Although Saint Columba, the Abbot of Iona, is claimed as the titular saint of Belhelvie, there is also a connection with another saint, namely Saint Neachtan. This is most likely a reference to Bishop Nectan, the cleric with a Pictish name who served Aberdeen from 1136 and to whom King David I (1124-1153) made land donations. The Pope subsequently beatified him. The traditional belief in Columba's importance is retained in the name of the pre-Reformation parish kirk, namely St. Colm's. However there is some discussion as to whether it was Saint Columba or Saint Colm(an) who was the actual saint accredited. For example 'St. Colm’s fair' used to be held in Belhelvie at Drumhead on June 9th every year, which was Columba’s day. Although the list of kirks in Pictland belonging to Columba includes Belhelvie, according to some sources it was St Colman who was the patron of Belhelvie. The Aberdeen Breviary itself makes this distinction. Many of the early saints came to Scotland from Ireland, and the martyrology list of Donegal contains 96 separate Saint Colmans, making it difficult to determine exactly which one came to Belhelvie. Colman also established kirks at Oyne, Daviot and Birse a full generation before the arrival of Saint Columba, and at each of these places the name has subsequently been confused with that of the Iona abbot.
The original parish kirk was in the eastern part of Belhelvie near the sea, which probably reflected the original centre of habitation. It was this kirk which claimed Saint Columba as its titular saint, and it was only one of 58 Scottish kirks dedicated to that saint. In addition, a well bearing his name used to lie close to the graveyard, but it has since been dismantled. The basin from the well is now located in the manse garden and was used as a birdbath.
The Auld Kirks:
Before the Reformation there used to be four centres of worship in Belhelvie, but the only visible remains lie near the old parish kirk. Three chapels are known to have existed at Hatton of Millden, Ardo and Meadowbank or Muirton. These were probably dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Fields near the first two are still known as Chapelpark, which confirm the tradition of a pre-Reformation chapel at those places, but already by the 1860s there were no surviving traces of the sites. Similarly, there used to be a burial place at Meadowbank, although again no remains of it are visible today. At the end of the nineteenth century the site of the Catholic chapel at Boggs (Millden) was well-known, but this has since disappeared and the kirkyard dug up in 1836. There was also a ‘chapel spring’ in the area of which no trace remains.
There does not appear to be a specific origin date for the old Belhelvie kirk of St. Colm's, which lies 8 and a half miles north of Aberdeen, which stands on the site of earlier pagan and Roman Catholic centres of worship. The kirk, sometimes called Pettens kirk, was built 'east and west with an aisle on the south side', providing three nearly equal wings. The ‘wood chancel’ in the old kirk was donated by the Wood family of Overblairton. The bell of St Colm's, of which only the bell-tower remains, was made by Henrick Ter Horst in Deventer, The Netherlands, in 1633 and hung in the belfry until the 1960s. A newspaper article from 1964 noted that the bell was still present, although it appears to have disappeared overnight. Lord Tweedsmuir noted in his book, One Man’s Happiness, published in 1968 that it was two years since the bell was stolen. There used to be a holy water stoup from the pre-Reformation times located in the manse garden, although by the mid-1960s this too had gone. In the second half of the seventeenth century, the minister, Mr. Ragg, had the west wall of the kirk rebuilt and his name and the date of building were marked on the bell house. This minister also enclosed the spring to the north of the kirkyard in stone, probably the one known as St. Columba's well. Repairs continued in the early eighteenth century when the kirk was re-roofed and all the pews removed from the inside. There are three surviving communion tokens from the old Belhelvie kirk. Two of these are dated 1723 and 1828 respectively, whilst the third bears an inscription but no date.
The old kirkyard contains two interesting vaults. The larger one is located in the south-west corner of the kirkyard, measuring 20 feet long, 17 feet and 6 inches wide, and 12 feet high. Originally constructed in 1835, and paid for through public subscription, it was first used to hold coffins, before temporarily holding the washed-up bodies of drowned seamen. The smaller vault lies partially submerged in the middle of the kirkyard, and it measures 8 feet 3 inches long, 6 feet 6 inches wide and 5 feet 6 inches high. Although it is older than the large vault, no information survives as to the date and purpose of its construction. It is probably the feature said to have been built by Rev Alexander Forsyth. In earlier days there was a particular fear of body-snatching at the time when bodies were needed for medical studies and the advanced study of anatomy. People indulging in this practice were known as 'Resurrectionists' for their behaviour and kirkyards went through stages of building watch-houses, using mortsafes and finally public vaults to safeguard the newly buried bodies. Once Parliament passed an act in 1832 guaranteeing a supply of corpses for anatomical studies, these defensive measures were no longer needed.
