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Aberdour and Inchcolme
Lecture 2


The old church and churchyard—The church a pre-Reformation one— The architecture of it—Inscription under west window—A church in Aberdour as early as the beginning of twelfth century—An early Columban settlement?—Fight between William de Mortimer and Canons of Inchcolme—Contest between the Canons and Simon of Balran—The chapel of Beaupre—The ‘Fechtin’ Bishop’ and Richard of Kirkcaldy—St. Fillan and his luminous arm—The Pilgrims’ Well —The Hospital of St. Martha : its site, foundation, endowment, confirmation, occupants, career, and fall—The Sisterlands.

Among the many objects of interest which are to be seen in and around our village, few have so many points of attraction as our old church, now in ruins, and the churchyard which surrounds it. The visitors who come to us during the bright months of summer have no sooner taken in the leading features of the landscape—the sparkling waters of the Firth, the cliffs of the 'Ha’ Craig,’ the beautifully-wooded 'Heughs ’ on the east, and the winding shore that stretches away to the west—than, as if by instinct, they turn to the old Castle and the old Church. And if the former is first visited, the more thoughtful stay for a longer time under the shadow of the now deserted church. The villagers, too, love this quiet retreat. Children are found playing on its moss-covered tombstones in sunny weather. Aged men, with staff in hand, are seen tottering among its stony records of the past, pointing out to one another where their early associates sleep, and giving a quiet glance at the place where they themselves will ere long be laid. Only they to whom the meditative mood never comes are strangers to the old churchyard. How picturesque and secluded is the situation! Standing on the south side of the church, you are almost within a stone-cast of the easter village; and yet, but for the occasional shout of children, and some little bustle about the harbour, you might think yourselves miles away from any human habitation. The Castle buildings catch the eye as you turn to the west; but their cold, grey, ruined walls only deepen the sense of solitude. Around you swell the grassy mounds, where ‘ the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep,’ with here and there an upright stone, or recumbent slab of more modern date, which the hand of affection has placed to mark the names and record the virtues of the sleepers below. And ever and anon the warning reaches the eye, if it does not strike the heart: Memento mori— Keep in mind that you have one day to die! Raising your eyes over the somewhat ruinous churchyard wall, the noble trees meet your view which William, the eighth Earl of Morton, planted more than two centuries ago; and to the right you see the glittering waters of the Firth and the waving outline of the blue Pentlands beyond.

And what reflections rise in the mind as we gaze on the grassy mounds all around us ! Here lie those who were inhabitants of the village more than seven centuries ago. Here sleep some of the unlettered peasantry of the dark and middle ages. Here are laid some of the scarcely more enlightened barons, and those retainers of theirs who fought alongside of them in many a skirmish, and were spared to return home, their warfare now ended. Here rest many of the former traders of the village. Sailors who in their time felt the tossing of many seas, have here found a quiet haven. Masters and servants have alike lain down to sleep here, the work of both over. The dust of friends and foes lies here peacefully blended. Here, side by side, repose ministers and people, teachers and scholars, parents and children. Here ‘the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.’ It is in such a place as this that Gray’s inimitable ‘Elegy’ should be studied, in order to discover its wonderful truthfulness to nature, as well as the literary beauties that lurk in every line. And perhaps there is no place where the finest passages of Blair’s celebrated poem, ‘The Grave,’ can be read with such effect as here, beside the grave and mouldering tombstone of his still more noted grandfather, Robert Blair, minister of St. Andrews, who was at one time chaplain to Charles the First, and who, being dead, yet speaketh ! in the Christian motto that can still be read on his poor crumbling monument, Mors Janua Vitae—Death is the Gate of Life.

But it is time to have done with these musings in order that we may have a careful look at the ruined church, and then tell something of its history, and what we know of those who have ministered and worshipped within its walls.

A careful look at the old church tells us that it was built before the Reformation, although some alterations have been made on its original structure. And yet, roofless and hastening to utter decay as it is, its early form can easily be traced. The easternmost part—the chancel—which is 23 feet 8 inches long by 18 feet 7 inches wide, measured from the outside, was the portion set apart for the use of those who performed Divine service. It was separated from the nave or body of the church by a screen, and was lighted by four narrow round-headed windows. Three of these have, to some extent, been altered, but the original construction may easily be seen from an examination of the one in the north wall. Although these windows are 3 feet in length, they are only 12 inches wide on the outside; but they widen in the interior into a deep splay, till the opening measures, at its greatest width, 4 feet 2 inches. Beneath one of the windows is an ambry, in which the utensils of the altar were, in all likelihood, kept. There is a fine arch, of a decidedly Norman character, between the chancel and the nave; and the nave has an aisle on its south side. The pillars which divide the nave from the aisle are cylindrical in form, and very strong in proportion to their height. They support three large semicircular arches. The north wall is nearly perfect, and is pierced by three windows. Only one of these, however, is old—the narrow round-headed one, which is 5 feet long by 14 inches wide. There was at one time a round-headed door, near the west end of this wall. The building which joins on to the wall in question was first an aisle, and is now converted into a vault. It was no part of the original building; but was erected in 1608 by the family of Phin of Whitehill, whose initials, along with the date, are still to be read on it. The south wall is very much reduced in height; and, while a great quantity of rubbish has been allowed to collect inside of it, it is still more to be regretted that a bank of earth has been heaped against it on the outside, which makes the wall appear much lower than it actually is. And, strange to say, in this forced earth graves have been dug, and the dead buried, which renders improvement in that direction wellnigh impossible. The west wall has a double splayed window, with two pointed lights, and a pear-shaped opening in the head. The whole appearance of this window points it out as comparatively modern ; and the way in which the belfry is placed on the wall points it out as evidently of a still more recent date. Immediately under the window is a slab with the following inscription in capital letters highly relieved :—

PANS 1 • O • PILGRIM THAT PASSITH - BY • THIS • WAY VPON • THYN • END AND • THOV • SAL • FEAR • TO • SIN AND • THINK • ALSO VPON • THE • LATTER • DAY WHEN • THOV • TO • GOD . MAN > COVNT THEN • BEST • THOV • NOW • BEGIN.

I shall by and by show you that Aberdour was in early times a great place of resort for pilgrims, owing to the attractions of a holy well; and I think it likely that it was for the benefit of these strangers, in the first instance, that this inscription was placed under the window of the church.

The date 1588 on the belfry gives us, in all likelihood, the period when the latest alterations of any moment were made on the church. But the great body of the building, as I have already said, is manifestly very old, and may have been reared a century, or even two, before the period of the Reformation. The nave is 55 feet long, and, including the aisle, is 35 feet wide. The vault belonging to the Morton family is evidently an innovation, and was probably constructed about the time when William, the eighth Earl, came to reside at the Castle. But of this vault, and those whose remains rest within it, we shall have more to say in another connection.1 The porch at the south-west corner of the church was evidently the entrance to the building before alterations had been made on it, probably about the time of the Reformation. Although roofless, it is pretty entire. The inner door is still traceable; and a little to the east of it is a small recess, probably what is called a ‘stoupe,’ for holding holy water.

Concluding from the evidence that has been laid before you, that this old church was the place of worship for the parish throughout a period stretching from before the Reformation till the close of last century, much of a historical kind that is interesting might be told regarding it, although our researches should go no further back. But we know, from the Bull of Pope Alexander the Third, to which reference has already been made, that there was a church at Aberdour as early as the year 1178. This carries us nearly four hundred years further back, to a period between the conquest of Ireland by Henry the Second and the Third Crusade; and some information regarding the church of Aberdour between that early time and the period of the Reformation may be gleaned from the Chartulary of Inchcolme, and other quarters.

The question, indeed, may at this stage be put, and should get an answer, whether authentic information does not carry us further back still. It is to be remembered that when the Romans invaded our country, in the eightieth year of the Christian era, the inhabitants, both north and south of the Forth, were Pagans. The first rays of Christianity seem to have come to Scotland with soldiers of the squadrons of the Ciesars. It would thus appear that it was not from Romish Priests, but Roman soldiers, that the light first came which, in spite of many a temporary eclipse, was to put to flight the darkness of Paganism. Indeed, the early Christian Church, in the northern part as well as in the south of our island, was on many questions decidedly opposed to the tenets of Rome, and for centuries withstood her arrogant claims. It is no doubt true, as the historians tell us, that St. Ninian came as Bishop to the Southern Piets, and St. Palladius as Bishop to the Scots, when these were yet separate and rival nations. But every intelligent reader of the New Testament knows that the earliest bishops were simply pastors : and Ninian and Palladius were, as has been well said, more like itinerant Methodist preachers, or missionaries, than bishops in the modern sense of the term. Strange as it may sound in some ears, the land to which our country was more indebted than to any other in those early days was Ireland. From that country came Columba and his missionary companions, in the sixth century, to Iona, from which, as a base, they operated on both Scots and Picts, carrying the blessings of Christianity away also into the northern parts of England, and eventually even into distant parts of the continent of Europe. Now it certainly would be an interesting thing could we discover how the district in which we live was affected by the labours of the first missionaries of the Cross among the Southern Piets; what rays of Christianity, reflected from the Roman soldiery who professed it, had struggled into the district; how far the labours of St. Ninian told on its inhabitants; and to what extent the preaching of St. Columba and his followers among them was successful. Much as we would hail information of such a kind regarding these early times, it has to be admitted that it is only when we come to the last-named period that we have any written reference to our neighbourhood, and even that is sometimes of rather a shadowy kind. Over the whole neighbourhood, however, there is a hazy gleam, telling of Columba, and his influence over it. It is not merely that the monastery on Inchcolme was dedicated to him, and stands on an island called by his name—an island which he is said to have visited, and on which a hermit devoted to his service undoubtedly had his cell before the monastery was founded,—but from the earliest times of which we have any notice, Aberdour has belonged to the See of Dunkeld, which was the headquarters of the Columban missionaries after they left Iona; and the patron saint of our church was St. Fillan, who, like Columba himself, was Scoto-Irish. If Columba did not personally labour in our neighbourhood, there is every likelihood that some of his followers did. There are many strange stories told of the labours of St. Servanus at Culross, on the one hand, and Dysart on the other, but none of his spurious miracles are said to have been wrought here.

Coming down, now, to the notices of the church of Aberdour contained in the Chartulary of Inchcolme, some may be ready to ask, as a preliminary question, where the church of the twelfth century stood. To this we reply—and we have already assumed it—that undoubtedly it occupied the site of the present ruined church. It was a most unusual thing in early times to shift the site of a church; and when this was done, the old churchyard infallibly told where the earlier church had stood. And as no earlier churchyard than that which surrounds the ruined church is known, we may be quite sure that from the very earliest times any church that existed at Aberdour stood there.

What would we not give for a look at the little church of the twelfth century, to mark its appearance, to see the worshippers in their old-fashioned costume, and especially to observe the religious services in which they engage? Would we not give a great deal to see what goes on in it, on some high day, which has brought the Abbot and Canons over from Inchcolme, and has called together a great many of the inhabitants of Aberdour? Now it so happens that by means of one of the old charters we do get a glimpse of what goes on, both in and around the church, at a very early time. It is somewhere towards the close of the twelfth century. The church of Aberdour had become vacant, probably by the death of the Vicar, whose name does not transpire, and it became necessary to appoint a successor. It would appear, moreover, that even as far back as the times of the Crusades, a vacancy in the church of Aberdour could not be filled up without a good deal of din and dust. The Abbot and Canons of Inchcolme were the undoubted patrons of the benefice. But it so happened that David, Earl of Huntingdon, the brother of the King (William the Lion), had heard of the vacancy —being probably at the time resident at Dunfermline,—and he made application to William de Mortimer on behalf of Robert, his clerk, that he might be appointed to the charge. William de Mortimer was a member of the family of whom I have already spoken as possessors of the castle and barony of Aberdour. He was, no doubt, anxious to oblige the King’s brother; and although it might have been considered an obstacle in the way that he happened not to be the patron, yet the barons of those days were not men to stick at trifles, and so Robert was, in the most handsome manner, presented to the vacant charge. Some legal forms, however, needed to be gone through ere Robert’s position was quite impregnable. He had to be seised and vested in the church, or inducted, as we should now-a-days say; and this business, to be gone about fairly, had to be managed by certain messengers sent by the baron, as well as some clerks of the King’s. But much falls between the cup and the lip, and it is difficult to catch either a fox or an abbot asleep. The tidings of what was that day to be done had been carried by some bird of the air across the water to Inchcolme, and so Abbot and Canons were early astir, and the oars of their boat, as they skimmed the water, gleamed in the rays of the morning sun. The mainland being reached, the members of the Convent were seen making straight for the church, and it was high time for them to enter an appearance, for others were there bent on giving them trouble. The Abbot and Canons took up their position before the door of the church, holding a cross aloft, and various precious relics, which, we fear, were made still more worthy of the name by that day’s service; and thus shielded by the symbols of sanctity, these reverend fathers lifted up their voices when the clerks and messengers appeared, and declared that the deed that day threatened to be done was a foul wrong, and there and then they formally put the church of Aberdour under the protection of the Pope, and made their appeal to him. All this was of course sufficiently imposing, and might have been considered weighty enough to stay proceedings in the matter of Robert’s induction for that day at least. But it did not produce the desired effect on William de Mortimer and his retainers; for the Canons of Inchcolme were shamefully beaten, dragged about, and put to flight, and Robert was intruded into the charge (omnibus tandetn turpiter pulsatis, tractatis, atque fugatis, Robertum intru-serunt). A very early and aggravated case of intrusion, you will all admit ! But Robert did not long enjoy the hard-won emoluments, or even the honours, of his office. The Abbot and Canons found ways and means by which William de Mortimer and Robert his protege were brought to a sense of their wrong-doing. For by and by we find Robert making his peace with the brethren of Inchcolme, and giving up all claim to the church; and William de Mortimer signs a deed, in which he makes a most humbling confession of the wrong he has done, and, declaring that he has now discovered that the church of Aberdour had belonged to the Canons of Inchcolme in the days of King Alexander, King David, and King Malcolm, he renounces all claim to be patron of it.

A considerable time elapses ere we get another peep into the church of those early times. At length the year 1273 comes round. It is in the troublous times that followed the melancholy death of Alexander the Third, at Kinghorn, in our neighbourhood. To those who wish something named contemporary with what I am about to relate, it may be said that Dante, the Italian poet, was alive at the time. It is Thursday, and the first return of that day after the Feast of St. Leonard, so it must have been in the gloomy month of November. On that day there is again a great concourse of people in the old church. Robert de Stutte-ville, Bishop of Dunkeld, who played such an important part in the rebellion headed by the Earl of Menteith, is there. So are representatives of the Convent of Inchcolme. And, last of all, among the leading personages we see Simon of Balran—a place in our neighbourhood, now known as Balram. But, in addition to these, there are present, as the old charter assures us, a great many men of credit and renown. A controversy is evidently going on, and while the Bishop sits as umpire, and some member of the Convent makes a statement on the one side, Simon replies on the other. At length the Bishop thinks the matter is clear enough, and gives his decision ; whereupon a roll of parchment is produced, and a scribe sits down and writes leisurely a statement, which is read in the hearing of all. Then the Bishop appends his seal, and Simon does the same; and the matter takes end. And what, you are ready to ask, is it all about? Has Simon been suspected of heresy, and has he appealed to the judgment of the Bishop of the diocese? And has he at length recanted, and appended his seal to a declaration in harmony with the views of Holy Mother Church ? Nothing of the kind. The dispute is regarding the land of Leyis, which Simon’s grandfather had made over to the Monastery, and regarding the ownership of which some question has now arisen. But Simon seems to stand quite erect, in presence of the Bishop and the Canons of Inchcolme, and states his case, and claims what he deems to be his right. And he must have made some impression on the Bishop, for while he quitclaims the land of Leyis to the Monastery, and appends his seal to the document which declares this, forty silver marks have to pass over from the purse of the treasurer of the Convent into Simon’s pocket.

We have hitherto been speaking of the old church of Aberdour as if it had been the only one in the parish. But it may interest you to know that, at a very early period, there was a chapel, in our immediate, neighbourhood, at a place called Beaupre. The name, curiously enough, is French, signifying ‘the beautiful meadow,’ and has now become corrupted into Bowprie. I find mention made of this chapel as early as the year 1320, six years after the battle of Bannockburn. The place was, at that time, known as the Grange of Beaupre. It was, no doubt, a farm place belonging to the brethren of the Monastery, where their grain was stored. Most of the religious houses of the time had granges, and it was not an uncommon thing for such places to have a chapel attached to them. Let us see what goes on in the little chapel at Beaupre on the occasion referred to. It is a Saturday, and a day set apart to commemorate the holy widow Felicitas; so it is once more in the month of November. No less a personage is present than William Sinclair, Bishop of Dunkeld, ‘the Fechtin’ Bishop, as he is sometimes called. He has not had far to come, having in all likelihood been living at the time at the baronial residence of the Bishop of Dunkeld, near Auchtertool, a residence afterwards known as Hallyards, and now called Camilla. Sir Richard, the chaplain of Aberdour, is also present ; a person of the name of William Godard; a workman belonging to Aberdour, whose name is Thomas, probably either the joiner or the blacksmith of the village; and many more. But in addition to all these there is a stranger present, a Churchman too he is, as you may perceive by his dress. He is Richard of Kirkcaldy, Rector of the church of Melville, in the diocese of St. Andrews, and he has come to settle a little matter of business before the Bishop. There has been a misunderstanding between him and the Abbot and Convent of Inchcolme. Near the church of Leslie, then called Fithkil, which belonged to the Monastery of Inchcolme, there stood a little chapel called ‘ the Chapel of the Blessed Mary.’ It stood near the cemetery of the church of Fithkil, a church regarding which many interesting things, both ancient and modern, might be told, among others this, that, according to Allan Ramsay, it was the scene of the famous Scottish poem, 'Christ’s Kirk on the Green.’ It might be supposed that in the case of such a matter as a chapel there could be little room for a contest as to ownership. Yet so it was. The Rector of Melville claimed it, and so did the Abbot and Convent of Inchcolme. Richard of Kirkcaldy has, however, now got more light on the matter, whether struck out by the blows of controversy, or due to the presence of ‘the Fechtin’ Bishop,’ we shall not determine. But he is now willing to renounce all claim of right and law to the Chapel of the Blessed Mary, and he is there that day to append his seal to a document which sets this clearly forth. The various seals are of course appended to the agreement, but to make assurance doubly sure, a copy of the Scriptures, laid open at the Holy Evangelists, is placed before the Rector, and with his hand on it he solemnly swears his renunciation of right.

