Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Áedán mac Gabráin and the Battle in Angus

  A subject I have returned to several times during the lifetime of this blog is the unresolved question of how Irish was the region now know as Angus during the Pictish period, prior to the 9th century.

   There are a few tantalising clues, but the facts about the Irish in the area compete hard against the unproven legends and neither side seems to win out completely against the other. Why do we know about the Irish presence in our region?  Angus the county, of course, bears a conspicuously Irish name, being named (probably) either after the king Angus mac Fergus or the people known as the Cenél nÓengusa. The mists of time have obscured all certainty about either of these theories. There are tales too that the great Irish warlord Nath-I fought in the province of Circinn (the Pictish name for Angus and the Mearns), though what he was doing here is unknown. Elsewhere I have written about the tale of the Irish hero driven out from his own land and who created a dynasty in the land of the Picts. His name was Conall Corc.

   The above stories took place in the twilight just before the advent of written history. Closer to true history perhaps are the events which took place in the late 6th century. I looked at these details again during research for my forthcoming book on the fierce warlord Áedán mac Gabráin, king of Dál Riata. (Available from Pen & Sword.)

 One of this king's known battles happened in Circenn, though we are wholly lacking any details about it. Further confusion involves the mention of a battle he fought against a presumably Pictish people or confederation known as the Miathi, which occurs in the Life of St Columba. This tribe was known to have been active in the area around Stirling, known as Manau, several hundred years earlier.

   Confusion abounds. Did they migrate north to Angus? Have all these battles been confused, or were they military skirmishes which happened as a prolonged campaign by the Scots of the west against the southern Picts? We can't know for sure. What did Áedán himself want in this region? From what we know of his other campaigns, he was not a ruler who primarily sought to expand his territory. However, he may have given his blessing to campaigns which were waged by his sons. One of his sons was named Gartnait and it has been convincingly argued that he was a king of the Picts. Áedán may have married a royal Pictish woman which gave Gartnait a claim to territory in the east.  The historian W.J. Watson, in his classic work History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (1926), speculated that Áedán was the son of a woman whose father was the legendary hero named Brachan, who gave his name to Brechin in Angus. To bolster this claim, he derived the name of Gowrie, the area immediately to the west of Angus, from Áedán's father.

   The relationship between Áedán and the Picts may be even more intriguing if we consider him alongside the most renowned Pictish leader of the era, Bridei mac Maelchon. Bridei was based in northern Pictland and possibly ruled from a power centre near modern Inverness. It was here that the Irish cleric St Columba encountered him on more than one occasion. Although it was claimed by some sources that Columba converted the warlord to Christianity, the Irish sources do not admit this. Columba's contact was diplomatic, relating to the safety of Irish people in the far north, both fellow clerics and secular people who had been enslaved by the Picts. The record of his contact tells of ferocious ideological disagreement with the pagan powers at the epicentre of the Pictish establishment.

   The first time we hear about the nascent Irish kingdom of Áedán in a military sense, it is the flight of its warband under their king Gabráin, Áedán's father. Like him or not, Bridei was the primary power holder in the north of Britain. But did he hold sway in southern Pictland. There is a current emphasis among historians to assert the importance of northern Pictland, beyond the Grampians, over the southern territories. And yet, the truth may be more complex. These southern provinces, comprising Angus, much of Perthshire, Fife, and other regions, comprised much of the most fertile farming land in Scotland. Its resources were undoubtedly greater than the areas to the north. Greater resources signal greater power. 

   If Bridei did not control the south, he would have had aspirations to do so. A misplaced entry in the Irish Annals of Tigerach possibly gives us a clue about events in the land of the southern Picts. Under the year 752 there is a bald entry which says: 'The battle of Asreth in the land of Circenn, between Picts on both sides; and in it fell Bridei, Maelchon's son.' It has been convincingly argued that the entry has been misplaced by two 84-year Easter cycles and that it relates to a early battle in the early 580s. There was no Pictish king of the same name otherwise known in the mid 8th century.

  Bridei's opponent may have been an obscure Pictish leader known as Galam Cennaleth. The latter probably did not enjoy the victory, if it was his. Very soon the son of Áedán held sway over Circenn and the south. But was Áedán an ally or foe of the previously all-powerful Bridei. There is no knowing for sure. But it may be that the wily king of Dál Riata watched from afar in armed neutrality as the Picts fought themselves and then stepped in to conquer, as seems to have been his habit against enemies in Ireland.


Saturday, 4 September 2021

More On The Phantom Drummer of Cortachy Castle and the Ballad of the Bonnie Hoose o' Airlie

 This post supplements and updates the previous piece I wrote on the Phantom Drummer of Cortachy (published on 29th January 2015, which can be read here). For those unaware of the story, it is a legend that competes with the tale of the Monster of Glamis as the classic supernatural tale from Angus. Like the Glamis legend, the Cortachy tale seems to have originated in the mid-19th century, a product of the fervid Victorian imagination.

Foretelling Death in The Family

The Devil's Stone

   In a nutshell, the narrative states that a ghostly drummer is heard at Cortachy just before the current Earl of Airlie died, as a kind of family warning along the lines of a banshee (but slightly more civilised). Incidences of the drummer sounding were reported from 1845 until 1900, after which he apparently went into retirement. The similarity with the banshee is an important clue, I believe, in the ultimate origin of the story. In the earlier piece I made the suggestion that the death-warning element attached to the Ogilvys was due to their descent from the Celtic Earls of Angus. Almost uniquely for the long-standing noble houses of Angus, they can be seen highly probably as descendants of the Picto-Gaelic rulers of the region. A ghostly ram once seen in the Den of Airlie before a family death also emphasises the connection between family and attendant warning spirit. 

   A third tradition states that a stone in the River South Esk, near Cortachy, is submerged before a significant fatality. This stone may possibly be the same weird object as The Devil's Stone, said to lie in the river. (I await clarification from anyone who can enlighten me.) This massive boulder can be viewed from the bridge over the South Esk. The folk tale which explains the stone's presence in the water is somewhat reminiscent of the Deil's Stane at Invergowrie, hurled over the River Tay by his Satantic majesty. There are several versions of the Cortachy story. This version summarises the retelling given by Patrick Newman in Glen Folk, Celebrating Life in the Angus Glens (pp. 17-18).

   A long time ago the minister of Cortachy and a local laird were surprised by the sudden appearance of a local tenant farmer named John, riding hard on horseback on a Sunday morning. The farmer reported that the Devil, with a horde of demons and dead folk, was holding a ceilidh up Glen Clova between Drum and Eggie. Minister and laird went to investigate and, as they neared the place, they heard the sound of raucous revelry arising. Thinking this indicated a party of Sabbath breakers, the minister charged in. But he was astonished and dismayed to recognise several dead people, including old Minnie, who had died just last week, her sister Annie who departed six years previously, plus Auld Jim, dead even longer. In the middle of the foul gathering was Satan himself. Seeing the intruder, the Devil launched into an unholy sermon against the man of God. The undaunted minister commanded all those present to depart in God's name. But Satan said he cared nothing for God and lifted a huge rock and threw it towards the kirk, eight miles away. As he did so, the minister managed to pull out a cross and touch the stone. This act ensured the flight of the boulder was awry. Instead of destroying the church it landed harmlessly in the river. And there it remains.


   The obvious point has to be repeated that neither death warning apparitions nor phantom drummers are unique to the Ogilvy family of Angus. Exactly how the various traditions in both categories relate to each other up and down Britain is more difficult to say. The Drummer of Cortachy, in many versions, is said to have originated in the tumult of the mid-17th century. Before we consider the supposed identity of the ghost, we might ask whether the story originated elsewhere and mysteriously migrated to Cortachy Castle. The following story has some similar elements, and is entertaining enough, and yet does not seem an ideal fit for the candidate of an origin tale.

A Similar Edinburgh Tale

   In the mid-17th century the governor of Edinburgh Castle was Colonel Walter Dundas. A sentry one evening saw a drummer prowling the battlements, playing his drum. He fired his musket at the figure and called for help. Help came, no figure was seen, so the sentry was locked up. Subsequent sentries also began to see the drummer. Even the governor heard the ghostly drum sounding, which was now taken as a portend of some impending catastrophe. That same year the castle was taken by the English army of the Commonwealth and this was reckoned to be the disaster that was foretold. There were stories that the drummer was seen and heard occasionally afterwards, but his origin and purpose remain unknown.


