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


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


There does not appear to have been any account of this parish drawn up, either printed or in manuscript, if we except the former Statistical Account, written by the Rev. Angus Bethune, one of its ministers. The session records are, perhaps, the only written source from which information can be expected as to the former state of Highland parishes, but even these, in the present case, are wanting, till within a comparatively recent period. The records are said to have been regularly kept in former times, but seem to have disappeared at or soon after the death of Mr Fraser, one of the ministers of this parish, who died in October 1769. The documents in question were most probably carried away among the papers of that individual. The minutes of session have since that period been regularly entered and preserved, but, not having even the claims of antiquity to recommend them to notice, they contain nothing interesting or important to the general reader. The traditional history of the parish appears to have been more considerable, if we may judge from the fragments which can still be gathered. It is now, however, fast dying away with the language originally spoken.

One or two circumstances, it may be proper to state, which, though they posses no higher authority than that of oral tradition, are, nevertheless, founded in fact, and are therefore worthy of notice. It is said that, soon after the accession of William III, the parish was visited by famine of such severity, that in one district, extensive as well as populous, the number of the inhabitants was reduced to three. On that occasion, if the accounts of tradition can be believed, the people were under the necessity of forming common coffins, into which the dead, being thrown promiscuously, were committed to the earth, without even the ordinary solemnities of funeral. Connected with another period, equally interesting in the history of Scotland, some incidents occurred which are worthy of notice. The period to which we allude is that which succeeded the restoration of Charles, when an attempt was made to do away with the Presbyterian form of worship in Scotland, and to introduce Prelacy, in its room. The minister of Alness at this time was a Mr Mackilligen, who, from his conduct, appears to have been a man of no ordinary strength of mind. In the year 1602, Paterson was ordained Bishop of Ross, and all the clergy throughout the country being commanded by order of council to attend the diocesan meetings, Mackilligen, together with three others, were the only ministers in the diocese of Ross who possessed the inclination together with the strength of principle, to resist the innovations. These four individuals were, in consequence of their resistance, immediately ejected from their charges, but Mackilligen, possessing more boldness than the rest, remained in Alness discharging his duties, notwithstanding the threats of the Bishop and council, which had ordained that no nonconforming minister should take up his abode within twenty miles of his former church. “Mr Mackilligen, a faithful and active preacher of the forbidden doctrines,” says Mr Miller, in his Scenes and Legends, seems to have given him (the Bishop) so much trouble, that he even threatened to excommunicate him; but the minister, regarding his threat in the proper light, replied to it by comparing him to Balaam, the wicked prophet, who went forth to curse Israel, and to Shimie, the son of Gear, who cursed David. The joke spread, for such was it regarded, and Paterson, who had only the sanctity of his office to oppose to the personal sanctity of opponent, deemed it prudent to urge the threat no farther. He had the mortification of being laughed at for having urged it so far. There is a little hollow among the hills, about three miles from the house of Fowlis, and not much further from Alness, in the gorge of which the eye commands a wide prospect of the lower lands, and the whole Frith of Cromarty. It lies, too, on the extreme edge of a cultivated part of the country, for behind there stretches only a brown uninhabited desert, and in this hollow the neighbouring Presbyterians used to meet for the purpose of religious worship. On some occasions, they were even bold enough to assemble in the villages. In the summer of 1675, Mr Mackilligen, assisted by his brethren of Tain and Cromarty, and the Laird of Brea, celebrated communion in Obsdale, in the house of the lady-dowager of Fowlis. “A party had been dispatched at the instance of the Bishop,” continues the same author, “to take Mackilligen prisoner, but, misinformed regarding the place where the meeting was held, they proceeded to his house at Alness, and spent so much time in pillaging his garden, that, before they reached Obsdale, he had got out of their way, but he fell into the hands of his enemy, the bishop, the following year, and during his imprisonment in the Bass, for such was he sentenced, he contracted a disease of which he died.

Eminent Characters
In a parish, where, till within a comparatively recent period, the prevailing, and indeed almost the only language in use was the Gaelic, few instances can be expected of individuals rising to literary eminence. Among that class of the people, however, which an acquaintance with the English language enabled to keep pace with the march of modern improvement, such instances have not been wanting. Few names, we believe, connected with this part of the country are more deserving of notice than that of Mr James Fraser, one of the ministers of Alness. This eminent individual was born in the year 1700, and was the son of the Rev. John Fraser, also a minister of the parish, and well known on account of the sufferings which be endured for his steady adherence to the principles and constitution of the Church of Scotland, during the persecution of 1679 or 1680. The Rev James Fraser, in whose history we are more immediately interested, was very young when his father died, and could not, therefore, be immediately appointed to the parish, but on the death of Mr Daniel Mackilligen, who was the immediate successor of his father, he was inducted, being then twenty-six years of age. He appears to have been a man as much distinguished for the talents necessary to eminence as a public character, as for the virtues which rendered him so much esteemed as a private Christian. For his literary eminence, he was, however, chiefly indebted to his great strength of judgement, and acuteness in Biblical criticism. This talent he displayed in critica1 work on sanctification and in a sketch of his life, prefixed to the work, we find him spoken of in the following terms. As it will serve in some degree to point out the nature of the work, we may quote the words. “His distinguished abilities as a sacred critic appear in the following treatise, from the strong and masterly manner in which he has examined some of the most eminent Socinian and Arminian commentators. The judicious reader will easily see that the author’s understanding was quick, clear, and penetrating, his judgement solid, and his learning very extensive. His public ministrations were highly edifying, and contained rich entertainment for the learned as well as the unlearned.”

