Belhelvie is a rural parish where agricultural industries are the mainstays of the local economy. Crops such as turnips, potatoes and hay are raised on the 14,000 cultivated acres of the parish. Grain was in particularly plentiful supply during the seventeenth century, and indeed after the famines of the 1690s excess grain reserves remained in the parish. The famous Aberdeenshire stock of cattle is raised in the parish among other breeds, and a certain number of sheep. In the seventeenth century it was common for teams of up to twelve animals to be working the ploughs in Belhelvie. Indeed the last of these 'twal owsen' (twelve ox) ploughs appears to have been used in 1785 by a tenant farmer of Millden. Although the plough was handed over to Marischal College for preservation it has since decayed. Ploughing with horses continued and indeed, it was not until 1920 that the first tractor appeared in the parish.
When the Board of Agriculture carried out a survey in the early nineteenth century they found that the Mains of Orrok was the heaviest stocked farm in all of Great Britain and Ireland. Apparently the same farm produced just less than 45 tons of swedes per acre without the use of artificial manures. In 1953-54 there were 119 tractors working the land of the parish: 4370 acres tilled, 4642 acres in grass, 100 acres in permanent grass, 1049 acres of rough grazing, 101 horses, 1176 dairy cattle, 2408 beef cattle, 2602 sheep, 1979 pigs, 48,800 poultry. The farming industry is suffering a well-known decline, largely at the expense of small-holdings, and the decrease in the number of farms in the parish has reflected this. The number has shrunk from 154 farms in the 1960s to around 90 in the 1980s, and even fewer now. In addition, outbreaks of animal illnesses and changing legislation have also affected the viability of agricultural lifestyle, particularly cattle-farming.
Belhelvie parish has relied on the land and the sea to provide most of its commodities. However there has also been work for millers, blacksmiths and miners. In the early days none of these people were safe from the censure of the minister. In 1606 for example all the parish millers were summoned to appear before the presbytery to agree never to work on the Sabbath again. If they failed to keep this promise they were to pay up to £20 to the kirk treasurer. This strict social control was still being practised the following century. In 1703 the cloth 'bletchers' (bleachers) were rebuked for working on their cloths on Sundays.
There were at least five mills in the parish where the all-important oats for oatmeal and whins for horse and cattle feed were ground. These were the Mill of Blairton (the ecclesiastical lands of Blairton around the old kirk also held a mill), the Mill of Eggie, the Mill of Ardo, the Mill of Menie and the Mill of Potterton. Although the Potterton mill remained open until 1966, most of the others had ceased by the end of the nineteenth century. Certainly by 1877 only two millers were listed living and active in Belhelvie parish. Similarly there had been at least five smithies in the parish: at Menie, at the Service Station in Balmedie, at Cadger's in Belhelvie, at Whitecairns, and at Middle Ardo. The last two became stores for farmers. There were still four blacksmiths active in 1877, but only the Menie smith remained operational until the 1990s. The parish boasts its only surviving doocot on Orrok Estate, which used to contain circa 400 nests. However, the Register of the Great Seal reveals that there also used to be a doocot at Menie around 1629. Pigeon dung was a rich and prized fertiliser, and was used along with saltpetre as an ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder.
Mining of some sort was an old occupation in Belhelvie parish. The earliest surviving mentions of gold and silver deposits date from the seventeenth century, and both Belhelvie and Foveran apparently held these ores. Two memorandi left, one by Robert Seton noted as 'commonly of Mexico', and the other by Sir Robert Sibbald as told to Colonel Borthwick, reveal quite specifically the presence of a gold mine. 'There is a gold Mine very rich, in a husband toun, called Overhill in the parish of Belhelvie, that belongs to my Lord Glames, three fathoms, beneath the kyln, that is at the head of the In-town'. There has not been too much gold found since and it is unlikely that there will be a gold-rush to Overhill in the twenty first century!
However, it is mining, or quarrying of the more common sort, for stone, which Belhelvie is still known for. The oldest established and most important brickwork in the district in the early twentieth century was the Seaton Brick and Tile Company, which was based at Strabathie, near the Black Dog. The Company appears to have been inaugurated in August 1898, about 3 1/2 miles from the New Bridge of Don on the Ellon turnpike. Aberdeen city's brickworks had already developed in the 18th century, when brick-making was based at Clayhills, north of the Dee River, and at Seaton in Old Aberdeen. There was a brickworks run by Mr Alexander Smith in 1773, but it is not on Milne’s 1789 map, indicating that it was a short-lived business. The Seaton works, which were run by Alexander Annand & Company, do figure on Taylor’s map from 1773, and there was apparently a second little-known brickworks in Seaton too.
The Seaton Company was evidently a large one as they had two brickworks at Torry - Plaidy and Esslemont - and one at Dryleys, Montrose. The company expanded first to Torry in 1883, but moved to Strathbathie when the clay at Torry was exhausted. At that point other establishments were given up to concentrate on Strathbathie. In 1903 Mr Alexander Smith managed the company, with the support of foreman Mr John Grant. Circa 100 people were employed at Strabathie, which could turn out 5 million bricks, 1,750,000 drainpipes and various other items annually. The company constructed a special light railway about three and a half miles long to take bricks from Strabathie to their depot at the Bridge of Don, using some adapted old horse tramway cars. The company lasted a good 20 years until the clay gave out. Brick making became a successful business and in the 19th century more brickworks sprang up in and around Aberdeen: Torry Brickworks Company (ca.1849-1876), Northern Patent Brick and Tile Works, Pitmuxton (ca.1867-1883) which moved to Torry and carried on till 1890. There was also the Esslemont Brick and Tile Company; Gray & Marr at Ellon; Fyvie family-run Turriff based drainpipe manufacturers; Peter Mortimer & Company & Kennow at Huntly and a tile works in Logie Buchan. This was when Annand & Company at Old Seaton was changed into Seaton Brick & Tile Company. Sometime before 1803 George Allan took over from Robert Cay (mentioned in 1778 as the tenant of Annand).
In 1919 a granite quarry was opened in Belhelvie, known as Balmedie quarry, on a smallholding previously known as Park of Balmedie. Initially royalties were paid to Captain Lumsden of Balmedie House, but upon the Captain's death in 1932 the Council purchased the quarry and the land it lay on. In 1926 the first stone cottages were built along what became known as Council Terrace to house the quarrymen and their families, followed by Scott Terrace in 1930. By this time the quarry had become the dominant employer in Belhelvie, which had been exclusively a farming area before that. Explosive charges were fired twice a day, at noon and in the evening. I nitially the broken rock was transported to where it was needed, at which point it was further broken down manually. Then the quarry began to supply crushing and tarmacadaming services. Indeed the Ellon road, between the Bridge of Don and Menie, was one of the first to be treated with supplies from Balmedie quarry. In 1936 the Provost Road, which goes past the derelict Victoria Hall, was the first to benefit from the new Tar Metal. In addition to this commercial sandpits were dug in the parish in the 1930s to serve the need for cement. Twenty years later there were workings at Millden, Wester Hatton and Blackdog, producing an annual supply of thousands of tons of sand.
Being a coastal community naturally the sea has been a major source of industry and food. Navigation skills were taught at the parish school in 1840, reflecting the importance of the nautical occupation. Salmon fishing and pearl-fishing have also played their part in supplying the inhabitants with food and commodities. There were five Coast Salmon Fisheries established at Black Dog, Millden, Balmedie, Blairton and Menie, working with stake-net or bag and fly nets which could only be attended tide-permitting. The Blairton fisheries were Crown property. Already in 1840 Reverend Forsyth noted the unpredictable supply of fish, and by 1957 they had indeed become scarce and the industry declined by the end of the 20th century. Remains have been found of three 'ice houses' on Millden, Eigie and Menie Links. The one at Millden is located at the burn mouth on Hatton of Millden farm and functioned as a partially subterranean store for fish from the salmon fishery that was based at the burn mouth. The dangerous currents along Balmedie beach made netfishing a life-threatening occupation. On 23 July 1930 four fishermen set out from a salmon bothy near the natural feature known as 'the Black Dog' to check their nets, but only two returned. One of the survivors was a Belhelvie man, Alexander Moir, and the other three were from Johnshaven, Tarves and Gourdon.
Any profession involving the sea is a hazardous one. It was not unusual for boats to become stranded off the Belhelvie shore and the Belhelvie Company of Coastguards was formed in 1878 to deal with such problems. In the twentieth century they won three national rescue shields: in 1948, in 1966 jointly with Collieston, and in 1974 along with Aberdeen and Cruden Bay. 45 ships were stranded in the area over the previous half century. The following cases of the lifeboat and coastguard teams in action exemplify the treacherous nature of the waters around the Belhelvie shoreline. In 1900, the schooner Mary grounded while transporting coals from Sunderland to Banff. Her crew of four were later picked up in their lifeboat by the steam trawler North American which belonged to the Aberdeen-based North Line, and the men were safely brought into Aberdeen. In July 1948 Belhelvie received the shield for life saving from Sir Lionel Wells for rescuing 12 men off the trawler Northman earlier in the year. The honour of receiving the shield was repeated in 1966 when Douglas Jay, MP and President of the Board of Trade awarded it to the Belhelvie and Collieston Coastguard. They rescued 6 men by breeches buoy when their fishing boat, Semnos II, became stranded on 16th December 1966. A decade later the two brothers Troup, Alex and John, who had both served fifty years in the Belhelvie Auxiliary Coastguards, were awarded their second clasps on 7th December 1977. Their father before them had also received a long-service medal. Several other vessels have come ashore in recent decades, as reports in the local press archives attest. Given the nature of the sea it is unlikely that Balmedie beach has seen its last wreck.
As the parish entered the 19th century, Scotland had become a place concerned with statistics and lists. The first statistical account of the nation had been completed and a second would be commissioned mid-century. However, these were not the only sources of useful information on parish life.
