The Orwell Parish in Scotland – Local History

View from top of Milnathort in Orwell Parish

Did your ancestors live in Orwell parish in Scotland?  Do you want to uncover more about this parish tucked away between Fife and Perthshire?  Then you are in for a fascinating journey.

Although they share the same name, the parish of Orwell does not have a connection with George Orwell who wrote 1984.   Nevertheless, they have both left a mark in history.

This small parish holds a significant place in Scottish history, with standing stones that silently narrate tales of ancient times, stories echoing the resilience of the covenanters, and the hum of spinning mills that once shaped the local industry.

Where is the parish of Orwell in Scotland?

Orwell parish is located in  the historic county of Kinross-shire, between Perth and Edinburgh.  Within its small boundaries, many hamlets and farmsteads create an agricultural landscape. The postal village for Orwell is Milnathort which was, and still is, the central hub connecting the various hamlets and farms.

Map of Scotland with location of Orwell Parish

If your ancestor was from Orwell Parish in Scotland, they likely came from a farm near Milnathort.  For example, Arlary, Tilliewhally, Hilton, Netherhall to name a few.

Origin and Meaning of Orwell in Scotland

There is no concrete definition of the name Orwell.  However, some believe it is a Gaelic word from ur to mean green or new, and ‘well’ or ‘bail’ to mean hamlet or village.  So it is an appropriate interpretation.

Orwell Parish church

The original Orwell Church once stood on the north banks of Loch Leven.  Built in the 14th century, the church is no longer there and the graveyard is not in use anymore.  However, the site is now occupied by an 1865 mausoleum.

In 1729, the church relocated to Milnathort at the top of a hill overlooking the village.  Unlike its predecessor, the Orwell Church in Milnathort remains active and in use today.

Map of Orwell Parish with the old and new church
Extract of OS map of Milnathort in Orwell parish (reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland)
Orwell Parish Church in Milnathort
Orwell Parish Church in Milnathort

Some Landmarks in Orwell Parish, Scotland

The Standing Stones of Orwell

The standing stones are located along the road between Milnathort and Balgedie.  There are two stones left that can be seen from the main road.

Archaeological discoveries have unveiled a glimpse into the past – the remains of a man, several women, children, and small animals.  Further exploration of the nearby field revealed more bones, charcoal, and stone coffins. Carbon dating places the cremated burials back to 3000 years ago.

The sheer size of these stones suggests that they might have come from the nearby Bishop Hill and carried to the site.  They likely served as a focal point for communal gatherings, such as burials.

Burleigh Castle

Burleigh Castle is a historical stronghold that once belonged to the Balfour family.  There is a story that the young Robert Balfour was sent to Europe because he fell in love with a young girl that the family did not approve. 

When he returned, he found that she had married a schoolteacher in Inverkeithing, further south.  So, he went to the schoolteacher’s house and shot him.  The teacher died 12 days later and the young man was caught and sentenced to be beheaded.

Robert escaped by wearing his sister’s clothes, so the story goes.  Later, he joined the Jacobites in the Rising of 1715.  We don’t know what happened to the young girl.  However, we do know that the castle was forfeited to the Crown because the young man had joined the Jacobites.

Today, you can visit the castle – you just need to knock on a door in the opposite cottages and ask for the key!

My ancestor was a Covenanter in Orwell Parish

Despite the peacefulness of the parish, Orwell and its neighbouring parishes were once a hotbed of Scottish covenanters during the latter half of the 17th century.  This turbulent period was known as the Killing Times.  Covenanters were pursued by the Redcoats (English government soldiers) because they resisted Anglican practices imposed by the government. The Covenanters wanted to preserve the Scottish Presbyterian worship.

They often held clandestine field meetings and religious worships known as conventicles.  A diverse congregation risked their lives to attend these secret conventicles such as

  • Robert Stirk, a merchant from Milnathort,
  • John Henderson portioner from Arlary,
  • David Coventrie, portioner from Arlary,
  • John Gray, minister of Orwell parish
  • John Simpson, tenant in Tyllirie

Covenanters took a risk because they faced severe persecution, leading to imprisonments, executions, and forced migrations. One poignant example is the experience of Robert Stirk and his family, who were forced to abandon their home in 1683. They did not return to Orwell until the end of the Killing Times in 1688. The story of their endurance can be found at the old Orwell cemetery on his gravestone:Inscription from a gravestone at the old Orwell Parish cemetery

Gravestone of Robert Stirk at old Orwell Parish cemetery
Gravestone of covenanter Robert Stirk at old Orwell Parish cemetery

Local Industries in Orwell Parish

Weaving

Although the parish was based on agriculture, weaving was one of the main cottage industries.  There were about 130 weavers in Milnathort in the 1790s and over 1000 in the combined parish of Orwell and Kinross.  In later years, fine linen was made in Milnathort for the royal palaces and big shipping lines.  Read my post on weaving for more information.

Mills

The name Milnathort suggests that it had mills as a prominent feature in its early history. In fact, there were many water-powered mills along the burns, or streams. In 1896 there were at least 12 mills in and around Milnathort.

Map of Milnathort in Orwell parish with location of mills
Extract of Scottish water mills map of Milnathort in Orwell parish with location of mills (reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland)

Distillery

Local residents were also engaged at the Hattonburn Distillery which is no longer there.  The distillery was established in 1780 by William Young.  It later came under the ownership of the Steins in 1795.  No one knows whether the whisky was any good.

If you want to see what Milnathort is like, then check out videos of the village on YouTube. 

Thank you for joining me on this historical journey about Orwell parish.  I hope you enjoyed reading my post as much as I enjoyed bringing these stories to light.

Let me know in the comments below if you want me to write about a particular parish in Scotland.

Good luck with your research.

Until my next post, haste ye back.

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4 thoughts on “The Orwell Parish in Scotland – Local History”

  1. This was really factual and interesting, I’ve lived 2 miles away and learned so much from Sarah’s in-depth article, she has done my husband’s family tree and is a very knowledgeable genealogist. Highly recommended.

  2. Ian am really delighted to wake this morning in New Zealand, to this most interesting and helpful article about the Parish of Orwell. My 2x great grandmother was one Christian Chapman who was baptised in the Parish Church on the day of her birth, 9 April 1815. The record reveals that her father was a weaver in Milnathort, one William Chapman and her mother, one Ann Murgan. How fascinating to learn more about the weavers in this area. I visited the parish church in 1988 and again in 2015 and found the gravestones fascinating for learning about many of the locals!!
    Christian married in Glasgow to a John Henderson and my great grandfather, Henry, was born there in 1839 before the young family emigrated in 1844 to Australia under the Bounty scheme. I have always wondered if John Henderson’s family was from Orwell Parish as well and mention of a John Henderson in this story has really got me thinking!
    Thanks so much for an interesting early start to a wet day here in Mt Maunganui, New Zealand.

    1. Hello Sheryl,
      How lovely to get a comment from New Zealand. Thank you.
      I was thinking about John Henderson and I wondered whether his marriage/banns register mention where he was from?
      Thanks again for the comment from Mt Maunganui which sounds like an amazing place.
      Sarah

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