Two clan chiefs: defending the realm and the impact of travel restrictions on the Highlands in 1916

Neil Bruce continues his consideration of how access to the Highlands and Islands was restricted during the two world wars. The situation faced by authorities to defend the realm in 1916 has some semblance of similarity with 2020, albeit for very different reasons.

On 10th October 1916 Fraser Alexander MacKinnon appeared in Inverness Sheriff Court charged with entering the railway station ‘without lawful authority or permission of the relevant military authorities in contravention of the orders of the Deputy-Commandant of the North of Scotland special military area.[1] MacKinnon was an unlikely lawbreaker: 68 years old, he was usually given the nomenclature ‘Mackinnon of Mackinnon’, his clan’s 35th chief.[2] The region’s Depute-Commandant responsible for upholding Defence of the Realm Regulation 29b was Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron of Locheil (25th chief of clan Cameron).[3] Mackinnon’s solicitor successfully argued that the charge was irrelevant as both the station and its environs were within the ‘prescribed area’.[4]

Access to the north of Scotland had become restricted on the 25th July.[5] The special military area included Inverness and the mainland north and west of the River Ness, Loch Ness and the road from Invermoriston Pier to Kyle of Lochalsh.[6] There was considerable military presence in Inverness, with the commandant’s officer in Hamilton Street, ‘vulnerable points’ throughout the area were guarded and the navy patrolled the Caledonian Canal.[7] Inverness was described as a ‘continental frontier station’ which would-be passengers could only reach if the railway company had sight of the required permit.[8]

Everyone over 16 other than serving military, dockyard employees and local residents needed a permit.[9] In practice, locals also had to apply and obtain a pass as the commandant could require them to carry one ‘authenticated by a Chief Constable’.[10] The introduction of controlled movement was generally smooth, though locals unable to prove their identity attempting to enter Inverness could only leave on production of a duplicate national registration card obtained from the chief constable. One unintended consequence was that islanders were initially unable to board ferries to the mainland if they could not show identification.[11]

Those who wished to travel to the military area had to follow a strict procedure to obtain a permit-book, providing a photograph, personal details, address and description of any distinguishing marks. The applicant’s details required to be validated by two British subjects who were householders. They had to apply to the local commandant, stating the purpose and length of their visit, and the name and address of the British subject with whom they were to stay. Permits were checked on entry to the military area.[12] Police in Aberdeen and the ‘county constabulary’ quickly exhausted their supply of identification cards as people anticipated their need when travelling from the east by train.[13]

The introduction of restrictions prevented freedom of travel. Newspapers, though, expected that Locheil ‘with his intimate knowledge of the district as an asset’, would enforce the regulations ‘tactfully and with a minimum of friction.’[14] He used his powers judiciously, finding a temporary solution to enable islanders to travel. Within a month of restrictions being in force, he arranged with the railway companies that those who had an urgent need to visit the area could purchase a ticket and travel to Inverness if in possession of a telegram from himself permitting entry. The traveller was expected to report on arrival at Inverness railway station to have the required official permit book completed and authorised.[15]

During World War Two the strictness of the permit application process and its then administration from London caused Inverness County Council to call for it to be relaxed because of the impact on ‘hotelkeepers, farmers and crofters’ seasonal incomes. Locheil, the council’s convener, commented that when he had been in charge during the previous conflict, he could issue permits whereas his then successor did not have the same power.[16] In his civil office, Locheil commented that as  control of the area was of national importance, losses should not be shouldered by ‘one of the poorest Districts in the British Isles’.[17]

Then as now authorities acted to protect lives and society. However, restrictions have implications: earlier this year islanders could only travel to the mainland in emergency situations and implementing two metres social distancing on ferries limited the number travelling. Businesses were forced to close to limit transmission of Covid-19 and protect the NHS: then as now, the impact on seasonal tourism and related enterprises, and the wider community caused considerable concern, threatening their economic wellbeing.

[1] The Scotsman, 11 October 1916, 6.

[2] The Times, 28 February 1947, 7.

[3] Locheil had been invalided home that May from the Western Front from command of the 5th battalion of Cameron Highlanders he’d raised in 1914, Herald Scotland, 17 August 2015, The Times, 12 October 1951, 6. accessed 14 June 2020; The press regularly described Locheil as commandant of the special military area.

[4] The Scotsman, 11 October 1916, 6. MacKinnon won on a narrow legal point: the sheriff told a perplexed procurator fiscal that Mackinnon had not been properly advised which section of the order he was being charged under. The fiscal questioned whether the sheriff regarded the railway station as not covered under the relevant section of the order to which the latter replied he had ‘no opinion’ on its validity.

[5] The Scotsman, 24 July 1916, 3, 4.

[6] Pulling, A.(ed), Defence of the Realm manual (London, 1917), 535-536.

[7] Royle, T., ‘The first world war’, in E. M. Spiers, J. A. Crang & M. J. Strickland (eds), Military History of Scotland (Edinburgh, 2012), 506; Carter, H., The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), 133.

[8] The Scotsman, 18 July 1916, 4; The Guardian, 22 May 2020,

[9] The Scotsman, 24 July 1916, 3, 4. Residents of Inverness, Ross, Elgin or Nairn were those ordinarily resident from 4th August 1914.

[10] Inverness Courier, 25 July 1916.

[11] The Scotsman, 26 July 1916, 6.

[12] The Scotsman, 24 July 1916, 4.

[13] The Scotsman, 26 July 1916, 6.

