‘tossed back and fore on the Moray Firth’: a sea voyage in 1805

A teenager from Kildonan, Donald Sage, was a student in Aberdeen. He had walked the whole distance from Tain to Aberdeen to get to university, suffering a collapse at Inverurie, as it was too much for the fifteen year old. At the end of session he needed to get home and decided to travel by sea. Poor Donald’s three-day experience sounds almost as bad as his footsore journey at the start of the session! His account provides a great insight into travel around the north as well as how Sundays were spent and what people ate at sea.

‘I took my passage for Helmisdale, on a salmon-fishing smack, which was in the service of Forbes and Hogarth, who then held the Sutherland rivers in lease from the Marchioness of Stafford … The smack which bore me homewards was the identical one by which my brother sailed to London, but had a different master; Coy had been replaced by a rough fellow of the name of Colstone. I went on board about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and dined before we set sail. Feeling hungry I partook largely of a coarse, greasy dinner at the skipper’s table. It consisted of very fat broth and still fatter meat. Colstone, not content with swallowing the most enormous quantities of clear fat I had ever seen attempted even by a famished mastiff, after all was over greased his face with it, to keep out the cold as I supposed. This sappy dinner, as well as the remembrance of the skipper’s face, served me for a strong emetic during the voyage homewards, which was both tedious and tempestuous. On going out at the pier-head the billows rose ‘mountains high’, and as they rose, both my spirits and my stomach fell. The dinner with its associations presented themselves before me every half -hour, until I became grievously sick, and my very ribs ached again with the pressure of vomiting. The wind blew a hurricane from the west, and in the course of twelve hours we were close on the Sutherland coast, opposite Helmisdale, the place of our destination.’

Helmsdale in the 1920s. Donald spent three days ‘tossed back and fore’ somewhere on the left hand edge of this photo. Photo courtesy of Timespan, Helmsdale.

‘But here again the wind chopped round in our very teeth, and we were for three days tossed back and fore on the Moray Firth in view of the harbour, without being able to enter it. The storm was so violent that even the skipper himself became sick. I was a Sabbath at sea; and although the wind blew contrary, the day was fine. The sailors observed the day with great decorum. There was nothing like social or public worship, but when any one of them got a spare hour, he laid himself face downwards on the floor of the cabin and conned over the New Testament. We left Aberdeen on a Friday, and landed at the mouth of the Helmisdale River on the Tuesday morning thereafter.’

The river as it enters the sea. Map inset from 1815. Image courtesy of Timespan, Helmsdale.

‘I shall never forget the strong and penetrating feeling of joyous safety with which I leaped out of the ship’s boat on the pebbly shore of the river near the Corf-house. Mr. Thomas Houston, now of Kintradwell, met me on the beach, and with him I went to the house of Mrs. Houston, his mother. After a cordial welcome and a hasty breakfast I walked up the Strath to Kildonan, where I found my worthy father [Alexander Sage] engaged in the annual examination of the Parish School. He received me with a father’s kindness, took me into his large embrace, and kissed me before the whole assemblage.’

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica: or parish life in the north of Scotland (Wick, 1889), 134-144.

Flying the Red Cross flag and protecting the local economy: Dunrobin and the Sutherland estate in wartime

Neil Bruce considers another aspect of wartime in the Highlands when temporary hospitals were established to increase the capacity of the health service. In World War One, Dunrobin Castle was ‘re-purposed’: initially envisaged as a major surgical hospital, it provided convalescence care until devasted by fire. Neil also looks at how the estate maintained the income of those of its employees who enlisted, a precursor to the job retention scheme during the Covid-19 pandemic, concluding with a final comparison between lockdown in early 2020 and wartime restrictions.

Around noon on Sunday, 13 June 1915, fire broke out within the Duke of Sutherland’s northern seat, Dunrobin Castle. News spread worldwide: within two days, Melbourne’s Argus reported ‘the fusing on an electric wire’ had caused its partial destruction.[1] An off-duty nurse, woken by the smell of smoke, raised the alarm and the estate’s fire brigade turned-out.[2] Realising flames threatened the oldest part of the building, Fire-master Horne, the estate’s architect, instructed the roof be cut to prevent fire spreading.[3] Newspapers reported that wounded soldiers were evacuated to safety.[4]

Dunrobin Castle

Two days following the declaration of war in 1914, the Duke offered Dunrobin to the Admiralty as a naval hospital and his yacht, ‘S Y Catania’ to transport the injured there. The castle was initially designated as the North Sea Fleet’s central surgical hospital.[5] In what today might be called a ‘whole system approach’, the Duke advertised for volunteer nurses and doctors as its staff.[6] However, wartime exigencies soon resulted in Dunrobin receiving both army and naval personnel to convalesce.[7] Within a month, ‘Catania’ was armed and on active service with the fleet, captained by the Duke with the rank of temporary Lieutenant-Commander, RNR.[8]

The Duke encouraged his estate employees to enlist, pledging that their pre-war income would be ‘made up’ if their service pay was lower.[9] This appears to have been influential in encouraging individuals to ‘join the colours’: eight months after war broke-out the Northern Times reported that the Duke had ‘paid hundreds of pounds’ to those on active service.[10]

Local efforts to save the castle’s occupants and contents were reinforced by the 2/5th Seaforth Highlanders, camping nearby.[11] Inverness burgh fire brigade arrived by special train, joining Ardross estate’s fire engine, Cromarty’s naval fire brigade and a party landed from a destroyer.[12] Lieutenant Liddell, leading the Seaforths sustained deep cuts when the roof gave way and he fell through a skylight.[13] The Sutherland’s family physician, Dr Simpson gave Liddell first aid, subsequently treating him at nearby Lawson Memorial Hospital.[14] Two naval men, Petty Officer Jones and  Able Seaman Reynolds, fell from a fire escape: they and an unnamed corporal, a wounded patient suffering smoke inhalation, were also admitted to hospital.[15] Alerted by telegraph, the Duke, Duchess and family members who were elsewhere on the estate, returned to find the fire had taken hold.[16]

The castle’s ‘new wing’, built between 1845 and 1851, was destroyed in ten hours.[17] When its tower collapsed, the large Red Cross flag which had ‘bade defiance to the flames’ fell.[18] After the fire was finally doused the following morning, insurance assessors were on site to assess the full extent of the damage to the building and its contents.[19] Dunrobin’s role as a hospital in World War One was over: a new ‘new north wing’ was built between 1917 and 1919.[20]

Photo: Permission given by photographer.

