Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “scotland”

Alice Hickson 1872-1962?

Who was Alice Hickson?
Alice Hickson was Dad’s grandmother. She was born in 1872 in Waterloo, in the inner suburbs of Sydney. She married William Ross in 1895 and they had five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, Winifred Ross, Dad’s mother. Although Dad was hardly aware of it when he was a child, his mother told him later her parents’ marriage had not been an easy one. William was a good deal older than Alice, having been born in 1861 in England. His parents had come out to Australia as unassisted migrants in 1866. Gran told Dad that her mother had given her father a hard time. I’m not sure what that means.

William Ross died in 1939 when Dad was 6 years old. Five years after her husband died, Alice, by then over seventy, remarried. She was married to her second husband barely two years when he died, in 1946. Alice outlived her second husband by some 15 years, dying I believe when she was around 90 (though I have not been able to find a document with the date of her death). She never married again. I have wondered what is the story behind these two marriages, the first for forty four years, the second for two. Was Alice equally as hard on her second husband as her first? Or had she matured enough by her seventies to treat her second husband better? Who was this man she married when they were both in their seventies? What brought them together?

Who was this Alice Hickson, my great grandmother? What was her story? What kind of person was she? I am starting to piece together a picture of her, but there are still many blanks.

Alice’s parents and siblings
Martha Hickson, Alice’s mother, was Australian born to an English father, William Watts, and an Irish mother, Mary Magenity. Both of Martha’s parents were convicts. They had married in Australia in 1839, while Mary was still serving time, and had 11 children. Martha was their sixth child, born in 1848. Around 1870, when Martha was 22, a young Irishman, recently arrived in Sydney, came to lodge with the Watts family. His name was John Hickson and less than two years later he and Martha were married, in Balmain. Alice, their first born, arrived at the end of that same year, 1872.

John became a successful timber merchant and real estate developer in Sydney. According to Anthony Hickson (who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hicksons, much of which can be found on his website), John “worked with George Hudson when he first came to Sydney, but soon (perhaps through contact with the Breckenridges, who had timber interests at Forster and that north coast area) had his own timber mill at Nabiac NSW, and on Darling Harbour, Sydney, and later a timber yard at Burwood.” By the time he was forty-five he had amassed enough of a fortune to effectively retire and live on his investments. These “independent means” appear to have supported him for the next fifty years. He and Martha had eleven children, though one of them died in childhood. They lived in Enfield, in Sydney’s inner west, just south of Strathfield, in a house called The Grove, after John’s ancestral seat in County Kerry, Ireland.

The 11 Hickson children were as follows: Alice (1872-1962?), Edith (1874-1957), George (1876-1948), Mabel (1877-1953), Maud (1879-1883), Herbert (1881-1930), Enfield (1883-1964), Percy (1885-1967), Eunice (1888-1973), Hilda (1890-1970), and Richard (1893-1965). These were my grandmother’s aunts and uncles on her mother’s side. There were many more on her father’s side, but that is another story. There are, understandably, many Hickson descendants though I have not met any of them.

1893
1893 was a significant year in the Hickson family. John Hickson turned forty five, and the last of the eleven Hickson children was born. It would seem that in a sense both John and his wife Martha retired that year – John from his work as a timber merchant, and Martha from childbearing. Alice, their firstborn, turned 21 that year. She also fell in love with an Irish migrant, Richard (Dick) Byrne, who had recently arrived from the very same area as her father had come some twenty three years earlier. Dick’s older brother, George Byrne, who had come out to Australia 10 years earlier, was married to Alice’s cousin, Suzie (Hickson) Byrne, so it is not hard to imagine how they met.

Dick and Alice wanted to marry, but Alice’s father was strongly opposed to their union. Exactly why is hard to know. John could not have known Dick before he left Ireland since Dick was born the same year that John sailed away. However, it is fairly certain that John knew Dick’s parents back in Ireland, and it seems sure that he did not approve of them. I suspect it was simply a matter of class. Dick’s parents were ordinary people, and it would seem that John looked down on them. He wanted someone better for his daughter Alice. Even if his own wife was of convict stock, John looked back on a more distinguished Irish ancestry, and he wanted the best for Alice. Dick Byrne, as far he was concerned, was simply not good enough.

