Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “June, 2015”

Carron River

In the eastern Highlands of Scotland there is a beautiful river flowing down from the mountains to the sea; the Carron rises in the high country of Ross-Shire and at its steepest tumbles over rocks between barren heights covered in heather and gorse. In its lower reaches it still runs swift between higher banks and shingle beaches, but is darker and deeper and between the brown grey slopes of the hills are patches of tall old forest. The last 10 kilometres are through lush green fields enclosed by ancient stone walls and modern electric fences. It is a peaceful place, with only a few houses dotted over the countryside, though there are signs of wealth in a couple of old stately homes, castles really, placed in spots of special beauty or magnificence. Sheep graze quietly in the green fields, and are the only sign of life apart from an occasional car winding up the narrow roads on each side of the river.

Carron River, Easter Ross

Carron River, Easter Ross


The Carron valley is known as the Strathcarron. Its river ran through the lives of the family from which my grandmother was descended. Her great grandfather and his sons were the village blacksmiths of Gledfield, near to where the Carron empties into the Kyle of Sutherland, which becomes the Dornoch Firth, and so to the North Sea. The ruins of James Ross’s smithy are still there to be seen, a short walk from the stone bridge that now spans the river a few hundred metres from their village home. The house in which the family lived is derelict now, but it was once the home to a large family, James and Catherine Ross and their twelve children. Four of those children would migrate to Australia, but the rest of the family rarely ventured beyond that beautiful green valley; seven or more of them lie buried now in Kincardine churchyard, just a few kilometres east toward the sea, their final rest between the mountains and the sea.

The Strathcarron became infamous in the 1840s and 50s when many of its families were evicted from their ancestral homes in the valley, to make way for sheep grazing, in what the landlords saw as agricultural and economic progress (“improvements” was the term they used), but what has later been re-interpreted with words as harsh as ethnic cleansing. James and Catherine were never evicted from their home, living in a village where they posed no threat to the landlords agricultural ambitions, but they were witness to these terrible events, and cannot have failed to have been deeply affected by them. Literally hundreds of their near neighbours were simply banished from their homes, for ne reason more than they were “in the way.” The sad story of “The Massacre of the Rosses” in the Strathcarron is told in detail in John Prebble’s book, The Highland Clearances.

But tragedy came to James and Catherine’s family too, as I recently discovered in a copy of a letter sent me by a distant relative, Judy Horrigan, a letter written in 1978 by an elderly resident of Ardgay to Donald Robinson, another Australian descendent of the Ross family (my father’s cousin). The Carron River was central to that tragedy too, for it was the river that claimed the James and Catherine’s spinster daughter, Katie, who was accidentally drowned close by to where she lived with two of her brothers and her ageing mother.

Dark, swift waters of a highland river. Strathcarron.

Dark, swift waters of a highland river. Strathcarron.


There were 4 girls in the Ross family. The oldest, Ann, married in her early twenties and had three children, but her husband died when Ann was still a young woman. She and her little children moved back to her parents in Gledfield. Helen, the second daughter was 15 when the first of the Strathcarron evictions took place in 1845 and 24 at the time of the second round of evictions in 1854. Before she turned 30 she had resolved to leave Scotland forever and migrate to Australia, the first of the Ross children to do so. She was a strong young woman and knew her mind; she no doubt had her reasons for departing.

Catherine (Katie) was the third daughter, just a year younger than Helen. She never married but remained in the family home all her life. When she was 35 her father died and the smithy was taken over by her brothers; Catherine took care of their ageing mother. Ann’s children had grown up and moved on, and Ann had also moved out by that time, though I am still uncertain of what became of her. Jane, who was the youngest sister, had travelled with her brother James and his family to Australia the same year that their father died, in 1866. Their mother was 66 when her husband died, and was the matriarch of the family and Katie was the oldest of her children living in the family home, but Malcolm, one of the younger brothers, who was still unmarried, took over the running of the family home and business. Their youngest brother, Hector, still lived at home and worked as a blacksmith with Malcolm.

Katie was 48 when she died, “accidentally drowned in the Carron River, quite close by.” More than that I do not know. Her mother, by then nearing 80, was frail and confused. Malcolm and Hector ran the smithy. Malcolm had married but Hector remained single his whole life. Four of their siblings were in Australia, though Andrew had died only five years after his arrival, in 1870, when he was just 35.

