A ‘dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’

I have not yet come across a gravestone which notes that a man hit his wife, neglected his children or manipulated his neighbours. We tend to pass over people’s failings when designing permanent memorials. A brief note of names and dates might cover a multitude of sins. It would be wise to take with a bucketful of salt some of the glowing descriptions of men on their headstones. Social conventions, privacy, fear, selective memory and family pride are strong. However what inscriptions are wonderful for, is telling us about ideals, particularly about how men were meant to relate to other people.

William Gray (1787-1866) from Dornoch was apparently a ‘dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’. Men were meant to have positive connections with their community, their friends and their family. Together, they epitomised the character of the ideal nineteenth-century man.

An ‘obliging neighbour’

The most common words used to describe how a man was felt about in the wider community were esteemed, respected, admired and, occasionally, honoured or revered. Adam Murray (1818-1893), a man of noted piety from Badninish, a crofting area in east Sutherland, was ‘esteemed by all who knew him’. The monument to James Ellison (d. 1870), a doctor in Tain, was ‘erected as a public testimony of the respect and esteem in which he was held’.

The next most commonly used words are of tenderness: loved, beloved, affectionate or, occasionally, endeared or cherished. William Ross (1807-69) was Dingwall’s ‘beloved physician’; William Melville (1841-72), Dornoch’s schoolteacher, was ‘respected by all who knew him and his kindness to the young endeared to them his memory’.

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Dornoch, from Easter Ross. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A few inscriptions describe a man’s feelings towards the community. Thomas MacBeath (1782-1859), the catechist at Dornoch Free Church, found affection was reciprocal as ‘his affectionate and faithful discharge of duty endeared him to the congregation’. Alexander Stewart (1794-1847), an influential Cromarty minister, cleaved ‘to his flock with an affection which time seemed to increase’. While I would caution against necessarily believing any inscription, the letters and memoirs of two of Stewart’s flock, Lydia and Hugh Miller, do suggest he was widely liked.[1]

An ‘attached friend’

When a man’s gravestone talks about his friendship, it doesn’t tie him to specific friends. Friendship is treated more as an attribute. It was often paired with an adjective: sincere, steadfast, true, attached, sympathising, faithful. Angus Leslie (1783-1850) of Torboll on Loch Fleet, formerly a lieutenant in the 3rd Sutherland Highlanders, was ‘unwavering in his friendship’. On his death his friends experienced ‘heartfelt sorrow’. Donald Campbell MacDonald (1834-1904) was born in Glenurquhart, but spent forty years ministering to the congregation of Kilmuir Easter. He was a ‘steadfast friend’. Manly friendship was expected to be warm, strong and consistent.

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Torboll Farm is just visible in the distance, in front of the green field. Taken from the Mound, an engineering marvel which Angus Leslie would have witnessed being built. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A ‘dutiful relative’

Most gravestones commemorate family relationships. Usually they simply list wife and offspring. Being the head of a household was an important marker of manliness. However the longer inscriptions show family meant more than personal status.

The most important attributes of family men were affection and duty. Robert Riddle (1819-1891) in Tain was ‘a beloved husband and kind father’, while the happy Sutherland family in Morness, Rogart, were blessed with Donald (1803-1884) ‘an exemplary husband and parent.’

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Rogart. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Stereotype of Victorian fathers are stern. The evidence of headstones does not bear this out. Donald Sutherland (1815-1854) from Rosskeen was pretty typical, being described as ‘affectionate’. He was only 39 when he died, so it is likely that his wife chose this wording. Sometimes men erected monuments to their own children. They often revealed deep feelings. James Mackintosh, teacher at Dalnabreac, Rogart, commemorated his ‘beloved children’, May and Archibald, who both died aged 20 in the 1860s. Manliness meant more than the fact of parenthood, or the authority derived from it. It was grounded in heartfelt emotion.

As husbands, men were also to be dutiful and affectionate. With the rise in companionate marriage in the early nineteenth century, when spouses were selected based on considerations of the heart as much as of the bank balance, it might be expected that duty words would give way to affection words. There is no sign of this. They exist togehter throughout the century, frequently combined on the same inscription. In Creich, William Calder (1795-1867) was ‘an affectionate & dutiful Husband’. The nature of husbandly duties is not explained, but they probably included material provision, protection and sobriety.

A few men poured out their hearts. In 1823 thirty year old Esther Grant died. She was buried ‘by her ever bereaved husband Alexander MacKay Invershin’.[2] MacKay was eighteen years older than she. He was settled in life and able to afford an expensive table stone. A cynic might note this was a visible symbol of his wealth and status. A romantic might note the poignancy of his inscription. The likelihood that many women died as a result of complications from pregnancy or childbirth may have added shock and perhaps guilt to a widower’s grief.

