Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 2

Hugh and Walter had walked from Gruids, near Lairg, to the parish of Edderton on their way home from their summer holidays. By the afternoon Hugh’s injured foot was causing him a lot of pain. Then they remembered their cousins had told them about a shortcut through the hills. Hugh wanted home as quickly as possible and Walter “deemed himself equal to anything which his elder cousins could perform”. This may have been the drove road going up from Ardgay to near Kildermorie, or the one which passes by the Aultnamain Inn, now tarmacked over and known as the Struie.

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The drove road from Ardgay to near Kildermorie (looking north towards Gruids) where cattle from the Kincardine Market were taken to the big cattle markets in Crieff and Falkirk, then Carlisle and to London. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The boys “struck up the hill-side” and “soon found ourselves in a dreary waste, without trace of human habitation.” Hugh was struggling, light-headed and his vision was going. Walter led him up to a “heathy ridge” just as night was falling. Below them was the “northern sea-board of the Cromarty Firth, and … the cultivated country and the sands of Nigg lying only a few miles below.” They intended to aim for the sands. They knew they were dangerous at certain tides and accidents frequently happened in the fords. Walter could not swim but they decided Hugh would lead the way. But first, they had to get down. “The night fell rather thick than dark, for there was a moon overhead … the downward way was exceedingly rough and broken, and we had wandered from the path.” Hugh was in no condition for stumbling and groping through the “scraggy moor” and “dark patches of planting”. They had just reached a cleared spot on the “edge of the cultivated country” when Hugh “dropped down as suddenly as if struck by a bullet, and, after an ineffectual attempt to rise, fell fast asleep.

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The route from Gruids to the point where Hugh collapsed. The black indicates where they actually went, cutting up through the ‘dreary waste’. The blue indicates their intended route through the low lying ground past Tain. The arrows mark where they would have crossed the river by the ferryboat at Invershin, where Hugh’s foot began to really trouble him, and where he finally passed out. Route superimposed on General Roy’s Military Survey from 1747-55. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Walter was much frightened; but he succeeded in carrying me to a little rick of dried grass which stood up in the middle of the clearing.” He covered his friend up with the hay and lay down beside him. Walter couldn’t sleep for anxiety and his heart raced when he heard psalm singing in the old Gaelic style coming from a neighbouring clump of wood. “Walter believed in the fairies; and, though psalmody was not one of the reputed accomplishments of the ‘good people’ in the low country … in the Highlands the case might be different”. He sat tight until after the singing stopped. After some time he heard a slow, heavy step. A voice exclaimed in Gaelic and a rough, hard hand grasped the boy’s bare heel. A grey-headed man accused the boys of being gypsies, angry “at the liberty we had taken with his hayrick”. Walter explained. The old man was instantly mollified, and insisted the boys should spend the night in his home. It does not seem likely his hospitality would have extended to them if they had been gypsies after all.

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The welcome view of the Cromarty Ferry pier at Nigg. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hugh was assisted to the cottage, hidden in the clump of trees. An “aged woman” welcomed them. The elderly couple quizzed them as to who they were and the couple realised they knew Hugh and Walter’s maternal grandfather and grandmother and various other relations. Family updates were given and commiserations on misfortunes expressed. Hugh was too ill to take much note of conversation and could only swallow a few spoonfuls of milk. The elderly lady washed his feet, crying over him. Hugh was made of sturdy stuff and after a night’s rest in their best bed he was fit enough to sit in the old man’s cart and driven to the parish of Nigg. They stayed for another day’s rest at a relation’s house there before being taken in another cart to the Cromarty Ferry.

The bootless boys had finally made it home.

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Their proposed (blue) route taking them across the dangerous tidal sands. Their actual (black) route from their overnight stay with the elderly couple to a relative’s house in Nigg parish and to the ferry. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 120-122

National Map Library, Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, http://maps.nls/roy/

Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 1

“I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road”. Hugh and his cousin, Walter, realised getting home was going to be more difficult than they anticipated.

