This is the second of Kate MacFarlane’s two-part examination of the boyhood of Donald Sage. Kate says ‘I am a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.‘
In all his childhood and school boy adventures, Sage was accompanied by his older brother Eneas. Only fourteen months apart in age, they were the closest of brothers and friends. Speaking of his very early years he wrote “…of my sisters, I have no recollection. My only brother with whom I played all day and slept at night, did attract my notice.”
As boys, Donald and Eneas enjoyed constructing miniature houses and mills, fishing expeditions, exploring and berry picking. They were often joined by John MacThomais, son of their father’s principal farm servant who was close to them in age. According to Sage, John “was our constant companion, counsellor, and associate. He was a pleasing and talkative companion, and was furnished with an abundant store of old traditions, which he had rather a knack of telling, and which made many a day, “merrily to go by.” Throughout his childhood, however, it was Eneas who featured most prominently in his memories and affection.
In 1801, the brothers left home to attend school at Dornoch. There, Sage made numerous friends, including Hugh Bethune, “a forward, smart boy” but, unfortunately, Hugh and Eneas “could not agree, nor in any way pull together.” A disagreement as to who should take “the place of leader and principal adviser in all the amusements of our play hours” was settled in “the ordinary way of deciding such differences between school boys” with a boxing match. Apparently, Eneas won hands down as poor Hugh “was far from being on an equality with him in muscular strength.”
According to Sage, “some of my school fellows with whom I was most intimate when at Dornoch were three young men of the name of Hay. They were natives of the West Indies; the offspring of a negro woman” and a Scotsman. The oldest Hay brother, Fergus, “was very handsome…had all the manners of a gentleman, and had first rate abilities.” Sage met Fergus under unfortunate circumstances when “merely to save the skins of Walter Bethune, Bob Barclay and others,” Fergus falsely blamed him for something that resulted in thirty unjust lashes from the school master. Fergus, however, was “conscious of the impropriety of his conduct though his pride would not allow him to say so” and from that point on, he “behaved…with very great kindness” toward Sage.
Donald and Eneas returned home from school in the spring of 1803. In the autumn of 1804, following a serious disagreement which caused “an open rupture” with their fractious stepmother, Eneas went to sea. Parting from his brother was traumatic for Sage. Years later, he wrote that he felt as though his “very life was gradually deserting me” when they said good-bye. Eneas too was “almost stupefied with grief.” Sadly, the brothers never met again. Eneas wrote to let his family know when he arrived in London and sent along “a few prints of ships in gilt frames…as a peace-offering to his stepmother.” A second letter, sent from Philadelphia, turned out to be the last. A footnote in Memorabilia Domestica notes “what became of [Eneas] afterwards was never known.”
Sage’s memories of his childhood and school years focus almost exclusively on masculine pursuits and masculine company. He recalls, with affection and amusement, the housekeeper who lived with them before his father remarried and he attempts to give his difficult stepmother her due. He says next to nothing about his sisters. It is a boys’ world he looks back on, at home and in school and of all his companions, it is Eneas who stands out, who “impresses himself strongly on my reminiscences.”
Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland, p. 79.
Kate MacFarlane is a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.
Donald Sage (1789-1869) was a minister and a minister’s son, born and raised in Kildonan. His memoir, Memorabilia Domestica: Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of his late eighteenth-century boyhood and the pastimes and playmates that filled it. Looking back on his early childhood, Sage recalled a world of gloriously unsupervised, adventurous and unstructured play, most of it in the company of his older brother Eneas. At the ages of just four and five, the boys – unaccompanied – “crossed the burn, and, for our own amusement…called in at almost all the tenants’ houses, where we met with a kind and cordial reception.” Fussed over and fed “a half cake of oat-bread, larded over with cream,” they were then carried home, Eneas not being in the mood to walk.
From early on, the boys were “of a mechanical turn…always building houses and mills, in imitation of those at Kildonan.” They “built a clay house at the back of the manse” and “mills as closely resembling their larger and more useful prototypes as our limited capacities could approach.” They also enjoyed fishing for (or as Sage put it, butchering) trout, either catching them in a home made weel or using “another and still more barbarous method of killing,” impaling the trout “with all our force [so] the wretched victims of our pursuit often came up in fragments!”
