The Female Innkeepers of Cromarty

Theresa Mackay, who lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, completed her MLitt History of the Highlands and Islands (with distinction) in 2016. This culminated in writing a piece of original research on female innkeepers that won the 2016 Women’s History Scotland Leah Leneman prize and is slated to be published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies next year. Theresa now teaches at Royal Roads University and will be starting her PhD at the University of Victoria (BC) this autumn continuing her work on women’s history in the Highlands and Islands.  

In the early nineteenth century innkeeping was one way women in the Highlands and Islands could provide for themselves and their family. Whether managing a landlord’s inn or opening their own dwelling, they were entrepreneurial in their approach to offering food and shelter to travellers looking for temporary accommodations. Not simply providing a home-away-from-home, they were managers of complex hospitality operations that were pivotal to the economic health of their rural community.

The number of inns and places that accommodated travellers increased significantly at this time since navigating the Highlands and Islands was made easier with the establishment of transportation infrastructure such as bridges, canals and public boat routes from the south. In Ross and Cromarty, over a thirty-five year period the number of inns grew from zero to more than forty-two as a result.[1] In response to an increasing number of visitors needing shelter and new inns being built by landlords capitalizing on their estates, women commercialized their domestic skills and became managers of complex hospitality operations. In Cromarty, Mrs. Sutherland and Elizabeth Cormack managed commercial inns during this time.

Cromary Arms Inn

It seems likely that todays ‘Cromarty Arms Inn’ is the same building as either the New Inn or the Cromarty Inn. Perhaps someone with local knowledge can help? Photo: http://www.cromartyarms.com/

In 1809, Mrs. Sutherland’s husband left for the army. Deciding to take on the New Inn, a role she had at least once before, she embarked on a plan to upgrade furnishings with the help of her friends. In addition, she hired a man to help with the stabling and feeding of guests’ horses and placed an advertisement in the paper to attract business to her establishment.[2] A change in relationship status, including the departure of male relatives for work or death of a partner, was often the shift that opened the door to innkeeping as a viable and socially acceptable way for women to support themselves and their families.

The retirement of her brother, John, was the change that resulted in Elizabeth Cormack taking charge of the Cromarty Inn in 1824. Like her counterpart, Mrs. Sutherland, the role was not new to Elizabeth as she had already managed the inn for many years, despite John being the acknowledged innkeeper. Now “resum[ing] the business on her own account”, including managing the “stock of [the best] Spirituous and Malt Liquors,” Elizabeth made efforts to improve the premises. She had repairs made to the house and stables and furnished the building with feather beds and “counterpanes” (bedspreads). The improvements were done in preparation for receiving travellers from the “London Vessels” arriving to see local tourist sites gaining popularity, including the hill of Cromarty and the cavern, Macfarquhar’s Bed. [3] Only lasting four years in charge, Elizabeth died in 1828 and eight months later her inn’s furniture was sold at auction. [4]

IMG_5221

Cromarty Harbour was only forty years old when Elizabeth Cormack was running her inn. Presumably the visitors took small boats from the ‘London vessels’ to this harbour to land. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Overseeing renovations, hiring employees, marketing and managing suppliers were just some of the tasks that female innkeepers did that extended their role beyond the stereotypically domestic. It put them firmly into the position of business manager which resulted in agency and status. The economy of the early nineteenth-century Highlands and Islands was far more diverse and vibrant than we tend to assume, and female innkeepers such as those in Cromarty, played a vital part.

 

[1] This assumes all existing inns were reported, and reported correctly, in the sources. It is likely numbers were higher especially since the terms “pub” and “alehouse” sometimes meant “inn”. As well, some reports grouped these terms together, as in “X number of inns and alehouses” making the precise number of inns alone, unclear. The New Statistical Account of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1845) Vol. 14., p. 37, 67, 98, 106, 113, 140, 156, 164, 168, 243, 279, 300, 359, 394, 398.

[2] Inverness Journal, “New Inn Cromarty” 7 July 1809, p. 1. From Am Baile; article ID 8592. The notice says “she has taken the Inn again” (italics added) which suggests this was not the first time she had managed the inn. It also notes wanting to serve “passengers” which may refer to travel by coach or sail boat.

[3] ibid., “Cromarty Inn” 23 April 1824, p. 3., article ID 8594. See also “John Cormick Vintner in Cromarty” 29 June 1810, p. 1., article ID 8593. Ibid, “Cormack, Elizabeth, innkeeper Cromarty” 3 October 1828, p. 3., article ID 3068. Ibid., “Sale of Household Furniture at Cromarty” 24 April 1829, p. 1., article ID 8595. Ibid., “Cormack’s Inn Cromarty” 28 August 1807, p. 1., article ID 8591.

[4] ibid, 3 October 1828, p. 3., article ID 3068. Ibid, 24 April 1829, p. 1., article ID 8595.

Advertisements

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

Feb - Gruids 046

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.

Source:

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

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)

Source:
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica