A Tale of Two Tombstones – Alexander Hossack and Isobel Holm

text by Dr Jim Mackay; photography as annotated under each image

The date on an old gravestone can be very misleading. We have on display a broken slab to the south east of Kirkmichael which reads:


photo by Andrew Dowsett

photo by Andrew Dowsett


Discovery of the Stone

We were surprised to find this slab. We had been dismantling a blank tablestone that was in a dangerous condition. It was leaning over and threatening to collapse. We had used the Kirkmichael Gantry to lift the tablestone top, rotate it and slide it well out of the way.

the problem of unstable tablestone legs; photos by Andrew Dowsett

moving the tablestone slab out of the way; photo by Davine Sutherlandt

We had lifted out the two supporting legs and put them to one side. And then we had excavated the foundation slabs from under the legs. These are usually either purpose-made sandstone slabs or cast-offs.

we start to remove the legs of the tablestone: photo by Andrew Dowsett


But to our astonishment, in this case we had a much older slab, broken across the middle, with one half turned sideways under one leg of the tablestone and the other half turned sideways under the other leg. It would have been far more effective if the installers of the tablestone had not broken the slab and had it as one continuous slab supporting both legs; that is the most stable base for tablestones.

a surprise find; photo by Davine Sutherland

the two halves of the slab acting as foundation stones; photo by Andrew Dowsett

The old slab had been broken with considerable force. The two points where the chisels had been driven in can still be seen clearly.

photo by Andrew Dowsett

Andrew demonstrating how the slab was broken; photo by Jim Mackay (but set up by Andrew)

Having recovered the two halves of the slab, we then debated what to do with it. The obvious thing was to replace them as foundation slabs for the tablestone, but as they had failed to work satifactorily before and as it was a shame to bury them again, we decided to put in a brand-new concrete foundation running the entire length of the tablestone to ensure the legs did not threaten to collapse once more. But what to do with the two halves? Anyway, we shifted them out of the way before re-erecting the tablestone to clear the space.

a new foundation, complete with rebar goes in; photo by Andrew Dowsett

and the broken slab is moved out of the way before we rebuild the tablestone; photo by Andrew Dowsett

After much discussion, and in the absence of anywhere better to put the halves, we simply placed the two halves together beside the restored tablestone. The slab has become an interesting story in itself.

the tablestone being restored; photo by Andrew Dowsett

tablestone restored and the broken halves of the slab placed together; photo by Andrew Dowsett


Investigating Alexander Hossack and Isobel Holm

There were quite a few Hossacks around in Kirkmichael and Cullicudden in the 1700s, and several of our oldest stones are Hossack stones. We wondered about the Tolm – did the inscriber mean Tolmie, rather rare in the parish, or Holm, one of our most common surnames? Davine, our Gaelic expert, assured us that it would be Holm, but with a Gaelic pronunciation. And so it proved.

photo by Andrew Dowsett


I checked the records to see if we had any further memorials to family members. The “1751” might be when one of the couple died, so that gave a rough indication of the period to look for. To my astonishment, not only did we have a further memorial, we had a further memorial commemorating this very couple!


The Second Slab

And to complete the surprise, the second slab was in fact buried under the soil adjacent to the very tablestone we were working on. But the dates on this other stone tell a very different story. It reads:


photo by Andrew Dowsett


This inscription lies within an excised panel, a panel with two ingeniously designed drainage channels to prevent pondng and to avoid frost damage. The inscription confirms the spouse’s name as Holm rather than Tolm, so well done, Davine!

It is a little embarrassing to think we hadn’t recognised the same names. But to be fair, we had recorded it more than a year previously, in a cold, dark day in winter, when we had in fact already recorded some neighbouring slabs.

photo by Andrew Dowsett


Below this panel, and probably added later, but by the same carver, is a further inscription. This commemorates perhaps the son of Alexander and Isobel, perhaps a brother of Alexander. It looks “added” and actually extends out onto the chamfer.



photo by Andrew Dowsett


Sutherland is a rare surname to be found in Kirkmichael. We’ll return to John and Ann later.

Alexander Hossack and Isobel Holm feature in the Resolis parish records, always at the same location: Culballachie, on the Braelangwell Estate, down beside the Newhall Burn.. The family had to be in a sound financial position to afford two good quality gravestones, and Alexander is recorded as tenant or tacksman at Culballachie.

I have shaded Culballachie in yellow


We can now see that the date of 1751 on the broken slab represents neither Alexander’s nor Isobel’s death. And it does not represent a marriage date, as they already had a couple of children baptised by 1751 (John in 1748 and Lillias in 1750). And so I conclude that the year 1751 was probably the year that Alexander purchased the lair, and had his and his wife’s name placed on a slab to demonstrate their ownership. And I fear that the prompt for Alexander to do this must have been the death of either John or Lillias.


