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!

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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.

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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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The Highland Land League and the School Boards in Clyne and Kildonan

Alison McCall’s love of history was fuelled by tales of family history told by her grandparents. Her PhD thesis The Lass o’ Pairts: Social mobility for women through education in Scotland, 1850-1901, includes a section on east Sutherland.

Two acres of croft land in West Helmsdale barely sustained the Bruce family: the ‘Widow Bruce’, young George and Mary, and her widowed mother. Jane Bruce’s husband had died in 1848, aged 32, when their children were aged four and one. The family were poor, but they were not alone in this. Poverty was endemic among families whose forebears had been cleared down the Strath of Kildonan to the area around Helmsdale.

George became a baker in Helmsdale. He joined the Highland Land League, which campaigned to have politicians sympathetic to the crofters’ cause elected to Parliament. In 1888 George was elected onto the Kildonan School Board. Elections had been held throughout Scotland every three years since the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 transferred control of schools from churches, charities and private individuals to locally elected School Boards under government control. Clergymen, businessmen, landowners, academics and other pillars of society were returned as School Board members. Women were eligible to stand, but were elected only onto the larger city Boards. In East Sutherland voters recognised the School Boards gave them the opportunity to vote politically. And they voted for men such as George Bruce.

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George Bruce outside his shop on Lilleshall Street, Helmsdale. Photo: Courtesy of Timespan Heritage Centre

Unfortunately the first minute book of Kildonan School Board is missing, but the rise of Land League influence can be traced in neighbouring Clyne. As the Land Leaguers gained strength and confidence the composition of the School Board changed. The first was chaired by the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, Joseph Peacock. The second included the Hon. Walter Stuart, the Duke’s grandson. In 1877, one matter was referred to “the Duke of Sutherland, being the principal ratepayer, and being also deeply interested in the educational welfare of the people.” Regardless of the voters’ wishes, the Duke was the ultimate authority. The crofters’ breakthrough came with the third Board. In 1879 were elected George Grant and George Murray, both tailors, George MacKay, Joseph Peacock and George Lawson, a farmer. The three crofters’ candidates elected Grant as chair. Grant was out of his depth. Apparently unused to using a pen, he proposed to take minutes in pencil, to be written up later. Peacock and Lawson objected. Grant said that “he could not even dictate a minute” but hoped to learn in the next month. Lawson asked Grant to withdraw as chair in favour of Peacock, but Grant refused. School Boards members throughout Scotland were usually well educated and highly literate. Clyne may have been unique in having a Chair uncomfortable using pen and ink. However, the community regarded him highly. He was re-elected in 1882, 1885, but were always in a minority. Voters had subverted the educational purposes of School Board elections for political opposition to the Duke, and the furtherance of land politics.

Back up in Kildonan, by 1888 when George Bruce was elected, the rest of the Board was largely composed of those sympathetic to the crofters cause. James Fraser, fishcurer, was chair and the other members were Robert Hill, farmer, William Cuthbert, fishcurer, and Joseph MacKay, crofter. Hill farmed 102 acres at Navidale, and was one of those who had benefitted from the cleared land. By contrast Joseph MacKay was one of eight crofters threatened in 1882 with eviction for grazing sheep. The eight employed a solicitor and the summons was withdrawn. Cuthbert and Bruce were prominent local Land Leaguers. Cuthbert was re-elected in 1891, 1894 and 1900. Bruce was re-elected in 1897 and 1900, indicating ongoing political support.

Gaining control of the School Boards and using them for political control was a unique tactic of the Land League in East Sutherland.

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This gravestone was erected by ‘our’ George Bruce. Photo: Alison McCall

Post script. George Bruce died in 1922, but the family bakery firm continued. In 1932 they baked a wedding cake for George’s great niece, Mary Bruce MacLeod. It was decorated with silver horseshoes. In 1989, Mary’s granddaughter, the present writer, had one of horseshoes sewn onto the sleeve of her wedding dress.

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The sleeve of Alison’s wedding dress. Photo: Alison McCall.

Sources
MacLeod, Joseph, Highland Heroes of the Land Reform Movement (Highland News Publishing Company, 1917)
obituary of William Cuthbert in John O’Groats Journal, 9 January 1931

The Sutherlands of Midgarty and the Slaves of the Caribbean

Even on the hottest days spent on an east Sutherland beach it takes a certain flexibility of imagination to feel oneself in the Caribbean. In the late eighteenth century more Sutherland people than we might expect had first hand knowledge not only of Jamaican sunshine, but of the profits available to those with the right combination of luck, skill and brutality.

The farm of Midgarty, just south of Helmsdale seems as unlikely a place as any to dig around for connections. In the late 1700s the lease was held by Major George Sutherland. After a career in the British army George settled down to two marriages and many children. By the time his children came to adulthood, the opportunities to benefit from Britain’s appropriation of much of the West Indies and the establishment of the plantation economy, worked by African slaves, were clear to anyone with a modicum of business sense. Six of his ten or eleven children, and the modernisation of Midgarty, came to depend on the West Indian trade.

