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The History of Fettercairn
Chapter XXV.—Beadles and Kirk Officers


FOLLOWING the subject of Churches and Churchyards, some account may be given of the successive holders of the office which combines the duties of beadle, bellman and gravedigger.

In former times the beadle had many duties to perform, including some that are not now required. Besides fulfilling the duties of the beadle of the present day, he had to attend the minister at parochial visitations, and summon culprits of all kinds to undergo church discipline. He had also to cry or advertise sales and give other notices at the church door after divine service; to walk in front of funeral processions and ring a hand-bell; to keep dogs out of church, and if they happened to get in, to put them out as best he could. This he usually managed with a clip like a smith's tongs, which he kept to catch them. His multifarious duties led him to be regarded as the best newsmonger in the parish.

The first beadle in Fettercairn of whom there is any record was an Andrew Low, who, according to a minute of Presbytery at Fordoun in June, 1702, was chosen to be their officer for the ensuing six months, with 7s. (Scots) from each member. The next was James Stephen, who appears, in 1723, among others that borrowed Kirk Session funds. Besides his fees as sexton, he got 2s. 6d. every year for shoes to do the digging. Most ordinary people then went barefooted. His money emoluments were 2d. from each church collection, and half of each groat charged for his ringing of the hand-bell at funerals. The bell then in use was the gift of a Kobert Valentine, Denstrath. At that time it was also part of the beadle's duty to go once a year to Fordoun for a loan of the tablecloths and cups for the communion, as the Kirk Session had no cloths of their own till 1727, and no cups till 1788. The communion tables were not fixtures, but were erected as occasion required. The same James Stephen was one of the kirk officers in the county who compeared " At Stone-hyve the 30th day of May, 1748 years, before Sir William Ogilvie of Barras, Justice of the Peace," to depone that they did affix to the church doors a summons by the commander of His Majesty's forces in Scotland, ordering " The hail persons in their respective parishes to deliver up their arms and warlike weapons to him at Laurencekirk, upon the 27th day of said month of May, 1748."

Stephen's successor was a James Lyall, who became kirk officer in 1763, and died in 1771, leaving a widow and a young family. The Kirk Session compassionately appointed his eldest boy James, although only twelve years of age, to the office, with the help of a man for a year or two to dig the graves. The boy grew up to be a "character" and to be "Old Jamie Lyall," as the people of a past generation called him, when succeeded in 1820 by his son, also James Lyall. About "Old James" many stories were told. One Sunday, as the congregation were dismissing, he, in compliance with the usual custom, mounted a tombstone near the church door, rung his bell, and cried, "Tak'tent, sirs, tak'tent, Stolen or strayed, a ewe, from Balnakettle, whaever brings her hame will be rewarded, but I forgot, wi' a tether!" On another Sunday, being sorely tried with the dogs that followed their masters to church, and especially with one worse than the rest, he dragged this one out, and to be a spectacle to the people leaving church, he left him hanging dead on the churchyard gate !

James Lyall (the third) succeeded his father and performed the duties, but like many of his class, rendered callous by familiarity, he sometimes showed scant decorum on sad and sorrowful occasions. On one occasion Jamie became very thirsty, before his work in the kirkyard preparatory to a funeral was completed, and lingering too long in the congenial company of the taproom, the mourners and company arrived. It was the funeral of a woman who was not well spoken of in the parish, and one whom Jamie much disliked. After being sent for, Jamie turned up, and his condition excited severe comments on the part of those in charge. Jamie's ire was at once roused. Throwing off his coat leisurely, he retorted with much vehemence: "Set her doon there till I Jm ready. She's no a clockin' hen; she'll no fiee awa'" He demitted office in 1838, but survived for a good many years, residing in the low roofed cot on the roadside behind the Ramsay Arms Hotel. The young rogues of the village made him their butt, when police surveillance was not very effective. One of their tricks was to climb up on his chimney-top and, with a long hook, to pull up off the fire and out of sight his supper pot or kettle, while two or three others of the band went inside to watch the result, and hold out with feigned sympathy that the witches had run off with his supper. In his later years he was often employed to ring the old hand-bell and advertise sales, raffles, and other events in the village.

After his death, the bell, which should have been preserved as a sacred relic of olden times, unfortunately disappeared. The next beadle was George Watson, a discreet and gentle man, who was by trade a shoemaker, and had been an officer's servant in the Peninsular campaign, and at the battle of Corunna in 1807. James Barron from Auchinblae, also a shoemaker, was appointed in 1863, and after thirty years' faithful service was succeeded by John Colman, boot and shoemaker, who now holds office.

The occupation of beadle has always been associated with shrewdness and sharpness of wit, and many of the best Scotch stories now in print originated with men of this class. Of the Fettercairn beadles, James Barron best kept up the reputation of his profession in this respect, and this chapter may be appropriately concluded with an example of his repartee. The substance of the story is as follows: The parish doctor had got a more lucrative appointment, and he had to leave the place on short notice. He employed Barron to assist at the removal of his furniture, without making any definite agreement as to payment. After settling down in his new home the doctor sent uncollected accounts back to Fettercairn by post, and, amongst others, one to the beadle, which the latter considered an overcharge; but to keep himself right, Barron made out a contra account which showed a small balance in his own favour, and, sending it to the doctor, requested him to kindly remit the balance. This elicited a very sarcastic reply from the medical man, expressing the hope that the beadle might have constant employment at packing furniture, for he might soon be able to retire if always paid at that figure—to which Barron briefly replied, "I should have no objection to constant employment of any kind, for there has been nothing doing in the kirkyard since you left."


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