A visit to the Mathers ancestral castle in Scotland

According to some researchers, the Scottish name Mathers originates from a place name on the east coast of Scotland, a place name associated with the Clan Barclay. The Barclay lairds of Mathers took the title “laird of Mathers” or equivalently “Second of Mathers” etc, and some Mathers claim that this is the origin of the Mathers surname, and by implication, that the Mathers descend from the early Barclays of Mathers. There are certainly quite a number of people called Mathers who lived in this area in the nineteenth century, but its more than likely that they took their name from the place rather than by descent from the Barclays. But I won’t let that stop me from claiming a cannibal laird as an ancestor – see my earlier post https://mountainsrivers.com/2014/01/20/my-cannibal-ancestors/

Heading towards the village of East Mathers on the east coast of Scotland

Heading towards the village of East Mathers on the east coast of Scotland

George Barclay, 5th of Mathers, became the most famous of the medieval Barclays of Mathers, when he and his uncles Patrick and John murdered Sir John Melville of Glenbervie, the arrogant and unpopular Sheriff of the Mearns, boiling him and making him into soup. He is supposed to have built a castle on the sea cliff near Mathers, known as the Kaim of Mathers, to take refuge from the vengeance of King James 1 of Scotland for his part in the murder.


The Old Fishing Station, St Cyrus Nature Reserve

As I was visiting Edinburgh after Easter for work, I thought I would take a couple of extra days and drive up to see what remains of the Kaim of Mathers and the Mathers villages. So I drove up to St Cyrus, about two and half hours drive north of Edinburgh, and stayed in a bed and breakfast place converted from a former fishing station. The Old Fishing Station is on the beach in the St Cyrus Nature Reserve and the Kaim of Mathers stands on the cliff at the northern end of the beach – a couple of kilometres walk along the beach or the clifftops (called the Heughes of St Cyrus).

Looking south along St Cyrus beach from the Heughs of St Cyrus

Looking south along St Cyrus beach from the Heughs of St Cyrus


The Kaim of Mathers – April 2014

Damn, I have arrived too late. The Castle of Mathers has fallen. The sea has eroded the cliff on which it stands, and most has fallen into the ocean leaving only a fragment of a tower. The Kaim is perched on a sea stack accessible only via a narrow ridge. In the dip before the stack the ridge narrows to the width of a foot with vertical drops on either side. As late as the 1970s, there were remains of the outer castle wall at this point, which was then wider. But they have since collapsed into the sea, as will the rest some day not too far off.

DSCN6021To actually reach the remains of the Kaim requires a jump across the gap or to make use of the boulder wedged in the gap. After looking closely at the boulder, I decided not to test it.

DSCN6015As near as I can work out, it must have been built around 1430 by George Barclay, 5th of Mathers. Later I drove inland about 10 miles into the Mearns, and found the gully on the back of the Hill of Garvock, where the cooking occurred. I spoke with a local farmer who was doing some work in a neighbouring field, and he confirmed that it was the gully that is still known as « Sheriff’s Kettle ».

Sheriff's Kettle

Sheriff’s Kettle

The next day I walked up the beach to approach the Kaim from below.

The sea stacks on the beach are from basaltic lava flows which overlie red sandstone and conglomerates from ancient sea beds,

The sea stacks on the beach are from basaltic lava flows which overlie red sandstone and           conglomerates from ancient sea beds

The remains of the Kaim seen from below

The remains of the Kaim seen from below

And I discovered that the rock it stands on is completely eaten away by the sea. I could walk right through to the other side.

And I discovered that the rock it stands on is completely eaten away by the sea. I could walk right through to the other side.


29 thoughts on “A visit to the Mathers ancestral castle in Scotland

  1. Would have been if he hadn’t been Barcroft Mathers. I traced his mother’s ancestors back to a Quaker village in Ireland with a whole lot of Barcrofts and Boakes. The quakers fled persecution in England in the late 1600s and set up an entire village in Ireland.

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  3. Hi Colin,

    My husband, who is a Mathers, and I had our honeymoon in Scotland 4 years ago and knowing the legend of the Kaim, had to make that part of our trip. we actually get onto the Kaim if you would like to see a picture from the other side!

    Kait Mathers
    Waterloo, Canada

    • Kait, I would love to see a photo from the other side. I decided not to try to get across. I did go back and walk through the sea cave underneath the Kaim the next day. There are an awful lot of Mathers around, and I am probably not related to your husband. But just in case, my great grandfather was James Mathers (1852-1911) who was born in Armagh (father John Mathers, grandfather Samuel Mathers married Mary Murphy). James Mathers grew up in Shotts and Motherwell near Glasgow before migrating to Australia in 1897.

      • Hi Coin,
        I am Patrick Mathers, Our Family is also from Armagh Ulster,
        I will send you my Genealogy from 1789 to 1874 which should connect somewhere We have an ancestoral farm at Tandragee, since before the dates, I have given you !
        Regards Pat,
        we live Tocumwal NSW 2714

      • Pat,
        I’d be very interested to see your genealogy, its possible we could have a connection. But I’ve found quite a few Mathers in Armagh without apparent connections, though the records are largely missing before early 1800s and probably many Mathers from that region are related. I have a family tree on Ancestry.com, but can also send you information if you are interested. Regards, Colin

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  5. Hi Colin, really interesting to read about the area of Scotland known as Mathers, somewhere I had never heard of. Just interested to know how you pronounce your surname, is May-thers or Math-ers (math as in mathematics)? Do you know if there is any difference in the ancestry of the 2 pronunciations? I believe that the surname Mather (or perhaps Mathers as well) originates from a mower of grass or hay.

