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

Poyntzfield Nursery Maid Elizabeth MacBean (c1784–1849)

text: Dr Jim Mackay photography: as given

This is a story of a strangely placed memorial. Betty MacBean, whom it commemorates, lies buried inside the nave of the former kirk, whilst the memorial itself stands outside, against the wall. In a way it exactly resembles the life of the lady herself, nursery maid to the Gun Munro family of Poyntzfield for almost three decades: she was right at the heart of the family and yet not of it.

The leaning headstone commemorating Betty MacBean stands in front of the nave in which she is actually buried; photo by Andrew Dowsett

Idealised vision of a Victorian nursemaid

The headstone itself is of sandstone and leans against the south wall of the nave, tilting just enough to the east to make the Trust worry about straightening it but not enough for us to take action. The two letters MB for MacBean are fused together within a wreath above the inscription, which reads:

In the vault within / are deposited the remains / of / ELIZABETH MACBEAN / for 28 years / the faithful and attached nurse / in the family of / SIR GEORGE and LADY MUNRO, / of Poyntzfield and Udale, / departing in peace and full of hope / in the atoning merits of her saviour. / She died 12th Nov 1849 / aged 65, / attended by those whom she had / so long / and zealously served. / This monument is erected as a small tribute / to her worth / by one / whom she had so tenderly nursed.

Note that first phrase “In the vault within” – Elizabeth was buried inside the Gun Munro burial chamber along with many other members of the Poyntzfield family. It had been constructed from the truncated nave of the old church about 1800.

From the phrase “erected … by one whom she had so tenderly nursed” I assume that the memorial was erected by George Gun Munro of Poyntzfield, the eldest son and heir by entail of the Poyntzfield estate of Sir George Gun Munro. George junior was born in 1827 and he would have had Elizabeth MacBean as nursery maid throughout his entire childhood. In a large household there would have been a nurse to whom the nursery maid reported, but it may well be that in the small family of the laird of Poyntzfield Betty MacBean performed both functions.

There is no clue as to her antecedents. As she died in 1849 aged 65, then she was born about 1784, but there is no record of an Elizabeth MacBean, or, indeed, any other MacBean, being born in this period in the neighbourhood.

Curiously, the statement in the inscription that she had served as nurse in the family for 28 years, means that she must have been taken on by either Sir George (Major George as he was then) or Lady Munro a couple of years before they married. Their marriage was in all the papers:

26 April 1822. At Richmond, Major G G Monroe, of Poyntzfield, to Jemima Charlotte, relict of Francis Graham, Esq. of Tulloch Castle, Jamaica

They came north to Poyntzfield after this, and their children are recorded in the Resolis Parish Register: Mary Magdalene (1823), Anne Gordon (1824), George Gun (1827), Innes Colin (1831), and an unnamed daughter (1835).

photo by Andrew Dowsett

Guided Tour of Poyntzfield House by the Kirkmichael Trust; photo by Andrew Dowsett

Elizabeth, or Betty as I believe she was commonly called, would have looked after this succession of children. However, the first record I have found of her is only in 1834, when she provided important evidence to the Kirk Session of Resolis in a scandal of the highest order.

There is a separate Story behind the Stone which focuses on this scandal, wherein the grieve’s wife was alleged to have been indiscreet with a guest of the laird at Poyntzfield. Anonymous letters were written, Sir George unwisely interrogated suspects and witnesses under oath, and the whole matter came to be investigated by the Kirk Session in great detail.

The evidence of Alexander Urquhart, the Dancing Master at Jemimaville, who had been suspected of writing the anonymous letters, was heard:

Declares. That the first surmise he had of the evil report prevalent about Capt Mckinzie & the Grieve’s wife at Poyntzfield was from a conversation he had with Betty McBean Nursery Maid at Poyntzfield Declares that previously he had not the slightest suspicion of it having never heard the slightest hint about it. Declares that Betty McBean recommended to him to go to watch them for the purpose of detecting them & That the expression she made use of to him was, that he should go & hunt them.– That he agreed to do so & on the Friday thereafter being the 19th of September last he went to watch them & saw Capt Mackinzie going down the Udol avenue on the Mains of Poyntzfield & towards Udol & the grieves Wife following him at a little distance in the same direction, that he followed them on the inside of the hedge beside the avenue, untill they came to a part of the avenue called the “cumhagag” where for a short time he lost sight of them. Declares that when he saw them again that the Grieves wife was returning back, on the same way she came out– that she went into Christy Ardoch cottage where she remained for some time, that he then saw her come out again accompanied by Christy Ardoch & that both she & Christy Ardoch went into the Grieves house & being interrogated Declares that he saw nothing more than this between them. Being further interrogated declares that he met with Capt Mackinzie on the Tuesday following at about a quarter before six in the morning, that Capt Mackinzie asked him if he saw or had any conversation with Betty Macbean & what it was that he replied he had but could not particularly say what it was– that Capt Mackinzie said to him that whatever he might hear he was to conceal for the future.

upstairs, downstairs, the only subject at Poyntzfield House was the Scandal; photo of stairs at Poyntzfield House by Andrew Dowsett

That last section sounds as if the philandering Captain Mackenzie was worried that Betty MacBean was on his case. Betty herself then gave evidence:

Betty MacBean Nursery Maid & house Servant at Poyntzfield being called, compeared & being duly admonished to tell the truth and interrogated Declares. That the evil Report about Capt Mackinzie & the Grieves Wife she has frequently heard as scarcely anything else indeed was the subject of conversation among the servants at Poyntzfield, for some time & especially during Capt Mackinzie’s residence there. Declares that in conversation with some of the House Servants in the Kitchen at her masters house She heard it mentioned that Capt Mckinzie intended to draw the Grieve’s Wifes Picture, that she remembers to hear Alexander Urquhart the coachman who was present, say, that if his Wifes picture were drawn by Capt Mackinzie he would kick her out at the door. Declares that she spoke to Capt Mackinzie himself on the subject & strongly dissuaded him from it saying that it would be a black picture to the poor woman when he was an hundred miles off from the place to which he only replied that “it would be a damned pretty picture then”. Being further interrogated, Declares that She had a conversation on the subject with Alexander Urquhart Dancing Master at Jemima Ville that she said to him as he was so good a Sportsman he had better watch & hunt the Village Girls in the evening who were coming about the place to the turnips Being interrogated Denies that she then desired him to watch particularly, the Grieves Wife & Capt Mackinzie but only the Village Girls. Being interrogated, admits that She said to him on another occasion that if he went to the Udol avenue he might see them there.

Another servant gave evidence – “Janet McBean Dairy Maid at Poyntzfield House” and I do wonder, given the local rarity of the name if she could have been a relative of Betty’s. Her evidence essentially was that the Grieve’s wife and Captain Mckenzie were flirting in the dairy but “Declares, that they had some more conversation which as it was carried on the English language & which she does not well understand, She did not much attend to & cannot now remember”!

The verdict of the Kirk Session was essentially that the couple had acted indiscreetly but there was no evidence that it had gone any further than that. Betty comes out of it as perhaps a little intrusive but presumably she was trying to protect the honour of the family.

She is included in the first detailed UK census of 1841, but the census enumerator made several mistakes, including her name which is given as Bain instead of MacBean (although, to be fair, our Gaelic-speaking expert has pointed out that the spelling is phonetically correct given the origins of the name)

1841 Census Return, Parish of Resolis, Poyntzfield House
George Gun Munro Esq 51 Ind
Jemima Graham 46
Mary Munro 16
Ann Munro 15
George Munro 14
James [actually Innes] Munro 11
Nathanael Roger 24 Governor
Miss Duff 20 Governess
Elizabeth Baine 50 FS
Jennet McGilvray 40 FS
Isabel Campbell 90 FS
Isabell Forbes 24 FS

You can see from the 90 year old female servant that the Gun Munro family looked after their old servants. And you can see all the children that Betty MacBean had looked after – I see that the unnamed female child from the Baptism Register was not present and presumably had died in childhood. I did wonder if “Bain” might be the correct surname for Betty but she is named MacBean everywhere else.

Major Munro received his knighthood the following year, 1842, for “his liberality and public spirit” and became Sir George Gun Munro of Poyntzfield. There were bonfires burnt on the heights of Poyntzfield in celebration. And there were more bonfires a few years later when eldest son, George Gun, he who had the memorial to Betty MacBean erected, came of age.

the braes above Poyntzfield House; photo by Jim Mackay

… were lit up by bonfires

Inverness Courier 12 September 1848
Poyntzfield.– On Tuesday, the 29th ult., the eldest son of Sir George Gun Munro, attained his majority; and as there was a general feeling among the tenantry and farmers on the estate to celebrate the event, Sir George who has been always known as a kind and considerate landlord, anticipated their wishes by inviting all his people and their families to a substantial dinner, which was served up in a large barn at the Homestead. In the evening a dance was struck up, which continued till day-light next morning, and was attended by nearly 200, including many of the tenantry from the neighbouring estates. At the Mansion House Sir George and Lady Munro gave an elegant ball and supper to a number of their relations and friends from Cromarty and the surrounding district – Mr Campbell’s excellent band from Inverness being in attendance. The bonfires on the heights had an imposing effect from the opposite shore of the Cromarty Firth.

That one little report captures perfectly the relationship between the laird and his tenants at this period. The following year was to be an important one for the family as the eldest child, Mary Magdalene Poyntz, was to marry in November. For Betty MacBean it would have been a great pleasure to see the first girl she had nursed being happily married.

Caledonian Mercury 1 November 1849
Marriages. At Poyntzfield House, Cromarty, N.B., on the 25th Ult., by the Rev. Edward Muckleton, M.A., Wor. Coll., Oxon, Major Angus Mackay, of the 21st Royal Fusiliers, to Mary Magdalene Poyntz, eldest daughter of Major Sir George Gun Munro of Poyntzfield House.

But a few days after the marriage, Betty MacBean passed away. It must have come as a real blow to the family when their faithful nurse departed this life soon after the celebrations had ended. Extraordinarily for a servant, her death was reported in just about every journal in the land. This is from the Inverness Courier of 22 November 1849:

At Poyntzfield House, on the 12th inst., Elizabeth Macbean, for twenty-eight years the faithful and attached nurse to the family of Sir George Gun Munro of Poyntzfield and Udale.

She was interred inside the family burial vault, the converted nave of Kirkmichael, and a handsome memorial stone was commissioned and set outside the chamber, on the south wall.

Apart from the great marble memorial to the Gun Munro who constructed the burial vault, no others of the Gun Munros buried there have a physical memorial. The building itself therefore must have felt strangely empty. The later two marble panels on the walls to relatives were kept very low key. It is as if the family did not wish to be commemorated in this way. And so, in a few years when Sir George and Lady Jemima who had employed Betty MacBean to look after their infant children, themselves passed away (he in 1852 and she in 1857), there was to be no physical memorial. The nursemaid therefore has a greater presence in Kirkmichael than the family who employed her.

photo by Andrew Dowsett


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