Kincardine O’Neil home of the Sleepy Market

Kincardine o’ Neil


Kincardine O’Neil is a tiny attractive ribbon of a village on the north Deeside road between Aberdeen and Aboyne. This ancient settlement was originally known in the Gaelic as Eaglais larach (lower church) and later recorded as Kyncardin or Kyncardin Onele which for such a wee village is a bit of a mouthful and surely the reason locally it is simply known as Kinker.  

Neat and well-cared-for Kincardine O’Neil retains several older buildings of architectural interest. The village is home to an impressive gem store, packed to the gunnels with crystals and gemstones of every type, colour and description and much else besides. There is also a post office in the village shop and apparently there is a micro brewery thereabouts but I’ve seen no sign of it.

Kincardine O’Neil is quiet kind; has been for a long time – or that’s the impression it presents. When the Deeside Railway was being pushed through from Aberdeen to Ballater the village was bypassed and so didn’t get the number of visitors other places such as Banchory and Torphins did but now, of course, the railway has gone and a road runs straight through its centre to Aboyne and points west or Aberdeen if travelling in the opposite direction.


The Gordon Arms Hotel appeared in the 1830s as a coaching inn and staging post where coachmen stopped to rest their horses and passengers on the long  journey between Aberdeen and Braemar – the 26 mile trip took anything between 8 and 11 hours depending on weather and the state of the roads – untarred, dirt roads remember. Upkeep of roads was an historic statute of labour meaning local men were obliged to repair and keep them passable, unless they could pay someone else to do it, which was a piecemeal way of maintaining them and not very successful.

For centuries getting about was by foot, horse, wagon or coach and movement was not always free which is why hill tracks were used when possible to avoid toll bars on ‘improved’ roads. There were several miles of improved turnpike roads in the parish of Echt with three toll bars collecting money from travellers passing along their stretch of road.  


The nearby river Dee was a means of transporting goods by raft or small craft but it was also a hazard that had to be forded when moving people and animals across country and once there were 36 fords over the Dee.

 King David I’s army forded the Dee here in 1150 and in 1296 Edward I of England crossed at Kincardine O’Neil with his invading army of 35,000 troops. They camped locally and scavenged the farms and homes in the district for food and drink – stealing and consuming an entire year’s supply in one single day and leaving the local people to their fate.

Derided and despised as they were by people in the south Highlanders were largely allowed to continue their uncivilised existence but when they challenged the crown by supporting the Jacobite cause the government, determined to quell their rebellion, embarked on a major road-building scheme to enable troops with their equipment to speedily move in through the north to deal with insurrection. One such military roads ran from Brechin by Fettercairn over the Cairn o’Mount to Huntly. Such roads symbolised the power of government to enforce its will and were a signal that the old ways -loyalty to a clan – had been superseded by loyalty to the crown and the government of the Union in a different country hundreds of miles away.


Old water pump

A road is a road and where troops march so goods and stock can be transported as well. Indeed it was hoped that easier access to life’s little luxuries, an influx of commodities, would open North Britons’ eyes to a more refined way of living. Not exactly shop till they dropped but certainly shop till they dropped their rebellious attitudes. The Cairn o’Mount  road crossed the Dee near Kincardine O’Neil and the Don at the Boat of Forbes.



Cattle from here and farther north forded the river at Kincardine O’Neil when driven overland by their drovers to markets in the south, at Crieff and Falkirk.

Both cattle and sheep raising were important income sources for the local population and the village ran at least two annual fairs in May and in early September (Bartle or Bartholomew’s Fair) where stock in their thousands was bought and sold – and much else besides (in the 19th century there were four annual stock markets.) Markets were important events, lasting up to three days, and attracting people from quite far afield as a welcome break from the routine of work and opportunity to meet up with friends and buy something unusual from travelling peddlers – merchants who set up their stalls around the village and in the kirkyard. Fairs were not for the fainthearted for a lot of drink was consumed over the duration of markets resulting very often in violence and some unfortunates found themselves taken off to Gallows Hill where they were executed in the best tradition of summary justice. One of Kincardine O’Neil’s ancient fairs was held at night, not sure when this was but maybe in the fourteenth century, and fittingly it was called the Sleepy Market.

wildlife of Aberdeenshire early 1800s

Wildlife once abundant at Kincardine O’Neil

Cattle were used to pull ploughs – 10 to 12 at a time for the heavy iron ploughs needed strength for turning tussocky, often unworked soil. Farming was mainly a part-time activity that earned little so that men learned to work with metal or wood – making tubs, harrows, plough-beams and so on which they would sell at markets and fairs including Old Rayne and Aberdeen’s annual timmer or timber market.

 A few bridges were built over the Dee at various periods. During the 14th century a small wooden bridge for foot passengers was provided by Durward of Coull (see below). Another bridge was built upstream from Kincardine O’Neil at Portarch  – the situation chosen because there was a solid rock base at the riverbank making an ideal platform for a bridge. Much later a ferry-boat was introduced which remained in use until 1937 when it was washed away and wrecked by a flood.


