Thursday 18 December 2014

John Davidson (1852 – 1933), Aboyne Baker and Civic Leader

John Davidson, a baker by trade, married Martha Mary Gray, the 14th child and 5th daughter of Alexander Gray, who had founded the Aboyne bakery in 1828.  In spite of an under-privileged origin and a shotgun marriage John’s diligence and business acumen brought him success in life.  He eventually took over Alexander Gray’s business and became a civic leader in Aboyne, dying there in 1933.  John was a leading member of the trading middle class in that village which, at a level below the big landowners, effectively ran Aboyne society throughout Victorian times and beyond.  This stratum rubbed shoulders with the landed proprietors in the Masonic Lodge, the golf and curling clubs and the Deeside District Committee of Aberdeen County Council.  But, when it came to marriage, they and their children tended to pair up within their own kind.  John Davidson illustrated perfectly the wisdom of working hard and taking your chances in order to overcome a lowly birth status.

Davidson family origins
The Davidson family hailed from Belhelvie, a small agricultural village 9 miles north of Aberdeen.  “Davidson” is an essentially Scottish surname, with a high concentration in Aberdeenshire.   John Davidson’s father was called William and he was born at Belhelvie in 1827.  At the 1851 Census William Davidson was recorded as a pauper and former farm labourer.  By the 1861 Census he had acquired the trade of shoemaker (though he was later described as a gardener) and had moved to Canal Lane in Aberdeen.  He married Robina Spence in 1856 but not before the two of them had produced two children, Sophia, born in 1850 and John born in 1852.  Illegitimacy at that time in Presbyterian Scotland was a real stigma.  Other children followed in 1857 and 1860. 

John Davidson becomes a baker
Nothing is known of John Davidson’s education, other than that he was educated. He would probably have joined the world of work about the age of 12.  Eventually he became a baker and it is likely that he served an apprenticeship in this trade, between the ages of about 12 and 18.  There is no direct evidence relating to how he became acquainted with Martha Mary Gray but circumstantial evidence suggests that the common factor was the baking trade.  About 1873, when John Davidson would have been 21 and a journeyman baker, it is known that he joined the 5th Volunteer Brigade of the Gordon Highlanders, which was based at Aboyne.  Also about this year he joined the Freemasons.  Lodge 281 of that organisation was also located in the village.  Did John Davidson enter the employment of Alexander Gray in the early 1870s?  It looks at least possible.  Baker Alexander Gray was a prominent member of Lodge 281.

Pregnancy and Marriage
One thing is certain.  In mid-May 1874 John Davidson and Martha Mary Gray conceived a child and on 26 November 1874 the pair was married in Aboyne.  Martha Mary would have been 6 months pregnant at the time and perhaps struggling to disguise her gravid status.  However, John Davidson and his wife did not remain in Aboyne for the birth.  The reason for them moving on can only be guessed but a number of factors may have been significant.  The birth of a child so soon after marriage would have made it obvious to the village that conception had preceded wedlock and the Gray family may have wished to avoid that, given their position in village society.  Impregnating Martha Mary, may have made John Davidson persona non grata in the Gray household and forced the couple to move away.  However, Alexander Gray and his wife Margaret Harley first conceived when Margaret was only 16, precipitating their marriage and they are unlikely to have been greatly concerned, since John and Martha Mary formalised their relationship through marriage before the birth of the child.  Another factor may have played a part.  Alexander Gray died of leukaemia in November 1876 at the age of 70 and he may already have been showing the first signs of illness at the end of 1874.  His wife, Margaret, by then in her late 60s, may have had too much on her hands helping with the bakery to devote much time to a newborn.  Margaret died in 1882 at the age of 72.
At the time of the marriage of John Davidson and Martha Mary Gray, John’s usual address was given as New Maud, New Deer.  It is known that John ran his own bakery business at New Deer for about 8 years from 1874 to 1882, so the conception of his first child and marriage to Martha Mary may have been the events which precipitated his move into business ownership, or was the timing coincidental?  John did well.  By the Census of 1881 he had achieved the status of Master Baker. 
The first child of John and Martha Mary, John Alexander Gray Davidson, was born on 13 February 1875 at 95 Causewayend, Aberdeen, well away from the no doubt curious residents of Aboyne.  This address was close to the home of John Davidson’s parents in 1861.  It is likely that this was the then current residence of John’s mother, Robina (his father was dead by this time) and that she was helping to look after the new arrival while John concentrated on his bakery business in New Deer.  Interestingly, the new baby’s given names, “John”, “Alexander” and “Gray” and the given names of the next born, “Alexander” and “Gray” (born 18 Dec 1876, just after the death of grandfather Alexander Gray) suggest that there was abundant goodwill towards Martha Mary’s parents.  Did John perhaps receive financial support in his venture into commerce from Alexander Gray? Helping to look after this second son of her daughter Martha Mary must have been a welcome distraction for Granny Margaret Harley after the demise of her husband.
The family of John Davidson and Martha Mary grew rapidly.  After two sons in 1875 and 1876, there followed five further sons and then two daughters, William G (1879), Andrew G (1880), Frederick G (1882), Francis J (1885), Charles G (1885), Margaret Robina (1886) and Mary Matilda (1887).  Sons William and Andrew were both born in New Deer, indicating that the family home was, by this time, close to John Davidson’s bakery business.  All subsequent children, starting with Frederick G in 1882 were born in Aboyne.

