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

Alexander Elphingston of Newmills (–1724), the Chamberlain of Sir William Gordon of Invergordon

text and photos, except where otherwise mentioned: Jim Mackay

This is the story of Alexander Elphingston, the Chamberlain or Factor of the estates of Sir William Gordon of Invergordon, Baronet. He lived at Newmills in the Parish of Resolis and is buried under a splendid slab beside the south kirk wall at Kirkmichael. Like the Gordons, he was implicated in wholescale avoidance of duty on imported goods – smuggling – in the Cromarty Firth. This story also demonstrates the sources that can be used to discover more about a person long before civil registration came into existence. Alexander died in 1724, and yet we can still discover much about his life – unfortunately, he emerges from history as rather an inept character!


Alexander Elphingston’s remarkable gravestone in Kirkmichael;
hidden for years under the timbers propping up the south wall

Click here to return to the Story behind the Stone gallery

Alexander was Chamberlain to Sir William Gordon of Invergordon, who was at that time one of the most important and influential of the landowners in that fertile oasis of the Highlands, the Black Isle and Easter Ross. Sir William owned much land in Resolis and in Rosskeen. The title of Chamberlain would later change to Factor, but the function was the same: to administer the laird’s land and property and act on his behalf when he was away. Many of the lairds were away, much of the time. In the case of Sir William Gordon, he was busy operating in London and Edinburgh, a Member of Parliament, entrepreneur (the only man to make money out of the South Sea Bubble, allegedly), loan shark like his father, a man who took no prisoners. His brother, Alexander Gordon of Ardoch (nowadays Poyntzfield), worshipped the ground he walked on, and killed a man in a duel to defend the honour of Sir William and, in turn, himself.

We do not know the origins of Alexander Elphingston. The spelling (we would expect it to be Elphinstone) is his own, as on the signatures he appended to documents relating to his or his laird’s financial activities. But I would take long odds that he was a relative of the Jane Elphinston who married Sir William Gordon of Invergordon's grandfather, Captain William Gordon of Kilcalmkill, and who was the daughter of Michael Elphinston, “Mr. Household to King Charles the First.” Coincidences do occur, but this would be pushing it. Whilst that indefatigable Gordon researcher John Malcolm Bulloch calls this lady “Jane” in fact the Sasine Indices for Sutherland in the 1670s give her as Janet Elphingston.

You find references to our Alexander Elphingston, spelled in various ingenious ways, in sasines, Presbytery records, and deeds involving the Gordons. I note a reference in the Laing Charters and in Henrietta Tayler’s history of the Urquharts, not to mention more modern notes in My Little Town of Cromarty by David Alston.

First, an example of him in action representing Sir William. Let us open the Presbytery of Chanonry minutes at 29 April 1718 (CH2/66/2), when the Presbytery met at Cullicudden.

The Presbyterie considering that this Day a Visitation was appointed to hold att this place for settling of a School in these united Parishes of Kirkmichael and Cullicuddine, And that Mr Thomas Inglis ye Clerk being a Party in that affair could not officiat therein, Therefore did make choice of Mr John Monro for that end … Compeared of the Heretors Mr Alexr Gordon of Ardoch, As also compeared Alexr Elphinstone in Newmiln Chamberlain to Sr William Gordon of Invergordon for the sd Sr William In Like manner there was a Letter presented from the sd Sr William wherby the Presbyterie were encouraged to go on in this work …

Sir William Gordon of Invergordon, his brother Alexander Gordon of Ardoch ("the Collector" – i.e. the man appointed to oversee collection of duties on imported goods) and Sir William’s Chamberlain, Alexander Elphingston, were all implicated in a report dated 30 December 1713 by Lord Duffus, then in the Royal Navy, on smuggling iniquities of the North. The report is to be found in the Treasury Papers and was first published by John Malcolm Bulloch in The Families of Gordon of Invergordon, Newhall, also Ardoch, Ross-shire and Carroll, Sutherland (1906). More recently, David Alston in My Little Town of Cromarty summarised the evidence given by Lord Duffus, although not including the caveat that Bulloch made: that Lord Duffus was an embittered Jacobite, allegedly a liar and drunkard, and that he would have been opposed to the Invergordon Gordons who were inveterate Hanoverians. Bulloch suggests therefore that the following be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, Lord Duffus had deliberately provided stories which could be independently checked and names of witnesses who could provide evidence, “without the help of custom-house officers or such persons as more immediately depend on the Collector's authority” so I am minded to believe that the facts which could have been checked at the time in the following were accurate:

