Saturday, November 21, 2015

George Macbeath – Article XIII - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea & Neighbourhood - Part B

Article XIII written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 4 March 1880 – Part B

Berriedale Worthies – George Macbeath

2 donkeys

“Berriedale boys must well remember George Macbeath, who supplied the laird's and the grieve's house at Auchastle with water. George with the help of a venerable donkey, said to be 110 years old (and really it looked like it, for it was as white as a sheep), carried the water from a well at the old castle, which stands on the edge of the high ground behind the inn." 

"The water was carried in two peculiarly made casks, one on each side of the beast, and tied with a rope to a sort of saddle on the donkey's back. There was not another pair in the place more familiar to the inhabitants than George and his companion. George was a quiet, inoffensive sort of a being, but of weak intellect, and the young folks used to tease him a good deal at times.”

My Comments:

The Laird’s house was Langwell House with ‘the grieve’ also living nearby. Alexander Gunn refers to ‘the grieve’ but Walter and James Greive were the land managers or stewards at Langwell over many years. The Greives and their families are buried at the ‘new Berriedale cemetery’.

Ordnance Survey six-inch to mile, Caithness sheet XIii 1877
Ordnance Survey six-inch to mile, Caithness sheet XIii 1877

Achastle and Langwell House

Note: As with many places in the Caithness records there are variations in the spelling. There is another settlement called Achastle a bit further north. 
There were travelling routes - both a high road and a low road past Langwell.
The old castle of Achastle had been built in the 15th century up above where the Berriedale and Langwell rivers meet. It would have been ruins when George was working there.

Langwell House & Achastle site achastle
The site of the castle was just down in front of the round patch of trees where the ruins are visible. Picture: Andrew Spratt

The old castle at Achastle had walls 70 feet high by 43 feet wide and over 5 feet thick. It was protected by the steep banks of the two rivers and a broad ditch on the other side. It was said to have been built by one of the sons of an Earl of Sutherland.

The original house of Langwell, occupied by Robert Sutherland, was situated down by the Langwell River near the bridge over the A9 road. Robert Sutherland, who was a heavy drinker and socialiser plus had a messy divorce, sold the Langwell estate to William Gray of Jamaica in 1775. Robert’s residence is no longer there.

In 1788 Lady Janet Sinclair, the wife of Sir John Sinclair, bought the Langwell estate.
About 1800, Sir John Sinclair planned and built the 'houses and offices having the appearance of an ancient Gothic building which has become a distinguished ornament to all the neighbourhood'. This was the nucleus of the present residence at Langwell of the Duke of Portland. The site of these buildings Sir John referred to as 'Achastle' because of the ruins of the ancient castle lying nearby. (Roydhouse 1977)

It was here that George Macbeath and his donkey provided water for the house and residents.

Langwell was sold to James Horne in 1813. So George had a new taskmaster.
About 1830 James Horne died and his nephew Donald took over Langwell and promptly evicted more tenants.

Donald Horne sold Langwell to the Duke of Portland about 1857. George Macbeath was probably dead by then. Langwell House was extended by the Duke of Portland.

Langwell House 1 langwellhouse
April 2002 Picture - Robert Richmond

George Macbeath

The McBeath families lived at Achastle and Langwell for many decades. I can’t put any accurate dates on the years George Macbeath worked. But there are a couple of options. A George McBeath was born at Achistal on 15 December 1761 while another George McBeath was born at Achastle on 11 March 1799.

15.12.1761 George McBeath
George McBeath born 15 Dec 1761
11.03.1799 George McBeath
George McBeath born 11 Mar 1799

Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea, was born in Badbea in 1820 and left around 1840 so he would have been a boy about 1830 - the time he is reminiscing about. The George Macbeath born in 1799 would then have been about 30. However the references to the very old donkey make me wonder if the George Macbeath referred to was born in 1761 making him about 69-70 when Gunn was a boy.

If it was the older man then he saw many changes in the area in his life time. Either man would have been very conscious of the risks of eviction and losing one’s livelihood.

Donkey Work

George and his venerable companion were doing the Langwell ‘donkey work’. Labourious and boring. Filling his casks with water from the well, lifting them up to hitch onto his donkey’s saddle. Across the green from the well at the castle ruins. First to the grieve’s house and then the big house. Back and forth all day and in all weathers. Lifting up. Lifting down. The household would still need water in winter, come rain, hail or snow. No sitting round a peat fire on a cold day. And despite evictions in the district George kept his job.

