It’s too easy to see Kincardine O’Neil as a sleepy little village nestled by the river, quiet, to the point where you might drive right through without seeing a single person. How different things once were. The history of the village is perhaps surprisingly linked with transport and the movement of people and goods, and with the trading of those goods.
Sited on the northern bank of the river Dee, Kincardine O’Neil was for centuries one of the most important river crossing places. There were over 30 recognised fords crossing the Dee but the one at Kincardine O’Neil was particularly significant being on the ancient route over the Cairn O’Mount. King David 1st of Scotland crossed the Dee with his army in 1150. Then in 1296, the 35,000 strong army of Edward 1st of England crossed the river here and camped near the village, consuming the villager’s entire year’s supplies of food and drink in a single day.
In more peaceful times the ford was the most direct drove route for cattle moving from northern Aberdeenshire to the markets at Crieff and Falkirk. When the Dee was in spate the drovers would have to wait near the village with their cattle until water levels dropped. Other travellers were able to use a ferry which crossed the river a little upstream from the ford. The ferry was in use until 1937 when a flood washed it away and wrecked it, at this time the fare was 2d.
From the 15th century until 1815 Kincardine O’Neil held three fairs each year, culminating early September with the (St Bartholomew’s Day) Bartle Fair, at which many thousands of cattle were bought and sold. The fair continued for three days on Bartle Muir, an area just north of the village. The fair would attract peddlers from far and wide, who set up stalls in the streets and the Kirk yard. The fairs were accompanied by much revelry, often descended into little more than a drunk brawl with the residents climbing onto their roofs to get a better view of the street fighting. In 1777 an effort to suppress the “cursing, lying, tricking, stealing, brawling, fighting and every indecency” was resisted by local residents who did well selling food and liquor to the crowds.
On, what was, the eastern edge of the village is the historic ruin of the Church of St Mary, built in the 1200s and in use until the 1860s, when it was replaced by a new Parish Church. In the centre of the village is the Gordon Arms Hotel, a coaching inn built around 1830 to serve as a staging post on the coach service between Aberdeen and Braemar, although in winter it often served as the stopping place when the service was unable to get further up the valley.
The Railway, which came to Deeside in the 1850s, never made it to Kincardine O’Neil skirting the village, looping from Banchory away from the river through the villages of Torphins and Lumphanan before heading back towards Dess then to Aboyne. There are various stories as to why the railway took this detour, including land owners resistance and local geography (wrong kind of hills?). However, the result was that while the surrounding villages developed and became larger, Kincardine O’Neil stayed smaller and retained a wealth of older buildings. The extent of historic buildings meant that the village became a Conservation Area in 1978.
The village and the surrounding land has for centuries been part of large estates. Having been part of the huge Mar Estates of the Earl of Gordon, this area was part of a large tract of land granted to the Durward family by in the king in the 13th century. Over the centuries these huge estates were gradually split and sold on. The current Kincardine Estate covers some 3,000 acres of land in and around the village, approximately half of which is now commercial woodland.