Sunday, 5 November 2017

More Lost Treasures of Angus

   In previous posts I have detailed some of the historical treasures associated with the county of Angus which have gone astray over the course of the centuries.  Premier among these must be those extremely rare Pictish relics, such as the bronze plaque found at the hill of Laws, Monifieth, uniquely carved with Viking runes naming its owner as Grimkitil.  The object itself was lost in the 18th century, although drawings of it survive.  Rather more dubious is the alleged Pictish crown found and broken up in Arbirlot in the 18th century.

   Later in time was the medieval ring lost near the Hawkhill in Dundee, the illustration on which is given below.  The ring is supposed by some to have been given by King William the Lion to the ancestor of the Durwards of Lundie at the end of the 12th century.

The Remains of the Lion King

   Following the death of King William the Lion in 1214, he was buried before the high altar of Arbroath Abbey.  His remains were allegedly uncovered in a stone coffin here in 1814, workmen found a stone coffin containing the bones of a large man.   The bones of the supposed king were put on display until they were reburied just prior to World War Two. The author of A Series of Excursions... Around Dundee in the 19th century however repeated the rumour that these remains might not be all they were reported to be (p. 95):
Cynical persons have cast doubts on the antiquity of these mouldy bones, and some declared that the keeper [of the Abbey] picked them up in the kirkyard, and supplied fresh ones when required...  The former keeper - Mr D. Peters - was a man of resource.  In his museum of curiosities he used to exhibit a lump of some black substance which, to the untrained eye, resembled 'smiddy danders.'  In a mysterious tone he would ask the visitor if he could guess what that was.  Of course you gave it up, and then he gravely informed you that he found that in the stone coffin, and curious to ascertain what it was he sent a portion to Dr Christison of Edinburgh for analysis.  The opinion of the learned Doctor, he said, was that the substance was that the substance was composed in great part of the material of which the human brain was formed, and hence the worthy keeper concluded it could be nothing more nor less than the brains of King William the Lion, of blessed memory, solidified into a hard and stony mass.  The idea was enough to drive antiquarians into fits - the brains of a king preserved in a lump for the edification of future generations.  But with Mr Peter's regime this interesting relic has disappeared.

   There seems to have been a minor industry in constructing dodgy artefacts in Arbroath during the Victorian age.  J. M. McBain in Arbroath Past and Present (1887) relates how another custodian of the abbey, Deacon Elshender together with his wife Forbes Valentine, were conspicuous show people (p. 8):

[Forbes] made a trade of exhibiting to the visitors a bone, which told them was that of Earl Gilchrist, or some other distinguished personage, real or imaginary, whose grave she pretended to show, and then, after enjoining secrecy, she would offer to part with the relic for a small pecuniary consideration.  She not infrequently found dupes, and in this way, she managed to dispose of many a basketful of bones, which she had gathered promiscuously from the neighbouring graves, as they were opened to receive the newly dead.  On being remonstrated with by a distinguished clergyman, then resident here, she coolly remarked that 'it pleased the folk that bought them, and helped her to eke out her income, and did naebody ony harm.'
   So, without extensive archaeological investigation, the jury must remain out on the remains of the brain of William the Lion.

The Colossus of Dundee

      With the recent riverside development, Dundee is finally coming to terms with the loss of much of its historic buildings in the post war period.  But, despite incredible new buildings like the V&A Museum, there will always be some Dundonians who cast a sorrowful eye back at what has gone.  Some of these buildings merited preservation, while others of course did not.  I have always found the regret lavished on the demolition of the Royal Arch (in my mind a Victorian monstrosity) non-comprehensible.  Dundee's castle is of course long gone, perhaps vanishing during the Wars of Independence in the early 14th century.  But few people know that Castle Hill in the 17th century boasted an enormous statue of the god Apollo.  In all likelihood the statue did not achieve anything like the scale of that lost wonder of the world, the statue of Helios better known as the Colossus of Rhodes.  Dundee's version was still substantial though and was used as a landmark in the Tay estuary.  What happened to the statue, and when it was destroyed, is something of a mystery.  There may well be fragments of the monument lurking in odd corners of the city. If the waterfront developers are looking for something even more eye-catching to erect on the shore, they might do worse than this... (can I apply for a grant please?):


The Indestructible Holy Cross of St Vigeans

   The last in this latest instalment of lost treasures is a miraculous Christian monument which stood in the kirkyard of St Vigeans.  Although this site is the locus of very many Pictish monuments, this particular Celtic cross was even more unique, according to the Aberdonian writer Thomas Dempster.  

   Writing in his work Menologium Scottorum in 1622, Dempster avers that there was a wooden cross near St Vigeans which defied all attempts at desecration.  As a fervent Catholic his mind was probably thinking of the Protestant reformers who had zealously destroyed nearby Arbroath Abbey, as well as many other places.  Heretics had tried to burn the cross, but it was invulnerable.  He repeated the notice of this miracle several years later, saying that attempts to destroy the cross with fire and iron had miserably failed.  What became of this cross, or whether it actually existed, must still be classified as a mystery.  The story may contain the wispy memory of an actual wooden cross dedicated to St Fechin of Fore on this site.  That said, Dempster had a reputation of being sadly unreliable.  One authority cites another of his works as 'one of the most discredited works ever written in the field of Scottish history,' and that's saying something.  Consider also Dempster's own avowed tendency to tell lies about himself, such as the claim that, at the age of three, he completely mastered the whole alphabet by himself in the space of a single hour.

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