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!
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.
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.
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.