History of Keith by Bill Ettles




Keith sits snugly in a valley surrounded and protected by a number of outstanding hills all of which have fine walking routes. In the East the Balloch Hill, to the west Ben Aigen and Muldearie Hills, North has the Knock Hill and South the mighty Ben Rinnes can be seen, and on the skyline the smaller Cairds Hill. A translation of the latter hill is ‘Hill of Friends’, perhaps this is why Keith of today is known as the `Friendly Town’.  Keith can be divided in to three parts: Old Keith, New Keith and Fife Keith and the reason will soon become clear as the story of the three parts unfolds.

OLD KEITH – It was established as a settlement around 700 AD beside the river Isla. An ideal place, food and water being readily available. Around this time the Monks of St. Maelrubha arrived from Applecross bringing Christianity and education to old Keith. The name ‘Keith’ translated from the Gaelic means’ wind’ or ‘pure air’.  The monks built a church on high ground above the hamlet and named it Kethmal Ruf and today a latinised corruption of the name lives on in the Church of St Rufus.  Official history of Old Keith began in 1195 with a mention in a charter from King William the Lion.  In its early history Keith was styled as Burgh of Barony which gave it the right to convict criminals.  The River Isla could be forded at old Keith and this gave rise to the’ Great Simmareve Fair’ when traders and manufacturers from as far south as Glasgow and merchants from as far afield as Highlands, Orkney and Western Isles congregated in Keith for the sale of black cattle and horses. The Simmareve Fair, in mid September, lasted a week. This was the precursor of todays ‘Keith Country Show’.

There are many stories of the history of old Keith that could be told, such as the freebooter Peter Roy McGregor who held Keith to ransom , the two Jacobite occupations and dire skirmish between Campbells and Jacobites just before Culloden, or how the Marquis of Montrose and General Baillie squared up to one another and when the same Marquis returned as a prisoner and was vilified by the minister, and what Daniel Defoe said about the Auld Brig, however, time and space are of the essence and one must move on.

NEW KEITH – In 1750 the Earl of Findlater decided to extend Keith eastwards and set about planning this new town with a layout of one central square and four parallel streets interlinked with a series of lanes- known as the ‘grid iron’ plan. This planned town gave Keith the distinction of being the first planned town in the North East of Scotland. The Simmereve Fair was relocated to the Market Square and it became a very successful trading and market town.  Today the Square carries the name of Reidhaven Square.

FIFE KEITH – James Duff, Earl of Fife, in 1817 founded Fife-Keith. It was developed and planned in a formal arrangement around a central square, now Regent Square. It was originally going to be named Waterloo, however, this did not happen but street names such as, Wellington and Nelson Terraces, Victoria Place and Alexandria Road reminds us of past glories and patriotism.

In 1889 the three parts of Keith became one as a Police Burgh under a Town Council in the County of Banffshire. This united form lasted until Reorganisation of Local Government in 1975 when Keith moved into Moray District. Keith people are proud of their Banffshire roots and still have their own Lady Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire

In May of the year 2000 Keith was presented with a new Coat of Arms the motto “Fortiter et Suaviter” translated as “Boldly and Gently”.

Let’s explore how Keith developed and progressed through the centuries. Historically, in the hinterland agriculture was the most important industry and barley, oats and flax would have been grown. In the New town of Keith a system of lotted lands was introduced whereby each house was given a piece of land to cultivate or rear cattle.  The’ Cottage Industry’ of spinning and weaving gave way to a more structured method of large scale woollen mills. The first one supplanted the established ‘Bleach Greens’ and was set up by George Kynoch and named Isla Bank Mills.

In 1901 another woollen mill, Robert Laidlaw’s, relocated to Keith from Rothiemay.  Milling of flour and oatmeal declined making way for the more lucrative Whisky Distilleries. The first in 1788 was named “Milton”, now the world renowned “Strathisla Distillery” which produces Chivas Regal whisky, and it is also here that the ‘Malt Whisky Trail’ begins. In 1831 Strathmill Distillery, once a meal mill, was set up and expanded in 1891. Today it is owned by the world’s leading drinks company Diageo and produces a spirit which forms part of the popular J&B whisky.

One of the earliest established industries was ‘The Tannery’ at Hyde Park which began in 1772 and lasted for nearly 200 hundred years.  The coming of the Railways in 1857 had a huge impact on Keith. It opened up vast new markets for industry, trade and commerce in the area. Keith Junction had a very large depot which again created employment as did the smaller Keith Town Station which was axed during the Beeching regime.

Today Keith continues to flourish with many small industries replacing the woollen mills, like the Kilt Making School, Printers and Cabinets Makers to name but a few. With its ‘Industrial Heritage ‘its agriculture, distilleries, many specialised manufacturers, and hill and nature walks on its doorstep Keith lends itself to service industries and tourism.

What would a visitor see on a visit to Keith today?

It has four magnificent churches: St Thomas Roman Catholic Chapel (1831) with a Roman Doric Frontage and landmark copper dome. On the outside, in window recesses, are the statues of St Thomas and St John Ogilvie who was born in Keith, a special chapel to him is within the main Chapel. The dome inside resembles the night sky – filled with stars! The altar piece is a painting by Francois Dubois and named the Incredulity of St. Thomas.  The next two churches can be accessed from the Inverness to Aberdeen (A96) main road. The North Church built in an attractive Elizabethan Style is adorned by the most beautiful stained glass windows, It was erected after the 1845 Disruption as a Free Church and today is part of the Church of Scotland.  The other Church of Scotland one is St Rufus Church built in 1816 to replace the original Kirk of Keith which was in the cemetery. It is in a Neo-Perpendicular style with a clock tower rising to 120 ft (40 mtrs). Inside there isan aumbry rescued from the ancient church. On the front of the balcony is the Seafield Coat of Arms and on either side of the pulpit proudly hang the Battle Honours of the 6th Gordon Highlanders. Across from the church the attractive St. Rufus Gardens stand.  On the way to the Keith Railway Station you will find the 1882 Holy Trinity Scottish Episcopalian Church. It also has a glorious stained glass window. In the chancel you will find the Seabury Chair on which the first Bishop of America was consecrated.  Across from this church is the St Rufus Children Playground, Tennis Courts, Bowling Green and Scotscraig Gardens. Directly opposite these gardens you will find the award winning Keith War Memorials. Nearby is the refurbished Keith Town Station run by volunteers of the Keith & Dufftown Railway Association. The trains run from Easter until September – well worth a day trip down memory lane. It has a Heritage Room and shop at Keith and a Buffet Car at Dufftown.

Still on route to the Keith Station there is the picturesque StrathIsla Distillery and Visitor Centre and a short distance onwards there is the ruined tower of Miltoun Castle. In this area lies Fife Keith established in 1817 by the Earl of Fife It has a village presence, elegant main street and some fine shops with an attractive Regent Square bedecked in season with flowers from the ‘Green Fife Keith Group’.

Where Old Keith lies, there is a road bridge and after crossing it you will be in New Keith. Here you will find Keith`s Mid Street, a unique shopping centre with all the specialised shops and refreshment establishments on the one street.