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

Hugh Ferguson of Inverbreakie Ferry and Balblair Ferry Inn, and Janet McKenzie his wife

text by Dr Jim Mackay; photography as annotated


This is the story of Hugh Ferguson and Janet Mackenzie who ran the Balblair Ferry Inn for many years. Hugh was the tacksman of the land around Balblair and of the Balblair to Invergordon ferry itself, known historically as the Inverbreakie Ferry. He was involved in several entertaining episodes which throw a light on the life of innkeeper and ferryman in those days.

postcard image of Balblair Ferry Pier, with the ferry boat coming in from Invergordon from the other side of the Cromarty Firth; postmark 1905

The headstone commemorating Hugh and Janet had lain flat on its face for fifty years. I recall recording it back in the 1980s with some difficulty – I had to use wooden props (fence posts!) to lift it high enough to transcribe the inscription. The Trust had it re-erected professionally by Hood’s of Dingwall along with many other fallen memorials during the restoration of Kirkmichael. The stone when re-erected proved to be a handsome one, literally with bells on. It did look a bit grubby, having lain flat down in the soil for half a century, with some rodent’s tunnel clearly marked on the surface. We have since washed it!

Taken in 2016 before the restoration works began; photo: Jim Mackay

And in 2017 after erection by Hood’s; photo: Jim Mackay

photo: Jim Mackay


Part of a small buried plaque was recovered when the headstone was re-erected, and there was enough of the inscription remaining to allow us to identify who was being commemorated. It proved to be Isabella, a daughter of Hugh and Janet, and a story “The Broken Shield – the Life of Isabella Ferguson (1832–1922)” may be found here.

The broken plaque commemorating Isabella Ferguson; photo by Andrew Dowsett

Isabella Ferguson (1832–1922); photo courtesy of Lisa Lamb



Early days

Hugh was born in 1781, the youngest child of George Ferguson, smith in Balblair, and Jean Robertson alias Rapson. There are six of their children recorded in the baptism register (Donald (1761–); Christian (1763–); Robert (1771–); Jeane (1776–); Hellen (1778–1858) and Hugh (1768–1864)), with the father recorded as a smith on each occasion. I think there may have been a George born as well, but not recorded in the baptism register.

We don’t know much about the young Hugh Ferguson. He first appears in the 1798 Militia List of adult males aged between 15 and 60 years at Chapelton, Balblair, as “Hugh Ferguson Servt.” at the same location as “Dond. Ferguson, Ferryer” presumably his oldest brother.

His next appearance is similarly in the September 1814 Resolis Militia List of adult males aged 17 to 45. Intriguingly, in the intervening period Hugh had been serving in the Easter Ross Local Militia as he was excused from balloting in the Resolis Militia selection for that reason:

Balblair … Hugh Ferguson ferrier x >30 [reason for exemption] Dis from E. Ross Local Militia

It must have been a few years after this that Hugh married Janet Mackenzie, although the exact date is not known. This was during the final period of the Reverend Robert Arthur’s tenure as minister of Resolis when record-keeping in the parish reached its nadir. There were only a handful of marriages recorded during this period. The first baptism of a child to the couple occurred in 1818 which would suggest a marriage perhaps in 1817, but we cannot be sure. Hugh would have been fairly mature by this time, having been born in 1781. Janet was much younger, having been born, in Knockbain, in 1797.

Over a long period, the couple had the following children, Hugh being recorded in all of these baptisms as either ferrier or tacksman at Balblair: George (1818–), Jane (not in the baptism register but c1820–1907), William (1820–), Helen (1823–), Hugh (1825–1866), Jennet (1828–1874 – the first baptism when Hugh is recorded as tacksman), Isabel (1832–1922), Lexy (1834–1915) and John (1842–1923).

Balblair fell within the Estate of Newhall, and naturally Hugh’s various tenancies are recorded within the Newhall Rentals. The first I note is in 1816 when at Balblair Hugh is noted as being the tenant for two areas of land. I don’t know for sure if both of these references are to our Hugh, but certainly “ Public House Hugh Ferguson” is he. In 1818 the Balblair entry says “Hugh Ferguson 2 Lots” so it is likely he had both in 1816 as well.

There are several feuers (residents who had purchased their property, usually a house and garden, from the estate but were still required to pay feu-duty) recorded at Chapelton, including “Hugh Ferguson” and I suspect this was our Hugh, but cannot confirm.

There were numerous Newhall rentals over the years, and from the evidence in these Hugh became a substantial tenant. In the 1842 rental, we have at Balblair “Balblair Hugh Ferguson Ferry £24 Lands £23. Hugh was a significant man in the area. With a tenancy of this size, he was even entitled to vote, and his name crops up in all the voting lists until 1857 when he had given up his ferry tenancy.

Politics in those days were just as fierce as nowadays, and Hugh’s voting rights were consistently challenged at each election, but the challenges were rebuffed until, of course, his ferry tenancy was gone.

Here’s a typical one from 1835:

Objection No 3 … I George Mackenzie Tacksman of Humberston object to the Claim of Hugh Ferguson residing at Balblair to be continued as a Voter … That he occupies the Ferry, which is part of the subjects upon which he is enrolled as joint tacksman with other parties or has subset the same or a portion thereof & is by the joint occupation, or the occupancy of subtenants, disqualified, for he does not pay the amount of rent nor occupy subjects of the value required by Law– and is for various other reasons and causes disqualified. [Cover] Reject Objection JJ/G:M

I include the final record in 1857 when alas the objection was not rejected:

I John Finlayson … of Lochalsh … object to Hugh Ferguson Farmer Balblair of Newhall … Because the said Hugh Ferguson is divested of the Right of Ferry over the Ferry of Inverbreakie on which he was inter alia enrolled and he has now no right or title thereto: And any interest which he holds in the lands of Balblair which he still retains in his possession is insufficient to confer upon him a right to the franchise…

While he did have voting rights, Hugh seems to have voted (when there was one standing) for Liberal candidates.

With the ferry tenancy came the ferry inn, which provided accommodation for travelers, of whom there would be a constant supply given the importance of the Balblair to Invergordon Ferry as a component of the main north-south route in the country. There were always folk making their way across the Ardersier to Chanonry Point Ferry, then over the Black Isle ridge to the Balblair to Invergordon Ferry and then north over Easter Ross to the Meikle Ferry across the Dornoch Firth. Hugh was in a good position – if the weather was too rough for the ferry to cross the Cromarty Firth, then he gained from having extra guests at the Balblair Ferry Inn!

the ferry pier during Kirkmichael Trust guided tour; photo by Carlann Mackay

the Balblair Ferry Inn during Kirkmichael Trust guided tour; photo by Carlann Mackay

I see him at the Roup at Udale in 1825, buying two Beer Horns for one shilling and a penny, presumably for use at the Inn. And similarly, I see at the Sequestration Roup of Duncan Montgomery the year before “2 Screens for drying clothes Mrs. Hu: Ferguson Balblair -.5.-” (presumably again for use at the Inn) as well as “Hugh Ferguson Balblair (Speckled Stot No. 30 1.12.-, Red Heifer No. 49 1.15.-, Brandered Heifer 1.17.-)” for the farm which he was running as well.

The operation of both an inn and a ferry involved dealing with the public, and the public at times can be a mite unreasonable. Here are a few troublesome episodes in the life of Hugh and Janet.

The first is a case where a couple of gentlemen drank much too much and still called for more, very obstreperously, and as it was Sunday, Hugh had one of them up in front of the Kirk Session for Sabbath profanation. The story reveals that Hugh was a religious man, going to “Sabbath evening School”, although he does not feature in the communicants’ roll. Now, we’ll let the Kirk Session record speak for itself in this wonderful tale.

Parish of Resolis Kirk Session Records
At the Church of Resolis the 23d day of Novr. 1825
This Session met & being constituted by prayer. Present with the Moderator Robert Murray, James Forbes and Donald McLean Elders.
William Thomson an unmarried man originally from this Parish but now residing in the Parish of Cromarty was delated for Sabbath profanation at the instance & complaint of Hugh Fergusson Vintner in Balblair. The Session proceeded at this meeting to consider the said complaint & for which the said Hugh Fergusson & Jean Paterson his servant were duly cited to attend.
Compeared Hugh Fergusson & being interrogated emitted the following declaration. That on the evening of Sunday the 30th of October last after returning from the Sabbath evening School William Thomson & Alexr Fraser Maltsman Cromarty & two women whose names he did not know asked him to send them across the Ferry – that the wind was then very high – & that he told them it would be necessary to wait untill the wind fell when he & the rest of the Ferrymen would send them across. – That they then came into the house & called for some whisky, after which they ordered supper & some more whisky for Punch ale which they got – That William Thomson called for more whisky which he (Hugh Ferguson) refused to give them as he considered that they had already as much as was necessary for them & that he did not wish that the evening of the Lords day should be spent in drinking in his house & sent his servant to tell them so. – That upon hearing this message William Thomson began to sing & dance upon the floor, upon hearing which he (the Declarant) being then in bed resolved to get up & put a stop to such disorderly proceedings by turning them all out but was prevented by his Wife from doing so for fear of a quarrel between them. That the Party being in a room immediately above that in which he was, he called out to them that he would not permit the Lords day to be profaned in his house & that he would make them all answerable for their conduct.
Compeared also Jean Paterson Servant maid to the said Hugh Fergusson & being also interrogated, corroborated by her declaration that already emitted by her Master and further declares, that upon being sent up to the Room where William Thomson & his companions were to deliver her masters message Willm Thomson replied with an oath that he did not care for Hugh Fergusson or any other & would act as he pleased.
The Session after duly considering the above declarations resolve to refer the case to their next meeting which they appoint to hold here on the first day of Decr ensuing & in the mean time they appoint their clerk to Send an extract of this minute to the Modr of the Kirk Session of Cromarty with a request to him to cause cite the said William Thomson before the next meeting of this Session date as above & also to cite said Alexr Fraser as witness. They also cited as witness apud acta Hugh Ferguson & Jean Paterson & instruct their officer to cite Hugh Fergussons Wife to said meeting as an additional witness.
Closed with prayer. Dond Sage Modr
At the Church of Resolis the first day of Decr 1825
The which day the Session met & being constituted by Prayer, sederunt with the Moderator, Robert Murray, Donald McLean and Barrington Fergusson Elders. The Session resumed at this meeting the case of William Thomson delated for Sabbath profanation.
Compeared William Thomson when the declarations already emitted by Hugh Fergusson & his servant Jean Paterson at the last meeting being read in his hearing & the said William Thomson being duly admonished & interrogated Replied that he denied being guilty of the charges therein brought against him. The Session then proceeded to the examinations of witnesses to ascertain the truth of the charge of Sabbath profanation preferred agt the said William Thomson.
Alexander Fraser Maltsman in Cromarty being duly cited to this meeting was called, compeared & being duly admonished & interrogated declared. That on the Sabbath evening as above stated he came to the Inn at Balblair along with William Thomson & two unmarried women viz Betty Matheson & Anne Johnson whom he & William Thomson met that evening at Birks in this parish on their way to Sutherlandshire from Inverness. That being anxious to send word by them to his Relations who reside there he accompanied them to the Inn at Balblair. That upon being told by Hugh Fergusson that it was not safe to cross the Ferry as the wind was so high he & the rest of the Party agreed to take some refreshment at the Inn. That he & William Thomson continued drinking untill he felt himself intoxicated in consequence of which he (the witness) went to bed & slept for some time. Being interrogated how much they drank replied that he could not well tell – that they got as much as they called for & that they had too much – according to the best of his recollection about five or six half Mutchkins of Whisky, in drams & punch – That upon getting out of bed he & William Thomson began to sing songs – did not know what o’clock it was at the time. – That William Thomson knocked on the floor for another half Mutchkin upon which he heard Hugh Fergusson from below call out with an oath “Thomson I’'ll knock out your brains. – That the servant maid came soon afterwards into the Room with the quantity of whisky called for – did not hear Thomson swear – after drinking the whisky he & the party paid the reckoning & went away.
Hugh Fergusson his wife & Jean Paterson being called did not appear & the Session adjourned to the 5th Cur.t & to which the above witnesses, along with William Thomson and Alexr Fraser were duly cited. Closed with Prayer. Dond Sage Modr

