My grandmother was Winifred Urquhart Ross (Holford). As a child I was fascinated by her middle name, which she told me came from her Scottish ancestry, as did her surname Ross. During the three years we lived in the UK when I was a child we visited Urquhart Castle, a brooding ruin on the shores of Loch Ness. The greyness, the drizzle, the dark waters of the Loch, caught my imagination and have remained a strong image in my memory since then – the Scottish Highlands. Despite Gran’s name I could not find any connection between her and the castle, much to my disappointment as a boy.
In recent months I have found myself thinking a whole lot more about the Urquhart from whom Gran did receive her name – Catherine Urquhart, who married James Ross sometime around 1821 or 22. Their son, James Ross, would migrate to Australia. His son, William Ross had five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother. Recently on a journey through the Highlands with my friend Hamish I had the chance to see the places Catherine lived and since then I have begin to sketch an outline of her life in my mind.
Catherine Urquhart was born in 1800, just over a hundred years before Gran. According to various census records she was born in Golspie, a town on the east coast of Sutherland-shire in the Highlands of Scotland. Her parents, according to various family trees publicly available on ancestry.com.uk, were John Urquhart and Ann Cuthbert. More information about them I have not found. Nor do I have any information about her siblings. The first that I know of her comes from the 1841 census when she was 41 years old. By then she was married with 10 children.
Hamish and I drove north to Golspie from Inverness one squally day at the end of May this year. The town sign informed us of two things – that the beach of Golspie had won an award, not sure for what, and that Golspie was the location of Dunrobin Castle. We drove along the main street and up the hill until we found the turn off to the castle, open for public tours to paying visitors. There was a cold wind as we exited the car, with intermittent rain showers blowing in from the sea, interspersed with patches of blue sky. We looked in at the lobby but didn’t stay. Despite the attraction of all castles to me I had no real desire to walk through a memorial to the aristocracy of this country. As I get older I am less impressed by the fabulous wealth of the British nobility, a wealth so often won and maintained at the expense of the poor majority. What makes it worse is the tendency of that same aristocratic group to look down on the masses as being of lesser value, of no real importance. Dunrobin Castle seems to epitomise this phenomenon of nineteenth century Scotland for me, since it was the Highland seat of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, whose notoriety during the Clearances is so well documented and remembered.
It is impossible to ignore the Duke when one comes to Golspie, for he went to the trouble of erecting a massive memorial to himself on a mountain behind Golspie. It strikes you as you drive up the road from Dornoch, and can be seen from miles around – as far south as Tain, in Ross-Shire, I could make out the figure of the grand old Duke of Sutherland. Prebble describes him in his book, The Highland Clearances:
He was the Most Noble George Granville Leveson-Gower, second Marquess of Stafford, third Earl Gower and Viscount Trentham, fourth Lord Gower of Stittenham in Yorkshire, eighth baronet of the same place, and ultimately and pre-eminently for the las six months of his life he was the first Duke of Sutherland. His red sandstone effigy, in a red sandstone toga, rears thirty feet from a pedestal seventy-six feet high at the top of Ben Bragghie which itself is thirteen hundred feet above the free water of the Dornoch Firth. Its back is to the glens he emptied, it faces the sea to which his policies committed five thousand people as emigrants or herring fishers… He was the Great Improver.
In Prebble’s book there is a whole chapter about the Sutherland Clearances – entitled The Year of the Burnings. It is a sad story. In a more recent book about the Clearances (Bearing the People Away) June Skinner Sawyers) notes the following:
John McLeod has called Sutherland “one of the saddest places in Scotland” since most of its population was evicted during the most notorious of the Clearances. The worst of the Sutherland Clearances took place roughly between 1807 and 1821, unmatched in both scale and organisation. Factors of the Countess of Sutherland and her husband Lord Stafford removed between 6,000 and 10,000 people to the coast, says Tom Devine, in what was “the most remarkable example of social engineering undertaken in early nineteenth century Britain.”
