Thursday, 6 February 2020

The Tay Ferries in the 19th Century

The Tay Bridge Disaster is rightly remembered as the most terrible event associated with the crossing between Angus and Fife, but there were other dreadful losses of life associated with this crossing in the 19th century before the rail bridge was constructed.  In 1815, 17 people lost their lives in a ferry accident in the Tay between the two counties.  

   According to contemporary reporting:

The melancholy catastrophe which occurred on the Tay on that fatal Sunday morning caused a great sensation in Dundee and Newport. The various congregations in town were assembling for the forenoon service when the news reached the shore. The sad tale spread rapidly throughout the town, and a general rush was made to the Craig Pier to learn particulars of the disaster. The churches in Dundee were almost deserted that forenoon...Widespread sympathy was expressed all over the country for those who had been bereaved by this lamentable accident, and liberal subscriptions were raised for their relief. A public meeting was held 40 in the Exchange Coffee Room, Dundee, on 28th June, at which Mr. David Jobson presided, for the purpose of setting on foot a public subscription for the relief of the bereaved families, and also to take steps to inquire into the causes of the accident. On the motion of Captain Blair, a committee was appointed to collect subscriptions for the relief of the sufferers.

  At that time, there were 25 boats active on the passage and most of the crews comprised old and infirm men and young, inexperienced boys. Around 100 men worked on the boats.  Much drunkenness and disorder is said to have prevailed among the crews and there was absolutely no supervision of the crossing.  For instance, when passengers reached the point of departure on either side, they either had to hire a whole boat (which might be very expensive if there were only a few on them), or hang around until a sufficient number gathered to make a boatful.  Most of the information below derives from an article included in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1825, written by Captain Basin Hall.

 For the year 1816-17, the ferry conveyed the following:

Passsengers - 91,663
Cartloads of Goods - 13,612
Horses - 2,659
Cattle - 2,317
Sheep - 41
Pigs - 4,357
Coaches and Gigs - 670
Total revenue, £3,177 11s. 10d.

 In the period between 1819 and 1821 there were 70,000 people annually undertaking the crossing and the revenue from the ferry was £2,510 per annum. In the year 1820 revenues were £2510; in 1821, £2526 ; in 1822 £3209 ; in 1823, £3532 ; and in 1824, £3790.

The new crossing arrangement was a success, albeit there was a period when the Fife departure point was Woodhaven, which was soon changed to the more convenient Newport.

  Two years later, the counties of Fife and Forfar jointly formed appointed a committee to examine the operation of the ferry and formulate improvements. It was found that the profit from the ferry operation should be sufficient to fund a decent and safe service. Among the measures taken was reducing the number of boats on the crossing from 28 to a more manageable 8. Better crews were installed and it was ensured all equipment was upgraded. Times were regulated too for the services and improvements made to the landing areas on either side.

  The following details are summarised from the written account of Captain Hall. He tells is that, in 1819, an Act of Parliament was passed for erecting piers and regulating the passage across the Tay. ('
'An Act for erecting, improving, regulating, and maintaining ferries and passages across the River Tay in the counties of Fife and Forfar'.) The Tay Ferries Trust was instituted and hereditary rights relating to the ferry were transferred from the previous feudal superior Lord Douglas.

Local discussions around this time included the question of whether a steam boat should be employed on the passage. It was agreed to trial such a vessel, though it did not come into service until 1821.
The new vessels' crews consisted of a coxswain or captain, an engineer, five sailors, plus a fireman. The terms of the Act, t decreed that the Trustees had to operate two ferries, so they again applied to Parliament and obtained a new Act, constituting Newport the only Ferry station. The old pier at Woodhaven was therefore abandoned, but its owner, Mr. Stewart of St Fort, received a sum of money as compensation for the loss of the revenue derived from the Ferry.

 The ferry was thriving at the time when Captain Hall wrote his account. Two steam boats regularly plied between the two counties, but only one was regularly in service. This changed during harvest time when there was a great movement of seasonal agricultural workers travelling through east Scotland and also when drovers had to move their herds of cattle across country. Around 90 cattle could be comfortably accommodated in the vessels at one time.

The successor Tay Ferry in the 20th century

Captain Hall informs us that:

The utmost attention is paid to the hours of departure. Three minutes before the town clock of Dundee strikes the hour, a bell is rung on board the boat; and the instant the hour is told, the paddle-wheel begins to move, and the vessel to glide from the pier. In like manner, when the half hour strikes at Newport, she quits the opposite pier; and so on from sunrise to sun-set; her crossings and recrossings never being interrupted. To ensure the constancy of this essential, but very difficult point, an able and active superintendant has been appointed, with a handsome salary, and a house on the spot: His exclusive business is to arrange the whole details of the passage, and to prevent all unnecessary delays.

