Dunkeld To Blair Athole
( Originally Published 1912 )
" I drove up to Loch Ordrie, and home by Craig-y-Barns, fifteen miles through woods of my own planting, from a year to forty years old, a very grand picturesque drive, not to be equalled in Great Britain."
The Athole Larches—The late Duke of Athole—His Love of Otter Hunting—The Athole Forest—The Dunkeld Ayrshires —Milk Statistics—The Duchess Dowager's Farm at St. Colme's—Pitlochry—The Castle and Burial-place at Blair Athole—The West Highland Herd.
SO wrote John Fourth Duke of Athole, the most energetic of Scottish planters. Mr. Christopher Sykes, of Sledmere, who received a Book on Birds from an East Riding Society in 1780 for planting 54,430 larches, was as nothing to his Grace. In larch, and larch only, " with its sharp-pointed top, which gives no rest to the snow," he placed his woodland trust. Six thousand five hundred acres were planted with it solely, and he gave it seventy-two years to build a navy. Each tree was to produce fifty cubic feet, and they were to sell for £1,000 an acre, plus £7 an acre for the thinnings. Everything conspired to strengthen his conviction. The Navy Office reported the " Atholl " to be far sounder than the " Niemen " frigate of Baltic fir. The larch was found not to splinter so easily, and to fire more sluggishly when it was tested by a broadside and a brazier ; and when " The Larch " was finally wrecked at Ladra on the shores of the Black Sea, it fought with the breakers to the last. Such were the hopes of the Duke when iron-clads were a vision only worthy of " a horse marine," and the larch had not learnt to die down-wards.
Disease may have done its work among them, and thousands fell one February night when the storm swept down Strath Braan ; but there they stand, thickly crowning the summit of Craig Vinean and. Craig-y-Barns. These rocky outposts of the Athole woodlands are seen in all their grandeur from the Abbey grounds. The silver fir and the bonnet fir, with its finer bark and smaller thread, flourish in these -smooth over-arching glades by the side of the Tay ; and there, too, are the very Gog and Magog of the larch clan, a hundred feet each in stature, and four hundred and eighteen feet cubic in bulk. Tea leaves are said to have been cooked cabbage-fashion when they first arrived in England ; and tradition has it that these larches were nursed in a hot-house till they pined, and then took root by chance, and flourished when they had been expelled from it as worthless. Birnam Hill, with its purple heather circlet, stands proudly in the distance ; but its " wood " is reduced at last to an oak tree and a plane. The sun lights up the speared otter on the kennel vane ; but Cruel and Conqueror have been gone these seven years. Only a few black-horned and half-bred St. Kilda ewes are browsing on the slopes ; and the prize Ayrshire quey at Stirling, and the one that beat her at Glasgow, are in the field below.
Otter-hunting was at one time quite a passion with the late Duke, and many a long day he had with that kindred spirit, Lord John Scott, on the Teviot and the Tweed. He was a man of immense muscular energy, and forty-four inches across the chest. His pace at starting was not great ; but, solaced by his unfailing pipe, he could stay for ever.
One peculiarity was greatly in his favour. When he was coming home, he would stop every third or fourth mile, and sit down by the roadside, fall asleep in an instant, and at the end of five minutes start on to his legs again, and off like a new man. Beardy Willie (whose "tumbling cataract of beard fairly appalled us as he opened the gate at Dunkeld) not only acted as his banner-bearer when, as Knight of the Gael,
"He went Gaily to the tournament,"
but was always a henchman on these occasions, carrying a spade and a pickaxe on his shoulder from the dawn to the gloamin, and as full of running as his master, from end to end.
