Fisherman’s Friend

In the early 1820s Embo was re-developed as a commerical fishing village.  As the Sutherland Estate commercialised their vast tracts of land, they moved people around, sometimes forcibly, and introduced new industries.  The Estate re-organised the village of Embo to promote commercial fishing, building it on a modern grid pattern of streets imitating Edinburgh’s New Town and the redevelopment of Paris.  In about 1819 a young fisherman sat in a house in the new village, ignoring his boisterous children, to puzzle over the letters in a Gaelic psalm book.  He was a devout Christian but, living several miles from the parish church in Dornoch and with a young family, he wasn’t always able to get to Sunday services or the Sabbath school.  He wanted to be able to read so that he could read the Scriptures himself during the week and so he could include Bible reading in the daily worship time which was the custom of many families at the time.

A few years before the young man decided to teach himself to read, a group of philanthropists in Edinburgh saw a need for a missionary society in the Highlands.  The felt the best way to reach people was by teaching them to read the Bible for themselves. Despite the aims of the Reformers, very few ordinary rural people had access to a school at this time.  Most schools which did exist were taught in English which was useless for Gaelic speakers.  The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools provided temporary schools which taught pupils to read the Gaelic Bible.  When we think of a school today we think of a classroom, of book learning, a room full of children, and a teacher who stays in the classroom.  When Mr Sutherland was sent to teach in Embo the young fisherman must have been delighted to meet him as not only did he do all of these things, but he did much more.


Children in a nineteenth-century Scottish fishing village. 

Image from: 

In 1821 Mr Sutherland reported that he had twenty boys and twenty one girls on his school roll.  He added that the keenest student was not a child but a certain thirty year old fisherman who had taught himself to read using his psalm book and now attended the school with his three children.  The psalms were a good place to start learning to read as most people knew many by heart, having sung them all their lives.  Once the young man had figured out the letters and sounds, he would have quickly found sentences that he recognised.  When the school came, he enrolled to improve his skills.  It was possibly also his enthusiasm which caused the number of pupils “to increase, till the fishing and the harvest called the efficient hands away.”  The teacher anticipated “a very crowded School for the Winter-Session”.  Going to school was not obligatory, so people attended when they could.  If people were busy with work, or needed the children to work, then they stayed away.  But in the winter, when it was too stormy to take to the sea, when it was the wrong season for working on the land, and when the evenings were dark and long, the school was popular.

It was not only during school hours that Mr Sutherland was busy.  To avoid treading on the toes of local ministers the SSGS, despite being a missionary school, ordered its teachers not to preach.  However in many parishes, especially where the minister was an evangelical, the rule was ignored.  In Dornoch parish Angus Kennedy was the minister and he was grateful for any assistance.  Kennedy was unable to meet all the needs of the villagers and happily passed on some responsibilities to Mr Sutherland.  Sundays may have been busier than weekdays for the teacher!  He “tests children [on their catechism], teaches a Sabbath School for adults and preaches every 3rd Sunday in a nearby fishing village”.  If anyone has any idea where this other fishing village near to Embo was, then do let me know!  Kennedy was delighted with the effect as the children were attending Sunday services more frequently and more parents wanted their children baptised.  Embo residents may be relieved to hear that the school also apparently inspired “a general attention to cleanliness and decency in their clothing.”

The school had already fulfilled the dreams of the nameless young fisherman, but Angus Kennedy was still looking to the future when he wrote to the SSGS full of optimism about what might yet happen.  “Upon the whole I have every reason to hope that these Schools, situated as they are in populous Districts, and disposed, as the people appear to be, to attend them, shall prove, by the Divine Blessing, a means of training the rising generation in the knowledge and fear of the true God”.

13 thoughts on “Fisherman’s Friend

  1. Pingback: Fisherman’s Friend |

  2. It has been pointed out to me that Embo was not ‘newly created’ in the nineteenth century as I initially said it was! It had been re-developed as a commerical fishing village. The place name suggests that it was a Norse farm and before that we know there was a neolithic burial. If anyone knows what it was like in the eighteenth century or before, then I’d be interested to know.

    • Embo was a small estate belonging to the Gordons of Embo who only sold to the Dukes of Sutherland in 1848. The mansion house still stands while the village of Embo developed out of the old fishertown (there were small fisher settlements all round the Scottish coast under the control of the landlords.

