Sunday, 30 July 2017

Perils of the Sea - Foreign Troubles on the Waves

The maritime tradition of the coastal communities of Angus include stories associated with fisher folk, smuggling legends, memories of the whalers which operated from Dundee and Montrose, plus other more elusive tales, the significance of which have vanished in the oceans and been dissolved by the brine.  There is obviously no history of prehistoric interaction with the seas along this coasts and the ‘traditions’ about far ancient seafaring narrated by local historians are sometimes somewhat dubious.  Elsewhere I have mentioned the tale that the now-deserted (but never substantial) fishing village of Usan was believed by one proud local to take its name from the Greek hero Ulysses who somehow took a wrong turn and ended up here.

   An even more extraordinary story is related by David Mitchell in his History of Montrose (1866), who gives us this unsubstantiated tall tale (p. 95):

In the year 156 B.C., the mariners of Montrose were a daring set of savages, who in their prows put to sea and robbed the Fife shore. They lived on shore in rather a primitive state; just dug a hole and shoved in.  Only think of a family or tribe lying in the ground to rest all night!  Brechin at this period was the hunting ground of the ancient Celtic marauders, who dwelt on the sea shore.

  Moving on to the early modern period, and we find that the waters around Angus were entered by foreign vessels.  In 1563 the authorities in Dundee sent William Kinloch to Montrose to ask the officials of that burgh to apprehend a French vessels which had allegedly been trying to bring ashore goods captured from English ships in recent hostilities.  Soon afterwards two Dundonian ships, the ‘Grace of God’ and the ‘Prymrose’ were recorded as having been captured by the English.  The latter ship was certainly returned north.

   A year later war between Denmark and Sweden caused diplomatic embarrassment in Scotland when a ship skippered by a Scot named James Barry sailed into Dundee harbour.  Barry was in the employ of the kingdom of Denmark and had brought with him a Swedish ship which the Scottish authorities believed had been captured in an act of piracy.  Provost Haliburton was obliged to send the sailor to Edinburgh where he disputed that he had acted as a pirate.  Sometimes the officials on land behaved in a manner which might have put actual seagoing freebooters to shame.  On 20 May 1567 the piermaster James Wedderburn of Dundee and his men took the opportunity to raid an Orcadian ship named the ‘Sampson’ which was lying off Broughty, having made its way north from Hull.  Under cover of darkness Wedderburn and his gang of twenty men boaded the ship, removed the crew of six sailors and one boy, and also captured the cargo.  The ship’s owner protested to the Privy Council that he was no pirate, but an honest merchant, and his claim was believed.  Wedderburn was summoned to appear before the Council but failed to do so and was declared a rebel. 

   Whether it was for financial gain or for other reasons some merchants did resort to piracy on the seas.  Thomas Ogilvy, merchant and burgess of Dundee, had his ship seized by the French and in revenged he gained a license to harry shipping belonging to continental authorities and caused his home town a headache in 1591 when he returned there with goods seized at sea which were deemed to be booty rather than legitimately impounded.  Shortly after this incident the mariner of the Dundee ship named the ‘Robert’ complained to Bailie Lyon that their ship had been raided and damaged while travelling through the Spanish Seas.

   But there were other perils on the waves apart from mere piracy.  On 8 January 1604 the church authorities of Aberdeen authorisied the payment of £10 to

             Thomas Chirstall, burges of Dundie, for relaving of his sone
from the selaverie and bondage of the turkis, quhair he is presentlie prisoner:  quhilk sowme thay ordane to be allowit to the said James in his comptis.

   Half a century later a Pittenweem ship named the ‘Gabriel’ departed from Montrose on 10 May 1650, bound for Norway to collect a cargo of timber and other goods.  It had not sailed far when it was attacked by an Irish pirate ship.  The raiders stole most of the provisions on the vessel and threatened the skipper Andro Tod in an effort to extort money from him.  The pirates then ‘torterit him vehementlie’ and he was forced to hand over seven score rix dollars, but bravely did not do so until the pirates promised to return the sailors’ provisions.  The Irishmen reneged on the latter promise, as the captain testified to the authorities in Fife several days later.

   Possibly around the same time as this there was an incident where a fleet of ships was wrecked on the coast between north Angus and the Mearns.  Nobody knows where these ships originated and the mystery was documented (possibly dubiously) by the Montrose historian David Mitchell.  According to Mitchell: 

From the variety of useful articles of all descriptions they had on board, it was supposed [these ships] were loaded with supplies for some new colony. Chests of drawers, tables, and other furniture, all made of oak; white pease, and other provisions ; besides a large number of small yellow bricks, formed part of their freight. The bricks were well known in Montrose by the name of the Cattesou bricks, and numbers of them have been made use of for chimney-tops and other purposes in the old houses between the steeple and the shore. After a storm, a few of them may occasionally yet be found on the beach. The size of the brick is 6 inches long, 3 inches broad, and 1 inch thick. They were made of very fine clay, remarkably well burned, and will last for ages, the weather having no oppression on them whatever. The whole are well shaped. Various articles of the furniture were to be seen in this locality not many years ago. An old woman, Helen Spence, who lived in a cottage in the Ride of Kinnaird, had a chest of Cattesou drawers in her house about 40 years ago. In consequence of a bad crop a great scarcity prevailed when the ships were wrecked. The corn was full of the seeds of a weed which, when ground with the com into meal, had the effect of making those who partook of it drowsy and sleepy, and the meal of that year was called “the sleepy meal” The white pease were eagerly taken possession of by the inhabitants, and ground into meal, which was the first thing that relieved the scarcity.[The History of Montrose, pp. 98-99.]
   There is obviously a measure of distorted folk memory in the tale of these ‘Cattesou’ ships.  The name possibly indicates a French origin, but exactly where they originated has never been satisfactorily explained.
   Shipwrecks are a common feature of every coastal area, though there have never been a great number of wrecks on the coast of Angus, mainly due to geography.  Losses among the fishing communities of the county will be looked at in a future post.  Even though the writer of the Old Statistical Account for the parish of Barrie stated that his parishioners at one time had a bad reputation for ill-treating shipwrecked mariners, this kind of lore – possibly associated with deliberate wrecking and smuggling – does not loom large in the local records.

   David Mitchell again gave a summary of some unfortunate sea disasters which happened along the shore of Angus:

A violent storm occurred about the beginning of the century, during which no fewer than 17 ships were driven ashore between the mouths of the South and Northesks. About the same time (1800), if not the same storm, a small brig, commanded by Captain John Keith, who lived on the Island, sailed from the Firth with a cargo of coals for Montrose. A violent snow-storm overtook the vessel, and the crew lost all control over her. They could not see where she was going, and gave up all for lost. Strange to say, the storm drove the brig in at the entrance of the harbour, and the crew did not know where they were until she struck upon the Scalp, off which she took some more men, who had got there before, and then drifted up and struck upon the Timber Bridge, erected a few years before. The late Mr. John Begbie, being afterwards gardener to Mr. Ross of Rossie, and Mrs Begbie and one child were passengers on board the brig at the time, on his way to enter on his new situation at Rossie. The child, afterwards Mrs John Tulloch, was handed up to some one of the crowd on the bridge, and the parents followed as fast as possible.Another fatal storm, known as the windy Christmas, about the year 1808, caused immense loss of life on this coast, and on the whole east coast of Scotland. A great number of men belonging to Montrose were lost that day.
[The History of Montrose, p. 99.]

   One of the latest incident involving foreign shipping is also the most outlandish.  Around 5 pm on Wednesday 23rd May 1781 a 20 gun French privateer named the ‘Fearnought’ appeared off Arbroath and tried to extrort money from the town. Some men from local boats were apparently captured.  When it was clear that this was an enemy vessel which meant no good a town councillor named Patrick Ritchie on horseback was sent to Montrose to request military assistance.  (There were at the time some 30 soldiers already in the burgh.) In fact Montrose had already, fleetingly, seen the French ship.  A grocer named George Watson had been leaning out of his window when he saw the ship drop anchor and then it fired a shot, apparently aimed at the steeple, but which instead hit the gable above the grocer’s head.

