16 May 2009

Dead Close to Nature 3: Newton of Condie




Near a tiny village called Forgandenny in Perthshire we found a ruined house looking out over the valley, extended out back into two very new farm sheds. A wide arc of parkland surrounds the house, bordered by a walled step in the manner of great country houses. A great many old and dramatic trees stand widely spaced in front of what is still an imposing edifice. However, blackened inner walls suggest a fire and the place is neither signposted nor visited, at least I have never seen a soul there except the multitude of hares that live in the surrounding fields, four, five, six at a time seen all through winter and now spring, enormous beasts, strange of nature, taller than, and after careful watching nothing at all like, a rabbit. Hares have, after all, consistently been revered as spirits, possibly malign, definitely powerful, unpredictable, secretive. Hence this house took on a strange significance for me over the months.

Newton or Newtoun (latterly Condie) is a common enough estate name in Scotland, but this house and its ambiguous name introduced for me a muddle of research. It has also lived through some of the most tumultuous times in early modern Scottish history and thus finding the house began a kind of treasure hunt that I haven’t really solved. It was certainly an exercise in taking in the various tracts on the house found online, the joys of the Scottish Parliamentary Records and various parish records, but also knowing how to read this evidence and discount winsome yearnings from Oliphants overseas (and Oliphants closer to home) and strident presumptions by many an interneteer, myself included.

The house, although much added to over the years, was probably built about 1545. I asked Pip Blair Oliphant, a modern day descendent, about the house:

"The house in Forgandenny I am aware of but is not, despite it's claim, the seat of the Oliphants. This is a place called 'GASK' located in Perthshire which is no longer owned by the family either. Also, there are two different sets of Oliphants - The 'GASK' Oliphants, of which I am one, and the 'CONDIE' Oliphants who are from a different line. This house may be claimed to be their family seat, but I would question any sources as there is a good chance it was once owned by an Oliphant, which is different from it being anything more significant than that."

Thus there are various Oliphants amongst the landed Scots - the Oliphants of Gask and those of Condie are two. The Gask Oliphants settled not far from Newtoun near Gask in Perthshire not far from Crieff, but are directly connected by intermarrying with the Condie Oliphants at least until the eighteenth century. There are also Oliphants from Kinneder in Fife, who descend from the Condie Oliphants, and presumably various others. Here we will just concentrate on the Condie branch and this house and its times. In the seventeenth century Newton changed hands a few times amongst a small group of Scottish nobles and was involved in some pretty dodgy dealings.

Newton had been an important Perthshire noble house for almost a hundred years, and had seen two or three reigns already – James V died in 1542, and thus this house was built under the reign of James V’s faithful and not entirely unsuccessful wife Mary of Guise. It saw the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. James VI began to rule his kingdom with “the pen” from London when this house reached its quarter century, and Newton was acquired at this point by the first of many Laurence Oliphant(s) of Condie, 1601 being a mooted date, just two years before the Union of the Crowns and the dilemma that posed for Scotland and its nobles with its transfer of central power. It is clear that the house exchanged hands at this point (through purchase or inheritance) and although some sources suggest some Oliphants built the house themselves, it is only at the end of James VI’s reign that it is possible to prove the house passed into Oliphant hands, and it is suggested the so-called ‘first’ Oliphant of Condie, Laurence, bought it from one William Colville, and his wife Lilias Graeme whose relations we hear more of later. I imagine old Laurence as a portly and well-behaved courtier who kept things straight at Newton, and Laurence’s sons keep Newton for a few generations, but there was one (possibly whisky-guzzling – or insert your own apocryphal fact here) rogue Oliphant male who had decided enough was enough some time in the middle of the seventeenth century and stabbed his mother. Or possibly an evil step-mother. Here begins the sordid history of “the tower and the manor place and the...lands” of Newtoun.

Although one source has it that the strange events at Newton occurred at the end of the seventeenth century and only one year after the Revolution of William and Mary and the panicked flight of James VII to France, it seems certain that the violence occurred in 1648, a year before Charles I was beheaded by the English.

