Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “Catherine Urquhart”

Gledfield Free Church


Gledfield Free Church, Ardgay, Highlands

Back in May when Hamish and I travelled around the Highlands we passed through Gledfield, the home of my Scottish Ross ancestors. We saw an old church that had no sign outside but which I took to be the Gledfield Free Church. I took a few photos and found myself wondering exactly how it was being used now, since it seemed to have ceased its function as a house of worship.

Yesterday I received the following information in an email from Peter Reynolds of It brought a smile to my face:

I see the old Gledfield Free Church is for sale. Driving past, it was not immediately obvious that it had been converted to a house. There is actually a lot of property in Ardgay on the market at the moment.

I remembered a census record from 1881 that I had seen some time ago on when I was researching Catherine Ross (Urquhart) and looked it up:

1881 census
Name: Catherine Ross
Estimated Birth Year: abt 1801
Relationship: Mother
Gender: Female
Where born: Golspie (G), Sutherland S.
Registration Number: 71A/1
Registration district: Kincardine
Civil Parish: Kincardine
County: Ross and Cromarty
Address: Gledfield F. Church
Occupation: Annuitant
Household Members:
Malcolm Ross 41, Jane Ross 29, Hector Ross 38, Catherine Ross 80, Elizabeth Stewart 14.

I still don’t really understand why the family address is listed as Gledfield Free Church. Surely in 1881 the building was still being used as a church, and not as a home. Looking more closely at the census record reveals that Malcolm Ross was the head of the household and that his occupation was “Master Blacksmith And Farmer (Of 11 Acres, All Arable, Employing 2 Man 1 Girl).” Jane Ross was his wife and Hector Ross his younger brother. Malcolm and Jane never had any children and Hector never married. Hector was a journeyman blacksmith. Elizabeth Stewart was their domestic servant.


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.

Looking south from Bonar Bridge. Ardgay is on the other side of the water, Gledfield to the right, Kincardine and Edderton to the left. Beyond Ardgay and Kincardine the sheep were driven up over the hills south toward Dingwall.

Looking south from Bonar Bridge. Beyond Ardgay and Kincardine the sheep were driven up over the hills south toward Dingwall.

Catherine Urquhart of Golspie (1800-1887)

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, 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.

Golspie, Sutherland

Golspie, Sutherland

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.

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle

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.

The Duke of Sutherland, 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.

Urquhart is still a common name in Golspie.

Urquhart is still a common name in Golspie.

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.

The empty glens - Strathcarron today

The empty glens – Strathcarron today

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