The 2nd Statistical Account
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PARISH OF DINGWALL
(PRESBYTERY OF DINGWALL, SYNOD OF ROSS)
Sir John Sinclair, Baronet of Ulbster in Caithness standing in front of map of Ross and Cromarty
By the Rev. HECTOR BETHUNE, MINISTER
II. – CIVIL HISTORY
Burgh – The burgh of Dingwall is of considerable antiquity, but, as there are no annals existing of its early history, the only records now extant commencing at a period comparatively recent, we are left almost entirely to conjecture as to its origin and early condition. It was probably originally, as its name would seem to indicate, a Danish settlement, which afterwards became one of the royal fortifications, which were erected along the coast for the purpose of defending the country against the incursions of that people. The charter of its erection into a Royal Burgh was granted in 1227, by Alexander II, and dated 6th February, and 13th of his reign. By this he gave it title to “omnes libertates et liberas consuetudines quas burgenses nostri de Inverness et in eo manentes habent”. This was subsequently confirmed and embodied in a charter of James IV, dated 12th February 1497, and again ratified by a charter of James VI, dated 9th February 1587.
Dingwall would seem, in the course of its history, to have suffered various changes of fortune, and to have passed through different stages of prosperity and decline. Several circumstances would seem to indicate that the town was once much more extensive than it is at present. Pavements have been dug up, and traces of building discovered running in a south-easterly direction, and considerably beyond the present limits of the town. Being the principal residence of the powerful Earls of Ross, who acted so conspicuous a part in the early history of Scotland, and doubtless depending much on their protection and bounty, it is natural to suppose that it must have participated to a certain degree in the fortunes of that family. Accordingly, we find, that on the extinction of the earldom by forfeiture in 1476, the affairs of the burgh suffered a rapid decline, from which it did not for a long time recover – the inhabitants loudly complaining that their trade had almost totally disappeared, not only from a want of the requisite capital for reign commerce, but because their inland traffic was intercepted on all sides by the burghs of barony which were springing up around, under the patronage of the lesser-proprietors, who were now rising in importance.
The burgh at one time possessed a considerable extent of property, but through the rapacity or mismanagement of its functionaries, this was, even so early as towards the end of the seventeenth century, almost wholly alienate – being either sold or feuded out for a merely nominal equivalent – so that the heritors and inhabitants were reduced to the necessity of submitting to a personal stent or impost, to maintain the “liberty and credit of the town”, a state of things which could not have been favourable towards effecting works of public improvement. The necessity for some of these, about this period, may be inferred from a report presented in 1733 to the town-council of Inverness, by certain of their number who had been commissioned to explore this “terra incognita”. “There was,” it says, “no prison, but there was a lake close to the town, which kept the people from church and market for want of a bridge.” It further states, that there was no trade in the town, “but that there were one or two inclined to carry on trade if they had a harbour.” (Inverness burgh records.) For some time after this, we find no occurrence worthy of notice. The public tranquillity was occasionally affected by the feuds of the surrounding clans, and when any of the hostile parties met, as they occasionally did at fairs, affrays frequently ensued, which sometimes ended in bloodshed. In one of these, in 1740, the lady of the provost was killed. But various circumstances, shortly after this, tended to improve the condition of the place. Its trade was extending in proportion as the surrounding country grew in agricultural importance, which the altered habits of the Highlanders, subsequently to 1745, tended to promote. Under a better and purer management, the revenue arising from its remaining property was increased. Bridges were built, a jail was erected, the streets were paved, and water introduced into the town. And the loss of the common lands was in some measure compensated by their rapid conversion from swamps and pasture lands, to fertile fields and thriving plantations, a change at once beneficial and ornamental. In more recent times, the cutting of a canal began in 1815, and was completed in 1817, by which vessels of considerable burthen are brought into the immediate vicinity of the town. The establishment of a branch bank in 1828, the high state of culture to which the surrounding country has been brought, the constant and easy communication with an extensive and populous district, together with several other circumstances of a less obvious character, have contributed to increase considerably, the commercial and political importance of Dingwall.
At the east end of the town may still be seen part of the ruins of what once was the chief residence of the Earls of Ross. This family, which occupied a distinguished rank among the Scottish barons, possessed a great part of the landed property of this district, several of the most considerable proprietors around holding their lands by charter from them dated “apud castrum nostrum de Dingwall”. This building, which would seem to have been a regular fortification, occupying an area of about half an acre, was well situated for defence. It stood quite close to the shore, the deep slimy channel of the Peffery into which the sea flowed winding about two of its sides, and a level plain of considerable extent surrounding it on the other. A small fragment of the castle wall is all that now remains of it, but even this is capable of giving some idea of the solidity and massive proportions of the original structure. The fosse, which surrounded it, may still be traced; and a regular glacis is plainly visible. After the forfeiture of the Earl, the proprietor of the estate of Tulloch was appointed hereditary constable of the castle, with a salary of 20 merks, or L.1. 2s. 2.2/3d. Sterling. Its site is now occupied by a castellated building, erected by a naval gentleman, a native of the place, who obtained the land in feu, and who, by the improvements which he has effected, has contributed much to the ornament of the town.
Near the church stands an obelisk, which, although of no great antiquity, attracts the notice of all travellers. It is erected on an artificial mound, occupying about two-thirds of an acre. The obelisk is 6 feet square at the base, and rises in a pyramidal form, to the height of 57 feet. It was erected by George, first Earl of Cromarty, Secretary of State for Scotland, in the reign of Queen Anne, and was intended to ornament and distinguish this spot, which he designed to be the family burying-place.
Towards the north end of the parish there are the remains of a Druidical temple, and there are many similar remains in the neighbourhood. It stands on a bare moor, all that now remains of it being the upright stones of the inner circle – those of the outer circle, which may still be distinctly traced in the sward, having been removed to build a march-dike in the vicinity.
III. – POPULATION
For the reasons above assigned, it is impossible now, with any accuracy, to ascertain the ancient state of the population of this parish, which would appear to have been subject to considerable fluctuation, both in circumstances and numerical amount.
The amount of the population since the commencement of the Parliamentary census has been as follows:
This gradual increase of population is satisfactorily accounted for by the growing habits of attention to cleanliness and health, apparent among the people, the universal use of vaccination, and the occasional influx of strangers, particularly the settlement here of the staff of the Ross-shire militia in 1816. The increase since 1821, as indicated above, is considerably less than it would have been, owing to the extent to which emigration has been carried on during the last few years; the average number of persons who have left this parish for the Canadas, during that period, being not much below twenty, annually. A considerable number also of young men leave this parish yearly, in quest of employment in the south.
The number of the population residing in the burgh is ............. being about four-fifths of the whole.
There are no villages in the parish.
The yearly average of births for the last seven years is .
That of marriages for the same period . .
There is no register of deaths kept in the parish.
The number of individuals and families of independent fortune residing the parish is about . . . .
The number of proprietors of land, of the yearly value of L. 50 and upwards, is
Number of families in the parish, . . . -
............ chiefly employed in agriculture,
........... in trade, manufactures, or handicraft,
The people of this parish are not remarkable for any peculiarity in their personal appearance.
The number of insane persons is 2; of fatuous 6; of blind 1; and of deaf and dumb l.
Gaelic is still the language of the lower orders of the people, although it has been sensibly declining within the last twenty years, and promises at no very distant period to be completely supplanted by the English, which is understood by all, and tolerably well spoken by most of the inhabitants. It has become the language of ordinary conversation among the young, Gaelic being now rarely heard on the playground. Still the older members of the community are strongly attached to it, and public worship is every Sabbath performed in it, at which a large proportion of the people attend.
There are no popular customs peculiar to this parish worthy of notice. The taste for amusements would seem to be declining here; even the Christmas and New year’s shinty matches, in which but recently both old and young used to indulge with eager interest, are now abandoned, and exchanged, it is to be feared, in many instances, for pastimes of a less equivocal character.
The people generally are simple, industrious, and temperate in their habits, rather cheerful in their dispositions, and affable in their manners and address. Although by no means filthy in their persons, they are far from remarkable for cleanliness in their dwellings and domestic arrangements. But a marked change in this respect is now taking place. More regard is now paid to neatness, at least in the exterior of their houses; and the dunghill, which used to disfigure the approach to them, is now pretty generally giving place to a flower-plot or shrubbery. The staple articles of food among the peasantry are potatoes and herrings, which, with oatmeal, form the subsistence of the poorer classes. Fresh fish, with which the market here is abundantly supplied at particular seasons of the year, comes on these occasions within the reach of their limited funds, and supplies them with a wholesome and agreeable variety. But the standard of living is exceedingly low, butcher meat being to the lower orders a luxury in which they seldom indulge. Still, however, the people are social and contented, and enjoy the comforts of society in a higher degree than their slender circumstances would indicate.
Their intellectual character stands as high as that of most people who labour under the disadvantage of using the Gaelic as their vernacular tongue, in which there existed nothing, at least until recently, deserving the name of literature. Most of them, it is true, were taught to read and write English, but they think in Gaelic, which renders these acquisitions of comparatively little use to them. But although thus necessarily, in a great measure, strangers to the intelligence acquired by reading, and consequently a good deal influenced by the narrow prejudices inseparable from ignorance, they are naturally shrewd and observant, sagacious in the management of their affairs, and not altogether destitute of that thoughtful and imaginative cast of mind characteristic of Highlanders.
Their character for morality is upon the whole creditable. Making due allowance for exceptions, they are honest, sober, and peaceable, good citizens, and loyal subjects. The number of habitual drunkards in the place is small, bearing no proportion to the amount of temptation to that vice presented by the great number of public-houses. Still the tone of their morality is perhaps rather strict than high.
With regard to religion, in so far at least as externals are concerned, they are decidedly a religious people, having great reverence for sacred things, evincing a laudable diligence in attending the means of religious instruction, and in general maintaining a suitable conduct, with those exceptions which must occur in every society.