A landscape of the imagination: Kildonan and the classical world

When Donald broke free from his classroom, he did not see the smoking thatched longhouses, the goats tied to their stakes, the bustle of women churning, washing and shouting after children. What he saw were the glories of the ancient world.

Alexander Sage had sent his boys to the parish school, but was unimpressed with the education on offer.[1] The minister set aside his library, equipping it with his study chair and a large table close to the window. There he guided Donald and Aeneas through English reading, grammar and arithmetic. Donald was delighted when his father announced he was to begin Latin. Alexander ‘pulled out the table drawer and showed me a new copy of Ruddiman’s Rudiments which he had purchased the week before at Brora’.[2] ‘With my father I read Cordery’s Colloquies, Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Sallust, Ovid, Virgil, Livy, and Horace, and along with these I was so carefully instructed in the rules of Watt’s Latin Grammar that I shall not forget them as long as I live.’ From that study window the boys could see the hills, woods and dips of the Strath of Kildonan. It was this landscape which brought into three dimensions the events of Greek and Roman history and legend.

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There are remnants of longhouses around the millpond. The manse is to the right. The round hill on the far right is the most obvious contender for being Torr-buidh, being so distinctive, though it bears no name on current OS maps. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

‘I attached a locality to all the various incidents recorded by the classic writers of Greece and Rome, placing them in the midst of the scenes around me. The place or township of Kildonan, with the tenants’ houses grouped around, resembled a village. The round knoll, Torr-buidh, rose in the centre; on the east was the schoolhouse, with a green plat in the front of it. When therefore I first became acquainted with Greek and Roman story, local associations began immediately in my mind to stand connected with persons and events … The esplanade before the old schoolhouse was the Forum; there the popular assemblies met, there the Tribunes vetoed, there the infamous Appius Claudius seized Virginia’

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Just to the east of the knoll which I have proposed as Torr-buidh, there is another high point upon which I discovered the stone founds of a small rectangular building (just visible in the foreground). Down slope is indeed a green area, perhaps Donald’s Forum. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The Roman poets, too, had their peculiar localities. Ovid’s “Daphne in laurum” his “Io in vaccam,” and many more of his fantastic scenes, I laid among the steeps of Craig-an-fhithiche, or the hazel groves of Coille-Chil-Mer.

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About a mile further up the Strath is Coille Cill a’Mhuire which still boasts native species. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The scenes of Virgil’s Eclogues – Tityrus cottage and flocks, and his entertainment, for his expatriated guest and countrymen Meliboeus – my fancy laid at the foot of Tigh-an-Abb’; Damoetas and Menalcas’ singing match I placed on the summit of Craig-an-Fhithiche, whilst the heifers, calves, goats and kids, contended for as the prize, browsed on the neighbouring steep of the Coire-mor.

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Tigh an Ab, and the fields where Donald imagined Tityrus’ flocks grazing. Presumably in the 1790s it would have been under oats and barley. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

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The steep of the Coire Mor, now bracken covered rather than populated by livestock. A hillside marked Cnoc a’ Choire Mhòir is easily found on the map, although the name seems to have slipped from the summit (presumably spot height 394). However that there is no neighbouring Craig an Fhithiche suggests either that names have dropped off the map (or have never been included), or that places bore more than one name, not all of which have survived. Surrounding hills go by Beinn Dubhain; Tom na h-Iolaire; Creag Druim nan Rath; Cnoc Salislade. I suspect spot height 326, above Creag Dhearg is the most likely contender. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

I began the Georgics, with their antique lessons on husbandry, at the very time that my father’s man, Muckle Donald, made his first bold attempt to plough the Dalmore, which for fifteen years had not been under cultivation. With a plough and harness scarcely less primitive than that with which Virgil himself might be familiar in his boyish days at Cremona, Muckle Donald turned up the green sward of the Dalmore, sowed it with black Highland oats, and finished it off with a scrambling sort of harrowing. This was in the month of May, and whenever I was done with my Virgil lesson, I became a constant attendant of Muckle Donald at his toil in the field. His team, three Highland horses and a cow, [which] groaned most piteously while the ploughshare, pressed down by the hands of two attendants … opened up the furrows.

There, as he watched the ‘tilling, sowing, harrowing, and ultimate growth, ripening, and reaping of the Dalmore crop of oats’ he gained his first understanding of agriculture and fixed on that grassy flatness by the river the lines of Virgil he found so beautiful.[3]

It takes a stretch of the imagination today to re-place in this near-deserted spot, the people of the 1790s as they sowed, harvested, built, wove, distilled, played, fought, cooked, sang and joked. But in the 1790s, in the midst of it all, one boy transformed that lived-in landscape into quite another: a landscape of his classical imagination.


[1] The teacher, Donald MacLeod, was from Tain and had originally been a pedlar. He had ‘a very grim visage and a long beard, and, with a leathern strap in his hand, he predominated in stern rule over a noisy assemblage of tatterdemalion, cat-o’-mountain-looking boys and girls.’

[2] All from Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica: or parish life in the north of Scotland (Edinburgh: Albyn Press, 1975).

[3] Georgics I, 43-46.


The Pennie Collection

Victoria Whiteford is a third year student studying Scottish History and Theology with the University of the Highlands and Islands. In her free time she volunteers for the history department.

When I was asked by the History department of the University of the Highlands and Islands whether I would be able to help catalogue the Pennie Collection, I jumped at the chance. Dr Pennie of Scourie left his books and papers about Sutherland to the people of the area. I didn’t think the task would take me too long, as there were roughly 2 shelves of books and a couple folders of miscellaneous pamphlets. However I was, quite happily, mistaken.

The beautifully maintained collection includes fantastic sources and information which any historian would love to access, including historical accounts and analyses of local events: a myriad of topics from the last 300 years or so. The intense specificity of some is quite unbelievable. Personal favourites of mine include ‘The Ancient Tollbooths of Dornoch’ by H.M. MacKay and ‘Pre-1855 Tombstone Inscriptions in Sutherland Burial Grounds’ by A. S. Cowper and I. Ross. Now, these may seem obscure, however they are highly enlightening and engaging pieces of work.

Pennie Collection 060aThe Pennie Collection covers multiple genres, not just tollbooths, which include a wealth of archaeological, natural historical, biographical and poetic topics. These accounts provide a wonderful vision of Sutherland throughout the centuries.

The first text that really piqued my interest was ‘Gloomy Memories of the Highlands of Scotland’ by D. MacLeod. The title itself is extraordinary as it immediately dismisses the romantic view of the Highlands. This book was a cutting and insightful riposte to Harriet Beecher Stowes’ ‘Sunny Memories’ written in an epistolary format. The author’s irritation and heartbreak at losing his native place in the world embraces every aspect of this set of letters.

Another favourite is the three volumes of ‘The Sutherland Book’ by W. Fraser. These collections of original documents are named individually as ‘Memoirs’, ‘Correspondence’, and ‘Charters’ and were published in 1892. The volumes contain a selection of the Sutherland Estate papers and illustrate with incredible detail the everyday aspects of life in the Highlands. I have already earmarked these as possible sources for my future dissertation.Pennie Collection 050a

While cataloguing the books I had to find out as much information as possible about them to make them accessible. I found several quirky texts. One of these was J. Loch’s ‘Memoir of the First Duke of Sutherland, K. G.’ While I was discerning the publisher I discovered it quite blatantly stated, ‘NOT PUBLISHED’. Now, to my eyes, this was a fully published, printed, bound book. I discussed it with Dr. Iain MacInnes at the Centre for History and he informed me that it must have been self-published. As it was written in 1834, the author must have had money behind him and been thoroughly enthralled by the subject matter. I later discovered that James Loch was one of the chief factors of the Sutherland Estate at the time of the Clearances. That such information can be gleaned from something typically inconsequential is both endearing and enlightening.

