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The Northern Highlands in the Nineteenth Century

The present instalment is specially interesting from the authentic account it supplies of the melancholy accident which occurred on the Meikle Ferry in the Dornoch Firth, on Wednesday, 16th August 1809, when about 100 persons lost their lives. The disaster occurred while the boat was crossing from the coast of Sutherland to the Ross-shire coast carrying passengers for a market to be held in Tain. The boat was greatly over-crowded, and sank in the middle of the Ferry. An account of the accident appears in the Reminiscences of the late Rev. Mr Sage of Resolis, which were published under the name of Memorabilia Domestica. This version, when compared with contemporary accounts, shows how mistakes will arise when even well-informed persons write from memory. Mr Sage says the calamity occurred as the people were returning home from Tain, and in the darkness of the night: the contemporary accounts explicitly state that it happened as the people were on their way to Tain, and there is no mention of darkness: in fact the accident must have occurred some time in the forenoon. Mr Sage says that 70 persons were drowned: the Committee who investigated the circumstances, in their final statement, gave the exact number as 99. We may quote Mr Sage’s account, which is interesting in itself, and transmits a remarkable tradition as to the Sheriff's body. At the time of the disaster, Mr Sage was conducting a school at Bower, in Caithness, preparatory to attending his divinity classes at Aberdeen. The following is the passage in his Reminiscences:

"On a market day at Tain, the worthy Sheriff (Mr MacCulloch) left his own house at Dornoch in the morning, and crossed the Ferry to Tain, intending to return home in the evening. When he came to the Meikle Ferry, late in the day, the shore was crowded with people returning home from the market. On his arrival they all made way for him, and he was quickly seated at the stern of the wherry; but afterwards the multitude pressed into the ferry-boat—-the more earnestly as they would thus have the privilege of crossing in the same boat with the Sheriff. Apprehensive of the issue, Mr MacCulloch turned away at least two score of them from the boat. There still remained on board, however, too many for safety. It was a dead calm, and the wherry was pushed off from land. But when it had nearly reached the middle of the Ferry, and the deepest part of it, the boat gave a sudden jerk, the water rushed in, and, with the exception of two or three who escaped by swimming, the whole of those on board sank to the bottom and perished; about 70 persons were thus drowned. This fearful event took place in the darkness of the night in the year 1809 and created a deep sensation all over the country. The Sheriff’s body was among the last that was found. The particular spot where it lay ‘under the flood’ was uncovered in a dream. A fellow-Christian and an acquaintance, deeply affected by his death, dreamed of his departed friend. In the dream the Sheriff appeared, spoke of his sudden call to the other world, and told him where his earthly remains lay, adding that, whilst the fish of the sea were permitted to mangle at pleasure the bodies of his fellow-sufferers, they were restrained from putting a tooth upon his, which would be found entire. The dream was realised in every particular. The Sheriff’s wife and daughter long survived him, and they, together with the rest of the surviving relatives of the victims of the catastrophe, were ample sharers of a fund set on foot for their support, and called the "Meikle Ferry Fund." Captain Robert Sutherland, Dr Bethune’s son-in-law, was one of the leading members of this charitable association."

From the "Inverness Journal."

January 6.—Intense frost. It is noted that "the large and beautiful basin of the Canal," then new, was frozen over, and that people were skating upon it. The writer adds—"The water in this capacious reservoir does not proceed from Loch-Ness, but is a collection of rain water and springs from the land."

January 20.—Short paper by Sir John Sinclair on the culture of carrots on peaty soils.

January 27.—Frost so intense that the River Ness was frozen for several yards from the side; Loch-Dochfour also partially frozen; Loch-Beauly a continuous sheet of ice.

February 17.—Road to Glenelg from the North side of Inverness contracted for as far as Enoch (Aonach). This road, in the scale of improvements throughout the Highlands, was reckoned next to the Caledonian Canal. So far as the point above mentioned it was constructed "under the Inverness-shire assessment for roads and bridges," but beyond that point it had to be undertaken by means of private subscriptions. A list of subscriptions is given, which includes Lord Macdonald, £1000; Lord Seaforth, £500; Macleod of Macleod, £400; Hugh lnnes of Lochalsh. £300; Sir James Grant of Grant, £200; James Murray Grant of Glenmoriston, £200; B. G. Macdonald of Clanranald, £200; Charles Grant, M.P., £100; and Alexander Howe of Harris, £100. There are many smaller subscriptions.

