Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Battle of Dún Nechtain, A Rearguard Action in Defence of Dunnichen

The battle somewhere in Pictland, during which the Picts supposedly threw off the yoke of the over-reaching of the Northumbrians, is a puzzle on several levels.  At the simplest level, there is the name.  By the English it was called Nechtan’s Mere, by the Scots the Battle of Dún Nechtain, and by the Britons - who spoke a tongue which would have been intelligible with Pictish - the site of the battle was named Lyn Garan, the Crane’s (or Heron'sLake.  In modern times the place of this encounter has been questioned, a challenge to the assumption made in the early 19th century and broadly believed ever since that the fight occurred at Dunnichen in Angus.  The recent speculation that the battle actually happened north of the Grampians runs parallel the recent seismic identification of the powerful Pictish province of Fortriu in the same area, when previously it was believed to have encompassed Strathearn and surrounding areas.

My previous post on the subject constituted a brief summary of the event (together with a supposedly ghostly re-enactment) and there was also a related piece about the associations of King Nechtan with Angus and beyond (In Search of King Nechtan in Angus and Elsewhere).

The Bare Bones

We know that the Pictish and Northumbrian armies clashed on a Saturday afternoon, 20 May 685.  The respective armies were led by Bridei (or Brude) son of Beli and Ecgfrith son of Oswiu.  The forty-year-old English ruler was slain with the greater part of his war-band and the result was that the Pictish territories gained their freedom from foreign rule. Northumbria had been shown unremitting territorial aggression for decades, eliminating the British kingdoms of Elmet, Rheged and Gododdin, hemming in the Strathclyde Britons, plus battling their English rivals of Mercia.  

Some Original Sources

James Fraser helpfully brings together the early English, Welsh and Irish references to the battle in his book and they mostly also appear, in translation, in Early Sources of Scottish History

The Anonymous Life of Cuthbert has that saint foretelling the king’s death to his own sister, Aelfleda, a year before the event.  At the actual time of the battle Cuthbert was inspecting the Roman remains at Carlisle when he had a vision of the disaster.  Though it is proclaimed as a defeat, no details are given. Stephan’s Life of St Wilfrith, written around 720, gives a prelude to the battle, relating how, in the previous year, the Picts who had been in subjection to the English rose in revolt and a Northumbrian force was sent to quell them.  Ecgfirth and his commander Beornheth slew such a number of them that two rivers were clogged up with their corpses.

The Venerable Bede preludes his account of the battle by telling how the Northumbrian noble Berct went to Ireland and ravaged church lands there.  This was taken as not only an unwise attack on innocent people, but a fateful reason for the following year’s defeat.  Ecgfrith, says Bede, was warned by friends not to attack the Picts.  It is Bede who states that the battle occurred in a mountainous place, yet he also states that a major consequence of the defeat was the Picts regaining their freedom, as did some of the Irish living in Britain and a section of the Britons.  The English bishop at Abercorn was forced to abandon his base.  All of which arguably points to a series of political changes which primarily affected south and west Scotland and may point to the battle being in the area of Pictland adjacent to these other nations.  

Dunnichen Stone, currently in the Meffan Museum, Forfar

The Cousins, the Four Nations

The fact that Bridei and Ecgfrith were distantly related is a side-point in the discussion of the battle, albeit it shows the wider regional and inter-national concerns of families ruling in the north of England and in Scotland.  The Northumbrian prince Eanfrith had been exiled in Pictland in the early part of the century and became attached to a Pictish princess. Their son Talorcan became king of the Picts. Both British Strathclyde and English Northumbria both wanted to exercise controlling interest in the lands to the north of them, and at time in the English case, direct rule over the southern part of Pictland, and therefore we could be justified as seeing southern Pictland as the prize decisively claimed on the battlefield in 685, and another circumstantial piece of support that the encounter took place in the disputed area.

  In chapter 57 of the Welsh Historia Brittonum it is stated that Ecgfrith fought against his fratuelem (cousin) Bridei, ‘and there he fell with all the strength of his army, and the Picts and their king were victorious, and the English thugs never grew [strong enough] from that battle to extract tribute from the Picts. It was called the battle of Lyn Garan.’

Alex Woolf translates the text as:  ‘It is this Ecgfrith who fought a battle against his parallel cousin, who was king of the Picts, by name Bredei.’

A.O. Anderson states that:
Brude’s mother’s father must have been one of the sons of Æthelfrith.  But since we may assume that Brude claimed part of the kingdom through his mother, her father must have been a descendant of Eanfrith, who married a Pictish princess (617 x 633), and whose son Talorcan held the Pictish throne from 653 to 657.  The dates seem to decide that Brude must have been Eanfrith’s grandson, not Talorcan’s.’

Alfred Smyth, acting on the undisputed fact that the victor of the battle was son of the British king of Dumbarton, Bili, states that Bridei’s victory cemented Strathclyde’s overlordship of the southern part of Pictland.  A. O. Anderson tellingly suggested that Bridei inherited Pictland south of the Tay from his father and the lands to the north from his mother’s family.  Perhaps this should be amended to a situation where he claimed Pictland south of the Grampians from his father (or grandfather’s) territorial claims, and the lands to the north from his mother’s kin.

Even supposing that the northerly position of Fortriu is now accepted, this does not exclusively place Bridei in that area; his southern associations were indisputable as a son of the ruling house of Strathclyde. The wider campaign featured a sustained and, on the surface, surprising campaign by the Northumbrians against Ireland.  Smyth again points out that this was at least partly motivated by the undoubted presence of a displaced and extremely active British war band there, whom he suggests had originated in either Rheged or Gododdin, British territories which the Northumbrians were actively encompassing into their realm.  Leslie Alcock suggests that the English may have taken hostages while in Ireland to prevent Irish allies actively assisting Strathclyde and/or the Picts in military action in the north of Britain, though the theory that Northumbria would have launched a strike in foreign territory solely to subdue the possible intervention of Irish powers in northern Scotland seems rather weak.  Whatever the motivation for the expedition, it has to be admitted that Ecgfrith’s long-reach to Ireland supports a military capability to send a force into northern Pictland, albeit a naval raid is logistically easier than a long-range land campaign.

   The monks of Meath extended their enmity  (if not an actual formalised curse against the violence of the northern English monarch).  A poem ascribed to Riagual of Bangor preserves the hatred against the Northumbrian:

Iniu Feras Bruide Cath
Today Bruide gives battle

over his grandfather’s land [or, for his grandfather's heritage]

unless it is the command of God’s son

that it be restored.

Today Oswiu’s son was slain

in battle against iron [blue]swords 

even though he did penance,
it was penance too late.

Today Oswiu’s son was slain,
Who used to have dark drinks: [black draughts]
Christ has heard our prayer
That Bruide would save Brega [?]

