The year of Homecoming has rekindled interest in the abandoned forest settlements of Scotland. Since their beginnings in 1973, the Bailies of Bennachie have embraced the story of the squatters who lived on the east corner of the hill. Today these crofting ruins can be explored freely, but little is known about them. A commemorative A-frame sculpture inscribed with the names of the colonist’s families reads, ‘the pattern of the stones is the echo of the colony’.
The first anecdotes of the colonists were told in Alexander Inkson McConnochie’s book, Bennachie. In it the colonists were painted as a shady set of characters with dubious morals and backward ways. One tale tells of how Milne could not use his razor for shaving because his sister had purloined it to cut the daily bread too often. He declared that he ‘wudna care for the loons takin’t to fite sticks; but fan Betty took it to cut the breid o’ the gridle it played the vera sorra wi’ the edge of o’t.’
Another story explains how Beverley christened his illegitimate grandson after the local reverend refused on the grounds of the unchanging immoral behaviour of his daughter.
This dubious reputation has slowly shifted to one of admiration and respect. The known story of Bennachie is short. The first colonists on Bennachie, related to the Esson family, set up a home on what was a commonty, or common land, around 1800, and by 1850 there were about 55 people. The majority were involved in skilled work, such as dyking, and most quarried Bennachie steens. The colony broke down slowly after the commonty was divided in 1859 by the neighbouring estates.
The colony went to Leslie of Balquhain who charged rents and was responsible for evicting many tenants. Most of the colonists were gone by the 1870s, with the notable exception of dyker George Esson, who lived on the hill until his death in the 1930s.
So what has research told us about Bennachie’s social history? In the 1980s Helen Fraser, former clerk of the Bailies of Bennachie, wrote a series of articles entitled On the Trail of the Bennachie Colonists, which focused on the family trees and occupations of the colonists. Starting with her work I have delved into local records, such as the Parochial Board minutes and Kirk Session records.
These records focus on the darker side of life, though they provide the details that fill in a character. They often involve the very poorest of the colonists or their dealings with the fatuous (mentally disabled) or worthies of the area.
William Esson residing on Bennachie requesting to have to take the oath of Purgation, the proof his innocency of the sin of fornication with Sarah Cruickshank – alleged to have been committed by him five or six years ago. It appearing that William Esson constantly denied his guilt in this case, that no circumstance had ever occurred to validate this accusation of Sarah Cruickshank herself who is almost if not entirely fatuous…
Other entries tell of tragic events said to have happened on the hill and reveal the cut-throat response of the Poor Relief Boards.
The Inspector reported, that Robert Dawson, Widow Dawson’s fatuous son, had wandered away from him on the 26th November, and was found on the hill of Benochie, on the 12th December last … the meeting resolve[d] that Widow Dawson’s allowance, shall be at the [reduced] rate of 3/2.
The Poor Board did administer aid to the Bennachie colonists in the form of thatching for the roof, shoes, medicines and doctor’s services. But their complacency comes out in response to the Bennachie evictions, the first of which happened very soon after the colony was divided.
The Inspector reported, that Colonel Leslie, having found it necessary to remove John Christie and Widow Cooper from their houses, presently occupied by them – has placed at the disposal of the Board a house lately occupied by John Esson, that he had caused the house to be filled up and divided, and removed Christie and Cooper to it – which the Meeting approve of.
But their complacency did not indicate a complete lack of responsibility:
He (the Inspector) also reported that the house would require thatching, when the Board told him to do that matter, as he might find necessary.
Anecdotes such as these show that the colonists, whilst evicted, weren’t carelessly thrown out, but more concern was shown over the house than the people. Learning more about the colonists will teach us about the power struggle between landlords and tenants in North-East Scotland during the Improvements and the social attitudes that prevailed in the Garioch.
Other stories highlight the social connections between the countryside and the city. Margaret Gardiner, a fatuous pauper, was removed from the home of William Esson due to a poor standard of care and sent to the Poor House of Aberdeen, where she died two years later.
The five Mitchell children were orphaned when their parents died in 1864. Colonel Erskine of Pittodrie sent one girl of 13 and one boy of five to the Industrial School in Aberdeen, where for 1/ and 2/6 a week they were provided with food and clothing. The remaining two girls, aged seven and two, were placed with their grandfather Alexander Littlejohn, another Bennachie colonist. The last boy, of only eight years old, was already in service on a farm.
The landscape of Aberdeenshire was never empty, but filled with the stories and stones of everyday lives.
The Bailies, the Forestry Commission and the Elphinstone Institute have organized a Bennachie Homecoming Festival in August, hoping to find descendants of the colonists to tell their stories.
We hope visitors will bring photographs, tell anecdotes and enrich for us all the oral history of the hill.
Jennifer Fagen is a PhD candidate at The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen. On Friday, 7 August she will lead a walk over the colony site, explaining who lived where and what happened throughout their lives. She invites visitors to go along.” Details of the festival can be seen at w3.bailiesofbennachie.co.uk.Tweet
This is an article from the August 2009 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.