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It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Christmas was hardly celebrated in Scotland. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday right up until 1965 when Royal Mail stopped delivering letters and parcels on Christmas Day.
However it all changed and, as we know, has become the biggest annual commercial celebration ever – some would say too commercial and beginning far too early.
Many attribute the change to Queen Victoria and her marriage to Prince Albert for introducing some of the most prominent aspects of Christmas. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree covered with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts. Giving presents had traditionally been at New Year but moved as Christmas became more important to the Victorians. Initially these were modest – fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade trinkets, and usually hung on the Christmas tree. However, as gift giving became more central to the festival they became bigger and shop-bought and were either placed under the tree or in stockings
The roast turkey, too, has its beginnings in the Victorian era. Previously other forms of roasted meat such as beef and goose were the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner. The turkey was added to this by the more wealthy sections of the community in the 19th century, but its perfect size for a family gathering meant that by the beginning of the 1900s it became the dominant dish except in some rural areas where deer, hares, pheasants, duck and other birds were plentiful.
Recently, when I was working in the wonderful Oban Times Archives – one of the richest sources of West Highlands and Islands history from 1863 to the present – my eye caught the following headline: ‘Morven [sic] December 1892. Mr T V Smith of Ardtornish, in keeping with his usual generosity, has through his much esteemed and respected manager, Mr W Elliot, liberally supplied the most of his tenants and estate workers with venison and game. Such gifts are not only appropriate but also helpful to enable them to keep Christmas with good cheer’.
Mr Smith (1925-1906), a London distiller and owner of the 39,000 acre Ardtornish Estate, employed more than 100 men and women, so his venison list was enormous. This was an opportunity to thank not only his own employees but the wider community who helped oil the wheels of a vast supporting organisation throughout the year. After Mr Smith died his successor, Mr Gerard Craig Sellar (1871-1929), a grandson of Patrick Sellar of Clearance infamy, kept the tradition going, as did Mr Owen Hugh Smith who bought Ardtornish from Sellar’s trustees in 1930.
The following is taken from a list given to the estate stalker in 1936 and is a piece of social history worth quoting in full for future students studying the management of large private Highland estates.
Persons to receive haunches of venison: Station Master, Oban; James Skinner, goods agent, Oban; Dr Millar, Aline Park; the crew of the SS Lochinvar, followed by locals: A Cameron, gardener; gardener’s bothy; Mrs Henry, gardens, Wm Slaven, Hillside; James Scoular, the Lodge; Hugh MacGillivray, Achranich; Donald MacKichan, Castle Cottage; William MacGillivray, Larachbeg; John Mowat, Lochaline; William Macphee, Kinlochaline, Charles Ives, Ferry Cottage; James Balfour, Hillside; Donald Black, Lochaline; William Wilson, Lochaline; William Lawrie, Larachbeg; Sam Henry, Acharn; William Robertson, Acharn; Donald Mackay, Ullin; Allan Livingstone, Crosben; Donald Cameron, Ardtornish Bay; John Munro, Kennels; Allan MacPherson, Claggan; Donald Sinclair, Lochaline; A MacFadyen, Altachonaich; Charles Christison, Craigbhea; Edward Swinton, Achranich; Duncan J MacIntyre, Lochaline; Mrs McCorquodale, Lochaline; A Mason, Kinlochaline; Mrs Connell, Lochaline; John MacColl, Craigendarroch; Mrs Livingstone, Larachbeg; Miss Nichol, Old Ardtornish; Hugh Sinclair, Piermaster; Mrs MacIntyre, Lochaline; Mrs MacDonald, Ardtornish Bay; Mrs Currie, Lochaline; John MacGregor, Lochaline; Mrs MacDougall, Lochaline; Miss McKinney, Lochaline; Dugald Cameron, Inniemore; Charles MacNeill, Beach; Neil MacGillivray, Craigendarroch; Duncan MacVicar, Lochaline; Alexander Sinclair, Lochaline; the Poorhouse; Malcolm Gillies, Knock; Mrs Mitchell, Post Office; Miss Robertson, School house, Claggan; S Mackenzie, Achnaha; Gideon Palmer, Keil; Ralph Palmer, Achabeg; Alexander Kennedy, Fiunary, Archibald Henry, Savary; John Macfarlane, porter, Oban; Colin Cowan, boat hirer, Oban; Nurse MacAskill, Knock; Donald Cameron, Achnaha; Mrs Livingstone, Lochaline. The following were to receive venison if there was sufficient: N Mackinnon [St Kildan], Larachbeg; Widow Gillies [St Kildan] Lochaline; Donald Gillies [St Kildan], Larchabeg; Ewan Gillies [St Kildan], Savary; John Gillies [St Kildan], Larachbeg; Duncan MacIntyre, Cui-beg; Angus Maclaren, Boat Hirer, Oban; John Macfarlane, porter, Oban; Colin Cowan, boat hirer, Oban.