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Esther Grant, ever-beloved by Alexander MacKay. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

In adulthood, a man did not abdicate responsibility for his birth family. Forty seven year old William Ross, presumably a bachelor, died in 1867. His sister Mary, who may well have lived with him, erected a stone for ‘her affectionate brother’. A good man was expected to continue to be a good son. John MacDonald (1845-98), from Ballinoe, Ardgay, died at fifty three. Again he was probably a bachelor and his mother, with whom he may have lived, noted he was ‘a dutiful son’.

Such public displays of loving and being loved suggest family life was meant to be warm and kindly. A man was expected first to perform his duty towards dependent family members, and then to have the ability to feel and to elicit tenderness from wife, children, siblings or parents. The ideal man also had broader reciprocal relationships of affection and respect with friends, neighbours, a church congregation, or even the whole community.

Nineteen year old Walter Ross from Wester Fearn had little chance to make an impact on the world by his actions. But when he died in 1845, it was by the quality of his relationships that he was remembered. His gravestone reads: ‘in love he lived, in peace he died’.

 

[1] Letter cited in Elizabeth Sutherland, Lydia: Wife of Hugh Miller of Cromarty (East Lothian: Tuckwell, 2002), 50-51; Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, 1869), 371, 409.

[2] His death in 1861 is then commemorated in near identical script, but the form of words leaves little doubt that the stone is contemporaneous with Esther’s death and a particularly careful mason of the 1860s was then employed to engrave his end. It is therefore probable that these words were selected by MacKay himself.

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Alex’s Farm: On Space, Time and Going Places

They watched me, keeking through the living room window, as my bike skimmed from Pittentrail towards the A9 junction at the Mound. I was racing the light. Too easy in early summer, intoxicated by the evening daytime, to forget the gloaming. And to forget the invisibility of an unexpected cyclist. All evening Janet had plied me with biscuits to wash down the tea as I noted down what Alex patiently explained of the annual tasks of a sheepman. Half-understood notes I found weeks later, scrumpled in my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, when I had returned from the conference in Kentucky. Anxiety at my inadequate knowledge of practical farming had been ameliorated by discovering most speakers at the Agricultural History Society were fine historians but few could have overwintered a cow any more successfully than myself. So in June, at ten o’clock at night, Alex and Janet checked out the window, across two fields and the River Fleet, to ensure the pink blob was safely whizzing east on the A839 to the sea-line and back to Dornoch.
Two hundred years ago I wouldn’t have been there and not for the obvious reasons of my and the bike’s lack of existence. Cycling the mile west to Pittentrail, fording the river, returning east 6 miles then rousing the boatman at Little Ferry to cross Loch Fleet would have been a nonsense, particularly as there was a direct road passing Eiden Farm through Torboll Farm, on the correct side of the estuary and only 2 ½ miles. Today’s road, on the north rather than the south bank, dates from the Sutherland Estate’s investment in infrastructure in the 1810s.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with it's own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with its own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

William Young and Thomas Telford’s innovative crossing of the Fleet-mouth was a boon for east-coast travellers, and it made the Estate’s north bank road practicable. The tarmac thread connects some places, but it has added several miles between me and the Campbells. Only a few minutes on the bike, but the best part of an hour by foot, the way most folk travelled two hundred years ago. And in my mind’s map today’s network of roads has divorced places which are actually held fast.

Eiden, looking towardsTorboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from colelction of Elizabeth Ritchie

Eiden, looking towards Torboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Last Autumn Alex treated me to an archaeology tour by tractor. I jumped out to open gates on what was the Eiden-Torboll road, its edges tasselled with alder and birch. Up on the rolling ridge, where a warmer climate had once permitted arable farming, crouched the heap of the chambered cairn and the tell-tale circles of Iron Age houses. Folk who farmed Eiden long before the Campbell men, according to family legend, tempted up from Argyll by promises of land made by their sister newly wed to the Earl of Sutherland back in the sixeenth century. And then Alex proposed a wee jaunt, just a bittie further, to see an old stone. Being particularly fond of old stones I was intrigued by the initials C on the Eiden side, and B on the Torboll side. I told him how, before the year Bonnie Prince Charlie came, territory was marked by walking the boys round the boundaries and beating them. The pain and trauma incising the marches in their consciousness. Painting a rock seems a better idea.

Roy's Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms and the road up Strath Carnaig before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Covers the joins of three modern OS maps. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

But, pushed against the wind on that unremarkable ridge, I realised I was only a few hundred yards away from the site of several Sunday afternoon explorations in Strath Carnaig. My mental map had placed there much closer to home: a mere wiggle up the Loch Buidhe road from my side of the Mound. My place of Sunday hillwanders and a challenging cycling circuit. Eiden, on the other hand, was connected with Alex selling raffle tickets at winter ceilidhs in the Pittentrail Hall and the fun of playing tunes with the Accordion and Fiddle Club on Thursday nights. Yet here I was, looking at both of them together. The Hall just down there, and the Loch Buidhe road over by. Alex’s farm was in both. Bridges stretched across the fissure in my mind’s map.

