Glen Orrin Roots (Cont)
At a point on the Orrin river where its waters rush noisily from the hills over the Falls of Orrin, there lies the village of Aultgowrie. Here the river is crossed by a stone bridge built in 1810 to join the smaller, southern portion of the Fairburn estate with its larger, northern lands. But the settlement predates the bridge, for in the 1770s we find a cornmill there, worked from the waters of the Aultgowrie Burn that flows rapidly northwards into the river. The mill was owned by the Fairburn estate, and leased to a miller named Alexander Munro, also known as Adie. (Alexander may well have been an incomer - circumstantial evidence points to family connections in the parish of Knockbain, on the Black Isle). Also living in Aultgowrie at the time was Murdo Munro, who was nicknamed Murdo Adie, indicating a relationship with Alexander. We do not know the exact nature of the relationship - they may have been father and son, but they could also have been brothers (Murdo being the younger of the two). Around 1781 Murdo married a young woman named Helen Mackay, and their first child, a girl named Anne, was born in Aultgowrie in January 1782. Helen Mackay's family lived in Faebait or Febait (meaning narrow bog), which was settlement to the east of Aultgowrie, on the other side of the boundary between the Fairburn and Highfield estates. Shortly after Anne's birth, Murdo and Helen moved to Faebait, and Murdo became a tenant-at-will of the Gillanders family which owned Highfield.
On 25 September 1785, a son, William, was born to Murdo and Helen in Faebait. However, because of large gaps in the parish records of the time (most of the Urray parish records were destroyed by fire in the 1840s) we have few other details about the family until 1812 - when William, now about 27, married Margaret Macdonald, the daughter of Roderick Macdonald and Mary Mackay of Faebait. Their first son, Roderick, named after his maternal grandfather, came along in 1813; a sister Ann followed in 1815, and then the two younger brothers, Alexander in 1822 and Colin in 1826. (There was another brother, Donald, who was born in 1819 but appears to have died in infancy.)
We currently know next to nothing about the livelihoods of the Munros in Faebait, which today is a single family farm but at the beginning of the nineteenth century provided subsistence for up to eight families. We must assume that that Murdo held one of the several small-holdings, and from it the family scratched a bare living. Whatever the specifics, it was undoubtedly a life of extreme hardship and poverty. Although Urray, like other parishes, had a parish school, alongside the church, the Munros lived too far from it for the children to attend on a daily basis, and they grew up receiving little or no formal education. Sometime in the 1830s William and his family left Faebait, to move to Bridgepark, an even smaller settlement to the west of Aultgowrie. The change may have resulted from the death of his father, Murdo, bringing an end to the family occupancy at Faebait, but equally the move to Bridgepark may have been part of a wider set of changes taking place in and around the glen.
The 'coming of the sheep' - the process whereby great swathes of the Highlands, particularly the inland glens and straths, were converted into large sheep walks for Blackface and Cheviot breeds from the Borders country - reached parts of Easter Ross in the 1790s. It penetrated Mid Ross between 1800 and 1810, when some small tenants in Strathconon (to the north of Glen Orrin) were moved around within the glen to make way for sheep farms. However, the process reached full flood, swirling around and into Urray Parish in the 1830s and 1840s. By then the mechanisation of the woollen industry in the Scottish borders and in Yorkshire had had such an impact on wool prices that landowners could not resist clearing away settlements of small-holders, or depriving them of common grazing land, to make room for the new cash earner. This in turn added an element of compulsion to the voluntary emigration that had been taking place from the Highlands for several decades, and accelerated the highly emotive 'Highland Clearances'. According to the enumerator for the census of Urray in 1841, the total population of the parish had fallen by 50 people since 1831 (and despite growing numbers in most parts of the parish) 'owing chiefly to several small farms in the Highland Districts being converted into sheep walks - the inhabitants in all such cases being turned out'. James Gillanders of Highfield was very active in the introduction of sheep - indeed in the difficult decade of the 1840s he would gain much notoriety as a 'clearer' while acting as a factor for other landowners in Ross-shire - and it is more than likely that he would have taken the opportunity of Murdo Munro's death to 'resume' the tenancy of the small-holding at Faebait. The 'clearing' of Faebait seems to have been carried out in a protracted manner - there were still four families and half-a-dozen elderly widows living there in 1841, but by that time the surviving tenants appear to have already lost their grazings on the higher land to the south and west of the settlement.