Picts and Northumbrians after the Battle

It has frequently been claimed that the Picts regained their independence after the battle, which supposes they had lost it (at least partially) before 685.  Warfare between Picts and the northern English continued intermittently for some time, into the 8th century, though perhaps the scale was not so great as the encounter at Nechtansmere.  In the year 698 the dux Berctred (perhaps a royal leader) of the Northumbrians was slain by the Picts at a place unknown.  One sources calls him the consul of King Ecgfrith and interestingly states that he too fell victim of Irish curses, in retaliation for raids on churches in that land.  It states that he went into Pictish territory to avenge Ecgfrith and there too met his end.

   In the year 711 another high-ranking noble, Bertfrid (the ‘prefect’ of King Osred), also described as ‘second prince from the king’, was victorious against the Picts.  The similarity of his name to the official who died in 698 (and also the Northumbrian who ravaged Ireland in the 680s) may mean they were close relatives.  By the time Bede wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica in 731 there was a treaty of peace between Angles and Picts.  This had its roots in the actions of the Pictish king Nechtan mac Derile who, several years earlier, as Bede recounts, asked Ceolfrid the Abbot of Jarrow to send him writings concerning the correct date of Easter and also architects so he could build a church of stone in the Roman manner.  It is important to bear in mind F. T. Wainwright’s warning not to overestimate the importance of the battle.  The event was not a permanent turning point in the power struggles of the four northern nations, nor a proto Bannockburn.  The Picts may have regained independence, but further defeats were inflicted upon them by the English.  The Northumbrians held sway up to the Forth and the Britons may have temporarily gained the upper hand, but in the following century they suffered further military and territorial defeats by the English.  The Scots of Dalriada, in the wings meanwhile, had to wait a century for the beginning of their ascendancy. 

The Pros and Cons of the Place Claimants

   The following points regarding the pros and cons of Strathmore v Badenoch as the battle site are intended more for illustration of the issues rather than a fully weighed balancing of the respective merits of each place.

    The landscape of both Dunnichen in Angus and Dunnachton in Badenoch, Inverness-shire, have naturally changed a great deal in the centuries since 685 AD,  Arguably the change has been greater in the former, with unremitting human settlement, farming and drainage vastly altering the land.  Nechtan's Mere itself has been drained, and it is likely that it once formed a chain of lochs in this part of Strathmore.  Without going into detail there are disputes about the exact location of the battlefield, even if we accept that the battle was fought in this locality.  Fraser and Alcock have differing views, which we will not go into here.  Another interesting point is the location of possible local power bases which Bridei may have used.  The fort on Dunnichen seems to have been rather small, as far as we can judge, but the complex of duns and forts on Turin Hill, not far north at Rescobie (one of which was known as Kemp's Castle), looks more promising as the putative regional power base for the whole region. (Turin will be the subject of a future post.)

For Dunachton:  The mountainous terrain matches the brief description in one Northumbrian source.

Against Dunachton:  Considerable distance from the main territory of the Northumbrians. No supplementary evidence that there was either a battle in the area of that this was a conspicuous focus of Pictish power.  The symbol stone at Dunachton is an earlier example (formerly known as Class I) and does not have any representations of battle, fighting or armed men; nor do there seem to be any such stones (similar to the Aberlemno stone) within the vicinity of Dunachton.   There are no major  known Dark Age Pictish strongholds in the area.

For Dunnichen:  The Pictish stone at Aberlemno undoubtedly portrays a major battle and is the only surviving representation of battle on any Pictish stone, only 5km from Dunnichen.    The proximity of the probably hill fort on Dunnichen Hill, plus another several miles away on Turin Hill.

Against Dunnichen:  Geography does not seem to match description of mountainous terrain in the English description given by Bede.
It has to be stated that nowhere is it stated that the Battle of Dunnichen/Nechtansmere/ Dún Nechtain actually took place in the kingdom or district of Fortriu, so the consequence of Fortriu’s re-alignment is almost irrelevant to the placement of the battle. James Fraser wrote his Battle of Dunnichen before the publication of Alex Woolf’s article.  In From Caledonia to Pictland he acknowledges the merits of Dunachton as a possible alternative location for the battle, but still advises that Dunnichen should not be ruled out.  There is the powerful neighbouring presence of the Aberlemno stone and also, as he points out, this is the zone from which the Northumbrians were rulers and were now removed.

In terms of the viability of a large war band striking out from home territory (south of the Forth in this case) into hostile lands, it would have necessitated a short, decisive campaign and Badenoch may have been beyond its practical reach.  The Annals of Ulster seem to state that Ecgfrith burned a place called Tulla Aman, in Strathearn, as part of a campaign before the battle.  Following such slash and burn tactics with a strike into the deep, unknown north, with the enemy fully forewarned of his scorched earth actions, would surely have been unthinkable for an experienced campaigner, as it would have given the Picts time and opportunity to gather immense military reserves from a vast hinterland.

The Aberlemno battle stone.

The Battle Stone

   It would be churlish to deny that the Aberlemno stone shows a battle in progress.  Nine men are featured.  The top scene is construed (by Cruickshank) as a Pictish horseman pursuing a Northumbrian knight off the battlefield.  The middle scene shows - possibly - three Pictish foot soldiers fighting an enemy cavalry soldier. Two opposing horsemen face each other at the bottom of the stone, then there is the large, isolated figure at the bottom right, discussed below.

The Vagaries of Tradition, Angus and Badenoch

It would be impossible for anything to survive in tradition or folk memory which directly relates to the Battle of Dún Nechtain, though of course the Irish, English and Welsh written memorials of the event could arguably constitute early examples of this.  If we accept that the attribution of a battle at a place near the ‘fort/stronghold of Nechtan’ is legitimate and early, this can be explored further.  There was both a saint and several  Pictish kings who had the name Nechtan.  The battle could not have been named after the king Nechtan son of Derile who ruled in the early 8th century and was instrumental in intellectual and spiritual links with the kingdom of Northumbria. 

According to Affleck Gray, there were traditions of both a king named Nechtan and of warfare at Dunachton in Badenoch.  The present Dunachton House stands on the site of an earlier property and in close proximity to St Drostan’s Chapel, actually cited as Capella de Nachtan in the late 14th century.  This would seem to point to an association with the saint rather than the king, though at this remove in time it must remain unproven.  What remains in terms of folklore at Dunachton is a mixed bag of elements from various times, apparently.  To the west of the present Dunachton House is Tom a Mhòid, the Court of Justice Knoll, where local lairds dispensed justice from.  Close to this is another hill named Creag Righ Tharoild, supposedly named after a Viking chieftain.  The local tradition states that Nechtan defeated the Picts in this place.  It also states that the king was forced to abdicate by another royal Pict, who was then challenged by a second pretender in a bloody battle.  Following this, Nechtan resumed his rule in peace.  These seem to be references to the Pictish civil wars faced by Nechtan son of Derile in the early 8th century.  However, there was no Scandinavian element in these wars, as it was too early a date for Viking incursions. Based on this it could be surmised that the local traditions seem to be influenced by modern discussions of the reign of this latter Nechtan, perhaps superimposed on actual local associations with St Nechtan.

   At Dunnichen there is no recorded local tradition of warfare between Picts and Northumbrians, though in Angus  there are other supposed traditions of Picts fighting Scots (near Forfar and near Dundee) and at Barry (Picts fighting Vikings).  None of these ‘traditions’ mention Nechtan, and they are overwhelmingly literary and antiquarian in character, some of them invented by the locally born national historian Hector Boece.  Place-name and hagiographical material suggests that there was an association in Angus and the very northern part of Fife with a person of some importance named Nechtan at a very early date.  Dunnichen of course means ‘Fort of Nechtan’ and may tentatively be linked to a ruler of that name who held power in this vicinity.  A king named Nechtan is supposed to have been brought back to life at his fortress in Carbuddo in Angus by the 5th century Irish saint St Buitte son of Bronaig (founder of Mansterboice in County Louth.  The tale in present form is from the 12th century.)  This accords with the supposed propensity of saints to gain ownership of non-religious power bases, but there are problems identifying the exact location of this royal base in the area.

Postscript:  the King as Carrion

As stated above, one of the primary aims of armed conflict in the Dark Ages was to eliminate the leader of the opposing war-band.  That accomplished, would there have been any special treatment of the physical remains of the slain leader.  It is tempting to think that there would not have been, albeit of course that both Bridei and Ecgfrith were nominally Christians, and moreover actually distant relatives.  One later record (Symeon of Durham)states that the body of the slain Northumbrian was carried away to be buried in distant Iona.  The king's father Oswy and his uncle Oswald were exiled on the hold island and his own successor Aldfrith was also a monk among the Irish there, so the connection was strong and personal.  James Fraser however ingeniously hypothesises that the 'other' Island of St Columba was the actual place of burial, Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth.

   However that is, the undoubted fact is that Ecgfrith was slaughtered on the field.  There is a likelihood also, if we accept Cruickshank and others' support of the Aberlemno battle stone as a visual representation of the battle, that the figure on the bottom right represents the extremity or aftermath of that king.  The figure is proportionately larger than the others on the stone, signifying undoubted importance.  He is a helmeted warrior, with a shield either falling from his grasp or lying beside him.  This leads to an important point: is the stricken figure standing (and falling), or is he already prone on the ground?  It is really impossible to say, though I would guess that the man is caught in the act of falling down.  If this is the case he is being plainly attacked by a large bird which seems to be going for his face or throat.  Is it an eagle or other raptor symbolic of the other king, whose forces killed him, or a totem of Bridei's tribe?  On the other hand, if the body lies lifeless on the field of slaughter it may well be a not at all symbolic carrion bird which is helping itself to his flesh.

   There is another possibility, a shadowy adjunct to the theory of an attack on a live human. Is the bird in fact plucking out his eye?  Some birds were regarded as more than sinister or symbolic to various early Celtic and other peoples, and whatever species the bird here represents, it may be regarded as the shadow of a recently departed Pictish deity getting revenge on its tribal enemy.

   Nikolai Tolstoy pointed out the Welsh verse which hints at a lost legend featuring the north British  king Gwallawg:

Cursed be the white goose
Which tore the eye from the head
Of Gwallawg ab Llenawg, the chieftain.

Sources Consulted and  Further Reading

Alcock, Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain, AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003.

Anderson, A. O., Early Sources of Scottish History, 1922, rep. Paul Watkins, Stamford,

Anderson, A. O., Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers, AD 500 to 1286, 1908, rep. Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1991.

Clancy, Thomas Owen, ed., The Triumph Tree, Scotland’s Earliest Poetry, AD 550-1350, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 1998.

Coutts, Ancient Monuments in Tayside, Dundee Museum and Art Gallery, 1970.

Cruickshank, Graeme D. R., ‘The Battle of Dunnichen and the Aberlemno Battle-Scene,’ in Alba, Celtic Scotland and the Medieval Era, ed. E.j. Cowan and Andrew McDonald, Tuckwell Press, East Linton, 2000, 69-87.

Fraser, James E., From Caledonia to Pictland, Scotland to 795, Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Fraser, James E., The Battle of Dunnichen, 685, Stroud, Tempus, 2002.

Gray, Affleck, Legends of the Cairngorms, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1987.

          Marsden, John, The Tomb of the Kings: An Iona Book of the Dead, Llanerch, Felinfach,

Morris, John, ed., Nennius, British History and the Welsh Annals, Phillimore, London and Chichester, 1980.

Small, Alan and Thoms, Lisbeth M., The Picts in Tayside, Dundee Museum and Art Gallery, n.d.

Smyth, Alfred P., Warlords and Holy Men, Scotland AD 80-1000, 1984, rep. Edinburgh University Press, 1989.

          Tolstoy, Nikolai, The Quest for Merlin, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1985.

Wainwright, F. T., ‘The Picts and the Problem’, in The Problem of the Picts, ed. F.T. Wainwright, 1955, rep. The Melven Press, Perth, 1980, 1-53.

Woolf, Alex, ‘Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’, Scottish Historical Review, vol. LXXXV, no. 220, October 2006, 182-201.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Tales of the Whales (Part One)

One of the most extraordinary recent news items featured the finding of a Dundee whaling vessel near Disko Island in Greenland.  The story in the Dundee Courier (written by Stefan Morkis) came under the rather poetic heading of 'A Historic Gem Has Come from the Blue' and the piece details how a scuttled 19th century Dundee whaling vessel, the 'Wildfire', was identified via an image on Google Earth.

   The wreck was at first thought to be a viking ship, but in August 2017 Eric Habich-Traut and two other divers inspected the wreck in Quequtarsuaq Harbour and found that it was a relatively modern vessel.  Their research revealed that it was the 'Wildfire', a Canadian built vessel from the Tay Whale Fishing Company of Dundee which had been deliberately scuttled after its propeller was damaged by ice. The ship had been damaged 500 miles away, but managed to limp towards Greenland before being sunk on 18 July 1868.  As an aside, wouldn't it be marvellous if Dundee's redeveloped waterfront could feature an example of its old whaling fleet.  Sadly, no such ship survives and unless some very eccentric billionaire with local connections fancies raising the 'Wildfire' we are unlikely to see such a scheme come to fruition.

   This blog has been scandalously light in past posts concerning the whaling heritage of Dundee and Angus, but I am willing to make amends in this, the first post in hopefully many, about that particular hazardous industry, now long vanished.  As a start, the story of the traditional ballad of the 'Balaena' is given below in several version, in all their sea-shanty glory.

Oh the wind is on her quarter, her engines working free
There's not another whaler that sails out of Dundee
Can beat the old Balaena, she needs no trial run
We challenge all, both great and small, from Dundee to St. John
The noble fleet of whalers went sailing from Dundee
Well-manned by British sailors to work upon the sea
On the Western Ocean Passage none with them can compare
But the smartest ship to make the trip is Balaena, I declare
It happened on a Tuesday, three days out of Dundee
The gale took off her quarter-boat and a couple of men, you see
It battered at her bulwarks and her stanchions and her rails
And left the old Balaena, boys, a-frothing in the gale
Bold Jackman cut his canvas and fairly raised his steam
And Captain Guy with Erin Boy was ploughing through the stream
And the noble Terra Nova her boilers nearly burst
And still at the old whaling grounds, Balaena got there first
And now the season's over and the ship half-full of oil
Our flying jib-boom points for home towards our native soil
And when that we have landed, boys, where the rum is very cheap
We'll drink success to the skipper's health for getting us over the deep.