Alexander Gray's bakery business passes to son, George
After the death of Alexander Gray the Aboyne baker, in 1876, the business was continued by his son, George, who was born in 1846.  George Gray was something of an enigma.  The first newspaper report on George was not flattering.  Along with Peter Davidson, his future brother-in-law, he was found guilty of causing a breach of the peace in the Huntly Arms.  However, he was an able sportsman and played regularly for Aboyne Cricket Club, being elected captain in 1877.  George was also good enough to skip for the Aboyne Curling Club.  In the 1871 Census he was working as a bakery operative, not in his father’s bakery but in London.  By 1875 he was back in Aboyne working as a baker (journeyman), probably in his father’s bakery, since his abode was in Charleston of Aboyne and in this year he married Sarah Thomson, a servant on the Ballogie estate.  At the 1881 Census, George Gray is recorded as a baker living in Charleston of Aboyne and employing one man, one boy and one girl.  It looks as though George’s father Alexander was grooming him to succeed in the bakery.  George joined the Freemasons, probably under the influence of his father and by 1877 he started to be elected as an office-bearer.  However, George may have had a drink problem because in 1880 he was charged with assaulting George Christie in a pub fight in the Bridgend Inn, Aboyne.  He pleaded not guilty but was convicted and fined.  His sporting success and position in the Freemasons continued until 1882 when he suddenly dropped from sight, there being no further reports in the local press of his activities until his untimely death by accidental drowning in far-away Quebec in 1889.  Why George Gray left the bakery and ultimately the country is presently obscure.

John Davidson takes over the Aboyne bakery  
Whatever the nature of George Gray’s personal crisis, it was also an opportunity for John Davidson, already a successful baker in New Deer, to move on to Aboyne and take over the business started by his father-in-law.  Martha Mary, his wife, was no doubt delighted to be returning to the village of her birth where she had many relatives and friends.  John Davidson was in his element.  He had proved himself as a baker and was now the proprietor of a bakery in a large village, with potential for growth, he could resume his activities in the Volunteers and the Masonic Lodge was on his doorstep.  Aboyne also had plenty of sporting opportunities and John was a keen sportsman.  The village of Aboyne was also essentially the commercial and administrative hub of mid-Deeside, a role it assumed when the Deeside railway by-passed Kincardine O’Neill.  John would also find an interest in civic representation in his new domicile.

- and develops it
 Margaret Harley, the widow of Alexander Gray, died on 23 March 1882 and shortly afterwards, on 10 April 1882, John Davidson advertised for a “good steady journeyman baker and an apprentice”, who were wanted immediately.  This proximity of events suggests that the death of Margaret, John’s mother-in-law, precipitated the move of John Davidson to the bakery in Aboyne.  Further positions were advertised in 1884 and 1901.  Originally the Aboyne bakery produced bread products only but towards the latter part of his life, Alexander Gray was described as a baker and confectioner, as too was John Davidson while he still operated in New Deer.  John Davidson, as a master baker, attended a meeting of his peers in Shiprow, Aberdeen in 1904 when a proposal to promote confectionary production , through the holding of instruction classes, was discussed.  By at least 1908 there was competition for Davidson’s bakery from other operators in Aboyne.  As well as offering a wider range of products, the competing bakers also started to deliver bread using horse-drawn vans.  In July, 1908 John Davidson advertised for a “trustworthy, experienced” vanman.  On this occasion he may have been unlucky because one of his employees, James Lyall was convicted in December, 1908 of embezzeling about £10 from his employer.  John Davidson’s business seems to have been going well as judged by the regular insertion of job advertisements in the local paper. 
During WW1 it is clear that John Davidson was finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain suitable staff, as young men volunteered, or were conscripted for service in the forces.  James Ledingham, one of his competitors seems to have had similar problems and by the end of 1915 had resorted to advertising for girls.  From 1916 John Davidson’s advertisements started to emphasise that men seeking employment should be ineligible for call-up.  Another, amusing, indicator of the scale of John Davidson’s operation was found in an advertisement, in 1915, of about 14 tons of stable manure for sale.  However, by 1916 the bakeries in Aboyne seem to have started using motorised vans on their delivery runs.  Horses and vans were offered for sale and advertisements for drivers started to appear.  John Davidson’s first van was probably a Ford, since he offered one for sale in 1919 “1916 make five lamps, including 2 electric headlights detachable wheels and spare wheel coach-built mahogany panelled body in good running order”.  By 1926 John Davidson was operating a Dodge van.  Employers generally sought to protect their employees by supporting their applications to the Deeside Tribunal on military service for exemption from the call-up.  John Davidson was successful in such ventures for his employee Alex Reid and his son William Gray Davidson.  In 1917 a competing bakery run by Peter Brodie was put up for sale.  It must have been located quite close to the Davidson bakery from its address of “The Village “.  It was described as follows, “Baker’s shop and bakehouse, with up to date ovens and suitable storage.  Also tea and refreshment rooms”.

John Davidson retires from the Aboyne bakery
John Davidson retired from the bakery in about 1919, when he would have been 67 years old.  His 3rd son, William Gray Davidson, succeeded him, though the bakery continued to trade under John Davidson’s name.  By 1924 the Davidson bakery business was described as follows in an advertisement, “Baker and Confectioner.  Great variety in all kinds of plain and fancy cakes, buscuits, shortbread.  Teas, light refreshments and ices”.  His competitor, now Mr RS Scott, was offering luncheons and catering for outside events.  Another bakery in Banchory was producing biscuits for the tourist trade, “Packed in neat tins 3/2 to 7/6 Post Free”.  This constant enhancement of the offer from competing bakeries continued throughout the 1920s and in 1929 the Davidson bakery was offering, “Catering done for parties of any number.  Bread: Plain toast, Crusty, Wholemeal, Turog, Malt and Youma; also Vienna and Current bread.  Cakes: Scotch Shortbread and Scotch Oatcakes fresh daily.  Dishes covered to order.  All kinds of flour kept in stock.”

Aboyne was essentially an agricultural area and most working people would have been employed on farms and estates.  They had their own competitive sports and passtimes, which were different from the pursuits of members of the trading middle classes.  Agricultural shows, ploughing and hoeing matches and quoiting formed the main such activities.  John Davidson was a regular contributor to prizes and prize money at such events and it seems likely that this was a form of advertising for his business.  Although the working people had low disposable incomes, they were very numerous and could not be ignored.  The annual Aboyne Championship ploughing match, held in the winter and the Tarland Show, typically held in August, often received John Davidson’s support.

Deeside Volunteers
John Davidson and his sons were strongly inclined towards the military.  He joined the 5th Volunteer Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders as a young man, probably about 1873 and served for the next 33 years, being awarded the Volunteers long service medal.  He was a frequent sponsor of Volunteer rifle shooting competitions, for example donating a prize for the highest scorer at class firing among recruits in 1885.  Later, when serving as Provost of Aboyne, he frequently turned out to support military events, such as the crossing of the Aboyne suspension bridge by the London Scottish regiment on their route march up Deeside in 1901.  Many people gathered to watch the soldiers, who crossed by companies, breaking step, so as not to set the bridge swinging.  The Territorial Force was set up in 1908 (incorporating the Volunteers) and then ex-Provost Davidson was present at a public meeting advertising the new body held in Aboyne in March of that year.  In 1915 a cinema show was held in Aboyne to raise funds for the Teritorial Force Association.  John Davidson, by now Aboyne’s Provost again presided and made a rousing appeal for volunteers, enticing four recruits to enrol at the close of the meeting.  John Davidson was also a committed supporter of the Boys Brigade, a youth organisation run on decidedly military lines, which regularly held summer camps in the Aboyne vicinity.  He and his wife were regular VIP guests at BB camps.

The Davidson boys and the Military
The first seven children of John Davidson and Martha Mary were all boys.  Of these sons, five (John, Alexander, Andrew, Frederick and Francis) saw active service in South Africa during the Second Boer War (October 1899 – May 1902).  Oldest son, John Alexander Gray was an apprentice draper in 1891 but must have found that calling not to his liking because he went out to South Africa about 1896.  There he volunteered in the South African Army, Imperial Light Infantry (Durban) when the war broke out, reaching the rank of sergeant and seeing active service in many battles, including Spion Kop, where he was wounded.  He was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal and the King’s South Africa Medal.  Quite by chance, he arrived back in Aberdeen on 25th October 1901, the day of his brother William’s marriage to his cousin Susan Maria Gray Smart.  John learned of this event in a chance encounter with an acquaintance in Aberdeen, just as he was about to catch the train to Aboyne.  He did not know the venue of the wedding but resolved to find out and eventually arrived at the County Hotel in time for the event.  He was treated, rightly, as a hero by the wedding party.  Alexander Davidson was a member of the 1st Battalion, Scots Guards and saw action at Belmont, Modder River, Dreifontein, Belfast and Cape Colony.  Of the seven brothers, five eventually emigrated, with only William and Charles being present in Scotland in 1933 to act as pall-bearers at their father’s funeral.  Both of their sisters became teachers and one of them also emigrated.
With the heavy involvement of his sons in the Boer War conflict, John Davidson must have been keenly following events in South Africa and anxious for hostilities to end.  That news arrived via the morning papers in early June 1902.  Within a few minutes John Davidson had raised a Union Jack on his bakery and others soon followed his example.  The village must have been greatly relieved as there had been involvement in the conflict by other young men from the area, in addition to the Davidson boys.

