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Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century
Chapter XV

In this chapter I purpose to give a brief account of five of the most distinguished laymen that Caithness has produced, namely, the late Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, James Traill, Esq. of Rattar, James Bremner, civil engineer of Wick, John Finlaison, late actuary of the National Debt and Government Calculator, and Richard Oswald, the eminent London merchant.


Sir John was the son of George Sinclair of Ulbster, and Lady Janet, daughter of William, Lord Strathnaver of the House of Sutherland, and was born at Thurso Castle on the 10th of May, 1754. His father died in the prime of life, when the young proprietor, then only sixteen years of age, was left under the sole guardianship of his mother, fortunately for him a shrewd, able, and managing woman. His first tutor was Mr John Logan, afterwards distinguished as a poet and divine, whom the celebrated Dr Hugh Blair of Edinburgh had recommended as a person every way qualified for the task. [In drawing up this notice of the late Sir John Sinclair, I have been indebted for several of the leading incidents and particulars to his "Life," written by Archdeacon Sinclair, and also to a "Memoir" of the deceased, from the pen of Miss Catharine Sinclair, the accomplished authoress.] Nature is often capricious in her gifts, and Logan's physique was not in his favour. His appearance, manners, and dialect were all uncouth; and Lady Janet, apprehensive that her son might catch, in some measure, the rusticity and awkwardness of his tutor, stated to Dr Blair her anxiety to have him placed in other hands. The accomplished professor of rhetoric took a very different view of the matter. "Your ladyship," said he, "in selecting a tutor for your son, should prefer a scholar to a dancing-master." In the case of Logan, Lady Janet, with all her shrewdness, failed to discern the fine genius that lay hid under an Uncouth exterior. The future poet,

[Logan was born at Soutra, in East Lothian, in 1748. In 1773 he was ordained minister of South Leith. While there, he published a volume of poems, and a tragedy entitled Runamede, which was acted in the theatre at Edinburgh. In Scotland, a large section of the laity, as well as the clergy, have, on moral grounds, always entertained a strong prejudice against theatrical representations; and this drama of the minister of South Leith, along with some imprudencies of conduct, rendered him so unpopular with his congregation, that he found it necessary to resign his charge, and, on obtaining a retiring allowance, he went to London in 1785, and eked out a little to his income by writing for the press. He died there in 1788 at the early age of 40. When students at the University of Edinburgh, an intimacy, founded on a similarity of literary tastes, took place between him and Michael Bruce, the poet of Lochleven. It has long been disputed which of them is the author of the Ode to the Cuckoo, one of the sweetest little poems in the language; but the general belief seems now to be that it is the production of Bruce.]

who must have seen that his appearance and manners were distasteful to his employers, did not remain long at Thurso Castle. Lady Janet had the good sense, however, to give her son all the advantages of an excellent education. After a due course of elementary instruction at the High School, he attended the Universities both of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and finally completed his studies at Oxford.

In 1780, when he had attained his 26th year, he was returned member of Parliament for his native county, and in that noble assembly of legislators, he soon distinguished himself by his zealous advocacy of every measure that he considered to be for the national benefit. When he entered into public life, the agriculture of Great Britain was at a very low stand, and he was among the first, if not the very first, that gave it an impulse. By his exertions, the Board of Agriculture was established, of which he was with great propriety elected president. His first step, on the establishment of the Board, was to open a correspondence with all the most distinguished cultivators of the soil, both in this country, and on the Continent. The varied and highly-important information which he thus received, he afterwards arranged and published in a work entitled the "Code of Agriculture."

In 1786 he received the honour of knighthood from George the Third. At this time he made a tour of the Continent, for the purpose of enlarging his sphere of knowledge, and seeing men and manners abroad. He visited Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Prussia, Holland, France, etc., and was everywhere received with much flattering distinction. Among other foreign potentates to whom he was presented was Catherine, the celebrated Empress of Russia, from whom he had a most gracious reception. In the course of his travels, he formed an acquaintance with several of the most eminent political and literary characters on the Continent, and he collected a great deal of useful information, especially on his favourite subjects of finance and agriculture. Some of the scenes which he witnessed in "high places" abroad are not a little amusing. When at Berlin, he supped one evening at the house of Count Finkenstein, the prime minister. After supper, the party engaged in the game of "Blind man's buff," in which the worthy baronet joined. "The dinners," says Sir John, "were miserably long and tedious, and the guests ate most voraciously. The old custom in Germany was to get up between the services, and to walk about in another room until the second service was put on the table, and ready to be devoured. The longest dinner I ever witnessed was at the house of the Prince de Lachen, where the company sat eating for nearly five hours!" Sir John's patriotic exertions in raising two fencible battalions, the one in 1794, and the other in 1795, have been already noticed. They were such as tended greatly to exalt his character in the estimation of the country.

Sir John was a most indefatigable writer. One of the earliest of his productions was a collection of Scotticisms. This brochure was written with the laudable purpose of assimilating the conversational language of England and Scotland and preventing the use of those solecisms on the part of the natives of North Britain which expose them to the ridicule of their southern neighbours. Of the liability of even well-educated Scotsmen to commit themselves in this way, Miss Sinclair gives the following anecdote:—"Lord Melville had one day asked Mr Pitt to give him a horse the length of Richmond, to which the minister facetiously replied, that he had none quite so long.''

Among his various publications was a work entitled the "Code of Health and Longevity," which was embellished with prints of the longest-lived persons throughout Europe. They were all frightfully ugly. Of this production a celebrated critic is reported to have said, that to read it through was sufficient to throw one into a consumption. It is, however, notwithstanding this bit of critical sarcasm, an excellent compilation of its kind, and contains many useful hints and suggestions on diet and regimen, and the best means of prolonging health.

But Sir John's most celebrated work, and that on which his fame chiefly rests, is his Statistical History of Scotland. The idea of this undertaking was quite original. Nay, the very term statistics itself—taken from the German statistik—was new to the language. The work, which was one of incredible labour, was begun in 1790, prosecuted for the space of seven years, and finally published in January, 1798, in 21 thick volumes. Sir John had great difficulty in bringing it out. "In order to complete the work," says one of his friends, "he required answers to 160 queries from nearly 1000 ministers. To many of them such topics were strange or distasteful; and all of them encountered difficulties themselves in the shyness, and sometimes in the superstition of their informants. Tenants would not tell the produce of their farms, for fear that their rents should be raised; and Highland shepherds would not count their flocks, lest their vain curiosity should entail judgment on the fleecy people." Several parishes did not make any returns; and to these Sir John was obliged to send persons at his own expense, whom he styled "statistical commissioners," to draw up reports. Add to all this, many of his best friends prophesied that the undertaking would not succeed, and that it would be so much labour and money thrown away. But no discouragement could damp Sir John's zeal and perseverance; and he had the satisfaction at last of seeing his labours crowned with the most complete success. When the work made its appearance, its great merits were at once acknowledged, and every one lauded the indefatigable industry and patriotic spirit of the enterprising editor. Even the most captious critics were forced to admit the immense value of a work which gave a particular and succinct account of the topography, agriculture, antiquities, customs and manners, and, it might be said, the morals of every parish in Scotland. Many important benefits resulted from its publication. Among others, several oppressive feudal burdens were abolished, and a great impulse was given to the improvement of Scottish agriculture. The clergy of the Established Church were also benefitted by it. A law was passed for regulating the augmentation of their livings, either from the parochial funds, or where the tithes were exhausted, from a parliamentary grant in their behalf. By this enactment it was provided that £150 per annum should be the lowest stipend of a clergyman of the Church of Scotland. The whole of the profits arising from the sale of the publication were generously assigned to the society for the Sons of the Clergy in Scotland. The following anecdote, which we quote from an excellent writer, affords a remarkable illustration of Sir John's benevolent disposition, and energetic promptitude, in relieving commercial distress at a critical period in the history of the country:—"In 1793 the stagnation, produced by the war, led to an unusual number of bankruptcies, and many of the first houses in Manchester and Glasgow were tottering, not so much from want of property, but because the usual sources of trade and credit were for the time shut up. A period of intense distress among the labouring classes seemed imminent, when Sir John urged in Parliament that Exchequer Notes to the amount of five millions should be issued immediately as a loan to such merchants as would give security. This suggestion was adopted, and his offer to carry out his plan, in conjunction with certain members named by him, was also accepted. The vote was passed late at night, and early next morning Sir John, anticipating the delays of officialism and red tape, proceeded to bankers in the city, and borrowed of them, on his own personal security, the sum of £70,000, which he despatched the same evening to those merchants who were in the most urgent need of assistance. Pitt, meeting Sir John in the House, expressed his great regret that the pressing wants of Manchester could not be supplied so soon as was desirable, adding, 'The money cannot be raised for some days.' 'It is already gone! it left London by tonight's mail,' was Sir John's triumphant reply; and, in afterwards relating the anecdote, he added, with a smile of pleasure, 'Pitt was as much startled as if I had stabbed him!'" [Smiles' "Self-Help," pp. 312, 313.]

Sir John's principal original work is his History of the Public Revenue of Great Britain, which is allowed by competent judges to display a thorough knowledge of the intricate subject of finance, and to be very ably written.

There never yet was a great or celebrated man without his weak points, and Sir John Sinclair was no exception to the general rule. The worthy baronet was full of projects, some of them, it must be admitted, not a little amusing, and not easily reconcilable with his naturally sagacious and philosophic turn of mind. He was a great advocate for the improvement of British wool; and one of his schemes was the introduction of Spanish sheep into Caithness. The native sheep are subject to a disease called the "rot," arising chiefly from wet and cold; and, to secure the interesting strangers against this malady, and keep their feet warm and dry, he ordered a sufficient quantity of leather, and had them all equipped in boots! It is needless to say that the sanguine baronet was disappointed in his expectations. The boots did not preserve the sheep from the rot, and the whole thing turned out a miserable failure.

Another of his schemes [It is quite possible that this latter story may be without any real foundation, but it appeared not many years ago in a respectable publication.] was a plan to enliven Caithness with the music of nightingales! " He employed London bird fanciers to procure nightingales' eggs, and Caithness shepherds to find the nests of the equally soft-billed robin redbreast. The London eggs soon displaced the Caithness ones, and robin carefully hatched and reared the embryo melodists. In summer, numbers of young nightingales were seen about the bushes; but, at the autumn migration, they disappeared, never to return." In these two instances the worthy baronet, in his zeal for improvement, seemed to forget the lessons of natural history, and to overlook the obvious influences of climate on the animal creation. Caithness was never intended by nature to be the habitat of Merino sheep, or of nightingales.

Sir John continued to represent his native county in Parliament for the long period of 31 years. In 1811 he vacated his seat, and was succeeded by his son, Sir George, then Mr Sinclair, younger of Ulbster, a most accomplished scholar, and a man of fine talents. As some reward for his public services, he was appointed cashier of the Excise, with an income of £2,000 a-year. Never was a Government appointment more deservedly bestowed. Sir John died at Edinburgh, on the 24th December, 1835, in the 81st year of his age, and was buried in the Chapel Royal of Holyrood. The magistrates of Edinburgh, and a deputation from the Highland Society of Scotland, testified their esteem by attending his funeral. Sir John was twice married. His second wife was the honourable Diana, only daughter of Lord Macdonald, the lineal representative of the ancient Lords of the Isles.