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The Sutherlands must have rejoiced at the match made for Janet, George’s eldest daughter. Her husband was one of the Grays of Skibo, a wealthy West India planter. Money might have been abundant but the marriage was unhappy. They separated by mutual consent and Janet lived out a long life in London. We know little about Janet but more about Williamina, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Roberta and Robert.

In about 1784 Williamina married Robert Baigrie from Buchan. He had spent his whole career on merchant ships in the West India trade, first as cabin boy, then seaman and finally captain. Successful voyages had earned him two or three thousand pounds. Much of that money made its way to Sutherland. Amid some family acrimony, he took over the family farm. When Williamina and Robert moved in the Midgarty house was plain and ordinary, the entrance path from the main road picked out by stone pillars. Robert’s profits paid for a large wing with two ‘very handsome rooms’ designed to resemble a ship’s cabin. He also invested in a system of running water. Lead pipes connected a well at the top of the hill to the house. More money transformed the garden into an orchard.

Midgarty Map Roy's

Roy’s Map of c.1746 showing ‘Mid Gartie’ in runrig – before it was an enclosed farm or had orchards, lead pipes or rooms resembling ships cabins. National Map Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/

Another Sutherland daughter was Elizabeth. Known as quite the beauty, she married Joseph Gordon. The younger son of an important local family of minor gentry, the Gordons of Carrol, he had earned himself a fortune of a few thousand pounds. This had apparently come about through his work as a coppersmith in the West Indies. The fatness of his pocketbook rather suggests he eventually ran the coppersmithing business. Joseph’s gamble with the notorious illnesses of the Caribbean paid off and on his return he could afford to take up the tack of Navidale, just north of Helmsdale.

Roberta, or Bertie, remained single for some time. Until she met Robert Pope. Robert had just returned from twenty years in the West Indies as a planter, again with a fortune of several thousand pounds. Casting around for property, Navidale, held by Joseph and Elizabeth, came to his attention. Their lease was expiring and they were moving to Embo. On visiting he was ‘smitten with tender passion’ for Elizabeth’s sister Bertie. ‘He made no secret of his attachment, and was in consequence very much teased about it by the gentry of the parish of Loth’. This annoyed the pair and Bertie felt compelled ‘in order to escape their unceasing and clamorous raillery, to take refuge’ with another sister, Jean, at the manse of Kildonan. Robert followed her and they married in secret. They returned to Navidale to set up home. Again plantation profits were invested in east Sutherland farms: in the thirty eight year lease of Navidale and in the two highland farms, Tiribol and Dallangal, which he held in Kildonan.

It was  unusual for white women to live in the West Indies, but Charlotte was not daunted. She married Dr Macfarquhar and elected to live with him there. They raised a son and three daughters but decided their son needed to be educated in Britain. They bade him farewell and put him on a transatlantic ship. During the voyage he was playing on deck and fell overboard. The shock killed Charlotte and the double tragedy resulted in Dr Macfarquhar’s death a few months later.

Caribbean-Sugar-Plantations-Slavery-in-the-Caribbean

“Cutting the Sugar Cane, on Delap’s Estate,” in William Clark, Ten Views In the Island of Antigua, in Which are Represented the Process of Sugar Making…. From Drawings Made by William Clark, During a Residence of Three Years in the West Indies (London, 1823). Image shown here is from the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. Image reference NW0054, as shown on http://www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Robert was the youngest of Major Sutherland’s children. Family connections meant he was sent to the West Indies very young. There he met Olive Moon of Kingston, described as a ‘quadroon’. She was a free woman whose father was white and mother ‘mulatto’. Their son, Robert, was born in 1795. The boy was sent back to Scotland to be brought up by relatives at Torboll, Dornoch Parish, quite possibly because his skin colour would have held him back in Jamaica. Robert senior succeeded as a planter. At one point the Countess of Sutherland considered selling the whole parish of Loth and he intended to buy it. However the sale was postponed and in the meantime he speculated, with disastrous financial consequences. By 1810 he was in St. Domingo where he had a few years of great importance as chief counsellor to Christoph, king of Haiti.

Three plantation owners, a ship’s captain, a doctor, a coppersmith, a fortune lost, several fortunes invested, a small boy growing up at Torboll, and four deaths. East Sutherland’s strongest connections with the Caribbean today might be mainly through exotic holidays, but two hundred years ago they were of blood, money and land.

Sources:

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

Correspondence with Dr Michael Rhodes regarding his genealogical research on Robert Sutherland and Olive Moon.

The funeral of James Sutherland of Pronsie, 1741

This week’s post is by Malcolm Bangor-Jones. Malcolm is a civil servant who makes regular contributions on Sutherland’s history to the ‘Am Bratach’ newsletter and to various academic publications.

