Welcome to Kemback .org
The name Kemback comes from the Gaelic meaning ‘Field of battle’
or ‘Field of the Warrior’, but there is no local legend to support
The parish is under 3 miles long measured east to west and 2.5
miles wide from north to south. The River Eden separates us from
the parishes of Dairsie and Leuchars on our north, while our other
neighbours are Cupar to the west, Ceres to the south and St. Andrews
to the east.
Scots pine and later larch seemed to thrive well on Kemback Hill
and was much in demand for building and for estate fencing. Ash,
oak and gean grew on the west slopes of Dura Den, particularly
the amphitheatre, while thickets of hazel covered the sheer faces.
Because of these woods and its sheltered situation, the climate
is less harsh than the surrounding country. Those who disagree
doubtless enjoy the healthy conditions, to say nothing of the
panoramic views, of the exposed areas – and certainly in the past
some of the inhabitants of Blebo Craigs have a attained a ripe
Not so, however, two hundred years ago. A distressing illness,
referred to as ‘ague’ recurred each spring. It was characterised
by fits of shivering and appears to have been a malarial-type
fever. However, improvements in the 18th. century in cultivation
and especially drainage eradicated the illness within a short
space of years. By 1840 it was just a memory.
The First Church
The first church was a rectory founded by Bishop de Bernhem
in 1244 and was situated somewhere in what is now the grounds
of Kemback House.
The next date, 1446, relates to an act of charity to that church
by Robert de Femy and his wife, Mariota Olifert, Lady of Kemback,
who granted to Gilbert de Galbraith, rector of the church and
to his successors, for all time, 4 acres of the lands of Kemback,
together with grass for three cows and one horse, provided the
rector said two Masses weekly for the family and their benefactors.
Here then is – the First Glebe.
Then in 1458 Bishop Kennedy gifted Kemback to the College of St.
Salvator, which he had recently founded in St. Andrews, as part
of its endowment. Thus the teinds and patronage – the right to
present a vicar or minister – were transferred to St. Salvator’s,
and were later vested in the ‘United College’ when St. Leonard’s
and St. Salvator’s were united in 1747. This continued, presumably,
until 1874 when the Patronage Act abolished the system.
I have recently seen a document dated 1583 in which Patrick Shevez,
Laird of Kemback, gives a site on which to build a church with
enough ground for a graveyard, a manse and
6 acres of glebeland. This was bigger than the first glebe, but
it was recognised that the soil was of inferior quality. This
was in exchange for the existing church and glebe at Kemback House.
The Shevez were, of course, staunch Roman Catholics and it was
felt locally that this gesture was partly to take the worshipping
Reformers out of sight and sound of the house.
The Second Church
The second church is the ruin in the churchyard to which the
There are two dates above the lintel – 1583, which we now know
was the year the church was founded or completed – and 1760 when
the walls were heightened and the galleries added at either end.
It is an early example of the ‘T-shaped’ post-Reformation churches,
the ‘Makgill Aisle’, as we refer to it now, forming the leg.
In 1954 part of the east gable was destroyed when the ivy which
then covered the building, caught fire. In 1959 Fife County Council
wished to raze the ruin completely, but public indignation was
aroused and the result was that a fund was raised with which it
was preserved from further decay. The residue of the fund is administered
by the Kirk Session as a separate account.
It is interesting to note that, in the old part of the graveyard,
all the upright stones face east, in anticipation of Christ’s
Second Coming. There is no evidence of this practice being continued
in the new part.
The Third Church
This is the present church and
it was built in 1814. Some believe that the bell and belfry came
from the ruin. If this is so, then the bell we hear on Sundays
may have rung to invite worshippers in Kemback for over four hundred
The pulpit was originally in the centre, where the Celtic cross
now is, with the organ and choir immediately in front. The interior
was renovated in the late 1920s by Dr. Low, Blebo, and the wood
used was Borneo cedar.
A list of ministers since the Reformation is in the vestibule.
The urn-shaped vessel in the alcove is in fact part of an old
The memorial tablets on the walls lead to the next chapter – the
estates and the families who occupied them.
The Five Estates
We first hear of Kemback in the possession of Myles or Malise
Graham, one of the murderers of James I at Perth in 1437. For
this crime he was executed, his estate reverting to the superior,
the Bishopric of St. Andrews. In 1446 it belonged to Robertus
de Ferny and his wife who were, as we have heard, benefactors
of the church.
