by Maggie Craig
We bide in a place cried Riven,
Far there’s mair fowk deid than there are livin
Well, that’s how the old rhyme goes, although nowadays the place cried Riven is spelled Ruthven. Those of us who know and love this tiny village tucked away in soft and rolling countryside, halfway between Huntly and Keith, continue to pronounce its name in the old-fashioned way.
Cradled by the crooked burn of Cairnie, the heart of Ruthven is its lovely old kirkyard. Surrounded by mature trees, its graves and stones sit within the lee of the soaring gable wall and belfry which once formed part of St Carol’s Kirk. It’s a very special and a very beautiful spot, a tranquil green oasis.
The church itself fell into disuse and disrepair somewhere around the middle of the 18th century. It wasn’t the first place of worship to occupy this site. Records confirm the existence of a church in Ruthven, complete with “Hugh, the parson of Ruthven”, at least 800 years ago.
An indication of much earlier human settlement is the ancient carved stone fastened to the wall of the kirkyard close by the entrance gates. This slab of whinstone also marks Ruthven’s traditional mercat cross, a place where proclamations were read and business conducted.
The only actual tomb to survive inside the graveyard is that of Thomas Gordon of Daugh, more familiarly known as Tam o’ Riven, who lived in the early 1400s. A recumbent knight in armour, he lies within a wall niche which would once have been inside the kirk.
Weathered by centuries of exposure to the elements, it’s still possible to make out the features of the face and the knight’s helmet, sword pommel and sword belt. According to ballad and robust local legend, Tam o’ Riven died after fighting a duel with the abbott of a monastery at nearby Grangeover a disputed piece of land.
In life, Tam and his brother, Jock o’ Scurdargue, are reputed to have been the “faithers o’ a’ the Gordons”. Tam alone is credited with having fathered well over 20 children.
The resting places of Tam’s four wives, the ladies who did the real work when it came to giving birth to all of those children, are not recorded. That’s not to say they’re not buried close by him.
There are gaps in the springy and lovingly tended green sward of the kirkyard, spots where gravestones have succumbed to the ravages of time. Given the age of the place, there must also be many layers of burials here.
The traditional rhyme tells nothing but the truth. A count of the surviving gravestones produces a tally of exactly 200. Around 40 living souls currently call Ruthven home. The dead outnumber the living by a lot more than five to one, of course.
Most of the stones still visible date from 200 years ago up until the present day. Way back in 1787, Captain Watts of His Majesty’s Ship the Sultan Man of War had a flat stone placed over his mother, Janet Harper. It bears a touching little verse, remembering her as charitable and kind.
John Pirie was a merchant in Ruthven, one of his sons a doctor. George Pirie was only 28 years old when he died at Grenada in the West Indies.
Many of those buried or remembered in Ruthven Kirkyard died young, their stones and memorials bearing witness to lives cut short through illness or accident. Several inscriptions commemorate members of that lost generation, those young men who fell in action during World War I. Many repeat those sadly familiar, yet never less than heartbreaking words: the ones which remind us of all those children who died in infancy.
Many who were, as they themselves might have said, sib to those who died in childhood or young adulthood, lived to a grand old age. A good number whose names are inscribed here shook the dust of Ruthven from their feet and took themselves off to seek their fortune elsewhere.
Some didn’t go so very far, to other parts of Scotland or to London. Some travelled to the other side of the world and settled there. They went to Winnipeg, Ontario, Vancouver, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Tobago, China, Africa and Malta. They were soldiers and sailors and doctors and missionaries, wives and mothers and farmers.
Those who stayed at home were squarewrights, millwrights, flaxdressers, surgeons, postmen and postmasters and schoolteachers: wives and mothers and farmers too, of course. All of the farm and house names of the district are here. There’s Auchanachie and Little Daugh, Upper and Nether Tullochs, Hallgreen, Horntowie, Sittinghillock, Cuttlehill, Flooders, Riggins, Bank’s, Mill House and Hogston.
Among many other family names, the following are particularly well represented: McPherson, Wilson and Dawson, Christie, Cruickshank and Gordon, Milne, Morrison, Murray and Pirie, Robertson, Stables and Stronach.
Anyone seeking specific forefathers and foremothers will find all of the existing inscriptions transcribed in Patrick Scott’s comprehensive The Epitaths of Ruthven Kirkyard.
After Tam o’ Riven, the kirkyard’s most famous occupant is John McBey. In a less politically correct age, his mental incapacity conferred on him one of his two nicknames: Feel Jock. A kenspeckle figure in the Huntly of the early 1800s, there were plenty of folk there who were kind to him. Since Jock was fascinated by everything to do with the army, the lady who gave him a new suit of clothes every year made sure they were cut in a military style. Jock’s resulting appearance gave him his second byname: The Colonel.
This charitable woman may have been the Mrs Ord who was known to have been particularly concerned about Jock’s welfare. When she died she was buried in her native Ruthven, her interment preceded, as was the custom in those days, by the tolling of St Carol’s bell.
Jock was deeply moved by this melancholy sound. He thought the bell was speaking to him, pealing out the words come hame, come hame.
Mrs Ord’s grave is one of those whose exact location has been lost. The tale of her kindness and of Jock’s attachment to her and the bell has lived on. Some of it is told on his gravestone, some in Huntly writer George McDonald’s story The Wow o’ Riven. That was the name Jock himself gave to the bell.
When he died in 1848 he was buried, according to his own request, under the gable wall of the kirk, beneath the bell which had meant so much to him.
Forty years and more before Jock’s death, in 1804, the kirk session of the newly-built church at Cairnie, two miles along the road from Ruthven, decided that a ruined kirk didn’t need a bell. The people of Ruthven begged to differ. The estimable James Pirie, native of Ruthven and chronicler of its history, took his story of subsequent events from the eyewitness accounts of people who had participated in them.
When the raiding party from Cairnie arrived at the Clochren Bridge at the western entrance to the village, the Wow o’ Riven was used to sound the alarm, “calling upon her devoted people to come to the rescue”. They did exactly that, running to the bridge from their houses and the surrounding fields.
There were young folk and old folk, men armed with sticks and pitchforks, women with stones gathered in their aprons. They used those to pelt the cart which had been brought to carry off the bell. When this conveyance was smashed to pieces, the would-be raiders of the Ruthven bell retreated in disarray and the Battle of Clochren Bridge was declared a resounding victory for the home side.
The bell was certainly worth having. Believed to have been forged in the Low Countries 300 years ago, it’s been noted by various writers over the centuries to have a very fine tone. Ruthven’s 21st century inhabitants can confirm that it still does. In recent years some of the village’s younger and more high-spirited residents have taken to ringing in the New Year in the traditional way.
Loud enough to waken the dead? Well, no. Their work done, all those people who called Ruthven home remain undisturbed, cradled in the soft green grass of this most peaceful corner of the North-East.
MAGGIE CRAIG lives happily in deepest Aberdeenshire. When not penning novels about people who never existed, she loves to write about real people who’ve been dead for the past few hundred years. She would be delighted to hear more tales about Ruthven and its kirkyard.Tweet
This is an article from the September 2005 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.