Life at Achnacraig
George and Christy Duncan were a Scottish Highlands fishing family who lived at Achnacraig (aka Achencraig) a cliff top fishing village very near Badbea.
|Marriage: George Duncan & Christy Grant 10.04.1817|
Christy (aka Christian or Chirstian) Grant was born in Achnacraig in 1789 and was still living there in 1817 when she married George Duncan a local fisherman.
|Ruins at Achnacraig|
The Duncan family probably also had a small piece of crofting land allotted to them. The 1841 census records Christy as being a crofter.
Fisher folk worked hard but if they survived the hazards of the sea and the fish were plentiful they could have a better quality of life than those who only had crofting for a living. Here are some insights into life at Achnacraig at the time the Duncan’s lived there:
Alexander Gunn wrote:
“There was the neighbouring village of Achencraig; there was a difference between Achencraig and Badbea. None in Achencraig could be said to be rich, but one could get a loan of a twenty pound note from a neighbour fast enough. Life there was frugal, simple and honest, but there was a difference. One pony was all Badbea could boast, the Achencraig people could turn out one each at least, and all their farming done in the usual way, they turned out excellent crops. With much better fishing facilities, better land and more of it, there was more money circulating amongst Achencraig people than ever there was at Badbea. The evident fertility became their downfall however, and in 1830 the entire township was evicted, the land being absorbed into the farm of Ausdale. The place was laid waste, some who had been born there, and who had reached the allotted span, had to tear themselves away from everything which had made their lives happy and comfortable. Some settled on a mossy piece of ground above the Berriedale church, some at Newport on rocky barren soil, some went off the estate altogether. What a loss to the community! The money which was circulating by means of the fishing and curing, and other industry connected with the place, was lost for the sake of rearing a few fat sheep for Donald Horne.’
Source: Alan Roydhouse 1977 unpublished.
A Shower of Stones
The Achnacraig folks were very defensive of their way of life and could get angry if they felt trouble was looming which it sometimes was! Doctor John MacCulloch was on a journey in the Scottish Highlands in 1821 and pulled up in boat near Achnacraig. He took off when he got pelted with stones and wrote rather indignantly:
“I had occasion to land with a boat under the magnificent cliffs near the Ord where a party of men, women and children were employed on the herrings while the rocks were strewn with barrels and the shore with boats, and horses were seen scrambling up and down a narrow track in the cliffs, the sight of which made my head giddy. Such are the ports which nature has bestowed upon a coast to which the herrings have though fit lately to retire from the magnificent bays and lochs of the west; hoping perhaps they would not be so easily caught, salted, barreled off to feed negroes.’
‘The herring cleaners received us in a menacing attitude, and with shouts of defiance and offence…. The cause of the impending war was not at first apparent; but the sight of a vessel in the offing with the Union Jack at her gaff suggested to us that we were supposed to belong to it, and that we had fallen in with a race of smugglers. It was too dangerous to expostulate or explain under a shower of stones; we therefore hauled off and left the field to the ‘enemy.’ (Note the enemy was the government cutter Atlanta looking for evidence of smuggling or illicit whisky making)
Source: http://www.electricscotland.com/travel/highlands.htm In Letters to Sir Walter Scott, Bart. by John MacCulloch (1824) Vol 2 pgs 474 & 475
The Revenue Cutter Atalanta
|Ceann Ousdale near where the Achnacraig port was|
Alexander Gunn wrote:
“…In the good old times when Auchencraig was inhabited by a happy and comfortable people, there was a good deal of smuggling indulged in, and on one occasion when several of the inhabitants had a “browst” on hand, the revenue cutter the Atalanta, put in an appearance on the coast - a very unwelcome visitor at any time, but more especially in the circumstances such as I refer to. When opposite the port of Auchencraig - for it was a port of considerable importance in those days, as no less than thirteen boats went out from that place every night during the herring fishing season, and there were thousands of crans cured there every year - the crew of the cutter launched and manned their boats and made for the shore. Their movements were seen from Auchencraig by watchers on the outlook when it was determined that the boat should be prevented from landing for a time at least, till all the stuff should be got into hiding. The plan was this - the male portion of the inhabitants were to do their utmost to put the stuff into hiding, and the females were to arrange themselves on the braehead and roll large boulders down the steep brae above the shore making it certain death to anyone who would venture to land. In this way the boat was prevented from landing. When the captain saw what was going on, he sailed as close inshore as he could with safety, and opened fire on the women, when the balls like hail came showering about them. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the boat was not permitted to land till everything was considered safe. Then the cutter's men climbed tip the steep rocks in a great hurry and fury and caught every woman they saw and examined their hands to see if they were soiled, expecting in this way to discover those who were engaged in the stone battle. The men kept out of sight all this time. The cutter-men threatened to take some of the women away with them, but did not put the threat into execution, which was as well as the men were prepared to rescue the women had there been an attempt made to carry them off..”
