A ‘dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’

I have not yet come across a gravestone which notes that a man hit his wife, neglected his children or manipulated his neighbours. We tend to pass over people’s failings when designing permanent memorials. A brief note of names and dates might cover a multitude of sins. It would be wise to take with a bucketful of salt some of the glowing descriptions of men on their headstones. Social conventions, privacy, fear, selective memory and family pride are strong. However what inscriptions are wonderful for, is telling us about ideals, particularly about how men were meant to relate to other people.

William Gray (1787-1866) from Dornoch was apparently a ‘dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’. Men were meant to have positive connections with their community, their friends and their family. Together, they epitomised the character of the ideal nineteenth-century man.

An ‘obliging neighbour’

The most common words used to describe how a man was felt about in the wider community were esteemed, respected, admired and, occasionally, honoured or revered. Adam Murray (1818-1893), a man of noted piety from Badninish, a crofting area in east Sutherland, was ‘esteemed by all who knew him’. The monument to James Ellison (d. 1870), a doctor in Tain, was ‘erected as a public testimony of the respect and esteem in which he was held’.

The next most commonly used words are of tenderness: loved, beloved, affectionate or, occasionally, endeared or cherished. William Ross (1807-69) was Dingwall’s ‘beloved physician’; William Melville (1841-72), Dornoch’s schoolteacher, was ‘respected by all who knew him and his kindness to the young endeared to them his memory’.

Nov - Easter Ross 103

Dornoch, from Easter Ross. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A few inscriptions describe a man’s feelings towards the community. Thomas MacBeath (1782-1859), the catechist at Dornoch Free Church, found affection was reciprocal as ‘his affectionate and faithful discharge of duty endeared him to the congregation’. Alexander Stewart (1794-1847), an influential Cromarty minister, cleaved ‘to his flock with an affection which time seemed to increase’. While I would caution against necessarily believing any inscription, the letters and memoirs of two of Stewart’s flock, Lydia and Hugh Miller, do suggest he was widely liked.[1]

An ‘attached friend’

When a man’s gravestone talks about his friendship, it doesn’t tie him to specific friends. Friendship is treated more as an attribute. It was often paired with an adjective: sincere, steadfast, true, attached, sympathising, faithful. Angus Leslie (1783-1850) of Torboll on Loch Fleet, formerly a lieutenant in the 3rd Sutherland Highlanders, was ‘unwavering in his friendship’. On his death his friends experienced ‘heartfelt sorrow’. Donald Campbell MacDonald (1834-1904) was born in Glenurquhart, but spent forty years ministering to the congregation of Kilmuir Easter. He was a ‘steadfast friend’. Manly friendship was expected to be warm, strong and consistent.

Rogart 026

Torboll Farm is just visible in the distance, in front of the green field. Taken from the Mound, an engineering marvel which Angus Leslie would have witnessed being built. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A ‘dutiful relative’

Most gravestones commemorate family relationships. Usually they simply list wife and offspring. Being the head of a household was an important marker of manliness. However the longer inscriptions show family meant more than personal status.

The most important attributes of family men were affection and duty. Robert Riddle (1819-1891) in Tain was ‘a beloved husband and kind father’, while the happy Sutherland family in Morness, Rogart, were blessed with Donald (1803-1884) ‘an exemplary husband and parent.’

Rogart 073a

Rogart. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Stereotype of Victorian fathers are stern. The evidence of headstones does not bear this out. Donald Sutherland (1815-1854) from Rosskeen was pretty typical, being described as ‘affectionate’. He was only 39 when he died, so it is likely that his wife chose this wording. Sometimes men erected monuments to their own children. They often revealed deep feelings. James Mackintosh, teacher at Dalnabreac, Rogart, commemorated his ‘beloved children’, May and Archibald, who both died aged 20 in the 1860s. Manliness meant more than the fact of parenthood, or the authority derived from it. It was grounded in heartfelt emotion.

As husbands, men were also to be dutiful and affectionate. With the rise in companionate marriage in the early nineteenth century, when spouses were selected based on considerations of the heart as much as of the bank balance, it might be expected that duty words would give way to affection words. There is no sign of this. They exist togehter throughout the century, frequently combined on the same inscription. In Creich, William Calder (1795-1867) was ‘an affectionate & dutiful Husband’. The nature of husbandly duties is not explained, but they probably included material provision, protection and sobriety.

A few men poured out their hearts. In 1823 thirty year old Esther Grant died. She was buried ‘by her ever bereaved husband Alexander MacKay Invershin’.[2] MacKay was eighteen years older than she. He was settled in life and able to afford an expensive table stone. A cynic might note this was a visible symbol of his wealth and status. A romantic might note the poignancy of his inscription. The likelihood that many women died as a result of complications from pregnancy or childbirth may have added shock and perhaps guilt to a widower’s grief.