  3. I have copies of annual reports of the Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools. The annual reports seem to say that the Society supported a school at Embo from 1821 to 1825 but the teacher was named as Murdoch Mcleod and not Sutherland. When the Rev Angus Kennedy reported in 1823 that “….He goes at my request, every third Sabbath to a fishing village in the neighbourhood to teach them in the evening…”, I took this to mean that the school was somewhere on the Embo Estate other than the village of Embo and that he therefore was referring to Embo village.

    There is a Murdoch McLeod, gaelic teacher, listed at Balcherry in the 1822 Dornoch Statutory Labour List and a Donald Sutherland, teacher, at Achvandra.

    I wouldn’t have thought that there were two schools in the same area at the same time.

    • Hi Duncan, When I went back to my notes the mystery seemed to deepen further! My notes from Angus Kennedy’s letter published in the 1822 Report (page 26) have the teacher as being a Mr Sutherland. I wonder do you have one of the Annual Reports from a year or two later which lists all the teachers and their stations at the end? Is Murdoch MacLeod listed there? If so, perhaps he took over from Mr Sutherland? I am very interested that there was a Donald Sutherland, teacher, at Achvandra. The entries I read did indeed say ‘Embo’, which I took to be the village as the SSGS reports are usually quite specific with regards to location. It is possible that the school was at Achvandra, though this doesn’t quite fit with the SSGS’s habits regarding these details. Or perhaps the teacher lived at Achvandra and taught at Embo? Or perhaps Donald Sutherland ran his own adventure school at Achvandra?
      In relation to him visiting ‘a fishing village in their neighbourhood’, since writing the post I have looked at Roy’s military map of 1746. Of course this is from much earlier, but points out what should have been apparent to me, that of course there were several townships where there are now only farms, such as Skelbo. I suppose any of these, as well as Embo village, could have been the village referred to.
      I suspect that Murdoch MacLeod at Balcherry is unconnected with the SSGS school at Embo. I’m not entirely sure where Balcherry. While there would not be two SSGS schools closer than a few miles, if he were operating on his own venture the schools might have been close.
      Thanks for highlighting the 1822 labour document – I hadn’t come across that before.

      • Elizabeth, I have looked at the Society’s 1822 Report and I now see where the Rev Kennedy refers to the teacher as Mr Sutherland. At Table III of the appendices of the same Report, however, there is a list of all stations and their teachers “at the commencement of 1822” and the teacher at Embo is given as Murdoch Macleod – as it is in every annual report until the Society closed their school there about 1825.

        As far as I can see the school at Embo probably opened at the start of the summer term in June 1821 – possibly Mr Sutherland was the first teacher but was replaced by the time of the winter term by Macleod – Kennedy was writing in October 1821. This would tie in with your young fisherman’s story. The only teacher named Sutherland that I can see on the Society’s lists at this time was a Magdalene Sutherland at Migdale, Creich. This school closed about the time Embo opened but he (?) appears to have transferred to Altass.

        You would expect the teacher to be housed by the Proprietor of Embo Estate which makes Donald Sutherland’s location in 1822 a bit strange. Although the Achvandra of those days was probably further east than the houses of that name today (which are really Achvandra Muir) it would have been on Sutherland Estates land but the school at Embo may have also covered the Skelbo and Achvandra areas.. The SSGS certainly didn’t have a school at Achvandra at this time – the only other one in the parish was at Birichen. Perhaps Donald Sutherland is not the Mr Sutherland we are looking for or else the list was compiled over a period of time and both teachers were included. I don’t know how accurate these labour lists were – although both Macleod and Sutherland are recorded and described as teachers, the Society’s teacher at Birichen, Duncan Ross, is missing.

        There seems to have been two places called Balcherry in Dornoch parish, one of which was in the Embo area. An 1805 Labour List, which I assume was transcribed in the original order, shows properties in the following order – ….. Mains of Embo, Achintreasurer, Hilltown, Balcherry, Fishertown…. And, later on, ……Mains of Pronsie, Balcherry of Pronsie.. (neither Balcherry exists today). If this is correct then Murdoch Macleod could have been living on Embo Estate in 1822.

