Thursday, September 22, 2016

Berriedale School – Part A - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XV written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 1 September 1881 Part A

The Berriedale school must have been somewhere
above the cemetery as Gunn talks of taking a peat
from below the burying ground, on the way to school.

Berriedale School 

“When Auchencraig was turned out, the school there was abandoned as the few families in Badbea who had children could not afford to support a school master, and there was no alternative but to send their children to Berriedale where there was a General Assembly school. It was just four miles from Badbea and in winter weather it was no treat to trudge away there every morning (Sunday excepted) and return home at night, call at the peat stack on the way home, fill the creel left there in the by-going in the morning, with peats, and carry it to the house to keep the fire burning and keep out the cold.”
The top right picture is John Gillies with his sons Calum and Ian carrying creels or baskets of peats on Eilean Fladday. It was taken over 100 years after the time Gunn is talking about yet, apart from the boy’s clothes, little has changed. Source: Am baile Facebook. 


“The school at Berriedale was a vast improvement on the one at Auchencraig, the walls being built with stone and lime and the roof slated, but an earthen floor. Fuel was supplied as at Auchencraig by each scholar bringing his peat with him under his “oxter” and depositing it in the “neuk” as he entered. This was done under the supervision of one of our number appointed to that important post, to see that none came minus their peat. A half or small sized peat was challenged at once and reported to the master who disposed of the case in favour of the overseer or otherwise, as the case might be.” 

Thou Shalt Not Steal

“The distance between Badbea and Berriedale was a great temptation to us in breaking the eighth commandment as we found it very irksome to carry a peat a distance of four miles, and have our sport on the way besides, and not unfrequently did we make a raid on the peat stack which stood at the mill at Berriedale  - which was under the charge of the miller of whom we were more in dread than of twenty policemen – or on a stack at the turn of the brae below the burying ground and belonging to some of the families living at Berriedale. We escaped capture in these cases wonderfully, but if by bad luck a capture was made the rod was not spared, and we could not blame them for it, for well we did know that we were doing wrong.”

A Gaelic Bible with the eighth commandment
and the shorter catechism in English and Gaelic

The Three R's

"Our teacher Murdoch Mackay, who, I am glad to know, is still alive and enjoying a small retiring allowance after having been a teacher for upward of 52 years, was a man of good principles and good sound common sense. He would by no means clear the guilty, but it could not be said that he punished his scholars unduly. The whole of the youths of school age from Dunbeath to Ousdale attended the Berriedale School. The three R’s were all that was taught except two or three of the better class of children, who were taught a smattering of Latin. A few more were taught the rules of grammar, and a modicum of geography. For my own part, and with the exception referred to, I never had a grammar or a geography in my hand, and even history was but very little taught. We had first, second, third and fourth books, the last of which had snatches of history interspersed through it. There was no standard book of history used in the school. The rules of arithmetic, as published in Gray’s book, were those which were in use. A very good book it was, and I believe there were as expert arithmeticians in those days who never saw any other, as there are in the present day, with all the advantages they enjoy in the way of new books, board schools, etc."

The leather bound book is “An Introduction to Arithmetic” by James Gray.

"I little thought when labouring through “the Grays,” as it was called, that I should afterwards come in contact with some of Mr Gray’s pupils. He was teacher in the burgh school of Peebles where he compiled his book."

No Saturday Holiday

"As stated in a previous chapter, we had no Saturday holiday in those days. We had to be as punctual at school on Saturday as any other day of the week. On that day we revised all the tasks or lessons we committed to memory during the course of the week, repeat the one half of the shorter catechisms, read a Bible lesson, and were dismissed about 10 o’clock. There was a Bible lesson every day, the first in the forenoon, and there was also a class for Gaelic, in which a lesson was given once a day. We had second, third, and fourth books in Gaelic. We were taught to translate the Gaelic into English, and the English into Gaelic, and also to spell Gaelic. I have in my bookcase a Gaelic Bible I got as a prize for Gaelic reading and spelling, and on it I find the inscription - “General Assembly School, Berriedale, 1st April 1833."

My Comments:

Alexander Gunn has written about his school days at the Auchencraig school previously – see blog February 2016  - and his indignation at the clearance of the thriving fishing Auchencraig settlement -  blogs March 2015 and March 2016.

He has also mentioned his school master Murdoch Mackay again with obvious respect and warmth.  The appalling conditions the Mackay family endured after the disruption are on blog August 2015.

The Arithmetic book written by James Gray (1781 – 1810), schoolmaster of Peebles, was used universally in Scotland during the 19th century making his name synonymous with Arithmetic.  Alexander Gunn lived in Peebles for a while and was apparently impressed to meet some of James Gray’s original pupils.

A PDF of Gray's Arithmetic can be found on electricscotland:

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

‘Wicked Ferrymen’ - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign 30 June, 1881 - Part D


The Highland Ferryman by William Dyce (1806 – 1864 )

“I wonder whether the ferrymen I once crossed over with were lineal descendants of these murderers; for when about halfway across, one of them took up a heavy piece of wood which lay in the boat, and without the least provocation, or any previous warning, threatened to break the heads of all the passengers, four in number. It was not a very safe place to begin a fight, and while the four of us could have easily overcome the two of them, we rather preferred peaceable means, which was not at all appreciated by the wild ferryman, who brought down his formidable bludgeon into rather uncomfortable proximity to our heads." 

