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This is a transcript from “Letters by John Badbea” held at The Clan Sinclair Study Centre,
Noss Head Lighthouse, Wick, Caithness by kind permission of Mr Ian Sinclair, Archivist.
Our thanks To Robert Richmond for transcribing the document for Caithness.org
The document held at the Study Centre is not the original letters but transcribed by someone unknown.

One of the Pious “Men” of Caithness.
Interesting Glimpses of a Past Generation

As intimated some time ado, we have received from a reader a number of letters written by John Sutherland, Badbea, better known as “John Badbea”, who was one of the most notable of “The Men” of Caithness of his day. The letters were written to Mr. A. Sinclair a young friend and admirer, in Glasgow, who from time to time very kindly sent the old man some monetary gifts. This Mr. Sinclair was a relative of the gentleman who has been good enough to place the letters at our disposal. The correspondence begins in the year 1855 and terminates on 16th January 1862; at least the last of the letters bears that date

We propose to give extracts from these letters, which are interesting as showing the religious mentality that prevailed amongst these lay leaders, and as throwing light on the religious conditions of Caithness and. the North general1y at that time,

There are also a few letters by Alexander Gair, perhaps the ablest and most eloquent of all the “Men”, and a few extracts from these will be given in due course.


(All the letters were written from Badbea on the dates given.)

MARCH 15, 1855
I am delicate in body from my youth, and now I am old and full of days and I have been most of this cold winter bedfast. It is of His long suffering and forbearance that T am spared to this date. Oh, to be adorned in His righteousness. P. S. Oh, the desolation in every quarter through the ca1ling home of His own. Oh, the blank that Alexander Gair’s death caused in the Highlands of Scotland. (Alexander Gair died on 18th July 1854. - Ed)

APRIL 18, 1855
I am under much obligation to you for your kindness to poor lonely me. I hoped to have the pleasure of seeing you at the eminent and pious John Grant’s before his happy removal.

It is now 42 years since I was going to Strathy to hear John Grant. I am now as if I were in another world.  As the worthy Adam (Bain) Mackay said, speaking to the question at Reay, some are now, since they are bereaved of their intimate and dear friends, as if they were foreigners in the congregation.

JUNE 25. 1855
I am not able to write much, but I received your favour. I long to hear of my friend’s widow, Mrs G. Keith. Did she arrive safe in New Zealand with her dear little ones? This is a weary and dreary wilderness. “The mirth of the land is gone”. Everything is out of order. We have seen how John Grant and Peter Stewart and Alexander Gair were telling of the judgments that came upon us as individuals and as Church and State for our apostasy. Oh, the jarring and contention of the F.C. - the Edinburgh and Glasgow Presbyteries fighting with that evil spirit; which of us will be the greatest. It is to be feared it will wither our Church at the root. I was ashamed at reading the proceedings at the General Assembly of the Free Church. So much said in their long speeches disputing about the Sustenation Fund, how to increase their stipends, etc; no word spoken about their flock’s souls or bodies, or of the spiritual dearth or famine. Oh, happy are they that He is calling home with clean garments.

AUGUST 15, 1855
I am not writing much, but I was waiting to see if it would be permitted to me to see Reay once yet, and for His own name’s sake it was granted to me to countenance the communion there on 5th inst. I have not seen worthy Mr. Cook since two years. I saw him, as faithful to immortal souls as ever, but he is suffering much in the night season by his complaint…. I am a dark, ignorant sinner, and those that were concerned of my soul and body are out far from me, as the Psalmist said. There is plenty religion in Glasgow, but too much of that spirit, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, and I am of Cephas”. Let you mind the bible and the closet, and let it be known that you have been in the great John Grant’s College. I fear that most of the leaders of this day are quite strangers to the closet, which was a chamber of wine to others…

I am almost confined to the house, since I came home from Reay. I have been dull in hearing since seven years, but since I came home from Reay I am totally deaf. The weather was very wet, and I could not endure any dampness from my youth. I was lodging at Janet Macleod’s. She is remarkably kind to me, and it is with her I have lodged for 20 tears. She is wonderful on her bed of languishing.