The Duke would hardly eat or drink anything when he was with his pack. Once he started early in the morning, and hunted the Braan for ten miles, then back for a couple, and crossed the hill from Amulvie to Aberfeldy, to try two lochs. After that he hunted part ' of the way back to Dunkeld, and got there at eleven o'clock, very little the worse for fifty miles and a blank day. About twelve couple was his favourite number ; but once, when an otter had wearied them out below the Stenton rocks, he sent back for seven-teen couple more. His first pack was made up from the Marquis of Worcester's and Captain Hopwood's ; and he delighted to tell how Manager lay six hours in a drain below Kinnaird, and only spoke when he went in how Jesuit never left the water for six or seven miles on the Tweed ; and how land and water seemed alike to London and his celebrated Carlisle pair Conqueror and Cruel. The season began in April, and he hunted two days a week for four or five months on seven or eight rivers. His maiden otter was killed on the Braan,! but he never bore home a single trophy from the Tilt or the Garry.
He once had harriers at Strathord in Perthshire, and would occasionally handle a deer with them, and ride, despite his short-sightedness, with an energy that was almost miraculous. While in the Scots Greys, he had been a hard rider, and Beny-Ghlo and Confusion, which won the Hunter's Stake at Perth, were his best-known thoroughbreds.
If there was one finer reminiscence than another of his indomitable pluck, it was when he rode his Eagle for the Perth Hurdle Race in '38. He fell at the second hurdle opposite Marshall's Place ; but though his collar-bone was broken, he would be lifted on again, and caught his horses and won. The Erl King couldn't have ridden faster if he chanced to be a minute late in starting for the Drive ; and a comical sketch of the kind hung in the drawing-room at Blair Castle from the pencil of his Eton friend, Mr. Evans. Grouse-shooting he did not care much about ; but the autumn drives, of which he would have at least a score, if the wind suited, were his delight. Glen Tilt will average about ten thousand deer daily and there is no finer sight than an army of harts moving along its sky-line. The great Athole Forest comprises some 80,000 acres, and marches with Glen Fishie, Lairg, and .Mar. It has been known to carry 30,000 deer. If the wind is from the south, it is the best drive from Athole into the heart of the Forest ; and if in the north, it is the best for Ben-y-Ghlo. But we know nothing of such forest lore, and the wind rancorously barred our only chances of seeing a charge of six thousand down the glen.
Still, if this was denied us,. during the few autumn days we lingered near Blair Athole, it was no light thing for an Englishman to have noted the allegiance of Highlanders to a chief, so deep and true in his days of health, and deepened and chastened when he was dying. Not till then could we have realized the truth of what was was written, " that his Athole guard (many of whom, with Struan at their head, were his peers in birth) would have died for him, not in word, but in deed"; and that "a young capable shepherd, who might have pushed his fortune, anywhere and to any length, was more than rewarded for living a solitary deer-keeper at the far end of Glen Tilt, or some nameless wild—where for months he saw no living thing but his dog and the deer, the eagles and the hill-fox, the raven and the curlew—by his £i8 a year, his £3 for milk, his six bolls and a-half of oat-meal, with his annual coat of grey tweed, his kilt, and his hose, so that he had the chance of a kind word or a nod from the Duke, or, more blessed still, a friendly pipe with him in his hut, and a confidential chat on the interests of the Forest."
It was something heroically grand to see his Grace in the middle of the ring at Kelso, all muffled up, to hide the ravages of that terrible malady which was so surely eating away his life, and yet calmly giving orders about his cattle, Ayrshire and West Highland, which will not be scattered, when I die, to the four winds of heaven." The servants of the exhibitors had not forgotten how unceasingly he watched over their interests at Battersea ; and they seemed to vie with each other in holding his horse, and anticipating every wish. His death, as he told his friends, when he bade them good-bye in the yard, with as much calmness as if he were only taking a journey, " may be a matter of only ten days or three months" but it was six weary months before he found rest. When he could hardly speak, we saw him leaving the Dunkeld station to superintend the trucking of some Ayrshire cows, which he had selected for the Royal dairy at Balmoral ; and later still, when Her Majesty paid her visit of sympathy to Blair Athole, no pain or weakness could restrain him from accompanying her to the station. Then for the last time his Highlanders heard his voice, as, after kneeling to kiss Her Majesty's hand, he strove to dispel the gloom of that sad parting by giving them the word for three lusty cheers.
