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

Alexander Duff, his three wives and the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone

text by Dr Jim Mackay

with thanks to Andrew Dowsett and Davine Sutherland for photography


Alexander Duff, Chamberlain of, in turn, Sir James Sinclair, Sir William Sinclair and Lady Mey, is associated with an extreme example of artistic vandalism. The Hilton of Cadboll stone is one of Europe’s finest pieces of Pictish artwork. On one side. The other side was chiselled off in situ to provide a surface for the doggerel associated with Alexander Duff and his three wives. It reads:


photo by Davine Sutherland

photo by Davine Sutherland

Rather like the epitaph on the slab for his father-in-law Alexander Urquhart of St Martins (was Alexander Duff trying to emulate him?) it is badly spelled (for that time period) and isn’t entirely understandable. But you get the general meaning: if you live a devout life, then you go to heaven. That’s all.

Where it gets interesting is the three wives, whose initials appear below his name. Duff wanted his stone carver to place the family arms of himself and his three wives in the four quarters of a shield placed prominently on the stone. The stag’s head with a five pointed star or mullet between the antlers thus occupies the first quarter of the shield, for Duff, and the arms of the families of his three wives follow clockwise. Their initials straddle the shield.

By the way, the definitive book on every aspect of the Hilton of Cadboll slab is A Fragmented Masterpiece: Recovering the Biography of the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Cross (James, HG, Henderson, I, Foster, S and Jones, S (2008) Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland) which nowadays is available on line here. However, there is always room for a fresh take on some aspects!

the fishing village of Hilton of Cadboll; photo by Davine Sutherland

the replica Hilton of Cadboll stone and the site of the ancient chapel and graveyard of Cadboll on the edge of Hilton of Cadboll; photo by Davine Sutherland

Was Alexander Duff aware that the masons he had employed to create a suitable memorial were going to strip off one side of the Pictish stone? Given the proximity of Cadboll Castle to the stone (a few minutes walk) it would be difficult for him not to know. He perhaps thought of the stone with its large Pictish cross in the context of the medieval ornate crosses of the area which were commonly deliberately despoiled. Post-Reformation even the cross of the old religion was anathema. On our website we have a page (you can see it here) devoted to the ornate medieval crosses of the region, and we found in some burial grounds (but not all) that either the head of the cross had been chiselled off or the top of the slab had been broken off. Take a look at these examples:

head of pre-Reformation ornate cross at Wardlaw cemetery broken off; photo by Andrew Dowsett

entire top surface of small pre-Reformation cross at Kiltearn cemetery levelled off; photos by Andrew Dowsett

just the head of pre-Reformation ornate cross at Nonikiln cemetery roughly chiselled off; photo by Davine Sutherland

I’m sure that when Alexander Duff saw the efforts of his masons he would have been appalled. He was literate, he would have seen the exquisitely-carved stones of his Kinbeachie and St Martins in-laws – there is no way that he would be happy given his position with such a poorly executed memorial. It is no surprise that the stone never left Cadboll.

The letter-carver employed by Alexander Duff was particularly rough and ready, although we have seen so many strange gravestone carvings locally nothing would surprise us. The sheer lack of planning is always shocking – a sketch-out on the stone in chalk or charcoal would have saved the mason so much time and bother! In this case he could have avoided the hanging “VEIL” by slightly closer spacing of letters and more use of ligatures (joining of letters as in the first HE). There is an obvious opportunity in the word “THAT” for another ligature. And while ligatures using angled letters are less common, he was already obliged to employ one to fit in “DVF” on the third line (although commonsense should have told him compressing his client’s name was not the best way to keep him happy). He could therefore have squeezed in another three ligatures using “VE” similarly on the top line. There are stones at Kirkmichael where the mason has gone right over the camber of a stone in reduced letter size to fit in a miscalculated word when a bit of planning would have made life so much easier.

photo by Davine Sutherland


First wife: KS

There is no surviving record to say who the first wife was, although we know her initials (KS) and family arms (a left hand coming in from the right bearing a flag). Or, in heraldic-speak, a sinister hand issuing from dexter holding a banner.

