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Early Christian crosses

December 16, 2009

Sacred boundary stone between Church lands

Church lands in the northern half of Scotland that used to be known as the Pictish Kingdom are now being reshuffled.

From Headquarters of the Church of Scotland at 121 George Street in Edinburgh, the state religion of the country controls most of the land previously gifted by generous lairds and landowners to the Church, a practice dating from the twelfth century. In recent years church buildings themselves have gone under the hammer, turning from sacred places of worship to private homes with the arbitrary wave of 121’s magisterial wand.

Aberdeenshire is traditionally famed for its Pictish symbol stones, thought to date from at least the 5th century, the earliest found in profusion on fertile farmland of busy agricultural communities. These were often saved from destruction by gunpowder or the plough by deep-seated superstition.

In an oral culture handed down from ancestral times, it didn’t do to harm the stones.

They were, after all, one of few remnants of country (‘pagan’ from Latin paganus, countryman) tradition which predated Christianity; a tradition of which the ancestors spoke. You could ‘set your clock by the stones’.

Unlike its neighbour to the south, Northeast Scotland has a strong oral tradition and holds with a belief in respect for one’s forebears, more common in other early matrilineal cultures like the Native American, Maya and Zulu. In that sense, Pictish culture is strong here, regardless of modern influences; remarkable in the last thirty years in particular, with the absorption of Oil Culture.

Part of the Pictish soul, perhaps, is its ability by a people accustomed to infiltration, conquered status and absorption, to hold firm to the land, the original nurturing Mother, and get on with the business of living.

Matrilineal Picts were first absorbed in 843 by patriachal Scots, but Pictish Law held true and became adopted as the legal system of the conquerors. Scots Law to this day is guided by essential elements of its Pictish origins.

Pictish family systems are often likened to the Clan system of the West, but in a Pictish Northeast mindset, it is once again a different concept. Whereas within the Pictish family the female concepts of gratitude, hospitality, respect and negotiation are fostered, as we children claim an unspoken bond with country and ancestors, the Scots clan system is ruled by a Clan Chieftain, usually (but not always) male.

As with assimilation of Pictish Law, the countryman allowed nomenclature, yet persisted in the Old Way of doing things.

Scots in turn were absorbed by the English and, while it may be averred that west-coast or Central Belt Scots ‘hate’ their conquerors, the northeast Pict has no such feeling; it is irrelevant.

A Pictish mindset allows an appearance of conformity, while keeping his/her own counsel.

Pictish stone: Double disc and Z-rod

Interestingly, this quality of individual opinion is implicit in what happened in Northeast Scotland in the years 1560 – 1660, at the time of the Reformation.

Northeast parishes of Aberdeenshire, Banffshire and Moray followed the instruction of the Reformed Church to the letter – while at the same time managing to guard handed-down veneration of ancestral sacred places.

Because of this apparent anomaly, around 600 Neolithic recumbent stone circles survive in the northeast triangle, and, though separated by 3500 years, roughly 100 Pictish symbol stones have been preserved for posterity.

Pictish stones are divided into Class I, incised (approximately AD500 onwards); Class II, relief-carved cross-slabs (8thC – 9thC); Class III relief with horsemen, kings, hierarchical designs (9thC -10thC); and Class IV, (8thC transitional) cross-stones with no other ornamentation (illus. top). The earliest Class I and Class II stones are invariably found in association with pre-Christian sacred sites.

Bourtie: on the same site for 800 years


Bourtie is blessed to be among those which retain their original Pictish carved stones.

Here, when the pre-Reformation kirk was restored and rebuilt in 1806, not only was the pre-Reform belfry recycled, but the ancient Pictish stone with its incised carvings was built into the top right course of the south kirk wall. While now difficult to view, It bears Pictish Class I symbols of crescent-and-V-rod, double-disc-and-Z-rod and mirror-and-comb. It probably served as the original sacred boundary marker for this early pre-Christian Pictish place; it dates to the fifth century. It will have remained as a sacred boundary marker for 300 years before King Nechtan’s Christianizing campaign in the 8thC introduced cross-carved stones.

Throughout the early years of Christianity in this far-northern corner of the former Pictish kingdom, therefore, sacred sites were in no immediate danger.

In 596 Pope Gregory I sent Augustine to England with the following instruction:

“By no means destroy the temples
of the idols belonging to the British, but only the idols which are found in them; inasmuch as they are well-constructed, it is necessary that they should be converted from the dowership of demons to the true God.”

A century after Augustine, however, more extreme measures were called for: in Theodore’s Penitential, AD690, also related to South Britain:

“idolatry, worship of demons, cult of the dead, worship of nature, Pagan calendar customs and festivals, witchcraft and sorcery, augury and divination and astrology”

were banned. Yet the old ways persisted.

Meanwhile Nechtan created his own elaborate means of consolidating his kingdom and allying himself with Rome. He built stone Peter kirks throughout his land.