How did this dark, fast running river claim the life of Katie Ross, the woman who had devoted her life to her family in the little village of Gledfield? Was it an accident or were there other forces at play? The waters of that highland river are cold and quiet. They have witnessed much suffering over the centuries, and taken some lives, for it would need a strong swimmer to struggle out of the stream if once submerged and caught by that strong, swift current. There is sadness and secrecy in those beautiful, dark waters.

Young Katie (Catherine) Ross

Young Katie (Catherine) Ross

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Gledfield

North of Inverness on the east coast of Scotland there are three deep inlets from the North Sea: the Moray Firth, the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth. Between the Moray and Cromarty firths is the so called Black Isle and between the Cromarty and Dornoch firths is another land mass which is rather hilly, almost mountainous on the inland side. Driving north from Inverness nowadays there are long bridges crossing each of these firths but in the old days before they were built travellers heading north had to make their way inland to where the waterways were narrow enough to cross, adding many miles to the journey. The towns which grew up at the various crossing points were much more important in those days than they are now and in some cases they have shrunk considerably. At the head of the Moray Firth is Beauly (the higher reaches of the Moray Firth are called the Beauly Firth), while at the head of the Cromarty Firth is Dingwall, though the water is crossed even further up at Conon Bridge (over the Conon River). Beside the headwaters of Dornoch Firth is the village of Kincardine, near Bonar Bridge where the Kyle of Sutherland (which flows into Dornoch Firth) is crossed. But these are bypassed now by the bridge that crosses the firth from near Tain to near Dornoch.

Ross and Cromarty Map, 1957

Ross and Cromarty Map, 1957

The Ross family from which I am descended lived in Gledfield, which is near Kincardine. Between Kincardine and Gledfield these days there is a village called Ardgay, which isn’t even marked on maps from the early 1800s, and which is now bigger than either of the two older villages. Ardgay is about halfway between Bonar Bridge and Kincardine and there is a railway station there, which may be the reason it has grown so much. The Highland railway didn’t reach the area until 1864, so it did not feature in the early life of James Urquhart Ross, who migrated to Australia in 1866, following his younger brother Andrew and sister Helen. Bonar Bridge, on the other hand, was built in 1819, and would have been the main crossing of the Kyle of Sutherland-Dornoch Firth waterway.

Kincardine - Ardgay - Bonar Bridge - Gledfield. Map 1925

Kincardine – Ardgay – Bonar Bridge – Gledfield. Map 1925

In the middle of Ardgay a smaller road branches off and heads inland up the valley of the Carron River. The houses end, giving way to fields, but only a few hundred metres further on there is another scattering of houses. This was once the village of Gledfield, but there is no sign to say so, and on current maps it appears as Lower Gledfield. The village today is just a few lines of houses on either side of the road.

Lower Gledfield today, across the fields from Binar Bridge

Lower Gledfield today, seen across the fields from Bonar Bridge

Entering Gledfield village from Ardgay, the first building on the right is the Church of Scotland, set back from the road along a dirt track, on a slight rise. A little further along the road, on the right, is Gledfield Public School, and still further along on the left is another church, without a sign, which on closer inspection appears to have been converted into some kind of residential dwelling. It is the old Gledfield Free Church. Just past the church there is a fork in the road. The right fork leads across farmland to the Carron River bridge, an arched stone structure. Across the bridge the road divides again, either heading north to Culrain and the Gledfield Estate, or west along the northern side of the Strathcarron. The left fork in Gledfield village heads westward along the southern side of the Carron River, climbing gradually into the hills.

Bridge across the Carron River, near Gledfield

Bridge across the Carron River, near Gledfield

At the fork in the road, on the right and almost at the end of Gledfield village, there is a ruined roofless building built onto the end of an old, derelict house. Built onto the other end of the house, closest to the village, is a newer dwelling which looks lived in, though there was no-one around the day we were there. All three of the buildings are of grey stone. The roofless ruin is the old blacksmith’s shop and the derelict house, I presume, was once the home of the Ross family of Gledfield. It was here that James and Catherine lived and raised their twelve children between the 1820s when they married and the 1860s when James died. James Ross was the Gledfield blacksmith, and several of his sons followed in the same trade. James Ross junior, my ancestor, was the exception to this rule, becoming a journeyman joiner.

Ruins of the Gledfield blacksmith shop, and the Ross home beyond.

Ruins of the Gledfield blacksmith shop, and the Ross home beyond.

