The Female Innkeepers of Cromarty

Theresa Mackay, who lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, completed her MLitt History of the Highlands and Islands (with distinction) in 2016. This culminated in writing a piece of original research on female innkeepers that won the 2016 Women’s History Scotland Leah Leneman prize and is slated to be published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies next year. Theresa now teaches at Royal Roads University and will be starting her PhD at the University of Victoria (BC) this autumn continuing her work on women’s history in the Highlands and Islands.  

In the early nineteenth century innkeeping was one way women in the Highlands and Islands could provide for themselves and their family. Whether managing a landlord’s inn or opening their own dwelling, they were entrepreneurial in their approach to offering food and shelter to travellers looking for temporary accommodations. Not simply providing a home-away-from-home, they were managers of complex hospitality operations that were pivotal to the economic health of their rural community.

The number of inns and places that accommodated travellers increased significantly at this time since navigating the Highlands and Islands was made easier with the establishment of transportation infrastructure such as bridges, canals and public boat routes from the south. In Ross and Cromarty, over a thirty-five year period the number of inns grew from zero to more than forty-two as a result.[1] In response to an increasing number of visitors needing shelter and new inns being built by landlords capitalizing on their estates, women commercialized their domestic skills and became managers of complex hospitality operations. In Cromarty, Mrs. Sutherland and Elizabeth Cormack managed commercial inns during this time.

Cromary Arms Inn

It seems likely that todays ‘Cromarty Arms Inn’ is the same building as either the New Inn or the Cromarty Inn. Perhaps someone with local knowledge can help? Photo: http://www.cromartyarms.com/

In 1809, Mrs. Sutherland’s husband left for the army. Deciding to take on the New Inn, a role she had at least once before, she embarked on a plan to upgrade furnishings with the help of her friends. In addition, she hired a man to help with the stabling and feeding of guests’ horses and placed an advertisement in the paper to attract business to her establishment.[2] A change in relationship status, including the departure of male relatives for work or death of a partner, was often the shift that opened the door to innkeeping as a viable and socially acceptable way for women to support themselves and their families.

The retirement of her brother, John, was the change that resulted in Elizabeth Cormack taking charge of the Cromarty Inn in 1824. Like her counterpart, Mrs. Sutherland, the role was not new to Elizabeth as she had already managed the inn for many years, despite John being the acknowledged innkeeper. Now “resum[ing] the business on her own account”, including managing the “stock of [the best] Spirituous and Malt Liquors,” Elizabeth made efforts to improve the premises. She had repairs made to the house and stables and furnished the building with feather beds and “counterpanes” (bedspreads). The improvements were done in preparation for receiving travellers from the “London Vessels” arriving to see local tourist sites gaining popularity, including the hill of Cromarty and the cavern, Macfarquhar’s Bed. [3] Only lasting four years in charge, Elizabeth died in 1828 and eight months later her inn’s furniture was sold at auction. [4]

IMG_5221

Cromarty Harbour was only forty years old when Elizabeth Cormack was running her inn. Presumably the visitors took small boats from the ‘London vessels’ to this harbour to land. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Overseeing renovations, hiring employees, marketing and managing suppliers were just some of the tasks that female innkeepers did that extended their role beyond the stereotypically domestic. It put them firmly into the position of business manager which resulted in agency and status. The economy of the early nineteenth-century Highlands and Islands was far more diverse and vibrant than we tend to assume, and female innkeepers such as those in Cromarty, played a vital part.

 

[1] This assumes all existing inns were reported, and reported correctly, in the sources. It is likely numbers were higher especially since the terms “pub” and “alehouse” sometimes meant “inn”. As well, some reports grouped these terms together, as in “X number of inns and alehouses” making the precise number of inns alone, unclear. The New Statistical Account of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1845) Vol. 14., p. 37, 67, 98, 106, 113, 140, 156, 164, 168, 243, 279, 300, 359, 394, 398.

[2] Inverness Journal, “New Inn Cromarty” 7 July 1809, p. 1. From Am Baile; article ID 8592. The notice says “she has taken the Inn again” (italics added) which suggests this was not the first time she had managed the inn. It also notes wanting to serve “passengers” which may refer to travel by coach or sail boat.

[3] ibid., “Cromarty Inn” 23 April 1824, p. 3., article ID 8594. See also “John Cormick Vintner in Cromarty” 29 June 1810, p. 1., article ID 8593. Ibid, “Cormack, Elizabeth, innkeeper Cromarty” 3 October 1828, p. 3., article ID 3068. Ibid., “Sale of Household Furniture at Cromarty” 24 April 1829, p. 1., article ID 8595. Ibid., “Cormack’s Inn Cromarty” 28 August 1807, p. 1., article ID 8591.

[4] ibid, 3 October 1828, p. 3., article ID 3068. Ibid, 24 April 1829, p. 1., article ID 8595.

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