It was as president of the Highland Society in 1858-61 that he first took a fancy for farming and Ayrshires, of which her Grace had a few at Dunkeld. A certain number of them always accompanied him to Blair Athole, and he took them with him the first time he ever went there by rail. He left Dunkeld for Blair Athole some months before he died ; but to the last he had a weekly report of the milking and specimens of beetroot, mangel, and kohl-rabi sent to him from his farms at New Tigle and Haugh End.
The dairy books were kept during his Grace's life-time with the most scrupulous exactness ; and Her Grace the Duchess Dowager, and her friend Miss Murray Macgregor have taken an equal interest in the herd since his decease. The Dunkeld Herd-book is illustrated with notes on the marks and properties of nearly every cow. Attiquin was the first purchase, but she earned no special mention. The red Premium, " with head and horns very small," is noted as a first prize-taker at Glasgow, and as being taken over from her Grace's stock at Dunkeld along with Frew, " not a good milker and always inclined to fat," and twenty others, of which thirteen were not carried on. Carrick, " a very glossy white with shaded tan-spots," is recorded as having given eighteen quarts a day at her best ; Cherry for having " one horn growing down and being somewhat wild" ; Langholme for "her rather short neck" ; Gaiety for "her very gay head and horns erect" ; Empress as "very small and beautifully made" ; and Bertha as "red, very thin, with a venerable appearance."
Glengall has the welcome entry of " twin queys " against her name, while two bulls and a dead quey are credited to Colly Hill. This queen of the Ayr-shires was bred by Mr. John Craig, of Colly Hill, Strathaven ; and her description is white with rich red spots beautifully marked, very large body and short fore-legs."
The herd never exceeded fifty cows in milk, and including a few cross-breds and a Jersey, her Grace has nearly as many at present, and about one hundred and thirty head in all at Dunkeld. The milk was first reduced to the present careful system of calculation on March 31st, 1859; and on Thursday every cow's milk is weighed separately, and multiplied by seven, to get the amount for the week. If cows are away—as the two Premiums, Colly Hill, White Legs, and Idiot were, at Kelso—an average is taken from the preceding and following week, so that it is possible to look back over the books for more than six years, and approximate within a fraction of what every cow has been doing. Taking the average of the 'largest week in the height of the grass, we find that 702 milkings produced 8,100lbs. of milk, or 810 gallons, from which there came 39i gallons of cream. That Ayrshires differ very widely, may be seen by comparing this ninequarts-a-day average with Glengall's, who averaged 12 quarts and a fraction daily for fifty-eight successive weeks. For seven weeks, between May 7th and July 3rd, she averaged a trifle beyond 6 gallons a day; and Colly Hill, who led in 1860-61, still gives 4 gallons at her best, and beat them all save Marion last September.
They generally begin with cooked food in November ; and a two-horse power engine, with a corn grinder, oil-cake bruiser, turnip pulper, and hay, chaff, and straw-bedding cutters attached, is fixed in the boiling room at the end of the byre. The four boilers are filled with hay cut two inches long, rapecake, and bean meal in layers, and then steamed and the large waggon, which runs on a tram-road with turntables, bears two pails of mixture to every cow per day. The four milkmaids have each a soap-box, a towel, and a curry-comb. After each milking they scrupulously wash their hands, and they keep their pets in winter as bright in their coats as a blood horse. At one time it was the regular milkmaid fashion to shift sides so as to balance the vessel, but it was found to do no practical good, and the cow often became shifty and kicked over the pail. Each rake of 30lbs. of milk is weighed, and then carried to the tin dishes in the dairy. The calculation is that one gallon should be equal to a pint of cream, if it is fine weather and it rises properly, and that a quart of cream should produce about a pound of butter ; but this is hardly borne out in practice. Only skim-milk cheese is made, and nearly a hundred flagons at the door of the dairy were ready to receive the milk of the night before, and to disperse it at a penny a quart through Dunkeld.
