Friday, April 22, 2016

The Strong Man - Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days – Article VIII - Part A

Article VIII written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 23 December 1880 – Part A

Ruined Crops

Farmers in the upper parts of the parish of Halkirk suffer much at times from late harvests. These upland districts are liable to early frosts which frequently come when the crops are green and consequently render them comparatively useless. Tenants are thus deprived of seed corn for the spring, and they have to get supplies from other districts of the county. 

Thurso River at Halkirk in winter

Gerston Water near Halkirk

On one of these occasions, when the crops were all blighted, “Alister Macheorish” whose farm was situated in the upper part of Halkirk, was deprived of his seed-corn by an early frost, but being told that Captain Sutherland of Mey had good corn, he got ready two horses, and a man to accompany him to Mey, to get some of the captain’s grain. Alister and the Captain were not on the best of terms the last time they met, which was at the Georgemas when Alister called the Captain an ugly name, which greatly incensed him, but soldier and all as he was, he dare not challenge his opponent to a fight.

Castle of Mey. This castle has a long history 
and would not have looked much like this at the 
time of the story

Cattle in the grounds of the Castle of Mey

On Alister arriving at Mey, the Captain received him with all seeming kindness and friendship, inviting him to his house which invitation was accepted. The captain showed his guests in before him to the parlour, and on entering himself he locked the door on the inside on himself and his guest, whom he invited to be seated, after which he opened a press and drawing out a sword, stepped up in front of Alister, and asked him if he was as good a man today as he was the last day he met him at the Georgemas. Gunn sprang to his feet, seized a chair by the top rails, and putting himself in an attitude of defence,if not of defiance, he replied he was quite as good then as he was when they last met. 
John Thurso,Trustee,Castle of Mey,with a large sword! 

The brave Captain was rather surprised, and not a little frightened at the boldness of his opponent, and considering discretion the better part of valour, cooled down, asking his friend to sit down, while he put back his sword without drawing a single drop of blood. Then getting his bottle, he entertained Gunn with a quaich or two of Highland whisky, and  gave instructions at the same time to fill the sacks with the best seed corn in his barn with which he sent Alister home, and for which he refused to take any payment. It need hardly be said that there never was a dispute between these two men afterwards, but they lived on the most intimate and friendly terms.

Alister though possessed of such great bodily strength, did not live to be an old man, but died in the prime of life, from the effect of an injury he received. While he was assisting the miller of the district and others in bringing a millstone to the mill through the river they a [shelf] just where the stone sank and stuck. Alistar went forward and putting his arm through the eye of the stone lifted it up and carried it to the dry ground from whence it was conveyed to its destination. The effect proved too much even for his great strength and was the means of sending him to a premature grave.

As already said that while he was possessed of much prodigious strength, he was a quiet, kind and obliging man and much respected by all who knew him. He was a tall handsome man fully six feet and was the first in Caithness who wore the shepherd tartan plaid. He was never married but was engaged to the beauty of Caithness, a Janet Gunn who afterwards became Mrs William McKay a much respected and widely known woman throughout the whole country.

Donald, Alister’s brother had a large farm also in the Strathnaver district and after Alister’s death Donald made up his mind to set out and go to Canada to try his hand to farming in that distant land. In those days emigrants from Caithness for the Americas embarked at Scrabster. The ships called on their way out at Cromarty then at Scrabster - Note: The scan is almost impossible to read but I will transcribe from another article next blog.

Note: The variations in names for the same person:
  • Alister Macheorish
  • Alaster Gunn
  • Alaster M’Horish
  • Alaster M’Hearish
  • Alexander Gunn

Gunn Clansman by McIan

My Comments:

More legends of Alistar and his brother Donald:

The following article was written later by Alexander Gunn and amplifies some of his comments above. The entire article can be found at:
 History of the Clan Gunn. Supplement. Twelfth Instalment. By Thomas Sinclair, M.A.

Mad Bull

Their father’s name was George, and he was tacksman of Dalnaglaton. Alaster, when born was a weakly child, so much so that for a long time he was cradled in wool in a sort of basket, but after some time he began to thrive, and as he grew in years he grew in strength. 

While a mere lad Donald and he were sent to the wood for a load of ‘cabers’ to repair the house. During their absence the bull went mad, and their mother for fear he would meet them on their way home and attack them unawares, climbed onto the roof of the house, and as the lads approached the house with their burden of sticks warned them. The infuriated animal, on seeing them, made straight for them. Alaster took a caber out of the bundle, and arranged with his brother that when the bull came up, Donald was to turn and retreat. Donald retreated, and just as the bull was passing Alaster, he dealt him a stroke along the back, which caused him to fall as if he had been shot, and he never rose. It was found afterwards that every rib was broken away from the backbone. This was the first of Alaster’s exploits.
A caber is a tapered tree pole that is these days used at a traditional Scottish athletic event

Big man with a caber! Caber_Toss Wikipedia

When he died Alistar left a young woman to whom he was engaged to mourn his decease in early manhood, Janet Gunn of the M’Hamishes of Kildonan Strath. She was the beauty of Caithness, whose comeliness was celebrated in a song which ran thus, 
‘Is boyach am boronach Sheonag Guine a ro horo is nich horo,’ and so on. 
She, however was not to die an old maid, but married William Mackay, farmer of the Braelaid, Braemore, for many a year. They had a large family, and both died there. I was in the house once and remember well the appearance of the goodwife. She bore even then, though well up in years, traces of her youthful charms. The Braelaid people were possessed of numerous cattle, sheep and goats. They were followed in the farm by descendants.