In 1496 it was conferred on John Shevez together with the office
of Marshall of the Bishop’s Household by his uncle William Shevez
who was then Archbishop of St. Andrews. He had studied astrology,
theology and medicine on the Continent and was a brilliant academic.
It was said that there was scarce his equal in Britain or France.
In 1665 a John Shevez, Laird of Kemback, was found dead at Cupar.
He had been a determined opponent of Presbyterianism in Kemback
and the Covenanters doubtless considered his demise as divine
intervention. It transpired, however, that the day before he had
been drinking strong waters with, among others, Morrison of Dairsie
and foul play, though never established, was not ruled out.
In 1667 John Makgill, younger son of Makgill of Rankeillor, bought
Kemback from Elizabeth Shevez, sister of the late John Shevez.
He was a former minister of Cupar and had resigned his charge
because of opposition to Episcopacy. He had studied medicine on
the Continent and, by purchasing Kemback, he ironically became
Marshall of an Episcopal Bishop’s Household.
The Makgills are representatives of the Viscounts ‘Oxfurd’. The
present Lord Oxturd, George Hubbard Makgill, succeeded his uncle,
the former Sir Donald Makgill, who lived in Ayrshire but who retained
a keen interest in Kemback, on his death in 1986.
The late Mr. W. Harold Thomson purchased Kemback from the Makgills
in the 1920s and it is still retained by the family.
Sometimes called Rumgay or, in old writings, Rathmatgallum.
In 1528 it formed part of the extensive barony of Strathmiglo
so long possessed by the Scots of Balwaerie, another old and powerful
Fife family. They only had the superiority however.
Sir Michael Scot was a man of property and power in Fife during
the reign of William the Lion (1165). He married Margaret, daughter
of Sir Duncan Syres or Ceres of that ilk and was succeeded by
his son Duncan Scot. The eldest son of Duncan was Sir Michael
Scot who married Margaret Balwaerie. Their son was the celebrated
Sir Michael Scot ‘The Wizard’, a contemporary of Dante and Boccaccie.
The late Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist, son of ‘Scott of the
Antarctic’ was a direct descendant.
The Douglas family were early owners, from whom it passed to the
Wemys of Wemys. In 1658 it was purchased by Rev. James McGill,
minister of Largo. From his family it passed to Moncrieffes, to
Makgills of Kemback and then in 1800 to a Mr. Thoms, a Dundee
merchant. It came in time to the Robertson family who gifted the
communion table in the church.
Latterly Rumgally belonged to the Rogers, was then the home of
Professor Gunstone, Vice-Principal Emeritus of St. Andrews University,
and Rumgally House
is now owned by Charles Fotheringham.
A branch of the family of Airth of Airth Castle lived here
in the 16th. and early 17th. centuries. David was Sheriff or Sheriff-Depute
of Fife in 1553-55 and George held the same office in 1592. He
also represented Cupar in the Scottish Parliament of 1617. In
1624 Dura belonged to Magister David Wemys, minister of Leven
(Magister or MA).
In 1750 it came to the Baynes through marriage. Alexander Bayne,
Professor of Municipal Law at Edinburgh, acquired Rires in 1722.
His father had been Sheriff Clerk of Fife in 1672.
From the Baynes it passed to the Meldrums of Kincaple and Craigfoodie
who were advocates. They took the name Bayne Meldrum and held
the estate until 1951 when the house was purchased by David Anderson
– later to be knighted – the bridge and tunnel expert. The plans
for the Forth Road Bridge were drawn there, but he died before
the bridge was built. He made a name for himself in the construction
of the Moscow and London underground railway systems. He left
his considerable fortune to a Chinese mission (and we hope the
‘Gang of Four’ didn’t benefit!)
In 1958 Dura was bought by the Howat family who later sold it
to the Milnes.
Blebo belonged to the Earl of Douglas in the time of David
II’s minority. The Trail family settled here in the 14th. century.
One of its most distinguished members, Doctor of Civil and Canon
Law, Walter Trail, was Bishop of St. Andrews from 1380-1401. He
was appointed by Pope Clement VII whose throne was at Avignon
and who is quoted as saying that ‘Walter was an honour to the
place and not the place to him’. Numerous branches have come from
the family – such as Dr. Thomas Trail, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence
at Edinburgh, editor of one of the editions of the Encyclopaedia
Brittanica and Robert Trail, minister of Greyfriars, Edinburgh.
Three generations of his descendants were ministers of Panbride
in Angus, to which charge a minister of Kemback was translated
In 1649 Blebo was purchased by Andrew Bethune, one of the Bethunes
of Balfour. Two sons of the house of Balfour had been Archbishops
of St. Andrews – James and his nephew David, the notorious persecutor
of WIshart and who was himself murdered in 1546. General Alexander
Bethune, an illustrious soldier member of the family, is buried
The present mansion was built by the Bethunes – pronounced Beaton
– in the 18th. century to replace the original house at Blebo
Hole. The estate remained with the family until 1900 when the
Bethunes moved to Mountquhanie and it was bought by the late William
Low, founder of the grocery chain, who extended the house and
completely renovated the interior. In 1951 the late Miss Janet
Low sold the estate and moved to 46 South Street, St. Andrews,
the residence at one time of Cardinal Beaton, the murdered Archbishop.
In 1958 the house and policies were bought by the Orr family since
when it has passed to the Myers.
While still on Blebo, in 1722 on the lands of Myreton, now Blebo
Mains, owned by the Bethunes, a quantity of lead ore was found
on the surface. Mining began and although a vein was discovered,
the hardness of the rock and the expense of blasting caused the
enterprise to be abandoned. Some time later, more lead ore was
discovered, quite by accident, about half a mile to the west.
A vein of pure metal and, it is said, some silver was also discovered.
Much annoyance was occasioned by water and this project too was
Neither Leighton nor Millar, from whom much of this history
is obtained, include Clatto in their histories of Fife. All I
know has been gleaned from reading ‘Fifty Years with John Company’,
a biography by Ursula Low, from letters of her grandfather, General
Sir John Low, a soldier and diplomat of the East India Company
and so much a part of the British Raj in India. Closely associated
with two Governors General, Lord Dalhousie and Lord Canning, his
letters not only show the self-sacrifice of these great men but
the integrity and strength of character of John Low himself. He
died in 1880 aged 91 and is buried at Kemback. The memorial tablet
in the church refers to his younger brothers family.
His sister Susan, wife of General Foulis of Cairnie Lodge, was
not only a close mend of Dr. Thomas Chalmers, founder of the Free
Church, but also a follower and did a deal of proselytising for
the cause. Another sister Maria married General Alexander Bethune
They were a remarkable family, connected through marriage to such
literary greats as William Shakespeare and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Sir John Low’s aunt Maria married Sir William Fettes, founder
of Fettes College.
From the Lows, who are not connected, as far as is known, to the
Blebo Lows, Clatto passed to the Curries, shipping people, to
the Mackenzies, then to the Sibbalds and now the Frasers.
Fossil remains in Kemback
Dura Den has long been known as a beauty spot. It must have
been even more picturesque before the coming of the mills when
no proper road existed.
It became much more widely known, however, because of its remarkable
geological formation which revealed the wonders of two geological
ages, firstly, the Epoch of Fishes -shining enamelled ganoid!
and then the Epoch of Vegetables – mostly of tropical climes.
It was during the construction of the Yoolfield mill lade that
fishes were first discovered (this is the lade round the amphitheatre).
The minister at Newburgh at that time was a Dr. Anderson who was
also a distinguished geologist and later wrote ‘A Monograph of
Dura Den’. To him must go much of the credit for what has been
recorded of the area.
He recounts how, while attending a presbytery meeting, a stone
mason showed him a fish which had leapt into his hands on opening
a slab in Dura Den. This is not typical of presbytery meetings
today for they are more formal (perhaps!)
This single incident sparked off intensive exploration by many
of the famous geologists of the day – Sir Robert Murchison, Sir
Charles Lyell, Dr. Fleming and Dr. Anderson himself, of course,
It was however Professor Agassiz in his work ‘Poissons Fossils’
which gave worldwide publicity to the area. The fossils were found
literally in shoals. In one ‘dig’ alone 1000 species were found
in an area of little over 3 square yards and what was so remarkable
was their state of preservation. Nearly all were perfect in outline,
complete in every detail even to the silken fin and, when newly
exposed, glistened as if they might still be alive.
The prevailing family was ‘holoptychius’, one of which, discovered
in 1858, measured over 3 feet long. In addition some hitherto
unknown species were discovered in Dura Den and, of their several
kinds, are considered to be, in perfection of outline etc., the
best to have been found anywhere.
All are described as ‘placoid’ and ‘ganoid’ – covered with scales
of a bony substance coated with enamel. They were in effect a
shining armour. Some crustacean specimens were also found – ‘Pamphractus’
– frog-like creatures, the size of a lady’s palm.