A collector also is appointed, a gentleman who, in like manner, resides constantly on the spot, and attends exclusively to the money department. In consequence of the vigilance of these two officers, acting under the judicious regulations which the trustees have from time to time established, it is most worthy of remark, that, however great the crowd of cattle, carriages, or passengers may be, not the least delay or confusion ever arises, either at the embarkation or relanding. On board the boat the system is equally perfect: there is a coxswain, an engineer, five seamen and a fireman. Long practice has given to those people so exact a knowledge of the power which is in their hands, that this huge and apparently unwieldy boat, is moved about with a celerity and precision altogether astonishing. To a stranger, however much accustomed he may have been to the wonders of machinery elsewhere, the effect is truly magical. The steam-boat, or, more properly, this great double raft, is discovered advancing at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour, directly for the shore, threading her way like a little skiff amongst the vessels lying in her way. In a few seconds she arrives, still at full speed, close to the shore. In the next instant she is arrested, by a touch of the engineer's hand, as suddenly as if she had struck upon a rock; and is placed, by the sole instrumentality of her invisible machinery, close by the side of the pier, with as much accuracy as if she were in a dock, and as much gentleness as if, instead of being made of stout oak and iron, she were formed of glass. In a moment, two great folding gangways are lowered down, and her side being thusthrown open, cattle, horses, passengers, all walk out, and find themselves on land, with scarcely any circumstance having occurred to indicate they had been on the water.

He further described the great benefit of the new improved ferry service in glowing terms:

The public, in point of fact, derive the whole benefit arising from it, as the fares for crossing goods and passengers have in no case been raised, although the facilities of the ferry have been immeasurably increased, not only as to the traffic which formerly occupied the passage, but in the certain conveyance of cattle, sheep and horses, the transport of which was heretofore almost unknown. Thus, these great improvements have at last virtually united two great districts of the country, by converting into an easy and sure communication that barrier, which, in less enlightened times,it might have been said, Nature had interposed in order to keep them separate. Such is a very general account of the greatest ferry probably in the kingdom, if the number of passengers and the amount of traffic of all kinds be a just measure of its importance.

  The greatest expense in the new, improved service across the Tay was the provision of new low-water piers on both sides, which together cost around £17,000.

  The first steamer on the ferry service was the Perth built ‘Union’, launched in 1821. The second vessel, 'George IV.', came into service in 1823. But the latter came to grief in February 1824 when it was discovered to be on fire. To save it from utter wreck it was scuttled and sunk. But it was later repaired and the boat went back into service until 1840. The 'Union' was superseded by the 'Tayfield' in 1836. Later vessels in the 19th century included the ‘Princess Royal’, the ‘Forfarshire’ and ‘Fifeshire’.

  Despite the fact that the ferries were a necessity and continued in various forms until the building of the Tay Road Bridge in the 20th century the operation was never vastly profitable.  Yet many still have fond memories of the Tay crossing.

* Some additional information from:

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Underground Angus - Pictish Souterrains, the Fairy Tradition

   One of my posts in 2018 an underground cave or tunnel at Lintrose, near Kettins (now in Perthshire, but historically in Angus), which may in fact have been a Pictish souterrain.  (The post can be read here.) These underground structures, which seem to have been made and used just beyond the horizon of the historical threshold in Scotland, have always fascinated people.  The souterrains at Pitcur near Monifieth were close to an area named the Cur Hills and the knowledge of underground works here seemed to have inspired a folk belief locally that there was some connection with fairy folk . (Read the article here.)

  Also known as earth-houses or weems, souterrains are not unique to Scotland, although the function of similar structures in Ireland, France and Cornwall (where they are known as fogous) may not be identical.  This article looks at the general lore surrounding souterrains.  The archaeology and history of these fascinating constructions will be postponed until I thoroughly digest the classic book on the subject written by W.T. Wainwright (pictured below).

Barns of Airlie souterrain

 Were they underground dwellings, subterranean stores, something else?  One thing is clear: Angus has a notable concentration of these mysterious structures. There are concentrations in such places as Kettins and the Barns of Airlie, where there were six of them.  I have mentioned the folkloric connection with underground passages and Pitcur previously, which may have been inspired by the remains of a souterrain.  The souterrain at Carlungie seems also to have inspired local people to link the structures to tales of fairies, and the connection is made clear by the following anecdote relating to Airlie which was written by the writer David MacRitchie (of whom, more below), in his article 'Stories of the Mound- Dwellers' in The Celtic Review, 4 (1907-8), pp. 316-330:

It has sometimes happened that, long after an underground house has ceased to be occupied, new settlers of another race have built their houses directly above these concealed retreats, quite unaware of their existence. Thus, at Airlie in Forfarshire, a cottage was supposed to be haunted because oatcakes, baking on the hearthstone, occasionally disappeared from sight in a mysterious manner. It was thought proper to pull down the cottage altogether, and then it was accidentally found out that the hearthstone was the roof-stone of an underground house, into which the cake had fallen through a crevice. Nobody had thought of lifting the hearthstone before proceeding to the extremity of pulling down the house. That was in the eighteenth century. (p. 319)

David MacRitchie and his Theories

   The belief, among some of the later population of Scotland, that some underground places were the dwellings of fairies has led to some anthropological theories which attempt to link the belief in a vanished race of people with tales of fairy folk. A primary mover in these theoretical fields in Scotland was David MacRitchie, who first propounded his racial theory in Ancient and Modern Britons, A Retrospect (1884).  Although Mr MacRitchie's theories are somewhat wider than a local, Angus concern they deserve space here because of their importance (they are important but, unfortunately, not correct). The author's article on the Pitcur earth-house is reproduced at the tail end of this piece.  It is notable for not containing any of the author's racial theories about the Picts.

