Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Brochs of Angus: Tales Told and Untold and Treasures Lost.

Not far in each case from the north shore of the River Tay, in what later became Angus, invaders or settlers from the far north constructed three massive residential dry stone towers, which must have  impressed the local proto-Pictish farmers, who would have been utterly unused to seeing buildings of this scale.  These brochs, common in the northern mainland, the Hebrides, and Orkney and Shetland are rare in the Lowlands.  The Angus examples, at Hurley (or Hurly) Hawkin in Liff, Craighill in Murroes and Laws Hill near Monifieth are several miles from each other and all have complex occupation histories.  Craighill is the least known, though the few facts known about this obscure place are fascination.  In pre-historic times a multivallate fort was built here and the later broch builders constructed their tower on the western side of the hill.  Its walls were an impressive 4.5 m (15 feet) thick, enclosing a space of 10.6 m (35 feet).  Near the building’s entrance there is a carefully placed cup-marked stone, presumably an object of some importance symbolically or religiously, which had been found in situ by the incomers and which they still regarded as somehow significant to their chosen place of settlement.

   There are no tales that have been told about Craighill, or at least none that I am aware of.  Laws Hill is a rather magical place, now situated (like Hurley Hawkin) on private land.  On this hilltop, which has fine views over the country and the estuary of the Tay, an oval hill-fort was constructed in pre-Pictish times.  Not much of this can now be traced as the ramparts were robbed of stone during the 19th century, but again the broch builders came and settled here. The base of the broch can still be made out on the site.  Here, at Laws Farm in the 18th century, was found an intriguing object which cast new light on later history here.  While digging was being undertaken for drainage purposes in 1796, a tumulus was cut through, revealing a cist grave containing a skeleton and a unique bronze plaque carved with Pictish symbols.  More interesting still, this object later came into the hands of a Viking, who inscribed it with runes which have been read as:  [Gri]mkitil:  Tha[na: raist]:  Grimkitil engraved this.  The object was given by the tenant of the farm, Peter Roger, to his landlord, Sir Alexander Ramsay Irving of Balmain, but was later lost.  The grandson of the finder, James Cruickshank Roger, wrote a paper on this important object, published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (‘Notice of A Drawing of A Crescent-shaped Plate, which was dug up at Laws, Parish of Monifieth in 1796,’ P.S.A.S., Vol, 14, 1879-1880.)

   Now, one question raised is:  what happened to the plaque?  The owners of Balmain evidently lost it, because an enquiry in Victorian times was met with by a blank.  Does it still exist, dusty and forgotten, in some old loft in deepest Angus?  The sad truth is that it was probably melted down long ago.  But what does it say about the Viking presence on our coast?  The various tales of battles and settlements of Northmen in Angus are mostly fictitious and there was never any serious or long-lasting incursions of these peoples in Angus.  So how did the unknown Grimkitil happen to end up here, possibly buried with a bit of looted Pictish treasure on the Hill of Laws?  No-one will ever know.

   At least we have the drawings of the bronze plaque to show that it did actually exist at one time.  Sadly, this is not true of another item unearthed in the 18th century, at Arbirlot, west of Arbroath.  Here, in the Black Den where the River Elliot runs through, a gold crown allegedly belonging to a King of Picts was unearthed by a quarryman in the early part of the century.  He broke up this unique object immediately and sold a portion of it locally for £20 and sent the remainder to London to see how much it was worth.  But, the author of the Statistical Account of Scotland for the parish, the Rev. Richard Watson, reported in the 1790s rather cryptically:  ‘But by some unforeseen circumstance, he and his family were prevented from reaping that advantage, which might have been expected from so valuable a curiosity.’ The slightly sinister tone of this puts me in mind of the classic M. R. James ghost story, 'A Warning To The Curious,' where a buried Saxon crown has strange powers and supernatural guardians.  How much the Pictishcrown would be worth today is anyone’s guess.

   Hurley Hawkin is another fascinating site, situated on a promontory now at the bottom of a private garden.  Here there was a pallisaded site, followed by a promontory fort, and later a broch, which was itself followed by a Pictish souterrain.  King Alexander I is said to have had a castle here in the 12th century, and it was at Hurley Hawkin, around the year 1207, that he was surprised by a force of rebels and forced to flee.  He won the fight and returned here in triumph, as recorded by Andrew of Wyntoun in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (c. 1420):

                             Hame agayne till Inwergowry
                             And in devotowne movyd, swne
                             The Abbay he fownded than of Scwne.

  Sadly, though Alexander I did indeed found the Abbey of Scone, he never lived in the Castle of Hurley Hawkin, for no such building ever existed.

Hurley Hawkin’s next significant appearance in literature is a semi-supernatural ballad from an unknown author*, recorded in Victorian times. ‘Meg O' Lyff, or The Hags O' Hurly Hawkin’ is well worth a read for its comic treatment of a shrewish goodwife:  

On Christmas Eve lang years ago,
A nicht o’ frost an’ waffs o’ snow,
A wondrous deed was done in Liff,
Which gaed the villagers a gliff,
And still remembered is by a’,
Wha seventy winters can reca’.

That nicht the sun, large, wild and red,
In anger socht his western bed,
And left ahint dark, gloomy clouds
To hap the earth in lichtless shrouds.
Then frae each cot the cruisie’s gleam
Shone 'mid the mirk wi’ fitful beam:
Yet gaily rose the weavers’ sound,
Fast finishing their daily round.

Up frae his loom leaped Johnnie Rough,
A simple bit o’ human stuff,
Wha had that nicht, ‘mid rack and moil,
Completed forty years o’ toil.

His web was dune, and frae his seat
He rose wi’ joyous heart and feet,
Took aff his apron, shook his hair,
And breathed a “God be thankit” prayer.
Into the kitchen-end he went,
And by the fire sat doon content.

But Meg, his ill-tongued, randy wife,
The plague o’ Johnnie’s wedded life,
Began to snap and glower and gloom,
And speired “Hoo he had left his loom?”

Quoth Johnnie, wi’ a timid look,
- For Meg’s fierce wrath he’d learned to brook -
“It’s forty years this very nicht
Since I began the weavin’ fecht,
I rose this morn afore the sun,
I’ve wrought fell hard - the web is done -
And surely, Meg, for aince, ye’ll be,
On Christmas nicht, at peace wi’ me.”

For twenty years puir John had borne
The lash o’ Meg’s ill tongue and scorn;
Scarce had a day gone ower his head
Since he unto the wretch was wed,
But inwardly he wished that she
Was laid whaur tongues in silence be.

Aft when his meekness roused her ire,
Her temper burst in spurts o’ fire;
She’d shak’ her fist and aftimes tear
A handfu’ o’ his silvery hair,
Or grab his beard or scart his cheeks,
And like a tartar wear the breeks.
Nae children graced their married life
To quell her love for din and strife.
And sae the little theckit cot
Was ca’d in Liff “that awfu’ spot.”

Quoth Meg, “And ye’ve wrocht forty years,
Ye guid-for-nothing, it appears
It’s noo your only heart’s desire
To sit and smoke beside the fire;
Ye lazy snool, and will ye dare
To lauch at me! Rise frae that chair!
Awa’ ye gang and lift your web,
Or else I’ll pu’ your wizzened neb.
Ye winna gang! Ye winna speak!
My sang, I’se gar yer haffets reek.
Rise frae that chair, ye doited coof,
Rise! Rise!”

Wi’ that, her muckle loof
Struck silent John a fearfu’ thwack,
That stretched him ower the auld chair back,
And broke his wee, black cutty freen’
Whase head among the ase was seen.

Quate, uncomplainin’, John sat still,
And let her rave awa’ at will:
Higher and higher rose her tongue,
Wild and mair wild her clamour rung,
Her big, projectin’ cauld grey een
Changed to a hue o’ sickly green,
Her upper lip, lang, deep and thin,
Stretched ower her jaw, like birsled skin,
While at her mou’ weiks, curds o’ froth
Hung as the symbols o’ her wroth.

And stampin wi’ her foot she shook
Her neive at John, wha feared to look
Upon the wild she-deevil form,
That ower his heed blew sic a storm.

Calm and demure, he heard it a’,
But ne’er an angry word let fa’
In sorrow at her senseless rage:
He bore it as becomes a sage.

The hour o’ ten rang frae the clock,
When at the door a sudden knock
Was heard, and then amid the din,
A yellin’ horde cam’ rushin’ in;
Gash-gabbit hags o’ hideous shape,
Wi’ een ablaze and mou’s agape,
And sunken chafts and girnin’ jaws,
And skinny hands that looked like claws.

They seized on Meg wi’ skirlin’ roar,
And whisked her through the open door.
Some grabbed her feet wi’ powerfu’ grip,
Syne on their shouthers raised her up.
Some filled her mou’ wi’ brimstane het,
To still the rage that gurgled yet.

Awa’ they flew like winter wind,
And left the weaver’s cot behind,
Nor slackened ocht o’ speed until
They stood on Hurly Hawkin hill.
Then on the ground puir meg they flung,
And round her danced and round her sung:

“We’ve got her noo,
What shall we do?
Sisters say!
We’ve got her noo on Hurly Hawkin,
What shall we do?
Skelp her! Skelp her!
Nane will help her,
Skelp her bare for temper brackin’,
Bring the chair
Sit her there
We will cure her randy talkin’,
This we’ll do
On Hurly Hawkin.”

That nicht on Hurly Hawkin mound,
Blue lowes rose frae the frosty ground,
And frae each lowe a deevil peered,
Wha at the deed the auld hags cheered,
And lauched and girned and squirmed and yelped,
And wi’ their tails the ground they skelped.

Wi’ mystic art a backless chair
Rose frae the earth amid a flare,
And clappin’ han’s aroun’ it stood
The fiercest o’ the beldame brood.

While ithers, skilled in tapes and stays,
Stript Meg o’ a’ her nether claes,
Syne tied her on the ebon chair,
To skelp her wi’ a vengeance rare.
Beneath their rags o’ bronze-like hue,
Each hag’s hand dived and quickly drew
A tawse that seemed a soople tongue,
Frae some wild randy lately wrung.

Around puir Meg wi’ shout and prance,
They danced as only deevils dance,
And wildly waved their arms and tawse,
And hobbed and bobbed and snapped their jaws.

Syne round their victim closing in,
They for a moment quat their din,
While ane, wi’ a’ her micht, cam’ whack
On Meg’s wee-roonded bonnie back.

In quick succession cam’ the rest,
And gae their blows wi’ fiendish zest;
Skelp after skelp wi’ awfu’ pith
Rang like the hammer o’ the smith.

Meg writhed and twisted wi’ the pain,
And tried to rise, but ‘twas in vain;
She tried to speak, alas, her tongue
For aince unto its dwelling clung.
Loud in the cauld nicht-air arose
The music o’ the dreadfu’ blows,
Which quicker, thicker, harder flew,
Until her skin was black and blue.

Oh! ‘twas an awfu’ sicht to see
Sae fair a back sae yerked wi’ glee:
Sae plump a form sae sadly tanned
By such a foul, unfeelin’ band.

Wi’ ilka blow Meg felt a dart
Straucht fleeing through her sinfu’ heart,
Which weel-nigh burst its yieldin’ wa’s,
For words to speak in pity’s cause.
But tears! the first she e’er had shed,
Rose frae her heart and heavenward sped,
Then wi’ a gasp that seemed her last,
She murmured “John, forgi’e the past.”

Then every hag stood still and mute,
And hid her tawse beneath her cloot.
They lifted Meg frae aff the chair,
And dressed her wi’ a kindly air.
Syne shouther-high they bore her aff,
Wi’ mony a merry shout and laugh.

And as the solemn hour o’ twel’
Was ringin’ frae the auld kirk bell,
Beside her John, asleep in bed,
His heart-changed Meg they deftly laid.

Then doon the dowie Den o’ Gray
The weird hags took their windin’ way,
And a’ was dark and a’ was still
On lonely Hurly Hawkin hill.
Next mornin’ John was proud to see
His Meg as loving as could be:
Yet never kent the reason hoo
Her tongue was sweet and couthy noo.
He never speired, for John was blessed,
And tore the past from oot his breast.
Sae mony happy years o’ life
He lived wi’ Meg, his ain dear wife.

* Addendum:   Since the time of writing the above I have found the poem in William Allan's After-Toil Songs (London, Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1882), 183-192.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Ghostliness in Victorian Dundee

What did restless people do for a quick fix of thrilling entertainment before mobile phones, the internet, television, even the wireless?  If you were of a particularly mischievous mind (possibly bordering on the criminal), you might have fancied dressing up as a supernatural being and scaring poor night-time travellers half to death.  Step forward the ‘phantom’ whose exploits were reported in ‘The Courier’ on Tuesday, January 16, 1883.
   This ‘ghost’ seemed to focus its attentions on the area between the Hawkhill and Blackness Road, particularly favouring the old, worked out Blackness Quarry (between Ure Street and Wilkie’s Lane, which the current Bellfield Street now transects) which was a kind of wasteland with a few dotted stables and wooden sheds.  The apparition was variously described, but most witnesses agreed it conformed to the standard Victorian supernatural stereotype:  a tall, amorphous dark and cloaked figure, with a slouch hat which concealed its undoubtedly hideous features.  The figure haunted the quarry area, gliding silently around in a sinister way and principally appearing to stray bairns and timid auld wives who happened to be wandering about in the hours of darkness.  In common with the phenomenon of mass hysteria which later affected the area around Craigie Quarry in the 1920s, the rumour of the haunting spread from children and old women to the whole population of the neighbourhood.  Soon the area was in a state of ‘chronic excitement’.  ‘Women became afraid to leave their houses at night either to go to the wells for water, or to their cellars for coal,’ the newspaper reported. Come the New Year and the ghost, or someone pretending to be him, followed one lady home and impertinently asked if she had any Hogmanay drink left in her house for him. 
   Next, one Sunday night, there was a massive explosion like a gunshot in the quarry.  Sceptics said it came from the London steamship docked in the River Tay, but a woman whose house adjoined the quarry swore that the concussion happened right under her window and that it shook her whole house.  Things reached a head on the following Saturday when a staid old couple walking home were alarmed to see a grim and solitary figure standing in a dark lane.  They hurried home and locked themselves in.  The next night an Irish ex-policeman, who was cynical about the unreal origins of the spectre, was sitting by his own fireside when a friend rushed in and said that the apparition was in the lane.  He opened his shutters and peeped out, seeing a huge dark figure leaning against a wooden paling.  The man grabbed his poker and rushed out to confront the figure, shouting out a demand to know who he was and what he wanted.  This was too much for the spirit, who fled through a gate into the quarry, splashed through a quagmire and vanished.
   The following evening a hapless gentleman on an errand of mercy got lost in the narrow lanes near the quarry and was spotted by some local women.  Encouraged by the recent bravery of the ex-policeman, they spotted and followed the gentleman, soon joined by other women and men.  Someone raised the cry, ‘That’s the man! Look up his sleeve; he has got a pistol there.’  The man protested his innocence, but the mob was angry.  Luckily the ex-policeman appeared and said that the creature he saw was twice as big as this unfortunate man.

   ‘The benighted gentleman was then set on his way rejoicing,’ ‘The Courier’ reported.  ‘Since then the “Quarry spectre” has disappeared from that neighbourhood.  Probably a wholesome dread of Paddy and the poker has induced him to abandon his nocturnal rambles.’

Sunday, 13 December 2015

McComie Mor

One figure in the Angus glens was much feared by outlaws and caterans:  Iain Mor Mac Thomaidh, or McCombie Mor, 7th chief of the Clan Mac Thomas (a sept of the Macintoshes).  In 1652 he led his family east over the hills from Finegand in Glenshee, Perthshire, and rented Forter from the Earl of Airlie.  The move may have been prompted by the clan’s reluctance to do business with the tax collectors of the Earl of Atholl.  It is rumoured that Atholl once employed an Italian swordsman to assassinate his tenant, but McComie ended up killing him.  McComie was a mighty man with a large family and a larger following.  A stone in Glen Prosen is called McComie Mor’s Putting Stone, or McComie’s Stone, and there is a nearby McComie Mor’s Well (and also a McComie Mor’s Chair, a rock in Glen Beannie.) At Beltane each year he and his kin moved up Glen Isla from his home at Crandart to summer pastures at Mount Keen. The fortified house of Crandart, about a mile and a half north of Forter on the right hand bank of the River Isla, became McComie’s principal home several years after he gained possession of Forter.  Sometimes McComie would wander off alone to meet the mermaid who inhabited the Crooked Loch.  She was a friendly soul who would rise from the water and sit by his side in the heather, whispering strange things in his ear.  Once she boldly leapt onto the back of his horse and they rode together down the glen, astonishing all who saw them.  Despite such flagrant behaviour, McCombie was happily married to a Campbell wife and supported the Parliamentarians in the civil strife of the period (despite have previously been a Royalist himself), which did not endear him to his Ogilvy landlords, who had been troubled by the Campbells.  Following the restoration of King Charles II, the Royalist Earl of Airlie took important grazing lands from McComie and bestowed them on the Farquharsons of Brough Dearg, his former neighbours in Glenshee.  This led to a long bloody feud. There were personal issues at stake also.  Robert Farquharson had once promised to marry McComie’s daughter, but afterwards changed his mind and wed Helen Ogilvy, daughter of Colonel Ogilvy of Shannalie, no doubt incensing the MacThomas clan. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1669, Robert Farquharson, with his brothers John and Alexander and around fifty men, launched a surprise attack on Crandart and captured McComie Mor.  Five of his sons who set out to rescue him were ambushed and the remaining two sons were forced to pay a ransom of £600.  In the following May the Farquharsons attempted to take possession of Robert McComie’s farm lands at Killulock.  Later that year the McComies later besieged Brough Dearg, but the enemy chief escaped.  Robert Farquharson was missing for months and was finally spotted by one of McComie’s followers in Glengarmie, Perthshire.  To his chief’s fury the man left Farquharson unharmed, without takeing at least ‘ane legg, ane arme, or his lyffe’.
   The climax to the feud happened in  January 1673.  Robert Farquharson took his dispute about the Glen Isla grazing rights to the Sheriff of Forfar, but McComie became aware of the visit and instructed his men to pursue the enemy with swords and pistols and kidnap him. A fight took place at Drumgley near the town, sometimes called the Battle of Padanaram.  A plaque in a field remembers the fray:

                                     McComie’s Field – Here in a skirmish with
                                     The Farquharsons of Brough-Dearg on 28th
                                     January 1673 were slain John and Robert,
                                     Sons of Iain Mor Mac Thomaidh, seventh
                                     Chief of the Clan MacThomas.

   McComie by this stage was too old to fight himself, but when he heard the news of his sons’ deaths he said, ‘I wish I had been but twenty years of age again.  I would have made the Farquharsons thinner south of the Cairn o’ Mounth.  I would have had a life for each of my two dead sons.’’ His daughter wept, but she was told by her brother Angus, ‘You have no reason to lament for them.  They got the life they were wanting.’  Several of Farquharson’s sons also died in the skirmish.
   The clan MacThomas departed from Angus after McComie’s death, before the 12th January 1676.  When two Anerdeenshire caterans met shortly afterwards, one asked the other what news there was.  ‘News and good news,’ the other informed him.  ‘Blessed be the virgin Mary!  Death as come to the great McComie in the head of the Lowlands, for as big and strong as he was.’  Some of the family took to farming in Fife, but the 15th chief, Patrick, was provost of Dundee in the mid-nineteenth century and became a prominent landowner in Aberlemno.
   Kingoldrum kirkyard in Angus has a memorial to the last of the Farquharsons of Brough Dearg.  John Farquharson lies here with his spouse, Elizabeth Ramsay of Baldovie, and their two daughters.  Their son, Thomas, last of the line died in 1860.  In his time he served as a magistrate and deputy lieutenant of Angus.
   McComie’s Stone on the mountain of Mayar was still locally famous in the 1880s when local lads from nearby glens made a pilgrimage to see how far they could throw its formidable 35lb weight.  It was forgotten and nearly buried for over a hundred years before being rediscovered at the end of the 20th century.  Nearby there was another McComie landmark, a now vanished bothy named McComie’s Shelter.  There used to be two stones in Caenlochan which McCombie employed in a feat in strength and there are other Perthsire tales of his prowess, including one in which he overcame a rampaging bull in the Stormont area.  As well as the friendly mermaid, McComie also once encountered a kelpie in the River Shee.  One night he heard cries from the water, calling him by name, asking for help.  He brought a staff to help the foundering being and pushed it out into the water, but the malign kelpie pulled it and tried to drag McComie in to his death.  McComie was undaunted and gave a mighty tug.  The enraged water horse, fearing he would be imminently landed, gave a shout of rage and vanished.  Later, when he had removed from Perthshire to Crandart, McComie was out walking at Caenlochan when he saw a female water kelpie in Glascorrie.  He grabbed the protesting supernatural beast and determined to carry her home.  He knew that if he crossed running water the kelpie could break free, so he had to devise a long and convoluted path back to Crandart.  The she kelpie bargained for her release and the price that McComie demanded was some knowledge about the circumstances of his death.  The kelpie (or was she a fairy or even the confused mermaid we encountered earlier?) took him took him to the face of the hill above the house of Crandart and pointed out a large stone, telling him that he would die with his head above it.  The being was freed and McComie Mor removed the fatal stone and placed it in the wall of his house, under the head of his head, so that he could be assured the prophesy would come true in circumstances of his liking. 
   There is another strange, stone-related story at Crandart.  This stone forms the lintel of the lime kiln and was could not be manoeuvred into place by the strongman McComie and his sons for all their efforts.  In the end a suspected magician named Knox Baxter (also known as Colin McKenzie) came to Crandart while father and sons were struggling with the stone.  Sitting a little apart, he remained there and refused the invitation to accompany the family to dinner.  When they returned the stone was in its intended place and McCombie silently cut a silver button from his coat and handed it to Knox in silent acknowledgement of his supernatural assistance. 
   McComie once ambushed his eldest son, whom he suspected of being too gently on account of his Campbell blood.  Waiting for him as he journeyed from Glenshee to Glen Isla, McCombie pounced from the place that became known as McCombie’s Chair.  The boy, also named John, suspected that this fierce, sword wielding berserker was his father and demanded to know his identity as he defended himself.  At length he exhausted the old man and agreed to spare him, on condition that he revealed his identity.  McComie did so and young john told him off by saying that one of them could have easily slain the other.  Old McComie happily replied that it was no matter, since he not knew that his son would be a strong and worthy successor.
   Crandart House later fell into ruins and one inscribed stone from it was carried to nearby Balharry.  It carries the interesting inscription:

                                     I SHALL . OVERCOM . INVY . VITI
                                   GODS . HELP . TO . GOD . BE . AL .
                                     PRAIS . HONOVR . AND . GLORIE

Crandart Farm.  The 19th century building was constructed using materials from McComie's old home.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Caterans and The Battle of The Saughs

Into the 17th century the Braes of Angus were plagued by Highland thieves.  As early as 1562, Dundee Council acted against the selling of stolen bouks (carcasses), and in the following year the 5th Lord Ogilvy was ordered by the Privy Council to expel the marauding Clan Macgregor from the uplands of the county.  Things did not noticeably improve.  On the 17th May 1649, George Thom and his family were robbed of everything and left destitute by caterans in Glen Esk.  He was forced to travel ‘most humblie begging support’ through the kirks in the area of Brechin Presbytery.  Some people fared even worse.  Grewar’s Gutter, on Monega Hill, Glen Isla, marks the place where a man from Crandart fell to his death while being pursued by these caterans or hill bandits.  His brother luckily escaped by jumping across the chasm afterwards called Grewar’s Leap.
   Glen Lethnot was once particularly afflicted by caterans.  James Molison, the tenant of Craigendowie, was rumoured to be rich and this came to be known by the robbers.  They arrived at his house at midnight, but he barricaded the door against them.  They maliciously emptied the meal from his mill and drove all of his cattle off into the hills.  Eventually they cut down a tree and used it as a battering ram to gain entry to his house.  The farmer still refused to give them any money, even when they roasted his feet over the fire.  The robbers fled, taking Margaret Fyffe, the farmer’s wife, with them.  She was later released unharmed and lived to the age of seventy, dying in 1712 and was buried in Navar kirkyard.
   Some time in the late 17th or early 18th century the Battle of Saughs was fought in Lethnot.  A year before this event there was a skirmish, known as the Raid of Saughs, when a trio of Deeside caterans stole cattle from Dubb of Fern.  Dubb himself was kidnapped, though the men of Fern pursued the raiders and freed him.  One Sunday in the spring of the following year an ill omened band of thirteen men descended on Lethnot, led by a notorious Macgregor outlaw nicknamed the Hawkit Stirk.  The robber’s leader is supposed to be the same person as the foundling left on the doorstep of Muir Pearsie, in Kingoldrum parish.  The farmer’s wife heard the infant crying and roused her reluctant husband who complained that the noise was only ‘the croon o’ the hawkit stirk’ (moaning calf).  But the woman rose and found a child of only a few weeks old on her doorstep and brought it up as one of her own family.  The child’s origins were never known and he vanished from his adopted home when he was sixteen years old.
   In the battle the raiders were driven away by the locals, with John Macintosh leading eighteen Fern men chasing the Deesiders up the glen.  When the pursuers came within five yards of the enemy, they were fired upon.  Even though the shots were aimless one Fern man dropped his own weapon and fled.
   Macintosh and the Hawkit Stirk agreed to single combat.  The thief cut the buttons off his opponent’s coat and boasted he could take away Macintosh’s life just as easily.  One of the bandits treacherously shot and killed a Fern man, which led to general fighting.  Macintosh was knocked to the ground and would have been killed, but James Winter of Lethnot got behind the Hawkit Stirk and hamstrung him.  The bold cateran is said to have continued fighting on his stumps until Macintosh delivered a mortal blow. The Stirk asked the Fern leader to shake his hand in farewell, but his other hand concealed a hidden dagger.  Mackintosh saw it and finished him off.  The remaining thieves attempted to flee, but every one of them was slain.  One of them is perpetuated in the name of the hillside where he perished:  Donald Young’s Shank.  Only one Angus man died in the encounter. The Andrea Ferrera sword with which Winter injured the Stirk was in the possession of a solicitor in Kirriemuir in the 19th century, but is said to have been lost afterwards.
   James Winter later went to reside at Peathaugh in Glen Isla, while Macintosh returned to his farm at Ledenhendrie, where his landlord, the Earl of Southesk, built him a fortified house in case vengeful caterans tried to murder him.  He was made captain of the parish, incurring the jealousy of the former captain, David Ogilvy of Trusta, who had refused to join the Fern men against the raiders.
   One night, Ogilvy invited John Macintosh to Trusta and as he was leaving grasped his hand, then bellowed, ‘Gude nicht, Ledenhendrie!’  This was the signal for an armed band outside to pursue and kill his guest.  But Macintosh and his hound managed to outrun his attackers and hid for a while in a rock cleft in the Den of Trusta, known later as Ledenhendrie’s Chair.  From that moment onwards, Ledenhendrie went everywhere armed.  Even when he went to kirk he laid his loaded pistols before him. 
   The heroes of the Battle of the Saughs are remembered in inscription on a memorial in the south-east section of Cortachy kirkyard:

                      I. W. 1732. – This stone was ereceted by Alexander Winter, tennent in the Doaf in memory of James Winter, his father’s brother, who died on Peathaugh, in the parish of Glenisla, the 3d January, 1732, aged 72

                                  Here lyes James Vinter who died at Peathaugh
                                  Who fought most valointly at ye Water of Saughs
                                  Along wt Ledenhendry who did command ye day
                                  They vanquish the Enemy and made them runn away.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

More Miscellaneous Feuding

Previous mentions of ancient feuds in Angus concentrated on the conflicts between the powerful families of Ogilvy and Lindsay, whose bloody rivalry rumbled on and off for generations.  But there were of course others involved in the struggle for power and addiction to violence through the ages.  Early in the 16th century the Red Douglas kindred, Earls of Angus, delegated their authority as Barons of the Regality of Kirriemuir to Ogilvy of Inverquharity Castle.In 1524, Inverquharity ordered the Ogilvys of Clova to stop feuding with the Grahams of Mains Castle.  Forty-four years later the reckless Graham chief was ordered to come to Kirriemuir to answer the charge that he had kidnapped a follower of Ogilvy of Inverquharity.  Graham did indeed come to Kirriemuir, but with him were a band of 1,000 men, including a party of Lindsays.  They took over the town and forced Ogilvy to fleedback to his nearby castle at Inverquarity.  The wayward Grahams also maintained a long running rivalry wit the Fotheringhams of nearby Wester Powrie.  The latter were adherents of Lindsay, Duke of Montrose, and were angry that the Grays had been awarded the Sheriffhood of Angus after Lindsay’s forfeiture.  The Grays inflicted severe damage of Powrie Castle in 1490.

   The Lindsays wasted much time and energy in internecine fighting.  A Lindsay from Glen Quiech who pretended to be the heir to the lands of Barnyards was challenged by Lindsay of Finavon.  Finavon was slain and his killer fled, so the half finished castle of Barnyards was never completed.  A Lindsay Laird of Edzell was once forced into hiding when the Lindsay Earl of Crawford was after him.  Edzell hid in the wildness of Glen Mark, but the earl found him, so Edzell was forced to make a desperate leap across a gorge in the Water of Mark to escape.  He landed safely on the other side, but several of Crawford’s men fell to their deaths on the rocks below.  The chasm was afterwards called Egil’s [Edzell’s] Loup.
Inverquharity Castle, stronghold of the Ogilvys.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Grissel Jaffray, Last Dundee Witchcraft Execution

The sad case of Dundee’s last known witch to be executed rests on reputable but slight historical record.  The Privy Council records, under the date 11th November 1669 (a significant date, being Old Hallowmas, equating to the Celtic festival of Samain), that Grissel Jaffray was a prisoner in the Tolbooth in Dundee (which stood at the corner of the Overgate and High Street), who had been accused of witchcraft and an order was issued for her trial.  It instructed Dundee’s minister and town council that ‘if by her own confession, without any sort of torture or other indirect means used, it shall be found she hath renounced her baptism, entered into paction with the devil, or otherwise that malefices be legally proven against her, that then and no otherwise they cause the sentence of death to be executed upon her.’
   Grissel’s supposed crimes and the circumstances of her trial are unknown, but her fate is confirmed by the Privy Council Minute book entry which states that she accused several others before her own death:

Dundie, the twentie third day of Novr.,
1669 years.
   Anent such as were delated for witchcraft. – The minirs having also repnted to the Counsell, that Grissel Jaffray, witch, at her execution, did delate seal psons as being guiltie of witchcraft to ye, and therefore desired yt for yr exoneraon some course might be taken wt those belated:  The counsel, in order thervnto, therefore noiats the provost, the pnt baillzies, the old baillzies, deane of gild, .t ther, to meet wt the minirs .t to common wt ym on the sd matter, and to consider of ye best ways may be takin wt the delated.

   The actual fate of those people that she accused is not recorded, but the Privy Council agreed, on 8th February 1670, that the Dundee ministers could employ a ‘prover’ or witch-finder to discover witches by finding marks on their bodies. It was noted that ‘the Counsill approves, and consents the minrs send for the partie when they please.’  Who the finder was and who he managed to torment are mysteries, but there may well have been more deaths, directly or indirectly as a result.
   Very little is actually known about Grissel Jaffray herself.  A.H. Miller, in Haunted Dundee (1923), reports that he found in the records of Dundee the name of a brewer named James Butchart, born in 1594, who was made a burgess of the burgh in 1615 and who married Grissel Jaffray, probably an Aberdonian.  The couple had one son, a ship’s captain.  Although Butchard’s family was of French origin, they had been prominent in Dundee for several generations previously, as there is a record of Thomas Butchart, a baker, was a burgess of the city in 1526.  By the time of her execution, Grissel must have been advancing in years.  Miller  poignantly notes that the couple must have counted themselves fortunate to have survived the harrowing English siege of Dundee in 1651, only to have met a later nightmare at the hands of the authorities.  The three ministers who would have acted against the accused were Henry Scrygeour of St Mary’s, John Guthrie of the South Church, and William Rait of the Third Charge.  The latter was described as being ‘of known repute both for learning and piety’.
   The scene of the execution was supposed to have been in the Seagate, where the original Market Cross of Dundee once stood.  A large pile of ashes was excavated nearby in Victorian times, but Miller doubted the tradition that it was associated with the execution.  Grizzel’s house also survived into the late 19th century, in Calendar Close, a long narrow court on the south side of the Overgate, just east of Long Wynd (once called Seres Wynd) .  Miller also records the pathetic record of Jaffray’s widower James Butchart begging entry to the town’s hospital, which the minister’s graciously agreed to.
   As far as tradition is concerned, the couple’s son had the ill-luck to arrive back in Dundee on the day of the execution, and when he was informed of the cause of the black smoke billowed up from the Seagate he sailed away immediately and never came back to his home port again. William Marshall, in Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (1875), says that the arriving sailor was a close relative of Grissel. Shocked by the event, he set sail for India immediately, accompanied by his young son. They made a substantial fortune in India and returned to Scotland and purchased the estate of Murie in the Carse of Gowrie.  The captain may not have been the poor woman's son, because the name of the owners of Murie were Yeaman.  One of the most famous members of this family was the merchant and politician George Yeaman, who was a bailie and provost of Dundee in the early 18th century and later became a member of parliament.  When the estate was sold off in 1849, among the contents of the house were the the original chest in which the Indian treasure was transported back to Scotland and a portrait of the Dundonian sailor himself, which sold for 130 guineas.  Other sources suggest that the Jaffrays of Aberdeen were prominent Quakers who were persecuted for religious reasons.

   Whatever the truth behind all of this, a craving for facts is unlikely to unearth any other significant details now.  The ‘last witch of Dundee’ enjoyed a renaissance of fame in the 20th century, possibly due to Miller’s book.  The BBC’s Scottish regional wireless service broadcast a play about her on 15th January 1936, written by Philip Blair.  William Blain published his novelisation of the events, Witch’s Blood, in 1946, subsequently adapted for the stage by Dundee Rep.  Grissel’s fame has continued into this new century.  A mosaic in Peter Street, leading off the Seagate, plus a commemorative blue plaque now remember her.  There has been a further work of fiction, The CureWife, written by Claire-Marie Watson.  And there is a curious, false tradition incidentally associated with Grissel in the form of a ‘Witch’s Stone’ in the old Howff cemetery.  Coins and other relics have been left ere in recent years, although this seems like a modern phenomenon, possibly begun accidentally, and the place in fact marks the meeting place of one of Dundee’s old trade associations, with no link to the supernatural.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Old Dundee and its Religious Past

Now that Dundee's spirit seems to be finally, hopefully rising from the ashes of an uncertain past, let's cast an eye on its medieval state.  Much of the lamenting for Dundee's lost architectural heritage is justified, but amid the bitterness of urban reconstruction there are myths and fallacies.  True, Dundee's appearance from the 1960s onwards was blighted by obscenities like Tayside House, a.k.a. Fawlty Towers.  But the old closes, wynds and ancient areas like the Overgate were in a sorry state of neglect.  I remember speaking to someone involved in the demolition of the latter who said the site swarmed with an unbelievable number of rats when the old buildings came down.  And what about the story that the city fathers could have had the Tay Road bridge sited further east and spared the beating heart of the burgh?  Instead they allegedly chose to place it like an arrow through the city centre in the mistaken belief that otherwise all the traffic would simply bypass the town and it would wither away.  How true is that?
   The Dundee in the olden times was hardly a utopia, with one famous lawyer famously labelling it as a 'sink of atrocity'.  But if we step even further back and visit the city before the Reformation, it seems a saintly place for its size.

   Looking at the History of Dundee published anonymously in 1873, we are told that apart from the famous Church of St Mary's (The Old Steeple, with its four altarages) there were over a dozen ancient churches and chapels in the town:

  • St Paul's - reputedly the oldest church in Dundee, which stood between the Seagate and the Overgate. St Paul may have been the first patron of the burgh before he was replaced by St Clement.
  • St Clement's - seems to have been the principal church in the town prior to the building of St Mary's.  It stood on the site of the later Town House.
  • Church of St John the Evangelist, of the Slate Heughs - stood on a rock, anciently called Kilcraig, just east of Carolina Port.  There was a quarry on the south side, resulting in the designation 'Saint John of the Sklethuchis' (slate quarries).
  • Chapel of St Nicolas - another Tay-side place of worship, situated in the craig or rock at Tay Ferries Harbour.  It was on this spot that the Earl of Huntingdon is said to have landed, returning from the Crusades.
  • Chapel of St Roque - stood on the rising ground beyond the Cowgate, and is a name which still persists on maps of Dundee street-names.
   The other chapels or kirks were the Chapel of Our Lady (Cowgate), Chapel of St Thomas the Apostle (near the later Reform Street), Chapel of St Serf (site unknown), Chapel of St James the Less (also unknown), Chapel of St Stephen (another unknown), Chapel of St Fillan (unknown), Chapel of Our Lady (near Lady Well at the foot of the Hilltown), Chapel of St Michael the Archangel (situated within the 'Earl's Residence', the town property of the Earls of Crawford, near present Union Street), Chapel of St Salvator (north of the High street/Overgate), Church of St James the Greater (possibly within the church of St Mary's), Chapel of St Margaret (unknown), Chapel of St Blaise (on the west side of Thorter Row).

Stones from the Church of St Mary's

   As if all of those chapels were not enough, pre-Reformation Dundee also had nearly a half dozen houses owned and inhabited by various orders of monks and nuns.  The monastery of the Black Friars of St Dominic is thought to have been founded by a burgess of the town named Andrew Abercromby, in the 15th century.  It stood on the west side of Friars' Vennel, afterwards called Burial Wynd, now Barrack Street.  The Grey Friars' (Franciscans) house was sponsored by Devorgilla, daughter of Allan, Lord of Galloway, around 1260.  She was the grand-daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, and mother of King John Balliol.  The convent was famously the place where the National Ecclesiastical Council met in 1309 and declared that Robert Bruce should be king.  This religious house was destroyed by the Reformation in 1560 and the land appropriated for the burial ground later known as the Howff.  The Convent of the Red or Trinity Friars was founded by Sir David Lindsay of Crawford in 1392.   The Red Friars (Trinity Friars) maintained a hospital which stood on the site of the present Catholic Cathedral, opposite South Tay Street.  It stood as late as the 17th century, when it was described as 'a large and splendid Hospital for old men'.  There was also the congregation of Grey Sisters, properly Claresses Nuns of St Clare or Franciscan Monachae (Franciscan Nunnery).  They occupied a large building east of Barrack Street.  The building later became a private residence known as Milnhill's Lodging.  It was a place where spirituality was actively pursued long after the nuns departed.  A window from a long passage in the house was later found, engraved with a diamond:  'Eternity, Eternity, Eternity, Thomas Hanby, June 21, 1772.'  Who he was and what caused his epiphany are unknown.

The Franciscan Nunnery, Dundee.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Lost Houses of Angus - Red Castle

Red Castle, overlooking Lunan Bay, is not lost in the sense that there is no trace whatever of the ancient building.  But it is certainly ruined, even if its lifeless shell remains as a distinctive landmark near the shore.  In the 1570s the castle was home to a Catholic branch of the Stewart family and their religion allegedly aroused the enmity of Dunninald Castle (also known as Black Jack), just along the coast.  In the year 1579 Andrew Gray, son of Lord Gray, attacked Red Castle.  The occupant Elizabeth Beaton, widow of Sir Robert Stewart of Innermeath, was forced to flee with her entire household, including her pregnant daughter who miscarried because of the trauma.  When the Stewarts complained, King James IV commissioned his 'richt traist freend' John Erskine of oust Gray from the castle.  Dun did get rid of Gray, but is said to have occupied the building himself for a period.  The following year, while the Stewarts were absent, Gray returned to attack Redcastle again. He was indicted for his actions but refused to stand trial, so he was declared a traitor.  The last inhabitant of the building is said to have been the ousted Episopalian minister, James Rait.  Rait had been the priest of the parish of Inverkeilor from 1685-1703, but was thrown out for being a non-jurist, i.e. refusing to swear allegiance to the Hanoverian government.  He was active in the area during the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, preaching at Montrose and Lunan, but he was deposed again a few years later.

   The site of Red Castle was a favourite hunting estate of King William the Lion in the late 12th century, very close to his famous foundation of Arbroath Abbey.  This king gave the site to  Sir Walter de Berkeley (or Barclay), in 1194.  Berkeley had been Chamberlain of Scotland from 1171 to 1191.  A fairly implausible folk legend set down in Victorian times states that Sir Walter wanted to acquire a giant to be his servant, but he could not find anyone large enough in Scotland.  Someone told him that there were many men of enormous height in Sweden, so he set sail for that country immediately.  On his way to Stockholm the Scottish knight slaughtered a gang of pirates who tried to board his ship.  But Sweden was a disappointment to him, full of men no bigger than they were back home.  Just before he departed he attended a tournament and there he happily encountered a ten-foot man named Daniel Cajanus who was entertaining the crowd by wrestling with two normal sized men. The Scot swiftly acquired the giant's services and also employed his friend, Linicus Calvus, a three-foot Danish dwarf whose father had been a Greek orator.
   The Swedish giant made an immediate impact in Scotland and won his master a prize of £1000 by beating a Norman knight in a joust at Leith.  At home at Red Castle, Daniel always stood guard behind Sir Walter's chair.  One evening there was a banquet and the knight noticed that his little servant was missing.  He was distracted from asking about the dwarf when his cook brought in a great pie.  After Berkeley cut open the crust, Linicus jumped out and made a graceful bow, much to his master's delight.
   The following November, Vikings made a surprise attack on the coast.  They tried to storm Red Castle many times, but the giant Daniel always repulsed them.  But finally the huge man was overpowered and killed.  The broken hearted dwarf died the next day.

   The 15th century Red Castle later passed back into the hands of the crown before being passed on to the non-royal Stewarts. Despite the best efforts of Andrew Grey, Red Castle remained largely intact until 1748, at which times the slates and joists were carried to Panmure.  This was followed by a free-for-all, when the locals felt able to plunder the remains for building material.  Around this time a statue of King William the Lion, which was said to have stood at the top of the building, tumbled down and was smashed to pieces.  It only seems like a matter of time before coastal erosion does the same for the crumbling remains.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Beginnings of Arbroath Abbey

The greatest religious foundation of King William the Lion (1165-1214) was the Abbey of Aberbrothock or Arbroath, dedicated to his alleged childhood friend, St Thomas Beckett.  William devoted much of his attention trying to extend his kingdom southwards, and he was captured by the English at Alnwick in Northumbria in 1174.  As it happened, at the moment King Henry II of England heard about this, he was doing penance for his part in Beckett's death.  Notwithstanding his guilt, King Henry believed the Scottish king's capture was actually a miracle performed by St Thomas.
   King William may have believed it also, for he founded Arbroath Abbey in 1186, soon after his release.  Alternatively, he may have dedicated his foundation to St Thomas in order to embarrass the English king.  Or perhaps it was merely a genuine remembrance of his old friend.  Despite its English dedication, Arbroath had significant links with the native Church.  One of its treasures was the Brecbennach or Monymusk Reliquary, a house-shaped reliquary which the Scots carried as a talisman at the Battle of Bannockburn.

The Brecbennach
   The question about the site of Arbroath for this major religious house is an interesting one.  William's brother David, Earl of Hunting, was associated with the area, being the benefactor of the burgh of Dundee down the coast.   It is also worth noting that the third Earl of Angus married King William's sister.  Earl Gilchrist unfortunately had a murderous temper and in a fit of jealousy strangled his lady.  The murder turned out to be a good thing for the fledgling abbey, for Gilchrist as a penance gifted Arbroath with te lands of Dunnichen, Kingoldrum  and the territory of Athenglas (near Kinblethmont).

Stone representing Death The Pilgrim found at Arbroath Abbey
   It is tempting to draw an inference from the close proximity of the Pictish settlement at St Vigeans and guess that the site of the abbey was chosen because it had been an important religious settlement for centuries.  Not far away is Monifieth, which was certainly an established Celtic Christian community, home to a settlement of Culdees since Pictish times.  Also nearby is the parish of Panbride, named after the Irish St Bridget, suggesting a link with the religious settlement of Abernethy, some miles upstream on the other side of the Tay.

   King William died of the plague in December 1214, after a reign of forty-nine years.  His body was carried north from Stirling and was laid to rest eight days later before the high altar of the still incomplete Abbey of Arbroath.  One of the coffin bearers was William's brother, Earl David, who insisted on performing this duty though he was very old and feeble.  He broke down in tears as the king's remains were interred.  The royal tomb was virtually forgotten until, in 1814, workmen found a stone coffin containing the bones of a large man.  Above it was the effigy of a nobleman in a long girdled tunic, his feet supported by a crouching lion.  The bones were exhibited to curious sightseers until they were re -interred in 1938.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Tales of Smugglers

Smuggling was naturally rife all along the Angus coast in not so ancient times, and is recalled in names like Rum Ness at Auchmithie. The Smugglers' Cave near Arbroath was used to store illicit goods and the haunted reputation of other nearby caves was likely a means of keeping the curious locals away.  There is close by The Forbidden Cave, which has a daunting story to match its name. One day a man named Tam Tyrie took shelter here one stormy night, accompanied by his wife and his dog.  In order to drown out the wild sound of the wind and the thunder, and perhaps to keep up their spirits, Tam played his bagpipes.  But in the morning all three occupants of the cave had disappeared.  The farmer at Dickmountlaw, a mile inland, swore that he later heard bagpipes playing a Highland air far below his hearthstone.  A similar tale is told about Piper's Hillock on Tulloch Hill, Glen Clova.  Here a piper entered a presumably fairy infested cave bravely playing.  But the sound gradually faded away and he was of course never glimpsed by fellow mortals again.  This site, near Cullow, later became a graveyard.
   Jock's Road, the well known hill path  from Deeside to Glen Doll, is said to be named after a smuggler named Jock Winter who also gave his name to Winter Corrie in Glen Clova.    Johnny Kidd's Cave in Glen Esk may commemorate another smuggler.

   For many years smuggled gin and rolls of illegally imported tobacco were regularly brought into Montrose, along with such curiosities as smoked reindeer tongues and muskrat tails, the latter used to keep moths out of linen cupboards.  Excise men had to deal not only with coastal smugglers, but the production and distribution of the 'water of life'.  Peat reek whisky was made in illicit stills high in the mountains above Glen Esk and Glen Isla, as well as other places. Forfar people used to purchase illegal spirits in Gleneffock and there were illicit stills on Craig Soales and The Rowan.  For both distillers and government officers there was a risk of losing their lives as they tried to foil each other.  A whisky smuggler was once stopped at Auchterhouse in the Sidlaw Hills by a gauger who suspected that the sack he was carrying contained whisky.  He punctured the sack, then set the man loose and told him to run for his life, shooting at him as he fled.
   In the year 1813 two customs men recovered ninety-five gallons of whisky at Auchterhouse.  While they were transporting this back to Dundee, they were ambushed by three smugglers.  One of the criminals was shot in the neck and one officer suffered cuts and bruises.  The smugglers recovered a third of their whisky and concealed it in a plantation, but local farmers refused to reveal its whereabouts to the authorities.
   Glen Esk's most notorious whisky maker was Geordie White.  He used to make a great show of volubly cursing the local customs man whom he was actually bribing to ignore his business.  But when a new customs man was appointed he was determined to find the location of Geordie's still.  One of Geordie's rivals informed this official about a path which led to the still.  The man followed the path until he came to a frozen ford.  Geordie White was standing outside his house on the far side of the water.  When the customs man asked him how deep the river was, Geordie informed him that he had been led astray and that the actual ford was four miles upstream.  But the suspicious gauger demanded top see the depth.  So Geordie cracked the ice and stuck in the long handle of his garden fork in at an angle, giving a deceptive idea of the depth.  'Ye see there is nae boddam here,' Geordie said. 'Ye'll hae tae gang up the watter tae the ford.'  The excise man was furious, but rode away upstream.  By the time he eventually arrived at the house of Geordie White all traces of the illegal still were gone.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Lost Houses of Angus - Aldbar Castle

Aldbar Castle (also known as Auldbar), stood near Brechin for nearly four hundred years until it was sadly demolished in the 1960s.  The estate had been owned by the Crammonds before passing to the family of Lyon of Glamis, one of whom constructed the building in the late 16th century.  Ownership later passed to the Sinclairs, Youngs and Chalmers, the latter of whom transformed the building into a mansion house in the latest style.  Its demolition followed a fire in 1964, after which it was not deemed economical to salvage. 

There is a strange story concerning the last of the Young family to own the estate in the mid-18th century.  He was betrothed to a young lady who, rather strangely, ordered both a wedding dress and a mort-cloth from the same firm in Edinburgh.  She intended the latter item to be sent to the church of the parish where she came from, but there was a delivery mix up and both garments were dispatched to Aldbar Castle.  When Young opened the package and saw the mort-cloth he took it either as an omen or a sinister message.  He sent the garments on to his fiancĂ©, then hurried on to Montrose and drowned himself in the sea.  His intended  bride died very soon afterwards and was wrapped in the mort-cloth which she had presented to her church.  One version of this strange tale is told by Andrew Jervise in his Memorials of Angus and the Mearns (volume, 2, p. 73, 1861), where he doubts that the unfortunate bridegroom to be drowned himself on purpose because his clothes were left on the beach and his horse tethered nearby.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Boring Ghost of Balnabreich

It's always a disappointment when you come across a nice little ghost story in an unexpected place and get ready to be at least mildly chilled or entertained by it, then when you read on, it turns out the said haunting is, well, a bit dull.

   What is the point of a haunting that does not scare or even intrigue?  A boring, supposedly 'real' ghost is so much more of a let down than a promising 'fake' ghost.  Of course supposedly real ghost stories are products of the age in which they are recorded.  Anyone reading Catherine Crowe's Victorian classic The Night Side of Nature will be struck by how sanctimonious and morally upstanding her visitants from the Night Side turn out to be.  Why should immortal spirits observe the stringent social conditions of the era they inhabit?  Who knows.  All that being said as a warning, I now present you with the [Boring] Ghost of Balnabreich, near Careston.

Countryside around Careston Castle

   This particular White Lady said not a word to anyone she met and her area of haunting was the wooded glen of Balnabreich (once known colloquially as Bonnybreich).  No one has recorded this silent lady's history, but her presence certainly didn't strike fear into the hearts of anyone who saw her.  Her only know reaction to those who saw her was wagging her long, thin white fingers reproachfully at lassies who were out cavorting, or even just walking, in the woods with young men. This terrifying gesture was sufficient, back in the day, to send the rebellious young besoms scurrying back home.  The  White Wife of Balnabreich was first brought to the attention of the public by the correspondent known as 'Auld Eppie' in the Brechin Advertiser.  The author David Herschell Edwards found the tale so scintillating that he included it in his book Around the Ancient City (1887).

Friday, 13 November 2015

Bad Lairds Part Five - Douglas of Arbroath

When is a Wicked Laird a would-be pillar of the church?  The answer is, when he was the man in charge of the Abbey of Arbroath, in name at least.  George Douglas, a natural son of the Earl of Angus, was Commendator of the abbey after the Reformation, which meant that he had control of its rich revenues.  But this lucrative post was obviously not sufficient for George.  On the 25th of August, 1572 ‘sindrie indwellers of Dundee returning from Barthilmo Fair’ were ambushed at the foot of Cairn O’Mounth In Aberdeenshire by George Douglas and his armed gang.  Five hapless men – Robert and David Jak, John Craigtoun, Thomas Rattray and his son  -  were kidnapped and brought with all their belongings to Arbroath and kept imprisoned there for a time.  The Commendator evidently saw traders and travellers attending fairs as easy prey because, in September 1572, he waylaid a ship in the Tay at the confluence of the River Earn and seized all its cargo (worth five or six thousand merks) which was heading to be sold at St John’s Fair in Perth.  His men attacked various other vessels on the river.  Many people were injured, including a man named William Gold ‘and diverse uthers, to the effusion of their blude in grite quantity’.  Provost Hallyburton of Dundee charged Douglas with theft, but he did not show up before the Privy council to answer the charge.  His outlawing at least allowed his predecessor as Abbot of Aberbrothock, Lord Hamilton, to step into the post again; he had been deprived of it for an act of rebellion in 1571.  But Douglas was forgiven by the authorities and was astonishingly made ‘Bishop Geordie’ or Moray in 1574.  There is a pen portrait of him during that year, ‘mumbling on his preaching aff his paper’ during the whole course of the winter.  Evidently is heart was not geared towards higher things.  He was soon charged by Livingstone with harassing his territory of Arbroath while he had been Commendator, stealing money and goods, demolishing houses and taking the pensions due to the aged monks.  But no punishment seems to have come his way.  Douglas had also allegedly had a hand in the murder of David Rizzio in 1566.