        I still think that when the Society referred to “Embo” they were referring to the small estate of that name centred on Embo House rather than the village of that name which exists today. The crofts at Hilton (Embo Street) which look down to Dornoch from the north were at the southern edge of Embo Estate. If you look back to the old birth, marriage and death records for people living at Hilton in the early 1800s, you will see some entries showing Hilton of Embo or Hilltown of Embo but most simply show the address as Embo and, indeed, entries can be seen as late as the 1860s and 1870s which give the address of Hilton crofters as just Embo. Valuation Rolls in the 1880s still listed the houses in the village as “Fishertown, Embo”.

        Nothing above means that the school couldn’t have been in the fishing village of Embo but, if that was the case, when the Rev Kennedy wrote in 1823 that ” He goes, at my request, every third Sabbath, to a fishing village in the neighbourhood, to teach them in the evening” would he not have been more likely to have said “..another fishing village..” ?

      • Thanks for checking the lists in the appendix. I think you are probably right – that the first teacher was Sutherland and he was then replaced with Murdoch MacLeod.
        SSGS teachers were rarely accommodated by proprietors. Usually one of the requirements for getting an SSGS school was that the community would need to provide (often build) a schoolhouse and accommodation. Of course sometimes the teacher would live locally anyway, so perhaps that wasn’t necessary, and sometimes, if the proprietor were a particular supporter of the SSGS, s/he would provide a house or money to build a house. So I would keep an open mind as to where the teacher might be living. It would be close to the school I imagine, unless the teacher already lived in the area, or unless (as was the case at one point in Mull) the house was between two townships several miles apart, in which case I imagine the teacher lived in one township or the other.
        I assumed the teacher at Creich was one of the very very few examples of female teachers for the SSGS. I have never come across the name before in the C19th Highlands – do you have any thoughts on that?
        Interesting observations on what the labour lists include and don’t include. I wonder if people moving around might affect their accuracy as well?
        I am glad you said that neither Balcherry exists today! I was rather surprised that I had never heard of it/them before! Was Achintreasurer the same as Achinchanter, do you think?
        I am interested in your points about the naming of various parts of the Embo estate. The naming practices on the valuation rolls do seem to be a valuable source here, distinguishing (Hilton) of Embo and Fishertown. While I wouldn’t put too much stock in the precise choice of phrasing of the reporting minister (‘a fishing village’ vs ‘another fishing village’), the odds for your theory are stacking up! So if I understand you correctly, you think the school was probably at Hilton of Embo and the fishing village mentioned was probably what we think of now as the village of Embo?

      • I wasn’t suggesting the school was necessarily at Hilton, just somewhere on the Embo estate other than what is now the village. Hilton is probably too near Dornoch to site a school. I don’t know the exact location of Balcherry or Achintreasurer – there were also crofts at Embo Muir. I think the minister’s fishing village must have been what is now the village of Embo.

        The 1805 List shows Achinchanter and Achintreasurer as two different places. The 1822 List seems to call Achintreasurer “Achintresalich”.

        I was a bit puzzled by the name “Magdalene”. It certainly looks and sounds like a woman’s name but I wasn’t sure if there were female teachers in the Society’s schools at that time.

  4. The SSGS tended to aim towards the type of children who would be unable to access a parish school – they would not have the money for fees, they could not speak English, or they were needed to work – so Hilton’s distance from Dornoch need not have been a factor.
    There were very very few female teachers. The only other one was near Gairloch (or perhaps Ullapool), again in the early years of the SSGS. Her father had previously run a school with her assistance and it seems like she was continuing it, being well-respected and popular locally. Certainly unusual.

    • I would like to find out exactly where Balcherry was located. Do you have any idea what the name means? It is obviously a Gaelic corruption and “Bal” usually means farm but that’s as far as my Gaelic knowledge goes.

      • Balcherry means township of the quarter, ie quarter of a davoch land measure. There is (or was) another Balcherry near Bonar Bridge

      • I have looked at the family names at Balcherry in the 1805 and 1822 Labour Lists and they seem to be the same as those at East Hilton in the 1841 Census. The families at East Hilton can be tracked through the later censuses to show that it was that part of Hilton which lies to the east of the present day Embo to Dornoch road.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s