The Pennie Collection also comprises a wonderful array of pamphlets and miscellaneous material including travel guides. The travel guides are a wealth of information not only for what they say about the areas, but also for the local advertisements which show what contemporary businesses were seeking to gain from tourism. There are also sales brochures for Sutherland estates with the exact acreage and land use detailed. The Pennie Collection includes multiple maps, archaeological studies, geological reviews, court transcriptions, contemporary local business valuations and rates, contemporary laws and their punishments, and many more.

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Photos: Elizabeth Ritchie

It was a privilege and joy to handle all of these texts individually and to discover the wealth of information available at our fingertips. If anyone is interested in viewing this collection then contact the Centre for History Department in Dornoch: history@uhi.ac.uk

Encroachments on our Ancient Language

Recently I was flipping through the Old Statistical Account, written in the 1790s. I was wondering whether a particular individual in Inveran, situated in what I knew was a Gaelic-speaking parish, would have understood English or not. The parish accounts revealed the beginning of a mighty cultural transformation, from one tongue to another.

The minister of Tain did a detailed analysis. He found that the ‘inhabitants of the town speak the English, and also the Gaelic or Erse. Both languages are preached in the church. Few of the older people, in the country part of the parish, understand the English language; but the children are now … taught to read English.’ In rural Rogart, those with English ‘speak it grammatically, though with the accent peculiar to most of the Northern Highlanders.’ So, in the 1790s townspeople were probably bilingual, older country-people were probably monoglot Gaelic speakers, and younger country-people were taught English at school.

Lt Col Sutherland in Gaidhlig

Lieutenant Colonel Alasdair Sutherland (1743-1822) from Braegrudy, Rogart, is buried underneath this rather ostentatious pillar which details his life in both English and Gaelic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The second (or New) Statistical Account was written in the 1830s and 40s. By then Gaelic was still generally spoken in rural parishes and more and more people could also read it: in Kincardine each family owned a Gaelic Bible and Psalm-book. The minister of Lairg even thought that because they could read, the people now spoke their own language ‘more correctly.’

English was gaining ground. Young people learned at school but a ‘considerable proportion’ of Rogart’s population acquired the language ‘from books, and occasional conversation with educated persons’. They were therefore ‘more easily intelligible to an Englishman than the dialect spoken by the Lowland Scotch’ because their English had only ‘a degree of mountain accent and Celtic idiom’. Some English speakers had settled in the area, but they had not had any effect. These shepherds had moved from the Lowlands as the Sutherland Estate developed commercial sheep rearing operations and could speak only English. Lacking Gaelic must have meant a rather lonely existence. Their families had assimilated and all spoke Gaelic.

Despite the extension of English, the ministers of Lairg and Kincardine felt Gaelic had not lost ground as it was used in everyday and in religious life. The rural parishes which bucked this trend were Creich, where English was used by the majority, and Edderton, where they spoke ‘English less or more perfectly’. It is probably no coincidence that these parishes are close to the towns of Dornoch and Tain.

Intrigued by this change, yesterday evening I took a turn about the town of Dornoch, then drove to Pittentrail before cycling towards Lairg. I wanted to find evidence of Gaelic. There wasn’t much. Most was tokenistic, or connected with names of streets, towns or houses. There was a nice little collection of materials in the Dornoch Bookshop and a poster for traditional music events. When and how did this dissolution of Gaelic happen?

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The towns acted as catalysts for language change. In Dornoch this was dated from about 1810 and in Golspie from the 1790s. It was ascribed to the influx of ‘persons from the south country’ and to the increase in formal education, first in Gaelic then in English. The minister of Dornoch noted this was as much due to Gaelic schools as to English ones. Indeed in the town of Tain it was rare to find a person under the age of thirty who could speak Gaelic.

