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The Blackhalls of that Ilk and Barra
Chapter VI. — The Blackhalls, Burgesses of Aberdeen


IT will be remembered that William Blackhall of that Ilk, who had a charter of Fola-Blackwater in 1503, was in 1504-5 admitted a Burgess of Guild of Aberdeen. The Blackhalls of that Ilk, although the chiefs of the name, and at the period now referred to possessed of considerable landed property, do not appear to have had so much land as the junior branch at Barra. This it was which probably prompted William Blackhall to turn his eyes towards Aberdeen and the wealth which flowed thither from the larger world beyond. What in this instance the laird of Blackhall did, the younger sons even of those whose estates were much larger than Blackhall’s frequently had to do. When the stripling, with or without his father’s blessing, did not betake himself to seek his fortune in the camps of Europe, he frequently sought it more safely in the marts at home and abroad. Both roads frequently led to greater wealth and consequence than the aspirants for these left upon their patrimony attained. Such was the experience of Alexander Leslie, ultimately first Earl of Leven and Field Marshall in the Army of Gustavus Adolphus, “ the lion of the North and the bulwark of Protestantism,” who joined that monarch possessed of nothing but his sword, his bastardy—and his genius ; and also that of William Forbes, ultimately of Craigievar and much else, who, as the story goes, giving his brother, the Bishop of Aberdeen and laird of Corse, God Almighty as security for a loan, sought and found wealth in commerce at Dantzig.

The Aberdeen burgesses of Guild, in those feudal days, were not uncommonly the younger sons of county families and aristocratic pretensions, manifested themselves strongly among the city fathers.

So much so, that there appears to have been a division of burgesses into classes with very different privileges.

An interesting resumi of these classes, and of the conditions of burgess-ship, will be found in Mr. A. M. Munro’s Introduction to the New Spalding Club Miscellany, Vol. I. It appears that there were three classes of burgesses, viz., burgesses of Guild, with fuller trading privileges, who claimed the right to rule the city; “simple burgesses,” who traded in home productions, but not with foreign countries, either as exporters or importers ; and burgesses of trade who merely had licences to manufacture and sell their wares in the city. The privileged class were the burgesses of Guild, frequently recruited by the admission of the sons and relatives of the county gentry, and very chary of allowing their fellow-burgesses in other classes to interfere either in the government of the town or in the larger commercial undertakings of the period. Even in the annual procession or masquerade of craftsmen to St. Nicholas Kirk on Candlemas day, the brethren of the Guild supplied the knights in harness with their esquires. The city in small thus reproduced the feudal system outside its walls, and the burgess of Guild frequently considered himself, and sometimes was, gentilhomme et bourgeois.

The example set him by his father, William Blackhall or Blakhale of that Ilk, was followed by his second son Robert Blackhall, uho was elected a burgess of Guild in 1528. Prior to that, however, in 1518-19, he had sasine on Fola-Blackwater. (Exchequer Rolls, Appendix, p. 616.) Fola would appear to have been left by the burgess-coroner equally between his successor in Blackhall and his second son, for in a charter of confirmation by Queen Mary to Patrick Gordon of Auchmanze and his wife, Katharine Lumisdane, of the lands and town of Little Fola, it is remarked of this property in 1551, “quarum una dimidietas quondam Willelmo Blakhall de eodem, altera quondam Roberto Blakhall burgensi de Aberdene olim pertinuerunt (Reg. Mag. Sig., Vol. IV., p. 139). As the burgess-coroner only purchased half the lands of Fola (Reg. Mag. Sig. Lib., 14, No. 20), Robert Blackhall must, after his father’s death, have acquired his brother’s share also, for, on the 20th of July, 1529, he sold his shadow half of the lands of Little Fola-Blackwater to John Chalmer in Bobithan (Balbithan) for a sum of money paid to him “in his grave and cogent necessity.” (Reg. Mag. Sig. Lib., 23, No. 39.)

