Caithness and the Crofters’ War: The case of Clyth Estate, part 1

After enjoying a bit of a summer break from posting we are back. This week we venture a little to the north of our usual historical stomping grounds – just over the border into Caithness. Valerie Amin recently graduated from the University of the Highlands and Islands with a BA (Hons) in Scottish History.  A native of Caithness, she is particularly interested in the land issues and politics of the nineteenth-century Highlands.  The following blog post is adapted from her undergraduate dissertation ‘Caithness and the Highland Land Wars, 1881-1886.’

The county of Caithness is not normally associated with the Highland land agitation of the early 1880s. However Clyth estate, in the south east of the county, was the scene of a rent strike that brought crofting conditions to national attention in November 1882.

The estate, in Latheron parish, had seven miles of sea coast and extended three miles inland, and was populated mainly by crofter fishermen and their families. There was a significant Sutherland element. In 1802 or 1803, several crofting families from Tongue settled at Clyth and became fishermen. In 1805, following evictions from Strathnaver, more families joined them and, in 1819, after the Kildonan clearances, large numbers of those evicted found refuge at Clyth.

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By 1882, Clyth estate was said to be the most severely rack-rented in Caithness. It had been bought in 1863 by Adam Sharp, a merchant from Moray. The tenants claimed rents had risen by over 50 per cent during Sharp’s ownership.

It was against a background of severe agricultural depression and the land agitation in the western Highlands and Islands that Clyth crofters took action to challenge their landlord over the punitive rents. With their annual rent due on the 27th November 1882, the tenants met in Clyth Schoolhouse and agreed that a deputation would go to see Mr Sharp on rent day, to ask that all the crofts on the estate be revalued before they would pay.

Rent day was stormy, with sleet and snow showers. By noon, over two hundred tenants had gathered outside Bruan Lodge, where Mr Sharp waited. He welcomed the deputation into the parlour, where William Grant of Ulbster laid out the tenants’ grievances.

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Bruan Lodge, taken with owner’s permission. Photo: Valerie Amin.

After listening Sharp retorted ‘If you have resolved to pay no rent, you cannot expect a much better valuation than that.’ The Clyth tenants’ plight had had considerable coverage in the local press, but Sharp described their complaints as ‘mere fiction’ to evoke sympathy amongst outsiders. He dug his heels in, saying ‘I wish you distinctly to understand that anything that may be done will not be in consequence of agitation carried on by you … the proceedings you have adopted have had quite an opposite effect upon me.’

At that, the deputation left the Lodge to relate Sharp’s response to the expectant crowd outside. There was considerable anger on hearing the reaction to their request. Andrew Matheson urged the crowd to ‘resist injustice and tyranny as long as the breath was in their bodies.’ He added ‘If the peace is broken, it will be the landlord’s fault and not ours. We are not able to pay our rents if we have no money.’ It was unanimously decided that no tenant would pay rent that day.

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William Grant of Ulbster, who led the deputation. ©Johnston Collection. Used with the kind permission of the Wick Society.

The Clyth rent strike had a high profile across the country, widely reported in newspapers from London to Dublin to Edinburgh. The case was even brought to the attention of the Prime Minister and used to press for an inquiry into crofters’ conditions.

Meanwhile, the Clyth tenants were split on whether they could continue to withhold rent from the landlord. At a ‘stormy meeting’ the unlawfulness of their position was made clear by George Sutherland, a solicitor involved with the wider Caithness movement for land reform. It was argued that the people of Braes in Skye were benefiting from paying no rent, but Sutherland made clear ‘the people of Braes being isolated, are in a different position from the tenants on the estate of Clyth.’ The leaders of the agitation were accused of ‘having brought them to battle only to draw back,’ but George Cormack, the tenants’ main spokesman, managed to calm the meeting by stressing that as their main aim was to change the land laws, ‘It would not do to be placed in a position which would enable anyone to ask: “How can you speak of the law when ye have already broken it?”’ It was agreed that each tenant would pay what they were able, and the Clyth rent strike ended peacefully.

It was not the end of the crofters’ fight however. The agitation entered a new phase: a determined drive to elect a land reformer as the county’s M.P.

More on that next month.

Sources

John O’ Groat Journal

Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Volume III (1883).

Northern Ensign

Landscapes of Power I: A Monumental Geography

Post by Elizabeth Ritchie, lecturer at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.

I didn’t know there was a memorial to James Loch. When I came to teach at the University of the Highlands and Islands I was instructed to prepare a course on the Clearances. I objected that I didn’t know anything about the Clearances. But I was the nineteenth-century historian and I allegedly specialised in the Highlands, so there was no way to wriggle out of it. And so I learned about the Clearances, particularly as they pertain to Sutherland, and I became familiar with names like that of James Loch, the head factor and the boss of the much hated Patrick Sellar, who designed and implemented the development of commercial agriculture, the removal of the people, and their replacement with sheep, with all of the long-resonating consequences for the economy, ecology, culture and psyche of the region and its diaspora. So my friend Annie, who has written a book on the Sutherland estate, (Annie Tindley, The Sutherland Estate 1850-1920: Aristocratic Decline, Estate management and Land Reform, Edinburgh University Press, 2010) was a little shocked to hear that, in all my bikes and hikes, I had never come across the memorial to one of the chief architects of Sutherland as it is today.

