Alex’s Farm: On Space, Time and Going Places

They watched me, keeking through the living room window, as my bike skimmed from Pittentrail towards the A9 junction at the Mound. I was racing the light. Too easy in early summer, intoxicated by the evening daytime, to forget the gloaming. And to forget the invisibility of an unexpected cyclist. All evening Janet had plied me with biscuits to wash down the tea as I noted down what Alex patiently explained of the annual tasks of a sheepman. Half-understood notes I found weeks later, scrumpled in my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, when I had returned from the conference in Kentucky. Anxiety at my inadequate knowledge of practical farming had been ameliorated by discovering most speakers at the Agricultural History Society were fine historians but few could have overwintered a cow any more successfully than myself. So in June, at ten o’clock at night, Alex and Janet checked out the window, across two fields and the River Fleet, to ensure the pink blob was safely whizzing east on the A839 to the sea-line and back to Dornoch.
Two hundred years ago I wouldn’t have been there and not for the obvious reasons of my and the bike’s lack of existence. Cycling the mile west to Pittentrail, fording the river, returning east 6 miles then rousing the boatman at Little Ferry to cross Loch Fleet would have been a nonsense, particularly as there was a direct road passing Eiden Farm through Torboll Farm, on the correct side of the estuary and only 2 ½ miles. Today’s road, on the north rather than the south bank, dates from the Sutherland Estate’s investment in infrastructure in the 1810s.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with it's own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with its own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

William Young and Thomas Telford’s innovative crossing of the Fleet-mouth was a boon for east-coast travellers, and it made the Estate’s north bank road practicable. The tarmac thread connects some places, but it has added several miles between me and the Campbells. Only a few minutes on the bike, but the best part of an hour by foot, the way most folk travelled two hundred years ago. And in my mind’s map today’s network of roads has divorced places which are actually held fast.

Eiden, looking towardsTorboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from colelction of Elizabeth Ritchie

Eiden, looking towards Torboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Last Autumn Alex treated me to an archaeology tour by tractor. I jumped out to open gates on what was the Eiden-Torboll road, its edges tasselled with alder and birch. Up on the rolling ridge, where a warmer climate had once permitted arable farming, crouched the heap of the chambered cairn and the tell-tale circles of Iron Age houses. Folk who farmed Eiden long before the Campbell men, according to family legend, tempted up from Argyll by promises of land made by their sister newly wed to the Earl of Sutherland back in the sixeenth century. And then Alex proposed a wee jaunt, just a bittie further, to see an old stone. Being particularly fond of old stones I was intrigued by the initials C on the Eiden side, and B on the Torboll side. I told him how, before the year Bonnie Prince Charlie came, territory was marked by walking the boys round the boundaries and beating them. The pain and trauma incising the marches in their consciousness. Painting a rock seems a better idea.

Roy's Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland

Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms and the road up Strath Carnaig before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Covers the joins of three modern OS maps. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland

But, pushed against the wind on that unremarkable ridge, I realised I was only a few hundred yards away from the site of several Sunday afternoon explorations in Strath Carnaig. My mental map had placed there much closer to home: a mere wiggle up the Loch Buidhe road from my side of the Mound. My place of Sunday hillwanders and a challenging cycling circuit. Eiden, on the other hand, was connected with Alex selling raffle tickets at winter ceilidhs in the Pittentrail Hall and the fun of playing tunes with the Accordion and Fiddle Club on Thursday nights. Yet here I was, looking at both of them together. The Hall just down there, and the Loch Buidhe road over by. Alex’s farm was in both. Bridges stretched across the fissure in my mind’s map.

Alex knew the old places I had tramped on those Sunday afternoons: the white-walled house with the green porch; the wobbly triangle of wall suggesting to the sheep that the grazing might be better within; and the head dyke up Strath Tollaidh (a strath it took me four years to notice, being incised into forgettable stubs by the division between OS map 16 and 21) which once kept the cattle out of the olden people’s crops. He knows them because, despite the illusion created by the technological advances of the 1810s and the happenstances of map boundaries, the separating space does not exist. They are the same place. It is the old road that tells that story: the one from Eiden past Torboll that we bumped along in the tractor; that all the generations before Thomas Telford walked when they drove their cattle; carried their cheese and butter to market; and along which the twelve year old boys slouched each term to board at Dornoch Academy.

