James was born in the Highlands of Easter Ross, Scotland, on a winter’s day at the end of January 1827. He was the fourth child of James and Catherine Ross of Gledfield, near Ardgay, which lies at the head of the Dornoch Firth. After him came nine more children, 5 boys and 4 girls. The last of them, his youngest sister Jane, was born in 1844 when James was 17. Not long after that, possibly in 1845, James left home and moved south to Ferintosh, on the Black Isle, opposite Dingwall.
The backdrop to James’ early life was a lush green valley, the Strathcarron, between the mountains and the sea. His childhood – those first seventeen years – was lived in this landscape: the mist covered mountains of northern Scotland, the verdant pastures of the valley, the dark cold waters of the Carron River, and the expanse of water leading out to the North Sea – the inlet known as Dornoch Firth. In a time of big families James grew up with lots of other children around him in the little community of Gledfield. But from a relatively early age he was expected to work, his schooling probably not extending beyond 13 or 14 years of age at the most. There was always much to do in such a large family, so life was busy and full.
Culture and education
The Ross family probably spoke Gaelic as their first language though with the increasing influence of the South in their lives English was creeping into everyday speech. It is not unlikely that his schooling was also in Gaelic, since even in the first half of nineteenth century Gaelic was the main language in the Highlands. It reflects just how different this part of Britain was from the South. It is easy to forget that Britain was, and to a certain extent is, a union of peoples with different languages and cultures, though the differences are diminishing with the passing of time. Many in Scotland still feel that their country should be independent of England, which they feel does not understand or represent their interests or needs.
In the nineteenth century the Highlands was seen as being a nation of uneducated and illiterate natives by many in the South, in much the same way as they thought of other more far flung colonies. The introduction of the English language was seen as an important way of uniting the North with the rest of the British Isles. But the inability of the Highlanders to understand English meant that, paradoxically, the message of the importance of the English language had to be communicated in Gaelic. So Gaelic schools were established to raise the educational standard of the Highlands as a step towards eventually stamping out Gaelic and replacing it with English. (For a discussion of education and the decline of Gaelic in Scotland see http://www.scottishhistory.com/articles/highlands/gaelic/gaelic_page1.html)
It wasn’t just the authorities who saw Gaelic as a problem. Even ordinary people could see the need for English to ensure their children’s futures. There were far more books in English, and fluency in the language was a prerequisite for success, even if upward mobility was a relatively new concept. Some parents even paid tutors to teach their children English outside normal school hours. James and Catherine Ross appear to have been relatively well off, and it is possible they too saw English as an important part off their children’s education. But Gaelic was still their heart language, as the inscriptions on some of the family graves in Kincardine Churchyard bear witness.
James Ross’s father was the blacksmith in Gledfield. The old blacksmith shop still exists, but is a ruin, just three stone walls with no roof. It is built onto the end of a house on the edge of the village that is now called Lower Gledfield. I assume the house was the Ross family home. Smithing was the family business and the trade that was chosen by six of the eight sons in the family.
James was one of the exceptions to this – he preferred working with wood and would eventually become a carpenter, or more specifically a joiner. James seemed destined to follow a different path in life to his siblings. Whether his apprenticeship in carpentry began in his teens in the Highlands, or was an interest that he developed later in life after he left Scotland, is hard to know. But he ended up a journeyman joiner, a trade that stood him in good stead during the years when he was raising his own family in England and later when he moved to Australia. The other son who did not become a blacksmith was Alexander, nine years younger than James. Alexander became a teacher and ended up as the schoolmaster. But unlike James, Alexander never left the Highlands. He died in Conon Bridge near Dingwall and is buried, together with his wife, in Kincardine Churchyard, near his childhood home in Gledfield.
The road west from Ardgay up the Strathcarron divides in Gledfield with one branch continuing along the southern side of the Carron River and the other crossing the river half a mile from the village and then following the northern bank of the Carron upstream into the mountains. The old smithy lies just after the fork in the road, on the branch of the road that leads across the river to the northern bank. For people coming down from the upper reaches of the Strathcarron the smithy and the house attached was one of the first dwellings they passed on their way into Ardgay. The blacksmith and his family were probably well known in the valley, since their services were sought after by many.