When World War Two broke out in 1939, the castle resumed its hospital role.[21] In August 1942, the Duke of Kent’s body was brought there: he and all, bar one onboard an RAF Sunderland plane which crashed near Dunbeath were killed. His body was ‘dressed’ by nursing staff and the local doctor, Dr Bertie Simpson, whose father attended to those injured during the fire in 1915.[22] The arrival and departure of the Duke’s body, and subsequent ‘flying’ visit of King George VI to the castle’s hospital were cloaked in official secrecy.[23]

Through this series of posts, what has been striking are the similarities between official and other responses during wartime and the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. In each instance, governments regulated the lives of individuals and community life for the common good, potentially curtailing their rights, liberties, wellbeing and incomes. The success of the respective regulations in force is measurable by the extent the population observed or attempted to circumvent them. One noticeable difference in March 2020 when ‘lockdown’ began, though, was that rural communities led government and other official bodes in actively discouraging those who sought remoteness. In the Highlands this created de facto ‘protected areas’, very different to those officially imposed in wartime.


[1] Argus (Melbourne, Australia), 15 June 1915, 7. Newspapers worldwide reported the fire, including the New York Times, 14 June 1915, 16 and the Colonist (Nelson, New Zealand), 15 June 1915, 5. The Press Association and other London-based news agencies telegraphed the story. The Tasmanian Daily Telegraph headed its article ‘General War Cables’ which suggests it had past official scrutiny, Daily Telegraph, 15 June 1915, 5.

[2] Northern Times, 19 June 2015, One hundred years ago: 17 June 1915, https://www.northern-times.co.uk/news/from-our-june-19th-edition-158931/ accessed 8 September 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The patients were taken to an hotel in Golspie. The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6. Within a day, soldiers were transferred to the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V. A. D.) hospital at Ivybank, Nairn. The Scotsman, 17 June 1915, 9.

[5] Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1914, 3; The Scotsman, 7th August 1914, 6. The Northern Times carried the same story on 13 August, from Read All About It! The Highlands and Islands during World War One project https://www.ambaile.org.uk/detail/en/1887/1/EN1887-dunrobin-castle-as-a-naval-hospital.htm accessed 7 September 2020.

[6] Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1914, 3. Volunteer medical staff were invited to contact the Duke at 35 Parliament Street, London, S W. He also encouraged those with ‘country houses’ on the East and South-East coasts, and around London to obtain expert advice as to how they could be made suitable as hospitals and for convalescence. The Scotsman, 8 August 1914, 9.

[7] John O’Groat Journal, 26 March 1915, reported the arrival of 19 soldiers from Scottish regiments, to recuperate under the care of ‘two professional nurses … and several local ladies’, from Read All About It: The Highlands and Islands during World War One project https://www.ambaile.org.uk/en/asset/show_zoom_window_popup_img.html?asset=43593 accessed 25 September 2020.

[8] Northern Times, 17 September 1914, from Read All About It! The Highlands and Islands during World War One project; Dear, I., The Royal Yacht Squadron 1815-1985, Appendix 2: Members’ yachts and their use in the First World War.https://www.rys.org.uk/assets/documents/appendix-2-ww1-yachts.pdf accessed 25 September 2020. The Duke’s captaincy was temporary, prior to his taking-up an army commission.

[9] Northern Times, 100 years ago (22 April 1915), 24 April 2015, https://www.northern-times.co.uk/news/from-our-24th-april-edition-160400/ accessed 24 August 2020. The Northern Times referred to both ‘every man in his employment’, and the ducal family’s employees: it has not been possible to confirm whether female employees were compensated for any detriment to their take-home pay.

[10] Ibid.

[11] It was reported that 800 soldiers and 200 locals were involved in fighting the fire and recovering property. The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6. Liddell was an ordained Church of Scotland minister who had joined-up four months previously. The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 4.

[12] Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7; The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6, 9. The Guardian advised that both Inverness and Ardross fire brigades arrived on the same train, whereas The Scotsman reported the Ardross fire engine arrived separately.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6. The newspaper called Liddell, ‘Wilde’.

[15] Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7; The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 4.

[16] The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 3.

[17] Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7.

[18] The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 4.

[19] Ibid; estate papers relating to the fire and rebuilding of the castle are within the Sutherland estate papers, National Library of Scotland, Acc.10853, (661 – 699). Many antiques and pictures which were saved suffered water damage, Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7.

[20] Sir Robert Lorimer’s firm was employed to undertake the redesign work. See University of Edinburgh, Special collections, Coll-27 (Gen.1963/58), Papers of Sir Robert Stoddart Lorimer, Files on Dunrobin and Woodhall / Juniper Green, Edinburgh.  

[21] https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/83/a5839383.shtml accessed 27 September 2020; http://www.historyofhighlandhospitals.com/index.asp?pageid=697271 accessed 27 September 2020.

[22] Caithness at war: week 156, 24-30 August 1942, https://www.highlifehighland.com/nucleus-nuclear-caithness-archives/caithness-at-war-week-156/ accessed 29 September 2020; Jean Cameron, People’s War, BBC Scotland, 21 September 2005, https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/83/a5839383.shtml accessed 29 September 2020.

[23] Jean Cameron, People’s War. The Duke’s body was placed in a locally-made coffin and escorted to Dunrobin’s own railway station by hospital staff and those patients fit to walk.