For two afternoons in January he became the pretext for walks around the woods of Dunrobin. As I made a circuit back to the castle where I had left my car, I realised I was walking a triangle: a triangle of monuments each of which spoke of the power of the people of Dunrobin to shape the landscape and the lives of the people within it.

The most obvious and most maligned is, of course, the gigantic and authoritative statue to the first duke of Sutherland on the summit of Beinn Bhraggie. Visible for dozens of miles around it is the focus for all historic discontent, yet survives the periodic attacks of chisel or spray can. Dunrobin Castle itself, with its fairytale Loire-like turrets, whitely protruding from trees and coast is another highly visible declaration of rulership, even moreso in the days when the approach to Sutherland was mainly by sea.

But in my wanderings I discovered two more monuments and recalled a third. I realised that the positioning of all these objects of stone was more than the accumulation of one-offs. They constitute a geography of power which marked ownership and authority, visibly by placement or by text. Directly west of the castle, framed by the gateway arch, is a classic Victorian statue to the second duke, with an inscribed pedestal. He overlooks the highways of road and rail, his robed back to Dunrobin Mains farm and his confident gaze rests on the spiky castle roof.

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My woodland searches finally took me to my intended objective of James Loch’s memorial. A four-posted marble canopy accessed by stone steps sits oddly in forest. The poetic inscription declares that he often loved to come to this place to survey the view. The only view now is of tree trunks and deep ruts of heavy machines. But, sometime after 1858 when he died, this tiny hilltop monument permitted him to posthumously sweep his eyes over the territory he had commanded. A superficial reading of the sentimental plaque suggests it is merely a memorial to a fond old chap, but it does not take much reading between the lines to realise that it was paid for, and possibly designed and its position chosen, by the ducal family.

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I thought the monumental geography took the form of a squashed triangle, about four miles by one, until I remembered an outlier. But an ostentatious, looming outlier, arguably the most ancient and important building in the north of Scotland: Dornoch Cathedral. Eleven miles to the south of Dunrobin, the medieval edifice’s rebuilding was financed by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1824. The very structure is a monument to her wealth and influence, even if you happened to miss the gigantic twin marble plaques and the inscribed floor-stone at the very front of the church.

The physicality, through their design and placement, of these monuments speaks authority. An authority positioned over several generations, though all harking back to the lives of the first duke and duchess, and the times in which they permanently changed the landscape and the lives of the folk of Sutherland. At least these monuments did speak authority until we took to blindly whizzing along the A9 in cars, before a small forest grew up around Loch’s vantage point, and before we stopped going to church.

An American patriot, the Countess and the Clearances

When researching his recent book, ‘Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances’ (published by Birlinn), James Hunter came across an intriguing possibility which he blogs about here.

Could one of 1820 London’s up-market drawing-rooms have seen the Countess of Sutherland come up against a clearance critic in the shape of a US ambassador? The possibility arises from the family background of William MacKay who’s to be met with in Memorabilia Domestica, the memoirs of Donald Sage, a Sutherland minister. There Sage writes of how, as he preached in the open air at Langdale just prior to the 1819 clearance of Strathnaver, his ‘eye fell upon’ MacKay’s ‘venerable countenance’. ‘I was deeply affected,’ Sage goes on, ‘and could scarcely articulate the psalm’.

This was not just because Sage was close to MacKay whom he knew as ‘Old Achoul’. In what was being done to MacKay, then in his late nineties, by the Countess of Sutherland and her employees, Donald Sage saw something emblematic of what he called ‘the extinction of the last remnant of the ancient Highland peasantry of the north’.

As indicated by the title given him by Donald Sage, William MacKay, who could trace his ancestry to his clan’s medieval founders, spent much of his life at Achoul to the east of Loch Naver in what today’s been designated as Wild Land Area 35. Evicted from Achoul in 1807, he’d moved in with his daughter and son-in-law at Grumbeg on Loch Naver’s other shore. Now Grumbeg too was to be cleared and William was en route for Caithness where he’d die, aged 99, in 1822.

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From Grumbeg and looking across Loch Naver to Achoul. Image: Cailean MacLean, Skye.

Might William have wished in 1819 that, half a century earlier, he’d joined those members of his family who then emigrated to America? The opportunity to do so must have been there in 1772 when George MacKay, William’s cousin, made it possible for some 200 people to quit Sutherland for Wilmington, North Carolina, aboard the Adventure, a ship George had chartered. Among the Adventure’s passengers was William MacKay’s younger sister, Elizabeth, sailing for Wilmington with her second husband, Archibald Campbell and their ten children.

From Wilmington the Campbells moved inland to settle at Crooked Creek in Mecklenburg County – near the present-day city of Charlotte. There, when America’s Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, the Campbells – unlike most newly arrived immigrants from the Highlands – took the patriot, or anti-British, side. Two of George and Elizabeth’s sons, Alexander and Donald, died in the fighting that followed. Those men’s younger brother, George, just three when the family left Sutherland and not old enough to join future US president George Washington’s Continental Army, took no part in the struggle for American independence. But he made clear where his sympathies lay by adopting ‘Washington’ as a middle name.

