The Mysteries of Croick Church

This week’s post is submitted by Graham Hannaford who is studying from his home in Australia for his Masters in ‘Highlands and Islands History’ at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He recently visited Sutherland to attend the ‘Land and People in the Northern Highlands’ conference in Bettyhill. On his way north, he stopped by Croick.

Croick church, dating from 1827, is twenty-four miles due west from Dornoch. A Thomas Telford-designed church, its place in history was cemented in 1845 as the scene of an infamous episode of the Highland clearances.

Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

In 1842, James Gillanders, factor to an absent landlord, attempted to evict the Glencalvie tenants for sheep. His efforts finally succeeded on 24 May 1845 when eighteen families were cleared from their homes. The Times report of the events was quoted on 12 June 1845 in the UK Parliament during the often-times acrimonious debate on the Poor Law (Scotland) Amendment Bill:

Mr Crawford MP: He referred to the dispossessment of the tenantry of Ardgay near Tain, Ross-shire, parish of Kincardner [sic], the inhabitants of Glencalvie. “These families, consisting of ninety-two individuals, supported themselves in comparative comfort without a pauper amongst them; owed no rent, and were ready to pay as much as anyone would give for the land, which they and their forefathers had occupied for centuries. With the exception of two individuals who were permitted to remain, the whole of the people left the glen on Saturday afternoon and took refuge in their churchyard. They had been round to every heritor and factor in the neighbourhood, and twelve out of the eighteen families had been unable to find shelter. Behind the church a long kind of booth was erected, the roof formed of tarpauling stretched over poles, the sides closed in with horsecloths, rugs, blankets, and plaids. This was the refuge of the Glencalvie people. With their bedding and their children, they all removed late on Saturday afternoon to this place of temporary shelter. A fire was kindled in the churchyard, round which the poor children clustered; two cradles with infants in them were placed close to the fire. Of the people who passed the night in the churchyard with most insufficient shelter, twenty-three were children under ten years of age, seven persons were sickly and in bad health, and ten above sixty years of age, about eight are young married men; there are a few grown-up children, and the rest are persons in middle life, from forty to fifty years of age. On the Monday following they met the agent, who paid them the amount agreed upon for their stock, and their proportion for going out peaceably. The sum they had to receive is evidence that they were not in the condition of paupers; but this sum will soon be spent and then they must become paupers.”

Perhaps the refugees chose to shelter in the churchyard rather than in the church itself because that would have seemed to them a desecration. In 1843, following a schism, the congregation in the established church had shrunk to ten and most of those for whom the church was built had joined the Free Church whose ministers were quick to draw attention to the Glencalvie evictions. Was the church refused to them as a place of refuge because of the schism? Perhaps, more pragmatic considerations prevailed: did the placement of pews in the church render it unsuitable for even a temporary residence for so many people?

Pews inside Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Pews inside Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Messages scratched on the church windows include: “Glencalvie people was in the churchyard here May 24 1845” and “The Glencalvie tenants resided here May 24 1845” and, most poignantly, “Glencalvie People the wicked generation Glencalvie”. They are in copperplate handwriting, in English. The reporter to The Times claimed he could not speak to the people, as they knew only Gaelic and he only English. However the New Statistical Account of the parish, written only five years before these events, recorded that, while Gaelic remained the dominant language, “the greater proportion” of the thirty-five pupils at the parish school, which was then situated beside the church, could read and write English as well as Gaelic. The long existence of the parish school, and the sporadic appearance of Gaelic Schools in the glen itself since the mid 1810s, suggests that a good number of the Glencalvie people could read or write one or both languages. We will never know which individuals took the time to inscribe those messages in such a permanent way.

Ironically, the sheep for which the people were cleared have now long gone. Glencalvie is now part of a sporting estate.

Landscape around Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Landscape around Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Edinburgh: 1845)
Richards E., A History of the Highland Clearances: Agrarian Transformation and the Evictions1746-1886 (London: Croom Helm, 1982)
Richards E., The Highland Clearances (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008)
For the full debate on the Poor Law (Scotland) Amendment Bill see (The text quoted above was been slightly amended to improve readability.)


3 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Croick Church

  1. Visited Croick yesterday really enjoyed the visit seeing the inside of the church and the long communium pews totally different from other churches. Hope to go back for a service next summer and take communium. Thank you Graham for your write up

  2. We visited and were saddened by their plight. Travel books are amiss in not recommending this as a valuable part of Scottish history. I wish the current parishioners all the best. marilyn brown

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