[14] The Scotsman, 18 July 1916, 4; Inverness Courier, 25 July 1916; Strathspey Herald, 27 July 1916.

[15] Glasgow Herald, 9 August 1916, 6. Checks on travellers were much more rigorous than for passengers arriving in the UK in June 2020 who were required to provide the address they would self-isolate for 14 days, with a one in five likelihood of being checked by Border Control. Herald Scotland, 8 June 2020, 4;  accessed 10 June 2020.

[16] The Scotsman, 3 May 1940, 9.

[17] Ibid.

Lloyd George, the ‘King’s pledge’ and liquor control in the Cromarty Firth

Current events, which include restrictions on travel across the country, prompted Neil Bruce to study how governmental decisions affected life in the Highlands during the two world wars of the twentieth century. In this post, he focuses on liquor control in the North of Scotland during World War One. Neil is a graduate of the MLitt Highlands and Islands History programme at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.

On 1st April 1915, two Cromarty men were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour at Tain Sheriff Court for buying sailors alcohol, making them ‘less efficient’.(1) No April fool, it reflected official concern that drink was seriously damaging the war effort. Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George claimed it was ‘doing more damage to us than all the German submarines.’(2) The government in 1915 and 1917 seriously considered effectively nationalising the licenced liquor trade, literally ‘lock, stock and barrel’.(3) In 2020, though, shops with alcohol licences were classed as ‘notable exceptions’ when others were instructed to close to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).(4)

Newspapers reflected considerable disagreement about whether drink was hindering war efforts. Temperance advocates and shipbuilding employers demanded its prohibition.(5) The Cabinet failed to get opposition support to increase alcohol taxes. Lord Kitchener joined King George V’s pledge that he and his household would abstain for the duration of the war, but it was not generally supported.(6) Lloyd George’s proposal to spend £68 million to buy the breweries and public houses met with unsurprising resistance from the temperance movement.(7)

The government decided to take control of the sale and supply of alcohol to ensure ‘national efficiency’. It set-up the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) with absolute powers to designate alcohol control areas where there were naval, military, munitions and other war functions.(8) Within a year it controlled all the Highlands and Islands. No spirits could be sold during the weekend in Inverness-shire and Ross and Cromarty’s western mainland, islands and ‘all arms of the sea and water between’.(9) In Caithness and Sutherland spirits sales were prohibited except for medicinal purposes: other liquor could only be sold between 12 noon and 2:30 pm, and 6 to 8 pm on weekdays.(10)

In April 1916, the board bought all the public houses and hotels around the Cromarty Firth, including Cromarty and Invergordon, to ensure naval operations remained efficient.(11) It closed 19 licensed premises, kept 39 open under its management, and only permitted off-sales from two of the four licensed grocers. To prevent smuggling into service quarters and vessels, weekly lists of all off-license sales were provided to the naval base. Service canteens did not stock spirits and civilians who bought servicemen liquor would be fined.(12)

Lloyd George and the Cromarty Firth 1

Lloyd George and the Cromarty Firth 2

Henry Carter, The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), facing 134.

In September 1916, the board met representatives from Highland counties and burghs, naval, military, local and licensing authorities in Inverness to hear about the controls’ effectiveness.(13) The armed services and chief constables of Caithness, Inverness, Inverness-shire, Nairn-shire, Ross-shire and Sutherland reported reductions in drunkenness.(14) The Dornoch, Thurso and Wick provosts demanded spirit sales be consistent to stop an illicit whisky trade: spirits were being smuggled into prohibited areas and online, or at least on railway lines, parcels were being sent by train and post.(15) Liquor control threatened the viability of seasonal hotels in Inverness-shire and Sutherland, while the Inverness provost wanted methylated spirit consumption stopped.

The press highlighted the role whisky played in daily life. One reported the ‘consumption of ardent spirits’ was a social habit in the Highlands’.(16) Another quoted an old man: ‘more than half the pleasure of a dram lies in having a friend to share it with.’(17) Those able to buy whisky found it watered down by 10% on the board’s instructions.(18) When German submarine warfare hit food imports in 1917, beer production was threatened. The government reduced its strength by half rather than see morale plummet, though it became dispiritingly nicknamed government or Lloyd George’s beer.(19)

The government’s challenges during wartime and the current crisis bear some comparison. During both it assumed powers over individuals’ ‘normal’ lives and protected essential services, particularly necessary industrial production. In 2020, measures included bolstering the economy, designating essential workers, and financially supporting employers and employees. In 1915, it created a board with unfettered powers over liquor, including direct control of Cromarty and Invergordon’s retail trade. In invoking restrictions on citizens, government expected compliance in the common good, and in return needed to maintain morale. The king ‘cracked open’ a bottle of brandy on Armistice day 1918, but Highlanders had to wait six months before any liquor control regulations were lifted.(20) We do not know, yet, how long current regulations might remain in force.

