The Community of Inveran

Last night I was driving back from Ullapool to Dornoch. I took the north road: slightly shorter and faster, though narrow and through a sparsely populated landscape, described as ‘wilderness’ or ‘wild land’ by many. It wasn’t always so desolate. One place, Inveran, overlooking  the Kyle of Sutherland epitomises this. Today there are a few houses and a power station, but two hundred years ago it was far more lively.

On a key east-west route, it was well known to cattle drovers and migrant labourers. The cluster of five or six houses shown on General Roy’s 1746 map were separated from its twin township, Invershin, by a narrow stream, the Allt na Ciste Duibhe. In 1776 a visitor described the ‘pleasant prospect: the rich banks of the firth, crowded with farms, and animated with all the appearances of industry; small vessels sailing up and down; people busy for preparing and unloading them; fishermen attending their nets; the ferry boats ready at a call.’[1]

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‘The rich banks of the Firth’           Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Despite stereotypes of pre-Clearance Highlanders these were no impoverished peasants. The Inveran men were joint tenants: Donald MacKay, his brother in law John Bethune, Alexander Bethune, Alexander Ross, and Andrew MacLeay. In summer they grazed black cattle on the shieling grounds on the low hills, rearing them for the southern markets. They grew barley, oats and potatoes on the infield.[2] Donald owned at least one horse. The men had multiple sources of income. Donald was a ‘housewright’, or joiner; Alexander Ross was the blacksmith; Alexander Bethune was a merchant at Inveran and nearby Linsidemore; John operated the ferry.[3] Both the Bethunes were entrepreneurs who dealt in large amounts of money: in 1814 a decreet of Cessio Bonorum was issued against Alexander by his creditors; and John not only raised but dealt in cattle.[4] He was arrested in 1815 for failing to repay a local man a substantial loan of £150.[5] Family economies also depended on women’s labour. As well as fieldwork, animal care and working at the peats, women earned cash and provided sustenance by processing food, especially making butter and cheese, and by spinning.[6]

We know how one household was organized. Bessy MacKay and her father Donald lived alone, however they could not manage alone. Twelve year old Mary Matheson from nearby Invercharron came to work as a servant, and late in 1812 John, son of Donald’s brother George, was sent from Tullichgriban, Strathspey.[7] There was no social distance: Mary moved into Bessy’s bed when cousin John was added to the household. The four worked and lived together. Like most of the middling sort in Scotland’s north, the MacKays lived in a longhouse, the thatched roof supported by wooden crucks inbuilt to the walls of interlayered stone and turf.[8] The lower section was usually reserved for livestock but Donald also used it as his workshop. The middle room had a central fire, wooden chests and a trunk. There was probably also a dresser for their crockery and some chairs. The beds were in a room beyond, set apart by a wooden door.[9] Inveran’s residents lived in fairly spacious houses and had developed a relatively diversified local economy encompassing commercial cattle raising and trading, housebuilding, blacksmithing, ferrying, midwifery, arable farming and doubtless the sale of butter, cheese and eggs.[10] This mitigated the possible economic calamities of a crop failure or a downturn in the cattle trade.

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Goats, rarely enumerated, were an essential source of meat and dairy. These wild ones in nearby Rogart are enjoying the produce of a field at Morvich Farm.           Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The 1810s were a time of social, economic and cultural flux. Townships like Inveran, operating a semi-subsistence, semi-commercial economy, thickly scattered low-lying parts of the Highlands. However new estate policies which prioritized the higher rentals of commercial sheep farming threatened this. Over the next few decades, communities near Inveran – Gruids, Achness, Kildonan, Culrain – vigorously resisted efforts to evict them, although with only temporary success. Religion, although also in flux, was a powerful social and cultural force. Sutherland had been strongly influenced by Evangelical Presbyterianism, partly due to the revivals of the previous century. It remained a formative influence. A key issue for Evangelicals was patronage, whereby landowners selected the parish minister. Problems were exacerbated when the man was a Moderate rather than an Evangelical. This hit Creich parish in 1813 when Murdo Cameron was presented. A significant portion of the congregation revolted. Protests through church channels failed and they elected to separate. For the next forty years they met at a home in the winter and in the shadow of Migdale Rock in the summer.[11]

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Linside, jsut upriver from Inveran, where Alexander Bethune had one of his shops.               Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Driving west these days, reaching Inveran heralds the quiet and ‘remote’ section of the journey. Next time you pass through, consider the service industries, the commercial use of the river and the land, the manufacturing, and the political activism of two hundred years ago, when the glens were full of the hustle and bustle of life.

[1] C. Cordiner, Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland, in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant (1780), 65-6.

[2] First Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol. 8 (Edinburgh, 1791-99), 367, 369.

