Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “highlands”

Gledfield Free Church

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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 peterreynoldsbooks.com. It brought a smile to my face:

I see the old Gledfield Free Church is for sale. http://bellingram.co.uk/property/the-old-free-church-ardgay-sutherland/ 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 Ancestry.co.uk when I was researching Catherine Ross (Urquhart) and looked it up:

1881 census
Name: Catherine Ross
Age:80
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.

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Carron River

In the eastern Highlands of Scotland there is a beautiful river flowing down from the mountains to the sea; the Carron rises in the high country of Ross-Shire and at its steepest tumbles over rocks between barren heights covered in heather and gorse. In its lower reaches it still runs swift between higher banks and shingle beaches, but is darker and deeper and between the brown grey slopes of the hills are patches of tall old forest. The last 10 kilometres are through lush green fields enclosed by ancient stone walls and modern electric fences. It is a peaceful place, with only a few houses dotted over the countryside, though there are signs of wealth in a couple of old stately homes, castles really, placed in spots of special beauty or magnificence. Sheep graze quietly in the green fields, and are the only sign of life apart from an occasional car winding up the narrow roads on each side of the river.

Carron River, Easter Ross

Carron River, Easter Ross


The Carron valley is known as the Strathcarron. Its river ran through the lives of the family from which my grandmother was descended. Her great grandfather and his sons were the village blacksmiths of Gledfield, near to where the Carron empties into the Kyle of Sutherland, which becomes the Dornoch Firth, and so to the North Sea. The ruins of James Ross’s smithy are still there to be seen, a short walk from the stone bridge that now spans the river a few hundred metres from their village home. The house in which the family lived is derelict now, but it was once the home to a large family, James and Catherine Ross and their twelve children. Four of those children would migrate to Australia, but the rest of the family rarely ventured beyond that beautiful green valley; seven or more of them lie buried now in Kincardine churchyard, just a few kilometres east toward the sea, their final rest between the mountains and the sea.

The Strathcarron became infamous in the 1840s and 50s when many of its families were evicted from their ancestral homes in the valley, to make way for sheep grazing, in what the landlords saw as agricultural and economic progress (“improvements” was the term they used), but what has later been re-interpreted with words as harsh as ethnic cleansing. James and Catherine were never evicted from their home, living in a village where they posed no threat to the landlords agricultural ambitions, but they were witness to these terrible events, and cannot have failed to have been deeply affected by them. Literally hundreds of their near neighbours were simply banished from their homes, for ne reason more than they were “in the way.” The sad story of “The Massacre of the Rosses” in the Strathcarron is told in detail in John Prebble’s book, The Highland Clearances.

But tragedy came to James and Catherine’s family too, as I recently discovered in a copy of a letter sent me by a distant relative, Judy Horrigan, a letter written in 1978 by an elderly resident of Ardgay to Donald Robinson, another Australian descendent of the Ross family (my father’s cousin). The Carron River was central to that tragedy too, for it was the river that claimed the James and Catherine’s spinster daughter, Katie, who was accidentally drowned close by to where she lived with two of her brothers and her ageing mother.

Dark, swift waters of a highland river. Strathcarron.

Dark, swift waters of a highland river. Strathcarron.


There were 4 girls in the Ross family. The oldest, Ann, married in her early twenties and had three children, but her husband died when Ann was still a young woman. She and her little children moved back to her parents in Gledfield. Helen, the second daughter was 15 when the first of the Strathcarron evictions took place in 1845 and 24 at the time of the second round of evictions in 1854. Before she turned 30 she had resolved to leave Scotland forever and migrate to Australia, the first of the Ross children to do so. She was a strong young woman and knew her mind; she no doubt had her reasons for departing.

Catherine (Katie) was the third daughter, just a year younger than Helen. She never married but remained in the family home all her life. When she was 35 her father died and the smithy was taken over by her brothers; Catherine took care of their ageing mother. Ann’s children had grown up and moved on, and Ann had also moved out by that time, though I am still uncertain of what became of her. Jane, who was the youngest sister, had travelled with her brother James and his family to Australia the same year that their father died, in 1866. Their mother was 66 when her husband died, and was the matriarch of the family and Katie was the oldest of her children living in the family home, but Malcolm, one of the younger brothers, who was still unmarried, took over the running of the family home and business. Their youngest brother, Hector, still lived at home and worked as a blacksmith with Malcolm.

Katie was 48 when she died, “accidentally drowned in the Carron River, quite close by.” More than that I do not know. Her mother, by then nearing 80, was frail and confused. Malcolm and Hector ran the smithy. Malcolm had married but Hector remained single his whole life. Four of their siblings were in Australia, though Andrew had died only five years after his arrival, in 1870, when he was just 35.

How did this dark, fast running river claim the life of Katie Ross, the woman who had devoted her life to her family in the little village of Gledfield? Was it an accident or were there other forces at play? The waters of that highland river are cold and quiet. They have witnessed much suffering over the centuries, and taken some lives, for it would need a strong swimmer to struggle out of the stream if once submerged and caught by that strong, swift current. There is sadness and secrecy in those beautiful, dark waters.

Young Katie (Catherine) Ross

Young Katie (Catherine) Ross

Communion season in nineteenth century Ross-Shire

It seems likely that James Ross carried the name Ferintosh to Australia with him because of a profound spiritual experience that he had at Ferintosh Burn in the 1840s when the Reverend Dr John McDonald was the minister at Urquhart, the parish which contained the area known as Ferintosh. Actually, Dr McDonald had ceased being the minister at Urquhart in 1843 when the Free Church of Scotland broke away from the Church of Scotland; he became one of the first Moderators of the Free Church in 1844. He had to move out of the manse at Urquhart and became the minister of the newly built Free Church of Ferintosh. According to Kennedy in his book, The Apostle of the North,

He flitted again to a larger but not more comfortable house, and a third time time to the Free Church manse, where he spent the home share of the last three year years of his life. During the erection of new church, he preached in “the burn,” long celebrated as the place of the great communion gatherings. it was there he preached on the first Sabbath after his return from the Disruption Assembly. His Gaelic text on that day was Gal v.1, from which he preached a most stimulating and cheering sermon. (Kennedy J, The Apostle of the North, p310)

Galatians 5:1 says the following:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

The Free Church of Ferintosh still stands, with a spectacular view out over the Cromarty Firth to Dingwall. Hamish and I wandered around the churchyard but the doors were locked so we couldn’t look inside.

Hamish outside Ferintosh Free Church. Beyond lies Cromarty Firth and Dingwall.

Hamish outside Ferintosh Free Church. Beyond lies Cromarty Firth and Dingwall.

But it is the Ferintosh Burn that fascinates me, because I suspect that it was there that James Ross’s spirit was brought to life when he was a young man. The communion seasons that are spoken of so often in the literature of the time and which are still a feature of the Free Church of Scotland even today, were the Christian mega-gatherings of the day, like the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s and 60s and the Christian conferences and conventions of today. Such gathering had many critics in those days but there was much to be said in their defence, as Kennedy observes in his writings:

Great crowds were accustomed to assemble on such occasions. As many as 10,000 people have met on a communion Sabbath, and nearly 2000 communicants have sat at the table of the Lord…

There were two great advantages attending these “public communions,” as they were called. An opportunity of fellowship was given by them to Christians from all parts of the country, who would not else have met or known each other on the earth; and the gospel was preached to a great multitude of sinners, by a variety of ministers, amidst the prayers of a great many of God’s people…

But the opportunity which was afforded, on a communion occasion, of hearing all the good ministers of the district, the proofs given of the Lord’s presence with each of them, the effect of a community of profit and enjoyment under their preaching, and the loving fellowship of such seasons, tended in a great degree to bring all these sections more closely together, and to expand their sympathies and hopes.
(Kennedy J,The Days of the Fathers in Ross Shire)

But what happened at the communion season? Here is Kennedy’s description:

A communion season is approaching. It has been timeously announced, that it may be known “far and wide,” and that the praying people may be bearing it on their spirits before the throne of grace. The minister preaches a suitable course of sermons on several preceding Sabbaths. The Lord’s people are stirred up to seek a special manifestation of His power and glory. A few, who propose to seek admission to the Lord’s table, are deeply exercised about the solemn step they contemplate, and faithfully and tenderly are they dealt with by both minister and elders. As the appointed time draws nigh, special meetings for prayer are held, and, with holy solicitude, all the preparatory arrangements are made.

The Fast-day is come. Eminent ministers have arrived to take part in the solemn services. Many of the Lord’s people are gathering. From as many as forty parishes they come; but lodgings they will easily procure, as the parish people are striving for the pleasure of entertaining them. Suitable discourses are preached in Gaelic, on the open field, and to a small English congregation, in the church, and in the evening, prayer meetings are held in the various districts of the parish.

On Friday, the day of self-examination, the only public service is in the open air. A large crowd is gathered. “In the tent” there are several godly ministers. The service is that of a fellowship meeting, such as has already been described, but now with special reference to the solemn duties of a communion Sabbath. There are two questions proposed successively to secure variety. Strangers only are called to speak, and even of these only “the flower,” for there are so many. Not fewer than thirty will have spoken before the service is over. Blessed indeed to many souls have these “Friday meetings” been.

The services on Saturday, the day of preparation, are conducted as on Thursday, but, owing to the gathering influx of strangers, the congregation outside is greatly larger than on the Fast-day. At the close of the service, tokens are distributed. Prayer meetings are held throughout the parish in the evening; and while the ministers are preparing for the solemn work of the Sabbath, many are the petitions that ascend in their behalf, to Him who hath “the treasure” to dispense, and of whom is “the excellency of the power.” In many instances, these prayer meetings have been protracted all night. So sensible were the people of the presence of the Lord, that they could not forsake the place where they enjoyed it; and they found “the joy of the Lord” a sweet substitute for sleep.

On Sabbath, the day of Communion, an immense crowd is gathered before the tent. As many as eight thousand are there. The “Beauty of the Lord,” is on the assembly of His people; and before the service is over, many a soul has had reason to say, “it is good to be here.”

On Monday, the day of thanks-giving, a crowd almost as large as that on Sabbath is assembled and often has “the last” been found to be the “great day of the feast.” The closing service of the communion season is now over, and then comes the solemn parting! How affecting do the Lord’s servants and people feel the scene before them to be, as that multitude disperses, never to meet all together again, till the vast congregation of “the last day” has assembled! What touching farewells are now exchanged between the Christians who enjoyed with each other, and together with the Lord, such sweet communion since they met a few days before! There are few tearless eyes, but the weeping is expressive of gratitude as surely as of sorrow. Such was a communion season in the good days of the Fathers in Ross-shire.

Such communion seasons were probably held at Ferintosh only once a year, probably in the summer – July or August. James Ross was 16 in the year that the Free Church was formed. The five years that followed probably laid the spiritual foundation for his life. I believe he left Scotland in 1848 or 1849. He would live in England, Wales and finally Australia. But he would take the name of Ferintosh and the memory of those days with him wherever he went. How it showed itself in the rest of his life is hard to know. I have no descriptions (nor photos) of James Ross. My grandmother, Winifred Ross was born in 1901, 9 years after James died in 1892. She knew of him only what her father told her. I don’t remember her ever speaking of him.

I tried to imagine James and his family among the immense crowds gathering at the Ferintosh Burn when I was wandering those pleasant fields with Hamish a few weeks back. It is quiet and peaceful there now. But how would it have been with thousands of others there? What effect would the preaching of the great “fathers” have had on me, I wonder?

The fields around Ferintosh Burn, where crowds of up to ten thousand gathered for the Communion season.

The fields around Ferintosh Burn, where crowds of up to ten thousand gathered for the Communion season.

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