The Chisholms in Nineteenth Century Breakachy
A few miles out of Beauly on the road to Erchless Castle, by the Kilmorack church and graveyard, there is a small AA sign indicating a right turn to Breakachy. This small rural district lies in the north of the old Chisholm lands. For the Lietre Cadet families of the Chisholm clan, in particular, this was an important area, in the earlier years of the nineteenth century. The Breakachy district sits high above Strathglass, an amphitheatre of pastoral and agricultural land, reached by a steep narrow road, with the Urchany Burn, hidden by trees, burbling away, far below. Today, from the heights above Culour, a Chisholm croft for nearly 200 years, only one or two houses are visible. Yet in the middle of last century there were close to forty crofters’ cottages dotting the area. As the century advanced, however, the population of the area declined, until by 1881, it was, according the censuses, closer to 100 than 200. Chisholm, was a common area surname, reaching its greatest importance in the 1861 census, when 42 folks, or 28% of the population carried the name.
For me, a visit to Breakachy early one evening was one of the highlights of the 1996 International Chisholm Gathering. Like some other Chisholms, I had had the good fortune to read a marvellous case study of the Breakachy area as it had been round 1880, had been entranced, and keen to visit. This pamphlet had been written by ‘A Breakachian’, and printed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1928, when the writer, subsequently identified as William Macdonald was a man of 60, and about to retire from the Presbyterian Ministry in Auckland, New Zealand. He told very clearly, and obviously with keen nostalgia, about his boyhood days in Breakachy in the late 1870’s to early 1880’s, painting as well, his memories of all the fold who had been living there. To him, having travelled the world, ‘Breakachy remained unsurpassed’ and ‘is one of the most beautiful (districts) in the North’.
There had been Chisholms in Breakachy as noted in various records and Wilfred Medlam’s charts from the 18th century. It seems it had been an area where Lietre Chisholms had settled or been sent, when the area in Glencannich became over-crowded and again after the 1826 Evictions when Elizabeth Wilson, the wife of Alexander died, and her land was lost. Yet the small acreage available to the tenant farmers and crofters with large families, meant they mainly lived a hand to mouth existence, and where possible had an ‘outside job’. Hugh of Culour, wrote to his Fortrose (New Zealand) cousin Hugh in 1910 saying “I might be better off, and still I might be worse… There is not much to be made out of the bit of land (at Breakachy) but I am also employed as a gamekeeper (for the Estate) which helps me on”.
In the 19th century census returns, many of the older folk remaining were designated “paupers”, young folk in their twenties were scarce, and grandparents often had grand-children living with them. The Rev. Simon Fraser writing of Kilmorack in 1841 cites wages for a labourer, as 1/6d per day in summer and 1s per day in winter without victuals whilst a stonemason earned up to 2/6d a day. Not much for a large family!
McDonald’s description of this area and its people, gives us today, a very personal picture of our ancestors, and their existence, which none of us could now hope to equal. Of the six farms he names in the district, two, Culor and Cruinassie were tenanted by the same Chisholm families from at least the early 19th century (if not before) till well after World War II. William Macdonald, a young teenager in 1880 retained a vivid picture of the crofters and wrote of these two crofts thus:-
“The farm of Culour or ‘dun’dack’ as the Gaelic work signifies, lies adjacent to Ardachy on the North-East side. The farm has been comparatively speaking, well wooded, but the soil is of an inferior quality, consequently the crops are usually only mediocre. The hollows, bends and flats along the burn-side yield good grazing for the cows and pet sheep. But when a farm is small, such as Culour Farm is, and calls to undertake outside work are numerous, there is a temptation to neglect things at home, and to turn aside to that which is found to be more immediately lucrative. But for this, I have no doubt, Culour Farm would have been more intensively cultivated, and would have yielded better crops. The hill country extends for some considerable distance in the direction of ‘na leaichean agriobhi’ where the cattle and sheep are grazed during part of the summer and autumn, and where they do exceedingly well. Indeed, if my memory serves me correctly, there are portions of the hill-country which might be inexpensively cultivated and used for cropping purposes.
Alexander Chisholm who occupied the farm, did not, as a rule associate with his neighbours. His apparent aloofness may have been due to the fact that he was considerably older than they. Not withstanding I have known him sometimes to associate with men of his own age, when an hour or two would be spent pleasantly in retelling the stories and achievement of other days. He could express himself fluently and eloquently in his native Gaelic, the only language which he knew; for in his boyhood days, English was not taught in the schools in the Highlands. At his own fireside, he was always at his best and never fails to entertain his visitors in song story and romance. He was a sober and industrious man, and no one could accuse him of spending his means in foolish ways.