At the ages of twelve and thirteen, Donald and Eneas left for school at Dornoch, where they stayed for a year and a half. Life at school was more structured and rigidly disciplined but it did allow time for play which, by then, had evolved from their childhood rambles into more competitive team sports and activities. Chief among them was “club and shinty” which Sage describes as a “game, or battle.” He notes that during his youth, it was universal in the north. For men only, it was played “with all the keenness accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded the claymore.” It was physical to the point of danger and “in not a few instances, actually proved fatal.”
Another fond memory from his school days was of cock fighting which “took precedence over all our other amusements.” Then a wide spread practice throughout the parochial school system, cocks were begged from households throughout the parish and brought by school boys to the local court room or “battle-field where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen.”
Sage says very little about toys in his memoir, recalling only a handful of special ones. For example, at a very early age, he was given a windmill by John Ross, an admirer of his housekeeper who hoped to gain her favor. The gift, he said, “rivetted [sic] my affections to him and I followed him like his shadow.” The servants were amused by his devotion and “to put my attachment to the test…one stormy evening, as I was seated by the kitchen fireside, told me that John Ross was dead, that he had been drowned in attempting to cross the burn.” Poor Sage, “giving full vent to my feelings…made the kitchen rafters ring with my roaring.”
Sage studied Latin from a very young age, progressing quickly and working his way through a wide range of classical works. A bright, imaginative little boy, he took inspiration from his reading and set the stories and characters in local settings: “The gay and elegant Athens,” for example, “with its orators and heroes, its classic buildings, its Acropolis and its thoughtless and polished mob…were all located in the village of Kildonan.”
Memorabilia Domestica, is rich in detail and an excellent source of information on 18th century childhood in the north of Scotland. Sage gives his readers a fascinating glimpse of one boy’s world of play – full of exploration and adventure – and highlights the pastimes, toys, reading materials, sports and games that he enjoyed.
Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Wick, 1899), p. 79.
My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions in the museum. Exhibitions here at the museum are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community.
In our first blog we looked at schooling and it was also clear that the lives of children during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were laden with responsibilities. Of course in rural communities these responsibilities carried over into the twentieth century but more modern memoirs of children in Dornoch reveal an altogether different experience. There is more of a sense of ‘childhood’ in their accounts.
I particularly enjoyed my conversations with Lorna Currie who grew up in Dornoch during World War Two and was delighted when she gave permission for her memoir to be used in the interpretation of the exhibition. Most of the toys we have on exhibition are from the twentieth century and it was wonderful to be able to link Lorna’s words with the objects on display.
Lorna Currie had just started primary school when the Second World War was declared on 3rd September 1939. At just five years old life suddenly changed for Lorna and her brothers. The Government introduced a rationing system monitored by the Ministry of Food that ensured fair distribution of food stuffs. Children were given a priority allowance for milk and eggs and had their own identification cards, gas masks, and clothing coupons. A child’s ration of sweets was two boiled sweets or two squares of chocolate per week and children were issued with their own ration book for sweets.
Fruit and vegetables were not rationed but were often in short supply because they came from oversees. In response to shortages, the Government ran a ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. The scheme encouraged people to grow their own produce and Lorna remembers the garden at her home producing vegetables, including tomatoes and rhubarb. They had fruit bushes, an apple tree and a cherry tree and made jam and bottled fruit and kept hens. Lorna still lives in Dornoch and her memories prompted the museum’s Young Curators Club to ‘Dig for Dornoch’. Although not the same as a war, today’s children are living through a time that will significantly impact on their lives. It felt important to link the experiences they were living though today with the past. Growing their own vegetables and fruit in a time of national emergency is helping them develop skills for a sustainable future and they will be sharing their produce with the local community. The project was made possible by Highland Seedlings and Fearn Free Food Garden who donated seedlings and compost.
Lorna’s family did not have an air raid shelter but if they heard planes overhead, they would sit under the kitchen table for protection. During air raid practice at school the children assembled in the central corridor and lay down with their gas masks beside them. The practice was regarded as a welcome diversion from lessons and good fun! Despite the war, Lorna’s memories of childhood are filled with the joy of freedom.
Things were very different for children living in the city and, in audio recordings from Historylinks Archive, Bill Grant recalls walking with his father beside the River Clyde in Glasgow with German bombers overhead targeting the river and shipyard. Bits of shell were hitting the pavement and Bill said that at eight years old he did not understand the extent of what was happening, only that someone was trying to kill them.
