Episode 52 – Aberdour, Fife – Part 2

Welcome back to Aberdour, where we’re continuing our visit by exiting the church, turning left, and entering the grounds of Aberdour Castle. This is no grand structure like Edinburgh or Stirling Castles, but served an equally defensive purpose when it was constructed for the Mortimers in the twelfth century.

The Mortimers were a Norman family, having come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. They bought and married into land all over Britain, and Alan de Mortimer was no exception. By marrying an heiress of the du Vipont family in the early twelfth century he became Baron of Aberdour. His family would hold Aberdour for the next two centuries or so, building the church and castle, and we’ve seen how William de Mortimer contested with the canons of Inchcolm over who would be vicar of St. Fillan’s. Marvel fans might be interested to know that the name ‘Mortimer’ comes from a village in Normandy which had been surrounded by a stagnant lake, and thus means ‘Deadpool’ in French. It was one of the earliest hereditary surnames in Europe.

The castle at this time was a simple rectangular structure – four walls and two stories – with an outer wall for defence. The top story would have been a hall, with the other rooms beneath. Outside, to the west, was a service courtyard with kitchens and a brewery.

William’s descendant Alan Mortimer would grant a mill to Inchcolm Priory, in exchange receiving a family burial plot on Inchcolm Island with a promise of masses to be said after his death, shortening his time in purgatory. This was a common practice amongst the nobility. But not all the monks appreciated his generosity, and it seems he managed to anger some of them. Legend says that after his death, when they were transferring his body to Inchcolm, they dropped his body in the channel. To this day the stretch of water between Aberdour and Inchcolm is called Mortimer’s Deep.

We don’t know what happened to the Aberdour Mortimers. Perhaps they supported the ‘wrong’ side in the Scottish Wars of Independence. Certainly by the 14th Century they had disappeared from the history books.

Scottish Knights

When we consider the events of the Scottish Wars of Independence, it’s useful to consider how those living at the time would have thought about loyalty to ‘Scotland’ or ‘England’. The concept of a state as we understand it today wouldn’t have existed, and loyalty would have been to whoever was most likely to win, or give the best outcome if they won. Example of this are Robert Bruce and William Oliphant, who fought each other multiple times, with both switching loyalties part-way through the Wars. As for ordinary people, their lives wouldn’t change much whoever was their lord.

The understanding of what a ‘king’ is was also very different. In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, everything was a hierarchy, with the king the top noble of all the nobles. The land he held was called a ‘country’, and then he would parcel it out to the lords under him to manage down to the lowest levels of nobility. Even the common people beneath that had a hierarchy. For someone to gain in noble rank was an honour only the king could grant, and to fail the king would be to lose not only their noble rank, but also their life.

The nobles we’ll meet today were products of this feudal system. We’ll see shifting loyalties between Scotland and England; a traitor will be stripped of his title before his death; and even the king’s deaf and dumb daughter will be too good to marry a mere Baron.

The first holder of Aberdour Castle was Robert the Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph the First Earl of Moray (pronounced ‘Murry’). He’d become a valued commander in the Scottish army, having stood out at Bannockburn and in reclaiming Edinburgh Castle from the English. He was even one of the original signers of the Declaration of Arbroath, proclaiming Scottish independence. A few years later he persuaded the Pope to accept Robert Bruce as the independent King of Scotland.

Being made Earl of Moray was one of his rewards for his allegiance to his king, and he was granted land across Scotland. In 1325, Robert granted the lordship of Aberdour to his nephew, extending the Earl’s existing lands at Dalgety a few miles to the west.

King Robert died just a few years later, and his five-year-old son David was made king. Since a child cannot rule, Thomas Randolph was made regent over him and continued in this position until his death in 1332.

1332 was the year that English nobles began a private war against Scotland to take back their lost lands, and had Edward Balliol installed on the Scottish throne. The transition period after the death of a regent would certainly have been a good time for this. Thomas Randolph’s second son, also called Thomas, took up arms against the invaders.

Tragically Thomas did not live long, and died in battle. His brother John took up the reigns and was much more successful, defeating Edward Balliol in December 1332. With the threat quashed – for now – the Third Earl of Moray took up his father’s old position as Regent of Scotland.

War between England and Scotland was a fact of life for the next few decades. John Randolph often led the Scottish army against their southern neighbours. Included in this number were William Douglas and Alexander Ramsay. After John was captured in battle in 1335, William and Alexander waged guerilla war against the English from the caves and forests of the Borders. This was the only defence in the south of Scotland at this time.

William’s actions in particular stood out, and he became known as ‘the Flower of Chivalry’. Having previously been just a gentleman with a small landholding, he would capture a number of key sites and be granted lands and titles. One in particular was Hermitage Castle on a key invasion route through the Borders, with the title ‘Lord of Liddesdale’.

But his fortune would change somewhat in 1342, the year after Earl John Randolph was returned to Scotland in a prisoner exchange. Through jealousy and anger, his actions would show a less chivalrous side to his nature.

He had been injured in a duel the previous December, and was unable to strike back when the English took one of his castles, at Roxburgh. Instead Alexander Ramsay led the fight, driving the enemy out. In gratitude, King David had him made Keeper of Roxburgh Castle. William’s title.

William. Was. Fuming. Angry at his king and jealous of his former friend, he marched his men up to Hawick, kidnapped Alexander, and brought him back to Hermitage Castle. He stuck the poor man in an oubliette (the name comes from the French ‘to forget’) where he starved to death after seventeen days. King David was naturally furious with William, and until the end of the year refused to forgive him. But eventually the Lord of Liddesdale returned to royal favour.

This was also around the time that John Randolph granted Aberdour Castle and Easter Aberdour to William Douglas, as recognition of his service to Scotland.

England paused its battle with Scotland to turn its gaze south across the channel to France. The ‘Auld Alliance’ between Scotland and France had begun during those first days seeking for independence, at the end of the 13th Century. Now France called in Scotland to meet the terms – to prevent the full force of the English armies falling on them, Scotland would provide a distraction by invading from the north.

English and Scottish forces came together at Neville’s Cross, near Durham. The Scottish armies were led into battle by King David and our two Aberdour-connected nobles – John Randolph and William Douglas. William’s rise from gentleman to noble was complete.

It was a long, bloody, one-sided battle. The English suffered few casualties; the Scots were slaughtered. Many prominent noblemen were killed, including John Randolph. Many others were captured. William and King David soon found themselves on their way to new accommodations in the Tower of London.

Six years passed. Edward III’s desire to fund his wars caused him to offer David up for ransom, and the Scotsmen were even let out temporarily to go around Scotland trying to round up the money. It seems incredible to us today, but being knights they were trusted to hold to a code of conduct that would have them return when they failed. William was not called the Flower of Chivalry for no reason, and David also held to the code.

When they returned in failure, Edward changed tack. He attempted to have the two men submit to him. While David remained firm, and would eventually be acknowledged by England as an independent monarch, William turned to the English side in 1352. As part of the deal, William’s dependents – his daughter and nephew – would be brought to stay in the Tower of London for two years. Meanwhile William would lead the English army north to invade.

It was at this time that William Douglas handed his land – but not the castle – at Aberdour to his nephew James Douglas. This fact was noted in 1361 after King David’s release, in one of the first known mentions of Aberdour Castle.

William returned to Scotland, readying for the English invasion. But he would not live to carry out his promise. The next year he was hunting in Ettrick Forest when he came upon his godson, also called William Douglas. The younger William killed his godfather.

The new Lord of Aberdour, James Douglas, was being held in England at this time. He would continue to be held there until William’s widow Elizabeth agreed to marry an Englishman, so that Hermitage Castle and Liddesdale would fall into English hands.

The First Earl of Morton

James Douglas and his wife Agnes – the First Earl of Moray’s granddaughter – had a son who was also called James, born in their primary home at Dalkeith. It would only be much later, during the Civil War period, that Aberdour would become the family’s primary home. Many of the heirs of this family would be called James and William, so to make sure we keep track I’ll try to use titles where possible.

In 1386 the lordships of Dalkeith and Aberdour were combined into a single barony, making this younger James the First Lord Dalkeith. His wife Elizabeth was the daughter of King Robert III, and they would have five children together. Their descendants continued as Lords of Dalkeith until the mid 1450s.

In 1456, the Third Lord Dalkeith resigned all his estates and titles to his son, James Douglas. I’m not entirely sure why, but this would turn out to be a significant event in the life of Aberdour. Indeed, it was this James Douglas who, as Earl of Morton, was approached by John Scot, vicar of St. Fillan’s, for permission to build a hospice for pilgrims.

So why would King James II of Scotland want to elevate James Douglas to Earl? What great achievement brought him this new recognition?

The answer is marriage. Marriage not just to any woman, but to one of King James’s sisters. The First Lord Dalkeith was able to marry Elizabeth Stewart without needing a promotion, but the same could not be said of Joanna. Even with her disability, which would sadly have lowered her status, it seems he still needed a higher title to match her. Or perhaps it was a gift from James to celebrate his sister’s marriage, and ranking had nothing to do with it.

James and Joanna were closely related (James’s grandmother was Joanna’s aunt) so they got special dispensation from the Pope to marry. Poor Joanna had been engaged twice previously – her first had ended with her fiance’s death, and the second to the Dauphin of France had ended in failure, perhaps due to their difficulty communicating.

Not that Joanna was unable to communicate. Records show that she was able to use sign language, and even had interpreters to explain what she meant – the first time in history we see sign language interpretation. But it was considered uncivilised to use sign language in public, so perhaps the French had a dimmer view of this than the Scots.

It’s important to note that as a noblewoman her experience of being deaf would have been far above what an ordinary deaf person would have experienced. Most deaf people were considered unteachable, and it is only in the eighteenth century that any serious effort was made to teach sign language and allow those with hearing impairment to participate in society.

The elevation in rank and marriage to Joanna both took place in 1358, and the new Countess of Morton would do her wifely duty and bear her husband four children. It seems they had no issues with communication. The title of Lord Dalkeith remained in the family, being always granted to the Earl’s heir.

It was during this time that modifications were made to the original castle design. The tower was heightened to create a third story, with a great hall above the kitchen, and the former first floor hall was divided up into rooms. The top floor also had private rooms. The stone used was much nicer than the earlier rough masonry. A spiral staircase was also added in the south east to navigate between the floors. But while the castle went upwards, its outward expansion would have to wait for later generations of Douglases.

Castle Stair

The remains of a spiral staircase at Aberdour Castle

Soon after the Earl and Joanna were married, King James II died, and was succeeded by his son, James III. But the new king was just nine at the time, so regents were appointed over him, to rule Scotland on his behalf. One of these was Robert Boyd, the First Lord Boyd.

Robert conspired with the Bishop of St. Andrews to marry his son off to King James’s oldest sister, Mary, and they tried to bring Morton into this by marrying his son to Robert’s daughter. That was the way alliances and connections were done in those days. In return, the Earl expected to get back some lands that had been taken from him in the regular wars between Scottish noblemen. The king was by now in his mid-teens, and when he found out about this marriage he was furious! He had Robert’s son and the Bishop arrested, and Morton was on the jury who found them guilty of treason.

Fortunately for Robert, he was out of the country when this happened, arranging James III’s marriage to Margaret of Norway. As part of her dowry, Scotland obtained the Orkney Islands, which will be an important part of the Mortons’ future history.

James and Joanna died within months of each other, and are buried together at Dalkeith Castle. The tomb bears a carving of their likenesses, and is one of the earliest-known representations of a deaf person in the world.

There’s little to say about the Second and Third Earls of Morton. They were quiet and careful, building up their lands and wealth, and making note of the valuable coal resources untapped and inaccessible beneath the ground.

But as for the Fourth Earl, he could be a whole episode in himself if we let him. We’re not going to, but only because at some point we need to visit other places in Britain.

The Fourth Earl of Morton

The sixteenth century saw great change in Scotland. Factionalism increased at court, particularly during the reformation, which would lead to the abdication of Mary Queen of Scots in favour of her one-year-old son. James VI’s lifetime would continue to be marked by various factions competing to control the king. James Douglas, Fourth Earl of Morton, led one of these groups.

The Fourth Earl was one of many Scottish nobles in the south of Scotland who accepted the protestant faith. But while the majority were Presbyterian, he was a quiet supporter of the English Episcopal system. He would be happy to get involved with political struggles, but would stay out of things religiously.

In 1563 he reached the heights of power when he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Scotland. He built supporters around him, and in March 1566 was well-placed to take care of someone many in the court did not like: Mary’s private secretary, the Italian David Rizzio. The pair were quite close, and rumour had it he – not Lord Darnley – was the real father of her unborn baby.

Mary, her sister and David were dining at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, when the plot was triggered. The first conspirator, Mary’s own husband Lord Darnley, arrived unexpectedly to sit and chat with his wife. This was not his usual behaviour, and suspicions were aroused.

Then came the next conspirator, the deathly-ill Earl of Ruthven. He felt so strongly about this matter that he’d left his sickbed. From the door he called for David to “come forth of your presence, for he has been overlong here.”

They knew immediately this would be the Italian’s last moments. Mary attempted to shelter her companion behind herself, while the Earl waved his pistol at the guards to keep them away. Then, the Earl of Morton’s men burst in, grabbed David and dragged him out. He was stabbed more than fifty times before his body was dragged away and buried in the nearby church.

Mary’s position and pregnancy meant she could not be dealt with so easily. They held her under guard in the palace with Darnley to prevent her escape. That should have been enough, but Mary reasoned with her husband, showing him that the plotters would never let him have power once they succeeded. Darnley turned to his wife’s cause and they fled to safety through the palace’s secret passages.

Morton knew he was in trouble, and hurried across the Forth to Aberdour where a messenger soon arrived

to search, seek, intromet [enter] and make inventory of part of the escheit goods [goods reverting to the state], corns, cattle and others whatsover pertained to James Earl of Morton, being in Aberdour.

Soon after, a summons was sent, charging him with the murder, but he’d already fled to England for safety.

He did not remain south of the border for long, and by Christmas he’d returned, back in Mary’s good books. Darnley died in a suspicious explosion that February, and her power was soon fading. James’s birth had seen the succession secure, and Morton persuaded her to abdicate the throne.

For the next four years he would advise the new king’s regency council, and then in 1572 became regent himself, for a period of six years.

It was during this time that James Morton began an expansion of Aberdour Castle. He converted a great hall on the east of the building into a three story range, today the central range of the castle. On the ground floor was a kitchen and basement, in the middle were his private rooms, and on the top were his wife Elizabeth’s private rooms. This section of the building is particularly notable for having corridors, an unusual feature at a time where most rooms would have connected only by stairs or straight into other rooms. A corridor was an extravagance and show of wealth, that not all the space in a building needed to be used for living.

Outside, the keen gardener would convert his sloping grounds into a four-level terraced garden, which would have been admired by the Privy Council when they met here in August 1567. And this was another extravagant show. When most people were living hand-to-mouth, this noble could convert his grounds into a grassy terraced lawn with use only for pleasure, and barely feel the cost.

Castle garden

Aberdour Castle terraced gardens

But his downfall would come from jealousy and anger from his rival nobles. They believed he had used his position to take land and block their own promotions, and he was forced into resignation in 1578.

He didn’t stay in obscurity for long. Two years later he took control of Stirling Castle and the king, and forced his way back into his old position as regent. Soon after, one of his rival regency councillors died, with James suspected of his poisoning.

There was still plenty of hate out there for the Earl of Morton, so when James VI’s cousin Esme Stewart accused him of Darnley’s murder in 1582, he was immediately arrested and soon convicted of treason. He was stripped of his title, which was then given to his nephew James, Lord Maxwell.

Earlier in the century, James Douglas had introduced the Iron Maiden into Scotland to be used for beheadings. Now it would be used against him. His body was buried in a commoner’s grave at Greyfriars Kirk Edinburgh, while his head was stuck on a pike outside the notorious Tollbooth prison.

James had no children of his own. His closest heir had been Archibald Douglas, another nephew, but Archibald was too close to his uncle and had supported him through the trial. So once his uncle was sentenced to death he’d fled to exile in England.

In 1584 a new faction rose to power in James’s court, favourable towards Archibald and his claim to the Earl of Morton title. He returned to Edinburgh, becoming Sixth Earl of Morton, and persuaded King James to allow him to remove his uncle’s head, and have it buried with the rest of him at Greyfriars Kirk. In the late 16th Century all the gravestones were removed from the kirkyard, so we do not know exactly where he was buried.

But the faction didn’t last long, and Archibald went back into exile ‘beyond the Spey’, to Elgin in Moray. This was about as far and remote as you can get. And eventually he was forced into England, where he joined a number of Scottish exiles close to the court of Queen Elizabeth.

In November 1585 an English-supported army came north, re-captured Stirling, and power shifted once again at James’s court. William remained at the centre of Scottish power until his death at Dalkeith in 1588.

The title passed to Sir William Douglas of Glenbervie, a great-grandson of the fourth Earl, since Archibald had no male heirs. It was during William’s time that an orchard was planted to the south west, below the terraces, including peach and apricot trees. It is also around this time that a large ‘doocot’ was built, a spiralling circular structure that housed pigeons whose droppings would be used as fertiliser.