Kincardine 121

Esther Grant, ever-beloved by Alexander MacKay. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

In adulthood, a man did not abdicate responsibility for his birth family. Forty seven year old William Ross, presumably a bachelor, died in 1867. His sister Mary, who may well have lived with him, erected a stone for ‘her affectionate brother’. A good man was expected to continue to be a good son. John MacDonald (1845-98), from Ballinoe, Ardgay, died at fifty three. Again he was probably a bachelor and his mother, with whom he may have lived, noted he was ‘a dutiful son’.

Such public displays of loving and being loved suggest family life was meant to be warm and kindly. A man was expected first to perform his duty towards dependent family members, and then to have the ability to feel and to elicit tenderness from wife, children, siblings or parents. The ideal man also had broader reciprocal relationships of affection and respect with friends, neighbours, a church congregation, or even the whole community.

Nineteen year old Walter Ross from Wester Fearn had little chance to make an impact on the world by his actions. But when he died in 1845, it was by the quality of his relationships that he was remembered. His gravestone reads: ‘in love he lived, in peace he died’.


[1] Letter cited in Elizabeth Sutherland, Lydia: Wife of Hugh Miller of Cromarty (East Lothian: Tuckwell, 2002), 50-51; Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, 1869), 371, 409.

[2] His death in 1861 is then commemorated in near identical script, but the form of words leaves little doubt that the stone is contemporaneous with Esther’s death and a particularly careful mason of the 1860s was then employed to engrave his end. It is therefore probable that these words were selected by MacKay himself.


Poverty and Poor Relief

This week’s blog is submitted by Graham Hannaford who is studying from his home in Australia for his Masters in ‘Highlands and Islands History’ at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

 It’s never much fun being poor but in the Highlands of the mid-nineteenth century, things were really grim. Queen Victoria was reigning over an empire on which the sun never set, but many of her subjects in her beloved Scottish Highlands were barely surviving, living in terrible conditions.

The old and new poor laws in Scotland attempted to avoid starvation in the population. There was no expectation that any relief provided would be generous and it is clear that both before and after 1845 when new laws came into being providing for relief for the poor, many, including in the Highlands, lived in circumstances which can only be described as appalling. There was an expectation that people should provide for themselves by their own labour and if that failed, families took responsibility; only when all else failed did parishes take over care, being required to raise the money needed to take care of their own paupers. While we might sometimes view the events as being a long time ago, 1845 was within the lifetime of my own great-grandfather.

The Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland provide detailed parish reports completed through responses to a long list of questions. According to the Old Accounts (1790’s), in the parish of Dornoch, potatoes became a principal food source by about 1758, with at least some of the population subsisting on them for up to two thirds of the year. In addition, of an estimated population of about 2600 in the parish, some 80-100 were on the Poor Roll but there was no regular fund for their support except that raised in the Sunday collections in church and occasional small fines levied on delinquents. Such collections amounted to only about seven pounds sterling per annum, and from that figure some salaries were paid. The next Statistical Account for Dornoch, forty years later, lists a population of about 3400, with much of the increase ascribed to the tendency to marry young. Some 120-130 persons at this time were receiving parochial aid, with about £70 available for distribution among them; the lowest amount provided to a pauper was 6 shillings, the highest 25.

Further up the coast in the parish of Golspie, Rev William Keith reported for the Old Account that of the approximately 1700 population, 100 were on the poor list; but with a net amount of about £8 to distribute among them, no one individual could expect much help. Forty years later, Rev. Alexander MacPherson reported for the follow-up survey that the population had fallen to 1149, with the decrease having arisen “from a powerful cause, which has been, for the last 40 years,  in full operations in all the Highlands of Scotland” – the Highland clearances. On average, 60 persons received some poor relief, amounting to about 8 shillings each, and some meal, but none could survive entirely on this aid. When we look at the situation in these two parishes, we can see why the central government enacted new Poor Laws in 1845 in an attempt to try and provide some improvements.

Only some fragments of the documentary records of poor relief have survived to today. However, below is a copy of a 3 July 1874 receipt for payment by Donald MacKay of Badninish of parochial assessment levied. The document survives in our own Historylinks Museum collection. It is interesting to see that poor relief and schools were the major beneficiaries of the rates this year, while public health was apparently sufficiently funded from elsewhere.


The Statistical Accounts of Scotland can be found online here: http://edina.ac.uk/stat-acc-scot/ 

For a modest subscription fee you can access lots of great associated resources as well as the keyword search facility.