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

John Johnston, Grieve at Poyntzfield and the Laird’s right-hand man, and the Basque Cross

text: Jim Mackay photography: as given

Poyntzfield in the period in which this story is set. Photo by Andrew Dowsett from a painting owned by Willie and Catriona Gillies

The stone a few minutes after discovery. Photo: Jim Mackay


Finding the Propeller Stone

The small, broken marker stone simply bore a pair of initials: JJ and the date 1825. It had turned up when we had been lowering the soil around an ornamental slab to keep the maintenance mowers from damaging the symbols of mortality. I have to say when I first saw it that I thought it was just a blank piece of sandstone, but Andrew had an intuition there might be something on the other side. When we found the well-chiselled initials, date and ornamentations, we excavated a little further until most of the remnants of the broken stone were found.

It was an unusually thin piece of stone, and whatever had hit it (a piece from the collapsed General Sir Hugh Fraser edifice perhaps?) had broken it irreparably so that the groundsmen had just let the pieces disappear into the turf. We found four main pieces, although smaller sections may yet be located. As usual with old stones, the part of the memorial to be buried underground is not polished – there was no need, and the mason’s toolings served as a good marker as to how deep to bury a headstone!

The initial moment of discovery. Photo: Andrew Dowsett

Propeller and wings? Photo: Andrew Dowsett

It is an attractive design, and when we first posted it on Facebook, it drew considerable attention. “Is that a propeller between the Js?” I joked. One correspondent amusingly responded with “Yes looks like propeller and blades of a plane underneath. Strange in 1825 is it not?” Resolis Air Force, I suggested. Obviously a time-traveller, an Outlander fan joked. A spoilsport (male) dismissively said “Ships’ propellers only developed from the 1830s onwards anyway with steam engines [he was wrong on that, actually, Archimedes invented the screw propeller].” Anyway, it was all grist to our mill. But the feature was not identified at this time.

Could we even identify who JJ was? Well, quite often these small stones were put up adjacent to the main family stone, and we started to consider if there was any family beginning with J in the vicinity. And then the penny dropped. A few feet away is a substantial tablestone to none other than John Johnston, the Poyntzfield overseer.

The John Johnston family tablestone is red-spotted on the left, and the location of the broken JJ 1825 memorial is red-spotted on the right. You can see why we think they are connected. And spotted in the centre is archaeologist Lynne McKeggie of Highland Archaeological Services. This was taken just before the path was laid, with protective matting put down over the slabs. Photo: Andrew Dowsett

The memorials of several of Poyntzfield’s faithful retainers, like the family nanny, were erected just outside the Poyntzfield mausoleum: close enough to be respectful without actually intruding upon the family burying ground itself.

An “1825”, just as on the JJ stone, had been recorded after the main inscription on the John Johnston tablestone but we had never been able to record the words before it. The sandstone is eroded and spalled in places and had defied complete reading. Armed with a new determination, and the Kirkmichael Lampie (a powerful floodlight), I went down before break of dawn one morning and used extreme angled lighting to pick up most of the remaining text.

The Kirkmichael Lampie in Action. Photo: Jim Mackay

By shifting the Lampie around, almost every word becomes readable. Photo: Jim Mackay


Who was John Johnston?

John Johnston’ tablestone inscription surprisingly does not mention his wife, Margaret Martin, which raises the possibility that she may have re-married. It commemorates the early death of John Johnston himself, and sadly of two of the three children mentioned in the baptism register: their eldest daughter Justina (no doubt named after Justina Dunbar, Poyntzfield’s wife), who died in 1806, and son John, who died in 1825. It would be too much of a coincidence for a JJ 1825 stone close to this tablestone to be anything other than a marker for John Johnston junior who died in 1825.

