Pleasant Gardens and Ruined Cathedrals: Pococke’s Tour Part 3

In 1760 Bishop Pococke was not driving south to Dunrobin along the A9. Rather he would have been following the road, still passable on foot, that tightly hugs the coastline from Brora. He was therefore in an excellent position to see the remains of the broch at Carn Liath (I have omitted his description but it can be found on and the gardens at Dunrobin, as well as the old castle – this being a generation before the current French chateau-style building was erected.

Coming along the coast near a mile to Dunrobin, Lord Sutherland’s castle and house, we were surprized at seeing half-a-dozen families forming so many groupes – viz., the man, his wife, and children, each under a coverlit, and reposing on the shoar, in order to wait for ye tyde to go a-fishing.

The old road just north of Dunrobin Castle, following the coastline where the fishing families were waiting. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

We arrived at Dunrobin, twenty miles from Dunbeath. This castle is finely situated on the end of a hill, which is cut off by a deep fossee, so that it appears on the south side, and next to the sea, like an old Celtic mount. Between it and the sea is a very good garden. The castle did consist of two square towers and a gateway. One tower only remains now, to which the house is built. There are good appartments in it, tho some have been destroyed by fire. The present earl has begun to plant the hanging ground from the house, and proposes to carry it on, which will make it exceeding fine. This castle was built by the first Earl of Sutherland.

A small mile to the north-west is a part called the old town and ye remains of a Pictish castle, which must have been the residence of the Thanes of Sutherland…

…We crossed the ferry at the river [Little Ferry at Loch Fleet] which rises towards Lough Schin, and they say it is most part of the way a fruitfull vale, and so it appeared as far as we could see. We travelled over a sandy head of land, and came to the cross set up there in memory of the defeat of the Danes (when they landed here in 1263) by William, Earl of Sutherland, and Gilbert Murray, Bishop of Cathness.

Remains of a pier on the south side of Loch Fleet, looking up the ‘fruitfull vale’ towards Rogart. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

We came to Domock, which is pleasantly situated on the head of land not far from … the Kyle of Dornock … There is very little trade in this town, and no manufacture but spinning of linnen yarn. The church here is the body of the old cathedral which belonged to the Bishop of Cathness. It seems to be pretty near a Greek cross, tho’ in the eastern part, now uncovered, there are four arches on each side supported by round pillars, with a kind of a Gothic Doric capital. In the body or nave are only three plain Gothic windows on each side; but what is most remarkable is a round tower within jiyning to the south-west angle of the middle part. It is built for a staircase, and is about ten feet in diameter, with geometrical stairs. The bishop’s house is a solid high building, consisting of four floors above the arched offices on which it was built. They show also the dean’s house, and it is probable several other houses now standing near the church did belong to the members of the chapter. These were granted with other parts of the church estate to the Earl of Sutherland. This is a royal burgh, of which they made me a burgess.

Dornoch’s manufacturing energies may not have impressed him, but it seems likely that a fair number of residents probably took in spinning from the gentleman farming a few miles along the road at Cyderhall.

In two miles we passed by Siderhall, a fine situation, now belonging to Lord Sutherland … Here a gentleman carries on a manufacture of flax in order to prepare for spinning; gives it out, and sells the yarn. A mile more brought us to Skibo, the seat of Mr. Mackay, half-brother to Lord Reay, and member of Parliament. It was a castle and country seat of the bishops of Cathness, very pleasantly situated over a hanging ground, which was improved into a very good garden, and remains to this day much in the same state, except that there are walls built, which produce all sorts of fruit in great perfection, and I believe not more than six weeks later than about London.

More flax-growing was in evidence the next day as he continued up the Kyle and when he arrived in Tain he saw where much of it ended up. We tend to assume that people in mid-eighteenth-century rural Scotland were self-sufficient farmers, so it’s interesting to see evidence of commercial flax production.

To be continued…

Landscapes of Power: A Monumental Geography

Post by Elizabeth Ritchie, lecturer at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.

