Place, Identity and Dead Men

Highland men do not suffer from lack of stereotypes. According to anti-Jacobite propagandists they were barbaric; according to Walter Scott they were noble; and according to Diana Gabaldon, they were rugged and sexy. I have always enjoyed exploring graveyards, but recently I wondered if the headstones could tell me something about how Highland men thought of themselves. Indeed they can! I have identified how men’s identities were based on religious faith, on their emotional relationships, on their social status, and on place.[1]

Other than his name, dates, and family, the most common detail on men’s gravestones is where he was from. By the nineteenth century the clan system was long gone. However, men continued to have strongly localised identities, associated with kin and with place.

On the west coast of Lewis, when the old graveyard at Cladh Mhuire was extended the new site was arranged geographically. Each village was allocated two rows, marked by a concrete post. Even in death people were kept within their community and continued to belong to a particular place.

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Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

This is uncommon in such recent graveyards which, like at Proncynain just outside Dornoch, are usually laid out chronologically. Each new burial takes the plot beside the previous one. Communal groupings are more common in older graveyards. This is often not obvious. In Bragar, a few miles south of Cladh Mhuire, the stones are clustered by village, though here there are no signs. In Kincardine, Sutherland, close inspection reveals the same. In the south east corner are the people from Invershin, and near them the folk of Gledfield. Further back are those from Greenyards.

In mixed Protestant-Catholic regions, the spatial organisation of graveyards reflects communal religious identities. On An t-Eilean Uaine, Loch Sheil the Catholics are buried on the Moidart side of the island and the Protestants on the Argyll side.[2] In Ardmichael cemetery, South Uist, Protestants are buried to the west and Catholics to the east.[3]

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Ardmichael, South Uist. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

So far, the place-based identities displayed in graveyards are communal and apply as much to women or children as to men. However when an inscription connects an individual with specific places, this seems to be peculiar to men.

The stones of some men use locations to trace a life story or a career. Rev. Donald MacIntyre (1782-1869) was for nine years ‘missionary of the Braes of Lochaber, for one year assistant in the parish of Creich, and for twenty five years incumbent of Kincardine.’

Most men were clearly associated with one specific settlement, farm or estate in the mind of the community. This was often noted alongside their occupation: ‘Thomas MacKenzie, Shandwick Inn’ (1846-96); ‘Walter Watson, plasterer, Clashmore’ (1859-97). Other inscriptions suggest a man’s deep knowledge of a particular piece of land: John Munro (1779-1820) was tenant at Blairich, Rogart; and George MacKay (1816-73) crofted at Bogrow, Edderton. For some men this close association came through their professional life. Gamekeepers, factors, groundofficers and shepherds took up employment in adulthood. Thomas Herbert (1832-80) was gamekeeper at Alladale, and Robert Sutherland (1791-1841) was grieve at Dunrobin Farm, near Golspie. It was through length of years and the intimate use and organising of the landscape that they became identified with it, shaping their self-identity and their identity within the community.

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Alladale. Thomas Herbert chose a challenging place to live out his life as a gamekeeper. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Other men had multigenerational connections with a place. Farmers’ inscriptions invariably included the name of his farm. In Easter Ross Alexander Anderson (1809-71) was ‘farmer, Nonikiln’, and John Ross (1777-1867) was ‘late farmer, Achnahanat’. Such men were often known locally by the name of the farm. While this was a convenient way to distinguish people with common personal names, it also reveals a cultural attitude about land and people. Individual men existed only for decades, whereas farms endured.

Tacksmen were similar. Hugh MacIntyre (1797-1881) was ‘tacksman of Culrain Mains’ and James France (1778-1840) held the tacks of Annat and Groam near Inverness. Such a man drew his identity from his social status, his membership of a local family, his authority over the residents of the tack, and his association with that piece of land. Holding a tack was part of the old system of clanship, so his and his family’s connection with that land was embedded deeper in time than that of the plasterer and the gamekeeper, even the farmer.

Despite the mobility of the nineteenth-century, part of Highland masculinity was a deep identification with the places they were from, where they lived, where they worked, and which they shaped.

[1] Few historians have considered masculinity in a Highland context. In terms of ordinary men rather than the gentry, Lynn Abrams has explored the role of inter-personal violence in Highland masculinity while Rosalind Carr and J.E. Cookson have touched on how Highlanders used the military to achieve the ‘independence’ which was foundational to manhood. Lynn Abrams, ‘The Taming of Highland Masculinity: Inter-personal Violence and Shifting Codes of Manhood, c.1760–1840’, The Scottish Historical Review, 92.1, (2013), 100-122; Rosalind Carr, ‘The Gentleman and the Soldier: Patriotic Masculinities in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 28.2, (2008), 102-121; J. E. Cookson, ‘Early Nineteenth-Century Scottish Military Pensioners as Homecoming Soldiers’, The Historical Journal, 52.2 (June, 2009), 319-341.

[2] Alasdair Roberts, Chapels of the Rough Bounds: Morar, Knoydart, Arisaig, Moidart (Mallaig: 2015)

[3] https://canmore.org.uk/site/9898/south-uist-ardmichael-burial-ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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/

A Coastal Tour

By the time he journeyed through the Highlands in 1790, John Geddes was fifty-five years old. He was a well-travelled man. Born in Banffshire, he went to Rome aged fourteen to train for the priesthood. Ten years later the young intellectual, now au fait with Enlightenment thinking and the doctrine of Pope Benedict XIV, was ordained and sent back to Banffshire to run the seminary at Scalan. A decade in Spain preceded high appointment in Lowland Scotland. Around the time Bishop Geddes was asked to contribute articles for the fourth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he took a tour through the north. He was keen on long distance walking, which he did in Spain as well as Scotland. He would say his breviary or plan a sermon, writing observations in a notebook, and talking to anyone he encountered. Over three June days he travelled from Dingwall to Berriedale, commenting on the homes of the gentry; developments in land use; inns and the scenery. Apparently Dornoch was ‘a very sorry village’ but it had a good inn! He notes a ‘small fisher town of earthen cottages’ named Port Leich, between Invergordon and the now deserted Tarbert House. This is now the prettily-named Barbaraville which has a stony beach but no sign of boats!

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John Geddes would have found the big enclosed fields and the view across to the Nigg yard a bit different to his view across the Cromarty Firth in the 1790s. The fishing industry which he observed is gone, replaced by the oil extraction and renewables industry. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

26th: After leaving Dingwall saw the Earl of Cromarty’s Pyramid in the churchyard. [This part of the churchyeard is now Tesco’s car park but hte pyramid can still be seen.] Tulloch belongs to a Mr. Davidson, a pleasant house on the side of an eminence; passed by the gates of Foulis, Sir Hugh Monro’s; came on to Drummond and there breakfasted, learned that Sir Alexander Monro’s mother lived in the neighbouring house, and that her daughters, Mrs. Hay and Mrs. Shaw, were with her; deliberated whether I should go to them or not; determined not, that I might not be detained or give them reason to wonder what was carrying me to the North. Saw Novarre, General Monro’s seat, situated on the side of a hill with a view of the Firth of Cromarty and a good deal of planting about the place, came along the Firth to the East of me, having a view of the town of Cromarty not far from the mouth of the Firth on the East side at the foot of one of the hills that form the entrance; dined at Invergordon; continued my walk along the Firth to Port Leich a small fisher town of earthen cottages; saw Tarbet House, a fine modern building erected by the late Lord McLeod and now in the possession of his cousin, Captain McKenzie; passed near the house of Balnagown, where its master, Sir John Lockhart Ross, had lately died; came by a moss-road to Tain, a town well-situated on the south side of the Firth of Dornoch; on the door of the church has been placed as appears, not long since a bass-rilievo of a priest in his sacerdotal robes, which seems to have been a tombstone; received a letter from Mr. Robertson here; lodged in a Mrs. Sutherland’s.