Sir John's reputation during his lifetime was greater abroad than at home. So highly were his works esteemed by eminent foreigners, that he received diplomas from no fewer than twenty-five learned and scientific societies on the Continent.

The grand distinguishing feature of Sir John's character was an ardent desire, which animated him to the last, to promote the public good, and to be useful in his day and generation. All his literary undertakings, and even the most fantastic of his schemes, had this benevolent object in view. He was a patriot in the truest sense of the word. Those who envied his reputation, while they could not deny the immense good that he had done, alleged that his great leading principle was vanity; but his vanity—of which he, no doubt, like other men had his share—was of an unselfish and disinterested nature, and might be said to be sublimed into a virtue.


The late James Traill, Esq. of Rattar, Sheriff of the county of Caithness, was born at the manse of Dunnet, on the 2d June, 1758. His father, the Rev. George Traill, D.D., was minister of the parish. Dr Traill was a native of Orkney, and possessed a small property called Hobbister, in the island of Sanday. Mr James Traill, after a course of due instruction at home, was sent to Marischall College, Aberdeen, where he had the good fortune to have as private tutor the late Rev. Thomas Jolly, minister of Dunnet, then a young man pursuing his studies at the same seat of learning. He afterwards studied law at Edinburgh, and passed advocate in 1779. In the year 1788, he succeeded John Sinclair, Esq. of Freswick, as Sheriff-depute of the county of Caithness, the duties of which office he discharged for many years with great ability, and to the general satisfaction of the community. In his judicial capacity, and in every business in which he engaged, he was distinguished for a remarkably sound, penetrating judgment, and great quickness of comprehension. He was not, however, a ready speaker, and in this respect he was much surpassed at public county meetings by Sir Benjamin Dunbar of Hempriggs, afterwards Lord Duffus, who, in addition to a fluent and elegant elocution, and considerable knowledge of the law, possessed a wonderful power of argument, which he could employ with equal dexterity on either side of a question.

Mr Traill began at an early period of life to direct his attention to matters of public utility. He was the first who commenced the modern system of agricultural improvements, etc., in Caithness, for which the county is now so much distinguished. While Sir John Sinclair theorised and wrote books, Mr Traill laboured with unwearied industry as a practical improver, and set a noble example to all the other landed gentlemen in the county. "When he became proprietor of Castlehill, there was not a single tree on the whole property. He immediately engaged a forester, and commenced planting. The scheme was laughed at, and looked upon by many as quite Utopian. He persevered, however; and the young shoots being protected from the sea blast, throve, and the plantation has now a respectable appearance, and gives Castlehill quite an air of the south. The trees are principally ash, plane, elm, oak, mountain ash, and larch. Some of them have attained to the height of 50 feet. The writer of the new statistical account of the parish of Olrig very justly observes:—"Mr Traill may well be called the author of all improvements in the county, which a single view of his property in this parish, after surveying Caithness, will sufficiently testify, either as regards culture, plantations, buildings, harbours, roads, live stock, or crops. Indeed, what he has accomplished, could scarcely be credited as being the work of one individual, and is, and will be, a great example to Caithness in all time coming."

Of the readiness with which he could apply his practical mind to any particular art or profession, and master its details, the following instance is a proof:—In 1801, when the volunteer force was embodied for the defence of the country, Mr Traill took a very active part in raising the Caithness volunteers. He was appointed their colonel, and although previously quite unacquainted with military matters, he, in the shortest time, learned the whole science of drilling soldiers as then practised in our army; and the precision and accuracy with which he put the Caithness volunteers through their various evolutions, excited the astonishment and admiration of the general officers who were occasionally sent from the south to inspect the corps. Among those who came north on this duty, was the famous General Duff, who had served for several years in India. He was a very stout man, of prodigious strength, and was commonly known by the name of "Tiger Duff," from the remarkable circumstance that, being on one occasion attacked by a tiger, when he happened to be without any defensive armour, he, by dint of sheer physical force, managed to throttle the savage animal.

Mr Traill originated the pavement trade of Caithness, which is now so extensively carried on in the county. The works at Castlehill were commenced in 1824, [The pavement trade at Castlehill has been under the able management of Mr James Macbeath from its commencement.] and the first shipment of stone was made in 1825. The number of men employed is upwards of 300. Between 700,000 and 800,000 feet of stone are shipped annually, requiring about 7000 tons of shipping to carry it to market. The pavement is sent to all the principal cities in Great Britain, and to many places abroad. A steam engine, with powerful machinery, has lately been erected for cutting and polishing the stone, etc., by which a great deal of manual labour is saved. Several gentlemen in the county have since followed the example of Mr Traill, and opened quarries on their estates. The trade has, in consequence, become one of great importance: its annual value amounting, it is said, to about £30,000.

The following remarks on this stone, by Sir Roderick Murchison, are interesting in a scientific point of view:—"The flagstones of the Caithness quarries," says this eminent geologist, "are highly valuable for many uses, and must prove eminently durable from the nature of their composition. Their well-known durability is attributable, in part, to the large portion of bitumen they contain, which has been produced by the abundance of fishes which existed at the time those rocks were deposited—the fossil remains of which still abound. Tar and gas may be distilled from them." And Hugh Miller says:—"The animal matter of the Caithness ichthyolites, is a hard, black, insoluble bitumen, which I have used more than once as sealing wax."