The new roads connected some places. Other places, their connectedness now only by tractor tracks and hillpaths, became separate, even remote, as we whizz over the tarmac on our bikes.

With thanks to the Campbells for their generosity in tea, biscuits, sharing of knowledge, tractor rides, lambing tutorials, and allowing me to publish this!


It’s Complicated … The Relationship of William Murray and Girzel Grant: Part 2

Glen Matheson was raised in a rural area known as Earltown in northern Nova Scotia. This Highland community was settled predominately by people from the eastern parishes of Sutherland. Many of Glen’s ancestors lived in Strathbrora, Strathfleet and Fleuchary as well as in the Lochbroom area. Glen has been researching the emigrants from Sutherland to Nova Scotia and beyond for over four decades. However his passion is the stories of the early settlers of his home community. He maintains a blog at where one will find several connections to the cleared settlements of Sutherland.

The story of William Murray and Girzel Grant took a fateful twist on August 16th, 1809. Grace decided to attend a market fair in Tain along with many from Sutherland. This was an opportunity to sell her surplus cheese and butter outside of her immediate area. It was also a social outing, a break from the tedium of farm life. It was a popular event: a crowd of over 100 people arrived at the northern pier to board the small ferry boat at Meikle Ferry. The ferry across the Dornoch Firth substantially shortened the journey to and from Tain. The boat was overloaded due to the negligence of the ferry operator and the ferry sank midstream. Ninety nine people perished. Many of the remains washed up on shore in the days following. Neither Grace nor her remains were ever seen again. She did not ‘have so much as a grave linen to cover her remains at last’.

Meikle Ferry. Picture courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Meikle Ferry. Picture courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

It would appear that William accepted God’s Will and continued his duties. In 1810 a document shows that he received ten pounds from the charitable relief fund for survivors provided by donors as far away as India and South Africa.

Meikle Ferry Disaster Relief Fund. Grissel Grant is named about half way down the page. Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Meikle Ferry Disaster Relief Fund. Grissel Grant is named about half way down the page. Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Within four years William married a younger lady named Margaret. The routine resumed. William continued with his duties in Creich. Around 1813 William and Margaret had a daughter. They named her Grace. It’s complicated…

Out of this complicated relationship between William and Grace had issued at least six children. We have no information on three daughters, Grace and two Marys. One of the Marys likely died young. The remaining three children emigrated to northern Nova Scotia and were among the early settlers of their respective communities. With them went few material possessions however their father’s love of all things holy sustained them in the unfamiliar forests of North America. It is not surprising that several of his descendants were clergy and many were pillars in the offices of the church.

Robert Murray, their son, was born in 1783 and emigrated to Pictou in 1819. He obtained a ticket of location for a land grant in the new settlement of Earltown in the Colchester District. This was an extensive area almost entirely settled by families from East Sutherland. In 1821 he married Mary Sutherland “Ballem” of Craigton, Rogart. She had emigrated to Earltown in 1819 with her brothers. As there were many Murrays in this part of Nova Scotia, they were known as the Valleys, Robert’s land being located in a narrow valley.

William and Grace’s daughter Janet married Alexander MacIntosh of Evelix in Dornoch. They and their infant daughter Grace emigrated to Pictou in 1812. They settled at Elmfield near Roger’s Hill or Ben Na Mhathanach to the Gaels. Two of their grandsons were prominent Presbyterian ministers, Rev. John Murray in Cape Breton and Rev. James Murray in Ontario. Several other clergy in both the Presbyterian and United Churches descend from this couple.

Janet Murray McIntosh. Image from Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)

Janet Murray McIntosh. Image from Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)

Their son Donald spent a few years in the British Cavalry. He married Margaret Campbell of Cyderhall and settled on a croft at Rearquhar. He lost the croft due to insolvency in 1831 but managed to secure passage for his family to Pictou. He obtained land near Earltown at a place called Loganville. His farm was on a lofty perch overlooking the coastal plains in northern Nova Scotia. The hill was known locally as The Craig and Donald’s descendants have been known as The Craigs ever since. A grandson, Rev. George Murray, served for many years as a missionary in Trinidad.

William and his second wife Margaret remained in Scotland. They appear to have had two daughters. One married a Campbell and the other, Grace, married John Munro, a pensioner of the 78th Regiment. Their son was William Munro. He continued the family tradition of religious leadership becoming a Precentor and Elder in the Free Church of Tain.

