The 2nd Statistical Account
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PARISH OF TAIN
(PRESBYTERY OF TAIN, SYNOD OF ROSS)
Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness standing in front of map of Ross and Cromarty
The Second Statistical Account (1837)
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.
By the Rev. Charles Calder Mackintosh, Minister.
* Drawn up by Mr William Taylor
I. – TOPOGRAPHY and NATURAL HISTORY
Boundaries and External Appearance –
The parish of Tain, which is of a very irregular oblong figure, measures between 9 and 10 miles in length from north-east to south-west. Its greatest breadth is about 41 miles, inclusive of a peninsula, which juts north westward at the Meikle Ferry, above a mile into the sea; exclusive of that peninsula the breadth averages about 3 miles. On the eastern side, the parish adjoins to those of Tarbat and Fearn; on the west, to Edderton; and on the south, to Loggie Easter; while its northern boundary is formed by the waters of the Dornoch Frith, along which it stretches, with several curvings and indentations, in a direction nearly east and west. The parish, as to its external appearance, separates itself into three distinctly marked districts. The first is a low sandy plain, of about four or five square miles in extent, somewhat resembling in shape a crescent or quarter moon, the lesser or inner curve of which, constituting as it does the present coast-line, may be described as an extended variously-broken sand bank, rising in several parts above the sea level to a height of about 15 feet; while the large or outer curve is marked by a sudden elevation of the land (distinctly traceable almost from end to end of the parish) in many places about 50 feet above the flat plain below, presenting the appearance of a scarp or slope, on the ridge of which, about a quarter of a mile distant from the sea, and overlooking the wide-stretched flat beneath, is situated the royal burgh from which the parish is designated.
Terrace-like, along the top of this escarpment, lies the second and most important division of the parish, which, extending back towards the southeast, and upwards by a gentle slope towards the south and southwest, presents a highly cultivated and richly wooded territory to the view: while the third or upland district consists of several low hills, forming part of a chain which constitutes the proper commencement of the Highlands (so called in relation to the greater part of Easter Ross). The Hill of Tain, the highest summit in the parish, has been calculated from barometrical observations to be about 780 feet above the level of the sea.
Of the three districts above described, the first has, for a period far beyond the memory of man, been gradually lessening in consequence of a very perceptible yearly encroachment of the tide, more or less rapid in various parts, according to the nature and position of the soils it has had to remove or overflow. The advance has been slowest over a portion of the plain situated at from two to four miles distance below the town, and known by the name of the Morrich mor, which, accordingly, presents the appearance of a low promontory stretching far into the sea, as if to meet a somewhat similar headland – the termination of a gently sloping hill, on the opposite Sutherland coast. On that coast, too, precisely similar process of encroachment has been going on, so that, although the Frith now measures several miles across, the remarkable fact has been preserved by tradition, that it was at one time possible to effect a passage over it at low water upon foot, by means of a plank thrown across the channel, where narrowed to a few feet by the above-mentioned promontories, which stretch towards one another in the form of a long sandbank, broken in a single place, to afford a waterway for the rivers of the frith. This bank still remains visible at ebb-tide, extending its yellow line amid the blue element around it, and even when covered by the sea, it may yet be traced by the difference of hue: but when the waters are agitated by the gentlest breeze, or when a ground swell, precursive of a storm, rolls in from the German Ocean, then is the ear arrested at the distance of many miles by the hoarse dashing of the breakers, as they boil and foam over the Gizzen Briggs* in a long white band, amid the comparative calm of a shallow inland sea.
* The G is pronounced hard as in gizzard. The first part of the name is explained as a corruption of gizzing, the participle of a supposed verb to gizz – a sound imitating word resembling the modern whizz. The etymology is a probable, and at all events an appropriate one, that thus translates the name into Whizzing Bridges. The Gaelic appellation, Drochaid an aogh means probably the Water-Wraith’s Bridge.
The Gaelic-names of the burgh and parish are Baile Dhuich, or Duthus’ town, and Sgire-Duich, or Duthus’ parish, so called from the patron saint. The origin, however, of the more ancient and now more general name of Tain (or, according to the oldest orthography, Thayne) has long puzzled local etymologists. If we suppose it a corruption of a correcter form, Fayne, the most probable root would be the same with that of Fendom (in Gaelic na fana, the low grounds), being a part of the above mentioned sandy plain in which the town, it is said, was anciently situated; or, if a Scandinavian origin be allowed, the Norse word thanid, signifying stretched, extended (compare the Latin tendere, tenuis, and our own thin), affords a sufficiently plausible derivation. The old Scottish title, Thane, seems an improbable etymon.
