Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 1

“I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road”. Hugh and his cousin, Walter, realised getting home was going to be more difficult than they anticipated.

It was about 1818 and the teenagers had spent their summer holidays with relatives in Gruids, near Lairg. On one of the final days before they had to return, they went fishing in the River Shin. They could hear the roaring of the salmon-leap three miles away at Hugh’s uncle’s house and had been inspired by stories of skilful fishermen. Cousin William agreed to take them. He looked askance at their bare feet and muttered that his mother had never allowed them to visit relations unshod. The boys didn’t tell him that their mothers had indeed sent them out shod but “deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a comer, and set out on our journey without them.” That journey had been thirty miles from the Cromarty ferry to Gruids.



Gruids, looking south towards the River Shin. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The walk to the River Shin was less onerous. “We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation. The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches. Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap … there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore. We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool – for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way.” Later, the salmon run was blasted with gunpowder to make easier for the fish. The boys spotted a “hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher”.


Statue of the adult Hugh Miller in his hometown of Cromarty. He became a famous geologist, editor, author, and advocate for the Free Church and for issues of social justice. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Excited, Hugh jumped from a tall lichened stone. His right foot smashed against a sharp-edged fragment of rock hidden in the moss. He managed to control his scream and clutched his foot as it lost feeling. He limped back to his uncle’s house, but that evening it throbbed badly. However the lad, later an unsuccessful poet but a good newspaper editor and author of prose (as well as a renowned geologist and leader of the Free Church), distracted his mind by composing some verse about the waterfall at Shin.

However, his foot got worse. Next morning it was “stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.” Cousin Walter was impatient and getting bored, so after a few days the boys ignored their elders’ advice to stay put and tried for home. Hugh’s aunt supplied them with a “bag of Highland luxuries – cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts”. As Walter had to carry everything, he required his cousin to entertain him. Hugh’s “long extempore stories … were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the mile-stones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry. At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed. The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o’clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.”

Injured and far from home, the boys were in a predicament.

To be continued…


Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 117-120.

Bessy and John, Part 2: The MacKays at Inveran

Today if you go to Inveran, it is a quiet place with few houses and some rough pasture.  The hills are covered with conifer plantations and there is a small power station where the River Shin joins the Dornoch Firth.  In 1813, however, it was bustling with people.  General Roy’s map of 1746 indicates the township with a red enclosed area, suggesting a garden or kailyard.  The arable land is arranged in strips of runrig.  Half a mile east, across the River Shin, is the slightly larger township of Invershin.  Unpicking details casually recorded in the MacKay precognition allows us to piece together how such townships operated in the early nineteenth century.Image

Screenshot of General Roy’s Map: http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/

John had been brought up several days’ journey away, in the township of Tullichgriban in Strathspey (if anyone knows precisely where this is, I would be most interested).  Late in 1812 John’s father, George, sent him north to Inveran to work for George’s brother, Donald.   Apart from briefly returning south the following summer, John had settled in to his Uncle Donald’s household at Inveran.  The MacKay residence was a traditional longhouse.  At one end there was a slightly lower section for livestock which Donald sometimes used as a workshop.  In the middle of the house there was a living area with a fire and wooden chests. They probably also had a dresser or shelves for their crockery and some chairs.  The beds were in a room just beyond the main living room, set apart by a partial wooden door.

The workshop, the name, and the Inveran connection make it likely that this Donald MacKay was the wright who, in 1782, helped to build a new house in Inveran for one Alexander Bethune.  It is likely that Bethune rented this building out for a few years as he did not move his shop from nearby Linsidemore until 1797.  Alexander Bethune and Donald MacKay were also related by marriage: Alexander’s brother John married Donald’s sister Bessy.  Perhaps Alexander rented the new house to his brother and sister in law.  By about 1813, Alexander had died and his son, a less successful merchant, was bankrupt.

Whatever other businesses they had, the men of the township farmed.  Donald was a joint tenant with his brother in law John Bethune, Alexander Bethune the merchant, and Andrew MacKay who may also have been a relation.  Each would have had some cattle which grazed on the hills during the summer, probably tended by the young folks.  To run a small mixed farm it was necessary to have several people of working age, preferably of both sexes.  There is no evidence for Bessy having a mother or siblings.  Either she was the youngest or a motherless only child.  If he were a skilled wright in the early 1780s, then by 1813 Donald would at least be in his fifties and needing his nephew to help with the male work.  Young John perhaps came as a hired servant or as ‘heir apparent’ to the joint tenancy.  John was not the only servant in the house.  Mary Matheson, a twelve year old from nearby Invercharron, also lived with the MacKays.  When John arrived Mary and Bessy moved into the same bed, allowing John the third one.  The four of them lived and worked together every day.  The girls would bake, cook and endlessly spin as well as take charge of the dairying.  John would have worked with Donald in the fields.  They would all have looked after the animals, a few cows, sheep, chickens and maybe goats and a horse, and they probably dug peats together to prepare for the winter.

On the 13th of April 1813, six months or so after John arrived in Sutherland, the Inveran tenants sowed their oats.  From the phrasing, it is likely that this was done communally, which would make sense if Inveran was jointly tenanted.  This community, connected by work, location and marriage, may have ended the day by eating together and perhaps gathering in someone’s house for singing, music, story-telling, the endless spinning and making of heather ropes, and perhaps drinking.  Whatever happened that evening, the smouldering attraction between John and Bessy developed into something more.  Later on Bessy claimed that the only time she and John had slept together was at the Kincardine Fair, but when John was asked he said it began when the tenants sowed the oats in April.  When he realized that Bessy had said something different he claimed to agree with everything she said.  But it seems likely that their first sexual encounter was in April.  They said that was the only time, except for the time at the Fair.  That may have been true.  Knowing that pre-marital intercourse was not socially acceptable, they may have decided to set their attraction aside.  Perhaps they were afraid of being caught, perhaps they didn’t feel it was right and they had made a mistake in April.  Or perhaps they continued to see each other in secret, finding a private place to make love.  This seems more likely as Bessy later said that she didn’t know whether the baby was full-term or not as ‘she kept no accurate account of the transactions between MacKay and herself’.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

General Roy’s Map: http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/

Rootsweb Geneology: Bethunes http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ROSSGEN/2007-06/1181031302