The north east has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Other than visits to Culloden, Auldearn, and a daring excursion to Alford on one occasion, I had never really ventured into the dark recesses of Moray and Aberdeenshire.
Montrose criss-crossed this area many times during his campaigns and many of the places mentioned in the many books which I have read on this subject had simply to be left to the imagination.
Two such places were the Gordon stronghold Bog of Gight Castle, where Huntly often took refuge when Montrose was desperately trying to speak with him, and Bellie Kirk where Montrose’s eldest son, Lord Graham, was buried in 1645. I never really had a clue where either of these places was.
Last year when I was staying for a few days in Aviemore, I set out with a friend to try to locate Bellie Kirk Yard. The only clue I had of its whereabouts was from a map of the parishes of Scotland which showed Bellie Parish as being close to the mouth of the River Spey. We knew that a village or a town called Bellie did not exist, so we just had to head for the general direction of the parish and see what we could find. Armed with this information we set off north westwards for the town of Keith hoping to obtain a pointer or two from the Council Registrar’s office.
It was a torrentially wet day, and it was in these monsoon like conditions that we arrived at the Council offices in Mid Street. A helpful assistant at the information desk offered the advice that Bellie was close to the town of Fochabers. So off we headed north westwards along the A96.
Fochabers is a delightful town with its symmetrical streets laid out in regimental fashion. The town was developed in the 18th century by the Duke of Gordon in a similar way to the development of Inveraray by the Duke of Argyll. We drove along the High Street until we discovered, set back a way from the main road, a superb structure displaying the name Bellie Parish Church. Our initial delight at apparently discovering our goal was short lived as we quickly realised that this fine building was too young to be the Bellie Kirk which we were searching for.
Taking a walk along the high street we came upon another fine ecclesiastical looking building, which is in fact a large antique shop and museum combined. This place is well worth a visit and the fine collection of antiquities contains a large and impressive display of horse drawn carriages.
The shop assistant was most helpful and directed us in the direction of ‘old’ Bellie Kirk which, she explained, “was very close to Bog of Gight Castle”. The penny began to drop, and I realised that I was on the point of discovering not one but two of the places which had for so many years been eluding me.
The road we took struck northwards from Fochabers, towards Spey Bay, and a mile or so from Fochabers we saw a sign post on our right directing us towards Bellie Kirk yard.
A Kirk has existed here since the 12th Century and it ultimately came under the patronage of the Bishops of Moray. The original church would have been constructed in a primitive fashion, with timber or mud walls, this being replaced in later years by a more substantial stone structure. The last Kirk to stand on this site was re-built in the 1720’s but it very quickly fell into disrepair when the congregation transferred to the new Kirk in Fochabers in 1797. Very little now remains of the abandoned structure.
As we entered the Kirk yard, unaware of what to expect, I was disappointed not to see an old structure of some kind. I had rather convinced myself over the years that there would have been an old ruinous church here with, nestling under the moss covered walls, a memorial of some kind to Lord Graham. Nothing of the sort exists, but there is an area in the middle of the graveyard about which is congregated a large amount of old recumbent and upright gravestones. We sensed at the time that this area in the centre of the graveyard was significant.
One old stone tells the story of a past Minister of Bellie Parish, William Saunders, who presided over the flock here from 1586 until his death in 1663. Quite remarkably, being born in 1556, he lived through both the Reformation and the Restoration, and there can not have been many who could have claimed that. A plaque nearby, placed there by Moray District Council, gives more information on this remarkable man.
It is recorded by the historian Spalding that Montrose arrived at Bog of Gight Castle with his army on 4th March 1645. His eldest son John, Lord Graham, had been campaigning with his father since September 1644 and had therefore been with the army through the hard winter campaigns in Argyll and Inverlochy. A few days after arriving at Bog of Gight Lord Graham took ill and died. He was conducted to Bellie Kirk and interred there and, as Montrose was already hard pressed at this time with the campaign, he would have had little time to grieve. Spalding described the boy thus, “a proper youth about 16 years old, and of singular expectation, taking sickness, dies in the bog in a few days, and is buried in the Kirk of Bellie, to his fathers great grief”. It had not escaped my notice that it would most likely have been the Minister William Saunders who would have conducted the no doubt brief burial service for Lord Graham.
We continued to search the area high and low for any reference to the burial place of Lord Graham, but without any success. We thus left disappointed but with a resolve to try to find out more about the sad events which brought Montrose to this place.
Upon returning home my first letter of enquiry was written to the Church Officer of Bellie Parish Church in Fochabers. Soon after this, I received a very formal letter from the President’s Office of Baxters (the Baxters Foods group), informing me that they had received a copy of my letter and had in turn passed it on to Mr Bruce Bishop of the Moray Burial Grounds Research Group (MBGRG). Baxters, along with Moray Council, have apparently been providing considerable support to the MBGRG in their efforts to record and conserve vital information contained in the graveyards of Moray.
By sheer good fortune I appeared to have arrived on the scene just in time to benefit from the findings of a survey of Bellie Churchyard which had been carried out jointly by the MBGRG and the Friends of Bellie Churchyard.
Soon after this I received a letter and a most interesting booklet from Bruce Bishop which contained fascinating information on Bellie Churchyard and its history throughout the centuries. To my questions relating to the burial of Lord Graham Mr Bishop confirmed that there was no formal record of the burial of Lord Graham, but burial records were not kept in the Parish until 1791.
He was however certain that Lord Graham would have been buried not just in the Kirk yard, but within the walls of the Kirk itself. He explained that, after the new church had been built in Fochabers the old Kirk fell into ruin and rubble was allowed to fall both within the walls and outside. As with many old and valuable properties which have been allowed to deteriorate in this way, stones were removed by local people for other buildings and dykes etc. and in a short time little trace of the structure remained above ground. Mr Bishop confirmed that to excavate within the area of the original church is now impossible because of later (19th C.) burials into the rubble mound which now cover the original church floor. In all the works which the MBGRG have carried out so far within the churchyard no indication of where Lord Graham was buried has ever been found.
It is perfectly feasible that a marker stone did, and may still, show the actual place of the burial, but it seems unlikely that such a marker will ever now be uncovered. It may of course be that Montrose wished at the time to keep the burial as quiet as possible for fear of attracting the wrath of the Covenanting leaders who had shown in the past that they were not averse to digging up the remains of departed Royalists to pronounce excommunication or damnation upon them.
Although our quest to locate a grave or marker stone showing the exact location of Lord Graham’s burial had failed we were pleased at least to have located Bellie Kirk, and to have learned so much about the graveyard from Bruce Bishop and the MBGRG.
The fact that Lord Graham appears to have been buried within the church walls certainly narrows down the options to a small area, but the thought that a marker stone may lie out of reach, albeit perhaps only a few inches below the surface, I find very frustrating.
The work of MBGRG and the Friends of Bellie Churchyard goes on however and, who knows, maybe one day they will uncover the remains of a fine youth who proudly shared his father’s dream, and who gave his life in the cause as his father was to do five years later.