Excommunication was rarely carried out in the Black Isle, but this is what befell one of the subjects of this story, Murdoch Ross, miller at Poyntzfield.
The large headstone erected to commemorate Murdoch Ross and his wife, Janet Ferguson, used to be a landmark at Kirkmichael as it tipped over towards the east to an alarming extent. It gave a quaint look to the chancel, beside which it stood. However, it reached such an angle that we had no other option but for safety’s sake to prop it up before devoting a work party in May 2019 to straightening it up.
We find with the typical older headstone that there is a long length of undressed stone below the ground, with smaller stones jammed in to keep the headstone erect. The masons usually carved a straight line across the headstone to show where it should be buried to, and a mason’s line did indeed appear on this stone, below which there was 0.44 m of base. However, the stone was nothing like as rough below the mason’s line as usual, perhaps a reflection on the later date of erection (1862). And there were no stones to hold it erect, no doubt accounting for its tilt!
We cut out the turf from the back, excavated the soil down to its base and simply pushed it upright, hammering the soil back in on both sides with a plank to firm it up. And then, having sorted out the stone, we had a good look at the inscription with a view to investigating the family.
The inscription showed that both Murdoch and Janet had died young, and their sons must have been adults themselves when they erected the stone to commemorate their parents.
1862 / In memory / of / MURDOCH ROSS miller / who died at Rosemarkie 1831 / aged 35 years / Also / of his spouse / JANET FERGUSON / who died at Pointzfield 1826 / aged 30 years / This memorial is erected by their / sons DONALD and GEORGE
It was challenging as there was no record of the marriage of Murdoch and Janet, and no record of the birth or baptisms of sons Donald and George. This was all before the arrival of the Reverend Donald Sage in Resolis in 1822, when he found to his horror that under the supervision of his predecessor there was no kirk session, the registers were not being kept and the old registers had been allowed to decay. And both parents had died before census records were kept. It didn’t seem likely that we could get a line on their families.
I checked the minutes of the later kirk session records more for completeness than in any hope of finding anything on the family, but…
At the Church of Resolis the 15th day of March 1827 / A Delation for the Sin & Scandal of Incest being given in against Murdo Ross Miller in Poyntzfield & Elizabeth Fergusson an unmarried woman his sister in Law residing at Newmilns, they were both duly cited to this meeting. / Compeared Elizabeth Fergusson & being seriously admonished to tell the truth & interrogated– acknowledged that she is with child by Murdo Ross Miller in Poyntzfield her brother in law– That soon after the death of her Sister his first wife, she had gone to reside at his house to take care of his children;– that on the night of some day in Sepr last but does not recollect the date, she…
The minutes reveal that Murdo had a serious problem with drink. Elizabeth and Murdo were excommunicated for their sin, but were later re-admitted to the church when they showed suitable contrition. However, we can leave the couple there for a time, as, with the knowledge that Janet had a sister at Newmills named Elizabeth, we could locate the errant Elizabeth and her child Christian or Cursty in subsequent census returns for Newmills.
Widow Ferguson 70 FS / James Ferguson 30 AL Elizabeth Ferguson 28 FS / Cursty Ross 14
1851 Newmills (all recorded as born in Resolis)
Elizabeth Ferguson / head w / 84 pauper formerly general lab’s wife / James Ferguson son u 43 letter carrier / Elizebeth Ferguson daur u 41 dressmaker / Christina Ross / grand daur u 23 dressmaker / Donald Ross visitor m 28 journeyman mason
1861Newmills (all recorded as born in Resolis)
Elizabeth Ferguson head u 53 farmer of 5 ac / Christina Ross daur u 33 pauper (dressmaker) / James Ferguson / brother u 55 letter carrier / Murdow Urquhart nephew 13 scholar
1871 Newmills (all recorded as born in Resolis except where indicated)
James Ferguson head u 65 crofter of 5 acres 4 arable / Elizabeth Ferguson sister u 63 domestic serv / Christina Ross niece u 43 milliner / Thomas Ferguson brother widr 67 labourer (kiln drier) / Jessie Urquhart niece 13 scholar Banff
1881 Newmills (both recorded as born Newmills)
Betty Ferguson head u 72 farmer of 6 acres arable G / Thomas Ferguson brother widr 78 pauper G
Elizabeth Ferguson had named her daughter Christian Ross, as Murdoch Ross had acknowledged he was the father. And you will note that Elizabeth’s elderly mother, Elizabeth, also mother to Donald and George who erected the headstone, and mother to Janet who had died in 1826, had survived through to 1851. And in that very helpful 1851 record, the Donald Ross, a journeyman mason, who was visiting the family must have been no other than the Donald Ross who with his brother George had erected the headstone.
We were now making real progress with scoping out the family of Janet Ferguson, who had died so young at Poyntzfield in 1826.
Her mother died at Newmills in 1855, that wonderful year when Scotland launched its own civil registration scheme, vastly over-ambitious but fantastic while it lasted. Who could ask for any more information on a death certificate than this:
Elizabeth Shearer, aged 88, born Inch Alness Parish of Resolis, parents Thomas Shearer weaver woollen stuff (deceased) & Janet Shearer m.s. Cameron (deceased), husband John Ferguson wright (deceased), children 1. Janet (deceased aet 30 in 1826), 2. John 56, 3. William 54, 4. Thomas 50, 5. James 46, 6. Elizabeth 44. Died 19 March 1855 Newmills, buried Kirkyard of Kirkmichael, informant James Ferguson son.
Well, there was poor Janet recorded as the oldest child, but dying, as it says on her headstone, aged 30 in 1826. Elizabeth, who became involved with Janet’s husband, was the youngest child.
We can go back two generations further with the information on this death certificate, to the parents and grandparents of Janet and Elizabeth (remembering always that in the Black Isle Cameron and Mackeddie were interchangeable). First the grand-parents:
26 Nov 1756 – Marriage – Thomas Sherar son to James Sherar weaver in Inch & Jannet Mckedie daughter to Donald Mckedie servant in Feritone
6 Oct 1757 – Baptism – Thomas Sherar weaver in Inch & Jannet Mckedie – Isobel
18 Jul 1759 – Baptism – Thomas Sherar weaver Ferie of Alnas & Jannet Mckedie – Jannet
25 Jan 1762 – Baptism – Thomas Sherar weaver in Inch & Jannet Mckedie – John
4 Sep 1766 – Baptism – Thomas Sherar meller in the Inch & Janet McKeddie – [blank]
14 Mar 1769 – Baptism – Thomas Sherar weaver in Ferry of Alness & Jannet Mackeddy – Thomas
11 Jun 1771 – Baptism – Thomas Sherar weaver in Ferritown & Janet Mckeddy – William
And then the parents:
27 Nov 1795 – Baptism – John Ferguson servt. at Newhall & Lizy Sherar – Janet
2 Dec 1799 – Baptism – John Ferguson Newmiln & Lizy Shearer – William
29 Jul 1802 – Baptism – John Ferguson wright in Newmilns & Lilly [sic] Shearer – Thomas
15 Nov 1804 – Baptism – John Ferguson carpenter Newmills & Elizabeth Shearer – James
2 Sep 1807 – Baptism – John Ferguson wright Newmills & Elizabeth Sherar – Elizabeth 1 Sep
With that wealth of data, and the subsequent information on her children, we can construct a family tree for Janet:
This family tree does seem a little lop-sided, but I have not been able to establish the parentage of Murdoch Ross with confidence. A Murdow Ross was baptised in1796 in the parish of Rosskeen (“Murdow, son to Alexr. Ross Miller at Milclaggan & Janet Stuart, was born the 8th. & Bapt. 11th. March 1796”) and while it is likely that this is the correct Murdoch Ross (Murdoch was a relatively rarely-used Christian name), further confirmation is needed.
