Highland Archives


By Stephen Cashmore

He was born into an ancient and noble family whose ancestors had held earldoms by force of arms. His birthplace was a castle whose founds bathed their feet in the cold waters of a wild and beautiful northern firth. A man of restless activity, his public laurels included presidency of the Highland Society, Colonel of the Caithness and Rothesay Fencibles, President of the Board of Agriculture and Privy Councillor. A Member of Parliament at 26, he had held his seat for 30 years until acceptance of the post of Commissioner of Excise obliged him to resign it. A true son of his time, he had travelled all over Europe enquiring into anything and everything that might advance his own country's material progress. The great Raeburn had painted his likeness. It shows a tall, long-shanked individual with the haughty features of an old Roman consul, an aristocrat to his finger-ends, justly proud of his ancestry and his achievements. Such was Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, improver, statistician, agriculturist, ambassador and politician. But what had he done for his own back yard?

When George Sinclair's only son drew his first breath in Thurso Castle on May 10th 1754, the little sea-port across the river was far from prosperous. The town's economy was almost entirely local, a hum-drum round of barter and bargain making between neighbours and fellow citizens, with little to break the circle except a trickle of Scandinavian trade. Nothing worth exporting was made in the town. In circumstances like these a living may be earned, but no one makes any real money. Stagnation blighted the place. The streets were narrow and mean; there were very few houses of note; the whole place had a tired and weary air suggestive of terminal decline. Thurso's only positives were the presence of 1600 people to sustain a local economy; and its river-mouth situation. Here 100-ton ships could anchor in relative safety, a distinct advantage in a county without a single purpose-built harbour.

Out of town, in the wide Caithness countryside, the Sinclair estate stretched across the county. One hundred thousand acres of mainly treeless, featureless ground without proper roads, studded with treacherous bogs. An unproductive land, fit only for grazing small black cattle and a few pygmy sheep, scrawny beasts more lean than fat, it was home to 800 or so small tenant farmers, who grubbed a meagre living from the fertile margins of these profitless acres. Of late a little money had become available to pay the rent, but mostly the farmer squared his debts with corn, eggs, chickens, a pig or two, and other articles in kind. While this feudal system kept the wolf at bay, it was no road to wealth, and in those days of infant Capitalism, wealth generation was becoming a dynamic force in British society. A man might own a vast estate over which his forebears had ridden in pursuit of deer or wild boar, but unless that land could now be utilised to generate financial profit, the owner was looked upon as a waster. Slowly, the old land-owning aristocracy was beginning to lose ground to the abstract forces of money.

By the time John Sinclair was 50 years old, the world outside his castle windows had changed almost beyond recognition, a change due in no small measure to the Laird of Ulbster himself. All over the estate wet land had been drained, stony ground had been cleared of rocks, common rough grazings had been enclosed, fertilised and seeded with succulent grass; there were new farmhouses, cottages, mills and bleaching fields. Thurso boasted wide, paved streets and a new harbour were planned. Prosperous small farms, whose owners experimented endlessly in novel methods of increasing agricultural production, bordered the Thurso River. Up river, at Halkirk, a new village was projected, 55 plots laid out within a rigid street grid, the first of its kind anywhere in Britain. Financial muscle, determination and a contagious entrepreneurial spirit had brought about all these improvements. Here are a few fine details of the changed state of Thurso parish.

Within sight of his castle, on Clardon Hill, Sir John had erected a tower in memory of a pitched battle fought there in 1196. In this bloody encounter Harald the Younger, a Caithness earl, was killed fighting with the forces of a turbulent Viking called Harald Maddadson. Towers were fashionable at the time, especially ones dedicated to some heroic individual. John Sinclair's own farm was Thurso East. Here he had walled and fertilised its six hundred acres, including the old common grazings, which had now been divided and let to industrious tenants. The public road that had cut through the centre of the farm had been re-routed to suit the new field boundaries, Sir John using his influence among the local gentry to get this important change made.

