Last night I was driving back from Ullapool to Dornoch. I took the north road: slightly shorter and faster, though narrow and through a sparsely populated landscape, described as ‘wilderness’ or ‘wild land’ by many. It wasn’t always so desolate. One place, Inveran, overlooking the Kyle of Sutherland epitomises this. Today there are a few houses and a power station, but two hundred years ago it was far more lively.
On a key east-west route, it was well known to cattle drovers and migrant labourers. The cluster of five or six houses shown on General Roy’s 1746 map were separated from its twin township, Invershin, by a narrow stream, the Allt na Ciste Duibhe. In 1776 a visitor described the ‘pleasant prospect: the rich banks of the firth, crowded with farms, and animated with all the appearances of industry; small vessels sailing up and down; people busy for preparing and unloading them; fishermen attending their nets; the ferry boats ready at a call.’
Despite stereotypes of pre-Clearance Highlanders these were no impoverished peasants. The Inveran men were joint tenants: Donald MacKay, his brother in law John Bethune, Alexander Bethune, Alexander Ross, and Andrew MacLeay. In summer they grazed black cattle on the shieling grounds on the low hills, rearing them for the southern markets. They grew barley, oats and potatoes on the infield. Donald owned at least one horse. The men had multiple sources of income. Donald was a ‘housewright’, or joiner; Alexander Ross was the blacksmith; Alexander Bethune was a merchant at Inveran and nearby Linsidemore; John operated the ferry. Both the Bethunes were entrepreneurs who dealt in large amounts of money: in 1814 a decreet of Cessio Bonorum was issued against Alexander by his creditors; and John not only raised but dealt in cattle. He was arrested in 1815 for failing to repay a local man a substantial loan of £150. Family economies also depended on women’s labour. As well as fieldwork, animal care and working at the peats, women earned cash and provided sustenance by processing food, especially making butter and cheese, and by spinning.
We know how one household was organized. Bessy MacKay and her father Donald lived alone, however they could not manage alone. Twelve year old Mary Matheson from nearby Invercharron came to work as a servant, and late in 1812 John, son of Donald’s brother George, was sent from Tullichgriban, Strathspey. There was no social distance: Mary moved into Bessy’s bed when cousin John was added to the household. The four worked and lived together. Like most of the middling sort in Scotland’s north, the MacKays lived in a longhouse, the thatched roof supported by wooden crucks inbuilt to the walls of interlayered stone and turf. The lower section was usually reserved for livestock but Donald also used it as his workshop. The middle room had a central fire, wooden chests and a trunk. There was probably also a dresser for their crockery and some chairs. The beds were in a room beyond, set apart by a wooden door. Inveran’s residents lived in fairly spacious houses and had developed a relatively diversified local economy encompassing commercial cattle raising and trading, housebuilding, blacksmithing, ferrying, midwifery, arable farming and doubtless the sale of butter, cheese and eggs. This mitigated the possible economic calamities of a crop failure or a downturn in the cattle trade.
The 1810s were a time of social, economic and cultural flux. Townships like Inveran, operating a semi-subsistence, semi-commercial economy, thickly scattered low-lying parts of the Highlands. However new estate policies which prioritized the higher rentals of commercial sheep farming threatened this. Over the next few decades, communities near Inveran – Gruids, Achness, Kildonan, Culrain – vigorously resisted efforts to evict them, although with only temporary success. Religion, although also in flux, was a powerful social and cultural force. Sutherland had been strongly influenced by Evangelical Presbyterianism, partly due to the revivals of the previous century. It remained a formative influence. A key issue for Evangelicals was patronage, whereby landowners selected the parish minister. Problems were exacerbated when the man was a Moderate rather than an Evangelical. This hit Creich parish in 1813 when Murdo Cameron was presented. A significant portion of the congregation revolted. Protests through church channels failed and they elected to separate. For the next forty years they met at a home in the winter and in the shadow of Migdale Rock in the summer.
Driving west these days, reaching Inveran heralds the quiet and ‘remote’ section of the journey. Next time you pass through, consider the service industries, the commercial use of the river and the land, the manufacturing, and the political activism of two hundred years ago, when the glens were full of the hustle and bustle of life.
 C. Cordiner, Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland, in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant (1780), 65-6.
 First Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol. 8 (Edinburgh, 1791-99), 367, 369.
 His name appeared in connection with a building project in 1782. Cited by M. Bangor-Jones to J. Whamond, 29 May 2007, ROSSGEN-L Archives, Rootsweb Geneaology.
http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ROSSGEN/2007-06/1181031302 (accessed 25 June 2014)
 NRS, CS32/8/46 Decreet of Cessio Bonorum, Alexander Bethune, merchant, Inveran v his creditors 11 Feb 1814. ‘A voluntary surrender of goods by a debtor to his creditors. It did not amount to a discharge unless the property ceded was sufficient for the purpose, but it secured the debtor from personal arrest. The creditors sold the goods in satisfaction, pro tanto, of their claims.’ H. Chisholm, ed.”Cessio Bonorum“. Encyclopædia Britannica 5 (11th ed.) (Cambridge, 1911), 768.