As well as the vaults, the kirkyard contains several interesting tombstones notably that of Alexander James Forsyth, of whom more will be discussed below. In addition there is the grave of W. Duncan, Professor of Philosophy at Marischal College who died when visiting his friend, the aforementioned Reverend Thomas Ragg, at Belhelvie manse in 1760. Duncan was a prolific author, producing, among other things, Discourse on Roman Art of War. He drowned on a morning swim on 1st May. Not only the sands but also the waters of Belhelvie could prove fatal on occasion. In addition, the builder of Marischal College, Alexander Rainnie, who died in 1845, is buried there. Since the building of the new kirk however, St. Colm's has become a ruin. It took a special petition to Aberdeen County Council in 1946 before repairs were finally implemented in the kirkyard. Previously St. Colm's had only been given a low priority rating in terms of a historical monument.
The Reformation and its aftermath:
As with most historical documentation, it is kirk records which afford us most of the information we have on medieval Belhelvie. The parson of Belhelvie became a prebend of Aberdeen cathedral when Richard Pottocht appointed him as such in 1256. This meant that a prebend’s manse was built near the Bishop's Palace in Old Aberdeen, opposite the main entrance to the churchyard where the principal of Aberdeen University is now housed. It was built by George Seton, parson of Belhelvie, whose coat of arms was displayed in the wall. When Aberdeen was burned by English troops during the wars of the reign of King Robert I (Robert the Bruce, 1306-1329), the bishop’s palace and all the prebend’s houses were destroyed. Walter Sury, who served as prebendary in 1321, would have lived through this event. Bishop Spence ensured that the palace and associated manses were all rebuilt. Nothing more is mentioned of Belhelvie until Alexander Lindsay was listed as a rector of Belhelvie who died in 1493. Similarly, mention is made of Gilbert Strachan in 1526 and James Allasone in 1547, but unfortunately all we know of these men is their names and years of service.
There is not much information on how the events of the Reformation impacted on Belhelvie parish. The Scottish Parliament adopted 'Knox’s Confession' in 1560 leading to the establishment of the first General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland. This incarnation of the Kirk was divided over the role of Bishops within it, and the problem was not settled until 1638. In that year Bishops were removed and the Kirk of Scotland became the kirk of the National Covenant. However the transformation from Roman Catholic to Presbyterian parish did not appear to be that difficult for the incumbent clergyman. James Strachan, who must have been an interesting character, is said to have served as the last Roman Catholic parish priest between 1550-1560. In 1559 he was given custody of ‘91 ounces’ of the utensils of Aberdeen's Cathedral. However, another source lists James Strachan as the minister who served Belhelvie from 1567 until 1574, in other words, after the Reformation. This suggests that the same man, with some theological retraining, served the parish during the transitional period between confessions of faith.
This should not really surprise us. Although the date cited for the Reformation in Scotland is usually 1560, it actually took a considerable time for the majority of parishes to be converted from Catholicism. Many of the existing clerics simply remained in place and adapted their services according to the state of the reformation in their area. It is quite possible that James Strachan accepted the new protestant confession and continued in his parish service as before. He was certainly among the signatories on 5th January 1558 to 'counsel given by the dean and chapter of Aberdeen to the bishops' which paved the way for the Reformation to take place in Aberdeen. In addition to his work for the parish, during this period Strachan also held the post of rector of Aberdeen University.