Next week we’ll return to Aberdour, starting with another influential figure in castle’s development and connections – the Eighth Earl of Morton, William Douglas.


Aberdour Castle official souvenir guide, Heritage Scotland



Episode 52 – Aberdour, Fife – Part 1

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2018 brings you good fortune and good friendship. The year didn’t start out so great for me – I slipped on some ice and bruised my elbow, then got sick with a cold right after getting back to Edinburgh, and then slipped on some more ice and hurt my leg. I had hoped to get this episode out in the first week of January, but I’ve been lucky to get through the first two weeks of 2018 with my body in one piece.

Anyway, today’s village is particularly interesting for me because Aberdour is the closest place we have come to my home town. It’s just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, and half an hour away on the train. So of course my fiancé and I had to go and visit. We had a fantastic time, and would definitely recommend it.

The name comes from the Dour Burn, the stream that passes through the village and down to the Forth. ‘Dour’ is from the ancient Pictish word meaning ‘water’. Originally there were two villages – Easter Aberdour and Wester Aberdour, one on each side of the river. When the railway arrived in 1890 they became a single place.

Aberdour is well-tended, having won awards from ‘Beautiful Fife’, ‘Beautiful Scotland’ and ‘Britain in Bloom’. Even the train station has a garden, helping it stand out from all the other stations on the line. There is a pleasant mix of old and new buildings.

The railway station is built next to the two oldest structures in the village, St. Fillan’s Church and Aberdour Castle. In fact, the castle’s gateway had to be moved when the station was built, though they kept all the original stone and reconstructed it at the end of the driveway. Both buildings date back to the twelfth century, built under the orders of William de Mortimer, Lord of Aberdour.

We found so much of interest in this place that this settlement of just 1,500 people is going to stretch over at least three blog posts. This week I’ll be starting with the church.

St. Fillan’s Church

St. Fillan’s was associated with Inchcolm Abbey, situated on Inchcolm Island just a quarter mile out in the Firth of Forth from Aberdour. Back at its founding it wasn’t known as St. Fillan’s, but the name would come later, by 1390.

Our first written record of the church comes in 1180. The priory of Inchcolm had the right to appoint the minister of the church, but David, Earl of Huntingdon, brother to the king (and grandson of David I who had given Abbotsley to Gervase Ridel) had other ideas. He persuaded the Lord of Aberdour, William de Mortimer, that his clerk Robert should be installed as chaplain. Initially he was successful, but eventually had to back down under the weight of the priory’s objections.

William de Mortimer to all the sons of holy Mother Church, clerks and laymen, present and future, greeting. Know all men that the concession which I made by request and arrangement of my Lord, David, brother of the King of Scotland, to his clerk, Robert, of the church of Aberdour, was contrary to God and to all forms of law and justice. For on evidence of religious men, clerks and laymen, of the kingdom of Scotland, I have understood and have learned that in the times of the Kings Alexander, David and Malcolm, the aforesaid church of Aberdour belonged to the canons of Inchcolm and they held it as their own and adjacent to the mother church of the Isle. When, however, I was about to give the said Robert possession and investiture of the aforesaid church by our messengers and men and clerks of the King, the aforementioned canons stood before the door of the church with their crosses and many relics, and with counter-claims and protests placed themselves under the protection of the Lord Pope and appealed to his presence. When these, at length, had been shamefully beaten, dragged away and put to flight, they intruded Robert. Wherefore, led by penitence, I have granted the church to the aforesaid canons and confirmed by my charter that oftentimes the said Robert declared to me verbally that on peace being made between him and the canons, he had foresworn it and afterwards, in my presence and in presence of many others, left it free and quit to the canons.

As well as a church, St Fillan’s was also a place to settle disputes. One record shows a Simon de Balran and others meeting with the Bishop of Dunkeld as adjucator, to resolve an issue over land. He was forced to give up the land, but compensated 40 marks for his loss.

It’s not certain exactly when St. Fillan’s became connected to the saint, but certainly by 1390 when it was mentioned in Laird of Dalkeith James Douglas’s will, when he left a sum of £3 6s 8d to the church to purchase vestments. We’ll find out more about the Douglas family when we get onto Aberdour Castle.

There are a number of St. Fillan’s who may be associated with the church. One was an Irish missionary who died in 520, and whose holy day is June 20th, the day the Aberdour Fair was held. Another is much better-known, and was abbot of a monastery in Glen Dochart, and died at Pittenweem. His arm was kept after his death, and was said to have miraculous healing powers. Robert the Bruce had carried it with him to Bannockburn, and prayed to it for victory.

After the victory at Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce came to St. Fillan’s to give thanks for his victory. Robert was a leper, which means he had an incurable skin condition (at the time it could refer to any number of illnesses), so he had to view the service through the ‘leper squint’, a small window in the west of the church that lepers looked through. They were not allowed into the church itself. Perhaps it is this visit following the victory at Bannockburn that brought the saint’s connection to the church. Today he is portrayed in the southernmost stained-glass window on the west end of the church.

Like most churches, it is oriented with its altar on the east side to face the rising sun, and has a rectangular shape. Though a simple building, it has been called ‘the Miniature Cathedral’. Later lords added on to it, constructing a second aisle on the south side. Three stone pillars hold up the roof between the new aisle and the older part of the church, plain and circular. During this time the floor was lowered slightly to its current level.

Nearby the church was a holy well, whose water was said to cure issues of the eyes. As it happens, my fiancé is registered blind, so we clearly missed an opportunity by not visiting it! Many pilgrims travelled to the well, and in 1474 John Scot, vicar of Aberdour, sought permission from James Douglas, 1st Earl of Morton, to build a hospice nearby for their respite.

The lord granted his blessing, on condition that the vicar and his successors take care of the hospital themselves. He also requested consent from the Abbey of Inchcolm, to whom John Scot was connected, and this was granted. The Abbey pledged never to release the hospital land from their holdings, so that it would always be a place of care for the pilgrims. And just in case something did happen, further land was set aside for them at Dalkeith, south of Edinburgh.

The hospital was dedicated to St. Martha, who is named in the Bible as playing host to Jesus in her home. Very strict rules were set up that the visitors and vicar were to daily hold a session in the chapel to pray for various royal persons and say other prayers.

After twelve years of work, in 1486 the hospital still wasn’t completed. At this time a decision was taken to change the management. Instead of Aberdour’s vicar, sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis would have charge. More land was granted to the hospital, and the buildings would be altered. The first four sisters are named: Isobel and Jean Wight, Frances Henryson, and Jean Drosse. The next year, the Pope would issue a bull confirming the hospital. The eight acres became known as ‘the Sister Lands’.

Sadly this hospital was destined to last not even a century. After the reformation the land returned to the Earl of Morton, and the church’s manse (minister’s house) would be built on the site.

Three windows in the church commemorate the well and the hospital. The northernmost window on the west of the church shows a pilgrim going to the well. On the north wall by the pulpit, Jesus is shown healing a blind man. And on the north wall of the chancel is the hospice with a sister receiving a pilgrim. These windows were all installed relatively recently, following the restoration of the church in 1926, and paid for by residents of the village.

Underneath the west window, facing outwards to the churchyard, is a slab of stone with the following inscription as a message to the visitors.

Pans o pilgrim
that passith by this way
upon thine end
and thou sal fear to sin
and think also
upon the latter day
when thou (to God) man count
then best (thou now) begin

Following the reformation there was a lot of trouble in finding enough ministers to service all the churches in the area. While some of the clergy had reformed, many had not, and it would be some time before enough were trained to replace them. Aberdour, Saline and Dalgety were all under the charge of one minister.

One of the earlier ministers was Peter Blackwood, appointed in 1567. He had formerly been an Augustinian canon at Holyrood Abbey – Augustinians seemed more prone to reformation than other orders. When Peter would go and preach at one of the other churches in his command, ‘Readers’ and ‘Exhorters’ would help him out at Aberdour. ‘Readers’ would read from the scriptures. ‘Exhorters’ would do the same, but also be involved with preaching to the congregation.

In the time of the next minister, Andrew Kirk, the belfry was constructed. This contained a bell to call the locals to worship. Sadly the original bell has disappeared, and in 1926 the bell from St. Bridget’s church at Dalgety was brought in to replace it – that church now being a ruin. This bell dates from before the reformation, and is inscribed in Latin ‘O mater Dei, momento mei’ (‘O mother of God, remember me’).

Ministers were eventually found for all the churches, including one William Patton at Dalgety. In 1614 he moved to Aberdour, it being a prime ministerial position at the time, but kept oversight of the churches at Dalgety and Beath. He eventually died in 1634 from a fall.