Nor was the self-styled George Washington Campbell’s hostility towards Britain to cease when, having trained as a lawyer and having moved across the Appalachians to Tennessee, he went into politics. Representing Tennessee first in the House of Representatives and later in the US Senate, Campbell was a leading backer of America’s 1812 declaration of war on the United Kingdom – serving as President James Madison’s Secretary for the Treasury during much of the ensuing conflict.

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By The Bureau of Engraving and Printing – Restoration by Godot13, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33915326

By 1819, when his mother’s brother, William MacKay, was being evicted from the second of the two Strathnaver homes he’d been forced to abandon, George Washington Campbell was in St Petersburg as US ambassador at the court of Tsar Alexander I. From St Petersburg, Campbell corresponded with his Scottish relatives – among them Donald MacKay, one of the ambassador’s Strathnaver kinsmen, then serving with the British Army’s 42nd Regiment (the Black Watch) in Ireland.

Ambassador Campbell, then, is likely to have known at least something of Strathnaver’s clearance. This raises an intriguing possibility stemming from Campbell’s movements in 1820 when, on his way home from St Petersburg, he spent several weeks in London. While there and while meeting with a number of British politicians and aristocrats, might he have found himself in the same company as that prominent fixture on the capital’s social scene, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland and Marchioness of Stafford?

What might Lady Stafford have said on meeting with this American statesman and diplomat? And how might Campbell have responded? Perhaps, one hopes, with words to the effect that he was glad to have the opportunity to learn why the countess had found it necessary to twice evict his uncle.

***

William MacKay of Achoul’s ancestry can be traced in The Book of MacKay, put together by Angus MacKay and published in Edinburgh in 1906. George Washington Campbell’s papers, including some correspondence with his Scottish relatives, are held by the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. The fullest account of Campbell’s life is George Washington Campbell: Western Statesman, by W. T. Jordan, published in Tallahassee in 1955.

Hector Munro: Villain Highland Nabob or Highland Hero? (part 2)

Brian Symonds continues his exploration of Ross-shire man, Hector Munro.

Hector Munro, the hero of Buxar, now wealthy and with social status as an MP, was seemingly established comfortably in his Highland Novar estate. However in 1777 he chose to return to India as Commander-in-Chief of the East India Army. Perhaps Munro lost heavily in the major financial crisis following the Scottish Ayr Bank failure in 1772, and the resulting financial embarrassment created the need for him to once more forsake the Highlands.

In his new position Munro presided over wars with the Indian rulers and the French. He personally commanded the forces which in 1778 stormed and captured the strategically important French base at Pondichéry. This victory was so important for Britain that Munro was awarded a knighthood. The newly ennobled Sir Hector Munro, still officially MP for Inverness Burghs even when in India, re-established his financial standing from prize money.

However, in 1780 his fortunes changed. He failed to send assistance to beleaguered East India troops during the campaign against a prince of southern India. As a result the Company lost the whole Carnatic region to the local rulers and the French and destroyed his reputation. It was considered the worst defeat suffered by the British in the eighteenth century. Munro resigned his command and returned to London but was greeted with the news that he had been dismissed from the East India Company in disgrace.

Hector Munro

Trouble followed him north in 1782. The old established landowners were uneasy with the nabobs, those nouveau riche who returned from India with their controversial wealth. This was particularly so when they use it to ‘build grand houses, improve traditional land ownership and to buy political position’.

Once resettled, Munro turned his attention to Novar. There he continued to court controversy. He is said to have found Novar ‘a very inferior property, with poor soil but well adapted for the growth of timber’. He began modernising the management of the estate and initiated improvements to the house and surrounding area, including the construction of the folly of the Gate of Negapatam. Reputedly he spent some £120,000: at current value representing the startling sum of some thirteen million pounds.

Novar House

It is claimed that Sir Hector’s estate improvements and his folly gave much-needed employment to local men. Paradoxically, he also pioneered the introduction of sheep which displaced populations. He also engaged in other profitable enterprises such as the introduction of larch as a commercial timber crop. The resulting clearances and loss of traditional tenure systems that sustained local communities created high local unemployment and poverty while ultimately provoking widespread resistance by tenants. Sir Hector Munro was ‘a man with considerable experience in India of quelling troublesome natives’ and who still maintained his status as the Colonel of a Highland regiment so. He therefore: ‘ordered certain companies of the regiment to Novar, where they dispersed the people and took some of the ringleaders prisoners’. They were subsequently tried at the Justiciary Court sitting at Inverness, and sentenced to transportation for life.

Brahan Seer

Motivation for Munro’s pursuit of estate modernisation might be found in the sheer disparity of the gain from his exploits in India and the traditional income from his Highland estate. An early year in India easily secured him £20 000, a sum equal to thirty eight years of income from his unmodernised Highland estate.

Munro continued to prosper through family connections within the East India Company. His nephew, Captain Alexander Munro, was killed in India and left Sir Hector his possessions. In a letter dated 9th June 1779 this was itemised as ‘three chests of Treasure containing as per Invoice & Bill of Lading inclosed Silver Argots Twenty Seven Thousand and Twenty Seven Rupees’.

