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Tough Church

Article by James T Tough 

When I visited Aberdeenshire recently I was elated to

accomplish a long standing goal: While my wife and

daughter recorded the event in photographs, I walked

up to the quaint old Tough parish church, took hold of the

worn rope hanging to the right of the door, pulled gently,

and rang the bell in the steeple high above me.. .Why s

hould I find such a simple act to be so significant?

Because this was not any ordinary bell, it was The Bell of

Tough—famous throughout the parish 250 years ago but largely forgotten today. The history of the Bell found in the Tough parish registers and Kirk session records reveals the Bell’s antiquity and tells much about our ancestors there, about the continual struggles the minister and parishioners to secure this bell, and about the unique restrictions imposed upon its use at funerals.


The story begins in 1706 when the Tough parish Heritors (George Lesly of Kingraigy, George Wilson of Finzeuch, John Gordon of Hallhead, Alexander Garioch of Tillichetly, and Master Wm. Strachan of Tillifour) and Elders (John Elsmie, Alex Elison and Wm. Lawson) called the tenacious Patrick Copland to be their minister. Mr. Copeland inherited a crude and derelict kirk building and immediately approached the Heritors for repairs to the structure and for building a "common loft". Many of the Heritors did not live in the parish and even those who could be located were not interested in parting with any funds for this project. So in 1707 a general collection was taken of the congregation to build the loft. Over four pounds was obtained—a substantial amount for this poor country parish, and sufficient to build the loft the same year.


Mr. Copland’s main concern was ministering to the local people and this work kept him quite busy. Along with his regular preaching schedule he kept "a dyet of examination" for his parishioners, preached occasionally at Leochel, and Kearn, and traveled to Aberdeen every few weeks. However, he was not very successful recruiting good clerks to keep parish records. The unfortunate gap appearing in the OPRs and Session Registers from 1712 to 1721 was "occasioned by the neglect of the Schoolmaster or Session Clerk, serving for that time, who neither inserted their minutes in the Register, nor yet left them to be inserted by their successors", When the written records begin again in 1721 they are in the fine hand of Mr. John Meldrum the new schoolmaster and Session Clerk. But he had a short tenure. Isabel McCombie, one of the local lasses, "confessed to uncleanness" with Mr. Meldrum who then fled the parish to avoid scandal. Mr. Copland relentlessly tracked Meldrum down and found him to be married and living in Edinburgh. The West Kirk in Edinburgh responded to Patrick’s request and Meldrum returned to Tough for discipline.


In August 1722 Patrick Copland probably initiated the first communion celebration in the parish. The minister examined everyone in their knowledge of the faith and then had crude tokens produced and given to those who were found worthy of participation in the sacrament. The communion was embraced by the congregation and was repeated annually in August so long as it did not interfere with the harvest. But in 1732 the Lord’s Supper had to be canceled since "the fabrik of the Kirk would not allow it". The loft built in17O7 now needed to be replaced. Rather than go to the Heritors this time, Copland announced a "public roup", an auction of the seats in the new loft. The highest bidders were either the most affluent or generous common folk of the parish. The records of 1734 give the following list of new seat holders:


Alex Copland, wright in Tillimair
Geo. Tayler in Waterfold
Robt. Mitchell in Kirktown
James Dickey in Kirktown
William Duncan in Kirktown
John Petrie in Kincragie
George Copland in Kincragie
John Tytler in Kincragie
Robert Smith in Buffle
William Sangster in Kirktown
William Pollackhall in Tonley
William Ross in Tillikerie


Apparently Copland’s loft auction was a great financial success since a few months later, in March 1734, the Session records report that a new steeple had been built as well. The Kirk already had a bell, but it was apparently useless, probably cracked. One record states that the bell had been the gift of David Wilson of Finzeuch who ironically died in that same year of 1734. Mr. Copland went to the Heritors pointing out that it was their legal duty to provide a bell for the Kirk. As might be expected, the Heritors refused, and Copland again had to find a creative way to extract voluntary contributions from his poor parishioners.


He contrived a scheme by which the bell became very significant—not just a bell, but The Bell of Tough which would be regarded by the people of the parish with great respect. The ringing of the Bell would recognize those who contributed to its purchase. It would be rung at the funerals of contributors and all of their descendants without charge forever. The implication was that those who could not afford to contribute would be denied the use of the Bell at their funeral, or would have to pay some fee. Here is the actual Session record of March 30, 1735:


"Said day the Minister reporting that the steeple was now built and that he had spoken with some of the Heritors, anent a bell, but they had refused to give any thing for purchasing one, altho by Law they were oblidged to buy one. The Session considering that the Heritors would not willingly purchase a Bell, and that they had not a Fund rich enough for carrying on the expenses of a process against them, in order to oblidge them in a legal way, proposed that the Minister should try to raise a Voluntary contribution among the Parishioners, not doubting, but they would frankly contribute / according to their ability: And for this end, appointed their Clerk to make out a list of the inhabitants and give it to the Minister, And for the encouragement of Contributers, they empowered and appointed the Minister to promise in their name, the use of the Bell at the Funerals of every Contributer and his descendants, as long as the bell shall last and that they should have the bell rung every night at eight o’clock, providing the parish paid something to the Kirk officer for his trouble in ringing the bell at that hour; but nothing was to be required for his trouble in ringing at Funerals."


