DÀIBHIDH SÙRLAN – How David MacLeod was Named

Latha math dhuibh, a chàrdan.

Time now to look at the short section of David MacLeod’s diaries which deal with his namesake and uncle David Sutherland and also at how David himself came to be named after him. David is not an incredibly common name in the Scottish Highlands, but like Adam, seems to crop up often in Highland Caithness.

FULL TEXT WITH COMMENTARY (in brackets and italics)

David Sutherland, my uncle – him after whom I have been named – was born in Leodibest, 15th February, 1816 (A time during which many a veteran of Waterloo would have recently returned home to the Latheron scene. I still have the medal belonging to the 2x g-grandfather of David’s nephew-in-law, my own 4x g-grandfather Alasdair Gobha [Alexander Gow], ÀM).  Went first to school – female conducted by – at the Rean[?] (I am unsure where this is, although from a brief internet search, there could be a place of similar name around Rogart, Sutherland, ÀM), then went to school near the old mill, Latheronwheel (Latharn a’ Phuill [low-lying muddy place] I do not have a location for this school and would be much obliged if supplied with one, ÀM), then went to the Latheron School conducted by Mr Sinclair [below, left].  Then kept school himself at John Barnie’s, Upper Boultach (This sounds like Eathan Bàrnaidh [a relative of both David and myself, ÀM] was running one of what were known as the “parish schools” – often operating out of people’s homes. A member of the community would school those children who were able to attend in as many subjects as they could in exchange for whatever could be spared as a stipend, plus peats and comestibles. Crucially, in the Highlands, these schools often operated through the medium of the Gaelic language and while it is likely that English was taught from an early period in Caithness schools, Gaelic would have yet been well to the fore), then went three sessions to the Aberdeen University (at the time still King’s College, Aberdeen) at which he gained a bursary of £16 in his second session.  Was one year teaching the Rev. Cook’s son (are we to assume this was the famous Archibald Cook Sutherland 1838-1910?) in Reay’s (is this Lord Reay?) and one year teaching a son of Rev. Davidson’s of Latheron [below] Church.  He intended to study for the ministry.  Died December 1842 (just before the Great Disruption of 1843 when the Free Church split from the Established, preventing him from having to “pick sides”).

When I was born, some desired that I would be called afer my uncle and grandfather objected (David’s grandfather Àdhamh would no doubt have objected due to the tradition of a first son being named for his paternal grandfather, Seumas therefore being the correct appelation. He may even have been seeking the boy being named after himself of course!), but some old woman – no doubt a witch, or a good old worthie (“worthie / worthy” seems to be an English usage quite peculiar to Caithness, denoting a local character) – threw her petticoat over me and named me Davie (Interesting that in a non-Scots-speaking area where the name “Davie” would not have been used, this spelling has probably been written so in order to give a nod to the Gaelic Dàibhidh which in pronunciation /DAIY-vie/ is much closer to the former name than the official form “David” from his birth certificate).  That was enough; grandfather’s opposition melted and I was duly sprinkled with water for my uncle. (The throwing of the petticoat over David would have been a protection against the advances of the Daoine Beaga [Wee Folk, Faeries] during the naming ceremony, showing that the old practices were well to the fore with the older generation during the mid 19th century)

The fact that David refers to the old lady involved in naming him as “a witch or a good old worthie” is interesting. This suggests that he either did not know who the person was, or chose to retrospectively refer to her in this manner in an attempt to distance himself from anything that could be perceived as “pagan”. As the diaries go on, it will become obvious just how Abrahamic people were becoming in their beliefs. The story of the petticoat shows that the old ways, however under threat, lurked just below the surface. The chances are in fact that the anonymous “some old woman” would likely have been a relation, certainly a neighbour, and no doubt a lady of some knowledge when it came to plants, cures and Gaelic cosmology and spiritual tradition. I consider it a privilege even just to read of her existence and I take great pleasure in the fact that her presence was appreciated to the point of the practice of the petticoat-throwing being allowed to take place.

Only recently, I had the honour of conducting a recording session with Latheron Parish tradition-bearer Diomag Dubh (James “Jimmag” Black, 91, above) who regaled me with several fascinating stories about local witches whose abilities were considered very much to the fore even in the early years of his own lifetime. Below is one such story from Jimmag’s precious treasury of lore:

“So, evidently… There’s some burn then and a tributary goes in till this burn.  And it’s a shepherd that came on her, supposedly.  And she was sittin here where the burns met, that’s the invers, where they come oot, they come all together.  And there was a… the witch wifie was sittin there with a skellat and she was takin water wae the skellat oot a’ the wan inver in till the next one or the next one and she was mutterin away “[indistinct] and here’s and yours and yours to mine” and the shepherd came up on her back and he said “yes – and yours to mine!” and boy, the wifie gave a squall and away.

So, the shepherd went home and the wife went milkin and she coudna stop the milk; she’d a bath full a’ milk, an owld tin bath and goodness knows what and the milk was still comin oot the coo.  So they were in a hell o a fix wae it, evidently.  So, the shepherd had to go back where the confluence was and he said “yes, I mind to ye” and he went home and the coo was fine.  So he’d pittin the freet back.  But I mean, it’s a story; it couldn’t possibly be true as far as I know!  But does it no show ye?!”

In the next blog, we will look at David’s early life before he took up his diary-writing at the age of 21. We’ll learn about what he went through in order to acquire what education came his way.

Gach beannachd air an àm,

Àdhamh (ÀM)


  1. My Mum used to refer to a lady from the Berriedale area (Caithness) as Betty Rhian. She’d have been born c 1920-30. As a child, I always thought it was her surname but then discovered that she came from a place called the Rhian and Mum used it to differentiate her from other Bettys.

    However, this Rhian seems too far away to be where the school would have been.

    • It’s not out of the question, Anna. Will always remember fondly that first time we met for a coffee and Gaelic blether in Wick many years ago! À

  2. The Rhian is the sharp bend where the Landhallow/Leodibest road (north side of the Latheronwheel burn) meets the Smerral road (south side of the burn) which continues up to meet the Causewaymire. There was a mill in Latheronwheel strath in the mid 1800s where my great great grandfather Robert Henderson (1779 – 1861) was the last miller. I’m not aware of a school having been there though.
    I’m enjoying reading your blog – thank you!

    • Yes, I know exactly where you are. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. It’s been in the making for about 20 years this blog, but only now do I have the knowledge to really handle the material sympathetically. Enjoy February’s and there’ll be more next month! Àdhamh

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