Balblair Ferry Inn; photo courtesy of Mrs Catriona Gillies

At the Church of Resolis Decr 5th 1825.
The Session met & being constituted by prayer. Sederunt with the Moderator Robert Murray, Barrington Fergusson, Thomas Munro and James Forbes Elders.
Compeared William Thomson who being interrogated adhered to his former statement denying the charge preferred against him.
Compeared also Hugh Fergusson & his former declaration being read to him was interrogated did he adhere to it, Replied that he was ready to vouch for the truth of it by his oath if called upon to do so.
Hugh Fergusson’s Wife being called compeared & being admonished to tell the truth & interrogated, corroborated her husband’s statement & further declares that when her husband called out to Thomson that he would not suffer the evening of the Lords day to be profaned Alexr Fraser & one of the women came to their bedside & asked the witness & her husband what they were calling for & upon being told the reason Fraser called out with an oath to Thomson not to make such a noise in the honest mans house at which Thomson Fraser & the woman all laughed & turned her into ridicule. Declared that she & her husband are in the habit of giving out on Saturday to the Servant as much whisky as they think travellers who on the Sabbath day come to the inn may necessarily require, that is about a pint or so. – did not know that her Servant gave Thomson & Fraser as much whisky as they called for, if she did it was without witness knowledge.
The Session considering the above declaration resolved to re-examine Jean Paterson who being called compeared & being admonished to tell the truth was interrogated, did she give any whisky to Thomson & Fraser more than her Mistress had entrusted her with on the Saturday before & without her mistress’ knowledge? Acknowledged that she did – that after they had drunk the first two half Mutchkins she had supplied them contrary to her mistress’ orders & without her knowledge, with as much as they chose to call for, as she had access to the Stores & that they drank nearly five half Mutchkins. The Session highly disapproving of such conduct pointed out to the witness the impropriety of it & admonished her to be more cautious for the Future.
The Party & witnesses were then ordered to withdraw & the Session considering the declarations of the several witnesses emitted before them unanimously find that the said scandal of Sabbath Profanation and profane swearing has been clearly proved against the said William Thomson & they resolve that he be appointed to stand before the congregation to acknowledge his sin & to be publicly rebuked. William Thomson being called in the judgement of the Session was intimated to him & he was required to yield obedience to the Laws of the Church & suitably admonished. William Thomson said he would not comply upon which the Session resolved that the said William Thomson be considered as under scandal that untill that scandal be removed by his submission to the Session’s judgement in this case, he the said William Thomson be considered as not entitled to receive any church privileges which he may in future find it necessary to call for & that he be prosecuted for Sabbath profanation before the civil court. Closed with Prayer.

No doubt there would have been words between Hugh and his maid servant Jean Paterson about issuing unlimited whisky to guests on the Sabbath!

Now, you will note within that story that the wind had been too high for the ferry to risk crossing. It is a relatively short journey from Balblair to Invergordon, but very exposed. I crossed several times when the ferry was still running (it ceased in 1979 after the Cromarty Firth bridge had been erected and Council subsidy withdrawn) and even in the small motor boat you would occasionally feel a sudden, unexpected squall. In the time of sail, such a squall would have a boat over immediately. Ferrymen were entitled not to cross if the weather made the crossing hazardous. I do not know if the weather was poor, or if Hugh was genuinely too sleepy to get up, but in the following occasion it proved to be an expensive decision as the traveler trying to get Hugh to rise up and take him across the ferry was, unfortunately, a lawyer!

This 1847 case is summarised in the Cromarty Sheriff Court records as “Debt : James Grigor, Writer, Cromarty : Hugh Ferguson, Tacksman, Invergordon Ferry : Expenses incurred because of ferryman's refusal to get out of his bed to carry Grigor. £1.9.6d.”

Within the paperwork is set out an irate statement of expenses which the solicitor said he had incurred due to Hugh’s reluctance to rise, but what is so amusing is how angry little snippets punctuate the simple set of expenses:

Account Hugh Ferguson Tacksman of the Invergordon Ferry Newhall side To James Grigor Writer Cromarty £1.9.6
1847 Augt. 24
To Gig hire from Invergordon to Dingwall this day having in consequence of your improper & obstinate refusal to rise out of your bed to ferry me across the night before & early this morning including Full Keep of horse and allowance to Driver
Personal detention at the Ferry in consequence of your unwarrantable refusal to rise from your bed & cross me say from ½ past 11 oclock of Monday night to 4 oclock Tuesday morning being all the time exposed to the night air waiting for your convenience being 4½ hours @ 5/- pr hour
By Mail Coach hire including allowance to Guard and Driver

A lawyer definitely was the wrong person not to get up for! But the law was not done with the Ferguson family as three years later, in 1850, son Hugh, a ferryman at Balblair, was in court accused of assaulting one David Aird at the brae just above the ferry pier. This brae was a shortcut down to the ferry, while carts took the longer but less precipitous route round by the road to the east. When the Kirkmichael Trust gave one of its guided tours of the area, the tour went down by the old shortcut.

Now note who the Procurator Fiscal was – the same James Grigor who had taken Hugh senior to court over his not getting up out of bed. Coincidence? I think not.

Balblair Pier about 1911

Criminal Libel The Procurator Fiscal Agt. Hugh Ferguson 1850 – Assault
A copy of a Criminal Libel containing a charge of assault consisting of three pages was on the twentieth day of August Current served by me upon Hugh Ferguson Junior Ferryman at Balblair by delivering the same to him personally on which copy was marked a Notice of Compearance before the Sheriff of the Shires of Ross & Cromarty within the ordinary Court place at Cromarty on Wednesday the Twenty first day of August eighteen hundred and fifty years at noon …
Unto the Honourable the Sheriff of the Shires of Ross and Cromarty or his Substitute The Petition of James Grigor Procurator Fiscal of Court for the Public Interest Humbly Sheweth That Hugh Ferguson Junior Ferryman at Balblair in the Parish of Resolis and County of Cromarty has been guilty of the Crime of Assault to the effusion of blood and injury of the person act and part In so far as on the Seventh Day of August Eighteen hundred and fifty years or about that time, the said Hugh Ferguson did at or near to the Pier of Inverbreakie in the said Parish of Resolis and County of Cromarty wickedly and feloniously attack and assault David Aird Servant with Sir George Gun Munro of Poyntzfield and did time and place aforesaid strike the said David Aird a severe blow with his clenched Fist upon the face or side of the Head which cut and wounded him to the effusion of his blood and injury of his person.
May it therefore please Your Lordship to grant warrant for citing the said Hugh Ferguson complained of to appear before you to answer to this Libel and thereafter to fine and annunciate him in a sum not exceeding Ten Pounds Sterling or to imprison him in the Prison of Cromarty for a space not exceeding Sixty days. Also to grant warrant for citing Witnesses for both parties. / According to Justice / James Grigor P F
Cromarty 19th August 1850.
The Sheriff having considered the foregoing Libel Grants Warrant to cite the above designed Hugh Ferguson Junior to appear before – him at Cromarty and within the Ordinary Court Place thereof on Wednesday the Twenty first day of August current at noon to answer the same and also to cite witnesses for both parties. John Jardine
At Cromarty the twentyfirst day of August One thousand and eight hundred and fifty years. Compeared the said Hugh Ferguson and the libel having read over to him he answers that he is “Not Guilty.” The following Witnesses were examined upon oath in support of the libel viz.
1.David Aird Labourer Balblair
2. John Campbell Labourer Balblair
3. John Ross Ferry man Balblair
The Witnesses After were examined upon Oath in exculpation viz.
1. Hugh Holm Labourer Balblair
The Sheriff finds the Pannel Not Guilty and therefore Assoilzies him from the Conclusions of the Libel and Dismisses him from the Bar

I really wonder if the Procurator Fiscal’s eagerness for Hugh junior to be tried stemmed from his falling out with Hugh senior. Whatever, the Sheriff was clearly not impressed with the evidence and acquitted the young ferryman.

27 June 2006, and the Kirkmichael Trust guided tour of the Balblair area takes the old direct route down from Balblair to the ferry pier; photo by Carlann Mackay

And the tour descends the brae onto the pier itself; photo by Carlann Mackay



The Census Returns

By tracking the family through the Census Returns it can be seen the surprising number of children who remained in family at Balblair, and did not marry.

In the sparse Return introduced in 1841, where ages were meant to be rounded (but in Resolis fortunately often were not), we can see Hugh and Janet in residence with five of their children and one of the farm workers. The elder children were already making their own way in the world.

1841 Census Return Parish of Resolis
Hugh Ferguson 60 Farmer
Jennet McKenzie 46
Jane Ferguson 20 / Helen Ferguson 18 / Hugh Ferguson 14 / Jennet Ferguson 10 / Bell Ferguson 8
Donald McKenzie 20 AL

By 1851, daughter Jane Ferguson had married Cullicudden farmer James McIver (in 1846) and had in fact already given birth (in 1847) to my great-grandmother, Isabella Maciver. The Macivers would be worthy of a story themselves. And by 1851, Helen was no longer in family and I have been unable to track her.

1851 Census Return Parish of Resolis
Hugh Ferguson head 70 farmer of 20 acres emp 1 man born Resolis
Janet Ferguson wife 52 born Knockbain
Hugh Ferguson son unmarried 23 ferry man born Resolis
Jess Ferguson daur unmarried 20 housekeeper born Resolis
Isabella Ferguson daur unmarried unmarried 17 housekeeper born Resolis
Alexandrina Ferguson daur 15 scholar born Resolis
John Ferguson son 8 scholar born Resolis

By 1861, the remaining family were all there with the exception of Isabella who was in service in Invergordon, and was to have a natural daughter, Isabella, a few years later. Hugh by now, sadly, was blind.

