Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My McLeods In Scotland - Donald and Mary

McLeods Everywhere

Dunvegan Castle, Skye, Scotland
There are MacLeods (or McLeods and other spelling variations) just about everywhere. One of my personal favourites is Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) an amazing African American leader. There are many reasons for the international spread of McLeods, one being the decades long Clearances in Scotland that took anguished McLeods away on sailing ships to the utmost parts of the earth. There was also the role Scots played in the slave trade. Another was the missionary focus of some Scottish Presbyterian churches that sent followers to many lands.

McLeod Clans

Macleod of Macleod crest badge
The MacLeod clan claims its descent from Leod, a younger son of Olaf the Black, one of the last Norse kings of Man. Leod who lived in the 13th century, married a daughter of the Norse steward of Skye, which brought the family to Dunvegan. It is said that Leod had two sons, Tormond and Torquil.  From them the clan divided into two main branches. Tormond began the line of the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan, whose chief is MacLeod of MacLeod. Torquil began the line of the MacLeods of Lewis, whose chief is MacLeod of the Lewes.  Clan MacLeod of the Lewes at its height held extensive lands in the Western Isles and west coast of Scotland, including Assynt. In the 16th century the MacLeods of the Lewes were involved in a succession of feuds with neighbouring clans and with members of their own clan. In the 17th century the main line of Lewis MacLeods became extinct, and the chieftainship of this branch passed to the MacLeods of Raasay. Thus the MacLeods of Dunvegan gained ascendancy.


Clan Macleod of the Lewes crest badge
There are recent genealogy and DNA projects that are challenging traditional MacLeod histories that can be found on-line and need to be taken note of.
These days both the Clan MacLeod of the Lewes and Clan MacLeod are represented by ‘Associated Clan MacLeod Societies’ and the chiefs of the two clans, with MacLeod societies across the world.  They hold parliaments and world gatherings.

Clan McLeod of Skye

My mother, Joy McLeod and her siblings got very interested in McLeod matters during the visit to New Zealand of Dame Flora McLeod, Chief of Clan McLeod in the mid 1950s. Although they never did any specific research on their ancestors the family subsequently associated with the McLeod seat at Dunvegan Castle on Skye.
Dunvegan Castle
About 1962 my mother had a private meeting and afternoon tea with Dame Flora McLeod followed by planting a tree together in the grounds of Dunvegan Castle. I don’t know exactly where.

Clan McLeod of Lewes

Farr Bay John Thomson Atlas of Scotland 1832
Farr Bay, Sutherland, Scotland
Research into my McLeod ancestors shows that my 4XG grandparents Donald McLeod and Mary McKay lived in Farr and Reay, Sutherland County, Scotland. I think it is likely (although I have no proof) that Donald McLeod’s family belonged to the Clan MacLeod of Lewes who were well established on the Scottish mainland, rather than the MacLeods of Skye and Dunvegan. Children of Donald and Mary were:
  • Christian born about 1780 in Farr 
  • William born about 1789 in Reay
  • John born about 1795 in Farr
These birth dates are calculated from later census records.

Crofter and Shepherd

Donald was a crofter and shepherd. Crofters in Sutherland were said to be very poor, but also frugal and devout. Life was very hard, for example, the year 1782 was a disastrous one in Sutherland. Severe weather in spring delayed the preparation of the ground and the sowing of the seed and, in the autumn, snow fell before the late harvest was gathered. A great many cattle perished for want of fodder and by April of the following year, the people’s own food supplies were finished. Six thousand bolls of barley and rye were sent to relieve the situation.
Limpits at Farr Bay which were used as a food source
At the croft the family were likely to have a few small sheep that were kept for milk, cheese, wool and occasionally meat. If Donald was working as a shepherd for one of the Farr or Reay landlords he would have been away from home for months on end leaving Mary and the children to work the croft and pay the rent probably in goods or services to the rich landowner.

Sheep farming

Various sheep farming ventures by wealthy landowners and tacksmen had been part of the Sutherland landscape for much of the 18th century and sheep farming was firmly established by 1800. The resulting clearances of crofters to make room for sheep were beginning. One name that catches my eye is a James Anderson, a wealthy fishing investor in Sutherland, who in 1789 was dealing in sheep possibly to feed fishermen. Some records show Anderson as a heartless and selfish man clearing tenants at whim. He is of interest to me as he left Sutherland about 1803/4 and leased the Ausdale farm. Ausdale, as a previous blog shows, was next door to Badbea and the two settlements were integrally connected.
Close up of the Borgue of Ousdale showing the remains 
of very old settlements

Borgue of Ausdale

Sometime in the late 18th century Donald and Mary McLeod also left Farr, Sutherland and took their family twenty miles walk across the Highlands to Ausdale. I don’t know why they moved, but with evictions starting things were grim. Donald was a shepherd and with new flocks of sheep being established on the Langwell estate, maybe Donald saw work opportunities there.

