N E W S F E E D S >>>

Caithness Cemeteries


A.S. Cowper - April 1983

Inscribed tombstones form a significant contribution to the social history of a people.

Parochial registration of baptisms and marriage proclamations was established in Scotland in 1551 and the registration of burials followed in the late 16th century. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries both the Privy Council and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed measures to ensure parochial registration but in many instances their efforts went unheeded.

In the 18th century people were not willing to record deaths because it involved expenditure. An Act of George III imposed a stamp duty for every entry. In addition a fee had to be paid to the keeper of the parochial register, usually the Session clerk who was also the schoolmaster. Burial fees varied from two pence to five shillings, the average being one shilling which at that period was the daily wage of a common male labourer.

In 1801 when the Government made a population Abstract only 99 of the 850 parishes in Scotland that made a return kept regular registers. When the Crown Agents in 1852 published figures for births, marriages and deaths for the ten previous years he noted that deaths meant "burials merely and these only a very limited number".

Another factor affecting the recording of burials was that people were often not buried in the kirkyard at the parish church but at places more convenient to where they died. This was particularly the case in the North where parishes were scattered and parishioners lived at distant parts. Someone belonging to the parish of Halkirk and dying at Achscoroclate was as likely to be buried at Dalnawillan, Achreny or Dirlot as at Halkirk.

The minister of Halkirk, the Rev. John Cameron, in his Statistical report (1791) to Sir John Sinclair summed up the situation when he wrote of deaths that it was "out of my power to ascertain the precise average .... in order to elude payment of the tax, numbers use all the shifts they can; besides, there are no less than ten burial places in the parish which gives numbers an ample opportunity to escape from both register and tax."

But all was changed on 1st January 1855 when registration of births, marriages and deaths in Scotland became compulsory. These statutory registers from 1855 are housed with the Registrar General in New Register House, Edinburgh. There too are the old parochial registers of the established Church of Scotland which survived the hazard of time and the idiosyncrasies of their keepers. The Dunnet register according to the Statistical Account was "destroyed or carried off by the clerk in revenge of a difference between him and some of the heritors".

Records of other faiths, Protestant and Catholic, are in various places - New Register House, the Scottish Record Office, with their own congregations, and some possibly still in private hands awaiting the light of day.

It is this chequered history and deficient state of Scottish burial records that makes recording tombstone inscriptions a worthwhile contribution, locally and nationally, to family and social history. There is today an ever-increasing interest in Highland families. Descendants of Highland emigrants in North America, Australia and New Zealand are researching their roots. Some of these roots do not appear in the imperfect registers or other records but turn up inscribed in stone in some out of the way burial ground. Where the paper records do have relevant information the existence of a stone record may give additional facts on the line of descent in the family as well as providing a physical point of contact in the family story.

In the last three summers I have worked, along with Mrs.Ross, Edinburgh, on inscriptions in Sutherland and Caithness: assistance, either in recording or in getting to sites, as given by Mr McIver, Edinburgh; Mr. Roydhouse, Helmsdale; Mr. Macintosh, Helmsdale; Mr. Gunn, Thurso; Mr. Daniel Sutherland, Devon. In addition wherever we have gone the local people, in being helpful with information and allowing us to leave the car on their grounds, have made their contribution to the work. Recording is not always a "picnic". There have been days of glorious sunshine but we have also been battered with wind and rain and have gone through the purgatory of midges.

To date we have recorded 36 burial grounds: in Caithness - Achreny, Ballachly (Latheron), Berriedale (Old) and (New), Braemore, Brims, Crosskirk, Dalnawillan, Dirlot, Dunn, Latheron (Old), Spittal, Tout-na-Goul, Ulbster, Westerdale; in Sutherland - Ach-na-h'uai, Achness, Altanduin, Alt na Caillach, Ascoile, Auchness (Rosehall), Bunahoun, Clyne Kirkton, Elphin, Grumbeg, Helmsdale, Invershin, Kildonan, Kinbrace, Kirkton Melvich, Loth, Navidale, Rogart, Sciberscross, Skerray, Tutim. In Caithness 1033 inscriptions have been recorded and in Sutherland 2276. Copies of these have been gifted to the National Library of Scotland, the public libraries of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow (Mitchell), the Registrar General, the Scottish Record Office, the Scottish Genealogical Society, Clan Sutherland Society.

At Tomb of Dunn, Watten, a flat stone records John Munro who marched away from Caithness with the 42nd Highlanders to play his part, like Thomas Hardy's Trumpet Major, "on the bloody battlefields of Spain". Fortunately Munro returned, to end his days (1837)in Watten parish. Even more interesting than his career is the record that his wife, Annie Macdonald, "shared his campaigns". One wonders what tales she told her grandchildren of the great Peninsular War, perhaps of the siege of Badajoz, or of how many a woman accompanying a regiment carried a wounded man from the battlefield on her back.

Among the undergrowth and fallen stones at Ballachly (Latheron) a flat stone was cleared of earth and nettles to reveal the grave of Donald Mackay of Clashcreggan (1848) noted for his faith in Auld's Ministers and men in the Far North 1869. Here too a fine granite obelisk toppled over bears tribute to Donald Cumming Sutherland, a Victorian genealogist.

