Fearn Abbey and the Earldom of Ross


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The history of Fearn Abbey and the Earldom of Ross.

Ferchar the Earl of Ross

The early history of Fearn Abbey, which is thought to have been founded sometime in the 1220s, is almost lost to us. The earliest surviving document that mentions Fearn is a tax assessment, which dates from around the year 1275. Although an Abbot of Fearn, Malcolm, is noted as a witness to a Charter from the Earl of Ross, William I, which could date from as early as 1251. That is the only evidence in the thirteenth century, which leaves historians relying on the late 16th-century Chronicle of Earls of Ross for the early history of the monastic site.

This Chronicle, likely written by an Abbot of Fearn, provides us with a wealth of valuable information on the later Abbey and Abbots but as it was written long after the Abbey was founded, its earlier history must be treated with a bit of scepticism. The story of Ferchar, the Earl of Ross, founding the Abbey after winning a wrestling match with a Norman called Dougald Duncanson is easily dismissed, but, we can be certain the Chronicle has the founder of the Abbey correct. We can learn something about the Abbey's foundation by understanding more about its founder the enigmatic warrior, and patriarch of the Ross Clan, Ferchar McTaggart. He is first noted in the Chronicle of Melrose, crushing a large-scale revolt in Ross against King Alexander II in June of 1215, which stated;

"The lord king of Scotland's enemies entered Moray-namely Donald Bán, the son of MacWilliam; and Kenneth MacHeth; and the son of a certain king of Ireland, with a numerous band of malignants. Maccintsacairt attacked them, and mightily overthrew the king's enemies,... cut off their heads, and presented them as new gifts to the new king; on the seventeenth day before the Kalends of July. And because of this, the lord king appointed him a new knight...."

The Kings of Scotland had struggled to impose their authority in the North of Scotland for generations and Ferchar, with his military following, proved a valuable asset to the newly crowned King Alexander II who is thought to have made Ferchar the Earl of Ross around 1221. According to the Chronicle he then founded Fearn Abbey following a chance meeting in Galloway with two White Canons, Malcolm, and a brother canon, both from Whithorn Priory.

Ferchar is said to have invited the canons to Ross where they founded a Premonstratensian Abbey on the site of the old Celtic Abbey at Fearn, in Kincardine, around the year 1225. It is possible that Ferchar met Malcolm at this early date, as his daughter Christina married Olaf Gudredson, who was later the King of Man, around this time. Ferchar and the men of Ross were also notably in Galloway in 1235 where they saved King Alexander II's army from destruction as he attempted to crush a revolt;

"But in the beginning of the contest, the earl of Ross, named [Ferchar] Maccintsacairt, arrived, and attacked the enemy in the rear; and after the enemy was aware of this, he turned his back, and made for the mountains and woods. But the aforesaid earl, and many others besides, pursued them, making a great slaughter, and harassing them until dark." (Chronicle of Melrose)

Although the dates for this incident don't match the Chronicle's date for the founding of the Abbey, because of the location and the significance of this event, it should perhaps not be discounted as the time for the meeting between the two men. The Priory of Whithorn had housed a community of Premonstratensian canons, since around 1175 and with the site's connection to the 5th-century saint, St Ninian, it is easy to understand what attracted the order to this most important of Christian religious sites. But what about Fearn had something other than a chance meeting with Ferchar brought the Canons this far North? It is not clear, even though the site of old Fearn Abbey is said to have been founded by a Galloway missionary of St Ninian, it is just one of a line of churches dedicated to the saint that ran up the east coast of Scotland.

For the newly ennobled Scottish Earl, Ferchar, the founding of a Premonstratensian Abbey seems a shrewd political move. It showed his commitment to King Alexander II and Scotland. While the Premonstratensian Abbey was probably more acceptable to the local Celtic church and population, as it did not answer, or importantly, give revenues, to the Bishops of Ross. Of course, it was also fashionable at this time to found Roman Catholic churches and Fearn Abbey was just one of many Cathedrals, Abbeys and Churches that were replacing the old Celtic Church which was still prevalent in the Highlands during the late 12th century. None of this explains the obscure choice of the site in Kincardine but maybe its significance was to Ferchar McTaggart, the son of the Priest. If this was his father's church it would perhaps explain the location and why the name Fearn was retained when they moved the Abbey to its new site in 1238. 