Doubtless there were instances in which this was a truthful description of the situation, and this may have been one of these, but the same phrase occurs so frequently in deeds of the feudal period when lands exchanged hands, that one cannot avoid the suspicion that it was at times neither more nor less than a prudent whine to propitiate a feudal superior, should he be asked to confirm the transfer at a future period. When Robert de Lyle of that Ilk, one of the claimants of the Mar Earldom, borrowed 112 merks from the Abbey of Paisley, he assigned to the abbey a third part of the fishery of Crukytshot, and speaks of the money as having been paid to him in his urgent necessity (in mea urgente necessitate). “This confession of poverty,” remarks Lord Crawford (The Eiarldvm of Mar and the Erskinesj, “is strange, for Robert de Lyle had been created a Lord of Parliament, circa 1446 ; and he and his descendants for at least three generations were well off." This was in all probability an example of the propitiatory whine which I have suggested might be dictated by prudence in those days. Of what interest could it be to the world at large that the seller was impecunious? William Blackhall we know died “in Pinkie” in 1547. It is probable that John Blackhall, the parish clerk of Inverurie, was a younger brother of these two, although I have not observed that fact positively stated in any document. The latter may or may not have been the father of John Blackhall, who owned two particates of land in Inverurie, and is described as dead (quondam) in 1574-7S. a charter granting certain rents in Inverurie to Alexander Hay, the Director of the Chancellery (Resist. Mag. Sig.); or, this John may have been the son of Robert Blackhall, the burgess of Aberdeen. In any case I arrive at the conclusion that Alexander Blackhall, whose succession to Blackhall was so eventful for his family, was, in all probability, the representative and son or grandson of Robert Blackhall, once of Eola. He was probably not young when he succeeded, and died, as we shall learn, in 1593. There is no positive evidence of the name of Robert Blackhall’s wife, but Douglas (Baronage, Vol. I., p. 36) states that Margaret, daughter of William Johnston of Caskieben, who fell at Floddcn in 1513, was married to “a son of Blackhall of that Ilk.” That “son” was, in all probability, Robert Blackhall of Fola, not the parish clerk, John Blackhall, as Dr. Davidson suggests. (Op. cit.) William Johnston, by his first wife, Margaret Meldrum (of Fyvie), had two children—his son and heir, and this daughter, Margaret Johnston or Blackhall. (Davidson’s Inverurie, p. 448.) Dr. Davidson, although he quotes Robert Blackhall’s taking sasine of Fola, does not appear to have been aware of his exact position in the family, and it may be remarked in passing, that, although Dr. Davidson gives considerable space in his book to the history of the Blackhalls, and gives much valuable information, he is in many particulars neither precise nor correct.

I shall return again to Alexander Blackhall, later of that Ilk, and shall now state what is known of other burgesses of the name in Aberdeen, and their relations.

Difficult as it is, in the absence uf an undisturbed charter-chest, to write a connected history of a family possessed of land, it is a much more difficult task to write a similar account of a family which has lost touch of that stationary factor in its history. Those engaged in such studies owe a debt of gratitude to officials who, like Mr. A. M. Munro, the City Chamberlain of Aberdeen, have used their opportunities of investigating the Archives to which they have access, for elucidating the bye-paths, as well as the main tracks in the history of the municipalities or districts with which they are connected. Fortunately, a very minute investigation of the burgess branch of the Blackhalls is not very essential now to the account to be given of their history, but the evidence we possess shows, that, down to a comparatively late date, there were Blackhalls in Aberdeen who regarded themselves as, and doubtless were, legitimate scions of the old stock.

In the list of burgesses roused from a documentary slumber by Mr. Munro, not unlike the long sleep upon which they have all entered, and whose names are written in the New Spalding Club Miscellany, Vol. I., the names of a good many Blackhalls are chronicled, and I am indebted to Mr. Munro for a chart in which he indicates the relationship of some of the burgesses and others in Aberdeen bearing that surname. Without doubt, descendants both of the Blackhall and Barra families played their part—spent their lives—in Aberdeen till the middle of the 17th century, and probably even until a little later.

Among the earlier Blackhalls burgesses of Aberdeen, in addition to those already mentioned, there was another Robert Blackhall, admitted on March 17th, 1595 (loc. cit.), and an Alexander Blackhall, described as “maltman,” who was admitted on August 14th, 1599, for whom a William Blackhall was cautioner. According to Mr. Munro, this Alexander was one of three brothers, descendants of the Blackhalls of that Ilk, who were all burgesses of Aberdeen.

After these there is an interval of a generation, before we meet with the admission of another Blackhall as burgess of Guild of Aberdeen, and that is in the person of Robert Blakhall, who was admitted ex gratia on September 8th, 1628, and is described as “servant to Lord Hay.” He was admitted, by favour no doubt, at the request of “Lord Hay,” a mode of admission for which there was precedent. A reference to Father Blakhal’s “Brieffe Narration” p. 44 (Spalding Club) leads to the conviction that the “Lord Hay” in question was the Earl of Errol and his “servant” a cousin of the worthy priest, and therefore probably descended from the Barra branch of the family. He is to be identified with Robert Blackhall of the Mill of Cruden, who in 1636 had sasine of the town and lands of Tarduff to himself and Susanna Ilaitlie, his wife and their heirs, from Alexander Blackhall, portioner of Finnersie. (Reg. of Sasittes, Vol. X., fol. 199.J This sasine on a charter of alienation is witnessed by James Blackhall, burgess in Aberdeen. His position as a servant to “Lord Hay” was probably that of a confidential manager, corresponding to the Secretary of the present day, in all probability without the writing, for this was regarded as a superfluous accomplishment by many even in the middle of the 17th century. This cousin is referred to by Father Blakhal more than once, and on one occasion took his part, very handsomely, in his absence. Readers of the “Brieffe Narration are aware that the first of the three“ noble Iadyes” to whom Father Blakhal was of service was Lady Isabella Hay, fifth daughter of Francis Earl of Erroll, Hereditary Constable of Scotland. She went to France, it would seem, to escape marriage with a Protestant, being a faithful daughter of the Church, and was consigned to the care of a Mr. Forbes in Paris, who seems to have begun by acting as her banker, and ended by falling in love with her. His suit was unacceptable, and led to the lady’s seeking the Court of Brussels, on the invitation of the Infanta, procured for her by Father Blakhal, whither she repaired in company with a female companion, an old steward of her family, and Father Blakhal, her confessor. Through the persistent efforts of the latter, the promise (ultimately fulfilled) of the lady-superiorship of a religious house was obtained for her from the Infanta. This journey and its object appear to have incensed Mr. Forbes and a Friend, whu misrepresented Father Blakhal’s action in the matter to Lady Isabella’s brother, the Earl of Erroll of the time, with the result of pouring the vials of his Lordship’s wrath on the head of the long-suffering but absent priest. “Her brother,” writes Father Blakhal. “reading that” (namely, that his sister had been taken to the Low Countries “among the sojours,”) “in two divers letters from trustie frinds, as he esteemed them, did fal in a great furie, and calling for a cousin of myn, called Robert Blakhal, who was his actual servant, said, ‘Robin, do you know Father Blakhal in France?’ ‘Yes, my lord,’ said he, ‘a very honest man.’ ‘A very basse knave and a traitour,’ said my lord; ‘he and Alexander Davidson hath taken my sister out of France, unacquainted Mr. Forbes and Mr. Annan, as they show me in their letters, and carried her to the sojours in the Low Countries. I will get my hands over them both and make them smart for their doings; and she is a base woman for going away unacquainted Mr. Forbes, to whom I did give the charge of her.’ It was an easy thing to make him believe this, for he did not know me, and he hated Alexander Davidson out of misure, and had great confidence in Mr. Forbes and Mr. Annan. Yet my cousin prayed him to have patience until the verity be knowen.

‘Knowen,’ said my lord, ‘it is but ower true; would those men lye to me, and specially in such a matter as is the disgrace of my sister.’ ‘Then,’ said my cousin, if Father Blakhal have taken her any way which is not for her wel, your lordship shall punish me, for I will put my lyff bailie for him, we will get better newes ere it be long. I know Father Blakhal will loose his lyff rather than his honor, and will never do such a basse action.’” (A Brieffe Narration of Services done to Three Noble Ladyes by Gilbert Blakhal, Priest of the Scots Mission in France, in the Low Countries and in Scotland, p. 44.) It is satisfactory to learn that Lord Erroll lived to know the truth of the matter and to change his opinion of the worthy priest.

These events occurred after 1630, when Lady Isabella went to France, and it is interesting to learn that Robert Blackhall, the burgess ex-gratta of 1628, remained thereafter the “actual servant” of Lord Erroll, whatever his functions may have been. It would appear that the “Mr. Forbes” of this episode was also a cousin of Father Blakhal’s (op. cit:, p. 6). Robert Blackhall seems to have prospered, for, on a subsequent occasion (p. 71), Father Blakhal, who required money to assist one of his “ladyes,” betakes himself to his “cousin, Robert Blakhal, a man who could assist me vvel in that business, having good means of his owne.” That he was in comfortable circumstances is also proved by his obtaining sasine of Tardufif as just mentioned.