Class IV cross-incised stone in south perimeter wall at Bourtie

While there is no specific chronicle reference to Bourtie in his original church building, there is other evidence: the portable ‘pillow’ stone, a boulder marked with a cross, used in place of an edifice for worship from Nechtan’s reign AD706-729 continued in use by peripatetic clerics for roughly a century thereafter. Bourtie has two such (Class IV) ‘pillow’ stones, dating from the eighth century. One is embedded in the south perimeter wall of the kirkyard and the other is built into the east farm steading at Kirkton of Bourtie, now preserved and protected, in spite of there being a recently-restored building on site.

Megalithic structures such as the Aberdeenshire recumbent stone circles survive in every parish where continuity was perpetuated in Pictish church reform. The Pictish Christian cross or cross-stone invariably appears within sight of a stone circle. Bourtie has two stone circles, one to the west of the kirk; the other to the east.

They too, however, became endangered in the 18th and 19th centuries when farmhouses were being built in stone and work proceeded apace in the landscape to clear stones and boulders in farming improvement. The drystane dykes which were common boundaries of farmland until the 21st century date from this 18thC improvement.

Stone circles invariably survived. In the words of one 18th-century Northeast clergyman:

“superstition spares them though stones are so scarce”

Class I incised Pictish symbols, geometric and animal designs


Class I stones
Beautiful examples of these Pictish pre-Christian sacred markers, carved with incised animal and geometric symbols in a style standardized throughout the Kingdom, stand within kirk precincts today at Banffshire churches of Mortlach, Marnoch and Ruthven, in Moray at Advie, Birnie, Inverallan, Inveravon, and Knockando, and in Aberdeenshire at Clatt, Rhynie, Tyrie, Fetterangus, Dyce, Deer, Fyvie, Kinellar, Kintore, Bourtie and Inverurie. They are usually rough-hewn from boulders or glacial outcrops.

Five known Class I stones in Aberdeenshire still stand on their original sites:

Ardlair, Kennethmont; Nether Corskie, Dunecht; the Insch Picardy Stone at Whitemyres Farm; Brandsbutt in a housing estate in Inverurie (re-constituted after 19thC dynamite blasting) and the Rhynie Craw Stane.

Moray Class I stones thought to be in situ stand at Congash and Upper Manbeen.

The rest, totalling an unknown figure (32 recorded), abound in museums in the Northeast, in Edinburgh and London or are “lost”.

Class II Stones

Class II relief-carved Pictish cross stone in St.Mary's Monymusk

Sculpted into ‘dressed’ blocks, and dating from after King Nechtan’s (706-729) campaign of Christianizing his Kingdom: usually a cross-shaft sharing space with animal ’spirits’, familiar to the pre-Christian population: these can be found in St. Mary’s Monymusk, Migvie, Logie-Coldstone, Tullich-Deeside, Fordoun-Auchenblae (the Mearns), Elgin cathedral.

Local lairds also had their fair share of the spoils. In the rush to comply with post-Reformation instruction to build new churches, often on pagan sites, stones were broken up for building, reused in threshing floors or as millstones, or taken to form a decorative feature at the laird’s house.

Pictish Class II cross slab in Migvie kirkyard, Tarland

National Trust for Scotland’s Leith Hall and Brodie Castle are custodians of three, open to the public. Others, at Newton House, Arndilly, Keith Hall, Castle Forbes, Park House, Logie House, Mounie Castle, Craigmyle House, Tillypronie Lodge, Knockespock House, Blackhills House, Whitestones House and Whitehills are in private ownership and are not accessible to visit, except by appointment.

The Maiden Stone is the only so-called Class III Pictish stone in Aberdeenshire.

The list of Class IV cross-incised stones dating from Nechtan’s improvement years is as yet incomplete.

The largest in situ is the boundary stone in the illustration (top) which remains in the Afforsk landscape exactly on the parish boundary between church lands of Chapel of Garioch, Inverurie and Monymusk. Its immovable size suggests that it was carved to serve in the original Pictish tradition of marking a sacred precinct, rather than for later use as a portable ‘pillow’.

Recent research suggests that portable crosses – roughly circular stones like pillows carved with a simple cross and pre-dating the eighth century [class II] Pictish cross slabs – were the hallmark of early travelling holy men. If they were sent from Nechtan’s headquarters in the Pictish capital at Forteviot or from his northern fortress at Fyvie, their reach was far indeed.

Several compact Christian amulets of this type surface in Aberdeenshire, temptingly close to early foundations: cross-inscribed stones [with no other ornament] appear at Aboyne, Afforsk, Banchory, Barra, Botriphnie, Bourtie, Clatt, Crathes, Culsalmond, Deer, Dyce, Ellon, Fintray, Inverurie, Kinnernie, Logie-Coldstone, Logie-Elphinstone, Monymusk, Ruthven and Tullich. A saint’s well to baptise converts invariably lies close to such foundations. After they died, their relics – ranging from pillows of stone to crozier and bell – were treasured by the community. Monymusk’s greatest treasure, the Monymusk reliquary, a gold and jewel-encrusted shrine made to house the little finger bone of its patron, is in Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland.

While Dyce, Fintray, Botriphnie and Aboyne are known to have such relics, like Banchory Ternan’s ‘Ronan bell’, Bourtie has neither well nor saint recorded. Neighboring parish, Bethelny, once linked by minister-on-horseback to Bourtie, now has no church either. Foundations remain in the grass on the farm there, but its saint (Nachlan), its parishioners and its parish have become, like Bourtie, absorbed into Meldrum.

Maintenance and continuity within these ancient places by the Edinburgh behemoth is laudable. There are some discrepancies, however. Alternative episcopal religion slighted at the Reformation in favour of John Knox’s simpler dogma survives in the Scottish Episcopalian Church. It receives no grants for ground or building maintenance by the state; meanwhile the ‘reformed’ religion has full Council back-up in support and maintenance of graveyards. This sadly means that in summer months monstrous mowing machinery slices its way over grass, fallen masonry, private floral tributes, 18th century table stones, unique 16th century grave markers, relentlessly obliterating the past in its efforts to keep the present ‘neat’. Not only is the kirkyard pristine in its ‘neat and tidyness’, but it is losing its antiquities at a great rate to the weighty modern machine.

The Calvinist camp may think enlightenment has been achieved. But for antiquities, it is a Pyrrhic victory.

©Marian Youngblood is the author of Bourtie Kirk: 800 Years, available from Amazon or direct from Cleopas Publishing, Inverurie AB51 0JS
ISBN 0-9526-365-2-2 (1995).

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Ministers of Bourtie 1199 – 2009

December 14, 2009

Ministers of Bourtie from 1199 to the present

between 1190 and 1199 Hugh the Rector, during lairdship of
William de Lamberton of Bowirdin
charter ratified by his son, Alexander Lamberton to the
‘Vicar of Bourdin’ in 1202 along with 12 acres of (glebe) land
renewed 1206 by Pope Innocent III
renewed 1228 by King Alexander and Pope Innocent IV
around 1243 Robert de la Runce, Vicar, with charter renewed by
Pope Innocent IV in 1246 and 1248

on Robert de la Runce’s entry, Radulf, Bishop of Aberdeen added to the charter ‘two pleughs of land, the manse and curtilage in which Hugh the Rector used to live’

around 1268 Thomas de Ludan, Vicar

During the period between the de Lamberton patronage and the early 14th century when Robert the Brus’ supporter Thomas de Longueville is said to have been laird, there are no records of names of rector, vicar.
Thomas de Longueville’s likeness is said to be the carved effigy in the kirk vestry. He supported King Robert I at the battle of Barra 1308.

Last pre-Reformation Vicar:
before April 1566 Sir David Harvie, Vicar

Post-Reformation:
after April 1566 – 1573 Alexander Harvie, M.A. ‘to the vicarage’
before 1574 – 1578 Andrew Drumblec, Reader ‘at the vicarage’
1578 – 1595 James Johnston
1595 – 1596 William Barclay
1596 – 1606 Stephen Masoun, Reader, then Minister
1606 – 1611 Thomas MItchell, Minister, deposed
1611 – 1659 Gilbert Keith, A.M. (Kings College), Rector
in his dotage he was assisted by 1650 George Melvill, A.M.
and 1658 William Gordon, Assistant
1659 – 1666 William Gordon, Minister
1666 – 1675 Robert Browne, A.M. (Kings College), Minister
1678 – 1709 Alexander Sharpe, Rector
1709 – 1717 James Gordon, A.M., Synod Clerk, Moderator
1718 – 1719 John Duncan, M.A. (St. Andrews), Preacher
1720 – 1722 Archibald Napier, A.M., Minister
1723 – 1743 George Gordon, Minister
1744 – 1795 Thomas Shepherd, A.M. (Marischal College), Minister
1790 – 1795 William Smith, A.M. Assistant
1796 – 1825 William Smith, A.M. (Marischal College), Clerk of the Synod
1826 – 1872 James Bisset, A.M., D.D., Minister, Moderator
1873 – 1896 William Leslie Davidson, M.A., LL.D., Minister,
Chair of Logic and Metaphysics, Burnett and Croall Lecturer
1896 – 1932 Michael James Macpherson, M.A. B.D.
1933 – 1938 James Sabiston, B.D.
1939 – 1940 Rev. W. Russell – Union with Meldrum
(1924) – 1944 Rev. John Christopher Nesbitt, B.A.
assisted by Rev. Murdo MacDonald and Rev. Victor Pogue
Post – Union with Meldrum parish
1947 – 1950 Rev. Joseph Gray
1950 – 1951 Rev. Eric Hind
1952 – 1957 Rev. Kenneth Macmillan
1958 – 1980 Rev. Robert Urquhart
1981 – 1986 Rev. Robert Johnstone
1986 – 1999 Rev. Grainger Stoddart
2001 – 2009 Rev. Hugh O’Brien

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December 14, 2009

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