After this slight digression we turn again to the old church of Aberdour. It was the custom long ago to dedicate every church to some saint or other. I mentioned incidentally a little while ago that our old church was dedicated to St. Fillan. This was easily said, but who can describe the labour expended ere it could be stated as an undoubted fact? I made inquiry about it at the living, without success ; I had recourse to the dead, through the books they had written; but where I found any reference made to the church, the place where the saint’s name should have been was a blank. I made inquiry as to the date of Aberdour Fair, thinking to steal a march on the saint in that way. But I found that the 20th of June—your Fair-day— led me to St. Columba’s Day. In the immediate neighbourhood of the Monastery dedicated to him, it was not wonderful that St. Columba should have eclipsed a minor saint. In short, it was not until, hunting for some fact connected with the village, I lighted on the will of Sir James Douglas, of date 1390, and printed in the Morton papers, that I found what had so long evaded my search. The lands and barony of Aberdour, as we lately saw, passed from the hands of the 4 Knight of Liddesdale ’ into those of his nephew, Sir James Douglas. This Sir James, I found, being desirous of giving some token of good-will to the church nestling under the shadow of his castle, bequeathed ^3, 6s. 8d., a considerable sum in those days, for the purchase of vestments for the church of St. Fillan of Aberdour. So the problem was at length solved. And who, it may be asked, was St. Fillan? I have already spoken of him as a Scoto-Irish saint, but something-more special must now be said of him. Judging from the accounts which have been handed down to us, he was a man in every way worthy of our notice. It appears that as early as the seventh century he was Abbot of Pittenweem in Fife. But so much did he love solitude that he retired from the bustle of that place, which must surely have been something more formidable then than it is now; and he ended his days in a hermitage in the wilds of Glenorchy in Perthshire. This good man, it further appears, had many remarkable and useful qualities. While engaged in writing, his left arm, resting on the parchment, emitted so brilliant a light that, in the darkest nights, a candle or a lamp was to him quite a superfluity, and as he was a late sitter, this arm of his must have proved a great saving to the convent; although, of course, it could not be so conveniently carried about for the general behoof as a lamp could. In the pages of monkish chroniclers everything out of the common run of events connected with the Church or Churchmen was spoken of as miraculous, to the sad detriment of those incidents which, at the beginning of the Christian era, had a right to be so regarded. But we have no doubt that St. Fillan, could he only be properly described, would be found to have had many real excellencies. The virtues of his luminous arm, if we may believe the chroniclers, did not pass away with his life. It was deemed worthy of being placed in a silver shrine after the good man had no more personal need of it; and many a remarkable incident was traced to it. It is well known that King Robert the Bruce had a great reverence for the memory of St. Fillan, and this silver shrine was carried at the head of his army to the field of Bannockburn. I have intentionally said the shrine ; but there can be no doubt that both the King and the saint intended that the arm should be in it. Maurice, Abbot of Inchaffray, afterwards Bishop of Dunblane, was however a man of considerably less faith than Bruce was, and thinking it a possible thing that the casket might fall into the hands of the English, he, keeping the secret meanwhile to himself, deposited the arm in a place of safety at a distance from the battlefield, and with much pawky coolness marched before the army with the empty casket. In the heat of the battle the Bruce is said to have uttered a hasty prayer to the saint, turning his eyes the while to the casket, little dreaming that it was empty. The Abbot retained his gravity, but the saint could stand the deception no longer. Was the Bruce to risk life and limb, and his kingdom to boot, on the issue of the battle, and was St. Fillan to connive at the cowardice of being afraid to risk his dead arm, or be guilty of the meanness of pretending that he ran the risk ? The thing was not for a moment to be thought of! The Bruce’s prayer was hardly uttered when the lid of the casket was observed to open suddenly, and as suddenly to close with a click. The battle was won, and Scotland was free; and when the casket was opened, in it lay the arm of St. Fillan!

Well, we know that the battle of Bannockburn was fought and won in another way than this. Brawny arms wielding heavy claymores dealt sturdy blows to the assailants of the independence of Scotland, and manly hearts, that throbbed with a strong passion for freedom and with the scorn of tyranny, lent weight to these blows. But above all, God, who has endowed man with the love of freedom, had better things in store for our countrymen, and for us, than the substitution of debasing servitude for that liberty which is Scotland’s birthright. The monkish fable which I have related to you no doubt betrays much weakness and ignorance; but it, and other similar stories that find a place in the chronicler’s pages, indicate another quality, for which I must utter a word of commendation in reference to the ecclesiastics of Scotland in those early days. These men, Roman Catholics though they were, were at the same time patriots. They loved their country, and had no sympathy with any one who tampered with its civil liberty, be he king, prelate, or pope. The system of Popery has expanded since then, and as it has developed it has sunk in character. Ultramontanism means the bondage of conscience and the death of patriotism.

