The men lost in the Wreck of the Linnet, January 7th 1843.

Researched by Dr. James Skinner.

The contemporary newspaper reports of the Linnet tragedy record the loss of four married men from the village of Balintore and three from the village of Hilton [suggesting that all were in fact married] but local tradition believed that two of the seven dead were young lads from Hilton. It seems that there were indeed four married Balintore men lost but only one married man from Hilton along with the boys, who were remembered as Iain Tarail and Ailidh Mhorair.

But who were they, these men whose lives were lost in this tragedy of nearly 170 years ago?

To make the task of identification more difficult Arthur Ross’s Gaelic elegy, written to commemorate the disastrous event, mentions only five of the men by name and refers to the other two only in general terms. However I believe it is possible to identify all seven with some degree of certainty using the censuses and the church baptismal records.

Fionnladh Talach, Finlay Skinner, has descendants in the local community to this day. He is well known in local tradition as the Skipper of the crew who were engaged in the ill-attempt to salvage the wreck of the Linnet. And his descendants still possess the ring given to him by the Captain of the Linnet when he rescued the crew after its initial foundering. Finlay is easily identified as the son, born in 1802 in Balintore, of Andrew Skinner and his wife Helen Macangus. His father Andrew was surnamed Talach in the baptismal entry of an earlier son Andrew in 1788. Talach functioned as an alternative name for a group of Skinners for many years. Finlay married Lily Mackenzie in 1825 and their family is recorded in the Fearn parish baptismal register. Though present in 1841 census return in Balintore, he was not to be found in that for 1851 when Lily was a “widow”.

Iain Mhorair, John Mackenzie, was another of the married men from Balintore. He was husband of Siblah [Subla/Subly] Young or Oag. They married about 1822 and their family’s baptisms are to be found from 1823 onwards in the records of the Secession Congregation of Nigg, at Chapelhill. His own birth is not recorded but he was probably the “son with no name” born in 1801 to Alexander Mackenzie and his wife Ann Macdonald in Balintore. He too, present in the 1841 census, had died by 1851. His youngest child, a son, Donald was born in 1842.

Post script: The 2018 edition of Down to the Sea contains a ” timeline ” of significant incidents in village life. In October 1843 is recorded the death by drowning after falling in the village well of Alexander Morrar or Mackenzie, a feeble old fisherman highly respected in the village. One of his sons had perished lately in the ill fated Linnet. This seems to be valuable confirmation that Iain was the son of Alexander and Ann. This piece of news was from the John o’ Groat Journal, researched by Willie McRae. JAS 2019.

Domhnaill Mhorair, Donald Mackenzie, alive in 1841 but with his wife a widow in 1851, was a Hilton man, husband of Chirsty or Christian Grant from Embo, the son, born in 1802, of John Mackenzie and Ann Macangus. There is another possible contender, a first cousin of this Donald, with the same name and son of Donald Mackenzie and Ann Tarrel, born in Hilton in 1805, although only one of the Donalds lived to the date of the 1841 census. The naming of the children of Donald and Chirsty make it more likely that he was the son of John Mackenzie and Ann Macangus. And the following information, from a later date, clinches the matter: In 1865 Donald Mackenzie, son of Donald Mackenzie and Christina Grant [both deceased] married his “first cousin” Mary Mackenzie, daughter of William Mackenzie and Mary Watson. And William Mackenzie’s parents on his death certificate in 1867 are recorded as John Mackenzie and Ann Macangus. Ergo the Donald Mackenzie of the Linnet must be our first named one, son of John Mackenzie and Ann Macangus. A third possible Donald has also to be discounted altogether as he, Donald Mackenzie, brother of Iain Mhorair of the Linnet, a boat carpenter in Balintore, husband of Isabel Young or Oag, at least once referred to as Morar in the Chapelhill records, though he too had died by 1851, was the father of children baptised in 1846 and 1849 and clearly therefore was alive years after the Linnet was lost.

Ailidh Mhorair. Alexander Mackenzie, said to be a very young lad in the tradition of Hilton, must be the Alexander recorded as 13 in the census of 1841, son of John Mackenzie and his wife Lily Mackenzie. The only other “young” Alexander is only 7 in the 1841 census and therefore too young to be the boy in question.

John and Lily Mackenzie, his parents, were first cousins to each other and to Domhnall Mhorair. Lily was sister to Iain Mhorair. Young Ailidh was thus nephew of Iain and double first cousin once removed of Domhnall. Finlay Skinner’s wife, Lily Mackenzie and her two brothers, William and George named below, were also first cousins of these Mackenzie/Mhorairs. Complicated genealogy ; the Mhorairs kept things in the family!

