Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

NOSAS regularly make field visits to the Tarbat Ness area. When browsing through my archives recently I came across a review for a book “Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke 1833” by Hamish Mackenzie, which I had written for the Clan Mackenzie Magazine in October 2012. The review includes some lovely descriptions of the people and the settlements of Tarbat Ness two centuries ago; I make no excuse for quoting them in the review.  Apparently the book is still available from the Clan Mackenzie Society and the Amazon website but promoting it is not my primary intention here!


“Tain, Tarbet Ness and the Duke 1833” by Hamish Mackenzie

Book review, October 2012

The author of this book is to be congratulated on a fine piece of work, which, for anyone interested in the history of Ross-shire during the upheavals of the 19th Century, is essential reading. The book is very readable and has involved some original documentary research; it reveals an intriguing story. The tale emanates from a desire of the Duke of Sutherland to acquire lands in Ross-shire. Much of the original material was discovered in the Cromartie Muniments at Castle Leod and it is these papers which Hamish Mackenzie has so painstakingly studied – a labour of love indeed

By 1833 the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were the richest couple in Britain, owning estates in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Yorkshire, as well as the most part of Sutherland in Scotland. They were able to draw on the revenues of the coal and canal investments of their estates in the south and pour significant amounts of money into “improving” their Sutherland estates. Hamish Mackenzies book tells us: “the coastal strip along the east coast was occupied by a neat orderly landscape of 36 single tenant farms each with its courtyard of buildings set amongst squared fields”. The Duke was also responsible for building roads, bridges and harbours in the county. Not satisfied with this, in 1833 at the age of 75, he looked to acquiring more territory and his eye fell on Tain and the Tarbetness peninsular across the water from Dunrobin Castle. In the event the Dukes plans for the purchase of these lands did not come to fruition because he died later that year; but the legacy of the plan, that of the documents at Castle Leod, give a remarkable description of the landscape on the Tarbatness peninsular at that time.

George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland by Thomas Phillips

The book also gives an insight into some of the political intrigues, corrupt and otherwise, surrounding Tain and the area. The dealings of several colourful characters who were major players in the Counties of Ross and Cromarty are outlined; there was Donald McLeod of Geanies who at the grand old age of 87, after extending himself financially, had to sell his lands to settle debts. Donald was Sherriff of Ross-shire for many years and had played a significant part in the history of the county, he was a great “improver” and had taken a major part in putting down the controversial “sheep riots” in 1792 by bringing in military assistance when the common people rose up and protested at the “clearing” of land for sheep. Hugh Rose Ross, one of Tains’ benefactors, is seen in a different light when he has a major disagreement with the sitting MP for Ross-shire, James Alexander Stewart Mackenzie, husband of Mary Elizabeth Fredrica Mackenzie, the “last of the Seaforths”; letters to the Inverness Courier and demands for an apology resulted in challenges to a duel with “pistols at noon” at the Novar Gate!

The “agents” of the Duke of Sutherland at the time too are considered, among them James Loch and George Smith, but the one who must surely make the greatest impression is George S Taylor. He made a “clandestine” visit to the Tarbetness peninsular gathering information on the topography and state of the land and its tenants for the Duke. His report, in the Cromartie Muniments, is quoted widely in the book and gives a remarkable snapshot of the landscape, one which was perhaps not untypical of East Ross and the Black Isle at the time. He tells us:

  • “Meikle Tarrel, Taylor reported, is a splendid farm so far as the quality of the soil is considered; this fine farm however has no enclosures. All the land is open and the fields only separated from each other by a deep furrow. The farmer has erected a steam thrashing mill which is slated and appears substantially built with a tall brick chimney. The dwelling house is large, all slated, but the farm steading is inferior and the roof thatched with straw.

    Meikle Tarrel steading

  • “At the farm of Arboll there was an extensive steading covered with tiles, storehouses and houses for the farm servants and a tall brickbuilt windmill which is very conspicuous”
  • At several points Taylor noted concentrations of small tenants or cottars. “In Easter Ross generally their cottages are built of round small stones embedded in thick layers of clay and the gable ends are formed of straw and clay interwoven with upright posts”
  • “On the shore west of Portmahomack the small tenants were only permitted to cut the sea-weed at stated periods in the Spring for their potatoe land…..the crowd of persons on the shore was an unexpected and singular scene, full of bustle and life, all being anxious to work hard before the flowing of the tide. I counted upwards of 300 men and women engaged in pulling the weed; their horses and small carts were standing on the beach waiting to carry off what might be collected”

Portmahomack harbour (Canmore)

There are other interesting bits of information too, detailed descriptions of the fishing village of Portmahomack and its harbour and of Ballone and Loch Slinn Castles (Taylor was an antiquarian), and we learn that until 1810 horse racing took place annually on the commonty of Morrichmore (now part of the Tain bombing range). In addition there are some amusing, if concerning, anecdotes; “the landlady at the Portmahomack Inn apologised for the badness of the accommodation telling him that his bed was one in which three cholera patients had died”

Ballone Castle 1985 (HER)

Plan of Lochslin Castle 1870 (Canmore)

The book is amply illustrated with contemporary paintings and relevant pictures of people and places, most useful however is the sketch map drawn by George Taylor in 1833 in the centre pages; it gives a fascinating picture of ownership and landuse on the Tarbetness peninsular.

General oblique aerial view of Tain Airfield (Morrich More) with Inver, Portmahomack and Tarbat Ness beyond, looking E (Canmore)

This excellent book and its new research on an area of Easter Ross at a time of great upheaval and change is very welcome and well recommended.


1 thought on “Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke

  1. Hamish j Mackenzie

    Dear Meryl
    I am very grateful to you for such a flattering review of my book. You might like to know that it is available not just from the Clan Mackenzie Society but also from the Tain & District Museum, who are the printers and publishers, as well as one or two other local outlets. And, if you don’t mind a minor quibble, I am Hamish, not Hector, Mackenzie!
    I am nearing completion of a second book, about the Tain -based dynasty of architects, the Maitlands, and I am keen to contact you for some clarification on the Strathconon estate. If you could contact me on treleath@yahoo.co.uk I would be most grateful.
    Kind regards
    Hamish (not Hector! ) Mackenzie



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