Although the Ross family lived in the blacksmith’s house at least until James Ross senior died in 1866, records indicate that his wife Catherine moved after his death. The 1871 census indicates that she lived with her unmarried sons Malcolm and Hector at Upper Gledfield, though exactly where Upper Gledfield was I have not been able to work out. By 1881 Catherine’s address is Gledfield Free Church, still with Malcolm and Hector, though by then Malcolm had married Jane Munro. Malcolm and Jane appear never to have had children. Malcolm is listed as Master Blacksmith And Farmer (Of 11 Acres, All Arable, Employing 2 Man 1 Girl). He died in 1897, 57 years old. Malcolm’s younger brother Hector lived with them. Hector never married and was the last of the Ross children to die, in 1921.

Gledfield Free Church

Gledfield Free Church

James Ross’s sixteenth birthday

James Ross was born in Gledfield, Ross-Shire, in the winter of 1827, the fourth child of the village blacksmith and his wife. James’ birthday was the 31st of January, but there were a lot of children (12 in all) in the Ross family and it is unlikely that there was much fuss around the celebrations of birthdays. However, James’ sixteenth birthday, 31 January 1843, was memorable, because on that day the famous evangelist from Urquhart, the Rev John Macdonald, preached at Kincardine Church, the Ross family’s parish church. It was not a Sunday service, but was in fact a Tuesday, in the middle of a cold, wet, squally winter. The Thursday before the Rev Macdonald had stopped briefly at Kincardine southbound for home. He had been preaching up in the Golspie region, on the east coast of Sutherland Shire, James’ mother Catherine’s home town. On his brief stop at Kincardine he had announced that he would be back the following week, and would preach again on Tuesday, before travelling northwest into the mountains and onwards to the West Coast.

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Kincardine Church, Ross-Shire

That Tuesday and the days following are described in the journal of one of the Rev Macdonald’s travelling companions, a certain Rev H Allan, and extracts of his journal can be found in John Kennedy’s book, The Apostle of the North. The words evoke the severity of the winter, and offer a unique glimpse into the day James Ross turned 16, when two thousand gathered to hear one man preach.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program Hill & Adamson (Scottish, active 1843 - 1848) Rev Dr John Macdonald, 1843 - 1847, Salted paper print from a Calotype negative 20.2 x 14.6 cm (7 15/16 x 5 3/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Rev Dr John Macdonald, 1843 (see reference below)

Tuesday 31st. Rev McDonald arrived… at Kincardine about 12 noon and preached in the tent in the churchyard of Kincardine to about two thousand people… Prevented from proceeding to Assynt that evening as intended, owing to the very boisterous state of the weather. After going a short distance were obliged to put back.

Wed 1st Feb. Left Kincardine manse at half past seven. Breakfasted at Inveran, Captain Clarke’s, and proceeded by Oikel Bridge to Assynt Manse [across the mountains to the western side of Sutherland Shire], where we arrived about five o’clock, being a distance from Kincardine manse of forty miles. Encountered almost the whole way severe storms of wind, rain and sleet.

Thursday 2nd Feb. A dreadful day with drift and snow…

It was awful weather. Assynt, up in the central highlands of Sutherland Shire, is not exactly close to Kincardine, and yet they had intended to travel there from Kincardine in the evening. They were hardy men, so if they were forced to turn around the storm must have been severe. So the Rev Macdonald and his band of missionaries stayed overnight in Kincardine, just a few miles down the road from the Ross home in Gledfield. The next day they set out into the storm again, and this time succeeded in reaching their goal by nightfall, their whole journey through wind, rain and sleet, which later turned to snow.

As I read this account I have found myself wondering about that Tuesday in the churchyard of Kincardine. If two thousand assembled then surely the Ross family were among them. The whole of the Strathcarron could hardly have contained so many; people must have come from villages all round. It was James’ birthday and must have seemed special to him. He stood there in the cold and rain and wind, with the crowds, listening to the great evangelist. Macdonald preached in Gaelic, the native tongue of most of the people in the area. His journal contains a list of the texts he preached on during those days. At Kincardine it says simply that his text was Isaiah 55:3 – “Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” How Macdonald expounded these words is not recorded, but he was a powerful speaker, and I suspect that what he said made a profound impact on the young man from Gledfield. It may have been the first time James had heard Macdonald preach. As he stood there in the wind and rain of the Kincardine Churchyard the words James heard spoke to a deep longing in his heart, a longing for life, for hope, for meaning. God spoke to him that day, in Gaelic, James’ native tongue: “come to me; listen, that you might live.” I believe that James responded in heart and mind with a resounding, “Yes, I come!” It may well have been this sermon that prompted him to attend the great communion meetings at Ferintosh (see my previous blog). This commitment, this agreement with God, would become his anchor in life, his firm foundation, the source of the faith and strength needed to carry him through all the trials and adventures that lay ahead.

