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While researching my book, The Juniper Key, I came across a lot of information that seemed too good not to share. My inspiration for the story was the Colony, a 19th century squatter community living on common land (the commonty) on Bennachie, a hill in Aberdeenshire. Thanks to Google and the Internet Archive, I came across a reasonably contemporary account of the Colonists and the eventual division of the commonty between local landowners. It gives a good sense of the Colonists and the struggles they faced. The extract below comes from the book ‘Bennachie‘ by Alex. Inkson McConnochie, published in 1890. I have tidied it up a little and removed some of the boundary descriptions. If you would like to find out more about Bennachie, I recommend you visit the Bailies of Bennachie and Forestry & Land Scotland websites.
©Andrew Wood. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Bennachie was, till 1859, a commonty…But now all this is changed… There were any number of rough cart roads in all directions on the hill for the due exercise of the rights indicated, the roads being maintained by those who used them. In those days there were no ” poachers ” as the term is understood now, but the natives regularly shot over Bennachie as a matter of right.
A great feature of the Commonty was found in the “squatters.” These were of the poorest class, people with no home, or who, for some good reason, had to quit their small possessions. Not a few such settled down on the Commonty, and even on ground uncultivated and unused, that, be it observed, strictly speaking, might not have been “commonty,” where they proceeded, from the materials which they found pretty much at hand, to build huts or houses for their own occupation. That was followed up by “rivein’ in a bit gran’ ” to raise a crop, poor enough often, to keep them so far in independence with the small wages they got from the neighbouring farmers for occasional jobs, together with, in some cases, it must be said, petty thefts from their more amply-endowed neighbours. The style of the squatters’ houses may be judged from the fact that, on a certain occasion, the neighbours joined together, and in one day erected a house for a squatter, celebrating the event by a supper the same evening, in the newly erected building. Thus the squatters lived for a time in a no-man’s x land, doubtless so far defeating the original idea of a “Commonty,” but a terrible day of reckoning came.
Could they be blamed, with their limited intelligence, and fixed belief in the popular rights of, commonty, for not seeing the matter in the same light as those who, by and by, claimed to be the proprietors of the habitations their own hands had built (to burn or knock down as they elected), and of the bit of ground they had rescued from nature at the cost of hard and exhausting physical toil? A considerable number had congregated and settled down at the south-east of the Mither Tap on the left bank of Clachie Burn, at a height of about 700 feet, in a spot which ultimately received the name of “the Colony.” On the borders of Oyne and Chapel of Garioch, neither parish would admit, when the Poor Law Act came in force, any connection with ” the Colony,” for the boundary in that neighbourhood was not then very well defined; and it was shrewdly guessed that the “Colonists” would require more assistance from the public funds than they would ever contribute. Ultimately Oyne had to recognise “the Colony” as being within its bounds. The writer once came across a native who was placed in rather a quandary by the action, or rather want of action, of the parochial authorities. The session-clerks of the two contending parishes refused to “proclaim” him on the ground, Chapel of Garioch held, that he resided in Oyne, and Oyne, in Chapel of Garioch. Ultimately the latter proclaimed him as residing in Oyne, Oyne proclaiming him as of Chapel of Garioch!
“The Colony,” which once numbered about fifty-five inhabitants, is now a thing of the past, but thirty years have not sufficed to wipe out the marks of houses, gardens, and cultivated fields. Ruins of houses may yet be seen in plenty, still known by the names of their old possessors, and even garden plants and bushes struggle for existence among the trees that have been planted on the sites. The water supply appears to have been ample, almost each house having its “well,” in some cases in fair order even at the present day. In going over the sites of the buildings a particular ” hen-house ” may still be seen that escaped utter demolition, the “nests” in the walls testifying to its use.
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An old road still exists through “the Colony”; it was the kirk-road for the parishioners in the Tillyfour district of Oyne. South of this road and close to Clachie Burn may still be seen the site of the “Malt Barn,” which was used in connection with illicit whisky running. A little above the “Malt Barn” is a mineral well which was formerly much resorted to, especially on the first Sunday of May. It was believed to be of particular strength and efficacy, and accordingly liberal offerings of pins were made to it.
It is related of a certain “Colonist” that he had a daughter who was so over-diligent in the number of children she added to the population with little consideration as to their fathers, that the clergyman at last demurred to baptising the then latest addition without some particular explanation. The lady did not see her way to meet the church so far, but a “kirsnin’” of some kind being looked upon as essential, her father himself duly performed the ceremony in presence of the neighbours! This was in the time when Rev. Henry Simson, a man of the most estimable character, was parish minister of Chapel of Garioch, and the “Colonist’s” name was Beverley. On one occasion he was telling the story of the “kirsnin’” to a worthy mason who was up at the hill looking out for some lintels and other stones. “Aye, man,” said the mason, whose sense of humour enabled him to enjoy the situation keenly, “an’ fat did ye ca’ the creatur’? It’s a laddie, ye say.” “Fat wud ye think noo, mason?” was Beverley’s response. “Oh, I’ve nae idea.” “Ou weel, I gya’im a gweed strong name ony wye. I jist ca’d ‘im Samson Eesic [Isaac] Beverley.” At a “catechising” the minister asked a young woman, one of the household of a Bennachie squatter, who had recently come from Morayshire, if she knew what the Moral Law was. ” Oh, aye ! ” she replied; “it wis five firlots tae the bowe o’ meal fan I wis in Moray, bit I dinna ken fat it is here.” (There are four firlots in a boll of meal.)
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One of the queerest, and perhaps at the same time most undesirable, characters for a neighbour was one William Jamieson, a sort of social outcast, on the Monymusk side. William finally squatted down in the Quarry Smiddy below Garbit Tap, but he had some experiences further down the hill.
He lived with several other waifs near Bograxie in such a small hut that, it is said, the inmates had to take turn about of the bed. Here he was much annoyed by the youngsters throwing sods down his “lum” at night, and then running off. William would be at the door in a second, swearing and cursing at his tormentors, and crying out, “An it were daylicht as it’s nichtlicht yer feet shudna cairry ye awa!” His favourite means of defence, however, was throwing stones, in which, indeed, he was very liberal, little provocation being required. He had come across a woman, Mary Snowie, who set her cap at him. Mary’s personal appearance was not very much in her favour, and only a husband such as William could be looked for. She led him to understand that there was a cogent reason why he should marry her forthwith, but Jamieson incontinently took to his heels. He swore he would “traivel tae unkent pairts,” even though he should have to go “as far as Buchan,” but it so happened he took the south road. He had got as far as the neighbour-hood of Montrose, when a crow, sitting on a fence, said to him, as he used to relate, “Ye’ll rue! ye’ll rue! ” William took this for a supernatural warning that he would not thrive unless he turned back and married Mary Snowie. So he did turn, and was duly married, but only to find that Mary had deceived him. Thereafter they settled in the “English” Quarry Smiddy, and William was frequently called “Toom Firlots,” a name which he reprobated strongly. He also became known as the “Raven,” and the “Heedie Craw o’ Bennachie.” The “Heedie Craw” subsisted pretty much on his neighbours, to whom he was a great scourge in many ways. He was of an evil disposition, and was continually bringing tenant and laird into collision, his efforts in that way being rewarded, it is said, in the larder of Monymusk House. A favourite expression of his, in regard to a certain individual and his business transactions, was, “He’s fair, but sair.” He was supposed to keep an eye, in his elevated position, on any one who “poached” from the Pittodrie or Logie Elphinstone side on the Monymusk ground. On a particular occasion William was bribed, as he thought, by some sportsmen not to “tell the laird” on them. “A’ richt,” said Willie; “gin ye dinna tell yersels, nae ither body will.” But that was what they forthwith did, with the result that his reputation was considerably damaged where he often got his supplies. He lived about seven years in the old smiddy with his family and died there, Mary afterwards dying in the Poor-house of Oyne.
THE DIVISION OF THE COMMONTY
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“AD 1858.” This inscription, or ear-marking of Bennachie as it might fairly be called, which will be found on the top of the Mither Tap, has puzzled not a few, and many consider it an unwarranted defacement of the mountain. The date should be 1859, and the letters are the initials, respectively, of Balquhain, Pitcaple and Logie-Elphinstone. This was one of the last acts of the dividers of Bennachie, the lairds who, agreeing only among themselves, induced the Court of Session to divide among them the Commonty of Bennachie.
The lairds had only to put forth their hands and receive a mountain, the Court taking care that the bigger the laird the bigger was his share of Bennachie. The public were no parties to the proceedings; indeed, no one seems to have thought that they could possibly have any interest in the partition — nor could even have so much as whispered a dissentient note. Nevertheless, if such a wholesale “appropriation” were attempted now the public would scarcely stand by and allow what was reckoned a “time-immemorial” possession to be divided among half-a-dozen of their number. A certain gentleman, indeed, in the locality was appealed to by several on the south side of the hill in the interest of the public, but nothing was ever done, and it was popularly believed that he had been “bribed” by the lairds.
The division of Bennachie appears legal and final, but there is just a chance that, as Bennachie was long considered a Royal Forest, the fact of the Crown not having been called as a party to the division of the Commonty may yet vitiate the whole proceedings. There is plenty of time to re-open the question — and a re-opening has been talked of frequently — as it will not be till 5th March, 1899, that the landlords will have fortified their position by the uninterrupted possession of the hill for a period of forty years. To many the division of Bennachie seems a stupendous spoliation, a robbery from the public of over four thousand acres — but it would not afford pasturage for a rabbit compared to the great slices of Scotland quietly, and without any legal process, appropriated by the large landowners who had some of the greatest mountains of our country within their grasp. One needs not go further than the south-western corner of Aberdeenshire to see examples of how men have yielded to the cravings of an all- consuming “yird-hunger.”