William Murray died April 4th, 1825, his body rests somewhere in eastern Sutherland and his spirit went forth in hope of a glorious resurrection. Grace’s earthly remains repose somewhere in the North Sea and her spirit went forth…

It’s complicated.

George MacDonald, Men of Sutherland (1937, 2014)
Rev. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland (1953)
Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)
Personal communication, Dr Elizabeth Ritchie, March 2015

The funeral of James Sutherland of Pronsie, 1741

This week’s post is by Malcolm Bangor-Jones. Malcolm is a civil servant who makes regular contributions on Sutherland’s history to the ‘Am Bratach’ newsletter and to various academic publications.

In November 1741 James Sutherland lay sick in bed at Aberscross. James was Sutherland of Pronsie, wadsetter (or mortgage holder) to the Earl of Sutherland who had a controlling interest in the Skelbo estate in which Pronsie sat. The family had possessed Pronsienaird since early in the seventeenth century. James’ grandfather had expanded the family’s influence in 1679 and in 1687 by obtaining the wadset of Knockarthur and Easter Aberscross: the place where his grandsons, first James then William, were to die of the “rageing Distemper”.

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his 'raging distemper' or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his ‘raging distemper’ or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Isabella Grant had only been married to James for six years when she was widowed. She was left with two daughters, Margaret and Jean. Later Isabella married Dr John Gordon, surgeon at Golspietower and later of Jamaica. James did not leave his affairs in good order. He had not made up his title to his property (never a good sign) and was succeeded by his brother, David, who did not either. This David Sutherland of Knockarthur was generally agreed to be “remarkably weak in his understanding [and] altogether unfitt for manageing the affairs of [Margaret and Jean]”. Efforts were made to overturn his appointment. This was part of the battle over who should administer the affairs of the girls, and over the Isabella’s jointure. Both ‘sides’ appealed to the Earl of Sutherland for support. For the Earl, James’s death meant the loss of one of his political ‘friends’ or voters at a time when his political contest with the Mackays was intensifying.

As well as casting light on regional politics, the legal tussling over power and money after James’ death left a series of financial accounts about his funeral. These tell us about how minor gentry in the Highlands dealt with death and how they spent money at funerals to bolster their status.

Kenneth Sutherland, a joiner as well as bailie and sheriff substitute, in Dornoch charged for a “WenScot Cophin” £3; a “Box for Do Intralls” 6 shillings [30p]; the cost of “ane Express for Carriing” them to Aberscross 1 shilling [5p]; “Blaking ye Kirk Doors of Dornoch” 7 shillings [35p]; “Making the Funrall Table” 10 shillings [50p]; cash for “ale to Men for takeing off & putting on ye Grave Stons” 1 shilling 6d [7½p].

Andrew MacCulloch, bailie of Dornoch, charged for borrowing two mortcloths from the church (the funds from the mortcloths went towards assisting the poor), “Toleing the Great Bell for ii Days”, “the Litle Bell & making of the Grave”, and paying “the Beadle for going to Aberscorss with the Mort Cloaths”. That account came to just over £2. MacCulloch also furnished liquor: “3 Doz: 4 [40] Botles Claret & Zerry” £4; 3 “Botles Spirits” 6s; ale 1s; and candles 2s. Alexander Gray of Inverbrora, the renowned drover, added “two Dozen Botles Cherry for Pronsies Funeralls” at a cost of £1 16s [£1.80].

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

The corpse needed to be carried from Aberscross to Dornoch to be interred. John Polson, tacksman of Navidale, and John Peterkin provided victuals and drink to over 30 men from the parishes of Loth and Golspie. Polson’s account included “Conveening at Geo: Mcpherson house Kintradwell for Eale”. [This was probably the Wilkhouse Inn.] Peterkin provided rum and ale as well as ‘meat’ or food for the coffin carriers.

