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

The Bowed Stone and Barney Tunach

Text: Dr Jim Mackay    Photos: as given below each image
Many thanks to Simon Gunn for some of the Lower Ferryton information.

This is the story of the most unusual stone in Kirkmichael. It may be the most unusual stone in any kirkyard. This is also the story of a recent Resolis character and his connection with this stone from the early 1700s: roadman Barney Tunach (aka William Fraser).

Photo: Lynne and Lachlan Mckeggie

The stone is a six foot sandstone slab, typical of dozens of others in Kirkmichael except for one surprising difference – it is bent like a banana along its length. How? Why?

Clearly this is how it came out of the quarry, as it is impossible to bend sandstone to this extent. Perhaps it was sold cheaply given it was not a standard slab. It was unlikely to have been purchased as a novelty item!

The bowed stone’s unique appearance resulted in it being used as a location point within Kirkmichael. It had, however, been buried for many years and its bowed shape surprised us when we came across it. Our volunteers had been removing turf in 2017, prior to installation of the path extension at Kirkmichael, an exercise that revealed several stones that had not seen the light of day for many decades. And then this weirdly warped stone appeared.

It bears, in addition to the usual wigged skull and crossbones of the period, the initials T+F / I+F. You can’t categorically assume that TF and IF are buried there. With the degree of stone and lair transfers that went on in Kirkmichael you can never be sure quite who was buried under a stone bearing particular family details. However, it is a strong likelihood that it does indeed commemorate a TF (Thomas Fraser, almost certainly) and his spouse, IF (Janet or Isobel Fraser or Ferguson, probably).

The wigged skull and crossbones typical on slabs from the early 1700s. Photo: Lynne and Lachlan Mckeggie

The initials of the couple commemorated on the bowed stone. Photo: Lynne and Lachlan Mckeggie

Remarkably, there is reference to the bowed stone in the handful of lair and gravestone transfers that have survived for Kirkmichael, a set of papers bound into the marriage register for Resolis. This record states:

Resolis 21st July 1787 / I Thomas Fraser Servt. in the Square of Newhall do claim right to the Fourth Grave Stone lying south of a bowed Stone opposite to the middle of the South Wall of Kirkmichael with the letters T.F. & I. F. having purchased the same from David Gray Miller in the Parish of Alnes in presence of Willm. Munro at the Park & Alexander Munro at Balcony. and this is inserted in presence of Thos. Fraser Elder & Willm. Holm Kirk Officer.

As a side benefit, this record usefully provides a clue to the development of the current structure of Kirkmichael. The bowed stone is said to lie “opposite to the middle of the South Wall”. This can only mean that the original south wall of the nave was still visible in 1787 and that the Gun Munro mausoleum had not yet been built. Why? Because in 1769 the new church of Resolis had been completed and the churches of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden, already in poor condition, were abandoned. Cullicudden collapsed, leaving only the more modern (1609 date above the entrance) Aisle of Ardullie standing. However, at Kirkmichael the chancel was already in use as a mausoleum for the Urquharts of Braelangwell, and around 1800 the nave was truncated and a new west gable end erected by George Gun Munro to form a family mausoleum.

The exact date of Gun Munro’s re-building is not known, but clearly Thomas Fraser would not have referred to the “middle of the South Wall of Kirkmichael” had the Gun Munro mausoleum been constructed by this time. He was referring, quite excitingly to those interested in the development of Kirkmichael, to part of the south wall of which no part is now visible aboveground.

The top of the remnants of the original nave wall. Photo: Lynne and Lachlan Mckeggie

The key point from the record, though, is that the bowed stone, as far back as 1787, was being used as a marking point.

And who were the TF and IF combination? Well, most of the stones around this one commemorate Frasers, small tenants of the parish. There is only one combination of a married couple in the church records of Resolis which fits (Thomas Fraser and Isobel Ferguson, in Ferryton) but they married in 1762 so are probably too late to be the couple whose initials are recorded on this stone. The wigged skull is common on stones of the first few decades of that century. If you could afford a slab-sized stone, then you would want to be thought of as someone affluent enough to aspire to wearing a wig. So for a couple marrying in 1762 a wigged skull is definitely a bit too early.

Here are some of the stones in the proximity.

Adjacent to the bowed stone, to the north, there is no slab, but at the head of the gap is a beautiful small headstone (seen below) with the initials I + F / I + F. This headstone was so deeply sunk that it was being damaged, so in 2018 the Trust brought it up to its original depth. (On these old stones, the section that was intended to be buried was not shaped, and the soil was just brought over the level of the undressed stone.)

The Fraser headstone is lifted to its intended height. Photos: Andrew Dowsett

Adjacent to the bowed stone, to the east, are three much older stones, heavily eroded and from the faint traces of lettering remaining, not Fraser stones. But to the east of these, as seen below, a matching pair of slabs with wigged skulls and crossbones are once again Fraser stones. On the southern one of this pair is GF . K [initial obliterated] and lower down a later generation has carved D [rest of first name eroded, but presumably Donald or David] ..aser and an unreadable date. The other one reads WF . [deleted initials] / AC. I assume the deleted initials are those of a first wife and the AC are those of a second wife of, presumably, William Fraser.

The pair of Fraser stones were partly exposed, badly worn and vulnerable due to location beside the path, so were recorded, covered in sieved soil and returfed. Photos: Jim Mackay and Carlann Mackay

Adjacent to the bowed stone, to the south, as seen below, is a simple slab just with the same initials but with a date: T + F / I + F / 1788. Now, this probably is the stone commemorating Thomas Fraser and Isobel Ferguson in Ferryton. It had been left partly exposed at the junction of the new paths and a similar decision was made: uncover it fully, record it, recover it in sieved soil (to prevent abrasion by stones), and returf it, to keep it from being further eroded.

The partly-exposed slab is cleaned off, recorded and covered in sieved soil. Photos: Jim Mackay

Adjacent to this gap, to the north, and against the old wall of the nave, there is a badly damaged Fraser slab, with initials I + F / M + F, as seen below. When this was uncovered, unfortunately I was not about to take some photographs under angled lighting, as it is quite clear there is lettering around the perimeter which I should think would be retrievable in the right light. It will have to await the lifting of the path at some time! I also set out below the general layout of this “cluster” of 18th century Fraser stones. The bowed stone can be seen to be central to the group.

Left: the damaged Fraser slab lying adjacent to the original nave wall. Right: the new path to the nave door, with the location of the bowed stone (red spot with aquamarine centre), the nave wall (blue spot), and nearby Fraser stones (aquamarine spots) – sorry about your legs, Alastair! Photos: Lynne and Lachlan Mckeggie


The ownership of the bowed stone and Jock and Barney Tunach

The first known owners of the stone were clearly the family of the TF/IF combination in the early 1700s.

Strangely, a claim was made for the bowed stone just few decades ago. Local undertaker Donnie Munro, a great source of information about Kirkmichael, informed me that Barney Tunach had been telling Donnie he wanted to be buried under his forefathers’ stone, a bent gravestone in the old part of the kirkyard. Donnie said he didn’t know where this so-called bent stone was, and warned Barney of the likely many steps he’d have to go through to be buried there even if they located the stone. In the end Barney did not pursue his wish to be buried under the bent stone. But Barney clearly knew about our bowed stone and believed it belonged to his family of Frasers.

Barney Tunach (pronounced “Toonach”), of course, was not his real name – it was William Fraser. He and his brother Jock Tunach lived on the family ten acre croft, at Lower Ferryton, on the east side of the road down to Ferryton Point.

My father used to tell me when the Homeguard were at the shooting practice on the hillside at Sheep Park, Jock Tunach couldn’t get out of the house all Saturday because of the shooting. A dangerous time! Dad would always add the fillip that the Homeguard had to make a sand barrier after that to contain their stray shots – but it wasn’t very well made. To save effort, some bags were filled with bracken!

My Auntie Jean says that when John McFarquhar had the first car in the area, the road was still surfaced with clay and stones. The stonebreaking was carried out by stonebreakers at various locations, including at the top of a road in Cullicudden, and, she would add, Jock and Barney Tunach were stonebreakers.

In later days they continued as roadmen and became great Resolis characters. Stories about the two brothers abounded. Like most siblings, they would sometimes have arguments. Allegedly, this would sometimes lead to them clashing the tools of their trade – duelling shovels! One great story involves another use of the shovels altogether.

This was the time that the Findon brae road became choked with snow and Hugh Fraser’s lorry with the snowplough on it wasn’t powerful enough to push through the drifts, so Jock and Barney had the job of digging a trench through the middle. They were at this for several days and their shovels got so polished they cooked their lunch on them. The lorry wasn’t heavy enough to push through, so they put on ten ton of fertiliser bags on it and then charged down the Findon Brae following the tunnel that Jock and Barney had cut through the snow. As they pushed down the slope, bulldozing the snow out of the way, all you could hear was the crack crack crack of the fenceposts being snapped as the volume of snow was pushed out of the way. The road was clear, but the fence was ruined!

Despite all the stories, the roadmen kept the ditches clear and with clear ditches the potholes and frost heave are avoided. We could do with them now!

The had other talents. Barney could play the fiddle. The two brothers were fine rowers, and won prizes at the local Invergordon regatta. Jock had been in the Royal Navy – indeed, cousin James tells me that he has a photo of Jock in sailor’s uniform, possible during the First World War. At time of writing (2019), their boat, the Ladybird, still lies, disintegrating into the soil, beneath some trees outside their house. The brothers sometimes fell out, and would cycle to work with a gap between their bikes. But usually the pair and their dog would be seen cycling along together with their collie Frankie (all their collies were called Frankie) running beside them and with their tools on a support below their handlebars. The following two pictures are courtesy of Robert Carson, nephew of Jock and Barney.

Jock and Barney Tunach, and the tail of Frankie.

Barney Tunach, on the right, with the inevitable shovel. If you can identify any of the others, please let us know!

Barney and Jock’s lineage can be traced quite far back, and can be summarised in the tree below. That first generation is tentative – from the age of Willliam the master-shoemaker and from Scottish naming patterns it is likely (although confirmation would be useful) that the master-shoemaker’s parents were John Fraser, shoemaker Ferryton, and Grisel Fraser, who had children over the period 1749 to 1764. You can see that the forebears of Jock and Barney forebears never strayed far from Ferryton! The TF IF combination on the bowed stone, if they were truly the forebears of Jock and Barney, would have been the generation prior to John and Grisel but alas the usual records do not extend that far back!

Now, you won’t see many Thomas Frasers occurring in that family tree, but several children down the line were in fact called Thomas and it may well be that Barney was correct in claiming the bowed stone for his line of Frasers. Certainly there is a real collection of old Fraser stones in this corner of Kirkmichael. It would be good if more evidence were forthcoming!

As for the bowed stone itself, its re-appearance lasted only a few days. It had a protective clay membrane placed over it and is now below the pathway to the nave. No doubt it will be uncovered again at some time to surprise future generations.

Photo: Lynne and Lachlan Mckeggie


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