The place-names of Angus are a complex mixture of Pictish, Gaelic, Scots and English. They can inspire indifference, intrigue, frustration, even humour. In almost all of them, you can journey back to a previous period, and quite far back if you’re lucky.
But with many coastal names we are faced with, well, erosion. Can we contend that, because the coast changes and shifts, alters significantly over time, then the names here also alter with greater rapidity than those further inland? Possibly this has something to do with the supposition that the coast is the outward facing zone, most prone to immediate contact with new cultures and actual incomers. Some of the natural features of the sea zone also have a folksy, whimsical element often missing from settlement names, and these seem to all be fairly recent. Were there previous, similar names (now lost) in the Celtic languages?
The natural features near Arbroath and northwards that have fairly prosaic names include the Dynamite Cave, named of course because it was used to store this material. There is a small bay on this section of the coast called the Mariner's Grave. This apparently commemorates a shipwreck which resulted in several fatalities. Survivors were rescued by a party from Arbroath led by a man named Butcher. The marks of their ropes on the cliff top were long evident here. Not far away is the Stalactite Cave and also a headland known as the Monk and Maiden’s Leap. This apparently received its name from a poem by an early 18th century poet called David Balfour. I have not read this poem, nor would I be in a particular frenzy to find it. It sounds like a product typical of its era, full of melodrama and light on the meat of human interest. From summaries I have ingested, here is an example of the story in the poem: local lass Mary Scott had lost her mother and was ‘comforted’ by a clergyman. She became pregnant and the ungodly abbot arranged her murder. Following her death the priest went mad and died. Both were buried nearby. So much for happy endings. Elopements and romantic entanglements between randy friars and miscellaneous maidens are a staple of a certain kind of pulp fiction folklore through the ages, but it is all a bit soap operatic for me, I’m afraid. Slightly more intriguing is the Mermaid Kirk, the name of another natural feature on the coast nearby. This recess, enclosed by rocks, is also known by the more prosaic name of the Pebbly Den.
While there was a fair share of smuggling and excise evasion in the past in Angus, the geography of the coast did not particularly lend itself to large scale smuggling operations here. In places like Cornwall and much of Devon, smuggling embedded itself not just into the local economy over a long period, but was hardwired in a real sense into the regional culture. No so in much of Scotland, Angus included. Battles with officialdom regarding illicit substances were more often conducted well inland, involving illicit peat reek stills in the wild hillsides.
One name on the Angus coastline area we are considering remembers long-lost smuggling ventures however. Close by the lighthouse at Scurdie Ness, and near where the South Esk meets the North Sea, there is a small and neglected creek named Johnny Main’s Harbour. Its alternative name is the Creek of John Mayne. Apparently it was named after an old smuggler who frequented these parts, though yet again I must admit I have found no significant details about this place or the person who left his name here. (The place-name is noted in Ebb and Flow, Aspects of the History of Montrose Basin, Montrose Basin Heritage Society, 2004, 35.) The name reminds me rather of the King of Prussia Cove in Cornwall, where I stay, named after the nickname of the notorious smuggler John Carter. Is there anything more haunting, in place-name terms, of a place named after a person whose life has utterly vanished from the memory of the landscape in which he dwellt?
Another, fortunate side effect of the Angus coastal landscape is the lack of shipwrecks which are recorded to have occurred along this coast. This did not prevent some parishes of being looked on askance by their neighbours as being nests of wreckers who profited or guilty of positively encouraging wrecks. Such a place was the parish of Barrie. The Rev David Sim of Barry reported, in the Old Statistical Account, that:
Vulgar report has sometimes involved...the people of Barrie in a charge of inhumanity to shipwrecked mariners; but more truly may they be characterised as dupes, by their compassion to 100 pretended shipwrecked. – The oppression must be grievous indeed, which can drive them from their native soil. A sort of maladie de pais rivets them to their place of birth.It has to be said that there is no particular record of cut-throat activity in Barry regarding survivors of shipwrecks. Traces of other shipwrecks along the coast here are so faint as to be insubstantial. David Mitchell in The History of Montrose (p. 99, 1866) speaks about a local tradition vaguely concerning a fleet of ships – the ‘Catteson Ships’ – which came to grief along the Angus and Mearns coast at some time in the past. Strangely, it was never discovered where this unfortunate fleet came from. But the disaster proved to be a bounty for local people. The cargo contained all sorts of useful household goods, from chests of drawers to tables and a distinctive load of yellow bricks which were very welcomed by coastal communities in north Angus and the Mearns. As it happened there was a season of scarcity caused by crop failure in the country when the ships came to grief. It so happened that the corn in the fields was infested with weeds at the time which were ground up with that crop which had an unusual soporific effect on the country folk, so that the resulting food was called the ‘Sleepy meal’. A few decades earlier the shipwrecks and strange crop failure may have been linked and attributed to the agency of the Devil. The same author records the loss of 17 ships, driven ashore between the mouths of the North and South Esk at the beginning of the 19th century. By this time of course the suspicion that witchcraft was the sponsor of disaster was not credited by the vast majority of the population.