Playmates: An Eighteenth-Century Boyhood

This is the second of Kate MacFarlane’s two-part examination of the boyhood of Donald Sage. Kate says ‘I am a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.

In all his childhood and school boy adventures, Sage was accompanied by his older brother Eneas. Only fourteen months apart in age, they were the closest of brothers and friends. Speaking of his very early years he wrote “…of my sisters, I have no recollection. My only brother with whom I played all day and slept at night, did attract my notice.”[1]

As boys, Donald and Eneas enjoyed constructing miniature houses and mills, fishing expeditions, exploring and berry picking. They were often joined by John MacThomais, son of their father’s principal farm servant who was close to them in age. According to Sage, John “was our constant companion, counsellor, and associate. He was a pleasing and talkative companion, and was furnished with an abundant store of old traditions, which he had rather a knack of telling, and which made many a day, “merrily to go by.”[2] Throughout his childhood, however, it was Eneas who featured most prominently in his memories and affection.

In 1801, the brothers left home to attend school at Dornoch. There, Sage made numerous friends, including Hugh Bethune, “a forward, smart boy” but, unfortunately, Hugh and Eneas “could not agree, nor in any way pull together.”[3] A disagreement as to who should take “the place of leader and principal adviser in all the amusements of our play hours” was settled in “the ordinary way of deciding such differences between school boys” with a boxing match.[4] Apparently, Eneas won hands down as poor Hugh “was far from being on an equality with him in muscular strength.”[5]

Dornoch Burgh School – at the site where Donald, Aeneas and his friends would have studied. Photo 1907 – over a hundred yeras after they attended. Historylinks Archive Cat 2002_011 Picture 993.

According to Sage, “some of my school fellows with whom I was most intimate when at Dornoch were three young men of the name of Hay. They were natives of the West Indies; the offspring of a negro woman” and a Scotsman.[6] The oldest Hay brother, Fergus, “was very handsome…had all the manners of a gentleman, and had first rate abilities.”[7] Sage met Fergus under unfortunate circumstances when “merely to save the skins of Walter Bethune, Bob Barclay and others,” Fergus falsely blamed him for something that resulted in thirty unjust lashes from the school master.[8] Fergus, however, was “conscious of the impropriety of his conduct though his pride would not allow him to say so” and from that point on, he “behaved…with very great kindness” toward Sage.[9]

Donald and Eneas returned home from school in the spring of 1803. In the autumn of 1804, following a serious disagreement which caused “an open rupture” with their fractious stepmother, Eneas went to sea. Parting from his brother was traumatic for Sage. Years later, he wrote that he felt as though his “very life was gradually deserting me” when they said good-bye. Eneas too was “almost stupefied with grief.”[10] Sadly, the brothers never met again. Eneas wrote to let his family know when he arrived in London and sent along “a few prints of ships in gilt frames…as a peace-offering to his stepmother.”[11] A second letter, sent from Philadelphia, turned out to be the last. A footnote in Memorabilia Domestica notes “what became of [Eneas] afterwards was never known.”[12]

Sage’s memories of his childhood and school years focus almost exclusively on masculine pursuits and masculine company. He recalls, with affection and amusement, the housekeeper who lived with them before his father remarried and he attempts to give his difficult stepmother her due. He says next to nothing about his sisters. It is a boys’ world he looks back on, at home and in school and of all his companions, it is Eneas who stands out, who “impresses himself strongly on my reminiscences.”[13]

[1]Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland, p. 79.

[2]Ibid, p. 94.

[3]Ibid, p. 115. More on Donald and Aeneas’ journey to school in previous posts beginning with (February 25, 2013)



[6]Ibid, p. 117.




[10]Ibid, p. 128.

[11]Ibid, p. 129.


[13]Ibid, p. 107.

Childsplay: An eighteenth-century boyhood

Kate MacFarlane is a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.

Donald Sage (1789-1869) was a minister and a minister’s son, born and raised in Kildonan. His memoir, Memorabilia Domestica: Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of his late eighteenth-century boyhood and the pastimes and playmates that filled it. Looking back on his early childhood, Sage recalled a world of gloriously unsupervised, adventurous and unstructured play, most of it in the company of his older brother Eneas. At the ages of just four and five, the boys – unaccompanied – “crossed the burn, and, for our own amusement…called in at almost all the tenants’ houses, where we met with a kind and cordial reception.”[1] Fussed over and fed “a half cake of oat-bread, larded over with cream,”[2] they were then carried home, Eneas not being in the mood to walk.

