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

“The Kirkmichael Needle” commemorating Roderick Fraser (c1838–1911) and Grace Aird (1831–1920)

text: Dr Jim Mackay    photos, unless otherwise identified, are by Andrew Dowsett, Davine Sutherland, Helma Reynolds and Jim

For the attention of Susan Duncan who contacted us regarding this story: unfortunately we have lost your email address, and we would be pleased if you could re-send us your original email. Many apologies!

This is the story of a poor family who were scattered across the globe but whose parents are commemorated by one of the most distinctive memorials in Kirkmichael, “the Kirkmichael Needle”.

Was the Needle an afterthought, a chance addendum to the memorial to Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird, or was it an intrinsic part of the design? It was badly executed. The Needle was clearly intended to be anchored to a supporting slab by a pin as there is a substantial securing hole in its base. But there is no matching hole in the supporting slab below it – so it was not erected as intended. The whole 150 kg of this obelisk was therefore dependent upon the small patch of mortar under it to hold it securely during knocks or gales. What is surprising is that it was still in place in the 1990s, as can be seen from photographs from early in that decade.

The memorial also commemorates Catherine, daughter of Roderick and Grace, who was the subject of a surprising battle between Resolis and Montrose in 1885.

The Needle juts out above the dyke; soon afterwards neither the tree nor the Needle was there.

The Needle can just be seen in the top shot from the 90s; the condition of the roof should be noted… because in the lower shot the roof shows perhaps an extra year of deterioration – during which the Needle has vanished.

The bottom section of the Needle lay at 45 degrees against the dyke for several years; the top part meanwhile had disappeared into the field beyond.

The memorial itself was set very close to the south dyke, and with the dyke leaning outwards due to the soil being perhaps five feet higher on the inside than on the outside, the memorials in that locality tilted outwards as well. The adjacent one was re-laid a couple of decades ago by the Holm family of Ferryton as a precautionary measure. In photos of the period, you can just see the obelisk tilted over alarmingly. The Needle parted company from its supporting slab, perhaps in a gale, and tumbled down to smash against the dyke. It broke into two pieces and (as we eventually realised) the pointed end tumbled over into the field.

The remaining section lay for some time at 45 degrees on the support and against the dyke, and was then jammed in behind the supporting block, along with a much older stone baluster which we wrongly assumed was part of the structure. And so things remained until 2018. The Trust having successfully put the buildings at Kirkmichael back in order was now seeking to fix the broken memorials.



The baluster was recognised as being hundreds of years older, and was labelled and put away under the seating arrangement in the chancel, and we got back to the Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird memorial. The problem was that we couldn’t find the top of the Needle! Jonathan extended the search to probe around the back of the dyke and with his archaeological expertise was immediately successful. It wasn’t quite a haystack, but there was a lot of thick grass in which to probe for the Needle. It was a long way back round for the triumphant Jonathan to wheel 50kg of sandstone!

There was no point in our replacing the Needle with the base of the memorial tipping towards the dyke and with the dyke itself leaning outwards.

As ever at Kirkmichael we created a solution from two problems. The mound of surplus soil and stones deposited by the gravediggers in that area of the kirkyard was removed and built up on the outside of the dyke, both relieving the pressure on the inside and stabilising the dyke from the outside. We re-sowed the area we had levelled. And we re-turfed the mound to make it inconspicuous. The dyke could really do with the same treatment along all its southern extent to avoid eventual collapse.

With the dyke strengthened we could now concentrate on rebuilding the Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird memorial and sticking the Needle back onto it.

Why do we describe it as the Kirkmichael Needle? Well, the Egyptian obelisk called “Cleopatra’s Needle” (incorrectly, as it pre-dates Cleopatra by one thousand years) was transported from Alexandria to London in 1877, and received massive public attention. I imagine that all across the country humbler obelisks imitating the London monument suddenly increased in popularity. However, there is only one obelisk in Kirkmichael – perhaps it was too ostentatious a style for a country kirkyard. But when Alexander Fraser came to erect a memorial to his parents and sister at Kirkmichael, he was perhaps mindful that his paternal grandfather had been a stone mason all his life and that his father had quarried sandstone for a long period. Something distinctive in sandstone would have been appropriate, but to erect an obelisk without a connecting rod would have been something I suspect his grandfather and father would have criticised.

An obelisk is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top. The Kirkmichael Needle shares many similarities with Cleopatra’s Needle.

