Tulloch Talk

About Marina Dennis My family have lived on a croft in Tulloch since being cleared from the Braes of Castle Grant in 1809. I am an active crofter both at a practical and strategic level having been a Commissioner at the Crofters Commission for 10 years as well as involvement in other land based agencies. Like most crofters I have other jobs which include running a very successful self catering business on my croft which gives me the opportunity to tell visitors about the history and culture of Tulloch.

Talk by Marina Dennis November 2005

At a sheep sale at Kingussie Auction Mart. In October, lambs were being sold for less than a tray of chops in Tesco. All the Tulloch crofters were there selling stock and we left a long and uncomfortable sale dismayed but stoical as usual. To add insult to injury, there were no loos and the catering van left early, having run out of water. Speaking among ourselves, as the auctioneer fought for another 20 pence on lambs, we remarked how fickle public demand is. When sheep were brought to the Highlands in the early 1800s resulting, of course, in the Highland Clearances, it was the wool that was sought and made the money. The wool was used to pack the bulwarks of wooden battleships as it helped to absorb and stop cannon balls from penetrating further into the bowels of the ship and also wouldn’t easily catch fire. Wool was also required to make cloth for army uniforms for soldiers fighting all over the empire. During the Second World War farmers were asked to feed the nation, and we did. Nowadays, especially in this area, we are being asked to deliver public benefits, that really means looking after the environment and allowing access to our land. In Tulloch we are swamped with Natural Heritage Designations and they all begin with the ‘S’ word. Everything is Special from birch to beetles. The landscape as we know it is chiefly a result of how our forebears managed their farms and crofts. That environment is now a product demanded by the public for their pleasure and enjoyment with little reward for land managers. When I reflect on the lamb prices and receive yet more mail about farming, the environment and public benefits, which I am sick to death of hearing about, I think longingly of the days in Tulloch when we sold eggs, milk, honey and potatoes and made a small profit. In the past some crofters in Tulloch made as much from selling honey as they did from selling cattle and sheep. My great uncle, along with a neighbour, each had around 40 hives and enjoyed a robust trade most years. Both climate and demand were very different in those days with proper seasons and the hives being disease free. Currently the Varroa parasitic mite is a serious threat to beekeepers throughout Scotland. Demand is now met with imported, blended honey from all four corners of the world. The custom of exchanging produce for goods has now completely died out but it was common here in Tulloch well within living memory. Many of the women here saved eggs for van day when George MacIntosh from Boat of Garten did a van round in Tulloch. Eggs were zealously saved to try to make several dozen but in winter, when most of the hens were off the lay, George would take whatever you had, sometimes just three or four eggs. Of course, it might cost you the odd dram when the frost was so intense that George puffed like a steam train when he spoke; but that was then. Today you are not supposed to sell eggs to the public in case they discover what eggs really taste like. And as for selling real, untreated milk the authorities would slap an Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) on you without a second thought. Talking of drams and van men, forgive me for telling a story from the west rather than Tulloch, although the scenario would not have been out of place here. I was told the tale first hand by a van man in Wester Ross. Every week he called on an old lady, who was bedridden but astute, and lived in a distant croft with her bachelor son. When my friend arrived with the van he always took the order straight into the old lady’s room. The son hovered around anxiously and fussed about so much that mother and son had words, in Gaelic, of course. The son then took the messages into the kitchen. My friend asked the old lady what was going on. Referring to her son, and thinking in Gaelic but speaking in English, she said ‘It is for himself that the cat is purring.’ In other words the son was over anxious to give my friend a dram when all the time it was himself who wanted one. So if we can’t make a living from sheep what can we make money from? Well, looking about me there is birch, bog myrtle, mushrooms and juniper for a start. Many of us already harvest birch in the form of firewood so I suppose there is an income there, but not in the commercial sense. All the bog myrtle in Tulloch is on an SSSI so that nukes that idea. However, bog myrtle is an interesting plant an in-depth sustainable harvesting study was conducted at Fort William where, at one stage, over half a million stems of bog myrtle were harvested for the cut flower trade. The study concluded that it would be possible to increase collection to over 5.5 million stems following a strict cutting pattern. Then there are mushrooms. Everyone on the planet comes to Tulloch to pick chanterelles before I can get to them. But they, too, depend on the weather, here today and gone tomorrow. So that leaves juniper, prickly, needled bushes adept at sticking in sheep’s wool, making it a torture to clip and roll fleeces. The needles also knock pounds off the already meagre wool prices in penalties from the Wool Board. There are acres and acres of juniper in Tulloch; we have blooming forests of the stuff here. And I am going to have their berries because junipers owe me big time. Much of the juniper berries for the faddish cooking trade come from Croatia at great expense. So as far as I can see there is money growing on trees!