   There are several different versions of this traditional shanty which purports to tell of the maritime daring of the Norwegian built steam whaler named the 'Balaena', which spearheaded Dundee's arctic industry. As well as prowling the far northern waters the 'Balaena' also took part in the unsuccessful Dundee Antarctic Expedition to find new southern hunting grounds in 1892.  The old ship outlived all competitors and survived World War I as the last Dundee whaler.

  The ballad itself may originally have featured the earlier Dundee whaler named the 'Polynia',a 472-ton vessel owned by the Dundee Seal and Whale Fishing Company. Its skipper, William Guy, commanded the ship from 1883 until it was decimated by ice in 1891.
The noble fleet of whalers went sailing from Dundee,
Well-manned by British sailors to work upon the sea.
On the Western Ocean passage none with them can compare,
But the smartest ship to make the trip is Balaena, I declare.

Oh, the wind is on her quarter, her engines working free,
There's not another whaler that sails out of Dundee.
Can beat the old Balaena, she needs no trial run,
And we challenged all, both great and small, from Dundee to St John.
It happened on a Tuesday, three days out of Dundee,
The gale took off her quarter-boat and a couple of men, you see.
It battered at her bulwarks, and her stanchions and her rails,
And left the old Balaena, boys, a-frothing in the gale.
Bold Jackman cut his canvas and he fairly raised his steam,
And Captain Guy with Erin Boy was ploughing through the stream,
And the noble Terra Nova, her boilers nearly burst,
And still at the old whaling grounds, Balaena got there first.
And now the season's over and the ship half-full of oil,
Our flying jib boom points for home towards our native soil.
And when that we have landed, boys, where the rum is very cheap,
We'll drink success to the skipper’s health for getting us over the deep.

Oh, the noble fleet of whalers out sailing from Dundee,
Well-manned by Scottish sailors to work them on the sea;
On the Western Ocean passage none with them can compare,
For there's not a ship could make the trip as the Balaena, I declare.

Oh, the wind is on her quarter and her engine working free,
And there's not another whaler a-sailing from Dundee.
Can beat the aul' Balaena and you needna try her on,
For we challenged all, both large and small, from Dundee to St John's.

And it happened on a Tuesday, four days after we left Dundee,
Was carried off the quarter-boats all in a raging sea,
That took away our bulwark, our stanchions and our rails,
And left the whole concern, boys, a-floating in the gales.

 There's the new built Terra Nova, she's a model of no doubt,
 There's the Arctic and the Aurora, you've heard so much about,
 There's Jacklin's model mail boat, the terror of the sea
 Couldn't beat the aul' Baleana, boys, on the passage from Dundee.

Bold Jackman carries canvas and  fairly raises steam,
And Captain Guy's a daring boy, ploughing through the stream,
But Mallan says the Eskimo could beat the blooming lot,
But to beat the aul' Baleana, boys, they'd find it rather hot.

And now that we have landed, boys, where the rum is mighty cheap,
We'll drink success to Captain Burnett, lads, for getting us ower the deep,
And a health to all our sweethearts, an' to our wives so fair,
Not another ship could make that trip but the Balaena, I declare.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Lost Music of Ancient Times

The Harp of Pictland?

 To say that the past is largely an unknown territory is a cliche and also terribly true.  Beyond several generations the broad, recoverable richness of the past - beyond the mere record of facts - is irrecoverable. In nothing is this more true than music.  Several Pictish stones in Angus show evidence of the harp as a musical instrument:  stones from Brechin, Aldbar, Monifieth and Aberlemno.  Of these, the depictions on the monuments at Aldbar and Monifieth are more clear. Yet the three harps on the different stones are all different shapes, which begs the question about whether there was a wide variation in the instrument as used in Pictland.  The most contentious representation must be the Aberlemno stone. (For classification purposes the stone is sometimes called Aberlemno 3 or simply Aberlemno roadside.)  At the bottom right of the monument there is, what seems to be, a figure with a c shaped object which might be a harp.  Simon Chadwick on his website about early Gaelic harps thinks that this is a harp akin to modern Burmese or ancient Egyptian instruments and points out that the scene depicted above this may be the story of St David.  If this is so and the figure has a middle-eastern harp, how did the creator of the scene in Angus know what it looked like?

   The stone at Monifieth more clearly shows a harp, the figure again at the bottom of the stone.  Monifieth being a noted early ecclesiastic site, the figures represented above may well be clerical functionaries, but we have no idea (if that is the case) how harp music may have been integrated into early church ritual.

Monifieth Pictish stone, with harpist at the bottom.

   At Aldbar, the represented harp stands alone midway up the stone and the human figure may well show both clerics (the two at the top) and laymen (the figure with the animal and the mounted man). It may well still portray a biblical story or scene.  

Aldbar Pictish stone.

A Whisper of Lost Melodies

   Even at a relatively early date, music was a well travelled commodity and musicians and story-tellers could even travel between countries if they were exceptionally gifted.  The Treasurer's Accounts of Scotland contain numerous entries detailing payments to many musicians, including - on Friday 23rd July 1490 - the payment of a large sum 'to the King [James IV] to gif the Fransche men that playt' for him' while he was staying in Dundee. Travelling east from Perth in 1497 James IV gave a payment of 14 shillings 'in Fowlis in Angus, to the harpar thare, at the Kingis command'.  The royal lodging is likely to be the mansion or castle of the Gray family there (predecessor of the current 17th century Fowlis Castle).  Whether the harpist was a resident family musician is of course unknown, as is the music he is likely to have played to the king of Scotland.  Going back further, the early Celtic mormaers and succeeding earls in Angus would have had poets and musicians to entertain them, magnify their deeds and commemorate their ancestry, but all trace of these locally has long gone.  

The Sang Schools

   Both Brechin and Dundee had educational establishments in the early historic period linked to churches.  Song Schoolds were founded in the Middle Ages in many countries to foster the training of priests and choristers who could fulfil musical functions within the mass.  In 1522 Elizabeth Masoun or Scrymgeour granted an annual rent from a tenement in St Margaret’s Close, Dundee, to assist the chaplain of St Thomas.  Part of the revenue from this altar was assigned in 1553 to support the master of the Sang Sckule in Dundee.  Such activities were discouraged by the reformed religion, but Dundee's school survived for many decades, as payments in the burgh records show:

1602.  Item to the Maister of the Song Scule – lxxx lib.1621, 1622.  Item to Mr John Mow, Maister of the Music Schoole for his fie and house mail (rent) – ijlib.1628.  Item to Mr John Mow, Masiter of the Music Scule for his fie and house mail – ijc lxvj li xiijs.  Iiijd.1634. The same as in 1628.
   Dundee later had three burgh schools, including the English School which had been established by the Town Council in 1702, although it had possibly derived from the Sang School, founded long before the reformation. The bishop of Brechin from 1426 to 1454 was John Crannoch, apparently an ambitious man, who sought to elevate the prestige of Brechin Cathedral by instituting a college in 1433.  His sang schule was enriched by the Earl of Atholl with a yearly endowment of £40 for four priests and six boys to sing masses for his kindred.  The boys were clothed in purple and white, shorn of hair and admonished to strictly behave.  Their welfare was entrusted to two resident chaplains, one of whom had to accompany them everywhere in public, presumably to enforce good behaviour.  Again, the school survived the reformation and morphed into a public school in later centuries.  The College Yards in Brechin's retains a memory of the school.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Do Shining Streams Dream of Radiant Ladies?