I didn’t know there was a memorial to James Loch. When I came to teach at the University of the Highlands and Islands I was instructed to prepare a course on the Clearances. I objected that I didn’t know anything about the Clearances. But I was the nineteenth-century historian and I allegedly specialised in the Highlands, so there was no way to wriggle out of it. And so I learned about the Clearances, particularly as they pertain to Sutherland, and I became familiar with names like that of James Loch, the head factor and the boss of the much hated Patrick Sellar, who designed and implemented the development of commercial agriculture, the removal of the people, and their replacement with sheep, with all of the long-resonating consequences for the economy, ecology, culture and psyche of the region and its diaspora. So my friend Annie, who has written a book on the Sutherland estate, (Annie Tindley, The Sutherland Estate 1850-1920: Aristocratic Decline, Estate management and Land Reform, Edinburgh University Press, 2010) was a little shocked to hear that, in all my bikes and hikes, I had never come across the memorial to one of the chief architects of Sutherland as it is today.

For two afternoons in January he became the pretext for walks around the woods of Dunrobin. As I made a circuit back to the castle where I had left my car, I realised I was walking a triangle: a triangle of monuments each of which spoke of the power of the people of Dunrobin to shape the landscape and the lives of the people within it.

The most obvious and most maligned is, of course, the gigantic and authoritative statue to the first duke of Sutherland on the summit of Beinn Bhraggie. Visible for dozens of miles around it is the focus for all historic discontent, yet survives the periodic attacks of chisel or spray can. Dunrobin Castle itself, with its fairytale Loire-like turrets, whitely protruding from trees and coast is another highly visible declaration of rulership, even moreso in the days when the approach to Sutherland was mainly by sea.

But in my wanderings I discovered two more monuments and recalled a third. I realised that the positioning of all these objects of stone was more than the accumulation of one-offs. They constitute a geography of power which marked ownership and authority, visibly by placement or by text. Directly west of the castle, framed by the gateway arch, is a classic Victorian statue to the second duke, with an inscribed pedestal. He overlooks the highways of road and rail, his robed back to Dunrobin Mains farm and his confident gaze rests on the spiky castle roof.

Jan - Dunrobin 004

My woodland searches finally took me to my intended objective of James Loch’s memorial. A four-posted marble canopy accessed by stone steps sits oddly in forest. The poetic inscription declares that he often loved to come to this place to survey the view. The only view now is of tree trunks and deep ruts of heavy machines. But, sometime after 1858 when he died, this tiny hilltop monument permitted him to posthumously sweep his eyes over the territory he had commanded. A superficial reading of the sentimental plaque suggests it is merely a memorial to a fond old chap, but it does not take much reading between the lines to realise that it was paid for, and possibly designed and its position chosen, by the ducal family.

Jan - Dunrobin 005

I thought the monumental geography took the form of a squashed triangle, about four miles by one, until I remembered an outlier. But an ostentatious, looming outlier, arguably the most ancient and important building in the north of Scotland: Dornoch Cathedral. Eleven miles to the south of Dunrobin, the medieval edifice’s rebuilding was financed by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1824. The very structure is a monument to her wealth and influence, even if you happened to miss the gigantic twin marble plaques and the inscribed floor-stone at the very front of the church.

The physicality, through their design and placement, of these monuments speaks authority. An authority positioned over several generations, though all harking back to the lives of the first duke and duchess, and the times in which they permanently changed the landscape and the lives of the folk of Sutherland. At least these monuments did speak authority until we took to blindly whizzing along the A9 in cars, before a small forest grew up around Loch’s vantage point, and before we stopped going to church.

Jacobites, dirks, and hair-breadth escapes

This week’s post has been contributed by Graham Hannaford, one of the Masters students at UHI’s Centre for History.  He is studying the MLitt in the History of the Highlands and Islands fully online from his home in Australia.

