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Guide to the East Neuk of Fife

The Parish of Newburn lies between the parishes of Largo and Kilconquhar, and on the south it skirts Largo Bay for more than a mile and a half. It contains 3222 ½ acres, including nearly 179 acres of fore-shore. In writing the old Statistical Account in 1795, Mr Laurie waxed eloquent in describing the advantages of his parish:- "The luxuriant turnip-crops in this district in favourable seasons might arrest the attention of the traveller, who has visited more fortunate climes. . . . This situation has been long admired for variegated scenery and an extensive view. The scene now before me, consisting of woods and waters, and hills and dales, is such as the writer of romance might have delighted to feign." At that time Mr Laurie had only been minister of the parish for two years; but, as the seasons rolled on, he never lost his first love. He also wrote the New Statistical Account, forty-one years later, and again he extolled its fertility and beauty in almost the same words.

The Name, according to Dr Laurie—for he was dubbed D.D. in 1810—was Drumeldry in ancient times. "At a period less remote," he says, "that of Newburn was assigned to it; probably from the circumstance of a small rivulet, which runs through a considerable part of the parish, having changed its course." With commendable caution, he adds that, "Etymology, however, is often fanciful and fabulous." But Newburn, or rather Nithbren, was the name of the parish at least six centuries and a half ago.

The Old Parish Church is a most interesting though roofless ruin. Some parts of the walls are so covered by ivy that the building is completely hid, and the marks of the root-lets can be traced on the inside, though the plants have been extirpated. Internally, it is about 55 feet in length, but at the east end it is only 12 feet 4 inches in width. This gives it a remarkably narrow appearance. At the west end it is about 15 feet wide, and on the north side there is a little aisle. On the south side there are two porches; but one of these, at least, is much more modern than the church. Both gables seem to have been heightened in later times. That the east end of the church is pre-Reformation is unmistakably shown by the piscina and aumrie, which have been allowed to remain. It may be part of the original structure, which was dedicated by Bishop Bernham in 1243, although the moulding round the aumrie appears to be of fourteenth century workmanship. On the north side there is another building, which may have been erected as a session-house at a much more recent period. There are few gravestones of any interest in the surrounding burying-ground, although it must have been used for many long centuries, and the soil is much raised round the walls of the church. Among the more eminent men who have ministered to the parish must be reckoned John Dyks, who came from Kilrenny in 1605, and returned to it in 1610; Ephraim, son of James Melville; the two George Hamiltons; and Archibald Bonar.

The New Parish Church, which is nearly half-a-mile further west, is more central for the parishioners, and was built in 1815. The stipend in 1795, Mr Laurie complained, was only about £80; but, in 1836, he was able to state that it was nearly £200.

Balchristie, which is close to the eastern side of the parish, and only a mile to the south-west of Colinsburgh, cannot be called a village now. Malcolm Canmore and St Margaret gave the village of Balchristie to the Culdees of Loch-Leven eight hundred years ago. Last century the proprietor "dug up the foundation-stones of an old edifice near the western wall of his garden, and in the very place where, according to the best accounts, the church of the Culdees stood." Mr Laurie was told that "this was the first Christian church in Scotland," and he appears to have thought that the tradition was not baseless; but the more matter-of-fact people of the present day will soon set aside its claims to such antiquity. Ecclesiastical associations of a more recent date are also connected with this place. James Smith—"a well-favoured person, of good manners, unquestionable piety, and good report; of a tender holy walk, and sweet natural temper; zealous and prudent, with a good stock of learning "—having adopted Independent views of church-government, resigned his charge of the parish, after thirty-three years’ faithful service, and, with Robert Ferrier of Largo, started a meeting-house at Balchristie. In 1795, Laurie says:- "It has been often remarked, that Newburn, for many years past, has been a nursery of Seceders; and remarked with surprise, that a small arm of the sea should be the boundary between moderation and fanaticism. Cameronians, Independents, persons belonging to the Burgher Congregation, and also to what is called the Relief Congregation, are to be found here. The number of Independents is about 20. They are the only sect who have a place of meeting for public worship in the parish." In spite of their dissenting propensities the parishioners were sober, regular, industrious, and humane, and their diversity of sentiments did not prevent social intercourse nor mutual good offices. The Seceders had not increased of late, and one of the Relief elders had returned to the Established Church; and so, to Mr Laurie, "rational religion" seemed to be gaining ground, and he fondly hoped that "the small remainder of enthusiasm" would most probably die with those who cherished it. His hopes were so far realised, in 1836, that the Independent Congregation had removed their place of meeting to Earlsferry, their church at Balchristie being turned into a granary, and there were only three. dissenting families in the whole parish.

The village of Drumeldrie is near the western confines of the parish, being about a mile due west from Balchristie. In 1659, John Wood, by a mortification of money and lands, provided for the erection of a Grammar-School at Drumeldrie, a master’s salary, and the maintenance of four poor scholars. The Hospital at Largo was provided for at the same time. Both mortifications were ratified by Parliament in 1661. The administrators were to increase the number of pensioners as the funds would permit, according to Wood’s intentions.

The Population of the parish in 1755 was 438; in 1794, it was 456 ; in 1821, it was 398; and in 1881, it was only 344.

The Valuation of the parish in 1855-6 was £5260 10s; and in 1885-6 it is £4739 13s 8d.

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