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The Watsons of Aithernie

Here we focus on the Watsons of Aithernie, a short-lived but nonetheless interesting dynasty.

Where is Aithernie?

The Ruins of Aithernie CastleThe estate of Aithernie was situated on the northern border of the parish of Scoonie in Fife. Although Scoonie exists to this day, the only remnant of the estate of Aithernie still standing is a small section of the ruins of Aithernie Castle (see the picture to the right).

Aithernie Castle was a stone tower house, built in the early 17th Century, most probably by William Rigg, an Edinburgh merchant. The castle was not far from Methil, which was a major port, originally commissioned in 1661 and Scotland’s largest coal port by the 1930s. As Methil is just across the Firth of Forth from Leith (Edinburgh’s main port), it would have provided an alternative place for a merchant such as William Rigg to dispatch and receive cargoes.

During the reign of David I of Scotland (1124 – 1153), the lands of Aithernie belonged to “Stephanus de Aiderney de codem”1, although the 1821 discovery of a prehistoric graveyard on the grounds is testament to much earlier habitation2. The name Aithernie itself might be derived from the name of Saint Ethernan3,4, although at the moment this seems to be more conjecture than fact; it could, however, explain one alternative spelling of “Eithernie”5.

In 1160, the lands of Montrave and Aithernie were granted to the nuns of North Berwick by Duncan, Earl of Fife. The nunnery of North Berwick retained power over the lands of Aithernie until 1588. The Reformation brought an end to the Church's ownership, however, and on 20th March 1588 James VI granted a charter secularising the property. With the consent of the prioress, Margaret Howe, the property was transferred to Sir Alexander Howe of North Berwick. Sir Alexander died without having children in 1608, after which Aithernie came into the possession of the Riggs, a family of wealthy merchants. The last of the Riggs of Aithernie, Thomas, died in the 17th century (the exact date is unknown) and in 1670 the lands of Aithernie were sold to a James Watson of Downfield2, who became the first Watson of Aithernie.

What of the Watsons?

James Watson of Downfield is reported to have come from a line of Provosts of St. Andrews in a few texts that we have found. We have obtained a list of Provosts of St. Andrews6 and, although it does not include any Watsons in the 17th century, we do see that John Lepar, James Lentron and William Lentron, whose families married with Watsons from this line, were all Provosts. It is therefore evident that the pre-Aithernie Watsons were mixing with Provosts and we believe that rather than being Provosts themselves they would have been baillies, whose duties included acting as a deputy to the Provost.

James’s grandfather, also called James, died at Lambieletham in 1657, leaving two sons – Alexander Watson of Denbrae and David Watson. Alexander was at the consecration feast of Bishop Burnet of Aberdeen in 1663 and was baillie of St. Andrews in 1666 (his father James was likely also a baillie). He died without having children7.

David Watson died in 1674. James Watson of Downfield, the son of David Watson and Eupham Lepar (whose father John Lepar was the Provost of St. Andrews mentioned above), was born on 3 April 1645 and was served heir to his grandfather in 1664 and to his father and his uncle Alexander in 1674. He bought the estate of Aithernie in 1670. James Watson of Aithernie is described as “a successful merchant and Provost of St. Andrews” in the Red Book of Scotland, Volume 98>¸ continuing the theme of Watsons in the merchant industry around the Firth of Forth. By 1649, James was in possession of “the middle-part of the lands of Kilmany...which he had apprised from Mr. Arthur Forbes of Kilmany, and also acquired those of Pitcruvie, Auchindoun, Bresmyre, Balmain, with the lands of tower, in the parish of Largo, from John, Earl of Crawford and Lindsay”. It is interesting to note the Watson-Forbes link here, which is one that we will investigate further in the future.

As was the case with the Watsons of Saughton, the Watsons of Aithernie also tended to marry into prominent local families. James firstly married Jean Scott, the daughter of Sir William Scott of Ardross, and then Mary Martin, daughter of James Martin, Minister of Ballingry. He had several children by both, including his heir Alexander Watson of Aithernie by Jean. Alexander married Margaret Lindsay, second daughter of David Lindsay of Edzell, and therein lay his undoing and the beginning of the end of the Watsons of Aithernie.

Margaret and her brother David were renowned as extravagant spenders. David spent the Edzell family fortune and was forced to part with all his estates in 1714, leaving the family castle to fall to ruin. Alexander Lindsay, 25th Earl of Crawford, in his 1840 book Lives of the Lindsays, recounts the story of how Margaret visited the Edzell estate after it was sold off and had become rundown: “a lady one day arrived at Edzell in her own coach, and drove to the castle. She was tall and beautiful, and dressed in deep mourning. When she came near the ancient burying-place she alighted, and went into the chapel, for it was then open; the doors had been driven down, the stone figures and carved work were all broken, and bones lay scattered about. The poor lady went in, and sat down among it and wept sore at the ruin of the house, and the fall of her family; for no one doubted of her being one of them, though no one knew who she was or where she came from. After a while, she came out, and was driven in the coach up to the castle; she went through as much of it as she could, for the stairs had fallen down, and the roofs had fallen in, and in one room, in particular, she stayed a long while weeping sadly. She said the place was very dear to her, though she had now no right to it, and she carried some of the earth away with her. This was Margaret of Edzell, the Lady of Aithernie”7.

Unfortunately, Margaret didn’t pay heed to the misfortune of her brother and soon frittered away her husband’s wealth, and the lands of Aithernie were eventually sold to his son-in-law, Doctor James Smythe, in 1735. Alexander and Margaret appear to have had around 17 children(!), although due to their profligate spending their heir, David Watson, Younger of Aithernie, was left with very little, including the estate from which he would have inherited his title!

References & Notes

1. MacGibbon, D., Ross, T. (1902) The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh: David Douglas
2. Cunningham, And. S. (1905) Rambles in Scoonie and Wemyss. Leven: Purves & Cunningham
3. Crawford, B. E. (Editor)(1998) Conversion and Christianity in The North Sea World. St. Andrews: University of St. Andrews
4. Liddall, W. J. N. (1896) The Place Names of Fife and Kinross. Edinburgh: William Green & Sons
5. Grant, F. J., Sir (1908) Index to Genealogies, Birthbriefs and Funeral Escutcheons Recorded in the Lyon Office. Edinburgh: James Skinner & Company
6. Fleming, D. H., Cargill Cantley, J., Inglis, J. A., Baxter, J. H. (1909 – 1928) Provosts of St. Andrews. St. Andrews: University of St. Andrews
7. Wood, Rev. Walter (1887) The East Neuk of Fife: Its History and Antiquities. Edinburgh: David Douglas
8. MacGregor, G. (2022) The Red Book of Scotland Vol. IX. Scotland: Gordon MacGregor

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