Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Dwindling and Extinction of Gaelic in Angus

   The date at which Gaelic ceased to be a living, spoken language in Angus is possibly presents more of an enigma than when it started to be spoken in the area, despite the thousand or more years which separate these two events. In the beginning we can imagine piecemeal Gaelic infliltration, whether peaceful, warlike, or both, but in a piecemeal way, brought in by small groups.  There are the possible personal and tribal names behind places:  Brachan in Brechin, possibly Daig behind Dundee, Angus itself of course, plus maybe Gabran, the son of Aedan of Dal Riada, whose name may lurk behind the name of Gowrie, the region just west of modern Angus.

   The heyday of the tongue from the west must have been between the middle of the ninth century and the middle or end of the twelfth century.  The onset of  English speech came from the south and was certainly not imported through military adventurism.  Among the earliest settlers were those from the Low Countries who have left traces of their identity (in all probability) in a scatter of places across Scotland.  In the Angus parish of Kettins there was a place called Flemings-land, plus a Flemington in Aberlemno.  The latter was gifted in the 13th century by King Alexander II to a Flemish knight named Bartholemew who later settled in Aberdeenshire.  But it was in the major coastal towns, like Montrose and Dundee where English may have taken a decisive, early foothold, though immigrants from England and Flanders. 

   Other clues to ethnicity, if not to language spoken, can be found in personal names.  In the early 14th century the scribes at Arbroath Abbey copied a record of a local perambulation of their lands at Kinblethmont which  happened on 23 September 1219.  Such perambulations, undertaken by representatives of landowners and other local people of importance, were performed to clarify the boundaries of specific estates and areas of land.  In this case the task to determine the boundaries between Kinblethmont, Arbroath and Athinglas was performed by walkers whose names evoke Gaelic ancestry:  Gilpatrick mac Ewen, Duncan son of Gilpatrick, Malcolm brother of the thane of Idvies, Gilchrist son of Ewen, Gilchrist man of the earl of Angus, Kerald brother of Adam the judex, Matthew son of Matthew son of Dubsíd of Conon.  (Other officials present were Hugh of Cameron, sheriff of Forfar, Angus son of Earl Gilbert of Angus, Robert of Inverkeilor, W. de Mowat, Adam of Nevay, Donald son of Macbeth Mac Ivarr, John (or Eoin), abbot of Brechin, Morgann his son, Adam de Bonville, Robert of Rossie, Duncan of Fernevel, Adam the steward of Arbroath, Thomas son of Robert son of Adam Garmund, Gilise thane of Idvies, Nicholas brewer of the king, Roger, mair of the bishop of Brechin, Walter de Balliol.)  But even those with demonstrable Celtic names recorded here may not have used Gaelic as their first language.  


  Another record, dated 17 January 1227,  recognises a perambulation made by the Abbot and convent of Arbroath and Gwarin of Cupar relating again to the boundaries of Kinblethmont.  The ‘good men at Angus’ present at the king’s court at Forfar swore an oath about the precise extent of the territory.  The list of witnesses contained an ethic cross section of part of society: 
Kerald Judex de Anegus, Adam Judex domini Regis, Angus filius comitis [Angus son of Earl Gillebride of Angus], W de Monte Alto [William Mowat], Duncanus de fernevell, Gilandr’ mac leod [son of Donald, Abbot of Brechin], Ricardus flandrensis, Gilescop mac camby, Patric fothe seriens domini episcopis sancti Andree, David senescallus de Rostynoth [the steward of Restenneth].
  Around this time there is a record of one of the earliest known English place-names in the region, the evocative but unflattering Stinchenhavene, recorded in the records of Coupar Angus Abbey in 1214.  Local landowner Philip de Valonges of Panmure (d. 1215) granted the clerics an acre of his land in the port, for a toft to build on (which was perambulated in his presence by Adam of Banevyn – Benvie -  and ‘other worthy men’), along with a toll on the fishing.  These rights were renewed periodically until the end of the 15th century.  Then as in many centuries afterwards this place was a fishing port, now known as East Haven, in the parish of Panbride.  Arrangements for the procurement of fish between the coastal traders and the Cistercian monks, who would certainly not have had many Gaelic speakers in their midst, would probably have been  conducted in the English language.  Not far up the coast from Panbride was the abbey of Arbroath, another focal point and driving engine for the spread of the new tongue of English.  Those who lived and traded on the coast may have been susceptible to the need to learn English if they were not in fact incomers themselves.  In later centuries coastal dwellers were regarded by others as being a race apart, with the implication that their society was insular and backwards.  But they may in fact have been among the first communities to shift languages to take advantage of trade.

   David Murison noted a spread of English names in the county in the early thirteenth century, including  a place called Reidfurde (1214), and four years later there is a recorded crop of English names surprisingly emerging in remote parts of Glen Isla:   Strype, Staneycroft, Muirford, Corncairn, Stobstane.  He notes that, ‘These names could only have been given by people who could speak English, that is, by land-stewards of the barons, ground-officers or the like, or by incoming tenants.’ There must have been some bilingualism between Pictish and Gaelic in the late Pictish period (the 9th and perhaps 10th centuries), and there is evidence in dual place-names of a later phase of bilingualism of English and Gaelic in certain places.  A writ dated 1256 from Arbroath Abbey records a place in the parish of Kingoldrum with the Gaelic name of Hachethunethouer, with an equivalent English name Midefeld; and a certain marsh is referred to as called in English Moynebuche.  Slightly later names around Dunnichen are Fishersgate and Greystone.  Another set of rarer place-name elements has been pointed out by G. W. S. Barrow as indication places particularly associated with Gaelic speakers by those whose own native tongue was Scots/English.  These are places which use the descriptive term Scottish.  In Kingoldrum, Angus, there were examples of a 'Scottish [road] way', vie Scoticane, and elsewhere in the county there was a 'Scottish mill'.