Just a few days after war was declared, Operation Pied Piper was introduced. The project saw over three million children from all over Britain relocated to protect them from the threat of bombs. They took very few of their own possessions with them and they left their homes and families, often not knowing who they were going to be living with.
Bill was evacuated to Proncy near Dornoch to live with an uncle and aunt. One afternoon in September 1942 he was listening to the radio with his aunt when he heard an unusual sound over Proncy. A plane engine was stuttering in the in the distance and from their front door they heard a huge crash and saw an explosion about forty metres away from the house. The flames were thirty feet high, and Bill raced out of the house to meet the Farm Grieve, Kenny Mackay. Together they went to the site where the plane had crashed and saw a man covered in flames. He was sent back to the house for blankets and then helped Kenny to wrap the pilot in them to extinguish the flames. Using the blankets, they pulled the man clear and he was taken to hospital in Golspie where he died of his wounds.
The written and recorded memories of Lorna and Bill give us a much clearer picture of life for children in wartime Dornoch. Just like John Matheson and Donald Sage from our first blog, their words contain the power to transport us back in time and give us a glimpse of the past from the first hand experiences of those who lived it.
Historylinks is open 7 days a week from 10.30am to 4pm until the end of October.
My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions. Exhibitions at Historylinks are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community.The ‘Childhood in Dornoch Parish’ exhibition was a real pleasure to work on, it fed into my love for the eighteenth century and for toys! Reading the memoirs of young people from Dornoch as far back as the 1700s was a privilege and I wondered if, when they were writing all those years ago, they ever imagined how their words might be used in the future.
Last year we made the difficult decision to close the children’s room at Historylinks due to Covid restrictions. The room was a space in which our younger visitors had previously been able to draw, dress up and play with toys and puzzles. A room that had once been a busy, fun filled place was now empty and an empty space in a museum is never a good thing! So, over the winter months we thought about how to us the room to give people visiting in 2021 a good experience.
If we couldn’t use the space for children in the present we decided to use it for children in the past and set about researching memoirs and diaries ranging from the eighteenth century to the Second World War. We already a small collection of objects such as school slates and books, a tricycle, marbles, dominoes and it wasn’t long before the local community got involved, bringing precious toys and games into the museum for our display. The Highland Museum of Childhood in Strathpeffer lent us various toys from the early 1800s to the 1970s, including a dolls pram bought in Gammages, a famous London department store which had been gifted by a Dornoch lady.
Looking at daily life in the eighteenth century we discovered that for most, childhood was a time of gathering responsibility according to ability. Play, work and practical education merged into one experience. The idea of childhood as a separate life stage only became a concept towards the end of that century and then only among the middle class and wealthy.
It was difficult for many children to attend school consistently, even if their parents wanted that. Children could not walk for miles across hills or cross rivers and parents often did not have the cash for fees. Formal education was therefore sporadic. Instead they learned skills taught by their parents: how to look after animals, how to build houses, how to look after children, how to prepare medicines from herbs, how to grow crops and how to preserve and prepare food.
Boys of higher status were much more likely to be formally educated. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries three schools flourished in Dornoch: a grammar, an elementary and an English school, most likely set up by The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK). This organisation was established by Royal Charter in 1707 to encourage Protestantism and English speaking in the Highlands. In a political sense the Society was about gaining a greater control of the Highlands. The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools was set up in 1811. As a missionary society they taught reading in Gaelic so people could read the Bible for themselves. These temporary schools -some of which appeared locally in places like Embo and Knockarthur – opened in the quiet time of the farming year, teaching adults as well as children.
John Matheson and Donald Sage were born in the late eighteenth century and their memoirs give a glimpse of childhood for boys who attended school in Dornoch.
John Matheson was born in 1772 and his family were tenant farmers. His father was in a position to be able to pay to give his sons an education. When John was strong enough, he walked to the Parochial School in Dornoch, a round trip of twelve miles!
As John grew older, the need for his help with livestock and farm work increased. His schooling was seasonally interrupted at times of planting and harvest, when all hands were needed. Sometimes bad weather made walking into Dornoch impossible. These factors made John feel that his education was lacking yet he became a tutor himself and later migrated to Glasgow where he became a cotton mill manager.