February 24.—A letter from Arisaig reports a shock of earthquake distinctly felt along the West Coast.

March 3.—Boat from Balintrad, Ross-shire, loaded with peat, overset by a squall, and 6 persons drowned.

March 31.—The following notice appears in the obituary: —"Died, in London, on the 26th January last, Gilbert Gollan, Esq., a distinguished native of this place. He was much admired for a clear head, a warm heart, friendship equally steady and active, and for general information. These qualities in him were accompanied by the domestic virtues and universal benevolence in an unusual degree."

April 7.—Inverness Diligence began running on the 4th. The Diligence left Edinburgh at 7 o’clock on Monday morning, and arrived at Inverness at 4 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon.

April 21.—Frost and snow for 8 days.

April 28.—A man and woman from Tain were charged at the Aberdeen Circuit Court with the murder of 2 persons in that town. (See notes in previous chapter.) The charge was found not proven.—Four men and a boy drowned in the Pentland Firth, through the upsetting of a boat.

May 12.—A fishing-boat upset off Nairn Harbour and 8 men drowned; all married. Widows and children numbered 33. A fund was afterwards raised for their relief.

June 2.—New line of road from Inverness to Freeburn inspected by Mr Telford, the Sheriff of the County, and five of a Committee. Found that the contractors had executed the work "in a sufficient and highly satisfactory manner." At a County Meeting it was resolved to apply for a grant for the erection of a stone bridge over the Beauly.

June 9.—Report of annual examination of Inverness Royal Academy. "In the evening the young gentlemen attending the Academy gave an elegant ball in the Northern Meeting Rooms. The display of innocent gaiety and the attractions of the youthful group, which consisted of nearly 300, were extremely interesting; but too few parents came to witness the blameless mirth and endearing graces of their offspring; a scene of all others the most gratifying to parental affection." Same date, Rev. Andrew Bonniman, A.M., appointed rector of the Fortrose Academy.

June 16.—"The Northern Association of Gentlemen Farmers, Breeders of Sheep, met at Beauly on the 9th inst., being the Sheep and Wool Market Day." The office-bearers chosen for the year were—the Hon. Colonel A. Fraser of Lovat, president; Sir Charles Ross and Donald Macleod of Geanies, vice-presidents; Sir George S. Mackenzie, secretary; and Mr James Mitchell, treasurer. Premiums were awarded for tups. Considerable business done in sheep, but little in wool, as Government was carrying on negotiations with America, the issue of which was uncertain. About 50 gentlemen dined together.

Ibid.—A Milch Cow Market, established by the Inverness-shire Farmer Society, was held: at a place called "the Island." Query—Was this a name for the Capel Inch? It is difficult to see how a cattle market could be held at or near the Islands above the town.

June 23.—"On Monday, the first regiment of Inverness-shire Local Militia, commanded by the Hon. Colonel A. Fraser of Lovat, marched into the place where they are to remain on permanent duty for 28 days. From the unremitting attention of the Commandant and officers in training this regiment, joined to the characteristic qualities of the individuals who compose it, there is little doubt but that they will form one of the most respectable corps in his Majesty’s service; and it has been remarked by military gentlemen that a finer body of men has not appeared in this place since the Ayrshire Militia were stationed among us."

Ibid.—"On Saturday last, as the ferry-boat at Beauly was crossing with an immense number of people who had been attending Sacrament at Kirkhill, it sank in a considerable depth of water, but happily near the shore; and although all on board were completely ducked, and many persons more or less hurt, yet we are glad to understand that no lives were lost."

Ibid,—Died, on the 15th curt., the Rev. Henry Clark, minister of the Associate Congregation at Boghole (Moyness).

