Coupar: Angus or Perthshire? The Meaning of the Name
Coupar Angus is not the sort of place which looks like it has a split personality, being to all appearances like a pleasant, douce town sitting in central Strathmore. Now firmly ensconced in eastern Perthshire, it was not always so. Until the late 19th century the parish was split between the ‘Fair land of Gowrie’ in Perthshire and neighbouring Angus. The county border formerly ran right through the town, marked by a minor waterway. (Since the 1890s it has been wholly contained within Perthshire.) The Cistercian abbey of Coupar was built on the Angus side of the divide. These days barely anything now survives of the fabric of this great building which once must have been the most spectacular edifice in the whole broad valley of Strathmore.
The mysteries of the place are not immense in the scale of things, but quietly intriguing. First is the meaning of the place-name itself. We can probably dismiss the suggestion that Coupar's name derives from ‘Coo byre’, as suggested by the Rev Charles Roberts, and his alternative theory that the name could be a corruption of St Cuthbert also seems unlikely. Also doubtful, to my mind at least, is the suggestion that the name comes from ‘copar’, a Flemish word signifying someone who traded commodities. Victorian historians Andrew Jervise and Alexander Warden took the name as being derived from Cul-Bharr, or rear-of-the-ridge. Yet another suggestion is that the name comes from Gaelic cobhair, meaning sanctuary, and suggesting that there was some kind of religious settlement nearby.
The Early Abbey
Coupar Angus was a daughter-house of Melrose and the fifth Cistercians house in Scotland, all in the 12th century. The saintly uncle of the king, Waltheof, the abbot of Melrose Malcolm IV, is reckoned to have been the person who lay behind the decision to erect a new monastery at Coupar Angus. Although the abbey was founded by King Malcolm the Maiden in 1164 as a house of the Cistercians, could there be a much earlier Christian foundation nearby. Cistercians often founded their houses in desert places (Novalia, or unbroken ground, as enshrined in the statutes of the order) which was not the case here. The monarchy had a royal manor here. There is also a repeated suggestion that there was a Roman marching camp on the site of the later abbey, but this has never been conclusively proven.
More interesting if the proximity of the site to the border of the counties of Perthshire (Gowrie district) and Angus – which may well represent the border between ancient Pictish provinces – possibly points towards an earlier Christian settlement. Borders between kingdoms and regions were sometimes chosen as Christian sites to install spiritual buffer zones between semi-antagonistic neighbours. More than that, borders were liminal areas where there were fault lines in supernatural as well as temporal power which could be used by religion. Meigle, to the north east of Coupar is one such place. I would very tentatively suggest that Kettins to the south-east of Coupar is another.
King Malcolm granted the White Monks his lands at Coupar. In a charter he later granted the monks coal, and privileges in the royal forests in Glenisla and elsewhere. Malcolm’s brother King William at a later date extended the abbey’s land ownership in the area, bestowing lands of
of Aberbothrie and Keitheck, plus two ploughgates of land in the district of Rethrife (Rattray), and the marsh of Blair (Blairgowrie). Later benefactors of land to the abbey included the powerful Hay family, based in the Carse of Gowrie and successive Earls of Atholl.
At the start of the 14th century the abbey controlled more than 8,000 acres. There was a setback to the material wellbeing of the abbey when King Edward I confiscated the furniture and silver of the institution and possibly also imposed English monks into the settlement. In the beginning the Cistercians farmed the land themselves, in conjunction with lay brothers who oversaw agricultural work at the abbey’s granges. But in the 1300s the number of lay brothers ceased and the practice of leasing lands to secular tenants began. The last record to lay brothers in the records of Coupar Angus is in the year 1305.
During the previous century there is a record of a lower class of un-free labour tied to the land. A document of King Alexander II signed on 17 February 1248 empowers the monks of Coupar Angus to recover their fugitive neyfs in Glenisla. These neyfs or native were natives of any given area who could be bought and sold with the land they lived on, though they were not actually slaves. Their status may have included a poorer class of tenants who leased land.