SEPTEMBER 14, 1855
I thank you kindly for thinking of me. I am, hastening to the world of spirits, and I have to bemoan my own dark case above any, and I am not better of some of what I am reading and seeing. This day is ripening for a heavy stroke, as I heard the eminent John Grant saying when the Emancipation Bill passed; he said the Lord will revenge His controversy upon Britain, upon State and church. I asked him would the time be long. He said the more the Lord would draw is hand back the weightier it would be when it comes. This miserable generation is bereaved of those that were bearing the true stamp, the mark of humility and self-denial. I fear that the speakers of this day are glad that they are free of them as the Egyptians said of Israel. Oh, to be the Ark. Many will be found without oil in their lamps when the midnight cry cometh. Oh, the worth of genuine piety. My body bears every sign that it will soon be in the house of silence. Al­though is so warm today I am shivering with cold. My niece is shearing on the steep braes but I cannot help her. ... I thank you sending me the Elegy composed by pious Thomas Forbes. I was acquainted with him. Likely he did not leave any in all Glasgow to compare with him in true piety and understanding and example and edification.

I am ashamed at your kindness and I cannot recompense you for your sympathy to me, an old, useless and lonely creature, like the salt that has lost its substance. I am thinking of you. May He himself keep you in the midst of Sodom. I have praise the Lord that is sparing me and that I have a place to reside in and to open the Bible on the week and on the Sabbath. I have not any to look to me but my niece and a servant girl. I could not work a day’s work since I mind, being so delicate; but when able to be going about the house my hand will be to do something. I remember the pious George Mackay, late of Golticlay, saying that Godliness was not idleness or slothfulness, but he said, “This generation does not know how to gain the world or how to spend the world”. Tell me how is Mr. G. Macleod thriving, and is he popular? The Church (pulpits) is now almost filled with young men, and they have a fearful thirst for money. I want to know which of them you are hearing and who my friend is going to hear since Mr. Jonathan Edwards left the Free Church.

DECEMBER 14. 1855
I am not able to write in this frosty weather. It is with difficulty I am coming out of my bed. I am sorry to tell you that worthy Mrs Cook is in a very precarious state of body. I fear every day 1 will hear of his removal which will be better for him to be with Jesus, as the Apostle Paul said for himself, but pity dark Caithness when he is called home to father’s house; the sun will set on all the pulpits of the North, not only Reay, for he is the minister of all the Synod of Caithness and Sutherland and. the West. ... I am thinking on the days of o1d, how “the Lord maketh the earth empty and void”, how Caithness is bereaved of the excellent ones of’ the earth besides what it was since 40 or 30 or 20 years. I would then go to Strathy to see John Grant, and then to John Tait and Neil Macpherson and the pious people of Halkirk; and then I would come to Donald Mackay and George Mackay, and then to Catherine Ross, and I would stop a week with Isabel Polson, and I would often go to Bruan to see Mr. Cook. I have been sickly from my infancy, and now I am old and grey-haired and unable to move out of this; the rising generation are quite strangers to me in every way.

FEBRUARY 12, 1856
I have not been able to write to but few since the winter commenced. I cannot express to you how much I feel for your kindness and care for me in these cold and indifferent times when “iniquity aboundeth and the love of many waxeth cold”. I am shut out from the day’s noise by His hand upon me and my family called homes, except my niece, and she is very tender. I sometimes think there is not any one who baptized in His name so dead and dark as I am; but to whom can I open my bosom in this desolation? As the Psalmist said “Lover and friend hast thou put far from me”.

I heard from Reay last week. Mrs Cook is still poorly. They are taking him daily to the chair, but he cannot move his foot more than when he got the injury. He is a great sufferer, but he is resigned to His holy will.

APRIL 26, 1856
I am not able to write much. I am a stranger to myself and especially to the rising generation, and although I should give my experience the Glasgow professors would not think much of it. But rather to be here alone thinking of the days of old than to be with them.

I heard the amiable and pious John Grant saying, “I am old and despised and forsaken in this day; but if I was flattering them I would get a share of this day’s love”. But he had Christ’s love while here and is now overflowing with it in the state of glory. I know not of any in Scotland with his discernment and with views so clear in the Scripture and with such spiritual light. But the learned used to say of him, as they say of Himself, that he “never learned” and “common and unlearned man”, but a few minutes in his company would be better to the troubled soul than all the noise and learning of the greatest scholars of Great Britain.