Alex knew the old places I had tramped on those Sunday afternoons: the white-walled house with the green porch; the wobbly triangle of wall suggesting to the sheep that the grazing might be better within; and the head dyke up Strath Tollaidh (a strath it took me four years to notice, being incised into forgettable stubs by the division between OS map 16 and 21) which once kept the cattle out of the olden people’s crops. He knows them because, despite the illusion created by the technological advances of the 1810s and the happenstances of map boundaries, the separating space does not exist. They are the same place. It is the old road that tells that story: the one from Eiden past Torboll that we bumped along in the tractor; that all the generations before Thomas Telford walked when they drove their cattle; carried their cheese and butter to market; and along which the twelve year old boys slouched each term to board at Dornoch Academy.

The new roads connected some places. Other places, their connectedness now only by tractor tracks and hillpaths, became separate, even remote, as we whizz over the tarmac on our bikes.

With thanks to the Campbells for their generosity in tea, biscuits, sharing of knowledge, tractor rides, lambing tutorials, and allowing me to publish this!

The Factor, the Amazon and the Fiery Little Antagonist

Had you walked through Dornoch of a Saturday night in the closing years of the eighteenth century, you might have spotted the indomitable Christina Leslie wrestling drunken patrons out of her inn.

Christina was born at Meikleferry, probably in the early 1760s.  She was an “amazon in size and strength” being over six feet tall and “her person [being] extremely robust”.  This came in handy on market day when “fierce, disorderly fellows quarrelled and fought with each other there, like so many mastiffs”.  When trouble broke out she launched herself into the fray, backed up by her Lochbroom-born ostler Donald, known as Ton’l in gentle mockery of his Gaelic accent.  “When her guests were fixed in each other’s throats, Mrs. Leslie made short work with them, by planting a grip with each hand on the back of their necks, tearing them apart, and finally by holding them until her ostler, by repeated and strong applications of his fists, had sufficiently impressed them with a sense of their conduct.”  Apparently she was less fearsome when not having to deal with disorderly fellows, having an “expansive countenance” and “mild expression”.  Christina’s forte was physical force, but her husband’s was verbal.

Hugh Leslie was an innkeeper, but was also the fiscal and the procurator in Dornoch Sheriff Court.  The performances between him and his legal opponent, Hugh Ross, were a source of great entertainment.  A schoolboy recollected that “Hugh Leslie’s bodily presence was always made known by his cough. During play-time I would frequently spend half an hour in the court-house, and I have often come upon Hugh Leslie in the midst of one of his forensic orations. He made use of no ingenuity of argument, or of special pleading; but he took up all the strong points of the case, and battered away at them, until, in ten cases for one, he was ultimately successful. … Poor Leslie’s arguments, which he delivered with such heat and rapidity, that he could neither illustrate them with sufficient clearness of expression, nor very distinctly remember them when he had finished, his cool and more able opponent took up one by one, and demolished, with pointed wit and sarcasm.  Ross held up all his words and arguments, from first to last, in a light so distorted and so perfectly ludicrous, that his fiery little antagonist could not recognise them again, but, starting to his feet, while Hugh [Ross] was going on, he would hold up both his hands, and, trembling with rage, cry out, ‘0, such lies! such lies! did ever you hear the like?’ These explosions of temper Ross met by a graceful bow to the bench, and a request to the Sheriff to maintain the decency of the court.”

The couple had twelve children.  In 1790 their sixth was born and named after the first who had died in infancy.  Angus Leslie attended the school at Dornoch and was eventually employed by the Duke of Sutherland as one of his under-factors on the Strathnaver district of the estate.  In Strathnaver some of Scotland’s most notorious clearances were implemented from 1814.  Angus was involved in enforcing the evictions.  One of the families he evicted was that of a stonemason named Donald MacLeod.  MacLeod was also a small crofter in Strathy on the north coast.  Leslie turned him and his family out of his house and croft in the middle of winter, during a heavy snowstorm, and, at the same time, forbade any of his neighbours, for miles around, to give them shelter.  Angus had picked on the wrong man.  Donald MacLeod was a highly literate, intelligent man who decided to fight back.  He wrote a series of letters in the Edinburgh Courant and a pamphlet, which reflected “very severely, not only on Leslie’s action, but upon the measures taken by the late Duchess of Sutherland against her Highland tenantry.”  One of the ironies is that only a few years before Angus turned the MacLeods out of their house with needless harshness his own father, Hugh, would have been involved in the arrest and imprisonment of another Sutherland factor, Patrick Sellar, for doing similar.  After MacLeod’s work was published, Angus resigned his position and instead took up the farm of Torboll, by Loch Fleet: a more peaceful living than factoring, or even being a lawyer or an innkeeper.

