Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Before the Days of Steam - the Stage Coach! Plus the Amazing Captain Barclay

Before the days of steam there was the stage coach.  But even at their height there were too few vehicles probably to constitute any kind of golden age of travel.  There was allegedly an attempt in 1678 to link the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh with  a regular coach service, but it is said to have failed due to lack of interest.  A century later there was only one regular stage coach running between London and Scotland.  This set out from Edinburgh only once a month and took upwards of a fortnight to reach London.

   Coaches died not reach out into the provinces of Scotland, Angus included, until later still and their nascent popularity was crushed by the advent of the railways.  By the advent of the 19th century there were coaches running internally in Angus as well as connecting the county with the rest of the country.  James McBain (in Arbroath, Past and Present, 1887) informs us that the ‘Commecial Traveller’ coach departed from the White Hart Hotel to Dundee every morning at 6.30, returning at 4 pm. There was also the ‘Highlander’, running between Dundee and Montrose, plus the ‘Hope and Industry’ running on the same route, which connected with Fife coaches running to Edinburgh.  There was also the ‘New Times’ running between Aberdeen and Perth (via Dundee), which carried mail.  These mail coaches of course carried armed guards.  McBain tells the story of one guard who was so infuriated by the habit of a toll-keeper on the West Links Toll who was in the habit of locking his gates at night and falling asleep, thus impeding the passing of the coach.  The guard tried and failed on several occasions to awaken  the ‘tollie’ with a blast from his horn and had to clamber down and shake the man awake.  But, as this did not deter the toll-keeper from continually dropping off, the guard eventually lost his temper and discharged his blunderbuss into the toll-house window, with the effect that the man never fell asleep again. (Arbroath, Past and Present, 177.)

   Apart from the official coaches there were a large number of carriers who transported goods between towns, seven alone operating on a daily basis between Brechin and Montrose.  The condition of the roads of course caused frequent delays and problems.  The operator 'Davidie' Walker left Arbroath bound for Brechin one frosty night around 6 when his cart became stuck in the mud.  He left his female passenger with the vehicle while he proceeded to Brechin for assistance.  When the poor woman resolved to go herself for help after some time, Walker's dog would not let her abandon the cart and she had to stay there, freezing, until he returned with a a third horse around six hours later (Guide to Brechin and Neighbourhood, Walter Coutts, 1889, p. 55).

   In their heyday the coaches presented a magnificent sight:

The old-time long-distance mail coaches were drawn by four fine horses, which were changed at the official stables and inns every eight or ten miles.  The pace was ten miles an hour, including stoppages and changing horses.  The coach had accommodation for four inside and from six to eight outside passengers.  The guard, who like the driver, wore a scarlet coat, had charge of the mails, and was armed with a business-like pistol.  No one was allowed near his perch - a circular seat fixed to the coach, and commanding the opening of the mail box.   It was a stirring sight to see the coach arrive in town.  The four high mettled horses, the guard standing in the box blowing on his tin horn, and the bright buckles and plates on the harness glittering at every motion of the animals.  When the coach reached the Commercial Hotel [in Brechin], the post-master was waiting, with his two or three small bags securely closed by big red seals and received as many in exchange.  A banker or two would also be present with the drawings for headquarters in Edinburgh.  The letters and money bags were locked up by the guard in his box...Now all was hurry-scurry.  the ostlers were taking out the horses and putting in the fresh ones, which had been standing by already harnessed - the liberated animals quietly trotting, unattended, or led by some of the ever-ready boys to the stables...
[Glimpses of Men and Manners About the Muirside, D. H. Edwards, 1920, 50.]

   Some other coaches included the 'Thane of Fife', the 'Coupar Angus Caravan', the 'Saxe-Coburg', and the 'Fife Royal Union'.  There was also the ‘Champion’, running between Aberdeen and Perth and the ‘Braes of Fordoun’, on the route between Aberdeen and Dundee. Other celebrated coaches included the ‘Defiance’ and the ‘Union’, running between Aberdeen and Edinburgh, plus the ‘Sir Henry Parnell’, running between Brechin and Dundee, via Forfar.  The ‘Defiance’ left Brechin at nine in the morning and reached Edinburgh by half past eight at night.  On the northwards journey it took four hours to reach Aberdeen from Brechin. This coach travelled at an unrivalled speed and its operators took pride in the fact that it always arrived within minutes of its advertised schedule.  The ‘Union’ preceded the ‘Defiance’ on the route, travelling onward to Edinburgh via Fife, but there was a period of overlap between the two services and competition between them.   The ‘Defiance’ had as its coachman David Troup and its guard was John Burnett, well-known characters in their day.

   David Troup was reputedly a cautious driver and he did not brook criticism or advice about the performance of his duties .  When an acquaintance once told him that he thought it inadvisable to travel because of floods brought on by a storm, Davie treated his old friend with disdain.  He had heard this same sage but unwanted advice from a tailor in Forfar, ‘and ye are only a souter!’ But on this occasion he was wrong.  The vehicle got caught in the waters near Unthank Brae and had to be towed back to Brechin, where it was storm stayed for two weeks.  When the driver retired he took over the Eagle Inn in Brechin and his time there was remembered in doggerel verse:

Gen ye gae doon tae Davie Troup’s, There ye’ll see the Eagle –That’s the way the money goes, Pop goes the weasel.

   Apart from David Troup, the Cook family of Arbroath were also employed on the ‘Defiance’.  There were three of them, Charlie, John and Alick, sons of Charles Cook, manager of the Star Hotel in Arbroath.  There were also, extraordinarily, guest or amateur coachmen who took charge to benefit from the dizzying speed of this new-fangled transport.  One such was Captain Barclay of Ury.  He was in charge of the coach on its second journey and managed to overturn the vehicle at the North Port Distillery.  Luckily, no-one was injured.  On the same journey a passenger remembered the Captain racing a hare on the North Water Bridge.  He and two gentlemen jumped down and captured the animal, with Barclay exclaiming, ‘Aye, aye. The “Defiance” is now outrunning hares.  The like was never heard of.’

Young Captain Barclay.

   Captain Barclay (Robert Barclay Allardice, 1770-1854) was actually something of a formative speed demon, or he would have been if transport technology had allowed it.  Born in Stonehaven in the Mearns, but raised in England, Barclay early found a talent in covering great distances by foot.  In November 1800, for instance, he covered 64 miles in 12 hours.  The following December he entered into a wager with the Angus laird Mr Fletcher of Ballinshoe - himself described as 'a gentleman of turf notoriety' - to cover 90 miles in 21.5 hours.  He stood to win the handsome sum of 500 guineas, but unfortunately he was so ill with a cold on the start day that he could not go on with it.  The wager was repeated the following year and he stood to win an astonishing 2,000 guineas.  According to his biographer:

the ground chosen for the performance of the match was the line of the road from Brechin to Forfar...He accomplished sixty-seven miles in thirteen miles in thirteen hours; but having incautiously drank some brandy, he became instantly sick, and consequently unable to proceed.  He now renounced the bet, and the umpire retired; but after two hours rest, he completely recovered, and could easily have finished the remainder of the distance within the time.
[Pedestrianism, or An Account of the Celebrated Pedestrians during the Last and Present Century, William Thom, 1819, 103.]
Not put off by this bitter defeat, the captain continued his gruelling sporting lifestyle and famously completed a 1,000 mile walk over 1,000 hours for an apt prize of 1,000 guineas in 1809.

Old Captain Barclay.

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