1744 Donald Mclowd at Ausdale
As well there had long been McLeods in Ausdale and I think they may have been clansmen. For example in 1744 there was a Donald McLowd in Alisdale (Ausdale) with a daughter Barbra baptised. In 1798 a James McLeod of Ausdale presented his baby daughter Margaret for baptism. The Latheron parish birth records from 1740 to 1808 show about 50 babies born to McLeod families during those years.
Looking toward the Borgue of Ausdale from the A9
Ausdale broch
Donald and Mary were able to lease a small patch of land at the Borgue of Ausdale down the valley near the ancient Pictish broch. About the time they moved there (give or take a few years) James Anderson leased Ausdale from Sir John Sinclair, turned up with his family and started farming sheep. The tenants who had been on the main Ausdale land for generations were evicted either by Sir John as part of the lease agreement or by Anderson. Many went to Badbea. Anderson promptly built himself a substantial house and started to establish the infrastructure needed for a sheep farm. He leased sheep off Sir John Sinclair. It is possible that Donald McLeod had met or even worked for Anderson in Sutherland and got work for him at Ausdale. With the amount of development happening there must have been labour needed and James Anderson certainly evicted anyone who was no use to him But the project was not a success. Donald Sage in Domestica Memorabilia says of Anderson at Ausdale:
  • "After building upon it [Ausdale] a most substantial dwelling-house, office houses, sheep fanks or folds, and cultivating not a little of the surrounding moor, he gave it up in disgust."

The Anderson house in 2011. Those evicted in 1804 when Anderson built and moved into this house had not a roof over their heads. The porch is a later edition. The bad angle is my camera not the house!

Evicted again

Whether he worked for Anderson or not, Donald and Mary somehow survived at the Borgue of Ausdale for perhaps a decade.
They were again evicted and had to trek back across Sutherland probably to Craggy in Reay, to live with their daughter Christy and her husband Hugh MacKay. Son William had joined the 78th (Highlanders) Regiment of Foot. Youngest son John stayed working on the Langwell estate as a shepherd.  When Donald and Mary died is not known, but they were most likely buried in the Bunahoun cemetery where Christy and Hugh were later buried.

Bunahoun cemetery the flat stone is 
Christy McLeod and Hugh Mackay's

Wild flowers in Farr Bay

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Donald Sutherland Died at Quatre Bras, Waterloo, 16 June 1815

The Memorial Monument at Badbea, Highlands, Scotland
Donald Sutherland is just a name on the Badbea memorial. Yeah right!  Donald was a living, breathing, working man and an important contributing member of his family and the Badbea community.  Donald died at the great conflict of Waterloo in 1815.
Donald was born in Ausdale (aka Ousdale) in 1788.  James his father died while the family was still young. There were several long established Sutherland families in Ausdale. They are complicated to follow because the name Sutherland was so common, and they used family naming patterns for the given names of their children. Donald’s father James Sutherland was a son of John Sutherland who was a son of James Sutherland the miller of Ousdale. Of Donald’s great-grandfather a fine old man it was said: 
  • "James Sutherland, Miller of Ousdale and also for some years at Auldi Cleavan, near Rangag. He was highly spoken of by the old people as a man of fine physique and hospitable parts. James the miller flourished about 200 years ago. He is mentioned in the Rent Roll of the estate of Forse. His father was John, a son of the Laird of Langwell at that time."                                 Source: John Sutherland pg 137 Sutherlands of Ngaipu 1940
Donald’s mother Catherine was a daughter of David Sutherland, born in Ausdale about 1722, whose father was William Sutherland born in Langwell about 1652. Donald was a cousin of Christina Sutherland (who married John McLeod) and her other siblings. Christina would have known Donald well as he was only ten years older than her and they lived next door to each other for several years.