Cleopatra’s Needle by Adrian Pingstone; Wikipedia Public Domain

The Kirkmichael Needle

The first step was to relocate temporarily the base of the monument in order to lay a proper foundation. We somehow managed to create enough space under the plinth to slide a strap under each side. With lots of knots and loops the Kirkmichael Gantry lifted all four base pieces as one and we shifted the structure out of the way. As suspected, the base slabs were as poorly joined as the Needle itself and a couple separated during the operation, revealing that they had no securing pins either.

The location was carefully measured and recorded before any moving work was started.

Straps passed under the plinth.

The base was so far off the vertical it was no wonder the Needle fell off.

The volunteers attach the winch to the Kirkmichael Gantry.

The winch eases up the base of the Needle…

and the base is gently lowered onto wooden supports.

With the base out of the way, the poor quality foundation can be removed.

Under the memorial was a mess of odd stones and soil and lime plaster giving no support or strength to the structure. We removed enough to allow a 150 mm deep foundation to be installed out of sight. I cut out 150 mm plywood to act as shuttering, 1200 mm x 1200 mm – a real foundation – and levelled it in on a drizzling wet 1st of October 2018. The following day six inches of concrete with reinforcing steel mesh went in. The pictures tell the story!

Type 1 hardcore base being consolidated.

Concrete mixed on site, with covers over adjacent stones lest there be splashes.

Reinforcing mesh going in halfway up the concrete.

Six inches of concrete for the foundation.

Levelling – the whole operation was challenging because of the cramped conditions…

but still a very satisfactory foundation was produced, fit to balance the Needle on.

As the base slabs were just hanging together by some lime plaster, we decided it was best to separate them into their component slabs, chip off any remnants of lime plaster and pressure wash the bases prior to re-assembling them.


Needles and Pins

The lack of any pin to hold the component parts together was a concern.

The anchoring hole in the Needle

but no matching hole in the base

The first step then was to get everything pinned together, including the broken Needle. The Needle was taken away to a local garage and stainless steel pins inserted.

Back in the kirkyard, the supporting slabs were drilled and pinned. With a Massey-Ferguson drawbar attached to the pin, the base slab could be swung into position.

The concrete foundation was marked out.

The base slab lifted by its pin!

Lime mortar being mixed in the Kirkmichael wheelbarrow.

Lime mortar is used rather than Portland cement mortar as it is kinder on sandstone. With the base slab in place, the next pieces can be drilled.

The base slab sitting on plaster base.

The base slab tidied up.

Close inspection to ensure vertical drilling!

And the third segment drilled…

With the three base slabs in place, time to re-install the inscription block. This is not an exact cuboid but reduces a little as it goes up – a tricky design when lifting by straps. However, with the straps fitted tightly it is safe enough. We orientate the holes vertically above each other, and cut the stainless steel M20 threaded rod to a little less than the full length of the holes. Finally, we fill the hole at the top and the hole at the bottom with anchor resin, put a layer of anchor resin over one end, push in the stainless steel threaded rod and lower into position. Just the Needle itself now!

Returning to the fray following the winter (this was a protracted rescue job!), we lifted the heavier broken section of the Needle on a winch suspended from a ”ladder tripod“, lowering the stainless steel rod into a drilled hole, with anchor resin in hole and across surface as usual.

The following week we finished this long project, we tried yet another technique, given that the top section of the broken Needle was relatively light. We set up some trestles and timbers (from the slabs once used to prop up the walls of the unrestored Kirkmichael!) and simply lifted the final piece into place. Job done at last!


Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird

The inscription on the memorial reads, on the north side of the attractively designed sandstone block that supported the Needle: "In / loving memory / of Roderick Fraser / who died at Killen / on the 6th day / of March 1911 / aged 73 years. / Also his wife / Grace Aird / who died 26th Sept. / 1920 aged 89 years". On the slab that supports the main inscription block, on the north side: "Erected by their son Alexander". And on the east side of the main inscription block: "Also / of their daughter / Catherine, / who died at / Wester Raddery. / on the 29th day / of August 1903. / aged 28 years."

The two inscription panels on the north side.

The inscription panel on the east side.

This family of Frasers were from Culbokie.

The Airds were an old Resolis family, but we have found remarkably few memorials in Kirkmichael commemorating them. There are two buried slabs, one to Donald Aird who died in 1781 and “his spouse Isobel Inness” and another dated 1777 which commemorates another Donald Aird and his two wives, Elizabeth McComie (died 1764 or 1765) and Christian Bain (whom he married in 1766 and who was alive in 1784). It goes without saying that Grace Aird would have been related to these earlier Airds but how exactly we do not at present know.

Her own father was yet another Donald Aird, who married a Grace Fraser, and her paternal grandfather was once more a Donald Aird, who married a Catherine Stewart. The Airds displayed little originality in their choice of Christian names!

Aird Place at Balblair commemorates the Airds. There used to be a very tight corner at Balblair and, as recounted by Alan J. Michael, whose father was the local postie, “Just past the pub was Airds corner named after the elderly lady who lived there. It was later pulled down and the corner cut away as it was so sharp the bus had to go along to the pub yard to turn.” This must mean that the Airds” house is the one shown in the sharp angle on the corner.

Aird’s Corner was the sharp bend at the base of the map, impossible for long vehicles to turn around; the Airds’ house at this time was inside that acute angle

We first pick up on Roderick Fraser within Resolis when he was working as a farm labourer at Resolis Mains in 1861. He must have met Grace Aird at that time. Resolis Mains is just a few hundred yards from Ferryton where the Airds lived and where Roderick was residing at the time of his marriage. Indeed, some of the land at Ferryton was part of Resolis Mains, and both areas were within the Newhall Estate. It was at Newhall where they married in 1861, the officiating minister being none other than the famous Donald Sage.

5 July 1861 Newhall After Banns, according to the Forms of the Free Church of Scotland
Roderick Fraser agricultural labourer (bachelor) 23 Ferrytown Resolis [parents] Roderick Fraser stone mason Flora Fraser ms Kemp
Grace Aird dressmaker spinster 28 Ferrytown Resolis [parents] Donald Aird agricultural labourer Grace Aird ms Fraser
Dond. Sage Minr. Murdo McDonald John Ross [witnesses]

Thereafter the transient life of the ploughman and agricultural labourer is recorded in the locations of the births of their children, although their parents’ memories were often faulty when they came to list their origins in the census returns! Roderick (Invergordon, Parish of Rosskeen, 1862), Grace (Resolis, 1864), Flora Catherine (Resolis, 1866), Dolina (Kiltearn, 1869), Helen Gregor (Alness, 1870), Alexander (Fearn, 1872) and Catherine (Urray, 1875).

You will note that Roderick and Grace actually returned to Resolis for a period in the 1860s, and surprisingly we can tell where they lived. When the new register of the Parochial Board of Resolis brought the details of Grace’s father, who had been entered on the poor’s roll first in 1853, up to date, his entry as of 1 January 1865 reads:

Aird Donald [residence] Ferrytown [age] 84 [earnings, means, resources] Has a House & Gardin free of Rent – Lets part of House – Daughter Grace & family [nature of settlement] birth [name and age of wife, child or children living in family] Wife Grace Fraser 72 children Ketty 33 married Grace 32 do. & family

Ferryton at this time contained many cottages, and Simon Gunn of the old Storehouse at Ferryton Point has been working on assigning families to the cottages, the ruins of several of which can still be seen on the ground. It would be good if he could locate the Aird cottage!

The farms where we know Roderick worked as ploughman were very diverse. The farmer would hire new ploughmen or farm hands each year, giving regular but transient employment. They included Resolis Mains, Resolis (1861), Culcraigie, Alness (1871), Balinroich, Fearn (1872), Meikle Moy, Urray (1875) and Mountrich, (Kiltearn, 1881). The ploughman’s job was skilled but gruelling work; part of the skill was in persuading the plough horses to co-operate, and there are all sorts of stories of the black arts into which ploughmen would be initiated to control their beasts.

But then Roderick returned to Resolis in a quite dramatic change in employment. He became a quarrier and settled in Easter Alness Ferry.

The Resolis Parochial Board records give additional information on their movements:

Resided in Parish of Resolis since 26th November 1880 4yrs 1 mths 17 days
Prior in Kiltearn 3 yrs
Prior in Kilmorack 2 yrs

There must have been an error by the Board, as he was in Mountrich, Kiltearn, at the time of the 1881 Census, not Resolis, but nevertheless I imagine he must have moved shortly thereafter to Alness Ferry in Resolis. He was also there in 1891 and 1901 so they were there for over 20 years – his longest settlement in any one location. And of course it was a return to her own parish for Grace Aird. Only the farm of Inch lies between Easter Alness Ferry and Ferryton where her family resided.

