Episodes 15 and 16 – Abbotrule, Roxburghshire and Abbots Bickington, Devon


Good news, readers! We’re out of the abbeys and onto the abbots! Before you know it we’ll be done with A altogether! Hold on while I check my map index… Oh. Okay. Well, no holding back then.

Today’s first tour location is Abbotrule, a quiet hamlet in the region of Roxburghshire (Rocks-bu-ra-sheer), Scotland, not so far from the English border. It’s east of Hawick (Hoyk) and south-east of Jedburgh (Jed-bu-ra). The name comes from the Rule Water river, a tributary of the River Teviot (Tea-vee-ut). Other villages in the area are also named after the river, including Bedrule and Spittal-on-Rule.

Finding any information about Abbotrule outside or inside Wikipedia has been difficult, but it’s not such a quiet place as it first seems and won’t be beating Abberton, Essex to the UK’s least eventful village just yet.

There is evidence from 1165 that Abbotrule was originally called Rule Hervey, but after the estate was given to Jedburgh Abbey by King David I it became known as Abbotrule.

After the suppression of the Abbey in the Scottish reformation Abbotrule and the other abbey lands were given to Sir John Kerr. Sir John’s descendant William Kerr, Earl of Lothian, would give the land to his son Charles as an inheritance. Charles would obtain a charter to the land of Abbotrule, and is normally called the first Laird of Abbotrule. Sadly we don’t know much about him or his descendants for many years.

Charles and Patrick Kerr

The first of Charles’s descendants we meet is also called Charles Kerr. The younger Charles got himself a commission in the Indian Army through the recommendation of a family friend, and was stationed at Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1756. Now at this time the British were facing attack from the Bengali Nawab (that is, ruler) Siraj ud-Daulah.

Siraj was opposed to the British presence in India through the British East India Company. He believed the East India Company were conspiring to oust him from his position, and was also concerned about their fortifying Fort William without approval. He demanded that the fortification be stopped, but when it was not he marched his army on the fort. The British could not stand up to this army, and many died in the ensuing battle including Charles Kerr.

Faced with defeat, the British commander ordered everyone to get out, but 146 soldiers and civilians were left behind when Siraj’s army moved in on their prize. The Indian victors forced the prisoners into a single small room, where they were kept without food and water. Only 23 survived the night. This event is called the Black Hole of Calcutta (An episode from Stuff You Missed In History Class).

Charles had no wife or children, so after his death his brother Patrick inherited Abbotrule. Patrick was a miserable sort of man, so it’s said, and he did not get on well with the local minister. The church (or ‘kirk’ as it’s said in Scots) was near the house, and he didn’t like it one bit.

There had long been a custom in the area to hold a summer sacrament in the open air, which meant people came there from far and wide to join in the ancient Christian observance of Holy Communion. At the end of the day there would be a great feast and it must have been quite an occasion. Perhaps this also got on Patrick’s nerves.

For whatever reason Patrick decided that he would get the kirk suppressed, just as the abbeys had been suppressed back in the reformation. Being that this was part of the established church, not separate from the government, he had the legal standing to do this regardless of the morality of the situation. In the year 1777 his tenants were informed that their local kirk did not exist any more. In fact, the whole parish had now been split between Hobkirk and Southdean. As for Patrick, he took the kirk land as his own, taking off the roof and pulling down the manse. The remains of the kirk can be seen to this day.

Now it is said that one evening after a church service at Southdean as the parishioners were heading home there came the thud of horses’ hooves on the ground. Then out of the woods came a white horse, and on him a white rider.

One of the church elders saw the horseman and said “I mind a passage in Revelations, ‘Behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death.’” And then the horse was on them. The eyes of the rider were filled with anger and hatred.

Terrified, they fled back to the Southdean manse, all knowing the face they had seen – that of Patrick Kerr. The next day, they discovered that Kerr had died that very night.

Abbotrule changes hands

I’m not sure when Patrick’s son Charles was born, but when he grew up he was apprenticed to the father of one of Scotland’s future literary champions – Sir Walter Scott. Charles and Walter would both be educated at Edinburgh University, becoming friends there. It is said that Walter used his experiences of Charles to create some of his characters. Another Abbotrule resident – farmer Robert Shortreed – was also a close friend of the playwright.

At Edinburgh University Charles Kerr became a member of the Writers to the Signet. Writers to the Signet had special privileges that only they were able to carry out, in particular stamping certain writs for civil cases. These privileges continued right up until the late 20th Century, before they were given up to the General Department of the Court of Session. Today, the Writers to the Signet remain an independent professional body of solicitors providing education and training to their members.

Charles’s wife was Mary Thompson, who came from the Isle of Man. They lived together on the island for a while, in Douglas, and they had three children.

Charles had inherited Abbotrule from his father in 1791, and in 1800 he became postmaster in an infantry regiment. Due to his full-time army position, he ended up putting Abbotrule to auction in 1818. In 1821, just a few years later, he died.

The land was purchased by one Robert Henderson using the inheritance of his brother – army surgeon John Henderson. John had gone to India in 1778, but his desire was to have a place in the Borders he could call his own when he eventually retired. At the same time, by putting off his retirement his pension packet would ultimately be larger. When he died in September 1814 he was still working in India, and the pension would be claimed by his family.

Because of John’s wish to own an estate in the Borders this led to Robert’s purchase of Abbotrule. Robert was a quiet man who seemed to do things by logic rather than emotion. Seeing that he was now the holder of such a large amount of land, he wrote to one Isabella Scott saying that ‘he was well able to keep a wife and hoped she would think it over and become his’.

This less-than-romantic proposal was accepted, and in time they had eight children – six sons and two daughters. Tragically all six sons would die unmarried and without heirs. The eldest, James, died aged just twenty while studying in Edinburgh. Robert was so upset by this that he determined all his children from then on would stay close to him.

The last of the Henderson boys was David, who was no exception to the ‘unmarried and childless’ rule. Though he lived into his sixties he remained a bachelor all his life. Today one might even wonder if he was gay, as he was said to dislike female company, though at the time nobody would dare suggest such a thing.

Abbotrule house was demolished in 1956. Today, the village remains a small farming community, getting peacefully on with their lives.

Abbots Bickington

It’s going to be a long journey south to our next village, which will be the first time we have visited Devon. Devon is the county between Cornwall and Dorset, way down in the south-west of England, and Abbots Bickington is in the north-west of the county.

The name is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and we can go all the way back to 1066 and the Norman invasion to find information on its earliest days. Yes, that’s right, we’ve finally found another place that existed when the Normans invaded. Back then it was called ‘Bichetone’ or ‘Beocca’s estate’ (the Anglo-Saxons liked adding ‘ing-ton’ onto people’s names to make a place name).

It was a small place back then – 10 families of which 8 were smallholders and 2 were slaves. In 1086, the holder was Gerald the Chaplain, some sort of clergyman.

The ‘Abbots’ prefix would be added later, when it came under the control of Hartland Abbey. The abbey was Augustinian, and founded in 1137. I’ve found a record that says Abbots Bickington was given to the abbey by Geoffrey de Dinant, but since he died in 1128 I suspect the donor was actually his son Josce, who moved from Devon to the Welsh Marches (the borderlands between England and Wales) around the period the abbey was founded.

During this time we don’t have many records on the abbey or Abbots Bickington, except to say that the church – St James’s – was built in 1300. I can tell you that in 1539 Hartland Abbey was the last monastery in the country that Henry VIII dissolved. The abbey was given to his Sergeant of the Wine Cellar at Hampton Court, William Abbot, whose descendants still live at the former abbey today.

But this isn’t about Hartland Abbey; after the reformation, Abbots Bickington became owned by an ancient family of freeholders called the Arscotts. A ‘freeholder’ is someone who has a lease or ownership on land of an undetermined duration.

At some point after this, the village moved into the hands of the Rolle family, who would become the largest landholders in Devon. The earliest I can be sure of this is in 1822, when John Rolle, the First Baron Rolle, was owner.

John Rolle

John Rolle was born in 1756, the son of Denys and Anna Rolle. When he was in his thirties he became Colonel of the South Devon militia, and later Brevet Colonel of the same. The ‘brevet’ meant he got the higher rank and title as a reward for conduct, but not the pay or ability to give orders. Which seems strange to me considering he was already a colonel. Was he demoted? He would later be involved with various other military units in Devon.

John was known for his huge figure, and he was said to have the largest hands and feet in the United Kingdom, so he must have stood out when he represented the county of Devon in parliament.

His time as an MP began in 1780, but he didn’t really stand out (politically, that is) until the 1790s when he allied himself with William Pitt the younger, the Prime Minister. He was not eloquent, but when he spoke and voted in parliament it was always on Pitt’s side. In 1796 he was one of very few county MPs to support the introduction of death taxes. He was also pro-abolition of the slave trade from a relatively early period, supporting its removal in 1792 and 1796. It took until 1833 for slavery to be fully forbidden in the British Empire. Other causes that John supported were mainly agricultural and naval.

In 1791, John Rolle began to seek out getting a peerage. His father had failed in trying to start a colonization scheme in Florida, and later retired from parliament. William Pitt had given assurances that John would get made a noble before his father died, but in 1794 when some peerages were handed out Rolle was skipped over. This was because a noble couldn’t be an MP, and they didn’t want to have a by-election in Devon, perhaps worried about the Tory MP who was the other county representative.

Rather reluctantly John Rolle agreed, but he insisted that he would get the peerage either when his father died or when it came time for the next general election. The general election came in 1796 and John Rolle was duly made the First Baron Rolle. His father lived just long enough to see this honour come to his family, and died the next year.

For the rest of John’s life, the former MP remained in parliament in the House of Lords, the UK’s second chamber of parliament. Members of the House of Lords are unelected, and generally remain a member for life (this was, of course, part of William Pitt’s strategy in giving out peerages – he’d always have people in the second house to support him even if his party were no longer in power). Even in his eighties John still attended the House of Lords, though he was described as a ‘choleric, hard-bitten old Tory’, and in 1834 after one particular clash went up to Lord Chancellor Brougham and said “My Lord, I wish you to know that I have the greatest contempt for you both in this House and out of it.”

In 1838, John Rolle attended Queen Victoria’s coronation. He was 83 and rather infirm at the time. As he knelt to pay homage to her, his poor old legs gave way and famously he rolled down the steps of the throne.

John died in 1842 and his nephew Mark Trefusis, just six-years-old at the time, inherited his surname, title and lands.

Sadly I have to leave it there, as I can’t find any more history on this small village. Next time, however, we’ll be moving on to Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, a thriving village with lots of history, which will merit a blog post all of its own. Please join me then.



Abbots Bickington


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