From early on, the boys were “of a mechanical turn…always building houses and mills, in imitation of those at Kildonan.”[3] They “built a clay house at the back of the manse” and “mills as closely resembling their larger and more useful prototypes as our limited capacities could approach.”[4] They also enjoyed fishing for (or as Sage put it, butchering) trout, either catching them in a home made weel or using “another and still more barbarous method of killing,” impaling the trout “with all our force [so] the wretched victims of our pursuit often came up in fragments!”[5]

At the ages of twelve and thirteen, Donald and Eneas left for school at Dornoch, where they stayed for a year and a half. Life at school was more structured and rigidly disciplined but it did allow time for play which, by then, had evolved from their childhood rambles into more competitive team sports and activities. Chief among them was “club and shinty” which Sage describes as a “game, or battle.”[6] He notes that during his youth, it was universal in the north. For men only, it was played “with all the keenness accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded the claymore.”[7] It was physical to the point of danger and “in not a few instances, actually proved fatal.”[8]

‘Game of Shinty’ from Old England: A Pictorial History (1845) [out of copyright]

Another fond memory from his school days was of cock fighting which “took precedence over all our other amusements.”[9] Then a wide spread practice throughout the parochial school system, cocks were begged from households throughout the parish and brought by school boys to the local court room or “battle-field where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen.”[10]

Sage says very little about toys in his memoir, recalling only a handful of special ones. For example, at a very early age, he was given a windmill by John Ross, an admirer of his housekeeper who hoped to gain her favor. The gift, he said, “rivetted [sic] my affections to him and I followed him like his shadow.”[11] The servants were amused by his devotion and “to put my attachment to the test…one stormy evening, as I was seated by the kitchen fireside, told me that John Ross was dead, that he had been drowned in attempting to cross the burn.”[12] Poor Sage, “giving full vent to my feelings…made the kitchen rafters ring with my roaring.”[13]

Sage studied Latin from a very young age, progressing quickly and working his way through a wide range of classical works. A bright, imaginative little boy, he took inspiration from his reading and set the stories and characters in local settings: “The gay and elegant Athens,” for example, “with its orators and heroes, its classic buildings, its Acropolis and its thoughtless and polished mob…were all located in the village of Kildonan.”[14]

Memorabilia Domestica, is rich in detail and an excellent source of information on 18th century childhood in the north of Scotland. Sage gives his readers a fascinating glimpse of one boy’s world of play – full of exploration and adventure – and highlights the pastimes, toys, reading materials, sports and games that he enjoyed.

[1]Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Wick, 1899), p. 79.


[3]Ibid, p. 94.



[6]Ibid, p. 118. See a previous post for more on this: (March 19, 2013)




[10]Ibid, p. 119. See a previous post for more on this: (February 3, 2014)

[11]Ibid, p. 78.


[13]Ibid, pp. 78-79.

[14]Ibid, pp. 86-87. See a previous post for more on this: (Septmeber 18, 2018)

History of Childhood Exhibition II – Wartime Dornoch

My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions in the museum. Exhibitions here at the museum are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community.

In our first blog we looked at schooling and it was also clear that the lives of children during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were laden with responsibilities. Of course in rural communities these responsibilities carried over into the twentieth century but more modern memoirs of children in Dornoch reveal an altogether different experience. There is more of a sense of ‘childhood’ in their accounts.

I particularly enjoyed my conversations with Lorna Currie who grew up in Dornoch during World War Two and was delighted when she gave permission for her memoir to be used in the interpretation of the exhibition. Most of the toys we have on exhibition are from the twentieth century and it was wonderful to be able to link Lorna’s words with the objects on display.

Lorna Currie had just started primary school when the Second World War was declared on 3rd September 1939. At just five years old life suddenly changed for Lorna and her brothers. The Government introduced a rationing system monitored by the Ministry of Food that ensured fair distribution of food stuffs. Children were given a priority allowance for milk and eggs and had their own identification cards, gas masks, and clothing coupons. A child’s ration of sweets was two boiled sweets or two squares of chocolate per week and children were issued with their own ration book for sweets.

Fruit and vegetables were not rationed but were often in short supply because they came from oversees. In response to shortages, the Government ran a ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. The scheme encouraged people to grow their own produce and Lorna remembers the garden at her home producing vegetables, including tomatoes and rhubarb. They had fruit bushes, an apple tree and a cherry tree and made jam and bottled fruit and kept hens. Lorna still lives in Dornoch and her memories prompted the museum’s Young Curators Club to ‘Dig for Dornoch’. Although not the same as a war, today’s children are living through a time that will significantly impact on their lives. It felt important to link the experiences they were living though today with the past. Growing their own vegetables and fruit in a time of national emergency is helping them develop skills for a sustainable future and they will be sharing their produce with the local community. The project was made possible by Highland Seedlings and Fearn Free Food Garden who donated seedlings and compost.

Lorna’s family did not have an air raid shelter but if they heard planes overhead, they would sit under the kitchen table for protection. During air raid practice at school the children assembled in the central corridor and lay down with their gas masks beside them. The practice was regarded as a welcome diversion from lessons and good fun! Despite the war, Lorna’s memories of childhood are filled with the joy of freedom.