   The transformation of Arbroath from a monastery to a secular possession saw a number of strange people in charge and a few odd incidents.  A large part of the fabric had been destroyed in 1514 when Ochterlonie of Kelly Castle set the abbey on fire following an argument with the prior.  In the same year the Abbot George Hepburn fell at the Battle of Flodden and he was succeeded by Gavin Douglas, third son of the 5th Earl of Angus (the infamous ‘Bell The Cat’).  The poet Gavin Douglas died of the plague in London in 1522.

Kelly Castle

   By the start of the 17th century the Abbey was in the hand of the Hamiltons, but there were said to still be some forty ageing monks in residence, old men with nowhere else to go.  The very last monk was Brother Turnbull, who lived in the old tower.  One night a huge evil-looking rat entered his chamber.  Thinking somehow that this was Satan in disguise, the last monk of Arbroath fled and never returned.  

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Mixed Bag of Rhymes

When Craigowl puts on his cowl,and Collie Law his hood,then a the Lundie ladsken there will be a flood.

   The above rhyme, from the Sidlaws-surrounded parish of Lundie, is one of many pieces of weather lore once found in Angus.  Another, non geographically specific one is:

Willie, ma buck, shoot oot yer horn,an ye’ll get milk an breid the morn.

   Willie here is the snail, whose protruding ‘horns’ were thought by children to predict fine weather the following day.  Sometimes Angus children greeted a shower of rail with this hopeful, possibly vain request:

Rainy, rainy rattle stanes,dinna rain on me,
rain on Johnnie Frostie far owre the sea.

    A special class of rhymes is found on tombstones, though most of these are apt to be too simple of maudlin to be of great interest.  Some unusual inscriptions are to be found in Dundee’s ancient burial ground, including this fine metrical gem:

Here lie IEpity Piemy husbandmy twenty bairnsand I. 

   The venerable Provosts of Dundee seem to have been at the mercy of whimsical wit after their internment in the Howff; for example:
                   J P P                  Provost of Dundee                  hallelujah                  hallelujee.

   Four Dundee worthies independently composed a line each in the following commemorative ode, with the final contributor plainly scraping the barrel bottom:

Here lies the Provost of Dundee,here lies him, here lies he’hi-diddledum, hi-diddle-dee,A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

   Rivalry between neighbouring places has been mentioned before and the following rhyme records the supposed merits – or vices – of four north-west parishes, doubtless inspired by competing markets:

Theivin Glen Isla, Leein Lintrathen.Cursin Kingow-drum, an Kind Kirriemuir.

   In the upland parish of Menmuir is a place named Deuchar, once home to a family of that name who were hereditary enemies with the Laird of Glenogil.  The first of the family was a huge  man with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.  He wielded the famous family heirloom, the Deuchar Sword, to great effect against the Danes at the Battle of Barry. (Another tradition says that the first Deuchar of Deuchar gained those lands for killing a wild boar in the Pass of the Noran Water, where the Coorford - or Coortford - Bridge was later built, in the early 11th century.)  The sword was used again by another Deuchar at Bannockburn, which led to these words being inscribed on the blade:

Da Deuguhyre his swerde,at Bannockburn I served the Brus,of quhilk the Englis had no russ.

   This weapon had great significance for the Deuchar family (who claimed descent from a second son of Gilchrist, Earl of Angus. The earliest actual traces of the family are from the 14th century.) If the sword were ever to leave Scotland, it was said that disaster would befall their kindred.   The sword was used again at the Battle of Harlaw in the 15th century. In this fray the William Deuchar was slain and his servant found his master with the iconic blade so tightly grasped in his swollen, dead hand that he had to cut it off at the wrist to carry the weapon home.  The family was distraught when, in 1745, the Laird of Glenogil (Lyon of Easter Ogil) carried away their talisman after swearing that he was about to go and join the Jacobites and would either have the sword or the best horse in Deuchar's stable.  The Deuchars buried their talisman in a corn stack, but their enemy discovered it.   He sacrilegiously shortened the blade to make it easier to wield and was seen parading it around Brechin.   It was later returned in exchange for a large sum of money and certain conditions. This tradition is somewhat garbled and may be connected that the Deuchars' loyalties had transferred from the Stuarts to the Hanoverians and they were unwilling to accompany their feudal superior Lyon into battle.  In lie of accompanying him they were obliged to send a man with their best weapon to him to demonstrate their continuing loyalty.    The last Laird of Deucar passed it to a relative in Edinburgh and it found its way into the armoury there before eventually, allegedly ended up in the collection of the Angus Folk Museum.  Another tradition says that the sword was held for a time in the Castle of Coull, Aberdeenshire.  Deuchar of that Ilk remained in possession of that place until 1815, when the last of the family became insolvent and emigrated to Australia and the estate was passed to trustees. One of the last prominent members of the family was Alexander Deuchar (1777-1845), who revived the Scottish Knights Templars.

   Braikie Castle, Kinnell parish, was built by the Frasers in 1581 and in 1650 it passed to a branch of the Douglasses, then later to the Earls of Panmure.  By 1760 the castle was unoccupied.  A century later a housekeeper named Castle Jean would show interested parties around the building.  When asked when the castle was built she would usually respond with this rhymed reply:

Be it cheap or be it dear,This house was biggit in ae year.

Jean would sometimes vary this with another ditty:

Be the meal cheap or be it dear,Braikie Frizel was biggit in ae year.

   Several hapless Angus brides have met wit untimely ends which are remembered in local tradition.  At Gella, by the South Esk in Glen Clova, is a large stone lined circle filled with moss.  Locals knew this as the Bride’s Coggie, and there are several versions about how it got its name.  One says that a bride returning from her honeymoon was thrown from her gig into a marsh at this spot and was drowned.  Another theory says that the coggie was planted with corn in the expensive days before the repeal of the Corn Laws.  ‘Coggie’ means a small tub or bowl.  A similar word, ‘coggly’, signifies unsteady or easily overturned, which may have inspired the upset coach tale.  It appears as if the circle once contained stagnant water, a necessity for resetting flax.
   Eastward over the hills, near the summit of Inchgrundle Hill, is a small hollow called the Bride’s Bed.  A newly married woman lost her life here, though the manner of her death is not now remembered.  It is likely her end was violent because the ghost of a wretched girl haunts this lonely spot:

But still, at the darksome hour of nightwhen lurid phantoms fly,a hapless bride in weeds of whiteillumes the lake and sky.

   Some of the simplest rhymes are also the most poignant, in that they are merely a collection of mellifluous place-names, in some cases of places which are no longer there or which survive as names of maps only, devoid now of human habitation.  Here is one example, which one imagines might have been composed by the six-fingered warrior mentioned above:

                              Deuchar sits on Deuchar Hill,
                              lookin doon on Birnie Mill,                              the Whirrock an the Whoggle,                              the Burnroot an Ogle,                              Quiechstrath an Turnafachie,                              Waterhaughs an Drumlieharrie.