Kincraig House

Hamish Mackenzie OBE, was born in 1937, graduated from Oxford, qualified as a Chartered Accountant and held senior executive positions in industry. In retirement in Ross-shire he has been President of the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the U.K., played a leading role in the Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust and chaired Tarbat Community Council, and he continues to research local history. During lockdown he published A Highland Legacy: the Maitlands of Tain, their Work and their World. The book tells the story of a family of architects who designed an astonishing range of buildings across the Northern Highlands in Victorian and Edwardian times. It brings to life the people who commissioned them, some of whom left footprints on the sands of time, others long since forgotten but interesting in their historical context, and it explains the social, religious and political factors that underpinned their demand. An earlier book, Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke, 1833 (about the efforts of the first Duke of Sutherland to incorporate the area between Tain and Tarbat Ness into his empire) is available from the Tain & District Museum.

The prosperity of estate ownership reached its high water mark in or around the early 1870s, but it was soon to be hit by a prolonged agricultural depression. Out of a total population of 80,955 in Ross-shire and Cromartyshire in 1871 a mere 49 people owned land representing 67% of the gross annual value for the twin counties, and, reflecting the lower rental values in Wester Ross, 90% of the land area.[i] In the countryside the heritors [landowners] still played a prominent role in local affairs and enjoyed considerable social prestige. Their status was, fortunately for architects like A. Maitlands & Sons of Tain, frequently reflected in a desire to improve and often to ‘baronialise’ [convert to the Scottish Baronial style] their ancestral homes.

One of the most distinctive examples of the Maitlands’ work is Kincraig House, near Invergordon – Scottish baronial in style, white-harled and highly visible from the present A9.[ii] Its present eye-catching appearance reflects the dramatic transformation that baronialisation could achieve.

Kincraig Castle Hotel, Invergordon, Monday 07, October, 2019. Image by: Malcolm McCurrach | © Malcolm McCurrach 2019 | New Wave Images UK | Insertion and use fees apply | All rights Reserved. picturedesk@nwimages.co.uk | http://www.nwimages.co.uk | 07743 719366

Permission to use image received – further details can be obtained from the author or the editor of this blog.

In recent times Kincraig House has become a hotel and it is now a popular and well-respected venue. One earlier hotelier tried to raise its profile by calling it the Kincraig Castle Hotel and describing it as the former seat of the chiefs of the Clan Mackenzie. Though the name has stuck it was never a castle, and it had no direct connection with any chief of the clan. The Mackenzies of Kincraig were a ‘cadet’ branch which descended from a sixteenth century Mackenzie clan chief, and at the time he commissioned Andrew Maitland in 1872[iii] the 27 year old Captain Roderick Mackenzie with his 1,086 acres was only fourteenth among the largest Mackenzie landowners in the twin counties of Ross-shire and Cromartyshire.

The captain’s inheritance included a mansion house, built around 1800, with wings at the rear, perhaps used as farm offices, close to each side but not attached. This is shown both in the first 25 inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map and in a photograph taken before the Maitland alterations.[iv] To-day the original mansion house, given a steep crow-stepped gablet flanked by conical-roofed bartizans on the southern elevation, forms the central portion of the enlarged house. The additions include crow-stepped projecting wings at each side, a round tower with a conical roof at the south west corner and a gabled bay with a new main entrance in a hoodmoulded Tudor arch on the west elevation.

Improving his mansion house may have put some strain on Roderick Mackenzie’s finances, and the situation seems to have been aggravated by the agricultural depression. The inventory on his death in 1889 suggests that he was on thin ice financially. His heritable estate was burdened by loans of £6,680, and his personal estate showed a deficiency of £2-13s-8d. He owed his tenants money for farm buildings, and shortly before the work on Kincraig House he had borrowed from the marriage settlement of his wife Georgina, known as Georgie. They had no children and the widowed Georgie became liferentrix. The Maitlands were engaged during her occupancy to design farm buildings for the estate at Broomhill in 1890 and Tomich in 1896 and further additions and improvements to Kincraig House itself in 1901.

The estate passed in 1918 to Roderick’s nephew William Martineau, a scion of a sugar refining dynasty. William (later Sir William) appears to have carried out further work to Kincraig House, said to have been completed in 1923. The Dictionary of Scottish Architects entry for the house suggests that he employed the leading Highland architect Alexander Ross and his son John Alistair Ross. But what the Rosses did for Martineau is uncertain – did it include the white harling? and did it include any part of the Scottish baronial features we see to-day? Whatever the answer it is likely that the bulk of the baronialisation is a result of the Maitlands’ involvement.[v] One thing we do know is that when the Macleods of Cadboll, the largest land owners in the Invergordon area, disposed of their estates after the Great War Martineau bought the Invergordon Castle estate. He then demolished the castle, built in 1873 on a site occupied since the fifteenth century, in order, it was rumoured, to improve his view from Kincraig House.


[i] Author’s calculations based on the Report of the Land Ownership Commission 1872-3, NRS GD149/560.

[ii] Historic Environment Scotland LB15044, Highland HER MHG16341.

[iii] Inverness Advertiser, 2nd July, 1872.

[iv] The photograph is on a postcard marked Macpherson’s Series 158, reproduced in the online Invergordon Archive. It is  said to be dated 1907 (presumably from the date stamp on the back), but there is reason to believe that Macpherson’s postcards sometimes showed historical rather than contemporary views.

[v] Map evidence seems to be non-existent. The Ordnance Survey does not appear to have fully re-surveyed Kincraig House between the first 25” to the mile edition and the second half of the twentieth century.

The Dornoch banker who had his fingers in the till

Hamish Mackenzie OBE, was born in 1937, graduated from Oxford, qualified as a Chartered Accountant and held senior executive positions in industry. In retirement in Ross-shire he has been President of the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the U.K., played a leading role in the Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust and chaired Tarbat Community Council, and he continues to research local history. During lockdown he published A Highland Legacy: the Maitlands of Tain, their Work and their World. The book tells the story of a family of architects who designed an astonishing range of buildings across the Northern Highlands in Victorian and Edwardian times. It brings to life the people who commissioned them, some of whom left footprints on the sands of time, others long since forgotten but interesting in their historical context, and it explains the social, religious and political factors that underpinned their demand. An earlier book, Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke, 1833 (about the efforts of the first Duke of Sutherland to incorporate the area between Tain and Tarbat Ness into his empire) is available from the Tain & District Museum.