Iain Tarail. John Tarrel. By a process of elimination-there were three possible John Tarrels in Hilton in 1841, if he was as young as the local tradition would have it- this John must be the son of John Tarrel and Isabella Vass whose birth does not seem to recorded, but aged 12 in 1841 and therefore 13 or 14 in January 1843. The other two young Johns of the 1841 census both appear to have survived to grow up and marry.

Having identified the five named men of Arthur Ross’s elegy, is it possible to fix the identities of the two who were not named by him? I believe that we can come to a reasonably firm conclusion and suggest that they were William and George Mackenzie, two brothers Lily Mackenzie, wife of Finlay Skinner [Talach]. Both these men, fishermen in Balintore, disappeared from record between the censuses of 1841 and 1851. Both left a daughter born 1842 or 1843 with no subsequent children. [George had only the child, Georgina. Was she born posthumously and named after him? Unfortunately, the Chapelhill records are rather disordered at this date and the names of both these little girls, Georgina and Sophia, are missing.] Both William and George were young– born in 1807 and 1816 respectively to George Mackenzie and Sophia Skinner in Balintore– and so were their wives and it would be normal in these days to have more children. It seems therefore that both of them died about 1843. Their wives were widows in 1851. William’s wife was Ann Morrison from Shandwick, while George was married to Margaret Main from Nairn.

There is an obvious question. Why did the local poet not mention by name the two brothers, William and George Mackenzie? I can only assume that was because they were not men who were making a profession of piety. The poet was a Free Church member and his elegy is a very evangelical piece of writing, very much of its time, focusing on spiritual matters and eternal salvation. He was able to make very positive Christian remarks about Finlay, John and Donald and, of course the other two boys were very young. Of the two unnamed men he says ” though I did not know the others at all, what the whole community says is ” they were not behind the others ” A good reputation is not a foundation of salvation for them.” Etc. They clearly were not professing Christians either by being communicants otherwise. And so he could not make any comments about them, which would fit with the style and intention of the poem. But, why did he not even give their names? He evidently was not writing as an historian.

With Finlay Skinner and John Mackenzie the two brothers, William and George, made up the four married men from Balintore mentioned in the newspaper reports of 1843. And the tragic fact was that they were very closely related. Finlay was brother in law to William and George while John was first cousin to Finlay’s wife and to William and George. Even worse, John was uncle to young Ailidh from Hilton while George and William and Finlay’s wife were first cousins of his parents. And Donald Mhorair in Hilton was also first cousin to the Balintore Mackenzies, to Finlay’s wife and to both Ailidh’s parents. Of all the victims of the wreck of the Linnet, only young John Tarrel seems not to have been part of this tragic family of “Mhorairs”.

Hughie “Beeldan” Ross of Shandwick shop in recounting the Linnet story told of a grief stricken woman from Balintore who searched the shore for her drowned son’s body. Hughie made her the “granny” of Willie Dan Mackenzie, whose family he identified as Mhorairs. He may have been referring to Ann Macdonald, wife of Alexander Mackenzie, born in 1771, alive in the 1841 census and aged 71 or 72 if she lived to January 1843. She, poor woman, would have been seeking the bodies of her son John and her young grandson Ailidh [ Through her youngest so Hugh, born in 1816, she was great great grandmother of Willie Dan Mackenzie.] In fact there was another great great grandmother of Willie Dan who is a more likely candidate. This was Sophia Skinner, wife of George Mackenzie. She was about 63 in 1843 [she lived to the date of the 1851 census and therefore was definitely alive when the Linnet was lost]. And she, if my conclusions are correct, had lost two sons, William and George and a son-in-law, Finlay Skinner. [Georgina, daughter of her son George, was maternal grandmother to Willie Dan referred to by Hughie Beeldan.] Hugh had got his generations a bit wrong in speaking of a “granny” of Willie Dan but his story proves him to have been a reliable tradition bearer nevertheless.

Note on Names.

Talach was an alias for some Skinner families.

Mhorair, pronounced “Vorar”,was an alias for the Mackenzies in the Seaboard villages and in Kilmuir Easter parish where they originated. [ The same families were also recorded as “Reiach” until the early 19th century.]

Tarail, well known as “Tarrel”has been largely, though not completely, lost today as most Tarrels assumed the name Macdonald in the 19th century, for no obvious reason.

J. A. Skinner, Tain, 2010.

Post Script: The John o’ Groat Journal of January 1843 has a full and harrowing report of the Linnet’s loss. It confirms that George and William Mackenzie, Mhorair, did indeed perish with other members of their family. Oddly, while the poem names only five of the lost, the John o’ Groat Journal gives, the names of just the four married men from Balintore, Finlay Skinner, and George, William and John Mackenzie or Morrar and does not identify the three Hilton victims. Thanks to Willie McRae for unearthing the reports from the John o’ Groat Journal which, if I had had them when I began to research the “Men of the Linnet”, would have clarified the identity of the unnamed men at a stroke.. JAS. 2020