A few years later, Robert Bruce was appointed minister of Aberdour by King Charles I. At this time the king was battling to introduce episcopal doctrine to Scotland, which was rejected by the people and would eventually lead to Civil War. Those who opposed Charles would become known as the ‘covenanters’, having signed a covenant of opposition to the king in claim that episcopalianism was unbiblical. Robert Bruce carefully swung his allegiance between the two parties, though this may partly be due to the Earls of Morton next door, who supported the king.

At this time the Synod of Fife (that is, the Church of Scotland churches in Fife) met and agreed to split Aberdour, Dalgety and Beath back into three parishes. They believed that the lack of a local minister was driving the locals to become ‘pagans’.

The deplorable estate of a great multitude of people living in the mids of such a Reformed shyre as verie paganes because of the want of the benefit of the Word, there being three kirks far distant, under the cure of ane minister, to wit: Aberdour, Dagetie and Beath; the remeid whereof the Synod humblie and earnestlie recommedis to the Parliament.

Soon after, the Earls of Morton added onto St. Fillan’s – a gallery at the west end, overlooking the rest of the church. At this time the aristocracy were accepted to be superior to ordinary people, so this would have occasioned no comment. The only complaint was that the seats beneath were dark, so a window was added to compensate. Today the place this gallery used to occupy houses the organ pipes.

In 1666 the Rev. Robert Blair moved into Aberdour, not to become minister but for his retirement. In his time he had been close to Charles I, and Regent and Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. Soon he had been called to be minister at St. Andrews, until he was found to favour the covenanters and banished. He died later that year, and was buried in Aberdour churchyard. Six years later, when the anti-covenanter sentiment was simmering down, his sons raised a memorial to him on the south wall.

1702 saw Alexander Scott appointed to minister of Aberdour, not appointed by the King or the Earl but by the church. He was a principled and influential man, and a better character that many of the previous ministers. The Earl of Morton did not approve of the appointment. So when Alexander died he reasserted his right of patronage, though it could not be done so easily as in the past.

The Kirk Session – that is, the church leaders – presented Mr Thomas Kay and Mr John Liston before the elders and people. Most of the people supported Thomas Kay, but the Earl preferred John Liston. And he got his way. As a result, most of the people abandoned St. Fillan’s. Instead they attended church at the Dissenting Meeting House in Inverkeithing, or the neighbouring church at Burntisland.

John Liston and then his son Robert would lead the church for the next seventy years, and it seems likely that they managed to bring the congregation back during this time. Robert even became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1787. There is a memorial to the pair on the north wall of the church.

Liston memorial

Memorial to the Listons

It was during Robert’s ministry that the Countess of Morton would bring her family’s influence on the church once again. She was rather unhappy at how close the church was to Aberdour Castle, and wished the people to go and worship somewhere else. Perhaps they could go to Dalgety? There was a vacancy in the ministry there, so maybe the churches could be united.

That plan fell through, but all the same it engendered other ideas about moving the church to a new location within the village. Robert Liston himself had opined as early as 1777 that he would like a greater stipend, since he had such a big family to raise. And so in 1790 St. Fillan’s was closed and a new Parish Church opened.

In 1796 the roof of St. Fillan’s was removed, and the church left to ruin. A prominent (but anonymous) lady wished to have it completely razed as it was getting in her way when she went hunting. Fortunately she was unsuccessful. However, a great tree grew up in the centre of the church over the following 150 years, and the walls crumbled as ivy grew over them.

Over the next century or so a number of ministers served Aberdour’s church. Then in 1914 Rev. Robert Johnstone was appointed. He envisioned restoring St. Fillan’s for worship, and despite the seemingly-impossible task he had some support. Funding was granted by Misses IEM and CA Laurie, so that in 1925 work began. The joinery and masonry were carried out by local firms.

Quite incredibly it took little more than a year before the church was ready for worship, and it was re-dedicated and re-opened on 7 July 1926. Robert Liston’s great-grandson was present for the occasion. A memorial plaque to the Laurie sisters was discretely placed behind the altar, they not wanting too much attention for their generous donation.

The old church’s font was discovered in the churchyard and replaced, and a silver basin made at Iona and brought to the church, so that the old font is still in use today for the baptism of children.


The church font

Rev. Johnstone’s ministry lasted until 1940, at which time the churches at Aberdour and Dalgety, as well the former United Free Church of St. Colmes, were united under a single minister.

Now we come into recent years. The next minister was Rev David Stalker. He arranged a number of memorials around the church, most prominently to the Hon. W. J. Hewitt and his wife, and on the opposite wall another to their only children, their sons who died in the First World War. Mr Hewitt had been factor to the Earl of Moray.

After Rev. Stalker moved to become a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, he was replaced by Rev. David Rutherford. He is the author of the booklet from which I have taken much of my knowledge of the church. Prior to becoming St. Fillan’s minister he had been an Army Chaplain during the Second World War.

In 1965, Aberdour and Dalgety were once again split into separate congregations, due to the construction of the town of Dalgety Bay.

Also at this time the organ was added to the church. This was funded by donations from Agnes Elliot of Montreal, who had lived in Aberdour during her youth, and three donations from other women who had left money towards the church.

Next week we’ll move away from the church and look next door, to Aberdour Castle and its most notable residents the Earls of Morton.


  • St Fillan’s Church, Aberdour, 1973 David W. Rutherford [the booklet]
  • St. Fillan’s Church, Aberdour, Fife Council [the actual church]
  • Aberdour Castle, Aberdour, Historic Scotland [the castle]

Episode 51 – Aberdeen

Apologies for the delay to this episode. It’s been really crazy recently with Christmas and the associated present-buying and parties. Things are only going to get busier, and my brain is fried from trying to manage work, blog and Christmas, so this will be the last episode until January. Thank you in advance for your patience.

The north-east coast of Scotland is home to the country’s third-biggest city, Aberdeen. The two rivers, the Dee and Don, form a great natural port that for millennia has attracted people to settle here. For much of that time, it has thrived through fishing. Later, it became a trading port and industrial hub, and in more recent years become home to the oil industry.

Being such a large place, finding Aberdeen’s history has been the opposite of a chore. I could dedicate my life to telling you every detail, just as I’ve done with all the tiny villages we’ve visited. But I won’t do that to you. My preference is to bring the unknown places to life, so for Aberdeen today will be an overview of just a few facts. There’s a lot more to the city than what’s in this episode, so I’d encourage you to look around and find out more.

Aberdeen begins in prehistory, when stone age hunter-gatherers settled around the river mouths, and would soon be clearing the local forest to plant crops and manage their domesticated livestock. All that remains of them today are their ‘shell middens’ – piles of rubbish.

New residents arrived 4,000 years ago. The mysterious ‘beaker people’ – known for their practice of burying the dead upright with a beaker of liquid – had entered Scotland. What religious beliefs and stories would they have told each other, to give them this practice? Their stone circles remain, and their genetic heritage survives in modern Aberdonians.

During the Iron Age, a new people came across to Britain from Europe. The Celts quickly spread over the whole country, and their tribes changed the shape of modern society. Those around Aberdeen would become known as the ‘Picts’ by the Romans, who would soon follow along.

When the Romans first arrived in Britain, they fought hard to dominate the Celtic tribes. Governor Agricola’s troops used the natural port at Aberdeen for their supplies, forming a temporary camp by the Dee that would be known as ‘Devana’. The invaders had a famous victory over the Celts at Bennachie, to the north west.

But the Romans soon retreated from the north of Scotland, leaving it to the locals. The Christianity that transformed Romanised British society didn’t reach up to the Picts, and this would only come after their departure in the fourth century.

St. Machar’s Cathedral

St. Columba is famously credited with bringing Christianity to the Picts. I’ve also seen it claimed the Picts were already Christian, but their understanding of the religion needed correcting to bring it in line with the rest of the Celtic church. Columba came across from Ireland in the sixth century, bringing a number of followers with him including St. Machar, the founder of Aberdeen’s first church around 580 CE.

We’ve encountered a number of Celtic saints before, and Scotland was flooded with them at this time. As we’ve already seen, Celts didn’t use the word ‘saint’ in the same way we do today, to mean a holy man performing miracles. Instead, it just referred to Machar being a Christian.

In 1131, King David I of Scotland took the local bishopric and moved its headquarters from Dufftown to Aberdeen, to the site of St. Machar’s church. On this site a new cathedral would be built, named after the saint. A cathedral is a grand church, marking the bishop’s home base.

In England and Wales, having a cathedral used to be a requirement for a settlement to gain the title ‘city’. But Scotland had its own way of designating particularly important regions: the ‘royal burgh’. The country didn’t even have any cities (by that name, anyway) until 1889. Royal burghs had a monopoly on trade, and this would have attracted foreign investment and growth to the region.

The royal burgh of Aberdeen was to the south of St. Machar’s Cathedral, and perhaps these distanced sites would have encouraged Aberdeen’s expansion, with separate centres for trade and religion.

The first cathedral soon proved inadequate, and in 1290, Bishop Henry de Cheyne began a project that would last for over 150 years: to replace St. Machar’s cathedral building with a new one, in the Early English style. Today even a ten year project seems a long time, let alone more than a century. To be fair, the ‘worshipping’ part of the building would have been completed within a few years, but then towers and side-chapels and cloisters and every other room they wanted would also need to be added. And there was a slight setback when Scotland went to war with England.

One of the rebellion’s leaders was William Wallace, the star of the film ‘Braveheart’. William never saw the end of the campaign, being captured by the English and then hung, drawn and quartered in 1305. It was a messy procedure. After the quartering, bits of his body were sent all over Scotland as a warning. His left arm is said to be buried at St. Machar’s.

Following the Scottish victory at Bannockburn, independence was declared in 1320. A number of English nobles were upset about losing their lands in Scotland, and decided to start a private war in 1332 to get it back. The nobles managed to do well enough to have Edward Balliol, the son of John Balliol, installed on the Scottish throne.

It wasn’t to last, and soon Edward was fleeing south to England, to the court of Edward III.

King Edward determined to help, and brought his army north to siege the town of Berwick. Edward Balliol was returned to the Scottish throne as the English king pushed further north, reaching Aberdeen in 1336. His men destroyed the city, causing much damage to the cathedral.

Edward’s successes didn’t last. The Scots had allied with France, and with English lands threatened on both sides of the channel he was forced into a truce. By 1338 he was back in England, and the two countries would remain separated for nearly four hundred years.

In 1495, Bishop William Elphinstone started a new chapter in Aberdeen’s history, founding King’s College. Construction was completed in 1509, with studies starting shortly thereafter. One of the first disciplines taught here was medicine, and indeed King’s College, Aberdeen University still has a medical school. It is the oldest faculty of medicine in the British Isles. It was at this time that Old Aberdeen was designated a burgh in its own right, known as ‘Old Aberdeen’.

Further bishops added their own bits and pieces to the cathedral building, and by 1530 everything was as grand as it could be. The church was at its height. And then…

…Then came the Scottish Reformation. It took on a very different form to the English Reformation, where Henry VIII deliberately distanced himself from the Germanic protestant faith. Instead, the Scots embraced protestantism from the bottom up, and were very close to Lutheran and Calvinist thought. Mobs rioted against “Popery”, stealing and destroying many objects from the cathedral. As in England, monasteries and cathedrals were closed and the monks expelled. St. Machar’s became the parish church of Oldmachar with two ministers watching over it.

With James Stuart’s inheritance of the English throne, Scotland was to continue its transformation. Both countries had their own distinctive legal systems and churches, which they protected fiercely. Scottish Presbyterianism was particularly under threat, as Charles I attempted to bring Anglican traditions into the Scottish church.

Despite these attempts, ‘Episcopalianism’ never quite won out, though a number of Scots did and do still follow the tradition. One thing that did result, however, was the restoration of the name ‘St. Machar’s’ to the cathedral, though it remained a Presbyterian church.

By 1638, the threat of the Episcopal church had so stirred-up the Scottish people that they decided to do something about it. Meeting in Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh, they signed a document called the ‘National Covenant’. It spoke out against ‘innovations’ such as bishops and the Book of Common Prayer that had been imported from the English church.

Having been signed in Edinburgh, the National Covenant was sent out across the lowlands and highlands of Scotland. The vast majority of nobles signed it, particularly in the lowlands. And for Charles this was an act of treason.

Charles raised an army against the Scottish people, which angered his subjects across the whole of the British Isles. He’d already been having trouble with the English parliament, who were sympathetic with the Scottish plight, and many of them were Presbyterian themselves. This was all part of the chain of events that led to the Civil War and Charles’s defeat and beheading.

The Scottish Presbyterians and the English Parliamentarians didn’t always get along, however. Oliver Cromwell turned on the Scots and conquered their land, turning it for a time into part of England. Aberdeen was occupied, and the bishop’s palace and part of the cathedral was taken down to use for building a fort. The church structure was weakened, and a 1688 storm brought the central tower crashing down. For a time the damage was merely roped off, and only finally restored in 1953.

After the seventeenth century, St. Machar’s has retreated from the ebb and flow of national events. So let’s head elsewhere in the city to see what else has happened here.

Marischal College

The royal position of ‘Marischal’ (like many Scottish words, the ‘ch’ is more like a ‘k’ sound so it’s pronounced ‘Marris-kal’) was presdigious. The Marischal’s chief duties were to protect the Scottish Crown Jewels, and to act as the king’s bodyguard in parliament.

The Scots had seen the English reformation south of the border, and in their own land people were starting to accept the new protestant forms of Christianity that had come across from Germany. In 1552, it still wasn’t certain what way the country would turn. If Scotland turned Protestant, it was likely that monasteries across the country would close, just as they had done across England and Wales. Sir William Keith, Fourth Earl Marischal, was one noble who would turn this to his advantage.

William established his second son Robert as abbot in trust of Deer Abbey, in Buchan to the north of Aberdeen. This would ensure his family’s position and favour either way; if the reformation failed, his son would hold a high position in the church; if it succeeded, as abbot his son could end up in possession of a large portion of abbey land, which would end up back in the family.

And as we have seen, Scotland embraced protestantism even more fervently than England, in a form called ‘Presbyterianism’. When the abbey was dissolved, Robert was appointed Commendator Abbot. He would ensure the abbey’s tithes were redirected from the Pope to the new Church of Scotland. King James VI would later create the Lordship of Atrie for Robert and his heirs.

As a former abbot, Robert never married and had children. Instead, his heir was George Keith, his nephew and Fifth Earl Marischal. George had a reforming spirit, but somehow managed to get on the bad sides of the old and new beliefs. It was easier to understand from the Catholic perspective – he was holding onto holy land as his own. For the Presbyterians, George had stopped paying the church tithe to the Church of Scotland.

In 1592, the king extended the lordship of Atrie, turning George into a Baron. He also extended the lands connected to the title, much of which was former church land, and some of it even within Aberdeen.

In his youth, George had studied at King’s College, and had tried to persuade it to reform. But the Catholic college stuck with its existing form of Christianity. George saw a need for a new university in the city, and founded Marischal College on his Aberdonian land. It is notable that this one burgh in Scotland now boasted as many universities as all of England (though to be fair Oxford and Cambridge had many connected colleges across the country, they just weren’t independent establishments).

In the sixteenth century a fashion had arisen in Aberdeen to construct grand buildings from the local granite. Marischal College was to be no exception. Indeed, this would be the grandest granite building in the burgh and beyond. Even today there’s only one granite building in the whole world larger than Marischal College – an old Spanish Royal Palace near Madrid, called El Escorial, completed in 1584. Over the college entrance was carved the words “They haif said: quhat say they: lat thame say” as if to say, ‘people are going to say all kinds of things about me, and they’re not true, but let them say it anyway.’

There remained a strong connection between George’s descendants and Marischal College, up as far as the Tenth Earl Marischal, also called George Keith. Born in 1693, he was already college chancellor by 1715, the year of the Jacobite rising. The Highlands and North East of Scotland saw more Jacobite supporters than elsewhere, and one of those was George.

It’s hard to say whether this was youth and idealism or a more serious heartfelt desire to put a Catholic monarch on the British throne. Despite his age, George was not spared punishment, and was stripped of his position and title. He left Britain to go into exile in Prussia.

It may be telling of George’s beliefs that he went to Prussia, which was more of a friend to Britain. This was a protestant nation, and enemies with Jacobite supporters in France and Spain. And it may have been his former Jacobite connections that had Frederick the Great send him as a diplomat to those very countries.

It is during his time as a diplomat in Spain that we see more evidence that George no longer supported the Jacobite cause. At this time, France was in the middle of war with Britain, which would later be known as the Seven Years’ War. George was alerted to a secret alliance between France and Spain, which would have caused a serious amount of trouble towards the United Kingdom. He sent warning of this alliance to Britain.

Britain was so grateful to George for his warning that they granted him a pardon, and even restored some of his Scottish lands to him. Now he was able to return home after forty years in exile, and for some time was Prussian ambassador to England.

But his time home was not to last. In 1764 he left Britain for the last time, returning to Berlin. He was on good terms with Frederick the Great, and would have a grand suite of rooms in the royal palace. The next year, he sent his former Baton of Office as Earl Marischal to the college, hoping they might find some regard for the ‘useless present’.