   Who were the original Pictish people in Angus and elsewhere in our part of the world? One of the lingering misconceptions today is that the Picts were wee folk, elusive and cunning, and that the survival of some of this indigenous stock gave rise to tales of elusive, hill dwelling pygmy types who had magical powers.  This view was further propounded by people such as MacRitchie in his works, such as The Testimony of Tradition (1890) and Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893). While there was no sinister intent behind the ideas of this author, and he was certainly not alone in propounding them, there was inevitable manipulation of these ideas among other writers and soon the notions of superior and inferior races were added in to the mix.  However, The Testimony of Tradition did not go without its critics.  The author threw in ideas about gypsies, Finns and other races and wrote numerous articles of pseudo-scholarship to back up his claims.  His ideas are wholly discredited in the modern era.  Yet some of his works contain sparks of innovative ideas and his books are very readable.  Such is the fate of many of his Victorian contemporaries.

Plan of the Pitcur weem.

Appendix - 'A Visit to a Pict's House,' 

David MacRitchie

   As I have to-day visited an admirable specimen of the underground structures so frequently found in Scotland, where they are popularly known as 'Picts' Houses,' some description of it will, I think. prove interesting to the readers of Science, although the place itself has long been known to antiquaries. There are very many examples of these structures in the British Isles, notably in Scotland and Ireland, but unfortunately the information regarding them (almost invariably most exact and detailed) is for the most part buried in the various volumes of  'Transactions' of antiquarian societies, and is thereby practically useless. If the descriptions already published regarding these buildings, together with reproductions of the diagrams illustrating them, could be focused into one volume, the result would be of the highest interest to those who have paid attention to the subject, and would be a positive revelation to those who have not yet done so.' And one great advantage to be derived from a comparison of the various delineations would be that the student would realize that, although such structures are referred to under many names (such as underground caves, souterrains, weems, cloghauns, Picts' Houses, and-popularly-fairy halls), they all belong to one great class.
   The specimen visited by me to-day is situated at Pitcur, in Forfarshire, about two miles to the south-east of the small town of Coupar-Angus, and is locally known as 'the Picts' house.' It is entirely beneath the surface of the ground, and the portion of it which is still covered over stretches for
about twenty feet beneath a ploughed field. That is to say, its roof is covered by a foot or two of soil, through which the plough passes without ever striking the flat, stone roof below. In other cases, indeed, the ploughshare has often been the first discoverer of these subterranean galleries.
   The ground-plan of the Pict's House at Pitcur may be roughly described as of a horseshoe shape, with a shorter gallery parallel to the exterior curve of one side. The horseshoe itself is about 130 feet in length from end to end, with an average depth of 6 or 7 feet, and an average breadth of about 6 feet. The shorter gallery is about 55 feet long, and its dimensions otherwise resemble those of the horseshoe, except that it broadens out into a bulb shape at the inner end-a common feature in such structures. The line of length, in each case. is taken along the middle of the gallery, there being, of course, a great difference between the length of the inner and outer curves.
   Be it understood that both of these galleries are, as it were, great symmetrical ditches or drains, quite underground, and entered by several burrow-like doorways. Their sides have been carefully-built walls of large, unhewn,  unmortared stones, and these are still to a great extent unimpaired. The roof was formed by bringing the upper tiers of the wall slightly together, and then placing huge slabs of stone across from side to side. Two of the largest of these roofslabs measure as follows: One (the largest of all) is about 74 inches in length, by 58 inches in breadth, and from 11 to 13 inches in thickness, its shape being an irregular oblong. The other is about 60 inches long, by 48 inches broad, and 12 inches thick. These are certainly very large specimens, but one is always struck by the great size of the flag-stones used in roofing these underground retreats. I have described as unhewn all the stones employed in this building, but (as in similar cases) one is led to conjecture that some rough process of shaping must have been adopted, although the outlines are perfectly rude, and no trace whatever is visible of any tool. The selection of these great stones, whether from a quarry or a hillside, their carriage to the scene of action (often from a very great distance), and the method used in placing them in position, are all problems which have greatly puzzled antiquaries.
   In the Pitcur 'home' most of the roof-slabs have disappeared, having obviously shared the fate of so many monuments of antiquity, at the hands of proprietors and farmers in need of building materials and quite devoid of all interest in archaeology. But (perhaps because it goes underneath arable land) the northern portion of the great horseshoe gallery still retains roof: and this part of the building is,therefore, in all probability, in its original condition. It appears to have been of itself a  'house,' apart from the main gallery of which it forms a portion. for it has a carefully-built doorway leading into the main gallery; and, moreover, an extra ascent to the upper earth leads from tile side of the wall just at the outside of this doorway. On going through the doorway of this inner portion, one finds, on the right hand, a small recess in the all, about 33 inches high, 23 inches broad at the floor, and going into the thickness of the wall about 26 inches. Although this cavity is 23 inches broad at the base, the two slabs which form the supports of its little doorway are made to slant towards the top, where the breadth narrows to 14 inches. Within this recess it is possible for a man of 5 feet 10, and of proportionate breadth, to sit in a squatting posture; but it is a very 'tight fit.' I am particular in giving the dimensions of this recess, because the late Captain Thomas, a naval officer who devoted much time and study to these subterranean structures, and who found this little recess on the right hand of many of their doorways, regarded them as probably identical with the 'guard-cells' of the Pictish 'brochs.' Captain Thomas quite realized that if these were really " guard cells " they were useless for any but men of distinctly small stature - attribute of the Picts, according to tradition.
   It is difficult to convey a true idea of such buildings by written description alone, but perhaps these notes will give the readers of Science some impression of an example of a very interesting class of structures.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

