Sunday, 26 April 2015

Waters of Death and Tales of Bridges

An earlier entry in this blog mentioned the unsavoury reputation of the Water of Dean, a waterway which demanded (according to one version of the legend) a human life every seven years.  The burn was not the only stream in the region with a bad reputation.  Both North and South Esks had resident kelpies, as we have seen, and these were perhaps viewed as the supernatural personifications of more ancient, nameless protective entities which resided at one time within the coursing rivers.
    If we venture west along Strathmore, into Perthshire, we might have to cross the River Ericht at or near Blairgowrie.  A rhyme I remember gives this warning about the river:

                                     The River Ericht, bright and clear,
                                     taks a body every year.

    Of course, life seeking rivers are not unique to our area.  In Aberdeenshire, the Dee had an unhealthy appetite for humans, while its neighbour was more benevolent:

                                     Bloodthirsty Dee
                                     each year needs three;
                                     but bonny Don
                                     she needs none.

    Sir Walter Scott wrote about the murderous proclivities of the River Tweed, and the same tale is even told of certain rivers in England.  The legend, or the suspicion that some rivers, burns, streams are inherently bad may well be very ancient.  It is always tempting, though mostly misleading, to believe that certain bits of folklore have devolved from ancient Celtic and even pre-Celtic times, but in this case it might well be true.

    Sometimes certain rivers actively attempted to prevent mere humans from attempting to thwart their natural appetites by the means of building bridges.  The old North Water Bridge over the North Esk was built, allegedly, as the result of a supernatural visitation.  The person who had the vision was someone who should perhaps have been immune to such superstitious encounters.  He was John Erskine, 5th Laird of Dun (1509-1591), a 16th century reformer and a friend of the redoubtable John Knox.  In later life he was Moderator of the General Assembly, and he was also (as Religious Superintendent of Angus and the Mearns) zealous in rooting out witches in the area.  But Erskine also had a violent side.  He had to flee to exile in Europe after murdering a Catholic priest named Froster in the old steeple of Montrose church. 
    One day Erskine was walking in a troubled state along the banks of the North Esk (according to a story in the Old Statistical Account).  The previous night he had experienced an awful dream in which some being announced he would find no peace after death unless he constructed a bridge across the river at a place called Stormy Grain, where three waters run into one. (Places where two or more living waters combined were seen as dangerous.) The reformer woke up from his solemn day dream and realised he had no idea exactly where he was.  He asked a passer by and was informed that this spot was called Stormy Grain.  Impressed, Erskine soon started planning and building the bridge.  But the river spirits were against it and the foundations were washed away by a spate in the river.  When a second attempt was well advanced, the jealous river again destroyed the work.  The laird became melancholic and took to his bed in despair.  One day he saw a spider trying to make its web above his bed.  Twice it failed, but on the third attempt its web was completed.  This example gave Erskine heart (as it had done to Robert Bruce before him) and he ordered work on the bridge to be started again.  This time the bridge was built.

    The Gannochy Bridge, near Edzell, was built in 1732 at the expense of James Black, tenant farmer of Wood of Edzell.  Local farmers had long been troubled by the round about roads and decided they needed a bridge, though most of them could not afford to contribute.  Black, however, was wealthy and without wife or family.  The locals knew that Black was also very superstitious, so they decided to manipulate him.  During the winter of 1731, several people had been drowned in the North Esk.  For three successive nights, Black was visited by a drowned 'ghost', actually a farmer in disguise, who told the appalled Black that unless he personally funded a bridge, more people would surely perish.  Black built the bridge to supernatural order, exactly where the wraith ordered it to be placed.

    There are snippets of other 'bridge lore' in the region (but sadly, no other full blown tales).  The bridge across the River Isla at Ruthven was said to have been built by Lady Crighton as a punishment for killing her coachman.  Nearby, the bridge over the 'dowie' Dean at Cardean was locally believed to have been built by the Roman army.  When a hapless improver named Admiral Popham took it upon himself to build a new an improved edifice, the locals still used the old bridge, so the spiteful Admiral had the ancient monument blown up, an act which would now have rightfully landed him in prison.

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