Friday, 1 January 2021

The Goors o' Gowrie - Devil's Work or Ancient Tribal Meeting Place?

    At Invergowrie, west of Dundee, there were two stones sitting in the shallows of Invergowrie Bay known as the Goors or Gows of Invergowrie. Some say that they were called by other names and others say that there was only one stone which fell into the river when the Devil threw his burden from the opposite shore in Fife. Either way the object or objects have a peculiar power and are said to have been creeping slowly back to land. And when they reached the shore it would herald the end of the world.

    The legends of these stones on the Perthshire-Angus border give clues about the early history and significance of the local area and call out for detailed study. The folklore here may in fact be the most important of any which are associated with Angus.  I have theorised  widely about these objects in this article due to their importance. The folklore was first published in the 19th century and there has been much written about the stones since that date. If a lot of this is repetition or contrary information, this is no different from many other popular tales which mutate over the course of time. 

   The story of these stones had first come to widespread attention in the 1826 first edition of Robert Chambers' classic folklore compilation The Popular Rhymes of Scotland and included in all subsequent editions:


When the Yowes o' Gowrie come to land,
The day o' judgment 's near at hand.

   A prophecy prevalent in the Carse of Gowrie and in Forfarshire. The Ewes of Gowrie are two large blocks of stone, situated within high-water mark, on the northern shore of the Firth of Tay, at the small village of Invergowrie. The prophecy obtains universal credit among the country-people. In consequence of the deposition of silt on that shore of the Firth, the stones are gradually approaching the land, and there is no doubt will ultimately be beyond flood-mark. It is the popular belief that they move an inch nearer to the shore every year. The expected fulfilment of the prophecy has deprived many an old woman of her sleep; and it is a common practice among the weavers and bonnet-makers of Dundee to walk out to Invergowrie on Sunday afternoons, simply to see what progress the Yowes are making! (Chambers 1870, pp. 256-7) 
   A slightly later account of the stones was written by the eminent Angus antiquarian Andrew Jervise. He states of the stones - 'the most popular antiquities of the district' - known to him as the Goors of Gowrie: 'These are two unembellished boulders, each about two tons weight, which lie upon the shore of the Tay, immediately to the east of the kirkyard of Invergowrie.' (Jervise 1855, pp. 444-5). 

   He then gives a version of a rhyme which was current in the locality about the stones:

   When the Goors o' Gowry come to land,
   The warld's end is near at hand.
   The rhyme was believed to be the work of the late 13th century seer True Thomas of Erceldoune and involved the belief that the stones in the river would one day return to dry land and when that happened it would signal the end of the world. It is interesting that Chambers neither attributes the verse to Thomas nor attempts to give an explanation about how the stones first came to be deposited in the River Tay. Later writers tapped into a common folklore motif which stated that Satan was furious that a Christian Church was being built north of the Tay. Standing near the Fife shore he hurled three massive boulders at the building. Two of these fell short and fell into the river. A third stone was also wayward, flew way past the kirk and landed almost a mile to the north, where it still rests. Tales of this type are common throughout the British Isles, used to explain prominent monoliths, regarded as being somehow uncanny in the landscape, and the agent responsible is usually Satan, though sometimes a flying witch or an angry giant is blamed. (Tales of Satan taking aim at Christian edifices are also not uncommon. He threw stones at one church from the peak of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire.)

   The Satan story at Invergowrie is usually repeated without further geographical detail. In some printed versions of the tale only one stone lands in the Tay, not two. The Rev Philip (1895, p. 48) suggests that there was an associated legend when the Devil was afterwards travelling from Kirkcaldy to the Carse of Gowrie carrying a load of stones he meant to place as stepping stones in the Tay. But he stumbled as he passed over Benarty Hill in Kinross, which explains the boulders strewn about that place. 

   Can we attempt to find a meaning behind the story of the stones here? Seeking definitive 'truth' from folklore is probably a fool's errand. But various suppositions can be made. If we discount a natural process which stranded the stones in the River Tay it would be tempting to say that the stones ended up in the water because someone placed them there on purpose. Might we suggest that agents of the first Christian church removed pagan objects of local veneration and that the story of them returning to dry land reflects a fear that the old religion might one day return, signalling the end of the world, at least to devout Christians? 

   Various other stones in Britain are reputed to be either humans or animals petrified. If we suppose that Yowes = Ewes as one of the traditional names of the stones, we can look elsewhere for standing stones associated with sheep. There are not many. The Strathclyde saint Kentigern had a ram which was turned into a stone and there was a stone in Devon which was worshipped with the daily sacrifice of a sheep.  There are several accounts of stones which move. Stones which slowly move closer to land from a watery position almost seems unique to Invergowrie. True Thomas also reputedly visited Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire where he threw several stones in the River Ythan. If they every returned to the castle, it would spell misfortune.

   Analysis of traditional tales can obviously lead to connections being seen everywhere, even when the evidence is thin. There is some supposition later on in this article which hopefully does not stray too far from reason. But consider the following as a cautionary example. Very close by the site of the ancient church at Invergowrie was a supposed Roman marching camp which was known locally as Catter Milley. This is supposed by some to be a corruption of Cathair Melin, the 'Fort of Melin'.  We find the name of the hero Melin in the Highlands at Loch Broom where he is remembered for throwing a great stone across that loch. It landed at a place afterwards called Leckmelm, the 'Stone of Melin' . Is there a connection with the Devil throwing the stones at Invergowrie? Probably not.

The Third Stone

   The stone which flew  past the church and came to rest about about half a mile to the north and was called by various names, including the Paddock Stane and the Deil's or Devil's Stane. It is described by the First Report by the Committee on Boulders as a 'mica schist boulder, 8 x 6 x 4 feet'. The boulder stands in the perimeter of the mansion which was once named after it, Greystone House. D. M. Watson, the owner of the estate in the 19th century, was also the proprietor of nearby Bullionfield Paper Works and he had the boulder enclosed in an iron railing so that people could see it from outside. The great house was later turned into a hotel, formerly The Greystane Hotel, The Swallow Hotel, and now The Landmark Hotel. (The map reference for the stone is NO346310.) The claim on the current Wikepedia page about Invergowrie (which can be read here) that the stone by the mansion is called the Deil's Stane and that the Paddock Stone (or Fairy Stone) is another monolith on Waterside Road, Invergowrie is not substantiated in any other source I can find.

The Deil's Stane
The Deil's Stane

   The stone has an enduring reputation for being uncanny. During my early childhood  in the early 1970s I visited the stone with a friend and mocked his remark that you had to spit on the stone to  prevent Satan appearing there and then. He did so, but I held off until I was some way up the road, then shamefully and fearfully returned to complete the act. This probably says more about myself than the particular power of folklore at this site. If I were to hazard a guess at the origin of this 'tradition' I might be inclined to believe it was linked to the custom, attested at other stones, of placing offerings there to appease whatever otherworldly force was resident therein. Tradition states that each morning at cock crow the stone spins around three times. Exactly the same thing is said about another Angus stone, The Cauld Stane of Carmyllie which sat on the boundary of the parishes of St Vigeans and Carmyllie. It was also dropped by the Devil (or a flying witch).

