We arrived at Glasgow
airport on Sept 28 and were met by Stanley Duffus.
Stanley is my father's
second cousin, and he took us to his home in Linlithgow (between Glasgow
and Edinburgh). Stanley
is 72, a retired schoolmaster, a bachelor, and VERY British!
He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of Scottish history and geography,
and is an expert on Scottish castles.
Since he retired from teaching, he has worked as a guide and historian
at several National Trust castles and palaces.
He planned our itinerary and conducted us on a fascinating tour
of Northeast Scotland.
He knew which sites were the most interesting and seemed to have
a reference book, a guide book and a map for each one.
After a day to recover from jet lag, we set out in
Stanley's car for Aberdeenshire.
Along the way, we stopped at Glamis to see
the castle, Pictish carved stones and the first of many, many parish
churches and graveyards. Then
to Aberlemno: more Pictish
stones, a beautiful old church and another graveyard.
The next stop was the little church at Kineff, where we got a Scottish
history lesson, and then to Dunnottar castle.
This stop was disappointing as it was just closing as we arrived,
and we didn't have time to tour it.
Dunnottar is a spectacular, large ruined castle, perched high on
a rocky point above the north sea.
It was a Jacobite stronghold and was destroyed by the English in
We arrived in the city of Aberdeen
and stayed in a bed and breakfast in a beautiful, elegant townhouse.
We were invited for supper by Stanley's
nephew, Colin and his wife, Lynne who made us very welcome.
Colin is a sales representative for a feed company and he was able
to arrange a tour of a pig farm a few days later.
Lynne works in the administrative end of a Scottish plaid and kilt-making
the next morning we drove west for about ten miles and came to the Kirkton
of Skene. The parish of Skene
is situated around the Loch of Skene, and is the area where the the direct
line of the family of Skene of Skene lived.
Our relatives don't come from this area. Curiously, there are no
Skenes buried in the graveyard of the church.
A few miles away is Skene House, a large stone house which is privately
owned (not by a Skene any longer).
We sneaked down the driveway and, since nobody seemed to be around,
took a few pictures and got away without anybody noticing us.
From Skene, we went to Turriff, where we stayed at
another bed and breakfast for the next five nights.
Turriff is not only the place where several generations of our
Skene ancestors, lived but is also centrally located in Aberdeenshire,
so it made a convenient base for our explorations of the county.
Stanley grew up in
Cumineston, which is five miles from Turriff and we went there to meet
his Uncle Edward and Aunt Mabel, both about 88.
They are bright, entertaining folk with terrific senses of humour
and we enjoyed them very much. Edward
treats Stanley more or less
as if he were still his 10 year-old nephew, and we had many laughs at
Uncle Edward was a key figure in our itinerary as he
knows an elderly farmer, John Duncan, very well.
John Duncan happens to own the farm next to Chapelden farm, where
my great-grandfather was born and raised.
Edward asked Mr. Duncan to take us to Chapelden in his Land Rover.
Otherwise, it would have meant a long hike along a very muddy track.
No one lives at Chapelden now, but the original house is
still standing. Even though
the house has been lately used as a cattle shed, you could still see where
the fireplaces were, and a cupboard built into the wall of the kitchen.
It was possible to picture what life might have been like in the
1870's. Pictures of Chapelden
that I had seen previously, led me to believe that it was a poor, infertile
farm, where great-great grandpa George Skene must have struggled for a
bare living. I assumed that
he was a not very successful man, who lived in this barren place because
it was the best land he could get.
However, Mr. Duncan spent quite a lot of time showing us around
the property , pointing out that the farm was considerably larger than
I had first thought. In fact,
he believed it would have required THREE horses to work, and therefore
was, if not a rich farm, at least a place for a family to live in reasonable
comfort. Gr-Great Grandpa
George left Chapelden, probably at the end of the 14 year lease, and moved
to the much larger, and more prosperous farm of Sauchenbush, which we
also visited briefly. I came
to realize that my ancestor was a more successful person than I originally
We also visited Kinbate farm where Gr-Gr-Great Grandpa
William Skene lived, and where George and his brother, Alexander were
born. At the turn-off to Kinbate,
there was a sign pointing to the next farm called Brackens.
Stanley, who seems to know every family in the county, said quite
casually: "There used
to be a family called COWIE lived at Brackens!"
Well, on April 7, 1827,
William Skene married Lillias Cowie.
