Posts tagged ‘St Nathalan’

Apr 23, 2021

St Mary’s of the Storms – 14 hundred years in the lives of the folk of Cowie

Charming and ever-edging towards the beach below sits St Mary’s of the Storms. The church, the last of a number spanning fourteen centuries, is derelict but the graveyard surrounding it remains the eternal home of many of Cowie (Kolly) and district folk – a great number dependent on the sea and coast for their livings, as is apparent from motifs on their memorials.

There are splendid views from the site, grass-covered Old Red Sandstone cliffs stretching up from the North Sea where in the distance elegant white turbines harness the wind. To the south is the bonnie town of Stonehaven and just beyond it another ancient ruin, the renowned Dunnottar Castle, a mere stripling by comparison with the first of the kirks at Cowie, having been built seven hundred years or so later, in the 14th century.

Cowie’s holy site was established by St Nathalan/ Nachlan/ Nauchlan. From Tullich* east of Ballater where he also set up a church and where he is buried (c. 678AD) as well as one at Coull. Legend has it the enterprising St Nachlan had a treasure hoard which he wrapped in a bull hide and buried “between the kirk and the kirk’s ford” at Cowie but I imagine that’s a cock-and-bull story.

Early chapels would have been constructed of timber and turf with the first stone one taking shape during the reign of Malcolm Canmore in the 11th century; the broken-down church seen today dates from the 13th century. At some point in its past it is believed St Mary’s was a creel kirk; a church where a creel (basket carried on the back for carrying fish, tatties, cut peats and babies) was passed around the congregation to collect offerings of food and clothing for local poor.

Hundreds of years of being blasted by coarse winds straight off the sea it is hardly surprising the poor state it’s in but then there was the small matter of an Archbishop of St Andrews who during the Reformation in the 16th century ordered the removal of the roof – and that was that. Having set a precedent other people followed his example and began taking away stones so the dereliction continued. Attempts to stem the tide of stone theft included a legend that whoever dared build a home from kirk stones would suffer bloody retribution.  William Rait of Redclock (sic) shrugged off the threat and helped himself to part of the church roof but soon it was said his house “rained drops of blood.” At least that’s how the story goes.  

Roll on three hundred years and it was proposed to sell the burial ground. Concerned individuals got together in February 1832 and formed a society “for the protection of the dead in the burying-ground of Cowie” – the upshot was a revival of the graveyard but given the times with resurrectionists (grave robbers who sold bodies to medical doctors and students for anatomical study before access to corpses was legalised) such a menace they arranged for a mort house capable of holding 20 coffins to be built to protect recent dead. Erected against the chapel’s west wall it was secured behind heavy doors that required three keys to unlock it. The three keys were kept by different men and all had to be present to open up the vault to receive and remove coffins. The dead were stored for several weeks until such time it was thought bodies were in such a decrepit state they would be of no interest to the anatomists. With the revival of the kirkyard came the acquisition of more land to cope with the demand for burial space and so an extension was consecrated in the 1880s.

A couple of examples of details of boats on memorials

The location of the kirk and graveyard meant access was precarious, along a track on the clifftop; difficult enough during fine weather for coffin bearers in particular but surely a nightmare in wet and snowy conditions.

St Nathalan’s became St Mary’s or Our Lady of the Storms in the 13th century, on the 22 May 1276 – the dedication carried out by another Bishop of St Andrews, William Wishart. Never a parish church, St Mary’s was part of the parish of Feteresso. Several Scottish kings worshipped in the Cowie chapel. Scottish kings used to be itinerant – travelling around their realm – and when in the Royal Burgh of Cowie they would stay in Cowie Castle – its existence now reduced to a few stones a couple of hundred yards to the south of the kirk and graveyard. Cowie Castle stood on its promontory for 400 years. Malcolm Canmore, the king already mentioned, was behind the building of the castle in the 11th century.  The castle was in time occupied by the Frasers and from 1369 the powerful family of Keiths of Dunnottar (Earls Marischal of Scotland.) Once Dunnottar was built royalty made that their northeast residence. Both Cowie and Dunnottar castles along with nearby Feteresso were raised to the ground on 21 March 1645 during the Covenanting wars.

Travellers from the south heading towards Aberdeen passed through this area – a dangerous stretch of dirt road called the Cowie Mounth that was nothing more than swamp and gulleys until eventually filled with boulders to provide a better surface. It later became a turnpike road. The early highway ended at Kincorth and from there travellers and goods crossed the river Dee by ferry boat to the town of Aberdeen.

The earliest stones, their inscriptions and symbols are lost to us but there are plenty standing to fascinate anyone visiting this charming place. Lots of stones show symbols of the fleeting nature of life (hourglasses, crossed bones, skulls) and trade marks including boats, anchors, ploughs, shoemaker’s knife.

Most of the inscriptions on the table-stones are illegible now but well-known is one –

“To the memory of Raymond Stewart, a Black Man, a native of Granada, who lived for thirty years in the service of the late Mr Farquharson of Breda, in this country, and was much respected. He died at Elsick the 3d January 1834, leaving money which he had saved for charitable purposes.”

Another flat slab records the death in 1763 of John Thom, a tenant in Elrick, his wife, Ann Burnett who died in 1779 and their nine children.

Several ministers are buried at Cowie including the Reverends John Troup, John Petrie and Alex Greig, three Episcopal ministers who defied a law prohibiting them from preaching to more than four people at any one time and were jailed for six months in Stonehaven’s Tolbooth in 1748. Troup played the Jacobite air, O’er the water to Charlie on the bagpipes as he was marched to the prison. Defiant throughout they preached from their cell window to supporters gathered in the street, even baptising babies held up for blessing.

Several illustrious folk are buried at St Mary’s and at least one declared genius. William Kilgour who in addition to being a “superior weaver of bed-covers, and table-cloths, etc” constructed 8-day clocks from beginning to end.

Northeast Kilgours became world-renowned textile manufacturers. I don’t know if William was one of them. Possibly.

A memorial to the crew of Stonehaven’s lifeboat, St George, who died on 27 February 1874 while attempting to rescue the barque, Grace Darling. The lifeboat capsized as it entered Aberdeen harbour with the loss of coxswain and three crew. Two are buried at Cowie, one at Nigg and one at Belhelvie. Memorials such as this are a reminder of the ever-present danger of life at sea. Another tragic incident occurred on 21 April 1880 when a strong gale sprang up from the southwest and three local fishing boats were lost.

A simple gravestone marks the deaths of several members of the Christie family of Skateraw when their yawl, Brothers, went down within sight of land. There were six of a crew onboard: William Christie, sen., William Christie, jun., Thomas Christie, Andrew Christie, sen., Andrew Christie, jun., Peter Christie. Four were seen clinging to the mast spars and two more desperately holding onto the bow of the boat. A rescue craft was sent out and William junior was able to grab hold of a lifebuoy thrown to him but before any others could be rescued the boat turned over trapping them and they drowned. The older men were brothers and each left large families.

*(‘Have you anything for me?’ the story of Ballater airman and the 1937 boat plane, Capricornus | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com) )