Neighbouring Thurso East was Mount Pleasant, sixty acres of arable land. Once this ground had yielded a meagre 70 pence an acre rent; now in its improved state the rentable value had increased six-fold. A man Mathers rented the farms of Spring Park and Dixonfield. He lived in a fine new farmhouse at Spring Park. A hard-working man, Mr Mathers had recently taken on Dixonfield, which he had transformed from a dismal waste into eighty acres of fertile fields where animals cropped lush grass and corn waved in the Caithness breeze. And this transformation had been achieved in three months of ditching, soil moving, liming and burning.

Following enclosure and ploughing up of its common land under Sir John's directions, Oldfield, which included Mount Vernon, had been let to a Colonel Williamson, described as a 'respectable occupier'. Close by the town of Thurso, on the east side of the river, a twenty-five acre field once lay barren and neglected. John Sinclair ploughed up and fenced this poor tract, then let it to a certain Dr Manson of Thurso. This gentleman built himself a modern cottage and, out of vanity perhaps, christened his new tenancy 'Mansontown.'

In distant Leicestershire, agriculturists had developed a method of burning the surface of unproductive land, before lacing the soil liberally with a mixture of lime and manure. This tried and tested technique was applied to fifty-two acres of cold, wet-bottomed clay on the Thurso outskirts, justifiably known as Clay-field. And lo! where nothing but a smattering of thistles and hardy weeds had grown since time out of mind, healthy crops now sprung up, raised as if by a magician's hand.

Before John Sinclair's time eight small tenants occupied the farm of Stainland. The landlord took the farm into his own hands, fenced it, ploughed the ground, then let it to William Shireff, who may have been an incomer from Aberdeenshire. The lease being long and the rent moderate, persuaded Mr Shireff to build a fine new farmhouse on the property. Stainland was not an unconditional bargain, however - John Sinclair required that his tenant improve his land by liming or marling a certain number of acres year on year. This was designed not only to enhance the value of Stainland, but to serve as an example to the rest of the Caithness farming fraternity of what hard work and modern rural science could achieve.

All these fields filled with ripe corn brought into sharp focus the lack of decent mills in Thurso parish. For 50 the deficiency was supplied. On one of the Stainland haughs beside the river, a sturdy building with a tapering roof, like a bottle's neck, appeared. This was the miller's house. Next to it was the water-driven mill containing the machinery necessary for grinding all the corn that flowed in from the farms round about. The Stainland mill appears to have been a useful facility, even if smoke was prone to hang about the chimney of its strange shaped house.

Although the thrust of John Sinclair's policy was to encourage agricultural development by making decent sized parcels of land available on long-term leases at moderate rents, he did not neglect the needs of small farmers. Just south of Stainland a thirty-acre tract was improved and divided into a number of what would now be termed crofts. This patchwork colony of cottage farms was known as Bainstown. Adjacent to Bainstown the heralds of a new farming style were busily munching grass on the banks of the River Thurso.

Geise Little covered sixty acres. In the farmhouse lived Colonel Williamson, a forward-looking man who realised that in Thurso's growing population he had a ready local market for fresh meat. Accordingly he put Geise Little under grass and imported a flock of Cheviot sheep. Within a year legs of lamb and mutton chops were gracing Thurso dining tables. The depopulating effect of Highland sheep farming is too well known to bear repetition here, but it is only fair to say that the policy of amalgamating a number of small farms into one large one probably did as much to drive folk from the land. Sir John Sinclair was well aware of this and did what he could to prevent it by parcelling out as much land as possible into small holdings, like those at Bainstown. Nevertheless, the slow human haemorrhage from the countryside continued.

When it came to getting the best return from farming the proprietor of the Ulbster estates believed in a few down-to-earth maxims. Chief among these was that every tenant should have exclusive possession of his own farm, and that possession must be backed by sufficient money capital. Dependence on credit was a thing to be avoided, as was taking on more land than one could manage. Better to farm fifty acres well than make a hash of a hundred was John Sinclair's advice. Farmers must have prior knowledge of their profession, which they should practise to the best of their abilities. Most importantly the tenant was to look upon his landlord as a friend, a person whose best interests were much as such with the farmer's own.

Visible proof of these fresh agricultural ideas was to be seen on the west side of the River Thurso. At Thurdistoft the long lease granted to Captain James Henderson had encouraged him to bring the whole of his sixty acres into an improved state of cultivation. His neighbour, a Mr Paton, had set up a bleachfield on his small farm on the banks of the Thurso, a valuable addition to a district where an embryonic linen industry had taken its first experimental steps. Nearby Glengolly boasted first class soil, but drainage problems had restricted its arable component to just half of the farm's seventy-five acres.

Another seventy-five acre farm was Whitefield, the house of which was one of the finest for miles around. Whitefield's shallow soil may have broken many farmer's hearts, but not the present tenant. George Miller was a man of great energy, hard working and unafraid to try new methods. Mr Miller also farmed Howe where he was busily converting one hundred acres into a productive unit. These exertions were as nothing, however, compared to an undertaking George Miller had recently embarked upon. Upper Howe, or George Town, was two hundred acres of common hill grazing. Its new tenant proposed to turn the whole patch into arable land fit for crop growing. This task was reckoned 'the greatest attempt of the sort by any farmer in the northern parts of Scotland'. Already half of the ground had been tamed and cultivated.

Then there was Geise with its marl bed and its fine garden, tended by the occupier Mrs McLean. Next door two new farms, Janetstown and Henderland, had been formed under the stewardship of Captain John Henderson. Captain John also rented Aimster's two hundred and eighty acres, where he had built a new house and offices. An ancient Caithness family farmed Buckies. John Davidson too, occupied a new house on his tenancy and had just turned thirty-four waste acres into arable ground.

Another Miller, Daniel, occupied Skinnet, whose three hundred acres had for long been a conglomeration of small farms. Half-heartedly looked after, under-capitalised and tenanted by folk, many of who had occupations other than farming, the Skinnet lands had been combined into one large unit. Four acres of Skinnet had been laid out as a nursery; a plantation was planned for a further seventy-two acres. And the previous tenants, those small-time subsistence farmers who had eked out a hand-to-mouth living beside the banks of the Thurso? You didn't have to go far to find them.

When the old common grazings on the hills of Skinnet and Lieurary were divided up, some two thousand acres of them fell to Sir John Sinclair. This division coincided with the end of the lease on the arable lands adjoining the commons, a circumstance that enabled Sir John to put one of his many schemes into practice. Large parcels of arable land were let out to individual tenants as long-lease farms; the rest of the ground was carved up into small lots under the following terms.

Each small farm covered about twenty-five acres, one acre of which was intended for the house and garden. The rest was split into four-acre fields, designed for a six-year rotation of crops; grass, hay, pasture and fallow ground. Leases ran for twenty-one years with rent stable for the first seven to enable the farm to develop. After this the rent was increased year on tear for the term of the lease. This, Sir John reasoned, would encourage the tenants to improve their land so as to offset the increased rental. On entry into his lease every tenant was given money to assist him to build a farmhouse, enclose his land &c. This money he was expected to stand security for. One strict condition was enforced - sheep could not be kept without permission of John Sinclair himself. The Proprietor regarded these animals as being a menace on small farms, destroying hedgerows and small trees. The great Cheviot was reserved for the large stretches of ground at Rumsdale, Glutt and especially Langwell, where they had displaced some three hundred human beings.

By the above method some fifty small farms were created on the old Skinnet and Lieurary grazings. The first year was hard, straw and hay having to be made available for foddering the newcomers horses and cattle until their own crops could be harvested. Yet despite this, some improvements were reported to have been made. Rough ground was levelled and ploughed, stone dyked enclosures appeared, small farmsteads sprung up as if growin out of the ground.

Further along the Thurso's west bank were the lands of Brawll, with its seven-acre gardens, and Gerston, home of Captain George Swanson, another noted improver. These farms bordered on the suburbs of Halkirk, where the river was bridged. A woollen manufactory, of which great things were expected, had just opened in this fledgling village which had a church, a school and a house, where a man named William Homes lived, six miles from Thurso and beyond the frontier of this brief account of agricultural improvements in Thurso parish two hundred years ago.


Highland Archives Index


Steven Cashmore 1999

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