This is a morality tale. James Thomson was a pillar of the Church – Communicant, Elder, Catechist. He was inexorable in rooting out immorality in the community, be it gambling, Sabbath working or fornication. And yet his own son, John Thomson, became implicated in a case of immorality where, I believe, injustice was done. And, as usual, it was the poor woman and the child in the case who suffered the most.
The wonderful pulpit in the former Resolis Parish Church from which ministers would chastise transgressors
The Thomsons were well-established as the millers of Kinbeachie. Our first record is in Resolis on 31 December 1762, when “David Thomson son to George Thomson wheelwright parish of Avoch & Kathraine Williamson daughter to James Do. tenent in the parish of Cromerty” were married. On 9 November 1763, Isobel, their first child, was baptised, the parents being recorded as “David Thomson miller Kinbeachie & Katharine Williamson”. Esther followed in 1765, twins George and Jean in 1768 and, future miller of Kinbeachie and farmer at Drumdyre, James, baptised on 17 January 1771.
Like many another born-again puritan, James had apparently lived a fairly wild life until his conversion in his later years. This is what the Reverend Donald Sage says about him in his Memorabilia Domestica when discussing his Elders:
James Thomson was not only an intelligent and deeply-exercised Christian, but a man of considerable native talent, and the ablest speaker at our fellowship meetings. He was much looked up to by his fellow-Christians not only in the parish, but also in the Black Isle and over Ross- shire. Previous to his conversion by grace, which did not take place until he was considerably advanced in years, he manifested his corrupt nature in bold and overt acts of sin. He had been possessed of more than ordinary bodily strength. It was in the act of uttering a tremendous oath to one of his horses that the “arrows of the Almighty” pierced his conscience, and, after a fiery struggle between hope and despair, he became another and a “new man.” His after life exhibited the most decided evidences of a saving change. But being naturally a man of keen passions and of a proud and fiery spirit, these offshoots of his nature but too often broke loose to dim the lustre of his graces.
It is worth bearing in mind that short and fiery temper.
James married, on 6 April 1798, Janet Ross in Kilmuir Easter, on the north side of the Cromarty Firth. At the time, this was a relatively short journey across the Firth by one of several ferries, but we do not know how the couple met. In due course, Anne (1799), David (1800), Donald (1803) John (1804) and Suphia [i.e. Sophia] (1807) were baptised. David died in 1822. Sophia went on to marry Sergeant John Holmes of Resolis and late of the 78th and 14th Regiments of Foot in due course, but that is another story.
Janet Ross appears to have practised as a midwife, as there are two occasions in the Kirk Session Records where it is recorded that she had been called in to assist – and, on one occasion, and I won’t quote the passage as it is quite upsetting, the assistance she gave was so inappropriate that it is a wonder that mother and child survived at all.
The Reverend Donald Sage arrived in Resolis in 1822, and shook up the parish. The first thing he did was to get James Thomson, then in Kinbeachie, and Robert Murray, tenant in Cullicudden, elected as Elders. Thomson soon demonstrated his no-nonsense approach. On 11 October 1824, the Session records show:
Thereafter James Thomson reported that he had been credibly informed that a Raffle was to be held at the House of Alexander Munro Vintner in Jemimaville. The Session considering that Raffles being a species of gambling are not only illegal but if tolerated as a practice would be very pernicious to the Morals of the People feel it to be their duty to use their authority & best endeavours to put a stop to it. The Moderator was appointed to send a writ in intimation by the officer to the said Alexander Munro cautioning him against the consequences of holding such an illegal meeting in his house & in case of his refusal, intimating that the Session would prosecute him before a civil Magistrate.
Strong stuff, and indicative of the power of the Kirk Session in this period.
Sometime in 1826 or 1827 he had moved from being miller and tenant at Kinbeachie to tenant of a small farm at Drumdyre, and in 1828 “St Martins, Drimdaire, East & West Culbo” were elected into one District where James Thomson was to officiate as Elder, and effectively become the moral guardian for the area.
The farmland of Kinbeachie, with Ben Wyvis behind. Kinbeachie Mill was where the wood is; Kinbeachie Castle stood on the field beyond that. In Kinbeachie, the Thomsons were the tenants of the Urquharts of Kinbeachie.
The farmland of Drumdyre, a short distance east from Kinbeachie. The area known as “Wester St Martins” became absorbed into Drumdyre. In the time of the Thomsons, it had come into the Estate of Newhall.
No Kirk Session records prior to 1822 survived due to their being burnt by the Reverend Arthur prior to Sage’s time, as he did not want the transgressions of the past being transmitted to the future. And it is clear that there were many transgressions. James Thomson and his fellow Elders were forever probing into the sexual affairs of the parish. The months between the marriage and the birth of a first child were counted, to see if the couple could be fined for antenuptial fornication. When a parishioner brought a report to them that their good name was being besmirched by loose talk, the Session would set up an inquiry and fine whoever was responsible. The Elders kept a close eye out for evidence of working or drinking on the Sabbath. Cases of charming were investigated, with, at the extreme, the practitioners threatened with excommunication. To be fair, the work by the Session in administering the poor’s roll and resolving social conflict was a good one, and from the evidence in the Kirk Session records they did try in their way to be fair and unbiased in their examinations, but still, their setting themselves up as the moral guardians of the parish does not sit comfortably in these more liberal days.
And the vision of an all male Session haranguing women in late pregnancy, or having just given birth, to get them to confess where and with whom they had been having sexual intercourse, and then for the Minister to excoriate them from the pulpit each Sunday for several weeks, is frankly awful.
There was a financial side to their investigation of a bith out of wedlock. The upkeep of the child fell on the Kirk Session unless the father could be identified. The cases are generally sad, and the lengths to which fathers went to avoid their responsibility were extraordinary. One case which James Thomson and his colleagues investigated went to an extreme:
At Resolis the 15th day of October 1828
The which day the Session met & being constituted by Prayer; Present with the Moderator. Robert Murray, James Forbes and Robert Munro Elders. The Session took up at this meeting the case of Margaret Robertson Resolis & Robert McLeod Sadler at Invergordon.– Robert McLeod by warrant of the Kirk Session of Rosskeen was duly cited to this meeting. Being called he compeared & his former declaration before the Session at their meeting on the 31st day of March last being read in his hearing he declared that he adhered to it now. James Bayne & Lillias Munro both residing at Invergordon & referred to in said declaration of the said Robert McLeod were also by warrant of the Kirk Session of Rosskeen cited to attend at this meeting as witnesses.
James Bayne being called compeared & being suitably admonished to tell the truth & interrogated Declares, That he is acquainted with Robert McLeod & Margaret Robertson– had several conversations with Robert McLeod respecting Margaret Robertson– That on one occasion, & about the beginning of January last witness together with one David Smart & John Munro both residing at Invergordon went into Robert McLeod’s shop, that John Munro went away but that witness & David Smart went with Robert McLeod into his house– that both the witness & David Smart at the time were the worse of Liquor– that David Smart after some conversation between them respecting Margt Robertson said to Robert McLeod, “What will you give me if I take to be the Father of Margaret Robertson’s child”– that Witness immediately added; “if you give me a Mutchkin of Whisky we both will take the blame”– that Robert McLeod said “if you do so I will give you a Gallon”– that Robert McLeod brought down out of his press a bottle in which there was some whisky & which Witness & David Smart drank in cups as there was no Glasses. – that Robert McLeod after that went out for more whisky & brought along with him George Ross Nailer in Invergordon to write out an agreement on the part of the witness acknowledging himself the Father of Margaret Robertson's child & which witness had agreed to sign, – that after the paper was written, Witness and David Smart refused to sign it unless they got half Guinea between them– that Robert McLeod not having that sum of money in the meantime gave them a pair of new shoes value 9/6d & gave them also eighteen pence or two shillings but does not remember which to make up the difference. That yesterday & the day before Robert McLeod spoke to Witness on the subject & intreated him to stand to what he had already done & said, before the Session & this day gave him a sixpence to take a dram. All which Witness declares to be truth. (Signed) James Bayne Witness.
