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Easter Ross

If that district which has little history is to be considered happy then this is one of the happiest of spots, as there are records of wonderfully few of those happenings which are considered history, civil or uncivil, but much could be written of the ebb and flow of the many ecclesiastical or religious waves by which for centuries the district has been swept.

According to Ptolemy, a tribe called the Decanbae lived in the district which extends from Beauly to Edderton, and the Smertae occupied the valleys of the Carron, Oykell, and Shin. At a later period the inhabitants of the district were known as Picts, who probably mixed with Celts. When the Norsemen came to the west coast they probably drove the Scots eastward and thus there is some likelihood that in the dim past there was a time when the inhabitants spoke Pictish, Gaelic, and Norse. Before the opening of the tenth century the Norsemen were all-powerful in the district and held sway for about two hundred years.

When their power waned at the opening of the twelfth century the Gaels were triumphant and the Picts a lost race. Of the feuds for mastery between these races not a trace seems to remain in authentic history or local tradition and really nothing can be affirmed of it until it was formally annexed to the kingdom of Scotland, and then for a long time its history is associated with Tain, its capital, which received from Malcolm Canmore its first charter somewhere about 1060 a.d. There still exists in the Tain Council Chambers a notarial certified copy made in 1564, of the Royal Charter granted in 1457 by James II., who in it confirms the grants made by his predecessors, “To God, the blessed St. Duthus, the church and clergy, the town of Tain and its inhabitants, the immunities granted them within the four corner crosses placed about the bounds of Tain and all their liberties and privileges.”

Probably it was by Malcolm that the right of “Sanctuary” was conferred on the town, a right which must have helped the place into prominence all over the north as to it in lawless times the weaker could go and be safe from their oppressors. It is quite possible that this right was got from Malcolm^and his proselytising superstitious Queen Margaret by Duthack or Duthus, afterwards St. Duthus, who is said to have been born in the now ruined ivy covered chapel near the railway station and who by that time had somehow acquired his saintly character. The king would very likely hold Duthus in awe and readily grant the request if he were told that a smith, when Duthus as a boy came to him for fire, placed some live coals in his lap arid that the lad carried them home without injury to himself or his clothes, and that angels were seen encamping around his home at the Angel’s Hill. St. Duthus studied in Ireland, probably travelled as a missionary, and died in Armagh in 1065. To this spot nearly two hundred years afterwards his remains were carried and in this way the holiness of this sanctuary was further enhanced. So sacred was this sanctuary held all over Scotland, that in 1306, when Robert the Bruce’s fortunes were at their lowest ebb, he sent his queen and daughter here with several ladies and a number of knights. William, the fourth Earl of Ross, unscrupulously violated the sanctuary, slew the knights, and delivered the ladies up to their English enemies.

Its sanctuary was next violated in 1427 when Mowat, a laird of Freswickin Caithness, was defeated by Thomas Macneil of Creich. The vanquished fled here for refuge, but the angry pursuers slew all whom they found outside and then set fire to the chapel and so brought death to their enemies within and an end to the building, which has never since been roofed. According to some authorities important documents placed here for safety were also burnt, perhaps also St. Duthus’ shirt, a relic which was said to possess marvellous powers, but did not preserve Hugh, the fifth Earl of Ross, from fatal wounds though he wore it at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. The English, who likely enough regarded the relic with awe, restored it to the sanctuary.

To the chaplain of this shrine, Janies IV. ordered an annual sum to be paid that masses might be said on behalf of his father’s soul, while he himself did penance by wearing an iron chain to which he added a link year by year, and came here on penance intent sometimes thrice a year for nineteen successive years, that is from 1494 to 1513. During these journeys he would doubtless learn to take an interest in the Highlands, would probably hear complaints of injustice and help to maintain justice. He was here for the last time on 5th August 1513, and on 9th September following he fell at Flodden.

In 1483, William, Lord Crichton, took refuge within this “girth” of Tain, and though verbally summoned by the King’s macer to come to Edinburgh, he refused to leave it and lived here in safety for some time.

