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In a role of voters taken about 1920, Findochty accounted for 182 fishermen householders, comprising 24 Campbells, 35 Smiths, 39 Sutherlands and 84 Fletts, (Black The SURNAMES Of Scotland, p.xxxii). Remarkable that only four names appear, but even more remarkable that the Fletts should make up almost half. How had this name come to be so dominant in a village established only slightly over 200 years earlier? Were they all originally from the same stock or were there different strands? Where had they come from? As a family historian, five of whose eight paternal great-grandparents were Findochty Fletts, I felt that perhaps the onus was on myself to find the answers. Local oral tradition asserted that the first bearers of the name came from Orkney at the behest of the local heritor, John Ord, Laird of Findochty, while local amateur historiography claimed migration from Shetland. The latter can easily be discounted as no Fletts appear in the parish records of these far northern Isles before 1749 some thirty years after their appearance in Findochty. The former story fails to explain why these immigrants were brought from such a long distance. If seamanship skills were required to expand the nascent fishing station at the Broadhythe of Findochty, then surely such skills would have been available from much nearer to home. Oral traditions, dependant on memory and verbal communication down through the ages tend to be true in the general but often distorted in the particular, in other words the details tend to lose their accuracy with age.
Two Flett families were established on the southern coast of the Moray Firth a full generation and nearly forty years before the name first appeared in Findochty. In 1682, James Flett, was a resident of Burghead in the parish of Duffus in Morayshire when he married Margaret Dunbar and settled down there. No earlier record of the names exists in the area and therefore it has to be concluded that James was an incomer. From later records the only place where substantial numbers bearing the Flett surname were established in the mid seventeenth-century was Orkney where the name appears in those islands' early sagas although none of the Orcadian Old Parish Registers takes us back far enough to make the link. It would seem, however, statistically very likely that James hailed from these northern isles and so this element of the oral tradition is probably generally true. James may not have arrived here alone, as another James Flett was recorded in a marriage contract with Christian Steven in 1688. Their son William was born in the following year and although he and his own family were later recorded in Burghead, there were no other children born to his parents. There is no evidence to identify the relationship between the two men except that they were two individuals, and not the same person. One of them, presumably Christian Steven's husband, died in 1710.
Three daughters, Janet, Catherine and Elspet were born to James and Margaret in the next five years and in 1689, John, their first son arrived, followed by a fourth daughter, Isabel in June 1692. In the months following the birth, Margaret's health deteriorated and she died early in August. With a young family it was no surprise that James should take a second wife, and as a fisherman, as likely he was, his need of a wife to collect bait, help with the lines and not least, to carry him dry to and from the boat, was an essential part the daily lives of these early fisher families. The record of his marriage to Janet Scot has not so far been found, (although a partially illegible marriage contract between a Jannet Scot and a James ....? in 1693 in Duffus is perhaps relevant), but a "lawful daughter", Margaret, was born to them in 1699, and so we can be assured of their marriage. In 1702, Alexander was born but did not survive and James followed in the following year. In 1706, a second Alexander was born and seven years later, daughter Christian, their last child came along.
And so, from James's family there were three sons, to carry on the name. John, the eldest, was married in 1715 to Elspet Prott and in the following year he was recorded as a witness at the baptism of his niece Janet Allan, daughter of John Allan and his sister Janet. In the following year his own daughter Janet was born. In December of 1718, daughter Jean arrived. By comparing the Old Parish Register of Duffus with that of Rathven, the migration of certain families to both the neighbouring embryonic villages of Findochty and Portessie is easily detectable. Within the next year John and Elspet, his sister Janet and her husband John moved to the fishing station at the Broadhythe of Findochty, established by the local laird, John Ord in 1716. The first reference to the name Flett in the Rathven Old Parish Register occurred on February 14th, 1720, when John Flett was named as a witness at the baptism of John, son to Hector McKenzie and Janet MacKay of the Broadhythe. In December of the same year, John Flett and his wife Elspet Prott had a son, also baptised and named John, and it is clear that the couple were then living in Findochty.
"John Ord of Findochtie built houses and furnished them to the white fishers to fish for him and furnished them boats, and John Ord being to sell the lands of Findochtie to James Earl of Findlater, the fishers agree to serve the Earl at the Brodhyth of Findochtie. There were in all thirteen men and four boys (Flett, Campbell, Smith &c)". Cromwell, Cramond Annals of Cullen 961-1904, p.68 year 1723.
We can similarly trace the migration from Burghead of one John Prott and his wife Janet Watson. In 1723, a confrontation between John Prott's wife and a local inhabitant was reported in the Rathven Kirk Session Minutes in which it is clear that John is a skipper. So we have the appearance in the three year old fishing station quite suddenly of Skipper John Prott, John Allan and the three Flett brothers all arriving from the fishing community in Burghead to the Broadhythe. There seems to be only one reasonable explanation; these men and teenage boys represented the nucleus of a new boat's crew. Only one person would have been able to provide the necessary financial backing for such an enterprise, namely the Laird, John Ord, and so it seems this is the origin of the invitation by the heritor remembered in the oral tradition. Now recently confirmed by the extract from the Annals of Cullen source quoted in the first paragraph above.