June 30.—"The following is a remarkable instance of the celerity with which a person may now travel in the Highlands. Mr Gordon of Carrel, a few days ago, left Edinburgh, per the Inverness Coach, and reached his house in Sutherland, a distance of 215 miles, in forty-seven hours and a-half." The same issue announces that a Diligence has commenced to run from Inverness to Tain by Beauly and Dingwall.

July 21.—Term for Local Militia expired. It is noted that the Magistrates conferred on the officers the freedom of the town.

July 28.—Mr Campbell, teacher in the Inverness Academy, announces that he is to open a class for instruction in Gaelic.

Ibid.—Report of rejoicings on David Davidson of Cantray attaining his majority. Colonel Rose of Kilravock presided. "A fatted ox was served up whole, and such was the attention bestowed in preparing it that the lovers of roast beef never could have tasted a more delicious morsel."

Ibid.—The bridge over the Conon passable for carriages.

August 4.—The following curious advertisement appears under this date —"Mrs Fraser, next door to Fraser’s Hotel, has just got on hand from London, a variety of ready-made graveclothes, all sizes and prices. They surpass in quality and elegance anything of the kind ever offered to the attention of the public (desirous of paying all necessary respect to the deceased) in this quarter. Mrs F. has also small shrouds for children."

August 11.—Advertisement of application to Parliament for power to erect a bridge over the Beauly at Dunballoch.

Ibid.—Authority given to the battalions of Local Militia in Inverness-shire and adjoining Highland Counties to wear the Highland dress as their uniform. The permission seems to have been granted on the application of Colonel Macdonell of Glengarry, who commanded the 2nd Battalion.

Ibid.—The foundation of the wharf at the end of the Canal Basin was laid on Saturday last.

August 18 and September 1.—A notice appears on the 18th inst. of the disaster which occurred at the Meikle Ferry, on the Dornoch Firth, on the 16th, when about 100 persons lost their lives. The notice is as follows: —"It would appear that a great many persons from Dornoch and other parts of Sutherland, who were on their way to attend the Tain Market on Wednesday last, most imprudently crowded into the passage boat at Meikle Ferry, to the number of from 100 to 120, being considerably beyond its burden. Unfortunately, however, from an anxiety to get across, an anxiety too common in such cases, they were insensible to the imminent danger to which they were about to expose themselves; for they had scarcely proceeded hall-way from shore when, dreadful to relate, the boat sank, and all on board perished, except five persons. Mr M’Culloch, late Sheriff-Substitute of Dornoch, is said to be among the unfortunate sufferers." A portion of the subsequent issue of the "Journal," which no doubt contained a full account of the disaster, is missing from the file, but on September 1st there is an advertisement, dated from Dornoch, and signed by Captain Robert Sutherland and William Taylor, Sheriff-Clerk, asking for help for the widows and orphans of those drowned. This advertisement states "that of all the persons on board the fatal boat, only 12 were saved, and that besides a group of strangers whose numbers and names are unknown, above 100 persons are ascertained to have perished!, belonging to this and the neighbouring parishes. [The number was afterwards definitely stated at 99.] That of this number there were many heads of families, all of whom (with the exception of Mr M’Culloch, late Sheriff-Substitute here) being of the lower class, left families in extreme poverty." The advertisement proceeds—"The present calamity is marked by circumstances of unexampled severity. The unfortunate sufferers had been on their way to Tain, and had with them any money they could glean for the occasion, but this is not all; they consisted chiefly either of small traders, who had cash or bills to remit to their correspondents; of manufacturers having to purchase leather and other articles for their respective occupations; of removing tenants who had converted their stock into cash, to be lodged in the Bank of Tain; and of recruiting parties having their all about them, except their destitute wives and families. Hence it appears that it is not the loss of useful lives alone that is to be deplored in the present case, but the loss of much property, stripping the miserable surviving families of all they had possessed in the world.’ The advertisement mentions that the officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates of the Easter Ross regiment of Local Militia, commanded by Colonel Macleod of Geanies, had contributed one day’s pay towards the families of the unfortunate sufferers, and that before any appeal had been made to the public on their behalf. The appeal was the result of a public meeting, of which Captain Sutherland was chairman and Mr Taylor secretary.

