‘The improvidence of the poor’

In 1830 the Kirk Session of Dornoch considered themselves ‘well acquainted with the improvidence of the Poor’. That April they met to discuss an unexpected windfall. Alexander Ross, a merchant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had left a hundred pounds to be distributed among the poor of his native parish. Should they divide it into tiny amounts and hand it out as per his will, or should they keep it ‘till a time of scarcity of human food should occur’?

Before Scotland’s New Poor Law of 1845 it was not the nation state which was responsible for social care, but the church. This was a continuation of the ‘parish state’ instituted after the Reformation. This power and responsibility was vested in the hands of elders, a group of local men esteemed for their ability, piety or, sometimes, their status. They, along with the minister, met regularly as the Kirk Session to perform two functions, one moral and one economic. After the Reformation the church diligently attempted to make everyone conform to Protestant religious standards. Their pursuit of people committing sexual offences (usually fornication or adultery) is best known, but until the eighteenth century they also tried to enforce Sundays as a day of rest and church-going, and endeavoured to keep a lid on drunkenness, violence, gossip and other anti-social behaviours. Apart from some revitalisation of the power of the Kirk Session connected with nineteenth-century religious revivals, by 1830 the main business was financial: collecting and disbursing the Poor Roll.


Halifax: where Alexander Ross of Dornoch made his money. Still plenty of trading going on at this strategically important spot, just below the Citadel, where the Bedford Basin empties into the Atlantic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The Dornoch minutes from 1830 detail specific arrangements for handing out the money before the clerk gushed his ‘high respect for the memory of the benevolent Testator, who left such a substantial testimony of his attachment to his native Parish’. However the bequest ended up being a bit of a disappointment. After corresponding with Angus Ross, the Glasgow-based brother of the deceased Alexander, it became apparent they would only be sent the sterling equivalent of £100 in Halifax currency, amounting to £78.5.4. The Session ‘judged it to be their wisest plan to submit, as they could not afford to litigate the point’. The duplicity seemed to release them from any sense of obligation in following the precise conditions of the bequest. Instead they felt

they should best answer the Testator’s benevolent intentions by depositing the above sum in a Bank (the interest annually to be divided among the poor) till a time of scarcity of human food should occur, when they should have this money to draw upon to purchase meal for them: for the session, are so well acquainted with the improvidence of the Poor, that though the whole sum were distributed among them at once – which would not be more to each than 10/- or 12 shillings, they would be the next year as much in want as if they had not received a sixpence of it: – whereas, by reserving it, as the Kirk Session have done, for a time of great scarcity, it will prove the means of seasonable relief to them.

Maggie Dempster

Older folks like Maggie Dempster, a fisherwoman from Embo, were particularly at risk of falling into poverty when they could no longer work. This was especially the case for women who tended to be lower paid and were less able to save money. This picture was taken in 1870. Photo: Historylinks Image Library. Ref: 2009_059  No: 7724 

A perusal of some of today’s newspapers would quickly reveal contemporary examples of such ‘victim-blaming’ of society’s most disadvantaged. The elders assumed the difficulties of all 139 people on the poor roll were, fundamentally, an issue of inadequate character rather than the consequence of ill-health, poor wages, lack of secure employment, clearance policies, the abandonment of a spouse, or any other number of possibilities. Despite such lack of insight, the elders endeavoured to manage the resource to best effect. Their forward planning was justified seven years later when the clerk noted rather smugly

That time is now arrived when there is every appearance of a great scarcity of human food, in this Parish and though the Country generally. The Session therefore, intend to draw on this Legacy to purchase meal for the Poor to meet their wants in the ensuing summer. The example of the Kirk Session, in this case, may also serve for a precedent to those who may succeed them in the management of the Poor’s funds.

The incident hints at a lot: that the well-known Highland emigration of the nineteenth century included well-to-do merchants as well as cleared crofters; that Highland migrants, like most, maintained personal, economic and emotional links with their country of origin; that the 1837 famine affected the east Highlands as well as the west; and that the church, for all its lack of insight into structural reasons for poverty, tried to be wise in their responsibilities.


Highland Council Archives, CH2/1588/1/2, Dornoch Kirk Session Minute book containing collections and distributions of Poor’s Money 1843-1849

John MacAskill, ‘It is truly, in the expressive language of Burke, a nation crying for bread’: the public response to the highland famine of 1836-1837’ Innes Review, (Autumn 2010), 61.2, p169-206.

