Studying the Bennachie Colonists

Today I picked up on the fact that some of my colleagues at the University of Aberdeen are undertaking some archaelogical work at Bennachie, aka The Mither Tap, aka Breast Hill (to render the hill’s name in English by means of the bluntest translation from Scots Gaelic).

A view from the top of Bennachie, taken by my brother Coinneach.

A view from the top of Bennachie, taken by my brother Coinneach.

Gaelic? How quaint, and no doubt completely irrelevant to the Doric heartland that is the north east of Scotland, or so you might think. If you do so think you would be sorely mistaken. In one of my favourite blogposts ever, Andy Wightman casts his eye over the decline of Deeside Gaelic. This dialect, which it can be supposed was crucial to the Book of Deer, was left to wither and eventually die amidst a climate of (amongst other things) a lack of security of tenure of non-owner occupiers of land. In 1891 more than 50% of the residents of the Braes of Marr were Gaelic speakers. I am not sure where their descendants are now, but unfortunately we can note with some certainty that their language has gone (albeit with a rearguard being fought from Gaelic’s north west heartland, now fortified by legislation).

I hope that served as an interesting aside, but this is not a blog about Gaelic. It is a blog about land. Wightman has also cast his roving eyes over the Scottish commonties, or at least what is left of them. He did so in his text “The Poor Had No Lawyers”, which I reviewed here (£), and has also looked at the matter in his blog.

In my own review of his text, I noted that Bennachie was parcelled up amongst local landowners by way of a nineteenth century Court of Session action. Although the Bennachie colonists, as they are known, were never private owners of land in the modern sense, this action had a very real impact on them by leaving them beholden to the whims of the [new] landowners. Let me now fast forward to the University of Aberdeen press release from the present day.

“Accounts describe them as a marginal community ‘on the edge’ scratching a living from the slope of Bennachie – a harsh, nutrient impoverished landscape. Eventually they became associated with a story of resistance against the local lairds who eventually seized the commonty for themselves in 1859 using the courts in London. After this the colonists effectively became tenants.

“Our working theory is they received a lot of bad press from some of the neighbouring locals – and all sorts of slanderous things were said about them, probably because they weren’t initially paying rent. However what may be more accurate is that they were very similar to other agricultural communities of the time and this study will help to provide a more nuanced assessment of this.

“The Bennachie colonists are a particularly fascinating group because there is a reasonably good archive of information written by various historical commentators – but of course not by the settlers themselves – so working closely with our community collaborators a big part of our work will be in comparing the written accounts with what the archaeology reveals.

“Some of colonists were eventually evicted for refusing to pay rent. And there were apparently on-going tensions between the group and the surrounding estates. In one story the local henchman of the Balquhain estate are said to have come and burned one of the crofters out of his house.

“Most of the original colonists had moved off the land by the 1880s but one crofter, George Esson, lived on the land until his death in 1930 after which time the hillside was completely abandoned.”

There are some legal infelicities in this extract (which was not, as far as I am aware, ran past anyone in the Law School), but no matter. My point is thus. History matters to archaeologists. It should also matter to legal archaeologists. The plight (if that is the correct term) of the colonists deserves to be recognised and properly understood. The non-payment of rent might be just a little more understandable when set in the context of a land-grab by local lairds. The lack of current human occupation of the land is also something that should be properly understood. Sure, people might enjoy escaping to nature, but this eco-system has only fairly recently excluded permanent human settlement. Please consider this the next time you enjoy the excellent views from the top of Bennachie.


About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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4 Responses to Studying the Bennachie Colonists

  1. Jim Hunter says:

    Way back in the 1970s an Aberdeen University sociologist, who engaged tremendously productively with Aberdeen’s North East hinterland and who was (with the university’s usual and criminal neglect of the locality it’s supposed to be serving) consequently cheered on his way to New Zealand where he’s been ever since, wrote a wonderful book, Farm Life in North East Scotland: Poor Man’s Country (John Donald 1979), about the conflict-ridden development, between 1840 and 1914, of the agricultural structure still prevailing in that part of Scotland today. Drawing on all sorts of sources, including ‘bothy ballads’, and that great ‘Doric’ novel, Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk, Carter’s work has never been followed up, never mind bettered, whether by sociologists, historians or anyone else. Good to see Aberdeen University’s law department beginning to follow – even if 40 years later – Carter’s pioneering lead.

  2. Jim Hunter says:

    Missed out the man’s full name – Ian Carter!

  3. basedrones says:

    Thanks very much for the comments, Jim, which add much to the blog. So no-one accuses me of biting the hand that feeds me by dint of a tongue-in-cheek allegation of usual and criminal neglect, I should quickly note my comments policy (found in the About section) that the views of commenters are not necessarily endorsed by the author of the blog. I will certainly look out for Ian Carter’s work!

  4. Pingback: The Future of Land Reform in Scotland (in 2015) | basedrones

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