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

1738 Donald Matheson and Margery Davidson, and the Davidson connections with Kirkmichael

text by Dr Jim Mackay; photography as annotated


It was lucky that Donald Matheson was indisposed and his wife Margery Davidson in consequence had to give evidence at the judicial rental, as otherwise there would be no Story to tell about the smart slab in Kirkmichael that bears the simple inscription “1738 / DONALD / MATHESON / MARGERY / DAVIDSON”.

Margery joins that exclusive small club of people who are commemorated on more than one stone at Kirkmichael – and one of those commemorations is in a most unusual place. But I shall come back to that…

photo: Davine Sutherland

There is little in the records about the couple – a solitary entry in the baptism register copied from the original mouldering register by the Reverend Donald Sage himself:

Parish of Resolis Baptism Register
1749 … Matheson Feby 19th Dond Matheson tenant in Cullicudden & Mazrie Davidson his Spouse had a child bapd named – William

And that was it. There were various references to Donald Mathesons in the records, but no way to tell if they were Margery Davidson’s husband. And then I came across the following entry in the October 1762 Judiciall Rental of the Newhall Estate.

Marjory Davidson Spouse to Donald Mathieson Tenant in Cullicudden (unable to attend by reason of Indisposition) – no subtenants or cottars except his own Daughter who is marryed to John Fraser their Servant

Well, it was unfortunate for Donald, but tremendous good fortune for those curious about the family. You couldn’t ask for anything better to place them. Well done Margery in even including some family detail. John Fraser had in fact married Isobel, the daughter of Donald and Margery, earlier that year:

Parish of Resolis Marriage Register
29 May 1762 John Fraser son to Alexander Fraser in Culbow & Isobel Matheson daughter to Donald Matheson smith in Cullicudden

photo: Kirsty Mackay

photo: Andrew Dowsett

Donald Matheson thereby is revealed to be a smith as well as tenant, not an unusual combination for the time. And now that we know Donald was both smith and tenant another couple of entries are revealed to be about his children:

Parish of Resolis Marriage Register
25 May 1750 Alexr Alan taxman in Sintmartins & Elin Matheson daughter to Donald Matheson tenent in Cullicudden
20 Jun 1760 Thomas Fraser son to William Fraser meler Bog Cullicudden & Isobel Matheson daughter to Donald Matheson smith Cullicudden

I don’t see that second couple having any children in the records, and I wonder if there was a mistake in the marriage register as it is unlikely that Donald Matheson had two living daughters named Isobel! The first couple, however, had several children, one of them given the name, rare but not surprising in the context, of Margery (always written by Sage as Mazrie):

Parish of Resolis Baptism Register
25 August 1752 Alexr. Allan tenant St Martins & Helen [blank] – Annie
27 September 1754 Alexander Allan tenant St Martins & Helen Matheson – Mazrie
22 October 1758 Alexander Alan tenent Litle Findon in the parish of Urquhart Ferintoish & Helen Matheson – Margret

Alexander and Helen can be followed in the records of the adjacent parish of Urquhart and Ferintosh, where they continued to have children, the last recorded being in 1775 when the family were located at “the Shoar of Findon”.

Now, Donald Matheson was too ill to attend the Judicial Rental in 1762 himself. We know he had in fact died by 1767 as when his daughter Marjory married that year he was said to be “deceast”:

Parish of Resolis Marriage Register
1 May 1767 Donald Murray son to the late deceased John Murray tennant in Culbo & Marjory Matheson daughter to the late deceast Donald Matheson tennant in Cullicudden

This couple then had quite a few children themselves and a whole family history could be pursued (but I won’t):

Parish of Resolis Baptism Register
2 August 1768 Donald Murray tenent in Cullicudden & Marjory Matheson – John
31 July 1769 Donald Murray taxman in Cullicudden & Marjory Matheson – Jean
3 April 1772 Donald Murray tennant in Cullicudden & Marjory Matheson – Marjory
27 July 1775 Donald Murray tennant in Cullecudden & Marjory Matheson – Donald
7 November 1785 Donald Murray farmer in Cullicudden & Marjory Matheson – Thomas


Donald Matheson – an honest man

Our earliest glimpse of Donald Matheson is back in 1741, when the Reverend Thomas Inglis was the minister of the united parish of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden, later to be called Resolis. There was concern over the condition of Cullicudden Church and a visitation by the Presbytery and the heritors, whom the Presbytery would pursue to pay for repairs, was called.

only the Aisle of Ardullie of Cullicudden Church now remains standing; photo: Andrew Dowsett

and here is yrs trly in front of the Aisle of Ardullie during a Kirkmichael Trust guided tour of Cullicudden; photo: Verity Walker Eley

Presbytery of Chanonry Minutes, at Cullicudden, 16 June 1741
The Presbytery considering that this dyet was appointed for Visitation of the Church of Cullicudden delayed reading the minutes of their ordinary affairs, & appointed the Minute relative to that affair to be read which was done accordingly.
Because of Mr Inglis’s concern in this affair the Presbytery made choice of Mr Campbell to be their Moderator pro tempore who accordingly took his seat.
Then Mr Inglis being interrogated anent Serving the Edict for the said Visitation reported his diligence thereanent, as also Donald Holm Presbytery officer in that part being interrogate gave in execution bearing that he had according to Appointment cited to this dyet Kenneth Clark in Cullboakie & John Clark in Invergordon Wrights, Andrew & Sanders Mackenzies Masons, as also Richard Millar Thomas Urquhart & Donald Mathison honest men in the parish, Then the Presbytery caused call the Heritors of the parish whereupon compeared Sr Roderick McKenzie of Scatwall, Mr Gowrie [John Gorry] factor to Sr William Gordon of Invergordon, Thomas Urquhart of Kinbeachie, Alixander McKenzie of Culbo The said Thomas Urquhart of Kinbeachie declared that he was impowered by William Duff of Drumcudden to appear for him at this dyet of Visitation for which he produced Mandate from the said Mr Duff which being considered was sustained, As also Hugh Murray Tacksman in the parish gave in a Mandate to him from Archibald Geddes to appear for him at this dyet which being likewise considered was sustained– compeared likewise Rorie Mackinzie Wadesetter of a part of the lands of Brea, the foresaid tradesmen & honest men likewise being called compeared.
Then the Presbytery with the Heritors tradesmen & honest men foresaid went to inspect the Church to know what reparation was needfull, & for Wright work it was found necessary that there should be a new roof, & for Mason work, that there should be new wall all over, The Presbytery finding that there is so much reparation necessary as cannot possibly be overtaken this season, they therefore did appoint the Heritors to oblige their Tenants to thatch this Church of Cullicudden, so as that it may accomodate the parish for this insueing year, & in the mean time referred what was further necessary towards the said reparation to the next meeting of Presbytery.

the Reverend Thomas Inglis is commemorated both on the wall memorial being shown during this guided tour of Cullicudden, and on the graveslab at my feet, under which he is buried; photo: Verity Walker Eley

Note the honest men in the parish who were asked to attend: Richard Millar (an Elder of long standing), Thomas Urquhart (father of Newhall’s future factor, Kenneth Urquhart) and Donald Matheson. All three now feature in this Story behind the Stone series. Memorials can be expected for families of their standing, whilst the great majority of people were buried without any stone to commemorate them.

The Richard Miller story is found here

The story of Thomas Urquhart is found within this tale about his son, Kenneth, here

It is more than a decade before honest man Donald Matheson crops up in the records again, this time in the 1755 Newhall Rentals:

Newhall Rental 1755 (SC24/16/3)
Hugh Murray
Mr Hector McPhail
John Holm ferryer (includes rent for Ferry Boat)
Donald Matheson
John Murray

His land was therefore close to where the minister of the time, the famous Reverend Hector McPhail, resided in Cullicudden. Thomas Inglis had died back in 1747, and Hector McPhail had been admitted as the new minister in 1748. At this time the ministers of the united parish resided on their Cullicudden glebe, and farmed their Kirkmichael glebe at a distance. Hector McPhail clearly had rented some land at Cullicudden, presumably adjacent to his glebe, from the Newhall Estate as well. The glebe itself belonged to the Church.

The same geographical listing of tenants could be seen seven years later in 1762, but by this time Hector McPhail was farming the land at Resolis in advance of the new central church being built there. When that occurred, the two glebes at Cullicudden and Resolis were swopped with the acquiescence of the Newhall Estate with one new one at Resolis. McPhail by this time had given up the land at Cullicudden which he had rented from the Newhall Estate.

Newhall Rentall 1762
Hugh Murray Tenant
Mr Hector Macphail now Jno Murray Junr
Donald MathesonJohn Murray

As we have seen from the Judicial Rental of that year, Donald Matheson was ill and Marjory Davidson presented evidence at this formal proceeding on his behalf.

Donald’s name also crops up in the Freeholders of County (Cromarty) Minute Book 1765-1768 (Highland Archives CRC/1/3/3/2) when the valuations of the different estates were the subject of much debate and judicial challenge. Sir John Gordon of Invergordon was battling with the richest man in Britain, Lord Pulteney, to become M.P. for Cromartyshire. Land could be artificially broken up to create more votes, so all sorts of dubious assignations of land could be found:

… A Disposition and assignation dated [10 Oct 1765] by the said Sir John Gordon to and in favours of the said Mr. Robert Blair in Liferent and the said James Hay in fee … All and whole the Town and Lands of Craighouse, Cullicudden, Toberchurn and Woodhead with the fish boats and houses, and which haill lands of Cullicudden are possest by Hugh Murray, Donald Matheson, John Murray, John Simpson, Senior, John Simson, Junior, Donald Thomas, John Murray Senr., John Holme and William Taylor Tenents and by Twelve mailers or others in their vice with the parsonage Teinds & other Teinds great and small as well parsonage as Viccarrage of the foresaid Lands Together with the houses biggings yards woods, fishings, mosses, muirs, parts, pendicles and whole pertinents of the said Lands All lying within the united parishes of Kirkmichael and Cullicudden and Shire of Cromarty, all which Lands and others are part of those contained in the aforesd. Charter in favours of the said Sir John Gordon

Those Parts & Portions of Cullicudden possessed by H. Murray & D. Matheson 105.11.2
Those Parts of sd. lands of Cullicudden possessed by J. Simpson Senr. & J. Simpson Junr. & Donald Thomson 98.18.3
Those parts of sd. Lands of Cullicudden possessed by J. Murry Senr. J. Holm & Wm. Taylor with 12 Mailers Crofts 77.10.10

Donald Matheson, smith and tenant at Cullicudden, thus died between 1765 and 1767, and given the wording of the May 1767 reference (“late deceast”) I think at that time he was recently deceased. Why was he buried in Kirkmichael rather than Cullicudden where he had long resided? This situation often arose where the family over the generations were associated with a district and owned a family burial area in the local graveyard. However, Mathesons tended to be associated with the neighbouring parish of Urquhart rather than Kirkmichael, so I think the solution lies in the origins of his wife, Marjory Davidson.

A few paces north of the slab at Kirkmichael is a Claymore slab dated 7 February 1609 commemorating Donald Davidsone miller in Kinbeachie, and beside that lies another old Davidson slab, once an ornate medieval cross but with the top carved layer removed to provide a surface for a new inscription.

1609 Claymore slab commemorating Donald Davidsone miller in Kinbeachie; photo: Andrew Dowsett

the close location of the two early Davidson stones, one an original Claymore slab, the other a re-used medieval cross; photo: Andrew Dowsett

medieval ornate cross with top layer of carving removed (leaving the stone bowed) and replaced with Davidson family initials; photo: Andrew Dowsett

And to the east we have a slab with crossed swords with initials “DD MH” which we believe belong to Donald Davidson tacksman of Wester Drumcudden who married Margaret Hood in 1686. And we have quite a number of slabs where the wives were Davidsons. These Davidsons were clearly a family of substance, and despite their Cullicudden tenancies had their burial lairs in Kirkmichael. We cannot tell for sure, of course, but I would be minded to think that our “Donald Matheson Margery Davidson” slab is located in Kirkmichael due to this strong Davidson connection.

our crossed swords slab; the only family matching these initials is that of Donald Davidson tacksman of Wester Drumcudden and Margaret Hood; photo: Andrew Dowsett

And the “1738” on the Donald Matheson/Margery Davidson slab? The date on these early slabs accompanying sets of initials can reflect when a lair was purchased, or when a stone was laid, or the death of a child which triggered the need for the location to be identified with the initials of the couple. In some cases it is quite apparent that the memorial was purchased when a couple were financially secure, as they might end their days on the poor’s roll, when nothing as splendid as a good quality gravestone could be expected. In the case of Donald Matheson and Margery Davidson the date I think simply represents the year when the lair was inherited, or the stone purchased, perhaps not long into their marriage.


Margery Davidson once more – but on a broken fragment

And now, a surprising piece of the jigsaw.

