Thursday, 12 April 2018

Church Bells (Joy and Music or Death and Darkness?)

The Folklore of Bells

Who would have thought there were things so dark and mysterious in the history of church bells?  If folklore generally bells are sometimes the means of banishing Satan and all dark powers, transmitting the power of goodness as well as pure sound. Slightly more supernaturally, in some places bells are heard under the sea, having been sunk in a shipwreck, forever tolling for their own  loss.

   Bells were sometimes given human names and attributed with powers to scare malevolent forces away.  It was said of the great bell in the church of Nuremberg in Germany:

By name I Mary called, with sound I put to flight,
The thunder crackes and hurtfull stormes and every wicked sprite.

The ropes at rest - for ringing the bells or hanging some unfortunate?

Hell's Bells?:  Stealing the Peals.  Continental Bells. Death at Navar

   In 'real life' there is a surprising association of criminality and dark acts sometimes associated with church bells.  Never as numerous in Scotland as in England, it seems that certain sacrilegious individuals viewed them only for their net worth as metal to be melted down and sold on.  So we have a record in the burgh archives of Dundee in 1560 when the Baillies ordered 'James Young to exhibit and produce before them the bell of Kynspindie, whilk was arrestit in his house to the effect they may do justice thereanent.'  Young was evidently a shady opportunist taking advantage of the redistribution of Church belongings at the Reformation and had misappropriated the church bell from Kilspindie in the Carse of Gowrie.  He did not respond to the demands of the Dundee authorities, so he was required 'to deliver to Archibald Dowglass of Kynspindie his bell or pay him the sum of twentie pounds.'  There is a tale untold about how he transported the conspicuous object from the village to Dundee and how he was caught.

   There was another bell theft a few months later when it was recorded:  'William Carmichell to deliver to the parochiners of Lyff their bell, taken by him frae certain persons wha wrangously intromittit therewith.'  Whether or not Liff ever got its original bell back is a mystery.  The current kirk bell  was cast in the Netherlands by the Burgherhuis foundry at Middleburg (which later also provided the bells for Liff's neighbours Benvie and Lundie, the latter dating to 1617.).  This foundry also cast bells for the Angus kirks of Farnell (1662) and Panbride (1664).  Oathlaw's bell (1618) waqs also made in Europe, as was that of Rescobie (1620, from the foundry of Andreas Ahem).   The first known bell at Kettins was cast by George (Jooris) Waghevens and was made in 1519. Monikie's bell, unusually, is of Scottish manufacture, made at Aberdeen in 1718.  There do not seem to be any outrageously ancient bells surviving in the churches of Angus.  The name of Thomas Tulloch, Bishop of Ross, is evident on the bell of Tealing, with the inscription saying it was dedicated to St Mary and the patron of the parish, St Boniface, in the year 1460.

   Cornelis Ouderogge of Rotterdam made Navar's bell in 1655, which was later given to Arbroath Museum.  It had remained in the kirk of Navar until that building became ruinous after the union of the parish with Lethnot in 1719.  It was then hung upon a tree in the churchyard.  While the bell was being tolled for a funeral the clapper later fell out and struck a young lad from the family of Wyllie of Tillyarblet and killed him on the spot.  In 1773 the locals erected a tower for the bell and here it remained until 1827 when it disappeared for a time.

   Knelling of the Passing Bell.  Dundee and Brechin Chime In

  There was a widespread superstitious connected with the Passing Bell, though tolling still happened at funerals under the sway of Presbyterianism.  Dundee's authorities at one time decreed 'that ony person [who] cause the gret bells to be rung for either saul mass or dirige, he sall pay forty pence to the Kirk werk'.  But, at another time, 'The bell is decernit till ring friely for all neighbours and comburgesses at ony neighbours decease without any contribution, except twelve pence to the sacristan ringer alanerly.'  This latter fee was also sometimes dispensed with as a matter of respect.