Mr Traill married Lady Janet, second daughter of William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, whose residence was Rattar House, in the parish of Dunnet. He subsequently purchased the estate of Rattar, which, it would appear, was encumbered, and which, in default of male heirs, had become the property of Lady Isabella Sinclair, the eldest daughter. Mr Traill had, by his lady, a fine family of sons and daughters. Lady Janet died at Edinburgh, we believe, in the year 1805, and being a descendant of the illustrious house of St Clair, was interred in the chapel of Roslin. Mr Traill, who was deeply attached to his lady, never married again. He survived her many years, and died at the House of Castlehill, on the 19th July, 1843, at the advanced age of 85. He was succeeded in the property by his eldest son, George Traill, Esquire, who has been many years member of Parliament for the county, and is highly esteemed by the constituency for his strict attention to their interests, and his firm adherence to his principles as a liberal representative.

The late Mr Traill was essentially a man of business. Though possessed of excellent talents, and extensive information, he seemed to have no turn, like Sir John Sinclair, for book-making, and he disliked political writings. When it was first proposed to start a newspaper in the county, he was consulted on the subject; but he disapproved of the idea of getting up anything of the kind. His opinion was, that such a publication would be made a vehicle only for political squabbling and personal abuse, and it would set the whole county by the ears. Caithness would not support a paper, and did not require one. In this instance Mr Traill's otherwise excellent judgment was at fault; and his prudential caution was carried to an extreme. The John 0'Groat Journal was, notwithstanding, started by Mr Peter Reid in 1836; and it gradually forced its way into notice, and obtained a large circulation. The evil predicted by Mr Traill and others has not happened. On the contrary, the publication has, in various respects, been of immense benefit to Caithness; and by his enterprising spirit as projector of the press in the "far north," Mr Reid's name will have an honourable place in any future literary record of the county. And here it is but right to mention Mr Benjamin M. Kennedy, a native of Wick, who was the first editor of the John O'Groat Journal. Possessed of excellent abilities, a great fund of original humour, with a lively fancy, and much command of language, Mr Kennedy rendered the paper, as long as it was under his management, extremely popular. Mr Traill's repugnance to starting a newspaper was no doubt in some measure owing to his strong Conservative politics, which he shared in common with most of the leading proprietors of the county. But in all other respects his conduct merits the highest praise. As an excellent sheriff, and a man who did much to develop the material resources of his native county, his memory will be long cherished in Caithness.


James Bremner, the most remarkable man for mechanical ingenuity which the north, perhaps, ever produced, was born at Keiss, near Wick, on the 25th September, 1784. His parents' names were James and Janet Bremner, and he was the youngest of a family of nine children. His father enlisted when a young man into the 3d regiment of the line, the well-known Buffs. With this corps he embarked for the West Indies, where he was thrice wounded in action, and after a servitude of ten years, returned to Britain with his few remaining comrades. The regiment, when it first went abroad, consisted of 850 men, and out of this number only 27, of whom Bremner was one, were destined to see again their native country. The rest had all found graves on a foreign shore. The Irish Rebellion having broken out soon after his return to Britain, Bremner was sent to Ireland, and served there for some time, when, through the influence of a superior officer who had known him in the West Indies, he was appointed to conduct a party of the leading rebels, who had been taken prisoners, to Fort-George. On getting his discharge from the army he removed to Caithness, and settled in his native parish. He is said to have been a steady, well-conducted man, and possessed of great energy of character.

James, the subject of our notice, was in due time sent to school, but all that he learned there was simply to read and write, and that very imperfectly. Education in Caithness was then at a low stand. Except in one or two parishes, there were no statutory schools; and in the country districts the instruction of the young was chiefly entrusted to females, or to men with the merest smattering of learning, who, being incapacitated by physical infirmity from following any other vocation, set up as teachers. The classics and the higher branches had, of course, no place in the scholastic programme. As the writer of a memoir of Mr Bremner truly observes, grammars and lexicons, globes and maps, were quite unknown, and the pupil who could read through the Proverbs of Solomon without stammering, and write pretty quickly, whether he could spell or not, was considered fit for any situation.

Young Bremner's predilection for ships and nautical matters discovered itself at a very early period; and the writer of the memoir relates the following singular and perilous adventure of his when a boy:—"Among the crags and rocks of his native district, none were half so venturous. Fear was not in his vocabulary; and so we find him one fine morning complacently-paddling himself through Sinclair's Bay, sitting in a large tub! Fortunately for him, there was not a breath of wind; and one of his brothers having raised the alarm, he was picked up and safely brought ashore."

Having expressed a strong desire to learn the art of shipbuilding, interest was obtained to get him into the building-yard of the Messrs Steele of Greenock. He accordingly went to that place in his sixteenth year, and was bound an apprentice for six years. At the expiry of his apprenticeship he made two voyages to America. He then returned to his native county, and being young, active, and of a highly enterprising spirit, he resolved to prosecute his trade in Pulteneytown, which had just been established as a settlement by the British Fishery Society. He obtained a building-yard on a life lease, near the harbour, and during the time he occupied it, he built upwards of fifty-six vessels, ranging from forty-five to six hundred tons.

But he did not confine himself to his own particular profession. Being endowed, as has been already mentioned, with great mechanical ingenuity, he commenced engineer, and while engaged in this line, he planned, built, or improved no fewer than nineteen harbours. Among these was the new harbour at Pulteneytown. One remarkable instance of his persevering and indomitable spirit, while he was employed on this work, is related by the writer in the Northern Ensign:—"In one night, at Pulteneytown harbour," says he, "during a terrific gale, works which cost £5000 were thrown down, and rendered useless. Any ordinary man would have sunk beneath the disaster. Not so did James Bremner. Eight times during that disastrous night was he prevailed on to go home and get his clothes shifted, and as often in a few minutes was he seen at the head of his men, cheering them on in their efforts to save as much of the property as possible." His fame as an engineer was by this time widely spread. Having been ordered up to London, he was examined before a Committee of the House of Lords on the subject of harbours of refuge, and obtained a patent for harbour building.

