'Yesterday I visited Aden Country Park, near Mintlaw. I don't have a car, so I took 2 buses over a scenic route ;-) via Turriff, but didn't mind at all as I was entertained and regaled by a lovely Polish bus driver all the way - thank you Michael for all the stories! Michael moved to the North east of Scotland direct from Poland 13 years ago. Back then he had not a word of English, but taught himself and now spiks the Doric jist fine! I say this all the time, but people who immigrate here in search of a better life make all of our lives richer, and I certainly found that yesterday :-)
Now owned and run by the council as a community project, the place has a fascinating history. The barony of Aden (pronounced Aa-den) was given to Robery Keith, the Earl of Marischal, in 1324 as a reward for his services in the Wars of Independence. It remained in the Keith family for 400 years before it was bought - along with the nearby village of Old Deer - by a Banffshire laird called Alexander Russell in 1758. Russell had been bitten by the bug of improvement farming, and set about re-structuring the tenant farms, building woods for shelter, and building a house for himself and his family which would later become extended into a mansion known on the estate as 'the Big Hoose'. By the mid-nineteenth century, the house was a beautiful example of neo-classical splendour, and by late Victorian times the house and estate were served by a huge army of staff. Like Downton Abbey, but probably chillier ;-) They even had their own laundry building, ice house and gas-works, and so life was probably not too shabby for the laird and his family :-)
One brilliant testament to the Russells' endeavours is the Home Farm building. A bigger and grander version of the old fairm-toun structure, it's a long curved building over 3 levels, and housed much of what kept the estate going - the stables, grain stores, lodgings for the Head Horseman, Grieve, and familes, the chaumer (sleeping quarters for unmarried farm servants), and Doocot up abeen :-)
The lives of servants on the estate was difficult. Whether working 14 hour days as a maid in the big hoose, or labouring on one of the estate's farms, survival was a sair fecht, and servants would be lucky if they had a half-day off per week. That being said, the Russell family seems to have been looked on kindly by their workers, as described in the testimony recorded in local accounts and songs. In the early 20th century one tenant, in great difficulty due to falling prices, approached the laird for a reduction in his rent, stating that he had not had a new suit since he was married some 25 years before. In a spirit of compassion, the Laird agreed.
Feeing market at Turriff, where farm servants looked for a 'new fee'...
Unfortunately, after the First World War, these falling prices translated to unsustainable loss of farm income. Combined with rising maintenance costs, the Russells could not keep up, and in 1937 the 8th and last laird of Aden sold the estate, including its 52 farms and most of Old Deer.
After the sale, the estate was sorely neglected and fell into disrepair.
Wandering around the grounds of the old mansion, now a ruin, is very sad. Though of course I know it represents an era of huge inequality - sadly not unlike the kind we're living in now - its walls nevertheless ring out with the echoes of a family who cared deeply about this place and wanted to make the best of a system which made their tenants' largely dependent on them. Their efforts to improve and build it up over 400 years were undone in 40 through the carelessness of their successors. In what you might see as the kind of plundering land-owning greed which scourged much of rural Scotland even in the 20th century, they used it for shooting and hunting, and cared for little else besides.
In 1974 the estate was purchased by Banff and Buchan District Council, and the following year they designated it a country park. Over the past 40 years, it has gone from strength to strength, undergoing a huge renovation project to restore the Home Farm to its former glory. It now houses a brilliant farming museum, probably the best I've seen, a lovely café, and much more besides. The place is really so impressive.
My favourite part of the day was visiting The Horseman's House. The last man to be head horseman here was Jimmy Thompson, and he was hired for the position in 1919. He and his family moved into this cottage, which was 2 rooms at one end of the farm steading, or 'home farm', built in the early 19th century. His daughter, Miss Mary Thompson, was extremely generous in helping with the presentation of her former home as a museum, and also donated many of their original furnishings. In some old photos, you can see her showing school children around in the 1980s! As a family of 4, living in a 2-roomed cottage like this was relatively grand for a horseman, and they seem to have had a happy time there. The place is full of photographs, rugs made by Jimmy himself, their own furniture, and just gallons of memories and magic. Entranced and quite alone in the place, I tarried there for some time.... :-)
Original implements, The Horseman's House
Also featured at Aden is the Book of Deer - one of Scotland's most important manuscripts - which alaas I had to save for another day. But, I was fortunate enough to visit the North East Folklore Archives, now in the old laundry building along with a purpose-built recording studio. Thanks to the foresight and talents of musician and archivist Gavin Sutherland and the team there, they've been working with digital technology for storing archival material since the mid-90s, way ahead of the curve. Back then the digital recorder was something still confined to Tomorrow's World, but these guys - a wealth of experience in music, recording, and science between them - got themselves one of the first, taught themselves programming, and got these materials online and into the public domain before people were even dreaming we'd all have a computer! As Gavin said:
"Back then people were saying things like, 'There will come a time when there will be a computer in every city"
I really take my hat off to them! Huge thank you to Gavin for the lovely chat, hospitality and books. I'm sure I'll be back!
Lastly, I want to mention Hareshowe Farm - this project is amazing! It's a typical Buchan farm of the 1890s, bought and moved in its entirety from near New Deer, to its new location at Aden. In 1990 it was bought by the Aden project. They photographed, catalogued, and labelled every single brick, shed, tea towel and dresser, and rebuilt it exactly as it had been - and it hadn't been re-decorated since 1950 so as one of the last example of the old ways of farming - ie horses not tractors etc - it is incredibly precious. But I won't go on and on - this page can tell you all about it.
Awaiting a bus at Turriff on my way back, I took a stroll around the old Kirkyard. Some might say a fascination with graveyards is slightly morbid, but as I read the headstones, I find myself pulled through the stone into the lives of these families, many of which were tragically short. Especially in the 19th century North East, so many parents buried child after child under 20 - disease and near starvation being the cause. How lucky we are today to live with modern medicine, and I really think we can learn a lot from the resourcefulness, self-care, and neighbourly generosity of our forebears. And how horrific and shameful that in this time of plentiful resources, after 200 years of admirable progress as a country, so many people should be living on the bread-line once more. Time for change indeed.
The 'Aul Kirkyard' at Turriff
There's so much more I could say about Aden, and how invaluable this visit was as I go deeper and deeper into farm-town life in the North East. For now, I highly recommend a visit!
Next week I'm off to Aberdeen for a chat with Sheena Blackhall and a visit to the Elphinstone Institute, then out to Kemnay and Alford - really looking forward to hearing the voices of those places again. I want to thank the Tom McGrath Trust for supporting this trip, and this time to write - it makes all the difference to the development of a voice in your writing, if you have time and space to absorb and reflect on the voices of past and present all around us.'
Stay tuned for more tales from Elspeth's adventures!
And don't forget, tickets for SPECTRETOWN are now on sale. Just click HERE!
Stoirm Òg xo