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

By the Rev. Mr. George Balfour

Population Table

Number of souls in 1755


Number of souls in 1792






Under 6 years of age


Under 6 years of age - Males


Under 6 years of age - Females


Between 70 and 80


Between 80 and 90


Between 90 and 100


Families or houses


Widowers and widows




Male servants


Female servants




Millers and Wrights












Heritors - resident


Heritors - non-resident


Marriages from 1st October 1784 to 1st of August 1792


Births from 1st October 1784 to 1st of August 1792


Deaths from 1st October 1784 to 1st of August 1792


One cause of the decrease of the number of inhabitants is uniting different farms into one, a practice undoubtedly inimical to population; another cause is the loss of some fishermen at sea, the removal of others from the parish, and that some crews were suffered die out, without having their places supplied. But what chiefly contributes to the decrease of the inhabitants, is a yearly emigration to the south of young people who never return.

There is now living in the parish a female dwarf, aged berwixt 30 and 40, who measures only 34 inches in height; there is no other deformity about her.

Diseases, Climate, and Fuel
There are no diseases peculiar to the parish from climate or any other cause, but there have been instances of more than ordinary mortality from epidemical distempers spreading over the country, and making their way hither. The fevers now most common are of the nervous and putrid kinds. A species of the latter is distinguished by the name of the yellow fever, so termed because as soon as the patient expires the body becomes of that colour. The small-pox is the disease which has proved most fatal to the rising generation; its effects were particularly calamitous in 1756, when it carried off 75 children. In 1768 it cut off 46, and 38 since the month of October last (1791). Some families at those different periods lost their whole children. Inoculation when tried failed only in one instance, and there are families in the place in which there was not an instance of recovery until this method was taken; not withstanding which, the people still retain a strong prejudice against it, seem deaf to all arguments used to show its lawfulness and expediency as a mean which providence has blessed for saving thousands of lives.

The air here is very pure, there is little rain in summer, because there are no mountains to condense or break the clouds; during that season, the breezes from the east serve to allay the heat and refresh the spirits through the day, and bring dews, which promote vegetation, in the night.
The parish labours under a considerable disadvantage, from the scarcity of peats and other fuel. The privilege of the scanty mosses in the parish is restricted to a few families living on the properties to which they belong, and the far greater part of the inhabitants are left to make the best shift they can for this necessary article of life, and put to a great expence of time and money in purchasing and getting it carried home; a circumstance hurtful to the farmer, by taking him off the work of his farm, and which renders the condition of the poorer sort very uncomfortable during the winter and spring seasons, and proves in general a great check to industry. They begin now to use coals from Newcastle, and find this the easiest way of supplying themselves and for some time past a cargo from that place of 500 or 600 barrels, is annually delivered in the harbour of Portmaholmack, at 1s 11d or 2s each. They could be had much lower, but for the high duty laid upon coals carried to the north of the Red Head.

Ecclesiastical State, and Poor
Tarbat was one of the mensal churches belonging to the Bishop of Ross. The bishop was patron, and had what remained of the tiends, after the share allowed by him to the person employed to perform the duties of the pastoral office. At the revolution the King became patron, and the Earl of Cromarty obtained from the Queen Anne a gift of the patronage , which has now devolved upon Mrs Urquhart of New-hall. The church was built in 1756, and the manse in 1707. By a decreet of locality anno 1708, the stipend was modified at nine chalders, payable equally in bear and oat meal, with the vicarage or small tithes. There was a new decreet anno 1781, by which no alteration was made in the victual, but 300 merks Scotch, of money stipend, were appointed, and the vicarage tithes made over to the heritors. The living at the ordinary conversion may be estimated at L.90 sterling, including a small glebe of four acres. From the state of the free tiends, there is a large fund for augmentation. The estate of Tarbat, which is nearly the half of the parish, pays no share of the victual stipend. The reason of that exemption when the former decreet passed, was a long lack of tiends obtained from King William by the first Earl of Cromarty, which is now run out.

