The Frasers of Balloan

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I have been wondering for the best part of a year where John and Anne MacTavish, and then Isabella and her sisters, employers came from. I knew from various papers in the Forfeited Estates that they were William Fraser of Balloan and his mother Anne, but not much more than that. I also knew that the ‘of’ signified someone who owned titled land.

I am using subheadings for today’s somewhat long post:

1. William Fraser of Balloan and his immediate family;

2. Balloan, the place;

3. Ruthven; and

4. Servants, masters and clothing.


I found the answer last week at the National Library of Scotland in a footnote in a book called Some Fraser Pedigrees (written by Duncan Warrand and published in 1934). The footnote (the 35th) was an explanation in a chapter entitled Culduthel (starts on page 102). Culduthel was a name I recognised immediately as I know it is an area of modern day Inverness.

The chapter starts by discussing James Fraser of Ruthven in the parish of Dores who died before 1606. That’s the Ruthven where Isabella was born. I was delighted. At the bottom of page 104, William Fraser of Belloan is mentioned for the first time. He was the fifth child of Malcolm Fraser of Culduthel and the younger brother of this chap …

Figure 1: Unknown (1720) Major James Fraser of Castle Leathers, Accessed from here on 10 February 2019

Note Fraser of Castle Leathers (or Heathers) was a Hanoverian, not a Jacobite. A topic for another post, I think.

Here’s the text of the 35th footnote:

Major Fraser’s Manuscript” II., 129.  William Fraser of Balloan acquired the wester part of Balloan in 1721 (PRS, Inv., 29 May 1721).  In 1731 he obtained a decreet of adjudication against Simon, Lord Lovat, with reference to a large sum of money (R. of D., Durie, CCCLXXIV, 16 June 1731). He and his wife, Anne Fraser, were living in 1755, but he was dead before 24 May 1756 (PRS Inv, X, 284). They had issue two sons and two daughters. Of the daughters, Christian was living in 1725 (B.P.); and Mary appears in 1769 as wife of John Fraser, younger of Garthmore, and executor dative to her brother, William (Com. Inv. Test. Vol VI).  Of the sons, the elder, said William, was served heir to his father in 1758, and he and his mother, Anne Fraser, gave a discharge in 1763, relative to a wadset over Ruthven, Dunchea etc (PRS Inv XI 207).  He died 4 June 1769,in the parish of Dores without issue (Com Inv Test, vol VI). ** His wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Alexander Fraser of Fairfield (idem), who was living in 1801 (PRS Inv, 24 Nov 1801). His brother, Donald Fraser, succeeded to Balloan, and was served heir, 30 August 1769.  As brother-german to the late William Fraser of Balloan, he had precept of clare constat from William Fraser of Balnain for the lands of Dunchea and others (PRS Inv XII, 402).  He died in or before 1801, when his son Simon Fraser of Demerara was his heir (Idem, 3 Nov 1801).  

( **: not true, Fraser of Balloan junior had an illegitimate daughter called Isobel, who was ‘begotten in fornication’ according to the record of her birth )

This explains an awful lot about the Frasers of Balloan, their wealth and their connection with the Old Fox. In the introduction to James Fraser of Castle Leather’s Major Fraser’s Manuscript (the same James Fraser in the portrait above), he and his brothers (including Fraser of Balloan) are discussed thus; “there is no question as to these gentlemen being ‘well connected’ and holding a good position in the North country” (Fergusson, A. eds 1889: 24).

This book states that the Frasers of Culduthel were directly descended from the first Lord Lovat, and therefore that means Fraser of Balloan was directly descended from the Lovats and belonged to one of the Fraser cadet branches.

William Fraser of Balloan (senior) – who was John MacTavish and Anne MacKenzie’s employer at Ruthven (as evidenced on the record of their wedding)- was the first person called to testify on behalf of Simon Lord Lovat at his trial in London in 1747, but he refused to attend (MacKay, D. eds 1911:77) . I don’t know if I’m jumping to conclusions, but I do wonder whether this was due to Balloan not wanting to be seen supporting a major Jacobite or for other reasons.

Balloan junior seems to have been quite an interesting character. He got a girl from Achnabat pregnant while still a teenager and didn’t make an honest woman of her, married the daughter of another wealthy Fraser (Fairfield), fought with other influential Frasers – including his nephew, Erchite- over money and then published the legal proceedings as books (which can still be consulted today), didn’t have any children with his wife and died of a fever at the age of 30 in 1769. And when he died, he left over £1000 (which is the equivalent of about £2 million today).