In memory / of / JOHN JOHNSTON / who [departed?] this life / … day of Decr 1799 / aged thirty … years / And also / Justina his eldest / Daughter who died in / the fourteenth Year of / her age Feb 27th. 1806 / J J / … his Son / John Johnston / Feb 16th 1825

We don’t know much about the origins of John Johnston. He lived in Resolis at a time when the birth and marriage registers in Resolis were poorly kept – this was in the era of the much-criticised minister Robert Arthur – so there are few parish records. However, there are three baptismal entries:

1 November 1791 John Johnstone grieve at Poyntzfield & Margaret Martin Justina
24 March 1794 John Johnstone grieve at Poyntzfield & Margaret Martin Margaret
16 February 1798 John Johnstone grieve at Poyntzfield & Margaret Martin John

John Johnston is mentioned several times in the surviving letters of his master, George Gun Munro of Poyntzfield, in a manner indicated he was a trusted servant.

Poyntzfield 12th Sept 1790 / Dear Uncle, … As to George Munro I declare I am quite uneasy about him– he has all my Bills & not a Word from him– if you think it right & that you do not hear any Tidings of Him by the time you get this write me p post & I’ll instantly dispatch Johnston after Him even from the Harvest of which we have made a slender Beginning– & go on Tuesday uninterruptedly I hope–

Poyntzfield 2d. Augt. 1791 / Dear Uncle … I am quite engaged with a General Flitting of Servants, to accommodate Johnston & His wife in the Square I’m inclosing & draining a new Field in the Sheep Park, Harling & white-washing the House- the operators the d——est idle Lazy Beasts I ever saw–

The “Square” to which the Laird was referring I think would be the servant wing of Poyntzfield House; these wings extend on the east and west sides of the square to the front of the main house nowadays, but from the painting seen below, the east wing projects east rather than south, and there is another row of buildings to the east. However arranged, Gun Munro’s letter indicates how the other servants were being shifted around to accommodate John Johnston and Mary (who would at this time have been visibly pregnant with Justina). It suggests that Johnston was more than the usual farm grieve managing the day-to-day work of the labourers on the home farm.

Poyntzfield nowadays. John Johnston, his wife Margaret Martin and their children were in the servants’ quarters in the wings. Photo: Andrew Dowsett

Poyntzfield House and the Cromarty Firth from a painting we think from the late 1700s, when John Johnston was the laird’s right hand man. From original owned by Willie and Catriona Gillies, North Kessock. The carriageway sweeps in between two doocots.

This is confirmed in a letter just two days later where I simply do not understand the issue involved, but it is clear that Johnston had been caught in some domestic cross-fire (the Laird accommodated several children of a deceased brother-in-law and there was often friction).

Invergordon 4th Augt 1791 … Tell Mr McKenzie that without telling me Johnston was complaining to Mrs G.M. that his meal was short when Miss Abby thought proper to give a Short Answer to the matter & said Mr Arthur could supply Mr McKenzie & not trouble ourselves at same time telling in my Kitchen that the children had not meal sufficient for their porridge– the Drift of wc was so obvious that I could not help giving her my Sentiments pretty freely on it.

But our final extract indicates John Johnston’s important role in the farm, deputised to buy and sell at the great cattle markets. Gun Munro was always stretched for cash, and had a great interest in farming, so Johnston was clearly entrusted and expected to purchase wisely on the Laird’s behalf.

Poyntzfield 20th Augt 1795 … My Man Johnston is returned from the great Strathgarve Tryst– He never saw nor did any other person see any thing like the demand, not a hoof but was instantly bought & most of them before they arrived at the Rendezvous– he went there to buy for me– wc. he did to tollerable account, if prices hold good as they are–

Johnston was also the man who would show prospective tenants around, as in the advertisement below from the Caledonian Mercury of 3 November 1796. As the estate was entailed, and as George Gun Munro had been a bankrupt, his uncle Sir George Gun Munro had set up an arrangement whereby management of Poyntzfield and the Gun Munro Sutherland estates was theoretically through legal trustees:

LANDS, / In the County of CROMARTY and Parish of RESOLIS.
TO be Let and entered to at Whitsunday 1797, on a lease or leases of from seven to nineteen years endurance, as may be agreed on,
Three Small Arable FARMS, well wooded and watered, to the extent in whole of about 130 acres of arable ground, besides pasture, which, as the lands lie contiguous, may be thrown into one or two Farms, as offerers shall incline; and in a short time an additional quantity of ground adjacent thereto, may be obtained by the lessees.
The soil is excellent, as also the situation, which is at the upper end of the fine bay of Cromarty, about six miles from the thriving towns of Cromarty and Fortrose. In the vicinity of these lands there have been nearly completed a flour miln, a lint miln, and the buildings and apparatus for a woolen manufactory.
For further particulars application may be made to the Factor for the Trust Disponees of the late Sir George Munro of Poyntzfield, at Poyntzfield, by Fortrose, or George Andrew, writer in Edinburgh; and the lands will be shewn by John Johnston, overseer at Poyntzfield.

There are the usual few snippets in the records before Johnston’s early demise in December 1799. He is listed as “John Johnston Grieve” in the 1798 Militia List of adult males aged between 15 and 60 years: “Poyntzfield Mains/ Geo: Gun Munro Esqur. … John Johnston Grieve … Adam Barnet Servt. …”. In the Consolidated Tax records for 1798 he is recorded as “John Johnston Farmer in Balacherry Poyntsfield” which suggests that by this time he had moved out of the Square to take up one of the tenanted farms himself. And finally, in the list of subscriptions for the National Defence for the combined parishes of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden, given in the Caledonian Mercury for 21 November 1799, we find “John Johnston, overseer”and “Andrew Stewart, tenant in Newmills” each donating 10s. 6d., a substantial figure and indicating that Johnston was comparable in position to a tenant.

Following Johnston’s early demise, still in his thirties, it is unclear what happened to his family. They continued living in the area as it would be unlikely for their deaths to be recorded at Kirkmichael otherwise. Justina died in 1806 and John in 1825, but what became of daughter Margaret? The family gravestone says with relation to Justina’s death “his eldest daughter” which implies that Margaret was still alive. And what was son John doing until his death in 1825? And what happened to John Johnston’s widow? More undoubtedly will emerge.


Repairing the Propeller Stone

The broken JJ 1825 propeller stone had sadly been abandoned to sink into the turf. It would have been a shame to abandon it again, so it was taken back to Firichean House for restoration. First it was well cleaned. It was winter-time, so in order to maintain a reasonable temperature for the conservation resin to set, I took the gravestone into my living-room (my family must be very tolerant). When it had dried, I inserted stainless steel threaded rods in resin and glued the multiple pieces back together again. I had a fan heater keeping the stone warm to speed the process, but on several occasions found that the heat had been blocked off by our dog Ben who was clearly enjoying the warmth!

Top: Threaded stainless steel studs sunk in the sandstone. Bottom: Ben blocking the warm air. Photos: Jim Mackay

The stone in good company: the long-lost belfry finial also being put together in my living room! Photo: Jim Mackay

A detached flake of sandstone was set back on with resin. It was all quite an effort for such a small memorial. But finally we re-erected the repaired stone just beside the point where it had been found. This may not be exactly the original location, but if not it must be very close! Given how sharp the letters are, I consider it likely that this is the first time in over a hundred years that the carefully carved stone has been seen.

Andrew and George re-erect the JJ stone. Photo: Jim Mackay

Standing again after a hundred years or more. Photo: Andrew Dowsett


Appendix: The Basque Cross

During the Coronavirus lockdown of 2020, trustee Davine came up with the idea of replacing our Facebook work party reports with “guest graveyards” with the first subject being Rosskeen. Davine had noted the same peculiar propeller type shape found on our John Johnston junior stone on a couple of stones at Rosskeen. And on this occasion one of our readers promptly responded to say they had often seen the feature on stones in Basque country. It is called the Basque Cross or lauburu! This is what Wikipedia says:

The lauburu or Basque cross (Basque: lauburu, “four heads”) is a traditional Basque hooked cross with four comma-shaped heads. Today, it is a symbol of the Basque Country and the unity of the Basque people. It is also associated with Celtic peoples, most notably Galicians and Asturians. It can be constructed with a compass and straightedge, beginning with the formation of a square template; each head can be drawn from a neighboring vertex of this template with two compass settings, with one radius half the length of the other.

The Goodbrand family tablestone in Rosskeen bearing three Basque Crosses. Photo: Davine Sutherland

Well, it is clear that there was a small trend in the early 1800s for the Basque Cross to feature on stones in our graveyards. We are delighted to have such a clear and striking example now on display in Kirkmichael!


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