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Balmerino and its abbey : a parish history with notices of the adjacent district online

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2 feet, the length 2 feet 9 inches, the breadth at one end equal
to the length, and 20 inches at the other end. Its axis extended
from north-west to south-east, and the eastern end was the
broader of the two. Each of the sides of the cist consisted of a
single rough slab, except the north side, which was formed by the
natural rock. The bottom was composed of clay of a slightly
greenish tinge. The urn was found in the south-east corner of





the cist, lying on its side. It measured 5i inches in height,
6^ inches in its greatest diameter, and 5-i inches across the
mouth. Its outer surface was covered with bands of the
'herring-bone' 1 ornamentation so common on ancient British
urns ; and under the upper edge were four low, unpierced knobs
or ' ears. 1 The cist contained no bones or charcoal, nor any-
thing but the urn, which was empty. This having been care-
fully removed, the upper slab of the cist was replaced, and the
whole covered over with soil. The cist appeared to belong to
the Bronze Age. There were indications of the existence of
other cists near the same spot, which have not yet been ex-
cavated. In connection with the urn thus discovered, it is
worthy of notice that a cist was found in 1860 at Mill of
Invergowrie, containing an urn very similar to it, and placed
also in its south-east corner, such a position probably indicating
some symbolic meaning now unknown. 1

On Battle Law, also, cairns existed at a former period which
have been cleared away ; and near by, if not in connection
with, these cairns have been found 'stone coffins, bones, and
pieces of broken swords/ 2 Many years ago mounds in a small
plantation called the ' Graves Wood, 1 at the east end of the
village of Gauldry, on being opened up were found to contain
a stone coffin. About the year 1820 several stone coffins of
red sandstone, and in 1839 two stone coffins, were found near
the same spot, about fifty yards north of the Newport road,
and opposite ' Graves Wood. 1 South of the farmhouse of
Peashills, about a mile and a half north-east of Battle Law,
two pieces of gold, of the combined value of oC14 sterling,
were found, one of them in 1818, and the other in 1826. ' One
piece was in the form of a ball, and appeared to have been
the knob usuallv attached to the hilt of a sword 1 ; the other
a small portion of which is preserved at Naughton, the
greater part having been sold by the finders and melted

1 Froc. Soc. A nt i i], (Scot.), vi. p. 394.

2 New Statistical Account of Bal merino, p. 587.


has been described as 'a hollow cylinder, of a curved form,
tapering towards each end, and having three rows of raised
reticulated work from one end to the other on the outer side
of the curve. 1 It had also a rod of copper running through
it. Opinions differed as to whether it had adorned a helmet,
a breastplate, or a sword handle. 1 Cairns or mounds at the
same place were found to contain several human skulls, each
being enclosed within a square cist of undressed slabs of stone.
The spot is indicated on the map of the Ordnance Survey.
These various memorials are supposed to be relics of some battle
fought in the locality, but their age is difficult to determine.

On the summit of the Greenhill, west of Cultra, may still
be seen what appears to be the lower part of an ancient cairn,
which has not been explored. It is a circular heap of loose
stones, about fifty feet in diameter, the outer ring being
formed of large stones set on edge. Another cairn is said
to have existed on the top of Airdie Hill, on Grange farm,
before the field was brought under cultivation. Between
Birkhill House and the Tay clay urns were discovered many
years ago. On Gallowhill there were several cairns which,
when cleared away, were found to contain urns, none of which
could be preserved. The Gallowstone on the top of Cultra
Hill is said to have been at one time twice its present size,
and to have rested on smaller stones in short, to have some-
what resembled a dolmen or cromlech. Perhaps its later
name conceals its original purpose. Marks of a boring-tool
which it bears show that it was blasted with gunpowder when,
many years ago, it was reduced to its present dimensions by
some persons who expected to find treasure under it.

In the neighbouring parishes, also, many relics have from
time to time been discovered, which supply additional illus-
trations of the customs of the ancient inhabitants of the

1 N. S. A., p. 587 ; and Leighton's History of Fife, ii. 77.


In the parish of Flisk were found many years ago on the
hillside, and on the farms of East Flisk and Balhelvie, ' several
rude stone coffins, with urns in them containing burnt bones.
The urns were a mixture of clay and rotten rock baked in
the sun, and most of them fell to pieces on being exposed
to the air. Burnt bones were also discovered in a cairn of
stones on the top of Whirly Kip (or rather, perhaps, Whit-
law-cap), a conical rising ground on Fliskmill farm.'' 1

In Creich parish, about a century ago, there were found
' in a rising spot of ground near the Manse two brown jars,
with their bottoms upwards, and a broad stone laid on each,
containing human bones."" 2 Two urns were discovered many
years ago ' a little to the west of the present house of Par-
broath, and two stone coffins a little to the east of it. Urns
have also been found on the lands of Balmeadowside. All
these were deposited on knolls, and contained human bones. 13
In the year 1816, on the farm of Upper Luthrie, were found,
8 or 10 inches below the surface, two concentric circles of
stones, from 1| to 2| feet high, with a cylindrical stone
pillar of similar height in the centre ; and near to this pillar
two slabs with sculptures in relief on them, one of which
was sent to the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries, Edin-
burgh, where it may still be seen. In the following year
another monument very similar to this was found about 500
yards east of it, and was for better preservation carefully re-
moved by the Reverend Alexander Lawson to a spot behind
C'reich manse, where it still remains, with the stones replaced
in their original relative positions. It consists of two con-
centric circles, with a cylindrical sandstone, 14 inches in height
and 1 foot in diameter, in the centre. The outer circle
contains thirty - two, and the inner one sixteen stones,
about 1| foot in height, and from 8 to 18 inches in breadth
those occupying the cardinal points being larger than the

1 A'. S. A. Flisk, 60 1. 2 O. S. A. Creich, iv. 230.

3 N. S. A. Creich, 644.


others. The stones of both circles are placed close to each
other, edge to edge. The diameter of the outer circle is about
15, and that of the inner one about 6 feet. Due south of the
central cylinder, and between it and the inner circle, were placed
horizontally two slabs, with figures carved on them in high
relief, and well executed. The remaining space between the
centre and the inner circle was laid with pavement. The space
between the two circles was unpaved. The stones of the inner
circle were of sandstone, which does not occur in that locality.
Those of the outer circle were of the whinstone of the neigh-
bourhood. Under one of the sculptured stones were found
small burnt human bones and ashes. They were not enclosed
in a cist, nor was there any building under the surface. Certain
of the figures cut on one of the slabs of this monument are
very similar to the figures on the sculptured slab of the one
already mentioned. There are what appear to be representa-
tions of the soles of a pair of shoes, a circle with a cross within
it the limbs of the cross being at right angles to each other
which may be intended to represent a wheel. On one of the
stones is the figure of a spade. What the other figures repre-
sent is more uncertain. The sculptures raise difficult questions
in regard to the time of the erection of these monuments.
It is evident that cremation had been then practised at Creich,
though the degree of culture and art indicated by the sculp-
tures seems to point to a time subsequent to the abolition
of this pagan custom elsewhere. The last-mentioned monu-
ment, with the accompanying sculptured slabs, the sculptured
slab of the first-mentioned monument, and a piece of whin-
stone shaped like the frustum of a cone, perforated by a round
hole, and having a projecting ear at its greater end, found
near the same place, are all figured in the Edinburgh Maga-
zine for December 1817, which also, as well as the New
Statistical Account of Creich, contains a description of then),
of which the foregoing account is a summary.

In 1845 there were found about a quarter of a mile south of


o o


IN 1845.

Fig. 1.

Fig *.



these monuments, and about 500 yards north-east of Carphin
House, twenty-two urns. Fourteen of them were set in a
straight line running from east to west, and about 3 feet
apart, with the exception of the two farthest west, which were
distant 5 feet from each other. The others were placed in
various positions near them. All were found about a foot and
a half from the surface, and one contained pieces of charred
wood. Both the forms and the ornamentation of the urns
were different. One was placed with its mouth uppermost,
and had a lid upon it. Most of the others had their mouths
inverted, and all of them contained bones and black earth.
In one there was a ' cup "* filled with earth, without bones.
The cup was very small, being only If inch in height, and
2f inches in breadth. Another was ' cradle-shaped. 1 1

In 1847, about 150 yards from the site of one of the
above-mentioned stone circles, there were found six inverted
urns without cists, and all close to each other, but in no regular
order. One rested on a small flagstone, and the others on the
rock. 2

In Kilmany parish ' a considerable number of stone coffins
have been dug up behind the farmhouse of Starr. A few
earthen vessels with bones were found on the farm of Drumnod,
and one of the same description at Kilmany. ' 3 In the highest
part of Drumnod Wood are remains of three stone circles
not far from each other. Their position is marked on the
Ordnance Survey Map. One of them, which is tolerably dis-
tinct and complete, is about 15 yards in diameter. A few
years ago two trenches were dug across its interior space,
through its centre, and at right angles to each other, for the
purpose of ascertaining whether it contained sepulchral de-
posits ; but nothing whatever was found. The stones of this
circle are only about 2 feet in height. Of the other two circles
the traces are very indistinct.

1 Proc. Soc. Antiq. (Scot.), vii. 404. ~ Ibid., p. 406.

;! N. S. A. Kilmany, 544.


Forgan parish contained in 1838 ' several cairns or tumuli
composed of small stones, in conspicuous situations, but they
had not been thoroughly explored.' A few urns were found
some years earlier in cutting the public road at Newport. 1 About
the same time, on the heights south of Northfield farm -stead ing,
in a cairn of stones surrounded by a ' circular work of earth,'
was discovered a large-sized coffin composed of slabs of * roughly
polished yellow sandstone,' containing a great quantity of bones. 2
Near West wood was found in 1855 a ' stone coffin composed of
rude undressed flags of whinstone. It contained bones, but no
urn.' In 1865, at Westwood also, eight urns were found, at
depths from 8 to 20 inches, arranged in the form of an uncom-
pleted circle, with another urn in the centre. The circle was 14
feet in diameter. The form and ornamentation of the urns were
different in all. Five of them were inverted. A small urn was
found within a larger one. Another had a slightly larger one
partly placed within it in an inverted and reclining posture, and
contained adult and infant burnt bones mixed together, which
were conjectured to be those of a parent probably a mother
and child. All contained burnt human bones, and burnt ashes
were placed around them for protection. Amongst the ashes
encircling one of them were found particles of ears of gi'ain. 3
This and some of the other examples previously noticed show
that the people whose memorials they are buried their dead
not singly nor indiscriminately, but in spots selected for the
purpose. At Tayfield, in 1870, there were found in an urn,
which was enclosed in a stone cist, fragments of a necklace,
consisting of a series of plates of jet or shale, and alternating
rows of beads, which, so far as recovered, when joined together,
formed a beautiful work of art. A separate triangular piece
was probably a pendant attached to the middle of the neck-

1 A'. S. A. Forgan, 508.

1 Proc. Sue, Antiq. (Scot.\ vi. 392. In the Ordnance Survey Map the cairn is
marked 'Sitto/a Roman camp (supposed).' s Jbid., 388.





lace. 1 In 1882 there were found on the estate of Tayn'eld
' two cinerary inverted urns containing partially calcined
bones. 1 2 A few years ago stone coffins were laid hare on the
Castle hill at Newton in course of the removal of part of it in
connection with railway and other operations. About the same
period a similar discovery was made on the east side of, and
close to, the public road leading from Newton to Worm it,
at the point where the Balmerino road strikes oft' from it ;
and many years previously stone coffins were found about 50
yards distant from the same spot, on the south side of the
Balmerino road.

In the extensive sandy plain called Tents Moor, in the
parishes of Leuchars and Ferry-port-on- Craig, many relics have
been found of a prehistoric population. ' How rich it is in these
remains ' to quote a recent writer ' is known not to the casual
visitor, but to the frequenter of this unpromising waste. Its
light and shifting surface is peculiarly adapted for hiding, and
so preserving, interesting relics. ' A windy day long ago would
cover them over with sand-drift ; and a windy day now will
expose them, often as fresh in appearance as when they were in
use. It is no uncommon thing for the wanderer to find lying
on the surface a flint instrument from the new Stone Age
which yesterday's gale had laid bare. Fragments of ancient
pottery, including cinerary urns, abound on the Tayport side ;
and here and there, chiefly towards the Eden, kitchen-middens,
formed of the shells of edible molluscs, add their chapter of
ancient history." 1 3

Remains still exist of several hill forts on the chain of
heights extending along the North of Fife in a line parallel
to the Firth of Tay, and forming the eastern portion of the
Ochil range. One of these may be seen on the Black Cairn
south of Newburgh, consisting of a circular rampart of loose

1 Proc. Soc, Antiq. (Scof.), viii. p. 412. 2 Ibid., xvii. 272.

3 J. H. Crawford's article on ' Fifeshire ' in the Scottish Review for January


stones and earth. On Clachard Crag, south-east of Newburgh,
there is a much more extensive work, composed of several con-
centric walls of stones and earth. On the summit of Norman's
Law is another fort, having two circular and concentric ramparts
of loose stones enclosing a considerable extent of nearly level
ground. On the Greencraig, in the parish of Creich, there are
two similar concentric mounds of stone extending round the
hill, except where it is precipitous one at the summit, and the
other at some distance below it. Near the western boundary
of the St. Fort woods, in Forgan parish, there is an ancient
fort or camp still in good preservation. It is of an oval shape,
and consists of several concentric ramparts and ditches. Its
length over all, from east to west, is about 115, and within the
lines about 42 yards. On the north side it is defended by a
steep slope, with a small sheet of water at its base ; and on the
south side by a gentler declivity, which, however, has been cut
by the public road leading to Leuchars. It is probable that
before this road was formed, the camp was much more extensive
on that side than it now is. Strange to say, this camp is not
noticed either in the Old or the New Statistical Account of

As regards the people whose memorials in the North of Fife
have thus been described, it is now generally agreed that the
British Islands have been occupied by several races who landed
on their shores successively, but at long intervals of time.
Probably the first which left any vestiges of its presence was a
dark-haired non-Aryan race, akin to the Basque or Iberian people
of the north-west provinces of Spain. They used implements and
weapons of stone, but none of metal ; and buried their dead in
the chambered cairns and the long barrows which have been
found in many parts of Britain. The people who followed
them were of the Celtic race, and formed that branch of it
known as the Goidelic or Gaelic. It was probably they who
introduced the use of bronze implements, and buried their dead
in the round cairns. Thev were followed bv another branch







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of the Celtic race, kindred in blood and language to the
people of Gaul, and distinctively known as Britons. Both
Gaels and Britons arrived before the dawn of history. About
the commencement of the Christian era the Iberian race was
still represented in Britain by the people of South Wales
and of the south-west of England, where and, in the opinion
of some, in certain parts also of Ireland and the Scottish
Highlands, their descendants may still be recognised. At the
same period the Britons were in possession of the greater part
of our island south of the Firth of Forth and Clyde, and also
of the central territory noi'th of these estuaries extending to
the river Tay. Their modern representatives are the Cymric
people of Wales, and, on the Continent, the inhabitants of
Brittany. The Gaels, according to the opinion of most
writers on this subject, still occupied the remainder of Scot-
land, including Fife.



' The North remained untouched, where those who scorned
To stoop retired ; and, to their keen effort
Yielding at last, recoiled the Roman power.'


THE first recorded event in the history of the North of Fife
is that related by Tacitus in his very interesting Life of the
Roman general Agricola, when he describes its inhabitants as
ga/ing with astonishment and terror on a Roman fleet sailing
up the Firth of Tay. This incident took place in the year 83,
and how it came about may be briefly told.