Various goods for the funeral, at a cost of £14 10s sterling, were sourced from Nicolas Ross, a merchant in Tain. The list included: “2 Ounces Cinnamon, 1 oz netmoogg [nutmeg], 1oz Mace, ½ pound black Spice, ½ pd Jemaicca Spice, 2 pound Rice, 2 pds Raisens, 2 pounds Currens, 2 pds pruins, 6 pounds pouder Suggar, 7 pounds 5 ozs loaf Suggar” – ingredients for a plum cake. He also supplied mourning materials: “3½ yards Cambrick @ 8/6, 1½ yards Do finer @ 10/, 6 yards black Ribeen, 5 Drops Dark blew Silk, Ane Card black Slive Buttons, a pair of black Stockens”. And he provided yet more drink: “6 Dozen and 1 Bottle Clerret,1 Dozen and 1 Botle white wine, 1 Botle best Clerret”, four bottles of vinegar, four bottles of brandy, four bottles of rum, and then a further two dozen bottles of white wine and two dozen flint wine glasses.

The accounts tell us a good deal about the arrangements although we must guess at some aspects. It seems there was a relatively protracted watch between the death and the burial, hence the need for Pronsie being disembowelled. His body was placed in the wooden ‘wainscot’ coffin and his entrails in a box. During this extended wake, which was typical of this sort of funeral, ‘guests’ would enjoy hospitality and view the deceased. Invitations may have been sent out to relatives, friends and acquaintances of equal or higher degree. Some would have come a distance. The hospitality may have included funeral bread baked with flour rather than meal, and it certainly included plum cake. There was a good deal of alcohol which could give rise to ‘unseemly’ behaviour. The funeral procession involved the wider community, not only of Dornoch but including men from at least as far off as Loth and Golspie. The kirk bells were rung announcing the death and a hand bell was probably rung alongside the funeral procession.

Just as in the Lowlands, these elaborate and public arrangements were what was expected of a minor gentry family at this period. It was a way in which social status was marked, whether the Sutherlands of Pronsie could readily afford it or not.


Isabella’s Story, Part 3: Of Babies, Houses and Husbands

After her wedding, Isabella travelled north to take up residence in the ‘low, uncomfortable cottage of two rooms and a closet, not far from the old ruin of Dirlot’. There she ran her household for three years as her husband traversed the district, mainly on foot, accompanied by his gillie or kirk-officer.

A later set of buildings at Dirlot, Caithness. Not far away is an old graveyard and a little further along the road the ruins of a church. Sometimes places that seem remote today were community hubs not that long ago.

A later set of buildings at Dirlot, Caithness. Not far away is an old graveyard and a little further along the road the ruins of a church. Sometimes places that seem remote today were community hubs not that long ago. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Almost a year and nine months after her wedding Isabella gave birth to her first-born. Elizabeth was followed in March 1787 with Jane. A few months later Isabella and Alexander bundled the babies and sticks of furniture onto ponies and carts for the move south to the vast parish of Kildonan. Their income rose from a relatively humble £40 to £70: a lot to many of the people to whom they ministered, but not in comparison to other ministers or gentry. Isabella became mistress of Kildonan manse, half way up the fertile Strath, scattered with cattle, grain and whisky producing townships. Unlike the longhouses that everyone else occupied, the Sages had a lime and stone-built house bracketed with gables and chimneys which smoked instead of drawing the fumes upwards. On the ground floor were a parlour, bed-room, and a closet. Upstairs were a dining-room, bed-room, and another closet. In the attic storey were two garrets, one fitted up as a bed-room, the other a storeroom used for lumber. The house was nightmarish to keep clean as the walls were ‘cat and clay, plastered over with lime’, finished with a coat of whitewash which came off on everything that touched it: on visitors’ coats, on Isabella’s skirts, and on every part of active toddlers. There were not just those three floors to heat, light and clean, but also the two low buildings stretching out from the manse which contained, on the west, the nursery, kitchen and byre, and on the east, the barn and stable. Each compartment was divided from the next by the inadequate ‘cat and clay’, so fairly soon humans and animals could eye each other through the gaps. Like their neighbours’ longhouses, the office roofs were constructed of turf and finished with clay and straw, never quite keeping out the worst of the rain. Muck was constantly trailed in from the rick-yard, the kiln and the cattle-fold. The manse was the centre of an active farm. Ministers were granted the use of a glebe as part of their pay. In Alexander’s case this was fifty acres. He was not terribly interested in the agricultural improvements that so excited many of his colleagues so the land continued to be operated without many changes.