1861 Census Return Parish of Resolis – Balblair, house with three rooms with one or more windows
Hugh Ferguson head 80 farmer of 20 ac employing 1 man & 1 boy born Resolis blind
Janet McK. Ferguson wife 64 farmer's wife born Knockbain
Hugh Ferguson son unmarried 34 farmer’s son born Resolis
Jessie Ferguson daur unmarried 32 farmer’s daughter born Resolis
Alexandrina Ferguson daur unmarried 26 farmer’s daughter born Resolis
John Ferguson son unmarried 18 farmer’s son born Resolis
John McKenzie servant 14 herd boy born Resolis

Son Hugh married Helen, the daughter of the neighbouring farmer in Auchmartin, James Campbell, in 1862, but tragically was to die of an unknown disease in 1866, still a young man. His father, Hugh, had himself died in 1864, and by 1871 the remaining family was spread over two households at Balblair.

1871 Census Parish of Resolis – Balblair, house with three rooms with one or more windows
John Ferguson head unmarried 28 farmer of 27 acres arable Resolis
Janet Ferguson mother widow 73 farmer’s mother Resolis
Isabella Ferguson sister unmarried 34 general servant Resolis
William Williamson servant unmarried 14 farm servant Resolis
Balblair – house with one room with one or more windows
Alexanderina Ferguson head unmarried 30 general servant Resolis
Isabella Ferguson niece 8 scholar Resolis

The niece in Alexanderina’s household was the daughter of Isabella who was residing in the larger Ferguson house.

postcard image of Hugh Ferguson (1907–1981) on the tractor and John James Ferguson (1900–1983) on the binder, both sons of the above John Ferguson, harvesting at the family croft at Balblair in the 1950s; thanks to James Holm Easter Ferryton for access to the postcard

The following year son John, perhaps feeling the pressure to maintain the dynasty, married the unrelated Margaret Ferguson, one of the Fergusons of Ardoch. He would also later marry Betsy Urquhart. John’s descendants remained in Balblair right through to modern days.

Parish of Resolis Marriages
7 June 1872 at Ardoch by James MacLauchlan F.C. Minister Resolis witnesses William Campbell & Charles Ferguson Junr.
John Ferguson farmer (Bachelor) age 30 usual residence Balblair Resolis parents Hugh Ferguson Farmer Janet Ferguson ms MacKenzie
Margaret Ferguson farmer’s daughter (spinster) age 26 usual residence Ardoch Resolis parents Charles Ferguson farmer Margaret Ferguson ms Young

I don’t want to make this sound like a personal family history, but Charles Ferguson and Margaret Young were two of my great-great-grandparents. Poor Margaret was to die in 1886, and John Ferguson re-married Elizabeth Urquhart in Fodderty in 1893. Now here is an unusual thing. He and Margaret are commemorated on the family stone

And the beloved wife of JOHN FERGUSON / MARGRET FERGUSON / who died 8th Janry 1886 / aged 39 years / The said JOHN FERGUSON / died 7th March 1923, in his 80th year.

But he and his second wife are also commemorated on another memorial in Kirkmichael, a tall grey granite headstone standing just below the bank of the ancient kirkyard, and surrounded by four granite markers each labelled “F”. The Trust had to straighten those markers (see the Appendix) as mowing equipment had at some time pushed them over.

In loving memory / of / JOHN FERGUSON, / died at Balblair / 7th March 1923. / His wife / ELIZABETH URQUHART, / died 27th July 1937. / Also their daughter / MARY ANN, / died 29th December 1918. / Wife of JOHN MACKENZIE / MATHESON, R.C.A. / died of wounds in France / 17th September 1917. / And their daughter …

However, we are now beginning to approach the modern period into which we do not usually stray.

photo by Andrew Dowsett

photo by Andrew Dowsett


The parents of Hugh Ferguson, innkeeper, ferryman and farmer at Balblair

Confirmation of Hugh Ferguson’s parents comes from his death certificate;

Parish of Resolis Deaths
Hugh Ferguson farmer (married to Janet McKenzie) died 14 January 1864 at Balblair age 82 years parents George Ferguson blacksmith (deceased) Jane Ferguson m.s. Robertson (deceased) informant John Ferguson son (present)