David Ramsay - The Royal Clock-maker, Inventor, Mystic

   There is a question mark in the title both because I am not absolutely sure that the subject of this article was a native of Angus and also because his whole surviving legacy is a matter of intrigue. We can begin with a bit of definite fiction. Sir Walter Scott's novel The Fortunes of Nigel, published 1822, is set two hundred years earlier. Early in the book we encounter a watchmaker near Temple Bar, London, David Ramsay, who lives there with his daughter, Margaret. Ramsay is described as 'an ingenious, but whimsical and self-opinionated mechanic, much devoted to abstract studies'. He was clock-maker to the king, James I (and VI), and a native of Dalkeith, near Edinburgh.



Clocks, Inventions, Occult Treasure-Seeking 

   The royal clockmaker Ramsay was a real figure, A Scot resident in London, though he was almost certainly not from Dalkeith. The Dalkieth connection was invented by Scot to link the character with the eminent Ramsays of Dalhousie. More likely by far is that this Scottish craftsman was a scion of the family who had connections in Dundee and Auchterhouse. Richard Bissell Prosser's article in the Dictionary of National Biography perpetuates the spurious Dalhousie connection but contains much of interest. John Smith's book Old Scottish Clockmakers (1921) confirms that the London Ramsay was a Dundonian.

   David Ramsay was royal clockmaker to kings James I and Charles I in succession and was also page of the bedchamber and groom of the privy chamber, and so a man of some standing in court circles as well as a 'mere' master craftsman. His interests in science apparently spread far and wide. Between 1618 and 1638 David obtained eight patents for various inventions related to ploughing soil, fertilising the earth, raising water by fire, refining metals, propelling ships, plus other things.

    Even more fascinating is his connection with the darker sciences.  The astrologer William Lilly (1602-1681), who seems to have been a kindred spirit, relates in his posthumously published Life and Times (1715) that Ramsay and others conducted an investigation in Westminster Abbey in 1634, using a diving rod to search for concealed treasure. Ramsay actually got permission for his exploration of the abbey from Dean Witham (who was also Bishop of Lincoln at the time.)The supernatural efforts were aided by the use of 'Mosaical' (divining) rods, employed by a person named John Scott. One of the participants described the event:

I was desired to join with him [Ramsay], unto which I consented.  One winter's night, Davy Ramsay, with several gentlemen, myself, and Scott, entered the cloisters.  We played the hazel-rods round about the cloisters.  Upon the west end of the cloisters the rods turned one over another, an argument that the treasure was there.  The labourers digged at least six feet deep, and then we met with a coffin; but which, in regard it was not heavy, we did not open, which we afterwards much repented.

From the cloisters we went into the abbey church, where upon a sudden (there being no wind when we began), so fierce and so high, so blustering  and loud a wind did rise, that we nearly believed the west end of the church would have fallen upon us.  Our rods would not move at all; the candles and torches also, but one, were extinguished, or burned very dimly.  John Scott, my partner, was amazed, looked pale, knew not what to think or do, until I gave directions and command to dismiss the demons; which, when done, all was quiet again, and each man returned to his lodging late, about twelve o' clock at night.  I could never since be induced to join with any such like actions.
The true miscarriage of the business was by reason of so many people being present at the operation; for there was about thirty, some laughing, others deriding us; so that, if we had not dismissed the demons, I believe the lost part of the abbey church would have been blown down.  Secrecy and intelligent operators, with a strong confidence and knowledge of what they are doing, are best for the work.

 Ramsay was not put off.  The state papers in the following year mention his treasure seeking proclivities (and there is an earlier mention in 1628 also).  The politician and lawyer Sir Edward Coke also humorously mentioned the Scot seeking the Philosopher's Stone in a letter to Secretary of State Windebanke.


William Lilly. Public Domain,

  Despite his status Ramsay fell into poverty and, in 1641 was, was in prison for debt.  This difficulty is referred to by his son William Ramsay at the beginning of his book Vox Stellarum ('The Voice of the Stars'):
It's true your carelessness in laying up while the sun shone for the tempests of a stormy day hath given occasion to some inferior-spirited people not to value you according to what you are by nature and in yourself, for such look not on a man longer than he is in prosperity, esteeming none but for their wealth, nor wisdom, power, nor virtue.  
   It appears that the elder Ramsay was still alive on 17th January 1653 for his son wrote the postscript of his book 'from my study in my father's house in Holburn, within two doors of the Wounded Hart, near the King's Gate'. David Ramsay may have died shortly afterwards.

