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The Family of Birnie





Name, &c. - This parish, in some writings. Is called "Brenuth". No satisfactory derivation has yet been assigned to the name.

Extent and Boundaries.  The outline of parish of Birnie approaches oblong: with its narrower extremity on the north, and within 2 ½ miles of the burgh of Elgin, it runs due south for 7 miles averaging 1 ¾ in breadth. It is bounded on the east, north and the west, by the parish of Elgin, and is separated from the parish of Knockando on the south by the junction of the parishes of Dallas and Rothes. Birnie lies on the north side of the high ground, which rises between the Spey and the flat of Moray. From its highest elevation, at the Manoch-hill it has a gradual fall, till at its northern boundary it is less than 50 feet above the level of the Moray Firth.

Climate. The superiority of the climate of the lower districts of the province of Moray over that of some more southern counties, may in great measure be accounted for by the little elevation at which lies these districts stand above the level of the sea, - the absence of any mountain range to attract the watery clouds, -- the neighboring waters of the firth preventing such extremes of temperature as are experienced in the more inland situations, -- but perhaps chiefly by the dry and sandy soil speedily absorbing the rain after it falls.

Rivers, &c.  The small river Lossie, rising in the parish of Edinkillie, enters the parish of Dallas, the lower part of which, Kellas, is evidently the bed of an old and extensive lake . The river, leaving this ancient bed, runs in a deep and lengthened channel, cut through the solid rock, which formerly had been the barrier of the lake. In this water warn channel, several of the peculiar characters of the rock (gneiss) and its quartzose veins are to be met with. The Lossie forms the western boundary of the parish of Birnie for about 2 miles, the enters the ancient bed of another lake, which had extended from Birnie to Aldroughty, and after a course of about 25 miles, excluding windings, joins the moray Firth at Stotfield-head. Small though this stream appears, it is yet found extremely difficult in many places to keep it within its proper channel. At one part of its course where it intersects a corner of this parish; it has brought down from the higher ground, and thrown up such quantities of shingle and course gravel, as, instead of forming protection to the adjoining land, often stop up the old run, and make the water diverge into a new course. At this place, it is within the last hundred years swept away many acres of good land, and is at this day, from want of sufficient bulwarks, cutting and washing away a field of a soil inferior to few in the county.

Geology, Soils, &c.  The Grampian range, both on the north and the south sides, and its subordinate chains of primitive mountains, are flanked by the rocks of the old red sandstone formation. Within The province of Moray, these secondary rocks dip into what is geologically called the basin of the Moray Firth. They form both banks of the Spey for several miles above its influx. Thence they may be traced in a westerly direction through the parish of Birnie, in the northern half of which they form the underlying rocks. The southern half lies on gneiss, destitute alike of such metallic veins and calcareous beds as this rock in many other places is found to contain. The lowest beds of the old red sandstone here present a very hard, compact and flinty appearance, very different from the overlying conglomerates, which are comparatively easily disintegrated by the weather, and cut into deep ravines by the smallest rivulets. With the exception of a few patches of lias, which are met with between the town of Elgin and the firth, the old red sandstone formation (including some rather unusual subordinate strata of cornstone and yellowish gray sandstone, destitute of fossils) comprehends all the secondary rocks of the lower part of Elginshire, so that, notwithstanding the traditional and long cherished hope, the true coal measures need not be looked for in it, Neither the gneiss nor harder strata of the sandstone have been quarried in this parish, the outliers or boulder stones being abundant enough for all building required. The softer conglomerates and upper beds are unsuitable for this purpose.

Over the rocks that lie in situ, there is generally such a depth of sand, gravel, and other alluvial matter, that they have little or no influence on the soil. However, when the softer varieties of the conglomerate approach the surface, the soil partakes much of the component parts of the rock, and thereby becomes one of the most fertile and productive. The productiveness of the soils here seems to depend much, if not more, upon the character of the sub-soil, than upon the proportion in which there own ingredients meet. The prevailing soil in cultivation is of a gravelly or sandy nature: but examples present themselves at no great distance from each other, not unfrequently on the same farm, running from a deep retentive clay, through the rich haugh loam, up to the light sandy soil of the gravelly bank.

Several large granitic boulder stones are to be met with here, as in other places, far from their parent rocks, and are lasting monuments of the impetuosity with which floods and currents of water, in a bygone period, have swept the surface of the globe. Peat of good quality, with imbedded trunks and roots of fir and other trees, is found near the top of Manoch-hill, and in a hollow near the glen of Rothes. Formerly there was much of it carried to and sold in Elgin: but the more general use of coal has superseded in a great measure the use of peat as fuel.

