Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “maps”

Strathcarron and Gledfield

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.

The Strathcarron - scene of clearances in 1845 and 1854

The Strathcarron – scene of clearances in 1845 and 1854

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.


Old maps


I have to confess to a weakness for old maps. There is something vaguely adventurous and exciting about the yellowed paper, the colours, the text. I found this image recently on a free app for iPad. It brings to mind a Europe that to us today is barely remembered, a Europe without the nation of Germany, that was nevertheless the home of our German ancestors. Sweden and Great Britain are just on the fringes of this world, even if they in many ways have played a bigger part in our history than Central Europe. But as I have focussed on my German ancestry the last few months this old Germany has caught my attention.

The Duchy of Holstein, where Johann Holdorf lived as a young man, is way up north, coloured orange like Denmark. Caroline Fisher, who would marry him in Sydney in the 1860s, was born in Augsburg, in the Kingdom of Bavaria, right in the centre and coloured green. Before leaving Europe in 1854, while Caroline was still a little girl, the Fisher family lived in the little town of Harheim, on the border between the Grand Duchy of Hesse and the Duchy of Nassau, just north of Frankfurt.

The map is a collection of empires and kingdoms, of duchies and principalities, with wonderful names like Bohemia and Pomerania, Saxony and Silesia, Moravia and Mecklenburg. Even the Grand Principality of Transylvania gets into the picture, hanging off the eastern end of Hungary. These half forgotten lands bring thoughts of a world now slipping further and further into the mists of time, a world of kings and emperors, of dukes and princes. To us now they seems like the stuff of fairytales, but to our ancestors they were everyday life.

Ice on the Elbe

Hamburg is a city on a river, the Elbe. But it is also a large seaport and in the 1850s was becoming, with Bremen, one of Germany’s major emigration points. To reach the sea ships had to navigate the wide reaches of this mighty river on a north west route with the Danish Duchy of Holstein on the right and the Kingdom of Hannover on the left. Gluckstadt, on the Holstein side, lies halfway from Hamburg to the sea. The Caesar, with a collection of other sailing ships, anchored near Gluckstadt for two nights, waiting for the wind to change. Further on, as the river broadens out at its mouth, Cuxhaven lies to the left at the northern extremity of Hannover, the last opportunity to return to the German mainland before ships leave the river behind and sail out into the sea. The Caesar stopped briefly off Cuxhaven and then sailed on; those were the Fischer family’s last glimpses of Germany as the ship slipped away into the North Sea.

Dr Middendorf’s account of this departure from Germany in the chilly days of late autumn, 1854, gives us a feeling not just for the journey, but also for the captain of the vessel, Johann Stürje, a “soft-hearted, overly good man.”

There was already ice on the Elbe and the air was bitterly cold. Meanwhile, we glided calmly down the Elbe and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon anchored near Gluckstadt, to wait there for a favourable wind. This soon arrived the following evening, and we were only missing the Captain. The next morning many of the ships that had lain with us before Gluckstadt had weighed anchor and gone to sea… The Captain came late in the evening, and early next morning we continued down the Elbe with a fresh easterly…

The Captain sat in his cubicle with his son on his knee, and both were crying – I heard it while I wrote. The Captain is a soft-hearted, overly good man. He lost his wife only recently, whom he loved above all things, and you can imagine how difficult this goodbye was for him. The old father-in-law went up and down in the cabin with hands clasped behind his back to hide his emotion… 

We were nearing Cuxhaven, a signal flag was hoisted and a boat neared the ship to take off the Captain’s relatives. This was done as soon as he appeared on deck to give the necessary orders. The old seaman, despite his years, climbed down the ropes with the ease of a sailor and lifted the boy down. The boat vanished quickly, as did the flat coastline and eventually also the lighthouses of Wangeroog and Neuwerk, and we were on the open sea.

Hamburg to the North Sea

Hamburg to the North Sea

From the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Nineteenth century Germany

In an attempt to understand where my German ancestors came from, I have tracked down this useful map from Wikipedia. There was no Germany as we know it in the nineteenth century, rather a confederation of German speaking kingdoms and duchies (the German Confederation or Der Deutsche Bund). On the map below it is Holstein in the far north and Bavaria (Bayern), in the south, which are of interest. Prussia was between them, and the superpower of Austria to the south. Johann Holtorf (later John Holdorf) left Bad Bramstedt, Holstein in 1856, when he was 28 years old. Caroline Fischer, who John would later marry, left Harheim, Bavaria, in 1854, when she was 7 years old. She travelled with her parents, Gottried and Viktoria Fischer, and her three younger brothers, Charles, Heronimys and William. Both Johann and the Fischer family sailed from Hamburg.

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Groß Aspe or Großenaspe?

Johan Holtorf, who renamed himself John Holdorf when he migrated to Australia in the middle of the nineteenth century, was born in 1828 in Bimöhlen, Holstein, in northern Germany. At the time of his birth, however, Holstein was under the control of Denmark. His oldest sister Anna, the first born of the family, was born in Bramstedt in 1817. Between Anna and Johan there were three other siblings, Claus (1820), Hans (1822) and Wilhelmina (1825). According to notes from my father’s files each of these three was born in Groß Aspe. I searched for Groß Aspe on Google maps and found a town with that name some 100km from Bramstedt west across the Elbe, as I mentioned in my the last blog. Why, I wondered, would Claus and Margarethe have moved there? Or more specifically, did they move there? The other day as I was poring over the map of Holstein I noticed that just a few kilometres away from Bimöhlen is another town with the very similar name of Großenaspe, and it occurred to me that this might be the place to which the Holtorf family moved after Anna was born and not the distant Groß Aspe, given its proximity to Bramstedt. För many of the years between 1817 and 1828 the Holtorf family lived in Großenaspe, bit before Johann’s birth they moved to Bimöhlen. The sixth child in the family, Andreas, was born in 1832, presumably also in Bimöhlen. Their mother Margarethe, died in 1835. Claus, their father, remarried in 1837, in Bramstedt, to Elsabe Lentfer, with whom he had four more children, though only two of them survived into adulthood. Claus, it would seem, was born in Bramstedt, though his father was born in Bimöhlen. Margarethe was born in Wiemersdorf. Going back through the generations prior to Claus, his father Detlef (Dirk Holtorf) was born in Bimöhlen in 1764, his grandfather Dirk Holtorp, was born in 1723 and his great grandfather Dirk Holtorp, was born in Kampen in 1688. I found Kampen too on Google maps, a tiny spot some 10km south of Bramstedt. For hundreds of years then the Holtorf’s had lived in and around Bramstedt. But in the middle of the nineteenth century they began to depart. Johann went to Australia, Andreas to America. The two sisters appear to have ended up in England, but of the two brothers who remained in Germany only one, Hans, had any children. Of Elsabe’s four children, two died in childhood, one died before he was thirty, apparently childless and one migrated to Sydney. So of Claus Holtorf’s ten children, only Hans remained to have children in Germany. Johann went to Australia and became the father of the Holdorf, later Holford, clan. Claus Holtorf’s last son, Jakob Holtorf, also migrated to Sydney, but what became of him and his ancestors is unknown to me. So in Australia now there are possibly Holfords, Holdorfs (since at least one of Johan’s sons kept the Holdorf name) and Holtorfs, all ancestors of Claus Holtorf of Bramstedt in Holstein, northern Germany.

The red pin marks Groß Aspe

The red pin marks Groß Aspe

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