Returning to the headstone at Kirkmichael, we have:
1862 / In memory / of / MURDOCH ROSS miller / who died at Rosemarkie 1831 / aged 35 years / Also / of his spouse / JANET FERGUSON / who died at Pointzfield 1826 / aged 30 years / This memorial is erected by their / sons DONALD and GEORGE
Donald Ross proved a difficult man to track down; not surprisingly, perhaps, given how popular the name! We do not know who looked after him as a child after his father died in 1831. However, we had seen him in the 1851 census, visiting his half-sister and grandmother in Newmills. At this time he was a journeyman mason, aged 28 (therefore born c1823) and was already married. But how on earth to find a journeyman mason in later census returns?
Well, we never did find his wife, as in each of the census returns in which he was successfully located he was away at work! Using a search based on his being from Resolis, and his being a mason, we tracked him down.
1861 St Andrews Lhanbryde, Moray
Donald Ross Lodger Married Male 38 1823 Journeyman Masson Resolis
1871 Achintee, 12, Lochcarron, Ross & Cromarty
Donald Ross Lodger Married Male 48 1823 Mason Resolis
He simply could not be located in the 1881 census, suggesting he had died between 1871 and 1881, but without checking at vast expense all those named Donald Ross of approximately the right age who had died in that period, Donald’s own family will remain unknown.
George was easier to track given his less popular forename. He had been only six years old when his father died, and it is assumed he was brought up by relatives but we know nothing of this as yet. He became a meal miller, like his father, and married Janet or Jessie Bethune, a ploughman’s daughter, in Dingwall in June 1853. George was living at Milnain in the parish of Fodderty at the time. The mill at Milnain has been sympathetically converted to a house, and the water-wheel is maintained as a wonderful feature on the side of the building, enjoyed by everyone who drives from Dingwall to Strathpeffer.
The couple were to remain in Fodderty for the rest of their lives. I have no record of any children being born to George and Janet. I see them on the High Street in Maryburgh in 1861, at Bridgend Cottage in 1871, and on Proby Street in Maryburgh in 1881, 1891 and 1901, George being recorded as a retired meal miller in the latter two.
Jessie’s parents have an attractive headstone at St Clements in Dingwall, with the following inscription:
1897 / Erected / in / memory of / DONALD BETHUNE / died at Brahan on the 22nd / November 1887 aged 84 years / his wife / MARGARET MACKENZIE / died at Maryburgh / January 1888 aged 80 years / and their sons / ALEXANDER died at Brae / aged 7 years / and / NEIL died at Brahan / aged 22 years / Erected by their son/ALEXANDER
photo courtesy of the Odd Quine, aka Margaret Nancy Whyte
For those researching Jessie Bethune’s parents, note that her mother was called Peggie, a diminutive of Margaret, in the three baptisms I see in the records. I have found no memorial to George Ross and Jessie Bethune, and I have no incidents to flesh out their lives. They died within a couple of years of each other, Jessie sadly dying in the District Asylum:
Inverness Deaths 1905 / Jessie Ross married to George Ross, meal miller died 19 Jan 1905 District Asylum, Inverness (usual residence – Maryburgh) 73 parents Donald Bethune ploughman (d) Margaret Bethune ms MacKenzie (d) informant Alec Bethune nephew Culburnie Villa Ross Avenue
Fodderty Deaths 1907 / George Ross pauper formerly a miller widower of Jessie Bethune 7 May 1907 Maryburgh, Fodderty 80 Murdo Ross miller (d) Jessie Ross ms Ferguson (d) informant Murdoch Urquhart nephew Hartfield Street Tain
It is sad to see that George ended as a pauper having worked all his life. Note the informant of George’s death – Murdoch Urquhart, a nephew. The fact that a nephew rather than a son or daughter was the informant was further evidence that George and Jessie had no children themselves, but it also revealed that there must have been a sister who had married someone called Urquhart!
I reviewed the information I had. A nephew and a niece named Urquhart appeared with the family in some census returns. Janet Ferguson’s sister Elizabeth, she who had a baby with Janet’s widowed husband Murdoch Ross, died in 1890, and the informant of her death was an Urquhart, also a relative!
Elizabeth Ferguson dressmaker (single) 15 Dec 1890 Newmills 83 John Ferguson crofter (d) Elizabeth Ferguson ms Shearer (d) informant Elizabeth Urquhart niece (present) 52 Rosemount Buildings Edinburgh
All lines of research led to the same unsuspected sister to the Donald and George Ross who had erected the headstone at Kirkmichael.
George Urquhart was a journeyman blacksmith and hence moved around a great deal. He had been born in Rosskeen, but he was actually living in the parish of Resolis when he married Elizabeth:
Resolis marriages 22 November 1846 – George Urquhart journeyman smith Newhall & Elizabeth Ross residing in the same place banns p 8, 15, 22 November 1846
They resided in the parish for quite some time, having Murdoch (1848), Duncan (1849), George (1852), John (1853) and Christian (1854). Curiously, while Murdoch and Duncan were both baptised in Resolis, the 1851 Census for the family in Resolis record the sons as having been born in Kilmuir, although this altered with later census returns! Murdoch Urquhart became a cabinet-maker in Invergordon, where he married Christina Wills, whilst Duncan became an engineer.
His life as a journeyman blacksmith perhaps confused George as to where the family had been when various of his children were born, as many variations can be found in different census records. This perhaps explains the Kilmuir births but the Resolis baptisms! The family went on to have Jessie in Cairnie, Aberdeenshire, Elizabeth and Georgina in Banff, and Donald in Rosskeen back in Ross and Cromarty. They remained in Invergordon, Rosskeen, where George himself had been brought up, for only a few years until the family made the big jump to Edinburgh. They resided there until their deaths, in 1914 (Elizabeth) and 1915 (George). Their household was filled with married children and grandchildren in their various residences in Edinburgh and Leith. It must have been pandemonium at times. However, it must have suited the elderly couple as they both lived into their nineties, George surviving Elizabeth by just a few months, having been a couple for more than 65 years.
Elizabeth Urquhart married to George Urquhart blacksmith died 20 October 1914 at 10 Prince Regent Street Leith aged 92 parents Murdoch Ross meal miller (d) Jane Ross ms Ferguson (d) informant Charles Murray son-in-law (present)
George Urquhart blacksmith widower of Elizabeth Ferguson died 31 January 1915 at 10 Prince Regent Street Leith aged 93 parents Duncan Urquhart farm servant (d) Janet Urquhart ms Taylor (d) informant Charles Murray son-in-law (present)
Christian was the half-sister of Donald, George and Elizabeth, the daughter of Murdoch Ross and Elizabeth Ferguson. She continued to live with her mother at Newmills, becoming, like her mother, a milliner or dress-maker. Like her mother, she never married. She died long before her mother, who lived through until 1890.
She was first admitted to parochial relief in 1858, and the records paint a sad picture of someone often disablingly sick and in need of relief. For the entry “Earnings, Means and Resources” is given “Resides with mother & brother. Sews and the like.”
Her own mother had to be the informant at the registrar’s:
Christian Ross pauper (formerly dressmaker) (single) illegitimate died 20 December 1875 Newmill aged 48 parents Murdo Ross miller (d) Elizabeth Ferguson (formerly a dress-maker) informant Elizabeth Ferguson her x mark mother (present)
From my knowledge of the records of Resolis and other parishes, illegitimate children were far more prone to disease, debilitation and early death than those born in wedlock. The lack of support for mother and child was shocking, and historical studies rarely pick up on the appalling impact of illegitimacy on health.
Thomas Ferguson (1802–1886). He was a labourer (on one occasion recorded as a kiln-drier) and ended his days at Newmills, an illiterate pauper. However, in his younger days Thomas had moved far away from his Newmills birthplace. As an agricultural labourer he had settled in the parish of Murroes, near Dundee, and there in 1847 married Elizabeth Aird. In the 1851 and 1861 census returns they had one child (John) born in Murroes about 1840/1 from his age in both census returns, but he does not appear in the Murroes baptism register in this period. Was he a child from an earlier marriage? Was he illegitimate? I cannot tell. When Elizabeth died at Dundee of typhus in 1869, Thomas returned to the family home at Newmills and assisted the family there on the croft until his death in 1886.
James Ferguson (1804–1880) was a letter-carrier and was, until his death, the crofter of the family’s few acres at Newmills. He ended his days a pauper, and I note the parochial relief records say of him: “Messenger. Resides with a sister & brother who are in poor circumstances.”
Elizabeth Ferguson (1807–1890) we have already met through her unfortunate affair with the drunken Murdoch Ross. She was a dress-maker and crofter at Newmills. She must have been a pretty tough lady. When her brother James died, she became the head of the family at Newmills. The census return of 1881 gives: “Betty Ferguson head unmarried 72 farmer of 6 acres arable”.
And here ends this brief review of the family behind the large, leaning headstone close to the chancel door. The family clearly were dogged by poverty but during a period when Donald and George had some money they managed to erect a substantial memorial to their father and mother, whom they had known only during their earliest years.
At the Church of Resolis the 15th day of March 1827
The which day the Session met & being constituted by Prayer Sederunt with the Moderator Robert Murray Donald McLean Barington Ferguson, James Forbes Elders & George Murray Session Clerk.
A Delation for the Sin & Scandal of Incest being given in against Murdo Ross Miller in Poyntzfield & Elizabeth Fergusson an unmarried woman his sister in Law residing at Newmilns, they were both duly cited to this meeting.
Compeared Elizabeth Fergusson & being seriously admonished to tell the truth & interrogated– acknowledged that she is with child by Murdo Ross Miller in Poyntzfield her brother in law– That soon after the death of her Sister his first wife, she had gone to reside at his house to take care of his children;– that on the night of some day in Sepr last but does not recollect the date, she laid herself down in Murdo Ross’ bed along with the youngest child who usually slept with him as the child was afraid to sleep alone– that at some time thereafter Murdo Ross came in and as she thought a little the worse of drink, that he came to bed with her and the child– that their criminal intercourse then began & was continued for some time afterwards. Being ordered to withdraw compeared Murdo Ross Miller in Poyntzfield who being seriously admonished to tell the truth & the confession of Elizabeth Fergusson read to him was interrogated– acknowledged that he was guilty of the charge brought against him– that whilst he did not presume to plead that as an excuse for himself, yet must state that he did not go to his sister in law’s bed but that she had come to his– that he was a good deal intoxicated– that their criminal intercourse began at the time stated in her confession & was continued, untill she proved with child and left his house. The Session duly considering the above declarations emitted before them by Murdo Ross and Elizabeth Fergusson find that as the crime of which they have confessed themselves guilty is of so aggravated a nature, the Session have no power to proceed further in this process without the advice & authority of the Presbytery. The Session therefore resolve to sist proceedings & refer the whole case to the Presbytery for their judgement. They cite the parties apud acta to appear before the Meeting of Presbytery to hold at Chanonry on the 27th day of this month & instruct their clerk to send extracts of their proceedings to the clerk of Presbytery.
Closed with prayer. Dond Sage Modr
At Resolis May 12th 1828
…The Moderator reported that at the last meeting of Presbytery held at Chanonry on the 6th Ultmo a Petition had been presented to the Presbytery by Murdo Ross late Miller at Poyntzfield & also a Petition from Elizabeth Fergusson residing at Newmilns both of whom for Incest are under the sentence of the lesser Excommunication, praying to be absolved from said sentence & to be readmitted to the participation of Christian Privileges– That the Presbytery after having duly considered said Petitions unanimously resolved to remit the case back to this Session with Instructions to make enquiry into the conduct of said Murdo Ross & Elizabeth Fergusson during the time appointed by the Presby in which they were to be under that sentence & to report to the next meeting of the Presbytery to hold at Chanonry on the 17 day of June. The Session agreeably to the Presbytery’s instructions resolved to appoint a committee of their number to make such enquiry & to report at their next meet.
