This week work begins on the Sheriff MacCulloch Memorial Project. Historylinks was recently awarded £1100 by Museums and Galleries Scotland to restore the memorial stone. The Museum is working with young people from Dornoch Academy in this project. See facebook for more information and photos. The next few blog posts will consider the life and times of Hugh MacCulloch.
It must have been hot that day. The lads maybe exploded out of school, shouting and throwing their bags. They might have taken off, chasing each other across the common grazings, past what is now the airstrip, that separated Dornoch from the ‘cockle ebb’, the sands on the north shore of the firth. Stripped off, they tiptoed, plunged into the chilly water, splashing and swimming, salt stinging their eyes. It’s wide at high tide, and at low tide sand banks appear, sometimes giving the impression that you could wade across. But between these banks there are fast flowing channels. Hugh’s efforts quickly took him out of his depth, and he sank. The other boys maybe thought at first that he was messing about, but he didn’t bob up again. They shouted an alarm and several men who were working nearby dashed into the sea. He had been in the water some time and it was an apparently lifeless body they pulled out. The men applied ‘judicious treatment’ and he choked back into life.
Hugh MacCulloch related this story many times. And when he told it to a young lodger in 1801 he said ‘if God were to give him his choice of deaths, he would choose drowning, for … he felt as he was in the act of sinking, and when the waters were rushing in at his mouth and nostrils, as if he were falling into a gentle sleep.’ His wish was granted. Eight years later and about four miles above that very spot on that very firth, he was, with many others, drowned.
In 1809 Hugh was probably in his fifties. He was a well-respected man, the retired Sheriff-Substitute of Sutherland and known for his honesty and piety, if not his brilliance in law. On August 16th Hugh decided to attend the Lammas Fair in Tain. He left his house in Dornoch that morning and crossed the ferry. Later, rumours spread that the men who loaded the evening ferry had been drinking. Donald Sage, that young lodger, later recorded the story in biblical style: ‘When he came to the Meikleferry, late in the day, the shore was crowded with people returning home from the market. On his arrival they all made way for him, and he was, quickly seated at the stern of the wherry; but afterwards the multitude pressed into the ferry-boat – the more earnestly, as they would thus have the privilege of crossing in the same boat with the Sheriff. Apprehensive of the issue, Mr. MacCulloch turned away at least two score of them from the boat. There still remained on board, however, too many for safety. It was a dead calm, and the wherry was pushed off from land. But when it had nearly reached the middle of the ferry, and the deepest part of it, the boat gave a sudden jerk, the water rushed in, and, with the exception of two or three who escaped by swimming, the whole of those on board sank to the bottom and perished. About 70 persons were thus drowned. This fearful event took place during the darkness of night … and created a deep sensation all over the country.’
The tale of how Hugh’s body, among the last to be found, was discovered, reveals the mysticism which was part of Highland Evangelical Christianity. It is also reminiscent of saints’ stories in the Catholic tradition, where bodies which do not decompose prove saintliness. Donald Sage explained that the ‘particular spot where it lay under the flood was discovered in a dream. A fellow-Christian and an acquaintance, deeply affected by his death, dreamed of his departed friend. In the dream the Sheriff appeared, spoke of his sudden call to the other world, and told him where his earthly remains lay, adding that, whilst the fish of the sea were permitted to mangle at their pleasure the bodies of his fellow-sufferers, they were restrained from putting a tooth upon his, which would be found entire. The dream was realised in every particular.’
How the catastrophe of the Meikle Ferry impacted south-east Sutherland is reminiscent of the impact of the loss of the Iolaire on the Isle of Lewis 110 years later. In both, a small community lost many of its most active in one appalling moment. The response to the sudden needs of families bereft of the husbands, mothers, sons, wives, fathers, daughters who traded at Tain that day was to set up a fund. Monies poured in from people with local connections all over the world. Even donations from the profits of West Indian slave plantations ended up in the pockets of grief-stricken families. Hugh MacCulloch’s wife and his daughter, Chirsty, long survived him, and benefited from the Meikleferry Fund.
The Dornoch Firth which, in the years following the Jacobite Rising saw the birth of a boy named Hugh; which provided cooling, but dangerous waters for his youthful play; which was crossed every time the mature man travelled south on business or pleasure, eventually claimed that life. But its chill depths preserved him, casting him up in the place the visionary spoke of, so he could be buried in the way his family wanted.
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9.
Walter Scott (ed), ‘Dreadful Accident at the Meikle Ferry’, The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809, 248.
N.B. Brian Munro has since unearthed a document (The Meikle Ferry Disaster Fund Book) in the Highland Archives which is far more contemporary than Sage’s memoirs and seems to state quite clearly that the accident took place ‘in the forenoon’ when people were on their way to the Lammas Fair, rather than returning from it. That does not, I think, remove any of the interest or importance of Sage’s analysis of the event and its impact, but shows how the details of narratives can shift.