The MacGill Society USA

A short history of Kemback Parish.

Extracted from "A Short History of Kemback Parish by Maurice Milne, Session Clerk."


The name Kemback comes from the Gaelic meaning 'Field of battle' or 'Field of the Warrior', but there is no local legend to support this.
The parish is under 3 miles long measured east to west and 2.5 miles wide from north to south. The River Eden separates us from the parishes of Dairsie and Leuchars on our north, while our other neighbours are Cupar to the west, Ceres to the south and St. Andrews to the east.
Scots pine and later larch seemed to thrive well on Kemback Hill and was much in demand for building and for estate fencing. Ash, oak and gean grew on the west slopes of Dura Den, particularly the amphitheatre, while thickets of hazel covered the sheer faces.
Because of these woods and its sheltered situation, the climate is less harsh than the surrounding country. Those who disagree doubtless enjoy the healthy conditions, to say nothing of the panoramic views, of the exposed areas - and certainly in the past some of the inhabitants of Blebo Craigs have a attained a ripe old age.
Not so, however, two hundred years ago. A distressing illness, referred to as 'ague' recurred each spring. It was characterised by fits of shivering and appears to have been a malarial-type fever. However, improvements in the 18th. century in cultivation and especially drainage eradicated the illness within a short space of years. By 1840 it was just a memory.

The Church

It is appropriate that such a history should begin with what is central to the parish.

The First Church

The first church was a rectory founded by Bishop de Bernhem in 1244 and was situated somewhere in what is now the grounds of Kemback House.
The next date, 1446, relates to an act of charity to that church by Robert de Femy and his wife, Mariota Olifert, Lady of Kemback, who granted to Gilbert de Galbraith, rector of the church and to his successors, for all time, 4 acres of the lands of Kemback, together with grass for three cows and one horse, provided the rector said two Masses weekly for the family and their benefactors. Here then is - the First Glebe.
Then in 1458 Bishop Kennedy gifted Kemback to the College of St. Salvator, which he had recently founded in St. Andrews, as part of its endowment. Thus the teinds and patronage - the right to present a vicar or minister - were transferred to St. Salvator's, and were later vested in the 'United College' when St. Leonard's and St. Salvator's were united in 1747. This continued, presumably, until 1874 when the Patronage Act abolished the system.
I have recently seen a document dated 1583 in which Patrick Shevez, Laird of Kemback, gives a site on which to build a church with enough ground for a graveyard, a manse and 6 acres of glebeland. This was bigger than the first glebe, but it was recognised that the soil was of inferior quality. This was in exchange for the existing church and glebe at Kemback House. The Shevez were, of course, staunch Roman Catholics and it was felt locally that this gesture was partly to take the worshipping Reformers out of sight and sound of the house.

The Second Church

The second church is the ruin in the churchyard to which the document refers.
There are two dates above the lintel - 1583, which we now know was the year the church was founded or completed - and 1760 when the walls were heightened and the galleries added at either end. It is an early example of the 'T-shaped' post-Reformation churches, the 'Makgill Aisle', as we refer to it now, forming the leg.
In 1954 part of the east gable was destroyed when the ivy which then covered the building, caught fire. In 1959 Fife County Council wished to raze the ruin completely, but public indignation was aroused and the result was that a fund was raised with which it was preserved from further decay. The residue of the fund is administered by the Kirk Session as a separate account.
It is interesting to note that, in the old part of the graveyard, all the upright stones face east, in anticipation of Christ's Second Coming. There is no evidence of this practice being continued in the new part.

The Third Church

This is the present church and it was built in 1814. Some believe that the bell and belfry came from the ruin. If this is so, then the bell we hear on Sundays may have rung to invite worshippers in Kemback for over four hundred years.
The pulpit was originally in the centre, where the Celtic cross now is, with the organ and choir immediately in front. The interior was renovated in the late 1920s by Dr. Low, Blebo, and the wood used was Borneo cedar.
A list of ministers since the Reformation is in the vestibule.
The urn-shaped vessel in the alcove is in fact part of an old heating system.
The memorial tablets on the walls lead to the next chapter - the estates and the families who occupied them.

The Five Estates


We first hear of Kemback in the possession of Myles or Malise Graham, one of the murderers of James I at Perth in 1437. For this crime he was executed, his estate reverting to the superior, the Bishopric of St. Andrews. In 1446 it belonged to Robertus de Ferny and his wife who were, as we have heard, benefactors of the church.
In 1496 it was conferred on John Shevez together with the office of Marshall of the Bishop's Household by his uncle William Shevez who was then Archbishop of St. Andrews. He had studied astrology, theology and medicine on the Continent and was a brilliant academic. It was said that there was scarce his equal in Britain or France.
In 1665 a John Shevez, Laird of Kemback, was found dead at Cupar. He had been a determined opponent of Presbyterianism in Kemback and the Covenanters doubtless considered his demise as divine intervention. It transpired, however, that the day before he had been drinking strong waters with, among others, Morrison of Dairsie and foul play, though never established, was not ruled out.
In 1667 John Makgill, younger son of Makgill of Rankeillor, bought Kemback from Elizabeth Shevez, sister of the late John Shevez. He was a former minister of Cupar and had resigned his charge because of opposition to Episcopacy. He had studied medicine on the Continent and, by purchasing Kemback, he ironically became Marshall of an Episcopal Bishop's Household.
The Makgills are representatives of the Viscounts 'Oxfurd'. The present Lord Oxturd, George Hubbard Makgill, succeeded his uncle, the former Sir Donald Makgill, who lived in Ayrshire but who retained a keen interest in Kemback, on his death in 1986.
The late Mr. W. Harold Thomson purchased Kemback from the Makgills in the 1920s and it is still retained by the family.


Sometimes called Rumgay or, in old writings, Rathmatgallum. In 1528 it formed part of the extensive barony of Strathmiglo so long possessed by the Scots of Balwaerie, another old and powerful Fife family. They only had the superiority however.
Sir Michael Scot was a man of property and power in Fife during the reign of William the Lion (1165). He married Margaret, daughter of Sir Duncan Syres or Ceres of that ilk and was succeeded by his son Duncan Scot. The eldest son of Duncan was Sir Michael Scot who married Margaret Balwaerie. Their son was the celebrated Sir Michael Scot 'The Wizard', a contemporary of Dante and Boccaccie. The late Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist, son of 'Scott of the Antarctic' was a direct descendant.
The Douglas family were early owners, from whom it passed to the Wemys of Wemys. In 1658 it was purchased by Rev. James McGill, minister of Largo. From his family it passed to Moncrieffes, to Makgills of Kemback and then in 1800 to a Mr. Thoms, a Dundee merchant. It came in time to the Robertson family who gifted the communion table in the church.
Latterly Rumgally belonged to the Rogers, was then the home of Professor Gunstone, Vice-Principal Emeritus of St. Andrews University, and Rumgally House is now owned by Charles Fotheringham.

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