The Story behind the Stone – the families, estates and stories of Kirkmichael, Cullicudden, the Black Isle and beyond

Donald McDonald (1817–1896), teacher at Cullicudden School and Registrar of Resolis

text and modern photography: Jim Mackay  heirloom photography: Laurel Lahay

Researching registrars feels strange for the family historian: we see their names signed over and over again within the birth, marriage and death records, but rarely are they a subject of investigation themselves.

Donald McDonald was registrar for Resolis from 1874 to 1893. But he had another career: he was a schoolteacher in Cullicudden for 30 years before that, and became the very first teacher in the new state school at Cullicudden when it opened in 1877.

The school at Cullicudden was well known for the quality of its teachers. My father was taught in Cullicudden, and my own two children were educated there, although I am an old Newhall pupil myself! It was a sad day when the primary schools of Newhall and Cullicudden closed in 2007, albeit with the benefit of a new central Resolis school built to modern standards. The sculpture of a fish in the adjacent field, courtesy of John Ross, welded from plough parts by the local smith, is an excellent memento of the school. Cullicudden is Gaelic for "the creek of the cuddie fish", and the fish became the school symbol. There had been schools in this part of the parish for many hundreds of years.

Donald McDonald's headstone in Kirkmichael is a substantial red granite block at the "dogleg" on the north dyke, beside the road.

His parents were small tenants at Springfield in Resolis, William McDonald and Christian or Cursty Junor or Joyner. Cursty was from Ardival in the parish of Cromarty, and they married in Cromarty on 20 December 1805 ("William McDonald in the Parish of Risolis & Christian Joyner in Ardevall").

As normal for the time they had many children: William (1807), Alexander (1812), Kathrine (1813), John (1816), Donald, the subject of this Story behind the Stone, (1817), Ann (1819), Mary (1821) and Thomas (1823). Old William died sometime between the 1841 and 1851 census dates, but Cursty lived on with her youngest son Thomas at Springfield until her death in 1867.

Why it was the youngest son who continued with the tenancy at Springfield I do not know, but Thomas lived there until his own death in 1888, never having married. Donald perhaps showed academic inclinations which through some unknown mechanism were able to be realised. Where he was educated we do not know. His first appearance is in the 1851 census as "F.C. Teacher" (a Free Church teacher) living as a lodger with two grocer sisters in the Bog of Cullicudden, not far from Springfield. He is given as 31 in this census, but as we see his baptism in 1817, as usual we take an exact age with a pinch of salt.

Cullicudden (or more correctly Drumcudden) School at this time was run by the Free Church and had been built beside the main road in Cullicudden at the same location as where the later state school would be erected. It was on land gifted in 1823 by the proprietor of Drumcudden at the time, Thomas Mackenzie Paterson. The Reverend Donald Sage was the mastermind behind the transaction – when Sage arrived in Resolis in 1822 he found that education in the west end of the parish was being administered by a decrepit schoolteacher in decrepit school buildings in Drumcudden down beside Newhall Burn. The blunt description is Sage's – in his Memorabilia Domestica he says the "teacher was Donald Murray, an old man, and the school, like himself, was for years verging into decrepitude." The schoolteacher was resistant to being ousted, so new buildings were erected. Sage says "a new site was given and measured out, 200 feet in length and 70 feet in breadth, sufficient in point of extent, not only for the site of the buildings, but also for a small garden for the school master. The session undertook to forward the buildings without delay, as well as to collect funds to defray the expenses, all of which was done in the course of three years afterwards."

That was in the 1820s, and it had had a fine teacher for 20 years in Alexander Mackenzie before Donald McDonald arrived in the mid to late 1840s.

An essential book for the Highland historian.

The Reverend Donald Sage, minister of the established church in Resolis from 1822 to 1843, and thereafter Free Church minister in Resolis to his death in 1869

The various reports on Donald McDonald suggest he was abundantly qualified for the post, that he was a kind man but a strict disciplinarian. He was to say that one of his frustrations was the disappearance of his pupils when farmwork was required.