Aspects of parish life in the 19th and 20th centuries:
The electoral rolls for 1832 to 1860 provide evidence of the size and growth of Belhelvie parish, and the limited number of people who were allowed the vote. The polling place for Belhelvie was Ellon, unlike today’s use of Balmedie Leisure Centre and Potterton Community Centre. The increasing number of tenants and owners in Belhelvie was also reflected in the census information. The parish reached the peak of its population numbers (until the end of the last century) in 1881 when the figures listed 1850 people living in the parish.
1832 28 3 1
1837 32 2 1
1860 66 6 1
The inhabitants of the early 19th century were very well-furnished with local services, perhaps even better than their modern counterparts. In 1877 the local postmaster was one David Donald, and letters arrived from Aberdeen twice a day at 7.30 am and 5.25 pm, and were similarly despatched twice daily at 8 am and 11.20 am. There were three grocers and drapers, one merchant, five salmon fishers, one surgeon, two tailors and drapers, one gardener, one potter, and two wrights. Despite the seven inns or alehouses serving the parish, the minister still described his parishioners as 'intellectual, sober, moral and religious'. In the late 18th century, on Francis Douglas’s tour of Scotland he had noted that the people 'of the north do not use the tenth part of the spirits consumed in the south and the west, but drink, generally, more and better ale'. However Alexander Innes, another factor on the Earl of Panmure's estates officially recorded 'mony trystes' with Aberdeenshire merchants in local taverns in order to secure good bargains for the produce he was selling. The implication was that the locals were not averse to taking a drink or two. Three of these inns were Gateside, Westfield and Chance Inn. In 1877 there were two spirit dealers in Belhelvie parish: one at the Roadside Inn, the other at Whitecairns. Shepherds driving their flocks into market in Aberdeen used to stop at the Whitecairns Hotel, and the oft-used sheep pens of that establishment were still in evidence in 1947. There was also a weighbridge in place until 1950 and the hotel keeper, Mrs. Rose, was responsible for running this service, particularly for the hay lorries.
In addition there were three annual fairs held in the parish, in spring, summer and autumn, which were largely focused on the sale of cattle. In 1887, just ten years after the new Belhelvie kirk was completed, the Victoria Hall was built with a seating capacity of 400. The Hall was the scene of the annual Salmon Fishers’ Ball and other regular social events. For a time it also housed a library, but this service was soon taken over by branches of the County Library. It now lies derelict and has been superseded by a new parish hall next to the manse.
The kirk session records for this time are very revealing as to the personal lives of certain parishioners. According to Reverend Forsyth the kirk was 'commonly packed to contain between 600 and 700' despite there only being provision for 519 seated. As this was the century of the disruption and there were three separate churches and congregations operating in the parish, a comparison of the various minutes shows that the session clerk for the Kirk of Scotland was most meticulous in recording cases of adultery, ante-nuptual fornication and illegitimate births. The kirks at Shiels and Potterton however note mainly the sermons delivered by their ministers and financial affairs such as gatherings for particular schemes. This either highlights an extreme discrepancy in the moral standards of the congregations, or more plausibly reflects the attention to detail of the session clerks!
The register of marriages and births for the parish is another useful source for learning more about parish life. In 1888 these eight weddings were registered:
Alexander Troup at Menie Garage
The 20th century saw improvements in living standards brought into the parish. Of the water in the parish, some of it is described as 'strong chalybeates, others impregnated with sulphuret of iron'. Before World War II most of the water in the parish was drawn from wells. By the 1950s there was a scheme in place to obtain water from springs west of Mains of Potterton. Most of the drinking water in the parish comes from Turriff, through a 40-mile pipeline. In 1937 Grampian Electricity Supply Company ran a high-tension line from Kintore to Ellon through Ardo, and then Ardo House and East Cannahars were connected, but by 1957 there were still many in the parish who had not been connected.
For medical services the parish now looks to Aberdeen, and Ellon, whereas until the twentieth century there was a resident physician. However, in 1934 the people of Belhelvie undertook to pay for the maintenance of a resident district nurse, providing board and lodging and a bicycle - later replaced by a second-hand car, and ultimately a van. The County Council took over administration of the nurse in 1948 and a house was built for the person so employed.
Balmedie was not the only retail venue in the parish during the first half of the 20th century. Whitecairns had a shop with a post-office, and there were also a tailor’s and a cobbler’s shop along with a working millwright located at Joiner’s Croft. Other employment came through Belhelvie’s connections with the military, which remained active as the parish provided the Black Dog Rifle Range. This is situated on the Wester Hatton Links in 1927 for the use of the Gordon Highlanders, who were based at the Bridge of Don Barracks. In the past it has hosted the annual 'Wappenschaw' where anyone could compete for a prize, but which became largely restricted to the military and the police in recent times. One of the prizes reflected local history: it was given in honour of Reverend Alexander Forsyth and his contribution to firearms evolution.
The parish newsletters and local papers contain a wealth of information and detailed accounts of the events which have coloured life in Belhelvie during recent times, but these will have to await the attentions of a future history project.