 Private Collection of N. Lindsay, Dornoch Jail Records 1813-40: A Transcription, 23 June 1815.
 Rural women’s roles are detailed in A. Fenton, Scottish Country Life (Edinburgh, 1976), 47, 52-81, 131, 151-179. A survey of women’s tasks in 1790s Sutherland can be found at: http://statacc.blogs.edina.ac.uk/2015/02/09/the-working-lives-of-ordinary-scots/ (accessed 9 February 2016) Sheep tended to be women’s responsibility in eighteenth-century Sutherland. H. Morrison cited in R. Clarke, Two Hundred Years of Farming in Sutherland (Kershader, 2014), 31. Insufficient research has been conducted on the Highlands, but a semi-flexible gendering of work was common in western countries. N. G. Osterud, Bonds of Community: The lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York (Ithaca & London, 1991), 139, 150, 153.
 It is likely John was a middle son of George MacKay and Ann Watson. There is a sufficient gap in the baptism records between Lewis (1787), James (1790), and William (1796), Donald (1799), Donald (1801) for a John who was ‘about eighteen or nineteen’ in early 1814. A headstone in Duthil Churchyard transcribed by Alison Mitchell in Pre 1855 Monumental Inscriptions: An Index for Speyside (1975, 1992) reads: ‘G McKay & A W his spouse who d at an advanced age in 1823 and also their chn int here except Jas d Salamanca Spain 5.10.1812, surviving ss Lewis & D McKay smiths ed. With thanks to genealogist, Ellen Sutherland.
 Pre-Clearance dwellings varied regionally, but those of the tenants usually included at least one bedroom, a living room, and a byre. For example, H. Fairhurst, ‘Rosal: a deserted township in Strath Naver, Sutherland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland, 100, (1967-8), 135-169.
 In terms of material wealth, the MacKays were fairly typical tenants. Less furniture is recorded here than at the Munros’ longhouse a few miles north at Gruids. In their best room were chairs, table, a chest of drawers, a large box-bed, and a small, well-filled bookcase. H. Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh, 1889), 95-6. Excavations at Caen, Kildonan, confirm homes were stocked with purchased goods such as mocha-ware from Staffordshire. Pottery sherds from Caen are displayed in Timespan Museum, Helmsdale. Excavation catalogues: LCN13 172/209, LCN13 199/209. Tacksmen, such as Gilbert MacKenzie, Invershin, sometimes lived in large two-storeyed houses, with multiple bedrooms, a parlour and dining room, all carpeted and opulently furnished. NRS, CS96/3960 Gilbert McKenzie, merchant, Invershin 1811-1813.
 It is probable that merchant businesses such as that of Alexander Bethune operated similarly to general stores in colonial British North America, by purchasing local goods on credit and selling imported goods. The role of merchants, credit and commerce in the Highlands has barely been touched, with the exception of Taylor’s discussion of the commercial importance of cattle droving. D. Taylor, The Wild Black Region: Badenoch 1750-1800 (Edinburgh, 2016). A study testing Douglas McCalla’s thesis in the Highlands and Islands would be very beneficial. Douglas McCalla, “Retailing in the Countryside: Upper Canadian General Stores in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Business and Economic History 26:2 (1997), 393-403.
 G. Macdonald, Men of Sutherland (Dornoch, 1937, 2014), 71; D.M.M. Paton, ‘Brought to a wilderness: the Rev. David MacKenzie of Farr and the Sutherland clearances’, Northern Scotland, 12 (1992), 85.
If the music is anything to go by, then it certainly would have been a lively place. See the links to “Mrs MacPherson of Inveran” described variously as a reel or a jig. https://www.scottish-country-dancing-dictionary.com/video/mrs-macpherson-of-inveran.html and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQB2vFK15tQ
Wonderful to read this. Alexander Bethune is my great x 4 grandfather. He emigrated to Australia with his wife and children in 1856. Looking forward to visiting this region in Scotland one day
That’s amazing Alice! I’d be interested in hearing anything else you know about him. I don’t suppose you have seen the series I did on ‘Bessy and John’ a few years ago in which he also makes an appearance?
No I haven’t, could you please send me a link? Researching him has been a recent pursuit. Interestingly on his Australian immigration records his occupation is listed as Shepherd. The merchant/entrepreneur glory days well over by that point it seems! His grandson William Bethune was my great grandmother’s father who deserted his poor wife and child after he lost/drank his fortune too!
No need to send me the link, I found the John and Bessy series – fascinating! I’m thinking this Alexander is actually one generation back from my Alexander who is listed as being 45 in the 1851 census and married to a Catherine. Much work for me to do!
Just came across this after a visit to Inveran Farm, now a B&B. My family farmed there at the vey beginning of the 20th century, before the piper Angud MacPherson took over. My father was born there so very exciting to stay. Would love any more info anyone has
Trying to find out if I am related to Alexander Bethune, merchant in Inveran. My ancestor John Bethune married Lilias Urquhart – they had three sons – David (b 1790), Donald (my gggranda b 1793) and John (b 1794). David married Marion Ross, Donald married Mary Gunn and John married Christina Mcleod). Any help appreciated. Hazel Lindsay
Do let us know if you find connections Hazel! Good luck in your search.