Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “Strathcarron”



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.

Carron River

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

Carron River, Easter Ross

Carron River, Easter Ross

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

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

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

Dark, swift waters of a highland river. Strathcarron.

Dark, swift waters of a highland river. Strathcarron.

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

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

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

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

Young Katie (Catherine) Ross

Young Katie (Catherine) Ross


North of Inverness on the east coast of Scotland there are three deep inlets from the North Sea: the Moray Firth, the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth. Between the Moray and Cromarty firths is the so called Black Isle and between the Cromarty and Dornoch firths is another land mass which is rather hilly, almost mountainous on the inland side. Driving north from Inverness nowadays there are long bridges crossing each of these firths but in the old days before they were built travellers heading north had to make their way inland to where the waterways were narrow enough to cross, adding many miles to the journey. The towns which grew up at the various crossing points were much more important in those days than they are now and in some cases they have shrunk considerably. At the head of the Moray Firth is Beauly (the higher reaches of the Moray Firth are called the Beauly Firth), while at the head of the Cromarty Firth is Dingwall, though the water is crossed even further up at Conon Bridge (over the Conon River). Beside the headwaters of Dornoch Firth is the village of Kincardine, near Bonar Bridge where the Kyle of Sutherland (which flows into Dornoch Firth) is crossed. But these are bypassed now by the bridge that crosses the firth from near Tain to near Dornoch.

Ross and Cromarty Map, 1957

Ross and Cromarty Map, 1957

The Ross family from which I am descended lived in Gledfield, which is near Kincardine. Between Kincardine and Gledfield these days there is a village called Ardgay, which isn’t even marked on maps from the early 1800s, and which is now bigger than either of the two older villages. Ardgay is about halfway between Bonar Bridge and Kincardine and there is a railway station there, which may be the reason it has grown so much. The Highland railway didn’t reach the area until 1864, so it did not feature in the early life of James Urquhart Ross, who migrated to Australia in 1866, following his younger brother Andrew and sister Helen. Bonar Bridge, on the other hand, was built in 1819, and would have been the main crossing of the Kyle of Sutherland-Dornoch Firth waterway.

Kincardine - Ardgay - Bonar Bridge - Gledfield. Map 1925

Kincardine – Ardgay – Bonar Bridge – Gledfield. Map 1925

In the middle of Ardgay a smaller road branches off and heads inland up the valley of the Carron River. The houses end, giving way to fields, but only a few hundred metres further on there is another scattering of houses. This was once the village of Gledfield, but there is no sign to say so, and on current maps it appears as Lower Gledfield. The village today is just a few lines of houses on either side of the road.

Lower Gledfield today, across the fields from Binar Bridge

Lower Gledfield today, seen across the fields from Bonar Bridge

Entering Gledfield village from Ardgay, the first building on the right is the Church of Scotland, set back from the road along a dirt track, on a slight rise. A little further along the road, on the right, is Gledfield Public School, and still further along on the left is another church, without a sign, which on closer inspection appears to have been converted into some kind of residential dwelling. It is the old Gledfield Free Church. Just past the church there is a fork in the road. The right fork leads across farmland to the Carron River bridge, an arched stone structure. Across the bridge the road divides again, either heading north to Culrain and the Gledfield Estate, or west along the northern side of the Strathcarron. The left fork in Gledfield village heads westward along the southern side of the Carron River, climbing gradually into the hills.

Bridge across the Carron River, near Gledfield

Bridge across the Carron River, near Gledfield

At the fork in the road, on the right and almost at the end of Gledfield village, there is a ruined roofless building built onto the end of an old, derelict house. Built onto the other end of the house, closest to the village, is a newer dwelling which looks lived in, though there was no-one around the day we were there. All three of the buildings are of grey stone. The roofless ruin is the old blacksmith’s shop and the derelict house, I presume, was once the home of the Ross family of Gledfield. It was here that James and Catherine lived and raised their twelve children between the 1820s when they married and the 1860s when James died. James Ross was the Gledfield blacksmith, and several of his sons followed in the same trade. James Ross junior, my ancestor, was the exception to this rule, becoming a journeyman joiner.

Ruins of the Gledfield blacksmith shop, and the Ross home beyond.

Ruins of the Gledfield blacksmith shop, and the Ross home beyond.