I can’t be sure, but by a process of elimination I think the home of Roderick and Grace in Alness Ferry was the small cottage to the south-west of Easter Alness Ferry steading, on the braehead to the north-east of the decommissioned dam there. I have been able to associate each family in the census returns with specific old cottages around Alness Ferry from information from my father (born in Alness Ferry in 1910). By tracking back families and cottages I’m fairly confident that Roderick, Grace and family must have lived in that particular old farmworker’s dwelling. Mrs Ena Holm of Easter Alness Ferry tells me they always called it “the Man’s Cottage”. Many families lived there over the years, the last being Nellie Mackay and her parents.

The farmworker’s cottage at Easter Alness Ferry in 2018

The origins of the dam go back a long way. In 1920 Walter Macdonald, a butcher, lived at Easter Alness Ferry. Dad told me: “Before the Macdonalds down there were Stewarts. Willie Stewart was a great man – had a mill with wheels – built the dam up there. Andra’ Wullie’s [father of Hector Robertson] mother’s folk. The Stewarts died out.” Although some distance away, the mill at the farm steading was driven by power from the dam. The farmer would release the water stored in the dam to transfer power by a series of belts and pulleys all the way down to the steading at Easter Alness Ferry.

Anyway, before this, on the Ordnance Survey maps of the 1870s a little holding can be seen beside the An Gne burn which over time lost its outbuildings and simply became a cottage:

Whilst they lived at Easter Alness Ferry, where was Roderick quarrying sandstone? In 1891 he was described as a “quarrier” and in 1901 as a “quarryman (freestone)” so that would confirm he was working in a quarry rather than simply dressing stone. There was no quarry in the immediate vicinity of which I am aware. Cullicudden Quarry was operational in 1881, I know, but had closed I think by the time Roderick lived in Alness Ferry. However, there were plenty of other quarries within walking distance in both the Black Isle and, by crossing the Balblair Ferry, Easter Ross.

After their long residence at Alness Ferry Roderick and Grace between 1901 and 1903 moved to Wester Raddery, which is where their daughter Catherine passed away, recorded in the Rosemarkie Register of Deaths as having died of tubercular peritonitis. Wester Raddery is only a few fields away from Killen, and it is to Killen Cottages, close to the schoolhouse there, in the parish of Avoch that Roderick and Grace moved next. It was there that Roderick died, early in 1911. In the census that followed a few months later, a grand-daughter is living with Grace, presumably to help her with domestic duties. When Grace herself died, in 1920, she was at that time in “Ness House” Fortrose, although her usual address was given as in Avoch, presumably still the cottage in Killen.

Ness House of course was the Black Isle Combination Poor House, and it is sad to think that Grace ended her days in the poor house.


The children of Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird

Their youngest child, Catherine, born in 1875, sadly proved to have severe learning difficulties. She is unkindly listed as “idiot” in the 1891 census return and “imbecile” in the 1901 census return. On 13th January 1885, her father applied to the Resolis Parochial Board for support for her upbringing. There followed a battle between the Parochial Boards of Resolis and Montrose.

Roderick’s father had been a journeyman mason, and despite both parents being natives of Culbokie and living there for most of their lives, they had been living in Montrose when Roderick was born. I had already spotted that from the census returns, but I simply could not see him in the Montrose baptism register. And the Montrose Parochial Board couldn’t either, so they were suspicious of the claim.

The Resolis Parochial Board met in Balblair Inn on the 20th of April 1885 and considered the correspondence they had received from the Montrose Parochial Board. The Inspector of the Poor there refused to admit liability as there was no proof of Fraser’s birth having taken place in Montrose and anyway he was an able-bodied man. This called for firm action. The Resolis Inspector produced depositions of young Roderick’s aunts, Mary and Christian Fraser, Culbokie, signed by Dr MacKenzie of Ferintosh J.P., with an additional statement by James MacGregor Culbokie (who had been working in Montrose with Roderick Fraser when young Roderick had been born), and the Board ordered him to send them to Montrose.

The Montrose Board were not convinced, and, back in Resolis, the Parochial Board at their meeting of 12th June upped the game. Their Inspector of the Poor was instructed “to proceed to Montrose with James MacGregor as soon as may be found convenient for the purposes of his pointing out the house in which Roderick Fraser’s birth took place.”

Before the findings of this investigation were fed back, the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 10th September 1885 reported the cynicism of the Montrose Board:

Montrose. / Parochial Board.– The usual monthly meeting of this Board was held on Tuesday night … Claim Against the Board.– The Chairman said a claim had been made against the Board from the parish of Resolis, near Fortrose, by a man named Roderick Fraser, a native of Montrose, for his imbecile daughter Catherine, aged 11 years. Shortly the facts of the case were these:– Roderick Fraser, 41 years of age, and a labourer, was a son of Roderick Fraser and his wife Sarah Kent [Flora Kemp], and a native of Montrose. Of his family four were in service, a boy of 12 at school, and a girl of 11, who is an imbecile, and required constant attendance. Fraser’s parents left Montrose when he was three years of age. It was stated in the correspondence that had been received from Resolis that Fraser’s father lived at Lochside, Montrose, and two sisters of Fraser certified that their brother was born in Montrose. The parties who had written stated that the maintenance of the girl fell upon Montrose. The whole case having been put before Mr Dickson, the Board’s agent, he was of opinion that if the evidence adduced was good the claim would be admitted by a Court. The Chairman said he had read over the whole evidence, but was very sceptical about the statements made. Several members having expressed themselves as being of the same opinion, the suggestion of the Chairman that the matter should be left in the Inspector’s hands to get what assistance he could, and to procure an independent report from someone in the parish of Resolis on the whole case, was agreed to.

Meanwhile, the Resolis Inspector of the Poor had been on his travels.

The Inspector had duly proceeded to Montrose accompanied by James MacGregor Culbokie for the purpose of identifying the house in which Roderick Fraser was born and on arriving at Montrose on the 15th July, MacGregor proceeded without hesitation to the house in which he lodged at the time of Roderick Fraser’s birth which is situated within fifty yards of the house in which Roderick was born and which is now occupied by a Mrs Beattie… On enquiry amongst the old people, I found a Mrs William Fraser Nursery Road who remembers the birth of Roderick Fraser. She is a Montrose woman but her husband William Fraser is a Kirkhill man but no connexion of Roderick Fraser. / At the time that Roderick Fraser’s father and James MacGregor wrought in Montrose as masons she was a young girl of 15 or 16 years and distinctly remembers of James MacGregor then a young unmarried man of under 30. She remembers of him courting one Ann Fraser, a friend of hers, now an old maid residing in Aberdeen. She remembers Roderick Fraser’s father well as he was rather a boisterous man for they lived (that is Roderick Fraser and his family) in the attic of her father’s house, the very house in which she and her husband reside now. She stated Roderick Fraser also resided in the house in which James MacGregor states the child was born. She says she recollects of the birth of the child but could not swear in which of the houses the birth took place but that it took place in either of them – both houses situated in the Parish of Montrose.

This evidence must have been convincing, as the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 14th October 1885 reported:

Montrose. / Parochial Board.– The usual monthly meeting of this Board was held last night. … Claims Against the Board.– The Chairman said the next business was the claim brought up last month from the parish of Resolis for the maintenance of an imbecile daughter of a man who claimed to be born at Montrose. From the inquiries that had been made, there was now no doubt that the man was born at Montrose, and the Chairman asked the Board to admit the claim, which was done.

The extra support must have been a great boon to the family. Sadly, Catherine was to die of tuberculosis in 1903. Her brother Alexander had her commemorated on the family stone in Kirkmichael.

What happened to the other children?

Roderick Fraser (1862–1930) I was unable initially to track Roderick since last seen next door to the family in Mountrich in 1881. At that time, aged 18, he was sharing a bothy as one of three farm servants. No wonder I couldn’t locate him! The clue was found through one note buried in the Resolis Parochial records, setting out the position as at 13th January 1885: “Roderick 22 unknown for nearly 3 years in Queensland, Gardiner”. That indicates he must have emigrated to Australia a few months after that Census return was taken at Mountrich. With some difficulty I found his story through his death certificate, obtained at vast expense from the Queensland Government. He married Eliza Elizabeth Bessie Warner in Brisbane and was recorded as a “carrier”. He died on 15 December 1930 in Brisbane Hospital, and the informant was “E. Fraser wife 290 Boundary Street Spring Hill”, at that time 76 years old. In the section “where born and how long in Australia” we find “Invergordon Ross-shire Scotland over 30 years Queensland”. His parents are given as “Roderick Fraser” and “Grace Aird” but an additional “Robert” in different handwriting was inserted between “Roderick” and “Fraser” no doubt just to confuse future family historians. Sadly the children section was completed simply as “Nil”. This, however, is not surprising when we find they married just three months earlier, on 16th October 1930. There is a story there, alright, but at 22 Australian dollars for a marriage certificate I am not investigating further! The marriage was between “Roderick Robert Fraser” and “Eliza Elizabeth Bessie Warner” so that unusually repetitious name of his wife at least is consistent, although the “Robert” in this case seems to have migrated to the son from the father. Roderick Fraser was buried in Toowong Cemetery, several thousand miles away from his Ross-shire birthplace.

