Parlours and Sofas: Houses, Status and the Emerging Highland Middle Class

This is part 3 of our short series on the life and times of Sheriff Hugh MacCulloch who is memorialised just outside Dornoch.

Prior to the Clearances, most people (with the exception of the poor and the aristocracy) lived in longhouses. With thick walls of stone and turf, roofed with heather or reed thatch, they gave warmth and shelter to families and livestock. Most were furnished with home-made chairs, benches, chests, and maybe shelves, beds or a bookcase, alongside the spinning wheel and the central fire. People with more money and power, tacksmen and ministers, were however beginning to emulate southern counterparts with two-storey houses of stone, mortar and lime. Their very design not only marked these families out as prestigious, but created a sense of class division and promoted the networks which were so vital to advancement in marriage and the professions.

In the little capital town of Sutherland, Dornoch, Hugh MacCulloch was an important man. As Sheriff-Substitute for the County he lived in the civic centre, close by the court and next to the cathedral ruins, part of which served as the parish church. ‘His house was situated to the south of the town, and at the foot of what was called the Vennel, a small pathway leading from the churchyard.’ This house ‘of an antique cast’ may not have been new but it displayed MacCulloch’s status as a man of status. It was organised for genteel entertainment and networking. ‘The parlour or dining-room had three windows, and on its wall hung several prints. In the north-west corner of the room and near the door, stood a handsome eight-day clock – a present which the Sheriff had received from the Sutherland Volunteers, of which he was Major. A large sofa stood on the opposite side, near the fire-place.’ The house was also a place of work. The Sheriff’s ‘study was a small room upstairs … crammed with books and papers.’

1783 Dornoch map

1783 map of Dornoch. Presumably McCulloch’s house was one of those in the bottom right hand corner of what is shown on the map. Image: Historylinks Museum.

Two floors of attics topped it off. In November 1801 twelve- and fourteen-year-old Donald and Aeneas Sage arrived to lodge. ‘Mrs. MacCulloch showed us to our bedroom. It was at the top of the house, an attic above an attic – a dreary, cold place, having all the rude finishings of a coarse loft.’ Rude perhaps, but when the Sheriff returned that evening ‘he received us with the most fatherly kindness’.

Donald and Aeneas might have been a bit frightened and homesick, but a large stone house was familiar. Their parents, Isabella and Alexander, lived in the Kildonan manse, the house provided for the minister, some three days walk to the north-west. Their home rose tall on the fringes of the cluster of their neighbours’ longhouses. Like the MacCullochs’, their ground floor was occupied by a parlour, bedroom, and a closet. Upstairs were a dining-room, bedroom, and another closet. It also had an attic with two garrets: one a bed-room, the other a storeroom for lumber. Unlike upper class houses there was no wallpaper. Walls were ‘cat and clay, plastered over with lime’, finished with white-wash which came off on everything that touched it. Outside the main house were two low buildings with turf roofs, one containing the nursery, kitchen and byre, and the other, a barn and stable. Like the Sheriff’s house, this building was more than a family home.

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The manse at Kildonan in 2018. Image: Elizabeth Ritchie

One reason ministers were provided with spacious houses was so they could provide hospitality. When Hugh MacCulloch came to investigate a riot in the heights of Kildonan in October 1801, he stayed at the manse. Donald recollected: ‘On the evening of his arrival … he was drenched almost to the skin, as it had rained heavily through the day; he especially required dry stockings, and he preferred putting them on at the kitchen fireside … he took particular notice of me, and asked me many questions about my progress in learning, particularly in Latin. He was much pleased with my answers, and said that, if my father would send my brother and me to school at Dornoch, he would keep us for three months in his own house.’

In the years before the clearances, it is possible to see the emergence of a distinct middling, professional class in the rural Highlands through their houses. As elsewhere in Britain they began to mark themselves out with homes in non-indigenous styles, partly built with materials not available locally. Specialised rooms provided spaces for professional men to work with books and papers; promoted privacy; and separated domestic life from hospitality. Parlours and dining rooms, rather than a shared domestic space where family and visitors were cooked for, ate and entertained alike, meant domestic rituals were formalised, and visitors were separated into those catered for in the kitchen or formally entertained in the parlour. Spare bedrooms made providing hospitality to travelling gentlemen easy. So along with the new houses were built the networks which promoted the careers, marriages and opportunities for the families who lived in them.

Sources:

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9

Ideas about homes, respectability and the rising middle class particularly inspired by Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 (London, 1987, 2002).

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.’

Sources:

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.

Hugh MacCulloch and the Dornoch Firth

This week work begins on the Sheriff MacCulloch Memorial Project. Historylinks was recently awarded £1100 by Museums and Galleries Scotland to restore the memorial stone. The Museum is working with young people from Dornoch Academy in this project. See facebook for more information and photos. The next few blog posts will consider the life and times of Hugh MacCulloch.

