Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 2

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


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

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


Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 1

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

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



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.

The Ceilidh house at Gruids

The flickering of the fire picked out the creases in the old man’s face. He had their attention now. The room was crammed. The usual codgers from the Barony of Gruids had gathered in the Munro house for story-telling, just like in the days when he was young. His childhood friend had finished recounting one of the clan feuds of the district and the elderly man was deciding which epic tale of Ossian and the Fionn he would fill the rest of the evening with.

In the far corner he could just about make out his old friend Munro, the smoke from the central hearth misting above his head as he sat in his low wooden chair. In age he was shorter now than when they took to hill and river with gun and rod, but still a solidly built man, his grave face hiding a cheerful temperament. Never one for idleness, although his son now largely ran the farm, he still worked as a factor for the proprietor of Gruids. The old man chuckled as remembered the wild youth of half a century before. Even in those days when dancing at wakes as well as weddings was common, he had been legendary. He had once even persuaded a new widow to take the floor in a strathspey beside her husband’s corpse. When everyone else failed he roguishly remarked in her hearing, ‘that whoever else might have refused to dance at poor Donald’s death wake, he little thought it would have been she.’

Jan - Carn Salachaidh 003

A chair of the type common in Sutherland. Doubtless the Munro household would have made and used such chairs. Part of the Historylinks Dornoch Museum collection. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

William, the eldest lad, sat beside the patriarch. The gathering was in honour of him, the fortune-earning merchant son home for a visit from the south. Rumour had it he was worth fifteen hundred pounds a year. For weeks the old man had seen the string of visitors, most who never normally set foot in the Munros’ home, resurrecting faint ties of friendship. It was such a strain that poor Mrs Munro had called on her sister from Cromarty to help with the catering. Young Mrs Miller looked delicate, but she had apparently walked the thirty miles from Cromarty with that boy of hers in two days.

In later life that boy described his uncle’s house as a ‘low, long, dingy edifice of turf’ which ‘lying along a gentle acclivity, somewhat resembled at a distance a huge black snail creeping up the hill.’ Dingy with lack of light perhaps, but the six milk cows shifting and chewing behind the wattle wall betrayed the Munros’ comfortable circumstances. Beyond where the company circled around the open hearth, was a further room split for privacy into small, dark bed-rooms. Further was a closet with a little window, assigned to the Millers. And at the extremity was ‘the room’. Built of stone with a window and chimney, it had chairs, table, a chest of drawers, a large box-bed, and a small but well-filled bookcase. While William the merchant was home, this was his.

Feb - Gruids 045

Gruids, south of Lairg. The area is now crofted, but when young Hugh Millar visited the Munros the land was laid out in infield/outfield, farmed for grain and cattle by tenants and joint tenants like his aunt’s family. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

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This longhouse did not belong to the Munros as it is set on top of a small hill, unlike Hugh Millar’s description. However they would have known the people who lived there. The house was similar in that it clearly shows at least two living spaces and a byre for housing the cattle. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

Next to William, leaning close to the central hearth to get the light, was Hugh, carving those little snuff boxes he liked to give his friends. Despite spending every daylight hour building his father a barn, he couldn’t keep his hands still. And big George, the mason and slater, home also to see his brother. For all his reading of books and the English poetry-writing he had picked up when working in the south, the old man knew what George really loved was hearing the ancient tales by the fireside. On a stool, poking at the peats, was the other Hugh, the Cromarty schoolboy. He had no Gaelic, but George had been muttering translations all evening. The lad might enjoy the story about the Fion who were despised by the women of the tribe as, being only fifteen feet tall, they could not leap across the Cromarty or Dornoch Firths on their spears. The danger of telling any of these stories was that it was likely to call forth a lecture from William on the ongoing controversy as to how genuine or otherwise were the published ‘translations’ of Ossian. James MacPherson claimed to have gathered the stories at firesides, passed down by word of mouth since time immemorial. But detractors maintained he had fabricated the lot. William had the nature of a teacher and young Hugh was the current target. When not out exploring the countryside, the boy was expected to master the key thinkers in the debate, and then learn Gaelic. Well, if he were learning about the old stories out of modern books, then he should also experience them the way they were meant to be told. An active lad like him, what would he like? Yes, the lecture would be risked, and the boy would hear of when jealous Fingal tried to eliminate the handsome hunters by sending them after the monstrous wild boar with the poisonous bristles.


Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), chapter 5.

Merry-Making on the Tidal Mud Flats at Meikle Ferry: An Extreme Fishing Expedition or Sport Induced Madness?

Wade Cormack is the post-holder for the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. He is completing his second year of research and writing. He is exploring early modern sport and the cultural history of the Moray Firth.

Four centuries ago on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth there was a sight to behold. Hundreds of people amassed on the sands at Portnaculter, present-day Meikle Ferry, at low tide to participate in what can be described as a folk horse-race/mass fishing expedition. An account of this peculiar practice was cemented in history by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun in A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. Gordon explained that in the spring and summer when the streams ran into the firth at low tide, six to seven hundred of ‘the commoun sort of inhabitant doe convene on hors-bak… and so doe swim toards these sands; and when they doe aryve upon these beds of sand, incontinent they run their horses at full speed, stryveing who can first aryve at the fishing place, wher they doe indevoar, with all dilli-gence to tak these [sand eels].’ These small fish were actual sand eels. The race quickly could become chaotic and cutthroat: ‘as they doe run their horses, the rest doe tak no notice thereof to res-cue them, bot suffer them to ly ther among the horse feitt, and run on their intendit course’. Even watching the racers pounding across the beach at low timed towards the sandbanks would have been tremendously exciting.

We don’t know much about horse racing in the Moray Firth. There are just a few accounts at Tain, Inverness, Banff, Huntly and Aberdeen from the 1630s until the mid-nineteenth century. However, these events seem well organised and attracted gentlemen from a large area. The Inverness race attracted men from as far away as Inverlochy Castle, near Fort William. Each race had a silver prize for the winner. The prizes included a silver cup at Inverness (the patron unknown), a silver cup at Banff, engraved silver hilted broad swords at the Huntly and silver plate at Aberdeen provided by the Dukes of Gordon.

Photo from HistoryLinks Image Library: the inner Dornoch Firth looking northward.

Photo from HistoryLinks Image Library: the inner Dornoch Firth looking northward.

The race at Meikle Ferry was not quite the same as these highly organised and prestigious events. The trophies for the winner of this race were full bellies for months to come. The race for the sand eels was not just about stocking the larder. Gordon noted that ‘they tak such abundance during some few days, that it sufficeth them for pro-visions of that kind of fish during lent, and most pairt of the yeir following’. It is clear that taking the fish also served a religious purpose. Sport in this period functioned on two levels: it was exciting recreation and it provided the people of Sutherland the opportunity to gather the fish they required for this holy period. Unfortunately the history of many of these folk races has been lost, along with other folk sports, as they were part of larger events and either no record of them were created or survive. This is especially true when no official prize was given. Gordon’s account of the race therefore provides a rare window into the past demonstrating the presence of folk horse racing on the Dornoch Firth.

The sands at Meikle Ferry were not the only location for horse racing. Gordon provides a little hint of forgotten races on the links at Dornoch. As ‘about this toun… ther are the fairest and largest linkes… of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding, and all other exercise; they doe surpasse the feilds of Montrose or St Andrews’. Across the Firth, the Tain links were also a site of horseracing as well as golf up until the mid-nineteenth century. After that part of the links were ploughed. Just as elsewhere around the Moray Firth, the people who lived around the Dornoch Firth were very active horse racers. At Meikle Ferry the invigorating recreational pursuit was interwoven with the celebration of Lent, and fish, rather than silver, was the prize. The frenzy of activity at Portnaculter, leaving deep hoof prints in the mud, was an exciting community occasion. Was it sport induced madness or an extreme fishing expedition? I am sure for participants it was both, as the galloped at full speed towards the best fishing spots leaving the neighbours behind.

Robert Gordon, Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its Origin to the Year 1630: with a Continuation to the Year 1651 (Edinburgh, 1813).
Black’s Picturesque Tourist Guide to Scotland (Edinburgh, 1852).
William Mackay (ed.), The Chronicles of the Frasers: The Wardlaw Manuscript…The True Genealogy of the Frasers 916-1674 (Edinburgh, 1905).
Papers of the Gordon Family, Dukes of Gordon (Gordon Castle Muniments), GD44, National Archives of Scotland.

A Letter of Advice by Sir Robert Gordon, 1620.

Wade Cormack is the post-holder for the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship at the Centre for History, University fo the Highlands and Islands. His research explores early-modern sport and cultural history of the Moray Firth.

While children should always listen to their elders, whether they do or not is totally up to them! The year was 1620 and eleven-year old John, the 13th Earl of Sutherland, received a letter of advice from his uncle and tutor, Sir Robert Gordon. Sir Robert wanted John to become a successful leader, a calculated but kind master, a learned man, and someone respected throughout the land. His advice covered disparate topics, from the vices of man, how to select a proper wife and how to administer his estate effectively. He also instructed him on the themes of sport, education and ‘civility’.

Robert Gordon was born at Dunrobin Castle in 1580 and was the fourth son of the 11th Earl of Sutherland. Initially he was educated in Dornoch before leaving for St Andrews, Edinburgh, then continuing his education on the Continent at Saumur, Poitier, Bourges, finishing with six months in Paris. Along the way he became a student of Neo-Stoicism. In 1606 he was at the court of King James VI and I where he was subsequently admitted as a Gentleman to the Bedchamber and was knighted. These influential positions gave him direct access to King James and he began his long political career.

After the death of the 12th Earl of Sutherland in 1615, Sir Robert became the tutor to his six-year old nephew. He set John’s affairs in order and sent him to school in Dornoch. During these schooldays we find the first references known to date of golf being played in town. The Earl’s expenses show that ‘Item ten poundis guven this yeir for bowes, arroes, golff clubbes, and balls, with other necessars for his L[ordship’s] exercise’. Sir Robert was an accomplished archer himself, winning the silver arrow in Edinburgh during the King’s visit in 1617. He was a proponent of sport and believed it was a crucial part of education. Sir Robert solidified Dornoch’s reputation for sport in 1630 with his A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. He famously stated ‘About this toun… ther are the fairest and largest linkes…of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding, and all otherexercise; they doe surpasse the feilds of Montrose or St Andrews.’

As the Genealogical History existed only in manuscript copies for nearly 200 years, the promotion of Dornoch’s links was for the eyes of the Earls of Sutherland. However, Sir Robert’s Letter of Advice shows broad participation in sport. He urged John to ‘Cherishe your countreymen and train them vp in all kynd of honest exercise, such as hunting, ryding, archerie, shooting with the gun, gofing, jumping, running, swimming and such lyk’. Golf in this region was not just an elite preserve then, but was for all of the Earl’s countrymen. Although the direct references to golf in Dornoch fade from then until the nineteenth century, this evidence suggests it was widely played.

Young men were prepared for manhood and leadership through martial activities and a good education. Although ‘gofing’ had been previously restricted by the Scottish kings because it was of no military benefit, Sir Robert felt it was acceptable. Football, however, another sport restricted on the same grounds, was not recommended to John: ‘footeball [w]as a dangerous and vnprofitable exercise’. Sir Robert’s reasoning for this was probably because in many cases football became a riotous event, considered to cause great disruption and damage to people and communities. The disruptions caused by golf, by comparison, were limited.

ImageThe Royal Dornoch Links 1900 (Image Courtesy of HistoryLinks Image Library)

Sir Robert was also keen to ‘improve’ the Sutherland lands, especially Dornoch. In 1609 the Statutes of Iona promoted the assimilation of the western Highlands and Islands into a Lowland culture. As an influential man at the court of King James, Sir Robert would have been involved in discussions on how to accomplish this. Sir Robert’s ideas on the importance of English language education and literacy; on ideas of civility; on sport; and on how to bring up young men, noble and commoner, for the good and cohesion of the realm, were influential at the highest level. Sir Robert believed the best way to transform the people of Sutherland was to: ‘plant schooles in ewerie corner in the countrey to instruct the youth to speak Inglishe. Let your cheif scooles for learning be at Dornoche, and perswade the gentlemen of your countrey to bestowe lairglie vpon ther children to make them schollers, for so shall they be fittest for your serwice. Preasse to ciwilize your countrey and the inhabitants therof, not onlie in this poynt, but lykwyse in all other things which yow shall obserwe abrod in your trawells among other nations.’ Sir Robert then advised John to ‘erect a biblio-theck in Dornoch and fill it with sufficient store of books, boith for your credit and the weell of this countrey, to amend ther ignorance which increases through laik of books’.