At Resolis the 27th day of May 1828.
… The committee of Session appointed to inquire into the conduct of Murdo Ross late Miller in Poyntzfield & Elizabeth Ferguson at Newmilns since these persons for Incest were put under the sentence of the lesser Excommunication reported that with respect to the conduct of Murdo Ross, from information given them by creditable persons living in his immediate neighbourhood & who had frequent opportunities of seeing him & witnessing his conduct he had been drunk more than once since the sentence of the lesser excommunication was pronounced upon him, & that tho his conduct of late has been more correct in that respect there is every reason to believe that his sobriety is owing not to his having from any proper conviction given up his habits of drunkenness to which he was so notoriously addicted but merely from want of the means wherewith to gratify that evil propinquity– That with respect to the conduct of Elizabeth Fergusson ever since she lay under the sentence the committee of Session neither know nor have heard of any impropriety in her conduct.
The Session considering the above statement unanimously resolved to report accordingly to the next meeting of Presbytery & instruct their clerk to send an extract of this minute to the clerk of Presbytery.
At Resolis the 15th day of October 1828
… Thereafter the Moderator reported that Murdo Ross & Elizabeth Fergusson compeared being duly cited, thereto, before a meeting of the Presbytery of the bounds held at Chanonry on the 14th Ultmo. & that the Presbytery had pronounced a judgement in their case an extract of which the Moderator laid on the Table & is as follows.
“At Chanonry the 14th day of October 1828. / The Presbytery having met & being constituted by Prayer. Sederunt Mr Donald Sage Moderator & with him Messrs Roderick McKinzie, James Smith, Alexander Stewart, and Alexander Wood, clerk. Absent Mr John Kennedy. The minutes of last meeting were read– / Inter alia– compeared Murdoch Ross, and Elizabeth Fergusson, who were formerly before the Presbytery, from the Parish of Kirkmichael & Cullicudden, & having now heard read the Report in the case by the Session of the said united Parish the Presbytery appoint them to serve Discipline in the Parish church, in same manner as in cases of Adultery,& and untill such time as the Session there cause to absolve the said Murdo Ross from the Sentence of the lesser Excommunication. Extracted by” (signed) Alexander Wood Pby Clk.
Murdo Ross compeared at this meeting & the Session resolved agreeably to the above sentence that both he & Elizabeth Fergusson should during the evening service on every second Sabbath stand in the area before the pulpit & be rebuked untill such time as they said parties give cause to be absolved from said sentence. This judgement being intimated to Murdo Ross & Elizabeth Fergusson they assented thereto & were appointed to stand before the congregation to be rebuked on Sabbath the 26th of October for the first time.
At Resolis the 22d day of Decr 1828
The Session met & being duly constituted Present the Moderator and remanent Members. The Session considering that Murdo Ross & Elizabeth Fergusson having for nearly three months been serving the Discipline of the church & knowing nothing further against their character, & being satisfied with their outward deportment resolved that on the ensuing Sabbath they should both be appointed to appear before the congregation, that the Moderator after divine service & pronouncing the blessing should after declaring before the congregation all the steps of the process against them before this & the Superior Court & the compliance of the parties with all that was required of them, call upon the said Murdo Ross & Elizabeth Fergusson, to declare in verbis de presente their contrition & sorrow for the aggravated sin of which they were guilty, on which the Moderator was to absolve them from the scandal & restore them to the outward privileges of which they have hitherto been deprived. This being intimated to the Parties they agreed thereunto.
Closed with prayer Dond Sage Modr