Another of George’s friends was the young French philosopher Rousseau, who had a lot of affection for his older companion and described him thus:

How many affectionate tears have I shed on my path as I thought of the goodness, the lovable virtues, the gentle philosophy of that venerable old man! I called him my father, he called me his child. These two names give some idea of the attachment which bound us together, but they fail to express the need which we had of each other, and of our unremitting desire to be in each other’s company

George was the last Earl Marischal, and the title has never been restored.

Over the years, Marischal College’s buildings grew considerably. Accommodating all the students grew difficult, and in 1747 the requirement for them to live within the college was dropped.

Another benefit of time passing was the cooling of tensions between Presbyterian and Catholic believers. King’s and Marischal Colleges dropped their enmity, and in 1858 joined together to become a single institution, the University of Aberdeen. The two colleges still exist, sharing between them the various academic faculties and neither being permitted to teach a subject that is already taught in the other.

In the last decades, much of the original college building has been turned over to Aberdeen City Council for use as offices. But it is still home to the Marischal Museum and the university’s debating chamber.

A small but fun fact: one of our solar system’s minor planets is named after Aberdeen University. It is called 5677 Aberdonia, and was named on the five-hundredth anniversary of King’s College’s founding in 1495.

Aberdeen Around The World

Being such a big city, it is no surprise that the name ‘Aberdeen’ has travelled across the world as far as… well, anywhere the British Empire went. There’s even a couple in Africa – one in Sierra Leone was founded for freed slaves by the British Royal Navy West Africa Squadron in 1829. This was not long after the British had abolished slavery across their territory, and now they intercepted slave ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean to rescue those aboard.

A waterfall in the heart of Sri Lanka’s forests is the Indian sub-continent’s main connection to Aberdeen. The Aberdeen Falls drop 98 metres, the eighteenth highest on the island. I’m not sure what brought the name to the area, but it was probably a British colonial explorer.

Moving across Asia, Hong Kong was British territory for a long time, only relinquished in 1997. A lot of the area’s features were named in the Victorian era, including Aberdeen town in the southwest of Hong Kong island. Its name comes from George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen and a British Prime Minister. Aberdeen town and harbour are well-known for the floating village and seafood restaurants. Like the original Aberdeen, fishing is an important industry in the area.

It is believed that Aberdeen was where the original British explorers landed on the island. They asked the locals what the island was called, but the islanders believed they were just talking about the village. The village name, “Hong Kong”, was extended to the whole island, and even though the mistake was soon realised, it was too late to change the now-common name.

Moving south-east to Australia, a small town in New South Wales was named for Aberdeen, Scotland in around 1856. There are also a couple of suburbs of various cities sharing this name.

But it is North America that the name really flourishes. Both Canada and the United States of America have a number of towns and even a couple of cities called Aberdeen. Those in Canada are small communities or neighbourhoods, but the US boasts – among others – several of reasonable size in Maryland, New Jersey, South Dakota and Washington.

South Dakota’s Aberdeen is the biggest. It was planned and laid out by Charles Prior of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, and officially founded when the company’s first train arrived in the town. Charles’ boss, Alexander Mitchell, had responsibility for all the town names, and so named this one after his birthplace in Scotland. Four different railway companies built depots in the town, turning it into a transport hub and encouraging its growth.

New Jersey is the oldest of these four Aberdeens, dating back to 1677 when a grant of 36 acres was made in Monmouth county. Today it is a collection of towns merged into a single authority, but the original Aberdeen was founded by Quakers and Presbyterians fleeing religious persecution in Scotland.

Moving west very slightly, Maryland’s Aberdeen was founded around 1800. Founded by Edmund Law Rogers, his family were cousins to the future 4th Earl of Aberdeen, so this is the second location we have found specifically named for him. Originally a village, it became a town in 1892, and then a city on its town-centenary in 1992. Aberdeen is home to the US Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, where weapons are thoroughly tested before being allocated to regular army units.

For our final Aberdeen, we go almost as far west as you can go, to Aberdeen, Washington. Here on the Pacific coast, it still shares a number of similarities with its namesake in Scotland. Both are fishing towns, and both are located at the mouths of two rivers. It was founded on the back of the growing timber industry, though this has much diminished in recent years. A number of notable figures originate from the town, including professional wrestler Daniel Bryan, the band Nirvana, and Nobel Prize winner Douglas Osherhoff.

That’s it for this week, and indeed for Christmas. I hope you’ll forgive my absence, but I’ll continue researching and be ready to go when we return in 2018, at Aberdour, Fife, Scotland. Happy holidays!

Episode 50 – Aberdaron, Gwynedd

The country of Wales is shaped a bit like a backwards letter ‘C’. We’ve already visited the bottom leg of the ‘C’, and today we’re going to the tip of the top leg. Here, at the most westerly point of North West Wales, is the community of Aberdaron. It’s not just Aberdaron itself, but a number of villages around including Anelog, Llanfaelrhys, Penycaerau, Rhoshirwaun, Rhydlios, Uwchmynydd and Y Rhiw. I will focus on Aberdaron village, but don’t be surprised if some of these other places crop up in today’s episode.

The ‘top leg’ of Wales is the Llŷn Peninsula, and the end point where Aberdaron is situated is known as the ‘Land’s End of Wales’, comparing it to England’s most south-westerly point. Aberdaron itself is in the centre of a sandy bay, and out to sea is Bardsey Island, where pilgrims once travelled to St. Mary’s Abbey. Two rivers end their courses at Aberdaron: Afon Daron, of course, and Afon Cyll-y-Felin. The local language is predominantly Welsh.

The Stone Age

People have been living in this area for well over six thousand years, with some of the most developed settlements being at Mynydd Rhiw, to the north east of Aberdaron. Stone age man cut shale from the hill, hewing it into axe heads. Their houses and graves have been found nearby.

Most interesting of all are the three cromlechs – or burial tombs – in the area. There are two really old ones, dating back to the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic six thousand years ago. At this time, the people would have been learning how to domesticate animals and plant crops, allowing them to stay in one place instead of following animal herds. These cromlechs are of a type known as ‘portal dolmens’ – a stone hollow cut into the ground, filled with those being buried, then covered with a capstone. Probably a cairn of stones and dirt would have covered this up. Though the stones and dirt have been worn away, the gigantic capstones remain. Many similar ones have been found across Ireland, Wales and Cornwall.

As the Neolithic progressed, new ideas were brought in as to how the dead should be buried. The third of the cromlechs is a particularly intriguing design called a ‘Cotswold-Severn Long Cairn’. The name suggests the area of Britain where these tombs are most often found, and those of you who know your British geography will quickly realise these are nowhere near North West Wales. Though we can speculate, we may never know what brought this type of tomb to Rhiw, but it suggests there was still a lot of migration throughout the islands, even with more settled populations.

Castell Odo

As time moved on, people began to learn to extract metals from rocks, and so we move into the Bronze and then the Iron Ages. New settlements were founded, impacting the landscape in much more visible ways, so that legends sprung up around these places.

One of the oldest Iron Age settlements in Europe is right here, at Aberdaron. Perhaps it’s because the shape and location of the hill forts makes them easier to find, but archaeological investigation on the site shows that it goes right back to the Bronze Age. It is called Castell Odo. Long after the settlers were forgotten, legends were told of the grave of the giant Odo.

Originally there were no fortifications, just a cluster of wooden huts with turf or thatch roofs. Later a wooden wall was constructed for protection. This would have been an expensive project, since there are not many trees in the area and they would have had to be imported. Pottery discovered with the wall is of a similar style to that found in the Shetland Islands at the time.

The next phase of development saw a circular dirt ridge installed as further defence. At 8-10 feet wide and 5 feet high, this 45-degree angle would have been hard to run up, allowing the defenders more time to fight back. Inside the village, the wooden huts were upgraded to stone ones.

Further additions were made to defense, with a second dirt ridge installed and both banks fortified with stone. The wall was also improved, and a gate added at the single entrance. A cobbled road ran through it, leading right to the centre of the settlement.

When the Romans arrived two thousand years ago, Britain was transformed. Hill forts were abandoned for villages and towns as the invaders enforced peace at the tip of a sword. Castell Odo crumbled away. Today, all that remains are the two dirt ridges, standing out against the landscape.

There are other hillforts in the area, and in fact the whole place – but particularly around Rhiw – is filled with ancient monuments. So many stories have been lost to the millennia, for it is only the arrival of the Romans that brought recorded history to the British Isles. If only these places could speak, imagine the tales they could tell!

The Cousins from Brittany

With the Romans eventually came Christianity, and when they left the religion remained. The poorly-equipped people were left to fend for themselves against invaders, and the Saxons were invited across as mercenaries to fight back. Many stayed, and soon controlled the culture of the east – most of modern England and part of Scotland. They brought their own pagan religion, and Christianity was forgotten.

