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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
X. The Kirks of Abernethy and Kincardine


CHRISTIANITY was probably introduced into Strathspey from lona in the sixth century, though there are reasons for believing that it had been known earlier in some districts in the Highlands (cf. Mackay’s "Urquhart and Glenmoriston," p. 32). The South of Scotland was deeply indebted to St Ninian, St Kentigern, and St Cuthbert, but we in the North gratefully acknowledge St Columba as our Chief Apostle. It was by him and his disciples that "the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion" were brought to our fathers. There is a Church of Columba at Kingussie, and one of Adamnan at Insh, where the old Celtic Bell still remains as a venerable relic; and the Churches of Rothiemurchus and Cromdale were dedicated to Celtic Saints. In this parish there are names and legends referring to these ancient days, but the rude stone fonts which lie near the Church doors at Abernethy and Kincardine are almost the only relics which remain.

Kincardine Church is called by the old people "Eaglais Thomhaldidh." A well near the Church is called" Tobar Thomh aldia’h’ and a ridge of land in Wester Tulloch bears the name of "Imir Thomhaldidh." There is a curious legend connected with the latter place, which is found in other forms in other parts of the Highlands. It is said that long ago the Lairds of Kincardine and Tulloch disputed as to the site of the Church. The one wanted it built on his land, and the other was as determined that it should he erected on his. Stones were brought and laid down in Tulloch, but in some mysterious fashion they found their way before morning to Kincardine. This happened several times. At last it was accepted as a sign from heaven, and the Church was built at Kincardine. But the bit of land at Tulloch was held sacred, and it bears the Saint’s name to this day. Who Tomhaldidh was is not known. Probably he was one of Columba’s missionaries sent out from holy lona, and the fact of his name having been attached to the Church and sundry other places shows how much the people revered his memory. "0 how great was the fervour of all religious persons in the beginning of Holy Institutions. How great their devotion in prayer; how great their longing for virtue . . . Their footsteps yet remaining, testify that they were indeed holy and perfect men, who, fighting so valiantly, trod the world under their feet" (De Imitatione, B. I., Ch. 18). But in the gospel came first from the West, it was from the East and North-east that it was afterwards proclaimed. Troublous times came upon lona, Again and again it was ravaged by the Norsemen (A.D. 795, 802, 805). At last, dreading utter ruin, the See and sacred relics were removed to Dunkeld (850). What advantage may have resulted to Strathspey from the seat of religious government being nearer, at Dunkeld instead of lona, is not known. The Bishopric of Moray is said to have been founded by Alexander I. in 1107. The Cathedral Church was first at Birnie, a seat of the Culdees (1184), then at Spynie (1203), and then at Elgin, where the foundations of the magnificent edifice erected there were laid by Andrew, the 7th Bishop, on the 18th of July, 1224. The Cathedral was richly endowed and equipped, and from it, "The Lanthorn of the North," the light radiated not only over the Laich of Moray, but to the far off glens and straths of the Uplands. The See of Moray was anciently divided into four divisions—Elgin, Inverness, Strathbogie, and Strathspey. The Decanatus or Deanery of Strathspey embraced the Churches of Cromdale and Advie, Kingussie and Insh, Duthil, Inveran, Abernethy, Kincardine, Rothiemurchus, Logykenny, and Alvie" (Reg. Mor. 361). One of the earliest notices of the Church at Abernethv is in a Donation by Richard, Bishop of Moray, who died in 1203. In 1226 there was a contention between the Church and the proprietor or feuar of the lands in Abernethy, the former being represented by Andrew, Bishop of Moray, and the latter by James, the son of Morgund. The dispute regarded a piece of land at Coningas, and another piece at Abernethy, and also as to the sum paid to the Crown in the name of Cain teinds by the predecessors of James. The matter was finally settled; James and his heirs were to be freed from all exactions made by the Bishops of Moray or the Dean and Canons, and in return bound himself to provide a suitable manse near the church, with a croft extending to one acre convenient thereto, and also to pay one mark yearly in token of the agreement being firmly and perpetually observed. There had been a Papal interdict in 1217, which must have greatly hindered all good work; but it was removed in 1218. Andrew, Bishop of Moray, seems then to have vigorously bestirred himself in the interests of the Church. He not only settled the dispute as to land at Abernethy, but about the same time, 1226, he made a grant constituting two prebends "for the farther diffusion of Divine Worship," assigning to each of them a Church and Manse, with a salary of ten marks, the mark being then about equal to one chalder of grain. One of these prebends was at Kingussie or Insh. Abernethy seems therefore to have had the priority, and to have been from the first the most important centre, and this may account for its afterwards being made the seat of Presbytery. In 1229 there is reference to both Abernethy and Kincardine in a grant by Bishop Andrew (Shaw). Walcott (Scot. Mon., p. 374) states that in 1460 a Collegiate Church was founded at Abernethy (Morayshire) by George, Earl of Angus, and he has been followed in this by Rankin and others. But the statement is erroneous. Walcott is notorious for inaccuracy, and his references are often, as in this case, irrelevant and unreliable. The error arose from confounding two parishes of the same name, and assigning to Abernethy in Morayshire what properly belonged to the more famous Abernethy in Perthshire. It is hard to have to relinquish the honour, unchallenged for long; but truth must be upheld. The Rev. D. Butler in his learned work (1897) has made the facts abundantly clear (" The Ancient Church and Parish of Abernethy," p. 270-295). The history of religion in Abernethy for the next two or three hundred years is very obscure. But there are some relics and memories of those dark days. There is a well in the Braes called "The Well of the Virgin," and another in Kincardine called "The Nun’s Well"; there is a farm in Tulloch called "Chapelton," from a Chapel, the site of which is still recognisable, and on the road leading to it, at the foot of the Torr hill, there is a place called in Gaelic "Staoir-na-Manach," the Monk’s Bridge. Shaw says "there was a Chapel in Coninges, in the east of the parish, and another two miles above the Church on the bank of Nethie." The site of the Congash Chapel was in a field to the east of the house, near the old road, where there are the remains of a cemetery, probably pre-historic, and two remarkable sculptured stones. The other Chapel may have been at Lethnachyle, to the east of the Dorback, where, according to tradition, the earliest settlement took place, and where, on the hill called Tom-na-cairbhe, there are remains of cairns, hut circles, and an old burying-ground. As to Chapelton, it is touching to picture the good Monk plodding his weary way from time to time through wood and moor, to hold service in the heights of Tulloch, and, finding the morass at the Torr almost impassable, taking pains to construct one of those rude crossings that served for bridges in those ancient days. His kindly deed was but an earnest of the many beneficent things that should be done by the Church, and though his own name is forgotten, the record of his work remains. As to the period from the Reformation to the Revolution Settlement, little information can be given. There is a letter from Archbishop Spottiswood to the Laird of Grant (16th June, 1616), which shews the desolation of the Kirks of Strathspey at this period. The Archbishop writes that, as he was informed, "all exercise of religion" was wanting, and that "atheism, idolatrie and every sorte of. wickedness" prevailed.

