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.

A ‘dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’

I have not yet come across a gravestone which notes that a man hit his wife, neglected his children or manipulated his neighbours. We tend to pass over people’s failings when designing permanent memorials. A brief note of names and dates might cover a multitude of sins. It would be wise to take with a bucketful of salt some of the glowing descriptions of men on their headstones. Social conventions, privacy, fear, selective memory and family pride are strong. However what inscriptions are wonderful for, is telling us about ideals, particularly about how men were meant to relate to other people.

William Gray (1787-1866) from Dornoch was apparently a ‘dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’. Men were meant to have positive connections with their community, their friends and their family. Together, they epitomised the character of the ideal nineteenth-century man.

An ‘obliging neighbour’

The most common words used to describe how a man was felt about in the wider community were esteemed, respected, admired and, occasionally, honoured or revered. Adam Murray (1818-1893), a man of noted piety from Badninish, a crofting area in east Sutherland, was ‘esteemed by all who knew him’. The monument to James Ellison (d. 1870), a doctor in Tain, was ‘erected as a public testimony of the respect and esteem in which he was held’.

The next most commonly used words are of tenderness: loved, beloved, affectionate or, occasionally, endeared or cherished. William Ross (1807-69) was Dingwall’s ‘beloved physician’; William Melville (1841-72), Dornoch’s schoolteacher, was ‘respected by all who knew him and his kindness to the young endeared to them his memory’.

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Dornoch, from Easter Ross. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A few inscriptions describe a man’s feelings towards the community. Thomas MacBeath (1782-1859), the catechist at Dornoch Free Church, found affection was reciprocal as ‘his affectionate and faithful discharge of duty endeared him to the congregation’. Alexander Stewart (1794-1847), an influential Cromarty minister, cleaved ‘to his flock with an affection which time seemed to increase’. While I would caution against necessarily believing any inscription, the letters and memoirs of two of Stewart’s flock, Lydia and Hugh Miller, do suggest he was widely liked.[1]

An ‘attached friend’

When a man’s gravestone talks about his friendship, it doesn’t tie him to specific friends. Friendship is treated more as an attribute. It was often paired with an adjective: sincere, steadfast, true, attached, sympathising, faithful. Angus Leslie (1783-1850) of Torboll on Loch Fleet, formerly a lieutenant in the 3rd Sutherland Highlanders, was ‘unwavering in his friendship’. On his death his friends experienced ‘heartfelt sorrow’. Donald Campbell MacDonald (1834-1904) was born in Glenurquhart, but spent forty years ministering to the congregation of Kilmuir Easter. He was a ‘steadfast friend’. Manly friendship was expected to be warm, strong and consistent.

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Torboll Farm is just visible in the distance, in front of the green field. Taken from the Mound, an engineering marvel which Angus Leslie would have witnessed being built. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A ‘dutiful relative’

Most gravestones commemorate family relationships. Usually they simply list wife and offspring. Being the head of a household was an important marker of manliness. However the longer inscriptions show family meant more than personal status.

The most important attributes of family men were affection and duty. Robert Riddle (1819-1891) in Tain was ‘a beloved husband and kind father’, while the happy Sutherland family in Morness, Rogart, were blessed with Donald (1803-1884) ‘an exemplary husband and parent.’

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Rogart. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Stereotype of Victorian fathers are stern. The evidence of headstones does not bear this out. Donald Sutherland (1815-1854) from Rosskeen was pretty typical, being described as ‘affectionate’. He was only 39 when he died, so it is likely that his wife chose this wording. Sometimes men erected monuments to their own children. They often revealed deep feelings. James Mackintosh, teacher at Dalnabreac, Rogart, commemorated his ‘beloved children’, May and Archibald, who both died aged 20 in the 1860s. Manliness meant more than the fact of parenthood, or the authority derived from it. It was grounded in heartfelt emotion.

As husbands, men were also to be dutiful and affectionate. With the rise in companionate marriage in the early nineteenth century, when spouses were selected based on considerations of the heart as much as of the bank balance, it might be expected that duty words would give way to affection words. There is no sign of this. They exist togehter throughout the century, frequently combined on the same inscription. In Creich, William Calder (1795-1867) was ‘an affectionate & dutiful Husband’. The nature of husbandly duties is not explained, but they probably included material provision, protection and sobriety.

A few men poured out their hearts. In 1823 thirty year old Esther Grant died. She was buried ‘by her ever bereaved husband Alexander MacKay Invershin’.[2] MacKay was eighteen years older than she. He was settled in life and able to afford an expensive table stone. A cynic might note this was a visible symbol of his wealth and status. A romantic might note the poignancy of his inscription. The likelihood that many women died as a result of complications from pregnancy or childbirth may have added shock and perhaps guilt to a widower’s grief.

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Esther Grant, ever-beloved by Alexander MacKay. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

In adulthood, a man did not abdicate responsibility for his birth family. Forty seven year old William Ross, presumably a bachelor, died in 1867. His sister Mary, who may well have lived with him, erected a stone for ‘her affectionate brother’. A good man was expected to continue to be a good son. John MacDonald (1845-98), from Ballinoe, Ardgay, died at fifty three. Again he was probably a bachelor and his mother, with whom he may have lived, noted he was ‘a dutiful son’.

Such public displays of loving and being loved suggest family life was meant to be warm and kindly. A man was expected first to perform his duty towards dependent family members, and then to have the ability to feel and to elicit tenderness from wife, children, siblings or parents. The ideal man also had broader reciprocal relationships of affection and respect with friends, neighbours, a church congregation, or even the whole community.

Nineteen year old Walter Ross from Wester Fearn had little chance to make an impact on the world by his actions. But when he died in 1845, it was by the quality of his relationships that he was remembered. His gravestone reads: ‘in love he lived, in peace he died’.

 

[1] Letter cited in Elizabeth Sutherland, Lydia: Wife of Hugh Miller of Cromarty (East Lothian: Tuckwell, 2002), 50-51; Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, 1869), 371, 409.

[2] His death in 1861 is then commemorated in near identical script, but the form of words leaves little doubt that the stone is contemporaneous with Esther’s death and a particularly careful mason of the 1860s was then employed to engrave his end. It is therefore probable that these words were selected by MacKay himself.