The Smiddy Prisoner
a summary of the Smiddy Prisoner soundscape story in English
This Courthouse soundscape takes us forward in time, from the late 18th century trial in the courtroom upstairs to the early Victorian era. In this period both debt and eviction are a grim fact of life for many tenant farmers – and one particularly unfortunate blacksmith and his family. There is no Poorhouse to help them out either, for Chanonry Poorhouse will only open in 1859.
Both Hugh Sinclair (the prisoner awaiting trial) and George Ross (the jailer in 1841 – not the same George Ross as upstairs) are real people.
Sinclair is sitting in the cell. Ross is embodied by the visitor standing in the doorway or the corridor – you will only hear his voice.
These two men clearly know each other already, which is highly likely. Ross is not unsympathetic but has a job to do. Sinclair is in utter despair and close to starvation. His wife Cursty has also been arrested.
The scene opens with a key turning in a lock and a door creaking open, the prisoner coughing and scraping at a metal bowl. George Ross offers him more brose (a kind of thin porridge) and notes how hungry he is. Sinclair tells him that the food mostly goes to his children – he has seven of them, and Cursty is expecting another. It was common for those working in farming circles at the time to have large families – grow-your-own farm labour – but this had to be balanced by an ability to feed them.
Sinclair blames his situation on his landlord, the laird Major Gun Munro of Newhall House (about six miles to the west of Cromarty). Ross points out that there are far worse landlords than Gun Munro, and that Sinclair and his wife have made their situation worse by fighting back. It becomes clear that their possessions have all been sold off in a public sale, including the tatties (potatoes) with which the couple planned to feed their children, and even the tools which were once those of Sinclair’s blacksmith grandfather. Sinclair stole those tools back again, possibly when drunk. On hearing the news of his arrest, his firebrand wife Cursty went and attacked the bailiff’s men afterwards in a local alehouse.
George Ross suggests that Sinclair might fare better abroad – many families are leaving the Highlands for a new life in Canada, America or Australia at this time – but Sinclair bitterly asks him where the money is going to come from for the fare.
No, at best poor homeless Hugh Sinclair can hope for a compassionate sentence of a short imprisonment – for neither he nor Cursty can pay a fine – followed by another job as a blacksmith.
When last heard of, Sinclair is in fact working for another blacksmith near Culloden.
This soundscape story is based on the meticulous research work of Dr James Mackay of the Kirkmichael Trust. For similar stories see www.kirkmichael.info.