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

The memorial erected by Duncan Mackay of Overscaig to his parents,
Kenneth Mackay and Margaret Macrae of Poyntzfield Mills

text: Dr Jim Mackay    photography as set out below each image


The headstone

Duncan Mackay of Overscaig was a northern personality of his day. The headstone he erected in Kirkmichael to his parents, Kenneth Mackay and Margaret Macrae, was an unusual one: a marble headstone set in a sandstone plinth. Marble was an expensive option. Unfortunately some knock that it had received over the years had broken the plinth and the marble alternated from lying in the turf to being propped up again against its base. The Kirkmichael Trust had Hood’s of Dingwall re-erect it professionally in 2017. Although the memorial was now stable, the damage to the plinth, which bears part of the inscription, was still very visible and hence in 2019 we effected more repairs, this time with resin. The inscription reads:

In memory / of / KENNETH MACKAY, / Poyntzfield Mills, / died 31. July 1876, aged 76 years. / And his wife / MARGARET MACRAE, / died 29. May 1887, aged 68 years. / Also RODERICK, their son / died 6. November 1889, aged 34 years.
[on base] Erected by their son / DUNCAN MACKAY hotelkeeper, Overscaig, Sutherland.

Poyntzfield Mills in the parish of Resolis was where Kenneth and Margaret ended their days, but in fact they too had been hotelkeepers in their time. Their family story takes in some of the most famous hotels and shooting lodges in the north of Scotland. And, perhaps less famous, the Poyntzfield Arms Inn, in Jemimaville!

The broken headstone during the restoration of Kirkmichael; photo by Jim Mackay

Headstone now repaired; photo by Andrew Dowsett


Kenneth’s origins in Strathconon

We know the parents of Kenneth Mackay from his death certificate:

Parish of Resolis Deaths
Kenneth Mackay miller (formerly innkeeper) married to Margaret McRae 31 July 1876 Poyntzfield Mills Resolis 76 Donald Mackay ground-officer (d) Isabella Mackay ms Robertson (d) informant Kenneth McKay son (present)

And we know the parish of birth of Kenneth Mackay to be Contin from his census returns. So we look in the parish of Contin’s baptism register for parents Donald Mackay and Isabella Robertson. Kenneth’s baptism is not recorded, but those of several siblings are, and hence we find where Kenneth’s parents resided.

Parish of Contin Baptisms
1812 … Octr. 20th Isabel – Donald McKay in Drumanriach & Isabel Robertson
1815 … Roderick son of Donald MacKay & Isabel Robertson in Dromanriach was born the 21st. & baptd. the 28th. Febry.
1817 … May 9th Elizabeth – Donald McKay Drumanriach and Isabel Robertson

Drumonriach is part-way up Strathconon. The once well-populated strath became denuded of people in the 1800s, to be replaced by sheep and deer. Strathconon was the subject of a detailed archaeological and historical survey by the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS), and a very valuable small book (Strathconon – The History and Archaeology of a North east Highland Glen by Meryl Marshall – obtainable from this page: sets out just how much depopulation was suffered by the strath. It is a real eye-opener.

Margaret’s origins at Loch Luichart

The same process for Kenneth can be followed with Margaret Macrae. We know her parents from her death certificate. And similarly, we know from census returns that she was also born in the parish of Contin. As it turns out, though, she lived some distance from Kenneth, over the hills that lie between Strathconon and Loch Luichart, at Mossford.

Drumonreach, where Kenneth was born, and Balnault, Strathconon, 1902

Mossford, where Margaret was born, at the head of Loch Luichart, 1903


Parish of Contin marriages
Margaret McKay (widow of Kenneth McKay innkeeper) 29 May 1887 Jamimaville 68 Kenneth McRae foxhunter (d) Margaret McRae ms Matheson [Gillanders deleted] (d) informant Kenneth McKay son (present)
Parish of Contin baptisms
1815 … Margaret Daughter of Kenneth MacRae & Margt Matheson in Mossford was born the 28th Augt. & baptized 4th. Septr.

Mossford is a hamlet near the top of Loch Luichart, just within the parish of Contin. The water from the great Glascarnoch dam to the north is taken by tunnel five miles under the hills to Mossford power station. One route from Drumonreach to Mossford for Kenneth would have been down to Scatwell and along the path on the south bank of Loch Luichart.

Falls of Conon, just below Loch Luichart and above Little Scatwell (with a tiny Gavin on the rocks, with a twist); the path to Mossford was on the far side of the river; photo by Jim Mackay


Kenneth and Margaret get married, and start hotel-keeping

At the time of their marriage, Kenneth was at Glascarnoch, nowadays most famous for man-made Loch Glascarnoch and the massive dam which created the loch and buried homes and road during the massive expansion of the hydro industry back in the 1950s.

