Chapter Three: Knockfarrel and the Falkland Islands, 1859-90
The itinerant lifestyle of Colin and Isabella in Victoria and New Zealand was mirrored - in a minor way - by his older brother, Alexander (Sandy) and his wife, Ann, back in Scotland. Like Colin, Sandy was a shepherd, moving from one place of employment to another, taking his family with him. However, he did so in a more prescribed circle - within a radius of only some 20-30 miles - and with the further difference that at the centre of the circle, providing security and shelter when work was scarce and times were hard, lay the little croft of Ann's parents, Roderick and Hannah MacDonald, at Knockfarrel.
The conical hill known as Knockfarrel, which is topped by the remains of in Iron Age fort, forms part of a ridge, running east to west, that separates the little strath (valley) of the river Peffery from the much larger Conon River system to the south. On its northern flanks, Knockfarrel drops steeply into the strath, but to the south the decline is halted by the small plateau surrounding the waters of Loch Ussie. Knockfarrel, including a small strip of land on its southern flank, is in the parish of Fodderty and was a part of the Strathpeffer estate of the Mackenzies of Cromartie (an old landed family who had estates in Coigach in Wester Ross and Tarbat in Easter Ross as well). However, the bulk of the Lochussie basin was part of the Brahan estate of the Mackenzies of Seaforth.
On the southern flanks of Knockfarrel, in the section owned by the the Cromartie estate, a little group of families found refuge in the 1850s. Having been expelled in 1843 from that part of Strathconon owned by the Balfour family, the men had gone south to work as railway navvies. In 1850 the men returned to Mid Ross with savings in their pockets, and made a bid for individual tenancies on a piece of rough ground that the factor of the Cromartie estate was finding difficult to lease as a single farm. The crofting 'township' of Knockfarrel (known to the Cromartie estate as 'Gower') therefore came into existence by way of a communal initiative. Sandy Munro joined the tight little community of Cononachs in Knockfarrel as a result of his marriage in 1856, and was welcomed into the MacDonald household both as a son-in-law and an extra pair of hands to help turn their seven acres of rough moorland into a working croft
Sandy and Ann spent the first eight or nine years of their marriage living on the MacDonald's croft at Knockfarrel, although Sandy may have spent some time away from home in casual droving work. Their first three children were born there - Murdoch in 1856, Thomas in 1861 and William in 1863. Thereafter, for reasons that are unclear, they left the security of the croft to take up the peripatetic way of life that was common to most agricultural workers in northern Scotland (who were usually hired on an annual basis), and Sandy resumed his career as a shepherd. First came a short move to the 'Westend' of Dingwall, where Margaret, the only daughter in the family, was born in 1865; then a shift out to
Glenurquhart, near Cromarty, on the Black Isle, where Roderick was born in 1868; next to Wester Moy, on the north bank of the Conon River, where Colin, the youngest child, arrived in 1870; and finally to the next door farm of Easter Moy, where William, always a sickly child, died in 1877, just a few months short of his 14th birthday. Meanwhile, Ann's father had died in Knockfarrel (in 1868), and the croft had passed to his oldest son, Thomas MacDonald.
Despite the hardships of raising a family 'on the move', of losing a teenage son, and of subsisting on low wages, conditions had probably improved for Sandy and Ann during the 1860s and 1870s, and were certainly better than their parents' generation had experienced in the 1830s and 1840s. Agricultural prices rose from the early 1850s to mid-1870s and wages for farm workers followed behind at a discrete distance. In 1862 the railway arrived in Dingwall, opening up southern markets for the products of Mid Ross and the Black Isle, and stimulating sales of live animals in particular. The railway also brought into the district the cheap manufactures and little imported luxuries - like tea and sugar - to which the ordinary people were becoming accustomed. In 1870 Dingwall became the junction for a railway to be pushed westwards through Strath Peffer and on to Kyle of Lochalsh, for access to the Isle of Skye.
At the end of the 1870s, Sandy and Ann's modest share in the rising prosperity of the times was capped by their securing the tenancy of a vacant croft at Northside Lochussie, which was cheek-by-jowel with the Knockfarrel settlement. By the census of 1881 the whole family bar Thomas (who was shepherding at Balnain on the lower Conon valley) were in residence in their new 31-acre croft.
There they settled down to a more sedentary way of life, although Sandy did occasional droving work for his former employer, Walter Mundell of Easter Moy. On one occasion Sandy drove a flock all the way to Cape Wrath, at the far northwest corner of Scotland, taking a 12-year old Roderick (Roddy) along to help. Roddy was given a new pair of boots for the journey, but carried them slung around his neck all the way there and back. Settling down at Northside Lochussie meant that the younger children - Margaret, Roddy and Colin were able to attend the little parish school at Fodderty, on the floor of Strath Peffer. The family was now bi-lingual, using Gaelic and English within the home.
While Sandy and Colin were on the move with their families in the 1850s and 1860s - in Mid Ross and Victoria/New Zealand respectively - Roderick, the oldest of the three brothers, lived out his life on the 4 acres of land he tenanted at Bridgepark. His was the most uneventful of lives, in what was becoming a backwater existence. He and his wife Margaret raised a family in Glen Orrin - comprising Roderick (born 1852), Christina (born 1856), William (born 1858), Colin (born 1861) and Margaret (born 1864). But life was draining away from the Glen, as the younger people, and even whole families at a time, removed themselves from its constraints to seek new opportunities in the south or overseas.