Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 2

Hugh and Walter had walked from Gruids, near Lairg, to the parish of Edderton on their way home from their summer holidays. By the afternoon Hugh’s injured foot was causing him a lot of pain. Then they remembered their cousins had told them about a shortcut through the hills. Hugh wanted home as quickly as possible and Walter “deemed himself equal to anything which his elder cousins could perform”. This may have been the drove road going up from Ardgay to near Kildermorie, or the one which passes by the Aultnamain Inn, now tarmacked over and known as the Struie.

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The drove road from Ardgay to near Kildermorie (looking north towards Gruids) where cattle from the Kincardine Market were taken to the big cattle markets in Crieff and Falkirk, then Carlisle and to London. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The boys “struck up the hill-side” and “soon found ourselves in a dreary waste, without trace of human habitation.” Hugh was struggling, light-headed and his vision was going. Walter led him up to a “heathy ridge” just as night was falling. Below them was the “northern sea-board of the Cromarty Firth, and … the cultivated country and the sands of Nigg lying only a few miles below.” They intended to aim for the sands. They knew they were dangerous at certain tides and accidents frequently happened in the fords. Walter could not swim but they decided Hugh would lead the way. But first, they had to get down. “The night fell rather thick than dark, for there was a moon overhead … the downward way was exceedingly rough and broken, and we had wandered from the path.” Hugh was in no condition for stumbling and groping through the “scraggy moor” and “dark patches of planting”. They had just reached a cleared spot on the “edge of the cultivated country” when Hugh “dropped down as suddenly as if struck by a bullet, and, after an ineffectual attempt to rise, fell fast asleep.

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The route from Gruids to the point where Hugh collapsed. The black indicates where they actually went, cutting up through the ‘dreary waste’. The blue indicates their intended route through the low lying ground past Tain. The arrows mark where they would have crossed the river by the ferryboat at Invershin, where Hugh’s foot began to really trouble him, and where he finally passed out. Route superimposed on General Roy’s Military Survey from 1747-55. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Walter was much frightened; but he succeeded in carrying me to a little rick of dried grass which stood up in the middle of the clearing.” He covered his friend up with the hay and lay down beside him. Walter couldn’t sleep for anxiety and his heart raced when he heard psalm singing in the old Gaelic style coming from a neighbouring clump of wood. “Walter believed in the fairies; and, though psalmody was not one of the reputed accomplishments of the ‘good people’ in the low country … in the Highlands the case might be different”. He sat tight until after the singing stopped. After some time he heard a slow, heavy step. A voice exclaimed in Gaelic and a rough, hard hand grasped the boy’s bare heel. A grey-headed man accused the boys of being gypsies, angry “at the liberty we had taken with his hayrick”. Walter explained. The old man was instantly mollified, and insisted the boys should spend the night in his home. It does not seem likely his hospitality would have extended to them if they had been gypsies after all.

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The welcome view of the Cromarty Ferry pier at Nigg. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hugh was assisted to the cottage, hidden in the clump of trees. An “aged woman” welcomed them. The elderly couple quizzed them as to who they were and the couple realised they knew Hugh and Walter’s maternal grandfather and grandmother and various other relations. Family updates were given and commiserations on misfortunes expressed. Hugh was too ill to take much note of conversation and could only swallow a few spoonfuls of milk. The elderly lady washed his feet, crying over him. Hugh was made of sturdy stuff and after a night’s rest in their best bed he was fit enough to sit in the old man’s cart and driven to the parish of Nigg. They stayed for another day’s rest at a relation’s house there before being taken in another cart to the Cromarty Ferry.

The bootless boys had finally made it home.

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Their proposed (blue) route taking them across the dangerous tidal sands. Their actual (black) route from their overnight stay with the elderly couple to a relative’s house in Nigg parish and to the ferry. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 120-122

National Map Library, Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, http://maps.nls/roy/

Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 1

“I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road”. Hugh and his cousin, Walter, realised getting home was going to be more difficult than they anticipated.

