Wade Cormack is the post-holder for the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. He is completing his second year of research and writing. He is exploring early modern sport and the cultural history of the Moray Firth.
Four centuries ago on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth there was a sight to behold. Hundreds of people amassed on the sands at Portnaculter, present-day Meikle Ferry, at low tide to participate in what can be described as a folk horse-race/mass fishing expedition. An account of this peculiar practice was cemented in history by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun in A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. Gordon explained that in the spring and summer when the streams ran into the firth at low tide, six to seven hundred of ‘the commoun sort of inhabitant doe convene on hors-bak… and so doe swim toards these sands; and when they doe aryve upon these beds of sand, incontinent they run their horses at full speed, stryveing who can first aryve at the fishing place, wher they doe indevoar, with all dilli-gence to tak these [sand eels].’ These small fish were actual sand eels. The race quickly could become chaotic and cutthroat: ‘as they doe run their horses, the rest doe tak no notice thereof to res-cue them, bot suffer them to ly ther among the horse feitt, and run on their intendit course’. Even watching the racers pounding across the beach at low timed towards the sandbanks would have been tremendously exciting.
We don’t know much about horse racing in the Moray Firth. There are just a few accounts at Tain, Inverness, Banff, Huntly and Aberdeen from the 1630s until the mid-nineteenth century. However, these events seem well organised and attracted gentlemen from a large area. The Inverness race attracted men from as far away as Inverlochy Castle, near Fort William. Each race had a silver prize for the winner. The prizes included a silver cup at Inverness (the patron unknown), a silver cup at Banff, engraved silver hilted broad swords at the Huntly and silver plate at Aberdeen provided by the Dukes of Gordon.
The race at Meikle Ferry was not quite the same as these highly organised and prestigious events. The trophies for the winner of this race were full bellies for months to come. The race for the sand eels was not just about stocking the larder. Gordon noted that ‘they tak such abundance during some few days, that it sufficeth them for pro-visions of that kind of fish during lent, and most pairt of the yeir following’. It is clear that taking the fish also served a religious purpose. Sport in this period functioned on two levels: it was exciting recreation and it provided the people of Sutherland the opportunity to gather the fish they required for this holy period. Unfortunately the history of many of these folk races has been lost, along with other folk sports, as they were part of larger events and either no record of them were created or survive. This is especially true when no official prize was given. Gordon’s account of the race therefore provides a rare window into the past demonstrating the presence of folk horse racing on the Dornoch Firth.
The sands at Meikle Ferry were not the only location for horse racing. Gordon provides a little hint of forgotten races on the links at Dornoch. As ‘about this toun… ther are the fairest and largest linkes… of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding, and all other exercise; they doe surpasse the feilds of Montrose or St Andrews’. Across the Firth, the Tain links were also a site of horseracing as well as golf up until the mid-nineteenth century. After that part of the links were ploughed. Just as elsewhere around the Moray Firth, the people who lived around the Dornoch Firth were very active horse racers. At Meikle Ferry the invigorating recreational pursuit was interwoven with the celebration of Lent, and fish, rather than silver, was the prize. The frenzy of activity at Portnaculter, leaving deep hoof prints in the mud, was an exciting community occasion. Was it sport induced madness or an extreme fishing expedition? I am sure for participants it was both, as the galloped at full speed towards the best fishing spots leaving the neighbours behind.
Robert Gordon, Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its Origin to the Year 1630: with a Continuation to the Year 1651 (Edinburgh, 1813).
Black’s Picturesque Tourist Guide to Scotland (Edinburgh, 1852).
William Mackay (ed.), The Chronicles of the Frasers: The Wardlaw Manuscript…The True Genealogy of the Frasers 916-1674 (Edinburgh, 1905).
Papers of the Gordon Family, Dukes of Gordon (Gordon Castle Muniments), GD44, National Archives of Scotland.