Old Fearn Abbey 

Even less is known about this older Candida Casa Abbey of the Celtic Church but local antiquarian the Rev Dr Joass on discovering a remarkable Latin inscribed stone in the wall of Tarbat Manse made a rather unbelievable connection between Old Fearn Abbey and the Pictish Monastery at Portmahomack. He translated the Latin inscription on the cross fragment as follows;

'IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST.
A CROSS OF CHRIST
IN MEMORY OF REODATIUS,
MAY HE REST'
 

He then pointed out, that according to the Annals of Ulster a 'Reodatius the Abbot of Fearn died A. D. 762.' Although this is intriguing and the dates and names are a close match, academics have suggested that the Fearn referred to in the Annals of Ulster is more likely to have been in Ireland. Of course, we know that the arrival of Viking raiders in Easter Ross soon after Reodatius's death in Tarbat, devastated the religious community there and we hear nothing of old Fearn Abbey until the following passage was written in the Chronicle more than 800 hundred years later.  

'Malcolm, with another brother, having certain relics of Sanct Ninian with them; which Malcolm, with his brother, the said earl brought with him in Ross, and founded an abbey of that order and religion at Farne, beside Kincardine in Stracharrin, where the site there yet does appear; after, the said Malcome was abbot fifteen years, and there he deceased and was buried..."

It seems doubtful that Ferchar would have brought Malcolm to a four-hundred-year-old ruin so I suspect that there would have been a church or monastic settlement of sorts there before his arrival. The Chronicle tells us Malcolm was buried there after fifteen years as Abbot and that following his death, the Earl "with consent of the abbot and brethren of the said place, for the more tranquillity, peace, and quietness thereof, translated the said monastery where now it presently stands." Although there is no mention of the old monastic site after its removal to New Fearn, the ruins were still standing when the Chronicle was written; and local people were still aware of the site in the 19th century. The following extract is from the Chronicle of the Ardcronie Children written in the 1800s.

"It would seem that Ardcronie as a whole was a monastic settlement; there was for a certainty, thereabout, a monastery, or abbey...and the location can be pretty surely pointed out as having been above the high road, in the furthest west field of Ardcronie, and nearly opposite Grannie Forbes’ house. Allt a Bhraman, as a wee rivulet of dark boggy water, crossed the old hill road immediately south of and ran on the west side of the site. The heap of stones, and parts of the standing walls, built of small unhewn cobblestones, many of which were however not rounded but flat were there in our time.

Nova Ferina 1238

The re-establishing of the Abbey on a richer site reflects the rise in power of Ferchar himself. He had proved himself more than just a valuable asset in the north when in 1235 he demonstrated himself capable of taking his men to the other end of Scotland to support the King in Galloway. Two years later he was also recorded as being at York, witnessing an agreement between King Henry III of England and King Alexander II of Scotland. The move and construction of the new Abbey at Fearn, which was begun by Malcolm II of Nigg, reflects Ferchar's confidence in his position and in the continuation of his recently established earldom.

The Chronicle recorded the deaths of all the Earls of Ross beginning with Ferchar who it says died in Tain in February of 1251; followed by his son Earl William I who "deyit at erllis allane" in June of 1274. The Chronicle tells us nothing of the history of the monastery during the time of the second Earl of Ross, William I, or of his conquest of the Isle of Skye, adding only the name of the third Abbott "Machabeus Makhersin".

It is not until the Abbacy of Mark Ross and the time of the last Ross, Earl of Ross, William III, almost a hundred years later, in the 1330s, that the chronicle tells us anything about the first Abbey that was built at New Fearn and even then it is very little.  

'...the Abbey kirk of Ferne built of clay and rough stone all utterly ruinous... Wilhame being troubled of mind with anguish, that the sepulture of his fathers, parents, and where he intended to be buried..that ignominiously the drops descending from heaven distilled in the chalice and upon the altar where the sacrament was administered...'

That the nearly 100-year-old Abbey was 'ruinous' is perhaps unsurprising as Scotland had just endured over thirty years of warfare. This was the first War of Scottish Independence which, no doubt, would have impacted the Abbey in manpower and taxes.

Earls of Ross and the Wars of Independence

At the beginning of the war, in 1296,  Earl William II, grandson of Ferchar, was taken prisoner at the Battle of Dunbar with King John Balliol's army and only released in 1303 after King Edward I of England thought he had totally subdued Scotland. Following William II's imprisonment in the Tower of London, the Earldom of Ross broke out into a state of open rebellion no doubt leaving the Abbey in a vulnerable position. William II's release after six years of imprisonment was far from the end of his troubles and he was soon faced with the army of King Robert the Bruce, who as the Chronicle wonderfully put it "made insurrection, pretending to the Croune of Scotland." The two men were not on good terms, Robert had been with the English army when the Earl of Ross was captured at Dunbar while William II had infamously a few years before handed over Bruce's family to imprisonment in England.

Bruce was on the warpath but stopped short of attacking the Earl of Ross and they met at Auldern in October of 1308 in what must have been a rather tense affair. William II apologised and agreed to support the newly crowned King Robert but managed to negotiate a Royal marriage for his son, Hugh, who married Maud the King's younger sister. Earl William and Hugh then remained steadfastly at Bruce's side until the great victory at Bannockburn in 1314. Earl William lost a son, Walter, at the battle but his children Sir Hugh and Sir John Ross were rewarded with lands in Cromarty, Buchan and Murray. In 1320 Earl William II is one of the eight earls whose name appears on the Declaration of Arbroath, two years later after a remarkable forty-nine years as Earl, William II died at Delny in January of 1322. 

Although peace was declared between England and Scotland in 1327; the hostilities were renewed shortly after Bruce's death in 1329 when Edward Balliol invaded Scotland, with an English-backed army. The Scots suffered a series of disastrous defeats early in the 2nd Wars of Independence, first at Dupplin Moor in 1332; and then at Halidon Hill in 1333 where Earl Hugh Ross was infamously killed wearing the shirt of St Duthac. Hugh's eldest son, William III, was in exile in Norway then and only returned to Scotland after his father's death. He was not exiled by Bruce, his uncle, or his supporters, but likely by his father fearing the return of Edward Balliol. On William III's return to Scotland, he played a major part in the siege of Perth helping to defeat Balliol's forces who were effectively run out of Scotland by 1338, the same year the Chronicle informs us that work began on the rebuilding of Fearn Abbey.

A new Abbey at Fearn

'seven brethren, that then, were in the place, willingly obliged themselves to poverty, and to beg and thig through the country; the abbot only to remain in the place, for attending on the work, new then begun, for building of the said kirk there of hewing stones.'

The 'brethren' going around the country begging for money to rebuild the Abbey is a nice story but the funds, for the rebuilding, more likely came from the Abbey lands and the revenues of the vastly expanded Earldom of Ross. This work was not completed when Abbot Mark Ross died in 1355 but around 1372 during the time of his successor Abbot Donald Pupill. The Chronicle tells us; 

'the stone wake of the said abbey kirk was ended, and the timber work thereof by the supply of the said earl was finished'

The near seven hundred years old church which still stands today is all that remains of this ancient Abbey which Earl William III and Abbot Mark Ross began in 1338, but this is only a fraction of the monastic site that would have surrounded the present church by the end of the 14th century. Monasteries were built in a standard layout, allowing us confidently to predict where the other buildings would have been.

The Church today would have made up the north side of a large rectangular complex of buildings. These would have included a Chapter House, a Sacristy, additional chapels; and more informal buildings like kitchens and dormitories that would have enclosed the site while forming a courtyard or cloister in front of the church.  There was likely a gateway or entrance on the range of buildings to the south, near where you enter the churchyard today. Outside the enclosed Abbey there may have been an Abbot's House, lodgings for guests, mills, bakeries and no doubt an alehouse or two. Although the new Abbey was constructed of cut sandstone it was roofed in thatch, like the earlier 13th-century clay and stone Abbey which was, very likely, also laid out in a similar fashion. The countryside surrounding the Abbey was also transformed, they diverted water from Loch Slin for the monastery and its mills, while lands were reclaimed and fertile fields created using imported soils. 