He married in 1856 Mary McKay, the daughter of a neighbouring crofter. The minister was, of course, the Reverend Donald Sage himself:

15 Feb 1856 at Bog of Cullicudden Marriage (after Banns) was solemnized between us according to the forms of the Free Church of Scotland
Donald McDonald 38 Cullicudden Free Church Schoolmaster bachelor William McDonald crofter (d) and Christian McDonald ms Joyner
Mary McKay 32 Springfield spinster Donald McKay crofter and Catherine McKay ms Urquhart
Donald Sage Free Church minister David Holm Alexr. McDonald John McDonald witnesses

They had quite a number of children, mostly daughters. Of his sons, Donald died in infancy, but William grew to be a promising young adult and was a pupil teacher when he died of that scourge of the times, consumption or tuberculosis. Imagine Donald’s feelings when he wrote to the School Board on that occasion (Highland Archives CRMCH/SB/1) on a black-edged letter:

Cullicudden / 24th. Decr. 1873.
Dear Sir, / I received your note last night. I do not think I can attend the meeting of S. Board on Friday – I am sorry to have to inform you that my son and pupil teacher died this morning at 2.30, and will be buried on Friday in Kirkmichael.
I hope it can be arranged that my attendance at a future meeting may suit.
I am, / Dear Sir / Yours very truly / D. McDonald

I am pleased to note that the School Board wrote back appropriately:

Cullicudden School. / 6th. Jan. 1874.
Dear Sir, / Received your kind letter, and feel grateful for your Sympathy.
I received the books from the officer.
The School offices have separate doors for boys and girls, but are in bad repair at present.
I am, / Dear Sir, / Your Obedt. Servt. / D. McDonald

We have a snapshot of the school buildings about this time in the Ordnance Survey Namebook, which recorded them thus: "Free Church School / Mr D McDonald Schoolmaster / This is a plain substantial building, one storey high, slated and in very good repair. It is supported partly by a Committee in Edinburgh, local subscription and school fees. The average attendance is 80, the branches taught are the ordinary branches of English."

Despite being in "very good repair" the advent of the Education Act in 1872 meant that they would be soon replaced with more modern buildings. The School Board was rigorous in ensuring the contractors building both Cullicudden and Newhall schools delivered a quality product, with the consequence that both the school buildings look as sound now as when they were first constructed, albeit falling out of school use when the new Resolis Primary School was opened in 2007.

This is the report in the Ross-shire Journal of 20 July 1877 on the opening of Cullicudden School.

CULLICUDDEN, 17th July 1877.– The new public school buildings in this, the upper district, of Resolis have just been completed. They form an elegant block of buildings, and from the elevated site on which they are raised are seen to advantage for miles around. They were entered to-day by the scholars, of whom about seventy were present, and opened at noon by appointment of the School Board. Mr Shaw Mackenzie of Newhall, who has uniformly taken a deep interest in the cause of education in the parish, was unanimously voted to the chair. After devotional exercises had been engaged in by the Rev. Mr McDougall, followed with singing and the reading of the Scriptures, Newhall expressed his high satisfaction that the buildings, so large and commodious for the pupils, and so comfortable for the excellent and faithful teacher, Mr McDonald, were now happily finished, and he hoped they might be found to greatly benefit the parish, and in every way adapted for the important purpose for which they were erected. The Rev. Mr McDougall, while alluding to some defects of the Educational Act, spoke of the condition of Government grants, dwelt on the necessity of diligence and regularity and attendance on the part of the scholars, and hoped that the Bible and the Shorter Catechism would ever occupy the highest and most honoured place within the walls they now were taking possession of. Mr McLennan, member of the School Board, alluded to the liberality of the Government in paying about two-thirds of the cost of the buildings, and trusted there would be no necessity for enforcing the compulsory clause of the Act.

The Reverend Robert McDougall of the Church of Scotland in Resolis

The state school (left) and schoolhouse (right) built in Cullicudden; this picture was taken about 1900

Donald was therefore the first teacher in the new Cullicudden School, but he was due for retirement, and the following year he moved out of the new schoolhouse into, very appropriately, the former schoolhouse at Newmills, now redundant with the new school and schoolhouse having been built at Newhall.