Evicted from Ausdale

In 1804, when Donald was about sixteen his family, mother Catherine, brother John, sisters Elizabeth, Margaret, Janet and one more, name not known, were evicted from Ausdale to Badbea without a roof over their heads. I have no doubt Donald helped his brother John build a house for the family.

Joined a Regiment

Donald enlisted as a soldier when he was about 20 – 22 years old.
Caithness Roll of Honour
I don’t know which regiment Donald joined but there is a published account telling of other men from nearby Badbea who also enlisted as soldiers.

The Caithness Roll of Honour

To the Editor of the Northern Times. Sir - As Mr Horne may be interested in being furnished with a few additional names of old soldiers and pensioners in the country, I may say that I am able from personal acquaintance with the undernoted names, with the exception of two, to give information about them, others that I knew passed away upwards of sixty years ago: - Captain Sutherland, Bridgend, Dunbeath; John Murray, Achavroil; Angus Macgregor, Tormore; ……Macgregor, Tormore; Alex. Keith, Houstry; George Keith, Houstry; Major Wm Gunn, Houstry – as fine a figure of an officer as could be seen in an army, who rose from the ranks in India. Donald Mackay, Achow, Dunbeath, who was one of Sir John Moore’s army in the famous Corunna retreat, and all through the Peninsular war and Waterloo, and held three medals. Robert Sutherland, Balnabruich, Dunbeath; Donald Grant, Knockally do.; David Brodie, do., do. ; Neil Macleod, Berriedale, fought at Waterloo; Angus Bruce, do., do. ; Sergeant Charles Munro, Achincraig, Berriedale, Waterloo; Donald Gunn, jun., do., do., Donald Sutherland, Badbea- slain at Waterloo, brother of Godly John Badbea; Donald Gunn. Sen., Achincraig, who carried Sutherland three miles on his back after being mortally wounded at Waterloo: Captain Wm Mackay, Berriedale, who was promoted from the ranks in the first Zulu war; Captain…Murray, Braemore, rose from the ranks in South Africa. Mrs Smith, a daughter of Captain Murray, nobly attended the wounded and dying at the fatal Majuba disaster and tore every stitch of her underlinen to bandage the wounds of wounded and dying. I knew this brave lady well. William Campbell, Achincraig, also Waterloo – pensioner; Hugh Matheson, do., do. ; John Polson, do., do. etc
CRAGAN MOR  Newspaper reference and date not given. Probably Alexander Gunn

Life in a Regiment

Once men joined a regiment they were loyal to that regiment no matter what.  There was also a strong nationalism to the regiments with men seeing themselves not only part of a certain regiment but also part of a ‘Scottish’ regiment. Efforts were made by regiments to recruit within a specific area and to retain their Scottish character, for example, in the recruitment of Gaelic speakers. Conditions were so bad in the Highlands with evictions that enlistment was seen by some as their only survival option, while lairds and landlords saw the enlistment of local young men as complementing the exploitation they were inflicting upon their tenants.
Poster showing 42nd Highlanders uniform
Regiment training was often not in Scotland but from the day they joined, soldiers were a ‘Cameron, a Gordon or a Royal Scot’ and resented any forced change of allegiance. The recruits were looked after and had their own beds and regular food each day – which in many cases was more than they had had at home. The rules were clear and discipline was harsh. Men expected to be going overseas and as part of their training they had to learn marching and trooping. They were moved overseas in troop-ships in fairly cramped conditions.

The Highland regiments wore an adapted form of national dress which changed a bit depending on what they were doing but was a scarlet tunic with a kilt, feather bonnet and a back-pack. No matter where they were Scottish regiments always kept their bagpipes which were used to announce various routines during the course of the day and also went to war. In some cases wives and children were allowed to live and even travel with the regiment and were looked after well.                                              Source: The Scottish Soldier Abroad 1247-1967 Ed Grant Simpson


Source: Wellington at Waterloo by Jac Weller 1967
In Brussels, two days before the Battle of Waterloo, on 16 June 1815 a battle was fought around the strategic crossroads of Quatre-Bras.  Quatre Bras was a small hamlet with only four houses. At Quatre Bras, the Allied army under the Duke of Wellington defeated the French under Marshal Ney.
Size of the armies: Around 25,000 allied troops against 24,000 French troops.
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the musket. It could be fired three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for only a hundred metres or so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet which fitted the muzzle of his musket.
Casualties: The battle cost Ney 4,000 men to Wellington's 4,800. 