   The Paphrie Burn in the north of Angus is no-one's idea of a roaring river or an awesome body of water, but someone once  thought it was amazing, because its name comes from a Pictish root cognate with the Welsh pefr, which means 'radiant' or 'beautiful' (Inverpeffer near Arbroath derives from the same word).  The valley of the burn is in an area packed with ancient associations.  To the south is the Mansworn Rig, scene of a bloody encounter* and to the east are the hill-forts, the Brown and White Caterthun.

   A ghost goes here, about its solitary business in this small glen of the radiant stream, or at least it did until the land was changed in the late 19th century.  There is nothing so resonant as a dead ghost.  But at least the tale remains, and here it is, as told by the Rev. Frederick Cruickshank in Navar and Lethnot, The Story of A Glen Parish in the North-East of Forfarshire (Brechin, 1899):

In a hollow part of the road betwixt Menmore [Menmuir] and Lethnot is, or rather was, for recent improvements have done away with it, a place called the Leuchat Pool.  The burn running down from it to the Paphrie is still the Leuchat burn.  There is a well known tradition that close by this Pool a Tailor, once on a time, killed his sweetheart.  She has ever since haunted the place, and is recognised by her dress of light grey, which has given her the name of "the white wife."  Many persons passing by on dull evenings have seen her.  One of the Leightons of Drumcairn told me that he was riding across the Tullo hill on a moon-light night, when the spectral figure presented itself to his view.  He knew at once what it was, but to make sure he struck at it with his whip which went through the seeming woman without meeting any obstruction. His courage then gave way, and he set off up the brae as fast as his horse could go.  The figure kept an even pace with him for a little way, and then all at once disappeared.  I remain to this day under the impression that I once saw her myself.  I had been at the Manse of Menmore dining with my kind and hospitable friend, Mr Cron, and was walking home.  The time might be past eleven, but the night was not dark.  On reaching the Leuchat Pool, i saw a woman, clothed as above described, seated on the bank at the right hand side of the road.  I spoke to her in the usual manner, but to my surprise she made no answer, and got up, taking her way towards Menmore.  I did not think of the "white wife" at the time, and am not sure if up till then I had heard the story.  I took it for granted that it was some poor benighted traveller like myself, who was taking a rest by the road-side, and recognising me she was afraid to speak lest her voice should betray her.  But since that time I have come to the conclusion that if such a spectre haunts the place, it was certainly visible to me that night. [Navar and Lethnot, 299-300.]
[Author Adam Watson, incidentally, derives the name Leuchat from An Fhliuchad, 'the wet place', Place Names in Much of North- East Scotland, p. 107.]

   The Rev. Cruickshank, the son of a weaver from Kirriemuir, was born in 1826.  He became the incumbent of Navar and Lethnot in 1854 and resigned as minister in 1905, dying three years later.  Apart from the parish history quoted from, he also wrote Historic Footmarks in Stracathro (Brechin, 1891).

   As a footnote, it should be noted that White Ladies are particularly prone to haunt burns and other water features, though the Angus variant, in Dundee, Claypotts, House of Dun and Balnabreich generally dispenses with this rule of nature (apart from Benvie, possibly).

Tale of the Mansworn Rig

 On the eastern side of Tullo Hill, Menmuir is the Mansworn (i.e. Perjured) Rig.  It received its name after a dispute between two landowners.  Both men brought witnesses to the place to swear that the land belonged to their respective masters.  One servant swore to God that he was standing on his employer's ground, which so enraged the Laird of Balhall that he pulled a pistol from his belt and shot the man dead.  When the body was examined it was found that he had filled his shoes with soil taken  from his master's land so that he could truthfully swear his oath.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Church Bells (Joy and Music or Death and Darkness?)

The Folklore of Bells

Who would have thought there were things so dark and mysterious in the history of church bells?  If folklore generally bells are sometimes the means of banishing Satan and all dark powers, transmitting the power of goodness as well as pure sound. Slightly more supernaturally, in some places bells are heard under the sea, having been sunk in a shipwreck, forever tolling for their own  loss.

   Bells were sometimes given human names and attributed with powers to scare malevolent forces away.  It was said of the great bell in the church of Nuremberg in Germany:

By name I Mary called, with sound I put to flight,
The thunder crackes and hurtfull stormes and every wicked sprite.

The ropes at rest - for ringing the bells or hanging some unfortunate?

Hell's Bells?:  Stealing the Peals.  Continental Bells. Death at Navar

   In 'real life' there is a surprising association of criminality and dark acts sometimes associated with church bells.  Never as numerous in Scotland as in England, it seems that certain sacrilegious individuals viewed them only for their net worth as metal to be melted down and sold on.  So we have a record in the burgh archives of Dundee in 1560 when the Baillies ordered 'James Young to exhibit and produce before them the bell of Kynspindie, whilk was arrestit in his house to the effect they may do justice thereanent.'  Young was evidently a shady opportunist taking advantage of the redistribution of Church belongings at the Reformation and had misappropriated the church bell from Kilspindie in the Carse of Gowrie.  He did not respond to the demands of the Dundee authorities, so he was required 'to deliver to Archibald Dowglass of Kynspindie his bell or pay him the sum of twentie pounds.'  There is a tale untold about how he transported the conspicuous object from the village to Dundee and how he was caught.

   There was another bell theft a few months later when it was recorded:  'William Carmichell to deliver to the parochiners of Lyff their bell, taken by him frae certain persons wha wrangously intromittit therewith.'  Whether or not Liff ever got its original bell back is a mystery.  The current kirk bell  was cast in the Netherlands by the Burgherhuis foundry at Middleburg (which later also provided the bells for Liff's neighbours Benvie and Lundie, the latter dating to 1617.).  This foundry also cast bells for the Angus kirks of Farnell (1662) and Panbride (1664).  Oathlaw's bell (1618) waqs also made in Europe, as was that of Rescobie (1620, from the foundry of Andreas Ahem).   The first known bell at Kettins was cast by George (Jooris) Waghevens and was made in 1519. Monikie's bell, unusually, is of Scottish manufacture, made at Aberdeen in 1718.

   Cornelis Ouderogge of Rotterdam made Navar's bell in 1655, which was later given to Arbroath Museum.  It had remained in the kirk of Navar until that building became ruinous after the union of the parish with Lethnot in 1719.  It was then hung upon a tree in the churchyard.  While the bell was being tolled for a funeral the clapper later fell out and struck a young lad from the family of Wyllie of Tillyarblet and killed him on the spot.  In 1773 the locals erected a tower for the bell and here it remained until 1827 when it disappeared for a time.