To the south-east of Coupar, Kettins stands out as a place of some importance, certainly in Pictish times. There is an inscribed Pictish symbol stone here, now on the north wall of the kirkyard, having been rescued in 1865 from centuries of misuse as a footbridge over the Kettins Burn. Its citing points to the place being of some importance as a place of secular power in the early medieval era. Clues as to the significance and relatively early date of church activity at Kettins can also be found in the term abthen, which refers to land given over to churches. There is not an abundant record of these places, but there is a significant number in Angus. There was the Kirkland of Inverlunan, ‘commonly called abthan’, and also the Kirkland of Old Montrose which had the term attached to it. In some instances the religious ruler of a territory is designated as ab, so there was Nicholas ab of Monifieth, Maurice ab of Arbirlot.
Keittins' ancient church stood on a mound and was designated to St Bridget, both signs (though not infallible signs) that the church was ancient. The foundation was re-dedicated by David de Bernham, Bishop of St Andrews in 1249. Half a century earlier there is a charter witness mentioned named Ferbard, capellano de Ketenes. It was one of six chapels on the area which became subordinate to the Abbey of St Mary at Coupar Angus. In a charter of about 1292-3, Hugh of Over, Lord of Ketenes, granted ‘his well in his lands and Abthenage of Ketenes, called Bradwell, with its
aqueduct bounded, and servitude of watergage’ to the Abbey of Cupar. Bradwell is a corruption of [St] Bride’s Well. Malcolm de Ketenes appears in a number of charters around 1270 or 1271.
Three Brothers of Kettins
Also in the thirteenth century the place was home to three brothers, one of whom was an eminent churchman. There are records of three brothers John, Robert and Ingram of Kettins who were present in the University of Paris in the 1340s. The last named brother is identical with the priest who is commemorated in a monument in Tealing, not far to the east of Kettins, in the shadow of the Sidlaws. Contemporary with the Paris record there is another mention of Ingram when, on 25 January 1345, Pope Clement VI authorized the abbots of Cupar and Scone, and the prior of St Andrews, to grant Ingram de Kethenis ‘the church of Blaar’, evidently Blairgowrie. The siblings were nephews of John de Pilmore, Bishop of Moray. Through the recommendation of the king and queen, Ingram was granted a benefice at Aberdeen, and further church positions were attained, culminating in the archdeanery of Dunkeld. Ingram ended his days in the church of Tealing, north of Dundee. His monument is set into the north wall of the church there and is thought to be one of the earliest monuments in the English language north of the Forth.
Hier : lyis : Ingram : of : Kethenys : prist. :
Maystr : l : arit : ercdene : of ; dukeldy : made :
I : hys : XXXII : yhere : prayis : for : hym : yat :
Deyt :hafand : LX : yherys : of : eyld : in :
The : yher : of : Cryet : MoCCC : Lxxx
‘Here lies Ingram of Kettins, priest, Master of Arts. Made Archdeacon of Dunkeld in his 32nd year. Pray for him that died having sixty years of age in the year of Christ 1380’.
At an early period the Hospital or Domus Dei of Berwick held the revenues of the church at Kettins. By the end of the 14th century the living of Kettins was granted to the Kirk of the Red Friars in Dundee, and in the following century was transferred to the Red Friars Cross Kirk at Peebles.
Coupar Justice. Proverbs and Punishment
Long after the abbey of Coupar literally fell into dust, ‘Coupar Justice’ became a byword for the stern treatment of offenders in the area. In this way, Coupar became as infamous as Jedburgh in the borders, where ‘Jethart Justice’ was another name for harsh treatment by the law.
(Admittedly there may be some confusion with Cupar in Fife in these traditions.) Locally there were several layers of legal administration. A self-elected jury of local men, The Court of Burlaw, met every week to regulate mundane disputes. On the next level was the Baron-Bailie Court whose official was appointed by the district baron. The Court of Regality and Justiciary once occupied the site on present-day Queen Street in the town, though earlier it seems to have dispensed its justice outdoors, at Beechwood to the north of the burgh, in the early days of the Abbey. The Court of Regality was presided over by the abbot, though it was delegated at times to a bailie-depute (a role which eventually became hereditary).
Tales of the actual harshness of local law-giving are scarce. Alexander Warden, the historian of Angus, gives one example, worth repeating, albeit with the caution that it represents its Gaelic protagonist in a semi-comical racist way. Warden says that a certain Baillie John was strolling around Beechwood when he encountered a Highlander and engaged him in conversation. Without revealing his own identity Baillie John found out the man was due up before him for some crime that day. He asked the man whether he was actually guilty of the crime he was accused of.
‘Oh, aye, she’s guilty,’ the Gael said happily. ‘But there’s nae proof.’
Did he mean to lie to court that afternoon? Of course he did, the man said, because ‘there's mercy wi' God Almighty, but there's nane wi' Bailie Shon’.
Fast forward to that afternoon, when the ashen faced Highlander faced Baillie John for real.
‘Will you swear now that you are not guilty?’ the judge asked the accused.
The man thought for a minute and then tried to brazen it out.
‘Yes,’ she’ll swore,’ asserted the Highlander.
This ploy evidently nonplussed the dispenser of justice, since instead of sentencing the man he declared,
‘Go home, you rascal, and never let me see your face again; and tell your friends in Kirkmichael that there is some mercy in Bailie John as well as in God Almighty!’ [Warden, Angus or Forfarshire, vol. 3,134-5.]
Several writers another tale of harsh judgement. According to this, in 1699 the hereditary bailie of Coupar, John Ogilvy, was told that a notorious thief named John McCoul was in the town: ‘ane person of bad fame and open bruit a thiefadder’. He was ordered to be arrested and hanged straight away. The man’s friends were outraged by this act and demanded reconsideration. So the body was ordered to be exhumed and the court was convened, on 25 August 1699. There the dead man was formally sentenced to death and ordered to be executed the following Thursday. Whether the earlier monks were quite as hard-line in their judgements as the laymen who succeeded them is unknown. The story was repeated in the Dundee Chronicle, written by a correspondent from Coupar Angus who stated that he had the record of the case lying before him as he wrote. [Ancient Things in Angus, 101-2, Rambles in Forfarshire, 203, Dundee Chronicle, March 1836].
The Ogilvy family, in the person of James, Lord Ogilvy,a great secular power in the area, were granted the role as secular bailies of Coupar Abbey by Abbot Donald Campbell in 1539 and they held this role until heritable jurisdictions were formally abolished in 1747. As early as 1460, however, Patrick Ogilvy of Pearsie was appointed bailie-depute of the monastery. For the loss of the privilege John, 4th Earl of Airlie, was awarded £800 in compensation. The Ogilvys also gained the role as porters of gate-keepers to the abbey. At an earlier period another family served in this hereditary function and took their surname, Porter, from their employment. The Ogilvys gained this lucrative office as late as 1589, when on 12 March a contract was agreed between William Ogilvy of Easter Keilor and John Faryar, porter of the abbey and adopted son of Robert Porter. On 26 May 1590 the charter of the office was confirmed by Faryar and Porter, to William and Archibald Ogilvy life-rent and fee.
Proverbs on Coupar
Coupar also features in other local proverbs, whose meaning and origins now seem rather opaque. It was locally said of stubborn people who would not be diverted from their chosen, foolish path:
But why should someone resolutely doomed to failure go particularly to Coupar Angus? Nobody knows.He that will [gae] to Coupar maun [gae] to Coupar.
Another, arcane twist on the saying runs:
He that will to Coupar maun to Coupar, though Killiemuir [Kirriemuir] had sworn't.
And why did Coupar particularly get a local reputation for being a draconian centre of punishment? Perhaps it derives from the strict measures which the institution enforced on its tenants, from runaway serfs to tenants reluctant to keep their land in order, ingrained into the Strathmore psyche over the course of several centuries? Another possibility is that the speedy justice and sometimes summary execution which followed in the area was a necessary mode of law enforcement which operated in the area and was designed to meet the lawlessness which filtered into the area from the north, when Highland caterans raided Strathmore for cattle and spoils. But does something darker linger in the collective memory here?
Massacre in the New Church
In the year 1186, when the church of the abbey was not yet fully completed, there was a sacrilegious event which violated the abbey. On 17 November that year, the Chronicle of Holyrood related that:
the peace of the holy church was outraged at Coupar, by the violence of Malcolm, earl of Athole; because Adam (surnamed also Donald’s son), who was the king’s outlaw, was seized, and one of his associates – a nephew – was beheaded, before the altar; and the rest, fifty-eight in number, were burned and killed in the abbot’s dwelling.
The exact circumstances of this mass killing are unclear. Adam McDonald was a representative of one of the kin-groups who were rebelling against the established monarchy. He and his men had probably sought sanctuary in the newly established Cistercian precincts, but were ruthlessly extinguished by the king’s representative, Malcolm son of Madach, the second Earl of Atholl. The assassinated man may have been a son of the rebel contingents of the MacWilliam family from Moray who were in rebellion and attempting to claim the throne, but there is no firm certainty he came from this family. Donald MacWilliam certainly rose against the crown in Ross the following year.
This early massacre was undoubtedly the worst bloodshed the abbey was to witness, but there were other outbreaks of violent anarchy in later centuries. In 1479 the resident monks were attacked (two actually held captive for a time) by a gang sponsored by Alexander Lindsay, son of David, Earl of Crawford. The event involved ‘spulzeing of thair horses parking at thair place, and chusing of thair servandis’ and damage to property. Lindsay was warded in Blackness Castle and some of his henchmen were warded elsewhere, while eight other followers, such as Lindsay of Baikie and Shangy, were summoned to appear before the Sheriff of Forfar. The decline of the social structure of the abbey went hand in hand with a diminishing respect of those in the area, particularly powerful men who saw the undefended monks as easy prey. Around the time of Lindsay’s was there was another attack led by Robert Hay, son of the laird of Tullymet. He carried off a hundred head of cattle and oxen and four horses from the abbey’s land of Pert. He was heavily fined for his depredations.
Decline of the Abbey, Last Years under Abbot Donald Campbell
The abbot at this time was Donald Campbell, fourth son of Archibald, second
Earl of Argyll, and he supervised the final decline of the institution, from 1526 to 1562. (One of his brothers, incidentally, was Alexander Campbell who married the widowed Lady Glamis. He died trying to escape from Edinburgh Castle. His wife was burned to death as a witch.) Campbell played an important role on the wider national stage, being part of the secret council of the Earl of Arran. His later appointment to the See of Brechin was deferred because of suspicions about his religious loyalties. Until as late as 1553 Campbell seemed to be intent on regulating the declining monastery in accordance with orthodox Catholic procedures. He and the fifteen remaining monks in the institution signed a solemn bond in which they promised that, ‘God being their guide [they would] lead a regular life, and...order their manner according to the reformers of the Cistercian order...’ But by the end of that decade Campbell had literally abandoned his habit – ‘put on secular weed’ – and was attending the Protestant Convention of Estates. Furthermore, he alienated the church lands he administered and gave outright gifts of abbey lands to each and every one of his five bastard sons: the properties of Balgersho for his eldest son, Keithic for the second son, Denhead for the third son, Cro(o)nan for the fourth, and Arthurstone . He had earlier granted part of the monastery’s lands at Lundie to his cousin John Campbell of Lundie. Two of the last abbot’s sons were interred at Bendochy: Nicol Campbell, who died in 1587 aged seventy, and David Campbell, who died three years earlier.
The most fatal violence done to the abbey was its physical destruction, possibly commenced in the Reformation, when the mob which tore down the Carthusian monastery and other Catholic churches in Perth likely did the same at Coupar. The exact process and sequence of destruction at Coupar Angus Abbey is not clear and was likely piecemeal and certainly assisted to a large extent by locals looting the valuable building stones of the abbey over a long course of time. Much of the older part of the town of Coupar Angus, as well as some building work in nearby places such as Arthurstone, likely included masonry from the abbey buildings. An account of the Chamberlain in 1563 mentions the fact that remedial building work had been undertaken at the abbey, which suggests there had been some sort of attack leading to damage.
