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.

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