Encroachments on our Ancient Language

Recently I was flipping through the Old Statistical Account, written in the 1790s. I was wondering whether a particular individual in Inveran, situated in what I knew was a Gaelic-speaking parish, would have understood English or not. The parish accounts revealed the beginning of a mighty cultural transformation, from one tongue to another.

The minister of Tain did a detailed analysis. He found that the ‘inhabitants of the town speak the English, and also the Gaelic or Erse. Both languages are preached in the church. Few of the older people, in the country part of the parish, understand the English language; but the children are now … taught to read English.’ In rural Rogart, those with English ‘speak it grammatically, though with the accent peculiar to most of the Northern Highlanders.’ So, in the 1790s townspeople were probably bilingual, older country-people were probably monoglot Gaelic speakers, and younger country-people were taught English at school.

Lt Col Sutherland in Gaidhlig

Lieutenant Colonel Alasdair Sutherland (1743-1822) from Braegrudy, Rogart, is buried underneath this rather ostentatious pillar which details his life in both English and Gaelic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The second (or New) Statistical Account was written in the 1830s and 40s. By then Gaelic was still generally spoken in rural parishes and more and more people could also read it: in Kincardine each family owned a Gaelic Bible and Psalm-book. The minister of Lairg even thought that because they could read, the people now spoke their own language ‘more correctly.’

English was gaining ground. Young people learned at school but a ‘considerable proportion’ of Rogart’s population acquired the language ‘from books, and occasional conversation with educated persons’. They were therefore ‘more easily intelligible to an Englishman than the dialect spoken by the Lowland Scotch’ because their English had only ‘a degree of mountain accent and Celtic idiom’. Some English speakers had settled in the area, but they had not had any effect. These shepherds had moved from the Lowlands as the Sutherland Estate developed commercial sheep rearing operations and could speak only English. Lacking Gaelic must have meant a rather lonely existence. Their families had assimilated and all spoke Gaelic.

Despite the extension of English, the ministers of Lairg and Kincardine felt Gaelic had not lost ground as it was used in everyday and in religious life. The rural parishes which bucked this trend were Creich, where English was used by the majority, and Edderton, where they spoke ‘English less or more perfectly’. It is probably no coincidence that these parishes are close to the towns of Dornoch and Tain.

Intrigued by this change, yesterday evening I took a turn about the town of Dornoch, then drove to Pittentrail before cycling towards Lairg. I wanted to find evidence of Gaelic. There wasn’t much. Most was tokenistic, or connected with names of streets, towns or houses. There was a nice little collection of materials in the Dornoch Bookshop and a poster for traditional music events. When and how did this dissolution of Gaelic happen?

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The towns acted as catalysts for language change. In Dornoch this was dated from about 1810 and in Golspie from the 1790s. It was ascribed to the influx of ‘persons from the south country’ and to the increase in formal education, first in Gaelic then in English. The minister of Dornoch noted this was as much due to Gaelic schools as to English ones. Indeed in the town of Tain it was rare to find a person under the age of thirty who could speak Gaelic.

Tain was a complex parish, or perhaps the minister took a more sophisticated approach to analysing it. The parish was equally divided with Gaelic spoken in the country and in the fishing village of Inver while the town and the ‘higher ranks’ were English speakers. The parish of Dornoch has a similar town/country make-up and it would have been interesting to know if the situation was similar there.

 Language in Tain parish town Country/Inver village
Gaelic only 66 96
English only 100 36

The minister’s numbers indicate most people were bilingual, but he did warn this was not really the case. Presumably most people had a dominant language and could get by in the other.

In the 1840s Gaelic was still the preferred language of the people. Apart from in the town of Tain they used it for communicating with each other and they preferred attending Gaelic church services. However the minister of Dornoch could see what was coming. He expected that the ‘encroachments on our ancient language’ meant that in sixty or seventy years, that is by about 1900, it would be extinct.

He wasn’t far wrong.



Old Statistical Account and New Statistical Account of Scotland. Parishes of Creich, Dornoch, Edderton, Golspie, Kincardine, Lairg, Rogart, Tain. http://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/home


“We would rather go to prison” – Denominational problems and Clyne School Board

Alison McCall continues her investigation of the school board records of east Sutherland.

In 1877 the Clyne School Board minutes recorded that “some parents have expressed their willingness to go to prison rather than place their children under Mr Myron’s instructions.”

Morris Myron was headmaster of the recently opened Brora Public School. Within his profession he was highly respected, having chaired teachers’ committees and published a new style of school register. The average attendance during the first two years the school was opened was thirty four. The roll at the school (which could hold 250 pupils) had dropped to just twenty. Parents made their own educational arrangements with unqualified teachers and with Miss Sutherland’s girls’ school.

Why were the parents so strongly opposed to Mr Myron that they were willing to take their children out of school, risking fines and imprisonment?


Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, 25 June 1861

The first task of each School Board created after the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 was to carry out a census of all school aged children in the district. In Clyne there were 303 children between the ages of five and thirteen. 284 lived within the vicinity of Brora, which had three existing schools, two run by the Established Church and the Free Church plus a girls’ sewing school. There was also a school at Doll, two miles distant from Brora, founded by the Glasgow Auxiliary Gaelic School Society. The furthest pupils lived twelve miles away from Doll, and the School Board saw no option other than supplying an itinerant teacher for them.

The School Board proposed to amalgamate the Brora and Doll schools, making Mr Myron, the Established Church school teacher, headmaster on a salary of at least £100 p.a. Mr Baillie, the Free School teacher, would be deputy on a salary of at least £80 p.a.

The minutes do not explain what happened next, but clearly this plan was not acceptable. The parents at Doll claimed their children could not be expected to walk two miles to school in winter. The Board then proposed it should become an infant school, under a female teacher, with the older children walking into Brora. The Doll parents rejected this also.

More complicated were negotiations over the amalgamation of the two church schools. The difficulty appears to have been inter-denominational or political, though the minutes are silent on this. The School Board, which was chaired by Joseph Peacock, the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, favoured the Established Church. The majority of parents were members of the Free Church. By 1876 the parents of the children attending the Free Church school were refusing to send their children to be educated by Mr Myron. They made allegations of drunkenness, then of cursing, and latterly accusing him of carrying on an adulterous relationship with ‘the woman MacKay’. Alas, it has not been possible to identify ‘the woman MacKay’. The Board referred the matter to the Sheriff at Dornoch, who found the allegations wholly unfounded.

‘The ordeal through which the respondent has had to pass has been most trying, but he has come successfully through it, and the Sherriff-substitute now ventures to hope that the future relations between the School Board and the respondent, nothing will arise to show that the latter’s usefulness as a teacher has been in any way impaired by what has taken place under the present proceedings.’ (Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 22 Nov 1876)

Mr Baillie, the Free Church teacher, was officially ill during this time. He apparently suffered ‘severe attacks of bronchitis, aggravated by constitutional weakness and undeserved annoyance.’ In 1896 a newspaper article on his shell collection mentioned his love of cricket and golf, which casts doubt on his ‘constitutional weakness.’


Despite their assertion that they were prepared to go to prison, no parents did. Both Mr Myron and Mr Baillie suffered as a result of the dispute, but the main losers were the school children of Brora, whose education was seriously disrupted at a time when educational provision for children throughout Scotland was steadily improving.

“Want of shoes and clothing” – Truancy in East Sutherland

Alison McCall has delved further into the late nineteenth-century history of the region, drawing on archival sources and family knowledge.

Six times between 1885 and 1890 William MacLeod, a cooper and crofter who lived at Marrel, Helmsdale, was summonsed to appear before the School Board in regard to the truancy of some of his children. In 1888 he explained to the Board that his children could not attend school as he was unable to provide them with shoes and clothing.

William and his wife, Mary Bruce, had ten children born between 1872 and 1889. One, Johan, died in infancy and one, Hector, was handicapped from birth and remained incontinent into adulthood. The eldest, Williamina, had left school to work as a domestic servant before the summons started, but the next three, James, Betsy and Jane were frequently absent. In addition to the difficulty in clothing his children, William kept Jane off school to assist her mother. Elsewhere in Scotland, School Boards made vigorous efforts to address to problem of lack of clothing and footwear. Aberdeen organised collections of second hand children’s clothes, which could be made available to poor families. This was less feasible in rural East Sutherland, which had a smaller pool of middle class donors. Dundee provided clothing grants. “Parish boots” (children’s boots, marked at the heel to identify them as such, and which pawnbrokers were forbidden to accept) were widely available in other parts of Scotland. But in East Sutherland William MacLeod was not alone in struggling to clothe his children for school.


Marrel, where the MacLeods lived. Photo belongs to Alison McCall.

The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 made it compulsory for all children between the ages of five and twelve to attend school. However, education can only truly be compulsory if the authorities have the means to enforce it. Each School Board was obliged to appoint a Default Officer to report on truant children, and both Clyne and Kildonan School Boards did so. However, endemic poverty hampered the ability to enforce attendance. Of the first eight parents summonsed to appear before Clyne School Board, in 1874, three cited lack of clothing. The next year various parents were unable to clothe their children sufficiently for school in winter. In June 1886, such was the level of absences, that the Kildonan School Board decided to summon only those parents whose children had been absent over twenty times (i.e 10 days, as mornings and afternoons were marked as one attendance each) in the month of May. In 1888 children’s attendance was still frequently irregular, but there were no really serious cases. Children were absent due to sickness, stormy weather and want of shoes. It is telling that absence due to lack of shoes was not seen as serious. In 1891 James Sutherland’s daughter had to gather wilks (whelks) to feed the family instead of going to school. As late as 1899, labourer’s son Donald Matheson, had no shoes.

