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’.
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.
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.
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.’
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’. 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.
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’.
 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.
 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.