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The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845)
Volume XII - Aberdeen
Parish of Birse


PRESBYTERY OF KINCARDINE O'NEIL, SYNOD OF ABERDEEN.
THE REV. GEORGE SMITH, MINISTER.

I.—Topography and Natural History.

Name.—The name of the parish is derived from a Gaelic word signifying bush, and seems to express what was formerly the general appearance of the district in which it is situated.

Extent, &c.—The parish is of great extent, being on the south side along the top of the Grampians, and on the west side from the top of the Grampians to the river Dee, about ten miles long-On the north side, it is about eight miles long, and on the east it is about six miles. This parish forms the south-east point of Aberdeenshire; and is bounded on the east by the parish of Strachan, which is in the county of Kincardine, and along the Grampians; on the south, by a part of the same parish, and by Loch-lee, in the county of Forfar; on the west, by a mountain rang of the parish of Aboyne, which extends down to the river Dee; and on the north, partly by the said river, and by a section of Aboyne, which stretches to the south of the Dee.

Topographical Appearances.—The appearance of the parish is hilly and mountainous. If viewed from the highest ground on its western side, it would be seen to consist of three distinct valleys, running eastwards towards the Dee, and separated from each other by two ranges of hills. That on the south is the largest, and forms the valley of the Feugh. Its western extremity, called the "Forest of Birse," is narrow, and the appearance of it is bleak and wild; but at the distance of about five miles from its commencement, the valley expands suddenly to a considerable breadth, improving in appearance and in soil, and forming the chief part of the property of Finzean. This improvement in its natural features is maintained throughout the valley to its termination at the confluence of the Feugh with the Dee, near the village of Banchory, in Kincardineshire. The total length of the Feugh which divides this valley is about fifteen miles, and its termination forms one of the loveliest and most romantic scenes on Dee-side. The second valley, called "Glen-chatt," is much smaller than the first, and the course of the stream which intersects it is shorter. Like the former, it is narrow at first, but afterwards expands considerably, forming the properties of Ballogie and Midstrath. The third district is not properly a valley by itself, but forms rather one side of the vale perambulated by the Dee at this part of its course. There is, however, a small stream of water running through it, and dividing it into two parts. Hence it has still something of the appearance of a valley, although the ground on the north side of it separating it from the Dee is not much elevated. In the centre of this third district, the church and manse are situated. Their position on the north-west side of the parish renders the great bulk of the inhabitants at a very inconvenient distance from church. The scenery in the parish is not sufficiently bold to be romantic, but may be called wild. Some of the mountains in the parish rise to a considerable altitude, Mount Geanach, one of the Grampian range, being between two and three thousand feet above the sea.

Climate.—The temperature of the atmosphere is extremely variable. The climate cannot be called a humid one, yet it is very unsteady. Sudden alternations of heat and cold, wet and dry weather are constantly experienced. Severe thunder storms sometimes happen; but no case of injury to life or property from the electric fluid has occurred for many years.

Springs.—Abundance of common springs of water are found in all parts of the parish. A few chalybeates exist in it, though none of them are of much eminence. One of them, resembling in some measure, when analyzed, the Moffat waters, was discovered a few years ago, near the suspension-bridge of Aboyne over the Dee, and was frequented for some time by the neighbouring invalids with apparent benefit; but its celebrity seems now on the wane.

Geology.-—The chief mineral productions found in the parish are, blue heathen stone, as it is commonly called, granite, and limestone. A fine variety of red porphyry is also to be seen on the borders of the parish, in the bed of the river Dee, near the bridge of Potarch. The granite is found in large blocks, near the surface of the soil, throughout the whole extent of the parish; and, as these serve all the purposes of building, quarries have not been opened. Traces of such, however, are seen in various places as the superincumbent strata are washed away by the mountain torrents. The limestone also abounds, and is usually found within a few feet of the surface, lying under a deposit of gravel and small stones. It is used by the farmers in the district for agricultural purposes; but, from the great admixture of sand which it contains, the difficulty of burning it, and the distance from coal, none of the quarries will bear the expense of being worked for the general market.

