Sir Roderick and Donald Murchison: Rent Collection and Geology

Rent Day in the Wilderness. A painting by Sir Edwin Landseer, that now hangs in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh (PD image courtesy of Wikimedia).

Those of you who have read my book The Immeasurable Wilds and made it to the end of the last chapter will know of the connection between this fine painting by Sir Edwin Landseer, and the significant Scottish geology in the 19th century. It is an interesting story on which I intend to elaborate on this page. 

For about 30 years in the second half of the 19th century a controversy raged in geological circles concerning the succession of the rocks in the far north-west of Scotland (see my page on the Highlands Controversy on this website). One of the central figures in the argument was a leading figure in the science at that time, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. He was Director General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, and as such a powerful figure whose word carried much weight. What is more, he had written a much-respected book titled The Silurian System which revealed a whole new period of geological history, based on his research on the borders of Wales. He called it Siluria.

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, depicted in an 1870 Vanity Fair Magazine caricature, a year before his death.

Murchison was a proud Scot who traced his ancestors back to past owners of the picturesque Eilean Donan Castle that stands on a small promontory in Loch Duich. The castle had been a ruin since it was involved in action duringthe 1719 Jacobite uprising, but it underwent extensive restoration work in the 1920s, and is now one of the most photographed sights in the north-west of Scotland. The surname Murchison was attached to another important figure at that time, Donald Murchison.

William Daniell's aquatint of Eilean Donan Castle, published in 1821.

The castle in its restored state, a drawing made in 1967 by Victor Papworth.

I have learnt a little more about Donald Murchison from William Mackay's Sidelights on Highland History, which was published in Inverness in 1925. Donald was a tenant of Achtertyre, and the Earl of Seaforth's chamberlain. Seaforth was a staunch Jacobite, and after the 1715 uprising, the estates of the Earl of Seaforth, The Chisholm and Grant of Glenmoriston were forfeited, and placed under the control of the British government. A body called the Forfeited Estates Commissioners was set up, whose job it was to collect the rents owing to the Crown. Meanwhile, the Earl of Seaforth had escaped to France.

The Commissioners had a difficult task on their hands. In 1715, the far north of Scotland was still a comparatively unknown area to those approaching from further south, and there was some reluctance on the part of the native population to hand over their rents to the government. Donald Murchison, in fact, made sure that all the rents owing were collected and sent over to Seaforth, who was in exile in France.

Government officials, such as Sir Patrick Strachan, were sent north to see what was going on, but they showed some reluctance to venture deep into the problem areas, preferring to hold court in the vicinity of Inverness. The situation did not improve after an uprising in 1719 was defeated at the Battle of Glenshiel, so a decision was made to appoint two local Ross-shire Whigs, William and Robert Ross, to make a serious effort to recover the rents owing, under the protection of Lt. John Allardyce and a company of the Royal Regiment of North British Fusiliers.

The party set off on 13th September, 1721, and made their way to Invermoriston where they summoned the various tenants in an effort to collect some rent. In this they failed completely, and after "giving judgement against the defaulters", they moved on to Strathglass, with much the same result. The intention then was to proceed to Kintail, but on learning this, one Patrick Grant (second son of Glenmoriston) took the short route via the Braes of Glenmoriston, and warned Donald of the Ross's expected visit. Murchison, a veteran of "the Fifteen", gathered together some 300 men, and met the party on Monday 2nd October at Ath-nam-Muileach in Glen Affric. A short skirmish ensued, in which William Ross's son, Walter, was killed, and the government officials and their escorts quickly retreated.

The event was seen as a humiliation, and an outrage, and considerable effort was made to discover exactly who the rebels were. Courts of Enquiry were set up on 11th and 12th November in Inverness, at Guisachan on 16th November, and at Duldreggan on the 20th. William Mackay, in his book, quotes the minutes for these courts, at which witnesses named in person a large proportion of the 300 rebels who had defied the Commissioners. Donald Murchison's name appears repeatedly, yet no action was taken against him, and he escaped any punishment. What is more, he continued to send the rents to his Master in France.

This small event gives a clear indication of the lack of control the Government had in the far north at this time. Realising this, the powers-that-be sent General Wade to the area to improve matters, and full control was finally achieved after the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746.

As for Donald Murchison, the story does not end well. I quote William Mackay: "According to tradition, he died at a comparatively early age, broken-hearted by Seaforth's ingratitude to him."

I think Sir Roderick Impey Murchison would prefer to see his ancestor, not broken-hearted, but rather as the dashing figure in Landseer's marvellous painting. In fact, Donald as portrayed by the artist was said to have been modelled on Sir Roderick. Landseer included in the painting a snuff box which was in the possession of the famous geologist - it can be seen on the rug in the foreground. The murchison family were convinced that it was a gift from James the Pretender (modern research doubts this!), bit it certainly came from a Jacobite sympathiser, for inscribed on the top is "James Rex, Forward and Spare Not."

Towards the end of his life, Sir Roderick carried out a certain amount of work tracing his ancestors. I have in my collection an envelope, without, alas, the contents, dated August 1860, clearly signed by Murchison, and addressed to Dr K. Murchison Corbet, Beauley. I suspect the letter was connected to family matters rather than geology.

The Murchison Monument, on the shores of Loch Duich.

The inscription on the monument, showing that it was erected in 1863, and restored by the geologist's nephew in 1928.

But the most significant Murchison memorial still stands on the shores of Loch Duich, east of Lochalsh, a tall stone monument erected by Sir Roderick in 1863,  in memory of his distinguished ancestor, Donald.

Looking down Loch Duich, to the land of Sir Roderick's                     Looking towards Skye.