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Family structures in Kildonan in the 19th century

Peter Lawrie, ©1997


The background of this study is an analysis of the 1851 census for the 559 families in the Parishes of Loth and Kildonan in Sutherland. (CEBs: parishes 52 and 54). The primary family (a) are four of the sons of Alexander MacLeod and Janet Polson in Elderable, Kildonan, born between 1775 and 1799. (OPR, Kildonan and Sutherland Estate Rentals). In 1819, during the Sutherland Clearances they were resettled in West Helmsdale, a crofting township to the south-west of the new village of Helmsdale. Alexander MacLeod had died before 1808 and it was noted from an estate map the site of the crofts allocated to the Widow Polson, (later occupied by Joseph) and to Angus (NLS: Map Library). Of the four sons, according to the OPR, Angus married in 1807; William in 1819; Joseph in 1819 and again in 1822 after the death of his first wife; and finally John in 1831, each obtaining a croft in West Helmsdale. These crofts were small, 1.5 to 3 acres each, with poor land on steep hillsides, deliberately calculated to be inadequate for the maintenance of a family. The crofters were intended to provide a pool of labour for the large-scale developments planned by the Sutherland Estate. The cleared interior of the county was organised into large sheep-farms, operated by imported shepherds from the Scottish Borders and north-east England. Fishermen, Fish Processors and Merchants were brought in from the fishing villages south of the Moray firth to operate the fishery. (See Adam, 1972 and Richards, 1973, 1985).

This study examines the changes in the composition of the households of members of the MacLeod family, based on the censuses of 1841 to 1891, in the context of the evidence of family structures shown in the complete 1851 census for the two parishes treated as one. Despite the transition from the pre-clearance agricultural self-sufficiency the family remained in a home-based economy which depended on a diversity of external incomes. To define “mutual benefit of the family members”: the most obvious is the care of children by their parents, and eventually the care of elderly parents by one or more of their children. In addition to this non-conjugal kin may become part of a household either providing a service or when unable to care for themselves, related kin in different households located nearby may provide mutual assistance in times of need or family members may travel away to work and provide income for the support of their kin.

Family Evidence:

An abstract of the CEBs for the MacLeod families from 1841 to 1891 is at Appendix 1. It is not possible to determine from the CEBs whether these families remained in the same crofts between 1841 and 1891, however it is probable that they did. The four brothers, despite the variation in ages (John was 41, Angus 66) are all living in simple conjugal families in 1841. Only two of Angus’s six children (born between 1808 and 1827) appear in the 1841 census. For the other three, all the children recorded in the OPR appear in the census. Their crofts were all within half a mile of each other, and it can be assumed would render mutual assistance and support. There were many more kinship relations between these families and their neighbours, in particular at least five Polson families, who were cousins to the MacLeods also lived in West Helmsdale. For clarity I shall subsequently refer to these MacLeods as A1, A2, A3 and A4, and so marked on the appendix, with Alexander, the shoemaker in Helmsdale, eldest son of Joseph, A4 and his first wife, designated A41. By 1851, A1 had two, possibly three kin in his household, but a 13 year old son was in service with a relative in Helmsdale; A2’s household included a second conjugal family unit, A21. In 1861, A2, now headed by a widow, included a different second conjugal unit A22. A3 was still in being, but two sons had married and set up new households A31, in Marril (about a mile inland from Helmsdale) and A32 in Helmsdale. In 1871, A1 had a resident grandson, A2 and A22 remained a single extended household, A4 became a singleton widow and A3 had gone leaving three separate conjugal households, A31, A32 and A33. It is very likely that A33 occupied the croft of A3. In 1881 A1, still existed as a conjugal household with the grandson now described as a boarder. A22, A31, A32, A33 were simple households, (including a cousin in A33). A41 contained a granddaughter, A4 remained a singleton widow. Finally in 1891, with A1 and A4 gone, there remained only the simple conjugal households, A22, A31, A32, A33 and A41. A4’s house was occupied by A42, a widower son of A4 who was not recorded in 1861/71/81, and two relatives. It is noteworthy that some of the other new conjugal units were also formed by sons who had been absent from a previous census.
The total population of the chosen two parishes were classified as “locals” and “incomers”, based initially on whether the place of origin of the head of household was either Loth/Kildonan (LK) or otherwise (not). Subsequently 24 surnames were chosen which accounted for almost all the adult male population in 1745, (List of Fencible men aged between 16 and 60) and identified as “local” anyone bearing these names. I have not discriminated between young heads of household and older. Both methods have their drawbacks, there is insufficient space to discuss this here, but they do show some interesting differences in household structure between the immigrant and local populations. In appendix 6, “locals” show a slightly lower proportion of heads living with spouses, reflecting the higher likelihood of being unmarried or being widow(er)ed. Looking at the adjoining crofting townships of West Helmsdale and Gartymore, where the % of the population described as “local”, is 96% and 95% respectively, it can be seen that the ratio of all females to males is 82 and 63 males / 100 females, respectively. Sex ratios were highly distorted by male migration, especially in Sutherland, (Devine, p289) due to the absence of men, working away from the parish due to lack of local opportunities. Among the crofter community the small size of the croft with numbers strictly limited by the Sutherland Estate, controlled the formation of new households. It is quite significant, though, that the % of relations in “local” household (12%) is almost double that of the “incomer” households (6.8%). The much higher % of servants in incomer households (12.7% to 4.4%) is a result of their greater economic power, as larger farmers, craftsmen and merchants were more likely to have resident employees. It is reasonable to assume that some of the individuals classed as servants and lodgers in crofter households may be disguised relatives.
The MacLeod families (1841-91) are analysed using the same composition and structure tables calculated for 1851 for the whole parish, (appendix 2 and 3). From the Structure table, (appendices 2 and 6) these families appear to have a below average number of kin for “locals”, but it is very probable that the servants and lodgers are in fact kin, which brings the % closer to the community average. (The “local” community average is also distorted in this way). The number of children and therefore mean family size is also higher. Looking at the Composition tables (appendices 3 and 5), these families have a greater propensity than the local average to form simple conjugal families and have fewer co-resident, non-conjugal households (just one instance in 1891). Perhaps this is because local families were more likely to have close kin living in their own nearby houses, than the incomers. The controlling mechanism in this group is the inability to support the entire family on the produce of croft, even if more resident adults could increase the household cash income, leading to younger children (especially girls) being boarded out as servants, and mature children leaving the area. Some of these adults returned in later years when the opportunity arose due to death. There was also the difficulty in obtaining another croft - Hector in Marril inherited his wife’s parent’s croft. The alternative was to live in Helmsdale relying on a trade for support. A41 did this until the coming of the railway and cheap manufactured shoes in 1870 destroyed the local shoemakers, leaving him, and others, in receipt of poor out-relief (returns of out-relief of the poor) for some years. (There were 24 shoemakers and 7 tailors in the two parishes in 1851 - CEBs). A32 did this more successfully and their shop premises are occupied today by their descendants.