What could be more likely than that she should live on the neighbouring
took us all over: to Banff
and Macduff, on the north coast, just across the Deveron river from each
other. We searched out the
house at 32 Skene street
where (supposedly) George Skene was staying when he died.
The story goes that he fell out of his dog cart on the way home
from the pub and died a few days later of injuries sustained in the incident!
Along the north coast are the picturesque little seaside towns
of Gardenstown and Pennan, where the road into the village is so steep
that you seem to look right down the chimneypots of the little stone houses
huddled at the base of the cliffs.
One day we visited Fyvie castle where Stanley
once worked as a tour guide. Fyvie
is a beautiful castle with towers and turrets and spiral stone stairs.
It is completely intact, fully furnished and was only sold to the
National Trust in 1984. Before
that the Forbes-Leith family still lived in it, in all its baronial splendour.
In fact, family members still live in a private apartment in one
portion of the castle. The
vast rooms, with their carpets and tapestries, ornate fireplaces, huge
portraits and all the furnishings are just awesome.
A memorable stop was at an ancient stone circle near
Daviot. We walked up through
a wood, to a clearing on top of a hill where a circle of Pictish standing
stones looks out over a valley. We
were the only ones there and by staying real, real quiet, we could nearly
hear faint voices from the 3rd and 4th century.
We managed a quick visit to Aberdeen
on a drizzly Sunday. The most
memorable part of that trip was the University with its "wedding
cake" architecture, and
the mediaeval kings College chapel.
Back at Stanley's
place, we visited the ruins of Linlithgow
Palace, which was the summer
residence of the Scottish court. Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed there on
his way north after unsuccessfully invading England
in 1745. In 1746, the English
army occupied the building, after being defeated at the battle of Falkirk.
Unfortunately, the soldiers accidentally set it on fire and now
it is just a ruin. We had
a terrific afternoon, exploring the dungeons, climbing up and down spiral
stairs, and peeking into kitchens, ballrooms and watchtowers.
We also visited Hopeton House where Stanley
works now. Hopeton is not
a castle but is a large mansion on a vast estate.
We used the excellent train service to spend some time
in Edinburgh and visit the
big castle there. We watched
a little presentation carried out in period clothing describing the tools
and life-style of an 18th century British soldier and a very fascinating
display of how the early Scotsman prepared and wore his plaid (predating
the sewing-in of the pleats etc.)
A little commentary also described the habit of the earlier Scotsman
to drop his plaids (kilt) and charge into battle wearing naught but his
shirt and broadsword. Pretty
effective, no? At
Edinburgh castle we took the
opportunity to view the "Honours of Scotland" (Crown Jewels).
They were quite impressive.
We managed a quick trip into Glasgow
the next day, where we caught a city tour bus at George
Square and took in some of the sights.
On one of the few really rainy days we had we changed
plans due to the weather and toured another historical site called Callender
House. It was very interesting
because it was staffed with people in period costume.
In the Victorian kitchen, with its huge coal fire, we enjoyed a
taste of Hotch Potch and some Lemon Pudding.
Upstairs, more folks were dressed in period costumes and working
away in appropriate settings. It
was quite interesting to talk to them.
There was a clock/watch repair shop, a general store where
I got to taste some barley sugar and a fascinating demonstration in the
Finally we left Scotland
and took the train for London,
where we spent three days visiting Edna Blackwell (another second cousin,
once-removed) and her husband, Ron.
We went downtown and toured the obligatory tourist sites:
Picadilly Circus, Buckingham
Palace and the changing of
the guard, Westminster Cathedral, Big Ben, The Tower of London, Tower
Paul's Cathedral etc.
Unfortunately we did not get a chance to visit Aunt Dora.
Dora is 92 and is one of only two people left in her entire generation.
(The other one is 95, and lives in Zimbabwe).
Dora lives with her daughter, Ellie and apparently they were having
a row about something. At
any rate, Ellie said they were too upset to have visitors.
It was a disappointment, as it is unlikely I will get another chance
to meet her.
On October 14, we flew home from Heathrow.
It was a terrific trip, and perhaps the best holiday we have ever
had. I would have liked to
do some genealogical research, but you pretty much have to be alone for
that sort of thing. Susan
already figures she saw enough graveyards to last a lifetime.
I don't think she would have been keen on my spending a lot of
time in dusty archives. I
did manage to fill in some gaps on my family tree charts, and I even uncovered
a couple of skeletons, so it was totally worthwhile.
Stay tuned for our next trip--we are hoping we might
be able to ring in the new millenium in Zimbabwe!!!