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The Doric Columns

The Laird o' Torry
& Balnagask House

Balnagask Golf Course
A municipal golf course in Aberdeen, Balnagask occupies much of the  Headland, 1½ miles (2.5 km) east of the City Centre. Offering fine views across the City and out to the North Sea, this 18-hole course extends to 6059 yards (5541m) and is par 70. Opened in 1905, it was laid out by Archie Simpson (1866-1955). The course was modified in the 1920s by James Braid (1870-1950) and again in 1976 by Hawtree design company, who realigned the course and built new greens.

Adjacent is a 9-hole Pitch and Putt course, putting green and practice area. The club house is on St. Fittick's Road.

This Aerial Shot of 1947 shows the extent of the Balnagask and also the heavily wooded estate of Col James Davidson CBE who lived in Balnagask House which was completely demolished for new housing. 

It served for a time as an old Peoples home and the grounds extended from Baxter Street, Victoria Road to Balnagask Road


By this stage, although the South bank of the Dee was in Kincardineshire, Aberdeen was by far the most convenient City being on the North bank of the Dee.  With no Bridge available it difficult to get to, but nowhere near as difficult as the journey South to Dundee.  Until the Bridges were built across the Dee and the advent of the Railway, Balnagask was relatively isolated.

The Balnagask Estate stretched from the golf course to the fields that overlooked both the Bay of Nigg and the Railway line. Two farms straddled the land – Kirkhill Farm was situated on the left side of the hill and Home Farm located on land now occupied by Baxter Court.  The Estate also included an area of land around Balnagask Road and the top of Baxter Street.

The area was largely agricultural until relatively recently. Some of the oldest indications of farming in the area are at Balnagask Golf Course occupying pockets of more fertile ground on an otherwise sand-covered rocky headland. These distinctive rig and furrow marks are those left by medieval farmers working in the area. Medieval open fields contained a patchwork of furlongs, i.e. the area over which the plough was dragged: it was always dragged in one direction, year after year, which gives rise to a highly distinctive pattern in the ground. The long narrow strips of the furlong were called rigs and the pattern left by years of repeated one-directional ploughing are called rig and furrow. The rig, which is most clearly visible under low sunlight, is best preserved at the 2 locations, but over the greater part of the area it appears to have been ploughed down or landscaped for the golf course.  During the medieval period the farmers leased their lands from the Abbot of the Abbey of Arbroath who was the feudal superior of this area.  62 acres of oats, 169 acres of bear, 18 acres of peas, 54 acres of potatoes and 70 acres of turnips. A further 114 acres, part of which was hay, produced food and helped pasture 46 working oxen, 230 cows, 209 sheep, 12 goats and 87 horses.

Balnagask Estate, latterly held by the Davidson family, owned several farms in the area, including Mains of Balnagask. Many farms survived in Torry until quite recently. East Kirkhill farm is one of the last surviving farm buildings in an area once heavily cultivated.

In the 1960s the City Council gave the go ahead for a large housing estate to be built at Balnagask. The new estate began to swallow up acres of land on the southern slopes of Torry Hill as the new cuboid shaped houses enveloped the elegant villas of Balnagask. The box shaped homes in Girdleness Road (affectionately referred to by residents as ‘The Hen Hooses’) differed wildly from the regimented ideas of past town planners. The 1st phase of the housing scheme was completed in 1967 and the 2nd phase in 1969.

The Davidson's ~ Lairds of Balnagask
The lands of Torry were in the ownership of the Town Council in the 18th century, before being divided into lots and feued in 1786. This means that Balnagask was originally granted to the Davidson’s by the Town Council, and that the records of these transactions are now in the City Archives: there is a Charter of confirmation, dated 17 April 1788, to Robert Davidson, a farmer in Balnagask, over lots 1 and 4 of the Lands of Torry (which comprised North and South Balnagask) (ref: county lands cartulary, vol 2, pp 156v - 169v), as well as a subsequent confirmation.  It appears that Robert Davidson was already a farmer in Balnagask before the lands were broken up, however, for we also have a Tack (lease) in favour of Robert Davidson of Balnagask. This is dated 22 May 1767 to run for 21 years on payment of the Tack Duty of 14 bolls bear, 6 bolls meal and £105 Scots yearly to the Master of Mortifications.

