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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


Cruden Parish Church

In the late sixteenth and seventeenth century the parish churches dictated the morals of our Aberdeenshire ancestors, either fining or punishing them should they transgress from the path of righteous behaviour. To a greater extent it’s how the Church made money to run their affairs. And indeed they prospered - it seems there were no shortage of sinners in Aberdeenshire.

The Church records of the Presbytery of Ellon, the officials who controlled the affairs of the Church over an area covering Ellon to Cruden Bay and west to Tarves, give an account of the discipline meted out. Here are some of the items mentioned.

Ellon, December 4, 1597. William Mitchell, parishioner of Tarves, delinquent with Barbara Leslie, is ordained to enter his repentance [in church] six Sundays in sack-clothe barefooted and barelegged. He will then undergo repentance six Sundays in gowis [a pillory / wooden framework that secures the head and arms] or brankis [an iron bridle that fits the mouth]. However, the latter part of the punishment can be avoided by paying the church ten marks of silver.

16th-century Scottish branks, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

And in a variation on a theme:

Ellon, March 20, 1605. Christen Ross in Ellon confessed to delinquency with James Andersen, and is ‘injoynit to make repentance six Sundays in sackcloth and gowis at ye Kirk of Ellon’ with half of one side of her head shaven.

It is normally the women who are punished this way, the Church considering them temptresses, although one or two men are also mentioned as having half of their heads shaved down to the point of the beard.

However, not everyone submitted meekly to punishment...

Foveran, July 18, 1677. William Crage is ordered to appear for discipline having wounded a man, but does not appear. Worse is to come. Repentance is demanded from him for the ‘scandal’ with Christian Eyrnsyd and ‘guiltiness’ with Isobel Logie.

On hearing this from the ministers, William lost his temper, telling them he would rather sit in Hell than sit on the stool of repentance in sackcloth before everyone in the church. And he then stormed out the door.

Sometime later, William Crage, while very drunk in Ellon, was heard to utter that he wished he had poison to cast in the meat of the ministers of the Presbytery. That and other indiscretions got him excommunicated from the Church.

Any attempt to have fun on Sundays, the one day of work for most, was also punished.

Cruden, August 25, 1608. Robert Kailman, piper, and others, had been ordered to appear before the Presbytery for drinking, piping, and dancing openly in the fields for three separate Sundays. At about the same date, Gilbert Kintor, no less than an official of the church at Foveran, was accused of drinking ‘extraordinarlie’ and playing at cards and dice with infamous persons. There is mention elsewhere that the men of Collieston were known to hide from church officials in nooks and crannies along the coast so they could play cards and dice in peace.

The Church also came down hard on the local sorcerers, noting that the ‘fearful and damnable practice of witchcraft is much abounding in all parts of the countrie’. For example:

June 1, 1625. It come out that several parents have used the services of the ‘charmer’ Thomas Smyth of Coldwells in the parish of Ellon. He had treated their children for ‘falling sickness’. The cure involved laying the child naked on a blacksmith’s anvil, and waving the hammer three time around while chanting these words three times, ‘mend in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in God’s name.’ He was ordered to pay ten marks, and to make repentance six Sundays in sack cloth. Furthermore, he was to stop charming, ‘under pains to be pursued of his life as ane witch.’

The records also mention that the minister issued acts against men and women visiting Pagan ‘hallowed’ wells to cure disease and other misfortunes. Another act discouraged the widespread belief in fairies.

However, the biggest scandal in the records was this one – it could have come straight out of the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel:

July 21, 1686. Ellon. George Wood of Ellon is told to appear before the Presbytery for the offence of having sold his wife to one James Pirie in the parish of Logie. Having done so, the aforementioned James Pirie ‘profanely said that he was a merchant and had liberty to buy any wares.’ It was decreed that the two men should appear in sackcloth, and that it should also be determined ‘what occasion the man’s wife had unto the said bargain’. Both men eventually succumbed to punishment, the husband appearing in sackcloth in front of the Sunday service, while James Pirie was excommunicated.

And thus the good men and women of Aberdeenshire were kept out of the path to temptation.

Copyright Mike Shepherd 2022.

If you like my articles, why not read my latest book North Sea Heroes: True Stories from a Scottish Shore. It tells seven stories from the east coast of Scotland, epic stories of adventure and human kindness.

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