The soil of the parish is a light loam, approaching in many places to gravel. It chiefly consists of decomposed granite, sand, and a proportion of clay,—the latter in defective quantity. For this reason, the soil is loose and friable, ill adapted for raising wheat or heavy crops of oats, but better calculated for barley and turnip husbandry. The plants that seem peculiarly attached to the soil are broom, furze, juniper, and birch, and fir trees. Wherever the ground is protected from the pasturage of sheep and cattle, these quickly begin to appear. Among the hills the monotony of the heath is relieved by the blaeberry, the crowberry, and the cranberry plants; which last is found in great quantities, and affords a considerable source of employment and profit to the children of the cottagers and small farmers in the neighbourhood, who collect the berries, and take them to the Aberdeen market.

Zoology.—The rarer species of animals found in the parish are, the fox, badger, hedgehog, wild-cat, polecat, weasel, otter, common and white hare, rabbit; and in the woods the roe and red deer. To the feathered tribes, the extent of plantation, and the varied surface of hill and dale, afford inviting shelter; accordingly we have a large proportion of them. Among these, may be numbered, the grouse, ptarmigan, blackcock, snipe, partridge, various species of ducks, the heron, wood-pigeon, magpie, raven, crow, jackdaw, kestrel, hawk-owl, and others.

Among the songsters of the field we have the goldfinch, chaffinch, redbreast, linnet, yellow-hammer, thrush, blackbird, titmouse, and many others. Besides these, a great number of aquatic and other migratory birds frequent, in summer, the fields and rivers, such as the oyster-catcher, corncrake, lapwing, swallow, wagtail, cuckoo, plover, woodcock, and of late years the curlew. Of the insect tribe many varieties are to be found. In the gar-dens, a green insect proves often fatal to the blossom of the apple trees, and another to the carrots and onions. For these no effectual remedy has yet been found. The fly which has so often desolated turnip fields in the south, and the insect, if insect it be, which has of late years been so destructive to potato cultivation, have neither of them appeared in this quarter to any serious extent.

The breed of cattle in use cannot be distinctly classed, but may be called the Aberdeenshire polled and horned. The animals, in general, are small in size, and defective in many of the points of beauty and value. The breed of sheep in common use is the black-faced horned.

II.Civil History.

The ancient history of the parish is involved in much obscurity, like that of many others. The multitude of tumuli, however, scattered in all directions on the mountain sides, would indicate that it was the scene, in former days, of battle and of blood. One immense cairn exists in the woods of Finzean, though now much beneath its original size; and on the adjacent hill are to be seen a great number of smaller cairns or tumuli; while a little farther eastward a long granite stone, such as was used in ancient times to mark the grave of some eminent person, was dug up a good many years ago, and now stands on the top of the hill of Corsedarder. These appearances taken in connection would lead us to the belief of some serious battle having taken place, and that a chief had been killed on the spot alluded to. But whether that chief was, as has been said, an ancient king or prince of Scotland, named Dardanus, cannot now be ascertained. It is far from unlikely that many of the tumuli every where visible, mark the resting-place of individuals slain in some highland foray for cattle into the lowlands; for which the upper districts were at one time so famous. On such occasions, the hills and mountains of this parish, lying as they do betwixt the north and the south country, must often have been the scene where the fugitives and the pursuers encountered each other, and disputed the prize; and these tumuli would indicate that the encounters did not always pass over without blood. This idea derives some probability of truth, from the circumstance, that there is a mountain pass leading through this parish, across the Grampians, to the south country, known to this day by the name of the "Cattrin road," or perhaps "raid,"—a clear proof that this district was at one time well known to, and frequented by, the "Cattrin," in their excursions from the higher and more northern districts to and from the south.

