An old graveyard near Callander

Glen Etive (11)As you drive along the A84 between Callander and Strathyre, you catch sight of a small walled enclosure with a rusting iron gate.  You can tell it’s a graveyard, because there’s one gravestone just visible in the long grass;   but that’s all you see, because it’s a busy stretch of road with nowhere to pull off, and there’s a sharp bend coming up.

I’ve lost count of how many times we have whizzed past without stopping.   But just recently we managed to remember it well in advance, and we parked the car in a safe place before walking the last 100 yards or so along the verge.

Callander graveyard (2)

Callander graveyard (1)Gate into Callander graveyard

As I pushed open the gate I didn’t know what to expect.   The grass in the enclosure had grown very tall, but a few paths appeared to have been been trodden through it recently – perhaps by anglers making their way down to the River Leny at the bottom of the field.

Grave Etive and Orchy - Jo 14

I’d hardly taken a couple of steps when something in the boundary wall caught my eye.   It was a square of dark pinkish stone, placed as if to create a memorial of some kind, with an engraving on a stone beneath.   It said:  “Fragment of cross found near this spot AD 1932”.

Callander graveyard (5)Callander graveyard - fragment of cross (2)Callander graveyard - fragment of cross

This woke me up.  It would surely be an old cross if it merited a display like that.  I took a fresh look around, and wondered if there had ever been a chapel.

As I made my way over to the headstone, I realised that I was treading on another grave:  I couldn’t see it, but the ground was uneven and hard, with a raised area and then a trough.   I bent to look and found a moss-covered grave slab concealed in the grass.  First one, then another… two, three… there must have been four or five other burials scattered around the enclosure.   They were so well hidden that it was almost impossible to work out their orientation.   I found myself apologising repeatedly to unnamed people for walking on their graves.

Grave Etive and Orchy - Colin 57Grave Etive and Orchy - Colin 52

Having reached the standing gravestone via a very roundabout route, I studied the carvings on the back.   In the centre is a lovely, simple flower motif – perhaps a clan badge – and in the upper corners are two rams with very finely carved horns.  The scrollwork is elaborate and beautiful.

Grave Etive and Orchy - Jo 35

Floral motif

Carved ram

Gaelic inscription

Below all this, almost at ground level, is an inscription in Gaelic.  The words are obscured by weathering and lichen, but I photographed it anyway, in the hope of being able to decipher something at home.   But I believe it’s almost too far gone.

Grave Etive and Orchy - Colin 40

On the other side, the inscription is clearer.   It says:

Grave Etive and Orchy - Colin 38Sacred to the memory of James McKinlay 

Tacksman at Inverchagernie 

who died Feb 4th 1805 aged 65

[illegible line] 

Elenora Cameron 

[and their son]

Peter, who died on 4th of June 

1828 aged 31

(A tacksman was a tenant who held his land and property from a landlord – possibly the laird – and he may have sub-let parts of it to lesser tenants.)

Although the letters are big and strongly made, once again a multitude of lichens are holding an art festival all over the surface, making the words hard to read.   But the shoulders of the stone are carved with flowing leaves and what looks like a ram’s horn, and this is where the lichen really adds another dimension.

Shoulder of gravestone

Two huge old Scots pines overlook the site, and when I went to stand under one of them I noticed another interesting stone, set into the southern wall.   This is definitely the same shape and size as other grave markers that I’ve seen – early ones, possibly inscribed with a cross.   But try as I might, I couldn’t make out any shapes or symbols on the surface.

Grave Etive and Orchy - Jo 52

A myriad spiders had spun their webs in the grass, and dew droplets had transformed them into sparkling diadems.  As I picked my way around I was trying not to step on these, in case I tore some kind of fragile veil that time had spun over the ground.  Fanciful, I know – but I felt lumbering, clumsy, an intruder.

Aware once again of the traffic speeding past, we closed the gate behind us and made our way back to the car.  In the adjacent field two Highland cows were lying down comfortably and watching the world go by.   It was a Sunday morning, after all.

It was only when I got home and did some research (and it took quite a while to even identify the site) that I turned up some fascinating nuggets.

