‘Honest’ George Dempster and the Spinningdale Experiment

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

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

cotton mill at Spinningdale

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

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

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

cotton mill

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

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

cotton mill I

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

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


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

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


Of Cathedrals and Canals

One of the first things a visitor to Dornoch notices is the sandstone cathedral, pride of place in the centre of the town. Visitors are encouraged to walk around it and admire the beautiful stonework, the gargoyles, to consider the first cathedral building of the 1220s and the restoration of two hundred years ago. But Bishop Gilbert of Moravia’s removal of the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness from Halkirk to Dornoch left an archaeological mark not only on the town, but running through the surrounding countryside.

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

The landward side of the parish, stretching up the Evelix Valley, is now crofted. Criss-crossed with single track roads it rises into a series of low hills. The lowest road runs parallel to the River Evelix. Venturing westward off the A9 it is now possible to skirt Milltown of Evelix Farm, where the ruins of a large water mill and its lade are clearly visible. Unlike ruined mills further upstream, this one operated into the twentieth century. The road to Rearquhar passes through unremarkable fields of sheep, with the occasional pony. As it rises the land becomes a little rougher. Soon it wends its way among a little patch of old birch trees, picturesquely crooked and shady. There is a reason this patch of soil is left as woodland rather than being under cultivation. It is not flat and smooth like the surrounding fields. In fact there is a pair of rather steep banks running for twenty yards or so straight towards the road. The geomorphology of the area, especially the long esker separating Dornoch from Camore, might suggest that the feature is another remnant of glaciation. But eskers and drumlins do not tend to come in parallel pairs. This is man-made.

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Making Dornoch into the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness was much more than an administrative move. As the cathedral was built, so were a series of buildings to house various members of the church hierarchy and to enable the administration of the region. Today’s Castle Hotel is one remaining tower of three, surrounding a courtyard, which made up the Bishop’s Palace. Other impressive stone-built houses for the church officials towered above the wattle and turf homes of locals. Placenames show how Gilbert divided up land to help support the six canons. ‘Achendean’, now the name of a house beside the Castle Hotel, and ‘Achinchanter’ on the outskirts of the town, suggest these areas were granted to the Dean and, possibly, the Precentor.

There are a few theories as to why Gilbert chose to locate in Dornoch. Was it because he was related to the Earl of Sutherland, busy establishing himself at Dunrobin, in the hopes that he could protect him from the sort of attack suffered by his predecessors in Halkirk? If so, why was the cathedral not built in Golspie? Or was it because there was already a religious establishment at Dornoch? There are certainly indications this was the case. Whether they were already there or brought in by Gilbert it appears Dornoch was home to a number of monks.

Monks did not spend all their time in prayer, meditation or singing. Most orders were highly practical. They grew their own food in gardens and on farms and laboured on church-related building projects. Undoubtedly they worked on Dornoch’s new buildings. As Dornoch developed into something more than a mixed farming township, especially one which reflected the prestige of such a great person as the Bishop of Caithness, also needed good infrastructure. Especially water. Water for people to use and water for operating the flour mill.

The best supply was from the River Evelix. The monks used the original line of the glacial river for their canal, although before their time the river had changed its course, now turning sharply to the south-west and emptying into the Dornoch Firth at Meikle Ferry. Details as to where exactly it can be seen are explained in Robertson and Park’s Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley, but it was cut from Rearquhar, and its remains appear and disappear past the Astle road and through Fleuchary. Beyond that no traces of it can be found. The remains of this substantial engineering project, which must have been one of the wonders of Sutherland at the time, did not survive the enclosure of fields and the advent of deep ploughing.

Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2005)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)

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.

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

Building “The Mound”

Clive Hayward writes this week about the building of “The Mound”, that critical piece of engineering between Dornoch and Golspie.  Clive has just completed his first year of study on the MLitt in Highlands and Islands History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  As ever, we welcome comments, queries, questions and corrections in the comments section.