Cortachy Castle

The Identity of the Drummer

   But who was the drummer supposed to be? One theory is that he was actually a Cameron who as accused of betraying the family to the marauding Campbells when they attacked Cortachy, Airlie, and the Ogilvy territory in Angus during the Wars of the Covenant. Protesting his innocence,  he climbed to the top of Airlie and played a warning tattoo until he was engulfed in flames. A second story insists that the Drummer was actually an emissary from the rival Lindsay family. The Lindsays grew to be a major power in Angus and eastern Perthshire in the late medieval and early modern period and as such they were major local rivals with the Ogilvys. There was frequent bloodshed between various branches of both families. One day, the story goes, a messenger arrived from the Lindsays to the Ogilvy owner of Cortachy Castle. Both the contents of the message and the boy's arrogant bearing infuriated Ogilvy, so he had the unfortunate emissary taken to the top of the castle and thrown off. One variant says he was thrust through his drum before being toppled from the battlements. The third, highly coloured story, says that the Drummer was one of the castle's servants who fell in love with the lady of the house and actually had an affair with her. Being inevitably discovered, he was executed in the manner described and, before he expired, uttered a curse on Ogilvy and the head of the house forever after. (Another variant states that Ogilvy's lady was the Drummer's sister and the Drummer himself was an outlaw at the time, though this seems to make no sense.)


Airlie Castle

 The background to the Drummer story and the ballad of the Bonnie Hoose o' Airlie is 17th century religious and political conflict between the Campbell house of Argyll and the Ogilvys of Airlie and Cortachy (their principal strongholds). James, 7th Lord Ogilvy (later created Earl of Airlie) was the enemy of the chief of the Covenanters, the 8th Earl of Argyll, and this Campbell warlord had a commission to eradicate this royalist enemy. Argyll came east in the summer of 1640 with a huge force and raided the Ogilvy lands in northern Angus. The Earl of Airlie was with the king in England, but his wife and immediate family were forced to flee in the face of the terrible Cambell onslaught.

The Late 16th Century Ogilvy-Campbell Feud

  The actual ill feeling between the families started during the Reformation in the previous century. The Campbells gained control of Coupar Angus Abbey in Strathmore and several of the family gained lands in the region of Gowrie, far from their core power base but uncomfortably near the lands which the Ogilvys controlled. After several decades of blooding ill feeling the Campbells opened a case against the Ogilvys and then violence erupted. Four Campbells were slain by the Ogilvys in the summer of 1591. The Campbells alleged that the Ogilvys had violently attacked people in the Perthire uplands who were under their protection.  Retaliation came quickly. The Campbells and their allies, 500 strong,  ravaged through the Ogilvy lands 'with sic barbarous crueltie, not sparing wyffis and bairnis, bot murthourit and slew all quhome they fund thairin'. Forter Castle withstood the raids, but the home of Sir John Ogilvy, Craig House, was destroyed. A sergeant in the Campbell ranks had gone to Craig and found it occupied only by an old, bedridden gentlewoman and several servants. Loath to destroy the home, he reported back to Argyll that it was a place of no importance or strength. But the earl was more hard hearted and ordered that the house be destroyed. The Cambells penetrated as far east as Glen Clova and destroyed the Ogilvy castle there. The feud erupted even though the families were connected by marriage. James, 5th Lord Ogilvy, was the son of Katherine Campbell.

   Even though the Campbells had gained the upper hand in that encounter, they still apparently bore grudge enough to feed into the violence which they unleashed upon the Ogilvys nearly 50 years later. 


The Ballad

   There are, of course, many variants of the famous ballad that commemorates the 17th century depredation of the Campbells upon Angus. Here is one version.

The Bonnie Hoose o' Airlie

It fell on a day, on a bonnie summer's day,
When the sun shone bright and clearly,
That there fell oot a great dispute
Atween Argyll and Airlie.

Argyll he has mustered a thousand o' his men,
He has marched them oot richt early;
He has marched them in by the back o' Dunkeld,
To plunder the bonnie hoose o' Airlie.

Lady Ogilvie she looked frae her window sae high,
And O but she grat sairly,
To see Argyll and a' his men
Come to plunder the bonnie hoose o' Airlie.

"Come doon, come doon, Lady Ogilvie" he cried:
"Come doon and kiss me fairly,
Or I swear by the hilt o'my guid braidsword
That I winna leave a stan'in' stane in Airlie."

"I winna come doon, ye cruel Argyll,
I winna kiss ye fairly;
I wadna kiss ye, fause Argyll,
Though ye sudna leave a stan'in' stane in Airlie."

"Come tell me whaur your dowry is hid,
Come doon and tell me fairly."
"I winna tell ye whaur my dowry is hid,
Though ye sudna leave a stan'in' stane in Airlie."

They socht it up and they socht it doon,
I wat they socht it early;
And it was below yon bowling green
They found the dowrie o' Airlie.

"Eleven bairns I hae born
And the twelfth ne'er saw his daddie,
But though I had gotten as mony again,
They sud a' gang to fecht for Charlie.

"Gin my guid lord had been at hame,
As he's awa' for Charlie,
There dursna a Campbell o' a' Argyll
Set a fit on the bonnie hoose o' Airlie."

He's ta'en her by the milk-white hand,
But he didna lead her fairly;
He led her up to the tap o' the hill,
Whaur she saw the burnin' o' Airlie.

The smoke and flame they rose so high
The walls they were blackened fairly;
And the lady laid her doon on the green to dee
When she saw the burnin' o' Airlie.


Monday, 23 August 2021

One County Over - Charles Sharpe, RIP

This is a short post of a different kind. I do not usually burden readers with poetic effusions, but here I make an exception. I recently learned of the death of Dundee-born Charles Sharpe, long-time resident of Totnes in Devon, who, however, never forgot his early days in Dundee, particularly in Lochee. He also retained a keen interest in the wider hinterland of Angus where he roamed and where his ancestors came from. He was a teacher, educator, psychotherapist, and a worthy humanist, as can be seen by reading his still available blog, Leaving Dundee. (It can be seen here).

We never met and corresponded only intermittently about various topics concerning the 'mither country'. His comments were always encouraging, generous and intelligent. The Courier's notice of his death is: here

One County Over

I thought you were quiet, but never knew you had gone into the night,
An end of an Auld Sang as they truly say, entered into the long rest
at last in gentle Devon (while I labour still, one county over, in the Cornish clay.)
Like me, from Lochee, but a post war laddie, remembering your beginning,
son of the burgh that never left your bones and what's more  a humanist voice
alive to all causes, against injustice and blasted spirits.
No blighted tongue, no mere rememberer, 
but a connoisseur of what was best from the blessed homeland.

The Den of Fowlis

 The Den o' Fowlis, also termed Spinkie Den or Balruddery Den, lies several miles north-west of Dundee. Its common name spinkie comes from the profusion of primroses which flourish there. The small, enclosed ravine (covering a site of 20.4 acres) was made a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1984, due to the botanical interest. The trees here include oak, wych elm and ash, and there is a profusion of flowers, wild garlic, plus mosses and ferns.Some time in the late 1980s, when I visited it, the mini glen was looking particularly forlorn, with evidence of widespread tree felling. To me, it looked like an example of rural vandalism, but it may very well have been evidence only of a carefully managed and necessary act of conservation.

   Long established as a special hideaway, there is a tradition of revelers from the Dundee suburb of Lochee alighting here in the late 19th century, being led to the den by a fiddler. Beyond this bare, recorded fact, these long ago gatherings are lost in the mists of time.

Poems On The Den

   The two following poetic effusions from Victorian times hardly do the Den justice, but are included here for the hell of it. One is by the redoubtable McGonagall, though the other poem is hardly better.

The Den o’ Fowlis, William McGonagall (1882)