Other Ramsays in Dundee, Auchterhouse and Tealing

   Andrew Jervise (Memorials of Angus and the Mearns, vol. 2, p. 122) pointed out that the Ramsays were first noted in Lothian during the reign of King David I in the early 12th century.  William Ramsay of London, whom we shall encounter again below,  stated in his book Astrologia Restorata (1653) that the Auchterhouse Ramsays, his own branch, was the oldest of the name and that they 'flourished in great glory for fifteen hundred years, till these later days,' adding that they came to this country from Egypt, where the word Ramsay signifies joy and delight.   The first record we have of Angus members of the family is in 1296 when a Thomas de Rammseye of Forfarshire paid homage to King Edward I in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

   Next mentioned is Sir John Ramsay of Auchterhouse who is mentioned as an ally of Sir William Wallace when the latter landed back in Scotland at Montrose.  Ramsays owned Auchterhouse until the early part of the 15th century.  Sir Malcom Ramsay was hereditary Sheriff of Forfarshire and his only child Isabella married Walter Ogilvy and brought the lands into that family.  

   Of the Dundee Ramsays, one conspicuous member was Patrick Ramsay, burgess of Dundee, executed in Edinburgh in 1567 for importing false money. It is recorded that his 'heid, armis and leggis' were carried by a boy from Edinburgh for display in Dundee and other burghs, for which the laddie received 24 shillings.

   His namesake and probable relative Patrick Ramsay
smith and gun-maker, was given charge of the town clock of Dundee in the church of St Mary in 1588 and had his stipend enlarged to £20 in 1604; it was later doubled from this amount. After a period away from the burgh he wrote to the burgh council on 27th June 1609:
Unto your worships humblie meanis your daylie servitour Patrick Ramsay, Smith. 
That quhair it is not unknown to your worships that I, after returning to this town when it pleased  God to withdraw his visiting hand [a reference to the plague in the town] therefrom, at your worship's desire, was moved to undertake my auld service in attending upon the knok, at which times your worships promised to have an consideration of my great pains quhilk I was to sustain in the frequent visiting of the said knok and continued reparation of her, seeing now she is all broken and worn and decayed in all the pairts thereof. Upon expectation thereof I have continually attended with my sons and servants since, and thereby have been abstracted from my labour which I should sustain my wife and bairns.
Therefore, now, I have taken occasion to remember your worships humbly, that order may be taken how I may be payed for my bypast service, and in time coming, gif your worships will give me reasonable augmentation to my former fee, I will bind and obligemyself to sustain the said knok and preserve her from decay and mend and repair her upon my own expense during my life, quhilk will be no little profit to the commoun weill.

   Of the two sons of this Patrick, Silvester Ramsay was first a teacher in the grammar school, but then probably followed the family trade. His brother, John Ramsay, certainly did and in 1646 stepped down as the keeper of the clock due to infirmity in old age.

   The historian Andrew Jervise (Epitaphs in the North-East of Scotland, I, p. 341) believed he may have found a member of the craftsman branch of the Ramsays via a much defaced epitaph in the Howff graveyard in Dundee. The inscription was to a goldsmith who died, aged around 70, in the year 1603. Only the last two letters of the surname - AY - were visible, though Jervise made out an eagle on the stone, which bird had an association with the Ramsay family.

   The watchmaker connection of the Ramsay family is evidenced much later in Angus in a tombstone in Inverarity.  Here there is a gravestone dated 1772, with the name Margaret Ramsay.  The stone contains a shield which has details of tools belonging to the watchmaker trade. The stone has the following inscription:

This stone was erected by DAVID/RAMSAY Watchmaker in Forfar in/Memory of his sister MARGARET/RAMSAY who died the twentieth/Day of January one 1000 seven/hundred and seventy two years/aged twenty one year two months/and two weeks/The good thou hast a mind to do/Let it be quickly done/We every day example see/How soon our glass is run'.

   A prominent non clock-making Ramsay was Archdeacon John Ramsay (1569- 1618), who became minister at Tealing in 1590. His splendid tomb survives in the kirk there, depicting him as a bearded ecclesiastic (half-life size) reading at a desk or lectern. It was erected by his widow, Elizabeth Kinloch.


The Auld Steeple, St Mary's, Dundee, whose 'knok' or clock was in the care of the Ramsay family for a time.

Further Reading

Andrew Jervise, Epitaphs and Inscriptions from Burial Grounds and Old Buildings in the North-East of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1875).

Monday, 9 December 2019

Yule and Hogmanay Revels,Traditions, Fishy Tails

Guisers and Revels at Hogmanay

  Most of the old Scottish customs regarding Christmas and Hogmanay have faded into nothingness.  At one time guisers were as common at New Year as they were at Halloween.  For instance, Jean Rodger noted in her book Lang Strang (Forfar, 1948) that the Hogmanay guisers in Forfar used to go from door to door asking, 'Onything for the guisers?'  The standard answer from householders was, 'Nothing but a red-hot poker.'  Despite this, they were invited in for refreshment.

   The Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin Review noted on 22nd December 1933 that many of the previously upheld New Year customs in Montrose were fading away.  It used to be a different story:

Among the broad-loom weavers the 'first fit' landed at a neighbour's house, produced his bottle a quantity of contents of which a quantity of the contents were consumed; then came the return dram, the cheese and the rye-loaf, after which the whole company adjourned to another neighbour's where the same performance was gone through...
  On Hogmanay the children in great numbers made visitations.  They would march through the streets singing -

Up stocks, doon stools,
Dinna think that we're fools,
We're guid bairns come to play-
Rise up an' gie's we're Hogmanay.
Th' day 'ill come when ye'll be dead,
Ye'll neither care for meal nor bread;
Rise up, guid wife, and shack yer feathers,
And dinna think that we're beggars.

   After getting into the house one of the company would chant: 

The master of the house and the mistress also,
And all the pretty children that round the table go,
With your pockets full of money
And your bottles full of beer, 
We bless you and wish you a happy New Year.

   Children would get out the tee-totum (a spinning top) and play for crackernuts.  Other games were played:  blind man's bluff, charades, and others, until it was time to go home.  On New Year's Day there might be shooting competitions for beef, pork and sometimes money.

   The rhymes and the frolics of New Years guisers were common over much of the country.  The late Victorian festivities in Glen Esk are admirably described by James Inglis, a son of the manse there:  

The hard grip of winter is over all. Great fires are blazing merrily on every hearth. The ambrosial scent of the whisky-toddy steams out into the frosty air from the open door of the village inn. It is the New Year season. We do not keep Christmas in our village. There are no night-watch services, no joy -bells, no Christmas bush or mistletoe; but it is a season of hearty goodwill for all that, and kindly messages are sent round amongst all our kinsfolk, accompanied by New Year's gifts. When the short winter day draws to its early close, the young lads of the village would range themselves into line; and with twanging of fiddle, or tootling of flute, or more often to the ear-piercing screech of bagpipe, they perambulated the village and its neighbourhood, visiting the nearer farmhouses. Out in the cold winter's night, they would wake the echoes with the following appeal

Rise up, guidwife, and shak' yer feathers
Dinna' think that we are beggars. 
Up stocks, doon stules,
Dinna' think that we are fules;
We are bairns come to play,
Get up an' gie's oor Hogmanay.
The day'll come when ye'll be deid;
Ye'll no care then for meal or breid.
Rise up, guidwife, and dinna sweir;
Deal oot yer breid, as lang's ye're here.
Wi' pooches fu' o' siller,
An' bottles fu' o' beer,
We bless you, and wish you
A Happy New Year.'

   The illusion to ' stocks ' in the above is to the kail stock or stem of the cabbage plant which always plays an important part in the Hogmanay and Hallow E'en celebrations; but of course it is not my function, in such a rambling record as this, to enter fully into a description of things which have been so much better and more accurately described by abler writers than I pretend to be. However, the reader can easily imagine the result of such an appeal in the olden times of which I am writing. The result generally was a quaffing of such plentiful libations to Bacchus, on the part both of the itinerant musicians, and of those whose hospitality they claimed, that the true blue temperance advocates of the thoroughgoing modern school would have been perfectly horrified. Assuredly in my young days the consumption of whisky was abnormally great; but then, as I have said, there was this saving virtue, the liquor was pure and good. [Oor Ain Folk, pp. 106-7]

  Yet another version of the games and rhymes was reported from the parish of Kirkden

Rise up, guidwife, and shake your feather,
Dinna think that we are beggars:
We're girls and boys come out to play,
For to get our Hogmanay.

The following was sometimes added:

Give us of your white bread and not of your grey,
Or else we'll knock at your door all day.

[Ancient Things in Angus, pp. 91-92]

   The Old Statistical Account of the parish of Kirkden in 1792 observed that Christmas was a great festival in that area.  On that day:

the servant is free from his master, and goes about visiting his friends and acquaintances.  The poorest must have beef or mutton on the table, and what they call a dinner with their friends.  Many amuse themselves with various diversions, particularly with shooting for prizes, called here Wad-shooting; and many do but little all the Christmas week; the evening of almost every day being spent in amusement.

Christmas Versus Hogmanay

   The above comments relating to both Kirkden and Glen Esk are interesting in the light they shine on the Scottish lowland (for which I mean Presbyterian) attitude to Christmas.  The latter may have been frowned on by the kirk and, in some places and times, actively discouraged.  The Rev. Rogers tells of the activities of the Rev. Goodsir of Monikie who was very active i the early 18th century in putting down Christmas observance.  On Christmas Day itself he toured the parish and checked 'those symptoms of festivity which his pulpit thunders had failed to eradicate'.  One housewife spotted his approach to her cottage and panicked to remove all signs of feasting from her table.  She swiftly put her seething kail-pot in the box bed of the kitchen.  The minister had no thought of looking there and quickly left.  However, the goodwife found that the pot had burned through three of her best blankets, which must have put a dampener on her festivities. [Familiar Illustrations of Scottish Life, p. 192]

General  Yuletide and Hogmanay Traditions and Folklore


   Auguries as to the future were drawn from Yuletide bakings. The farmers' wives in Forfarshire kneaded bannocks at this season. If they fell asunder after being put to the fire, it was an omen that they would not bake again on the eve of Yule. [Folklore in Lowland Scotland, pp. 22-23]  The Rev. Rogers tells us that the direction of the wind on New Year's Eve indicated the state of the weather during the remainder of the season.  