[3] His name appeared in connection with a building project in 1782. Cited by M. Bangor-Jones to J. Whamond, 29 May 2007, ROSSGEN-L Archives, Rootsweb Geneaology. (accessed 25 June 2014)

[4] NRS, CS32/8/46 Decreet of Cessio Bonorum, Alexander Bethune, merchant, Inveran v his creditors 11 Feb 1814. ‘A voluntary surrender of goods by a debtor to his creditors. It did not amount to a discharge unless the property ceded was sufficient for the purpose, but it secured the debtor from personal arrest. The creditors sold the goods in satisfaction, pro tanto, of their claims.’ H. Chisholm, ed.”Cessio Bonorum“. Encyclopædia Britannica 5 (11th ed.) (Cambridge, 1911), 768.

[5] Private Collection of N. Lindsay, Dornoch Jail Records 1813-40: A Transcription, 23 June 1815.

[6] Rural women’s roles are detailed in A. Fenton, Scottish Country Life (Edinburgh, 1976), 47, 52-81, 131, 151-179. A survey of women’s tasks in 1790s Sutherland can be found at:  (accessed 9 February 2016) Sheep tended to be women’s responsibility in eighteenth-century Sutherland. H. Morrison cited in R. Clarke, Two Hundred Years of Farming in Sutherland (Kershader, 2014), 31. Insufficient research has been conducted on the Highlands, but a semi-flexible gendering of work was common in western countries. N. G. Osterud, Bonds of Community: The lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York (Ithaca & London, 1991), 139, 150, 153.

[7] It is likely John was a middle son of George MacKay and Ann Watson. There is a sufficient gap in the baptism records between Lewis (1787), James (1790), and William (1796), Donald (1799), Donald (1801) for a John who was ‘about eighteen or nineteen’ in early 1814. A headstone in Duthil Churchyard transcribed by Alison Mitchell in Pre 1855 Monumental Inscriptions: An Index for Speyside (1975, 1992) reads: ‘G McKay & A W his spouse who d at an advanced age in 1823 and also their chn int here except Jas d Salamanca Spain 5.10.1812, surviving ss Lewis & D McKay smiths ed. With thanks to genealogist, Ellen Sutherland.

[8] Pre-Clearance dwellings varied regionally, but those of the tenants usually included at least one bedroom, a living room, and a byre. For example, H. Fairhurst, ‘Rosal: a deserted township in Strath Naver, Sutherland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland, 100, (1967-8), 135-169.

[9] In terms of material wealth, the MacKays were fairly typical tenants. Less furniture is recorded here than at the Munros’ longhouse a few miles north at Gruids. In their best room were chairs, table, a chest of drawers, a large box-bed, and a small, well-filled bookcase. H. Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh, 1889), 95-6. Excavations at Caen, Kildonan, confirm homes were stocked with purchased goods such as mocha-ware from Staffordshire. Pottery sherds from Caen are displayed in Timespan Museum, Helmsdale. Excavation catalogues: LCN13 172/209, LCN13 199/209. Tacksmen, such as Gilbert MacKenzie, Invershin, sometimes lived in large two-storeyed houses, with multiple bedrooms, a parlour and dining room, all carpeted and opulently furnished. NRS, CS96/3960 Gilbert McKenzie, merchant, Invershin 1811-1813.

[10] It is probable that merchant businesses such as that of Alexander Bethune operated similarly to general stores in colonial British North America, by purchasing local goods on credit and selling imported goods. The role of merchants, credit and commerce in the Highlands has barely been touched, with the exception of Taylor’s discussion of the commercial importance of cattle droving. D. Taylor, The Wild Black Region: Badenoch 1750-1800 (Edinburgh, 2016). A study testing Douglas McCalla’s thesis in the Highlands and Islands would be very beneficial. Douglas McCalla, “Retailing in the Countryside: Upper Canadian General Stores in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Business and Economic History 26:2 (1997), 393-403.

[11] G. Macdonald, Men of Sutherland (Dornoch, 1937, 2014), 71; D.M.M. Paton, ‘Brought to a wilderness: the Rev. David MacKenzie of Farr and the Sutherland clearances’, Northern Scotland, 12 (1992), 85.

Bessy and John, Part 7: Consequences

Bessy and the two midwives eventually persuaded John MacKay to tell them where he had buried his dead child.  He confessed that, not knowing what to do with it, he first placed it in Bessy’s trunk.  He then buried it in the workshop at the end of the house.  ‘The members of Session repaired to the workshop and searched for the corpse.’  The body was found at the north wall of the work shop wrapped in Bessy’s lawn napkin.  Alexander Gray, a tenant at nearby Linseidmore and a county constable, ‘carefully put his hands under the earth and lifted up the body of the child and laid it upon the Side of the hole out of which it had been dug.  That the said Bessy MacKay who at this time was [at] the Door flew to the spot and in a frenzied state threw herself upon, embraced and lifted the Infant. And exclaimed “oh my Darling, this is the first sight I saw of you and had I seen you before all the World shod not have parted us” That she pressed the Dead Body to her Breast’.  Immediately ‘those present laid hold her and forced her to give up the child for fear of its being bruised by her and it was with difficulty it could be taken from her; but upon her being assured that she should have liberty to see and embrace the Body of the Infant when it was washed and cleaned she reluctantly parted with it – all that were present in consequence of the manner she embraced her child, were much affected and declared that it was more than probably she had not seen her child till then.  And the poor unfortunate mother has repeatedly declared she did not.  Upon the corpse being taken out of the workshop it was exposed to inspection and the Session finding that no medical man was at hand appointed Isobel Munro midwife at Invershin and Christy Ross midwife at Inveran to inspect the baby.’  The women took the tiny body through to the house, filled a container with cold water and minutely examined it.  They concluded that it was of ‘mature growth’ but there were no ‘marks of violence upon the body’.  ‘Isobel Munro observed that the child’s mouth was shut which is not the case with infants at their birth.’  Having determined that the child was not premature, they now had to decide whether it had been smothered at birth or stillborn.  Isobel ‘opened the Infant’s mouth with her finger and examined it, but found no part of it crushed or broken – only that the lower lip was a little pressed inwards which she conceived might be occasioned by the pressure of the earth over the child.  They were desired to examine the child’s head, jaw bone and sides they did so and found no part of the body crushed or broken.’  Young Mary also retracted her comment about hearing a child’s cry at the time of the birth, so suitable ambiguity was created which might help to protect the young people.


 The nearest building is the rebuilt Dornoch Castle in 1905.  Photo courtesy of Historylinks Image library.

There was, however, clearly a case to answer.  The constable presumably took charge at this point.  John was too sick to get to Dornoch jail on foot so a horse was obtained for him.  They were both imprisoned, probably in what is now the Castle Hotel, for the alleged crime of child murder.  The old tolbooth had been ‘thrown down’ in 1813 and the Duke of Sutherland had offered the use of ‘the Ancient Castle of Dornoch, lately repaired by his Lordship.’  Four years later the surgeons of Tain and Dornoch made an approving report on the jailhouse.  It consisted of ‘two rooms or cellars for the confinement of Criminals on the ground floor, which are roughly flagged, strongly arched above, and well ventilated’.  There were separate rooms for debtors.  All the ‘apartments are provided with good strong beds, necessary boxes and other suitable accommodation.’  We ‘consider the whole well adapted for a Prison.’  Despite these conditions, John was worried about his health.  ‘He is now very weak and in poor health and if confined for any length of time in a loathsome jail he is much afraid that his life shall fall a sacrifice.’  However Robert Mackid, Sheriff Substitute of Sutherland, felt he was the more guilty of the pair and should be kept a prisoner.  He felt that Bessy, partly because of her still-delicate health, was to be granted bail and called as a witness rather than as one of the accused.  Unfortunately the records of the Dornoch jail, although they begin in 1814, commence in April, a month or so after John and Bessy were imprisoned.  Their case was to be heard by the Crown Counsel at the spring circuit at Inverness but their names do not appear.  This, along with a note enclosed in the precognition written by the sheriff stating that he was unwilling to try the case, suggest that both were released without the case coming to court.  The Kirk Session records for Creich, assuming they were kept, no longer exist, so there is no more evidence.

Indeed here both John and Bessy slip out of reach.  There is no Bessy in the 1841 census for Creich.  Either she had died or no longer lived in the parish.  A 50 year old John MacKay worked at nearby Airdens as an agricultural labourer.  He could have been our man or one of the many other John MacKays in Sutherland.  Searches of death records and marriage records in the parish have also been unproductive.  All we know are negatives: neither died in the parish and neither were living at Inveran in 1841.  So what happened to young Bessy and John after their brush with romance, murder charges and imprisonment remains, like the lives of so many ordinary people two centuries ago, a mystery.  We have at least seen something.  Without this unhappy incident we might never have known of their existence, or that of Aunt Bessy, the midwives, or the little servant girl who all played their role in the melodrama at Inveran.

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

Bessy and John, Part 6: The Kirk Session is Convened

On 9th March Thomas Munro, missionary minister in the parish, rode from his home in Invershin to express his concerns about the gossip surrounding Bessy MacKay’s missing baby to Murdo Cameron, the parish minister of Creich.  Five days after their meeting Murdo saddled up and set out for Invershin to make some enquiries.  The situation was now out in the open.  That evening Bessy called in on Isobel Munro.  Having no mother, and an aunt and father who were in denial, the older, sensible, no-nonsense midwife was the best person to talk it out with.  The next morning, the sixteenth, the minister called an extraordinary meeting of the Kirk Session in Inveran to investigate the case.  Alexander Gray was sent for.  He was a man of many parts who held land in tenancy at Wester Linseidmore, as well as being the Kirk Session officer and a Constable for the County of Sutherland.  He was joined by two other elders, an Alexander Ross and an Andrew MacKay.  MacKay was a fellow tenant at Inveran and probably Bessy’s uncle.  Isobel Munro was asked to attend as a witness due to her midwife expertise.  Isobel arrived in Inveran early and popped in to Aunt Bessy’s house.  Young Bessy was there, ‘crying and in tears’.  Aunt Bessy began declaring that she had ‘never heard anything of the story that was in circulation regarding her niece’s being with child or of her delivery’.  Aunt Bessy had clearly foreseen this day, and all her ignoring of the gossip and of events was leading up to this protestation.  Isobel was having none of this nonsense: ‘oh! Fie! Fie! woman shame and disgrace that [you] should pretend not to have heard what was currently reported in the place’.  Knowing fine well that it had been Aunt Bessy who had organised most of the aftercare for young Bessy, Isobel added ‘it was impossible such a thing could have taken place without her knowledge.’  Isobel told young Bessy quite firmly, perhaps reminding her of the previous evening’s conversation, that it would be better for her to make a full confession to the Session.  Isobel had decided that honesty was the best policy and perhaps also realised that confession and repentance through the Kirk Session had in the past allowed other women in Bessy’s situation, assuming they were not found guilty of child murder, to have their standing in the community restored.

Isobel walked across to the house where the Session was gathered.  She was first to answer their questions and to give her expert opinion on stillbirth.  Stillbirth was clearly going to be the line of defence, leaving Bessy only to face the much lesser crime of ‘concealment of pregnancy’.  After Isobel’s examination came Bessy’s.  She followed Isobel’s advice and acknowledged that she had been pregnant, that she had delivered a child, and that John was the father.  They asked her why she concealed her pregnancy and, rather poignantly, she explained that no-one had asked her so she did not tell.  Her defence was that she believed the child had died in utero.  The Session then had to question John, but he was ill in bed.

The elders, Bessy and both midwives trooped across to the MacKay house.  The minister and the elders went into the bedroom and closed the door behind them.  John confessed that he was the father.  They asked him when he first had ‘criminal connection’ with Bessy and when he said that it was the previous April.  Bessy, who was listening at the door, realised her hastily cobbled-together defence of one sexual experience, a premature birth and a stillborn child was falling apart.  She ‘burst into the Room where the Session sat and heaving seated herself on the side of the Bed in which MacKay was then lying she exclaimed “no no that is not true.  I must not allow that.  You must not murder me at once.”’ and she said that he had ‘no criminal connection with her till the week of the Kincardine Market’.  Bessy ‘was in a rage and seemed much agitated.’  The minister ordered her to ‘quit the room’ but she refused so he ordered two of the men to remove her.  She was promised that as soon as ‘they had finished John MacKay’s declaration she should be called in and made acquainted with everything he had mentioned regarding her.’  She reluctantly left just as John ‘stated in a low tone of voice, that whatever she said he would swear to’.  John had taken charge at the birth but now, as he lay sick, Bessy took the lead.  The Session was thorough in their questions, trying to find out if the baby was premature and therefore likely to have been stillborn.  They asked about how fully formed it was; was it light or heavy; whether it had fingernails or hair; whether it was alive or dead.  He insisted it was dead and that Bessy had been too faint to be aware of it.  Then he stopped answering questions, said he was faintish and called for a drink of water.  John was reluctant to be drawn on where the baby might be.  Bessy knew the body had been a few days in the trunk but didn’t know what he had done with it after.  So the two midwives and Bessy went in to the bedroom and tried to persuade him to tell them what he had done with it.  Christian Ross used every argument she could concoct but all she got out of him was a claim that he ‘had thrown it into the River’ near where the ferry crosses.  Bessy objected, exclaiming that he had not.  Eventually he told them.

To be continued…Image

The river ‘near where the ferry crosses’.  Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

Deborah A. Symonds, Weep not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)

Bessy and John, Part 5: The Truth will Out

After a pregnancy rife with rumour, gossip and denial, Bessy had given birth with John fending off any outside interference.  John had secreted away the body of the dead infant.  The women of the township simultaneously cared for the young woman while sustaining a fiction of ignorance.  Childbirth was usually a communal female event.  Pooling expertise helped protect mother and baby, as well as providing moral and emotional support.  Giving birth alone was highly unusual and it was dangerous, especially for a first time mother.  Although Bessy had cut herself off from the community of women who would normally have offered help and advice, without speaking to her about what happened they nonetheless gathered around to look after her.  A stream of women appeared at the door of the MacKay house: Aunt Bessy; Christian Ross the midwife, Janet, widow of Alexander Bethune the shopkeeper; and Aunt Margaret.  As Margaret MacKay lived some twenty miles away at Lairg of Tain, her visit was not casual.  It seems likely she had heard about her niece’s predicament and had come to render what assistance she could. 


 The wintry landscape through which Aunt Margaret would have travelled to get from Lairg of Tain to Inveran.  Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

Despite later claiming to know nothing about a pregnancy or a birth, ignorance which was perhaps wise in the case of a mysteriously disappeared infant, Aunt Bessy saw her niece twice after the delivery.  During the first visit the girl was ill and in bed and did not confide in her aunt.  The experienced eyes of Aunt Bessy were not reassured by what she saw and she called on Christian Ross, the Inveran midwife.  Her aunt explained that young Bessy was ‘lying very ill a-bed’.  The problem was that in order to treat her, Christian needed to know details about the birth or about how Bessy’s body had been responding since.  That conversation could not happen without both women openly acknowledging that there had been a birth but that there was no baby.  Christian was reluctant to attend the girl, ‘being apprehensive of after trouble’.  ‘After trouble’ was very likely.  While the ritual humiliation of Kirk Session discipline was deeply unpleasant, the mysterious disappearance of a baby could bring a more serious charge. 

Since 1690 the Act Anent Child Murder presumed that a woman who concealed a pregnancy; who did not ask for help at birth; and whose child was missing or dead; was guilty of murder.  If found guilty, she would be hanged.  Bessy fell into all three categories.  By the middle of the century extreme punishments, such as death, were very rare.  Attitudes were changing, and gradually the public began to see such women as victims of circumstances rather than murdering monsters.  In 1809 the statute was revoked, and the crime became concealment of pregnancy.  This bore a punishment of a maximum of two years in jail.  This is the law under which Bessy and John could be prosecuted.  Understandably, Christian Ross did not want to be mixed up in a prosecution.  She may also have been reluctant for Bessy to incriminate herself through talking to her.  However, the girl became dangerously ill and Christian relented.  She visited on Wednesday 16th February 1814, six days after the birth.  Christian tied a napkin about Bessy’s middle and examined her breasts, concluding that she needed ‘to be taken care of’.  Inspecting her breasts helped confirm that the girl had indeed given birth, but there was already little doubt about that in people’s minds.  For the first time Bessy spoke to someone other than John about what had happened.  Bessy talked, Christian treated her, and Bessy recovered.  The conspiracy of silence continued, although it was perhaps now a desperate attempt to protect Bessy and John, and in the hope that the authorities might not find out.  Soon gossip was to erupt, perhaps inevitably, into something more dangerous.

Thomas Munro was a missionary preacher living in Invershin.  Missionaries were assigned to large Highland parishes to help the minister.  As well as preaching, catechising and visiting the sick, part of their job was to supervise the behaviour of people in their district and report offenders to the Kirk Session.  The Kirk Session dealt with church business, but it also operated as the lowest court in the land, referring more serious cases to the civil courts.  This case potentially involved both the moral offence of fornication and the criminal offence of child murder.  An active Kirk Session could be very powerful and controlling in a locality, and in some places this power appears to have developed into a puerile fascination with people’s sexual lives.  However, it seems that Invershin’s missionary minister had steadfastly ignored the rumours of pregnancy for months.  ‘A story had gone abroad and made some noise in that part of the Country that Bessy MacKay … had been with child some time before and that it was believed she had been delivered of the said child but that no trace was left of where it was or what had become of it.’  The shared surname and place of residence suggests that Thomas was brother to Isobel, Invershin’s midwife.  Recognising that elders, missionary ministers and even ministers were often closely connected with parishioners, means church discipline starts to look less like straightforward, top-down institutional power, and more like community regulation with the authority of the church behind it.  Sympathy for Bessy and John’s circumstances might have led Thomas Munro to ignore the illicit pregnancy but, after a month of thinking about it, he decided the possibility of murder could not be ignored.

To be continued… 

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814   

Lynn Abrams, ‘From Demon to Victim: The Infanticidal Mother in Shetland, 1699-1899’ in Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400, Yvonne Galloway Brown and Rona Ferguson, eds, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002)

Elizabeth Ritchie, ‘“A Palmful of Water for your Years”: Babies, Religion and Gender Identity among Crofting Families, 1800-1850’ in Jodi Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan and Heather Parker (eds) The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Family, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond (University of Guelph, Ontario, 2011)

Deborah A. Symonds, Weep not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)

Bessy and John, Part 4: ‘the cry of a young child’

Early one Friday morning in February 1814, Bessy woke up with cramps.  She made her way across the room to John’s bed to tell him she had started her labour and he promised to attend her.  With his Uncle Donald and the twelve year old servant Mary still asleep there wasn’t much he could do as Bessy’s pains intensified.  Awake, worried and feeling useless, he crept next door and perched on a stool by the fireside, perhaps prodding the smoored peats into flickering warmth.  Before daylight young Mary Matheson got up to light the fire and maybe to make some breakfast.  She was rather surprised to find John up so early ‘as he was not in the habit of doing so’.  He muttered something about having a cough and left the house.  He walked across to his aunt’s to get senna leaves.  Aunt Bessy happened to have some leaves in the house which she had ‘got for a son of hers, and she gave him a part of it, but she neither enquired what was the matter with Bessy nor had any other conversation with him that morning.’  Senna aids constipation but can also used to stimulate contractions.  Aunt Bessy was willing to help, but she was not going to get involved, especially if she wasn’t asked to.

John took the leaves home and asked Mary to ‘clean a pot in order to boil the physic for Bessy … when the Physic was ready it was put into a jug by John MacKay who went to the Room with it where Bessy was lying, and [he gave] the Physic to her, and her drink it off … Bessy MacKay was unwell and uneasy before the physic and … much worse after it was administered.’  It was doing its job.  As he had promised, John remained in the room with Bessy, leaving only to eat some breakfast.  Mary noticed that ‘he ate very little breakfast and his uncle having asked him the reason he said that he did not feel disposed.’  It seems that Donald, like his sister Aunt Bessy, was choosing to remain ignorant of the situation.  Once Donald had breakfasted he went out for some time.  When he returned he neither asked after his daughter nor went through to the bedroom to see her.  Mary, who was well aware of local gossip, ‘went occasionally into the room [and] saw Bessy MacKay alternately sitting in the bed and lying down … she had her clothes on and seemed to be in great distress’.  John later said that he ‘rendered her no assistance during her labour, but when he understood that she was delivered he put his hands under the Bedclothes … and therefrom took the child of which she had been delivered.’  Indeed, about an hour ‘after the Physic was administered [Mary] heard a cry in the room in which John MacKay and Bessy were which she though very much resembled the cry of a young child but whether it was so or no she cannot be positive.’  Mary later retracted this statement but it seems likely that it was at this point, at eight in the morning, that the baby girl was born.  At that moment, John apparently said something ‘as if a runging a cat out of the room and [Mary] saw a cat come out below the door with a mouse in its mouth’.  This may have just been an odd co-incidence or it may have been a frightened twelve year old’s attempt to explain a wailing noise and maybe to defend two people she liked and admired.

John, trying to think what to do next about the baby and about Bessy who was probably bleeding heavily, ‘called from the top of the Room door to [Mary] to go to the house of Widow Donald Macneil [Christian MacDonald] in Inveran for a piece of [word unclear] leather for the purpose of applying a Blister to Bessy.’  It is not clear what happened in that short time, but Christian Macneil insisted on accompanying Mary back to the house.  She may well have been worried about Bessy, not trusting an eighteen year old boy, a twelve year old girl and a middle aged man to have the knowledge to keep a birthing mother and a new baby alive and well.  John didn’t want her involved.  He waylaid her, inviting her ‘to come by the fire and take a pinch of snuff with him’.  Perhaps reassured that the situation was not one of life and death and it being clear that John was still attempting secrecy, she returned home without going through to the bedroom.

John was later questioned about why he did not get assistance for Bessy during her labour.  He confirmed that he knew there was a midwife in the township whose help could have been gained in a few minutes, but that Bessy did not want assistance and that he did not think of it.  The latter seems unlikely – he was clearly trying to ward off outside interference.  Bessy, however, may well have been telling him not to let anybody in.  About an hour after the birth John went through to the bedroom and told Bessy that the ‘Child was dead and that he had put it out of the way’.  A desperate conversation ensued.  Bessy told him of ‘her extreme desire to see the child even although it was dead’, but he answered that would be better not to.  He explained that he had taken one of her napkins and had ‘tied up and carried away the child’, and had buried it immediately.  This was not entirely accurate.  Mary later explained ‘there were some Chests in the Room but only one trunk, which belonged to Bessy’.  Over the next few days John kept the key to this trunk, not letting Mary have it.  It seems that while Mary was out of the house getting the leather from Mrs Macneil, John put the little corpse in Bessy’s trunk and locked it, giving him time to decide what to do.  Three days later he took it out, dug a hole in the floor of his uncle’s workshop, and buried it.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

Bessy and John, Part 3: Gossip and Secrets

Today’s thin scatter of houses down the upper Firth mean a stretch of the imagination is required to recreate the busyness of farming, dairying, trading and socializing that characterised life in the series of townships edging the river in the early nineteenth century.  There were lots of people, and they pretty much all knew each other.  It would have been difficult to keep an affair like Bessy and John’s private.  It would have been difficult even to keep an attraction private.  Even before the Kincardine Market in November 1813, a rumour that Bessy was pregnant was flying around.  Somebody told Isobel Munro, the midwife and she passed it to on Christian Ross from Inveran, another midwife, who had already heard the gossip.  This might have been idle gossip between friends, or Isobel might have been ensuring that the person best placed to help was aware of a delicate situation.  The midwives might have been wondering if Bessy would approach them for help.  It is likely that they had some knowledge of abortifacient plants or herbs.  Perhaps Bessy did not know about this possibility or perhaps her embarrassment, denial or worry prevented her from approaching them.  A month or two later, when Bessy’s pregnancy was probably showing, Isobel Munro mentioned the situation to Bessy’s aunt, also called Bessy.  Aunt Bessy was married to John Bethune, tenant at Inveran and the township’s ferryman.  She later said that at ‘the latter end of last winter she heard a report of her niece Bessy MacKay being with child but as such reports are often circulated without foundation [she] paid no attention to it.  Nor did she ever speak to Bessy MacKay upon the subject.  Nor did she ever suspect that such was the case.’  Whatever Isobel Munro’s motivation in discussing the case with her, Aunt Bessy decided to treat it as idle gossip.  The women of Inveran and Invershin watched and talked about Bessy’s changing body but none initiated a conversation with her.  Bessy knew that they knew, having ‘reason to believe that the said Isobel Munro as well as other women in the neighbourhood suspected her being with child although none of them ever spoke to [her] upon the subject’.  Her aunt’s deliberate ignorance and local women’s reticence left the young couple isolated.