All this work, and the continuing construction and rebuilding at Fearn Abbey was carried out under the supervision of only one Abbot and seven canons. The reclaiming of the lands, the construction of the buildings and all the associated industry the monastery generated was carried out by labour mainly provided by the local population. Of course, the work at times would have involved skilled tradesmen and artisans from elsewhere, using and sharing skills with the local population. The canons too seem to have been local men, the younger sons, of the Earls, their relations, and supporters and hopefully the odd talented individual from a more humble background. As in all monasteries the monks, or canons in this case, would elect an Abbot from their own brethren. Abbot Mark Ross, although the Chronicle says he came from Whithorn, was very likely from Ross whilst we know Abbot Donald Pupill was a nephew of Earl William III. 

The monastic site at Fearn was much more than just a few monks or canons praying for the earls of Ross and looking after the religious needs of the community surrounding Fearn. It was a place that brought industry, education, employment and trade to people all over Easter Ross. The generous grants of lands from Ferchar that allowed the Abbey to grow and prosper had proved a shrewd investment.

The Downfall of the Ross Earls

In 1346, with the Earldom of Ross at the height of its power Earl William III mustered his forces for his cousin King David II at Perth as he prepared to invade England. At the muster, William assassinated Ranald MacRuaridh of Garmora and then deserted the army returning North with his men. The King continued south into England where he was wounded and taken captive at the Battle of Neville's Cross. Earl William III and his half-brother Hugh Ross of Philforth worked closely together in the ten-year absence of the King and they grew to become two of the most powerful men in the north of Scotland. On the death of Earl William's only son, around 1357, anxious to maintain the family control of the Earldom, he made Hugh Ross of Philforth his heir.

Around the same time, after an outrageous ransom was agreed upon, King David II was released from his imprisonment and almost immediately started taking revenge on the Earl of Ross. He forced William III's daughter, Euphemia, to marry one of his favourites the crusading knight, Sir Walter Leslie. He stripped away lands that had belonged to Hugh Ross of Philforth in Buchan. And then, in 1370, the King refused William's wishes and granted the succession of the Ross Earldom to Euphemia. 

King David II died in 1371 but the new King Robert II just ignored William III's request to return the Earldom to his chosen heir, even though the King was married to William III's sister Queen Euphemia Ross. William III died at Delny the following year on 9 February 1372 and although his daughter Euphemia was Countess of Ross in her own right, the dynasty that began with Ferchar in 1215 was almost finished and the close relationship between the earls and the Abbey was broken. When the luckless Euphemia died in 1398, she was not buried at Fearn with her ancestors but at the Cathedral in Fortrose where her tomb can still be seen today. Her son Earl Alexander Leslie did not live long after her and he died at Dingwall only four years later on the 8th of May 1402. 

The family of Hugh Ross of Philforth, or Balnagown as they are now known, may have hoped the Earldom would have returned to them on the death of Earl Alexander Leslie. Instead, a war erupted between the Lord of the Isles Donald MacDonald, who was married to Mariota Lesley the Countess's daughter, and the descendants of her second husband, the Wolf of Badenoch, Alexander Stewart. The 'War over Ross', as it is often styled, culminated in the Battle of Harlow which took place near Inverurie, in Aberdeenshire, in July of 1411. That the battle took place there, is no surprise as the richest lands of the Earls of Ross were the newly won lands in Buchan in Aberdeenshire which had belonged to Hugh Ross. The battle was a bloody stalemate which eventually left the MacDonalds with the old Earldom of Ross while the other Ross lands would eventually end up divided amongst the Stewarts and the Frasers.

Lord of the Isles 1412-76

With the Ross's sidelined, the Abbey fell under the influence of the Lords of the Isles the new MacDonald Earls of Ross for most of the 15th Century. They had a tempestuous relationship with the Stewart Kings and perhaps eager not to upset the Easter-Ross lairds they seem to have done their best to maintain the status quo and the Abbey continued to thrive. From 1408 until 1480 the Abbots of Fearn were a father and son both named Finlay MacFaid, relatives of Sir William Feriar, 'vicar of Tayne'. The younger Finlay, Abbot from around 1436 until 1485, maintained a close relationship with the new earls and continued the ongoing improvements at the Abbey.

"He bigget Saint Michael's Isle on the south side of the kirk. He founded the Dortour; he bigget the cloister; he brought home a tabernacle, and Lettron of brass, the organs, with the challices, vestments, and sundry other ornaments out of Flanders, and payed all the same himself. He lived Abbot forty-four years..."

As the Chronicle gives a glimpse of the furnishings purchased for the Abbey, it also suggests that it may not be receiving the same financial backing from Earl John MacDonald although he did grant what is the earliest existing Charter for the Abbey at Dingwall in 1467 which lists their extensive lands. "Fearn, Milton, Rhynie, Pitkerrie, Balmuchy, Geanies, and Cadboll, and lands in Westray and Strathcarron viz: Dounie, Easter Fearn and Wester Fearn, Gledfield, Invercarron, the fishings of Bonar and Amat in Strathcarron, Rhelonie with the fishing and ferry, ‘Auchgullane’, ‘Brayliag’ with the forests of ‘Alveyn’ and Salachie all granted to the monastery by Farquhar.."

This charter also reveals the fate of the older Abbey charters and Relics which it says were destroyed '...at the time of the burning collegiality the chapel of the alms confessor of the blessed Duthac of Taine together with others.' This was no doubt during the clan feud where Thomas MacNeil Mackay notoriously burnt the Chapel in Tain where the laird of Freswick, Mowat, had taken refuge around the year 1427. 

What the relics and charters were doing in Tain is a mystery, re-construction work at Fearn seems an unlikely reason to move them even with the Abbot's family connections to the town. Ironically given the political upheaval at the time, I can't help but think they were taken to Tain for safe-keeping. There is no further mention of the Fearn Abbey relics or gifts of reliquaries from the Earls or the Crown, who gifted at least three gold and silver reliquaries to the shrine of St Duthac at Tain. 

Towards the end of his forty-four years of service to the Abbey Finlay MacFaid II, whose effigy is still at the Abbey, was honoured by King James III by granting the family the right to use the surname Fearn. John Fearn or MacFaid succeeded as Abbot in 1485 but died the following year although the Fearn family did manage to establish itself around Tain.

The Stewarts

The Lord of Isles, John Macdonald was stripped of the Ross earldom for treason just over a decade after he granted the charter to the Abbey and the ancient Earldom became the possession of the Stewart Royal family. This would create serious problems for the Abbey in the long term but almost immediately local tensions between Clans flared into violence. The Clan Ross cornered a raiding party of Clan Mackay near the village of Portmahomack and put many of them to the sword. The survivors sought sanctuary in Tarbat Church, and although it was served by a canon from the Abbey the Rosses set fire to it killing all inside.

Thomas MacCulloch became the Abbot of Fearn around the time of King James III's death at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488 ushering in the reign of James IV 1488-1513 and a golden age of Pilgrimage for Tain whilst for Fearn Abbey it was anything but. The Abbey, which had managed to avoid the widespread corruption of the church, now found its revenues a target of both the Church and the Crown.

Abbot MacCulloch, according to the Chronicle, "was sinisterly and wrongously put out of the Abbay by Andrew Stuart, Bishop of Caithness; the said Bishop... caused ane Notary to give a false instrument to Rome, and brought home briefs on the same, and made himself Abbot and Bishop of Fearn." The Bishops of Ross had no interest in the Abbey only its finances. Once dispossessed of the Abbey, Abbot MacCulloch is said to have retired to Mid Geanies where he built a chapel to St Barr. He died at Fearn in 1516 and was interred in the Abbey. In the 1980s a fire-mantle belonging to Abbot MacCulloch was found in an old steading and taken to the Abbey for safekeeping.

Bishop and Abbot Andrew Stewart died the following year at Skibo but things only got worse for the Abbey as their revenues were then given to a boy Patrick Hamilton. He was styled as Abbot or Commendator but in truth, he was a fourteen or fifteen years old cousin of the King who had been granted the revenues of the Abbey for his education. The young Abbot of Fearn went to Paris and Leuven where he learned of the reforming doctrines of Lutheranism which he began to preach on his return to Scotland. It is thought unlikely that he ever visited the Abbey during his years as 'Abbot' and he resigned in 1526 whilst keeping a pension from the Abbey finances for himself. He did not enjoy the pension long as in 1528, aged only twenty-six, he infamously became Scotland's first martyr of the Reformation after he was "burnt" to death for heresy at the gate of St Salvator's College in St Andrews.  

He was followed by Abbot Donald Denoon a regular priest who seems to have been acting as Abbot a few years before Abbot Patrick Hamilton resigned. Abbot Donald Denoon is often mistakenly said to have come from Argyle but he was from Cromarty, where the Denoons had land since the thirteenth century. The Chronicle tells us he was Abbot for '15 years and 5 months, and governed the place in tranquillity.' Initially, this certainly was not the case, in October of 1525 the Bishop of Ross, John Hay, sent armed men to the monastery in an attempt to usurp the rents. The canons were coerced by fear of the armed men and the Bishop into agreeing to pay yearly a 'certain quantity of grain'. Abbot Denoon petitioned Pope Clement the Seventh after the guarantors to the agreement were ex-communicated by the Bishop, stating that "the said monks had no mandate from him to make the agreement...as from time immemorial the monastery was exempt from payment of such teinds". The Pope ordered the seven men, who were all named, to be freed from the ex-communication the following year. If Donald Denoon was imposed on Fearn Abbey then this seems to have backfired with the Abbot refusing the Bishop of Ross's demands. Bishop Denoon took his monastic vows and although he is said to have gone on to have nine children! He died at Fearn, on the 9th day of February 1540 and was buried in the chapel he had built as his burial aisle of which nothing survives. 

The Ross Clan 1540

Even before the death of Abbot Denoon the Crown and the Church acted together against the Abbey and the Bishop of Ross, Robert Cairncross was appointed Abbot/Commendator of Fearn around 1539, "upon the King's recommendation to the Pope, as the Building was out of repair, and the Bishop a wealthy man, and so in a capacity to restore the Edifice." There is no record of any work on the Abbey, the Bishop just gave away Abbey lands to his relations and imposed his nephew James Cairncross as Abbot. It may have been this blatant theft of the Abbey lands that eventually prompted the Clan Ross Chief, Alexander Ross of Balnagown, to turn the Ross Clan's attention to the Abbey of their ancestors.

Alexander Ross of Balnagown first purchased most of the Abbey lands back from Abbot Cairncross's family, while in 1545 he attempted to impose his cousin Nicholas Ross, chaplain of Dunskaith, as Abbot of Fearn at the expense of James Cairncross. Although this was unsuccessful, Alexander applied pressure or as it is described 'molested' Bishop James Cairncross, who perhaps unsurprisingly resigned after only three years. By 1550 Alexander Ross of Balnagown is Baille of Fearn while Nicholas Ross was the Abbot/Commendator of Fearn Abbey and also the Provost of the Collegiate Church at Tain; and the rich lands of the two great religious sites in Easter Ross, at Tain and Fearn, were firmly in the hands of the Ross Clan.

It is clear from what we have just seen that the revenues of the Abbey were being misappropriated by both the Church and the Crown since the early 1500s. This appropriation of revenues from religious institutions was nationwide in the 15th century and Fearn was late to the game, likely protected by the MacDonald Earls of Ross and their difficulties with the Crown. This corruption and nepotism, along with the growth of Protestantism ideas, made the reformation of the church almost inevitable by the time of Abbot Nicholas Ross. 

Between 1553 and the calling of the Great Parliament of 1560, which enacted the Reformation, Alexander Ross of Balnagown and Nicholas Ross the Abbot of Fearn made a 'bond of alliance'. Then they set about carving up the Abbey lands between them. Alexander and Nicholas Ross gave Balmuchy, Mulderg, and Invercharron to cadet branches of the Ross Clan whilst the Chief took Dounie in Westray and Wester Fearn in Edderton, which had belonged to the canons since the original foundation, for himself. At first glance, it seems as if the descendants of Ferchar, Alexander and Nicholas Ross, were just stealing the church lands but now knowing what occurred it seems they were left with little option. If they had not acted, the revenues and lands from the Abbey would have been gifted away by the church or the Crown.

