Donald’s Journey Part 3

We last found Donald, his travelling companions and several horses bobbing around on a ferry crossing Loch Fleet.  Dornoch was within a few miles, but they had come far that day so they made for Embo House.  The owners of Embo House were Gordons, connected to the powerful Sutherland family whose base was at Dunrobin and who would soon make themselves unpopular by clearing people out of Kildonan and Strathnaver.  Mr Gordon built the house to impress the very few people in Sutherland who had the vote, in hopes of becoming an MP.  He gained many votes but failed to get elected, although by doing so he gained the enmity of the House of Sutherland.  By the time the Sage party turned up on the doorstep, the house was rented by a prosperous farmer named Kenneth MacKay who held lands at Embo, and further to the north at Torboll.  The MacKays were well established in the area and were distant relations of the Sages (and everyone else!)

“My father reminded me that it was getting late, and that we must make the best use of our time, as Embo was still at a considerable distance. We arrived there, however, before it got dark, so that I had an opportunity of seeing in fair daylight the most elegant mansion I ever witnessed, with the exception of Dunrobin Castle.  Embo House stood nearly half-way between Dornoch and the Little-Ferry, on the old line of road.  It was the manor-house of a family of Gordons, scions of the Gordons, Earls of Sutherland; and they had held it since the days of Adam, Lord of Aboye, the husband of the Countess Elizabeth. … Robert Hume Gordon, having some years before canvassed the county, with the view of being its representative, in opposition to the influence of the Duchess of Sutherland, built this splendid mansion for the purpose of entertaining the electors.  Mr. Gordon lost his election, yet by a narrow majority. He was supported by the most respectable barons of the county.  Dempster of Skibo, Gordon of Carrol, Gordon of Navidale, Captain Clunes of Cracaig, and Captain Baigrie of Midgarty; and most of those gentlemen, being tacksmen and wadsetters on the Sutherland estate, gave by their opposition to the candidate of the Sutherland family, almost unpardonable offence.  Although Mr. Hume Gordon built the house at great expense, he never intended to reside permanently either in the mansion or in the county; and Embo House and property were now rented by Capt. Kenneth Mackay, who also farmed the place of Torboll from the Sutherland family.

Embo House was constructed very much after the fashion of the houses of the new town of Edinburgh, begun on the north side of the Nor’ Loch on 26th Oct., 1767; the front was of hewn ashlar, and consisted of three distinct houses, the largest and loftiest in the centre, joined to the other two by small narrow passages, each lighted by a window, and forming altogether a very imposing front.  The centre house was four storeys high – first, a ground or rather a sunk floor, then a first, second, and, lastly, an attic storey.  The ground or sunken floor contained the kitchen and cellars, and in front of it was a wall surmounted by an iron railing, resembling exactly the fronts in Princes Street, Edinburgh.  Outer stairs ascended to the principal entry door, and along the whole front of the building extended a pavement.  The lesser houses, or wings, were each of them a storey less in height than the central building; and the attic storeys were lighted from the front wall, instead of from the roof, by windows about precisely half the size of the rest, which greatly added to the effect and beauty of the whole.  Behind were other two wings of the same height with those in front, extending at right angles from the principal buildings.  The interior of the mansion corresponded with its external appearance.  The principal rooms were lofty and elegant, ornamented with rich cornices, and each having two large windows.”


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The house was impressive, but the welcome less so.

“Mrs. Mackay, my stepmother’s half-sister, was a neat little woman, with a pleasing expression of countenance.  She was very lady-like, but she received us with that politeness which might be reckoned the precise boundary between kindness and indifference.  … [Her] children at that time amounted to six – Harriet, Esther, Jean, Lexy, George, and John; they were afterwards increased to fourteen.  We were both sent to sleep upstairs in one of the attics, but I scarcely shut an eye, being so much stunned with the noise of the sea, which, when excited by the east wind, is at Embo perfectly deafening.  Next morning we rode into Dornoch.  The road to the town lay on its south-east side, and, as we approached it, I was almost breathless with wonder at the height of the steeple, and at the huge antique construction of the church.  My father brought us at once to the school.”

Flushed with new experiences, young Donald and Aeneas had arrived at their new home and school where they would stay for the next two years.

For more information about Embo House, see:

And for more of Donald’s memoirs see: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at]

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