Forres To Fochabers
( Originally Published 1912 )
"And find at night a sheltering cave,
By Bonny Castle Gordon."
The haunts of St. John—Morayshire Sellers—" Horned Beasts" —Lack of Breeders—Feeding Stock—Mutton for London—Sheep Farming—Morayshire Feeders—The Forres Fat Show —Altyre Stock—The Balnaferry Herd—From Forres to Elgin -Pluscarden Abbey Bargains-Wester Alves and Ardgay—The Story of the Buchan Hero—Elgin—The Spey Fisheries --The late Duke of Richmond—Gordon Castle-Its Breed of Setters—Its Flocks and Shorthorn Herds.
WE are among the richer wheat lands, and breathe the bright and bracing air of Morayshire at last. The coast to our left is indented with bays and lakes : " The !Jason of the Findhorn, the resort of innumerable wild-fowl ; the sand-hills of Culbin, so curious, almost so marvellous ; the Black Forest, stretching away behind Brodie and Dalvey ; the ` Old Bar,' where the seals love to sun themselves ; the mouth of the Muckleburn, the favourite haunt of the otter," all, made the county dear to the heart of a naturalist and sportsman like St. John. But such pleasures are not for us. We can only ride on and remember sadly that he is at rest on a Southern shore, and that the skull of his faithful retriever " Leo " is with him in his coffin.
Morayshire grows all cereals well, on its fine, sandy loam, and the heart of its farming commences with Dyke parish on the banks of the Findhorn, and ex-tends to the Spey. It is the peculiarity of its pastures that they improve beasts faster than any in the north of Scotland for the first six weeks of the grass ; but if the season becomes dry, farmers have a very hard time of it and there is quite a Curtian gulf between Midsummer and the turnips. It would require such a breadth of tares to carry on in July and August, that feeders have sometimes very little option but to sell off or starve on, and naturally choose the former.
"Take care of your money with the Morayshire men " is a true saying, as they are dear and hard sellers : and M'Combie has to burnish up his armour when he comes among them. They are gradually extending their grass, and turning from white crops to spotted beasts, of which thirty years ago there was hardly one in the county. Latterly they have been going pretty deeply into sheep; and thus the turnip land levy_ on the manure-heap increases, while that for the wheat season lessens. The Morayshire "horned beasts," which had a slight cross of West Highland in them, have quite vanished into space. They were chiefly black and Lord Haddington was so fond of them, that for fifteen years he gave a great lean-stock dealer a commission for 6d or 10d of them at Elgin fair, and would have no others at Tyningham so long as they could be got. Crosses and polls have quite superseded them ; but still the general supply falls short of the demand. Farmers complain of the expense of keeping cows, and trust to each other for store beasts to such an extent, that, if a few well-bred ones are found in the market, there is quite a rush at them. Buyers at Elgin cannot echo Colley Libber's line ___
"We triumph most when most the farmer feeds "
as, before the universal feeding system began, £12 to £13 was thought a fair price for a three-year-old, where-as the same class of beast can now give away the year, and command from £17 to £22, and 'very good ones still higher, without seeing cake or corn. Some of these two-year-olds are only kept till Christmas, and the feeders look for £1 to 25s. a month out of them on turnips and a little cake.
Five-and-twenty years ago, when a dandy young dealer came to Elgin, and put up at that well-known dealers' resort, the White Horse, the landlady, a large, motherly woman, thus addressed him ; " This is your first visit to Elgin, and you seem a decent young gentleman; now I'll give you one bit of advice, —Beware of the Gaulds of Glass and . the Cruick shanks of Moray." She would have said) the same lithe shrewd objects of her warning had been sitting in the bar,and no one would have enjoyed it more than themselves, The 'story merely furnishes a key to the times when two tribes of dealers, numbering about twenty in ; all, had nearly the whole cattle . trade of the North in their hands, and sold to the M'Combies, the Williamsons or "the Statelys," and other lean-stock dealers who drove the cattle South. No _men were more rested in their day ; and the same, line of business has been taken up by James M'Donald, the tenant of Blackhillock and Blervie, who knows every seller for 100 miles North and South of Forres, and thinks nothing of driving his little brown horse thirty miles in a morning before others are stirring. He collects cattle from all points of the coin, pass, sorts them and lots them, freshens them up on grass and turnips, and sells them out again, by tens, twenties, or thirties, to the farmers ; and, in short, nearly- three-fourths: of-the cattle may be said. to go through his hands.
