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.


Rogart and the Society for Gaelic Schools

One of the aims of the Reformation was that people should read the Bible for themselves. In Scotland the Reformers intended that every parish should have a school. This plan failed because of insufficient money, too few teachers, and because Highland parishes could be enormous so most children could not walk to school each day. Various charity schools tried to fill the gaps, but there were not enough of them and many taught only in English even though the children spoke Gaelic. In 1811 a group of Edinburgh philanthropists decided to create the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools.

The main aim of the SSGS was to spread Evangelical Christianity through teaching Gaelic speakers, especially children, to read the Bible in their native language. The Society provided education in townships which were far away from schools or churches. If a community was interested, they had to build a schoolhouse before the Society would send a teacher. The teachers were funded by donations and stayed for two or three years. The school taught reading alone. There was no writing, arithmetic or other subjects. This was because the ESSGS was primarily a missionary society. They wanted people to be able to read the Bible.

Seventeen years after the SGSS began, it established a school in Rogart parish, in the little township of Knockarthur. The first we know of it is when the ministers of Rogart and Golspie, John MacKenzie and Mr. McPherson, inspected the school on 15th March, 1828. There were 139 pupils on the roll!  94 of these were present for the inspection, 37 of whom were adults. The SSGS was happy to teach anyone who came along: adult or child. At the inspection, the students showed the ministers what they could do. Some read the New Testament, like the man who was “seventy five years of age, has been twice married, and had in school with him two of his family by his first wife, and four of his family by his second.” Other pupils could recite parts of the Bible. The schools were also very keen on teaching students to memorise. This is a teaching method which is out of fashion nowadays because often people can memorise material without understanding it. However, two centuries ago the culture of ordinary people was an oral culture, very much based on memory. One of the main forms of entertainment was gathering in each other’s houses in the evenings and spending the time making ropes, knitting, spinning or doing other odd jobs while telling long narrative stories and singing. John Mackenzie wrote “A great number repeated portions of Scripture committed to memory, with accuracy that was pleasing.” So by encouraging pupils to memorise Scripture, teachers like George Gordon in Rogart were evangelizing in a way which was meaningful to the people.

The Rogart folk were hardly unaware of Christianity. Their minister explained that “the people in this part of the country have long been familiar with the Scriptures, as translated to them, from the English version, by persons who could read. This, I need not observe, could not always have been very correctly done.” He went on to explain why, unlike some ministers who saw the schools as a threat to their authority, he was such a keen supporter. “By Gaelic Schools the Gaelic version will be brought into general use; and thus a more accurate knowledge of the Scriptures will be attained.”

By 1828 the school was popular, but at first it wasn’t. Initially there

was a prejudice against Gaelic schools which has now disappeared. The old begin to see that they may still be able to do what they but lately never expected – to read the word of God … I am glad to find that the School is regarded as an important benefit by the people of the district; I trust it may, by the blessing of God, prove such to them.

Indeed enthusiasm was spreading. John Mackenzie wrote to the Society explaining that just down the hill, in the neighbouring district of “Morness, there are several heads of families who cannot read, and who entreat me to express their desire to your benevolent and useful Society, to send them a Teacher.” He explained that most of the “scholars at Knockarthur are young children; and the greater part of them will be kept out of school, during Summer and Harvest, herding cattle.” While the Knockarthur children were working, in Morness “a number of grown-up persons, and some far advanced in life, would make an effort to attend, at least for some hours in the day, during those seasons.” By December 1828 there were 73 on the school roll at Morness. Attendance at the school declined in the autumn as the harvest was brought in. By winter, a good number of adults came along, but fewer than expected. However, the school was successful enough to still be in operation in 1830. Indeed Mackenzie reported that year that “there are several persons who come from the neighbouring parishes, and board themselves, in order to enjoy the privilege of attending the School.”

I have cycled around Knockarthur. There is no obvious location for the school, however there is a collection of ruins at the crossroads which I like to imagine might be its remains, although, of course, it could be anywhere! In St Callan’s churchyard, however, there is a grave of a family who lived in Knockarthur at the time the school was present. In all likelihood they attended the classes. The ESGSS is not a well-known organisation but it had a significant impact on the educational and spiritual lives of ordinary Highlanders in the midst of the social and economic upheavals of the clearances. Other nineteenth century missionary organisations might have done well to learn from the cultural sensitivity of the Gaelic Schools, and their efforts at providing socially appropriate methods to promote Christianity. Rogart was not the only place to have ESSGS schools in east Sutherland, but more of that at another time!