Place, Identity and Dead Men

Highland men do not suffer from lack of stereotypes. According to anti-Jacobite propagandists they were barbaric; according to Walter Scott they were noble; and according to Diana Gabaldon, they were rugged and sexy. I have always enjoyed exploring graveyards, but recently I wondered if the headstones could tell me something about how Highland men thought of themselves. Indeed they can! I have identified how men’s identities were based on religious faith, on their emotional relationships, on their social status, and on place.[1]

Other than his name, dates, and family, the most common detail on men’s gravestones is where he was from. By the nineteenth century the clan system was long gone. However, men continued to have strongly localised identities, associated with kin and with place.

On the west coast of Lewis, when the old graveyard at Cladh Mhuire was extended the new site was arranged geographically. Each village was allocated two rows, marked by a concrete post. Even in death people were kept within their community and continued to belong to a particular place.


Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

This is uncommon in such recent graveyards which, like at Proncynain just outside Dornoch, are usually laid out chronologically. Each new burial takes the plot beside the previous one. Communal groupings are more common in older graveyards. This is often not obvious. In Bragar, a few miles south of Cladh Mhuire, the stones are clustered by village, though here there are no signs. In Kincardine, Sutherland, close inspection reveals the same. In the south east corner are the people from Invershin, and near them the folk of Gledfield. Further back are those from Greenyards.

In mixed Protestant-Catholic regions, the spatial organisation of graveyards reflects communal religious identities. On An t-Eilean Uaine, Loch Sheil the Catholics are buried on the Moidart side of the island and the Protestants on the Argyll side.[2] In Ardmichael cemetery, South Uist, Protestants are buried to the west and Catholics to the east.[3]


Ardmichael, South Uist. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

So far, the place-based identities displayed in graveyards are communal and apply as much to women or children as to men. However when an inscription connects an individual with specific places, this seems to be peculiar to men.

The stones of some men use locations to trace a life story or a career. Rev. Donald MacIntyre (1782-1869) was for nine years ‘missionary of the Braes of Lochaber, for one year assistant in the parish of Creich, and for twenty five years incumbent of Kincardine.’

Most men were clearly associated with one specific settlement, farm or estate in the mind of the community. This was often noted alongside their occupation: ‘Thomas MacKenzie, Shandwick Inn’ (1846-96); ‘Walter Watson, plasterer, Clashmore’ (1859-97). Other inscriptions suggest a man’s deep knowledge of a particular piece of land: John Munro (1779-1820) was tenant at Blairich, Rogart; and George MacKay (1816-73) crofted at Bogrow, Edderton. For some men this close association came through their professional life. Gamekeepers, factors, groundofficers and shepherds took up employment in adulthood. Thomas Herbert (1832-80) was gamekeeper at Alladale, and Robert Sutherland (1791-1841) was grieve at Dunrobin Farm, near Golspie. It was through length of years and the intimate use and organising of the landscape that they became identified with it, shaping their self-identity and their identity within the community.



Alladale. Thomas Herbert chose a challenging place to live out his life as a gamekeeper. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Other men had multigenerational connections with a place. Farmers’ inscriptions invariably included the name of his farm. In Easter Ross Alexander Anderson (1809-71) was ‘farmer, Nonikiln’, and John Ross (1777-1867) was ‘late farmer, Achnahanat’. Such men were often known locally by the name of the farm. While this was a convenient way to distinguish people with common personal names, it also reveals a cultural attitude about land and people. Individual men existed only for decades, whereas farms endured.

Tacksmen were similar. Hugh MacIntyre (1797-1881) was ‘tacksman of Culrain Mains’ and James France (1778-1840) held the tacks of Annat and Groam near Inverness. Such a man drew his identity from his social status, his membership of a local family, his authority over the residents of the tack, and his association with that piece of land. Holding a tack was part of the old system of clanship, so his and his family’s connection with that land was embedded deeper in time than that of the plasterer and the gamekeeper, even the farmer.

Despite the mobility of the nineteenth-century, part of Highland masculinity was a deep identification with the places they were from, where they lived, where they worked, and which they shaped.

