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.

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