1 The Scotsman, 1 April 1915, 8. One man was imprisoned for a month, the other for 15 days. 2 Manchester Guardian, 1 March 1916, 6. 3 See Turner, J., ‘State Purchase of the Liquor Trade in the First World War’, Historical Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, 589-615; 4 accessed 31st March 2020. 5 Lloyd George, D., War memoirs of David Lloyd George, vol. 1 (London, 1938), 194-196. 6 The Scotsman, 1 April 1916, 7; 6 April 1916, 4. 7 Lloyd George, War memoirs, 196-197. 8 Duncan, R. R. G., ‘Panic over the pub: drink and the First World War’, unpublished thesis (University of St Andrews, 2008), 129. 9 The Scotsman, 22 March 1916, 6; 13 February 1917, 7. 10 The Scotsman, 20 June 1916, 4. Licensed premises could open at 5:30 am to supply food and ‘non-exciseable’ drink: Local variations were also permitted. Carter, H., The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), 141; 155. 11 Ash, M., eds. J. Macaulay & M. A. Mackay, This noble harbour: a history of the Cromarty Firth (Edinburgh, 1991), 203, n 112; Carter, The control of the drink trade, 175. 12 The Scotsman, 13 February 1917, 7. 13 The Scotsman, 30 September 1916, 7. 14 Ibid. 15 The Scotsman,13 February 1917, 7. 16 Ibid. 17 The People’s Journal, 27 September 1915, quoted in Duncan, Panic over the pub, 144. 18 The Scotsman, 13 February 1917, 7; Duncan, Panic over the pub, 146. 19 Duncan, Panic over the pub, 238-9, 261-262; Lloyd George, War Memoirs, 790. 20 Duncan, Panic over the pub, 261-262; 268; Lloyd George, War Memoirs, 790; The Scotsman, 12 April 1919, 10.

Caithness and the Crofters’ War: The case of Clyth Estate, part 2

Valerie Amin recently graduated from the University of the Highlands and Islands with a BA (Hons) in Scottish History.  A native of Caithness, she is particularly interested in the land issues and politics of the 19th century Highlands.  The following continues the story from August’s post and is adapted from her undergraduate dissertation ‘Caithness and the Highland Land Wars, 1881-1886.’

The rent strike on Clyth estate ensured that Caithness was included in the Napier Commission’s inquiry into crofters’ conditions. The Commission came to Lybster Free Church on October 4th 1883. The hearing was full to capacity, with spectators taking a ‘lively interest’ in proceedings. Adam Sharp, landlord of Clyth estate, struggled to make himself heard over the laughter and hisses that greeted his testimony. Indeed Lord Napier was forced to end the hearing following Sharp’s appearance, saying the Commission could not continue ‘amidst a riotous assemblage.’ Unsurprisingly, Sharp refuted his tenant’s allegations that he charged unreasonably high rents.

Magnus Sinclair from Clyth, in his statement to the Commission, summed up very simply what Caithness crofters sought: ‘What we want is our holdings valued by competent local judges, compensation for improvements, and that the land of our country be given to its people to live on at a fair rent.’

JN25114B043_Cliffs near Bruan[14701542]

Part of the coastline at Clyth ©Johnston Collection. Used with the kind permission of the Wick Society.

At this stage however, crofters did not yet have the vote. The House of Lords had voted down a bill that would have enfranchised working class men in rural areas. The crofters knew that the only way to achieve these aims was through land reform legislation, and so they resolved to elect a land reformer as the county’s M.P. Caithness crofters took the lead in organising a demonstration to demand voting rights. The demonstration took the form of a protest march through the streets of Wick, the county’s largest town, on the 30th August 1884. Two thousand men, representing the various trades of the county, took part, cheered on by ten thousand spectators. The John o’ Groat Journal reported that ‘Seldom, if ever, in this part of the country has there been such a unanimous burst of enthusiasm in connection with any political event.’ The largest group to march was that of the crofters, led by the ‘men of Clyth,’ who ‘turned out to a man.’ They carried banners with the slogans ‘Clyth Forever’; ‘The Clyth Men are Enemies to Tyrants’; ‘The Lords should Emigrate to the North Pole, as the People can do Without Them’ and ‘Clyth Soil for Clyth People.’ Among the marchers were all the leading figures in the land question agitation. That night, the Groat reported that ‘a gibbet was erected and an effigy, intended, we are informed, to represent the owner of an estate a few miles to the south of Wick, was executed, and the body thereafter consigned to the flames.’ No prizes for guessing the ‘victim’ was Mr Sharp of Clyth!

Gavin Brown Clark photograph

Gavin Brown Clark (1846-1930) by Sir Benjamin Stone, 1898. © National Portrait Gallery

By the year’s end, the Third Reform Act passed into law, establishing uniform voting rights throughout the country, and enfranchising many crofters and farm servants. The 1885 general election was fought in Caithness on a single issue: the land question. Major Clarence Sinclair, son of the incumbent M.P Sir Tollemache Sinclair, who was the second largest landowner in Caithness, stood for the Liberal Party against Dr Gavin Brown Clark for the Crofters Party. At a meeting in Lybster, Sinclair was told ‘All crofters know that new seed will bring a better return. We have had the House of Ulbster for many years. We need a change.’

On election day in December, crofters battled determinedly through howling winds and drifting snow to get to the polls. Many roads in the county were blocked, but the crofters were not about to give up the chance to have their voices heard. Turnout was high, and Clark beat Sinclair comfortably by 2,110 votes to 1,218, a majority of 892.

The Crofters Holdings Act (Scotland) became law in June 1886 but, condemned as ‘incomplete and unsatisfactory,’ the crofters’ fight was destined to continue. Dr Clark told his constituents the Act was ‘but an instalment of their rights- ten shillings in the pound,’ and they would ‘go on demanding till they got the other ten shillings.’


John O’ Groat Journal

Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Volume III (1883).

Northern Ensign

Caithness and the Crofters’ War: The case of Clyth Estate, part 1

After enjoying a bit of a summer break from posting we are back. This week we venture a little to the north of our usual historical stomping grounds – just over the border into Caithness. Valerie Amin recently graduated from the University of the Highlands and Islands with a BA (Hons) in Scottish History.  A native of Caithness, she is particularly interested in the land issues and politics of the nineteenth-century Highlands.  The following blog post is adapted from her undergraduate dissertation ‘Caithness and the Highland Land Wars, 1881-1886.’

