Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “ross-shire”

The most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain

It is worthy of remark that it was at the climax of its spiritual prosperity the cruel work of eviction began to lay waste the hill-sides and the plains of the north. Swayed by the example of the godly among them, and away from the influences by which less sequestrated localities were corrupted, the body of the people in the Highlands became distinguished as the the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain. It was just then that they began to be driven off by ungodly oppressors, to clear their native soil for strangers, red deer and sheep. With few exceptions, the owners of the soil began to act as if they were also owners of the people, and, disposed to regard them as the vilest part of their estate, they treated them without respect to the requirements of righteousness or to the dictates of mercy. Without the inducement of gain, in the very recklessness of cruelty, families by hundreds were driven across the sea, or gathered, as the sweepings of the hillsides, into wretched hamlets on the shore. By wholesale evictions wastes were formed for the red deer, that the gentlemen of the nineteenth century might indulge in the sports of the savages of three centuries before. Of many happy households sheep walks were cleared for strangers, who, fattening amidst the ruined homes of the banished, corrupted by their example the few natives who remained. Meanwhile their rulers, while deaf to the Highlanders cry of oppression, were wasting their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.
(Kennedy J, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire, pp.15-16, first published 1867)

John Kennedy’s description of the Highland valleys as “sequestrated localities,” gives an idea of their isolation, remoteness and inaccessibility. Nowadays the Highlands are criss-crossed by roads and railways, but before the 1800s the roads were just dirt tracks and the railways had not yet come. Transport was on foot or by horse, and was slow. The people of these Highland valleys lived their whole lives with little contact with the outside world.

There was of course an exception to this. Many young men were recruited into Highland regiments of the British Army, famous for their fighting spirit, and for their loyalty to their lairds.  Responding to the call for volunteers, they marched out of their Highland glens, and departed for distant lands, where they fought and in many cases died, far from home. These were the men Kennedy refers to who wasted “their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.” I am reminded of the haunting words of Mark Knopfler’s song, Brothers in arms:

These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms…

Such young men brought back tales of the many places they had seen, but part of the tragedy of the Clearances was that when they returned to their “valleys and their farms” there was nothing there. Their families had been evicted, the crofts where they had passed their childhood days destroyed to make way for “strangers, red deer and sheep.”

In the two centuries before the last of the Clearances in Ross-Shire (Greenyards 1854) there had been repeated spiritual revivals in the area. This is the subject of Kennedy’s book, and it makes for fascinating reading. It is also the subject of Tom Lennie’s book, Land of Many Revivals, which looks at the same influences not just in Ross-Shire but throughout Scotland. Lennie writes, for example, of the Clearances in Strathnaver, in Sutherland, north of Ross-Shire:

     The district had known rich spiritual blessing from as early as the 1720s onwards. According to the Rev Donald Munro of Ferintosh, a fresh wave of spiritual life began to pass through the Strath about the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. Children and youth, impressed on seeing their seniors repair to Saturday noon prayer meetings – which were common in parts of the North at that time – eagerly began their own prayer groups.
Some in Strathnaver and the wider parish of Farr were said to have been ‘among the most outstanding of the men of the Highlands.’…
A minister who commenced his ministry in Farr said, “…I never knew any place where the religion of Christ so shone, and flourished, and pervaded the community, as it did in Strathnaver.”…
When the Rev David Mackenzie settled as minister of the Mission in 1813, he found a congregation of between 600 and 700, among whom were many men and women – some of high military rank and some well educated – who were ’eminent for piety, and their names still savoury among the churches of the north’ in the late 1870s. Over the next few years, during the period known as the Highland Clearances, every one of the Strath’s 1,600 inhabitants was ruthlessly evicted from the area. The Rev. Donald Sage… later wrote of the last Sabbath in the Strath before the Clearances… It was an unusually fine morning so the service was held on a beautiful green sward by the River Naver. After a sermon and the singing of a psalm, ‘At last all restraints were compelled to give way. The preacher ceased to speak, the people to listen. All lifted up their voices and wept, mingling their tears together. It was indeed the place of parting, and the hour. The greater number parted, never again to behold each other in the land of the living.’ One distressed witness of the evictions wrote of the sufferers: ‘The truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers and religious conferences not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’ Many found no resting place till they reached the backwoods of Canada.
Some decades later, a Sutherland newspaper reminisced about the ‘noble band of godly men born and brought up in Strath Naver, parish of Farr, a district eminent for years, during the latter part of the last century (eighteenth) and the beginning of the present, as the residence of a number of pious, well educated and intelligent Christians.’
(Lennie T, Land of Many Revivals, 2015, pp.199-201)