Lillias Munro being called compeared and being admonished to tell the truth, Declared, that she lives in her brothers house at Invergordon– that Robert McLeod occupies one of the rooms of the house & on the same floor with the room in which her brother & she reside for which he pays rent– remembers seeing Margaret Robertson in the passage one day speaking to Robert McLeod– heard Robert McLeod say to Margaret Robertson, “that she was far gone in pregnancy” or words to that effect & that Margaret Robertson replied “that will never give you any trouble.”
Robert McLeod being confronted with the Witnesses, denied the truth of James Bayne statement & referred the Session to George Nailer at Invergordon as a Witness whom he pledged to bring here at his own charges & David Smart if cited to the Session. These witnesses the Session resolved should be cited to a subsequent meeting by warrant from the Kirk Session of Rosskeen. But as David Smart is at present from home the Session resolved not to take up this case untill he return.
Most cases were not so involved, and simply involved browbeating the poor mother until she confessed with whom she had been guilty, and then getting the father to acknowledge his guilt.
On 27 June 1832, there was a scandal in Resolis. A baby boy had been abandoned at the door of one of the Elders, Donald McLean, the tenant of Kirkton Farm, beside Kirkmichael. Was it coincidence? McLean, who seems to have been a reasonable sort, had committed the care of the child to the wife of his Grieve, James Barnet, who was nursing her own infant.
Thomson was quick to report that the likely mother was one Margaret Ewach, a servant maid in the house of Angus Mackay at Badgrinan, who had been delivered of a male child in fornication on 27 May but had since left the district. Further evidence was heard, and the Session concluded that Margaret Ewach was indeed the mother of the foundling, and James Thomson was instructed to find out where she had gone, a task which I imagine Thomson addressed with great vigour. We can track the later life of that foundling, named Michael Martin after Kirkmichael and St Martins, in a later story, but for now we shall continue with James Thomson.
James Thomson was elected to the role of Catechist on 4 December 1837:
The Session proceeded at this meeting to fill up the vacancy in the office of Chatechist occasioned by the death of James Forbes & being fully satisfied in regard of the piety, moral character gifts & other qualifications of James Thomson, tenant in Drimdaire & a member of Session, it was moved, seconded & unanimously agreed to that he be nominated Chatechist of this Parish.
It must therefore have been hideously embarrassing when his own family became became implicated in a case of morality.
The Session had met as usual at the Church of Resolis, on 2 May 1842, and the case must have seemed the same as many others.
Sederunt The Revd. Donald Sage Moderator and Messrs. James Thomson,
Barington Ferguson, Robert Murray, James Holm, William Cameron, John Fraser Elders, and Hugh F.
Macdonald Session Clk.
The Session took up a Delation for fornication given in at a former meeting against Mary Fraser an unmarried woman residing at St. Martins in this parish.
She was duly cited to appear here this day, being called, she compeared and being solemnly admonished to tell the truth and interrogated confessed that she is with child in fornication and being further interrogated declared that John Thomson Son of James Thomson tenant of Drumdyre so far as she knows is the father of her pregnancy, that they were guilty with each other in the wood of Drumcudden on the twelfth day of September last, only once, and being further interrogated declares that she was not guilty with any other man.
Well, this was some situation, with the father of the alleged guilty party sitting there on the Session whilst this was coming out.
The Session considering the confession emitted as above resolved to cite John Thomson to compear before the Session at a meeting to hold here on Wednesday the fourth day of May and instructed the officer accordingly– Mary Fraser was also cited apud acta to appear hear on that day.
Guided tour by the Kirkmichael Trust, exploring the lands of Kinbeachie, Drumdyre and St Martins
Resolis Church where the Kirk Session met, now a private residence
Astonishingly, when the Session met to interrogate Mary Fraser, James Thomson was allowed to attend. In a Court of Law, this would have been unthinkable.
The following meeting on 4 May I quote in full as there is so much of local interest within it, including references to the ferry of Alness Ferry and the name of the local market day:
The session took up the case of Mary Fraser, St. Martins, for fornication & duly cited to appear here this day. Being called she compeared & her confession being read in her hearing, she was again admonished to adhere to the truth & interrogated thereupon. To all the particulars of her former confession she adhered, and being further interrogated,– Did she at any time or times which she could particularly specify, intimate to John Thomson that she was with child to him– Replied that she did and on two occasions, first, about the time of Margaret's fair in December last, as he was returning from the Ferry of Alness, whither he had gone to purchase oil on that day, that on his way thither, he had called at her Father's house & had inquired of him if she (Mary Fraser) were at home & did she intend to go to Alness Ferry– that upon his return from the Ferry of Alness she was spreading clothes on some bushes near her father's house– and as he passed, he called out to her to wait that he had “some business with her”. That she then told him that she was with child, & that he was the father of her pregnancy– that he did not deny it, but said that if he were called before the session, he would make oath, that he was not guilty with her; but, that, if he were, it was not in consequence of being drunk– and further, that she told him of her situation about a fortnight ago in presence of her brother’s wife & that he flew into a passion at her and threatened to strike her with a stick, which he had in his hand. Being ordered to withdraw, John Thomson, also cited to this meeting, being called compeared, and Mary Fraser’s confession & Statement to the Session at this & the former meeting, being read in his hearing, & he being solemnly admonished to tell the truth & interrogated thereupon– Denied that he was guilty with said Mary Fraser, either on the twelfth of September last in the wood of Drumcudden or at any other time or place– Interrogated further– Denies ever meeting with her at all on that day. Further Interrogated– Declared that she never told him her situation until about a fortnight ago, when she came to him whilst he was ploughing in a field below his father’s house, along with her brother’s wife and declared that this was the first time that she had ever mentioned to him of her being with child to him. Mary Fraser was then called in & the parties confronted with each other. John Thomson interrogated in presence of Mary Fraser Denied that he ever was guilty with her on the occasion she mentioned or on any other. Interrogated further Recollects going to Alness Ferry at the time she mentions and for the purpose of purchasing oil, but denies either calling at her father’s house on his way going thither or of speaking to or even of having seen Mary Fraser at all on that day on his return. Mary Fraser interrogated in presence of John Thomson Declares, that on the occasion already mentioned when John Thomson returned from Alness Ferry on his way home he was accompanied by a girl of the name of Anne McKenzie or Anne Gael as she is usually called who resides at Kinbeachie, that when John Thomson saw her (Mary Fraser) & said to her “wait Mary I have some business with you” Anne McKenzie heard him say so, as she parted from him on her way home, that said Anne McKenzie afterwards told her that she did hear him say so, & that if cited as a witness to the Session Anne McKenzie would by her evidence corroborate her (Mary Fraser’s) statement– John Thomson again interrogated, Admitted that he had on that day on his return from Alness Ferry met with Anne McKenzie on the road a little to the east of the Schoolhouse of Drumcudden, that they had come in company with each other & on their way homewards to the Schoolhouse where they remained for a short time & afterwards went together as far as the roads to his father’s house & to Kinbeachie divide, where they separated, but he did not see Mary Fraser at all & whether Anne McKenzie saw her or not he could not say–
Well, the investigation carried on for several more meetings, throwing up more useful local information, but with the father of one of the parties part of the investigating team in attendance at every meeting! Now, to be fair, there was conflicting evidence, in that Mary Fraser had a date wrong, and her star witness Anne McKenzie would not corroborate a single statement that Mary Fraser had made. However, my strong suspicion is that John Thomson, frightened of his father’s fiery temper, and intolerance, had abandoned Mary and her child to her fate and, I suspect, had bribed Ann McKenzie to give no support to Mary.
The Session being unable to shake either John Thomson or Mary Fraser (and the all male Session thundering at the poor girl must have sorely tested her resistance), the matter and the parties were remitted to the Presbytery, although the Session relented at a later meeting at least to allow this to be deferred until after the birth of the child.
