat painted white on the one side and black on the other which gave rise to the proverb - Taobh dubh us taobh bàn a bh 'air bàta mhic Iain Ghiarr. This was the boat that was so useful to him because no one that saw a white boat go up the loch in the morning thought it was one and the same with the black boat they saw returning in the evening. Mac Iain Ghiarr had been listening to the dairymaid who was singing to her favourite young cow, and he replied, although she did not hear -
And before morning he fulfilled his threat, and only left the breast-bit, or "caisean-uchd," of each cow to indicate that they need not look for them again upon the hill. We may imagine the sorrow of the dairymaid, who neither had her "dubhag," nor her "donnag," nor her "ciarag," to milk in the morning. The affection in the hearts of those good women for the animals they reared and watched over was very intense, and such a sorrow as this dairymaid's would be within hail of Rachel weeping for her children because they were not. The following is a beautiful milking song that has been much abused in the public prints, but I give it here as I got it from a good old dairymaid many years ago: -
The romance of the shieling with its poetry was not confined to those of the fairy race. Sons of men often took great pains to see the maidens of the sheiling in spite of the guardianship of brothers or other male relatives who might be there, after the habit of the family migration to the hills had ceased.
When a young man was objected to as the future husband of the maid of the sheiling he had to have recourse to stratagem in order to see her. A young man of whom we heard went to the sheiling in which his beloved was the presiding goddess, but he dared not go in sight. He hovered about in hopes to get a word of the maiden, but in vain. At last rain came on and he was more than miserable, and he went and opened the cro' or fold in which the calves were shut in. The calves began to low, and the whole occupants of the shelling got out of their beds to go in quest of them, when the lover slipt into his sweetheart's room. He threw off his wet plaid and hid himself in a corner. As the maiden went back to her apartment after the calves were secured she touched the wet plaid accidentally and screamed. In a moment, however, she was aware of the situation, and when her brothers asked the cause of her fright she said the cat had jumped in her face, and believing her, they retired unsuspiciously to bed. That night she promised to elope with her lover, which she afterwards did, for she knew he was trustworthy and true, although her brothers disliked him. A young man less fortunate went forth one morning before daylight to the sheiling to see his sweetheart, and when he got there he found her dead. The following is a fragment of a song composed by him on the occasion: -
When a death, as in this case, took place away at the sheiling, and the weather was too stormy to carry the body to the family burying ground, they chose a suitable spot on the hillside in which they solemnly buried their dead. We have heard of a man who was travelling over a mountain, and having got tired, he lay down on a little knoll to rest, and there fell asleep. As he slept he saw a pretty little girl of about eight years old dancing about the spot on which he reposed. "Who are you, my sweet child, and why are you here alone?" "Ah!" she replied, "I died when they were here at the sheiling, and I am here alone. You are sleeping on my grave, and I am glad you came, for they left me all alone. Dh'fhàg iad mise 'an so leam fhèin." On going to the nearest township, the traveller found that a girl had died at the sheiling at that place on the previous summer, and that, owing to stormy weather, she had been buried there. And the description he gave of her quite agreed with the appearance of the little maiden they knew. This happened in one of the sheiling districts of Lochaber.
Many places in the Highlands owe their names to this old habit of sending the cows to the sheiling. Achintore, near Fort-William, now studded with so many lovely villas, is nothing else, interpreted, but the field of the manure. The ancient family of the Macgillonies of Strone had Achintore as a summer grazing. They gathered heaps of manure there in the season twice a day. "Achadh-an-todhaire far an deanar dà thodhar 's an latha" was the old proverb about it. The country people, short of manure for their ground, came there to buy it at so much a creel. Burt, in his letters from the north, speaks of the women in the neighbourhood of Fort-William coming to buy the horse dung from the soldiers at 4d a creel. The creels used for carrying this manure had false bottoms, fixed with pins, and they could be emptied without being removed from the back of the man or horse that carried them. They were known as "clèibh-spidrich."
In the same way they went with those creels to buy manure to Achintore. As late as the beginning of the present century the Macgillonies had their summer grazings in Achintore, for which they paid a rental of £40 per aunum. Many of the names of Highland places owe their origin to sheilings. The famous" Fionn-airidh" of Morven is the white sheiling; "Gleaun-deas-airidh" is the glen of the south sheiling; "Airidh-fhionn-dail," the sheiling of the white field; "Airidh-mhuilinn," the sheiling of the mill, and so on.
The only place in the Highlands in which the "airidh" is still a summer resort is the Lews and even there they seem modern institutions. The family do not leave the ordinary home. Only the girls go, and in that the others are losers. The change of air, the break in the monotony of life, especially to the women, must have been a salutary change. The girls, however, enjoy their residence there, free from all restraint; they can sing and dance to the music of their own innocent hearts without fear of either minister or elder. There are generally four girls in each sheiling, and they occupy one large bed made on the floor, with a first layer of rushes, and then bent, hay, or straw. Between this bed - "leabaidh mhór na h-àiridh" - and the fire there is built up a sofa or couch of turf called "an ceap," and that is their seat as they sew or knit in the evenings, after they have finished their duties. Wednesday night is their great evening, for then their sweethearts come to see them. One brings a Jew's harp, another a chanter, and they have a dance, and the girls sing the Gaelic songs that are too often forbidden at home. Then they hospitably entertain the young men who came to cheer them in their solitude, the usual feast on such occasions being curds and cream; and when the lads go to Fraserburgh, they bring nice presents to the girls who were so kind - little shoulder shawls of tartan, ribbons, combs, and pen-knives, or cheap brooches - which are lovingly treasured. All the East Coast fishing is called Fraserburgh by them. If a stranger comes unexpectedly to these sheilings, and they have no luxury to offer, they hastily bake an oat-cake, which is put standing against a stone to be fired. The fire for this purpose is made of dried heather, which gives a clear, hot redness without smoke. This "bonnach-cloiche," taken to a bowl of fresh cream, is considered a great treat. The tit-bit given by the Lews people to their cows, in order to induce them to give their milk, is the dried bolles of the cod and ling pounded down small. The cows are particularly fond of it, and yield their milk freely whilst enjoying it; and if they get a song with it, all the better. The great terror of the sheiling was the witch, or anyone with an evil eye. The former could, with a sympathetic teat, sit at her own fire-side, and milk her neighbour's cows; the latter could, with her" beum-stila," lay the most healthy and beautiful cow of the herd dead on the field in a moment. If the witch were vindictive only, and did not want any benefit herself, she would prevent the cows of her unfortunate victim from having calves, which was the most serious evil that could befall a pastoral people, to whom milk in its different forms meant a wealth of luxurious living.
Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, in his praise of the mainland, says: -
Of course this land of Goshen would become a starved and miserable place without the rich streams from the milky mothers, and the calves that were to rise up to take the place of their ancestors on the shelling. Sometimes if one's cows were injured by a witch, another went privately and bought them with any small silver coin. "You have no cows now," said the buyer, "they are all mine, and spells wrought to injure your cows cannot affect mine." "They are all yours, I have none," replied the owner. And then the witch, who knew not of the transaction, was baffled at the want of success in her spells.
Sometimes butter and cheese and milk were sent to the witch to purchase her goodwill. And there was one spell that was performed at great risk, but which was effectual in making the witch come to terms. A young girl was sent to milk the strippings from the udder of the cow, and after every window was darkened and every inlet to the house shut up, the milk was poured into a pot with a portion of the cow's dung, a tuft of her hair, and as many rusty nails and needles and pins as possible. The pot was set on the fire, and stirred with a stick of mountain ash, and if that is not convenient any other stick will do, and the person who is brave enough to take charge of it keeps stirring all the while, repeating some charm. By and by the witches begin to make a great noise about the house, going to the windows and to the doors and even the top of the house trying to get a sight of the person who is stirring the pot, for if they get that the victory would be theirs. The person in charge of the pot could then make terms with the person who had injured the cow when he knew the pain undergone was beyond endurance; or, if he or she was very revengeful the person could, by prolonged suffering, be brought to cry out asking for relief, and promising to take the spell away from the cow. Then the pot was lifted off, and as the water gradually cooled the witch got free from pain, and the cow yielded the old full rich quantity of milk. These cantrips were the terror of the shelling, and those who caught one of the water cows were considered happy, as no evil eye or witch's spell had any power to injure these creatures of the flood, which are seldom seen by mortal eye as they come in droves from the sea to career about in the dim moonlight. A man in Harris told me that his forefathers had such cows for many generations. One of his ancestors had been out hunting on the hill-side, and as he lay still he saw these creatures of the flood rushing past him. He had the presence of mind to know what they were and threw a handful of earth towards them. The one on whose back it fell stood spellbound unable to follow the herd to the sea. He led her home, and she seemed quite content with her new mode of life. She and her progeny were all good milchers. I tried to get a description of these creatures, but could only learn that they were beautifully shaped and had long silky black hair.
The following description of a Highland quey of the best stamp may be interesting: -
The names given to the Highland cows were indicative of their colour or of any distinguishing mark such as a brow star, which made her "Blarag," the brown cow was "Donnag," the dusky grey one "Ciarag," the brindled one "Riabhag," and the dun one always the "Odhrag," the black and white one was the "Gris-fhionn," sometimes a quey of no distinctive colour got emphatically called "An t-aghan," and the name stuck to her unto old age. The children at the sheiling gave their playmates, the calves, those names; and they were the names by which they were sung in the lilts of the milk-maids as they praised them in sweetest song. If the words did not mean much, as sometimes happened, the melodies were always beautiful, and could be played on the bagpipes with fine effect. Of some of those milking lilts I could only get a verse, for instance, the following, which is very fine played on the pipes: -
Here is a verse of another sweet air: -
In all these songs the most affectionate expressions were used to the cows, as in the following: -
The old life at the sheiling is a thing of the past. Yet, its traditions, and songs and proverbs that embalm its history, will live as long as our language is spoken or written, and the beautiful similes that tell of a pastoral people have become part of the mosaic that makes it so grand and worthy of preservation. Of a kind-hearted person it was said, "Tha e mar am bainne blàth" - "he is like the warm milk." The poet could find no better thing to describe the fairness of the skin of his lady-love than to say she was as white as the curd. "Cho gheal 's an gruth leam fhein thu." "Calf-love" was described, "Laoigh na h-aon airidh," the calves of the one sheiling. One going to marry a stranger away from their own people and glen was told in surprise, "Ubh, ubh, b' fhada bho cheile crodh laoigh ur dà sheanar," "Ay, ay, far from each other were the milk cows of your two grandfathers," and so on. The boys brought up at the sheiling had a different stamina from the present generation who rejoice in being English-speaking and tea-drinking from their infancy. The new state of things fits them best for taking their places with the Lowlanders in the battle of life, but yet they unfit them to be the representatives of the race that grew up to be like a mighty bulwark to their country - those who from childhood climbed the highest rocks, and swam the deepest pools, and whose simple, temperate lives fitted them for hardships and endurance.
The better life of the sheiling was over when the whole community cased to move together with their flocks in the early summer. The poetry of the old life was gone, and then gradually the "buaile" took the place of the "airidh," and the more modem Gaelic songs celebrate the maiden who was queen of this new order of things -
I remember the heroine of this song, a tall, stately matron in Glencoe, when I was a mere girl, and I do not think that the poet exaggerates her charms.