Despite the apparent inhumanity he displayed in his military career and his seeming callousness in his management of Novar Estate, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the family misadventures that accompanied his sojourns to India. Whilst he never married he had three sons and a daughter, not all by the same mother. Munro lost his seventeen year old son in 1792, a cadet in the East India Company’s military service: ‘I heard a roar like thunder, and saw an immense royal tiger spring on the unfortunate Munro, who was sitting down: in a moment his head was in the beasts mouth and he rushed into the jungle with him’. A second son, who joined the East India Company as a Writer in 1796, died aboard ship in 1814 on the journey home. His third son, also seventeen and also a cadet in the East India Company service, was killed in 1804 by a shark in the Bay of Bengal. It is not clear what became of his daughter but she may have joined Munro at Novar. Sir Hector Munro died at Novar House during Christmas of 1805: a local man, sometimes hero and sometimes villain.

Sources:

HAC D538/J/3, ‘Will and Letter, Dated 25th July 1778 Calcutta, from Claude Alexander to Major Genl. Hector Munro’

‘The Son of Sir Hector Munro, Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman on Board the Shaw Ardasier, off Saugur Island’, Derby Mercury, 11 July 1793

Bryant, G. J., ‘Munro, Sir Hector (1725/6–1805/6)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19546&gt;

Cain, Alex M, The Cornchest for Scotland: Scots in India (National Library of Scotland, 1986)

Cregeen, Eric, ‘The Tacksmen and Their Successors: A Study of Tenurial Reorganisation in Mull, Morvern and Tiree in the Early Eighteenth Century’ Scottish Studies, 13 (1969), 93–144

Edwardes, Michael, The Nabobs at Home (Edinburgh: Constable, 1991)

Grosjean, Alexia, ‘Return to Belhelvie, 1593-1875: The Impact of Return Migration on an Aberdeenshire Parish’, in Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600-2000, ed. by Harper. Marjory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012)

Harper, Marjory, ‘Introduction to Emigrant Homecoming’, in Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600-2000, ed. by Harper. Marjory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012)

Mackenzie, Alexander, History of the Munros of Fowlis: With Genealogies of the Principal Families of the Name: To Which Are Added Those of Lexington and New England (Inverness: A. & W, Mackenzie, 1898)

MacKillop, Andrew, ‘The Highlands and the Returning Nabob: Sir Hector Munro of Novar, 1760-1807’, in Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600-2000, ed. by Harper. Marjory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), pp. 233–61

McGilvary, George K., East India Patronage and the British State: The Scottish Elite and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, International Library of Historical Studies, 54 (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008)

‘Measuring Worth – Purchasing Power of Pound’ <https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/&gt; [accessed 13 March 2018]

‘Members Biographies: Munro, Hector (1726-1805), of Novar, Ross’, The History of Parliament <http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/munro-hector-1726-1805&gt;

‘Taking up their abode in the woods’: from Sutherland to Nova Scotia

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Between 1813 and the 1830s the Mi’kma’q people of what became Earltown in Colchester County, Nova Scotia, faced an influx of colonists. These Sutherland families, many evicted multiple times from their rented homes and farms back home, hungered after security and were attracted by the possibility of outright ownership offered by the British government. Over the years they logged the forest, selling the timber, and transformed it into farmland. The ash from burning the logged areas provided abundant crops the first year, giving the impression that the area was more fertile than it actually was. These farms gradually cut off the Mi’kma’q from access to fishing and hunting grounds but provided stability and prosperity for Sutherland people. George Patterson’s 1877 account describes the early years from the perspective of the settlers’ descendants.

“The first settlers were Donald Mclntosh and Angus Sutherland, who took up their residence in the unbroken forest in the year 1813…”

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To Scottish eyes the Nova Scotian landscape is still dominated by “unbroken forest”, but the  vast majority of this is second growth as trees have reclaimed much of the land cleared of old growth. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

“Of the early settlers, nearly all came from … Rogart, Lairg and Clyne. There were families from Inverness, two or three from Ross, and three or four from Caithness. All the original settlers spoke the Gaelic language, and it is still generally used by their descendants. Indeed, it is more generally spoken in Earltown than in any part of Nova Scotia proper. Still it received some admixture of others, for while it had old soldiers who, in the Highland regiments, had gone through the Peninsular War, and at least one who had fought at Waterloo, it at the same time had a foreigner, who had been in the same battle under Napoleon, and the two, instead of being ready to embrace as brothers, were rather disposed to fight their battles over again.”

“Like all who take up their abode in the woods, the first settlers had many difficulties to encounter. They were for years without a grist mill. During that time they got their grain ground partly by the handmill, and partly at a grist mill at the West Branch River. As there were no roads to the West Branch, and they had no horses, they were compelled to carry their grain on their backs to and from the mill, over a rough track. John McKay, known as the miller, put up the first grist mill, at a fall fifty feet high … The mill-stones … were taken from the West Branch, a distance of fourteen miles, on a drag hauled by 36 sturdy Highlanders…”

Cnoc na Guidh, W Earltown

Taken from the now vacant farm of Robert MacKay “Dubh” on Cnoc Na Guidh, West Earltown. The valley below and surrounding hills were settled in 1821 by Joseph Gordon’s emigrants from Strathbrora. Photo: Glen Matheson

 

South View from Spiddle Hill

Farms of people from Urachyle, Strath Brora. Photo circa 1900 from the Haskett-Smith Collection. With thanks to Glen Matheson.