Then he boldly charges the Laird, though he was "not a professour with them," with being responsible for this sad state of things, especially by his "abstractinge the rentis of the Kirk from their right use, and applying them to his own privat’ ends," and he warns him that there was "no sinne equal to that of murthering soulls, and that his conduct was unsufferable." He had been urged to bring him to question, but he chose rather to "admonish him by letter hoping that he would not be so irreligiouse as to contemn all his warnings." The Archbishop concludes by "desyring the Laird, with the advys of the Bishop of Murray, to take order for providing his Kirkis with stipendis, competent, as he wold haif God Almychtie his blessinge and be well estemit of, with them that love the Lord Jesus," but threatening "more strict and rigorous dealings" if compliance were refused. What the effect of this courageous letter was is not known, but the evils complained of would be so far remedied by the Act of Parliament of 1617, by which stipends were secured from the Teinds. Later still (1628), Dr John Forbes, leader of Aberdeen doctors, has a passage of much significance as to "the present condition of the Church of Scotland" (Theologhe Moralis, Lib. VIII., 3-13, as quoted by Professor Cooper)—" Some men will tell you that there remains abundance to the Church for all religious purposes. But this is monstrous impudence tempered with bitter sarcasm; after ye have robbed the Church, and devoured it like a dragon, and filled your belly with delicates (Jeremiah li., 34), to speak of its calamity and poverty as wealth and plenty is a savage joke." "What shall I say," he goes on, "of the Highlanders of Mar, ‘Strathavon, Strathspey, Atholl, Badenoch, Lochaber, and other similar districts? . . Parishes formerly manageable have now, to our shame be it said, at the bidding of men’s service, been so united, now to this one, now to another, that the poor solitary pastor, however much he may attempt, can accomplish nothing." Shaw speaks to the same effect. He says "in the year 1650 the country of Lochaber was totally destitute, and no Protestant ministers had before that time been planted there. And when the number of ministers increased, very few of them understood the Erse (Gaelic) language, and teachers were settled in the Highlands who were mere barbarians (ist Cor. xiv., ii.) to the people. Through want of Schools, few had any literary education; and they who had would not dedicate themselves to the ministry when the livings were so poor as not afford bread." Principal Robertson, in a sermon preached before the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, in 1750, gives an equally sad picture of the Highlands. He says—" Here society still appears in a rude and imperfect form. Strangers to industry, averse from labour, inured to rapine, the fierce inhabitants scorned all the arts of peace, and stood ready for every bold and desperate action. Attached to their own customs, from ignorance and habit, they have hitherto continued a separate people, and though the religion established among them be the same which we enjoy, its progress hath been imperfect, and the fixed pastors were never able to surmount the disadvantages of their situation or the obstinacy of their people."