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century the towns in which A. Maitland & Sons of Tain operated saw an acceleration in the rate of construction not just of new public buildings but also – reflecting a wider level of prosperity – of commercial buildings. The most prominent of these were banks. The architectural historian John Gifford remarks that ‘rapid expansion of the banking system during the nineteenth century quickly established the rule that a bank in any prominent town should have the character of a public building’.[i] Bank agents, many of whom also practiced as solicitors, were important members of the local community. They often acted as factors for local estates, and they played a key role in the finances of local business. As well as extending and improving several bank branches, the Maitlands designed three new ones. Two were for the Aberdeen based North of Scotland Bank, which later became part of the Clydesdale Bank. The first of these, in 1872, was in Invergordon High Street.[ii] The other, recently closed, and one of the most charming buildings in the burgh, was in Market Street, Tain in 1878.[iii]  The third had a curious early history.

Photo – Lynn Mahoney

On the other side of the Meikle Ferry Dornoch was emerging from the doldrums. Until 1868 the Dukes of Sutherland had been Provosts, but in that year the first (moderately) democratic elections were held. The middle classes slowly began to flex their muscles. The later years of the nineteenth century saw a rising prosperity, fuelled particularly by the attractions of the golf course. This was to lead to several commissions, particularly for houses, for the Maitlands. It also led to another expanding bank, also Aberdeen based, the Town & County Bank, opening a branch in Dornoch. In 1889 the bank appointed as joint agent John Mackintosh, a farmer at Proncy, three miles from Dornoch. Mackintosh seemed to be highly respectable: he was a total abstainer and lived an unostentatious life, and he became commander of a company of Volunteers, Clerk of the School Board, and a county councillor. But, unbeknown to the bank’s directors, Mackintosh was soon embezzling their customers’ money.

Photo – Lynn Mahoney

Mackintosh’s fellow joint agent was a Dornoch solicitor, John Leslie. Leslie served for ten years as captain of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, and was said to have been responsible for an important step in 1886 when the services of the legendary golfer Old Tom Morris were secured and the course was extended to 18 holes. In 1893, whilst Mackintosh’s fraud remained undetected, Leslie decided to build new premises in Castle Street, the main entrance to the town. A. Maitland & Sons produced plans and sought tenders for a new classical style building.[iv] Inside were bank offices, which Leslie let to the Town & County Bank, and law offices and living accommodation for himself and his family. Elizabeth Beaton describes it as a ‘plain, somewhat conventional bank building, the symmetrical two-storey front enhanced by simple pilastered doorpiece and tri-partite (three-light) ground floor windows’.[v] John Leslie, who had become Sheriff Clerk of Sutherland, died in 1900 and John Mackintosh then became sole agent.

Photo – Lynn Mahoney

There was great excitement in Dornoch in March 1908 when Mackintosh was arrested and committed to Inverness Prison. In May he pleaded guilty in the High Court of Justiciary to having embezzled a total of £1,753-2s-6d between 1889 and 1907. In mitigation his counsel asserted that in regard to at least half of the deficiency Mackintosh had not personally fingered a penny of the money. A number of customers had overdrawn accounts. The bank had strict rules and had instructed him that certain customers should not be accommodated. In order to oblige them, however, Mackintosh had honoured cheques and bills drawn on their accounts and had met these by paying into their accounts money taken from other customers. Mackintosh might have expected a sentence of penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labour), but the Lord Justice Clerk, apparently impressed by this Robin Hood argument and perhaps also by Mackintosh’s colonelcy in the Volunteers, sentenced him to only 15 months imprisonment.

Like the North of Scotland Bank, the Town & County Bank later became part of the Clydesdale Bank, but the Dornoch branch no longer operates. The building, now listed,[vi] and the first in a series of dignified premises flanking the approach to the centre of Dornoch, is now a bed and breakfast establishment.

The building when it was the Clydesdale Bank in the 1960s. Image Courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

[i] John Gifford, Highlands and Islands, Pevsner Architectural Guides, The Buildings of Scotland, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 68.

[ii] Inverness Advertiser, 11th March, 1872, Highland HER MHG21245.

[iii] The plans are held by Historic Environment Scotland, RCD/36/1-4.

[iv] Inverness Courier, 6th June, 1893.

[v] Elizabeth Beaton, Sutherland, An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, 1995, p.33.

[vi] Historic Environment Scotland LB24635, Highland HER MHG16970.

History of Childhood Exhibition II – Wartime Dornoch

My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions in the museum. Exhibitions here at the museum are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community.

In our first blog we looked at schooling and it was also clear that the lives of children during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were laden with responsibilities. Of course in rural communities these responsibilities carried over into the twentieth century but more modern memoirs of children in Dornoch reveal an altogether different experience. There is more of a sense of ‘childhood’ in their accounts.

I particularly enjoyed my conversations with Lorna Currie who grew up in Dornoch during World War Two and was delighted when she gave permission for her memoir to be used in the interpretation of the exhibition. Most of the toys we have on exhibition are from the twentieth century and it was wonderful to be able to link Lorna’s words with the objects on display.

Lorna Currie had just started primary school when the Second World War was declared on 3rd September 1939. At just five years old life suddenly changed for Lorna and her brothers. The Government introduced a rationing system monitored by the Ministry of Food that ensured fair distribution of food stuffs. Children were given a priority allowance for milk and eggs and had their own identification cards, gas masks, and clothing coupons. A child’s ration of sweets was two boiled sweets or two squares of chocolate per week and children were issued with their own ration book for sweets.

Fruit and vegetables were not rationed but were often in short supply because they came from oversees. In response to shortages, the Government ran a ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. The scheme encouraged people to grow their own produce and Lorna remembers the garden at her home producing vegetables, including tomatoes and rhubarb. They had fruit bushes, an apple tree and a cherry tree and made jam and bottled fruit and kept hens. Lorna still lives in Dornoch and her memories prompted the museum’s Young Curators Club to ‘Dig for Dornoch’. Although not the same as a war, today’s children are living through a time that will significantly impact on their lives. It felt important to link the experiences they were living though today with the past. Growing their own vegetables and fruit in a time of national emergency is helping them develop skills for a sustainable future and they will be sharing their produce with the local community. The project was made possible by Highland Seedlings and Fearn Free Food Garden who donated seedlings and compost.

Lorna’s family did not have an air raid shelter but if they heard planes overhead, they would sit under the kitchen table for protection. During air raid practice at school the children assembled in the central corridor and lay down with their gas masks beside them. The practice was regarded as a welcome diversion from lessons and good fun! Despite the war, Lorna’s memories of childhood are filled with the joy of freedom.

Lorna Currie in the Guides 1947. Lorna is in the middle of the back row.
Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2011_062_12

Things were very different for children living in the city and, in audio recordings from Historylinks Archive, Bill Grant recalls walking with his father beside the River Clyde in Glasgow with German bombers overhead targeting the river and shipyard. Bits of shell were hitting the pavement and Bill said that at eight years old he did not understand the extent of what was happening, only that someone was trying to kill them.

Just a few days after war was declared, Operation Pied Piper was introduced. The project saw over three million children from all over Britain relocated to protect them from the threat of bombs. They took very few of their own possessions with them and they left their homes and families, often not knowing who they were going to be living with.

Bill was evacuated to Proncy near Dornoch to live with an uncle and aunt. One afternoon in September 1942 he was listening to the radio with his aunt when he heard an unusual sound over Proncy. A plane engine was stuttering in the in the distance and from their front door they heard a huge crash and saw an explosion about forty metres away from the house. The flames were thirty feet high, and Bill raced out of the house to meet the Farm Grieve, Kenny Mackay. Together they went to the site where the plane had crashed and saw a man covered in flames. He was sent back to the house for blankets and then helped Kenny to wrap the pilot in them to extinguish the flames. Using the blankets, they pulled the man clear and he was taken to hospital in Golspie where he died of his wounds.

The written and recorded memories of Lorna and Bill give us a much clearer picture of life for children in wartime Dornoch. Just like John Matheson and Donald Sage from our first blog, their words contain the power to transport us back in time and give us a glimpse of the past from the first hand experiences of those who lived it.

Historylinks is open 7 days a week from 10.30am to 4pm until the end of October.

History of Childhood Exhibition I – Schooling in Dornoch

My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions. Exhibitions at Historylinks are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community. The ‘Childhood in Dornoch Parish’ exhibition was a real pleasure to work on, it fed into my love for the eighteenth century and for toys! Reading the memoirs of young people from Dornoch as far back as the 1700s was a privilege and I wondered if, when they were writing all those years ago, they ever imagined how their words might be used in the future.

Last year we made the difficult decision to close the children’s room at Historylinks due to Covid restrictions. The room was a space in which our younger visitors had previously been able to draw, dress up and play with toys and puzzles. A room that had once been a busy, fun filled place was now empty and an empty space in a museum is never a good thing! So, over the winter months we thought about how to us the room to give people visiting in 2021 a good experience.

If we couldn’t use the space for children in the present we decided to use it for children in the past and set about researching memoirs and diaries ranging from the eighteenth century to the Second World War. We already a small collection of objects such as school slates and books, a tricycle, marbles, dominoes and it wasn’t long before the local community got involved, bringing precious toys and games into the museum for our display. The Highland Museum of Childhood in Strathpeffer lent us various toys from the early 1800s to the 1970s, including a dolls pram bought in Gammages, a famous London department store which had been gifted by a Dornoch lady.

Photo: Lynne Mahoney

Looking at daily life in the eighteenth century we discovered that for most, childhood was a time of gathering responsibility according to ability. Play, work and practical education merged into one experience. The idea of childhood as a separate life stage only became a concept towards the end of that century and then only among the middle class and wealthy.

It was difficult for many children to attend school consistently, even if their parents wanted that. Children could not walk for miles across hills or cross rivers and parents often did not have the cash for fees. Formal education was therefore sporadic. Instead they learned skills taught by their parents: how to look after animals, how to build houses, how to look after children, how to prepare medicines from herbs, how to grow crops and how to preserve and prepare food.

Boys of higher status were much more likely to be formally educated. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries three schools flourished in Dornoch: a grammar, an elementary and an English school, most likely set up by The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK). This organisation was established by Royal Charter in 1707 to encourage Protestantism and English speaking in the Highlands. In a political sense the Society was about gaining a greater control of the Highlands. The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools was set up in 1811. As a missionary society they taught reading in Gaelic so people could read the Bible for themselves. These temporary schools -some of which appeared locally in places like Embo and Knockarthur – opened in the quiet time of the farming year, teaching adults as well as children.

John Matheson and Donald Sage were born in the late eighteenth century and their memoirs give a glimpse of childhood for boys who attended school in Dornoch.

John Matheson was born in 1772 and his family were tenant farmers. His father was in a position to be able to pay to give his sons an education. When John was strong enough, he walked to the Parochial School in Dornoch, a round trip of twelve miles!

As John grew older, the need for his help with livestock and farm work increased. His schooling was seasonally interrupted at times of planting and harvest, when all hands were needed. Sometimes bad weather made walking into Dornoch impossible. These factors made John feel that his education was lacking yet he became a tutor himself and later migrated to Glasgow where he became a cotton mill manager.

Donald Sage was born in Kildonan but he and his brother attended school in Dornoch. They came under strict discipline that was meted out by way of humiliation or physical violence. On one occasion Sage received thirty lashes and a schoolmate was beaten until he fainted.

Despite this, Donald recollects with joy the pastimes that he shared with his friends. On Saturdays and holidays the schoolboys had freedom to roam. One game was throwing stones at the crow’s nests built in the walls of Dornoch’s derelict castle and they often ended up at woods near Cyderhall or Skibo. During the holidays shinty was a must and Donald recounts ‘every male, from a stripling to a white-haired grandfather’ taking part. Market days were a favourite. Full of spectacle and excitement, they lasted two days and meant a holiday from school. Another sport that was widely acceptable was cock fighting. The annual event took place at Candlemas, 2nd February, one of the Scottish Quarter days. Sage tells how the boys prepared for weeks in advance and the Sheriff Court room above the school was cleared to make a cock fighting ring.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2002_274_001

The Education (Scotland) Act was passed in 1872 making schooling compulsory. No longer did children have to walk to Dornoch or go without an education entirely. Schools were built in the rural areas of the parish ensuring all children had access.