St Fittick's, Nigg granite monument in East wall of the churchyard

Robert Davidson 1st of Banagask was born 14 Aug 1737 in Balngask, Nigg, and died 16 Dec 1826 in Balnagask House.  He married Christian Philp 13 Jun 1784 in Nigg, daughter of George Philip.  She was born 30 Dec 1755 in Peterculter, and died Oct 1807 in Balnagask House.
Children of the above:

Isobel b. 1791 d. 22 july 1804
John b 1793 d 15 July 1805
James b 1787 d in India 1812
William b 1797 d 14 March 1821
Andrew b 1810 d 4 June 1860

Robert of Balnagask b 1783 d 27 Jan 1827 (Drowned aged 44 after falling while boarding the Ferry)
Katherine b 1784 d 25 June 1875
Christian b 1795 d 8 Aug 1885

Alexander of Balnagask b 1786 d 26 Dec 1868

'Died here on Saturday night last, the 27th instant, Robert Davidson of Balnagask, Esq, aged 44 (b.1783).  Mr. Davidson's death took place under very distressing circumstances.  He had been in Aberdeen on Saturday evening, and went down to the Ferry Boat about 9pm, for the purpose of crossing the Harbour on the way to his own house; but the boisterous state of the night rendered it imprudent to cross at the time, and he waited at the Boathouse until towards 11pm, in expectation the wind and drift would moderate, but in vain.  After this, Mr. Davidson being anxious to get home, left the Boathouse in company with his Servant, - in attempting to get into the boat, or in some other way that cannot now be explained, they had both fallen into the water and were now struggling for their lives.  At this time the night was dark, stormy, and boisterous in the extreme, and there was a heavy swell in the Harbour.  The cries brought assistance quickly to the place, and different ropes were thrown from the ships side, but neither Mr. Davidson nor his servant had been able to get hold of them; and in a short time the cries ceased.  Nearly an hour elapsed before the body of Mr. Davidson was recovered; and although medical aid was at hand, and the usual means tried to restore animation, they proved ineffectual; his death apparently hastened by some severe bruises he had received on the head.  The body of his Servant was not found yesterday afternoon.  Great praise is due to Captain Milne, who, in the most intrepid manner, went overboard with a rope attached to his body, to attempt to rescue the unfortunate sufferers, and in doing so had nearly shared their melancholy fate.  Mr. Davidson was a warm hearted, benevolent man, and is much regretted by his fellow parishioners of Nigg, and by many friends.'

A present day investigation would perhaps have aroused some further suspicions to exact cause of deaths. After a night out in town he would have passed the added waiting time away perhaps in the Ferry Boat Inn and while the they could well have fallen into the harbour boarding the Ferry - where was the Ferry Man? Could it be Robert and his manservant were attacked on the shore by opportunist thieves?

He left most of Balnagask to his brother Alexander Davidson Robert received the conveyance of the Main Lands on 17 April 1788  from the Master of Mortifications of the Burgh of Aberdeen.  Before buying Balnagask, Robert had farmed the property. There was some sort of break up of the Estate at this time because North Kirkhill, an adjacent piece of land was sold on the same day by the Master of Mortifications to a James AdamsonAlexander added this land to the Estate later on.   Lot 3 South Kirkhill (due south of North Kirkhill and west of East Krikhill near Balnagask House) was sold the same day to a David Morice.  Quite likely the family didn't have enough money at the time to buy any more.

Alexander Davidson b1786 d 1868 Flour Miller in London and made a lot of money at this trade.  Left a substantial Estate included a legacy to the village of Torry of £1200 for educational purposes. .  Alexander had bought Kirkhillocks and Craigieshaw.  He left Balnagask and Kirkhillocks to Mr Davidson son of his sisters daughter and Craigieshaw to Mr Molison his own nephew.  Inherited the Estate aged 41 from his older brother Robert Davidson following his drowning in Aberdeen Harbour in a Ferry accident in 1827.   Alexander never married.  Alexander had Probate granted of his Will on 12 April 1869.  He left pecuniary legacies and the Craigshaw part of the Estate to James Molison, his nephew, and the Balnagask portion of the Estate to his grand nephew James Davidson. James Molison, in turn, died the following year.

