Am Bratach No. 233
March 2011

A tale of two bachelors
Exploring croft inheritance in Achmelvich — Part 2
by Roger Kershaw

Of course my genealogical narrative should not exclude reference to several persons who out of kindness or shared interest, or through official position, have contributed to this side in particular. As aspects of the investigation may make a stimulating story in their own right (though I risk discouraging others from family research by revealing the effort and many frustrations involved!), I will talk about that saga-within-a-saga first of all.

I have to start with a great “institution” of the Highland scene around 2000–01, Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages at Brora and part-time Highland family archivist, TSF McLean, who supplied a stream of expert genealogical letters and tables reaching back to the earliest years of the nineteenth century, always for a modest level of fee to the Highland Council. Out of this data I was able relatively quickly to locate Angie and Lexie in relation to the Kerrs of Redbraes croft (93 Achmelvich), and thence (more under my own steam, working through the General Register Office for Scotland) across to Alexander Kerr Cameron, born in Edinburgh in 1920, i.e. the future heir to Angie Don in 1976. Duncan Munro’s line, or rather, lines were also provided by Mr MacLean. Or at least, two Munro threads could clearly be seen to be Duncan’s once Anne MacLeod, Postmistress/Registrar at Lochinver, supplied his entry from the local register of deaths, since statutory records of death always record the parents of the deceased and the maiden surname of his or her mother. Duncan was seen to be “doubly a Munro”, for this was his mother’s maiden surname too. But after this promising start, progress through the GRO towards the linkage with John William Munro was held up by serious confusion over the year of birth of John William’s father.

 Duncan Munro, 1982.

PHOTO: Ian Yates

Before I elaborate on that problem, let me complete the list of public offices or officials in Sutherland, Ross-shire and Caithness, and two non-official individuals, who extended especially valuable assistance relating to either family or both. These were the Sheriff Court in Dornoch (for wills); the Valuation Joint Board in Dingwall (for electoral rolls); Mrs Jean Kennedy, Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Thurso (who searched for twentieth century deaths of Alexander Munros in Assynt); the Postmaster/Registrar at Bonar Bridge (for the death certificate of Angie Don); the Crofters Commission in Inverness (for correspondence on a sanctioned enlargement of Croft 513 by adding the croft house of 512); the Scottish Land Court in Edinburgh (for the later resumption of that croft house, as well as the historic Achmelvich petition for an extension to grazings in 1888); Peter Voy, Factor of the Assynt Estate (for a sight of estate maps, rent-books and some letters relating to my twin interests); and last but by no means least, the late and deeply lamented Cora MacRae, a dear friend of Lexie Bell in their time, and lively observer of many other Torbreck and Achmelvich personalities in the 1930s.

Now I come to two exciting visits to Achmelvich, right out of the blue, which in one case filled some remaining gaps in my picture, as well as leaving literal historic pictures in our hands; in the other, opened up a vital, but at first ambivalent, lead to an informant in Canada. The former happened as recently as September 25/28 2010, but I mention it first in order to conform to the sequence in the paragraph before last: it related to the MacDonalds of Cùl a Chadha, and answered a few questions, without creating new problems. On a Saturday morning, just five minutes before “my other half”, Eva, would have set out from the cottage to work on the more distant vegetable plot, two gents “of a certain age” (like ourselves) were seen approaching up the track. They introduced themselves as Edinburgh-born brothers Alexander and Kenneth Ward, who were compiling their family history, and wanted to see if the croft house, which Kenny had visited in the 1960s with his mother and fiancée, was still standing. They were not yet sure how, if indeed at all, they were related to Lexie MacLeod, or to the shy man who had retired upstairs from the smoky kitchen soon after Kenny and party arrived. But their mother used to refer to Lexie as her “great aunt”. As for Alex and Kenny themselves, they were grandsons of Christina Cameron, m.s. Kerr, one time tenant of Croft 93. In other words, the late Alexander Kerr Cameron was their “Uncle Alex”. I think that for me the most interesting new information concerned family migration (all five of Christina’s siblings who reached adulthood moved away from Achmelvich to Glasgow, only Christina herself having gone to Edinburgh for work). My modest contribution in return for this, and for the precious photographic record of Lexie and her brother, was to be able to inform the visitors that Lexie was only a MacLeod by marriage, and a bona fide sister of the “shy man”. Both, in other words, were MacDonalds by birth, and offspring of John MacDonald and Peggie, m.s. Kerr — facts that I was able to clinch by producing inter alia the death certificate of Angie himself. Never was the sight of a death certificate so electrifying — but for a most pleasant reason!