Another estate owner who distributed venison on a large scale was Lord Burton, the tenant of Glen Quoich in West Inverness-shire. In 1890 he sent James Henderson, his head stalker the following list: For the people of Barrisdale (Loch Hourn), two hinds; Kylesmore, 3 hinds; Skiary, seven hinds and to the people living around Loch Hourn-side, six hinds (shepherd, Campbell, Macrae, McKillop and Mackenzie). Two fencers, Sinclair and Morison got a hind each; the postman one hind; Donald Roy, one hind; the captain of his yacht, one hind; Donald Cameron of Lochiel’s shepherds, three hinds; the path builder living at Kingie, one hind; the people living at Inshlaggan, four hinds; Stewart and Sandy at Garrygualach, one hind; A Cameron, Greenfield, two hinds; the Fort William Infirmary, two hinds; The Inverness Infirmary, two hinds; the Inverness Orphanage one hind; Peter Grant, Inn-keeper, Tomdoun, one hind; W Malcolm [factor] one hind; the Rev Mr McRae, two hinds; Pinkerton [unknown] two hinds; Grant, the gardener, one hind; the Lodge, one hind; people about the square, two hinds; the gamekeepers and stalkers, 18 hinds and 12 to be sent away making a grand total of 79 and all to be of the best yeld hinds. Haunches equal to six hinds were sent to various people out with Lochaber including, Mr Forbes, Stationmaster, Inverness; Mr McLaggan, Stationmaster, Perth and Andrew Dougall Esq, the Highland Railway Company, Inverness. Mr Innes, the innkeeper at Fort Augustus, was later added to the list. Four haunches were to be despatched every week in December to Lord Burton at his estate Rangemore, in the County of Stafford.
The late Mr Christopher MacRae, head stalker on Kingairloch estate from 1917 to 1946, told me there were 17 households on Mr Arthur Strutt’s venison list, not including the Corran-Ardgour ferrymen; the Fort William and Oban hospitals, the local nurse, police, ambulance drivers, doctor, vet, postmen, fox hunter, inn-keeper, blacksmith, station master, coal men, car hirers, estate factor and suppliers of goods. Many of whom continued to be recipients of these gifts up until the death of Arthur Strutt’s widow in 2000.
The late Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort’s list was equal long and added to whenever there was a death and a subsequent funeral anywhere between Glenfinnan, Morar, Arisaig, Mallaig and Lochailort. No doubt it was the same all over the West Coast. I would be pleased to hear from any reader who may know of other lists.
Images and captions
1. Deer stalker Archie Gillies, Inverailort, edges forward ready to take the shot. Note how well his tweed blends into the background (Photograph by Iain Thornber)
2. A red deer hind and its yearling in their autumn coats. Pushed out of their traditional shelter by massive woodland plantations, many will die unnecessarily as winter tightens its grip (Photograph by Iain Thornber)