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

John Blair, the Last Gardener in Ardoch, and
David Aitken, the First Gardener in Poyntzfield
The Which Blair Project

text: Jim Mackay   photos as individually noted

The Last Gardener in Ardoch

The garden of the landed proprietor in the 18th century had two distinct functions. It was an overt display of the good taste and sensibility of the owner. And it also contributed substantially to the dinner table. The gardener was therefore an important man, often drawn from outside the local area, managed directly by the factor or proprietor, and with control over his own servant lads.

The gardens of Poyntzfield    photo: Jim Bone, 2011

That’s my conclusion from researching several gardeners from Black Isle and Easter Ross estates, and I have also noted that the gardener in some cases developed estate responsibilities far beyond management of the gardens themselves.

And so it was with John Blair, the last gardener in Ardoch before it was sold by Adam Gordon and renamed Poyntzfield by the incoming Sir George Gun Munro. We have at present little on John Blair’s time at Ardoch, but there are more records of his activities when he moved to become the gardener at Newhall.

There is only one slab in Kirkmichael relating to the Blair family, and even that shows little to the casual passer-by. But catch it when the sun is at the right angle, and the inscription comes out very clearly.

The text appears in low light    photo: Jim Mackay

It reads:

I B / I H [the two sets of initials flank a faint heart] / Here lies the body of / ADAM BLAIR who died / the 23 Decemb. 1762 ag/ed 6 years

You would have expected the death of the parents also to be recorded on this stone, in due course, but I suspect they may have moved from the area by that time.

The family is found in the marriage and baptism registers of the united parish of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden, not yet known as Resolis as the central church at Resolis had not been built. The entries follow just as they are written in the registers:


1754 … Septr … 27 John Blair Gardiner to Ardoch, & Jannet Atchsion servant to Mr. Hamilton Gordon of Newhal were Contracted


Register for 1755 … Blair John Gardiner Ardoch Janet Atchior Octr 14 Adam
Register for 1756 … Blair John Gardiner Ardoch Janet Aitcheson Oct 17 Adam
March 29th 1761 John Blair Gardiner to Ardoch, & Jannet Hitchen his Spouse had a Daughter baptized named Hendrat


Sage words and genealogical musings

A note about the two baptisms of a child named Adam. It was not uncommon for two children born to the same couple to bear the same Christian name, and it wasn’t always due to one dying. My great grandparents had three children called Katie: Katie Mhor, Katie Beag and another Katie who died. However, with Adam Blair, as both the entries were later transcriptions, a note of caution should be sounded.

A word about the baptism register. When the Reverend Donald Sage arrived in 1822 he found just about everything to do with the management of church affairs had been negligently handled by his predecessor, the Reverend Robert Arthur. Sage noted that the registers were in a shocking state, and, recognising the importance of the family information within them, copied out the disintegrating documents himself into a tabular format. Most of the early records that we access nowadays are in fact Sage’s transcripts of the originals. Now, some of the pages of the originals have in fact survived and, due to being kept in dry conditions by Sage and following ministers, are still readable. You can therefore inspect how successfully Sage carried out his transcription, and it is clear even in the samples that have survived there are occasional errors on the part of Sage – making out the intended words with the curious writing of some of those early Session Clerks would have been difficult enough without having to deal with stained and damaged documents.

Nevertheless, I think it likely there were two children born called Adam, the first one presumably dying before the birth of the next who in turn died aged six in 1762. The 29 March 1761 “Hendrat” baptism, is from the original page from the register. The name “Adam”, not commonly used in the area, would most likely have been in honour of the owner of Ardoch at the time, Adam Gordon. (“John Urquhart Tennent Little Ardoch, & Mary Munro his Spous” on 3 April 1761 also had a son baptised named Adam). It was common for servants and tenants to name their children after the proprietor, although John Blair’s father was quite possibly an Adam as well! The “Hendrat”, probably intended to be “Henrietta”, possibly was after Jannet’s mother.

The Session Clerks, Sage and the memorial sculptor all had difficulty with Jannet’s second name. We have “Atchsion”, “Atchior”, “Aitcheson”,“Hitchen” and simply the initial “H” on her son’s gravestone. I do have the suspicion that her surname may even have been Aitken. Why is this? Because the gardener at Newhall until the sale of Ardoch was David Aitken, who then became employed by Sir George Gun Munro as the first gardener of Poyntzfield, the new name for Ardoch. John Blair went in the opposite direction, being the gardener at Ardoch until it was sold and then becoming the gardener at Newhall. David Aitken himself married a gardener’s daughter.