From a child’s perspective, Sir Robert’s Letter of Advice was rather daunting. Judging by his later character, John internalised much of his uncle’s advice though. Moreover, he continued to support sport, education and ‘civility’, and passed these lessons to his sons, who continued the tradition of Sutherland men playing golf, being well-read and educated. Nearly 400 years later, the connection between golf and education continues in Dornoch, thanks to the collaboration of the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Royal Dornoch Golf Club to support and investigate that passion of Sir Robert’s: the place of sport in society.

National Library of Scotland, The Sutherland Papers, Dep. 313/1597.
Allan, David. Philosophy and Politics in Late Stuart Scotland. (East Lothian: 2000).
Fraser, William ed. The Sutherland Book. 3 Vols., (Edinburgh: 1892).
Gordon, Robert A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its Origin to the Year 1630: with a Continuation to the Year 1651. (Edinburgh: 1813).

Cock o’ the North

In February it feels like winter is eternal.  The people of Dornoch cheered themselves up with what we would consider a rather brutal amusement: a cockfight.  Early in the nineteenth century Donald Sage, a teenager from Kildonan, attended school in the town.  Although he later described it as a barbarous pastime, at the time he enthusiastically participated.

For schoolboys across Scotland the cockfight was the peak of entertainment.  Far from being a surreptitious activity for which the students would be punished, it was an intrinsic part of the school and community calendar.  Dornoch’s teacher, Mr. MacDonald, entered into it ‘with all the keenness of a Highlander and with all the method of a pedagogue’.  In the days leading up to the cockfight, am cluiche nan coileach, there was a ‘universal scrambling for cocks all over the parish’.  ‘We applied at every door, and pleaded hard for them.  In those primitive times, people never thought of demanding any pecuniary recompense for the birds for which we dunned them.’


‘Cockfighting in London. 19th-century artwork of cockerels fighting at a royal cockpit (demolished 1816) in Birdcage Walk, near Whitehall, London, UK. This blood sport was banned in England and Wales in 1835. This artwork is from ‘The Microcosm of London’, a series of 104 hand-coloured aquatints depicting London buildings and scenes. They were published by Rudolph Ackermann between 1808 and 1810, and then collected in three folio volumes. The artworks combined architectural details by Charles Augustus Pugin, and human figures drawn by Thomas Rowlandson. This aquatint, published 1 May 1808, was engraved by John Bluck.’ 

Image and above text from British Library.

The main event was staged in the county court room.  The ‘chamber of justice was converted into a battle-field, where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen.’  A stage was built and the schoolmaster seated himself on the bench where Sheriff McCulloch usually dispensed justice.  He was joined by a band of his friends who would judge the proceedings.  Any bird that refused to fight when placed on the stage was called a “fugie”, and it became the property of the teacher.  The winner was the youth whose bird had gained the greatest victories.  He was declared king and the lad in second place gained the title of queen.  The fights were over but the event was not.  The cockfight created such excitement in the town that it could be sustained to another day when the victors would be crowned.  Although the participants were the schoolboys and the judge was the teacher and his friends, the February cockfight was a community event.  It is not clear whether the fight itself was a male-only preserve, but it was the ladies in the town who ‘applied their elegant imaginations to devise, and their fair fingers to construct, crowns for the royal pair.’  They were also present on coronation day when the boys assembled in the Dornoch schoolhouse. Donald describes what happened.

‘The master sat at his desk, with the two crowns placed before him; the seats beside him being occupied by the “beauty and fashion” of the town.  The king and queen of cocks were then called out of their seats, along with those whom their ties had nominated as their life-guards.  Mr. MacDonald now rose, took a crown in his right hand, and after addressing the king in a short Latin speech, placed it upon his head.  Turning to the queen, and addressing her in the same learned language, he crowned her likewise.  Then the life-guards received suitable exhortations in Latin, in regard to the onerous duties that devolved upon them in the high place which they occupied, the address concluding with the words, “taque diligentissime attendite”.  A procession then began at the door of the schoolhouse, where we were all ranged by the master in our several ranks, their majesties first, their life-guards next, and then the “Trojan throng,” two and two, and arm in arm.  The town drummer and fifer marched before us and gave note of our advance, in strains which were intended to be both military and melodious.  After the procession was ended, the proceedings were closed by a ball and supper in the evening.’