Tain was a complex parish, or perhaps the minister took a more sophisticated approach to analysing it. The parish was equally divided with Gaelic spoken in the country and in the fishing village of Inver while the town and the ‘higher ranks’ were English speakers. The parish of Dornoch has a similar town/country make-up and it would have been interesting to know if the situation was similar there.

 Language in Tain parish town Country/Inver village
Gaelic only 66 96
English only 100 36

The minister’s numbers indicate most people were bilingual, but he did warn this was not really the case. Presumably most people had a dominant language and could get by in the other.

In the 1840s Gaelic was still the preferred language of the people. Apart from in the town of Tain they used it for communicating with each other and they preferred attending Gaelic church services. However the minister of Dornoch could see what was coming. He expected that the ‘encroachments on our ancient language’ meant that in sixty or seventy years, that is by about 1900, it would be extinct.

He wasn’t far wrong.



Old Statistical Account and New Statistical Account of Scotland. Parishes of Creich, Dornoch, Edderton, Golspie, Kincardine, Lairg, Rogart, Tain. http://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/home

The Migdale Hoard

In the May of 1900, a group of workmen were labouring on a hillside overlooking the loch. Slotted in to a crack in a rock, one of the workmen felt something. Something that didn’t feel like a stone, a plant, or a spider. What he had found was quite remarkable, and the last person to see it had been dead for the best part of four thousand years. Piece by piece the workmen extracted the items. There was a bronze axehead, some jewellery including armlets or anklets, six buttons for a jacket, and items which might once have been attached to a head-dress. It is quite possible that they were in a bag which has since rotted away. Apart from the buttons, everything was made from bronze. When the buttons were analysed, scientists discovered that five of them were made from cannel coal or shale, but the sixth one was made from jet. This type of jet is not found in Sutherland; it is found near Whitby in Yorkshire. It had been traded from 450 kilometres away.

Buttons of jet and cannel coal. Online id: 000-100-034-752-C Image from: http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-752-C

Buttons of jet and cannel coal. Online id: 000-100-034-752-C Image from: http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-752-C

These items, finely crafted objects made from precious bronze, and a button imported from a great distance, were of high value. They must have belonged to a person of great importance. Wearing the objects would have demonstrated that the owner had the wealth to spend on skilled craftsmen and access to far-flung trading networks. They were expressions of power and prestige as well as beauty. How did such valued items, possibly belonging to a military and political leader of this part of east Sutherland, end up in the crack of a rock?

'The axehead had been tinned, giving it a silvery appearance and making it extra special. Tinning was a technique used by the early metalworkers of north-east Scotland to enhance the appearance of axeheads.' Online ID: 000-100-034-727-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-727-C

‘The axehead had been tinned, giving it a silvery appearance and making it extra special. Tinning was a technique used by the early metalworkers of north-east Scotland to enhance the appearance of axeheads.’ Online ID: 000-100-034-727-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-727-C

Sometimes such hoards appear to have been hidden away. It is quite possible that Sutherland in 2000BC was not a peaceful place. It might have been that the items were hidden away in a time of war or raiding to ensure that they did not fall into the hands of enemies. Perhaps the owner intended to return for them but was killed in battle, or was captured, or was enslaved. Archaeologists at the National Museum of Scotland feel that it was likely that the hoard ended up in the rock for a quite different reason. They think that the items were placed there as a gift to the gods. It may have been that the local community needed something from the gods: perhaps they had been suffering a time of famine, disease or attack. Perhaps they thought that a sacrificial offering of the most valuable items that the community possessed would persuade the gods to relieve their suffering or to give them something good: perhaps victory in battle, perhaps a good harvest. Perhaps it was a sign of repentance for some evil that had been done. It is impossible to guess what these items symbolised and why they were hidden away. But the objects do tell us a little bit about Bronze Age Sutherland.

'These two bronze anklets were found at Migdale in Sutherland in a hoard containing an axehead, jewellery and dress accessories. The dress accessories reflect female fashions in central and northern Europe between 2250 and 1950 BC. The anklets are made of butt-jointed strips of cast bronze, with triple horizontal mouldings around their exterior. They are decorated between the mouldings with close-set vertical lines, and with faint slanting nicks on their outer edges. The Migdale hoard represents the possessions of a wealthy high status owner, with links across the North Sea.' Online ID: 000-100-034-728-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-728-C

‘These two bronze anklets were found at Migdale in Sutherland in a hoard containing an axehead, jewellery and dress accessories. The dress accessories reflect female fashions in central and northern Europe between 2250 and 1950 BC.
The anklets are made of butt-jointed strips of cast bronze, with triple horizontal mouldings around their exterior. They are decorated between the mouldings with close-set vertical lines, and with faint slanting nicks on their outer edges. The Migdale hoard represents the possessions of a wealthy high status owner, with links across the North Sea.’ Online ID: 000-100-034-728-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-728-C

The hoard tells us that the inhabitants of Migdale four thousand years ago were far from being isolated. There were clearly trading links to Yorkshire. Perhaps traders sailed up the east coast to sell their wares, or perhaps they travelled on foot, or perhaps items were traded from person to person and gradually the jet button made its way into the hands of a chieftain in the far north. The remains of the head-dress and the axe show how connected the population was with Europe. Their design echoes the fashions of Central Europe. This fits with other archaeological evidence that we have which tells us that there were links between north east Scotland and central Europe.

A hundred years ago, the workmen took their precious find down the hill. It was sent to Edinburgh to be examined, and it can still be seen there on display.

National Museum of Scotland: nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php (accessed 31st August 2015)

Key information was also taken from an interpretation panel on the north side of Loch Migdale, designed by the Kyle of Sutherland Initiative by the National Museums of Scotland, 2005.

The Hospital in the Oatfield: The Art of Nursing in the First World War

Natasha McEnroe is the Director and Holly Carter-Chappell is Collections Assistant of the Florence Nightingale Museum in St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Natasha and Holly co-curated the exhibition The Hospital in the Oatfield: The Art of Nursing in the First World War, which can be seen at the museum until 26th October 2014 http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/
The exhibition book The Hospital in the Oatfield is available through Amazon http://tinyurl.com/lxmarao

This centenary year, Florence Nightingale Museum is honouring the role played by nurses in the First World War. The outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 prompted a huge increase in women volunteering for military service. Many joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) to become nurses, and these women – often from relatively protected backgrounds – worked closely with professional nurses who acted as mentors to the VADs. Even experienced peacetime army nurses were unprepared for the scale of the task facing them, and the threat of disease or injury was compounded by the ever-present risk of physical and nervous exhaustion. The nurses’ battle to save lives was as bitter as the warfare in the trenches, and the fields of France and Belgium witnessed the struggle not just with enemy soldiers, but against dirt, cold, terror and infection.

Society beauty Millicent Fanny St Clair-Erskine (1867-1955) was married to the Duke of Sutherland on her 17th birthday. After fulfilling her duty by producing four children, the Duchess devoted her all her time to entertaining and fundraising for worthy causes. She possessed a strong social conscience, which she applied to a series of campaigns aimed at achieving better working conditions in the Potteries near her husband’s estate in Staffordshire. Her interest in reform sat uneasily with some who saw her as an embarrassment, earning her the nickname ‘Meddlesome Millie’. In reality, her charitable work was highly practical and included training local women as midwives.

As soon as war was declared, the Duchess departed to France to establish an ambulance unit, the first of several such units to be set up by upper-class British women. Under the auspices of the French Red Cross, Millicent Sutherland, together with the surgeon Oswald Gayer Morgan and eight British nurses, travelled from Paris to Namur in Belgium in the late summer of 1914. Trapped under German occupation, she and her nurses escaped in a dramatic journey that she related in her autobiographical account, Six Weeks at the War.

