The Year of the Sheep

icon Back to all articles

‘Bliadha nan Caorach’ or the Year of the Sheep.

On this day the 27th of July, 1792, large numbers of people attended the wedding of John Ross (Callum) and Hellen Munro at Strathrusdale. Here a plan was devised to drive the sheep out of several parishes in Easter Ross and Sutherland. Over the next few days, proclamations were read out at churches and public houses, encouraging the people to meet the following Tuesday. On the 31st of July, about 200 people assembled at Strath-Oykel and began putting the plan into action.

As the tenant farmers assembled, the panicking landowners of Easter Ross met at Tain. Fearing an open rebellion they agreed to raise, “such servants and dependants as they can confide in”. They also sent letters to the landowners at Inverness asking for help, whilst requesting that soldiers be sent from Fort George.

(The descendants of the clan chiefs and tacksmen of Easter Ross needed the army to protect them from the people who had for generations answered their calls to arms, the clan system was truly broken).

By the evening of the 5th of August as many as four hundred people, who were said to have purchased all the gunpowder in Tain and Dingwall, were driving thousands of sheep towards Dingwall. Unknown to them, three companies of the Black Watch, under the command of Sir Hector Munro, were heading towards them. Early the next morning above Alness, the soldiers fell upon and arrested a small party of the ‘insurgents’ who had likely been left protecting the herd overnight, the rest of the tenants were nowhere to be found.

The unexpected arrival of the soldiers early in the morning avoided a dangerous confrontation between friends and family, as the ranks of the Black Watch were full of soldiers from the same parishes as the protestors. General Stewart the military historian who was present said, “There was, fortunately, no enemy, for the people had separated and disappeared of their own accord”, but an article in the Evening Courant suggests that they didn’t disappear completely.

“A number of the ringleaders were apprehended and committed to Dingwall Gaol. But, in the course of the night, the mob had assembled, broke open the prison, and took out their companions in the face of the Regiment! “

There was no doubt great sympathy for the tenant farmer's plight but not from the landowners, by September many of the ringleaders had been arrested and a jury at Inverness, unsurprisingly, found them guilty.

The court sentenced Hugh Breck Mackenzie and John Aird to be transported beyond the seas for seven years; Malcolm Ross was fined £50 and imprisoned for a month; Alexander Mackay and Donald Munro were banished from Scotland for life, and William Cunningham was imprisoned for three months. The harsh sentences handed out to Alexander Mackay and Donald Munro seem to have been for carrying guns and what happened to them is not clear but John Aird and Hugh Mackenzie escaped from the tollbooth in Inverness in October and according to reports, were never caught.