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’.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 2

Hugh and Walter had walked from Gruids, near Lairg, to the parish of Edderton on their way home from their summer holidays. By the afternoon Hugh’s injured foot was causing him a lot of pain. Then they remembered their cousins had told them about a shortcut through the hills. Hugh wanted home as quickly as possible and Walter “deemed himself equal to anything which his elder cousins could perform”. This may have been the drove road going up from Ardgay to near Kildermorie, or the one which passes by the Aultnamain Inn, now tarmacked over and known as the Struie.

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The drove road from Ardgay to near Kildermorie (looking north towards Gruids) where cattle from the Kincardine Market were taken to the big cattle markets in Crieff and Falkirk, then Carlisle and to London. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The boys “struck up the hill-side” and “soon found ourselves in a dreary waste, without trace of human habitation.” Hugh was struggling, light-headed and his vision was going. Walter led him up to a “heathy ridge” just as night was falling. Below them was the “northern sea-board of the Cromarty Firth, and … the cultivated country and the sands of Nigg lying only a few miles below.” They intended to aim for the sands. They knew they were dangerous at certain tides and accidents frequently happened in the fords. Walter could not swim but they decided Hugh would lead the way. But first, they had to get down. “The night fell rather thick than dark, for there was a moon overhead … the downward way was exceedingly rough and broken, and we had wandered from the path.” Hugh was in no condition for stumbling and groping through the “scraggy moor” and “dark patches of planting”. They had just reached a cleared spot on the “edge of the cultivated country” when Hugh “dropped down as suddenly as if struck by a bullet, and, after an ineffectual attempt to rise, fell fast asleep.

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The route from Gruids to the point where Hugh collapsed. The black indicates where they actually went, cutting up through the ‘dreary waste’. The blue indicates their intended route through the low lying ground past Tain. The arrows mark where they would have crossed the river by the ferryboat at Invershin, where Hugh’s foot began to really trouble him, and where he finally passed out. Route superimposed on General Roy’s Military Survey from 1747-55. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Walter was much frightened; but he succeeded in carrying me to a little rick of dried grass which stood up in the middle of the clearing.” He covered his friend up with the hay and lay down beside him. Walter couldn’t sleep for anxiety and his heart raced when he heard psalm singing in the old Gaelic style coming from a neighbouring clump of wood. “Walter believed in the fairies; and, though psalmody was not one of the reputed accomplishments of the ‘good people’ in the low country … in the Highlands the case might be different”. He sat tight until after the singing stopped. After some time he heard a slow, heavy step. A voice exclaimed in Gaelic and a rough, hard hand grasped the boy’s bare heel. A grey-headed man accused the boys of being gypsies, angry “at the liberty we had taken with his hayrick”. Walter explained. The old man was instantly mollified, and insisted the boys should spend the night in his home. It does not seem likely his hospitality would have extended to them if they had been gypsies after all.

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The welcome view of the Cromarty Ferry pier at Nigg. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hugh was assisted to the cottage, hidden in the clump of trees. An “aged woman” welcomed them. The elderly couple quizzed them as to who they were and the couple realised they knew Hugh and Walter’s maternal grandfather and grandmother and various other relations. Family updates were given and commiserations on misfortunes expressed. Hugh was too ill to take much note of conversation and could only swallow a few spoonfuls of milk. The elderly lady washed his feet, crying over him. Hugh was made of sturdy stuff and after a night’s rest in their best bed he was fit enough to sit in the old man’s cart and driven to the parish of Nigg. They stayed for another day’s rest at a relation’s house there before being taken in another cart to the Cromarty Ferry.

The bootless boys had finally made it home.

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Their proposed (blue) route taking them across the dangerous tidal sands. Their actual (black) route from their overnight stay with the elderly couple to a relative’s house in Nigg parish and to the ferry. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 120-122

National Map Library, Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, http://maps.nls/roy/

Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 1

“I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road”. Hugh and his cousin, Walter, realised getting home was going to be more difficult than they anticipated.

It was about 1818 and the teenagers had spent their summer holidays with relatives in Gruids, near Lairg. On one of the final days before they had to return, they went fishing in the River Shin. They could hear the roaring of the salmon-leap three miles away at Hugh’s uncle’s house and had been inspired by stories of skilful fishermen. Cousin William agreed to take them. He looked askance at their bare feet and muttered that his mother had never allowed them to visit relations unshod. The boys didn’t tell him that their mothers had indeed sent them out shod but “deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a comer, and set out on our journey without them.” That journey had been thirty miles from the Cromarty ferry to Gruids.

 

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Gruids, looking south towards the River Shin. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The walk to the River Shin was less onerous. “We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation. The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches. Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap … there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore. We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool – for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way.” Later, the salmon run was blasted with gunpowder to make easier for the fish. The boys spotted a “hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher”.

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Statue of the adult Hugh Miller in his hometown of Cromarty. He became a famous geologist, editor, author, and advocate for the Free Church and for issues of social justice. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Excited, Hugh jumped from a tall lichened stone. His right foot smashed against a sharp-edged fragment of rock hidden in the moss. He managed to control his scream and clutched his foot as it lost feeling. He limped back to his uncle’s house, but that evening it throbbed badly. However the lad, later an unsuccessful poet but a good newspaper editor and author of prose (as well as a renowned geologist and leader of the Free Church), distracted his mind by composing some verse about the waterfall at Shin.

However, his foot got worse. Next morning it was “stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.” Cousin Walter was impatient and getting bored, so after a few days the boys ignored their elders’ advice to stay put and tried for home. Hugh’s aunt supplied them with a “bag of Highland luxuries – cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts”. As Walter had to carry everything, he required his cousin to entertain him. Hugh’s “long extempore stories … were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the mile-stones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry. At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed. The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o’clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.”

Injured and far from home, the boys were in a predicament.

To be continued…

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 117-120.