In November 1741 James Sutherland lay sick in bed at Aberscross. James was Sutherland of Pronsie, wadsetter (or mortgage holder) to the Earl of Sutherland who had a controlling interest in the Skelbo estate in which Pronsie sat. The family had possessed Pronsienaird since early in the seventeenth century. James’ grandfather had expanded the family’s influence in 1679 and in 1687 by obtaining the wadset of Knockarthur and Easter Aberscross: the place where his grandsons, first James then William, were to die of the “rageing Distemper”.

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his 'raging distemper' or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his ‘raging distemper’ or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Isabella Grant had only been married to James for six years when she was widowed. She was left with two daughters, Margaret and Jean. Later Isabella married Dr John Gordon, surgeon at Golspietower and later of Jamaica. James did not leave his affairs in good order. He had not made up his title to his property (never a good sign) and was succeeded by his brother, David, who did not either. This David Sutherland of Knockarthur was generally agreed to be “remarkably weak in his understanding [and] altogether unfitt for manageing the affairs of [Margaret and Jean]”. Efforts were made to overturn his appointment. This was part of the battle over who should administer the affairs of the girls, and over the Isabella’s jointure. Both ‘sides’ appealed to the Earl of Sutherland for support. For the Earl, James’s death meant the loss of one of his political ‘friends’ or voters at a time when his political contest with the Mackays was intensifying.

As well as casting light on regional politics, the legal tussling over power and money after James’ death left a series of financial accounts about his funeral. These tell us about how minor gentry in the Highlands dealt with death and how they spent money at funerals to bolster their status.

Kenneth Sutherland, a joiner as well as bailie and sheriff substitute, in Dornoch charged for a “WenScot Cophin” £3; a “Box for Do Intralls” 6 shillings [30p]; the cost of “ane Express for Carriing” them to Aberscross 1 shilling [5p]; “Blaking ye Kirk Doors of Dornoch” 7 shillings [35p]; “Making the Funrall Table” 10 shillings [50p]; cash for “ale to Men for takeing off & putting on ye Grave Stons” 1 shilling 6d [7½p].

Andrew MacCulloch, bailie of Dornoch, charged for borrowing two mortcloths from the church (the funds from the mortcloths went towards assisting the poor), “Toleing the Great Bell for ii Days”, “the Litle Bell & making of the Grave”, and paying “the Beadle for going to Aberscorss with the Mort Cloaths”. That account came to just over £2. MacCulloch also furnished liquor: “3 Doz: 4 [40] Botles Claret & Zerry” £4; 3 “Botles Spirits” 6s; ale 1s; and candles 2s. Alexander Gray of Inverbrora, the renowned drover, added “two Dozen Botles Cherry for Pronsies Funeralls” at a cost of £1 16s [£1.80].

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

The corpse needed to be carried from Aberscross to Dornoch to be interred. John Polson, tacksman of Navidale, and John Peterkin provided victuals and drink to over 30 men from the parishes of Loth and Golspie. Polson’s account included “Conveening at Geo: Mcpherson house Kintradwell for Eale”. [This was probably the Wilkhouse Inn.] Peterkin provided rum and ale as well as ‘meat’ or food for the coffin carriers.

Various goods for the funeral, at a cost of £14 10s sterling, were sourced from Nicolas Ross, a merchant in Tain. The list included: “2 Ounces Cinnamon, 1 oz netmoogg [nutmeg], 1oz Mace, ½ pound black Spice, ½ pd Jemaicca Spice, 2 pound Rice, 2 pds Raisens, 2 pounds Currens, 2 pds pruins, 6 pounds pouder Suggar, 7 pounds 5 ozs loaf Suggar” – ingredients for a plum cake. He also supplied mourning materials: “3½ yards Cambrick @ 8/6, 1½ yards Do finer @ 10/, 6 yards black Ribeen, 5 Drops Dark blew Silk, Ane Card black Slive Buttons, a pair of black Stockens”. And he provided yet more drink: “6 Dozen and 1 Bottle Clerret,1 Dozen and 1 Botle white wine, 1 Botle best Clerret”, four bottles of vinegar, four bottles of brandy, four bottles of rum, and then a further two dozen bottles of white wine and two dozen flint wine glasses.

The accounts tell us a good deal about the arrangements although we must guess at some aspects. It seems there was a relatively protracted watch between the death and the burial, hence the need for Pronsie being disembowelled. His body was placed in the wooden ‘wainscot’ coffin and his entrails in a box. During this extended wake, which was typical of this sort of funeral, ‘guests’ would enjoy hospitality and view the deceased. Invitations may have been sent out to relatives, friends and acquaintances of equal or higher degree. Some would have come a distance. The hospitality may have included funeral bread baked with flour rather than meal, and it certainly included plum cake. There was a good deal of alcohol which could give rise to ‘unseemly’ behaviour. The funeral procession involved the wider community, not only of Dornoch but including men from at least as far off as Loth and Golspie. The kirk bells were rung announcing the death and a hand bell was probably rung alongside the funeral procession.

Just as in the Lowlands, these elaborate and public arrangements were what was expected of a minor gentry family at this period. It was a way in which social status was marked, whether the Sutherlands of Pronsie could readily afford it or not.