It is suggested (from the hand and the banner) in A Fragmented Masterpiece that Duff’s first wife may have been a Scrymgeour “since the chief of Scrymgeour was and still is Hereditary Bannerman of Scotland”. However, there were vanishingly few Scrymgeours in this neck of the woods, and the bannerman suggestion is rather fanciful. To throw in an alternative, given that Duff was chamberlain to Lady Mey wife of the 4th Laird of Mey, Sir James Sinclair, it would be quite likely for him to have married some Sinclair relative. The arms of several branches of the Sinclair family, according to Fairnbairn’s Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland (fourth edition, volume 1, 1905) have a man bearing a banner, which isn’t quite right but is not a million miles away from a hand bearing a banner, particularly given how the stone carver got everything else wrong. Are we looking for a Katherine Sinclair?

Sinclair, of Stemster, Caithness-sh., Scotland, a man bearing a flag. Te duce gloriamur. 188.6
Sinclair, of Dunbeath, Caithness-sh., a man displaying a banner ppr. Te duce gloriamur. 188.6
Sinclair, Scotland, a demi-soldier displaying a banner ppr. Te duce gloriamur. 187.9

Initials are carved on the banner which are suggested in A Fragmented Masterpiece due to the different style of lettering to be an example of early graffiti. They are T.B. with a smaller and less deeply incised N underneath.

We are in the realms of conjecture with the first wife of Alexander Duff. But there is documentary evidence of his second (CV) and third (HV) wives. They were both Urquharts, and the family arms of three boarheads are presented in the third and fourth quarters of the shield on the memorial. But even here the stone carver went seriously wrong – we have many examples of the three boarheads of the Urquharts on memorials in Kirkmichael, Cullicudden, St Regulus and elsewhere – and I set out some below. They all have stylistic variations (you can play spot the difference) but the Hilton of Cadboll boarheads have been carved fundamentally incorrectly – they are facing the wrong way!



Second wife: Christian Urquhart

This is from the Calendar of Fearn, a collection of manuscripts originally from Fearn Abbey from the period 1471–1667 (edited by R.J. Adam, 1991):

357 The second of September 1660 Crestaine Wrquhart spouse to Alexander Duff and daughter to Alexander Wrquhart of St. Martins depairted at Catbol and was buried at Fearne the 4 of September.

We thus come back to the subjects of our related story, Alexander Urquhart of St Martins and Agnes Munro, which can be read here. Christian would have been born after the marriage of Alexander and Agnes in 1617 and before the death of Alexander in 1639, so sadly she would have been still a relatively young woman when she died in 1660.

Fearn Abbey is only a mile and a half or so from Cadboll Castle. Both are in Fearn Parish.

I think it safe to assume all three wives and Alexander Duff are buried in the same family lair at Fearn Abbey, which acted as the post-Reformation church for the area. In reality, she is the only one of the four (Alexander Duff, “KS”, Christian Urquhart and Helen Urquhart) whose burial location is known, thanks to the Calendar of Fearn. The Calendar does not mention any of the others being buried at Fearn, but it is very selective. The inscription of course reads “Heir lyes Alexander Dvf and his three wyves” but that is probably the least reliable source. But you would expect, once a family lair was in use, that the whole family would be buried there.

Which takes us back to that often-repeated question: if they were buried at Fearn, why was their memorial, the recycled Pictish stone, retained at Hilton of Cadboll? Archaeological investigations have revealed the base and the bottom section of the stone. It had snapped off twice, the second time in a storm in 1674. The chips from the masons preparing a new surface for its re-use in 1676 were also found. But despite it being prepared by the stone masons, it never left the site. And again that answer suggests itself of the carving perhaps being rejected by Alexander Duff because of its faults. Now, I have seen many stones which were poorly executed, but were nevertheless still considered acceptable to the family concerned. But given the status of Alexander Duff as Chamberlain of Lady Mey and with at least two of his wives being gentry, it is likely that the execution of this particular memorial was considered simply too poor. Alternatively, perhaps Duff wished it to be erected after his death, and his wishes were not followed through.

the base of the broken Hilton of Cadboll stone exposed for the first time in centuries in 2001 – the remarkable remainder of the side the rest of which was stripped away to become an unused memorial to Alexander Duff and his three wives. Attribution: Heather James (2009) Hilton of Cadboll [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]


Third wife: Helen Urquhart

Alexander Duff’s third wife, Helen Urquhart, was closely related to second wife Christian and we have already met her in our related story about Alexander Urquhart of St Martins. Helen was the daughter of Thomas Urquhart of Kinbeachie, the land of Kinbeachie lying immediately to the west of the land of St Martins in the parish of Cullicudden. The memorials of the Kinbeachie family in Cullicudden burial ground, and the story of the family, may be seen here. Helen had married first Hector Monro of Findone (Findon in turn lying to the west of Kinbeachie) in 1642, then Duncan Bayne of Logie Wester, Wester Kilmuir and Delny (who died, according to the Calendar of Fearn in 1659), and finally Alexander Duff. The first two marriages can be tracked via sasines RS37/7 folios 15 and 257. The third can be tracked by the Precept of Poinding included as item no. 280 in the Writs of Munro of Foulis.

Calendar of Writs of Munro of Foulis 1299–1823, Part 1 (edited by C.T. McInnes, 1938)
280. 1688, September 27. Precept of Poinding by Kenneth Earl of Seafort, sheriff-principal of the sheriffdom of Ross, and Sir Roderick McKenzie of Findon and Hugh Baillie of Kinmylies, his deputes, at the instance of Hector Munro of Kiltern, agains Hugh Munro, now of Swardell, as heir of deceased Hector Munro of Findon, his grandfather, for payment of 600 merks as annual-rents [interest] on 3,000 merks preceding Martinmas 1685, conform to (1) Marriage Contract betwixt said deceased Hector Munro of Findon and Helen Urquhart, then his spouse, now spouse of Alexander Duff, in Cadboll, chamberlain to Lady May, dated 1st June 1642, whereby the deceased Hector Munro bound himself to invest 3,000 merks in heritage for behoof of the survivor in liferent and their heirs in fee; (2) Assignation by said Helen Urquhart and Alexander Duff, her husband, dated 26th March, 1686, to John Bethun of Culnaskea of 600 merks annualrents due thereon preceding Martinmas 1685; (3) Translation thereof to said Hector Munro of Kiltern, dated 7th August, 1686, and (4) Decreet, dated 27th September, 1686, thereupon in his favour by said sheriff.

You can see from this precept that Alexander Duff and Helen Urquhart were both alive on 26 March 1686, and still residing in Cadboll, presumably in Cadboll Castle. The inscription on the Hilton of Cadboll stone is dated 1676 demonstrating, as was quite common at the time, that Alexander had organised his gravestone and his inscription in advance. We have several memorials in Kirkmichael where a space had been left for the family to enter a parental date of death, but which was never filled up!

A red herring was introduced by Henrietta Tayler and her brother Alistair in The Book of the Duffs (Tayler, A.N. and Tayler, H.A.H., volume 2, 1914, page 586):

Notes on the Family…
Also in the churchyard of Fearn, Ross-shire,
‘Live well and die well, said Solomon the Wise,         
Here lies Alexander Duff and his three wives.’

Some writers have, based on this entry, jumped to the conclusion that a second Alexander Duff slab exists at the churchyard of Fearn, with variant text, the Cadboll stone having been rejected. And they conclude that the memorial referred to by the Taylers at Fearn must be buried or eroded because it can’t be found.

I believe that while the slab at Hilton of Cadboll may well have been – and should have been – rejected, the note by the Taylers is simply another mistake. They made an inaccurate reference in passing to the inscription as one of many supplementary notes in their vast volume on the Duff family. Christian Duff ms Urquhart is known to have died at Cadboll and to have been buried at Fearn, and the Taylers therefore wrote “Fearn” as the location of the slab in error and used a simplified version of the epitaph which had been passed to them.

Nevertheless, that does not mean a second memorial does not exist. A detailed survey of gravestone inscriptions, including those buried under turf, has never been carried out at Fearn Abbey, and as it is a Scheduled Monument it is unlikely to be done in the near future. If a second memorial has survived, and is still readable, then it is likely to remain unrecorded under the turf.

Fearn Abbey; photo by Davine Sutherland

one of our trustees, Helma Reynolds, at Fearn Abbey; photo by Jim Mackay

The great Hugh Miller, a stone mason and skilful gravestone carver himself in his early days, visited the stone in Cadboll and in his Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1835) lamented the work of “some barbarous mason of Ross” (to be fair, he thought the mason had also broken down the slab when we know now a storm was responsible). His transcription doesn’t include some of the spelling idiosyncracies carved on the stone but is much more accurate than the modernised text of the Taylers’ version:



Who was Alexander Duff?

the appalling planning and mis-spelling of the name of the client

whose own signature was elegant and complex


Surprisingly, nobody seems to have carried out detailed research on who Alexander Duff was, despite his being memorialised for all time on a stone he never accepted. Jason Ubych at the Clan Ross Centre/Tain Museum did some work on Duff when researching a Facebook story on Cadboll Castle back a few years ago, but I am sure there will be much more about the origins of Alexander Duff in the great collection of Sinclair of Mey papers held in the National Records of Scotland. From a cursory examination of a handful of papers I can provide some initial findings.

The first time we meet Alexander Duff is in August 1642. He was a servant (“servitor”) of Simon Mackenzie of Lochslin, a brother of the first and second Earls of Seaforth, the most powerful men in the north. They resided in the Castle of Lochslin, close to Loch Eye in Easter Ross, and a short distance from Hilton of Cadboll. Nowadays Loch Slin has been drained and Lochslin Castle has collapsed. The last corner of the castle came down in 1953. But it was once a beautiful, imposing tower with striking bartisans, much like Castle Craig in the Black Isle.


photo courtesy of Tain Museum and Clan Ross Centre

In August 2023, the day after the fields adjacent to the site were harvested, several of us visited the site to see what remained. The land rises to where the castle stood, and one looks across the fields to nearby Loch Eye. Loch Slin, now drained, would have been much closer.

nettles and rank grass cover piles of shaped stones; photo by Jim Mackay using Davine’s camera

and a corner of part of this ancient castle still stands; photo by Davine Sutherland

Simon Mackenzie had estates and financial interests around the town of Dundee, and was often not in residence at Lochslin. Indeed, his most famous son, “Bluidy Mackenzie”, Lord Advocate George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, was born in Dundee in 1636. But Simon was there in Lochslin on 4 August 1642 to sign two important discharges to Sir James Sinclair of Canisbay or May. One was for a heritable bond containg a precept of sasine for 14,000 merks as part of the price of the Lands of Lochslin agreed between the two at 38,000 merks. The second was for payment of 20,000 merks due under a minute of contract drawn up earlier that year. These were substantial sums and the witnesses were many.

the famous memorial in Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh to George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1636–1691), scourge of the Covenanters; photo by Jim Mackay

GD96/667 item 71
I Simone McKenzie off Lochsline grants me to have received fra ye ryght worshipfull Sir James Sinclar of Canesbie knyght barronet ane heretable band co[n]teineing yrin ane precept of sesing for ye soume of fourteine thousand mks mo[ne]y as ane pairt of ye pryce of ye Lands of Lochsline of ye soume of threttie aught thousand mks mo[ne]y agreit one betuixt ye sd Sir James Sinclar and me … In witness qroff I have subscryved yir p[rese]nts writen be Donald Ros in Catbole At Lochsline ye fourthe day of August ye yeir of God Jaivi& fourtie and two yeirs Befor yir witness Alexr Duff Servitor to ye sd Simone McKenzie Laurenc Calder servitor to ye sd Sir James David Dunune in Ester … Notor publick and ye sd Donald Ros wryter heiroff [signed] S Mackenzie / Alexr Duff wittness / Laurence Caldell witnes / D Denune witnes / Donald Ros writer and witnes heiroff
Be it kend till all men be yir p[rese]nt letters me Simone Mckenzie of Lochsline for samekill as be vertewe of ane minute of contract past and endit betuix me and ye ryt worhipfull Sir James Sinclar of Canesbie Knight Barronet be ye qlk minute of contract the said Sir James Sinclar band and oblest him his airis and successors to have content payeit and delyverit to me my forsds the soume of tuentie thousand mks … In witness qroff I have subscryved yir p[rese]nts with my hand At Lochsline the fourth day of August Jaivi& fourtie and two yeirs Beffor thir witnesses Alexr Duff my servitor and Lawrencis Caldell servitor to ye sd Sir James Sinclar & Donald Ros writer heiroff and David Denune notr. publick [signed] S MacKenzie / Alexr Duff wittnes / Laurence Caldell witness / D Denune witness / Donald Ros writer and witnes hereoff

Sir James Sinclair, having acquired the lands of Lochslin from Seaforth’s brother, then acquired his servitor too! Alexander Duff was to transfer to the Sinclair family, serving them for the next 40 years. I think he may have already transferred by 1644 as Simon Mackenzie’s next discharge, for some dues from the tenants of Sir James, reads:

GD96/667 item 78
I Symone McKenzie brother german to Georg Earle of Seaffort grants me to have receavit fra the right wo[rshipful] Sir James Sinclar of Canesbe … In wittness wheirof I have subt thir presents with my hand At Lochslyne the ten day of August 1644 beffor thir wittnesses Allexr Duff Wm Mckenzie servitor to the said Symone [signed] S Mackenzie / Alexr Duff witnes / W Mckenzie witnes

site of Lochslin Castle (in red ellipse) surrounded by rich farmland; photo by Jim Mackay

It doesn’t say who was employing Alexander Duff at this time, but a significant discharge like this would usually be witnessed by a reliable party from both sides of the agreement. As we have William Mckenzie as a servitor of Simon Mackenzie acting as a witness, it is likely that Alexander Duff was acting as a party on the Sinclair side. It is tempting to hypothesise why he moved from service with Mackenzie of Lochslin to service with Sinclair of Mey – had he perhaps married a Sinclair relative?

He was certainly working for the Sinclairs by 1647, as Sir James on 2 March 1647 appointed him baron baillie (magistrate) in his baron court. This does not prove that Duff had a legal training but it certainly suggests it. The baron court appears to have been convened specifically to recover unpaid feu duties for years 1643 to 1646. All the feuers had been commanded to attend and the baillie fined those who did not turn up. He then went through the great and good to order them to pay up or be poinded. These included David Ros Clerk officer of Fearn for “ye half of the monestrie of Fearne possessed be him”, Thomas Ros of Priesthill for lands of Easter Fearn, George Ros of Ballamuckie for lands of Ballamuckie and Andrew Ros sometime provost of Tain for Wester Cadboll. I see that as part of his feu duties, Walter Innes of Inverbreakie who held three oxgate lands of Midganyes had to supply peat to the “Castell off Catboll”.

GD96/585 Proceedings of the baron court of half of the barony of Ganies (Geanies) held at Catboll (Cadboll) by Sir James Sinclair of Cannesby (Canisbay). 2/3/1647
The sd day the said Sr James hes nominat Alexr Duff his Bailzie Walter Douglas no[ta]r his clerk Alexr Tod his officer who are sworne pro fideli…

Now working for Sinclair of Mey, he was given powers later in that year of 1647 by Alexander Cuthbert burges of Inverness (and later provost of Inverness) to discharge Sir James Sinclair of Canisbay for having provided barley (“bear”) to Cuthbert (GD96/667 Alexander Duff in Lochsline to Sir James Sinclair of Cannesbie). The merchants of Inverness and Cromarty were ready purchasers of Caithness grain. The Cuthbert and Duff families of Inverness were closely entwined and there was another connection through the Urquhart family – John Urquhart of Kinbeachie had married Isobel Cuthbert of Inverness.

half of the John Urquhart/Isobel Cuthbert slab re-purposed as a wall panel in Cullicudden graveyard; photo by Jim Mackay

I Allexr Duff in Lochsline having power and commissione from Allexr Cuthbert burges of Invnes to grant ane dischairge to Sr James Sinclair of Connesbie upon suche victuall as I shall receave frome the said Sr James Sinclar his tennents in the said Allexr Cuthberts name, be vertue of ane factorrie granted to me of the deat at Invnes the sevent day of Apryll Jaivi& fourtie sevin yeirs I grants me to have receavit the nomber & quantitie of fourtein scoir twell bolls thrie firloits victuall good & sufficient as bear of the crop Jaivi& fourtie sex yeirs … wrettin be Williame Clark servitor to the sd Sr James Sinclair at Lochsline the sext day of Julie Jaivi& fourtie sevine yeirs Befor thir witness Mr Andrew Ross and the said Wm Clark servitor to the said Sr James

