The Family of Birnie

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    Researcher's notes: This article gives us a remarkable record into the history of Birnie Kirk. Even with some difficult sentence structure it is a worthwhile read. Note that only the foundations of "the Castle" were evident in 1760, and as of yet, no excavations have been conducted to establish any details. Also see photos on the Kirk Photos page.  (Transcription: K.W. Birnie)


The ancient Church of Birnie was reopened on Sunday, 20th of February, 1891, by the Rev. James Cooper, East Church, Aberdeen, after being internally renovated and thoroughly repaired in strict accordance with its antique style and traditions.

   BIRNIE is historically and ecclesiastically one of the most interesting parishes in the North, and its ancient Church, which stands on top a conical knoll about two and a half miles from Elgin, is perhaps the oldest building in Scotland which has continually been worshipped in. It is older than any of our great abbey churches, except perhaps the nave of Dunfermline, and while nearly all our Scottish cathedrals and priories are in ruins, its walls still serve their original purpose, and look strong ennough to stand as long again.

   Externally the Church, as will be seen by the sketch which faces the title-page, is a very plain structure. The older local historians, such as Shaw and Leslie, say that the date of its erection is unknown, but although it bears no date there is certain peculiarities about the style of the building which leave no doubt that it cannot be later than the twelfth century. The Rev. Dr. Gordon, himself an authority, and one who, as minister of the parish during the long period of fifty-seven years, had many opportunities of getting his views confirmed by other eminent men, holds that it must have been not later than 1140, and is thus fully 750 years old (being now 2003, that's over 850 years old!).

The building consists of a nave and a chancel, separated by a round or "Norman" arch. It is this complete and beautiful arch that really determins the antiquity of the building, while the fact that there is no window in the east gable of the chancel suggests the early basilian churches of Italy, and points to a time before the east window became a special effort in architecture. The stones, traditionally taken from the sea coast at Covesea, are very equal in size, well dressed, and have been built with great regularity. The walls are of great thichness, and still straight and plumb as a line. The west gable, however, which is of inferior workmanship, was built -or rebuilt- at a much later date, in 1734: the church at that time seems to be shortened by about two feet. The enlargement of the three windows of the nave, so as to admit more light, is a change of uncertain date, but the style shows that they are not ancient. Two small round-headed windows in the chancel are of considerable beauty: They undoubtedly belong to the original design; while the Gothic arches, without and within, surmounting "the priest's door" in the south side of the chancel, are clearly medieval.

 For many centuries prior to the date of the present building, Birnie appears to have been a place of some importance. The Rev. Dr. Gordon, in the "New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845)" tells us that in addition to the Church, the antiquities of the parish comprise "the cairn of Kilforman, rectangular trenches, or as some say, a Roman castra at the Foths, and a Danish a Danish encampment at the Shogle. The last haveing hitherto escaped the ploughshare, is still to be traced in a well-aired, dry situation, warered on the west side by the burn od Bardon, and fortified on the east and north by the valley. I commands a prospect of the Moray Firth from Speymouth to Cromarty bay, and is just atthat part of the ascending groundwhence the first view of the great Danish stronghold od Burghead can be had over the sandstone ridge of the Knock of Alves. In confirmation of the opinionthat there once existed a stronghold of Danesin this situation, it may be stated that the adjoining farm still retains the name of Edinburgh; and, notwithstanding the very different derivation for this current name in the neighbourhood, the term burgh most likely marks it as a place known to the Scandinavian tribes."

    The hillock on which the Church stands is a not likely place for a stone circle, and several large granitic stones (some of them with figures resembling parallelograms rudely drawn on them) remain to attest that ther was some such primative work upon the site. One or two of those boulders are built into the churchyard wall, and a large one, certainly "sculptured", occupies a place at the northern entrance. Whether these point to the use of the site for the purposes of heathen worship, or of the rude justiceof those early days -and the two are by no means incompatible- it is easy to understand how the first steps of the first preachers of the Gospel should have been directed to it. For it was the way with those pioneer missionaries to go first to the chiefs, and through them to their subjects.