Today’s community comes together in the summer at the Sutherland Agricultural Show and the Highland Gathering.  The differences are obvious: the attitude to animals is quite different, they do not revolve around the school and nor do the prize givings involve classical learning!  However, just like their cockfighting predecessors, the events involve competition, sport, judging, presentations, musical parades and dancing.  Today’s showing of cattle, athletics, pipe bands, silver cups and ceilidhs have replaced the cockfights, fife and drum, handmade crowns and dinner dance of two hundred years ago.

Before they were Guiders

This week’s post is written by Alison McCall who is a PhD student at the University of Dundee. She has a particular interest in career women in Victorian Scotland.

This photograph, from the Historylinks website, depicts a group of Dornoch Girl Guides in 1931.  It is easy to overlook a photograph like this, as there must be thousands of well-nigh identical photographs of Girl Guide companies throughout Britain. However, two of Guide leaders here have fascinating stories.  They were close friends, despite having led very different lives before coming to live in Dornoch.

ImageThe leader seated fifth from the left was Miss Margaret C. Davidson. Margaret Davidson was born in 1879.  Both parents were teachers, as were two of her maternal aunts.  She attended St Andrews University, as did her younger sister, and after graduating went to Dornoch to teach modern languages in the Burgh School.  When, during the First World War, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals were formed by Dr Elsie Inglis, she volunteered to go to Royaumont Hospital, France.  She worked initially as an orderly, but subsequently became a nurse.  In the porch of Dornoch Cathedral there is a brass Roll of Honour for the First World War, which includes the name of Nurse Margaret Davidson, M.A., S.W.H.  She returned to her teaching career in Dornoch after the war, and by the time she retired she was head of the Modern Languages department. She continued to invigilate exams many years after her retirement, and died in 1978, aged 98.

Also at Royaumont during the First World War was another Dornoch woman, Mrs Hacon.  In the Guide photograph she is seated next to Margaret Davidson, sixth from the left. Mrs Hacon was a Roman Catholic and is not, therefore, included on the Dornoch Cathedral Roll of Honour.  Mrs Hacon’s life story seems hardly credible when looking at her photograph, smartly dressed in her Guide Leader’s uniform. Her early life is a matter of conjecture. She claimed to have been born Edith Catherine Broadbent in 1874 or 1875, but I haven’t been able to trace a birth certificate. She variously claimed to have been the daughter of a painter, or the daughter of a doctor.  What is clear is that in the early 1890s she was in London, working as an artist’s model and high class escort. She used the name “Amaryllis” when she was modelling and “Muriel” when she was working as an escort. She became the mistress of the novelist Arthur Symons, and he wrote several stories entitled “The Life of Lucy Newcombe” based on her account of her own life. In these accounts, she was brought up in an affluent home, orphaned, went to live with an aunt and uncle, but her elder cousin forced himself on her, she became pregnant and her aunt and uncle turned her out on the streets. The baby died.  It’s impossible to say if this is true or not. At any rate she was mixing with the decadent group of Symons, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and various others. The art patron William Llewellyn Hacon saw her portrait, admired it and asked to be introduced to her. They fell in love and married.  From this point she used the name Ryllis Llewellyn Hacon.  William Llewellyn Hacon loved golf, and built a home in Dornoch (now Oversteps Care Home).

As Mrs Hacon she became a society hostess, entertaining artists such as Toulouse Lautrec at their holiday home in Dieppe, and Charles Conder in Dornoch.  This is a painting of her, entitled “On the Shore at Dornoch” painted by Conder in 1896. It now hangs in Aberdeen Art Gallery.

William Llewellyn Hacon died in 1910, leaving her a widow at 36.  She threw herself into public life becoming involved in the suffrage campaign.  She then went to Royaumont as an orderly or, as she preferred to describe herself “Head Char.” During the war she met a Canadian soldier, William Robichaud, and they married in 1918.  She reverted to her original name of Edith Catherine.  Margaret Davidson was one of the witnesses to the wedding.  The Robichauds lived in Dornoch, adopted two boys and Mrs Robichaud was an active member of the community.

I wonder how many other Guide companies in 1931 could boast two such interesting Guide leaders?