  The stone's setting is undoubtedly significant. I discuss below the ancient significance of stones on boundaries, but even in the modern age they were used to mark important local borders. The Paddock Stone is said to have sat at the intersection of three roads before the building of Greystane House.  In Angus the famous Girdle Stane of Dunnichen is significant in this respect. A huge, marked boulder, it sits on the meeting place of the parishes of Dunnichen and Rescobie and also at the intersection of the lands of Dunnichen and Ochterlony. It was said to have been dropped into its location by a witch flying overhead (Warden 1882, p. 190).  Close by the boulder stone coffins, containing rude clay urns and human bones have been recovered.


Other Stones and the Ritual Landscape

    There is a tradition that another was hurled by Satan and that this one also missed its target. Alexander Hutcheson insists that there was only one enormous stone and that it exploded in mid-air, dividing itself into four separate boulders (Hutcheson 1927, p. 12). Whatever the truth of it, this other stone landed on the high ground some distance to the east of Invergowrie, on the high ground now covered by the housing estate on the western side of Dundee named Menzieshill. When the land was open country this stone, set on a mound, was surrounded by a knoll of trees known locally as The Dark Stane Roundie. The name was either reference to the reputation or the spot or because of the dark Scots fir trees clustered there. The anonymous author of A Series of Excursions (p. 113) noted that the top of this standing stone had been 'shivered off by lightning' and the broken piece was lying nearby. Hutcheson also confirms this and states that the site was destroyed in 1884. The Roundie was used as a weekend resort by card playing gangs of roughs, so the tree were grubbed up and the ancient monument was smashed into pieces which were used in the construction of nearby roads. The site was then ploughed over (Hutcheson 1927, p. 12. Elliot 1911, p. 206, says the stone was broken up in 1888 and some bones were found on the site.) . Eighty yards south-east of the Roundie is Invergowrie House, possibly on the site of an earlier baronial power centre, though another clump of trees in the locality was also identified as the earlier site (Myles 1850, p. 113).

   Some distance to the north-east of the Paddock Stone is the remains of a stone circle at Balgarthno. It is nothing to look at now and sits forlornly at the western fringe of the Dundee suburb of Charlestown near Myrekirk Road. It was described as comprising of 9 large and 4 small stones in the mid 20th century (Melville 1975, p. 178). A more recent description states that the circle was about 20 feet in diameter and consists of 9 stones, only one of which was still upright (Coutts 1970, p. 18).  The map reference is NO 353316.) These prehistoric monuments may all be related to each other as part of an ancient ritual landscape. Another stone which should be noted is the  16 feet upright stone which served as a slab bridge over the burn near the Dargie Kirk. It was re-erected in modern times, although its ancient position is unknown (Hutcheson 1927, p. 2).

  Alexander Hutcheson writes of another important large ancient monument in the vicinity. He states this is 'practically within the area of the Goors,' but does not directly identify the site. He describes the Stone Circle of Invergowrie as follows:

The Invergowrie Circle measures about 40 feet in diameter. It consists of nine stones, with a tenth one not set up in the circle with the others; it may be the sole survivor of a inner circle, or it may have been moved out of place in 1856, when the circle was explored. Only one stone remains upright, and that is about 5 feet high. One of the recumbent stones has a hollow on its upper surface, and is known as 'The Deil's Cradle'. (Hutcheson 1927, p. 13).
   This circle is obviously not identical with the Balgarthno one, but seems to refer to a site at Mylefield (NO334301). This lies south-west of the Paddock Stane and west of the Dargie Kirk and near the current Dundee-Perth road, just inside Perthshire. It is also significantly close to the supposed Roman marching camp in the area. Unfortunately the site no longer exists. Strangely a modern archaeological evaluation of the vicinity of Mylnefield House (Cachart 2009) has not found any ancient remains. Yet there is corroboration published in 1911 that the stone circle here did exist, albeit with a different count of the stones there: 'The location at Mylnefield was eliptical in form, and consisted of six large boulders—three at the east, three at the west, with a gap between capable of containing an equal number of stones' (Elliot 1911, p. 204). What happened to this large archaeological site remains a mystery.
   Beyone the prehistoric and Roman periods, this vicinity remained significant into the Early Medieval era. In a previous article I wrote about the significance of the location of the Dargie kirk at Invergowrie. The ancient church  is reputed to stand on the site of a foundation made by a saint possibly called Curetán or Boniface who was associated with the 8th century Northumbrian Roman mission to the land of the Picts. (That original post can be read here.) There was a Roman camp nearby and also possibly a Pictish power centre. Invergowrie stands on the border of the modern counties of Angus and Perthshire, and more precisely the districts of Gowrie and Angus. The church was on the left hand of the Invergowrie Burn, Gowrie side, and the later settlement of Invergowrie was within Angus on the east side of the burn. It is likely that this represents the ancient frontier between two Pictish provinces. Borders were places of some significance to ancient peoples in these islands. Treaties were often agreed at the intersection of tribal zones and there may have been a ritual significance to such places. 

   There were Pictish stones erected at Dargie/Invergowrie itself and also prominently at Benvie, the Angus parish to the north-west. The Invergowrie area has also shown evidence of souterrains and there is early medieval archaeology persent in the shape of square barrow crop marks and long cist burials.

The Names of the Stones

   There is no definitive agreement about what the Invergowrie Bay stones are called. The following phonetically similar terms are used: The Goors, Gows, Yowes, Ewes. The latter two names, Scots and English synonyms, may suggest that there was a belief that the two river stones were transformed animals and this may also be linked with the notion that the boulders were capable of movement. The words goor and gow are less easy to comprehend. Goor has connotations of slime or dirt according to the Dictionary of The  Scottish Language (, which may accord with their location in the shallows of Invergowrie Bay. None of the various meanings of gow would seem remotely applicable to a large boulder. There is a possibility that the name mundanely comes from the Scots version of the word gull because the rocks were frequented by those seabirds (First Report by the Committee on Boulders,1871-72, p. 17), but this seems rather unsatisfactory.  

  Alexander Hutcheson noted the occurrence of gow in a piece of 15th century Scottish prophetic poetry: 'In a Gow of Gowrie, by a gray stane, he shall tulzie wi the Tod' (Hutcheson 1927, p. 4), though the meaning is not clear. Hutcheson (c. 1842-1917), a native of Broughty Ferry on the other side of Dundee, was an architect, antiquarian and expert in ancient song. He is the most important source of information about the stones in the 20th century. Some of his conjectures may be wide of the mark, though they remain interesting. From the quoted verse he wondered whether it referred to a fight with Satan in the guise of some strange beast in the vicinity. 'Tod' is the Scots for fox - so we might have the Goors and/or Paddock Stone being either  seagulls,  foxes or sheep! Hutcheson also pondered whether the original defeated Satanic beast was a dragon as there is a prominent legend of a dragon affixed to a Pictish stone at Strathmartine, not many miles to the north-east. Using oral information from older residents at Invergowie who could remember as far back as the beginning of the 19th century, Hutcheson remarks on the correct names for the Tay stones:

...the general consensus [of] the name given to the stones was 'goors'...None had ever heard the name 'yowes' applied to the stones. A few had heard the name 'gows.' but still agreed that the correct term was 'goors.' That the form 'gow' did, however, exist, we have the evidence of [Thomas's] prophecy... (Hutcheson 1927, p. 20).

