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PART OF THE RETURN ISSUE

‘Standing before that big sandstone memorial to them at Kiltearn, from which wind and rain have stripped nearly all their names, is like standing before a classroom blackboard, trying to decipher the rubbed-out lessons of the previous day.’

In Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation, five of Scotland’s most prominent writers and historians rediscover Scotland’s history through their appreciation of some of Scotland’s most iconic buildings. In one chapter, a rumination on Scotland’s most famous church – Auld Alloway Kirk – sends James Robertson on a journey back into his own family history.

 

Extract from Who Built Scotland? 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation
By Kathleen Jamie, Alexander McCall Smith, James Robertson, Alistair Moffat and James Crawford
Published by Historic Environment Scotland

 

Near the village of Evanton on the north side of the Cromarty Firth, is yet another ruinous church. You leave the A9 and go down a single-track road to the burial ground of Kiltearn, right on the shoreline. There is a new cemetery here, but the one that interests me surrounds the now derelict old parish church. This structure dates from the late eighteenth century, and many of the nearby gravestones are of similar or older vintage. Like Kirk Alloway, the site was previously occupied by older religious buildings, possibly including a medieval monastery.

Kiltearn’s proximity to the shore suggests that access by water may once have been as important as access by land, but after the Second World War its location became too inconvenient for the population of Evanton and it ceased to be used for worship. Photographs from the 1960s show it with its roof and windows still intact, but the slates and roof timbers were stripped soon afterwards and it is now in a very poor condition. Rabbit activity has undermined some of the old graveyard, and the retaining wall which protects it from the sea is also in need of attention. It remains, however, a remarkably beautiful and peaceful place. When you stand among the stones and tablets crowded at odd angles across the green turf, and look to the sea, you are caught between two ages, the pre-industrial and the post-industrial: oil rigs sit out on the water, anchored like some vast art installation or a herd of metallic monsters – all intestinal pipes, craning beaks and claws and rusted legs. The number of rigs changes all the time. They are brought in to the shelter of the Cromarty Firth for refitting or repair or, increasingly, just because they are no longer needed out in the North Sea.

To one side of the roofless kirk is a plot enclosed by a foot-high cast-iron fender. Centuries-old tablets lie half-submerged within this boundary. There is also an upright sandstone slab, eight foot high and ten foot wide, so weathered that most of the names and dates have disappeared and only a few words are still legible: BELOVED, DIED, TAKETH, TRUST – and ROBERTSON. This is one of the principal resting-places – the other is at Rosskeen, between Alness and Invergordon – of my once-wealthy ancestors, the Robertsons of Kindeace.

This northern branch of a clan whose heartland was in Highland Perthshire traces its lineage back to a merchant of Inverness, John Robertson, who flourished in the mid-fifteenth century. A William Robertson purchased land at Kindeace, twelve miles north of Kiltearn, in 1629. Successive generations acquired more land, farmed well, occasionally fought duels but by and large steered clear of disputes, whether personal or political. By the 1700s the lairds of Kindeace and their kin were prominent, prosperous, stoutly Presbyterian members of Ross-shire society: Jacobitism, even of a romantic, after-dinner kind, would not have been one of their indulgences.

Numerous children were produced by the wives of these lairds: of those that reached adulthood, the daughters either stayed at home to help run the household or were married off to neighbouring lairds, Edinburgh lawyers or London gentlemen, while the sons became ministers, lawyers, merchants, planters or – especially – soldiers. The family’s deep engagement in the burgeoning British Empire brought considerable rewards but sometimes at a great cost. In the second half of the eighteenth century Charles Robertson, the 5th Laird, had nine sons who survived infancy: one inherited the estate, one had a career as an army officer and two went into business in London; the other five all died overseas, three of yellow fever, one in battle in India, and one ‘of lockjaw, occasioned by the biting of a snake’.

The present Kindeace House – a sturdy construction of four storeys – was built in 1798 and redesigned and extended in the 1860s. You sense, looking at its crow-stepped gables and symmetrical frontage, that these Robertsons liked things plain and functional: it was how they lived their conventional and comfortable lives. The high point of the family’s fortunes was the nineteenth century, but things went into steep decline after the death of the 8th Laird in 1902. A combination of poor financial management and heavy taxes after the sudden demise of the heir, Gilbert, led to the land and the house itself being sold, and its seven surviving daughters and sons dispersing to Glasgow, England, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada. Among them was my paternal grandfather (who was born in 1877 and died in 1959, a year after I was born) and his sister Helena, or ‘Great Aunt Nella’, born in 1869. She lived to be nearly ninety-nine and my parents once took my sister, brother and me to see her at her home in London: I was three or perhaps four and remember only an austere, papery old lady clad in long black clothes. I was quite frightened, although she gave us chocolate bars.

All this history is a mere two generations away from me, yet it seems remote and ancient, not least because I have always felt politically at odds with what these ancestors of mine represent. Standing before that big sandstone memorial to them at Kiltearn, from which wind and rain have stripped nearly all their names, is like standing before a classroom blackboard, trying to decipher the rubbed-out lessons of the previous day.

 

The paperback of Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation is published by Historic Environment Scotland, and is priced £9.99.

James Robertson is the Booker-longlisted author of highly acclaimed novels including And the Land Lay Still, The Testament of Gideon Mack, and To Be Continued

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