In 1841 my grandmother’s grandfather James Ross was 14 years old. He lived in the village of Gledfield, in Ross-shire with his parents and siblings. He was a child of the Scottish Highlands. His father, who had the same name, was a blacksmith. James got his middle name, Urquhart, from his mother, Catherine.
Gledfield lies near the outlet of the Carron River, where it flows into Dornoch Firth, on the eastern coast of Scotland. The Carron is formed from the confluence of three other streams, flowing down from the mountains to the sea. The river valley is called the Strathcarron, and in the 1840s it was, according to John Prebble, like this:
It was a shallow green valley, an arm reaching westward from the Kyle of Sutherland for nine miles and them clawing at the escarpment of Bodach Mor with three fingers – the narrow ravines of Strath Cuileannach, Strath Alladale and Glencalvie. Down these ran three streams to make the black roll of the River Carron. The land was divided into two estates, Greenyards which formed most of the valley from its elbow to the Kyle, and Glencalvie where the waters of the ravines met on an urlar (from Scottish Gaelic ùrlar meaning “floor”), a green grass floor by the township of Amat.
Four to five hundred people lived in the strath, and their little holdings were pinned to the shawl of the hills by brooches of birch and oak. Most of them were Rosses or Munros by name, though their sennachie, their bard and historian, was John Chisholm, a blind old man who lived at the mouth of the valley. Sitting at the door of his cottage in a blue coat with yellow buttons, a Glengarry on his head, he told the people stories of their ancient feuds with the Mackays. He said that there had been Rosses in the Strathcarron for five hundred years… (John Prebble, The Highland Clearances, p.207)
The Carron River nowadays seems to be sought after for trout and salmon fishing.
But in the 1840s and 50s the Strathcarron became known to the wider public through the publication of a number of articles in The Times and other newspapers, which described the horrifying events of the clearances of those areas in 1845 (Glencalvie) and 1854 (Greenyards), the latter of which became known as The Slaughter of the Strathcarron. Prebble describes the Greenyards estate of the Carron valley as follows:
The area to be cleared was a long, green stretch on both sides of the Carron, eastward from its second bend to the low ground at Gledfield by the mouth of the strath. Here the river flows more slowly than at the mountain angle of Glencalvie, turning in black coils about flat meadows. The hills above it are gentle and brown. The people, who lived in turf and stone townships at calling distance, had uneasy memories of Glencalvie. Some could remember Culrain thirty four years before, and there were a few whose memories stretched as far back as The Year of the Sheep (1792). (John Prebble, The Highland Clearances, p.227).
Our family, the Rosses of Gledfield, lived in the valley through these eventful years. James Ross (senior) was born there in 1794, two years after the so called Year of the Sheep, and Catherine Urquhart, his wife to be, in 1800. They married in 1825, 5 years after the clearance at Culrain, which must have been clear and fresh in their memories. Their son James Ross, who would leave Scotland for England in the late 1840s, and leave England for Australia in the 1860s, was born in 1827. When the clearances at Glencalvie took place in 1845 he was 18 years old. By the time of the clearance of the lower Carron Valley in 1854 James had left Scotland, but must have been horrified to read the stories of his Highland home in letters from family and the press. His parents and many of his siblings were still living in Gledfield at that time, witnesses to the terrible happenings of those years.