The 1st Statistical Account

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Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness (Image taken from Raeburn painting) with background of west coast outline

Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness standing in front of map of Ross and Cromarty

By the Rev. Mr. James Smith

Language:– Although most names of places, and many surnames of persons here are evidently derived from the Gaelic, the inhabitants, in general, of this and the two neighbouring parishes, of Rosemarky and Cromarty, understand and use the English language. They speak it also more purely, and with less of a provincial accent or drawl, than those of many southern counties in Scotland. Hence some have supposed them to be the descendents of a colony brought from some distant part of the kingdom, especially as the common people in all the contiguous parishes around, speak mostly in Gaelic; and two thirds of them understand no other tongue. Whereas, in this parish, there are only six or eight families unacquainted with the English language, and three fourths of the parishioners use it in common. Nor has any Gaelic been preached in the church of Avoch since the beginning of this century, although one or two of the ministers understood it perfectly, and could deliver their sentiments in that language with fluency. The prevalence, however, of the English language in this corner, may be more easily accounted for, from the more frequent intercourse of its inhabitants by both sea and land, with those of the southern provinces.
The patronage of this parish belongs to Miss Brodie of Lethen. The stipend, including an augmentation lately decreed, consists of six chalders, part barley, part meal 46L. Sterling, money, 6L. of conversion for the vicarage and fishtiends; and 5L. more for communion elements. The glebe, in three separate spots, all arable, measures nearly six acres.

The church was new roofed, and otherwise improved in 1792. The manse, built in 1672, has undergone several reparations since, and is now a comfortable lodging. The ministers, since the Restoration of Presbytery, and dates of their settlements, have been:

1712-13–Mr Alexander McBean, afterwards minister at Inverness.
1716——Mr Alexander Ray, who died here in 1735
1736——Mr Alexander Fraser, translated in 1755 to Inverness.
1756——Mr Thomas Simpson, who died here in 1786.
Sept1787——Mr James Smith, the present incumbent.

The minister of Avoch is co-administrator with the minister of Rosemarky, of the fund which pays the masters salaries in the academy at Fortrose; and of some lands bequeathed by a late Countess of Seaforth, for the support of the poor in same burgh.

The parochial school of Avoch is attended by about 50 scholars. The master’s salary, payable by the heritors, is 6L. 13s. 4d. Sterling. His wages and emoluments, as session clerk and presenter, may, communibus annis, amount to 3L. more. He teaches English, Latin, Writing, Arithmetic, Book-keeping, and Church music. But the fees from his scholars, as the tenantry in general are not able to afford much, will seldom exceed 10L, Sterling. So that this office is scarcely worth 20L. a year.

There is a sewing school for girls in the Kirktown, and two or three small schools in different corners of the parish, for initiating young children to read, but they have no salaries.

A Sunday school, on a proper plan, and a spinning school, for teaching young girls to work at the two-handed wheel, would both be found exceedingly useful institutions in such a populous parish as this, and where the linen manufacture stands much in need of improvement.

State of the Poor, &c:–There are about 40 indigent persons now on the roll. The funds for their relief are the interest of 33L. 6s. 8d. Sterling, bequeathed by the late Sir Kenneth McKenzie of Scatwell in the hands of his own family the interest of about 50L. more under the session’s management; and the public voluntary contributions in church, which last, at an average of three years bygone, amounts to 8L. 11s. 4d. Sterling yearly. All these funds, however, can afford but a scanty help to each.
A crew of the firemen having been accidentally drowned in 1792, left seven widows and a good many dependents, some of them in most pitiable circumstances. One young girl, in particular, who at 19 years of age, had been married only seven months before, was, by this unforeseen accident, bereaved at once of her husband ! her father ! her brother ! and was left big with child, and in debt! On this melancholy occasion, it was found necessary to ask some charitable assistance from other places. And a liberal supply was obtained, adequate to their more immediate needs. For, besides what was collected within the bounds of this presbytery, the following contributions from different quarters, mostly unsolicited, were remitted to the kirk session for relief of those unfortunate people, and have all been distributed among them, viz.

From the town and neighbourhood of Inverness, -Sterling–32L 5s 0d
From some gentlemen of Nairn-shire, and Fort George——-6L 5s 6d
And a collection made in the parish church of Alness———-5L 1s 8d

The distress of the widows having thus been mitigated, particularly until such of them as had been left pregnant were delivered, and nursed their infants, they have almost all now returned to proper habits of industry, sufficient to support themselves and their families. Such examples, it is hoped, will not be thought misplaced in this record, because they not only, in their measure, do honour to human nature, but may tend to encourage others to ” do likewise,” in similar cases!
The deficiency of crop 1782 was severely felt in this parish, except by some farmers near the shore. But from the great quantities of corn then imported, and the seasonable supply sent by Government for the poor, it is not believed, that any person here died then of want. And the more industrious tenants have since completely recovered from the effects of that year, upon their little stock and credit.

General Character of the Inhabitants.–The parishioners here are mostly of a middle size, strong and healthy, and capable of enduring a good deal of fatigue and labour. There may be 8 or 10 men among them six feet high; and very few dwarfs or deformed persons are to be seen.

The inhabitants of the country part are generally but in poor circumstan-ces. Hence they feel many straits in bringing up their families. This with the scarcity and increased wages of servants, obliges some of them to put their children to hard work rather too soon; even the greater farmers, who, as they raise bread for many others, should have it in their own power to live pretty comfortably in their sphere, enjoy here but few of the comforts, and none of the luxuries of life; except, perhaps, in the use of spirituous liquors, to which both they and the fishermen have become of late too much addicted. This has taken place almost entirely of that wholesome strengthening beverage, good beer, which their fathers harmlessly quaffed. The present generation are, indeed, better clothed; but they eat less and coarser bread, and have, perhaps, less ready money. Their houses also, are for most part miserably dirty, smoaky, and meanly furnished. But, as they have little acquaintance with any better condition, so long as they can make a stretch to pay their rent and their debts they appear contented with their own. Their moral character is, in general, good, if we except only a few vices and failings, to which their straitened situation exposes them. They are honest and industrious, faithful to their master or landlords, and attached to their King and Country. As to religion, the greater part of them appear serious and devout, and regularly attend on public worship and ordinances. In most parishes here, it is not uncommon for several thousands of people to assemble, from all corners of the country, on a sacramental occasion.

Marriages, in this place, are generally conduced in the stile of penny weddings. Little other fare is provided, except bread, ale, and whisky. The relatives, who assemble in the morning, are entertained with a dram and a drink gratis. But, after the ceremony is performed, every man pays for his drink. The neighbours then convene in great numbers. A fiddler or two, with perhaps a boy to scrape on an old violincello, are engaged. A barn is alloted for the dancing; and the house for drinking. And thus, they make merry for two or three days, till Saturday night. On Sabbath, after returning from church, the married couple give a sort of dinner or entertainment to the present friends on both sides. So that those weddings, on the whole, bring little gain or loss to the parties.

As superstitious prejudices begin to wear out, the practice of inoculation for the small pox gains ground considerably here, though it is not so successful as in other parts, owing to many of the parents not following the surgeon’s prescriptions; and giving ardent spirits to their children, even during the height of the disease. At common funerals, in this district, the corpse is preceded by the parish officer tolling a hand bell. The pall or mort-cloth is of plain black velvet, without any decoration, except a fringe. An immense crowd of both sexes attend. And the lamentations of the women, in some cases, on seeing a beloved relative put into the grave, would almost pierce a heart of stone.

The Inhabitants of Seatown live more comfortably than of the country. And they begin now to build neat commodious houses, which cost above 20L. Sterling, each. Among the fishers, it usual for both sexes to marry at, or under 20 years of age. And of several of their families; there are four generations now living in the place. Their women are, in general, hardy and robust, and can bear immense burdens. Some of them will carry a hundred weight of wet fish a good many miles up the country. As the bay is flat, and no pier has yet been built, so that the boats must often take ground a good way off from the shore, these poissardes have a peculiar custom of carrying out and in their husbands on their backs, ” to keep their men’s feet dry,” as they say. They bring out, in like manner, all the fish and fishing tackles, and at these operations, they never repine to wade, in all weather, a considerable distance into the water. Hard as this usage must appear, yet there are few other women so cleanly, healthy, or so long livers in the country.