Berriedale with Langwell House
Berriedale with Langwell House visible at top centre

Referring to Langwell, Gunn tells us elsewhere:
“The "grieve" or land steward, also lived there. Many a heavy basket of haddocks have I carried to Mrs Greive - whose husband was then land steward - a hearty, frank, homely person, who always packed my basket with "braxy," and sent me home with a heavier basket than I brought.” Lets hope Mrs Greive was just as welcoming to George Macbeath with his water casks.

So he had a weak intellect did he? But George got some things right. He obviously had enough nous to take expert care of his donkey. No work animal lives to be over one hundred if it is not looked after very well indeed. Poor George was teased by the local boys. He was quiet and inoffensive. But I get the feeling that he was smarter than they realised – it sounds like he ‘ kept his cool’ to use a modern expression or ‘retained his composure’ to use an old one. Probably a wise way to handle a bunch of boys making fun of him. And then on with his drudgery.

Well done George Macbeath. A Berriedale Worthy indeed.

Donkey & cart donkey 2
I like this picture from geograph of an old man with his donkey and dog companions.

4 3 1880 NE (Article XIII) part a copy 2 Berriedale Rivers meet
Berriedale where the Berriedale and Langwell rivers meet
1879, 17 July NE Original 1 copy B

Monday, November 16, 2015

Peter the Irishman – Article XIII - Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea & Neighbourhood – Part A

Article XIII written by Alexander Gunn aka A native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 4 March 1880 – Part A

Berriedale Worthies - Peter the Irishman

Berrydale in 1820 by William Daniell  - showing herring fishing activities

"It is a strange thing, account for it as you may, that wherever you go, even at the most unlikely places, you meet with an Irishman. Peter Maganyle, a native of the (? ) Lake, found his way to Berriedale. I understand he came there in connection with the herring fishing, which was at that time carried on there. Peter took up his abode on the shore. He was the owner of a "kaste of a cuddy" - true to the instincts of his "counthry," where the cuddy is an indispensable member of an Irishman's family."

"Peter was a merchant, and kept a small shop of miscellaneous goods. I remember patronising him once, when a young shaver. Having gone to Berriedale to meet a wedding party at the Inn and wishing to make an appearance I invested a bawbee in snuff in Peter's shop. I received the weight of a sixpenny piece and that is the only time I ever saw a coin used to weigh out merchandise. Peter was not a bad sort of an Irishman, and he lived in peace and harmony with his neighbours."

Berriedale shore berriedalecirca1910
Berriedale shore Postcard of Berriedale about 1910 just inside the harbour

My Comments:

McGuingle, McGungle, McGungill, McGunnel, or Maganyle ?

Alexander Gunn seems to have a slightly bemused attitude toward the Irish while other locals struggle with the spelling of this Irish surname.

In another article (to be blogged later) Alexander Gunn states:
  • “The school at Berriedale was a mixed school. Gentle and simple meet on a common footing. It was the only school between the Ord and Latheron. The young ladies from Achastle, the daughters of Mr Grieve, the overseer and factor for the estate, stood side by side with the daughters of Peter MacGungle, an Irishman who lived down at the shore, and the only Irishman, I suppose, in the county at the time.”
As before, with Gunn, I have had to do a bit of my own research to find out about this ‘Berriedale Worthy’s’ wife and family.

Peter’s wife was Williamina or Minney Polson. Minney and Peter had at least three daughters and one son. The girls went to school at Berriedale. Peter the son may have gone to school also.

The first daughter Elizabeth Polson McGuingle was born in Berriedale on 18 Jan 1827. She was also known as Betsy McGungle. The 1841 census shows 13 year old Betsy working as a servant for some Polsons (probably relations) in Blackpark, Lybster.

Minney McGungle was born on 27 Dec 1833. The family were shown as living in East Clyth.

Williamina McGungill was born about 1836. I can’t find her birth record but sadly have found her death at age 22 from Phthisis Pulmonalis - which is tuberculosis of the lungs, gradually causing the body to waste away. Poor woman she had this for nine years before she died. She was at Blackpark Reisgill and was buried at Latheron. Peter is shown as a fisherman on his daughter’s death certificate.


Son Peter McGunnel was born 29 Dec 1831 in Berriedale. On this birth record I found his mother was also known as Minney.

skaffie Herring Fleet leaving Wick Harbour
An early Scotttish fishing boat with an open deck. Fishing boats leaving Wick harbour also with open decks

Now as for father Peter - it seems he managed to avoid the census man. I cannot find him on any census records although it stands to reason that his name may have been recorded in some other way I have not figured out yet. Being about the only Irishman in the country at the time (as Gunn claims) maybe Peter McGungle did not want to be located by the census man. I am intrigued by his “kaste of a cuddy”. A cuddy is a small room on or in a boat. Perhaps he was in his cuddy on census nights! I guess that the cuddy was remembered by Alexander Gunn as it was a different feature on a boat to the open deck fishing boats in common usage in Scotland at that time.

boats helmsdale Branscombe boat
Boats at Helmsdale. Obviously modern boats but some having a small ‘cuddy’ or cabin. A fishing boat at Branscombe with a small cuddy or cabin.