Again, a newspaper report gives the details. This is the Inverness Advertiser of 7 June 1878:

On the afternoon of Wednesday week, the 20th ult, Mr Donald Macdonald, who has just retired from the Public School of Cullicudden, was waited on, at his new residence in the old parochial schoolhouse of Resolis, by a number of subscribers, in order to present him with a valuable gold watch and chain, in recognition of his long, energetic, and highly successful labours as a teacher, and their respect for him in his private capacity.
Mrs Shaw Mackenzie of Newhall, the largest subscriber, who has uniformly taken a deep interest in the schools and in the welfare of all the children of the parish, kindly consented to accompany the deputation, and in making the presentation said gracefully– Mr Macdonald, I have been requested by a large body of your friends to express to you their deep regret at your retirement from the duties of a schoolmaster in this parish, and also to present you with this watch and chain as tokens of the great esteem they have always entertained for you, and which they still entertain. Concurring entirely with the sentiments which have caused this act, I not only accept this duty with the greatest pleasure, but join your other friends most sincerely in hoping you may live many years, in health and happiness, to wear the watch and to continue still the esteemed friend of those who gave it.
Mr Macdonald replied in very feeling terms, giving a brief review of his labours in the upper district of the parish. He spoke of the difficulties and discouragements of a teacher when, as in most country districts, the attendance was irregular, and alluded to the great kindness he had uniformly met with from the parents of children and all the people of the parish. He had no thought, however, that they were to give him so valuable and substantial a proof of their esteem and affection when quitting the active duties of his office. On entering his new dwelling it gave him the greatest pleasure to meet his friends, and to hear such kind and eloquent words from the lady whose kindness and generosity he had so often experienced and whom he had ever respected so highly. The watch and chain would ever be so many links binding him in affection to the liberal subscribers, and he knew, that after he had passed away his family would measure up these valuable tokens of the good will of his native parish with a laudable pride. The meeting this afternoon was one of many proofs that he had not laboured altogether in vain in the educational world. He begged in the most humble and cordial manner to express his profound gratitude to Newhall and Mrs Mackenzie for their presence at the meeting, and to all the subscribers, whether those present as a deputation or the numerous friends they represented.
The Rev. Mr Macdougall, after alluding to the high Christian character of Mr Macdonald and the great esteem in which he had always been held in the parish as an honest and painstaking teacher, said that Mrs Macdonald proved herself a worthy helpmeet for her husband, that she had laboured for long years as mistress in the industrial department, and that he believed the intentions to present her with a suitable testimonial would soon be carried out.
We understand that Mr Macdonald, who has laboured so faithfully in the parish for the last thirty years, receives a retiring allowance from the School Board, and gets in addition a pension of £25 from the Government in consequence of the excellent reports made for a quarter of a century in his favour by H.M. Inspectors of Schools.

Note the reference to a future gift to Mrs Macdonald – “the intentions to present her with a suitable testimonial”. Here is where an extraordinary coincidence takes place. Across in Canada a couple of years ago, Laurel Lahay was researching the ancestors of a friend of hers, Lyn Holloway, who is descended from a daughter (Christian Margaret McDonald) of schoolmaster Donald McDonald and Mary McKay. Lyn dug out not only a silver plate inscribed to Donald McDonald in 1871, but also a beautiful needlework box inlaid with abalone and mother-of-pearl bearing the inscription “Presented to Mrs. McDonald, Schoolmistress, Cullicudden, by attached Pupils and Friends. 1878.” This was undoubtedly the very gift referred to in the newspaper account of the time!

Photo by Laurel Lahay

Photo by Laurel Lahay

Photo by Laurel Lahay

Laurel in researching the family came across an earlier version of this Story behind the Stone, and made contact. We soon realised we had liaised on another family story I had been working on years before, that of the Murder of Aeneas Dewar, which became an article in the Highland Family History Society Journal. Laurel developed the MacDonald story for the Journal and passed copies of her photos of Mrs McDonald’s inlaid box and of Mr McDonald’s silver plate to me with Lyn’s blessing to use them on our website. It is indeed a small world.

I don’t know what event in 1871 triggered the gift of the silver plate to Donald McDonald, but the gifts that both he and his wife received bear testament to the affection with which they were held by the community. The entire inscription on the plate reads: “Presented to Mr. Donald McDonald teacher Cullicadden by his pupils 1871”. You will see that the engraver spelled “Cullicudden” as “Cullicadden”, which must have been a sore irritant to the teacher over the years – or perhaps it just endeared it to him!

Photo by Laurel Lahay

Photo by Laurel Lahay

On Donald's retirement in 1878, who should come into Cullicudden but the famous Kenneth Kemp, who stayed in position over the period 1878 to 1922, and then simply moved to his retirement home to the east side of the school, named Kempfield. Thanks to Maggie Melanson, by the way, for her detective work on dating the photograph of the pupils below. John Kemp on front row, second from left, turned 5 years old in March 1898 and this would have been his first year at school; Alexander Kemp (third row in, third from left, turned 14 in July 1898 so would have been his last year at school); put them together in the same school picture and it has to be 1898!

Kenneth Kemp and his pupils about 1898, after Donald McDonald had retired.

The primary school before it closed (photograph by Andrew Dowsett); it is now a wood carving workshop

and the Resolis schoolhouse in which Donald McDonald lived briefly after it was built, now in private use – by 2017, when this photograph was taken, the trees were well developed

Meanwhile, Donald had only partially retired in 1878. In reality, he had picked up another post a couple of years earlier, becoming the Registrar for the Parish of Resolis in 1874. We discover this from the births, marriages and deaths certificates themselves. The Interim Registrar Robert McDougall registers one death on 13 August 1874 and the new Registrar Donald McDonald registers the next on 20 August 1874. He continued in this role for almost 19 years, with his last entry being 1 April 1893 and the next being 22 April 1893, curiously with Robert McDougall (the Church of Scotland minister) back as Assistant Registrar.

Donald McDonald's final register entry in 1893, with Robert McDougall temporarily taking over once again.

During his period as Registrar, Donald lived in Resolis itself, in a house known in the 1881 census As "7 Resolis Villa" and in the 1891 census as "Registrar's House". However, it must have been on given up this post that he moved to his final home, Craggan, at Newhall Point. And that is where he died in 1896.

His wife Mary survived into the next century, dying in 1902 in Inverness where she had moved to be with her unmarried, book-keeper daughter Mary.

The report in the Ross-shire Journal of 11 September 1896 on Donald's death was effusive.

THE DEATH OF A RETIRED RESOLIS TEACHER.– We regret to have to announce the death of Mr Donald Macdonald, late teacher, Cullicudden, which took place at the Craggan, Resolis, on the 4th inst. For upwards of thirty years, dating from the Disruption period, he taught the young of the west end of the parish with marked success, and with great satisfaction to the whole community in which he was so highly respected. Mr Macdonald was in many respects a remarkable man. His attainments were of no ordinary kind. Few teachers of his time were more thoroughly qualified to impart a sound and wide education than he. Though born in comparatively humble circumstances, he rose, through his own energy, intelligence, and prudence, to a high place in his profession. A man of kindly and genial disposition, he was a strict disciplinarian, but even in regard to that matter he showed a just discrimination. As a consequence, in no school in the north could there be found better order, or a greater respect on the part of the pupils for their teacher. Indeed, in word and action Mr Macdonald was a true gentleman, one of nature's own making. Not less by his practical example, which was of a high Christian type, than by his wise and kindly counsels, was he a model and guide to his pupils and those among whom he sojourned to the ripe old age of nearly four score years. No one could come in contact with him without being impressed with his quiet, deep, and enlightened sincerity. He never took any outstanding part in matters of a public nature. He was of a retiring and unobtrusive disposition, having no taste whatever for demonstrative publicity. All the same, he took a keen and intelligent interest in all matters pertaining to church and state, and without making any attempt to dictate to others as to what course they ought to pursue in regard to these important questions, he shaped his own conduct in regard to them on strictly conscientious lines. On Tuesday last he was laid in his grave in the churchyard of Kirkmichael, a beautiful spot on the shore of the Cromarty Firth. The funeral was largely attended by his numerous friends, including many of his old pupils, who will always cherish his memory with the deepest respect.

Donald McDonald's headstone at the dogleg in the north wall

His stone in Kirkmichael is prominent, and it commemorates him, his wife, and the earlier deaths of two of their children.

In loving memory of / DONALD McDONALD, / schoolmaster in Cullicudden, / for upwards of 30 years; / who died 4th September 1896, / aged 78 years, / and his two sons WILLIAM. / who died 24th December 1873, / aged 16 years; / and DONALD. / who died in infancy / 31st October 1864. / Also of / MARY McKAY, / wife of the above / DONALD McDONALD, / who died at Inverness, 7th June 1902 / aged 78 years.

It is very fitting that he should be commemorated with this prominent red granite stone, given his own prominence in Resolis as schoolteacher and registrar for such an extended period.

There must be photographs of Donald McDonald or his wife Mary McKay extant, and we would love to have a copy of any to supplement this Story behind the Stone.

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