Botany.  Juncus balticus, Lapsana pusilla, Potamogeton, heterophyllus, Hieracium, denticulatum, Listera cordata, Pyrola media, Rhinanthus major, and Aspdium foemina may be enumerated among the rarer Scottish phaenogamous plants found in this parish. The water lily (Nymphea alba) noticed in the last Account, has disappeared, the lake having been drained many years ago. Until lately, there were no plantations of any description within the parish, which could only shew a few straggling alders and willows by the sides of rivulets, or the still rarer ashes which served to mark the narrow confines of what was once the kail-yard. Within the last twenty years, 274 imperial acres have been planted in separate lots, with larch and Scotch fir. They promise so well, that it is to be regretted this improvement has been carried on to a much greater extent, as the extensive tracts of land, lying waste, that could not be better appropriated than for plantations of fir and even harder woods.


Land-owners.    The Right Honourable the Earl of Seafield is the sole proprietor of Birnie. There are, in his Lordships possession, a plan of the whole parish in 1784, (five Scots chains to the inch) and detached surveys of most of it that have been also been completed since that date.

Parochial Registers.  The parish registers do not reach beyond the last century. At the first meeting of the kirk-session after the battle of Culloden, there is the following entry in the handwriting of the incumbent, who had made himself so obnoxious to the Jacobites, that he was obliged to go south to meet the Duke of Cumberland for protection. "Birny, 16th June 1746.  The collections since last distribution (December 1745) amounted to no more than seven Ls. Nine sh. (Scots) occasioned by the rebels, their having been so long in this country."

Antiquities.  The Bishops Church was first at Birnie, afterwards at Keneddar, then at Spynie. And last of all at Elgin. About forty years ago, the foundations of an extensive building were dug up in the corner of a field, which had formerly the name of Castlehill . On this site likely stood the ancient Episcopal residence.

The present church is probably the oldest place of worship now used in the country. Like those of the more dignified structures of Roman Catholic times, the walls are built inside as well as on the outside with square cut ashlar work of freestone, and to this day stand perpendicular as they did hundreds of years ago. In 1734, this ancient structure seems to have been shortened by a few feet: and the west gable, though then renewed with the same materials, does not exhibit the skill and workmanship of the older walls. It is situated on the top of a small rising ground, similar to stations sometimes occupied by the stone circles that have hitherto deemed of Druidical, but are now thought to be of Scandinavian origin. And this was probably the site of one of these circles, may be inferred from several large granitic stones (some of them with figures resembling parallelograms, rudely drawn on them) being built into the surrounding churchyard wall, and which are not likely to have been carried thither for any recent purpose. The first preachers of the gospel may thus have taken advantage of the natural awe with which the native regarded the place where their religious rites were performed, and would thereby gain attention, at least, to the new doctrines which were also to be delivered there. It is perhaps to this heathenish awe, as well as to the circumstance of this place being one of the mother churches, or one of the earliest consecrated grounds of the Roman hierarchy in the north of Scotland, that we are to trace that superstitious feeling with which this particular church and burial ground are even still regarded by some. The stone baptistry and old bell, noticed in the last account, are still preserved in the church. A sketch of the latter antique curiosity has been given by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, in his very interesting account of the Moray floods. The remaining antiquities comprehend the bible stone, the cairn of Kilforman, rectangular trenches, or as some say, a Roman castra at the Foths, and a Danish encampment at the Shougle. The last having hitherto escaped the ploughshare is still "to be traced on a well-aired dry situation, watered on the west side by the burn of Bardon, and fortified on the east and north by a valley. It commands a prospect of the Moray Firth from Speymouth to Cromarty Bay" and is just part of the ascending ground whence the first view of the great Danish stronghold of Burghead can be had over the sandstone ridge of the knock of Alves. In confirmation of this opinion that there once existed a stronghold of Danes in this situation, it may be stated that the adjoining farm still retains the name of Edinburgh; and, notwithstanding that a very different derivation for this name is current in the neighborhood, the term burgh most likely marks it as a place known to the Scandinavian tribes.


In 1745 the population was 525.

In 1811 the population was 357

1781. . . . . . .460

1821. . . . . . .384

1791. . . . . . .402

1831. . . . . . .408

1801. . . . . . .366

Of the 405 individuals within this parish in April last,

32 4/8 8/1 percent, were under 15 years of age

24 1/8 6/1 betwixt 15 and 30

25 7/8 5/1 betwixt 30 and 50

12 6/8 8/1 betwixt 50 and 70

  4 3/8 6/1 upwards of 70

The following table contrasts the present state of the parish with that shew in the last Statistical Account (in 1795).