Lorna Currie in the Guides 1947. Lorna is in the middle of the back row.
Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2011_062_12

Things were very different for children living in the city and, in audio recordings from Historylinks Archive, Bill Grant recalls walking with his father beside the River Clyde in Glasgow with German bombers overhead targeting the river and shipyard. Bits of shell were hitting the pavement and Bill said that at eight years old he did not understand the extent of what was happening, only that someone was trying to kill them.

Just a few days after war was declared, Operation Pied Piper was introduced. The project saw over three million children from all over Britain relocated to protect them from the threat of bombs. They took very few of their own possessions with them and they left their homes and families, often not knowing who they were going to be living with.

Bill was evacuated to Proncy near Dornoch to live with an uncle and aunt. One afternoon in September 1942 he was listening to the radio with his aunt when he heard an unusual sound over Proncy. A plane engine was stuttering in the in the distance and from their front door they heard a huge crash and saw an explosion about forty metres away from the house. The flames were thirty feet high, and Bill raced out of the house to meet the Farm Grieve, Kenny Mackay. Together they went to the site where the plane had crashed and saw a man covered in flames. He was sent back to the house for blankets and then helped Kenny to wrap the pilot in them to extinguish the flames. Using the blankets, they pulled the man clear and he was taken to hospital in Golspie where he died of his wounds.

The written and recorded memories of Lorna and Bill give us a much clearer picture of life for children in wartime Dornoch. Just like John Matheson and Donald Sage from our first blog, their words contain the power to transport us back in time and give us a glimpse of the past from the first hand experiences of those who lived it.

Historylinks is open 7 days a week from 10.30am to 4pm until the end of October.

History of Childhood Exhibition I – Schooling in Dornoch

My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions. Exhibitions at Historylinks are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community. The ‘Childhood in Dornoch Parish’ exhibition was a real pleasure to work on, it fed into my love for the eighteenth century and for toys! Reading the memoirs of young people from Dornoch as far back as the 1700s was a privilege and I wondered if, when they were writing all those years ago, they ever imagined how their words might be used in the future.

Last year we made the difficult decision to close the children’s room at Historylinks due to Covid restrictions. The room was a space in which our younger visitors had previously been able to draw, dress up and play with toys and puzzles. A room that had once been a busy, fun filled place was now empty and an empty space in a museum is never a good thing! So, over the winter months we thought about how to us the room to give people visiting in 2021 a good experience.

If we couldn’t use the space for children in the present we decided to use it for children in the past and set about researching memoirs and diaries ranging from the eighteenth century to the Second World War. We already a small collection of objects such as school slates and books, a tricycle, marbles, dominoes and it wasn’t long before the local community got involved, bringing precious toys and games into the museum for our display. The Highland Museum of Childhood in Strathpeffer lent us various toys from the early 1800s to the 1970s, including a dolls pram bought in Gammages, a famous London department store which had been gifted by a Dornoch lady.

Photo: Lynne Mahoney

Looking at daily life in the eighteenth century we discovered that for most, childhood was a time of gathering responsibility according to ability. Play, work and practical education merged into one experience. The idea of childhood as a separate life stage only became a concept towards the end of that century and then only among the middle class and wealthy.

It was difficult for many children to attend school consistently, even if their parents wanted that. Children could not walk for miles across hills or cross rivers and parents often did not have the cash for fees. Formal education was therefore sporadic. Instead they learned skills taught by their parents: how to look after animals, how to build houses, how to look after children, how to prepare medicines from herbs, how to grow crops and how to preserve and prepare food.

Boys of higher status were much more likely to be formally educated. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries three schools flourished in Dornoch: a grammar, an elementary and an English school, most likely set up by The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK). This organisation was established by Royal Charter in 1707 to encourage Protestantism and English speaking in the Highlands. In a political sense the Society was about gaining a greater control of the Highlands. The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools was set up in 1811. As a missionary society they taught reading in Gaelic so people could read the Bible for themselves. These temporary schools -some of which appeared locally in places like Embo and Knockarthur – opened in the quiet time of the farming year, teaching adults as well as children.

John Matheson and Donald Sage were born in the late eighteenth century and their memoirs give a glimpse of childhood for boys who attended school in Dornoch.

John Matheson was born in 1772 and his family were tenant farmers. His father was in a position to be able to pay to give his sons an education. When John was strong enough, he walked to the Parochial School in Dornoch, a round trip of twelve miles!

As John grew older, the need for his help with livestock and farm work increased. His schooling was seasonally interrupted at times of planting and harvest, when all hands were needed. Sometimes bad weather made walking into Dornoch impossible. These factors made John feel that his education was lacking yet he became a tutor himself and later migrated to Glasgow where he became a cotton mill manager.

