Field Trip to Aberscross

This week’s post is by Roslyn Galbraith, a third year Scottish history student at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She writes of her experience at Aberscross. All photos are from Roslyn’s collection.

In mid May I met up with a group of fellow students from the Centre for History, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, to explore Aberscross, the site of a Sutherland farming township. The area, near the boundary between Dornoch and Rogart parishes, has a long history of settlement and agriculture. Aberscross was the residence of the Murrays who came to Sutherland in 1198, who were involved in many feuds and battles fighting for the Earls of Sutherland and defending the region from their enemies the MacKays.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Although the weather forecast was not favourable, the heavens were with us for it stayed dry for the most part. We clambered up one side of Strathfleet. As we reached a certain height it was possible to recognise the valley floor below us. As it was subjected to tidal floods farming took place up the sides of the hills. We came across a large circled area outlined by stones with what appeared to contain at least three separated areas – maybe the foundations of a tower house: residence of the Murrays perhaps?

Not far from this mysterious outline, Dr Ritchie showed us an example of a corn drying kiln, where barley or oats were dried, in preparation for grinding. The kiln would have had a roof, while the hole on the left side of the kiln was where air was bellowed in to help the drying process.

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

As we climbed further we soon came to a recognisable settlement, which contained a longhouse with turf walls built on a stone foundation. This would have had a thatched roof supported by wooden beams. The family would live at one end with the cattle at the far end or byre-end on a slight downwards slope with drainage to divert animal waste from the cattle’s feet. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. There was also a kaleyard for the cultivation of vegetables, such as kale and cabbage; an enclosure where hens and chickens might be kept; and a threshing floor with storage area.

The threshing floor was an interesting discovery, for none of us students knew at the start what this outline might be and had fun guessing its use. This smaller building was probably used for storing grain but it had two doorways opposite each other, in line with the prevailing wind. This section in the middle was where the grain was threshed so the airflow separated the wheat from the chaff. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. This whole settlement was much easier to make out from the other side of the hill.

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Other areas of interest included the runrigs where barley and oats were cultivated in raised ridges with furrows for drainage between them, and the summer pastures for the cattle and sheep on higher ground.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

It gave me an understanding to how people lived and farmed pre-clearance, producing enough food and produce for a comfortable subsistence existence provided the weather and harvest seasons were favourable.

We sat for a bit debating on where the cottars might have lived. Were the small square buildings the homes of the poorest members of this society? As there is almost no information about the cottars we could only surmise on what type of building they lived in and in which part of the settlement they stayed.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar's home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar’s home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

It was soon time to leave and we stumbled down the hill as the heavens opened up, giving us a good soaking. On reaching Pittentrail Inn for our supper we reflected on the day’s findings, which brought what I had learned in class to life. It was a most enjoyable, thought-provoking and interesting field trip.

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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