Of the long and bitter strife, and the ups and downs between Episcopacy and Presbytery, there are no records in our parish. Shaw divides the time from the Reformation to the Revolution into seven periods :—I. 1560-1572—Presbytery was the government of the Church. II. 1572-1592—During which a sort of Episcopacy ruled. III. 1592-1610—Strictly Presbyterian. IV. 1610-1638—Episcopacy again dominant. V. 1638-1662—Presbytery again revived. VI. 1662-1690— Government by Bishops restored, and great persecutions. VII. 1690-Presbyterian government restored and established by Act of Parliament, and the General Assembly met for the first time since 1652.

The Synod of Moray met at Forres, June 23, 1702, and erected themselves into three Presbyteries - the united Presbytery of Inverness and Forres, the united Presbytery of Elgin, Aberloure, and Abernethie, and the Presbytery of Strathbogie. The number of ministers increasing, Aberlour and Abernethye were separated from Elgin, 1707, and made a distinct Presbytery. Then, in 1709, Aberlour and Abernethy were disjoined, and made two Presbyteries, and so they have continued. At the Revolution the Laird of Grant was very zealous to have legal ministers planted in his own estates. John Stewart at Cromdale, Suene Grant at Duthil, and James Grant at Abernethy, refused or neglected to take the oaths to Government, and were summarily ejected, and their churches shut up. One deplorable result of this action was that the church of Abernethy was without a minister for the long period of nineteen years—1689-1709!

The church at Kincardine is very old. The walls date from long before the Reformation, and, as proof of this, there is in the south wall a little lancet window which antiquaries have declared to be a "leper window," sometimes in England called "a squint," by which persons not free to enter might obtain a glimpse of the celebration of the Mass. Chapman, in his MS. History of the Grants, tells of a terrible tragedy that was enacted in this church. The story is that, in the 15th century, the Laird of Grant or his son was murdered by the Cummings when on a visit to the Barons of Kincardine. The murderers were pursued, and took refuge in the church. The Grants, with their friends, the Stewarts, shrank from desecrating the holy place, when one of their number solved the difficulty by shooting a burning arrow into the heather-thatched roof. The building was soon in a blaze, and all the Cummings perished save one, a man of gigantic stature, who forced his way out, but was afterwards killed by the blow of a two-handed sword, "which sword," says the chronicler, "to this day lies in the representative of Clan Cheran’s house." The church was recently (1897) restored at a cost of upwards of £330, the Heritors contributing £130, the remainder being raised by grants from the Baird Trust and the General Assembly’s Highland Committee, and subscriptions from the parishioners and friends.

In spite of its plain interior this ancient church is of historic import. The first Christian church here was Celtic, like the churches at Insh and Alvie was probably founded by missionaries from Iona in the 7th century. The foundations of the present buildings are of the 12th century. The slit windows on the south side (a lepers' Blink, enabling lepers to watch the celebration of the Mass) shows that the existing walls were built before the Reformation in 1560.

Outside the church door is a hollowed granite block, probably once was used as a font or for holy water. It seems likely it was put out from the church at the time of the Reformation. Its appearance suggests that this stone was in use from the earliest times.

Towards the end of the 15th Century the church was the scene of an affray in which it was partly destroyed. A raiding party of Cummings (closely pursued) took refuge in it. A burning ember set the thatched roof alight, and beset by their enemies they perished in the fire.

The church of Abernethy is a modern building. It was erected about a hundred years ago, and in 1874 it was repaired and remodelled at the expense of the Heritors, from plans by Mr A. M. Mackenzie, architect. The old custom was for the parish minister to serve both churches. the service being at Abernethy for two Sabbaths, and every third Sabbath at Kincardine. The evils of this were great, and in 1866, through the efforts of the present incumbent, an arrangement was made whereby Kincardine was made a royal bounty station, and since then divine service has been maintained regularly in both churches.

The patron saints of Kincardine and Abernethy are St Catharine and St George. These are not Celtic Saints, and their names must have been introduced in later days through changes of property. There are several Saints of the name of Catharine, Catharine of Sienna (1347), Catharine of Bologna (1381), Catharine of Genoa (1447), but our Catharine was the most famous of all, Catharine of Alexandria, who was martyred about 307 A.D. It is said she was put to death on a wheel of fire, and the wheel is always placed beside her in her pictures as a sign of martyrdom. Catharine was called by the Greeks "The Ever Pure." The Philosophical Society of Paris took her as their Patroness, and she has been held, all over Christendom, as a pattern of wisdom and piety. In one of the Madonnas in the National Gallery (London) by the famous painter Ambrogia Borgogne, there is a beautiful picture of Catharine. She is represented on the right of the Virgin, her hand is stretched out, and the Child Jesus is represented as placing the mystic ring of matrimony on her finger. In her left hand she holds the palm of martyrdom. On her head is a golden diadem, from under which her hair streams in wavy locks below her waist. At her feet is a wheel with hooked spikes, the emblem and witness of the sufferings she bore for Christ. Her face is exquisitely mild and sweet.

St George is the patron saint of Abernethy. St George was properly of Lydda, in Syria. He is said to have been of good birth, to have served as a military tribune under Diocletian, and to have been martyred in 303. Multitudes of Christian Churches have been dedicated to him in the East and the West. Richard the Crusader did much to make his fame known in England, and in the time of Edward III. he was made patron saint. Since then no name has been better known or more popular. Spenser made him his hero as the Red Cross Knight; and in many a fight, from Acre to Agincourt, and down to our own day, the cry of "St George and Merry England" has roused men to deeds of valour, and led to victory. The legend of St George and the Dragon can be traced to the sixth century. It was probably due to two causes—the coincidence of the martyr’s fame with the triumph of Christianity over Paganism, and the transference to him of the myth of Persens and Andronleda. What connection St George had with Abernethy is not known. probably the Church was originally dedicated to some Celtic saint, and the change to St George introduced in honour of some local magnate.

But it may be asked, What are these old names to us? That depends very much on ourselves. It is the fact, however it may be accounted for, that these names stand connected with our parish. They have done so for hundreds of years. We have had no choice in the matter. But recognising the fact, we may turn it to some good use. Suppose we look on St Catharine, with her palm-branch - sweet, gentle, self-sacrificing, faithful unto death— as the type of true womnanhood; and St George, strong and brave to do the right, to redress the wrongs of the weak and the oppressed, slaying the dragon of evil with the lance of truth, as the type of noble manhood ; and that the young men and maidens amongst us from year to year strive in the name of our common Lord and Master to follow their example, then these names would become once more inspiring and helpful in the battle of life.


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