The Female Innkeepers of Cromarty

Theresa Mackay, who lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, completed her MLitt History of the Highlands and Islands (with distinction) in 2016. This culminated in writing a piece of original research on female innkeepers that won the 2016 Women’s History Scotland Leah Leneman prize and is slated to be published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies next year. Theresa now teaches at Royal Roads University and will be starting her PhD at the University of Victoria (BC) this autumn continuing her work on women’s history in the Highlands and Islands.  

In the early nineteenth century innkeeping was one way women in the Highlands and Islands could provide for themselves and their family. Whether managing a landlord’s inn or opening their own dwelling, they were entrepreneurial in their approach to offering food and shelter to travellers looking for temporary accommodations. Not simply providing a home-away-from-home, they were managers of complex hospitality operations that were pivotal to the economic health of their rural community.

The number of inns and places that accommodated travellers increased significantly at this time since navigating the Highlands and Islands was made easier with the establishment of transportation infrastructure such as bridges, canals and public boat routes from the south. In Ross and Cromarty, over a thirty-five year period the number of inns grew from zero to more than forty-two as a result.[1] In response to an increasing number of visitors needing shelter and new inns being built by landlords capitalizing on their estates, women commercialized their domestic skills and became managers of complex hospitality operations. In Cromarty, Mrs. Sutherland and Elizabeth Cormack managed commercial inns during this time.

Cromary Arms Inn

It seems likely that todays ‘Cromarty Arms Inn’ is the same building as either the New Inn or the Cromarty Inn. Perhaps someone with local knowledge can help? Photo: http://www.cromartyarms.com/

In 1809, Mrs. Sutherland’s husband left for the army. Deciding to take on the New Inn, a role she had at least once before, she embarked on a plan to upgrade furnishings with the help of her friends. In addition, she hired a man to help with the stabling and feeding of guests’ horses and placed an advertisement in the paper to attract business to her establishment.[2] A change in relationship status, including the departure of male relatives for work or death of a partner, was often the shift that opened the door to innkeeping as a viable and socially acceptable way for women to support themselves and their families.

The retirement of her brother, John, was the change that resulted in Elizabeth Cormack taking charge of the Cromarty Inn in 1824. Like her counterpart, Mrs. Sutherland, the role was not new to Elizabeth as she had already managed the inn for many years, despite John being the acknowledged innkeeper. Now “resum[ing] the business on her own account”, including managing the “stock of [the best] Spirituous and Malt Liquors,” Elizabeth made efforts to improve the premises. She had repairs made to the house and stables and furnished the building with feather beds and “counterpanes” (bedspreads). The improvements were done in preparation for receiving travellers from the “London Vessels” arriving to see local tourist sites gaining popularity, including the hill of Cromarty and the cavern, Macfarquhar’s Bed. [3] Only lasting four years in charge, Elizabeth died in 1828 and eight months later her inn’s furniture was sold at auction. [4]

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Cromarty Harbour was only forty years old when Elizabeth Cormack was running her inn. Presumably the visitors took small boats from the ‘London vessels’ to this harbour to land. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Overseeing renovations, hiring employees, marketing and managing suppliers were just some of the tasks that female innkeepers did that extended their role beyond the stereotypically domestic. It put them firmly into the position of business manager which resulted in agency and status. The economy of the early nineteenth-century Highlands and Islands was far more diverse and vibrant than we tend to assume, and female innkeepers such as those in Cromarty, played a vital part.

 

[1] This assumes all existing inns were reported, and reported correctly, in the sources. It is likely numbers were higher especially since the terms “pub” and “alehouse” sometimes meant “inn”. As well, some reports grouped these terms together, as in “X number of inns and alehouses” making the precise number of inns alone, unclear. The New Statistical Account of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1845) Vol. 14., p. 37, 67, 98, 106, 113, 140, 156, 164, 168, 243, 279, 300, 359, 394, 398.

[2] Inverness Journal, “New Inn Cromarty” 7 July 1809, p. 1. From Am Baile; article ID 8592. The notice says “she has taken the Inn again” (italics added) which suggests this was not the first time she had managed the inn. It also notes wanting to serve “passengers” which may refer to travel by coach or sail boat.

