Isabella’s Story, Part 3: Of Babies, Houses and Husbands

After her wedding, Isabella travelled north to take up residence in the ‘low, uncomfortable cottage of two rooms and a closet, not far from the old ruin of Dirlot’. There she ran her household for three years as her husband traversed the district, mainly on foot, accompanied by his gillie or kirk-officer.

A later set of buildings at Dirlot, Caithness. Not far away is an old graveyard and a little further along the road the ruins of a church. Sometimes places that seem remote today were community hubs not that long ago.

A later set of buildings at Dirlot, Caithness. Not far away is an old graveyard and a little further along the road the ruins of a church. Sometimes places that seem remote today were community hubs not that long ago. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Almost a year and nine months after her wedding Isabella gave birth to her first-born. Elizabeth was followed in March 1787 with Jane. A few months later Isabella and Alexander bundled the babies and sticks of furniture onto ponies and carts for the move south to the vast parish of Kildonan. Their income rose from a relatively humble £40 to £70: a lot to many of the people to whom they ministered, but not in comparison to other ministers or gentry. Isabella became mistress of Kildonan manse, half way up the fertile Strath, scattered with cattle, grain and whisky producing townships. Unlike the longhouses that everyone else occupied, the Sages had a lime and stone-built house bracketed with gables and chimneys which smoked instead of drawing the fumes upwards. On the ground floor were a parlour, bed-room, and a closet. Upstairs were a dining-room, bed-room, and another closet. In the attic storey were two garrets, one fitted up as a bed-room, the other a storeroom used for lumber. The house was nightmarish to keep clean as the walls were ‘cat and clay, plastered over with lime’, finished with a coat of whitewash which came off on everything that touched it: on visitors’ coats, on Isabella’s skirts, and on every part of active toddlers. There were not just those three floors to heat, light and clean, but also the two low buildings stretching out from the manse which contained, on the west, the nursery, kitchen and byre, and on the east, the barn and stable. Each compartment was divided from the next by the inadequate ‘cat and clay’, so fairly soon humans and animals could eye each other through the gaps. Like their neighbours’ longhouses, the office roofs were constructed of turf and finished with clay and straw, never quite keeping out the worst of the rain. Muck was constantly trailed in from the rick-yard, the kiln and the cattle-fold. The manse was the centre of an active farm. Ministers were granted the use of a glebe as part of their pay. In Alexander’s case this was fifty acres. He was not terribly interested in the agricultural improvements that so excited many of his colleagues so the land continued to be operated without many changes.

Despite the promotion from missionary to fully-fledged minister, the move came with major financial challenges for the young couple. They had to buy furniture for a larger house, stock a considerable glebe, and they decided to lease a farm. They contracted debts and money was extremely tight. Isabella, blessed with a sense of humour, would say, ‘is bochd so, is bhi bochd roimh’ (out of the fire into the embers).

Money was not the only challenge. Alexander was not immediately accepted by locals. He was rather uncompromising and rather willing to challenge people’s wrongdoing. He was a slow thinker, needing much time to study a matter. His difficulties with catching on and finding words to express his ideas was exacerbated by a shyness which confused him, often rendering him speechless. A number of his parishioners were far more pious than he. His faith deepened as he increased in age, but Kildonan’s key church members were not impressed with the new man. His problems were compounded by his temper. Isabella was vital in smoothing his path. Unlike him she was reflective, with a deep faith and a sharp mind. She was patient and mild. It was she who had the difficult job of checking her husband’s anger, protecting both him and others from it.

To be continued…

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

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