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Banffshire
Chapter 15. History of the County


The history of Banffshire touches national events at a number of interesting points. Whether the county was ever invaded by the legions of Rome is a matter that has been hotly disputed by antiquarians and historians, but in any case it was certainly unconquered by them. A few centuries later it formed, with what is the modern county of Aberdeen, one of the seven provinces of Pictland.

Interesting memorials still remain of the Celtic missionaries who introduced Christianity among the northern Picts. Brandon Fair, a feeing market in Banff, and "the Brannan Howe," as well as the ruins of St Brandon's Church, remind us of the famous saint. Mortlach was named after St Murthlac; and, of old, Aberlour bore the name of its patron saint, St Drostan, Alvah still possesses St Columba's well. Forglen parish used to be called Teunan or St Eunan, i.e. St Adamnan, the biographer of St Columba. The parish of Marnoch commemorates its patron saint in Marnan Fair. St Maelrubha was one of the most notable of Fathers of the Faith in Northern Scotland, where more than twenty places show traces of his presence. He was the patron saint of Keith, and his name is buried in Summer-eve Fair, formerly one of the most important September markets in the North. "Summer-eve" is an easy popular etymology of one of the corrupted forms of St Maelrubha's name.

While civilising influences were thus affecting the "barbarians" of the North, other movements that had been for long in progress, came to affect profoundly the national life. The pagan Vikings made descents on the growing wealth of the monastic communities, and Banffshire was the scene of three events of more or less national importance. On the muir of Findochty, in 961, the followers of Eric of the Bloody Axe and the Scots under King Indulphus, met in what is known as the Battle of the Baads. The invaders were routed, but the Scots King was slain, a collection of stones commonly called the "King's Cairn" near the farm of Woodside traditionally marking his grave. To the same epoch belongs the battle of the "Bleedy" Pits in Gamrie, where the Scots defeated the Danes with great slaughter on the top of Gamrie Mhor. The date assigned is 1004, the year inscribed on the ruins of the old church. The Scottish chief vowed to St John to build a church on the spot where the invaders were encamped if the Saint would lend his assistance in dislodging them. One who wrote in 1832 recalled that three of the Danish chiefs were discovered amongst the slain, "and I have seen their skulls grinning horrid and hollow, in the wall where they had been fixed, inside the Church, directly east of the pulpit, andwhere they have remained in their prison house Soo years." Principal Sir W. D. Geddes has written how

Over brine, over faem,
Thorough flood, thorough flame,
The ravenous hordes of the Norsemen came
To ravage our fatherland...
The war, I ween, had a speedy close,
And the "Bloody Pits" to this day can tell
How the ravens were glutted with gore,
And the Church was garnished with trophies fell,
"Jesu, Maria, shield us well"
Three grim skulls of three Norse Kings
Grinning a grin of despair,
Each looking out from his stony cell—
They stared with a stony stare.

To the same period is attributed the Battle of Mortlach, in which, opposite the present parish church, then a chapel dedicated to St Murthlac, Malcolm in 1010 obtained a complete victory over the Danes. It was to this chapel that Malcolm added three spear-lengths in fulfilment of a vow.

If the Reformation brought no leader from the county, and if that movement was acquiesced in rather than warmly embraced, Banffshire was intimately involved in the troubles that arose therefrom. Altochoylachan, a small stream near the eastern boundary of Glenlivet, has acquired distinction because of the battle fought on its right bank on 3rd Oct. 1594, the last struggle in the North between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, when 10,000 Protestants under the Earl of Argyll were routed by the Catholic insurgents under the Earl of Huntly. It was a barren victory, however, for the " Popish earls" were unable to follow it up, and the King, going himself with an armed force to Strathbogie, consented to the looting of Huntly's great castle and then to its destruction. The only notable man who fell on Huntly's side was Sir Patrick Gordon of Auchindoun; Argyll lost MacLean of Mull, MacNeill of Barra, two of his Campbell cousins, and 500 rank and file. When MacLean was mortally wounded, and felt himself dying, he said to his followers in Gaelic, "Let me be buried in the churchyard of Downan, where the Saxon tongue will never be heard spoken over my grave." But MacLean, if a brave warrior, was a short-sighted prophet, for less than three centuries after, not two persons, natives of the district, could have been found who could converse in Gaelic at his grave. It was at the battle of Glenlivet that the Highland harp made its last appearance on the field of battle, brought thither by Argyll. The harp was finally discontinued in the Scottish Highlands about 1734, leaving the bagpipe the instrument of Scottish martial music.

In the time of the Covenanting troubles when the Marquis of Montrose was carrying devastation among the Covenanters of the North, we read that "from Findlater, he marched to the Boyne, plunders the country, and burns the bigging pitifully, and spoilzied the minister's goods, gear and books. The laird himself keeps the Craig of Boyne, wherein he was safe; but his haill lands, for the most part, were thus burnt up and destroyit. Thereafter he marches to Banff, plunders the samen pitifully, no merchant's goods nor gear left; they saw no man on the street but was stripped naked to the skin."

The Rebellion of 1745-46 cannot be said to have met with much general sympathy in the district. From contemporary ecclesiastical and other records it rather appears, indeed, to have been regarded in the light of a nuisance, and in at least one parish the church records state, under date April 23rd, 1746, that a thanksgiving service was held "for the glorious victory over the Rebels 16th inst. where numbers of the rebel army were slain and a complete victory obtained." Sir John Cope, in 1745, on his return from Inverness, passed through Banff, having under him 2100 foot. The Duke of Cumberland left Aberdeen with the last division of his army on 8th April, 1746. Part of the Royal troops were at that time in Strathbogie and part in Oldmeldrum, and these joined him at Portsoy. He arrived on i oth April at Banff, where Lord Braco gave 250 of drink-money to the common soldiers "merely that he might with more freedom ask protection for the Houses, Cattle, Horses, and other effects of any of his friends and relations who had the misfortune of being engaged." The Earl. of Findlater, at Cullen House, which had been pillaged by the Jacobites while the Earl was in attendance on Cumberland at Aberdeen, made on the same occasion "handsome provision for the troops." One incident of the Army's visit to Banff was the hanging of two men on the ground that they were spies, but the first victim is described by a later historian as "a poor innocent man"; and of both it is said that "such as knew them affirmed they had scarce wit enough to do their own country business far less play the spy." In their passage through Banff, the soldiers also "destroyed the fine episcopal chapel, cutting down the roof, burning the seats, books, pulpit and altar, and breaking the organ in pieces." Other places of worship in the county suffered a similar fate. The Roman Catholic chapel at Shenval, in the remote wilds of the Cabrach was burned, but the greatest loss to the ancient faith was the destruction of the little college of Scalan in the even more remote Braes of Glenlivet.

The name of Scalan lingers fondly in the minds of Roman Catholics in Scotland. For the greater part of the eighteenth century it was the centre of Catholic activity and over one hundred missionaries were educated within its walls. In 1713 the idea started of a seminary which would not only prepare boys for the colleges abroad, but also fully educate them for the priesthood. The place chosen was on the island of Loch Morar, but the civil disturbances of 1715 occasioned its dissolution. The work was resumed in 1717 at Scalan, a most isolated spot in Glenlivet. In May 1746 it was laid in ashes by Cumberland's troops, but although parties of soldiers were stationed in Glenlivet for nine years more, the educational work was continued and men who were to rise high in the Church received their training here. In 1789 the seminary was transferred to Aquhorthies in Aberdeenshire, and in 1829 to Blairs in Kincardineshire. The chapel of Tombae, whose priest had joined Prince Charles as chaplain to the Glenlivet and Strathaven contingent under Gordon of Glenbucket, had its contents committed to the flames. In the other ancient stronghold of Roman Catholicism in the county, the district of the Enzie, due in large measure to the protecting influence of the Gordons, the steps taken were much more lenient.

But if the Jacobite rising found small popular sympathy in the greater part of the county, it is the name of a Banffshire tenant farmer that stands in the front rank of those who took part in the attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty—that of John Gordon of Glenbucket, whose descendants, still known by the name of "Glen," although the family property of Glenbucket passed out of their family so long ago as 1737, continue to have their home in an upland part of Banffshire. In the same year, Glenbucket left Scotland to visit the Chevalier at Rome, and papers that are quoted lead one historian to say that "the sequence of events here narrated makes it plain that.. .it was Gordon of Glenbucket whose initiative in 1737 originated the Jacobite revival which eventually brought Prince Charles to Scotland." A legend lingered long in the North that George II sometimes would waken from his sleep in terror lest "de greet Glenbogget vas goming." And this although, according to an unknown author, believed to be a contemporary, "he was so old and infirm that he could not mount his horse, but behoved to be lifted into his saddle, notwithstanding of which the old spirit still remained in him."

In a list of persons concerned in the rebellion transmitted by the Supervisor of Excise at Banff, nine names of persons from Banff appeared, one of them "now prisoner at Carlisle"; three from Down; seventeen from Keith; twelve from Portsoy; seven from Cullen, etc. But the much larger number came from the district of Strathaven and Glenlivet, where the influence of Glenbucket was a powerful factor. About 26 landed proprietors of the district joined in the rebellion, of whom more than one half were Gordons.

The Forty-five brought in its wake new ideals, new ambitions and an altogether fresh outlook to the North of Scotland. Ancient influences in constituted society were obliterated or modified, agriculture was developed, industry grew, means of communication multiplied and from those days may be dated the modern activities of the county of Banff.


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