Even with the special promotion of the Bell of Tough, with the promise of having it rung at contributors’ funerals without cost, Mr. Copland had some difficulty raising the needed funds. These were very poor people who could ill afford such luxuries. The records do not indicate if there was a minimum contribution required, although by 1738 parishioners were subscribing to the Bell of Tough for a fee of 3 shillings. To put this amount in perspective it should be noted that the average weekly collection for the entire Kirk was only 3 to 5 shillings! It took Patrick nine months to subscribe forty one persons at which point he felt he had exhausted his possibilities. The number of adult males in the parish was probably somewhat over 200, so his efforts produced a 20% return. Here is the actual Session record of January 11, 1736, when Mr. Copland reported his results.


"After sermon the session being called conveened and constitute the Minister reported that he had got all the contributions from the Parishioners that he could expect, and that he had told the severall contributors, that they were to have the use of the Bell for themselves in posterity, as long as the Bell remained, at their several funerals; and to have the same rung every night at eight o’clock upon satisfying the Officer. Also he reported that he had a letter from Aberdeen, acquainting him, that John Mowat had bought the Musick Bells of the Colledge of Old Aberdeen, one of which was very proper for this Kirk, which he was willing to sell at a reasonable rate, and to take their old Bell, at such a price as he and the session should agree upon, and also what bad money they had in the Box. The session considering the affair, appointed the Minister to agree with John Mowat about the said Bell, if he thought the contributions of the parish, the old bell, and what the session could spare, would amount to the price thereof."


The city of Aberdeen records confirm that John Mowat was a blacksmith admitted to the Hammermen’s guild in 1717. Biographical information states that he had an extensive business as locksmith, clock maker and bell founder, supplying a large number of parish church bells of the county. From the Session records we learn that The Bell of Tough purchased in 1736 by Patrick Copland was actually an old music bell from Kings College. Some research into the history of the college in Old Aberdeen could reveal the actual age of the Bell.


From a genealogical perspective, one of the great benefits deriving from the Bell of Tough saga was the beginning of a regular register of deaths in the parish. The first several pages of this document outline in grand flowery script two proposals which were agreed upon by the congregation:


‘Namely, that a plan shall be drawn of the Burial places in the Churchyeard of Tough upon paper, and every Family shall have their respective burial places marked out to them, that they may be in no danger of encroaching upon one anothers ground or Burial place in all time coming; A Copy of which Plan is to be kept by the Session Clerk and another Lodged in the Session Box. As also that there be a Register kept of the Deaths and burials of which have Contributed, or are willing to Contribute for the Bell..." The text goes on to describe in some detail exactly how the Bell shall be rung at a Contributor’s funeral: "That the Bell shall be rung only once before the day of Interment, That is when the Officer gets notice of a Contributors death and then upon the day of Interment from morning to (when the) Corpse is laid down in the grave, in the manner that Bells ought to be rung at Burials and that by no other Person but the Officer."


Following this long introduction, the Register then lists the original Contributors to the Bell of Tough as follows:


Nicol Ross in Ardgowse Esq
James Wilson of Finzeauch Esq
Mr. Daniel Copland
John Elsmie in Mains of Kincraigie Elder
Peter Allardice in Mains of Kincraigie Elder
Arthur Urquhart in Meikie Catie Elder
Peter Copland in Mains of Tillifour Elder
Mr. William Copeland Schoolmaster
James Elsmie in Mains of Tillifour
James Mathie in Gownie
Patrick Laws in Broomfold
John Ewan there
George Reid Smith in Kirktown
Alexander Skene in Stonefold
Alexander Miln in Torries
Elspeth Tayler in Gownie
John Adam in Meikie Catie
Will. Elsmie there
Alexander Reigg there
Will. Wat (?) in Mains of Tonley
Will R(?) late in Torries of Tough now in Portsoy
Wm. Emsly in (?) Haybogs (?)
Alexander Anderson in Boghead
Alexander Anderson in Overhaugh
Joseph Anderson there
John Anderson in Milltown of Banlay
Andrew Beverly in Farmtown of Linturk
Alexander Tytler in Blackpool
John Petrie in Kincraigie
Thomas Petrie in Farmton of Balfluig his son
Elspeth Green daughter to William Green late in Woodside
Robert Browning in Tilliriach
William Sangster in Kirktown of Tough
Charles Browning in Tilliriach
William Tytler son to James Tytler late in Torries of Tough
John Elsmy in Blairdaff
William Elsmy in Tomads
Alexander Elsmy in (?)house of Alford
Patrick Elsmy in Guise
George Elsmy in Tomads
James Elsmy in Mains of Finzeauch


The register of deaths started in 1735 one of the Bell of Tough proposals continues with wonderful genealogical detail until 1752 and seems to contain entries for most deaths in the parish, not just of those who contributed to the Bell. We can suppose that ringing the Bell at funerals was restricted to contributors however. My own ancestor John Tough came to-the parish of Tough in about 1738 and so would not have been on the list of original contributors to the Bell. In 1739 he was married to Isobel Hunter by Patrick Copland who also baptized his son William in 1740. John, his father (also John, born 1686 in Leochel parish) and his brother William were farmers at Howmill. None of these persons appear in the Tough death registers. The brothers John and William joined the exodus to Aberdeen and died there. Their father John most likely died at Howmill in the period from 1752 to 1783 when the Tough parish death registers are blank. The Bell of Tough was probably not rung for any of them.


The present Tough Parish Church was built in 1838 complete with steeple and bell. Is it the Bell of Tough? In a booklet celebrating the 150th anniversary of this event it is stated that the present bell came from the previous church, was one of the music bells from Kings College, and was obtained in 1735 through the efforts of the Minister Patrick Copland. So the bell that I rang on my recent visit to Tough Church was indeed the Bell of Tough—the same one that my ancestors heard ringing for others. Although I was 250 years late, it was still a moving experience.


James T. Tough, January 1999

Inside Tough Church

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The famous Tough bell...

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