George and Janet are commemorated on a slab in a row of Ferguson memorials located to the east of the path to the chancel doorway. It reads simply: “GF / IR / 1781”. During 2019 several keen American students were digging under the supervision of Dr Connie Rodriguez, archaeologist for the Urquhart clan, at Castle Craig during the week but moonlighting by excavating previously unrecorded gravestones at Kirkmichael on the Saturdays. On their last Saturday work party at Kirkmichael on 6 July 2019, they uncovered three adjacent stones, and the most northerly was in fact the final Ferguson one of the group of Ferguson memorials. Those initials of GF and IR were ones I had hoped to see for reasons set out in this separate story here.

photo by Andrew Dowsett

photo by Andrew Dowsett

photo by Davine Sutherland

While thankfully no patronymic seems to have been used for the Ferguson family, you may have noted that Jean was known as either Robertson or Rapson. One other Robertson in the parish records is also called Rapson, Lydia, and it was in the same period and location, and therefore I do wonder if Jean and Lydia were sisters. Just to confuse matters Lydia’s husband was also known intermittently by a patronymic. I include partly to show the contrariness of family names in the Parish of Resolis!

Parish of Resolis Marriages
5 June 1767 Donald Mckenzie shoemaker in Kirktown & Liddy Robertson in Balblair
Parish of Resolis Baptisms
14 May 1768 Donald Bain shoemaker in Kirktown & Lidy Rapson – William
15 February 1770 Donald Mackenzie al. Bain in Kirktown & Lydia Robertson – Robert
13 April 1772 Donald Mckenzie al. Bain shoemaker in Kirktown & Lydia Robertson – Christian
12 August 1774 Donald Bain shoemaker in Ferritown & Liddy Rapson – Donald
22 April 1779 Donald Bain shoemaker at Ferrytown & Lydias Robertson –William

This couple feature in another Story behind the Stone here – as I say, I suspect Jean and Lydia were sisters.

Part of a small buried plaque was recovered when the headstone was re-erected, and there was enough of the inscription remaining to allow us to identify who was being commemorated. It proved to be Isabella, a daughter of Hugh and Janet, and a story “The Broken Shield – the Life of Isabella Ferguson (1832–1922)” may be found here.


The parents of Janet Mackenzie, wife of Hugh Ferguson, innkeeper, ferryman and farmer at Balblair

You would also expect confirmation of Janet Mackenzie’s parents from her death certificate. However, son John fails us, as he had forgotten his mother’s mother’s name! I have always felt that the Registrar in this situation should have sent the informant home to ask others and come back again rather than leaving it blank.

Parish of Resolis Deaths
Janet Ferguson widow of Hugh Ferguson farmer died 13 June 1871 at Balblair age74 father Alexander McKenzie farmer (d) mother [blank] informant John Ferguson son (present)

Well, from her age given in various census returns and on her death certificate Janet must have been born about 1797. Those census returns state she was born in the Parish of Knockbain, on the other side of the Black Isle. And there is indeed one and one only Janet Mackenzie with a father Alexander in the baptism record in a very wide period in Knockbain:

Parish of Knockbain Baptisms
1797 … Alexr. MacKenzie taylor at Allanriche had a child born 29th. July baptized 5th. August called Jannet

This is very likely to be our Janet. But as luck would have it, Knockbain was one of the few parishes in this period who did not record the mother, as if the father was solely responsible for the creation of the child. So the baptism record doesn’t give the mother’s name either! However, when all the relevant baptisms in this period in Knockbain are put together, some clues do emerge:

Parish of Knockbain Baptisms
1792 … Alexr. Mackenzie taylor in Allanrigh had a child born [blank]
1794 … Alexr. MacKenzie taylor at AllanRiche had a child born Febry 27th. baptized 1st. March called William
1797 … Alexr. MacKenzie taylor at Allanriche had a child born 29th. July baptized 5th. August called Jannet
1801 … Alexr. McKenzie taylor at Teavlair had a child born 16th. Octr baptised 18th. do. called Thomas
1803 … Octr. … 27th Alexr McKenzie taylor Allangrange and his spouse Helen Gollan had a child baptized named Helen

Thank goodness that a new Session Clerk started recording baptisms, and recognised the role of the woman in the process. Now, Allanriech, Allangrange and Taeblair are all in close proximity to each other, and whilst it is not yet confirmed, I think it likely that the tailor in all these baptisms was the same one and that Janet’s parents were Alexander Mackenzie and Helen Gollan. Alexander at that time was a tailor but he later became a tenant farmer, as evidenced by the death certificate of one daughter we know who survived through to civil registration:

Parish of Rosemarkie Deaths
Helen Junor (widow of Abraham Junor farmer) died 18 Oct 1877 at Fortrose age 73 parents Alexander Mackenzie farmer (d) Helen Mackenzie ms Gollan (d) informant William Junor son (present)

I had a look at the 1828 marriage of Helen Mackenzie and Abraham Junor in the hope it would give more clues:

Parish of Rosemarkie Marriages
Abraham Junor, tenant at Berry-hill, and Helen Mackenzie, Plat-cock, were married after regular proclamations on the eighteenth day of July, one thousand eight hundred, and twenty eight years.