Kincardine & Torry 1844 Map

The title deeds show Alexander acquired most of the adjoining pieces to Balnagask during his life, and bit by bit to make up the large Estate that it was at his death.  It was never a working farm, but more a series of tenanted farms, and occupations such as Fishing Rights on the Dee, Seaweed Collection Rights on Nigg Bay, Salt Works and the like.  The farmers had to contend with a virtually treeless landscape exposed to the South in particular and the atrocious weather of that area.  During his lifetime, the Dee was developed into a major Harbour, the Torry Battery was erected to counter the invasion threat and the Lighthouse was built in permanent form on Girdleness.  He never married, and never had to rely on the Estate for a living.  The idea in his time was to make money elsewhere - the Caribbean, India, London, etc, and buy an Estate in the land of your heritage.  The enclosure movement in England came late to Scotland, and the expansion of the Burgh of Aberdeen meant rates were rising steeply, and the poorer farmers had to sell.  Land in Scotland was relatively cheap in any event, but the depopulation of the country by disease and migration allowed for wealthy London merchants of Scottish Heritage to indulge their notion of building an Estate.  Alexander built the main part of, if not all the grand house known as Balnagask House - now demolished.  So in the end he owned North and South Balnagask, North and South Kirkhill, and a host of smaller blocks adjoining.  With the Bridges over the Dee in place by the end of his life, the land value was rising steeply, and the expansion of the city and also the villages of Torry and Nigg, his heirs made handsome profits selling off bits for development.  The Salt Works at Nigg were offered for sale in June 1829.

1957 Ordinance Survey Map 

Col James Davidson's mother was Margaret Maria Molison (1822-1889) who'd married William Adam Davidson (1815-1868) 27 Mar 1851 in 40 Union Place, Aberdeen, son of JAMES DAVIDSON and CHARLOTTE JOHNSTON and she in turn the daughter of Margaret Davidson daughter of Robert Davidson sister to Alexander who had married Lt William Maule Molison   Mr Molison,  is probably James Molison who residing at Craigshaw when he died in 1869.  

Craigieshaw - Craigshaw Estate & Steading. 'Craigshaw Estate - Proposed alterations to Steading of Offices - at Craigshaw Farm. Mr James Buchan, Tenant - 1902'. : 'Front Elevation of Stable Wings; Front Elevation; Back Elevation of Stable Wing; Elevation and Section of WC and Pigsty; Section thro' Byre; Section thro' Stable; Plan; Loft Plan'.

The chief Proprietors of land in the Nigg Parish in 1838:
John Menzies, Pitfoddels
Alexander Davidson of Balnagask and North & South Kirkhill
John Morice of Tullos & Middleton
Alexander Crombie of North Loirston
James Ferguson of Altens
Alexander Muir of South Loirston

Balnagask House & Colonel Davidson
The grounds were laid out by James Forbes Beattie, Kincardine Architect, Civil Engineer, Land Surveyor and Garden Designer in 1854 (he also laid out the Union Terrace or Denburn Gardens) and the Gates and Gate piers were completed in 1872.  A series of building warrant drawings (architectural drawings submitted for approval of the local authority) contain 2 sets for Balnagask House: they are dated 1912 and 1913 respectively and detail proposed alterations and additions to the property commissioned by Colonel James Davidson.  It appears that the Architect for both of these works was a local firm, George Bennett Mitchell. The records of this firm have also been deposited in the City Archives. Unfortunately, there are no architectural drawings for Balnagask House among the records, but there should be mention of the project in the Contract books and, possibly, a Specification and Schedule of quantities for the works.  A mystery was unearthed at Balnagask House as it was being levelled by the demolition Contractor.  They found an ancient block of sandstone in a gable wall. Could be linked to Cormac de Nugg's 13th Century Motte stronghold or the Abbots of Arbroath who built a Villa and Doocot (Dovecote) in vicinity.

b. 15 Sep 1853, Croydon, Surrey, England;
d. 05 May 1932, Balnagask House, Nigg, Scotland.

Colonel James Davidson CBE 1853-1932 of Balnagask Vice Lieutenant of Kincardine,  became Colonel aged 43 in 1896, married Margaret (May) Berry daughter of Colonel Edward Berry, 11th Royal Hussars, 2 Hyde Park Gate London. One child Alister James Davidson.