Donald Sage was born in Kildonan but he and his brother attended school in Dornoch. They came under strict discipline that was meted out by way of humiliation or physical violence. On one occasion Sage received thirty lashes and a schoolmate was beaten until he fainted.
Despite this, Donald recollects with joy the pastimes that he shared with his friends. On Saturdays and holidays the schoolboys had freedom to roam. One game was throwing stones at the crow’s nests built in the walls of Dornoch’s derelict castle and they often ended up at woods near Cyderhall or Skibo. During the holidays shinty was a must and Donald recounts ‘every male, from a stripling to a white-haired grandfather’ taking part. Market days were a favourite. Full of spectacle and excitement, they lasted two days and meant a holiday from school. Another sport that was widely acceptable was cock fighting. The annual event took place at Candlemas, 2nd February, one of the Scottish Quarter days. Sage tells how the boys prepared for weeks in advance and the Sheriff Court room above the school was cleared to make a cock fighting ring.
The Education (Scotland) Act was passed in 1872 making schooling compulsory. No longer did children have to walk to Dornoch or go without an education entirely. Schools were built in the rural areas of the parish ensuring all children had access.
The Parish School building remained in use until 1913. It is now the Social Club. Pupils transferred to a site at the west end of the burgh, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. This new Academy was opened by Lord Kennedy on 7th January 1913.
Fifty years later, on 25th September 1963 a new secondary department was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The old building which now houses the primary department stands side by side with the new and, along with the nursery, they constitute the modern 3-18 years Dornoch School Campus.
The Childhood in Dornoch Parish exhibition tells of the experiences of children over the last two centuries, from home life to school life, from organised clubs to serious playtime such as the annual football tournament played for the Ice Cream Cup!
Their voices, happy and sad, come to us through memoirs, diaries, audio recordings, photographs and the physical objects in the display like a tricycle, teddy bears, dolls, a Hornby engine, tin plate toys and board games.
From the frustration of having to close part of the museum and wondering what to do with an empty space, it feels like the children’s room is alive with the voices of children once more.
In his second blog post about the impact of government decisions on Highland life during wartime, Neil Bruce considers the impact of the introduction of permits required to enter the region during World War Two.
In 1940 Robert Michie was sentenced to a £2 fine or 10 days imprisonment at Inverness Sheriff Court for circumventing the army’s Beauly barrier which controlled the north road.[i] North and west of the Firth of Lorne and Great Glen had been officially designated as the North of Scotland protected area in the ‘interests of defence or the efficient prosecution of war’ on 11 March 1940.[ii]Restricting access in wartime resonates with 2020, when rural communities to protect themselves, warned would-be visitors, second home owners and others to stay away during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Forest of Birse, April 2020
Photo: Neil Bruce
The Highlands became a military-controlled zone.[iii] North-bound travellers’ credentials were checked at key points including Inverness railway station, the Kessock ferry and buses from Fort William.[iv] Those bound for the Northern Isles required a transit visa from Inverness’s military control office.[v] Adult residents needed permits to prove their identity if stopped, and proof of residency leaving or entering the area. In Inverness, almost immediately, ‘thousands’ queued to obtain permits from police headquarters.[vi] Residents from enemy countries required a specific permit and had to adhere to strict regulations: forgetting to report to their local police station before overnight curfew, Italian ‘aliens’ Enrico and Antonio Pizzamiglio were each fined £10.[vii]
Visitor permits were issued by military offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Initial confusion and delay ensued: applications required both parents’ nationality and countersignature by a J. P. or someone-else of ‘respectable status’.[viii] The protected area covered 40% of Scotland, but the government initially rebuffed suggestions local registrars or police could issue permits, claiming security was ‘predominant’.[ix] Democracy came second to military authority: the government candidate in the Argyllshire by-election, a non-resident serving officer, still required a permit.[x] Holidaymaker Jessie Macleod freely crossed the Beauly barrier several times before being found to be without permit. Her defence that she believed her identification card was sufficient proof did not prevent a 10/- fine.[xi] Irishman John P. McGovern, a farm labourer in Caithness for 11 years received more leniency, remanded in custody while Wick police obtained the necessary military permit.[xii] A son was only allowed to attend his father’s funeral having ‘pulled certain very important wires which are not given to all men to reach.’[xiii]
There was other suspicion about ‘wires’ being pulled. Lord Redesdale and daughter Deborah Mitford’s visit to their Argyll island was contrasted with ‘legitimate and loyal persons’ inability to obtain permits.[xiv] Secretary for War, Anthony Eden defended Redesdale’s ‘valid reason for finding it desirable and necessary to reside there during part of the year’: seeing no ‘reasonable grounds for disquiet throughout Scotland.’[xv] Minister for Security and Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson responded that the island was ‘visited periodically by the police’, though he had no grounds ‘for prohibiting the present inhabitants from living there’.[xvi] In spring 2020 echoes reverberate when officials told citizens to stay at home, then ignored the same instruction; and elsewhere, police visited Lismore following concerns about a non-resident’s arrival.[xvii]
Tourism was ‘killed almost stone dead’ in 1940.[xviii] Slow issue of visitor permits brought sparse Eastertime trade.[xix]The Scotsman encouraged readers not to worry about food restrictions or petrol rationing, but was apprehensive that the bed and breakfast, and other tourist businesses built-up by that ‘modern regiment’, the ‘women of Ross’, could continue.[xx] Would-be visitors with permits intent on a summer Highland ‘staycation’ were prevented from ferry or rail travel without warning.[xxi] Shooting and fishing tenants could not obtain permits.[xxii] The government refused to compensate sporting estate owners, hikers or ‘holidaymakers of the humbler sort’ for losses incurred.[xxiii] Pressed why permit offices were instructed not to grant permits if the reason given was ‘holidays’, Anthony Eden replied cryptically, ‘There may be reasons which I would rather not refer to in public.’[xxiv] Those included an expected imminent invasion: defensive works were under construction to thwart an advancing enemy.[xxv]
Sign in Finzean, Lockdown 2020
Photo: Neil Bruce
Then as now, individuals circumvented the rules in force: in 1941, determined to holiday on Skye, James McLachlan arranged to receive the telegram, ‘Fanny seriously ill; come at once’. Permit granted and his deception discovered, he was fined £3 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.[xxvi] Though with very different origins, responses in wartime and to viral threat involved taking control of individuals’ lives to effect immediate change for the greatest impact and collective good.
[i]Northern Chronicle, 24 April 1940, A newspaper scrapbook history of Inverness, 1939 to September 1940: a year at war, http://www.scalan.co.uk/oldinverness/inverness/Invern33.gif accessed 13 April 2020. Michie from Markinch, arrived in Inverness believing his permit to work in Invergordon was being arranged. When he found it was not, he proceeded on the north road. The maximum sentence was a fine of £100 or 3 months imprisonment; The Scotsman reported an unnamed Fifer reached the Square in Beauly, disembarking from a bus before it reached the barrier: he was reported to the military, having asked someone how he could avoid the barrier. The Scotsman, 20 April 1940, 7; The barrier, across Station Road, five yards south of the Phipps Hall, was closed at 10pm each evening. The army also occasionally patrolled the surrounding countryside to prevent unauthorised entry. Harrison, H. W., compiler, The village of Beauly: parish of Kilmorack: a study of the history and demography of the village of Beauly, 1700-2000 (Kilmorack, 2001), 200-201.
[ii] Parliament passed legislation enabling the designation of protected places or areas the week before the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, The Times, 29 August 1939, 16; Scotsman, 27 February 1940, 7.
[iii] Coastal areas had stricter controls of access. Manchester Guardian,6 April 1940, 4.
[iv]The Scotsman, 12 March 1940, 5; 26 March 1940, 5.
[v]The Scotsman, 12 March 1940, 5. Entry to the Northern Isles required a special military permit.
[vi] Ibid. The local registrar issued 5,000 applications the day before when the protected area came into force.
[vii]Northern Chronicle, 29 May 1940, A newspaper scrapbook history, http://www.scalan.co.uk/oldinverness/inverness/Invern38.gif accessed 13 April 2020. Italian men between 17 and 60 had to report daily to a police station, could not use personal transport and were curfewed from 8pm to 6am.There were only four Italians resident in Inverness who were naturalised British citizens and 17 others were regarded as aliens; The Scotsman, 4 April 1940, 7.
[viii]The Scotsman, 28 February 1940, 7; 30 March 1940, 10.
[xii]The Scotsman, 18 May 1940, 7. The same court sentenced fellow countryman Charles McLaughlin 30 days imprisonment as he could not pay his £5 fine. McLaughlin had a permit to work in Invergordon, but, finding no accommodation available, decided to travel to Orkney, being was arrested en route.
[xiv] The War Cabinet had previously refused Lord Redesdale’s request that he take another daughter, Unity Mitford, with him because of expected public outrage and the precedent it would set. National Archives, CAB 65/6/4, War Cabinet, 59 (40), 4 March 1940.
[xxii] Sporting tenants were described as ‘people, who go, for so many months at a time, annually, to live in another part of the country.’ The Scotsman, 3 September 1940, 7.
[xxiii]The Scotsman, 3 September 1940, 7. Some estate owners achieved rates reductions at valuation appeal courts: in Ross and Cromarty, the County Clerk questioned why ratepayers should ‘suffer’ because the government had created a protected area. The Scotsman, 20 September 1940, 3. 20-25 shooting lodges were identified as suitable for occupation by evacuee children if needed. The Scotsman, 3 May 1940, 9.
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)
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 https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-business-and-social-distancing-guidance/ 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.
This week work begins on the Sheriff MacCulloch Memorial Project. Historylinks was recently awarded £1100 by Museums and Galleries Scotland to restore the memorial stone. The Museum is working with young people from Dornoch Academy in this project. See facebook for more information and photos. The next few blog posts will consider the life and times of Hugh MacCulloch.
It must have been hot that day. The lads maybe exploded out of school, shouting and throwing their bags. They might have taken off, chasing each other across the common grazings, past what is now the airstrip, that separated Dornoch from the ‘cockle ebb’, the sands on the north shore of the firth. Stripped off, they tiptoed, plunged into the chilly water, splashing and swimming, salt stinging their eyes. It’s wide at high tide, and at low tide sand banks appear, sometimes giving the impression that you could wade across. But between these banks there are fast flowing channels. Hugh’s efforts quickly took him out of his depth, and he sank. The other boys maybe thought at first that he was messing about, but he didn’t bob up again. They shouted an alarm and several men who were working nearby dashed into the sea. He had been in the water some time and it was an apparently lifeless body they pulled out. The men applied ‘judicious treatment’ and he choked back into life.
Shells of cockles can still be found at the ‘Cockle Ebb’. Hugh probably went bathing at this spot, though probably not on the sort of dull January day this was taken! The view here is towards the site of the Meikle Ferry, where many years later he breathed his last. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.
Hugh MacCulloch related this story many times. And when he told it to a young lodger in 1801 he said ‘if God were to give him his choice of deaths, he would choose drowning, for … he felt as he was in the act of sinking, and when the waters were rushing in at his mouth and nostrils, as if he were falling into a gentle sleep.’ His wish was granted. Eight years later and about four miles above that very spot on that very firth, he was, with many others, drowned.
In 1809 Hugh was probably in his fifties. He was a well-respected man, the retired Sheriff-Substitute of Sutherland and known for his honesty and piety, if not his brilliance in law. On August 16th Hugh decided to attend the Lammas Fair in Tain. He left his house in Dornoch that morning and crossed the ferry. Later, rumours spread that the men who loaded the evening ferry had been drinking. Donald Sage, that young lodger, later recorded the story in biblical style: ‘When he came to the Meikleferry, late in the day, the shore was crowded with people returning home from the market. On his arrival they all made way for him, and he was, quickly seated at the stern of the wherry; but afterwards the multitude pressed into the ferry-boat – the more earnestly, as they would thus have the privilege of crossing in the same boat with the Sheriff. Apprehensive of the issue, Mr. MacCulloch turned away at least two score of them from the boat. There still remained on board, however, too many for safety. It was a dead calm, and the wherry was pushed off from land. But when it had nearly reached the middle of the ferry, and the deepest part of it, the boat gave a sudden jerk, the water rushed in, and, with the exception of two or three who escaped by swimming, the whole of those on board sank to the bottom and perished. About 70 persons were thus drowned. This fearful event took place during the darkness of night … and created a deep sensation all over the country.’
Tain, from the Cockle Ebb. Low tide. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie
The tale of how Hugh’s body, among the last to be found, was discovered, reveals the mysticism which was part of Highland Evangelical Christianity. It is also reminiscent of saints’ stories in the Catholic tradition, where bodies which do not decompose prove saintliness. Donald Sage explained that the ‘particular spot where it lay under the flood was discovered in a dream. A fellow-Christian and an acquaintance, deeply affected by his death, dreamed of his departed friend. In the dream the Sheriff appeared, spoke of his sudden call to the other world, and told him where his earthly remains lay, adding that, whilst the fish of the sea were permitted to mangle at their pleasure the bodies of his fellow-sufferers, they were restrained from putting a tooth upon his, which would be found entire. The dream was realised in every particular.’
How the catastrophe of the Meikle Ferry impacted south-east Sutherland is reminiscent of the impact of the loss of the Iolaire on the Isle of Lewis 110 years later. In both, a small community lost many of its most active in one appalling moment. The response to the sudden needs of families bereft of the husbands, mothers, sons, wives, fathers, daughters who traded at Tain that day was to set up a fund. Monies poured in from people with local connections all over the world. Even donations from the profits of West Indian slave plantations ended up in the pockets of grief-stricken families. Hugh MacCulloch’s wife and his daughter, Chirsty, long survived him, and benefited from the Meikleferry Fund.
The Dornoch Firth which, in the years following the Jacobite Rising saw the birth of a boy named Hugh; which provided cooling, but dangerous waters for his youthful play; which was crossed every time the mature man travelled south on business or pleasure, eventually claimed that life. But its chill depths preserved him, casting him up in the place the visionary spoke of, so he could be buried in the way his family wanted.
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9.
Walter Scott (ed), ‘Dreadful Accident at the Meikle Ferry’, The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809, 248.
N.B. Brian Munro has since unearthed a document (The Meikle Ferry Disaster Fund Book) in the Highland Archives which is far more contemporary than Sage’s memoirs and seems to state quite clearly that the accident took place ‘in the forenoon’ when people were on their way to the Lammas Fair, rather than returning from it. That does not, I think, remove any of the interest or importance of Sage’s analysis of the event and its impact, but shows how the details of narratives can shift.
Iain Thornber of Glensanda Estate (Morvern) contributes a fascinating insight, first published in Morvern Lines in April 2017, then in Am Bratach in October 2018.
Lady Meux (pronounced ‘Mews’) from Alladale near Bonar Bridge was probably one of the most flamboyant and interesting characters ever to come to Ross-shire. When her contemporaries were plodding over the moors on dumpy Highland ponies, Lady Meux was driving herself around in a four-wheeled carriage drawn by a pair of zebras.
Lady Meux was born Valerie Langdon in 1847. She was the daughter of a Devon butcher and worked as an actress and a banjo-playing barmaid before marrying Sir Henry Meux, 3rd baronet (1856-1900). According to her obituary in the New York Times, she met Sir Henry while performing in Brighton. Some sources give another slant to her career, although in her defence Lady Meux maintained: ‘I can very honestly say that my sins were committed before, and not after marriage’.
The colossal Meux wealth came from brewing. Henry’s father, the 2nd baronet, married into the Marquess of Ailesbury’s family (later styled Aylesbury), in Buckinghamshire. Needless to say they were not enamoured by the arrival of this flamboyant cuckoo in their midst and, typical of the unpleasant snobbery of the time, shunned Henry, as he was in trade, and Valerie because of her background. Thumbing her nose at them all Valerie made her indifference known by regularly driving past the Ailesbury’s fashionable London house with her zebras. She also sat for James McNeil Whistler — an American and one of the most acclaimed and expensive society painters of the day.
Lady Meux in Pink by James McNeill Whistler
Lady Meux and her husband improved and enlarged Theobalds, their property in Hertfordshire, by adding an indoor roller-skating rink and a swimming pool. At her request Henry bought Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar (one of the eight gates that surrounded the old city of London) and rebuilt all 400 tons of it as a new gateway to Theobalds. There, in its upper chamber, Valerie allegedly entertained guests including the Prince of Wales and Winston Churchill.
Bitten by the Victorian bug for Highland life and scenery, Sir Henry and Lady Meux took a lease of Alladale, which at the time was one of the best-known deer forests in Scotland. It belonged to Sir Charles Ross, inventor of the famous Ross rifle, who lived at nearby Balnagowan Castle, now owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed of Harrods fame. In 1360 Alladale was called ‘Freevater’ or Walter’s Forest, after one of Sir Charles’s ancestors who was killed at Bannockburn. Here Henry and Valerie provided stalking, fishing and grouse shooting for their friends on a grand scale.