Churches: Croick, Kincardine, Ardgay and Edderton
Religion was an important part of life for the inhabitants of the Highlands in the nineteenth century. Before the 1840s there were three main churches in the area that the Ross family lived – Kincardine Church was the closest, about two miles east of the family home, on the other side of Ardgay, toward the sea. Even further east, towards Tain, was the Edderton Church. James Ross senior, born in the 1790s, came originally from Edderton and only moved to Gledfield as an adult to become the village blacksmith and to raise his family.
On the other side of Gledfield, westward between the rising mountains, a smaller church was built in 1827 for the crofters who lived further up the valley. This church, which lies about eight miles inland from Gledfield, is at Croick, on the road that follows the northern side of the river. Croick church would come to the attention of the whole nation in 1845 when it featured in several articles in the London Times reporting on the Highland Clearances. During James’ childhood the Croick Church was the spiritual home to several hundred people – crofters and their families from the upper reaches of the Strathcarron.
However James’ family worshipped at the much closer Kincardine Church, which still stands, looking out over the upper reaches of the Dornoch Firth, and a good number of the Ross family is buried there. But changing times mean that it is no longer a place of worship, but is used today as a meeting place for the local historical society. It has been replaced by a newer Church of Scotland, which is called Ardgay Church, but which stands in Lower Gledfield. Today these three churches are part of the Parish of Kincardine, Croick and Edderton. Sunday services seem to be divided equally between Edderton and Ardgay (see http://www.edderton.com/organisations/church-of-scotland/) and there is a service one Sunday afternoon a month in Croick. But the life of the Church of Scotland in this little corner of the Highlands seems to have ebbed. As in many places in the western world the church is apparently struggling to remain relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
Croick Church today seems a lonely spot, in a high valley seemingly devoid of human habitation. It is hard to imagine it with a congregation of hundreds. The Clearances were largely responsible for emptying the Highland glens of people, but even before the evictions in the Strathcarron began Croick Church had lost most of its congregation. In 1843, the year James turned 16, a rift which had been developing in the Church of Scotland for many years resulted in The Disruption, when over 450 ministers of the Established Church left and formed a new denomination, the Free Church of Scotland. The minister at Croick, a certain Reverend Gustavus Aird, was one of those who left. Although he vacated his post at the church in Croick, he did not leave the people, who followed him out of the Established Church. Instead, as a minister of the new denomination he conducted services on the hillsides in the open air, while the church building stood largely empty, as it is to this day. No Free Church building was erected in Croick, but there was one built in Gledfield in 1849, a structure which still stands to this day, although it is no longer a house of worship but has been converted into a home.
The Disruption also affected Kincardine Church, though it is less well documented in the history books. There too a large proportion of the congregation left, and presumably also initially met in homes or in the open air. The Ross family were presumably members of Kincardine Church before the Disruption, but were part of the exodus in 1843. It is very likely that the men of the Ross family helped in the construction of the new Free Church in Gledfield. Interestingly, in the 1881 census, the family’s address is listed as Gledfield Free Church, though exactly what this means is uncertain. By that time James senior was long dead and buried, his wife Catherine was in her eighty-first year and senile, and the head of the home was Malcolm Ross, one of James junior’s younger brothers. James and three of his siblings were in Australia, Alexander in Ferintosh on the Black Isle, and the rest of the family had dispersed or died to other parts of Scotland. With the exception of Hector, the youngest son of the family, who was still a blacksmith, a 38 year old bachelor who together with his brother Malcolm ran the business until it eventually closed sometime after the turn of the century.
1843, as well as being the year of the Disruption, was a significant year for young James Ross too and the spiritual developments in the Highlands were a major reason for this. To understand why requires a little background about what was happening in the spiritual life of Ross-Shire during those years. Scotland over the century prior to this had been a land of revivals. Ross-Shire was no exception and perhaps the person who figured most significantly in the awakenings there from around 1815 to 1850 was the minister of the parish of Urquhart, on the Black Isle, about 15 miles south of where the Ross family lived.
His name was John Macdonald, and as well as having a powerful ministry in his own parish he traveled all through the Highlands and notably to the island of St Kilda to preach the gospel. He was also one of the most notable of the dissenting ministers when The Disruption came in 1843, becoming one of the founding fathers of the Free Church of Scotland. His preaching was powerful and people travelled from miles around to hear him. He was by no means limited by the walls of a church. When it was necessary he preached in the open and often in homes.