   As is well known, the whole of the North of Scotland may be said to owe its conversion to Chistianity to Saint Columba, a great Irish missionary, who in 563 crossed over to Iona and founded on that sacred isle a monastary, which became, in the words of Dr Johnson, " the luminary of the Caledonian regions". In the Church thus founded, nearly the whole work of evangelizing this country was done by means of monastic estabishments, which followed at first the rule of Iona. By degrees the discipline relaxed: laymen got possession of the convent lands, and in the tenth century we meet with communities of monks or canons -generally twelve in number- who bear the title of "Culdees" or "Servants of God". So far from finding them, as fable pictures them, the upholders of primative faith and piety, we are shown then by authentic history, ignorant, lazy, corrupt, earning for themselves the contemptuous sobriquet, " the comfortable Culdees". Inefficient, however, as the Culdees were, and far inferior to their apostolic predecessors at Iona, their communities were probably in that dark age the main support of religion, and their monasteries, or colleges, the centres of such spiritual light as lingered in it. As yet there were neither dioceses nor parishes in Scotland. The Bishop of St. Andrews was the one bishop of the Scots, the others being hermits, who bore no rule, but emerged from their cells merely to ordain the clergy. How could one man superiutend effectively the whole Church of Scotland? There would, of course, be some priests scattered throughout the country celebrating devine worship in remote churches and chapels, but they were few, isolated, and poor. In such circumstances it was owing to the Culdees that so much as "a face of Christianity" was maintained among us. The Roman monastic orders -Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians- who in the reforms by S. Margaret and her sons took the place of the Culdees, developed in their turn abuses more intolerable, if not more deadly. The Reformation, abolishing these, abolished at the same time, much that was beauiful and touching, and introduced an era of weary controversy and division. The abuses of the Culdees were out of sight: even without the help of the fables which grew up, it is not wonderful that the Christian sentiment of Scotland should look back with fond effection to the sites of their establishments. Of such sites there were several in the North -Deer and Monymusk (where the church in many respects resembles that of Birnie) in Aberdeenshire, Rosemarkie in Ross, Dornock in Sutherland, and, in Moray, Birnie.  At the time of the establishment of the diocese of Moray, in the reign of Akexander I., the Culdee college or monastery of Birnie seems to have been the chief ecclesiastical establishment in the Province, and all local tradition is tothe effect it was there that Gregorius, or Gregory, the first bishop of the see of Moray -he was bishop in 1107 and 1115- fixed his seat. One of his successors, Bishop Bricus, tells us in 1215 that the bishops of Moray had always been installed in the Church of Spynie; but they did sit sometimes at Birnie, and there is reason to think several of the earlier bishops, notably Simon de Toeny, who was elected in 1172 and died in 1184, were buried there. The names which have come down to us of these early Bishops are as follows: -Gregory, bishop in 1107, William, 1157-1161; Felix, 1162-1171; Simon de Toeny, 1171-1189; Richard, 1187-1203.It must have been one of these, or an unknown holder of the see between Gregory and William, who built the Church of Birnie, for the style of the building will not allow it to be later than Bishop Richard's time nor much earlier than Gregory's, even if itwere more likely that the fabric is anterior to the erection of the see, which it is not, for the churches of the Culdees were mean and paltry buildings of earth and wicker, or, at the best, of wood. The bishop who built it probably intended to make it the cathedral of the diocese; smal as it is, it is as big as was the Church of the Holy Trinity at Spynie, which Bishop Bricius* errected into his cathedral, and where he founded a chapter of eight secular canons constituted on the model of that of Lincoln. In that sense the Church of Birnie never was a Cathedral: several bishops placed their cathedra, or chair, in it, but it never had a chapter. When the Culdees disappeared from the site we know not. (* Bishop Bricius belonged to the illusterous family of Douglas, and is credited by Mr Cosino Innes with having given the first impulse to the greatness of that hous. See preface to Registrum Moraviense.)

   On the erection of the bishoprick and the choice of Birnie for one of the seats, a residence for the bishop no doubt was built there. Bishop Pocoke, writing after a visit to the place in 1760, tells that "on the hill to the south of the Church were some marks of foundation called the castle, which, by tradition, was the bishop's house". Dr Gordon, in the New Sastistical Account (1845), says the same -" About fourty 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." He adds a warning footnote: "The place now called Castlehill recieved its name from some families who, removing from the old situation, carried the name along with them".

 The dedication of the Birnie Church is unknown. We may reject the derivations of the name given by Rev. Mr Joseph Anderson in the "Old Stastistical Account" from Brae-nut, i.e. high land abounding in nuts, or from Burn-nigh, a village near the burn, and we may be tempted to connect it, as Bishop Forbes does in his "Kalendars of Scottish Saints", with the great name of Saint Branden, The famous voyager of Irish hagiology. His legend tells of a mission to Scotland, and he is connected with the shores of the Moray Firth by the dedication to him of the Church of Boyndie, near which S. Brandau's (or S. Brenghan's) Fair is held to this present day. Moreover, other places where he was held in honour have taken from him names which remind us of Birnie - Dumbarney, Balbirnie, and Kilbrennan. So late as the last century, the minister of Birnie, Mr. Anderson, was applied to by a Montrose ship-captain to have his ship prayed for in the Kirk of Birnie -that has been thought to look like a reminisence of the sea-faring S. Brandan. It would be interesting if we could prove that C.Brandan was the founder of the Church at Burghead, from which the settlement at Birnie may possibly have been a colony.