“The early settlers were strong, industrious and economical. They were poor at first, but with great perseverance, they made themselves comfortable homes. There are men in Earltown to-day, who settled forty years ago in the woods without a guinea in their pockets, who have fine houses, large barns, excellent farms and considerable sums at interest.”

[It should be noted that it was very difficult for the poor to emigrate: transporting a family and supporting them for the first year before harvest is very expensive. It is most likely that the settlers used up their resources in the process of emigration. Until the assisted emigrations of the mid-nineteenth century it was the middling sort who could afford to emigrate and the impoverished were trapped in Scotland.]

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“fine houses, large barns, excellent farms”. The reconstructions of eighteenth-century buildings at Fortress Louisbourg give a good sense of the homes of well-established Highland colonists. Photos: Elizabeth Ritchie.

“The inhabitants at that time were all connected with the Church of Scotland, but for several years they were without a minister. In consequence of this, persons sometimes carried their children to Pictou, a distance of twenty-five miles, to be baptized. They were occasionally visited by a minister of the Church of Scotland, and on such occasions it was not uncommon to see him baptize twenty or thirty children at once. Rev. W. Sutherland was the first minister who settled at Earltown. He was never called or inducted into the congregation, but remained ministering to a few who adhered to him till his death. The Rev. Alexander Sutherland, of the Free Church of Scotland, was the first minister who was called by the people, and ordained in the place. He was settled in the year 1845. Though the people were for years without a minister, they did not forsake the assembling of themselves together. There were among them men eminent as Christians, intimately acquainted with the truths of religion, and able to express themselves in a manner fitted to edify others. “The Men”, as they were called, held meetings regularly each Sabbath in the several parts of the settlement, and were the means of maintaining vital godliness among the people.”

Sources:

George Patterson, A History of the County of Pictou, Nova Scotia (New Glasgow, 1877), 277-9.

With thanks to Glen Matheson whose research pointed me to the connections between east Sutherland and Earltown, and whose comments increased the accuracy of the post. And with thanks to Dr Sharon Weaver who introduced me to the delights of Nova Scotia.

‘Honest’ George Dempster and the Spinningdale Experiment

Katie Louise McCullough is an historian and the Director of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on the economic and social development of the Highlands and Islands during the Improvement Era. Katie has spent many wonderful trips to Dornoch and the surrounding areas hiking and walking the beautiful countryside with her good pal Elizabeth Ritchie.

In Spinningdale, on the north side of the Dornoch Firth, stand the remnants of a cotton mill. It was built from 1792-4 by the Balnoe Company for the agriculturalist and politician George Dempster, Esq. of Dunnichen (1732-1818), owner of the Skibo estate, and his Glasgow partner David Dale. The men raised over £3000 for the mill, largely from Glasgow businessmen. It was part of a broader plan for social and economic development in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that championed the provision of employment and poverty relief rather than clearance and turning over land to sheep walks.

cotton mill at Spinningdale

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As an MP Dempster had a reputation for incorruptibility, gaining him the sobriquet of ‘Honest’ George. He brought his honesty and hard work to his development interests. Dempster was part of a network of improvers centred on the Highland Society of London (est. 1778) and its sister society the Highland Society of Scotland (est. 1784). Key players in these societies formed a subsidiary company the British Fisheries Society (Dempster was a director of the HSS and BFS) in 1786. In order to provide employment, the BFS established planned fishing villages in the western Highlands and Islands, an area noted by these men for its “underdevelopment.” Colleagues found within these networks blamed slow economic development and poverty on the Whiggish improvers of the early- and mid-eighteenth century who blamed Highlanders for their own poverty. In contrast, Dempster and like-minded friends felt the solution was not in raising great numbers of sheep but, as Sir John Sinclair argued, “by the introduction of arts and agriculture. The first will increase the number and wealth of the people; the latter will augment the quantity of the production of the soil, both for the maintenance of people and cattle. But neither arts nor agriculture can prosper, unless the inhabitants are secure in the tenure, by which they occupy the spots on which they live.” And so, Dempster and his colleagues came up with plans to build homes and transportation links, provide suitable local employment, and reduce or freeze rents until people got on their feet.