   The Scots Weekly Magazine in 1832 (p. 51) informs us that the first person who opens the door on Yule-day expects to prosper more than anyone else in the family in the forthcoming year, for they have 'let in the Yule'.  There was also a custom to place a table or chair in the open threshold and set on it bread and cheese as an offering to the spirit of the New Year. Also, a new broom or besom might have been placed behind the main entrance to let in the Yule. Another custom was to have a table covered from morning to night with bread and drink on it, so anyone visiting could help themselves.  It was considered ominous for any visitor to leave without having participated in the food offered there.   Servants would go to the well to draw water and then draw corn out of the household sack, then bring in kale from the garden.  These actions guaranteed prosperity for the forthcoming year.

   More interesting material was compiled by the eminent Welsh Celticist John Rhys (1840-1915).  One of Rhys's informants was a Mr Craigie who informed the author on the matter of whether a woman was permitted to be first-foot and other matters:

There is no objection to a woman as a first-foot, Mr. Craigie [of Oriel College] tells me, in Forfarshire; he has heard women saying to their neighbours,  'I'll come and first-foot you; mind you, I have a lucky foot.' The favourite thing to take is a red herring, but it is somewhat regarded as a joke, and if you arrive before the family is up, which is very probable, as the first-foot sets out usually soon after twelve, you may tie the red herring to the door-handle. The first-foot is not unfrequently trysted, in other words, arranged for beforehand. The usual thing in the town of Dundee is for the first-foots to muster in the High Street, which they do in such numbers that the place is crowded. When it strikes twelve, they skail in all directions, and there is a special tramcar to take some of them to Lochee, a suburb about two miles off, the idea being that it is the right thing to await the new year in the High Street.
   Handsel Monday, i.e., first Monday after New Year's Day, or that day itself (in case it be Monday), is the day for making presents.
   We shall return to the subject of herring's association with the Dundee New Year further on in this article.  The local pilgrimage to Lochee is also interesting and would be worth looking into.

The Herrings of Dundee, a Hogmanay Mystery

Three years ago the local press in Dundee advertised that a local singer, Lynne Campbell, was interested in reviving a local New Year tradition where people in the area would give elaborately dressed herring as a first-foot gift to friends and neighbours.  The custom was prevalent in the 19th century, but dwindled away through the 20th century. The fish were said to be hung up in the houses of the recipients who saw them as a lucky charm throughout the year.  Whether they always smelled lucky is another matter.

   Apparently the Dundee fish were habitually dressed for Hogmanay in a crepe skirt and a bonnet.  The People's Journal in 1950 apparently speculated that the custom was based on the enterprise of Victorian fishmongers anxious to shift their wares, rather than anything more significant.  Brian Hayward notes that children once carried fish as dolls on New Year's Day in Brechin (Folk Drama in Scotland, p. 102).  The tradition does not seem to have been confined to Angus, for even further north there is a record of something similar.  The writer Amy Stewart Fraser was raised in Glengairn in Aberdeenshire.  Her autobiographical book Dae Ye Min' Langsyne (London, 1975, p. 178) recalls how she and her friends 'took kippers and smokies dressed as dolls in crepe paper' around the streets.

   Fascinating to wonder why such a fishy tradition lingered in areas which were not fishing ports.

Hogmanay Poem by Marion Angus

 To end with, we have a thoughtful poem about Hogmanay by the wonderful Marion Angus which reminds us that this time of year, as well as Halloween, was a period when the veil between worlds was thin and the mind looks at times past as well as the future of the New Year.

Wha knocks at my door this Hogmanay ?
A cannie young lassie, limber and gay.
Lips o’ mine, e’en o’ mine—
Come ben, come ben tho’ ye’re deid lang syne.
Whaur ha’e ye tint yir Sabbath shoon ?
The fiddles is tuned and a’ the toon
Is kissin’ and courtin’ and dancin’-fey
Tae the screich o’ the reels on Hogmanay.
When the stars blaw oot an’ the mune grauws wan,
It’s ower the hills wi’ a bonny young man
Whaur the floo’er o’ love springs thorny an’ sweet—
And tho’ an auld wife maun awhilie greet
Ye’ll aye gang limber an’ licht an’ free—
Canny bit lassie that aince wis me.

Marion Angus

Some Sources

John Carrie, Ancient Things in Angus (Arbroath, 1881).

Brian John Hayward, Folk Drama in Scotland,  Phd. Thesis  (Glasgow,1983).

Rev James Inglis, Oor Ain Folk (Edinburgh, 1894).

John Rhys, 'Notes on First-foot and allied superstitions,' Folklore, 3 (1892), 256-262.

The Rev. Charles Rogers, Familiar Illustrations of Scottish Life (London, 1867).

Eve Blantyre Simpson, Folklore in Lowland Scotland (London, 1908).

Friday, 25 October 2019

More About Markets and Fairs

There have been various posts about the markets and fairs of Angus on this blog (listed at the bottom of this piece).  The last of which tried to map out the year by listing those events of this type which happened in each locality.  However dates of fairs and markets were fluid over the course of decades and centuries and the size and form of markets also grew in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Dundee’s market in this period had to shift locations, as the burgh records notes, because of congestion from:

all cramers, chepmen and merchants - baith neighbours and strangers handling merchandise and small cramerie wares - whause to stand in the mercat with tents and crames, come to the kirkyard, on the south side of Our Lady Kirk, and big their stands and tents there . . .