   The skipper above referred to was by no means the only one who desired to be prayed for in the Church of Birnie. At the end of the last century, in 1791, we read in the old Statistical Report - The Church "is held in great veneration by many in this country. They still in some measure entertain a superstitious conceit that prayers offered up there three Sabbaths will surely be heard. Insomuch that when a person is indisposed or of bad behavior, this  common saying obtains, ' You have to be prayed for thrice in the Church of Birnie, That you either end or mend'." The saying is still well known far beyond the parish. This belief has been enshrined in verse by Willie Hay, the "Lintie o' Moray" who, in singing the glories of Morayland, says -

 "Tis the land o' the parish o' Birnie,

    Where prayers in the Kirk, they declare,

Three times will end you or mend you;

    The Ronnel Bell is also there

Which no power on earth can remove frae

    The Kirk where so snugly it lies,

But back to its ain native parish,

    Like an arrow o' lightning it flies"

   The Ronnel Bell, which the poet speaks of, is still preserved in the Church, though it does not hang in the belfry, as people csme from far and near to see it sometimes suppose. Its day for ringing is long past. It is a sort of oblong gong, having four sides, welded together, and supposed to be an alloy of bronze. There has been a long tradition that it was made at Rome, cosecrated by the Pope, and presented by him to an early bishop. A gentleman who takes great interest in Birnie and its antiquites wrote in the Moray and Nairn Express Query Column last year: Ancient as the Church of Birnie is, the Ronnel Bell is probably older by some centuries. It is undoubtedly older than the first diocesan bishop of Moray (Gregory circa 1115). It may not unlikely have been the instument by which the very first Christian missionary in Morayland summond our heathen ancestors to the hearing of the gospel.

All our early missionaries had their bells, and several of them remain, including S. Ninian, the earliest the earliest preacher of our land whose name has come down to us; but I believe the Ronnel Bell is the only one which has not been removed from the church to which it properly belongs. Long may it remain at Birnie -a reminder to all generations of what we owe to those pioneers of civilization and religion. S. Ninian's bell is called Clogrinny, i.e., the bell (in French cloche) of Ringan or Ninian. S. Ninian was the apostle of Galloway and of the Picts south of the Grampians. Were it not that there is no record of his coming further north than Kincardinshire, we might have been tempted to connect the word 'Ronnel' with his name -a name written in heaven, if, in those later centuries, it has been too much forgotten upon earth. If recent discovery is correct, and we must look to Burghead as the earliest Christian settlement in Moray, we must becontent to ascribe it to be cleric, ahether abbot or bishop, who removed the central seat of Christianity in the Province to the hillock of Birnie". Another explanation of the name connects it with the Gaelic word "renail", which signifies "roaring". It was the roaring or ringing bell, as distinguished from a second bell, the "coronach"  or wailing bell employed at funerals. A coronach bell remains at Birnie of much later date than the Ronnel Bell, but still of considerable antiquity, and in use untill lately gfor gathering the neighbors to the burial of the dead.

While we are on the "grave" subject, we may mention that, down to a comparatively recent period the interior of the Church was used as a place of sepulture. Its floor was formed in part of gravestones.  The tradesmen engaged in laying the new floor, found on removing these a large nunber of skulls and other bones lying quite neer the surface. These were collected and buried at greater depth in a corner of the Church.

   The Church contains three monuments, the largest commemorating the clergyman of the "second Episcopacy" in the reign of Charles II. It is inserted in the north doorway, now built up. Our sketch shows its general appearance; the inscription is as follows: -Here lyes under this pulpit the corps of Mr. Wm. Sauders, lait minister of this parochin, who deceased the 13 of May, 1670, & of Katharin & Elspeth Suaders, his children" The rude carving shows how greatly in the course of one century the sculptor's art had deteriorated in Scotland. The second, a neat tablet in white marble with a black border, is to the memory of the Rev. Joesh Anderson, who as a boy remembers seeing the funeral in 1808, and the coffin deposited inside the church. It is rather remarkable fact that this Mr Anderson was the last person who has died in the Manse of Birnie, that is, during the long period of eighty-three years. The third monument, at present lying in the vestry, though we belive it is intended to errect it against the interior west gable, is a dark coloured slab believed by Dr. Gordon to have been taken from the West Highlands for the purpose of laying on a dignitory of the Church. It has, however, been appropriated by others, and it bears the inscription stating that it was erected by John Donaldson, merchant in Elgin, "in memore of Mary Russell, his spouse, who died the 6 of Apryle, 1726, and their children". Then follows the Latin verse and the translation: -

