The Early Church

The Rev. Donald MacDougall was the Established Church minister from May, 1874 till July, 1917 when he retired back to his native Pitlochry. He was an antiquary and during his ministry he completed in the late 1800s a history of the area which he entitled “The Strathspey Highlands”. I have the manuscript of this work and am quoting quite extensively from it in this article.

It must be remembered that until the railway came to the Strath in 1863 Aviemore had the Inn, demolished in 1969 to enable road-widening to take place, and some half-dozen houses and virtually nothing else. The community was in Rothiemurchus and that was where the church began.

You will be familiar with the churchyard at the Doune and it was in the hallowed ground there close to the present church that the cell of the first evangelist was constructed. The original church was dedicated to St. Tuchaldus and was for long known as Taldi’s Kirk. The first mention of St Tuchaldus and the church of Rothiemurchus is 1229 in the Register of the Bishops of Moray. It would, however,  be safe to say that the wandering Culdee missionary was in Rothiemurchus  long before that date. Donald MacDougall talks of Taldi cultivating the lower slopes of Ord Ban and erecting a water mill to grind grain. This mill was situated at the north-east corner of the present graveyard and a lade was built to take water from the Allt na Cardoch burn to drive the wheel. He said some two hundred yards of this lade was still evident when he was writing. Taldi had also established a fair, Feile Taldi, which was held on the brae above the cell. Eventually it was moved to other locations in Rothiemurchus and was still being held till the beginning of the 19th century.

He suggests that Taldi must have been an elderly man since when he had the mill running he would lie down beside it for a rest. He also suggests that Taldi did not end his days there or his tomb would have been venerated through the ages.

Further evidence of the antiquity of the churchyard is the grave of Shaw Mor, who died in 1405. He had taken part in the clan battle on the North Inch of Perth in 1396 when thirty men of the clans Ha and Qwele fought to the death before a crowd including the King. Historians are divided on the identities of the clans involved. The MacIntoshes, MacPhersons and Davidsons were all members of the Clan Chattan Federation. The battle of Invernahavon was fought between the above clans and the Camerons from Lochaber but this did not end the feuding. On Shaw Mor’s grave are five stones like kebbucks of cheese, although in some early books only four are mentioned. To move these stones will, according to local legend, bring tragedy to the perpetrator. Two stones not far from the grave bear testimony to this. Servants by the names of Latham and  Scroggie were said to have removed one or more of the stones and both were drowned in the Spey close-by. My own grandfather moved the stones to photograph the inscription underneath and shortly afterwards he fell on a slide the pupils had made in the school playground and suffered injuries which left him with a permanent limp. The stones are now covered with a metal grille

Until 1625 Rothiemurchus has been quite separate but in that year it was linked with Duthil. The minister lived in Duthil but came to preach every third Sunday if the weather allowed or the Spey was not in flood. This linkage continued into the nineteenth century.

In ”The Memoirs of a Highland Lady” Elizabeth Grant in 1812 talks of the dilapidated condition of the church. The door and windows were badly fitted, plaster was falling from the ceiling and the graveyard was covered in nettles. There were two services, one in English and one in Gaelic .At that time the attendance was very poor.

Because of the state of the building John Peter Grant of Rothiemurchus offered to rebuild the church if the Government built a manse and paid the minister’s stipend. The church was rebuilt in 1830 with only the windowless side facing the Doune surviving from the earlier construction. On that side there is a slit on the exterior which could be what’s left of a leper squint. The cost was £395. The completion certificate for the manse is dated July, 1830. It was built to a Telford design and stands off the road to Loch an Eilein. by the Pottery.

In a questionnaire for the Presbytery of Abernethy in 1835 there are some quite interesting statistics. In 1833 Rothiemurchus had been divided from Duthil and had its own minister. Some 560 people were in the district of whom only two were not of the Established Church. One was an Ana-baptist and the other a Roman Catholic.(I would like to see the figures following the Disruption in 1843) Most seem to be having a miserable existence and quite  number moved south in the summer months to seek employment returning in the winter. Many were working in the timber industry and only some four or five farmers were living comfortably. The average attendance in the months of May, June and July was 200 and in the months of December, January and February 140. It is hard to imagine that number being accommodated in the building but it did say that some did not attend due to lack of accommodation in the parish church. The number of Communicants was between 150 and 200 of whom some 50 were parishioners. 20 seats were allocated to the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, the daughter of Duchess Jean of Kinrara. The Bedfords rented the Doune for some time. 8 were allocated to the minister and 8 to the elders. The emolument was £120 sterling granted by Act of Parliament.

In a report on churches in the Highlands and Islands in 1831 291 over the age of 10 were able to read, many of them imperfectly and 134 were totally ignorant (illiterate)I

It should be noted that there was a chapel at Achnahatnich and I am led to believe there was one between Drumintoul and Guislich..

To be continued.

Walter Dempster.


The two people looking at Shaw Mor’s grave are the authors father and his uncle.
These photos were taken around about 1906.




Second Part by Walter Dempster

In the last article I had reached the 1830s. The Established Church at the Doune had been rebuilt with a fine new Telford design manse, completed in 1830, on the road to Loch an Eilein.  Duthil and Rothiemurchus had been joined since 1625 but by Act of Parliament in 1824 they were separated and  Rothiemurchus was made a quoad sacra parish with the right  again to have its own minister.

The first minister was the Rev. Charles Grant, inducted in September, 1830. Soon after, though, he had problems. In 1842 he wrote that the church rebuilt by Sir John Peter Grant for £395 was in a state of good repair, but the manse, built by the Government at scandalously enormous expense (£750) was not. It had, he said, been very carelessly constructed and required attention and an occasional outlay of money by the minister to keep it in proper condition. He went on to say that the garden wall was a hideous object, built in such a slovenly manner that  portions of it were continually toppling to the ground.