Wherever you find a church or chapel dedicated to St. Fillan, the likelihood is that you will find near it a well, or pool of water, which in old times was believed to be endowed with miraculous qualities. Near the old church of St. Fillan’s, in the parish of Killin, there is a pool called the ‘ Holy Pool,’ which was long thought to be efficacious in the cure of lunacy; and many were the cases in which, down to a comparatively recent period, those afflicted with that sad ailment were dipped in it. In the Statistical Account of that parish there is a curious notice of a bell which belonged to this church, and has now found a resting-place in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh. This bell, which is about 18 inches in height, is of an oblong shape, as is the case with many ecclesiastical bells of a great age, and it was reputed to have many strange qualities. When any one was dipped in the pool for lunacy the cure was thought incomplete till the bell was put on the patient’s head. It was believed also to be possessed of a very convenient quality, which effectually prevented its being stolen. When any one carried it off, it found its way back to the old chapel with as unerring certainty as the saint’s arm did to its silver shrine at Bannockburn. It seems, too, to have amused itself on its return journey home by ringing all the way!

I do not know that our church-of St. Fillan had any remarkable bell belonging to it; but undoubtedly we can claim a pilgrims’ well of great notoriety, and there is great likelihood that this well owed something of its supposed potency to the saint. As a long blank now occurs in the information we have regarding the old church, I shall devote the remainder of this lecture to an account of the Hospital of St. Martha, which owed its origin to the well in question.

If little has hitherto been known by the villagers in modern times regarding their old church, still less is known in reference to this Hospital. So much had the lapse of three hundred years obliterated the memory of it, that, in answer to many inquiries, I could elicit from the villagers no more information about it than this: that a ‘nunnery’ once stood on the site of the old manse in the easter village, and that the ground known as ‘the Sisterlands’ had at one time belonged to it. The very name of the Hospital had been forgotten. It is on this account a source of great pleasure to me to be able to give some account of this interesting old place.

The Hospital of St. Martha, then, did stand on the site afterwards occupied by the old manse in the easter village; and the buildings connected with it, in all likelihood, extended a considerable way back from the main street. None of the original buildings now remain, but the curious in such matters may still discover some of the stones that composed the old edifice built into the wall that encloses the garden immediately behind. The hospital owed its origin to James, the first Earl of Morton, who was married to one of the daughters of King James the First of Scotland. We know that in the year 1474 Michael was Abbot of the Monastery of Inchcolme, and Sir John Scot was Vicar of Aberdour. At that early period Aberdour was much resorted to by pilgrims, the great source of attraction being the ‘Pilgrims’ Well, of which I have just spoken. The heart of the Vicar had, it appears, often been melted at the thought of the little accommodation provided for these pilgrims and poor people, and he earnestly besought the Earl to provide some shelter for them ; hinting, at the same time, that it was a good opportunity for him to do something for the expiation of his own sins, and those of his progenitors. The Vicar’s suggestion was piously and warmly entertained by the Earl, and steps were taken to have the work gone about with all possible despatch. It may have helped on the work that the Pope, Sixtus the Fourth, had, about three years before this time, written a letter to Lord Morton, as to other important personages, intimating his assumption of the purple, his desire that heretics should be exterminated, and Holy Mother Church thus be more firmly established than ever, and that kings and princes should, in short, do their best for the Pope, in which case he would do his best for them. Such a work as the foundation of a religious house could not, however, be well proceeded with until the sanction of the Abbot and Canons of Inchcolme should be got, seeing that one of their number was to have charge of it. The Earl accordingly addressed a formal request to them that they would allow the Vicar of Aberdour to have the care, administration, disposition, and conservation of the Hospital about to be erected, it being understood that the successors of the Vicar in the church of Aberdour should succeed, by virtue of this office, to the rectorial care of the projected institution. The Abbot and Canons at once granted his Lordship’s request, and they bound themselves in the most solemn manner to be no parties to the alienation of the property of the Hospital, or the application of its revenues to other purposes than those which the literal rendering of his Lordship’s deed of foundation warranted. In their deed of obligation they further declared that, since the work contemplated by his Lordship is one which is in itself good, and flows from charity, they would be ashamed in any way to turn its revenues aside to other purposes. Poverty with the favour of God, they say, is to them dearer than riches without it. And since they themselves delight in the projected work, and have a wish to please his Lordship, their approval is all the more readily given. It is understood that the Vicar and his successors in office are to have the care and management of the Hospital if no canonical impediment should stand in the way; and the whole Convent give the assurance that they will not sell nor appropriate it to their own use, or the use of any other; neither will they intromit with its revenue in any other way than the literal rendering of his Lordship’s deed of concession and ordination warrants.