He had a gray mare called ‘Sheanack’, which, it was said, understood every word he addressed to her. On one occasion she was taken down to Milton, in the busy season for a day’s work. Before she was led away he addressed her and said ‘Now Sheanack, if they are not kind to you at Milton, be sure and come home’. She had not been more than an hour, in harness at Milton, before she cleared herself and galloped home. When she reached the stable door she was met by her master, who addressed her as follows ‘Well, Sheanack, you did not find them very kind at Milton, and so you have come home. You always do my bidding, you deserve a good feed, come and get some oats’.
Mrs Chisholm was a quiet, gentle woman who devoted herself to her children and household duties. It was seldom that she took part in the evening’s conversation. In all probability she felt she could listen better than she could express her mind on current topics of conversation. She was kind, generous and warmhearted and a thoroughly good neighbour.”
At the time William Macdonald was writing, Alexander was a man in his late sixties, his wife, Margaret barely fifty, and their three teenage children, Hugh, Ann and Mary) were living with them. Alexander’s brother, Donald at 60 years of age was about to emigrate to New Zealand to join his sons Hugh and John who were blacksmithing in Fortrose, Southland.
The second of the Breakachy farms mentioned by William Macdonald, was Cruinassie. He writes:- “The farm of Cruinassie or ‘round acres’ as the Gaelic work signifies, occupies practically a central place in Breakachy, and is perhaps, the best farm in the whole of the district. Every part of it capable of cultivation has been under the plough, producing exceptionally good crops, while even the portions that shoot precipitately down to the edges of the adjacent burns are used for grazing purposes. Although it is not considered a large farm, yet, it is large enough to keep an industrious man busy all the year round. The main road passes through it, dividing it on either side to the burns which so naturally bound it. It is pleasant to recall it with its green fields and murmuring streams.
John Chisholm who succeeded to the farm after his father’s death, was a good neighbour and a successful farmer. He was a man of more than average ability. In all probability he was the first in Breakachy to become a regular subscriber to the ‘Inverness Courier’ a fact which occasioned his being always referred to as, ‘an teachaire’. He was an interesting man, with an intelligent grasp of local affairs. But his interests were not only local, they were also national. He had a good type of mind and could express himself in excellent Gaelic. He was a hard-working industrious and saving man, thoroughly reliable and trustworthy and whose word was his bond. He appreciated and availed himself, as he was able of life’s opportunities.
After his mother’s death, and the marriage of his only sister to Hugh Forbes, he married a young lady from Kiltarlity, who during the course of the years proved herself in the highest sense a true helpmate. She was young, gentle and gracious and soon endeared herself to every one in the community. She devoted herself with exemplary diligence to her household and family duties. Indeed, she found her chief joy in her husband, children and home. But far be it from me to suggest that she was indifferent to the social customs of the community. Whenever she found it convenient she attended to these in her own gracious and pleasant manner. She was of a kindly and thoughtful disposition and whenever she thought she could be of help, in the day of need, she always rendered whatever help she could. Her smiling face and kindly words made her a welcome visitor in the homes of the neighbours”.
After writing about all the Breakachy crofters, William Macdonald tells of those living in ‘private residences’, and these, too, include Chisholms.
“On the heights above Ardachy there is an ideal little place called Yellowbrook. Here William Chisholm lived with his wife and family of four daughters and five sons. He was sometimes employed on Aigas estate and sometimes on Cluny (Cluanie) farm. He was a strong man, slow in movement and deliberate in speech. As a neighbour he was thoughtful, kind and obliging, and in the day of need could be relied upon for any service he could render. Brought up in far famed Strathglass he loved to speak about its glens, its lakes and its streams.
His wife was one of the kindest and most affectionate women in the community, one whom everyone loved and respected. She was a good woman, deeply pious and lived up to her convictions. Her children received every consideration and attention at her hands. I have no doubt that they have stood up many times during the course of years and called her blessed.
The eldest son left early in life for Wales, where he pushed on and made his way successfully. He was a sober and industrious young man. The second son left in the early eighties for Manitoba, Canada, where he died at comparatively early age. The other sons remained in the land of their birth, where they commanded good positions in their respective callings. The daughters made home for themselves in the North. It is pleasant to recall them all, at school and at play, at home and abroad.”
He continues:- “I have a pleasant recollection of Christina Chisholm, who lived in a cottage close to the roadside, at the boundary between Cruinassie and Culour. After a few months of married life her husband, who was a stonemason died. Although her lot was thus a hard one, she accepted it in good faith and never complained. She was a gracious, large-hearted woman with considerable intelligence and practical common sense. Every one trusted, respected and admired her. Late in life she inherited a competency through the death of a brother in America. Those who knew her, and how she had toiled in the fields at Cluanie during the long years of her widowhood, and brought up her only child Kenneth, rejoiced with her in her good fortune. Not withstanding her altered circumstances she continued to live in the same frugal and simple way, and to treat her friends in the same kindly and magnanimous manner. She was sincere, honest and upright woman “full of faith and of good works”, and most emphatic in what she considered the path of duty. The only language she knew was Gaelic, in which she could express herself clearly and forcibly and discuss many topics other than the weather… It is pleasant to dwell for a little on her memory.”
He then turns to “a few worthy spinsters in Breakachy, whom I must not omit to mention”. Janet Chisholm, a cheery old soul lived not far from Ardachy Bridge. Although she had little of this “world’s gear”, yet she always seemed to be well cared for. Her brother and his family took a kindly interest in her welfare and saw to it that she was always provided with the necessaries of life. One of her nieces lived with her and kept her in touch with the outside world. There were very few things happening in the community of which Janet was not aware.
Ellen Chisholm occupied a small cottage close to the way side on Cruinassie Farm. Children always found a warm place in her affection, for she was a motherly, kindly soul. She was a deeply pious, and no doubt lived up to her convictions.”
It is obvious that Macdonald’s childhood memories were extremely important to him, and he finishes his pamphlet with memories of this boyhood days and those who joined him, in his adventuring, fishing and the enjoyment of Breakachy’s natural beauty in what he considered idyllic surroundings. Of course Chisholms counted amongst his friends and he remembered, in particular Valentine and Roderick Chisholm of Yellowbrook.
“Valentine Chisholm and I were thrown together in the days of our childhood and kept up our companionship and friendship for many years. He was kind, thoughtful and companionable and full of goodness and affection. What happy days we spent together, gambling among the ruins of Blackwood Swamp, sunbathing on the slopes of Yellowbrook and hunting for bees’ nests among the heather. What chastisement we periodically received for our forbidden rambles and late hours!”
And of his elder brother Roderick he writes of one afternoon they went “fishing along the beautiful flats above Dunmore. The day was bright and sunny, and consequently, we did not meet with success. However, it occurred to us that we might go in for some bathing, which we did to our heart’s content. It was most exhilarating to have a plunge, and then to run up and down for ten or twenty minutes along one of those beautiful flats with no one to take exception to our unconventional but healthy and happy exercises.”
By the early 1880s when Macdonald was writing, the population of Breakachy and declined considerably from its ‘heyday of the earlier years of the century. Families who had lived there for a considerable period of time were gone forever. One such family was that of John and Abigail Chisholm.
John’s origins are as yet unknown, but he was born at Kiltarlity c 1800 raised as a Catholic and seems likely he was of Lietre. It is known that he was the son of Roderick and Catherine Chisholm, (nee Chisholm) and had a cousin Donald, probably of Breakachy. At the time of his marriage to Abigail Forbes in 1828, he indicated he was “of Sawmiln” (thought to be Culmill) but after his and Abigails’s marriage in the Kilmorack church, (she was a Protestant) they moved to Breakachy, where they lived till they died in 1864 and 1869 respectively. Their eight children were all born in Breakachy between 1829 and 1849, and later baptised at Eskdale in the Catholic parish church. However, with John an agricultural labourer and with no land, the opportunities for their children, were limited in Breakachy, and by the time of the 1851 census, two of the older children had left for Inverness and Elgin. By 1861, only the two youngest children who were still at school were living with their family, and one son of sixteen had a job locally as a ploughman. By 1871, the family had gone completely. The parents were dead, the two youngest sons were on their way to New Zealand after working in Moray as farm labourers, and the son who had been a ploughman in 1861 was a quarryman, living in a croft in Croy and Dalcross.
The decline of Breakachy continued and when William Macdonald wrote from New Zealand in 1928, he lamented that he “could recall the ruins of twenty five houses where once bright, happy and contented families lived”. The numbers of houses occupied, continued to decrease, till by the mid 1970s, when the death of the last remaining Chisholm living a Breakachy occurred, there were less than half a dozen folk living in the district and less inhabitable houses. At this time, four of the six Breakachy crofts cited by Macdonald became amalgamated into one large deer farm. And after nearly 200 years, the name of Chisholm in the Breakachy district had gone.
However, change was very shortly coming, and with the passing of the Crofters Reform Act in 1976, the crofters at last had the right to own their own crofts as well as land around them. Rural programmes were initiated and economic development encouraged. By the summer of 1996 when I visited Breakachy with Alistair Chisholm, a descendant of John and Abigail, the picture was of a well cared for and prosperous area, being cropped and grazed and looking great in the late evening light. Culou now privately owned had been beautifully renovated, inside and out, Cruinassie had been extended and a new house had been built alongside. Breakachy certainly has not the population of old, but perhaps William Macdonald would still “question if you could see anything more beautiful in the North”.
Audrey Barney – New Zealand