Beautiful Den o’ Fowlis, most charming to be seen
In the summer season, when your trees are green;
Especially in the bright and clear month of June,
When your flowers and shrubberies are in full bloom.
There visitors can enjoy themselves during the holidays,
And be shaded by the trees from the sun’s rays,
And admire the beautiful primroses that grow there;
And inhale their sweet perfume that fills the air.
There the little children sport and play,
Blythe and gay during the live-long summer day,
In its beautiful green and cool shady bowers,
Chasing the bee and butterfly, and pulling the flowers.
There the Minnows loup and play;
In the little rivulet all the day;
Right in the hollow of that fairy-like Den,
Together in little shoals of nine or ten
And the Mavis and Blackbird merrily sing,
Making the Den with their notes to ring;
From high noon till sunset at night,
Filling the visitor’s heart with delight.
Tis most lovely to see the trees arched overhead,
And the little rivulet rolling o’er its pebbly bed,
Ane near by is an old Meal Mill;
Likewise an old Church and Churchyard where the dead lie still.
The Den is always cool in the summer time,
Because it is so closely shaded from the sunshine,
By the spreading branches of the trees,
While the murmuring of the rivulet is heard on the night breeze.
It is a very magnificent spot the Den o’ Fowlis,
And where oft the wintry wind it howls,
Among its bare and leafless withered trees,
And with fear would almost make one’s heart to freeze.
To be walking through it on a dark wintry night,
Because the bare trees seem like spectres to your sight,
And everything around seems dark and drear,
And fills the timid mind with an undefinable fear.
But in the summer season it is most lovely to see;
With its fair flowers and romantic scenery,
Where the people can enjoy themselves all the day,
In the months of July, June, or May.
There the people can drink pure water when they are dry;
From the wells of spring water in the Den near by,
Which God has provided for his creatures in that lonely spot,
And such a blessing to the people shouldn’t be forgot.

Den of Fowlis, Patrick Cargill Guthrie from My Lost Love (London, 1865) 

Ah! Bonnie den, my weary heart
Oft wanders fond to thee;
The memory of thy sylvan groves,
How very dear to me.
Remembrance of thy beauty brings
No mixture sad of pain,
For then to me had Eden come
In pristine bliss again.
No clouds my pathway then had cross'd,
I walk'd in angel-joy,
My lusty pulses beating high -
The happy poet-boy!
The winding walks o'ershadow'd cool
By boughs of lovely green,
With footsteps firm I proudly trod,
Of fame assured, I ween.
The glad larks sang 'mong golden clouds,
The finch 'mong blushing bloom,
The mavis piped upon the thorn,
The linnet 'mong the broom.
The wild flowers flung their fragrance rich
To every passing breeze;
Upon the senses stealing came
The drowsy hum of bees.
Earth, sea, and air rejoicing free,
Glad anthems rolling high;
Within my soul a deep, deep joy -
Divinest melody!
What grand thoughts stirred my youthful soul,
What aspirations high;
What longing - wistful - tearful looks
Into futurity!
Ah! then throughout my silver veins, 
Flow'd swift in golden streams,
My warm, rich blood, imparting form,
And substance to my dreams.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Fowlis Castle and Kirk


   The parish of Fowlis lies on the Braes of the Carse of Gowrie, part of the southern slopes of the Sidlaw Hills, several miles north-west of Dundee. Fowlis joined to the neighbouring parish of Lundie to the north in 1618 and is notable for its castle, kirk and the beauty spot called the Den o' Fowlis. 

   There has been confusion as to whether the parish was part of  Angus or Perthshire. It has been in Angus since late 19th century boundary changes, but was historically a part of Perthshire. (However, the barony of Fowlis included part of neighbouring Liff which has always been in Angus and the parish was also represented in the Synod of Angus and the Mearns.)

   Like many places the name of Fowlis is unclear and there are two in central Scotland, our example (sometimes called Fowlis Easter) and Fowlis Wester in Perthshire. One older theory states that the place-name derives from a Norman knight  - the Knight of Feuilles - who migrated from Kent who was granted the land by King Malcolm Canmore in the 11th century. Another suggestion says it gets its name from a Gaelic word signifying 'deep valley', referring to the narrow Den in the vicinity. David Dorward derives the name from fo ghlais, meaning 'sub stream' or 'tributary'.

   There are no very early dates regarding the ownership of the lands before the dubious Norman association but we know that King David I granted Fowlis along with other lands to William Maule following the Battle of the Standard in 1138. The Maules of course loom large as prominent gentry throughout the county through the centuries. One of Maule's daughters married Roger Mortimer, Sheriff of Perthshire, and Fowlis passed through this family for several centuries until the end of the 14th century when the heiress named Janet married Sir Andrew Gray, seventh baron of Broxmouth, who founded the line of the Grays of Fowlis. 

Fowlis Kirk

   The kirk may originally have been built in the 12th century, but the present building may be on the site of a 14th century foundation  by Sir Andrew Gray, later Lord Grey, in the 15th century.  This was done in 1453. Renovation was carried out in the late Victorian era. There is a record of an earlier kirk of Fowlis  in 1180, when William of Maule made a gift of the church and the titles of certain lands to his nephew, Thomas of Maule, out of which he was bound to pay a merk yearly to the Canons of St Andrews. 

   The kirk, dedicated to St Marnoch, is reckoned to be the finest surviving small medieval place of worship in Scotland. It was a collegiate establishment, served by a group of ecclesiastics (provost and prebends) rather than a single priest or establishment. This arrangement allowed the founder and sponsoring family to have an ongoing spiritual body on site employed to look after their everlasting souls.  The building has a sumptuous and surprisingly ornate interior which probably survived the wrath of the Reformation mobs of Dundee and Perth (who destroyed Coupar Angus Abbey among ot her ecclesiastical sites) due to the place's association with Lord Gray who was a staunch Protestant. There was an order by the Synod of Fife on 6th May 1612 to destroy the religious decoration:

Item, it is statute and ordained that the paintrie quhilk is upon the pulpitt and ruid-laft, being monumentes of idolatrie, sal be obliterate be laying it over with grein colour. The minister with diligens to see the same exped.

   Thankfully, there are surviving later medieval decorations still left in the kirk. There are many ancient features inside the building. Most significant perhaps is the oak panel painting of the Crucifixion. It details a crowd of figures (including St John, Salome, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene), plus horses,  and measures 13 feet by 5 foot 3 inches. A centurion points to a scroll which reads, 'Truly this was the Son of God.' There is also the figure of a High Priest (or possibly Herod) and the souls of the two condemned thieves issuing through their mouths, with the trees and hills of Jesusalem in the background. The painting  has been dated to around 1480 and show the influence of Bohemian and Cologne schools.

   There is another panel painting which may originally have been the altarpiece. It portrays Christ with St Catherine on the left; John the Baptist on the right. Below is the scene of the body of Christ being lowered into the tomb. The centre of the painting has been damaged. Other panels include one which probably originally decorated the rood loft and portrays a number of saints and apostles. 

 Further treasures include the 15th century oak doors, which were part of the rood screen, plus the rood loft which would have accommodated musicians. There is also a German bronze alms dish (dated 1487) which shows a scene of the Garden of Eden, with a German inscription reading 'I bide the time in quietness.'  Rather less elegant are the jougs, the neck collar used to confine miscreants, hanging on the wall by the north door. There is also the aumbry, or sacrament house, where the sacred vessels were stored. This is one of the finest ancient examples in Scotland. It portrays Christ holding the cross and a globe, an angel with a cross, plus several other angels.



Fowlis Castle and the Gray Family

   Fowlis Castle stands at the south of the village, near the head of the Den of Fowlis.It was the principal residence of the Grays until 1452 when they moved to Castle Huntly several miles away in the Case of Gowrie. After several centuries of dereliction it was allegedly used as a tavern and then utilised to house farm labourers in the 19th century and more recently has been fully restored as a private residence. There is a date stone of 1862 in the building, commemorating rebuilding by Sir Patrick Keith Murray in the Victorian period. It was largely constructed in its present form in the 17th century and was abandoned when the owners constructed the nearby House of Gray. There is a tradition that the castle was used by the English invader General Monck in the 17th century as stables for a cavalry force. The Grays sold the estate in 1669 to Sir William Murray of Ochtertyre and the Murrays removed to Ochtertyre House, Perthshire, in 1780. The castle was occupied by Jacobite forces in both 1715 and 1745. The Grahams of Fintry are supposed to have tenanted the building for some time also.

   The existing structure is called the Lady's Tower and is four storeys in height. The surviving building may represent most of the ancient south-west portion of the castle.  The more modern wing is on the north side. It was evidently a forerunner of this stronghold which hosted King James IV in 1497N(when he paid 14 shillings to a harpar there) and his ancestor James I in 1448. The brother of Queen Anna, the Duke of Holstein, dined here with Lord Gray in May 1598. 

   Although the Gray family had a sometimes tumultuous history, there are no recorded violent events associated with the castle except for one local tradition attached to the winding staircase of the stronghold. This staircase in the tower was supposedly the site of a murder in the 13th century when the Mortimer owner dispatched his own mother there. The tale seems to have been founded on a corruption of the surname, or a play on it: Morte du Mere.