John Thomson never acknowledged himself to be the father of the child, but I note that the mother in the 1851 Census (in the Bog of Cullicudden) called her daughter Mary Thomson:
Mary Fraser head u 44 general lab C Resolis
Margaret Fraser sister u 41 general lab C Resolis
Mary Thomson daur u 8 scholar C Resolis
They were to move from Bog of Cullicudden to Ferryton thereafter. Now, it is an undeniable fact from the statistics within Resolis that illegitimate children in this period suffered a higher mortality rate. Was this due to poorer nutrition and accommodation conditions due to the mother and child having no-one to support them? Whatever, it is astonishing how many illegitimate children did not make it to adulthood, and so it was with young Mary, as we find in the death records for 1857 the following:
Mary Fraser (single) 5 August 1857 Ferrytown aged 15 years [father] paternity not acknowledged [mother] Mary Fraser [burial place] Churchyard of Kirkmichael as certified by William Holm sexton informant Isabella Fraser her x mark aunt (present) James Barnett Registrar witness.
Like so many graves in Kirkmichael, there is no stone. In contrast, in Cullicudden, a handsome tablestone commemorates John Thomson.
The death of young Mary in 1857 must have acted as a social release for John Thomson, for he married the following year, now aged 54. There are other examples within Resolis of exactly the same process occurring.
The marriage was at Drumdyre on 25 June 1858, the minister of course Donald Sage himself, now 36 years the incumbent at Resolis. The spouse, according to the register, was:
Jane McDonald her x mark 22 Allanbank Parish of Knockbain domestic servant spinster John McDonald crofter and Catherine McDonald ms [blank]
There was a difference of 32 years between the two, and perhaps Jane was not the brightest person given she didn’t know the maiden name of her mother – it is most unusual at a marriage when the parents are (as indicated here) still alive for their full names not to be known. In subsequent census returns, her parish of birth is given as Gairloch (1861) and Lochbroom (1871) so even that is not definite.
James Thomson died the year after his son’s marriage. There does not appear to be in either Kirkmichael or Cullicudden a stone directly commemorating this respectable farmer, Church Elder and Catechist, James Thomson. This is very surprising, particularly as most Elders of this era are well recorded in our graveyards.
Jane died of consumption in 1872, aged only 38, but having given birth in the meantime to numerous children.
Her husband followed the next year, in 1873, aged 67. By 1881, the only remnants still at Drumdyre of the once large family were John’s sister Janet (given as a pauper) and his two youngest children, Jane A. a 14 year old pauper, and James D., a nine year old scholar. They were now in a much smaller house and obviously times were tough. Several of the other children, though, had married and had families of their own by this time.
The Thomson stone in Cullicudden, with the Cromarty Firth and Easter Ross behind
John Thomson and Jane McDonald are commemorated on a handsome (although at time of writing precariously tipping) tablestone in Cullicudden. It also commemorates a brother, David, and, indirectly, his father James. The wording of this stone is curious. It reads:
Erected / by / JOHN THOMSON in the year / 1828 in memory of his bro/ther DAVID THOMSON son to / JAMES THOMSON let miller in / Kinbeachie who departed / this life August the 5th 1822 / aged 22 years / Also of / JOHN THOMSON farmer Drumdyre who / died 27th November 1873 aged 67 years / And / JANE McDONALD his wife / who died 2nd April 1872 aged 38 years. / Also of JANE ANN GARROW / daughter of the above JOHN THOMSON / died at Loch Rosque 3rd May 1912.
Daughter Jane Ann Garrow had married a chauffeur called John Garrow, and her usual address, rather surprisingly, was New York.
The reference to “ let miller in Kinbeachie” does not mean that James was deceased: it means he was lately the miller in Kinbeachie, and had at that time not long taken up his farm in Drumdyre. It serves as a useful warning for us to be careful in interpreting inscriptions.
And there we leave the Thomson family, and the odd situation of Elder James Thomson sitting on the same Kirk Session that was investigating the morality of his own son, and, I suspect, his son, fearing the wrath of his father, claiming no responsibility for the predicament of Mary Fraser and their illegitimate daughter.