But in the western part of the island, Christianity remained, free from Saxon control. Saxons called the Britons of the west ‘welas’, which means ‘foreigner’, and that’s where ‘Wales’ comes from. Some of the oldest Christian communities in Britain can be found here. At Anelog, just north west of Aberdaron, two tombs were discovered of priests who served here 1,400 years ago. Their names are inscribed on the stones in Latin: Veracius and Senacus.

Around this time, a group of monks came to Wales from Brittany. Brittany was settled by refugee Britons following the fall of the Roman Empire, and they still had a shared language and culture with Cornwall and Wales. Amongst their number were three cousins, key figures in the area: Cadfan, Hywyn and Maelrhys. Each of these is connected with a different religious site in the area.

Cadfan’s was the most prominent. He founded an abbey on Bardsey Island, a few miles out to sea. This remote place would eventually become popular for pilgrimages with royalty, and is also connected to Arthurian legend. I would love to have space here to tell you everything about Bardsey, but there’s enough for a blog post all of its own when we reach ‘B’.

The way to Bardsey Island was via Aberdaron, where Hywyn set up his monastery. Indeed, he is considered the village’s founder. Visitors would have to stay at Hywyn’s monastery overnight before getting a boat across the water the next day. Apart from the visitors, just a few people lived in the area, eking out a meagre living from the soil and the sea. These would be the congregation that Hywyn and his descendants served.

As for Maelrhys, he founded a church at Llanfaelrhys. This area was poorer than Aberdaron, lacking the foot-traffic that came with the pilgrimages, and Hywyn’s church supported its neighbour. Recently, the two have been incorporated into the same church parish.

Cadfan, Hywyn and Maelrhys today are all known as ‘saints’. For the Celtic church ‘saint’ was not a title only given to an especially-holy person, but instead marked someone as a Christian. When the church fell under Roman Catholic jurisdiction, the title ‘saint’ remained. So the church today in Aberdaron is called St. Hywyn’s church after its founder.

For many centuries, the rough wooden building of St. Hywyn’s stood by the water, looking across to Bardsey Island. It would soon become not just a waypoint to the island, but also a place of refuge and security for those needing to flee the Norman invaders in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

We’ve already met a couple of Welsh kings who used St. Hywyn’s as an escape route to Ireland, back at Aberarth. The first was Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd. Having pushed back several times against the Normans, in 1094 he was forced into exile in Ireland, with help from the Aberdaron monks.

Later, Gruffydd gained the support of the Norwegian King – back then, Norway’s lands included many of the islands around Scotland – and they helped him to regain his Welsh kingdom. King Henry I of England gave up some land to Gruffydd to keep him friendly, and so the Llŷn Peninsula became part of Gwynedd.

Too often, Gruffydd pushed against the boundaries of his territory, and Henry sent in troops from around Britain – including his Scottish sub-kingdom. As he grew older, Gwynedd’s king handed over the reins to his sons, who would fight in his place.

In 1137, he began a program to upgrade churches across his kingdom from wood to stone. Aberdaron was one of these, and also designated a sanctuary church. Inside was a stone chair called the chair of peace, on which disputes could be settled. It was also a place of safety, where someone on the run could stay for forty days and nights without fear. Very rarely would anyone dare breach the rules of sanctuary.

Gruffydd’s some-time rival, cousin and friend was King Gruffydd ap Rhys of Deheubarth. His father had been Rhys ap Tewdwr. Both had fought together against the Normans, but also fought each other in their time. He would also be helped by St. Hywyn’s monks to escape to Ireland when he needed it.

On our journey we have learned about a number of different Catholic monastic orders – the Cistercians, the Benedictines and the Augustinians, to name a few. Unusually, St. Hywyn’s would never come under the auspices of any order, unlike Cadfan’s church which would be run by Augustinian canons. An independent church of this type would be called a ‘clas’ church.

By the reformation it would be a ‘portionary’ church – still not under any order, but loosely affiliated with other independent churches. They would share their revenues to be able to support their clergymen.

For centuries the daily patterns of religious life and ritual continued. Masses, prayers, tending the poor. Kings and nobles passed through on pilgrimage to Bardsey Island, giving this otherwise remote part of the country a connection to historical events.

But in the sixteenth century, in just three short years King Henry VIII would change everything. Having set himself up as head of the Church of England, he couldn’t leave independent monasteries unanswerable to him. From 1536 to 1538 every monastery in England and Wales closed. Monks were stripped of their habits, given a pension and retired.

Some fell into ruin, as with St. Mary’s on Bardsey. Others, such as St. Hywyn’s, became parish churches. Aberdaron fell under the Diocese of Bangor, and its priests would be overseen by the Bishop of Bangor. In 1624, its patronage was claimed by St. John’s College, Cambridge. It was the job of the patron to appoint the church’s priests.

The predominant language of the church would have been English, but sometimes services would be in Welsh, and this would increase towards the nineteenth century. Often, priests would be appointed who didn’t speak a word of the language, but still they had to do the service in the locals’ tongue. You have to wonder what the congregation would have made of it all.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along came the Welsh Methodist Revival, and indeed a wave of new protestant traditions swept across the country. Non-conformist chapels sprung up even in the smallest villages, and there were eight across the Aberdaron area by 1850. Today, however, many have been closed.

As for St. Hywyn’s this ancient church has been rebuilt and restored many times, most recently in 2012. The Veracius and Senacus stones were moved to be placed in the church graveyard, where they stand as a reminder of the ancient history of the church. Services still take place here every week.

Pirates and Corruption

After Bardsey Island was abandoned, its many caves and distant location made it an ideal smugglers’ den. Smugglers and pirates often found their way up the coast to Aberdaron, including on one particular occasion in 1563.

Normally I like to call people by their first names, but this doesn’t always work out very well. At one time, John was the most common name in the English-speaking world, and a number of characters in the following tale share that name. To protect us from confusion, I’ll be using surnames to identify who is who.

It had been a hard year and a poor harvest for the peninsula. People did their best, rationing their meagre takings to get them through the winter. No doubt the churches were filled with their prayers, crying out to God for relief.

One day, four ships appeared on the horizon, and sailed into Aberdaron Bay. The two lead ships were captained by pirates – Thomas Wolfe and John Sargent. Behind them, they towed a pair of merchant vessels captured from the English Channel. The ships were filled with wheat and rye, and the starving population rejoiced. The pirates had answered their prayers.

Soon, two justices of the peace arrived at Aberdaron to investigate the matter. Surely these honourable men would ensure that the pirates were captured for their crimes, and hopefully leave the cargo for the people.

John Bodfael and John Castellmarch asked the captains to come ashore, but they refused to leave the ships. Instead, the two justices had to board, meeting the pirates on their own territory. Once aboard, they made an agreement with the captains, to purchase almost the entire cargo of grain. They’d have to get it unloaded themselves, of course. Wolfe and Sargent weren’t stupid.

Soon enough, the cargo was being unloaded. The justices made sure that it wasn’t given away for free, and made a decent profit on their purchase. They weren’t the only ones. A local priest also bought some grain, selling it on for a profit of 1200%! The starving populace had no choice but to pay.

Further away, Justice John Griffith heard tales of the goings-on at Aberdaron. And unlike Bodfael and Castellmarch, he truly intended to take care of these pirates. He sent messages to the Vice Admiral of North Wales, the Sheriff of Caernarfon, and the Queen’s Vice Armourer at Caernarfon Castle. Surely one of these noble men would help resolve this injustice? But they would not.

Now, Griffith had a guest staying at his home, merchant John Thorpe. Together they formed a plan – the merchant would travel to Aberdaron and arrange a meeting with the pirates. He would purchase the remainder of the grain, and ask for it to be unloaded at Caernarfon. Griffith would then be able to capture the villainous scum while they were in port.

Thorpe set out, but when he arrived at Aberdaron he immediately spilled the beans to Captain Wolfe. The merchant was duly rewarded, and they hatched a plan to get John Griffith aboard. The unwitting justice entered the captain’s quarters, and immediately realised his error. After a short fight he was put in a boat and forced to row to shore, defeated. He was never seen again.

By this time news of the pirates had spread. A commission was put together and sent up to the peninsula to see what was the matter, and investigate these events. Since the pirates still refused to leave their vessels, a hearing took place on board.

The captains knew their game was up, but they refused to admit defeat. Defended by Justice Bodfael, they made excuse after excuse to claim they were not in the wrong.

The primary claim was that the Duke of Northumberland had issued them a “Letter of Marque”. This parchment would grant the holder’s vessels permission to act as warships during a time of war. Pirates often liked to extend this period long after the war was over, as much as they could get away with. And since they were a war vessel, of course they had to capture those suspicious-looking ships in the English Channel! It was their duty as privateers!