The House of Gray

   The House of Gray stands rather forlornly several miles away from Fowlis Castle, in the parish of Benvie, where the Grays purchased land in 1713. It has been boarded up and semi-derelict for many decades. Plans to turn it into a hotel and various other things have been drawn up over the years, without result, though there is a current scheme to divide them building into dwellings. The mansion was built on the plans of Alexander McGill by John, 12th Lord Gray (b. 1716. Another source states it was begun by the 10th Lord Gray.). The principal dwelling of the family transferred to Kinfauns Castle at the western end of the Carse of Gowrie, which was built by Francis, 15th Lord Gray. 

   Invergowrie House, not far off, was the home of a son of the main Gray family. The new Dykes of Gray village has been built on the estate of the House of Gray.
   The estate was sold to John Ogilvie at the end of the First World War and he lived there until he died in 1936. The large house seems to have served as an orphanage for a short period subsequently before being left vacant. By the mid 1970s it was being used to house raspberries and cans associated with fruit growing.

The House of Gray

Monday, 10 May 2021

Return to the Ball of Kirriemuir


   This short piece is just a postscript to my previously published article on that most scurrilous of all songs 'The Ball o' Kirriemuir' (which can be found here). In that post I carefully skirted around the obscene content of the various versions of that ballad (and skirted is probably a good word to use in that context). The mystery surrounding the composition is multi faceted:  who composed it? is there an original version still to find? was it based on an actual, real life orgy? why so many different versions of it in circulation? 

   While reading a book by A.D. Hope which examines William Dunbar's poetic themes (A Midsummer Eve's Theme, Canberra, 1970), I stumbled across the following  quote which gives a possible origin story about The Ball. It was taken from an essay prefixed to the 1959 edition of Robert Burns' The Merry Muses of Caledonia. The essay was called 'Pornography and Bawdry in Literature and Society,' and the author is James Burke. 

This ballad-song developed from a twenty-verse work celebrating an actual event . . . Some thirty years ago [c. 1930] a local historian, in the Kirriemuir district, gave me this story of its origin. Around the 1880s a barn dance (harvest home or Kirn dance) was held in the barn of a neighbouring farm. On this occasion the young fellows gathered rose hips and removed the tiny yellow hirsute seeds. These were scattered on the earthen floor of the barn. The girls danced barefooted. Female drawers were not in general use but, where worn, were of the open crotch or 'free trade’ pattern. In the stour of the dance the small hip seeds lodged around the pudendal hair and set up a pubic and vaginal itch. In other words they constituted a powerful external aphrodisiac. In addition to this, some wag had added a modicum of Spanish fly to the punch bowl. A final touch was the placing of a divot, or sod of grass, in the well of the hanging kerosene lamp. This shortened the life of the illumination to coincide roughly with the time the internal and external aphrodisiacs became effective. The upshot was an orgy of major proportions and it was this orgy that was celebrated in the original Ball o’ Kirriemuir.

Is the theory true?  Who knows... answers on a postcard perhaps.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Forgotten Sons of Angus: Sir Peter Young, Tutor to The King

 Scholar and Tutor to James VI

Most people who know about the rather barren early years of King James VI of Scotland associate his teaching with the eminent but fearsome scholar George Buchanan. He was a man with little time for royalty and indeed he hated the king's mother Queen Mary. There was little warmth but much effective learning from Buchanan, even if the king ruefully remembered later in life that he had been forced to learn Latin almost before he could speak Scots. The rigid influence of Buchanan was mitigated to some extent by the secondary teacher, Peter Young of Dundee, who was a more sympathetic tutor to the orphaned monarch.

   Peter Young was born at Dundee on 15th August 1544, son of John Young, a burgess in both Dundee and Edinburgh. The family claimed descent from the Young family of Ochterlony. The Youngs were evident elsewhere in Angus, with one branch owning Aldbar Castle. One of the Dundee branch was William Young who lost his life at the battle of Glasclune in Strathmore in 1392. His mother Margaret belonged to the Scrymgeour family who were the hereditary constables of the burgh. Young was gifted academically and was encouraged in his studies by his parents.  He was sent abroad at the age of 18 and studied in Geneva under the renowned Theodore Beza, an associate of the reformer Calvin. Young's maternal uncle Henry Scrymgeour was also teaching at the University of Geneva.