[1] Few historians have considered masculinity in a Highland context. In terms of ordinary men rather than the gentry, Lynn Abrams has explored the role of inter-personal violence in Highland masculinity while Rosalind Carr and J.E. Cookson have touched on how Highlanders used the military to achieve the ‘independence’ which was foundational to manhood. Lynn Abrams, ‘The Taming of Highland Masculinity: Inter-personal Violence and Shifting Codes of Manhood, c.1760–1840’, The Scottish Historical Review, 92.1, (2013), 100-122; Rosalind Carr, ‘The Gentleman and the Soldier: Patriotic Masculinities in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 28.2, (2008), 102-121; J. E. Cookson, ‘Early Nineteenth-Century Scottish Military Pensioners as Homecoming Soldiers’, The Historical Journal, 52.2 (June, 2009), 319-341.

[2] Alasdair Roberts, Chapels of the Rough Bounds: Morar, Knoydart, Arisaig, Moidart (Mallaig: 2015)

[3] https://canmore.org.uk/site/9898/south-uist-ardmichael-burial-ground

“We would rather go to prison” – Denominational problems and Clyne School Board

Alison McCall continues her investigation of the school board records of east Sutherland.

In 1877 the Clyne School Board minutes recorded that “some parents have expressed their willingness to go to prison rather than place their children under Mr Myron’s instructions.”

Morris Myron was headmaster of the recently opened Brora Public School. Within his profession he was highly respected, having chaired teachers’ committees and published a new style of school register. The average attendance during the first two years the school was opened was thirty four. The roll at the school (which could hold 250 pupils) had dropped to just twenty. Parents made their own educational arrangements with unqualified teachers and with Miss Sutherland’s girls’ school.

Why were the parents so strongly opposed to Mr Myron that they were willing to take their children out of school, risking fines and imprisonment?


Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, 25 June 1861

The first task of each School Board created after the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 was to carry out a census of all school aged children in the district. In Clyne there were 303 children between the ages of five and thirteen. 284 lived within the vicinity of Brora, which had three existing schools, two run by the Established Church and the Free Church plus a girls’ sewing school. There was also a school at Doll, two miles distant from Brora, founded by the Glasgow Auxiliary Gaelic School Society. The furthest pupils lived twelve miles away from Doll, and the School Board saw no option other than supplying an itinerant teacher for them.

The School Board proposed to amalgamate the Brora and Doll schools, making Mr Myron, the Established Church school teacher, headmaster on a salary of at least £100 p.a. Mr Baillie, the Free School teacher, would be deputy on a salary of at least £80 p.a.

The minutes do not explain what happened next, but clearly this plan was not acceptable. The parents at Doll claimed their children could not be expected to walk two miles to school in winter. The Board then proposed it should become an infant school, under a female teacher, with the older children walking into Brora. The Doll parents rejected this also.

More complicated were negotiations over the amalgamation of the two church schools. The difficulty appears to have been inter-denominational or political, though the minutes are silent on this. The School Board, which was chaired by Joseph Peacock, the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, favoured the Established Church. The majority of parents were members of the Free Church. By 1876 the parents of the children attending the Free Church school were refusing to send their children to be educated by Mr Myron. They made allegations of drunkenness, then of cursing, and latterly accusing him of carrying on an adulterous relationship with ‘the woman MacKay’. Alas, it has not been possible to identify ‘the woman MacKay’. The Board referred the matter to the Sheriff at Dornoch, who found the allegations wholly unfounded.

‘The ordeal through which the respondent has had to pass has been most trying, but he has come successfully through it, and the Sherriff-substitute now ventures to hope that the future relations between the School Board and the respondent, nothing will arise to show that the latter’s usefulness as a teacher has been in any way impaired by what has taken place under the present proceedings.’ (Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 22 Nov 1876)

Mr Baillie, the Free Church teacher, was officially ill during this time. He apparently suffered ‘severe attacks of bronchitis, aggravated by constitutional weakness and undeserved annoyance.’ In 1896 a newspaper article on his shell collection mentioned his love of cricket and golf, which casts doubt on his ‘constitutional weakness.’


Despite their assertion that they were prepared to go to prison, no parents did. Both Mr Myron and Mr Baillie suffered as a result of the dispute, but the main losers were the school children of Brora, whose education was seriously disrupted at a time when educational provision for children throughout Scotland was steadily improving.

