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I have become a little bit obsessed with trying to learn more about what Isabella’s life was like. For me, the dress is a physical reminder not only of the history of textile making in the 18th century, but – perhaps more importantly- the life a lady once lived. The remarkable story of the dress being worn by her descendants adds even more to this.

Whilst we will never know for sure where the fabric came from, who spun the yarn (although we know the flax cane from Ruthven), who dyed the yarn, who wove the yarn into fabric and, finally, who made the dress, we can make assumptions based on research done by scholars and accounts recorded at the time by travel writers (like Johnson and Boswell and their very interest accounts of a visit to the Highlands and Islands in 1773).

We can also access documents in archives which tell us a lot more about what went on at the time. For example, it has been stated elsewhere that during the Act of Proscription (1746-1782) the skills of spinning, dyeing and weaving were lost. Records in the NAS show this is not really true. For example, schools were set up in the 1750s across the Highlands as a way to provide work for women and the spinning of both linen and wool as a way to provide extra income was frequently mentioned in reports to the Forfeited Estates Commission.

– – – – –

Isabella was born, baptised (OPR Births 096/A 10 21 Dores) and married (OPR marriages 096/A 20 112 Dores) at Ruthven which at the time was a small township.

It also seems likely that Isabella and Malcolm lived there for a few years as their first three children were born there.

Loch Ruthven, with Ruthven in the distance

Ruthven is situated on the banks of the beautiful Loch Ruthven, only a few miles away from the much larger Loch Ness. The loch is a nature reserve today, being home to many different species of birds as well as full of brown trout.

As I have mentioned previously, I am rather fond of maps and also making use of technology. There are quite a few historical maps available to look at on the Internet. One of the first known maps to include Ruthven dates from just after Culloden: General Roy’s map. This can be searched very easily online here. Here’s a screenshot of what Ruthven looked like on his map.

Screenshot accessed from here on 28/8/18

A later map, the first edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey map, shows Ruthven as the main part of the township as well as Easter Ruthven nearer to the loch. It was apparently quite common for townships to be divided into two areas (this can still be seen today at the only surviving township in Scotland, Auchindrain in Argyll).

The current OS map shows the remains of four distinct areas:

Current OS map accessed from Past Map, 28/8/18, showing locations of archaeological reports. Blue dots also point out the much, much older crannog settlement & Tom buidhe

Canmore contains archaeological reports on the four areas:

1. Near the ‘224’ (Wester Ruthven perhaps?)

2. Ruthven

3. North of Ruthven

4. Easter Ruthven

Ruthven was owned by the Frasers of Lovat until the ‘Old Fox’ Simon Fraser wadset (mortgaged) the farm in 1736 for the very large sum 5000 Scottish merks (about £30,000 today). The money was provided by William Fraser of Belloan. In 1743, it seems the Old Fox was unable to pay his bills and the property was transferred to William Fraser. After the ’45, Fraser of Lovat was beheaded and his lands were seized by the Crown. Although no longer officially owned by Lovat, Ruthven was finally seized by the Crown in 1763 (with permission of William Fraser Jnr. And his mother, Ann). All of this, by the way, is documented in papers relating to forfeited estates which is held at the National Records of Scotland.

There are many documents at the NRS which detail how the forfeited estates were managed. In 1755/6, a census was taken on the forfeited estates and *some* surveyors were quite detailed in their recording. For example, names and professions were recorded for everyone living in the town of Callander. Not so on the estates in Inverness; they just took a headcount and the name of the main tenants. Here is the information on Ruthven in 1755/6 (which would have certainly included Isabella’s parents, John and Anne):

Name of farm: Ruthven

Possessor: William Fraser

Number of families: 6


Under 10

Male. 9

Female 11

Betwixt 10 and 17

Male 1

Female 1

Above 17

Male. 15

Female 15

Number of those who speak the English language: 4


Horses 20

Black cattle 60

Sheep 120

6 pecks of potatoes sewn

Annual rent: £17 5 2

Another later example: document surveying the farms in the area (which had belonged to Lovat), we get the following information about the farm and value in October 1770:

Ruthven at 5/6 soum

– 26 milk cows;

– 13 three year olds;

– 13 two year olds;

– 13 one to two year olds;

– 12 horses;

– 20 sheep of 10 to each soum;

– 30 goats of 10 to each soum;

Rent confirms to the soums of £20 11 6.

The rent was set at £17 5 2, with an additional £3 19 10 being levied, making an annual rent of £21 5 to the main tenant, Daniel Fraser of Belloan. (NRS E769/72)

It is interesting to note that the rent to the Fraser of Belloan hadn’t changed in 15 years, something which no doubt helped contribute to the growth in their livestock.

Ownership of Ruthven was returned to the Fraser of Lovat in 1774, along with the rest of his ancestral lands, by an Act of Parliament.

This brings me on to the next part of Ruthven’s story, the Clearances. Ruthven became a single farm of about 1000 acres, supporting 500 sheep and 20 Highland cows, in the 1860s. The township buildings were knocked down, and a new seven-bedroom farmhouse and large barn were built.

According to valuation rolls, the farm was sold by the Fraser of Lovat some time between 1905 and 1915.

In 1912, the Matheson family from nearby Gorthleck moved in and rented the farm until fairly recently. The last farmer’s son, who grew up on the farm, sent me these photos of his ancestors farming at Ruthven in 1934 (shared with his permission)

And an aerial photo, which has been passed down through the family

And finally, one with his dad on a frozen Loch Ruthven

The history of this farm is (at least to this city girl), quite frankly amazing. It is an excellent example of what happened across the Highlands over a long period of time; once the land of crannogs (remains of three have been found at the loch edge), a Middle Ages settlement (Tom buidhe), early modern townships and finally a rather grand Victorian farm, which became a 21st century sheep farm.

My fascination with Ruthven started with wanting to know more about where the linen from the lining of Isabella’s dress came from but I have learned so much more 🙂

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