In Spalding's history of the "Troubles of Scotland" occasional allusion is made to the inhabitants of this parish and district. They seem to have followed the fortunes of the Gordon or the Huntly family, and, being opposed to the Covenanters, suffered frequent spoliation of their cattle and property from the soldiers of the latter. The same authority records that several of the ministers of Birse stoutly resisted signing the Covenant, and refused to yield until high ecclesiastical censures were passed upon them. In modern times the chief occurrences connected with the parish are, 1st, the building of the bridge of Potarch over the Dee, in 1813, establishing a communication between the parish and the Deeside turnpike road to Aberdeen; 2dly, the building of a suspension bridge over the same river at the west end of the parish, by the Earl of Aboyne, first in 1828, and, on its being carried off by the great flood in August 1829, rebuilding it in 1830; and 3dly, the building of a bridge over the river Feugh, in 1835, on the line of the great north and south road across the Grampians. Eminent Men.—The most eminent men connected with the parish by birth are stated in the last Statistical Account to have been Dr Gilbert Ramsay, who was Rector of Christ's Church, Barbadoes, and who left at his death L.500 to the poor of his native parish, L.500 to endow a free school in it, and a sum of money to erect a bridge over the Feugh at the east end of it. Dr Alexander Garden, formerly in Charleston, South Carolina, and whose father was minister of this parish for upwards of fifty years; Dr Rose of Birsebeg, both of whom were American refugees during the revolutionary war. George Rose, Esq. formerly of the Treasury, was grandson of Donald Rose, Esq. of Wester Clune. Captain David Ochterlouny, who fell at Quebec with General Wolfe, was one of the Ochterlounies of Tillyfrusky. And another branch of the same family was the late Sir David Ochterlouny, who died in the East Indies a few years ago. To these may be added Bishop Skinner, grandfather of the present Bishop Skinner of Aberdeen, who was a native of Balfour, and who distinguished himself by various publications, and some celebrated Scottish ballads.

Land-owners.—The proprietors of the parish are, 1. Archibald Farquharson, Esq. of Finzean. The family of whom the present proprietor is representative, came originally from Braemar, but they have held property in this parish for several centuries. The second heritor is the Marquis of Huntly. The third heritor is Lewis Farquharson Innes, Esq. of Ballogie. The family to which be belongs were formerly Farquharsons of Inverey, in Crathie and Braemar; but upon their succession to the property of Ballogie, by the extinction of the family of Innes of Balnacraig and Ballogie, they have added the name of Innes to the former family one. The fourth heritor of the parish is John Mair Gerard, Esq. of Midstrath. The oldest son of this family, and the proprietor then in possession, fell at Waterloo.

[Since the present, Statistical Account was compiled, some years ago, two small properties, called Balfour and Kinminity, have, in consequence of the bankruptcy of the Marquis of Huntly, been sold. They have been purchased by Francis J. Cochran, Esq., Advocate in Aberdeen.

The estate of Ballogie has also, by the death of Lewis Innes, Esq. in 1840, come into the possession of his four sisters, the Misses Farquharson, residing at Ballogie, and Mrs Lynch, who resides in London.

The estate of Finzean, consisting of nearly the half of the parish, has, by the death of Archibald Farquharson, Esq. come into the possession of his uncle, John Farquharson, Esq., presently residing in London. Perhaps few things can more strikingly illustrate the mutability of human affairs than the fact, that, since the period that the present Statistical Account was begun to be written, about three years ago, more than two thirds of the property of it, most unexpectedly, have come into possession of other parties than those who then held it, and that only one estate out of the four into which the parish was then divided, is now enjoyed by the same proprietor it then was. (1842).]

Parochial Registers.—The date of the earliest register is 1699, from which year, for a period of eight years, during the ministry of Mr John Howe, it is kept with great exactness. From 1707, the year of Mr Howe's death, to 1726, the registers are either lost or have never been kept. From 1726 to 1744, they are kept regularly. From 1744 to 1765, they are again lost. From the year 1765, they are kept regularly up to the present day. In Mr Howe's Register, many interesting circumstances, connected with the state of the church and country, are incidentally noticed. Amongst others, the following may be noticed : A letter appears on the record, from the above-mentioned Dr Gilbert Ramsay, to the kirk-session, intimating his intention to found and endow an hospital for the support of a certain number of aged persons, and requesting the session to state to him the probable expense. The session, however, from motives of delicacy, declined to do so, and this first intention appears afterwards to have been abandoned for the endowment of a school. About the same time, an entry is made in the register, of a collection made for the harbour of Eyemouth, and again, a second collection for the same purpose. Nor does a spirit of enlarged charity and sympathy, for suffering brethren, seem then to have been wanting in the Church of Scotland, for another entry appears of a collection made for the poor Christians, prisoners at Algiers. Not the least singular of the practices of these past days of our fathers, is the strictness of church discipline then prevailing, and the zeal which they manifested for the keeping of the Sabbath day, as evinced by the following entry in the register: "Said day, * * * was dilated to the session for boiling beesbykes on the Sabbath day."

Antiquities.—There are no antiquities in the parish of much celebrity. In the district called the Forest, stands part of an old castellated ruin, on which, however, no date can be seen. It appears to have been built at a period when there were no settled inhabitants in that glen. Tradition says it was erected by a Bishop Gordon of Aberdeen, for a hunting seat. Another and more imperfect ruin stands near Easter Clune, beside which had also existed formerly an Episcopal place of worship, and a small burying-ground. No tradition connected with this ruin exists in the neighbourhood. In the charters of Finzean, it is denominated the fortalice of Easter Clune. In all probability, it was merely the residence of one of the many landholders who formerly held the property of the parish, and which the lawless state of society then prevailing required to be capable of maintaining a short defence against the sudden assaults of enemies. A few years ago, four silver coins were dug out of a grave in the churchyard. They are much worn, but had originally been nearly the size of modern half crowns. They bear the inscription of "Robertus Scotorum Rex" on one side, and on the other, "Villa Edinburgh," "Villa Perth."

Buildings.—The chief buildings in the parish are the mansion-houses of Finzean and Ballogie. The former is an old house, built in the form of three sides of a square; the latter is, to a great extent, a modern building. Both are comfortable mansion-houses, but claim no particular notice from their architecture. The woods and plantations around each are extensive and thriving, and add much to the beauty of the parish.

III.—Population.

Previous to Dr Webster's report, no accurate statement of the population is on record. The population then given is 1126. In 1791, when a correct account of it was taken by the last incumbent of the parish, it was 1253. From this number the population gradually rose till 1827, when it was 1568. Since that period it has been receding. By the census of 1831 it was 1487, and, in 1837, it was still lower. The cause of the advance and subsequent decrease was the same, viz. illicit distillation of whisky. While this infamous and demoralizing practice prevailed, population increased through the facilities by which families were maintained among the hills and valleys on its profits. But no sooner was this system put down, than the effect appeared on population. Fewer marriages than formerly now take place, and a considerable number of families, formerly supported by illicit distillation, have been obliged to remove to towns and other parishes : a good many families, also, have emigrated to America. This is entirely a rural parish, there being no village of any kind in it.

The population may be divided as follows:  [The population, as taken by census 1841, was 1313, exhibiting a decrease from the census 1831, of 174. The cause of the decrease is that stated above, along with the junction of small farms into larger.]

The number of marriages at present subsisting in the parish, inclusive of widowers or widows, 259; of these, 245 have had families, 14 have had no family; besides these, 11 have had no family in their present marriage, although one of the parties had a family by a former marriage. In the above, ten marriages have had only one child, and eleven marriages have had only two children. The average number of children in a family is about 4˝; proportion of those marriages producing no family to those which have, 1 to 17. Number of insane, two; partially insane, one; fatuous, one; blind, partially, two; deaf and dumb, none.

Character of the People.—As regards the general character of the people, they are more intelligent, and better informed than they formerly were. Newspapers are widely and greedily read, and some are anxious to improve their minds from other sources. The value of education begins to be more deeply appreciated, and where the young have the means of obtaining it, they manifest much readiness in apprehending the instruction communicated to them. In point of morality, the people are generally decent and well-behaved; the chief excesses whereof they are guilty, arising from the abuse of ardent spirits, into which a good many occasionally fall, from the facilities with which spirits are to be had.

In respect to religion, a just and proper value is put by the generality of the people on its ordinances, and much exertion is made by those living in the distant corners of the parish to attend church.

IV.—Industry.