At the census of 1841, William Munro and his family were living at Bridgepark, which formed a southwest corner of the Fairburn estate. William's occupation was listed as 'agriculltural labourer'. This meant that he held no land, so the move to Bridgepark was probably more a matter of push than pull. By 1851, however, he had managed to acquire the lease of a small croft (only 4 acres), which gave the family a little more security. He also found occasional employment as a drover of sheep, while Margaret contributed to the family income by hand-spinning wool for the handloom-weaving industry. From this tiny foothold in the wool-producing industry, two of their sons and one of their grandsons would eventually become full-time professional shepherds. Roderick, their eldest son, had been crippled by an accident in his youth, so instead of taking on agricultural work he became a shoemaker to generate some income. However, Alexander (known as Sandy) became a shepherd in the Bridgepark area during the 1840s before moving north to Strathconon (in Contin parish) in the 1850s, to continue in this line of work. By then Colin, the youngest son, had also left home to find employment - the census of 1851 suggests that he was working on the farm of a relative named Alexander Munro near Avoch in Knockbain parish on the Black Isle.
The Munros, it is clear, were becoming more mobile, and more inclined to look beyond the immediate locality for their livelihoods and friendships. Since the 1770s Murdo and William had lived, worked, married and raised their children within one or other of the little Glen Orrin hamlets; now, however, in the 1840s the generation that comprised the three brothers - Roderick, Alexander (Sandy) and Colin - as well as their sister Ann, began to look further afield, both for employment and for marriage partners. In terms of marriage, Ann set the example - for in 1843 she married George McLennan, a crofter and salmon-fisherman from Knockbain, and went to live with him there. However, she returned home to her mother for the birth of her first child, a girl named Janet, who was born in Bridgepark in August 1846.
Unlike his sister and younger brothers, Roderick never left the glen - his disability possibly precluded it. Even so, his marriage in January 1846 reveals something of the changes impacting upon its inhabitants. His new wife, Margaret MacLean had been born in Coigach in Wester Ross (near present-day Ullapool) and her family, now settled in Urray parish, were almost certainly among the those that had left that so-called 'congested district' on the west coast to seek employment in Easter or Mid Ross.
Colin was the next to marry. In July 1852, at Bridgepark, he married Isabella Ross, aged 24, the daughter of farm workers whose family home was in Logieside, or Laggieside (from the Gaelic 'Laggie' meaning hollow), on the eastern flank of the Highfield estate - close to the Logie Burn that ran alongside the road from Tarradale to Conon Bridge.
Alexander (Sandy) married last - at the age of 33 years - in January 1856. His bride was the 21 years old Ann McDonald of the hillside crofting community of Knockfarrel, in Fodderty parish. Ann's parents, Roderick and Hannah MacDonald, were recent arrivals at Knockfarrel. They had previously lived in Strathconon but were evicted from there in the 1840s. Fortunately, they and a handful of other families driven from Strathconon were able to acquire small-holdings on the barren southern flanks of Knockfarrel from the Cromartie estate. Such movements of people from Wester Ross or the more inland glens of Mid Ross onto scraps of uncultivated land in the more eastern districts of the county were quite common occurrences during the disruption of 'The Clearances'.
The transformation of the Munro family from one with roots in Glen Orrin into one that spread itself across several neighbouring parishes in Mid Ross and the Black Isle is to be explained by the economic changes that took place there between the 1790s and the 1840s. The commercialisation of agriculture on the mains farms and tenanted farms along the lower river valleys (encouraged by the high prices of the Napoleonic Wars), the introduction of capitalistic methods of sheep farming into the long glens and straths to the west, as well as on the more marginal moors and hillsides of the east, a shift from distilling for local consumption to distilling for national markets ( a large modern distillery was opened at Muir of Ord in 1838), and an investment in new roads and bridges by landowners and local authorities, all made for a society that was more fluid, flexible and market-oriented than before. However, the older small-holding communities - in places like Faebait or Aultgowrie - were being marginalized within the new economic order, and their relative poverty was further accentuated in the 1840s by famine brought about poor grain harvests and more especially a blight of the all-important potato crop. In 1846, the local Commissioner for the Poor had to buy grain in Aberdeenshire for distribution to destitute people in in the inland districts of Urray and Contin parishes, while in 1847 there was a 'meal mob' riot in Dingwall when locals tried to prevent the export of grains to higher-priced markets further afield. Famine, poverty, rent arrears and eviction stalked the western parts of Mid Ross through the 1840s. For many of the inhabitants the answer lay in out-migration - either short-distance migration to find employment in the more fertile eastern districts, or long-distance migration to the cities of the south, or emigration to places overseas - mainly across the Atlantic in Canada - where land and other natural resources were more abundant than at home.