Much of the subsequent history of Tain and Easter Ross is connected with the struggle of the various creeds and churches for mastery, and some of these are detailed in the next chapter, but several other historical incidents are worthy of note. For many a long year the Earls of Ross and other great folk really held kingly sway and were very pleasant masters for their subjects so long as they had their own way, but woe betide any who turned on them. It is told, and though the story may be apocryphal it is illustrative, that when an injured woman complained to an Earl of Ross, then said to be resident at Balnagown, that she would go to the king for redress he ordered horseshoes to be nailed to the soles of her feet that she might be better able to perform the journey.

Among others who for a time had an interest in Easter Ross was “The Wolf of Badenoch,” who married a Countess of Ross, and received a Royal charter of his wife’s lands.

There are also records of clan battles. There was one fought at Alt Charrais in i486 or 1487 between John, Earl of Sutherland, and Alexander the Sixth of Balnagown. The occasion was revenge. One Angus Mackay, the son of Neil Vass Mackay, had been previously slain at Tarbat; a son of the slain man begged the Earl of Sutherland for assistance so that he might be revenged for his father’s death. The Earl yielded and sent his uncle, Robert Sutherland, with a company of chosen men to assist Mackay. Strathoykell was invaded with fire and sword, and there was “burnt, spoiled, and wasted many lands appertaining to the Rosses. The laird of Balnagown, hearing of this invasion, gathered all the forces of the province of Ross, and met Robert Sutherland and John Mackay at Alt Charrais. There ensued a cruel battle, which continued a long space with incredible obstinacy; the doubt of the victory being no less great than the desire. Much blood was shed. In the end, the inhabitants of Ross, being unable to endure the enemy’s force were utterly disbanded and put to flight. Alexander Ross of Balnagown was there slain with seventeen other landed gentlemen of the province of Ross, with a great number of common soldiers.”

Some of the leaders of Easter Ross Society, notably Katherine, the eldest daughter of the ninth Earl of Balnagown, had resort to witchcraft and poisoning to accomplish her purposes, and her career is fully and interestingly set out in Chambers’ Domestic Annals of Scotland, vol. i, pp. 203.

Much interest was excited in this district in 1626 in connection with the thirty years’ war, and a regiment was raised here to fight under Gustavus Adolphus. It is worthy of note that in these German wars under this Lion of the North, there were engaged three generals, eight colonels, five lieutenant-colonels, eleven majors, and more than thirty captains, besides a large number of subalterns of the name of Munro.

The Twelfth Ross of Balnagown, at his own expense, raised a regiment of Rosses to help Charles II., and proceeded with the Scots to England, where they were defeated at Worcester. Eight thousand prisoners were taken, and among them many Easter Ross men who were sold as slaves to the American Colonists. The laird himself was imprisoned in the Tower and died in 1653. It is pleasing to have to record that after the Restoration this king settled a pension on Balnagown’s son.

That was not the only connection Easter Ross had with the fight between Cromwell and the Royalists, and the following account of how Lieut.-Colonel Strachan outwitted the celebrated Marquis of Montrose on the borders of Sutherland and Ross is of interest.

The Marquis crossed from Orkney to Caithness in April 1650. He had calculated on collecting a considerable force in that county, but failed. He marched southwards, and the Earl of Sutherland retired before him as he advanced and Montrose reached Strath Oykell with but a force of 1200 men. Lieut.-Colonel Strachan hurried to meet him with a party of horse, while Leslie was pressing on with 3000 foot. It was resolved that the Earl should cross into Sutherland to intercept Montrose’s retreat, while Strachan advanced with 230 horse and 170 foot in search of him. Under cover of some broom, they succeeded in surprising him at a disadvantage, on level ground near a pass called Invercharron, on the borders of the parish, on Saturday, 27th April 1650, having diverted his attention by the display of merely a small body of horse. Montrose immediately endeavoured to reach a wood and craggy hill at a short distance in his rear with his infantry, but they were overtaken. The Orkney men made but little resistance, and the Germans surrendered, but the few Scottish soldiers fought bravely. Many gallant cavaliers were made prisoners, and when the day was irretrievably lost, the Marquis threw off his cloak bearing the star, and afterwards changed clothes with a Highland kern that he might effect his escape. He swam across the Kyle, directed his flight up Strath Oykell, and lay for three days concealed among the wilds of Assynt. At length, exhausted with fatigue and hunger he was apprehended by Neil Macleod, who happened to be out in search of him. The gallant Marquis’ subsequent fate is well known.