I thank you for sending me the Rev. William Reid’s memoir. I was attached to that pious man. He pious Thomas Forbes used to say to any he would see from the North, “Unless you hear Mr. Reid, you have lost your pains coming South”.

I heard this week from Brawlbin that Mr. Cook was in his own pulpit on Sabbath last. He has ventured to preach since three weeks before. He was pleasant as ever in the pulpit, but at dinner after coming in he fainted three times and was confined to bed till Sabbath last. He has to use crutches.

JULY 17, 1856
I am now bordering on the Scripture day - 70 - and I feel my memory giving way. I have been troubled with a sore throat since many years. It takes my voice from me at times. If I speak or read for any time it affects me. I cannot suffer any damp or wet weather. We have had the form of Sacrament on all the Latheron coast; they did not slack on Sabbath all the way from Wick to Berriedale, but I could not countenance (be present with) them, except Berriedale, where I got wet and have been poorly since I came home.

I took the pen today as it is fair and warm. I heard the pious John Grant say to James Macdonald (Dr. Macdonald’s father), “Where have you been James?” “I was at ordinance” (sacrament). “Do not call it ordinance”. “What will I call it?” “Call it a gathering of men and women.” “John, if every one would do as you do there would not be the form itself.”

My day is near the end and I often fear that I will be found without at last, like the foolish virgins.

Mr. Cook is in the pulpit every Sabbath, but he is suffering from his former complaint. He is to have the sacrament on the first Sabbath of August, but I cannot venture to go. I am deaf both spiritually and bodily. I cannot ride and I cannot travel. Oh that youth would be mindful of their Creator while the evil days come not.

NOVEMBER 10, 1856
I have tried to give you a reply but I was waiting to see Mr. R. Finlayson at Helmsdale. They are much taken up with him. I sympathize with his former hearers; I heard they had a sore parting with him, more so than any translation I have heard of since I mind. May the Lord be with him in his new sphere. They had a conveyance for me from Helmsdale.

DECEMBER 23, 1856
In this cold weather it is seldom I am able to come to the fireside. I cannot do anything for myself.

The sacrament is to be dispensed at Helmsdale first, but I cannot be present. It is only two sacraments I countenanced (attended) at Helmsdale in the winter time since ten years. One Sabbath I went there since Mr. Finlayson came.  Really he is a wonderful man and a faithful minister; few equal to him in this day.

I received a letter last week from Reay.  Worthy Mr. Cook is going to the pulpit every Sabbath.  Oh. It’s a mercy that he is left in this decaying day - you Glasgow people will not call it so.

MAY 11, 1857
I received you sympathizing favour quite safe.  I see plainly that you are much concerned about my welfare, and that since many years.  In these days where “iniquity aboundeth and the love of many waxeth cold”, I call to mind what the great and pious John Grant said more than thirty years ago.  He heard that I was in a temporal strait and that the Rev. Arch. Cook (then at Berriedale) came to my bedside before daylight. I asked him what made him to be up so early.  He said “I heard you were in some strait and I could not stop in bed”. “Oh,” said John Grant,” when I heard that the poor lad at Badbea in distress made Mr. Archd. Cook come out of bed, I went to the barn to praise the Lord that there was such brotherly love in black Caithness; and I was stamping on Satan’s neck before I came out, for Satan had made me believe that there was not such fellowship in this day”.

He has left among us some “lilies among the thorns” - that lady is in my mind, Mrs. Brown. I thank her kindly, also I thank Mr. Macdonald for his care of poor me and my friend C. Sutherland’s wife. I am not to write of any particulars.

You are residing in the centre of that great city where there are so many sermons preached every Sabbath and through the week. I have not that privilege, but I have the old Devine’s works, which you have, and the pious Mr. Thomas Boston.

You were enquiring about Mr. Finlayson.  He is a burning and shining light, but I am sorry to tell you that it was only one Sabbath I was at Helmsdale since Mr. Finlayson was placed there.  We had been corresponding for thirty years and I was anxious to get him placed at Helmsdale.

I am old and deaf and last winter and spring was cold. I feel it dreary and cold and lonely, and I am often confined to bed; but it was only two Sabbaths I was kept from meeting the few neighbours that come to be with me at the fireside.

I am hearing pretty often from Reay. I was reading in the newspaper how the Glasgow citizens made choice of Mr. Dalgleish; I fear they will repent. And I was reading of the riots in England and Ireland by the priests and prelates. It is nothing better than a judgment coming on fast. Oh to be of those whom it is said, “Set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations.”

MAY 25, 1857
I am always obliged to you for being so friendly to a poor old outcast in this day. When I called on the great John Grant one day on my way here from Reay, he said that Alexander Gair sent him his compliments and said there was not a Scripture in the Bible so unlike him as “they that did see me without, fled from me” (Psalm 31) when everybody was idolizing him. He desired me to deliver his blessing and said, “Tell him that God is angry at him in sending such a message”.

The summer has commenced very warm, but all the same I feel my back so cold when writing this that I need to drop writing and keep my back to the fire.

AUGUST 11, 1857
I received you much esteemed favour of 20th July, but I have been so delicate in health that I could not give your respectful kindness a reply. I am a fruitless and useless branch in this day’s professing vineyard. He called home the choice of cedars and we are now keeping the visible Church with sycamore trees; the bramble is willing to be king. Not only the sectarians but also the Man of Sin is stirring his tail. The wrestlers that we had that stood in the gate are called home from evil that we as a generation and as individuals are deserving of from Him that gave us so many privileges in a Gospel land.

I went, as I got a conveyance, on the Sabbath of the Sacrament to Latheron and I got a cold. I am much troubled with the cough since that time. That was in the first of July. I tried to go to Reay when the communion was there. They wrote me that Mr. F. Cook mentioned from the pulpit that this would be the last he would see. When I read that, I set out, taking my niece with me, and thinking to be that night in Dalnaha. But before I went six miles through the Berriedale hills the cramp seized my feet and I was obliged to lie down on the heather. My niece was distressed and I had to be carried home. They are bathing my feet in salt water and I feel ease at times.

DECEMBER 9, 1857
I am under great obligation to you for your great concern for me in getting through the thorns of this valley of tears; Himself named it so, and we have cause to say so. I have not any in this day that is so much concerned of my lonely case. Oh how brutish I am that cannot wonder at His patience towards sinful me. I am often in the dark and have had dark prospects of my eternal happiness. At other times I rejoice in His sweet promises and I am sometimes glad that I saw so many of the Fathers and Mothers before they were taken home. But at other times it is a trouble to think of it, if they see me on the left hand at the Great Day, but the most of this day’s professors are not troubled with unbelief. Oh the changes I see since the Fathers were called home.

APRIL 8, 1858
I have had a severe cough and pain in my side and chest and head - what they call influenza. I am but a withered branch, useless in the professing vineyard. He called home the excellent ones of the earth, except few, and men are thinking they can work the good work on themselves and on their nearers. I am regretting that they did not send for Mr. Finlayson (Helmsdale) to be with you on your first Sabbath. You will not have and so experimental of the “chamber of wine” and how to handle the broken bones and the contrite and bruised in spirit.

The Lord has a controversy with Britain, especially Scotland. Every individual has his share in the provocations. We are constraining Him to pour the vials of His wrath, and there are a few drops coming on the nation in the South. Banks and firms and manufactories are failing and the working class is cast out of employment, and in the North the rulers are grinding the faces of the poor.

JULY 8, 1858
I thank you for your co-feeling and sympathy with poor me. I have often been bereaved of those who were concerned of my soul and body, but F’s (Rev. Finlay Cook) removal is the sorest stroke since I have been trying to follow the means of grace. The dear man was so humble as to be writing and corresponding with me from Lewis and Inverness and Reay. Sure was he to hear “well done, good and faithful servant,” but I am in danger to hear as the slothful servant hears that went and hid his talent on the earth.

Mr. Alick Cook was at his father’s removal; he came a few days before his father entered his everlasting rest. He wrote me the day before his father was called; he said that he was sinking fast, though his mind continued quite clear and unimpaired and his spirit enjoying some peace and hope without a cloud. Likely they will give Mr. Alick the first offer of a call to be his pious father’s successor, whether he will comply or not. Mr. Archibald Cook did not countenance them (was not present) at Reay at the time of his brother’s departure.

They are busy just now administering the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in all Sutherland and Caithness. There’s none now left to speak to the question except earthly natural men, yet they are going on.