The extent to which Coupar Angus Abbey suffered physically when the reforming storm fully hit Scotland is difficult to determine. The seething religious foment of the nation is captured in the following lengthy quote by Lord Herries, which captures one contemporary view of what was happening in this region in 1559:
Now aryses tumults upon tumults, killing of priests, sacking and pulling doune of churches, ruining of statlie Abbacies, and other glorious buildings, dissolving hospitals; all in confusion. in a word, these antient buildings and brave fabricks, monuments of antiquitie, and marks of pietie, which for many hundred years have been a building, shall, in few months, be destroyed and rased to the ground! The ornaments and riches of the Churches fell to the share of the commone rable; the estats and lands were divyded amongst the great men, by themselves, without right or law; which they resolve to maintain by the sword!
The first storme fell upon Saint Jhonstoune [Perth], in this same month of May. John Knox…was the occasione; whoe, by a seditious sermon, sturred up the people to furie and madnes; who encouradged them to pull doun the Churches…Wherupon they run out in confusion, killed the priests, broake doune altars, and destroyed all the images and ornaments. From that they fall upon the Relligious Houses and Monasteries; those two goodlie Abbayes of Franciscans and Dominicans…were pulled dounde and made levell with the ground in two dayes; and all there riches made a prey to the people! But the Abbau of Charters monks stod longer, by one day. The next storme fell upon Couper. Thos people, upon notice of this busines at Perth, fell lykwayes upon there Church; which they spoyled and ransackt, and chased away the priests.’ [Memoirs, 37-38.]
But did Coupar Angus Abbey actually suffer the same extremist tsunami as nearby Perth? A document found in the charters of the Dukes of Argyll suggests that Abbot Duncan cannily came to terms with the lords at the head of the Reforming juggernaut, or that he was forced to do so. This is the unique document that the abbot signed:
Thir ar the pointes that the congregatioune desyris of my lord of Cowper. Imprimis that he incontinent reforme his place of Cowper Putting down and birnyng oppinlie all Idolis and Imagis and tubernaculis thairin destroying and putting away the altaris. And that na mess be thaire done gereaftir nowther privilie nor opinly. And that the superstitiouse habit of his monkis with their ordour ceremoneis and service as you call it be removit. And that na prayeris be usit in the kirk bot in the inglishe toung. And thai according to the scriptouris of God. Item that my lord with all his freindis and folkis at his hale powar assist and mayntein in counsales conventionis and parliament als wele as uther wyse the furth settin of the evangell of cryst and meynteinyng the congregatioyne in thair leberte and to the doune putting of all ydolatre abhominationes and papistre. And that his folkis at this present and at all utheris tymis being requirit pass fordwart with thair congregatioune to the forth-setting of the glorie of god. And alswa that my lord in all placis of his dominioune sall endewoyr himself to the forthsattin and executione of the premissis. Item that ane wryting contenyng the heids abufwrittin as thai ar heir contenit subscrivit with my lordis hand be send incontinent to the congregatioune togidder with the same tollaratione. (Signed) D. Abbot of Cupr
The historian Jane Dawson has drawn attention to the uniqueness of the arrangement between abbot and reformers at Coupar. There was a chance, after that pacts, that the abbey buildings might have survived more or less intact. But it was not to be.
Following Campbell’s reign of transition, various secular individuals gained control over the valuable earthly possessions of Coupar Abbey. By an Act of Parliament in December 1607, King James VI sought to ‘suppress and extinguish the memories of the Abbacie’. He erected the abbacy into a temporal lordship in favour of James Elphinstone, son of the secretary, Lord Balmerino, and enobled him with the title Lord Coupar. A painting by Balmerino of Coupar in 1607 shows a remaining tower within the abbey precinct. It is stated that Coupar himself was ‘a weak man of mean capacity, who went by the epigrammatic cognomen of “that howlit Cowper”.’ [Strathmore, Past and Present, McPherson, 41.]