But Peter also had a small merchant business, probably from his house by the shore, selling this and that, including snuff. Snuff is a smokeless tobacco made from ground tobacco leaves. It is snuffed up the nose after a pinch of snuff has been placed on the back of the hand. Snuff has been used in Scotland for hundreds of years and was in common usage at the time of Gunn’s story. A bawbee is a coin of low value.

An exchange of snuff Land of Heather V._Alfeldt
‘An exchange of snuff’
Source: Land of Heather
A man takes snuff from a box in a 19th-century painting by V. Alfeldt.
4 3 1880 NE (Article XIII) part a copy 1
Sorry for the quality of this scan. That’s how it came. It was not easy for me to transcribe. Can anyone read the name of the lake?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Miller of Berriedale and his Wife - George and Isabella Fraser - A Supplementary Chapter – Part B


Printed in the Northern Ensign on 4 March 1880. Part B

To the Editor of the Northern Ensign

“As a tradesman, George Fraser could not be excelled. The meal ground at Berriedale Mill was unequalled for fineness, sweetness, and purity in all Caithness-shire. As a miller I am safe in saying he could have filled the most responsible post in any of the largest establishments in the country. I believe his extreme modesty on this score may have prevented him from attaining that promotion to which less qualified person often reach through their own self-seeking and self-glorification, and by vigorously blowing their own horns. George Fraser is not only a good miller, but a well-known expert at millwright and cartwright work. For strength and general get-up, and finish, his carts are looked upon as models, and stand unrivalled in Caithness-shire. Of course he only made those carts which were required on the estate, hence the Langwell carts were well-known all over the country.”

038 082
Cart at Newtonmore Outdoor Museum An accurate Bushel measure for meal.

“Possessed of extraordinary physical energy and strength of will, George never allowed the grass to grow under his feet in any enterprise he embarked upon. He was a great walker. On one occasion some dispute arose in the Berriedale church which caused, for a time, several of its members to go elsewhere to worship. George Fraser and his family went to Helmsdale, a distance of ten miles, every Sunday; and I remember of being told by an acquaintance that nothing dreaded him more than to fall in with the miller by the way, for it was, as he expressed it, “fair murder” to keep up with him. He went along like a steam-engine. Although thus lion-hearted when needful, George was, I have heard, somewhat subject to fits of timorousness, and he had good reason at times to be so; for many years ago it was said the devil was won’t to come and sit on the parapet of the bridges, and wander up and down the river-sides with a lighted lantern in his hand. At other times “foregangs” and objects of ghostly appearance would be seen skulking around and strange and unaccountable noises would be heard. At all such times, the otherwise iron nerves of the miller would be seriously shaken. The sights and sounds were generally followed by some tragedy being enacted of a bloody nature within a radius of a few miles, if, indeed, such did not shortly thereafter transpire near the very spot.”

079 Ousdale bridge 1
From a tombstone The Ousdale Bridge walked across by George whenever he went to Helmsdale.
“I am told that since the estate changed hands from plain “Mr” to “His Grace,” and while some servants on the place, coeval in their reign with George, have fairly lost their head with pride and boastfulness under the glamour of the many titled personages who now visit Berriedale, still the miller is the same old man, and will nail up a game box with the same nonchalance, and in the same sledge-hammer fashion to carry the spoil of my lord so and so, or of His Grace the Duke of such another place, as he did to plain Tom Horne, or to the late Major Horne of Stirkoke, many days gone bye.”

“A word or two, in conclusion, about Bell, the miller’s wife. Bell is a canty, little, “mitherly,” body – couthy and kindly in her way - a faithful helpmate to “her Geordie,” as she was wont to call him. She carried on her shoulders a wise little head, which was sometimes put to the test by parties needing advice when such as doctors were far away and ill to be got. May she long be spared to tread in company the pathway down the vale of years with him who has been her husband for well nigh half-a-century.” – I am etc Onlooker

My Comments:

The comments re George Fraser’s superstitions are interesting. There are many books written about the old superstitions in Scottish society for example 'Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland' by John Gregorson Campbell published in 1900. Alexander Gunn also tells stories of the beliefs in fairies and witches at Badbea. Some old superstitions were particularly strong amongst the Gaelic speaking peoples & it could well be that George’s animosity to the Gaelic language is also associated with his terror of the elfin and fairy people and his habit of being on guard against them.