Breeding has not extended much, but the bulls and the keep are better ; and a white bull, as in England, has no special welcome. The breeders have not adopted the system, which once obtained to some extent in Banffshire, of "getting a calf for nothing" from two year-olds. They do not consider that the calf pays for the deterioration in the dam, which must be kept yeld for one more year, in order to recover its handling and prove well at the block, and even then the London butchers look suspiciously at the dugs. The stores are generally drawn from Ross-shire and Caithness, but Yorkshire calves, which are bought at five to seven months, and sold again as yearlings, have been the sheet-anchor latterly ; and as long as the supply lasts, farmers will not care to breed. Sometimes they buy them with delivery by rail from £2 7s. 6d. to £7 in. October, and finish them off on cake and swedes to the figure of £14 in April. The homebred calves are generally weaned for harvest time with drumhead cabbage and cake, and so on by degrees through a course of white globes to swedes, with a pound of cake daily till the grass is ready. Most farmers bring up calves by the pail, and consider that they do better in winter than those which have been suckled. Mangels have been all but a failure in Morayshire, and the swedes have been so sure, and advanced so steadily into favour that they now constitute nearly four-fifths of the root crop. Dissolved bones, guano, nitrate of soda, and superphosphate spend another rent in many parts of the county. The lands are top-dressed in March, and the grass is ready for the scythe in May, and twice again during the summer ; but the turnips get the greater part of this outlay.
The direct Highland Railway has not only had the effect—except during a snow-storm, when a train was once buried up to the funnel—of curing the truly sublime indifference to time which prevails among the Highlanders, but of opening the London live and dead market in thirty-six hours and 55 minutes—according to the hand-bills. If Aberdeenshire loads its dead-meat train with beef, Morayshire does a good part by mutton as well. We have heard of one great dealer and butcher in Elgin buying £800 or £900 worth of sheep from one farmer alone, selling the coarser parts about home, and consigning the finer to the South. Most of these sheep were sold at sixteen months out of the wool, and left nearly £2 17s. for keep in their breeders' hands. The light soil suits sheep well, especially when they are folded on turnips; still the cast-ewe system both here and in Banffshire is not of much more than twenty years' date ; and before that, part of the ground lay for the cleaning break in naked fallow. Many of the half-bred lambs from Banffshire are spread over Morayshire, as well as Aberdeenshire. Some of these Banff-breds were by Cotswolds ; but the shape and size of the head were too often found a fatal objection at lambing, whereas there was nothing of the kind with the Lincoln. Mr. Geddes takes three crops of lambs by a Border tup from his Caithness gimmers, and then turns them off fat ; and others are beginning to follow suit. A Shropshire tup on the Cheviot has been a decided mutton success ; but Southdowns have never struck root in these counties, either pure or as a cross. The wool of the ewes is 2lb. below that of the Leicesters, and the climate has never just suited them, and in fact the tups seldom command more than 35s. or 40s.
The M'Kessacks, John and Robert, are on opposite sides of the Findhorn, near Forres. The younger brother lives at Balnaferry, and breeds good Shorthorns, and feeds largely as well ; and the elder winters and finishes off at Grange Green more heavy beasts, polls and crosses, than any man in Morayshire. He numbers from 10o to 150, and now brings out his cracks for the great Christmas show of Forres. Before the establishment of this show in '63, he generally sold his best to Mr. M'Combie, and a lot of two-year-olds at L33 last Christmas was their latest deal. Mr. Harris, who lives at Earnhill, a little nearer the sea than Grange Green, has come very rapidly into the front rank. Other feeders do not bring them in till the end of August, but he keeps his crack beasts in the yards all summer. At the first Forces show, he took the prize for the best bullock ; while Mr. John M'Kessack had it for the best pair of heifers, and cows, as well as for the best cow in the yard. The Society have struck out a very clever plan to increase the entries and encourage the attendance of butchers, by giving prizes for the best lot of ten, six, four, two bullocks, &c., both in the three and two, year-old classes. On the other hand, they have neglected what ought to be the cardinal rule of all Christmas shows—" No knife, no prize" ; and hence Venus 9th and Ariadne returned to their pastures, like their English sisters, Victoria, Soldier's Bride, Rosette, and Empress of Hindostan before them.