The county of Caithness is not normally associated with the Highland land agitation of the early 1880s. However Clyth estate, in the south east of the county, was the scene of a rent strike that brought crofting conditions to national attention in November 1882.

The estate, in Latheron parish, had seven miles of sea coast and extended three miles inland, and was populated mainly by crofter fishermen and their families. There was a significant Sutherland element. In 1802 or 1803, several crofting families from Tongue settled at Clyth and became fishermen. In 1805, following evictions from Strathnaver, more families joined them and, in 1819, after the Kildonan clearances, large numbers of those evicted found refuge at Clyth.

digimap_roam (1)

By 1882, Clyth estate was said to be the most severely rack-rented in Caithness. It had been bought in 1863 by Adam Sharp, a merchant from Moray. The tenants claimed rents had risen by over 50 per cent during Sharp’s ownership.

It was against a background of severe agricultural depression and the land agitation in the western Highlands and Islands that Clyth crofters took action to challenge their landlord over the punitive rents. With their annual rent due on the 27th November 1882, the tenants met in Clyth Schoolhouse and agreed that a deputation would go to see Mr Sharp on rent day, to ask that all the crofts on the estate be revalued before they would pay.

Rent day was stormy, with sleet and snow showers. By noon, over two hundred tenants had gathered outside Bruan Lodge, where Mr Sharp waited. He welcomed the deputation into the parlour, where William Grant of Ulbster laid out the tenants’ grievances.


Bruan Lodge, taken with owner’s permission. Photo: Valerie Amin.

After listening Sharp retorted ‘If you have resolved to pay no rent, you cannot expect a much better valuation than that.’ The Clyth tenants’ plight had had considerable coverage in the local press, but Sharp described their complaints as ‘mere fiction’ to evoke sympathy amongst outsiders. He dug his heels in, saying ‘I wish you distinctly to understand that anything that may be done will not be in consequence of agitation carried on by you … the proceedings you have adopted have had quite an opposite effect upon me.’

At that, the deputation left the Lodge to relate Sharp’s response to the expectant crowd outside. There was considerable anger on hearing the reaction to their request. Andrew Matheson urged the crowd to ‘resist injustice and tyranny as long as the breath was in their bodies.’ He added ‘If the peace is broken, it will be the landlord’s fault and not ours. We are not able to pay our rents if we have no money.’ It was unanimously decided that no tenant would pay rent that day.

JN42783P219_Wm Grant[14701541]

William Grant of Ulbster, who led the deputation. ©Johnston Collection. Used with the kind permission of the Wick Society.

The Clyth rent strike had a high profile across the country, widely reported in newspapers from London to Dublin to Edinburgh. The case was even brought to the attention of the Prime Minister and used to press for an inquiry into crofters’ conditions.

Meanwhile, the Clyth tenants were split on whether they could continue to withhold rent from the landlord. At a ‘stormy meeting’ the unlawfulness of their position was made clear by George Sutherland, a solicitor involved with the wider Caithness movement for land reform. It was argued that the people of Braes in Skye were benefiting from paying no rent, but Sutherland made clear ‘the people of Braes being isolated, are in a different position from the tenants on the estate of Clyth.’ The leaders of the agitation were accused of ‘having brought them to battle only to draw back,’ but George Cormack, the tenants’ main spokesman, managed to calm the meeting by stressing that as their main aim was to change the land laws, ‘It would not do to be placed in a position which would enable anyone to ask: “How can you speak of the law when ye have already broken it?”’ It was agreed that each tenant would pay what they were able, and the Clyth rent strike ended peacefully.

It was not the end of the crofters’ fight however. The agitation entered a new phase: a determined drive to elect a land reformer as the county’s M.P.

More on that next month.


John O’ Groat Journal

Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Volume III (1883).

Northern Ensign

Landscapes of Power: A Monumental Geography

Post by Elizabeth Ritchie, lecturer at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.

I didn’t know there was a memorial to James Loch. When I came to teach at the University of the Highlands and Islands I was instructed to prepare a course on the Clearances. I objected that I didn’t know anything about the Clearances. But I was the nineteenth-century historian and I allegedly specialised in the Highlands, so there was no way to wriggle out of it. And so I learned about the Clearances, particularly as they pertain to Sutherland, and I became familiar with names like that of James Loch, the head factor and the boss of the much hated Patrick Sellar, who designed and implemented the development of commercial agriculture, the removal of the people, and their replacement with sheep, with all of the long-resonating consequences for the economy, ecology, culture and psyche of the region and its diaspora. So my friend Annie, who has written a book on the Sutherland estate, (Annie Tindley, The Sutherland Estate 1850-1920: Aristocratic Decline, Estate management and Land Reform, Edinburgh University Press, 2010) was a little shocked to hear that, in all my bikes and hikes, I had never come across the memorial to one of the chief architects of Sutherland as it is today.

For two afternoons in January he became the pretext for walks around the woods of Dunrobin. As I made a circuit back to the castle where I had left my car, I realised I was walking a triangle: a triangle of monuments each of which spoke of the power of the people of Dunrobin to shape the landscape and the lives of the people within it.

