History – The Parish of Gamrie
The Coastal Range
Between the two well-known headlands, Gamrie-mor and Troup Head, lies Gamrie Bay, which provides an anchorage for vessels of large size. These heights command a wide and magnificent prospect, which includes the hills of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.
Along the coast many caverns are found, two of which are particularly interesting. Into one, the full force of the sea driven before northerly gales find entrance by a passage eighty yards long, the spray escaping through a wild fissure and drifting away like smoke. This weird place is locally known as “Hell’s Lum”. The other is entered by a natural tunnel of such restricted dimensions that it is called “The Needle’s Eye” on account of the difficulty of going through it.
The spelling of the name of the parish has undergone many vicissitudes. Gaemrie, Gemri, Gamry, Gamery, and Gamrie, have all had their turn. The etymology cannot with any certainty be now decided.
St John's Church
On a high cliff beside Gamrie-mor stands the old Church, said to have been built in 1004. It was dedicated to St John, and, according to tradition, it owed its erection to a vow made by the leader of the Scots in a conflict with the Danes, that if St John gave him the victory this monument of his gratitude would be raised above the foeman’s landing-place.
Until the Church became a ruin three skulls were preserved fixed in niches in the wall on the east side of the pulpit. The story is that the defending Scots succeeded in gaining possession of the top of the hill, directly over the Danish main camp, and, by rolling down large stones upon the invaders, obliged them to abandon it and escape by the north-east brow of the hill where many were killed in the fight.
The Danes having been joined by a party of their countrymen who had landed at Old haven of Cullen, about four miles westward, made a successful attack on the Scots, and drove them back to the hill. By this time, however, the alarm had spread far and wide, and the Scots, pouring in from all quarters, not only forced back the Danes to their old position on the brow of the hill, but, getting possession of the whole heights, and enclosing them on all sides except that overhanging the sea.
The Scots again rolled down large stones while the helpless Danes could neither oppose nor escape, and then rushing down upon them, sword in hand, the Scots cut them to pieces to a man. The Bleedy pots (Bloody Pits) is still the name of the place.
Sir William Geddes
The late Sir William Geddes, Principal of Aberdeen University, who for a short time was schoolmaster of Gamrie, immortalised this interesting ruin in his well-known verses, which first appeared in the Banffshire Journal of 26th August 1856:-
“Hast seen the old lone churchyard,
The churchyard by the sea,
High on the edge of a windswept ledge,
And it looks o’er Gaemrie.”
Inside the old Church there used to be a handsome marble monument to the memory of Lord Gardenstown, but the weather has worn it quite away, and only the framework is now left. Major Garden, the first of the Gardens of Troup, and some of the members of that family, are buried within the old Church.
There is a quaint tablet in the wall of the Church, next to the sea, to the memory of Patrick Barclay, lord of Towie-Barclay, and his spouse, Janet Ogilvy, who died in 1547. The family residence of these famous Barclays was at this time at Cullen in Gamrie.
The old Church of Gamrie having fallen into a ruinous state in the spring of 1827, preaching in it was given up, and the Minister conducted service in the Churchyard in summer, and in the old School of Findon and in the Society Hall of Gardenstown in winter. This arrangement seems to have continued till the new Church was formally opened on the 29th June 1830. The Church and its adjoining large and commodious Manse are built about a mile inland from the old, on a conspicuous height, and is a widely-known landmark.
Sources and acknowledgements: The source for most of the information above is The Kirks of the Turriff Presbytery: The Book of the Bazaar by the Rev. Patrick Thomas Clark, dated 1904.
World War II at Gamrie Lodge - a personal account
By John M Cameron, Stranraer
My personal memories of World War 2 are rather limited as I was only 4 years and 7 months old when war was declared on 3rd September 1939. We were far from the centre of action and out in the country where the nearest house was almost a quarter of a mile away.
Dad was the Church of Scotland minister of Gamrie Parish. This was originally that part of Banffshire which sticks out along the Moray Firth coast, east of the River Deveron. Over the years, the Parish of Gardenstown covered the village of that name and Macduff Parish extended to a distance of about two to three miles east of the river so that Gamrie was a real country parish.