The Plains of Waterloo (Original has14 verses)
1   It was on the 16th day of June in Flanders where we lay
     Our bugles did the alarm sound before the break of day
     We British Belgians Brunswickers and Hanovarians too
     All Brussels left that morning for the plains of Waterloo.

2   By a forced march we did advance till three in the afternoon
     Our British hearts with ardour burnt to pull the tyrant down
     Near Quatre Bras we met the French their shape to us seemed          new
     For in steel armour they were clad on the plains of Waterloo
7   For full four hours and longer we sustained the bloody fray
     Then during a long weary night upon our arms we lay
     The orders of our General next day we did pursue
     And retired in files for full six miles on the plains of Waterloo.

Death but not alone.

On 16 June 1815 Donald Sutherland was killed at the battle of Quatre Bras in the Waterloo campaign Source: Roydhouse unpublished. The battlefield was chaotic with thousands of casualties but somehow Donald Sutherland was found by Donald Gunn of Achnacraig who carried him on his back for three miles looking for help. I wonder if they were in the same regiment and had talked about looking out for each other. Apparently the old farm house on the crossroads at Quatre Bras served as a hospital after the battle but would have been overwhelmed with the dead and dying. Some of the dead were buried by the local peasants.
Old farmhouse at Quatre Bras which was used as a hospital
The following letter gives an insight into the battle and conditions after.

42nd Highlanders at Quatre Bras

Extract of a Letter from a Private in the 42d Regiment to his Father

General Hospital, Antwerp, June 24, 1815.
“On the 15th, about twelve o'clock at night, we turned out, and at two in the morning marched from the city of Brussels, to meet the Enemy, who were advancing in great force on that city. About three o'clock in the afternoon of the 16th, we came up with them. Our whole force did not exceed 12,000 men, who were fatigued with a long march of upwards of twenty miles, encumbered with knapsacks and other luggage. The day was uncommonly warm and no water to be had on the road; however, we were brought up in order of battle. The French being strongly posted in a thick wood, to the number of 40,000 men, including cavalry and lancers, gave us very little time to look round us ere the fight commenced on both sides, in an awful and destructive manner, they having every advantage of us, both as to position and numbers, particularly in cavalry, and the British dragoons had not yet come up. The French cavalry charged the British line of infantry three different times, and did much execution, until we were obliged to form squares of battalions in order to turn them, which was executed in a most gallant manner, and many hundreds of them never returned. Still they sent up fresh forces, and as often we beat them back. The battle lasted until it was quite dark, when the Enemy began to give way; our poor fellows who were left alive following them of long as they could see, when night put an end to the fatigues of a well fought day. Thousands on both sides lay killed and wounded on the field of battle; and, as the greater part of the action lay in corn fields along a vast tract of country, many hundred must have died for want of assistance through the night, who were not able of themselves to crawl away. I was wounded by a musket-ball, which passed through my right arm and breast, and lodged in my back, from whence it was extracted by a surgeon in the hospital of this place. Captain M. is most severely wounded, having several shots through his body, and the regiments, in general, are mostly cut off. We have heard, since we came here, that our fine brigade, which entered the field on that eventful day, consisting of the 3rd battalion Royal Scots, 42d, 44th, and 92d regiments, are now formed into one battalion, not exceeding in the whole 400 men. Lord Wellington retired in the night to wait for reinforcements, and next day our cavalry and the rest of the army arrived. Thus I have given you as full an account of affairs, principally what I witnessed on the 16th. Nothing can exceed the kindness and attention of the inhabitants of this city to our wounded men; the hospital is constantly filled with ladies and gentlemen, who, although speaking a different language, personally administer to our wants with the kindest attention, distributing clean shirts, bread, wine, coffee, tea, milk, and fruit of all sorts, with every requisite for our comfort and accommodation.”
 Source: Booth’s “The Battle of Waterloo, also of Ligny, and Quatre-Bras Volume 1 (London 1817) pp. 74-76.
Source: Wellington at Waterloo by Jac Sheller 1967

Some Came Back to Caithness

The Caithness Roll of Honour article mentions the names of other men who also fought in the Waterloo Campaign. I have looked for them on Freecen and have found what maybe some of these men who returned to Caithness to live. The names are:
Census 1841, 1851, 1861: Neil McLeod, Latheron, Berriedale, age 60 & 72, Army Pensioner
Census 1841: Donald Gunn Latheron, Berriedale, age 75, Army Pensioner
Census 1841, 1851: David Brodie, Latheron, Berriedale, Age 41 & 55, Army Pensioner
Census 1851: Donald McKay, Latheron, age 70, Pensioner
I imagine the story of Donald Gunn carrying Donald Sutherland on his back came home through these men. How good that a dear friend was caring for Donald as he died.