The next individual who appears particularly discerning of notice is the biographical history of this parish, is General Sir Hector Munro, K.B. He was one of the principal proprietors when the former Statistical Account was written, and rendered himself famous by his exploits in India during the war which was carried on there towards close of the eighteenth century. From an anecdote which is still current in the family of the Munros, it appears that he owed his first commission in the King’s service, and probably the whole of his after success and military glory, to a circumstance in itself trivial. A lady of considerable risk, happening to travel alone in a thinly peopled part of the country, was left in a helpless and unprotected state, in her carriage, from her postilion getting intoxicated. Sir Hector, then quite a youth, finding her in this condition, took the place of the drunken coachman, and rendered her considerable service. For his activity and gallantry on this occasion, the lady was so grateful, that she did not relax her exertions, till, by her influence, she had procured him a commission in the army. Without entering minutely into the particulars of his life, some idea may be given of his eminence as an officer, by quoting shortly from an interesting account of the military operations of which he was engaged, written by an officer in the same service. The first occasion on which Sir Hector Munro signalised himself in India was immediately after the hostile intentions of France had become manifest, when the British Parliament and the East India Company boldly determined to strike the first blow in the east. Government had at this time resolved, as the Mahratta war had already employed so many of the Company’s troops, to send out a squadron with fresh supplies, and 1000 Highlanders, composing the seventy third regiment, to assist in the reduction of Pondicherry, and for other services in India. “It happened, however,” says the officer to whom we are indebted for information on the subject, “that intelligence of this resolution had no sooner been transmitted overland to India, than the presidency of Madrass found means to collect force enough themselves. For that purpose, before the seventy-third could arrive, with which Major General Sir Hector Munro quickly laid siege to Pondicherry, and, notwithstanding every effort of M. Bellecombe and his officers, the garrison was obliged to capitulate in less than six weeks afterwards; and, according to orders, the ramparts of that extensive and beautiful city were completely levelled with the ground.” Passing over several actions on the Coromandel coast, in all of which Sir Hector Munro signalised himself more or less, but in which he acted either as second in command, or in conjunction with other of officers, we may notice the taking of Negapatnam, which was conducted and finally accomplished under his sole command. The garrison had been strongly reinforced by a large detachment of Hyder Ally’s troops, and consisted, at the time it was besieged of 7000 Sepoys and upwards of 800 Europeans. Sir Hector Munro, having taken command of the army, sat down before the place on the 21st of October, and before the middle of next month, the garrison was obliged to capitulate. After describing minutely the taking of Negapatnam, the officer from whom we have already quoted gives the following testimony to his merit, alluding at the same time to his former services at Pondicherry. “Thus were two of the most formidable foreign garrisons upon the coast of Coromandel razed to the ground, under the conduct and command of Major-General Sir Hector Munro; and what to his honour as a man, will equal his reputation as a general, was his humane and magnanimous carriage towards those whom the fortune of war had placed within his power. The besieged and captive inhabitants of either place, instead of having cause to accuse him with the wanton commission of cruelties and injustice – an impeachment but too common in this licentious country – have echoed throughout the whole tract of Asia, the most grateful panegyrics upon his benevolence, humanity, generosity, and good faith.”

the proprietors of the parish are: H. A. J. Munro of Novar; Major-General Munro of Teaninich; and Finlay Munro of Lealty. Of these, the first mentioned possesses in extent more than two-thirds of the parish, but a great part of the property being either moorland or plantation, is chiefly valuable as affording pasturage for sheep and for its game. In order to contrast the present state of the parish as regards the extent and division of property, with that which existed at a period considerably earlier, it may here be stated, that in the year 1726 there were twelve proprietors of land in the parish. These were Munro of Novar; M’kenzie of Assynt; Munro of Fyrish; M’Intosh of Contlich; M’Leod of Culcragie; Mackilligen of Balachragan; Munro of Lealty; Munro of Caul; Simson of the Quarter of Alness; Munro of Ceanuachdrach; and Fraser of Cromraon.