Dad became Head Observer for the local Observer Corps, only later did it become Royal. The post was designated L1 (Love One) controlled by ‘Centre’ in Woolmanhill in Aberdeen. Post L1 was sited at Westertown of Knowehead Farm (grid ref NJ 804646) overlooking the village of Gardenstown and Gamrie Bay. With Mhor Head to the west and Crovie Head to the east the bay was well known to fishermen as a sheltered place for shipping, particularly if there was a strong wind from the south. The next in the chain of posts were Rosehearty to the east and Macduff to the west. At first the post was a sandbagged enclosure on the east side of the farm road, later a wooden tower was constructed with an adjoining ‘hut’ in which the crew could shelter. (The expression ‘going to the hut’ meant that Dad was out at the post.) Even later a concrete tower was added with a shelter/storage space underneath.
The Observer Corps plotted and reported on the movements of both friendly and enemy aircraft. This was before the days of radar and the speed of aircraft was much slower than today’s supersonic fighters. The human eye and ear were the tools of the trade assisted by ‘the instrument’ which gave the angle of elevation of the aircraft. The reports from several posts were correlated at Centre to give altitude and position. This was to be the daily, and nightly, routine for all of the war years.
Because of Dad’s occupation it meant that, in general, he could arrange his working hours to suit the situation. As a result he often took the unpopular ‘watch’ from midnight to four in the morning. Watches were arranged on a four hour basis; men on the 4am to 8am would simply finish their watch and go to work. The earlier four hour watch meant that they would have a disturbed night. Dad would work out the duty rosters and distribute them to each of the members of the crew. This was an ongoing and never-ending task for Dad, all hand-written — no duplicators in those days. Even when the family went on a short break to Dad’s sister in Bridge of Allan during the summer of 1940, he was working on the duty rotas.
Much of my memories of the war years are therefore based on Dad’s stories of the ROC. However I still remember the day war broke out. The family returned from church on 3rd September 1939 just before 1pm. We were accompanied by the headmaster of the local school; this was to let him hear the one o’clock news as he would have missed it by the time he had reached home. While we were listening to the news the telephone rang and the message was that there was an air raid warning.
Now for some ROC stories; they are not in chronological order as they were related by Dad at various times over the years. I have also been reminded of some facts by my elder brother.
In the early days of the war when there was a distinct possibility of invasion, Dad carried a revolver with him when he went to the post, particularly at night, either when on duty or on a visit to see what was happening. German spies were indeed landed further west along the coast; fortunately they were soon caught. Obviously they had not been briefed well enough about British currency. Apparently one of them had asked for railway tickets and, when told the cost, had handed over a large bundle of notes, much more than was required.
The ROC officer in command of the area was Colonel Gordon. The only story I have about him is regarding an order issued that each post was to have two rifles (Ross rifles), presumably for defence, and one was to be kept loaded at all times. Col Gordon rescinded this order; either both were loaded or neither was loaded, otherwise it would only be a matter of time until there was a serious accident.
One night, one of the observers (it could have been Jimmie West) heard a noise out to sea — it must have been a very calm night. He reported to ‘Centre’ in Aberdeen what he’d heard and that he was sure that it was a submarine on the surface recharging his batteries. ‘Centre’ didn’t take this seriously but next day however, a ship was torpedoed out in the Moray Firth. During the subsequent inquiry the question was asked ‘were there any reports of submarine activity in the area?’ Someone remembered the ignored report from L1 and this was further investigated. ‘Who made the report?’ When it was discovered who had sent the report they said ‘if we’d known who it was we’d have pursued the matter’. He had been in the navy in the First World War so knew what he was talking about. Such is the benefit of hindsight!
One night, someone called to see Dad at the Manse. When he answered the door, his immediate reaction was ‘put out your car lights, there’s a raid on”. He’d heard the familiar drone above. Leaving the visitor, Dad took the car out of the garage and drove the mile and a half to the post. ‘How many’s that now’ Dad asked, quoting a number. In reply he was given a much greater number of raiders; they’d been crossing in the short time he’d taken to arrive at the post. This was the night of the attack on Greenock. I think that they could hear the explosions later that night.