There was a very thick fog on the sea near Dunrobin Castle on the night of 20 March 1746. We know this because William, the Sixteenth Earl of Sutherland escaped under its cover  rather than risk being taken by the Jacobite army. Realising that the castle was vulnerable to cannon fire, and that taking him was the rebels’ chief aim at Dunrobin, he escaped in an old fishing boat which he found about a mile from his home. He was lucky to find it, since he had earlier ordered all the local boats moved south to assist in moving Government troops.

It is interesting to speculate what might have been going through his mind as he fled to safety. Perhaps he was aware of the irony of the words in which he first addressed the men he had assembled to fight in his militia against the Jacobites:

‘You are indebted to me considerably on account of arrears for some years past. These I forgive you. The current rent of this year I do not expect till the affairs of the nation are settled, as you seem heartily inclined to follow me and risque your all in defence of his majestys person and government. I further assure you that if it happens to come to action, you will see that my person will be the first exposed to danger with yours.’

Perhaps he could justify his flight in the face of the encroaching army by noting the concern of his own commander, the Earl of Loudon. Loudon had found it necessary to acquaint Sutherland with certain intelligence that Lord Cromarty had formed a scheme to capture him by surprise, which, Loudon noted, would be ‘very troubelsom both to your lordship and us’. Fleeing could therefore be justified as carrying out a military order.

More likely, the Earl’s thoughts were with his young wife of almost twelve years, and although they are not mentioned in the accounts of that night, his children. It is hard to believe with today’s understanding that the Earl would have abandoned his family but we have to remember that standards of treatment of noble women in times of war by chivalrous, often noble, soldiers were viewed differently three centuries ago. Further, we know that although it was a grief to both the Earl and Countess, Lady Sutherland’s nephew, Lord Elcho, served in Prince Charles Edward’s army; this would have given some expectation that she would be gently treated.

Nevertheless, when the rebels found that the Earl had escaped, some professed to believe that he was still concealed about the castle; the countess courageously refused the slightest information. In what was surely intended to reassure the Earl, a week after the events, Hugh Monro wrote to him:

‘One of their officers had a durk to my Lady Sutherlands brest, to get account of where your lordship was, and arms, to which he gote noe satisfactory answer. Some other officer, seeing the durk drawen as above, with his hand pushed it by my ladys brest, the edge toutched her skin as if done by a small pin, not in the least the worst of it…’

While the rebels plundered much of the house, and took much of the plate and important documents, the one horse left behind by the rebels was Lady Sutherland’s Irish Galloway. After all, a noble lady could not be expected to walk, no matter what the circumstances!

Like so many details of what actually happened, we can only speculate on the transmission of intelligence on both sides. The Earl of Sutherland had sought, and been given, arms by his commander to defend Dunrobin Castle, although they would have not been sufficient to protect it from cannon fire from a ship. When the Jacobite troops arrived at the castle, as well as taking all the arms and ammunition there, they also went immediately to the place underground where the newly supplied arms had been hidden ‘as if themselves had put the arms there’. Either the Earl had not been as cunning in hiding the arms as he had hoped to be, or someone had talked, notwithstanding assurances that all the domestic staff had stayed loyal.

William, the Sixteenth Earl and his wife (nee Lady Elizabeth Wemyss, eldest daughter of the Third Earl of Wemyss), and their two children, William (later the Seventeenth Earl of Sutherland) and Lady Elizabeth Sutherland. Had she been wearing this or a similar dress on the night Dunrobin Castle was taken, it is easy to see how a dirk, held to her breast but then pushed aside, would easily have cut the Countess. She was indeed lucky to escape the incident with barely a scratch; we will never know what the real effect the events had on Lady Sutherland, but she died suddenly, still at Dunrobin, less than a year later.

Click through to the pdf for the image: Sutherland family1

Acknowledgement: For all the above facts, quotations and picture, I am indebted to Vols I and II of The Sutherland Book by Sir William Fraser K.C.B., LL.D.  (2005 edition by TannerRitchie Publishing with the University of St Andrews)

For more info on the MLitt: