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


  1. I have enjoyed following your blog for a few years based on my interest in the local area--my 4x and 3x great grandfathers, i.e., father and son, both named Walter Grieve were both Managers of Langwell. In the recent Nov 21 post you refer to Walter Grieve (let’s call this one Senior), Manager of Langwell. We have just found what we believe to be his MI for the Berridale New cemetery, died 1838. We long guessed he was buried up there, as he is not with his wife Christian Brydon, buried 1854 in Borthwick Wa'as in the Borders alongside Walter's parents. The Grieves were from the Borders and associated with a property called Craik, south of Hawick, in the late 1700 and early 1800s. We believe that Walter Senior was sequestered away to the Highlands around 1817, and surmise that the link to Langwell is that the Grieves knew the Hornes from Roxburghshire. Other references on the Hornes (uncle James and nephew Donald, successive owners of Langwell) connect them not only with Caithness, but also Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire.
    You mention James Grieve was also a manager—I’d be interested in any evidence for that? I have seen him referred to as shepherd elsewhere but not manager, and I don't think the 2 men (Walter and James) were closely related, at least not based on my current research. Grieve is not an uncommon name, so it is possible that it is only a coincidence that they were in the same area around the same time.
    Following your blog, it would also be great to be surer whether “Mrs Grieve” referred to was the one married to Walter or James. Assuming Walter (if James was never actually the Manager?), it is wonderful to see a character description of my 4x great grandmother!
    In your Nov 16 post, Alexander Gunn refers to "the daughters of Mr Grieve" with the children of Peter MacGungle. I note elsewhere you date Gunn at Badbea from his birth in 1820 until 1840 so this is Walter Senior’s time at Langwell. If this “Mr Grieve” is Walter (not James), he indeed had 4 daughters (plus son Walter), the oldest 3 being Agnes, Isabella and Helen.
    Son Walter was also Manager Langwell, starting around 1848/49 and ending 1859, or after Horne sold Langwell in 1957. So it appears that there was about a decade long gap in the service of the 2 men at Langwell. Walter Junior is clearly documented, with his family, as Manager Langwell in the 1851 census. He ultimately immigrated to NZ with wife and children in 1860.
    I have very much enjoyed your interpretation of these insightful writings of Alexander Gunn. Thanks for keeping this history alive. Finally, I'd be interested in hearing from anyone with further details on Langwell or these Grieves in the period 1817-1859.

    1. Hello Julia,

      How very nice to receive your comments. I will need to put some time into replying to you and researching what I can from Alexander Gunn - which will be a pleasure indeed. For a start re the Berriedale (New) Cemetery unfortunately the gravestones don't seem to be photographed as with some Scottish cemeteries but I do have the 1981 Cowper and Ross Caithness Burial grounds records and Yes there are Greives buried there. Do you have the inscriptions wording or would you like me to write them out for you. Of interest apparently there was an article in the Northern Ensign on 23.6.1891 stating that the New Berriedale cemetery was intended for strangers and the 'first person buried there was the wife of James Greive sometime in Ousdale year 1835'. It may even be an Alexander Gunn article - I will need to check my files. I will get back to you in a couple of days.If you like you are welcome to email me direct at Best regards.

  2. Hi Julia,
    I have answered most of your questions by email but in case someone else is interested I will put some answers here.
    Re the Monument Inscription for Walter Grieve (Greive) you say, “It is followed with the words "ed proprietor, shepherds, tradesmen, servants on estate 1840" and I don't know what that means – I had a look at the abbreviations list & it means ‘erected by’ – which makes sense and suggests they all liked and respected him.
    “You mention James Grieve was also a manager—I’d be interested in any evidence for that? I have seen him referred to as shepherd elsewhere but not manager” – Yes you are right I have checked out a few sources I have here & he was a shepherd at Ousdale (aka Ausdale). Seems to have had about 7 children & he is referred to as a shepherd in all of their baptism records (I just checked them on freereg). Yes the son Walter was born 17 May 1835 and Helen was buried in New Berriedale in 5.10.1835 so maybe didn’t die in childbirth.
    Re the girls Alexander Gunn refers to at school with him they must have been the daughters of the first Walter Grieve because the children of the second Walter were born well after AG left Badbea – he was born in 3 Dec 1820.
    It seems to me that the Mrs Grieve referred to must have been the wife of the first Walter – AG talks about his school days in that article & he must have been a boy – so the dates perhaps between 1825 and say 1836. So yes I think Mrs Grieve must be your ggggrandmother – how very fascinating. She sounds such a positive person. Braxy BTW is meat from a sheep that has died – we would not eat it these days – but they were obviously very grateful.
    Re the New Berriedale cemetery – as far as I can work out there was quite a bit of bad feeling in the district about the southern shepherds being brought into Caithness and taking much needed jobs from the locals – I have somewhere a reference to a speech by Sir John Sinclair about his commitment to train the sons of local men to be shepherds – and my gg grandfather John McLeod of Ausdale was one of the very few Highland men who succeeded in being employed as a shepherd by Horne – at Rumsdale for over forty years. There was also a very strong tradition for Highlanders to be buried with kin and the old Berriedale cemetery had been used by locals for a long, long time. There would have been bad feeling about burying ‘borders’ shepherds there. Horne who was involved in gifting the land for the new Berriedale church liked to have strong control of things there and stopped a meeting in the church at the time of the ‘Disruption’ & the meeting was held outside in bad weather.
    Re the British newspaper archives – yes coverage is infuriating. I don’t have access to what is not there. I have collected my archives of Alexander Gunn’s letters from several sources including the Highland Archives in Wick.