Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tinkers: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part A

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northen Ensign on 13 January 1881 – Part A

Ewen MacPhee is about to make an interesting 
discovery amongst the Badbea heather !


"How does it happen that Caithness is, and has been, pestered with the wandering tribes of tinkers that have been such a scourge to the community from time immemorial! Badbea had its regular visitations from these migrating tribes, and as there was a kiln in the place which was common to all, the tinkers made it their own for the time being. We young folk were very fond of getting a glimpse of tinker life; and being often on the outskirts of their camp, many a curious scene we witnessed."

Walter Geikie 1795 - 1837

Keg of whisky hidden in the heather

"One scene in particular outstripped all the rest. On one occasion, as a troop of these tinkers were making for Badbea, in crossing over the hills, they stumbled on a keg of whisky which some of the Badbea folk had concealed among the heather for fear of the gauger. The Macfees (for this was the branch of the tribe who happened to come on the scene at this time), gave expression to their feelings at the find in a loud and joyous hurrah, and in less time than it takes me to write this, the end of the keg was stove in, and the Highland whisky was dealt around the company in tin jugs, and gulped down with the utmost relish. This was an opportunity to get jolly which seldom happened, and which the company was not disposed to allow to pass unimproved. To think that Mr Macfee, etc, could drink himself mortal drunk on good Highland whisky, and that free gratis for nothing, was an event in Providence which had never before occurred, and a long life might terminate and the same chance never occur again. Under all these circumstances need we wonder that the opportunity was embraced, and the best and most made of it?"

Good Luck

"Well I am not quite sure if the same good luck came the way of parties who would consider it an insult to be put on the same level as the tinkers, but they might have used much the same liberty as the tinkers did; but, be that as it may, we were startled that afternoon by seeing the tribe making towards their habitation, the kiln, all reeling and staggering in the most reckless manner, and those who were able to stagger along at all, were doing their best in dragging along others who were utterly helpless, and whom they laid down on the grass in front of the kiln. The balance of the whisky which was not consumed on the spot, was conveyed in pitcherfulls to the kiln, and the spree was there renewed till there was scarcely one amongst them, male or female, who was able to move out of the spot."

"Those who were not totally disabled lighted a fire, and began to cook the supper, which was made in a large tin (full made tins being what were used for pots) of thick gruel or “brochan.” One of these cooks or waiters came out to a female who lay dead drunk on the grass, with a large tin-dealer full of the gruel, and wanted the helpless woman to partake of it, but she was utterly regardless of her entreaties, which roused the spirit of the generous donor to such a degree, that she splashed the whole contents of the divider in the face of the poor unconscious woman, after which she re-entered the kiln and joined in the spree, and I can assure you that the tribe had a night of carousal, such as they never had before, and that we young folks were witnesses to scenes anything but edifying, and such as we would never wish to witness again."

I don’t know where these Tinkers lived when they were not travelling but there is a fascinating cave dwelling at Forse not far from Badbea. These pictures were posted by Jacktar on the Caithness forum. There was another occupied cave at Wick.

My Comments:

I will admit to be struggling a bit to comment on this article for several reasons. 

First, I really have no first-hand knowledge of the history of the clans or groups of people Alexander Gunn refers to as Tinkers. Even though he published his letter in 1881 the time this incident occurred must have been between 1830 and 1840. From the little research I have done there are several highly rated books that celebrate the history and lives of Travelling People in the 20th century. The Yellow on the Broom by Betsy Whyte published by Birlinn has good reviews. I haven’t yet found anything available as an e-book so am trying to locate something from another source to correct my ignorance in this area.  

Second, this whole article shows deep disdain for the people being written about, which I find deplorable. In some ways it seems to me not much different to the long past Scottish attitude that saw slavery acceptable. But as Scotland now recognises it was involved in the horrors of the slave trade I wonder if there is a similar awareness of their guilty past in attitudes to Tinkers or Travellers. 

So just a few observations from me about this story.