The Family of Alexander Hossack (c1715–1773) and Isobel Holm (c1725–1777)

Alexander and Isobel had at least seven children, over the period 1748 to 1765, and I summarise their baptism register entries as follows.

Parish of Resolis Baptisms
19 July 1748 Alexander Hossack tenant in Cullbalach & Isobel Holm – John
15 September 1750 Alexr. Hossack tenant Culbalachie & Isobel Holm – Lillias
8 July 1753 Alexander Hossack tenant & [blank] Holm – Henderat
11 January 1756 Alexander Hossack tenent in Culballachie & Isobel Holm – Alexander
19 May 1759 Alexander Hossack tenent in Culballachie & Isobel Holm – Isobel
2 May 1762 Alexander Hossack tenent Culballachie & Isobel Holm – David
8 June 1765 Alexander Hosack tacksman in Brealanguel & Isobel Holm – David

We can estimate that Isobel was aged about 45 in 1765 when she had her last baby (a second David, the first David presumably having died). She had her first baby in 1748. We can therefore assume that she was born very approximately in 1725, and had her first child when she was aged again very approximately 23 in Culballachie. From his own words, below, we know that Alexander came into Culballachie about 1745, so it is tempting to think that Alexander and Isobel came into Culballachie when they married.

The first names of the children are all relatively common except for Lillias and Henderat (Henrietta) and those two give some scope for looking at later generations. A tacksman or tenant in Kinbeachie, and later in Toberchurn, James Simpson, and his wife, Henny, Henrietta or Hendret Hossack, had seven children baptised between 1774 and 1792 and it is likely that this is the “Henderat” baptised in 1753. However, I won’t pursue this until more evidence becomes available. It would be nice if it were, as their son, Isaac Simpson, was for many years the tenant in Auchmartin, where my mother was born and grew up!

I have little on Alexander Hossack and Isobel Holm. Alexander was called to give evidence to the Commissioners of Supply in 1765 as part of the great election battle going on for the seat of Cromarty-shire. The two antagonists were Lord Pulteney, the richest man in Britain, and Sir John Gordon of Invergordon, Baronet, one of the tetchiest men in Britain. From our perspective, it usefully provides an indication of Alexander’s birth date as well as details about his life, including the fact that he could not write:

[9 October 1765] Compeared Alexr. Hossack in Cullbalochy married aged fifty or thereby [therefore he was born c1715] who being Solemnly Sworn purged of partiall Councile Examined and Interrogate Depones That he has been in Culballachy part of Braelangwell’s Estate for near Twenty years [so he came in about 1745, aged about 30], That he pays yearly, Twelve Bolls Three Firlots meall & Bear Two Bolls of Oats That he pays Ten Shillings one penny & eight twelfths Sterling of Money beside one penny Sterling per Boll of Vicarrage half a wedder, Eighteen hens, Forty Windlins of Straw, Forty Loads of Fireing & forty eggs and one merk Scots per Boll as the Conversion of Services, And with Respect to the Conversion of Wedders and hens Depones cum precedente And that five firlots of Oats is equal to a Boll of Meall or Bear, And as to the Rent of Alexander MacConachies Possession Concurrs with the Preceding witness, And with Respect to the Rent of the Lands in Braelangwell’s own Possession Depones cum precedente in omnibus- Causa Scientise patet and this is truth as he Shall answer to God Depones he Cannot write (Signed) Hugh Rose P. Geo: Greig Clk.

Where was he located prior to 1745? We do not yet know. It may, for all we know, have been in Easter Ross, an area I mention for a reason that will become apparent.

Does the second inscription on the lower slab (IOHN HOSSACK / ANN SUTHERLAND / 1781), commemorate John, the son of Alexander and Isobel born in 1748, or perhaps a brother of Alexander? I raise the brother issue as the only reference to a John Hossack and Ann Sutherland which I can find in the marriage or baptism records of Scotland in this period is from the Parish of Nigg, back in 1736:

Parish of Nigg Marriages
1736 Febry 17th John Hossack servant (to James Rose) in the parish of Fearn & Ann Sutherland servitrix to Wm. Rose in Culless were matrimonially contracted James Rose chamberland to Cadboll became cautioner for man & Hugh Rose tacksman Rarriches became cautioner for the woman

Fearn and Nigg are both across in Easter Ross, and Easter Ross and Kirkmichael are just a short ferry crossing away from each other, so it is quite feasible that we have here the same family of Hossacks. But until more information is found, we cannot pursue either line.


Resolving the position of the stone

What should we do with the broken slab long term? There is no free space in this area of Kirkmichael in which to place the slab. There is the blank tablestone to the west, another buried slab to the east, an enclosure to the south and more memorials to the north. There was no alternative but to place it above the deeply buried second slab. It is, in fact, rather appropriate that the two slabs commemorating the same couple are now together.

This at the moment is one of our shortest tales in this series of Story Behind the Stone, but it will be expanded if further information comes available. Watch this space!

photo by Andrew Dowsett



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