A considerable quantity of wine and brandy from on board Alexander Higg’s ship belonging to Alloway was run in the Port of Inbraky [i.e. Invergordon], near Sir William Gordon’s house [this would be Invergordon Castle], and this was so publickly done that the whole country did openly affirm that the Collector (Sir William’s brother) [i.e. Alexander Gordon of Ardoch] had a considerable share therein, and it made so great a noise that the Collector, in company with one Cumin, a land waiter, went to make a pretended search and actually found a great quantity of brandy, fruits, pepper, and other goods, in the house of a widow not far from the said port, which, being so unhappily in the Collector’s way, was seized; but one Barclay [this will be Barkly of Kirkton and Cromarty] and one Elpingston [i.e. Alexander Elphingston], both tennants to the Collector, made a heavy noise, affirming that if those goods which belonged to them were carried off they would be ruined and undone. The Collector thereupon called them aside, and after having spoke to them in private they appeared to be more easy, and then immediately denyed that the said goods belonged to them, notwithstanding their first clamour. The Collector, however, found it necessary not only to go himself but to carry all the officers present along with him to bring horses for carrying off the said goods; but, before any of them returned, the said Barclay and Elpingston had removed everything out of the way, and though the Collector pretended afterwards to represent that affair against the widow in whose house the goods were seized, yet the whole matter was soon hushed.

Click here to return to the Story behind the Stone gallery

Lord Duffus gave numerous other examples of the activities of Sir William and Ardoch, but the only further reference to Alexander Elphingston is as follows:

The whole country is sufficiently apprised that the Collector carries on a considerable trade in his brother, Sir William’s name, to the very great prejudice of the Revenue and scandal of his office; and the said Barclay and Elpingston, his poor, ill-treated, and wretched tenants, were never known to be worth two pounds of Free Substance in the world; neither did they ever pretend to trade to the value of sixpence before their master was made Collector, but since that time they appear to be very considerable dealers, especially in tobacco, pepper, wine, soap, and brandy, which, though they yield the highest duties, yet those new traders are able to sell and actually to retail the greatest part of their commodities at a less price than the value of the duties amounts to: which is so heavy a grievance to the fair trader that if ever the said Collector shall lose his office, innumerable complaints of this nature will be made and proved against him both by merchants and tide waiters, who are oppressed and over-awed with the deceitfull and arbitrary use he makes of his authority.

Now, we know this was an exaggeration, as the Barklys were certainly involved in trade, with or without paying duty (from repute, without), quite independently of the Gordons, and as Chamberlain of a sizeable estate, Alexander Elphingston would have been a man of some standing. Indeed, Chamberlains or Factors were often relations of the laird himself.

Alexander Elphingston witnesses a Gordon document in 1722

Note the reference to tobacco in the smuggling accusations made by Lord Duffus. David Alston perceptively draws attention to the development of a snuff-mill at Gordon’s Mills, snuff of course being ground tobacco – clearly the Gordons were looking for added value from the tobacco imported without duty into the Cromarty Firth. The tacksmen of Kirkton who operated Gordon’s Mills in the 1700s and early 1800s were Barklys and I note from the Newhall Estate records (National Archives SC24/16/3 and RH15/44/199; Highland Archives HRA/D32/J2a) that part of their annual rent to the Gordons was two pounds weight of snuff!

The converted mill buildings at Gordon’s Mill,
where once tobacco was milled into snuff

Click here to return to the Story behind the Stone gallery

Now, a case in which Alexander Elphinston displayed a lack of detailed knowledge of legal process, leading to serious consequences for Sir William Gordon of Invergordon. I should explain that everybody in commerce at this time was well versed in the legal processes involved in making loans and recoving debts, as there was little real money in circulation. Commerce was carried on amidst a sea of bonds between different parties, and taking a defaulter to court to recover a debt or seize his property or land in lieu of money, was business as usual. Here is an example from 1719 of Elphingston himself directly loaning out money:

Forasmuch as Alexander Elphingston in Newmilns, By his Indorsed Bill dated the Twenty eight day of September Jaivii& and nineteen Directed to Captain Roderick Bayne of Drinie, Ordered him against the eleventh day of November then next, To pay to the said Alexr or his order within the house of John Dingwall in Dingwall, The Sum of One hundred and Eighty Six pound Scots money, for value of the sd Alexr, Which bill was accepted by the sd Captain Roderick Bayne, And Indorsed by the said Alexr Elphingston payable to our Lovitt Hugh Ross of Achnacloich or order for value of him And upon the seventh day of May Last was duly and orderly protested against the said Capt Rodk Bayne for not pay[men]t.

He should therefore have been conversant with loan protocol, but a few years earlier he got it seriously wrong, to the great embarrassment of Sir William. This displays a lack of knowledge in legal procedure involving debts, a subject in which all savvy operators at the time were well versed. The case was a dispute over unpaid debt between Sir William Gordon of Invergordon (who was pursuing the debt) and Patrick Mckay of Scourie (who was trying to avoid it) in the Court of Session in 1729 (CS237/G/1/51).