Donald Sage was born in Kildonan but he and his brother attended school in Dornoch. They came under strict discipline that was meted out by way of humiliation or physical violence. On one occasion Sage received thirty lashes and a schoolmate was beaten until he fainted.

Despite this, Donald recollects with joy the pastimes that he shared with his friends. On Saturdays and holidays the schoolboys had freedom to roam. One game was throwing stones at the crow’s nests built in the walls of Dornoch’s derelict castle and they often ended up at woods near Cyderhall or Skibo. During the holidays shinty was a must and Donald recounts ‘every male, from a stripling to a white-haired grandfather’ taking part. Market days were a favourite. Full of spectacle and excitement, they lasted two days and meant a holiday from school. Another sport that was widely acceptable was cock fighting. The annual event took place at Candlemas, 2nd February, one of the Scottish Quarter days. Sage tells how the boys prepared for weeks in advance and the Sheriff Court room above the school was cleared to make a cock fighting ring.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2002_274_001

The Education (Scotland) Act was passed in 1872 making schooling compulsory. No longer did children have to walk to Dornoch or go without an education entirely. Schools were built in the rural areas of the parish ensuring all children had access.

The Parish School building remained in use until 1913. It is now the Social Club. Pupils transferred to a site at the west end of the burgh, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. This new Academy was opened by Lord Kennedy on 7th January 1913.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2019_093_10.

Fifty years later, on 25th September 1963 a new secondary department was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The old building which now houses the primary department stands side by side with the new and, along with the nursery, they constitute the modern 3-18 years Dornoch School Campus.

The Childhood in Dornoch Parish exhibition tells of the experiences of children over the last two centuries, from home life to school life, from organised clubs to serious playtime such as the annual football tournament played for the Ice Cream Cup!

Playing for the Ice Cream Cup!
Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2001_343_001

Their voices, happy and sad, come to us through memoirs, diaries, audio recordings, photographs and the physical objects in the display like a tricycle, teddy bears, dolls, a Hornby engine, tin plate toys and board games.

From the frustration of having to close part of the museum and wondering what to do with an empty space, it feels like the children’s room is alive with the voices of children once more.

‘Wanted Down Under’ – The Prequel

Graham Hannaford has recently gained his PhD from Federation University, Australia. His thesis explored the impact of emigration advertisements on Scots. He has a Dornoch connection, having gained his Masters from the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands and has visited the town several times.

If you have been following the many episodes of the TV series Wanted Down Under which explores the attractions of Australia for Brits, it probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that the concept is far from new. The following advertisement, which appeared on page 1 of the Inverness Courier of 14 March 1848, was only one of many in the nineteenth century, and later, seeking to recruit Scots willing to move to the colonies.


ALL Persons desirous of availing themselves of the opportunity thus afforded them, are requested to apply to Mr ANDREW RUTHERFORD, GOLSPIE, who will forward to the applicants the proper Form of Application, with a list of such regulations as they will have to conform to. None need apply but Agricultural and Farm Servants, or persons connected with country work, such as Shepherds, Miners, Country Mechanics, Blacksmiths, Wheelwrights, and Carpenters. The most desirable applicants are YOUNG MARRIED COUPLES, with few, or without Children.

YOUNG SINGLE WOMEN, of established respectability, who, though not employed as servants at present, but are desirous of becoming such in the Colony, may apply.


Agent to her Majesty’s Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners.

Golspie, 23d February 1848.

Rutherford eventually acted on his own advice and emigrated with his wife to Australia, both of them ending their days in Melbourne.[1] He was also politically astute for his time, having subscribed half a guinea to the fund for the monument to the late first Duke of Sutherland.[2]

The advertisement made it clear that only agricultural workers and associated tradesmen were wanted by the promoters of the government emigration scheme. These were the categories of employees which had been sought for many years by those with large land holdings in the colonies. Married men were sought since these tended to be more stable in work and behaviour than bachelors who were inclined, it was believed, to waste their earnings and time on drinking. Wives were also believed to be useful in the role of hut keepers supporting shepherds.

A shepherd’s life in Australia, South Australia, 1864 [picture] / W. R. Thomas, National Library of Australia,

It is worth noting that the offer of passage was being made to those willing to migrate to the Cape of Good Hope, to South Australia and to New South Wales itself. In doing so, for those hesitant about the voyage, the Cape would have been more attractive and so too, to a lesser extent, would be the voyage to South Australia which was shorter than going all the way to Sydney.

The ongoing imbalance in the genders in the colony was reflected in the announcement that young single women willing to work as servants were also wanted. This was an issue which had been flagged over many years and was still without adequate resolution by the middle of the nineteenth century. Good marriage prospects awaited those seeking a husband.

It is clear from this advertisement that the emigration commissioners viewed conditions in the Cape colony as being similar to those in Australia, probably with the aim of moving surplus population out of Britain as much as finding the workers sought by the colonies. But it is also apparent that work was available for those willing to undertake it on the pastoral stations in New South Wales, whether as shepherds or in the associated trades necessary for operating large properties.