Although the Ross family lived in the blacksmith’s house at least until James Ross senior died in 1866, records indicate that his wife Catherine moved after his death. The 1871 census indicates that she lived with her unmarried sons Malcolm and Hector at Upper Gledfield, though exactly where Upper Gledfield was I have not been able to work out. By 1881 Catherine’s address is Gledfield Free Church, still with Malcolm and Hector, though by then Malcolm had married Jane Munro. Malcolm and Jane appear never to have had children. Malcolm is listed as Master Blacksmith And Farmer (Of 11 Acres, All Arable, Employing 2 Man 1 Girl). He died in 1897, 57 years old. Malcolm’s younger brother Hector lived with them. Hector never married and was the last of the Ross children to die, in 1921.

Gledfield Free Church

Gledfield Free Church

Strathcarron and Gledfield

In 1841 my grandmother’s grandfather James Ross was 14 years old. He lived in the village of Gledfield, in Ross-shire with his parents and siblings. He was a child of the Scottish Highlands. His father, who had the same name, was a blacksmith. James got his middle name, Urquhart, from his mother, Catherine.

Gledfield lies near the outlet of the Carron River, where it flows into Dornoch Firth, on the eastern coast of Scotland. The Carron is formed from the confluence of three other streams, flowing down from the mountains to the sea. The river valley is called the Strathcarron, and in the 1840s it was, according to John Prebble, like this:

It was a shallow green valley, an arm reaching westward from the Kyle of Sutherland for nine miles and them clawing at the escarpment of Bodach Mor with three fingers – the narrow ravines of Strath Cuileannach, Strath Alladale and Glencalvie. Down these ran three streams to make the black roll of the River Carron. The land was divided into two estates, Greenyards which formed most of the valley from its elbow to the Kyle, and Glencalvie where the waters of the ravines met on an urlar (from Scottish Gaelic ùrlar meaning “floor”), a green grass floor by the township of Amat.

Four to five hundred people lived in the strath, and their little holdings were pinned to the shawl of the hills by brooches of birch and oak. Most of them were Rosses or Munros by name, though their sennachie, their bard and historian, was John Chisholm, a blind old man who lived at the mouth of the valley. Sitting at the door of his cottage in a blue coat with yellow buttons, a Glengarry on his head, he told the people stories of their ancient feuds with the Mackays. He said that there had been Rosses in the Strathcarron for five hundred years… (John Prebble, The Highland Clearances, p.207)

The Carron River nowadays seems to be sought after for trout and salmon fishing.

The Strathcarron - scene of clearances in 1845 and 1854

The Strathcarron – scene of clearances in 1845 and 1854

But in the 1840s and 50s the Strathcarron became known to the wider public through the publication of a number of articles in The Times and other newspapers, which described the horrifying events of the clearances of those areas in 1845 (Glencalvie) and 1854 (Greenyards), the latter of which became known as The Slaughter of the Strathcarron. Prebble describes the Greenyards estate of the Carron valley as follows:

The area to be cleared was a long, green stretch on both sides of the Carron, eastward from its second bend to the low ground at Gledfield by the mouth of the strath. Here the river flows more slowly than at the mountain angle of Glencalvie, turning in black coils about flat meadows. The hills above it are gentle and brown. The people, who lived in turf and stone townships at calling distance, had uneasy memories of Glencalvie. Some could remember Culrain thirty four years before, and there were a few whose memories stretched as far back as The Year of the Sheep (1792). (John Prebble, The Highland Clearances, p.227).

Our family, the Rosses of Gledfield, lived in the valley through these eventful years. James Ross (senior) was born there in 1794, two years after the so called Year of the Sheep, and Catherine Urquhart, his wife to be, in 1800. They married in 1825, 5 years after the clearance at Culrain, which must have been clear and fresh in their memories. Their son James Ross, who would leave Scotland for England in the late 1840s, and leave England for Australia in the 1860s, was born in 1827. When the clearances at Glencalvie took place in 1845 he was 18 years old. By the time of the clearance of the lower Carron Valley in 1854 James had left Scotland, but must have been horrified to read the stories of his Highland home in letters from family and the press. His parents and many of his siblings were still living in Gledfield at that time, witnesses to the terrible happenings of those years.

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