The maritime tradition of the coastal communities of Angus include stories associated with fisher folk, smuggling legends, memories of the whalers which operated from Dundee and Montrose, plus other more elusive tales, the significance of which have vanished in the oceans and been dissolved by the brine. There is obviously no history of prehistoric interaction with the seas along this coasts and the ‘traditions’ about far ancient seafaring narrated by local historians are sometimes somewhat dubious. Elsewhere I have mentioned the tale that the now-deserted (but never substantial) fishing village of Usan was believed by one proud local to take its name from the Greek hero Ulysses who somehow took a wrong turn and ended up here.
An even more extraordinary story is related by David Mitchell in his History of Montrose (1866), who gives us this unsubstantiated tall tale (p. 95):
In the year 156 B.C., the mariners of Montrose were a daring set of savages, who in their prows put to sea and robbed the Fife shore. They lived on shore in rather a primitive state; just dug a hole and shoved in. Only think of a family or tribe lying in the ground to rest all night! Brechin at this period was the hunting ground of the ancient Celtic marauders, who dwelt on the sea shore.
Moving on to the early modern period, and we find that the waters around Angus were entered by foreign vessels. In 1563 the authorities in Dundee sent William Kinloch to Montrose to ask the officials of that burgh to apprehend a French vessels which had allegedly been trying to bring ashore goods captured from English ships in recent hostilities. Soon afterwards two Dundonian ships, the ‘Grace of God’ and the ‘Prymrose’ were recorded as having been captured by the English. The latter ship was certainly returned north.
A year later war between Denmark and Sweden caused diplomatic embarrassment in Scotland when a ship skippered by a Scot named James Barry sailed into Dundee harbour. Barry was in the employ of the kingdom of Denmark and had brought with him a Swedish ship which the Scottish authorities believed had been captured in an act of piracy. Provost Haliburton was obliged to send the sailor to Edinburgh where he disputed that he had acted as a pirate. Sometimes the officials on land behaved in a manner which might have put actual seagoing freebooters to shame. On 20 May 1567 the piermaster James Wedderburn of Dundee and his men took the opportunity to raid an Orcadian ship named the ‘Sampson’ which was lying off Broughty, having made its way north from Hull. Under cover of darkness Wedderburn and his gang of twenty men boaded the ship, removed the crew of six sailors and one boy, and also captured the cargo. The ship’s owner protested to the Privy Council that he was no pirate, but an honest merchant, and his claim was believed. Wedderburn was summoned to appear before the Council but failed to do so and was declared a rebel.
Whether it was for financial gain or for other reasons some merchants did resort to piracy on the seas. Thomas Ogilvy, merchant and burgess of Dundee, had his ship seized by the French and in revenged he gained a license to harry shipping belonging to continental authorities and caused his home town a headache in 1591 when he returned there with goods seized at sea which were deemed to be booty rather than legitimately impounded. Shortly after this incident the mariner of the Dundee ship named the ‘Robert’ complained to Bailie Lyon that their ship had been raided and damaged while travelling through the Spanish Seas.
But there were other perils on the waves apart from mere piracy. On 8 January 1604 the church authorities of Aberdeen authorisied the payment of £10 to
Thomas Chirstall, burges of Dundie, for relaving of his sone
from the selaverie and bondage of the turkis, quhair he is presentlie prisoner: quhilk sowme thay ordane to be allowit to the said James in his comptis.
Half a century later a Pittenweem ship named the ‘Gabriel’ departed from Montrose on 10 May 1650, bound for Norway to collect a cargo of timber and other goods. It had not sailed far when it was attacked by an Irish pirate ship. The raiders stole most of the provisions on the vessel and threatened the skipper Andro Tod in an effort to extort money from him. The pirates then ‘torterit him vehementlie’ and he was forced to hand over seven score rix dollars, but bravely did not do so until the pirates promised to return the sailors’ provisions. The Irishmen reneged on the latter promise, as the captain testified to the authorities in Fife several days later.
Possibly around the same time as this there was an incident where a fleet of ships was wrecked on the coast between north Angus and the Mearns. Nobody knows where these ships originated and the mystery was documented (possibly dubiously) by the Montrose historian David Mitchell. According to Mitchell:
From the variety of useful articles of all descriptions they had on board, it was supposed [these ships] were loaded with supplies for some new colony. Chests of drawers, tables, and other furniture, all made of oak; white pease, and other provisions ; besides a large number of small yellow bricks, formed part of their freight. The bricks were well known in Montrose by the name of the Cattesou bricks, and numbers of them have been made use of for chimney-tops and other purposes in the old houses between the steeple and the shore. After a storm, a few of them may occasionally yet be found on the beach. The size of the brick is 6 inches long, 3 inches broad, and 1 inch thick. They were made of very fine clay, remarkably well burned, and will last for ages, the weather having no oppression on them whatever. The whole are well shaped. Various articles of the furniture were to be seen in this locality not many years ago. An old woman, Helen Spence, who lived in a cottage in the Ride of Kinnaird, had a chest of Cattesou drawers in her house about 40 years ago. In consequence of a bad crop a great scarcity prevailed when the ships were wrecked. The corn was full of the seeds of a weed which, when ground with the com into meal, had the effect of making those who partook of it drowsy and sleepy, and the meal of that year was called “the sleepy meal” The white pease were eagerly taken possession of by the inhabitants, and ground into meal, which was the first thing that relieved the scarcity.[The History of Montrose, pp. 98-99.]
There is obviously a measure of distorted folk memory in the tale of these ‘Cattesou’ ships. The name possibly indicates a French origin, but exactly where they originated has never been satisfactorily explained.
Shipwrecks are a common feature of every coastal area, though there have never been a great number of wrecks on the coast of Angus, mainly due to geography. Losses among the fishing communities of the county will be looked at in a future post. Even though the writer of the Old Statistical Account for the parish of Barrie stated that his parishioners at one time had a bad reputation for ill-treating shipwrecked mariners, this kind of lore – possibly associated with deliberate wrecking and smuggling – does not loom large in the local records.
David Mitchell again gave a summary of some unfortunate sea disasters which happened along the shore of Angus:
A violent storm occurred about the beginning of the century, during which no fewer than 17 ships were driven ashore between the mouths of the South and Northesks. About the same time (1800), if not the same storm, a small brig, commanded by Captain John Keith, who lived on the Island, sailed from the Firth with a cargo of coals for Montrose. A violent snow-storm overtook the vessel, and the crew lost all control over her. They could not see where she was going, and gave up all for lost. Strange to say, the storm drove the brig in at the entrance of the harbour, and the crew did not know where they were until she struck upon the Scalp, off which she took some more men, who had got there before, and then drifted up and struck upon the Timber Bridge, erected a few years before. The late Mr. John Begbie, being afterwards gardener to Mr. Ross of Rossie, and Mrs Begbie and one child were passengers on board the brig at the time, on his way to enter on his new situation at Rossie. The child, afterwards Mrs John Tulloch, was handed up to some one of the crowd on the bridge, and the parents followed as fast as possible.Another fatal storm, known as the windy Christmas, about the year 1808, caused immense loss of life on this coast, and on the whole east coast of Scotland. A great number of men belonging to Montrose were lost that day.
[The History of Montrose, p. 99.]
One of the latest incident involving foreign shipping is also the most outlandish. Around 5 pm on Wednesday 23rd May 1781 a 20 gun French privateer named the ‘Fearnought’ appeared off Arbroath and tried to extrort money from the town. Some men from local boats were apparently captured. When it was clear that this was an enemy vessel which meant no good a town councillor named Patrick Ritchie on horseback was sent to Montrose to request military assistance. (There were at the time some 30 soldiers already in the burgh.) In fact Montrose had already, fleetingly, seen the French ship. A grocer named George Watson had been leaning out of his window when he saw the ship drop anchor and then it fired a shot, apparently aimed at the steeple, but which instead hit the gable above the grocer’s head.
Back in Arbroath, the town was called to arms by the voice of the town crier (also drawing attention with a drum) and the public cowherd blowing his horn.
The ship’s skipper, Captain William Fall, anchored his ship and sent a boast ashore with a demand for the safety of the burgh. The Frenchman’s letter read:
At sea, May twenty-third. Gentlemen, - I send you these two words to inform you that I will have you to bring the French colour, in less that a quarter of an hour, or I set the town on fire directly; such is the order of my master, the King of France, I am sent by. Send directly the Mair and chiefs of the town, to make some arrangements with me, or I’ll make my duty. It is the will of yours, G. Fall. To Monsieurè Mair of the town called Arbrought, or, in his
absence, to the chief man after him in Scotland.
The town officials circumspectly asked what the terms were and the French captain responded:
At Sea, eight o’clock in the Afternoon, May 23. Gentlemen,- I received just now your answer, by which you say I asked no terms. I thought it was useless, when I want you to come aboard for agreement. But here are my terms – I will have thirty thousand pounds sterling at least and six of the chief men of the town for otage [hostages]. Be speedy, or I shot your town away directly, and I set fire to it.I am, gentlemen, your servant, G. Fall He concluded with the postscript: I send some of my crew to you, but if any harm happens them, I will hand up at the yardarm all the prisoners we have aboard. To Monsieurs the chief men of Arbrought in Scotland.
