View of the Menie House from Blaeu's Atlas, 1654.
The House from Blaeu's Atlas c.1654.
© National Library of Scotland
Menie House, at night, 2005.
Menie House, at night, 2005.
Details from Menie House, 2005.
Details from Menie House, 2005.
The Seton Collection © 2005
Menie House, ariel photo, 2005.
Menie House, ariel photo, 2005.

A History of Menie and Belhelvie

Parish land of Menie passed between various merchants and landholders, particularly during the 17th century. David Carnegie sold the lands of Menie to William Forbes or 'Danzig Willie', who had earned his money through successful trade exploits in the Baltic. Danzig Willie was still known as Forbes of Menie in 1617 even after the completion of his more famous castle at Craigievar. The claim that Forbes sold Menie to George Gordon of Gight is confirmed by the royal grant of James VI in July 1618. Menie then seems to have gone through a rapid turnover of landowners.

John Seton of Auquhorties received a charter in 1610 for Minnies (Reg. Mag. Sig.)> shortly afterwards (1614) erected into a free barony (Reg. Mag. Sig.)> the grant was made " cum privilegio de infang thief, outfang thief, sok, sak, thole/ thame, pitt and gallows." Those who resigned these lands and rights when John Seton acquired them from the King, were William Udny, Senior, of that Ilk ; William Udny, Junior, feudatory of the same ; Robert Udny of Tulliquhortie ; Alexander Udny, son of the said
William Udny, Senior ; William Seton of Muny (later of Udny), and Alexander Blackhall of that Ilk.  Interestingly enough, William Seton of Mounie and Udny's daughter from his second marriage, Grizel Seton married the famed Nathaniel of Gordon of Gight and who's family owned interests in Menie.

That John Seton, Chamberlain of Fyvie, was leased in 1622 is confirmed by the funeral account of the Earl of Dunfermline, Chancellor Seton, in 1622, where he is listed as, "John Seaton of Menies Chamberland of Fyvie", though it is presumed that he traded Aquhorthies for the then larger residence of Menie shortly before that time.  In 1614, Alexander Blackhall of that Ilk resigned his legal interest in Minnis, along with several others, to John Seton of Auquhorties, when it was incorporated as a free barony under John Seton, with the manor house of Minnis (Menie) as its chief seat.

Patrick Gordon of Nethermuir later obtained a special warrant from George Gordon for Menie, including the mill, Leyton, Cothill, Cowhill and Alterseat, in 1623. Another source notes that in 1623 the half lands of Mains of Menie and the half lands of Hatterseat were renounced to George Gordon of Gight by the wife of the baillie and burgess of Aberdeen, Agnes Johnestoun. Six years later, in 1629, Gordon sold the lands and barony of Menie to William Seton of Mounie and Udny. Seton held them until his creditor, Sir Robert Graham of Morphie, his son's father-in-law, was granted them in 1633. William Seton and his wife Margaret Graham stayed on at Menie despite his father losing the estate and was styled as "William Seton of Meanie" thereafter, as was his son, also William Seton, 2nd "of Menie". 

In 1659 Menie, Legtane, Cothill, Cowhill and Alterseat were mortgaged to Robert Kerr, burgess of Aberdeen, who held them in 'free blench farm' for the annual sum of one Scots penny.  Mr John Reid of Birnes held a special warrandice of the lands of Menie in 1664. Robert Kerr passed them on to his brother Alexander in 1678. Alexander’s grandson, also named Alexander, certainly held the lands until 1696 when he was noted in the Poll Book, before they reverted to the Setons.  William Seton, 2nd of Menie's son James Seton, of the family of Meldrum, re-acquired possession of Menie in 1698 and became the 3rd Seton Laird of Menie, but died without issue in 1707, when the house passed from the family and the line was then represented by Captain Robert Seton who was the eldest son of Alexander Seton of Kinloch in Aberdeenshire, the second son of William Seton of Udny from his first marriage.

From 1669 onwards Justices of the Peace and Commissioners of Supply had the right to demand money from landowners, cottars and tenants for the maintenance of roads. Whereas turnpikes had been introduced in England during the reign of King Charles II (1649-1685), the issue of turnpikes did not arise in Scotland until 1769. The Turnpike Bill was finally passed in 1795 providing for the levying of funds to create a turnpike from Aberdeen to Ellon and further onto Peterhead and Fraserburgh, which was finally completed in 1799. The first subscribers were Fraser of Fraserfield, Turner of Menie, Still of Millden, Irvine of Drum, Robertson of Foveran, Orrok of Orrok, Skene of Berryhill, Scott of Eggie and the Earl of Aberdeen, with subscriptions ranging from £50 to £1000. After 1802 there were a further 23 subscribers, largely from Peterhead and Fraserburgh, obviously wanting to ensure that the road reached further north.