Agriculture.—The number of arable acres in the parish, as nearly as can be ascertained, is about 3360 imperial acres; but they bear a small proportion to the unimproved, of which there are probably not less than upwards of 40,000 imperial acres. Of late years, considerable additions have been made to the arable portion of the parish, by squaring fields, and draining wet parts; but such is the rugged and barren nature of the great bulk of the remainder, that any large additions from it can never be made. The number of acres under wood is as follows : on the estate of Finzean, 1800 imperial acres ; of Aboyne, about 900 acres; Bal-logie, about 960; Midstrath, 50; in all, 3710. Of this large number, however, many acres are comparatively thin, from the quantities of timber that have been sold and carried away for many years. The great proportion of the plantations is of Scots fir, many individual trees of which have come to great size, and produced a fine quality of timber. The annual value of wood sold in the parish for many years has been little short of L. 1000 Sterling, and often considerably more ; and if the proprietors continue to plant in proportion to what they cut down, nearly this sum may be realized for many years to come.

The average rent of the land per imperial acre is as follows:-on the property of Finzean, L. 1, 4s. 7d.; Aboyne, L. 1, 0s. 6d.; Ballogie, L. 1, 2s. 10d.; Midstrath, L. 1, 4s. 9d. Average, taking into view the size of the different properties, about L. 1, 3s. In stating this as the average of the parish, it may be mentioned, that, along with the land rented, there is conveyed to the tenant right to the common pasturage of the hills, for which no separate rent is charged ; on which account, the average rent of an acre becomes somewhat higher than it would otherwise be. Moreover, since the above average was taken some years ago, rents on some of the properties have considerably fallen, and may now be called about L. 1, 2s. the imperial acre.

The size of the farms in the parish is comparatively small, the generality being from 30 to 60 acres, and only two being above 100 acres. The chief part of the labour on these farms is done by the farmers and their families, for which reason the number of farm-servants in the parish is not large.

Prices.—Fir wood can be bought at from 6d. to 8d. per cubic foot. Hard-wood, which is scarce, is a good deal higher.

Lime, burned in the kilns at home, costs about 7d. per bushel; that brought from Aberdeen 1s. 2d., including the expense of carriage. Coals cost about 2s. per barrel, the distance from Aberdeen doubling their expense.

The state of husbandry has been much improved within the last twenty years. Previous to that time, regular rotation in cropping was scarcely practised, while lime and manure were very sparingly applied to the soil. Now the great proportion of the land is farmed regularly, and the more enterprising of the farmers are beginning to introduce some of the modern improvements in agriculture. The rotation of cropping followed is what is called the seven-shift, one, which, though it may be doubtful whether it be the most proper, is at least better than the former practice of following none.

The general duration of the leases granted by the proprietors is for nineteen years; but in most instances, where tenants are active and industrious, these are renewed. Several farms in the parish have been occupied by the present tenants and their forefathers for centuries.

The chief difference in the present state of the parish and that which existed at the date of the last Statistical report, consists in the improved condition of the farm-houses and buildings. At that period, not one slated farm-house existed, and both dwelling-houses and other erections were built without lime, the upper half of either gable generally consisting of turf. Now, however, all the buildings connected with the farms have assumed a more commodious and substantial form. At that period, not a thrashing-mill existed ; now, there are upwards of thirty, and every year sees them augmented.

Produce.—The following may be regarded as an approximation to the truth in respect to the quantity and value of farm produce raised in the parish : Number of arable acres 3360 imperial. Of these there may be in oats 960 acres; in barley, 480 do.; in hay, 480 do.; in grass, 960 do.; in turnips and potatoes, 480 do. Oats, 960 acres at 24 bushels per acre, 23040 bushels; barley, 480 acres, 14040 bushels.

Manufactures.— The only manufacture which may be said to exist in the parish, is that of coarse woollen stockings by females. In this manufacture, a good part of the wool clipped from the fleecy inhabitants is consumed. It is customary for those so employed to purchase the annual stock of wool likely to be required by them during the summer season, which, having been carded by the mills in the neighbourhood, is then spun into worsted, and knitted into stockings chiefly during winter. Though the profits in this manufacture be extremely small, yet it affords occupation to a great many females who would otherwise be idle, and furnishes a ready employment for fragments of time. A very expert female will spin and knit a pair of stockings in two days. For these she receives generally from 1s. to 1s. 3d. when brought to market; of which sum, however, not more than one-half is the remuneration for her labour, the other half being the price of wool, carding, and spinning; One individual will manufacture about three stones and a half of wool in a year, out of which she will produce from 120 to 130 pairs of stockings. Few of the females so employed are entirely dependent on this work for their subsistence, the profits of it being scarcely sufficient for this purpose. Many of them are partly employed in out-door labour, where they can earn higher wages. In times, however, when such is not to be had, or when the season does not admit of it, or when age and infirmities have debarred them from it, the stockings are the never-failing resource. And so much is this the habitual employment of the females, especially of the elderly and unmarried, that, if a person were to go into the dwelling of such and find the "shank" absent from her hands, he might regard it as an unfailing symptom of indisposition.