Millicent Sutherland returned to France in October 1914 to set up a hospital of 100 beds at Malo les Bains near Dunkirk, which was transferred inland to Bourbourg in the spring of 1915 as the shelling along the coastline increased. Known to the locals as the ‘camp in the oatfield’, the hospital demonstrated the ingenuity of the nursing staff, who extended the shelter with brightly-coloured awnings borrowed from the many hotels along the Malo seafront. The camp was only three months in existence: at summer’s end, the hospital was moved to a series of huts in the dunes of Calais.

The French artist Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) is now best known for his role as founder and first director of the College of Art in Vietnam in the late 1920s. Despite his age, Tardieu volunteered for military service at the start of the war and was attached to the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance driver unit. Although he initially had no official role as an artist Tardieu continued to paint, taking every opportunity that his duties and the weather offered. His work brought him into contact with Millicent Sutherland and her hospital in the oatfield at Bourbourg.

Reproduced by Courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum, London and Abbott and Holder, JV.

Reproduced by Courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum, London and Abbott and Holder, JV.

Encouraged by the Duchess, he made a number of oil paintings of her field hospital, its patients and its nurses, which capture a moment of tranquillity amid the turmoil of the First World War. In these, we can see how the nursing of the wounded soldiers from the French and Belgian forces would have been aided by a beautiful rural setting. The paintings from Bourbourg, however, remained treasured personal possessions of Millicent Sutherland, a gift to ‘Madame la Duchesse’ from ‘un simple soldat’ and are now part of the permanent collection of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Despite difficult conditions in hospital tents, trains and huts, soldiers were comforted and cared for, often at grave risk to the nurses themselves. Over 200 nurses in the British Army Medical Service lost their lives in the war; many of them volunteers working alongside professional nurses. The chances of a soldier surviving a wound would have been slim indeed without the dedication shown by these courageous women.

The Art Critic at the Grange

Our blog post today is written by Peter Wild, a member of the Historylinks Museum Committee.

Unusually for me I remembered our wedding anniversary last year without being prompted. To make a change from the usual home made card and a bunch of flowers from the garden we went for dinner at the Royal Golf Hotel. I can never go in without remembering its earlier life: the walls hung heavy with paintings and tapestries; antique-filled rooms, lit by chandeliers with rugs and comfy chairs beside roaring fires; and shelves full of books. Outside the gardens had deep well-filled herbaceous borders. The evidence is still there but much has changed since it became a hotel in the 1930’s.

Originally named The Grange, it was built by Robert Hamilton Bruce around 1895 to a design by James Robert Rhind. Bruce was born in 1846 in Edinburgh, the third son of Major Walter Hamilton Tyndall Bruce who lived at Hay Lodge, Peebles. Little is known of his early life but aged 31 he moved to Edinburgh. Robert Bruce had become a successful businessman and was a partner in a Glasgow firm of flour importers, Bruce and Wilson, as well as the London bakeries firm J & B Battersea. He married Fanny in 1880 but she died only a year later. It wasn’t until 1891 that he married Katherine Laurie with whom he had six children

Love of the arts was his great passion, particularly the Hague and Barbizon Schools, but he disliked fashionable Impressionism. He was a good client of many of the leading art dealers of the day. He made several contributions to The Scottish Arts Review and the Art Journal in the brusque, direct style for which he was renowned. However his major achievement in the public sphere was the leading role he played in organising French and Dutch painting loans for the Edinburgh International Exhibition in 1886. His own personal collection was now considerable and he lent to major exhibitions, including the Royal Scottish Academy around that time.

Bruce also became interested in journalism. In 1888, with R. Fitzroy Bell and Walter Blaikie, he co-founded The Scots Observer appointing his friend William Ernest Henley, the poet and art critic, as editor. It was first published in Edinburgh but in 1889 it moved to London and was renamed The National Observer.

