Ding-dong dispute as Belgians lay claim to historic kirk bell

A HISTORIC church bell is at the centre of an Elgin Marbles-style ownership row between Scotland and Belgium.

For more than 300 years, parishioners of Kettins Parish Church near Dunkeld in Perthshire, have believed the 16th century bell, which proudly sits in the church graveyard within a stone turret, is their rightful property.

However, representatives from the Our Lady of Troon monastery in Grobbendonk, near Antwerp, claim the bell originally belonged to their abbey and was stolen in 1572 by mercenaries.

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A delegation from Grobbendonk recently visited the kirk in Kettins in an effort to resolve the dispute. Paul van Rompaye, a Grobbendonk councillor, and Martine Paelmon, a member of the Belgian parliament, want the bell to complete the restoration of the 600-year-old monastery.

But although the bell’s inscription reveals a Flemish connection, the Kettins parishioners are reluctant to part with the 485-year-old antiquity.

The inscription, which reads ‘My name is Marie Troon and Mr Hans Popenuyder made me in 1519’, identifies it as the work of the famous German cannon-maker

who armed the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s favourite warship, and had connections with Grobbendonk.

Now a compromise has been reached which may prevent the row souring relations between the two congregations. The Belgian delegation is willing to accept a copy of the bell made from a cast.

Van Rompaye said: "We believe it is our church bell, looted from the priory of Troon. Our local records show that the bell was taken to Kettins in 1572. Other than the inscription on the bell and our church documents, we can find no other connection between the two villages. Also, the bell-maker Hans Popenuyder had a local connection with Grobbendonk, as he was a personal friend of Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist who lived in the area."

How Popenuyder’s bell travelled from the Continent to Scotland is a mystery that began to unfold 30 years ago after a Grobbendonk native visited Scotland.

Van Rompaye said: "Everyone in Grobbendonk knows the story of the lost bell. Many people have travelled across to Scotland to see the Kettins bell, but it was only 30 years ago that any serious attempt to have it returned was made."

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Theories on the bell’s journey are numerous. One suggests it was once used on a ship before it was stolen as the vessel lay moored in a Scottish port. According to local folklore, the bell was then gifted to the Kettins church after the thief dumped it in a nearby field, where it was discovered in 1697.

However, another theory says that the bell actually belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Coupar-Angus, 10 miles from where it was found.

Theorists believe the bell could have been secreted away to the Baldinnie bog by monks during the turmoil of the Reformation, and then placed in the church at Kettins for safekeeping.

But historical records state the abbey was destroyed during the Reformation in 1559, 13 years before the bell was taken. A third theory claims the bell was stolen by Dutch soldiers after they attacked and looted the Flemish monastery in 1578.

Local historians believe the soldiers then sold the bell to Scottish traders and it may have fallen into the hands of Dundee merchants the Hallyburton family, who could have presented it to the kirk as a gift.

What is not disputed is that the bell was standing in a belfry atop the Kettins church by the late 17th century, before it was taken down and placed in the churchyard in 1893.

The Rev Linda Stewart, the minister of Kettins Parish Church, said: "The church records show the bell was given to the church in 1697.

"But as far as I understand, a church in Belgium claim it belongs to them."

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Russell Miller, head of Kettins Community Council, added: "We think the bell became the property of the church after it was found in a nearby bog.

"It was used as the church bell for over a 100 years, until a steeple was built in 1893. It was then taken down and placed in the graveyard, where it has remained ever since."

Stewart added: "I cannot really comment on the Belgian claims, but if they want a cast of the bell, they must make their request through the Kirk Session."

Miller is hopeful the session will vote in favour of the Flemish monastery taking a cast of the historic bell back home with them.He said: "I cannot see anyone in the village objecting to this."

Van Rompaye said: "Although we would love to have the original bell back, a copy of it would make everyone in Grobbendonk very happy."

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