In both the three-year and two-year-old classes at the show in '64, Mr. Harris had the best single ox, one of them bred by Mr. Garland of Ardlethen, and the other a purchase from Mr. Adam of Ranna. The three-year-old classes were a sort of peaceful duel between the two brothers-in-law, as they had the competition all to themselves, except in one class, where Mr. Fraser of Brackla, a well-known Nairnshire feeder, was second to Mr. Harris's pair, which contained the crack bullock of the day. It might have been led to the shambles, as within living memory many an ox of far smaller pretensions has been, be-decked with ribbons and preceded or ridden by a piper, seeing that it produced for society eighteen hundred and ninety pounds of beef and 264 pounds of tallow. Four out of the ten in Mr. Harris's winning lot were black polled, one grey and the rest red and white crosses ; while the Grange Green ten were all black polled. Then curiously enough, in the lots of six, Grange Green, with its red and white crosses; turned the tables on to the Earnhill polls. Mitchell of Wester Alves, Ross of Hill Head, Ferguson of East Grange, Tew of Teaninich,, Smith of Minmore, and Garden of Netherton, were among the winners on this December day, when one hundred and eleven beasts were in the ranks, and the Morayshire Farmers' Club and the Forres Fat Show fairly joined hands with Mr. Hall Maxwell as witness.
Sir A. P. Gordon Gumming of Altyre was also among the prize-takers. The baronet, who resides within three or four miles from Forres, rears about fifty young cattle, West Highland and cross-bred, annually, and feeds off the same number, besides keeping a flock of three hundred half-bred ewes. He began; to show during the last_ two years, at first merely at Elgin and Forres, and then he pushed his way with no small success to the Highland Society, Bingley Hall, and Islington. Thirteen firsts, six seconds, and a third make up his winnings, so far. Two of the firsts were for a Shorthorn bull and a Leicester tup ; and the beautiful forelegs of the roan cross-bred heifer which won at Smithfield were dilated on by the shorthorn men with no small delight.
At Balnaferry, which lies about a mile out of Forres, we found fifteen Shorthorns and their calves. Venus 9th, with her fine red frame and grand bosom; has been the queen wherever she has been shown, and there were plenty of lusty youngsters to testify to Privy Seal (18642). The herd is of about ten years' standing, and. its earliest patriarch was Mr. Geddes' Randolph (15128), who took his first-class degree at Elgin (which seems the touchstone of bulls in these parts), backed up by Fair Service of Shethin blood, who brought in the reds, and Privy Seal, from Hill Head.
Royal Seal (20750) by Privy Seal from Venus 9th, is now in residence, and so is Fashion of the Booth blood, who was bred by the Duke of Montrose, and commended at the Newcastle Royal. Ariadne resembles Pride of Southwicke in her colour, and owes much of her Knightley style to her Bosquet dam ; the three-year-old Lady Elma by Lord Elgin, and so back to Lawson's Chief (another Elgin winner), has been first in her class three summers in succession ; and Cowslip by Privy Seal is following hard after her.
We remember an old land-valuer boasting that if you only sent him a pot of earth he could tell " you for a certainty whether it grew good carrots, and guess all the rest." The monks seem to have had quite as high tasting powers, as Elgin and Kinloss Abbeys command a rich wheat district, and Pluscarden is on the verge of Alves, that very Goshen of parishes. Mr. M`Combie followed in their footsteps, not with sandalled shoon, but with plaid and trusty staff ; and in john Hutcheon's day he bought seventy to a hundred beasts, mostly fours and fives, out of Kinloss Abbey Yard for thirteen years' running as sure as spring came round. He and the old man knew each other well ; and as the latter always opened with an ample margin in hand, it took, on an average, three good days to bring them together. They would re-tire to sleep on it, and meet in the morning, not a shilling nearer; but no other buyer interfered, and they always settled it at last.