   The Gows was the name given to a nearby house in Invergowrie, In the late 19th century this house was owned by Mr James Henderson (Philip, 1895, p. 62). The site of the large house,  a mid 19th century edifice, is now incorporated in Invergowrie Technology Park, some distance north-east of the Dargie Kirk and the Tay shoreline. Its Victorian origins suggest that the house was named after the famous and legendary stones in the river just as Greystane House was named after the other monolith.

Detail from map of James Knox, published in 1831. Angus/Perthshire border marked in pink/yellow. Invergowrie marked as Dergo (for Dargie). Note the Roman camp of Cater Milley seems to be misplaced. The marked location approximates Menzieshill, site of the fourth stone.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland,

What Happened to the Stones?

   Where where the stones in the 19th century when writers first noticed them and where are they now? The answers are no clear cut. Andrew Jervise noted in his day (1855, p. 445)  that the stones were nearer to the land at Invergowrie than they previously been and inferred that this was because the railway line from Perth to Dundee was built here on reclaimed land. The anonymous compiler of A Series of Excursions Around Dundee (p. 45) noted in 1900 that,  'A footpath on the left-hand side of the road and skirting the east side of the [Invergowrie] burn leads to the kirkyard and the ruins, and between the [Dargie] kirkyard and the railway are the " Gows"...'

   The consensus of writers seems to be either that the stones were situated within the floodmark or that they were displaced by the railway works. Gershom Cumming (1843, p. 3) states that they lay immediately in front of the church, and within the flood-mark. This was confirmed too by Myles in 1850 (p. 112). William Marshall stated that in his time (1875, p. 47), 'The making of the Dundee and Perth Railway has rather rudely discredited the prophecy. That line runs some distance outside of the "Goors," and has brought them to land...' The liminal area between high and low water marks is a recognised spiritual no man's land, being neither fully land no water, where strange things where sometimes reckoned to occur.  

   There was uncertainty in 20th century reports about the fate of the stones. The Dundee Courier reported on 23rd January, 1929, that a rubbish dump had developed near the shore on the Angus-Perthshire border near the burn and at least one of the stones was buried beneath this. Domestic refuse 'on a spectacular scale' was being brought in from Dundee. But, although the details are vague, the article hints that something was visible regarding the stones:

About two months ago a couple of visitors arrived at Invergowrie Station with the express intention of seeing the historical stones. They left by the earliest possible train, but what they did see impressed them greatly. 
   Further reporting in 1950 seems to confirm that one boulder at least was buried in the landfill or rubbish dump near the shore. The Ordnance Survey inspected the site in April 1958 noted briefly that the stones had disappeared and their site was occupied by a scrapyard. Intrepid antiquarians who like a challenge might do worse than search out the Goors and the large missing stone circle at Mylnfield.

Invergowrie from the north, with the Devil haunted slopes of Fife in the background.

Further Theories 

      It would not be amiss to begin the theories about the stones with an observation which may indeed be valid. The Paddock Stone, with its aura of awe and importance, may have served as a boundary stone quite far back in time and another theoretical function may have been as a place of judgement. We know of other standing stones which were employed by local barons as meeting places where justice could be dispensed and proclamations issued. At Little Dunkeld in Perthshire there is Clach a mhoid, and in Ayrshire there is a boulder at Killochan named The Stone of Judgement. Many other examples of baronial meetings at solitary monoliths or stone circles in Scotland could be given. 

   In the Welsh poem The Gododdin, which details the doomed heroics of a band of British elite in the late 6th century, there is mention of a Pictish hero Llif son of Cian who came from a place termed Maen Gwyngwn, the Stone of the Venicones. (A mischievous writer might suggest that there is a connection between the name of this hero and the Angus parish of Liff, immediately north of Invergowrie. However, the name of Liff most likely relates to the local topography (according to Dorward 2004, p. 81.)  The historian Andrew Breeze states that the proto-Pictish tribe of the Venicones resided north of the Tay. If that is the case, their prominent tribal stone may still be in situ, unidentified in its landscape. I am not stating that it is the Paddock Stone, but there is a fair case to be made that it may be. 

   A Roman list from the 3rd-4th century names eight British loca, which were meeting-places of tribes under Roman protection and possibly places for trade. Some of these places are unidentified, but we can confidently claim that Maponi is probably the boulder known as the Clochmabenstane near the Solway. Mavani is likely Clackmannan, another iconic stone. There was another named Taba which is related to the Tay. A strong contender for this site would be the monument known as Macduff's Cross which stone on the border between Perthshire and Fife. It was a place of sanctuary strongly linked with the wider kindred of Macduff, Earl of Fife, and may have been a place of ancient importance also. I would hazard a guess that it was Taba. If this is the case, then the Invergowrie stone may have been another tribal place of importance whose earlier name has been forgotten, unless it is indeed Maen Gwyngwn.


  Other Angus Stones Associated with Satan

   There are several tales of large stones being dropped into conspicuous places in the Angus landscape. Most of these were the result of actions by witches or giants. One stone sits in a watery situation which may be pertinent to note for this enquiry.  This is The Devil's Stone at Cortachy. In the bed of the river South Esk in this village the stone lies. It landed here after Satan vengefully threw a stone at the kirk from a distance of 8 miles after the minister broke up one of his gatherings (Newman, pp. 17-18). Luckily the minister touched the boulder with a cross as it left the Devil's hand and this was enough to divert the stone away from the church and into the water. We can compare the tale also with another further south, from Fife. Standing on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, Satan threw a stone at the kirk of Crail. The boulder split as it flew at one part fell short of the church, while the other flew past and landed at Balcomie Sands. The half near the kirk is known as The Blue Stone of Crail.

Modern Verse on the Stones

    The following verse was stumbled across in the New Zealand newspaper The Otago Witness (Issue 2631, 17 August 1904, p. 71). Its author was probably a Scottish exile, though unfortunately I can't make out the name at the bottom.

Works Consulted

Anonymous, First Report by the Committee on Boulders appointed by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in April 1871, from the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol VII (1871-72).

Anonymous, A Series of Excursions by Road and Rail, for Twenty Miles Around Dundee (Dundee, 1900).

Cachart, R. (2009). Mylnefield House, Invergowerie. Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust Ltd.

Robert Chambers, The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (4th ed., Edinburgh, 1870).

Herbert Coutts, Ancient Monuments of Tayside (Dundee, 1970).

Gershom Cumming, Forfarshire Illustrated (Dundee, 1843).

The Dundee Courier, 'Judgement Day Prophecy. Thomas the Rhymer's Hint to Invergowrie. Rubbish Dump Swallows Up Noted Landmark' (23rd January, 1929).

David Dorward, The Sidlaw Hills (Balgavies, 2004).

Alexander Elliot, Lochee As It Was and Is (Dundee, 1911).

Geoff Holder, Paranormal Dundee (Stroud, 2010).

Alexander Hutcheson, Old Stories in Stones and Other Papers (Dundee, 1927).

Andrew Jervise, 'Notices descriptive of the localities of certain Sculptured Stone Monuments in Forfarshire, viz., - Benvie, and Invergowrie; Strathmartin, and Balutheran; Monifieth; Cross of Camus, and Arbirlot. Part III', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,  2 (3) (1855), pp. 442-450.