[3] ibid., “Cromarty Inn” 23 April 1824, p. 3., article ID 8594. See also “John Cormick Vintner in Cromarty” 29 June 1810, p. 1., article ID 8593. Ibid, “Cormack, Elizabeth, innkeeper Cromarty” 3 October 1828, p. 3., article ID 3068. Ibid., “Sale of Household Furniture at Cromarty” 24 April 1829, p. 1., article ID 8595. Ibid., “Cormack’s Inn Cromarty” 28 August 1807, p. 1., article ID 8591.

[4] ibid, 3 October 1828, p. 3., article ID 3068. Ibid, 24 April 1829, p. 1., article ID 8595.

Oatmeal, Erratics, and Cattle Beasts: The Garvary Drove Road

In the lee of the big rock, I extracted my oatcakes and cheese from the plastic bag in my rucksack. It was more than probable that two hundred, three hundred, and more, years ago others sheltered from the wind right there, taking oatcakes and cheese from a leather bag beneath their plaid. Most days they just had oatmeal, mixed with cold water, or had it made into porridge if they stopped near a house. Many who tramped past this spot had been at the Kincardine Fair. They bought beasts brought from further north, from Strath Naver, Edderachillis, and Assynt, and they would sell them again at the big trysts of Muir of Ord, Crieff or Falkirk. At Kincardine, by present day Ardgay, they bargained hard, and perhaps rewarded themselves with the entertainment of the fair, or bought food at the stalls, or drank with friends. After a night wrapped in their thick woven plaids, they started the slow business of herding their own animals away from the growing crops of the low country by the Dornoch Firth, and over Church Hill. Half the day would be gone before they caught sight of Clach Goil, the big rock on the horizon.

I’d had my eye on this route for a while. In December 2015 I explored the well-made track from the bottom of the Struie, up by the semi-ruined house at Garvary, past some fine examples of glacial deposits cut through by the Wester Fearn Burn, before an indecisive path through heather ended at an isolated nineteenth-century shepherd’s house. At the confluence of burns gathering water from four hills, the cottage is positioned in a flat oasis. The OS 1:25 000 map names it Garbhairidh – the rough shieling. Before the hills were emptied and a lone shepherd placed here, this is where folks must have stayed when they took their cattle up to the summer pasture. However, General Roy’s map, made in the late 1740s, indicated more than that: a little township of three buildings and some arable named something like ‘Adirturn’. The families living here must have had a steady stream of visitors all summer and autumn, marching past with their shaggy property.

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Today’s ruin was like so many in the far north. Symmetry dictated a room at either side and another opposite the front door. Like ones I have found in the harder-to-access parts of Sutherland, this still had sections of panelling, doors with the latch, gable-end fireplaces, sheep skeletons, and the graffiti of hiking visitors. The route seems to be a particular favourite for Gold Duke of Edinburgh expeditions! Surveying the setting, I noticed a boulder on the horizon. Doubtless an erratic dropped by a retreating glacier, to the attentive eye it made an obvious landmark. My suspicion was confirmed when the OS 1:50 000 map, not famed for placename detail, labelled it Clach Goil. In the stingy light of December, trekking a further mile into the hills was unwise, so I noted it for a summer exploration.

By July I realised I was on the trail of a drove road. This was one of two parallel routes. One rises steeply over today’s Struie Road, past the Aultnamain Inn, once famed as a drovers’ inn and more recently as the venue of all-night parties for locals.

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The name of the inn is still visible on the roof. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

I cycled up the Struie and, just before Stittenham, searched for the drovers’ stance marked on the map. You wouldn’t notice anything if you weren’t looking, but there is still a long patch of rough grass, clear of the conifer plantation. Cattle could only walk about ten miles each day without losing condition. Each night they needed to rest and feed. Across the Highlands these grazing stances could be freely used. The manure dropped paid for the grass consumed. The drovers slept with the animals, sometimes leaving a watcher to ensure they did not wander. After a few days on the road, the homing instinct lost its power.

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The stance was at the side of what is now the B9176. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

While these cattle would carry on towards the Cromarty Firth, I turned west at Ardross. In 1793 the inhabitants of this Strath Rusdale masterminded the Bliadhna na Caorach: the Year of the Sheep. Locals understood that the arrival of the sheep meant their eviction was a mere matter of time and they succeeded in driving the ‘woolly maggots’ out of large swathes of Ross-shire and south Sutherland before they were stopped by the army. But before these ructions, out of this strath came the stream of cattle which had come from Kincardine via Garvary.

At Braentra, at the head of the strath, I abandoned my bicycle. Some careless mapreading involved a soggy and rugged overland deviation. Although I have endured many soggy and rugged deviations in my time, this quest reminded me of how these uplands have changed. The grazing habits of cattle and the fertility of their dung cultivated a far more diverse hill ecology than one created by raising sheep, deer and grouse. Instead of a variety of flowers and grasses, we now have the ‘wet desert’ described by Frank Fraser Darling. Close attention to my map and compass got me back on the right route, if not quite on the path, but I knew I had navigated accurately when I caught sight of that large boulder, hunched just beneath the horizon. Clach Goil.

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Clach Goil was less of a landmark from the south, but it was undeniably the same. Beyond was the shepherd’s cottage in its scoop of hills. Knowing I was at the precise point where drovers had passed through, perhaps for hundreds of years, I had a look around. I did not expect any physical signs so was astonished to see a broad track, a foot deep in the heather and, in some parts, worn down to the bedrock. It was about fifteen feet wide, and clearly distinguishable for several hundred yards. Here, impressed on the very land, was evidence of the feet of thousands of cattle beasts and their drovers. Right here trod hooves bred in the rocky northwest and which would plod on through Strathglass or Badenoch, over Drumochter, and through the Sma’ Glen to Crieff. Sold again, the hooves which indented this Easter Ross moorland continued on to Carlisle then far into England. There the small wiry cattle fattened on rich pastures. That broad dent in the peat is a marker of an economy and culture based on the rearing and selling of these beasts.

Before the sheep and the emptiness, there were cattle and people.

Sources:

A.R.B. Haldane, The Drove Roads of Scotland (London: Nelson, 1952)

Scottish Rights of Way Society, Scottish Hill Tracks (Scottish Mountaineering Trust Publications, 1995)

For more on the events of 1793 see James Hunter, The Last of the Free (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1999)

General Roy’s Military Survey, http://maps.nls.uk/

Heritage Paths: Dalnavie Drove Road http://www.heritagepaths.co.uk/pathdetails.php?path=322 (accessed 8th December 2016)

‘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.”

cotton mill I

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.

“Want of shoes and clothing” – Truancy in East Sutherland

Alison McCall has delved further into the late nineteenth-century history of the region, drawing on archival sources and family knowledge.

Six times between 1885 and 1890 William MacLeod, a cooper and crofter who lived at Marrel, Helmsdale, was summonsed to appear before the School Board in regard to the truancy of some of his children. In 1888 he explained to the Board that his children could not attend school as he was unable to provide them with shoes and clothing.

William and his wife, Mary Bruce, had ten children born between 1872 and 1889. One, Johan, died in infancy and one, Hector, was handicapped from birth and remained incontinent into adulthood. The eldest, Williamina, had left school to work as a domestic servant before the summons started, but the next three, James, Betsy and Jane were frequently absent. In addition to the difficulty in clothing his children, William kept Jane off school to assist her mother. Elsewhere in Scotland, School Boards made vigorous efforts to address to problem of lack of clothing and footwear. Aberdeen organised collections of second hand children’s clothes, which could be made available to poor families. This was less feasible in rural East Sutherland, which had a smaller pool of middle class donors. Dundee provided clothing grants. “Parish boots” (children’s boots, marked at the heel to identify them as such, and which pawnbrokers were forbidden to accept) were widely available in other parts of Scotland. But in East Sutherland William MacLeod was not alone in struggling to clothe his children for school.

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Marrel, where the MacLeods lived. Photo belongs to Alison McCall.

The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 made it compulsory for all children between the ages of five and twelve to attend school. However, education can only truly be compulsory if the authorities have the means to enforce it. Each School Board was obliged to appoint a Default Officer to report on truant children, and both Clyne and Kildonan School Boards did so. However, endemic poverty hampered the ability to enforce attendance. Of the first eight parents summonsed to appear before Clyne School Board, in 1874, three cited lack of clothing. The next year various parents were unable to clothe their children sufficiently for school in winter. In June 1886, such was the level of absences, that the Kildonan School Board decided to summon only those parents whose children had been absent over twenty times (i.e 10 days, as mornings and afternoons were marked as one attendance each) in the month of May. In 1888 children’s attendance was still frequently irregular, but there were no really serious cases. Children were absent due to sickness, stormy weather and want of shoes. It is telling that absence due to lack of shoes was not seen as serious. In 1891 James Sutherland’s daughter had to gather wilks (whelks) to feed the family instead of going to school. As late as 1899, labourer’s son Donald Matheson, had no shoes.

