Playmates: An Eighteenth-Century Boyhood

This is the second of Kate MacFarlane’s two-part examination of the boyhood of Donald Sage. Kate says ‘I am a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.

In all his childhood and school boy adventures, Sage was accompanied by his older brother Eneas. Only fourteen months apart in age, they were the closest of brothers and friends. Speaking of his very early years he wrote “…of my sisters, I have no recollection. My only brother with whom I played all day and slept at night, did attract my notice.”[1]

As boys, Donald and Eneas enjoyed constructing miniature houses and mills, fishing expeditions, exploring and berry picking. They were often joined by John MacThomais, son of their father’s principal farm servant who was close to them in age. According to Sage, John “was our constant companion, counsellor, and associate. He was a pleasing and talkative companion, and was furnished with an abundant store of old traditions, which he had rather a knack of telling, and which made many a day, “merrily to go by.”[2] Throughout his childhood, however, it was Eneas who featured most prominently in his memories and affection.

In 1801, the brothers left home to attend school at Dornoch. There, Sage made numerous friends, including Hugh Bethune, “a forward, smart boy” but, unfortunately, Hugh and Eneas “could not agree, nor in any way pull together.”[3] A disagreement as to who should take “the place of leader and principal adviser in all the amusements of our play hours” was settled in “the ordinary way of deciding such differences between school boys” with a boxing match.[4] Apparently, Eneas won hands down as poor Hugh “was far from being on an equality with him in muscular strength.”[5]

Dornoch Burgh School – at the site where Donald, Aeneas and his friends would have studied. Photo 1907 – over a hundred yeras after they attended. Historylinks Archive Cat 2002_011 Picture 993.

According to Sage, “some of my school fellows with whom I was most intimate when at Dornoch were three young men of the name of Hay. They were natives of the West Indies; the offspring of a negro woman” and a Scotsman.[6] The oldest Hay brother, Fergus, “was very handsome…had all the manners of a gentleman, and had first rate abilities.”[7] Sage met Fergus under unfortunate circumstances when “merely to save the skins of Walter Bethune, Bob Barclay and others,” Fergus falsely blamed him for something that resulted in thirty unjust lashes from the school master.[8] Fergus, however, was “conscious of the impropriety of his conduct though his pride would not allow him to say so” and from that point on, he “behaved…with very great kindness” toward Sage.[9]

Donald and Eneas returned home from school in the spring of 1803. In the autumn of 1804, following a serious disagreement which caused “an open rupture” with their fractious stepmother, Eneas went to sea. Parting from his brother was traumatic for Sage. Years later, he wrote that he felt as though his “very life was gradually deserting me” when they said good-bye. Eneas too was “almost stupefied with grief.”[10] Sadly, the brothers never met again. Eneas wrote to let his family know when he arrived in London and sent along “a few prints of ships in gilt frames…as a peace-offering to his stepmother.”[11] A second letter, sent from Philadelphia, turned out to be the last. A footnote in Memorabilia Domestica notes “what became of [Eneas] afterwards was never known.”[12]

Sage’s memories of his childhood and school years focus almost exclusively on masculine pursuits and masculine company. He recalls, with affection and amusement, the housekeeper who lived with them before his father remarried and he attempts to give his difficult stepmother her due. He says next to nothing about his sisters. It is a boys’ world he looks back on, at home and in school and of all his companions, it is Eneas who stands out, who “impresses himself strongly on my reminiscences.”[13]


[1]Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland, p. 79.

[2]Ibid, p. 94.

[3]Ibid, p. 115. More on Donald and Aeneas’ journey to school in previous posts beginning with https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/donalds-journey-part-1/ (February 25, 2013)

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid, p. 117.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid, p. 128.

[11]Ibid, p. 129.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid, p. 107.

Childsplay: An eighteenth-century boyhood

Kate MacFarlane is a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.

Donald Sage (1789-1869) was a minister and a minister’s son, born and raised in Kildonan. His memoir, Memorabilia Domestica: Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of his late eighteenth-century boyhood and the pastimes and playmates that filled it. Looking back on his early childhood, Sage recalled a world of gloriously unsupervised, adventurous and unstructured play, most of it in the company of his older brother Eneas. At the ages of just four and five, the boys – unaccompanied – “crossed the burn, and, for our own amusement…called in at almost all the tenants’ houses, where we met with a kind and cordial reception.”[1] Fussed over and fed “a half cake of oat-bread, larded over with cream,”[2] they were then carried home, Eneas not being in the mood to walk.

From early on, the boys were “of a mechanical turn…always building houses and mills, in imitation of those at Kildonan.”[3] They “built a clay house at the back of the manse” and “mills as closely resembling their larger and more useful prototypes as our limited capacities could approach.”[4] They also enjoyed fishing for (or as Sage put it, butchering) trout, either catching them in a home made weel or using “another and still more barbarous method of killing,” impaling the trout “with all our force [so] the wretched victims of our pursuit often came up in fragments!”[5]

At the ages of twelve and thirteen, Donald and Eneas left for school at Dornoch, where they stayed for a year and a half. Life at school was more structured and rigidly disciplined but it did allow time for play which, by then, had evolved from their childhood rambles into more competitive team sports and activities. Chief among them was “club and shinty” which Sage describes as a “game, or battle.”[6] He notes that during his youth, it was universal in the north. For men only, it was played “with all the keenness accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded the claymore.”[7] It was physical to the point of danger and “in not a few instances, actually proved fatal.”[8]

‘Game of Shinty’ from Old England: A Pictorial History (1845) [out of copyright]

Another fond memory from his school days was of cock fighting which “took precedence over all our other amusements.”[9] Then a wide spread practice throughout the parochial school system, cocks were begged from households throughout the parish and brought by school boys to the local court room or “battle-field where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen.”[10]

Sage says very little about toys in his memoir, recalling only a handful of special ones. For example, at a very early age, he was given a windmill by John Ross, an admirer of his housekeeper who hoped to gain her favor. The gift, he said, “rivetted [sic] my affections to him and I followed him like his shadow.”[11] The servants were amused by his devotion and “to put my attachment to the test…one stormy evening, as I was seated by the kitchen fireside, told me that John Ross was dead, that he had been drowned in attempting to cross the burn.”[12] Poor Sage, “giving full vent to my feelings…made the kitchen rafters ring with my roaring.”[13]

Sage studied Latin from a very young age, progressing quickly and working his way through a wide range of classical works. A bright, imaginative little boy, he took inspiration from his reading and set the stories and characters in local settings: “The gay and elegant Athens,” for example, “with its orators and heroes, its classic buildings, its Acropolis and its thoughtless and polished mob…were all located in the village of Kildonan.”[14]

Memorabilia Domestica, is rich in detail and an excellent source of information on 18th century childhood in the north of Scotland. Sage gives his readers a fascinating glimpse of one boy’s world of play – full of exploration and adventure – and highlights the pastimes, toys, reading materials, sports and games that he enjoyed.


[1]Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Wick, 1899), p. 79.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid, p. 94.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid, p. 118. See a previous post for more on this: https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/dornoch-diversions/ (March 19, 2013)

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid, p. 119. See a previous post for more on this: https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/cock-o-the-north/ (February 3, 2014)

[11]Ibid, p. 78.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid, pp. 78-79.

[14]Ibid, pp. 86-87. See a previous post for more on this: https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/a-landscape-of-the-imagination-kildonan-and-the-classical-world/ (Septmeber 18, 2018)

‘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.

History of Childhood Exhibition I – Schooling in Dornoch

My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions. Exhibitions at Historylinks are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community. The ‘Childhood in Dornoch Parish’ exhibition was a real pleasure to work on, it fed into my love for the eighteenth century and for toys! Reading the memoirs of young people from Dornoch as far back as the 1700s was a privilege and I wondered if, when they were writing all those years ago, they ever imagined how their words might be used in the future.

Last year we made the difficult decision to close the children’s room at Historylinks due to Covid restrictions. The room was a space in which our younger visitors had previously been able to draw, dress up and play with toys and puzzles. A room that had once been a busy, fun filled place was now empty and an empty space in a museum is never a good thing! So, over the winter months we thought about how to us the room to give people visiting in 2021 a good experience.

If we couldn’t use the space for children in the present we decided to use it for children in the past and set about researching memoirs and diaries ranging from the eighteenth century to the Second World War. We already a small collection of objects such as school slates and books, a tricycle, marbles, dominoes and it wasn’t long before the local community got involved, bringing precious toys and games into the museum for our display. The Highland Museum of Childhood in Strathpeffer lent us various toys from the early 1800s to the 1970s, including a dolls pram bought in Gammages, a famous London department store which had been gifted by a Dornoch lady.

Photo: Lynne Mahoney

Looking at daily life in the eighteenth century we discovered that for most, childhood was a time of gathering responsibility according to ability. Play, work and practical education merged into one experience. The idea of childhood as a separate life stage only became a concept towards the end of that century and then only among the middle class and wealthy.

It was difficult for many children to attend school consistently, even if their parents wanted that. Children could not walk for miles across hills or cross rivers and parents often did not have the cash for fees. Formal education was therefore sporadic. Instead they learned skills taught by their parents: how to look after animals, how to build houses, how to look after children, how to prepare medicines from herbs, how to grow crops and how to preserve and prepare food.

Boys of higher status were much more likely to be formally educated. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries three schools flourished in Dornoch: a grammar, an elementary and an English school, most likely set up by The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK). This organisation was established by Royal Charter in 1707 to encourage Protestantism and English speaking in the Highlands. In a political sense the Society was about gaining a greater control of the Highlands. The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools was set up in 1811. As a missionary society they taught reading in Gaelic so people could read the Bible for themselves. These temporary schools -some of which appeared locally in places like Embo and Knockarthur – opened in the quiet time of the farming year, teaching adults as well as children.

John Matheson and Donald Sage were born in the late eighteenth century and their memoirs give a glimpse of childhood for boys who attended school in Dornoch.

John Matheson was born in 1772 and his family were tenant farmers. His father was in a position to be able to pay to give his sons an education. When John was strong enough, he walked to the Parochial School in Dornoch, a round trip of twelve miles!

As John grew older, the need for his help with livestock and farm work increased. His schooling was seasonally interrupted at times of planting and harvest, when all hands were needed. Sometimes bad weather made walking into Dornoch impossible. These factors made John feel that his education was lacking yet he became a tutor himself and later migrated to Glasgow where he became a cotton mill manager.

Donald Sage was born in Kildonan but he and his brother attended school in Dornoch. They came under strict discipline that was meted out by way of humiliation or physical violence. On one occasion Sage received thirty lashes and a schoolmate was beaten until he fainted.

Despite this, Donald recollects with joy the pastimes that he shared with his friends. On Saturdays and holidays the schoolboys had freedom to roam. One game was throwing stones at the crow’s nests built in the walls of Dornoch’s derelict castle and they often ended up at woods near Cyderhall or Skibo. During the holidays shinty was a must and Donald recounts ‘every male, from a stripling to a white-haired grandfather’ taking part. Market days were a favourite. Full of spectacle and excitement, they lasted two days and meant a holiday from school. Another sport that was widely acceptable was cock fighting. The annual event took place at Candlemas, 2nd February, one of the Scottish Quarter days. Sage tells how the boys prepared for weeks in advance and the Sheriff Court room above the school was cleared to make a cock fighting ring.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2002_274_001

The Education (Scotland) Act was passed in 1872 making schooling compulsory. No longer did children have to walk to Dornoch or go without an education entirely. Schools were built in the rural areas of the parish ensuring all children had access.

The Parish School building remained in use until 1913. It is now the Social Club. Pupils transferred to a site at the west end of the burgh, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. This new Academy was opened by Lord Kennedy on 7th January 1913.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2019_093_10.

Fifty years later, on 25th September 1963 a new secondary department was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The old building which now houses the primary department stands side by side with the new and, along with the nursery, they constitute the modern 3-18 years Dornoch School Campus.

The Childhood in Dornoch Parish exhibition tells of the experiences of children over the last two centuries, from home life to school life, from organised clubs to serious playtime such as the annual football tournament played for the Ice Cream Cup!

Playing for the Ice Cream Cup!
Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2001_343_001

Their voices, happy and sad, come to us through memoirs, diaries, audio recordings, photographs and the physical objects in the display like a tricycle, teddy bears, dolls, a Hornby engine, tin plate toys and board games.

From the frustration of having to close part of the museum and wondering what to do with an empty space, it feels like the children’s room is alive with the voices of children once more.

Parlours and Sofas: Houses, Status and the Emerging Highland Middle Class

This is part 3 of our short series on the life and times of Sheriff Hugh MacCulloch who is memorialised just outside Dornoch.

Prior to the Clearances, most people (with the exception of the poor and the aristocracy) lived in longhouses. With thick walls of stone and turf, roofed with heather or reed thatch, they gave warmth and shelter to families and livestock. Most were furnished with home-made chairs, benches, chests, and maybe shelves, beds or a bookcase, alongside the spinning wheel and the central fire. People with more money and power, tacksmen and ministers, were however beginning to emulate southern counterparts with two-storey houses of stone, mortar and lime. Their very design not only marked these families out as prestigious, but created a sense of class division and promoted the networks which were so vital to advancement in marriage and the professions.

In the little capital town of Sutherland, Dornoch, Hugh MacCulloch was an important man. As Sheriff-Substitute for the County he lived in the civic centre, close by the court and next to the cathedral ruins, part of which served as the parish church. ‘His house was situated to the south of the town, and at the foot of what was called the Vennel, a small pathway leading from the churchyard.’ This house ‘of an antique cast’ may not have been new but it displayed MacCulloch’s status as a man of status. It was organised for genteel entertainment and networking. ‘The parlour or dining-room had three windows, and on its wall hung several prints. In the north-west corner of the room and near the door, stood a handsome eight-day clock – a present which the Sheriff had received from the Sutherland Volunteers, of which he was Major. A large sofa stood on the opposite side, near the fire-place.’ The house was also a place of work. The Sheriff’s ‘study was a small room upstairs … crammed with books and papers.’

1783 Dornoch map

1783 map of Dornoch. Presumably McCulloch’s house was one of those in the bottom right hand corner of what is shown on the map. Image: Historylinks Museum.

Two floors of attics topped it off. In November 1801 twelve- and fourteen-year-old Donald and Aeneas Sage arrived to lodge. ‘Mrs. MacCulloch showed us to our bedroom. It was at the top of the house, an attic above an attic – a dreary, cold place, having all the rude finishings of a coarse loft.’ Rude perhaps, but when the Sheriff returned that evening ‘he received us with the most fatherly kindness’.

Donald and Aeneas might have been a bit frightened and homesick, but a large stone house was familiar. Their parents, Isabella and Alexander, lived in the Kildonan manse, the house provided for the minister, some three days walk to the north-west. Their home rose tall on the fringes of the cluster of their neighbours’ longhouses. Like the MacCullochs’, their ground floor was occupied by a parlour, bedroom, and a closet. Upstairs were a dining-room, bedroom, and another closet. It also had an attic with two garrets: one a bed-room, the other a storeroom for lumber. Unlike upper class houses there was no wallpaper. Walls were ‘cat and clay, plastered over with lime’, finished with white-wash which came off on everything that touched it. Outside the main house were two low buildings with turf roofs, one containing the nursery, kitchen and byre, and the other, a barn and stable. Like the Sheriff’s house, this building was more than a family home.

Mar - Kildonan, Sage childhood 018

The manse at Kildonan in 2018. Image: Elizabeth Ritchie

One reason ministers were provided with spacious houses was so they could provide hospitality. When Hugh MacCulloch came to investigate a riot in the heights of Kildonan in October 1801, he stayed at the manse. Donald recollected: ‘On the evening of his arrival … he was drenched almost to the skin, as it had rained heavily through the day; he especially required dry stockings, and he preferred putting them on at the kitchen fireside … he took particular notice of me, and asked me many questions about my progress in learning, particularly in Latin. He was much pleased with my answers, and said that, if my father would send my brother and me to school at Dornoch, he would keep us for three months in his own house.’

In the years before the clearances, it is possible to see the emergence of a distinct middling, professional class in the rural Highlands through their houses. As elsewhere in Britain they began to mark themselves out with homes in non-indigenous styles, partly built with materials not available locally. Specialised rooms provided spaces for professional men to work with books and papers; promoted privacy; and separated domestic life from hospitality. Parlours and dining rooms, rather than a shared domestic space where family and visitors were cooked for, ate and entertained alike, meant domestic rituals were formalised, and visitors were separated into those catered for in the kitchen or formally entertained in the parlour. Spare bedrooms made providing hospitality to travelling gentlemen easy. So along with the new houses were built the networks which promoted the careers, marriages and opportunities for the families who lived in them.

Sources:

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9

Ideas about homes, respectability and the rising middle class particularly inspired by Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 (London, 1987, 2002).

Hugh MacCulloch and the Dornoch Firth

This week work begins on the Sheriff MacCulloch Memorial Project. Historylinks was recently awarded £1100 by Museums and Galleries Scotland to restore the memorial stone. The Museum is working with young people from Dornoch Academy in this project. See facebook for more information and photos. The next few blog posts will consider the life and times of Hugh MacCulloch.

