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The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845)
Volume XII - Aberdeen
Parish of Slains


I.—Topography and Natural History.

[Drawn up by the late incumbent, the Rev. Gavin Dunn.]

All my endeavours to ascertain the era at which the parish of Forvie was annexed to that of Slains have entirely failed.

Extent, &c.—The extreme length of the parish is somewhat more than 6 miles, breadth about 3˝, and it is of a triangular shape. It is bounded on the west south-west by the river Ythan, which divides it from Foveran; on the north-west, by the rivulet called Forvie burn, which separates it from Logie Buchan; on the east north-east, by the parish of Cruden; and on the south-east, by the northern ocean.

The surface of the parish is remarkably varied, and beautifully undulating. The rocky part of the coast abounds with caves, the most remarkable of which is the Dropping Cave, or White Cave of Slains. It would seem that, in former times, it was an object of deep interest to the curious, and it is still so considered. There are several other caves in which, as well as in the Dropping Cave, fine specimens of petrifaction are to be found ; but their chief celebrity arose from their having afforded excellent places of concealment for contraband goods in the " high and palmy state" of smuggling, which was carried on here to an almost incredible extent. One of these caves, called Hell-lum, is upwards of 200 feet in length, and the pitch of the arch within, in some places, rises to the height of thirty feet.

There is one fissure of about thirty yards in length, four feet in width, and from twenty to thirty in heighth, called the Needle's-eye, through which the sea, in an easterly gale, rushes with impetuous violence. This fissure perforates a round bluff hill of solid rock, which is covered with a layer of earth to the depth of several feet, and its sides are smooth and polished with the action of the waves.

The extent of coast is somewhat upwards of six miles, the greatest part rocky, the remainder of a fine soft sand. The rocks rise to an elevation of from 170 to 200 feet above the level of the sea, and are bold and precipitous, forming innumerable little bays and creeks. In some places, they are riven asunder and piled on one another in terrible confusion, ever and anon yawning with deep and ghastly chasms. Many of these little bays, if they may be called so, are thickly studded with bare rocks, some rising to a great height in naked magnificence, while others heave their huge and horrid ridges just above the surface of the water.

Climate.—Upon the whole, there is scarcely any perceptible variation of the climate over the extent of the parish; and it may be characterized as damper and colder, and in every respect less genial than in some of the inland parts of the county.

One of the most painful and agonizing diseases that can afflict humanity carries off its yearly victims from amongst us, and has not once left the parish these many years. This fatal and almost incurable malady is the stone, which chiefly prevails among the aged fishermen ; and there are four men upwards of sixty years at present labouring under its tortures. Some attribute this disease to the quality of the spring-water, which is very hard, and after long standing, deposits a little limy sediment; others to the beer which they drink, a beverage they are particularly fond of, when they return from fishing; and others, again, to the cold and raw nights to which their profession exposes them on the bosom of the deep. In the autumn of 1832, this parish was afflicted with Asiatic cholera, which here assumed all its most appalling and frightful symptoms. It was imported from Leith in one of the fishermen's boats, and soon spread over the village with its characteristic rapidity and mortality. In the short space of six weeks, in a population of little more than 350 souls, it swept off no less than 23. Its ravages, however, were entirely confined to the fishing-town of Colliston.

Hydrography.—All along the coast, there are many and copious springs of the purest, coolest, and most delicious water. These springs are generally found along the rocky part of the coast, at the base of high and steep braes covered with verdure, from under which they rush out in a stream as abundant as a rivulet, and in quantity sufficient to turn an ordinary mill. There are a few chalybeate springs, the strongest of which is found near the old kirk of Forvie; but their medicinal qualities have never been sufficiently tested so as to gain them any repute.

There are three lakes in the parish, and one of these, called the Muckle Loch of Slains, is really a magnificent sheet of water, covering, in the depth of winter, a basin of from seventy to seventy-three acres in extent. It is surrounded on three sides by a ridge of land, Kippet hills, rising, by an easy acclivity, to the height of from fifty to sixty feet above the level of its surface. Its mean depth may be about twenty feet; but, in one place, it has been ascertained to be fifty-two. The only outlet from it is by a small stream at the south end, which has been converted into a dam, to drive a meal mill about a mile below. The other two lochs, called Cot-hill and Sand-loch, have evidently been formed by the drifting of the sands from Forvie, and each covers a space of about fifteen acres. The only river is the Ythan, formerly mentioned as forming one of the boundaries of the parish.