 Back in Arbroath, the town was called to arms by the voice of the town crier (also drawing attention with a drum) and the public cowherd blowing his horn. 

   The ship’s skipper, Captain William Fall, anchored his ship and sent a boast ashore with a demand for the safety of the burgh. The Frenchman’s letter read:

   At sea, May twenty-third.  Gentlemen, - I send you these two words to inform you that I will have you to bring the French colour, in less that a quarter of an hour, or I set the town on fire directly; such is the order of my master, the King of France, I am sent by.  Send directly the Mair and chiefs of the town, to make some arrangements with me, or I’ll make my duty.  It is the will of yours,                                                                                                     G. Fall.      To Monsieurรจ Mair of the town called Arbrought, or, in his
         absence, to the chief man after him in Scotland.

   The town officials circumspectly asked what the terms were and the French captain responded:

                                                                                 At Sea, eight o’clock in the Afternoon,                                                                                                            May 23.   Gentlemen,- I received just now your answer, by which you say I asked no terms.  I thought it was useless, when I want you to come aboard for agreement.  But here are my terms – I will have thirty thousand pounds sterling at least and six of the chief men of the town for otage [hostages].  Be speedy, or I shot your town away directly, and I set fire to it.I am, gentlemen, your servant,                                                         G. Fall He concluded with the postscript:   I send some of my crew to you, but if any harm happens them, I will hand up at the yardarm all the prisoners we have aboard.  To Monsieurs the chief men of Arbrought in Scotland.

   The officials of the burgh debated a further response and sent a verbal message back offshore to that effect.  Soon a drum beat was heard on board the ‘Fearnought’ and the ship’s guns opened fire and continued to target the town for several hours, until the advent of darkness.  Most of the inhabitants prudently evacuated, but a rump remained, including Provost Greig, the Minister, and Colonel Lindsay of Kinblethmont.  While some chimneys were knocked off roofs, but most of the cannon balls flew over the roofs and lodged in the sandy braes of Cairnie. 

   One direct hit, however, landed on Millhead House, home of Bailie James Renny and his family.  At the commencement of the bombardment his family fled to his candle shop in the Marketgate.  His wife and son hurried back to retrieve some silver spoons and a salt beef from the pickling tub.  While they were retrieving these items there was a massive bang and the boy rushed upstairs and came back down with a cannon ball which had crashed through the roof.

   Colonel Lindsay and the Laird of Hospitalfield gathered up an armed band of about ninety men (though most only possessed scythes and other agricultural implements) and laid in wait near the harbour during the fusillade, ready to repel a landing party, which did not arrive.  At daybreak the bombardment recommenced, but with less intensity than the night before.  The firing was sparse and random.  Possibly the sailors saw what they thought was a range of artillery lined up against them on Ballast Hill.  The ‘guns’ were in fact pumps which had been removed from nearby wells and disguised as weaponry.  When the tide receded the locals went out onto the rocks and peppered the privateer with musket shot.  Among the marksmen, the most effective were two Arbroathians rejoicing in the nicknames of ‘Tailor Smithy’ (known also as ‘Simple Tailor)  and ‘Satan Barclay’.  They perched on Nuckle Rock and began sniping, which ensured that the French crew kept their heads down.  But then the cannon started firing red hot cannon balls with the intention of setting the town alight.  These missiles were also woefully inaccurate and did very little damage.  The owner of an Arbroath sloop who was a prisoner on the ‘Dreadnought’ confounded the aim of the gunners by advising wrongly on their angles of firing.

   Around nine in the morning Captain Fall sent another bizarre communication:

                                                                                                            At Sea, May 24.   Gentlemen, - See whether you will come to some terms with me, or I will come in presently to the arbour with my cutter, and cast down the town all over.  Make haste, because I have no time to spare.  I give you a quarter of an hour for decision, and after I’ll make my duty.  I think it would be better for you, Gentlemen, to come to me of you on board, to settle the affairs of your town.  You’ll sure not to be hurt.  I give you my parole of honour.  I am, your,                                                                                                                        G. Fall

   The officials of the town replied that they would be happy to see him ashore, where they would endeavour to give him the best possible reception.  This did not go down well and neither did the red flag of defiance which they raised.  The bombardment started again, better aimed than before, but still did little harm.  Around midday the French ship weighed anchor and sailed away.  There had been no human fatalities in Arbroath and the only deaths caused by ‘The Battle of Brothick’  were a family of chickens cruelly destroyed by a stray cannon ball.  A few curious people had their fingers burned when they picked up the red hot missiles, but that was the full extent of the casualties.  For years afterwards local laddies dug out cannon balls from Cairnie Hill and gave them to their mothers who used them principally for pounding mustard seeds.  Ballast Hill was later home to a precautionary battery of six half-pounder guns, but the precautionary measure never had to be deployed.

   The mystery remains of why the ‘Fearnought’ should have chosen Arbroath, of all places, as the subject of its semi-comical attack.*  It is thought that the Dunkirk based ship harassed the south-east of England before coming north, but the reasons for coming to Scotland are lost in time, other than the fact that the seas were full of French vessels who were keen to bite back at Britain as the French were allies of the American colonists who were in dispute with the mother country.   The unfortunate French ship apparently later sank the North Sea, possibly in 1782.  In 1972 some divers found an 8 foot long cannon which they supposed belonged to the frigate.

[*  Unless the French troops knew that Arbroath was at this time one of the centres where the press gang was based.]


A Series of Excursions, By Road and Rail, For Twenty Miles Around Dundee (Dundee, n.d.).
Adam, Hohn & Hay, George, Aberbrothock Illustrated, Being the Round O Etchings in Miniature (Arbroath, 1886).
Annals of Pittenweem:  Being Notes and Extracts from the Ancient Records of that Burgh, 1526-1793 (Anstruther, 1867).
McBain, J. M., Arbroath Past and Present (Arbroath, 1887).
Maxwell, Alexander, The History of Old Dundee (Edinburgh & Dundee, 1884).
Mitchell, David, The History of Montrose  (Montrose, 1866).
Myles, James, Rambles in Forfarshire; or Sketches in Town and Country (Edinburgh & London, 1850).
Neish, J. S., In the By-Ways of Life:  A Series of Sketches of Forfarshire Characters (Dundee, 1881).

Selections from the Records of the Kirk Session, Presbytery, and Synod of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1846).

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Last Raid of the Caterans - The Battle of Saughs Revisited

One of the most iconic frays in Angus history is also one of the most mysterious.  Not large enough to be considered a battle, the Raid or Battle of Saughs was a skirmish on the Braes of Angus.  The encounter was prompted by a cattle raid by Caterans or thieves from Highland Deeside stealing cattle from the farms of Fern parish in Angus.  The Fern men pursued, overtook and beat the raiders.
(See my original post from 12th December 2015:

Nobody, however, seems to know exactly when the encounter took place.  Andrew Jervise, in Land of the Lindsays, says that estimates of the date of the battle range from the mid-seventeenth century to the first decade of the 18th century and just beyond.  Jervise himself estimated - from the attested ages of several of the participants - that the fray likely took place some time between 1690 and 1700.

   Jervise's work, first published in 1853, is the most comprehensive and trustworthy account of the encounter and several local histories and guides later published blatantly derive their accounts wholly from him.  There are other snippets of information generally available about the events, including poems and ballads, though none sufficiently trustworthy, artistically interesting enough, or detailed enough to be worth the bother of analysing.

Andrew Jervise (1820-78)

   The work quoted from at length below was therefore something of a surprise when I found it recently, though it must be treated with caution on two accounts.  firstly because (despite my editing) it is very tedious in its Victorian wordiness; secondly because of what it says, what it distorts and what it strangely omits.  The author of the work is apparently a native of Angus, resident in Canada, and is identified as William Gordon of Bayside, Ontario.  His account of the Battle of the Saughs appeared in the local newspaper and was later separately printed as a booklet in 1869:   Last Attempt of the Cateran to Levy Blackmail in Scotland.

   William Gordon lived at Bayside, Whitby, from 1838 until his death.  One of his sons, Adam, was a member of parliament for North Ontario.  One source gives dates for his life between 1797 and 1876. In a letter to the editor of the Whitby Chronicle, Gordon acknowledges that the story of the Raid had been told and retold in publications in Scotland, but makes the following claims for his own unique sources:
[I] acquired my information , bordering on sixty years since, through a sure channel from the sons of the fathers who mingled in the bloody strife, [so] I am enabled to give you the authentic details of that romantic adventure, with all the freshness of a recent event.
   The prolix writing style in fact takes away much of the freshness.  As far as the rest of the claim stands, some of it may be true.  Gordon seems not to have had recourse to written accounts, for he fearlessly mangles the name of the Fern leader McIntosh of Ledenhendrie (or Ledenhendry) as Ladin Henry.  The leader of the Caterans, known by the nickname of Hawkit Stirk is termed Broket Stirk.  Does this imply that he heard the tale long ago from oral sources or that he was a careless writer?

   Interestingly, he does not name the major hero of the Angus men, James Winter, who seriously injured the leader of the raiders. (The account also omits the name of Ledenhendrie's later adversary, Ogilvy of Trusta.)  What it does mention, however, is a seemingly genuine account of the author's visit to the fortified house that McIntosh occupied in 1822, the house of Ledenhendrie on the farm of Afflochie.  Errors include the siting of the place where the Hawkit Stirk was left as being in Cortachy, when it was actually at Muir Pearsie, Kingoldrum parish.  But the text does include much detail which would be interesting to analyse, perhaps when other sources come to light.

Bayside House, Whitby.

Last Attempt of the Cateran

About the year 1665, there was suddenly heard, on a cold winter evening, a sharp plaintive noise at a farmer's door in the parish of Cortachy, Forfarshire, which considerably alarmed the female inmates of the house, who said they were sure "it was no earthly thing," a likely conclusion in those superstitious times. But the farmer himself was of firmer stuff"; he assured them that the noise which they heard was no other than that of the broket stirk, (a spotted steer, a year old — probably had been a pet) "for he was ay roustin (lowing) about the doors;" and to show them that he was correct in his guess at once opened the door, but no broket stirk was to be seen. There was discovered, however, a small wicker basket, in which was neatly stowed away with tasteful surroundings, a fine male infant, and which the humane farmer carried into the house. At the sight of this strange and unlooked for presentation, surprise and wonder speedily superseded the fears of the good folks; and having without loss of time and with due circumspection, applied the usual test in use at the time to prove its identity, and finding to their satisfaction that the infant stranger was no other than a veritable unit of humanity, the farmer and his family kindly cared for and fostered the baby. Days and years thereafter sped away, but the heartless parents of the foundling boy were never known; and when time at last had shoved the young fellow into manhood, he was of lofty stature, powerful build, possessed of daring courage and prodigious strength.
   But the "Broket stirk" (for he was ever after best known by that unpropitious name) had then no relish for the humble, every-day plodding of honest labour ; but indulged in idle, restless, wandering habits, and finally, to the great grief of his foster parents, was chosen Chief of the Cateran. Daring the next fifteen or twenty years, the foundling Chief had led various successful raids; and if he was not on those occasions accused, as some of his villainous predecessors in office bad justly been, of wantonly destroying human life, still his name became terrible to the inhabitants of the line of parishes which flank the north side of the great central valley of the kingdom. With a view of putting an end to the daring bandit's depredations, and in response to the bitter complaints of the pillaged people, the government had offered a reward for his apprehension and even made several attempts to arrest him; but regardless of these the "Broket stirk" persistently and defiantly, carried on his lawless traffic.
   Early one morning towards the end of April, in the year 1707, the farmers of the parish of Fearn (Forfarshire) woke up to discover, that the whole of their cattle throughout the entire parish (it has an area of a little over twenty-four square miles) had been stolen in course of the preceding night...  But the first burst of surprise and vexation being over, and knowing well who had stolen their live stock, the men of Fearn were not wanting in promptitude, and decision of character how to act on the occasion. Swift messengers were sent through the parish, warning every able-bodied man to turn out armed, at an early hour of the day, and meet in the churchyard, each man carrying provisions to suffice for a short campaign. By noon a hundred and twenty-three men had convened, and, after council being taken, it was unanimously resolved that they should, without loss of time, pursue the Cateran, and if possible, recover their cattle by force of arms. Having appointed one of their number to act as leader, all the men moved from the graveyard with seeming unanimity of purpose. But alas for "the best laid plans of mice, and men;" the newly appointed leader had advanced his men but a little way, when he ordered them to halt.
The Water of Saughs

  He then, in effect, told them that a change had come suddenly "over the spirit of his dream ;" represented the Cateran as being numerous, powerful and ferocious, with whom they could have no chance of success in a personal conflict, and as for himself he had resolved to get home and submit to the loss of his live stock, rather than foolishly sacrifice his life in so hopeless an undertaking. This insidious, craven counsel was keenly opposed by a tall slender young man, of the name of Ladin Henry, who had lately returned from the military school, where he had acquired the reputation of being an expert swordsman, who chiefly argued from the fact that as their cattle had been all stolen under night he had reason to believe that the Cateran were few in number, weak, and afraid to meet them in arms, and that if they would accept as their leader, he was confident they would be successful in recovering their live stock. The men then divided, when thirty-two went over to Henry's side, and eighty-nine went home with their self-repudiated, cowardly leader, who had nearly knocked the whole undertaking on the head. After saying a few words of encouragement to his men, the new leader at once resumed his march across the parish to reach the hills, the route ho was confident the Cateran had taken with their cattle. On the march thither they were joined by an unacceptable recruit, in the person of a stout crazy man, whom no counsel would induce to remain at home, and as a last resort to get rid of him, they locked the man into the barn of the last farm town they visited before entering the hills. But the crazy man shewed more sagacity than all the thirty-three had done; he patiently waited in the barn until they were some miles ahead, then slipped the inside bar off the large door which communicated with the stock yard, seized a pitchfork, ran after, and soon overtook Henry and his men, who rather than injure the poor man, at last allowed him to follow them.  [This trifling incident would have been unworthy of notice, had not the crazy man been destined to perform an important act of service in the approaching struggle with the Cateran.]
   The Fearn men travelled all that afternoon among the hills, without finding the least trace of the robbers; and all next day till evening with no better success. Just as the sun was setting, they luckily came across the trail of the cattle, and judging from the recent droppings of the animals, they concluded they were then near the Cateran. Henry and his men at once resolved to encamp for the night, having; no other than the bleak mountain side for a bed, and the starry canopy for a covering. Early next morning the men were moving about, and after a frugal breakfast, and all ready to resume the pursuit of the robbers, one of the men, with a sad countenance, informed Henry, that he had dreamed in course of the past night, that they were to fight with the Cateran that day, and that he (the dreamer) was to be killed, but being convinced they had undertaken a good cause, he had resolved to go with him, and fight to the last.  
    It was in vain that Henry tried to raise the poor man's spirit by jokes, and otherwise; nothing would shake him out of the firm belief, that he was to be killed that day. The morning was all that they could have fancied for a beautiful spring morning, with not a breath of wind; and while a dense mantle of mist rested on the tops of the hills, the sun shone clear on the lowlands. Henry being anxious to attack the Cateran by surprise, availed himself of the mist to subserve his purpose, by placing his men sufficiently far within its verge as not to be seen by those below, while they had a full view of the lower slopes and basis of the hills as they went along. Observing this order, the Fearn men moved forward, and, after marching about two miles, and on turning the shoulder of a hill which enlarged their prospect, there they saw the robbers and the cattle; the latter being busy feeding on the confines of the lowlands. It turned out that Henry was correct in his conjecture, as to the Cateran being few in number; there were only fifteen of them, but all remarkably strong men, and all well armed; each having a gun slung across his back and a broadsword by his side. And therein lay the fatal error which the Cateran committed in this their Last Raid; an overweening confidence in their individual powers combined with a grovelling avarice to divide a large amount of booty among a few, instead of among many, and the illusive belief that, if once they bad gotten away with their stolen property from the homesteads of its lawful owners, the terror which their name inspired would deter pursuit. This induced them to turn out fewer in number by far than they were ever known to have done in any one of their previous marauding expeditions. And yet all seemed to go well with the Cateran that morning; so many of their number were doing duty as herds, after a peaceful retreat qt two days journey, and with their plunder home-bound; others were strolling up and down among the vast herd of cattle, feasting their eyes on the fruits of what they doubtless considered a lucky adventure; and so many more were clustered round a fire on the bank of a mountain stream, called ''the waters o' Saughs" (willows) which ran through their encampment, —busy cooking their breakfast, which consisted of a piece of a newly slaughtered animal, they were boiling into soup. But the substitute for a kettle, in use by the Cateran on the occasion, had little chance of becoming fashionable in our days ; it was no other than the green skins of the newly flayed animals, tucked up round the sides, and supported by polls stuck into the ground with the hair side next the fire. This rude method of cooking animal food was well known, and often had recourse to in Robert the Bruce's time.  A little apart, and by himself, on a bit of elevated ground, stood the sturdy figure of the Broket stirk, in himself a host, seemingly keeping a sharp lookout, chiefly in the direction of the Lowland ; in case a government scout should make his appearance. Having thus carefully viewed the strength and position of the Cateran, Henry's next object was to seek out the nearest mountain gorge, which lead down to their encampment. These gorges are formed by heavy rain falling, or sudden melting of snow on the hill when vast streams rush through their deep cut channels to the lowland; but in ordinary weather they are dry. It was in one of these that Henry placed his men, and such was the success of their stealthy approach that they were within eighty to a hundred yards of the robbers before they were discovered— when the alarm was given.

   The Fearn men then leaped out of the gorge, drew up into line, and fired a volley, but without effect, at the astonished Cateran, who promptly returned the fire, which instantly killed one of the Fearn men. As the practice then was and had been from remote times, both parties threw aside their guns and drew their swords, for a hand-to-band combat; and as the thin hostile lines-were approaching each other with deadly intent, and about twenty yards apart, the Cateran suddenly stood still, and their leader made a step before his men with his sword point all but touching the ground. On observing this the Fearn men also halted, when the Chief, in civil terms, requested to be informed who among them was their leader. Henry promptly replied,  “ I am he instead of a better." The crafty Chief then said; to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, to which he had been always averse, he considered it would be by far the better way that they, the two chiefs, should decide the quarrel by single combat, and if he (the Fearn chief) was conqueror, he pledged the honour of his clanship, that the cattle would be peaceably given up, but should the issue of the combat be otherwise, they (the Caterans) should be allowed to drive them, away without molestation. To the astonishment of the Fearn men, their fool-hardy leader at once accepted the proposition. Whereupon the Chief, with a smile, advanced to the middle space between the lines, complimented the Fearn leader on his gallantry and as a proof of the regard which he had for his courage, offered him the choice of position. At first sight this may appear to have been a very small affair; but when it is understood that the ground on which the hostile parties stood, was sloping, and by Henry choosing the higher ground, which he was careful to do, it gave him an elevation above the level of his opponent of from nine to twelve inches; no mean offer, if the combatants had been in other respects anything like equally matched. The preliminaries having been arranged to the satisfaction of both parties, the Fearn men formed a semi-circle on one side of their chiefs, and the Cateran a similar figure on the other. The combat began. Henry was at once made aware that he had encountered a swordsman of the first mark, and what was to him far more serious, that he had neither strength of arm, nor strength of weapon, to enable him to keep up his guards in fighting with such an overwhelmingly powerful man as the Broket stirk ; the consequence was, at the first, or second pass of the Chiefs sword, he smashed Henry's sword blade in pieces, leaving him a stump of some three or four inches beyond the hilt But in that most perilous moment of his life the Fearn leader's happy presence of mind did not forsake him, for while the tremendous hack aimed to cut him down was actually descending, he cleverly evaded the blow by springing in below the arm pit of the sword arm of the Chief, when the point of his sword cut deep into the elevated plot of ground whereon the vanquished Henry had stood but the fraction of a second before, which enabled him to leap back and remingle with his command unhurt Meantime the Fearn men, being alarmed at the extreme danger of their leader, and forseeing that if the agreement to which he had foolishly assented was to be carried out in good faith, their cattle would be hopelessly lost, one of them darted forward, and simultaneously with the Chief raising stroke, and while his sword for the moment, was entangled in the ground among the matted heather, gave him a sword cut across the bare houghs (he wore a kilt) separating the tendons of both limbs, which instantly compelled him to drop to his knees.

   This foul stroke given the Chief, by the Fearn man, in breach of the compact entered into by both chiefs, and tacitly by both parties, and also in violation of the usage which the lapse of many centuries had given the force of law for the protection of single combatants from outside assault, so enraged the Cateran, that an immediate general melee ensued. Many of the men hastily advanced a few paces, others retreated as far, all in quest of the most favourable positions for the contest, and while a number of Homeric battles were being fought, Imprecations, and reproaches, were loudly, and bitterly bandied by both sides, and when to these were added the clashing of swords, the shrieks of the wounded, and the moans of the dying, the noise which had suddenly sprung up was horrible in the extreme. Both parties fought with desperate courage, the one obviously to recover their stolen property, the other to keep what they had gotten ; but the Cateran, discouraged by the loss of their conquering chief, and their
enemies being more than two to one against them, at last fled, leaving four of their number killed behind them. After a short and unavailing pursuit of the fugitives, the Fearn men returned to despatch the wounded Chief who could not run away, and who throughout the general fight had successfully defended himself against all his assailants. When was witnessed one of those rare displays of heroic, individual effort, which would have done credit to the days of chivalry; for however much we may detest the vile avocation in which the Broket stirk had embarked, it is difficult to withhold our admiration of the courage of the man, who, although deserted by all his followers, badly wounded, reduced to fight upon his knees, surrounded by his enemies who would give no quarter, and the last shred of hope that he could escape with his life torn from him; yet so powerfully and dexterously did he wield his terrible sword as to compel thirty-two firmed men, flushed with recent victory, and all school -trained to the use of the weapon with which they fought, to stand at bay for a considerable part of that, the last of his days.
     And yet, after all, perhaps the Fearn men judged wisely and well for believing, as they afterwards acknowledged, that they could not have made a rush in to cut the infuriated bandit down without sacrificing two or three of their number — they preferred keeping at a safe distance from his sword, and there gave free and ready expression to reiterated threats and taunts of their speedy triumph over him; and while they made feints from time to time as if they would have gone in upon him, the crazy man at last succeeded in giving him a severe stab In the back with his long- handled pitch-fork, having driven both times deep into his body in the region of the heart. This fatal wound caused the sword arm of the strong man to hang by his side, when the Fearn men, seeing their opportunity, hurried In and completed his death.

    Thus fell the last, and probably the most notable Chief the Cateran ever had, a man who had the name of being more powerful, daring, and dreaded than any other man of his country in his time.  He was harshly treated when he came into the world, and he neither sought for, nor obtained mercy when he was sent out of it ; and if his means of acquiring daily bread had been as honest as they were disreputable and injurious to his fellow men, the conclusion would have been unavoidable, that he was cheated out of his life. The casualties on the side of the Cateran were five killed, and two mortally wounded; one of the latter was observed to run from the contest early, using his best endeavours as be ran, to hold in his protruding bowels.

    On the Fearn side there was only one man killed by the fire of the Cateran, the man who dreamed; the rest, wonderful to say, got off scratch free. With the exception of the great prize, the recovery of their cattle, the spoil which fell to the victors was insignificant; a few guns, swords, and old plaids, were all they gathered up.

The Shank of Donald Young, where the Cateran of that name died after being injured in the Battle of the Saughs.

   It was a day of great joy and rejoicing among the people of Fearn when the news reached them that the Cateran had been defeated, and their cattle recovered; indeed, they have had no such another day of rejoicing since.  And it is to be charitably hoped that it had still further added to the gratification of many of them, when they were shortly after informed that the gallant, but incautious Ladin Henry, who in the face of much craven opposition, had spirited on a small minority of their number to the successful rescue of their livestock— was neither neglected nor forgotten by the men who were at the helm of Government at the time. The Lords of Her Majesty's (Queen Anne) Treasury for Scotland, conferred a pension upon him, caused a new house to be built and carefully fortified, for his accommodation, and safe protector in his native parish; to which they added a small piece of farm land, free for life. Such was the liberal reward which the government conferred upon an obscure young man, at a time when government re wards were, as a rule, but rarely and scantily dealt out in Scotland, a circumstance of itself suggestive of strong presumptive proof of the magnitude of the pest of which he bad been instrumental in ridding his country.

    But if Ladin Henry was secure from the assaults of his numerous enemies in his new and strong house, it was far otherwise with him, on various occasions out of it. The malevolent Cateran asserted to the last of their days, that their much idolized chief had been murdered by the treachery of the Fearn men, and holding Henry responsible for their acts, and being enraged at the applause and regard he had received for inflicting an irreparable injury upon them, they pursued him with intense malice and desire to wreak their vengeance upon him, which they had resolved to accomplish by all the means they could devise. But of the several attempts made by them from first to last, I shall only briefly notice one of them, from which the ex- Fearn leader made but a hair-breadth escape with his life.

    Years after the raid in question, a farmer of the parish got up a feast to which he invited a number of neighbours, and along with others, Henry, for whom he affected especial friendship and regard. When the day of entertainment came round, all were friendly, social and happy, and no one present was so unremitting in his obliging attentions to Henry as was his ever-smiling host. And when the time of his leaving to go home came, being a few hours after night fall, his gracious landlord would still add an additional proof of his friendship, by accompanying him a little bit on his way home. Henry was then a little over two miles from his house and family, the road to which lay at the foot of the hill, and his entertainer for the day having completed his short convoy shook hands, with apparent cordiality, and bade him good night. But the treacherous wretch bad only allowed his retiring guest to progress a little way when he piped out at the top of his voice, three times in succession, "Good-night, Ladin Henry." Poor Henry knew at once he had been betrayed ; indeed there could be no mistake about it, for the preconcerted signal was scarcely given, when up started a number of armed men and although he saw but imperfectly, yet he readily knew from the noise of their foot-treads, they were rapidly surrounding him. Not a moment was to be lost, he ranfor his life, and a host of Cateran pell mell after him, but Henry, being a tall agile man in the prime of life, ran a good foot, and, after a long race, found that he could head some way the swiftest of his pursuers. But then the momentous question started in his mind- where was be to find a place of safety?  For he rightly judged, from the large number of enemies who were in pursuit of him, that they had used the precaution to put a guard on his dwelling house, and that his endeavour to enter it would have issued in certain death; again, if he should attempt to keep the hills, and head his enemies by speed of foot for the night, he was sure to be run down long before morning, and, without mercy, hacked to pieces.  While these perplexing thoughts harassed his mind, he happily remembered a small cave, in the face of one of the neighbouring hills, the mouth of which was partially concealed from view, by the long shaggy heather which grew around it.  To it he put, at the top of his speed, and having darted into it, and drawn his dog, which accompanied him, in between his knees, be there resolved to abide the perils of the night.  A minute or so thereafter had scarcely elapsed, when past rushed the Cateran in hot pursuit, no doubt believing that the game would soon be at their fee.  This was so far reassuring to Henry, that his enemies being strangers to the locality, knew not of his hiding place, neither had they seen him enter it; yet his hope of safety waned considerably, when about an hour after he heard their footsteps returning, and so near came they in repassing, that many of them went over the top of his place of hiding, when he distinctly heard one make the ominous remark, “It was just hereabout we lost sight of him."  In short they sought him throughout the entire night, down to daybreak, with the most pains-taking industry. Sometimes he heard their footsteps near, at other times more distant; but a gracious Providence having protected him, Henry remained in his hiding place until some hours after sunrise, and when he ventured out be neither saw friend nor foe throughout the barren waste, and, to the great joy of his wife and family, he reached his home in safety.

    It afterward transpired, that on the near approach of day, their night long, unavailing, blood hound travel, had proved quite enough for even the hardy, and enduring Cateran, and probably having had a com mendable regard for a Government proclamation, in which special reasons were given for their being wanted at head-quarters, which the cunning rogues suspected, was for no other purpose than that of “marching them up a ladder, and down a tow,” they at once “cleared out”  for parts unknown. But if the failure of their deep laid scheme, which had for its object, to take life, had imposed grievous disappointment on the Cateran on their leaving the confines of the Lowlands that morning, their disappointment was much more embittered when they were afterwards informed, where, and by what means, their devoted victim had escaped their murdering fangs on the night of their harpy's feast. Small parties of their hopeless fraternity made stealthy visits to inspect the nest after the bird had flown, and when they remembered how often they had passed and repassed in course of the night the spot where he lay ; the diligent search which they had made in and about the place where he had disappeared from their view, and the ease which they conceived they should have had in discovering the place of his concealment; they settled down in the belief that nothing less than a “charmed life" had saved him from their clutches.  And indeed, the Cateran were not far astray in their coming to this conclusion ; for the ex-Fearn leader had a charmed life in as far as their malevolent cravings to deprive him of it were destined never to be gratified.

    The decline of the power and extinction of the long standing and much dreaded Cateran, were not long in following after the disaster they experienced in the issue of the Fearn raid.  On the fall of their redoubted chieftain on the banks of the Saughs, who had long been their pride, their guiding star, and their backbone of strength in every raid and robbery in which he had been their leader; they despaired of finding another Chief possessing even the lineaments of his character, and perhaps being influenced by an avowed determination of the Government to put a final stop to their lawless practices, they shrank into obscurity, and not long after ceased to exist as an organised body,— a consumation on which both Highland man and Lowland man, whether at home or in other lands, are not now likely to view as a matter of regret.  It was creditable to the people of Fearn the way they deported themselves towards the black-hearted scoundrel, the farmer, who had received a bribe to betray his unsuspecting guest into the hands of the merciless Cateran; he ever after, down to the time of his death, lived a despised and an avoided man.

     In 1822, your correspondent was prompted by curiosity to pay a visit to Ladin Henry's dwelling house, and the banks of the Saughs, where the struggle with the Cateran had been. With the exception of the strong mailed door, which had been removed years before, he found the shell of the house entire as its original occupant had left it.  The side walls were a little over twelve feet high, thick and strongly built, they having been cemented throughout with grout lime; and instead of windows, of which it had none, both side and end walls were thickly perforated with iron cased loop-holes, which were so constructed that the inside occupant, at any one of them had a considerable range of outside view. The space within walls only measured about sixteen by twenty-two feet; but as the building did not possess the ordinary comforts and conveniences of a modern dwelling house, it had been long without a tenant, and the only purpose which it then served was it a being a shelter to cattle in times of inclement weather. My guide experienced no difficulty in taking me direct to the place where the affray with the robbers had been.  In burying the dead, the Fearn men had to use their broadswords instead of spades, and consequently the trench into which the dead bodies were thrown had been shallow and the covering mould but scanty, which rain in the course of years had washed a portion of it away, so as to expose to the view of thepassing stranger a part of the bones of the fallen Cateran in the slope of the bank, about twenty feet above the level of the mountain stream, which still murmured past in the solitary waste, as it doubtless had done when the owners of those bones were busy cooking their breakfast on its banks. The remains of the Fearn man were carried to the church yard of Cortachy, and there interred with suitable respect. Many years after, a kind friend had erected a neat head stone to his memory, on which is engraved an epitaph containing a modest record of the name, time, place, and cause of the death of deceased, with this trifling error, his death is represented to have taken place a year later than it actually  occurred.


Edward, D. H., Around the Ancient City (Brechin,1887).

Gordon, William, Last Attempt of the Cateran to Levy Blackmail in Scotland (Being a letter to the Whitby Chronicle, Ontario; containing a circumstantial account of the last raid on the lowlands of Scotland, in 1707 (Whitby, Ontario, 1869).

Jervise, Andrew, The History and Traditions of the Land of the Lindsays in Angus and the Mearns (2nd. edition, Edinburgh,1882).

Marshall, William, Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (Coupar Angus, 1875).

Warden, Alexander J., Angus or Forfarshire, volume 3 (Dundee, 1882).

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Monastic Settlement in Strathmore - Coupar and Kettins

Coupar:  Angus or Perthshire?  The Meaning of the Name

Coupar Angus is not the sort of place which looks like it has a split personality, being to all appearances like a pleasant, douce town sitting in central Strathmore.  Now firmly ensconced in eastern Perthshire, it was not always so.  Until the late 19th century the parish was split between the ‘Fair land of Gowrie’ in Perthshire and neighbouring Angus.  The county border formerly ran right through the town, marked by a minor waterway. (Since the 1890s it has been wholly contained within Perthshire.)  The Cistercian abbey of Coupar was built on the Angus side of the divide.  These days barely anything now survives of the fabric of this great building which once must have been the most spectacular edifice in the whole broad valley of Strathmore.

   The mysteries of the place are not immense in the scale of things, but quietly intriguing.  First is the meaning of the place-name itself.  We can probably dismiss the suggestion that Coupar's name derives from ‘Coo byre’, as suggested by the Rev Charles Roberts, and his alternative theory that the name could be a corruption of St Cuthbert also seems unlikely.  Also doubtful, to my mind at least, is the suggestion that the name comes from ‘copar’, a Flemish word signifying someone who traded commodities.  Victorian historians Andrew Jervise and Alexander Warden  took the name as being derived from Cul-Bharr, or rear-of-the-ridge.  Yet another suggestion is that the name comes from Gaelic cobhair, meaning sanctuary, and suggesting that there was some kind of religious settlement nearby.

The Early Abbey

  Coupar Angus was a daughter-house of Melrose and the fifth Cistercians house in Scotland, all in the 12th century. The saintly uncle of the king, Waltheof, the abbot of Melrose Malcolm IV, is reckoned to have been the person who lay behind the decision to erect a new monastery at Coupar Angus.  Although the abbey was founded by King Malcolm the Maiden in 1164 as a house of the Cistercians, could there be a much earlier Christian foundation nearby.  Cistercians often founded their houses in desert places (Novalia, or unbroken ground, as enshrined in the statutes of the order) which was not the case here. The monarchy had a royal manor here. There is also a repeated suggestion that there was a Roman marching camp on the site of the later abbey, but this has never been conclusively proven.

 More interesting if the proximity of the site to the border of the counties of Perthshire (Gowrie district) and Angus – which may well represent the border between ancient Pictish provinces – possibly points towards an earlier Christian settlement.  Borders between kingdoms and regions were sometimes chosen as Christian sites to install spiritual buffer zones between semi-antagonistic neighbours.  More than that, borders were liminal areas where there were fault lines in supernatural as well as temporal power which could be used by religion.  Meigle, to the north east of Coupar is one such place.  I would very tentatively suggest that Kettins to the south-east of Coupar is another.
   King Malcolm granted the White Monks his lands at Coupar. In a charter he later granted the monks coal, and privileges in the royal forests in Glenisla and elsewhere.  Malcolm’s brother King William at a later date extended the abbey’s land ownership in the area, bestowing lands of
of Aberbothrie and Keitheck, plus two ploughgates of land in the district of Rethrife (Rattray), and the marsh of Blair (Blairgowrie). Later benefactors of land to the abbey included the powerful Hay family, based in the Carse of Gowrie and successive Earls of Atholl. 

   At the start of the 14th century the abbey controlled more than 8,000 acres.  There was a setback to the material wellbeing of the abbey when King Edward I confiscated the furniture and silver of the institution and possibly also imposed English monks into the settlement.  In the beginning the Cistercians farmed the land themselves, in conjunction with lay brothers who oversaw agricultural work at the abbey’s granges.  But in the 1300s the number of lay brothers ceased and the practice of leasing lands to secular tenants began.  The last record to lay brothers in the records of Coupar Angus is in the year 1305.

      During the previous century there is a record of a lower class of un-free labour tied to the land.  A document of King Alexander II signed on 17 February 1248 empowers the monks of Coupar Angus to recover their fugitive neyfs in Glenisla.  These neyfs or native were natives of any given area who could be bought and sold with the land they lived on, though they were not actually slaves. Their status may have included a poorer class of tenants who leased land.


   To the south-east of Coupar, Kettins stands out as a place of some importance, certainly in Pictish times.  There is an inscribed Pictish symbol stone here, now on the north wall of the kirkyard, having been rescued in 1865 from centuries of misuse as a footbridge over the Kettins Burn.  Its citing points to the place being of some importance as a place of secular power in the early medieval era. Clues as to the significance and relatively early date of church activity at Kettins can also be found in the term abthen, which refers to land given over to churches.  There is not an abundant record of these places, but there is a significant number in Angus.  There was the Kirkland of Inverlunan, ‘commonly called abthan’, and also the Kirkland of Old Montrose which had the term attached to it.  In some instances the religious ruler of a territory is designated as ab, so there was Nicholas ab of Monifieth, Maurice ab of Arbirlot. 

   Keittins' ancient church stood on a mound and was designated to St Bridget, both signs (though not infallible signs) that the church was ancient.   The foundation was re-dedicated by David de Bernham, Bishop of St Andrews in 1249.  Half a century earlier there is a charter witness mentioned named Ferbard, capellano de Ketenes.  It was one of six chapels on the area which became subordinate to the Abbey of St Mary at Coupar Angus.  In a charter of about 1292-3, Hugh of Over, Lord of Ketenes, granted ‘his well in his lands and Abthenage of Ketenes, called Bradwell, with its
aqueduct bounded, and servitude of watergage’ to the Abbey of Cupar. Bradwell is a corruption of [St] Bride’s Well.  Malcolm de Ketenes appears in a number of charters around 1270 or 1271.

Three Brothers of Kettins

   Also in the thirteenth century the place was home to three brothers, one of whom was an eminent churchman.  There are records of three brothers John, Robert and Ingram of Kettins who were present in the University of Paris in the 1340s.  The last named brother is identical with the priest who is commemorated in a monument in Tealing, not far to the east of Kettins, in the shadow of the Sidlaws.  Contemporary with the Paris record there is another mention of Ingram when, on 25 January 1345, Pope Clement VI authorized the abbots of Cupar and Scone, and the prior of St Andrews, to grant Ingram de Kethenis ‘the church of Blaar’, evidently Blairgowrie.  The siblings were nephews of John de Pilmore, Bishop of Moray.  Through the recommendation of the king and queen, Ingram was granted a benefice at Aberdeen, and further church positions were attained, culminating in the archdeanery of Dunkeld.  Ingram ended his days in the church of Tealing, north of Dundee.  His monument is set into the north wall of the church there and is thought to be one of the earliest monuments in the English language north of the Forth. 

Hier : lyis : Ingram : of : Kethenys : prist. :
Maystr : l : arit : ercdene : of ; dukeldy : made :
I : hys : XXXII : yhere : prayis : for : hym : yat :
Deyt :hafand : LX : yherys : of : eyld : in :
The : yher : of : Cryet : MoCCC : Lxxx

‘Here lies Ingram of Kettins, priest, Master of Arts. Made Archdeacon of Dunkeld in his 32nd year. Pray for him that died having sixty years of age in the year of Christ 1380’.

   At an early period the Hospital or Domus Dei of Berwick held the revenues of the church at Kettins. By the end of the 14th century the living of Kettins was granted to the Kirk of the Red Friars in Dundee, and in the following century was transferred to the Red Friars Cross Kirk at Peebles. 

Coupar Justice.  Proverbs and Punishment

   Long after the abbey of Coupar literally fell into dust, ‘Coupar Justice’ became a byword for the stern treatment of offenders in the area. In this way, Coupar became as infamous as Jedburgh in the borders, where ‘Jethart Justice’ was another name for harsh treatment by the law.
 (Admittedly there may be some confusion with Cupar in Fife in these traditions.)  Locally there were several layers of legal administration. A self-elected jury of local men, The Court of Burlaw, met every week to regulate mundane disputes.  On the next level was the Baron-Bailie Court whose official was appointed by the district baron.  The Court of Regality and Justiciary once occupied the site on present-day Queen Street in the town, though earlier it seems to have  dispensed its justice outdoors, at Beechwood to the north of the burgh, in the early days of the Abbey.  The Court of Regality was presided over by the abbot, though it was delegated at times to a bailie-depute (a role which eventually became hereditary).

