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Udney Castle drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. Source: The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by the Artist

In a country so level, so fruitful, and so wealthy in wood and meadow as the district stretching-round the green of Udney, one might naturally expect to find the broad-terraced English mansion, with its pillar chimneys, low spreading roofs, and wide oriel windows. But protection was essential to the old Scottish laird, and if he could not afford to obtain it by high walls with flanking towers, he must seek it in the narrowness and height of his dwelling. Hence this huge gaunt tower stands over all the smiling plain, conspicuous as an obelisk in the desert, or a lighthouse in the sea. The original structure was one of those massive simple square towers with rounded angles, which, if they denote poverty of resources and meagreness of taste, at the same time convey an impression of sullen barbarous strength. We find that, in most other instances when the increasing riches and architectural taste of the seventeenth century prompted the Scottish baron to make additions to the mansion of his ancestors, the old square tower remained the solid nucleus around which a variety of crow-stepped gables, tall chimneys, and spiked turrets were clustered. The Laird of Udney was of a different humour. His aspirations were all upwards, and, disdaining to occupy an inch of ground beyond the walls of his old square tower, he raised his new edifice on the top of it. Hence we have, near the foundation, the rude unadorned masonry that in the early days rose so naturally out of the hard barren rocks of Scotland, while the sky outline is filled by the airy turrets and fantastic tracery of France. Large as this tower is, it must have afforded to its lord but limited accommodation. The walls are of wondrous strength, and contain sleeping closets or cells in their thickness. The whole compass of the second floor is occupied by a vaulted hall, as unadorned as the exterior, but so finely proportioned that it never fails to command the admiration of the few visitors who climb its unfrequented stair. The door has still its iron grating, and a square window, much larger than those usually found in masonry so old and thick, is similarly protected. The square openings made by the reticulations of the bars are not so wide but that the limber urchins attending a neighbouring boarding-school have been able to squeeze themselves through, and so, to the envy of their sturdier and excluded brethren, to enjoy mysterious wanderings and gambols among the vaults and dusky passages, which have furnished them with recollections never entirely effaced in after life.

That gaunt forbidding solitary tower must, one should think, have witnessed strange things in its day; yet it must be confessed that, so far as can be known, its history is singularly uneventful; and when, in the dearth of all usual sources of archaeological information, a gentleman who knows more of that kind of lore in Scotland than any other now living, was personally applied to, he was obliged to confess that very little could be said of Udney. The earliest known allusion to the family of Udney of that ilk — called also Ouldney and Uldeny — is in the year 1417, when a return of a perambulation settled disputes, which are stated to have then long subsisted between the Laird of Uldney and the monks of Arbroath, as to the marches between his lands and their lordship and regality of Tarves. The return is a good specimen of that species of document. Some documents a few years later, chiefly referring to the same disputes, give the names of successive lairds, as Robert, Reginald, and William (Collections for the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, 343-47, 349.).

John Udney of that ilk was somewhat conspicuous in the civil wars of the reign of Charles I., and he is frequently mentioned in Spalding's "History of the Troubles," which chiefly relates to events in Aberdeenshire. He was a steady royalist, and was one of the band who, on the 13th of May 1635, surprised the Covenanting committee, and were victorious in the skirmish commonly called "The Trot of Turriff" (Spalding, I, 132). This was one of the few gleams of success that lighted up the royal cause in the north; and Udney, with the other barons, marched into Aberdeen victorious, where "no Covenanter of the towns' men durst be seen upon the calsay, and their houses were weill quartered for entertaining of the soldiers, alsweil as the Anti-covenanters' houses were quartered be general Montrose or govemour Marischall before ; but all were sustained upon the towne's charges, for neither Covenanter nor Anti-covenanter got payment worth ane plack” (Spalding, I, 135). But there were worse days in store, and the Laird of Udney passed over to England, to join the body of rovalists who rallied round the person of the King. In 1640, however, "returned home from London those who bed fled the countrey to the King for succour — viz., the Lairds of Pitfoddels, elder and younger, the Lairds of Udney, Muiresk, Fetterneir, and sundrie others, after they had spent their means and were forced to submit themselves to the judgement of the Committee of Estates, who fined every one of them at their own wills for outstanding, compelled them to swear and subscribe the Covenant, syne gave them libertie to come hame to their own houses, more fools than they went out. "J Meanwhile, all that is mentioned as occurring to the fortalice during these warlike times is thus set forth — " They [the Covenanters] brake up the yeitts of Foverane, Udnev, and Fiddess. They took meat and drink, but did no much more skaith, the lairds of Foverain and Udney being both absent in England, as royalists and anti-covenanters” (Spalding, I, 285).

These are small matters when viewed as warlike operations. It must, however, be admitted that the chief fame of the house of Udney rests not on deeds of arms, or wisdom, learning, or arts, but in the possession of the last of the class of family jesters in Scotland, in the person of James Fleming, better known as "Jamie Fleeman, the Laird o' Udney's feel [fool]." Jamie flourished from the earlier part to past the middle of the eighteenth century; and the fame of his deeds and sayings is supposed to have provided Sir Walter Scott with the idea of Davie Gellatley. Jamie, like all his class, derived his reputation from a dash of worldly Touchstone-like wisdom, mingled with his folly. His "witty sayings" are not only known to fame in the dingy broadsides of the ballad- hawkers, but a biography of him, on a small scale certainly, but not without pretension, was published about seventeen years ago, and the Aberdeen Magazine, published in 1831-2, devotes three articles to his life and character. " His countenance," it is said in one of these papers, "indescribably or even painfully striking, wore that expression which at once betrays the absence of sound judgment; his head large and round; his hair perhaps naturally brown, but rendered, by constant exposure to the weather, of a dingy fox colour, and not sleek, but standing on end, as if poor Jamie had been frighted out of his wits — indicated that his foolishness was not assumed but real (Aberdeen Magazine, II, 491). Yet, according to the tenor of the article, it did not indicate the truth. He was famed for his herculean strength, and one of his happy hits was, when he had been pitted to wrestle against the picked men of a regiment, in his question whether he had to shake "down the whole dyke" of soldiers. One of his chief witticisms may be given as a specimen. Having found an article on the road, he approaches a man celebrated for his pompous affectation of learning, and humbly asks an opinion what it may be. The man of learning, displeased with his familiarity, answers sharply, — "Why, you idiot, it's quite plain — it's a horse's shoe." — "Ay," says Jamie," look nou at the benefit of learnen — a peer stupid body like me wadna hae kent it frae a meer's shoe."

R. W. B.


The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland illustrated by Robert William Billings, architect, in four volumes.. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Son, 1852. Hathitrust Digital Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 10 October 2018.

Last modified 19 October 2018