   Knelling of the Passing Bell.  Dundee and Brechin Chime In

  There was a widespread superstitious connected with the Passing Bell, though tolling still happened at funerals under the sway of Presbyterianism.  Dundee's authorities at one time decreed 'that ony person [who] cause the gret bells to be rung for either saul mass or dirige, he sall pay forty pence to the Kirk werk'.  But, at another time, 'The bell is decernit till ring friely for all neighbours and comburgesses at ony neighbours decease without any contribution, except twelve pence to the sacristan ringer alanerly.'  This latter fee was also sometimes dispensed with as a matter of respect.

   In medieval times, the ringing of church bells occurred at different times.  Prior to the Reformation the kirk of Dundee possessed 5 bells, on which 'six score and nine straiks' were given three times a day, to call to 'matins, mess, and evensang'.  It was no easy matter for those people who actually swung the heavy bells.  On 10th November 1590 the burgh of Dundee recognised these concerns:
The Council, understanding the grite and continual travels and lawbours quhilk Charles Michelson hes in ringing the bells and attending on the Kirk at all occasions, and the exignitie [insufficiency]of the duty quhilk wes appointit of before for that service, quhairupon ane person can not lieve honestly, now appointit to him yearly aucht pennies to be upliftit of ilk neighbour having ane fire-house within the burgh, at sic time and season of the year as he sail think expedient... [The History of Old Dundee, Alexander Maxwell, 1884, 292-3]
   Three years later a new bell was bought on behalf of the burgh, probably from the Netherlands.  Apart from the instances above, the bell or bells were also chimed to mark the curfew.  Dundee's curfew was rung at 9, but later changed to 10 in the evening.  Brechin's bells began ringing at 4 in the morning and the last was rung at 8 in the evening.  The Beadle rang the 'little bells' on Sunday morning to announce the time for prayers and the 'great bell' in the steeple at the start of preaching.  The last bell rung at 8 marked the beginning of curfew.

The tower of St Mary's Dundee, the 'Old Steeple'.

Forfar's 'Lang Strang' and the Jealousy of Dundee

   Forfar's 'Lang Strang' bell has a special place in the affections of Forfar people and dates from the mid-17th century.  Two brothers, Robert and William Strang emigrated to Sweden and made a good living for themselves there. (They are generally supposed to be sons of Provost Alexander Strang of Forfar, but may have been his brothers.)  The Forfar brothers donated two small bells to their hometown, which were called 'six o' clock' and 'eight o' clock', and in 1657 donated a massive new bell to the burgh.  The elder Strang in Stockholm, Robert, commissioned Gerhard Meyer to cast a great bell to give to Forfar.  Before it was completed he died and his brother William took over the project. Robert also bequeathed 10,000 merks to the poor of Forfar.

   A popular story says that the bell was shipped from Stockholm to Dundee, but the people of Dundee were so jealous of Forfar's bell that they tore out the clapper and threw this 'silver tongue' into the River Tay.  Undaunted the Forfar folk collected their bell and improvised a new clapper which served for many years until local craftsman David Falconer produced a new one, which serves to this day.  Lang Strang is fulsomely praised by Alan Reid in The Royal Burgh of Forfar (Paisley, 1902), p. 136:

Swung 'high in the belfry' of the parish church, the large and graceful object is not to be seen without some trouble and exertion, but it repays seeing quite as much as it does listening.  Its great size - some three feet by four - as also its massive brazen build, commands attention; but the ornamentation and inscribing are equally interesting.  The Strang quarterings appear on one side, with these words:  'This bell is Perfected and Augmented by William Strang and his Wyfe Margaret Pattillo in Stockholm, Anno 1656.'  On the opposite side may be read:  'For the glory of God and the Love he did bear to his Native Toune Hath Umql. Robert Strang Friely Gifted this Bell to the Churche of the Burghe of Forfar, who Deceased in the Lord in Stockholm on the 21 daye of Aprill, Anno 1651.'  The words 'Me fecit Gerat Meyer, Anno 1656,' appear among the quotations from Scripture which occupy the upper and lower circumferences of the bell.  To bring forth the full volume of tone which 'Lang Strang' is famous requires a considerable exercise of strength and skill. Many an ambitious young Forfarian has had his mettle tried by the 'tow-rope' of the giant.
   The traffic of bells with Sweden was not entirely one way.  The Courier newspaper reported on 27th November 2013 that  a pair of Swedish Lutherans turned up in Carmyllie and announced they had found a bell inscribed with the village name just outside of Stockholm.  The theory runs that the bell found its way to Sweden soon after the  first Jacobite rising in 1715.  The Earl of Panmure had ordered the bell to be rung so enthusiastically that it was reported to have cracked and so a new bell was installed in the kirk in 1716.  So the bell marked with Carmyllie's name in Sweden may be that original bell, but no one knows how or why it ended up there.

Lang Strang

The Kettins Bell:  The Mystery of Marie Troon - Mercenaries, Monasteries, Bogs, and Theft?

   Another bell with continental associations and an even stranger tale stands in the kirkyard of Kettins.  The bell has the inscription:  'My name is Marie Troon and Mr Hans Popenuyder  [Popen Reider] made me in 1519.'  This Hans is possibly to be identified with the cannon-maker who supplied the cannons for Henry VIII's warship the Mary Rose. There is no proven connection between this foreigner with Kettins (or the Flemish monastery mentioned below).

Since the church was redesigned in 1893, the bell has been houses in a small separate turret, but was incorporated into the main building before that date. The first strand of mystery revolves around how a 16th century bell with an apparently blatant European origin can to belong to an 18th century church.

  Architect Alexander tried to unravel the story late in the 19th century and gave the traditional origin of the bell as relayed by antiquarian Andrew Jervise:

The traditional origin of the bell, as given by Jervise, is that it originally belonged to the Abbey of Cupar-Angus, had been removed from there, and lost or hid in a bog or myre at Baldinnie, a short distance south of Kettins, whence the bell was rescued by one Ramsay, and by him presented to the Kirk of Kettins, and he, in respect of the gift, acquired for his family a right of burial within the church. In proof of this story, Rev. Mr Fleming states that the burial-place of the Ramsays was immediately underneath the belfry. ['Notice of the Bell and Other Antiquities at the Church of Kettins, Forfarshire,'  Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 28 (1893-4), 90-100.]

   From that point, however, the story gets impossibly entangled.  One theory states that the monks at nearby Coupar Angus had possession of the bell and buried it purposefully before it was taken to Kettins church for safe-keeping.  However, there was a considerable time lapse before the closure of the abbey in the mid 16th century and the appearance of the bell and gift of it to the kirk in the very last years of the 17th century.  If Marie Troon is equated with 'Mary Enthroned', some argue that this connects the bell directly to the Abbey of Coupar, dedicated to St Mary.