Kincardine Church is no longer a place of worship but seems now to have become the meeting place of the local historical society. I was there with Hamish a few weeks ago, on a hunt for my ancestors. In the same churchyard where Macdonald preached are the headstones of a good many Rosses. They must have been proud to be laid to rest in what for them was holy ground, a place of spiritual awakening, of revival. James (senior) and his wife Catherine are there, as well as John, Malcolm, Catherine, Hector, and Alexander. There may be more, but I only found these. There is a Celtic Cross marking the family grave of the blacksmith’s granddaughter, Hughina Aird, who married the schoolmaster at the Gledfield School, a certain George McLeod. James Ross junior, my grandmother’s grandfather, along with his brother Andrew and two sisters Helen and Jane, are buried in Australia, migrants to the colonies of the far flung British Empire, a world away from the Scottish Highlands. The Ross family are divided in death, though they were very much together that winter day in Kincardine in 1843.

Ross graves - from left to right: John and Elizabeth, James and Catherine, Alexander and Jane, Malcolm and Jane. Behind on the right is Hughina Aird.

Ross graves – from left to right: John and Elizabeth (fallen down), James and Catherine, Alexander and Jane, Malcolm and Jane. The Celtic cross behind on the right is Hughina Aird.

I believe that, thanks in part to the dynamic ministry of the Rev John Macdonald, the Ross family had a hope that transcended life on earth, a hope of heaven. The words on the base of Hughina Aird’s gravestone bear witness to this, a reminder that this life is not all there is: “Is mise an aiseirigh agusa bheatha.” Although I do not understand this language of my forefathers, the translation as far as I can work out are the familiar words of Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life.

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Digital image of Dr Macdonald courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Hill & Adamson (Scottish, active 1843 – 1848)
Rev Dr John Macdonald, 1843 – 1847, Salted paper print from a Calotype negative
20.2 x 14.6 cm (7 15/16 x 5 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Communion season in nineteenth century Ross-Shire

It seems likely that James Ross carried the name Ferintosh to Australia with him because of a profound spiritual experience that he had at Ferintosh Burn in the 1840s when the Reverend Dr John McDonald was the minister at Urquhart, the parish which contained the area known as Ferintosh. Actually, Dr McDonald had ceased being the minister at Urquhart in 1843 when the Free Church of Scotland broke away from the Church of Scotland; he became one of the first Moderators of the Free Church in 1844. He had to move out of the manse at Urquhart and became the minister of the newly built Free Church of Ferintosh. According to Kennedy in his book, The Apostle of the North,

He flitted again to a larger but not more comfortable house, and a third time time to the Free Church manse, where he spent the home share of the last three year years of his life. During the erection of new church, he preached in “the burn,” long celebrated as the place of the great communion gatherings. it was there he preached on the first Sabbath after his return from the Disruption Assembly. His Gaelic text on that day was Gal v.1, from which he preached a most stimulating and cheering sermon. (Kennedy J, The Apostle of the North, p310)

Galatians 5:1 says the following:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

The Free Church of Ferintosh still stands, with a spectacular view out over the Cromarty Firth to Dingwall. Hamish and I wandered around the churchyard but the doors were locked so we couldn’t look inside.

Hamish outside Ferintosh Free Church. Beyond lies Cromarty Firth and Dingwall.

Hamish outside Ferintosh Free Church. Beyond lies Cromarty Firth and Dingwall.

But it is the Ferintosh Burn that fascinates me, because I suspect that it was there that James Ross’s spirit was brought to life when he was a young man. The communion seasons that are spoken of so often in the literature of the time and which are still a feature of the Free Church of Scotland even today, were the Christian mega-gatherings of the day, like the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s and 60s and the Christian conferences and conventions of today. Such gathering had many critics in those days but there was much to be said in their defence, as Kennedy observes in his writings:

Great crowds were accustomed to assemble on such occasions. As many as 10,000 people have met on a communion Sabbath, and nearly 2000 communicants have sat at the table of the Lord…

