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February 27th 1801

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Catherine Cameron and the shadow of Culloden

John Ramsay of Octertyre never married but carried on a voluminous correspondence, mainly with female friends and relatives. His letters cover a wide range of subjects and paint an interesting picture of social life in Scotland in the late 18th Century.

By 1801 John Ramsay was sixty five but was still fascinated by the gossip, the scandals, the political disputes and the literary happenings in Scotland generally and Edinburgh in particular. Though a Whig in his political views he resented what would be called today the Englishing of Scotland. “We are precisely in the state Edward wished when he courted us a little roughly to be five hundred years ago, mere Englishes.”  He lamented the passing of the Doric which was, “the language of pastoral poetry superior to anything ancient or modern”  and he was particularly scornful of those Scots who sent their children to English schools.

Writing to Elizabeth Dundas who was married to one of his cousins he refers to her story of the unfortunate female who lived in solitude in the midst of a great city. “Let me tell you a short tale by way of counterpart,”  he wrote.

“Her name was Catherine Cameron. In 1746 she was a young woman when her husband, one of Struan Robertson’s men, fell at Culloden leaving her with four infants. The houses being burned and the cattle being driven away by the soldiers, she with her little ones with ten or twelve goats, betook themselves to that wilderness which lies between Perth and Argyllshire. There she lived for many years having little connection with the world, unless she had occasion to buy a little meal, or to sell goats and kids or butter and cheese. When her children grew up, they left her to the company of her goats, which as they never deserted her, multiplied till they exceeded sixty. She erected a hut in the form of a cone made of moss fir, so low that one could hardly stand upright and large enough to hold her bed which was made of heather and not quite so high as the modern ones. Morning and evening she milked her goats and accompanied them to their favourite haunts.

When deep snow fell she left them to fend for themselves, assured they would repair to the hut whenever they could. During this time she spun upon the distaff, as she did when she was tending her flock. Though there was not a town within a number of miles, yet in summer the people in the sheillings of Perthshire found fault with her as an unlicensed interloper who paid no rent. On these occasions she retired with her brute companions to another part of the wilderness, where she found a new asylum till these invaders of her natural rights had withdrawn. In these dreary abodes she fared decently, feeding on goat’s flesh, trouts and a little meal, and what was more making money.

Ardvorlich (William Steuart) says she was a well looking old woman, dressed in a clean curch (a Highland matron’s head-dress). She spoke Gaelic with great fluency and seemed to have a good stock of natural sense and good temper. She died in 1798 aged eighty, leaving sixty goats and £60. In a situation seemingly deplorable beyond measure, did this woman meet with an asylum from the wrath of man exercised on the innocent, one of the fruits of civil war, which heaven avert.” 

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