Source: The Find of a Cannon Ball at Badbea Shore Northern Ensign 27 May 1890
The Duncan Family
So back to the Duncans. I wonder if Christy joined in rolling stones from the braes while George helped hide the browts.
There were five children in the Duncan family all born in Achnacraig or Badbea. George dutifully took them all to church to be baptised. Their births can be found in the Old Parish Registers.
Jean born in 1817
Elspet (aka Betty) born in 1820
William born in 1822
George born in 1824
Anne born in 1827
|Anne Duncan baptism 6 Sept 1827|
Note: The Old Parish Registers and the Census records for the Duncan family sometimes say they were of Achnacraig and sometimes they were of Badbea. They probably lived on land very close to both settlements or else they may have moved house at some eviction time.
They were a hard working, fishing, crofting family. What happened to disrupt their lives was so awful that it was remembered and recalled many years later by several people.
Strict adherence to attendance at the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, or the Scot’s Kirk was important for Scottish Highland people. There was a Mission Chapel near Berriedale in the Latheron Parish and ministers walked from one chapel to another to look after their flocks. A new church building was needed in Berriedale so in 1823 the Commissioners of Parliament commissioned Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer, to undertake the construction of 31 Highland churches and 42 manses throughout Scotland. Following the granting of suitable land by James Horne, proprietor of the Langwell Estate, the Berriedale Church with its distinctive bell tower and manse was completed in 1826.
|Plan of Telford Manse and Church|
It stands to reason that some local labour would have been required to help with the buildings. Alexander Gunn wrote of Donald Horne forcing Badbea residents to walk long distances to work on his projects. However, it does seem remarkable that fisher folk from Achnacraig would have been part of the labour force for the Berriedale church building commissions. For reasons now unknown George Duncan had some work to do at the new Manse.
|Berriedale, White House (Former Church of Scotland Manse) Latheron, Scotland, is designated a Category C listed building. It is no longer a Manse|
In trying to work out what date this would have been I note that one record says that the Manse was still in the course of erection when George was working there, yet the above record states it was finished in 1826.
I have also noted that George took his youngest daughter Anne to be baptised on 6 September 1827. So my guess is that Anne was probably quite a new baby when calamity overtook this family.
People were certainly accustomed to walking long distances and took it in their stride. It was about four and a half miles from Achnacraig to Berriedale. The new manse was up the hill past the old Berriedale cemetery while the new church was half a mile further on. Depending on various weather, light and track conditions it would take about one and a half hours to walk from Achnacraig to the Manse. In winter in the Highlands it gets dark in the afternoon while summer enjoys long twilights. So all we know is that George Duncan was walking home at the end of a day’s work in the gloaming. I will leave the rest of the story to one who heard it told at his mother’s knee in Badbea:
“There were two or three fatal accidents to some of the inhabitants as well. One of these, a man named George Duncan, was returning from Berriedale, after finishing his day's work at the Established Manse, then in course of erection, and in the darkness of the night he lost his way and fell over the side of Berriedale Head. His non-arrival at home that night as usual caused much uneasiness to his family, and as soon as daylight set in next morning there was a messenger dispatched to Berriedale to make inquiry about him, when it was found that he was seen in the gloaming, making his way in the direction of home. It was evident from this that something serious had happened to him, and a search party was sent out with a view to the finding of his body. On searching the shore to the east of Badbea, his mangled remains were found where I have already indicated..”
Source: Alexander Gunn in Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea, and Neighbourhood. Article II. No date
What a tragedy. George’s broken body was found lifeless. He was probably about 38 years old (if he was a similar age to his wife Christy). Think of the sadness of the community as they prepared George for burial.
Christy was now a widow with five young children to provide for on her own. How she managed we will never know except we do know that folks in this district supported each other in whatever ways they could.
“Being so much secluded they constituted a happy community among themselves, forming as it were one large family. When one was in trouble the others suffered with them. To the widow and the fatherless their portion from the produce of the sea was set aside and divided equally with them”.