The Spinningdale mill was intended to provide employment for people from the nearby parish of Criech and its environs, including the Pulrossie estate, owned by Dempster’s brother. Local people lived off the sale of cattle and grew some potatoes and corn. Some considered this to be “hardly sufficient to maintain the families of the tenants,” resulting in difficulty paying rent and outmigration. Young men and women often temporarily migrated to the south: some “got high wages, and returned in winter to their parents, or relations, somewhat in the stile [sic] of gentlemen, and were a burden on their friends the whole winter, until they set out again in spring.” Some did not return; possibly marrying, dying, emigrating, or being “picked up by recruitment parties.”

cotton mill

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Emulating the fishing villages built by the BFS in the 1780s (Ullapool, Stein, and Tobermory), two villages were lotted on the Skibo estate: Criech and Spinningdale, in preparation for new housing. A warehouse was also built to hold goods for export. The Dornoch Firth was considered ideal for cotton manufacturing as it was damp and had access to transportation, the firth being “navigable for 24 miles [and] vessels of 50 tons burden can land their cargoes at this place,” and Spinningdale had a nearby burn for water power. Unlike many other landowners in this period, Dempster chose to freeze rents until manufacturing took off and people were placed in their new homes. This plan was intended not only to bring wealth to Dempster through rent, and to investors through profits, but also to raise the standard of living of inhabitants who “will enjoy perfect security, as occupiers of land. That those advantages will lead them gradually to better their houses, to improve their lands, and to alter their own condition in every respect for the better.”

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Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Unfortunately, this ambitious plan was a failure. Unable to coax locals to work in the factory with regularity (they were otherwise engaged in seasonal work; lambing, harvesting, peating, or searching for higher-wage work in the south) the mill did not turn a profit. A fire gutted the factory in 1806 and it was not rebuilt. Though the mill was a failure, Dempster’s plan reveals the benevolent intentions of some landowners who sought to attract local workers to planned towns with the provision of employment and infrastructure rather than clearing people on to crofts leaving the best land for sheep and cattle, a system designed to build wealth only for the landowner. Lotted towns and villages like those built by the British Fisheries Society, and many others, including Creich and Spinningdale, were intended to create employment and to reduce poverty for common Highlanders, eliminating the need to leave home in search of a better life.

Sources:

MS00126 George Dempster Papers Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Sir John Sinclair, Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799) Vol 8 Criech, County of Sutherland.

The Highland Land League and the School Boards in Clyne and Kildonan

Alison McCall’s love of history was fuelled by tales of family history told by her grandparents. Her PhD thesis The Lass o’ Pairts: Social mobility for women through education in Scotland, 1850-1901, includes a section on east Sutherland.

Two acres of croft land in West Helmsdale barely sustained the Bruce family: the ‘Widow Bruce’, young George and Mary, and her widowed mother. Jane Bruce’s husband had died in 1848, aged 32, when their children were aged four and one. The family were poor, but they were not alone in this. Poverty was endemic among families whose forebears had been cleared down the Strath of Kildonan to the area around Helmsdale.

George became a baker in Helmsdale. He joined the Highland Land League, which campaigned to have politicians sympathetic to the crofters’ cause elected to Parliament. In 1888 George was elected onto the Kildonan School Board. Elections had been held throughout Scotland every three years since the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 transferred control of schools from churches, charities and private individuals to locally elected School Boards under government control. Clergymen, businessmen, landowners, academics and other pillars of society were returned as School Board members. Women were eligible to stand, but were elected only onto the larger city Boards. In East Sutherland voters recognised the School Boards gave them the opportunity to vote politically. And they voted for men such as George Bruce.

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George Bruce outside his shop on Lilleshall Street, Helmsdale. Photo: Courtesy of Timespan Heritage Centre

Unfortunately the first minute book of Kildonan School Board is missing, but the rise of Land League influence can be traced in neighbouring Clyne. As the Land Leaguers gained strength and confidence the composition of the School Board changed. The first was chaired by the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, Joseph Peacock. The second included the Hon. Walter Stuart, the Duke’s grandson. In 1877, one matter was referred to “the Duke of Sutherland, being the principal ratepayer, and being also deeply interested in the educational welfare of the people.” Regardless of the voters’ wishes, the Duke was the ultimate authority. The crofters’ breakthrough came with the third Board. In 1879 were elected George Grant and George Murray, both tailors, George MacKay, Joseph Peacock and George Lawson, a farmer. The three crofters’ candidates elected Grant as chair. Grant was out of his depth. Apparently unused to using a pen, he proposed to take minutes in pencil, to be written up later. Peacock and Lawson objected. Grant said that “he could not even dictate a minute” but hoped to learn in the next month. Lawson asked Grant to withdraw as chair in favour of Peacock, but Grant refused. School Boards members throughout Scotland were usually well educated and highly literate. Clyne may have been unique in having a Chair uncomfortable using pen and ink. However, the community regarded him highly. He was re-elected in 1882, 1885, but were always in a minority. Voters had subverted the educational purposes of School Board elections for political opposition to the Duke, and the furtherance of land politics.

Back up in Kildonan, by 1888 when George Bruce was elected, the rest of the Board was largely composed of those sympathetic to the crofters cause. James Fraser, fishcurer, was chair and the other members were Robert Hill, farmer, William Cuthbert, fishcurer, and Joseph MacKay, crofter. Hill farmed 102 acres at Navidale, and was one of those who had benefitted from the cleared land. By contrast Joseph MacKay was one of eight crofters threatened in 1882 with eviction for grazing sheep. The eight employed a solicitor and the summons was withdrawn. Cuthbert and Bruce were prominent local Land Leaguers. Cuthbert was re-elected in 1891, 1894 and 1900. Bruce was re-elected in 1897 and 1900, indicating ongoing political support.

Gaining control of the School Boards and using them for political control was a unique tactic of the Land League in East Sutherland.