John Davidson and the WW1 war effort
At the start of WW1, John Davidson, in his role as Provost, chaired the public meeting in Aboyne which initiated the local recruiting campaign.  The platform party was composed largely of military officers.  There was considerable success in attracting volunteers, though the local newspaper was moved to say at the end of 1915 that “The recruiting campaign is closed and Aboyne has done splendidly so far as married men are concerned, but we still have a number of young slackers.” Aboyne was the location of a Red Cross hospital during WW1 which treated wounded soldiers, firstly at a house, Bona Vista and subsequently at Aboyne Castle.  Aboyne was an ideal location for harvesting Sphagnum moss, which was used in the manufacture of wound dressings, because of its capacity to absorb moisture and many residents donated their spare time to clean and bag the moss.  In July 1918, the Aboyne War Dressings Work Party sent1020 Sphagnum moss surgical pads to the depot in Aberdeen for Red Cross week. The villagers were very active in other aspects of the war effort, especially in raising funds, donating food and comforts to the Red Cross hospitals and entertaining the soldiers temporarily located in their midst.  In 1915 the local newspaper noted, “Housewives here are wondering how ends can be met with bread at 9 1/2d and butcher meat daily rising.”  In spite of rising prices, Aboyne folk donated generously and the Davidson family was to the fore in this effort.  Often its donations were, not surprisingly, such bakery and confectionary items as bread, scones, current loaves and cakes.

About the year 1873 when he would have been in his early twenties, John Davidson joined the Freemasons.  It is speculated above that this move may have been influenced by his future father-in-law, who was an active Freemason all his life.  John was astute and would certainly have realised that Masonry was a route to male conviviality and business contacts, whether or not he was attracted to the ceremonial and mystique of the Brotherhood.  The Aboyne bakery, which John ran from 1882, was located a 5 minute walk from the Masonic Hall on Charleston Road. Within the Aboyne Masonic Hall, two different masonic organisations met, Craft Masonry Lodge 281 and Royal Arch Chapter 57.  However, most Aboyne Freemasons seemed to flit casually between these two organisations.  In the elections at the end of 1883 John Davidson was appointed SD (Senior Deacon).  At the same election his brothers-in-law Alex Gray, a local blacksmith and Rev. Andrew Gray, the village dominie, were appointed RWM (Right Worshipful Master – the leader of the Lodge) and Chaplain respectively. John Davidson was then elected First Sojourner in Royal Arch Chapter 57 the following year.  At some stage soon afterwards he also started to attend the Provincial Grand Lodge for Aberdeenshire West, an overarching organisation for all masonic lodges in the wider area and in 1896 he was elected Steward in that lodge.
In almost every year between 1883 and 1913, John Davidson held an official position in one of the three masonic organisations to which he belonged.  However, he only rarely held positions in two lodges simultaneously.  From 1915 his son William Gray Davidson started to be elected to the same range of positions previously held by his father and John dropped from sight for a while.  John was elected Right Worshipful Master of Lodge 281 in 1897, a position which was subsequently held by his son.  In 1921 John Davidson again took office in Lodge 281 as Bible bearer and held other offices sporadically until 1927.

Curling and the Aboyne Highland Games
John Davidson was a keen sportsman but, while he occasionally represented Aboyne at billiards and golf, his abiding love was curling.  Aboyne was an ideal location to participate in this sport for, being 40 miles from the sea, it tended to have severe winters when solid ice could be expected on the lochs and ponds of the district. However, even in Aboyne, the season was relatively short.  In most years play was confined to the period December to March, with January and February the most suitable months.  Play was usually on the curling pond at Bellwade on the eastern edge of the village, but occasionally on St Catherine’s Loch and the Glentanar Loch.  By 1888 John was playing regularly and in the following year he was appointed a skip in the Aboyne Curling Club, a position he maintained until 1926 when he was 74.   The regional bonspiel was often held at St Catherine’s Loch, Aboyne because of the high likelihood of thick ice and the large curling area available.  Curlers from other clubs mostly arrived by train and a temporary platform was constructed by the side of the loch to allow the visitors to disembark.  John Davidson was selected as a skip for the South of the region in 1892, 1907, 1909, 1912, 1913 and 1914.  Play seems to have been suspended during the War but was reinstated afterwards. 
The Aboyne Curling Club generally held its AGM in the Huntly Arms in October each year, when office-bearers and skips were elected but the start of the season was marked with another event, the Curlers’ Court and Supper, held in early December.  The Court was a major social event presided over by a senior member of the club in the role of “My Lord”, supported by another individual, “My Lord’s Officer”.  New members of the club were inducted as “Knights of the Broom” and there was much drinking, singing and speech-making.  John Davidson was an accomplished singer and often contributed on these occasions.  John fulfilled the role of “My Lord’s Officer” in 1914 and 1926 and “My Lord” in 1927.  This was to be his swansong at the club, though his son, William, had become an accomplished curler and followed in his father’s footsteps, being elected vice-President in 1934.  
The annual Aboyne Highland Games were instituted in 1867, largely as a result of the enthusiasm of Mr WE Nicol, the Laird of the Ballogie Estate along the south bank of the Dee to the east of Aboyne.  He was supported, not only by other wealthy individuals who sponsored the games but also by a local committee who made sure that all the nuts and bolts of a large and complex event were put in place. John Davidson was a member of the Aboyne Games committee from at least 1904 and appears to have been a constant member until 1928.  Mr Nicol rewarded his fellow committee members for their efforts by holding a dinner in their honour at the Huntly Arms, usually in mid-November.  As was typical of such events in Aboyne, the dinner was accompanied by speeches, toasts, songs, recitations and conversation.  John Davidson was a frequent performer at such events.  For example, at the Games Committee dinner in 1908 he recited “The Whistle” and in 1913 he contributed a song.  His friends Alex Sandison, mine host at the Huntly Arms Hotel and John Troup, the village butcher also served on the committee for many years.

