This week’s post is by Malcolm Bangor-Jones. Malcolm is a civil servant who makes regular contributions on Sutherland’s history to the ‘Am Bratach’ newsletter and to various academic publications.
In November 1741 James Sutherland lay sick in bed at Aberscross. James was Sutherland of Pronsie, wadsetter (or mortgage holder) to the Earl of Sutherland who had a controlling interest in the Skelbo estate in which Pronsie sat. The family had possessed Pronsienaird since early in the seventeenth century. James’ grandfather had expanded the family’s influence in 1679 and in 1687 by obtaining the wadset of Knockarthur and Easter Aberscross: the place where his grandsons, first James then William, were to die of the “rageing Distemper”.
Isabella Grant had only been married to James for six years when she was widowed. She was left with two daughters, Margaret and Jean. Later Isabella married Dr John Gordon, surgeon at Golspietower and later of Jamaica. James did not leave his affairs in good order. He had not made up his title to his property (never a good sign) and was succeeded by his brother, David, who did not either. This David Sutherland of Knockarthur was generally agreed to be “remarkably weak in his understanding [and] altogether unfitt for manageing the affairs of [Margaret and Jean]”. Efforts were made to overturn his appointment. This was part of the battle over who should administer the affairs of the girls, and over the Isabella’s jointure. Both ‘sides’ appealed to the Earl of Sutherland for support. For the Earl, James’s death meant the loss of one of his political ‘friends’ or voters at a time when his political contest with the Mackays was intensifying.
As well as casting light on regional politics, the legal tussling over power and money after James’ death left a series of financial accounts about his funeral. These tell us about how minor gentry in the Highlands dealt with death and how they spent money at funerals to bolster their status.
Kenneth Sutherland, a joiner as well as bailie and sheriff substitute, in Dornoch charged for a “WenScot Cophin” £3; a “Box for Do Intralls” 6 shillings [30p]; the cost of “ane Express for Carriing” them to Aberscross 1 shilling [5p]; “Blaking ye Kirk Doors of Dornoch” 7 shillings [35p]; “Making the Funrall Table” 10 shillings [50p]; cash for “ale to Men for takeing off & putting on ye Grave Stons” 1 shilling 6d [7½p].
Andrew MacCulloch, bailie of Dornoch, charged for borrowing two mortcloths from the church (the funds from the mortcloths went towards assisting the poor), “Toleing the Great Bell for ii Days”, “the Litle Bell & making of the Grave”, and paying “the Beadle for going to Aberscorss with the Mort Cloaths”. That account came to just over £2. MacCulloch also furnished liquor: “3 Doz: 4  Botles Claret & Zerry” £4; 3 “Botles Spirits” 6s; ale 1s; and candles 2s. Alexander Gray of Inverbrora, the renowned drover, added “two Dozen Botles Cherry for Pronsies Funeralls” at a cost of £1 16s [£1.80].
The corpse needed to be carried from Aberscross to Dornoch to be interred. John Polson, tacksman of Navidale, and John Peterkin provided victuals and drink to over 30 men from the parishes of Loth and Golspie. Polson’s account included “Conveening at Geo: Mcpherson house Kintradwell for Eale”. [This was probably the Wilkhouse Inn.] Peterkin provided rum and ale as well as ‘meat’ or food for the coffin carriers.
Various goods for the funeral, at a cost of £14 10s sterling, were sourced from Nicolas Ross, a merchant in Tain. The list included: “2 Ounces Cinnamon, 1 oz netmoogg [nutmeg], 1oz Mace, ½ pound black Spice, ½ pd Jemaicca Spice, 2 pound Rice, 2 pds Raisens, 2 pounds Currens, 2 pds pruins, 6 pounds pouder Suggar, 7 pounds 5 ozs loaf Suggar” – ingredients for a plum cake. He also supplied mourning materials: “3½ yards Cambrick @ 8/6, 1½ yards Do finer @ 10/, 6 yards black Ribeen, 5 Drops Dark blew Silk, Ane Card black Slive Buttons, a pair of black Stockens”. And he provided yet more drink: “6 Dozen and 1 Bottle Clerret,1 Dozen and 1 Botle white wine, 1 Botle best Clerret”, four bottles of vinegar, four bottles of brandy, four bottles of rum, and then a further two dozen bottles of white wine and two dozen flint wine glasses.
The accounts tell us a good deal about the arrangements although we must guess at some aspects. It seems there was a relatively protracted watch between the death and the burial, hence the need for Pronsie being disembowelled. His body was placed in the wooden ‘wainscot’ coffin and his entrails in a box. During this extended wake, which was typical of this sort of funeral, ‘guests’ would enjoy hospitality and view the deceased. Invitations may have been sent out to relatives, friends and acquaintances of equal or higher degree. Some would have come a distance. The hospitality may have included funeral bread baked with flour rather than meal, and it certainly included plum cake. There was a good deal of alcohol which could give rise to ‘unseemly’ behaviour. The funeral procession involved the wider community, not only of Dornoch but including men from at least as far off as Loth and Golspie. The kirk bells were rung announcing the death and a hand bell was probably rung alongside the funeral procession.
Just as in the Lowlands, these elaborate and public arrangements were what was expected of a minor gentry family at this period. It was a way in which social status was marked, whether the Sutherlands of Pronsie could readily afford it or not.