After Henry’s death, when he was only forty-four, Alladale was taken by the fabulously wealthy Maharaja Holkar of Indore who brought such a large entourage with him that an extension had to be added to the rear of the lodge to accommodate them. Undeterred by widowhood, Lady Meux continued to enjoy life to the full, and well she might, inheriting an income of £240,000 a year from her husband’s estate. She owned a string of race horses, entering them under the assumed name of ‘Mr Theobalds’, and won the Derby in 1901. She collected ancient Egyptian artefacts. The legendary Egyptologist, Wallis Budge, published a catalogue of more than 1,700 of her items including 800 scarabs and amulets. She wanted to leave the entire collection to the British Museum, but the trustees declined the bequest because, she said, they were apparently idiots and it was sold.
Sir Henry and Lady Meux at Alladale. Image courtesy of Lowewood Museum.
Valerie didn’t always fritter away her husband’s money. During the Boer War she was so impressed by the heroics of the British army at the Battle of Ladysmith in 1899 that she bought six twelve-pounder naval cannon and sent them out to South Africa. When Sir Hedworth Lambton, the commander of the naval brigade at Ladysmith, returned to London, he called on Lady Meux to thank her for her generosity. She was so taken by his charm that she made him the chief beneficiary of her estate on condition that he took the surname Meux (she and Sir Henry had no children). When she died on 20 December 1910, he changed his name and inherited Theobalds and a substantial interest in the Meux Brewery.
Alladale Lodge. Photo: Iain Thornber.
Although the Meuxs, the Maharaja and the distinguished guests disappeared down the glen decades ago, there is still a quixotic aura about Alladale. The estate now belongs to Paul Lister, heir to the MFI furniture fortune, who courted controversy by turning it into a wilderness reserve intended for wolves, bears and other large predators. Since 2003 a million trees have replaced most of the wild red deer and talk of a huge 50,000 acre, Colditz-style compound has drawn criticism from neighbours, hill-walkers and lawyers as it could contravene principles of open access. From inside wooden stockades a few moose and angry European bison, glare and stamp their feet at passers-by but the howl of the wolf and the growl of the grizzly bear has yet to be heard on the braes; gone too from the lodge stables are the zebras and Lady Meux’s stylish high phaeton.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 120-122
“I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road”. Hugh and his cousin, Walter, realised getting home was going to be more difficult than they anticipated.
It was about 1818 and the teenagers had spent their summer holidays with relatives in Gruids, near Lairg. On one of the final days before they had to return, they went fishing in the River Shin. They could hear the roaring of the salmon-leap three miles away at Hugh’s uncle’s house and had been inspired by stories of skilful fishermen. Cousin William agreed to take them. He looked askance at their bare feet and muttered that his mother had never allowed them to visit relations unshod. The boys didn’t tell him that their mothers had indeed sent them out shod but “deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a comer, and set out on our journey without them.” That journey had been thirty miles from the Cromarty ferry to Gruids.
Gruids, looking south towards the River Shin. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.
The walk to the River Shin was less onerous. “We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation. The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches. Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap … there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore. We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool – for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way.” Later, the salmon run was blasted with gunpowder to make easier for the fish. The boys spotted a “hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher”.
Statue of the adult Hugh Miller in his hometown of Cromarty. He became a famous geologist, editor, author, and advocate for the Free Church and for issues of social justice. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.
Excited, Hugh jumped from a tall lichened stone. His right foot smashed against a sharp-edged fragment of rock hidden in the moss. He managed to control his scream and clutched his foot as it lost feeling. He limped back to his uncle’s house, but that evening it throbbed badly. However the lad, later an unsuccessful poet but a good newspaper editor and author of prose (as well as a renowned geologist and leader of the Free Church), distracted his mind by composing some verse about the waterfall at Shin.
However, his foot got worse. Next morning it was “stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.” Cousin Walter was impatient and getting bored, so after a few days the boys ignored their elders’ advice to stay put and tried for home. Hugh’s aunt supplied them with a “bag of Highland luxuries – cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts”. As Walter had to carry everything, he required his cousin to entertain him. Hugh’s “long extempore stories … were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the mile-stones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry. At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed. The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o’clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.”
Injured and far from home, the boys were in a predicament.
To be continued…
Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 117-120.