It was about 1818 and the teenagers had spent their summer holidays with relatives in Gruids, near Lairg. On one of the final days before they had to return, they went fishing in the River Shin. They could hear the roaring of the salmon-leap three miles away at Hugh’s uncle’s house and had been inspired by stories of skilful fishermen. Cousin William agreed to take them. He looked askance at their bare feet and muttered that his mother had never allowed them to visit relations unshod. The boys didn’t tell him that their mothers had indeed sent them out shod but “deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a comer, and set out on our journey without them.” That journey had been thirty miles from the Cromarty ferry to Gruids.

 

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Gruids, looking south towards the River Shin. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The walk to the River Shin was less onerous. “We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation. The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches. Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap … there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore. We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool – for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way.” Later, the salmon run was blasted with gunpowder to make easier for the fish. The boys spotted a “hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher”.

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Statue of the adult Hugh Miller in his hometown of Cromarty. He became a famous geologist, editor, author, and advocate for the Free Church and for issues of social justice. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Excited, Hugh jumped from a tall lichened stone. His right foot smashed against a sharp-edged fragment of rock hidden in the moss. He managed to control his scream and clutched his foot as it lost feeling. He limped back to his uncle’s house, but that evening it throbbed badly. However the lad, later an unsuccessful poet but a good newspaper editor and author of prose (as well as a renowned geologist and leader of the Free Church), distracted his mind by composing some verse about the waterfall at Shin.

However, his foot got worse. Next morning it was “stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.” Cousin Walter was impatient and getting bored, so after a few days the boys ignored their elders’ advice to stay put and tried for home. Hugh’s aunt supplied them with a “bag of Highland luxuries – cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts”. As Walter had to carry everything, he required his cousin to entertain him. Hugh’s “long extempore stories … were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the mile-stones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry. At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed. The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o’clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.”

Injured and far from home, the boys were in a predicament.

To be continued…

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 117-120.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The funeral of James Sutherland of Pronsie, 1741

This week’s post is by Malcolm Bangor-Jones. Malcolm is a civil servant who makes regular contributions on Sutherland’s history to the ‘Am Bratach’ newsletter and to various academic publications.

In November 1741 James Sutherland lay sick in bed at Aberscross. James was Sutherland of Pronsie, wadsetter (or mortgage holder) to the Earl of Sutherland who had a controlling interest in the Skelbo estate in which Pronsie sat. The family had possessed Pronsienaird since early in the seventeenth century. James’ grandfather had expanded the family’s influence in 1679 and in 1687 by obtaining the wadset of Knockarthur and Easter Aberscross: the place where his grandsons, first James then William, were to die of the “rageing Distemper”.

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his 'raging distemper' or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his ‘raging distemper’ or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Isabella Grant had only been married to James for six years when she was widowed. She was left with two daughters, Margaret and Jean. Later Isabella married Dr John Gordon, surgeon at Golspietower and later of Jamaica. James did not leave his affairs in good order. He had not made up his title to his property (never a good sign) and was succeeded by his brother, David, who did not either. This David Sutherland of Knockarthur was generally agreed to be “remarkably weak in his understanding [and] altogether unfitt for manageing the affairs of [Margaret and Jean]”. Efforts were made to overturn his appointment. This was part of the battle over who should administer the affairs of the girls, and over the Isabella’s jointure. Both ‘sides’ appealed to the Earl of Sutherland for support. For the Earl, James’s death meant the loss of one of his political ‘friends’ or voters at a time when his political contest with the Mackays was intensifying.

As well as casting light on regional politics, the legal tussling over power and money after James’ death left a series of financial accounts about his funeral. These tell us about how minor gentry in the Highlands dealt with death and how they spent money at funerals to bolster their status.

Kenneth Sutherland, a joiner as well as bailie and sheriff substitute, in Dornoch charged for a “WenScot Cophin” £3; a “Box for Do Intralls” 6 shillings [30p]; the cost of “ane Express for Carriing” them to Aberscross 1 shilling [5p]; “Blaking ye Kirk Doors of Dornoch” 7 shillings [35p]; “Making the Funrall Table” 10 shillings [50p]; cash for “ale to Men for takeing off & putting on ye Grave Stons” 1 shilling 6d [7½p].

