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

Alexander Holm, the ferryman at Balblair,
the Gaelic tradition,
and the Great Timber Robbery of Chapelton

text and photography: Jim Mackay

This story explores the surprising absence of Gaelic on the gravestones in Resolis and relates the story of the devotion of two sisters to their elder brother, the ferryman at Balblair. It also tells the story of one of the most entertaining crimes of the parish, conducted in the darkness of the night at Chapelton!

The Chapelton signpost, giving directions to Kirkmichael, Newhall Point, Balblair and "Inverbreakie (no) Ferry"

Out of the 500 or so old stones at Kirkmichael and Cullicudden, there is only one in each kirkyard which we know bears a Gaelic inscription. And yet much of the population spoke Gaelic well into the 1800s. And we know that two sermons were preached in Kirkmichael on the Sabbath, the first in Gaelic or "Erse" or "Irish" as it was sometimes called in the parish records, the second in English. The Kirk-Officer was instructed to ring the bell at the end of the Gaelic sermon so that the English-speakers would know it was their turn.

So why the paucity of Gaelic on the gravestones?

The answer of course is that the Gaelic speakers were the poorer folk, who could not afford gravestones, or inscriptions on gravestones, at a penny a letter. And those who had more money, the tradesmen, would have wished to emulate the gentry who were English speaking. Who would have betrayed their common origins by putting the common language on their gravestone?

So it is very refreshing to find on a low tablestone to the south west of the old Kirkmichael kirkyard a worn but indisputably partly Gaelic inscription.

The Gaelic inscription

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It reads:

Here lyes the remains
late Ferry man at Balblair
who departed this life on
the 18th day of July 1831 in
the 58th year of his age unto,
whose memory this stone
is placed here by his Sisters
residing in Balblair

Cainn sleigh na ulli beo
ait counie na ulli mairbh
cho buan a bouegh
cha marre

This stone is not to be removed
after the death of HELLEN and

The Trust Treasurer’s mother-in-law, Mrs Didi Macaskill, from Lewis, considered the first couple of lines were "The end of the journey for all living. The place of abode for all dead" but the odd spelling made the remainder confusing. We put the Gaelic inscription up on the Kirkmichael Trust’s Facebook page and received some useful feedback, including a reply from a member of staff at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. The responses suggested that the stone carver was clearly not a Gaelic writer and moreover several of words contained shortenings typical of the eastern Highlands. Various suggestions as to what the “correct” spelling and grammar should have been and the nearest to the original was:

Ceann-slighe nan uile beò
Àite-còmhnaidh nan uile marbh
Cha bhuan a' bhodhaig
Cha mhair

Translations were similar, and here are a couple:

The destination of all the living
The resting place of all the dead
The body is not long-lasting
[It] does not endure.


The end of the journey for all those alive,
The resting place for all those dead,
Its victory is eternal


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The Holm Sisters and their ferryman brother, Alexander

And who were the sisters who wished, despite local convention, to have Gaelic on their brother’s gravestone?

The family of Alexander Holm, the ferryman, is a difficult one to trace given the number of Holms in Resolis, and the popularity of Alexander as a Christian name. However, we can trace the family, who lived at Newhall Point, through the sisters. We find them in the 1841 Census at Balblair:

Isabel Holm 60 FS
Helen Holm 62 FS

There was at Balblair in 1841 Census coincidentally another Helen Holm, the child of Chapelton farmer John Holm and his spouse Isobel Barnet, who was involved in the Great Chapelton Theft of 1847. This family comprised: John Holm 83 Farmer / Isabel Barnet 80 / Mary Holm 50 / Helen Holm 45 / John Fraser 16 / Alexr Fraser 12 / Isabel Fraser 9. I include these details as it is quite likely that John Holm farmer and feuar at Chapelton would have been related to John Holm ferryman at Balblair, both with a daughter Helen. John Holm, Isabel Barnet and one of their daughters, Mary, are all referred to in the 1812 trial of Robert Ferguson for the murder of Captain Munro of Chapelton. I shall not deal more with this separate family in this story, however, except to return to Helen in the 1847 case of the Great Chapelton Timber Theft.