Between 1790 and 1840 steady reclamation efforts provided 5000 acres of agricultural land from the moor. The extensive shoreline of sand dunes and marum grass characterising the land between the mouths of the Don and the Ythan rivers gradually becomes a hilly area inland. In fact, this narrow length of land was of great interest to the British Government. It was selected as the most level place to measure a base line of 5 miles and 100 feet, beginning at Tarbathy, or Strathbathie Hill (which is strictly outside the parish) and ending at Leyton, Menie. Thomas Colby visited the Aberdeen area in 1814 looking for a site where he could measure a Scottish baseline for the trigonometrical survey.

Colby confirmed that Belhelvie-Menie links provided the best location he had seen in Scotland, and in 1817 he returned to spend from May 5th to June 6th that year measuring the land. Each end of the baseline was temporarily marked with a post with a tripod support and an engraved brass plate on the top of the post. Two gun barrels were despatched by sea to Aberdeen later in the year in order to sink them into the sands to replace the posts. The delivery of the guns was delayed to such an extent that by 1820 the original posts had been removed by local landowners in order to build gamekeepers’ lookouts.

Unlike elsewhere in the region, property transactions in Belhelvie were more straightforward and less traumatic: George Turner, sheriff-clerk of Aberdeenshire and son of Turner of Turnerhall, came into the lands of Menie in the early eighteenth century, and passed them onto his son, Robert. His son George inherited Menie and eventually passed it onto his daughters, Helen Catharine and Robina Rachel. James Reid, who became the royal physician to Queen Victoria, held Muirton until the property passed to Alexander Sim in 1877. Whitecairns came into the family of Sir Charles Stewart Forbes, 4th Baronet of Newe and Edinglassie in the nineteenth century.

Just as with the Turner, Lumsden and Orrok families, these Forbes’ had made their money in the Indies. Sir Charles’ father, 3rd Baronet of Newe, was born in Bombay in 1803, but had returned to Scotland at a young age. He invested his money in 'the building of schools, kirks and houses, as well as bridges and roads' on his Scottish estates. His son’s acquisition of Whitecairns ensured that Belhelvie benefited indirectly from some of his fortune. Alexander Dingwall, postmaster of Aberdeen sold Ardo in 1849 to Mr Peter Harvey, a farmer of Danestone, Oldmachar. Alexander Harvey was the last holder of the estate and then trustees held the land for a time. In 1948 John Harvey Loutit sold off Ardo in separate lots to tenant farmers. The Department of Agriculture for Scotland had purchased Keir and Eggie Farms and these were divided into 36 smallholdings, from 4 to 20 acres in size.

Although most of Aberdeenshire is renowned for its granite, Belhelvie and the nearby parishes of Ellon and Foveran were covered with reddish clay like old red sandstone. This soil was particularly favourable to the formation of peat, implying that the area was once thickly forested like most of Scotland. The majority of remaining woodlands were felled and cleared during the 18th and 19th centuries. Replanting was well established by 1900 and about 1/80 of the parish was under wood, largely conifers. However, reforestation was again retarded during the two world wars, which cost the parish many trees again through felling, particularly on approximately 70 acres of the Craigie's part of the Balmedie estate during World War I, and 75 acres of Ardo during World War II.

Belhelvie parish has relied on the land and the sea to provide most of its commodities. However there has also been work for millers, blacksmiths and miners. In the early days none of these people were safe from the censure of the minister. In 1606 for example all the parish millers were summoned to appear before the presbytery to agree never to work on the Sabbath again. If they failed to keep this promise they were to pay up to £20 to the kirk treasurer. This strict social control was still being practised the following century. In 1703 the cloth 'bletchers' (bleachers) were rebuked for working on their cloths on Sundays.

There were at least five mills in the parish where the all-important oats for oatmeal and whins for horse and cattle feed were ground. These were the Mill of Blairton (the ecclesiastical lands of Blairton around the old kirk also held a mill), the Mill of Eggie, the Mill of Ardo, the Mill of Menie and the Mill of Potterton. Although the Potterton mill remained open until 1966, most of the others had ceased by the end of the nineteenth century. Certainly by 1877 only two millers were listed living and active in Belhelvie parish. Similarly there had been at least five smithies in the parish: at Menie, at the Service Station in Balmedie, at Cadger's in Belhelvie, at Whitecairns, and at Middle Ardo. The last two became stores for farmers.

There were still four blacksmiths active in 1877, but only the Menie smith remained operational until the 1990s. The parish boasts its only surviving doocot on Orrok Estate, which used to contain circa 400 nests. However, the Register of the Great Seal reveals that there also used to be a doocot at Menie around 1629. Pigeon dung was a rich and prized fertiliser, and was used along with saltpetre as an ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder.

Mining of some sort was an old occupation in Belhelvie parish. The earliest surviving mentions of gold and silver deposits date from the seventeenth century, and both Belhelvie and Foveran apparently held these ores. Two memorandi left, one by Robert Seton noted as 'commonly of Mexico', and the other by Sir Robert Sibbald as told to Colonel Borthwick, reveal quite specifically the presence of a gold mine. 'There is a gold Mine very rich, in a husband toun, called Overhill in the parish of Belhelvie, that belongs to my Lord Glames, three fathoms, beneath the kyln, that is at the head of the In-town'. There has not been too much gold found since and it is unlikely that there will be a gold-rush to Overhill in the twenty first century!