Andrew MacCulloch, bailie of Dornoch, charged for borrowing two mortcloths from the church (the funds from the mortcloths went towards assisting the poor), “Toleing the Great Bell for ii Days”, “the Litle Bell & making of the Grave”, and paying “the Beadle for going to Aberscorss with the Mort Cloaths”. That account came to just over £2. MacCulloch also furnished liquor: “3 Doz: 4 [40] Botles Claret & Zerry” £4; 3 “Botles Spirits” 6s; ale 1s; and candles 2s. Alexander Gray of Inverbrora, the renowned drover, added “two Dozen Botles Cherry for Pronsies Funeralls” at a cost of £1 16s [£1.80].

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

The corpse needed to be carried from Aberscross to Dornoch to be interred. John Polson, tacksman of Navidale, and John Peterkin provided victuals and drink to over 30 men from the parishes of Loth and Golspie. Polson’s account included “Conveening at Geo: Mcpherson house Kintradwell for Eale”. [This was probably the Wilkhouse Inn.] Peterkin provided rum and ale as well as ‘meat’ or food for the coffin carriers.

Various goods for the funeral, at a cost of £14 10s sterling, were sourced from Nicolas Ross, a merchant in Tain. The list included: “2 Ounces Cinnamon, 1 oz netmoogg [nutmeg], 1oz Mace, ½ pound black Spice, ½ pd Jemaicca Spice, 2 pound Rice, 2 pds Raisens, 2 pounds Currens, 2 pds pruins, 6 pounds pouder Suggar, 7 pounds 5 ozs loaf Suggar” – ingredients for a plum cake. He also supplied mourning materials: “3½ yards Cambrick @ 8/6, 1½ yards Do finer @ 10/, 6 yards black Ribeen, 5 Drops Dark blew Silk, Ane Card black Slive Buttons, a pair of black Stockens”. And he provided yet more drink: “6 Dozen and 1 Bottle Clerret,1 Dozen and 1 Botle white wine, 1 Botle best Clerret”, four bottles of vinegar, four bottles of brandy, four bottles of rum, and then a further two dozen bottles of white wine and two dozen flint wine glasses.

The accounts tell us a good deal about the arrangements although we must guess at some aspects. It seems there was a relatively protracted watch between the death and the burial, hence the need for Pronsie being disembowelled. His body was placed in the wooden ‘wainscot’ coffin and his entrails in a box. During this extended wake, which was typical of this sort of funeral, ‘guests’ would enjoy hospitality and view the deceased. Invitations may have been sent out to relatives, friends and acquaintances of equal or higher degree. Some would have come a distance. The hospitality may have included funeral bread baked with flour rather than meal, and it certainly included plum cake. There was a good deal of alcohol which could give rise to ‘unseemly’ behaviour. The funeral procession involved the wider community, not only of Dornoch but including men from at least as far off as Loth and Golspie. The kirk bells were rung announcing the death and a hand bell was probably rung alongside the funeral procession.

Just as in the Lowlands, these elaborate and public arrangements were what was expected of a minor gentry family at this period. It was a way in which social status was marked, whether the Sutherlands of Pronsie could readily afford it or not.

Isabella’s Story, Part 4: Family Crises

In that first year in Kildonan, Isabella and Alexander struggled with a big house, managing a glebe and a farm, contracting debts, and their two young children. It also fell to them to manage a building project. The old chapel was heather-thatched and housed the burial place of the chiefs of the clan Gunn. The new church was erected on the same site, just down from the manse so Isabella, with Betty and Jane, would have watched the walls rise each day. That first year must have been exhausting for Isabella. Not only was she managing the house, probably significant parts of the farm, trying to improve the poor impression Alexander had made on the parishioners, and raising the girls, but she was again pregnant. Just over a year after their move Angus, or Aeneas, was born. This first son was named, as tradition dictated, after his paternal grandfather. Slightly more than another year later, in October 1789, Isabella gave birth to another boy in the manse at Kildonan: Donald, named after her father. Isabella, perhaps unable to feed the babies herself, or perhaps to assist with childcare, or perhaps to build up relationships locally in the traditional way through fosterage, perhaps all three, sent both boys out to be nursed. Marion Polson, married to the parish catechist, took in Angus. Donald was sent to Barbara Corbett who lived with her husband at Lonn-riabhach, near the rock of Marrel. Donald was very fond of Barbara’s care and the family connection persisted to the next generation when Donald employed her daughter Barbara, his foster-sister, as his servant. Isabella’s decision was not at the expense of loving ties with the boys. It seems that after they were weaned they largely lived at home again and Donald remembered Isabella’s tender attitude to him when he was a petulant toddler.

The new Kildonan church building. Photo: Marjory Harper

The new Kildonan church building with the manse (significantly refurbished!) behind. The ruins of the township of Kirkton are just to the right of the present farm buildings. Photo: Marjory Harper

The three year old’s demands were part of daily life as the dank November days closed in around Kildonan’s manse in 1792. Having lost a baby since Donald’s birth, Isabella was again pregnant. There were four children under the age of seven in the big smoky, dusty house, and the new baby was due at the end of the month. Her contractions began on the 26th or 27th. When labour really took hold she retired to one of the east-facing bedrooms. Someone would have sent word to the local midwife. There may have been one living in Kirkton, just a few minutes up the road, or she may have come from one of the further off townships. Several women would have gathered at the manse. Marion Polson and Barbara Corbett might have been there, and any other friends or near neighbours, all of whom would have had experience helping each other give birth. Things did not go well. The baby died and Isabella was losing a lot of blood. It became clear that she was not going to make it through the night. About an hour before she died, all the children were called to her bedside so she could see them and bless them. Donald later recalled that he was her favourite and he was told that she took particular notice of him that evening. Her feelings choked her as she prayed that he ‘might yet be useful in the vineyard of Christ.’ He did not remember the deathbed scene, but he did remember creeping in to her room a few hours after Isabella had died.

‘On the bed lay extended, with a motionless stillness which both surprised and terrified me, one whom I at once knew to be my mother. I was sure it was she, although she lay so still and silent. She appeared to me to be covered with a white sheet or robe; white leather gloves were on her hands, which lay crossed over her body.’

Alexander was sitting in the corner. He had been quietly weeping. When he caught sight of his little boy, the favourite son of his Isabella, the floodgates opened. He caught hold of Donald, his whole body shaking and the tears rolling down his face. Donald didn’t know that grown men could cry and, as his father held him he stared at Isabella’s body, her gloved hands engraving on his memory. Isabella was forty two. Alexander buried her by the wall of the church building that she had watched grow out of the ground a few years earlier.

Isabella’s children were given the loving mothering they needed for the next few years by Eppy, a servant. Within two years Alexander had found a new wife. She was a local woman, Jean Sutherland of Midgarty. Isabella’s boys stayed at home, being educated by the parish schoolmaster and by their father until they turned twelve and thirteen when Alexander took them to school in Dornoch. Doubtless largely due to Isabella’s smoothing over his early difficulties, Alexander eventually became a well-respected and loved minister in Kildonan. Today he lies beside his church, between his Jean and his Isabella.

Isabella Fraser Sage's gravestone. Photo: Jacquie Aitkin.

Isabella Fraser Sage’s gravestone. Photo: Jacquie Aitkin.

Sources:
Hew Strachan (ed), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica

Isabella’s Story, Part 1: A Child of the Manse

This four part story began almost two hundred and sixty four years ago. Isabella Fraser’s life tells us a little of the experience of middling class women in the Highlands, and it illustrates the strong connections east Sutherland had with Easter Ross and Caithness long before the road and rail constructing mania of the nineteenth century.

