Oold Jock exits a dying world of aristocratic largesse


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AND a Bonny Nicht Yare ta ye, tae!!! As the more percipient among you will twig from that delightful opening sentence, I have once again enjoyed the immense pleasure of celebrating Hogmanay in the ancestral home of the Chieftain of one our our oldest Scottish clans.

So immersed have I become in the very thrust, ebb and woof of Highland life that I find it nae possible to break out of its speech-patterns! This is not to say that my host betrayed the slightest hint of a Scottish accent: though extraordinarily proud of his Scottish roots, he was, I am glad to say, educated in England, where he continues to bank, shop, eat and live.

But as a fierce Scottish patriot, he makes an absolute point of slopping his way over the border to do the vast majority of his shooting on his Highland estate, and he continues to enjoy a very warm family bond with his estate workers, to whom he formally presents a lump of coal on a sale- or-return basis in a touching ceremony on 28 December of each year; in turn, his estate workers formally present him with cheques for the rent of their fire-grates and chimneys for the coming 12-month period, to ensure a year blessedly free from the stresses of a visit from the local bailiff.

Life has been proceeding uninterrupted in this happy way for nye-on 1,000 years, and on my last visit to the castle I was only too happy to be part of it. There is, I noted, a very real bond between the Laird and his staff. "Some of these little families have been working for my family for well over 300 years," explained my host. "In time, no doubt, they will pay off their remaining debts to us, but until that day, we will continue to enjoy many years of excellent service."

And his respect for his staff is quite evidently reciprocated. Indeed, I noted that many of them are keen hawkers. One day before breakfast, taking a wrong turning into the vast basement kitchen, I was intrigued to come across the head cook and the under-butler both energetically "hawking" into the Laird's porridge. "It's how His Grace likes it," the cook explained. "As the oold saying gooes, 'Porridge is nae porridge wi'out a good straddle of saliva'". Upstairs, my host would always make it a strict rule to consume his porridge standing up. "It dates from the time my ancestor, the Fifth Laird, would get his porridge caught in his throat every morning - he liked to be ready to trot to the moat for a quick vomit," he explained. "But, of course, since then the sporran has been invented."

Come Hogmanay, the Scottish aristocracy's capacity for making-merry is well to the fore. Our evening kicked off with the traditional Retainers' Reel, during which Ould Jock, 93 years young, was paraded between two rows of titled party-goers, all clad in their finest tartan apparel. At the stroke of eleven, ceremonial swords were unsheathed and chains of pearls unbuckled. Ould Jock was then hit roundly around the lower waist and backside by the aristocrats (Gartered Dukes taking precedence over Defrocked Earls) before being debagged and thrown into the upper-middle- classes. Needless to say, Ould Jock loved every minute: two days later, in the process of dying from injuries to the head and spinal cord, he tells an emissary from the Laird that his life had been leading up to being the focus of such attentions, and that he could now die in peace. "But, " he chokes, "how is the graze on His Grace's knee? I'll ne'er forgive myself if it was caused by a splinter from my ain skull."

This week we heard the news that the beautiful relationship (dread phrase!) between castle and croft is now under threat from Mr Donald Dewar and the chip-on-the-shoulder brigade masquerading as the Scottish government. In one fell swoop, they plan to prevent the Scoots Laird from managing his estate to the best of his ability, even though his kith and kin have allowed it to lie fallow for century upon century.

No more the doughty Ould Nannie, happy to be fed on bread-and-dripping in return for terrorising the young Lords into submission; no more the grizzled remains of trespassing back-packers hanging from the ramparts; no more Ould Jock, dying contentedly, knowing he has done his bit for Scotland and the Laird. Shame on ye, Doonald!

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