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The History of Fettercairn
Chapter II.—Topography—Antiquity of Village—Etymology of name


THE lands of Fasque, Thaneston, Balnakettle, and Balfour, extending along the base of the Grampians, are fertile and productive, even more so than some of those portions of the parish lying further down on the level plain. They are richly wooded; and their undulations, lying well to the sun, add much to the picturesqueness of the landscape. The lands around Fettercairn village are also very fertile and well wooded. The disastrous gales of 1892 and 1893 demolished the woods of Fettercairn, Fasque, and The Burn to a sad extent. No one now living can possibly see them again as they once were in their majestic loveliness.

On the estates of Balmain and Drumhendry the soil is partly rich and fertile, but to a greater extent poor and moorish. Large tracts of alluvial soil and of a stiff, brownish clay occur. The estates of Dalladies, Arnhall, and The Burn, on the banks of the North Esk, consist for the most part of thin and shallow soils, but are very susceptible of cultivation. The woods of The Burn are extensive and valuable.

On the lower reaches of Balbegno estate, the farms of the Straths and the contiguous portions of Arnhall, a deep mossy soil prevails. Down to a very recent period the greater part of these lands was under water, and formed a vast extent of lake or morass with numerous creeks and bays. But this has now almost entirely disappeared.

The improvement by drainage of this region will be afterwards noticed. The only remaining portion now goes by the name of the Esslie Moss. It covers about 100 acres, and is still undrained, being the deepest part of the original lake. Lying at a lower* level than its surroundings, it seems destined to remain an unprofitable and unwholesome swamp, affecting the sanitary condition of the immediate neighbourhood.

The lower lying ground immediately adjoining the village on the S.W. and S. sides was probably in part an undrained swamp. But drainage works a marvellous change on such lands, and these are now capable of producing rich crops to the agriculturist. In former days. the hill burns were not so well confined to their channels as now, and when in their courses they flowed over flat ground, they spread over the whole territory in times of flood, as those who have experienced flooding in these later days can quite well understand.

To the undrained expanse of Fettercairn Parish may be applied the remark of some Laurencekirk wiseacre given in Fraser's History of that Parish, viz., that "a hundred years ago the deucks were quackin' a' the way frae Blackiemuir to Redmyre." If Arnhall and Landsend be substituted for these two places, the space between them down to a late period was all good quacking-ground for " deucks " and other water fowls.

Mr Fraser also notices that, according to tradition, the inhabitants of that marshy district were for centuries subject to ague; and to escape its effects they betook themselves to temporary abodes in the more elevated parts of the parish, and on the adjoining lands of Garvock. Whether the inhabitants of the Fettercairn marshy grounds ever resorted to the same expedient is not known; but that they did so is very probable. At all events, their case was very similar; only, that for elevated habitations they had ample room on the hillsides of their own parish.1

In the days when might was right, when "the key did not keep the castle nor the bracken bush the cow," bogs and lakes served a purpose. They constituted natural barriers of defence. Of old, the only secure dwellings were erected upon islands and other inaccessible sites in order to be out of the easy reach of enemies and intruders. The crannogs or lake-island dwellings of ancient times (one of which remains at the Loch of Leys, near Banchory) stood upon artificial islets formed to supply the want of natural island sites.

The earliest church buildings, such as those of Cowie, Dunnottar, Kinghornie, and St. Cyrus were founded upon elevated spots surrounded more or less by water. This may be sufficient to account for the situation of Fettercairn village, unless we let our fancy wander and assert that, like the Grecian island Delos of old, it arose out of the water. In modern days it has flourished by the manufacture of a beverage much stronger than cold water.

According to the old chroniclers, "The Towne of Fethyrkerne" in history existed nine hundred years agor ranking in antiquity with either Brechin or Dunnottar; and it undoubtedly had its original foundation under the shadow of "Fenella's Castell of Fethircarne, the chiefest fortress of all the Mearns." Some writers maintain that Fenella's Castle was at Kincardine, and others that the Green Castle, or rather camp above Mill of Kincardine, was its site; but the weight of opinion is greatly in favour of Greencairn. Both Greencairn and Kincardine were water-guarded fortalices, of whose origin and early occupation no record exists. These two names, however, are modern, not being mentioned by the ancient chroniclers. The former was also called Cairngreen, a Celtic word meaning the Sunny Hill or favoured spot, suitable for a royal residence. Cairnton is still the name of the adjoining farm and homestead, which in recent lease missives was designated as Cairnton and Cairngreen. The Cairn being retained in the name of Fettercairn suggests, independently of other reasons, that the site of the "Towne" or village in its primitive fashion stood along the north side of the knoll of Greencairn, rather than at Kincardine or the Green Castle. And although the inhabitants around the old place are now very few, it was otherwise in ancient times. The locality was thickly peopled even down to the early decades of the present century. Besides the families of the principal tenants on the lands of Thornyhill, Cairnton and Balbegno, the writer has heard old people relate that on these lands they counted eighty or ninety "reekin' linns" (smoking chimneys), whereas at the present time they do not far exceed one-tenth of that number.

