Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Oh what a parish, a terrible parish! The hanged minister of Kinkell.

At the weekend I bought a copy of everyone's favourite Scottish newspaper, the Sunday Herald, and was delighted to find a free CD included within, the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards Collection 2014. This contained 16 tracks from some of the best groups on the Scottish traditional music scene, but one really caught my attention, a track called The Queen of Argyll, by Silly Wizard. I'm sorry to say that I did not know who the band was, but it turns out they were a huge act on the traditional circuit a couple of decades back, and included well known accordionist Phil Cunningham, someone I regularly used to bump into during my TV days at the BBC canteen in Glasgow!

So impressed was I by the track that last night I downloaded the album it had been drawn from, a remastered album called Live Again (, which has just been re-released, and which features a concert from 1983 by the group in Cambridge Massachussetts, USA.  The Queen of Argyll was a great track, but another track on the album really caught my attention, a piece called The Parish of Dunkeld. It told the apparent story of a minister from Dunkeld who was said to have been hanged by his parishioners, who then partied on in the kirk building and got up to all sorts of grief. The following are the lyrics, written in Scots:

Oh, what a parish, a terrible parish;
Oh, what a parish is that o' Dunkeld.
They hangit their minister, droon'd their precentor,
Dang doun the steeple and fuddled the bell.

The steeple was doun but the kirk was still staunin',
They biggit a lum whaur the bell used to hang.
A stell-pat they gat and they brewed Hielan' whisky;
On Sundays they drank it and ranted and sang.

O, had you but seen how graceful it lookit,
To see the crammed pews sae socially joined.
MacDonald the piper stood up in the poopit,
He made the pipes skirl out the music divine.

Wi' whiskey and beer they'd curse and they'd swear;
They'd argue and fecht what ye daurna weel tell.
Bout Geordie and Charlie they bothered fu' rarely
Wi' whisky they're worse than the devil himsel'.

When the hairt-cheerin' spirit had mounted their garret,
Tae a ball on the green they a' did adjourn.
The maids wi' coats kilted, they skippit and liltit,
When tired they shook hands and then hame did return.

If the kirks a' owre Scotland held like social meetin's
Nae warnin' ye'd need from a far-tinklin' bell,
For true love and friends wad draw ye thegither
Far better than roarin' the horrors o' hell.

Not only is the song a great piece of music, it's a real cracker of a story - but was it true? I decided to have a wee look!

I first searched online to see if I could find anything on the song's origins and soon found a discussion thread at concerning its provenance. From this it soon became apparent that the song was indeed supposed to be based on a true story, but that far from happening in Dunkeld in Perthshire, it actually happened in Kinkell, further south in the county, with the two parish names being confused in time in the song due to them sounding so similar. Originally a parish in its own right, from 1639 Kinkell was merged as part of the parish of Trinity Gask, where a couple of my ancestral lines resided, the Fenton and Leitch families in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The full story was soon uncovered in Chapter 19 of a work called The Annals of Auchterarder and Memorials of Strathearn, available in a transcribed version online at Further confirmation was also found in the Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, which provides a series of short biographies on Church of Scotland ministers from the Reformation to the early 20th century, and which can be found on both the Internet Archive ( and Ancestry ( in a digitised format.

In 1680, during the Kirk's episcopal period, the minister, Richard Duncan, was asked to repair the kirks at both Trinity Gask and Kinkell, both having fallen into a ruinous condition. However, he and his congregation did not see eye to eye, neither did he and his heritors, the landowners from whom the Bishop instructed him to seek funds from to carry out the repairs. So poor was the relationship that one of the heritors, the Laird of Machany, engineered a complaint to his synod that Duncan had re-baptised a child in an act of gross ignorance, as well as various other offences alleged to have happened against the congregation. The charges were so severe that by February 1681 Duncan was in fact deposed as the minister, although there was worse still to come. From the annals:

June 6, 1682.- One Mr Duncan, a minister in Perthshire is condemned to death by the Earl of Perth, as Stewart of Crieff, for murdering an infant begotten by him with his servant maid, it being found buried under his own hearth-stone. He was convicted on very slender presumptions, which, however, they might amount to degradation and banishment, yet it was hard to extend them to death.

Richard Duncan was duly hanged in early 1683 - tragically for him, a pardon that had been granted to him arrived just twenty minutes too late. The bell mentioned within the song was later sold to the parish of Cockpen in 1708, as recorded in the kirk session minutes of Trinity Gask, whilst the reference to the drowned precentor in fact refers to another incident where the sole precentor of the two kirks at Kinkell and Trinity Gask died whilst crossing the River Earn to get from one church to the other.

But as I mentioned, as well as being a great story, with it being true it is almost certain that my ancestor had this story on their lips at the time, and may even have been dancing in the kirk and drinking the whisky! It is a brilliant wee song - here is the version of it by Silly Wizard as found on YouTube at Enjoy!

For the history of the Scottish church, and how to find relevant records for genealogical research, my book Discover Scottish Church Records is available from My History in Yorkshire, England, for £7 (, from Global Genealogy in Canada at Can$19.95 ( and from Gould Genealogy in Australia at Aus$20 inc GST ( An ebook version is also available from Gen-eBooks at