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

By the Rev. Charles Calder Mackintosh, Minister.


Ancient State of the Parish
Tain appears to have been, in ancient times, a place of considerable importance. From a well-authenticated document immediately to be mentioned, it is found that the Burgh dates its constitution from the latter half of the eleventh century, having been originally privileged by Malcolm Canmore, a king celebrated as the successor of Macbeth, and son of the murdered Duncan; celebrated, too, as the introducer of several new customs and dignities into Scotland, and claiming to be regarded farther as among the first* European sovereigns who adopted the enlightened policy of establishing free municipal corporations. At what period the town became an important ecclesiastical seat, we know not, nor whether its connection with St Duthus (who is said by Sir Robert Gordon, in his History of the Family of Sutherland, to have been Bishop of Ross about the year 1209, and to have been a very godly man”) had already existed by any special pastoral tie during his own lifetime, or whether it was only after his death and canonization that he became “patron of St Duthus his chapel, beside the town of Tayn”. We can only conjecture, therefore, that it may have been a chief seat of the Bishoprick of Ross, after its foundation by David I, the son of Malcolm, in the twelfth century. At all events, we learn from the same document already referred to, that the burgh was “under the special protection of the Apostolic See”.

* See Robertson’s Charles V Introductory Treatise, notes 15-18.

Memorials of St Duthus
In addition to the Gaelic appellations of the burgh and parish, several other names with us are compounded from that of the Saint. We have St Duthus’ Fairs, St Duthus’ Scalp (namely, the mussel-scalp), St Duthus’ Cairn, St Duthus’ Chapel, and St Duthus’ Church; besides that the burgh arms bear upon them the figure and are inscribed with the title of Sanctus Duthacus. St Duthus’ Chapel exists now only as a ruin, presenting a remarkable example of combined strength and simplicity of architecture. The materials of which it was built are of the granite blocks, with which the parish abounds (and of which our fences are still generally composed), cemented unsparingly with lime, which, having acquired a hardness scarcely inferior to that of the stone itself, has preserved much of the walls in a state of remarkable entireness, notwithstanding that they have stood roofless and exposed for full four centuries. How long previous to this it had been built, and whether before or after the death of its patron saint, we know not. The ruins are situated on an eminence in the sandy plain, in which it has been mentioned that the town once stood. This edifice was of old a celebrated sanctuary, to which it is said that crowds used to resort; but, as it has been remarked, that while “the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones”, so of the only three instances in which its use as such has been recorded, in two its sacred character was violated, and in the third it was made the instrument for the accomplishing of an evil design.

The first of these events was in the year 1306, when King Robert Bruce, whose fortunes were at this period reduced to their lowest ebb, had sent his queen and daughter for safety to the stronghold of Kildrummie in Marr, whence, dreading a siege, they betook themselves by flight to St Duthus’ sanctuary, but the then all-powerful Earl of Ross, deterred by no feelings of honour or of religion, seized their persons, and delivered them to the English. The queen did not recover her liberty until eight years thereafter.*

* Hailes’ Annals of Scotland.

The second, though a less known circumstance in the history of our country, was of more importance in relation to our private concerns. There is related with great minuteness by Sir Robert Gordon, the history of an outrage by M’Niell, laird of Criech in Sutherland, who having had a quarrel with Mowat, laird of Freswick in Caithness, by chance encountered and defeated him in the year 1427 or 1429, and pursuing him to the chapel of St Duthus at Tain, there slew both him and his company, and burnt the sanctuary. The popular tradition here is less circumstantial, having preserved only an outline of the facts, the atrocity of which it has considerably lessened. It states merely that some robbers had fled hither from the reach of justice, and that their pursuers, to avoid a direct violation of the sanctuary, instead of forcibly dragging them from its covert, adopted the expedient of burning it over their heads. The tradition, at all events, accounts for what in the historical narrative appears a wanton act of impiety, while the classical reader may be reminded of the somewhat similar evasion of direct sacrilege which attended the death of Pausanias. After this disaster, the parish appears to have remained without a permanent place of worship for a period of more than forty years, for St Duthus’ Church dates from the year 1471. It is situated on the brink of the escarpment so often referred to, in the middle of the town, which it would seem, therefore, had already changed its site. It is a large handsome building, so strongly constructed that, though the roof and interior have undergone many repairs, the walls promise to endure far longer than many of the most modern erections. The windows are Gothic, and there is placed outside, above one of the doors, a figure of St Duthus sculptured on stone in bas-relief; an inscription in church-text borders it all round, but is so effaced as to be illegible