On 15 August 2020, when we were recording a buried memorial slab in the centre of Kirkmichael, George noted that the foundation slab of the Urquhart shoemaker headstone he was working beside had some letters carved on it. He cleared away the soil and, astonishingly, enough of the inscription was visible to distinguish the name. The other volunteers clustered round.

photo: Andrew Dowsett

photo: Andrew Dowsett


photo: Andrew Dowsett

The tops of the letters forming the Christian name had been lost, and the left hand portions of both Christian and surname had also been hacked off, but the rest was easily distinguished. It read:


photo: Andrew Dowsett

We cleared the turf and soil around the rest of the headstone but no other text was visible. I think from the position of the name, if there was text lower on the stone then some evidence of it would have been seen. “MARGERY / DAVIDSON” was therefore the last part of the inscription. We hope the section above her name will appear, perhaps as the foundation slab of another headstone.

The only Margery Davidson we could find in the records was she who married Donald Matheson, but they had their own memorial in Kirkmichael. And then we noted that that memorial was in fact very close to where this headstone foundation was located! Had an earlier slab commemorating Marjory Davidson been broken and replaced with this slab? Or was this an earlier Margery Davidson whose slab had been ruthlessly annexed to serve as the base for an Urquhart shoemaker? Whichever, the two stones carrying the name of Margery Davidson must be linked in some way!

Location of the two Margery Davidson stones; photo: Kirsty Mackay

Composite picture demonstrating there was no further text lower on the broken slab. The middle of the slab, width-wise, would be about the G of Margery; photos: Jim Mackay

My tentative view is that an earlier slab put in place to commemorate the couple was replaced by a much smarter slab with a fine chamfer and bordering line, rather than the rough sandstone slab previously in place.

The distance between the two Margery Davidson stones in reality might once have been even closer. This emerges from another curious feature of the 1738 Donald Matheson Margery Davidson stone – it lies on top of another slab! And I think it is the Urquhart shoemakers who once again were responsible. When burying the member of the family commemorated by the small scroll seen in the above picture, they had the inconvenience of an old slab in the way. I think they simply shoved it sideways to clear space regardless of the fact that it now sits on top of another slab! The next task will be to lift the top slab to see what lies below…

a challenge for the gravestone recorder; photo: Jim Mackay


Appendix – tackling the challenge

On 10 October 2020 (10.10.2020!) the Kirkmichael Volunteers did indeed lift the top slab. We checked first to see if there was text, and when that was confirmed moved it to one side. We consider it is now sitting where it probably was before the workers creating space for the Urquhart burial shifted it on top of the neighbouring Matheson stone. And it did indeed prove to be a Matheson originally. It is quite sharply tapering towards the base, always an indicator of a very old stone. There are three different sets of names on it. First there is an “Alexr Mathson’ whom it originally commemorated. Then there is “IH IB / 1806” which we have seen on several stones, and marks the stones of John Holm and Isobel Barnet. John Holm was a feuar at Chapelton and farmed at various times at Auchmartin and Ferryton. He laid a claim to four stones in Kirkmichael in an entry in the Resolis church records, and this is one of them. For more on John see our Story “H is for Holm”. His mother was a Matheson, so I imagine that is why he ended up claiming this particular stone and placing his and Isobel Barnet’s initials on it.

So far the inscription on the buried stone is easy enough to interpret. But the third entry is more difficult. It simply reads “David Fraser / Cathrine Holm” and there is no couple in the records named thus, in a period when such a couple would be in the records! The most reasonable explanation is that the Cathrine Holm commemorated is simply Catherine (1791–1870), the daughter of John Holm and Isobel Barnet above, who married Alexander Fraser in 1823. Alexander died young, and Catherine resided with her son David Fraser for a long time. Could there have been some confusion when these modern names were added, and the son’s name was added instead of the father’s?

I have to say that those Urquhart shoemakers were very disruptive of the Matheson burial area. One Matheson slab was smashed, and part of it utilised to support one of the Urquhart headstones, and another Matheson slab was dumped on top of a third Matheson slab to create space in front of the headstone. This is taking pragmatism to a new level.

the challenge is self-evident; photo: Jim Mackay

the Kirkmichael Gantry is deployed; photo: Andrew Dowsett

the slab is rotated to allow access to the slab below; photo: Andrew Dowsett

always exciting to clear the soil to see the inscription below; photo: Andrew Dowsett

the whole slab is cleaned; photo: Andrew Dowsett

as we have found an inscription, we decide to shift the slab onto the grass to the north; photo: Andrew Dowsett

three different family groups are apparent; photo: Andrew Dowsett

the “Alexr. Mathson” inscription confirms that it was indeed a Matheson stone originally; photo: Andrew Dowsett

the small x between John Holm and Isobel Barnet is a lovely touch; photo: Andrew Dowsett

the two Matheson stones lying beside each other after more than a century on top of each other; photo: Davine Sutherland


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