Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 3

As our current epidemic subsides in this country, here are some final thoughts from Malcolm Bangor-Jones on cholera in Sutherland.

Dr Ross provided further details of conditions in the parish of Rogart. The cottages were “by far the strongest and best built of any we fell in with, and better finished in every respect their furniture is excellent and well kept and in not a few of them we found Grates, both in their Rooms and Kitchens. The people seem to want none of the ordinary Comforts of Life, their Barns were full of Corn, and their Stores inside their houses were equally well appointed as few of them were without their meat Barrels of Beef mutton or pork and some had part of them all. And as to Potatoes they admit if it were possible to preserve them, that they have a stock sufficient for two years Consume. Let me assure you that in many of the houses we saw in and about Rogart, no Gentleman, let his Rank be what it may, but might find himself comfortable for a night.”

On the other hand in the Strathfleet end of the parish they found “many poor widows and old maids in destitute circumstances, and such was the primitive simplicity of those poor Creatures, that rather than expose their wants they borrowed Blankets and Bedcovers from their neighbours, to make what they wished, a decent appearance on that day.” There had been many cases of typhus in Strathfleet that winter – the deaths had been mainly of the more elderly. Possibly this was accounted for by the mild winter.

There was, however, much going on in Strathfleet in terms of its improvement. Dr Ross was not impressed by the crofters in the parish of Dornoch who were “the most useless set of Rascals I know.” Gunn also reported that while there had been very great improvement around the lower part of Birichin, Fleuchary, and Astel they were behind their neighbours in other parishes. He suggested that “the people, perhaps from being nearer the Dornoch law; are more stiff necked, & want the energy of the other Parishes.” George Gunn “threatened & scolded them where I saw occasion for it”. As John Ross, the catechist, was among the worst Gunn promised him a summons of removal “which will have the effect of shewing him & others that we are in earnest.”

Once word got out hundreds of applications for assistance from ‘needy people’ were received. Some argued that the landlords should be assessed. However, an alliance of large farmers and factors managed to ensure that assistance would be provided by way of a voluntary charitable contribution from tenants and landlords. By mid March about £450 had been raised in the east of Sutherland. Mr Dempster did not contribute but instead established a soup kitchen for the poor on his own property and distributed a considerable quantity of flannel and blankets.

Patrick Sellar drew attention to the increase in the number of whisky shops over the previous decade. The distillers had “set up agents and creatures in every Corner; and, one’s servants can scarcely go to Church on Sunday without being entrapped into one of these poison stores. It is in vain that we give meal to feed the hungry if such an agency of poverty, disease, and death be left in full employment against us.” The county agreed that measures should be taken to limit the number of tippling houses. It was also agreed that supernumerary dogs should be got rid of – no aid would be given to anyone who unnecessarily kept a dog.

These measures did not stop cholera coming to Sutherland later that year. Nor is it is easy to determine whether there was a long-term impact on the standards of cleanliness. Certainly a boost may have been given to the improvement of housing.

However, the systematic inspection of every dwelling – possibly unique – did highlight the depth of poverty amongst sections of the population, especially the aged. This was to come to the fore when evidence was gathered by the Poor Law Commission in the early 1840s.

Donald’s Journey Part 3

We last found Donald, his travelling companions and several horses bobbing around on a ferry crossing Loch Fleet.  Dornoch was within a few miles, but they had come far that day so they made for Embo House.  The owners of Embo House were Gordons, connected to the powerful Sutherland family whose base was at Dunrobin and who would soon make themselves unpopular by clearing people out of Kildonan and Strathnaver.  Mr Gordon built the house to impress the very few people in Sutherland who had the vote, in hopes of becoming an MP.  He gained many votes but failed to get elected, although by doing so he gained the enmity of the House of Sutherland.  By the time the Sage party turned up on the doorstep, the house was rented by a prosperous farmer named Kenneth MacKay who held lands at Embo, and further to the north at Torboll.  The MacKays were well established in the area and were distant relations of the Sages (and everyone else!)

“My father reminded me that it was getting late, and that we must make the best use of our time, as Embo was still at a considerable distance. We arrived there, however, before it got dark, so that I had an opportunity of seeing in fair daylight the most elegant mansion I ever witnessed, with the exception of Dunrobin Castle.  Embo House stood nearly half-way between Dornoch and the Little-Ferry, on the old line of road.  It was the manor-house of a family of Gordons, scions of the Gordons, Earls of Sutherland; and they had held it since the days of Adam, Lord of Aboye, the husband of the Countess Elizabeth. … Robert Hume Gordon, having some years before canvassed the county, with the view of being its representative, in opposition to the influence of the Duchess of Sutherland, built this splendid mansion for the purpose of entertaining the electors.  Mr. Gordon lost his election, yet by a narrow majority. He was supported by the most respectable barons of the county.  Dempster of Skibo, Gordon of Carrol, Gordon of Navidale, Captain Clunes of Cracaig, and Captain Baigrie of Midgarty; and most of those gentlemen, being tacksmen and wadsetters on the Sutherland estate, gave by their opposition to the candidate of the Sutherland family, almost unpardonable offence.  Although Mr. Hume Gordon built the house at great expense, he never intended to reside permanently either in the mansion or in the county; and Embo House and property were now rented by Capt. Kenneth Mackay, who also farmed the place of Torboll from the Sutherland family.

Embo House was constructed very much after the fashion of the houses of the new town of Edinburgh, begun on the north side of the Nor’ Loch on 26th Oct., 1767; the front was of hewn ashlar, and consisted of three distinct houses, the largest and loftiest in the centre, joined to the other two by small narrow passages, each lighted by a window, and forming altogether a very imposing front.  The centre house was four storeys high – first, a ground or rather a sunk floor, then a first, second, and, lastly, an attic storey.  The ground or sunken floor contained the kitchen and cellars, and in front of it was a wall surmounted by an iron railing, resembling exactly the fronts in Princes Street, Edinburgh.  Outer stairs ascended to the principal entry door, and along the whole front of the building extended a pavement.  The lesser houses, or wings, were each of them a storey less in height than the central building; and the attic storeys were lighted from the front wall, instead of from the roof, by windows about precisely half the size of the rest, which greatly added to the effect and beauty of the whole.  Behind were other two wings of the same height with those in front, extending at right angles from the principal buildings.  The interior of the mansion corresponded with its external appearance.  The principal rooms were lofty and elegant, ornamented with rich cornices, and each having two large windows.”


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The house was impressive, but the welcome less so.

“Mrs. Mackay, my stepmother’s half-sister, was a neat little woman, with a pleasing expression of countenance.  She was very lady-like, but she received us with that politeness which might be reckoned the precise boundary between kindness and indifference.  … [Her] children at that time amounted to six – Harriet, Esther, Jean, Lexy, George, and John; they were afterwards increased to fourteen.  We were both sent to sleep upstairs in one of the attics, but I scarcely shut an eye, being so much stunned with the noise of the sea, which, when excited by the east wind, is at Embo perfectly deafening.  Next morning we rode into Dornoch.  The road to the town lay on its south-east side, and, as we approached it, I was almost breathless with wonder at the height of the steeple, and at the huge antique construction of the church.  My father brought us at once to the school.”

Flushed with new experiences, young Donald and Aeneas had arrived at their new home and school where they would stay for the next two years.

For more information about Embo House, see:

And for more of Donald’s memoirs see: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at]