It must have been hot that day. The lads maybe exploded out of school, shouting and throwing their bags. They might have taken off, chasing each other across the common grazings, past what is now the airstrip, that separated Dornoch from the ‘cockle ebb’, the sands on the north shore of the firth. Stripped off, they tiptoed, plunged into the chilly water, splashing and swimming, salt stinging their eyes. It’s wide at high tide, and at low tide sand banks appear, sometimes giving the impression that you could wade across. But between these banks there are fast flowing channels. Hugh’s efforts quickly took him out of his depth, and he sank. The other boys maybe thought at first that he was messing about, but he didn’t bob up again. They shouted an alarm and several men who were working nearby dashed into the sea. He had been in the water some time and it was an apparently lifeless body they pulled out. The men applied ‘judicious treatment’ and he choked back into life.

cockle ebb and mouth of dornoch burn 076

Shells of cockles can still be found at the ‘Cockle Ebb’. Hugh probably went bathing at this spot, though probably not on the sort of dull January day this was taken! The view here is towards the site of the Meikle Ferry, where many years later he breathed his last. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hugh MacCulloch related this story many times. And when he told it to a young lodger in 1801 he said ‘if God were to give him his choice of deaths, he would choose drowning, for … he felt as he was in the act of sinking, and when the waters were rushing in at his mouth and nostrils, as if he were falling into a gentle sleep.’ His wish was granted. Eight years later and about four miles above that very spot on that very firth, he was, with many others, drowned.

In 1809 Hugh was probably in his fifties. He was a well-respected man, the retired Sheriff-Substitute of Sutherland and known for his honesty and piety, if not his brilliance in law. On August 16th Hugh decided to attend the Lammas Fair in Tain. He left his house in Dornoch that morning and crossed the ferry. Later, rumours spread that the men who loaded the evening ferry had been drinking. Donald Sage, that young lodger, later recorded the story in biblical style: ‘When he came to the Meikleferry, late in the day, the shore was crowded with people returning home from the market. On his arrival they all made way for him, and he was, quickly seated at the stern of the wherry; but afterwards the multitude pressed into the ferry-boat – the more earnestly, as they would thus have the privilege of crossing in the same boat with the Sheriff. Apprehensive of the issue, Mr. MacCulloch turned away at least two score of them from the boat. There still remained on board, however, too many for safety. It was a dead calm, and the wherry was pushed off from land. But when it had nearly reached the middle of the ferry, and the deepest part of it, the boat gave a sudden jerk, the water rushed in, and, with the exception of two or three who escaped by swimming, the whole of those on board sank to the bottom and perished. About 70 persons were thus drowned. This fearful event took place during the darkness of night … and created a deep sensation all over the country.’

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Tain, from the Cockle Ebb. Low tide. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The tale of how Hugh’s body, among the last to be found, was discovered, reveals the mysticism which was part of Highland Evangelical Christianity. It is also reminiscent of saints’ stories in the Catholic tradition, where bodies which do not decompose prove saintliness. Donald Sage explained that the ‘particular spot where it lay under the flood was discovered in a dream. A fellow-Christian and an acquaintance, deeply affected by his death, dreamed of his departed friend. In the dream the Sheriff appeared, spoke of his sudden call to the other world, and told him where his earthly remains lay, adding that, whilst the fish of the sea were permitted to mangle at their pleasure the bodies of his fellow-sufferers, they were restrained from putting a tooth upon his, which would be found entire. The dream was realised in every particular.’

How the catastrophe of the Meikle Ferry impacted south-east Sutherland is reminiscent of the impact of the loss of the Iolaire on the Isle of Lewis 110 years later. In both, a small community lost many of its most active in one appalling moment. The response to the sudden needs of families bereft of the husbands, mothers, sons, wives, fathers, daughters who traded at Tain that day was to set up a fund. Monies poured in from people with local connections all over the world. Even donations from the profits of West Indian slave plantations ended up in the pockets of grief-stricken families. Hugh MacCulloch’s wife and his daughter, Chirsty, long survived him, and benefited from the Meikleferry Fund.

The Dornoch Firth which, in the years following the Jacobite Rising saw the birth of a boy named Hugh; which provided cooling, but dangerous waters for his youthful play; which was crossed every time the mature man travelled south on business or pleasure, eventually claimed that life. But its chill depths preserved him, casting him up in the place the visionary spoke of, so he could be buried in the way his family wanted.

Sources:

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9.

Walter Scott (ed), ‘Dreadful Accident at the Meikle Ferry’, The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809, 248.

N.B. Brian Munro has since unearthed a document (The Meikle Ferry Disaster Fund Book) in the Highland Archives which is far more contemporary than Sage’s memoirs and seems to state quite clearly that the accident took place ‘in the forenoon’ when people were on their way to the Lammas Fair, rather than returning from it. That does not, I think, remove any of the interest or importance of Sage’s analysis of the event and its impact, but shows how the details of narratives can shift.