The ambivalence about summonsing the parents of non-attending children meant other means of persuasion were tried. In 1885 in an attempt to “save the Board the disagreeable necessity of summoning them” two ministers, the Rev Mr MacRae and the Rev Mr Fraser stated that they would urge upon the parents from the pulpit to send their children to school.

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James MacLeod. As a child he was unable to attend school because of lack of shoes and clothing. Here he is with his wife, Catherine MacDonald, in Helmsdale probably in the 1940s. Photo belongs to Alison McCall.

In East Sutherland, School Boards were sympathetic but unable to effectively counter the problems. Many members had experienced poverty themselves and understood the problems faced by struggling parents. Indeed William MacLeod, whose children lacked clothes in the 1880s, was cited to appear before a School Board of which his brother-in-law was a member. Unfortunately for the school children of East Sutherland, it would appear that the Act which was supposed to guarantee compulsory education did not effectively extend to the poorest families.

Post script: James MacLeod, who missed school through want of clothing became a railway engine driver. He made every effort to ensure his own children were educated, making sacrifices to enable his daughter Mary Bruce MacLeod to train as a teacher at Moray House. She in turn encouraged her granddaughter, the present writer.

A Man of Letters

Graham Hannaford completed his MLitt in the History of the Highlands and Islands at UHI in 2015, studying from Australia. He is now embarking on a PhD with Federation University, Australia.

Scattered across the world like autumn leaves on a lawn are place names that suggest the presence of a home-sick Scot. Nova Scotia and Nouvelle Caledonie are well known, as are some on the eastern side of Australia in New South Wales: towns like Glen Innes, Aberdeen or Scone, or the Sutherland Shire in the south-east of Sydney. Others are tucked away in what must have seemed like the great emptiness of the Australian bush, places like Golspie, New South Wales. Golspie today is not even a village, but the road signs still point to it, west of the road which winds from Goulburn over spectacular countryside via Taralga, the Abercrombie River, and Black Springs to Oberon.

“Golspie” was the farm owned by George Murray, a native of Sutherland, Scotland. He was born at Loch Shin near Lairg in 1818 to George Murray and Kate McDonald. The family relocated to Golspie at the time of the infamous Highland clearances. In his new book, Set Adrift Upon the World, James Hunter describes some of the trouble which accompanied the clearance of the people from this area. It is small wonder that the Murrays and most other residents left Loch Shin and moved to places like Golspie where the estate management had decided was to be the new place of settlement.

From the list of male convicts who arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the Moffatt on 30 August 1836 it appears that the 18 year old George Murray (the younger), a Protestant farmer’s boy, was convicted of shop breaking in the Inverness Court of Justiciary on 23 April 1835 and sentenced to seven years transportation. He was described as ruddy and freckled with brown hair and hazel eyes; his distinguishing marks were a horizontal scar over his right eye brow with a scar over the inner corner of the same and with a scar on the back of the lttle finger of his left hand. After various assignments in the colony he met Margaret Cameron, a native of Ardnamurchan, who had arrived in Sydney in 1838 with her parents, James and Catherine, and eight siblings as free bounty immigrants. George and Margaret were given permission to marry and did so in the Presbyterian church in Goulburn in July 1841. They lived first at Strathaird near Taralga where their first child was born in 1842. Their next eight children are recorded as born at houses, their’s or neighbours’, named Strontian, Cutty Cuttgang (or Cutty Gutty-ang), or Lairg. The last child, Ann, was born in 1861 at Golspie, by now the accepted name of George and Margaret’s farm.

