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

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