Under the head Antiquities, there is not much that is interesting connected with this parish. At a place called Multivie, two cairns were discovered some years ago, buried to a considerable depth in the earth. They appear to have been simply square enclosures, or boxes, constructed by placing together immense flat stones. On being opened, they were found to contain human bones which are said to have been of a very large size. These extraordinary repositories of the dead, however, cease to have any peculiar interest attached to them, as so many of a similar description have been discovered throughout the country. The custom of burying in this manner appears to have been an honour conferred in ancient times, on the chiefs of clans, or on individuals distinguished in some other way. In the hill ground, and almost on the march line which separates the properties of Teaninich and Ardross, there is a stone of remarkable; size, known by the name of “Clach airidh a Mhinistir”. The tradition connected with this stone has shared the fate of many others, and nothing is now left us but the name. From the name, which signifies the minister’s shealing, we may infer that there existed there a piece of land, which was employed as grazing or pasturage ground by one of the ministers of the parish. On a bleak and dreary spot, in the moor not far from Gildermorry, there is also a stone or rather two immense stones, piled one up on the other, in a very extraordinary manner, and having the appearance at first view of being the effect of art rather than of nature. Among the nearest inhabitants, it is known by the same of “Clach nam ban”, which signifies the stone of the women. The tradition regarding this place must have originated at a remote period, and is now very imperfectly related. Several women, it appears, were proceeding during the depth of winter to the Roman Catholic Chapel at Gildermorry, and carrying with them bundles of hemp or flax. When near this place, they were overtaken by a snow storm, and, in order to escape the rigour of the blast, they took shelter under the pile. The storm, however, which was of very long continuance, and almost unexampled severity, was then only in its birth, and not for many weeks could any trace be discovered of the women of the stone. When the covering of snow had at length been partially removed, some of their friends coming to the spot, found their bodies lying at the foot of the pile, and beside them was erected a stick, which they bad probably found at the place, on which was suspended one of the bundles of hemp as a memorial of their fate. In a glen at one extremity of Loch Muire, which has already been noticed under the head Hydrography, there are still to be seen the ruins of a Roman Catholic place of worship, from which circumstance we may conclude, that the district of the parish which is at present inhabited only by a few individuals, was, at a former period at least thinly peopled. The chapel occupies a very romantic situation at the head of the loch, and is surrounded by a burying ground. It is only 40 feet long by 18 broad in the inside, but the walls are almost 4 feet in thickness, and so indurated has the lime which cements the stones become, that it is almost impossible to separate them. There is no date now distinguishable to show at what period it was built. Near the chapel, there is a spring called “Tobair na Maire”, or Mary’s Well, obviously taking its name from the circumstance of its being consecrated to the Virgin Mary. The water of the spring was thought by the people to have the peculiar virtue of healing disease either in man or beast, provided they visited the spot, and under this impression, pieces of coloured cloth were left as offerings to the numen of the place. The offering made to the officiating priest were probably more substantial and valuable donations.

There are now no means of accurately ascertaining the state of the population in this parish at a very remote period. From all the information that can be gathered on the subject, it appears, that, for a long series of years, the population has been increasing, though by no means rapidly. Previous to the time at which the former Statistical Account was written, the number seems for many years to have been almost stationary, but since that period, and from the commencement of the Parliamentary census taken at different periods, there has been a regular increase. In the former Account, which was written, we believe, in the year 1793, the number of persons then inhabiting the parish is stated at 1121, of whom 800 are stated having been above seven years of age. The number now 1iving in the parish is 1440. The chief cause, apparently, of the low ratio of increase may be traced to a practice now becoming too common throughout the country, of converting districts of land which have been formerly tenanted by a number of small farmers or crofters into large farms. The tenantry thus ejected are obliged either to emigrate to some of the colonies, or to congregate in the villages at home.

Till the end of the eighteenth century, the privileged, and, indeed, almost the only language in use, was the Gaelic. Since that period, however, the English has been advancing rapidly chiefly in consequence of the schools which have bee established in the different districts of the parish, and partly from the difficulty experienced by the Highlanders speaking the Gaelic alone, in transacting business in the more southern part of the country. Though there are still some of the older inhabitants who, in consequence of their not being able to read, and from their having spent the greater part of their lives in the use of the Gaelic language exclusively, have not become acquainted with the English, it may be stated generally, that there is now no individua1 in the parish, under twenty years of age, who does not understand the more modern language in a greater or less degree.

Character of the People
The people of this parish cannot be said to differ greatly from the rest of the population of the country. They are sober, and, upon the whole, industrious, attending strictly to the ordinances of religion. There is a difference, however, very strikingly marked, between the village population and that of the rural and more northern districts. The character of the latter is decidedly the more favourable one. They still possess many of the traits peculiar to the character of the ancient Highlanders, while among the former, there is scarcely a trace left to remind us of the race from which they sprung. As one striking characteristic of the poorer classes in these rural districts, it may be remarked that they have a decided reluctance to apply for charitable aid, either public or private.

Smuggling and Poaching
Some years ago, illicit distillation was carried on to a considerable extent, especially in the more remote Highland districts. It is now, however, totally abolished. The practice of salmon poaching during close season, by means of the spear and torch light, is also in a great measure discontinued.

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