The Rood Fair, Montrose

There was fierce competition between merchants over having the prime spot or pitch, as noted by the 18th century Montrose poet David Morison in his note to his poem ‘The Rood Fair’ (published in Montrose, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, 1790):

It was the custom in Montrose till within these few years past, for travelling merchants convene on the street, or in some convenient place, the day before the fair; after arranging themselves three men deep, each exerting his whole strength, by pushing against one another, for the choice of their place (the weakest always got the worst).  But that foolish custom is now laid aside, and in its place is substituted the drawing of tickets.

   A few stanzas of his poem give some idea about the atmosphere of the fair, which had its roots in medieval times, as it was before the 19th century:

Was there in Scotland even see
Sic fairin' an' sic' rantin',
Sin' Allan's Christ's-kirk on the green,
A tale he weel might vaunt on,
'Till in Mon'ross there did convene,
A core baith blyth an' wanton,
When lads an' lasses neat an' clean,
Came to the Rood Fair jauntin
                    Fu' blyth that day.

Lat's view the day before th Fair;
When chapman-lads do trot in,
And on the causeway pushin' fair,
To birze out the Red Rotten;
Wi' back to side they push, they swear,
While gauments far are shot in
To keep their place, till dirt besmear,
And rotten eggs play shot in
                     Their lugs that day.

Mercantile Skulduggery at Fairs and Markets

Herbert Maxwell's history of Dundee gives a fair amount of coverage of the humdrum detail regulating the burgh's fairs and markets, but also some interesting material about disorder, crookedness and occasional violence.  Here he explains that the authorities had to be watchful about stolen produce being peddled in the town: 

In the border land between the highlands and lowlands, within passes difficult of access, and almost beyond the jurisdiction of law, there were convenient haunts for cattle lifters, who often stole with impunity, and were able to dispose of their spoil in neighbouring
borrows-towns. This nefarious traffic had been carried on in Dundee. 
 [October 5, 1562]:  'It is notourlie knawn that diverse persons in the country and to landward, theftously steal sheep, kye, and oxen, and bring the bouks  [carcasses] thereof to sell in the market, and for concealing and colouring their theft, leave behind them at hame the skins, hides, and heads thereof, so that the marks of the samin can nocht be knawn, and the awners thereof restorit to their awn.'
The Council resolved to suppress this, and for remedy they 'ordanit that na person bringing flesh to sell, presume fra this day furth to bring ony bulks of sheep, kye, or oxen without the samin have with them and ilk ane of them the skin, hide, and head presentit also, under the pain of confiscation of all flesh brocht be them wanting the skins and heads.' Objection had likewise been made to keeping cattle alive in the town; and it was enacted  'that sheep shall not be transportit furth, but be slain and presentit to the public market ;" and again, that no one "shall buy ony sheep or cattle coming alive, but shall lat the awner slay the samen' and sell them 'to the king's lieges'—the purpose of this being to secure the animals for the use of the town by rendering them incapable of being driven off elsewhere. [The History of Old Dundee, Dundee, 1884, p. 55.]

   Five years after that ruling there was an ordinance in Dundee banning the selling of birds at market devoid of head, feet and feathers.  'Naked' fowls might often be unidentifiable and were often feared to be stolen.

Violence At The Dundee Fairs

  The right of the hereditary constables of Dundee - the Scrymgeours - to have jurisdiction over Dundee's fairs was frequently disputed.  But the fact of frequent disorder at the events was another factor which argued that some authority had to be maintained.  Whether the Scrymgeours misused their influence, or were thought to do so, is also open to question.  Four brothers from Tealing named Maxwell were at Dundee fair in August 1580 when they allegedly witnessed their cousin Walter Arnot being assaulted by the uncle of the constable, James Scrymgeour.  They rescued Walter but were challenged to surrender him to the authorities several days later, which suggests that he was being accused of some criminal activity.

 The ancient St James’ Fair at Forfar used to last for ten days, from 20th to the 30th of July, but had dwindled to a single day by the late Victorian period.  There must have been a history of disorder at this mercantile gathering also, for in 1652 a warrant was issued empowering the magistrate of Forfar ‘to arme with halberts twenty-foure men during the time of the faire, for keeping the peace, and collecting the customs thereof.’


Competition and Trade at Brechin

  Roger Leitch has looked at the struggles of the smaller burghs, such as Brechin, to maintain their markets in the face of competition both from other markets and from itinerant merchants such as packmen who were able to undercut the traditional traders at the established markets.*  Brechin’s economy was noted as declining in the 1680s and even several decades earlier native merchants complained to the council about what they regarded as illegal competition from chapmen ‘who retail and buy all sorts of staple goods such as lint
hemp iron tobacco salt serp and yarn, whereby they detain the country people from coming into the burgh to buy such commodities from us . . .'

   Remoteness from ports and competition from the Laird of Edzell’s weekly market at the St Lawrence Fair in the Mearns also damaged livelihoods in the town.  There was also an illegal market nearby every week near the North Water Bridge, in the parish of Dun. 

(*  'Here chapman billies tak their stand: a pilot study of Scottish chapmen, packmen and pedlars’, Proceedings of the  Society of Antiquaries of  Scotland, 120 (1990), 173-188.)

Previous Posts on Fairs and Markets

 Latter Day Angus Fairs and Markets  (from the Arbroath Directory, 1926)

Fairs and Markets in 1846
(from the Angus and Mearns Directory)