V.—Parochial Economy.

Means of Communication.—There is no market-town, village, post-office, turnpike-road, public carriage, or canal in the parish. The principal roads are the Great North Road from Brechin to Huntly and Inverness, across the Cairn o' Mount and Grampians. It commences at Whitestone, and extends to Bridge of Potarch, a distance of nearly five miles. The other chief road is the South Dee-side Road from Aberdeen to Braemar. It commences at Whitestone, and extends to the suspension-bridge of Aboyne, a distance of about nine miles.

Ecclesiastical State.— The church and manse are situated in the north-west corner of the parish, being about two miles distant from the west end, and seven miles from the east—nine or ten miles from the south, and half a mile from the northern boundary. The church was erected in 1779, and is a plain substantial building, capable of containing between 500 and 600 persons. The sittings are given over by the landlords to the farmers, who in turn supply their dependents. The manse was built at separate times. The last addition was made in 1834, rendering it a large and commodious house. The glebe is of small value, extending to four acres, besides the garden, and would probably rent for L.6. The amount of stipend is L. 150, of which sum L.19 are paid by the Exchequer, There is a small Roman Catholic place of worship near Ballogie. To this is attached a glebe of about seven acres of land, and a house for the residence of the priest. In addition to his duty in this parish, the priest has a small chapel in the parish of Glenmuick, where he conducts worship once in the month. In 1834 the number of Roman Catholics in the parish was 59; of Episcopalians, 2. All the rest belong to the Established Church. Average number of communicants, 700. The amount of collections, exclusive of those for the ordinary poor, made at church for charitable or religious purposes, is about L.12; but occasionally a good deal more has been obtained.

Education.—The number of schools in the parish is three, one parochial school, one supported by the Society for Propagat-ing Christian Knowledge, in Edinburgh, and one by an endowment from the fund of Dr Gilbert Ramsay, already mentioned.

Besides these, there are generally two or three small schools on the teachers' own adventure.

The salary of the parochial teacher is L.30, with the allowance from the Dick Bequest, common to the counties of Aberdeen Banff, and Moray; that of the endowed school is L.20, with a house, and six acres of land; that of the Society school is L. 17 with a house, and three acres of land. In the two latter the children are taught gratis; in the former, the fees, owing to the poverty of the parents, seldom exceed a few pounds.

Education is more valued by all classes than formerly, and in nothing is this more clearly seen than in the additional number of girls which is now to be found in all the schools. None in the parish are wholly uneducated, or are entirely incapable of reading, although the education of a good many has certainly been very defective.

Library.—A parochial religious library was established in 1829, and has met with tolerable success. The books are given out gratis.

Savings Bank.—A savings bank was established in 1837, and promises to do well.

Poor.—The average number of individuals receiving parochial aid is about 50, and the amount received by them is from 7s. to 9s. per quarter. The funds by which they are supported amount to about L.1300, and the Sabbath collections to L.28 per annum. The sum distributed by the kirk-session is from L. 80 to L. 90 annually.

Fairs.—There are three fairs of some local importance, all held at Bridge of Potarch—one in May, one in October, and one in November.

Inns.—-The number of alehouses is four; besides which, there is one licensed shop where whisky is sold. Of all these not more than the half is required for public accommodation, and the remaining half is merely a tax upon the industry of the neighbourhood.

Fuel-—The chief fuel in use is peat and turf from the hills, together with dry wood from the plantations. The expense of peat is about 1s. per cart-load for cutting, and 1s. 6d. for driving home.

July 1842.


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