The Rev. Mr Kemp’s lecture on our “Local Antiquities” was given, according to announcement, in Mr lnnes Hall last Thursday evening. There was a crowded audience, comprising most of the elite of the district. Mr. Cantlie, Keithmore, officiated as chairman, supported on the platform by Mr Cowie, distiller. The discourse, which was long, and delivered orally by the reverend gentleman, occupied about an hour and a half. As was expected, it proved extremely interesting to many of those present.

The Rev. Mer Kemp began by saying a few words in justification of his having undertaken to lay before the audience any information he could gather relating to the past history of the parish of Mortlach. Knowing that all who had come to hear him were in one way or another connected with it, he felt that it was but natural that they should have come with a desire to learn how these parts of the country which it comprises have been affected by bygone events, what shar they have had in the vicissitudes and what part they have acted in the affairs of the nation. It was with reluctance, however, that he had consented to add his mite to the various kind contributions of instructive entertainments which they had been receiving for some weeks back, fearing that it may be supposed he had chosen the subject for an offensive purpose, as almost everything that was known of the ancient of the district partook so much of a religious and ecclesiastical nature. It was only after repeated assurance, on the part of the committee selected for the purpose of organizing these lectures, that any remarks he would have to offer would be taken in good part, he had yielded to their request. The large assembly he saw before him, which he considered an evidence of the great interest taken in the subject, made him regret it the more, that so little had been chronicled, not merely of the history of Mortlach, but of the general history of Scotland, till a date comparatively recent; for, till the beginning of last century, the annals of Scotland were covered with fable, and involved in much obscurity, badly understood, and greatly misrepresented by most of our ancient writers. The Rev. Wm. Innes, prefect of Studies in Scotch College of Paris, appears to have been the first, by his “Critical Essay” (published in 1739), to throw any considerable light on the antiquities of Scotland, and to open the way to its genuine history.  Whitaker, towards the end of last century, demonstrated the genuine origin of the Scots against the translator of Ossian. Others had, after him, employed themselves in the same way; but no one had laboured with greater industry or better effect than the author of “Caledonia,” who had surveyed the whole extent of our Scottish annals, and merited the praise of every lover of his country for the immense labour he had bestowed in order to rectify them.

The reverend gentleman went on to any that, taking into account all the valuable information Chalmers had collected in his important work, he should conceive that the true history of Scotland begins with the era of its Invasion by the Romans, that of the preceding period no facts that can be relied upon had been noted by foreign writers, and the natives themselves were incapable of recording the annals of their country, being unacquainted with the use of letters. Any remembrance of past transactions was kept solely by the oral traditions of their Bards; it was obvious that no reliance whatever could be placed on the relations contained in their verses; especially as the Celts seem to have been indifferent in regard to ancestorial honour, it being a maxim with them that to have the memory of it handed down to posterity. The great antiquity assigned to the Scottish monarchy, and the long series of its kings, some of whom are said to have 300 years before the Incarnation, and 600 before the name Scot or Scotia is mentioned in history, had been rejected by modern critics as a fiction undeserving of notice. The earliest accounts respecting North Britain that can be depended upon are from the writings of the Roman historians, in recording the operations of their countrymen for the subjugation of that part of the island.

It would be no doubt interesting enough to trace minutely the steps of that powerful and polished people in their progress through the north, especially through the province of Vespasiana, and more particularly that portion of it occupied by the Vacomagi, the tribe of which the inhabitants of Mortlach formed a part.

But he thought it might suffice to gratify their curiosity to know whether the Romans ever visited this valley. There were many reasons for believing that they did, and thus they had been so well pleased with their first visit that the Vacomagi of Mortlach had opportunities of seeing upon their grounds the inhabitants of the Eternal City more frequently than was anywise necessary for the mere gratification of their curiosity. The nearest we can trace their steps to this neighbourhood, by means of ancient remains, is along their route through Knockando to Cromdale, that being the direction of the great Roman way as traced by Ptolemy, who composed his geography during the administration of Urbices, the able successor of Agricola; and by Richard of Cirencester, a monk who wrote from authentic accounts, drawn up about the same time.

That road, forming a regular chain of fortified stations through its whole course, after having brought the Romans along the east coast of Vespasiana, north to the shores of the Moray Firth, took an inward and southerly direction from Ptoroton (Burghead), which was their strongest station in all Vespasiana; passing through Forres to the Spey at Cromdale, where was a station called Tuessis (the other Tuessis being at Fochabers), and thence through Strathavon, Glen Bulg, and Braemar, on to Orren, near Perth. This “iter per mediam,” their interior line of communication with the South, brought them within a few miles of the boundaries of this parish. It is to be observed that they were constantly residing in these northern parts, maintaining their military posts in them for nearly 30 years, and that, moreover, this district was surrounded in a manner by their fortified positions, there being no fewer than four of them within a moderate distance of it, viz, Ptoroton (Burghead), Vares (Forres), and the two stations on the Spey.

From any of these encampments it was obvious that a journey of a few hours could have conveyed them here at any time. It was not to be supposed that the Romans, during their residence in this country, confined themselves within the walls of their encampments, or to the lines of road which connected their posts. The subjugation of the country could not have been effected without an exhibition of their strength, through its remotest territories, and occasional visits would be afterwards necessary for enforcing their obedience and preserving tranquillity. Frequent excursions would be made for collecting provisions and levying contributions; natural curiosity and desire of information would also draw them from their encampments, and prompt them to explore the inmost recesses of these romantic regions. But, conquest and tribute being their chief object, they would naturally seek out, in the first place, those districts where they might dread any opposition to their views, or which they might deem best calculated to contribute to their support, and to the gratification of their avarice and ambition.