AUGUST 18, 1858
I am ashamed at your kindness and concern of me and my circumstances.  I am much obliged to that gentleman, Mr. Raith and Mr. Chas. Cook; I am unworthy of the least of such kindness.  I am often under Satan’s feet by guilt and unbelief, but I trust for the Holy Name that I professed, Him that observeth and rewardeth a cup of cold water given in His Name.

I am observing what my Glasgow friends are doing for me by your agency.  Oh, may you and my friends in that quarter be enjoying communion with Himself. I thank you and them kindly. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was dispensed Sabbath last at Reay. Mr. Archd. Cook was there.  I could not go that length.  Mrs Finlayson is finely; he is wonderfully supported in soul and body.  He administered at four sacraments at the Latheron coast and he was at Westerdale and in every parish in Sutherland.  He is a wonderful man.

There are a great number of visitors at Hemsdale and throughout all the coast but the fishing is not very prosperous. I am not seeing in the newspapers of Mr. Jonathan Anderson’s proceedings.  I saw that one of his children died at Aberdeen. Charles Sutherland’s friends are well; his mother departed this life lately.

P.S. - The removal of the beloved and honourable Mr. Finlay Cook crowned the desolation of the North. His doctrine was so spiritual and experimental. His life and conversation was a gospel. He was writing me very often, and since my family, brother and four sisters were called to the world of spirits and I was alone, he was much concerned of my coming through. He was my choice of all the ministers. Mrs Archibald and Mr. Alick declined to come to Reay; likely they will be at Mr. Archd again to comply to come. Mr. Finlay was a parent to their poor Presbytery.

Lovely John Macintosh’s removal is a great blank in the North. I never heard any that was so much gifted in prayer and of Christ’s love. I heard that Mr. North and Mr. Grant are in this county very zealous.  Mr. North was a Sabbath in Shebster Church.

NOVEMBER 23, 1858
I have had the Bible open every Sabbath as the Free Church is 10 miles distance from here, and should they carry me to church I cannot hear a sentence. My deafness is a great dampness to my mind and spirit since two years. I saw in the newspaper of a doctor in London that was the means of giving the deaf their hearing. I wrote him and he sent me a pamphlet and desired me to send him a post office order for £2:2/6. I put the money to the post office and I got a letter for the drug. I got them from Wick, but I got no good of them.

I heard from Thurso that Mr. Alick was the last two Sabbaths at Shebster, and the Reay congregation was speaking to him that he would come to Reay, but he declined to come.  I fear they will fall into divisions and contentions in Reay. Mr. Finlayson is enjoying wonderful health. He is preaching at night till 9 o’clock. He is expected to be preaching tomorrow at Dunbeath F.C. As that church and manse are in great debt a collection is to be taken for it.

Note:- The remaining letters are, on the religious side, very much in the strain of those from which extracts have already been given. Following are some quotations that may have a certain interest in local history:-

JANUARY 18, 1859
James Elder departed this life this day week. He was the only one I could open my bosom to. He was pious and prudent. Oh, how the might is coming on and the candles being put out - four of them in half a year, Mr. F. Cook, and John Macintosh and James Elder and Robert Gunn. I saw in the newspaper that Mr. Jonathan Anderson had lately departed this life. I heard lately from both Messrs. Cook. Mr. Alick did not give his consent yet, whatever he will do afterwards. There is contention and division among the Reay congregation.

MAY 4, 1859
I am lonely in a lonely and backsliding generation. Poor miserable parish of Reay is in confusion. The majority is for giving a call to the probationer that is there, and some of them are willing to get a hearing of two or three before they would give a call to Mr. Ross (the probationer). If they were unanimous to give a call to Mr. Alick Cook I believe he would comply. All the Highlands are bereaved of the Fathers. Alas, alas! How are we now? We have not many in our lanterns but nominal stumps.

JUNE 29, 1859
They are busy just now administering the sacrament of the sacred supper - the Sabbath before last at Helmsdale and Dornoch and Lybster, and the last Sabbath at Golspie and Thurso, and tomorrow they are to commence the services at Latheron; but I was not at Latheron since three years.