The prebend’s manse in Old Aberdeen was already in a state of ruin by 1573, at which point James VI (or rather his Regent) confirmed James Strachan's donation of the feudal rights of the ecclesiastical lands of Belhelvie to Mr Thomas Gardin and his wife Elizabeth Stewart. Connections between Belhelvie and the prebendary manse seem to have been severed soon after this. King Charles I (1625-1649) confirmed that the lands and belongings of the parson of Belhelvie, as located in Old Aberdeen, were granted to John Rind, a merchant of Edinburgh, in 1642. However, just the following year the parish church of Old Machar had its feudal rights to the Belhelvie mansion confirmed, whilst Gilbert Kirkwood of Pilrig obtained the rights to the parson of Belhelvie's manse there. The Marquis of Huntly ultimately acquired the three lodgings of Belhelvie, Daviot and Forbes and enclosed them to make a large garden, with Belhelvie's manse as the dwelling house.
Most of the surviving written sources for Belhelvie parish, and Aberdeen as a whole, date largely from the end of the sixteenth and the start of the seventeenth centuries, and these kirk records, burgh records, and sheriff court records, all contain interesting information for the parish. The Session Book belonging to the kirk dates from 1623, and the register of baptisms dates from 1627. From these sources we learn that the parish was temporarily attached to the presbytery of Ellon for 23 years from 1645, but there is only one mention of the minister of Belhelvie kirk, David Lindsay, in the Ellon Presbytery records, and this was for an absence due to illness. It was shortly after the death of Lindsay in April 1668 that Belhelvie returned to Aberdeen presbytery.
In 1876 the heritors of the parish first submitted plans for a new kirk in Belhelvie. Mr. Lumsden donated the land and local tradesmen undertook the mason and carpentry work. The present kirk, Belhelvie North at Drumhead as it was known, was completed in 1878 at a cost of £3150, slightly over the original £2622.11 estimate. It contains the anvil that Reverend Alexander Forsyth used between 1805 to 1807 when he was working on his invention, the percussion lock for firearms. In addition there remain some old pewter plates used in the early nineteenth century, marked 'Belhelvie' which are used on Communion Sundays. Belhelvie North Kirk was refurbished in the 1960s and the Forsyth Hall has recently been erected next to the new manse behind the church.
Belhelvie parish was well-served with churches for a time. During the nineteenth century in addition to the established kirk at Belhelvie with Reverend William Thomson, there was the United Presbyterian kirk at Shiels and the Free kirk at Potterton, also known as Belhelvie South. These other churches were formed in response to disputes within the established kirk during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1733 a secession occurred in the Scottish Presbyterian kirk. This in turn led to a breach in the synod, which divided into the anti-burgher associate synod and the burgher associate synod. An alternative church was formed at a farm in Shiels sometime after this. It went by the name of the United Associate Secession Kirk, although the number of 'dissenters', as they were known by the Kirk of Scotland ministers, had always been low. The first 'minister' of the congregation was an itinerant one, Reverend Brown of Craigdam, who made his first visit to Shiels in 1755, which thus linked the kirk into the Craigdam congregation. However the annals of the United Presbyterian Kirk first lists Shiels as a separate congregation in 1760. For a while the kirk at Shiels came under the jurisdiction of the General Associate Presbytery of Elgin.
The congregation built two kirks, the second one of which lay between the Old Balmedie school and the old school at Craigie, Whitecairns. This church seated 330 and was disjoined from Craigdam in June 1782. Before the congregation obtained a permanent pastor, Mr Robert Laing ministered to them, although from 1786 James Andrew became the resident Shiels minister. The second minister David Waddel took over in 1800. He died in 1826 at the age of 71 after 41 years in kirk service and is buried in the old Belhelvie kirkyard. The Shiels session minutes only date from 1828, and one of the first notes refers to the lack of minister. The congregation had been without one for a year and was offering a stipend of £64 along with free accommodation in order to attract a replacement. Already in 1827 the manse garden, offices and land, which had been held by Alexander Waddel, were temporarily given to Alexander Hay, shoemaker, by the Shiels congregation on the understanding that these would be returned if required by the minister.
The third minister to Shiels Kirk was one James Macintosh, who served from 1828 until 1850 and then immigrated to America five years later. The congregations subsequently called two other men unsuccessfully to take up the post before William Gillespie, who had been a missionary in China, accepted the position in 1852. However he resigned in 1855 and it was not until 1857 that Rev. Edward Rankine took over. He was succeeded by Joseph Whyte in 1894, but he resigned in 1905 when the Colonial Committee appointed him to Queensland, Australia. After this point discussions began on merging Shiels with Belhelvie South, or the Potterton kirk.
