Glass Remembered … Harvest of 1816

Recollections of a lady living in the Glas/Mortlach district.

 “I have often heard old people speak of the bad harvest of 1816, when the grain was nearly all frosted.. I have heard my mother say that the summer was cold and wet, and the grain would not ripen, and that a snowstorm came on in the end of October which twisted and broke down all the crops and flattened them to the ground.

Farmers had difficulty in keeping their cattle alive.  It was sad to see them clearing the snow off the crops to get the straw for the poor cattle that were standing shivering and lowing in the byres.  Meal could hardly be got, and what there was had risen to famine prices.  The outlook was very bad. The little meal that was in the grain was  frosted and black and unfit for human food, and I have heard my mother say that my grandfather, along with other farmers, got several bolls of meal from Morayshire, where the grain had ripened better. 

She said it was brought all the way on horseback, as there were few carts, and roads were bad in those days, or rather non-existent.  This meal, along with some bran dust, was mixed with their own black stuff, surely a very repulsive looking mixture for human food.  I don’t think there was any foreign imported at that time.  Cattle would not sell,  as everyone wanted to sell, but there was no one to buy.  I don’t know how they did in towns in those days – but they were supplied with cereals and butcher meat.  I believe the farmers had to kill a number of their poor cattle to supplement the want of other food stuffs.  My mother said how they passed that winter she hardly knew.  There were, besides her father and mother, six sons and three daughters.  She said that, along with the others, she often went hungry to bed.  I don’t think potatoes were much cultivated at that time, or if they had, they would not have come to maturity in a season like that.  She said they began the harvest at Hallowe’en.  She was a girl of 16, and she said her mother came with their dinner that day and said, “the youngest of you in the field will remember that I have brought your dinner to you on Hallowe’en Day, and that on that day you began the harvest. 

The weather improved after the snowstorm, but the day was short, and the crop was so laid and twisted, and as they had only hooks to cut the crop with, they made slow progress, and it was nearly Christmas before the harvest was finished, although when they had moonlight they worked all night.

She said if the weather had not been fine after the snowstorm, the crops would have been lost altogether; and bad as it was, they got it secured in fair condition.  There was an old bachelor farmer, next neighbour, had hardly any of his crop out at Christmas.  The whole of his neighbours turned out and cut his crop.  It was said he was very rich for a farmer in those days, and said to be rather stingy.  Be that as it may, he treated them very liberally, with plenty Scotch stew, mutton, and Athole brose, and whisky in abundance.

My mother said she was just a girl of 16, and she went along with her five brothers and two sisters to help to take “clyack” at old Donald’s , and they worked far into the night with the light of the moon to finish.  They had a piper that played behind them at intervals all day.  When finished they all went up to the house to partake of this “clyack” supper.  She said there were hardly any chairs, stools, or tables.  There was just dried “banty turf” in lieu of seats.  There were no earthenware dishes, but only “timmer” plates and “caups”, with horn and wooden spoons – no knives or forks.  They got their supper in relays, as the dishes would not go round.

The food had been cooked in a huge cauldron or kettle.  After supper they adjourned to the barn to finish off with a dance on an earthen floor, where they tripped the “light fantastic toe” to the strains of the fiddle and bagpipes, till the grey dawn of a winter morning.  After all, they had light hearts in those hard times.  In those days smuggling was a great industry.  At least it was a great source of income to most of the farmers of that time, and as the barley that year was a complete failure, they had little else that they could turn into money.

Now, where were they to pay their rents, or get seed for sowing?  That was a problem that was not easily solved/  My mother said her father got £100 from old Donald, a large sum in those days, on his own note of hand.  The great difficulty was where to get seed for sowing, as there was none in the district that could be used.  My grandfather with several others got seed from Aberdeen, but whether it came from England or the South of Scotland I don’t know.

The harvest of 1817 was very deficient owing to lots of people having got bad seed, which ruined a great many farmers.  At that time farmers neglected their farms, and their whole energy was devoted to smuggling and raising barley.  They had no regular course of cropping, and as they had to carry their illicit distilling at night It unfitted them for the more useful branches of farming.

A few began to see that if they paid more attention to the rotation of crops, instead of smuggling, it would pay better.  Some commenced to grow more turnips and as the cattle were fed upon turnips and straw were to much better than they were turned out on the grass than the lean skeletons hardly able to walk fed only on straw, there grew a greater demand for fat cattle, and the price of cattle rose accordingly.  May say that my grandfather paid back to old Donald the £100 he borrowed, with interest, in the course of five years, and his arrears of rent, his sons helping him as they engaged in other callings.  He used to say he got “his head above the water, and he had so long been sair hadden doon.”

The above account of being so poor as to have not a chair to sit on represents only the smallest crofters, tilling from two to ten acres to support a family of a dozen or so was not uncommon and surely did not allow for many luxuries.  The smuggling part is perfectly true.  The Cabrach, Mortlach and to a somewhat lesser extent, Glass, were notorious smuggling districts.  Even after the Excise Act of 1823, when distilling was licensed – Wm McIrvine was distilling 384 gallons of whisky at Cairnarget in 1826 – smuggling still went on with some wild affrays between the Excise and the smugglers.

On the night of Tuesday 6 February 1827, a large band of smugglers armed with guns attacked a party of the Excise on the road between the Cabrach and Auchindoun – near the Laggan.  More than 20 shots were fired, one of the Excise being seriously wounded.  The culprits, all Mortlach and Auchindoun men, were tried; several being transported for life.  The last case of smuggling in Glass, was in 1888 when James Smith was tried for distilling at his croft near Beldorney Castle.

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