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. George Balfour

Situation, Name, and Extent
The whole of the parish of Tarbat belonged formerly to the county of Ross, but, in the year 1693, Cromarty having been erected into a separate jurisdiction, and the property of the Earl of Cromarty in different parishes being transferred to the erected county, the barony of Tarbat, as a part of his estate, was included in that arrangement, and the parish is now almost equally divided between the shires of Ross and Cromarty. It is situated at the eastern extremity of the country, with the sea on every side, except on the W. and S.W. where it is bounded by to parish of Fearn. On the S. and S.E. it has the Moray Firth. At the E. and N.E. another branch of the sea breaks in between Ross and Sutherland, and bounds this parish on the N. The sea, after passing Tarbat-Ness, turns in to the land, and forms a capacious bay, at the S.E. corner of which lies the harbour of Portmaholmack. Immediately above the harbour, the land rises to a considerable height, extends eastward into the sea 3 miles in length, and is not more than half a mile in breadth at the neck which joins the head-land to the body of the parish. From these local circumstances the parish has its name. Tarbat, being a Gaelic word, expressive of the peninsular situation of the place, and its having the appearance, when viewed at a distance, of a body stretched out in the sea and nearly surrounded by it. Tar signifying a Belly or Prominence, and Bat, drowned or immersed in water. The parish is in length 71/2 miles; in breadth it does not in any part exceed 41/2 miles; in circumference it is 191/2 miles, and of that measurement 15 miles belong to the sea coast.

Surface, Soil, &c.
There are no high mountains or high hills in the Parish. Geanies has the most elevated situation of any place belonging to it. There, a rocky precipice to the S. rises more than 20 feet above the level of the sea, and the fields on the N. and N.W. descend with a considerable declivity, a degree of which continues all the way to the north shore, though in most part so gradual as to be scarce perceptible. There are, in some other parts, a few rising grounds, which have a familiar effect, but, in general, the fields are nearly level, or have no inequality but what is rather useful than otherwise. There is a variety of soil; some of a loamy quality, some light with a mixture of sand, or lying upon it, and a part of it, deep with a bottom of hard gravel. There are no lakes or rivers on the parish, but there are number of small lochs or natural ponds, which become dry in summer; and fresh water springs are to be found in every corner, particularly in parts near the sea. One of them at Portmahomack is remarkable for the lightness of its water. At a short distance is another, within flood-mark, which discharges the salt water at ebb, and becomes then free of any brackish taste. It gives the colour of iron to the stones around it, and from this, and some other properties, is supposed to pass through iron ore. There are different other mineral springs in the parish, having the same qualities. Small quantities of salt are found in the summer months, concreted by the heat of the sun, from water left by high tides, in hollow parts among the rocks. The situation of the parish, in an open part of the country and lying in the sea, gives it a most extensive prospect. There are particular stations from which may be seen a part of eight counties, with along range of coast, from Cullen to Fort-George, in the S.E. and S. and from Dunbeath and the Ord of Caithness to the Doun of Creech in Sutherland, in the north.

There are two public roads in the parish running parallel. The one leads straight from Tarbat-Ness to the ferry of Cromarty, and is called the rock-head road, from its being carried along the top of a bank rising above the sea, and rocky in some parts. The other road passes by the church, through the middle of the parish, and leads to the ferry of Invergordon. There are cross roads also, one of which leads to Tain, the head burgh of the county, where a weekly market is held, to which the inhabitants resort. In this and every parish though out the country, the roads, are made most convenient for travelers, from the particular attention given to that branch of police. The work has hitherto been performed by statue labour, and the people have been regularly called upon, for repairing the roads already made, or making new ones, where found necessary. But a plan has lately been proposed, and approved, to have the statute labour commuted, it being left optional to pay a certain rate of money, or to perform the service in person, in terms of the statue.

