‘tossed back and fore on the Moray Firth’: a sea voyage in 1805

A teenager from Kildonan, Donald Sage, was a student in Aberdeen. He had walked the whole distance from Tain to Aberdeen to get to university, suffering a collapse at Inverurie, as it was too much for the fifteen year old. At the end of session he needed to get home and decided to travel by sea. Poor Donald’s three-day experience sounds almost as bad as his footsore journey at the start of the session! His account provides a great insight into travel around the north as well as how Sundays were spent and what people ate at sea.

‘I took my passage for Helmisdale, on a salmon-fishing smack, which was in the service of Forbes and Hogarth, who then held the Sutherland rivers in lease from the Marchioness of Stafford … The smack which bore me homewards was the identical one by which my brother sailed to London, but had a different master; Coy had been replaced by a rough fellow of the name of Colstone. I went on board about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and dined before we set sail. Feeling hungry I partook largely of a coarse, greasy dinner at the skipper’s table. It consisted of very fat broth and still fatter meat. Colstone, not content with swallowing the most enormous quantities of clear fat I had ever seen attempted even by a famished mastiff, after all was over greased his face with it, to keep out the cold as I supposed. This sappy dinner, as well as the remembrance of the skipper’s face, served me for a strong emetic during the voyage homewards, which was both tedious and tempestuous. On going out at the pier-head the billows rose ‘mountains high’, and as they rose, both my spirits and my stomach fell. The dinner with its associations presented themselves before me every half -hour, until I became grievously sick, and my very ribs ached again with the pressure of vomiting. The wind blew a hurricane from the west, and in the course of twelve hours we were close on the Sutherland coast, opposite Helmisdale, the place of our destination.’

Helmsdale in the 1920s. Donald spent three days ‘tossed back and fore’ somewhere on the left hand edge of this photo. Photo courtesy of Timespan, Helmsdale.

‘But here again the wind chopped round in our very teeth, and we were for three days tossed back and fore on the Moray Firth in view of the harbour, without being able to enter it. The storm was so violent that even the skipper himself became sick. I was a Sabbath at sea; and although the wind blew contrary, the day was fine. The sailors observed the day with great decorum. There was nothing like social or public worship, but when any one of them got a spare hour, he laid himself face downwards on the floor of the cabin and conned over the New Testament. We left Aberdeen on a Friday, and landed at the mouth of the Helmisdale River on the Tuesday morning thereafter.’

The river as it enters the sea. Map inset from 1815. Image courtesy of Timespan, Helmsdale.

‘I shall never forget the strong and penetrating feeling of joyous safety with which I leaped out of the ship’s boat on the pebbly shore of the river near the Corf-house. Mr. Thomas Houston, now of Kintradwell, met me on the beach, and with him I went to the house of Mrs. Houston, his mother. After a cordial welcome and a hasty breakfast I walked up the Strath to Kildonan, where I found my worthy father [Alexander Sage] engaged in the annual examination of the Parish School. He received me with a father’s kindness, took me into his large embrace, and kissed me before the whole assemblage.’

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica: or parish life in the north of Scotland (Wick, 1889), 134-144.

A landscape of the imagination: Kildonan and the classical world

When Donald broke free from his classroom, he did not see the smoking thatched longhouses, the goats tied to their stakes, the bustle of women churning, washing and shouting after children. What he saw were the glories of the ancient world.

Alexander Sage had sent his boys to the parish school, but was unimpressed with the education on offer.[1] The minister set aside his library, equipping it with his study chair and a large table close to the window. There he guided Donald and Aeneas through English reading, grammar and arithmetic. Donald was delighted when his father announced he was to begin Latin. Alexander ‘pulled out the table drawer and showed me a new copy of Ruddiman’s Rudiments which he had purchased the week before at Brora’.[2] ‘With my father I read Cordery’s Colloquies, Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Sallust, Ovid, Virgil, Livy, and Horace, and along with these I was so carefully instructed in the rules of Watt’s Latin Grammar that I shall not forget them as long as I live.’ From that study window the boys could see the hills, woods and dips of the Strath of Kildonan. It was this landscape which brought into three dimensions the events of Greek and Roman history and legend.

