Sunday, 30 October 2016

(Not) Forgotten Sons of Angus: Captain William Kidd

It was the fate of Captain William Kidd (1645-1701) to be mis-remembered after his dishonourable death and slandered in the centuries since as a common pirate.  The legend of his life degenerated to the extent that he was eventually lampooned in the extremely non-classic film ‘Abbott and Costello meet Captain Kidd.’  Another grievous slur against him was that he was actually a native of Greenock – only joking!  For those who wish to examine the evidence about his possible west coast origins, please consult the excellent Tales of the Oak blog site.Tales of the Oak.

  For others interested in his true, Angus origins, read on.  Before looking at his life, we can consider how common the family name is in God’s Own County.  In the Register of Testaments in the Commissariat of Brechin records for the 17th and 18th centuries there are some 45 people with the surname Kyd or Kidd, most of them around the southern Angus coast and Dundee.  Notable members of the family with some sort of maritime connection include John Kyd, Dundee shipmaster (died 1796). the mariner Richard Kyd of Dundee (who died in 1783), and Robert Kyd, ship-master in Montrose (died in 1794).   Among the other notable Angus natives who bore the surname was Stewart Kyd, a libertarian, lawyer and native of Arbroath who died in 1811.   

   In 1841 the surname Kidd (or variants) was the 70th most common surname in Angus. Those of a certain vintage who are familiar with the Lochee area of Dundee will well know that Kiddie’s is the popular appellation of the public house officially called the Albert Bar (occasionally frequented by this author in the distant past.). A well known Dundee publisher which flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries was William Kidd.  A scout around the graveyards of Angus leads to evidence of the maritime connection; for instance at Broughty Ferry we find the memorial of John Kid, ship-master who died on 15th April 1806, aged 61.  The inscription reads:
This life he steer’d by land and sea
With honesty and skill,         
And, calmly, suffr’d blast and storm,         
Unconscious of ill.         
This voyage now unfinish’d, he’s unrigg’d         
And laid in dry-dock Urn;         
Preparing for the grand fleet trip,         
And Commodore’s return

Does this man have a Dundee face?

   Other branches of the family flourished at Craigie, where Patrick Kyd, married Margaret, daughter of Andrew Wedderburn of Blackness in the 17th century.  Patrick’s brother also married a Wedderburn (in fact sister of his brother’s wife).  This branch were in possession of Craigie from around 1534 until the middle of the 18th century.  Also in 1534 there is a record of Williame Kidd, ‘reidare at Dundie’.  Another, later notable man with the same surname is Colonel Robert Kyd (1746-1793), a British army officer from Angus who served in India.  Another notable Angus native was Stewart Kyd, d. 1811, a legal writer and politician who was born in Arbroath.

 There is also a preponderance of the surname Kidd in Fife, just across the River Tay.  It has been suggested that the putative link with Greenock was actually derived from an error and the actual place he was linked to was the village named Carnock, near Dundee.  What other links are there?  Kidd certainly named his cabin boy Dundee, and in a case where he gave evidence in court (Jackson and Jacobs v. Noell in the High Court of the Admiralty), William Kidd stated that he was indeed born in Dundee.

Proponents of Kidd’s Dundonian origins state that his father was a seaman named John Kidd and his mother Bessie Butchart.  Kidd went to the colonies and became a leading merchant in New York.  He cannily married a well off widow named Sarah Bradley Cox Oort and quickly made a fortune, including in the mercantile trade.  Kidd’s first vessel was the Antigua.  During the English-French war at the end of the 17th century Kidd acted as a privateer for the authorities.  Later duties included ridding the Indian Ocean of bona fide pirates, but in this manner of line the line between poacher and gamekeeper was perilously thin. 