We sat down with Mr. Christie, who has always taken nearly as much interest in the Ayrshires as his late master, to watch the " kye come name" through the Arnagag pasture. The bell-cow had renounced her privileges for the day, and Maxwell, a present from the Secretary of the Highland Society, led the van. Kilsyth, one of the prettiest, succeeded, and then Whitelegs, with a head and neck as sweet in their way as Atty's vessel, which is, after all, the point on which the Ayrshire judge's eye first concentrates itself. Hopeful, for instance, is a nice cow, but then her vessel is gone for shows." Premium, a gold medal cow of great depth, came next with the bell, and then Marion, the milk belle of the herd, and good for nine quarts at a meal. When Glengall was in her prime, she would sometimes not stop short of thirteen, with only a few peas and a little bean meal to aid her. She was bred by Mr. Wallace of Kirklandholm near Ayr, and was purchased, after winning at his Grace's milking competition, at a pound for every pound of the highest day's produce. She is "no in tid" now, and she passed on with The Quey, ,jersey, and Risk, who has a deal of Colly Hill about her. Then we note the deer-horn and speckled white flank of the red Empress, a prize taker at Ayr, the rich colour, fine muzzles, and rare vessels of Strathaven and Brocky, a first and , second at Perth, Maybole and Dalrymple of the old style, Idiot who will keep her head in the manger listlessly for an hour together, Queen of Hearts, and the loving, speckled pair Bryony and Susan who are never ten yards apart. Coda, with the fine deer-like eye, has a beautiful vessel and a good enough tail, albeit a tale hung thereon at Ayr ; but, alas ! Belle's teats do not hang perfectly square.
Colly Hill is a living proof that a really orthodox vessel will stand after six. Her early promise was not very remarkable, as she was sold as a two year-old for L14, and gradually rose from £20, £40, and £8o to £90, at which price his Grace bought her after she won at Edinburgh in 1859, and then refused £400 in two quarters for her at Battersea. A portrait of her by Gourlay Steell, with the head dairymaid at her side, is over the sideboard in the dining-room at Dunkeld. There are no queys from her as yet, but she had a nice, little, younger son, in the calf-house ; though a climb and a peep at her oldest son, Colly, in the shed near the saw-pit, was not so satisfactory.
From Dunkeld we proceeded onwards to St. Colme's, a farm which her Grace has held for some years, and fitted up one wing for an occasional residence. The Tay and the Tummell meet in the valley below, and stretch away to Pitlochry and the Pass of Killiecrankie, while Ben-y-ghlo rules in the mountain back-ground. About eight hundred acres of arable and grazing land are attached to it ; and a great many beasts, of which there is a large annual sale, wander away among wood and fell, and are collected and counted once a day. Dorkings, cinnamon turkeys, and Aylesbury ducks collect in hosts at feeding time in the yard. Mrs. Kennedy (the wife of the farm manager, who was then very ill, and never rallied again) was still more proud of the polished pine wainscotings, and the beautiful order of the granaries, where every grain seems to fall into its place. There is a combined thrashing and winnowing machine, with a travelling band to raise the grain ; and a view from the back of the granary suddenly revealed an Ayrshire " by a gold-medal bull, if he's not one himself." A sale of " Spare Ayrshire Stock," which is probably the germ of an annual one, was held here last March, and the six young queys averaged £16 3s. 9d.
The train only ran as far as Pitlochry, the first year that we were at Blair Athole, and we had an opportunity of attending the fair there. " Parlies were not up " that year, as they were on the one following, and the proceedings were anything but animated. Nine or ten men were hanging over some little black-faces, but, with the exception of a remark that one was " no a despicable beast," and that the whole were " six quarters old," there was nothing to break the flood of Gaelic disputation.
