Probative Quarters in Cupar

The final post in the series on Alfred Huhnhäuser’s photographic archive is coming soon, but in the meantime here’s a lighter one – the fruits of some field work in Fife over the weekend.

Part of my preparatory work for the first volume of the Scottish Corpus of Carved Stones (which may or may not have exactly that title in final form) has been to undertake a visual survey of every early modern carved stone in the kingdom of Fife. This has resulted in all manner of wonderful discoveries, such as this recumbent slab currently propped against the side of the kirk in Cupar:

The inscription can be reconstructed with the assistance of a reading taken in 1933 (characters in brackets represent text legible at that time but now unreadable):

A recumbent slab with an inscribed border is probably the single most common form of early modern Scottish funeral monument, but what sets this stone apart from the ordinary are the nine coats of arms in the central panel. The scroll to the left (the viewer’s right) of the heraldic helm reads “THE MOTHERS SYD” and an equivalent inscription headed “THE FATHERS SYD” can be presumed to have once been present on the companion scroll.

What we’re seeing here are the deceased’s “probative quarters”, the arms of their eight great-grandparents. The legal and cultural practice of recording noble ancestry for a given number of generations – usually back to great- or great-great-grandparents – was common on the continent, especially the German lands, but only intermittently practiced in Scotland (for another example, see my blogpost here). In Fife it seems to have had particular currency in the early modern period, but this stone is still exceptional for dramatising its subject’s ancestral nobility in such a striking fashion.



Visible on the left hand (paternal) side are the arms of: (1) Crichton of Cranston Riddell, (2) Corstorphine of that Ilk, (3) Forrester, and (4) unreadable. On the right hand (maternal) side are those of: (5) the Earls of Buccleuch, (6) Beaton of Creich, (7) the Earls of Roxburgh, and (8) the Earls of Erroll. Any heraldically literate viewer would have been acutely aware of Thomas Crichton’s illustrious pedigree and his kinship to a series of powerful noble families across Scotland.

It is a distressing evidence of the rapid deterioration of these monuments over the course of the twentieth century that the inscription on the Crichton memorial, almost fully legible in 1933, should now be fragmentary, and that the closest analogy to this stone, the 1734 monument to John Melville in nearby Kilmany, should be completely lost, though fully legible as late as 1896. These irreversible erasures of Scotland’s artistic heritage make me all the more determined to do as much as I can to make the Corpus of Carved Stones a reality before it’s too late.

The only surviving record the Melville monument at Kilmany, reproduced from R. C. Walker’s “Notes on a Heraldic Monument at Kilmany, Fifeshire”, PSAS 31 (1896-97): 94-98.

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams

3 thoughts on “Probative Quarters in Cupar

  1. Stravaiging around Scotland says:

    I couldn’t quite pin down your missing arms but during the process of trying I discovered a few things that may interest you. I wonder if the mother’s and father’s sides were divided as regularly as has been supposed, since the arms recorded seem to appear in both sides of the family tree from what I can tell (although of course prominent families did intermarry on a regular basis).

    Bodumcraig is now Bottomcraig, near Balmerino to the north of Cupar. Thomas Crichton of Bottomcraig was murdered in 1619 by the laird of Kirkton.

    Thomas Crichton’s father, Sir James Crichton of Cranstoun-Riddell, was the younger son of William Crichton of Naughton and Drylaw. Naughton came into the Crichrton family through marriage to a Hay. Drylaw was previously a property of the Forresters. Thomas Forrester was granted a charter of the lands of Drylaw in 1406 following the death of his father Sir Adam Forrester of Corstorphine the previous year. I’m not aware of a family known as Corstorphine of that Ilk, the Forresters having possessed Corstorphine since the late 14th century.

    Thomas’ brother, also Sir James Crichton, was married to Dorothy or Dorothea Scott of the Scotts of Branxholme and Buccleuch. Her mother was said to be Jean Beaton of the Beatons of Creich and her maternal grandmother a Hay of Errol, although this comes from a disputed source (Balmerino and its abbey).

    The elder Sir James Crichton married in 1538 Janet Beaton, the daughter of Sir John Beaton of Creich and Janet Hay. I haven’t been able to establish if Janet Beaton was Thomas Crichton’s mother. Following Sir James’ death in 1540 she married Sir Simon Preston of Craigmillar Castle and some time between 1543 and June 1544 she married Sir Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch. The Scotts married into the Kerr family which would perhaps explain the arms of the Earls of Roxburgh. Incidentally, Sir Robert Ker, 1st Earl of Roxburgh, was the great-grandson of Sir Andrew Ker of Cessford who married Agnes, daughter of Sir Patrick Crichton of Cranstoun-Riddell.

    None of which is particularly conclusive in terms of the missing arms!

    Liked by 1 person

    • kelseyjacksonwilliams says:

      Thanks for this excellent sleuthing! Something I’ve noticed with other sets of probative quarters is that they often don’t literally reproduce the arms of an individual’s great-grandparents, but rather focus on important marital or familial connections regardless of their place in the family tree (which seems as if it might be the case here). As for the Corstorphines of that Ilk, however, that’s probably just my erroneous interpretation – the scroll above the arms simply reads “Laird of Corstorphine”.

      When I’m home from work and have access to the relevant books this evening I’ll try to respond properly with some more thoughts on what these arms might be doing . . . .

      Liked by 1 person

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