Last week James Hunter launched his new book in Dornoch, at an extraordinarily well-attended event organised by the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. People from all over the north connected with Jim and who share his passion for the history, and the future, of the Highlands and Islands gathered to congratulate him and to purchase truckloads of the volume with which to bless all their friends and relatives this Christmas. Weel-kent faces were easy to spot. There was John MacDonald, Rogart who showed Jim the documents about Ascoilemore which first inspired this book. And Malcolm Bangor-Jones, Inverkirkaig, whose meticulous research into eighteenth and nineteenth-century Sutherland ensured the accuracy of commentary about the evictions. Elizabeth Ritchie of the Centre for History interviewed Jim about the research for, and implications of, his book and a thought-provoking time was had by all.
“Jessie Ross’s life began to be taken apart at about two p.m. on Thursday 31 May 1821. That was when as many as ten or a dozen men took possession of the Ross family home in the Strath Brora community of Ascoilemore. Those men were there to evict this young mother, her two small daughters, aged five and three, and her two-month old baby girl. They were also there to empty the house of everything the Rosses owned.
Jessie’s baby, Roberta, had been born less than a year after another baby, a boy who did not live. In just twenty months, then, Jessie Ross had been through two pregnancies – one of which had ended tragically. Unsurprisingly, she was not in good health. This was of no concern to the men invading Jessie’s home. Their remit was to make way for the expansion of a nearby sheep farm by ridding Ascoilemore of its inhabitants.
The man in charge of proceedings, a sheriff-officer called Donald Bannerman, began by ordering out the two Ross girls, Elizabeth and Katherine. Their mother, however, refused to go with them – in the hope, it seems, that her continued presence would lead to the family’s belongings being handled with at least a little care. ‘She would not leave … until the whole furniture was off,’ it was afterwards explained. On Jessie Ross also refusing to help move the wooden cradle in which her baby was sleeping, one of the party, William Stevenson by name, picked it up – roughly and angrily it was said – with a view to carrying both cradle and baby outside.
Perhaps, as would be alleged, Stevenson was drunk – he and his colleagues having got through ten bottles of whisky the previous night and another three that morning. Or perhaps he was just clumsy. At all events, Stevenson somehow ran the cradle up against the Ross home’s door or doorframe. Two-month old Roberta, though not tumbled out, was shaken awake and began to cry in alarm. She was still in distress when her cradle was set down in such shelter as an exterior dyke or wall provided from a chill wind out of the north-east.
Although Ascoilemore’s other residents had been evicted the day before, there were still people in the vicinity – some of whom now came to the Rosses’ assistance. Among them was a woman called Mary Murray. Like Jessie Ross, she was a nursing mother and, doing something that would be thought unacceptable today – but which, judging by the matter of fact way it was spoken about, must have been standard practice then – Mary quietened Roberta’s cries, a bystander said, by ‘giving the child a suck’ at her own breast.
The older Ross children were not so easily comforted. Not long after the evicting party got to work, Elizabeth, the five-year old, was struck in the face by a piece of planking thrown from inside the house – the culprit again being Stevenson. She too began to cry and, though her crying was said to have stopped after ‘quarter of an hour’, neither Elizabeth nor Katherine, her sister, could have been anything other than traumatised by what was happening to them. Both were reported to have ‘looked cold’ and to have been ‘trembling’ or shivering – their misery compounded by the fact that they had, or were incubating, whooping cough.
Nowadays rare, thanks to a vaccine developed in the 1950s, whooping cough was once a common childhood illness. Its symptoms – usually including a fever and the drawn-out cough from which the infection got its name – were always unpleasant, sometimes severe and occasionally fatal. What happened to the three-year old Katherine Ross some three weeks after the events of 31 May, then, might have happened anyway. But when Katherine died, it is understandable that her father, Gordon Ross, unavoidably elsewhere when his wife and children were evicted, should have insisted that his daughter’s death resulted from what he called the ‘inhuman treatment’ she had experienced the day the Ross family’s home was taken from them.”
Relaunches of “Set Adrift Upon the World” are taking place in Inverness, Helmsdale and Bettyhill if you feel you have missed out and would like to participate! Copies of the book can be sourced in the usual places.