By 1891 Hamilton Bruce was making plans to retire. With his great enthusiasm for golf, Dornoch was an obvious choice. His new purpose-built house would display his vast art collection which now included works by Corot, Rousseau, Rodin, Turner and Jacob and Matthijs Maris. In January 1892 he applied for permission to ‘erect a Residence, Stable Offices, and enclosing walls & railings … on the South by the Property of Rev. George Kennedy and the Links’. His daughter Catherine Anne recalled some years later ‘It was a large house standing on that wind swept field with a wicket gate leading to the links … inside it was rather like a museum’. ‘My father built another house over the way to prevent villas going up, and he called it Abden. He started to buy land and went to the council and managed to get the burn cleaned up’.


The interior of the Grange (now the Royal Golf Hotel) as the private house of Robert Hamilton Bruce, a successful Glasgow businessman, built ‘The Grange’ in Dornoch to house his art collection. The set shows the style of furniture and furnishings of the early 20th century. http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number10330.asp
Photo of the Grange stairwell c 1900 Courtesy Anne Hamilton Bruce

ImageThe Grange stairwell in 2013 Collection Peter Wild

With his schooling, family connections, business and personal interests, Bruce became part of an intimate and influential circle which included authors R.L. Stevenson and J.M. Barrie, publisher Walter Blaikie and art critics Robert Mowbray Henley and William Hole. His houses in both Edinburgh and Dornoch became the bases for regular group gatherings and visits to discuss art and literature. Catherine recalled ‘My Mother remembered Henley shaking hot ash off the end of his cigars into delicate Japanese bowls while writing The Song of the Sword in the smoking room’.

He was not in Dornoch long as he died in 1899, just 5 days before the birth of his daughter Mary Edith Laurie on the 29th April. A writer in The Times described Bruce as one of the ‘greatest Scottish art patrons’. He had been a private man, generous to his friends, successful in business and not seeking credit for some of his major achievements. A double blow for the family was the death of Mary only a year later on 25th August 1900. She, along with her father, are buried in the Golf Road cemetery in Dornoch. The collection was slowly dispersed to collections in the National Gallery, Falkland Palace, Gladstone’s Land, as well as an auction at Christie’s in 1903.

Letter from Anne Hamilton Bruce
‘Impressionism & Scotland’, National Galleries of Scotland Catalogue 2008, p. 128
Suzanne Veldink, “‘Be-Marised or Bemused!’ R T Hamilton Bruce and the International Exhibition of 1886′, Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History, Vol. 14

A Letter of Advice by Sir Robert Gordon, 1620.

Wade Cormack is the post-holder for the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship at the Centre for History, University fo the Highlands and Islands. His research explores early-modern sport and cultural history of the Moray Firth.

While children should always listen to their elders, whether they do or not is totally up to them! The year was 1620 and eleven-year old John, the 13th Earl of Sutherland, received a letter of advice from his uncle and tutor, Sir Robert Gordon. Sir Robert wanted John to become a successful leader, a calculated but kind master, a learned man, and someone respected throughout the land. His advice covered disparate topics, from the vices of man, how to select a proper wife and how to administer his estate effectively. He also instructed him on the themes of sport, education and ‘civility’.

Robert Gordon was born at Dunrobin Castle in 1580 and was the fourth son of the 11th Earl of Sutherland. Initially he was educated in Dornoch before leaving for St Andrews, Edinburgh, then continuing his education on the Continent at Saumur, Poitier, Bourges, finishing with six months in Paris. Along the way he became a student of Neo-Stoicism. In 1606 he was at the court of King James VI and I where he was subsequently admitted as a Gentleman to the Bedchamber and was knighted. These influential positions gave him direct access to King James and he began his long political career.