The remaining structures in the abbey precinct appear to have been further damaged in April 1645, in an onslaught by an Irish royalist force of 200 men led by Montrose’s lieutenant Alexander Macdonald. Their damage and plunder was an act of revenge and intimidation against Lord Coupar because of his Covenanting views. During this raid the parish minister Robert Lindsay was slain and a defending party of cavalry under Lord Balcarres was routed.
Lord Coupar died without issue in 1669. He was buried in Coupar without any religious ceremony whatever and the property eventually devolved on his nephew, John , 3rd Baron Balmerino. The latter took legal action against his uncle’s widow to repair damage to the rotting remains of the abbey buildings, but this was not undertaken, because John Ochterlony of the Guynd, wrote in the Account of the Shire of Forfar, circa 1682, wrote that the abbey was in a sweet spot but nothing remained of the buildings but rubbish.
Remaining Mysteries, or the Mystery of Remains?
Much of the later building work in Coupar Angus sensibly utilised the available stone from the former abbey. The town steeple was built in 1769 on the site of the old prison of the Court of
Regality. Its lower floor was used to confine of prisoners. Coupar’s kirk was rebuilt in 1878-9 on the site of the abbey. John Carrie wrote in 1881 about the scant remains of the abbey and its last occupant over forty years previously:
What now remains of the Abbey...consists of a single vaulted apartment, with one or two slender, but finely pointed arches. It was visited in 1838 by a person of antiquarian tastes, who found it then occupied as a workshop by an humble sculptor and painter. His productions, however, possessed considerable merit...About the year 1830 some vaults, probably sepulchral ones, were accidentally discovered, but the authorities soon afterwards shut them up again. [Ancient Things in Angus, 102.]
A Secret Tunnel?
A more elaborate, though possibly related tradition was recounted by James Cargill Guthrie. He stated that an old Coupar man informed him there was a secret tunnel or passageway leading from this last remaining fragment of the abbey and the south-western Sidlaw Hills. It was found by workers excavating a very deep drain. One of the men, more brave than the others, volunteered to explore the passageway to the north. From his point of entry he traced it to the remains of the abbey and returned to tell his fellows. But for his second foray he re-entered the tunnel and ventured south. He never returned from this second adventure. His friends waited days for his reappearance, but when all hope was gone they sadly sealed up the entrance to stop anyone else following him to their fate.
A variant states that the poor, lost original explorer was a woman, not a workman. Was this story inspired by the discovery of weems or souterrains at Pitcur nearby, although the latter places lies several miles south-east of Coupar? It is said that in 1982 a local mason actually found the underground connection between Pitcur and Coupar Angus. The mason told the tale to Martha Jane Sievewright, who told it in The Abbey of Coupar Angus (1983), and re-told by Maurice Fleming. Tunnels, real and imagined, crop up regularly in folk tales and the association with a human unwise enough to enter the Underworld and paying the price links the story directly to a legendary source.
Folklore Afterword: The Ghost of Dron
Those who prefer their history unpolluted by folklore can safely disregard this last piece. It concerns an ancient track named the Priest's Road which runs south from Tullybaccart on the main Coupar to Dundee road, road across the Sidlaw Hills. It is a lonely route, though it may once have been used by the monks of Coupar going down to the fertile coastal plain of the Carse of Gowrie where they held lands, or indeed across the River Tay to the abbey of Balmerino where their brother Cistercians. The pathway crosses the current Angus-Perth border very close to a chapel at Dron. The chapel is little more than a graceful arch standing alone amid scanty, lesser masonry. It is an evocative place, but perhaps not entirely as bereft of company as one might imagine. Between here and Tullybaccart, on the Angus stretch of the ancient Priest's Road, there is sometimes seen a solitary traveller dressed all in white. He may be a bee-keeper, as some have thought, though there are no hives nearby. Or he may be someone else.
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