The climate of the parish shares the general character of mildness with the greater part of Easter Ross, the cold of winter as well as the heat of summer being less intense than in many of the more southern districts of Scotland. The reason may perhaps be found partly in the general lie of the country, elevated itself but slightly, yet protected by the immediate neighbourhood of hills; and partly in the nature of the soil, which, consisting chiefly of a loose alluvial mould,(finely divided, we may add, by cultivation,) seems fitted to resist any very sudden changes of temperature. The air is pure and salubrious, and the inhabitants in general healthy. In consequence, however, of our nearness to the coast, the easterly winds – especially prevalent in the end of spring – acquire a keenness that renders pulmonary and rheumatic complaints of rather frequent occurrence; other endemic diseases there are none, and epidemics rarely spread even in the town to any considerable degree. It may be mentioned, that during the prevalence of Asiatic cholera in Easter Ross, not withstanding that it raged all around us (and especially in our own village of Inver to an unheard of extent) it did not enter the town at all.
The Dornoch Frith, which forms the northern boundary of the parish, is formed by the river Shin and its tributaries, of which the channel may be distinctly traced all along to the Gizzen Briggs. This bar seems to mark the position of the coast line, as it existed ere the tide waves had yet spread themselves over the surrounding plain. The breadth of the frith is about five miles immediately below the town, but to such a distance does the sea retire at ebb-tide, that it then probably measures scarcely three. The depth of the channel varies from seven fathoms, at the entrance, to two at the bridge of Bonar, to which point, a distance of fourteen miles, it may at high water be navigated: the navigation, however, is difficult, in consequence of the numerous concealed sand-banks (of which the older inhabitants remember to have seen some in the form of islands, though they are now, except occasionally at low water, entirely covered by the encroaching sea), and our only harbour is that afforded by the level sands, left dry by the receding tide. At the north-western extremity of the parish, the frith suddenly narrows by the jutting forward of the two opposite headlands of the Meikle Ferry; though immediately on, it again finds entrance into this and the adjoining parish, in the form of a bay called the Sands of Edderton.
We have no rivers, except an inconsiderable trout-stream, which we dignify with the name. The springs are numerous, especially in the uplands, and in the western part of the terrace district; which latter seems to owe its superiority over the eastern, in this respect to the presence of an overlying stratum of gravel, there awanting. The water they afford is in general considered excellent, not withstanding that they contain a large proportion of earthy matter in solution. Several in the upland district are weakly calybeate, and are generally accounted medicinal, though rarely resorted to as such. Perhaps the most remarkable spring in the parish is one called St Mary’s Well, which is every day covered for several hours by the salt sea, on the retiring of which its refreshing waters may be procured. It was, of old, reckoned a specific remedy for consumption, though we believe it was essential to its efficacy that it should be drunk early in the morning, and upon the spot; and as its very name sufficiently indicates a Roman Catholic age, we may probably enough trace in that belief, the fraus pia of a priesthood, anxious to secure to ecclesiastical benediction the honour due to the bracing influence of early rising, pure air, and exercise.
The oldest geological formations of the parish are entirely secondary, the hills which constitute the upland district being composed wholly of sandstone, mostly white, though occasionally red; its strata are in some parts nearly horizontal, but in others, as especially at the quarries on the hill of Tain, they dip eastward at an angle varying from 15° to 25°. The several hills present nothing remarkable in their external aspect, but slope gradually down, until they blend almost imperceptibly with the lower or terrace lands, saving only towards the western boundary of the parish, where this terrace formation has no existence, and the hill reaches to within a few yards of the bay already described under the name of the Edderton sands. Here, too, as well as farther east, the sea is at present slowly advancing, but, evidently, this advance is not the first that it has made, for the magnificent wall of rock, to near the base of which it has now attained, is manifestly the result of the action of the waves, at a period whose distance we have no data for calculating, beating, in their line of greatest advance, against this farthest projecting portion of the sandstone hill. The traveller along the high road westward, as he issues from a territory that promises little to excite admiration, is suddenly astonished to find himself walled in upon his left by a lofty precipice consisting of immense masses of stratified stone, piled one upon another in regular ascent, by the giant hand of nature; in one part cleft and scooped away into the form of a ravine, in another jutting directly out upon his path, and perhaps exciting a momentary shudder, as, looking up from beneath the spot, he beholds an enormous projecting mass seeming ready to tumble from its elevation of forty or fifty feet upon his head; while at the same time, the rich clothing afforded by the ornamental trees with which nature and art have invested the once naked rocks, the ivy mantling, in many a place, over the surface of the steep, and everywhere here and there the birches that, rooted in the very edge of some beetling fragment, project their slight forms overhead, confer an air of softness that renders it difficult to tell whether the prevailing character be the beautiful or the sublime.