On the 14th of January 1751, a little daughter was born to Donald and Jean Fraser. That day little Isabella would have been introduced to her big brothers: Simon who was almost three, and eighteen month old Alexander. The household at Killearnan manse continued to expand when Marjory was born just over a year later and young Donald four years after that. The Frasers were substantial people in Easter Ross and the Inverness area. Their families were tenants and clergymen. After college Donald had been a tutor to Lord Lovat’s family. He was about forty when Isabella was born. While his growing family might have given him joy, his career and health were less positive. He was failing to make much progress with his parishioners, finding them ignorant and obstinate. His health was dubious: he was afflicted with pains and a sleeping problem which worsened in these early years of fatherhood. It reached such seriousness that he started to fall asleep in the pulpit, between the singing of the first psalm and the prayer. Nobody knew what caused it, though the exhaustion of four or five young children at home cannot have helped. Local people ascribed it to witchcraft and he agreed. The explanation was that he had offended two women known to be witches. People said they had made a clay effigy of him, laid it in the dunghill, and stuck pins in it, giving Donald the pains and the narcolepsy.

When Isabella was six, Donald moved his family across the Cromarty Firth to the parish of Urquhart or Ferintosh on the Black Isle. A few days after he was inducted, Jean gave birth to a girl named Jane. To sustain his family on his small stipend Donald decided to lease the mill at Alcaig, a mile or two along the road from the manse. His parishioners did not approve.

The burn at Alcaig. There is no trace of an eighteenth-century meal mill here now, although the site of a more recent saw mill is well known. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie

The burn at Alcaig. There is no trace of an eighteenth-century meal mill here now, although the site of a more recent saw mill is well known. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie

‘One day he met with a parishioner, on his way home from Alcaig, a shrewd though quite an illiterate person. “Well, Thomas,” said the minister, accosting him familiarly, “how are you, and what is your news?” “Very bad news indeed,” said Thomas, “I am informed that our minister’s wife has taken up with the big miller of Alcaig.”’
Donald got the message. As soon as he got home he resigned his lease. Despite money being tight and his social misjudgement of the mill, Donald was happier in Urquhart and his ministry seemed more successful. His health problems soon disappeared. Perhaps the pins had been withdrawn from the clay figurines, or perhaps he was no longer stressed or depressed.

Isabella was a bright child. She would have received some schooling. It is possible that she attended the parish school for a few years, but almost certainly she was tutored by her mother and father. Her brother Alexander went off to Marischal College in Aberdeen. Isabella’s eldest brother, Simon, enlisted with the East India Company. India was a popular, if dangerous, place to make your mark on the world. Simon did not succeed. Sometime in 1770 news arrived at the manse, possibly by letter, that Simon had died in Calcutta, probably one of the many victims of tropical disease. Less than three years later there were new ructions in the Fraser family. At the age of twenty two, Isabella lost her father. The date was 7th April 1773. The family had to vacate the manse. Isabella, her mother and sisters packed up their belongings and moved to a new home on the small farm at Alcaig where the mill was. Some small compensation was that only a month or so afterwards Alexander was settled as minister of Kirkhill, only ten or so miles south. The very same year Isabella’s younger sister Marjory got married. The twenty one year old wed John Fraser, another minister in a neighbouring parish: Kiltarlity. In all probability young Donald had left home so, although Alexander and Marjory were not too far away, the house at Alcaig must have felt very quiet to Isabella, her sixteen year old sister Jane, and her mother. It is not clear how the three women made their living. Presumably Alexander, John Fraser and perhaps young Donald provided for them. There may have been some money from the Church of Scotland or even from the local landowner. They probably managed the farm at Alcaig and gained some income from the produce or from sub-letting. They may have made some money, or at least provided for themselves, like other ordinary eighteenth-century women: through producing cheese, milk, butter, eggs and by spinning.

To be continued…

Alcaig: in the eighteenth century this would have been a farming township set in the fertile land of the Black Isle. The land would have been arranged in runrig (strip cultivation) rather than in today's big fields, which were created in the nineteenth century. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie.

Alcaig: in the eighteenth century this would have been a farming township set in the fertile land of the Black Isle. The land would have been arranged in runrig (strip cultivation) rather than in today’s big fields, which were created in the nineteenth century. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie.

Sources:
Hew Strachan (ed), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica