‘Honest’ George Dempster and the Spinningdale Experiment

Katie Louise McCullough is an historian and the Director of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on the economic and social development of the Highlands and Islands during the Improvement Era. Katie has spent many wonderful trips to Dornoch and the surrounding areas hiking and walking the beautiful countryside with her good pal Elizabeth Ritchie.

In Spinningdale, on the north side of the Dornoch Firth, stand the remnants of a cotton mill. It was built from 1792-4 by the Balnoe Company for the agriculturalist and politician George Dempster, Esq. of Dunnichen (1732-1818), owner of the Skibo estate, and his Glasgow partner David Dale. The men raised over £3000 for the mill, largely from Glasgow businessmen. It was part of a broader plan for social and economic development in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that championed the provision of employment and poverty relief rather than clearance and turning over land to sheep walks.

cotton mill at Spinningdale

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As an MP Dempster had a reputation for incorruptibility, gaining him the sobriquet of ‘Honest’ George. He brought his honesty and hard work to his development interests. Dempster was part of a network of improvers centred on the Highland Society of London (est. 1778) and its sister society the Highland Society of Scotland (est. 1784). Key players in these societies formed a subsidiary company the British Fisheries Society (Dempster was a director of the HSS and BFS) in 1786. In order to provide employment, the BFS established planned fishing villages in the western Highlands and Islands, an area noted by these men for its “underdevelopment.” Colleagues found within these networks blamed slow economic development and poverty on the Whiggish improvers of the early- and mid-eighteenth century who blamed Highlanders for their own poverty. In contrast, Dempster and like-minded friends felt the solution was not in raising great numbers of sheep but, as Sir John Sinclair argued, “by the introduction of arts and agriculture. The first will increase the number and wealth of the people; the latter will augment the quantity of the production of the soil, both for the maintenance of people and cattle. But neither arts nor agriculture can prosper, unless the inhabitants are secure in the tenure, by which they occupy the spots on which they live.” And so, Dempster and his colleagues came up with plans to build homes and transportation links, provide suitable local employment, and reduce or freeze rents until people got on their feet.

The Spinningdale mill was intended to provide employment for people from the nearby parish of Criech and its environs, including the Pulrossie estate, owned by Dempster’s brother. Local people lived off the sale of cattle and grew some potatoes and corn. Some considered this to be “hardly sufficient to maintain the families of the tenants,” resulting in difficulty paying rent and outmigration. Young men and women often temporarily migrated to the south: some “got high wages, and returned in winter to their parents, or relations, somewhat in the stile [sic] of gentlemen, and were a burden on their friends the whole winter, until they set out again in spring.” Some did not return; possibly marrying, dying, emigrating, or being “picked up by recruitment parties.”

cotton mill

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Emulating the fishing villages built by the BFS in the 1780s (Ullapool, Stein, and Tobermory), two villages were lotted on the Skibo estate: Criech and Spinningdale, in preparation for new housing. A warehouse was also built to hold goods for export. The Dornoch Firth was considered ideal for cotton manufacturing as it was damp and had access to transportation, the firth being “navigable for 24 miles [and] vessels of 50 tons burden can land their cargoes at this place,” and Spinningdale had a nearby burn for water power. Unlike many other landowners in this period, Dempster chose to freeze rents until manufacturing took off and people were placed in their new homes. This plan was intended not only to bring wealth to Dempster through rent, and to investors through profits, but also to raise the standard of living of inhabitants who “will enjoy perfect security, as occupiers of land. That those advantages will lead them gradually to better their houses, to improve their lands, and to alter their own condition in every respect for the better.”

cotton mill I

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Unfortunately, this ambitious plan was a failure. Unable to coax locals to work in the factory with regularity (they were otherwise engaged in seasonal work; lambing, harvesting, peating, or searching for higher-wage work in the south) the mill did not turn a profit. A fire gutted the factory in 1806 and it was not rebuilt. Though the mill was a failure, Dempster’s plan reveals the benevolent intentions of some landowners who sought to attract local workers to planned towns with the provision of employment and infrastructure rather than clearing people on to crofts leaving the best land for sheep and cattle, a system designed to build wealth only for the landowner. Lotted towns and villages like those built by the British Fisheries Society, and many others, including Creich and Spinningdale, were intended to create employment and to reduce poverty for common Highlanders, eliminating the need to leave home in search of a better life.

Sources:

MS00126 George Dempster Papers Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Sir John Sinclair, Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799) Vol 8 Criech, County of Sutherland.

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.’

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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.

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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

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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.

Merry-Making on the Tidal Mud Flats at Meikle Ferry: An Extreme Fishing Expedition or Sport Induced Madness?

Wade Cormack is the post-holder for the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. He is completing his second year of research and writing. He is exploring early modern sport and the cultural history of the Moray Firth.

Four centuries ago on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth there was a sight to behold. Hundreds of people amassed on the sands at Portnaculter, present-day Meikle Ferry, at low tide to participate in what can be described as a folk horse-race/mass fishing expedition. An account of this peculiar practice was cemented in history by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun in A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. Gordon explained that in the spring and summer when the streams ran into the firth at low tide, six to seven hundred of ‘the commoun sort of inhabitant doe convene on hors-bak… and so doe swim toards these sands; and when they doe aryve upon these beds of sand, incontinent they run their horses at full speed, stryveing who can first aryve at the fishing place, wher they doe indevoar, with all dilli-gence to tak these [sand eels].’ These small fish were actual sand eels. The race quickly could become chaotic and cutthroat: ‘as they doe run their horses, the rest doe tak no notice thereof to res-cue them, bot suffer them to ly ther among the horse feitt, and run on their intendit course’. Even watching the racers pounding across the beach at low timed towards the sandbanks would have been tremendously exciting.

We don’t know much about horse racing in the Moray Firth. There are just a few accounts at Tain, Inverness, Banff, Huntly and Aberdeen from the 1630s until the mid-nineteenth century. However, these events seem well organised and attracted gentlemen from a large area. The Inverness race attracted men from as far away as Inverlochy Castle, near Fort William. Each race had a silver prize for the winner. The prizes included a silver cup at Inverness (the patron unknown), a silver cup at Banff, engraved silver hilted broad swords at the Huntly and silver plate at Aberdeen provided by the Dukes of Gordon.

Photo from HistoryLinks Image Library: the inner Dornoch Firth looking northward.

Photo from HistoryLinks Image Library: the inner Dornoch Firth looking northward.

The race at Meikle Ferry was not quite the same as these highly organised and prestigious events. The trophies for the winner of this race were full bellies for months to come. The race for the sand eels was not just about stocking the larder. Gordon noted that ‘they tak such abundance during some few days, that it sufficeth them for pro-visions of that kind of fish during lent, and most pairt of the yeir following’. It is clear that taking the fish also served a religious purpose. Sport in this period functioned on two levels: it was exciting recreation and it provided the people of Sutherland the opportunity to gather the fish they required for this holy period. Unfortunately the history of many of these folk races has been lost, along with other folk sports, as they were part of larger events and either no record of them were created or survive. This is especially true when no official prize was given. Gordon’s account of the race therefore provides a rare window into the past demonstrating the presence of folk horse racing on the Dornoch Firth.

The sands at Meikle Ferry were not the only location for horse racing. Gordon provides a little hint of forgotten races on the links at Dornoch. As ‘about this toun… ther are the fairest and largest linkes… of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding, and all other exercise; they doe surpasse the feilds of Montrose or St Andrews’. Across the Firth, the Tain links were also a site of horseracing as well as golf up until the mid-nineteenth century. After that part of the links were ploughed. Just as elsewhere around the Moray Firth, the people who lived around the Dornoch Firth were very active horse racers. At Meikle Ferry the invigorating recreational pursuit was interwoven with the celebration of Lent, and fish, rather than silver, was the prize. The frenzy of activity at Portnaculter, leaving deep hoof prints in the mud, was an exciting community occasion. Was it sport induced madness or an extreme fishing expedition? I am sure for participants it was both, as the galloped at full speed towards the best fishing spots leaving the neighbours behind.

Sources:
Robert Gordon, Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its Origin to the Year 1630: with a Continuation to the Year 1651 (Edinburgh, 1813).
Black’s Picturesque Tourist Guide to Scotland (Edinburgh, 1852).
William Mackay (ed.), The Chronicles of the Frasers: The Wardlaw Manuscript…The True Genealogy of the Frasers 916-1674 (Edinburgh, 1905).
Papers of the Gordon Family, Dukes of Gordon (Gordon Castle Muniments), GD44, National Archives of Scotland.