   In medieval times, the ringing of church bells occurred at different times.  Prior to the Reformation the kirk of Dundee possessed 5 bells, on which 'six score and nine straiks' were given three times a day, to call to 'matins, mess, and evensang'.  It was no easy matter for those people who actually swung the heavy bells.  On 10th November 1590 the burgh of Dundee recognised these concerns:
The Council, understanding the grite and continual travels and lawbours quhilk Charles Michelson hes in ringing the bells and attending on the Kirk at all occasions, and the exignitie [insufficiency]of the duty quhilk wes appointit of before for that service, quhairupon ane person can not lieve honestly, now appointit to him yearly aucht pennies to be upliftit of ilk neighbour having ane fire-house within the burgh, at sic time and season of the year as he sail think expedient... [The History of Old Dundee, Alexander Maxwell, 1884, 292-3]
   Three years later a new bell was bought on behalf of the burgh, probably from the Netherlands.  Apart from the instances above, the bell or bells were also chimed to mark the curfew.  Dundee's curfew was rung at 9, but later changed to 10 in the evening.  Brechin's bells began ringing at 4 in the morning and the last was rung at 8 in the evening.  The Beadle rang the 'little bells' on Sunday morning to announce the time for prayers and the 'great bell' in the steeple at the start of preaching.  The last bell rung at 8 marked the beginning of curfew.

The tower of St Mary's Dundee, the 'Old Steeple'.

Forfar's 'Lang Strang' and the Jealousy of Dundee

   Forfar's 'Lang Strang' bell has a special place in the affections of Forfar people and dates from the mid-17th century.  Two brothers, Robert and William Strang emigrated to Sweden and made a good living for themselves there. (They are generally supposed to be sons of Provost Alexander Strang of Forfar, but may have been his brothers.)  The Forfar brothers donated two small bells to their hometown, which were called 'six o' clock' and 'eight o' clock', and in 1657 donated a massive new bell to the burgh.  The elder Strang in Stockholm, Robert, commissioned Gerhard Meyer to cast a great bell to give to Forfar.  Before it was completed he died and his brother William took over the project. Robert also bequeathed 10,000 merks to the poor of Forfar.

   A popular story says that the bell was shipped from Stockholm to Dundee, but the people of Dundee were so jealous of Forfar's bell that they tore out the clapper and threw this 'silver tongue' into the River Tay.  Undaunted the Forfar folk collected their bell and improvised a new clapper which served for many years until local craftsman David Falconer produced a new one, which serves to this day.  This is the version of the story given by the Rev. J. G. McPherson in Strathmore, Past and Present (1885, p. 249):

When the principal bell arrived in Dundee from Stockholm, it was thought by the magistrates of that town too good for a small place like Forfar. A struggle ensued for possession of the bell, during which the tongue of it made of silver was wrenched out and thrown into the Tay. After a time, Forfar got possession of the Strangs' gift; but only on condition that Forfar would buy all the ground to be passed over in conveying it from the quay to the northern boundary of Dundee parish. This was done at great cost; and the place in Dundee goes still by the name of Forfar Loan. The bell was without a tongue for a century and the one now in it has not power enough to bring out its rich tone.

  Lang Strang is fulsomely praised by Alan Reid in The Royal Burgh of Forfar (Paisley, 1902), p. 136:

Swung 'high in the belfry' of the parish church, the large and graceful object is not to be seen without some trouble and exertion, but it repays seeing quite as much as it does listening.  Its great size - some three feet by four - as also its massive brazen build, commands attention; but the ornamentation and inscribing are equally interesting.  The Strang quarterings appear on one side, with these words:  'This bell is Perfected and Augmented by William Strang and his Wyfe Margaret Pattillo in Stockholm, Anno 1656.'  On the opposite side may be read:  'For the glory of God and the Love he did bear to his Native Toune Hath Umql. Robert Strang Friely Gifted this Bell to the Churche of the Burghe of Forfar, who Deceased in the Lord in Stockholm on the 21 daye of Aprill, Anno 1651.'  The words 'Me fecit Gerat Meyer, Anno 1656,' appear among the quotations from Scripture which occupy the upper and lower circumferences of the bell.  To bring forth the full volume of tone which 'Lang Strang' is famous requires a considerable exercise of strength and skill. Many an ambitious young Forfarian has had his mettle tried by the 'tow-rope' of the giant.
   The traffic of bells with Sweden was not entirely one way.  The Courier newspaper reported on 27th November 2013 that  a pair of Swedish Lutherans turned up in Carmyllie and announced they had found a bell inscribed with the village name just outside of Stockholm.  The theory runs that the bell found its way to Sweden soon after the  first Jacobite rising in 1715.  The Earl of Panmure had ordered the bell to be rung so enthusiastically that it was reported to have cracked and so a new bell was installed in the kirk in 1716.  So the bell marked with Carmyllie's name in Sweden may be that original bell, but no one knows how or why it ended up there.