Though Julius Caesar had landed in Kent in the year
55 B.C., no vigorous effort to subdue the island was made for
nearly a century afterwards. But in A.D. 43 the Emperor
Claudius sent his lieutenant, Aulus Plautius, into Britain for
this purpose. Under him and subsequent generals the Roman
legions appear to have advanced during the next thirty-five
years to the southern boundary of the territory now forming
Scotland. In the year 78 Agricola was sent to govern Britain.
During his third summer in the island which coincided with
the year 80 he led his army northwards as far as the estuary
of the Taus, or Tay. The fourth summer was spent in con-
structing a chain of forts between the Firths of Forth and
Clyde, and the fifth in exploring the west coast, opposite
Ireland. During the following summer that is, of 83
Agricola, having with his army * encompassed the states (or
territories of the tribes) situated beyond the Forth, explored
their harbours with his fleet. 1 At the same time the Roman


infantry, cavalrv, and marines frequently mingled together in
camp, and, as warriors will do, boastfully compared the exploits
they had severally performed, and the dangers and hardships
they had encountered by sea and land. These statements,
when taken along with other parts of the narrative of Tacitus,
appear to indicate that the scene of Agricola's military opera-
tions was the peninsula of Fife. That these operations, how-
ever, were of a rapid character, seems probable from the absence
of well authenticated Roman camps in the county, with the
exception of one which is said to have existed at Loch Ore,
but has been destroyed. Agricola learned from some of the
natives who had been taken prisoners, that their countrymen
had been astounded bv the appearance of the Roman fleet
penetrating into the recess or secluded part of their sea
tamquam aperto marls mil wcreto as depriving the vanquished
of their last refuge. This statement can hardly be otherwise
interpreted than as signifying that the fleet had sailed up the
Firth of Tay, an incident which must have created intense
excitement on both sides of the estuary. But the vigorous
attacks made by the natives on the forts which had l>een
erected by the Romans apparently in the territory west of
Fife, which they had overrun in their third campaign so
alarmed them, that many counselled an immediate retreat
beyond the Forth, in order to prevent their forcible expulsion. 1
The site of the battle of Mons Grampius or Graupius, subse-
quently fought, in which Agricola defeated 30,000 Caledonians,
has been claimed, amongst other places, for the neighbour-
hood of the West Lomond Hill ; but the real scene of this
great conflict was almost certainly the district of Stormount,
in Perthshire. After this victory Agricola withdrew his forces
into the territory of the Horesti,' 2 which some have identified
with Fife ; but it appears to have been really the district
situated between the river Tav and the Forth, in which the

1 Tacitus, Vita Agric., cc. 23-25. a Ibid., c. 38.



eastern half of Fife was not included. An earthen jar was
discovered in 1808 at Craigiehill, in the parish of Leuchars,
containing nearly a hundred silver coins in perfect preservation,
stamped with the heads of the Roman Emperors Severus,
Antoninus, and others. A silver coin of the reign of Tiberius
was found about seventy years ago in good condition near the
village of Balmerino. 1 These facts suggest the probability,
though they do not establish the certainty, of the presence of
the Romans at some period in the North-East of Fife.

From the Geography of Ptolemy, which was written about
the year 120, we learn that at that time Scotland was possessed
by eighteen tribes more or less distinct, and that one of these,
the Vernicomes, or Venicorites, occupied the eastern half of
Fife along with Angus and Mearns. They had one town
named Orrea, the site of which is uncertain. Ptolemy places
the river Tinna between the Forth and the Tay, in a position
corresponding to that of the Eden. Of the tribe of the Horesti
he makes no mention. 2

The Caledonian tribes, 3 including the Vernicomes of East
Fife, are described by Tacitus and subsequent classical authors
as a large-limbed, red-haired race. The tribes rarely combined
for mutual defence. They had no walled towns, but lived in
tents. They subsisted on flesh and milk, and the natural pro-
ducts of the soil ; and did not practise tillage. Some of these
statements, however, could only have been applicable to the
most uncivilised parts of the country. There still exist in many
places ' hut-circles,' or mounds slightly raised above the sur-
rounding soil, indicating the foundations of fixed dwellings.
These were constructed of wood, and were of a circular shape,
with thatched roofs tapering to a point. They are sometimes
found in groups, representing villages. If there were no walled

1 N. S. A. Leuchars, 223 ; Small's Rom. Antiq. in l-ife, 237.
* See Giles's Hist. Anc. Britons, \\. (Historical Documents), pp. 99, 100.
1 The term Caledonia was applied by Roman writers to the country north of the
Firths of Forth and Clyde. It was derived from the name of the leading tril)e.

Online LibraryJames CampbellBalmerino and its abbey : a parish history with notices of the adjacent district → online text (page 3 of 60)