"What mania seized the fellow that caused him to act in this way, and his companion acquiesced in all he did, we could not divine. They did not appear to be drunk, or, as far as we could see, under the influence of liquor; and whether they expected to exhort money from us as a ransom for our lives, or not, I cannot tell; but one thing is certain, if that idea entered their calculations, they were sadly disappointed. We might, and would have defended ourselves to the very last, had any of our number been actually assaulted; but, while the aspect of affairs looked truly serious, there were no blows given." 

"Ferry-men, as a rule, were (I do not say are, for it is now about forty years since I crossed these ferries) a very rude, illiterate and wicked class of men; but I have no doubt, and would fain hope at least, that the present men are much improved.”

A Native of Badea - To be continued.

My Comments:

To close this article Alexander Gunn indignantly relates a bad experience he once had with a couple of ferrymen. Ferrymen were the backbone of travel in the Highlands for hundreds of years and it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that the life of a ferryman was often miserably cold and wet, as well as being constantly at the mercy of wind and tides. It’s no wonder that some took to warming themselves with whisky. While there are probably hundreds of stories of bad-tempered and drunk ferry-men I rather like Dyce’s portrait of a Highland Ferryman, who has his bottle sure enough, but looks trustworthy and calm.

Back to the Miekle Ferry disaster - these two pictures made me reflect.

A postcard showing travellers at Kyle of Lochalsh waiting to cross over to Skye. The photograph was taken by George Washington Wilson c1880s. The caravan on the ferry is a good reminder that ferry-men often took heavy and awkward loads – including animals. No doubt with great risk to all on board.
 Source:  Am Baile Facebook

A crowd of people wait on the jetty at Kyle of Lochalsh to catch the ferry over to Kyleakin while the paddle steamer ‘Fusilier’ heads to Broadford. 1930s. I counted approximately thirty people in the line-up. It is amazing to think that more than 3 times as many people crammed on what was just a large rowing boat making it so low in the water it took on water and capsized. Source:  Am Baile Facebook

I have done some cut and paste with the above picture to show about 120 people all waiting to clamber on the one boat! Sheriff McCulloch entreated the people not to overcrowd the boat but they would not listen. Pity he didn't disembark himself. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Meikle Ferry Fund - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV about the Meikle Ferry Disaster written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign 30 June, 1881 - Part C

Meikle Ferry Disaster Fund

On 16 August 1809, ninety nine people drowned in the Meikle Ferry disaster with twelve passengers being saved.

The Courier, 21 November  1809

Many of the bereaved were left in severe hardship. From young children orphaned, to widows, widowers, and old parents, many were left without any ways of sustaining themselves. Not only had lives been lost but some folks who were going to the fair to trade had all the spare money they owned with them.

An appeal fund was formed to aid the families of those drowned.

Total fund of £2909

The Meikle Ferry Fund distributed £509 to widows, husbands and children and parents of the dead on 14 December 1809. On 29 March 1810 another £1000 was distributed and a further £1400 was distributed on 11 December 1811. The total fund amounted to £2909 which was a huge amount of money for that time. 

I note that while Alexander Gunn heaped such righteous anger on the heads of the ‘wicked’ ferrymen, the detail of the distributions of the fund includes £10 to the bereaved parents of Donald Chisholm, Ferryman, and £26 to the widow and nine children of Ferryman, Wm Sutherland. 

The following are pages from the reports of the Appeal Fund committee.

Sheriff Hugh McCulloch - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign 30 June, 1881  - Part B

Sheriff Hugh McCulloch

“Samuel Matheson, as I have already stated composed a beautiful poem on the Sheriff, and also several others, all written in a religious strain. They were published in a pamphlet form, and used to be sung by the good people at their social and religious gatherings. Deep and poignant was the sorrow felt by all classes of the community at the death of the Sheriff, who was respected by all with whom he came in contact, and his memory is still cherished in the district.” 
Memorial to Sheriff Hugh McCulloch. 
This memorial was built in 1914. It is in Proncy Croy, near Dornoch. 
There is no doubt that the death of highly respected Sheriff McCulloch of Dornoch was regarded as particularly tragic. This eloquent inscription says it all. 

Rev Donald Sage in Memorabilia Domestica wrote:

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 seas 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.
Memorabilia Domestica by Rev Donald Sage pg 247 

My Comments:

Note : In the preceding paragraph of Sage’s article he states that the ferry disaster happened at night but that is not correct as the newspaper reports in my previous blog show. People were on their way to attend the Tain market. 

Farmland, Proncycroy

I have not been able to locate the memorial with any certainty. The Ordnance Survey map that accompanies the geograph picture of 'Farmland Poncycroy' shows a memorial stone near to the front of the house on private land. I am guessing that is the memorial to Sheriff McCulloch.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Meikle Ferry Disaster - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV published in the Northern Ensign 30 June 1881 Part A

"I might give your readers another chapter on Highland poets, but I fear that I have trespassed rather too much on their patience already. I have omitted some well known and talented poets, whose productions are very popular and much cherished in the Highlands; but there are several Gaelic poets whose names are not mentioned either by Mackenzie or Blackie, such as Duncan Bhan McIntyre, Murdoch Grant, and Samuel Matheson, with whose songs we were tolerably well acquainted, the latter more especially. His song on good Sheriff McCulloch, who was the instrument of his conversion, was very popular, and the tragic end of that good man made the song all the more thought of."

Morning Post London, 25 August 1809

The Meikle Ferry (aka Muckle Ferry) Disaster

"The Sheriff was drowned in the Dornoch Firth in crossing over from Muckle Ferry to Tain, where he was going on the Thursday of a communion there, and a boat-full of Sutherland people with him. He had occasion to cross over frequently to Ross-shire, and to reprove the ferrymen for their profanity and wicked conduct. For this they hated the Sheriff and declared that all the heaven they wished for was to get a boat-load of Sutherland Christians, and Sheriff McCulloch in the middle of them, drowned in the ferry. This fearful language was no mere empty words, as these wicked men deliberately set to work to accomplish their diabolical design. They knew the sacrament was to be held in Tain on a particular week, and that on the fast-day the Sheriff and other people would be crossing over. They also knew the time of day the people would be there to get across, and they laid their plans accordingly. The Sheriff and about 50 [111] people, men and women, arrived at the Ferry, and all entered the boat, a large one. The day was fine, and while the stream of the tide ran past them with great velocity, no one suspected that anything serious would happen." 

Ferry Point
View of the Dornoch Firth from Edderton Hill. This narrowing was once the ferry route.

"They proceeded on their way, and when the boat was about the centre of the Firth, which is perhaps about three quarters of a mile broad, one of the fiendish crew pulled the plug out of the bottom of the boat and flung it into the sea. The water rushed in at once and great consternation prevailed among the poor doomed passengers. Some of them attempted to stop the water by pressing their jackets against the hole, but the fiendish crew (only two in number) attacked them with maddening fury, and pulled them away from their work of mercy.  By this time the boat was nearly full of water, and the poor passengers cried out for help from the shore. The people on the shore saw them sinking, and ran to launch a boat to try and save the drowning passengers when they found there was no plug in that boat either, but after some delay this was remedied; but where were the oars? There were none to be had." 

"So deliberately did these murderers set about their work that they took the plug out of the boat and also hid the oars, so as to make it impossible to render any help or assistance to the drowning passengers, and they succeeded but too well. The people on shore ran frantically in every direction in search of the missing oars, and could find none. They saw their fellow creatures perish before their eyes and almost within grasp of them, and yet they could render them no assistance, and they had the mortification of seeing the last of that boat-load of human beings sink into a watery grave before their eyes, the wicked ferrymen among the rest."

Morning Chronicle 2 September 1809

"It was an awful calamity. It cast a gloom of horror and deepest sorrow over the northern counties. Most of the bodies were recovered in the course of time, the godly Sheriff’s among the rest, after being six weeks in the water. It was said there was not a broken bit on the body when found, and that during the whole of the time it lay in the water, at night a light shone over it. The bodies of the ferrymen were also found, but it was said they were so mutilated that, but for their clothing, they could not have been identified. Be that as it may, they got their wish. They lost their lives as suicides, and it is to be feared their happiness ended by the accomplishment of their Satanic plot."

 My Comments:

The incident of the Meikle ferry that Alexander Gunn relates happened on 16 August 1809, 11 years before he was born, and by the time he related the story in 1881 it was over seventy years after the event so it is perhaps unsurprising that he has some of his facts wrong. There had been probably hundreds of retellings of the Meikle Ferry disaster in that time with every new telling adding another layer to the narrative.

There were many reports in newspapers at the time of the Meikle ferry disaster and all are clear that the people were travelling to a market in Tain not to a communion.

The story has clearly impressed the imaginations of decades of people who were both superstitious and very religious. Some myths I have uncovered:

An old crofter who was believed to be able to predict death had foretold of a time when the young would wear seaweed in their hair and the shores of the Firth would resound with the keening of the bereaved - a prediction now accepted as the Meikle Ferry disaster.

Alexander Gunn tells of the body of the godly Sheriff being unmutilated after six weeks in the water, and having a light shining over it. The bodies of the ‘wicked’ ferrymen were said to be recognisable only from their clothes.

Another similar story says the spot where the sheriff lay was uncovered in a dream.

Several reports suggest that the ferrymen were intoxicated and negligent but in no report (other than this one) is there any suggestion that the ferrymen actually pulled the plug on the ferry or vandalised the other ferry on shore. There are reports that the boats were ill-equiped and the ferrymen unconcerned about deficiencies such as missing tholepins (a wooden peg in a rowing boat to support oars), torn sails, frayed ropes, and even broken rudders.

Northern Times 8 September 1910

Part B: The Meikle Ferry Relief fund