Churches in those days (and even now in Scotland to a certain extent) had an annual communion gathering when many more than just the local congregation gathered to hear the preaching of the Word and partake of communion. One of the most famous of the communion gatherings in the ministry of John Macdonald took place just after his first wife died in 1819 when some 10,000 people were said to have gathered at Ferintosh, which was the main centre of the Urquhart Parish. Macdonald was not the only minister there but he was host to the gathering and the main preacher. The “preaching dell” on the Ferintosh Burn can still be seen amidst the green fields of Ferintosh, which is an area of great natural beauty and rich agricultural productivity.
James Ross’s son, William Ross, many years later in Australia, called his home Ferintosh. Since William himself was born in England and was just a child when the family migrated in 1866, I can only assume that Ferintosh was a place that his father spoke about with great enthusiasm, and remembered with nostalgia, and that something in what he related struck a chord also in William’s heart – enough to give the name Ferintosh to his home. William’s daughter, my grandmother, told me that her grandfather lived at Ferintosh opposite Dingwall before he left Scotland, that Ferintosh was his Scottish home. But if he was born and grew up in Gledfield, why did James Ross see Ferintosh as “home”? I have wondered long about this and have come to the conclusion that something attracted young James to Ferintosh, or rather someone, and that someone was John Macdonald, the so called Apostle of the North.
On James’ sixteenth birthday, 31 January 1843, John Macdonald preached to a huge crowd in the Kincardine Churchyard. It was a chilly winter day but it is said that some 2000 people gathered in the open to hear him preach. I feel sure that the Ross family of Gledfield were among them. I feel equally certain that James was profoundly affected by the preached Word and that his life was changed from that day forth. When Macdonald left the Church of Scotland and helped establish the Free Church later that same year the Ross family were one of thousands who followed him. James Ross senior and his family helped build the new Free Church in Gledfield six years later, but I suspect that by that time young James had already departed the family home.
It is hard to know exactly when he left, but whenever it was it seems likely that he found work near Ferintosh, not just because there were occupational opportunities for a young man there, but because it was the home parish of the Rev John Macdonald, who had been instrumental in sowing the seeds of faith in young James’ heart. James was excited by the opportunity to live in close proximity to this man and to sit under his preaching. So I believe Ferintosh became his home, though for how long is uncertain, but it could have been anything up to five years.
Just as it is unknown exactly when James left Gledfield, his motivation for leaving is also unclear, even if he was happy that the place he found work was Ferintosh. There was of course the fact that James was not inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a blacksmith. But other forces were at play in those days, and many were leaving the Highlands. Perhaps most significant were what became known as the Highland Clearances. I have little doubt that James and his siblings were affected by these, even if they weren’t themselves under the threat of eviction. Many of their neighbours and acquaintances, the common people living further up the valley, were living with this threat hanging over them. James’ father had already witnessed the clearing of the next valley to the north, Strath Oykel, back in 1820, before he had settled down with Catherine to raise his own family. During the 1840s, with his older children entering adulthood, his own valley came under the same threat, and his children would be witness to the same tragedy that he had seen so many years before. History was repeating itself, and he must have felt that the future of the Highlands was dark.
The Clearances were largely motivated by economic considerations. Landlords were beginning to see that greater profit could be had from sheep farming than from a whole lot of small tenants. But sheep required the removal of the people. Population growth was also a worry for the lairds. There is a limit to the number of people subsistence farming can support and population growth in the Highlands made many fear that the limit was being reached. Changes to the poor laws made landlords responsible for supporting the needy who lived on their estates, if and when the need should arise. This added fuel to the fire of the lairds’ desire to see the people gone from their lands.
A potato famine that ravaged Scotland in the forties and fifties, though not as severe as in Ireland, was also threatening the neediest in the population. At a government level many could not see any solution to the threat of starvation other than encouraging emigration, a policy, that suited the lairds very well. The Highland and Island Emigration Society was a charity formed at the time to encourage and assist where possible the emigration of as many as possible. However, it came to be seen by some as an enemy of the people, a way of getting rid of them.
But what of our family, the Rosses of Gledfield, in all this? They were not poor crofters living off the land but rather lived in town with a source of income derived from blacksmithing, something that was constantly in demand. As such they were relatively immune to the evictions that were affecting others in their community, and the starvation that resulted from poverty. They were not forced to leave, so why did at least five of the thirteen children in the family end up going (there may have been more but I have not been able to trace the movements of the whole family)? Why did the others choose to stay? What effect did the Clearances and government policies of emigration have on them?