There is no doubt that the ‘Reel of Tulloch’, along with ‘Speed the Plough’ and ‘Lord MacDonald’s Reel’, is one of the very best reels ever composed. In fact, it was known as ‘Righ nam Port’ the King of Tunes. It was composed around 1636 and we in Tulloch claim it as our own despite spurious challenges from other Tullochs in the country. And of course there is a fascinating story behind the composition. The tune might easily have been called the ‘Tulloch Tragedy’, as events leading up to the final curtain had all the ingredients of a modern television crime drama. There was romance, love, family dispute, theft, dangerous liaisons, vicious battles, guns and finally murder. There are several versions of the story but I prefer this traditional one. Iseabel dubh, or black-haired Ishbel, was the only daughter of Allan Grant of Tulloch. When she was born it was claimed that all the guns in the house went off together. This was usually considered a good omen but the sceptical midwife who was obviously spooked by this incident declared it predicted bloodshed and death. She was of the opinion that the child should be suffocated with pillows. But Ishbel was spared and grew up to be a beautiful and strong-willed woman. Ishbel’s secret lover, John MacGregor or Black John, was an outlaw in his own territory. Her family disapproved of course, their preferred choice being a Robertson. But the brazen Ishbel was never going to kowtow to her family when her prize was the bold bandit from Glen Lyon. John MacGregor had a price on his head in Perthshire but had evaded arrest and fled to Tulloch where he was given shelter by Ishbel in a byre. She smuggled as many guns as she could into the byre for the inevitable shoot-out. Eventually Black John was tracked down to Tulloch by an officer of the law who, along with 12 men, surrounded the byre. He put up a brave fight, ably assisted by Ishbel, who loaded the muskets as quickly as John discharged them at the men outside. And so he disposed of the official arresting party, including Ishbel’s treacherous brother. John MacGregor emerged from the byre elated by his victory and seized a set of pipes, whereupon he celebrated the occasion by playing a new dance tune, which, it is said, he composed in a moment of fierce inspiration. Black John was on the run again after the battle of the byre and was eventually shot at Ballindalloch. As a somewhat grisly act of revenge his head was brought to Ishbel in Tulloch, at the sight of which she died of shock and grief. She was buried at Kincardine churchyard under a plain, nameless slab. The men shot by John MacGregor were buried in Tulloch under the knoll Torran a’ Mhuirt, The Knoll of the Murder. Of course there is an official version of events which is a trifle boring and not nearly as interesting as the traditional account apart from the actual date of the tragedy, Christmas Day, 1636. I have often heard the Reel of Tulloch played in both kitchens and ceilidhs in Tulloch and it is without doubt a splendid tune, but not an easy tune to play. I have a rather echo-y recording of the tune played by a Tulloch native, Johnnie Grant of Cullochie, at a ceilidh in the kitchen here on the croft in the mid 1960s. He was a fiddler of some repute and played better with a dram at his bowing elbow! Being a ceilidh there was other talk going on in the background but you can clearly hear Johnnie explaining the Tulloch origins of the Reel of Tulloch. He loved to play the tune on his fiddle and it is all thanks to Black John MacGregor, who fought such a bloody battle before composing the Reel of Tulloch. You can only admire his ability and musical prowess in producing such a stirring and famous tune and we in Tulloch are justly proud of it. I had a visit from a geologist from the British Geological Survey who was carrying out a ground survey in Tulloch. While chatting he said he wished he could have seen the ground 40 years ago when there were far fewer trees. I had to agree that we are almost overwhelmed with trees, especially birch. But that does mean there is more cover for species like roe deer and I have been delighted recently to see both does and bucks in numbers. Last week in the crisp, early morning heat of a June day I was startled by the bough! bough! rasping bark of a buck from the forest edge. The dogs are always momentarily surprised, but I am always delighted with this territorial message. He later emerged into dappled sunlight and I recognised the bleached tips of his antlers and his dullish grey/brown coat. He is a resident and no intruder. He clinked his antlers on the galvanised metal gate and nonchalantly scratched his ear with a spindly but elegant back leg. This display is almost brash and definitely confident and is sending out a clear message. That message is that in my hay field lies a dinky, brand new fawn his fawn. And eating only a leap or two away from his leggy, spotty bundle is the sunken-bellied doe, anxious, edgy, a rowan leaf caught in her startled mouth.