Despite the promotion from missionary to fully-fledged minister, the move came with major financial challenges for the young couple. They had to buy furniture for a larger house, stock a considerable glebe, and they decided to lease a farm. They contracted debts and money was extremely tight. Isabella, blessed with a sense of humour, would say, ‘is bochd so, is bhi bochd roimh’ (out of the fire into the embers).

Money was not the only challenge. Alexander was not immediately accepted by locals. He was rather uncompromising and rather willing to challenge people’s wrongdoing. He was a slow thinker, needing much time to study a matter. His difficulties with catching on and finding words to express his ideas was exacerbated by a shyness which confused him, often rendering him speechless. A number of his parishioners were far more pious than he. His faith deepened as he increased in age, but Kildonan’s key church members were not impressed with the new man. His problems were compounded by his temper. Isabella was vital in smoothing his path. Unlike him she was reflective, with a deep faith and a sharp mind. She was patient and mild. It was she who had the difficult job of checking her husband’s anger, protecting both him and others from it.

To be continued…

Hew Strachan (ed), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica


The Travelling Bishop

On 22nd June 1760, a strange little party made its way along the south banks of the Dornoch Firth.  The fifty six year old Bishop of Ossory was touring Scotland.  After a short visit to  Richard Pococke travelled eastwards, stopping to inspect every ‘Pictish house’ he came across!  At Loch Shin they acquired a boat so they could explore an island.  He was delighted with the nests, eggs and chicks of the gulls and grey lag geese.  A sighting of another ‘stone fortress’ two miles up the loch drew them into to the western shoreline.  Such excitements could not take their minds off their stomachs for ever.  The group spied a ‘Highland cabbin’ and decided to draw on that hospitality that was so necessary in a region in which there were very few inns.  Pococke’s observations give us a rare insight into the domestic life of a family who were probably joint tenants, in the generation or two before the clearances.

There were ‘five apartments, one at the entrance seemed to be for the cows, another beyond it for the sheep, and a third, to which there was an entrance only at the end of the house, for other cattle; to the left was the principal room, with a fire in the middle, and beyond that the bed-chamber, and a closet built to it for a pantry; and at the end of the bed-chamber, and of the house, a round window to let out the smoak, there being no chimney.  The partitions all of hurdle-work so as one sees through the whole.  A great pot of whey was over the fire, of which they were making Frau.’  This dish was also known as omhan.  It was essentially whisked cream and was often eaten at Christmas.  It was made with a horse-hair whisk, or loinid, in a churn.  ‘This they work round and up and down to raise a froth, which they eat out of the pot with spoons, and it had the taste of new milk; then the family, servants and all, sat round it, and eat, the mistress looking on and waiting. She brought us a piggin of cream, and drank to me, and we drank of it round.  The dairy is in a building apart.’

Far from finding the barren wilderness that southerners might have expected, Pococke noticed ‘many spots of fine ground in this country, mostly on the side of rivers and streams, and some large ones up the sides of hills.  They breed much young cattle and sheep, but not so many I think as the ground would bear.  At night they house the sheep all the year, and the poorer people shear in May and November, who have not grass for them abroad.’

When making their way to the ferry at the south end of Loch Shin they met ‘an aged person, who had much the look of a gentlewoman.  She had about her shoulders a striped blanket, and saluted us genteely. She was followed by a maid without a cap or fillet, with a bundle at her back’.  Pococke was surprised at the young woman’s headgear and discovered that until a Highland women was married, she wore a ribbon in her hair.  The old lady was ‘a sort of decayed proprietor, who, I suppose, was going round a-visiting; and as they are very hospitable to all, so they are not uncivil to such unfortunate persons.’  It seems that this lady who had fallen on hard times was being supported by charitable gifts from local people.

ImageNo longer any herdboys or women bearing high fat snacks for the traveller in the ‘forrest’ around Ben Kilbreck, but still some dubious accommodation.  (Worth visiting for the hundred year-old graffiti).  Image from the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

