Tonley House is little more now than a rickle o stanes. What’s left standing, not much, hints at the once grand Scottish baronial residence and estate of around 5000 acres belonging to the Moir-Byres family.
When Robert Byres was accidently drowned in Dublin Bay his widow, Jean Sandilands from Cotton, at Aberdeen, bought the Tonley estate c.1716 and moved in with her young family.
There were two pretty illustrious Byres: Patrick and James.
Patrick Byres was an ardent Jacobite and Major in the Tonley company of Stoneywood’s Aberdeen Regiment, raised by his brother-in-law Moir of Stoneywood in support of the ’45 Rising which ended at the Battle of Culloden. More of the Moirs later.
Patrick survived the slaughter on the muirs of Culloden (pronounced Cullawden not CullUden), evading death and capture he escaped back to Aberdeenshire where he hid in Cluny Castle until able to escape to France where he joined the Royal Scotch regiment led by Cameron of Locheil.
The Byres family lived on the Continent for as long as Patrick was a wanted man in the period the British Crown and government were taking their bloodthirsty revenge on the people of the Highlands, laying down Draconian laws to further subjugate Scots, destroying property and confiscating land. Tonley escaped that fate through subterfuge, well lies, over Patrick’s identity. Friends of his persuaded the government’s agents that the Byres on their list of wanted men was Peter Byres whilst the owner of Tonley was Patrick and in time Patrick judged it safe to return to the Vale of Alford. His family motto was Marte suo tutus – Safe in his own prowess – and so it proved.
Patrick’s son James had attended drawing classes as a child in Aberdeen and when the family fled to the Continent he continued his education there, becoming a member of the academy of artists, Accademia di San Luca, in Rome – as an architect; architectural drawings exist of his for rebuilding King’s College in Aberdeen. He also designed a mausoleum for Castle Fraser. As a painter he was largely a landscapist and portraitist and a copy he made of Jameson’s Dr Dun which hangs in Aberdeen Town House.
James became an antiquarian and art dealer during his forty years in Rome and it was to him the wealthy young of Britain and America went to for instruction when taking in the Grand Tour as part of their education.
For all the times I came across mentions of these Grand Tours I never did come on the name James Byres which is surprising since I was studying at Aberdeen University and he was a local loon fa did weel.
Among those he instructed and conducted around Italy’s classical and Renaissance masterpieces was the historian Edward Gibbon. In fact Byres knew everyone who mattered in the world of academia and the arts. It was Byres who secured the early Roman Portland vase for his friend Sir William Hamilton which became so influential in the development of Wedgwood china.
Byres was hugely respected for his erudition and encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts and built up am extensive collection of paintings and sculptures several of which he took back with him to Tonley in 1790 to live out his remaining thirty years of his life post-retirement, dying at home on 3 Sept 1817.
This very good portrait of his sister Isabella Byres, Mrs Robert Sandilands, by Pompeo Batoni was owned by James Byres and hung at his house in Rome and afterwards Tonley.
James himself is second from the left next to his sister in this group portrait by Franciszek Smuglevicz. Byres’ parents are the couple in the centre and a colleague on the right.
This oval round portrait of James Byres in Rome was painted by Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton.
How do the Moirs fit in? you’re asking.
Robert Byres who drowned in Dublin Bay and Jean Sandilands, his widow who bought Tonley in 1718, were the parents of the aforesaid Patrick Byres, also known as Peter, who was born on 13 May 1713. Twenty-year old Patrick married the daughter of James Moir of Stoneywood.
James Moir’s older brother Charles, a shipmaster in Aberdeen, fought alongside Patrick for Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and like Patrick went into hiding afterwards.
Moir is a good old Aberdeen name though its provenance is lost in time. For any not familiar with the name it is pronounced Moyr. In the many disputed versions of the name’s derivation one suggestion is it is an adaption of the Gaelic mhor meaning big and it’s as good as any since Moir is said to mean mighty one.
The Byres are thought to have come here from Hungary – by way of France in the company or thereabouts of Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. Interestingly there is a place called Guise at Tough which features in a bothy ballad – The Guise o’ Tough (Tough pronounced Tooch or Tyooch as in loch not Tuff and definitely not Took).
Back to the Moirs. A Kenneth Moir accompanied Lord James Douglas (the Good Sir James) c. 1330 to Spain when he carried with him the heart of Robert the Bruce inside the Monymusk Reliquary.
Monymusk is a stone’s throw from the estate of Tonley and the Reliquary or Brechbennoch, is an ancient yew, silver and bronze casket decorated with Pictish-worked animals and red enamel. It was given to the monks of Arbroath by King William the Lion as a good luck charm on the battlefield and was carried on a leather halter around the neck of its keeper, the deoradh (giving us the name Dewar) …and so it was at Bannockburn when Bruce’s army secured victory in 1314.
Kenneth Moir, while in Spain, killed and beheaded three Moors on the battlefield hence the Moir family coat-of-arms featuring three Moor heads dripping blood.
At some point the intermarrying of Moirs and Byres led to the two names being adopted as Moir-Byres.
There were lots of Moirs and Byres and some Byres lost fortunes investing in Darien, when the English state sought to and succeeded in closing down international trade with Scotland so ensuring the failure of the enterprise but enough of that, back to Tonley.
Tonley or Kincraigie, was built in the 18thC and added to over time as a two-storey, grey granite mansion house with towers, turrets, corbels and corbiesteps. Aberdeen architect John Smith had a hand in it, as had A. Marshall Mackenzie. The lost interiors included a panelled ceiling by Hay & Lyall of Aberdeen with pendent centres and the family motto of the Moir-Byres’ crests were depicted in high relief on the surrounding frieze.
During the Second World War the house was used as a hostel for young women in the land army working on local farms. During a storm in January 1953 Tonley was destroyed by fire but by that time it was out of the hands of the Moir-Byres and has been left derelict.
Tonley or Kincraigie – a farm of that name still remains, as does Tillymair and Tonley Mains, in the parish of Tough a few miles east of Alford but not, I think, the wonderfully named Acheynachie. (Although I have discovered a district of New York called Auchinachie)
Also survived is the estate’s former gardener’s cottage and walled garden, a little distance away to the south. The cottage, thought to have been designed by John Smith, is now a very fine house and the garden with its impressive course rubble wall is still home to some old varieties of apples and pears.