Geology and Mineralogy.— The rocks along the coast consist of gneiss and mica-slate, alternating with, here and there, thin seams of quartz, and their direction is from north-east to south-west, and their dip north-east. The small eminences, already alluded to as intersecting the parish, called the Kippet hills, are composed of gravel, mixed with smooth and polished limestones, generally from one to sixteen pounds, and few of them exceed the latter weight. Formerly they were carefully picked and burned for lime by the farmers, which produced most excellent crops. This species of manufacture has now long been given up, as English lime may be had at greatly less trouble and expense. The burning of these stones must have been carried on to a very considerable extent, as many excavations along the whole line of the ridge are still very obvious, though now covered with grass. The organic remains found in these limestones, are mussels and other shells. Though occasional blocks of granite are to be found in some districts, yet there are no rocks formed of it; but so soon as the boundary to the north-east of the parish is crossed, the gneiss and mica-slate disappear, and graduate into red granite. This parish abounds with a kind of calcareous sand, which was long extensively used as a manure, and is still profitably employed on newly reclaimed land. It is of a very hot nature, and must be used with much caution. Many vestiges of its injudicious application are to be seen on different farms, where it has been laid on in such quantities as to have burned up the soil, and rendered it incapable of bearing a crop. Fortunately, however, the scorched places are only in small patches, here and there,—the surrounding land having had strength enough to resist its influence. This sand varies in colour and size. It is chiefly of a grayish hue, and from the different strata visible throughout, it is evidently of marine production, as the strata consist of pulverized shells. Every kind of soil, from the heaviest clay to the lightest sand, is to be found here, but the chief character is clay. There is a tract of land, at the average breadth of a mile, extending across almost the whole of the parish, of a deep loamy soil, and most superior description, and, but for the climate, it would vie with the most fertile parts of Scotland. This lies on the estate of Colonel J. Gordon of Cluny Castle.

Zoology.—The Ythan produces salmon, grilse, salmon trout, burn-trout, eels, flat-fish of several descriptions, and also cole-fish, sand-eels, and herring-fry, which latter, in some months of summer, are caught in great abundance. In an economical point of view, the mussels found in this river are of the greatest importance, supplying bait not only to Colliston, but many other fishing villages on the east coast of Scotland. The rent for these was once L.500 per annum, but is now reduced to L.300. This reduction is owing to the great floods, of late years, washing away the beds, and rendering the mussels so scarce as to do little more than supply the fishing villages in the neighbourhood, while formerly they were transported along the whole line of the east coast. This river, especially in the winter season, opens a wide and interesting field to the student of ornithology. It is frequented by a greater variety of birds than most rivers in Great Britain.

Trees, &c.—There is not a single tree in the whole bounds, except on the estate of Leask, belonging to Mr Gordon of Parkhill, and these are by no means large or of a thriving appearance. I planted a few forest trees, such as birch and mountain-ash, in the garden, about ten years ago. The birch has gradually withered away, while the mountain-ash is very little thicker and no higher than when planted. The cultivation of gooseberries has also completely failed, though tried on the sunniest and most sheltered spots in the garden ; and, after an experiment of twelve years, the bushes are now dug up, having, in the most favourable seasons, produced not more than two or three pints of fruit, and these never fully ripened. Buckthorn or marine-thorn has been successfully introduced, and, with the exception of the elder, thrives greatly better than any other shrub the writer ever planted. Under skilful management, hedges might be formed of it, which, though they could never prove a proper fence, would serve to beautify this naked and bare district.

II.—Civil History.

Land-owners.—There are only two land-owners,—Colonel Gordon of Cluny,—and Mr Gordon of Parkhill, whose property of Leask amounts to nearly one-fifth valuation of the whole parish. Neither of the proprietors reside on their estates here.

Parochial Registers.—The parochial register extends back only to the year 1722, and has not been very regularly kept, owing to the neglect of parents to register.

