Saturday, 30 January 2016

Elephants in Glen Esk (Yes, you read that correctly)

There is a rule of thumb about the believability of a supposedly true story and how old it is supposed to be.  Those who are mathematically minded could doubtless draw up elegant equations to express it, but I’ll have to put it like this:  even if you think a story is far-fetched, if it was recorded long ago or has been verified by oral tradition or the scrutiny of experts, you have to accept it at face value.  What do we do then with a scrap of folklore that is less than a hundred years old, which seems as bogus as anything, but is too good to simply throw away?  Why, we repeat it here.
    Glen Esk has been popularised by many royal and noble visitors since Queen Victoria strayed over the hills from Deeside, but the most remarkable (if we are to believe the story) came here in 1929.  In that year the Maharajah of Alwar came to the glen as a shooting tenant and made a lasting impression.  There may exist somewhere a sober account of his coming, but word of mouth (coloured by the attitudes of the time) paints a more lurid picture.  Locals are said to have reported that the maharajah and his entourage appeared in Glen Esk one moonlit night, a party that included a string of elephants and an entire harem.  During his stay the maharajah is said to have slaughtered sixty-five stags.  One of his peculiarities was that he did not set out for the hills until late in the afternoon and he continues to stalk until one or two in the morning, guided by torchlight.  Those not in his immediate retinue had to stumble around in the dark and take good care not to shoot each other instead of the local wildlife.  So much for that.

Elephants journeying towards Glen Esk.  (Note Brechin in the background.)  Rumour states that some elephants escaped and their descendants still infest the Angus glens (especially Glen Mark).
   As it happens, the Maharajah of Alwar was a real person:  Jai Singh Prabhakar, ruler of the Indian princely state lived from 1882 to 1937.  Like many of his peers he spent much of his time abroad, including periods in England.   In a famous tale, which captures some of charisma and might even be true, the Indian was once browsing incognito in a Rolls-Royce showroom in Mayfair, dressed rather shabbily.  When he asked about one of the motors he was swiftly shown the door.  Back in his hotel he dressed himself up in full princely regalia and asked a servant to call the showroom and inform them that the Maharajah of Alwar was interested in purchasing a few motors.  He showed up and was given the full red carpet treatment and bought half a dozen cars at full cost.  These were shipped back to India, but horrifically (or comically), the ruler decided what he thought of English snobbishness by using the vehicles as bin lorries, collecting the rubbish in the towns.  Rolls-Royce became a laughing stock throughout the sub-continent and the company became so alarmed that they offered the prince six free cars, along with a grovelling apology and a plea to stop using their prestige cars as garbage trucks.  Seeing that they were sufficiently mortified, the maharajah retired his vehicles from refuse collecting.
   Do we believe this story?  I think we should, even if there is a variant of it which casts doubt on its authenticity.  This alternative version insists that the maharajah, still incognito, said he wanted all seven Rolls which were on display in the showroom, but only on condition that the unctuous salesman accompanied them as they were shipped back to his homeland.  The salesman unsurprisingly did not refuse.  But he was crestfallen, not to say heartbroken, when the pride and joy vehicles were transformed into bin lorries before his disbelieving eyes.
  Jai Singh Prabhakar was a charismatic and intelligent ruler, famous as any rock star during his day - the stories reflect his personality and have something of Keith Moon about them, I think.  Due to his disagreement with aspects of British colonial rule he was exiled for a long period to Paris.  But a small valley in Angus remembers him still.

Jai Singh Prabhakar

   Meanwhile, for more local elephantine lore, head over to the very excellent Dark Dundee website and see the tale of another long dead mega beastie!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Magical Musical of Place-Names

In a place like Angus you have a treasure trove of names on the maps and ground from a variety of cultural sources:  pre-Celtic, Pictish, Gaelic, Scots, English.  For some, finding out the meaning of place-names opens a door in that particular part of the land.  Other people are fascinated by trying to find out where the many hundreds of vanished names – lost settlements, fields and hills – found on records but not on modern maps were located.  It is easy to let your lack of knowledge get the better of you, onomastically speaking, and read into names what you would like them to mean.  The old amateur antiquarians of bygone centuries did it all the time.  For example, I would much prefer the parish and settlement name of Auchterhouse to mean ‘place of the spectre’ as some older books insist, but the sad and prosaic truth seems to be that it merely means ‘upland place’.  Same with Pittendreich, a part of the Sidlaws in nearby Lundie parish.  The first element pit is the Pictish element meaning ‘share’, and some people have interpreted the rest as ‘of the druids’.  That would make a fascinating, if undiscoverable, back story.  But really the name appears to mean ‘place/share of the good aspect'.  Boo to that drabness!

   You can’t trust these tricky Celtic names.  But you’re on much safer ground, so to speak, with those names which seem to be later Scots or English.  Carrot Hill in the Sidlaws again looks like a plain, honest name (there is a nearby Carrot farm too), but actually it’s tricking us:  the origin is in the Gaelic caraidh, ‘mossy place’, as the late David Dorward pointed out.  Biblical type names are sprinkled throughout the county and beyond.  Give a place a near-eastern name and you would instil some sort of holiness there.  So we have Egypt east of Montreathmont Forest and Jericho near Douglastown.  But what about Denmark south of Froickheim and indeed Ireland and Rome (the latter apparently pronounced Roum, according to local historian Frederick Cruickshank) in Menmuir?  Going back to Gaelic, the hill of Auld Darkney, close to Tannadice, sounds like a splendid single malt whisky, and David Dorward  again (in The Glens of Angus, p. 82) thinks it comes from allt deargan, ‘red stained burn’.

   Best possibly just to roll the best names around in your mind and mouth and let the meanings stay obscure.  Try this lot for size:

                 The Lurgies and its brother The Slunks in Montrose Basin.
                 Mouse’s Thrapple, a small woodland strip near Kinnaird Castle.
                 Dummiesholes and East Dummiesholes near Redford.
                 Dustydrum, a farm in Carmyllie parish (where we also have
                 Goats and Curleys).
                 How about Finger Hill, Froickheim?  The fragile sounding Glassmonies?

                 Other personal favourites include Slap o’ The Gask, Hunkrum Dubs and Rashick Knap. But top of the pile for me is definitely Tuttie’s Neuk.  This is the name of a fine inn at Arbroath, but the name may have migrated from the nearly identically named house of Tuttie’s Nook not far away in Carmyllie.  The name is explained by a possible folk etymology:  tuttie being an old word for ‘toot’, signifying the place where the local herdsman blew his horn to assemble his cattle before taking them to graze.

   Those who want to delve into the madness of place-names further are recommended to read David Dorward’s local surveys, The Glens of Angus (2001) and The Sidlaw Hills (2003).  Both are out of print, but easily found.  There is also the rather more obscure Place names of northeast Angus: A study of the parishes of Edzell, Lethnot & Navar and Lochlee; with notes on some names from the Brechin area and elsewhere in or around the county by Charles Wills, 1963.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Stannin Stane o Kirriemuir

The Stannin’ Stane o’ Kirriemuir currently measures 9 feet (2.7 m) in height and 6 feet 6 inches (1.9 m) in girth at its broadest, standing proudly on the Hill of Kirriemuir.  I say currently because there are tales that it was once twice the height that it is now, or that it once stood on another stone that was even more immense.  This is because a fallen stone, measuring nearly thirteen feet, once lay beside it.  The most well-known story says that they were part of the same stone which split itself in two.  Once a band of robbers say down, ill-advisedly, to rest in the shadow of the great stone.  While they were busy gloating over their stolen loot, the Stannin’ Stane broke in half and the fallen section killed the thieves.  Anyone who dug beneath the recumbent boulder, says the legend, would find several unhappy skeletons beneath, and under them possibly a whole lot of lovely treasure. Apparently the prone stone had vanished by 1909 (as noted by Alan Reid in The Regality of Kirriemuir published that year)– where had it gone? 

   Now, the squashing of the criminals may have been a happy accident.  It is not unknown for ancient standing stones to fall over occasionally.  Not far from Kirrie, the ancient monument known as The Carlinwell Stone, near Airlie, fell over in the winter of 2011 as the result of thawing frost.  I think that the Kirriemuir stone was once regarded as having human characteristics by the locals and deliberately killed the caterans, acting as a guardian for the townsfolk.  It still guards the burgh today. (The standing stone features incidentally in J.M. Barrie’s The Little Minister.)

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Another Lost Treasure

I have previously mentioned a few treasures which were unearthed in Angus and appear to have vanished forever.  These include the priceless Bell of St Madden, a Celtic relic sold for a single penny in the 19th century and broken up, the unique bronze Pictish plaque found in the Hill of Laws, plus (maybe dubiously) the reputed Pictish crown which was recovered in the Den of Arbirlot.  It made me think of how many other mouth-watering hordes are lying in, around and under Angus, just waiting to be found?  Is there a more unlucky county in Scotland for historical heirlooms being lost?
   Searching for other fascinating historical artefacts which might be beneath our feet unfortunately proved to be a mainly fruitless venture.  Why are there no sunken galleons in the River Tay?  Didn’t Captain Kidd possibly come from Dundee, and if so, why didn’t he have the decency to stash a treasure chest or two nearby?  I know archaeology is more than the study of gold and jewels, but who could resist finding a cave full of gold and silver ingots?

   But there is one small treasure which was once lost, found, and then went missing again, unless anyone knows better about its whereabouts.  The story goes that when David, Earl of Huntingdon, was building the Church of St Mary’s in Dundee, in thanks for coming to land in Dundee after a hazardous time at the Crusades, he employed as an architect a man named Allan Dorward.  Possibly he was a progenitor of the Durwards of Lundie, who later became a powerful family in Strathmore and the wider kingdom.  When the church was completed in the year 1198, King William the Lion presented Dorward with a solid gold ring.  Soon afterwards Dorward participated in a wild boar hunt west of the town, at a placed called Sparrow Muir, which was later known as Hawkhill.  Somehow the ring came loose from Dorward’s finger and was lost.  Amazingly, the ring was said to have been found again around 1790 when foundations for Heathfield House were being dug at Hawkhill.  The ring was solid gold, weighed eight pennyweights seven grains and passed into the hands of the Webster family of Heathfield House and later to the Neish family of Laws and Omachie.  The ring was described by local historian Andrew Jervise (in Memorials of Angus and Mearns, volume one, p. 178) as being ‘ornamented with a beautifully engraved head, representing that of an old man, with a crown; and on the breast is a mullet or star of five points’.  

Detail of the Legendary Lost Treasure Ring of Dundee.

   At some point in the 19th century, a museum in Edinburgh is said to have possessed a historical notice advising of the loss of the ring and offering a reward for its finder.  Jervise reports that another version says that ring belonged to the master mason of King David II and it was he who carelessly discarded it on Sparrow Muir.  James Neish notified the Archaeological Institute about the ring and they carried a report of it, including a drawing of the figure in their journal (The Archaeological Journal 21, 1864, 185-7).  The report notes that the crown may in fact be a helmet, with items like horns protruding from it.  If it represents a royal, then it’s a very sinister looking royal.  This journal also thought that the style pointed to the late 14th century rather than earlier.  The star motif was linked to the Douglas family, who were Earls of Angus, and the ornamentation linked with the Franciscan order, who of course had a house in Dundee.  But where is the ring now?  Possibly in the possession of a Neish family member in some far flung part of the globe, or just possibly in a legendary bank vault in Dundee or Forfar along with most of the other Lost Treasures of Angus.
   Heathfield House in the Hawkhill is long gone too, but there is a student hall of residence nearby.  Does the ring lie beneath the building?

