A Kishorn family
The extract below has been adapted from the Ross-shire Journal of 20 April 2018 and is reproduced courtesy of the Editor. Only one sketch has been included; two photographs of the family in old age have been omitted as RCHS feels their dignity should be preserved.
Dr Jan Bondeson, a rheumatologist and lecturer with an interest in medical anomalies and unsolved murder mysteries, has just published his latest book. The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities includes the case of the Kishorn trio who made headlines in the 1840s when they were taught singing and Highland dancing and taken to London to be put on show in circumstances similar to those which inspired the film The Greatest Showman, based on the life of P T Barnum.
When Dr Bondeson purchased a postcard depicting the Kishorn family it became a priority to find out more about these three elderly persons of diminutive stature, dressed in rustic Caledonian attire.
A Kishorn crofter and his wife, both of normal height, had three children, all of them, in modern parlance, vertically challenged. After the birth of the third child, the mother appears to have had a breakdown and to have no more children, since she feared the local witch had put a curse on her.
In 1845, when the three were in their teens, they met a showman named William Mackenzie, who decided to take them to Inverness and then to London. Their parents accompanied them to Inverness, where they were described in the local newspapers. The eldest, Finlay, who was upwards of 20 years old, stood two feet 10 inches in height. Mary was a few years younger and a good deal shorter, while John, who was 15, was described as a mere pygmy.
The Kishorn trio were used to helping at a local farm and “led rustic and wholesome lives”. Mackenzie wanted to teach them singing, dancing and good manners since he had made an arrangement with a London showman to put them on exhibition there. Since they had spoken only Gaelic in their lives, teaching them English would have been an uphill task.
In May 1846 the three were exhibited at the Cosmorama Rooms, Regent Street, London. They impressed a journalist from the Standard newspaper by dancing reels and showing their proficiency with the claymore. Mackenzie stood by, ready to tell the visitors about the parentage, history and peculiarities of the three Highland performers.
The fact that no other newspaper mentioned them at the time, and that their career remains unrecorded in any standard work on their condition, or on London exhibitions, would indicate that their impact on the London amusement scene was a limited one. However, the youthful Queen Victoria appears to have received them at a special audience at Buckingham Palace.
In due course they returned to Kishorn to rejoin their parents. If they ever returned to London, it remains unrecorded in the newspapers.
However, the Aberdeen Weekly Journal of 1894 reported: It may not be generally known that a family of [vertically challenged] has been living in the west of Ross-shire for over half a century now. Mary [surname], one of them, died there this week. She was the youngest of the family, which consisted of two brothers, and had reached the age of 65. The members of the family vary in height from three feet to three feet and a half, and have appeared before the Queen at frequent intervals during the past 40 years.
On Coronation Day 1911, Kishorn had a holiday. In the evening a large bonfire was lit by Finlay, who had danced before the late Queen Victoria 65 years ago. The last living of the family died in or around 1915; they are all buried under a gravestone at the old churchyard in Lochcarron.