Mr Bremner now began to attain great celebrity as a raiser of wrecked and sunk vessels. The total number which he raised in deep water, or took off the strand, is said to have amounted to 236. On this point the writer of the memoir gives the following interesting statement:—"Of those raised in deep water, the most remarkable was a large vessel which had sunk at Broadbay, in the Lews. Her name was the 'Unicorn,' of Sunderland, carrying 700 tons of coal. She went down in eleven fathoms, and the aggregate weight of vessel and cargo was upwards of 1100 tons. After the vessel had lain embedded in the sand for about two years, and after three other individuals had successively undertaken and failed to raise her, Mr Bremner succeeded by employing means much the same as those for which he obtained a patent for harbour building. Not less triumphant, and far more heroic, was his effort in raising the 'Orion,' of Pillau, at Watersound in Orkney, in 1825. This vessel's cargo consisted of 40,000 feet of timber, which, with the wreck of the ship, he constructed into a raft 450 feet long, 22 broad, and 16 deep, on which he constructed paddles wrought by manual labour, erected poles with sails, and after being twice driven through the Pentland Firth, he succeeded in bringing the whole to Pulteneytown harbour." But in this department the crowning triumph of Mr Bremner was the taking the "Great Britain" off the strand at Dundrum Bay, Ireland, in the month of August, 1847, after some of the most eminent engineers in the kingdom had exhausted all their skill in fruitless endeavours to remove her. In this undertaking he was ably assisted by his eldest son, Mr Alexander Bremner, now of Aberdeen. The "Great Britain" was at the time the largest ship in the world, being 3500 tons register, and built of iron.

Mr Bremner was, for the space of twelve years, agent at Wick for the Aberdeen, Clyde, and Leith Steam Shipping Company. In conveying goods and passengers to and from the steam-boat, he was, from the exposed nature of the bay, often placed in situations of great danger; but such was his presence of mind, and knowledge of boatmanship, that during the entire period of his management, no accident involving loss of life or property occurred.

The celebrated Hugh Miller, in a geological visit to Caithness, was introduced to Mr Bremner at Wick, and in one of his publications he says of him:—"I was conscious of a feeling of sadness, as in parting with Mr Bremner I reflected that a man so singularly gifted should have been suffered to reach a period of life very considerably advanced, in employments little suited to exert his extraordinary faculties, and which persons of the ordinary type could have performed as well. Napoleon—himself possessed of great genius—could have estimated more adequately than our British rulers the value of such a man. Had Mr Bremner been born a Frenchman, he would not now be the mere agent of a steam company in a third-rate sea-port town."

Mr Bremner married in early life a very amiable woman, by whom he had a numerous family of sons and daughters. One of his sons, named David, who acted as engineer for the Clyde Trustees, was cut off in the prime of life. He inherited much of his father's talent; and, had he lived, would undoubtedly have attained to eminence in his profession. The loss of this promising son, and subsequently that of his wife, affected him very deeply. His constitution, which was naturally strong, and had hitherto withstood toil and fatigue before which thousands would have fallen, began rapidly to break down; and it was evident to all who saw him, that his journey of life was near a close. He died in the month of August, 1856, having survived his wife only a few months. Mr Bremner was admitted a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1833. He communicated to that body several valuable papers, for which he received one of the Institute's medals. By his professional brethren his opinion on engineering matters was greatly esteemed. In the execution of the Thames Tunnel, Dover harbour, and other great undertakings, he was frequently consulted; and his correspondence included many illustrious and well-known names of historical fame. Sir Charles Napier, as a mark of his respect, presented him with a massive gold finger-ring.

In his particular department, indeed, Mr Bremner was universally allowed to be a man of more than ordinary genius. His readiness of invention was wonderful. He knew little or nothing of the theory of mathematics, and, as has been well observed, "all his efforts as an engineer were but the bringing out of natural mechanical power."

In person, Mr Bremner was rather above the middle size, with a strong and robust frame of body, and a thoroughly Scotch cast of countenance. In conversation he appeared occasionally absent, and he was by no means gifted with a fluent or ready utterance. His temper was naturally hasty, but the gust of passion soon passed off. Of him it might be said as of Cassius in the play, that he was—

"Yoked with a lamb
That carried anger as the flint bears fire,
Which much enforced shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again."

Like most people of quick and hasty temperament, he had great tenderness of heart. In saving the lives of others in cases of shipwreck, he often risked his own; and when any distressing accident took place before his sight, he has been known to shed tears like a woman. He was at the same time remarkable for his generosity and hospitality, especially to strangers. To his board all of respectable character were welcome, and none more so than the cast-away sea captain. His idea of hospitality was that of the genuine old school. Such was Mr. Bremner in private life.

Viewed in his professional character, he affords a remarkable instance of the force of natural talent, unaided by education, overcoming all obstacles, and pushing its possessor forward to high distinction. He was a man of whom Caithness may well be proud; and' his name will live in the annals of engineering science.

Some years before his death, several of the inhabitants of Wick, in order to testify the esteem in which he was held, presented his family with his portrait at full length. The County Hall of Wick very properly contains the portraits of the late James, Earl of Caithness, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, James Traill of Rattar, etc., and we think it a pity that the portrait of Mr Bremner has not been added to the number. Though not an aristocrat by birth, he belonged to the "aristocracy of nature;" and as a man of scientific eminence, who did much good in his day, and who reflects lustre on his native county, his memory deserves to have received the honour.