[2] James Loch, Memoir of George Granville, late Duke of Sutherland K.G. (London: S. Woodfall, 1834), 69.

A Man’s Place

There’s a lot of talk today about identity: gender identity, sexual identity, national identity. Identity strikes at the heart of who we feel we are, but it is also shaped by the mores of the day, so it’s possible to study it historically.

Alexander Forbes from Rogart clearly had a strong Christian identity. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A few avid followers of this blog might vaguely recall a couple of posts on gravestones and how they could be used to think about people’s identity. Well, out of that research I wrote a much longer piece for ‘Genealogy’ journal on how places helped to form a man’s sense of identity in the nineteenth century.

One type of place-based identities I discuss is an identity which is bound up in the British Empire. A superb example here of a family from Golspie Tower who relocated and developed strong identities grounded in Canada West (now Ontario), Yorkshire and Australia. These were the key things that Donald and George Sutherland wanted noted about them and their sister on the gravestone which they paid for. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The article just got published this past week so I enclose a link here for anyone who might be interested. Feel free to skip the literature review and methodology (or indeed any other part!) There are a good few examples from Dornoch, Golspie, Rogart, Ardgay, Tain and surrounds. It has been great fun justifying my enjoyment of wandering around graveyards while trying to figure out something about what went on in the minds and hearts of people from a very long time ago.

Here’s the link:

Who can resist a wander around a graveyard on a sunny evening? Creich, with the Dornoch Firth in the background. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Can anyone identify the graveyard in the header – at the top of this post?

Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 3

As our current epidemic subsides in this country, here are some final thoughts from Malcolm Bangor-Jones on cholera in Sutherland.

Dr Ross provided further details of conditions in the parish of Rogart. The cottages were “by far the strongest and best built of any we fell in with, and better finished in every respect their furniture is excellent and well kept and in not a few of them we found Grates, both in their Rooms and Kitchens. The people seem to want none of the ordinary Comforts of Life, their Barns were full of Corn, and their Stores inside their houses were equally well appointed as few of them were without their meat Barrels of Beef mutton or pork and some had part of them all. And as to Potatoes they admit if it were possible to preserve them, that they have a stock sufficient for two years Consume. Let me assure you that in many of the houses we saw in and about Rogart, no Gentleman, let his Rank be what it may, but might find himself comfortable for a night.”

On the other hand in the Strathfleet end of the parish they found “many poor widows and old maids in destitute circumstances, and such was the primitive simplicity of those poor Creatures, that rather than expose their wants they borrowed Blankets and Bedcovers from their neighbours, to make what they wished, a decent appearance on that day.” There had been many cases of typhus in Strathfleet that winter – the deaths had been mainly of the more elderly. Possibly this was accounted for by the mild winter.

There was, however, much going on in Strathfleet in terms of its improvement. Dr Ross was not impressed by the crofters in the parish of Dornoch who were “the most useless set of Rascals I know.” Gunn also reported that while there had been very great improvement around the lower part of Birichin, Fleuchary, and Astel they were behind their neighbours in other parishes. He suggested that “the people, perhaps from being nearer the Dornoch law; are more stiff necked, & want the energy of the other Parishes.” George Gunn “threatened & scolded them where I saw occasion for it”. As John Ross, the catechist, was among the worst Gunn promised him a summons of removal “which will have the effect of shewing him & others that we are in earnest.”

Once word got out hundreds of applications for assistance from ‘needy people’ were received. Some argued that the landlords should be assessed. However, an alliance of large farmers and factors managed to ensure that assistance would be provided by way of a voluntary charitable contribution from tenants and landlords. By mid March about £450 had been raised in the east of Sutherland. Mr Dempster did not contribute but instead established a soup kitchen for the poor on his own property and distributed a considerable quantity of flannel and blankets.

Patrick Sellar drew attention to the increase in the number of whisky shops over the previous decade. The distillers had “set up agents and creatures in every Corner; and, one’s servants can scarcely go to Church on Sunday without being entrapped into one of these poison stores. It is in vain that we give meal to feed the hungry if such an agency of poverty, disease, and death be left in full employment against us.” The county agreed that measures should be taken to limit the number of tippling houses. It was also agreed that supernumerary dogs should be got rid of – no aid would be given to anyone who unnecessarily kept a dog.

These measures did not stop cholera coming to Sutherland later that year. Nor is it is easy to determine whether there was a long-term impact on the standards of cleanliness. Certainly a boost may have been given to the improvement of housing.

However, the systematic inspection of every dwelling – possibly unique – did highlight the depth of poverty amongst sections of the population, especially the aged. This was to come to the fore when evidence was gathered by the Poor Law Commission in the early 1840s.

