The Bennachie Colonists

The Bennachie Colonists

The Bennachie colonists set up a community on the ‘commonty’ (common land) of Bennachie between 1801 and the 1830s. The colonists were the source of much local debate at the time, but surprisingly little is known about them. This band of crofters settled south-east of the Mither Tap at a height of 700’ in a spot which became known as the Colony. Described as possessing dubious morals and backwards ways, indeed as 'bed-hopping licentious squatters', the colonists were hard-workers and cared for their environment. They grafted a living from dyking (stonemasonry/building drystane walls or dykes), quarrying and knitting, plus poaching and illicit whisky stills.

By 1850 there were 75 men, women and children living in the colony, until in 1859 when the Court of Session in Edinburgh approved the division of the Bennachie Commonty into 9 parts. The land-owners demanded rent. Some of the group left the colony; others tried to meet the payments. Some colonists were eventually evicted for refusing to pay rent. The dispossessed had no lawyers.

An archaeological dig by the University of Aberdeen and the Bailies of Bennachie, a local community group, is providing a balanced assessment about how the community lived. The team is undertaking soil mapping and surveys of the site to provide a ‘micro history’ of life on the hill, the Bennachie Landscape project. Detailed archive research and a major excavation of farmsteads has been undertaken, unearthing drainage which the colonists installed, traces of well-built homes, glass beads, necklaces, ceramics and crockery.

A croft was excavated as part of the Fetternear Research Project in 1999. A commemorative A-frame sculpture inscribed with the names of the colonists' families reads:- ‘The pattern of the stones is the echo of the colony’.

In his seminal 1890 book ‘Bennachie’, Alex Inkson McConnochie wrote:- ‘Squatters were of the poorest class, people with no home, or who, for some good reason, had to quit their small possessions. A few settled on the Commonty, ground uncultivated and unused, to build huts or houses for their own occupation. That was followed by “rivein’ in a bit grun’” to raise a crop. They got small wages from the neighbouring farmers for occasional jobs. Could they be blamed for not seeing the matter in the same manner as those who claimed to be the proprietors of the habitations which their own hands had built, the bit of ground they had rescued from Nature at the cost of hard and exhausting physical toil?’

“They weren’t popular with some people because they were effectively living rent-free on ground that was supposed to be communal”, says University of Aberdeen archaeologist Dr Jeff Oliver, who is co-ordinating the dig. “Accounts describe them as a marginal community ‘on the edge’ scratching a living from the slope of Bennachie – a harsh, nutrient impoverished landscape. They became associated with a story of resistance against the local lairds who eventually seized the commonty for themselves using the London courts. After this the colonists effectively became tenants. Our working theory is that they received a lot of bad press from some of the neighbouring locals. All sorts of slanderous things were said about them. However what may be more accurate is that they were very similar to other agricultural communities of the time and this study will help to provide a more nuanced assessment of this. The Bennachie colonists are a particularly fascinating group because there is a reasonable archive of information written by various historical commentators – not by the settlers themselves - so working closely with our community collaborators, a big part of our work will be in comparing the written accounts with what the archaeology reveals. There were on-going tensions between the group and the surrounding estates. In one story the local henchman of the Balquhain estate burned one of the crofters out of his house. Most of the original colonists had moved off the land by the 1880s, but one crofter, George Esson, lived on the land until his death in 1939, after which time the hillside was completely abandoned.”

“The conflict between tenants and landlords and people being removed from their land is an important theme in 18th and 19th century Scottish history,” Dr Oliver explains. “Our work at Bennachie provides new connections to this because we know much less about these kinds of tensions within North-East Scotland. The research is doubly important because it is being carried out with the local community. An important part of the project is engaging members of the public who are passionate about history and archaeology. What we hope to achieve is to take archaeology out of the ivory tower and make it more accessible to others. Ultimately we are aiming for a more sustainable kind of archaeology, which is not totally controlled by professionals or academics. We've held a number of educational events on the hillside with the Bailies. It’s a really enjoyable and worthwhile enterprise.”