Described as being, and I quote, ‘of affleunt abundance and
exuberant growth, their peculiarity was that they consisted mostly
of non-flowering and non-seedbearing species, among which were
a few palms, conifers and some relatives of the cactus family.
Ferns, the great tree variety, were the most prevailing types
and many of the bands of shale are composed entirely of carbonised
leaves and stems. The whole place must have resembled an Indian
jungle at one time. There are, of course, specimens still to be
Specimens can be seen in the British Museum of Natural History
in London; in the College Museum in St. Andrews and in Dundee
Lord Kinnaird of Rossie Priory had a private collection (and may
still do) which included the 3-foot long specimen ‘holoptychius’
Apart from the hamlet associated with the church and school,
all other centres of habitation owe their origin to the various
industries of the parish.
Vast deposits of sandstone are to be found in Kemback Hill.
Because of its silicon content it was easy to hew and dress and
had the added quality of taking a fine polish. Consequently it
was in great demand by builders and a thriving industry developed
with Blebo Craigs as its centre.
A 100 acres of the lands of Blebo were feued in lots of 2 – 15
acres and nearly all reclaimed from unproductive heath. The cottages
built thereon – 20 initially – housed quarrymen and tradesmen.
The land was cropped, mostly to feed horses which were used in
considerable numbers to convey stone downhill to St. Andrews and
throughout the countryside.
Cows were kept for milk and every cottager throughout the parish
kept a pig for his own use. There was a cartwright and a blacksmith.
A tailor, whose descendants are still with us, had a wide clientele
and travelled the district by pony and trap. Market gardens were
later cultivated as it virtually became a self-contained community.
One has only to follow the tracks through Kemback Wood to see
the extent of workings and to obtain some idea of the great quantity
of stone which has been removed – and the toil of both man and
beast which it must have occasioned.
The quarries are of two types – one where everything in front,
above and to the sides was removed as quarrying progressed – and
the other where tunnels were driven deep into the hillside with
columns of stone left to support the roof. You would find these
most impressive, but be warned – these old workings, long since
abandoned, are dangerous.
From Pitscottie Vale to Kemback Lodge the Ceres Burn, flowing
through the den falls 150 feet in just over a mile and it was
this source of energy, this cheap power, which attracted the flax
and tow spinning industry.
The mill-owners not only built.the mills – they built homes for
their employees e.g. Grove House, Grove Terrace, New Buildings
(now demolished), The Laurels and The Crescent. Two spinning mills
were built. The first was Blebo Mill. It was driven by water turbine
which developed 14 hp assisted in summer by a steam engine. Here
was also a meal mill and a flax scutching mill.
The second was Yoolfield Mill, called after the owner (later Dura
Den Mill). It was driven by a waterwheel 40′ in diameter and 10′
wide- the second largest ever built in Britain – and developed
50 hp. It too was assisted in summer by a steam engine. The spools,
of lint and tow, much of it from locally grown flax, were produced
for the Dundee merchants. Links with Dundee can still be seen
today in street-names there such as Kemback Street and Dura Street.
At their peak these mills between them employed over 260 men,
women and children.
Kemback Bridge (or Kemback Mills as it was once known) consisted
of a sawmill, a meal mill and a bone mill where 600 tons of bones
were ground annually (1845). Rape seed cake was also produced
for animal feed.
The following figures are taken from the 1845 Statistical Account:
Dura 98 women Blebo 37 women
7 wrights 4 men
10 men 3boys
Several unrelated items of general interest appear under this
It is recorded in Robert Lindsay’s ‘Chronicles of Scotland’
that in 1674 a conventicle was held on the sloping ground opposite
‘Dura Quair’ (‘Little Dura’ as it is now known) at which a large
gathering of about 8000 people was addressed by John Welsh of
Irongray and where Lady Crawford, whose home was nearby Struthers
Castle, was herself a convert.
Being warned, however, of the approach of a detachment of Life
Guards under Masterton of Grange, the preacher was escorted safely
away to Largo and, under cover of darkness, escaped over the Forth
to Aberlady and on to his home in Edinburgh.
There is a local tradition that after 1662 a member of the Shevez
family suffered persecution for non-conformity. He took refuge
in the cave known today as ‘Covenanters Cave’ but his place of
concealment was discovered by tracing in the snow the footsteps
of a sister who carried food to him. As well as providing asylum
to the persecuted, the cave, in more recent times, has provided
adventure to generations of boys.
Smiddy and Stables
Situated under the cave, this complex provided a service for
Yoolfield Mill. Demolished in 1937, the stones were used to enlarge
the hall built originally as a place of worship at the time of
the Disruption in 1843.