   Kingoldrum crops up again in Arbroath Abbey records under the year 1456 when Abbot Malcolm Brydy (abbot from 1456 to 1470) records a number of names in that parish which possessed dual names, evidently showing that there were both Gaelic and English speaking inhabitants there.  The description of the marches of the abbey lands there included the following places:  Myllaschangly (Scottismyll),  a stream called Athyncroith (Gallowburne), Tybyrnoquhyg (Blind Well), Monboy (Yallowpule), Carnofotyr (Punderis Carne), the burn of Haldyrischanna (Gled Bwrne). 

   The 16th and 17th centuries must have seen further wide scale displacement of Gaelic in Angus and it would seem reasonable to assume that it was retained longer in the northerly glens. In the 1580s Timothy Pont in the 1580s  records Whytemyre in Glen Clova, while Edward’s map of Angus (1678) shows many Scots/English places in north Angus.  David Dorward suggests that Gaelic survived longer in the western glens of Isla, Prosen and Clova than in the eastern ones of Lethnot and Esk.  He cited evidence of the comparable Gaelic and English geographical terms of sron and shank, noting that the Gaelic term sron had over twelve examples in westerly glens, while the Scots or English shank was common in the east.

   An interesting complication is provided by the movement, of possible movement of Gaelic speaking people, from outside the area into Angus.  One example is the settlement of the McCombie family who migrated from eastern Perthshire into Glen Isla in the mid 17th century, though they only inhabited the area for several generations.  A more contentious piece of evidence is provided by the English poet and traveller John Taylor (the ‘Water Poet’, 1578-1653) who journeyed through the area in 1618.  Passing north from Brechin, and thoroughly alarmed by the steepness of the terrain, Taylor was relieved to arrive at a certain place in Glen Esk:
At night I came to a lodging in the Laird of Eggels [Edzell’s] land, where I lay at an Irish house, the folkes not being able to speake scarce any English, but I supped and went to bed, where I had not laine long, but I was enforced to rise; I was so stung with Irish musketoes, a creature that hath sixe legs, and lives like a monster altogether upon mans flesh; they doe inhabite and breed most upon sluttish houses, and this house was none of the cleanest...had not this Highland Irish house helped me at a pinch, I should have sworn that all Scotland had not been so kind as to have bestowed a louse upon me;  but with a shift that I had, I shifted off my cannibals, and was never more troubled with them.
   Beyond the evidence that Gaelic was spoken in the glen at this date there are other points of interest.  It is assumed that Taylor slept at a traveller’s inn or lodging house, though this is by no means clear in his writing, as Taylor's expressed intention of his Scottish expedition was to travel without the inconvenience of paying for either his quarters or his food.  If the place was an inn, it would suggest that its common customers in Glen Esk would also habitually speak Gaelic.  It has been suggested that this ‘Erse inn’ was an anomaly established by Gaelic speaking incomers who arrived from the north, though this is doubtful.  The survival of Gaelic at such a relatively late date here would also  contradict the suggestion that the language had been quickly decimated in the locality by the usage of English as the language of administration by the Lindsay landowners from the 1380s onwards.

Where the last Angus Gaels spoke?  The River Isla near Forter.

   In the records of the Presbytery of Brechin (on 15th April 1729, noted by Jessop, Education in Angus, 84), there is active discouragement given to 'Students and Preachers having Irish,' as they thought that 'it were much better, that Language were worn out by Degrees,' and that individuals who were taught to read 'the Irish Bibles and Catechisms' were at the same time taught to read English by the schoolmasters of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and others like them.  This provides strong supporting evidence that the existence of Gaelic was a fact, if a disagreeable one, within the presbytery bounds at that time.  Further west, it appears as if Glen Isla harboured some native Gaelic speakers into the 18th century. At the beginning of that century this glen was possibly  still strongly Gaelic, but there were likely very few Gaelic speakers there at the end of that century.  Neighbouring Glen Shee in Perthshire still had sufficient Gaelic natives in 1683 to necessitate the minister preaching to them in their own tongue on Sunday afternoons (presumably he gave an English service to others on Sunday mornings).

  Pinning down the precise area where a language held out or identifying the last speaker is an imprecise art. Gaelic must have lingered in the Scots idiom, an element in the everyday speech, albeit minimal, for a number of people in west Angus, perhaps for several generations.  The German cartographer and geographer Ernst Georg Ravenstein (1834-1913) stated the following in an article in 1879:

In Forfarshire Gaelic is spoken only in a very small district, namely in Blacklunans, which to the south of Mount Blair projects into Perthshire, and geographically belongs to Glenshee.  The names of many people, no less than the geographical nomenclature, point to a great extent of Gaelic in a former age, but Gaelic preaching has been discontinued for generations, except at Dundee, where services are held for the convenience of immigrant highlanders. *

      Blacklunans, due to boundary changes, is now firmly in Perthshire. He identified the precise linguistic boundary in this district:  '[it] begins at Bald Head on the Forfarshire boundary, runs west to the junction of Glenshee with Strath Ardle, intersects Cluny forest, crosses the Tay to the north of Dunkeld...'

Map from Ravenstein's article, the black area denoting extent of spoken Gaelic.

   According to information from the 1891 census (collated online by Kurt Dawe ( there were eighteen bilingual Gaelic-English speakers resident in Glen Isla, all of whom were incomers, apart from one individual.  This sole exception was one 53 year old man who was living at Fodla post office, who Dawe states may well have learned Gaelic as an adult.  In contrast, native Gaelic speakers in the nearby Perthshire areas of Spittal of Glenshee and Dalmunzie comprised one third of the population.    

* A number of Highland families founded a Gaelic chapel in Dundee in Long Wynd in 1791.  It prospered well into the 19th century and eventually amalgamated with a Free Church congregation.


Barrow, G. W. S., Kingship and UnityScotland 1000-1306, Edinburgh 1989.
Barrow, G. W. S., Scotland and its Neighbours in the Early Middle Ages, London, 1992. 
Black, David G., The Hae’ens o Panbride, Brechin, 1990.
Cartulary of Arbroath Abbey, Liber S. Thome de Aberbrothoc, Bannatyne Club, Edinburgh, 1848-6.
Dorward, David, The Glens of Angus, Names, Places, People, Balgavies, 2001.
Eberlin, Amy, ‘The Flemish in Dundee and Surrounding Areas,’
French, Morvern, ‘Place-name as a Clue to the Flemish Presence in Scotland,’
Hammond, Matthew H., A Prosopographical Analysis of Society in East Central Scotland, circa 1100 to 1260, with special reference to ethnicity, Unpublished Phd thesis, Glasgow, 2005.
Hume Brown, Peter, Early Travellers in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1891.
Jessop, J. C., Education in Angus, London, 1931.
Miller, David,  Arbroath and its Abbey, Edinburgh, 1860.
Murison, David, ‘Linguistic Relationships in Medieval Scotland,’ in The Scottish Tradition:  Essays in Honour of Ronald Gordon Cant, ed. G. W. S. Barrow, 71-83, Edinburgh, 1974.
Ravenstein, , E.G. (1879). On the Celtic Languages in the British Isles; and Statistical Survey, the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol. 42, no. 3 (September), pp. 579-643.
Rogers, Charles, ed., The Rental Book of the Cistercian Abbey of Cupar-Angus, vol 2, London, 1880.
Taylor, John, The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor,London, 1618.
Warden, A. J., Angus or Forfarshire the Land and People, vol 2, 1881.
Woolf, Alex, From Pictland to Alba, Edinburgh, 2007.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

A Last Look at Witches

This is the last look I’ll be having, for a while at least, at the legends and facts about witches found in the records and legends of Angus.  One of the few things which the areas of fact and folklore overlap in is the separation of the seriousness of the witchcraft accusation s of witchcraft and the results from the stories, real or imagined, which have come down to us.  The stories and records which have survived are also patchy.  We are lucky (if that is the right word) to have fairly substantial documentation of the Forfar witchcraft trials and some record of the lesser-known Brechin trials (both from the 17th century, but there are no similar records from Dundee, Arbroath or Montrose.  In Dundee’s case the concentration is on one unfortunate individual, Grizzel Jaffray, though in her case the facts known are few indeed and wrapped up in a blanket of tradition, some of which is dubious and false. 

Marks On The Landscape

If the real lives of those who were accused of – and perhaps actually practised –witchcraft are pathetically vague, then the places where they suffered and died are also were faint now in the 21st century.  Alexander Warden, the historian of Angus, tells us that Dundee’s Grizzel Jaffray was associated with Ballumbie Castle, just to the east of the burgh, in the parish of Murroes. The old castle of the Lovell family may have been ruinous even in Grizzel’s time, but there was a huge ash tree, 15 feet in diameter, just to the west of the building that was said to have been planted by her.  There is no story not known which tells us why she was associated with this place. 

Ballumbie Castle.

   Grimmer locations include those where suspects were swum or executed.  Lunan’s Witch Pool was situated just south of Gallow’s Hill, while the other was just north of Redcastle, making the link between these sites and seats of power and law enforcement clear.  Outside the boundaries of Dundee, to the north-west, there was a hillock named the Witches’ Knowe, situated beside a small loch which used to be used for skating when it froze over in winter time.  On the green mound, close to the Scouringburn and the north-west road to Coupar Angus, women from the town used to dry and bleach their washing.  Previously the land was adjacent to the property of the Grey Sisters and was latterly a market garden.  The actual site was probably lost following the growth of Dundee in the 19th century and the construction of a new turnpike road in the 18th century.  It is likely to have been a spot which witnessed considerable horror in earlier times.  Dundee’s Playfield, also to the west of the burgh, likely also saw executions (as did Forfar’s Playfield), though Grizzel Jaffray was allegedly put to death in the Seagate.  Kirriemuir's Witch Pool was similarly situated near a seat of judgement, the Court Hillock.

Kirrie's Witch Pool.  Excerpt from map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.  Map Images, National Library of Scotland

   Brechin’s Witchden Road, running between Montrose Street and River Street, also commemorates the historical processing of witches.  The guilty or suspected witches of the town were punished in a hollow named the Witch Den (later the site of a Victorian gas works).  A proprietor of the property found on the site a deposit containing ash and human bones, plus, chillingly, a length of chain, leaving no illusions about what happened here. 

Witchden Road.