Thomas Telford and William Young appear unlikely bedfellows, one being a celebrated engineer and the other being an infamous factor of the Sutherland estate associated with the Clearances.  However, their collaboration to implement the Sutherland Road Act of 1805 has left a monument to their achievements.  The original road ran along the east coast of Sutherland crossing Loch Fleet at the Little Ferry and the Dornoch Firth at the Meikle Ferry.  The creation of the parliamentary road removed two major obstacles by bridging the Helmsdale River and the Dornoch Firth at Bonar, but in between was the tricky passage of Loch Fleet.  Thomas Telford, the consulting engineer for the Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges, originally envisaged building new piers for the ferry as the construction of a traditional bridge was out of the question.  William Young however proposed a causeway across the estuary at the Mound.  The Commissioners initially baulked over the price of the estimate but when the Marquis of Stafford offered to contribute to the cost of the project, the proposal was accepted.

The Marquis was greatly interested in improving Sutherland’s infrastructure and was a major contributor to the finance of new roads. The construction work also offered employment to the local population, recently displaced by the “improvements” undertaken by the estate. Contractors however were hesitant to submit estimates for what promised to be a difficult operation.  Only two were forthcoming (one being very high whilst the other contractor was not regarded as being sufficiently competent), and the whole venture was in doubt.  Young persuaded Earl Gower (the eldest son of the Marquis) to intervene and an offer to undertake the Mound was submitted to the Commissioners by the Earl, in partnership with Young and his associate Patrick Sellar.

To cross Loch Fleet, which is a tidal inlet of the sea, Telford designed a huge earth causeway almost 1000 yards long. The plan was to start by building a stone bridge, with sluice gates, close to Craigtoun rock, on the northern side of the bay. The engineers decided to start work on both banks simultaneously and meet in the middle.  To get the stone and timber to the shores of Loch Fleet they constructed a horse drawn railway.  Difficulties in finding a rock base for the foundations delayed the project beyond the estimated one season and, just as it was nearing completion, a strong tidal surge put a hole in the causeway.  Telford decided to widen the whole causeway and despite much anguish the two ends were finally joined together. Construction work on this huge project began in 1814 and was completed by June of 1816.

The bridge originally had four arches, although this was later increased to six. Each contains a sluice gate preventing sea water travelling upstream when the tide comes in but allows river water out as the tide falls. These gates are self-regulating, but to cope with the river’s spate there is a mechanism of winches and pulleys to manually lift the gates. This was installed, again under the direction of Thomas Telford, in 1833. Winch houses were built at either end of the bridge and a cottage for the gate keeper was built at the northern end of the crossing. The causeway and sluice gates stop the sea over a mile short of its natural high tide mark. This had a dramatic effect on the environment upstream of the Mound. The build up of silt in the shallow fresh water created the ideal conditions for alder and willow trees. The Mound Alderwoods is now one of the largest of its type in Britain and is a designated nature reserve. The other effect of the building of the Mound was to make the ancient ferry crossing at Little Ferry on the mouth of the loch obsolete.


Image from the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As a major construction project in 1814, it was second only to the development of the coalmine at Brora in injecting large amounts of capital into the Sutherland region.  The total project cost £9749, more than sixty per cent being spent on labourers’ wages. When the Marchioness visited the project in August 1815 she found: “sixty people at work and 150 expected the following week.”  It is hard to overestimate the project’s importance in creating work, albeit temporary, in an otherwise non-industrialised environment.

The Mound was one of William Young’s crowning achievements.  Despite Telford’s oversight, the construction, planning and day to day working was in the hands of amateurs and relatively unqualified workmen.  Young was in no sense a trained engineer but he battled through the project from start to finish and it is a testament to his tenacity.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).

Richards, E., The Leviathan of Wealth, (London 1973).

