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POTTED HISTORY No 1: Earlsferry House – Part 1 – The Duddingston Family

By Graham Johnston

earcloseupWhen I first considered a series of articles on the big houses I obviously started with the granddaddy of them all – Elie House – but second on the list had to be Earlsferry House – its Royal Burgh equivalent – not the care home which assumed that name and which is not even in Earlsferry but the large imposing castle like structure which, until demolished in the late 1950s, stood at the west end of Earlsferry High Street. It did not take long to find out that it had been built by Rear Admiral William Duddingston. It was then that the research as so often happens took a different tack. Firstly there is very little to find out about Earlsferry House and at least in modern times next to nothing about the Duddingston family. Why, I wondered, did an Admiral from the British Navy who fought not without controversy in the American War of Independence (see ) decide to build a house in Earlsferry?

Things began to unravel when I researched the surname Duddingston. Other than one modern reference to which I shall return there seems to be next to nothing left of this family which at one time, I discovered, was a very substantial and powerful landowner in the East Neuk of Fife. Rather therefore than confine myself to the house itself I embarked on a journey to find more about this family; a journey which took me from St. Ford Farm just outside Earlsferry to the Special Collections Department of St. Andrews University library and then the Burgh Register of Sasines held in a warehouse in Edinburgh. Much of what follows in this and subsequent articles may be based on conjecture but I hope my guess work has been borne out by the evidence which I have.

The Duddingston family and its beginnings

There are those who claim that the Duddingston (Dudingston, Dudingstoun,Dudingstone even Diddingston) family married into the Stewart dynasty starting with Robert the Bruce but the records of that time are hardly reliable enough to be definitive. (See ) However it is suggested that Stephen Duddingston the 4th Baron of Sandford, (otherwise St. Ford, Sanford, Sanfurd, etc.) married Janet Sandilands who was the daughter of one of the Stewart regal dynasty. The time would have been about the early 1600s. The Duddingston family seat of Sandford, or St Ford, in Kilconquhar parish was also a barony, the various parts of which were consolidated by Stephen Duddingston between 1488 and 1495. Under a confirmatory charter of 1504 the lands of Sandford were confirmed to the Duddingston family with whom they remained until 1776. Parts of the estate were alienated as early as 1690 when William Duddingston sold Hillhouse, Wellbank, Broomlees, Langfauld and Greysland to Robert Cleland who in turn sold them to the laird of Anstruther in 1720.

[Note it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the various Williams and Stephens since the practice at that time in this family was to name the first born male after the paternal grandfather.]

The best chronicle of the family stems from the family tree started with James Duddingston of Sandford who married Catherine Spens of Lathallan (this lies just to the east of Largo Law). (see  – and considerable thanks to Holly for this). They had two sons William and Thomas; there was a further son since James married again after Catherine died in childbirth. This son, James, died before 1684.

William succeeded to the barony and in 1684 he married Mary Fotheringham daughter of the Fotheringhams of Halhill Gravestone(aka Lahill or Lawhill – again just under Largo Law). He died in 1708 having fathered William and Stephen both of whom died in childbirth. One is buried in Elie churchyard, although the gravestone is seriously eroded now, the description of its location points to this non-descript tomb. That is a little strange since Sandford geographically was closer to Kilconquhar than Elie and technically part of Kilconquhar parish.

James was born in 1695 and daughters Elizabeth (who married Dr. Wilson, the surgeon in Elie), Mary, Clara, Anne and two other daughters, none of whom married or had issue. James succeeded to the barony in 1708 on the death of his father but by then it was in some disarray. I guess from some of the papers which I have seen that William had tried to make provision for his five unmarried daughters. There is a document suggesting that he settled a stipend on them each of £2,000 per annum – a very substantial sum. His heir, James, had difficulty in paying this from the estate and tried various ways of reducing it. In any event, James married Margaret Gillespie of Kirkton in 1735 and they had children James (jnr) who died young; John (born 1739), William (born 1740 and hereinafter referred to as “the Admiral”) and Ann, Clara, David and another daughter all of whom died in infancy, Elizabeth who was unmarried, Fanny also known as Fotheringham who married an Oliphant, Anne who married Stephen Cossar and lived down south , Sophia who married Rev Andrew Walker of Collessie, Joanna, unmarried ,Margaret who married Peter Barclay, Clara unmarried of whom more later, Christian who married James Chalmers, Sheriff in Perth, and James who died 1794.

It would seem that the troubles of his father of having dependent daughters was visited on James and on his death in 1776 it was found that the estate was bankrupt. There are references to a number of litigations in which he was involved and there seemed to have been quite some discrepancy in relation to the land purchase and sale which he engaged in. Indeed he had sold off parts of it presumably to keep the estate going. But by then the estate was but a shell of its original holdings. Even then at the meeting of creditors of his estate in 1777 his heir Capt. John (the soldier that is) who was designed as living in Grangemuir (just north of Pittenweem) declared his wish to pay back as many of the creditors as he could. He instructed the trustee in bankruptcy to sell the estate. Significantly of course he, John, was in the army and the Admiral (the only other male issue) was in the navy.

There was, in effect, no one other than the girls to take on the estate or what was left of it. It looked most unlikely that they would be able to trade out of the insolvency. The liabilities were in excess of £3,000 and the trustee in bankruptcy put the rest of the estate on the market for £5,000. I have not managed to find out if it reached that price but the Anstruther family snapped up what was left having already acquired directly or indirectly the lands at Halhill, Greylands, Welbank, Broomlees, Langfaulds and also the field which lies between the main road form Elie to Kilconquhar and Kilconquhar Loch. I managed to identify that as having been sold to the Anstruthers by James at 12/- per year at 45 years purchase some years before his death. This was just a field and from the description in the title it seems to be the field on the right hand side of the road from Elie to Kilconquhar just as you enter Kilconquhar. It is said to be bounded on the east by the loch. I am indebted to the Special Collections Department of St. Andrews University, who hold the papers for the estate of Sandford.

Where was Sandford/St. Ford?

stfordframhouseIn the records for the hearth tax in 1695 the house at Sandford or St. Ford was shown as having seven hearths. There was a tax levied on the number of hearths in a house. It is assumed that the more hearths one had, the larger the establishment and consequent ability to pay tax! This shows that the house was a substantial one and certainly much larger than the current St. Ford Farm house which is a later building but in fact visually much of the stone work of the barn alongside St Ford farmhouse seems rather older than the house itself. My guess is that the family home may well have been where the large barns at St Ford are now. It would make some sense in that the current footprint of St Ford farmhouse is unlikely to have been large enough for the Duddingston Family but the barn area alongside would have fitted the bill.

Another possibility is that the house was situated more to the west than the current St. Ford. The area of ground to the west of the caravan park and through which the Cockermill Burn runs is known as the links of St. Ford but the ground there is very sandy and unlikely to be able to support a structure as big as the house that would have been necessary. Any other site encroaches on the Gourlays land at Kincraig or Broomlees or Muircambus. planstfordThis more or less brings it down to the current site. Again if the Anstruthers purchased the rump of the estate in 1778 or thereabout it may be that they did not need such a large house on the farm since they already had Elie House and a few more besides. Again the lack of finance for the late James might have meant that the house was in a state of disrepair anyway.

When James Duddingston died in 1777 his son and heir Capt (later Major) John obviously did not live in any of the family’s properties and they were all disposed of. The mystery therefore is what happened next. Admiral William Duddingston is shown to have purchased the property upon which Earlsferry House is or was built on 16th June 1807. He actually purchased three or four parcels of land. In so far as it is possible to ascertain the areas from the descriptions in the title, it seems that he purchased an area of ground on the east side of what is now Glovers Wynd and two pieces of ground which he consolidated on the west side of Glovers Wynd. It seems also that there were some semi derelict buildings on both these sites so he must have demolished those on the Earlsferry House site and commenced building. In the title he is described as living sometime in Elie Lodge which is the property behind the large wall on the way down the Toft, now Hycroft.

Having built Earlsferry House he did not live in it very long because he died in 1817. There is a plaque to him in Kilconquhar churchyard which may or may not be where he is buried.

The area of this inscription is part of a larger area surround by a stone wall but there are no other monuments in the area. I wonder whether this was the family burial ground because it is commensurate with the status of the family and equates with some of the other areas in that churchyard dedicated to the land owning families around. In addition to the property in Earlsferry he also owned property in Heriot Row in Edinburgh.

He had married Antonia Steuart-Barclay of Collairnie in 1802 at the age of 62. She died in 1839 in Edinburgh but before he died they had a number of children – Elizabeth (born 1803 died 1866 in Paris), William Montague (died in 1839 – that is the date given but for reasons shown afterwards I think that is wrong and it was earlier at least before 1830 – with no issue), Susan Stirling Duddingston (born in 1807 she died in 1890 in Paris (suggests that latterly she lived with her sister in Paris)).


Here is a photo of her grave in Paris and four children that died in infancy.

The title to Earlsferry House was clarified in 1830 when by what is known as a General Service, Elizabeth and Susan were confirmed as the only heirs of the Admiral. This suggests that his son who survived him, William Montague, must have died before 1830 otherwise he would have been his heir and the completion of title would have made reference to his entitlement because otherwise the General Service would not have indicated that the two daughters were the heirs of the Admiral. This would also explain why it was by General Service that his daughters completed title to the house. Since his wife did not die until 1839 again it seems likely that she did not live in it probably preferring the salubrious and no doubt socially more attractive surroundings of Heriot Row in Edinburgh.