  • I can’t help smiling at the stroke of luck the Macphees had. In fact I love it. Of course they were going to party all night. Who wouldn’t? And Alexander Gunn hints that they could hardly be blamed for making the most of the opportunity. But he is still disparaging.

Travellers beside their camp fire, c1930s 
Am Baile facebook
Photograph courtesy of Highland Folk Museum

  • There is a bit of a double standard going on with the Badbea folk who distilled and hid the whisky  - needing the revenue from it to supplement their meagre incomes – but who probably would not have judged anyone who paid for and drank the stuff at an Inn even if the resulting behaviour was the same.   

Travellers setting up camp, c1930s 
Am Baile facebook
Photograph courtesy of the Highland Folk Museum

  • It seems peculiar that the Badbea villagers, who had been treated so badly by their landowners and found themselves without a roof over their heads were not a bit more accommodating to another group of people, who also spoke Gaelic, had nowhere to live and, as well, were struggling for survival. The Tinkers were allowed to use the common kiln at Badbea – which at times would have been warm and dry – but the villagers held a morally superior attitude. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Shipwreck - The Agent - Part D

Myths and Legends about the Shipwreck of 1807

Over the years myths and legends about the 1807 voyage and shipwreck of the Rambler of Leith proliferated.

Thurso about 1820 with Scrabster in the background

In 1896, the year before he died at age 76, Alexander Gunn was still writing letters to the Editor of the Northern Ensign about Caithness history and happenings. He responded to the debate in the papers of the day about whether or not, as was being claimed, those who drowned in the shipwreck of 1807 were Clearance victims or actually ‘better off’ households who had sold land and belongings to emigrate. Gunn gives evidence to support them being richer households. 

The Rambler known decades later as Lough More America

However, in this series of letters, Gunn and other correspondents have clearly got some facts wrong, the main one being a general consensus that the name of the vessel was the “Lough Mhore America” i.e. the “American Big Ship.”  Given that they all seem to agree on the date of the disaster being 1807 and agree on other details debated, I am sure enough that they are all talking about the Rambler of Leith which left Scrabster in 1807 with many passengers from the parishes of Reay, Halkirk and Latheron and was shipwrecked in Newfoundland. Some of the detail Gunn presents is probably a bit long-winded for this blog, but he does tell a few interesting anecdotes about people involved with the emigrant ship including Sinclair the Agent. As mentioned in the previous blogs Alexander Gunn had got a lot of his information about this shipwreck from the times he spent as a boy listening to the stories told by the old man Dannal M’Hearish.

 The Meadow Well in Thurso was the main source of water for hundreds of years. 
It was where people not only drew water but where they congregated to exchange news.

Sinclair the Agent

“It is here to be mentioned that the Caithness agent for the “Lough Mhore America” was Mr Donald Sinclair, tacksman of Isauld, and an extensive merchant in Thurso. He had a respectable reputation, and had extensive dealings throughout the midlands and Highlands of the country. Most of the people of the Highlands had little or no education at that time, and never saw a newspaper in their lifetime, and, with very few exceptions, knew very little of the outside world beyond the bounds of Caithness.” 

Immigration to Canada Ad promoting cheap land in Canada. 
The Globe Toronto 1898
"Mr Donald Sinclair, true to his calling as an agent for the “Lough Mhore America,” did his duty faithfully by declaring to the Highlanders the wonderful fruitfulness of the American land, which land he pretended, was as the land of Goshen, and exceeded that of Canaan; that each emigrant could have as many square miles of that fruitful land as he wished for the taking of it, and that a very few years of occupation was sufficient to make up an unlimited fortune, and recommended all his friends and well wishers to bestir themselves and rise boldly and go and possess the good land that Providence had put within their reach, without money and without price. All the sayings of Mr Sinclair were accepted as gospel truth, and consequently an emigration fever got hold of the minds of the people, like a wave of revival, and more particularly among the wealthiest class of tenants, who threw off their farms and sold off their farmstocking and prepared themselves for the arrival of the ‘Lough Mhore America.” 