He crossed on the ferry on 24th June and started for the house of Thomas MacKay, minister in ‘Larig’.  MacKay was delighted to see the bishop.  He brought cakes and a bottle of wine, and asked if they had eaten breakfast.  Pococke was to ‘bless the entertainment’ then MacKay decided to join the group as they journeyed northwards, crossing the Tirry repeatedly ‘to avoid the cutts made by the floods’.  As they travelled they talked.  Pococke discovered that MacKay’s parish extended up both sides of the loch, yet he was paid only £50 a year.  MacKay explained that this was somewhat compensated for as the minister could rent land cheaply.  They ascended ‘over the foot of Ben Clibrig, [Klibreck] the Earl of Sutherland’s forrest.’  Although it was still June, to a man used to more southern climes he felt it was like November with the ‘flood gushing out at the side of a mountain.’  As they moved away from the more fertile strath, Pococke came upon the summer grazings.  ‘We came to another rivulet and sat down in a sheltered place half a mile beyond some sheelings or huts, to which they come in the summer with their cattle. We asked about the accommodation’.  It sounded a bit dubious so they decided just to stop for some food. Some ‘boys came near with their cattle … we invited them to take share’.  Word had already got around about the visitors.  Just as they were packing up the boys declared that their mother was coming with some refreshments.  ‘Immediately she appeared at a good distance; she carried a piggin of cream, and her maid followed her with a small tub covered, which was warm whey.  She drank to us, and we took it round and tasted of the whey.’  This good food and friendliness set the party up for their further travels all the way to the north coast, having glimpsed, amongst all the ruins and gulls, a little of the society and economy of the rural Highlands.

Richard Pococke, Tours in Scotland, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&A Constable, 1887)


St Duthac and the Battle of Flodden

This week’s blog post is contributed by Tom Turpie. Tom completed his PhD in Scottish Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh in 2011. He is currently teaching medieval history at Stirling and Edinburgh.

On 8 August 1513 James IV (1488-1513) set off from Edinburgh with £66 in his pocket and accompanied by a small party of retainers to visit the shrine of St Duthac at Tain. He had returned to Edinburgh by 22 August, when he joined the army mustering of the Burgh Muir for the invasion of England. The 500th anniversary of the Flodden campaign was commemorated in Scotland and Northumbria this September. But why did James chose to spend his final days before the invasion in a gruelling trip to the north?

The close relationship between one of Scotland’s most interesting monarchs and the shrine at Tain is reasonably well known. James visited the relics of St Duthac on pilgrimage at least once a year between 1493 and his death at Flodden in 1513. However, the August 1513 visit was different. Firstly this was an unusual time of year for the king to travel to the shrine. Only one of the 19 recorded pilgrimages made by the king took place in August. He normally visited around the time of the feast day of St Duthac on 8 March, or after the harvest in October. The trip in 1513 was also unusually low key. Most of the flamboyant monarch’s visits to the north were accompanied by his minstrels and a large retinue. So what was the purpose of this final visit?

A chance reference to St Duthac in a historical work from the seventeenth century may provide a clue. In 1631 David Chambers, an exiled Catholic living in France, produced a history of Scotland and England. This work was a celebration of both kingdoms’ Catholic pasts and was aimed at Charles I (1625-1649). Chambers included in this work an otherwise unrecorded legend in which Duthac predicted Scots calamities at the hands of the English and Danes, and prophesised their victory over the Norwegians at the battle of Largs in 1263. Interestingly the pilgrimage of 1513 was not the first time that Duthac had been connected with a military campaign. In similar circumstances in 1482, shortly before summoning the host to face an English invasion, James III (1460-1488) founded a chaplainry dedicated to St Duthac in Tain. A connection between Duthac and warfare also features in a 1521 history of Scotland authored by John Maior (1469-c.1550). John recorded an incident he claimed had occurred at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. One of the fatalities at that battle, which took place just outside Berwick, was Hugh, 4th earl of Ross. His death came as a surprise to John, and presumably to Hugh as well, as the earl had been wearing a holy relic, the shirt of St Duthac which was believed to protect its wearer from harm. This holy garment would later resurface in the royal reliquary collection and was mended on the orders of James IV in 1512.

ImageSt Duthac as represented in Tain.  Image from the collection of Tom Turpie.

So did James IV visit Tain in 1513 in order to seek a prophecy of military victory from Duthac? There are plenty of precedents for this sort of behaviour by in the middle ages. The medieval kings of France visited the Abbey of St Denis before going to war, while their English counterparts would visit a string of northern shrines before any invasion of Scotland. Without surviving diaries or letters we will never be sure of the exact motivations behind the doomed monarch’s last trip to the north. He may well have gone merely to seek the blessing of one of his favourite saints, or because he knew he would be on campaign at his normal pilgrimage time of October. Whatever the exact purpose, the visit by James to Tain in August 1513, his last act before invading England, underlines just how close a relationship the monarch had built up with a small northern town and its patron saint.


