‘Honest’ George Dempster and the Spinningdale Experiment

Katie Louise McCullough is an historian and the Director of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on the economic and social development of the Highlands and Islands during the Improvement Era. Katie has spent many wonderful trips to Dornoch and the surrounding areas hiking and walking the beautiful countryside with her good pal Elizabeth Ritchie.

In Spinningdale, on the north side of the Dornoch Firth, stand the remnants of a cotton mill. It was built from 1792-4 by the Balnoe Company for the agriculturalist and politician George Dempster, Esq. of Dunnichen (1732-1818), owner of the Skibo estate, and his Glasgow partner David Dale. The men raised over £3000 for the mill, largely from Glasgow businessmen. It was part of a broader plan for social and economic development in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that championed the provision of employment and poverty relief rather than clearance and turning over land to sheep walks.

cotton mill at Spinningdale

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As an MP Dempster had a reputation for incorruptibility, gaining him the sobriquet of ‘Honest’ George. He brought his honesty and hard work to his development interests. Dempster was part of a network of improvers centred on the Highland Society of London (est. 1778) and its sister society the Highland Society of Scotland (est. 1784). Key players in these societies formed a subsidiary company the British Fisheries Society (Dempster was a director of the HSS and BFS) in 1786. In order to provide employment, the BFS established planned fishing villages in the western Highlands and Islands, an area noted by these men for its “underdevelopment.” Colleagues found within these networks blamed slow economic development and poverty on the Whiggish improvers of the early- and mid-eighteenth century who blamed Highlanders for their own poverty. In contrast, Dempster and like-minded friends felt the solution was not in raising great numbers of sheep but, as Sir John Sinclair argued, “by the introduction of arts and agriculture. The first will increase the number and wealth of the people; the latter will augment the quantity of the production of the soil, both for the maintenance of people and cattle. But neither arts nor agriculture can prosper, unless the inhabitants are secure in the tenure, by which they occupy the spots on which they live.” And so, Dempster and his colleagues came up with plans to build homes and transportation links, provide suitable local employment, and reduce or freeze rents until people got on their feet.

The Spinningdale mill was intended to provide employment for people from the nearby parish of Criech and its environs, including the Pulrossie estate, owned by Dempster’s brother. Local people lived off the sale of cattle and grew some potatoes and corn. Some considered this to be “hardly sufficient to maintain the families of the tenants,” resulting in difficulty paying rent and outmigration. Young men and women often temporarily migrated to the south: some “got high wages, and returned in winter to their parents, or relations, somewhat in the stile [sic] of gentlemen, and were a burden on their friends the whole winter, until they set out again in spring.” Some did not return; possibly marrying, dying, emigrating, or being “picked up by recruitment parties.”

cotton mill

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Emulating the fishing villages built by the BFS in the 1780s (Ullapool, Stein, and Tobermory), two villages were lotted on the Skibo estate: Criech and Spinningdale, in preparation for new housing. A warehouse was also built to hold goods for export. The Dornoch Firth was considered ideal for cotton manufacturing as it was damp and had access to transportation, the firth being “navigable for 24 miles [and] vessels of 50 tons burden can land their cargoes at this place,” and Spinningdale had a nearby burn for water power. Unlike many other landowners in this period, Dempster chose to freeze rents until manufacturing took off and people were placed in their new homes. This plan was intended not only to bring wealth to Dempster through rent, and to investors through profits, but also to raise the standard of living of inhabitants who “will enjoy perfect security, as occupiers of land. That those advantages will lead them gradually to better their houses, to improve their lands, and to alter their own condition in every respect for the better.”

cotton mill I

Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Unfortunately, this ambitious plan was a failure. Unable to coax locals to work in the factory with regularity (they were otherwise engaged in seasonal work; lambing, harvesting, peating, or searching for higher-wage work in the south) the mill did not turn a profit. A fire gutted the factory in 1806 and it was not rebuilt. Though the mill was a failure, Dempster’s plan reveals the benevolent intentions of some landowners who sought to attract local workers to planned towns with the provision of employment and infrastructure rather than clearing people on to crofts leaving the best land for sheep and cattle, a system designed to build wealth only for the landowner. Lotted towns and villages like those built by the British Fisheries Society, and many others, including Creich and Spinningdale, were intended to create employment and to reduce poverty for common Highlanders, eliminating the need to leave home in search of a better life.


MS00126 George Dempster Papers Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Sir John Sinclair, Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799) Vol 8 Criech, County of Sutherland.


Locating medieval lordships in Sutherland

This week Dr Alasdair Ross from the University of Stirling is our guest blogger.  Alasdair is Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Environmental History.  His research interests include historic units of land assessment in northern Europe so for this week’s blog Alasdair has  considered this issue along the north bank of the Kyle of Sutherland. 