Not only was there no minister at Shiels thereafter, but the lack of parishioners became a problem for the running of the kirk. In 1908 the United Free Kirk Presbytery of Aberdeen visited Shiels and found only nine people present, of which only one was a regular attender. Although it was initially agreed to maintain Sunday services in both Shiels and Belhelvie South, the weekly sessions at Shiels were first replaced by monthly ones, and eventually they ceased altogether. James Johnstone, the serving minister at Belhelvie South became the senior minister in 1905 when it was decided to merge both congregations. A new minister, Edward Brown arrived soon after to help run the parish. Although Shiels had been a relatively short-lived community, the congregation had been very active in collecting funds for worthy causes. In 1859 monies were collected for the erection of a manse in Shiels. Belhelvie Free Church collected for the colonies and foreign missions between 1860 and 1896. They also collected for specific worthy causes such as the Indian Famine Relief programme in 1877. Other collections were regularly held for the poor in the Highlands and Islands, for the support of the school at Whitecairns, and Aberdeen Infirmary. After the congregation ceased to meet in Shiels kirk in 1905 the building was eventually used as a shelter for storing a threshing mill and traction engine.
Belhelvie South, or Potterton, Kirk:
There had been growing discontent between certain evangelical members of the Kirk of Scotland that led to the disruption in 1843. About 40% of the ministers simply walked out of the General Assembly over issues such as the lack of free choice of new ministers, which had traditionally been the right of landowners. This split the Kirk into two major groups. The disgruntled ministers formed the Free Kirk, as it became known. This new body proceeded to fund the construction of its own kirks, manses and schools, and was able to supply stipends for its clergy. Belhelvie South Kirk, or the former United Free Kirk at Potterton, was built in 1843. Seemingly the congregation originated from a 'company' who worshipped in a barn on a neighbouring farm. The land belonged to Thomas Clapperton, Druggist, who granted its use for the building of a kirk and a school on the condition that it revert to him if these places ceased to function. This was sanctioned by the General Assembly of the Free Kirk of Scotland in 1845 and the first minister appears to have been Reverend Lewis Jack. He preached there for three years, during which time the congregation had grown to 120 souls. Like many Belhelvians, Jack was tempted overseas. He was appointed to Nova Scotia in 1848 and eventually settled and died there. Patrick Calder, who became the minister in 1850, remained for seven years before being appointed by the Colonial Committee to serve in New Zealand. His successor in the parish was James Johnstone, who served at Potterton for 54 years until 1911. By this time the congregation appears not to have increased but the church had been rebuilt with a tower added. As mentioned above, Edward Brown served as the junior of two ministers at Belhelvie South between 1905-1909.
In 1905 David Lawson came to Potterton church from Torry, and we know little more of him than that he was subsequently moved to Glasgow in 1914. There were three rapid successions thereafter: Robert Black preached until 1917, John Adamson Finlay until 1919, and Alexander Gray from 1920-26. John Edgar Sugden Otty, a Congregational minister who was originally from Yorkshire, took up service and remained until 1945. Although the United Free Kirk and the Kirk of Scotland were unified in 1929, the two churches in Belhelvie - North and South - continued to operate separately. It was not until after 1952, when the Potterton minister Reverend William Buchanan moved to Midmar that the two congregations were finally reunited in February 1953. Reverend David Forsyth from the North Kirk became minister to both, although services continued at both kirks for some time. Soon after the final closure of Belhelvie South, Mr and Mrs Scott bought the manse, and the church building went on the market in 1974. After Miss Clapperton of Rutlandshire, the grand niece of Thomas Clapperton, agreed to discharge the charter of 1843, Mr and Mrs Strachan converted the kirk into a private residence in 1984. The closure of South Kirk represented the end of one particular period of the religious life of the parish. However, there are still representatives many other religious denominations in Belhelvie today. Regular services from the Congregational Church, based at Danestone, continue with Reverend Andy Cowie taking services in Balmedie Leisure Centre. Members of other denominations and faiths usually have to travel into Ellon or Aberdeen for their spiritual needs.