Lang Strang

The Kettins Bell:  The Mystery of Marie Troon - Mercenaries, Monasteries, Bogs, and Theft?

   Another bell with continental associations and an even stranger tale stands in the kirkyard of Kettins.  The bell has the inscription:  'My name is Marie Troon and Mr Hans Popenuyder  [Popen Reider] made me in 1519.'  This Hans is possibly to be identified with the cannon-maker who supplied the cannons for Henry VIII's warship the Mary Rose. There is no proven connection between this foreigner with Kettins (or the Flemish monastery mentioned below).

Since the church was redesigned in 1893, the bell has been houses in a small separate turret, but was incorporated into the main building before that date. The first strand of mystery revolves around how a 16th century bell with an apparently blatant European origin can to belong to an 18th century church.

  Architect Alexander tried to unravel the story late in the 19th century and gave the traditional origin of the bell as relayed by antiquarian Andrew Jervise:

The traditional origin of the bell, as given by Jervise, is that it originally belonged to the Abbey of Cupar-Angus, had been removed from there, and lost or hid in a bog or myre at Baldinnie, a short distance south of Kettins, whence the bell was rescued by one Ramsay, and by him presented to the Kirk of Kettins, and he, in respect of the gift, acquired for his family a right of burial within the church. In proof of this story, Rev. Mr Fleming states that the burial-place of the Ramsays was immediately underneath the belfry. ['Notice of the Bell and Other Antiquities at the Church of Kettins, Forfarshire,'  Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 28 (1893-4), 90-100.]

   From that point, however, the story gets impossibly entangled.  One theory states that the monks at nearby Coupar Angus had possession of the bell and buried it purposefully before it was taken to Kettins church for safe-keeping.  However, there was a considerable time lapse before the closure of the abbey in the mid 16th century and the appearance of the bell and gift of it to the kirk in the very last years of the 17th century.  If Marie Troon is equated with 'Mary Enthroned', some argue that this connects the bell directly to the Abbey of Coupar, dedicated to St Mary.

   By the end of the 20th century it was widely theorised that the bell had been cast in Belgium and there was a small trickle of visitors from that nation who came from that nation to see the bell.  Flemish historians believed that the bell came from the monastery of Our Lady of Troon in Grobbendonk, near Antwerp, and was looted by soldiers. This connection had already been made in the late Victorian era by David MacRitchie, as told by Alexander Hutcheson:

half an hour's walk from Grobbendonck, there is a small hill which gives its name to the surrounding farm, viz., 'De Troon' or 'The Throne.' The farm-steading is part of an old monastery known as 'Maria Troon.' The Priory of Canons-Regular of Maria Troon was foiinded in the year 1414 near the village of Ouwen, now Grobbendonck, on the river Nethe, one hour's journey from Herenthals . . . But in the year 1578 it was attacked by the Dutch soldiers of the province of Herenthals, and burned to the ground. The monks were dispersed, and ultimately, in 1587, united themselves with the monks of St Martin's Priory at Louvain.

   How the Marie Troon actually made its way from the Low Countries to Strathmore, however, is far from apparent.  Some people say the Marie Troon was first used on board a ship and was possibly stole while the vessel lay in Scottish waters; others believe it fell into the hands of traders who sold it on to the Hallyburton family who had connections with Dundee and Kettins. Hutcheson however points out that the bell is too large to have practically served that purpose.


   Things took another turn when a well-manner delegation from Grobbendonk came to Kettins in the early 21st century and asked if they could have their bell back.  Among those pressing for the repatriation were Paul van Rompaye, a local councillor, and Martine Paelmon, a member of the Belgian parliament.  However, a compromise was hammered out whereby the Belgians indicated they were prepared to accept a bell made from a cast of the original.  Crisis and diplomatic incident averted.

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