As often was the case, the ferryman’s sisters grew younger as they grew older, in the 1851 Census at Balblair:

Helen Holm head u 60 retired servant R&C Resolis
Isabella Holm sister u 59 retired servant R&C Resolis

Alas, Helen did not survive to the next census, dying at Balblair in 1856. Like her brother, she was buried in Kirkmichael:

Hellen Holm single 7 Jan 1856 (died) Balblair of Resolis (aged) 75 (parents) John Holm ferryman (deceased) Isabella Holm m.s. Ferguson (deceased) (buried) Kirkmichael Churchyard As certified by William Holm Sexton informant John Fraser his x mark neighbour (not present)

Her death certificate thereby revealed the parents of the sisters and their brother: John Holm ferrier at Balblair, and Isobel Ferguson. Alexander, the ferryman, was therefore following in the ferrying tradition of his father. The Resolis registers provide more information on the parents:

28 Apr 1769 John Holm ferrier at Invergordon & Isobel Ferguson were contracted & married April 28th (it is unclear from this if he was based at Invergordon at that time, or if it simply meant that he operated on the Invergordon Ferry. The former is more likely, as he is given as ferrier at Balblair on the baptism of their children – it is assumed that there were more children, including, clearly, Helen, but the baptismal records have not survived)

23 Mar 1770 John Holm ferrier at Balblair Easter & Isobel Ferguson Alexander

15 Aug 1773 John Holm ferryer in Balblair & Isobel Ferguson John

9 Nov 1779 John Holm ferrier in Balblair & Isbel Ferguson Isobel

Alexander Holm, the ferryman, was clearly a well respected elder brother to Helen and Isabella who wished to honour him with a substantial tablestone in Kirkmichael. I originally thought they must have scrimped and saved for long enough to achieve this, but I was surprised to find that Alexander had left quite a lot of money. When the two sisters entered into the administration of his estate, the inventory opened my eyes:

Inventory of the personal estate and effects of Alexander Holm Ferrier in Balblair of Newhall in the Parish of Resolis and County of Cromarty who died at Balblair of Newhall on the [blank] day of August One thousand eight hundred and thirty one years, faithfully made and given up by Helen Holm and Isobel Holm both residing at Balblair of Newhall aforesaid Executrices Dative qua nearest in Kin to the said Umquhill Alexander Holm their Brother German decerned and admitted by the Commissary of the Counties of Ross and Cromarty.
First. Principal sum in the British Linen Company’s Branch at Inverness £182.6.8
Interest as allowed by the Bankrs. at the time of the death of the said Ale Holm as aforesaid 3.15.0
Second A Cow valued at 3.10.-
A Mare and foal valued at 5.-.-

I have been unable to discover how the ferrier had accumulated so much money – one hundred and eighty two pounds in the bank at that time meant you were comfortable. No wonder the sisters felt they should raise a decent memorial to Alexander Holm. I note from the administration documents, by the way, that neither sister could write “never having been taught or learned to do so.” We can’t tell where his money came from. But can we tell anything about the life of Alexander Holm? Quite a lot, actually.

In the 1798 militia returns, we find all the ferriers listed at Chapeltown:

Dond. Ferguson Ferryer
Alexr. Holm Do
Thos. McIntyre Do
Alexr. Munro Do

In the listing, these entries are bracketed together with a note: "2 large & 1 small Boats" beside them – the militia returns were interested in not only men of the right age (15 to 60 on this occasion), but also anything that could be deployed for military means. The ferrymen thus had various boats they could deploy depending on the task – they might be taking over just a solitary passenger, or a group going to a fair or religious event, or animals to Invergordon (always the nearest town to Resolis, until modern roads facilitated land transport).

The Telford pier at Balblair; the ferry coming in from Invergordon

Alexander the ferryman appears again in the militia returns for 1816, in the following information set:

Alexr Holm ferrier x >30
Hugh Ferguson ferrier x >30 Dis from E. Ross Local Militia
John Fraser ferrier x

Here we see three of the four ferrymen at Balblair, Hugh Ferguson (an ancestor of the writer of this piece) being recorded as having previously been in the Easter Ross Local Militia, and the useful information that Alexander Holm was over 30 in 1816, which is consistent with the approximate birthdate of 1774 derived from his gravestone.

Also in 1816, in the Newhall Estate archives, he is identified along with his fellow ferrymen, Hugh Ferguson, John Gow and John Fraser Junior, paying jointly £16 rent. (Hugh Ferguson went on to run the Balblair Ferry Inn, in due course.)

Inverbreakie Ferry used two sizes of ferryboat depending on the scale of what needed transporting;
note the ferrymen’s cottages (there were three adjoining, now a storage shed) adjacent to the pier

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In the similar 1818 rental, we get a bit more information, where we find that as well as paying the ferry rent of £16, he was also paying £5 for his land.

Alexander Holm for Ferry 16
Do. for Land Rent 5
Hugh Ferguson 2 Lots 5
John Gow Senior 3
John Gow Junior 1 10
John Fraser Ferryman 4

The rents were the same in 1820, and, yet again, in 1821:

Ferry of Balblair Alexander Holm 16
Land of Do. Do. Do. 5
Hugh Ferguson 5
John Gow Senr 3
John Gow Junr 1 10
John Fraser ferryman 4

It was during this period that Alexander would have found the nature of his job changing with the new, stone-built piers at Balblair and Invergordon being constructed by Thomas Telford, and making the task of transporting passengers and goods much simpler.

