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

The First Statistical Account (1790)
On the 25 May 1790, Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness wrote to over nine hundred Parish ministers throughout Scotland asking them to contribute to a Statistical Inquiry by answering as best they could,a series of one hundred and sixty-six Queries respecting each Parish.

By the Rev Mr Harry Robertson

KILTEARN derives its name from two Gaelic words, viz. Kil Tighearn signifying the burying place of the laird or great man; but there is no record tradition from which we can learn what great man was first buried here. The Munros of Fowlis, the chief family in the parish, were buried for several centuries at Chanonry, and only began to bury at Kiltearn anno 1588. It is well known that many other places in Scotland owe their names to a similar cause, viz. their giving burial to some saint or eminent person; and the names of these places begin with Kil, being a contraction of Keil, as Kilmuir, i.e. Mary’s burial place; Killin, Kilbride, Kilsyth, Kildonan, etc.

Situation, Extent and Surface
This parish is situated about the middle of the county of Ross, in the district called Ferindonald, of which we shall speak afterwards. It belongs to the Presbytery of Dingwall, and synod of Ross; and stretches along the north side of the bay that runs up from Cromarty to Dingwall, being about six miles long from Novar Inn at the east to a rivulet called Aultnalaid, near Tulloch, at the west. The breadth is various. That part of the parish which is well cultivated is about two miles broad, from the sea-shore on the south, to the foot of the hilly ground on the north. But there are several grazings and Highland possessions at the distance of five, ten and fifteen miles from the sea. It is bounded by the parish of Alness on the east, by Contin and Lochbroom on the north, by Dingwall and Fodderty on the west and by Cromarty Bay on the south. 

The Highland district of this parish is, for the most part, wild and uncultivated, consisting of high mountains, separated from each other by rapid rivulets, and extensive tracts of moors and mossy ground. In this district, there is a considerable strath called Clare, pleasantly situated in an inclined plain, upon the banks of the river Skiack, containing about 200 acres arable land and meadow ground. And, on the opposite side of the river, there is also a plain of about 30 acres, called Bognahavin. Though the houses in this remote district are in general very mean, yet there is one on each side of the river built in a style superior to the generality of farm-houses in the parish, being the goat-whey quarters of the minister of Kiltearn, and of Mr Munro sheriff-substitute of Lewis. In either of these houses, the weary traveller, or the fatigued sportsman, can find comfortable accommodations. This circumstance is only taken notice of, because it is a perfect contrast to the miserable huts, called Shealings, which the hardy Highlanders inhabit while they tend their flocks and herds, and live on the produce of the dairy. If we turn our eyes to the low district of the parish, which inclines gently from the foot of the hills towards the sea, a very rich and beautiful prospect opens to our view: viz. well cultivated fields, enclosed either with stone walls or with thorn hedges and belts of planting. In short, every traveller is struck with the natural beauty of the country, which of late years has been improved by art, which must give a favourable idea of the good taste and opulence of the proprietors. The gentlemen’s houses are large and commodious and their gardens well stored with fruit trees. About eighty years ago there were few forest trees to be seen here except some natural alders and willows on the banks of rivers, and a few ashes, elms and limes surrounding gentlemen’s gardens; but now there are extensive plantations of pines or firs, several miles in circumference, besides many oaks and other hardwood of every kind that is to be met in North Britain. The several proprietors seem to vie with each other in raising the finest plantations of timber. Some improvements are desirable on a double account: they adorn the face of the country while they promote the interest of individuals.

There are several hills in this parish which, being viewed from the plains below add much to the grandeur and variety of the prospect. Several of these hills are covered with fir plantations which cannot fail to please the eye, as the hill above Foulis, the hill of Swordale, and some others; Knockmartin, a small hill, compared to the rest, is situated on the east side of the hill of Swordale, and is seen from the seaside. Its chief beauty consists in its shape; it tapers gradually from its base to the highest point, forming a cone. This last mentioned as well as the higher hills beyond it are covered with heath. But the most distinguished hill in the parish is Ben-uaish, which towers above all the rest and must be extremely high as it is seen in Moray and Banffshire. Ben-uaish is always covered in snow even in the hottest day in summer. And in addition to this there is a remarkable clause in one of the charters of the family of Fowlis which is that the forest of Uaish is held of the King on condition of paying a snowball to his Majesty on any day of the year, if required. And we are assured that a quantity of snow was actually sent to the Duke of Cumberland when at Inverness in 1746 to cool his wine. There is a great deal of heath and coarse grass which is excellent pasture for cattle all around the hill; and the forest is well stocked with deer and a variety of moor game .

