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

Repairing the memorial to Sir Hugh and Lady Isabella Fraser of Braelangwell – a monumental task

text by Dr Jim Mackay; photos, except where noted, by Andrew Dowsett, Davine Sutherland and Jim


The largest memorial in Kirkmichael is the massive granite structure erected in memory of General Sir Hugh Fraser of Braelangwell and his second wife, Isabella Mackenzie. It is, coincidentally, the earliest granite memorial in Kirkmichael. And it was for many years the most ruinous monument in Kirkmichael.

The supposedly impregnable Indian hill fort of Copaul Droog, the taking of which cemented Sir Hugh’s reputation. Photo: Paul Mackenzie Fraser.

On his retirement, Sir Hugh purchased and renovated Braelangwell. The Trust conducted a successful guided tour of Braelangwell House, courtesy of current owners Hugh and Linda Mitchell.

Trustee Helma Reynolds recording the condition of Sir Hugh’s collapsed memorial before restoration of Kirkmichael.

It had toppled over – or had been pushed over – before 1906, the date of the postmark of the first photograph (a postcard) featuring Kirkmichael. Its lower parts jutted up at various angles within the walled enclosure within which it had sat. The crown had ended up beside the arched tomb recess. And the urn had somehow been dumped on a tablestone around the back of the nave, smashing the tablestone. In 2018, the Kirkmichael Trust, having successfully restored the buildings at Kirkmichael, now turned their attention to repairing and restoring the memorials within the kirkyard. More than two dozen stones which had fallen over or broken were fixed. But the sheer scale of the Sir Hugh Fraser memorial was daunting. And it lay within the scheduled area, which put more constraints on restoration work. With the removal of scheduling (job done!) in 2018, we moved into action.

Clearing much of the soil and turf around the fallen memorial revealed that there was a hitherto unknown plinth, 0.99 m by 0.99 m by 0.32 m, adding up to an additional 0.9 tonne of granite to be shifted. It was tilted over, but not so much as to cause the dramatic collapse of the whole edifice. There is the theory that his memorial was pushed over deliberately. Given how unpopular General Sir Hugh Fraser was during the Disruption Riot and its aftermath in 1843, when even his coachman was stoned by Free Church supporters, then the theory is credible. And yet, Sir Hugh had many good aspects to his character.

The ashlar sandstone block enclosure, erected within the space of the original nave, had once been encircled by iron railings, which had disappeared by 1906. During works in Kirkmichael, we discovered many sections of these railings, cut into short lengths, lying under turf or under tablestones, or tucked in beside the dyke. It was quite surreal how pieces kept turning up. Why had his railing been treated in this manner? Had it, like the monument itself, been destroyed as a gesture? The sandstone blocks themselves were being thrown out of kilter by roots of an undisciplined yew, so the first step was to sever these roots.

And just to the north of the granite memorial was a small, curiously shaped, marble memorial to the General’s daughter, who died aged only 11, in 1840. It had been comprehensively destroyed. In 2018 we found a beautiful elegy to her on a panel that had been lying face down in the turf. And we found the name of the sculptor upon the basal block under the turf – “Maile and Son, New Road, London.” Richard Maile (c.1790–1850) and his son George were successful memorial sculptors of the period – in the south of England. They occupied the premises at 4 and 5 Keppel Row, New Road, London in the 1840s and 1850s.

Bits and pieces of this marble memorial turned up as the soil was lowered within the General’s enclosure. Removal of the soil also revealed a sandstone thistle, the top off some long broken-up memorial, and a sizeable chunk of sandstone from a memorial erected by one Hugh Munro. The enclosure had obviously been used as a bit of a dumping ground. Curiously, whilst there was no slab under the General’s memorial, there was a substantial concrete slab under that of his daughter, presumably shuttered in place, and, just to the north of that, a massive granite slab with no inscription and no seeming purpose. Perhaps it had originally been intended to support the General’s memorial.

The wall of the enclosure disrupted by overgrown tree roots.

From left, an unexpected, massive granite slab; the base of the memorial to Sir Hugh’s daughter on a matching concrete slab; the plinth of Sir Hugh’s memorial – all of which had been buried under gravediggers’ spoil.

The component panels of the memorial to Sir Hugh’s daughter are stacked against the dyke prior to a later restoration.

Why was there so much soil? It dawned on us that the plinth of Sir Hugh’s memorial had disappeared for the same reason that the nave soil level had been, prior to restoration, several feet higher than it should have been – gravediggers had used the walled enclosure as a handy spot to dispose of the surplus soil that always occurs when a grave is dug. Step one, then was to lower the ground level to what had been intended for the enclosure.

We were under no illusions about the weight of the memorial. The main block of granite had up to 2005 lain flat on its face. In that year, brother George and I had used wooden props and an agricultural jack to prop it at 45 degrees in order for the inscription to be read, and had struggled. Now that we were going to restore it we did some calculations from dimensions and the weight of granite and realised that the whole edifice weighed well over two tonnes.

Preparatory work

With the gravediggers’ spoil excavated, we started thinking about how to shift the granite blocks out of the way. Traditionally a device called a Lewis pin was used to position granite blocks. A hole would be drilled into the stone, and a special metal pin inserted into the hole and attached to a winch. As pressure came on the pin it expanded and gripped the side of the hole allowing the stone to be lifted without any straps under the block.

The biggest granite block was drilled as deeply as possible to anchor a steel pin with resin.

Donald with a lightweight drill.

Blowing out the granite dust.

A clean hole right through the granite block.

We didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of a Lewis pin so we used my hefty SDS drill to continue the existing hole in the top of each block right through and out the bottom. We couldn’t do this for the big pyramid as it was too deep, but we successfully achieved it for the others. We could then insert a 20 mm threaded steel rod down through each block and attach a plate and nuts below. The winch on the Kirkmichael gantry could then lift the block.

A novel use for a Massey Ferguson drawbar.

The plinth emerges from its cavity.

The Kirkmichael gantry is used to tip the plinth up so that space is cleared for creating a foundation.

A clear space is now ready for installation of a new concrete foundation.

It sounded fine in theory, but our hearts were in our mouths as the winch started tightening on the plinth. The winch was rated at 2 tonnes, and by calculation the plinth was only 0.9 tonne, but nevertheless it was a nervewracking moment. But the plinth pulled out of the soil, leaving a hole that was seeing its first light in 160 years.

The level of the shuttering was all taken from the central steel pin.

An assist with carrying in the cement from the American archaeology students then digging at Castle Craig; they helped out at Kirkmichael on Saturday mornings!

Donald keeping an eye on the mix.

With the blocks moved out of the way, we had the space to create a level foundation. The plinth was roughly 1 metre square, so we determined on a 3 metre square concrete foundation. We took in my electric cement mixer and filled up the shuttering with 150 mm of a 4:2:1 mix of gravel:sand:cement, with steel mesh to reinforce the concrete.

Heavy duty reinforcing mesh being introduced. This had been cut to size earlier.

Beetling. (Or practising for Twister.)

Inserting the polystyrene.

As the plinth would have a steel plate and two nuts projecting from its base, we inserted into the wet concrete a square of swede (as a cavity for the nuts) and a circle of polystyrene (as a cavity for the steel plate). It did look a little odd! We added a Kirkmichael inscription, complete with ligatures and date, and laid plastic sheeting weighed down with sand to keep it moist whilst curing.


A record of when and by whom the foundation had been laid, complete with ligatures.

Left to cure for a fortnight.

We carved out the polystyrene and swede, and marked up the concrete, not an easy task as it was raining! We inserted the threaded rod, attached plate and nuts, and used the Kirkmichael Gantry to suspend the plinth exactly over where it should be whilst we mixed the mortar.

Extricating the swede – the easiest way to create a hole in concrete.

Foundation marked up.

Plate and nuts in place under the plinth.

Plinth suspended while we get on with mixing the mortar.

With the mortar in place, the plinth was carefully lowered onto the marked slab and the mortar given an edge – not really necessary as it is to be buried, but still, it gives it a look!

Mortar all ready…

and slipped under the plinth.

Plinth carefully lowered onto the premarked square.

Plinth lying level for the first time in a hundred years.

The second block weighed 0.6 tonne, a good deal less than the plinth, but the threaded rod was held in place only by anchor resin. Would it hold? The block lifted cleanly off the ground without any problem. We prepared mortar, with waterproofer this time as this mortar would be aboveground, and smoothed a layer of mortar around the perimeter of the plinth.

The second block supported by a threaded rod held by resin.

Waterproofer for the mortar being incorporated with the mixing water.

A strip of cement mortar, a little wider than the original lime mortar, placed around the perimeter of the second block.

A strong volunteer was deployed at each corner to let it settle exactly where it should be. A perfect job. The protruding threaded bolt was soon whizzed off with an angle grinder. The mortar was smoothed and covered with plastic sheeting while it cured, to avoid drying prematurely.

A volunteer to each corner to ensure the block settles square.

A perfect job. Hope the next block is just as straightforward!

The biggest challenge was always going to be the pyramid block. We did our sums on it, and it worked out at 1.07 tonnes of granite we had to lift. The anchor resin was squeezed into the drilled hole, a 20mm threaded steel rod rotated into it and the resin allowed to set. This was really testing the resin, but the massive block rose into the air without a hitch and supports placed underneath it.

Inserting the anchor resin…

and then the threaded rod.

The pyramid rises from the ground…

and the volunteers take a rest from their labours.

Okay, that one tonne granite pyramid, held by that thin pin set in resin, has to be lifted up onto the base slabs. Lots of timber supports are mustered, all manufactured appropriately from the props which previously had held the buildings at Kirkmichael up!

We cautiously raised the pyramid, sliding in wooden supports as we went, elevating the Kirkmichael Gantry three inch slab by three inch slab, and at the same time moving the pyramid towards the memorial base slabs. In the late evening gloom we eventually reached the height of the supports and bridged the gap.

How strong can that resin be?

The collection of timber to be used for supports.

The right height.

Just over the dyke, the owners of a holiday caravanette had drawn their curtains and put out the lights, hoping for a good sleep beside a drowsy country graveyard. If they hadn’t been kept awake by the noisy winch, they would certainly have been awakened by the cries of triumph as the one tonne pyramid was finally lowered onto its supports!

Time to leave the holiday-makers in peace!

The troops return for a Saturday work party, and re-build the scaffolding made out of planks recovered from the building supports. As we have to go much higher, the planks are doubled and linked length-wise for more stability. We knew those three inch planks would come in useful again!

The pyramid is pressure-washed and lowered squarely into a bed of mortar, and then we look at the “crown” of the memorial. It had at some time lost two of its horns and we did dig around in the enclosure to see if we could find them to no avail. Indeed, we found not a fragment of the many granite chunks that were missing from the memorial – where could they have gone? We pass a threaded stainless steel rod through the crown, put a nut on the bottom and the Massey Ferguson drawbar held by a nut on the top, attach the straps and pull it up the side of the memorial onto the top. We lift it bit higher to put some mortar underneath, lower it onto the mortar, and finish for the weekend, well-satisfied with our work.

Doubling the planks for stability.

Pressure-washing to make sure the granite surfaces are clean before mortaring.

The crown was relatively light so we simply winched it up the side of the pyramid (with protective plywood and timber in place).

Only the urn to go now!

A couple of days later we’re back, determined to get the urn on. We had to adapt our lifting style here as we couldn’t drill a hole into the top of the urn! Instead, George ties a neat sling around the urn, and we winch it above the crown. We didn’t think that ordinary mortar would be safe enough to hold the urn, despite the anchoring pin, so we pumped anchor resin into the locating hole and over the entire base and carefully lowered the urn to complete the restoration.

The flying pig proved very popular on our Facebook post announcing the completion of the memorial. It was for the doubters who had feared we could never do it!

Another work party to tidy up the mortar, to raise the soil level to the bottom of the sandstone block course around the enclosure, to sow grass seed and work it in, and to give the soil (and volunteers) a good soaking. Now we’re done!


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