Isabella’s Story, Part 1: A Child of the Manse

This four part story began almost two hundred and sixty four years ago. Isabella Fraser’s life tells us a little of the experience of middling class women in the Highlands, and it illustrates the strong connections east Sutherland had with Easter Ross and Caithness long before the road and rail constructing mania of the nineteenth century.

On the 14th of January 1751, a little daughter was born to Donald and Jean Fraser. That day little Isabella would have been introduced to her big brothers: Simon who was almost three, and eighteen month old Alexander. The household at Killearnan manse continued to expand when Marjory was born just over a year later and young Donald four years after that. The Frasers were substantial people in Easter Ross and the Inverness area. Their families were tenants and clergymen. After college Donald had been a tutor to Lord Lovat’s family. He was about forty when Isabella was born. While his growing family might have given him joy, his career and health were less positive. He was failing to make much progress with his parishioners, finding them ignorant and obstinate. His health was dubious: he was afflicted with pains and a sleeping problem which worsened in these early years of fatherhood. It reached such seriousness that he started to fall asleep in the pulpit, between the singing of the first psalm and the prayer. Nobody knew what caused it, though the exhaustion of four or five young children at home cannot have helped. Local people ascribed it to witchcraft and he agreed. The explanation was that he had offended two women known to be witches. People said they had made a clay effigy of him, laid it in the dunghill, and stuck pins in it, giving Donald the pains and the narcolepsy.

When Isabella was six, Donald moved his family across the Cromarty Firth to the parish of Urquhart or Ferintosh on the Black Isle. A few days after he was inducted, Jean gave birth to a girl named Jane. To sustain his family on his small stipend Donald decided to lease the mill at Alcaig, a mile or two along the road from the manse. His parishioners did not approve.

The burn at Alcaig. There is no trace of an eighteenth-century meal mill here now, although the site of a more recent saw mill is well known. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie

The burn at Alcaig. There is no trace of an eighteenth-century meal mill here now, although the site of a more recent saw mill is well known. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie

‘One day he met with a parishioner, on his way home from Alcaig, a shrewd though quite an illiterate person. “Well, Thomas,” said the minister, accosting him familiarly, “how are you, and what is your news?” “Very bad news indeed,” said Thomas, “I am informed that our minister’s wife has taken up with the big miller of Alcaig.”’
Donald got the message. As soon as he got home he resigned his lease. Despite money being tight and his social misjudgement of the mill, Donald was happier in Urquhart and his ministry seemed more successful. His health problems soon disappeared. Perhaps the pins had been withdrawn from the clay figurines, or perhaps he was no longer stressed or depressed.

Isabella was a bright child. She would have received some schooling. It is possible that she attended the parish school for a few years, but almost certainly she was tutored by her mother and father. Her brother Alexander went off to Marischal College in Aberdeen. Isabella’s eldest brother, Simon, enlisted with the East India Company. India was a popular, if dangerous, place to make your mark on the world. Simon did not succeed. Sometime in 1770 news arrived at the manse, possibly by letter, that Simon had died in Calcutta, probably one of the many victims of tropical disease. Less than three years later there were new ructions in the Fraser family. At the age of twenty two, Isabella lost her father. The date was 7th April 1773. The family had to vacate the manse. Isabella, her mother and sisters packed up their belongings and moved to a new home on the small farm at Alcaig where the mill was. Some small compensation was that only a month or so afterwards Alexander was settled as minister of Kirkhill, only ten or so miles south. The very same year Isabella’s younger sister Marjory got married. The twenty one year old wed John Fraser, another minister in a neighbouring parish: Kiltarlity. In all probability young Donald had left home so, although Alexander and Marjory were not too far away, the house at Alcaig must have felt very quiet to Isabella, her sixteen year old sister Jane, and her mother. It is not clear how the three women made their living. Presumably Alexander, John Fraser and perhaps young Donald provided for them. There may have been some money from the Church of Scotland or even from the local landowner. They probably managed the farm at Alcaig and gained some income from the produce or from sub-letting. They may have made some money, or at least provided for themselves, like other ordinary eighteenth-century women: through producing cheese, milk, butter, eggs and by spinning.

To be continued…

Alcaig: in the eighteenth century this would have been a farming township set in the fertile land of the Black Isle. The land would have been arranged in runrig (strip cultivation) rather than in today's big fields, which were created in the nineteenth century. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie.

Alcaig: in the eighteenth century this would have been a farming township set in the fertile land of the Black Isle. The land would have been arranged in runrig (strip cultivation) rather than in today’s big fields, which were created in the nineteenth century. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie.

Sources:
Hew Strachan (ed), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica

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