In the old burial ground surrounding Latheron kirk a simple half sunk stone carries the name of Robert Finlayson "Society schoolmaster Dunbeath" who died 1819. This is a witness to the great work started in the 18th century by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge to provide education in the Highlands, especially for the poor. Parochial schools in many places were lacking as the landowners were reluctant to spend money on building schools and schoolhouses.

Nineteenth century wars find an echo in the Gunn stone at Dirlot that remembers Donald who was killed in the American Civil War and the Gunn stone at Braemore commemorating Robert of the 71st Highlanders who fell at Sebastopol 1856.

Old Berriedale on its windswept site at Berriedale brae has the grave of John Sutherland (John Badbea), another of the respected Men of the North. New Berriedale burial ground was "intended for strangers" (N. Ensign 23.6.1891). Doubtless these strangers were the Border shepherds brought in to manage the sheep farms associated with the Clearances. Alexander Oliver sheep manager at Old Hall born 1814 died 1879 was the son of James Oliver, Roxburgh, and served Donald Horne for 39 years. Another stranger was William Anderson, a West Indian who served the Hornes at Langwell and later became the landlord at Berriedale Inn (1850).

A stone in the form of a broken column was set UP at Ascoile in Strathbrora for James Crowlie, a twenty year old native of Dundee who was overtaken by a February snowstorm on' his way from Knockein to Benarmine (1866). At Clyne Kirkton lie the well-known flockmaster Gabriel Reed (1857), Isabella Mackay the midwife (1850), and John Mclntosh distiller Clynelish (1830).

A sculptured flat stone at Loth, ornamented with spade and rake, commemorates John Mitchel gardener and innkeeper at Helmsdale. Bishop Forbes who met Mitchel during his tour in the North in 1762 describes him as a remarkable 84 years old native of Elgin who had created at Helmsdale a "little snug garden, made out of the greatest Wild" - fruit, vegetables, flowers. At Invershin a grateful pupil erected a stone to George Crathorne of Scarborough who taught for forty years under the assumed name of John Laurie.

A New Zealand descendant placed a memorial at Tutim to Ann Graham who "Carried Calim Og of Blanagown on her back out of sight of his pursuers at the risk of her life" at Tutim 1746. Probably the China tea trade lies behind the death recorded on an Auchness (Rosehall) memorial of Robert Mackay Whampoa, China 1843. Old Rogart has monuments for Peter Lawson, the chief Inspector of Sutherland roads (1837), George Gordon a teacher of Gaelic (1849) and David Matheson of Achusal (1841) who, with his wife, was "kind to the poor".

Helmsdale has a group of stones for seamen from Nairn who died in the cholera outburst of 1832. Here also was buried Gordon Ross the SSPCK schoolmaster who suffered in the clearance of Strathbrora and who later when he became a disciple of the celebrated Sandy Gair, was dismissed from his teaching post. A finely sculptured stone at Kirkton Melvich displaying the tools of the mason's trade records the death of Alexander Broun, mason at Bighouse, son of James Broun in Burghead, Moray, who died in 1764: from other sources it is known that Broun died in a fall from the roof when Bighouse was being renovated.

Research into the background of William MacDonald of Navidale, one of the heroes of the Land League, through Census records and parish registers finally linked three tombstones, two at Dalnawillan and one at Kildonan. William's father, John, and his grandfather, John Macdonald of Achscoroclate, a noted Caithness cattle drover, are buried at Dalnawillan. Grandfather Macdonald was married to Barbara Gordon, a daughter, of Alexander Gordon, tacksman of Dalcharn, and his wife Isabella Sutherland and of the Strathuilligh Sutherlands. Barbara Gordon had a sister, Ann, who married John Gordon of Saluschraiggie. Later Ann possessed a sheep farm in Caithness. Her daughter, Isabella, was William Macdonald's mother so that his parents were cousins. A tombstone at Kildonan records William's great grandparents - the tacksman of Dalcharn and his Sutherland wife: on the same stone is William's mother Isabella. Sage in Memorabilia Domestica recounts how Ann Gordon made tea by putting a pound of tea into a gallon of water and seasoning it with butter, pepper and salt.

A burial ground which gave us concern is that near Spittal Mains farm at the ruined chapel of St. Magnus. We managed to clear only one stone but feel that there are others concealed beneath accumulations of earth and grass and nettles. The crumbling condition of the chapel is a historic tragedy It would be a worthwhile piece of work for Caithness history if volunteers came forward to secure the remaining fragments of the chapel walls and to uncover, record and restore this once respected burial place.

Burial grounds do not have the antiquarian attraction of brochs and chambered cairns but they are, in their own right, monuments of our historical past deserving care and attention.

First published in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1983
Note -
the burial grounds recorded were as at 1983.  The genealogical society have recorded many more Caithness Burial Grounds since that date and are included in their books.
The Books on the inscriptions can still be purchased either locally or try Caithness.org Bookshop
Caithness Monumental Inscriptions pre 1855 Vols 1-4  As Cowper & I Ross
Several other counties in Scotland including Sutherland are available in the series.