  Tales of the actual harshness of local law-giving are scarce. Alexander Warden, the historian of Angus, gives one example, worth repeating, albeit with the caution that it represents its Gaelic protagonist in a semi-comical racist way.  Warden says that a certain Baillie John was strolling around Beechwood when he encountered a Highlander and engaged him in conversation.  Without revealing his own identity Baillie John found out the man was due up before him for some crime that day.  He asked the man whether he was actually guilty of the crime he was accused of.

   ‘Oh, aye, she’s guilty,’ the Gael said happily.  ‘But there’s nae proof.’
   Did he mean to lie to court that afternoon?  Of course he did, the man said, because ‘there's mercy wi' God Almighty, but there's nane wi' Bailie Shon’.
   Fast forward to that afternoon, when the ashen faced Highlander faced Baillie John for real.
   ‘Will you swear now that you are not guilty?’  the judge asked the accused.
   The man thought for a minute and then tried to brazen it out.
   ‘Yes,’ she’ll swore,’ asserted the Highlander.
   This ploy evidently nonplussed the dispenser of justice, since instead of sentencing the man he declared,
   ‘Go home, you rascal, and never let me see your face again; and tell your friends in Kirkmichael that there is some mercy in Bailie John as well as in God Almighty!’ [Warden, Angus or Forfarshire, vol. 3,134-5.]

   Several writers another tale of harsh judgement.  According to this, in 1699 the hereditary bailie of Coupar, John Ogilvy, was told that a notorious thief named John McCoul was in the town:  ‘ane person of bad fame and open bruit a thiefadder’.  He was ordered to be arrested and hanged straight away.  The man’s friends were outraged by this act and demanded reconsideration.  So the body was ordered to be exhumed and the court was convened, on 25 August 1699.  There the dead man was formally sentenced to death and ordered to be executed the following Thursday.  Whether the earlier monks were quite as hard-line in their judgements as the laymen who succeeded them is unknown. The story was repeated in the Dundee Chronicle, written by a correspondent from Coupar Angus who stated that he had the record of the case lying before him as he wrote.  [Ancient Things in Angus, 101-2, Rambles in Forfarshire, 203, Dundee Chronicle, March 1836].

Ogilvy Bailies

   The Ogilvy family, in the person of James, Lord Ogilvy,a great secular power in the area, were granted the role as secular bailies of Coupar Abbey by Abbot Donald Campbell in 1539 and they held this role until heritable jurisdictions were formally abolished in 1747. As early as 1460, however, Patrick Ogilvy of Pearsie was appointed bailie-depute of the monastery.  For the loss of the privilege John, 4th Earl of Airlie, was awarded £800 in compensation.  The Ogilvys also gained the role as porters of gate-keepers to the abbey.  At an earlier period another family served in this hereditary function and took their surname, Porter, from their employment.  The Ogilvys gained this lucrative office as late as 1589, when on 12 March a contract was agreed between William Ogilvy of Easter Keilor and John Faryar, porter of the abbey and adopted son of Robert Porter.  On 26 May 1590 the charter of the office was confirmed by Faryar and Porter, to William and Archibald Ogilvy life-rent and fee.

Proverbs on Coupar

   Coupar also features in other local proverbs, whose meaning and origins now seem rather opaque.  It was locally said of stubborn people who would not be diverted from their chosen, foolish path: 
 He that will [gae] to Coupar maun [gae] to Coupar. 
But why should someone resolutely doomed to failure go particularly to Coupar Angus? Nobody knows.

  Another, arcane twist on the saying runs: 
He that will to Coupar maun to Coupar, though Killiemuir [Kirriemuir] had sworn't.

   And why did Coupar particularly get a local reputation for being a draconian centre of punishment?  Perhaps it derives from the strict measures which the institution enforced on its tenants, from runaway serfs to tenants reluctant to keep their land in order, ingrained into the Strathmore psyche over the course of several centuries? Another possibility is that the speedy justice and sometimes summary execution which followed in the area was a necessary mode of law enforcement which operated in the area and was designed to meet the lawlessness which filtered into the area from the north, when Highland caterans raided Strathmore for cattle and spoils.  But does something darker linger in the collective memory here?

Massacre in the New Church
   In the year 1186, when the church of the abbey was not yet fully completed, there was a sacrilegious event which violated the abbey.  On 17 November that year, the Chronicle of Holyrood related that:
the peace of the holy church was outraged at Coupar, by the violence of Malcolm, earl of Athole; because Adam (surnamed also Donald’s son), who was the king’s outlaw, was seized, and one of his associates – a nephew – was beheaded, before the altar; and the rest, fifty-eight in number, were burned and killed in the abbot’s dwelling.

   The exact circumstances of this mass killing are unclear.  Adam McDonald was a representative of one of the kin-groups who were rebelling against the established monarchy.  He and his men had probably sought sanctuary in the newly established Cistercian precincts, but were ruthlessly extinguished by the king’s representative, Malcolm son of Madach, the second Earl of Atholl.  The assassinated man may have been a son of the rebel contingents of the MacWilliam family from Moray who were in rebellion and attempting to claim the throne, but there is no firm certainty he came from this family. Donald MacWilliam certainly rose against the crown in Ross the following year.

   This early massacre was undoubtedly the worst bloodshed the abbey was to witness, but there were other outbreaks of violent anarchy in later centuries.  In 1479 the resident monks were attacked (two actually held captive for a time) by a gang sponsored by Alexander Lindsay, son of David, Earl of Crawford. The event involved ‘spulzeing of thair horses parking at thair place, and chusing of thair servandis’ and damage to property.  Lindsay was warded in Blackness Castle and some of his henchmen were warded elsewhere, while eight other followers, such as Lindsay of Baikie and Shangy, were summoned to appear before the Sheriff of Forfar.  The decline of the social structure of the abbey went hand in hand with a diminishing respect of those in the area, particularly powerful men who saw the undefended monks as easy prey.   Around the time of Lindsay’s was there was another attack led by Robert Hay, son of the laird of Tullymet.  He carried off a hundred head of cattle and oxen and four horses from the abbey’s land of Pert.  He was heavily fined for his depredations.

Decline of the Abbey, Last Years under Abbot Donald Campbell

     The abbot at this time was Donald Campbell, fourth son of Archibald, second
Earl of Argyll, and he supervised the final decline of the institution, from 1526 to 1562.   (One of his brothers, incidentally, was Alexander Campbell who married the widowed Lady Glamis.  He died trying to escape from Edinburgh Castle.  His wife was burned to death as a witch.) Campbell played an important role on the wider national stage, being part of the secret council of the Earl of Arran.  His later appointment to the See of Brechin was deferred because of suspicions about his religious loyalties.  Until as late as 1553 Campbell seemed to be intent on regulating the declining monastery in accordance with orthodox Catholic procedures.  He and the fifteen remaining monks in the institution signed a solemn bond in which they promised that, ‘God being their guide [they would] lead a regular life, and...order their manner according to the reformers of the Cistercian order...’  But by the end of that decade Campbell had literally abandoned his habit – ‘put on secular weed’ – and was attending the Protestant Convention of Estates.  Furthermore, he alienated the church lands he administered and gave outright gifts of abbey lands to each and every one of his five bastard sons:  the properties of Balgersho for his eldest son, Keithic for the second son, Denhead for the third son, Cro(o)nan for the fourth, and Arthurstone .  He had earlier granted part of the monastery’s lands at Lundie to his cousin John Campbell of Lundie.  Two of the last abbot’s sons were interred at Bendochy: Nicol Campbell, who died in 1587 aged seventy, and David Campbell, who died three years earlier.

Protestant Violence?

   The most fatal violence done to the abbey was its physical destruction, possibly commenced in the Reformation, when the mob which tore down the Carthusian monastery and other Catholic churches in Perth likely did the same at Coupar.  The exact process and sequence of destruction at Coupar Angus Abbey is not clear and was likely piecemeal and certainly assisted to a large extent by locals looting the valuable building stones of the abbey over a long course of time.  Much of the older part of the town of Coupar Angus, as well as some building work in nearby places such as Arthurstone, likely included masonry from the abbey buildings.  An account of the Chamberlain in 1563 mentions the fact that remedial building work had been undertaken at the abbey, which suggests there had been some sort of attack leading to damage.