The land after leaving Forres seemed to be principally a vast turnip expanse. Mr. Ferguson, of Grange, is not far from Kinloss Abbey, and is known as perhaps the largest buyer and feeder of lambs in Morayshire. He will buy fully twelve hundred, sell the tops as hoggs, and keep on the rest for a time. His neighbour, Mr. Garden of Netherton, feeds from 30 to 40 beasts ; but among them last year were the best pairs of two and three-year-old polled bullocks in the county. Then a delightful ride through the Quarry Woods for a mile and a-half brought us from the Earl of Fife's on to the Earl of Moray's property. His lordship's Wester Alves farm is held by Mr: John Mitchell, and, like the adjoining one of Ardgay, is supposed to have the very finest pasturage North of Aberdeen. The high road goes right through the latter farm, whose richest side is on the North. Mr. M'Combie has drawn several of his choicest black stores from it, and paid as high as £29 for a lot of thirty. Many a Highland Society winner has been trained here ; and it was with Fair Maid of Perth, which Mr. Collie bought at the Tillyfour sale for 8i gs., that he beat Mr. M'Combie's own Mayflower for the first cow prize at Edinburgh. Zara was also a heifer of his breeding; and it was from her, crossed with Black Prince, that Mr. M'Combie bred Kate of Aberdeen, certainly the best calf of any breed that we have ever looked over.
A gay, wild-eyed roan with a white calf brought our eye back to Shorthorns in the pastures at Old Mills, where Mr. Lawson has a nice herd ; and in front of us, about a mile away, the " sun shines fair" on the cupolas and warmly-tinted sandstone of the Elgin houses. Hard by it is the celebrated Green, where many a Shorthorn Waterloo has been fought, and where buyer and seller have set each other like cocks so often, with " The Cock of the North " to look on. There, too, came " The Farmer's Friend in his simple guise, like an old soldier, always in time, and with a kind greeting and a pleasant story on his lips. Buchan Hero of the white eyelash had passed away from Mr. Ferguson Simpson's hands before that gentleman took up his residence at Covesea, near Elgin. Hence he never joined the bull ranks on the Green but he won in a still greater fight at Berwick-on-Tweed, against " the English bulls, the Scotch bulls, and a' the bulls." One of his greatest admirers, who had his eye to a "crank" in the palings on that memorable day, thus describes the contest : " I look, and they drew them, and they sent a vast of them back; again I lookit, and still the Buchan Hero stood at the heed. They had nae doot of him then. A Yorkshire man was varra fond of him. And he wan; and Mr. Simpson selt him to Sir Charles Tempest for two hundred. It was a prood day that for Aberdeenshire and Mr. Simpson."
We rode through Elgin without drawing rein. Time was pressing, and we were only just able to ad-mire the thistle on the fountain, to wonder why there should be both a "Botcher Street " and a " Botcher Lane, and to glance from the gaunt-eyed, thin-legged wayfarer who illustrates the psalm over the Alms House door, to the ruined cathedral, where the ivy was shrouding the savage handiwork of "the Wolf of Badenoch." About a mile out of the town are the well-enclosed and highly-cultivated fields of Linkwood, with the snug homestead of Mr. Peter Brown, a younger brother of General Sir George Brown. He holds, along with his son, 1,200 to 1,300 acres of arable land, besides pasture ; and at another farm near Rothes they have a herd of from thirty to forty polled cows, which they are crossing with Young Hiawatha, a fifty-guinea purchase from Mr. Geddes. Mr. Brown used to be an exhibitor at the Highland Society, and won, among other prizes at Inverness in 1846, one for the best pair of Angus oxen. The road wound round some curious heather knolls, and the long beech hedges and the Gordon tartan, green with a single yellow stripe, soon showed that Fochabers was nigh. The late Duke of Richmond used to tell with great glee how, when other officers indulged in gaudy papers, he lined his tent at Aldershot with tartan during his stay there with the Sussex militia, and how he proved-himself the canny Scot by untacking it and carrying it back to Good-wood with him, to " serve in the next campaign."
