The 2nd 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

The Second Statistical Account (1840)
The New (or Second) Statistical Account of Scotland built on the previous work carried out by Sir John Sinclair for the First Statistical Accounts by including the knowledge of local doctors and schoolmasters. The Second Statistical Accounts were published between 1834 and 1845.


* Drawn up by James Flyter, A.M., Alness.


Alness appears to be the only name which has, at any period, been given to this parish. It is compounded of two Gaelic words, auld signifying a burn or small river, and neas, a point.

Extent, Boundaries, &c.
The extreme length of this parish from north to south, though from the mountainous and uncultivated character of a great part of it has not been exactly ascertained, may be stated at 20 miles. The breadth from east to west varies very considerably at different points, and may be considered as giving an average of 5 miles throughout the entire length. The parish of Alness is bounded on the north by imaginary lines dividing it from that of Kincardine; and on the south by the shores of the Cromarty Frith. On the east, it is divided from the parish off Rosskeen by the river of Alness; and on the west, from that of Kiltearn by the river Auldgrande.

Topographical Appearances
The general appearance of the parish is pleasing, as it is well wooded , and presents to the eye an agreeable variety of moor and cultivated land. The lands lying in the southern extremity, and on the shores of the Cromarty Frith, are in general flat, and, with very little exception, cultivated. Towards the north, however, the character of the country is entirely changed, and becomes mountainous and barren. The hills, though some of them are of considerable height, do not occur in any continuous chain or group, but, like the generality of those in this county, present a scattered and straggling appearance. There is nothing very remarkable in the structure or composition of any of them; but one, having an elevation of about 1OOO feet above the level of the sea, may be conjectured, both from its name (Fyrish) and from its proximity to the shores of the Frith, to have been employed at some remote period as a station for beacon lights.*

* faire is Gaelic word for beacon or watch.

The climate may be described as dry and salubrious. There are no diseases which can be said to be peculiar to, or even prevalent in, the parish; but, on the contrary, the inhabitants generally, and those of one of the highland districts in particular, are characterised by their health and longevity. It is evident also that the climate has undergone a considerable change for the better since the year 1793, when the former Statistical Account was written, for, since that period, the important operation of drainage, together with other improvements in agriculture which have been introduced, and the immense extent of moorland which has been planted, must have greatly modified the general state of the atmosphere.

The only body of salt water connected with the district is the Cromarty Frith, which forms the southern boundary of this parish. The entire length of the Frith does not exceed twenty miles, and at that part which is contiguous to Alness its average breadth may be stated at two miles. So great, however, is the quantity of fresh water continually flowing in to it from the rivers and occasional mountain torrents that the character of the water as regards its saltness is greatly modified. The water is generally considered to decrease in strength proportion to its distance inland, and at this point it may be regarded as having lost one-half of its saltness, and is therefore, by experiment, only sixty-fourth part denser than common fresh water. The parish is well supplied with fresh water, in all the forms in which is found collected. Many springs are to be met with it the different districts, all of them supplying excellent water, and generally of a low temperature. There are none, however, in which the water has any peculiar mineral character, except one or two bearing a small quantity of lime in solution. In the northern districts there are two fresh-water lochs, each of them about three miles in length, with an average breadth of one mile. Neither of them is destitute of the ordinary beauties of highland scenery; but the more remarkable is the easterly one, which is called Muire or Mary, taking its name from a Roman Catholic place of worship, built in a romantic glen at one extremity of the loch, and the ruin of which still exist. This collection of water is of no great extent; yet, from its position, and the immense height of the rocky precipices which rise on either side, it affords an excellent specimen of what may be termed the sublime in mountain scenery. Another feature in its character, and one which is worthy of notice, is its great depth, which might be inferred as well from the immense height of the rocks on either side, as from the fact that even in the most severe and protracted frosts, its water has never been known to freeze farther than a few yards from the side. There is no river which can properly be said to belong to this parish, for though both the Alness and Auldgrande take their rise within its bounds, they rather bound than intersect it. The former originates in Loch Muire, which has been already noticed, and after flowing for about fifteen miles in a winding direction, falls into the Cromarty Frith. Though larger, it is not, however, so interesting or so worthy of remark as the Auldgrande, which, from the singular character of part of its channel, forms one of the most striking natural curiosities in the north. Issuing from a small but beautifully situated loch at the foot of Ben Wyvis, it flows for severa1 miles, gradually increasing in size, in consequence of the number of torrents, which pour themselves into it from the neighbouring hills. When within three miles of the sea, its banks on either side suddenly heighten and contract, and the waters becoming invisible, from the depth of the gulf, and the quantity of under-wood growing on its sides, their presence is discovered only by the hollow roaring within, resembling at times the noise of continued thunder. The whole length of the chasm is about a mile and a-half, but, so near do the sides approach each other, that boys have been known to cross on branches of trees, growing from the sides and stretching across the centre. There is no convenient way of crossing the chasm, except at one part where a wooden bridge has been thrown across. But even here, from the great depth and narrowness of the opening, an observer, though obtaining a view directly downwards, can scarcely discern the water, as it boils and hisses below. A stone of ordinary density, dropped from the bridge, strikes the surface of the water in three seconds, giving a depth of about 140 feet, which may be regarded as the average depth of the chasm unoccupied by water. The depth beneath the water is not so easily ascertained, and most probably varies considerably at different points in the length. On examining the course of the Auldgrande, two very interesting subjects of inquiry are naturally suggested: 1st, What are the causes which have operated in the production of a phenomenon so unusual? and 2d, What are those traditions, which, though now fast dying away, the superstitions character of the Highlanders cannot have failed to connect with a place of such a description? These questions, however, will more properly find a place under the respective heads of Geology and Antiquities.

