The 1st Statistical Account

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(County of Ross)

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 JOHN McQUEEN

Origin of the Name
APPLECROSS is a fanciful designation, assumed by one of the proprietors of that part of the parish from which it derives its name. In commemoration of this, five apple trees were planted cross ways, and have since, in form, been perpetuated by his successors. The antient and only name by which it is known in the language of the country, is Comrich, a Gaelic word signifying protection, a name implying the immunity of the place in antient times, this having been the seat of a cloister, and, as such, an asylum for all, who either from persecution, or merited punishment, fled for protection.

The figure of the parish is irregular, being frequently intersected by the sea, and having in the centre of one of its most populous districts, a few farms which form a part of the parish of Lochcarron. It is situated in the county of Ross, presbytery of Lochcarron, and synod of Glenelg.

The extent of the parish is considerable, but cannot, with precision, be ascertained, as there is neither public road nor bridge, from one extremity of it to the other. The foot traveller is guided, according to the season of the year, what course to take, over rugged hills, rapid waters, and deep and marshy moors. Besides here, as in all the adjoining parishes and Western Isles, the computation of miles is merely arbitrary, always terminated by a burn, cairn, well, or some such accidental mark, which renders them so remarkably unequal, that it is impossible to reduce any given number of these imaginary miles to a regular computation. The extent of sea coast, taking it in a direct line, by the opening of every bay and creek, is upwards of 20 miles, or following the shore, in all its curves and windings, cannot be under 90 miles long. Though in general high and rocky, yet, in some parts, it is flat and sandy. The course of the tides is all along from the north. There is no current worthy of observation.


Surface and Soil
The general appearance of the parish is hilly, rocky, and mountainous. Yet amidst these hills, covered with heath, and dreary to the sight, are vallies both beautiful and very fertile, but, being detached by hills, lofty, and often inaccessible, the soil is exceedingly various. The shallow is the most prevalent, which frequent rain nourishes in to a state of fertility, of which it would otherwise be deficient.

Climate and Crop
The climate, like the surface of the country, is remarkably unequal. The same day is often diversified by the appearance of all the different seasons, and though occasionally we may have some tracts of dry weather, yet at no period can two successive days be wholly depended on. The husbandman hath, in all his operations, the climate to combat.

The ground is prepared, either with the plough or crooked spade, a clumsy hand implement, pointed with a piece of iron four or five inches diameter, which though ludicrous to the eye of a stranger, is absolutely necessary in shallow stoney ground, where it is impossible for the plough to move, or for the hand spade to be used, yet it must be acknowledged that it is often employed without necessity. Oats, potatoes, and barley, are the crops of the parish, which, as soon after the middle of March as the ground is properly dried up from the winter storms, are sown in regular succession, with as little interruption as the weather permits. Small oats are much, if not principally used, a hardy grain, which, though neither so fruitful nor so nourishing as the large, is found to be best adapted to the severities of the climate. The early oats have been tried, but abandoned, as precarious and uncertain. Potatoes are much cultivated, and serve as a substitute for bread among the lower class of people, nearly for two thirds of the whole year. In a rainy climate, early crops are not to be expected; yet this parish, notwithstanding its local disadvantages, is remarkable for an early harvest. The harvests 1782 and 1783, were singular over all Scotland. The barley was then cut in October, and the oats not got in till the end of November, yet these were years of plenty, the general scarcity did not affect this parish, whose crop would bear a comparison with any year’s since that period. But it is to be observed that this is not a corn, but a grazing country, whose crops rarely supply the parish with meal, a considerable quantity of surface being waste and useless.

Black cattle is the great article, from which the farmer principally derives his emolument, and the landlord his rent. There are generally about 3000 black cattle small and great, in the parish. During the summer and harvest, they pasture upon the low grounds, which produces grass of a finer and more nourishing quality than is to be found in any part of Sky, or the other adjacent islands. The cattle are for the most part coupled, ie have but one calf between every 2 cows, by these means the calf is better fed, a greater quantity of butter and cheese is manufactured, the bulling secured, and no superfluous stock kept on hand. Except in the district of Kishorn, the number of horses is very inconsiderable. The sheep are all of the smallest kind, their mutton is firm, fat, and juicy. Goats are kept for private use, their milk is the earliest supply to relieve the necessities of the indigent; and pasturing, among rocks and precipices inaccessible to other cattle, their milk is thought to contain some medicinal virtues. The hills abound with deer; 30, 40, or 50 is no uncommon sight in a flock. Roes, badgers, and otters are likewise to be found. The kingsfisher, cuckow, waterwagtail, swallow, and corncraick, are the migratory birds of the parish. There is some moor game, but the wetness of the moors, and the number of foxes in the neighbourhood, so noxious to the hatched young, prevent their increase.

