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.

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

    • Hi Irene. My name is David Mathers, My Great Grandfather was also David Mathers, who came out from Newark near St Monance in Fife. I have a second cousin living in Scotland near Edinburgh. He said that we have another cousin who lives somewhere up near Aberdeen and is a family historian. I believe that the family has been traced back to “Old Country Kincardineshire to the west of Aberdeen. we also think there is a link to the town of Mathers but predates it. and those I know wear the Gordon tartan.

  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.

  2. Pingback: Call me anything but don’t call me late for dinner: I think not? | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

  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

  4. Pingback: The villages of Mathers – Easter 2014 | Mountains and rivers

  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

      • Hi there Emma ,
        I’m fascinated in what you report about George Barclay 5 Th of Mathers as well as Colin’s post about the Kaim and Mather villages. My great grandfather and his father were William James Barclay and James Barclay of Edinburgh. So I’m intrigued about the relationship way back to Robert thr Bruce , because I thought way back the Barclays are supposed to be descended from the Norman’s and William the conqueror. Could you perhaps give me some more insight from anything you found in the Edinburg ancestry archives? I would appreciate it to pass on to my Mom’s brother William Barclay of Janes Edgar Barclay who was born in South Africa and now immigrated to Toronto Canada . Two of the great uncles left Scotland and immigrated to Australia. There were Barclay’s who came over on the original mayflower to America . Much obliged , Jacqui

    • 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!

  10. This is fantastic! I just started putting together a genealogy for my son (2-years-old) so he will know his full family roots. His father is a Merryman who married a Ruddle who married a McJunkin who married a Caldwell who married Elizabeth Wallace, daughter of a William Wallace and Katherine Crawford who was daughter of Laird Kilbrin Crawford and Lady Elizabeth Barclay (who is daughter of 9th Laird of Mathers). That is as far back as I have taken it, so far. My google search brought me to this page and I can’t wait to include this with my research. I hope to be able to take him to see this area someday. We live in Texas but his father’s family is in Tennessee and Missouri. (sorry so much information)

    • Hi Michele – I need to connect you to a lady called Jean – her maiden name is Wallace and she is descended from William – also from Robert the Bruce and the Barclays and thro the Barclays the ancestry goes right the way back to William the Conqueror – i have that mapped out somewhere

  11. Colin, Emma, Michelle, andVictoria
    I hope any of you could shed light on my Mather/Mathers connection. I have read about the Rev. Cotton Mather from Scotland who came to Mass, USA in the 1600s. What I am trying to find out is if my Mather/Mathers (math-er) and Cotton lines who are from the state of Georga, could be connected to the Mass Rev. Cotton Mather.
    I have an Emeline Bivins who marr 1st a Henry S Cotton.. they had a daughter named Henri Evena Cotton. Emeline marr 2nd John Cotton Mather, who was b in Mass. USA. Emeline and John had a son named Cotton Mather. Emeline was a sister of my 2nd great grandfather Robert T. Bivins. I do not have any information on either of the parents of Henry S and John Cotton Mather’s. My 2nd gr grandfather, Robert T Bivins had a son he named Henry Cotton Bivins. I remember going with my father to the old homestead and my father told me they called him, Uncle “Cot”.
    The only indication I have about them being any connection to the Rev Cotton Mather, is that my John Cotton Mather was born in Mass. I had a lot of surnames from Mass and other New England states, and I have a LOT of Scottish ancestry.
    I had dna test results come back with a lot of Scottish matches, Campbell, Robert the Bruce, Simon Fraser, McKenzie, McDougal, Menzies, McIntosh, McGregor, Cunningham, Alexander, McInnes, Bullock, McKay/McKee,Baird, Buchanan, Cuthbert of Castle Hill, Inverness, Mary Queen of Scots, Elliott and so many more, really close to about 100 surnames. I just got my results back a few months ago, and still trying to make contact with them.
    If any of you know if the Mather/Mathers in Mass and the Mather in GA could be related to Rev. Cotton Mather, I would love to find out.
    Also, Colin I love the pics you posted of the castle, and don’t worry I am not one of the lucky aristocrats, by the time I came along, my families had nothing left, except some I haven’t met. And Michelle, I would love a pic you took also, if you don’t mind, I wish I could go and see it in person, and Victoria, I live just below Atlanta about 25 miles.
    I am so sorry this is so long, I get a little passionate about genealogy. I have never been to Scotland, it is on my bucket list, but at my age, I am running out of time, soooo.

    Anyway, nice chatting with some possible cousins.

    • Greetings, possible cousin. I have not done any research on the Mathers (or Mather) people in the USA, but I am sure there are people with a lot of knowledge out there. I did look at the origins of the Mathers name (see my post https://mountainsrivers.com/2015/08/14/origin-of-the-name-mathers/) and concluded that the Mathers from Scotland were of separate origin to the Mathers from England, and that Mather was a variant of the English Mathers which comes from the old English word for “Mower” (ie an occupation name). I had a quick look at a biographical webpage on Cotton Mather and it said his ancestors came from Lancashire, though not sure whether that was the Mather or Cotton side. I have actually done some research on another pilgrim father, Elder John Strong (abt 1610-1699), who is the great*10 grandfather of my sons through their American mother. I may post about that some day, when I have finished working on my own ancestors. My passion for genealogy was strong a few years back and I dug up lots of interesting stuff. Now I am retired I am starting to find a little time to get back to this. Regards, Colin

      • Hi Colin,
        Thank you for your reply. If I can’t come to Scotland, at least I can hear from Scotland.
        Yes, the naming back then drives me insane, because there are so many variations people take. I do appreciate you setting me straight on the difference of Mather coming from England. I was just hoping maybe prior to England they may have come from Scotland. But I have just begun my international research, so I am not that knowledgeable of anywhere but the US.
        If nothing else, this adventure of the search in Scotland has impressed me with all the beauty of the area. I have seen some breathtaking views.
        I hope you are able to soon get back to your genealogy. I also spent many years just part time searching when I could. I am now retired and have really enjoyed being able to spend my retiring years on the family research. It has be a very rewarding journey.
        Hope you have a great day.
        My best,

    • Hello Linda, my maiden name is Mathers (Math-ers). I have also wondered if Cotton Mathers was a relative of mine. In the 80’s some family members wrote a book about my family’s Mathers linage and it is believed but not proven that Cotton was related to our family. I have not been able to confirm that though. I have done an Ancestry DNA and I am both English and Scottish. No luck yet on making the connection. I too am interested to know if there is any link to the cannibal Mathers story. I have never been to the UK, but it’s on my list. Good luck with your search.

  12. Greetings from CANADA!
    Thanks to a DNA test, and numerous matches from it, it appears as though I am distantly related through the ‘Mather” family. This was something of a surprise and my last name and my Mother’s is NOT ‘Mather’

    Apparently people had more time on their hands in the 1940’s, than I thought they did!

    At any road, the ‘principals’ have long since passed on and I am left with ‘the big family secret’ but nobody to grill for answers Needless to say, I haven’t run out to buy any family tartan . . . .. yet.


  13. Greetings, long lost cousin. I think these surprises are probably not too uncommon. I found a couple of secrets of the past that my family knew nothing of, though not through genetics. There is a post somewhere on my blog about my maternal grandmother’s father, who disappeared when she was young and the family knew nothing about what happened. I found him through marriage records in another State of Australia. He had moved there and married again, so a bigamist. He had more children and some of them ended up living in the same suburb as their half sister, my grandmother. Regards, Colin

  14. Hello Everyone!
    My maternal grandfather was James H. Mathers of Philadelphia, PA . His father (same name) was born/from County Down. I’m having some difficulty connecting with DNA matches in Northern Ireland – hoping to get a “hint” soon. By the way, what is that DNA test you speak of where they can go as far back as Robert the Bruce? The only DNA test I have done was the Ancestry DNA test.
    Great information here! Many thanks for sharing!

    Upstate New York

    • The name Mathers is found in Ireland, England and Scotland. See my post https://mountainsrivers.com/2015/08/14/origin-of-the-name-mathers/ for more information, if you haven’t already come across it. My earliest identified Mathers ancestor also was from Northern Ireland, although the family had handed down a story that they were originally from Scotland (and many Scots migrated to Northern Ireland in the 16th-18th centuries). My great-great grandfather migrated from Northern Ireland back to Scotland, along with other members of his family) in the mid 1800s, when the industrial revolution was creating jobs in Scotland. As your ancestor is also from Northern Ireland, its quite likely you share a similar history of earlier Scottish ancestors, and we may well be remote cousins. So greetings, cousin. I have not had much luck in getting DNA matches to identified individuals in recent centuries. But I have enjoyed tracing remote ancestral migration paths for maternal and paternal ancestors using Y-DNA and maternal mitochondrial DNA tests from Family Tree DNA. I did tests earlier with the National Geographic genomics project and with Ancestry, but FTDNA has the most detailed tests available that provide more info on remote ancestors.

  15. Like many others, I am interested in my Mathers heritage. I can go as far back as Capt. John Mathers Sr. who was born in Londonderry Norther Ireland in 1715 and emigrated to the American Colonies between his birth and 1735 when his son was born in Pennsylvania. The line stops with his father Patrick (no DOB or DOD) also of Londonderry.
    I would love to get back further, but seem to have run out of digital records.
    If I were to pick a tartan would it be Londonderry, Aberdeen (I can trace two other branches back to Aberdeenshire), or Barclay (if it is true the Mathers were residing in the same area?)
    Wonderfully curious about the whole thing. Thanks!

    • If you haven’t found my post on the origin of the name Mathers, take a look here https://mountainsrivers.com/2015/08/14/origin-of-the-name-mathers/

      The name Mathers appears to have arisen separately in England and Scotland, and possibly also in Ireland. However, many of the Mathers in Northern Ireland would be Scottish in origin as there was substantial migration of Scots into Ireland in state-sponsored migration from 1605 to 1697. My Mathers ancestors came from Scotland to Ireland and lived in Armagh province until the early 1800s then migrated back to Scotland as it started to industrialize and there were more employment opportunities. Like you, I have been unable to trace my Mathers ancestors back into the 1700s due to the lack of Irish records for that period. I do not know whether the name Mathers associated with the Barclays is purely a place name or there were people called Mathers who lived there. I don’t know much about tartans, but presume that if your direct line male ancestors can be traced back to either Londonderry or Aberdeen, that would be most appropriate. Regards, Colin

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