Although the Calendar of Fearn does note that on the 3rd of January 1558, the dormitory at Fearn Abbey was "brint be negligence of ane boy callit Huchon McCulloch." There is no evidence of angry mobs descending on Fearn Abbey to smash shrines and altars, similar to what occurred at Perth and St Andrew's during the summer of 1559. Even so, Nicholas is said to have taken the gold and silver reliquaries of St Duthac to Balnagown for safekeeping before attending the Reforming Parliament of 1560 but there is no receipt for any relics from Fearn Abbey. At the Parliament, Nicholas is thought to have voted for the reformed church which removed the threat the Abbey faced from the Bishops, if not the Crown, but it is not clear what the Abbot's views were on the reformed church.

The reformation of the church was gradual and Abbey life carried on but only in a secular manner, so the collecting of rents and administration of the complex with its attached farmlands, mills, and breweries continued. On 15 February 1563, three canons from Fearn protested that Alexander Ross had forced them to sign ‘a certain pretended charter’ by James Cairncross. The canons were named and again appear to be local men, David Reid, Donald Bayne, and Andrew Dawson. Only four canons remained at the time and they were allowed to live out their days at the Abbey. According to the Chronicle, Nicholas Ross "lived Abbot 22 years, and dyed at Fearn, the 7th day of September 1569 years, and was burryed in the north side of the Quire of Fearn." The last of the canons David Reid died there on July 3rd 1583.

Thomas Ross of Culnaha the likely author of the Chronicle of the Earls of Ross became Abbot of Fearn and Provost of Tain in 1566 and as you would expect he gives a detailed account of the work he carried out; 

'...who thatched the Dormitry of Fearn, after it was burnt by the negligence of Hutcheon M'Culloch... he made a hall, chambers, cellars, pantry, and kitchen of the same, in respect the old house was decayed; he caused to joist and loft the chamber and pantrie, caused make such turnpikes and easements in Fearn to the hall, cellars, and vaults, &c. The said, Mr. Thomas Ross caused to build the little chamber beside the Dormitory, joisted, lofted, and thatched the same... Mr Thomas Ross gart bigg in Fearn two stone barns and the miln with stone and clay, he biggit an new miln bewest the place of Fearn...thereafter the said Mr. Thomas Ross for the most part of ten years, being boasted be Alexander Ross of Balnagowan, was out of Ross, and dwelt in Murray'

For the first time in decades and with only a portion of the revenues of the Abbey remaining Thomas Ross manages to implement a whole series of renovations to the site although this is an investment in the agriculture business that had for generations been part and parcel of Abbey-life. Thomas's relationship with Alexander Ross of Balnagown was not good and the Chronicle tells us he was 'boasted' or exiled by his chief to Forres in Murray for ten years. "The said Mr. Thomas Ross deceast in Tain, the fourteenth day of February 1595 yeares, and was burryed at Fearn in St. Michael's Isle."

Thomas's son Walter was styled as Abbot of Fearn although this was really just titular and the Chronicle of the Earls of Ross ends with Abbot Thomas Ross the twentieth Abbot of Fearn. In 1587, the lands were resumed by the Crown and in 1599 they were made into the Barony of Geanies and granted away to a Sir Patrick Murray. The remaining Abbey lands, or what was left of them, were annexed to the Bishopric of Ross.

 

 

Burials

The Abbey today still performs one function, at least, that it has always provided, that is as a place of burial. Almost all the Abbots chose to be buried at the Abbey although there is only one Effigy of an Abbot that of Abbot Filay McFaid. It is also the Sepalcure of the Earls of Ross. There is an effigy at the Abbey that is thought to be the founder of Fearn Abbey Ferchar while Earl William III is said to have stated the Abbey is "the sepulture of his fathers, parents, and where he intended to be buried." This suggests that all the Earls and no doubt their families are buried at the Abbey

There were three effigies recorded on the site when it was visited by ??? in the ????

24 Octob 1592 obiit honorabilis vir Allexander Ross de Baalnagoune et sepultus in Feme . 28 eiusdem

 

(Earl Ferchar MacTaggart means the son of the Priest and it has been suggested that the name may have been connected to Tain and St Duthac but surely with the Ross' long connection to this area this must be considered more than a possibility as being the home of MacTaggarts.)