The haddock, cuddie, skate, whiting, and flounder, are to be got all along the coast of this parish, but not being used for exportation, and having no ready market at hand, they are only sought after, either to gratify the desire, or relieve the necessities, of the present moment. The herring occasionally frequents all our bays, creeks, and harbours, which are numerous, and being a favourite fish, not only for exportation, but for home consumption, it is in all seasons greedily pursued. From the middle of July to the 11th of September, it is in its greatest perfection, and from the beginning of November to the 11th of December, though not so good, is thought richer than at any after period. Cod and ling are caught on different parts of the coast. The cod is in its best season from the middle of February to the end of March, but ling is caught from the middle of March to the end of July, yet those fished for the first two months are reckoned the best. Our rivers, though small, are very rapid, they abound with trout, and those of Firdon and the river of Applecross, produce some salmon. Fishing is a favourite occupation of the people of this parish, they derive much of their sustenance from the sea. Each principal farmer hath generally a boat of his own, and among the lower class, either two, three, or four, make a joint purchase, according as their circumstances will permit. There are, besides, five vessels, of from 20 to 40 tons, employed in the fishing, one of which belongs to a fishing company, founded at a considerable expense, by Mr McKenzie of Firdon, one of the heritors of this parish. The patriotic exertions of this gentleman merit much praise, and as such an establishment, by affording a ready market and an example for improvement to our fishers, doth naturally quicken and improve their industry, the public is interested in its success.

Exports and Imports
Black cattle, butter, cheese, fish and kelp, are the exports of this parish. All these articles within the last 30 years, have nearly doubled their value. The number of cattle annually sold may amount to 300, which, of late years, at an average, draw about 2L. 15s. The price of fish varies according to the quantity caught. Herring, packed for home consumption, give from 11s. to 15s. the barrel, but, if repacked for exportation, 4 of these barrels go to make up 3. Cod and ling are sold, either by the dozen, or by the ton; when by the dozen, the price depends on the size of the fish, if by the ton, it fetches from 12L. to 15L. Sterling. Oban and Greenock are the markets most commonly frequented. Kelp, prior to the American war, sold at 3L.10s. the ton; the price has since been fluctuating, nearly between 5L. 5s. and 4L. 15s. There will be about 50 tons annually brought to market. A greater quantity could be manufactured, but a considerable portion of the ware is appropriated for manure to the different farms. It may not be improper to observe that, close to the harbour of Poldown, there is a shelly sand, which, when used with discretion, not only meliorates the ground for corn, but after it is laid on, introduces, for a few years, excellent crops of white and red clover. Meal, and all other articles (excepting these now specified), which either the necessities or conveniencies of life require, are imported into this parish.

Proprietors and Rents –There are three proprietors. The principal heritor constantly resides in the parish, and pays four fifths of the stipend. The estate hath remained in the family for more than two centuries, nor hath there been an acre sold in the parish for some generations. The rents, inclusive of kelp, exceed 700L. Sterling. The lands are greatly subsidised. There is only one farmer who pays upwards of 40L; the general run of rents being from 10L. to 2L. Sterling.

Occupations and Wages
In a country destitute of trade and manufactures, distinct occupations are not to be expected. All the inhabitants of this parish, in some degree, are farmers and fishers. Every man is the architect of his own house, and though there be a few nominal shoemakers, scarcely a boy of fifteen but makes his own brogues. There are several boat wrights and weavers, the former generally maintained by their employers and paid by the piece; the latter, make their demand in money, but are paid in meal, at the conversion of half a merk Scotch the peck. There are 3 smiths (when no private stipulation takes place) for the farm work; they are paid in meal, by an immemorial assessment on the different farms. Antiently they had the head of every cow that was slaughtered in the parish, a privilege they still claim, but it is rarely complied with. There is but one miller, who, by means of the detached situation of his mill, can accommodate but a very inconsiderable district of the parish; all the rest of the corn is either carried to the mill of the neighbouring parish, or grinded by a hand mill called a quern. The wages of domestic servants, for the year, are from 2L. to 3L. Sterling, for men, and from 10s. to 1L. Sterling for women. There are no stipulated wages for day labourers; they generally exact, according to the exigencies of the employer, excepting in the few farms adjoining to the residence of the principal heritor, who, having abolished servitudes, has fixed the wages of men working at peats at 6d. and of women, at 4d. a day, both to furnish their own victuals.

