Friday, 22 December 2017

Whisky & Beer & Seasonal Good Cheer!

At this time of the year one’s thought turn mainly to...alcohol.

   Shockingly, there is – to my knowledge – only one major distillery in Angus still commercially producing whisky at the moment.  Brechin’s Glencadam Distillery (owned by the London based Angus Dundee who also own the Tomintoul distillery) was founded by George Cooper in 1825 and currently produces a single malt variety; though past issues have included the pertinently named Taranty malt.  Water for the whisky is sourced from springs at the Moorans and whisky expert Michael Jackson summarises the 15-year old Glencadam as ‘a little shy but sweet and satisfying’.

   A close neighbour of Glencadam was the North Port Distillery (founded in 1820, mothballed in 1983, officially closed in 1985, substantially demolished in 1994).  A more elusive lost brand and distillery was Glenesk, whose ever-changing names and even different output (sometimes grain, sometimes malt) make it difficult to pin down.  Based at Hillside, Montrose, this distillery closed its doors in 1985.  Founded by the magnificently named English wine merchant firm Septimus Parsonage (in partnership with James Isles of Dundee) in 1897 within a converted flax mill, it was initially named Highland Esk.  It became North Esk in 1899 upon acquisition by J E Caille Heddle.  After World War I the distillers was re-named North Esk Maltings, and then became simply Montrose.  By 1964 it was producing malt whisky under the moniker Hillside, changing its name finally to Glenesk in 1980.  The distillery was dismantled in 1996.  Some, rare bottles from this distillery are doing the rounds for figures fluctuation between the low hundreds and four figures.

   Dundee’s active association with whisky bottling ended in the 1990s when the Stewarts Cream of the Barley plant on the Kingsway closed down.  Alexander Stewart, trading from the Glengarry Inn in Castle Street, started blending in 1825.  The brand still continues and remains Northern Ireland’s favourite blended Scotch whisky.  Other Dundee companies which had a share of the early whisky business included the Seagate based James Robertson and Son Ltd (which owned Coleburn distillery on Speyside) and its neighbour James Watson and Co, founded in 1815, which owned four northern distilleries.  The Seagate was also home to George Willsher & Co, based in premises named Black Bull House.  Their principal brand was therefore named Black Bull whisky, and it survives today, albeit the product of a company based in Huntly.
(Lovers of whisky, incidentally, might want to drop into the Glenesk Hotel in Edzell,which has over a thousand whiskies for sale, something of a record.)

   Another spirits merchants in the city was George Morton Ltd, who traded not only whisky and brandy, but also imported rum, most noticeably the famous OVD (Old Vatted Demerara), first imported from Guyana in 1838 to Morton’s in Dock Street.  Now owned by William Grant & Sons Ltd, the Dundee connection with the spirit is, alas, long gone.  Such enterprise as surrounds production of spirits locally is now very minimal and, perhaps surprisingly, is not purely whisky centred. The Gin Bothy at Peel Farm, Lintrathen, produces fruit infused gin, while the Arbikie Distillery in Inverkeilor produces gin, vodka and whisky (though the production of the latter has not yet produced bottles for the market as yet - hurry up, please!). Another proud local producer is Ogilvy Spirits, based in the Sidlaw Hills, which specialised in potato vodka. 

Historic Illicit Whisky Production and Some Smuggling Lore

   Like the producers of peat reek whisky in the Angus glens, I have dabbled in this subject in the past (and will do again), as the lure and romance of whisky making and smuggling is too much to resist.  But the reality of Angus whisky production does not appear to be as venerable as one might suppose. In The Flower People, Duncan Fraser depicts the sudden illicit business of distilling peat reek whisky coming to Glen Isla as demand for the product and knowledge about its production came into the area in the 18th century.  There is the memory at Delnamer of  an exciseman finding whisky hidden in a sheep bught here.  Another exciseman hoped to follow up this discovery and came here with a gang of soldiers.  Though they searched, further whisky was not found.  The soldiers let their horses eat the scant grain in a store here and an outbuilding was set ablaze.  The locals wrote a furious letter to the authorities, stating that the sergeant of Dragoons had threatened them with a drawn sword after their complaint and say no more about their corn or he would satisfy himself with their blood.  'If the fiscal of the county doth not put a stop such barbarous practices,' their letter ended,'Blood for Blood must be allowed.'

   The Rev Andrew Burns, incumbent of Glen Isla 1806-1823, used to note when the authorities arrived at the opposite his manse and would wander the glen, using biblical language to warn the people to hide their whisky:  'The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!'  The whisky was of course conveyed south surreptitiously at night, not in barrels - which would have been too bulky and conspicuous - but in smaller, makeshift vessels, such as animals' bladders.  Fraser states:
Until about 1830 the whisky-making was the glen's chief industry and then it was suppressed by the Government.  Even a local minister admitted a few years later  that at first this was 'bewailed as a great parish calamity', for most of his congregation had depended on it for their livelihood. [The Flower People, p. 88]
   To the east, the same author reports that the people of Glen Esk also proved amenable to this industry.   'There was no depopulation in Glenesk, all the time its whisky-making lasted.  Over the hills in Glenisla there was none either.  But when the stills were closed Glenisla lost almost half its inhabitants.' [Glen of the Rowan Tree, p. 27.]  For forty years here and in the side glens whisky was illegally made.  Again, the church in the area seemed to see it as a harmless, perhaps even an essential, occupation.   A key ally was the Episcopal minister Peter Jolly, of Lethnot and Glen Esk, had his manse at Stylemou, on the track known as the Whisky Road.  This was almost within 'sniffing distance' on the still on Rowan Hill.  Fraser advises that the ruins of one mountain whisky bothy can be seen high up Glen Effock, beside a burn.  Most of the production from this site ended up in Forfar.  One of the larger operations was hidden among the hills in Glenlee, between Craig Buck and Craig Terran.