Whist Club
Whist was a popular community game in Aboyne in the latter years of the 19th century and whist drives were held on an irregular basis, with John Davidson as an enthusiastic and often prize-winning participant.  In 1903 a meeting was held to organise a Whist Club and John was elected as the vice-president.  Whist drives were often followed by a dance, for example in February 1910 when first prize at whist was won by John Davidson paired with Mrs Stewart of Ballaterach.  Matches were also played against nearby villages such as Birse and Kincardine O’Neill.  On one occasion in 1921, some of the Aboyne players had hired a Daimler car to travel to the village of Birkenbush for a match.  On the way home the car sprang a petrol leak and caught fire.  Fortunately they were close to the Ballogie estate and were able to borrow a fire extinguisher.  In his later years John Davidson appears to have limited his participation in whist matches to his representational role as Provost by presenting the prizes.

Charitable work
Charity was a regular feature of Aboyne village life and John Davidson certainly played his part, sometimes individually, sometimes through other organisations, such as the Freemasons and the Town Council.  In 1916 John was admitted as a Life Manager (an honorary position) by Aberdeen Infirmary and Asylum for his contributions to Infirmary funds.  In 1917 he contributed buns to the Aboyne Soup Kitchen. The Town Council organised a regular pre-Christmas treat for the children at the Aboyne Public Schools.  In 1901, while he was in post as Provost, John paid for the hiring of the Village Hall at his own expense.  The Star Cinematography Company of Aberdeen was engaged to put on a show and the children were provided with tea bread and fruit from Council funds.  Another regular event organised by the Town Council was an annual picnic for schoolchildren in July.  On some occasions John Davidson paid for the refreshments from his own pocket.  In the 1920s, John Davidson’s son, William, took over many of his father’s public roles, including charitable efforts.  In mid-summer, 1926, Aboyne villagers organised an outing for 340 crippled people, young and old, from humble homes in Aberdeen.  They were accompanied by Lord Provost Lewis.  William Davidson and Mr RS Scott looked after those visitors whose disabilities rendered them immobile.

A brush with the Law
On only one occasion did John Davidson have a brush with the law and that appeared to have been fuelled by drink.  In November 1889, John Davidson had been travelling by dogcart out of Aboyne when he met his then friend Charles Troup, a farmer and butcher from Boghead, at Runchley Cottage,  travelling in the opposite direction.  According to Charles Troup, John Davidson was driving erratically and was on the wrong side of the road.  Troup shouted at Davidson to return to his own side.  It was admitted by Troup in Court that he had been drinking whisky, so one can imagine that his shout to Davidson was not in polite terms.  John Davidson, whose driving suggested that he too may have been drinking, responded badly to Troup’s admonition.  As the carts passed each other Davidson struck Troup on the cheek with his whip, causing a small injury to his person but a big injury to his dignity.  In Court, John Davidson, perhaps feeling that he had been provoked, pleaded not guilty to assault but was convicted and fined £1.  The altercation seems soon to have been forgotten.

John Davidson and Politics  
John Davidson was a Unionist by political persuasion and supported the string of Unionist candidates for the West Aberdeenshire constituency which presented themselves in his time, though not one was successful in this Liberal stronghold.  He often attended the hustings and was regularly found as a proposer or seconder of the candidature of Unionist politicians.  However, he seems not to have been a particularly eloquent speaker and did not seek to make an impact outside the confines of local representation.  Here he did wield influence on the Aboyne and Glentanar Parish Council, the Deeside District Committee of the County Council and the Aboyne Town Council, though this last body lacked formal power and had a largely ceremonial role. On only one occasion did he seek election to the Aboyne and Glentanar School Board, in 1909.  There were initially 14 candidates for 5 seats.  Even though half the candidates withdrew before the election, John Davidson still failed to be elected.  He then turned his attention elsewhere.
Parish councils came into being in Scotland in 1895, after the creation of a uniform system of county councils and their local district committees in 1890.  John Davidson joined the old Parochial Board, predecessor of the parish councils, in 1890 and then was continuously a member of the Aboyne and Glentanar Parish Council for 33 years from 1895 to the end of 1928.  Parish councils appointed one representative to sit on the local district committee of the county council, in this case the Deeside District Committee of Aberdeen County Council.  John Davidson was the Aboyne representative on the DDC first in 1895 and then continuously from 1900 to 1928.  For much of this period he was also a member of the sub-committee for Special Districts, which covered water supply, sewerage, lighting and scavenging (rubbish collection).  His close friends JohnTroup, Francis Sandison and his son Alex Sandison were regularly colleagues with John Davidson on all these bodies and clearly formed a mutually-supporting cabal. 
John Davidson’s contributions to meetings of the DDC tended to be brief and to the point, such as proposing motions (but more often seconding them).  But he was effective in getting parochial problems onto the agenda for action.  In 1926 the DDC debated a report from the Special Districts sub-committee relating to the water supply in Aboyne.  John Davidson said the pipes in question had been in the ground more than 30 years and were corroded.  There was no water to be got there in the summer.  However, Mr Mearns, the proprietor of Aboyne Castle Estate, disagreed.  He thought that Aboyne had a good water supply and he was opposed to spending money at that time.  The sanitary inspector clarified the issue.  There was a not a problem with water supply in the whole of Aboyne but only in those areas with badly corroded pipes.  The matter was remitted to Messers Davidson and Mearns and the chairman to sort out.  Later the same year John Davidson complained about the accumulation of surface water in some parts of Aboyne after heavy rain and this matter was referred to the road surveyor.  The following year, 1927, he bluntly raised another thorny issue “What about the tinklers’ dump?”  Itinerants of various hues were a constant feature of village life in those days and they inevitably caused problems with their informal commercial activities.  He was assured that the matter would be on the agenda at the next meeting of the DDC.  In the aftermath of WW1 with the return of soldiers a housing shortage developed and was particularly acute in Aboyne.  The DDC was charged with building more houses but the specifications for such dwellings imposed from above caused a problem because DDC members judged that most working men could not afford the rent necessary to service the loans required to build such dwellings.  In 1927 the DDC debated the issue.  John Davidson worried that they would create a pig in a poke. “You will have built the houses for nothing.”  However, agreement was finally reached to build six houses in Aboyne.
Election of members to Aboyne Town Council had first taken place in 1833 and was an annual event.  Although the members had grand-sounding but archaic titles, in reality the organisation was largely ceremonial.  Nonetheless, the role of Provost (the leader of the Council) was one which commanded respect and those who filled the role were expected to take a lead in community matters.  John Davidson had taken over the bakery business, founded by Alexander Gray, in 1882 and in the following year he was elected to the Town Council in the role of Master of Mortifications, along with his brothers-in-law Alexander Gray (Sheriff) and Andrew Gray (Clerk).  In 1885 John Davidson was put up as a candidate against the reigning Provost, Mr Grant, but lost by 11 votes.  John was appointed to the role of 1st Baillie.  As usual, the members of the newly elected Council then retired to the Huntly Arms for a sumptuous supper and lots of jollity, one of the more obvious rewards for success in the election.  In 1886 John was again elected and took on the role of Master of Mortifications.  However, the following year, 1887, he was elected Provost for the first time.  He was succeeded in the role of Provost (a three year stint) by Francis Sandison, John Troup and then Francis Sandison again before being elected for a second time as Provost in 1901.  From then until 1928 he was continuously re-elected as Provost, with the exception of a 3 year spell in 1908 – 1911 when Alexander Sandison (son of Francis) filled the position.
The Town Council was frequently involved in public celebration or commemoration of national events.  In 1887 on the occasion of the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, the Town Council arranged a public picnic on the Green.  Provost Davidson gave free tickets to all the children in the Aboyne public schools and Francis Sandison donated a treat to the poor.  Another royal celebration occurred in 1902 on the coronation of King Edward VII.  A meeting of the inhabitants of Aboyne was called and chaired, appropriately, by the Marquis of Huntly, who had been a close drinking and gambling companion of Edward, Prince of Wales, in his younger days.  On a motion of John Davidson’s a committee of the public was set up and tasked with laying on a suitable celebration in collaboration with the Town Council.  On the occasion of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, a large crowd of citizens gathered around the flagpole on the Green, where a smoking bushel of whisky punch was waiting.  The parish minister presided and proposed the health of Her Majesty after which “the request was heartily complied with and the toast enthusiastically pledged.”  On this occasion a more inclusive and less boozy celebration was planned.  A Coronation picnic was held for the children in the Aboyne Public Schools.  They gathered at Aboyne School, where each child was presented with a commemorative medal before being formed into marching order by Mr Cruickshank prior to making for the Castle.  There the Coronation Committee and the Town Council fed and entertained the children with games and dancing before rain intervened and they were marched back to the Green, where they cheered and sang “God save the King” before being dismissed.  In the evening the adults held a celebratory dance in the Public Hall.
At the turn of the century Aboyne lacked a public drinking fountain and in 1902 the Town Council, under John Davidson’s leadership, decided that it would repair that deficit with the creation of a Victoria Memorial Fountain.  It took some time to bring the project to fruition but in June 1904 Lady Cunliffe Brooks, the widow of Sir William Cunliffe Brooks the former proprietor of Glentanar, inaugurated the granite monument at a ceremony attended by the great and the good of the locality.  Provost John Davidson presiding and spoke briefly about the project, pointing out that funds for its erection had come partly from surpluses generated at the Diamond Jubilee and Coronation celebrations.  He then presented Lady Brooks with a silver key and called on her to turn on the flow of water to the fountain.  In her speech, Lady Brooks eulogised the late monarch and her achievements.  The party then retired to the Public Hall where a cake and wine banquet was served.
On some occasions spontaneous leadership was required of the Provost.  Dinnet House was an imposing mansion in the Scots baronial style which had been built by Mr Charles Wilson the Hull shipping magnate, after he bought the Kinnord and Culblean Estates from the Marquis of Huntly in 1888.  In 1904 the house was occupied by Mr Barclay Harvey, the local MP.  At the end of December in that year a major fire broke out and the Aboyne Fire Brigade was summoned.  John Davidson, then Provost of Aboyne, rushed to the scene and, with the assistance of the Provost of Ballater, directed operations to try to save the building, which was seriously damaged.
The Provost was called upon to play a representational role with inevitable regularity at funerals, retirements, inaugurations of buildings and facilities, concerts, public meetings  and events which generated opportunities to butter-up the local landed proprietors (such as marriages, engagements and returns from periods of absence).  He was also appointed as a trustee of the War Memorial Buildings in Aboyne after they had been erected in 1921.