Then comes the charter, on which the deed of obligation proceeds, in which James Earl of Morton wishes all men to take notice that he has, of his own free will, made over in the surest way that acre of land lying within the territory of his town of Aberdour, at the east end of it, and on the north side of the road which leads to the town of Kingorne (Kinghorn), to that religious man, his familiar and beloved friend, Sir John Scot, Vicar of Aberdour, and his assignees. The Earl relates how the pious importunity of the Vicar had led him to consider whether he ought not to do something which might be a solace to pilgrims, and some measure of support to the poor, and which might, at the same time, be dedicated to the Omnipotent God, and His Most Blessed Mother, Mary, our Lady, ever-Virgin, and the blessed Martha, the hostess of our Lord Jesus Christ; which, moreover, might be of some avail towards the expiation of his own sins and the sins of his parents. For these ends his Lordship desires it may be known that he has given the aforesaid acre of land, and as great a space over and above this as is required for the site of the proposed buildings; that he has given free entrance and exit to and from every part of the buildings, as well as the acre; also that he has given as much land on the east side of the proposed site as will suffice for a cart-road. All this, he further declares, is done with the consent of his two sons, John his heir, and James his younger son.

It is stipulated, in reference to the Vicar, that he shall have during his lifetime, and after him the Vicars his successors, the whole care and management of the Hospital, unless they shall neglect it, or turn its revenues aside to other uses than those for which it has been founded. Nor shall the Vicar be removed from his office as Rector of the Hospital, and from the rights belonging to it, unless he becomes an oppressor of the poor or a spoiler of their goods. It is further stipulated that, if anything should happen, at the instance of any of the Earl’s heirs or assignees, to invalidate this grant of land, he shall be held to have granted to the Vicar, and the Hospital of St. Martha, fourteen acres of land, lying at the west boundary of the town of Dalkeith : which land his Lordship had bought with his own money from Marcus Dunbar. And in order that nothing more may be wanting to complete the transaction, William Gifford, his Lordship’s uncle, is ordered to give state and seisin of the land to the Vicar. The Earl’s seal is appended to the charter, at Dalkeith, on the ioth of July 1474, and the Monastery seal is appended to the obligation. Such is the nature of the first document connected with the Hospital. The ecclesiastics of those early days were great adepts in the art of leading men on to the ice, as regards gifts of land. One acre of land, even at that time, must have been quite inadequate to the maintenance of the Hospital. But the great thing was to get his Lordship on the ice. A gentle push would keep him moving after that. Accordingly, after five years had elapsed, we find the Earl granting three additional acres of land in his town of Aberdour, which acres were then occupied by John Young the fuller, and Robert and Walter Cant, and this land is to be held as a donation to the Hospital, for behoof of the poor people living and lodging there : with all and whole the liberties and commodities pertaining to it—bloodwytes excepted : and alienation of the land is prohibited, under pain of the Divine indignation. His Lordship ordains, moreover, that in case any one shall ever think of building on the south of the street, near the Hospital, there shall be left such a space as then existed between the house of Clement Cant and the house of David Hume, so that there may be, in all time coming, a road not less than sixteen ells in. breadth, extending to ‘le pilgramys well.’ Of this well I shall have something to say at a later stage.

His Lordship having granted this additional boon, it may occur to some one to ask what corresponding advantage he was likely to reap. We are far from supposing that the consciousness of showing kindness to the poor pilgrims was not considered by him a sufficient reward. But in addition to this, he was allowed the privilege of indicating what souls were daily to be prayed for by the Vicar, and those who were to enjoy the shelter of the Hospital. And the Earl availed himself of this privilege, as the following list will show, which embraces the names and designations of some persons then living, of others who had been long dead, and references to others still who had not yet been born.

There was, first of all, the soul of the late illustrious monarch, James the Third; then the soul of the illustrious Queen Margaret his spouse; and the souls of the excellent Prince, James the Fourth and his children. After these the Earl enumerates the soul of James Douglas, of happy memory, his great-grandfather; also of James Douglas, of happy memory, the father of the founder, and Elizabeth his mother. He seems to have had some pique at his grandfather, for he is not named. Then, to continue the list, there was his own soul, that of his illustrious lady, Johanna, the third daughter of James the First; the souls of John and James his sons, and of Johanna and Elizabeth his daughters; with all his ancestors, successors, and benefactors, and all the faithful dead.

Such were the persons whose souls were to be prayed for while the Hospital stood; and regularly as the hour of noon came round, the poor persons and pilgrims who found shelter within its walls were to assemble in the chapel of the Hospital, after the ringing of the bell, and there, on bended knees, were devoutly to repeat five Paternosters and five Ave Marias. It is long since the bell of St. Martha’s Hospital has ceased to ring; long since pilgrims and palmers flocked to Aberdour to drink the waters of its. holy well; and long since, at the hour of noon, they hied to the little chapel to repeat on bended knees Paternosters and Angelical Salutations. Yet we might profit by making the inquiry whether we are as earnest, as devout, and as true to the greater light we enjoy, as the founder of St. Martha’s Hospital and the pilgrims who frequented its chapel, nearly four centuries ago, were to the measure of light they possessed.