   By the end of the 20th century it was widely theorised that the bell had been cast in Belgium and there was a small trickle of visitors from that nation who came from that nation to see the bell.  Flemish historians believed that the bell came from the monastery of Our Lady of Troon in Grobbendonk, near Antwerp, and was looted by soldiers. This connection had already been made in the late Victorian era by David MacRitchie, as told by Alexander Hutcheson:

half an hour's walk from Grobbendonck, there is a small hill which gives its name to the surrounding farm, viz., 'De Troon' or 'The Throne.' The farm-steading is part of an old monastery known as 'Maria Troon.' The Priory of Canons-Regular of Maria Troon was foiinded in the year 1414 near the village of Ouwen, now Grobbendonck, on the river Nethe, one hour's journey from Herenthals . . . But in the year 1578 it was attacked by the Dutch soldiers of the province of Herenthals, and burned to the ground. The monks were dispersed, and ultimately, in 1587, united themselves with the monks of St Martin's Priory at Louvain.

   How the Marie Troon actually made its way from the Low Countries to Strathmore, however, is far from apparent.  Some people say the Marie Troon was first used on board a ship and was possibly stole while the vessel lay in Scottish waters; others believe it fell into the hands of traders who sold it on to the Hallyburton family who had connections with Dundee and Kettins. Hutcheson however points out that the bell is too large to have practically served that purpose.


   Things took another turn when a well-manner delegation from Grobbendonk came to Kettins in the early 21st century and asked if they could have their bell back.  Among those pressing for the repatriation were Paul van Rompaye, a local councillor, and Martine Paelmon, a member of the Belgian parliament.  However, a compromise was hammered out whereby the Belgians indicated they were prepared to accept a bell made from a cast of the original.  Crisis and diplomatic incident averted.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Colin Sievwright the Weaver Poet and Queen Scota, Ancestress of the Scots

  A post of two halves, this one, and only loosely connected, I'm afraid.  Let's first look at the Brechin-born 'weaver poet' Colin Sievwright.  Born in Brechin in 1819, son of a hand-loom weaver, he was the eldest of a large family.  His parents were Solomon Sievwright and Martha Burnett.  He started work in the East Mill Company at the age of eight and was paid a shilling per week for seventy-two hours' work.  He married Annie Mackenzie in 1842 and they had four sons and one daughter.  The year before his marriage he was recorded in the census as being a resident in Kirriemuir, working as a weaver.  By the time of the census in 1871 he was living at 21 Dundee Loan, Forfar, and he was employed in a factory as a starchmaker, though he pertinently - and proudly - listed his subsidiary occupation as 'poet'.

   And a poet Colin Sievwright certainly was, a member of that peculiarly Victorian breed of artisan bards who flourished all over Great Britain.  The merits of this brand of poetry are hard to judge as a whole, and I admit that 19th century poetry in its entirety is not something which I love.  Colin published four books of poetry:  The Sough O' The Shuttle (1866), A Garland for the Ancient City:  Or, Love Songs of Brechin and its Neighbourhood (1873), New Lilts O' The Braes O' Angus (1874), Rhymes for the Children of the Church (1879). Sievwright's work covered subjects such as the beauties of natures and the characters of rural life.  He wrote in both Scots and English and the following (from his 1866 book) gives a flavour of his work, describing the (then) ruined castle of Inverquharity:

Auld Kirrie, Cradle of the Nation?

Scota - First of the Scots?  Dream Queen?

   In his introduction to his poem 'View from the Hill of Kirriemuir' (again from his first collection), Colin Sievwright provides some surprising information about Kirrie Den which seems to take us to a very remote place in Scotland's past:

At the entrance of this delightful arbour [where the Gairie Burn issues from a ravine at the west of the town], on your right hand as you ascend the banks of the stream, there is to be seen a little cave in the rock beautifully overhung with 'the ivy evergreen,' and known to the people in the neighbourhood as the Queen's Chamber, where it is believed that Scota Eta, a daughter of Pharoah king of Egypt, and the first who swayed the royal sceptre over Caledonia's hills and glens, found a shelter, when in the course of one of her Royal perambulations she was overtaken by the double calamity of darkness and drift.  In this little chamber we are told she passed the night in perfect safety, while her bodyguard lay encamped on the holm on the opposite side of the stream.
   The tale of this mythical queen goes back very distantly indeed into the murky past of both Irish and Scottish origin myths.  In one version of these confusing tales, Feinius Farsaidh and his son Nel were intrepid heroes and linguists who took the sacred Gaelic language from the Tower of Babel.  Nel made a good career move by journeying into Egypt and hooking up with the Pharoh's daughter, Scota:

He went into Egypt through valour
Till he reached powerful Pharoh,
Till he bestowed Scota, of no scant beauty,
The modest, nimble daughter of Pharoh.
  Following the drowning of the Egyptial leader in the Red Sea, Nel and Scota's son Gaidel Glas led their tribe west, into western Europe, and they were named Gaels in honour of him.  But how the Queen of Egypt happened to be encamped in Kirrie Den is anyone's guess.

Scota:  Any resemblance to any character, actual or fictional, is purely co-incidental.

More Classical Connections in Kirriemuir, the Graeco-Pictish Conspiracy

   Caddam Wood is the name of a noted Scottish country dance tune, and it is an actual case near Kirrie where - possibly - a Greek nymph once sported itself. (The wood features in The Little Minister, Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel by J. M. Barrie).  But there is a more elusive mention of the place (elusive to me anyway) in The Barrie Inspiration by Patrick Chalmers (1938), which states:

There is a legend of Caddam, borrowed from the Greek mythology, which tells how a god pursued a Greek nymph there, which was an unco' thing to happen in an Auld Licht Parish.      
 Further details of this Doric tall-tale are sadly unknown to me.  But I have a theory which may revolutionise the ethnicity of the entire Scottish race.  We know that Lallans was a name for the Scots language, and before that it was known as Doric, signifying a metaphorical connection with the wild, rural country of uncultured highland Greece.  But what if there was an actual, real DNA connection?  We know that Usan on the Angus coast was supposed in a so-called tall story to have been founded by the mighty Ulysses.  It all fits together.  It is too coincidental that we also have this story, however slight, of the minions of Pan cavorting in the Kirrie glades.  The Picts were neither Celts nor Scythians, but actually a lost tribe of noble Greeks, lost in time.  Case proved; enough said, except to state that less knowledgeable commentators may blame the transference of classical culture on a misinterpretation of local lads and lassies to the noble efforts of local dominies back in Victorian times, but that is quite simply not the case.

Sievwright himself.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Man With The White Sandshoes (and a Purple Man too)

   I've put out a call for information today via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. to see if anyone can provide me with any additional information regarding "The Man With the White Sandshoes".  This character is a kind of urban legend, whose supposed activity stretched over many decades in the mid to late 20th century.  In summary, he was a nameless but terrifying apparition - I'm not sure whether human or ghostly -who terrorised people in Dundee by chasing after them, for unknown reasons.  Generations of children had him whispered about by cold blooded siblings and older associates who took delight in instilling mortal fear in more gullible bairns.