Battle of Quatre Bras by (after) Heath, William

Bi-Centenary of Quatre Bras & Waterloo

Next year 2015 is the bi-centenary of Waterloo and Quatre Bras
 “If there’s one moment in history – other than the defeat of Hitler – that every citizen of Europe should be encouraged to commemorate, it’s the day the Battle of Waterloo decided the shape of our continent for a hundred years. It was the final climax in the titanic struggle between the French Emperor Napoleon and the rest of Europe. Waterloo was one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles ever. It was the last great conflict of the age of the sword, cannon and musket in Western Europe. And it was one of the first battles to be widely reported in detail by hundreds of those who fought in it on all sides. They provide us with an unprecedented commentary on the human face of battle 200 years ago. Waterloo 200′s marking of this bicentenary gives us a unique opportunity to study one of the most seismic events in world military history." Peter Snow

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ord of Caithness Part C Fatal Accident

Untimely Death of Margaret Polson of Navidale

John O Groat Journal 20 July 1855

Fatal Accident at the Bridge of the Ord

On the evening of Wednesday week at the Bridge of the Ord, occurred an accident of a very serious and fatal character, which has already occasioned the loss of one life, and likely to result in the death of another two individuals, besides inflicting injuries upon several others. In our second edition last week we gave such particulars of the disaster as had then reached us, and we repeat those with the additional information since received. On the evening in question a party of ten women (not twelve as at first reported), outworkers to Donald Horne, Esq. of Langwell, were returning from turnip-hoeing on the farm of Ousdale, on the Langwell estate, to Navidale, in Sutherland, about three miles distant. They were all in a cart, the horse in which, when at the sharp turn at the bridge, took fright and made off with a sudden spring, striking the cart against the parapet wall, throwing out the women, all of whom sustained injuries, three of them having their heads terribly bruised between the cart and the parapet, and their countenances greatly mangled. Of these three, one, named Margaret Polson, residing in Navidale, has died, after undergoing much suffering, and the other two are not expected to survive. The remaining seven were all more or less injured, but fortunately none of them dangerously; three of them escaping with slight bruises, and the other four sustaining rather severe contusions. A passenger by the mail who came north the next evening says the parapet of the bridge and the road-side were bespattered with the blood of the unfortunate women. No blame is attached to any one, the occurrence being purely accidental, and it is not known what frightened the horse.
Source: John O Groat Journal 20 July 1855. 
There are several other newspaper reports of this accident all of a similar nature. I could not find a report on the fate of the other injured women.

Bridge of the Ord, Caithness

The Ord Telford Bridge showing the parapets
The Ord bridge. The road now by-passes the old Telford bridge
Another view of the parapets on the Ord bridge. Source:


Margaret Polson was the daughter of William Polson (1776 – 1841-51) and Jane Bannerman (1778 – 1860). Margaret was born in Caen on 20 November 1820. The family had been cleared from Caen in Kildonan to Navidale probably in the 1824 Clearances. The hardships families endured during the Kildonan Clearances are well documented elsewhere.  See also Timespan Helmsdale for Caen historical information.
Extract from Polson Family Tree
Death record of Margaret Polson

Fractured Skull

The death certificate of Margaret tells us she suffered a fractured skull and died 6 days after the accident.  She was 34 years old. Margaret was buried in Helmsdale. She may be in an unmarked grave as I have not been able to locate her gravestone. Brother George Polson has signed her death certificate.
Helmsdale Cemetery from the Helmsdale Telford bridge

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Ord of Caithness Part B

Two Bridges

Pre nineteenth century there were many lightly formed roads and turf tracks crossing the Scottish Highlands. They were used mainly for foot traffic, some light-wheeled vehicles or horses and carts. Many rivers were crossed at fords.

Thomas Telford

In 1802 Thomas Telford, a Scottish civil engineer and noted road and bridge builder was commissioned by the Government to make a survey of Scotland with a view to improving the roads and bridges. Telfords plans were approved and work commenced.