Catherine Urquhart grew up in those years. As a child and a young woman she was witness to the emptying of the glens. Sadly it continued in one part of Scotland or another throughout her life. It seems unlikely that she was a victim of it, since she lived in Golspie, on the coast, while the Clearances were in the valleys and hills of the inland. Where her parents were from I have no clue, but it is likely that they too came from Golspie itself, and were not crofters. But even if Catherine and her family never experienced eviction and relocation, she witnessed the events of those desperate years. She knew the great house on the headland north of the town, Dunrobin Castle, though whether she ever saw the owners is uncertain. They spent most of the year in England, and only occasionally came to the house outside Golspie. The castle was really Lady Stafford’s and came into the possession of her husband when they married. Neither of them was Scottish, and neither spoke Gaelic. Of the Countess, Prebble writes, “she spoke no Gaelic and had inherited her family’s contempt for the tongue, manners and customs of the Highland people… she was as English in mood and taste as the furniture of a London drawing room.”
But though absent the lord and lady of Dunrobin made the decisions to clear the land of the local inhabitants in the name of “Improvement.” In essence it was about increasing profitability – there was more money to be made from sheep in the Highlands than from the rents of the tenants and subtenants. This was seen as progress by the gentry – increasing productivity which would in their minds increase the contribution of the region to the general welfare and good of the British Empire. Increased wool and mutton production was no doubt of value, but that value was realised not by the people of the land, but by the absent landlords. The people whose families had lived there for centuries were in the way of the sheep runs, and the nobility thought the best way to deal with this problem was simply to evict them. It was their land after all, and they could do with it what they pleased. They were completely within their legal rights to evict the tenants – they had the law on their side. They seemed to never doubt the morality of the action.
They made a lot of noise about how this forced eviction would benefit the local people too, who would be given new homes and jobs on the coast, where they could become fishermen or work in other industries which were yet to be created. Though for the majority no new home or job ever eventuated, some of the evicted crofters were given land along the coast, but it was mostly worthless and unable to support them. Many died. Thousands migrated, either to the south or abroad and emigration was indeed encouraged by the landowners. The heart and spirit of the people was broken. The aristocracy didn’t care what happened to them, as long as they were gone. Although the people were not lined up and shot as in some other places around the world over the last few centuries, the Highland Clearances have been likened to a form of ethnic cleansing. The wealthy landowners were glad to be rid of the primitive, Gaelic speaking peasants and were keen to welcome in new tenants – sheep farmers who would pay handsomely for land that it had been discevered was so well suited to sheep.
It is hard to imagine what young Catherine Urquhart thought of all this. Many of the townspeople of Golspie were English speaking from the south and feared the wild Highlanders. The Staffords and their factors played on this anxiety and Golspie was probably at times a place of uncertainty, instability and fear. The fact that Urquhart is an old Scottish name makes me think that Catherine’s family were Gaels themselves, though it is hard to be sure. The town would have been a mixed community of Gaelic speaking and English speaking, and there were no doubt tensions. But given the way things developed it would have been hard for any to have felt sympathy for the actions of the lord and his lady, and it became rapidly clear that the factor Patrick Sellar and his colleagues who actually carried out the evictions (their employers were hardly ever there) were monsters with barely a shred of humanity between them.
When she was around 21 Catherine married James Ross, of Edderton in Ross-Shire, on the other side of the Dornoch Firth. How they met is a forgotten tale. James appears not to have been a crofter either, but became the village blacksmith in Gledfield, where the young couple made a home and raised a family of 13 children. Gledfield was in the midst of clearances too at the time of their marriage. The Strathcarron – the valley of the Carron River at the mouth of which Gledfield lies – would be the scene of much suffering in the years to come, and the Ross family were witness to these sad happenings. Catherine lived to be 87 years of age and is buried at Kincardine churchyard. Although she was, as far as I know, never evicted like so many of her countrymen, she had witnessed the social upheavals of the Highlands firsthand, and felt the sad results: her family too, of necessity or disillusionment, would be scattered across the world and her grandchildren would grow up in foreign lands.