The encounter whose upshot I have called somewhat “ambivalent” comprised the arrival on our doorstep at Bràighlinne, on October 12 2000, of Joan Cockcroft and her husband, from Cape Town. They hoped to take photographs of the more than a century old “ancestral home”, which Joan’s uncle (as it turned out), John William Munro, had inherited from his cousin, Duncan Munro. Our delight at meeting a kinswoman of John William was no less than Joan’s at receiving a warm welcome — into a Munro croft house still standing. Joan was the daughter of Jean Kerr Donnelly, John William’s sister. Joan did not claim to have command of much genealogical knowledge, but urged me to contact her aunt, Isabel Donaldson, of Whitby, Ontario, the eldest sister of the (by now) deceased John William. It was not long before contact with this wonderful lady had produced not only a kaleidoscope of that family’s migrations (father to Edinburgh, where Isabel and her younger four brothers, one sister, were born; Isabel then ultimately to Canada like two of the three brothers whose destination she told me about, John William to South Africa like Joan’s mother), but also the vital intelligence that their father was called Alexander. But the key question then was: which Alexander Munro among several appearing in Mr MacLean’s tables? Isabel gave her father’s year of birth as 1875, which in due course was confirmed when I obtained his wedding certificate of 1916, in which his age is stated to be 41. Unable to reconcile this age comprehensively with data from Mr MacLean, I gave up the quest, for a very long time. It was in fact the meeting with the Ward brothers that activated me for a new try. With the advantage, by now, of broadband and the on-line service of GRO, I was able (quite quickly!) via the 1881 census returns to pin down a schoolboy in Achmelvich, Alexander Munro, with the “correct” parents (Duncan Munro and Isabella, m.s. Kerr) to be the man married in Edinburgh in 1916 and an uncle to twentieth century Duncan, but (no minor detail!) born in 1873!

After, but also necessarily thanks to, all these trials and tribulations, the basic Achmelvich or Stoer family trees themselves, by comparison and almost by anticlimax, are easy to present. Angie and Lexie’s parents were John MacDonald and Peggie, m.s. Kerr. John’s parents before him at Cùl a Chadha and its former twin, the vanished (resumed) Croft No. 113, were Alexander and Isabella, m.s. Kerr (this extends the timescale back to ca 1801); Peggie’s were an Alexander Kerr and Chirsty, m.s. MacLeod (born ca 1822 and ca 1824). One name, that of Alexander MacDonald, came particularly to life when I met him as a petitioner to the Crofters Commission on December 5 1888 for an order to the Duke of Sutherland to let the portion of Achmore sheep farm known as Bad Ghrianan, as an extension to the Achmelvich and Torbreck grazings. The more complicated and wearisome part of the research, as I have more or less shown, was to establish the link from Peggie through her brother Alexander to her niece Christina (Cameron by marriage in Edinburgh), mother of the Alexander Kerr Cameron who as bachelor Angie’s first-cousin-once-removed, living in Shrewsbury, could eventually lay claim to Angie’s croft in 1976.

In the other family, Duncan’s parents were John Munro and Isabella (m.s. also Munro). John’s parents before him at Bràighlinne and its twin, Croft 92, were Duncan and Isobel, m.s. Kerr (this extends the timescale back to ca 1823, this being that Duncan’s possible year of birth, and 1832, Isobel’s year); Isabella’s were another Duncan Munro and Christy, m.s. Kerr (on that side the timescale reaches back to 1834 and ca 1840, the respective years of birth of this couple of the ultimate Duncan’s grandparents). The couple Duncan and Isobel sprang very much back to life when I met, as fourth entry (witnessed) on the list of applicants in the earlier Bad Ghrianan petition of July 10 1888: Widow Duncan her X mark Munro. The strangely complicated part of the research, as I have discussed, was to establish the link from John to a brother Alexander that made their respective sons, Duncan and John William, first cousins, whereby the latter, long resident in South Africa, inherited one double and one single croft at bachelor Duncan’s death.

In conclusion, in the MacDonald family a croft was inherited through a female, who had never had any connection with it, although she was formally tenant of a Kerr croft at the other end of Achmelvich. In the Munro family, crofts passed “sideways” from a resident crofter to a male cousin who similarly had never had any connection with them. The iron laws of inheritance, which have an existence independent of crofting but apply fully to croft tenancies, enabled the absentee heirs in each case to inherit assets in Achmelvich and dispose of them as they pleased. This has contributed to the ongoing sea-change in Highland population and land use, whose original foundation was laid in the flight from crofts to the great cities of Scotland some 100–130 years ago.

But in this process, not only sights have changed, also sounds. By way of a “last word”: Angie and Duncan were members of the last generation of Gaelic speakers at Achmelvich. Their deaths, childless, on the one hand opened doors of ownership and residence to a pair of culturally interested incomers, but on the other hand ensured that this couple would never learn “the Gaelic” by social interaction with elderly neighbours.


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