His solution was to separate the young lovers. He proposed a world trip, to the World Fair in Chicago, and then to the old country. He took Alice with him, but left the rest of the family at home, including his wife and their newly born son. I imagine Alice had mixed feelings about this. To travel around the world must have seemed an exciting adventure. But to leave her suitor behind, knowing that her father was determined to separate them, must have seemed cruel.

They were away for six months, from April to October, 1893. It would seem John’s strategy worked, because a year and a half after their return Alice did marry, not Dick Byrne but William Ross, my great grandfather.

Alice Ross
William was eleven years older than Alice, and a successful accountant. They had five daughters, one of which was my grandmother, Winifred Ross, born in 1901. They moved to Mosman in the early 1900s where they lived at 75 Raglan Street. They were married forty four years when William died in 1939. After William died Alice went to live with her daughter Ethel (Ep), in Northbridge, next door to my father, who was a little boy then. Alice Ross was around 67 at the time. Dad remembers her from his childhood.

Dick Byrne
So what happened to the young Irishman who Alice had been so in love with? In 1895, shortly after Alice’s marriage to William, Dick also married. He had met a young lady called Victoria Gray, the daughter of a couple both originally from Northern Ireland, but who had married in Wollongong and lived on the south coast of NSW. Victoria was born in Kiama, but when she and Dick married they settled in Drummoyne, not too far from William and Alice Ross, who lived in Burwood in Sydney’s inner west before they moved to Mosman. Dick and Victoria had a long and happy marriage and had seven children. Victoria died in 1941 leaving Dick a widow.

Alice Byrne
The flame between Alice and Dick had apparently never been extinguished. In 1944 Alice and Dick, both in their seventies, were finally united. Alice’s father, John Hickson, was still alive, by that time married for the third time, Alice’s mother having died in 1911. John was still opposed to his daughter’s union with Dick Byrne and it is said that he never forgave her. He died the following year, in 1945, just before the end of the war. Dick died in July 1946, leaving Alice a widow for the second time. They had been together barely two years.

Alone with her memories
Exactly when Alice died I have been unable to ascertain, but the electoral roll for 1958 shows her to have been living again in Mosman at the family residence, 75 Raglan Street. One public family tree on Ancestry.com indicates that she died in 1962, but my father is uncertain of this date, and I have not found any documentary source to verify it.

However, I have come across a passenger list of arrivals in Australia in July 1949 which clearly states that Alice Byrne, of 75 Raglan Street, Mosman arrived in Fremantle from London. It would seem, then, that Alice returned to the old country in her old age a few years after Dick died. Where she went and what she did is uncertain. Did she visit Ireland again, where she had been so many years before? Did she meet relatives of her late husband still living there? What did she think as she walked the streets of Killorglin, where her father was born, and Killarney, where her second husband grew up?

Or did she go to Scotland, which she had also visited as a 21 year old with her father? Her first father-in-law, James Ross, came from the Highlands, north of Inverness, and perhaps she was curious to explore that part of her heritage. She had not been to the Highlands with her father, their journey having been limited to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the country they saw from the train between the two cities.

Alice Hickson-Ross-Byrne was 77 when she returned to Australia in the winter of 1949. She lived out her days in Mosman within calling distance of four of her daughters who all lived in Sydney. One of her daughters had moved to Melbourne. My father remembers seeing his grandmother Alice from time to time.

My parents’ Hickson connection
When Dad married Mum in 1958, Alice was a grand old lady of Mosman. Although Dad seemed to have been unaware of it at the time, the girl he married, my mother Gwen Simmonds, was the granddaughter of Alice’s cousin, Susie Hickson (Byrne).

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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)

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.

Greenyards

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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

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