But here is the rolling Spey at last ! Fifty-miles up its stream near Kinrara lies Jane Duchess of Gordon, with those beautiful eyes turned even in death towards the Cairngorm, and those lips for ever mute, whose kiss raised the 92nd regiment, when the Gordon tartan ruled from Fochabers to Fort Augustus, and away to Badenoch and Lochaber. The river was still low, and the farmers were earnestly watching for the deep flush on its sandstone cliffs, which forebodes abundance of rain. It is said that on one side the cliffs run under the Moray Frith to Brora, while Southward they die gradually away into the chain of everlasting hills, Ben Rinness, Ben Aigan (hill of the eagle), Knock More, and Muldearie, up whose bonnie brown sides the plough and the Shorthorn are slowly but surely creeping. The salmon fishing on the Spey was once let off, but it had been for fourteen years in the hands of the Duke. The seasons of 1862-63 were widely opposite in their character, but the proceeds only differed by £20. Last year the take was hardly two-thirds of an average, but the great falling. off was in the size of the grilse, which seldom reached 5 lbs. The fish are brought from Tugnet in spring-carts, and so to Fochabers station, and over the Highland line to London within 24 hours of the net-haul.
Shortly before the late Duke's death in 186o, a new outlet was made to the Spey, but it did not just chime in with the temper of this most rapid and unmanageable of Scottish rivers, and taking a turn eastward, it all but cut away the fishing station at Tugnet. Watching the progress of the works to defend the village of Garmouth and its adjacent port of Kingston gave his Grace almost a daily object for a four mile drive during his last summer at Gordon Castle. When he had seen Tugnet, he would often go and visit a small steading which he was putting up near the railway station. The tenant only paid X8 a year but he was an old Peninsular man, and there was the great tie. Many and long were his cracks about old times and comrades with Captain Fife, who has also exchanged his sword for a ploughshare. His Grace quite astonished another old " cannon-ball " of the district, who did not know him by sight, when he asked him to fetch his Sunday waistcoat with the medal on it. The old man could not tell for his life "how the gentleman kenned I wur theer, and that I wur hit gan down the brae at Orthes : It's true enough. Did ye ever hear the like?" It was the Duke's earnest care that his tenants should do well, and he latterly loved far more to be among his farm improvements and his Southdowns, than he did to go to Glenfiddich, where he had once been wont to spend nearly half of his three months' stay.
The grounds of Gordon Castle are on what was once termed "The Bog of Gight." The spirit of the bog and its attendant snipes have long since fled the spot, which is rich with spreading limes and planes, let alone " Dr. Johnson's oak," which, by the bye, is an alder. It stands, as a memorial of his visit, at the edge of the garden, whose pleasant terraces and vases were in all their flower glory, and banished our old plague, the stunted bourtree bush most effectually at last. The Boo-acre home farm is divided between arable and pasture. None of the blood which bore the "yellow and red cap with golden tassel," when Mus, Ghillie Callum, Red Deer, Refraction, or Officious were led up the Goodwood glen on those glorious July afternoons, is to be found in the castle boxes ; and even the Rasher and Hartley Buck have departed. Blood stock has no honour in these parts ; but it is different with good cart-horses, and we note with delight, in a capital new range of stables, that the 70 or 8o lbs. of harness which they generally carry upon them has been reduced in weight more than a-half. We pass the ventilating barn and the Commended at Stirling Leicester (which was on trial with ten highly-caked Southdown ewe culls), to meet Whipper-in (19139), a well-made, fine-handling bull, but rather deficient in his hocks. This Royal red roan succeeded Prince Arthur (16723) by Booth's Lord of the Valley (14837), who was a twin, bred by Mr. Ambler, and left a number of dark reds behind him.