A Kirkmichael Trust Guided Tour of the Thomas Telford pier at Balblair;
it is now used as a depot for servicing the oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth

He was still the ferryman in 1830 and his rent, like that of Hugh Ferguson who now had the inn, had gone up considerably compared to the nearby tenants whose rents had remained stable:

Balblair & Ferry Alexander Holm 28
Do. Inn &c. Hugh Ferguson 27 10
Balblair John Gow Senior 3
Do. John Gow Junior 1 10
Do. John Fraser 4

This was his last entry, and we know from his gravestone that he died on 18 July 1831.

Surprisingly, we actually find a little more personalised information about Alexander Holm in the evidence given by local residents in the proceedings to break up the Mulbuie Commonty. In this infamous action, the estates were clawing chunks of the Commonty away from each other and using for this the testimony of their tenants, who would in due course be deprived of accessing the Commonty for fuel, grazing and roofing.

We find the following ferryman giving evidence at Fortrose on 7 September 1816:

ALEXANDER HOLM, ferrier at Inverbreaky, aged 44, who being solemnly sworn, &c. depones, That he has been a ferrier at Inverbreaky since he was a boy, and has always been in the custom of resorting to the Milbuy for fuel, and last year he cut his turf to the eastward of the road leading to Fortrose, and he did the same once before without interruption, but he does not think he went above a hundred yards beyond the road. Depones, That it was for the reasons of convenience he seldom went to the east, but he considered himself entitled to go as far east as he pleased to cut turf. All which is truth, &c

His birthdate from the age given here would be approximately 1772, a good similar date to the 1774 derived from his age on his gravestone. It indicates from the other information in militia returns that he had been working on the ferry at Balblair most of his life, which was in fact very unusual for ferrymen of that period. It also indicates the remarkable distances that tenants would go into the Mulbuie to get his fuel and roofing material.

For those who wonder at the term “Inverbreaky Ferry”, this was the common term used for the Balblair–Invergordon Ferry. Sir William Gordon bought the land of Inverbreakie and renamed it Invergordon, but the old name lived on for a long time in the name of the ferry.

Alexander Holm was clearly well respected by his younger sisters, and the substantial tablestone with its part Gaelic inscription is testimony to that. A stone of that nature is usually associated with a successful tradesman, or the tacksman of an estate, and not two sisters commemorating their older brother. But they clearly wanted to honour their brother, and they were clearly determined to have a Gaelic inscription. They spoke only Gaelic, they worshipped in Gaelic, and they wanted Gaelic on their brother’s gravestone. And, thanks to their determination, we have one stone at Kirkmichael that carries a Gaelic inscription.

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The Great Timber Robbery of Chapelton, 1847

Oh, and the case involving one Nelly Holm? This will be the Helen Holm who was the daughter of John Holm, feuar and farmer at Chapelton, and his wife Isobel Barnet, rather than the Helen Holm who was the daughter of John Holm, ferrier at Balblair, and his wife Isobel Ferguson, but I think they were likely to have been related – any further information welcomed! Well, in 1847 the Procurator Fiscal brought a case against half a dozen Resolis residents. William Fraser and John Fraser were sawyers living at Agnes Hill and they were employed by Mr Ure, woodmerchant at Maryburgh, who had purchased standing wood at Newhall for use as sleepers and barrel staves. The sawyers had cut the timber and naively left it on the beach.

Just as it might happen in modern times, the wood was removed during the night.

George Mackenzie, carter, Newhall saw Nelly Holm, Janet Ross and Margaret Fraser, all Balblair, remove wood. The previous month, he, with Hugh Mackenzie, carter, had actually retrieved sleepers from house of Alexander MacGrigor, Balblair. Donald MacLean, carter, Newhall agreed with this testimony, as did Donald Mackenzie, Drumcudden, clerk to Mr Ure, who stated that the total value of the missing wood was £20.

All the accused signed the surety to stay out on bail before the trial with their mark. They were "George McKenzie Mason, Thomas Fraser Salmon fisher, Nelly Holm, Janet Ross and Donald Ross Salmon fisher, all residing at Chapeltown of Newhall in the parish of Resolis and County of Cromarty".

The statement by Nelly Holm, made at Cromarty on 10 March 1847 is, it has to be said, one of the most entertaining coming out of Resolis. The respectable woman, with her neighbours, was creeping out in the night to make off with her future firewood.

compeared Nelly Holm residing at Chapeltown of Newhall in the parish of Resolis and County of Cromarty an unmarried woman aged Forty two years or thereby who being judicially examined and interrogated Declares as follows. / I know that there has been for some time back been a quantity of wood lying on the beach at the Shore of Newhall a little to the West of Chapeltown. The wood consisted of railway sleepers and props and was carted there for the purpose of being shipped by Mr. Ure to whom the wood belonged. I took away some of this wood about a month ago. / It was in the night time that I took away the wood. I carried the wood to my own house and intended to use it for Fuel. I think I went for the wood to the beach and carried some away on four occasions. I took one sleeper away from the beach of Newhall but I do not recollect how many props I carried away. There was no other person with me when I carried away the wood. I recollect of having gone one night about a month ago to take away some of the wood on the beach, but before I handled any of the wood on this occasion Donald McKenzie who takes charge of Mr Ure’s wood along with two other men made their appearance on the spot and I went away. Janet Ross daughter of John Ross now deceased and Mary Fraser daughter of Thomas Fraser Salmon fisher at Chapeltown were with me on the night in question. Donald McKenzie on discovering me brought us into the house of Donald Ross at Chapeltown with the view of ascertaining who we were and afterwards he let us go. I recollect of Adam McRae Sheriff Officer Cromarty and a party about a fortnight ago searching my house for the missing wood. McRae discovered several props upstairs in my house and two railway sleepers in a dunghill at the outside of the house. This was part of the wood I took away from the beach of Newhall and were placed by me where they were found by McRae and his party. I took away no more wood from the beach at the Shore of Newhall than I have above stated. I never took any stave wood from the beach of Newhall. All which I declare to be truth...

I include some of the other statements as they are of such local interest:

Compeared George McKenzie Mason residing at Chapeltown of Newhall in the Parish of Resolis and County of Cromarty a married man aged Thirty eight years or thereby ... I recollect however of taking away a prop from the wood lying on the beach on a night about a month ago, but I do not recollect the Particular day of the month. As I was conveying away the prop I was detected by Donald McKenzie who takes Charge of the wood belonging to Mr. Ure. McKenzie did not take the prop from me, but when he and the other two men went away I carried the wood back again and placed it with the rest of the wood on the beach. I recollect of Adam McRae Sheriff Officer Cromarty and others searching my house about a fortnight ago. McRae found in a closet four broken staves which were taken into the house by some of my children from the Carts which were driving the Stave wood to the beach for shipment. I did not take more wood than the One prop I have already mentioned ...

Declaration of Janet Ross:

residing at Chapeltown of Newhall in the parish of Resolis and County of Cromarty an unmarried woman aged Twenty five years or thereby ... I took a prop of this wood away about two months ago but I cannot fix on the particular day. I carried the wood to my father's house and it was burnt there as firewood. It was at night I took away the wood and Nelly Holm Residing at Chapeltown was with me at the time. On recollection I have to state that Nelly Holm was not present when I took away the wood but she and Mary Fraser at Chapeltown were with me on another occasion when I went to the beach for some of the wood, but we were detected by Donald McKenzie who takes the Charge of Mr Ure’s wood and neither they nor I took any of the wood in Consequence of being so discovered. I recollect of McRae a Sheriff Officer belonging to Cromarty and a party making a search in my Fathers house where I live for the missing wood, but he did not find any. I only took away wood from the beach on the one occasion I have already mentioned consisting of one prop tree as above stated ...

Thomas Fraser Salmon fisher residing at Chapeltown of Newhall a married man aged sixty four years or thereby ... I never took away any of this wood. I recollect of a Sheriff Officer from Cromarty and a party searching my house for some of this wood which had been stolen from the beach. Two railway sleepers or rather parts of sleepers were found in my house in the Course of the search which was about a fortnight ago. The sleepers were not taken by me into the house nor did I know that they were in the house till they were discovered by the Officer. The officer found in a Closet in my house the parts of two Crown props one of which I found on the Shore near the Shoremill while fishing more than twelve months ago. The other prop found in the Closet was not taken by me into the house and I do not know when or by whom it was put there. The officer found some other wood in the Closet but I do not know who put it there. The only persons who live in family with me are my Wife and daughter the latter named Mary ...

Declaration of Mary Fraser:

residing at Chapeltown ... unmarried ... aged twenty years of thereby ... I live with my father Thomas Fraser Salmon fisher ... wood belongs to Mr. Ure Wood Merchant of Maryborough ... which is from time to time carted there for shipment ... I took away two sleepers of that wood and carried them to my father’s house where part of them was burnt. It was about three weeks ago that I took away the wood, and it was in the night time that I did so. I also took a small prop away from among Mr. Ure’s wood and this prop and the two railway sleepers was all the wood I took away belonging to Mr. Ure. All which I declare to be truth and that I cannot write...

Between the efforts of the good folk of Chapelton, it is a wonder that any wood was left on the beach at all!


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