Thurso has produced many clever men, and several excellent scholars. The inhabitants are naturally acute and intelligent, and for a long period back they have paid great attention to the education of the young. The parish school, which is situated in the town, has generally had able and well-qualified men for teachers. Among those who have taught in this school may be mentioned the late Rev. Dr Morison of Canisbay, the Rev. William Smith of Bower, James Smith, Esq. of Olrig,

[The late Mr Smith of Olrig was a native of Aberdeenshire, and came to Caithness an entire stranger, with nothing to depend on but his own merits and good conduct. As a teacher, he was exceedingly popular; and by ultimately marrying a rich widow lady, somewhat advanced in years, he found means to purchase the estate of Olrig, and thus became—what few dominies do—a landed proprietor. He acted for many years as Justice of Peace in the district. He was much consulted by the inhabitants, and by his sound advice and equitable decisions on the various cases that were submitted to his judgment, he prevented a great deal of unseemly and expensive litigation. He died at the advanced age of ninety, and his eldest son by a second marriage, the present Alexander Smith, Esq., now enjoys the property.]

and the Rev. William Munro. The last-named gentleman, who died in the year 1813, while he still held the office, was perhaps the best teacher Thurso ever had. He was an accomplished scholar, and an admirable drill, and among other things, he inspired a taste for the classics which exists in the place to this day. Mr Finlaison, the subject of our memoir, was one of his pupils. He was the eldest son of Donald Finlaison and Isabella Sutherland, and was born at Thurso on the 27th day of August, 1783. His father went to sea when he was quite a boy, and after being some time in the coasting trade, he gave up that employment, and betook himself to his native town, where he married, and settled down as a fisherman. He died from an attack of brain fever on the 28th of November, 1790, at the early age of twenty-nine, leaving his wife a widow, with three children, John, seven years, Christian, three years, and William four months old, all wholly unprovided for. " The rearing of the family," says a relative of theirs, "was thus cast upon the widowed mother at an age when the children were entirely helpless; and she must no doubt have had a hard struggle with 'pinching poverty' to support herself and them. But she was a woman of discreet judgment, and of careful and industrious habits; and though her means were scanty, she sought something higher for her boys than the dangerous and unprofitable calling which had been pursued by her husband. All honour to her memory for her laudable ambition, and her noble self-sacrificing toils."

John, her oldest boy, was early placed under Mr Munro, who was then ably assisted by Mr John Macdonald, afterwards the celebrated Dr Macdonald of Urquhart. The young pupil showed great quickness and aptitude for instruction, and soon became a favourite with his teacher. Books and study were more attractive to him than the boyish games of his companions; and thus it was, that though he took a proud place in the school-room, he was content to take a less distinguished one on the sands—the school-boy's usual playground.

At the age of fifteen he was removed from school, and apprenticed to Mr Donald Robeson, a writer in Thurso, in whose office he acquired a considerable amount of professional knowledge, and what was of still more value to him in after life, regular business habits. In the meantime, his passion for books—although he could not be strictly called a book-worm— was heightened rather than otherwise by the dry technicalities of law, and accordingly much of his leisure hours was devoted to reading, and the storing of his mind with useful information. But in gratifying this laudable desire, he at first met with obstacles such as could not have been experienced by any young man at the present day; and in his case, it might be truly said to have been "the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties." At the period in question, books in Thurso were scarce and dear. There was no circulating library in the town; and, if there were private libraries among the upper classes, no stray volume from their shelves by any chance found its way into the cottages of the poor. In these circumstances our young student made the acquaintance of a baker, who happened about this time to come to Thurso. The baker's brother was connected with Mackay's circulating library in Edinburgh; and boxes of books found their way periodically to the little town in the far north, and were feasted on by the baker, by Mr Finlaison, and by such of his companions as had a taste for reading.

At this time, too, he diversified his studies by cultivating an acquaintance with the theory and practice of music, of which, like most people of high intellect, he was passionately fond. His favourite instrument was the flute, which he soon learned to play with much taste and skill. He frequently practised out of doors; and on a fine summer evening, when the beautiful bay of Thurso lay spread out as smooth as a mirror, and the sun was setting in all his glory on the Atlantic, and casting a golden radiance over sea and land, it was his custom to go out in a small boat with one or two young friends, and while they gently plied the oar, he would play now, some lively air, now, some slow, plaintive melody, whose notes might be heard floating along the waters, mellowed into exquisite sweetness. In recreations of this kind, as innocent as they were delightful, and surrounded with the magnificent scenery of Scrabster and Holburn-head, he passed, it is said, many a happy leisure hour.

On the expiry of a four years' apprenticeship with Mr Robe-son, he was appointed factor for Sir Benjamin Dunbar (afterwards Lord Duffus) at Ackergill, in the neighbourhood of Wick. He held this appointment for about twelve months; and in August, 1804, proceeded to Edinburgh, where he obtained a clerkship in the office of Mr Glen, a Writer to the Signet. He remained in Edinburgh only six weeks, but during this brief stay he wooed and won his first wife. The circumstance which led to his acquaintance with her was somewhat singular. Being at dinner one day with Mr Glen, his employer, the dress of a young lady, one of the party, accidentally caught fire, and being near her at the time, Mr Finlaison had the presence of mind to tear up the crumb-cloth, and throw it round her, and thus extinguished the flames. Gratitude, followed by a more tender feeling, sprang up in the young lady's heart towards her gallant preserver, which met with a glad response in his; and in a short time it was arranged between them that they should link their lot in life together. To prevent the possibility of opposition from relatives, they informed no one of their intentions, but went to London in September, 1804, and were married there. The young lady was Miss Glen, the sister of Mr Finlaison's employer in Edinburgh. Many a novel has been founded on a less romantic incident.