A picture emerges of the inhabitants of these remote Highland valleys: there were certainly “peasants” among them, but there were soldiers too, and educated people, and they were people of faith. This was the fruit of religious revival, but such a spiritual richness was apparently not evident to the landlords who owned the land on which the people lived. These landlords were quite happy to clear them away for their own economic reasons, justified by some misinformed idea of “progress,” in which the wealthy were more interested in money and ideology than in people. They saw the inhabitants of their lands as too numerous and were worried that they might have to be supported financially from the landlords’ own pockets, something that until then had never been necessary since the “peasantry” were self sufficient and in fact paid rent to the lairds. The landlords did not see the people as intelligent, educated, loyal or pious, but rather as a potential burden that stood in the way and which needed to be removed. Hence the Clearances.

In another place or time the people may have revolted, taken up arms to defend their homes. Indeed it would seem that this was what was expected by many of the aristocracy. They had seen what had happened in France, and what was even happening to a lesser extent in England, and they expected armed resistance. They did not understand the transformation that had taken place in so many Highland hearts. Despite small disturbances the evictions were mostly a peaceful affair, and though the people appealed to their lairds’ reason and compassion, when they were met with stony indifference they usually accepted the judgements of their “superiors” and left quietly. As Lennie quotes, ‘the truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers… not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’

Such a submission to ‘the mighty hand of God’ is frowned on in our day and age, seen as naive and foolish. Resistance is seen as the just way to proceed. But our ancestors lived in a different age, and the people of the Highlands were influenced by a different ethic and worldview. They interpreted what was happening in the context of God’s sovereignty. They didn’t understand why they should be caused to suffer, but they believed in God, and were comforted in their knowledge of his love. They did not interpret their suffering as a sign that God had deserted them or was punishing them, though they were well aware of their own failure to live up to His standards. They did not understand their suffering, but they accepted it, and saw his hand at work.

The result? The gospel was spread around the world, especially to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, countries which so many descendants of the Highlanders now call home. My own ancestors were not among those who were forced to leave, but rather left the Highlands of their own accord. But they too carried with them the spiritual heritage of the preceding two hundred years in the valleys of the Ross-Shire Highlands, a fierce commitment to God which has survived down through the generations. My grandmother’s name was Winifred Urquhart Ross – her names bearing witness to her ancestral origins in Ross and Sutherland. The man she married, my grandfather, came from a somewhat less “religious” family, with its roots in Germany and England. Before he met Win, he had already been influenced towards faith by a couple with whom he lodged in Lithgow, NSW, during the First World War. Here is what my father wrote about that time:

     Dad’s first job that I know of was in the Lithgow Small Arms Factory, but he was called up for military training in early 1918. The War ended in November 1918 just as he was about to embark for overseas. Presumably he returned to his job in Lithgow, but left at some stage to attend Technical College where he later became a teacher in Engineering Trades Drawing at Ultimo Technical College in Sydney.
While living in Lithgow, Dad was greatly helped by Mr. and Mrs. Goodes, with whom he probably boarded. They were a godly Christian couple, and would have been mainly responsible for adding a Christian dimension to his life which the rest of the Holford clan did not have. Sadly none of his siblings had any interest in the Church.
Through his involvement in the Anglican church he also became acquainted with the Robinson family (also of Scottish ancestry). Bradley Robinson was the Rector of the church, and he was married to Gertrude, the eldest daughter of the Ross family of Mosman. He got to know Winifred, a younger sister of Gertrude, who visited the Robinson family from time to time.  It happened that Dad’s father was living in the same street (Raglan St.) as the Ross family, so the friendship with Winifred strengthened until they became engaged and eventually married on December 20, 1925 in St. Clements Church, Mosman.

So the fruit of the revivals in Scotland, of the preaching of great men of God like the Rev John Macdonald of Ferintosh and many others which resulted in “the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain,” has come down through the generations, and spread itself around the world, and has even affected me, though I fear sometimes that I take more after the rather more irreligious Holford clan than the Rosses of Gledfield. But I too have found my way to a faith in the same God that inspired that Highland family, and at least some others of their descendants. So I cannot help but be inspired by the descriptions of those exciting times, and long to see them come again, not just to the Highlands, but to the little corner of the world where I find myself now. Here is another sample, an account of the ministry of James Kennedy of Aberfeldy, recorded by his son, John Kennedy, and quoted in Tom Lennie’s book:

     [Many came] every Sunday, fifteen to twenty miles, to sit under him in Aberfeldy, though they had to start at four in the morning to do it. The sight of these pilgrims travelling in carts, on horseback, and even on foot – the old men clad in homespun and often wearing the Highland bonnet, the old women wearing the snow white ‘mutch’, and carrying sprigs of sweet scented ‘southernwood’ as well as white handkerchiefs and the beloved Psalm-book in their hands – was by no means lacking in picturesqueness. Reaching Aberfeldy long before the hour of service, they were hospitably entertained at breakfast by the villagers. Then they streamed into the plain little chapel, and the worship began… As soon as the church was emptied the manse was crowded… Many of them did not get home till midnight; but the way, though long, was made cheerful with ‘songs of Zion’ and with talk of what they had heard in the morning.”
(Kennedy, Old Highland Days, quoted in Lennie T, pp.210-211)

And a final description, written by a Rev David Campbell a native of Glenlyon, recalling Kennedy’s ministry there in 1816. He had seen Kennedy

     stand almost knee-deep in a wreath of snow, while at the same time it was snowing and drifting in his face all the time he was preaching, and the people gathered around him patiently and eagerly listening to the fervent truths that proceeded from his lips… “Ach gu phi a-comhdhunnadh” – “But to conclude”! – when he came to that, his voice faltered, his eye brightened, and you would think he was as it were rushing between men and death, or plucking them out of the fire.
(quoted in Lennie T, p.210)




Greenyards Estate in the Strathcarron

The last clearance in the Strathcarron was at the end of March, 1854.

“… the eviction concerned twenty two families who were the residue of the much greater population which had been cleared in the name of the octogenarian landlord, the notorious Major Robertson of Kindeace… The people’s record was stainless; nor were they a penny in arrears. Some of the menfolk of Greenyards were currently serving in the 93rd regiment at Sebastopol in the Crimean War. The community was under notice of removal to make way for sheep.” (Richards p.345)

The eviction achieved notoriety and was labelled “the massacre of the Rosses” by a contemporary writer, Donald Ross, because of the injuries sustained by a number of people, mostly women, who resisted the authorities who came to turn them out. The Sheriff of Tain and thirty five men arrived at dawn on the 31st of March and were met by a crowd of some 300 people (although Donald Ross’s estimate of the number in the crowd was much lower). The newspaper reports of the Greenyards events created a sensation in Scotland.

“The basic facts of the case:… a body of baton swinging police… ploughed into a crowd of women, and they… inflicted severe, almost fatal, wounds upon them. The police sustained no injury… it was undoubtedly a trial of strength between the peasantry of Ross-Shire and its police force… In the aftermath four of the people [taken into custody] at Greenyards were sentenced at the Circuit Court in Inverness to a long confinement and hard labour in prison. One year later (February 1855) the clearance at Greenyards was completed, to the accompaniment once more of allegations of cruelty, but without resistance.

“A civil force had been brought in from Tain. The furniture of the evictees was put out into the nearby fields; the fire in the hearth was extinguished and the inmates were ejected like a band of felons. One bedridden woman was placed, in her bed, in the open air, exposed to the piercing cold in intense frost and snowstorm until she was rescued by a neighbour from across the Carron.” (Richards pp.351-352)

This event occurred just a few miles up the valley from Gledfield, where James Ross and his family lived. By 1854 James was around 60 years of age and his sons had taken over the smithy. The twenty two families who were evicted were their near neighbours, even if they lived in the valley and not in the village. James and his family would have known many of them, as the people of the Strathcarron generally passed through Gledfield on their way to the bigger centres of Ardgay, Bonar Bridge, Tain, Dingwall and Inverness. James and his sons were the village blacksmiths and had much contact with the people of the valley.

James had been born in or around the so called Year of the Sheep (1792) when the men of Ross had gathered in Strath Oykel to drive the invading sheep south. He was a young man in 1820 when the Strath Oykel Clearance took place after a confrontation at Culrain, just up the road from his home. In 1845 he watched as the people of Glencalvie left the Strathcarron, driven away by the above named Major Robertson, who owned the land. Finally in 1855 he saw his neighbours from Greenyards pushed out by the same laird. James had raised a family of 13 children. By that time his son James had already left Scotland and was married and living in Wales. Two years later, in 1857, two others of his children, Andrew and Helen, would leave Scotland and migrate to Australia, where both would marry and raise families in the beautiful Bellinger Valley of New South Wales. Eleven years after Andrew and Helen left, his son James, who had moved to Birkenhead, near Liverpool in the intervening years, would also leave for Australia with his wife and children. The youngest daughter, Jane, 22 at the time, sailed with them. James senior died in Gledfield later that same year, 1866. He had seen the departure of many people from his beloved valley, the Strathcarron. Some had been driven away, evicted from the land by apparently heartless landlords. Others, including four of his own children, had left of their own freewill. His son James settled in Sydney, Australia, and his granddaughter, Winifred Ross, was my grandmother.


