The 'tough, entrepreneurial women' who ran Highland inns

By Andrew Thomson
BBC Scotland

image copyrightTheresa Mackay
image captionThe Amulree Hotel was once an inn run by one of the many women innkeepers

In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a boom in demand for inns across the Highlands and Islands. And who better to run these premises than "tough, entrepreneurial" women, according to new research.

Between 1790 and 1840 there was an explosion in the number of inns in the area to accommodate cattle drovers, but also wealthy visitors.

Landowners often preferred women to run their inns because of their skills in running a household, according to researcher Theresa Mackay.

She has won an award from Women's History Scotland for her research.

image copyrightTheresa Mackay
image captionTheresa Mackay at the grave of one of the female innkeeper she came across during her research

Her studies began with a diary kept by Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of English romantic poet William Wordsworth.

Ms Mackay said: "She went into the Highlands and Islands with her famous brother and she wrote a travel diary and it was through her diary that I started to see women inn keepers at work, and that was really the spark

"It was a bit of a gamble when I decided to start doing more research in this area, but I was quite surprised by how many other women innkeepers I found.

"Between 1790 and 1840 the number of inns was just exploding. For example, in Ross and Cromarty there were no inns at the start of this period but by the end there were 42."

'Keep the peace'

Ms Mackay, who studied a Master course in history at the University of the Highlands and Islands, found that the historical data she gathered suggested that wherever there was an inn in the Highlands and Islands there was a female innkeeper.

She said: "They were really entrepreneurial which was so exciting to see. They became the heart of each township or area.

"They were quite important to the sustainability of the local economy which essentially meant they had status.

"One woman innkeeper known as Widow MacDougall had the best part of the local church reserved for her, her family and her servants."

These women were "at the heart" of "mini economic hives", said Ms Mackay. The inns met a demand from travellers for overnight accommodation, food and stables for horses.

The researcher said: "Landowners desired reputable establishments and I think that is why they wanted women to run them.

"They had the domestic skills of course, running an inn in many ways is not unlike caring for a family, and importantly factors and landowners preferred women because they were known to be able to keep the peace.

"If you can imagine an inn on a drove road or a main sort of thoroughfare every night having lots of different mainly male travellers. All different ranks, all different perspectives, all different jobs. And they would come in and whisky would be there, drink would be there, and you can imagine the kind of trouble that might result every night if the innkeeper was not able to keep the peace."

"There were criminal problems, lots of robberies, fights and all kind of things but women helped keep the peace."

image copyrightTheresa Mackay
image captionA notebook kept by Perthshire innkeeper Janet McLaren provided insights into the lives of the women

She added: "They had to be very tough, very direct. The ability to speak up when needed.

"They had to collect money, negotiate with travellers who felt they had paid too much. A challenging thing for a woman.

"Many of these innkeepers were widows and many were singletons. So these women were tough for sure."

'Chaotic places'

The innkeepers' customers included cattle drovers and others travelling for business reasons, but also an increasing number of tourists to the Highlands and Islands.

Ms Mackay said: "The evidence that we have shows it was English gentry class tourists. People who had money and leisure time.

"Many of them were going there because of the works of Sir Walter Scott, because of Johnston and Boswell. They were going to try to find the landscapes and the people those writers talked about.

"They described Highland inns as incredibly busy chaotic places. Busy kitchens people running back and forth, fires being made, horses being looked after. Lots of activity.

"We assume there was not a lot of food available for these travellers at these inns but I have often found entirely the contrary to that. Travellers would talk about leaving the inns completely stuffed. Can't even walk through the doors.

"There are incredible descriptions of game that they had and grouse hanging by the door waiting to be cooked and getting their pockets stuffed with apples as a takeaway."

During her research, Ms Mackay was delighted to come across a notebook that belonged to a Janet McLaren, who was a widow and an innkeeper at Amulree in Highland Perthshire.

Ms Mackay, who now works as the programme head at Royal Roads University's school of hospitality in Canada, said: "This book of hers shows her daily life which quite honestly was completely chaotic.

"She saw horse dealers and constables and ministers and government officials and school inspectors and the list goes on and on.

"And she not only provides them with bed and food she also runs her farm, she hires men to work in her hayfield she sells whisky to road construction workers.

"So her days were absolutely full. It shows how important the inn was to the sustainability of the area."