In this case, Captain William Ross, son to Ross of Kindeace, was in London and “being in want of money and Credite” wrote to Patrick Mckay of Scourie to supply him, and Patrick by letter dated 1 January 1719 to Captain Ross told him to draw on Sir William Gordon, and he, Patrick Mckay, would be the security. Captain Ross died abroad before repaying, and Mckay of Scourie was not forthcoming to repay the debt – thirty pounds sterling, a substantial sum. Who should appear in court for Sir William Gordon but “Mr James Boswall advocate” – the great biographer James Boswell’s grandfather!

Alexander Elphingston had crossed to Invergordon (no doubt by the Balblair Ferry) in 1719 to lodge a formal protest regarding the debt. It was alleged that Elphingston not only failed to follow correct legal procedure, but also had not served it on Mckay himself, as the defendant could prove an alibi. Mckay’s lawyer seized upon the irregularity.

The disputed document “which the said Sir William declaired he found amongst his Chamberlands wryttes” (Elphingstone, we know from his Kirkmichael gravestone, had died in 1724) was produced. The document itself read:

Compeared personally Alexander Elphinstoun at the Newmilne as procurator and attorney for the prementioned Sir William Gordon of Invergordon whose power and letter of attorney to the effect underwritten was sufficiently known to me Nottar publick and sub[scri]bing Having and holding in his hand the principall bill abovewritten drawn by the said William Ross on the above written Mr Patrick Mackay, Then and there narrated and declaired that he as procurator and actorney sought the said sum of Thirty pound Sterling from the said Mr Patrick Mackay which he refused and answered that he had none of the said William Ross’s effects in his hands at present Thereupon the said Alexander Elphingston as procurator and actorney foresaid protested the said bill for not acceptance and also for payment Charges and re: exchange and all other Cost, skaith &c The premisses were so said and done as above narrated within the said Sir Williams house of Invergordon Betwixt the hours or Eleven and twelve forenoon Day moneth place and year abovewritten &c.

As this protest seem’d to the petitioners procurators to affirm that it was taken in his presence at InverGordon They consulted with him what he had to object to it, and the petitioner recollecting that he could most certainly prove himself to be alibi at that time, and having besides several grounds for suspecting the verity of that Instrument particularly that the Nottar in whose hands it was supposed to be taken, and who is said to have written it Denyed that ever any such instrument was taken or Extended by him

The story that Sir William had fabricated the document spread in the north and the outraged Sir William, who had been abroad, returned to support the document, testifying to its validity in Westminster, in front of three highly reputable northern gentlemen.

The distinguished northern gentlemen were “The Honourable Charles Ross of Ballnagoun Generall of the Horse and Sir Robert Monro of Fowills Bt.
designed in the act and Commission after narrated Colonell Robert Munro of Fowills”

Click here to return to the Story behind the Stone gallery

In the later court case, Sir William set out his side of the story, blaming poor Elphingston for his lack of knowledge of legal process.

Answers for Sir William Gordon of InverGordon Barronet… Captain Ross brother uterine to the petitioner [i.e. Mackay of Scourie], being at London in great Straits, had addressed himself to the petitioner by a letter, who from Compassion to his Circumstances in the year 1719, wrote a Letter directed to him, wherein he signifies his Inclination to supply the Captain, if he ye Captain could get Credite for ye value from Sir William Gordon for ye same, and undertakes faithfully to pay it, till ye Captain should be able to clear it again
In consequence of this letter, Sir William advanced 30£ Sterling to ye Captain, and got first and second Bills upon Scourie and presentlie transmitted one of the Bills to Mr Elphingston factor for Sir William, as was also Scourie by letters acquainted of the advance, and Elphingston the factor, upon receiving the Bill waited on Scourie, acquainted him of ye draught but Scourie made difficultie then to pay, upon which Indeed the factor should regularly have protested agt him but in place of this, the Bill being payable at Invergordon Sir Williams house, the factor very Ignorantlie protested the Bill there, and in presence of the Nottar and witnesses narrated ye fact of his having acquainted Scourie as above, and therefore protested for not payment, which Instrument is duely signed by the nottar and two or three witnesses
Sir William having remained a considerable time thereafter at London, and Elphingston the factor dieing the matter lay over till Sir William came to Scotland, about the year 1726 or 1727, and having still retained the second bill insisted in ane action agt Scourie for pay[men]t of it

The 1718 protest, “Scottifying” the original bill made in London – it reads, Sir £30:00s:00d Stg London the 15th Novbr 1718 Eight dayes efter sight pay to Sir William Gordon Barronet or order at his house off Invergordon The Soume of Threty pounds Sterling money Value of him And in your hands as p advice from your most Humble Servant William Ross To David Ross of Kindease      Pay the Contents to Alexr Elphingstoune Sic Sub[scribe]tur Will: Gordon

I do not know the outcome of this particular dispute. It is clear that it was not the amount of money involved, but Sir William’s anger at it being suggested that he had behaved in an underhand fashion, that had resulted in escalation of the case. And the poor Chamberlain, not now there to defend himself or give evidence, was apportioned some of the blame.