The ambivalence about summonsing the parents of non-attending children meant other means of persuasion were tried. In 1885 in an attempt to “save the Board the disagreeable necessity of summoning them” two ministers, the Rev Mr MacRae and the Rev Mr Fraser stated that they would urge upon the parents from the pulpit to send their children to school.


James MacLeod. As a child he was unable to attend school because of lack of shoes and clothing. Here he is with his wife, Catherine MacDonald, in Helmsdale probably in the 1940s. Photo belongs to Alison McCall.

In East Sutherland, School Boards were sympathetic but unable to effectively counter the problems. Many members had experienced poverty themselves and understood the problems faced by struggling parents. Indeed William MacLeod, whose children lacked clothes in the 1880s, was cited to appear before a School Board of which his brother-in-law was a member. Unfortunately for the school children of East Sutherland, it would appear that the Act which was supposed to guarantee compulsory education did not effectively extend to the poorest families.

Post script: James MacLeod, who missed school through want of clothing became a railway engine driver. He made every effort to ensure his own children were educated, making sacrifices to enable his daughter Mary Bruce MacLeod to train as a teacher at Moray House. She in turn encouraged her granddaughter, the present writer.

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.

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

Isabella’s Story, Part 2: ‘my intended spouse’

Living with their widowed mother at the small farm at Alcaig, it is unlikely Isabella and Jane had an exciting social life. They did, however, have strong family and social connections with many local ministers. It may have been through this group that Jane met the Mr Fraser whom she would marry, and where Isabella met a young missionary minister who was stationed in Caithness. Alexander Sage was six foot one inch tall, with broad shoulders and a deep chest. He was strong and had a temper. With good connections all over the far north, he had been brought up in Lochcarron and sent to school in Cromarty, just north of where Isabella had passed her childhood. At the age of twenty three Alexander had gone to Aberdeen to study at Kings College where he was friendly with several Ross-shire heirs. It may have been these schoolboy and college connections that eventually put Alexander in Isabella’s path. After Aberdeen he took his mother to live with him in Tongue where he took up the position of schoolmaster. The young man was following the usual pattern for ministers and indeed, in 1779, he was licensed by the Presbytery of Tongue to become an assistant to the minister in Reay. It must have been during this time that he met Isabella. The minister’s health was failing: latterly he had to be carried into the pulpit. Alexander must have hoped that when the inevitable happened, he would succeed him and offer Isabella the stability and prestige of the manse at Reay. Local politics intervened and another man was appointed when the minister died in 1784. Instead, Alexander made a sideways move into a vast mission in ‘a wide and populous district within the boundaries of the parishes of Reay, Halkirk, and Latheron’. He itinerated, taking services and visiting the people at Dirlot, Strathhalladale, and Berriedale. The less attractive offer of living by this ‘heathy moor, full of quaking bogs’ does not seem to have deterred Isabella. On the 19th March 1784 she married Alexander Sage.

The route Sage would have taken into ‘heathy moor, full of quaking bogs’

The route Sage would have taken into ‘heathy moor, full of quaking bogs’ (photo: Elizabeth Ritchie)

It was not the custom to marry in church. Thirty three year old Isabella and thirty one year old Alexander tied the knot at the farm in Alcaig. The service was conducted by her brother, minister of Kirkhill, and her father’s replacement at Urquhart, Charles Calder. Four days previously, as was normal among gentry families, they drew up a marriage contract. Alexander’s portion was in the form of a letter addressed to her brother, Dr. Alexander Fraser:

‘Revd. dear Sir, As your sister, Miss Isabella Fraser, and I have agreed to enter upon the married state, from a principle of mutual love and affection, and as I am not as yet possessed of an Established Church benefice with which to provide her as I would wish, I hereby oblige myself to bequeath to her all the subjects and effects belonging to me in case I should die before I am provided with a stipend on the establishment. I also hereby exclude any other person to intermeddle with any part of my subjects except the above Miss Isabella Fraser, my intended spouse alenarly. For the further security, I also bind myself to extend this security on stamped paper any time required. As I grant this, my obligation, from my special regard for your sister, so I hope she will be pleased to give a similar security to me in case I should survive her, and I am, Revd. dr. Sir, your mo. obedt. Servt., Alexander Sage.’

On her wedding day, Isabella responded

‘I, the above-designed Miss Isabella Fraser, in consequence of the affection expressed for me in the above letter, do bequeath to Mr. Alexander Sage, my intended husband, all my effects that shall pertain to me at my death, in case I shall predecease him, and exclude any other person from intermeddling with them: in witness whereof I have subscribed these presents, at Alcaig, this nineteenth day of March, xvii. and eighty-four, in presence of these witnesses- Mr. David Denoon, minister of Killearnan, and Mr. John Grant, merchant in Inverness.’