The cows and heifers had to be sought in the park, and we beguiled the way by a chat with Jubb, the head keeper, whose seven-and-thirty black-and-white tans were spreading themselves out like a fan in the kennel meadow. Three-and-thirty of them were just starting to " The Glen," or Glenfiddich and Black-water, which march with each other. Originally the Gordon setters were all black and tan ; and Lord F. G. Halliburton's Sweep, Admiral Wemyss' Pilot, Major Douglas's Racket, Lord Breadalbane's Tom, and other great craftsmen of the breed were of that colour. Now all the setters in the castle kennel are entirely black and white, with a little tan on the toes, muzzle, root of the tail, and round the eyes. The late Duke of Gordon liked it, as it was both gayer and not so difficult to back on the hillside as the dark-coloured. They are light in frame and merry workers; and, as Jubb says, " better put up half-a-dozen birds than make a false point." The composite. colour was produced by using black-and-tan dogs to black-andwhite bitches ; and at the sale in July, 1836, eleven setters averaged 36 gs. The five-year-old Duke, a black-and-tan, fetched two guineas below that sum. He was bought from Captain Barclay, and begot another Duke still more famous than himself, from Helen. She was also the dam of Young Regent, a black, white, and tan, which joined the Bretby kennel at 72 gs. ; and his lordship did not grudge 6o gns. for Crop, although one of her ears had been gnawed off in puppyhood by a ferret. Lord Lovat's, Sir A. G. Gordon's and Captain Gordon's of Cluny dogs have been the only crosses used for some time past at Gordon Castle. Sailor's beautiful skull caught us at once, and Jubb might well say that "he knows every-thing." Dash lay dignified and apart during the revels, and there was no passing by Young Dash and the neat Princess by Rock from Belle. A dozen pups by a dog of Lord Lovat's, also of the Gordon Castle breed, were out at quarters drawing nurture from terriers and collies.
From the setters we passed on to a half-grown litter of deer-hound puppies, some of them rather too light in colour for the hill, and not of the orthodox badger-grey of Gruin (" Hold him "), who was keeping company with , a bloodhound, and three foxhounds, which enjoy roe deer amazingly after their Wiltshire toils. There were one or two retrievers, which brought back the story of the country keeper, who whispered confidentially to a friend at Tattersall's, "I intend to buy them three dogs if I give a fi pun-note for them," and saw them knocked down at precisely the same average as the setters. A dozen terriers of all breeds and shapes composed "The Lower House" near the ivy-coloured water-mill. They lie in their tubs, watching for the rats as they come saucily up to their very trenchers, and then make some fine field practice. We never saw a more motley lot. Snap with his chocolate nose, Jack the rough and ready, Nettle with her Landseer head, Chloe of the turnspit legs, Toby of the prick ear, Gipsey, Spicy, the tailless Peg and Punch, the game black Wasp, and little Dandy, which scarcely weighs 5 lbs., and yet makes it a rule of life not to pass a day without killing something.
And on we went to the sheep and Shorthorns, past the front of the house facing the park, which recalls Badminton so strongly that we quite expected Tom Clark and the hounds to appear among the trees in the distance, on their way to "the lawn meet." The days of foxhunting at the castle departed with Duke Alexander, who died in 1827. The herd numbers from sixty to seventy, and has been gradually built up since 1842—under the factor, Mr. Thomas Balmer, and his father—by Mons. Vestris (6220), Bloomsbury (9972), Magnum Bonum (13277) by Matadore, Willis's Water King (13980), and Whipper-in (19139). Among the cows, Victoria and Flirt, a capital breeder and milker, both testify to Magnum Bonum ; and Princess, the dam of Victoria (whose daughters Duchess 3rd and Mangosteen are the best representatives of Prince Arthur), goes back to Barclay's Pacha. The roan Princess Royal and the light red Mysie are bred on one side from the Shethin herd, and Crown Princess is a purchase from Hill Head. The bull-calves and a few heifers are sold along with the shearling rams and some of the draft ewes every October. There are 350 Leicester and 16o Southdown ewes in the flock, but 6o of the latter are crossed with the Leicester. Three or four years since the Southdowns sold well, but the park (which suits the Leicester to a nicety) is rather too low for them, and the Filaria Iramata and other intestinal parasites have made far more havoc with their lambs. The Leicesters were laid in thirty years ago from Burgess and Buckley, with a slight infusion from Robertson of Ladykirk. Since then more Border ewes have been purchased, and Pawlett, Wiley, Sanday, and Creswell tups have all been used ; and about eighty shearling tups are sold every year at an aver-age of from £4 to £5. There were some very good Leicester and Southdown ewes in " the Ward," where we sought refuge from the heat under " the Duchess's lime," which spreads out its branches like a banyan tree. It needed but the drowsy tinkle of the sheep bell to persuade us that we were in Sussex once more—when Charles XII`ths and Hylllus's match was on 'every lip-and strolling over, out of mere boyish curiosity, from Bognor to Goodwood, to see the sheep-shearing in the park, and to dine in the tennis court, and that the Duke, his friend Bishop Gilbert, and Archdeacon Manning with that grand bald head, were "still the first in the throng."