Firstly, there was indeed a chapel;   it was dedicated to St Bride.   Chapels of St Bride have a special interest for me, as I’m always drawn to the connection between St Brigit of Kildare, an early Irish saint, and the much earlier pagan goddess known as Brigid, ‘the shining one’ (the word ‘bright’ comes from the same root).   Suddenly, ‘ancient’ history becomes recent, and you’re swept back thousands of years, when worship was out of doors, in a stone circle, with the full moon rising.

The second thing I discovered is quite astonishing.   For generations, this graveyard has been the traditional burying place of the McKinlays of Annie, a farm nearby;   and the people who lie in this serene little place are the forebears of William McKinley, 25th President of the United States of America.

Grave Etive and Orchy - Jo 40

I’m going to publish some extracts from an 100-year-old document that I found online, because it sheds some amazing light on the McKinlays’ connections with the New World.

These quotes are from a letter written around the turn of the 19th century by Robert McLaren, in response to a request from a third party to explain the family’s links with the US President.  Mr McLaren lived at Annie and his mother was Catherine McKinlay;   it appears she was the last McKinlay to live at Annie, as all the male members of that line had either emigrated or died childless.

From ‘The Stirling Antiquary’, Volume III

Reprinted from ‘The Stirling Sentinel’ 1900 – 1903    

“For seven generations the eldest son of the ‘Annie’ branch [of the McKinlays] was named John, and six of them are buried in St Bride’s…”

“The eldest son of Finlay Mor – William, who died in the reign of James VI – had four sons, who settled at the ‘Annie’ (a corruption of the Gaelic for ‘Ford of the Deer’);  John was William’s eldest son, and his son again, Donald, who was born at ‘Annie’, was known to be his (William’s) grandson.  Donald’s son, John, born about 1645, had three sons – Donald, born 1669;  James, ‘the trooper’;  and John, born 1679.  This is where the President’s line breaks off from the ‘Annie‘ McKinlays.  James ‘the trooper’ went to Ireland, where the spelling of his name was changed to McKinley, as the Irish pronounce it.  His descendants went to America, and the President’s descent has been traced… on that line.”

Grave Etive and Orchy - Colin 74“The old churchyard of St Bride’s, situated on this farm (‘Annie’) beside the river Leny, has been the burying-place of all the ‘Annie’ McKinlays, and contains the tombstone of John, brother of James, ‘the trooper’.   This is the inscription on it:  “Here lies John McKinlay and Elizabeth Ferguson*, who died the 30th day of August, 1732, in the fifty-third year of his age.”

President McKinley by Brady Handy

President McKinley – photo by Brady Handy

“There was originally a chapel at St Bride’s.  My mother, who was born in 1794, remembered the gable of the chapel standing when she was a girl.  Sir Walter Scott introduced it in ‘The Lady of the Lake’.  The marriage party is issuing from the chapel door, when the ‘Fiery Cross’, the signal for the clansmen to muster, is put into the bridegroom’s hands…”

“The McKinlays were a quiet, intelligent and shrewd race of men.  I was told by a relative of mine, who has seen the President, that there is a strong resemblance between him and one of my uncles, who left ‘Annie’.  I myself can see in the portrait of President McKinlay’s father a striking likeness to the McKinlays I have known.”

– Robert McLaren

[* I assume that the name of Elizabeth Ferguson was added afterwards, and they didn’t die together on the same day.   The stone that bears this inscription must be lying down, and covered with grass.]

Although Mr McLaren has now been gathered up to join his ancestors, and I hope is sleeping in some quiet country churchyard, I’ve got to say that this is the kind of history that strikes directly at my heart.  It’s a precious and unique account, spoken by someone who recalls the words of an older relative, who in turn remembers something ancient.  The thread is as fine as spider’s silk, but just as strong.  Only when it catches the light can you see it, stretching away into the distance.  You grope for words, try to explain it in logical truth, and the magic is gone.

Grave Etive and Orchy - Colin 32


Footnote, 10th October 2014

In October 2014 I was lucky enough to be contacted by Mrs Moira Goodman, who told me that her McKinlay ancestors are buried in this cemetery.    She has a letter written by Donald McLaren, which clarifies some of the details given by his brother, Robert, in his article for The Stirling Antiquary.  She says:  “Two of the stones were of my 4 x Great Grandparents, James McKinlay and Christian Wright and my 5 x Great Grandparents, John McKinlay and Elizabeth Ferguson.”  She also tells me that among the other McKinlays buried here were two little boys “who died aged 1 and 2, from bronchitis in the early 1850s.”

I am publishing a photo of St Bride’s graveyard which Mrs Goodman kindly sent me, dated 1910.  I’m thrilled to see this, and my grateful thanks to Mrs Goodman for sharing some of her fascinating history!

St Bride's in 1910, courtesy of Mrs M Goodman

St Bride’s in 1910, courtesy of Mrs M Goodman

Footnote, October 2017:  I am very much indebted to Richard Ridgwell, who has translated the Gaelic words on the gravestone as follows:  “In your falling of the body into the grave under the hard chain of death that will rise up again at the sound of the high trumpet.”

Footnote, 18th December 2017:   I have been contacted by Sue Mackay of the Callander Heritage Society.  She tells me that applications are currently being submitted by the Society for the restoration of St Bride’s graveyard, as well as four neighbouring graveyards (Kilmahog, Kessog, Leny and Brig o’Turk).  Under the proposed scheme, the site would be excavated to a depth of six inches, to record lost graves and the chapel floor.  This proposal is still in its early days but if you have a family link with St Bride’s and would like to offer your support, you are invited to contact the Callander Heritage Society on (they also have a Facebook page).


This article has been shared with the Clan Farquharson Society of the USA, who expressed a keen interest as the McKinlay name is one of the septs of the Farquharson clan.

Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf



St Bride's Sept 2015 7St Bride’s re-visited

In September 2015 – a year after this post was first published – I returned to St Bride’s with two descendants of the McKinlays who are buried there.   Click here to read more.

St Fillan and Glen Dochart

McNab grave, Glen DochartNot far away from here is the lovely Glen Dochart, with another small abandoned graveyard dreaming its days away by the river.   This time it’s a McNab burial ground, but its story goes back to the time of St Fillan…


  1. Beautifully written, Jo. A reminder of how all things grow, flourish and pass away.

    • Thank you very much! I loved this place, and I find old churchyards like this one quite restful and reassuring – although the individual stories they hold are often sad. Because this one was so small, it really did feel almost like a little time capsule.

      • I cannot thank you enough for all your effort in this article. This is the resting place of my GGG Grandparents (The McKinlay’s) I have been longing to go there too and have been asking people on various sites for possible photos…and now here I have found you. This chokes me up. I am so grateful! Ms. Mickey Moore, Vermilion, Alberta, Canada.

      • Thank you so much for your kind comments! I am delighted that you have found my site, and have read about my visits to St Bride’s. How wonderful that you’re descended from the McKinlays there, and I would love to help you find out more. If you’d like, I will pass your details on to Moira (whom you will have read about in my later article)! Moira is a passionate genealogist and would be delighted to hear from you, I know. You will certainly find that you have ancestors in common. Thank you again, and I’ll wait to hear from you – you can either reply here or privately if you prefer, via

  2. What a beautiful post! I never thought a graveyard could feel so serene… your words proved me wrong 🙂
    A pity it is not better kept, that would’ve prevented mistaking it for regular ground & the apologies you mentioned, nevertheless it is rich in emotions & history.
    Thanks for the share 🙂

    • Thank you very much! Really glad you enjoyed it. It really does feel serene, and it’s in such a beautiful setting. While I’d like to have been able to see all the stones, sometimes I quite like to find old abandoned graveyards and I don’t mind it being a bit overgrown. I reckon that if I had chosen to be buried there, I would be wanting some solitude anyway! 🙂

      • I totally agree with you! The charm & serenity I was referring to was about what you just described.
        What I meant when using the word “tended” was that the place would be marked by a tombstone, no more 🙂

  3. What a little gem, its amazing what you find when you start to investigate. Lovely photos and a lovely interesting read 🙂

    • Thank you very much, Lynne! Yes, we were glad we made the effort to stop that time. We must have driven past a hundred times! I also photographed Loch Dochart Castle that day, in Glen Dochart – very difficult to see from the road, but we stopped and walked back through the trees.