That the ancient " Towne" may have extended in straggling form towards the site of the modern village is highly probable, from the fact that down to a comparatively recent period houses and holdings were thickly dotted over the fertile fields that now form the landscape. The town of Kincardine, of which not a house remains, extended a half mile in length between its East and West Ports, from the Castle to near Fettercairn House; and as late as the end of last century it had as many as seventy or eighty inhabitants. Upon the decay and extinction of the older Fettercairn on the one hand, and of Kincardine on the other, it may be said that the modern village, like a "sweet Auburn," has flourished. After the erection of Balbegno Castle and its occupation by the Woods, as the Thanes and' Bailliaries of Fettercairn, the village on its west side was restricted to its present boundary. And following the superiority of the Woods of Balbegno, which terminated in the seventeenth century, John Earl Middleton, as proprietor of the lands and mansion of Fettercairn on the east side, became the superior, and the village was erected into a Burgh of Barony. Again, on the south, the Ramsays of Balmain—whose oldest mansion stood, not, as some suppose, on the Hill of Esslie, but on the rising ground to the east of Balmain farmstead—made their power and authority to be felt for good. And, on the north side, when Fasque became their residence, a cordon of wholesome influence encircled the village and promoted its prosperity. And down to the present day, under the benign sway of successive owners and superiors, the same advantages have been enjoyed and justly appreciated. Other places have envied Fettercairn; and at a time not long past, the query used to be put, that if Kincardineshire could boast of only four Baronets, why should three of them be located as proprietors in the Parish of Fettercairn ? A native wag gave as the answer, "Because Sir Alexander Ramsay of Balmain, Sir John Stuart Forbes of Fettercairn, and Sir Thomas Gladstone of Fasque, have mair sense than the Deeside man."

The parish was so named from the group of dwellings or "towne"; for the division of Scotland into parishes was not made till the time of King David "the sair saint to the crown," about the year 1130. The oldest form of the name as written by Wyntoun, Prior of Lochleven, the rhyming chronicler who gives us the story of Fenella and the murder of Kenneth III., is "Fethyrkerne." This term is descriptive of the hillocks and prominent heights lying between the village and Fenella's castle of Greencairn. Some authorities maintain that "Fotherkern" was the original name. The oldest forms of Fordoun and Dunnottar were conversely Fotherdun and Dunfother, in Celtic the promontory hills or headlands. The Father elided into For occurs all over Scotland. Fothra or Fodra was the actual name of a homestead on the prominent brae face above the lake of Fasque. The beautiful lake of Fasque, twenty acres in extent, formed in the early thirties by the late Sir John Gladstone, covers the marshy ground formerly known as the "Bogs of Fodra." "Foderance" is the name of a place in the parish of Kettins; and we have Fotheringham, near Forfar. "Fidra" or "Fetheray " is a rocky basaltic islet on the coast of Haddington. "Fethirale,r is the name of a croft near Dundee; and we have "Fetter,r in Fetteresso, Fetterangus, Fetternear, &c,

A rather fanciful etymology of Fettercairn is given by the late Rev. Robert Foote, in the Old Statistical Account of Scotland, as follows : " Fetter signifies a pass, and there are two large cairns at the top of the mountain and many small ones lower down, near to which, according to tradition, a great battle was fought, from which it is probable that the district got its name." The tradition referred to by Mr Foote has not reached our day, and we have no record remaining of any particular battle. It may have been one of Wallace's encounters with the English before his overthrow of them at Dunnottar, or that of Bruce's-victory of the Comyn at the foot of Glenesk, to be afterwards noted in connection with Newdosk.

On the whole, Mr Foote's derivation is unscientific, because there can be no manner of doubt that the present name Fettercairn is a corruption of the older name Fether, or Fotherkerne; and here, as in many other instances throughout Scotland that can be cited, the local pronunciation follows the older name.

It may further be stated with regard to the name that there have been no fewer than twenty different forms of the word, as written at successive periods from the tenth century down to the present time. They are, with approximate dates, as follows:—

In the tenth century it was Fotherkern or Fethyrkerner according to the old chroniclers. In the fourteenth century,. Fothercardine, Fottercardine, and Fetherkern. In the fifteenth, Fethyrcarne, Fetterkarne, Fethirkerne, Feddirkairnr and Feddirkeyrn. In the sixteenth, Fethircarn, Fethercarne, Fethirkern, Fethircairne, and Fethircarny. In the seventeenth and eighteenth, Fettercarden, Fettercarne, Fetter-cairne, Faittercairne, Fetterkairn, and, lastly, the present modern form, Fettercairn. So many old variations of spelling probably rest upon nothing else than the arbitrary fancy of each writer, at a time when there was less writing done, and when words and place-names were practically unwritten. Sir Herbert Maxwell, in his "Scottish Land Names," gives a similar instance of twenty-five different spellings of "Galloway." From these desultory remarks it may be inferred that Fother, Fether or Fettw means the jutting ridge or ridges, and cairn the hill upon which stood Fenella's castle.

The aggregate number of farms, crofts, and homesteads,. old and new, within the bounds of the parish, is about 114. A list of local place-names, with the meanings of such a& are Celtic, will be given in another chapter.


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