Measurement, Manure, Natural Productions, &c.
There is no general map of the parish, but, according to separate plans made of the different estates, it contains 5081 acres; of which, 2998 are arable, 66 out-field, 643 pasture, 1135 muir, 82 moss, and 166 planted. The muir ground, which bears so great proportion to the arable, not with standing the appearance of poverty in its present neglected state, might, by inclosing, mixing the different soils by trenching, and laying on lime, be turned into good arable ground, and brought to yield profitable crops; of this, there is sufficient proof from what is done by the cottars in these spots on which they sit down, and an experiment on a larger scale has been made lately, and with success, by Mr. Macleod of Geanies, on a piece of this kind of ground of about 40 acres, which are now improved into fields of corn and grass. The muir grounds where not fit to be improved for these purposes, might be rendered useful by inclosing and planting them with fir and other timber so much wanted in this place, which there is every reason to think would grow here as in other parts near the sea. The thriving plantations begun some years ago by Mr. Macleod of Geanies on his waste ground, and to which he is making yearly additions, may, it is to be hoped, call the attention of the gentlemen of property in the parish to this object. The arable ground yields barley, pease, oats and rye. Half is generally laid down with barley, or bear, and the ground is prepared by covering it alternately with sea weed and dung, with a mixture of black earth and gravel, this last being ground useful to firmness to the soil rendered open by the frequent use of sea weed.

In different parts, near the sea, are banks of shells which, to naked eye, have the appearance of coarse dark coloured sand. Mr. Wright, in his progress through the country, viewed those banks, and recommended the use of the shells as a manure. They were tried, but the trial not succeeding, probably through a failure in the management, a second attempt has not yet been made. At the bottom of some of the mosses, marle has been discovered. That found at a place called Meikle Tarrel is of the richest quality, and has been used for some years past by the farmer there, much to his advantage. Mr Macleod of Geanies has also considerable quantities of rock and pit marle on different parts of his property. In two farms, some of the fields lie on a stratum of stone of a red colour, which when dug up, is soon dissolved by the sun and weather, and when spread on the ground, is found to have a powerful effect meliorating the soil and crops. On a few of the farms, oats are the principal crop; pease were sown in large quantities, and the returns were profitable, but that part of the crop has now failed for many years. Potatoes have happily come to supply the deficiency. There is not a farm, or small croft, a part of which is not laid out in cultivating this useful root. It would be difficult to ascertain the extent of ground employed for this purpose, or the quantities raised yearly, but both must be very considerable, as they are used in every family, and constitute the principal support of some of them, during nine months of the year.

The sowing of grass and turnip feeds, is another improvement in agriculture which begins to take place in the parish. Mr Macleod of Geanies set also the example in this, by laying large fields under green crops. Having his ground inclosed gives him great advantage for this, and every other improvement in farming; but the farmers have become sensible of the benefit of sowing grass in the open fields, and, of late, considerable quantities of clover and rye-grass have been laid down in this manner, which there is reason to think will become a more general practice.

The number of farms in the parish, including those occupied by principal farmers and their subtenants, is 59. The number of ploughs is 94, commonly drawn by 6 or 8 oxen, and a few on the smaller farms, by horses and oxen. The quantity of barley sown yearly is calculated to be 774 bolls; of oats 1056 bolls; and of pease and rye 290 bolls.

The valuation of the parish, as it stands in the access books, amounts to L.4421. 10s. 10d. Scotch. The real rent, as paid in barley, and from a few farms partly in barley and partly in oat meal, amounts to 2352 bolls, which, converted at 12s. the boll, is equal in money to L.1411. 4s sterling. There is a money rent besides, of L.340. 4s. 10d. sterling, which, added to the former, makes the whole rent to L.1751. 8s. 10d. Sterling. Oat meal is now always received and paid away by weight, and 9 stones the common standard of the country for a boll, and, where meal is mixed, as in the rent paid from mills, 121/2 stones are put to a boll. One farmer pays his rent in money, at a conversion of 10s. the boll; another farmer pays the half of it at a conversion of 11s. Some of the farms, where the soil is richest, are let at the rent of 30s. the acre of arable ground; some of them pay from 20s. to 26s. or from 15s. to 20s. and other farms are set at 10s. and under, but, at an average, the rent may be calculated at 11s. 9d. the acre of arable ground. The muir and pasture lands are not comprehended in this estimate; they are considered appendices of the farm, but, being open and common to every one throughout a great part of the year, the farmer can count very little on this profits from them.

The parish produces much more corn than is sufficient for the support of the inhabitants. The victual rents are sold yearly, to be carried to other parts of the kingdom, or used in the country, by distillers, and those living in towns, or the Highlands.