Somehow the Germans knew that, while they would be spotted as they flew along the Moray Firth coast, once they had passed a certain point they could turn inland and would be lost until they reappeared over their target. The chain of posts only extended for so far to the west — I cannot remember which was the most westerly of the posts along the coast.
Some time after the last of the raiders had passed flames were seen to the east. ‘They’ve got the toolworks’ was the thought. These were the toolworks at Fraserburgh. However, they hadn’t been hit; it was a hotel which had caught fire — no connection with the passing raiders. Naturally, a large crowd gathered to watch. Unfortunately, when Jerry returned one of the planes still had a bomb on board and dropped it, killing a large number of people. As a result, it was said that Fraserburgh, for its size, had the highest casualty rate of the war.
Boyndie (Banff) aerodrome was some ten miles west. From here a number of raids were carried out on German-occupied Norway. One of the tasks of L1 was to ‘count them out and count them in’. I believe that at some time later another aircraft, timed to be over the North Sea when our raiders were returning, would follow the same course carrying a boat underneath; this would be dropped near any ditched aircraft so that the crew might be rescued. I cannot remember hearing of any occasion when the aircraft returned minus the boat. I believe the provision of this rescue boat was more for psychological reasons rather than being of use in actually carrying out a rescue.
As an aid to aircraft recognition, magazines, models, photographs and silhouettes of aircraft were issued. The aircraft recognition cards must have been issued by the thousand and all were stored in the Manse attic. The models arrived in, to a small boy, huge cardboard boxes. The models did not seem to be exactly to scale. The models included the Stuka dive bomber and the ‘Flying Pencil’ as well as British types. I cannot remember what happened to the models after the war — I think they had to be sent back. They would be collectors’ items now! One of the post members was not very clued up about aircraft. If it had one engine it was a ‘fechter’ (fighter); two engines meant it was a ‘boomer’ (bomber!). Log books were kept there as well when they were full. The log was written in indelible pencil — no biros in those days! After the war they were burned as being of no further interest. What a pity!
Dad would visit the post daily. Often he arranged his visits so that I could get a lift in the car either to or from school. Sometime he would tell me to meet him at the post. This is another reason why I have a number of memories of L1. Mention of the car reminds me that at night the rotor arm was removed so that the car was immobilised until it was replaced. Petrol rationing meant no pleasure motoring but Dad got extra coupons as a result of his ROC duties.
One night, a single aircraft approached Gardenstown from the sea. It dropped two bombs. ‘the next will get the village’ said Dad who may actually have been at the post at the time. Fortunately no more were dropped but a part of a ceiling in the Manse basement fell. There was no strategic reason for bombing Gardenstown but it might be due to the rock ridge which juts out of the water just off the harbour. This rock is called Craigendargity and from the air could have resembled a warship at anchor.
During the war years army exercises were held covering large areas of the North East of Scotland. During one of these winter exercises when there was a blizzard, Dad saw that troops were in the churchyard trying to find some shelter behind the gravestones. He opened the church and the nearby church hall so that they could escape the worst of the storms. It could have been at this time that we were asked if the officers could be accommodated in the Manse, their camp beds being laid out in the Drawing Room. It was only after they had left that Mam noticed that one of the metal spikes on one of the beds had cut a hole in the carpet!
At the time of the D-Day landings, some members of the ROC, including I think, one or more from L1, was called on to take an additional duty. Gunners on board ship were understandably jumpy when any aircraft was detected and would open fire on friend or foe! Observers, with their skill in aircraft recognition, were seconded to shipping in the channel after the RAF objected to having their aircraft being shot at!
To finish on a slightly macabre note. One evening Dad was on duty with Finnie, the local gravedigger. Dad had the headset on when, for some strange reason, lines were crossed and he could hear someone calling the Manse — we had the only telephone in the district, apart from the one at the local post office. As he listened he told Finnie to be quiet so that he could hear what was being said. A member of the congregation had died and the undertaker was telephoning to the Manse with the dimensions of the grave to be dug; the message would then be passed on to the gravedigger who lived near the Manse. When Dad arrived home Mam told him who had died — but he already knew and had told Finnie what he had to do, much to Mam’s amazement and not doubt amusement!