In Telford’s report of 1828 he said:
“In surveying the future roads it was with difficulty and not without danger that I could scramble along a rugged, broken, sandy shore or by narrow tracks on the edge of precipices frequently interrupted by rude and inconvenient ferries; and having for lodgings only miserable huts, scarcely protected from the inclemency of the weather; while the adjacent country had scarcely the marks of cultivation. Now in the year 1828 a mail coach passes daily from Tain by Bonar Bridge, the Fleet Mound, Dunrobin, Helmsdale and the Ord of Caithness, to the extremity of the Island at Wick and Thurso without being interrupted by a single ferry.”
Source: New Ways Through the Glens A.R.B. Haldane 1962 Pg 189

Ousdale Bridge

"The Ousdale Bridge is a tall, coursed rubble one with a narrow semi circular arch of 28 feet span and 40 feet high. It has triangular buttresses with squared tops and spans a burn where it runs into a gorge with wet boggy sides. Obviously it was a difficult place to make a stable bridge. The abutments have deep foundations into the rock. ..From the streamside the arch romantically frames a typical view of the burn falling down low rock steps." The Ousdale Bridge is a Telford bridge.

The Ord of Caithness Bridge

“This is a sturdy bridge built about 1820 and set at a sharp V bend on the road, with a hill down on both sides…It is a tribute to the engineer and mason who first drove this vital road north. If you walk up the valley behind for a short distance, you will see how the road comes down in a great U to the small arch. It is set directly on the rock and built of roughly coursed rubble, an almost semicircular arch with a square topped parapet. The abutments curve round into wing walls which follow the line of the road downstream, that of the burn upstream." The Ord Bridge is also a Telford bridge
Source: Highland Bridges, Gillian Nelson, 1990, pgs 162-163

Scottish heather at the Ord
While Telford’s roads and bridges must have had a huge impact on the people of Badbea especially for access to Navidle and Helmsdale, they also left opportunity for the Laird to insist on them working in difficult conditions and for pitiful wages.

Thanks to George Watson, Highlands, for helpful information

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ord of Caithness Part A

John Gunn

The Ord: John Thomson's Atlas of Scotland 1832
John Gunn and his family lived at Badbea for many years. John’s obituary states:
“During the ministry of the Godly Mr McDonald, Helmsdale, John Gunn was there summer and winter, and in all weathers he could be seen crossing the Ord to hear Mr McDonald. A man near Helmsdale, whose house he had to pass every Sabbath, used to say to his family - "There is John Gunn and his folk, all the way from Badbea (a distance of 8 miles) and you are not ready yet."
Source: Northern Ensign 13 July 1876

Crossing the Ord

For centuries the main route between Sutherland and Caithness had a stretch of road about two miles long that was extremely dangerous. Known as the Ord of Caithness, stories both old and new abound about its perils.

The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland lists:
 Ord or Ord-of-Caithness, an abrupt, broad, lofty, granite mountain, overhanging the sea, on the mutual border of Sutherland and Caithness, 4 miles by road NE of Helmsdale. The old road over it, formerly the only land ingress to Caithness, traversed the crest of its stupendous seaward precipices at a height and in a manner most appalling to both man and beast; and even the present road, formed in 1811, rises to an elevation of 726 feet above sea-level, and has very stiff gradients.
Source: Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland Ed Francis Groome (1892-6)

In the NCAP photo both the old precipice route and the new road are visible

17th Century Terrors

 “During all this time the peasantry of the county were in a most wretched condition. Among other evils, Caithness was overrun with thieves. In 1617 a regularly organised band of these vagabonds infested the borders of Sutherland and Caithness, where they waylaid and robbed travellers, and violated every unprotected female that had the misfortune to fall into their hands. Their principal haunt was the Ord of Caithness, a spot peculiarly adapted for their purpose. Scarce a week passed without the commission of some murder, rape, or robbery, in that quarter... A strong posse of armed men were sent out to watch the movements of the gang, and to apprehend them. In a few days nearly the whole of the miscreants were seized and imprisoned, and after a summary trial sentenced to the gallows. A gibbet was erected on the highest part of the Ord, where, without benefit of clergy, they were all hanged as a terror to evil-doers.
Source: James Calder, Sketch of the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness from the Tenth Century, Ch IX
From the top of the Ord looking toward Navidale

Edge of the Precipice

Rev Donald Sage wrote of his crossing by foot over the Ord about 1809:
“We proceeded next day, notwithstanding the continuance of the storm, and in spite of a hard frost during the night, which put us both in the morning in imminent peril of our lives. It was in crossing the Ord in Caithness where the road in those days crept along the very edge of the precipice. Both my fellow-traveler and I lost our footing, slipped upon the ice, rendered still more slippery by a coating of snow which it had received that morning, and fell flat on the very brink of the precipice. We gathered ourselves up again in fear and trembling; it was certainly one of those occasions during the course of my life in which I felt the fears of death upon me.”
Source: Parish Life in the North of Scotland by Rev Donald Sage, 1899 Chapter XII

Catherine Sinclair 

Catherine Sinclair, daughter of Sir John Sinclair, wrote about the Ord:
“The Ord of Caithness was formerly pre-eminent for being the most dangerous bit of road in Scotland. Mr Telford tamed it down, however into such perfect safety and insignificance, that modern travelers can scarcely credit the difficulty and hazard with which ten years ago it was crossed, unless they are shown the old track, an almost perpendicular line of loose stones at the edge of an airy precipice.
During the last century, whenever the late Earl of Caithness, my grandmother Lady Janet Sinclair, or any of the chief landed proprietors entered that county [Caithness] a troop of their tenants assembled on the border of Sutherland, and drew the carriage themselves over the hill [the Ord] a distance of two miles, that nothing might be trusted to the discretion of quadrupeds. A pretty considerably narrow, perpendicular road skirted along the very edge of a precipice rising twelve hundred feet abruptly out of the ocean without the smallest hint of a parapet and many travelers, seeing this formidable obstacle turned their horses heads without proceding to scale it. The accident maker for the Dumfries courier could settle for life here as there is quite a treasury of untold stories to be heard in every house, how the mail was upset in one place, at another how Lord Duffus had only time to spring out and save his life before his gig and horse went over, and never spoke more. The mail coach now rattles down the whole descent of the gorge, scarcely deigning even to use a drag!

Sinclairs don't cross the Ord on a Monday

It is an old established superstition, that none of our clan may cross the Ord on a Monday, because on that day of the week [in 1513], forty [300] Sinclairs, commanded by the Earle of Caithness, ventured over to the battle of Flodden Field, and not one survived except the drummer, who was dismissed before the battle began. The whole troop had dressed in green, and since then it is likewise considered foolhardy in anyone bearing the name of Sinclair to wear green. I question whether we are entitled to eat green peas, or to drink green tea, and whenever a Sinclair loses his purse, it must of course have been of the objectionable colour.”
Source: Catherine Sinclair 'Shetland and the Shetlanders' - published 1840

Thomas Telford built the road from the Ord to Wick between 1808 and 1812. The Ord bridge was built about 1820. This eliminated the precipice route. The Ord road has since been upgraded many times but is still regarded as a challenging road to drive especially between Navidale and the hairpin bend at the Berriedale Braes

Helmsdale Information

 Memorial to John Welsh The tablet was moved from the
 original site of his death about 500 mts NWof here and 
  built into this cairn when the road was widened.

“Up till the early years of the 19th century the road followed a giddy course across the face of the headland some 800 feet above the sea, and many are the grim tales associated with it. The old folks tell of one wild winter's night when the coach was blown off the road and hurled on the rocks below, and history records that robbers haunted the Ord till Sir Robert Gordon, who was acting as Regent for the young Earl of Sutherland, took summary action and hanged them on gibbets erected on the summit. Even the new road has not been without its tragedies. Near the boundary mark there is to be seen the memorial to John Welsh who perished in a snowstorm in 1878, on which is inscribed the sober injunction "Be ye also ready" and nearby there are several cairns to mark the last resting place of other victims of the Ord's fury.”

Snow on the Ord Road

The Blizzards of 1978
A retired manager of the Ousdale farm told me of his own experience of a blizzard and heavy snow on the Ord road. Once when the road was blocked with up to 30 feet of snow, he had to bring the body of a traveller who had perished in a vehicle, back to Ousdale until the rescue services could access the farm. Where to keep the body safely was a most grim problem as hungry, half frozen rats were prowling. 
These cows in a blizzard are not at the Ord but are in the Highlands at Dunnet and show how cold a Highlands' blizzard can be. This is probaby more like the weather was when poor John Welsh perished.  Photo: David Glass

John Gunn 1787 – 1876 traversed the Ord on foot many times in his lifetime, both round the precipice route and along the Telford road. He survived the ever present hazards. My next blog will report on some hard working women who unfortunately didn’t.