1795 - 1835

Average number of births for eight preceding years 9 - 9 5/8

                   "  marriages      "                "          2 - 15/8

Married persons within the parish                      128 - 112

Widowers 10 - 5

Widows 12 - 18

Average number of births from each marriage 5 - 4 5/7

                         Of  children alive in each family 3 1/3

Number of inhabitants under 10 years of age 101 - 91

                                          20   85 - 92

                                          50  113 - 152

                                          70  85 - 52

                                          90  16 - 16

                                         100  2 - 2

Number of  Teachers  1 - 2

Young persons at school 20 - 40

Members of established church 400 - 400

Seceders and dissenters 2 - 5

Males employed chiefly as farm-servants 22 - 60

Females              "               " 17 - 33

Day labourers  2 - 12

Weavers 8 - 3

Employed as masters or apprentices of other trades 14 - 21

Inhabited houses 85 - 77

Farms of and above L.50 yearly rent  2.8

                   Under L.50               40.38

Arable acres (Scots)8501600

Imperial acres in plantations  0 - 304

Real rent in Sterling money (in 1791) L.375 - L.1200

    Had such a table as the above been constructed a year ago, the population would have been found to have exceeded the Government census of 1831. A few have emigrated to America or removed otherwise from the parish: but the decrease within so short a period has been chiefly owing to scarlet fever, which for several months has been frequent and fatal in this neighborhood. The mistaken but still practised friendship of visiting and crowding the sick-room, and the no less reprehensible reluctance to call in medical advice, or early to remove the patient to Gray's Hospital at Elgin, While these are the surest means of spreading and continuing the disease among the community, are not the best or wisest for hastening the cure of the afflicted.

Character, &c. of the People   Improved in the cleanliness of their habits, and in the quality and neatness of their Sabbath day attire, diligent in their various callings, and attentive to their religious and moral duties in public and private, there are perhaps few rural communities that, "upon the whole, enjoy a higher degree the comforts and advantages of society, or are mare contented with their situation and circumstances". For these comforts, they are indebted chiefly to the liberal system of management which has been adopted in this part of the Seafield property, where an allowance (of L.5) is given to the tenant for every acre that he takes from waste ground, improves and adds to the arable land of his farm. The enterprising tenant has thus been enabled to lime his field, and to reap such returns as no other application could secure.

    The habits, the comforts, and the morals of the peasantry of the north of Scotland experienced a beneficial change when illicit distillation was suppressed: and this was the case in few districts to a greater degree than in the upper parts of Moray, where night was turned into day, the farm and family neglected, and all credit and character perilled in this demoralizing manufacture and traffic. All, however, now allow that the well filled stack-yard is a more becoming appendage, than the bothie, to the farm: and few of the oldest smugglers deny that the suppression of their trade has turned out, in the end, as beneficial for themselves as it was, at the time, just to others.

    In this parish, the good effects of the entire absence of the spirit-retailer, as well as of the complete suppression of illicit distillation and smuggling, are to be clearly seen, and are thankfully acknowledged. There is a licensed malt barn; but neither inn, alehouse, nor gin-shop, nor manufacturers, nor lawyers, are within its bounds. Elgin a distant about six miles from the centre of this parish, are the post town, and the market for all commodities.


Agriculture. The parish of Birnie contains, by measurement, 5784 Scots acres; of which 829 were in cultivation in 1784, the rest in pasture, moor, moss, and waste ground. At the present there are about 1600 Scots acres arable, 304 imperial acres under wood, and, of the remainder, 400 acres might, with a profitable application, be reclaimed and added to the cultivated ground.

Rent of the Land.    The average rent for arable land is 15s per Scots acre: and the duration of leases generally nineteen years.

Husbandry.   The farms are usually managed under a six-shift course, viz. 1st, Wheat from grass manured; 2nd, Oats; 3rd, Turnips; 4th, Barley with grass seeds; 5th, Grass (generally cut for hay); 6th, Grass always pastured. It may not be thought a correct mode of husbandry to have white or corn crops in succession; but the grass for wheat is always well manured, and the oat crop following is generally excellent. And, when a liberal allowance of bone dust, or ell prepared manure is given to the turnip crop, and attention paid to cleaning, the land is kept in good condition under the system.

Cattle, &c.   The cattle are mostly a cross breed between the low country cows of Moray with West Highland bulls; and by considerable care and attention on the part of breeders, the stock have been much improved of late years. The houses are small, but very active, and admirably adapted to ploughing the light land, of which this parish is chiefly composed. The old breed of sheep (which were small, with reddish-brown faces and legs), have given place to Cheviot, which were introduced in to this country some considerable time ago, by gentleman who now has the greater part of the hill grounds of Birnie, in conjunction with part of the Rothes hills, managed on the same system with the other large sheep stocks of Scotland, and also under the charge of shepherds brought from the border counties. By this management, the tacksman is enabled to afford a considerable rent for hills, which not many years ago yielded little or nothing to the landlord.

Produce.   The following is an approximation to the annual value of raw produce raised in the parish:

Grain of all kinds,  L.3100

Potatoes, turnips, &c.       830

Flax'         15

Land in pasture for cattle at L.1 per head, and at 2s.6d for sheep       890

 L. 4735


Means of communication.   The success of agriculture and the condition of farms have not inaptly been said to depend upon good roads, as the comfort and health of the animal frame depend upon the soundness of the blood-vessels. To secure good roads, then, ought to be the first object with every improving landlord.

By act of Parliament, the statute labour of Birnie has been converted, and yields only L.14, a sum quite inadequate to keep the old in repair, and of course unfit for the construction of new roads; so that the parish roads have become almost proverbially bad. Much reliance, however, is placed on the liberality of the Hounourable Colonel Grant of Grant, and his long experienced attention to the wishes of the Seafield tenantry; and it is confidently expected, that the making and repair of roads in this district will keep pace with his other territorial improvements. An earnest of this is afforded in his having lately ordered a survey of the main line, upon a plan which, when completed, will secure to the parish of Birnie a properly conducted and well-made road from north to south.

Ecclesiastical State.   The church, the only place of public worship within the parish, is not centrically placed for the population, being six miles distant from the southern boundary. There is no tradition as to the time when it was erected; its interior was repaired in 1817, and affords legal accommodation for 253 persons. The whole of the seats, except a gallery, erected by the kirk-session, and let for behoof of the poor) are allocated to the different farms, and are often found to be given not in proportion to the number of individuals that reside on these divisions of the parish. The manse, the walls of which are of an old date, underwent considerable alterations in 1811, but cannot be said to be in a state of good repair. The extent of the glebe, including the garden &c is about eight acres of good land, which would rent for about L.2 per acre. By decreet of the Court of Session in 1813, the stipend is 14 bolls, 3 firlots, 2 4/5 lippies victual, 3 pecks and 4/5 of a lippy meal, and L102, 4s.58/12d. Sterling money.

    The average number of communicants is 90; of whom 39 are the male heads of families. There is no missionary or catechist; and the parishioners are seldom called upon to contribute to religious or charitable purposes carried on beyond their own immediate sphere. There are 5 individuals in the parish, Dissenters.

Education.    There are two schools, the parochial, and a female school. The parochial schoolmaster has the legal accommodation and L.26 of salary, with about L.4 for school fees. The school expenses of the pupils for the year may run from 6s to 8s. There are some parts of the parish so distant from the parochial school that young children residing there cannot attend; but this has of late been in some measure obviated by the endeavours of the school-mistress to support herself by teaching in the southern district of the parish. L.2 from the Earl of Seafield, a free house and yard, and the school fees (which must be trifling) make up the sum of her emoluments with the exception of what she wins by needle-work.

Poor and Parochial Funds. For the last seven years, the average number of poor who have received parochial relief is 10; and the average sum yearly given to each in the same period is L.1,5s. The parish funds arise from the ordinary collections at the church, amounting to L.8 per annum, one-tenth Darklands mortification, amounting to L3,3s.4d., rent of session loft in the church amounting to L.2, and L.1 from the Earl of Seafield in lieu of an old gallery. The sum of L.100 gradually accumulated by the surplus funds, and by a donation of L.30, has just been placed at interest, and will materially add to the annual allowances of the poor. There has never been any assessment of the poor, who in most if not all cases are driven only by want to seek relief from the parish funds. But when they have been once admitted on the roll, they become generally as reluctant to resign their portion, even when their circumstances have improved, in behalf of the more necessitous, as they were at first to accept it.


There is at present the same number of inhabitants in this parish as at the date of last Statistical Account, forty years ago; but in this interval they seem to have first decreased by one-eighth, and then regained their former numbers,

    The more marked differences that have taken place ion that time besides those already noticed are, 1st, The extensive and valuable additions which have been made to the arable land, which since 1784 has almost doubled; 2nd, The improved management of farms, cattle and farm produce; and 3rd, The consequent increase of comfort of diet, clothing, and dwelling of the people. Within the last twenty years, many fences and several sheltering plantations have been reared; but there is still much room left for such enclosures.

    In conclusion, it may be safely stated, that there a few, if any, districts in the north of Scotland, where, in despite of the wretched state of the roads, greater agricultural improvements have of late been made in the parish of Birnie. These improvements have been accomplished, by the exertions of an active tenantry, directed by the judicious suggestions and management of the gentleman who has the charge of this portion of the noble proprietor's extensive domains.

September 1835