The commissioners asked to see this “Letter of Marque”. The captains shook their heads, “you wouldn’t understand it.” And why not? “Well… it’s in French!” One of the commissioners understands French. “Oh, but… uh… you still wouldn’t understand…”

The captains’ feeble excuses failed to impress, and the Letter of Marque could not be produced in any language. Combined with the fact the Duke of Northumberland had been decapitated ten years ago, nobody was buying it.

John Bodfael knew he was in trouble, but he could not give up his defence. He claimed he had only come to get the grain to support the needy locals, and not for any personal profit. He was an honourable man. The pirate captains did not come out of it well, but somehow the two justices of the peace escaped punishment.

For now, anyway. A few years later, in 1569, Bodfael was accused of being one of the chief pirates of Bardsey Island. So perhaps he had an even closer stake in the events of Aberdaron Bay than this incriminating story suggests.

The poetic priest

In March 1913, Robert Stuart Thomas was born in Cardiff. His father was a sailor in the Merchant Navy during World War One, and the family would follow him from port to port. Afterwards, they settled on the island of Anglesey.

After graduating from St. Michael’s Cottage, Llandaff, he became a priest in the Church of Wales. The Church of Wales was split away from the Church of England in 1920, and no longer holds the role of a state church. It does remain part of the ‘Anglican Communion’ along with other branches of the English church from around the world.

In the 1940s, he began learning Welsh. Learning new languages is harder for adults, and Welsh is quite a difficult language for English speakers, so this was an impressive challenge to take on. He loved Welsh and the culture, and would later become a Welsh nationalist seeking independence for his country.

He served at various parishes around Wales, and began writing poetry primarily in English, considering his Welsh not good enough for the task. But in the 1960s he would work within Welsh-speaking communities, and he would write a couple of non-poetic works in the language.

One of those communities was Aberdaron, and he became vicar of St. Hywyn’s in 1967. He remained here for eleven years, before he and his wife retired in 1978 to Y Rhiw. After his wife died in 1991, he moved back to Anglesey, and died in 2000.

Robert wrote about Aberdaron:

Scarcely a street, too few houses
To merit the title; just a way between
The one tavern and the one shop
That leads nowhere and fails at the top
Of the short hill, eaten away
By long erosion of the green tide
Of grass creeping perpetually nearer
This last outpost of time past.

So little happens; the black dog
Cracking his fleas in the hot sun
Is history. Yet the girl who crosses
From door to door moves to a scale
Beyond the bland day’s two dimensions.

Stay, then, village, for round you spins
On a slow axis a world as vast
And meaningful as any posed
By great Plato’s solitary mind.

Next week we’re going back to Scotland, to our first city. Back when I started this blog, it was the first place I thought of alphabetically – Aberdeen.



Episode 49 – Aberdare, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Part 2

Last weekend was the anniversary of the armistice signing between Germany and the allies at the end of World War One. Like many countries, the United Kingdom holds commemoration services on this day, to remember all those who have served in war – those who died and those who survived.

At 11am on November 11th, and also on Remembrance Sunday (which is the second Sunday in November) we have a two-minutes’ silence. The Remembrance Sunday commemoration is usually held at war memorials across the country. There is a particular symbol that we use to remind us of what this day means, which is the poppy. Many people will buy a poppy badge to pin on their coat, and poppy wreaths are laid at the memorials. The money raised from the sale of these poppies goes to support armed forces veterans and service personnel.

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Episode 49 – Aberdare, Rhondda Cynon Taf – Part 1

It was back in August that we first arrived in the Cynon valley. Here in the mining village of Aberaman we learned about how the industrial revolution transformed the Welsh valleys from a rural farmland to a bustling working-class area. Since then, we’ve travelled further downriver to Abercwmboi and Abercynon.

All of these villages share a similarity – before the industrial revolution, they didn’t exist. But Aberdare is different. Long before anyone thought to dig up the ground to get to the coal and iron beneath, Aberdare – or Aberdâr was the largest settlement in the valley. After industry arrived, it grew rapidly, and is still the biggest town. It has absorbed a lot of the smaller villages around as suburbs.

Because most of Aberdare’s history is fairly recent, I’ll still be filling in a lot of detail, but not as much as I would for a small village. If I took everything I found about the town then we’d be staying here until Christmas. As it is, this will still be a two-part episode, so let’s get going!

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Episode 48 – Aberdalgie, Perth and Kinross

We’re returning to Perth for a third time today; our tour stop Aberdalgie is a few miles north west of Abbots Deuglie and Aberargie. Aberdalgie and the neighbouring parish of Dupplin were united in 1618, and the history of the two is so intertwined that we ought to consider them together. Dupplin doesn’t appear on my map, so don’t worry that I’m sneaking in somewhere early.

Something that I am sneaking in, and you might think it’s cheating, is some BREAKING NEWS! It’s not about a particular settlement, but it’s close to Perth and Aberdalgie so I think I can get away with it. The A85 and A9 roads meet west of the town, and the junction is currently being upgraded. Work was halted upon discovery of a Pictish carving, dating back 1,500 years. It depicts a warrior with a big nose, and carrying a spear.

This type of carving has never been seen before in the area, and might mean there was a Pictish noble living nearby. Other similar stones have only been found much further north, at Aberdeen, in the Highlands, and in the Shetland Islands. Hopefully archaeologists will be able to tell us much more about this stone in the next few months.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog.

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Episode 47 – Abercynon, Rhondda Cynon Taf

The story of today’s village is all about mining. We’ve already visited a number of settlements up the Cynon valley, whose remarkable transformation from rural idyll to industrial heartland occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Abercynon, as you might gather, is at the end of this valley, where Afon Cynon arrives at the Taf.

Abercynon did not come about as a direct result of mining, but rather thanks to this confluence of rivers and infrastructure. We have already spoken a little about the canals that were built in the early mining period to ship mined goods down to Cardiff. Being man-made, they were much more reliable and safe than using the river for transport. One of the first was the Glamorganshire Canal, opened in 1795 and running from Cardiff up to Merthyr Tydfil. In 1812 a second branch was added up the Cynon to Aberdare.

Mine owners were soon running horse drawn carriageways down the sides of the mountains to the canal. Here they would dock the barges, load them with coal, and then ship them downstream.

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Episode 46 – Abercych, Pembrokeshire

Today we return to Pembrokeshire, Wales’s most south-westerly county. We were last here for Abercastle, a beautiful small seaside village. This week we move inland to Abercych, where the borders of Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire meet.

Like so many borders throughout history, for well over a thousand years the people of this area have used the natural courses of their rivers – Afon Teifi and Afon Cych – to decide the ownership of the land.

In the 7th Century, the kingdom of Dyfed (or Dyved) stretched across Pembrokeshire and the western part of Carmarthenshire. Its northern boundary with the kingdom of Ceredigion was marked by the west-flowing Teifi, and even though Ceredigion is no longer a kingdom, it retains the same border here. The Teifi continues onwards to the sea at Aberteifi, or as it’s more commonly known in English, Cardigan.

Dyfed was divided into seven smaller regions, or cantref, which means ‘hundred towns’. The most north-easterly of these was Cantref Emlyn, whose land lay both east and west of Afon Cych. The river formed the border between Emlyn’s two cymydau, or ‘commodes’. The eastern commode was Emlyn Uwch Cuch, and the western was Emlyn Is Cuch. ‘Cuch’ is just a different way of writing ‘Cych’.

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Episode 45 – Abercwmboi, Rhondda Cynon Taf

Before we get into this week’s episode, some of you might have noticed that we’ve been missing a few places on our epic alphabetical adventure. Today is no exception, as we pass from Abercregan to Abercwmboi completely ignoring the village of Abercrombie in Fife.

It is a minor failing of the atlas I am using that sometimes it doesn’t list the smallest villages. Conversely, for more remote places it lists locations that are actually just individual houses or landmarks as if they were settlements, such as Aberchalder Lodge in the Highlands, or Abberley Common at Abberley, Worcestershire.

Abercrombie being such a common surname and place name around the world makes this more obvious for having been skipped, but I feel like it would be cheating to include somewhere my map doesn’t tell me about.

Ultimately, if my map lists it and Google Maps considers it to be a real place on its own, I’ll go with it. I’m not sure exactly where Aberavon falls in this classification, now being a smaller suburb of Port Talbot, but my blog, my arbitrarily defined rules.

I’ll also be making an exception for British overseas territories, so look forward to Akrotiri when it comes.

If I ever get to the letter S – there are many thousands of villages before that distant date – and we reach the village of St. Monans, we’ll come back to Abercrombie. But for now, let’s continue our tour of Wales

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