Carron River near Greenyards

Quotes taken from Eric Richards’ book, The Highland Clearances. 2013

The Wicked Generation

Many streams and rivers run down the eastern fall of the mountains of northern Scotland, the Highlands, as they are called. The valleys they form, though narrow and wild at their heads, spread out into gentler, lusher lands as they approach the east coast, where these now broad, deep rivers flow into the firths that are the fjords of Scotland. Is is these valleys, called straths, that were home to the sparse population of the Highlands since time immemorial, since they afforded both shelter from weather that blows its rains and snows across the bleak higher ground, and lush, fertile land to support the grazing of animals and the growing of crops.


The Strathcarron near the junction between the Carron and Cullenach rivers. Glencalvie lies beyond the trees. View from Croick Church.

One such valley is the Strathcarron, with its dark running river, the Carron, eventually emptying into the Kyle of Sutherland which becomes the Dornoch Firth. The Carron is not a long river, running barely twenty miles from its source in the mountains of Ross-Shire to its mouth. It receives a number of tributaries on its journey to the coast, the major one being the Cullenach which runs in from the north near a tiny settlement called Amat, about 8 miles upstream from Bonar Bridge, where the Carron joins the Kyle.

Standing a little way up on the slope on the northern bank of this stream, very close to its junction with the Carron, there is an old church, at a place called Croick. This last May I visited Croick Church with my Scottish friend Hamish. We had driven up the valley from Ardgay, a village that lies at the head of the Dornoch Firth, having that morning driven from Inverness where we had been staying with friends, a retired minister of the Church of Scotland and his wife. I wanted to see this little church which unexpectedly achieved fame in Scotland and England in the 1840s.


Croick Church, Easter Ross

Croick Church appears to be in the middle of nowhere, an unadorned cement-rendered structure surrounded by some old trees, with a churchyard ringed by a dry stone wall covered in moss. Looking out from the churchyard there is little to be seen by way of human habitation, just a solitary farmhouse a few hundred metres away down the valley. Slopes covered with heather run up to ridges on each side, and the curve of the valley prevents a view of the higher reaches of the river. The day we visited the sky was grey, the grass a mix of green and yellow, the heather on the heights still brown, with little colour to relieve the general melancholy of the landscape. It was easy to wonder why there should be a church here at all, out in the wilderness, with few to attend Sunday Services apart from some wandering sheep. Who comes here, we wondered?

Yet in 1827 the government of Scotland had decided to build a church here, and there must have been a reason for that. When we entered the church we were confronted with the following sign with a lot of the incumbents over the last two centuries:


The lands that are now relatively deserted and given over to the grazing of sheep and the pursuit of hunting and fishing were clearly once home to many people, and the Strathcarron of today has been called an “abandoned community” by a blog with the same name. But how did it come to be so?

A plaque by the road outside the church tells the story:


The story of the Glencalvie clearance in 1845 was told at the time in The Times of London, which had dispatched a journalist to cover the event, one of a long series of evictions in the Scottish Highlands which took place over a century from the late 1700s. The story has been retold many times, with two of the most comprehensive coverages to be found in John Prebble’s book, The Highland Clearances, and Eric Richard’s more recent account in his book of the same name.

We walked around the quiet interior of the church and tried to make out the scratchings on the east window. There is one that has caught the attention of visitors since that time and which still does not fail to tug at the heart when it is seen. It reads, “Glencalvie people – The Wicked Generation.” Not least has it inspired a novel of the Clearances by the same name, The Wicked Generation (Alison Johnson, 1993), a book which paints a vivid picture of those troubled times, though it is completely fictional and set in the Western Isles and not in Strathcarron at all. Why did the people call themselves this? How could they see themselves as “wicked.” Surely the wickedness of those days was that of the landlords who drove them away. But like people throughout history, they must have wondered why. Why were they being driven from their homes? What had they done to deserve this? True, they had mounted a little resistance when the first notices were first served a few years previously. But in the end they had succumbed largely without a fight, accepting their exile as their fate, perhaps sensing that they in some way deserved no better. Whether or not they felt this was the judgement of God for their sins is impossible to know, they seemed aware of a certain spiritual poverty, and though they had suddenly become homeless strangers on the earth, they may have taken comfort from the words of Jesus, so often preached from the pulpit of their church, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Glencalvie people were surely aware that they were poor in spirit that week in May 1845. The kingdom of heaven was their only comfort, cold comfort as it might seem to us, the irreligious of today.