In 1805, Mr Finlaison obtained a situation in the Admiralty. The story of his subsequent career in that office will be best given in the following summary, taken from the Times:—"Mr Finlaison speedily distinguished himself by a plan which was adopted for the entire reorganisation of the system under which the vast correspondence of the department was then imperfectly carried on. The Navy List was first compiled in its present semi-official form by him, and was published under his superintendence. A scheme for the establishment of a widow's fund in the civil service, and a similar plan (afterwards carried out) on behalf of the widows of the naval medical officers, drew Mr Finlaison's attention, in 1817, to the study of vital statistics. The information then extant on this question was extremely meagre and unsatisfactory; but resorting to the official records of the Exchequer, where certain classes of life annuities had long been payable, Mr Finlaison established from authentic data those deductions which enabled him successfully to point out the unfitness of the tables then made use of by Government for the sale of annuities. Mr Finlaison's representations met with a favourable reception from Mr Vansittart, Chancellor of the Exchequer at that time, and ultimately led to the establishment of a sounder system that brought about an immense pecuniary saving to the country. The immediate result of his general services on this question was his appointment, in 1821, to the office of Government Actuary. From this time forward until his retirement in 1851, his counsel and calculating powers were generally put in requisition when any of the public measures involved considerations of political arithmetic. Some of the principal subjects in which he was consulted may be enumerated in the order of their occurrence. The negotiation with the Bank of England for its acceptance of the charge for public pensions, in consideration of the dead-weight annuity; the investigations in 1825 and 1827, by select committees of the House of Commons, into the general condition of friendly societies; the preparation of his report, in 1829, on the evidence and elementary facts on which his new tables of life annuities were founded. This important parliamentary document contained twenty-one new observations of the law of mortality, and one of the law of sickness prevailing among the labouring classes in London; vast computations of the duration of slave and creole life, with reference to the emancipation of slaves in 1834,. and the West India loan raised for that purpose. Mr Finlaison's report on the late Mr Hume's resolutions on that loan is a Parliamentary paper of that date well worth perusal. In the measures emanating from the Ecclesiastical Commission in 1835, the steps leading to the 'appropriation clause' in 1836, and those preceding the discussion of the Church Rate question in 1837 Mr Finlaison's services were called out to an extent greatly beyond what is generally known to the public. He was also consulted on certain points connected with the establishment, in 1837, of the registration of births, deaths, and marriages; and the closeness of his estimate of the deaths which would be registered in the first year (falling within 14 of nearly 330,000) attracted much notice at the time when mentioned in the Registrar-General's first annual report. The demands made on his mental powers about this time affected his health, and thenceforward he was obliged to exercise more caution in his devotion to the public service. His professional researches were, however, still assiduously carried on for some years, and from time to time he was frequently called upon to give evidence before Royal Commissioners and select committees of both Houses of Parliament, until he finally retired in August, 1851, from his position as actuary of the National Debt and Government Calculator. For the last nine years his studies were directed to Scripture chronology, and to the universal relationship of ancient and modern weights and measures. His researches, which were exceedingly profound on the latter subject, led him to form opinions decidedly adverse to the introduction of a decimal system of coinage and metrology into this country."

Very soon after his appointment in the Admiralty office, Mr Finlaison settled a competent annuity on his mother, which relieved her from anxiety and toil for her subsistence during the remainder of her days. About the same time, also, he procured a midshipman's commission for his brother William, who shipped on board H.M.S. Beagle at the early age of fifteen. William afterwards served on board the Morgiana, Nimrod, and Hydra, and ultimately attained the post of commander. After some retirement he was appointed governor of the island of Ascension, but the climate not agreeing with his constitution, he was obliged to resign the situation. He died in 1851.

The last few years of Mr John Finlaison's life were passed in comparative ease and tranquillity. He was at length unexpectedly seized with congestion of the lungs, and after a brief illness, died at his residence, Nottinghill, London, on the 13th April, 1860, in the 77th year of his age. He had been nearly fifty years in the Government service. Mr Finlaison was no common man. He possessed extraordinary abilities as an accountant, and was long regarded as the most expert and correct calculator in the kingdom.


The Oswalds of Auchincruive and Scotston are of northern origin. In a pedigree of the family in our possession, their ancestor is mentioned as James Oswald of Kirkwall, in Orkney, who died about the year 1660. His son, James Oswald, was one of the magistrates of Wick, and married Barbara, a daughter of Coghill of that ilk. He had two sons, James and George, the former of whom became minister of Watten, and the latter minister of Dunnet, in the county of Caithness. Richard and Alexander, sons of Mr Oswald of Watten, went to Glasgow, and adopted the mercantile profession, in which they succeeded so well, that they realised an ample fortune, and, about the year 1739, purchased the estate of Scotston, in Renfrewshire. They were, it seems, strong Jacobites; and, when the Pretender's army came into the neighbourhood of Glasgow, they, together with some other gentlemen of the same way of thinking, were asked by the citizens to negotiate terms with the Prince, in order to prevent the occupation of the town by his Highland troops. To this, on the payment of a sum of money, the Prince agreed; and the Messrs Oswald received the thanks of the provost and magistrates for their services, as appears by the records of the Town Council. One of the sisters of these gentlemen, named Isabella, was married to Campbell of Lochend, in Caithness. James, eldest son of Mr Oswald of Dunnet, succeeded his father as minister of that parish, but was translated to Methven, where he died in 1793. Richard, the other son, who afterwards attained to such high distinction, was born about the year 1704; and, in his younger years, was an unsuccessful candidate, upon a comparative trial, for the office of parochial schoolmaster of Thurso, the salary of which, at the time, (says Sir John Sinclair in his statistical account of the parish,) was just 100 merks Scots! Young Oswald took his disappointment so much to heart, that he left the county in disgust, and never returned to it again. "But for that circumstance," adds Sir John, "it is probable he would have lived and died in obscurity." On leaving Caithness, he went to Glasgow, to his cousins, and after being some time with them, he proceeded to London, where, by steady industry and success in business, he became a wealthy merchant, and a leading man on 'Change. His high position in the mercantile world—his fame as a capitalist, and his excellent character, were of course a passport to the best society in the British metropolis. In 1750 he married Miss Mary Ramsay, only daughter and heiress of Alexander Ramsay, Esquire of the island of Jamaica—a cadet of the family of Balmain. During the famous Seven Years' War on the Continent, he took extensive Government contracts; and finding that they were mismanaged, he accepted the appointment of Commissary-General to the allied armies, and served with them through several campaigns. In 1759 he purchased the estate of Cavens, in Kirkcudbright, and that of Auchincruive, in Ayrshire. At the latter place he completed the mansion house, which was in course of being erected by Mr Murray of Broughton, from whom he had bought the property; and he afterwards lived alternately at Auchincruive, and at his house in Great George's Street, Westminster. In 1782 he was, through the influence of Lord Shelburne, with whom he had long been on terms of intimacy, appointed Plenipotentiary for Great Britain, and sent to Paris to conclude a treaty of peace with the United States of America, and there he signed the treaty in question with the celebrated Dr Benjamin Franklin, on the 13th November, 1782. It is abundantly evident that Mr Oswald must have possessed more than ordinary talent and political sagacity before he would have been appointed to sit at the same council board with such a man as Franklin, and on a matter of such vast national importance as the ratification of a treaty of peace between this country and the new transatlantic republic.