   In 1698 it is said that Kidd’s crew forced him into undisguised piracy.  They captured a ship named the Quedah Merchant near India. Kidd and his crew captured the ship, which had a cargo estimated at £70000. The Quedah Merchant was renamed the Adventure Prize,  and was retained by Kidd.  On the journey back to America, Kidd found that he was now a declared pirate and had to tread carefully.  Despite precautions, Kidd was arrested, imprisoned and temporarily lost his wits.  He was deported to England and questioned by parliament.  Despite his previous semi-official work on behalf of the authorities of that country he was convicted, partially through perfidy, and he was hanged on 23 May 1701.  His body was displayed in chains on a gibbet for twenty years as a warning to others who chose to follow the occupation of piracy.   Since his time there have been various legends about the supposedly buried or sunken treasure which was hidden by captain Kidd before his arrest.  Searchers have looked as far apart as Madagascar and North America for his loot, On Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy, as early as 1875, reference was made to searches on of the island for treasure allegedly buried by Kidd during his time as a privateer. For nearly 200 years, this remote area of the island has been named "Money Cove". In 1983, Cork Graham and Richard Knight went looking for Captain Kidd's buried treasure off the Vietnamese  island of Phú Quốc. Knight and Graham were caught, convicted of illegally landing on Vietnamese territory, and assessed each a $10,000 fine. They were imprisoned for 11 months until they paid the fine. But, to date,  not one gold piece of Kidd’s supposed hoard has been located.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Craigo Woods - Haunted or Not?

Do fiction and folklore really mix?  Sometimes, while not even researching, you may come across odd snippets of information that look relevant to particular areas of interest.  I recently stumbled across something while reading a short-story called ‘The Screaming Skulls’ by American author F Marion Crawford (1854-1909).  It is contained in his collection Wandering Ghosts (1903) and is of interest for a few reasons.  The story is a lengthy, fictionalised reboot of the legend of the actual screaming skull which inhabited Bettiscombe House in Dorset.

  As a story, ‘The Screaming Skulls’ is so-so.  But it interested me because it was set in Cornwall, where I now live, and contained a mention about my native county of Angus.  Two of the servants are sisters who work in the house which the skull haunts are stereotyped dour Scots from Angus.  This is how Crawford describes their attitude to the supernatural:
The two hard-faced, sandy-haired sisters almost smiled, and they answered with great contempt that they had no great opinion of any Southern bogey whatever, having been in the service of two English haunted houses, where they had never seen so much as the Boy in Gray, whom they reckoned no particular rarity in Forfarshire.
   Now, this set me looking whether there was any ‘real life’ legends or stories of Gray (or even Grey) Boy ghosts in Angus.  Nothing of the sort has come to my attention as yet, sadly.  I initially thought that Crawford may have slipped a bit of genuine tradition into his story.  After all, with a name like that, he surely has Scottish ancestry?  But no such luck; it seems that Crawford had the audacity to make it up.  I had been hoodwinked by my own expectations.

   In a different category is the poem ‘John O’ Arnha’, by George Beattie of Montrose (1786-1823), which is a kind of semi-comic/supernatural Tam o’Shanter style ballad based on the boastful, partly true adventuring of an actual person, John Finlay.  More about this poet and particular work in the future.  Suffice it to say that it is well worth discovering.

   Moving on from that, we can look at an even more subtle echo of the shadowlands, this time beautifully encapsulated in the poem ‘Craigo Woods’ by Violet Jacob (1863-1946).  Here is yet another author worth rediscovering.  She was a member of the landed family who lived at the beautiful House of Dun, near Montrose, and was born as Violet Augusta Mary Frederica Kennedy-Erskine, daughter of the 18th laird of Dun.
   Craigo Woods, wi' the splash o' the cauld rain beatin'
    I' the back end o' the year,
When the clouds hang laigh wi' the weicht o' their load o' greetin'
    And the autumn wind's asteer;
Ye may stand like gaists, ye may fa' i' the blast that's cleft ye
    To rot i' the chilly dew,
But when will I mind on aucht since the day I left ye
    Like I mind on you - on you?
 Craigo Woods, i' the licht o' September sleepin'
    And the saft mist o' the morn,
When the hairst climbs to yer feet, an' the sound o' reapin'
    Comes up frae the stookit corn,
And the braw reid puddock-stules are like jewels blinkin'
    And the bramble happs ye baith,
O what do I see, i' the lang nicht, lyin' an' thinkin'
    As I see yer wraith - yer wraith?
 There's a road to a far-aff land, an' the land is yonder
    Whaur a' men's hopes are set;
We dinna ken foo lang we maun hae to wander,
    But we'll a' win to it yet;
An' gin there's woods o' fir an' the licht atween them,
    I winna speir its name,
But I'll lay me doon by the puddock-stules when I've seen them,
    An' I'll cry "I'm hame - I'm hame!"