The West Port near Hawkhill.  Bring your metal detectors.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Balgay Hill, Dundee - Too Few Ghosts?

Two major hills dominate the city of Dundee:  The Law and Balgay. (I am discounting here the built up areas of the Hilltown and Menzieshill.) For me, growing up in its shadow, Balgay was literally more prominent in my consciousness than the Law, iconic though the latter is.  The great wooded ridge of Balgay arches like a huge whale on the skyline, which could be picked out on winter nights by the line of electric lights illuminating the paths near the summit.
   Familiarity with Balgay makes you rueful about a certain lack of history, and mystery, of the place.  The place-name seems to mean ‘town of wind’ and must refer to some part of the land around Balgay (Victoria) Park to the south of the hill.  There was an ancient settlement here before the Gaelic name; the Old Statistical Account in the 18th century mentions that a very large souterrain, an underground passage built by the Picts, was discovered at Balgay.  But all traces of this have unfortunately vanished.  On one of the lower slopes of the hill is a stone ‘rose window’ which originated in St Mary’s Church in central Dundee.  The window fell to earth when the ancient church burned down in 1841 and was salvaged and, perhaps oddly, planted in Balgay.  (Further details can be found on the Friends of Balgay website: These days, in spring time at least, it comes alive with flowers planted in its ’petals’ instead of the stained glass panes which may once have been there.

    Apart from that, there are few traces of interesting archaeology associated with the hill, except perhaps the few historic beads which were found nearby.  At least, I thought so until I recently stumbled across a website which shows a cup-marked stone which was apparently found on the top of the hill.  How come I wasn’t aware of this before?  Who knows, but is seems a remarkable find. The stone seems to have lurked hidden (at least to myself) near the wonderful Mills Observatory on the summit of the hill.  The British Rock Art Collection details a great many stones marked by the hands of humans, including quite a few from Angus (

   One part of Balgay Hill which is haunted, in the imagination if not in fact, is the Victorian wrought iron bridge which spans the gap the main road runs through.  On one side is the wooded parkland, full of walks and nature; the east side of the hill is home to the dead, a sprawling graveyard that was a place of dread to small children back in the day.  A favourite dare when I was small was to run from the living side to the graveyard side and back again.  You made your own scant entertainment in those days. The bridge was also an infamous vantage point to view the mysterious hot-footed spectre running below who was known to us (and to generations before) as The Man WithThe White Sandshoes, who used to pursue and terrify the nurses from nearby Victoria Hospital.  [More about him in the future.]

   Despite all this, I always had the underlying feeling that Balgay deserved more ghosts, more legends.  These Edwardian lads pictured on the bridge on an old postcard meanwhile show no fear of the place.  Perhaps one or two of them linger there still.

Postcard from author's collection

Friday, 8 January 2016

You Are Here - Or Are You?

Apologies for the confusing title first of all.  I always felt a bit intimidated by those location maps in parks etc. which say 'You are Here' and give you a little diagram of your supposed location.  Suppose they're lying?  Suppose I don't want to know precisely where you (whoever you are) suppose me to be?  But enough about my cartographic suspicions.  I just wanted to post a small map of Angus for those who don't know where it is and those who certainly do.

   By the way, I must confess that I compose the bulk of my blog about my home county from Cornwall, about as far as you can be from Angus in the U.K.  More maps will follow, in due course.

Map from Ancient Things in Angus (1881).

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Footsteps of Robert Bruce

For someone who looms so large in Scottish culture, Robert Bruce remains an elusive shadow in Angus.  The fullest legend concerning his military prowess in the county celebrates an encounter which almost certainly did not happen.  Bruce is said to have met his arch-enemy John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, in a narrow mountain pass near the Hill of Rowan, Glen Esk.  Both leaders were aware that the terrain favoured Robert Bruce’s guerrilla forces so the encounter came to nothing as Bruce was anxious to be elsewhere.  A less anticlimactic version of the event says that the Bruce butchered the Red Comyn’s men one by one as they squeezed through the pass.  Before the fight began, Bruce planted his banner on the nearby Cross Stone (which is actually an early Christian relic, possibly associated with St Drostan), then shouted the war cry ‘Row in!’, giving the Hill of Rowan its name.  (Compare the story of the stone with the Borestone at Bannockburn, where the king planted his flag before the battle.)  Cairns at the foot of the hill where the Comyn men were buried are actually Bronze or Iron Age monuments.  Another stone, at Ardoch, is scored with peculiar grooves which were said to have been caused by King Robert sharpening his broadsword upon it.  Needless to say, unpatriotic killjoys insist that Robert the Bruce never fought anyone in the glen.  Bruceton, by Alyth in Perthshire, is alleged to have earned its name following another fray fought by Robert.  Here he is said to have defeated the English near Ruthven, on the Angus side of the River Isla.

The Cross Stone on the Hill of Rowan

   Returning to reality, few people remember that the monarch’s eldest son is buried in Angus.  His illegitimate namesake, Sir Robert Bruce, was given the barony of Finavon and the lands of Carsegownie in Aberlemno.  But he enjoyed his estates for only a few years, before dying at the Battle of Dupplin in 1332.  His remains were interred within ancient Restenneth Priory.

Restenneth Priory

Saturday, 2 January 2016

A King in Clova (not clover)

While the Braes of Angus held happy times for Queen Victoria on her occasional forays over the hills from Deeside, the glens were altogether inhospitable for one of her royal predecessors.  King Charles II landed in  the north of Scotland in June 1650, after an unhappy period of exile on the Continent.  His main military champion, the Marquis of Montrose, had been executed the month before in Edinburgh and now Charles decided he could afford to make a pact with his killers, agreeing to the Solemn League and Covenant and Presbyterian rule throughout Britain.  But Charles Stuart and Presbyterianism was a match neither in heaven nor on earth and he decided one day to make a break for it, out of the clutches of his hard line allies, hoping to seek less demanding support among more traditional royalists.  Pretending to the gentlemen of the Estates at Perth that he fancied a bit of hawking (which no doubt they only grudgingly agreed to), he tried to escape from them and fled across the Tay and east along the Carse of Gowrie, clad in just a ‘thin ryding sutte of stuffe’, accompanied by only a few attendants.  He reached Dudhope Castle in Dundee, then veered north to Auchterhouse, where he met the Earl of Buchan, and on to the Ogilvy stronghold of Cortachy. Despite being in the hands of true friends now it was felt that he would not be safe for the night in the castle and he was bundled away north again.

Unhappy royal hiding ground:  Glen Clova.

 After a break neck journey of forty-two miles he was conducted to a cottage belonging to a tenant of the Laird of Clova, and here, ‘lying in a nastie roume, one ane old bolster, aboue a matte of segges and rushes, ouerweiried and werey fearfull,’ he spent a rough night.  The date was 4th October, 1650, and the incident – known as ‘The Start’ – has none of the romantic drama which is associated with Charles hiding in the royal oak the following year.  If the hovel in Glen Clova was still standing (and it probably vanished years ago), I doubt whether this dandified king would have liked having a blue plaque affixed to its wall in remembrance of his desperation.  His ‘friends’ from Perth soon rooted him out (as the Duke of Buckingham blabbed about the escape, having heard the details from Charles himself) and he was accompanied back to that town again, spending the night at Castle Huntly in the Carse on the way back.  The twenty year-old king in the making may have been almost glad to be back in the bosom of his reluctant friends, but that feeling probably dissipated when he was subjected to a massive judgemental sermon delivered personally to him the next Sunday, having unfortunately arrived too late in town to hear the public sermon.  He was forced to write and deliver a grovelling apology to his captors at Perth.  All was forgiven, after a fashion, and Charles was proclaimed king on the traditional site at Scone on New Year’s Day, 1651.

English government propaganda of 1651:  The Scots holding the nose of their young king to the grindstone.