I found out quite a while ago that Balloan senior has got a special type of wadset on Ruthven from Simon Lord Lovat in 1735 (which meant that it was the only estate not forfeited to the Crown after the 45 due to the type of document) for £500 (about £1 million today) but am still curious to find out what Ruthven was like in 1735. Today Ruthven is a sheep farm, but once it was a much larger estate with a much larger house than the current six bedroom Victorian farmhouse.

BALLOAN (the place)

Now on to Balloan the place. Thanks to Pastmaps, I have discovered that it was very close to Culduthel and Castle Heathers…

Figure 2: Screenshot of the First OS map

Figure 3: 1950s

Figure 4: Current map

The Canmore page for Balloan reveals a very large estate house which it states was built in the 1780s – 1790s (and therefore I presume was built by Duncan Fraser).

Figure 5: Front of the extensive estate house

Figure 6: Balloan was still a working estate in the 1970s

Figure 7: Side view of the main house reveals it was large

These black and white photos were all taken in the 1975. Balloan was clearly once a very impressive estate house.

This photo of a sundial with some kind of additional sculpture on top in the garden was taken in 1975-6. It must have been absolutely beautiful there…

Figure 8: an old sundial with an interesting piece sat on top

Figure 9: Modern map showing current buildings and locations of Canmore historical records

Final map from Pastmaps which shows the one (and a few two bed) houses which are there today and the street view from Google which shows that the original Balloan house and farm buildings have been split into several houses and renamed Culduthel Court or have been entirely rebuilt on the foundations (I get the impression it might be a complex for older residents).

Figure 11: Internal courtyard of Culduthel Court


I have already written a blog post about Ruthven and the township (which contained about twenty buildings), but didn’t really go into much detail about what the main house would have been like. From aerial photography, it is possible to see that what was probably the foundations of the original house was significantly larger, and more akin to a manor house. Unfortunately there is no evidence of what the original house looked like, but given the fact there had been notable Frasers living there since the fifteenth century, there must have been an impressive house.

In this aerial photo you can see the current six bedroom farmhouse. You can also see the foundations of a much larger building behind it.

(I will be adding to this part of the post at a later date after I’ve spent more time in archives).


I have stated elsewhere on the blog that Isabella’s parents were both servants of Balloan at the time of their marriage and that Isabella also probably became one of his servants as soon as she was old enough.

What I haven’t really emphasised before is just how wealthy and well connected the Balloans were, and then by implication how Isabella would not have grown up in the poverty seen elsewhere in Inverness-shire during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

It has been written before by someone else that the dress could have been made from an old plaid (I have already proved that the fabric was made some time after 1775) and that the asymmetric pattern was not common for dress fabrics. The same author hypothesised that this was due to poverty.

I hope I have shown in this post today that the Frasers of Belloan weren’t just any employer and that they clearly looked after their staff (Isabella’s parents spent their entire working lives working for Balloan, and Malcolm & Isabella brought their children up on estates belonging to Balloan and their family).

John Ramsay of Ochertyre wrote extensively about every aspect of life in Scotland in the eighteenth century, with his work being published under the title Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century. The first and second volumes are available to read on the fantastic

The second volume, which was published in 1888 and edited by Alexander Allardyce, contains a wealth of information about the textile production and clothing of Highlanders during the eighteenth century. In the book, we learn that:

the clothes of the family, and even the servants, male and female, were for the most part spun and dyed at home […] Among no set of people was female vanity ever confined within narrower limits; even marriage apparel being mostly manufactured within the family, and their ordinary wear only being a few degrees coarser and plainer. The dresses of the women, young and old, were made by country tailors, who never thought of changing or inflaming the fashions” (Ramsay 1888: 201-2).

The above quote certainly ties in with what the family has been told by their ancestors about the fabric used in Isabella’s dress; that it was made from yarn spun by her at Ruthven.

It could also explain the reason behind the mixture of styles seen in the dress; it has elements common in the 1740s & 1750s along with elements common in the 1770s & 1780s, and there is absolutely no evidence of any alteration ever having taken place.

The book also contains a wealth of information on how homespun fabric was made locally, with the yarn being spun and sometimes dyed before it reached the weaver.

The Fort Augustus replica dress

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Isabella’s dress has captivated dressmakers over time who have all wanted to make their own replicas of her dress. One such replica is on display at the West Highland Museum in Fort William.

The dress in September. It had been display with the back showing

I first saw the dress in September which is also when I met the curator of the museum for the first time. I think it’s fair to say that the dress was on a rather anorexic mannequin (which I have since discovered is a museum piece worthy of display in its own right) in a corner of a room and was not displayed as well as it could be. We had a chat, which resulted in me going to up Fort William for a few days this week to do some voluntary work at the museum.

