Forgotten tales

stories of my family

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.


See also this article on Wikipedia:,_Black_Isle

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3 thoughts on “The “Preaching Dell” at Ferintosh

  1. What fascinating research David! In most cases I’ve found that a house name honours the person’s place of origin in “the old country”, sometimes erasing any doubts that I’ve had the right person. In this case it does seem more likely that he made the pilgrimage to Ferintosh, or perhaps even head McDonald speak elsewhere, and thus he honoured his religious birth or perhaps affiliation. Do you know what religion he practiced in the years that followed?

    • Thanks Pauline!
      It would make sense if James Ross was a Presbyterian, but I really don’t know. Another question I will have to ask Peter Robinson next time I write. He is bound to know. Peter’s dad, Don Robinson, was James Ross’s great grandson, and was the Anglican archbishop of Sydney. So at some stage there was a move from Free Church of Scotland to Church of England.

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