The main driving force of family structure is time and mortality, but the secondary mechanism is the need to maintain a household which can maximise its income-generating capability for the benefit of its members at any particular time, within the constraint of the space available for the family to live in (a two-roomed cottage). A familiar pattern in the Highlands which survived well into the present century, has been the remitting of cash by unmarried children working permanently away from home, and also the practice of seasonal migration. Once the potatoes were planted in the spring, (Day, p21) the migrants would travel in search of work, (usually about the time of the census), returning in the autumn. Day comments (p20) on the continuum of the crofter class, between wholly farmers, on the larger holdings to wholly fishermen/ masons/ labourers etc. on the smallest. Typically younger women, employed as gutters in the herring trade would follow the shoals, from Loch Fyne, to Stornoway, to Wick, to Peterhead, although in some years there were no herring and the loss of income to the fishing communities would have an impact on the survival strategies of the families concerned. Other work strategies included labour for the harvest on lowland farms, particularly in the Lothians, and it is reported that many hundreds would walk two hundred miles or more there and back again each year. A considerable number of Sutherland stone-masons would work the summer in the South, employed in the massive expansion of urban Scotland. Hugh Miller of Cromarty, a founder of modern geology, (Miller, p250), began his career as a stone-mason and wrote of his experiences on building work in Edinburgh in the 1820s. In 1861 among the MacLeod families 4 heads of household were stone-masons and the younger two of these were absent from the 1851 census. Another was a cooper employed in the fishing industry. Early in the life-cycle of a family, the father would be the migrant, leaving his wife with the young family; when old enough the children would find local employment, and eventually replace the father as migrant worker. Finally one of the middle aged male offspring would take over the croft, perhaps with his widowed mother, and repeat the cycle. The Census abstracts at appendix 1 show this pattern clearly with four simple conjugal families in 1841 and five of the next generation in 1891. In between can be found the more complex family forms.

Concluding Remarks:

It is difficult, at this distance in time, with just standard sources for evidence to comment in detail in whether household structure was for mutual benefit. The household structures certainly changed over time as the needs of family and kin were met. Living at or only a little above the subsistence level, ‘benefit’ comprises shelter, food and clothing, care for children and eventually for elderly parents and other kin. The life span of these four couples (average ages at death 84 for the men and 81 for their wives; A41 reached 87 and his wife 97) and the high survival rates of their children (of Heman’s family A33, I can remember being taken to visit them in the same croft house in the 1960s when 4 of them, all unmarried and in their 80s still lived there) does suggest they got it right. I found all of the children who were recorded in the OPR in the CEBs apart from three missing children of Angus’s who were old enough to have left home by 1841, leaving just one possible child death; all others in the CEBs reached their teens at least. Though the life was hard, their family structures ensured that it was not short! Only Barbara, widow of Joseph, appears to have lived alone for a lengthy period (1868 to 1885), but she had two married sons in Helmsdale and two other MacLeod families living within a few hundred yards. Her son Hugh, who took over the croft, was present when she died, (Registrar General Death Certificate) and took over the croft afterwards.

List of References:
Adam, R J “Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816”, SHS, 1972
Day, J P, “Public Administration in Highlands & Islands of Scotland”, London, 1918
Devine, T.M. “The Great Highland Famine”, John Donald, 1988
Finnegan & Drake, “From Family Tree to Family History”, 1994, chapter 2
Miller, H “My Schools and Schoolmasters”, Collins, nd
Richards, E, “Leviathan of Wealth”, Routledge, 1973
Richards, E, “History of the Highland Clearances”, Croom Helm, 1985
Sutherland Estate Plans for Kildonan and Helmsdale, dated 1817-1819, National Library of Scotland Map Library. MAP-193-88
List of Fencible Men aged between 16 and 60 drawn up by the ministers of the parishes. Unpublished manuscripts held in Sutherland Papers at National Library of Scotland. Dep 313/3260
Unpublished Estate Rentals and other Documents from the Sutherland Papers at the National Library of Scotland.
CEBs, Census Enumeration Books for Loth (54) and Kildonan (52), 1841 to 1891
OPR, Old Parish Record for Loth (54), 1803-1854 and Kildonan (52), 1791-1854
Registrar-General for Scotland, Registers of Birth, Marriage and Death, from 1855
Out-relief of the Poor for parish of Kildonan. Copy register held at Registrar’s office in Brora.