by Rev. James S. Stephen, B.D., Ph. D.

Physical Basis. 

The parish of Mortlach in Upper Banffshire is bounded on the north by the parishes of Boharm and Botriphnie, on the east by Glass (Aberdeenshire) and Cabrach, on the south by Inveravon and on the west by Aberlour. Its area extends to 34,222 acres.

Mortlach has a natural identity of its own, lying like a bowl or deep saucer amid the surrounding hills and to the southeast of Ben Rinnes (2,755 feet), a famous landmark that acts as a general signpost to Dufftown, the burgh of the parish. The parish can be viewed as a whole from its several road approaches, each in its own way presenting a memorable view. From Aberlour, Dufftown attracts attention as the central feature, just as Balvenie Castle, now ruined and shaded by trees, did in days of old: from Boharm the approach is along the centuries old road, traversed by Edward I in 1296 and 1303, which is both lovely in itself and in its views of the Fiddich and of Kininvie House: the Keith turnpike makes a steep descent after it crosses the Botriphnie boundary, emphasizing the bowl like shape of the parish, and here, with Loch Park lying deep in the valley and the railway running alongside, the scene is almost Canadian with Ben Rinnes in all its glory dominating the picture. On entering from Huntly, an excellent panoramic view shows ” the broad acres o’ Mortlach “, stretching from the River Deveron on the east. From the Cabrach, the approach is by the narrow pass, Glack o’ the Balloch, through which the early saints traveled eastward, and after the road from lovely Glenfiddich joins this royal highway, a fine view of the stern ruin of Auchindoun Castle may be had. The other main approach is from Tomintoul and Glenrinnes, and again as Dufftown comes into sight the bowl like shape is apparent, but this time the industrial life of Mortlach is prominent, with the lime works standing out on the hillside across the valley and the distilleries fringing the burgh, somewhat veiled by valley and trees.


The parish is full of interesting place names, including Mortlach itself. In 1885, John Macdonald, a banker from Buckie, delivered a lecture to the Banffshire Field Club on ” Place Names in Banffshire “, in which a section was devoted to Mortlach. There he discarded morlag, the Gaelic word for ” great hollow “, and mortis-lacus, the ” lake of the dead “, as the meaning of Mortlach, and suggested instead mort, meaning ” massacre ” and leac, meaning ” tombstone “. But mort-leac would signify only the stone marking the scene of the massacre, while the meaning of Mortlach should surely pertain to the whole parish. The meaning of ” Leachie “, the little village that grew up near the standing-stone is no doubt derived from leac. Tullochallum would appear to date from the 1010 battle, being Tulloch-challum or ” Malcolm’s Hillock “. Mr. Macdonald also referred to most of the farms in his comprehensive study, the names of which are mainly of Gaelic origin.

History of the Local Community. 

The first historical character known to have set foot in Mortlach was a contemporary of St. Columba, Moluag of Bangor, Ulster, who was later referred to as ” Moluag the pure and brilliant, the gracious and decorous ” of Lismore, Rosemarkie and Mortlach. St. Moluag (who died in 592) founded his Christian community in Mortlach about the year 566 A.D., establishing a church, school and farm. In 1923 an ” Elephant Stone ” said to date back to at least 500 A.D. and which now stands almost unimpaired in the vestibule of Mortlach Church, was unearthed in the churchyard on ground where formerly St. Moloch’s (Moluag’s) Fair was held every year on 25 June. Another name recorded in the history of Mortlach is Walloch of Balvenie and Wallakirk, the last missionary to come to the northeast from St. Ninian’s original mission at Whithorn. Walloch (who died at a ripe old age in 733) probably established his small church near the ” well of healing ” close to what is now Balvenie Castle. There is no record to indicate that the Moluag tradition carried on errupted at the Mortlach site, but it is recorded that in 1010 King Malcolm I I  “ramscuttered” the Danes in the Dullan valley near the site and in accordance with his vow extended the church by the length of three spears. Near the spot where the ” Elephant Stone ” was found, there is a sculptured stone, 7 feet 6 inches high, called the ” Battle Stone “, which has Christian symbols on either side indicating Pictish origin and is said to date from this battle. It may in fact belong to the Moluag period. Malcolm 11 is also stated to have created Mortlach a bishopric, with Bein as its first bishop. According to a charter. Nectan, the fourth bishop, was translated to Aberdeen in 1124,when the seat of the bishopric was transferred there by David I and although this charter is now believed to be a forgery, it does not necessarily invalidate the statement. Records (of course) arc sparse and little confirmation has come from archaeological finds.

No doubt Mortlach Church, which is the oldest building in the parish, underwent considerable interior change about the time of the Reformation, but there is no extant record of it. Formerly the main entrances were on the south or ” Laichie ” side, and on the north there was a single postern door, but in 1826 the north wall was broken to make an extension towards the new burgh of Dufftown and this was still further extended in 1876, when large-scale repairs and alterations were made. Again in 1931 the building underwent a complete restoration, when many worthy features of its historic past were restored and preserved and it was given added dignity and. beauty by the provision of modern furnishings and stained-glass windows. Before the First World War the fund for this restoration was begun by the Rev. John Barr Cumming, but the final drive and the actual scheme was carried through by the Rev. L. L. L. Cameron, while the provision of fine woodwork and the vestry was made possible by the generosity of Mr. Cosmo Gordon of Buchromb. Mortlach Church is now one of the loveliest, as well as one of the oldest, churches in Scotland. Although it cannot bear comparison in age with the church, the manse must have a considerable history of its own. In 1796 it was referred to as having been “a spacious one in its day, but is now going to wreck “, indicating that it was then an old building. An addition was made in 1807 and it was greatly altered in 1842 and modernized in 1931.

Balvenie Castle, the second oldest building in the parish, dates from the thirteenth century or earlier, when it was known as the Castle of Mortlach. Excellent historical sketches of it are available and it is thus sufficient to record that it appears to have been the dominating feature of parish life between 1304 (when it was restored by Edward I to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan) in 1746 (when it was evacuated for the last time during the Jacobite Rebellion). It now stands a finely preserved ruin of craftsmanship of bygone days, under the care of the Ministry of Works.

A third building of historical significance is the Castle of Auchindoun, which towers within the earthworks of a prehistoric hill fort. Auchindoun (Ach-an-dun) means ” the field of the fort “. and the castle is a fifteenth century structure, attributed to Robert Cochrane, a favourite of James 111, but it may be much older. It was a stronghold of the Ogilvies of Deskford until the Gordons took possession of it in 1535. It remained in their family until it became a ruin, and at one time was the home of Edom or Adam o’ Gordon of ballad fame, one of the most colorful characters of the north-cast in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Now that it belongs to the Crown it is to be hoped it will be put into a state of preservation worthy of its historic past.

Kininvie House, at the northern extremity of the parish, is another historic building of note, having been in constant occupation by the Leslie family since its erection in 1521 until 1935, when it became economically impossible for the family to retain it. Mention should also be made of. Keithmore, one of the oldest farm houses. About 1640, Alexander Duff, a descendant of the Thanes of Fife and a grandparent of William, first Earl of Fife, received the farm as a wadset from the Marquis of Huntly and built the old manor house of Keithmore in 1688. Early in the nineteenth century William Marshall, the celebrated violin composer, who lived there as factor to the Duke of Gordon, found the thick cannon-resisting walls made the interior too dark for his liking and accordingly he built a new house, turning the old house into stables. As Keith is Gaelic for ” wind ” and more means ” big” no doubt the original house was built to resist the elements as well as cannon balls.

Since the New Statistical Account (1836) all the estates within the parish have changed hands, with the exception of Lochend, the property of the Duffs of Drummuir, whose residence Drummuir Castle is outwith the parish boundary. The present proprietors are as follows: Auchindoun – Commissioners for Crown Lands; Glenfiddich and part of Glenrinnes – Mrs. Borthwick Norton; Mether Cluny and remainder of Glenrinnes – Miss Cowie and Mrs. Cumming; the lotted lands of Dufftown – trustees of the late Duke of Fife; Edinglassie – Major Hay; Balvenie – Alexander Cheyne, Aberdeen; Kininvie – A. Gordon Thomson; Lochend – Lieut. Col. Gordon Duff, Drummuir Castle; Parkmore – J. and R. Kemp; Pittyvaich – Arthur Bell and Sons Ltd., Perth; and Buchromb – Mrs. Cosmo Gordon.

It is interesting to note that the farm of Alnaboyle has not changed hands in the last 400 years; the Greens, who still farm this land, hold receipts to show there has always been a member of their family in Alnaboyle throughout this long period.