Thursday, April 10, 2014

Washday at Loch Stemster - Tragedy

The new family of William and Katherine Sutherland continued to grow. 

The next birth record located after Christina's birth is John Sutherland born in Badbea in 1802.

No further records or information about this John have been located except that he is named on a panel on the Badbea monument.
A second brother named Malcom is talked about in the family narratives but no OPR records of him have been located. It is a possibility that this second Malcolm was born about 1800. My reasoning is that the next son born after the first Malcom drowned in the Moray Firth (see previous blog The Storm) would probably have been named after his dead brother, as was the custom.

Malcom (the second) probably spent his childhood days at Badbea with his family until his parents died about 1810 leaving the children orphaned.

Katherine Sutherland, Malcom’s mother, had been born in Golsary near Loch Stemster and had kin still living in the area.  In 1813 a newly-wed young couple David Sutherland and Marjory Bruce of Stemster took in Malcom Sutherland. He would have been about 13 years old and perhaps to be put to work as a herd boy. Stemster with its flat land, calm lake and ancient ring of stones would be a great new environment for an orphaned boy brought up on the brink of a cliff and wild seas below.

Loch Stemster
Near Loch Stemster is an ancient horse-shoe shaped arrangement of stones. This area is also known as Achavanich and Achkinloch
McIan depiction of Highland Washing
One summer’s day at Loch Stemster, it was time to wash the blankets. In Scotland at that time, the blanket washing process was generally undertaken by a group of women near a lake or a burn. A fire would be lit to warm some water which was then put in a wash tub with the blankets. Two women would tred or trample the blankets with bare feet while other women would prepare the next lot of washing and mind the fire. The process was usually accompanied by much singing and laughter

Washing Blankets Skye by George Washington Wilson
As with many tasks in old Caithness, washing clothes was associated with an ancient and widespread superstition about a fairy washerwoman known as 'bean nighe' (Scottish Gaelic for washer-woman) who was said to be an omen of death and a messenger from the other world. Perchance she was lurking in Loch Stemster in the summer of 1813.

Malcom was at home with Marjory this wash day - maybe he had been helping with the fire. After a hard morning’s work, Marjory and the other women who were helping her went inside their house to have a meal. 

Old postcard - A Highland Washing

Malcom hung round outside for a while. He then decided to have a play with the wooden tub. He dragged it to the edge of the water and got in. Hmm that was fun and the water looked so calm and sparkling in the sun. 

A sudden breeze got up and blew the tub and Malcom out on to the loch.

When Marjory and the other women came outside and saw the tub with Malcom in it floating away they were very alarmed and upset. They joined hands and tried to reach Malcom in the tub but he was too far out. The frightened boy panicked, leapt up and jumped out of the tub. Malcom was just too far from the edge of the loch to be reached. He was doubtless fully clothed and probably could not swim. Malcom sunk into the water of Loch Stemster and was drowned before Marjory’s eyes.

Poor Marjory had a narrow escape from drowning herself as, of the women holding hands, she was the farthest out into the loch. The washing hilarity had turned to tragedy. There is no record of the body of Malcom ever being found and if she was there the fairy washer woman never let it be known where he was.

The six orphaned Sutherland children now numbered five, plus their grown up half brother David.

The sad story of Malcom’s drowning was not forgotten. It was retold by Marjory’s nephew John Sutherland over one hundred years later when he was an old man. Alex Sutherland the grandson of Alexander Robertson Sutherland, a full brother to Malcom, published the account in his book Sutherlands of Ngaipu in 1947.

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