Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “blacksmith”

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)


The Ross family of Gledfield, Ross-Shire

Ardgay, between Gledfield and Kincardine, looking south from Bonar Bridge across the Dornoch Firth

Ardgay, between Gledfield and Kincardine, looking south from Bonar Bridge across the Dornoch Firth

Sometime around 1821 or 1822 James Andrew Ross (1794-1866) of Edderton, Ross-Shire, married Catherine Urquhart (1800-1887) of Golspie, Sutherland. They had at least 12 children over the next 25 years, though there may have been more since children so often died in infancy in those days. James was a blacksmith and he set up shop, and established a home in Gledfield, about 9 miles north west of Edderton, near where the Carron River flows into the Kyle of Sutherland, which becomes the Dornoch Firth.

It was a big family. There were 8 boys and 5 girls. Donald was firstborn (1823) and after him came Ann (1824). John followed in 1826 and James in 1827. Six more children were born in the 1830s – Helen, Catherine (Katie), Andrew, George and Alexander (Sandy) and Mary. Malcolm was born in 1840, Hector in 1843 and finally Jane in 1844. There is one anomaly, namely that Mary Ross, born 1839, is listed as Mary Ann Ross McLachlan in the 1851 census. The significance of her extra name is hard to explain. Was she adopted? There are no other McLachlans in the family, but it is possible that she was a relative whose parents died. She does not appear in the 1861 census, but may have been married by that time. I have no other information about her.

Of the boys 6 became blacksmiths, which was understandable given James’ trade. Donald, John, Andrew, George, Malcolm and Hector all followed their father’s trade. James took up carpentry, later becoming a journeyman joiner. Sandy became a teacher. Of the girls, Ann married in her early twenties and had three children, although her husband died in his twenties, soon after the birth of the third. Helen and Jane married in Australia. Kate remained at home and cared for her ageing parents until her tragic death, drowned in the Carron River at age 48.

Four of the Ross family migrated. First Andrew and his sister Helen left in 1857. They sailed on the Alfred from Liverpool. Both Andrew and Helen married in Australia, Andrew to Janet Anderson, another Scot, and Helen to James Redstone, an English immigrant. Both families settled in the Bellinger Valley of northern NSW. Nine years later, in 1866, James Ross, his wife and four children, migrated. They sailed on a ship called the Africana, and his youngest sister, Jane Ross, sailed with them. James and Mary Ross remained in Sydney, where James continued his trade as a carpenter and joiner. They had more children. Jane, however, moved north to her brother Andrew and his young family. Jane ended up marrying the Andrew’s wife’s brother, David Anderson. So of the four Rosses to migrate three died in the Bellingen area, but James Ross died and is buried in Sydney.

Of the nine children who remained in Scotland, two never married – Kate and Hector. Ann married Hugh Aird and they had three children before Hugh died in 1855 at the age of 28. One of their daughters, Hughina, married the schoolmaster at Gledfield, but died at the age of 42 in 1894. What became of Donald and George Ross I have yet to discover. John moved to England where for a time he lived with his brother James, in Birkenhead near Liverpool. However, John died in 1862 when he was only 36 years of age. He is buried in Kincardine. He was survived by his wife Betsy and their children. Sandy became a teacher and ended up the schoolmaster at Ferintosh. He too married and had a family. What became of Mary I have no information about.

Malcolm and Hector took over the family business, the Gledfield smithy, after their father died in 1866, the same year that James and Jane left for Australia. Malcolm was 26 and Hector 23 that year. Neither was married. They lived in Gledfield with their unmarried sister Kate and their ageing mother. Malcolm eventually married Jane Munro, but they never had any children. Both are buried in the Kincardine churchyard. Kate died in 1879. Malcolm died in 1897 at age 57 and his wife Jane lived to the age of 59, dying in 1911 in Edinburgh.

At the dawn of the twentieth century only 57 year old Hector was left in Gledfield. He was unmarried and lived in the house next to the smithy. Only three of his siblings survived into the 1900s – a brother in Scotland and two sisters in Australia. Sandy died in 1902. Helen and Jane lived on the far side of the world, in rural Australia. They died in 1916 and 1905 respectively.

Hector Ross. Downloaded from From Judy Horrigan.

Hector Ross. Downloaded from From Judy Horrigan.

I recently received a copy of a letter that was sent to Don Robinson by someone who knew the family, a certain Harriet Smith, of Ardgay. Don must have met her on his travels. The letter is dated 1978. Here is a slightly edited extract (thanks to Judy Horrigan who sent me a scanned copy):

I can only tell you little bits I know about them told me by my late Mother – born March 1872 died June 1968 – so she was well acquainted with them. She was a very near neighbour of theirs and in her early teens was engaged as their domestic help. The house then consisted of Hector, Malcolm, and their old bedridden mother and Malcolm’s wife, Jeannie (Jane). My mother spoke quite a lot to me of her early service there. There was a big family of sons and as far as I remember it included a Donald, George, Alexander (Sandy) and I know there was a sister Katie who was accidentally drowned in the River Carron quite close by. I was born 1906 and so I do remember Hector and saw him often at his work in the “smiddy.” I never saw Malcolm and Auntie Jeannie died in an Edinburgh hospital in 1910 following an operation.

The old mother was senile and very restless and troubled in her mid due to this. Malcolm was very fond of his mother and never went out from his meals but went to her bedside and spoke a comforting word to her and I always remember my mother telling me that he’d say, “What is it mother? God so loved that he gave his only Beloved Son__” Both brothers were very good Christian men. Uncle Malcolm had a lovely singing voice and used to sit at the fireside singing hymns – a favourite chorus was,
“I am coming Lord, coming now to thee.
Wash me, cleanse me in the blood that flowed at Calvary.”