    Further tales of smuggling will be related in future posts.

   People in these eastern Angus glens were notably superstitious.  Duncan Fraser notes that, at Burnside, near Arsallary:
in bygone days they used to keep the peat fire burning day and night - for two hundred and fifty years until the 1930s - to prevent ill luck befalling them.  And the odd thing is that near the foot of the glen was another house where they carefully put the fire out each night for the same sensible reason. [Glen of the Rowan Tree, p. 31.]

The Beers and Breweries of Old Angus

   Brewing and selling of beer had an older heritage and a longer life than whisky distilling in the county.  But it was no less under the eye of the authorities.  The records of the Privy Council, for instance, in December 1627, cautioned John Gray, burgess of Dundee, under 500 merks, not to sell any English beer at a higher rate than £6 the tune.  Other Dundonians simultaneously warned were Patrick Baxter, James Small, Patrick Kinloch, James Bowar, and Robert Stirling.  

   Piggott's Commercial Directory for 1825-6 names only two commercial breweries in the burgh - the Pleasance Brewing Company and Thomas Miller, Perth Road.  Arbroath, by contrast, had five named brewers - James Anderson, Robert Gilchrist, John Knight, Robert Lindsay & Son, George SheriffForfar also had five named brewers - Patrick Barry, Skene, Blair & Co, Thomas Morris, William Potter, Alexander StarkMontrose also boasted five - John Alexander, William Black, Henry Farquharson, James Potter, William Ross & Co  (Other brewers listed for Angus included three in Brechin: Alexander & Co, George Reid, David Scott; plus Alex Brown of East Haven and Alex Dean of Broughty Ferry.)

   Currently, Dundee's brewing business is undergoing a bit of a blooming renaissance, and about time too.  There are two wonderful beer making enterprises in the city:  The Law Brewing Co. and 71 BrewingWe wish both these businesses well (along with the micro-brewery Mor Brewing, based in nearby Kellas).  Barring brave, independent beers like the Hawkhill- Ballys venture in the 1980s, there has not been a major brewing operation in Dundee since the demise of Ballingall's, founded near the Lochee Road in 1750 as the Pleasance Brewing Co. and taking over by the Ballingall family a century later.  It survived another century plus before being bought out by Drybroughs and assisted into extinction in 1968. (A Scottish photographer named Oliver Pilcher bought the rights to the brand name Ballingall's in recent years, with the intention to resurrect the brewery, but as yet it remains moribund.)  The heroic Alfred Barnard visited Ballingall's in the late 19th century as part of his monumental odyssey around the breweries of Great Britain and Ireland.

   Ballingall's had originated as The Pleasance Brewing Company around 1750.  William Ballingall took over the business in 1844 and his son Hugh, a prominent local politician, inherited the firm.  He built the new Park Brewery, across the road from the existing Pleasance Brewery (separated by aptly named Hop Street).  Mr Barnard left a very detailed and technical account of the brewing operation here and seemed very impressed by the buildings and the produce:

Ballingall's New Park Brewery, Dundee.

We first sampled the porter and stout (manufactured by the firm for their local trade), which we found quite equal to any we had tasted in Glasgow and Edinburgh; but the firm's reputation is based upon the superior quality of their Scotch pale ales, which are sold all over the North of England and throughout Scotland, depots for supplying the same being established at Newcastle, Liverpool, and other places. The firm's special brand of pale ale, which was exhibited in the Paris Exhibition, is certainly as delicious as any we have tasted. Without being heady it is highly nutritious, bright and sparkling, and tastes well of the hop. Some of the old beers were too strong for a general beverage, and a wine glassful was as much as we dared tackle. It may here be stated that the firm have been awarded medals at the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1886, and the Paris Exhibitions of 1867, 1878 and 1889 (gold and silver). The bottled ales, although of less strength, possess an aromatic flavour, and are most agreeable to the palate...In front of these ancient remains [of the 18th century brewery] there is a plot of ground, through which runs a stream, known from time immemorial as the "Scouring Burn." It formed a part of "The Meadows" referred to by a Dundee historian, as "being drained in the early part of the eighteenth century, and enclosed with stone walls, the grass-land thereon being laid out for the washing and bleaching of the inhabitants, and a road was made through it," which was probably the Lochee Road of the present date. This piece of ground will shortly be covered by the extensive buildings about to be erected by the proprietor, to enlarge the new brewery.

   Dundee's brewing heritage, despite the strange paucity of evidence in the early 19th century, stretches back into medieval times.  The Maltmen were one of the largest incorporated trades in the burgh in the early medieval period.  Dundee's population in the early 17th century may have been around 6,000-8,000, and out of these there were 100 Maltmen.  In the period of 1661 to 1700 there were 240 registered apprentices in the trade in Dundee.  The trade of course flourished because of demand, beer of course being preferable to the frequently disease ridden general water supply.  Following the Reformation the authorities, bolstered by the power of the Kirk, tried to regulate the consumption of alcohol, but it was doubtless a losing battle.  In January 1558 or 1559 the authorities in Dundee ordered a 10 pm curfew and banned 'drinking in any ale house or wine tavern efter ten hours of the nicht, under the pain of forty shillings'.  A few years later 9 pm was the cut off point for 'dancing, drinking, playing or sic vain exercise'.  Brewers' produce was also checked for quality, and in October 1564 the council found that 'the ale brewen be David Spankie's wife be sufficient'.

   Even earlier than this, we can have a peek that lets us know about the availability if not the actual production of spirits locally.  In 1497 King James IV visited the area and the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer record 'to the barbour that brocht aqua vite to the King in Dunde, be the Kingis  command... xxxi s[hillings].'

   The historian Anthony Cooke has uncovered much of the hidden history of drinking dens in Scotland in the 19th century and in particular the prominent part women played in running unlicensed shebeens in the closes and back-alleys of Dundee and other cities.  In 1861, Cooke tells us, four Dundonian women were jailed for keeping illegal shebeens.  Several years later a woman named either Isabella Forbes or Smith was prosecuted for operating a shebeen/brothel in Couttie's Wynd.  

Montrose and the "Newkie Broon" Urban Legend

   Here's a garbled tall tale for you.  Some years ago I was informed (in a pub, by an unreliable source) that the world famous Newcastle Brown Ale - of which I was once keen - was in fact a Scottish product, a secret Angus beer in fact, which was shipped from Montrose to Newcastle, then bottled and labelled as a local product.  The truth appears to be somewhat different.

   James Deuchar Ltd were a brewing enterprise based in Monwearmouth in the north-east of England.  By the beginning of the twentieth century they acquired the Lochside Brewery in Montrose, formerly owned by William Ross & Co and other concerns in the Newcastle area. 
Brewing was concentrated in Montrose and the Monkwearmouth brewery was used for storage and bottling. In 1957 brewing ceased in Montrose and was moved to the old Robert Deuchar brewery in Duddingston.  When Newcastle Breweries bought James Deuchar in 1959, production ceased.  Meanwhile the actual premises at Montose, which were founded in 1781, were bought by Macnab Distilleries Ltd, producing the Sandy Macnab brand.  The distillery closed in 1992.  So while there was some connection between Newcastle Brown and Montrose, the truth is more concoluted than the legend.  


Barnard, Alfred, The Noted Breweries of Britain and Ireland (4 volumes, London, 1889-1896 [volume 3, 142-67 for Ballingall's.]).
Cooke, Anthony, A History of Drinking:  The Scottish Pub Since 1700 (Edinburgh, 2015).
Cruickshank, Frederick, Navar and Lethnot, The History of a Glen Parish in the North-East of Forfarshire (Brechin, 1899).
Fraser, Duncan, Glen of the Rowan Tree (Montrose, 1973, reprinted 1974).
Fraser, Duncan, The Flower People (Montrose, 1977).
Hume Brown, P. (ed.), The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (second series, volume 2, Edinburgh, 1900).
Jackson, Michael, Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (5th edn., London, 2004).

Thursday, 7 December 2017


The fishing village of Auchmithie, three miles north of and inextricably linked with Arbroath, remains a living community, albeit vastly changed from its origins as a place which subsisted entirely on one centuries old trade.  The pulse of the place still beats, albeit its character has changed. (Compare it, if you will, with the ghostly desertion of the Fishtown of Usan, to the north.)

   Fishing’s heyday in Auchmithie coincided with its incidental fame as a setting in Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary.  But more lasting fame has been guaranteed the village for being the birthplace of the renowned Arbroath Smokie.  By the time that the wider British public deigned to become interested in the hitherto invisible fisher folk their way of life was likely on the wane.  Yet the descriptions of intrepid Victorian writers are still fascinating for what they reveal of the commentators no less than the ‘natives’.  James Bertram had a keen interest in the conditions of the coastal communities around the entire British Isles.  Here is his impression of Auchmithie from his book The Harvest of the Sea:

One customary feature observed by strangers on entering Auchmithie is, that when met by female children they invariably stoop down, make a very low curtsey, and for this piece of polite condescension they expect a few halfpence will be thrown to them.  If you pass on without noticing them they will not ask for anything, but once throw them a few halfpence and a pocketful will be required to satisfy their importunities...

Are we looking at them, or are they looking at us?

Bertram was impressed by the inhospitable geography of the village as well as its fisher-folk:

Entering the village of Auchmithie from the west, and walking through to the extreme east end, the imagination gets staggered to think how any class of men could have selected such a wild and rugged part of the coast for pursuing the fishing trade... there are in all about seventeen boats’ crews at Auchmithie.  Winding roads with steps lead down the steep brae to the beach...there is no harbour or pier for the boats to land at or receive shelter from, and this the fishermen complain of, as they have to pay £2 a year for the privilege of each boat...Fisher-life may be witnessed here in all its unvarnished simplicity...I have seen the women of Auchmithie “kilt their coats” and rush into the water in order to aid in shoving off the boats, and on the return of the little fleet carry the men ashore on their brawny shoulders with the greatest ease and all the nonchalance imaginable, no matter who might be looking at them.

