Article XIII written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 4 March 1880 – Part C
Berriedale Worthies - A Lady Celebrity - Catherine McPherson“I will close my list of notable persons in Berriedale by introducing to your readers a lady friend - and though last, not least - Widow McPherson, the "howdy," a person much and deservedly respected in the district. There were no doctors at hand in those days, there being no medical man between Helmsdale and Lybster, a distance of upwards of 20 miles, so that Mrs McPherson's services were in request, on interesting occasions, in all that district. Well do we remember the cheery, tidy old woman, as she used to introduce "the young stranger" to the members of the family, and the answers she gave to the question "Where did the young stranger come from?" During all Mrs McPherson's practice in the district, it is said that she never had a case which ended fatally; and when from failing health, she relinquished her position she was followed to her retirement by the best wishes and sympathies of the public.”
My Comments:In Scotland, the ‘howdie’ or ‘howdy’ was a woman who tended mothers at home at the birth of their baby. Sometimes the howdie would also have other nursing duties but their main work was with childbirth. At the time Catherine McPherson was working howdie’s did not have formal midwifery training but would have had the knowledge and wisdom needed passed down from other women.
|Old cradle and wooden box bed at Strathnaver Museum. I am not so sure how traditional the pink curtains were.|
|Extract from Orkney Archive Midwifery Account book|
“I lived in the hoose afore the bairns were born. There wis naebiddy there bit me. Sometimes, if there wis a neighbour handy she wid come in, bit fairms is usually on their ain an it wis maistly cotter hooses or fairms. It wis aa fowk at mebbe wisna weel aff. The weel aff fowk could aford mebbe somebody better. There wis nae midwife. They ca'ed ye the howdie. Fan ye arrived they said, 'Are you the howdie?' I aye kent in time afore. Usually they were needin some help especially fan there wis some little eens. Then ye stayed, sometimes a wik sometimes mair, sometimes ye didna hae time to spare but ye aye hid aboot a wik wi them or ten days. I did quite a lot, some o the names, I canna even min.”
Doddie Davidson in Lindsay Reid, Scottish Midwives: Twentieth Century Voices, Dunfermline, Black Devon Books, 2008. http://www.electricscotland.com/culture/features/scots/poetry2.htm
Superstitions around birthBecause childbirth was such a perilous time for both the mother and baby there were many superstitions around a baby’s birth. For Catherine never to have had a fatality with a birth she attended was obviously a remarkable achievement and something important Alexander Gunn remembered about her years later. In Scotland, not only did the howdie actually deliver the baby into the world she also made sure various superstitions to protect the mother and baby were adhered to. There was a real fear that the fairies might steal the baby and substitute a changeling for it. So knots in the mother’s clothing were untied, doors and windows were unlocked to make the passage of the baby into the world easier, mirrors were turned over, empty cradles were rocked which was seen by some to be good
“If you rock the cradle empty - Then you will have babies plenty”
but others thought this was a dangerous practice. Iron and fire were also regarded as protection with say a nail knocked into the wood of the mother’s bed or fire carried in a circle round the mother.
|Empty cradle Thurso museum|
The howdie also buried the placenta and sometimes planted a rowan tree in the spot.
Catherine McPhersonWhat have I found about Catherine McPherson aka Catherine Sutherland?
Catherine was born in Berriedale in 1763. I have not been able to locate her birth record. Her father was William Sutherland (yes another one) and her mother Isabella McGrigor.
Catherine married John McPherson of Helmsdale on 5 Jan 1792. Catherine was living in Ausdale at that time. What was Ausdale like then? According to the following report life was more comfortable at Ausdale in the late eighteenth century than it was in the nineteenth century – for tenants anyway.
Bishop Pococke’s visited Ausdale in 1761 and later wrote about the good tea and food at the Ausdale Inn:
We asked if we could have good milk…
‘You shall have plenty of that, Gentlemen,’ said the Landlady. Accordingly she had the servant fetch us a large cog of milk, and set it upon the table with a large spoon, and then said, ‘Here is the milk, Gentlemen, and skim off ye cream for yourselves.’
And indeed, it was the very best of milk, fresh and cool, clean and in good order; and never was there better fresh and powdered butter than she regaled us with, which spread upon good oatcakes made a noble repast. Till the tea kettle got ready I stepped out the door to look about me and see what I could spy, when, behold, I saw two women moving towards the house in a most leisurely way, step by step, each having a large vessel or broad cog of milk between her hands taken instantly from the cows. Secondary Source: Roydhouse 1977
Ausdale itself was occupied by some eight tenant families until the end of the eighteenth century. Several of these families were Sutherlands and related to each other. Catherine probably had a stable early life and she certainly would have had kin around her. It was not until the introduction of sheep farming and the resultant evictions and upheavals that the quality of life deteriorated so badly for Langwell tenants.
Catherine’s husband John McPherson was described in her death certificate as a farmer but that term is difficult to interpret accurately and may have meant John tenanted anything from a few acres to having simply worked for a landowner.
Catherine gave birth to a daughter about 1806 in the Latheron parish and named her Isabella after her own mother, as was the custom. Isabella McPherson married William Bruce on 16 Feb 1830. They were both living at Berriedale. William Bruce became a Blacksmith. Their children were Robert, Janet, Esther & George. See previous blog on William Bruce the Blacksmith.
My guess is that Catherine probably delivered her own grandchildren. I base that hunch on the fact that there were not many available midwives. The 1841 census shows, as well as Catherine, one young woman midwife at Lybster and one old woman midwife at Dunbeath. Besides, Catherine would have wanted to make sure her own daughter was safely delivered of her babies.
|Detail from David Allan's "Scottish Highland Family."|
By the time we catch up with Catherine in the 1841 census she is very old – 80 and living alone. She is using her maiden surname Sutherland and describes herself as a Midwife – possibly still doing some howdie work. The census doesn’t say she is a widow but she probably was. Catherine is living between the Langwell workers cottage and the Berriedale Inn, with Isabella, William and the family in the Smithy at Berriedale, almost next door – close enough to keep in touch with each other.
|Geikie - showing three generations together|
|Latheron showing the church yard lower right.||Latheron Church yard|