… Hector never married but lived on in the home with a succession of housekeepers and when he got too old for their care he went to live in the little village of Edderton which is nine miles south of Ardgay with people of the name of Aird. You say who were the Airds? Well I’m sure that I’m not making a mistake when I say that Donald Aird, who kept a little grocers shop there, was a nephew of H & M. Another niece, Donald Aird’s sister, was married to a local schoolmaster here G G McLeod – his family tombstone is very close to Uncle Malcolm’s. G G McLeod had a big family of daughters (9 I think) and one son, another James. I’m sure Donald Aird had a son, “Hector.”

Hector died in 1929 and is buried with his parents and his sister Kate in the churchyard in Kincardine. As far as I know there are no Rosses of this family left in the Gledfield-Ardgay-Kincardine area now, though there are possibly McLeods and Airds.

Family grave of James and Catherine Ross, also Catherine (Katie) their daughter and Hector their son. Headstone erected by Hector.

Family grave of James and Catherine Ross, also Catherine (Katie) their daughter and Hector their son. Headstone erected by Hector.


North of Inverness on the east coast of Scotland there are three deep inlets from the North Sea: the Moray Firth, the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth. Between the Moray and Cromarty firths is the so called Black Isle and between the Cromarty and Dornoch firths is another land mass which is rather hilly, almost mountainous on the inland side. Driving north from Inverness nowadays there are long bridges crossing each of these firths but in the old days before they were built travellers heading north had to make their way inland to where the waterways were narrow enough to cross, adding many miles to the journey. The towns which grew up at the various crossing points were much more important in those days than they are now and in some cases they have shrunk considerably. At the head of the Moray Firth is Beauly (the higher reaches of the Moray Firth are called the Beauly Firth), while at the head of the Cromarty Firth is Dingwall, though the water is crossed even further up at Conon Bridge (over the Conon River). Beside the headwaters of Dornoch Firth is the village of Kincardine, near Bonar Bridge where the Kyle of Sutherland (which flows into Dornoch Firth) is crossed. But these are bypassed now by the bridge that crosses the firth from near Tain to near Dornoch.

Ross and Cromarty Map, 1957

Ross and Cromarty Map, 1957

The Ross family from which I am descended lived in Gledfield, which is near Kincardine. Between Kincardine and Gledfield these days there is a village called Ardgay, which isn’t even marked on maps from the early 1800s, and which is now bigger than either of the two older villages. Ardgay is about halfway between Bonar Bridge and Kincardine and there is a railway station there, which may be the reason it has grown so much. The Highland railway didn’t reach the area until 1864, so it did not feature in the early life of James Urquhart Ross, who migrated to Australia in 1866, following his younger brother Andrew and sister Helen. Bonar Bridge, on the other hand, was built in 1819, and would have been the main crossing of the Kyle of Sutherland-Dornoch Firth waterway.

Kincardine - Ardgay - Bonar Bridge - Gledfield. Map 1925

Kincardine – Ardgay – Bonar Bridge – Gledfield. Map 1925

In the middle of Ardgay a smaller road branches off and heads inland up the valley of the Carron River. The houses end, giving way to fields, but only a few hundred metres further on there is another scattering of houses. This was once the village of Gledfield, but there is no sign to say so, and on current maps it appears as Lower Gledfield. The village today is just a few lines of houses on either side of the road.

Lower Gledfield today, across the fields from Binar Bridge

Lower Gledfield today, seen across the fields from Bonar Bridge

Entering Gledfield village from Ardgay, the first building on the right is the Church of Scotland, set back from the road along a dirt track, on a slight rise. A little further along the road, on the right, is Gledfield Public School, and still further along on the left is another church, without a sign, which on closer inspection appears to have been converted into some kind of residential dwelling. It is the old Gledfield Free Church. Just past the church there is a fork in the road. The right fork leads across farmland to the Carron River bridge, an arched stone structure. Across the bridge the road divides again, either heading north to Culrain and the Gledfield Estate, or west along the northern side of the Strathcarron. The left fork in Gledfield village heads westward along the southern side of the Carron River, climbing gradually into the hills.

Bridge across the Carron River, near Gledfield

Bridge across the Carron River, near Gledfield

At the fork in the road, on the right and almost at the end of Gledfield village, there is a ruined roofless building built onto the end of an old, derelict house. Built onto the other end of the house, closest to the village, is a newer dwelling which looks lived in, though there was no-one around the day we were there. All three of the buildings are of grey stone. The roofless ruin is the old blacksmith’s shop and the derelict house, I presume, was once the home of the Ross family of Gledfield. It was here that James and Catherine lived and raised their twelve children between the 1820s when they married and the 1860s when James died. James Ross was the Gledfield blacksmith, and several of his sons followed in the same trade. James Ross junior, my ancestor, was the exception to this rule, becoming a journeyman joiner.

Ruins of the Gledfield blacksmith shop, and the Ross home beyond.

Ruins of the Gledfield blacksmith shop, and the Ross home beyond.

Although the Ross family lived in the blacksmith’s house at least until James Ross senior died in 1866, records indicate that his wife Catherine moved after his death. The 1871 census indicates that she lived with her unmarried sons Malcolm and Hector at Upper Gledfield, though exactly where Upper Gledfield was I have not been able to work out. By 1881 Catherine’s address is Gledfield Free Church, still with Malcolm and Hector, though by then Malcolm had married Jane Munro. Malcolm and Jane appear never to have had children. Malcolm is listed as Master Blacksmith And Farmer (Of 11 Acres, All Arable, Employing 2 Man 1 Girl). He died in 1897, 57 years old. Malcolm’s younger brother Hector lived with them. Hector never married and was the last of the Ross children to die, in 1921.

Gledfield Free Church

Gledfield Free Church

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