It must have been hot that day. The lads maybe exploded out of school, shouting and throwing their bags. They might have taken off, chasing each other across the common grazings, past what is now the airstrip, that separated Dornoch from the ‘cockle ebb’, the sands on the north shore of the firth. Stripped off, they tiptoed, plunged into the chilly water, splashing and swimming, salt stinging their eyes. It’s wide at high tide, and at low tide sand banks appear, sometimes giving the impression that you could wade across. But between these banks there are fast flowing channels. Hugh’s efforts quickly took him out of his depth, and he sank. The other boys maybe thought at first that he was messing about, but he didn’t bob up again. They shouted an alarm and several men who were working nearby dashed into the sea. He had been in the water some time and it was an apparently lifeless body they pulled out. The men applied ‘judicious treatment’ and he choked back into life.

cockle ebb and mouth of dornoch burn 076

Shells of cockles can still be found at the ‘Cockle Ebb’. Hugh probably went bathing at this spot, though probably not on the sort of dull January day this was taken! The view here is towards the site of the Meikle Ferry, where many years later he breathed his last. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hugh MacCulloch related this story many times. And when he told it to a young lodger in 1801 he said ‘if God were to give him his choice of deaths, he would choose drowning, for … he felt as he was in the act of sinking, and when the waters were rushing in at his mouth and nostrils, as if he were falling into a gentle sleep.’ His wish was granted. Eight years later and about four miles above that very spot on that very firth, he was, with many others, drowned.

In 1809 Hugh was probably in his fifties. He was a well-respected man, the retired Sheriff-Substitute of Sutherland and known for his honesty and piety, if not his brilliance in law. On August 16th Hugh decided to attend the Lammas Fair in Tain. He left his house in Dornoch that morning and crossed the ferry. Later, rumours spread that the men who loaded the evening ferry had been drinking. Donald Sage, that young lodger, later recorded the story in biblical style: ‘When he came to the Meikleferry, late in the day, the shore was crowded with people returning home from the market. On his arrival they all made way for him, and he was, quickly seated at the stern of the wherry; but afterwards the multitude pressed into the ferry-boat – the more earnestly, as they would thus have the privilege of crossing in the same boat with the Sheriff. Apprehensive of the issue, Mr. MacCulloch turned away at least two score of them from the boat. There still remained on board, however, too many for safety. It was a dead calm, and the wherry was pushed off from land. But when it had nearly reached the middle of the ferry, and the deepest part of it, the boat gave a sudden jerk, the water rushed in, and, with the exception of two or three who escaped by swimming, the whole of those on board sank to the bottom and perished. About 70 persons were thus drowned. This fearful event took place during the darkness of night … and created a deep sensation all over the country.’

cockle ebb and mouth of dornoch burn 085

Tain, from the Cockle Ebb. Low tide. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The tale of how Hugh’s body, among the last to be found, was discovered, reveals the mysticism which was part of Highland Evangelical Christianity. It is also reminiscent of saints’ stories in the Catholic tradition, where bodies which do not decompose prove saintliness. Donald Sage explained that the ‘particular spot where it lay under the flood was discovered in a dream. A fellow-Christian and an acquaintance, deeply affected by his death, dreamed of his departed friend. In the dream the Sheriff appeared, spoke of his sudden call to the other world, and told him where his earthly remains lay, adding that, whilst the fish of the sea were permitted to mangle at their pleasure the bodies of his fellow-sufferers, they were restrained from putting a tooth upon his, which would be found entire. The dream was realised in every particular.’

How the catastrophe of the Meikle Ferry impacted south-east Sutherland is reminiscent of the impact of the loss of the Iolaire on the Isle of Lewis 110 years later. In both, a small community lost many of its most active in one appalling moment. The response to the sudden needs of families bereft of the husbands, mothers, sons, wives, fathers, daughters who traded at Tain that day was to set up a fund. Monies poured in from people with local connections all over the world. Even donations from the profits of West Indian slave plantations ended up in the pockets of grief-stricken families. Hugh MacCulloch’s wife and his daughter, Chirsty, long survived him, and benefited from the Meikleferry Fund.

The Dornoch Firth which, in the years following the Jacobite Rising saw the birth of a boy named Hugh; which provided cooling, but dangerous waters for his youthful play; which was crossed every time the mature man travelled south on business or pleasure, eventually claimed that life. But its chill depths preserved him, casting him up in the place the visionary spoke of, so he could be buried in the way his family wanted.

Sources:

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9.

Walter Scott (ed), ‘Dreadful Accident at the Meikle Ferry’, The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809, 248.

N.B. Brian Munro has since unearthed a document (The Meikle Ferry Disaster Fund Book) in the Highland Archives which is far more contemporary than Sage’s memoirs and seems to state quite clearly that the accident took place ‘in the forenoon’ when people were on their way to the Lammas Fair, rather than returning from it. That does not, I think, remove any of the interest or importance of Sage’s analysis of the event and its impact, but shows how the details of narratives can shift.