Revenge By Water – The Witch of Montrose, Witches of Loch Brandy

A common motif in folklore involving witches is the suggestion that they would revenge themselves on communities that had snubbed or belittled them to some extent.  It may reflect a lingering fear of the supposed mischievous powers of these outcast women, but equally there may be an element of redressing the balance in a folk-fate sense by allowing the poor accused the post mortem, theoretical opportunity to get their own back on society. Also, could their be a link between torture by water and revenge by water?
   Dronner’s Dyke is an artificial construction which sought to artificially alter Montrose Basin.  The dyke was sponsored by the owners of the estate of Dun to drain some 2000 acres of the basin around the year 1670.  A local witch named Meggie Cowie who disapproved of this ‘improvement’ (was she perhaps an early environmentalist?) stuck her finger in the dyke and the whole structure fell down in a storm she raised.  The company formed to complete the work also collapsed.  It did Meggie no good however as she became the last local witch to be burned to death.
   No source seems to name of most of the witches who haunted Loch Brandy above Glen Clova.  James Stirton says that the colony of witches who lived here numbered in the hundreds.  They were apparently split between Cairn Inks (or Cairn o’Inks) and the loch itself. Cairn Inks was reckoned to be a superlative vantage point to view the results of supernatural mischief being played out down in the glen. There was once a dispute who would lead the extended coven and a rivalry was initiated between the witch voted as leader and the one who came second.  The proposed leader carelessly flew above the kirk of Clova one Sunday while a service was in progress.  Unluckily for her a blessing was being uttered at that moment.  She heard it, gave an awful shriek, and plummeted down on to the roof of the kirk.  It was a snowy winter day and the congregation left in a hurry, anxious to get home before their journeys became impossible.  The witch fell down and, lucky for her, found an old besom which had been left behind by the cleaner of the church.  In a flash she was airborne again.  However, he freedom was relatively short-lived and she was detained by the authorities.
   According to Stirton this last glen witch was condemned: 
There to be chained to the Higher Cairn with a chain of adamant, to work all day long in collecting the dew and the rain to supply the dead water, and all night to sit amid the roar of the tempest or the intense solitude, speaking to none and being spoken to by none, lonely, hopeless and despairing, suffering many mortal ills without any of their counter-balancing joystill centuries hence a miserable death will close a miserable and wretched life.
For ages thou’lt have work enow,
And in the end consuming fire,
When the blazing faggots of Witches’ Knowe
Shall avenge the “shot of Bentyre.”

This poor witch may be equated with Marget Adamson who was put to death on 8 June 1662.  Aigain in Clova there is a proximity between places of punishment and witchcraft, there still being a road which connects Gallows Howe and Witches’ Howe.  According to Victorian Ordnance Survey workers in the 19th century the latter place was ‘An irregular piece of rough ground north of the main road & west of Cadham farm house Mr. Lucas the tenant of Cadham states that when excavating at this spot, he found several bones and burned sticks & that the last witch of Clova was burned there.’ (Witches How(e) is at map reference NO331724, at Caddam, and nearby is Witches' Knowe.)-
  Above the glen is a fissure named the Witch’s Crack which is supposed to grow wider every year. (At Red Craigs there is also an area of cliff know as the Witch’s Tooth.) A curse is said to have been placed upon this place, whereby a witch promised that one day the waters of the loch would flood downhill and drown everyone in Clova.  The jougs or witch’s collar from Clova kirk which was used to punish recalcitrant women are now held in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. 

Future Study
A good local, comprehensive study in witchcraft in Angus is yet to be undertaken at an adademic level by someone.  One starting point would be the reformed kirk’s initiative in the area to bring reputed witches to justice in 1568.  Some forty individuals were identified in the area, twelve of them from Arbroath alone.  The story behind these persecuted souls is still to be found. 


Black, David D., The History of Brechin to 1864, Edinburgh, 1867.
Coutts, Walter, Historical Guide to Brechin and Neighbourhood, Brechin, 1889.
Dorward, The Glens of Angus, Names, Places, People, Balgavies, 2001.
Hay, George, History of Arbroath to the Present Time, Arbroath,1876.
McKean, Charles and Whatley, Patricia, Lost Dundee, Dundee’s Lost Architectural Heritage, Edinburgh, 2008.
Maxwell-Stewart, P.G., Satan’s Conspiracy:  Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-century Scotland, Edinburgh, 2004.
Mitchell, David, The History of Montrose, Montrose, 1866.
Myles, James, Rambles in Forfarshire, or Sketches in Town and Country, Dundee, 1850. 
Stirton, James, Thrums and its Glens, 2nd edition, Kirriemuir, 1896.

Warden, Alexander, Angus of Forfarshire, volume 4, Dundee, 1884.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Ghosts of RAF Montrose

The first operational military air base in Great Britain also happens to be – reputedly – one of the most haunted sites in Angus, or should we say the place with possibly the most detailed body of evidence or hearsay concerning the supernatural in the modern age (with due apologies to venerable Glamis Castle).  The range of witnesses, length of time which the haunting cover, as well as the circumstances which engendered the haunting, make RAF Montrose almost unique as a centre of paranormal activity.
   Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, sanctioned the commissioning of the base at Upper Dysart Farm, several miles south of the town of Montrose, the first of twelve intended air bases. The site was chosen so that the aircraft stationed there could protect the Royal Navy bases at Rosyth, Cromarty and Scapa Flow. Five aircraft arrived at the new site on 26 February 1913, under the command of Major C J Burke, having left Farnborough on 13 February and flown north in stages.
    Shortly after the station opened there was an accident which allegedly triggered the beginning of a long-running supernatural saga.  The death was the first military aviation fatality in the United Kingdom (as well as the first fatal aircraft accident in Scotland), and the victim was the first Irishman killed in an aeroplane accident. 

Arthur of Glenomera, His  Early Life
    Desmond Phelps Pery Lucius Studdert Arthur was born on 31st March 1884, and as his name suggests he was born into an upper class family in Ireland.  He and his brother Charles inherited the Glenomera (or Glanomera) estate, their father dying when Desmond was four.  His mother remarried and the boys moved from O’ Briens’s Bridge in County Clare to Dublin when Desmond was ten.  He was schooled at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen.  But their mother and step-father died in 1902 the brothers were cut loose and were reputedly rather wild until careers in the military beckoned.  After becoming a lieutenant in the Army Motor Reserve in 1908, Desmond Arthur became an officer in the5th Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers.  In retrospect it could be imagined that Desmond Arthur was marked out by fate and later his is indeed rumoured to have been a ‘fey’ man, marked out for an early death.  The year in which he came of age, 1905, was also the year in which his ancestral mansion home of Glenomera burned down.  Whether or not he actually courted death is open to question, though he was an undoubtedly sporting individual and sought speed records before he was bitten by the flying bug at an aviation event at Leopardstown Racecourse in 1910.  Following getting his pilot’s license in the summer of 1912 he transferred to the 2nd Squadron, Royal Flying Corps in 1912.  In April 1913 he came to the air base at Montrose.

Crest of Arthur of Glanomera.

Death of Desmond Arthur and Initial Enquiries

   Around seven in the morning of 23rd of May, 1913, Arthur headed up in his BE2 biplane for a training flight above Lunan Bay and, around forty-five minutes later and flying at around 2,000 feet, the machine broke apart and the pilot was thrown to his death. One report states that he actually jumped rather than choosing to crash with the machine.  A macabre detail is added by an eye-witness, the grieve on the farm of Captain Blair-Imrie.  He saw the plane overhead, then heard a crashing sound, then looked up and saw something plummeting to the earth.  As it descended he saw that it was a man, falling perfectly silently.  The body, as it came down, was perfectly straight, with its arms held directly above its head.
   The right wing had snapped off the aircraft and Arthur’s seatbelt snapped, throwing him out of the plane as it went into a spin.  Medical help was summoned to attend to the body of Lieutenant Arthur, which was found 156 from the wreckage of his plane, but it was of course useless.  The wreckage landed near the old Lunan Railway Station. 

   The Aeroplane magazine, reporting the accident, states that Desmond Arthur took the plane up for an initial test flight and reported that it was ‘flying splendidly’.  It was the second, extended flight which proved fatal.  The aviator was given a military funeral, with a procession through the streets of Montrose, and his was buried (though possibly not laid to rest) in Sleepyhillock Cemetery in the town.  The first investigation into the incident was conducted by the independent Royal Aero Club (on 2 and 10 June) and stated that an inadequate repair to a spar on the wing was the cause of the crash.  It was stated the plane had been built in June 1912 and rebuilt in August. There was suspicion that accidental damage to the machine had been covered up by a mechanic at Farnborough, but there was no suspicion that this had been done maliciously and no record of the repair.  This report was issued on 21 June 1913:  ‘The Committee is of opinion that the primary cause of the accident was the failure of the faulty joint in the repair to the rear main spar.’
   A government inquiry commenced on 11 July 1913, following which Mr Joynson-Hicks MP complained of a whitewash in the matter.  Further criticism came from another member in 1916, Pemberton Bilings, who had business interests in aircraft manufacturing.  He stated that poor manufacturing was causing fatalities among servicemen.  He called for a judicial enquiry into the military and naval air service, but the government only responded by setting up their own enquiry on 3 August 1916.  This Interim Report found that pilot error and dangerous flying had caused Arthur’s death, something that was disputed by contemporary pilots in the Royal Flying Corps, where rumours were awash.  Although the Final Report was dated 17 November 1916 it did not appear until Christmas and went some way to clearing the dead pilot’s name.

Desmond Arthur.

The Hauntings Begin

The alleged haunting of Montrose did not happen until around three years after Desmond Arthur’s death, and at a different location.  The station commander was unhappy with the original site of the airfield and it was agreed to moved the base to Broomfield Farm, a mile north of Montrose.  It was here, at the end of 1913, that engineers erected hangars on the new site (later known as ‘Major Burke’s Sheds’) and the squadron moved there early in 1914.  Fliers at Montrose were still housed in the previous Militia Barracks, as they had been in Arthur’s time.
   Number two squadron moved to France in August 1914, the month after the commencement of the First World War.  Different squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps occupied Montrose during the first years of the conflict (No 6 Squadron, No 25 Squadron and No 80 Squadron).  Few if any of the military staff in 1916 and later would have known Desmond Arthur.  Even some of those who had been there in the beginning of the base’s history died in the war.  One such was the base commander Major C J Burke, later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and recipient of the DSO, who died in 1917.
   It was during 1916 that reports of an unknown airman began to surface at Montrose.  One prominent witness was a senior flying instructor named Major Cyril Foggin who saw the ghost on a number of occasions.  One evening when he was making his way to the mess he saw the figure going the same way as him and vanish when it reached the door.  He put the sighting down to overwork and did not initially communicate it for fear he would jeopardise his position.  The writer Peter Underwood stated that Foggin witnessed the ghost five times during that autumn and the figure was also witnessed by the station commander and several witnesses who were flying instructors.
   One of the latter woke at night to see a uniformed man sitting in a chair in his room, but when he challenged it, the person vanished.  

Lt. Arthur in uniform.

Cyril Foggin’s Career and Death

Newcastle-upon-Tyne born Cyril Edgar Foggin (1891-1918) was an enthusiastic early aviator who joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1914.  During his early training, in 1912 at Eastborne, he had narrowly escaped death in a flying accident, which was reported in The Times (25 September 1912).  Losing control of his aeroplane at 60 feet, Foggin fell to the earth, but landed safely on the grass, his helmet saving his life, and he was completely unhurt.  Ironically, his death came in a car accident while he was serving with the RAF on the Western Front, on 30 July 1918.

Arthur’s Love, Contested Will and his family

  When Desmond Arthur’s will, over £12,000, was read at Dublin on 9 June 1913, it was revealed that he had left most of his wealth to Miss Constance Ropner, the fourteen year old daughter of a shipping magnate from West Hartlepool, County Durham.  A sum of £1000 was bequeathed to Desmond’s elder brother Charles (born in 1882) , subject to the agreement of the main beneficiary.  The will raised an amount of interest, not only because it went to a young girl, but also for the fact that Arthur (who was fifteen years older than the girl) was romantically involved with her.  The airman carried a miniature portrait of the young girl with him at all times.  Desmond Arthur in fact had known the Ropner family for a number of years.

   Charles Arthur challenged the will, partly prompted by the fact that his own previous inherited wealth had run out.  As headstrong as his younger brother, he had married  and went to India in 1909, returning to serve in the artillery during the Great War.  Charles challenged the will, raising an action against the executors Thomas Studdert and William Ropner, father of Constance.  The case came before Justice Kenny at the Irish High Court in February 1914.  It was Charles’s contention that the will was not properly executed, and indeed the two witnesses to the will could not even remember signing it.  Despite this the case was dropped and Charles William Augustus Arthur had to sell his Irish estate.
   The two main players in the drama had very different fates.  Constance Winsome  Ropner (born 15 March 1899) led a quiet life, marrying Major George Talbot Wilcox in 1922 and she died in 1988.  Desmond’s great-nephew Nick Arthur  revealed, a century after his demise, that the locket containing Constance’s portrait was found on Desmond’s body after he died.  And Paul Willcox, great-grandson of Constance, said that she never forgot her original love.  This photograph has now been donated to the Heritage Centre, along with Lt Arthur’s diary.

Constance Ropner.

   By contrast, Desmond’s brother led an unsettled life. Following the war, Charles Arthur’s luck seemed to change when he was appointed as an aide to Prince Hari Singh, heir of the Maharajah of Kashmir. But he was soon implicated in a famous  fraud case, where a group of conspirators attempted to steal £300,000 from the Prince. Charles Arthur was never charged or officially accused, but his reputation was tainted and the fallout led to his divorce in 1921.  He was arrested in Paris in 1924 over the conspiracy and imprisoned for thirteen months.  Two years later he was thrown out of the army and he remarried in 1930.  A pattern of failed business ventures and far fetched money making schemes followed.  By 1934 he was trying to sell interest in an expedition to recover pirate treasure from an island near Costa Rica.  All the investors except Captain Arthur and his wife were left out of pocket.  The couple remained in the Caribbean and Charles apparently died in 1937, some two years before bankruptcy proceedings were raised against him.  Even to the last he was attempting to outwit the authorities. 

Further Deaths at Montrose During WWI

   But, given the deaths of witnesses and other areas of uncertainty, could anyone be sure that the ghost was actually Desmond Arthur?  There is an alternative story that the returning shade was a trainee pilot who died after being made to go on a training flight despite feeling unwell.  A number of pilots besides Arthur lost their lives in the vicinity, mostly during World Wars I and II.  One such was Second Lieutenant  Richard Perry Waller, who died in May 1918.  Two members of No 2 Squadron died away from Montrose, on exercise in Salisbury Plain in 1914.  Another fatality was Second Lieutenant Morrison, who died there in October 1916.  It has also been suggested that the original ghost is Major F F Waldron who died in France in 1916.

   The ‘facts’ about the Montrose haunting are compounded by the great numbers of men and units who served at the base in the early years.  British, Canadian and American forces were stationed there at different times.  25 Squadron formed there on 25 September 1915, followed in 1917 by 83 Squadron and 80 Squadron.  (At least a dozen other units are listed there in the years to 1918.)  There are over eighty graves of airmen in Sleepyhillock Cemetery, Montrose.

                                                     The Twenties and Thirties                         

   The airfield at Montrose closed in 1920 and the years until the Second World War were quite in terms of unusual occurrences.  (The base opened again in 1935 and became a training site.).  But also in 1920 a friend of Desmond Arthur named C G Grey published a story of the haunting in The Aeroplane magazine, of which he was the editor.  Detailing the ghost’s appearances in 1918, he noted that it appeared in the No. 2 Squadron’s officer’s mess.  He identified the spirit specifically as Desmond Arthur and tied in the manifestation with the controversial reports of the war years which blamed Arthur for his own death.  He stated that the haunting ceased in January 1917 (another source nails down the last sighting as 17 January.).  The ghost was not seen again, allegedly, until 1940.  There was a rumour that the pilot ghost on the site was protecting those personnel who served there, though a counter tradition, supported by two fliers who wrote to Popular Flying magazine in April 1934, suggested there was a presence at Montrose which bad affected flying operations. 
   Still, though few in number, Forbes Inglis reports a number of eerie encounters from the inter war period, following the re-opening of the airfield.  An RAF policeman named Norrie Webster encounter footsteps, but nobody making them, one night on patrol.  Another guard told Webster a few nights later he heard the sound, plus saw a strange mist.  Another witness encountered a man in a flying suit one foggy night beside Waldron Bridge, but the man passed him by without a word and it was only realised later that the night was far too foggy for flying and nobody could have been there dressed like that. 
   One estimate says that, between the re-opening of the station and the end of the Battle of Britain, around 800 men were trained to fly at RAF Montrose.  But the shade of World War I did not reappear until 1940, and then possibly briefly.

Luftwaffe Photo of Montrose, April 1943.

World War Two and Immediately After

   With the greatly increased activity at Montrose sponsored by a new conflict, supernatural events were reported thick and fast.  The most well known story, reported by Peter Underwood and others, concerns a Hurricane pilot who took to the air in 1940 to challenge a prowling Heinkel.  He didn’t find it, but made some strange and abortive attempts at landing before finally coming down safely.  The pilot was incensed and said he had been prevented from landing by the dangerous proximity of an antique biplane.  The station commander assured him that nobody else at all was flying that night, and besides there were no biplanes on the base. 
   Another story of the same period states that eight planes took off on a flying exercise.  Following their safe return another plane landed but exploded on the runway.  Strangely, there was no wreckage recovered and no record from any surrounding airfield of one of their planes going missing. 
   The day of 25 October 1940 was a busy day for the Luftwaffe.  Raids targeted London, Birmingham, Pembroke, Cardiff and Liverpool.  Further north, they targeted Angus also.  A trio of  Heinkel III’s on 25 October 1940 attacked RAF Arbroath plus Montrose town and station, seven people were killed at the latter site.  Around 7.20 in the evening the officers’ mess was destroyed by a fire, and inside the building was a safe which contained –supposedly – a report on the Montrose ghost written by a Major Impey.  The details of the document are sadly unknown, as is the precise identity of Impey.  He may in fact have been Thomas Smith Impey  (1880-1949).  One of seven children in a Quaker family, Thomas  served in the Royal Flying Corps and in 1915 was on active service in France as a pilot. He was injured following a fall from his horse, which meant he could no longer serve on the front.  By October that year he was a Major and RFC flying instructor at Montrose.  In 1918 he was granted a permanent commission in the RAF and retired in 1922. (In 1918 his brother Arthur was also in the area, staying at the Lindertis home of Sir Hugh Munro.)  The only document by Impey which seems to be extant is an account written for his old school magazine, giving a brief account of his flying experiences in 1916 ( Bootham School Blogs).
   Following the death of a trainee pilot named George Hogben in 1941, his ghost was supposed to have been seen by his friend.  But it was not until the following year that there was a significant surge in occurrences.  The story goes that an unpopular Flight Lieutenant with a reputation for being harsh and authoritative with ground staff had a fatal crash after arguing with a fitter and putting him on a charge.  It was rumoured the mechanic had possibly tampered with his plane and caused the crash.  Soon afterwards the dead man returned to haunt the site, being seen wearing a flight suit and goggles.  Stories of an apparition were told by guards and the figure was particularly prevalent in the Wedron Bridge area.  The ghost or ghosts was kitted out in full flying gear, though some people saw a figure in a white flying suit.  A girl preparing tea in the NAAFI at the time saw a fully kitted man come into the building and then vanish in front of her. 
   The personnel at Montrose during the Second World War were even more cosmopolitan than those who had previously served there. Polish, American, Czech, Turkish and other nationals passed through RAF Montrose.  These foreign fliers had their share of accidental deaths here too.  One such, for example, was a Pole named Wieslaw Oselkowski, who died on a training sortie, crashing near Laurencekirk in the Mearns on 13 May 1941.
   In 1942 ‘Squadron Leader Ovenden was confronted by two airmen one night who asked me who had been killed in the crash.  He replied there had been no crash.  The due swore there had been a plane crash on the shore and the aeroplane had burst into flames.
   Following the war there was a reduction in RAF activity.  Montrose was run down, being unsuitable with its grass runways for modern aircraft. Before the field was closed for good in June 1952 in became exclusively a training establishment.  Men stationed there still saw unaccountable things.  A guard in September 1947 met a man who seemed to be dressed in an old-fashioned uniform, who soon disappeared.   In the previous year an experienced serviceman on guard duty met something strange.  While his mate went off for a smoke, at around three in the morning, this man was checking the area where a plane was standing, between the morgue and control tower.  Suddenly the morgue doors flew open and a man in full flying kit emerged.  In shock, the guard dropped his gun.  The doors had slammed and the man was gone.  The doors had earlier been checked and found to be locked.  It later emerged that the morgue building had served a different purpose years before, and it was from here that the ghostly flight lieutenant emerged to go on his final flight. 

Station Crest, II Flying School, Montrose.

Sir Peter Masefield

   The ghosts of Montrose roared back into prominence through the means of Sir Peter Masefield and an article he published in Flight International magazine, 21 December 1972.  His strange story centred around the ‘strangest entry’ he every entered in his flying log.  A renowned aviation expert and businessman, Masefield had flown up to Inverness to give a talk about his experiences and, on Sunday 26 May 1963, was sitting chatting in the Station Hotel, Inverness.  He was due to fly back south the following day in his Chipmunk aircraft.  After dinner in the hotel those present discussed flying history and an old RFC veteran mentioned the air base at Montrose.  He told the story of how Colonel Charles Burke brought up planes from Farnborough to Upper Dysart in early 1913 and shortly afterwards another airman died there flying the plane.
   A second veteran said he had heard the story – and a lot more besides – while serving with the Royal Flying Corps in France in 1917.  He said the BE2 planes were supposed to be the safest models there were.  Then he recounted Desmond Arthur’s accident, the reports into his death, and the supposed sighting of him one August evening in 1916 by Cyril Foggin.  Two nights later, at midnight, he saw the same figure, swinging his helmet, near the Old Mess.  Foggin hurried after him, but again the man vanished.  Foggin, according to Masefield’s informant, saw the ghost another five or six times. The ghost story came out in September, following sightings by the station commander and half a dozen others.  Two men saw him sitting in a chair reading papers.  A visiting officer, who had been at Farnborough, also saw the ghost and recognised him as Desmond Arthur. 
   Masefield links the sightings then to the report and comments that the Final Report carried an addendum by Sir Charles Bright and Arthur Butcher exonerated the dead pilot.  The ghost visited Foggin just once more, on Christmas Eve 1916 and was seen no more.  Another person, sitting in the shadows, contributed technical details to the early aeroplanes which were based at Montrose.  Next day, at Dalcross airfield, the same Irishman appeared and asked for a lift in Sir Peter’s plane down south to England which Masefield agreed to.  As they flew down the east coast towards Turnhouse at Edinburgh, Sir Peter spotted an old biplane flying close to Montrose. He watched in horror as its wing collapsed and it spiralled to the ground.  When he turned to speak to his passenger, the man was missing.  Shaken, he landed at Montrose  and ascertained that nobody on the ground had seen this latest ‘accident’.  When he got back to England he was even more astonished to find the date was 27 May 1963, fifty years to the day since Desmond Arthur’s fatal crash.
   Good story, but does it stand up?  Author Forbes Inglis – a man who should know – said that he spotted some geographical inaccuracies in the story printed by Masefield.  We can also note that it appeared in print just before Christmas, a good time for the telling of supernatural yarns.  Beyond that it should be noted that Sir Peter, who died in 2006 aged 91, was an accomplished journalist before he entered the aviation business world.  He may have first learned of the Montrose tale in person from C. G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane, the man who wrote of the story in 1920.  Grey appointed Masefield technical editor of the magazine.  Against that, it might be said that he was a man of longstanding integrity who would surely not have made the whole thing up as a joke.  The writer and supernatural researcher Peter Underwood said that Sir Peter vouched for the truth of the story to him personally. 
    The Scottish Daily Express reported strange things in the Montrose sky in 1963, but then all went quiet for several decades.