SEPTEMBER 14, 1859
It is a wonder that I am spared who misspent a great number of years so useless in the vineyard. I sent a line to the godly and now glorified Mr. Finlay Cook, and I remember that in writing back he compared me to old Mr. Cameron at Halkirk who was mourning all his lifetime that he would starve, that he had not a penny, and when he died he left a trunk of gold and silver.

I am lonely, but if I were in your great city I would take more long than I do in Badbea Braes. When the weather is warm I can sit out for a while with a book, but I cannot go from home. I am not enquiring much about miserable Reay; they vex me.

DECEMBER 5, 1859

You are hearing of miserable Reay. I am not to speak to them. Their ways hurt me. They would not give a unanimous call to Mr. Alick Cook.

P.S. - Charles Sutherland’s friends are enjoying health. Please remember me to himself and his spouse and children.

DECEMBER 8, 1860
I did not hear from Reay or Thurso since you left (returning to Glasgow) but what I am seeing in the Wick newspaper. My loneliness makes me to be looking to the papers. By a friend in Aberdeen shire I am receiving the Glasgow “Scottish Guardian” since many years. I see there how the leaders of this day are proceeding at church courts. Oh, the contentions of this a-day, bragging of their learning and science. I did not hear from Inverness since last August. I am much concerned for Mrs. Alick Cook; I hope she is better. The road is blocked with snow and frost, so that the mail coach is not regular since a month.

MARCH 24, 1860
I was in very low health this winter. They sometimes despaired of my recovery, but I am still spared. I see in the “Scottish Guardian” that there is a revival among the dry bones there and many prayer meetings. That noise has made its appearance in Dunbeath. They have meetings every night in the week. It accompanied fishing men that come from Buckie and it spread. They are gathering at Dunbeath Shore and in Mr. Campbell’s church and schoolhouse. I did not see any that were countenancing their meetings that had any understanding. “The fathers are no more; and the prophets, where are they?”

MAY 22, 1860
I heard by a correspondent that the miserable Reay congregation has a call to the last probationer that was there. I disapprove of these proceedings since they did not come forward with a unanimous call to their faithful late pastor’s son Mr. Cook of Stratherrick. There is not any from that quarter writing me since our mutual friend Mr. F Cook was called to his rest.

MAY 21, 1861
I see in the “Scottish Guardian” and Edinburgh “Witness” that there is a great noise of revival in your city. It is raging just now in Helmsdale. They are keeping meetings every night and many are falling, and crying and roaring when they rise. I dread hearing how that spirit is raging throughout almost the world. I see that your ministers are approving of it. Worthy and godly Mr. Finlayson is not saying much, but those that are hearing him are gathering by his spiritual doctrine that he is not approving of their noise. You have hundreds of men of every denomination, but I wish you had out Mr. R. Finlayson.

JUNE 7, 1860
This is the fast Thursday of Berriedale F.C. Sacrament, and, Mr. Finlayson (Helmsdale) is preaching there today. The sacrament at Helmsdale is to be dispensed next Sabbath, but I cannot go.

AUGUST 30, 1860
In this letter he counseled his friend (Mr. Sinclair) to enter the state of marriage, adding - “A helpmeet would be more comforting to you in aged days than all your relations”. He continued - “I have been delicate from my infancy, so that I did not enter the state of marriage. I was cast upon four lovely sisters and I am bereaved of them now. I am now bordering upon Scripture day and I must be in the world of spirits soon.”

NOVEMBER 19, 1860
It is now winter outward and inward.  I cannot write much and - what is more dangerous - I cannot pray or read or sing with the heart and mind as I would wish.

P.S. - The sacrament was dispensed at Helmsdale on 21st October. They came for me with a gig, and I went there Saturday night and they sent me home Monday night.  Mr. Finlayson and Mr. Mcleod, Rogart, and Mr.Aird, Creich, were there.  I am sorry to tell you that I did not hear a sentence, but it is a rare thing to meet such ministers in this day.  I got conveyance to Dunbeath, and my niece went with me to the market and we came home next day.  It was a poor market besides what I have seen there of the Lord’s people.

There are several other letters in the years 1861 and 1862, much in the same strain. Mr Sutherland died on 30th August, 1864, aged 75 years.

This is a transcript from “Letters by John Badbea” held at The Clan Sinclair Study Centre, Noss Head Lighthouse, Wick, Caithness by kind permission of Mr Ian Sinclair, Archivist.