   In the same author’s The Unappreciated Fisher Folk he writes in broader terms about the society of the coastal community.  The settlement of Auchmithie, Bertram wrote, had hardly changed for many generations when Walter Scott visited in the early 19th century and still, in Bertram’s own day, provided a unique opportunity to study a particular lifestyle:

It is certainly in Scotland (and in Cornwall as well) that the life and labour of this hardy and industrious class of persons can be studied to the greatest advantage, and in some places even yet their daily round of existence rolls on much as it did a century ago.  In Scotland, the patriarchal system of work is still largely maintained; in many Scottish fishing villages the family fishing boat is as much an institution as a family walnut-tree is in France...In Scotland, the fisher communities seldom receive any accession of new blood...The fisher folk intermarry in their communities, and so preserve those traditions of labour and the observance of those social customs which have become stereotyped among the people who go down to the sea in fishing ships.

   This extreme insularity in a small community obviously brought problems, both inside the isolated village and those who looked on from outside, even in a kindly way.  Speculation was that the inhabitants of Auchmithie, and indeed other Scottish fishing villages, were so different from the locals further inland that they must have originally come into the country as a distinct, foreign race.  But there is absolutely no proof that this is the case.  The strangeness of the fisher folk in all the Angus communities was picked up by the county historian, Alexander Warden, focusing on their reluctance to associate socially with others:

The several communities almost invariable intermarry amongst themselves, and it is a rare occurrence for the son of a fisher to take an alien to the craft to wife, or for a daughter to marry outwith the fraternity.  Indeed so clannish are the fishers of each village that they seldom go even to neighbouring fishing communities for spouses...The affect of so much intermarrying is to degenerate the race, and in most of the fishing villages there are generally a proportion of the inhabitants affected with scrofula or other diseases, and several having a weak intellect.

   This insularity, in terms of marriage, was undoubtedly a fact and not a misconception by others regarding fishing communities.  The anonymous contributor to Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, who visited Auchmithie in the autumn of 1843, was of course inspired in his journey by Walter Scott.  He was rightly impressed during a boat trip around some of the nearby coastal caves, but less so with the actual conditions in Auchmithie, both in terms of the physical state of the place, but also the inhabitants:

I took a survey of the village, and am forced to own that such places are most endurable in novels.  Imagine a narrow street of low and irregular cottages, the whole way, excepting a very narrow crooked passage, being occupied by groups of men and women engaged in preparing fishing lines with bait, the latter being in the most revolting state of filthiness and dishabille, while heaps of fish offal, and the refuse of the nets, lie tainting the air in all directions.  The people of the village are quite isolated from general society, and their tribe-like history is attested by their being only four names or so amongst them.  But one instance is remembered of an intermarriage with the neighbouring rustic people taking place, and in that case the female, who was the daughter of a fisherman, was cut by the whole fraternity, and regarded as a lost person, though the disadvantage seems to have chiefly been on the other side, as this poor woman was totally unfitted by her previous habits, and by her ignorance of house-keeping, for acting as a plough-man’s wife.  The whole economy of this village impresses one of a surviving example of society at the hunting stage, the first in advance from pure savagery.  And of this the broadest and most unmistakable feature is the slave-like condition of the women.  These poor creatures have to gather and carry bait, dress the lines, carry their husbands on their backs out to the boats, and back again when they return; and finally, to them falls the duty of transporting heavy back-burdens of fish to the neighbouring towns, in order to convert it to money. Under such circumstances the softness of the feminine constitution, bodily and mental, is extinguished at an early age, and they become as hardy, ungainly, and muscular as the men.

   It was true that there were very few names in the settlement:  the predominant families were Smith, Swankie, Cargill, and Spink. (In the Aberdeen Journal in December 1859, it was reported that 123 out of Auchmithie’s total population of 375 were surnamed Cargill.)  The Chamber’s correspondent noted the difference between Auchmithie and the nearby, smaller community of the coastguard station:  ‘...where all is neatness and propriety, the children clean and fully dressed, and gardens are cultivated in front of every house.  But the most of these strangers are English, and that amply accounts for the difference.’

Walter Scott 

   The fisher town of Auchmithie was given to Arbroath Abbey by King William, the abbey’s founder in the late 12th century, and after the reformation the lands of Ethie, including the bvillage, passed to a series of lay owners, and eventually the Northesk Carnegie family.  The first record of the village is in 1434.  In the nature of things, no-one was much interested in Auchmithie or indeed any other fishing village in the British Isles until the modern era.  Walter Scott published his novel The Antiquary in 1816, and it was his own favourite as well as one of his most acclaimed work.  Set in the late 18th century, Auchmithie features as Musselcrag in the book, while Arbroath is Fairport.  Allegedly Scott wanted to set another novel in the area, but this never transpired.  The Antiquary is only partially set in our area.  The incidents surrounding the Mucklebackit family in the novel, and particularly the description of one of their number, has been much praised.

Movement of Fishermen to Arbroath

   The virtual bondage of the inhabitants of Auchmithie was challenged by some of the inhabitants who burnt their houses down in the late 17th century.  Nearby Arbroath managed to entice some fisherman, most from the Cargill family, to move there in 1705.   But the Earl of Northesk successfully legally challenged the movement of his fishermen to Arbroath and the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, backed his authority to keep his vassals where they were.