Aultguish Inn lies just below the dam that holds back Loch Glascarnoch (a large advertisement outside used to say “Dam Good Food”). It has been established here in one form or another for several centuries. Kenneth was later to be innkeeper at Glascarnoch but whether or not he was associated with the inn at the time of his marriage I know not. Margaret was still residing at the head of Loch Luichart at the time of marriage:

Parish of Contin Marriages
1835 … Janr. 9 Kenneth McKay Glascarnoch & Margt. MacRae Kinlochlychart

Within the year, they had their first child:

Parish of Contin Baptisms
1835 … Decr. 12 Kenneth – Kenneth McKay Scatwell & Margt. McRae

It is clear from the location “Scatwell” that Kenneth’s sojourn to Glascarnoch had been a temporary one and he was back in Strathconon once more. Scatwell is near the foot of the strath, just a few miles in fact below where Kenneth’s parents had lived at Drumanriach. Indeed, I do wonder if “Scatwell” was used here as a broad indicator of the area and he was still at Drumanriach. He was certainly there for the 1841 Census.

1841 Census Return, Parish of Contin – Rain
Kenneth McKay 35 Publican
Peggy do. 25
Kenneth do. 5 / Isabella do. 3 / Donald do. 1

I don’t know exactly where Rain is, but in terms of neighbouring households in the Census return, it is one house away from “Dromanriach” (and very close to “Balnault”) so in reality I think he was probably still occupying his father’s old croft at Drumanriach. He was listed as a “publican” so he was already in the inn-keeping trade. Strathconon was notorious for its production of ilicit whisky so almost certainly some of his supply would not have been subject to Excise duty!

And this is one of the points where on-line histories of this family go awry as they suggest the 1841 Census return to look at is in the Parish of Lochbroom, where the head of the family, Kenneth Mackay, is a gardener (incorrect), his wife is called Mary (incorrect), and there are numerous children such as Abighil and Georgina (all incorrect). Probably what has caused the confusion is Margaret being called by her diminutive “Peggy” in the correct Census return set out above.

The family returned to Glascarnoch in 1842, where son Alexander was born:

Parish of Contin Births
1842 … March … 17 Alexander – Kenneth McKay Glascarnoch & Margt. McRae

The water level drops in Loch Glascarnoch; it is transported by tunnel under the hills to the power station at Mossford, at the head of Loch Luichart (where Margaret was born); photo by Davine Sutherland

Glascarnoch in 1875, it would be on the southern edge of the modern Loch if it still existed; the old road itself has disappeared underwater

Their subsequent children do not appear in the Contin baptism register although they were born in the parish, and I suspect the family must, like so many others in 1843, have left the Established Church to join the newly formed Free Church. I think they may have temporarily relocated during this period, further north again but still within the parish, to Garve, as Duncan later in life gives his place of birth in one census return as Strathgarve and in another as Clachcanach (which I understand is the area nowadays known as the Stables in Strathgarve). But by 1851 they were back at Glascarnoch.

If the family had been difficult to find in the 1841 Census, they were virtually impossible to locate in the 1851 Census where the enumerator put their surname down wrongly as McLeay instead of Mackay. How could this be? Did he make notes at the time and when filling in the forms at his leisure mis-read his own notes? It is the correct family without a shadow of a doubt, with the addition of two more children, Duncan, born c1845, who would become a respected innkeeper himself, and Roderick, born c1848. Poor Roderick was born with learning difficulties.

1851 Census Return Parish of Contin – Glascarnoch
Kenneth McLeay [sic] head mar 51 Innkeeper Contin
Margaret do. wife mar 30 Contin
Kenneth do. son u 14 Contin / Isabella do. daur u 12 Contin / Donald do. son 10 Contin / Alexander do. son 8 Contin / Duncan do. son 6 Contin / Roderick do. son 3 Contin
Catherine McRae serv. u 22 house maid Lochbroom / William Mckenzie visitor u 18 shepherd Lochbroom / Murdo Mckenzie visitor mar 28 shepherd Lochbroom

I assume that the Inn that Kenneth was keeping would be the antecedent of the modern Aultguish Inn. This was a drover’s stop-over for at least 400 years, but the old drove road now lies under Loch Glascarnoch, and the little settlement of Glascarnoch, if it still existed, would be partly within the new loch. The use of the term “Innkeeper” would I think rule out that he was keeping a “dram-shop.” I mention this because the Second Statistical Account (written in 1837) states:

Inns – There are three inns along the line of the Parliamentary road [from Contin to Lochcarron, passing over Aultguish and Glascarnoch], besides two or three dram-shops, which last are to be deprecated for their immoral influence.

Aultguish Inn on the way up to Glascarnoch Dam

The former road re-appears from Loch Glascarnoch during a drought; photo courtesy of website

I imagine he must have left the Inn at Aultguish when it was re-built. This must have occurred in 1852 as I see an advertisement in the Inverness Courier of 3 February 1853:

The Inn is a large and substantial building, and commands good STABLING and COACH-HOUSE. An extent of HILL GROUND will be Let with the Inn.
Apply to James F. Gillanders, Esq., Highfield, by Beauly, up to 12th February.
15th January 1853.