Antiquities.—The foundation of the old kirk of Forvie is still visible, being the only vestige throughout the whole sands, commonly called the Links, which indicates that this district was once the habitation of man. Graves have been discovered around it, but nothing found in them except a few bones. On the estate of Leask, there is another ruin of a religious house, evidently a Roman Catholic chapel, as the place where the altar stood is plainly discernible. It is small, but must be considered a fine old ruin, and in a state of better preservation, if the term can be so applied, than could be imagined from its supposed antiquity. One gable and Gothic window are still nearly entire, and the walls are overgrown with ivy. It stands in the middle of a small plantation of stunted firs and alder, on a little eminence gently rising from a swampy bottom, with a rivulet half enclosing it on the south side. It is called St Adamannan's chapel, and is said to have been erected in the end of the sixth or commencement of the seventh century in honour of that saint, who was a follower of St Colum-ba. Its antiquity is problematical, as its present appearance does not warrant a belief of its having been built at such a remote period. The extensive ruins of the old Castle of Slains, once the residence of the Errol family, stand in this parish, on the top of a rock jutting out into the sea, at an elevation of from 100 to 120 feet. Previous to the use of cannon, it must have been almost impregnable, the only approach to it being by a narrow defile on the north, which a few resolute and daring men might have made good against any opposing force. In the year 1594, the Earl of Errol having joined in the Earl of Huntly's rebellion, James VI., at the instigation of the politic Lord Lindsay, issued orders for its entire demolition, which were faithfully executed ; and nothing of this ancient castle now remains but three sides of a square tower, and some masses of masonry strewed around it.

Mansion House.— The only modern building is the House of Leask, built by the late William Gumming Skene Gordon of Park-hil!, about thirteen years ago. It is a substantial and elegant residence, and is at present let to Sir William Seton of Pitmedden, Bart.


There are only two villages in the parish, Collieston, and the Old Castle, almost wholly inhabited by fishermen. The former contains 89 houses, and 167 inhabitants; the Old Castle, 14 houses, and 48 inhabitants.


Agriculture.—The number of Scotch acres in the parish under cultivation is about 6000, and the system of husbandry is of the most improved description. The farmers are most industrious and enterprizing, and readily adopt any new improvement, either in the breed of the cattle or mode of farming. During the currency of the present leases, there have been upwards of 900 acres of waste land brought under tillage, while the rest of the arable land has been drained, and rendered much more productive. With the exception of the sand links and peat moss, there is very little barren or waste land; and in a few years, if no check is imposed on the spirit of enterprize, the whole will be reclaimed. The routine of cropping generally followed is, one crop of oats, then turnip, or other green crop, next bear or oats, and last two years grass The chief proprietor has a considerable breadth of land, in his own hand, on which he has grazed, for some years past, a flock of sheep amounting to the number of from 1200 to 1500; but there is no permanent pasture save a little along the coast. The rent varies from L.1 to L.4 per acre; and by a regulation lately introduced, it is paid in grain, half oats half bear, at the fiars prices. The duration of leases is nineteen years. Several farm-houses have been lately built, which are in every respect more comfortable and commodious than the old ones; and on the expiry of the leases, now at hand, there will be a considerable number of new erections. Bone dust and steam conveyance have united in producing a new and improved system of rearing and feeding cattle; and the attention of the farmer has of late been greatly turned to that profitable branch of industry, which has certainly attained to a wonderful degree of perfection. Total number of cattle, as far as can be ascertained, 1118; amount of cattle sold, L.1242; bolls of corn and bear, 3992.

Fisheries.—The inhabitants of the only two villages, Collieston and Old Castle, are chiefly employed, and wholly dependent upon white-fishing, and realize an excellent livelihood from their laborious and very dangerous avocation. They are superior to other working tradesmen in the property which they possess, never interfere in the politics of the day, and are most regular attendants on the public ordinances of religion. There is a great variety of fish caught, viz. ling, whiting, mackerel, turbot, halibut, skate, soles, flounders of different species; but what they chiefly depend upon, are haddocks and cod, which they catch in great abundance. They smoke and cure the haddocks principally for the Leith and Glasgow markets, which at an average fetch about 9s. the hundred, six score to the hundred. The haddock-fishing yields L.1 weekly per man, when the weather permits their going to sea, and they are not allowed to go oftener than twice a-day, a regulation properly introduced by the tacksman of the river Ythan, to prevent the extravagant consumption of bait mussels, and in order to reserve a sufficient quantity for the neighbouring villages. The mussels are sold at the Aberdeen market from 6d. to 9d. per peck; but the fishermen here pay a stipulated sum yearly,—the young men L.3 each, and those above sixty years of age, L.2. They are allowed to gather the mussels only on their own side of the river. The cod-fishing continues from October to February inclusive, and the fish are contracted for by a merchant who pickles and barrels them for (he London market, at the average amount of L.1, 8s. per barrel, each containing about seventy fish, for which he pays to the fishermen 4d. a-piece over head. The number of barrels during the season is 293, which produces a handsome revenue to all concerned. Of late years, five boats, with the requisite complement of men and women, have gone to Peterhead for the herring-fishery, which has hitherto proved a profitable speculation, and not so detrimental to morals, as might have been expected from the accounts given of the demoralizing effects of this sort of occupation.

