Colony and Division of the Commonty
On the eastern most side of Bennachie are small grass fields now largely colonised with rushes and surrounded by pines and spruce trees. This is Esson’s Croft, part of the colony where the settlers in the land hunger at the beginning of the 19th century made little crofts. Toil and sweat turned areas of heather moor into arable fields surrounded by substantial stone dykes. The houses were simple two roomed thatched cottages, the walls made from stones from the hillside with clay being used instead of cement. By 1850 there were about 60 people living in this township on the north of the Clachie burn. At that time Bennachie was a Commonty where anybody living around the slopes had the right to graze sheep and cattle and take peats, wood, stone and heather.
Neighbouring lairds wanted Bennachie for themselves, so they drew up a plan to divide Bennachie into nine parts. In 1859 the Court of Session in Edinburgh approved the division of the Commonty and the Bennachie Colonists discovered they no longer owned or even had any right to stay in the houses they had built, nor cultivate their fields. They had to pay rent to Fetternear Estate or leave. Some stayed on, but those unable to pay either relied on the Poor Board, their families or were evicted. It is believed that a sheriff’s officer, policeman, factor and estate employees would pull down a course of masonry so that the wall would collapse. There was a great outcry against the “Rape of Bennachie” but, as nobody took court action within 40 years of approval by the Court of Session, it became law. The lairds’ victory is commemorated in the “Thieves Mark” on the bedrock on top of Mither Tap – “B” stands for Balquhain, “P” for Pittodrie and “LE” for Logie Elphinstone and the date 1858 although Court of Session approval was not given until 1859.
The remains of many of the houses are still there as well as fruit bushes, laurel and honeysuckle which the people had planted. Over the years, Forestry Commission Scotland has removed trees around these homesteads. Please treat these ruins with respect and visit the Bennachie Centre for more details. The Bailies of Bennachie have undertaken much recent work about the colonist and have produced a free leaflet and book about this subject see section 11( references).
The last of the colonists was a remarkable man called George Esson who had returned from America and worked locally as a mason and drystane dyker. He died in 1939 in his cottage. His grave is at Chapel of Garioch churchyard across the road from the Church. On his headstone are inscribed the words “George Esson – descended from the first and himself the last of the colonists of Bennachie”. He appears to have been very strong and well educated as some of his remaining letters prove. In the dykes around his house are recesses for hens’ nests.