Kenneth, Margaret and family thus relocated and left the parish of Contin forever. Kenneth is picked up again as Innkeeper in Bridgend of Alness:

1861 Census Return Parish of Rosskeen – Bridgend of Alness, house with three rooms with one or more windows
Kenneth Mackay head mar 61Innkeeper Contin
Margaret Mackay wife mar 39 Contin
Kenneth Mackay son un 23 carter Contin / Isabella Mackay daur un 20 domestic serv. Contin / Donald Mackay son un 18 ag lab. Contin / Alexander Mackay son un 16 ag lab Contin / Duncan Mackay son 14 ag lab Contin / Roderick Mackay son un 10 scholar Contin / Catherine Macrae visitor un 31 domestic serv Contin

The most famous inn at Bridgend of Alness was the Eagle Inn, and it had been offered for sale back in 1856:

Inverness Courier, 31 July 1856
At Bridge-End of Alness / The whole of that valuable Property, situated near the centre of the Village, comprising the old Established EAGLE INN with Stables, Coach-House, Cellars, and Offices; with the commodious Dwelling-house, Building Ground, and Garden adjoining. / For particulars apply to Andrew Munro, Esq., banker, Invergordon.

However, there was no shortage of inns in Alness; from west to east on the main street in the late 1800s I am aware of the Alness Inn, the Eagle Inn, the Commercial Inn and the Railway Inn!

They take up Poyntzfield Mills

And so we come, and not before time you may say, to the Parish of Resolis, and Kenneth’s tenancy of the Mills of Poyntzfield. This change in trade is a surprise. Running a mill requires expertise, and neither Kenneth nor his sons seem to have had any experience. When we see them at Poyntzfield Mills in 1871, Kenneth senior has already retired from milling, and his son Kenneth is the miller. But at the previous Census Kenneth junior had been a carter. It is most puzzling.

The Mills had been advertised in 1865, and the advertisement must have enticed Kenneth to make an offer.

Inverness Courier, 6 April 1865
The MEAL and FLOUR MILLS on the ESTATE of POYNTZFIELD will be LET, for such number of years as may be agreed on, with Entry at Whitsunday 1865.
The Premises consist of a Meal and Flour Mill, driven by Water, Dwelling-House, &c., together with a SMALL CROFT, situated about two miles from the south side of Invergordon Ferry, and six miles from Cromarty and Fortrose.
For further particulars and conditions apply to the Proprietor, Poyntzfield House, by Fortrose, by whom Offers will be received until the 1st May.
The highest Offer may not be accepted.
Poyntzfield, 4th April 1865.

Poyntzfield Mills, 2006; the eastern gable still bears a cross; photo by Jim Mackay

Pond below Poyntzfield Mills, 2006; photo by Jim Mackay

I assume then that the Mackay family moved into Poyntzfield Mills on Whitsunday 1865. Perhaps young Kenneth was keen to have a go and his parents wanted to support him. A few years later, the Ordnance Survey were active in the area, and the mills are described in their Name Book for Resolis (1872) thus:

This name applies to a Corn; (and Flour Mill) Situated a Short distance West of Poyntzfield the Machinery of both is driven by water power The Flour Mill is two storeys and slated and Each Gable is surmounted by a stone Cross The Machinery Consists of two pairs of stone fanners and flour drum The Corn mill is one storey and slated with Kiln attached and has one pair of stones fanners & sifters
Proprietor – The Trustees of the Late Captain Munro Poyntzfield

Nowadays only one gable surmounted by a stone cross. By 1871, Kenneth senior had retired and young Kenneth was the miller:

1871 Census Return Parish of Resolis – Poyntzfield Mills, six rooms with one or more windows
Kenneth McKay head married 71 miller (retired) born Contin
Margaret McKay wife married 50 born Contin
Kenneth McKay son unmarried 34 miller born Contin
Isabella McKay daur married 31 seaman's wife born Contin
Roderick McKay son unmarried 20 born Contin Infirmities: Imbecile from birth
Charles Grant grandson 9 scholar born Alness
Murdo Ross servant unmarried 23 kilndrier born Cromarty
James J. Cobb son in law married 28 seaman born England

Daughter Isabella had married earlier that year, and her seaman husband James J. Cobb was at the time of the Census resident in the household. But who on earth was that grandson Charles Grant? He doesn’t fit into the picture at all. The answer is of course that there had been a small indiscretion by Isabella back in 1860; the resultant child was named Mackay on its birth but clearly there had been some recognition of the father by 1871!

Parish of Rosskeen Births
Charles Mackay Illegitimate born 25 April 1861 at Bridgend mother Isabella Mackay Home Service informant Kenneth Mackay Uncle (Present)

Isabella did marry, however, in March 1871 at Poyntzfield seaman John James Cobb. The first two children (twins) were born at Poyntzfield in December of that year, the informant again being her brother Kenneth, her husband presumably being away on a voyage. Thereafter, they moved to England and we shall catch up with them later.

Her earlier son Charles changed his name back to Charles Mackay, sometimes Charles Grant Mackay, and in time became the innkeeper of the Poyntzfield Arms in Jemimaville, and one of his lodgers became, in a strange reversal of roles, his uncle Kenneth.

Curiously, I see an incident in the Jemimaville pub at this time which indicates that Kenneth Mackay was present in the Inn himself, at least occasionally (NRS; SC24/13A/236). The Procurator Fiscal prosecuted David Ross and Donald Ross, farm servants, Allerton, for assault in 1873. The summary states that in James Ballantyne’s Inn at Jemimaville, the accused assaulted Ballantyne and then attacked Donald Junner, Police Constable, in the execution of his duty. They also attacked Kenneth MacKay, miller at Poyntzfield, and Hector Finlayson, farm servant at Ardiville. The were found guilty of riotous behaviour causing breach of peace and fined £3 each or 20 days imprisonment. The innkeeper at this time, James Ballantyne, was a pretty wild fellow himself, and you can read about some of his exploits in Resolis ‘Slope of Light’ Guide to a Black Isle Parish on sale from the store section of our website.

Kenneth senior was now quite elderly and he passed away in 1876. Kenneth junior was left in sole charge of the mill operation and can be seen there in the 1881 Census:

1881 Census Return Parish of Resolis – Poyntzfield, house with four rooms with one or more windows
Kenneth McKay head unmarried 45 miller & farmer (of 5 acres arable) born Contin
Margaret McKay mother widow 62 do. mother born Contin
Roderick McKay brother unmarried 30 do. brother born Contin Infirmities: Imbecile
Charles Grant nephew unmarried 19 do. nephew [“sister’s son” deleted] born Alness

I note an event in the press which beautifully illustrates the relationship between the tenants of Poyntzfield and the laird:

Northern Chronicle, 9 May 1883
Coming of Age of the Heir of Poyntzfield Estate.
– In connection with this event, a few of the tenants on the estate met at Poyntzfield Arms Inn, Jamimaville, to drink the health of the young laird of Poyntzfield, George G. Munro, Esq. Among those present were – Mr M’Culloch, Ballicherry; Mr Kenneth Mackay, Poyntzfield Mills; … On the motion of Mr Hugh Macpherson, Mr M’Culloch was called to the chair. Wine and cake being placed on the table, the Chairman proposed the health of Mr Munro of Poyntzfield, and wished him long life and happiness. This was most heartily responded to. … The following toasts were also proposed – … the Feuars, by Mr Kenneth Mackay, Poyntzfield Mills; the Trade of Jamimaville, by Mr Kenneth Mackay, replied to by Mr John Mackintosh, Jamimaville. … Flags were displayed from almost every house in Jamimaville, also at Poyntzfield House and square, Newhall Bridge, Ballicherry, Ardoch, and Mr H. Macpherson’s, Poyntzfield. Illuminations were kept up at Poyntzfield House and Jamimaville, and rejoicings at Wood of Brae. Mr William Campbell, with the assistance of Mr M’Culloch, Ballicherry, Mr Kenneth Mackay, Poyntzfield Mills, Mr R. Johnstone, gardener, Poyntzfield, and Mr John Munro, got up a large bonfire at Wood of Brae, which was set on fire by Mr Campbell in presence of a large company, including a number of tenants and friends. Afterwards Mr Campbell, Wood of Brae, proposed the health of Mr S. Munro of Poyntzfield, wishing him long life and happiness. The toast was received with ringing cheers. Other healths followed. Dancing as then engaged in, and songs given in good style.

The laird reciprocated – a few months later the gentry of the area and the Poyntzfield tenants were invited to a ball at Poyntzfield, and amongst them was “Mr Kenneth Mackay, Poyntzfield Mills”. They believed in all night events at that time. Having opened the ball at 8o’clock, “At midnight, the company, which numbered 180 persons, adjourned to the granary, above the ball-room, where supper was provided.” They were just getting warmed up!

But alas, the tenancy of Poyntzfield Mills was running out, and just three years later we see the familiar advertisement appearing in the newspapers.

Northern Chronicle, 17 March 1886
CROMARTYSHIRE. To LET, the MEAL AND FLOUR MILLS OF POYNTZFIELD, driven by Water Power, with DWELLING-HOUSE, Arable Land, Pasture, &c. Centrally situated, and well adapted for Trade in the occupation of an energetic Tenant. Entry at Whitsunday, 1886. Offers received by Dr Mackay, Cromarty.
Cromarty, 6th March, 1886.

Charles Grant Mackay meanwhile had taken over the lease of the Poyntzfield Arms Inn at Jemimaville – I don’t know if he had been in charge when the tenants had their big do there in 1883. But we see him applying successfully for an extension of the licence in 1886 whilst a surprising number of applicants who applied to sell alcohol in Jemimaville were refused.

Northern Chronicle, 21 April 1886
Cromarty Licensing Court.– … Mr Charles Grant Mackay, Poyntzfield Arms, Jemimaville, applied for the renewal of a transferred certificate, which was granted. Mr Wiliam Urquhart, grocer, Jemimaville, applied for the renewal of a grocer’s license, but was refused. Mr William Campbell, farmer, Wood of Brae, applied for a new license for an inn and hotel at Jemimaville, and was refused. Mr John Mackintosh, grocer, Jemimaville, asked a grocer’s license, which was also refused.

Quite why there was so much competition to sell alcohol in Jemimaville I know not, but clearly Charles was in a favoured position.

The displenishment of all Kenneth Mackay’s farm and household goods took place on 20 May of that year, and it indicates his limited operations outwith the milling enterprise itself. It was a minimalist set-up:

Ross-shire Journal, 14 May 1886
Displenish Sale of Farm Stock, Implements and Household Furniture at Poyntzfield Mills
Takes place on Thursday, 20th May next.
1 Work MARE
3 Superior Cross COWS, calved and to calve
3 Pure Berkshire PIGS, suitable for Breeding
IMPLEMENTS– 2 Ploughs; 1 Drill Harrow; 1 Grubber; 1 Wooden Cart; Bushel and Roller; Beam and Weights; 2 Sets Cart Harness; Riding Saddle and Bridle; Grapes, Forks, Shovels, &c.
FURNITURE– Mahogany Sideboard; Sofa; 12 Hair-bottomed Chairs; Washing Stand; 6 Bedroom Chairs; Kitchen Dresser; Double Barrelled Gun as good as new, &c.
Sale to begin at 10 o’clock prompt. 3 Months’ Credit on Approved Bills.
D. MACKINTOSH Auctioneer. 13th May, 1886.

The following year, their mother, Margaret Mackay ms Macrae died in Jemimaville, presumably at the Poyntzfield Arms. The informant was her son Kenneth, no longer associated with Poyntzfield Mills.

And so, in a strange reversal, when the 1891 Census Return is examined we see that Kenneth, now a cattle dealer, is living in the Poyntzfield Arms, the keeper of which is his nephew Charles Grant Mackay:

1891 Census Return Parish of Resolis – Jemimaville 15 High St., property with six rooms with one or more windows
Charles McKay head married 29 innkeeper born Rosskeen speaks GE
Margaret McKay wife married 22 born Rosskeen
Isabella Ross motherinlaw married 45 dressmaker born Alness speaks GE
Kenneth McKay uncle single 54 cattle dealer born Contin speaks GE
Johan Ross sisterinlaw single 15 general servant born Rosskeen
William Ross brotherinlaw 5 scholar born Rosskeen

When Charles gave up the Poyntzfield Arms and moved south with his family, and his uncle Kenneth moved to Inverness-shire, the final connections with the parish of Resolis were broken.

The children of Kenneth Mackay, hotelkeeper and miller, and Margaret Macrae

Duncan Mackay of Overscaig (c1845–1904)

photo by Andrew Dowsett

Duncan was a larger-than-life character who was gamekeeper or innkeeper at some well known “hunting, shooting and fishing” lodges and hotels.

The Overscaig Hotel was one of the premier fishing destinations. Before becoming the Proprietor of Overscaig, he had been gamekeeper at Strathmore Lodge and Borrobol. There are some strange stories in the press in which he was involved and I suspect he was something of a wind-up merchant.

He died on 29 April 1904 in Inverness, but was buried in Lairg Churchyard at a great funeral.

I don‘t know when he became a gamekeeper, but he became associated with the sporting estates so he must have had skill in managing not only the game but also the paying guests.

He married house maid Jane Paterson at Dalwillen (Dalnawillan), Parish of Halkirk in Caithness, in November 1870. He was a gamekeeper at Strathmore, and she was a gamekeeper’s daughter, so they were a match. Strathmore Lodge and Dalnawillan Lodge are close to each other and were very popular with the shooters, although Dalnawillan now stands abandoned inthe moors. The family can be picked up in the 1871 Census Return:

1871 Census Return Parish of Halkirk – Strathmore Lodge, Halkirk, Caithness
Duncan McKay Head Married 23 Game Keeper born Strathgarve, Ross-shire
Jane do. Wife Married 22 born Eddrachilis, Sutherland
Johan McBeath Visitor Unmarried female 21 born Strathy, Sutherland

Strathmore Lodge; photo by Jim Bain

The abandoned Dalnawillan Lodge; photo by Peter Richmond

I have to say I find the following story from later that year shocking, but I suppose times were different then, and anything that moved was fair game.

Northern Ensign and Weekly Gazette, 19 October 1871
A Good Shot.– A correspondent informs us that on Wednesday last, Duncan Mackay, game-keeper at Strathmore Lodge, shot four beautiful swans with No. 5 shot, one of them measuring from tip to tip of the wings 7 feet 6 inches, and from the bill to the point of the tail 4 feet 6 inches, and weighing upwards of 18 lbs. The three others were scarcely anything less in size or weight.

Four beautiful swans. Well, moving on. And in a few years, the family had indeed moved on, to Borrobol, where the shooting exploits of guests were regularly reported in the papers.

And here we have another curious item – in 1875 when other gamekeepers are selling dogs, Duncan Mackay, gamekeeper by now at Borrobol, is selling fox cubs!

I hate to think why fox cubs should be sold by gamekeepers. Horrible in Borrobol. Moving on, by 1881 the family had grown considerably:

1881 Census Return Parish of Kildonan, Sutherland – Borrobol, house with six rooms with one or more windows
Duncan McKay Head Married 34 Gamekeeper Ross & Cromarty, Scotland born Clachcanach, Ross-shire, speaks G
Jane do. Wife Married 33 born Edderachilles, Sutherland speaks G
Jane do. Daughter Unmarried 8 Scholar born Halkirk, Caithness
Fanny do. Daughter 7 Scholar born Kildonan, Sutherland
Margaret do. Daughter 5 Scholar born Kildonan, Sutherland
Kenneth do. Son 3 born Kildonan, Sutherland, Scotland
William Ross Boarder Unmarried 21 Gamekeeper born Farr, Sutherland, speaks G
Jessie Murray Servant Unmarried 25 General Servant born Clyne, Sutherland, speaks G
John Weir Boarder Unmarried 14 Scholar born Reay, Caithness, speaks G

The adjacent household was occupied by two shooting tenants, including Edmund H. Sykes, whose shooting exploits were regularly recorded in the papers. Kenneth’s job would include providing excellent shooting for the tenants.

But there was one final relocation ahead for the family. Kenneth was moving from entertaining guests on the moor to entertaining guests in an hotel, and in a particularly distinguished fishing hotel at that – the Overscaig Inn.

The Angler’s Paradise

Loch Shin and the back of the Overscaig Inn in 1914

Looking up from Loch Shin to the Overscaig

They were well-established in the Overscaig by 1886 as I see the report of a two-man fishing tour of Sutherland reported in the Fishing Gazette of 14 August 1886:

My friend Munro left me and went on to
OVERSCAIG. At that place he met with great attention at the hands of Mr. Duncan Mackay, the hotel-keeper. From Overscaig a number of excellent lochs can be fished, and nine boats belong to the hotel. The fishing on Griam and Merkland is capital, and the Overscaig end of Loch Shin gives wonderfully good baskets in favourable weather. Several small lochs in the hills hold very large trout. On one of these lochs Mr. Mackay, one day, had nine trout withing 36lb., the largest 7lb. The Garvie and Merkland rivers hold plenty of grilse in August and September. The Butcher is about the best killing fly. In the Overscaig lochs very heavy ferox are got at times. In Shin, Griam, and Merkland the ordinary loch-trout run about three to the pound; but in the hill lochs the average weight is much above that figure. In a small loch about two miles out there is a very fine kind of trout – thick, firm, of a delicate flavour, and averaging about 1lb. Loch Gorm contains grand large trout, and no one going to Overscaig should omit fishing it for a few times in really favourable weather. The flies I recommend suit it particularly well. Tourists have been notably slack in coming up this year; but Overscaig has been particularly well patronised notwithstanding. Anglers can get to Overscaig by the Scourie Mail car, which starts from Lairg 6.30 in the morning.

Duncan’s wife was an organiser as well. I see an article in the John o’ Groat Journal of 7 September 1887 regarding the great Sutherland Industrial Exhibition of that year, in which one of the General Committee was “Mrs Mackay, Overscaig Inn”.

The family can be seen to have burgeoned by the 1891 Census; presumably despite the five servants the older members of the family would have assisted in the running of the hotel.

1891 Census Return Parish of Lairg – Overscaig Hotel
Duncan McKay Head Married 45 Hotel Keeper born Contin, Ross-shire, speaks G&E
Jane McKay Wife Married 43 born Edrachilis, Sutherland. speaks G&E
Jane McKay Daughter Unmarried 18 born Caithness, speaks G&E
Frances A McKay Daughter Unmarried 17 born Kildonan, Sutherland, speaks G&E
Kenneth McKay Son 13 Scholar born Kildonan, Sutherland
Isabella McKay Daughter 4 born Lairg, Sutherland
Ellen Fraser Servant Unmarried 52 Servant (Domestic) born Kiltarlity, Invernessshire, speaks G&E
Charlotte Gordon Servant Unmarried 54 Servant (Domestic) born Durness, Sutherland, speaks G&E
Christina Lamond Servant Unmarried 49 Cook born Edrachillis, Sutherland, speaks G&E
Alexander McDonald Servant Unmarried 58 Coachman born Dornoch, Sutherland, speaks G&E
Kenneth Cruickshanks Servant Unmarried 16 Cattleman born Edrachillis, Sutherland, speaks G&E

Stories about Duncan Mackay crop up in the most unusual places. This is from the Rugby Advertiser of 4 January 1890, quoting the magazine Land and Water:

“At Overscaig Hotel, in Sutherland, a tame raven belonging to the proprietor, Mr. Duncan Mackay, has performed a juggling feat which appears incredible on the face of it, were it not that its owner can produce his own evidence as well as that of other eye witnesses. It appears that the bird, which is less than a year old, in common with the rest of its kind, a great pilferer. Its repository for stolen goods is a cavity in an old wall, the mouth of which is always ingeniously closed by the bird by building it up with little stones immediately after depositing anything inside. In order to display the sagacity and cunning of his pet, Mr. Mackay, in the presence of several spectators, gave it his pocket knife of four blades which were, of course, closed, and which measures about 3½ inches in length. Instead of hiding the article in the accustomed way, the raven, either by accident or design, swallowed the knife whilst adjusting it in its bill. Its owner was much concerned, though the other onlookers were amused and amazed beyond measure. Mr. Mackay caught the bird for the purpose of containing it in an empty barrel, with the view of ultimately recovering his knife; but the raven resisted with all its might, and in the struggle the knife was, to the astonishment of all present, there and then expelled, having passed completely through the bird.”– W.T.B. (Ardyny, N.B.)


Duncan’s brother Roderick died in Jemimaville in 1889, and it must have been after this sad event that he commissioned the headstone in Kirkmichael to commemorate his parents and Roderick. I am not sure why it was left up to just Duncan to do this, but perhaps he feared there would be no headstone at all unless he did it. He was certainly in the best financial position to commission a memorial.

from R.W. Grant & Company’s Guide to Scotland, 1898

The final Census Return in which Duncan appears is the 1901, and by now business was clearly at its height with six servants – a dairymaid, house maid, cook, barmaid, shepherd and coachman. Of the children, only Kenneth and Bella were still with them. But alas, Duncan was to die in only three years, not an old man by any means. He died in the District Asylum, Inverness.

Parish of Inverness, Deaths
Duncan Mackay hotelkeeper married to [blank] age 56 parents Kenneth MacKay hotel keeper (d) Margaret MacKay ms Macrae (d) registered on the information of James Anderson Procurator Fiscal

A most informative and good-natured obituary was published by the Northern Times of 5 May 1904:

The late Mr Duncan Mackay, landlord of the Sutherland Arms Hotel at Overscaig, was well and widely known over the north Highlands as the genial and hospitable landlord of that celebrated resort, to which anglers from all parts of the kingdom and beyond it annually flock, mostly to enjoy sport along with the genial companionship of “mine host,” whose repository of verbal folklore was inexhaustible. He was kind and affable to all who came within his gates, and that without respect of persons or regard to nationality. Italian organ-grinders, strolling pipers, Irish tramps, navvies, fishermen, Scottish and English pedlars were all alike to Mr Mackay. He will also be sadly missed by many a future visitor. He was an accomplished musician, and was equally at home on the bagpipes, the violin, melodeon, Jews’ harp, or any other instrument he chose to handle. On Tuesday his remains arrived at Lairg Station by midday mail train from the south. A very large number of mourners for the departed, and sympathisers with the living, were in waiting. A great number of carriages joined the procession to Lairg Churchyard. Though he spent a long period of his life in Sutherland, deceased was a native of Ross-shire, where he was born, in the neighbourhood of Garve, about 65 years ago. The deceased gentleman is survived by his widow, three daughters, and two sons, all grown up. The eldest daughter is Mrs Macdonald, Altnacealgach Hotel, and the second is Mrs Ross, hostess at the equally well-known Sutherland Arms Hotel, Scourie.

I think Duncan himself would have been pleased with his obituary.

The family clearly had a great association with hotel-keeping. I have stayed (for hillwalking purposes) in both the Altnacealgach Hotel and the Scourie Hotel, both inns of wonderful character. The Mackay family kept on with the Overscaig Hotel for several more years.

Roderick Mackay (c1848–1889)

The headstone erected by Duncan Mackay of Overscaig in memory of his parents includes:

Also RODERICK, their son / died 6. November 1889, aged 34 years.

Subtraction of age from date, giving 1855, shows that the family must have been guessing as to how old Roderick actually was. The same incorrect age is given on his death certificate, from information supplied by the informant, his nephew, Charles Grant Mackay. However, from the 1851 Census, likely to be most accurate for somebody born just a few years earlier, Roderick’s age is given as 3, so his real birth year is most likely to be about 1848.

The official forms of the period, the census and the death certificate, call him unkindly an imbecile. We cannot tell how severe his learning difficulties were. We do know that Charles, Roderick’s nephew, must have been attached to him. Roderick lived in the Poyntzfield Arms when Charles was innkeeper, and Charles and his spouse Maggie gave the middle name of Roderick to their first son, born a month after Roderick died. This was undoubtedly a small tribute to the departed Roderick.

Kenneth Mackay (1835–1901)

As we have seen, Kenneth became the miller at Poyntzfield Mills following his father’s retirement and death, but upon that lease expiring became a cattle dealer. I don’t see him in the sequestration lists of the period so I don’t think he was bankrupt, although I do see that somebody was pursuing him for a small debt, always a warning sign that a person may be financially borderline:

NRS: SC24/10/674 (Cromarty Sheriff Court)
Summary: 1886. John Grant, accountant at Inglis Street, Inverness trustee for A Macdonald, timber merchant, Muir of Ord vs Kenneth Mackay, miller, Poyntzfield, Cromarty: Debt . £1 2s 6d for goods.

We see Kenneth in the Poyntzfield Arms in 1891, lodging with the family of his nephew, Charles Grant Mackay. Now, curiously, in this period the inn, and several adjacent houses, were owned by one Kenneth Mackay. It may be coincidence, but is it feasible that Kenneth had invested in purchasing the feus of property in Jemimaville? I note that it was he who gave the toast to the feuers at the “coming-of-age event” in the Inn in 1883. It seems unlikely, but inspection of the sasines may clarify the situation.

Kenneth died in 1901 at Dores, near Inverness, and at that time was termed a cattleman (i.e.he was looking after the cattle at a farm) so would appear to have been much reduced in circumstances by this time.

Parish of Dores Deaths
Kenneth Mackay cattleman (single) died 31 January 1901 at Cullaird, Dores, usual residence Cullaird age 60 parents Kenneth McKay hotel keeper and Margaret McRae cause of death natural causes registered on the information of James Anderson Procurator-Fiscal

His accidental end was reported quite widely in the press at the time. This is from the Inverness Courier of 1 February 1901:

Cattleman Killed at Scaniport.– While engaged stacking straw in the farm steading at Cullaird, Scaniport, yesterday, Kenneth Mackay, cattleman, stumbled and fell to the concrete floor, a distance of only five feet. He expired instantly. Deceased was sixty years of age and unmarried.

Isabella Mackay (c1838–1920)

Isabella, as we have seen, had Charles, back in 1861, but we have no information as to who the father was, other than his likely surname was Grant. Isabella went on to marry, in 1871 at Poyntzfield, a seaman from London (though born in Yarmouth) called John James Cobb.

Parish of Resolis Marriages
22 Mar 1871 at Poyntzfield, Parish of Resolis After Banns according to the Forms of the Free Church of Scotland
John J. Cobb seaman (bachelor) age 27 usual residence London parents William Cobb blacksmith Margaret Cobb ms Wilson
Isabella McKay general servant (spinster) age 28 Poyntzfield Parish of Resolis parents Kenneth MacKay miller Margaret MacKay ms Macrae
Minister James Maclauchlan F.C. Minr. Resolis Witnesses Alexr. McKay James Hossack

Isabella had twins at Poyntzfield on 18 December that very year, the informant again being her brother Kenneth, her husband presumably being away on a voyage.

By 1881, the family were far away, in Rotherhithe, as John James Cobb returned to London. He took up various general labouring jobs and died in 1910. Isabella never left London, dying in 1920, in Tooting, a long, long way away from her origins in Strathconon.

Isabella’s son Charles Grant Mackay (1861–)

Charles is of particular interest as he was the innkeeper at the principal inn in Jemimaville, the Poyntzfield Arms. We have seen him obtaining an extension of the licence there in 1886, when many competitors seeking to obtain a licence to sell alcohol in the village were refused. The Poyntzfield Arms, once known as the Plough, survived through to the end of the First World War, when its licence was bought out as part of the restriction on pubs around the Cromarty Firth due to the presence of armed services.

The Poyntzfield Arms is the nearest building, with the sign…

which can just be made out here

Wherever there was a pub, of course, there was trouble, although there seem to have been relatively few incidents when Charles was innkeeper. I note, however, one fracas from the Cromarty Sheriff Court records for 1886 (NRS; SC24/13A/374) when the Procurator Fiscal prosecuted James Thom, tailor, Jemimaville, for assault. The summary says “Assaulted Thomas Ross, PC, at Poyntzfield Arms Inn, occupied by James [sic] Grant McKay. Fined £1”. If you have to get drunk in a pub, don’t pick a fight with the local policeman!

Charles married Maggie Ross in 1889; she had been working as a domestic servant in Jemimaville, perhaps even in the Inn itself.

In the 1891 census he is present in the Poyntzfield Arms as innkeeper, with wife Margaret Ross, his mother-in-law Isabella Ross, his uncle, the former miller at Poyntzfield Mills, Kenneth Mackay, and his wife’s sister and brother. The place was crowded with relatives. And there was one more to come, as their first child, Kenneth Roderick Mackay, was born just a few days after the census, on 10 April 1891 at Jemimaville.

When they gave up the Poyntzfield Arms they moved to Fife and then to Riccarton, Ayrshire. In 1901 Charles was there, now a “spirit machinist” (and I do not know what that trade involves) with his wife, first son Kenneth and another son, six-year old James. I have not tracked them thereafter.

Donald Mackay (c1841–)

I have been unable to trace Donald following his appearance in 1861 as a 19-year-old agricultural labourer in the family household at Poyntzfield Mills. Tracing a Donald Mackay in the Highlands is never going to be simple.

Alexander Mackay (1842–1911)

Alexander became a gardener. He moved to Inverness early in life and never left the town. He obviously had his problems as he was in the District Asylum at the time of the 1901 Census and died there on 20 April 1911. He married Henrietta Stewart from Abriachan in 1878 and they had several children. You wouldn’t think the name Henrietta would give people problems, but in one particular census return she is given as Heneriatta!

I note that on his death certificate his occupation is given as sexton, and as gravedigging is one of the sexton’s duties, I imagine his many years working as a gardener would have been good practice for his final occupation.

Memorial to Kenneth Mackay and Margaret Macrae of Poyntzfield Mills; photo by Andrew Dowsett


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