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The ‘Edinburgh Evening Courant’: the newspaper in which MacLeod’s denunciations of Angus Leslie were published. Please note this is illustrative – it is not the edition that MacLeod was published in.

Source: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]

Donald’s Journey Part 3

We last found Donald, his travelling companions and several horses bobbing around on a ferry crossing Loch Fleet.  Dornoch was within a few miles, but they had come far that day so they made for Embo House.  The owners of Embo House were Gordons, connected to the powerful Sutherland family whose base was at Dunrobin and who would soon make themselves unpopular by clearing people out of Kildonan and Strathnaver.  Mr Gordon built the house to impress the very few people in Sutherland who had the vote, in hopes of becoming an MP.  He gained many votes but failed to get elected, although by doing so he gained the enmity of the House of Sutherland.  By the time the Sage party turned up on the doorstep, the house was rented by a prosperous farmer named Kenneth MacKay who held lands at Embo, and further to the north at Torboll.  The MacKays were well established in the area and were distant relations of the Sages (and everyone else!)

“My father reminded me that it was getting late, and that we must make the best use of our time, as Embo was still at a considerable distance. We arrived there, however, before it got dark, so that I had an opportunity of seeing in fair daylight the most elegant mansion I ever witnessed, with the exception of Dunrobin Castle.  Embo House stood nearly half-way between Dornoch and the Little-Ferry, on the old line of road.  It was the manor-house of a family of Gordons, scions of the Gordons, Earls of Sutherland; and they had held it since the days of Adam, Lord of Aboye, the husband of the Countess Elizabeth. … Robert Hume Gordon, having some years before canvassed the county, with the view of being its representative, in opposition to the influence of the Duchess of Sutherland, built this splendid mansion for the purpose of entertaining the electors.  Mr. Gordon lost his election, yet by a narrow majority. He was supported by the most respectable barons of the county.  Dempster of Skibo, Gordon of Carrol, Gordon of Navidale, Captain Clunes of Cracaig, and Captain Baigrie of Midgarty; and most of those gentlemen, being tacksmen and wadsetters on the Sutherland estate, gave by their opposition to the candidate of the Sutherland family, almost unpardonable offence.  Although Mr. Hume Gordon built the house at great expense, he never intended to reside permanently either in the mansion or in the county; and Embo House and property were now rented by Capt. Kenneth Mackay, who also farmed the place of Torboll from the Sutherland family.

Embo House was constructed very much after the fashion of the houses of the new town of Edinburgh, begun on the north side of the Nor’ Loch on 26th Oct., 1767; the front was of hewn ashlar, and consisted of three distinct houses, the largest and loftiest in the centre, joined to the other two by small narrow passages, each lighted by a window, and forming altogether a very imposing front.  The centre house was four storeys high – first, a ground or rather a sunk floor, then a first, second, and, lastly, an attic storey.  The ground or sunken floor contained the kitchen and cellars, and in front of it was a wall surmounted by an iron railing, resembling exactly the fronts in Princes Street, Edinburgh.  Outer stairs ascended to the principal entry door, and along the whole front of the building extended a pavement.  The lesser houses, or wings, were each of them a storey less in height than the central building; and the attic storeys were lighted from the front wall, instead of from the roof, by windows about precisely half the size of the rest, which greatly added to the effect and beauty of the whole.  Behind were other two wings of the same height with those in front, extending at right angles from the principal buildings.  The interior of the mansion corresponded with its external appearance.  The principal rooms were lofty and elegant, ornamented with rich cornices, and each having two large windows.”

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Image from: http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number2448.asp

The house was impressive, but the welcome less so.

“Mrs. Mackay, my stepmother’s half-sister, was a neat little woman, with a pleasing expression of countenance.  She was very lady-like, but she received us with that politeness which might be reckoned the precise boundary between kindness and indifference.  … [Her] children at that time amounted to six – Harriet, Esther, Jean, Lexy, George, and John; they were afterwards increased to fourteen.  We were both sent to sleep upstairs in one of the attics, but I scarcely shut an eye, being so much stunned with the noise of the sea, which, when excited by the east wind, is at Embo perfectly deafening.  Next morning we rode into Dornoch.  The road to the town lay on its south-east side, and, as we approached it, I was almost breathless with wonder at the height of the steeple, and at the huge antique construction of the church.  My father brought us at once to the school.”

Flushed with new experiences, young Donald and Aeneas had arrived at their new home and school where they would stay for the next two years.

For more information about Embo House, see:

http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/sc-608-embo-house-dornoch

And for more of Donald’s memoirs see: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org]