   There was a possibly apocryphal story, recorded by William Fraser (and later by local historian Alexander Fraser), that the fisher people of Auchmithie lived in worse than mortal fear of their feudal superiors.  Rather than be confined in the vast and dismal dungeons of nearby Red Castle if they seriously transgressed, they begged the Carnegie lord to cast them into the sea off the cliffs of Red Head.  Despite the recent vassalage (or possibly because of impending freedom of movement), the English traveller and cleric James Hall found excited crowds of villagers thronging to meet him in the early part of the century – but only because they mistook him for a much anticipated cobbler.  He ungallantly commented that the women’s feet were habitually bigger than the men’s.

    Following a change in law in 1799, fisher families were allegedly free from the old bondage system and could, in theory, go where they pleased.  The author of Arbroath: Past and Present stated that migration from Auchmithie to Arbroath began in earnest in 1929-1830, and before that period there were only around 6 fishing boats in Arbroath.  The settlers lived in the Fit o the Toon in Arbroath.  Another source states there were only three fishing vessels active in Arbroath in 1826 (double the number there were in 1772).  There were, in 1880, still 40 boats working in Auchmithie (a number confirmed by the author of Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, who noted between 30 and 40 boats in 1843), but only 10 were active by 1929.  Even the provision of a proper harbour in the last decade of the 19th century failed to halt the decline.

The Mystical Smokie

   No-one can agree on the origins of the Arbroath Smokie, other than the fact that it originated in Auchmithie.  The same fallacy that regards the inhabitants as Auchmithie as undoubted immigrants, albeit possibly medieval ones, says that the smoked haddock here is a relation of similarly smoked Scandinavian fish.  Other names for Smokies have included The Lucken, Closed Fish or Pinwiddies.

The classic method for Smokie preparation is described by Bertram (The Harvest of the Sea, p. 346):

They use a barrel without top or bottom as a substitute for a curing house.  The barrel being inserted a little distance in the ground, an old kail pot or kettle, filled with sawdust, is placed at the bottom, and the inside in then filled with as many fish as can conveniently be hung in it. The sawdust is then set fire to, and a piece of canvas thrown over the top of the barrel:  by this means the females of Auchmithie smoke their haddocks in a round state, and very excellent they are when the fish are caught in season.

   Apart from the dodgy Scandinavian origin myth, the most widely believed tale about the beginning of the Smokie states that it began accidentally when a cottage containing drying haddocks burnt down and the smoked fish were found in the ruins of the building, as a kind of compensatory culinary miracle next day. The actual date when the commercial smoking of fish here began can't be determined with accuracy; possibly it existed for a considerable period among individual families for their own consumption.  Here's what the Rev. James Keadrick wrote in 1813:

...though some individuals smoke haddocks, codlings, &c. for their private use, there is no establishment for curing fishes in this manner for general sale.  The practice of curing fishes by smoke was adopted in Aberdeenshire only a few years ago, and it has operated as a powerful stimulant to the fisheries, because it renders the fishers certain of being able to dispose of any quantity they can take.


‘A Day Amongst the Scenery of “The Antiquary”’, Chambers Edinburgh Journal, No. 617, 25 November, 1843, 357-8.

Bertram, James, G., The Harvest of the Sea (London, 1885), 344-6.

Bertram, James, G., The Unappreciated Fisher Folk (London, 1883), 2-3.

Fraser, William, History of the Carnegies, Earls of Southesk, and of their Kindred (volume 1, Edinburgh, 1867), lxxxii.

Hall, Rev. James, Travels in Scotland By an Unusual Route (volume 1, London, 1807), 283-6.

Hay, George, History of Arbroath to the Present Time (Arbroath, 1876), 376.

Keadrick, Rev. James, General View of the Agriculture of Angus, or Forfarshire (Edinburgh, 1812), 98.

McBain,J. M.,  Arbroath:  Past and Present  (Arbroath, 1887), 71-78.

McBain, J. M.,  Eminent Arbroathians (Arbroath, 1897), 37-38.

Nadel-Klein, Fishing for Heritage, Modernity and Loss Along the Scottish Coast (Oxford, 2003), 27, 29, 47, 58, 60, 82.

Neish, J. S., In the By-Ways of Life (Dundee, 1881), 55-58.

Warden, Alexander, Angus, or Forfarshire (volume 1, Dundee, 1880), 109-12.

                                                            Previous Related Posts

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Twa Phantoms - of Balgay Hill and The Law!

I must have had a precognitive moment when I wrote a previous post bemoaning the lack of supernatural legend associated with one of Dundee's premier hills:  Balgay - Too Few Ghosts.  Now I have thankfully found evidence of ghosts - albeit fictions, poetic ones - associated with Balgay Hill and its sister, the Law.  The poem appears in the possibly pseudonymous Poems and Rimes by Robin.  The poem also strongly features my favourite Dundee place - Logie Graveyard.

The best hill in the world?... Probably.

Monday, 13 November 2017

An English Vicar Entertains – Travels in Georgian Angus

A Slander on Dundee?
In Dundee, it has been remarked, there are more dwarfish, decrepit, and deformed people, and fewer that arrive at old age, than in any other town of equal size in Scotland. [Travels in Scotland by an Unusual Route, London, 1807, p. 273.]