August 18.—The following paragraph from this date shows that the Highlands, even at this early date, were becoming a place of resort —"It is with pleasure we observe that this part of the country, as is usual at this season of the year, when our romantic hills and valleys assume their most attractive appearance, is again becoming the resort of the admirers of nature and the friends of improvement. Among our arrivals this week we have to notice Lord Cathorpe, Sir William Hamilton, Sir Thomas and Mr Franklin, Brodie of Brodie, William Ellis, Esq., M.P.; Colonel Cameron of Lochiel, Major Foster, Mr and Mrs Macallister of Strathaird, Captain Ellis, Mr Baggie, Mr Ibbertson, Mr Gorthon, and Mr and Mrs Fraser of Gortuleg. Lieut.-Colonel Brodie, Governor of Fort-Augustus, passed on his way to Morayshire."

September 1.—Notice of the death of Major-General John Randall Mackenzie of Suddie, M.P. for Sutherland, who fell at Talavera He had previously served at the Cape and in India with the Ross-shire Buffs.

Ibid.—The proprietors of "The Duchess of Gordon Inverness Coach" inform the public that on and after 4th September their coach would only run twice a-week backwards and forwards between Edinburgh and Inverness. "The days of their starting from each place will be Monday and Thursday, at seven o’clock in the morning precisely; and as the days are shortening considerably, the passengers both going and coming will have an opportunity of sleeping on the road. The coach leaving Inverness will get to Dalwhinnie the first night, to Dunkeld the second, and to Edinburgh the third evening; which arrangement will give ladies and gentlemen visiting the North an opportunity of passing through the beautiful country between Dunkeld and Blair by daylight."

September 8.—Portclair road from Urquhart to Fort-Augustus open to travellers. It is stated that upwards of 250 children are attending Sunday Schools established by the Hon. Colonel Fraser of Lovat in the parishes of Kirkhill, Kiltarlity. Kilmorack, and the town of Inverness. The happiest results had attended these institutions since their creation in 1803.

September 15.—"Died, at Chittledoorg. East Indies, 8th January 1808. Lieut.-Colonel Alexander Macleod. of the 15th Regiment Light Infantry; his death is supposed to be in consequence of the severe wounds be received in the memorable battle of Assaye. He was highly valued as a distinguished officer, and is deeply lamented by his numerous friends and acquaintances. As a mark of their respect, the officers of the corps have erected a tomb to perpetuate his memory.".

September 22.—Among the cases at the Circuit Court, was that of William Mackintosh, a travelling chapman, who was charged with wounding a person at Fort-William "by seven severe stabs with a Highlander’s knife, commonly called a black cork, whereby he lost such a quantity of blood that his life was despaired of; and is still confined to bed in consequence of these wounds." The prisoner was convicted and sentenced to transportation for life. A "black cork" was a knife fixed in its handle, and carried in a sheath.

September 29.—Francis William Grant, Esq., to be Lieutenant and Sheriff-Principal of the Shire of Inverness, in the room of Sir James Grant, Bart., resigned.

Ibid.—The Rev. Alex. Wood presented to the Church and Parish of Rosemarkie, vacant by the death of Mr Alex. Wood, late minister there.

Ibid—"Among the operations connected with the formation of the Caledonian Canal it will, we doubt not, be deemed worthy of notice that the River Ness, opposite to Ness Castle, has been completely removed from its bed, which is now in course of being still farther excavated as a part of this magnificent undertaking. The grand chain of locks at Muirtown are nearly completed, and the spacious wharf, destined to be the bustling scene of trade and commerce, is now in an advanced state, and corresponds with the other parts of this stupendous design."

October 6.—George Macpherson-Grant, Esq. of Ballindalloch, elected member of Parliament for the County of Sutherland, in room of the late Major-General Mackenzie of Suddie.

Ibid—A collection of £66 made on Sunday at the doors of the Church and Chapel of Ease (East Church) in aid of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Ibid—Meetings of Commissioners of Supply and Town Council complained of the mail service between Inverness and Aberdeen. They specially disapproved of a proposal to bring the post by way of Huntly "as being inexpedient in itself and highly injurious to the towns on the coast." Representations were made through Mr Charles Grant, M.P.

October 13.—James Neild, formerly High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, visited the town for the purpose of inspecting the Jail and Infirmary. It is noted that he had spent a considerable part of his fortune in visiting prisons in Britain with the humane intention of improving them. He contributed £20 for behoof of the poor in Inverness, and £5 to the relief fund raised for the sufferers by the disaster at Meikle Ferry. He also gave beds and bed-clothes for the cells, and suggested improvements to the Magistrates.

October 27.—Report of celebrations of the Jubilee of George Ill., held on the 25th, the beginning of the 50th year of his reign. A dinner was held in the Northern Meeting Rooms, at which the Hon. Colonel Fraser of Lovat presided. Several ladies were present, including the Hon. Mrs Fraser of Lovat, Mrs Mackintosh of Mackintosh, Mrs Macdonell of Glengarry, Mrs Grant of Rothiemurchus, and Mrs Fraser of Foyers. A brilliantly attended ball was held in the evening, and the hills were ablaze with bonfires. Lord Seaforth, who was Provost of Dingwall, gave a breakfast there to the burgesses and their families, and there was a tenantry ball at Brahan Castle. There was also a ball for the Lovat tenantry at Beauly. Public bodies sent loyal addresses.

Ibid.—The attendance at the Northern Meeting was smaller than usual, as so many Highland families had lost relatives in the war. The Duchess of Gordon was present.

November 10.—Notice of celebration of the King’s Jubilee at Nairn. There was a dinner, followed by a ball, and the town bells were rung all day. The Chairmen at the dinner was Brodie of Brodie, Lord-Lieutenant of the County, who was supported as stewards by Lieut.-Colonel Rose of Kilravock, Major Davidson of Cantray, Captain Dunbar of Boath, and Captain Alexander Falconer. Captain Dunbar carried out the arrangements for the ball. In this and in other issues there are notices of celebrations at Tain, Dornoch, Fort-William, &c.

November 24.—Notice of a celebration of the Jubilee at Glengarry, which had been delayed till the 15th inst., as Colonel Macdonell was present at Inverness on the 25th of October. The celebration included "a Royal salute of 21 guns from wall pieces of antiquity that once adorned Invergarry Castle, placed on movable batteries in front of the family residence, made for the purpose."

December 1.—Election of members of Parliament for the County of Ross, the candidates being Hugh lnnes of Lochalsh and Sir Charles Ross of Balnagown. Mr Innes had 23 votes and Sir Charles 19, the former being thus elected. The vacancy occurred through the death of the previous representative, Lieut. -General Alexander Mackenzie Fraser. Mr Innes was supported by the Seaforth interest.

Ibid.—Completion of the locks at Muirtown.

Ibid—Died, at his estate of Plantation, Huntly, Demerara, on the 25th August last, Robert Gordon of Drakies.

December 8.—Died, on the 2nd curt, at Avoch House, George Mackenzie of Avoch and of Towerhill, London; "a gentleman universally beloved and respected for the possession of every quality that can adorn end endear the husband, parent, and friend."

December 14.—"We fear the Highland road is impassable. The Caledonian Coach, which should have arrived on Wednesday evening (the 12th) is still on the rood, but where, we know not."

December 22.—Advertisement of Edinburgh and Aberdeen Almanacks, with supplement for the Northern Counties. Published by J. Young, Inverness, and Ettles & Young, Elgin

Ibid.—The Committee for managing the fund collected for the relief of the sufferers by the Meikle Ferry disaster announce that they have paid a dividend (of about one-third of the sum subscribed) amounting to £509 15s. They were enabled to grant relief to 17 widows, 9 husbands, 96 children under 14 years of age, and 46 parents or sisters of drowned persons. They also defrayed the expense of interring 24 persons, made an allowance for loss sustained by 11 persons saved from the boat, and paid about £29 for premiums to boatmen for searching for dead bodies. The Committee now state that 99 persons were drowned, of whom 43 were males and, 56 females, and that 12 were saved, of whom 4 were males and 8 females. Many handsome subscriptions were given to the fund. The day’s pay contributed by the Easter Ross Local Militia amounted to £67 13s 9d.

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