The Development of a Coalmine at Brora

This week’s blog is contributed by Clive Hayward.  Clive is completing his first year as a part time MLitt student on the History of the Highlands and Islands programme offered by the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The name William Young is possibly known to inhabitants of Sutherland and readers of this blog.  A sub factor of the Sutherland estate in the early nineteenth century his name became synonymous with the Great Clearances.  However the name William Hughes is probably less well known in the area.  Hughes was a mining engineer and having managed a Flintshire colliery he moved north to work on the Caledonian Canal and Spyrnie Loch.  The two met in October 1809 and discussed the coal and limestone of Sutherland, the result of their discussions was the development of a coal mine at Brora.  Coal mining itself was not new to the area, coal had been found and mined there as early as 1598 and in the middle of the eighteenth century substantial operations were carried out at Inverbrora Point, but these had been abandoned in 1777 due to the rather poor, sulphurous, quality of the deposits.  However in February 1810 following his discussions with Hughes, William Young wrote to Earl Gower (George Granville who became the Second Duke of Sutherland) with proposals to develop the mine.  Hughes, with his experience, used a further visit in July to deduce that better and deeper coal deposits might be found on the north bank at Brora.  These proposals were accepted and the Marquis of Sutherland, having had experience of coal mines in Staffordshire, took an active interest in the endeavour.  As R J Adam suggests: “it was a significant moment of involvement which was to lead to a very large expense and a very uncertain return.” The sinking of a trial bore was undertaken during the winter and on 12 June Hughes reported that three useable seams had been found at a depth of 220 feet, Hughes recommended that the bore be continued to 500 feet and a new shaft be sunk to work on the seams already discovered.  The estimate cost of all this was £372, a somewhat optimistic figure as by the end of 1812 over £3,300 had been spent!

Work continued in 1814 and 1815 not only on the mine but on the surrounding infrastructure, including the development of a harbour and a railway to take the coal down to the sea.  However during this period, financial challenges, mismanagement and accidents beset the mine before a survey by a mining engineer, William Bald, reported favourably about the coal.  His report also recommended the building of a brick and tile works and for salt pans to be constructed all to be powered by the mined coal. Young and Hughes enthusiastically supported the new ventures making Brora into what would nowadays be called an “industrial estate”.  Despite some misgivings the Sutherland family continued to back Young financially even though expenditure was vastly exceeding estimates.  As Adam suggests: “in retrospect the story of Brora, under Young, is a microcosm of his whole Sutherland history.  Large plans, eager beginnings, defective controls, disappointing returns, the catalogue is formidable.” By 1816 the expenditure of the Marquis in the development at Brora came to over £30,900.  Young admitted that the outlays at Brora were “immense” but believed that the enterprise would soon become self-sustaining.  Although the years prior to 1820 did indeed produce an expansion in the production of goods it all soon fell apart.  As Eric Richards suggests: “the salt and coal trades suffered from poor quality and the price reducing effects of southern competition.  The entire Brora industrial establishment made a loss of £4,000 between 1819 and 1821 mainly in the colliery operations.” The Marquis, unwilling to sanction further expense on the Brora colliery, meant it lingered on until closure in 1825.

The story does not end there however.  In 1872, the then Duke of Sutherland re-opened Brora Colliery, and for a number of years had it under estate management.  Indeed Queen Victoria visited the mine just after its reopening, travelling on the newly completed railway pulled by a locomotive named “Florence”.  The works were afterwards leased to a Mr John Melville.  In 1914, when the clouds of war were gathering over Europe, Captain T.M. Hunter leased the colliery.  The firm of T. M Hunter Ltd. carried on until 1949.  The colliery and brickworks were taken over by a company named Brora Coal and Brick Co.  Afterwards, with a grant from the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the pit was run by Highland Colliery Ltd., and subsequently the miners themselves became shareholders.  The mine closed for good in March 1974.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).


Photo from collection of Clyne Heritage Society.  http://www.clyneheritage.com/index1.html