The Parish School building remained in use until 1913. It is now the Social Club. Pupils transferred to a site at the west end of the burgh, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. This new Academy was opened by Lord Kennedy on 7th January 1913.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2019_093_10.

Fifty years later, on 25th September 1963 a new secondary department was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The old building which now houses the primary department stands side by side with the new and, along with the nursery, they constitute the modern 3-18 years Dornoch School Campus.

The Childhood in Dornoch Parish exhibition tells of the experiences of children over the last two centuries, from home life to school life, from organised clubs to serious playtime such as the annual football tournament played for the Ice Cream Cup!

Playing for the Ice Cream Cup!
Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2001_343_001

Their voices, happy and sad, come to us through memoirs, diaries, audio recordings, photographs and the physical objects in the display like a tricycle, teddy bears, dolls, a Hornby engine, tin plate toys and board games.

From the frustration of having to close part of the museum and wondering what to do with an empty space, it feels like the children’s room is alive with the voices of children once more.

Dornoch and Barrow’s Castle

Hamish Mackenzie OBE, was born in 1937, graduated from Oxford, qualified as a Chartered Accountant and held senior executive positions in industry. In retirement in Ross-shire he has been President of the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the U.K., played a leading role in the Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust and chaired Tarbat Community Council, and he continues to research local history. During lockdown he published A Highland Legacy: the Maitlands of Tain, their Work and their World. The book tells the story of a family of architects who designed an astonishing range of buildings across the Northern Highlands in Victorian and Edwardian times. It brings to life the people who commissioned them, some of whom left footprints on the sands of time, others long since forgotten but interesting in their historical context, and it explains the social, religious and political factors that underpinned their demand. An earlier book, Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke, 1833 (about the efforts of the first Duke of Sutherland to incorporate the area between Tain and Tarbat Ness into his empire) is available from the Tain & District Museum.

The years 1870 to 1905 are regarded as one of the boom periods for Scottish domestic architecture, a period characterised by growth in the building of villas. Northern burghs and towns saw extensive development, particularly on the pastoral fringes. A number of factors led to this demand. One was the emergence of a new breed of client – men sufficiently successful in their profession or business to be able to afford the services of an architect, and sometimes the widows or unmarried daughters of such men. Another was the attraction of moving to the Highlands, particularly to burghs like Tain and Dornoch with golf courses and opportunities for social life and cultural events. Highland architects like A. Maitland & Sons of Tain met this demand by designing villas in a variety, and sometimes a mixture, of styles. Perhaps the most interesting mixture was in Dornoch.

A modern historian of Dornoch notes that ‘the 1890s saw a wide range of developments that transformed and modernised the burgh … an increasing number of inhabitants applying to the Dean of Guild for permission to extend existing properties or to construct new ones, and incomers to the town building their own holiday homes. … Dornoch was now attracting families of considerable wealth and status.’[i] The result was the building of several architect designed houses mainly on what was then the periphery of the old burgh, notably in what are now known as Evelix Road and Cnoc-an-Lobht. Many of these were designed by A. Maitland & Sons of Tain, who advertised in 1888, 1891, 1894 and 1895 for tenders to build new houses, and in 1896 and 1900 to effect alterations and additions to Burnside.

The Northfield in it’s context of the older town and the newer developments.
Image from Historylinks Archive Cat No:  | 2007_092_005 | Picture No: 4331
Monochrome postcard, from the Basil Hellier collection, showing the Burghfield House Hotel. The card is entitled Northfield, the property’s former name. The reverse of the card has a London address, and a Dornoch postmark of 10 Au 06, over a green Edward VII half-penny stamp.

Their most significant commission was in 1896, when the Maitlands advertised for tenders for building ‘a large residence’ in Dornoch for Mr J.J. Barrow.[ii] John James Jerome Barrow, to give him his full name, came from Derbyshire. His family had owned the largest collieries in the county and had developed iron foundries. They had sold the business in 1863 to the Staveley Coal and Iron Company, in which they became substantial shareholders. John Barrow, born in 1829, was a director of various railway companies, but his Staveley dividends enabled him to lead the life of a gentleman with sporting interests. He had a London house in Hyde Park Gardens and an estate of 100 acres at Holmewood, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. By 1891 he had taken a lease of Dornoch Castle from the Duke of Sutherland. The Castle, to-day a hotel, was then ‘the only shooting lodge in the kingdom which can boast of being situated not only within a Royal burgh, but in the very heart of a County town … the County Buildings are adjacent and a Sheriff Court is regularly held. The shootings in connection with it cover an area of 9,000 acres and there is much variety of game’.[iii] Barrow and his family entered into the life of Dornoch. He became a J.P., and was known as a major benefactor, and his wife Dorothea was particularly associated with the Dornoch Golf Club, of which Barrow himself, a keen golfer, had been one of the promoters.

Burghfield Hotel, Dornoch in 1900
Historylinks Image Archive Cat No:  | 2007_092_001 | Picture No: 3223
Monochrome postcard, from the Basil Hellier collection, showing the Burghfield Hotel. The card is titled Northfield, the original name of the Burghfield.

By 1896 Barrow wanted his own residence, and he chose to erect what became the most prominent building on the Dornoch skyline. The site he chose for Northfield – or ‘Barrow’s Castle’ as the irreverent called it – was in an elevated position on Cnoc-an-Lobht, from which it was highly visible from the centre of the town. At the heart of the building was a conventional Victorian villa. It was made even more visible by a Scottish baronial square tower, surmounted by a round turret. The juxtaposition of these two elements looks odd. The architectural historian John Gifford remarks that ‘the unadventurous domesticity’ of the building is ‘badly jolted by a very martial tower’.[iv] This must have been what their client wanted, but one wonders whether Barrow’s architects were happy with the instructions he gave them.