Blair Athole is truly the land of the kilt and the claymore, and no one in the late Duke's employ dared to shirk his nationality. Everything is in keeping with an old Highland home—that Blair Castle to which " Castle Rushen sendeth greeting " in rude letters on a horn. Its Long Passage is decked on each side with the skeletons of antlered heads ; and among the pictures are Neil Gow with his violin, and the muster in '42 of the loyal clan Athole behind the Duke (then Lord Glenlyon) on the green, ere they marched to receive the Queen at Dunkeld. The gallows is still there, a stern relic of the days when a chieftain held the power of life and death. The long ivy tendrils were working through the ruined windows of the old church, where Claverhouse sleeps ; and there, too, among those boundless forests which he loved so well and the hills which stand fast for ever, the Athole Guard laid the man of their heart.
The West Highland herd are all kept here but it was only within a year of his death that the late Duke began to care for it. The remnants of the original herd were sold to Mr.Hendrie of Ayr in the autumn of '63, a few months after the Breadalbane sale. It was there that his Grace bid so determinedly against the late Duke of Hamilton, and bought a bull at £136, three bullocks at £128, and four two and three year old queys for £219, and at Kelso he added some more " Brpadalbanes from Hamilton to his stock. We found Donald, who had not belied his price in the Stirling and Newcastle lists, wandering leisurely with the brindled Oscar and the dun bull in front of a German artist, who was not falling back on the Infinite for his conceptions, but soberly sketching under a huge umbrella from plain beef and blood. The present Duke keeps on the West Highland cattle, and has thirty in the breeding herd, about half of which are cows.
The calves are generally dropped in April, and weaned in October, and run with their dams at the end of three days. Four Breadalbane" bullocks were at the steading beyond Toll Damh. The light yellow and the dun we had met before, when they reversed their places at Kelso and Stirling ; and a light red, with the beautiful fan ear, and a dark red, with a coil of hay rope tossed by chance over his fore ribs as if to challenge the tape-line, made up the shaggy group. They were all four-year-olds ; and though Macdonald allows that the " Stirling dun is a braw stot, and the Kelso yellow has not an inch to mend, and horns as straight as you can set them ; " still he carries in his eye an unbeaten yellow of Mr. Campbell's of Monzie, which won at Perth and Edinburgh ten or twelve years ago, and considers him far ahead of them. They were living on the best of everything for Christmas ; and locust beans, oilcake, and ground corn were among their side-dishes.
From them we wend 0ur way, and bless Duke John for the shade of his larches, down towards Glen Fender or the Black Knoll, the pass between Fender and Glentilt. There is land of every kind, heather and pasture, in that famous Glen ; and blackfaces hold all the east side, where it is green, from the top to the bottom. The cows were grazing opposite Black Knoll, whose sides are dotted with roans and whites of two crosses at least, from the Muir of Ord or Amulvie. Below is a dell of ashes, interspersed with the sallow green copses of mountain birch ; but, as our guide tells us, " the worm with the red head works away on the leaves, and does them fair out."
An old doddy looks on apart, while the red New-castle Emily is driven up from the brae. The dun Proisaig Odhar, which was second at Stirling, can hardly boast of such a black bull-calf as that which has "sair suckit" Breadalbane Queen, the first in her class at Kelso. A broken horn marks and gives the name to a fine quartered brindle, and the silver sheen or white dun claims close kindred with Poltalloch's prize Stirling cow Newrack. A dun with a blind eye is not one of the worst, as she draws up to Rosie, the first at Kelso and gold medallist at Stirling, but with this one drawback, that her young Donald is " a wee thing white." Then there is a " Maki Dhubh," and a " Molachag" or sister to Molachag, and dire verbal difficulties crowd on us. Macdonald's are not merely verbal ; and when we remember how the Breadalbane heifers (rather a wild breed to begin with) were hurdled off there, and how nearly we had our own cheek-bone broken in the North, we can quite sympathize with his reminiscences : " We had a gaie job with the ladies at the Stirling Show--terribly wicked, fearfully wicked."