A Coastal Tour

By the time he journeyed through the Highlands in 1790, John Geddes was fifty-five years old. He was a well-travelled man. Born in Banffshire, he went to Rome aged fourteen to train for the priesthood. Ten years later the young intellectual, now au fait with Enlightenment thinking and the doctrine of Pope Benedict XIV, was ordained and sent back to Banffshire to run the seminary at Scalan. A decade in Spain preceded high appointment in Lowland Scotland. Around the time Bishop Geddes was asked to contribute articles for the fourth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he took a tour through the north. He was keen on long distance walking, which he did in Spain as well as Scotland. He would say his breviary or plan a sermon, writing observations in a notebook, and talking to anyone he encountered. Over three June days he travelled from Dingwall to Berriedale, commenting on the homes of the gentry; developments in land use; inns and the scenery. Apparently Dornoch was ‘a very sorry village’ but it had a good inn! He notes a ‘small fisher town of earthen cottages’ named Port Leich, between Invergordon and the now deserted Tarbert House. This is now the prettily-named Barbaraville which has a stony beach but no sign of boats!

June - Harris 103

John Geddes would have found the big enclosed fields and the view across to the Nigg yard a bit different to his view across the Cromarty Firth in the 1790s. The fishing industry which he observed is gone, replaced by the oil extraction and renewables industry. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

26th: After leaving Dingwall saw the Earl of Cromarty’s Pyramid in the churchyard. [This part of the churchyeard is now Tesco’s car park but hte pyramid can still be seen.] Tulloch belongs to a Mr. Davidson, a pleasant house on the side of an eminence; passed by the gates of Foulis, Sir Hugh Monro’s; came on to Drummond and there breakfasted, learned that Sir Alexander Monro’s mother lived in the neighbouring house, and that her daughters, Mrs. Hay and Mrs. Shaw, were with her; deliberated whether I should go to them or not; determined not, that I might not be detained or give them reason to wonder what was carrying me to the North. Saw Novarre, General Monro’s seat, situated on the side of a hill with a view of the Firth of Cromarty and a good deal of planting about the place, came along the Firth to the East of me, having a view of the town of Cromarty not far from the mouth of the Firth on the East side at the foot of one of the hills that form the entrance; dined at Invergordon; continued my walk along the Firth to Port Leich a small fisher town of earthen cottages; saw Tarbet House, a fine modern building erected by the late Lord McLeod and now in the possession of his cousin, Captain McKenzie; passed near the house of Balnagown, where its master, Sir John Lockhart Ross, had lately died; came by a moss-road to Tain, a town well-situated on the south side of the Firth of Dornoch; on the door of the church has been placed as appears, not long since a bass-rilievo of a priest in his sacerdotal robes, which seems to have been a tombstone; received a letter from Mr. Robertson here; lodged in a Mrs. Sutherland’s.

June - Tarbet Ho 094

June - Tarbet Ho 098

Even in ruins Tarbet House exudes Georgian elegance, its simple lines almost obscured by ivy and trees. Although this building must have been quite a contrast to the fishermen’s houses in Port Leich, it certainly challenges stereotypes of the eighteenth-century Highlands being remote, underdeveloped and backward. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

27th: Walked along the South side of the Firth of Dornoch, a fine piece of water; passed by Tarlogie or Ankerfield, Lord Ankerfield’s seat; passed by an old Castle on the Firth; passed what is called the Meikle Ferry; saw up the Firth toward Loch Shinn; turned to the right and walked along the North side of the Firth of Dornoch, once the seat of the Bishop of Caithness, now a very sorry village. The Cathedral has been a good church; the present market-place is the burial-place in the middle of the town without any walls. Breakfasted in Lesly’s, a good inn, and remained there, it being Sunday, until after two o’clock; wrote to Bishop Hay and to Mr. Robertson; read newspapers; walked on to the Little Ferry, where the boat-house being on the North side I was detained a good while; came on to the Kirktown of Golspie, where I took a refreshment, and thence proceeded to an inn called the Milk-house [Wilkhouse Inn – see post from 25 February 2013], having passed under the Castle of Dunrobin, beautifully situated on a rock.

28th: Travelled along the coast, seeing the hills of Murray and Banffshire, meditating and reciting my Breviary; fell in with a Mr. Hutchison, Lieutenant of a man-of-war from Musselburgh, who came with me to the inn of Helmsdale, where I got breakfast; passed the Ord, a very steep road, and entered Caithness; passed by Navidale and took refreshment at Ansdale, where I saw the daughter of James Sutherland, who was first with Mr. Elliot, and afterwards in partnership with Corri in the music-shop; came over a hill and saw Braemore, the Pap of Caithness and other high hills being in view on my left; came over another hill and down on Berrydale, where two waters meet, and their two vallies and the rising ground between them form a most beautiful scene; dined at Berrydale in Henderson’s; passed over two hills and came down on Dunbeath, leaving the castle on my left. Here were Mr. Mathison and Mr. McGhegan, the Irish traveler whom I had seen at Edinburgh; conversed with them.

John Geddes continued his journey as far as Orkney. Not long after the tour, his health deteriorated. He suffered from rheumatism and high blood pressure, having a series of strokes. Latterly his right side became paralysed and he dictated his literary output. Geddes died on 11th February 1799 in Aberdeen after two years of helplessness, cared for by fellow priests.


With thanks to David Taylor for pointing me to this source.

David Alston, Ross and Cromarty: A Historical Guide (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1997)

William Anderson, ‘Bishop John Geddes: Journal Ambula Coram Deo, Part Second’, The Innes Review, 6.2, (1955), pps 46-68.

William Anderson, ‘The Autobiographical Notes of Bishop John Geddes’, The Innes Review, 18.1, (2010), pps 36-57.

Frank A. Kafker and Jeff Loveland, ‘Bishop John Geddes, the First Catholic Contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 30.1, (2007), pps 73–88.


Of Cathedrals and Canals

One of the first things a visitor to Dornoch notices is the sandstone cathedral, pride of place in the centre of the town. Visitors are encouraged to walk around it and admire the beautiful stonework, the gargoyles, to consider the first cathedral building of the 1220s and the restoration of two hundred years ago. But Bishop Gilbert of Moravia’s removal of the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness from Halkirk to Dornoch left an archaeological mark not only on the town, but running through the surrounding countryside.

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

The landward side of the parish, stretching up the Evelix Valley, is now crofted. Criss-crossed with single track roads it rises into a series of low hills. The lowest road runs parallel to the River Evelix. Venturing westward off the A9 it is now possible to skirt Milltown of Evelix Farm, where the ruins of a large water mill and its lade are clearly visible. Unlike ruined mills further upstream, this one operated into the twentieth century. The road to Rearquhar passes through unremarkable fields of sheep, with the occasional pony. As it rises the land becomes a little rougher. Soon it wends its way among a little patch of old birch trees, picturesquely crooked and shady. There is a reason this patch of soil is left as woodland rather than being under cultivation. It is not flat and smooth like the surrounding fields. In fact there is a pair of rather steep banks running for twenty yards or so straight towards the road. The geomorphology of the area, especially the long esker separating Dornoch from Camore, might suggest that the feature is another remnant of glaciation. But eskers and drumlins do not tend to come in parallel pairs. This is man-made.

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Making Dornoch into the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness was much more than an administrative move. As the cathedral was built, so were a series of buildings to house various members of the church hierarchy and to enable the administration of the region. Today’s Castle Hotel is one remaining tower of three, surrounding a courtyard, which made up the Bishop’s Palace. Other impressive stone-built houses for the church officials towered above the wattle and turf homes of locals. Placenames show how Gilbert divided up land to help support the six canons. ‘Achendean’, now the name of a house beside the Castle Hotel, and ‘Achinchanter’ on the outskirts of the town, suggest these areas were granted to the Dean and, possibly, the Precentor.

There are a few theories as to why Gilbert chose to locate in Dornoch. Was it because he was related to the Earl of Sutherland, busy establishing himself at Dunrobin, in the hopes that he could protect him from the sort of attack suffered by his predecessors in Halkirk? If so, why was the cathedral not built in Golspie? Or was it because there was already a religious establishment at Dornoch? There are certainly indications this was the case. Whether they were already there or brought in by Gilbert it appears Dornoch was home to a number of monks.

Monks did not spend all their time in prayer, meditation or singing. Most orders were highly practical. They grew their own food in gardens and on farms and laboured on church-related building projects. Undoubtedly they worked on Dornoch’s new buildings. As Dornoch developed into something more than a mixed farming township, especially one which reflected the prestige of such a great person as the Bishop of Caithness, also needed good infrastructure. Especially water. Water for people to use and water for operating the flour mill.

The best supply was from the River Evelix. The monks used the original line of the glacial river for their canal, although before their time the river had changed its course, now turning sharply to the south-west and emptying into the Dornoch Firth at Meikle Ferry. Details as to where exactly it can be seen are explained in Robertson and Park’s Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley, but it was cut from Rearquhar, and its remains appear and disappear past the Astle road and through Fleuchary. Beyond that no traces of it can be found. The remains of this substantial engineering project, which must have been one of the wonders of Sutherland at the time, did not survive the enclosure of fields and the advent of deep ploughing.

Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2005)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)

What the ell?

Dr Cathryn Spence is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She has published on the topics of women, credit and debt, and work, as well as co-edited the Edinburgh Housemaills Taxation Book, 1634-6, which will be published in October 2014. She is also currently working on her first book, ‘For her Interest’: Women, Credit and Debt in Early Modern Scottish Towns. Her research interests include urban and economic history, and the impact of gender and socioeconomic status when accessing credit in Western Europe.

A stroll through the Dornoch kirkyard affords many pleasures. Located in the centre of town, in the shadows of Dornoch cathedral, this peaceful space beckons the visitor to wander awhile and consider the stones and monuments contained therein. The kirkyard also holds a special treat for those interested in medieval Scottish markets for, embedded into a slab of mossy and pitted stone, lies the ‘Plaiden Ell’. An accompanying plaque identifies the Plaiden Ell as a tailor’s measure, used to measure cloth at the markets and fairs held on that site since medieval times.

Scottish burghs tended to follow a theme with regard to their layout. One of the most important components of any burgh was the market place, which was indicated and protected by the market cross. Near to this was usually found the burgh’s ell. In addition to ells, Scottish marketplaces were also often home to a public weighbeam, or ‘tron’, where goods were weighed and measured by local authorities who tried to regulate the commercial activities of those both from within the town, and those who would enter the town on market days to sell their wares. These three components – mercat cross, ell, and weighbeam – were integral to medieval Scottish marketplaces.

On market days, typically held once per week, the regular hustle and bustle of day-to-day life in a medieval Scottish burgh would reach fever pitch, as both those dwelling within the burgh and those living outside of it prepared to sell or buy, or both. The market cross gave a guarantee of fair dealing to all who came to the market in good faith, while features like the ell and the weigh beam provided a physical backing to that guarantee. Markets were carefully organised affairs. Prices were set for staple goods such as bread, wheat, barley, malt and ale; specific hours for selling were laid down; the quality of goods was inspected by officials such as the ale tasters, flesh or meat tasters and wine tasters; and the activities of unlicensed hucksters was strictly controlled. Forestalling, the act of buying certain goods before they reached the official market in hopes of procuring a better price, or so they could be resold for a higher price, was expressly forbidden.

ImageCathryn inspects Dornoch’s Plaiden Ell.  Photo from collection of Cathryn Spence.

Once a feature of many towns, both in Scotland and further afield, there are now only three surviving ells in Scotland. In addition to the Plaiden Ell in Dornoch, there are also ells in Dunkeld and Fettercairn. The ell in Dunkeld can be found on the corner of the Ell Shop (owned by the National Trust for Scotland), so-called because, since the 18th century, an iron ell-stick has been attached to one corner. Like the Plaiden Ell in Dornoch, it was once used to measure cloth and other commodities in the adjacent marketplace. The third, and final, ell is engraved into the shaft of the seventeenth-century Kincardine Mercat cross, which now stands in the main square of the town of Fettercairn.

Originally, an ell was a unit of measurement approximately the length of a cubit (approximately the length of a man’s arm from the elbow, or about 18 inches – the word ‘ell’ comes from the Latin for arm, or ‘ulnia’). Several national forms existed, with different lengths. The Scottish ell was approximately 37.1 inches (94 cm), and was standardised in 1661. The exemplar for this Scottish measurement was kept in the custody of Edinburgh. However, Scottish measures were made obsolete, and English measurements made standard in Scotland, by an act of parliament in 1824. In England, ells were usually 45 inches (1.143 m), or a yard and a quarter. An ell-wand, or ellwand, was a rod of length (similar to the ell found in Dunkeld) of one ell used for official measurement and Edward I of England required that every English town have one. This was mainly used in the tailoring business, but is now obsolete. Although the exact length was never defined in English law, standards were kept.

Elsewhere in Europe, ells were of a similar length and used for a similar purpose. The Flemish ell measured approximately 27 inches (68.6 cm), the French ell 54 inches (137.2 cm), the Polish ell 31 inches (78.7 cm), the Danish ell 25 inches (63.5 cm), the Swedish aln 23 inches (2 Swedish fot, or 59 cm), and the German ell 23 inches (57.9 cm).

While ells now survive only as an interesting quirk on a monument or building, their legacy lives on in the popular expression: ‘Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile’ or ‘… he’ll take a yard’. Originally, the length taken was an ell, rather than a mile or inch, and was first published as ‘For when I gave you an inch, you tooke an ell’ in 1546 by John Heywood.