   The extent to which Coupar Angus Abbey suffered physically when the reforming storm fully hit Scotland is difficult to determine.  The seething religious foment of the nation is captured in the following lengthy quote by Lord Herries, which captures one contemporary view of what was happening in this region in 1559:
Now aryses tumults upon tumults, killing of priests, sacking and pulling doune of churches, ruining of statlie Abbacies, and other glorious buildings, dissolving hospitals; all in confusion.  in a word, these antient buildings and brave fabricks, monuments of antiquitie, and marks of pietie, which for many hundred years have been a building, shall, in few months, be destroyed and rased to the ground!  The ornaments and riches of the Churches fell to the share of the commone rable; the estats and lands were divyded amongst the great men, by themselves, without right or law; which they resolve to maintain by the sword!
   The first storme fell upon Saint Jhonstoune [Perth], in this same month of May.  John Knox…was the occasione; whoe, by a seditious sermon, sturred up the people to furie and madnes; who encouradged them to pull doun the Churches…Wherupon they run out in confusion, killed the priests, broake doune altars, and destroyed all the images and ornaments.  From that they fall upon the Relligious Houses and Monasteries; those two goodlie Abbayes of Franciscans and Dominicans…were pulled dounde and made levell with the ground in two dayes; and all there riches made a prey to the people!  But the Abbau of Charters monks stod longer, by one day.  The next storme fell upon Couper.  Thos people, upon notice of this busines at Perth, fell lykwayes upon there Church; which they spoyled and ransackt, and chased away the priests.’ [Memoirs, 37-38.]

   But did Coupar Angus Abbey actually suffer the same extremist tsunami as nearby Perth?  A document found in the charters of the Dukes of Argyll suggests that Abbot Duncan cannily came to terms with the lords at the head of the Reforming juggernaut, or that he was forced to do so.  This is the unique document that the abbot signed:

Thir ar the pointes that the congregatioune desyris of my lord of Cowper.   Imprimis that he incontinent reforme his place of Cowper Putting down and birnyng oppinlie all Idolis and Imagis and tubernaculis thairin destroying and putting away the altaris.  And that na mess be thaire done gereaftir nowther privilie nor opinly.  And that the superstitiouse habit of his monkis with their ordour ceremoneis and service as you call it be removit.  And that na prayeris be usit in the kirk bot in the inglishe toung.  And thai according to the scriptouris of God.   Item that my lord with all his freindis and folkis at his hale powar assist and mayntein in counsales conventionis and parliament als wele as uther wyse the furth settin of the evangell of cryst and meynteinyng the congregatioyne in thair leberte and to the doune putting of all ydolatre abhominationes and papistre.  And that his folkis at this present and at all utheris tymis being requirit pass fordwart with thair congregatioune to the forth-setting of the glorie of god.  And alswa that my lord in all placis of his dominioune sall endewoyr himself to the forthsattin and executione of the premissis.   Item that ane wryting contenyng the heids abufwrittin as thai ar heir contenit subscrivit with my lordis hand be send incontinent to the congregatioune togidder with the same tollaratione.                                                                        (Signed)          D.  Abbot of Cupr

   The historian Jane Dawson has drawn attention to the uniqueness of the arrangement between abbot and reformers at Coupar.  There was a chance, after that pacts, that the abbey buildings might have survived more or less intact.  But it was not to be.

   Following Campbell’s reign of transition, various secular individuals gained control over the valuable earthly possessions of Coupar Abbey.  By an Act of Parliament in December 1607, King James VI sought to ‘suppress and extinguish the memories of the Abbacie’.  He erected the abbacy into a temporal lordship in favour of James Elphinstone, son of the secretary, Lord Balmerino, and enobled him with the title Lord Coupar.  A painting by Balmerino of Coupar in 1607 shows a remaining tower within the abbey precinct. It is stated that Coupar himself was ‘a weak man of mean capacity, who went by the epigrammatic cognomen of “that howlit Cowper”.’ [Strathmore, Past and Present, McPherson, 41.]

   The remaining structures in the abbey precinct appear to have been further damaged in April 1645, in an onslaught by an Irish royalist force of 200 men led by Montrose’s lieutenant Alexander Macdonald.  Their damage and plunder was an act of revenge and intimidation against Lord Coupar because of his Covenanting views.  During this raid the parish minister Robert Lindsay was slain and a defending party of cavalry under Lord Balcarres was routed. 

 Lord Coupar died without issue in 1669.  He was buried in Coupar without any religious ceremony whatever and the property eventually devolved on his nephew, John , 3rd Baron Balmerino.  The latter took legal action against his uncle’s widow to repair damage to the rotting remains of the abbey buildings, but this was not undertaken, because John Ochterlony of the Guynd, wrote in the Account of the Shire of Forfar, circa 1682, wrote that the abbey was in a sweet spot but nothing remained of the buildings but rubbish.

Remaining Mysteries, or the Mystery of Remains?

   Much of the later building work in Coupar Angus sensibly utilised the available stone from the former abbey.  The town steeple was built in 1769 on the site of the old prison of the Court of
Regality.  Its lower floor was used to confine of prisoners.  Coupar’s kirk was rebuilt in 1878-9 on  the site of the abbey. John Carrie wrote in 1881 about the scant remains of the abbey and its last occupant over forty years previously:

What now remains of the Abbey...consists of a single vaulted apartment, with one or two slender, but finely pointed arches.  It was visited in 1838 by a person of antiquarian tastes, who found it then occupied as a workshop by an humble sculptor and painter.  His productions, however, possessed considerable merit...About the year 1830 some vaults, probably sepulchral ones, were accidentally discovered, but the authorities soon afterwards shut them up again. [Ancient Things in Angus, 102.]
A Secret Tunnel? 

   A more elaborate, though possibly related tradition was recounted by James Cargill Guthrie. He stated that an old Coupar man informed him there was a secret tunnel or passageway leading from this last remaining fragment of the abbey and the south-western Sidlaw Hills.  It was found by workers excavating a very deep drain.  One of the men, more brave than the others, volunteered to explore the passageway to the north.  From his point of entry he traced it to the remains of the abbey and returned to tell his fellows.  But for his second foray he re-entered the tunnel and ventured south.  He never returned from this second adventure.  His friends waited days for his reappearance, but when all hope was gone they sadly sealed up the entrance to stop anyone else following him to their fate.  

   A variant states that the poor, lost original explorer was a woman, not a workman. Was this story inspired by the discovery of weems or souterrains at Pitcur nearby, although the latter places lies several miles south-east of Coupar?  It is said that in 1982 a local mason actually found the underground connection between Pitcur and Coupar Angus. The mason told the tale to Martha Jane Sievewright, who told it in The Abbey of Coupar Angus (1983), and re-told by Maurice Fleming.  Tunnels, real and imagined, crop up regularly in folk tales and the association with a human unwise enough to enter the Underworld and paying the price links the story directly to a legendary source.

Folklore Afterword:  The Ghost of Dron

  Those who prefer their history unpolluted by folklore can safely disregard this last piece. It concerns an ancient track named the Priest's Road which runs south from Tullybaccart on the main Coupar to Dundee road, road across the Sidlaw Hills.  It is a lonely route, though it may once have been used by the monks of Coupar going down to the fertile coastal plain of the Carse of Gowrie where they held lands, or indeed across the River Tay to the abbey of Balmerino where their brother Cistercians.  The pathway crosses the current Angus-Perth border very close to a chapel at Dron.  The chapel is little more than a graceful arch standing alone amid scanty, lesser masonry.  It is an evocative place, but perhaps not entirely as bereft of company as one might imagine.  Between here and Tullybaccart, on the Angus stretch of the ancient Priest's Road, there is sometimes seen a solitary traveller dressed all in white.  He may be a bee-keeper, as some have thought, though there are no hives nearby.  Or he may be someone else.


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