William Marshall, Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (Edinburgh, 1875).

Lawrence Melville, The Fair Land of Gowrie (1939, reprinted Coupar Angus, 1975).

James Myles, Rambles in Forfarshire, or Sketches in Town and Country (Edinburgh, 1850).

Patrick Newman, 'The Devil's Stone,' in Glen Folk, Celebrating Life in Angus Glens (2000), pp. 17-18.

Rev. Adam Philip, Songs and Sayings of Gowrie (Edinburgh and London, 1901).

Rev. Adam Philip, The Parish of Longforgan (Edinburgh, 1895).

James Stuart, Historical Sketches of the Church and Parish of Fowlis Easter (Dundee, 1865).

Alexander J. Warden, Angus or Forfarshire (volume 3, Dundee, 1882).

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Forfar - King Malcolm and Queen Margaret and the Castle

   Forfar's royal castle (or is it castles, plural?) have not been a physical presence in the town for many centuries, but the association of the burgh with royalty and power is a tangible and enduring part of its identity. What is known about the castle was summarised by the astute Angus historian Andrew Jervise, as follows:

The Castle Hill of Forfar is on the north side of the town, within the old boundary of the loch, and was surrounded by water. Malcolm and his 'good Queen Margaret' lived there occasionally, and a rising ground, about half a mile west of the Castle, still washed by the waters of the lake, in called Margaret's Inch, in honour of the queen, who is said to have had a chapel there.
   The 'facts' about the royal stronghold and the association with this particular king and queen is somewhat more vague than many sources would admit. Malcolm III of Scotland ruled from 1058 to 1093 and was a pivotal figure in Scottish history. Known by the Gaelic epithet ceann mòr, 'Canmore = Big Head', he was faced with an aggressive, newly Norman England and adapted his kingdom accordingly. The legend is that he deferred greatly to his saintly queen Margaret, a scion of the displaced Anglo-Saxon royal house, whose displaced family had been exiled in Hungary, among other places. Margaret is lauded/condemned for introducing modern reforms to the form of the Irish Church and religion as it was practised in Scotland. But the truth about the couple and their effect on Scotland is of course more complex.

   Although local historians and antiquaries link the royal couple to Forfar the evidence is quite thin. It is the same with the 'proof' that Forfar was a favoured and longstanding seat of royalty. The author of the Old Statistical Account of the parish in the late 18th century was The Rev. John Bruce. To give him his due, he did state that Forfar was only an occasional residence of this royal couple. But he pointed out, less securely, the significant English place-names in the vicinity which he believed were proofs of Forfar being a royal centre of some significance. These included the King's Muir, Queen's Well, Queen's Manor, Battle Dykes, etc. Another memory, particularly of Margaret, was the fair formerly held annually on the 16th of June, 'kept as an anniversary in honour of St Margaret'.  Bruce also noted that:

Tradition celebrates [Margaret's] attention to the good instruction of the young women in Forfar, and it is said it was the law of her table, that none should drink after dinner who did not wait the giving of thanks, and hence the phrase through Scotland of the grace drink.

   The Rev. J. G. McPherson elaborated about the commemoration of the queen in Forfar, stating that, on 19th June, 'the young females frequently went on the 19th of June in solemn procession to her Inch'. The 19th June supposedly marked the day of the queen's internment at Dunfermline Abbey. Several 19th century sources remark on the procession of barefoot girls going to the Inch to place garlands there in memory of the saintly queen. 

Illustration from Alan Reid's Royal Burgh of Forfar

Location of the Castle

   Where was Forfar Castle supposed to have been located? The Rev Bruce again states that it was on a hill beside a piece of ground called the Manor, adjacent to Forfar Loch. The site, a mound around 50 feet high, lies in to the east of the loch boundary today and, although no vestige of the building remains, Castle Street remembers the site. The CANMORE website run by Historic Environment Scotland firmly states the castle was surrounded by water. Local historian Alan Reid stated that two prominent islands, the Manor and Castle Hill, were located formerly in Forfar Loch.  

Two Castles or One?

The tradition that Forfar boasted two royal castles can be traced back at least to the 16th century Scottish historian Hector Boece. Albeit he was an Angus man who may have been privy to local knowledge, Boece is unfortunately tarnished with a reputation for unreliability. In his work he states that Forfar was strengthened with 'two roiall castles, as the ruins doo yet declare'.
   While it is not unusual to find medieval strongholds within fairly short distances of each other it would be highly unusual, if not unique, to have two royal castles constructed within the same burgh. It seems that the two castles story is most likely a legend. Possibly older writers were confused by remains on the other island on the loch. Yet the religious buildings associated with St Margaret certainly persisted into the 16th century, so may not easily have been misunderstood as a castle. Was there another fortification elsewhere? King William the Lion  granted Robert de Quinci, a leading Anglo -Norman baron, a plot in the old castle of Forfar in lieu of a toft (according to the Register of the Priory of St Andrews). De Quinci made it over to Roger de Argenten for £1 annually. The location of this 'old castle' must remain an open question. The Rev. McPherson ups the ante by postulating that Forfar had, in fact, three royal castles.

   In 1327 King Robert Bruce granted the lands of Fullerton to Jeoffrey his fowler and the record states that the man would also receive entertainment for himself, his servants and horses within the king's house at Forfar when the king himself resided there. This royal residence, wherever it was, does not seem to have been as grand as a castle.

The Castle After Malcolm

  Malcolm III's brother Donal Bane, who temporarily gained the kingship and was styled by some sources as a usurper, was thought to have been imprisoned at Forfar after he was deposed. Some say that he was blinded there. Subsequent royal activity is attested in the 12th and 13th centuries in the reigns of William the Lion (1165-1214) and Alexander II (1214-1249). William's widow, Queen Ermengarde, the founder of Balmerino Abbey in Fife, had a special attachment to Forfar Castle and resided for a time there. William held an assembly there in 1202. The English captured the castle in the 1290s and in 1306 is was burned and damaged. Following rebuilding it was destroyed finally in 1313 and never again restored. Remains of the building were visible into the 17th century.

   The actual sequence of occupation and destruction during the Wars of Independence are not absolutely clear. Gilbert d'Umphraville was an English nobleman, styled Earl of Angus through the right of his wife, and he delivered Forfar to the English. King Edward I of England himself visited the castle for three days in July 1296, receiving the submission of the Abbot of Arbroath and assorted local nobles from Angus there. A governor named Brian Fitzalan was installed. He had wider responsibilities and was also in charge of the castles of Dundee, Roxburgh and Jedburgh. One tradition maintains that William Wallace burned the royal castle. Alexander de Abernethy told King Edward I  that he found the stronghold burned and destroyed, and the wall about it much dispersed, though he gave the opinion that he thought he could hold it until relief came. Some repairs may have been undertaken. John of Weston, Constable of the Castle of Forfar, is mentioned in the records towards the latter part of English occupation. The fall of the castle to Robert Bruce is attributed to Robert the Forester of the forest of Platane who scaled the walls and opened the entrance, allowing the Scots to enter and slaughter the garrison.