Building “The Mound”

Clive Hayward writes this week about the building of “The Mound”, that critical piece of engineering between Dornoch and Golspie.  Clive has just completed his first year of study on the MLitt in Highlands and Islands History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  As ever, we welcome comments, queries, questions and corrections in the comments section.

Thomas Telford and William Young appear unlikely bedfellows, one being a celebrated engineer and the other being an infamous factor of the Sutherland estate associated with the Clearances.  However, their collaboration to implement the Sutherland Road Act of 1805 has left a monument to their achievements.  The original road ran along the east coast of Sutherland crossing Loch Fleet at the Little Ferry and the Dornoch Firth at the Meikle Ferry.  The creation of the parliamentary road removed two major obstacles by bridging the Helmsdale River and the Dornoch Firth at Bonar, but in between was the tricky passage of Loch Fleet.  Thomas Telford, the consulting engineer for the Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges, originally envisaged building new piers for the ferry as the construction of a traditional bridge was out of the question.  William Young however proposed a causeway across the estuary at the Mound.  The Commissioners initially baulked over the price of the estimate but when the Marquis of Stafford offered to contribute to the cost of the project, the proposal was accepted.

The Marquis was greatly interested in improving Sutherland’s infrastructure and was a major contributor to the finance of new roads. The construction work also offered employment to the local population, recently displaced by the “improvements” undertaken by the estate. Contractors however were hesitant to submit estimates for what promised to be a difficult operation.  Only two were forthcoming (one being very high whilst the other contractor was not regarded as being sufficiently competent), and the whole venture was in doubt.  Young persuaded Earl Gower (the eldest son of the Marquis) to intervene and an offer to undertake the Mound was submitted to the Commissioners by the Earl, in partnership with Young and his associate Patrick Sellar.

To cross Loch Fleet, which is a tidal inlet of the sea, Telford designed a huge earth causeway almost 1000 yards long. The plan was to start by building a stone bridge, with sluice gates, close to Craigtoun rock, on the northern side of the bay. The engineers decided to start work on both banks simultaneously and meet in the middle.  To get the stone and timber to the shores of Loch Fleet they constructed a horse drawn railway.  Difficulties in finding a rock base for the foundations delayed the project beyond the estimated one season and, just as it was nearing completion, a strong tidal surge put a hole in the causeway.  Telford decided to widen the whole causeway and despite much anguish the two ends were finally joined together. Construction work on this huge project began in 1814 and was completed by June of 1816.

The bridge originally had four arches, although this was later increased to six. Each contains a sluice gate preventing sea water travelling upstream when the tide comes in but allows river water out as the tide falls. These gates are self-regulating, but to cope with the river’s spate there is a mechanism of winches and pulleys to manually lift the gates. This was installed, again under the direction of Thomas Telford, in 1833. Winch houses were built at either end of the bridge and a cottage for the gate keeper was built at the northern end of the crossing. The causeway and sluice gates stop the sea over a mile short of its natural high tide mark. This had a dramatic effect on the environment upstream of the Mound. The build up of silt in the shallow fresh water created the ideal conditions for alder and willow trees. The Mound Alderwoods is now one of the largest of its type in Britain and is a designated nature reserve. The other effect of the building of the Mound was to make the ancient ferry crossing at Little Ferry on the mouth of the loch obsolete.


Image from the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As a major construction project in 1814, it was second only to the development of the coalmine at Brora in injecting large amounts of capital into the Sutherland region.  The total project cost £9749, more than sixty per cent being spent on labourers’ wages. When the Marchioness visited the project in August 1815 she found: “sixty people at work and 150 expected the following week.”  It is hard to overestimate the project’s importance in creating work, albeit temporary, in an otherwise non-industrialised environment.

The Mound was one of William Young’s crowning achievements.  Despite Telford’s oversight, the construction, planning and day to day working was in the hands of amateurs and relatively unqualified workmen.  Young was in no sense a trained engineer but he battled through the project from start to finish and it is a testament to his tenacity.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).

Richards, E., The Leviathan of Wealth, (London 1973).