Towie graveyard: fire claims a whole family and Victoria Cross awardee

The very pretty hamlet of Towie lies in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire. It has a fairly typical Presbyterian kirk built of harled granite in 1803 which has a distinctive bell-cote and attractive roof ventilator.

Towie Kirk

I wondered at a quite Germanic-looking cross while wandering through the cemetery. I’d never seen anything like it before in a graveyard.

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I thought it might have been the made as the memorial for Victoria Cross recipient James Leith as it has a look of the medal but this isn’t so.

Leith is in fact buried close by and his grave marked by a modest pink granite cross.

During the Indian Mutiny of 1858, at Betwa in India, the then Lieutenant Leith of the 14th Light Dragoons went out alone to the rescue of a wounded company Captain in danger from a rebel attack.  As a result of his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross medal –

For conspicuous bravery at Betwah, on the 1st of April, 1858, in having, charged alone, and rescued Captain Need, of the same Regiment, when surrounded by a large number of rebel Infantry. Despatch from Major-General Sir Hugh Henry Rose, G.C.B., dated 28th April, 1858.

He was 31 years of age and as well as receiving the medal was promoted to Major.

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Leith was no simple country loon however but a  son of General Sir Alexander Leith of Freefield and Glenkindie. Born in the district of Glenkindie in 1826 Leith was educated in London and Cambridge, and played cricket for the university.

This painting of Major James Leith Winning the Victoria Cross is wrongly titled as he wasn’t a major then.

James Leith

Another Leith buried alongside the General is John Disney Leith who was  a son of Lt Col Alexander Henry Leith. He married Mona Simpson, whose plaque lies here. John Disney Leith was fond of fast cars and died in a car crash in 1968 near Lockerbie at 59 years old.  He is remembered in the racing world as Jock Leith and I think there is a race trophy still bearing his name.

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Yew trees are commonly found in Scottish cemeteries. Links between yews and the dead go back through the millennia to Druid worship in pre-Christian society and the connection was carried through to the Christian era by the tree’s association with the life of Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s father was a diplomat with the Romans and living in Scotland at the time his son was born  under the ancient yew at Fortingall (2000-4000 years old).

The Gaelic name for yew is iubhair or euair and sprigs of the yew were worn in bonnets by men from Clan Fraser.  Ioua is Pictish for yew, from where Iona is thought to have been named.

Stems of yew used to be placed in coffins along with the dead.

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Towie cemetery has been used for burying the dead from the area for a long time so that some of the inscriptions on the freestone and granite memorials have become weathered and difficult to read over time.

30june13 008There are some nice bits of carving on several of them, especially the freestone ones for the obvious reason that the stone is softer than granite so more pliable.

30june13 005I like flower details. I think this is a lily so signifying innocence and purity. A nice carving by the mason.

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This beautiful Celtic cross has been hewn out of pink-red granite, possibly Corrennie. It is a superb example of this type of memorial and must have cost a packet. Click on the picture and look at the detail for yourself. Better still get yourself out to Towie.

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I like a gravestone which gives information on the incumbent. I mean where’s the interest in a list of names? Why people stopped adding occupations or causes of death, or the odd address beats me. Such information provides interest and scope for those of us who value the past. The stone above is a good example of this.

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The upturned mortsafe  is a reminder that corpses were in demand by resurrectionists hoping to make money from medical doctors desperate for cadavers to dissect for anatomy lessons. Many Scottish graveyards still have their mortsafes I’m glad to say.

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A lovely detail on this lichen-encrusted stone. Is this a rose? Could be then it tells the person only lived a short life.

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I loved the addition of these fine conch shells and the flowers secured beneath the one on the left.

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A familiar sight in the northeast of Scotland is a granite urn draped with a cloth. The urn is for remembering a loved one who was long-lived. The cloth refers to the mort cloth which covered the body or the coffin.

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And finally we come to a tragic story of a young family devastated by a domestic fire.

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A newspaper article from the 27 November  1945 tells how a cottar house in Glenmuick , over on Deeside, which went on fire the previous Saturday, claimed a third victim with the death of Mrs Ness.

Mrs Ness died in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary leaving only her eighteen-month –old baby, Dorothy, surviving at that point but critically ill.

Mr James Ness who was a farm worker had died on the Saturday from his injuries. The couple’s three-year-old daughter Sheila died in the burned-out house.

You can read the report of the accident here.

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You will be struck by the extreme bravery of the Ness’ neighbour Mrs Annie Smith. I couldn’t help thinking that she deserved a bravery medal every bit as much as the Major above.

Ness end

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7 Comments to “Towie graveyard: fire claims a whole family and Victoria Cross awardee”

  1. Fantastic info Lena. We just happened upon the kirk and graveyard today and were fascinated with some of the grave stones but your blog explains so much, it’s brilliant.

    • Thank you Graeme. I love visiting older graveyards as they’re full of stories. My big grouse is newer stones don’t carry the same amount of information that stones used to. But there are lovely pla es out there, like Towies. Thanks for reading the blog.

  2. I am connected to the Ness family via Mr. Ness’s grandmother, Mary Ann Mitchell, whose brother Peter was my g.g.grandfather. Such a tragic story. I had heard part of it from someone who contacted me through our mutual interst in family history. Thanks for sharing it here. RIP and what a wonderful woman Mrs. Smith was.
    TG – Ireland

  3. I read your post regarding Ness Family, it was my granny and my mum who tried to save the Ness family. I recall my Gran never ever spoke about it, and it was just around 3 years ago that my mum gave me the detailed account of what actually happened which I wrote down and sent it to Ballater History Society. I feel very touched by what happened and as my mum is now in her early 80’s we still visit Towie Kirk Yard to remember them and place flowers.

    • Thanks for looking at the blog. It’s really rewarding to find someone connected with a story picks up on it. Your Gran was a brave and kind woman and the tragedy of the family must have affected her. Isn’t it interesting how something so major in her life she never mentioned, like those men who served in wars often kept their experiences to themselves.

      It’s touching that you and your mum take flowers to Towie – it’s a bonny wee burial ground.

  4. Really interesting post Lena – thanks.

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