Golspie seems to have been the place to which mail for the surrounding farms was delivered. Perhaps it was convenient to the postman’s route, or perhaps Margaret was a kind hostess for postman and neighbours alike, maintaining the long tradition of Highland hospitality. It became common practice for local farmers to append “Golspie” to their addresses and when in December 1872, locals petitioned the Postmaster General of New South Wales for the establishment of a post office it was clear that Golspie was where it was wanted. The petition was supported by the Presbyterian minister in Taralga and the postmasters at Taralga and Fullerton. Against the wishes of the postmasters at Laggan and Tuena, on 8 April 1873 the Postmaster General approved the establishment of the post office. George Murray was offered the position of postmaster at a salary of £16 pa; he commenced duties on 1 May 1873.

After twenty-five years in the position and at the age of 80, three years after Margaret’s death, George tendered his resignation in October 1898. His handwriting was still clear and firm as his resignation letter shows, notwithstanding that the transportation records show that at the time of arrival in the colony he could read but not write.

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Image from National Archives of Australia

On George’s recommendation, his daughter Ann, married but apparently still living at Golspie, was appointed as postmistress. She had been helping George for the past twenty-one years.

Papers in the National Archives of Australia show an ongoing correspondence between Ann and various officials over the allowances which should be paid to her, with Ann suggesting that she would resign if matters were not arranged satisfactorily. By January 1915, she had been paid £19/5/- and in the previous year had earned £3/-/9 for telegraphic and telephone duties. At this time, Ann had to prompt her superiors to pay a promised increase of £2/10/-, threatening that if it were not paid “I shall have to throw up the whole thing”. It was paid. The post office continued to be operated, sometimes by members of the family, until its closure in 1990.

George died on 29 December 1906, at the age of 88, having survived Margaret by some eleven years and nine months. Each died at Golspie and they are both buried in Stonequarry cemetery in Taralga, half a world away from their origins in Sutherland and Ardnamurchan.

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The Presbyterian section of the Stonequarry Cemetery in Taralaga, with the Roman Catholic section beyond. (Photo: Judith Matthews)

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Headstones of George and Margaret Murray (Photo: Judith Matthews)

Acknowledgements:
Thanks to Mrs Judith Matthews, historian, of “Fairview”, Golspie New South Wales for checking facts and supplying photos.

This is an updated version of the original item posted on 14 March 2016. With thanks to Barbara Kernos for alerting the writer to the convict records concerning the young George Murray.

Sources:
National Archives of Australia, NAA: SP32/1, Golspie Post Office file 1872 – 1971
James Hunter, Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2015) pp. 332-3
Golspie (New South Wales) Progress and Landcare Association, History of Golspie, privately printed 2005
Northern Times, ‘How Cutty Gutty became Golspie, New South Wales’,5 March 2009, http://www.northern-times.co.uk/Opinion/Letters/How-Cutty-Gutty-became-Golspie-New-South-Wales-5638.htm (Extensive efforts to contact the writer of this letter to the Northern Times to check facts have been unsuccessful)
Northern Times, ‘The man who put Golspie on the map – in New South Wales, 4 June 2009, http://www.northern-times.co.uk/Features/The-man-who-put-Golspie-on-the-map-ndash-in-New-South-Wales-6141.htm
Australian Cemeteries http://www.australiancemeteries.com/nsw/mulwaree/stonequarry_taralga_gndata.htm

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.

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

The Sutherlands of Midgarty and the Slaves of the Caribbean

Even on the hottest days spent on an east Sutherland beach it takes a certain flexibility of imagination to feel oneself in the Caribbean. In the late eighteenth century more Sutherland people than we might expect had first hand knowledge not only of Jamaican sunshine, but of the profits available to those with the right combination of luck, skill and brutality.

The farm of Midgarty, just south of Helmsdale seems as unlikely a place as any to dig around for connections. In the late 1700s the lease was held by Major George Sutherland. After a career in the British army George settled down to two marriages and many children. By the time his children came to adulthood, the opportunities to benefit from Britain’s appropriation of much of the West Indies and the establishment of the plantation economy, worked by African slaves, were clear to anyone with a modicum of business sense. Six of his ten or eleven children, and the modernisation of Midgarty, came to depend on the West Indian trade.

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The Sutherlands must have rejoiced at the match made for Janet, George’s eldest daughter. Her husband was one of the Grays of Skibo, a wealthy West India planter. Money might have been abundant but the marriage was unhappy. They separated by mutual consent and Janet lived out a long life in London. We know little about Janet but more about Williamina, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Roberta and Robert.