Marriage tended to be the defining decision in an eighteenth-century woman’s life. Isabella had chosen Alexander, and after their wedding they made their way further north than she had ever been before, away from fertile Easter Ross to the ‘region of mist and quagmire’.

'The Glutt', between Dirlot and Dunbeath - midsummer 2014

‘The Glutt’, between Dirlot and Dunbeath – midsummer 2014 (Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie)

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica

The Mysteries of Croick Church

This week’s post is submitted by Graham Hannaford who is studying from his home in Australia for his Masters in ‘Highlands and Islands History’ at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He recently visited Sutherland to attend the ‘Land and People in the Northern Highlands’ conference in Bettyhill. On his way north, he stopped by Croick.

Croick church, dating from 1827, is twenty-four miles due west from Dornoch. A Thomas Telford-designed church, its place in history was cemented in 1845 as the scene of an infamous episode of the Highland clearances.

Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

In 1842, James Gillanders, factor to an absent landlord, attempted to evict the Glencalvie tenants for sheep. His efforts finally succeeded on 24 May 1845 when eighteen families were cleared from their homes. The Times report of the events was quoted on 12 June 1845 in the UK Parliament during the often-times acrimonious debate on the Poor Law (Scotland) Amendment Bill:

Mr Crawford MP: He referred to the dispossessment of the tenantry of Ardgay near Tain, Ross-shire, parish of Kincardner [sic], the inhabitants of Glencalvie. “These families, consisting of ninety-two individuals, supported themselves in comparative comfort without a pauper amongst them; owed no rent, and were ready to pay as much as anyone would give for the land, which they and their forefathers had occupied for centuries. With the exception of two individuals who were permitted to remain, the whole of the people left the glen on Saturday afternoon and took refuge in their churchyard. They had been round to every heritor and factor in the neighbourhood, and twelve out of the eighteen families had been unable to find shelter. Behind the church a long kind of booth was erected, the roof formed of tarpauling stretched over poles, the sides closed in with horsecloths, rugs, blankets, and plaids. This was the refuge of the Glencalvie people. With their bedding and their children, they all removed late on Saturday afternoon to this place of temporary shelter. A fire was kindled in the churchyard, round which the poor children clustered; two cradles with infants in them were placed close to the fire. Of the people who passed the night in the churchyard with most insufficient shelter, twenty-three were children under ten years of age, seven persons were sickly and in bad health, and ten above sixty years of age, about eight are young married men; there are a few grown-up children, and the rest are persons in middle life, from forty to fifty years of age. On the Monday following they met the agent, who paid them the amount agreed upon for their stock, and their proportion for going out peaceably. The sum they had to receive is evidence that they were not in the condition of paupers; but this sum will soon be spent and then they must become paupers.”

Perhaps the refugees chose to shelter in the churchyard rather than in the church itself because that would have seemed to them a desecration. In 1843, following a schism, the congregation in the established church had shrunk to ten and most of those for whom the church was built had joined the Free Church whose ministers were quick to draw attention to the Glencalvie evictions. Was the church refused to them as a place of refuge because of the schism? Perhaps, more pragmatic considerations prevailed: did the placement of pews in the church render it unsuitable for even a temporary residence for so many people?

Pews inside Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Pews inside Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Messages scratched on the church windows include: “Glencalvie people was in the churchyard here May 24 1845” and “The Glencalvie tenants resided here May 24 1845” and, most poignantly, “Glencalvie People the wicked generation Glencalvie”. They are in copperplate handwriting, in English. The reporter to The Times claimed he could not speak to the people, as they knew only Gaelic and he only English. However the New Statistical Account of the parish, written only five years before these events, recorded that, while Gaelic remained the dominant language, “the greater proportion” of the thirty-five pupils at the parish school, which was then situated beside the church, could read and write English as well as Gaelic. The long existence of the parish school, and the sporadic appearance of Gaelic Schools in the glen itself since the mid 1810s, suggests that a good number of the Glencalvie people could read or write one or both languages. We will never know which individuals took the time to inscribe those messages in such a permanent way.

Ironically, the sheep for which the people were cleared have now long gone. Glencalvie is now part of a sporting estate.

Landscape around Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

Landscape around Croick Church (photo: Graham Hannaford)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Edinburgh: 1845)
Richards E., A History of the Highland Clearances: Agrarian Transformation and the Evictions1746-1886 (London: Croom Helm, 1982)
Richards E., The Highland Clearances (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008)
For the full debate on the Poor Law (Scotland) Amendment Bill see http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/sittings/1845 (The text quoted above was been slightly amended to improve readability.)