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Issue 61 - The Family Seat

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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The Family Seat

Roddy Martine goes in search of his ancestral castle

I have my father to thank for spending months on end sifting through church records and old charters in search of our shared ancestors. Having lived away from Scotland for more than 40 years, our genealogy became his retirement project and what he achieved was nothing short of remarkable since it has provided my family with a Scottish pedigree stretching back to the latter half of 16th century.

However, I often reflect that had the internet existed at the time, it would have made his task so much simpler. I personally find the accumulation of information that is available on-line to be absolutely astonishing and it was as a result of recent googling that I discovered that one of my kinsmen had four hundred years ago built a tower house at Cardenden in the Kingdom of Fife.

Now most people think of my surname as being French, but the spelling has been around East Lothian for centuries, attached for the most part to tenant farmers and Haddington burgesses, nobody particularly grand unless you go back to the twelfth century when it appears that at least one or more of my distant kin, having danced attendance on Malcolm IV and William the Lion, decided to remove themselves to the Kingdom of Fife.

Of course, following the removal of the Royal Court of Alexander II from Haddington in the 13th century made a lot of sense. The Royal palace at Haddington was becoming vulnerable to attack, with the English invading from the sea, or marching their armies over the Border at Berwick upon Tweed.

At inland Linlithgow and Dunfermline, successive Scottish monarchs found it much easier to govern their territories to the north and south, and in times of danger they could always fall back on Stirling Castle. In addition, for temporal support they were in easy reach of Scotland’s religious epicentre at St Andrews. Moreover, there was ready access to the rural sporting diversions pursued with such relish by the Stewart dynasty.

Thus a branch of the Martine family of East Lothian became Keepers of the Royal Forest of Carden, close to the Fife coastal town of Kirkcaldy.

The name Carden means “high fortified place” and the site where they settled, and where their descendant George Martine built his tower house in the 16th century is high up above a ravine.

At the time of my discovery, all that I knew of Cardenden was that it was essentially a mining village and the birthplace of my friend the novelist Ian Rankin. I also remembered that Scotland’s last recorded duel with pistols was fought here in 1826 between a Kirkcaldy merchant and a banker. In the event, the banker was killed, but surprisingly, the merchant was acquitted of murder.

That said, however, it was a genuine revelation for me to set off on an excursion accompanied by my cousin Alison Kinghorn to inspect the remains of our mutual lost legacy. Alas, somewhere through the passage of time the estate passed to the Durie and Wemyss families through marriage, being eventually sold to the Fergusons of Raith, who retain it to this day. Uninhabited, Carden Tower rapidly fell into ruin, and its stones were requisitioned for nearby building projects.

Well that is what happens through the generations, but what Alison and I found after we had parked the car on a farm road and walked for approximately a mile was a lovingly excavated site perched on the summit of a misty hill with extensive views over a surrounding landscape of rich agricultural land. The original tower house had been three stories high. Thanks to the valiant excavation and restoration efforts of the Cardenden & District Local History Society, we could see that there was a fresh-water well and possibly a dungeon below.

Alison and I shared momentary images of horsemen armed with long bows and spears charging full tilt through the ravine far below us and along the Gelly Burn in pursuit of boar and deer.

Both of us reflected on how wonderful it must have been for our long ago kindred to have lived in such a place. A pity that when it came to selling up, the last of the line must have forgotten that he had relatives living on the other side of the Firth of Forth in East Lothian.