Shilpit Bairns, Part iii: treating a sickly child

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. In this third and final part of Shirley’s blog, she discusses some of the treatments used to treat the ‘shilpit’ child.

Treating a sickly child in medieval Scotland would have varied depending on several factors, including geographical location, family status, and community beliefs, with some treatments being borne out of folklore and tales of magic and mystery. For example, there was a strong belief of children being stolen by faeries and replaced with a changeling. Symptoms a child was indeed a changeling included incessant crying, refusing to settle or curiously distorted facial features or limbs. Some of these symptoms may simply be attributed to what we now know to be skeletal abnormalities. For example, rickets results in distorted limbs, and cleft palate alters facial features, yet such abnormalities in antiquity were simply attributed to otherworldly causes. Efforts to banish a changeling were not exactly child-friendly either. Exposing a changeling involved holding a baby over a hot stove or under water, or denying the child food, although this would more likely induce illness or trauma despite the parents’ good intentions. Water is a particularly powerful source of healing and evokes other-worldly beliefs. Clootie wells and ancient springs were popular sources of healing. Children would be dipped in water or submerged in a lake to cure ailments. Pilgrimages, another form of healing, were made far and wide across Scotland to places such as the revered well in Portpatrick (Wigtownshire); St Fillan’s spring (Stirling) and Fortingall spring (Perthshire). These were all popular choices for healing and mothers would travel for miles to treat their children, attesting to the level of care afforded to their young.[i] There are also several wells in and around Portmahomack that would have no doubt served as healing places, such as Tobar na Baistidh (Baptism well) situated south of the church. Pilgrimages to holy shrines were also popular, such as those to St Duthac’s shrine (Tain) and St Ninian’s cave (Whithorn); both of which are still popular pilgrimage sites today.

OS map Port mahomack 1880_NLS (002)

OS map of Portmahomack (1880) showing the baptism well (Tobar na Baistidh) near Tarbat Church[ii]

If affordable, herbal or more formal medicinal remedies were sourced from local healers or physicians, or even influenced by local elite families, many of whom wrote various medical recipes. One 17th century manuscript, the ‘Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva’ includes a recipe for ‘The Restorative Jelly for a Consumption’. How accessible would such texts or indeed ingredients be to the parish folk at Portmahomack around this time? Some ingredients such as snail shells and hartshorn shavings may have been accessible but others such as Seville oranges, Rhenish wine, and white sugar were surely too expensive. However, these medicinal recipes may have been adapted to meet the means of a less affluent household, meade to replace wine and honey to replace sugar for example, especially if the parents of a sickly child had exhausted all other possibilities.

The Restorative recipe_NLS.MS.5112 (002)

Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva, 17th – 18th century (Author’s photo)[iii]

Although it is beyond the scope of this blog to talk about the diet and isotope component of my research, it’s worth noting that sugar is an interesting foodstuff from an isotope perspective as it has a distinctive carbon signature. However, a carbon enrichment in an individual from medieval Portmahomack most likely reflects the consumption of fish rather than sugar.[iv] This is because sugar is not a native plant to Britain and was not introduced until the late medieval period. Even then, sugar was only affordable to the elite and only became more widely used from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, we cannot ignore the fact that from the 16th century, the acquisition and consumption of sugar was acquired in and around Easter Ross,[v] albeit by the elite. Thereafter, with increased demand and reduced cost, it rapidly made its way into everyday households.

So, I hope from my three blogs I have given a glimpse of how the study of past childhoods is just as fruitful and important as those of adults; it enables us to understand childhood health and well-being from the skeletal evidence, the importance of good diet and nutrition, and in the wider context, the role of children within their community and their treatment in life and death. It also enables us to be better equipped to influence policies, initiatives and promote positive health and well-being for our young society.[vi] Further research on past childhoods in the Highlands is much needed, but we are heading in the right direction – multidisciplinary research, collaborations and community support are key.

[i] MacKinlay, J.M., 1893, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs. Glasgow: William Hodge & Co.

[ii] Ross-shire & Cromartyshire (Mainland), Sheet XXX (includes: Tarbat), 1880. Map source: National Library of Scotland Maps: [Accessed 27/12/2019].

[iii] Medical Recipes for the Family Erskine of Alva, 17th – 18th century, National Library of Scotland, NLS.MS.5112.

[iv] Curtis-Summers, S., Montgomery, J., and Carver, M.O.H., 2014, Stable isotope evidence for dietary contrast between Pictish and Medieval populations at Portmahomack, Scotland. Medieval Archaeology 58: 21-43.

[v] Macgill, W. (Ed.), 1909, Old Ross-shire and Scotland, as seen in the Tain and Balnagown Documents. Inverness: The Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company Limited; Worthington, D., 2019, Sugar, Slave-Owning, Suriname and the Dutch Imperial Entanglement of the Scottish Highlands before 1707, Dutch Crossing: Journal of Low Countries Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03096564.2019.1616141.