It was about 1818 and the teenagers had spent their summer holidays with relatives in Gruids, near Lairg. On one of the final days before they had to return, they went fishing in the River Shin. They could hear the roaring of the salmon-leap three miles away at Hugh’s uncle’s house and had been inspired by stories of skilful fishermen. Cousin William agreed to take them. He looked askance at their bare feet and muttered that his mother had never allowed them to visit relations unshod. The boys didn’t tell him that their mothers had indeed sent them out shod but “deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a comer, and set out on our journey without them.” That journey had been thirty miles from the Cromarty ferry to Gruids.

 

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Gruids, looking south towards the River Shin. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The walk to the River Shin was less onerous. “We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation. The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches. Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap … there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore. We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool – for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way.” Later, the salmon run was blasted with gunpowder to make easier for the fish. The boys spotted a “hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher”.

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Statue of the adult Hugh Miller in his hometown of Cromarty. He became a famous geologist, editor, author, and advocate for the Free Church and for issues of social justice. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Excited, Hugh jumped from a tall lichened stone. His right foot smashed against a sharp-edged fragment of rock hidden in the moss. He managed to control his scream and clutched his foot as it lost feeling. He limped back to his uncle’s house, but that evening it throbbed badly. However the lad, later an unsuccessful poet but a good newspaper editor and author of prose (as well as a renowned geologist and leader of the Free Church), distracted his mind by composing some verse about the waterfall at Shin.

However, his foot got worse. Next morning it was “stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.” Cousin Walter was impatient and getting bored, so after a few days the boys ignored their elders’ advice to stay put and tried for home. Hugh’s aunt supplied them with a “bag of Highland luxuries – cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts”. As Walter had to carry everything, he required his cousin to entertain him. Hugh’s “long extempore stories … were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the mile-stones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry. At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed. The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o’clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.”

Injured and far from home, the boys were in a predicament.

To be continued…

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 117-120.

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.

A Highland Quest, 2014

This week Professor Eric Richards reflects on the three months he spent in northern Scotland this summer as Carnegie Visiting Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for History.

Historical research often depends on serendipity, on chance connections, many leading to dead ends. The Carnegie Trust brought me from Australia for three summer months in the Highlands in 2014 and gave me special moments just like these. One was the lucky find, in the Highland Archives in Inverness, of a small bundle of unseen documents relating to the Munro of Novar estates which witnessed a sustained explosion of protest among the small tenantry in the Spring of 1820. These were the Culrain Riots in Easter Ross, quite well known from other sources, but here were some internal documents of the estate factors and the legal authorities, which exposed much more about the origins and the pattern of the events. The Culrain events were a well co-ordinated spasm of popular resistance against a clearing landlord. Munro had ordered the removal of a large number of small tenants to make way for a new sheep farmer. He needed Culrain cleared.

Culrain today. A peaceful, sparsely-populated 'improved farm' with no hint of the problems and resistance of its inhabitants 150 years ago.

Culrain today. A peaceful, sparsely-populated ‘improved farm’ with no hint of the problems and resistance of its inhabitants 200 years ago.

The protest entailed a series of riots in which women were at the forefront, leading the resistance, humiliating the authorities, generating great alarm for law and order, and eventually causing the intervention of military force to suppress the ‘rebellion’. The women at Culrain were reinforced by men allegedly dressed as women: the main group of men remained in the background ready to act. The Munro documents also exposed the ineffectual plans of the landlord to make provision for the people he was about to evict, namely the offer of their resettlement at the Cape of Good Hope or on moors in the West of England. The events in Culrain, and at neighbouring Gruids soon afterwards, prompt a reconsideration of the question of resistance during the clearances, the prominence of women, and the place of women in both traditional and transitional Highlands of the early nineteenth century. These episodes, often following strikingly similar patterns, had been recurring ever since the 1790s and continued even at late as the 1860s, for instance at Clashmore in Assynt. They prefigured some of the later radicalised crofter agitation of the ‘Land Raids’.

