Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Bennachie colonists rise again

Bennachie Landscapes’ project is helping bind together a community that surrounds the north east Scottish mountain of Bennachie. The archaeological investigations are being conducted by the University of Aberdeen along with the Bailies of Bennachie, a local community group.

A people of dubious morals

Described in accounts at the time as possessing dubious morals and backwards ways, the archaeological dig, aims to provide a more balanced assessment about how the community lived.

The ‘commonty’ (common land) of Bennachie was settled by these people sometime between 1801 and the 1830s.

“They weren’t popular with some people because they were effectively living rent-free on ground that was supposed to be communal”, said University of Aberdeen archaeologist Dr Jeff Oliver, who is coordinating the dig.

“Accounts describe them as a marginal community ‘on the edge’ scratching a living from the slope of Bennachie – a harsh, nutrient impoverished landscape. Eventually they became associated with a story of resistance against the local lairds who eventually seized the commonty for themselves in 1859 using the courts in London. After this the colonists effectively became tenants.

The first anecdotes of the colonists were told in Alexander Inkson McConnochie’s book, Bennachie, and in it the colonists were painted as a set of rather odd set of characters with dubious morals and backward ways.

Dr Jeff Oliver continues,“Our working theory is they received a lot of bad press from some of the neighbouring locals – and all sorts of slanderous things were said about them, probably because they weren’t initially paying rent. However what may be more accurate is that they were very similar to other agricultural communities of the time and this study will help to provide a more nuanced assessment of this.”

A growing respect

Their dubious reputation slowly shifted to one of admiration and respect.

“The Bennachie colonists are a particularly fascinating group because there is a reasonably good archive of information written by various historical commentators – but of course not by the settlers themselves – so working closely with our community collaborators is a big part of our work and we will be comparing the written accounts with what the archaeology reveals.” explained Oliver.

The known story of Bennachie is short but fascinating, with the first colonists related to the Esson family, setting up home around 1800; by 1850 there were about 55 people. The colony broke down slowly after the commonty was divided in 1859 by the neighbouring estates.  The colony went to Leslie of Balquhain who charged rents and was responsible for evicting many tenants for refusing to pay rent. And there were apparently on-going tensions between the group and the surrounding estates. In one story the local henchman of the Balquhain estate are said to have come and burned one of the crofters out of his house.

Most of the colonists were gone by the 1870s, with the notable exception of dyker George Esson, who lived on the hill until his death in the 1930s.

A peoples past

Working with the Bailies of Bennachie, the University of Aberdeen team is undertaking surveys and excavations of the colony site to provide a ‘micro history’ of life on the hill.

“The conflict between tenants and landlords and people being removed from their land is an important theme in 18th and 19th century Scottish history,” explained Dr Oliver. “Our work at Bennachie provides an important and new connection to this because we know much less about these kinds of tensions within the northeast.

The research is especially important because it is being carried out with the local community. An important part of the project is engaging members of the public who are passionate about history and about archaeology.

What the group hope to achieve is to take archaeology out of the ivory tower and make it more accessible to others.

Past Horizons. 2013. “The Bennachie colonists rise again”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 6, 2013. Available online:

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