This week we’ll look at the village of Aberdour right up to the present day, as England and Scotland come together under one monarch and one parliament. What involvement did the well-connected Earls of Morton have in this process? And how did their lives and the village change as the endless wars between the two countries came to an end?
Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless, and her cousin James VI of Scotland inherited her throne. It was to mark a new era of peace between the countries.
Three years later, in 1606, Aberdour also gained a new lord in William Douglas, Eighth Earl Morton. Because of some confusion caused over numbering with John Maxwell and Archibald Douglas (both had the right to call themselves the Fifth Earl), he’s sometimes called the Seventh Earl. But for the purposes of this blog, and matching Historic Scotland’s counting, we’ll stick with eight.
William was one of the wealthiest, most respected men in Britain. His kitchens overflowed with expensive spices such as pepper and saffron, though their prices were beginning to come down as the Dutch and English overcame Portugal’s spice trade monopoly. He often travelled down to lodgings at Whitehall, in Westminster, bringing vast amounts of furniture with him at great cost:
7 fether beddes, 12 tables, 2 Bedsteids for my Lord, 3 Great carpittes
As a gentleman of James VI’s bedchamber, he would be a close companion of the king, guarding his room while he slept and attending while he dressed and ate. It was considered a high honour. Indeed, William even bore the Royal Standard at James’s funeral.
At Aberdour Castle he had a whole new wing built, making the east side of the present building which remains in good condition to this day. It was L-shaped, with a spiral staircase connecting the rooms at the corner. At the top of the three stories on the long leg was a gallery, a panneled room filled with pictures, furnishings and a harpsichord. Here the family would have entertained guests.
Below the gallery, taking up the space of two stories, were the stables. William loved horses, and sent his son to Paris to learn specialist riding skills. He once paid 18 shillings to see a dancing horse perform, considered quite a lavish expense.
On the short leg of the ‘L’ were three square rooms. The middle of the two rooms is notable for its rare painted ceiling, containing images of fruit, flowers and other fashionable designs. Today it is protected from fading by being kept in darkness, but blankets and torches are provided for visitors to lie back and imagine how bright and beautiful it must once have been.
The stables lead out onto the castle courtyard, and on the other side is the walled garden. William and his wife Anne Keith – of the Marischals we met at Aberdeen – had their monograms above the entrances. We are not sure what it was originally used for, but by 1668 it was a bowling green. It’s also the way through from the castle to the church.
King James’s successor was his son Charles, who managed drive a rift between the monarchy and parliament. The Earls of Morton were amongst those who remained loyal to the king. William sold off the family estates at Dalkeith, losing the title Lord Dalkeith from their inheritance. Instead, he adopted Aberdour as their main home, and the Earl’s heir would now be called Lord Aberdour.
Charles rewarded William for his support by granting him the islands of Orkney and Zetland. As the war turned against the monarchy, the Earls went to Kirkwall at Orkney, intending to gather support and stage a fightback. They tried to raise revenue from the Orcadians though an illegal tax, but it didn’t matter much anyway. William died on Orkney in 1648, and his son Robert followed him the next year.
For a time Britain had no monarch, until Charles II returned in 1660. The Earls of Morton sometimes struggled to regain royal favour, perhaps due to their support of the protestant monarchs. At one point they had Orkney and Zetland taken from them, though these would later be restored.
Towards the end of the 17th Century, Aberdour Castle underwent further changes. The garden received a great expansion, with the orchard laid out by gardener Charles Liddel. Exotic American plants were supplied by the Physic Garden in Edinburgh, now the Royal Botanic Garden. They cost nearly £10,500 in today’s money.
Charles Liddel would have used glass bells to protect saplings young plants as they grew. These were like mini-greenhouses, keeping out the cold but allowing in warmth and sunlight. They were high status objects found in royal gardens, showing that Aberdour still retained its wealth.
James, Robert and George Douglas were the sons of the Tenth Earl of Morton (by traditional numbering rather than Historic Scotland). All three would be involved as the countries of Scotland and England moved towards becoming a single nation with a single parliament.
As Eleventh Earl of Morton, James was one of Queen Anne’s privy councillors and also appointed as a commissioner for the Union of the Crowns. Robert was an MP for Kirkwall, and helped to push the resulting Act of Union through the Scottish Parliament. Following the act, George became one of the first Scottish MPs at Westminster, representing Scottish interests in an English-biased parliament.
George struggled a lot in his early years in parliament. A tax was specifically raised against whisky, which he perceived as anti-Scottish. This drove him even to suggest that Scotland leave the union, but the other Scottish MPs talked him down. After that he was quieter in the chamber. He kept his own opinions, and though he tended to side with the Whigs he sometimes voted with the Tories.
Aberdour Castle had suffered a fire in the late 1600s, rendering the west range uninhabitable. Another fire in 1710 occurred when British soldiers were staying at the castle. Robert was there at the time, and wrote to his brother with the details:
…the fire broke out with great violence… whereon Colonell Upton lay fast asleep – but his servant broke into the roum and got the Colonell out in his shirt without any harm. The wholl appartments betwixt the gallerie and the Castle are quite brunt. They saved the gallerie by building up the door way to the dineing roum with ston, most of all the pictures are broken or destroyed.
Though nobody was killed, by now most of the building was in ruins. Soon afterwards the family moved out of Aberdour Castle to Cuttlehill House next door, which was re-named Aberdour House.
George was the fourth son of the Tenth Earl, and as such would not be expected to gain much of an inheritance from the family. But then James and Robert both failed to marry. James died in 1715, with Robert becoming Twelfth Earl. And then Robert died in 1730, with George becoming Thirteenth Earl of Morton aged 68.
Because of this unexpected turn of events, George had grown up with a very different life and career. He seems to have been quite an impulsive young man.
When he was twenty-three his dog was stolen from him, and turned up at the home of the Laird of Chatto. George went to get it, and the Laird was happy to accept the ownership and return the dog. One of his footmen, however, was not so keen and confronted the young man in public.
For a servant to address a noble in such a way was an unimaginable insult, and George drew his sword in defense. The footman struck him twice with a cudgel, and he parried the attacks before accidentally running the servant through.
This at least was George’s defense. Perhaps he was being honest. Perhaps he made up the story to get away with murder. Certainly as a noble his word would be held in high regard, and other eyewitness testimony could be dismissed with a word or a payment in the right place. From the distance of 350 years it’s not something we can ascertain, and I have tried not to place myself in a position of judgement, so for now let’s just accept the events as we have been told them. What is important is that George escaped a conviction for murder, which would have led to his death and changed the line of the Earls of Morton.
He married twice, his second resulting in the birth of his son James in 1702. James Douglas, who would become Lord Aberdour on his father’s succession in 1730, would be the first of the Earls of Morton to only know Britain as a single united country.
The noblemen of the 18th Century were of a different mind to their ancestors, putting aside their swords in favour of study and scientific pursuit. James was no exception, gaining an MA from King’s College, Cambridge in 1722 before joining Edinburgh’s scientific circles. In 1733 he was appointed to the Royal Society of London.
The Edinburgh Philosophical Society – today the Royal Society of Edinburgh – was founded in 1737 by six men: Colin Maclaurin, Alexander Monroe, Lord Hope, Andrew Plummer, Alexander Lind and our own James Douglas, Lord Aberdour. He was appointed its first president, and would remain in that position until his death in 1768.
His knowledge and interest in science brought interesting visitors to Aberdour House and even the ruinous castle. By now scientists were able to predict the dates, times and types of solar eclipses with incredible accuracy. One of those was the French Astronomer Royal, Pierre Charles le Monnier.
French and English scientists seem not to have cared much about the War of Austrian Succession in the 1740s, on which the two countries were opposed. Le Monnier was well aware of English advances in astronomy, and brought these into French astronomy. He was the first to tabulate the effects of nutation – how an object changes its rotation angle over time because of the gravity from other objects. This is important for predicting eclipses well into the future.
Mere months after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the war, Le Monnier crossed the channel and came all the way up to Aberdour. Here on 25 July 1748, out on Aberdour Castle’s terraced gardens, he and James Douglas observed an annual solar eclipse. Whether he needed the treaty to travel, it’s hard to say, but he would likely have been viewed with less suspicion because of it.
Shortly before his death in 1768, James Douglas raised support for Captain James Cook’s expedition to Australia. Though he would never see the voyage leave, he would be immortalised by the naming of Cape Morton, at the tip of Moreton Island, South East Queensland.
It was James’s successor, his son Sholto, whose wife would ask the noisy churchgoers at St. Fillan’s to move. Sholto would also share his father’s love for science, and died in 1774 while attempting to visit Mount Vesuvius in Sicily.
The Earls would eventually leave Aberdour, moving to Dalmahoy to the west of Edinburgh, which James Douglas had bought in 1750. The family still lives there to this day.
As for Aberdour Castle, it has fallen into ruin. The west range has mostly collapsed, and the central range is in poor condition. The east range is still good, and electricity has been added thanks to the careful preservation work of Heritage Scotland.
Aberdour has always been a small village, avoiding the expansion that came to its neighbours at Dalgety Bay and Burntisland. Aside from fishing, there was a thriving cottage industry of hand-loom weaving.
A cottage industry, in contrast to the factories that sprung up during the industrial revolution, consisted of multiple families working together to produce the required goods. So an order for a certain amount of cloth would come in, together with the raw wool to make it. The manager would take the order around to all the different houses, and at the end of the day he would come back to collect the completed product.
At the start of the industrial revolution, the tools and knowledge were not yet there to make a machine loom, so the hand-loom weavers were in high demand with the increased output of woollen thread. This was great for Aberdour.
But towards the middle of the century machine weaving was figured out, and the hand weavers couldn’t compete with the factories. They were skilled workers, but anyone could handle a machine. The price of cloth plummeted, allowing more people to access nicer fabrics and improving the quality of life across Britain.
The hand-loom weavers, however, were out of a job. In many places in the UK, this led to unemployment, but for Aberdour the increased affluence and their beautiful beaches brought a new industry and jobs – tourism was here.
New houses were added for the wealthy summer visitors, who would stay for many weeks, and the steamers would bring across day trippers from Leith and other ports. The addition of the railway in 1890 made it even easier to get to Aberdour, and new visitors came from the west of Scotland.
The two beaches at Silver Sands and the Black Sands saw Punch and Judy shows, open-air concerts and dances throughout the summer season.
World War I, 1917. Rear-admiral Roger Keyes is stationed at Rosyth, second in command of the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy. He and his wife live at Aberdour, where she gives birth to their first child, Geoffrey. The next year he would be appointed Commander-in-Chief, Dover, and the family would say farewell to Scotland, moving to their home in Tingewick, Buckinghamshire.
Geoffrey would attend a prestigious school before attending the Royal Military College. He intended to join the army in any case, but the Second World War ensured it. He was drafted in to the Royal Scots Greys and was involved with the allied invasion of Syria in 1941, earning the Military Cross. His unit had lost their commanding officer, so Geoffrey – as a Lieutenant Colonel – assumed command.
The control of North Africa and the Middle East was considered vital for ensuring the direction of the war, because of the Mediterranean Sea. A plan was formed in October of that year to go behind enemy lines, destroying headquarters and communications channels. One of the objectives was the assassination of Erwin Rommel, the axis African commander. It was called Operation Flipper.
Geoffrey had been involved in the planning stage, and now would lead the team going in with his superior acting as an observer. He gave himself the most dangerous task – to invade what was assumed to be Rommel’s headquarters and assassinate the man.
Things went badly from the start. The submarine had a botched landing, and the torrential rain caused exhaustion as they fought to make it ashore. Half the men and equipment didn’t make it. Still they went on.
There are two stories around the events that followed. One that comes from eyewitness accounts and German records; another from the official record.
The first account suggests that as Geoffrey, his second-in-command and sergeant arrived at the house. A sentry confronted them, and the second-in-command shot to kill. They then burst inside, surprise lost. At this time the Lieutenant Colonel began to feel faint, collapsed and died.
A German autopsy would later reveal he had been shot in the back, probably by the second-in-command. He was buried in a local Catholic cemetery on Rommel’s orders, while the rest of the unit were taken prisoner.
The official account, given when Geoffrey was awarded the Victoria Cross for exemplary bravery, runs differently.
He led his men without guides in the darkness to the house. Neighbouring Arabs told him new information that caused a change of plans, leaving only the second-in-command and sergeant. They crawled past the guards, then knocked on the door to gain entry.
The door opened to reveal the sentry, who had to be shot. This roused the inhabitants of the house, so they burst in and posted the sergeant at the stairs to prevent interference from upstairs. Geoffrey shot into the first room then his officer threw a grenade. On entering the second room he was met by enemy fire and mortally wounded. His companions carried him outside where he shortly died.
It would later be revealed that this house wasn’t Rommel’s HQ at all, just a logistics depot that was rarely visited. And Rommel himself wasn’t even in Africa, but Italy. So the whole effort was a waste.
It was a tragic end to such a young life, just as so many other young men lost their lives in the Second World War.
Today Aberdour is a peaceful Forthside village of 1,500 people. The seaside concerts and festivities have evolved into a yearly festival that takes place in July and August, with thousands of people coming from all over Scotland, including my fiancé when he was a wee lad.
We’ve had a long stay in Aberdour, but it’s finally time to say goodbye. Next week we’re heading back to Wales, where I’m sure we’ll be digging more into industry and power.
Aberdour Castle (booklet), Historic Scotland
The Douglas Archives, Douglas clan
Annualar Solar Eclipse of 1748 July 25, NASA Eclipse Website, NASA
Aberdour information board, Aberdour, Fife, Scotland
Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes VC, MC, The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross