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Guide to the East Neuk of Fife
Scoonie


The Parish of Scoonie is bounded by Largo on the east, the river Leven on the south, and the parishes of Markinch, Kennoway, and Kettle on the west. At the north-eastern extremity, "the three parishes of Scoonie, Largo, and Ceres, and the three presbyteries of Kirkealdy, St Andrews, and Cupar meet in one point;" and on the south-east, "the coast, above one mile in length, is flat and sandy, without a rock in its whole extent, and forms part of Largo Bay." The greatest length, from north to south, is four miles and three quarters; and the greatest breadth, from east to west, is two and three quarters. It contains 4286 1/2 acres, of which 185 are foreshore. Leven is the only town in the parish, and a separate chapter is devoted to it.

The Name, which was formerly spelt Sconyn, Sconin, Scuny, and Scony, is of great antiquity; for, in the Register of the Priory of St Andrews, it is recorded that Bishop Tuadal gave the

Church of Sconyn to the Culdees of Loch-Leven. That Bishop is said to have flourished 820 years ago. The Culdees only held the gift a century, for, in or about 1152, Bishop Robert handed it over, with the other possessions of the Monastery of Loch-Leven, to the Priory of St Andrews. In Robert’s charter it is mentioned as the ecclesiastical village of Sconin; but the village may only have consisted of the church and manse, though it is probable that there may have been a small collection of houses as well. The Church was dedicated to "Saint Memme" by Bishop Bernham in 1243. In the old taxation roll it is entered at 33 merks. The first minister after the Reformation was John Symsoun, who was settled here in 1566. Kennoway was also under his charge, and Markinch and Mathill were afterwards added. He was succeeded by Alan Lamonth, whose son Thomas came after him. Robert Cranstoun was admitted about 1630. He was a member of the famous Glasgow Assembly of 1638. Like all other mortals, he had his trials in this vale of woe, for he "had his chamber in Durie brunt with fyre, which fell out in his chamber-chimley in tyme of sermon 28th Feb. 1641, to his great losse, and skaith of many cloathes, buiks, and other gair, and among the rest the Session buik was in his chamber." That the loss of his books was grievous to him may be accepted as certain, for he seems to have taken a pride in them. I possess a copy of Patrick Symson’s Historie of the Church, printed in 1634, which belonged to Cranstoun. It is substantially bound in full calf, with the initials M. R. C. stamped in gold on both sides; and, on the title-page, he has written "NI. R. Cranstoun" —the three capitals forming a monogram. It is almost needless to say that M. stands for Master, and that the prefixing of that title was the old way of showing that its owner was a master-of-arts. He died in 1643, and was succeeded in the same year by Alexander Moncreiff, who was privileged to do and suffer much for his principles. Moncreiff was one of the stricter Presbyterians, and when the Church was unhappily rent he took the side of the Protestors. Thursday, the 11th of August 1653, was observed as a fast-day in the parish. Such occasions were solemnly observed in those times. Moncreiff preached on the previous day. On the morning of the fast-day, Samuel Rutherfurd lectured on Jonah’s prayer out of the fish’s belly, and preached on the text:- "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." Moncreiff followed with another sermon on the 49th and 50th verses of the 119th Psalm. Lamont says:- "The one came doune from the pulpit and the other went up in the tyme that the psalme after the first sermon was singing, so that ther was no intermission of the exercise, nether were the peopell dismissed till both sermons were ended." It is to be feared that such protracted services would find little favour in our times; but the Word was precious in those days. In the afternoon, Rutherfurd preached again on the same text, and lectured on the 130th and 13 1st Psalms. At a thanksgiving in the following January, Rutherfurd preached both on the Saturday and. the Sabbath. Another fast was kept at Scoonie on a Sabbath in July 1655. Three elders were chosen that day, and on the minister naming the first, he utterly declined, although publicly reminded from the pulpit that he was willing to accept on the previous evening. He was coal-grieve to Lord Durie and that dignitary now openly forbade any of his dependants to become elders. Moncreiff then denounced Durie as an opposer and persecutor of the Church ; to which he retaliated by desiring the minister to hold his peace. Thus the jangling went on. The people declared that such a sharp and bitter contest had never taken place in the church before. In 1650, the General Assembly had appointed Moncreiff and Makgill of Largo to attend Charles the Second, until another chaplain was provided for him. Long after that King was again driven into exile, these faithful men, like so many other Covenanters, continued to pray publicly for him, and suffered in consequence. According to Wodrow, "Moncreiff was persecuted by the English for his loyalty to the King, and his constant praying for him. His house was many times searched and rifled by the English, and he obliged to hide. Upon the Sabbath he had spies set upon him, and was closely watched where he went after preaching. Frequently he was hotly pursued; and one time a party of horse came after him when fleeing, and by a special Providence, though attacked once and again by them, by his own fortitude and resolution he got clear of them, and escaped at that time. Thereafter in a neighbouring congregation he was seized, and imprisoned sometime, merely for praying for the King." In October 1658—not long after he was liberated—he was pitched on, "as a person of great courage and boldness," to present to General Monk the document, commonly known as the "Testimony against Cromwell’s Toleration," which was signed by himself and other seven ministers. "This he did," says Wodrow, "with the greatest firmness, and it exposed him further to the extremities of that time." When the perfidious Charles again ascended the throne, he forgot those men who had been so loyal to him in adversity. Robert Trail’s sufferings have been already mentioned (see p. 23). Moncreiff was another of those who met on the 23d of August 1660 to draw up a petition to the King, and he, too, was seized and imprisoned. He seems to have been confined until July next year, and every one thought he would be brought to the scaffold. Strenuous efforts were made by his friends to save him. The Earl of Athole and others told his wife to try to get him to recede from some of his principles, as otherwise there was no hope. But she replied, that though she loved her good husband and her numerous children, yet she knew that he was immovable where his conscience was concerned, and, for her part, before she would do anything to break his peace with his Master, she would rather receive his head at the Cross ! Contrary to expectation, he was set free; but his troubles were not at an end. For twenty-seven weary years he was driven from place to place. Wodrow relates many of his narrow escapes, and tells how he was ever diligent in his Master’s business, amid all his trials and troubles. He got a call to Londonderry; but would not leave his native land, saying, "He would suffer where he had sinned, and essay to keep possession of his Master’s house, till he should come again." And he did keep possession, though not in Scoonie, for he lived until the 6th of October 1688, and William of Orange landed on the 5th of November. His son William was afterwards minister at Largo, and Alexander Moncreiff, better known as Culfargie, one of the four first Seceders, was a grandson of the old Covénanter. A lineal descendant invented the Moncreiff gun-carriage. In 1662, Moncreiff’s place was filled in Scoonie by John Ramsay by the order of Archbishop Sharp. Lamont says:- "He tooke his promise to be faithfull in his charge of that flock; and ther was delivered to him the Bibell, the keys of the church-doore and the bell-ton; and Dury was required to be assistant to him, which he undertooke to doe ; as for the rest of the heritors they were not present, viz. Athernie and Fenges. He did succeid to Mr Alexander Moncriefe, who, at that tyme, was under processe before the Parliament att Edenboroughe. After that they went and tooke possession of the manse and glibe." Ramsay was succeeded by George Wood in 1669, who, having been charged with gross immorality, deserted his charge and went to England in 1680. George Landals next occupied the pulpit for two years, and was succeeded by John Blair in 1682. Blair was allowed to remain at the Revolution, but was deposed in 1717. From 1718 to 1855, a period of 137 years, the charge was held by Thomas Melvill, David Swan, and George Brewster. The remnant of the old church has been converted into a burial vault, and the present parish church is now in Leven. There are very few stones of interest in the burying-ground. That in memory of the late Dr Duncan is the most striking.

Durie House was built in 1762, and stands about a mile to the north-west of the old church of Scoonie. A curious tradition about one of the old lairds has been preserved by Sir Walter Scott, who, by eking and joining some stanzas, current on the border in a corrupted state, manufactured the ballad of Christie’s will. When Sir Alexander Gibson was made a Lord of Session in 1621, he took the title of Lord Durie. According to the tradition, the last border free-booter of any note, William Armstrong, distinguished as Christie’s Will, was imprisoned in Jedburgh. On the Earl of Traquair asking the cause of his confinement, he replied that it was for stealing two "tethers;" but, on being pressed, admitted that there were two "delicate colts" at the end of them. The Earl was so pleased with the evasion that he procured his liberation. One good turn deserves another, and so, when some time afterwards, Traquair had a case depending in the Court of Session, which he believed would go against him by Lord Durie’s vote, Will undertook to kidnap the dreaded Judge.

"‘O mony a time, my lord,’ he said,
‘I’ve stown a kiss frae a sleeping wench;
But for you I’ll do as kittle a deed,
For I’ll steal an auld lurdane aff the bench.’"

Learning that he often rode on Leith Sands without an attendant, Will watched for an opportunity, which came at length. He addressed Durie, who readily entered into conversation, and after decoying him into a quiet corner, dragged him from his horse, muffled him in a huge cloak, and rode off with him across the country. The Judge, "weary and terrified," was laid in "an old castle, in Annandale, called the Tower of Graham." As his horse was found, it was supposed that he had been thrown into the sea and drowned. So certainly was his fate believed in, that his friends mourned for him as dead, and a successor was chosen for his office. In his lone prison, food was thrown into him through an opening in the wall, and the only human sounds he heard were a shepherd calling on his dog "Batty," and a domestic servant crying to the cat "Maudge." Believing that he was in the dungeon of a sorcerer, he concluded that these sounds were the invocations of spirits. After three months had come and gone, the case being decided in Traquair’s favour, Will received orders to restore Durie. At the dead of night, he silently entered the vault, seized the dismayed Judge, and wrapping him again in the same cloak, carried him back to Leith Sands, where he set him down on the same spot from whence he had taken him. His friends, like himself, believed that he had been in fairy-land, and the mystery was only dispelled many years afterwards, when he happened to be in Annandale, and heard the familiar names of "Batty" and "Maudge." "This led to a discovery of the whole story; but, in these disorderly times, it was only laughed at, as a fair ruse de guerre." That there is a solid foundation in fact for the tradition cannot be doubted; but Chambers, in his Domestic Annals, has shorn it of much of its romance. He makes out the never to be George Meldrum, younger of Dumbreck, and fixes the date of Durie’s abduction at a period about twenty years before he was raised to the bench. In one respect he makes the capture more wonderful, for he says that he was seized on "the water-side opposite Dundee," taken across the Forth at Kinghorn, carried past Holyrood House, and deposited in Harbottle Castle in the north of England, where he was kept for eight days. This Lord Durie was a most conscientious and upright Judge. He was twice elected President of the Court of Session, and died at Durie House in 1644. His notes of important decisions were published by his son in 1690, and are "the earliest digested collection of decisions in Scottish law."

Aithernie Castle stood about a mile and a quarter, nearly due north, from Scoonie Church, but only one ruined wall remains. It is close to the west side of the road which leads to Ceres. In the old Statistical Account, it is said that:- "The only antiquities this parish can boast of, are some stone coffins, which have been found to the eastward of the river, with human bones, supposed to have been deposited there in the 9th century, when a battle was fought upon these grounds between the Scots and the Danes." As the writer says nothing about Aithernie Castle, it may be presumed that he did not consider it to be of any antiquarian interest. Nor does his successor mention it in the New Statistical Account; but he describes a valuable discovery that was made near it in or about 1821. While digging out moulding-sand, for a foundry, in a corner of one of Aithernie fields, twenty stone-coffins were found in a tumulus, the base of which was about forty yards square. The coffins were formed of rude slabs on edge with a covering stone and cemented with clay. There was a cairn of small stones above them, and over it there was a composition of clay and sand, so hard that a pick-axe was required to break it up. Two of the coffins contained an urn a-piece, about six inches in diameter, and the same in depth, in which there was a blackish substance covered with oak-bark. Five of the other coffins contained an urn each, about fourteen inches in diameter and twenty-four in depth. These were inverted and full of calcined bones. One coffin was smaller than the rest, and in it were found a quantity of beads made of charred wood, which led Brewster to suppose that the remains were those of a woman. All the coffins, except the five with the large urns, contained human bones, and there was such a quantity of uncoffined bones scattered round the cemetery, and only protected by the cairn, that the reverend writer would have conjectured that a battlefield was not far distant, had not the absence of all weapons and emblems of war and the presence of the beads forbidden him. William Rigg, a wealthy Edinburgh merchant, who bought Aithernie, was an exceedingly pious man, zealous against church patronage, extremely liberal to the poor— though not to vagrants—and, when a bailie in Edinburgh, a terror to evil-doers; but he was of a desponding nature. Several of Rutherfurd’s letters are addressed to him, and Livingstone, in his Memorable Characteristics, speaks very highly of him. For some time he was imprisoned in Blackness, because he would not partake of the communion where kneeling was enjoined. He died in January 1644. The estate afterwards became the property of the Watsons. A melancholy story is told about one of the Lindsays of Edzell, who was married to Watson of Aithernie. Her brother had to sell his patrimonial estate, and the old castle went to ruin. One day she arrived there in her own coach, and wept sadly within the crumbling and roofless walls. The memories of her happy childhood, and the decay of the old home and the family, overcame her. The place was still dear to her, and she carried away some of the earth; but she did not learn the practical lesson it was so well fitted to teach; for, instead of eschewing her brother’s extravagance, she ruined her husband by her own.

Jerome Stone was, perhaps, the most remarkable man the parish has yet produced. He was only three years old when his father died abroad, and so, after getting an ordinary school-education, he became a pedlar. "But the dealing in buckles, garters, and such small articles, not .suiting his superior genius, he soon converted his little stock into books, and, for some years, went through the country, and attended the fairs as an itinerant bookseller." His talent for acquiring languages was amazing. He first learned Hebrew and Greek, and afterwards Latin. Principal Tullidelph, who was an heritor of this parish, encouraged him to prosecute his studies at St Andrews University, where he soon became a great favourite both with the Professors and students. Before finishing his third session, he was recommended as an assistant to the rector of the school of Dunkeld, and two or three years later the Duke of Athole promoted him to the rectorship. While there, he studied Gaelic, and translated several poems from that language into English verse. He was busy preparing for the Press an "Inquiry into the Original of the Nation and. Language of the Ancient Scots," when death cut short his earthly career in 1757, ere he had reached the age of thirty. That work is said to discover "great ingenuity, immense reading, and indefatigable industry." He left another work in MS. entitled:- :—" "The Immortality of Authors," which has been published and frequently re-printed since his death. "He paid a pious regard to his aged mother, who survived him two years, and received an annual pension from the Duchess of Atholl, as a testimony of respect to the memory of her son."

The Sculptured Stone found in Scoonie Churchyard is a remarkable one, bearing, besides the symbols, an Ogham inscription. It is now in the Antiquarian Museum at Edinburgh.

The Population of the whole parish in 1755 was only 1528 in 1791, it had risen to 1675; and in 1881, it was. 3730.


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