Another happy chance was a find of emigrants’ letters in Gairloch, letters written in the early 1850s from Gairloch to people who had left for New South Wales a few years earlier. This type of correspondence is pure gold, the direct voice from ‘people below’ – in this instance they reported the potato famine in the west, they celebrated the death of the local estate factor, and they explained the unpopularity of the well-meaning improvement polices of Dr John Mackenzie. The Gairloch horde was a nice moment in the unending quest for emigrant letters and all documents about the circumstances of Highland emigration.
Then, reaching Stornoway and the Long Island for the first time, a new old world was opened up. Here I discovered a bewildering set of variants on the general narrative of the Clearances. The clearance events in Lewis and Harris have been extremely well-documented by local historians such as Angus Macleod and Bill Lawson. I was shown around innumerable townships where evictions and resettlements had occurred, and the great question was usually the actual sequence of displacement and transplantation of communities over long historical time. Evidently in many paces people were shifted about decade after decade – and this history makes less surprising the eventual upsurge of resistance and revolt – and the demand for the resumption of the old lands of the forbears.

Travelling around the Highlands arouses all sorts of questions, with hares running in several directions. One was the notion of a comparison of cleared with non-cleared zones within the region during the Age of the Clearances. This would be a big and unexplored agenda, even that of identifying the locations for comparison. I began to think of another comparison, on a much smaller scale might be more manageable. This entailed two islands involved in ‘precipitate emigration’ in the mid nineteenth century. It is intriguing that sudden ‘mass ‘emigration affected the insular communities of St Kilda (to Port Phillip in 1852) and of Handa (to Canada in 1848). Each episode was small enough and reasonably well documented to allow detailed investigation of the propellants of these emigrations, and perhaps offer unusual insights into the pressure of circumstances (notably from their respective landlords) in each case. But there is never enough evidence, especially direct testimony of the emigrating people themselves.

Eric Richards modelling Australian headware at the Centre for History in Dornoch. With David Worthington and Jim McPherson.  July 2014.

Eric Richards (centre) modelling Australian headware at the Centre for History in Dornoch. With David Worthington and Jim McPherson. July 2014.

Reay Clarke, a well-known farmer in Edderton, has just published an important book on sheepfarming in Sutherland, and he has long connections of his own with a great sheep farming family in Edderachillis. He writes critically of the great and ostensibly permanent damage that sheep farming has inflicted on the Highland environment and on the productive capacity of the land. Talking to the author immediately stimulated the idea of a long distance comparison with the impact of sheep farming on Aboriginal Australia and on the Australian environment – a subject of much current contention among historians. And of course there was always a fine irony in the importation of sheep farmers and shepherds from the Highlands into colonial Australia, some of them cleared, some of them so successful that they eventually undermined the Highland sheep economy itself.

Two other questions kept intruding on all these other Highland thoughts. I was in pursuit of the much-decried figure of the Highland estate factor, especially his role in the clearances. He was responsible not only for the management of the estates but also for the rough work of eviction and resettlement. Once more the challenge is to sort out the mythology from the realities of Highland life in those times, and to put the matter in perspective.

The other question brought me back to my benefactor, Andrew Carnegie. Not only the richest man in the world, he was also the most successful returned emigrant, using some of his colossal wealth to educate his homeland. In the Highlands there were earlier returned migrants who employed their overseas wealth to cross-subsidize their estates – from the East Indies, from India, from the United States and Canada. But even more prevalent, especially in the Age of the Clearances, was wealth generated in the Caribbean, from the slave trade and the slave plantations. This is a subject now being energetically excavated which casts a not always attractive light on the region as beneficiary of tainted wealth. So my Highland agenda kept expanding, but there must be help from among the new legions of Highland historians.

Reay Clarke’s book can be ordered from the Islands Book Trust: http://www.theislandsbooktrust.com/