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Even in ruins Tarbet House exudes Georgian elegance, its simple lines almost obscured by ivy and trees. Although this building must have been quite a contrast to the fishermen’s houses in Port Leich, it certainly challenges stereotypes of the eighteenth-century Highlands being remote, underdeveloped and backward. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

27th: Walked along the South side of the Firth of Dornoch, a fine piece of water; passed by Tarlogie or Ankerfield, Lord Ankerfield’s seat; passed by an old Castle on the Firth; passed what is called the Meikle Ferry; saw up the Firth toward Loch Shinn; turned to the right and walked along the North side of the Firth of Dornoch, once the seat of the Bishop of Caithness, now a very sorry village. The Cathedral has been a good church; the present market-place is the burial-place in the middle of the town without any walls. Breakfasted in Lesly’s, a good inn, and remained there, it being Sunday, until after two o’clock; wrote to Bishop Hay and to Mr. Robertson; read newspapers; walked on to the Little Ferry, where the boat-house being on the North side I was detained a good while; came on to the Kirktown of Golspie, where I took a refreshment, and thence proceeded to an inn called the Milk-house [Wilkhouse Inn – see post from 25 February 2013], having passed under the Castle of Dunrobin, beautifully situated on a rock.

28th: Travelled along the coast, seeing the hills of Murray and Banffshire, meditating and reciting my Breviary; fell in with a Mr. Hutchison, Lieutenant of a man-of-war from Musselburgh, who came with me to the inn of Helmsdale, where I got breakfast; passed the Ord, a very steep road, and entered Caithness; passed by Navidale and took refreshment at Ansdale, where I saw the daughter of James Sutherland, who was first with Mr. Elliot, and afterwards in partnership with Corri in the music-shop; came over a hill and saw Braemore, the Pap of Caithness and other high hills being in view on my left; came over another hill and down on Berrydale, where two waters meet, and their two vallies and the rising ground between them form a most beautiful scene; dined at Berrydale in Henderson’s; passed over two hills and came down on Dunbeath, leaving the castle on my left. Here were Mr. Mathison and Mr. McGhegan, the Irish traveler whom I had seen at Edinburgh; conversed with them.

John Geddes continued his journey as far as Orkney. Not long after the tour, his health deteriorated. He suffered from rheumatism and high blood pressure, having a series of strokes. Latterly his right side became paralysed and he dictated his literary output. Geddes died on 11th February 1799 in Aberdeen after two years of helplessness, cared for by fellow priests.

Sources:

With thanks to David Taylor for pointing me to this source.

David Alston, Ross and Cromarty: A Historical Guide (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1997)

William Anderson, ‘Bishop John Geddes: Journal Ambula Coram Deo, Part Second’, The Innes Review, 6.2, (1955), pps 46-68.

William Anderson, ‘The Autobiographical Notes of Bishop John Geddes’, The Innes Review, 18.1, (2010), pps 36-57.

Frank A. Kafker and Jeff Loveland, ‘Bishop John Geddes, the First Catholic Contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 30.1, (2007), pps 73–88.

The Highland Land League and the School Boards in Clyne and Kildonan

Alison McCall’s love of history was fuelled by tales of family history told by her grandparents. Her PhD thesis The Lass o’ Pairts: Social mobility for women through education in Scotland, 1850-1901, includes a section on east Sutherland.

Two acres of croft land in West Helmsdale barely sustained the Bruce family: the ‘Widow Bruce’, young George and Mary, and her widowed mother. Jane Bruce’s husband had died in 1848, aged 32, when their children were aged four and one. The family were poor, but they were not alone in this. Poverty was endemic among families whose forebears had been cleared down the Strath of Kildonan to the area around Helmsdale.

George became a baker in Helmsdale. He joined the Highland Land League, which campaigned to have politicians sympathetic to the crofters’ cause elected to Parliament. In 1888 George was elected onto the Kildonan School Board. Elections had been held throughout Scotland every three years since the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 transferred control of schools from churches, charities and private individuals to locally elected School Boards under government control. Clergymen, businessmen, landowners, academics and other pillars of society were returned as School Board members. Women were eligible to stand, but were elected only onto the larger city Boards. In East Sutherland voters recognised the School Boards gave them the opportunity to vote politically. And they voted for men such as George Bruce.

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George Bruce outside his shop on Lilleshall Street, Helmsdale. Photo: Courtesy of Timespan Heritage Centre

Unfortunately the first minute book of Kildonan School Board is missing, but the rise of Land League influence can be traced in neighbouring Clyne. As the Land Leaguers gained strength and confidence the composition of the School Board changed. The first was chaired by the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, Joseph Peacock. The second included the Hon. Walter Stuart, the Duke’s grandson. In 1877, one matter was referred to “the Duke of Sutherland, being the principal ratepayer, and being also deeply interested in the educational welfare of the people.” Regardless of the voters’ wishes, the Duke was the ultimate authority. The crofters’ breakthrough came with the third Board. In 1879 were elected George Grant and George Murray, both tailors, George MacKay, Joseph Peacock and George Lawson, a farmer. The three crofters’ candidates elected Grant as chair. Grant was out of his depth. Apparently unused to using a pen, he proposed to take minutes in pencil, to be written up later. Peacock and Lawson objected. Grant said that “he could not even dictate a minute” but hoped to learn in the next month. Lawson asked Grant to withdraw as chair in favour of Peacock, but Grant refused. School Boards members throughout Scotland were usually well educated and highly literate. Clyne may have been unique in having a Chair uncomfortable using pen and ink. However, the community regarded him highly. He was re-elected in 1882, 1885, but were always in a minority. Voters had subverted the educational purposes of School Board elections for political opposition to the Duke, and the furtherance of land politics.

Back up in Kildonan, by 1888 when George Bruce was elected, the rest of the Board was largely composed of those sympathetic to the crofters cause. James Fraser, fishcurer, was chair and the other members were Robert Hill, farmer, William Cuthbert, fishcurer, and Joseph MacKay, crofter. Hill farmed 102 acres at Navidale, and was one of those who had benefitted from the cleared land. By contrast Joseph MacKay was one of eight crofters threatened in 1882 with eviction for grazing sheep. The eight employed a solicitor and the summons was withdrawn. Cuthbert and Bruce were prominent local Land Leaguers. Cuthbert was re-elected in 1891, 1894 and 1900. Bruce was re-elected in 1897 and 1900, indicating ongoing political support.

Gaining control of the School Boards and using them for political control was a unique tactic of the Land League in East Sutherland.

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This gravestone was erected by ‘our’ George Bruce. Photo: Alison McCall

Post script. George Bruce died in 1922, but the family bakery firm continued. In 1932 they baked a wedding cake for George’s great niece, Mary Bruce MacLeod. It was decorated with silver horseshoes. In 1989, Mary’s granddaughter, the present writer, had one of horseshoes sewn onto the sleeve of her wedding dress.

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The sleeve of Alison’s wedding dress. Photo: Alison McCall.

Sources
MacLeod, Joseph, Highland Heroes of the Land Reform Movement (Highland News Publishing Company, 1917)
obituary of William Cuthbert in John O’Groats Journal, 9 January 1931

The Sutherlands of Midgarty and the Slaves of the Caribbean

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

Funny-Looking Bumps and Ridges: Landscape as Historical Evidence

Today’s post considers the evidence of social, economic and agricultural change provided by the landscape in south east Sutherland. Once you get your eye in, it is possible to identify pre-clearance field systems, townships, houses and barns, head dykes and gardens. The next layer of the archaeological palimpsest are the new arrangements of land and settlement introduced in the early nineteenth century. In this area there is not only the more famous crofting landscape, but also that of the big commercial farms which are such a feature along the fertile strip of the east coast. This twelve minute video thinks about what landscape changes in south east Sutherland can tell us.

Sources:
R. Houston, ‘The Clearances in South East Sutherland’ in J. Baldwin (ed), Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland (Edinburgh, 1986)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)