This indicated that Helen had been living in the parish of Rosemarkie in 1828. Could her parents have also moved to this parish? I found in the High Street in Fortrose in 1841 a couple whom I believe is possibly the elusive Alexander Mackenzie and Helen Gollan:

1841 Census Return Parish of Rosemarkie – High Street, Fortrose
Alexander McKenzie 75 mealdealer yes
Helen McKenzie 79 yes
Francis McKenzie 15 student yes

Much of this is conjectural and needs to be supported by further evidence. But it does give a line of research worth pursuing. I have seen some very unlikely origins of Janet Ferguson ms Mackenzie on the web and I suggest this is the most reasonable route to explore.


The mystery uncle

When Hugh Ferguson junior died, a young man, the informant was recorded as an uncle.

Parish of Resolis Deaths
Hugh Ferguson farmer (married to Helen Campbell) died 13 June 1866 at Balblair age 31 parents Hugh Ferguson farmer (d) Janet Ferguson m.s. McKenzie informant Robert Ferguson his x mark uncle (not present) Balblair James Barnett Registrar witness

If the informant, Robert Ferguson, was really young Hugh’s uncle, then, as he was born in 1771, he would have been 95 at the time. And in any case, I believe that that Robert Ferguson was hung for the murder of Captain George Munro way back in 1812 (but that is another story). Instead, I think the Registrar, James Barnett, himself the subject of a Story behind the Stone, made a mistake when writing down the information conveyed to him by Robert Ferguson. Robert could not write, and was much older than Hugh, and so I think Barnett must have assumed he was the uncle when in fact he was a cousin, i.e. the son of an uncle. It is quite understandable.

I think the Robert Ferguson who acted as informant in reality was this gentleman:

Parish of Resolis Deaths
Robert Ferguson pauper (formerly) blacksmith (married to Isabella McLeod). died 10 February 1880 at Balblair age 87 parents George Ferguson blacksmith (d) and Jessie Ferguson m.s. Ross (d) informant David Ferguson son (present) Don. McDonald Registrar

And this record also bears a mistake by this later Registrar, Donald Macdonald (also the subject of a Story behind the Stone). The error is simply that Robert’s mother is given as “Jessie”. I think he misheard “Jessie” for “Grissel” or perhaps he couldn’t read his own notes. Robert Ferguson was born in 1795 at Balblair to blacksmith George Ferguson and Grissel Ross not blacksmith George Ferguson and Jessie Ross. Again, an easy mistake to make, but it has caused vast amounts of confusion on the net. You would assume people would look at the bigger picture rather than be led down strange paths by simple typographical errors. The only Ferguson in Balblair at this time having children were George and Grissel, and there is ample confirmation that Robert was born in Balblair at this time, from census returns and (very importantly, as there were few mistakes here) from the poor relief records. The Parochial Relief Board looked very closely at birthplace to see whether or not they were truly liable for the relief of the pauper.

I assume that the blacksmith George Ferguson, father of Robert, would have been a son of George Ferguson and Jean Robertson alias Rapson. However, as I have not come across evidence yet it must remain just an assumption.

Robert, like so many of this family, was a blacksmith and ferryman on the Balblair to Invergordon Ferry, commonly known as the Inverbreakie Ferry. But none was so intimately involved with the Inverbreakie Ferry than Hugh Ferguson, the subject of this Story, who held the tack of the ferry, was the long-standing hotelier at the Balblair Ferry Inn and was the tacksman of much of the land around Balblair.

photo by Jim Mackay


Appendix: straightening the four “F” lair markers

As part of the Kirkmichael Trust’s ongoing programme of repair and restoration at Kirkmichael, the volunteers took on straightening the four lair markers that surround the headstone commemorating John Ferguson and Elizabeth Urquhart of Balblair. Each of these granite markers bears an inlaid capital “F” for Ferguson. The markers had sunk into the ground as well as having being knocked skew-whiff so we raised them somewhat while we were at it.

photo by Davine Sutherland

photo by Andrew Dowsett

photos by Davine Sutherland

photo by Andrew Dowsett


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