There is a parochial school near the church, and a convenient house lately built for teacher and scholars. The salary is L.5 Sterling in money from the heritors, and 8 bolls of barley from the farmers, and this with the other emoluments may be estimated L.16 per annum. There are no dissenters in the parish, except three families who have lately come from a part of the country in which a seceding meeting house is established, but they occasionally attend the established church. Gaelic being the common language of the people, the greater part of religious service on Sundays is performed in that language. Many of the inhabitants are taught to read English, and some who cannot read, understand a little of it in common conversation, but in general they prefer Gaelic.*

* There were three chapels in different parts of the parish; a part of the walls of one of them remains, which was built, as is said, by Dunbar of Tarbat, and is still pointed out by the name of Dunbar’s chapel. Of another, which was situated on the shore to the east of the old castle of Tarbat, there is nothing left but some rubbish and stones piled up, or used as a wall to a piece of ground laid out for a garden in trenching of which human bones are frequently thrown up. Near it, there is a plentiful spring of water, which continues to bear the name of Tabair Mhuir, or Mary’s Well. The rock above is covered with ivy, and at the foot of it a small cave or grotto is shewn as the abode of the priest. The Gaelic name of the place, Teampul Eraich, the place at which the people assembled for worship, preserves the memory of what it once was.

The number of poor standing at present on the parish roll is 110. Few of these are mendicants. Widows, fatherless children, and orphans left destitute, servants and labourers laid aside with age or sickness are received into the number, and have a small pittance given them at an annual distribution made of the money arising from the ordinary collections in church on Sundays, and from the parish mortcloths and bells, amounting commonly to about L.16 or L.17 sterling. Extra-ordinary collections amounting, to 2, 3, or L.4 sterling are sometimes made for the relief of persons in circumstances of peculiar distress. There is no other fund for the poor but a charitable donation by the first Earl of Cromarty, from a part of his property in the parish, which bears the name of the mortified lands, and is exempted from the payment of cess and other public burdens. The charity paid from these lands is 36 bolls barley, 121/2 bolls of which belong to this parish, and the remaining part to the parishes of a Fodderty, Kilmuir and Loggie Easter. It was intended for the relief of decayed farmers and other in indigent circumstances, living on the estates which belonged to the noble donor, in this, and the other parishes now mentioned, in 1686.*

* The spring of the year 1782 fails to be noticed for a scarcity of provender, and the ruin of many families, both in the Highlands and low country, by the loss of their cattle, as the consequence of that scarcity. I t was occasioned by a rainy and late harvest, and a long continued frost and snow during the winter and part of the spring, and at last rose to such a height, that in the working season, neither straw nor hay could be had for any money. This parish shared in the common calamity, and some farmers were necessitated to quit their farms and reduced to poverty. But these losses were forgotten in the miseries that followed them in the year 1783, from the failure of the crop of the preceding year, and a real want of bread for the use of man. The want commenced early in the Highland parts of the country, and in January of that year (1783) many came down to this and other parishes of the low country, on search of provisions for their families; as the season advanced, their wants, and numbers increased, and multitudes from the heights of both Ross and Sutherland might be daily seen traversing the different parishes, supplicating supplies of meal or corn, in any quantity, for their money; and a pitiable case it was to see persons young and otherwise vigorous in this condition, having hunger and distress of mind pointed in their countenances. The price of corn rose from 15s to 20s and 21s, and at length to 26s., 28s. and 30s the boll. The late Admiral Sir John Ross and some other gentlemen of property in the county, touched with the general distress, ordered corn brought from other places to be given out amongst their people in small quantities, according to their families, to be paid when they should be in better condition. Upwards of 12,000 bolls were imported from the east country to Inverness by means of Messrs Falls of Dunber and others, and scattered over the different northern counties; and his Majesty’s paternal care, and the attention of Ministers, should be remembered with gratitude, in sending at different times cargoes of barley, pease and flour to be distributed amongst the indigent in several parishes, at the discretion of the ministers and elders. But for those supplies, disorder and rapine would have prevailed, and the poor, rendered desperate by famine like so many hungry wolves, would have broke loose, and laid hands on whatever they could find. The aid of government then afforded this parish amounted to 36 bolls, which were distributed at different times amongst householders in straits, to the number of 415, and proved a most seasonable relief.

This will be a memorable era in the history of this country and it is already marked by the people in their calendar, with the epithet of the Black Year. One agreeable circumstance attended so much misery, that nor a single person died merely of famine, though diseases followed, which cut off many, whose constitution had been enfeebled by what they suffered at that period. The case was different during a scarcity which prevailed in this country in the summer of the year 1741. Many were then found dead on the highways and in the fields; and others, through long fasting, expired as soon as they tasted food. But the planting of potatoes in the field was not at that time known in this country; in place of importation the rents paid in corn were a great part of them carried out of the country, till the mob put a stop to this, by breaking up a sloop laden with oat meal for Greenock; and the calamity, how ever heavily felt in this corner, was not so general as to draw the notice of government or bring public aid.

Miscellaneous, Observations
There are only two public houses in the parish, and these little frequented but by strangers. Industry is not confined to the work of the farmer without doors, but within also. The mistress of the house and the other females are employed in preparing webs from the wool and lint raised on the farm, partly for family use, and partly for ale, and there is scarce a house inhabited by the inferior class of people, in which does not go on spinning of hemp or flax, given out by persons employed for the manufactures of sail cloth and linen yarn established at Cromarty and Inverness. The expence of supporting a family has, within these forty years, risen to more than double what it was before that period. Meal of every kind draws nearly three times the money for which it could have been purchased, and fish has risen in a still higher proportion. A shilling is paid for what till very lately could have been got for a penny. The increase of the expence of clothing is still more considerable, and more heavily felt by persons in the middle and lower ranks of life, who, to appear decent, and comply with the fashion of the times, must have recourse to the shop, and distribute the greatest part of their income and earnings among the merchants, for fineries in dress not known to their fathers.* The lands of the parish hold of the crown. The district to the east of Portmaholmack was of old called the forest of the Earl of Ross, and continues to pay L.40 Scotch of crown rent; a sum which, though now a mere trifle, might, in those times when the boll of corn was converted at half a merk Scotch, be the real rent of a tract of ground which at present yields the proprietor near L.400 sterling yearly. There are lands in the parish which held of the bishop of Ross and Abbot of Fearn. Some of the lands most contiguous to the parish of Fearn are by the country people called by the name of the Abbeachd, i.e. Abbey lands, and, it is probable, made a part of the revenue with which the abbacy was endowed by its founder Ferchard Earl of Ross. They are still astricted to the mills of Fearn, and the people occupying them obliged to carry their corns thither to be grinded. One gentleman, Mr. Macleod of Geanies, lately bought off that vassalage, and has erected mills on his own property, to accommodate himself and his people. The most material defects in the management of farms seem to be, 1st, suffering the grounds to run out by constant tillage, and not recruiting or keeping them clean, by fallowing or resting; 2d, employing a superfluous number of working cattle and servants which runs away with the greatest part of the profits. But there is reason to expect that the modern methods of husbandry may soon be introduced universally into the country as they are already adopted by gentlemen of property and the more wealthy and knowing class of farmers. At Tarbat-Ness, and around it , and in almost every corner of the parish, there is an inexhaustible fund of free stone, easily wrought, durable and of a beautiful colour.

* Corn, the staple commodity of this part of the country, has risen considerably within these 40 years, but not in an equal proportion with other things. Barley and oat-meal, which before 1750 were often sold by contract at 8s. and 9s. the boll, bring now frequently from 12s. to 14s. But cattle, great and small, have advanced in their price, in the proportion of 3 to 1. A sheep which before the 1746 never went beyond 2s 6d. fetches now from 6s. to 8s. and if of a larger size, from 10s. to 14s; and a milch cow, or ox for work, for which 35s or 40s. would have been then reckoned a high price, cannot now be bought for less than L.4. or L.5 Sterling.


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