During the last war, 13 Avoch men were pressed into the Royal Navy, and though most of these served Admiral Parker’s own ship in his dreadful engagement with the Dutch off the Dogger Bank, as well as in other actions, not one of them was hurt by the enemy. Their regular and good behaviour was acknowledged by all their officers, and eleven of the number returned home in 1783, with a good many guineas each of saved money. Mr Dundas’s late regulations for the punctual pay of seamen, will be very beneficial in this respect; and will encourage them to enter much more readily than before. The greatest hardships now, is leaving their families; as they commonly marry at such an early period of life; and are all happy and contented with their situation and circumstances at home

Means by which their Condition could be meliorated:– If the British Society for improving and extending the fisheries, or the Hon. Board of Trustees for fisheries, manufactures, and improvements in Scotland, would, over and above the bounties now allowed by Government, grant some premiums to actual fishermen for a few years at the different herring stations in the North; to three or four, at least, of the herring boats at each station, whose crew, consisting of a fixed number, and within a limited time of every season, should catch and deliver the greatest quantities of good herrings to the curers;-this, it is believed, would excite much emulation among the hands, and be attended with many beneficial consequences. A pier, sufficient for boats and small sloops, would render this station much more commodious and safe than at present, and could be built for a moderate sum. And, if the bounds of the Seatown were extended, by throwing a bridge

over the burn, and proper security given the men by way of feus or otherwise, for building good houses on a regular plan along the adjoining shore;-from the increase of their families, it is more than probable, that the extent and population of this thriving village would be doubled within 50 years hence.

Antiquities:–The foundations still remain of a large old castle or Fortalice, on the top a little hill near Castletown-point, about 200 feet above the level of the sea. This mount is called by some, Ormondy hill : And tradition gives the name of Douglas Castle to the ruin. It covers an oblong space,

As to the country part of the parish, though the farms are, in general, too highly rented, considering the present mode of husbandry here; yet, if the heritors would be persuaded to give their more active and best stocked tenants, leases for 38 years, or for 19 years and a life, at the present rents, with some encouragement to inclose their grounds and build better steadings; and taking the tenants bound to have always a third part of each farm under grass, and to keep their cattle at home during summer, and to winter herd; the face of the country would be improved, the example followed by others, the condition of the tenantry amended, and the present security and future interest of the landlords promoted. The more effectually to bring about those so desireable objects, thirlage should be abolished, by parcelling out the present rent of each miln proportionably upon the different farms bound to it: and the use of lime and marle, under proper restrictions, should be introduced and encouraged among the farmers.

As the linen manufacture seems to be the most agreeable, and best adapted to this parish, a good lint mill, on the burn of Avoch, would both save a great deal of valuable time which the inhabitants now spend in dressing their flax by the stock and hand method, and would tend much to promote the farther cultivation of it. Machinery for striking pot barley, could be included under the same roof at a small expense, and would probably be well employed by both the country and the neighbouring towns. To these hints, we shall only add, that to suppress in future the swarm of unlicensed tippling houses, and to have only four or five proper persons, duly licensed, for retailing whisky and beer, within this parish, would be found productive of most happy consequences to the morals of the people and the public good.

space, about 350 feet long and 160 feet broad, divided into a good many apartments, which had been strongly built of coarse red quarry stone and lime, with a sosse on one side, and the appearance of bastions towards another. From its peculiar situation, and apparent strength of the works, it may have been early defended before the invention of artillery. There are several traces of old encampments on different moors in the parish. A trench or row of large human bones was lately discovered, a good way beyond the boundary of the present burying ground. And there are several long stones in the church-yard, of a hard close texture, with antique figures of spears, arrows, and stars, carved upon them in alto relievo. All these may be vestiges of the conflicts of the Northern Clans, or of defences against the Danes, and other foreign invaders from this Firth. But no authentic history or tradition, worth mentioning, is now extant concerning them.

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