   Who was responsible for this incendiary remark?  It is found in the entertaining travel writings of Rev. James Hall (1754-1844) of Chestnut Walk, Walthamstow, who came to Scotland early in the 19th century.  Not sure where he got that Dundee information though, or what it means.  Surely the turn of the 19th century was too early for the effects of the mills and mass industrialism to deform Dundonians en masse?

   That aside, Hall gives a unique picture of the county in his day.  Not unnaturally he pays close attention to religious matters and was interested in the Glasite sect which he found flourishing in Dundee. (I will save the Glasites for a future post, along with his description of Auchmithie.)  But his encounters with strange characters and eye for strange events and for keenly noticing the manners and behaviour of people he met.  At Panmure he overheard ‘two tolerably well dressed men’ in a heated discussion about one of their mutual friends.  This man of property had a sick wife, whose sister came to look after her.  When the wife died, the man became close to the sister and sought to marry her.  But minister, presbytery and then synod forbade it.  One of the men had been present at the church courts and vehemently disagreed with the clerical authorities and volubly cited a panoply of biblical parallels to show that there was permissible examples of marriage between relations.  The English vicar was even more impressed when the man – who was a kirk elder – dredged up further examples from secular ancient history.  How different from conversations likely to be found in a modern pub.

Never Trust an Actor (in Montrose)

   Following a trip to Arbroath the clergyman went on to Montrose, a town he was much taken with.  After some observations about religious observance in the burgh, Hall relates the story of a well-bred young Aberdeenshire lady who sadly fell in love with a member of a group of travelling players.  She crept out of her father’s house and was smuggled away to Montrose by the actor’s friend.  But the friend also fell in love with her on their flight south and the two men fell to blows in Montrose:

The young man with whom she fell in love... received, in the presence of the young lady, a cut with a clasped knife across the belly, from the person that conducted her thither, that laid his bowels open.  The person who had done the deed, upon the cry of murder, was instantly seized.  However dreadful, the wound happened not to be mortal, the vitals being injured, but not quite cut through.  Dr Bate, being fortunately at hand, the bowels were examined and put in, and the gash sewed up.  And when the wound was healed, which was not for several months, they were married:  but having no independent fortune, and he parents utterly abandoning her, she and her husband are, at this day, and have been ever since this foolish step, the constant companions of poverty and want.

   So, all was well that ended well... or not quite.  Hall moves on to tell the story of a Montrose gent who fell in love with a performer he saw at Arbroath because of her lovely singing voice.  The singer also reciprocated his emotions, for obvious reasons:  ‘As the gentleman was not thirty years of age, and had landed property, free from incumbrance, and more than a thousand pounds a year...’  She married the man and moved into her house, along with her mother and a boy she initially claimed to be her brother, but who was actually her son.  When her husband’s younger brother visited, he and the wife recognised each other, due to the fact they had secretly lived with each other the previous year at Perth. 

   Having heard this tale, the vicar called upon the unknowing gentleman one later afternoon and found himself immediately uncomfortable due to his knowledge about the gent’s domestic background and his strange behaviour.  For a start, despite the fact it was only 5 in the afternoon, the squire had just gone to bed and came down in only his shirt.  He insisted however on plying his visitor with rum and the clergyman’s befuddlement intensified when the squire insisted on calling down his wife.

Trouserless in Montrose.

As Hall uncomfortably recalled:

In less than a minute, an elegantly dressed lady made her appearance, highly powdered, and, having a train near two yards long, sweeping the floor behind her.  Dropping a curtsey, she approached us.  How I looked I know not, but I felt extremely uneasy... Not having occasion to speak, as the squire said every thing, I was extremely glad.  He told me he never rose till about ten in the morning; that he he could not move till he got a glass or two of rum, or brandy, as his hand always shook much in the morning; that he could eat nothing but a small bit of salt ham, fish, or something tasty... he generally walked a little in the forenoon, dined about three, got drunk about four, and went to bed about five in the evening; that his lady was extremely kind to him, giving him the rum and brandy in the morning, before he moved from his bed, and that he believed without this kindness of hers, he should have been in his grave sometime ago.

       Another element in the reverend’s discomfort was the rude strangeness of his host’s conversation, which was: ‘extremely eccentric, nay, even blamsphemous;  for he swore by the ninth curl of Moses’s wig, the great God’s tobacco-box, &c.’  The Rev Hall could not escape without the gentleman giving him the gift of a book, which he did not want, and he commented, ‘I was glad when I got out of the house, having never been so disagreeably situated before.’  He lamented that the man’s indolence landed him into such ‘sensuality and debauchery’.  Then he proceeded to show that eccentricity were common within the squire’s family.  A relative of his tried to condition his infant child to a glorious future in the British Army by firing his pistols close by the baby’s head at regular intervals.  Not surprisingly, his young wife soon ran off with another man.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

More Lost Treasures of Angus

   In previous posts I have detailed some of the historical treasures associated with the county of Angus which have gone astray over the course of the centuries.  Premier among these must be those extremely rare Pictish relics, such as the bronze plaque found at the hill of Laws, Monifieth, uniquely carved with Viking runes naming its owner as Grimkitil.  The object itself was lost in the 18th century, although drawings of it survive.  Rather more dubious is the alleged Pictish crown found and broken up in Arbirlot in the 18th century.