It has to be stated, to the credit of his Lordship, that, in this second charter, there is found a stringent clause ordaining that if the Rector of the Hospital should ever abuse the revenues committed to his care, or lead an immoral life, he should be expelled from the office, and some God-fearing man put in his place.

An important part of the history of the Hospital has yet to be told. Lord Morton had been led gently on the ice, and had got one push. Another was yet necessary. First one acre of land had been bestowed on the contemplated Hospital. Then other three had been granted; and it had been arranged that the fruit and produce of the lands thus given should for three years be applied to the erection of the necessary buildings, and afterwards go to the support of the poor pilgrims. In i486—twelve years after the project was launched—his Lordship is found complaining that, after all he has given, the works are not yet completed. And in that year he grants other four acres of his lands of Inchmartin, lying near the Hospital, and at that time occupied by David Gifford, making altogether eight acres.

In this year, moreover, we detect a change of purpose of an important kind. The first project was to have a Hospital, of which the Vicar of Aberdour and his successors in office should be Rectors. Now that plan is laid aside, and it is resolved that four Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis shall look after the pilgrims. With a view to this, we find Sir John Scot making over to Lord Morton, in favour of Isobel and Jean Wight, Frances Henryson, and Jean Dross, Sisters of the Holy Order of St. Francis, the care and administration of the poor travellers; and it is expressly enjoined that these Sisters shall daily go into the chapel, at the hour of noon, when the bell has ceased to ring, and repeat, on bended knees, five Paternosters and five Angelical Salutations, with such other prayers as are pleasing to them. These Sisters are expressly mentioned in the last charter which his Lordship granted; and the various gifts which he had made to the Hospital through the Vicar are made over to them and their successors in office.

The Hospital, under the guardianship of these ladies, was speedily equipped, and in the following year, 1487, it was confirmed by a Bull of Pope Innocent the Eighth. The nuns of the Order thus installed in the Hospital of St. Martha go by various names: Poor Clares, Nuns of St. Clair, Claresses, and Sisters of Penitence of the Third Order of St. Francis. Two facts account for all these designations. The nuns referred to were originally established by St. Clair in Italy, and they were admitted into the Order of Franciscans by St. Francis himself. St. Francis prescribed a particular Rule for them, full of austerities, but whether or not our Aberdour nuns followed it strictly, I am not in a position to say.

Although the Hospital was short-lived—having after its full equipment had only a career extending over seventy-three years—it might have been expected that some notices of its history should be extant. That it gave shelter to many a poor pilgrim, coming to Aberdour to seek some assuagement of pain by the use of the waters of the holy well, we cannot doubt. But the only scrap of information I can find regarding it has reference to its fall, at the time of the Reformation. On the 18th of August 1560, the nuns—whose names at that time were Agnes Wrycht, called Mother, and Elizabeth Trumball, Margaret Crummy, and Cristina Cornawell, Sisters—set in feu to James, Earl of Morton, afterwards the celebrated Regent, the eight acres commonly called ‘the Sisterlands,’ with the place and garden in the town of Aberdour; and this they did, with their hand at the pen, led by notary—which means that they could not write their own names. To this deed the Convent seal, having a figure of the Virgin, was affixed.

Spotiswood, in his Religious Houses, speaking of the nuns who followed the Order of St. Francis, says, ‘The nuns of this institute had only two houses in this country, namely, Aberdour in the shire of Fife, and Dundee in the shire of Angus, of whom there is little or no mention made by our writers.’

A sentence or two more regarding the Pilgrims’ Well, and I have done. I have little doubt, from what aged people have told me, that this well lay about thirty yards to the south-east of the south-east corner of the old churchyard. There is another well, with a fine spring of water, to the south of this locality, and quite close to the harbour; but tradition does not point to it as having at any time had more than ordinary virtue in its water; whereas old people have assured me that, within the memory of their parents, persons afflicted with sore eyes used to come from a great distance to seek relief from the application of the water of the other well. This, in all likelihood, was the last trace of the old belief, that it possessed miraculous efficacy. The practice of superstitiously resorting to so-called holy wells engaged the attention of the Synod of Fife as lately as the year 1649, and the following is the resolution which was then come to: ‘The Assemblie, being informit that some went superstitiouslie to wellis, denominat from Saintis, ordains Presbitries to tak notice thairof, and to censure these that are guiltie of that fait.’ As the Synod met on that occasion in Dunfermline, it is not unlikely that the deliverance may have had some reference to the Pilgrims’ Well at Aberdour.

Such are a few facts regarding your old church, and such the history—now, I believe, for the first time told—of the Hospital of St. Martha. I wish the narrative had been made more interesting. But it has been a task of some difficulty, out of a few legal documents, abounding in contractions, and in some parts effaced, to produce an intelligible history of the old nunnery, not to speak of an interesting one.


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