   There were evidently remains of some ancient building visible into early modern times at Forfar, though whether they were indeed the last remnants of the royal castle is debatable. Alan Reid quotes an anonymous 16th century source:

I saw tua durs cheiks (door cheeks) with ane mid trie betuene the durris maid verray clenely and verray substantiolls, quharin the constabill of Forfair Castell duelt in the tyme of King Malcolme Kanmore; thay ar of blak aik, and appeirandlie as thai war not maid V. Zeir of eild. [The Royal Burgh of Forfar, p. 22.]
   The 17th century notices of remains include the local historian Ochterlonie and Monipenie. The latter briefly states of Forfar in 1612: ' The towne of Forfare, with an old castle, with a loch and an isle therein, with a tower.'  

   The octagonal cross of the Market Tower now sits on Castle Hill.  


The Market Cross Carving

   There is a tradition that the top of the old demolished Market Cross of the burgh of Forfar showed a carving which represented the old castle of Forfar. The Rev. Bruce wrote that, 'A figure of the castle, cut in stone, remains upon the manse and the market cross, and forms the device of the common seal of the burgh...' The ancient Market Cross of Forfar was demolished in 1683 and a new one commissioned by the town the following year. The latter was also demolished at some stage and the likeness of the old castle was said to have been carved on the top section of the latter cross. Andrew Jervise for one doubted the tradition. He stated that the carved finial of the stone was found in a property at Forfar in the early 19th century by Dr  Smith of Damside, Aberlemno. A few years after the discovery Dr Smith presented it to the town and it was placed at the base of the tower built on Castle Hill. However, it was damaged by vandalism and removed for safety to the Burgh buildings. 

The Chapel on St Margaret's Inch

   The Rev Bruce noted, before Forfar Loch was partially drained, near the north side there was:

an artificial island composed of large piles of oak and loose stones, with a stratum of earth above, on which are planted some aspen and sloe trees, supposed to have been a place of religious retirement for St Margaret. This now forms a very curious peninsula. The vestiges of a building, probably a place of worship, are still to be seen. And it is likely that there might be some accommodation too for the occasional residence of the priest of this place, as the remains of an oven were discernible not many years ago, and also something of the furniture of a pleasure garden.

   Some writers state that the Inch was latterly a peninsula, though it was originally an island. The tradition of the chapel here is based on fact. In a charter of king Alexander II dated 1234 the  monastery of Coupar Angus was bestowed with £10 yearly from the lands of Glenisla. Out of this annual revenue, 10 merks was devoted to the sustenance of two Cistercian monks who were perpetually charged with celebrating mass in the chapel of the Holy Trinity in the island in Forfar Loch. in 1508 the abbot of Coupar Angus granted the chaplainry to Sir Alexander Turnbull for life on condition that he maintained the fabric of the chapel and planted trees on the island. 

   Whatever the sequence of religious activities on the Inch, and irrespective of whether indeed it was an island or a small promontory, we can question whether if was originally a crannog rather than a natural geographical. If it was man made it would be a rarity in Angus as the nearest such structures are found in Highland Perthshire. It would also throw back the settlement date on the site at least into the Early Medieval period. Many crannogs, in Scotland and in Ireland, have their origins every earlier, in the Iron Age.  Forfar Loch has associations (albeit late associations) with a St Triduana who allegedly settled there in the Pictish period. We should also recall that the probably similar and very significant religious site of Restenneth was also on a promontory or island only a few miles from St Margaret's Inch.


The Cross on Castle Hill

Some Sources

Andrew Jervise, 'Notes regarding Historical and Antiquarian peculiarities of the Districts in Forfarshire, where the various relics now presented to the Museum of the Society were found,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, volume 2 (1855-56), pp 64-70.

James Murray Mackinlay, Ancient Church Dedications in Scotland, Scriptural Dedications (Edinburgh, 1900).

Rev. J. G. McPherson, Strathmore, Past and Present (Perth, 1885).

Alan Reid, The Royal Burgh of Forfar (Paisley, 1902).

Friday, 21 August 2020

The Last Public Execution - Andrew Low

I mentioned the unfortunate Andrew Low in a post about the later witches in Angus several years ago, due to his connection with a 'wise woman' named Lizzie Kinmont. (The post can be read here.) This piece adds more details about his story, although (as always), there is more yet to be discovered about his story.  
 Here's what I wrote then:

A public execution in 1785 incidentally involved witchcraft. The condemned man was a young thief named Andrew Low, who was hanged on Balmashanner Hill, Forfar. He was said to have been the last person executed for theft in Scotland. Andrew had once stolen a hen from Lizzie Kinmont of Brechin, unluckily for him a famous witch. Lizzie duly predicted that as many folk would see him die as there were feathers on her lamented hen - and of course it came true.

Balmashanner Hill

   Andrew Low was a wild youth whose behaviour was possibly decreed in part by his upbringing. His widowed mother was Babbie Wyllie and his father, Geordie Low,  was a carter went missing in a snowdrift between Forfar and Arbroath a month before he was born. Babbie, who lived in Jarron's Pend in Forfar solicited the aid of her two neighbours, Jamie Grant and Tam Broon, when her husband did not reappear in the morning. They found George not far from the town, with a broken neck in a ditch, his cart having veered off the road in the treacherous weather.

   Babbie, it is said, was a member of a prominent local family which included in its ranks a cousin named Mr Wyliie who was the Procurator Fiscal for Forfarshire. They felt that Babbie had married beneath her station. When Geordie died  Babbie was obliged to take any work she could find, including menial agricultural labour.

   His boisterous behaviour was marked from his earliest years, leading his hapless mother to remark: 'I ken he's royd [unruly], but he likes his mither, and, puir loon, he disna ha'e a faither. But maybe he'll be better when he's aulder.'  Minor misdemeanours were noted in his youngest years. These included tying pots and pans to the tails of dogs and cutting people's washing lines. Later, there happened the incident with Lizzie's chicken, while he stole and then wrung its neck and then sold to an alewife. She was reputed to have powers and predicted , 'There'll be as mony lookin' at his death as there were feathers on my bonny chuckie's body.'

   But Andrew drifted into a pattern of petty crime that led to his demise. Once, he had his friends went to Oathlaw on a Sunday and he stole half a crown from the collection plate. Babbie found the money that evening and returned it to the minister who did not press charges, though he warned the woman about her son's future. She and Andrew later relocated to the Lower Tenements in Brechin. Babbie died when her son was 12 and his behaviour degenerated. He is alleged to have been publicly whipped for minor crimes on repeated occasions. When he was around 20 he formed an attachment to a girl named Jessie Smart, but she could not alter his way of life.

  Around this time he burgled the house of a merchant, Andrew Lindsay, in Slateford and also a cobbler called John Bailie in Mainsbank, Kinnell. He purloined knives, scissors, tobacco, and shoe buckles, then went to Arbroath to sell them, staying at David Carrie's alehouse. Following a few days' drinking he went to Forfar and met up with associates at another alehouse, run by Robert Young, in Osnaburg Pend. The group attended the Mason Lodge Theatre in East High Street to see'Jack Sheppard' about a criminal. Their behaviour was so boisterous that some of the audience passed notice to the Procurator Fiscal who was also attending. The latter informed the burgh's officers to arrest Andrew on suspicion of housebreaking as news of the Slateford and Mainsbank crimes had come back to the town.

