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You may listen to a talk given by Yvonne Boni of Cupar Library on the History of Kemback, Blebo Craigs and Strathkinness here, read the notes here, and download the associated PowerPoint slides from here.  The talk was given at Blebo Craigs Village Hall.

A Short History of Kemback Parish by Maurice Milne, Session Clerk.

Kemback Parish Church, Church of Scotland

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Introduction : The Church : The Five Estates : Fossil remains in Kemback : Industry : Miscellany : Social Changes

Ceres, Kemback and Springfield Parish Church

Local Accommodation - Upper Hillside : Wester Dura : The Flag House : Rumgally House

Local Restaurants - White Chimneys : Harvey Macguires

Other Information - Pitscottie : Blebo Craigs : Genealogy : Local area places to visit : Local Map


The name Kemback comes from the Gaelic meaning 'Field of battle' or 'Field of the Warrior', but there is no local legend to support this.
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 old age.
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 Church

It is appropriate that such a history should begin with what is central to the parish.

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 document refers.
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 years.
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 heating system.
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 1979.
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 at Kemback.
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 abandoned.


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 of Blebo.
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.

The Fish

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, and others.
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.

The Vegetables

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 found today.
Specimens can be seen in the British Museum of Natural History in London; in the College Museum in St. Andrews and in Dundee Museum.
Lord Kinnaird of Rossie Priory had a private collection (and may still do) which included the 3-foot long specimen 'holoptychius' of 1858.


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.

Blebo Craigs

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.

Dura Den

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
		7 boys
		6 girls


Several unrelated items of general interest appear under this heading:


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.

Illicit Stills

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.

Burial Cists

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 flying hooves.
'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.

Social Changes

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 census returns:

          1841  pop. 778 school  70-80
          1871      1056           170
          1931       519            40
          1951       464 primary    30
          1980       380            24

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 been changed.

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 Old.

Internet Publication and panoramic photographs: Ken Cochran, St Andrews Media

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Last updated March 13th, 2002