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
“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.”
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|
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.
|The site of the castle was just down in front of the round patch of trees where the ruins are visible.||Picture: Andrew Spratt http://www.caithness.org|
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.
|April 2002 Picture - Robert Richmond |
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.
|George McBeath born 15 Dec 1761|
|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.
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 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.
|I like this picture from geograph of an old man with his donkey and dog companions.|
|Berriedale where the Berriedale and Langwell rivers meet|