Grace or Gracie Fraser (1864–1941) certainly got around. She was a domestic servant (nurse) in Mountrich Farmhouse in 1881, next door to her family who were at that time living in a farm cottage there. However, in 1885, the Resolis Parochial Board records say she was in service in London. But she was serving at the Soldiers’ Home on Gairbraid Road, Maryhill (which I think was replaced by the more famous Maryhill Soldiers’ Home) when she married Sergeant James Quigley in Maryhill, Lanarkshire, in 1887. Her sister Dolina was a witness. Quigley afterwards became a bank messenger, and Grace died in Leith in 1941.

Flora Catherine Fraser (1866–1943) was a servant in Edinburgh in 1885, and married Sergeant Alfred Edward Money there in 1886. They emigrated to Canada, and can be seen in the 1921 census for British Columbia on Nicomen Island with their 13 year-old daughter Ruth Iris. I see a note on a genealogical website: “After they lived in Winnipeg, in 1910 they moved out to the West Coast, to Vancouver B. C., under difficult circumstances, as they lost their eldest child, Flora Money, who ‘disappeared’, at age 18, from Winnipeg. The family searched for many years with private detectives and finally the Salvation Army offered assistance, but no trace of her was ever found.” From a quick look at the Canadian newspapers, I see that Flora Money disappeared from Redwood Avenue, Winnipeg in October 1907.

Dolina Fraser (1869–1953) was a servant in Invergordon in 1885. However, she married mason William Mackay (of Resolis origin) in Edinburgh in 1896, with her sister Helen and future brother-in-law James Robertson as witnesses. The family returned to Resolis, where William was first a salmon fisher, living at Resolis Mains, and then a county roadman, living in Jemimaville. William died in Jemimaville in 1939 whilst Dolina died in Inverness as recently as 1953. I note that when Grace Fraser ms Aird was residing as a widow in 1911 in Killen Cottages she had a 14-year old grand-daughter staying with her, one “Bessie T. McKay” – Elizabeth Thomson McKay, Dolina’s daughter, born in Resolis Mains in 1897. William and Dolina are commemorated on a gravestone in the modern section of Kirkmichael, which can be seen below. It reads “In/ loving memory of / William Mackay, / who died at Jemimaville / 21st January 1939 aged 74 years / Also his wife / Dolina Fraser, / who died at Inverness / 9th March 1953 in her 85th year”.

Helen Gregor Fraser (1870–1933) was a servant in Agneshill, Resolis, in 1885. She also moved to Edinburgh. Helen married Police Constable James Robertson in Edinburgh in 1897. He was a tramway pointsman when their son James Duncan Robertson was born in 1901, and I see in the census later that year “Helen G”, the two-year old “Gracie A” and baby “James D” residing in Edinburgh, although James Robertson was away. I understand from information on the web that the children may have grown up in Avoch, although in 1911 I see Helen and children Grace (12), James (10) and Catherine (4) still in Edinburgh – again the father was away. She died in Edinburgh in 1933, her daughter, now Catherine Short, the informant.

I was delighted to be emailed by Grace Helen Fraser Robertson, from Ontario, Canada. Gracie is the great-great-granddaughter of Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird, and the great-granddaughter of Helen Gregor Fraser and James Robertson. How cool is that! Gracie has provided the images below of the daughter of Roderick and Grace, Helen Gregor Fraser, who married James Robertson.

Helen Gregor Fraser (1870–1933) as a young woman in 1892; image courtesy of Grace Helen Fraser Robertson

Helen Gregor Fraser and her husband, James Robertson (1872–1921); image courtesy of Grace Helen Fraser Robertson

The elderly Helen Gregor Fraser; image courtesy of Grace Helen Fraser Robertson

And then Gracie has provided images of the children of James Robertson and Helen Gregor Fraser, including her own grandfather James Duncan Robertson. It is fascinating to see in the name of “Grace Aird Robertson” the name of Grace Aird from Resolis being honoured down through the generations. Just to continue that theme, Gracie (who bears half the name) tells me that her youngest sister was given Aird as her middle name, the other half!

Grace Aird Robertson (1898–1938); image courtesy of Grace Helen Fraser Robertson

James Duncan Robertson (1901–1973, Gracie’s father; image courtesy of Grace Helen Fraser Robertson

Catherine Sommers Robertson (1906–1988); image courtesy of Grace Helen Fraser Robertson

Alexander Fraser (1872–), he who was responsible for the erection of the Kirkmichael Needle, in 1891 was residing with his parents in Alness Ferry as an apprentice gardener. In 1901 he was still living with his parents there but had become a house joiner, and it was as a joiner or carpenter that he continued. His mother Grace died in 1920, so he must have been in the area at that time to organise the inscription dedicated to her. Or, possibly, he had the memorial erected some years later on a return visit to the Black Isle.

Prepare for a giant leap. I next pick him up getting married in 1922 – in the State of Washington, U.S.A.! The lady he married was a 53 year old widow.

Alexander Fraser [residence] Madras Hotel, Portland Ore. [age] 49 white single [marriages] none [birthplace] Rossshire Scotland [occupation] carpenter [parents] Roderick Fraser Scotland Grace Aird Scotland
Lizzie Bunegar [residence] Portland, Oregon [age] 53 white widow [marriages] one [birthplace] Bromsgrove, England [occupation] none [parents] James Stokes Bromsgrove England Sarah Ann Simpson Bromsgrove England [maiden name if previously married] Lizzie Stokes
I hereby certify that Alexander Fraser and Lizzie Bunegar were joined in marriage by me in accordance with the laws of the State of Washington, at Vancouver, Wash. this 17th day of June 1922…

Lizzie had first married Albert Edwin Bunegar, a fishrod maker, in Birmingham in 1890, and they had four children, two dying in childhood. The couple separated by 1901 – I don’t know what was the problem, perhaps Albert took to drink. Anyway, he ended up in a Birmingham workhouse, calling himself a widower, whilst Lizzie and the two surviving children moved around. I see they visited Canada in 1904, travelling from Liverpool to Halifax. They were back in the Birmingham area in 1911, living with her sister. Of her two children who reached adulthood, the boy died in Flanders in 1916, and her daughter married in 1922. That same year her husband died.

Free at last, a few months later she married Alexander Fraser in Vancouver, Washington. It begs the question – had they met previously?

I have been unable to track them much further. I do note they journeyed from British Columbia to Quebec late in 1922, so I imagine they had been visiting Alexander’s sister, Flora Catherine, in British Columbia. They may well have returned to visit the Black Isle and had the Needle raised to commemorate Alexander’s parents and sister in Kirkmichael while they were there. Further information would be very welcome!


The forebears of Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird

The ancestors of Roderick and Grace were easily identified through the usual resources.

Roderick’s parents were mason Roderick Fraser (“a rather boisterous man”) and Flora Kemp, both from Culbokie, the Kemp family being well represented locally. Roderick and Flora can be found in the census returns for Culbokie from 1841 to their deaths (but under the curious mis-spelling of “Frasar” in 1851)! As Roderick was a journeyman mason, though, they must have travelled around Scotland, including, we know, several years in Montrose. Flora died in 1868 and Roderick in 1873. Roderick’s parents were Donald Fraser and Christian Cameron, and Flora’s parents were shoemaker Gregor Kemp and Nelly Matheson.

That name of “Gregor” from Gregor Kemp was to recur several times in the family line of Frasers, and in other branches. A white marble headstone in the modern section of Kirkmichael commemorates Walter Ross, who married Helen Fraser, daughter of Roderick Fraser and Flora Kemp, and they named one of their sons Gregor. I note, by the way, that Helen died in Jemimaville in 1916 and I imagine she is buried in Kirkmichael although there is no mention of her on the gravestone. Indeed, there is very little about her in the eulogy in the Ross-shire Journal of 31st March 1905 following her husband’s death:

The granite headstone commemorating William Mackay and Dolina Fraser

The white marble headstone commemorating Walter Ross

Resolis – Death of a Faithful Servant.– Quite a gloom was cast over the district last Friday when it became known that Mr Walter [Ross], coachman and gardener, with Mr Middleton, Farness, had passed away in his 74th year. Deceased was a native of Conon, and went to Farness 43 years ago, and had remained there ever since. He was a faithful servant to Mr Middleton, and he will be greatly missed on the farm. He was a man who was widely respected in the district, a true and faithful friend, a fond husband and parent, and he lived a life of devotion and piety. The funeral, which took place to Kirkmichael Churchyard on Monday, was very largely attended. Deceased is survived by a widow and a family of two daughters and six sons, and with one exception, a daughter who is in Canada, all were present at the funeral. The greatest sympathy is extended to the bereaved.