Mar - Kildonan, Sage childhood 032

There are remnants of longhouses around the millpond. The manse is to the right. The round hill on the far right is the most obvious contender for being Torr-buidh, being so distinctive, though it bears no name on current OS maps. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

‘I attached a locality to all the various incidents recorded by the classic writers of Greece and Rome, placing them in the midst of the scenes around me. The place or township of Kildonan, with the tenants’ houses grouped around, resembled a village. The round knoll, Torr-buidh, rose in the centre; on the east was the schoolhouse, with a green plat in the front of it. When therefore I first became acquainted with Greek and Roman story, local associations began immediately in my mind to stand connected with persons and events … The esplanade before the old schoolhouse was the Forum; there the popular assemblies met, there the Tribunes vetoed, there the infamous Appius Claudius seized Virginia’

Mar - Kildonan, Sage childhood 028

Just to the east of the knoll which I have proposed as Torr-buidh, there is another high point upon which I discovered the stone founds of a small rectangular building (just visible in the foreground). Down slope is indeed a green area, perhaps Donald’s Forum. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The Roman poets, too, had their peculiar localities. Ovid’s “Daphne in laurum” his “Io in vaccam,” and many more of his fantastic scenes, I laid among the steeps of Craig-an-fhithiche, or the hazel groves of Coille-Chil-Mer.

Mar - Kildonan, Sage childhood 040

About a mile further up the Strath is Coille Cill a’Mhuire which still boasts native species. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The scenes of Virgil’s Eclogues – Tityrus cottage and flocks, and his entertainment, for his expatriated guest and countrymen Meliboeus – my fancy laid at the foot of Tigh-an-Abb’; Damoetas and Menalcas’ singing match I placed on the summit of Craig-an-Fhithiche, whilst the heifers, calves, goats and kids, contended for as the prize, browsed on the neighbouring steep of the Coire-mor.

Mar - Kildonan, Sage childhood 015

Tigh an Ab, and the fields where Donald imagined Tityrus’ flocks grazing. Presumably in the 1790s it would have been under oats and barley. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Mar - Kildonan, Sage childhood 053

The steep of the Coire Mor, now bracken covered rather than populated by livestock. A hillside marked Cnoc a’ Choire Mhòir is easily found on the map, although the name seems to have slipped from the summit (presumably spot height 394). However that there is no neighbouring Craig an Fhithiche suggests either that names have dropped off the map (or have never been included), or that places bore more than one name, not all of which have survived. Surrounding hills go by Beinn Dubhain; Tom na h-Iolaire; Creag Druim nan Rath; Cnoc Salislade. I suspect spot height 326, above Creag Dhearg is the most likely contender. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

I began the Georgics, with their antique lessons on husbandry, at the very time that my father’s man, Muckle Donald, made his first bold attempt to plough the Dalmore, which for fifteen years had not been under cultivation. With a plough and harness scarcely less primitive than that with which Virgil himself might be familiar in his boyish days at Cremona, Muckle Donald turned up the green sward of the Dalmore, sowed it with black Highland oats, and finished it off with a scrambling sort of harrowing. This was in the month of May, and whenever I was done with my Virgil lesson, I became a constant attendant of Muckle Donald at his toil in the field. His team, three Highland horses and a cow, [which] groaned most piteously while the ploughshare, pressed down by the hands of two attendants … opened up the furrows.

There, as he watched the ‘tilling, sowing, harrowing, and ultimate growth, ripening, and reaping of the Dalmore crop of oats’ he gained his first understanding of agriculture and fixed on that grassy flatness by the river the lines of Virgil he found so beautiful.[3]

It takes a stretch of the imagination today to re-place in this near-deserted spot, the people of the 1790s as they sowed, harvested, built, wove, distilled, played, fought, cooked, sang and joked. But in the 1790s, in the midst of it all, one boy transformed that lived-in landscape into quite another: a landscape of his classical imagination.

 

[1] The teacher, Donald MacLeod, was from Tain and had originally been a pedlar. He had ‘a very grim visage and a long beard, and, with a leathern strap in his hand, he predominated in stern rule over a noisy assemblage of tatterdemalion, cat-o’-mountain-looking boys and girls.’

[2] All from Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica: or parish life in the north of Scotland (Edinburgh: Albyn Press, 1975).

[3] Georgics I, 43-46.

Isabella’s Story, Part 4: Family Crises

In that first year in Kildonan, Isabella and Alexander struggled with a big house, managing a glebe and a farm, contracting debts, and their two young children. It also fell to them to manage a building project. The old chapel was heather-thatched and housed the burial place of the chiefs of the clan Gunn. The new church was erected on the same site, just down from the manse so Isabella, with Betty and Jane, would have watched the walls rise each day. That first year must have been exhausting for Isabella. Not only was she managing the house, probably significant parts of the farm, trying to improve the poor impression Alexander had made on the parishioners, and raising the girls, but she was again pregnant. Just over a year after their move Angus, or Aeneas, was born. This first son was named, as tradition dictated, after his paternal grandfather. Slightly more than another year later, in October 1789, Isabella gave birth to another boy in the manse at Kildonan: Donald, named after her father. Isabella, perhaps unable to feed the babies herself, or perhaps to assist with childcare, or perhaps to build up relationships locally in the traditional way through fosterage, perhaps all three, sent both boys out to be nursed. Marion Polson, married to the parish catechist, took in Angus. Donald was sent to Barbara Corbett who lived with her husband at Lonn-riabhach, near the rock of Marrel. Donald was very fond of Barbara’s care and the family connection persisted to the next generation when Donald employed her daughter Barbara, his foster-sister, as his servant. Isabella’s decision was not at the expense of loving ties with the boys. It seems that after they were weaned they largely lived at home again and Donald remembered Isabella’s tender attitude to him when he was a petulant toddler.

The new Kildonan church building. Photo: Marjory Harper

The new Kildonan church building with the manse (significantly refurbished!) behind. The ruins of the township of Kirkton are just to the right of the present farm buildings. Photo: Marjory Harper

The three year old’s demands were part of daily life as the dank November days closed in around Kildonan’s manse in 1792. Having lost a baby since Donald’s birth, Isabella was again pregnant. There were four children under the age of seven in the big smoky, dusty house, and the new baby was due at the end of the month. Her contractions began on the 26th or 27th. When labour really took hold she retired to one of the east-facing bedrooms. Someone would have sent word to the local midwife. There may have been one living in Kirkton, just a few minutes up the road, or she may have come from one of the further off townships. Several women would have gathered at the manse. Marion Polson and Barbara Corbett might have been there, and any other friends or near neighbours, all of whom would have had experience helping each other give birth. Things did not go well. The baby died and Isabella was losing a lot of blood. It became clear that she was not going to make it through the night. About an hour before she died, all the children were called to her bedside so she could see them and bless them. Donald later recalled that he was her favourite and he was told that she took particular notice of him that evening. Her feelings choked her as she prayed that he ‘might yet be useful in the vineyard of Christ.’ He did not remember the deathbed scene, but he did remember creeping in to her room a few hours after Isabella had died.

‘On the bed lay extended, with a motionless stillness which both surprised and terrified me, one whom I at once knew to be my mother. I was sure it was she, although she lay so still and silent. She appeared to me to be covered with a white sheet or robe; white leather gloves were on her hands, which lay crossed over her body.’

Alexander was sitting in the corner. He had been quietly weeping. When he caught sight of his little boy, the favourite son of his Isabella, the floodgates opened. He caught hold of Donald, his whole body shaking and the tears rolling down his face. Donald didn’t know that grown men could cry and, as his father held him he stared at Isabella’s body, her gloved hands engraving on his memory. Isabella was forty two. Alexander buried her by the wall of the church building that she had watched grow out of the ground a few years earlier.

Isabella’s children were given the loving mothering they needed for the next few years by Eppy, a servant. Within two years Alexander had found a new wife. She was a local woman, Jean Sutherland of Midgarty. Isabella’s boys stayed at home, being educated by the parish schoolmaster and by their father until they turned twelve and thirteen when Alexander took them to school in Dornoch. Doubtless largely due to Isabella’s smoothing over his early difficulties, Alexander eventually became a well-respected and loved minister in Kildonan. Today he lies beside his church, between his Jean and his Isabella.

Isabella Fraser Sage's gravestone. Photo: Jacquie Aitkin.

Isabella Fraser Sage’s gravestone. Photo: Jacquie Aitkin.

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

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…

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