Let me just set the scene for you. Scotland has been upset by war for years and gripped with religious fervour. After James VI trundled off to England to rule Scotland from the wrong side of the border in 1603, court life broke down – or certainly was a shadow of its former vibrant self. And with the advent of the printing press not only were the nobles feeling left out, but thanks to John Knox, George Buchanan and later righteously moody Scots, the people started to make their voices heard. Scotland had, since the Reformation was set in motion in the late 1550s, rejected Catholicism and embraced Presbyterianism. But later kings were a bit lacksadaisical, to say the least, in adhering to the desire of the people – sound familiar? Mary used religion like a great big heart-shaped but petulant toy, but by being a private Catholic and marrying a bisexual Catholic (there are a surprising amount of them around) she had obviously decided that Rome was her best bet. James VI brought the bishops back. And then Charles I disastrously ignored the Kirk by introducing an anglicised Prayer Book. His opposers – the Covenanters - were getting pretty annoyed. The National Covenant consolidated religious and political grievances against Charles I who spent his time in London brushing his wigs and looking haughty and terribly well-bred.

In 1643 the Covenanters and the English parliamentary Protestants had signed the Solemn League, a treaty to unite them against the royalists. However, Cromwell and his New Model Army took against the Covenanters, saying they hadn’t kept their side of the Solemn League and by defeating Charles I without them, no longer needed them. The Covenanters split into two factions, the moderate Engagers and the mental Radicals. Cromwell defeated the Engagers at the Battle of Preston and by 1649 the ‘Kirk Party’ of the Radicals had complete control of Scotland; think witchhunt trials, men killed at war, families divided and the might of the Scottish Kirk. An excellent tome about this time is John Buchan’s ‘Witchwood’, a dark, oppressive tale of the suffocating religious Puritanism that gripped Scotland. It’s gripping and scary stuff.

Phew! For a moment there it looked like the Covenanters would take control of the Three Kingdoms. Nearly, ye bastards, nearly. In 1649 Cromwell had Charles I beheaded, something that shocked the Scots as regicide had never been part of the deal. The Scots broke any ties with Cromwell’s radical regime and named Charles II king – a move which has been touted as “unilateral hypocrisy”. There ensued an attempt to install a ‘Godly Regime’ and any remaining Engagers were purged from society.

Here we meet a certain Dame Geillis, or Giles, Moncrieff. Sometime in the 1630s or 1640s she married Sir James Oliphant of Newton, her second husband. His second son, George, was the aforementioned rogue Oliphant male. Why did he lose it with his stepmother and stab her, or at least try and stab her, forcing Dame Giles ask the Parliament “to repossess the supplicant to the tower and manor place of Newton and to the lands of Newton from where she was violently ejected”? Annoyed some tarty upstart had married his good old Dad? Wanted the estate for himself and thought the best way would be murdering the old bag? (It was very possible his father had died after marrying Dame Giles – did she slip him a dodgy mickey finn?) Had he been driven mad by war? We do not know his age, but it is easy to imagine a stately madam, a staunch Presbyterian – an Engager or a Radical? – or perhaps a royalist with a locket of Charlie in her garters - pissing off her wild young stepson enough to force him into attacking her. The emotions were running high back then, the Scottish Kirk split up by both religion and politics, and George might just have said one day near Christmas in 1648: “Stepmother, dear, if I hear the name of that tyrant Charles one more time I’ll be forced to stab you in the face!” “King Charles!” she squeaks bravely. And stab her he apparently does.
She survives the attack and takes her case to court. George disappears. To the New World perhaps? Killed in the wars broken out across the Three Kingdoms? He is seemingly untraceable, because since the court orders nobles of Dame Giles’ acquaintance “to cause apprehend the said Mr George and incarcerate him to remain in prison during the parliament or their committee's pleasure”, nothing has been heard of him as far as I can tell.
By 1691 and the Revolution of William and Mary, Newton has passed to Solicitor-General James Graeme, one of the middling sort who bought it with his lawyer money – some sources suggest that it was here that an Oliphant stabbed his stepmother, hence the house being bought by Graeme, but it would seem this source is misinformed. A James Graeme of Newton was witness to the marriage of Laurence Oliphant of Condie to Lilias Oliphant of Gask, a marriage that united two powerful Scottish noble families. His son sold it to James Moray who in turn, five years later, sold it to Lawrence, sixth of Condie, and the house takes on its name of Condie when it is incorporated into the large estates of said Oliphant.
Condie burnt down sometime in the eighteenth century. But that’s another story.






Photos by Claudia Massie


Thanks to Dr. Kirsty McAlister of Stirling University


Thanks to Pip Blair Oliphant



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