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Abernethy

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Abernethy, a small police burgh of SE Perthshire, and a parish partly also in Fife. The town has a station on the Ladybank and Perth branch of the North British railway, 8½ miles SE of Perth, and 1¼ mile SSW of the influx of the Earn to the Tay. It stands on the right bank of the Nethy rivulet, and thence most probably received its name (Celt. ' ford of the Nethy '), which Colonel Robertson, however, derives from Obair Nethan or Nechtan (' Nectan's work '). His objection to the former etymology is, that at Abernethy there is no confluence, the stream not joining the Earn till 1¼ mile below the town, and ¼ mile below Innernethy, a former seat of the Freers, now owned by Sir Robert Drummond Moncrieffe (Gael. Topog., 76-79). But, then, Skene says that ' Aber and Inver were both used by the southern Picts, though not quite in the same way, Inver being generally at the mouth of a river, Aber at the ford usually some distance from the month ' (Celt. Scot., i. 220-222): anyhow, Isaac Taylor is certainly wrong in stating that ' Abernethy became Invernethy, though the old name is now restored ' (Words and Places, 258-260). Orrea, a tow1 of the Vernicomes, mentioned by Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer of the 2d century a.d., must have stood at or near Abernethy: and at Abernethy, according to the Pictish chro1icle, Nectan Morbet, third of the shadowy line of early Pictish kings, founded a church in honour of St Bridget of Kildare about 462- a legend inconsistent with the known date of St Bridget's death (525). Under the influence of Columba's teaching, Gartnaidh, ' supreme king of the Tay, ' founded or refounded here a church for Columban monks, dedicated, like its alleged predecessor, to St Bridget, some time between 584 and 596, Abernethy being then the chief seat of the Pictish government. It was most probably in the neighbouring low-lying plain that the Picts, revolting from the Anglic yoke, were routed by Ecgfrid, with dreadful slaughter, in 672: thirteen years later Ecgfrid's own rout and death at Dunnichen restored to them their independence. In 717 the Columban monks were doubtless expelled from Abernethy by Nectan III. for nonconformity to Rome: but in 865 we find it once more occupied by Irish clergy, as in that year it seems to have been visited and reorganised by Cellach, abbot both of Iona and of the mother church of Kildare. From that year, too, on to 908, Abernethy was at once the episcopal and the royal capital of the whole Pictish kingdom, Constantin, son of Kenneth mac Alpin, having translated the sole bishopric hither from Dunkeld. Three bishops held the see, whose transference to St Andrews under Constantin, King of Alban, stripped Abernethy of much of its former importance, the si1gle epoch in its after-history being the homage paid at it in 1072 to the Conqueror by Malcolm Ceannmor, ' who came and made peace with King William. and gave hostages, and became his man: and the king went home with all his forces. ' Culdees are first heard of at Abernethy during the reign of Eadgar (1097 -1107), but it does not appear how long they had been introduced. They were holding the possessions of the ancient nunnery between 1189 and 1198: but the church and its pertinents had been granted by William the Lyon to Arbroath Abbey, to whose monks the lay Abbot of Abernethy now conveyed his abbatial rights, while retaining his lands, becoming thus a secular baron and founder of the house of Abernethy. A dispute in the succeeding century between Arbroath and these Culdees was decided by the Bishop of Dunblane against the latter, who in 1272 were converted into a priory of Canons Regular of St Augustine, valued at its dissolution at £706,11s. 2d.

Thus Abernethy disappeared from history, yet still it retains a monument of bygone greatness in its tapering round tower, like though inferior to that of Brechin. Standing by itself in the centre of the town, at an angle of the churchyard near the entrance-gate, it is 73 feet high, and has an interior diameter of 8¼ feet at its base, where the wall is 2½ feet thick, while at the top the diameter is 5½ feet, and the wall's thickness 2. It is built of stone, dressed to the curve and laid in 64 courses, the material up to the twelfth of these being a hard grey sandstone, which has resisted the weather: above, a buff-coloured freestone, much weather-worn, especially at the joints. Without, it presents a continuous plane: within, it is divided by string courses into six stories, the sixth terminating a little short of the summit in a platform roof, which is gained by a staircase of modern construction. The two lowest stories are pierced by a doorway only, which, fronting the N, stands 2½ feet above the present level of the ground, is 8 feet high by 3 wide, and has inclined jamb-posts, going right through and projecting externally a little from the wall, with a semicircular head, hewn from one solid stone. In each of the three next stories is a single diminutive aperture: the uppermost is lighted by four round-headed windows, facing the four points of the compass, each 5¾ feet high by 21/6 feet wide, and each with inclined jambs. Such is the famous Abernethy tower, agreeing generally with that of Brechin, and with that only on the Scottish mainland. In Ireland, however, there still stand 76 round towers, presenting the characteristics of this pair: ' therefore, ' says Mr Anderson, ' these two are stragglers from a great typical group, which has its habitat in Ireland, and all questions as to the origin, progress, and period of the type must be discussed with reference to the evidence derived from the principal group. ' Concerning the origin of the Irish towers imagination formerly ran riot. Buddhists, Druids, Baal worshippers, Brehon lawgivers, pillar-saints, Freemasons, Danes, or Phœnicians had reared them: they were minarets, phallic emblems, celestial indices, penitentiaries, monumental tombs, or what not else besides. Now, archæologists are fairly agreed that one and all were built in connection with churches, not as belfries (though afterwards employed as such), since large bells were not cast till after 1200, and not till then were campaniles erected. They were due to the Norsemen's raids, being meant, as Ruskin says of church towers generally, ' for defence and faithfulness of watch.' More than this, they admit of classification into four groups, marking the transition from the flat lintelled style of ecclesiastical architecture to the round-arched and decorated Irish Romanesque- a transition accomplished between the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 12th century. To which of these groups. then, does our tower belong? To none, according to Dr Petrie, who refers its erection to 712-727, believing it to have been built by certain Northumbrian architects of Jarrow monastery, summoned by Nectan III. to build him a church in the Roman style, which should be dedicated to St Peter (note appended to Sir J. Simpson's Archæol. Essays, i. 134). Skene objecting to this that no church at Abernethy was ever dedicated to St Peter, and that this tower has no peculiarity so marked as thus to remove it wholly from the class of similar structures, yet holds that it is ' undoubtedly older than that of Brechin,' and assigns it to 865, the year of Abbot Cellach's visit to Abernethy (Celt. Scot., 1877, ii. 309,310). Muir, on the other hand, discovered features in the Abernethy tower which ' place it somewhat lower in the scale of time than that of Brechin, e.g., the decidedly Norman type of the belfry windows, and the stones of the general building, which approach very nearly to the small cubical form of those we constantly find in Romanesque masonry ' (Old Church Arch., 1861). And Mr Anderson so far agrees with Muir, that while he decidedly ascribes the Brechin tower to the third of the four groups, i.e., toa period later than 950, this Abernethy tower he connects with either the third or fourth, 'though the difference between it and the Brechin one cannot be very great ' (Scotland in Early Christian Times, 1881). See also vol. ii. of Lord Dunraven's Irish Archæology, edited by Miss Stokes (Lond. 1877). Besides its ancient tower, rising grey and melancholy over the red-tiled houses, the town has nothing of much interest, being a mean-looking place, with irregular streets, but with several good cottages built to accommodate summer visitors. It is a burgh of barony under charter granted (23 Aug. 1476) by Archibald ' Bell-the-Cat, ' fifth Earl of Angus, and confirmed (29 Nov. 1628) by William, eleventh earl, to whose descendant, the Duke of Hamilton, it gives the title of Baron (cre. 1633). It is lighted with gas, has a post office under Newburgh, with money order and savings' bank departments, and holds a cattle fair on the second Thursday in November. The former parish church, one of the oldest in Scotland, was demolished in 1802, when the present plain edifice, containing 600 sittings, was built on a neighbouring site. There are also a Free church, a U.P. church, and a public school, with accommodation for 300 scholars, an average attendance (1879) of 174, and a grant of £162. Weaving is the chief winter employment of the inhabitants, many of whom in summer are engaged in salmonfishing on the Tay. Pop. (l841) 827, (1861) 984, (1871) 953.

The parish contains also the hamlets of Glenfoot and Aberargie, 1 and 1¾ mile WSW of the town. It is bounded N by the river Earn, dividing it from Rhynd, and by the Tay, dividing it from St Madoes: E by Newburgh and a detached portion of Abdie, S by Auchtermuchty and Strathmiglo, and W by Arngask, Dron, and Dunbarney. Irregular in outline, it measures from N to S between 2¾ and 4¾ miles, from E to W between 2¼ and 5 miles: and its area within Perthshire is 7872½ acres (112 foreshore and 183½ water), within Fifeshire 1967 acres. To the S of the town the surface is broken by hills, belonging to the Ochils, and rising in the middle of the parish to 815,906, and 923 feet, in its southern portion to 879 and 629 feet. Northward the low ground lying along the Earn and Tay, and traversed by the little Farg, forms an oblong some 4 miles long by 1½ mile broad, and is not exceeded in beauty, fertility, and cultivation by any tract of equal extent in Scotland. Its soil and sub-soil, down to a depth of 25 feet, consist of strata of clay and sand, overlying a stratum of moss, from 1 foot to 3 feet thick, which comprises remains of oak, alder, hazel, and birch. Fine rich haughs, protected by embankments from inundation, extend along the windings of the Earn and Tay: the latter is here from ½ to ¾ mile broad, and is divided into the North and the South Deep by the long, low island of Mugdrum, belonging to Abernethy parish. Eruptive rocks prevail throughout the uplands, Devonian in the low grounds. At Innernethy is a disused Old Red Sandstone quarry: and greenstone and clinkstone are still worked in the hills, whilst zeolites, jaspers, agates, and calcareous spars abound in Glenfarg, where a quarry has yielded fragments of scales of ichthyolites. At the SE angle of the parish a hill behind Pitlour House is crowned by an ancient fort, with a paved road leading to it: at the SW are the ruins of Balvaird Castle, a stronghold of the Murrays, whose descendant, the Earl of Mansfield, takes from it his title of Baron (cre. 1641). He, the Earl of Wemyss, Sir Robert Moncrieffe, and 6 other proprietors hold each an annual value of £500 and upwards, 13 between £100 and £500, 7 between £50 and £100, and 22 between £24 and £50. The chief mansions are Ayton, Carey, and Carpow, near the last of which stood the castle of the Lords of Abernethy. Near it, too, in a weaver's cottage, was born the Rev. John Brown of Haddington (1722-87), author of the Self-interpreting Bible, and the great pastor of that Secession church, of whose four founders (1733) the Rev. Alexander Moncrieff, minister of Abernethy, was one. This parish is in the presbytery of Perth and synod of Perth and Stirling: the living is worth £409. Valuation (1881) of Perthshire portion, £12,788, 6s. 8½d.: of Fifeshire portion, £2343, 9s. 3d. Pop. of entire parish (1831) 1776: (1861) 1960: (1871) 1744-1589 in the Perthshire portion: (1881) 1714.—Ord. Sur., sh. 48, 1868.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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