In 1631, James, the eldest son of Alexander Blackhall, the burgess and maltman already mentioned, was admitted burgess, and in the same year, his brother, Duncan Blackhall, was admitted, another brother, Alexander Blackhall, being his cautioner. There were also other burgesses of the name of Blackhall about this time. In the Miscellany of the Spalding Club (Vol. V., p. 330) there is a birth brief recorded, which should be reproduced here. It is in these terms: “16th Aprile, 1647, in presens of George Cullen, baillie. The said day it was verified and provin be the witnessis underwreitin, viz., Alexr. Blak, younger, and William Blackhall, hurgessis of Aberdein [the latter of whom was a miller, and uncle to the applicant, according to Mr. Munro], that Mr. William Blackhall, now in the universitie of Bromyberrie, within the dukedom of Spruce, is lauchfull sone to umquhill Robert Blakhall, burges of Aberdein, and Elspet Schand, his spouse, procreat betwixt them in the holie band of matrimonic, and is lineallie descendit on the father syde of the lairds of Blakhall of that Ilk and of the lairds of Ury Hay, and on the mother syde is lauchfullie descendit of the lairds of Pedfoddells Reid and Menzies of Dwrne. Ouhair upon the baillie foresaid ordainit ane testimoniall to be drawin up under the touns secreit seall in form as effeirs.” It will be remembered that the name of the wife of William Blackhall of that Ilk, who was also burgess of Guild of Aberdeen in 1504, was Isabel Hay. She was also the mother of Robert Blackhall of Little Fola, admitted burgess in 1528. The birth brief just quoted would suggest that she was a daughter of Hay of Urie, unless the procurer of the birth brief was descended from the Hays by another channel. This, however, and in this connection, is not probable. The Dukedom of Spruce was in Poland (?) (whrher many Scotsmen appear to have resorted at that time), but what the correct name of the University mentioned was, we can only imagine to have been some such name as Bromberg* grotesquely distorted by the Scottish scribe,

Mr. P. J. Anderson suggests Br.iunsberg as the correct name, a place which has had a noted Lyceum since 1568. who was probably more familiar with broomy knowes than with foreign universities. It is possible, that Mr. William Blackhall registered the birth brief recorded in consequence of the failure of the male line of William Blackhall of that Ilk. His father is probably to be identified with the Robert Blackhall included among the defendants at the Mar trial. The limitation of the succession to male heirs bearing the name, which held good when Alexander Blackhall of that Ilk succeeded in 1591, was, however, done away with by the subsequent charter, in 1609, to William Blackhall, confirmed by the king in 1620. As we shall learn, moreover, the remnant of Blackhall was so burdened with debt when the heiresses of line succeeded, that even they had to renounce their inconvenient heritage. Mr. Munro identifies this Polish emigrant with the regent of Marischal College, now to be mentioned, and indicates him as the then male representative of the original stock of Blackhalls of that Ilk, as distinct from the Blackhalls of Barra, who were at this time represented by the family who acquired Blackhall itself and the hereditary offices in 1590, from Alexander Blackhall, the heir male retonred in 1991.

The religious differences of the 17th century, and the keen eye of the Kirk to detect and punish papists, has preserved names which would otherwise have been forgotten. Among these arc some Blackhalls. The editor of Father Blakhal’s Narrative (loc. cit., p. viii.) recalls Spalding’s notice of “ Mr. William Blakhall, ane of the regcntis nf Colledge Marschall, a prompt scollcr, bred, borne and brought up in Aberdene, and never yit out of the countrie,” who “ rcfussit to subscrive the countrie covenant, as the rest did, whereupon he was deposit of his regency ; theirefter he livit simply in sober maner within the touno.” (History if Troubles, 1624-1645, Vol. II., pp. 10, 11.) Regent William Blackhall is included among the minor Latin Poets of the 17th century, for an account of whom the late Sir William Gcddes had collected material. (Appendix.)

The editor already referred to also mentions in a footnote on the same page, the case of Mr. Thomas Blakhall, burgess of Aberdeen, v, hose child the well-known Mr. Andrew Cant refused to baptise in open kirk in 1643, while the father held it up for that purpose, “allcdging he was ane papist,” but performed the rite when a “ gossop ” at hand took the child. (History of Troubles, Vol. II, p. 154-) Thomas Blakhall and his wife were on the same Sunday excommunicated as papists. I have mentioned the latter instance because of a fact recorded in the Register of the Privy Council (Second Series, Vol. III., p. 31-32) of date February 3rd, 1628, which refers to the same person. It is there stated that Mr. Thomas Blakhall, “sonne to William Blakhall of Ley,” was arraigned for publishing, in company with others, a pasquil “containing treasonable warnings and predictions of the change of state and religion within twa years.” The defendant, however, appeared to his summons, and was exonerated. Thomas Blackhall, burgess of Aberdeen, is witness to a charter of alienation by Francis Fraser of Kynmundie of the lands of Tardufif, &c., to Alexander Blackhall, portioner of Fynersie in 1636 (Register of Sasines of Aberdeen, Vol. X., fol. 148), and appears to have been the third son of William Blackhall, once tenant of Leys, and later proprietor of Finnersie. He was also nephew to the forfeited Alexander Blackhall of Barra, who, with the aid of John Leslie of Balquhain, acquired Blackhall and the hereditary offices. Thomas Blackhall appears to have married an Isabel Blackhall, who, with her daughters Isabel and Jean, were denounced as Papists in 1658. (Bundle of Executions, Town House, Aberdeen.)


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