   The narrator of the poem, an old man of humble origins, is obviously given voice by the middle-aged, upper class Scottish female author.  Contained in the author’s Songs of Angus (1915), the poem is certainly a stunningly evocative capturing of a mood, a symbolic woodland, a shaded place between this world and possibly another.  Is the ghost real or just in the narrated recollection?  Violet Jacob knew the cadence of this land well and came back to Angus after being widowed and spending many years away.  Was Craigo Woods really haunted or did Violet Jacob merely use it as the setting for her haunted man and his imagining of a loved one’s wraith?

   There is another poem about the same place by a minor author of the 19th century, W. F. M. McHardy, ‘The Bonnie Woods o’Craigie’, which shows exactly the same spot in a more prosaic light, with none of the aching magic:

By the bonnie woods o’ Craigo I love to wander free,
An’ down the grassy banks o’ Esk meand’ring to the sea,
To hail the cooling breezes beneath the shady trees,
An’ listen to the humming of the homeward laden bees.

To hear the linties sweetly sing all in the greenwood shade,
While the sparkling pearly dewdrops adorn ilk leaf and blade;
The glossy blackbird whistles sweet his lovely evenin’ sang,
The cushie’s coo  is heard aloud the bushy firs amang;

While the other feather’d warblers lend forth their merry strain,
An’ rich-clad fields are waving with heavy laden grain;
All nature drest in full array, sae gorgeous an’ sublime –
A solace to the weary heart an’ to the troubled mind.

A fav’rite haunt to lovers true, their faithful vows to tell;
The merry laugh of sportive youth resounds thro’ woods an’ dell;
Fond parents an’ their children roam adown Saint Martin’s Den,
To gambol in their childish sports, the e’enin there to spen’.

Thou Bonnie woods o’ Craigo, to me thou’lt aye be dear;
The happy days I’ve spent near thee are in my mem’ry clear;
As long’s my strength will bear me up, I’ll hie me to thy glade,
An’ rest my stiff an’ aching limbs thy cooling shade.

    As a footnote, I remember many years ago when I was researching some local folklore and got a letter from an old Scots gent in England who remembered - or thought that he remembered - some lore about some woodland that people feared to walk through in in north-east Angus.  Did he mean Craigo Woods?  And, if so, did the actual tradition seep or migrate into oral folklore following the publication of Jacob's poem? That would be a powerful measure of her writing indeed.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Tay Bridge Disaster

One of the worst spirits to haunt Dundee, in a certain sense, is that dubious poet, William Topaz McGonnagall (1825-1902).  Never mind that he was born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, he gravitated eventually to Dundee and here his name was made.  Here is his immortal take on the serious subject of this post, the Tay Bridge Disaster:
                             Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
                             Alas! I am very sorry to say!
                       That ninety lives have been taken away 
On the last Sabbath day of 1879, 
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. 

’Twas about seven o’clock at night, 
And the wind it blew with all its might, 
And the rain came pouring down, 
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown, 
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say— 
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.” 

When the train left Edinburgh 
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow, 
But Boreas blew a terrific gale, 
Which made their hearts for to quail, 
And many of the passengers with fear did say— 
“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.” 

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay, 
Boreas he did loud and angry bray, 
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay 
On the last Sabbath day of 1879, 
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. 

So the train sped on with all its might, 
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight, 
And the passengers’ hearts felt light, 
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year, 
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear, 
And wish them all a happy New Year. 

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay, 
Until it was about midway, 
Then the central girders with a crash gave way, 
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay! 
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray, 
Because ninety lives had been taken away, 
On the last Sabbath day of 1879, 
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. 

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known 
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown, 
And the cry rang out all o’er the town, 
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down, 
And a passenger train from Edinburgh, 
Which fill’d all the people’ hearts with sorrow, 
And made them for to turn pale, 
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale 
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879, 
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. 

It must have been an awful sight, 
To witness in the dusky moonlight, 
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray, 
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
I must now conclude my lay 
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, 
That your central girders would not have given way, 
At least many sensible men do say, 
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, 
At least many sensible men confesses, 
For the stronger we our houses do build, 
The less chance we have of being killed.