Sutherland was separated from Caithness at the beginning of the thirteenth century by the Scottish crown and members of the de Moravia family were thereafter quickly elevated to the status of earls of Sutherland and bishop of the diocese of Caithness. The core of the earldom demesme lands at this time seem to have been located in the south-east of Sutherland. One part of these properties is referred to in charters as Ferincoskry (Fearann Coscraigh – Coscrach’s land) which is thought to have comprised a large part of the parish of Creich; another two parts consisted the lands of Ferenbeuthlin’ and Skibo (the latter assessed at six dabhaichean [davochs]). In 1971 Barrow argued that Ferenbeuthlin’ and Ferincoskry were different names for the same stretch of land but this suggestion surely cannot be sustained. Even allowing for some scribal error the second elements of each place-name are wildly different.

A number of different sources are quite clear that Ferincoskry comprised the majority of lands in the parish of Creich that directly bordered upon the province of Ross, extending northwards along the River Oykell as far north as Glencasley and beyond to the boundary with Assynt. This extensive lordship had been granted to the earls of Ross by King Robert I between 1306 and 1329 (though it is never explained why these lands had been taken away from the Sutherland earls at that time) and was later piecemeal granted out to different families. The first of these, a charter dated 28 May 1450 specifies that both Olsbustule (Ospisdale) and Innerwyrcastelaye (Invercassly), at opposite ends of the parish of Creich, lay in Farnacoskyre. A second charter of 10 January 1464 states that Crechmor, Spanegydill, Davacharry, Pladd and Pulrossy were all part of the land of Fernacostrech. To these can be added the lands of Inveran, Lemsetmoir, Lemsetbeg, Altesbeg, Altes mor, Acheness, Swordale, Migdale, Creichmore, and Little Creich from various sources. According to the available evidence then, it very much looks as though Ferincoskry was an elongated area of lordship that lay along most of the north bank of the Dornoch Firth and the River Oykell to its junction with Glen Cassley, and then westwards to the summits of Conval (987m) and Ben More Assynt (998m) on the boundary of the parish of Creich with Assynt, perhaps a total of seventeen dabhaichean. Essentially, it gives every impression of having been a massively important frontier lordship. It is just a shame that we do not know how old it actually is.

But according to the surviving evidence Ferincoskry cannot have comprised the whole of the parish of Creich because the eight dabhaichean of Auchinduich, Auchnafearn, Invershin, Knocken, Ardinch, Tutointorroch, Glenchasley, and Dauchallie are never associated with it in any surviving source. This, however, may just be an accident of survival since written medieval records for Creich are exceedingly rare. Ferincoskry itself as an early unit of lordship may also be more nuanced that we have previously realised. That part of it which lay to the west of the River Shin possessed a separate identity and was regularly variously referred to as Chilis, Slishchells, and Slishchewlis. One dabhach containing the same suffix, Daauchelis / Daawchelis / Deawchelive, remains unlocated but on the balance of the available evidence is most likely to have been an alternative name for Inveran (itself a half-dabhach).


Looking towards Ferincoskry from the Province of Ross.  Photo from collection of Alasdair Ross.

So where was Ferenbeuthlin’? A charter of 1235 specifies that Ferenbeuthlin’ / Fernbeilldyn’ lay between Skibo and the lands in the east of Creich which bordered upon Ross:

[…] scilicet de tota terra de Skellebolle et de Fernbeilldyn et pretera de tota terra que jacet inter dictas terras de Skellebolle et de Fernbeilldyn et diuisas de Ros uersus occidentem […]

[…] namely the whole land of Skellebolle (Skibo) and Fernbeilldyn and also the whole land lying between the said lands of Skellebolle and Fernbeilldyn and the marches of Ross to the west […]

Clearly, this charter indicates that Skelleboll and Ferenbeuthlin’ / Fernbeilldyn’ lay to the east of those unspecified lands in Creich that bordered upon Ross. Since Ferincoskry included the lands of Acharry, Ospisdale, Fload, and Pulrossie, all of which were located immediately to the west of the boundary between the parishes of Creich and Dornoch, Ferenbeuthlin’ / Fernbeilldyn’ must have been located in Dornoch parish itself and may even have included the town. Beyond this, it is currently impossible to state precisely which dabhaichean to the immediate west of Skibo lay in Ferenbeuthlin’ / Fernbeilldyn’ and the place-name itself seems to have disappeared shortly thereafter. For what it is worth, an oral record dating to the nineteenth century records the place-name Tornabuchaillin, where the second element may be the same as that of Ferenbeuthlin’, was recorded near the dabhaichean of Proncy, between Skelleboll and Ferincoskry.