The most obvious and most maligned is, of course, the gigantic and authoritative statue to the first duke of Sutherland on the summit of Beinn Bhraggie. Visible for dozens of miles around it is the focus for all historic discontent, yet survives the periodic attacks of chisel or spray can. Dunrobin Castle itself, with its fairytale Loire-like turrets, whitely protruding from trees and coast is another highly visible declaration of rulership, even moreso in the days when the approach to Sutherland was mainly by sea.

But in my wanderings I discovered two more monuments and recalled a third. I realised that the positioning of all these objects of stone was more than the accumulation of one-offs. They constitute a geography of power which marked ownership and authority, visibly by placement or by text. Directly west of the castle, framed by the gateway arch, is a classic Victorian statue to the second duke, with an inscribed pedestal. He overlooks the highways of road and rail, his robed back to Dunrobin Mains farm and his confident gaze rests on the spiky castle roof.

Jan - Dunrobin 004

My woodland searches finally took me to my intended objective of James Loch’s memorial. A four-posted marble canopy accessed by stone steps sits oddly in forest. The poetic inscription declares that he often loved to come to this place to survey the view. The only view now is of tree trunks and deep ruts of heavy machines. But, sometime after 1858 when he died, this tiny hilltop monument permitted him to posthumously sweep his eyes over the territory he had commanded. A superficial reading of the sentimental plaque suggests it is merely a memorial to a fond old chap, but it does not take much reading between the lines to realise that it was paid for, and possibly designed and its position chosen, by the ducal family.

Jan - Dunrobin 005

I thought the monumental geography took the form of a squashed triangle, about four miles by one, until I remembered an outlier. But an ostentatious, looming outlier, arguably the most ancient and important building in the north of Scotland: Dornoch Cathedral. Eleven miles to the south of Dunrobin, the medieval edifice’s rebuilding was financed by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1824. The very structure is a monument to her wealth and influence, even if you happened to miss the gigantic twin marble plaques and the inscribed floor-stone at the very front of the church.

The physicality, through their design and placement, of these monuments speaks authority. An authority positioned over several generations, though all harking back to the lives of the first duke and duchess, and the times in which they permanently changed the landscape and the lives of the folk of Sutherland. At least these monuments did speak authority until we took to blindly whizzing along the A9 in cars, before a small forest grew up around Loch’s vantage point, and before we stopped going to church.

An American patriot, the Countess and the Clearances

When researching his recent book, ‘Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances’ (published by Birlinn), James Hunter came across an intriguing possibility which he blogs about here.

Could one of 1820 London’s up-market drawing-rooms have seen the Countess of Sutherland come up against a clearance critic in the shape of a US ambassador? The possibility arises from the family background of William MacKay who’s to be met with in Memorabilia Domestica, the memoirs of Donald Sage, a Sutherland minister. There Sage writes of how, as he preached in the open air at Langdale just prior to the 1819 clearance of Strathnaver, his ‘eye fell upon’ MacKay’s ‘venerable countenance’. ‘I was deeply affected,’ Sage goes on, ‘and could scarcely articulate the psalm’.

This was not just because Sage was close to MacKay whom he knew as ‘Old Achoul’. In what was being done to MacKay, then in his late nineties, by the Countess of Sutherland and her employees, Donald Sage saw something emblematic of what he called ‘the extinction of the last remnant of the ancient Highland peasantry of the north’.

As indicated by the title given him by Donald Sage, William MacKay, who could trace his ancestry to his clan’s medieval founders, spent much of his life at Achoul to the east of Loch Naver in what today’s been designated as Wild Land Area 35. Evicted from Achoul in 1807, he’d moved in with his daughter and son-in-law at Grumbeg on Loch Naver’s other shore. Now Grumbeg too was to be cleared and William was en route for Caithness where he’d die, aged 99, in 1822.


From Grumbeg and looking across Loch Naver to Achoul. Image: Cailean MacLean, Skye.

Might William have wished in 1819 that, half a century earlier, he’d joined those members of his family who then emigrated to America? The opportunity to do so must have been there in 1772 when George MacKay, William’s cousin, made it possible for some 200 people to quit Sutherland for Wilmington, North Carolina, aboard the Adventure, a ship George had chartered. Among the Adventure’s passengers was William MacKay’s younger sister, Elizabeth, sailing for Wilmington with her second husband, Archibald Campbell and their ten children.

From Wilmington the Campbells moved inland to settle at Crooked Creek in Mecklenburg County – near the present-day city of Charlotte. There, when America’s Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, the Campbells – unlike most newly arrived immigrants from the Highlands – took the patriot, or anti-British, side. Two of George and Elizabeth’s sons, Alexander and Donald, died in the fighting that followed. Those men’s younger brother, George, just three when the family left Sutherland and not old enough to join future US president George Washington’s Continental Army, took no part in the struggle for American independence. But he made clear where his sympathies lay by adopting ‘Washington’ as a middle name.

Nor was the self-styled George Washington Campbell’s hostility towards Britain to cease when, having trained as a lawyer and having moved across the Appalachians to Tennessee, he went into politics. Representing Tennessee first in the House of Representatives and later in the US Senate, Campbell was a leading backer of America’s 1812 declaration of war on the United Kingdom – serving as President James Madison’s Secretary for the Treasury during much of the ensuing conflict.


By The Bureau of Engraving and Printing – Restoration by Godot13, Public Domain,

By 1819, when his mother’s brother, William MacKay, was being evicted from the second of the two Strathnaver homes he’d been forced to abandon, George Washington Campbell was in St Petersburg as US ambassador at the court of Tsar Alexander I. From St Petersburg, Campbell corresponded with his Scottish relatives – among them Donald MacKay, one of the ambassador’s Strathnaver kinsmen, then serving with the British Army’s 42nd Regiment (the Black Watch) in Ireland.