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This gravestone was erected by ‘our’ George Bruce. Photo: Alison McCall

Post script. George Bruce died in 1922, but the family bakery firm continued. In 1932 they baked a wedding cake for George’s great niece, Mary Bruce MacLeod. It was decorated with silver horseshoes. In 1989, Mary’s granddaughter, the present writer, had one of horseshoes sewn onto the sleeve of her wedding dress.

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The sleeve of Alison’s wedding dress. Photo: Alison McCall.

In 2022 the author’s daughter got married in her grandmother’s dress and the horseshoe made another appearance at a family wedding!

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Sources
MacLeod, Joseph, Highland Heroes of the Land Reform Movement (Highland News Publishing Company, 1917)
Obituary of William Cuthbert in John O’Groats Journal, 9 January 1931

“Set Adrift Upon the World”: New Book on the Sutherland Clearances Launched in Dornoch

Last week James Hunter launched his new book in Dornoch, at an extraordinarily well-attended event organised by the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. People from all over the north connected with Jim and who share his passion for the history, and the future, of the Highlands and Islands gathered to congratulate him and to purchase truckloads of the volume with which to bless all their friends and relatives this Christmas. Weel-kent faces were easy to spot. There was John MacDonald, Rogart who showed Jim the documents about Ascoilemore which first inspired this book. And Malcolm Bangor-Jones, Inverkirkaig, whose meticulous research into eighteenth and nineteenth-century Sutherland ensured the accuracy of commentary about the evictions. Elizabeth Ritchie of the Centre for History interviewed Jim about the research for, and implications of, his book and a thought-provoking time was had by all.

SetAdriftUpontheWorldJim has provided a sneak preview here:

“Jessie Ross’s life began to be taken apart at about two p.m. on Thursday 31 May 1821. That was when as many as ten or a dozen men took possession of the Ross family home in the Strath Brora community of Ascoilemore. Those men were there to evict this young mother, her two small daughters, aged five and three, and her two-month old baby girl. They were also there to empty the house of everything the Rosses owned.

Jessie’s baby, Roberta, had been born less than a year after another baby, a boy who did not live. In just twenty months, then, Jessie Ross had been through two pregnancies – one of which had ended tragically. Unsurprisingly, she was not in good health. This was of no concern to the men invading Jessie’s home. Their remit was to make way for the expansion of a nearby sheep farm by ridding Ascoilemore of its inhabitants.

The man in charge of proceedings, a sheriff-officer called Donald Bannerman, began by ordering out the two Ross girls, Elizabeth and Katherine. Their mother, however, refused to go with them – in the hope, it seems, that her continued presence would lead to the family’s belongings being handled with at least a little care. ‘She would not leave … until the whole furniture was off,’ it was afterwards explained. On Jessie Ross also refusing to help move the wooden cradle in which her baby was sleeping, one of the party, William Stevenson by name, picked it up – roughly and angrily it was said – with a view to carrying both cradle and baby outside.

Perhaps, as would be alleged, Stevenson was drunk – he and his colleagues having got through ten bottles of whisky the previous night and another three that morning. Or perhaps he was just clumsy. At all events, Stevenson somehow ran the cradle up against the Ross home’s door or doorframe. Two-month old Roberta, though not tumbled out, was shaken awake and began to cry in alarm. She was still in distress when her cradle was set down in such shelter as an exterior dyke or wall provided from a chill wind out of the north-east.

Although Ascoilemore’s other residents had been evicted the day before, there were still people in the vicinity – some of whom now came to the Rosses’ assistance. Among them was a woman called Mary Murray. Like Jessie Ross, she was a nursing mother and, doing something that would be thought unacceptable today – but which, judging by the matter of fact way it was spoken about, must have been standard practice then – Mary quietened Roberta’s cries, a bystander said, by ‘giving the child a suck’ at her own breast.

The settlement of Kilpheddermore is just west of Ascoilemore. Note the size of the longhouse footings set in fertile riverside land. Visiting this site with John MacDonald, Nick Lindsay and UHI students inspired Jim’s book. Photo credit: Iain Copeland.

The settlement of Kilpheddermore is just west of Ascoilemore. Note the size of the longhouse footings set in fertile riverside land. Visiting this site with John MacDonald, Nick Lindsay and UHI students inspired Jim’s book. Photo credit: Iain Copeland.

The older Ross children were not so easily comforted. Not long after the evicting party got to work, Elizabeth, the five-year old, was struck in the face by a piece of planking thrown from inside the house – the culprit again being Stevenson. She too began to cry and, though her crying was said to have stopped after ‘quarter of an hour’, neither Elizabeth nor Katherine, her sister, could have been anything other than traumatised by what was happening to them. Both were reported to have ‘looked cold’ and to have been ‘trembling’ or shivering – their misery compounded by the fact that they had, or were incubating, whooping cough.

Nowadays rare, thanks to a vaccine developed in the 1950s, whooping cough was once a common childhood illness. Its symptoms – usually including a fever and the drawn-out cough from which the infection got its name – were always unpleasant, sometimes severe and occasionally fatal. What happened to the three-year old Katherine Ross some three weeks after the events of 31 May, then, might have happened anyway. But when Katherine died, it is understandable that her father, Gordon Ross, unavoidably elsewhere when his wife and children were evicted, should have insisted that his daughter’s death resulted from what he called the ‘inhuman treatment’ she had experienced the day the Ross family’s home was taken from them.”

