Morvern Lines – 9.4.20

Kinloch Castle on the Isle of Rum.

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Iain Thornber continues this series based on the unpublished manuscript from late Alastair Cameron, known locally as ‘North Argyll’ and a regular contributor to The Oban Times for over 50 years, into his next-door neighbour Calum Sinclair and his interesting background.

‘It has been said that good poachers make fine gamekeepers. Calum was offered the job of a keeper on the island of Rum, where Sir George Bullough was engaged in carrying various schemes of improvement, among them the building of Kinloch Castle, the construction of the gardens, formation of a fold of Highland cattle, breed improvements of the Rum ponies, and  a heavier breed of deer by introducing stags from Lancashire. [5].

The island had been heavily stocked by the last tenant farmer, with something in the region of 10,000 sheep. When their numbers decreased the grazing improved so much so that for fattening three-year-old wedders [6] it could then compare favourably with some of the best in the Argyll and the Perthshire glens he knew. A shepherd I knew who had herded for several years the wedder hirsel at Harris [7] corroborated this. He considered the effort to establish a prominent fold of Highland cattle not highly successful, but in improving the island ponies with their feature of a distinctive colour of the eye peculiar to themselves, much more so.

‘Among all these activities at the time he found opportunities of carrying out pranks. Being then unmarried when the Bulloughs were away in the winter-time he got his mid-day meal in the castle-kitchen. One day while sitting waiting, a shepherd on the island arrived newly back by the ‘Hebridean’ [8] from Tobermory and like Tam o’ Shanter, ‘O’er a’ the ills of life victorious’. [9] The servant maid set a place for him at the table. ‘Big John’, as he was generally called, looked at it and turning to Calum he remarked, ‘What are the two spoons for?’ “Whisht, whisht” [10] retorted the other, “don’t let on you are so ignorant as all that in a gentleman’s house, I’ll tell you, when you get the soup you’ll fill the big spoon with the little spoon.” And so when he got the soup he acted accordingly. The maid noticed his performance and went to summon the rest of the staff and the laughter began but ‘Big John’ carried on.

‘Sir George Bullough used to buy in the spring the stirks from the crofters on the island of Soay, off the coast of Skye. One time Calum accompanied Mr MacLachlan, the factor, and after the  purchasing was completed they were having tea in the house of a widow who had two unmarried daughters living with her. In the course of conversation Mr MacLachlan remarked that they had a big shepherd on Rum who was looking for a wife, “What a pity” remarked one of the girls, “but the west wind would not blow him this way”. The west wind did blow him that way for when the factor and Calum went to take the stirks to Rum, they took Big John along with them and a bottle of ‘Old Tobermory’ to help the reiteach or marriage arrangement they had in mind. (11) Going up to the house John asked Calum, “which is my one”. “The one with the whiskers is yours” replied the other. Everything went according to plan and in about a month, the bridegroom with his guests and the Rev Mr Sinclair, minister of the Small Isles, crossed over to Soay for the wedding which took place in true Highland fashion. Undeniably Calum had participated in the life of this island Kingdom at its greatest era [12].


[5] The Bulloughs owned both Meggernie and Rum so Calum was simply transferring from one estate to another. Stags were also introduced from Windsor, Essex and Meggernie to improve the blood stock.
[6] Wedders: a male sheep, especially a castrated one.
[7] Harris on Rum, not the one in the Outer Isles.
[8] There were two vessels called the ‘Hebridean’. The first was built in 1881 by T B Seath & Co, Rutherglen and the second, launched in Rutherglen in 1905, belonged to McCallum, Orme & Co Ltd. Hebridean I plied between Glasgow, Oban and Tobermory calling weekly at Rum with mails, passengers, goods and livestock. Whereas the first was a handsome steamer popular among passengers for summer cruising, Hebridean II, which is probably that referred to in the text, was an auxiliary motor fishing smack, used for ferry service to Locheport, North Uist and occasionally Rum by special arrangement.
[9] The full line from Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter is, ‘Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious, O’er a’ the ills o’ life victorious’, inferring that the shepherd was not without refreshment.
[10] ‘Whisht’ –  be quiet!
[11] Reiteach. A reiteach was an espousal held before the banns of marriage were proclaimed and sometimes considered as important as the wedding itself. It was a formal way of asking for a young girl’s hand clearing the ground before hand. According to Carmina Gadelica, it was for some reason never held on a Friday. The bride-groom to be and an older friend – someone respected in the community, would come to the home of the girl he hoped to have as a bride. The father would usually know why they had come, but nothing would be said outright. Indeed, they would pretend they had come to buy a cow, a house or a boat. Everything they said would have a double meaning. If it was a boat they were claiming they wanted to buy they would ask “Is she broad in the beam?” Eventually they would get down to talking about the real purpose of the visit. When the other friend had finished speaking well of the bride-groom and asking for a certain girl’s hand, the father would then go through the formality of first offering his other daughters. Sometimes, in fact, the offer was quite serious as he perhaps wanted to marry off a particular daughter and would actually refuse to give up the girl the young man had come for.
[12] Rev John Sinclair(1825-83) the Church of Scotland minister for the Small Isles lived on Eigg.