The church and the highlands

Download 1.31 Mb.
Size1.31 Mb.
1   ...   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   ...   61



One of the most picturesque factors in the present-day economy of the Highlands is the olive-skinned, honeyed-mouthed gipsy, who, amid the multifarious changes wrought by the centuries, retains still much of his pristine prestige and distinction. His peregrinations through the country of the clans are constant and extensive. One day he may be seen sauntering carelessly along the streets of Inver­ness, and within a month he may be encountered hawking pails and goblets in a crofting hamlet in Arisaig or Polewe. Every road and footpath, moor and mountain, strath and corrie between the rugged Grampians and classic John o' Groats are familiar to him; and the state of his exchequer usually deter­mines how his endless journeys are to be performed. When his funds are low he jogs along on foot as best he may, carrying his stock-in-trade and other belongings on his back. When fortune favours him he buys horses, rigs out a caravan and moves about in semi-state, to the no small envy of his less pros­perous brethren.

His home is ever in the flimsy, pervious tent, which he loves to pitch in sheltered, shady groves close to the roadside. Occasionally some noted painter places this lowly " dwelling " on his canvas, and by the exercise of his genius transforms it into a thing of beauty; or some popular and talented writer will, with similar success, transfer it ta the gilded pages of Eomance. The reality is vastly different, however, from these interesting representa-



The Highland Gipsy

The Highland Gipsy


tions ; and even a moderate degree of comfort and enjoyment can scarcely be associated with the tiny and fragile domicile.

The true-born gipsy, furnished with a long and unbroken line of nomadic ancestors, is well inured to the vagaries of the weather, and extreme cold or heat does not seriously or injuriously affect him. The thermometer may register several degrees of frost, the snowflakes may descend thicker than autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa, or the pitiless rain may pour in torrents, soddening the frail tent and all that it contains, but the direful circumstance conveys no terror to his philosophical mind. The law of " the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence" against a rigorous climate has operated effectively and thoroughly among his kindred and people.

The genesis of the mysterious, vagabond gipsy race is hidden in the clouds of hoary antiquity; but India is commonly assumed to have been their original home. The French call them Bohemians and the Italians, Zingari, and they have drifted over the whole of Europe, even to its remotest parts. Those finding their way to the north of Scotland gradually assumed Highland surnames, and among the swarthy host are to be found, in large numbers, exotic MacDonalds, MacGregors, MacAlisters, John­stons and Stewarts. The last, perhaps, predominate —a fact which gave rise to the old saying, "All Stewarts are no sib to the king." Very severe laws were formerly enacted and enforced against them in Scotland, France and Germany, and thousands of them were arbitrarily slain. When induced to dis­cuss their genealogy they usually asserted that they hailed from "Little Egypt," but that the king of Hungary, after compelling four thousand of them to be baptised, and putting the remainder to death, condemned those that were baptised, and had sur­vived, to seven years' wandering. The jargon spoken by the gipsies is designated Romany, and embraces, according to a reliable writer, corrupted Hebraism and many Sanscrit words. The language of Ossian is, however, universally understood and spoken by those making Caledonia the country of their adop­tion.

They are a pugnacious and, in some respects, a chivalrous class of people ; and, since settling down within these realms, have consistently identified themselves with the warlike enterprises of our country. The Gaelic proverb—" Is truagh nach be cheaird sinn uile an diugh" ('Tis pity we were not all tinkers this day)—is well-known to all Highlanders, but the tradition concerning its origin may be new to some readers. On one occasion Alasdair MacColla (Alexander MacDonald), the valiant Irish partisan of the great Montrose, found himself in rather a tight corner while engaged in an exciting skirmish with the Covenanters. At the crucial moment a powerful tinker of the name of Stewart, from the wilds of Atholl, appeared among the harassed MacDonalds. He plunged promptly into the thick of the fray, and with his claymore cut down his antagonists as a sturdy man brings down the stalks of corn with his sickle. The Covenanters found it impossible to withstand this terrible on­slaught and incontinently took to their heels. MacDonald was much gratified and astonished at the prowess of the Atholl warrior, and, calling him to his presence, inquired what his name and designation were. The man modestly answered that he was merely a tinker and scarcely deserving to be mentioned among men. The son of Colla Ciotach turned to his followers and expressed his admiration


of the intrepidity and swordsmanship just display in the notable words which I have cited. I have good ground for stating that at the present day several hundred tinkers wear the King's uniform and generally prove themselves smart and well-behaved soldiers.

Claiming the banks of the noble Ganges as the cradle of his race, the modern gipsy, in civil life, is still endowed, 1 regret to state, with many of the reprehensible characteristics of the canting Indian fakir. He is much too ready to substitute " romancing " for the unvarnished truth when that course appears to suit his immediate purpose, and his highest ambition evidently is to make nis living by begging, fortune-telling and similar shady practices. He is not unduly troubled with qualms of conscience concerning rights of property; and time was when he did not scruple to kidnap little children. This heinous propensity is alluded to by Sheridan in his Critic: "Steal! to be sure they may ; and, egad, serve your best thoughts as gipsies do stolen children—disfigure them to make 'em pass for their own." Infants are, however, regarded no longer as fair game, and the acquisitive wanderer is obliged to turn his attention to more legitimate forms of trade.

The poacher's wiles he practises with persistency and skill from his boyhood even until death breaks for him the vital chain. Trout, salmon, rabbits, pheasants, partridges and grouse are equally welcome to his larder; and no one needs to advise him as to where, when and how to catch them. After a heavy fall of rain he unhitches his jaded horse in the vicinity of a well-stocked stream or mountain tarn, and, on making a careful reconnoitre and finding the coast clear, fetches out his angling paraphernalia.