In the graveyard there is a fairly simple mortsafe proving that no burial ground however remote was considered safe from the Resurrectionists, or Body-snatchers. It is now inside the church at the west end.

At this time in Aviemore there was the Inn (built in 1765/6) on the Wade Road and virtually nothing else. Balladern was a clachan between it and Craigellachie when the first inn dating from the 1720s and the later one were put up but it does not appear on the Ordnance  Survey map of around 1870. The Inn stood on the corner of the road in front of the Winking Owl, part of which was the original inn and it was here that Robert Burns had breakfast during his Highland tour in September, 1787. In 1969 the Aviemore Inn with its long history was shamefully demolished  to enable road-widening to take place, and more recently what was probably the oldest building in the village was pulled down to provide Tesco with a car-park. One despairs of our Councillors.

The settlement of Rothiemurchus had a suggested population in 1831 of just under 600 of whom many were probably itinerant wood workers. The forest cover would have been much greater at that time although much had been felled during the wars with the French especially in Glenmore. By the 1840s the population was nearer 500. Rothiemurchus and Glenmore have always been a valuable source of timber.

However the religious way of life of the Highlands was shattered in 1843 with the Disruption. The situation had been smouldering for some time but came to a head in that year when the decision to leave the Established Church was taken by many within its ranks. Their main objection was what they saw as state interference and the right granted to wealthy landowners to appoint a minister often in direct opposition to the wishes of the congregation so they decided the only solution was to break away from the Established Church and form their own Church - the Free Church. To them “Free” meant free of patronage and interference by the heritors, the local landowners.

I have not found any suggestion that the minister in Rothiemurchus joined their ranks but certainly in the years following a Free Church was constructed some quarter of a mile from Coylumbridge Hotel on the path leading over towards Lochan More. Although corrugated iron had been invented in the 1820s and was in widespread use worldwide by the 1840s the building was probably of wood on a stone foundation with possibly a corrugated iron roof. It is said that the heather and trees will not grow on the site but they are creeping in. The Church  is marked at a crossroads on the First Ordnance map around 1870 but although the crossroads is still on the Second Series there is no sign of the Church.

Local legends talk of an outdoor preaching area opposite the entrance to the Sled Dog Centre on the road to Glenmore. Certainly the bank of an old bend in the River Luineag, facing Glenmore would have made excellent seating. After I wrote that, I was delighted to receive  some entries from the Baptist Home Missionary Society Reports, among which were two by William Hutcheson, who was based in Kingussie. He describes the area as having been barren spiritually but now, around 1830, more and more are seeking the way to Zion. He had twelve preaching stations and there was a great desire everywhere to hear the Gospel. However, in 1840 he writes, “June. I frequently go to preach at Rothiemurchus Well. There is not a more important station in our northern districts. Hundreds come to the well on the the Lord’s day, and multitudes through the week.” The Rothiemurchus (Mineral ) Well is across the Luineag opposite Moormore and people came from Braemar and further afield to drink the waters there. You knew you were close to it by the strong smell of sulphur. In 1835 Charles Grant wrote that of the some 570 people in Rothiemurchus only two were not of the Established Church. Were many so disenchanted with the Church at the Doune that they were willing to go to listen to a preacher of another faith?

Gradually Inverdruie became the hub of the area and in 1885 it was decided that a stone building should be erected for the Free Church on ground given by the Laird, Sir John Peter Grant of Rothiemurchus. The fine building which is now the Mountain Rescue Centre was very quickly erected and the first service was held on the 15th of August, 1886. Some of you may remember the Service that was held in 1986 to mark the Centenary. Unfortunately with dwindling numbers attending it did not survive for much longer. Some people in Aviemore used to come over to Rothiemurchus because they considered the atmosphere there to be much superior to that in St. Andrew’s.

U.F. Church (St. Columba’s) some twenty years after it was built. Look at the roads

We need to take a step back though. With the opening of the railway line to Inverness via Forres in 1863 Aviemore began to grow with more and more tourists coming to the area. When the link via Slochd was completed in 1898 and Aviemore became a junction the development was speeded up. The splendid Station Hotel, close to where the Four Seasons Hotel now stands,  was opened in 1901, and the Cairngorm Hotel soon after. The Station Hotel was completely gutted in a fire on the 26th  of September, 1950. Aviemore was on the boundary of the Duthil parish but by 1901 it had its own place of worship in a mission building said to be attached to the Church in Kingussie but this does not seem likely. This is the present St. Andrew’s Church.

The schisms and unions within the church form a very tangled web. One union, however,  did affect the district. In 1900 the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church (which was itself the result of a union) came together to form the United Free Church which became the second largest Presbyterian church in Scotland. Not all Free Church members wanted to join this union however and these became known as the “Wee Frees”. Over the next few years there was bitter disagreement between them nationally over the ownership of assets and property.

One event in 1904 cast a cloud over Rothiemurchus. On Sunday, the 31st of January,  the Rev. Donald MacDougall’s wife was drowned in the Alltnacardoch Burn between the Manse and the Polchar. Some passers-by spotted the body and the news was conveyed to the Doune where my grandfather who was precentor had to break the news to the minister during the service. Mr. MacDougall retired back to Pitlochry in 1917.

E.C. Manse up the Loch an Eilein road with two ministers.

The author would like to think that the one on the left is the Rev. Donald MacDougall. Can anyone help?