However, it is mining, or quarrying of the more common sort, for stone, which Belhelvie is still known for. The oldest established and most important brickwork in the district in the early twentieth century was the Seaton Brick and Tile Company, which was based at Strabathie, near the Black Dog. The Company appears to have been inaugurated in August 1898, about 3 1/2 miles from the New Bridge of Don on the Ellon turnpike. Aberdeen city's brickworks had already developed in the 18th century, when brick-making was based at Clayhills, north of the Dee River, and at Seaton in Old Aberdeen. There was a brickworks run by Mr Alexander Smith in 1773, but it is not on Milne’s 1789 map, indicating that it was a short-lived business. The Seaton works, which were run by Alexander Annand & Company, do figure on Taylor’s map from 1773, and there was apparently a second little-known brickworks in Seaton too.

The Seaton Company was evidently a large one as they had two brickworks at Torry - Plaidy and Esslemont - and one at Dryleys, Montrose. The company expanded first to Torry in 1883, but moved to Strathbathie when the clay at Torry was exhausted. At that point other establishments were given up to concentrate on Strathbathie. In 1903 Mr Alexander Smith managed the company, with the support of foreman Mr John Grant. Circa 100 people were employed at Strabathie, which could turn out 5 million bricks, 1,750,000 drainpipes and various other items annually. The company constructed a special light railway about three and a half miles long to take bricks from Strabathie to their depot at the Bridge of Don, using some adapted old horse tramway cars. The company lasted a good 20 years until the clay gave out.

Brick making became a successful business and in the 19th century more brickworks sprang up in and around Aberdeen: Torry Brickworks Company (ca.1849-1876), Northern Patent Brick and Tile Works, Pitmuxton (ca.1867-1883) which moved to Torry and carried on till 1890. There was also the Esslemont Brick and Tile Company; Gray & Marr at Ellon; Fyvie family-run Turriff based drainpipe manufacturers; Peter Mortimer & Company & Kennow at Huntly and a tile works in Logie Buchan. This was when Annand & Company at Old Seaton was changed into Seaton Brick & Tile Company. Sometime before 1803 George Allan took over from Robert Cay (mentioned in 1778 as the tenant of Annand).

Belhelvie parish has had a rich and varied history. This survey has only really focused on a few choice morsels from the last millennium, 1000-2000 AD. However, when we think of the history of the parish from the time of the Beaker People, stone circle builders and early hunter-gatherers, we can see that it has a much longer historical past.

While archaeologists can tell us much about these periods, historians of more recent times are blessed with a wealth of material to survey. The last millennium of Belhelvie's history has revealed a much more complex, and less parochial story - if that is the right word in this context - than even the authors expected at the outset of the project. Belhelvie has apparently long played a role in significant episodes in Scotland's history.

Reflect for a moment on the exploits and importance of Alexander Stewart the 'Wolf of Badenoch', Reverend David Lindsay the Covenanter, and Reverend Alexander Forsyth the inventor. This place has proved to be far from a placid observer to Scotland's history - or British history for that matter. Add to this the references to King Eric of Norway, Danzig Willie and his friends in Poland, the Inuit in Belhelvie or the Orroks, Turners and Lumsdens in the East Indies and Jamaica. Think of them and it becomes apparent that Belhelvians have long been part of a larger global history. And so it continues today with many families from the parish living and working abroad and non-Scots coming to live and work here - and both forms of migration ultimately enriching the parish.

Indeed the connection with Scandinavia, America and South East Asia remains strong as locals who work in the oil industry can find themselves employed in Norwegian, Danish, American, Indonesian or Malaysian offices to name but a few.  From royalty and government bodies to authors and painters, Belhelvie parish has had a significant role to play in the history of both Scotland and the British Isles during the last millennium. It is far more than a small rugged portion of the northeast landscape of Scotland. There are connections with the earliest establishment of Christianity in Scotland, with the Vatican, and with Norwegian royalty, and had its fair share of domestic upheavals over the centuries: treason, witch-trials, famine, and the politically turbulent times of Covenanting and Jacobite Scotland.

The economy of the area has risen and fallen with the passing trades and industries, but it remains a largely agricultural stronghold, although government subsidised tree-plantations and the ever-popular trend for equestrian centres continue to make an impact on the landscape. In addition, the establishment of a recreation park at Balmedie beach and the spread of housing developments emphasise the parish's role as a 'green haven' from the urban centre of Aberdeen. The survival of the oil industry, despite several dips in the 1980s and 1990s, has meant that the hamlets of Balmedie, Belhelvie, Potterton and Whitecairns continue to grow and prosper.

To bring Belhelvie into the new millennium, Belhelvie Community Council has set up a website at supplies information on the future plans and projects ongoing in the parish, along with numerous photographs of the area. The church continues to play a significant role in the community of Belhelvie parish, having gained funding for the new Forsyth Hall recently opened next to the manse. A time capsule, to which the parish was encouraged to donate items, was buried at the hall to commemorate the passing of the last millennium. Perhaps when the capsule is next unearthed it will provide inspiration for an updated history of the parish to be written.

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