Bessy and John, Part 1: The Kincardine Fair

This week’s post is the first in a series, using one document from the National Archives concerning one young couple, to explore themes of family, sex, community and the Highland economy in the opening years of the nineteenth century.

Beside the road at Ardgay is a large lump of white quartzite.  A plaque beneath it explains that it is the clach eiteag, and that in ‘former times’ the market was held wherever the stone was.  Having the market was a great boost to a village so legend has it that the stone was sometimes secretly moved!  By the mid-eighteenth century the three day long feill eiteachan was held each November in Kincardine parish on the south side of the Kyle of Sutherland.


The clach eiteag, Ardgay.  From the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

In 1813 two young people, Bessy MacKay and her cousin John MacKay, walked the few miles east from their home in Inveran to attend the fair.  At the confluence of three drove roads, the fair drew cattle dealers from across Sutherland and Assynt.  Cattle were critical to family economies.  Most households would have two or three.  They would sell the two year old to the drover who added it to his herd and drove it to Kincardine for sale.  Payment, minus a profit margin for the drover, was delivered to each household when he returned.  In a local economy where cash was fairly scarce, this income was usually used towards the rent.  In the few days before the fair whole herds slowly wended their way slowly south and east from their hill pastures, on the first stage of their journey to the butchers and dinner plates of the south.  They could cover about 10 miles a day without losing condition.  The riverside meadows at Ardgay, rented out to the drovers the night before the fair, would have been thick with the small, hairy beasts and with entrepreneurial dealers, examining each other’s stock, making offers and counter offers.  At Kincardine in the 1790s cattle were selling for £3-£5 a head.  The inns were noisy with wheeling and dealing as the cattle of the small-time drovers were sold and added to bigger herds going further south, eventually to Crieff, Falkirk and Carlisle.  Cattle sales were critical for local economies and for individual families.  If a poor deal was made or an animal died, tenants fell into debt and arrears.

On market day, butter and cheese also did a swift trade.  Bessy MacKay, being the woman of the household, might well have been selling dairy produce made by herself from the animals grazing on the land her father joint-tenanted at Inveran.  When it was all sold, she and John would have wandered around, watching how the cattle were selling and catching up with family acquaintances.  There were probably stalls selling food, and entertainers in the street, just like there would be today, plus military recruiters hanging around the inns ready to offer the king’s shilling to those made brave by drink.   The Ledichan or Kincardine Market was a business opportunity, but it was also a place to relax and enjoy some fun, especially for hard-working young people.  A room in an inn would probably have been too public in this community where all local faces were known, but at some point amongst the frolics and the hard-headed deals, maybe on the walk home, Bessy and John found some time to be alone together.  A few moments which were later described as ‘criminal connection’.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

The Old Statistical Account (1791), Kincardine Parish, Vol. 3

The Clach Eiteag

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