After the death of the 12th Earl of Sutherland in 1615, Sir Robert became the tutor to his six-year old nephew. He set John’s affairs in order and sent him to school in Dornoch. During these schooldays we find the first references known to date of golf being played in town. The Earl’s expenses show that ‘Item ten poundis guven this yeir for bowes, arroes, golff clubbes, and balls, with other necessars for his L[ordship’s] exercise’. Sir Robert was an accomplished archer himself, winning the silver arrow in Edinburgh during the King’s visit in 1617. He was a proponent of sport and believed it was a crucial part of education. Sir Robert solidified Dornoch’s reputation for sport in 1630 with his A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. He famously stated ‘About this toun… ther are the fairest and largest linkes…of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding, and all otherexercise; they doe surpasse the feilds of Montrose or St Andrews.’

As the Genealogical History existed only in manuscript copies for nearly 200 years, the promotion of Dornoch’s links was for the eyes of the Earls of Sutherland. However, Sir Robert’s Letter of Advice shows broad participation in sport. He urged John to ‘Cherishe your countreymen and train them vp in all kynd of honest exercise, such as hunting, ryding, archerie, shooting with the gun, gofing, jumping, running, swimming and such lyk’. Golf in this region was not just an elite preserve then, but was for all of the Earl’s countrymen. Although the direct references to golf in Dornoch fade from then until the nineteenth century, this evidence suggests it was widely played.

Young men were prepared for manhood and leadership through martial activities and a good education. Although ‘gofing’ had been previously restricted by the Scottish kings because it was of no military benefit, Sir Robert felt it was acceptable. Football, however, another sport restricted on the same grounds, was not recommended to John: ‘footeball [w]as a dangerous and vnprofitable exercise’. Sir Robert’s reasoning for this was probably because in many cases football became a riotous event, considered to cause great disruption and damage to people and communities. The disruptions caused by golf, by comparison, were limited.

ImageThe Royal Dornoch Links 1900 (Image Courtesy of HistoryLinks Image Library)

Sir Robert was also keen to ‘improve’ the Sutherland lands, especially Dornoch. In 1609 the Statutes of Iona promoted the assimilation of the western Highlands and Islands into a Lowland culture. As an influential man at the court of King James, Sir Robert would have been involved in discussions on how to accomplish this. Sir Robert’s ideas on the importance of English language education and literacy; on ideas of civility; on sport; and on how to bring up young men, noble and commoner, for the good and cohesion of the realm, were influential at the highest level. Sir Robert believed the best way to transform the people of Sutherland was to: ‘plant schooles in ewerie corner in the countrey to instruct the youth to speak Inglishe. Let your cheif scooles for learning be at Dornoche, and perswade the gentlemen of your countrey to bestowe lairglie vpon ther children to make them schollers, for so shall they be fittest for your serwice. Preasse to ciwilize your countrey and the inhabitants therof, not onlie in this poynt, but lykwyse in all other things which yow shall obserwe abrod in your trawells among other nations.’ Sir Robert then advised John to ‘erect a biblio-theck in Dornoch and fill it with sufficient store of books, boith for your credit and the weell of this countrey, to amend ther ignorance which increases through laik of books’.

From a child’s perspective, Sir Robert’s Letter of Advice was rather daunting. Judging by his later character, John internalised much of his uncle’s advice though. Moreover, he continued to support sport, education and ‘civility’, and passed these lessons to his sons, who continued the tradition of Sutherland men playing golf, being well-read and educated. Nearly 400 years later, the connection between golf and education continues in Dornoch, thanks to the collaboration of the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Royal Dornoch Golf Club to support and investigate that passion of Sir Robert’s: the place of sport in society.

National Library of Scotland, The Sutherland Papers, Dep. 313/1597.
Allan, David. Philosophy and Politics in Late Stuart Scotland. (East Lothian: 2000).
Fraser, William ed. The Sutherland Book. 3 Vols., (Edinburgh: 1892).
Gordon, Robert A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its Origin to the Year 1630: with a Continuation to the Year 1651. (Edinburgh: 1813).