The Catechist of Coiranscaig (Part I)

Coiranscaig is a pre-clearance hamlet situated on a hillside overlooking the narrows of Loch Brora. It was a place long associated with the Baillies, probably back to 1500 or prior when they were a prominent family under the Earl of Sutherland.   By the late 18th century, Coiranscaig became well known as the home turf of a pious family of Baillies who ranked high among the laity of Sutherland.

One of “Men” of Strathbrora was a Hugh Baillie who was born at Coiranscaig in the mid 1700’s.   He was “a most impressive speaker, and, latterly, on account of his years and ripe experience, he was usually one of the first Strath Brora “men” to be called at Fellowship meetings. It was an inspiration to see him rise on a communion Friday. His venerable appearance, his solemn and subdued manner, and even the quiet flow of his address, always os fresh and savoury, drew upon him the eyes of hundreds in the congregation and sustained their attention until he sat down.”   Hugh was a fixture at communions throughout the Highlands, often travelling for a week over mountain passes and down glens to reach destinations on the west coast.

Hugh’s wife, whose name has not been documented, was outstanding among the women of her parish for her kindness and piety. She seems to have been gifted with the second sight. On one occasion, after entertaining some travellers with refreshments, she sensed that the men were going to experience something serious. Some of the travellers drowned later that day while crossing Loch Brora.

This good couple had only one child, a son George. George was born September 22, 1782 on Coiranscaig. He grew up being a witness to his father’s evangelism and often attended the sacraments with his father. “ In his religious training he was exceptionally favoured, for not only did he come under home influences greatly fitted for fostering true piety, but he enjoyed rare opportunities of associating with the many outstanding saints in the neighbourhood, at whose feet he considered it a privilege to sit.”[i]

In a time when the fathers of Sutherland were reluctant to bring young men into their saintly circle, George was granted a high standing among the catechists and elders. It was also an era in which full membership to the Kirk was reserved for people mature in biblical instruction and experience. However, George was confirmed at the exceptional youthful age of 23.

George was married twice. His first wife, Jane Stewart, died at an early age leaving George with a young son John. John was put in the care of his mother’s people who raised him. John’s descendants still live in Clyne.

George was married the second time to Catherine Grant on August 8, 1808. She was the daughter of Alexander Grant and Margaret MacKenzie, Alexander being one of the prominent churchmen of Strath Brora and a tenant of some means.   George and Catherine had six children at Coiranscaig of which four survived before emigrating in 1822.   A daughter, Mary, was born at sea in 1822.   Three more children were born in Nova Scotia.

As mentioned already, the Baillies were tenants of some means during their early tenure in Sutherland and held lands on the shores of Loch Brora.   With the ascendancy of the Gordon family, they lost their status and became small tenants of the Carrol Estate under the Gordon’s of Carrol.   They seemed to have had a satisfactory relationship with the Gordons for several generations. However, this came to an end in 1812 upon the death of John Gordon.   His heirs sold the estate to the Countess of Sutherland in order to pay off accumulated debts.   The Countess gave assurances to the heirs that the tenants would not be disturbed.[ii]

Agents of the Countess had other plans, and set out to gradually depopulate the estate to turn it into a large sheep farm. Portions were cleared as early as 1813 with the removals reaching their height in 1820.   In that year, George and Catherine were issued writs of removal.   We are not certain what became of them at that point but they most likely moved to the coast to claim a small holding being offered to the evictees. It was the grand scheme of the estate to use the displaced farmers as labourers in various industries around Brora. Like many of their former neighbours, they found the small lots to be unsatisfactory and longed to emigrate. By 1822, an opportunity presented itself.   Joseph Gordon, son of their former landlord, arranged for subsidized passage to Pictou. Gordon had solicited funds from merchants in Bengal, India, to assist the evictees in leaving Sutherland. He had motives other than of a benefactor. He wanted to “get even” with the Countess for failing to keep her promise with respect to his father’s former tenants.

George, Catherine and their six or seven children arrived in Pictou in August of 1822[iii] along with several dozen families from Strath Brora. A few were given location tickets in East Pictou but many were dispatched to Earltown where they joined family and friends who had preceded them in 1819 and 1820.

The next post will tell of George’s spiritual calling in the New World.

 

 

[i] Munro, Rev. Donald, “Records of Grace in Sutherland”, Free Church of Scotland 1953 (A biographical collection compiled by Rev. Munro of Rogart in the mid 1800’s)

[ii] Hunter, Dr. James, “Set Adrift Upon the World, The Sutherland Clearances”,   Birlinn 2016

[iii] Church records: Earltown Congregation, Family Register, Microfilm, Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia

iv Correspondence – Hugh Baillie, Brora, Sutherland

 

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