170 years before Hamish and I stood in the same place, some ninety people from the nearby Glencalvie Estate set up camp in this very churchyard. They had been evicted from their homes and were en route to a world unknown and uncertain for them. They remained in the churchyard for a week or so before going on. Very few of their number found anywhere to live in the immediate area, and the majority simply disappeared, presumably to coastal communities, to other parts of Scotland, to England, or perhaps to the rest of the world, joining the growing stream of migrants away from the Highlands and to the colonies of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.

Poor people of the day generally walked. There were no trains in the Highlands in the 1840s. Cars and trucks were unknown. There were carts and carriages to carry goods and people if they had the money. The people of Glencalvie were not the only people living in the Strathcarron, of course. There were many others who watched as they left their homes. The report in The Times describes their arrival at the churchyard, where makeshift tents had been set up to temporarily accommodate them:

I am told it was a most wretched spectacle to see these poor people march out of the glen in a body, with two or three carts filled with children, many of them mere infants, and other carts containing their bedding and other requisites. The whole countryside was up on the hills watching them as they steadily took possession of their tent. (The Times, Monday, June 2, 1845)

When they left, a week or so later, they made their way down the valley towards Ardgay and Bonar Bridge. Most of them were leaving their beloved strath forever. Many of them would have straggled through the little village of Gledfield before they came to Ardgay. One of the first houses they passed in Gledfield was the home of the village blacksmith, James Ross, and his family. James had thirteen children, ranging in age from 1 to 22 years old in 1845. Some 25 years earlier, before he had married or started a family, a younger James had witnessed the Strath Oykel clearance just north of Gledfield, when some 600 people had been forced to leave their homes to make way for sheep. Now he watched another exodus of people, this time from his own strath, and as he watched he surely wondered what the future of the Highlands would be like. How would the world be for his children. James was already over fifty and was knew he would likely end his days in Gledfield, but the children’s lives were just beginning. What would happen to them, he wondered, and where would they end up?

One of the thirteen children bore the same name as his father, James Ross. He was my grandmother’s grandfather, and was just 18 years old at the time of the Glencalvie Clearance. He was likely watching too as the people of Glencalvie left. Within five years he too would leave. He found employment as a servant in an English house in the south, far from his birthplace. He married a girl from Wales and they settled eventually near Liverpool, where he plied his trade as a journeyman joiner. But in the meantime, in the Highlands, his younger sister Helen, and their little brother Andrew, had decided for a new life even further afield, sailing for Australia in 1857, just two years after yet another cruel clearance (Greenyards) had taken place in the Strathcarron, very close to their home. Nine years later, in 1866, James junior would pack up his family in Liverpool, and, with his youngest sister Jane who had joined them from the Highlands, would sail away for the far side of the world. That same year, 1866, his father, James Andrew Ross, blacksmith of Gledfield, died and was buried in the churchyard of Kincardine in the beloved Highlands that they had left forever.


The ruins of the Gledfield smithy, which the Glencalvie people passed on their way to places near and far.

Witnessing the Strath Oykel Clearance. March 1820.

In the winter of 1819-20, the word went around that the people of Strath Oykel were to be evicted. Snow lay on the ground during that January of 1820, but it was a fertile valley; in the summer the area “was beautiful… a green valley floor watered by the black run of the River Oykel, rich pastures rising in gentle slopes to the south. The townships to be cleared lay on the west bank of the Kyle of Sutherland at Culrain…” As Prebble points out in his book, “this was the glen where the Men of Ross had gathered in 1792 before setting out on the great sheep drive… The memory of The Year of the Sheep was perhaps stronger in this strath than anywhere in Ross. The people had another reason for their pride, and for thinking that their laird and the Government were in their perpetual debt. During the Napoleonic Wars the county had supplied more than two thousand five hundred men for the three battalions of the 78th Regiment, RossShire Highlanders… Strath Oykel had sent its youth with the rest of Ross…” (Prebble J, p.121-2)

Culrain is just a few miles north of Gledfield, where my ancestor James Ross was the village blacksmith during those sad years of the Clearances. Culrain is reached from Gledfield these days by a road that first crosses the Carron River and then winds up through forest, over a ridge and down into the next valley. The Kyle of Sutherland, the westerly extension of the Dornoch Firth, is a narrow body of water down on the right side of the road as it descends toward Culrain. These days a railway line runs along the edge of the Kyle, and at Culrain there is a little country station; in 1820 there was no railway, but the road led northwest to the Oykel Ferry, near Achnagart, the main crossing to Sutherland Shire prior to the building of the Bonar Bridge in 1812. Nowadays the ferry is gone and the railway crosses the Kyle where the ferry used to be. Culrain is something of a backwater, though there is a railway station there, and a youth hostel and a scattering of houses; cars and trucks heading north miss both Gledfield and Culrain by taking the newer northward route from Ardgay over the Bonar Bridge into Sutherland Shire. Even Bonar Bridge is much less busy now, since a long causeway across the Dornoch Firth further east opened in 1991, which spans the water between Tain and Dornoch, carrying the vast bulk of traffic heading northward from Inverness, completely missing the area at the inland end of the firth which was once such a busy thoroughfare.

It is likely that by 1820 James Ross, in his mid to late twenties, was already living in Gledfield, and that the business was thriving. He had not yet married his future wife, Catherine Urquhart of Golspie, the town over which the Duke of Sutherland’s stately home, Dunrobin Castle, presided. It is probable that Jame knew many of the people of Strath Oykel who were evicted. He would have been very aware of what was happening to his friends that dark cold winter, and he could hardly have avoided being deeply affected.


Novar House. Wikipedia

The landlord who owned the lands of Strath Oykel was a man named Hugh Munro, a few years younger than James Ross. Munro had inherited the Novar Estate from his uncle, Hector Munro, who had made his name serving in the British Army in India. Hector’s two sons had both met rather dramatic and tragic deaths in India – one after being attacked by a tiger, and the other by a shark in the Bay of Bengal. Hector had been the landlord of Novar at the time of the 1792 troubles. Novar House lies very close to Alness, near where the men of Ross had abandoned the sheep on the ill-fated drive south.

When Hector died without a male heir in 1805, Hugh took over the estate. He had a keen interest in art and was a great fan of the renowned English artist, JMW Turner, from who he commissioned a number of paintings. Even as a young man Hugh Munro was an art collector, like his protege Lord Stafford, the Duke of Sutherland. However, his financial resources were nothing like those of the wealthy owner of Dunrobin Castle, and his passion for collecting art required a steady source of income, more than his estates were providing him at that time.

Hugh Munro lived in a different world to the Gledfield blacksmith, even if their homes were only a few miles apart. Hugh probably had little interest in his estate more than as a source of income for his art collection. He probably knew little of the people who inhabited his estate. James, however, knew the valley of Easter Ross intimately, and lived his whole life there. It is likely that he knew many of the families evicted from the settlements in the Strath Oykel. While Hugh Munro was educated at Oxford (though he never took a degree) and lived the society life of the British aristocracy, James Ross learnt the trade of smithing and lived out his life in his little Highland village. Hugh died in 1864 and James two years later. Hugh presumably spent much time in England, whereas James never left Ross Shire.

Hugh never married but the estate that he owned passed to his cousin when he died and remains very much in the family, today a destination for luxury hunting and fishing holidays, and a delightful location for Highland weddings. James, on the other hand, married, and had 13 children, but there are few traces to be found of his family apart from the ruins of his old forge and a few proud family gravestones in the Kincardine churchyard. The two sons who carried on the family business after James died in 1866, Malcolm and then Hector Ross, both died childless. The need for blacksmiths was diminishing by the end of the First World War and once Hector was too old to carry on the shop fell into disrepair. Now there are just a few walls still standing. Four of the Ross children migrated to Australia, but the lack of male offspring resulted in the Ross name disappearing from their family lines.

Like many of the landed gentry of the Highlands Hugh Munro came to believe that sheep were more profitable than people, and like many others he decided to clear his lands of the people inhabiting the best land. Through January of 1820 snow had fallen intermittently on the valleys of Easter Ross, but in the darker corners of the forests where the insipid winter sun hardly reached, the snow lay deep in drifts. Winter was always a tough time for the crofters of Strathcarron and Strath Oykel, marked by the familiar anxiety of hunger; but with luck and planning the people were able to survive on their stores until warmth returned to the earth in April and May, bringing life back to the cold north. This winter, however, another kind of anxiety lay like a dark snow cloud over the valley – the worry about evictions.

In early February their fear materialised when the laird’s law agent turned up in the valley, together with witnesses, carrying Writs of Removal to be presented to all the tenants and their dependents, warning them to be ready to quit by Whitsunday. Word of their coming had gone before and there was an angry crowd waiting to meet them. The law agent and his witnesses “were maltreated and pillaged of their papers,” according to a report in the Inverness Courier. They were driven off the property, through the snow and from the glen, and threatened with bodily harm if they returned.

James Ross, the young blacksmith of Gledfield, heard about the confrontation and wondered what would become of it. He felt sure that the laird, Hugh Munro, would not let things lie after such an open defiance of his rights and authority. James had seen what had happened to the lands owned by Lord Stafford, the Duke of Sutherland to the north, and felt certain that the same fate was coming to Ross-Shire. He didn’t have long to wait before the next chapter in the story unfolded before him. A month later to the day, on the second of March, he was witness to the old Sheriff of Dingwall, a certain Mr Mcleod of Geanies, who had come over the hills from the south, on his way north to Strath Oykel.

It is hard to be sure which way the road ran in 1820. Nowadays to get to Culrain from Ardgay requires passing through Lower Gledfield, which was called Gledfield back then. However, looking at an old map from around that time the road seems to go more directly and to bypass Gledfield, following the route that the railway now follows across the Carron River. The railway did not exist then, but perhaps there was a road bridge where the line crosses now.

1925 map. The road from Ardgay to Culrain passes through Gledfield before crossing the Carron River. In 1820 the road appears to have followed the present day railway line.

1925 map. The road from Ardgay to Culrain passes through Gledfield before crossing the Carron River. In 1820 the road appears to have followed the present day railway line.

The road from Ardgay to Culrain nowadays runs right past the ruins of the old blacksmith shop before crossing the fields to a high stone bridge across the Carron River. If Sheriff McLeod took that route he would have passed right by James Ross’s little business. But even if the road in 1820 was a mile or so further east, the people of the little settlements of Ardgay and Gledfield could not ignore the Sheriff’s process. For he was not alone.

McLeod was 73 years of age in 1820. He had been Sheriff in Dingwall for a long time, even before the debacle of 1792, the Year of the Sheep, 28 years before. When informed of the fate of the Law Agent and his witnesses he knew that he would have to jump once again into action, since it was his duty to maintain law and order in this little corner of the Highlands. He apparently appealed to the authorities for a military force from the garrison at Fort George, near Inverness. He was clearly worried about the strength of resistance he might meet. The records suggest that he even asked for artillery, as if he was going to war. In retrospect this sounds ridiculous, and even at the time it was regarded as an over-reaction and the request was declined. It does however reflect the excessive level of anxiety that Sheriff McLeod felt in confronting the Highlanders.

One of McLeod’s achievements during all the years of his service in Dingwall had been to establish a local militia, the Easter Ross Regiment, based at Dingwall. McLeod was its colonel. The permanent staff consisted of 25 red-coats, and these were rapidly mobilised. In addition McLeod called on the local constabulary, and managed to recruit 40 volunteers. Many of the local gentry, outraged as they were by the insolence of a peasantry who dared to defy them, were keen to ride with McLeod’s little army, and a large party of them turned up with their servants. Hugh Munro was almost certainly among them. All told perhaps 80 or 90 men marched or rode from Dingwall on a cold and grey Thursday, the 2nd of March, four weeks after the Law Agent had been rebuffed and sent on his way.

It is perhaps twenty miles from Dingwall to Culrain and it is hard to imagine the Sheriff and his men covering that distance on a winter’s day. However, if they left early while it was still dark, and kept up a steady pace, they could probably cover the distance in 7 or 8 hours. Had they departed at 6am they would have passed Gledfield in the early afternoon and got to Culrain by four or five. The Sheriff rode in a carriage, the soldiers were presumably on foot, and the gentry were mounted.

The word of their arrival had come to the valley long before they did and when the Sheriff climbed out of his carriage he was met by a “great crowd of people gathered on the road and on the brae side. There appeared to be more women than men… There was a great deal of noise, the women shouting and crying, young boys blowing whistles or horns to summon the laggards from the valley behind… There were also observed many men running down the hill on the Sutherland side towards the Ferry, with the apparent desire of crossing to assist their neighbours…” (Prebble, p124)

I have found myself wondering as I have read this account of the Culrain confrontation whether James Ross was there that day. He was not about to be evicted, but like the people of Sutherland who came to support the threatened crofters he may well have felt a degree of sympathy for them and their plight. James’ business came from the people of the valleys, and he must surely have known some of them. Somewhere between five and six hundred people were expected to vacate their homes, sub tenants of the three major tenants in the area: John Munro of Culrain, Duncan Kennedy of Achnagart and John Ross of Kilmachalmack. Even if James did not know many he would surely have known the names of these three men, who themselves were to be turned out. He may well have crossed the ridge to Culrain to support them. He was a young man, unmarried, and may have been an activist. The evictions that were happening in those days were known far and wide. There were even some among the “gentry” who felt more sympathy toward the peasants than toward the landlords. One such was a man named Thomas Dudgeon, who lived in Frear, between Edderton and Gledfield. He was seen by his fellow “gentlemen” as being a troublemaker and a nuisance. He was there in the weeks after Culrain. The crofters were surely glad to have at least him on their side.