A Coastal Tour

By the time he journeyed through the Highlands in 1790, John Geddes was fifty-five years old. He was a well-travelled man. Born in Banffshire, he went to Rome aged fourteen to train for the priesthood. Ten years later the young intellectual, now au fait with Enlightenment thinking and the doctrine of Pope Benedict XIV, was ordained and sent back to Banffshire to run the seminary at Scalan. A decade in Spain preceded high appointment in Lowland Scotland. Around the time Bishop Geddes was asked to contribute articles for the fourth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he took a tour through the north. He was keen on long distance walking, which he did in Spain as well as Scotland. He would say his breviary or plan a sermon, writing observations in a notebook, and talking to anyone he encountered. Over three June days he travelled from Dingwall to Berriedale, commenting on the homes of the gentry; developments in land use; inns and the scenery. Apparently Dornoch was ‘a very sorry village’ but it had a good inn! He notes a ‘small fisher town of earthen cottages’ named Port Leich, between Invergordon and the now deserted Tarbert House. This is now the prettily-named Barbaraville which has a stony beach but no sign of boats!

June - Harris 103

John Geddes would have found the big enclosed fields and the view across to the Nigg yard a bit different to his view across the Cromarty Firth in the 1790s. The fishing industry which he observed is gone, replaced by the oil extraction and renewables industry. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

26th: After leaving Dingwall saw the Earl of Cromarty’s Pyramid in the churchyard. [This part of the churchyeard is now Tesco’s car park but hte pyramid can still be seen.] Tulloch belongs to a Mr. Davidson, a pleasant house on the side of an eminence; passed by the gates of Foulis, Sir Hugh Monro’s; came on to Drummond and there breakfasted, learned that Sir Alexander Monro’s mother lived in the neighbouring house, and that her daughters, Mrs. Hay and Mrs. Shaw, were with her; deliberated whether I should go to them or not; determined not, that I might not be detained or give them reason to wonder what was carrying me to the North. Saw Novarre, General Monro’s seat, situated on the side of a hill with a view of the Firth of Cromarty and a good deal of planting about the place, came along the Firth to the East of me, having a view of the town of Cromarty not far from the mouth of the Firth on the East side at the foot of one of the hills that form the entrance; dined at Invergordon; continued my walk along the Firth to Port Leich a small fisher town of earthen cottages; saw Tarbet House, a fine modern building erected by the late Lord McLeod and now in the possession of his cousin, Captain McKenzie; passed near the house of Balnagown, where its master, Sir John Lockhart Ross, had lately died; came by a moss-road to Tain, a town well-situated on the south side of the Firth of Dornoch; on the door of the church has been placed as appears, not long since a bass-rilievo of a priest in his sacerdotal robes, which seems to have been a tombstone; received a letter from Mr. Robertson here; lodged in a Mrs. Sutherland’s.

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June - Tarbet Ho 098

Even in ruins Tarbet House exudes Georgian elegance, its simple lines almost obscured by ivy and trees. Although this building must have been quite a contrast to the fishermen’s houses in Port Leich, it certainly challenges stereotypes of the eighteenth-century Highlands being remote, underdeveloped and backward. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

27th: Walked along the South side of the Firth of Dornoch, a fine piece of water; passed by Tarlogie or Ankerfield, Lord Ankerfield’s seat; passed by an old Castle on the Firth; passed what is called the Meikle Ferry; saw up the Firth toward Loch Shinn; turned to the right and walked along the North side of the Firth of Dornoch, once the seat of the Bishop of Caithness, now a very sorry village. The Cathedral has been a good church; the present market-place is the burial-place in the middle of the town without any walls. Breakfasted in Lesly’s, a good inn, and remained there, it being Sunday, until after two o’clock; wrote to Bishop Hay and to Mr. Robertson; read newspapers; walked on to the Little Ferry, where the boat-house being on the North side I was detained a good while; came on to the Kirktown of Golspie, where I took a refreshment, and thence proceeded to an inn called the Milk-house [Wilkhouse Inn – see post from 25 February 2013], having passed under the Castle of Dunrobin, beautifully situated on a rock.

28th: Travelled along the coast, seeing the hills of Murray and Banffshire, meditating and reciting my Breviary; fell in with a Mr. Hutchison, Lieutenant of a man-of-war from Musselburgh, who came with me to the inn of Helmsdale, where I got breakfast; passed the Ord, a very steep road, and entered Caithness; passed by Navidale and took refreshment at Ansdale, where I saw the daughter of James Sutherland, who was first with Mr. Elliot, and afterwards in partnership with Corri in the music-shop; came over a hill and saw Braemore, the Pap of Caithness and other high hills being in view on my left; came over another hill and down on Berrydale, where two waters meet, and their two vallies and the rising ground between them form a most beautiful scene; dined at Berrydale in Henderson’s; passed over two hills and came down on Dunbeath, leaving the castle on my left. Here were Mr. Mathison and Mr. McGhegan, the Irish traveler whom I had seen at Edinburgh; conversed with them.

John Geddes continued his journey as far as Orkney. Not long after the tour, his health deteriorated. He suffered from rheumatism and high blood pressure, having a series of strokes. Latterly his right side became paralysed and he dictated his literary output. Geddes died on 11th February 1799 in Aberdeen after two years of helplessness, cared for by fellow priests.


With thanks to David Taylor for pointing me to this source.

David Alston, Ross and Cromarty: A Historical Guide (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1997)

William Anderson, ‘Bishop John Geddes: Journal Ambula Coram Deo, Part Second’, The Innes Review, 6.2, (1955), pps 46-68.

William Anderson, ‘The Autobiographical Notes of Bishop John Geddes’, The Innes Review, 18.1, (2010), pps 36-57.

Frank A. Kafker and Jeff Loveland, ‘Bishop John Geddes, the First Catholic Contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 30.1, (2007), pps 73–88.

‘In hazard of his life’: The Kincardine Covenanter Part II


By the time Thomas was holding secret religious meetings in the Moray countryside, the Ross boys were grown men. Both followed in their father’s footsteps. In 1670, after studying at St Andrews, Alexander took over the charge of Fearn where the congregation met in the restored ruins of the medieval abbey. This parish included the family lands at Nether Pitkerrie which he eventually inherited. George studied at Kings College and in about 1671 he became minister of his father’s old parish of Kincardine.

Dunbeath, Braemore, Dirlot 009

Ruins of the old monastery and old church incorporated into the new at Fearn Abbey Church of Scotland. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

Thomas and his fellow Covenanters were unmolested, and possibly tacitly ignored, by the authorities from 1669, but their good fortune ran out in 1675. The carrot and stick approach of the mid-seventies provided opportunities for ministers to be reincorporated into the church while the laws against conventicles were tightened. Field preaching now carried the death penalty and anyone who harboured the preachers faced harsh punishment. The nemesis of Thomas Ross’s Moray conventicle was the Bishop of Moray. This Murdo Mackenzie had a politic attitude to the religious disputes of the age. Connected to the Seaforths, he had served as chaplain in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden during the Thirty Years War and, on his return worked for the church at Contin, then Inverness, then Elgin. It seems unlikely that MacKenzie was unaware of what Thomas Ross and his friends were getting up to, especially once Lady Kilravock was involved. So it is probable that he had initially tolerated their activities then reported them as measures against conventicles were intensified. He informed the Privy Council who required the Earl of Moray to implement the law. The Earl acted immediately. Thomas was arrested and thrown into the tolbooth at Nairn.



Ruins of the old monastery and old church incorporated into the new at Fearn Abbey Church of Scotland. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

The sixty one year old preacher did not find the tolbooth congenial. He petitioned the Privy Council explaining that it was ‘very insufficient, and not able, from want of roof and repairing, to shelter him from the rains and storm; that he being a sickly and tender person was in hazard of his life.’ Thomas requested his freedom. It was not so easily won, but the Privy Council compromised. The Earl was to transfer him to the tolbooth at Tain and there he remained until at least May 1676. His jailers in Tain treated him kindly and permitted at least one visit from his wife who had presumably moved north again. Lilias came with her maid Jane Taylor. Jane had exciting news for Thomas. It seems likely that Lilias and Thomas had shared their faith with their servant and encouraged her to consider her own spiritual situation. During his imprisonment Jane had a conversion experience. As she later became a stalwart of the movement in Easter Ross, her own description of this meeting was preserved:

‘When I told him how my will was broken, and faith wrought and Jesus Christ manifested to me, he wept for joy.’