   A cursory investigation shows that the character (archetype?) is familiar in other parts of Scotland, most in the west, where he was sometimes known as "Sandshoe Sammy".  More intriguingly, the same character also featured in the urban parts of North-East England.  I always believed that the spectre was well-kent in Dundee, but there is no mention of him in Geoff Holder's well researched Haunted Dundee.  

   In my childhood the Man With The White Sandshoes was active in the environs of Balgay Hill, in the gloaming and after dark. he ran on the roads and wooded pathways of the hill, running after random unfortunates who happened to be unlucky enough to have strayed into his domain.  A favourite spot of his apparently was the iron bridge which joins the two sections of the hill.  This was also a favoured haunt of the White Lady (whose actives are admirably detailed by Holder), but I don't know whether there was any connection between these two creatures.  A particular target of the Man was any nurse who happened to walk through the hill, on the way to or from her shift at Victoria Hospital, to the south of Balgay.  What he would do if he actually caught anyone is also unknown.

   The apparition is alleged to have haunted the area around Dunmore Street, in Kirkton, in the 1950s.  Beyond Dundee, there is a wonderful tale from North Lanarkshire/East Dunbartonshire online, related by someone who used to venture every Saturday with an associate or two, 'years back', from Moodiesburn to Kirkintilloch, an isolated country route.  The narrator says that one winter weekend day he crossed the road, 'just before the countryside part', and saw what he thought was a severed hand in a glove perched on the top of a dyke.  However, it turned out to be a glove cleverly packed with ice by a clever prankster.  He and his friends started speculating that the hand was real and the work of a serial killer they decided to call "The White Sandshoe Man", and for months joked that this horror was pursuing them.  Months and months later he found another snow packed glove on the same wall, only this was from the other hand.  The killer punchline was that it was the middle of a July heatwave - how could it have got there and not melted?

   The story is intriguing for its many folkloric elements.  Did he merely pluck the name of the bogey out of the air, or was the character floating about, metaphorically or actually, in the local ether?

   The Glasgow version of the origin of the soft shoe man is more emphatic.  During the blackout in World War II, there was a man who used to lurk around in the enforced darkness of the Garnethill area, and he would pounce on stray women and strangle them.  He was never brought to justice.  His method was made effective by his wearing sandshoes and therefore he was nicknamed Sand Shoe Sanny and became a terror to successive generations of weans in the locality.

   A variant on the name of the prowler is "Sand Shoe Sanny", not Sammy, readily explained by the fact that sannies are Scots slang for sandshoes. Another rogue tradition says the same was "Sandshoe Wullie".  One Glaswegian swore that this character lived near the public baths in Elvan Street:  

He wore a long coat and a bunnet and...walked with his hands in his coat pockets.  I never ever saw this person or new [sic.] anyone who had actually seen him... Whenever we were in the Shettleston area from Wellshot Road down to Cree Street we were always extra vigilant...
   On the same online message board another contributor ("weegieghost") gave the variant name for the ghoul as "Flannelfoot".  Is this a throwback to a primordial, noiseless bogle from before the time when the ubiquitous sandshoe came into being?  One of the functions of the being, of course, was to keep children in line, away from certain areas and home by a specific time, or else.

   Possibly the Sandshoe Man (was "Plimsoll Samuel" his given name, I wonder?) was a regional variant on the shadow being known around the world as The Silent Man or The Still Man.  This is a stalking figure who murders victims for reasons unknown and seems to feature in folklore as far afield as Germany and other places in Europe.

   Be that as it may, the Scottish version is very distinctive.  Fair enough wearing sandshoes for fleet movement, but why particularly white sandshoes?  Surely that would just draw attention to the runner.  One source states that the anonymous man wore one black shoe and one brown one, which is nearly as attention seeking.  How the story began is anyone's guess, but my mind is drawn to tales of "Jack the Runner", one of the many haunters of Glamis Castle (itself not far from Dundee).  This creature ran wildly across the lush and eerie lawns in front of the castle and is reckoned by some to be the spirit of the famous family monster, taking a forlorn chance to escape from its family captors.  Maybe there is a link here to an archetype?

+++++++++ Respondents' Roll of Honour from Facebook, etc. +++++++++++++++

   In response to my request for information, the following members of Dundonian History for All on Facebook have kindly provided the following: 

SN:  'As children we were told we had to be asleep before the man in the white sannies came, never told why!!??'

MH: 'I think perhaps there was a pedo or murderer who wore white sandshoes and mums and dads all over used it to help keep the children safe. I was frightened by a man wearing white sandshoes at Lochee park. My pals and I gave him a wide berth but looking back he was probably on his way to play tennis in the park.'

AP:  'I used to live at 36 North Ellen Street up three flights of stairs and sometimes had to take a meal down to the old lady on the ground floor. At the bottom of the stairs was an alley way out to the rubbish bins and the man in the White sannies used to hide in there having a smoke.'

MB:  'He lived next door to us, and apart from the white Sannie’s his nose was purple wi the drink.'

JD:  'My parents when they were children were told to watch out for the man in the white sanshoes. That would've been 1940s. They told us in the 1970s the same story but they said he wore red clothing.'

MT:  'While at primary school in the early 60's someone in the playground would shout "Here's the manny in the white sannies! We would all run for cover. The other one was the "purple man".'

GD:  'At Dryburgh Primary in the sixties we were scared of the Purple Mannie but never saw him.' (RF, a contemporary at Dryburgh Primary, also recalls the Purple Mannie.)

DM: 'My dad told me about the man in the white sand shoes was a flasher when he was young. Used to creep about in sandshoes so kids didn't here him coming and when he got close he would open his rain coat and be naked.'

MG states that his wife 'was told about him when little apparently he would creep up behind women to scare them wearing sand shoes so not to be heard doing this'.

   Several people remember at least one person in Dundee singing a song about the Man With the White Sandshoes, but the words and tune are probably now lost.

  JC informed me by email that her memory of the White Sandshoe Man was when she went to Mains School in 1940s: 'he used to wear a long raincoat and he used to stand on the golf course looking over to our school . I’ve never forgotten him.'

   The Teeside version of Sandshoe Sammy was very evident in the 1970s.  As in some Scottish instances, in England the name also sometimes became attached to a real person.  In Middlesbrough, a lonely figure who always carried a carrier bag and wore sandshoes which were too big for him (and, therefore, presumably useless for running?). The figure, in various whispered forms, was known in the city from the 1940s onwards.  What connection there was between this area and Glasgow, in terms of this tale, are not clear.  But a tale from a contributor to The Partick Times (Summer 2015) also states that Sandshoe Sammy was a name given to a real person, who stayed at Exeter Drive.

Anyway this man, maybe he had something wrong with his feet, but for whatever reason, he wore huge, big sandshoes and he always wore a coat and he had a beard. He wasn’t frightening or creepy, but there was something odd about the man and he was always called Sandshoe Sammy. People used to follow him and shout at him. I remember when he died they had to ask people to go to his funeral because he didn’t know anybody. Somebody went round the doors telling people, and a lot of the neighbours went.

Some Sources and Further Reading




Holder, Geoff, Haunted Dundee (Stroud, 2012).