Two examples of bridge superstitions I have found are:

“Although tiny Mary was chockful of courage and very bright. One dark night she had to cross a bridge which had the reputation of being haunted by something dreadful. But although it was night-time and dark, yet the bold little woman took courage to cross the bridge, and when she came to it, she saw something of an awful appearance standing before her. She would not turn back; so she spake to it, and it spake to her again, and then assumed a human shape, which she readily recognised, and said ‘An tu Fionla?’ Art though Finlay?’ He was a man she had known when he was alive. He said he had several times appeared to strong men who had been too frightened to speak to him….
           Source: The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends, by Sophia Kingshill

In Neil Gunn’s fascinating book The Silver Darlings he tells of Finn’s journey for a doctor:

“He [Finn] knew the road from hearsay, and began wondering if he would recognise the bridge before Halsary, because it was the most haunted spot in Caithness, with real blood-curdling stories about it…..”

“But though all this had been clear enough in the talk of people who had been this way, now in fact, everything was on so vast a scale, the road seemed so without end, for ever stretching to far horizons, with lochs bigger than he had ever seen before, and in one place standing-stones, that when at last he came, while it was yet early, in sight of what might be the haunted bridge, and saw furtive human heads bobbing out of sight, his heart began to beat painfully and, almost without stopping, as if he had not seen the heads, he turned to his right and stepped off the road to the pathless moor.”

“A bridge, to Finn, was a high arch spanning a river, like the one at home. If there was a bridge down there it could be no more than a flat thing of a few feet over the little burn. But he had seen the heads, and not until the spot had fallen from sight behind him did he feel in any way at ease. They might have been poachers, but they looked brown, like heads out of the heather. He was lucky to have seen them in time."

Chapter XII Pgs 244 – 245

Bridge of Tachar over Tachar Burn Halsary Meeting House
The Tachar Bridge. The road has been upgraded many times but the moors are still vast here. If George was walking to Thurso he would have used this bridge.- unless he skirted it to avoid the devil ! The old Halsary Mission Meeting House at Halsary close-by Tachar

I was particularly interested in this story, as when I visited Halsary in 2011 (my great grandparents John & Christina McLeod having lived and died very close by in Rangag) I was treated to tales of the superstitions associated with the Tachar bridge over the Tachar burn – which is clearly the bridge referred to by Finn as the Halsary bridge. My generous host from the B & B at Tacher drove me over the bridge and told of incidents of superstitions and skulduggery amongst the workmen building the bridge that had halted the work. I can’t remember the date the bridge was eventually finished but it may have been at the time the Halsary Mission Meeting House was built in 1842.

I am glad Onlooker chastised A Native of Badbea for his lack of gallantry in not mentioning Bell, George’s wife. However I was also slightly disappointed in the very brief comments Bell gets from Onlooker in comparison to his lengthy description of George. Not enough from either bloke for my liking. Having described George as lion-hearted and incredibly strong, to describe Bell as “a canty, little, “mitherly,” body – couthy and kindly in her way...with a wise little head,” leaves me speechless. I can only hope that for the time and place the words were written they were seen as complimentary. To contend with little Geikie
‘To contend with little’ Geikie

Isabella had left her parents John and Janet Wink and the ancient town of Elgin of Morayshire, to move north to marry George. George was also from Morayshire so they probably met there with George moving to Berriedale when he got the job at the new mill. Onlooker also says Bell was “a faithful helpmate to “her Geordie,” which suggests a good relationship. Bell must have hurried along to church in Helmsdale with George and the girls, Margaret and Betty, as he “went along like a steam-engine.” Through Ousdale, over the Ord, passed Navidale and on to Helmsdale. It’s a long way to walk but it’s what they did. I would hope that having a miller husband Bell never went short of meal to cook oatcakes. We also learn it is to Bell some folk have gone to for advice in medical emergencies. From her death record in 1882 poor Bell seems to have been very unwell in the last few months of her life. Bell died at home at the mill. She was attended by Dr George Burn the same well-known doctor whose name appears on many Caithness death records. Bell’s son-in-law James Sinclair of Berriedale has signed her death record so at least she had her daughter Betty living nearby at the end.

George Fraser death 1889 copy
George Fraser death
Isabella Fraser death 1882 copy
Isabella Fraser death

The lion-hearted yet sometimes timourous George Fraser died in 1889 at the Berriedale Mill. On his death record he is respectfully shown as a Miller, Joiner and Cartwright. His son-in-law James Sinclair of Berriedale, and probably daughter Betty, were with the old widower when he died and Dr George Burn came.

Bell and George were both buried in the new Berriedale cemetery as are other family members later.

Berriedale new cemetery
Berriedale new cemetery

George Fraser 5
George Fraser 6

George Fraser 7
George Fraser 8