I decided the first thing that I could do to help from home would be to make a historically-accurate bum roll and petticoat. I hadn’t made a bum roll before, but a quick Pinterest search soon threw up some images which made sense. The bum roll was drafted by me on the (linen) fabric, hand sewn with linen thread, cotton tape was used for the ties and was stuffed with some fleece I had washed but not carded.

Next on to a petticoat. I decided to go with an apron petticoat simply because I have made a fair few before and they are historically accurate. They are basically what they sound;two aprons which are sewn together, with a hem circumference of 100-120″. I chose to use Irish linen for the petticoat (Maggie Stewart on eBay, most beautiful and affordable linen available in the UK) which was 54″ wide. Sewing all those hens with little stitches (I used a small rolled hem for the bottom hem, the mantua makers seam for the sides, gathered whip stitch for the gathering of the top and a simple whip stitch to attach the ties).

A ‘work in progress’ photo; as you can probably see I hadn’t tackled the 108″ of hem yet

When I arrived at the museum on Thursday, this is how the Fort Augustus lady looked

I had taken a couple of pins out which had closed up the bodice, bit annoyed with myself that I didn’t think about taking a photo before.

We set up a work table for me in room 5 (which has been closed for a few days) and did a detailed examination of the dress together. I then carried out repairs.

The first repair was to the left front. Here’s a before and after

Here’s where I repaired loose stitching under the left sleeve

Unsurprisingly the skirt is very heavy and the stitching along the seam between the bodice and skirt has come loose over its 100 years, so I also reinforced the entire waistline with lots of tiny stitches. Another ‘work in progress’ photo


It was then time to dress the mannequin …

Doesn’t she look lovely?


The dress was made by two ladies about the time of the World War 1. Isabella’s dress has been on display at the museum at Fort Augustus Abbey and the monks had hoped to buy the dress off the family. I am told they offered the huge sum of £500, which thankfully was rejected. So the ladies made a replica.

It is obvious they had access to Isabella’s dress. Here’s a side by side photo of the tartan in both dresses

As you can see, the Fort Augustus dress has suffered from some light damage and is not as vibrant as it once was

What is now a greyish green was once a vibrant fir green. I have no idea which dyes the ladies used to dye their hand spun yarn, but suspect they might have used chemical dyes (which are not as light fast as chemical dyes of today or natural dyes such as indigo and old fustic).


To complete the outfit, we decided to bring an amazing arisaid out of storage.

An arisaid was basically the female version of a plaid and was typically two widths wide and about 4-5 yards long.

Here is an etching from Edmund Burt’s Letters with an image of a lady wearing an arisaid (perhaps over emphasised a bit?) at a market in the 1720s

We looked to the Alexander Carmichael collection for a suitable item and not, did we find one!

As amazing as Carmichael was, unfortunately we don’t have very much information on the plaid except that it was from Uist

(I plan to go to his archive at Edinburgh University to see if I can find more information on this plaid and a few other amazing items I saw yesterday)

We may not have the provenance of the arisaid, but we do know it belonged to an I.C. of Uist in 1796.

It is in amazing condition for its age with hardly any damage to it. It is made of two lengths of single width hard tartan which I strongly suspect was woven from a few combed Dunface fleeces and dyed with cochineal, indigo and an unknown yellow. It feels a lot like the hard tartan used in Isabella’s dress and plaid.


The dress and plaid going into their new case in Room 5

The museum has got some beautiful lucky booth brooches and plaid brooches which we were hoping to attach to the dress and plaid to finish off the display. However, we had no way of attaching them today without significantly damaging the dress or plaid, so this will be sewn to within the next few weeks.

I feel a real sense of pride in what Vanessa and I have done at the museum over the past few days. I hope future visitors will enjoy the new display.

The results are in!

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The results are in and I’m afraid I’m going to be rambling on a bit in this post 🙂

I am delighted to let you know the results of the dye analysis, which has helped confirm the age of the fabric due to the use of dyes.

For those of us who don’t really get what the above means:

The red is cochineal;

The blue is either indigo or woad;

and the green is a combination of three dyes; indigo or woad and (this is the surprising bit) fustic and black oak (aka quericitron).

Due to the use of quericitron, we can accurately date the fabric to after October 1775, which is when it was first imported into Britain by the incredibly interesting and entrepreneurial Edward Bancroft, who was originally a chemist in Massachusetts, a friend of Benjamin Franklin and ultimately revealed to be a double agent during the American war of Independence.

Image of Bancroft, accessed from his Wiki page on 9th October 2018.

It was Bancroft who named the dye querci (oak) + citron (lemon), although it was – and still is- referred to as black oak.

Here’s a link to his biography, which you can most read free of charge on Google Books.

Bancroft wrote and published a book on natural dyes in 1814, which you can read for free on the wonderful in two volumes:

Volume 1

Volume 2

It might be a bit surprising to hear that a relatively new dye had found its way into Isabella’s wedding dress, so I decided to do a bit of reading into what things were like in Inverness-shire in the 1780s. A common perception is that the land had been devastated following Culloden and the harsh treatment by the British and that this pretty much carried on into the Clearances. I have also seen it claimed that the skills of weaving – especially of tartan- and the spinning and dyeing of wools had been forgotten or lost.

In his report to the Scottish Parliament in 2008, Professor Hugh Cheape stated that: “Colour and quality were evidently important for eighteenth and early-nineteenth tartans and research showed that red and yellows, for example, which appeared to have been popular in early tartans and supplied the bulk of surviving evidence derived from imported rather than ‘native’ dyestuffs.  Trading connections were vigorous and enabled dyestuffs to be imported into Scotland from an early date.  They are evident in the earliest surviving sources,  for example, madder and woad in the late fifteenth-century and indigo in the seventeenth century, and insect reds being used rather than madder when they became available.  These materials became widely available through travelling traders and a dynamic network of fairs and markets.  Demand and expectation were high in areas now perhaps perceived as remote from the larger market centres and evidence showed that there was regular and frequent communication between the Hebrides and the Clyde.” (the unpublished report was kindly supplied to me by Hugh in an e-mail).

It is true that for the few years following Culloden, life was incredibly difficult for Highlanders. This has been written about a lot and I highly suggest delving into the work of Professor Murray Pittock on this.

However, by the mid 1750s, the Forfeited Estates Commission decided that the best way to deal with the ‘lazy’ Highland women was to set up spinning schools and teach them all to spin (I won’t write any more about what the delightful General Forbes because it makes my blood boil).

And spin they did.

David Loch, a shipbuilder and merchant from Leith, became the Scottish chief inspector of woollen manufactures (appointed to the position in the early 1770s by the Honourable Board of Fisheries, Manufactures & Improvements). He toured a good part of Scotland (the borders, lowlands and eastern coast up to Cromarty and across to Inverness, but left out the northern isles, the Hebrides and the majority of the Highlands) in 1776 and then published a very interesting book, which is free to read online here, which gives us a very interesting snapshot of how important both the linen and wooden trades were to Scotland by that time.

It is not surprising, for example, to find out that Aberdeenshire was heavily involved in knitting both woollen and worsted stockings. Nor is it surprising to read that spinning machines and fulling mills were starting to make their way into the larger industrial cities.

However there are some things which do jump out. I have seen it claimed that by the late 18th century dyeing with indigo had overtaken dyeing with woad to produce blue dye in Scotland. However, Loch specifically mentions woad dyeing and tells us that two gentlemen in Haddington, East Lothian, prepared a huge four tonnes of woad annually (plus he further mentions several dyers with busy woad vats).

Interestingly, the only specific and direct reference Loch makes to ‘Highland plaids’ is Stirling (this was before the repeal of the Act of Proscription):

Screenshot of page 16 of Loch, David (1778) A Tour Through Most of the Trading Towns & Villages of Scotland

Here is Loch’s description of Inverness in 1776:

Screenshot of page 56 of Loch, David (1778) A Tour Through Most of the Trading Towns & Villages of Scotland

By the time of the Old Statistical Account in 1791, Inverness was a thriving market town with 57 weavers – the weavers becoming one of the town’s six incorporated trade guilds- and 12 dyers. (I’ll be writing more about the weavers and dyers of Inverness at a future date).

There was also a thriving production of natural and dyed linen thread (which started in the early 1780s and employed over 10,000 in Inverness and the neighbouring counties).  Over 1000 men, women and children worked in the hemp business (which started in the late 1750s/early 1760s). The flax, by the way, was not produced locally but was imported from the Baltic states . Inverness-shire textiles were sold all over the world, through London. It was noted in the OSA that the increase in trade with the East and West Indies, since the late 1750s, had significantly improved life in Inverness and was one of the main reasons for the improvements in the town and area.

In summary, lots of fabric was being made in Inverness-shire in the 1780s and it wasn’t a poor town. And it was only sixteen miles down General Wade’s road – the one linking Inverness with Fort William – from Ruthven the farm & township where Isabella was born, grew up, got married and gave birth to her first three children. Not a daily journey back then, but certainly possible on a horse.

However, we still have the question of where did Isabella’s dress fabric come from. While we will never know for sure where exactly it came from, nor who made it, here are a few clues.

The width of the fabric is not standard (someone might prefer the word ‘uniform’ here). It measures between 64.05cm and 65.5cm, and therefore could be described as being woven by an inexperienced weaver. It seems unlikely that there would be that much variation in width due to waulking, and there also are not any visible differences in tension or changes in quality at the edges of the fabric.

Loch (1778) makes reference to cloth being taken off the loom and not being finished as being substandard and something that hadn’t been done for fifty years, which would seem to suggest that by the time he was Chief Inspector of Woollen Manufactures the practice of using fabric directly from the loom had been phased out in Scotland.

There are no finished (start or ending) edges in the hems of Isabella’s dress which would indicate that the nine metres used in the dress were cut from a longer piece of cloth.

Given that there were twelve dyers in Inverness and the port frequently hosted ships from London, the Baltic, and the East and West Indies (and quite possibly from America as well), it seems sensible to expect that is where the dyes were purchased to dye the wool in Isabella’s tartan, or perhaps from one of the travelling traders mentioned by Professor Cheape in the above quote. It is quite possible that the wool was dyed in Inverness – there is a uniform depth of colour to all the wool which indicates it was dyed by an experienced dyer, which I would argue is strengthened by the use of new(ish) yellow dyes- but again there is no way of knowing for sure. It is interesting to note that Wilson’s of Bannockburn (as recorded in the archives held at the National Library of Scotland) recorded their dye recipes in 1783 and they included the use of Jusstick (fustic) and Yellow Wood (which could be black oak), so it would make sense that the dyers of Inverness also used similar recipes.

As for the spinning of the wool, the 1755 census of the forfeited estates indicates that Isabella’s mum, Anne MacKenzie, was probably a spinner which means she no doubt would have taught her three girls how to spin. It was quite common practice for wool to be spun at home then taken to be dyed and spun by professional craftsmen. We know that there were plenty of sheep at Ruthven, and that the sheep had not been ‘improved’ before 1785 (that would come a few decades later) so the ‘old Highland breed’ of the Scottish Dunface.  The Dunface is unfortunately extinct but is similar in textile properties to Shetland wool.  It is quite possible that the wool was spun at home by Isabella and her female relatives – but again there is no way of knowing for sure. The hard tartan fabric  was made from combed, not carded, singles Z-spun wool and does have very similar qualities to other pieces of tartan known to be spun from the Dunface. The wool was spun by experienced spinners to a uniform fine width of approximately 32-36 wraps per inch.



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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 🙂

Old stories

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Old stories are quite wonderful things; sometimes they are rooted in fact and other times are just fanciful creations of an imaginative mind that get passed on somehow.

Families sometimes have stories about their ancestors. For example, there’s a story in my husband’s family that one of his ancestors was involved in captaining a ship involved in the slave trade. In my fifteen or so years of researching our family trees, I have found no evidence of this at all – although one of them was born on Montserrat in the 17th century (which makes me wonder if that’s where the myth came from). Another from my own family; my nan firmly believed that her great, great grandfather was the head coachman at Blenheim Palace. He wasn’t; he was a groom. Interestingly though, his son became a head gardener.

Screenshot captured yesterday which has prompted this post

A story which I have seen on numerous times on Pinterest is that the dress has been continually worn by the family for their weddings since Isabella wore it in 1785 (I should like to add that this did not originate with the family, but seems to have come from elsewhere).

The dress has been worn by four generations only:

– Isabella on 12/1/1785,

– Her daughter in law, Jane, on 3/12/1826. who married Isabella’s 6th (out of 11!), Tavish). It is not known if any of Isabella’s daughters wore the dress for their weddings or not (the romantic in me certainly hopes they did);

– The current custodian in 1978;

– The current custodian’s daughter in 2005;

– and the plaid was worn by the current owner’s new daughter-in-law last month (July 2018).

So, it has indeed been worn by one branch of Isabella’s ancestors (unsurprisingly no longer Frasers or MacTavishes) and will continue to be worn and treasured by them, as well as enjoyed by the rest of the world thanks to the display at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

Although the current custodian’s mother and granny chose not to wear it for their weddings, they both graciously made sure it was exhibited from 1900 onwards. It is thanks to them that the great textile historian, John Telfer Dunbar, saw it exhibited in London in 1939 at the Scottish Art Exhibtion and wrote about it in both The Costume of Scotland (1981) and History of Highland Dress (1962). Telfer Dunbar’s archive is at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, so I hope to see his notes soon on the dress 🙂

What will these threads reveal?