 "Well did she act the different scenes of life

   A modest virgin and loving wife,

A darling daughter and mother kind,

Historical Notes: Elgin Public Library, (Book 74 L7285.241223 BIR)

The Church of Birnie

“This Church,” says Rev. Dr. Cooper, University of Glasgow, “is now I imagine the most Beautiful and most Comfortable, as it is certainly the most ancient and interesting, in all the wide regions formerly included in the diocese of Moray”

   The late Dr Gordon, minister of the parish, was of the opinion that it must have been built not later than 1140, and Dr Cooper is inclined to assign its erection to the reign of David I. (1124-1153).

   The fourth Bishop of Moray was Simon de Toeny, who before his election to Moray was Abbot of Coggeshall in Essex. He died in 1184, and it is frequently asserted that he was buried at Birnie. Bricius was the sixth Bishop. He ruled the diocese probably from 1203, was a great benefactor to the church, and, as his great charter shows, procured that the Cathedral, which was formally undefined and held at Birnie, Spynie, and Kineddar be fixed at Spynie. Bishop Bricius died in 1222 and in his successor’s time was definitely fixed at Elgin.

   Brennath was originally one of the common churches of the Chapter, but the church of Birnie was afterwards given along with other churches towards the endowment of chaplainries in the Cathedral. In 1550 the Pope confirmed the churches of Lochalveth, Bruneth and Altre given for the support of seventeen chaplains. In a list of taxation of about that time of the Bishopric of Moray occurs the church of Brynnath taxed at 11 marks, Urquhart and Duffus being being 60, and Spynie 24 marks, while the procurations due to the Bishop of Moray from Elgyne, Spinie, and Bryneth amounted to 40p.

On 24th January 1547, The Bishop granted a charter to Patrick Kynnard and Elizabeth Gordon, his spouse, of the lands of Middil Tillebardin, Gedloch, Glenlatroquhy, and Blairahay in the barony of Birneth. Reddendo annually for Middil Tullebardin: 5pounds 6s 8d, one mart, four sheep stc., For Gedloch: 3 pounds 6s 8d one sheep, etc.

1606-1623 The Bishop granted in fue farm to James, Earl of Moray, the land which he and his predecessors formerly held under the Bishops, viz. . . .  Birneth, the lands of the Hiltoun of Birneth, Alehouse thereof, Smidy croft, thereof, the lands of Medder Birneth, Mill of Birneth, with the multures astricted to the barony of Birny and services of the tenants. See end notes.

  In 1734 the west gable of the church was rebuilt - the belfry bears the date “1734” and the three south windows were enlarged and other repairs executed at an outlay of 905 pounds 6d. The repairs included building the west gable from the foundation, building the bellhouse, Repairing the two sidewalls of the kirk and choir, repairing the mid gable and the east gable, inserting a sash window of 24 lights in the west gable. For the roof 42 trees, 21.5 ft long and 7 inches square at one end and 5.5 at the other, also slates for 6.75 roods.

The wall of the chancel is now a foot higher that that of the nave, but the roof is not so high. The nave was probable once higher than it is now. The old door on the north side of the church was nearly exactly opposite the large south door and was 51 in. wide and about 8 ft 4 in high. The height of The door on the south side  is 7 ft 8n. On the outside wall 32 inches cast of that door is an iron ring as if intended for the jougs.

An old sculptured stone lies at the entrance gate of the churchyard. There is a sundial on the south wall inscribed “ Gift of the Parish 1753”. It is difficult to assign a precise date to the stone baptismal font which now has an honoured place within the church. It date perhaps from Episcopal times in the seventeenth century.

The Church was restored by the Heritors in 1891. The Architect was Mr. A. Marshall MacKenzie of Aberdeen, who provided “The  NORTHERN SCOT”  (Newspaper) with a description of the Church. Mr Hippolyte Blane provided further details in “THE BUILDER”, 20th November, 1886. (Both available from Birnie.Org).

You have need to be Prayed for thrice in the Church of Birnie that you may either end or Mend!”

Indeed, burials at Birnie became popular and soil from Birnie was distributed at funerals, placed beneath the coffin, throughout the Highlands.













175 High Street: Elgin 1801

In our Files:

1798 Parish Survey

1835 Parish Survey