Hugh MacCulloch and the Dornoch Firth

This week work begins on the Sheriff MacCulloch Memorial Project. Historylinks was recently awarded £1100 by Museums and Galleries Scotland to restore the memorial stone. The Museum is working with young people from Dornoch Academy in this project. See facebook for more information and photos. The next few blog posts will consider the life and times of Hugh MacCulloch.

It must have been hot that day. The lads maybe exploded out of school, shouting and throwing their bags. They might have taken off, chasing each other across the common grazings, past what is now the airstrip, that separated Dornoch from the ‘cockle ebb’, the sands on the north shore of the firth. Stripped off, they tiptoed, plunged into the chilly water, splashing and swimming, salt stinging their eyes. It’s wide at high tide, and at low tide sand banks appear, sometimes giving the impression that you could wade across. But between these banks there are fast flowing channels. Hugh’s efforts quickly took him out of his depth, and he sank. The other boys maybe thought at first that he was messing about, but he didn’t bob up again. They shouted an alarm and several men who were working nearby dashed into the sea. He had been in the water some time and it was an apparently lifeless body they pulled out. The men applied ‘judicious treatment’ and he choked back into life.

cockle ebb and mouth of dornoch burn 076

Shells of cockles can still be found at the ‘Cockle Ebb’. Hugh probably went bathing at this spot, though probably not on the sort of dull January day this was taken! The view here is towards the site of the Meikle Ferry, where many years later he breathed his last. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hugh MacCulloch related this story many times. And when he told it to a young lodger in 1801 he said ‘if God were to give him his choice of deaths, he would choose drowning, for … he felt as he was in the act of sinking, and when the waters were rushing in at his mouth and nostrils, as if he were falling into a gentle sleep.’ His wish was granted. Eight years later and about four miles above that very spot on that very firth, he was, with many others, drowned.

In 1809 Hugh was probably in his fifties. He was a well-respected man, the retired Sheriff-Substitute of Sutherland and known for his honesty and piety, if not his brilliance in law. On August 16th Hugh decided to attend the Lammas Fair in Tain. He left his house in Dornoch that morning and crossed the ferry. Later, rumours spread that the men who loaded the evening ferry had been drinking. Donald Sage, that young lodger, later recorded the story in biblical style: ‘When he came to the Meikleferry, late in the day, the shore was crowded with people returning home from the market. On his arrival they all made way for him, and he was, quickly seated at the stern of the wherry; but afterwards the multitude pressed into the ferry-boat – the more earnestly, as they would thus have the privilege of crossing in the same boat with the Sheriff. Apprehensive of the issue, Mr. MacCulloch turned away at least two score of them from the boat. There still remained on board, however, too many for safety. It was a dead calm, and the wherry was pushed off from land. But when it had nearly reached the middle of the ferry, and the deepest part of it, the boat gave a sudden jerk, the water rushed in, and, with the exception of two or three who escaped by swimming, the whole of those on board sank to the bottom and perished. About 70 persons were thus drowned. This fearful event took place during the darkness of night … and created a deep sensation all over the country.’

cockle ebb and mouth of dornoch burn 085

Tain, from the Cockle Ebb. Low tide. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The tale of how Hugh’s body, among the last to be found, was discovered, reveals the mysticism which was part of Highland Evangelical Christianity. It is also reminiscent of saints’ stories in the Catholic tradition, where bodies which do not decompose prove saintliness. Donald Sage explained that the ‘particular spot where it lay under the flood was discovered in a dream. A fellow-Christian and an acquaintance, deeply affected by his death, dreamed of his departed friend. In the dream the Sheriff appeared, spoke of his sudden call to the other world, and told him where his earthly remains lay, adding that, whilst the fish of the sea were permitted to mangle at their pleasure the bodies of his fellow-sufferers, they were restrained from putting a tooth upon his, which would be found entire. The dream was realised in every particular.’

How the catastrophe of the Meikle Ferry impacted south-east Sutherland is reminiscent of the impact of the loss of the Iolaire on the Isle of Lewis 110 years later. In both, a small community lost many of its most active in one appalling moment. The response to the sudden needs of families bereft of the husbands, mothers, sons, wives, fathers, daughters who traded at Tain that day was to set up a fund. Monies poured in from people with local connections all over the world. Even donations from the profits of West Indian slave plantations ended up in the pockets of grief-stricken families. Hugh MacCulloch’s wife and his daughter, Chirsty, long survived him, and benefited from the Meikleferry Fund.

The Dornoch Firth which, in the years following the Jacobite Rising saw the birth of a boy named Hugh; which provided cooling, but dangerous waters for his youthful play; which was crossed every time the mature man travelled south on business or pleasure, eventually claimed that life. But its chill depths preserved him, casting him up in the place the visionary spoke of, so he could be buried in the way his family wanted.


Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9.

Walter Scott (ed), ‘Dreadful Accident at the Meikle Ferry’, The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809, 248.

N.B. Brian Munro has since unearthed a document (The Meikle Ferry Disaster Fund Book) in the Highland Archives which is far more contemporary than Sage’s memoirs and seems to state quite clearly that the accident took place ‘in the forenoon’ when people were on their way to the Lammas Fair, rather than returning from it. That does not, I think, remove any of the interest or importance of Sage’s analysis of the event and its impact, but shows how the details of narratives can shift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Piper of Reay

In 1609 John Roy Mackenzie, one of the Gairloch lairds, paid a visit to his stepfather on the north coast, Lord Reay.  They spent a jolly time at Tongue House, hunting, drinking, riding and piping.  When the time came for John Roy to return south, MacKay decided to accompany his stepson all the way to the Sutherland border, to the Meikle Ferry just a few miles south of Dornoch.  From there John Roy would continue his journey over the Struie, towards Dingwall, and then westwards.  The party rode up to the ferry, the two lairds riding ahead and their grooms, pipers, retainers and luggage clattering behind them.  Loping along beside John Roy were the two new deer-hounds he had acquired in the north: “Cu dubh” and “Faoileag” (“Black Hound” and “Seagull”).  But they weren’t the only group planning to make the crossing that day.  Another gentleman was also travelling south with his men and, full of a sense of his master’s dignity, his groom attempted to prevent anyone else getting on to the boat along with them.  Reay’s piper, Rory MacKay, was a young, handsome seventeen-year-old.  Outraged at the slight, Rory attacked the groom.  In the scuffle Rory pulled out his dirk and, with one blow, cut off the groom’s hand at the wrist.  There on the beach at Meikle Ferry, amid the blood and the screams, the laird of Reay realised the seriousness of the situation.  “Rory, I cannot keep you with me any longer; you must at once fly the country and save your life.”  John Roy Mackenzie saw how he could help.  “Will you come with me to Gairloch, Rory?”  The young piper must have flushed with relief and immediately accepted.  Mackenzie might have thought he was doing his stepfather a favour, but MacKay had an eye for a bargain.  Reay turned to John Roy “Now, as you are getting my piper, you must send me in exchange a good deer-stalker.”  Once he arrived back in Gairloch John Roy did exactly that, dispatching Hugh Mackenzie, whose descendants (at least in the 1920s) still live in the Reay country. 

ImageMeikle Ferry Crossing – Easter Ross side.  Photograph from Collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Rory must have been happy in his new situation and perhaps sent word north, for it wasn’t long before his older brother, Donald, came to join him.  Rory made his home at Talladale, where the Loch Maree Hotel now is.  His first two masters, John Roy and then his son alasdair Breac, lived in houses well defended by Loch Maree, built, as they were on islands, Eilean Ruairidh Beag and Eilean Subhainn.  Skirmishes, raiding and tit for tat attacks were ordinary life to any self-respecting chief so an island residence was a great protection for Mackenzie’s women and children.  Rory was no disinterested bystander when his laird took to arms.  The piper literally played an important part in every fight.  Despite being handsome, with a good job, Rory was in no rush to marry.  He was fully sixty years old before he committed himself to matrimony.  His wife must have been significantly younger than he, but that they only had one son suggests that she may have been a mature woman, possibly a widow.  Young John was born at Talladale in 1656.  When the boy was about seven years old he caught smallpox and lost his eyesight.  His father would probably have trained him in the profession regardless, but this calamity meant piping was one of the few good options open to the lad.  Fortunately he had talent.  Iain Dall (Blind John) became known as Piobaire Dall (the Blind Piper).  Once his father had taught him everything he knew, he sent Iain to the celebrated Macrimmon of Skye for seven years to finish off his musical education.  Iain returned to find Rory and his wife living in the Baile Mor, some miles west of his birthplace.  They had followed the new laird and his son, Kenneth and Alexander, who were building a new house just above where Flowerdale House now sits.  Still mindful of danger, the Tigh Dige was equipped with a moat and drawbridge.  There Iain Dall assisted his father as piper until old Rory MacKay of the Reay country died in 1689 at the age of ninety seven.  The rash actions of the impetuous teenager on the beach at Meikle Ferry, had resulted in Mackenzies in Reay, MacKays in Gairloch, and four generations of legendary pipers on the shores of Loch Maree.

 Osgood MacKenzie, A Hundred Years in the Highlands, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1921, 1965), pp 190-191