Holy Hugh: Of Fields and Fellowship

This is part 2 of our short series on the life and times of Sheriff Hugh MacCulloch who is memorialised just outside Dornoch.

In a field at Proncy, by the A9 near the turn off to Dornoch, there is a stone. It is a memorial to Hugh MacCulloch. When he is remembered today it is usually as the most eminent victim of the 1809 Meikle Ferry Disaster. But in his time, he was best known as an ‘eminent Christian’.

MacCulloch Memorial - Feb 2019

This month the Memorial has been encased in a box by Dornoch Academy students guided by DJ MacLeod (Autonomy Youth Services). This is to aid preservation. The field behind is where people met together to worship, led by Hugh MacCulloch. Photo: DJ MacLeod.

He came from the professional class of the eighteenth-century Highlands. His father was a writer (a legal role) and a bailie of the burgh of Dornoch. At some early point in his upbringing he experienced ‘saving impressions’ of ‘divine truth and divine agency’. His relationship to Christian faith was more than weekly attendance at church, more than dutiful Bible reading. He had a personal commitment to and experience of God. As he grew, he spent time with other committed believers who mentored, encouraged and challenged him.

After studying law at university, he married a Miss Sutherland. Born in 1765 Christian was daughter of the minister in Dornoch (John Sutherland). Hugh presumably knew her as a young person, or perhaps met her on visits to his parents. They had ‘a considerable family’. Hugh established himself in his career and was given the role of Sheriff-Substitute of Sutherland. The family settled in Dornoch.

As a devout man, Hugh MacCulloch had responsibility for the spiritual well-being of his household. That meant anyone living, or visiting, under his roof. The Directory for Family Worship, passed at the General Assembly of 1647 instructed heads of families to conduct ‘communion with God’, morning and evening. The family was critical in establishing and maintaining protestant culture. In this ideal, the family was a ‘seminary’, a patriarchal household where the father was meant to gently, firmly and wisely lead wife, children and servants in godliness. Donald Sage recollected that ‘family worship was regularly observed morning and evening’ when he was a lodger with the MacCullochs in 1801. The Directory indicated they should begin with prayer for church, nation and family members. Then scripture was read, ensuring everyone understood the passage. This practice was far from uniquely Highland or even Scottish. It developed within many reformed traditions throughout Europe and North America.

On Sunday evenings, things were a bit different. Then Hugh ‘examined all the inmates of his household on their scriptural knowledge, concluding with an exposition of the chapter which he had read.’ While it is easy to assume this was a bit grim and oppressive, the event attracted the neighbours. There is no reason that it couldn’t be conducted with fun, or some intellectual sparring and competition. It is quite likely that the neighbours came along because they could not read and therefore could not hold family worship themselves very easily. The language used was Gaelic, but a few of the neighbours did not speak it. Donald particularly recollected that was so for John Hay, a mason. Hugh therefore gave the concluding prayer partly in one language and partly in the other. He called this ‘a speckled prayer’.

MacCulloch Memorial 2 Feb 2019

The memorial and the field in the opposite direction! Photo: DJ MacLeod.

Saturdays were busy for the Sheriff-Substitute. Each Saturday he went the mile or two out of town to Pronsy. There, in what is now a field, he met with other committed Christians for a ‘fellowship meeting’. At these meetings people prayed together, they sang, they heard the Bible read and someone often preached. In all likelihood much of this was done by Hugh, probably with assistance from other local men. Donald Sage later claimed that ‘it was these occasions of Christian intercourse with his fellow-citizens, which they found peculiarly edifying, that embalmed his memory in the hearts of the survivors [of the disaster].’ Outdoor meetings were quite common in this period, particularly among Evangelicals who had a Moderate minister who they felt did not meet their spiritual needs. Some ministers were fine with this, others felt it undermined their authority. Some local Evangelicals removed themselves from the churches of Moderate ministers and met on Sunday mornings by themselves, but Hugh MacCulloch did not do that. Indeed his Saturday meetings may have been an attempt to dissuade people from such a schism. However, in church he did make it clear when he was uncomfortable with the preaching. ‘He was a regular attendant at church; as, though Dr. Bethune’s doctrine seemed to him to be dry enough, he, unlike others equally eminent for piety with himself, would not on that account become an absentee, all the more that he held a public office. He did not fail, however, by his restlessness of manner, to indicate when he was not being edified.’

Hugh MacCulloch was remembered as a pretty ordinary judge. His administration of justice was ‘free indeed from all sorts of corruption, but it was defective in regard to clear views of civil and criminal law.’ However, it was his ‘eminent piety and Christian fellowship’ which ‘enshrined his memory in the hearts of all who knew him.’


The Directory for Family Worship, Assembly at Edinburgh, 24 August 1647, Sess. 10. Act for observing the directions of the General Assembly for secret and private worship, and mutual edification; and censuring such as neglect family-worship. A copy can be found on http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_standards/index.html?mainframe=/documents/wcf_standards/p417-direct_fam_worship.html

Janay Nugent, ‘“The mistresse of the family hath a special hand”: family, women, mothers, and the establishment of a “godly community of Scots”’, in Stuart Macdonald and Daniel MacLeod (eds), Keeping the Kirk. Scottish Religion at Home and in the Diaspora (Guelph, 2014), 39-62.

Andrew Cambers and Michelle Wolfe, ‘Reading, family religion, and Evangelical identity in late Stuart England’, The Historical Journal 47.4 (2004) 875-896.

Gerald F. Moran and Maris A. Vinovskis, ‘The Great Care of Godly Parents: Early Childhood in Puritan New England’, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 50.4/5 (1985), 24-37.

Dornoch Diversions

This week’s post is written by Dr David Worthington, Head of the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Golf clubs, golf balls, bows and arrows, saddles, books, paper, ink, and ‘other school necessaries’. Robert Gordon (1580-1656) bought all of these items during the 1610s while he was tutor to his nephew, a future earl of Sutherland. They suggest to me golf’s long association with Dornoch’s social, cultural and educational fortunes. It’s really exciting to consider that a much deeper exploration of this theme, and of the first 200 years of the sport’s association with the town, will be one of the major aspects of research to be conducted soon here at the UHI Centre for History, by means of the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship. It’s a venture that’s been made possible by the generosity of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club and the UHI Development Office. It seems that from 1642 – when Gordon left east Sutherland for a new life in Moray – down to the mid-nineteenth century, golf slid into relative obscurity in the town. However, we are sure there are more documents to uncover not only regarding the history of golf in Dornoch, but also to indicate how local people have amused themselves more widely over the centuries.

In 1604, Patrick Stewart, ‘Black Patie’, second earl of Orkney (c.1566/7–1615), ‘passed his tyme a whyle at Dornogh, honorablie interteyned with comedies, and all other sports and recreations that Earl John [John Gordon, thirteenth earl of Sutherland] culd mak him’. What were these ‘sports and recreations’? In 1715, the town’s presbytery was exercised by the ‘gross and abominable practises in some places of the Country by Musick, playing and dancing at Lykwakes, and by promiscuous dancing at that and other occasions’. Later that century, the Reverend Mr John Bethune suggested the townspeople’s ability to occasionally let their hair down: ‘if they relax of their usual parsimony at fairs and other occasional meetings, they know how to make amends by habitual economy and absteniousness’.

Sport and games were certainly part of this recreation then. Football was well-known from the late sixteenth century. Donald Sage remembered a variety of shinty – perhaps akin to the ‘knotty’ that could have been found in Caithness – which was flourishing on holy days in Dornoch at the start of the nineteenth century. Sage also tells us about the annual cockfights. As early as 1856, the Inverness Advertiser mentioned a cricket ‘Match between Tain & Golspie at the links of Dornoch’. By the early twentieth century one of the town’s winter institutions was ‘bools’ which was played ‘between the east and west sides of the burn, and next day between married and single. The losers had to pay for a quarter of meal for the poor.’ By 1913 this old form of bowling seems to have been replaced as local residents were campaigning for the formation of a Tennis and Bowling Club. Shortly after, Dornoch Bowling Club was founded. We can also read, through the online HistoryLinks Image Library, of a ‘Sutherland Bonspiel Feb 1st 1912 Won by R. R. Johnstone’. By the time of the Third Statistical Account (1986), Dornoch residents were enjoying tennis, badminton, basketball and squash in addition to these earlier sports. The town could also boast of its own annual festival and sports week, Highland Games and school playing fields. The development of sport and cultural life in Dornoch had moved beyond the first ‘outward-nine’.

Hector M. Mackay, Old Dornoch: Its Traditions and Legends (Dingwall, 1920)

Reverend Charles D. Bentinck, Dornoch: cathedral and parish (Inverness, 1926).

Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch (Dornoch, 2005).


Black and white photo of Dornoch footballers, early 1900s. Back l to r: Angie Munro (gardener), Sutherlands (Gruids), Jim Leslie (Embo St), R Grant (Captain). Middle l to r: Jim Mackay (Tornaver), WH Innes (painter), Bob Murray (chemist). Front l to r: J Macintosh (Embo Farm), A Gillespie (paper shop), Walty Matheson (golfer, killed in France).

Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library