  4. Beautifully written like a true historian!

  5. A wonderful story, Jo, and you tell it so well.

  6. Impossible to resist neglected graveyards, it’s like a red flag demanding that you keep the memory of the dead alive. A superb post Jo, I’m glad you braved the road to investigate.

  7. Fascinating! We love to explore graveyards, too. I also love that kind of lichen that looks like a cup, I wonder what that is… I took a lot of lichen pictures on my trip to Oregon.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you found it interesting too. Yes, that lichen is so beautiful! I don’t know what species it is, but I’ve seen it elsewhere. I’m sure you could make a detailed photographic study just of lichen!

  8. Darci Hyatt (Wheatley, Ontario, Canada) says:

    Wow! Thank you so much for the extra insight and description! My husband is a direct descendant of John Mckinlay and Elisabeth Ferguson. We are planning a trip to Scotland in July so we started looking more closely into his family tree. We happened upon this graveyard on the internet and hope to visit it during our stay. Very cool!

    • You are most welcome, and I’m so glad that you have discovered a connection! It’s lovely when something like this happens. I am sure you will fall in love with the area around there – it’s really beautiful. I hope you have a wonderful trip! 🙂

  9. John (born abt 1645) would be my 8th great grandfather. President McKinley’s great grandfather, David (born 1755), is my 4th great grandfather. I would love to visit this graveyard myself someday. Meantime, I have your photos (& text) to enjoy!!!

    • That’s wonderful! Thank you so much, and I am delighted to hear from you. What an incredible history. I really hope that you can see this for yourself some day!

      • Thank you for the care and attention you have given this quest. This is the resting place of my GGG Grandparents, The McKinlays. I have been searching for someone in that area who may have had photos of this place…and there you are…with fabulous photos! My Great Grandmother was Eleanora Cameron McKinlay, born in St Fillan’s. Her father, John (Lt) is buried in Dundurn and someone from the St. Fillan’s website graciously went to the cemetery, took photos of the McKinlay’s and Camerons and sent them to me…bless their hearts.
        I am very grateful to you Jo! I dream of the day when I can travel that highway and see the Anie and St Bride’s and walk in my ancestor’s footsteps. I don’t know why this is so important to me as it is not so for my other family members; I feel very emotional about this place and those people.

  10. Thank you for this beautiful post. My husband and I found the cemetery in 2004 by referring to some family stories and with the help of a woman at the Information Centre in Callander. I am the ggg granddaughter of James and Eleanor McKinlay. Their son Duncan and his brother John emigrated to Howard Township, Ontario, Canada. They were born at “The Annie” across the road from the cemetery.

    • Hi Kathryn, Wow – how wonderful! I am so glad you found this little graveyard, and my post about it as well! And you are their direct descendant – how amazing. You may have seen from some of the comments above that other readers are related, too. Little did I know when I wrote this that I would discover living descendants of the McKinlays. It has been a delight. You will know what a lovely spot it is in – such a beautiful place to have as your family’s roots. Thank you for getting in touch!

  11. Dear Jo,
    I wrote a post so if this is a duplicate I apologize, but I think the first did not send correctly (me as the cause).
    First, I want to compliment you on your beautiful prose and photos. Second ,I thank you for describing this cemetery in detail so we can find it. My husband and I are traveling to Scotland from America in one week to trace his ancestors. We have the unbelievable fortune of having a family tree over 100 years old, drawn on blue canvas by hand. It is the Buchanan family tree and dates back to the 1600’s and is extensive (four feet by four feet at least). On it Catherine Buchanan marries John McKinlay of Annie. please see website for confirmation
    They are shown on our tree to have a son named James who marries Eleanora Cameron. see
    On our tree they have a son name Peter who dies young for his branch is cut short with no descendants. They also have a son Duncan who marries a McEwan and a son John who marries a Brown. Perhaps these are the relatives of post: Kathryn and thus very distant relatives of us.
    We are happy to share any further information.
    We will be visiting this cemetery thanks to you. May the spider web keeping spinning.

