Community life as reflected by church records:

The influence the church had on civic life in Belhelvie parish is apparent through these records, and not even elders were safe from public rebuke and fines for absence from any sessions. On 22nd December 1644, for instance, the minister warned against celebrating the 25th as Christmas Day under pain of censure. This was during the time of Covenanting leadership of the Scottish parliament when the religious leaders of Scotland were keen to eradicate Catholic and Episcopalian influences. Not only did Scotland suffer a series of inter-confessional religious struggles in the 17th century, but anyone who appeared not to conform to society aroused suspicion. This was a time of witch-hunts in every sense of the word.

During the reign of James VI concerns over witchcraft throughout Scotland came to a head. The king himself was particularly susceptible to the fear of curses and spells and when he travelled to Norway in 1589 to collect his new bride, Princess Anna of Denmark-Norway, he is known to have widely discussed the Scandinavian experience and sought solutions to witchcraft. During this period Belhelvie also suffered its share of witch-related hysteria. Helen Fraser of Aikenshill was sentenced to be burned at the stake on Gallowshill, Newburgh, in 1597 for practising witchcraft in the parish. Foveran Presbytery accused her of 19 charges of 'publict and commond charming', and she was found guilty of 14 of them. Not only had a neighbour, John Ramsay of Newburgh, accused Helen of calling on the devil, but there were also implications that Janet Ingram, the wife of Adam Fynnie of Westburn in Belhelvie was involved. Janet was ill, and already considered a witch by some men of her parish, when she sent for Helen Fraser to cure her. Unfortunately Janet merely worsened and died, and before her husband could call some friends to help carry her body to the churchyard, Helen and some of Janet's daughters took charge of the corpse. When they met Janet's husband and several other men of the parish - John Wode (Wood) of North Colpnay, Gilbert Sangster of South Colpnay, John Rich of Menie and David Lyone of Upper Ardo - Helen fled. This behaviour was interpreted as strange and suspicious, and helped lead to Helen’s downfall. Later one of Janet's daughters, Malye Fynnie, then living in Blairton, was also included amongst those suspected of witchcraft.

Helen Fraser’s case was one of several witchcraft trials to be found in parish records. In December 1628 a parishioner, Gilbert Keith, publicly sought forgiveness for having called Gilbert Jamieson, presumably a fellow parishioner, a witch and a thief. Another local woman, Margaret Simpson, was made to give repentance in sackcloth for calling a fellow parishioner, Helen Graham, a witch and claiming that her father had danced before the devil in 1661. Even during the trying times of the British civil wars (1638-1652), which caused much social upheaval, the local parish remained concerned with the issue of charming. In June 1649 a parishioner, possibly Janet Ross, denied being a 'charmer' for having supplied a mixture of egg and aquavitae (whisky) with pepper to a fellow parishioner suffering from a fever. This is perhaps the earliest reference to the use of the now well-known medicinal toddy in the parish. She appears to have avoided punishment as the Elders warned her against the use of 'any other thing that myght draw in the guilt of charming'.

An Act of Synod was passed in March 1670 against charmers, decreeing that any who were convicted of charming, or of consulting witches, should be made to renounce this publicly and perform penance in sackcloth, on the pain of excommunication. This did not prevent the accusations from continuing. Soon after, Belhelvie witnessed another trial for charming in 1676. One Isabell Davidson from the parish of Deer was examined before the kirk elders and admitted that she used the zodiac for divining information about people she had never even met. The woman drowned herself shortly thereafter, rather than face excommunication. The minister held Davidson up as an example of a witch and warned his congregation that they would be made to face censure as adulterers in sackcloth if they consorted with such charmers.

Not only was witchcraft a problem in the parish, but even murder, with apparent royal consent. Perhaps one of the darkest events related to the old Belhelvie church was the murder of Patrick Johnstone by the first Lord Glamis at the kirkyard in 1601. Johnstone, of Haltoun in Belhelvie, and a servant of Glamis, had become involved in an ongoing feud between his master and the Crawford family. In fact, he had violently attacked Sir John Lindsay of Ballinscho, who was a friend of the Crawfords. In January 1600 Lord Glamis appeared before the Privy Council distancing himself from his former servant. On the 13th of that month Lord Glamis had been walking on the high street in Edinburgh, in the company of Patrick Johnston, when they happened upon Sir John Lindsay on his way to church. Both Lord Glamis and Lindsay claimed that they passed each other peacefully on the street out of reverence for the king, but that Johnston drew his sword and attacked Lindsay, cutting through his cloak, coat and waistcoat. Patrick Johnstone was then ordered to appear himself before the Privy Council under pain of rebellion, but appears not to have done so, for in May 1601 he was denounced as a rebel. In the intervening months several bands had been taken out by friends on both sides of the dispute for the protection of both parties, and several of those named came from Belhelvie. These included Andrew Milne, George Clerk, Andrew Fola, Walter Edmund, and Patrick Ramsay in Haltoun of Belhelvie; Gilbert Dalgarno of Eggie; Thomas Tullery, Andrew Tailor, John Wishart, and Henry Arbuthnot in Keirs; Thomas Skene and James Mure in Whitecairns; Margaret Tailor and Gilbert Sandie in Middlemuir; John Clerk, Andrew Wood and David Skene in Potterton.

However by 11th August 1601 Johnstone was dead, having been 'maist cruellie and unmercifullie [invaded] with pistollis and suordes [...] in the tyme of the ministratione of the sacrament of baptisme, cuming furth of the kirk of Balhelvies, a tua space fra the dur thairof'. Mrs Johnstone sought the censure of her husband's murderer, none other than Lord Glamis and his accomplices (including John Lyon son of John Lyon of Rachalhill, John Lyon son of Patrick Lyon burgess of Dundee, Johne Scrimgeour, John Admeston, Fergus Murray, William Lyon servant of John Lyon of Rachalhill, and an unnamed servant of David Wode) by the presbytery of Aberdeen. In September 1601 Lord Glamis and his accomplices obtained a letter of pardon from James VI which excused them from the murder of Johnstone as well as from the firing of pistols in Belhelvie kirkyard. It appears that Glamis felt that the murder of a servant was better than continuing the feud with Lord Lindsay, as this would put him out of favour with the king.

Parishioners of Belhelvie were also involved in litigation with officials from the University of Aberdeen. In 1589, the commissioner of King’s College instigated a poinding against the tenants of Haltoun of Belhelvie for lack of payment of the annuity for the years of 1583 to 1588 inclusive. In a separate matter Paul Ray of Belhelvie and Andrew Sangster brought charges against one another in January 1603, but by May Paul Ray had been compensated for his injuries and the case was dropped. Sometimes Belhelvie parish was just the location for vicious attacks, such as when Andrew Gray mugged Archibald Baxter, a burgess of Aberdeen. It appears that Burgess was travelling on the king's highway just north of Potterton when he was robbed of his weapons - a sword worth 20 pounds and a pistol worth 20 merks, two flasks worth forty shillings, and his purse containing forty pounds, by Gray and accomplices.

Another inhabitant of Belhelvie, Margaret Wood, the daughter of the laird of Colpnay, was involved in the scandal over the fire at Frendraucht, the homestead of Viscount Aboyne, in September 1630. The Viscount and the laird of Rothiemay, John Gordon, along with four servants perished in the fire, which happened at a time when the laird of Frendraucht were feuding with Leslies of Pitcaple. Three suspects were apprehended and brought to the Tollbooth in Edinburgh including two erstwhile servants of the laird of Frendraucht, John Meldrum and John Tosh. The third accused, Margaret Wood, was a daughter of the laird of Colpnay. She was the first to be examined, and despite being 'put in the bootis and being cruellie torturit' she denied all involvement and was set free. The matter did not end there however. When she retracted some of the allegations she had made against the laird of Pitcaple under torture, she was subsequently indicted for perjury. Apparently she had also falsely claimed to her sister, Jean Wood, who was a servant of the laird of Pitcaple, upon her arrest. Margaret was brought to trial on 23rd February 1631, found guilty, and sentenced to 'be scourged through the burgh of Edinburgh, and banished the kingdom'.

King Charles I set up a special Committee of the Scottish Privy Council to determine the origin of the fire. Indeed such was the interest in the event that even Scottish officers who were serving in the Swedish army under King Gustav II Adolph were pressed to provide information relating to the incident. Captain George Ogilvie’s deposition to the Scottish Privy Council, dated in June 1632, concerned a meeting between himself and Major John Sinclair 6 months earlier in Elsinore, Denmark. Ogilvie recounted that a man claiming to have been the cook at Frendraucht on the night of the fire was in Major John Sinclair’s company. That same individual also claimed that he had received a lot of money for 'helping to some peece of service in Scotland'. The alleged cook’s name was said to be Adamsone or Mathesone or something similar, and Major John Sinclair had taken him into his protection. And there the matter of the cook's involvement seems to have rested. Eventually, after more than two years of investigation, only John Meldrum was executed for the act of arson, although no clear evidence of his guilt appears to have been discovered. The fire at Frendraucht is commemorated in the ballad called known as the Burning o the Bonny House o Airlie.

It would be very easy to surmise, given these particular examples, that the pursuit of cases of witchcraft, murder or arson were the only subjects that concerned the people of Belhelvie parish. Thankfully, however, the same sources also reveal their attention to issues such as poor relief and military service.

Poor relief:

The issue of caring for the poor of a community had long concerned Scottish society. In the Middle Ages, several laws were passed against beggars, which allowed for strict punishment against those who stole anything by force. Between 1424 and 1457, beggars were required to wear special emblems handed out by the local sheriff or baillie. Anyone deemed to be an 'idle man' was given 40 days to find work or face arrest. James IV took further harsh measures in 1503, when he decreed that only the crooked, blind and impotent would be allowed to beg. Just a few years later it became law that beggars would only be allowed to beg within the parish where they were born. It was not until as late as 1921 that Scotland obliged itself to supplying support to the able-bodied unemployed. There were, however, private individuals who tried to help the poor. Within our own parish in the nineteenth century, Robert Burnett of Little Colpnay ensured that 1000 merks were to be paid to Baillie Skeen annually for the poor and needy in and around Belhelvie.

The Kirk has always played a role in providing charity and easing the plight of the poor, and the church of Belhelvie parish was no exception. In the seventeenth century kirk elders licensed parish beggars by giving them authorised badges, perhaps along the same lines as the Big Issue vendors on the streets today. Indeed two sergeants were appointed to expel unlicensed beggars from the parish, indicating that at times the number of beggars had become problematic. In June 1738 the minister, David Brown, ordered a special collection to be gathered at the kirk for 'the building of a house wherein to put sturdy beggars'. This perhaps indicates that the parish was happy to help those who were fit enough to actually make something of their charity. Other individuals in the parish sought to look out for the spiritual well being of the poor. For instance, in July 1796, John Orrok donated seats number 56 and 57 to the session of Belhelvie kirk for the use of the poor, until he or his heirs reclaimed them. The electoral rolls for 1832 to 1860 show that at that time there were 30 people within the parish receiving poor relief. One record from within that time frame by Reverend Alexander Forsyth in 1840 noted that the parish contributed £57 annually to poor relief for such people. He also helpfully noted the several other destinations for the cash besides from the poor of the parish. Some of the money was split between the Aberdeen Infirmary, the Lunatic Asylum and, unusually, the salaries for the session-clerk and kirk officers.

By 1845, as a result of the Disruption and the break up of the power of the Kirk of Scotland, the church had lost its control over the issue of poor relief and it became a state-managed concern. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries several funds were established for the benefit of the poor. The Balmedie Legacy, established by W.J. Lumsden in 1875 set aside £300 for poor people of the lands of Balmedie. Before that, in 1860, the Harvey Bequest had been established to provide £100 for people not in receipt of poor relief, while in 1899, the Thomas Brown Bequest was set up to the value of £180 for assisting the poor. There was also a collection known as the 'Meal Money', which was expressly set aside to purchase meal for the poor. The value of the fund was £100 in 1946. Another source of private funding came from the Anderson Legacy left by Miss Christian of Belhelvie in 1906. This legacy was valued at £12 2 shillings and 1 old pence for the poor. This was a reasonable amount of money at the time, but it had all been disbursed before 1935. These are only some of the examples of individual donations drawn from the various congregations within the parish and many more existed in the past. However, with the advent of social security and income support this kind of legacy has become obsolete.

Many Scots were too proud to subsist on individual handouts, and they looked for a variety of other ways to escape poverty. Many of them, Belhelvians amongst them, sought escape in emigration and so they travelled abroad to seek their fortunes.

Belhelvians and the search for prosperity overseas:

Scots have a long history of emigration, in particular toward France, the Low Countries (now Belgium and The Netherlands), the Baltic area and Scandinavia. By the start of the seventeenth century there were already claims that some 30,000 Scots were living in Poland, and some 40,000 had served in the Scandinavian armies. Many more thousands became merchants in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Russia. We are lucky to have evidence of such moves from the parish as early as the sixteenth century, although it would be surprising if none had left earlier. An uncle of Patrick Maule of Panmure had emigrated to Sweden by 1560 and died in military service there. Of those merchants we can trace who left the parish, William Forbes of Menie (c.1566-1627), or 'Danzig Willie' is undoubtedly the most famous. He was the brother of Patrick Forbes, Bishop of Aberdeen. However, he was not the only individual from the the parish to have looked to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for mercantile opportunity. Two sons of Robert Skene of Belhelvie became burgesses in the Polish town of Posen towards the end of the sixteenth century. The eldest of these, David Skene, was admitted as a burgess of the town in 1586, while his brother Robert followed in 1593. David must have returned to Belhelvie by the time his brother became a burgess since a bond had been served on him in Scotland that year. David Skene’s son, also called David, repeated his father’s earlier journey and left for Poland, becoming a merchant in Zamoski. The Scots maintained a significant presence in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and across the centuries, numbers of these sojurners have come from Belhelvie. In 1705 two more Belhelvians wrote to the burgh of Aberdeen requesting evidence of their Scottish origins. Alexander Stewart of North Colpnay’s son, James, had joined the flow of Scots to Danzig and become a successful merchant there. Both he and his sister, Margaret, who accompanied him to Danzig, obtained birth brieves stating their descendance from the Stewarts of Colpnay. In addition Alexander Innes of Blairton, who lies buried in the old Belhelvie kirkyard, and was the father of Reverend Innes, was also noted for his youth spent 'in mercantile pursuits abroad' although the exact destination has not yet been established.

Belhelvie was also home to several men who made their fortune overseas in the 19th century, in particular in the East Indies as part of the British colonial presence there. The Orrok and Turner families were particularly well represented. In the 1754 to 1784 period Scottish regiments made up half of the royal regiments of the British army and many of the officers were also Scots. Other Scots joined the private army of the Honourable East India Company, the EIC. John Orrok had apparently made his fortune trading in both the East and West Indies – in itself an unusual situation as normally an individual would work in one sphere or the other – and thus had made the right contacts to obtain commissions for his sons. Indeed EIC commissions were preferred by the less wealthy to royal British regiment commissions as the latter could cost £500. John Orrok, junior, whose ghost is said to haunt Orrok house, had been a captain in the 17th regiment, no.1, of the EIC army and his funeral memorial still adorns the wall of the old Belhelvie kirk. Three other Orroks of this family served and died abroad. Colonel William Orrok, also of EIC service, died on 26th June 1810 at Seringapatam, which was one of the most important garrison towns in southern India. During the first Maratha War in India, William played an unfortunate role in the Battle of Assaye in 1803. Through some misunderstanding he led the 64th Highlanders into a direct attack on the enemy cannon, which resulted in severe casualties. He survived the battle himself and saw seven years good service before his death. Lieutenant William Innes Orrok, Royal Scots, died on 24th July 1821 at Trichinopoly, and his brother, confusingly also called Captain John Orrok, but this time late of the 33rd regiment, died on 14th February 1838 in Kingston, Jamaica. It normally took several months for the news to reach Scotland and all these deaths were reported about half a year after they had happened.

The lands of Menie also have overseas connections through the sons of Robert Turner. Like the Orrok brothers, four of Turner brothers - John, Robert, William and Alexander - entered EIC service and perished in the East Indies. Their brother George survived and became Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Artillery. He served at the Cape of Good Hope in 1806 and on several other campaigns. He became a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1831 and a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1862. Another Belhelvie man, and a relative of George, was Lieutenant General Sir James Turner of Menie. He too held the rank of Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Artillery under the Duke of Wellington's command.

A third Belhelvie family, the Lumsdens, similarly supplied several sons to military service. As with the two families named above, Harry Lumsden’s sons and grandsons played major roles in the military history of India. Colonel Thomas Lumsden retired to Belhelvie in 1842 after serving with distinction in the Pindari Campaign of 1818 and 1819. He used to describe his house in Belhelvie to his comrades in India as 'just a suitable chateau for a worn out old ramrod to wind up his days in'. William Lumsden of Belhelvie, the younger brother of Thomas, earned his wealth in the Bombay Civil Service and bought Balmedie, along with other Aberdeenshire lands, in 1834. He used his money to build Balmedie House, which was sold after World War I and became the Church of Scotland Balmedie Eventide Home. Similarly when Sir Harry Lumsden, a son of Colonel Thomas Lumsden, had been born on the EIC ship The Rose. He inherited Belhelvie Lodge in 1873, he had retired as Knight Commander of the Star of India from a distinguished military career in India where he had formed the Corps of Guides for frontier service. He is also accredited with introducing the khaki uniform to the Indian army. He had a very clear idea of what was expected of his fellow parishioners. In a letter to his mother he once noted:

'I am delighted to find that the good people of Aberdeen approve of the guides at Sangao (a mountain fort at 3000 ft). But as I have got hold of as fine a set of young lads in the corps who don’t care a pinshead for being shot at, I consider that a Belhelvie man who could not […] go ahead with them, deserves to be kicked out of the parish'. Harry’s brother, Peter, had served in the China War and rose to become chief-of-staff in India and aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. When he retired he had been a general and a Knight of the Grand Order of the Bath.

Belhelvians did not only look in a southeasterly direction to create new lives for themselves. Along with thousands of other emigrés, people from Belhelvie parish also headed west to the Americas. However it is difficult to find material on 19th and 20th century emigration from the parish. Dr Marjorie Harper, a leading expert at the history department of Aberdeen University, has undertaken extensive work on migration from the northeast of Scotland. Source material includes family letters, newspaper clippings, and sometimes the odd comment by a census taker, and in her research Dr Harper rarely found mentions of Belhelvie. The parish newsletter contained one reference to an emigrée, a certain Miss Nicol from Wester Hatton. In 1977 the Black family from Portland, Oregon made contact with the contemporary occupant of the farm there. Mr Black’s mother, née Nicol, had been born and brought up on the farm in the 1860s. She became engaged to an Aberdonian man from Ferryhill called Black who immigrated to America, and at the age of 18 she followed him across to settle in Portland. Mr Black’s mother’s memories of Wester Hatton farm and the surrounding area were so strong that her son knew the layout of the farm intimately. This is certainly not the only case of migration from Belhelvie parish to America, but to date it is the only one we have information on.

It was not only outward migration that Aberdeenshire, and Belhelvie in particular, became known for. Sometimes people appeared in Belhelvie from very distant shores.

The 'Labrador connection', or an Inuit and his kayak in Aberdeenshire:

There is a long standing oral tradition in Belhelvie relating to an Inuit man and his kayak being washed ashore on the Aberdeenshire coast sometime between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. As yet we have not been able to clearly identify where this occurred: some sources refer to the Don river, other sources imply that the man and his kayak landed further north, perhaps along the Balmedie beach. Apparently the inventory to Marischal museum from 1842 listed an ‘esquimaux canoe […] driven ashore ner Belhelvie’..

The theories as to how and why the Inuit and his kayak appeared in Aberdeen are plentiful. It was not unusual for traders to bring back unusual cultural specimens from their foreign destinations, and it is possible that the Inuit was trying to make his escape from such captivity. Another option is that he may have been fishing off Orkney and that currents or weather may have forced him in toward the northeast coast. At this period there were several reported sightings of kayaks, particularly in the Orkney islands, and various kayaks made their way into collections, both in Marischal College, Aberdeen and to various locations in Edinburgh.

It appears that the unpublished diary of Reverend Gastrell, who made a tour of Scotland in 1760, contains the first mention of the Aberdeen kayak. He claimed to have seen a kayak in King’s College chapel on October 12th, which he believed to have been driven into the Don in 1728. The first printed reference to the Aberdeen kayak dates from at least 60 years after the alleged event. Francis Douglas also made a tour of Scotland toward the end of the eighteenth century, and noted in his writings that he saw a kayak in Marischal College in 1782, which was supposed to have originated in Labrador. The kayak itself was made of Scots Pine, a tree native to northern Europe and particularly the Baltic. It was covered with four seal skins, and there were five implements found with it: a paddle, a spear, a birdspear, a throwing-stick and a harpoon, all made of wood with bone and ivory details. Apparently the Inuit man himself only survived three days on land and died without ever making his origin known. However, stories of an Inuit in Belhelvie are not unknown among Belhelvie parishioners.

Migration has become a fact of life for many in these times and willingness to travel is often a requirement for employment. The oil industry continues to expose Belhelvie parish to a variety of nationalities and cultures through the international contacts it relies on.