Ambassador Campbell, then, is likely to have known at least something of Strathnaver’s clearance. This raises an intriguing possibility stemming from Campbell’s movements in 1820 when, on his way home from St Petersburg, he spent several weeks in London. While there and while meeting with a number of British politicians and aristocrats, might he have found himself in the same company as that prominent fixture on the capital’s social scene, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland and Marchioness of Stafford?

What might Lady Stafford have said on meeting with this American statesman and diplomat? And how might Campbell have responded? Perhaps, one hopes, with words to the effect that he was glad to have the opportunity to learn why the countess had found it necessary to twice evict his uncle.


William MacKay of Achoul’s ancestry can be traced in The Book of MacKay, put together by Angus MacKay and published in Edinburgh in 1906. George Washington Campbell’s papers, including some correspondence with his Scottish relatives, are held by the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. The fullest account of Campbell’s life is George Washington Campbell: Western Statesman, by W. T. Jordan, published in Tallahassee in 1955.

Oliver Cromwell’s Northern Garrisons

Dr Allan Kennedy is Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. His research focuses on the social and political history of early modern Scotland, with a particular focus on the seventeenth-century Highlands.

In September 1650, the Scottish army, fighting in the name of Charles II and led by the veteran general David Leslie, was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell and his smaller English invasion force at the battle of Dunbar. More defeats followed, until, in the climactic development of the civil wars that had been raging across the British Isles since 1639, Scotland eventually found itself conquered and unwillingly incorporated into the republican state known as the ‘Commonwealth’, which Cromwell would eventually come to rule under the nearly-but-not-quite-royal title of ‘Lord Protector’.

Throughout the 1650s, the Commonwealth’s power in Scotland depended ultimately on military force, and for that reason England flooded its northern neighbour with troops. At the height of the military occupation around 1656, Scotland was home to more than 4,000 resident soldiers, plus several thousand more serving in the field army. Many of these men were housed in large garrisons-cum-fortifications at places like Edinburgh, Stirling, Ayr, Inverness and Inverlochy, with complements that could exceed 1,000. But the countryside, especially in the Highlands, was also peppered with smaller garrisons, some of which were only maintained for a short period. These might house around 100 troops, but sometimes as few as twenty, and tended to be set up inside existing castles or fortified houses. Examples of these miniature strongholds in the far north included Cromarty, Tain, Lovat, Redcastle and Brahan.

Sutherland was more fortunate than some Scottish locales, since the government regarded many of its major landowners, like the Gordons of Sutherland and the Grays of Arbo, as relatively trustworthy – so much so that it was happy in 1656 to have Lord Strathnaver temporarily store a consignment of weapons bound for regional garrisons in his home of Dunrobin Castle. Apparently the thought that the future earl of Sutherland might use these weapons for disloyal purposes never occurred!

Citadel Inverness

There is a debate as to whether this is a remnant of the 1650s. Some have suggested it might be part of an eighteenth-century ropeworks. But the clock tower is at least on the site of the Inverness Citadel! Theories about where the stones for Cromwell’s fort were ‘borrowed’ from are intriguing too – Fortrose Cathedral, Kinloss and Beauly Priories being often mentioned, but also Greyfriars Kirk in Inverness and St. Mary’s Chapel. Ormond Castle in Avoch may also have been a source of cut stone. The last might indicate an awareness of it’s potential symbolic value as a rallying point, due to it’s association with Andrew De Moray. Photo: David Worthington.

Moreover, Sutherland was, from an English perspective, sufficiently remote that the government tended not to see much point in lavishing too much attention on it. Indeed Thomas Tucker, an official dispatched by the Commonwealth authorities to survey Scotland’s ports and coastal trade in the 1655, remarked that the county so inconsequential that ‘it was never thought worth the charge of appointing [a customs] officer’. At the end of previous year, George Monck, the Commonwealth’s commander-in-chief in Scotland, had airily declared that the gentlemen of Sutherland should look to themselves to defend the shire from rebels and trouble-makers, an injunction that would have been inconceivable for more southerly parts of the country,

Consequently, Sutherland was never subject to such intense military occupation as, say, Lochaber or northern Perthshire, two zones of persistent English concern. Instead, the county’s military supervision was generally entrusted to two permanent garrisons in nearby shires – Castle Sinclair in Caithness, the principal English presence in the far north, and Inverness, the most consistently important stronghold in the whole of the Highlands. Nonetheless, ephemeral petty garrisons did exist in the area, and we know that, in 1658 for example, English troops were being housed at both Skibo and Helmsdale. In Helmsdale, interestingly, the English presence was responsible for introducing a new religious group – the Baptists – to Sutherland for the first time.


Cromwell’s soldiers would have been stationed at Helmsdale Castle, the site of which is marked by the large concrete block on the right hand corner. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie


The castle was in a strategically significant place, guarding where the River Ullie connected the Moray coast to the Sutherland interior straths where most of the population lived. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The primary reason for siting English garrisons in Scotland, including the far north, was security – having soldiers on-hand to face down resistance to the republican regime. But across the country, the garrisons also developed a broader remit, becoming, in effect, the primary nodes of local governance for a regime that, understandably given its alien, repressive nature, found it difficult to trust native people or institutions. This trend was certainly observable in the Sutherland area, where, for example, the commanders of both Inverness and Castle Sinclair were regularly loaded with tax-collecting, thief-catching and arbitration jobs alongside their usual brief of keeping the region quiescent. On one occasion, the garrison at Inverness even took the lead in surveying a potential silver mine located approximately in the Dornoch area, which it was thought might do wonders for the local economy.