   Later in time was the medieval ring lost near the Hawkhill in Dundee, the illustration on which is given below.  The ring is supposed by some to have been given by King William the Lion to the ancestor of the Durwards of Lundie at the end of the 12th century.

The Remains of the Lion King

   Following the death of King William the Lion in 1214, he was buried before the high altar of Arbroath Abbey.  His remains were allegedly uncovered in a stone coffin here in 1814, workmen found a stone coffin containing the bones of a large man.   The bones of the supposed king were put on display until they were reburied just prior to World War Two. The author of A Series of Excursions... Around Dundee in the 19th century however repeated the rumour that these remains might not be all they were reported to be (p. 95):
Cynical persons have cast doubts on the antiquity of these mouldy bones, and some declared that the keeper [of the Abbey] picked them up in the kirkyard, and supplied fresh ones when required...  The former keeper - Mr D. Peters - was a man of resource.  In his museum of curiosities he used to exhibit a lump of some black substance which, to the untrained eye, resembled 'smiddy danders.'  In a mysterious tone he would ask the visitor if he could guess what that was.  Of course you gave it up, and then he gravely informed you that he found that in the stone coffin, and curious to ascertain what it was he sent a portion to Dr Christison of Edinburgh for analysis.  The opinion of the learned Doctor, he said, was that the substance was that the substance was composed in great part of the material of which the human brain was formed, and hence the worthy keeper concluded it could be nothing more nor less than the brains of King William the Lion, of blessed memory, solidified into a hard and stony mass.  The idea was enough to drive antiquarians into fits - the brains of a king preserved in a lump for the edification of future generations.  But with Mr Peter's regime this interesting relic has disappeared.

   There seems to have been a minor industry in constructing dodgy artefacts in Arbroath during the Victorian age.  J. M. McBain in Arbroath Past and Present (1887) relates how another custodian of the abbey, Deacon Elshender together with his wife Forbes Valentine, were conspicuous show people (p. 8):

[Forbes] made a trade of exhibiting to the visitors a bone, which told them was that of Earl Gilchrist, or some other distinguished personage, real or imaginary, whose grave she pretended to show, and then, after enjoining secrecy, she would offer to part with the relic for a small pecuniary consideration.  She not infrequently found dupes, and in this way, she managed to dispose of many a basketful of bones, which she had gathered promiscuously from the neighbouring graves, as they were opened to receive the newly dead.  On being remonstrated with by a distinguished clergyman, then resident here, she coolly remarked that 'it pleased the folk that bought them, and helped her to eke out her income, and did naebody ony harm.'
   So, without extensive archaeological investigation, the jury must remain out on the remains of the brain of William the Lion.

The Colossus of Dundee

      With the recent riverside development, Dundee is finally coming to terms with the loss of much of its historic buildings in the post war period.  But, despite incredible new buildings like the V&A Museum, there will always be some Dundonians who cast a sorrowful eye back at what has gone.  Some of these buildings merited preservation, while others of course did not.  I have always found the regret lavished on the demolition of the Royal Arch (in my mind a Victorian monstrosity) non-comprehensible.  Dundee's castle is of course long gone, perhaps vanishing during the Wars of Independence in the early 14th century.  But few people know that Castle Hill in the 17th century boasted an enormous statue of the god Apollo.  In all likelihood the statue did not achieve anything like the scale of that lost wonder of the world, the statue of Helios better known as the Colossus of Rhodes.  Dundee's version was still substantial though and was used as a landmark in the Tay estuary.  What happened to the statue, and when it was destroyed, is something of a mystery.  There may well be fragments of the monument lurking in odd corners of the city. If the waterfront developers are looking for something even more eye-catching to erect on the shore, they might do worse than this... (can I apply for a grant please?):


The Indestructible Holy Cross of St Vigeans

   The last in this latest instalment of lost treasures is a miraculous Christian monument which stood in the kirkyard of St Vigeans.  Although this site is the locus of very many Pictish monuments, this particular Celtic cross was even more unique, according to the Aberdonian writer Thomas Dempster.  

   Writing in his work Menologium Scottorum in 1622, Dempster avers that there was a wooden cross near St Vigeans which defied all attempts at desecration.  As a fervent Catholic his mind was probably thinking of the Protestant reformers who had zealously destroyed nearby Arbroath Abbey, as well as many other places.  Heretics had tried to burn the cross, but it was invulnerable.  He repeated the notice of this miracle several years later, saying that attempts to destroy the cross with fire and iron had miserably failed.  What became of this cross, or whether it actually existed, must still be classified as a mystery.  The story may contain the wispy memory of an actual wooden cross dedicated to St Fechin of Fore on this site.  That said, Dempster had a reputation of being sadly unreliable.  One authority cites another of his works as 'one of the most discredited works ever written in the field of Scottish history,' and that's saying something.  Consider also Dempster's own avowed tendency to tell lies about himself, such as the claim that, at the age of three, he completely mastered the whole alphabet by himself in the space of a single hour.

Previous Related Posts

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Drosten Stone and St Vigeans

It's not often that we get the privilege and pleasure of receiving a major monograph focused on a place in Angus, but a new academic study centred around the Pictish stones and significance of the early Christian site of St Vigeans answers that need magnificently.  Edited and largely written by Jane Geddes, currently of Aberdeen University, Hunting Picts: Medieval Sculpture at St Vigeans is published by Historic Environment Scotland.  Because of the complexity of the site and its physical remains, and also because its contains papers by various authors, there is no answer as to the exact meaning and significance of the site. Conclusions which I would take from the work include the following:  that St Vigeans was a site of religious significance from the Pictish era, linked possibly with the harassment of Irish monastic settlements by Vikings in Ireland.  Just as Columba's relics were transported deep into Pictland at Dunkeld in response to heathen desecration in Ireland, there may have been similar movement of other relics to the east, including at St Vigeans.

Fechin the saint is said to have died of the plague in 665 and it is reckoned that the spelling of the place-name reflects the Pictish version of his name, and therefore 9th century at the latest. Although Fechin's monastery of Fore in Ireland was recorded as being burnt in 750, this is too early for Viking incursions, which are more likely to have prompted movement of relics in the early 9th century.

     Also of particular interest in the work is the possibility of placing St Vigeans in the wider context of Angus and bringing Angus itself into a historical perspective with suggestions of possible events.  Near St Vigeans is Kinblethmont, site of an early Pictish stone, which may possibly be the site of one of a flurry of battles in the early 8th century which was conducted between four royal competitors.  According to the Annals of Tigernach, in the year 729:
The battle of Druimm-Derg- Blathung [took place] between Picts, namely Drust and Angus, the king of the Picts; and Drust was killed there, on the twelfth day of the month of August.
   This Angus is of course the renowned Angus (I) mac Fergus, who ruled until the year 761, and may be the person who gave his name to the county.  He was alleged to have belonged to an Irish kindred named the Eoghanachta Magh Geirginn, whose name perpetuates the province of Circinn, later Angus and the Mearns.

   Much in the comprehensive book fascinates, especially the analysis of church settlement in south and east Angus.  One can only hope that the other crucial Pictish clerical site at Meigle gets similar academic analysis before too long.  (Slightly off topic, my wished-for academic study would be a work on the place-names of the entire county.)

   The only extremely pedantic criticism which might be fairly levelled at the work is its physical production.  A single, hardback volume might have been preferred to two flimsy paperbacks, but then the cost might have been exorbitant.

                                                               The Drosten Stone

   One thing that the book does not definitively solve, or try to solve, is the meaning of the celebrated inscription low down on the side of the Drosten Stone. The inscription remains beguiling to the  extent that it cannot be agreed which language, or mix of languages, the inscription is written in.  Contained in the carving may be the names Drosten, Uuoret and Forcus, which would theoretically nicely equate with the saints Drostan and Fergus, supposed to have been resident for a time at Glen Esk and Glamis respectively.  One version of the inscription - favoured by the scholar Elisabeth Okasha - reads as follows:

                                      [E ]TTFOR

   The third name is possibly Uurad, equated by some as one of the last reigning Picish kings in the 9th century.  This king, alternatively named Ferat or Feradach, son of Bargoit, reigned between 839 and 842.  He is notably mentioned in a note about the early Legend of St Andrews, which states there was a scribe named Thana son of Dudabrach in his reign, living at Meigle in his reign.  If it is this king mentioned on the stone it would be an extreme rarity as the only other monarch mentioned in an inscription is Caustantin son of Fergus.  If this king is associated with both Meigle and St Vigeans it would neatly identify his sphere of influence or core lordship as the territory later identified as Angus.

   What the various authors in the new book surprisingly do not go into any depth about the alleged presence of the churchmen Drostan and Fergus or any possible connection the two men had.  Fergus may possibly be equated with the Fergustus Pictus described as bishop of Scotia at a council in Rome in 721.  Cults to both Fergus and Drostan undoubtedly thrived for a considerable period after their deaths and one theory links the inscription to a translation of some relics associated with the clerics.  Both nothing about reading the stone is clear cut (pardon the pun). Thomas Owen Clancy speculates that the stone mixes Gaelic and Latin, indicating an early Irish influence within the east coast Church, which however was placed in a strongly native Pictish society.*  He concludes that the stone was erected at the behest of the ruler Uurad and that 'The two further names [Drostan, Fergus] may belong to either deceased and commemorated persons (abbots?), saints, or craftsmen.'  Another possibility, not mentioned, is that this Fergus and Drostan may be clerics named after, or monks who have adopted the names of, two highly venerated locally renowned saints.

   There is more surely to be found concerning the  Drosten's Stone and other monuments at St Vigeans.  Many of the stones, or fragments thereof, were incorporated into the structure of the kirk in the post medieval period and many may still be contained and hidden deep in the fabric, or otherwise buried on the mound on which the church stands.  A full archaeological investigation still awaits.  Meanwhile the fate of the Drosten Stone asserts itself in strange ways in the modern world.  I would love to know what particularly prompted the Washington D. C. brewer DC Brau to name one of its products after the monument.

Detail from the Drosten Stone showing Pictish crossbow man targeting a boar.

   Brau's Stone of Arbroath beer, launched in 2015, is a Scottish wee heavy, described as  having a 'nose... light but complex, led by a sweet malt character of toast, chocolate and caramel.  Dark stone fruit like plums follow, joined by a hint of banana ester.'   

   Another recent production is a book (which I have not read) by A. L. Kennedy, The Drosten's Curse, which draws the ancient monument enticingly into the universe of Doctor Who.

* 'The Drosten Stone:  a new reading,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 123 (1993),  pp. 345-53.