Relaunches of “Set Adrift Upon the World” are taking place in Inverness, Helmsdale and Bettyhill if you feel you have missed out and would like to participate! Copies of the book can be sourced in the usual places.

Funny-Looking Bumps and Ridges: Landscape as Historical Evidence

Today’s post considers the evidence of social, economic and agricultural change provided by the landscape in south east Sutherland. Once you get your eye in, it is possible to identify pre-clearance field systems, townships, houses and barns, head dykes and gardens. The next layer of the archaeological palimpsest are the new arrangements of land and settlement introduced in the early nineteenth century. In this area there is not only the more famous crofting landscape, but also that of the big commercial farms which are such a feature along the fertile strip of the east coast. This twelve minute video thinks about what landscape changes in south east Sutherland can tell us.

Sources:
R. Houston, ‘The Clearances in South East Sutherland’ in J. Baldwin (ed), Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland (Edinburgh, 1986)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)

From Ardross to Otago: the Odyssey of John MacKenzie

John MacKenzie’s forebears came from Easter Ross. He was partially brought up in Zambia, educated in Canada, and has travelled extensively throughout the British Empire in pursuit of his historical studies. He knows the South Island of New Zealand well. John has published extensively on topics such as ‘The Scots in South Africa’, ‘Imperialism and Popular Culture’ and ‘Imperialism and the Natural World’. http://www.dalmackie.com/

The connections between Highland Scotland and the British Empire are legion. In any community we can find people who went out to the empire as settlers, sojourners (temporary residents pursuing specific professions) or soldiers. Almost every kirkyard in Scotland contains records of such people. Sometimes they died overseas, but are commemorated by their relatives on the family gravestone. However far-flung their lives and deaths, there seems to be a desire in Scotland to bring families together at the home lair where they can be remembered with those who stayed in the locality. Sometimes the so-called ‘people of quality’ place commemorative plaques in churches and cathedrals recording the deaths of sons in colonial campaigns. Some of these migrants became very celebrated figures in their new lives. North of Inverness, it is possible to think of several striking figures who achieved fame in the empire – General Sir Hector Macdonald, for example, whose monument stands at the cemetery in Dingwall, Robert Stout (from Lerwick) or Peter Fraser, both prime ministers of New Zealand, the latter well commemorated in Hill of Fearn.

Fraser used to refer in speeches to a notable predecessor as New Zealand politician who had a considerable influence upon the country. This was John MacKenzie from Ardross. Anyone who knows the map of the South Island of New Zealand will see ‘Mackenzie country’, but this is a different Mackenzie, a sheep stealer who came to be regarded as a hero because of his capacity to escape his captors! He is a shadowy figure, perhaps either James or John and born in Ross-shire around 1820. But John of Ardross was a very different character who has a rather striking monument, a grand cairn, at Palmerston near Dunedin, where he farmed and lived.

John_McKenzie,_Palmerston

Born in Easter Ross in 1839, he saw some of the misery caused by the Clearances in his area and it influenced him throughout his life. In 1860 he emigrated to Otago which had first been settled by Scots in 1848, the settler parties arriving at Port Chalmers before moving on to Dunedin. Thomas Chalmers, the great Free Church minister and leader of the Disruption had recently died, so the place was named in his honour. John soon had his own farm near Palmerston and quickly developed political ambitions. He was elected to the Otago Provincial Council in 1871 and after the provincial system was abolished was elected to the New Zealand parliament in 1881, serving until his death in 1901. He was minister of lands and agriculture in the Liberal Government from 1891 to 1900 and, given the settlement and developmental policies of the period, that was probably the most significant of the ministries. It was in this capacity that he used his Scottish experience to good effect. He initiated many reforms and was determined to ensure that the ownership of large tracts in the hands of individuals – as happened in Australia – should be avoided. In New South Wales and parts of Victoria, vast parcels of land had been taken over by early settlers (many of them Scots) who became in effect a new landowning colonial ‘aristocracy’. John wanted closer settlement, which was not good news for the Maori, insisting that land should be divided up into small family farms. Thus the landlordism of Scotland which in his mind had produced the Clearances should be avoided at all costs. His biography with the resonant title Lands for the People has been written by Tom Brooking, a professor at Otago.

'Lands for the People' by Tom Brooking

‘Lands for the People’ by Tom Brooking

Apparently, John made one visit back to Scotland with his daughters. They enjoyed seeing their father’s country, but announced that they considered New Zealand to be more beautiful! He was knighted in 1901 by the Duke of Cornwall, future George V, but had little time to enjoy his status since he died only six weeks later. Brooking notes that he and his fellow Liberals considered New Zealand to be a useful social laboratory for Britain, hoping that their reforms would be adopted in the old country, but that ambition, at least initially, was not fulfilled. Brooking also notes that the tragedy is that McKenzie (the spelling was changed in New Zealand) in setting out to right one great wrong ended up creating a new one, the dispossession of the Maori people.