However this is where the position gets interesting.

Earlsferry House, as was, was built on the plot of ground as shown in this map. earlsferry2plan2To the west of the plot was a lane and then an area of ground which originally contained I think stables and you can see in the old photographs a very old structure, etc. But I think that the extent of the land acquired by the Admiral may well have included the strip of ground to the east of the Earlsferry House plot and it is my suggestion, based upon some of the descriptions in the titles, that he (or, less likely, his daughters Elizabeth and Susan) also built a house known as Sandford House immediately to the east of the main house. He would have carried a large establishment and would have needed quarters for his servants. There is a reference to the main house having two additional houses. Again this would suggest that the Duddingstons tried to carry on the estate name of Sandford despite having lost the actual estate. There is reference in the descriptions of the properties which I have seen that there were boundary walls erected by Susan and Elizabeth Duddingston – this would suggest that the date of that description must have been post 1830.

earlferryhouse9It is my guess that they did not live in the main Earlsferry House. On their father’s death Elizabeth would only have been 14 and Susan 10, so it more likely they lived in Edinburgh with their mother. The main house and Sandford would probably have been let out. IMG_0250I think this may be borne out by the fact that between 1840 and 1860s or so there seems to have been two sisters, Jane and Charlotte Abercromby, occupying the big house. They were known for their charitable deeds and seem to run a sort of hospital/convalescent home for gentlefolk. Perhaps the sea air was conducive to early recovery. There are recorded a number of events there. There is one of some interest; John Keith Murray is reported to have died at Earlsferry House in 1862. I could find no reference to a family called Murray having owned the house but on deeper research I discovered that this John Keith Murray was the fourth son of the late Sir William Keith Murray of Ochtertyre and the death certificate of John shows he was 17 years of age. The Murrays were fairly wealthy land owners in Ochtertyre and I guess that John must have been a sickly child and that he was nursed at Earlsferry House by these ladies.

There is an advertisement for the sale of the furnishings and of the House in 1856.It was probably not until 1864 that the house was actually sold. Elizabeth died in Paris in 1866 and Susan in 1890 and I hazard a guess that they decided to sell up in Fife and went to live in Paris. Neither of them married so it was not the lure of family life that took them from the relatively austere surroundings of the Fife coast to the salons of Paris in the late 19th Century.

So what happened next?

I think the house was eventually sold in about 1864 or so to James Erskine Paterson also known as Erskine who lived at Linlathen near Dundee. He was in fact not an Erskine but a Paterson whose home was Linlathen he having succeeded to the estate on the death of his uncle. James Erskine Paterson was in the Black Watch regiment until 1852 and he is designed there as being James Erskine of Erskine at Linlathen. He obviously assumed the double name when he succeeded to the estate.

In 1887 he sold the property to Thomas Craigie Glover, more of whom in Part 2. The legal conveyancing side of it is interesting for a lawyer; Duddingston, in addition to the site of Earlsferry House and the area to the west and east thereof, also acquired ground on the other side of the High Street which was traditionally the vegetable and fruit garden of the main house. To this day the high walls around it still have the broken glass set in the cope to deter fruit thieves – which bears a remarkable similarity to the wall I conjecture built by the Duddingston sisters between Earlsferry House and Sandford.

gardenwall1 wall4








My information however is that it certainly did not act as a deterrent to the youngsters of the time.  I have a notion that the Duddingston sisters when they acquired the property via the General Service above did not include the area of ground on the north side of the High Street because that property seemed to have reverted to the Earlsferry Town Council, then to Sir James Malcolm of the Grange and then to Erskine Paterson all in 1887, I assume to enable him to pass a valid title to Glover.

So the Duddingstons disappeared from Fife with one exception. There is a property just into The Terrace where it joins South Street in Elie. That property graces by the name of Duddingston House or Duddingston Hall. Was there another branch of the Duddingstons or did some live in Elie after the sale of the estate to the Anstruthers? It is impossible to be too precise, but there is a Clara Duddingston in the 1841 Census as being shown as living in South Street. She is said to be 77 years old in 1841. This would make her the second youngest daughter of James Duddingston, the last Baron of Sandford. Clara died in 1848.

The Admiral had surviving daughters and Captain John similarly had daughters. It was the curse of the Duddingstons latterly that any sons they had died in infancy or very young. So the Admiral was the last of the male line and there are no doubt many who can trace their lineage back to the Duddingstons down the female line but there are no male relatives left so far as I can see of this one time very powerful land owning family in the East Neuk.

The story of Earlsferry House is continued – see Part 2.



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