There were two great advantages attending these “public communions,” as they were called. An opportunity of fellowship was given by them to Christians from all parts of the country, who would not else have met or known each other on the earth; and the gospel was preached to a great multitude of sinners, by a variety of ministers, amidst the prayers of a great many of God’s people…

But the opportunity which was afforded, on a communion occasion, of hearing all the good ministers of the district, the proofs given of the Lord’s presence with each of them, the effect of a community of profit and enjoyment under their preaching, and the loving fellowship of such seasons, tended in a great degree to bring all these sections more closely together, and to expand their sympathies and hopes.
(Kennedy J,The Days of the Fathers in Ross Shire)

But what happened at the communion season? Here is Kennedy’s description:

A communion season is approaching. It has been timeously announced, that it may be known “far and wide,” and that the praying people may be bearing it on their spirits before the throne of grace. The minister preaches a suitable course of sermons on several preceding Sabbaths. The Lord’s people are stirred up to seek a special manifestation of His power and glory. A few, who propose to seek admission to the Lord’s table, are deeply exercised about the solemn step they contemplate, and faithfully and tenderly are they dealt with by both minister and elders. As the appointed time draws nigh, special meetings for prayer are held, and, with holy solicitude, all the preparatory arrangements are made.

The Fast-day is come. Eminent ministers have arrived to take part in the solemn services. Many of the Lord’s people are gathering. From as many as forty parishes they come; but lodgings they will easily procure, as the parish people are striving for the pleasure of entertaining them. Suitable discourses are preached in Gaelic, on the open field, and to a small English congregation, in the church, and in the evening, prayer meetings are held in the various districts of the parish.

On Friday, the day of self-examination, the only public service is in the open air. A large crowd is gathered. “In the tent” there are several godly ministers. The service is that of a fellowship meeting, such as has already been described, but now with special reference to the solemn duties of a communion Sabbath. There are two questions proposed successively to secure variety. Strangers only are called to speak, and even of these only “the flower,” for there are so many. Not fewer than thirty will have spoken before the service is over. Blessed indeed to many souls have these “Friday meetings” been.

The services on Saturday, the day of preparation, are conducted as on Thursday, but, owing to the gathering influx of strangers, the congregation outside is greatly larger than on the Fast-day. At the close of the service, tokens are distributed. Prayer meetings are held throughout the parish in the evening; and while the ministers are preparing for the solemn work of the Sabbath, many are the petitions that ascend in their behalf, to Him who hath “the treasure” to dispense, and of whom is “the excellency of the power.” In many instances, these prayer meetings have been protracted all night. So sensible were the people of the presence of the Lord, that they could not forsake the place where they enjoyed it; and they found “the joy of the Lord” a sweet substitute for sleep.

On Sabbath, the day of Communion, an immense crowd is gathered before the tent. As many as eight thousand are there. The “Beauty of the Lord,” is on the assembly of His people; and before the service is over, many a soul has had reason to say, “it is good to be here.”

On Monday, the day of thanks-giving, a crowd almost as large as that on Sabbath is assembled and often has “the last” been found to be the “great day of the feast.” The closing service of the communion season is now over, and then comes the solemn parting! How affecting do the Lord’s servants and people feel the scene before them to be, as that multitude disperses, never to meet all together again, till the vast congregation of “the last day” has assembled! What touching farewells are now exchanged between the Christians who enjoyed with each other, and together with the Lord, such sweet communion since they met a few days before! There are few tearless eyes, but the weeping is expressive of gratitude as surely as of sorrow. Such was a communion season in the good days of the Fathers in Ross-shire.

Such communion seasons were probably held at Ferintosh only once a year, probably in the summer – July or August. James Ross was 16 in the year that the Free Church was formed. The five years that followed probably laid the spiritual foundation for his life. I believe he left Scotland in 1848 or 1849. He would live in England, Wales and finally Australia. But he would take the name of Ferintosh and the memory of those days with him wherever he went. How it showed itself in the rest of his life is hard to know. I have no descriptions (nor photos) of James Ross. My grandmother, Winifred Ross was born in 1901, 9 years after James died in 1892. She knew of him only what her father told her. I don’t remember her ever speaking of him.

I tried to imagine James and his family among the immense crowds gathering at the Ferintosh Burn when I was wandering those pleasant fields with Hamish a few weeks back. It is quiet and peaceful there now. But how would it have been with thousands of others there? What effect would the preaching of the great “fathers” have had on me, I wonder?

The fields around Ferintosh Burn, where crowds of up to ten thousand gathered for the Communion season.