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The Bennachie Colonists

The Bennachie Colonists

The Bennachie colonists set up a community on the ‘commonty’ (common land) of Bennachie between 1801 and the 1830s. The colonists were the source of much local debate at the time, but surprisingly little is known about them. This band of crofters settled south-east of the Mither Tap at a height of 700’ in a spot which became known as the Colony. Described as possessing dubious morals and backwards ways, indeed as 'bed-hopping licentious squatters', the colonists were hard-workers and cared for their environment. They grafted a living from dyking (stonemasonry/building drystane walls or dykes), quarrying and knitting, plus poaching and illicit whisky stills.

By 1850 there were 75 men, women and children living in the colony, until in 1859 when the Court of Session in Edinburgh approved the division of the Bennachie Commonty into 9 parts. The land-owners demanded rent. Some of the group left the colony; others tried to meet the payments. Some colonists were eventually evicted for refusing to pay rent. The dispossessed had no lawyers.

An archaeological dig by the University of Aberdeen and the Bailies of Bennachie, a local community group, is providing a balanced assessment about how the community lived. The team is undertaking soil mapping and surveys of the site to provide a ‘micro history’ of life on the hill, the Bennachie Landscape project. Detailed archive research and a major excavation of farmsteads has been undertaken, unearthing drainage which the colonists installed, traces of well-built homes, glass beads, necklaces, ceramics and crockery.

A croft was excavated as part of the Fetternear Research Project in 1999. A commemorative A-frame sculpture inscribed with the names of the colonists' families reads:- ‘The pattern of the stones is the echo of the colony’.

In his seminal 1890 book ‘Bennachie’, Alex Inkson McConnochie wrote:- ‘Squatters were of the poorest class, people with no home, or who, for some good reason, had to quit their small possessions. A few settled on the Commonty, ground uncultivated and unused, to build huts or houses for their own occupation. That was followed by “rivein’ in a bit grun’” to raise a crop. They got small wages from the neighbouring farmers for occasional jobs. Could they be blamed for not seeing the matter in the same manner as those who claimed to be the proprietors of the habitations which their own hands had built, the bit of ground they had rescued from Nature at the cost of hard and exhausting physical toil?’

“They weren’t popular with some people because they were effectively living rent-free on ground that was supposed to be communal”, says University of Aberdeen archaeologist Dr Jeff Oliver, who is co-ordinating the dig. “Accounts describe them as a marginal community ‘on the edge’ scratching a living from the slope of Bennachie – a harsh, nutrient impoverished landscape. They became associated with a story of resistance against the local lairds who eventually seized the commonty for themselves using the London courts. After this the colonists effectively became tenants. Our working theory is that they received a lot of bad press from some of the neighbouring locals. All sorts of slanderous things were said about them. However what may be more accurate is that they were very similar to other agricultural communities of the time and this study will help to provide a more nuanced assessment of this. The Bennachie colonists are a particularly fascinating group because there is a reasonable archive of information written by various historical commentators – not by the settlers themselves - so working closely with our community collaborators, a big part of our work will be in comparing the written accounts with what the archaeology reveals. There were on-going tensions between the group and the surrounding estates. In one story the local henchman of the Balquhain estate burned one of the crofters out of his house. Most of the original colonists had moved off the land by the 1880s, but one crofter, George Esson, lived on the land until his death in 1939, after which time the hillside was completely abandoned.”

“The conflict between tenants and landlords and people being removed from their land is an important theme in 18th and 19th century Scottish history,” Dr Oliver explains. “Our work at Bennachie provides new connections to this because we know much less about these kinds of tensions within North-East Scotland. The research is doubly important because it is being carried out with the local community. An important part of the project is engaging members of the public who are passionate about history and archaeology. What we hope to achieve is to take archaeology out of the ivory tower and make it more accessible to others. Ultimately we are aiming for a more sustainable kind of archaeology, which is not totally controlled by professionals or academics. We've held a number of educational events on the hillside with the Bailies. It’s a really enjoyable and worthwhile enterprise.”

See next image for more on Bennachie.
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