Of that indolence and inquisitiveness, for which the Highlanders were formerly so remarkable, little is now to be found in this parish. The people in general are regular, and very industrious. The use of spirituous liquors is rather too prevalent, yet there are fewer instances of gross intoxication, than at any former period. Antiently they drank rarely, but always to excess; now frequently, but for the most part with moderation. There is not so much as a tradition of suicide in the parish, nor of murder, but one, during the present century. For 20 years past, only one person hath been imprisoned for theft, who soon afterwards enlisted for a soldier. In every country where leases are from year to year, and in which there is no independent occupation, in trade or manufactures, much of the character of the people must depend, either on the virtue or the caprice of their superiors, for though local jurisdictions be abolished, there is still a species of despotism remaining, by which the displeasure of the superior is equivalent, in its effects, to the punishments of the law.

Population –
From the account, published by the Society for propagating Christian Knowledge, in the year 1774 there were 1100 examinable persons in the parish. By an accurate enumeration, recently made, there are 1734 souls, of which number 897 are females. In Dr Webster’s report, the number is only 835. At an average of four years, the number of births amount to 68, and of marriages to 9. There being five burial places in the parish, besides the parish churchyard, the number of burials cannot be ascertained with certainty. The increasing population of the parish is evident, to which the cultivation of potatoes, and the abolition of servitudes, greatly contributes. For, prior to the introduction of this useful root, a general scarcity pervaded the Highlands. By the abolition of servitudes, the tenant is put into possession of his own industry, which was formerly fettered by stipulated services, in the different seasons, to the superior, exacted with rigour, and only accepted of in the best weather, in an unsteady climate. Communicating the small pox by inoculation, is of so very recent a date in this parish, that it could as yet have but little influence. Religious prejudice opposed it, but experience hath now established its utility. In the year 1789 the mortality was so great, that only 1 in 13, of those who caught the infection the natural way, recovered. Soon afterwards, a man in no respect noted for acquired knowledge, in this and 3 of the neighbouring parishes, inoculated about 700 persons, of which number only 8 died.

This hath so thoroughly removed all prepossessions, that, upon the appearance of this pestilence of late in the parish, inoculation was generally adopted. How far these causes may be counteracted by a spirit for emigration, which hath revived in the neighbouring island of Sky, and hath formerly been found very generally to have been of an infectious nature, time will prove. The local attachment of the Highlanders, hath, for some time back, been gradually abating. The influx of money, and their communication with other countries, hath introduced a desire for better living; and the capacity of the superiors, in applying all the advantages of the times to their own private interest, hath effectually relaxed those attachments. The increasing population of the country at large is favourable to the interested views of the proprietors. For every farm, a multitude of candidates is ready to appear, and the culture of the ground, being the sole occupation of the inhabitants, the disappointed have no other option, but either to emigrate or beg. The inhabitants of this parish are not remarkable for longevity. There are, however, no local distempers. The palsy and dropsy, diseases little known to our forefathers, are now become common.

The parish is divided into three districts, each separated from the other by a ridge of hills, inaccessible in stormy weather. For the district of Lochs and Tirdon, containing 616 souls, the minister officiates once a quarter; and in the district of Kishorn, consisting of 518 souls, once a month. The skeleton of the parish church stands in the district of Applecross; it was condemned in 1788, but is still the only edifice for public worship in the parish. The living amounts to 56L. 13s. 31/2d. Sterling, and a small glebe. The patronage is in the Crown. The weekly collections, and incidental penalties for delinquencies, which are left to the disposal of the kirk session, are the only funds provided for the poor. All the inhabitants communicate with the Estabished Church, but one, who is of the Episcopal persuation.

By the local situation of the parish one district only can be accommodated by the parochial school which is fixed at Applecross. The schoolmaster’s salary is 200 merks Scotch; he hath no perquisites, but the quarter payments of 1s. 6d. for English scholars, and 2s. 6d. for Latin and arithmetic, and the cock fight dues, which are equal to one quarter’s payment for each scholar. It is disgraceful, that a class of men, so usefully employed in the service of the public, should have so little of its countenance.