Whilst he may have had a factory from Alexander Cuthbert for this responsibility, his title was now Chamberlain to the young Sir William Sinclair of Canisbay and Mey, son of baronet Sir James Sinclair and Elizabeth Leslie. That is how he signed himself in 1651 when acting as witness to a bond (GD96/665 Archibald Urquhart, merchant, Cromertie, to William Sinclair, yr, of May). This required Archibald Urquhart, an otherwise un-recorded merchant burges of Cromarty, to pay “Sir William Sinclair younger of May the soume of thrie thousand pundis Scottis money and yt as the pryce of five hundreth bolls beir cropt Jaivi& fyftie yeirs qlk the said Sr William is to delyver at Caithnes … In witnes whereof I have written and subscryvit yr pnts at Lochsline the sevinteine day of May Jaivi& fyftie ane yeirs Befor yr witnesses Mr John Baine wrytter … and Alexander Duff chamerland to ye said Sr William Sinclair”. I gather from the paperwork that Archibald was slow to pay. Alexander Duff as chamberlain was seen as completely trustworthy. Sir James wrote to his son early in 1652 with some important writs and stresses that the letter must be delivered either into the hands of his son or to Alexander Duff:

looking from Loch Eye across the land around the drained Loch Slin and the site of Lochslin Castle; photo by Andrew Dowsett

GD96/673/51 17 January 1652 Letter from Sir Jas Sinclair to his son Wm Sinclair Fiar of Mey
For his lovinge son William Sinclair fier of Meye Theis to be delyvered in his owen hand be Mr Androw Forrester with the former paket seinge the wretes ar of importance or to Alexander Duff in Lochslin

On 17 August 1652, while at Lochslin, he provided a receipt to Andrew Denune and Donald Ross for having paid the sum of 232 merks, and on 27 May 1653 he provided a receipt to his employer “Sr Wm Sinclar of Canesby all & heall the soume off tua hundreth pounds … ilk soume aboune wryttine I am to give true acompt yrof wt my intromissions of the cropt Jaivi& fiftie & tua years subct wt my hand at Lochsline the 27 of May 1652” (GD96/667).

Sir James died later in that year of 1652, on 20 November (GD96/602; note that various websites suggest he died in 1662 but the documentary evidence is quite clear). Upon the death of Sir James, various inventories of the family possessions were drawn up. One of these sets out the furnishings in the Sinclairs’ Lochslin residence, presumably Lochslin Castle, leased from Mackenzie of Lochslin. It even describes the best bed there!

inventory of Sir Wm Sinclair of Canesby Knight baronet … Item the best bed w[hi]lk is the yellow bed in Lochsline wt all the pendicles belonging yrto…

The following year (1654) a legal action of lawburrows raised by William Sinclair of Latheron puts on notice Sir William, his mother Elizabeth Leslie, Alexander Duff as Sir William’s chamberlain and many other servants and all his tenants. Lawburrows in a civil action allows a pursuer to require the defender to make a deposit of money as a guarantee they will not harm the pursuer. If the pursuer is later harmed by the defender, the deposit is forfeit and is split between the court and the pursuer. The actual issue seems to involve the moss of “Rainy and Pitcarie” (Rhynie and Pitkerrie) so I imagine that it was one of these cases where tenants and mailers of one estate were being interrupted in gathering fuel from disputed commonty moorland by representatives of another estate. The listing puts Alexander into the context of others in the Sinclair hierarchy.

Lawburrowes Sinclar and uthers agst Sinclar and uthers 1654
[20 July 1654] Sir Wm Sinclar of Mey Knight Dame Elizabet Lesly Ladie Mey his mother Alexr Duff his chamberland Wm Sinclar in Cadboll his greive James Leslie his servitor Alexr Ross his Cooke Jon Roy officer in Lochslin Rorie Mckenzie ther Alexr Tod in Catboll …

Not surprisingly the Sinclair correspondence often references Alexander, and here are a couple of short mentions which illustrate his role. Note that from these the Lady May was still residing in Lochslin in 1656, but would move to Cadboll Castle a few years later along with Alexander Duff.

GD96/673 item 81 [from merchant James Dundas]
21 February 1656 Right wo[rship]full … I haird no word from Alexr Duff annent his provyding any aits [oats], bot I have wrytt now to him

GD96/673 item 82
22 February 1656 to the Laird of Mey
Dear and Loveing Sone … I have caused Allex Duff to wryt to James Dundas to devert ane boat heir the beginyng off Apryll for 24 oats or moir iff he can spear it … Youre affectionat mother till death / Elisabethe Leslie / Lochslin the 22 of Febri 1656

Lochslin survives now in the name of Lochslin Farm; photo by Jim Mackay

Another letter from the following year is from Alexander Duff himself. He writes from Lochslin to William Sinclair of Canesby and portions of his seal are still attached. It would be interesting to macro photograph these parts, fit them together and see if he used the “buck’s head” (as carved on the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone) on his seal as well. I have to say his idiosyncratic writing style is challenging, but this is what I have picked out from his letter.

