The Year of the Sheep
According to John Prebble there were two periods of major clearances in the Highlands, the first from 1782 to 1820, and the second from 1840 to 1854. My ancestors came from Ross-shire, which was the scene of unrest during both of those periods. The first coincides roughly with the early life of James Andrew Ross, who became the blacksmith of Gledfield and the second with his children’s formative years. James and his wife Catherine, though never evicted themselves, saw the worst of both periods and experienced the effects on their little Highland community as well as their family.
The Year of the Sheep
In the year that my ancestor, James Andrew Ross, was born, in Edderton, on the Dornoch Firth, two hundred men of Ross-Shire took matters into their own hands and decided to drive the sheep back to where they had come from – the South. When the history books were written, that year, 1792, became known as The Year of the Sheep.
The introduction of sheep farming to the north dated back to the 1760s. The lairds who owned the land had begun to realise that using their land for sheep runs which they could rent to farmers from the south would provide more profit than collecting seemingly paltry rents from lots of poor tenants. They needed to clear their lands of people whose families had lived there as subsistence farmers for centuries. These people, as poor as they might have been, were traditionally fiercely loyal to the lairds on whose lands they lived, lairds who were in many cases related to them. The Highlands were well known for this clan loyalty. But by the 1780s it was becoming clear that the loyalty of the poor towards the rich was not reciprocated. The lairds were happy to drive them out and seldom seemed to care what happened to them.
As the evictions began to take place, the tenants and subtenants whose homes and lives were threatened had trouble believing what was happening. The lairds engaged henchmen, known as “factors,” to turn the people out. Although the lairds often spoke of providing new homes and employment for their displaced tenants, in the majority of cases they did nothing for them, and when they did something the alternatives they offered were often simply not viable. Usually the factors just forced them to leave and were deaf to all pleas for mercy. The lairds hoped that the poor would simply disappear, and encouraged emigration, sometimes providing financial assistance to get rid of them. The poor were in the way, and the rich wanted them gone.
The ordinary people, the crofters, may have struggled to comprehend what was happening, but they had the evidence of the sheep wandering over the hills before their eyes. In the minds of some, the sheep became the enemy; perhaps that was psychologically easier to accept than that their traditional leaders should be simply casting them aside. They saw that they were being displaced by sheep, and it was easier to direct their anger towards the hapless creatures than toward their traditional fathers of their clans. A series of events in 1792 catalysed the crofters of Ross Shire into action.
During the summer of that year a dispute had arisen on the hills between the Dornoch and Cromarty firths, just south of where Donald and Ann Ross lived in the village of Edderton. The land was owned by a Hugh Munro, but he had rented it to two tenants who were intent on using it for grazing sheep. However, many local people were already utilising the land to graze their cattle, as they and their ancestors had for as far back as they could remember. The two tenants wanted these people and their cattle out of the way. They impounded the cattle and demanded that the subtenants pay a fine to have them released. This was refused and a group of crofters set the cattle free. The tenants backed down but lodged a complaint with the authorities.
Encouraged by this success of the small man against the big, at the end of July about 200 people, including many men of Ross, gathered further north, near the Kyle of Sutherland, with the intention of rounding up the sheep, and driving them out of the Highlands. Over the following eight days, the first week of August and the height of summer, they drove an enormous flock southward over the hills behind Kincardine and thence down toward Alness on the Cromarty Firth near Dingwall. The local authorities responded to this blatant defiance of law and order by forming a local militia and going out to hunt the trouble makers down; but when they descended on the camp of the sheep stealers they found it abandoned, the sheep wandering unattended on the hills. The ringleaders were eventually caught, however, and two trials ensued in Inverness; in the second of these seven men were found guilty, with sentences ranging “from fines and imprisonments to seven years’ “transportation” to being banished from Scotland for life.” (Sawyers J, Bearing the People Away, p 258)
The Rosses of Edderton
James Andrew Ross was born in the midst of the first major Clearance period, which according to Prebble lasted from 1782 to around 1820. He may even have been born that very summer, as the sheep were being driven over the hills near his home. Although I have placed his birth in the same year as the famous sheep drive, it is hard to be certain of exactly which year he was born, since the three census records which record his age (Scotland census 1841, 1851 and 1861) while clearly referring to the same person, each indicate a different year of birth, between 1792 and 1798. It seems certain, however, from these same records, that he was born in Edderton. His father was probably a blacksmith, since this is the trade that James later followed. His parents were probably Donald Ross and Ann Fraser, for though I have not seen any documentation that verifies this, James named his first two children Donald and Ann, presumably after his own parents.
Donald and Ann Ross of Edderton probably had other children, but I have no records of their names. The family appear to have been townsfolk and not crofters, but they almost certainly spoke Gaelic as their native tongue, and their roots were firmly placed in the Highlands of Ross-Shire. What eventually became of James’s parents I don’t know. But they were keenly aware of the events that unfolded in the summer of 1792, as was everyone who lived on the Dornoch Firth, and in the glens and mountains to the west.
Edderton lies on the road between the big town of Tain, at the seaward end of the Dornoch Firth, and the smaller villages of Kincardine, Ardgay, and Gledfield at the mouth of the Carron Valley, the Strathcarron, as it is called. Between Edderton and Kincardine, a road branches off from the coast road to Tain and winds up and over the barren heights to the south, and then descends toward Alness on the Cromarty Firth. This road follows the route taken by the sheep and the men that drove them south in the summer of 1792.
I have no records to suggest that anyone of the Ross family of Edderton were among the 200 men who gathered to drive the sheep south. However, they were witness to the great sheep drive, for the noisy flocks coming from the north were clearly visible during that week for all who lived around Edderton and Kincardine, and even before they appeared, the word had been passed around that there was something big afoot. How much the Rosses identified with the threatened crofters is impossible to know, but they must have wondered, as did everyone, what would become of the poor people turned out of their homes. Where would they go and how would they survive?
The future blacksmith of Gledfield may have been born in the year of the great sheep drive, or maybe shortly after, and he grew up with stories of that fateful week firmly etched into his memory. He could see, like many, that life in the Highlands was changing, and he wondered what it would all come to. He heard about what was happening in Sutherland to the north, on the lands of Lady Stafford and her husband, and in other places in the Highlands. Throughout his childhood and adolescence things remained calm in his little corner of Ross-Shire, but he wondered how long it would be before the clearance madness would come to Easter Ross, whose valleys and hills he knew and loved so well. He learnt a trade – as a blacksmith – and looked for somewhere to set up shop, deciding on Gledfield, at the mouth of the Strathcarron and near the road north to Sutherland. Then in 1820, the tragedy that was unfolding across the Highlands broke out in Ross-Shire, with the first evictions, at Culrain just up the road from his home. A few years later James would marry Catherine Urquhart, of Golspie in Sutherland. In 1823 their first child, Donald, was born in Gledfield.