In common with the rest of Scotland, the northern Highlands lost the bulk of its occupying presence after 1659, initially as troops were siphoned off to help secure order in England in the run-up to the restoration of Charles II, and then as a consequence of the restored king’s drive to eradicate all memory of the Cromwellian interregnum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, local disorder often followed, and in the Sutherland region powerful families like the Mackenzies, Gordons, MacLeods and Rosses jostled, sometimes violently, for position. Maybe, in these chaotic early years of the Restoration, the English military occupation of the 1650s – foreign, certainly, but not nearly as oppressive for Sutherland folk as for many others – might not have seemed quite so bad.


  • Clarke Manuscripts, volumes XLV-XLIX (Worcester College Library, Oxford)
  • C.H. Firth (ed.), Scotland and the Protectorate: Letters and Papers Relating to the Military Government of Scotland, from January 1654 to June 1659 (Edinburgh, 1899)
  • F. Dow, Cromwellian Scotland (Edinburgh, 1979)
  • D. McCormack, ‘Highland Lawlessness and the Cromwellian Regime’ in S. Adams and J. Goodare (eds.), Scotland in the Age of Two Revolutions (Woodbridge, 2016), 115-34
  • R.S. Spurlock, Cromwell and Scotland: Conquest and Religion 1650–1660 (Edinburgh, 2007)

Fields of blood: Ross and Sutherland during the 1715 Jacobite Uprising

Lorna Steele is Community Engagement Officer at the Highland Archive Centre,  Inverness.  Her remit involves working with school and community groups, hosting tours and events and using the archival collections to inspire learning, creativity and experiences.  More about Lorna, and the work of the Highland Archive Centre, can be found at

1715 – Highlanders rally to the cause on both sides of the Jacobite divide! Government-supporting clans march south through Sutherland while Jacobite supporters amass at Alness, the two sides confronting each other in the heart of Easter Ross…

The 1715 Jacobite uprising was one of a chain of events caused by religious conflict across Europe. The fear of a controlling Catholic monarch had led to the “Glorious Revolution” in 1688, establishing a Protestant monarchy and leaving the supporters of the deposed King James, the Jacobites, in despair.

James II receiving the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange, 1688. GB0232D6437

James II receiving the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange, 1688.  GB0232/D643/7 – In the public domain

After an initial rising in 1689 the fever of Jacobitism calmed, although unrest still ruled. The Act of Succession, passed in 1701, meant Catholics were  barred from taking the throne and 1707 saw the Union of the Parliaments under Queen Anne’s reign. A bankrupt Scotland, who had seen the union as a potential way out of debt, quickly became unhappy with their perceived inequality and unrest began to spread.

The death of Queen Anne without an heir in 1714, brought matters to a head. The throne passed to her third cousin, George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, overlooking all Catholic claimants in between (the exiled King James VII and II had died by this time and the claim was made by his son James, later known as the Old Pretender). Jacobites across the British Isles saw this as an opportunity and plans were immediately made to return the Stuarts to the throne. The new King George I made the mistake of overlooking John Erskine, Earl of Mar, for a role in office. This gentleman, pride severely dented, took up the cause of the Stuarts, establishing himself as the leader of the Jacobites in Scotland.

Pamphlets relating to the Jacobite rebellions GB0232D120013,18,20.jpg

James II receiving the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange, 1688.  GB0232/D643/7 – In the public domain

Many in the Scottish Highlands were quick to join Mar. Some areas were Catholic or Episcopalian, however there were also those who feared the return of the Catholic kings. James’s standard was raised at Braemar on 6th September 1715 and frenzied activity on both sides immediately ensued. Powerful families such as the Munros of Foulis and the Forbes of Culloden supported the Hanoverian king. Equally prominent MacKenzies of Seaforth, Mackintoshes and others declared their loyalty to the exiled Stuarts. Jacobite support was more widespread than at any other time. Its downfall, and the failure of the rising, was largely due to the ineffectual and militarily incompetent Earl of Mar.

Claims for losses sustained during the rebellion.  GB0232PAIBM111.jpg

Claims for losses sustained during the rebellion.  GB0232/PA/IB/M/11/1 – Image: Highland Archive Centre

The ’15 was largely fought in the Lowlands and England, however events in Easter Ross were perhaps decisive. There was a notable standoff between the Earl of Sutherland and the Earl of Seaforth. Sutherland had returned to Dunrobin Castle on 28th September 1715, to take up his role of supreme commander of loyalist forces in the north. He immediately mustered Hanoverian supporters to march south. By 5th October they had reached Alness, where they were joined by Rosses, Munros and Mackays. This combined force would attempt to prevent Seaforth’s Jacobites from marching to support the garrison which had seized Inverness. However Seaforth’s MacKenzies were soon reinforced by a force of 3000-4000 MacDonalds, MacLeods and McKinnons. They marched on the Earl of Sutherland’s men.  Around 9th October they passed the Heights of Fodderty and Brae before marching through Swordale and Glenglass and forcing Sutherland’s men to retreat.

This skirmish (and detours to raid the houses of Hanoverian supporters such as Munro of Foulis) delayed the Earl of Seaforth to such an extent that he was two months late joining Mar’s army –delay that likely contributed to the failure of the rising.