ImageInveran, taken from the raised ground where the houses were and looking across the arable land famred by the MacKays.  From the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Perhaps waiting until there could be no doubt about the matter, it was a long time before she told John.  He had already figured it out.  Bessy was probably hoping that her growing signs of pregnancy could be attributed to something else.  This was not unreasonable.  Women often did hard manual labour which, combined with seasonal food shortages, could cause amenorrhea.  Medical conditions such as boils or swellings in the stomach might go unchecked for a long time, also producing symptoms of pregnancy.  Lynn Abrams’ study of Shetland showed that some unmarried women who failed to acknowledge their pregnancy did so because the father had abandoned them or because they had been sexually assaulted.  These were not the case for Bessy.  But other reasons Shetland women concealed their pregnancy may have been motivations for Bessy: if John didn’t marry her, as a single mother she was less likely to marry.  A hasty wedding early in the pregnancy was the obvious solution.  She was perhaps unsure whether he would marry her, or perhaps did not really want to marry him.  She may simply have been in denial, hoping the whole situation would resolve itself.  Or she may have realised that a fully developed child born six months or so after the wedding would not necessarily offer a solution to the second problem that she faced: church discipline.

In 1814 the Church of Scotland still had a role in community regulation.  The Kirk Session, made up of the minister and of elders drawn from the local community, functioned as a small court.  They sometimes prosecuted cases such as theft, but more often they focused on issues of sexual morality: usually fornication and adultery.  The Kirk Session did this to ensure that fathers provided financially, but they were also concerned to punish people found guilty of sex outside of marriage.  Sometimes this involved a fine which went into the Poor Relief fund for the parish, but it often also involved ritual humiliation.  Offenders, male and female, were required to sit at the front of the church for a certain number of Sundays.  The thought of sitting at the front of Creich church in front of family, friends and strangers was a fearful thought, perhaps especially for a young person like Bessy.

Whether due to denial, fear or confusing symptoms, Bessy didn’t tell John until ‘some weeks before her delivery’.  After that she then ‘repeatedly mentioned her situation’ to him.  Whatever they discussed together, they did nothing.  On the morning of 11th February 1814, a Friday, the problem could no longer be ignored.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

Lynn Abrams, ‘From Demon to Victim: The Infanticidal Mother in Shetland, 1699-1899’ in Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400, Yvonne Galloway Brown and Rona Ferguson, eds, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002)

Bessy and John, Part 2: The MacKays at Inveran

Today if you go to Inveran, it is a quiet place with few houses and some rough pasture.  The hills are covered with conifer plantations and there is a small power station where the River Shin joins the Dornoch Firth.  In 1813, however, it was bustling with people.  General Roy’s map of 1746 indicates the township with a red enclosed area, suggesting a garden or kailyard.  The arable land is arranged in strips of runrig.  Half a mile east, across the River Shin, is the slightly larger township of Invershin.  Unpicking details casually recorded in the MacKay precognition allows us to piece together how such townships operated in the early nineteenth century.Image

Screenshot of General Roy’s Map:

John had been brought up several days’ journey away, in the township of Tullichgriban in Strathspey (if anyone knows precisely where this is, I would be most interested).  Late in 1812 John’s father, George, sent him north to Inveran to work for George’s brother, Donald.   Apart from briefly returning south the following summer, John had settled in to his Uncle Donald’s household at Inveran.  The MacKay residence was a traditional longhouse.  At one end there was a slightly lower section for livestock which Donald sometimes used as a workshop.  In the middle of the house there was a living area with a fire and wooden chests. They probably also had a dresser or shelves for their crockery and some chairs.  The beds were in a room just beyond the main living room, set apart by a partial wooden door.

The workshop, the name, and the Inveran connection make it likely that this Donald MacKay was the wright who, in 1782, helped to build a new house in Inveran for one Alexander Bethune.  It is likely that Bethune rented this building out for a few years as he did not move his shop from nearby Linsidemore until 1797.  Alexander Bethune and Donald MacKay were also related by marriage: Alexander’s brother John married Donald’s sister Bessy.  Perhaps Alexander rented the new house to his brother and sister in law.  By about 1813, Alexander had died and his son, a less successful merchant, was bankrupt.

Whatever other businesses they had, the men of the township farmed.  Donald was a joint tenant with his brother in law John Bethune, Alexander Bethune the merchant, and Andrew MacKay who may also have been a relation.  Each would have had some cattle which grazed on the hills during the summer, probably tended by the young folks.  To run a small mixed farm it was necessary to have several people of working age, preferably of both sexes.  There is no evidence for Bessy having a mother or siblings.  Either she was the youngest or a motherless only child.  If he were a skilled wright in the early 1780s, then by 1813 Donald would at least be in his fifties and needing his nephew to help with the male work.  Young John perhaps came as a hired servant or as ‘heir apparent’ to the joint tenancy.  John was not the only servant in the house.  Mary Matheson, a twelve year old from nearby Invercharron, also lived with the MacKays.  When John arrived Mary and Bessy moved into the same bed, allowing John the third one.  The four of them lived and worked together every day.  The girls would bake, cook and endlessly spin as well as take charge of the dairying.  John would have worked with Donald in the fields.  They would all have looked after the animals, a few cows, sheep, chickens and maybe goats and a horse, and they probably dug peats together to prepare for the winter.

On the 13th of April 1813, six months or so after John arrived in Sutherland, the Inveran tenants sowed their oats.  From the phrasing, it is likely that this was done communally, which would make sense if Inveran was jointly tenanted.  This community, connected by work, location and marriage, may have ended the day by eating together and perhaps gathering in someone’s house for singing, music, story-telling, the endless spinning and making of heather ropes, and perhaps drinking.  Whatever happened that evening, the smouldering attraction between John and Bessy developed into something more.  Later on Bessy claimed that the only time she and John had slept together was at the Kincardine Fair, but when John was asked he said it began when the tenants sowed the oats in April.  When he realized that Bessy had said something different he claimed to agree with everything she said.  But it seems likely that their first sexual encounter was in April.  They said that was the only time, except for the time at the Fair.  That may have been true.  Knowing that pre-marital intercourse was not socially acceptable, they may have decided to set their attraction aside.  Perhaps they were afraid of being caught, perhaps they didn’t feel it was right and they had made a mistake in April.  Or perhaps they continued to see each other in secret, finding a private place to make love.  This seems more likely as Bessy later said that she didn’t know whether the baby was full-term or not as ‘she kept no accurate account of the transactions between MacKay and herself’.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

General Roy’s Map:

Rootsweb Geneology: Bethunes

Bessy and John, Part 1: The Kincardine Fair

This week’s post is the first in a series, using one document from the National Archives concerning one young couple, to explore themes of family, sex, community and the Highland economy in the opening years of the nineteenth century.

Beside the road at Ardgay is a large lump of white quartzite.  A plaque beneath it explains that it is the clach eiteag, and that in ‘former times’ the market was held wherever the stone was.  Having the market was a great boost to a village so legend has it that the stone was sometimes secretly moved!  By the mid-eighteenth century the three day long feill eiteachan was held each November in Kincardine parish on the south side of the Kyle of Sutherland.


The clach eiteag, Ardgay.  From the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

In 1813 two young people, Bessy MacKay and her cousin John MacKay, walked the few miles east from their home in Inveran to attend the fair.  At the confluence of three drove roads, the fair drew cattle dealers from across Sutherland and Assynt.  Cattle were critical to family economies.  Most households would have two or three.  They would sell the two year old to the drover who added it to his herd and drove it to Kincardine for sale.  Payment, minus a profit margin for the drover, was delivered to each household when he returned.  In a local economy where cash was fairly scarce, this income was usually used towards the rent.  In the few days before the fair whole herds slowly wended their way slowly south and east from their hill pastures, on the first stage of their journey to the butchers and dinner plates of the south.  They could cover about 10 miles a day without losing condition.  The riverside meadows at Ardgay, rented out to the drovers the night before the fair, would have been thick with the small, hairy beasts and with entrepreneurial dealers, examining each other’s stock, making offers and counter offers.  At Kincardine in the 1790s cattle were selling for £3-£5 a head.  The inns were noisy with wheeling and dealing as the cattle of the small-time drovers were sold and added to bigger herds going further south, eventually to Crieff, Falkirk and Carlisle.  Cattle sales were critical for local economies and for individual families.  If a poor deal was made or an animal died, tenants fell into debt and arrears.

On market day, butter and cheese also did a swift trade.  Bessy MacKay, being the woman of the household, might well have been selling dairy produce made by herself from the animals grazing on the land her father joint-tenanted at Inveran.  When it was all sold, she and John would have wandered around, watching how the cattle were selling and catching up with family acquaintances.  There were probably stalls selling food, and entertainers in the street, just like there would be today, plus military recruiters hanging around the inns ready to offer the king’s shilling to those made brave by drink.   The Ledichan or Kincardine Market was a business opportunity, but it was also a place to relax and enjoy some fun, especially for hard-working young people.  A room in an inn would probably have been too public in this community where all local faces were known, but at some point amongst the frolics and the hard-headed deals, maybe on the walk home, Bessy and John found some time to be alone together.  A few moments which were later described as ‘criminal connection’.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

The Old Statistical Account (1791), Kincardine Parish, Vol. 3

The Clach Eiteag