Dr Franklin and he were on a very intimate and friendly footing; and as a proof of the high esteem which the great American philosopher and statesman had for Mr Oswald, he presented him with his (Franklin's) portrait which is to be seen at Auchincruive. Mr Oswald died there in 1784 without issue, leaving the whole of his property in life-rent to his widow. On her death, in 1788, by the terms of the will, his nephew, George Oswald, succeeded as heir to one portion of his extensive estate, and his grand-nephew, Richard Alexander Oswald, to the other.

In Franklin's "Memoirs" are to be found several letters that passed between him and Mr Oswald during the time they were negotiating the treaty of peace at Paris. The same work contains also a copy of the commission under the Great Seal appointing him Plenipotentiary for Britain. It is too long and cumbered with law phraseology to be quoted entire, but I subjoin a brief extract from it:—

"George the Third, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the faith, and so forth. To our trusty and well-beloved Richard Oswald of our City of London, Esquire, greeting. Whereas by virtue of an Act passed in the last Session of Parliament, intituled An Act to enable His Majesty to conclude a peace or truce with certain Colonies in North America therein mentioned," etc., etc. "Know ye, that We, reposing especial trust in your wisdom, loyalty, diligence, and circumspection in the management of the affairs to be hereby committed to your charge, do nominate, appoint, constitute, and assign you, the said Richard Oswald, to be our Commissioner in that behalf to use and exercise all and every the powers and authorities hereby entrusted and committed to you, the said Richard Oswald," etc., etc. . . .

"Witness our self at Westminster, the 21st day of September, and the 22d year of our reign.

"By the King himself."

Caithness has reason to be proud of having produced such a man as Richard Oswald, and of being the birth-place of the ancestors of a family so highly respectable as the Oswalds, all of whom are now resident in the south. John Henderson, Esquire, Thurso, who has kindly furnished the writer with much interesting information on this and other matters, says— "Mr Traill and the Oswalds are related by marriage, thus: The Reverend Dr James Oswald of Dunnet (afterwards of Methven) and the Reverend Dr Traill of Dunnet, grandfather of the present Mr Traill, married sisters, daughters of Murray of Clairdon. A third sister was married to my great-grandfather, the Reverend Mr Brodie, minister of Latheron." And he adds—"There are tenements in Wick and Thurso still known as 'Oswald's tenements,' and a burial-place in Thurso as 'the Oswald's tomb.'"

Inside the church of Watten there is a marble tablet to the memory of the Rev. James Oswald, with a Latin inscription, of which the following is a literal translation: [I am indebted for the above translation to Mr John Mackay, architect, a native of Caithness, presently residing in Glasgow. In a note to me, Mr Mackay says—"It is from a beautifully-framed copy in phonography, translated from the original, in my possession."]

"Here reposes the dust of James Oswald, [James and George Oswald, the sons of the Wick Bailie, were of different churches. James was Episcopal minister of Watten, and George was Presbyterian minister of Dunnet.] the worthy pastor of the church of Watten, a man of a pleasant countenance, and of a genius above what is common; who possessed a wonderfully happy power of addressing an audience, and who, while he convinced the understanding, also moved the heart; kind and affable, adorned with sanctity, and all those other virtues which became him as a minister of the Gospel; a friend of the distressed, and a peacemaker. Hence he had great influence among all parties, both in moulding the minds of the ignorant to prudence, and in reconciling those who were at enmity. He was born 26th January, 1654; was called to the ministry, 28th December, 1682; married in 1683, Mary, daughter of Richard Murray, of the honourable family of Pennyland, and died the 4th November, 1698. His surviving widow occupied herself in piously educating the children whom he had left, blessed with plenty, and a comfortable residence. She died, June 29, 1738, and was buried in the same tomb with her husband. Her two sons, Richard and Alexander, merchants in Glasgow, reared this monument, sacred to the memory of their parents."

I here conclude my sketch of the History of Caithness, in which there will, doubtless, be found errors of "omission and commission." I have endeavoured, however, as far as possible, to give a true and impartial account of all the matters touched upon; and although the work has cost me a good deal of arduous research, often in musty tomes, and out-of-the-way nooks and corners, it has been to me, notwithstanding, I may truly say, a labour of love. I only regret that the performance is not more worthy of the subject. To the county I feel naturally a strong attachment. It is the place of my nativity; it is the residence of all my best and dearest friends, and it contains within its bosom the ashes of my kindred.

"Land of my sires! what mortal hand
Can e'er untie the filial band
That knits me to thy rugged strand?"

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