Disagreement over the "Little Green"
It also fell to the Provost to call “Indignation” meetings of villagers, when some event, or proposed action roused the normally docile populace to anger.  Such an event occurred in 1904 which brutally demonstrated the power that the landed proprietors could still wield in the face of popular feeling and the limitations on the power and influence of both the Provost and the Town Council.   
There was a narrow strip of open ground on the north side of the Ballater Road, about 200 yards long and lying between the Huntly Arms and the Aboyne Castle cattle park wall, which became known as the “Little Green.”  In 1888, when Sir William Cunliffe Brooks became the proprietor of the Aboyne Castle Estate, he decided to clear up the area and, given its central position in the village, turn it over for public use.  This action was typical of Sir William’s generosity towards the village and its inhabitants. WCB arranged for a walk to be constructed, equipped with six seats and for a number of lime trees to be planted.  He then donated the land to the Town Council and his only stipulation was that “you will kindly undertake the annual care of these seats”.  It appears that the Town Council did not reply formally to Sir William acknowledging the gift or the condition attached to it.  On his part, Sir William did not formally assign the land to the Town Council with a stamped deed of gift.  This lack of formalities did not matter while Sir William was alive and there is no doubt that the “Little Green” was extensively used by the public. John Davidson grazed his horse on the grass of the Little Green when it was not required for pulling a cart and itinerants tended to gather there and may have used the furthest reaches of the land for unsavoury purposes.  But the Town Council forgot about its implied undertaking to maintain the area.
Sir William died in 1901 and left his Scottish estates to his grandson Ean Cecil, then under the age of 21.  In 1904 the Aboyne Castle Estate was under the control of the trustees of WCB’s wills, none of whom were local.  They were managing the assets objectively but without much reference to local sensitivities.  The trustees must have been aware of the informal nature of the agreement concerning the “Little Green” and they must have taken a decision to assert their formal ownership of the land and to put it to beneficial use.  In what was probably a calculated move, they wrote to the Town Council, asking them to pay a small annual sum for the public use of the Little Green but the Town Council declined on principle.  It had few funds and it believed that it owned the land anyway.  The trustees then asserted their ownership by sending in workmen to build a wall, so adding about 50 or 60 yards of the Little Green to other estate land which was being feued off for housing. 
This action caused both irritation and anxiety and the villagers were concerned that it could be a prelude to the wholesale dismantling of the Green proper at the other side of the Ballater road.  Provost Davidson called and chaired a meeting to explore what could be done to return the Little Green to public use.  Lady Brooks, the widow of Sir William who lived in the village, was unable to be present at the meeting but wrote a letter of support in which she was quite clear that it had been the intention of Sir William that the Little Green was for public use and acidly pointing out that  “Sir William’s wishes in the matter are perfectly well known to the gentlemen to whom he entrusted the management of his estate and the carrying out of his wishes with regard to it.”  The indignation meeting ended with a resolution to the feu superiors being drawn up and passed unanimously, asking them to reconsider their actions.  The villagers thought that they had right on their side and that the land would be restored to the village.
There then broke out a vicious skirmish in the correspondence columns of the local newspapers, the Aberdeen Journal and the Evening Express, between representatives of both sides of the argument, writing under pseudonyms, though these assumed names gave some clues as to their true identities.  The correspondents were clearly well educated and used Latin phrases. They conducted the debate over the heads of the villagers and their representatives using the sort of tactics that would have been honed in the school or university debating chamber.  It generated more heat than light.
“Mortlich” (the name of a hill on the Aboyne estate which had a monument to the 10th Marquis of Huntly on its summit) asserted the case on behalf of the trustees.  He started by sneering at the villagers, “Sir I notice in your evening issue of Friday that a few of the residents at Aboyne have been trying to relieve the monotony of the winter evenings by trying to get a little excitement out of a few yards of a small green which is situated alongside of the boundary wall of the castle policies.”  He went on to point out the questionable uses of the area by tramps and other undesirable and by the Provost for grazing his horse.  But some important points were made.  No maintenance on the site had ever been carried out, no action had been taken on this matter when the village first became aware of the proposed feuing of the land and some “village fathers” had suggested the location as a suitable site for the new Post Office.
These patronising tones immediately excited a response from “Craigendinnie” (the name of the home of Lady Brooks’ landed family).  He pointed out that his protagonist had failed to mention Lady Brooks’ letter of support to the public meeting and invited “Mortlich” to agree that the protest movement was reasonable.  But John Davidson’s weak position was also exposed.  Aboyne was not a burgh and the Provost had no formal standing, or powers to exercise. “Mortlich” was quick to reply.  He returned to his haughty dismissal of the Town Council, “The way in which the authorities of Aboyne (if there are any) have treated this Green is proof of their want of interest in it till now”.  Sir William’s intentions were also batted away, “During Sir William’s lifetime he gave many privileges, but it does not follow that he meant them to become perpetual.  Had he meant that, he was a man of business enough to have put it on a different footing”.  Put bluntly, “Mortlich” was saying “we are the legal owners and we’ll do what we choose with the land”.  And they did.  The villagers and their Provost held the moral high ground but the trustees of WCB’s wills held a legally invincible position and cared little for local popular feelings or the patrician role of the traditional Highland laird.