[vi] For example, the Scottish Government’s policy on promoting child and maternal health, in partnership with NHS Scotland: [Accessed 29/12/2019].

Shilpit Bairns, Part ii: the osteological evidence

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. In this second part of Shirley’s blog, she discusses some of the osteological evidence from the children of medieval Portmahomack.

Of the 40 child skeletons assessed from Portmahomack,[i] 19 had evidence of skeletal pathologies, some of which will be presented here. The highest prevalence was found in conditions associated with nutritional deficiencies and infections. Only a few children were affected by scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and rickets (vitamin D deficiency) but all were less than two years old when they died. This places these children within the breastfeeding age and suggests some cultural and economic factors that hindered adequate nutritional health. For example, we receive up to 90% of vitamin D from sunlight, but for some in antiquity, sun exposure was drastically reduced, especially for child workers (e.g. mills, factories, mines) or by swaddling babies, hence depletion of the vital mineral component needed for healthy bone growth. Foetal and infant health could be severely compromised if pregnant and nursing mothers had poor health or nutritional stress. This may have been the result of bouts of harvest failure in the Highlands, hence poor maternal diet and inadequate breastmilk available, or that mothers were too busy to breastfeed (from agricultural duties for example) and weaned the child early, if the child was breastfed at all that is.

One interesting case was from a child who was merely a few months old yet had infectious lesions on the inner ribs (against the chest cavity). This suggests an acute form of respiratory disease, which may have been caused by poor air quality such as indoor smoke inhalation. This is a plausible suggestion, especially if the child was born and nursed in the winter months, thereby confined to a damp and smoky environment. Even with ventilation, a newborn’s lungs are more sensitive to even modest amounts of smoke, let alone concentrated bursts that emit from an open fire, which was the standard form of heat in dwellings of the period. An alternative diagnosis is pneumonia, often caused by an underlying condition, such as congenital heart disease or low birth weight, a consequence of the mother’s poor health.

Islay weavers cottageInside a weaver’s cottage on Islay, 1772, by Charles Grignion. © British Library (shelfmark 185.a.18) [ii]

It is very rare in the archaeological record to find obstetric burials (mother and unborn child) and even rarer that we see skeletal evidence of pathology that links poor health between the pregnant mother and unborn child. At Portmahomack one such case was found. Osteological assessments on the foetus, which was close to full-term, revealed evidence of iron deficiency but no pathologies of consequence were identified on the mother.[iii] It is unknown what caused the death of the mother, although the foetus was in a very precarious position (a ‘transverse lie’), which meant that unless the baby turned spontaneously or was turned by means of external or internal version, natural delivery would have been impossible and would have proved fatal for the mother. Preeclampsia (from high blood pressure) or antepartum haemorrhage are therefore possibilities for the death of the mother, especially if no midwifery expertise was available. We may draw some interpretations from the later Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland that recorded a lack of midwives in the region. For example, in 1791 Kiltearn (Ross and Cromarty) it was noted with concern for pregnant mothers that they “seldom have proper assistance when in child-bed, as there is no regularly bred midwife in the parish”.[iv] Evidence of inadequate midwifery care from the historical record, combined with osteological evidence of a complex pregnancy, goes some way to shed light on the fatal consequences of childbirth around this time in the Highlands.

I have highlighted just a couple of interesting cases here but from the osteological evidence, nearly half of Portmahomack’s children had some form of pathology and more alarmingly, high mortality occurred in those within first few months of life. This suggests socio-economic factors were involved that restricted adequate nutrition to the child (mother having poor health or overworked?); enabled greater susceptibility to infections (living conditions?), and even possibly, the effect of traditional treatments of newborn babies (swaddling practices?) The latter reminds us of the fatal consequences of poor hygiene from cultural practices on newborn babies from St Kilda, where during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, seventy-six infants died. In 1890, the Reverend Angus Fiddes, a Free Church clergyman and Scientist, finally linked these deaths to unsanitary treatment of the umbilical cord, after which deaths quickly ceased. It was believed that a combination of a dirty knife to cut the cord; fulmar oil (stored in ‘unclean’ gannets’ stomachs) to heal the cord, and unclean swaddling all attributed to neonatal tetanus.[v] Could cultural practices at Portmahomack have contributed to the cause of infections and nutritional deficiencies of their infants? What step did parents take to treat their sickly child? Next time, we look at some of the methods that were used to treat the shilpit bairn.

[i] Curtis-Summers, S., 2015, Reconstructing Christian lifeways: a bioarchaeological study of medieval inhabitants from Portmahomack, Scotland and Norton Priory, England, PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

[ii] Pennant, T., 1774, A tour of Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772. Chester: John Monk Publishers. Image source: [Accessed 27/12/2019].

[iii] However, only part of the female skeleton was recovered during excavation (Cecily Spall, pers.comm, 18th June 2019), hence a full osteological assessment could not be carried out.