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Amazingly up close the darker thread is indeed a very dark blue. Even a couple of metres away the blue looks black but taking the dress out into daylight revealed how very vibrant the dyes still are.

I have hunches but scientific testing will reveal what dyes were used.  Importantly, these should give an indication of the age of the fabric, imported dyes being more prevalent towards the end of the eighteenth century than before (see Annette Kok’s chapter in The History of Highland Dress by John Telfer Dunbar and articles by Professor Hugh Cheape and Dr Anita Quye for more information on what dyes were used and when).



Here are a few photos I took this afternoon of our private viewing.

Many thanks to the wonderful Kari and her assistant at the Inverness Museum for all their help this afternoon 🙂

Love token


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The rear of Isabella’s brooch




When I went to see Isabella and Malcolm’s descendants on Skye in February, the owner of the dress showed me Isabella’s ring, brooch and snuffbox (made out of a cow’s horn with a silver lid). All three had the same engraving of her initials as you can see on the brooch above, although they have worn off the ring.

This brooch fits into the palm of your hand and the pin at the back is a bit useless as you are not able to pierce fabric with it (& hence would be no good as a brooch for an arisaid).

This evening I found out what it was thanks to those lovely two nerdy history girls: a luckenbooth brooch. The wiki page on Luckenbooth brooches explains everything on them, except how they were worn by women. I think it makes sense that it would be attached to a woman’s fichu, just before it is tucked in. The romantic in me imagines it on a fichu, on Isabella’s wedding day.

Whether it was given by Malcolm to Isabella at their betrothal or their wedding day we will probably never know. But what we do know is that it was treasured.

Updated on 19th April 2018 to add:

The jewellery was made by Thomas Borthwick, who was active in Inverness from 1772 until 1783.

2D becoming 3D

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I have always had a fascination for maps. My interest in them started quite early on and the more I study them, the more I love them. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered Past Map where it is possible to look at both old and recent maps, and compare them. So I decided to have a look for Isabella’s childhood home of Ruthven. I knew from her descendants that it’s not far from Dores, where she married Malcolm back in 1785 and where her children are buried. I found it pretty quickly, then discovered how close her first marital home, Dunchea, is (it’s one of the neighbouring farms to Ruthven) and how Bochruben, Achnabat and Erchit(e) are all relatively close by.

After my first visit to the National Records of Scotland and the surprising discovery how much the annual rent was for Ruthven, I decided I had to check see if any other Ruthvens were on Fraser of Lovat land. First of all, I googled for a Fraser of Lovat map and this one on Pinterest came up:

map of Fraser of Lovat clan lands, with Loch Ruthven circled in black (accessed from in April 2018)


I had wondered if the village of Ruthven (near to Ruthven Barracks) was on Fraser of Lovat land, but it clearly was not. I had a look through the rest of the land, as defined on the map above, on Past Map and nothing else showed up.

What did show up was pretty interesting, though.

Map from showing the location of three farms, accessed April 2018

The romantic in me likes to think that Malcolm and Isabella grew up as childhood sweethearts, but that we will never know. They must have known each other for all their lives though. Maybe they met on a summer sheilling?

Ruthven, where Isabella was born, is a neighbouring farm to Dunchea, her first marital home. Malcolm, her husband, was born at Bochruben, less than a mile away.

I had to go and see the place for myself, so we went on Sunday (after the Culloden commemoration weekend). The weather was beautiful.

Blackface sheep everywhere! Lovely to see them just roaming around, as they have done for hundreds of years

Loch Ruthven from the north side. Today Loch Ruthven is an RSPB nature reserve.

Loch Ruthven is described on Scotland’s Places as “a large loch which lies between Strath Errick, and Strath Nairn, the water of which runs into river Farigaig. It is about two miles in length and about 1/2 mile broad at its western end, but very narrow at the opposite one. It is celebrated for its fish which are numerous and large.”

