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 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)