Recent Events:  The Eighties and Afterwards

   In 1983 a group of enthusiasts, led by Ian McIntosh, formed the Montrose Air Heritage Trust and funds were raised by the Montrose Air Heritage Trust to open a heritage visitor centre on the site.  By 1992 the groups had purchased the watch office and ground, which became Montrose Air Station Museum.  Exhibits were bought and displays made for the public to see.  There was a pickup in incidents as visitors came in increasing numbers.  Footsteps were heard, a ghostly black Labrador was seen, voices experienced, men in uniform glimpsed who couldn’t be there.  Beyond the station a WWII plane was seen roaring over Rossie Braes.  Children on nearby grass saw a figure with no face glide noiselessly towards them.  These and more phenomena are detailed in Forbes Inglis’s book. 
   Most fascinating possibly are the auditory incidents, including the time when a volunteer named Ian Robb heard the vintage phone in the CO’s office ring.  When he answered it, a voice uncannily asked for help.  Linked to this possibly is the vintage PYE radio which randomly and unaccountably broadcast Winston Churchill and Glen Miller, despite being unplugged and having no aerial.  An Australian medium visited the place in 1990 claimed one of the resident ghosts was actually a lunatic who liked to dress up as an airman.  Another medium, Cat Perks, witnessed only the shade of an airman begging for help. 
   Derek Green of the Ghost Club tells how a company was doing a photo shoot around the old hangars.  In one of the images captured there was an ‘extra’ unidentified figure standing at the rear of the scene, dressed in full flying gear. Grampian Television also captured the video image of a flier in the area of Waldron Bridge.  He also comments that phenomena have decreased since 2007 when many crash site exhibits were moved from display.

Recent Supernatural Investigations

     Forbes Inglis, who worked at the heritage centre, participated in a Ghost Club investigation of the site in 2005.  Nothing dramatic materialised, though there were sounds heard, such as the clicking of unseen billiard balls, plus recorded knocks and ‘received’ communication from several spirits.  In the previous year a door in the HQ building opened twice by itself while the Ghost Club was on site; plus there were knockings and other sounds heard. 

   In September 2008 a team from Paranormal Research Scotland visited the air station. The trio from Dundee recorded the voice of a man who identified himself as Sergeant Jackson and also a Desmond, though they did not believe he was Desmond Arthur.

Glasgow Paranormal Investigators’ overnight vigil on a separate occasion captured an array of sounds such as voices, breaths, footsteps and bangs in May 2010.  Their ‘contacts’ included a Group Captain Stapleton, plus anonymous and ominous voices which announced ‘You have left us to die’ and ‘You have deserted us.’  Their previous visit in April 2009 gave evidence of a variety of taps and bangs and light anomalies. 

An End to It?

In 2013, to mark the centenary of Desmond Arthur’s death,   a small group gathered at Sleepyhillock Cemetery and a wreath was placed on his grave. Dr Dan Paton, the curator of Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre, expressed a hope that the airman would now rest in peace. 


Inglis, Forbes, Phantoms and Fairies, Tales of the Supernatural in Angus and Dundee, Brechin, 1990. 
Masefield, Sir Peter, ‘The Montrose Ghost,’ Flight International, 21 December 1972.
Underwood, Peter, The Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts, London, 1974.

Plane of No 2 Squadron, Montrose, 1914.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Kirriemuir's Strange Tale of Witchcraft

A strange tale of witchcraft follows, obtained from Thrums and its Glens, Historical Relics and Recollections by James Stirton (2nd edn., Kirriemuir, 1896).  There are shades of the 'Ball of Kirriemuir' about this story and an unexpected twist, whereby the poor accused witch does not suffer the ultimate demise, but another person does. A town official tries to frame a poor old woman, but his daughter and her boyfriend are the real culprits (perhaps).  Read on!

Hes guide Majestie ye Kynge Jeames V cam tae hes guide toune of Kiliemore in ye anscient provence of Horestiea in hes countrie of Scotlande tae holde ye feaste of ye Saint Mickele.  Ye folke of ye toune wer in ye sore plicht for ane of yer awne toune folke Mysie Walis bein confineded in ye toune kave for ye unpardenede kryme of sorserie.  Ye aulde wifie bein no mous for ye fortellin of ye lichten of ye Bayle Bouchane’s corne ricks on ye eve of ye Sainte Mickele.  Ye baylie geid ye order for yeprisenmente of ye saide Mysie Wallis.  Ye guidmanie of ye saide Mysie Wallis waulkede unto ye Kirke of ye Sainte Marie wher hes guide Majestie was holdene ye feaste of ye sainte Mickele ande emplorede  hes guide Majestie ye Kynge to setie to ye libertie hes wifie.  Hes guide majestie herde ye praere of ye guidmanie and orderede ye councele of ye encurie to be holdene.  Ye nichte garde of ye toune testyfyede to ye riotus feaste of ye hairste in ye barne of ye baylies farme of ye Ravenehillocke, ande ye yonge mene and ye maydens drinken ye wyne lykwis of ye talo caunele bein in ye hande of ye yonge mane in ye companye of ye baylies dochter nere ye corne ricks.  Her Kynges Majestie comande ye saide Mysie Wallis frome ye tounis kave, ande geid oute ye lawe that ye baylies dochter weare ye brankis in ye merkat stanse for ane monthe ande theraftera tae be burnede at ye stake at ye Clocknowe.  Hes guide majestie ye Kynge heralde bye ye tounis gardewithe ye alberdes ande tounis garde withe ye alberdes ande tounis folke lefte ye toune for hes ansciente citie of Brechene.
   Markede bye ye courte kroniclere ye feaste of ye sainte Mickele, 1540.