As in other parts of the north the people of this district were much agitated by “The Fifteen,” though they seem almost unanimously to have sided with the Hanoverians. Sir Robert Munro asked Lord Strathnaver to assist him to defend Ross-shire. This he did, and at the same time the Munroes, Grants, and Rosses were mustered by their chiefs. When the Earl of Seaforth, who favoured the Jacobites, asked Sir Robert to deliver up all his defensive weapons, he refused, garrisoned his house, and sent men to the rendezvous at Alness. But Lord Duffus, with Seatorth not far away, marched into Tain with between 400 and 500 men of the Mackenzies, Chisholms, and Macdonalds, proclaimed James there, and then made haste south to join the Earl of Mar. The Easter Ross men who stood by the Government were in 1716 gathered at Fearn to the number of 700, ready to march to Inverness but they had to complain of the scarcity of provisions. So scarce indeed was meal then in this district, that the people were starving. This regiment was soon afterwards disbanded.

In “The Forty-five” Easter Ross men, with the exception of the Earl of Cromartie and his son, Lord Macleod, again seem to have favoured the government and some of them were at Prestonpans and Falkirk. Tain was during this time subjected to great distress and oppression from a large body of Jacobites quartering there and making arbitrary demands for money, and the magistrates were forced to make large payments. The Earl of Cromartie raised 400 men and with his son (then a lad of eighteen), marched to join the Pretender’s army and they fought—possibly against other Ross-shire men at Falkirk. Subsequently tbe Earl held the chief command north of the Beauly, but was on 15th April 1746, surprised and defeated near Dunrobin Castle where he was captured on the eve of Culloden. For this, both father and son were sentenced to death, but by the strenuous and good offices of Sir John Gordon, the second Baronet of Invergordon, they were afterwards pardoned. This Lord Macleod, after distinguished service in India, succeeded to the estates of his influential uncle in 1783, and had his family estates restored to him in 1894. It was he who sold the Invergordon estates to Macleod of Cadboll.

So far the history of Easter Ross, like that of most other parts, has simply been the story of the fighting of chieftains or their superiors for supremacy but the condition of the people, as Hallam says, “like many others relating to the progress of society is a very obscure inquiry. We can trace the pedigrees of princes, fill up the catalogue of towns besieged and provinces desolated, describe the whole pageantry of coronations and festivals, but we cannot recover the genuine history of mankind. It has passed away with slight and partial notice by contemporary writers, and our most patient industry can hardly at present put together enough of the fragments to suggest a tolerably clear representation of ancient manners and social life.”

“The Forty-five altered the relation of the people to their chiefs and the relation was afterwards in many cases a purely commercial one as between landlord and tenant, and of course the former were naturally anxious to get the highest possible rent for their lands. Farming in this fertile machair was as yet carried on in primitive fashion but improvements were being inaugurated and better crops were being got, but when it was found on the Borders that the hills and dales yielded most profit when improved breeds of sheep were reared, and that a sheep farmer from the southern dales offered a rent of 350 for a sheiling in Glengarry for which others paid only 15 the temptation to most landlords was irresistible. Though it involved hardship to the natives they were not allowed to stand in the way and in 1763 the laird of Balnagown took the initiative and after some experimenting, he in 1781 offered a farm to a Mr Geddes who is believed to have been the first sheep farmer in the north of Scotland. The people saw themselves deprived of their holdings for sheep and gave the farmer all the annoyance they could. They shot or drowned many of his sheep but yet Mr Geddes was able to pay his rent and grow rich though the seasons were bad enough. In 1782-83 the crops were an entire failure over the whole Highlands. So hard pressed were the tenantry that a gathering of lairds and their factors was held in Tain on 10th December 1783 I in order to take into consideration the state of the tenantry in that part of the country and to form some plan whereby they might convey some effectual relief to their distressed situation.” The minutes of the meeting at which Donald Macleod of Geanies presided say, “the gentlemen present having taken the state of the country into their serious consideration, and having maturely and deliberately reasoned thereon, they were unanimously of opinion that the situation of the whole of this country is extremely critical, and that if severe and harsh means are adopted by the proprietors of Estates in forcing payment of arrears at this time, though the conversion should be at a low rate, it must have the effect of driving the tenantry into despondency, and bring a great majority of them to immediate and inevitable ruin ; and in so doing will go near to lay the country waste, which to the personal knowledge of this meeting, has been for these two hundred years back over-rented ; and if once the present set of tenantry are removed, there will be very little probability of getting them replaced from any other country.”