The third event we have mentioned, was a pilgrimage of King James V to St Duthus’ sanctuary about the year 1527, and, therefore, a century after the burning of the chapel (the former Statistical Account erroneously places it before it). The royal visitant, it appears, travelled barefoot, and a rough footpath, leading across a moor in the upper part of the parish, and known by the name of the King’s Causeway, while it remains a proof of the uncivilized state of the country at that period, in that it possessed not a single available road in this direction, remains a proof also of the then loyalty of the people, who hastily repaired to construct one for the accommodation of their king. Our gratification, however, is considerably lessened by knowing that the pilgrimage resulted from the instigation of James’s Popish advisers, anxious to remove him from the influence of any applications that might be made to him for the life of Hamilton, the Scottish protomartyr.

Historical Documents
The oldest existing charter of the burgh of Tain is one granted by James VI in the year 1587, followed by another in 1612. A third was afterwards issued by Charles II. In these we find reference made to former charters granted by the ancient Kings of Scotland, which, it is said in the first of James VI above-mentioned, “were cruelly burnt by barbarians and certain rebel subjects of Ireland (per barbaros et quosdam rebelles subditos Hibernia) as has been manifestly proved to us by authentic documents produced before us”, and on this fact are these new grants of confirmation founded. What these authentic documents were, we could have no room for conjecturing, but for a fortunate discovery made in the year 1826, of a notarial copy of what we have every reason to believe must have been one of them, which now lies among the records of the Northern Institution at Inverness. Its authenticity is unquestionable, for it bears every internal mark of it. It is an inquest held at Thayne, on the 20th of April 1439, by a jury of the highest names in the country (of which the chief are Alexander of Sutherland, Master of that Ilk; William Leslie, Sheriff of Inverness; Hugh Ross of Balnagown; and George Munro of Fowlis; under the seal of Alexander Earl of Ross, and Lord of the Isles, King’s justiciary north of the Forth, for the purpose of ascertaining the antiquity and privileges of the burgh; which accordingly is found to have been enfranchised by Malcolm Canmore, and confirmed in its rights by several of his successors. The inquest having thus taken place ten, or at most twelve, years after the burning of the chapel, and for a purpose which nothing but the loss of charters could have rendered necessary, knowing, too, on the authority of King James, that the charters were actually burnt by rebel Irish subjects,* we are naturally led to identify the two events, and to suppose that, for security’s sake, the sanctuary may have been chosen as the fittest place for the preservation of those documents, and that with it they may have perished. The high rank of the jurors sufficiently manifests the importance then attached by the country round to the full authentication of the burghal rights.

* Irish, it is well known, was of old synonymous with Celtic, just as the Gaelie language is still occasionally termed Erse. There can be no objection therefore to applying the title to M’Neil and his followers, who we know were actually proclaimed rebels. Besides, James before his accession to the English throne, had no subjects in Ireland; nor, if he, is it conceivable how Tain should have become the seat of their ravages.

Parochial Registers
There are no trustworthy parochial registers now extant, of a date beyond 1765, at which period we find it recorded that general discontent had been raised by the total want of any registration for nine years before; since that time (except that there is no record of deaths) they have been tolerably well kept. The burgh records commence in 1734.

