The Gledfield smithy

James Andrew Ross (1794-1866) was the father of my grandmother’s grandfather. As far as I have been able to find out he was born in Edderton, in Ross-Shire, on the southern side of Dornoch Firth. His parents were Donald Ross and Ann Fraser. Donald Ross came from Sutherlandshire, north of Ross, and was born around 1775. More than that I have not yet discovered.

The smithy
The smithy

James Ross became a blacksmith. It is likely his father was the same and he learnt the trade from him. Most of his sons, born between 1820 and 1850, took up the same profession. Blacksmiths were an indispensable part of any community in those days, not least because they were responsible for shoeing horses, the main form of transport. But they produced many other articles as well, anything made out of steel or iron. Wikipedia says:

A blacksmith is a metalsmith who creates objects from wrought iron or steel by forging the metal, using tools to hammer, bend, and cut (cf. whitesmith, who works with tin). Blacksmiths produce objects such as gates, grilles, railings, light fixtures, furniture, sculpture, tools, agricultural implements, decorative and religious items, cooking utensils and weapons.

While there are many people who work with metal such as farriers, wheelwrights, and armorers, the blacksmith had a general knowledge of how to make and repair many things, from the most complex of weapons and armor to simple things like nails or lengths of chain.

Wikipedia also notes that prior to the industrial era a village smithy was a staple of every town. With the advent of factories and mass production the demand for blacksmiths declined. Steel and iron began to be machined instead of forged. As the demand for their products decreased in the nineteenth century blacksmiths took on more work shoeing horses, traditionally the job of a farrier. With the advent of the automobile in the early twentieth century the demand for horse transport also declined, and many of the earliest car mechanics were former blacksmiths. By 1960 blacksmiths had almost disappeared with few learning the trade, and those who did mainly shoeing horses.

James Ross has 8 sons and 6 of them became blacksmiths. James and Sandy were the exceptions. When James senior died in 1866 his 26 year old son Malcolm took over the smithy in Gledfield. When he died in 1897 his brother Hector, the youngest boy in the family carried on the work, though he was already 54 years of age and can’t have worked many years after that. Neither Malcolm nor Hector had any children, and the demand for blacksmiths was disappearing. After Hector died in 1921 the village smithy in Gledfield fell into disrepair, and today there are just a few stone walls left standing with some rusting scraps of iron scattered within.

The ruined blacksmith's shop in Gledfield.
The ruined blacksmith’s shop in Gledfield.

Blacksmiths are not a feature of the world that we live in today, and I have no experience of the smith’s life. Wandering around the internet I came across some paintings that caught my eye, all of them viewable on the Art UK website, and many of them located in Scottish galleries. Four of them sparked my imagination as I reflected on the Ross family of Gledfield.

The first painting, The Blacksmith (Interior of a Workshop with Figures) by John Saint-Helier Lander, is my favourite. A 12 year old girl in a cornflower blue dress and a white bonnet watches the smith, her father, at work. Light streams through the window and door which stand open to a blue sky. I think of Katie (b.1831), who was a pretty child and grew up to be a beautiful young woman. Katie never married, remaining at home, caring for her ageing parents. She died tragically in a drowning accident in the nearby Carron River in 1879 when she was 48 years old. Her old mother must have been heartbroken, to say nothing of the whole of the little community of Gledfield.

The second, The Blacksmith’s Shop, by Otto Theodor Leyde, depicts two children, a girl and a boy apparently under 10 years of age, watching an older man at work with hammer and anvil. I like to think that it is a picture of the Gledfield smithy at the end of the 1840s, with father James (then in his mid 50s) at work with two of his younger children, Mary and Malcolm looking on. They are barefoot, but well dressed. Mary holds up her arm shielding her face from flying sparks. Malcolm, his trouser legs rolled up, is transfixed by the sight of his father at work. The floor is littered with tools and scraps of iron. The stone walls are thick, a lamp hangs in the window, the fire burns in its place. What became of Mary I don’t know, but Malcolm would one day take over the forge which he would operate together with his younger brother Hector. When Malcolm died in 1897, at 57 years of age, the unmarried Hector would continue alone, the last of the Ross family to live in Gledfield.

The third painting, also called The Blacksmith’s Shop, is by William Stewart MacGeorge. There are two bearded men, youngish, one hammering on the anvil, the other smoking as he leans against the workbench, looking on. A younger boy, maybe 12 or 13, is assisting at the anvil, holding a piece of iron in place as the older man hammers. It could be an older Malcolm, now an apprentice, under the direction of two older brothers, perhaps the first and second born, Donald and John. In the family history thatt would date this picture around 1852 or 53 (though it was painted much later). Donald, was then around 30 and John, the second born around 26 or 27.

The last painting that caught my eye is held at the The Regimental Museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, entitled At the Blacksmith’s by Hugh Collins, and dated 1878. It depicts a soldier of a Highland regiment entering the smithy to confront two smiths working there – I think of Malcolm and Hector, now grown men running their own business in Gledfield. The soldier, dressed in full Highland regalia, a stick in his hand, is not receiving a warm welcome. He stands pointing at one of the men, as if informing him of his conscription into the army, a reminder that the Highlands for centuries was a rich recruiting ground for some of the British army’s most sought after soldiers, known for their courage, their ferocity and their loyalty. But the man at whom he is pointing has his fists clenched and raised in defiance, as if he is about to throw the soldier out on his ear. One can’t help wondering why the antagonism. What had happened?

The answer lies in the great tragedy of the nineteenth century in Scotland – the clearances of the Highlands, when thousands of families were evicted and driven away by their landlords to make way for sheep farming. Prebble describes in his book the recruiting drives of the 1850s when Britain was looking for men to send to the Crimea. The Highlands had traditionally been a bountiful recruiting ground and Highland soldiers were highly regarded. But when the recruiters arrived no volunteers came forward. The valleys of the Highlands had been systematically depopulated and the men that were left felt no commitment to follow their landlords or any soldier into battle. A contemporary report (by a certain Donald Ross, quoted by Prebble) reads as follows:

In Sutherland not one single soldier can be raised. Captain Craig, RN, the Duke’s Factor, A Free Church Minister and a Moderate Minister have been piping for days for volunteers and recruits; and yet, after many threats on the part of the Factor, and sweet music on the part of the parsons, the military spirit of the poor Sutherland serfs could not be raised to fighting power. The men told the parsons “We have no country to fight for. You robbed us of our country and gave it to the sheep. Therefore, since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep defend you.” (Prebble, pp300-301, The Highland Clearances, Penguin edition 1963)

4 thoughts on “The Gledfield smithy

  1. For me the most significant smithy is Joe Gargery from Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (1861). Gentle, strong and kind but can hardly read – a most endearing character. His smithy skills play an important part in forging manacles for the recovered convicts early on in the story.

    1. Thanks Pete. I must look him up. Its hard to imagine the life of a blacksmith in our day and age. Hence my trawling through paintings on the internet. But a literary account would be good to read. Dickens was an eyewitness and a good writer to boot!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s