For all this the people continued to feel the pinch of poverty and Sir George Mackenzie said that they were prejudiced against “improvements,” as the formation of sheep farms was called. At last in the Autumn of 1792 men were despatched to make public proclamation at all the churches in Ross and Sutherland that the hated sheep were to be gathered and driven across the Beauly. In response the people began at Lairg and drove before them every sheep they could find in Lairg, Creich, and Kincardine. In four days they had thousands of sheep driven out of Easter Ross as far as Alness. Here the drovers were met by the sheriff accompanied by Sir Hector Munro of Novar and a party of the 42nd Regiment which had made forced marches from Fort George. At sight of the soldiers the drovers fled. Several of them were caught, tried at Inverness, and had heavy sentences passed on them, but they soon escaped from prison. General Stewart of Garth says, It would appear that though the legality of the verdict and sentence could not be questioned, these did not carry along with them public opinion, which was probably the cause that the escape of the prisoners was in a manner connived at; for they disappeared out of the prison, no one knew how, and were never inquired after or molested.”

For some time after this things went on quietly, notwithstanding the hardships endured by the failure of the crops in 1808 and 1818, until in 1820 Munro of Novar resolved to remove the Culrain tenantry to the number of between two and three hundred. The tenantry knowing that they owed him no rent, resolved to retain their holdings. They therefore resisted the officers employed to serve the summons of removal. In order to enforce the execution of the writs the sheriff of the county went to Culrain accompanied by twenty-five soldiers and a body of gentlemen from Easter Ross. On approaching Culrain the progress of the party was interrupted by the appearance of a crowd of between three and four hundred people, chiefly women, and men in women’s clothes, who rushed on the soldiers, attacked them with sticks, stones, and other missiles and compelled them to retreat. The soldiers fired several rounds of blank cartridge but the people were not terrified. Then one of the party used a ball cartridge by which one woman was fatally, and one or two less seriously, injured. Of course the “civil” power was in the end victorious and this “improvement” also was effected at Culrain. Small landholders were thereafter gradually removed in several other districts and the fertile large farms of Easter Ross formed.

In the New Statistical Account the ministers of Kilmuir Easter, Nigg, Logie Easter, Rosskeen, and Kincardine comment on the result. He of Kilmuir says, “The great evil which requires to be remedied in some way or other is the fluctuating state of the population in consequence of the arable land being in the possesion of a few, which, however much it may tend to the agricultural improvement of the parish, certainly is not calculated to improve the state of the population. In consequence of this many of the people are always on the wing, and shifting from one parish to another, in quest of a better place or of more congenial employment; thus rendering in a great measure migratory the instruction which they receive.”

Since then things had to be adjusted after the passing of the Corn Laws but the farms have increased in fertility so that now it can truly be said that life has little better to offer than the lot of an Easter Ross farmer, while the lot of the farm servants has been ameliorated in many directions.

Probably nothing affected the progress of the people so much as the making of roads which were begun to be seriously made when the provisions of the Statute Service Road Act of 1720 were adopted and bye laws made for enforcing the Statute Labour Act or commuting it by money payments. The greatest step in this direction was the making of the parliamentary road from Perth to Wick, completed in 1821, and which effectually linkedthe district to the rest of Scotland. In 1809 a “Diligence” began to run from Inverness to Tain on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and from Tain to Inverness on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Much was made of the fact that the 44 miles could be covered in one day. The upkeep of these roads was so heavy that toll-bars were placed here and there along the route and were certainly bars to progress until the Ross and Cromarty Act of 1866 abolished therm and now the roads in the district are as good as any in Scotland.

The railway was opened to Invergordon in 1863 and to Bonar-Bridge in 1864.

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