Cattle, Horses, and Sheep
There are in the parish 1176 black cattle, including milch cows, &c., 573 horses, 208 sheep. Only a few of the black cattle are reared here, the greatest part being purchased at the different fairs held in this county, and in Sutherland, in October and November. After some years’ work, when they begin to fail in their strength, they are sold to the drover, or butcher, sometimes at a higher price than that for which they were first bought. The horses bred in the country are mostly of a small size, but hardy and fit for the drudgery to which they are first put. Many of the farmers in this and other parishes of the low country, now repair to the markets in Moray and buy larger horses, which cost from L.6 to L.13. The sheep are also of a diminutive kind, but by being pastured on the shore-grounds become fat, and fetch a good price. A larger breed has been lately introduced into the Highlands, and a few of them are brought down to this and other parts of the country.*

* The expence of a married servant, including meal for maintenance, his fees and other allowances may be fairly estimated at L.10 per annum. The unmarried servants are commonly maintained in the farmer’s house, and the stated fees and other perquisites may be rated at L.4 yearly for a man, and half that sum for a female servant.

In this and other parts of the country, the harvest is generally cut down by a fixed number of reapers, in proportion to the extent of the farm. They are hired for the season and paid either in corn, or money, as they chuse. A man has 20s or the value of it; 15s is the common allowance given to woman reaper. They are either maintained in the family by their employers, or have some additional allowance for their maintenance. It has now become more frequently the practice to call a number of reapers as the corn ripens, to dispatch the work and prevent loss by the weather. They are paid at the rate of 6d or 8d per day.

The ordinary hire of a labourer for farmer work is 8d. per day, and for garden work, cutting peats and mowing grass 1s. Ditches, dykes and trenching are paid by measurement, and cost as follows: ditches 2d., single stone dykes 2d, double 31/4d, and mud fences 31/2d the yard, trenching L.4. Sterling the acre.

Boats, Fisheries, and Harbours
here are 12 boats belonging to the parish, of that number two are mostly employed in carrying freights. Some of them belong to people who fish occasionally, and require no more then two or three hands to work them. There are five fisher-towns on different parts of the coast. The proprietors of the ground furnish a new boat every seven years, to be upheld by the crew, and are entitled to a fifth part of the fish caught, or of their gains of what ever kind, but their dues are now mostly converted into money. The larger boats pay annually L.4 sterling and the smaller L.3. Every species of gray fish is to be found on the coast, and a great variety of shell fish. From a trial made at an expence of the gentlemen of property in the parish, it appeared that, with the necessary tackle, ling, holybet and turbot might be had in abundance. Some old people remember a cod fishing at Portmaholmack, where the beaches for drying the cod are still to be seen. This year, 1792, a lobster fishing was begun, and carried on very successfully, partly by Messrs. Selby and Cresswell of London, but mostly by a respectable society, under the firm of the Northumberland fishing company. In the course of the season, from March to July, more than 50,000 lobsters were caught at Tarbat-Ness, and near it, and from first to last, 28 vessels touched at the point to receive the lobsters, and carry them to market. The charters of one property in the parish convey a right to a salmon fishing, but if any such did ever actually exist, it has been so long discontinued, that there is no remembrance of it. However, salmon are sometimes seen springing out of the water, near the shore, but, there being no rivers to invite their stay, it is probable they only take a short rest her, in proceeding to or returning from the rivers and lochs in the Highlands, where they leave their spawn.
The variety of fish upon the coast, occasions it to be frequented by seals, porpoises and whales. A large one of the spermaceti kind was in the year 1756 stranded on the rocks to the west of Portmaholmack. It measured 63 feet in length, and yielded a great quantity of spermaceti and blubber. The otter is sometimes surprised at land in his lurking places, and is valued for his skin.*

* Of land animals, the fox has his den amongst the rocks, and lives mostly on shell-fish, though sometimes he makes excursions in search of game, and to commit depredations on the farmer’s poultry. The hares are numerous in the parish, and remarked for their swiftness; when the snow lies on the ground they retire to the shores as a places of warmth and shelter. Of game birds, patridges are in great numbers in the parish, though kept down by the hawk and kite, and other birds of prey, as well as the sportsman. The green plover or lapwing comes early in the spring, and quits the country again in the months of July and August. The swallow and cuckoo come in summer, and disappear in the middle of harvest; when these birds take their departure, numerous flocks of curlews, mountain plovers, wild geese and swans return with their young ones from the hills and lochs, where they had hatched and reared them in the summer months. The various kind of the wild duck do not remove from this place, but are inhabitants of the marshes and shores during the whole year.