Unfortunately Bochruben, (OS reference OS1/17/23/24) Malcolm’s birthplace and Home, is out of shot in these photos. It is described on Scotland’s Places as “a large farmhouse, two stories high,having numerous offices attached; the whole of which are slated and in excellent repair Captain John Fraser Balnain by Inverness Proprietor”

River Farigaig

You can just make out Ruthven (OS1/17/23/19), Isabella’s birthplace and most likely the place where her dress was made, on the left of this picture. Ruthven was described as “a large and recently built farmhouse, two stories high, with extensive offices attached, all being slated in thorough repair, Lord Lovat proprietor Beaufort Castle, Beauly, Inverness-shire” on Scotland’s Places

You can also see what is referred to on the map as Tom Buidhe (OS1/17/23/16) at the water’s edge. According to Scotland’s Places, it refers to a “yellow hillock and is applied to a small rocky eminence situated on the north side of Loch Ruthven and about 1/4 mile north of the Farm steading of Ruthven”. It then states that it was the property of Captain J Fraser of Balnain by Inverness (more on him at a later date – he’s come up in my research at the National Records of Scotland), and that the source of the information was Mr D Whyte and Mr J MacTavish.

The map also details the remains of a crannog. It is hardly surprising that the people have lived there for thousands of years; the land is fertile and the loch is not only home to rare birds but is possibly full of fish as well.

A note on the information on the Scotland’s Places website; this comes from the Inverness-shire name books of 1876-1878.

We also went to Dores to go and have a look at the church (where they were married on 12th January 1785). The current church was built in the 19th century, I presume on the foundations of a previous church building as the graveyard dates from the 18th century and there was definitely a church there in 1784. Isabella and Malcolm’s children are buried there. Link to page on Canmore

Image of Dores in 1784 from

The church and graveyard today

The beach at Dores, on Loch Ness. An absolutely beautiful spot which I highly recommend visiting if you can – especially as it is next to the Dores Inn. If you want to find out more about the area, there is an excellent local research group online

It was wonderful to go and explore, albeit briefly, where Isabella lived and to see it with my own eyes (& not on Google maps).

The next post will be on a box of documents at the National Records of Scotland, which have provided written proof of Malcolm farming these lands at the turn of the 19th century.

I will get on to the dress itself towards the end of May, after I have visited it again.

Delving a bit deeper

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Good afternoon from an overcast, yet still incredibly beautiful, Edinburgh.

This project is not just about a dress. One of the aims of the research is to find out a bit more about the life of Isabella, her husband Malcolm, their parents and children. I find it important that as much as possible is rooted in fact, which is why I have been at this wonderful place today

The National Records of Scotland

The National Records of Scotland are located in a very grand building just across from Waverley Train Station (very handy indeed!). I love the journey into Edinburgh on the train, especially as soon as I clap eyes on the old town!

I did some research on the National Archives’ Discovery database from the comfort of my sofa and soon decided that I need to visit the NRS. I had planned to come a few weeks ago, but also the elements had other ideas and dumped tons of snow on central Scotland.

The folks at the NRS couldn’t have been more helpful. I’ve used archives before, but the grandeur of the building and some very serious researchers looking at some very old documents was a bit overwhelming. Only one of the documents – well two, actually- were available today as someone else had booked the others.

Clan chiefs were pretty good at recording who owed them rent. Unfortunately the vast majority of the Fraser of Lovat Records were destroyed in a fire at Dounie in the 1930s (so I’m told by the author Sarah Fraser), so there aren’t huge amounts of documents relating to the area I’m looking at for this project. However, there are some.

CS96/938-9 are two hard back books from the early 19th century. They contain details of Lovat rentals between 1815-1820 (the full title is the Fraser Family of Lovat and Fraser of Strichen, Ledger Rental and Journal Rental, 1815-1820). My first concern was they might be in Gaelic, but alas thankfully they aren’t; they are in English. The first book, CS96/938 contains information on the rentals of large farms and estates, and CS96/939 contains details about smaller plots (e.g. cottages in Beauly). Tenants aren’t named in CS96/938, but they are in CS96/939. The sheer number of Frasers is amazing.

I decided to have a look for Malcolm Fraser  first then widen my search to include where he was born (Bochruben in Stratherrick), where Isabella was born (Ruthven near Torness in Stratherrick), where Malcolm’s father was born (Erchit), and his mother (Achnabat). Quite a few places to keep an eye out for. No luck there.

I spent over two hours scanning through the places and the names, and the only success I had was Isabella’s birthplace – Ruthven.

I am not yet certain if John MacTavish was still working at Ruthven in 1815-1820 (annoyingly deaths don’t seem to have been registered frequently, just births and marriages).

I do not know who the main tenant was of Ruthven (and therefore John’s boss/landlord) at that period but whoever was renting it from Lovat was paying him £63 a year in rent (and 5s 3d for the school teacher’s annual salary and 7s 10d for roads). £63 in 1815 is about £4777 today (according to

£4777 doesn’t seem much in today’s money, but when you take into consideration that the annual rents from the whole of Beauly – where the average cottage cost £1 5s a year- was £89 2s 2d, you soon understand that Ruthven was not a cheap place to live. Isabella had spent her whole life there until she was married (1760 – January 1785), which indicates that her father had stable employment there.

