On 22nd June 1760, a strange little party made its way along the south banks of the Dornoch Firth. The fifty six year old Bishop of Ossory was touring Scotland. Richard Pococke travelled eastwards, stopping to inspect every ‘Pictish house’ he came across! At Loch Shin they acquired a boat so they could explore an island. He was delighted with the nests, eggs and chicks of the gulls and greylag geese. A sighting of another ‘stone fortress’ two miles up the loch drew them into to the western shoreline. Such excitements could not take their minds off their stomachs for ever. The group spied a ‘Highland cabbin’ and decided to draw on that hospitality that was so necessary in a region in which there were very few inns. Pococke’s observations give us a rare insight into the domestic life of a family who were probably joint tenants, in the generation or two before the clearances.
There were ‘five apartments, one at the entrance seemed to be for the cows, another beyond it for the sheep, and a third, to which there was an entrance only at the end of the house, for other cattle; to the left was the principal room, with a fire in the middle, and beyond that the bed-chamber, and a closet built to it for a pantry; and at the end of the bed-chamber, and of the house, a round window to let out the smoak, there being no chimney. The partitions all of hurdle-work so as one sees through the whole. A great pot of whey was over the fire, of which they were making Frau.’ This dish was also known as omhan. It was essentially whisked cream and was often eaten at Christmas. It was made with a horse-hair whisk, or loinid, in a churn. ‘This they work round and up and down to raise a froth, which they eat out of the pot with spoons, and it had the taste of new milk; then the family, servants and all, sat round it, and eat, the mistress looking on and waiting. She brought us a piggin of cream, and drank to me, and we drank of it round. The dairy is in a building apart.’
Far from finding the barren wilderness that southerners might have expected, Pococke noticed ‘many spots of fine ground in this country, mostly on the side of rivers and streams, and some large ones up the sides of hills. They breed much young cattle and sheep, but not so many I think as the ground would bear. At night they house the sheep all the year, and the poorer people shear in May and November, who have not grass for them abroad.’
When making their way to the ferry at the south end of Loch Shin they met ‘an aged person, who had much the look of a gentlewoman. She had about her shoulders a striped blanket, and saluted us genteely. She was followed by a maid without a cap or fillet, with a bundle at her back’. Pococke was surprised at the young woman’s headgear and discovered that until a Highland women was married, she wore a ribbon in her hair. The old lady was ‘a sort of decayed proprietor, who, I suppose, was going round a-visiting; and as they are very hospitable to all, so they are not uncivil to such unfortunate persons.’ It seems that this lady who had fallen on hard times was being supported by charitable gifts from local people.
No longer any herdboys or women bearing high fat snacks for the traveller in the ‘forrest’ around Ben Kilbreck, but still some dubious accommodation. (Worth visiting for the hundred year-old graffiti). Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.
He crossed on the ferry on 24th June and started for the house of Thomas MacKay, minister in ‘Larig’. MacKay was delighted to see the bishop. He brought cakes and a bottle of wine, and asked if they had eaten breakfast. Pococke was to ‘bless the entertainment’ then MacKay decided to join the group as they journeyed northwards, crossing the Tirry repeatedly ‘to avoid the cutts made by the floods’. As they travelled they talked. Pococke discovered that MacKay’s parish extended up both sides of the loch, yet he was paid only £50 a year. MacKay explained that this was somewhat compensated for as the minister could rent land cheaply. They ascended ‘over the foot of Ben Clibrig, [Klibreck] the Earl of Sutherland’s forrest.’ Although it was still June, to a man used to more southern climes he felt it was like November with the ‘flood gushing out at the side of a mountain.’ As they moved away from the more fertile strath, Pococke came upon the summer grazings. ‘We came to another rivulet and sat down in a sheltered place half a mile beyond some sheelings or huts, to which they come in the summer with their cattle. We asked about the accommodation’. It sounded a bit dubious so they decided just to stop for some food. Some ‘boys came near with their cattle … we invited them to take share’. Word had already got around about the visitors. Just as they were packing up the boys declared that their mother was coming with some refreshments. ‘Immediately she appeared at a good distance; she carried a piggin of cream, and her maid followed her with a small tub covered, which was warm whey. She drank to us, and we took it round and tasted of the whey.’ This good food and friendliness set the party up for their further travels all the way to the north coast, having glimpsed, amongst all the ruins and gulls, a little of the society and economy of the rural Highlands.
Richard Pococke, Tours in Scotland, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&A Constable, 1887)