John Prebble’s description continues (p.125):

Old McLeod got down from his carriage, waving the Writs of Removal, and immediately the crowd pressed upon him and the wall of constables and militia. He shouted to them to disperse, but the women cried back desperately. They shouted, “We must die anyway!”… Better to die here than in America or on The Cape of Good Hope. “We don’t care for our lives!”

A fight ensued, largely with sticks and stones, the constables and gentry striking the women with their sticks and riding crops. The militia fired a blank volley, then “gathered around their colonel with the butts of their muskets swinging.” Then one young militiaman, who had chosen to go against orders and load his musket with ball and not blank cartridges, fired into the crowd. The shot struck a woman in the chest. She fell to the ground, dead.

With things rapidly spiralling out of control the Sheriff decided to withdraw, and his soldiers were glad to escape the maddened women. They picked their colonel up bodily and carried him away, leaving his carriage behind to be overturned and kicked in by the Strath Oykel people. The Writs of Removal were torn up and scattered in the wind. The Sheriff and his men retreated the four miles back to Ardgay chased by men, boys and bloodstained women. There they barricaded themselves in the Inn, the people throwing stones at the windows before returning home in triumph. The Sheriff made the Inn his headquarters for the following week, half expecting the people to return and storm the place, but they never came. The revolt was over.

Twelve days later, in an extraordinary reversal, seven of the principal tenants of Strath Oykel went to the Inn, together with the minister of their parish and accepted the Writs of Removal. What had caused this turn around? Certainly not the urging of the gentleman Thomas Dudgeon of Frear, who had rather tried to stir the people to greater anger.

Rather it had been the effect of the sermonising of that very same minister, a certain Reverend Alexander Macbean, the vicar of the parish of Kincardine. He had gone from one end of the valley to the other preaching a message of submission to the law of the land, a law which enshrined the rights of the landlords far above the those of the tenantry. It is true that the Minister was incensed by the violence of the police and the militia towards his parishioners, and he roundly condemned the Sheriff for the way he had conducted the affair. But at the same time he preached obedience, making it clear that disobedience to the law in this case was paramount to rebellion against God, and that the result of such rebellion was the fires of hell. It was this vicar who eventually got the tenants to write a letter to James Aird, the Ground Agent of Novar, asking him to meet them at the Inn with new Writs of Removal. They met him there on the 14th and accepted the papers. The Sheriff and his little army returned to Dingwall, the crisis past. Two months later, with the Spring bringing warmth and life back to their beloved valley, the people left, over 400 of them.

Did James Ross have a part to play in these dramatic events or was he a silent bystander? Did he take in any of the departing people as they began their journeys to places unknown? There are no records of his household before the 1841 census, so these questions are impossible to answer. But James could hardly have been unaffected. A year or two after the Culrain revolt he married Catherine Urquhart, a Sutherland lass from Golspie. How did he meet her? Was she too affected by the Clearances?

There was further trouble in 1821 at Gruids, in Sutherland, just five miles north of Culrain and ten miles west of Golspie. This was the work of Lord Stafford. The eastern valleys of Ross and Sutherland were being emptied of people. The townspeople of these shires like James Ross and Catherine Urquhart were not directly affected but they saw the sorry crofters drift through their villages and towns. Among the displaced were friends and relatives. The Highland way of life that stretched back generations was being changed. A rift had arisen between the rich and the poor. The clan loyalty that had characterised the Highlands for centuries was disintegrating. Poor people were wondering increasingly what the future of the Highlands would look like. The young began to wonder about starting new lives in distant lands. James Ross may have been one, though he lived his whole life in Gledfield and is buried with his wife in the Kincardine churchyard. But as he and his wife raised their family together over the ensuing decades the future of the Highlands and the prospects of a life further away was surely a frequent topic of conversation.

The clearance of Strath Oykel was the first blow in the fight for the glens of Easter Ross. It was over twenty years before the next blow was struck.

The present day bridge across the Carron River between Gledfield and Culrain.

The present day bridge across the Carron River between Gledfield and Culrain.

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.

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