On 15 November 1725 the long-standing minister of St Vigeans parish, north of Arbroath, put a rope around his neck and took his life. Almost unheard of among clerics in the 18th century, the supposed facts of the tragic death are detailed below in a contemporary letter (culled from Analecta Scotica, ed. James Maidment, 1837).* Strange as the circumstances are, local rumour perhaps also linked the tragedy to the peculiar atmosphere of the kirk and the folklore associated with it:
REVEREND DEAR SIR. – By last post, I have my brother’s of the 11st instant, in answer to what I wrote at your desire, with respect to the Minister of Aberbrothick Presbytery, who had made away with himself. His name is Mr Thomas Watson: he was Minister of St Vigons, about two miles from the Presbytery seat. My brother writes he was of his acquaintance, and knew his character befor this. He writes he was bot of mean parts, but had some thing of a popular gift. He was never look’d on by serious people to be much taken vp with religion, and had a likeing to the other syde of the house, but was sober, and on good enough terms with his Paroch, and with his family, - was keen in gathering the world, and has left more than twentie thousand merks behind him upon houses in Montrose and Aberbrothick. This temptation, according to my brother’s information, was, (as you heard), he had a sister who inclined to marry a man in that corner, and he was doing what he could to dissuade her it, and from being uneasie to the elder brother, whereon she cutt her own throat with a razor, and this was more than a year agoe. Upon this he turned melancholy, and continued so till he brought himself to that fatal end. When they found him, they fand in his breast a paper write with his own hand, wherein he desired that he should be buried in such a place of the churchyard, and that such a man should make his coffin, and that a hundred punds should be given to the poor. My brother writes, hes information for all this is good. If you desire any thing farder, he will doe what he can to satisfie you, but hopes you’ll pardon hes not writing directly to yourself, for he is much straitned of time. I am,
Rev, Dear Sir,
Ham. Jany. 19, Your most humble
To the Rev. R. WODROW. ALEX. ARCHER.
Thomas Watson had studied at St Andrews University, graduating in 1689. He became a minister at St Vigeans in 1702. In Arbroath and its Abbey (1860), David Miller wrongly states that the death of the minister took place in 1726. But he gives the details that WAtson killed himself ‘on a tree, some distance north-east from the church; and was interred, not below the pulpit like his predecessors, but at the bottom of a turf dyke betwixt the lands of Newgrange and Newbigging.’ He left beind a wife, Margaret Maitland (or Marjorie Mathie). Newgrange was afterwards Letham Grange and the tree on the boundary was some distance north of the kirk. Possibly Whether this tree still remains is unknown. Possibly due to a misinterpretation of the letter above, or confusion with his sister, some sources state that the minister also cut his throat. The reluctance to bury a suicide in consecrated ground is of course centuries old and perhaps has as much to do with decorum in this case as superstition.
The tragic death became entangled in the lore associated with the old 12th century kirk (built on a mound on the site of an early Christian chapel). There were structural problems with the building which meant that services were disrupted for a long period, but this became part of a local prophecy that a kelpie inhabited a pool beneath the kirk mound and prophecied that the congregation would sink down and be drowned after services were restored. This was actually expected when the kirk schedule was fully restored in 1736. The kelpie also allegedly prophesied the self-destruction of a minister. (See my earlier post 22.5.15). There was some delay also in finding a successor for the unfortunate priest. A probationer named Tobias Martin was eventually appointed in 1727, but he lasted only four years and his successor John Burn only officiated for a short period between 1731 until his death in 1734.
It would make a neat and tidy ending to this entry to link the por spirit of the priest with the ghost which was seen at nearby Letham Grange during World War II. Now a golf resort, service personnel were stationed there during wartime. Several WRENS who were sleeping in the old balroom reported seeing a grey, insubstantial figure at night while staying there. It wore a wide hat and had a high collar. The owners reported that it was unwise to sleep in that room. Unfortunately for symmetry, the present house here was built some time after Thomas Watson’s time. So unless his spirit wandered from the place he was and migrated into this later building, the lingering ghost is not him.
* Another suicide affected the incumbent of Monikie in the 17th century. The son of the Rev John MacGill apparently drowned himself in January 1660 while at St Andrews, studying divinity.