The 1715 Rising drew to a final conclusion across the country around the 13th November. The Battle of Sheriffmuir showcased Mar’s lack of military skill. The advantage of higher numbers was wasted and although the battle itself was inconclusive it successfully halted the Jacobite advance. In England, the Battle of Preston ended disastrously for the Jacobites and the Jacobite garrison in Inverness surrendered their hold on the town. Apart from a few smaller conflicts, the rising had effectively collapsed.

The 1715 Rising is now often overshadowed by the ’45, but these events had direct implications for the Jacobite cause. It is interesting to note the prophetic words recorded in the Dornoch Presbytery minute book in January 1716.

Image of ruins of Dornoch Cathedral, From Remarkable Ruins and Romantic Prospects by Charles Cordiner (published 1788). Image courtesy of Am Baile

Image of ruins of Dornoch Cathedral, From Remarkable Ruins and Romantic Prospects by Charles Cordiner (published 1788).  Used by permission of Am Baile

“The Presbytery of Dornoch taking to their serious consideration the tokens of God’s displeasure against this land which are evident by the unnatural rebellion raised in it by a popish and Jacobite malignant faction in favour of a popish pretender in occasioning an intestine war in this our native land which has raged now for a considerable time and yet continues the evil that it hath produced and still threatens to our holy religion and civil liberties; the probability of its leaving our land desolate and a field of blood if not supressed; look on it as a judicial stroke from God upon the land for the abounding sins thereof…”

Their chilling prediction that the issue tearing the country apart would yet lead to Scotland being left “desolate and a field of blood” would be fulfilled on Culloden’s field thirty years later.

Suffrage in East Sutherland and Easter Ross

Susan Kruse is a long-time tutor with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in the Highlands. Over the last seven years she has been working with WEA classes to uncover the story of Highland Suffrage, including most recently a focus on eastern Sutherland. She also runs community heritage courses with Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH). Last month she lectured on this topic to the Dornoch Heritage Society.

The story of the women’s suffrage campaign in the Highlands deserves to be better known! A Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) project has shown how active and vibrant the campaign was throughout the Highlands, using the evidence of suffrage newsletters and local newspapers.

There were two main phases: the first from 1868-1874 and then again between 1907 and 1914. In the first period, Jane Taylour and Agnes McLaren from Edinburgh made two Highland tours, speaking at Dingwall, Inverness, Wick, Thurso, Invergordon and possibly Tain. In their wake local committees formed to gather petitions in support of suffrage.

This activity seems short-lived. There is no evidence of suffrage activity between 1874 and 1907 in the Highlands. From 1909 there were frequent tours, most from speakers of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), but also the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In September 1909 Emmeline Pankhurst of the WSPU toured the southern Highlands, where the NUWSS, especially Helen Fraser, inspired the formation of a number of affiliated local societies. Mrs Pankhurst countered with the militant message, speaking at Tain amongst other places. This was followed a year later by a tour of the northern Highlands, with a stop at Dornoch. According to Votes for Women, the WSPU newsletter, the hall in Dornoch was overflowing – but the Northern Times did not bother to report the meeting. Here, as in the rest of the Highlands, the militant message did not appeal, and no WSPU societies formed in the Highlands, although there were individual members.

lady francis balfour on tour

Lady Frances Balfour ‘on tour’ in Dornoch. Published in Common Cause 19 September 1913. (Used with permission of WEA.)

Far more influential were NUWSS speakers. In September 1909 after an NUWSS tour, a society formed in Tain and was active until World War I. In October 1909 Chrystal Macmillan and Miss Campbell Smith toured on behalf of the Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Society, including Dornoch, Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale. After their talk in Dornoch a local NUWSS society formed with Miss J. Gibson as secretary.

This Dornoch society appears to have fizzled out. When we next hear of a suffrage tour, by Mrs Abbott in May 1912, the talk at Dornoch led to the formation of a new society, with Mrs Arthur as president, as well as a short-lived society in Bonar Bridge. The tours and work of Mary Bury of the NUWSS led to the formation of more in summer 1913, at Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale. These, as well as Dornoch, were active until World War I.

There was real support for suffrage in the area. The Dornoch Society alone in May 1914 had 63 paid up members (Northern Times 28 May 1914). The colourful Mrs Hacon was involved, as well as Margaret Davidson, both featuring in previous HistoryLinks blogs. But most accounts stress the non-militant nature of the Highland suffrage movement. Despite extensive research the only militant activity we have discovered was the disruption of the Prime Minister’s golf at Dornoch. Strangely he was staying at Oversteps, the home of Mrs Hacon, a committed suffragist. Thanks to research by Ellen Lindsay we know several women in the area protested in a  less violent way either refusing to give their name during the 1911 census, or providing false information.

As elsewhere, suffrage campaigning ceased with the start of World War I. Many societies threw their energies into war work, including volunteering at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

The research is still in progress, but has identified a number of activities and people involved in the area. Information can be found in binders of research submitted to Dornoch, Golspie, Helmsdale and Brora libraries. Thanks to the WEA course members Morag Black, Anne Coombs, Ellen Lindsay, Nick Lindsay, Penny Paterson and Morag Sutherland, with additional information from Sue Higgins and members of Gospie Heritage Society, and to the HLF for funding the project. New information, photographs or memories are always welcome – please send to Susan Kruse at

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.


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.


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.


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

In 2022 the author’s daughter got married in her grandmother’s dress and the horseshoe made another appearance at a family wedding!

Lucy and Aiden 05

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