The Factor, the Amazon and the Fiery Little Antagonist

Had you walked through Dornoch of a Saturday night in the closing years of the eighteenth century, you might have spotted the indomitable Christina Leslie wrestling drunken patrons out of her inn.

Christina was born at Meikleferry, probably in the early 1760s.  She was an “amazon in size and strength” being over six feet tall and “her person [being] extremely robust”.  This came in handy on market day when “fierce, disorderly fellows quarrelled and fought with each other there, like so many mastiffs”.  When trouble broke out she launched herself into the fray, backed up by her Lochbroom-born ostler Donald, known as Ton’l in gentle mockery of his Gaelic accent.  “When her guests were fixed in each other’s throats, Mrs. Leslie made short work with them, by planting a grip with each hand on the back of their necks, tearing them apart, and finally by holding them until her ostler, by repeated and strong applications of his fists, had sufficiently impressed them with a sense of their conduct.”  Apparently she was less fearsome when not having to deal with disorderly fellows, having an “expansive countenance” and “mild expression”.  Christina’s forte was physical force, but her husband’s was verbal.

Hugh Leslie was an innkeeper, but was also the fiscal and the procurator in Dornoch Sheriff Court.  The performances between him and his legal opponent, Hugh Ross, were a source of great entertainment.  A schoolboy recollected that “Hugh Leslie’s bodily presence was always made known by his cough. During play-time I would frequently spend half an hour in the court-house, and I have often come upon Hugh Leslie in the midst of one of his forensic orations. He made use of no ingenuity of argument, or of special pleading; but he took up all the strong points of the case, and battered away at them, until, in ten cases for one, he was ultimately successful. … Poor Leslie’s arguments, which he delivered with such heat and rapidity, that he could neither illustrate them with sufficient clearness of expression, nor very distinctly remember them when he had finished, his cool and more able opponent took up one by one, and demolished, with pointed wit and sarcasm.  Ross held up all his words and arguments, from first to last, in a light so distorted and so perfectly ludicrous, that his fiery little antagonist could not recognise them again, but, starting to his feet, while Hugh [Ross] was going on, he would hold up both his hands, and, trembling with rage, cry out, ‘0, such lies! such lies! did ever you hear the like?’ These explosions of temper Ross met by a graceful bow to the bench, and a request to the Sheriff to maintain the decency of the court.”

The couple had twelve children.  In 1790 their sixth was born and named after the first who had died in infancy.  Angus Leslie attended the school at Dornoch and was eventually employed by the Duke of Sutherland as one of his under-factors on the Strathnaver district of the estate.  In Strathnaver some of Scotland’s most notorious clearances were implemented from 1814.  Angus was involved in enforcing the evictions.  One of the families he evicted was that of a stonemason named Donald MacLeod.  MacLeod was also a small crofter in Strathy on the north coast.  Leslie turned him and his family out of his house and croft in the middle of winter, during a heavy snowstorm, and, at the same time, forbade any of his neighbours, for miles around, to give them shelter.  Angus had picked on the wrong man.  Donald MacLeod was a highly literate, intelligent man who decided to fight back.  He wrote a series of letters in the Edinburgh Courant and a pamphlet, which reflected “very severely, not only on Leslie’s action, but upon the measures taken by the late Duchess of Sutherland against her Highland tenantry.”  One of the ironies is that only a few years before Angus turned the MacLeods out of their house with needless harshness his own father, Hugh, would have been involved in the arrest and imprisonment of another Sutherland factor, Patrick Sellar, for doing similar.  After MacLeod’s work was published, Angus resigned his position and instead took up the farm of Torboll, by Loch Fleet: a more peaceful living than factoring, or even being a lawyer or an innkeeper.

Image

The ‘Edinburgh Evening Courant’: the newspaper in which MacLeod’s denunciations of Angus Leslie were published. Please note this is illustrative – it is not the edition that MacLeod was published in.

Source: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]

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2 thoughts on “The Factor, the Amazon and the Fiery Little Antagonist

  1. I enjoyed reading this bit of Sutherland history and have learned just a little about the highland clearances. However, I am wondering if Hugh, Christina, and Angus Leslie in your blog are somehow connected with my own Leslie roots in Dornoch. (Having heard a bit about how hard the clearances were for most folk and Angus’s apparent lake of consideration here I am almost hoping there is not a direct connection!)

    I have another Angus Leslie in my family tree, he was christened in Dornoch on Mar. 31, 1807, and is the brother of my great-great-grandfather Robert Leslie (christened Sep. 18, 1805). Robert and Angus also had a sister Christie. Seeing as how a couple names are in common there may be a family relationship here! Their parents were Ebenezer Leslie and Mary MacKay married Mar. 11, 1802 in Dornoch. However I’ve not been able to trace my family history back father than this, other than knowing the dates Ebenezer’s father lived (1745 – 1837) from a letter sent to my great-great-grandfather now in my uncle’s possession.

    Robert Leslie settled in Canada (East Williams township, Ontario) sometime in the 1830s and was a farmer and stonemason. I’m four generations down the line. I don’t know if anyone reading this will know of these ancestors but if you do, please post here. I’ve had a hard time reaching back any further!

    Thanks for taking the time to read my story.

    Gordon Thompson
    Orangeville, Ontario, Canada

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