The Emigrants
A romanticised image of a family of noble Highland ancestry departing for New Zealand. 
It is an example of the adoption of Highland identity by many emigrating Scots.

Source: John Wilson, ‘Scots’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/scots

"This vessel arrived at Scrabster Roads and was taking passengers on board on Friday of the Thurso Marymas market, 1807, and on the following day (Saturday) all the passengers were complete on board ship."

Emigrant ship between decks. 
Source: Illustrated London News, August 17, 1850

"On that day a snow storm, with heavy snow drift, broke out which destroyed all the corn crop in the country. The ship was wind bound at Scrabster Roads for ten days, and thereafter she proceeded on her voyage, which was a long one, and she was wrecked on the Banks of Newfoundland where all were lost except three."
Source: The History of the Clan Gunn Extracts 1896  29 July 1896 pgs 274 – 277

"Donald, the third son, [of Barbara, second daughter of William Campbell one-time tacksman of Ausdale, and her husband William Sinclair of Shurrey] as already mentioned, was merchant in Thurso, and was the Caithness agent for the “Lough Mhore America.” 

Isauld is a hamlet in Caithness near Reay. 
A view looking to the northeast from the A836 towards hay bales in a field near Isauld. 
Dounreay Nuclear centre can be seen in the background.

Tacksman's debt saves the Agent's life

"He also was tacksman of the farm and lands of Isauld, which farm proved to him to be a losing concern. Consequently during his occupancy he only paid yearly what rent he found the farm to be actually worth, and allowed the balance, which he held to be unjust rack rent, to remain unpaid. This unpaid balance from year to year stood as arrears against him, for which payment was demanded and refused. Under the circumstances, Mr Sinclair concluded that stepping quietly on board the “Lough Mhore America” and taking his passage across the Atlantic was the easiest and most just way to square with the laird. However, Mr Sinclair’s plans got wings and came to the ears of George Jeffery, Esq., Edinburgh, commissioner for the proprietor, who applied to the Sheriff of the country for a warrant to apprehend Mr Sinclair, which warrant was granted and put into force. Therefore Mr Sinclair had to pay what he regarded as being an unjust claim against him, which business was finally settled on September 20th, 1807. Consequently Mr Sinclair had to give up the idea of crossing the Atlantic in the ill-fated “Lough Mhore America.”
Source: The History of the Clan Gunn Extracts 1896  pgs 286 – 288

The old Thurso Turnpike built in 1686, where the stage coaches used to start. 
The turret contains the stair. It is now restored. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Shipwreck - Passengers and Survivors – Article VIII - Part C

Passengers and Survivors

The brig Rambler of Leith was shipwrecked on the 29th October 1807 in the Bay of Bulls, Newfoundland. The ship was travelling from Scrabster, Thurso in Caithness to Pictou in Canada. She had on board 130 immigrant passengers, fourteen seamen plus the Captain and Surgeon. The only survivors were three passengers, the second mate and four seamen. No passenger list has been located.

Bay of Bulls Lighthouse 2009

The Captain

The Captain did not survive. Reports say his name was James Morris Junior, a very promising young man only 21 years of age and his fate was to be greatly lamented. His father, Captain Norris Senior owned the Rambler. 21 years of age seems very young to have the Captaincy of an emigrant ship full of passengers for a far-off land. 

Bay of Bulls

The coast around the Bay of Bulls is remarkably similar to much of the rocky coastline around the north of Scotland. There are some fascinating photos on Google Earth.

Source: Newfoundland and Labrador by Gilpatrick & Gibson, Washington 1884

Jean Gunn Survivor

One of the survivors was Jean Gunn, daughter of Alex Gunn, Rumsdale, Strathmore.
The waves threw Jean Gunn up on the dry land. Noticing a man struggling in the water, she made strips of her dress and knotted them together and threw them to him and took him to land. This man was from Forsinard, Strathalladale. 

The third who saved his life was James, son of Donald Campbell, in Munsary, Watten.
Source: The History of the Clan Gunn Extracts 1896  29 July 1896 pgs 274 – 277

Three survivors

Alex Gunn of Rumsdale

Before Jean and her father  - Alex Gunn of Coilteal near Rumsdale - left Thurso, John Grant, one of “The Men”, told Alex Gunn that he would be drowned. A survivor said he heard Alex praying loudly in Gaelic just before the vessel was going to pieces, before his death. 

Another version of the story says that Alex Gunn, Rumsdale, Strathmore, a noted pious man, was singing the 46th Psalm when the ship was going down.
Source: History of the Clan Gunn, Supplement, Twelfth Instalment: Thomas Sinclair M.A. 
Note: The “Men” were a group of lay Christians in Caithness who were seen to be ‘most gifted and godly and who had enlarged views of God’s truth’ and often prophetic understandings. John Grant was regarded as the head of the “Men” of the far north and for him to suggest someone would be drowned would have been believed by many. 

PSALM 46  Vs. 1 & 2

God is our refuge and our strength,
in straits a present aid:
Therefore, although the earth remove,
we will not be afraid:

Though hills amidst the seas be cast:
Though waters roaring make,
And troubled be; yea, though the hills
by swelling seas do shake.

‘S e Dia as tèarmann dhuinn gu beachd,
ar spionnadh e ‘s ar treis:
An aimsir carraid agus teinn,
ar cobhair e ro-dheas.

Mar sin ged ghluast’ an talamh trom,
chan adhbhar eagail dhuinn:
Ged thilleadh fòs na slèibhtean
am buillsgean fairg’ is tuinn mòr’

Psalm 46. Verses I & 2, sung in Gaelic and recorded on the Isle of Lewis is on this link

Dannal M'Hearish

To recap, Dannal boarded the Rambler with his wife and children, then he got off for some reason and the ship sailed without him but took his wife and family. Was this a deliberate move by Dannal or just bad timimg? 

There are conflicted stories about Dannal M’Hearish. In the last blog we found that he loved to pick a fight.

“Donald was all fire, and seldom did he leave a market or marriage party without a fight.”

 Alexander Gunn suggested the possibility that Dannal’s marriage was not a happy one – not surprising if Dannal was so fond of a brawl. Maybe married life was not easy for Dannal’s wife and children. The article in the Scots magazine suggests Dannal had left a lot of money on board, in trust, with several other passengers. More than the regulations allowed. I wonder if Dannal’s planned intention was to desert his wife and children but at least to provide for their future in the new land.  Little is known about Dannal's wife and children except the Scots Magazine states there were several children, all natives of Caithness and they all perished in the shipwreck. 

Another possibility is suggested that Dannal had a premonition of the fate of the Rambler. That could well be if word had got around of John Grant’s prophecy to Alex Gunn of Rumsdale. But why would he leave the ship alone? 

The Scots Magazine reckons Dannal’s desertion of the ship was unintentional and he was ‘under the greatest agony’ when the ship went without him. I suppose it could be true that sitting in the crowded steerage for a few days waiting for a wind was too much for the ‘combative’ Dannal and he changed his mind. Too late. Captain Morris wasn’t cutting him any slack.  It was suggested that following his losses Dannal was begging from door to door for subsistence.

Alexander Gunn said that Dannal never set up housekeeping (nor presumably remarried) after this occurrence, but wandered over the country, and was made welcome wherever he went. He lived a wandering life for many years depending on friends and often visited the Gunns of Altnabreac where he told stories of the many desperate fights he used to have in days gone by.

Neither of these photos are Dannal but they both capture so well the characters of two old Highland men. They are both to be found with some comments on the am baile facebook page.
 'Davie Blow' from Tain, c1870s 

Fearchair a' Ghuna (Farquhar of the Gun),
The Ross-shire Wanderer in the early 1860s

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Shipwreck - Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days – Article VIII - Part B

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

Dannal M'Hearish aka Donald Gunn

"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.."

Thurso from  Mount Pleasant. Scrabster is on the right. 

Although the scan of the last part of this article is unreadable, fortunately Alexander Gunn had related much of the story elsewhere, and from the few words I can decipher in this version I am confident I can figure out what else is written. The following, published after Alexander Gunn's death, is from the History of the Clan Gunn, Supplement, Twelfth Instalment: Thomas Sinclair M.A. Northern Ensign 17 Feb 1903 
 Source: http://clangunn1.blogspot.co.nz/2012/08/sinclair-gunn-supplement-12-1721903.html

"Alaster was by no means a quarrelsome man, but his brother Donald was all fire, and seldom did he leave a market or marriage party without a fight. He used to say, ‘I raised the fights, but Alaster laid them.’ Had there been two Donalds in the family it is more than likely that Donald would have alluded to it in some way. It was always ‘Alaster mo brohar’ he spoke of, never any other brother if he had any. He lived a wandering life for many years depending on friends. I [Alexander Gunn] was with one of the Gunns of Altnabreac, where he often visited, and there came into contact with him." 

Scrabster and Dunnet Head 1930s. Source: Caithness.org

Emigrate to Canada

"Donald had made up his mind to emigrate to Canada, sold all his effects, and went on board ship at Scrabster Roads with wife and family. As the ship was about to sail he went ashore upon some pretence, made no effort to go aboard again, and the vessel sailed without him, so that Donald was left with nothing but the clothes on his back; no small loss, whatever prompted him to forfeit his all, as he was in very comfortable circumstances. It was hinted that his married life was not a very happy one; or would it be some presentiment of the fate that awaited this ship? She was wrecked (in 1807) on the Canadian Coast, and there was not a soul saved, although one report said that 6 or 8 survived. It was said to have been a very rich ship.…."

Shipwreck in the Bay of Bulls, Newfoundland

"The Canadian shipwreck has of late had notable illustration in the newspapers. Quotations by the Inverness Courier of 1901 from the Inverness Journal of 1807, describe the vessel as the brig Rambler of Leith, from Thurso to Pictou, September 1807, with 130 passengers, captain, surgeon and 14 seamen. The Bay of Bulls, Newfoundland, was the scene of the disaster; and, out of 146 persons, only 3 passengers, the second mate, and 4 seamen were saved, 29th October the date. The emigrants were all from Caithness, who, says the correspondent to the Inverness Journal, went voluntarily in the rage for emigration then prevalent. Captain Alexander Gunn, Braehour, held the same view of the case, asserting that there were no Clearance victims on board."

Alexander Gunn further wrote:

To The Editor of the Northern Ensign 14th August, 1896

"Being a herd boy with David Gunn, one of the Altnabreac Gunns, an old man Dannal M’Hearish (Donald Gunn), brother to Alister of that name, often came to the house and used to speak about that ship, with which he was closely interested. … Donald slept in the same bed with me when he came there, and I was always glad when he came, in listening to the stories he used to tell of the many desperate fights he used to have in days gone by. He never set up housekeeping after this occurrence, but wandered over the country, and was made welcome wherever he went."

My Comments:

A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts. During the Age of Sail, brigs were seen as fast and manoeuvrable and were used as both naval warships and merchant vessels. They were especially popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  

Wife and Children

Some thoughts must be spared for the wife and children of Donald Gunn who were on the ship and deserted by him. Life on board a sailing ship was cramped and very difficult but to have been deserted, under the circumstances must have been a nightmare for them. None of them survived. The following report, just three months after the disaster, confirms what Alexander Gunn wrote nearly ninety years later

Not Clearance Victims

Alexander Gunn published some other letters to the Editor of the Northern Ensign in a different series. Claims had been made that the passengers on the ship that went down were Clearance victims. Gunn refutes those claims stating that the passengers were mostly well-off people.

Some other interesting characters associated with this story, including the Caithness agent, are mentioned in other letters of Alexander Gunn. I will write about them next blog.