    • Dear Jean, I am delighted to hear from you and thank you so much for getting in touch! I think without doubt you have found some ancestors here – I may have made a mistake in reading the date of James McKinlay’s death on the gravestone as 1805 when in fact it was 1825. How wonderful, and I may be able to send you some more photos – I will look them out. Email me direct – I may also be able to help with directions or a map of how to get there! As I said in the post, it’s a busy road and tricky to park safely so bear this in mind. But how exciting – I am sure you will have a great time and a real adventure of discovery. I see that Eleanora Cameron was born and married at Fortingall in Perthshire – another beautiful and ancient place, with a fantastic old yew tree in the churchyard which you can read about here:
      Look forward to hearing from you again and hope that I can be of more help with your research. Thank you also for your kind comments about my website! And just as a lovely coincidence, we were driving past this old graveyard only today. Best wishes, Jo

  12. Jenny MacLaren says:

    Absolutely lovely, and so beautifully written it made my throat ache. Evocative of so many things felt in the area – those long dead reaching through time to tell you of their joys, triumphs and sorrows. You have certainly renewed my faith in the idea that there are still some people who can write, and in the feeling that there are places that emote and people who feel it.

    • Jenny, that must be one of the loveliest comments I’ve ever had! Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to visit St Bride’s and share its magic. Writing about such places is a privilege and a joy – and when people can feel that joy too, it makes me very happy! Thank you again. I can see by your name that those ancestors were speaking to you, too! 🙂

  13. Ronald Mudie says:

    Hi, St. Brides graveyard is about the first I researched when I became interested in old graveyards and still have all the info: on the family of James McKinlay named on the free standing memorial stone in the graveyard. I’ll copy here part of my research notes. Peter McKinlay, son, who died 4th June 1821 aged 31, was born in Inverchagerny on the 18th Feb.1797. His father was James but his mother is registered on the Church Birth Register as Helen Cameron and not Elenora as on the Grave-stone. I have a copy of the Birth Register and the entry finishes; a lawful son baptised called Peter. These details and spelling comes from the Birth Register and the page is dated 1797.
    It’s fun doing detective work on people who once were and what we do is to resurrect them in family name so we may study their past all those years ago.

  14. Sandy Macmillan of Callander used to drive a tourist bus in the town in the 1950’s and 1960’s he would take folk on various tours and mystery tours. As he drove past the grave yard he would relate the story of the Mckinleys and the president of the United States of America.

    • That’s a lovely story! Thank you for sharing it. Sandy sounds like a very interesting guy. I wonder what other places were on his list!

  15. Tony Beaman says:

    Fascinating stuff. We have two interesting graveyards one in Brig O’tURK and the other at the Trossachs Church graveyard you may find worth exploring.

  16. Maggie escott says:

    Thank u for a lovely story I don’t have anybody there but reading all the comments I was in tears by the time I’d finished reading them, you made it sound do interesting thank you sing God bless X

    • Thank you very much, Maggie! That is so nice that it moved you that much. It is a moving and beautiful place, and I’ve been astonished by the number of responses I have had from all over the world. It’s a real privilege to be able to bring people together with such a shared sense of ancestry. Blessings to you too! 🙂

  17. Candy Cairo says:

    Your attention to detail is lovely. At first, I thought it was the tiny old cemetery in Brig O’ Turk. I came upon that place recently and got a couple of nice photos.

  18. Richard Ridgwell says:

    I translated the Gaelic inscription, and it (basically) means: In your falling of the body into the grave under the hard chain of death that will rise up again at the sound of the high trumpet.

    • That’s amazing!! Thank you SO much, Richard. I am amazed that you could even read the words, let alone translate them. And what a lovely inscription. I feel as if it’s been preserved for posterity now, thanks to you! 🙂

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