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.
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.
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.