John Barrow died in 1903, and is commemorated in a stained-glass window on the south wall of the nave in Dornoch Cathedral. After his death Dorothea continued to spend time at Northfield. She sold it in 1921 to the immensely wealthy newspaper tycoon Lord Rothermere, who renamed it Burghfield House and used it to entertain the great and the good of the inter-war years. Rothermere also carried on an extensive correspondence with Adolf Hitler (who entertained him at the Berghof), Göring, Goebbels and Ribbentrop. Some of it must surely have emanated from Dornoch – though Rothermere did not return the Führer’s hospitality at Burghfield House. Rothermere died in Bermuda in 1940, his reputation in tatters after his toadying letters to Nazi leaders had been exposed in a sensational court case.

The property has retained the name Burghfield in its subsequent history as a hotel and as an outpost of the University of the Highlands and Islands.


[i] Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch, Historylinks Museum, Dornoch, 2005, p.108.

[ii]  Ross-shire Journal, 24th January, 1896.

[iii] Evening Telegraph, 4th May, 1891.

[iv] John Gifford, Highlands and Islands, Pevsner Architectural Guides, The Buildings of Scotland, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 570.

The Collapsing Church and the Pyramid: Pococke’s Tour Part 4

On the 19th July 1760 Bishop Pococke and his fellow travellers came, from the Dornoch Firth,

a mile through a rich country to Taine pleasantly situated, about a quarter of a mile from the sea. They have here a Manufactury for preparing Flax and for spinning — are mostly Country people and Shopkeepers, and it is but a poor town. I was met at the entrance by the Magistrates and Minister, who would have presented me with the freedom of the borough if I could have staid.

The Bishop would have travelled through this land, at the edge of the ‘Kyle of Dornock’, en route to Tain. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The town officials were clearly excited to have such an illustrious visitor and they gave him a tour around the Collegiate Church before he followed the main road out of the town, towards Fearn.

We passed over a heighth, and came into that fine plain country which extends all the way to Dingwall, and so on to; and in about three miles we came to the Abbey of Fern … Nothing remains but the Church and Chapels adjoyning to it … A most extraordinary accident happened here in the year 1742. There was a sudden hurricane in time of Divine Service, and about 600 Souls in the Church, the Couples all of a sudden gave way, and the roof of Deal slipped off on the North Side, and brought off the outer Casing of the Wall with it for some feet from the top, and the whole roof to the South fell in, the Canopies of the Seats saved them much, but 36 were killed and twelve [other accounts say 8] died afterwards of their fractures and bruises. A great number were stunned and had not the least recollection of what happened. The minister [Donald Ross] whom I saw, was found with his head pinned to the desk by the speaking board over him, and did not recover his senses untill the next day. They heard the Slates tumbling off and looking up, the roof instantly fell without any notice. They built a Kirk close to this, which together with the glebe house and offices took up most of the materials of the old Abbey

Fearn Parish Church, built in the remains of the Abbey. Today’s roof looks fairly secure. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

… I went to Catboll the seat of Roderick McLeod Esqr. I waited on this gentleman who is of the Episcopal Church, & a person of great learning, especially in the Scotch History and Coins, of which he showed me a curious collection, the gold he bought of Keith the nonjuring Bishop. And he presented me with some very valuable Coins in gold and silver: His land is on the highest ground of this Promontory called Tarbotness, and on that spot, he has raised a pyramid of Sods exactly on the model of the Egyptian pyramids; it is on a basis which at a medium may be about seven feet high and forms a terrace, I believe, about two feet wide all round it. It consists of seventeen steps each of them eighteen inches high, and about two feet wide; it is at top about two yards by three, & is one way twenty one yards at the steps. It has been raised by degrees, that is two or three steps every year by his Tennants.

I have never heard of the remains of such a pyramid! Does anyone know of it? It was common in the eighteenth century for part of tenants’ rent to be paid with labour for the landlord. Presumably McLeod diverted some of this labour from any farming or building operations he had to this pet project. I can only imagine what the tenants thought of it!

A little way beyond this hill we came to Ancherville, formerly the seat of one of the name of Ross, who from a very low beginning went into the service of Augustus of Poland, and being the only person who could bear more Liquor than his Majesty, got to be a Commissary, came away with plunder of Churches &c. in the war about the Crown of Poland, purchased this Estate of 100£ a year, built and lived too greatly for it, was for determining all things by the Sabre; and died much reduced in his Finances between twenty and thirty years agoe …

Half a mile more brought us to the house of Duncan Ross, Esqr., at Kindeace, who had met me at Geanies. After we had taken our repast Mr. McLeod of Geanies, and Mr. Mackay took leave, and Mr. Ross went with me to the ferry of Cromartie: from this part we saw Torbut which was the seat of Lord Cromartie, a most charming situation and delightfull place, finely wooded near the Sea.

And so we leave the Bishop, crossing over to the Black Isle and continuing his journey south. I hope you have enjoyed this traverse through the east Sutherland and Ross-shire, only a decade and a half after Culloden. The full account can be read on archive.org https://archive.org/details/toursinscotland00pocogoog/mode/2up

Pleasant Gardens and Ruined Cathedrals: Pococke’s Tour Part 3

In 1760 Bishop Pococke was not driving south to Dunrobin along the A9. Rather he would have been following the road, still passable on foot, that tightly hugs the coastline from Brora. He was therefore in an excellent position to see the remains of the broch at Carn Liath (I have omitted his description but it can be found on archive.org. https://archive.org/details/toursinscotland00pocogoog/mode/2up) and the gardens at Dunrobin, as well as the old castle – this being a generation before the current French chateau-style building was erected.

Coming along the coast near a mile to Dunrobin, Lord Sutherland’s castle and house, we were surprized at seeing half-a-dozen families forming so many groupes – viz., the man, his wife, and children, each under a coverlit, and reposing on the shoar, in order to wait for ye tyde to go a-fishing.

The old road just north of Dunrobin Castle, following the coastline where the fishing families were waiting. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

We arrived at Dunrobin, twenty miles from Dunbeath. This castle is finely situated on the end of a hill, which is cut off by a deep fossee, so that it appears on the south side, and next to the sea, like an old Celtic mount. Between it and the sea is a very good garden. The castle did consist of two square towers and a gateway. One tower only remains now, to which the house is built. There are good appartments in it, tho some have been destroyed by fire. The present earl has begun to plant the hanging ground from the house, and proposes to carry it on, which will make it exceeding fine. This castle was built by the first Earl of Sutherland.

A small mile to the north-west is a part called the old town and ye remains of a Pictish castle, which must have been the residence of the Thanes of Sutherland…

…We crossed the ferry at the river [Little Ferry at Loch Fleet] which rises towards Lough Schin, and they say it is most part of the way a fruitfull vale, and so it appeared as far as we could see. We travelled over a sandy head of land, and came to the cross set up there in memory of the defeat of the Danes (when they landed here in 1263) by William, Earl of Sutherland, and Gilbert Murray, Bishop of Cathness.

Remains of a pier on the south side of Loch Fleet, looking up the ‘fruitfull vale’ towards Rogart. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

We came to Domock, which is pleasantly situated on the head of land not far from … the Kyle of Dornock … There is very little trade in this town, and no manufacture but spinning of linnen yarn. The church here is the body of the old cathedral which belonged to the Bishop of Cathness. It seems to be pretty near a Greek cross, tho’ in the eastern part, now uncovered, there are four arches on each side supported by round pillars, with a kind of a Gothic Doric capital. In the body or nave are only three plain Gothic windows on each side; but what is most remarkable is a round tower within jiyning to the south-west angle of the middle part. It is built for a staircase, and is about ten feet in diameter, with geometrical stairs. The bishop’s house is a solid high building, consisting of four floors above the arched offices on which it was built. They show also the dean’s house, and it is probable several other houses now standing near the church did belong to the members of the chapter. These were granted with other parts of the church estate to the Earl of Sutherland. This is a royal burgh, of which they made me a burgess.

Dornoch’s manufacturing energies may not have impressed him, but it seems likely that a fair number of residents probably took in spinning from the gentleman farming a few miles along the road at Cyderhall.

In two miles we passed by Siderhall, a fine situation, now belonging to Lord Sutherland … Here a gentleman carries on a manufacture of flax in order to prepare for spinning; gives it out, and sells the yarn. A mile more brought us to Skibo, the seat of Mr. Mackay, half-brother to Lord Reay, and member of Parliament. It was a castle and country seat of the bishops of Cathness, very pleasantly situated over a hanging ground, which was improved into a very good garden, and remains to this day much in the same state, except that there are walls built, which produce all sorts of fruit in great perfection, and I believe not more than six weeks later than about London.

More flax-growing was in evidence the next day as he continued up the Kyle and when he arrived in Tain he saw where much of it ended up. We tend to assume that people in mid-eighteenth-century rural Scotland were self-sufficient farmers, so it’s interesting to see evidence of commercial flax production.

To be continued…

Petrified Oysters and Rock Grottoes: Pococke’s Tour Part 2

After surmounting the ‘frightfull hill’ of Berriedale and crossing the Helmsdale River in a coble, travelling Bishop Pococke probably started to relax as he entered the ‘beautifull country of Loth’, a parish that today most of us tend to dash through in our cars.

We soon came into the beautifull country of Loth. It is not easy to determine whether it had its name from the ancient Logi, situated here, or from some loughs. Loughs that have been drained, one part being called Lothmore (the great lough), another part Lothbeg (the little lough). A rivulet runs through it, formed by two streams which unite a little higher up. It is a fine narrow strip of arable ground, with several beautifull hillocks near the foot of the hills, and the supposed banks of the loughs are visible. Loughmore was situated towards the sea; Loughbeg is to the south-west. We took some refreshment at the house of Mr. [Robert] M’Cullogh, the minister at Lothkirk. He went with us to Lothbeg, where the banks of the lake are very plain, as well as the outlet that was made at the rocks towards the sea…

An old road running from the church at Clyne to Strath Brora, overlooking the area where Pococke searched for fossils. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

From this place we return’d to the road, and struck out of it again near the house of Clyne to the south-west, to a ridge of very low hills, where there are small quarries of a loose slaty limestone, in which there are petrified large oyster shells, the small Comu Ammonis, the Gryphites, and cockles, also the pecten, of most of which I brought away some specimens.

The editor of Pococke’s diary explains that what he actually did was employ ‘men to hew out masses of the rock, which he broke, and carried away a large quantity of shells.’ This claim of fairly large-scale excavation was apparently taken from Thomas Pennant’s travel account of 1769, but I can find no trace of it.

From this place we descended to the Brora, where to the west of the bridge is a beautifull natural cave opening to the river. We then went a little way to the south-west, to what is called the Dals, [the Doll] which is a most beautifull bason of a lake that has been drained, with an island in the middle of it. The flat is entirely covered with corn.

The River Brora, with the present village straight ahead and The Doll to the left. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The cave was named as ‘Uai na Calman’. I wonder if anyone knows it? The ‘Dals’ is the Doll, still a rather lovely agricultural area. It is noticeable how often Pococke mentions good arable land. He was travelling at the prime time to see crops flourishing. That strip of good quality land down the east coast – and more patches appearing in what he describes as heath – would have been intensively maintained with manure to support the population. As he headed towards Strathsteven his geological interests resurface.

From that place we came to the sea-cliff, and descending, we afterwards ascended about fifty feet up a steep way to a grotto in the rock, where art has been used in cutting a bench or two, and about three feet higher is an inner appartment, which is worked out in a rough manner, with a large short kind of pillar between the two entrances, and opposite to the northern entrance is a part of it in which one may stand upright. As brambles and weeds grow upon the mouth of the outer cave, they have a beautifull effect, and the view of the fine strips of corn below and of the sea is most delightfull. This was probably the retreat of some hermit.

Does anyone know of this grotto today?

To be continued…