Until fairly recent times goods were mainly transported by loading them onto human backs in creels or they were carried in currocks or currachs which were basket panniers tied onto ponies. I’ve found a reference to litter or littar trees which may have been sledges or similar to the devices used by Native Americans – long branches bound together for carrying good – rather than on wagons, again reflecting the appalling state of roads (tracks) around and about. Until the later 19th century local people did not have hemp rope to secure loads but made tethers from willow or birch withes (a flexible branch or twig.)

In keeping with nearly every parish in Scotland education was encouraged, to some extent, in the village. Usually schools were provided for boys and separate ones for girls, if they were lucky. This was well before compulsory education was brought in in the early 1870s. Kincardine O’Neil did have a female school, one set up by a kirk minister the Reverend William Morrice following the death of his son George in 1850. George and his brother John had made fortunes as timber merchants in London where they were contracted to supply oak to the government dockyards.


Timber was a major industry on Deeside with its forests providing wood for ship building and every other purpose. Felled trees were dragged to the river and floated downstream during spates, to Aberdeen for export. (There’s a great anecdote in Secret Aberdeen about a rafter on the Dee.)

Timber was readily available and easily grown so the people made a living from it. The land around was what folk had to live off, only occasionally would goods be brought in from outside by peddlers. If you wanted something you did it or made it yourself. Homes were built from what was available. Collected stone, turf, heather, timber all went into the construction of buildings, unless you were well-off then you had someone else build your house of stone and slated its roof. Ordinary people built their own simpler, draftier and less waterproof homes with or turf on roofs.


The breachan worn by men

Until surprisingly late heating and cooking in houses was provided by a single fire fuelled by wood and peat – until the peat mosses in the vicinity were dug out. During the 19thC coal, imported into Aberdeen, would have been sold up Deeside for those who could afford to buy it but transporting it was another issue. Many homes, even at the beginning of the 1800s, still had open lums where smoke from fires had to find its own way out the hole in the roof making the inside of a house very black and sooty. Windows were small and in many rural areas contained no glass but had wooden boards, shutters, to close when weather was bad.

Flax was widely grown. Locally grow flax was made into linen for clothing and bedding and sheep’s wool was spun and woven into woollen cloth. Spinning was carried out during summer and in the Kincardine O’Neil area there were several manufactories for spinning lint (linen and wool) and for knitting worsted stockings.

Walking 400px

Women wore sleeved dresses, often a combination of linen and wool with a tartan broad scarf around their shoulders and secured with a brooch. These scarves sometimes had enough material in them to form a hood in cold or wet weather. A plaid shawl would sometimes be worn for extra warmth.  The young men of the district often dressed in kilts, hose and brogues – and all men wore this to church and on market days, many wore a breacan (plaid wrapped around the body and belted at the waist) and a bonnet. Traditionally men were armed and certainly would have had their sgian dubhs on them for short knives were carried by everyone to cut and prepare food before cutlery was readily affordable. In the Highlands the sgian dugh (skeean doo) was carried tucked into a belt or hose. 


Some people with connections to Kincardine O’Neil

On 12 Feb 1685 the Earl of Perth, Lord Chancellor, issued warrant for apprehending John Farquharson of Inverey, the Black Colonel (so-named because of his swarthy looks), and others who had been outlawed for murder of the Baron of Braikley (a Gordon) in Glenmuick in 1666.  Sergeant James Innes and Corporal Radnoch were put in command of a party of troops at Kincardine O’Neil to arrest him. I don’t know what happened to Inverey then, nothing much I imagine for he was still around to fight the Jacobite cause a few years later. An excellent ballad was written about Farquharson’s murder of Braikley.

 Forget Willie Shakespeare if you want to know about history; he was no historian but a dramatist who made things up. Macbeth is a prime example – fictional from start to finish. The real Macbeth was as good a king as kings ever are, not the conniving murderer Shakespeare would have us believe. Macbeth met his end near Kincardine O’Neil and the Macbeth peel is not far away at Lumphanan. (picture to follow, possibly)

This Macbeth slewe thati there
into the wode of Lunfanan
And his hewd thati strak off thate
And that wyth tham fra thair thai bare
Til Kynkardyn, quhare the King
Till thare gayne come made hyding

One of Scotland’s greatest thinkers was born in Kincardine O’Neil. Thomas Reid ( 1710-1796) was a major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and for his common sense philosophy in particular. Reid’s major works are – An inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense ; Essays on Intellectual Powers of Man; Essays on the Active Powers of Man.


Young Thomas Reid’s education began at the parish school in the village but he was soon sent to Aberdeen to advance his studies. At twelve or thirteen, as was usual then for a boy taking up higher education, he went to university; Aberdeen’s second university, Marischal College, where he studied philosophy with the aim of becoming a church minister. Scottish education has long been valued for its breadth and Reid was also an accomplished mathematics student – a man talented at whatever he undertook.