Almost the only antiquity worthy of note in the parish, besides the chapel and church of St Duthus above-mentioned, is the beautifully carved oaken pulpit of the latter, which was gifted by “the good regent” Murray to the inhabitants of Tain, for their zeal in the cause of the Reformation. In what this zeal was displayed, we know not; we have learned only the gratifying fact; and we know that it did not, as in other parts of Scotland, lead to the demolition or even to the defacement of the ancient church, on which several Roman Catholic figures are still to be seen. We regret to state, however, that after St Duthus’ church was vacated, between twenty and thirty years ago, it was for a considerable time left in such an exposed state that boys were able to enter, and wantonly to break down the wood-work of the interior, and thus, ere it was observed, the pulpit itself, the memorial of our ancestors’ piety, received more injury from their descendants’ negligence, than did the edifice which contains it, from the disturbances and shocks of a religious revolution. Experience has now taught us better to guard this fine relic, mutilated as it is.

Modern condition
Of the more modern history of the parish, scarcely a fact worthy of commemoration has been preserved. Of its ancient loyalty, and more lately of its Protestantism, proof has been given; both feelings appear to have kept ground. At the period of the Restoration, the minister of Tain was one of a noble band of four in the synod of Ross, who preferred suffering, deposition and imprisonment to maintaining place with a polluted conscience. The example of the shepherd cannot have been lost upon the flock. And ever since the death or displacement of the last Episcopalian minister, the church here has been filled by a succession of pious clergymen, whose names and characters are still held in the affectionate remembrance of many of the people, the consequence of which has been a zealous attachment on their part to the Church of Scotland, and (in no slight degree, perhaps, from the same cause) a disinclination to revolutionary or republican sentiments. At the time of the Rebellion, we find they suffered a little from their loyalty. The burgh records inform us, that the inhabitants were greatly distressed by a large body of “the rebel army” (so it is boldly worded at the very time) quartering for several weeks in the town, and exacting money and necessaries under all pretences; and the town-council were forced, under pain of military extortion, at a day’s warning, to muster L.60 (about half their gross revenue) for the supply of their guests.

As far as can be traced, there have never been many resident large proprietors in the parish, since much of the land belonged to the burgh itself, and much to gentlemen possessed of additional property in other parts of the country. Most of the land-owners, and in truth most of the people, bore the name of Ross, or, to speak more correctly, almost every body possessed two surnames, by one of which (in general a patronymic beginning with Mac) he was universally known in conversation, though he deemed himself called upon to change it to Ross, or sometimes to Munro, whenever he acquired any status in society, or became able to write his name. (Easter Ross, it may be observed, was of old divided between these two clans, and their two chiefs are among the names of the jurors we have above quoted as present at the inquest in 1437.) From this circumstance of each individual’s being furnished with two appellations, seems partly to have arisen the remark, which has found its way into Encyclopedias, that Tain is famous for nicknames; but, partly, the remark was once true, for, when the bynames of those who had risen in society were forgotten, it became absolutely necessary to invent others, (and those often of the oddest description) to distinguish the multitudes of Rosses and Munroes.

Modern Buildings
The material now employed in every construction above that of a hut, is the fine white sandstone from the hill. The Royal Academy, which was built about twenty-five years ago, is one of the handsomest and chastest erections in the north of Scotland, and is greatly set off by its fine large play-ground, which has been of late tastefully planted, walled in, and railed. The new church is a substantial, but rather heavy-looking edifice; a tower is its great desideratum. There was erected in 1825, a handsome town and county house, close to the antique five spired prison tower, which forms the most prominent object in the town: unfortunately, it was not constructed fire-proof, and the upper rooms, being appropriated for the confinement of debtors, were, a few years ago, by some accident, inflamed. Several lives were lost, and the building was almost burnt to the ground. It has not since been rebuilt, and what was once an ornament is now the greatest deformity in the place.

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