Over the sandstone formation now described there lies a stratum of red clay, varying in depth from a few inches near the summit of the hill, to at least 50 or 60 feet, as descending seaward over the gentle slope of the middle district, we reach the ridge of the escarpment which separates it from the plain below. In this stratum it is that we find boulders of most frequent occurrence, and that in greater abundance always, as we approach nearer the sandstone underneath, whether by digging down to meet it, by ascending the hill to where it almost reaches the surface, or, lastly, by proceeding along the shore westward to where the sandy and terrace districts gradually dwindle away. These boulders, which are composed partly of gneiss, but chiefly of a kind of granite, of which no rocks are to be found nearer than the western coast of Ross-shire, and which often attain a very large size, (one block, especially, known as the Big Stone of Morangie, containing at least 1400 or 1500 cubic feet), seem to have been carried hither after the deposition, but before the hardening of the clayey stratum. Immediately over it (save that, in some places, a middle layer of gravel is interposed) lies a rich soil, composed principally of a mixture of clay and sand, and capable of cultivation.
But, in the extensive low-ground which adjoins the sea, and which topographical appearances alone sufficiently indicate as the subject of a cyclical overflow and retrocession of the tide, other strata have found place. There is first a layer of peat-moss, varying from 10 to 18 inches in depth, the result apparently of the decomposition of a forest which once occupied the plain; for both at the eastern boundary, where the moss reaches the surface, and is dug for fuel, as also along the course of “the river” when a freshet has washed away its channel to an unusual depth, and even where the tide now ebbs and flows, at low water, the roots of large trees (among which oaks are said to be most frequent) are occasionally exposed. About the confines of this parish with that of Fearn, there was lately found in the moss a bronze battle-axe, now in the possession of Mr Mackinlay of the Tain Academy, and in digging a new channel, a few years since, for part of the above-mentioned stream, a branching deer’s horn of extraordinary size was exhumed. Above the moss, succeeds a stratum of fine sand, which constituted the bed of the sea when it last covered this luniform plain, forming by the action of its waves the escarpment which bounds it; thereafter, in the slow retiring of the water, the sandy level was left to view, to be in time covered by a cultivable alluvial soil, but the tide is again advancing to re-shroud it with its mantle, and to reclaim its own. Some parts, indeed, have been already wrested from the use of man, and converted into barren downs, by the sea sand with which they have been overblown, especially the large district of the Morrich mor, which the older inhabitants remember to have seen pastured as a common, and which was turned (it is said in a single night) into an arid waste. All along the coast, the horizontal layer of shells, which the sea is uncovering in its advance, distinctly marks the level of the bed which it formerly occupied. Walking to the Morrich mor, our steps are on the remains of a former age, ground into powder by the tread of men and where in some places the banks have been blown away by the wind, a rich treasure of beautiful shells has been disclosed, now, however, robbed of all its finest specimens, by frequent resort.
It is not known whether any species of animals formerly existing in the parish have become extinct. At least one, however, which did not formerly exist in it, namely, the rat, has been introduced within the last few years, and has, to the annoyance of the inhabitants, rapidly multiplied. The Frith, properly so called, contains few important kinds of fish, with the exception of the salmon which pass up to the rivers; all others, poor and sickly from the freshness of the water, are seldom sought for. Beyond the bar of the Gizzen Briggs, however, the waters abound with various species, of which the most important, in an economical view, are the cod, haddock, whiting, flounder, and skate, to which may be added, the halibut, turbot, crowner, dog-fish, and many others, besides some small trout to be found in the streamlets of the parish. The principal shell-fish in the bay (besides many that are less known) are mussels, cockles, whelks, and crabs, all occasionally used as food, but the mussel alone is turned to any great account, existing as it does in great abundance upon the sand-banks of the Frith, whence it is yearly removed by fishermen, to be employed for bait. While on this head, it may be mentioned that a few years ago there were stranded, west of the town, on the grounds of Mr Ross of Cromarty, a number of large porpoises, amounting to about a hundred, which were frightened, it is supposed, into the bay by a thunder storm which had occurred the evening before.
Most of the wood grown in the parish is the Scotch fir, with occasional beltings of larch, elm, beech, ash, and birch. All of these species thrive well, except where exposed to the keen sea-breeze. The estate of Tarlogie contains the finest old trees in the parish, many of them of a venerable appearance and majestic height.