Reid’s ideas influenced revolution in America and in France – though not, it seems, in Kincardine O’Neil. The man known across the world for his mind did, as he planned, become a minister in his home village. He was also a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Aberdeen and later Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University.


Around a century later, in 1824, Peter Milne was born in the village. By reputation very talented as a composer and violinist Milne was said to have been one of the most able of fiddlers and he became famous for his traditional reels and strathspeys. He was given the name the Tarland minstrel and a memorial stone to him stands at the Tarland graveyard.


Kincardine O’Neil’s own old graveyard surrounds the ruined church of St Erchard’s (the patron saint of the village from the 5th century when he converted many local heathens to Christianity) and what had been a hospital – in the medieval sense of the word – a house of refuge for those incapable of looking after themselves and lodging for travellers.  


The low wall fragments of this 13th century refuge are extant with flowers growing along them and on the church gable some features of where the hospital was connected to it are visible. Hospitals were abutted to churches so their unfortunate inmates could be comforted by hearing mass through internal windows between it and the church.


In 1233 Ailean Dorsair, an English translation of his name is Alan Durward, provided a davach or davoch – a piece of land called Slutheluthy for the building of the hospital.  Ailean was an important figure in Scotland for he played a prominent role in running the country during the minority of Alexander III (Alasdair III mac Alasdair.) His father, Thomas, was an official at the court of King Alexander II, as protector of the king’s property. For a couple of years Dorsair disappeared to England where he toadied up to the English monarch, Henry III, and was rewarded with a manor, Bolsover in Derbyshire. Whether or not he was ever known as the Beast of Bolsover is not recorded.

In keeping with many churches around the northeast this one at Kincardine O’Neil was attached to St Machar in Old Aberdeen: incorporated into the cathedral in 1330.

Over time several churches would have occupied the site of the present ruin, wooden I suppose. What stood there in 1725 was described as “a good edifice, higher and wilder than any other upon Dee, thatch’d with heather…”.   


Yes, even kirk roofs were heather and turf, slate wasn’t easily found and had to be quarried rather than gathered. Heather roofs were a fire hazard and usually if one burnt it was replaced with fresh heather but when the church roof burnt out around 1730 money was found to slate the roof.


St Erchard’s belcote dates from c.1640

When it was decided to build a new church in the village it was constructed of stone. This was 1861-62 and St Erchard’s was left to gently decay and its interior made available for burials although by the look of the memorials there perhaps only for those with a bit of clout.

And that, folks, is Kincardine O’Neil.





7 Comments to “Kincardine O’Neil home of the Sleepy Market”

  1. Does anyone remember the folk singer Alex Campbell? He did a version(I am pretty sure) of Baron o’ Brackley.
    Alex Campbell was a wonderful performer who succumbed, unfortunately, to alcoholic self destruction sometime in or around the early seventies.

    Many years ago, I visited Brigadier Bradford of Kinker at his stony pile somewhere up the hill at the back of the village. I remember large draping persian rugs and other drapery over the high stone walls and a very dark atmosphere lit mainly by the fire. I also had a very peculiar telephone conversation with the Brigadier, which I reproduce occasionally after a few drinks and a good dinner.It requires an aural presentation which I cannot reproduce in writing.

  2. I remember walking home many times in the early seventies after the Kinker Dance (held in an old green painted wooden hall at the west of the village) having missed the last bus or lift back to Banchory. Nice six mle walk on an early summer morning, not so nice in the cold and rain. We also played summer league football at the slanted Kinker pitch. Those farming boys knew how to play and were hard as nails. The Bruce brothers had a fearsome reputation all over Deeside.

  3. Was always fascinated by the name. It sounded more like a landowner of importance than a village, so interesting to know more about it.
    Articles like this always bring home to me how much has changed in the last few hundred years in terms of roads, transport, housing, agriculture, technology and in many other areas including clothes. And yet when I read, “Not exactly shop till they dropped but certainly shop till they dropped their rebellious attitudes” I’m reminded of how much in terms of attitude remains the same.

    • Yes, I suppose the name does have the ring of an Irish laird about it. I’m aware writing this stuff they dance around time but they’re deliberately so as I want to avoid them becoming too formal and date-centred. If they can whet an interest that’s fine and anyone wishing to explore a topic in real depth can go on to do so. Your book has been ordered and should be with me soon. Looking forward to it.☺

  4. Liked the article. I recall coming back from a hill walk in the Cairngorms in the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue wagon. They were in radio contact with the Aberdeen Police from the cab, and announced when they entered Kincardine O’ Neil, also when they left. Back came the reply “we calculate your speed at 36mph”
    At this point there was an embarrassed silence.
    I also recorded The Baron of Brackley on my solo album. Ian sings the same version as I do
    Fishgut Mac

    • Good to hear from you. I included Ian Campbell’s version because I was in a rush and it popped up but I prefer Jim Reid’s. I would put on yours if there was an online link.

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