There are upon the different sides of the parish six harbours, and a number small creeks. Of the harbours, Portmaholmack is the only one fit to receive vessels of any considerable burden, the rest being merely landing places for open boats. There was a stone pier built there, at the expence of the first Earl of Cromarty, which now, through time and neglect, lies in ruins. The want of this pier has, within these forty years, occasioned the total loss of three vessels, and as many more were, from the same cause, stranded on the shallows in the frith, and not got off without much damage and expence. From a survey lately made it appears that, at full sea with a spring tide, there are thirteen feet of water at the pier head, and 9 feet with a neap tide. Ships driven by easterly storms could with ease pass Tarbat-Ness and lie here in safety, the situation of the harbour giving it shelter from every wind which might hurt. There is not in the N. part of Scotland, and what is called the low country, a place better calculated than Portmaholmack, if so well, for a fishing station, from the convenience of its harbour, its nearness to the sea where the fish is to be found, proper ground adjoining whereon to erect houses, and plenty of excellent free-stone at hand to build them. From the increase of trade, and the establishment of manufactures in this and the neighbouring county, vessels have occasion to proceed more frequently than formerly through the frith, to Tain, Dornoch, and other parts on the coast, which adds to the importance of Potmaholmack as a place for those vessels to run into when over taken by storms. The late Sir John Gordon, who was then the proprietor, had an intention of asking the aid of government, for repairing and enlarging the pier, and plans of the work, and estimates of the expence were made out. Further progress in the affair was prevented by the death of that worthy gentleman, but the reasons still exist in their full force, nor could a few hundred pounds of the public money be laid out on a work more useful and more necessary. *

* There are five caves on the coast, the entry to one of which is so low that to get in one must creep on all fours; within there is a spacious apartment, having around it natural bench of stone. The entry to another resembles a stately porch, which stands at the distance of several feet from the rocks, and from this entry there is a covered way to the body of the cave, which runs a considerable length, and has three apartments, one behind another arched at the top like a fault, through which the water oozes, and in time of frost hangs from the roof in a number icicles.

At the northmost point of Tarbat is a creek accessible to a boat at highwater. There is a tradition of a fort, built here on a small mote within the creek, having the sea on each side. No vestiges remain of the building, both the mote and a narrow neck or causeway which led to it from the land being now covered with grass, but it is easy to trace the foundation of a wall of considerable extent, which defended it on the landside. The creek retains the name of Port-Chastril, or Castlehaven, and, from it, the first Earl of Cromarty, assumed one his titles of nobility, and transferred that name to the old family seat, Tarbat, which is now in the maps of this part of Scotland marked Castlehaven. This fort might be intended to repel the Danes and Norwegians, who formerly so often infested the coast, or as a place of security from the predatory incursions of the natives in those uncivilized times, when it was customary for the head of one clan with his follower, to break into the territories of another, with every act of hostility.

The parishes of Nigg, Fearn and Tarbat lie in a direct line betwixt Dunseath, or Dunsheath-Ness at the west, and Tarbat-Ness, where Port-Chastril lies, at the east, and both forts, from their situation, would easily protect these and the other adjacent parishes, which, from their fertility, were most liable to be attacked by plunderers. And the etymology of the Gaelic word Ether-Dovur, or Eddir dha Mhuir, is exactly descriptive of the situation of the fort at Tarbat-Ness, which stood on a narrow point betwixt two seas. If this account shall be rejected, it will be difficult, by tradition or any other way, to find a place where in to fix the castle of Ether Dovur.

There were in the parish six of those houses called castles, which towards the end of the last and the beginning of this century were inhabited by antient and respectable families. One of them belonged to the Sinclairs of Dunbeath. The ruins of another stand a monument of the taste and grandeur of former times. The old name was Tarbat Castle, and Ballone, from a marsh behind it. It stands above the sea, and upon the very limits of the property, as if intended to prevent incroachments.

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