The Bass Rock, from Memoirs of the Rev. James Fraserof Brea, ed. Alexander Whyte (Inverness: Melven Brothers, 1891. Reprint)

This was the high point of a captivity which continued until 1677. Some evidence suggests he was transferred to the Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian with other Covenanter prisoners. He was back in the north before the end of 1677 when he submitted a petition requesting his release from Tain on grounds of ill health. He had developed a painful throat condition which kept him from speaking. The Privy Council permitted

‘him to be set at liberty, he finding caution, under the pain of two thousand merks Scots, to re-enter himself in prison when he shall be called, and that in the meantime he shall live orderly, in obedience to law’.

His final year was spent at home in Tain with Lilias. His two sons lived only a short journey away and he had many friends in the area. In January 1679 his illness worsened. He developed a fever and on Monday 7th and Tuesday 8th he told his friends he was dying. His inability to speak must have been a temporary affliction as, ever the preacher, he used his last days to encourage his friends and relatives in their faith as they came to visit him. He finally died on Sunday 13th January 1679 having earned his place among the Evangelical heroes of the north.

Hew Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1928)
Donald Beaton, Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1929, 1985)
J.H.S. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1960)

‘Seed-beds for sedition’: The Kincardine Covenanter Part I

In 1675 a sixty one year old man from Fearn was apprehended and thrown into the tolbooth at Nairn. His crime was not theft, assault or murder. He was accused of holding secret Christian meetings. This was not the first time Thomas Ross had got into trouble for his faith.

Thomas was born in about 1614 in Fearn, Easter Ross. His father was the well-to-do George Ross of Nether Pitkerrie. He probably attended the local parish school then studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen. It was a popular college for those with Presbyterian sympathies, although his younger son studied at Kings. We do know that at some point he married Lilias Dunbar and the couple had two boys: Alexander and George.

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Seventeenth-century farmland would have been organised in runrig rather than these open fields, but the fertility of the land near Nether Pitkerrie is clear today. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

Thomas Ross had decided on a career in the church. He was passionate about his faith and developed a reputation for holiness so, on the surface, seems well-suited to the profession. However, the mid-seventeenth century was not an easy time for ministers. Church and state were closely tied and there was an ongoing struggle between Episcopalians and Presbyterians. The former system involved a hierarchy of ministers, bishops and archbishops whereas in the latter, church government was by consensus of ministers and elders through a system of church courts. Thomas was firmly in the Presbyterian camp and this was to cause him problems.

We know nothing about Thomas before 1655. He may have started his career as a schoolteacher as so many aspiring ministers did. By August 1655 he was a married man aged about forty with a young family. He had replaced the previous minister of Kincardine who was removed due to ‘malignancy’! Kincardine parish stretches along much of the south bank of the Dornoch Firth, a stretch of good arable fringing a hilly hinterland. Although he was a family man, well settled in a respectable and congenial profession in his local area, life was not to continue smoothly for Thomas Ross. In 1661 the ‘Drunken Parliament’ annulled all Presbyterian legislation and Episcopacy was restored. The next year the Parliament declared that all parishes which had been filled since 1649 were now vacant. The ministers were required to reapply to their bishop and patron by 20th September 1662. If Thomas did this he would automatically be reinstated, however to do so was to recognise the new order. While most in the north and east of Scotland were content to conform, Thomas joined the ranks of those in the Covenanter hot-spots of Galloway and Ayrshire. His refusal meant that in 1663 he was deprived of his parish. Outed ministers were not meant to resettle within twenty miles of their former charge, but Thomas may have negotiated a relaxation of this rule as he and Lilias moved to the nearby Royal Burgh of Tain. If the boys were still young at this point the advantage was that they were closer to the town’s well-respected school. They doubtless also had friends there.