Captain James Sutherland

Captain James Sutherland was 5th Lord Duffus in 1826 and had a tack of the estate of Mey from 1772 to 1786.

Spittal Hill Market

When Gunn says the Captain was brave in settling with Alistar, the background is that Alistar, who had a life-long reputation of great strength, had a previous encounter at the Spittal Hill market with Captain Sutherland, where armed with an oak club Alistair broke the Captains sword in pieces and drove the hilt into his hand then let him go instead of killing him. The captain was shamed and rode off in disgrace.
Source: Gunn, Robert. “The Strong Man of Dalnaglaton.” In Tales from Braemore Caithness legends and mysteries, Dunbeath: Whittles, 2008.

Licentious behaviour!

James Sutherland, 5th Lord Duffus (1747-1827) (restored 1826), who died unmarried. He eloped in December 1771 with the seventeen-year-old Lady Mary Hay, the daughter of the Earl of Erroll, Hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland, and the wife of Major-General John Scott; she was divorced by her husband, Sutherland's colonel at the time. He abandoned her, never married, and recognized 10 illegitimate children in his will. However, he is said to have at least 60 illegitimate children. The barony was claimed by the nearest heir male (and also by the 5th Lord's nephew):

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Shilling: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part E

Article IV written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 14 October 1880 – Part E

St Andrews Cathedral in 1845  - Hill and Adamson

“Happily these things [superstitions] have passed away from amongst us, and I daresay we feel rather ashamed of ourselves that we should have been so silly as to have countenanced them at all. One reason for these superstitious ideas lingering so long amongst people was the limited intercourse there was with the outer world. The only means of travelling was on foot, or by the mail coach, a luxury which only the rich could indulge in. I have known students trudging it all the way to Aberdeen or St. Andrews to prosecute their studies.”

University of St Andrews Fife
The University of St Andrews is the oldest in Scotland, 
having been officially established in 1413. 

Elphinstone Hall Kings College Aberdeen.

“The only conveyance by sea was a small sailing craft, the “Janet” of Leith, which was neither safe nor speedy. I have known people detained three weeks on the passage between Wick and Leith, and at times they had some very narrow escapes from shipwreck. This craft did not always escape as she went down with all on board one stormy night, which I remember well as she rested on anchor in Portmahomack Bay.”

Tarbat Ness Portmahomack Lighthouse

Stormy Day at Portmahomack Harbour

“Travelling was so little practised in those days that a sight of a live person who had been to Edinburgh and back was considered as great a wonder as the sight of a white elephant. They were looked up to with as much reverence and awe as if they had descended from the stars.”

“There was another shipwreck about this time on our coast the Freemason of Findhorn bound for the southern market with a cargo of herrings from Wick…was embalmed in a fog off the shore…The crew aware that they were in danger…..left the ship….”

My Comments:

I cannot decipher any more from the scan I have access to, but more of Alexander Gunn's article is quoted elsewhere:

“Another shipwreck about this time on our coast was that of the 'Freemason' bound for the southern markets with a cargo of herring from Wick. My father (John Gunn) was engaged to look after the wreck and discharge the cargo which was done without loss, the weather continuing fine, but the ship was holed and remained to be smashed against the cliff shore. I handled my first shilling at this time. When Mr Davidson, owner of either the ship or the cargo or both, was settling with my father, he presented me with a shilling to my great joy, and it took no small skill and perseverance on the part of my mother, to get possession of it lest I should drop it or lose it.”   Source: Roydhouse Archives

The Herring Industry, Wick

The Shilling

Alexander Gunn had the most extraordinary memory. The facts of the two shipwrecks he talks about, are confirmed in newspaper articles, but as Alexander was born on 3 Dec 1820 and the wrecks happened in 1824 and 1826 he was only a wee bairn of 4 and 6 years old at the time. The gift of the shilling was obviously a very significant event in both Alexander’s young life and for his family where money was so scarce – I can well imagine his mother Marion’s concern to keep the coin safe.
Sandy (or James) Linton, his boat and bairns.jpg

The “Janet”

The loss of the Janet on 24 Nov 1826 was reported in Leith on 1 Dec 1826:

The Janet, of this port, a regular trader to Helmsdale, is totally lost in the Murray Frith (Moray Firth), and it is feared all on board drowned. She had on board a number of passengers.


The “Freemason”

The list of shipwrecks for 1824 confirms the Freemason


Several newspapers briefly reported the loss of the Freemason

“….the ship was driven ashore and wrecked between Helmsdale, Sutherland and Berriedale, Caithness in mid-November. Her crew were rescued. The Times, London 25 Nov1824

The Freemason of Findhorn was wrecked last week between Helmsdale and Berriedale. The crew and great part of the cargo saved.
Aberdeen 20 Nov 1824

Canmore also notes from the Marine List, the loss of the Freemason, stating she was classified as a sloop, with a cargo of herrings. The vessel was wrecked at Achnacarry (Achnacraig) between Helmsdale and Berriedale. The date of loss was 10 Nov 1824.

The Moray Firth looking out to sea near Achnacraig

Travel to Edinburgh

Backing up the wonder with which a visit to Edinburgh invoked, my mother Joy McLeod, recalled her grandfather Alexander McLeod telling her he had helped drive a mob of sheep from Caithness to Edinburgh and thinking he had arrived at fairyland

Whilst this old map is hard to read – it is divided into three sections and shows the route from Tain to Wick. It also shows the miles to be covered to reach Edinburgh – a long way on foot.