Geology and Mineralogy
In the researches of the geologist, the parish of Alness presents a field of inquiry neither very interesting nor instructive. The best geological section that can perhaps be obtained of the district, is that given by the course of the Alness, and from an examination of the rocks denuded by this stream, together with those which appear occasionally on the sides of the hill, it may be inferred that the parish rests entirely on the old red sandstone formation, leaning to the north, of gneiss, and some of the other primitive rocks of the Wernerian nomenclature. The sandstone strata, as laid bare by the Alness river, exhibit great uniformity in texture, composition, and external appearance; but they have yielded no traces of organic remains, either animal or vegetable, to any observations as yet made upon them. In ascending the stream, the strata are found to dip to the south east by east, at an angle varying from 12° to 20° till the observer arrives at a certain point, about two miles from the Frith, when they change their direction, and dip at much the same angle to the opposite point of the compass. Immediately beneath the sandstone occurs a bed of conglomerate, which also belongs to the old red sandstone formation. It is chiefly composed of rounded pebbles of quartzite or quartz rock, and sometimes of pure quartz. These rounded masses vary in size, from a small fraction of an inch to a foot in diameter, and are held together by an arenaceous cement. Notice has been taken in a former part of this account of the extraordinary chasm through which the Auldgrande flows for some distance. It is not, strictly speaking, within the parish of Alness, but, as it forms part of the western boundary to the parish, it appears worthy of notice, especially as it is interesting in a geological point of view. The chasm, as has already been stated, is up-wards of 140 feet in depth, and about a mile and a quarter in length, occurring in a thick bed of conglomerate, apparently of the old red sandstone period. In order to account for its formation, one of two opinions must be adopted. The water must either by continual action have worn down the channel to the present depth, or the fissure must be referred entirely to a fault in the rock, the chasm occasioned by the fault having either remained unoccupied, or been filled up with loose material, which could offer no great resistance to running water. The former supposition is rendered more probable, if we suppose that when the water first began to flow, the rock was softer than it now is. Each of the pebbles which form the conglomerate would then, when once set in motion, lend its aid by abrasion deepening the channel. The conclusion that such a process gave rise to the chasm, is therefore probable at first sight; but on a closer examination, it is not found consistent with observation on many streams which flow over exactly the same species of rock. On the contrary, where a stream flows over this species of conglomerate, which is very frequently the case in this district, the water seldom or never finds its way further than a few feet into the rock. From the circumstance that the rock in which the fissure has been made is a conglomerate, and not a regularly stratified mass, we are deprived of the additional conformation to the supposition of a fault, which might be derived from stria and other appearances usually observed on the sides of shifted strata. But the single fact of its great depth, taken in connection with what is observed in similar streams sufficiently warrants us to conclude that the chasm has not been owing to any abrasive process in the course of the stream, but must be referred to a pre-existing fault.

About five miles from the Frith, and on the property of Finlay Munro of Lealdie an iron-ore has been discovered, which, from all appearances, may be of considerable extent. Previous to the writing of the former Statistical Account a specimen was sent to the Carron Company at their own desire, which was found to yield 75lbs iron per cwt. The rock in which the vein occurs is a gneiss and it is worthy of remark, as confirmatory an observation already made in geology, that the metallic vein is injected into the primary rock, at a point not many yards distant from its junction with the aqueous or sedimentary strata.

The only remaining feature which is in the least degree striking in the geology of this parish, is the frequent occurrence throughout its surface of immense boulders or erratic blocks of stone. In the more cultivated parts, these obstructions to the plough have for the most part been removed, by blasting or otherwise; but in the moorland districts, and studding the sides of the hills, they are seen in great numbers, and of various shapes and sizes. These rounded masses belong entirely to the primary class of rocks, being composed either of granite or gneiss, and as they must have been transported from a great distance to occupy their present locality, it becomes a problem of considerable interest to discover where they occurred in situ.

The animals to be found in this parish are all of the same species as those commonly to be met with throughout the country, and it is therefore unnecessary to notice them particularly. In the lower parts of the parish, hares, rabbits and partridges are to be met with in great abundance, and in the more hilly and uncultivated districts are found moorfowl or grouse, blackcock and roe. Foxes were very numerous some years ago, but they seem now to be totally extirpated. Of the rarer birds existing in this country, the eagle, pheasant, and ptarmigan are occasionally to be seen in this parish. The fish commonly taken in the Frith are of those kinds which live indifferently in fresh or salt water; the water in the Frith having, as has already been stated, not above one-half the strength of undiluted salt water. In the rivers and lochs, but principally in the latter, are to be found several species of black trout, which, in consequence perhaps of their not being regularly taken, frequently attain to an immense size. The salmon and salmon trout taken in the Frith and rivers are of a very superior quality, and would be very numerous, were it not for the poaching and fishing during close season, which for many years has prevailed to a great extent. It may here be remarked that the salmon-fishing along the shore of the Frith is uncommonly late, no fish being taken, in general, till the month of June. The salmon are supposed, by those having charge of the fishing, to go up the rivers to spawn during the month of September, and not to return again till the beginning of February.

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