Elphingston may have been legally naive, and implicated in smuggling activities in the Cromarty Firth, but he was still considered a respectable fellow. I note (CH2/66/2) that the Reverend Thomas Inglis of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden was quite happy to include him on the list of prospective Ruling Elders, and the Presbytery of Chanonry were quite happy to consider him on that list, when they met at Rosemarkie on 11 March 1718:

Mr Thomas Inglis represented to the presbyterie that he has a design to have some persons in his united parishes of Kirk Michel and Killicuden ordained Ruling Elders and for that end gave in the following List viz. Mr Alexander Gordon of Ardach Alexr Elphinston in Newmiln George MacCulloch in Balblair Thomas Urqhuart of Kinbeachie Alexr McLean in Bray Alexr Simson in Killicuden John fforbes in DrumCuden [blank] McAllan Smith in Killicuden [blank] Murray in Culbo Hug Ross in Ardach John McCommie in Rosabrightie and Richard Miller in Brelangwel The presbyterie Considering the said representation with the List given in Do appoint the said Mr Thomas Inglis to advertise the persons above named in the said List to attend the next dyet of presbyterie for ordinarie busines in order to be examined for the end forsaid.

There are two Elphingston stones at Kirkmichael. They lie close together, next to the south wall of the kirk, which, of course, as an active kirk, would have been attended by the Chamberlain and his family. Only people of importance were buried adjacent to the kirk. One is the Chamberlain’s stone, but the other, I believe, refers both to his grandparents and to his son, who, from the scraps of the name left on the stone, is likely to have been Donald or David.

Click here to return to the Story behind the Stone gallery

Alexander Elphingston’s stone is a remarkable one. It bears all the typical post-Reformation symbology, beautifully executed, but in a most unusual, heavy manner compared to later stones. The only other stone I can recollect that looks like it is a slab in Rosemarkie kirkyard commemorating the son of Thomas Hood, the tacksman of Peddieston, the son having died in 1730. I would suggest both stones were by the same mason. In the Kirkmichael example, in the area below the inscription, the initials “DE” occur; on either side of links of heavy mantling, dangling over a helm and shield as in a typical family crest. The “DE” will be the initials of Alexander Elphinston’s son, whose own stone lies adjacent. Below the helm is a shield, and it is not possible to quite distinguish what is portrayed on the shield. On the left is perhaps a stag’s head (or a boar?), on the other perhaps a tower (a shape like a chess rook but with two ear like points – perhaps even a cat?). Under these lie the usual one sided spade, a skull over crossed bones, a shovel, and a small coffin. The inscription reads:

[Here?] · lyes · the · body · of / · ALEXANDER · ELPHINGSTONE · chamberl--- / [few words unreadable, but will have been Sir William] GOR/DON of INVER · GORDON · who / died · the · 25 · of / [elevated perimeter finished, now into the top square] October · 1724 · yea/rs · [gap] · ISOBEL · LIND/SAY · lately · dau/ghter · to · THOMAS/ LINDSAY some / time bayllie / of Cromarty / his · spouse · who · died · the · [blank] day of [next line blank]

Alexander Elphingston’s wife, the Isobel Lindsay referred to, was the daughter of Baillie, and for a period, Provost, of Cromarty, Thomas Lindsay. Lindsay and the other baillies had been in a running battle with Sir John Urquhart of Cromarty in the 1660s.

The other Elphingston stone is hard in against the wall of the kirk and is much more worn and hence less readable, although much can be recovered:

Tight in against the south kirk wall lies the otherElphingston stone;
photograph courtesy of Mrs Helma Reynolds

// … D · ELP/HINGSTONE/ [At the middle:] 16     87 / W · E / M · MD [MD are united] / 17 D · E 70

This second stone is even more interesting genealogically. Its proximity to the Alexander Elphingston stone makes it virtually certain it is the same family. I note from the Inverness/Ross/Sutherland Sasine Indices the following entry: “ELPHINSTOUNE, William, in Easter Balblair, V. 62: his spouse, see McDonald, Margaret.” I have not yet examined this sasine, but it dates to the 1680s, and I can only assume that the “WE” and the “MMD” are this couple, but why the jump from 1687 to 1770? I assume the later 1770 belongs to a descendant, of initials “DE” but even that has to be tentative.

Putting the available evidence together, including the fact that the two stones are adjacent, a strong working hypothesis has to be that our Chamberlain, Alexander Elphingston’s parents were this couple, William Elphinstoune in Easter Balblair and Margaret McDonald, but further work in the archives in Edinburgh is required.

Volunteers, please!

Click here to return to the Story behind the Stone gallery