GD96/673 item 92 29 September 1657 from Alexander Duff at Lochslin to Wim Sinclair of Canesby… I recevit your Letter from Mackbeath about the midel of Agust last I delyvered the decreit to your Lady yt tyme As she was at Chanorie … It is but only against the tenentrie It was Laid be great deficultie … and Charge of areastment of aucht thusand mrks money qch is cum to my hands … I have leat Pitnilie for thrie yeires to …ames Ros … at the full fearme wtout any deductions but Love & kyndness … this day yr was a great metting of all the shyre annent a new valuation … proquired be Lauchlen Mckintosh In behalf of his father sister I have beine much perplexed wt them … no foarder for the tyme but remeaine yours hu. servant / to my por. / Alexr Duff / Lochsline the 29 of Sepr 1657

The Sinclair family arrangements were to change, and Alexander’s along with them. By 2 September 1660 Alexander Duff and his family had moved from Lochslin to reside in Cadboll, as on that date, as we have already seen, his second wife, Christian Urquhart “depairted at Catbol and was buried at Fearne the 4 of September.”

A discharge written in his own hand dated 13 August 1664 doesn’t name his residence as he wrote it whilst in Fearn:

GD96/673/667 Discharges
13 August 1664 discharge Allexr Johnston & Sr Wim Sinclair of May … Alexander Duff wryter hereof … at Fearne the thirteenth day of Agust jaivi& sextie foure yeires

But he was certainly residing at Cadboll in 1665 as he is described as “Allexr Duff in Catboll” in that year. In GD96/666 there is a document signed at Mey on 6 June 1665 whereby Sir William Sinclair gives him the power of assignee to recover money from one David Ross in Tain.

I Sr William Sinclair off Mey Baronat be thir pnts makes constituts and assignes Allexr Duff in Catboll My Assignay in and to the soume off fourscor punds Scotis money as principall and off twenty fyve punds off penaltey contined in ye sd band granted to me be umqll David Ross notor burges off Taine or his airs qtsomever off ye dait ye tuenty third day of Agust Jaivi& sexty four yeirs and to ye @rent off ye said pncll soume from the dait off ye saids band the prncsll soume rent & expenses off the same

Hilton of Cadboll from the path to the Hilton of Cadboll Stone; photo by Jim Mackay

Whilst he had been Chamberlain to Sir William Sinclair now of Canisbay and Mey, he had by 1665 become instead Chamberlain to Sir William’s mother, the widowed Lady Mey. She was Elizabeth Leslie, Lady Canisbay and Mey, the wife of the late Sir James Sinclair Baronet, I of Canisbay and IV of Mey. A liferent of Cadboll had been put in place for her, as referenced in several documents within the Mey papers including this one:

Inhibition at the instance of Patrick Smyth of Braco against Sir William Sinclair of May, following on contract, dated 4 June 1659, whereby the lands of Catbo (reserving a liferent to Elizabeth Leslie) and the lands of Lochsline etc., were disponed to the complainer. Dated 19/7/1661

Thus, when her husband Sir James died in 1652, Elizabeth Lady Mey was still entitled to the revenues from the lands of Cadboll for the remainder of her life. Alexander Duff had been put in place as her Chamberlain, collecting her revenues from Cadboll and her other lands in Easter Ross and no doubt looking after the running of Cadboll Castle as well, with Sir William now residing at the Castle of Mey in Caithness.

the remains of Cadboll Castle, beside Glenmorangie House; photo by Davine Sutherland

painting of remnant of Cadboll Castle by Mrs Johan Sutherland

In the year 1665 Alexander Duff, his employer Lady Mey, the Laird of Mey and several other prominent folk in the area were in serious trouble for not paying their official contributions to repair the church and churchyard dyke at Tain. From MacGill (as MacGill uses square brackets for his own notes, my own notes are in curly brackets):