His home-made flies are generally very enticing and very effective, and a good basket is speedily secured. The cunningly-contrived net is sometimes brought into requisition when time presses and a large haul is urgently required. His bare-legged boys, mean­time, serve their apprenticeship to the "gentle art" with worms and bent pins dangling from a supple hazel wand.

Your cautious tinker rarely carries a gun when invading warren or covert in pursuit of game. For obvious reasons he prefers to use the snare, the drugged food and the other little artifices which he well understands, but which it is not my purpose here to explain. The much-enduring keeper finds him a slippery customer to deal with, for before the depredations are discovered—if it should really happen that they are ever discovered—the watchful and nimble-witted marauder has decamped, leaving not a trace behind him except a heap of cold ashes and dead embers. His method of disposing of tell­tale feathers is ingenious and effectual. The birds are cooked in their feathers, either by being roasted on a spit before a blazing fire or baked in an oven consisting of a hole dug in the ground and lined and arched with red-hot stones. The result is obvious.

The farmer is not to be counted among those who admire the gipsy and his doings. This is scarcely to be wondered at. Each of the too-frequent visits of the mender of pots and pans is attended with palpable damage to the hapless farmer's property. The best grazing bits adjoining the public road and not enclosed by a substantial fence are intermittently converted into camping-grounds, and the gipsy's horses, are set to browse all over the place. A denudation of the pasture is not the only serious outcome of these intrusions. The miserable quad­rupeds are often suffering from some contagious disease, the germs of which they transmit to the farm horses either by leaving them in the grass or by actual contact. Cases have, more than once, come under my observation in which, on this account, all the horses on a farm have been for weeks rendered unfit for work. In order to support and replenish the fires of a gipsy camp neighbouring fences and palings are constantly laid under contribution, and a continual demand is made on the purse of the owner or occupier of the soil in executing the necessary repairs. In those out-of-the-way districts where peats are still in vogue the fuel problem is greatly simplified for the unprincipled vagrant. Without the slightest compunction and with prodigal extravagance he and his retinue consume in a single night what took days to cut, dry and stack.

To give the fellow his due, it is only on rare and exceptional occasions that he indulges in sheep-stealing ; but to conduct raids on the hen-roost is one of his favourite recreations. In nineteen cases out of twenty he escapes detection, his migratory habits militating against the efforts of the police. And then country people are never too ready to invoke the assistance of the authorities in cases of this kind.

The Highland gipsy is subjected to a social ostracism which is absolute and universal. Between him and the humblest and most indigent West Highland cottar a wide and definite gulf exists, and no matter how well-known they may be, the one to the other, they never confabulate at fair or at ferry. Some years ago a regatta took place in a certain district in the West Highlands. The largest neighbouring proprietor acted as commodore, and there was a full muster of local magnates. Among those who entered a boat in one of the sailing classes was an itinerant tinsmith and rag-gatherer, and to the intense chagrin and annoyance of the committee he won one of the most valuable cups. Then a regrettable incident occurred. The committee peremptorily refused to hand over the cup to the winner, expressly because he was " neither a fisherman nor a gentleman." The tinker promptly served a summons upon the haughtymembers of committee, and the case went before the sheriff. His lordship ridiculed the idea of a competitor being disqualified on account of his trade or occupation, and unhesitatingly ordered the trophy to be delivered to the now triumphant wielder of the soldering-iron.

The opinion that Parliament should do something to protect dwellers in rural districts from the rather unwelcome attention of tinkers is now beginning to gaiu expression among landowners and farmers. It is held that it should be made a criminal offence for the roving fraternity to camp on any ground without the owner's or the occupier's permission, and that the machinery requisite for enforcing such a measure should be of a simple and expeditious character. Mere proof that the camping had taken place unwarrantably should, it is maintained, be sufficient to convict, and it should be unnecessary to raise the question of ownership or of actual and tangible damage. Legislation on these lines would inflict no real hardship on the gipsies, for they are generally well able to pay their way like other hawkers. The civil law is, of course, always avail­able to farmers, but it has ever been found much too slow and expensive for this particular purpose.

To discourage in any possible way the roaming predilection would facilitate the spread of education among them, and relieve School Boards of a heavy

io2 The Highland Gipsy

and serious responsibility. The compulsory clause
of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 has hitherto
produced no appreciable result with respect to these
ubiquitary tribes. The illiterates among them
amount very probably to ninety-nine per cent., and
there is little prospect that in the immediate future
knowledge will unroll to their eyes her " ample page"
—unless some drastic change is effected in then-
mode of living. I happened to introduce this
subject recently to an intelligent Highland post-
master. His office is visited almost daily by passing
tinkers having goods to order or money to remit, and
he assured me that very few, if any of them, could,
to save their lives, distinguish between a postal
order for half-a-crown and one for ten shillings.
This state of matters is certainly not very creditable
to civilised Scotland, but it is difficult to devise a
plan by which it can be improved without encroach-
ing to a more or less extent on the " freedom of thei
subject." To make it inconvenient for them to
continue their perpetual wanderings seems to be the
only practicable way by which the compulsory officer
would be able to discharge his beneficent duty towards
the dusky but highly intelligent lads and lassies of
gipsydom. Angus Henderson.

Guth na Bliadhna

leabhar i.] AN T-BAEEACH, 1904. [aireamh 2.

Download 1.31 Mb.

Share with your friends:
1   ...   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   ...   61

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page