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Parish of Kincardine, Sutherland, where Thomas Ross enjoyed a short-lived peaceful family life. Looking towards today’s village of Ardgay. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Like many of the ousted ministers and their congregations, Thomas was a passionate believer. We don’t know how he made a living in Tain but it is quite possible that in his free time he held secret religious meetings for locals, perhaps including some members of his former congregation. This was dangerous. Conventicles were outlawed by the government who believed they were ‘seed-beds for sedition’ and fines were imposed on those who did not attend their parish church. Over the next few years political tension erupted in violence in southwest Scotland. Troops were deployed to impose anti-Covenanter legislation, a ragtag army of Covenanters was defeated near Edinburgh and the government brutally repressed the movement. By 1669 government policy became more conciliatory. It was announced that outed ministers who had lived quietly since, could return if their parishes were still vacant. However Kincardine was not vacant. When Thomas left the previous minister, the one dismissed for ‘malignancy’, had been restored. Instead the Rosses with at least one servant, Jane Taylor, sailed south to Morayshire. There he was involved in ‘preaching the Gospel with no small measure of success’, presumably in conventicles. Thomas not only ministered to those who shared his faith but was influential in the conversion of several. His converts included Margaret, the wife of Hugh Rose, 14th baron of Kilravock. Having such an influential disciple may have protected him and the other ‘faithful messengers of the Cross’ in their activities. But this protection was not to last.
To be continued…

Hew Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1928)
Donald Beaton, Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1929, 1985)
J.H.S. Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1960)

Of Cathedrals and Canals

One of the first things a visitor to Dornoch notices is the sandstone cathedral, pride of place in the centre of the town. Visitors are encouraged to walk around it and admire the beautiful stonework, the gargoyles, to consider the first cathedral building of the 1220s and the restoration of two hundred years ago. But Bishop Gilbert of Moravia’s removal of the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness from Halkirk to Dornoch left an archaeological mark not only on the town, but running through the surrounding countryside.

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

The landward side of the parish, stretching up the Evelix Valley, is now crofted. Criss-crossed with single track roads it rises into a series of low hills. The lowest road runs parallel to the River Evelix. Venturing westward off the A9 it is now possible to skirt Milltown of Evelix Farm, where the ruins of a large water mill and its lade are clearly visible. Unlike ruined mills further upstream, this one operated into the twentieth century. The road to Rearquhar passes through unremarkable fields of sheep, with the occasional pony. As it rises the land becomes a little rougher. Soon it wends its way among a little patch of old birch trees, picturesquely crooked and shady. There is a reason this patch of soil is left as woodland rather than being under cultivation. It is not flat and smooth like the surrounding fields. In fact there is a pair of rather steep banks running for twenty yards or so straight towards the road. The geomorphology of the area, especially the long esker separating Dornoch from Camore, might suggest that the feature is another remnant of glaciation. But eskers and drumlins do not tend to come in parallel pairs. This is man-made.

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Making Dornoch into the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness was much more than an administrative move. As the cathedral was built, so were a series of buildings to house various members of the church hierarchy and to enable the administration of the region. Today’s Castle Hotel is one remaining tower of three, surrounding a courtyard, which made up the Bishop’s Palace. Other impressive stone-built houses for the church officials towered above the wattle and turf homes of locals. Placenames show how Gilbert divided up land to help support the six canons. ‘Achendean’, now the name of a house beside the Castle Hotel, and ‘Achinchanter’ on the outskirts of the town, suggest these areas were granted to the Dean and, possibly, the Precentor.

There are a few theories as to why Gilbert chose to locate in Dornoch. Was it because he was related to the Earl of Sutherland, busy establishing himself at Dunrobin, in the hopes that he could protect him from the sort of attack suffered by his predecessors in Halkirk? If so, why was the cathedral not built in Golspie? Or was it because there was already a religious establishment at Dornoch? There are certainly indications this was the case. Whether they were already there or brought in by Gilbert it appears Dornoch was home to a number of monks.

Monks did not spend all their time in prayer, meditation or singing. Most orders were highly practical. They grew their own food in gardens and on farms and laboured on church-related building projects. Undoubtedly they worked on Dornoch’s new buildings. As Dornoch developed into something more than a mixed farming township, especially one which reflected the prestige of such a great person as the Bishop of Caithness, also needed good infrastructure. Especially water. Water for people to use and water for operating the flour mill.

The best supply was from the River Evelix. The monks used the original line of the glacial river for their canal, although before their time the river had changed its course, now turning sharply to the south-west and emptying into the Dornoch Firth at Meikle Ferry. Details as to where exactly it can be seen are explained in Robertson and Park’s Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley, but it was cut from Rearquhar, and its remains appear and disappear past the Astle road and through Fleuchary. Beyond that no traces of it can be found. The remains of this substantial engineering project, which must have been one of the wonders of Sutherland at the time, did not survive the enclosure of fields and the advent of deep ploughing.

Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2005)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)