In 1845 the people of Glencalvie, in the higher reaches of the Carron valley, were evicted from their homes. The owner of the land, through his factor, had been trying to get them to leave for a few years without success. The people had pleaded for permission to stay, offering to pay higher rent, after all, where could they go? The factor was however deaf to their pleas and determined to evict them, to clear the land for sheep. In May of that year the people gave up their struggle and left their homes quietly. But partly through the efforts of Gustavus Aird, the Free Church minister in Croick, to raise financial support to assist them in their relocation, their situation came to the attention of the media, with journalists being dispatched from as far away as London to document their departure. Articles appeared in the London Times, as well as local newspapers. The driving away of the poor of the Highlands became an issue of national interest.
It did little good for the people of Glencalvie, however. Having left their homes, the people, some 90 or more of them, initially took shelter in the churchyard of the Croick Church, which became a temporary refugee camp. Over the following weeks they left the valley in dribs and drabs, passing with their goods and chattels through the villages of Gledfield and Ardgay and Bonar Bridge (where the minister lived) on their way to the world. I have wondered whether it was seeing them leave that prompted James Ross to also consider leaving his home. He was 18 years old in 1845 and he could see what was happening in Scotland. He was not attracted by the blacksmith’s life and he knew that with a shrinking population the family business in Gledfield would never support all the Ross boys and their families. He started looking for work elsewhere and found an opening in Ferintosh. What he did there is uncertain but he was most likely employed as an agricultural labourer. As mentioned above, he had other reasons for choosing to move to Ferintosh too. James became the first of the Ross family to leave home. But he was not the last.
The Highland and Islands Emigration Society was encouraging people to leave. The Highlands was gripped by uncertainty and seemed to be going into a period of decline. It must have seemed there was little to look forward to. Although things seemed to settle down after the Glencalvie Clearance it wasn’t many years before further evictions were rumoured. The verdant pastures of the lower Strathcarron, closer to Gledfield, were home to many other crofters. In the early 1850s the same laird who had driven the Glencalvie people away determined to get rid of the people of the Greenyards Estate, just a few miles upstream from The Ross’s home. In 1854 there was a major debacle, once again reported widely in the press, and many more families were driven away. James Ross had by then moved to England. But following the Greenyards Clearance three more of the Ross family left – John and his wife moved to England to join James and his young family where they had settled in Birkenhead. Andrew together with his sister Helen, both younger siblings of James, decided to make an even bigger moved and purchased a passage to Australia. On the 23rd of April 1857 they sailed from Liverpool in England, bound for the other side of the world. James and his family, and very possibly John and his wife Betsy, were on the dock in Liverpool to wave them farewell. Nine years later it would be James embarking on the same journey, on the sailing ship Africana. With him were his wife and four children, and his little sister, Jane Ross, the youngest of the Ross clan, newly arrived from Scotland, who was just 22 years old.
Why and when did James Ross leave Scotland for England? These questions are hard to answer with certainty, but a census record from 1851 seems to indicate that he was living in Great Malvern, in England, where he worked in a house as a servant. So he probably left around 1850, the year after John Macdonald died in Ferintosh. Presumably he was motivated by a need for work. The census indicates that there was also a Scottish girl from Ross-Shire in service in the same house – she may have been related, for though her last name was Furmage her mother’s maiden name was Jane Ross. She came from Kilmuir which is also on the Black Isle close to Ferintosh.
James probably left because he doubted there was a future for him in Scotland. There were opportunities in England that just didn’t exist in Scotland. He had grown up in a green valley in Easter Ross, the son of a blacksmith. But he had no desire to be a blacksmith and the little village of his birth had become stifling for him. His mother tongue was Gaelic, but he learnt English at school. Having moved to Ferintosh he began to develop an identity independent of his family background. He was a man of faith, and was profoundly affected by the teaching he heard from John Macdonald’s pulpit. But he was also a man who saw beyond the horizon of the Highlands. He dreamed of a bigger, better future.
Yet when he left he must surely have been sad to leave behind him those mist covered mountains and all they held. He would carry them in his heart for ever, and years later as a settler in Sydney, Australia, he would tell stories of his youth to his children. He would speak of the dark, cold waters of the Carron River, the wild barren heights of Ross and Sutherland, the lush green valley that was his home as a child, the struggles that so many experienced of poverty and hunger, the injustices of the lairds that saw so many of his kin banished to distant lands. Not least would he speak of his days in Ferintosh, and all that he had learnt from the Apostle of the North, the great evangelist and revivalist. But he would never see those mountains and valleys again, for his destiny lay on the far side of the world.