By 1727, the lands of Findochty had been sold to James, Earl of Findlater, by which time, the OSA reports, there were three boats in the community and there is a strong possibility that the 1719 migration was concerned with the commissioning of the second boat.
In 1723, John had his daughter Anna baptised but there is no mention of Elspet, and just over a year later a marriage occurred between a John Flett and Margaret Sharp. I interpret these two events as meaning that Elspet had died in childbirth or shortly after and John subsequently remarried. Also witnessing Anna's baptism was brother James, who had not appeared previously in the records, and in October 1725, he again is named in a marriage contract with Margaret Cumming from Farskane, in Cullen parish. Three years later, in September 1728, we find Alexander named in a marriage contract with Anna McKenzie, possibly a member of one of the five McKenzie families then living in the Broadhythe. It seems reasonable to expect that James and Alex came from Morayshire with John or shortly afterwards to share in the new fishing enterprise. They would have been sixteen and thirteen in 1719, but still old enough to be part of the 5 or 6 man and boy crew of an early open-decked fishing boat.
The above scenario is based primarily on a personal but critical interpretation of the OPR records with due regard to the names of witnesses at the various baptismal events. Although impossible now to prove with absolute certainty, it can be said that all the evidence points in the same direction. For example, there is no proof that James Flett, the widower of Margaret Dunbar was also he who married Janet Scott, but if we interpret the records in any other way we have to explain three Fletts, all named James, arriving in Burghead, with one conveniently widowed before the other's marriage, and none of the children's names being the same. It is clear from the witnesses that these two Flett families were very close and the evidence strongly suggests that they had a common father. With the small populations involved in the last decades of the seventeenth-century, the individuality of any of the above named can, to high degree of accuracy, be accepted. No figures for Burghead are currently to hand, but an indication of the size of village population being considered, can be appreciated from considering Findochty itself. It had only three boats to support its population in 1727 and by 1793, the number had risen to 12 vessels. Those 12 boats supported a population of 162 living in 45 houses and so we could expect the number of people supported by the three boats in 1726 to be approximately 40. My own research into the early settlers in the village suggests a population of about 42 in 1721*.
It seems that the oral tradition has generally been born out...the original James Flett seems more likely to have hailed from Orkney than anywhere else way back around 1680 but the journey to Findochty was not direct. By step migration, as the social geographers term it, the journey was via Burghead and who knows perhaps Caithness before that. The element concerning the local heritor seems plausible when we appreciate the number of fishermen who migrated to Findochty from Duffus parish and the probable reason for the move in which John Ord must have been involved. The marriages of the three Flett brothers produced between them twenty-five children, of whom ten were males, most of whom survived to propagate the name. With such a start, no other name was likely to overtake the proliferation of the Fletts in Findochty.
If this research is correct and all the Findochty Fletts were descendants of James Flett of Burghead, then all male Findochty Fletts will share the same genetic signature including of course myself. Recently, (2012), I had my DNA analysed via the ScotlandsDNA website programme. Within my overall group I have the subtype S223 which was discovered in Orkney; I do not however carry the almost Orkney-specific S201 marker and so the story becomes more complicated. My more distinctive YDNA Marker, S443, is specific to Norway, Sweden and Denmark and so my fatherline is Norse Viking, also now found in Iceland, the Faeroes, Shetland and Orkney. The DNA report continues, "Your YDNA marker sailed to Scotland in the dreki, the dragon-ships steered by daring, ferocious and skilled sea-lords in the 9th and 10th centuries. These ferocious worshippers of Odin and Thor were almost certainly your ancestors”.
After the age of the sea raiders my marker S443 made another impression on history. It was carried by Somerled, Lord, King even, of Orkney, the Hebridean Isles, Kintyre, Arran and Man. Killed at the battle of Renfrew in 1164, (fought against the King of Scotland, Malcolm IV). His dynasty however survived and became the great Clan Donald. His modern descendants include MacDonalds, MacDowgalls and MacAlisters according to Oxford geneticist, Professor Bryan Sykes. It seems then that the ancestors of the Fletts were not part of his realm and by the 12th century had probably made permanent settlements in Orkney, a Norwegian Earldom which finally was ceded to Scotland by Christian I, king of Denmark and Norway in 1472.
My haplogroup is R1a-S443. The following diagram shows where this haplogroup has been detected and its concentration in the various locations. It has been identified in 21 percent of the Orcadian DNA sample and in 24 percent of Norwegian one. Therefore there can be little doubt that the Fletts arrived in maimland Scotland from Orkney after their original migration from Norway. Further evidence from a DNA project by the team of Bryan Sykes strongly suggests that the Norse arrived in Orkney, not as marauding invaders but as family migrants, Sykes, Adam's Curse, p.160.
Duffus Old Parish Register.
Rathven Old Parish Register.
The Rathven Kirk Session Minutes.
The Old Statistical Account of Scotland, (OSA).
Wm. Cramond, The Church and Churchyard of Rathven, (1885).
Wm. Cramond, The Annals of Cullen 961-1904.
T. C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People, (1989).
G. F. Black, The Surnames of Scotland, (1993).
G. Hutcheson, Days of Yore, (1887).
Seton & Bonar, Buckie and Area Past and Present, (1987).
My genetic signature from ScotlandsDNA.
J.D. Mackie, A History of Scotland 1976.
* See the Earliest Findochty Families from our Community History page