Bad bard:  McGonnagall.

  But enough of that tragic-comic bard and down to the facts.  At around 7:15pm on 28th December 1879 a wild storm ravaged east and central Scotland.  The worst consequence of this weather was the collapse of the Tay Railway Bridge.  It was a supreme tragedy that a northbound train, which had come from Edinburgh, was crossing the bridge at the time. The train was seen running along the rails, and then suddenly was observed a flash of fire.  The engine and all six carriages plunged into the Firth of Tay before the train could safely reach Dundee.   The number of dead is not absolutely certain, but was reckoned to be 75 souls, both passengers and crew, calculated according to the number of tickets sold at St Fort Station in Fife., although it was initially thought that between 150 and 200 people were killed.  Dundee constabulary identified the names of 60 people who perished that night.  Nobody from the train made it out of the river alive.  The number of bodies recovered was 46.

   It was reported in the Times next day: 
The scene at the Tay-bridge station to-night is simply appalling, many thousand persons are congregated around the buildings, and strong men and women are wringing their hands in despair.  On the 2d of October 1877, while the bridge was in the course of construction, one of the girders was blown down during a gale similar to that of to-day, but only one of the workmen lost his life...

   The bridge had started its life only eight years before and its designer, Sir Thomas Bouch, died within the year. (One of the victims of the disaster, ironically, was his own son-in-law.)  Repercussions about the cause of the tragedy and accusations of design fault caused his design for a Forth Bridge to be abandoned and may have hastened his demise.  The actual construction was such an architectural wonder that people, celebrities and otherwise, would come far and wide to look at it.  Among those who came to view it was General Ulysses Grant, the 18th President of the United States of America, in 1877.  The construction had been completed in that year, the directors of the bridge marking the occasion of 28th September by crossing the river on the engine ‘Lochee’.  After the tragedy there was an official enquiry which found that design faults had contributed to the event.  The train engine that pulled the train was dredged up from the river bed and was restored into service. Staff from the North British Railway sardonically nicknamed it The Diver and it continued in operation until 1908.  Some of the doors from recovered carriages were later displayed at the Barrack Street Museum in Dundee.

   A second, successor bridge was built, parallel and just upstream of the first, following a design by William Henry Barlow.  It opened in summer 1887 and fourteen men lost their lives during its four year construction.  The foundation pillars of the first, ill-fated bridge can still be seen of course jutting out of the Tay.  

   For those who are correctly appalled by the well meant literary excesses of McGonnagall, other works to feature the disaster include The Brück 'am Tay by the German author Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), which uses the characters of Macbeth’s witches to signify the horror of the tragedy.  Other written representations occur in A J Cronin’s novel Hatter’s Castle,  Alanna Knight's 1976 book A Drink for the Bridge, plus The Blood Doctor,  by Barbara Vine, published in 2002, and a play by Kevin Dyer named The Bridge, staged at Dundee Rep in 2010.  More scurrilously, there is an episode of the Goon Show which also features the disaster.

Theodor Fontane.

   Supernatural traces of the event are not abundant .  It was once said by some that a ghostly train appeared above the river on the anniversary of the event.  Screams of the doomed passengers were also sometimes reported, but this 'tradition' seems entirely  spurious.  More intriguingly, the author Violet Tweedale (1862-1936) reported (in her book Ghosts I Have Seen, 1919) that her father had suddenly commented during the dreadful contemporary storm in Edinburgh, ‘At this moment, seven fifteen, on Sunday the 28th of December, 1879, something terrible has happened. I think a bridge must be down.'  Geoff Holder, in his book Haunted Dundee (2012), gives another recorded psychic episode perhaps connected with the disaster, sourced from Frank Podmore's  Apparitions and Thought Transference (1894).  According to Podmore, a lady in Perth - identified only as 'Miss Y' - was struck one Sunday evening with a terrible premonition.  She had an overwhelming, eerie feeling that was accompanied by intense feelings of death and disaster.  She screamed and ran to her mother, but could not tell her what she thought it meant.  Next morning the family learnt of the Tay Bridge Disaster.