It is not known what fate befell ‘Jenny’ who lived behind the
church in the red-tiled cottage (now much enlarged) and who gave
her name to the steep brae leading from the church to Blebo Craigs.
She is reputed to have sold whisky made secretly in her own still
somewhere at the rear of her cottage.
In more recent times Dairsie Mill was let, as were several cottages
in ‘The Den’, as a holiday home to a Dundee family. With a convenient
spring of water behind the mill and the comparative isolation,
it was decided to set up a still. Barley was carried over the
‘Shaky Brig’ opposite Kemback Lodge and rough spirit produced
sold in shady pubs in Dundee.
Suspicion was aroused following a fracas over the division of
the spoils. They were kept under surveillance until one night
when police dressed as anglers caught them red-handed. They were
duly fined and their equipment confiscated.
Apart from the burial ground in the policies of Kemback House,
associated, it is believed, with the first church, several cists
have been discovered at Rumgally, in 1931 and since. They measured
3.5ft long by 2.5ft wide at the north end and 1.5ft at the south
and 2ft. deep. They had neither lids nor bases.
Inside were human bones, flint tools and a food urn 6 inches tall,
with 6 inch diameter lip and 3 inch diameter base. These were
thought to be between 2000 and 3000 years old.
GPO Trans-Atlantic Radio Station
The first such station in Scotland, if not in Britain, was
situated opposite the entrance to the cemetery. Built in the 1920s
and later moved to permanent buildings at Cairngreen, it was a
collection of wooden huts and a forest of aerials. In addition,
twin masts were sited round the district which, by a natural phenomenon,
was and is an excellent reception area.
‘The Headless Coachman’ is said to drive furiously along the
back drive to Blebo attended by much noise of rushing wind and
‘The white Lady of Kemback’ is thought to be the widow of Myles
Graham. It is believed that, under torture, she revealed her husband’s
hiding place. In spite of all the Masses said for her, she haunts
the sylvan scene.
The estates employed foresters, gardeners, gamekeepers, grooms,
coachmen (later chauffeurs) and domestic servants.
Farm ‘toons’, as they were called, were bustling noisy places
with horsemen, cattlemen and shepherds all under the supervision
of grieves, all with sizeable families and every farm having a
bothy for single men.
The spinning mills attracted many families from outside the parish,
mostly from Dundee. ‘The Den’ was a busy place with a thriving
general store and even a pub. The Ceres bobby was always in attendance
on pay night. The Crescent, the mills and the roadway were lit
by coal gas from gasworks situated in the yard of Yoolfield mill.
‘The Den’ also had its own band.
The growth and decline of industry’s reflected in the following
pop. 778 school
The parochial school and schoolhouse were
new in 1792 but the school was enlarged to its present capacity
(200) in the middle of last century. In addition there was a modest
private school for girls at Kemback Bridge.
The local branch of the WRI, the Dramatic Club, the Football Club,
the Cricket Club and the Rifle Club have all come and gone. The Bowling Club is the longest running survivor
and looks set to continue.
Kemback Woman’s Guild was founded in 1946 and is in good heart.
The Kirk Session records its appreciation of the Guild’s witness
in the parish.
Mechanisation and the need for increased efficiency are part of
an ongoing process affecting all parts of the nation’s economy.
Air travel has made the world a smaller place and television has
brought it into the living room and so a whole way of life has
The parish of Kemback continues to attract
its quota of visitors and, perhaps more importantly, new residents.
They doubtless come to enjoy the peace and
tranquillity of the area which once more prevails.
All seem to integrate well into the community,
with some active in the Church, the Community Association and
the larger Community Council.
Long may this continue
They are all welcome !
This short history of Kemback has been compiled
from notes for a talk given to Kemback Woman’s Guild in the church
hall, Dura Den, in 1980 by the Session Clerk, Maurice Milne.
Among the works of reference the following have been consulted:
Statistical Accounts of Scotland – 1792, 1845 & 1951
Fife Illustrated – Leighton
Fife Pictorial Illustrated – Miller
Historical Antiquities – Rev. J. W. Taylor, Free Church
of Flisk and Creich
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Research by: Maurice
Milne, Session Clerk, Kemback Church of Scotland.
Copyright ©1996 Maurice Milne, All Rights Reserved.
Original Text Editing: David Clark, former minister at Cupar
Internet Publication and panoramic photographs: Ken
Cochran, St Andrews Media
Last updated March 13th, 2002