The lady with the surname that was unfamiliar to Resolis folk was the servant of Charles Hamilton Gordon, so a house servant at Newhall, at the very time that David Aitken was Charles Hamilton Gordon’s gardener. How likely is it that Gordon had two servants of similar surname, a surname unusual to the area, at the same time? I consider it likely that she was Aitken’s sister, and further examination of Aitken’s life and letters when his career blossomed would be useful.


The Kitchen Garden of a Gentleman

A gardener like Blair, perhaps trained by one of the great gardener or garden designers of Scotland, would have supervised the maintenance of the grounds around Ardoch House, as well as growing the seasonal vegetables for the laird’s table. A generation later, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (he who created the First Statistical Account of Scotland) coordinated the production of the General Report of the Agricultural State, and Political Circumstances, of Scotland which contains in Volume 2 (1814) exhaustive lists of the vegetables grown in the “Kitchen Gardens of Gentlemen”, and the number of varieties and range of species utilised are astonishing.

Even the range of potatoes and peas was well advanced by 1814 – Extract from the Kitchen Gardens of Gentlemen
photo: Jim Mackay

A little later, in 1821, Colonel Innes Munro of Poyntzfield published his Guide to Farm Book-keeping which was criticised for being limited in scope: but all the more interesting to us, for he based the book on the practice of an entailed estate in North Britain, producing both grain and cattle, with a genteel family home, a mains farm, a pigeon house, and a meal-mill and a threshing-machine, both powered by water. In other words, he based this manual of best practice on Poyntzfield itself, giving us a thinly veiled description of estate practice locally. Within this guide the role of the gardener at Poyntzfield is seen as a natural element of the well-run estate, and investments in garden walls and drains are seen as essential items in the general account of improvements.

Kirkmichael Trust Guided Tour of
Poyntzfield and the Poyntzfield herb garden in 2011    photo: Andrew Dowsett


The gravestone in Kirkmichael

The heart and lettering on the Blair stone are beautifully carved. The slab lies just to the east of the burial place of Lady Ardoch. Her mausoleum hadn’t been built yet, but she had died on 27 February 1762, 10 months before the six year old son of the Blairs died, and had been buried in that part of the kirkyard suggesting it was, at that time, “Ardoch territory.”

Two detectives and the Blair stone: the author of this “Story Behind the Stone” with Mrs Helma Reynolds, author of the “Story Behind the Stone” about her ancestor, Kenneth Urquhart, subject of the anonymous letters of 1778    photo: Andrew Dowsett

It may well be, of course, that the Blairs had purchased and had their initials placed on the stone before Adam died. There are many stones of this era bearing merely initials and a heart. Whether or not the Blairs were still at Ardoch when Adam’s inscription was carved is another matter, for we know he was well established in Newhall by 1 November 1763. It was on this date that John Blair was part of the legal process by which William Gordon came into his father’s property of Newhall.


Movement to Newhall

Blair had become gardener at Newhall by November 1763 as he carried out in that month the largely symbolic role of “Baillie” in implementing the sasine by which William Gordon came into the Newhall estate after his father, Charles Hamilton Gordon, had died in October 1761. We see some old acquaintances appearing as the document was “Written before & in presence of William MacLeay Messenger at Invergordon and Alexander Barclay [Barkly] Tacksman At Kirkmichael Witnesses”.

… upon the first Day of November one thousand Seven hundred & Sixty three years in the fourth year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord George the third by the grace of God King of Great Britain France & Ireland Defender of the Faith In presence of me Notary publick & Witnesses Subscribing Compeared Personally Robert Grant Schoolmaster in Drumcudden as Pror & Attorney for & in Name of William Gordon of Newhall whose power of Prory was Clearly known to & understood by me Notary publick subscribing who also with John Blair Gardiner at Newhall Baillie by the precept of Saisine underwritten Specially Constitute Past to the Ground of the respective Lands & to the Milns aftermentioned the Said Pror Having and holding in his hands the said precept of Saisine Commonly called a precept of Clare Constat of the Date tenor & Contents after insert Made & Granted by an Honourable Gentleman Sir John Gordon of Invergordon Barronet In favour of the Said Willm. Gordon of Newhall as nearest & lawfull heir Cum beneficias Inventary Served & Retoured to the Deceast Mr. Charles Hamilton Gordon his Father

We hear nothing of him for ten years although he must have been working away in the gardens of Newhall. We don’t know where these were situated in this period. However we do know from an estate plan of Newhall of 1788 where ornamental planting was located, and it included a beautiful love knot in front of Newhall House. The ornamental gardens and circular feature shown on the plan at the back of the previous Newhall House in 1788, are there in the Ordnance Survey plan surveyed in 1904 and after yet another century are still there now.

Newhall as surveyed by the Ordnance Survey in 1904

When William Macleay writes on 25 February 1771 to William Gordon’s Edinburgh agent (RH15/44/17), he reviews what’s happening on the land at Newhall. He mentions that “John Blair is busy at the Labouring” i.e. Blair had the farm labourers working – at that time of year, perhaps at the ploughing. Blair was thus in a management role by this time.

Blair subsequently pops up in some letters by William Gordon of Newhall (in RH15/44/53 and 54), not always in a positive context. Indeed, Gordon was uneasy with Blair and positively incensed with Macleay:

[15th June 1773] Dr David / If you possibly can, it is absolutely necessary for me you come north, Blair’s Accompts will I am afraid require some revising as from some circumstances which have come to my knowledge since being here, his integrity (I always made allowances for his Weakness) is a little shaken in my opinion, tho Macleay in that event is most to blame if what I have all the reason in the world, almost Certainly to believe, be so, that Macleay is considerably indebted to Blair, you may judge from this of Macleay, who must have known when borrowing from Blair, it was my money he received, & who intrusted with my affairs received from my servant, what he must know was mine, at the same time applying to his own use, what as my factor he received.

What a marvellous letter; John Blair was loaning to Macleay money that Blair had received from tenants, and Macleay was spending on his own account money that Macleay had received from tenants. Gordon’s letters at this time constantly bemoaned his lack of ready cash, which is why you can hear his indignation in realising that Macleay was applying to his own use money “what as my factor he received”!

William Gordon scrutinised the farm accounts with the interest of a lawyer (which he was!) and, referring to Macleay’s account commencing September 1772:

in the Body of this Acct. are two Receipts for Money to John Blair, one of which only he has charged myself with, the other therefore falls to be added to the debit side

In the discharge No. 5 you have the particulars which make up that article which shews what purchases fall to be delivered up by him upon looking into the Accts with Ino. Blair made out by Macleay

These entries further demonstrate that Blair was engaged in managing some aspects of the estate and Macleay was doing his accounts for him. This is confirmed by the following extract:

The Vouchers of his debit arising from Receipts to the tennants & Blair cannot be delivered up till they are cleared with, which will be mentioned in the Docquet. One receipt to Alexr. Tailor which in the Accompt commencing in the 1772 made out by Macleay bears to be only 0.10.0 being for £1.11.0, & therefore increasing his debit I have put it up in the Accompt from the Confusion introduced in Blair’s accts from a mistake I mentioned to you of Macleay's, they were several years ago, put into his hands with his books whence they were taken, with a view of having them made out new. This I believe Macleay never did any thing towards, & I believe Blair got them back about the time Macleay left the Ness, if any of them are still in his possession they fall to be given up.

We can safely say then that in the early 1770s Blair had moved from gardener to having a role in managing the estate (although not very satisfactorily). This then explains why in Newhall’s accounts you find statements such as:

[in entries relating to Donald Rose, who had the inn and land at Balblair]

1772 By Cattle deliver’d to John Blair, at £6.8.-

[payment of rents in kind into the Storehouse]

1773 Jany. 4 By Storehouse p Jo: Blair 8.1.1
April 2 By Storeho. p John Blair 4.-.-
1773 … By Storeho. p. John Blair, crop 1772

In the detailed accounts produced following William Gordon’s death, we see all the payments in kind made by Newhall’s tenants in 1772. Cash payments were mostly made to William Gordon although there were a few to William Macleay. All payments of oatmeal, bear and bear meal were made to Jo: Blair.

Extract from 1772 Newhall accounts    photo: Jim Mackay

Much of the estate rent was still paid in kind, mostly grain measured into the storehouse at Ferryton Point from where it would be despatched by ship to market, so keeping the storehouse accounting straight was vital and unfortunately it appears that Blair may not have been completely up to the job.

The Newhall Storehouse at Ferryton Point, where John Blair measured in the tenants’ rent in kind. The Storehouse was redeveloped as a house in the 1980s.    photo: John Shaw

I’m not clear if it is at this time or after a few years that Gordon dispensed with John Blair’s services in his management role, although Blair continued to live in the proximity of Newhall.