The fields around Ferintosh Burn, where crowds of up to ten thousand gathered for the Communion season.

The “Preaching Dell” at Ferintosh

A note from my grandmother, attached to a photo of William Ross

A note from my grandmother, attached to a photo of William Ross

The note above, written by my grandmother, Winifred Ross (1901-1999), is attached to a photo of her father, William Ross (1861-1939). I have come to realise that it is not entirely accurate. For one thing I am fairly certain that William was only five when his family migrated to Australia (1866). But for another, I am fairly certain that William’s father, James Ross (1827-1892), never lived in Ferintosh. As far as I have been able to ascertain from other records “grandfather Ross” was born and bred in the village of Gledfield in the valley of the Carron River, the Strathcarron, as it is is known. When he left home, probably toward the end of the 1840s around the age of 20 or 21, I believe he moved south to England. So why would Gran say that he “he lived at Ferintosh… opposite Dingwall”?

Gledfield is not marked on the following map from 1831, but it is very close to Kincardine which can easily be seen near the head of the Dornoch Firth. Ferintosh is not marked either, but it is next to Urquhart, which is clearly seen on the southern bank of the Cromarty Firth, close to Dingwall. Between the two firths is a hilly peninsula of Ross-Shire reaching out into the North Sea. Last week my friend Hamish and I spent some days in the Highlands and we drove from Ferintosh via Dingwall and Alness over the hills to Kincardine and Gledfield. By car it takes a bit over half an hour, but in the mid 1800s there were no cars, only the well off had horses, and the common people walked, so the 20 miles across the hills would have been a good day’s journey. The Highland Railway that links Inverness with Aberdeen and which runs through Dingwall and to the north did not reach Bonar Bridge (near Gledfield) till 1864 and was therefore not available to shorten the journey during James’ early life.

Ross Shire 1831

Ross Shire 1831

So where does Ferintosh fit into James Ross’s experience? Did he in fact move to Ferintosh before he left for England, and if so, why? He became a joiner journeyman – a carpenter tradesman. Did he move to Ferintosh to learn that trade? Did he have family in the area who were able to give him opportunities that were not available back home in Gledfield? All his brothers appeared to have become blacksmiths, like their father. Did James leave home to pursue a different trade with a relative who was a carpenter? A guidebook to Scotland that I came across indicates that the main significance of Ferintosh in history was in the production of whisky, though there is no distillery there now. Could James have had something to do with the whisky business? It seems far fetched, though nothing is impossible.

Or did Ferintosh have some other significance for James, enough for its name to have come down to his granddaughter, Winifred, who didn’t even mention Gledfield or the Strathcarron when she referred to her grandfather’s origins? Interestingly, while the name Gledfield has disappeared from the family heritage, the Ferintosh name lives on in the family memory, as I discovered from Peter Robinson, whose father Don Robinson is my father’s cousin, and who is therefore related to James Ross in the same way as I am, a great great grandson. Peter’s home in Sydney is named Ferintosh, and that name has apparently been passed down through the generations since James arrived in Australia in the 1860s. I asked Peter if he could throw any light on the question of James Ross’s connection with Ferintosh. Here is his email reply to my question:

It’s just speculation, but given the traumatic collapse of life up the Strathcarron after the clearance and the possible economic effect on Gledfield it may be that James moved to Ferintosh on the Black Isle opposite Dingwall as a place of spiritual significance/re-orientation/comfort. It is associated with a long tradition of interdenominational communal days of worship alongside the Ferintosh Burn, and at least two leading divines are mentioned in association with Ferintosh in what I have read recently. Our Rosses appear to have been Free Presbyterians. Of course, if the house at Enfield in Sydney was called Ferintosh then it is true that our great-great-grandfather “lived at Ferintosh”!

This sparked my interest and gave me something to work with. He mentioned the Highland Clearances, of which I had heard but knew nothing about really. He also referred to a spiritual significance of the Ferintosh Burn, and I was keen to find out more about this too. Who were these “two leading divines” and what kind of influence did they have on the surrounding community? I thought it would be a good thing to travel to Ferintosh and see what turned up, and that opportunity came up last week when I was travelling around the Highlands with Hamish. It has taken me a little further on my journey of discovery though there are questions that remain.