No. 75, 1665.– Council’s warrant of apprehension.] Charles . . King &c . . . showin to us be Mr John Dallas minister of Tane and Walter Hay . . . collector . . . that the persones afternamed war . . denunced rebells and put to the horne . . . for not payment making to him . . of the soumes after-specifyit . . . viz. Dam Elizabeth Leslay, The Laird of Mey [Sir William Sinclair {son of Sir James Sinclair}], Alexr. Duf chamberlaine to the Ladie Mey, Andw. Ferne of Laugh Shin of £141 4sh. Scots, David Fearne of Tarloggie £72 12s {several more} and that for building and repairing off the parische Kirk of Taine and kirkyeard dyke yroff conforme to ye act of parlt. lres of horning . . charge given . . and stenting . . and stent roll . . horning and executione . . . . Under ye whilk horne ye fornamed pesones, rebelles have conteanuallie lyen and abidden since and yit daylie hant . . . and resort to kirke mercats and yr privat and publick places . . as iff they war ffrie subjects . . . in . . contempt of our authoritie . . . . we charge you . . . the sheriffs, provest and bailzeis . . . . seek tak and apprehend the fornamed persones . . . to keep . . . . within the tolbuith and . . . remaintheir own proper charges . ay and till they . . obay . . iff neid beis ye mak sicker and lockfast doors and use our keis yrto . . . . At Edinburgh the 20th of Jany. 1665. George Dallas.

Heritors were usually reluctant to pay out to repair church buildings. When you read Presbytery records for the North of Scotland, you keep coming across cases where the Presbytery had to resort to threatening or even implementing legal action to force heritors to discharge their legal duty to maintain their kirks and kirkyards.

I imagine that eventually Mey and Duff and the others paid up having played their game of brinkmanship.

Our final view of Alexander Duff is in 1686. From the Munro of Foulis writ previously mentioned, there was an assignation by said Helen Urquhart and Alexander Duff, her husband, dated 26th March, 1686, to John Bethun of Culnaskea of 600 merks annualrents. He is described in this writ as “Alexander Duff, in Cadboll, chamberlain to Lady May.” This is the last mention I have found of him in the records.


Are there records of children to Alexander Duff and his three wives?

1. John
The marriage register of the parish of Logie Easter, just along from the parish of Fearn, has an entry:

Parish of Logie Easter Marriages
the 29 March 1693
That day handfasted John Duf in Catboll within the paroch of Fearne & Isobell Ross in Pitmaduthie and hes oblidged them to accomplysh the honorable band of matrimony and to marrie betuixt this dait and @ the last of Apryll next to come

The cautioner for John Duff was Andrew Ross in Pitmaduthy and the cautioner for Isobell was John Ross her father. I think it very likely that this John Duff in Cadboll would be a son of Alexander Duff in Cadboll.

2. Alexander
The parish of Fearn includes Hilton of Cadboll, so the Kirk Session of Fearn was the relevant moral monitoring body. Within MacGill there is an intriguing entry involving the Kirk Session which suggests that the son of Alexander and one of his three wives was a bit of a libertine:

No. 81, 1680.– … List of the persons that wer fined be the minister and elders of the session of Fearne since ( ) 1674 for the causes after specifiet:– … Alexr. Duff yor. for relapse of forn., £6 13s 4d. …

Accusations of fornication unfortunately tended to arise when it became apparent that an unmarried lady was pregnant, and here we have Alexander Duff “yor.” which I take to be an abbreviation of “younger” getting at least two girls in trouble sometime between 1674 and 1680 – and not paying the fine for his conduct.

3. Hugh?
Other than John and the libidinous Alexander, I cannot see other records of likely children. A Hugh Duff, born in Ross-shire, became the well-regarded minister of Fearn in 1698 (he died in 1739), but the editors of the Fasti clearly were unable to identify his parents. He may have been another son, and if so his progeny are identified in the Fasti for those wishing to pursue the family further.


Duff of Muirton – and Drumcudden

Looking further afield, the Chamberlain to the Bishop of Ross in 1670 was a George Duff, and the Chamberlain of the Earldom of Ross in the 1670s/1680s was a William Duff, but I have no idea if either was connected to Alexander Duff, Chamberlain of Sir William Sinclair and Lady Mey, although it seems likely. Chamberlain William Duff went on to become the Provost of Inverness and Duff of Muirton. The son of the provost, Alexander Duff, purchased the estate of Drumcudden, adjacent to St Martins where several generations earlier Alexander Urquhart of St Martins and Agnes Munro resided, and so, having come a complete circle, this is a good point to end.


replica by Barry Grove of the remaining side of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, in situ at Cadboll; photo by Jim Mackay

replica by Barry Grove of what the cross side of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone probably looked like before it was chipped off to form a memorial for Alexander Duff and his three wives; photo by Jim Mackay


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