Air, Climate and Diseases
The air is generally clear and pure; and it has been observed in this, as well as the neighbouring parishes that the weather has been more changeable for twenty years past than in former times. That rain has fallen of late years in a greater proportion than it did formerly is a well known fact which has materially injured the crops, and occasioned late harvests over all the north of Scotland. And, that the air is more cold and moist upon the higher than upon the lower ground is found to hold true, in this district, as well as in other corners of the kingdom. But notwithstanding the variableness of the weather, the climate of Kiltearn is by no means unhealthful nor can the inhabitants impute the diseases they sometimes labour under to any noxious quality in the air, but rather to accidental causes. We are credibly informed, that the scarcity of bread in 1782 has impaired the constitutions of several people in the lower ranks of life, and entailed obstinate diseases on them. When an infectious fever attacks any family in the parish, it is generally communicated to some of their neighbours, and makes several breaches before it ceases. Its a providential circumstance, that the people are seldom visited with such a calamity. The epidemical disease most dreaded is the natural small-pox, which usually sweeps away a number of children once in seven years, and sometimes oftener. In the year 1777, above 30, and 1778 no fewer than 47 children died of this disease. There is not the least doubt that this great mortality was owing in part to the improper treatment of the patients, and the neglect of inoculation, to which the people are still averse, in spite of the earnest persuasion and example of their superiors, confirmed by a successful practice in almost every instance where it has been attempted. Rheumatic complaints have also been more frequent than formerly within these 30 years, owing probably to the substitution of linen for flannel shirts among the lower ranks; and a return to the use of flannel and woollen is found to be the most efficacious remedy for this complaint. Before we conclude this article, it may be proper to observe that the following instances of longevity, which seem to be well attested, afford a very favourable testimony of the healthfulness of the air and climate of this parish. About the year 1706, Katharine McKenzie died at Fowlis in the 117th year of her age. In 1782 Mr John Brown, the factor of Foulis, died in his 107th year. In 1775 Kenneth Munro, late of Inveran, died in this parish in his 100th year; and Mrs Munro his wife died a year after him in her 88th year. The only instance we shall add is a gentleman, a heritor in the parish, and who had been a member of the last Scotch and of the first British parliament who died about thirty years ago in his 94th year. And within these few years a sister and daughter of the same gentleman died here who were very little short of the same age.

Soil and Produce
The soil here is various as might be expected in so large a district of land. In the highland district, the soil is either mossy, or a cold clay, mixed with sand or gravel, very unfriendly to vegetation. On the banks of the rivers the meadows are covered with a tough, strong turf, producing a coarse sort of grass, fitter for pasturing young cattle than for fattening them, or producing milk. And it would probably be for the interest, both of landlord and tenant, that a plough were never used in this district; for though corn may grow, yet through the cold and moisture of the climate, it seldom ripens so as to make good bread. In the low district of the parish, again, the difference of soil is very observable. Towards the east it is light and gravelly. In the middle, for about two miles square, there is a rich loam fit to produce any vegetable with proper culture. As we proceed further on, the foil is black and spongy; but, by means of drains, it has of late years been greatly improved. The western division of the parish consists chiefly of a strong clay soil, some of it of a reddish hue, which, when well wrought, produces excellent crops. The seasons for sowing and reaping in this parish, are as different as the degrees of activity and the unaccountable prejudices of various farmers. Some lay it down as a maxim never to begin sowing till a certain day of the month when their fathers and grandfathers were accustomed to sow. Others, again, embrace the first opportunity, when the soil is sufficiently dry to receive the seed; and the effect is such as might naturally be expected. the spirited active farmer, who sows early, reaps an early harvest, and the best corn; while the others suffer all the inconveniences of a late harvest. But we must here remark what is very observable, that the farmers on the opposite side of the bay, in what is called the Black Isle, never fail to reap their corn a fortnight or twenty days earlier than the inhabitants of this parish and yet they are exposed to the north, while Kiltearn has a south aspect. The difference must certainly be owing to the quality of the soil. That on the opposite shore is a mould mixed with sand and gravel, chiefly founded on quarry. As to the productions of this parish, were we to mention them all, we would enumerate the several animals and vegetables that are most commonly to be met with in North Britain, with the addition of those productions peculiar to highland countries. The hills abound with red deer, and all kinds of moor game; and various birds and beasts of prey, as eagles, hawks, foxes, &c. in the extensive heaths of this district, a great variety of berries is produced, most of which are very grateful to the taste. During the winter storms there are shoals of sea-fowls on the coast here, such as wild ducks, and a species of geese called red geese which are esteemed good eating. Some shell fish are likewise found upon the coast, such as mussels, cockles, and whelks. The sea-coast being smooth and sandy for the most part, there is little sea-weed, and none at all fit for burning kelp. Bee-hives were formerly very plentiful in this parish but now it is probable that there are not above 20 in the whole district. The parish used to be greatly infested with rats but they are now almost extirpated. Whether this is owing to the industry of rat-killers who have been employed to destroy them, or whether they have emigrated to some other district, is not known. As the prejudice against eating swine’s flesh is in a great measure overcome, a considerable number of pigs is reared here. Not only every farmer but every house-keeper, rears annually one or two pigs, and some, half a dozen; the greatest number of which are sold at the neighbouring markets, and, when tolerably well fed, fetch from 20 to 30 shillings a-piece. The breed of black cattle here is various. In the Highlands they were small-sized and hardy but not quite so small as the common breed of cattle in countries farther to the north. But the gentlemen and principal farmers have been at great pains to improve their breed of cattle by purchasing from Fife and Moray, which arc considerably larger than the common breed of the country. Some of the last mentioned when full fed, sell for £10 or £20. The horses of the parish are also of two kinds; some of a large Galloway size, which the gentlemen use in ploughing and carting, value from £10 to £20 each; and a few worth £25. But the greatest number of horses are what are commonly called Highland Garrons, value from £3 to £5 each. There are few goats in the parish and these are the property of two tenants, who occupy very remote possessions. The number of sheep at present is very inconsiderable and for the most part, of a very inferior quality, being of a small size, and producing very little wool. At present, there are only two or three farmers in the parish who manage their sheep properly and one of their sheep is worth two of any other farmer. The rearing of sheep has been rather discouraged for some time past, being found so destructive to young plantations of timber; but it is not doubted that, in a few years, the rearing of this useful animal will become a principal object both with the landlords and tenants. We shall conclude this article, by giving a list of the number of horses, black cattle and sheep in the parish, which, according to the best information, cannot be far distant from the truth.

Horses of the larger size


Horses of the smaller size


Black cattle, including oxen




Parish of Kiltearn continue reading

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