A Coastal Tour

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

June - Harris 103

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

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

June - Tarbet Ho 094

June - Tarbet Ho 098

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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Alex’s Farm: On Space, Time and Going Places

They watched me, keeking through the living room window, as my bike skimmed from Pittentrail towards the A9 junction at the Mound. I was racing the light. Too easy in early summer, intoxicated by the evening daytime, to forget the gloaming. And to forget the invisibility of an unexpected cyclist. All evening Janet had plied me with biscuits to wash down the tea as I noted down what Alex patiently explained of the annual tasks of a sheepman. Half-understood notes I found weeks later, scrumpled in my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, when I had returned from the conference in Kentucky. Anxiety at my inadequate knowledge of practical farming had been ameliorated by discovering most speakers at the Agricultural History Society were fine historians but few could have overwintered a cow any more successfully than myself. So in June, at ten o’clock at night, Alex and Janet checked out the window, across two fields and the River Fleet, to ensure the pink blob was safely whizzing east on the A839 to the sea-line and back to Dornoch.
Two hundred years ago I wouldn’t have been there and not for the obvious reasons of my and the bike’s lack of existence. Cycling the mile west to Pittentrail, fording the river, returning east 6 miles then rousing the boatman at Little Ferry to cross Loch Fleet would have been a nonsense, particularly as there was a direct road passing Eiden Farm through Torboll Farm, on the correct side of the estuary and only 2 ½ miles. Today’s road, on the north rather than the south bank, dates from the Sutherland Estate’s investment in infrastructure in the 1810s.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with it's own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with its own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

William Young and Thomas Telford’s innovative crossing of the Fleet-mouth was a boon for east-coast travellers, and it made the Estate’s north bank road practicable. The tarmac thread connects some places, but it has added several miles between me and the Campbells. Only a few minutes on the bike, but the best part of an hour by foot, the way most folk travelled two hundred years ago. And in my mind’s map today’s network of roads has divorced places which are actually held fast.

Eiden, looking towardsTorboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from colelction of Elizabeth Ritchie

Eiden, looking towards Torboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Last Autumn Alex treated me to an archaeology tour by tractor. I jumped out to open gates on what was the Eiden-Torboll road, its edges tasselled with alder and birch. Up on the rolling ridge, where a warmer climate had once permitted arable farming, crouched the heap of the chambered cairn and the tell-tale circles of Iron Age houses. Folk who farmed Eiden long before the Campbell men, according to family legend, tempted up from Argyll by promises of land made by their sister newly wed to the Earl of Sutherland back in the sixeenth century. And then Alex proposed a wee jaunt, just a bittie further, to see an old stone. Being particularly fond of old stones I was intrigued by the initials C on the Eiden side, and B on the Torboll side. I told him how, before the year Bonnie Prince Charlie came, territory was marked by walking the boys round the boundaries and beating them. The pain and trauma incising the marches in their consciousness. Painting a rock seems a better idea.

Roy's Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms and the road up Strath Carnaig before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Covers the joins of three modern OS maps. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

But, pushed against the wind on that unremarkable ridge, I realised I was only a few hundred yards away from the site of several Sunday afternoon explorations in Strath Carnaig. My mental map had placed there much closer to home: a mere wiggle up the Loch Buidhe road from my side of the Mound. My place of Sunday hillwanders and a challenging cycling circuit. Eiden, on the other hand, was connected with Alex selling raffle tickets at winter ceilidhs in the Pittentrail Hall and the fun of playing tunes with the Accordion and Fiddle Club on Thursday nights. Yet here I was, looking at both of them together. The Hall just down there, and the Loch Buidhe road over by. Alex’s farm was in both. Bridges stretched across the fissure in my mind’s map.

Alex knew the old places I had tramped on those Sunday afternoons: the white-walled house with the green porch; the wobbly triangle of wall suggesting to the sheep that the grazing might be better within; and the head dyke up Strath Tollaidh (a strath it took me four years to notice, being incised into forgettable stubs by the division between OS map 16 and 21) which once kept the cattle out of the olden people’s crops. He knows them because, despite the illusion created by the technological advances of the 1810s and the happenstances of map boundaries, the separating space does not exist. They are the same place. It is the old road that tells that story: the one from Eiden past Torboll that we bumped along in the tractor; that all the generations before Thomas Telford walked when they drove their cattle; carried their cheese and butter to market; and along which the twelve year old boys slouched each term to board at Dornoch Academy.

The new roads connected some places. Other places, their connectedness now only by tractor tracks and hillpaths, became separate, even remote, as we whizz over the tarmac on our bikes.

With thanks to the Campbells for their generosity in tea, biscuits, sharing of knowledge, tractor rides, lambing tutorials, and allowing me to publish this!

Building “The Mound”

Clive Hayward writes this week about the building of “The Mound”, that critical piece of engineering between Dornoch and Golspie.  Clive has just completed his first year of study on the MLitt in Highlands and Islands History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  As ever, we welcome comments, queries, questions and corrections in the comments section.

Thomas Telford and William Young appear unlikely bedfellows, one being a celebrated engineer and the other being an infamous factor of the Sutherland estate associated with the Clearances.  However, their collaboration to implement the Sutherland Road Act of 1805 has left a monument to their achievements.  The original road ran along the east coast of Sutherland crossing Loch Fleet at the Little Ferry and the Dornoch Firth at the Meikle Ferry.  The creation of the parliamentary road removed two major obstacles by bridging the Helmsdale River and the Dornoch Firth at Bonar, but in between was the tricky passage of Loch Fleet.  Thomas Telford, the consulting engineer for the Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges, originally envisaged building new piers for the ferry as the construction of a traditional bridge was out of the question.  William Young however proposed a causeway across the estuary at the Mound.  The Commissioners initially baulked over the price of the estimate but when the Marquis of Stafford offered to contribute to the cost of the project, the proposal was accepted.

The Marquis was greatly interested in improving Sutherland’s infrastructure and was a major contributor to the finance of new roads. The construction work also offered employment to the local population, recently displaced by the “improvements” undertaken by the estate. Contractors however were hesitant to submit estimates for what promised to be a difficult operation.  Only two were forthcoming (one being very high whilst the other contractor was not regarded as being sufficiently competent), and the whole venture was in doubt.  Young persuaded Earl Gower (the eldest son of the Marquis) to intervene and an offer to undertake the Mound was submitted to the Commissioners by the Earl, in partnership with Young and his associate Patrick Sellar.

To cross Loch Fleet, which is a tidal inlet of the sea, Telford designed a huge earth causeway almost 1000 yards long. The plan was to start by building a stone bridge, with sluice gates, close to Craigtoun rock, on the northern side of the bay. The engineers decided to start work on both banks simultaneously and meet in the middle.  To get the stone and timber to the shores of Loch Fleet they constructed a horse drawn railway.  Difficulties in finding a rock base for the foundations delayed the project beyond the estimated one season and, just as it was nearing completion, a strong tidal surge put a hole in the causeway.  Telford decided to widen the whole causeway and despite much anguish the two ends were finally joined together. Construction work on this huge project began in 1814 and was completed by June of 1816.

The bridge originally had four arches, although this was later increased to six. Each contains a sluice gate preventing sea water travelling upstream when the tide comes in but allows river water out as the tide falls. These gates are self-regulating, but to cope with the river’s spate there is a mechanism of winches and pulleys to manually lift the gates. This was installed, again under the direction of Thomas Telford, in 1833. Winch houses were built at either end of the bridge and a cottage for the gate keeper was built at the northern end of the crossing. The causeway and sluice gates stop the sea over a mile short of its natural high tide mark. This had a dramatic effect on the environment upstream of the Mound. The build up of silt in the shallow fresh water created the ideal conditions for alder and willow trees. The Mound Alderwoods is now one of the largest of its type in Britain and is a designated nature reserve. The other effect of the building of the Mound was to make the ancient ferry crossing at Little Ferry on the mouth of the loch obsolete.

Image

Image from the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As a major construction project in 1814, it was second only to the development of the coalmine at Brora in injecting large amounts of capital into the Sutherland region.  The total project cost £9749, more than sixty per cent being spent on labourers’ wages. When the Marchioness visited the project in August 1815 she found: “sixty people at work and 150 expected the following week.”  It is hard to overestimate the project’s importance in creating work, albeit temporary, in an otherwise non-industrialised environment.