Inset as a Staff Officer as Assistant Adjutant and Quarter Master General Irish Command after he left command of the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars.

The 'Big Hoose' was bounded by Victoria Road, Balnagask Road and Baxter Street.  As for myself I spent many days of my holidays in the company of old George Chapman. He was Chauffeur-Handyman to Colonel James Davidson of Balnagask House (later used as a temporary old folks' home). Of course the attractions were the 2 luxurious Armstrong Siddley Motors under George's care. They were actually garaged in Stables. The stables no longer had horses but they were full of bridles, harness and wooden horses on which there were fine saddles.  All memorabilia of an age long ago.  Those cars were of high quality, pre-selector gear lever on the steering wheel for select and declutch.  A glass partition between the driver and the back seat VIPs who could instruct the driver by inter-com.  I used to help him as a lad to wash the lower areas of the cars and did the waxing and polishing. They were both sold during WW2 for a song. Petrol rationing had made them less attractive. 

Old man Chapman was a lovely man, being in service has a tendency to refine a person's manners and he had a calm and wonderful face.  I used to help him barrow the grass cuttings - he used to tend to the huge front lawn of the `Big Hoose' - as most Torry folk referred to it.  All those days seemed to be sunny days!  Colonel James Davidson spent his Army career with the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars in India. He was better known lpcally as the Laird of Old Torry and he died in 1932, Mrs Davidson died in 1940. The Colonel would have a walk about from time to time. Always in tweeds and plus two's, a neat beard and military bearing and was very stern.  Whilst helping old man Chapman we were often approached by the Colonel's wife Margaret and it was then I realised how much respect he had for his Employers.  Without question both Mr & Mrs Chapman voted Conservative.  I learned this after I returned from my spell in the RAF.  I was foolish enough to mention politics and I was politely put in my place.  The Balnagask Estate comprised the Golf Course, Kirkhill Farm (on the left side of the hill going down to the Bay of Nigg), the Home Farm which was situated where Baxter Court is now. The fields between the lane leading to Balnagask Road (at the top of Baxter Street) and the villas at the end of Victoria Road plus all the fields south to the Railway Line leading south were all part of the Balnagask Estate.  At the end of Victoria Road, where the car park for Nigg Bay Golf Club is...situated, stood the Clubhouse of Balnagask Golf Course, which was then a private club.  The Clubhouse had a ‘pebble dash’ surface on the walls and had strips of wood at angles on the walls - a Mock Tudor style look. To get to the changing rooms and lockers there were wooden stairs outside at the back of the building. It was a popular course with celebrities who were performing at HM Theatre and often the Aberdeen Football Club team would have an outing. Tom Whyte was the professional - later he made way for a pro whose name, I think was Campbell, who later moved to Royal Aberdeen. - Michael R

The date of the model of car must have been 1928 and after, because AS did not introduce the pre-selector gearbox until then.  The 15HP car was in production between 1927 and 1930. It had the same dimensions as 14/4HP 13’-2” x 5’-8” Perhaps one was a 1928 Lynton Saloon Landaulette.

Grasmere 3/4 Landaulette "a chauffeur driven car with partition and 2 extra folding chairs in the rear..."

Colonel James Davidson CBE - his Regiment was 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars first raised in 1693, in Derry

His Father in Law Edward Ring Berry ended up a Colonel by purchase - fairly ordinary -  Berry was Infantry, where Davidson was the dashing Cavalryman.  Col James Davidson had a fairly mediocre time for a Cavalry Officer. 

He came to the fore leading the 13th Bengal Lancers (Watson’s Horse) at the Battles of Kassassin and Tel-el Kebir (Suez Canal 1882).  There are some massive and inspiring portraits of those fights with all the Grand Regiments of the time charging in the only night charges ever made by British Cavalry.  Lieutenant General Sir Garnet Wolseley was impressed and Davidson's career was forever linked to that of Wolseley's.  Davidson was viewed as a hard driving goal oriented Officer. 

Not a lot of wars went on and Davidson fell between the cracks when the 8th came back to England - no more wars till he was too old and the 8th went on to South Africa during 1900-1903.

Col Davidson as Staff Officer to Lt Gen Sir Garnet Wolesley

The Royal Commission of Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland that they have a copy of a drawing of the layout of the grounds of Balnagask House, dated 1854. The original of this drawing is in the Macdonald collection which is held in the Department of Geography, University of Aberdeen - there may well be other relevant drawings in that collection too.

Colonel James Davidson CBE of Balnagask Vice Lieutenant of Kincardine born 1853, became Colonel in 1896, married Margaret Berry daughter of Colonel Edward Berry, of the 11th Royal Hussars of 2 Hyde Park Gate London. One child Alister James Davidson.   There are precious few family papers in the City Archives generated by other 'Big Hoose' families which might contain material on the Davidson's. Papers survive from a Deeside neighbour, the Stewarts of Banchory House, but their records do not contain any photographs other than those of the family.

Colonel Davidson's obituary suggests that he moved more in the Kincardine County circles than Aberdeen City ones, so it may be that relevant material survives elsewhere.

Colonel Davidson died in 1932, Mrs Davidson in 1940 and their son Alister in 1949. They are buried in a fenced off plot on the left as you walk on the path to Old St Fittick’s Churchyard opposite Kirkhill Farm on the hill running down to the Bay of Nigg.  The Colonel’s funeral was quite an event.  The service was held in St Andrew’s Cathedral, King Street then the Cortege with several cars led the procession to the Churchyard via Victoria Road.  Quite a number of spectators watched it go by.  The hearse was quite unique. The pall bearers sat in the Hearse with the Coffin at their feet, as they faced each other.
Col James Davidson of Balnagask, DL, JP


Colonel Davidson pictured here 1896 as  in his uniform as Colonel 8th KRIH  was known as Laird of Torry at one time because he owned most of it.  He sold land for the new Torry Dock (1909-15), land for Balnagask Golf Course and land for development to Aberdeen Corporation.  Buried in St Fitticks churchyard. Some sections of Balnagask House were 250 years old.

Colonel Davidson’s son was called Captain Alister but died in 1949. He wasn’t a Captain in the Army - only the Territorial's.  He did not enjoy good health but, as old man Chapman the Chauffeur used to say, he was never short of female admirers.  He had a heap of money. At the roup I bid for his golf clubs but I was out-bid then by a female.  However the Town was given the whole Estate which also included our house at 56 Baxter Street and Mr & Mrs Chapman’s house at 50 Baxter Street and that’s how we became Council House Tenants (how degrading!). When we moved to 368 they knocked the house down at 56. The Colonel had arranged that the Chapman’s had a Life Tenancy of No.50.

Memories of Frank Cook, later inhabitant of Balnagask House,  Home for the Elderly formed in 1950, one of 8 men and 19 ladies.  "The beauty of the House has been preserved, and the patterns of brasswork on the doors of the residents' lounge have a polish worthy of the Colonel's Drawing Room. There's a warmth about the house that must gladden the lingering ghosts of the Davidson's"  Frank had known the Colonel and his wife but had never dreamt he would one day live in the "Big Hoose".

Balnagask Motte near North Balnagask Road may be the remains of the earthen mound on which a wooden castle once stood, dating back 700 years or more.  This type of Castle was brought to this country by the Normans and from the 11th Century onwards many were constructed throughout Scotland. It is said that the Motte is associated with Cormac de Nugg whose name appears in the 13th CenturyBaxter Street was in a straight line but forced to curved around the Motte on the east side of Balnagask House to adjoin Balnagask Road.

This large grass-grown mound, which has previously been identified as a possible motte, is probably no more than a natural knoll that has been adapted as a garden feature in the policies of Balnagask House. The mound rises at least 8m above the surrounding ground, and its top, which measures about 10m across, has been levelled and enclosed by a low bank about 2m in thickness and 0.4m in height. A break in this bank on the SSE opens onto a path leading down to the foot of the mound on the S. On the NE flank of the mound there are several narrow terraces.  The 1st edition of the OS 6-inch map (Kincardineshire 1869, sheet iv) shows the mound at least partly wooded within the designed policies surrounding the house; the 2nd edition of the map (Aberdeenshire 1902, sheet lxxv.SE) shows the path and depicts the summit enclosure with a circular dashed line. Both editions of the map show that the top of the mound was surmounted by an Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar, but of this nothing can now be seen.

Press & Journal 26th May 1967

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Last modified: 01/09/2013