Am Bratach No. 308
June 2017

History file
by Malcolm Bangor-Jones

The attack on the inn at Durine — the most serious incident of the Durness Riots — took place on the evening of September 18 1841. Having driven the sheriff officers and their party from the inn, the “mob” returned and made a second rush into the building.

Some twenty to thirty men, now armed with the constables’ batons, forced their way into the room where the sheriff substitute Gordon and the procurator fiscal Fraser were taking tea. With the “most diabolical threats” the rioters told them to go instantly “for they had resolved that not a man of them should sleep in the Parish of Durness that night”.

The sheriff, however, refused to sign a letter promising never to return to Durness. After consulting among themselves the rioters issued an “imperative order that the Sheriff & his party should instantly quit the Inn, and proceed homewards”.

The sheriff’s party tried to point out the difficulty of travelling at a late hour and asked to be allowed to remain till daylight, particularly as “the Sheriff was unwell and as the night air might endanger his life”. Some of the rioters laughed while others called out “Strip them naked, Break their Gigs, Take hold of the Devils — Knock them down”, and other expressions, probably too rude to mention.

The sheriff’s party agreed to leave as being the safest course. They were told that if they ever returned the people would lie in wait and kill them. Gordon and Fraser, with seven of the constables, being all the ones that could be found, set off at about 11 o’clock on a very dark night.

They were escorted by a strong body of men who continued cheering, and using the “most opprobrious epithets” as they went along. They reached Heilam Inn on Loch Eriboll at five o’clock in the morning. The remaining men caught up with them a few hours later.

The fury of the rioters seems to have been particularly directed against the Chief Constable Philip Mackay. After being dragged out of the inn he managed, in the darkness and confusion, to creep away through the rioters’ feet into a field of corn, where he hid himself.

So enraged were the people at his escape that they left the inn and began to search all around it with lights, which gave him the opportunity of slipping quietly back. Suspecting where he had gone, they rushed back in and searched every room, in the process breaking much of the furniture. A servant girl, however, managed to conceal him, and when all had quietened down, he left his hiding place and made his way to Heilam.

On September 22 Fraser reported what had happened to the authorities in Edinburgh. He concluded that “from the general rising in this Parish, from a growing spirit of insubordination among the lower orders on the north coast, the law cannot be enforced in the most trifling case, till an example be made”.

No civil force, however numerous, could be of the slightest use, either to arrest someone or to execute a summons. In fact, civilians would not act and unless a military force be employed to assist the local authorities in investigating what had taken place and in making arrests, “bloodshed may ensue”. The people would easily resist a small party of troops and Fraser suggested that no less than 150 men would be necessary.

In the meantime, the Duke of Sutherland had become involved when a petition was addressed to him by Anderson’s subtenants making a number of allegations against their master. This prompted an immediate investigation by George Gunn, the factor for the Dunrobin district and senior factor in Sutherland, and Robert Horsburgh, the factor at Tongue.

In their own words, the factors undertook to meet with the “unfortunate & deluded people” but at the same time guard against the Duke being in “any way made a party to, or his name mixed up with the late illegal & distressing events”.

They met Anderson’s subtenants at the inn in the presence of the Reverend Findlater. The petition, which had been drafted by the schoolmaster William Ross and copied out by a son of one of the subtenants, was read back to the subtenants, “distinctly & slowly” and the factors then went through it, statement by statement.


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