Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 3

As our current epidemic subsides in this country, here are some final thoughts from Malcolm Bangor-Jones on cholera in Sutherland.

Dr Ross provided further details of conditions in the parish of Rogart. The cottages were “by far the strongest and best built of any we fell in with, and better finished in every respect their furniture is excellent and well kept and in not a few of them we found Grates, both in their Rooms and Kitchens. The people seem to want none of the ordinary Comforts of Life, their Barns were full of Corn, and their Stores inside their houses were equally well appointed as few of them were without their meat Barrels of Beef mutton or pork and some had part of them all. And as to Potatoes they admit if it were possible to preserve them, that they have a stock sufficient for two years Consume. Let me assure you that in many of the houses we saw in and about Rogart, no Gentleman, let his Rank be what it may, but might find himself comfortable for a night.”

On the other hand in the Strathfleet end of the parish they found “many poor widows and old maids in destitute circumstances, and such was the primitive simplicity of those poor Creatures, that rather than expose their wants they borrowed Blankets and Bedcovers from their neighbours, to make what they wished, a decent appearance on that day.” There had been many cases of typhus in Strathfleet that winter – the deaths had been mainly of the more elderly. Possibly this was accounted for by the mild winter.

There was, however, much going on in Strathfleet in terms of its improvement. Dr Ross was not impressed by the crofters in the parish of Dornoch who were “the most useless set of Rascals I know.” Gunn also reported that while there had been very great improvement around the lower part of Birichin, Fleuchary, and Astel they were behind their neighbours in other parishes. He suggested that “the people, perhaps from being nearer the Dornoch law; are more stiff necked, & want the energy of the other Parishes.” George Gunn “threatened & scolded them where I saw occasion for it”. As John Ross, the catechist, was among the worst Gunn promised him a summons of removal “which will have the effect of shewing him & others that we are in earnest.”

Once word got out hundreds of applications for assistance from ‘needy people’ were received. Some argued that the landlords should be assessed. However, an alliance of large farmers and factors managed to ensure that assistance would be provided by way of a voluntary charitable contribution from tenants and landlords. By mid March about £450 had been raised in the east of Sutherland. Mr Dempster did not contribute but instead established a soup kitchen for the poor on his own property and distributed a considerable quantity of flannel and blankets.

Patrick Sellar drew attention to the increase in the number of whisky shops over the previous decade. The distillers had “set up agents and creatures in every Corner; and, one’s servants can scarcely go to Church on Sunday without being entrapped into one of these poison stores. It is in vain that we give meal to feed the hungry if such an agency of poverty, disease, and death be left in full employment against us.” The county agreed that measures should be taken to limit the number of tippling houses. It was also agreed that supernumerary dogs should be got rid of – no aid would be given to anyone who unnecessarily kept a dog.

These measures did not stop cholera coming to Sutherland later that year. Nor is it is easy to determine whether there was a long-term impact on the standards of cleanliness. Certainly a boost may have been given to the improvement of housing.

However, the systematic inspection of every dwelling – possibly unique – did highlight the depth of poverty amongst sections of the population, especially the aged. This was to come to the fore when evidence was gathered by the Poor Law Commission in the early 1840s.

Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 2

Malcolm Bangor-Jones continues with his investigation of cholera in east Sutherland.

According to the Rev Kennedy of Dornoch everywhere was “all in a bustle.” He had addressed his congregation not only on the cholera as “a visitation of Divine Providence; but also on the use of means, in reliance on the divine blessing, to arrest its progress”. Dornoch had not had such a thorough cleaning for at least half a century. But the “the poverty and wretchedness of the great body of the Inhabitants of this place is extreme.” In many parts of the landward parish the situation was not much better.

The Rogart committee comprised: Mr John Polson, Rovie; George Gunn Esq, Rhives; Patrick Sellar Esq, Morvich; Captain John Mackay, Davochbeg; Dr William Ross, Cambusmore; and Rev John Mackenzie. The minister reported that the committee had met on 9 December and appointed four men to inspect all premises and direct the inhabitants to clean their houses, whitewash the walls with lime, scour their furniture and bedding if necessary, remove dunghills, pigsties, and every kind of filth to a suitable distance from the house and drain off stagnant water. Copies of a printed circular had been handed round and its nature explained in Gaelic from the pulpit. House visits commenced on 21 December and were completed on 19 January. In mid-February each parish was divided into districts and additional men appointed to assist the committee.

The people were most willing to comply with the instructions which had been issued and there were very few who had refused. The minister could not conceal “that the appearances of poverty about some of them were striking; and that aid, to improve their diet and clothing, is as essentially necessary, as the enforcing of cleanliness, to defend them from the influence of contagious disease.”

Sellar, who had been a most efficient member of the Rogart committee – especially in advising people how to form drains around their houses – admitted that he had been among the poor people in the parish more than he had been for 16 years. Some army pensioners and road contractors living in new houses near the road were “very comfortable”. However, Sellar was certain that “there is a deal of poverty and Silent suffering among the sort of farmers [or small tenants].” He suggested that three quarters of them might be assisted to emigrate and the holdings made six times larger. However, he recognised that Lord and Lady Stafford might not wish to pursue such a course. In the meantime, some blankets and meal would help to relive human suffering. He could not resist asking the Sutherland estates Commissioner, “What would have been your case to day had the whole vale of Golspie and Aberscross, Kildonan, Strathbrora & Strathnaver &ca been filled with ‘palmers’ [beggars] of the same Cast?” These areas had been cleared of most of their inhabitants, and replaced by more commercially profitable sheep, by him a decade or two previously, to much criticism.

7866FADF-46D9-439A-A390-8CBA70948659_1_105_c (1)This photo is clearly not from the time! It appeared at an opportune time on the Rogart Heritage Society facebook page and this wonderful example of what people’s houses and outbuildings were like, albeit in the next century, seemed too good an opportunity to miss in this context. Photo credit: Flo Stuart/Rogart Heritage Society

It was noticeable that there was “more misery & appearance of poverty” in Langwell than in all the rest of Rogart. Langwell then belonged to Dempster of Skibo. A separate report noted that many of the tenants on the Skibo estate as a whole were indifferent about the state of their houses. There were a few houses about Skibo itself which were “remarkably well-ordered and clean; but these were inhabited by rather respectable people, who have always clean houses.”

At the end of January the Rogart Committee reported that inhabitants had, with very few exceptions, complied with the instructions as to cleanliness. But to prevent cholera two things were necessary: the complete enforcement of the county injunctions; and affording some relief to a limited number of indigent persons whom the committee found “to be so miserably fed and clothed that they must be in the greatest degree liable to the influence of epidemic disease of every sort.”

The prevailing view was that each landlord should help the inhabitants on their own estate. By the end of February many yards of flannel and numerous pairs of blankets had been bought for the Sutherland estate. Meal was provided as an improvement in diet was considered to be “an important ingredient in the removal of predisposition to cholera”. Medical supplies were also obtained.

Landscapes of Power I: A Monumental Geography

Post by Elizabeth Ritchie, lecturer at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.

I didn’t know there was a memorial to James Loch. When I came to teach at the University of the Highlands and Islands I was instructed to prepare a course on the Clearances. I objected that I didn’t know anything about the Clearances. But I was the nineteenth-century historian and I allegedly specialised in the Highlands, so there was no way to wriggle out of it. And so I learned about the Clearances, particularly as they pertain to Sutherland, and I became familiar with names like that of James Loch, the head factor and the boss of the much hated Patrick Sellar, who designed and implemented the development of commercial agriculture, the removal of the people, and their replacement with sheep, with all of the long-resonating consequences for the economy, ecology, culture and psyche of the region and its diaspora. So my friend Annie, who has written a book on the Sutherland estate, (Annie Tindley, The Sutherland Estate 1850-1920: Aristocratic Decline, Estate management and Land Reform, Edinburgh University Press, 2010) was a little shocked to hear that, in all my bikes and hikes, I had never come across the memorial to one of the chief architects of Sutherland as it is today.

For two afternoons in January he became the pretext for walks around the woods of Dunrobin. As I made a circuit back to the castle where I had left my car, I realised I was walking a triangle: a triangle of monuments each of which spoke of the power of the people of Dunrobin to shape the landscape and the lives of the people within it.

The most obvious and most maligned is, of course, the gigantic and authoritative statue to the first duke of Sutherland on the summit of Beinn Bhraggie. Visible for dozens of miles around it is the focus for all historic discontent, yet survives the periodic attacks of chisel or spray can. Dunrobin Castle itself, with its fairytale Loire-like turrets, whitely protruding from trees and coast is another highly visible declaration of rulership, even moreso in the days when the approach to Sutherland was mainly by sea.

But in my wanderings I discovered two more monuments and recalled a third. I realised that the positioning of all these objects of stone was more than the accumulation of one-offs. They constitute a geography of power which marked ownership and authority, visibly by placement or by text. Directly west of the castle, framed by the gateway arch, is a classic Victorian statue to the second duke, with an inscribed pedestal. He overlooks the highways of road and rail, his robed back to Dunrobin Mains farm and his confident gaze rests on the spiky castle roof.

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My woodland searches finally took me to my intended objective of James Loch’s memorial. A four-posted marble canopy accessed by stone steps sits oddly in forest. The poetic inscription declares that he often loved to come to this place to survey the view. The only view now is of tree trunks and deep ruts of heavy machines. But, sometime after 1858 when he died, this tiny hilltop monument permitted him to posthumously sweep his eyes over the territory he had commanded. A superficial reading of the sentimental plaque suggests it is merely a memorial to a fond old chap, but it does not take much reading between the lines to realise that it was paid for, and possibly designed and its position chosen, by the ducal family.

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I thought the monumental geography took the form of a squashed triangle, about four miles by one, until I remembered an outlier. But an ostentatious, looming outlier, arguably the most ancient and important building in the north of Scotland: Dornoch Cathedral. Eleven miles to the south of Dunrobin, the medieval edifice’s rebuilding was financed by the Duchess of Sutherland in 1824. The very structure is a monument to her wealth and influence, even if you happened to miss the gigantic twin marble plaques and the inscribed floor-stone at the very front of the church.

The physicality, through their design and placement, of these monuments speaks authority. An authority positioned over several generations, though all harking back to the lives of the first duke and duchess, and the times in which they permanently changed the landscape and the lives of the folk of Sutherland. At least these monuments did speak authority until we took to blindly whizzing along the A9 in cars, before a small forest grew up around Loch’s vantage point, and before we stopped going to church.

A Tale of Two Kildonans

To commemorate the bicentenary of the emigration of Kildonan people to Red River, Canada, we have the contributions of two guest bloggers. This week Professor Marjory Harper of the University of Aberdeen writes about the impact of the Kildonan people in what is now Manitoba, and how they are remembered today.

Winnipeg is a city of monuments and memorials to the Highland pioneers who in the early nineteenth century established themselves at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. None could have foreseen at the time that the tiny Red River colony, conceived by Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, and populated most notably by emigrants from the Strath of Kildonan, would before the end of the century become the capital of a vast province, a major transportation hub at the centre of Canada, and the gateway to the prairies.

Tiny as it was, the infant Red River settlement was mired in controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. In June 1813, Lord Selkirk himself was present in Stromness to witness the embarkation of a contingent of 100 individuals from Sutherland. The second group of colonists to leave Scotland, many were victims of the savage Kildonan clearances, orchestrated by William Young and Patrick Sellar, and they had been selected from 700 applicants who saw no future in their native land. It was not long before they had a taste of the hazards of transatlantic travel, when typhus broke out on the ship, and a panic-stricken captain landed them, not at York Factory, where they had been expected, but 150 miles away at Fort Churchill. By the time they reached Red River, in August 1814, more than a year had elapsed since leaving Scotland.

The arrival of the Kildonan exiles ignited smouldering tensions between the rival fur trading enterprises of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. While the Napoleonic conflict raged on in Europe, Scots squared up to each other in their own “pemmican war”, over who would have access to the supplies of buffalo meat which were so essential to the survival of the fur traders operating in the vast territory then known as Rupert’s Land.

By 1816, when the Battle of Seven Oaks (now part of Winnipeg) determined that the Hudson’s Bay Company traders would emerge as victors from that struggle, the Kildonan pioneers had been joined by another wave of emigrants from the strath. A year later they were visited by Lord Selkirk, who earmarked land for a church as well as an experimental farm, and promised the settlers a Gaelic-speaking minister.

In the event, it was more than thirty years before they secured their minister, the non-Gaelic-speaking John Black from Eskdalemuir in Dumfries-shire. His appointment in 1851 triggered the construction of the church, which was completed in 1854 and is today the oldest stone church still standing in Winnipeg. Its location is very different from the depopulated but picturesque environment of its Sutherland counterpart, after which it is named, for it is to be found on the northern outskirts of Manitoba’s capital, adjacent to a busy highway and backed by the wide Red River.

There are, however, several similarities between the two Kildonan churches which are separated by 5,000 miles of ocean and continent. Neither is now in regular use as a place of worship, but each is preserved as a heritage site. Gravestone inscriptions that surround each building commemorate the individuals and families who shaped the histories of their hinterlands, while a plaque on the east wall of the Sutherland church memorialises George Bannerman, one of the Selkirk emigrants who was evicted from the strath in 1813 and whose great-grandson, John Diefenbaker, was Canada’s prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

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Kildonan Church in Sutherland and Manitoba. Photos by Marjory Harper

Interred alongside the pioneers of Winnipeg’s Kildonan are the Canadian clergyman, historian and novelist Charles Gordon (better known as Ralph Connor) and his wife. Gordon’s “Glengarry” novels, which were best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic in the early twentieth century, highlight the integrity and resilience of Scottish pioneers in another part of Canada, Glengarry County in Eastern Ontario, where Connor’s father, an emigrant from Perthshire, was also a minister.

Perhaps the best-known Sutherland memorial in Winnipeg is the Selkirk Settlers’ Monument, a full-scale bronze replica of the Emigrants’ Status in Helmsdale, which was unveiled in September 2008, fourteen months after its Scottish twin. The Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert’s Land has ensured that the settlers’ story is also remembered in cairns, plaques and monuments scattered throughout the city.

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The Settlers’ Monument, Winnipeg.  Photo by Marjory Harper

But let’s return, finally to the Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery. These stanzas from the Reverend John Mackay’s poem, Old Kildonan – despite some poetic licence in terms of the reference to the steeple – encapsulate the spirit of the cleared pioneers.

Have you been to old Kildonan
Seen the Red with gentle sweep
Guard the little rude, God’s Acre
Where the Selkirk settlers sleep?
Have you read the simple stories
On those headstones, old and grey,
Telling of a deep heart-hunger
For a dear land fear away?
Where the homes they left forever
Stand beside the Northern Sea,
And the old church lifts its steeple
Over heather, hill and lea.

Building “The Mound”

Clive Hayward writes this week about the building of “The Mound”, that critical piece of engineering between Dornoch and Golspie.  Clive has just completed his first year of study on the MLitt in Highlands and Islands History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  As ever, we welcome comments, queries, questions and corrections in the comments section.

Thomas Telford and William Young appear unlikely bedfellows, one being a celebrated engineer and the other being an infamous factor of the Sutherland estate associated with the Clearances.  However, their collaboration to implement the Sutherland Road Act of 1805 has left a monument to their achievements.  The original road ran along the east coast of Sutherland crossing Loch Fleet at the Little Ferry and the Dornoch Firth at the Meikle Ferry.  The creation of the parliamentary road removed two major obstacles by bridging the Helmsdale River and the Dornoch Firth at Bonar, but in between was the tricky passage of Loch Fleet.  Thomas Telford, the consulting engineer for the Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges, originally envisaged building new piers for the ferry as the construction of a traditional bridge was out of the question.  William Young however proposed a causeway across the estuary at the Mound.  The Commissioners initially baulked over the price of the estimate but when the Marquis of Stafford offered to contribute to the cost of the project, the proposal was accepted.

The Marquis was greatly interested in improving Sutherland’s infrastructure and was a major contributor to the finance of new roads. The construction work also offered employment to the local population, recently displaced by the “improvements” undertaken by the estate. Contractors however were hesitant to submit estimates for what promised to be a difficult operation.  Only two were forthcoming (one being very high whilst the other contractor was not regarded as being sufficiently competent), and the whole venture was in doubt.  Young persuaded Earl Gower (the eldest son of the Marquis) to intervene and an offer to undertake the Mound was submitted to the Commissioners by the Earl, in partnership with Young and his associate Patrick Sellar.

To cross Loch Fleet, which is a tidal inlet of the sea, Telford designed a huge earth causeway almost 1000 yards long. The plan was to start by building a stone bridge, with sluice gates, close to Craigtoun rock, on the northern side of the bay. The engineers decided to start work on both banks simultaneously and meet in the middle.  To get the stone and timber to the shores of Loch Fleet they constructed a horse drawn railway.  Difficulties in finding a rock base for the foundations delayed the project beyond the estimated one season and, just as it was nearing completion, a strong tidal surge put a hole in the causeway.  Telford decided to widen the whole causeway and despite much anguish the two ends were finally joined together. Construction work on this huge project began in 1814 and was completed by June of 1816.

The bridge originally had four arches, although this was later increased to six. Each contains a sluice gate preventing sea water travelling upstream when the tide comes in but allows river water out as the tide falls. These gates are self-regulating, but to cope with the river’s spate there is a mechanism of winches and pulleys to manually lift the gates. This was installed, again under the direction of Thomas Telford, in 1833. Winch houses were built at either end of the bridge and a cottage for the gate keeper was built at the northern end of the crossing. The causeway and sluice gates stop the sea over a mile short of its natural high tide mark. This had a dramatic effect on the environment upstream of the Mound. The build up of silt in the shallow fresh water created the ideal conditions for alder and willow trees. The Mound Alderwoods is now one of the largest of its type in Britain and is a designated nature reserve. The other effect of the building of the Mound was to make the ancient ferry crossing at Little Ferry on the mouth of the loch obsolete.

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Image from the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As a major construction project in 1814, it was second only to the development of the coalmine at Brora in injecting large amounts of capital into the Sutherland region.  The total project cost £9749, more than sixty per cent being spent on labourers’ wages. When the Marchioness visited the project in August 1815 she found: “sixty people at work and 150 expected the following week.”  It is hard to overestimate the project’s importance in creating work, albeit temporary, in an otherwise non-industrialised environment.

The Mound was one of William Young’s crowning achievements.  Despite Telford’s oversight, the construction, planning and day to day working was in the hands of amateurs and relatively unqualified workmen.  Young was in no sense a trained engineer but he battled through the project from start to finish and it is a testament to his tenacity.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).

Richards, E., The Leviathan of Wealth, (London 1973).

The Factor, the Amazon and the Fiery Little Antagonist

Had you walked through Dornoch of a Saturday night in the closing years of the eighteenth century, you might have spotted the indomitable Christina Leslie wrestling drunken patrons out of her inn.

Christina was born at Meikleferry, probably in the early 1760s.  She was an “amazon in size and strength” being over six feet tall and “her person [being] extremely robust”.  This came in handy on market day when “fierce, disorderly fellows quarrelled and fought with each other there, like so many mastiffs”.  When trouble broke out she launched herself into the fray, backed up by her Lochbroom-born ostler Donald, known as Ton’l in gentle mockery of his Gaelic accent.  “When her guests were fixed in each other’s throats, Mrs. Leslie made short work with them, by planting a grip with each hand on the back of their necks, tearing them apart, and finally by holding them until her ostler, by repeated and strong applications of his fists, had sufficiently impressed them with a sense of their conduct.”  Apparently she was less fearsome when not having to deal with disorderly fellows, having an “expansive countenance” and “mild expression”.  Christina’s forte was physical force, but her husband’s was verbal.

Hugh Leslie was an innkeeper, but was also the fiscal and the procurator in Dornoch Sheriff Court.  The performances between him and his legal opponent, Hugh Ross, were a source of great entertainment.  A schoolboy recollected that “Hugh Leslie’s bodily presence was always made known by his cough. During play-time I would frequently spend half an hour in the court-house, and I have often come upon Hugh Leslie in the midst of one of his forensic orations. He made use of no ingenuity of argument, or of special pleading; but he took up all the strong points of the case, and battered away at them, until, in ten cases for one, he was ultimately successful. … Poor Leslie’s arguments, which he delivered with such heat and rapidity, that he could neither illustrate them with sufficient clearness of expression, nor very distinctly remember them when he had finished, his cool and more able opponent took up one by one, and demolished, with pointed wit and sarcasm.  Ross held up all his words and arguments, from first to last, in a light so distorted and so perfectly ludicrous, that his fiery little antagonist could not recognise them again, but, starting to his feet, while Hugh [Ross] was going on, he would hold up both his hands, and, trembling with rage, cry out, ‘0, such lies! such lies! did ever you hear the like?’ These explosions of temper Ross met by a graceful bow to the bench, and a request to the Sheriff to maintain the decency of the court.”

The couple had twelve children.  In 1790 their sixth was born and named after the first who had died in infancy.  Angus Leslie attended the school at Dornoch and was eventually employed by the Duke of Sutherland as one of his under-factors on the Strathnaver district of the estate.  In Strathnaver some of Scotland’s most notorious clearances were implemented from 1814.  Angus was involved in enforcing the evictions.  One of the families he evicted was that of a stonemason named Donald MacLeod.  MacLeod was also a small crofter in Strathy on the north coast.  Leslie turned him and his family out of his house and croft in the middle of winter, during a heavy snowstorm, and, at the same time, forbade any of his neighbours, for miles around, to give them shelter.  Angus had picked on the wrong man.  Donald MacLeod was a highly literate, intelligent man who decided to fight back.  He wrote a series of letters in the Edinburgh Courant and a pamphlet, which reflected “very severely, not only on Leslie’s action, but upon the measures taken by the late Duchess of Sutherland against her Highland tenantry.”  One of the ironies is that only a few years before Angus turned the MacLeods out of their house with needless harshness his own father, Hugh, would have been involved in the arrest and imprisonment of another Sutherland factor, Patrick Sellar, for doing similar.  After MacLeod’s work was published, Angus resigned his position and instead took up the farm of Torboll, by Loch Fleet: a more peaceful living than factoring, or even being a lawyer or an innkeeper.

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The ‘Edinburgh Evening Courant’: the newspaper in which MacLeod’s denunciations of Angus Leslie were published. Please note this is illustrative – it is not the edition that MacLeod was published in.

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