(Edited to add (22/1/19):

From the marriage record, I have found out that Isabella’s parents John McTavish and Anne McKenzie were both servants of Fraser of Belloan at the time of their marriage, living at Ruthven.

Next week I hope to delve into the 580 items in GD128/13 which may well shed some more light on the Frasers and McTavishes; ‘Frasers of Lovat: legal and estate papers relating to tenants 1670 – 1817’. Although I can’t share any photos of the documents with you, I will let you know about anything I find out about the families.

Edited to add, 22/1/19.

I have found out lots more. To be written about soon.

My love affair with Isabella MacTavish Fraser’s wedding dress started one evening when browsing through Pinterest.  I had started watching Outlander a couple of months after it was released on Amazon Prime and had fallen in love with the costumes (the green tartan dress that Claire wears in episode 105 is still my favourite).

Isabella’s dress had popped up in an ‘Outlander costumes’ Pinterest search, got pinned immediately and then was looked at almost every day for a week before I started to read about the dress itself.  My love affair with 18th century costuming was in its infancy and Outlander’s wonderful costumes were inspiring me to learn a lot more.  Then about three and a bit years ago, I attempted to make some cosplay costumes for myself and my daughter.

So, move forward a couple of years and I’m not just knitting (which I’ve done almost every day for the past fourteen years), spinning (an autumn/winter hobby) and dyeing (usually a late spring/summer hobby), but also embroidering more and starting to learn how to make clothing the 18th century way. I found my favourite patternmaker, read a few books and many blog posts (found initially through Pinterest).


Last August the Highland Folk Museum held an Outlander day, which I attend with friends and family (we took over half a hostel in Newtonmore) and then went to the Outlander event at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. While everyone else was looking at Jacobite glass and guns which had been used at Culloden, I was staring at Isabella’s dress through the glass window of the cabinet in which it is displayed.  The first thing that hit me was what wonderful condition the dress is in, despite being from 1784/5. Then the stitching – clearly not made by a professional seamstress- and how the pattern does not match in places.  Finally, the panel on the wall next to the dress (with a photo of a wedding in 2005) confirmed that I needed to learn more about this dress and its first owner.

I have been researching my family tree for years, so I decided to have a look on Ancestry to see if there was any information on there about Isabella and her husband Malcolm, and sure enough there was.  I got in touch via direct message with Ian MacLean, one of their descendants, who kindly allowed me to save the information he had found on his five times great grandparents (which will eventually appear on this blog).

What I learned from Ancestry and Ian:

  • Isabella and Malcolm were married in Dores church on 12 January 1785;
  • Isabella was born on 3 January 1760 at Ruthven, on the banks of Loch Ruthven. This was near Torness, Stratherrick . Her parents were John McTavish and Anne MacKenzie, who were both born in 1740. She had two younger sisters, Anne and Elspeth.
  • Malcolm was born on 27 November 1757 at Bochrubin (farm) in Stratherrick. His father was Donald Fraser and his mother was Elis NicCuian (both born 1730). His father, Donald, had passed away just before he was born in Germany (he was in the Army fighting in the Seven Years War, like many other Highland men of his age). He had an older sister, Margaret.
  • They had six children (one had sadly passed away in infancy), three of the sons staying near their parents on neighbouring farms their whole lives.

EDITED TO ADD (22/1/19)

They actually had eleven children. More on that soon.

  • Some of their children are buried in Dores churchyard. There appears to be no record of Isabella or Malcolm’s deaths, although Isabella is on the 1841 census aged 80 and was a widow by then.
  • There was a family belief that Isabella was a shepherdess who had witnessed Culloden. This clearly is not possible as she hadn’t been born, and her mother was only 5 or 6, in 1746 but the family does wonder if this relates to an older female relative. I’ll be doing some more research in the future to try and uncover and further clues.
  • There is also a belief in the family that Malcolm’s parents were Jacobites. While I’ve not found any proof to back this up (yet!), they were both 15 or 16 when Culloden took place – not far from where they lived- would certainly have been fully aware what was taking place. Malcolm doesn’t appear on the Prince’s muster roll, but it is possible his father was; again more research is needed.


2018, so far…

Life got in the way for a few months, as it usually does, but things came together earlier this month; it was half term and my husband was able to get some time off work so I made an appointment with Kari at the museum to go up and examine the dress (with the door open this time!). I have also met with the family – more on that next week.


rest of 2018

A complete whirlwind, to be deliberated on in 2019 🙂