   At the beginning of 1569 Young was appointed as secondary tutor to the young king by the regent the earl of Moray. By all accounts Young was highly regarded by the old and irascible Buchanan, despite the difference in their ages and temperaments. The duties in the royal castle of Stirling were evidently not onerous because Young is recorded as saying that he regarded his position of tutor as being more like a hobby than a job. He does not seem to have needed the job for financial reward since he had inherited land in Fife, Perth and Elgin. Young's first wife Elizabeth Gibb was a daughter or grand-daughter of Robert Gib, court jester of King James V. They married in 1577.

   As well as being the king's almoner until his death, Young was employed on various embassies and was involved in education.  He was also a member of the Privy Council. Young purchased the estate of Easter Seaton, part of the lands formerly owned by Arbroath Abbey, where the mansion house was built in 1583. The following decade he bought the nearby estate of Kinblethmont. Peter's youngest brother Alexander was doorkeeper of the inner bedchamber of King James VI. He died in Dundee soon after Christmas 1603.

  Some sources state that Young was sycophantic towards the king, but this is uncertain. In comparison with the nobles and great favourites at court, Young was not lavishly rewarded. One of the greatest payments to him was in September 1580 when the king gave him £2,000 , 'to buy sum pece of land and to plenishe the same to be a resting place to him hiswyff and bairnis in consideration of his lang trew and thankfull service'. Young played a conspicuous part in the embassy to Denmark to arrange for the king's marriage to Princess Anna. There is one negative incident associated with this venture, for the tutor wished to travel with the Earl Marischal, but the latter refused to go with him,  being 'perswaded,and it is true, that the sayd Peter will robbe him of all his honour, beinge an ambycyowse fellow, and aqaynted there, and specyally by his pryvy instruccyons'. There is some hint that the nobility resented him because of his relative lowly birth.  But King James remained grateful to Young throughout his life and regarded him with considerable fondness. He was knighted by the king at Whitehall in February 1605 and was given an annual pension of £300. Elizabeth Gibb died at Leith in 1595 and Young afterwards married Janet Murray, Lady Torphichen. Unfortunately she died in the same year. His third wife was Marjory Mavine.

Later Years as an Angus Laird. 

The Fight Against the Burgh of Forfar

  Although a wealthy man who was well-known and respected throughout Scotland and England, Young did have local troubles in his native region, particularly a long-standing feud with the authorities of Forfar which seems to have been caused by a dispute about the use of the forest of Mortreathmont, part of which Young had received as an inheritance from his father. There is a record of this dispute in the records of the Privy Council under the year 1607 of a complaint by Peter Young of Seton, that, upon 16th June last, the Provost and Baillie of Forfar had convocated the whole inhabitants of the said burgh to the number of 300 persons, who, all armed with corslets, jacks, steel bonnets, spears, halberts, lances, swords,  and other weapons, came 'with sound of drum' to that part of the common muir of [Montreathmont] which had been peaceably possessed by the complainer's predecessors past memory of man, and there, with spades and swords, 'cuttit and destroyit the haill turves and dovallis then cassin and win,' and chased Young's servants away. The provost Walter Lindsay and baillies were named and gave evidence. But the decision went against Young because the delegation from Forfar  stated they had merely gathered to ride and restore the historic marches or boundaries of the land belonging to the burgh. The quarrel continued however and in the following year the provost and baillies were bound over to keep the peace and not to harm Sir Peter Young, under the penalty of 500 marks each or 4000 marks collectively.

   Peter Young died at Easter Seaton on 7th January, 1528, and he was interred at St Vigeans.


Sir Peter Young aged 79


Sir James Young was knighted and acquired land in Ulster. The third son, Peter, became a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King Charles I and accompanied earl Spencer on a diplomatic mission to Sweden. He died aged 48 in 1631. Peter's twin brother Robert died even earlier, aged 37. He had been a tutor to a nobleman and had journeyed to the Holy Land. Patrick Young (d. 1652) was a distinguished scholar and became a rector and librarian to royalty. John Young became Dean of Winchester and chaplain to King James I. He acquired properties in Fife. Sir Peter also had four daughters, three of whom survived into adulthood. One of them remained in Angus after her wedding: Euphemia Young married Sir David Ogilvy of Clova.

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