The disaffected Blairs

A separate Story behind the Stone examines the life of the Newhall factor, Kenneth Urquhart, and the anonymous letters accusing him in 1778 of neglect of duties, drunkenness and abuse of his position. Kenneth Urquhart himself wrote from St Martins on 20 October 1778 to Lockhart’s Edinburgh agent (RH15/44/87) his protestations of innocence to the charges in “the Letters which was sent him giving the Blackest Character of me that Hell could Invent”.

Were John Blair and his wife the instigators of these anonymous letters?

William Gordon had died tragically young in January 1778. Newhall was now in the hands of William’s sister, Henrietta, and her husband, Thomas Lockhart, a Commissioner of Excise and the youngest brother of Admiral John Lockhart Ross of Balnagown. The anonymous letters were written to Thomas Lockhart and several others associated with the Newhall Estate later in 1778. Lockhart asked a Cromarty merchant, George Galdie, to look into the accusations. Galdie interviewed (RH15/44/84) Urquhart and local residents including a Mrs Blair i.e. our Jannet. Unfortunately his letter is torn in the very section dealing with Jannet, but a blow-up of a photograph allows us to extract the meaning.

The torn letter from George Galdie    photo: Jim Mackay

Galdie inspected the buildings and crops and reported that he was happy that Urquhart appeared to be innocent of the charges. But then he goes on to say that he discussed Urquhart with:

people in the Neighbourhood who al[l wi]th one Voice except Mrs. Blair assured me that no man [paid greater? a]ttention to your Interest

I think Galdie was hinting something here about the Blairs.

Kenneth’s thoughts turn to the Blairs    photo: Jim Mackay

And Kenneth himself, when writing to Gordon’s Edinburgh agent on 20 October 1778, turned to mention the Blairs:

that my enemies is very near me, but I am very happy that my Quentience frees me that I never did any thing that I had the least fear to show it to the world, I know very well that John Blair & his wife waited on Sir John, who spoke to me afterwards & said that is was owing to me that Wm. Ross was kept from him, But I beared every thing with myself, he also was telling it was I that was the Occasion of him & his wife turned off from Newhall, I cannot Condesend who has used me as I am but by every Circumstances he cannot be far of from Newhall

This passage is initially a bit difficult to disentangle – is it William Ross or John Blair who was turned off? But as we know that William Ross (the ground officer for Newhall at this time) continued in his role for many years afterwards, clearly it was not he who was turned off from Newhall. However, John Blair had been taking rentals in 1772/3, obviously having moved up in authority from his initial position as gardener, but isn't recorded as doing so thereafter, so it has to have been he and his wife to whom reference was being made. Now couple that with John Blair’s wife being critical of Kenneth Urquhart to George Galdie, and I think you see who were the aggrieved parties and the likely suspects.


Which Blair?

The letter writer had to be very aware of events at Newhall. He or she accused Kenneth (correctly) of, one night when the laird wasn’t in residence, sleeping in the laird’s bed, for instance. How did the letter-writer have such detailed inside information?

John Blair’s wife had been a maid in Newhall, and John Blair would have known the staff there as well, so I think it all paints a story. However, without evidence it is mere conjecture, and there is nothing in the records to demonstrate that the true culprits were ever identified. Would Jannet have criticised Urquhart to Galdie if she had been the letter-writer? Unlikely, if she suspected Galdie was investigating the letter, unless she was very naive. Did John act separately from Jannet? Or were they co-conspirators? It is interesting to speculate, but this “Which Blair Project” cannot be resolved without more evidence.

The catch is that John Blair’s troubles really seem to have been mostly due to William Macleay and not to Kenneth Urquhart, but that’s a different story.

I do hope the Blairs were not responsible, as the writer of these letters was clearly actuated by nothing more than malice.

Did the Blairs continue to live in the neighbourhood of Newhall? If they did, they do not crop up in any of the documentation I have seen regarding Newhall or the neighbouring estates.


The First Gardener of Poyntzfield

Unlike John Blair, David Aitken, the gardener who swapped positions with him in the early 1760s, moving from Newhall to Poyntzfield, did not disappear. Many local historians are very grateful for his work which endures in the National Records of Scotland and many family record chests.

David Aitken went on to become one of the most famous land surveyors in the North of Scotland. His estate plans were commissioned by proprietors within Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland, Orkney, Caithness and much further afield. It was to the plans of Aitken that Ullapool was built. I do not believe his early career as the gardener at Newhall and Poyntzfield has been previously recorded. However, we shall investigate the life of David Aitken, gardener and surveyor, in a separate “Story Behind the Stone.”


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