    Regards, James Mathers

    • Glad you found it interesting. While I doubt my family has any connection to the area, it was fun to visit the Mathers castle, very ruined and romantically perched on an isolated cliff. My family pronounces it MAY-THERS, as I am told all the Scottish MATHERS do. I did some research on this a few years ago for a family history I wrote, and I’ll post the relevant section here. Are you a Scottish MAY-THERS also?

      • Thanks Colin, sounds like an awesome place to visit – the photos are excellent. My family name is pronounced Math-ers, rather than the way yours is pronounced. Having head before that May-thers is a Scottish name, I have always been interested to know whether my name originates from the same source as May-thers, and the pronunciation has changed somewhere along the line – or – if it is derived from the name for someone collecting grass (Mather, or Madder). My family is from the Yorkshire area of England, although I myself live in New Zealand. I’d be keen to read the article you mention above – thank you.

  6. Posted it now. From what I have been able to find out, the English Mathers (mostly from Yorkshire area and thereabouts) are pronounced Math-ers and it comes from “Mower” of grass. The Scottish Mathers may have same origin, or possibly different (I did read somewhere that it is a short form of Matherson or Matheson), but is pronounced MAY-thers. And there are a lot of them in Scotland, though it is not one of the more common names. I’ve posted my short article on the name as a post here.

  7. Colin Hi
    I am researching the Barclays – i am not related to them but 3 generations of them lived on the farm i live at now and i was looking into the former occupants of the place and its history and the whole Barclay thing unraveled in front of me and now i am trying to find what relation these Barclays were to those of Mathers – have found a couple of contracts between George Barclay of Syde and George Barclay of Mathers – one may have been a marriage between a son of Syde and a daughter of Mathers but i believe they were already related…..and I just wondered where you located East Mathers? I lived on the Garvock for 2 years before moving to Syde at Stracathro but don’t recall seeing East Mathers

    • East Mathers and West Mathers are now not much more than a sign on the road, with a few farmhouses nearby. The former villages have largely disappeared. I did find them marked on some maps that can be found on the internet, and they are between the A92 and the coast, about halfway between St Cyrus and Johnshaven. I can send you a more detailed map if you are interested, or maybe if I can find a little time I will post it here. I very much enjoyed exploring this area, even though the connection between my name and these villages is entirely unknown. The names are still used. I just did a google search and found a bed and breakfast advertised as being at East Mathers.

      • Hi C
        I would appreciate…i have trawled google and been disappointed…little farms would be great to me
        And i wouldnt dismiss anything re the name…barclys absorbed the name of allardyce when they absorbed that estate…so your folk could easily be younger siblings of mathers that held that name…that is what i am looking for…altho not my family

  8. Ive have been researching my ancestry for the last year and George Barclay, 5th Laird of Mathers, is my 19th great-grandfather. Imagine my surprise when reading this all the way in Atlanta!

    • How fabulous…have you ever visited here…what a heritage you have…you are also then related to Robert the Bruce…since the ancestor of George Barclay 5th of Mathers was descended from David Barclay lord of Brechin who was married to the sister of Robert II ie daughter of the Bruce

      • Ah, you aristocrats who can find all these ancestors! I am envious. Mine appear all to be illiterate peasants, so the information trail runs out in the late 1700s, before any general record keeping of births and deaths. But I have found it extremely interesting to personalize the last couple of hundred years of human development. My great-great-grandparents around middle 1800s were illiterate and unskilled. My great grandfather became a missionary and emigrated to Australia, so had a reasonable education and was literate. My grandfather trained as an architect, and my father went to university and did postgraduate degrees. So in the space of 3 or 4 generations, there was a huge change in education, work, conditions of living, and income. At least for us illiterate peasants.
        Regards, Colin

      • Hi Colin……..what the last 3 or 4 generations of your family activity reflect is their lineage of intelligence………..these families of aristos had so many children (not much else to do for one thing) and because of infant mortality and so forth and of course many died before reaching 45 so they seemed to marry between 18 and 22 and if a wife died in childbirth a man took another young wife and had more children……….the records are difficult because they tend to record just the inheriting son so you have to employ a little guess work and I have found a lot of these because of that guess work – looking at the main families – Ogilvies Lindsays Barclays Wisharts Arbuthnotts Allardyces and mixing up the names or searching the others for marriages with Barclays……..and also because this area was the playground of princes back in the 11th 12th an 13th centuries with the ancient capital at Kincardine just behind Laurencekirk and Fettercairn so the place is riddled with castles and mansions and great estates……a lot of fun to be had here…..perhaps your people were Barclays descended from one of the younger siblings and these tended to live on the estate in farm houses and run the farms and often then took the name of the estate so rather than George Barclay of Mathers……..just George Mathers……you should come back and spend some time in the archives in Edinburgh……..I plan to go myself very soon and let you know if i find anything interesting

    • Nice to say hallo to a genuine descendant. My name is Mathers, and maybe it relates to people who lived in the villages, but then Mathers was not an uncommon name in Scotland and could be no real connection. But you do have a genuine ruined castle that belonged to your ancestor, and it is quite spectacularly beautiful, Regards, Colin.

  9. I have been reseaching my family ancestry for a year now. George Barclay, 5th Laird of Mathers, is my 19th great-grandfather. Imagine my surprise when reading this all the way from Atlanta!

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