Another Gregor was the brother of the Roderick Fraser commemorated on the Needle memorial. He was killed by a blow of a horse in the parish of Resolis, although I do not know where he was buried. He was baptised Gregor, though his death certificate gets it wrong:

Grigor Fraser farm servant (single) [when and where died] 4 July 1864 Resolis Manse 17 Roderick Fraser stone mason Flora Fraser m.s. Kemp Stricken by a Horse, Instantaneous Death Not certified informant Roderick Fraser his x mark brother (not present)

Whilst Roderick signed this certificate with an “x”, he did sign his name on later certificates. Gregor was killed by a horse, but brother Roderick went on to make his living working with them as a ploughman.

Grace’s parents were weaver Donald Aird and Grace Fraser from Ferryton in Resolis. They married in 1829, when Grace was living in Bog of Cullicudden. Both Donald and Grace ended their years on the Poor’s Roll. Donald had his application for poor relief turned down in 1850:

The case of Donald Aird was considered and refused– has a cheap Croft @ 30/ of rent– can and does let a part of his home– croft is well laboured by Neighbours for whom he works in return– has Corn & Potatoes a Cow & a Pig & Poultry

Refused again in 1852, he was finally entered on the roll in 1853. Donald’s father in turn was Donald Aird, a crofter in Newhall (although also a pauper when he died), and Catherine Stewart.

I cannot identify the parents of Grace Fraser as, when she died in 1868, the unhelpful Roderick Fraser, her own son-in-law, could not recall the names of her parents when registering her death! Nevertheless, we know from a census return that she was a native of Resolis, and I see that the only Grace (or Grisel – the names were interchangeable) Fraser baptised in this period was to weaver John Fraser and Grisel Munro in Kinbeachie. She was baptised in 1787 or 1788. Without corroboration, however, we cannot assume these details are correct.

The baptism record was poorly kept during the period that the children of Donald Aird and Catherine or Katherine Stewart were being baptised, so the following is not complete. Recorded as living at Newhall in the 1780s and Braelangwell in 1792, they had Margaret (1784), Charles (1788), Elspeth (1790) and an unnamed child in 1792. We also know there were Donald (c1775), of course, and a Janet (c1800). This was during the period when the Reverend Robert Arthur let the records of the parish go to ruin.

I am aware of the following children of Donald Aird and Catherine Stewart:

Donald Aird (c1775–1865) married Grace Fraser, and their daughter Grace Aird is commemorated on the Kirkmichael Needle.
Margaret Aird (1784–) I have been unable to track, although I note several candidates marrying in the appropriate period.
Charles Aird (1788–1864), a small tenant at Balblair. He married Janet McKenzie and they had many children.
Elspeth (Elspat, Elsphet, Eppy) Aird (1790–1865) married shoemaker Donald Watson. Eppy achieved some notoriety as one of the Resolis rioters in 1843; she was one of four accused who absconded rather than appear at the High Court in Edinburgh the following year and she was declared outlaw. Her life is covered in more detail in our story about the absconding rioters. However, she must have re-appeared when she thought it safe to do so, as I see she died at Wester Newhall as a widow and pauper in 1865. The informant was “Catherine Robertson niece” who was present at time of death, i.e. was living with Elspeth.
Catherine (c1792–1873) married Murdo Fraser (1800–1878), a labourer or sawyer, at Balblair, in 1823 in Resolis, and they had half a dozen children. They lived in the parish until their last years when they moved to reside with their children. Catherine died in Balintore, Fearn, of that terrible disease “Old age” from which she had suffered “3 Weeks”.
Lillias (c1797–1875) married George Aird from Cromarty, and they moved to Edinburgh where George worked as a stone quarrier, a weaver and as a paper ruler or paper maker – a diverse mixture! They had a large family. After George’s death in 1861, Lillias resided with her son James, a teacher in Edinburgh. She died in the parish of Cathcart in 1875.
Janet Aird (c1800–1889) married blacksmith Alexander McCombie. She died in Jemimaville in 1889, the informant being her daughter Catherine Robertson (who had married twice, a John McCombie and a Hugh Robertson).


End point of the Needle

None of the family of Roderick Fraser and Grace Aird seems to have made much money, but even so several of their children could have afforded a gravestone for their parents. Why then did Alexander solely take responsibility for the erection of a memorial? Where did the money come from, given the Needle must have been relatively expensive? And why did he choose one of such an unusual design?

We would be pleased to hear from any descendant who knows more about the origins of the Kirkmichael Needle.


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