There are several natural caves in the parish, some of them rendered more commodious by art; they seem to have been the habitations of the first plundering adventurers who came into the country. The Gaelic for cave is uadh, and the only vocable in that copious language for giant, is uadher, that is, the inhabitant of a cave. Fear magnifies objects; these savages, in all our old fables and poems, are mentioned as men of mighty stature and represented as cannibals, who devoured all sorts of flesh raw. In the district of Applecross are the remains of a subterraneous house, of which there is still a part entire. It was of considerable length, four feet wide, and four feet deep, regularly faced with stone, and covered with flags, which were overlaid with turf, so as to be on a level with the surrounding ground. The passage was at one of the ends, which, if covered with a turf or bundle of heather, would elude all search. From the construction of these houses, it is more likely that they were the receptacles of plunder, and the fences of real property, than the habitations of men. Near this house are the ruins of a Danish Dun. All of the same description along the coast, served as so many centinels to the Western Isles (then under the dominion of Denmark), who, by the signal of a torch, could give an early intimation to their nearer insular friends of any approaching danger, which being in like manner communicated from one Dun to another, the alarm would in a moment become general. There are trunks of trees found at a considerable depth under ground, in hills and meadows, where there is no vestige of any kind of wood remaining; many of them have visibly suffered by fire, which the traditional history of the country reports to have been occasioned by the Danes burning the forests. Close by the parish church, are the remains of an old religious house, where the standard and poles of crucifixes are still to be seen. It was richly endowed with landed property, which tradition relates to have been conveyed, by the last Popish missionary, in the place known by the designation of the Red Priest of Applecross, to his daughter. Notwithstanding the pretended celibacy and chastity of the Romish clergy, there are several surnames in the Gaelic language, which clearly prove, that strict abstinence was not their favourite virtue such as Mac-an-tagird, the priest’s son; Mac-vriar, the prior’s son; Mac-sicker, the vicar’s son; Macpherson, the parson’s son, etc. These names exactly correspond with the English surnames of Priestly, Prior, Parson, etc. and prove the character and practices of these primitive apostles, in both the kingdoms, to have been the same.

There are none of the common calamities, or distressful accidents incident to man or beast, but hath had its particular charm or incantation; they are generally made up of a group of unconnected words, and an irregular address to the Deity or to some one of the saints. The desire of health and the power of superstition reconciled many to the use of them; nor are they, as yet, among the lower class, wholly fallen into disuse. With them the belief of the second sight is general, and the power of an evil eye is commonly credited, and though the faith in witchcraft be much enfeebled, the virtue of abstracting the substance from one milk, and adding it to another, is rarely questioned. The ghosts of the dying, called tasks, are said to be heard, their cry being a repetition of the moans of the sick. Some assume the sagacity of distinguishing the voice of their departed friends. The corps follow the tract led by the tasks to the place of interment; and the early or late completion of the prediction, is made to depend on the period of the night at which the task is heard. Credulity and ignorance are congenial; every country hath had its vulgar errors; opinions, early imbibed, and cherished for generations, are difficult to be eradicated. This parish, like some of the Western Isles, hath its characteristical expressions. The Leabharsein of Sky, ie by the Book itself, meaning the Bible; the Danish Mhoirc of Lewes, ie by the Great Sabbath; and the Ider of Applecross, ie by St. Iderius, are so characterstical of the natives of these several places, that, when talking the Gaelic language, they can, with few exceptions, be easily distinguished in any part of the globe. They are the remnants of Popish oaths, which having lost their original meaning, are now used merely as expletives in conversation.

Gaelic is the only language ordinarily preached in the parish. The names of places are principally derived from it, the rest from the Danish. Thus Kishorn is compounded of two Gaelic words, Kish, a tribute, and orn, bear, the rents of that district having originally been paid in bear; achadh chork, the field of oats from achadh, field, and cork oats; arenacrionuc, is literally the shealing of wheat, which being nonsense in iself, is clearly a corruption of arenan Drunich, ie the shealing of the Druids, ari signifying a shealing, and Drunich, a Druid, in the Gaelic language; Kilvoury, a contraction for Kilvourly, from kil, wood, and morladh or morluadh, the ashes of mur. A solid body, fallen into ashes or small particles, is mur. History informs that the Germans used the ashes of burnt wood, extinguished with salt or mineral water. It is probable that from this practice Kilvoury or Kilvourly hath got its name; from which it would appear that this kind of salt hath once been in general use. The ashes of sea ware are still used in St. Kilda, and other places, for curing cheese, and the cheese so cured is called cash-mourly, ie. the cheese of murluadh. From the Danish are derived all those names which have burgh in the compound, as Burghdale. It is observable that in all places of this designation, there hath antiently been a Danish Dun; and also, that all those places, whose names terminate in ic, which, in the Danish language, is said to signify a bay, as Tosgic, Cuic, Dibic, and Shittic, hath each of them an inlet of the sea.

Mines and Woods
In the district of Kishorn there is a copper mine, which Williams, in his mineral kingdom, considers as equally rich with any in great Britain. On the south side of the bay of Applecross, in a line close by the shore, there is a lime stone quarry of an excellent quality. There are some natural woods of fir, birch, and hazel, in different parts of the parish.

Advantages and Disadvantages
The vicinity of the sea is the principal advantage of this parish. But the want of salt frequently deprives the inhabitants of any benefit from their local situation. Could this be remedied by the establishment of store-houses, a reduction of the duty, and a small bounty to open boats, the condition of the Highlanders would be greatly meliorated, a new source of national wealth explored, and the current of emigration more effectually restrained, than by any other means which have hitherto been devised. The supernumeraries would be amply and independently provided for, as the new erected villages would afford an asylum to all such as could not retain their present habitations without visible disadvantages.

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