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.

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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’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Wilkhouse; Whelkhouse; Tighe na Faochaig

Submitted by Grace Ritchie – an enthusiastic volunteer.

It was a warm day in early summer when I walked along the old drove road at Kintradwell, between the railway line and the sea. I sat down for a rest on a low stone wall beside the track and listened to the murmur of the sea on the sand. Soon I became drowsy and I fell into a reverie.

I thought I heard the faint drone of distant cattle and, close by, the scrape of hooves on the cobbled floor of a byre. Dogs began barking and the lowing of cattle became more insistent as they jostled to drink at a pond behind me. The sound of children playing could be heard above the clanking of harnesses and the neighing of horses. Men’s voices rose in argument.

I became aware of a single storey house beside me. It was well made, the stones being held together with mortar, and had three windows with glass panes, two in front, overlooking the sea, and one in the gable. Unlike the usual old houses, it was roofed with slates, and a stout wooden door, strengthened with iron nails and strips of iron, secured the entrance.

On the door sill, and sitting round the paved entrance, sat a group of drovers, laughing loudly and joking as they smoked their clay pipes and teased boiled winkles out of their shells with pins before throwing them in a heap at the corner of the house. Above them hung a board announcing WILKHOUSE  INN.

Suddenly the door opened and a burly man rushed out shouting angrily. He had in his hand a small cauldron which had contained his dinner, now a burnt mess. In his fury, he took a pick-axe and proceeded to smash it into several pieces on the roadway outside! The inn-keeper’s wife came bustling out, trying to placate him and chattering soothingly all the while.

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Volunteers Grace Ritchie and DJ MacLeod point out the join between the plastered main room was divided from an unplastered room. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

Through the open doorway, and beyond the thick door-sill slabs, could be seen the clean sandy floor of the interior, the tidy best parlour with its white plastered walls and its fire burning brightly at the gable hearth. Facing the door was a small panelled room and, to the right, the main parlour – the general rendezvous for all comers of every sort and size. A group had gathered round the fire-place in this gable and drovers and other travellers were standing round the fire and sitting on the paved area in front it, relaxing in its warmth while their dinner cooked in a new cauldron next to the bread oven, with its gently rising dough. “What’s for dinner tonight then?” asked Angus, “Is it to be broth and cold meat with eggs, new cheese and milk like last time I was here? Or will it be salmon from the river or spare ribs or beef or maybe chicken?”

As they warmed themselves, the cook busily sharpened his knife on the large upright stone at the side of the blackened fireplace, and the conversation turned to items that some of the travellers had apparently mislaid recently. Murdo had lost his belt buckle and was asking for twine to hold up his breeks; Donnie’s button had pinged off; Angus had lost some small change; the inn-keeper’s wife couldn’t find her thimble or her bone double-sided comb and Ian had apparently mislaid both his pistol and his bag containing shot!

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The site of the fire is visible, as are the scratched marks in the fireplace. To the left was an oven. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Soon the meal was ready. The table was set with a rich assortment of colourfully decorated glazed china plates and bowls, with jugs and glass bottles for ale. Glassed clinked, plates clattered, dishes were scraped and “mein hostess” bustled about attentively, talking all the while and seeing to the needs of her clients.

The aroma of peat smoke drifted past, the clamour was subsiding, the cattle were lying down for the night, the bairns were abed in the adjoining house and the soft murmur of the sea made itself heard once more. It was the harsh cry of a gull that roused me. I stumbled to my feet aware of a strange dislocation of time and space. Surely something had been happening just here, just now…

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Reclining on the flagstone – the doorway to Wilkhouse Inn with the sandy floor still evident. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Continuing my journey, I soon reached Brora, where I called in on a long-standing friend. I told him of my day dream. “Och,” said he, “that’s the very same as those archaeologists found when they were excavating the ruins of Wilkhouse in May 2017. You must have drifted back in time, man! Maybe it was a day dream – certainly it was a dream come true!”

Note: Although a certain amount of poetic licence has been used in the above, all the items mentioned (and many more) were actually found at the Wilkhouse site during the dig there. Acknowledgement is made to “Memorabilia Domestica: Or Parish Life In The North Of Scotland (1899) by Donald Sage for lifting a few of his phrases from Page 108 of the reprint of his second edition, published by John Menzies & Co, Edinburgh 1899. The dig was organised by Clyne Heritage Society and GUARD.

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