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.

www.ltscotland.org.uk 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


  1. As a direct descendant, through George Frasers daughter Margaret, I thank you very much for these postings.

    Peter Clapcott, Wellinton, New Zealand

    1. I am so pleased to hear from you Peter. Yes it was fortuitous that I found the extra article on George and Bell. It's a great story. I am glad you have enjoyed them. Sorry for my delay in reply. I am in New Zealand too and have been busy with the sunny Christmas days.

  2. By the way Peter if you want copies of the Fraser articles from the Northern Ensign send me an email to farrmcleod@gmail.com with your email & I will send them to you. They might be a bit clearer than those posted on the blog.The articles have been hard to scan as they are so old but I am happy to share.