In about 1784 Williamina married Robert Baigrie from Buchan. He had spent his whole career on merchant ships in the West India trade, first as cabin boy, then seaman and finally captain. Successful voyages had earned him two or three thousand pounds. Much of that money made its way to Sutherland. Amid some family acrimony, he took over the family farm. When Williamina and Robert moved in the Midgarty house was plain and ordinary, the entrance path from the main road picked out by stone pillars. Robert’s profits paid for a large wing with two ‘very handsome rooms’ designed to resemble a ship’s cabin. He also invested in a system of running water. Lead pipes connected a well at the top of the hill to the house. More money transformed the garden into an orchard.

Midgarty Map Roy's

Roy’s Map of c.1746 showing ‘Mid Gartie’ in runrig – before it was an enclosed farm or had orchards, lead pipes or rooms resembling ships cabins. National Map Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/

Another Sutherland daughter was Elizabeth. Known as quite the beauty, she married Joseph Gordon. The younger son of an important local family of minor gentry, the Gordons of Carrol, he had earned himself a fortune of a few thousand pounds. This had apparently come about through his work as a coppersmith in the West Indies. The fatness of his pocketbook rather suggests he eventually ran the coppersmithing business. Joseph’s gamble with the notorious illnesses of the Caribbean paid off and on his return he could afford to take up the tack of Navidale, just north of Helmsdale.

Roberta, or Bertie, remained single for some time. Until she met Robert Pope. Robert had just returned from twenty years in the West Indies as a planter, again with a fortune of several thousand pounds. Casting around for property, Navidale, held by Joseph and Elizabeth, came to his attention. Their lease was expiring and they were moving to Embo. On visiting he was ‘smitten with tender passion’ for Elizabeth’s sister Bertie. ‘He made no secret of his attachment, and was in consequence very much teased about it by the gentry of the parish of Loth’. This annoyed the pair and Bertie felt compelled ‘in order to escape their unceasing and clamorous raillery, to take refuge’ with another sister, Jean, at the manse of Kildonan. Robert followed her and they married in secret. They returned to Navidale to set up home. Again plantation profits were invested in east Sutherland farms: in the thirty eight year lease of Navidale and in the two highland farms, Tiribol and Dallangal, which he held in Kildonan.

It was  unusual for white women to live in the West Indies, but Charlotte was not daunted. She married Dr Macfarquhar and elected to live with him there. They raised a son and three daughters but decided their son needed to be educated in Britain. They bade him farewell and put him on a transatlantic ship. During the voyage he was playing on deck and fell overboard. The shock killed Charlotte and the double tragedy resulted in Dr Macfarquhar’s death a few months later.

Caribbean-Sugar-Plantations-Slavery-in-the-Caribbean

“Cutting the Sugar Cane, on Delap’s Estate,” in William Clark, Ten Views In the Island of Antigua, in Which are Represented the Process of Sugar Making…. From Drawings Made by William Clark, During a Residence of Three Years in the West Indies (London, 1823). Image shown here is from the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. Image reference NW0054, as shown on http://www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Robert was the youngest of Major Sutherland’s children. Family connections meant he was sent to the West Indies very young. There he met Olive Moon of Kingston, described as a ‘quadroon’. She was a free woman whose father was white and mother ‘mulatto’. Their son, Robert, was born in 1795. The boy was sent back to Scotland to be brought up by relatives at Torboll, Dornoch Parish, quite possibly because his skin colour would have held him back in Jamaica. Robert senior succeeded as a planter. At one point the Countess of Sutherland considered selling the whole parish of Loth and he intended to buy it. However the sale was postponed and in the meantime he speculated, with disastrous financial consequences. By 1810 he was in St. Domingo where he had a few years of great importance as chief counsellor to Christoph, king of Haiti.

Three plantation owners, a ship’s captain, a doctor, a coppersmith, a fortune lost, several fortunes invested, a small boy growing up at Torboll, and four deaths. East Sutherland’s strongest connections with the Caribbean today might be mainly through exotic holidays, but two hundred years ago they were of blood, money and land.

Sources:

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]

Correspondence with Dr Michael Rhodes regarding his genealogical research on Robert Sutherland and Olive Moon.