The officials of the burgh debated a further response and sent a verbal message back offshore to that effect. Soon a drum beat was heard on board the ‘Fearnought’ and the ship’s guns opened fire and continued to target the town for several hours, until the advent of darkness. Most of the inhabitants prudently evacuated, but a rump remained, including Provost Greig, the Minister, and Colonel Lindsay of Kinblethmont. While some chimneys were knocked off roofs, but most of the cannon balls flew over the roofs and lodged in the sandy braes of Cairnie.
One direct hit, however, landed on Millhead House, home of Bailie James Renny and his family. At the commencement of the bombardment his family fled to his candle shop in the Marketgate. His wife and son hurried back to retrieve some silver spoons and a salt beef from the pickling tub. While they were retrieving these items there was a massive bang and the boy rushed upstairs and came back down with a cannon ball which had crashed through the roof.
Colonel Lindsay and the Laird of Hospitalfield gathered up an armed band of about ninety men (though most only possessed scythes and other agricultural implements) and laid in wait near the harbour during the fusillade, ready to repel a landing party, which did not arrive. At daybreak the bombardment recommenced, but with less intensity than the night before. The firing was sparse and random. Possibly the sailors saw what they thought was a range of artillery lined up against them on Ballast Hill. The ‘guns’ were in fact pumps which had been removed from nearby wells and disguised as weaponry. When the tide receded the locals went out onto the rocks and peppered the privateer with musket shot. Among the marksmen, the most effective were two Arbroathians rejoicing in the nicknames of ‘Tailor Smithy’ (known also as ‘Simple Tailor) and ‘Satan Barclay’. They perched on Nuckle Rock and began sniping, which ensured that the French crew kept their heads down. But then the cannon started firing red hot cannon balls with the intention of setting the town alight. These missiles were also woefully inaccurate and did very little damage. The owner of an Arbroath sloop who was a prisoner on the ‘Dreadnought’ confounded the aim of the gunners by advising wrongly on their angles of firing.
Around nine in the morning Captain Fall sent another bizarre communication:
At Sea, May 24. Gentlemen, - See whether you will come to some terms with me, or I will come in presently to the arbour with my cutter, and cast down the town all over. Make haste, because I have no time to spare. I give you a quarter of an hour for decision, and after I’ll make my duty. I think it would be better for you, Gentlemen, to come to me of you on board, to settle the affairs of your town. You’ll sure not to be hurt. I give you my parole of honour. I am, your, G. Fall
The officials of the town replied that they would be happy to see him ashore, where they would endeavour to give him the best possible reception. This did not go down well and neither did the red flag of defiance which they raised. The bombardment started again, better aimed than before, but still did little harm. Around midday the French ship weighed anchor and sailed away. There had been no human fatalities in Arbroath and the only deaths caused by ‘The Battle of Brothick’ were a family of chickens cruelly destroyed by a stray cannon ball. A few curious people had their fingers burned when they picked up the red hot missiles, but that was the full extent of the casualties. For years afterwards local laddies dug out cannon balls from Cairnie Hill and gave them to their mothers who used them principally for pounding mustard seeds. Ballast Hill was later home to a precautionary battery of six half-pounder guns, but the precautionary measure never had to be deployed.
The mystery remains of why the ‘Fearnought’ should have chosen Arbroath, of all places, as the subject of its semi-comical attack.* It is thought that the Dunkirk based ship harassed the south-east of England before coming north, but the reasons for coming to Scotland are lost in time, other than the fact that the seas were full of French vessels who were keen to bite back at Britain as the French were allies of the American colonists who were in dispute with the mother country. The unfortunate French ship apparently later sank the North Sea, possibly in 1782. In 1972 some divers found an 8 foot long cannon which they supposed belonged to the frigate.
[* Unless the French troops knew that Arbroath was at this time one of the centres where the press gang was based.]
A Series of Excursions, By Road and Rail, For Twenty Miles Around Dundee (Dundee, n.d.).
Adam, Hohn & Hay, George, Aberbrothock Illustrated, Being the Round O Etchings in Miniature (Arbroath, 1886).
Annals of Pittenweem: Being Notes and Extracts from the Ancient Records of that Burgh, 1526-1793 (Anstruther, 1867).
McBain, J. M., Arbroath Past and Present (Arbroath, 1887).
Maxwell, Alexander, The History of Old Dundee (Edinburgh & Dundee, 1884).
Mitchell, David, The History of Montrose (Montrose, 1866).
Myles, James, Rambles in Forfarshire; or Sketches in Town and Country (Edinburgh & London, 1850).
Neish, J. S., In the By-Ways of Life: A Series of Sketches of Forfarshire Characters (Dundee, 1881).
Selections from the Records of the Kirk Session, Presbytery, and Synod of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1846).