Death of John Davidson
John Davidson died on 3 February 1933 at his home “St Lesmo Tower” in a fashionable part of the village.  He was 81 and had developed adult-onset diabetes.  The cause of death was given as arteriosclerosis and diabetic gangrene of three months’ standing.  A substantial biography appeared in the local newspaper summarising his many achievements, especially in public life.  He was buried in the churchyard of St Machar’s, Aboyne with full Masonic honours, which was appropriate given his long service and dedication to Freemasonry.  The funeral service was conducted by Rev Mackenzie, Church of Scotland minister and Rev TS Gray, Chaplain to Masonic Lodge 281.  The pall-bearers were his two sons still in Britain, William and Andrew, together with J, W and D Frost and Sydney Simmers his nephews, Frank Davidson his grandson and Mr J Alcock. At the base of John Davidson’s headstone is a small masonic plaque.  His grave lies next to the family plot of Alexander Gray, his father-in-law and the founder of the bakery that John did so much to develop over a 37 year stint.  John and Martha Mary celebrated their golden wedding in 1924, an event marked by the local newspaper with photographs of the pair.  Martha Mary outlasted John and died in 1943, at the age of 90, at the bakery where she was born, which was now run by her son, William.  Thus ended the life of a remarkable man, born in impoverished circumstances who, through sheer hard work and diligence, made a financial success of his life but who also did much to serve his adopted community of Aboyne.  His achievements deserve to be remembered.

Don Fox



  1. Would be interested to read more as my father was Frank Andrew Davidson born 1907

  2. Hi Heather, Most of what I know is in the article but just ask if you think I can provide more detail. Have you inherited any artefacts from the Davidson family, especially portraits of Alexander Gray and his wife Margaret Harley. These are mentioned in the will of Andrew Gray and I think may have gone to John Davidson's wife. Best wishes Don

  3. Thank you for your reply , I am not sure how to utilse this site would like to know more about this family, and welcome a chat some time I was illegitimate so know very little

  4. Thank you for your reply , I am not sure how to utilse this site would like to know more about this family, and welcome a chat some time I was illegitimate so know very little

  5. Hi Heather
    You can contact me on donaldpfox at

  6. Hi Don, I hope you don't mind I have emailed you at the above address :)

    Alissa (from the Melvin/Gray family)