Source: Cairn of Remembrance Northern Ensign 5.11.1912
Widow Duncan's Son
A few years later the support Christy got in a near disaster was hard to believe This story is told in detail in the obituary of John Gunn one of the remarkable leaders of the Badbea community. As before I will leave the telling to someone close to the action:
“A widow Duncan lived in Badbea at one time, and a son of hers, a boy of about ten years of age, while amusing himself about the high cliffs so common at Badbea, slipped his foot and fell over the rock which was at this particular part very high. He could be seen resting on a ledge of the rock down below, and the waves driven with great fury by a southeast gale against the rocky coast threatened to engulf the helpless youth. The whole population of the district congregated at the scene of the accident, but none could be found of sufficient courage to attempt a rescue. The rock was almost perpendicular, and no-one ever ventured to scale it. And the sea was in such a state as no boat could live in it. John Gunn, who was Miller at Berriedale at this time, was sent for as the last resort. At once he started for Badbea, a distance of 3 miles. On arriving there he repaired to the scene of the accident and without the least hesitation, commenced the descent, got down, seized the helpless youth, who showed some signs of life, placed him on his shoulder, binding him to his own body by a rope previously provided, and began the perilous ascent. The spectators at top looked on with baited breath as they saw the brave and generous man climbing up the face of that perpendicular rock, when one false step or one loose stone would have hurled both the rescued and the rescuer to destruction; but he succeeded in carrying his precious charge safely to his mother's house, and laid him bleeding and wounded on his mother's knee. Yet such an act of bravery was allowed to pass without the slightest notice, while the brave generous hearted man risked his own life to rescue a fellow creature. The face of that rock was never scaled by a human being either before or after this”.
Source: Death of John Gunn, One of the “Men” of the North. Northern Ensign 13 July 1876
Whether this was William or George is not known but whichever son it was he probably never went near the edge of the cliff again.
Note: The rope used would have been made from heather
|George Gunn: Yonder was the cliff that George Duncan fell over."|
So closely were these two stories of the Duncan family held in the memories of the Badbea community that they were retold by George Gunn, speaker, at the unveiling ceremony of the Badbea Memorial Cairn in 1912.
“Yonder was the high cliff over which George Duncan fell and was killed in coming from the Manse at Berriedale on a dark night, and down there where the young son of Widow Duncan was brought up by John Gunn after falling over the rocks and it is singular that Mr Sutherland met one of the widow’s sons afterwards in New Zealand.”
Source John O Groat Journal 8 Nov 1912
Christy is a Crofter
So what do we know happened to the widow Christy and children of George Duncan.
|Census 1841 Achnacraig|
According to the Census of 1841 Christian aged 50 was still at Achnacraig as a crofter with Betty (Elizabeth) age 20, William age 18, George 16 and Anne 12 all living at home with her. I have not traced the eldest daughter Jean.
The 1851 Census shows Christian at age 60 now living in Parkside near Lybster. Her vocation is given as Retired Fisherman’s Wife. Daughter Elizabeth unmarried at age 31 is a Net Maker (fishing nets) and William also unmarried at 29 is an Agricultural Labourer. I do not know how old Christy was when she eventually died.
Son George Duncan married Catherine Collins in 1850. They moved to Lanarkshire, Scotland and had eight children. George was a policeman.
Son William married Catherine Andrews in 1854. They went to live in Wick where William was a Stone Dyke builder and later described as a Mason.
At the time of the 1851 census daughter Anne had moved down the hill to Ausdale to be a House Servant to James Harvey the shepherd, his wife Helen and their four young children. Ann was 21. James apparently was a well respected sheep farm manager especially skilled with Cheviots.
|Anne Duncan & James Harvey family records|
The next thing we know, Helen Harvey had died and James married the maid aka Anne Duncan in 1852. James became the father of several more children by Anne. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1858 on the ship Ashburton and settled near Masterton. Anne bore six children then tragically died on 10 March 1867 at the young age of 39 – about the same age as her father had died. Ann was buried in the Masterton Cemetery. James Harvey lived on till 1894.
His Mangled Remains
The horror of George’s terrible death in the dark was sedimented into the rocks of the Berriedale and Badbea landscape. The very cliffs that he fell over had stories to tell. “Yonder was the cliff that George Duncan fell over,” said George Gunn at a gathering over eighty years later. And again “Down there was the cliff where the young son of Widow Duncan was brought up.” This time commemorating both the place and the character of the pious John Gunn in his fearless rescue of the near lifeless boy and reuniting him with his mother. The retelling of these events also served as a reminder that there had been great wrongs not yet righted.
|Opening of the Badbea Memorial Cairn 1912|
Families and people have gone and are now dispersed but in remembering the experiences of individual families and the legends surrounding tragic events they endured we are building our own memory cairns. We can find memory texts - archival records, photos of the very places, maps drawn at the time, walk around the remains of the settlements and the paths others trod to connect between past and future and pay homage to the lives they led. The sense of place is still strong at Achnacraig and Badbea.
|George Duncan, His two sons and three daughters |
as well, we might add, his wife Christy Grant