The Mound was one of William Young’s crowning achievements.  Despite Telford’s oversight, the construction, planning and day to day working was in the hands of amateurs and relatively unqualified workmen.  Young was in no sense a trained engineer but he battled through the project from start to finish and it is a testament to his tenacity.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).

Richards, E., The Leviathan of Wealth, (London 1973).

Donald’s Journey Part 2

Not long ago we left twelve year old Donald Sage in the inn at Kintradwell, eating meat, eggs and cheese on his way to the school in Dornoch.  After he, his brother, his father and their servant Tam had filled their bellies they unhitched their horses and set off towards Clyne manse, just north of Brora.  The arrived in the evening and

“Mr. Walter Ross and his kind wife received us with great cordiality. Mrs. Ross was a very genteel, lady-like person, breathing good-will and kindness. To her friends by the ties of affection, amity, or blood, her love and kindness gushed to overflowing … After breakfast next morning we proceeded on our journey. After having passed the Bridge of Brora there soon burst upon our sight Dunrobin Castle, the seat of the ancient Earls of Sutherland, the view of which from the east is specially imposing; and here I may remark in passing, that the present excellent public road which runs through the county of Sutherland was, at the time I speak of, not in existence. In lieu thereof was a broken, rugged pathway, running by the sea-shore from the Ord Head to the Meikle Ferry, and at Dunrobin, instead of going to the north of the castle as the present line does, it descended to the sea-side, passing about two miles to the east of the castle right below it, and so round by the south.

ImageImageThe “broken, rugged pathway, running by the sea-shore from the Ord Head to the Meikle Ferry” as it is today. [photos belonging to Elizabeth Ritchie]

The building filled me with astonishment. The tower to the east, surmounted by its cupola, the arched entrance into the court, and then the simply elegant front looking out on the expanse of the Moray Firth, which rolls its waves almost to the very base, were to me an ocular feast. The garden too, on the north side of the road, over the walls of which towered the castle in ancient and Gothic magnificence, was another wonder. I was perfectly astonished at its extent. It stretched its south walls at least 300 yards along the road, and at each of its angles were rounded turrets, which gave it quite an antique appearance, in strict keeping with the magnificent edifice with which it was connected.

The village of Golspie lies about a quarter of a mile to the west of the castle, close by the shore, and, as we advanced, the first object we saw was the manse, near which, on approaching it, we noticed walking towards us a low-statured, middle-aged man, dressed in a coarse, black suit, and with a huge flax wig of ample form. My father and he cordially recognised one another, and I at once discovered this venerable personage to be Mr. William Keith, minister of Golspie. We did not stop, but proceeded on our way to Embo, and reached the north side of the Little Ferry house at about two o’clock.

As we dismounted, and every necessary preparation was made by the boatman to get us over, I felt a good deal alarmed.  Except when crossing the Helmisdale river in a cobble some years before, I had never been in a boat or at sea; and I was particularly frightened at the idea of being a fellow-passenger with my father’s large horse and our own lesser quadrupeds, lest they, participating in my own fears, might become unruly and swamp the boat.  Matters went on, however, better than I anticipated; the horses, after remonstrating a little, were made to leap into the boat, and, with my heart in my throat, I followed my father and brother, and took my place beside them in the bow of the wherry.  As we moved off I was horror-struck, on looking over the edge of the boat, to see the immense depth of the Ferry.  It was a still, clear winter’s day, and I could distinctly perceive the gravelly bottom far below.  I could see, passing rapidly in the flood, between me and the bottom, sea-ware of every size and colour.  The star-fish intermingled with the long tails of the tangle which by the underswell of the sea heaved up and down, and presented the appearance of a sub-marine grove, retaining its fresh look by the greenish colour of the sea-water.”

Donald, the young landlubber, survived his experience unscathed.  The excitement of the ferry crossing and the astonishment of the glories of Dunrobin Castle filled his mind as they continued their trek towards Embo House where they were to lodge for the night.

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]