V.—Parochial Economy.

Market-Town.—There is no market or post town nearer than Ellon, which is distant six miles, and letters and papers are brought thence.

Ecclesiastical State.—The site of the parish church is within 300 yards of the sea coast; but it is conveniently situated for the population, as the extreme point does not exceed above three-and-a-half miles distance from it. It was built about forty years ago, is seated to contain about 654, and is regularly well attended. The number of communicants varies from 450 to 470. The sittings are all free, and no other church or chapel of any description within the bounds. The number of Episcopalians may be rated at 20, and Seceders of all denominations at 5. The extent of glebe, including manse, garden, and offices, is about 5 acres; and the stipend 16 chalders, half meal half barley.

Education.— Two years ago, there was erected a very handsome school-house, forming two sides of a square, of the very best materials; but the slating, masonry, and general finishing of the whole bear little proportion to the excellence of the materials; the rain already greatly damaging the roof and walls. The branches of instruction taught in it are, English reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin, mathematics, and navigation, and the schoolmaster's salary is L.30 per annum. He has the legal accommodation. There is an adventure school in the village of Collieston, attended by about 25 scholars; but they are chiefly young, and merely taught the rudiments of education.

Parochial Funds.—The average number of poor on the roll is 32, and each receives annually about L.1, 12s.; and once and again, the allowance was returned to the session, from an unwillingness to receive it; but this honourable feeling of independence is fast disappearing. The poor are almost entirely supported by the weekly collections at the church doors, and the interest of a small fund of L.140 Sterling, deposited in the bank at the common rate of interest. The amount of the weekly collections is about L.43 Sterling; and were it not for the additional assistance they get from the farmers, in the shape of meal, potatoes, &c. the funds would altogether be inadequate to supply their necessities.

Ale-houses.—There are three ale-houses in the parish, and one wholesale spirit-merchant.

Fuel.—The fuel chiefly used is peat, obtained from the moss already mentioned, and which contains 245 acres.

Miscellaneous Observations.

The principal variation in the state of the parish since the date of the last Account, is the vast and rapid improvement of the system of husbandry. At that period, old men affirm, that it was no uncommon thing to see a plough drawn by six horses, or by twelve oxen, and the work performed did not much exceed in extent what is now done by a pair of either animals, while the execution is inconceivably superior. The improvement of the implements of husbandry and breed of horses which has been introduced, has thus greatly lessened the expense of farming operations; as one man with his pair of horses will do even more work than could formerly be executed by two men and a dozen of oxen, with their clumsy and cumbrous implements. Another important improvement since the year 1791, is the vast superiority of the breed of cattle, the system of rearing and feeding, and the great extent to which it is now carried on. The breadth of land under turnip cultivation is inconceivably greater than it was; while the quality of the root itself is of a much better description, as the growers have long devoted their most scrupulous attention to the improvement of the seed. Each man raises his own seed, and carefully selects the best of each sort to plant out. The principal kinds are, the green top and yellow bottom, red top and yellow bottom, a few tankard, and a considerable portion of ruta-baga, chiefly for feeding, in May and June. It is much to be desired that authentic information were obtained of the progress of the drifting sands of Forvie, which now cover and lay desolate 1700 acres of land. The traditionary tales on this subject are mere legends, which in no manner can be depended upon. The greatest part of these links cannot be traversed without producing in the mind feelings of dreariness and desolation, as they present nothing but knolls and pinnacles of pure sand, of various dimensions, scantily covered with bent. Parts here and there might be reclaimed, but it would be at an enormous expense, and at the eminent risk of their being again soon swallowed up. At the north-west boundary, there is an immense ridge of sand which is still encroaching on the land, but so slowly, that, if a judgment may be formed from its progress for the last twelve years, ages must have elapsed ere such a large district of country could have been overwhelmed.

February 1840.

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