Driving north from Inverness, Hamish and I pulled into a roadside tourist information centre and procured a free map of the Black Isle (see the map here. The “Preaching Dell” is located at B4). I located Ferintosh and, examining the small country lanes in the area, found a spot marked “Preaching Dell.” This must be the place, I thought, that Peter had referred to in his email – “communal worship alongside the Ferintosh Burn.” We headed toward Ferintosh, which I found to be not so much a village as an area on the lush green slopes that form the southern side of the Cromarty Firth. It is, as Gran had written, “opposite Dingwall,” the town clearly visible on the other side of the inlet. It is, as Peter had written, on the Black Isle, which is not an island in the normal sense of the word but a promontory between the Moray Firth and the Cromarty Firth north of Inverness.

Dingwall, over the Cromarty Firth, from Ferintosh. Beyond the mountains lies the Strathcarron

Dingwall, over the Cromarty Firth, from Ferintosh. Beyond the mountains lies the Strathcarron

We parked beside an old cemetery, and wandered along the road between beautiful fields of long green grass and flowering yellow rapeseed, but could not see any signs to a Preaching Dell, nor to the Ferintosh Burn. We passed a sign to Ferintosh and to the Free Church and directed our steps that way, until we met a local man who was out walking his dogs. We enquired about the Preaching Dell. He knew something of the area and showed us an unmarked path leading up into some woods on the slope above the road. We walked under the leafy canopy for a short distance and came into a hollow between the banks of a little stream – a stream which mysteriously disappeared underground at the higher side of the hollow to emerge about 50 metres or so further down the hill. This, we realised, was the Ferintosh Burn, and the hollow was the so called “preaching dell.” Our guide said that old records suggested that at times up to ten thousand had gathered here, but he could not see how so many could fit into such a small area. An exaggeration, he assumed: five hundred perhaps, but ten thousand? But clearly something of profound spiritual significance had happened here sometime in the past. But what had happened and when? And could this possibly be the event that gave Ferintosh such significance in James Ross’s memory that he gave his home in Australia that name when he settled there twenty years later?

There is a small windowless building in the dell, a cross on the outside wall marking it as a prayer house. The door was unlocked and I stepped into a dark empty interior, with nothing more than a wooden lectern and sundry other items lying around on the floor. I stepped out again into the sunshine and gazed across the dell of green lush grass covered with bluebells. I tried to imagine a crowded revival meeting and a lone preacher booming out to the assembled throng. It seemed far removed from the quietness of the day, broken only by the singing of the birds. When did James Ross come here, I wondered, and what did he hear?

The Preaching Dell at Ferintosh Burn

The Preaching Dell at Ferintosh Burn

Since then I have tried to assemble an historical timeline the years from 1841 to 1851 – the only time that James Ross could have been in Ferintosh. He had been born in 1827, and grew up in a family of 10 children in Gledfield. In the 1841 census he was 14 and living with his family in Gledfield. By 1851 he was 24 and living in Great Malvern, in England (see my previous blog). Sometime between 1841 and 1851 he left Scotland for the South, as many people were doing in those years. Precisely what prompted that departure I don’t know, but they were eventful years in the Strathcarron, and James was witness to many of those events. In 1843 the so called Disruption took place when the Free Church of Scotland was formed. This was a major event for church going people in Scotland and I have reason to believe that the Rosses were such a family. In 1845 amost 100 people of Glencalvie in the upper Strathcarron were evicted from their homes for no reason more than that they were in the way, as were many others in the Highlands during those years, but the Glencalvie clearance became national news when it was reported by a sympathetic reporter in The Times of London. In 1846 a potato blight hit Scotland, causing many more to drift away from the Highlands in a bid for survival. In 1847 Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral in the mountains south of Inverness and Scotland began to become popular as a tourist destination, despite the problems and suffering of the local people. In that year James Ross turned 20. By the time he was 24 he was working as a servant in a large house in the west of England.

But what of Ferintosh, and the Ferintosh Burn? Where does it fit into the history of the time? Our acquaintance on the road had said that old records indicated that some 10,000 people had once gathered at the burn, but what old records was he speaking of? Somewhere I had heard of a minister called the Reverend Dr McDonald – John McDonald of Ferintosh so I determined to try to track him down. We were staying with some delightful friends of Hamish in Inverness, a retired minister of the Church of Scotland, and the walls of his living room and study was lined with books. I asked him if he knew of Ferintosh and the happenings in Ross Shire in the first half of the nineteenth century and after a few minutes he had extracted a number of history books from the shelves. Some I had seen but one caught my eye, an old book with the title, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire, by John Kennedy. Later that night I skim read this fascinating book, which deals with the religious awakening that took place in the Highlands at that time, a subject not addressed in much detail in the majority of history books about Scotland. I searched for references to Dr McDonald, and found him mentioned only in passing, because John Kennedy had written another book about him. Dr McDonald was emerging as an interesting figure: he was known variously as the “wild man of Ferintosh” and “the apostle of the North.” He lived from 1779 to 1849 and became the minister at Urquhart, just down the road from the Ferintosh Burn, in 1813. He was a part of the great defection from the Church of Scotland in 1843 – The Disruption – when the Free Church of Scotland was established. Here is John Kennedy’s brief description of him in his book The Days of the Fathers:

The last of the great Ross-Shire fathers who passed into his rest was, in some respects, the first. The extent of his labours, and his great popularity and success, won for him the name of “the apostle of the north.” … His was mainly the work of an evangelist; and his great physical energy, his masculine intellect, his retentive memory, his bouyancy of spirits, his pleasant manner, the fervour of his love, and the character of his Christian experience, marked him out as an instrument of the Lord’s own fashioning for the work in which he was engaged. (Kennedy J, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire, 2nd ed, 1895, p.77)

In the days that followed I searched in vain for a copy of Kennedy’s other book, The Apostle of the North, in local bookstores in Dingwall and various other towns we visited. In the end I located a copy online on Google Books and there I found several references to the Ferintosh Burn. It began in 1816 a short time after his arrival at Urquhart, during his first “communion season at Urquhart” and many had gathered for that purpose. Unexpectedly his wife had died the week before the communion, but he pressed on despite his grief and officiated at the communion just the same. Here is the description by Kennedy in his book:

On that occasion an immense crowd assembled. As many as ten thousand were in “the burn” on Sabbath. “I will betrothe thee unto me forever” was his text. From the very commencement of the service there was an unusual stillness in the congregation, and all seemed under the spell of an unwonted solemnity. They knew the preacher’s affliction, and they could not even look on him unmoved. His sorrow touched their hearts, and his self denial, courage and devotedness to the service of the gospel, appealed powerfully to their conscience. He was marvellously helped by the Lord in his work. His soul was lifted as on eagle’s wings above the sorrow which before depressed him. The widower was lost in the spouse; the earthly was forgotten in the spiritual relation; and unthinking of his own distress he gave himself up to the praise of Christ. The power of the Lord was singularly working in the burn that day. Few eyes were tearless in that vast assembly; and when in the evening he appealed to the unconverted, commending to them the love of Jesus, urging on their acceptance his offer of marriage, and warning them of the danger of refusing his advances, the hearts of may sinners were pierced. The excitement at last was very great, the groans and outcries of the stricken ones sometimes drowning the voice of the preacher. During the closing service on Monday the same scene was repeated. The awakening, then begun, continued for some time. (Kennedy J, The Apostle of the North, 1867, pp79-80)

I too can not help doubting the figure of 10,000, especially when I remember the huge Billy Graham evangelistic crusades in Sydney during my youth. The Ferintosh Burn area could not contain 10,000 people. Perhaps 1000, but even that would be crowded in the little hollow that Hamish and I came upon. Whatever the real number, it seems that this event marked the start of Dr McDonald’s extraordinary ministry in the Highlands of Scotland, but by the time James Ross came to Ferintosh some thirty years had passed since this first communion. John McDonald died in 1849 at the age of 70 and was preaching until the last week of his life. He was not the only great evangelist in the Highlands at that time. Kennedy in his book details the lives and ministry of a good many others. But it was John McDonald who ministered in Urquhart and therefore around the Ferintosh Burn in the 1840s when James Ross was a young man. My theory now is that James probably came to Ferintosh for the communion season, perhaps once, perhaps several times. He heard Dr McDonald speak and like so many others he was moved to the point that his life was changed. Whether it was a conversion experience or some kind of “second baptism in the Holy Spirit” is impossible to say now with no documentary records surviving. He may not have “lived at Ferintosh” as Gran suggested, but it would seem he found a life there which he had not previously experienced and which he would walk in all his days.

As he travelled the world in search of a better life for himself and his family he never forgot those times of communion with God and his fellow Highlanders at the Ferintosh Burn, and when he eventually settled in Australia he named his home for that place, as a reminder of the wellspring of life for him, not Ferintosh itself of course, but the God he had encountered there who had changed his life and who had journeyed thenceforth with him.

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See also this article on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferintosh,_Black_Isle

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