[iv] OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 288. [Accessed 17/12/2019].

[v] Stride, P., 2008, St Kilda, the neonatal tetanus tragedy of the nineteenth century and some twenty-first century answers, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 38: 70–7.

Shilpit Bairns, Part i: setting the scene

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. Here, she introduces her research on reconstructing past lifeways of the children of medieval Portmahomack. (No content of this post is to be reproduced without prior permission from the author. Contact for further details.)

In autumn 2019 I gave a talk at Portmahomack entitled ‘Shilpit Bairns and Clashing Swords’, which was based on bioarchaeological analysis of the medieval skeletons excavated from Tarbat Old Church. One question I was asked a few times was what ‘shilpit’ meant, which made me realise this is not as common a word as I first thought. One of the first uses of ‘shilpit’ was in 1658 when Sir Robert Moray wrote to Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine, stating: “best to abstain from wine a while for your cough, seeing I guess the best you have is but shilpit [weak] stuff”.(1) Thereafter, this term was used to describe someone who was weak or sickly,(2) yet its usage seems to have been lost in more recent times. Just like Portmahomack’s past people, it is now timely to revive that which was lost. This is where we come on to reconstructing past lifeways of the medieval people from Portmahomack, the focus of this blog.

Archaeology, and by extension, osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology and bioarchaeology (the study of ancient human remains), are popular disciplines; you only need to look at the constant flurry of television shows and news articles on the latest discovery of graves, skeletal analyses, rare finds, and the odd royal under a car park. However, most of these reports tend to be on the past lives of adults, with children receiving little primary focus. This may be partly due to sensitivities when discussing studies on juvenile human remains. People may find coming face-to-face with the skeleton of a child more unnerving than that of an adult. In my experience however, the public are fascinated with the study of past people, including children, and acknowledge their value in contributing to reconstructing past lifeways. Therefore, to help us understand health and society in the past, the study of past childhoods is just as fruitful as that of adults. Moreover, the dearth of studies on children and family life in the medieval Scottish Highlands attests to the need for greater dialogue and research in this area.(3) This is not an easy task considering the lives of children from the lower echelons of society were not deemed important enough to grace the pages of kirk, parish, manorial or court records in any great detail before the early modern period. We therefore need to turn to another resource, their bodies. Skeletons yield a wealth of information on the health, well-being, sometimes even death of an individual, and are therefore of great importance and value.

Death and the Mother_Dance of Death

Death and the Mother, from D.N. Chodowiecki’s ‘Dance of Death’, 1791 (Wellcome Library no. 31263i) (4)

I am sure many of you are familiar with the archaeological investigations at Portmahomack, which under the direction of Professor Martin Carver, yielded a wealth of information on the lives of Pictish monastic and medieval parish church communities.(5) Excavations of the burials revealed that only one child grave was found within the Pictish monastic level (8th to 9th century) and the remaining child graves were from the later medieval levels (12th to 17th century). The highest number of child deaths at Portmahomack was from those who were just a few months old. This was a dangerous age for children in antiquity, especially if they were not being breastfed or had an inadequate quantity or quality of breastmilk, either due to the mother being in poor health or overworked from agricultural duties for example. Children that were exposed to a dangerous concoction of poor nutrition and hygiene would therefore be more susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, infections, and diarrhoea, all which can result in fatal consequences. In general, child mortality rates from medieval Scotland are highly variable, with no clear division between Highland and Lowland, rural and urban, or coastal and inland areas, although more investigation is needed. Preliminary comparisons to data from other studies (6) suggest mortality rates at Portmahomack were nearly twice as higher than lowland sites. This may suggest different influences that resulted in a higher rate of child deaths in the northern Highlands, such as varying economy and subsistence strategies that were affected by harsh climatic episodes; care and midwifery provisions (or lack of), or even cultural and traditional views on childcare and well-being.

Part two of this blog will discuss the evidence from osteological assessments on the children at Portmahomack and present some interesting case studies. In the meantime, try to abstain from shilpit wine!

1. R. Moray, Lett, 1658. Transcripts, circa 1830, of letters, 1657-1674, of Sir Robert Moray to Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine, National Library of Scotland, NLS MS.5049–50, fol.230.

2. In Shetland, ‘shilpit’ was used to describe something as sour or bitter: [Accessed 2/1/2020].

3. Although some scholars are addressing this lacuna in medieval Scottish childhood studies, e.g. Nugent J. and Ewan E. (eds.), 2015, Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland, Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

4. The dance of death: death and the mother. Etching by D.N. Chodowiecki, 1791, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0. Source: [Accessed 06/01/2020].

5. Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness, PNAS digital book:

6. Willows, M., 2016, Health status in Lowland Medieval Scotland: a regional analysis of four skeletal populations, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh: [Accessed 17/12/2019].