Mortlach, on these various accounts, could have hardly escaped the observing eye of these accomplished conquerors of nations, and also on account of places of defence, which, from various historical records, as well as from tradition, seem to have existed in it from the very remotest period. Three ruins in this neighbourhood testify to the truth of these records and traditions. There is the Castle of Boharm (its ruins have disappeared), the Castle of Balvenie, and that of Achendown. The Castle of Boharm is known to have been entire at the beginning of the 12th century, and there are intimations in ancient authors that a fort stood on the eminence north of Dufftown at the time when the bloody conflict took place between Malcolm III, and the Danes, in the year 1010. The tower, which stood on the north-east corner of the Castle of Balvenie, has always borne the name of the Pictish tower; a designation, which although it did not prove it to have been actually constructed by the Picts, still served to show antiquity of the structure; that appellation being frequently applied to works which are known to have been erected by the Romans or by their invading successor, the Danes, Saxons, and Norwegians.

It is likewise known that, in ancient times, there was a chain of forts from Burghead, through this part of the country, through Cabrach, and on to Cairn o’ Mount on Deeside. Supposing that any of those places of strength existed at the time, as in all probability there did, which might oppose the ambitious views of the Romans, it would readily attract their notice, and being reported to them, the reduction of it would be a particular object of their care, and an inducing motive for visiting this part of the country, and after possessing themselves of it, they would naturally employ its defence to secure a more safe retreat to themselves in a country that was not yet fully reconciled to their dominion, or they might avail themselves of it as a resting place, whence they could explore the districts that were more distant from their military ports, to the great inconvenience, no doubt, of the inhabitants of Mortlach, who would be made to contribute for their support and expense proportionally to the means which the superior advantages of this district would be supposed to furnish.

From hence they could explore the valleys of Benrinnes, Cabrach, part of Deveronside, and Strathisla, in the parish of Botriphnie. A slight survey of the country from the eminences scattered through this district would easily satisfy them, supposing that their guides had been silent on the subject, that the country southward of Mortlach, for a considerable distance, was but a wilderness, thinly inhabited, an incapable of furnishing any compensation proportionate to the labour and expense of exploring it. In Mortlach itself, however, even at that early period, especially about where Dufftown now stands, and in the vale of Balvenie, the Romans would observe that the kind hand of nature had bestowed the advantages of some more natural beauties, than had offered themselves to their view in other parts of the country. The more southern districts of Glenlivat or Strathavon could be explored from other stations, and by other routes. In returning to the station of Tuessis, below Fochabers, the Romans would take advantage of the opening north of Balvenie to survey the parish of Boharm, especially as by taking that route, they could return to their quarters without being obliged to cross the Spey. So that, although there had never been found any relic of their passage (that Mr R. was aware of) in this immediate district, these various considerations placed it (he thought) beyond a doubt that the Romans were particularly well acquainted with this district, and that it had presented great attractions to them, which renders it the less marvellous that we should be so influenced by them ourselves.

However, it was only in the beginning of the eleventh century (he observed) that Mortlach appeared by name in history. Two very important events have rendered it classical ground, and have secured to it a distinctive and honourable page in the archives of the nation. The one was the decisive battle which one of our kings gained over the invaders of his dominions, a battle of such importance (in Mr K’s opinion) that it deserved to form the date of an epoch in our history, as it was it that terminated in a manner the depredations of the Danes in this country. The other was establishment, at the same time, of an Episcopal see, which distinction it retained for the space of one hundred and twenty-nine years. Mortlach had likewise the honour of having been, in order of time, the second bishopric that was established in Scotland by any of our kings, being proceeded only by that of St Andrews, which see was erected in the year 872 by Kenneth I., after subduing the Picts, and uniting in his own person the sovereignty of the two kingdoms. He didn’t mean to say that there had been no bishops in the country before that period. He named a number of them with the parts of the country they evangelized. He merely meant that there was no fixed or regularly constituted see till 872.

[Mr Kemp next proceeded to notice various matters connected with the Bishopric, and also described the Catles of Balvenie and Auchindown. This part of the lecture want of space this week constrains us to leave over till our next publication.]

At the close of the lecture, which in the course of its delivery was frequently applauded.

The chairman proposed a cordial and unanimous vote of thanks to the Rev. Mr Kemp, a gentleman who had shown himself so well qualified to enlighten the audience on the interesting subject of our local antiquities. That the lecture just delivered would prove a rich treat, was generally anticipated, and that the highly respectable meeting had found it to be so, had been amply testified by their marked attention and frequent tokens of approbation, which were the more deserved by the Rev. lecturer, as he had clearly established the claims of our locality to be considered as classical ground, and, in different respects, worthy of peculiar notice and veneration on the part of the antiquarian. The Chairman also referred to the double object of the course of lectures going on here – the instruction and entertainment of the numerous auditors, and the pecuniary benefit of the Mortlach Library, and expressed a wish, that, by this means, it would be greatly augmented with the addition of many valuable works, and that ere long a volume of the Library might be seen in almost every house of the parish.

Mr Cowie then spoke, in similar terms, as the representative on the occasion of the Mutual Improvement Society; and a few remarks in return by the Rev. Mr Kemp closed the proceedings.

Mr Duncan, of Milne’s Free Schools, Fochabers, is to give the next lecture, being the seventh day of the course, upon Saturday the 14th proximo-subject, Chemistry, which will, no doubt, draw again a full house.

Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser – 3 March 1857