  As he was being taken to the tolbooth in the High Street his friends contived to free him and he escaped and hid on Montreathmont Moor for three days. He lived on oatmeal and turnips from a woodcutter's hut. But he was later captured and put in prison. On the 28th December 1784 Andrew was served with the Indictment and trial date was set for the 21st January. Charges against him included those brought by James Scott,  shoemaker, who said  that Andrew had sold him several objects which were produced and kept as evidence. A dyer called Thomas Whyte changed some money for Andrew and also bought a pistol from him. Alexander Williamson in Geghtyburn said the accused sold him numerous articles. Other witnesses included the men from Slateford and Kinnell.

  Judgement was given on 28th January 1785 by Sheriff Depute Patrick Chalmers of Aldbar:

The Sheriff-Depute having Considered the verdict of assize returned upon the twenty-first instant against the said Andrew Low the Pannel, whereby they unanimously find him guilty of the Crimes charged against him in the Indictment. Therefore the said Sheriff Decerns and adjudges the said Andrew Low to be carried back from the bar to the Tolbooth of Forfar, therein to remain until Saturday the nineteenth day of March next to come, and upon that day to be taken to the west end of the Hill of Forfar, the common place of execution, and there betwixt the hours of Twelve mid-day, and four in the afternoon, to be hanged by the neck on a gibbet until he be dead. Requiring hereby the Magistrates of Forfar to see this sentence carried into due and lawful execution, and ordains the said Andrew Low’s haill moveable goods and gear to be escheat and in brought to His Majesty’s use, which is pronounced for doom.

  On Saturday 19th March 1785 the authorities loaded 20 year old Andrew onto a cart which made its way to Balmashanner Hill in Forfar. On the journey, as was customary, the cart stopped at the Toll House on the Dundee Road and Andrew was given a parting glass of whisky. A huge crowd was waiting for him that day at Gallowshade. Gallowshade or Gallow Hill was on the west side of Balnashammer Hill. The place was said to have been grotesquely marked by nine mounds marking the graves of previously executed felons. That day the presiding minister was the Rev Bruce and the executioner was John Chapman of Aberdeen.

  Asked if he had any final words, Andrew said, 'I want to tell you lands. And fat I hae to say is just this, that I'm hangit innocent. No' that I've been a guid bairn a' my days, but the only thing that has troubled me, and aften I cudna get sleep for thinkin' o't, wis the stealing o' Lizzie Kinmont's clockin' hen.'  A laverock (lark) was singing sweetly above the cart on the final stages of its journey. Its singing stopped as he was hung. 

  Andrew Low was the last man in Scotland to have been executed publicly by sheriff's authority. According to David Black  in The History of Brechin (1867), there were some people in that town who firmly believed that Low should not have put to death. 'Low's fate was long a matter of conversation and regret in Brechin,' he says. 'But it was darkly insinuated that he had been led by cunning men to be participant in deeper crime than mere housebreaking and theft.'

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Prince Conall Corc and the Mighty Fortress on Turin Hill

  Turin Hill overlooks Rescobie Loch around 6 km north-east of Forfar. The summit is 250m above sea level, and the hill is marked by steep crags on the south. A place of some importance before history began, it is a place of obvious strategic importance, commanding a find view of the great broad valley of Strathmore below it. There are multiple archaeological remains from different periods crowded on the hillfort which have long been recognised, though there have never been full scale archaeological investigations here.

  The full richness of the multi period occupation on Turin will be summarised below, as will the rather intriguing associations it may have with an Irish prince named Conall Corc who may have been active in the early centuries AD.

Turin Hill. Photo by Richard Webb (CC License)

  In folklore terms, the kenspeckle nature of the hill, along with the fact that it was used for quarrying for a long period, gave rise to the once common Angus saying: 'Deil ride to Turin on ye for a lade o' sclates!' Despite this invocation of the unholy one, there does not seem to have ever been any association of this site with the supernatural or eerie. 

  There are two Iron Age forts on the summit of the hill and it seems to have been one of these which bore the alternative local name of Kemp's Castle (or possibly Camp Castle).  Rev Wright of Rescobie parish wrote, somewhat inaccurately about the fort on Turin Hill in the Old Statistical Account of the late 18th century:
Kemp or Camp Castle, on the top of Turin Hill, an ancient stronghold, consisted of
extensive contiguous buildings, with a circular citadel of 40 yards in diameter;
the situation being secured by an impregnable rock in front, and of difficult
access all round.
   The historian of Angus, Alexander Warden, described the stronghold in his account of Aberlemno parish:

The hills in the parish rise to a considerable altitude, Turin, the highest, being about 800 feet above the level of the sea, and 600 feet above the neighbouring lakes of Rescobie and Balgavies. Many stones, the ruins of an ancient stronghold, called Camp Castle, lie on the top of Turin Hill. The view from the summit is extensive, varied, beautiful, and grand. The boundary line between this parish and Rescobie passes along the summit of the hill.
   Turin is the diminutive of Tur, a castle, and signifies a little castle. It probably was so called to distinguish it from the royal castle, which stood in the vicinity of the hill, within which Donald Bane was confined by his nephew, King Edgar. The Lindsays are reputed to have taken the castle on the hill by force from the proprietor, supposed to have been named Kemp. [Angus or Forfarshire, vol. 2.]
   The rather feeble supposition that 'Kemp' was a man associated with the Lindsay family, who were prominent in the late medieval and early modern period as prominent regional landowners, does not suggest that there was ever any local tradition about the founding or occupation of the hillforts.

The Archaeology

   The earlier hillfort is a bivallate (double walled) enclosure measuring 247 by 122 m, while the secondary fort has a single wall and measures 152 by 39m. There are also traces of two or possibly three later, circular buildings, sometimes termed duns. It would be impossible to give a wholly accurate range of occupation dates, though it has been thought that the range runs right through from the Late Bronze Age into the Early Historic Period. Quarrying here may have began in the Middle Ages. The hill was surveyed in 1998 by the University of Edinburgh, but there has been no excavation on the site since that date.  The survey work confirmed at least three phases of occupation, with the circular enclosure homesteads likely belonging to the latter phases.  Additionally there were traces of hut circles and a large number of cup marked and cup and ring marked stones. This seems to suggest a site used in the Neolithic for ritual community activity; so much so that the hill has been compared to the important site at Kilmartin in Argyll.

   Turn Hill's fort has been compared also to the magnificent fort of the Brown Caterthun (visible from Turin), which stands 13 km to the north-east. More locally, some phases of occupation may be tied in with the hillfort on Finavon Hill, 2.3 km to the north-east. The latter was excavated by the very eminent archaeologist V. Gordon-Childe in the 1930s, and again three decades later,  and an estimate of its occupation ranged from the 7th century BC until the 5th or 4th centuries BC. It is worth mentioning possibly that Turin lies not far to the north of Dunnichen Hill, which seems to have been a local Pictish power centre from the 5th to the 7th centuries, signifying a continuity of authority in this small area by a local elite.

Conall Corc and the Pictish Dreamtime

   The circular homesteads on Turin have similarities with others in Perthshire and one authority has likened these to Irish structures and linked to an incursion of Gaelic speakers into the region between 500 and 800 AD. There is, remarkably, an ancient Irish tale which may be linked to the site which would suggest this is true and push back the Irish link to the earlier part of this date range, if not before it. I have fancifully called this the Pictish Dreamtime, though this is an unforgivably romantic description of the period just beyond the Pictish historical horizon. I summarised the tale of the possibly 4th century Corc in an earlier post (which can be fully read here  ). His story is contained in the Irish legend of  'The Finding of Cashel'.

   Conall Corc, from the Eoganáchta people, was the son of King Luigthech and Bolce Ben-bretnach (“the British woman”), which suggests there may have been even earlier contact between Munster and North Britain. Conall was later adopted by another ruler, his cousin Crimthann, but when he rejected the advances of Crimthann's wife he was sent in exile to the Picts in Britain.  In this foreign land, Conall almost perished in a blizzard, but he was saved by the bard of the local Pictish king. The bard also noticed a magical message written on Conall’s shield at the behest of his father. The message directed the king of Pictland to kill Corc. But the poet changed the words to request the king to give Corc every assistance he could and even give his daughter to the Irish immigrant, which is exactly what happened. Prince Corcc remained in Pictland until he had seven sons and an immense fortune. One of his sons  founded the Eoganacht kin-group of Circinn, and was possibly the ancestor of the Pictish king Angus mac Fergus.

   Several sources name Mongfinn’s son Cairbre, while the Book of the Hui Maine says the son was Main, but there were three other sons attributed to Corc and Mongfinn, all born in Alba. The full name of Feradach’s daughter was apparently Leamhain Mongfionn, and she had by Corc, Cairbre Cruithenechán of Circinn and Maine Leamhna. The latter was ancestor of the Mormaers of Lennox, around Loch Lomond.

   What has this to do with Turin?  Corc ended up apparently at the fortress of a Pictish leader named Feradach.  The stronghold was named Turin brighe na Righe.  The name may be coincidental, but it is still impressive. Corc married Mongfinn, daughter of the Pictish king, stayed ten years sojourn in Alba, and had three sons. In three manuscript versions of the descendents of Eber in the Psalter of Cashelone of these says that Cairbre Cruithinechan (“Pict Sprung”) was ancestor of the Eoganacht of Magh Circinn.


   Whether or not the tales hold water, they are nevertheless intriguing, and ultimately perhaps unprovable. I have provided Vernam Hull's full translation of one version of the tale of Corc below for anyone interested. The first part of the tale is mission, but the story is interesting all the same.

The Exile of Conall Corc

...Dublin and saw the ships going over the sea. He went with them eastwards over the sea and perceived the mountains of Scotland. They let him go onto the land. He went to a mountain in the west of Scotland. Much snow descended on him so that it reached his girdle. For five days he was without drink and without food until he cast himself down in a dying condition in a glen.
Gruibne the scholar, the poet of Feradach, king of Scotland, came, twelve horsemen strong, into the glen to seek his pigs. He beheld a lap of his mantle above the snow.

   "A dead man!" he said. He saw that his body was [still] warm. "Frost has done that to the man," said the poet. "Kindle a fire around him in order that his limbs will be able to rise."

   That was done so that he steamed. Suddenly he arose.

   "Steady, O warrior," Gruibne said. "Do not fear anything."

   Then, on beholding his countenance, Gruibne spoke as follows:"Welcome, O fair Conall Corc who took each land in the west beyond the region of the sea. Here, the ocean confused you so that sleep stretches you out. A host with silent troops of valor uttered a heavy cry for nine hours so that you were unable to find a word. Good [is] the meeting to which I am destined, [namely], that you came upon me [and] that you did not abide upon the surface of another land. [It was] a plan of sin that sword-ends were brought for your betrayal over the flatness of your body. ..of Lugaid mac Ailella. With honor he was honored. . . O mighty Corc about whom firebrands raise a cry,for fair Cashel protects you so that it will be over Femen that you will rule with fine feasting. Well will you suppress bad weather. In Munster-of the-great-hosts you will receive hostages so that you will be the lion of Loch Lein. Your fame will fill Ireland's vast plain and the race of Oengus above the surface of each land. The adze-heads will come over the sea's ocean with hooks of crooked staves." Actually the poet who had recited the poetic composition was one of the two captives whom Corc had protected from the Leinstermen. Then he put both his arms around him."It were indeed fitting for us," he said, "to welcome you. Who," said he, "saw to your advantage by means of the Ogham writing which is on your shield?" It was not good fortune that it indicated."

   "What is on it?" said Corc.

   "This is on it: If it be during the day that you might go to Feradach, your head is to be removed before it were evening. If it be in the night, your head is to be removed before it were morning. Not thus will it be."

   Afterwards, he bore him with him to his own house, and a hurdle [was] under him, and eight men [were] under the hurdle. On that day a month later, he went forthwith to speak with Feradach, and he left Corc outside. He related to him his whole story, namely, how he went to seek his pigs, and he said that he had intended to kill the man. When he saw the Ogham writing on the shield, he was loath to slay him, for this was on it: "A son of the king of Munster has come to you. If it be during the day that he might come, your daughter is to be given to him before evening. If it be in the night, she is to sleep with him before morning." 

   "The news is bad," said Feradach. "Anyone would indeed be sad that you have brought him alive."

   "Gruibne bound his equal weight in silver on Feradach and brought him in. That one offered him a great welcome. But the daughter was not given to him, for Feradach said that he would not grant his daughter to a hireling soldier . . . from abroad. This availed him hot, because the couple had intercourse with each other so that the woman became pregnant by him, and she was brought
down, and bore him a son. She did not admit that it was Corc's. They intended to burn her [and] the men of Scotland came for the burning. It was formerly a custom that any maiden who committed fornication without bethrothal was burnt. Hence, these hills are [named] Mag Breoa, that is Mag Breg. Then the men of Scotland besought a respite for the girl to the end of a year until her son
had assumed the form, voice or habit of the sept.

    At the end of a year they came to burn her. "I will not bring your son to you," said she.

   "You shall, however, bring him," said he, "into the presence of Feradach."

   When, then, she was about to be burned, she brought him before both of them.

   "O woman," said Feradach, "does the boy belong to Corc?"

   "He does," said the woman.

   "I will not take him from you," said Corc, "for he is a bastard until his grandfather gives him."

   "I do indeed give him to you," said Feradach. "The son is yours."

   "Now he will be accepted," said Corc.

   "Go forth, O woman," said Feradach, "and you shall have no luck."

   "She shall, however, not go," said Corc, "since she is not guilty."

   "She is, nevertheless, guilty," said Feradach.

   "But she is not guilty," said Corc. "To each son [belongs] his mother. On her son falls her misdeed, that is, on her womb."

   "Let the son, therefore, be expelled," said Feradach.

   "He shall indeed not be expelled," said Corc, "since that youth has not attained manhood. For the son will pay for her offence."

   "You have saved them both," said Feradach.

   "That will be fortunate," said Corc.

   "Well, O Corc,"said Feradach, "sleep with your wife. It is you whom we would have chosen for her, if we had had a choice."' I will pay her price to the men of Scotland."

   That was done. He remained in the east until she had born him three sons.

   "Well, O Corc," said Feradach, "take your sons and your wife with you to your country, for it is sad that they should be outside of their land. Take the load of three men of silver with you. Let thirty warriors accompany you."

   That was done. He came from the east, thirty warriors strong, until he reached Mag Femin. There, snow descended upon them so that it led them astray at Cnocc Graffand. His father was infirm.That brought them northwards into the north of Mag [Femin].

   On that day, the swineherd of Aed, the king of Muscraige, was tending his pigs. That night, he said to Aed: "I saw a wonder today," said he, "on these ridges in the north. I beheld a yew-bush on a stone, and I perceived a small oratory in front of it and a flagstone before it. Angels were in attendance going up and down from the flagstone."

   "Verily," said the druid of Aed," that will be the residence of the king of Munster forever, and he who shall first kindle a fire under that yew, from him shall descend the kingship of Munster."

   "Let us go to light it," said Aed.

   "Let us wait until morning," said the druid.

   [Thither] then came the aforesaid Corc in his wanderings.He kindled a fire for his wife and for his sons so that Aed found him on the following day by his fire with his sons about him. He recognized him then, and he gave him a great welcome, and he put his son in surety under his custody. When,
now, after the death of his father there was contention about the kingship of Munster, then Corc came. Thereupon, a residence was at once established by him in Cashel and before the end of a week, he was the undisputed king of the Munstermen.

   The surety of the Muscraige is the first surety that a king of Munster ever took, and, afterwards, they were freed, and a queen of theirs [was]in Cashel. Moreover, the swineherd who was found in Cashel, freedom was given to him and to his children by the king of Cashel, that is, without tribute and without exaction of king or steward. It is he, too, who raises the cry of kingship for the king of Cashel, and is given a blessing by the king, and straightway receives the garment of the king. Hence it is, then, that Corc's Cashel exists, and it is the progeny and the seed of Corc mac Lugthach that abides forever in Cashel from that time forth.

Sources Consulted

'Survey Work on Turin Hill, Angus,' Derek Alexander with Ian Ralston, Tayside  and Fife Archaeological Journal,  5 (1999), pp. 36-49.

The Picts, Benjamin Hudson (Chichester, 2014), pp. 67-68.

Men of the North, R. Cunliffe Shaw (Preston, 1973), pp. 200-1.

'The Exile of Conall Corc,' Vernam Hull, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America, 56, No. 4 (Dec., 1941), pp. 937-950.

Angus or Forfarshire, Alexander Warden (vol. 2, Dundee, 1881), p. 290.

Angus or Forfarshire, Alexander Warden (vol. 5, Dundee, 1885), pp. 100-1.

Monday, 29 June 2020

A Pictish Timeline in Angus

  This article provides a very basic summary of events in Angus during the 'Pictish centuries'. More details can be found in previous posts detailed at the bottom of this page. I leave out possible very early Irish settlement in Angus as this is not datable and will be covered in separate articles.


The Fifth Century

 I have posted several times before about the province of Circinn (which may have comprised Angus and the Mearns) and the supposition that Angus may be named after the powerful warlord Angus mac Fergus. Other rulers may have been based in our area, such as the 5th century king Nechtan Morbet, who possibly gave his name to Dunnichen. This piece merely summarises some other Pictish associations of the area, without providing a full overview of Angus in its context as a Pictish region.

The Sixth Century

The  mid 6th century represents the historical horizon for Pictland. The dominant leader was Brude mac Maelchon, whose main power base was certainly north of the Grampians and probably located near Inverness. Despite the fact that he is said to have authorised the settlement of St Columba in Iona, he and the saint had a combative encounter at his stronghold and he likely resisted the pressure to convert to Christianity, albeit some sources state that he did succumb to the new religion.

  We do not know for certain whether Brude ruled south of the mountains. He may have claimed over-lordship in the area. There is an intriguing entry in the Irish Annals of Tigernach under the year 752: 
The battle of Asreth in the land of Circen, between the Picts on both sides; and in it Brude, Maelchon's son fell.
    It has been suggested, probably correctly, that this notice is misplaced and that it should be under the year 584. There has been speculation that the powerful king of Dál Riata, Áedán mac Gabráin, launched an attack on southern Pictland towards the close of the 6th century in order to bolster the succession of his own son Gartnait as king of Picts. Gartnait may well have had a Pictish mother and been eligible for the crown, but if so the intrusion of these Scottish outsiders did not go unchallenged.

   The Annals of Tigernach  again tell us about a major event, which seems to have been a very bloody battle fought somewhere in the region of Strathmore:

The slaughter of the sons of Áedán, namely Bran and Domangart and Eochaid Find and Arthur, in the battle of Circhend; in which Áedán was conquered.
  This was a rare defeat for the Scottish king and may have taken place around the year 590.  The alliance of the brothers suggests that they were embarked on an enterprise to carve out territories for themselves in southern Pictland. It is possible that their defeat was more significant than has generally been supposed and that it prevented a large scale Scottish (that is Irish/Gaelic) takeover of the region.

The Seventh Century

     The Northumbrian English did have control over a large part of southern Pictland by the middle of the 7th century, though it is perhaps unlikely that they were able to occupy any large part of the territory. Their nominal border was the River Forth, though it seems that they were able to exact tribute from the Picts and may have installed compliant, puppet rulers over Pictish provinces.

   The ruler Brudei was a son of the British king of Dumbarton, Bili,  and had connections with the Scots also. The biographer of St Columba, Adomnán, was a particular friend of his. We can't recover all the details which led him to make war on the Northumbrian overlords, but it was a spectacular success, culminating with the Battle of Dunnichen in 685, otherwise known as Nechtansmere and Llyn Garan. I have written elsewhere about this decisive encounter and expressed the belief that it was indeed a battle which took place in Angus, rather than a suggestion that it took place at Dunnachton in northern Pictland. The latter suggestion is based on the historian Bede's assertion that the English king Ecgfrith and his army were lured between precipitous mountain passes and annihilated there. While Angus is not highly mountainous, I believe Bede's version was based on orally remembered and exaggerated survivors' tales.  Just like the battle mention a century before, this famous victory guaranteed the survival of Pictish independence and culture for several more centuries.


The Eighth Century

   As mentioned above, the common belief is that the county of Angus takes its name from king Angus mac Fergus, properly Onuist mac Urguist).  Angus died in the year 761. There has been speculation that Angus was Scottish in descent rather than Pictish and that his name implies that he was linked with one of the three tribes of Dál Riata. This tribe, the Cenél nÓengusa, had their main territory in the island of Islay. The name of the latter may have been transferred to the Isla, the river which separates Angus from Gowrie in Perthshire.

   Boundaries were sometimes regarded as sacred places and certainly liminal areas where the gap between the physical world and the Otherworld was very thin. Such seems to be the case here in Glen Isla.  In an Irish tract which  reproduced the 9th century Welsh Historia Brittonum we hear about the Wonders of Alba, which include:

a valley in Angus, in which shouting is heard every Monday night; Glen Ailbe is its name, and it is not known who makes the noise.

  The  Pictish king named Brude, Der-ile's son, is of interest here. Der-ile or Der-ili is an Irish name meaning 'daughter of the Isla' or 'daughter of Islay'. Brude's brother was Nechtan Der-ile. He evidently had a power base at Dunnichen and invited clerics from Northumbria to visit him there. Do we have faint evidence of a Pictish kindred based in Angus? Both brothers may have been involved in a civil war which raged through southern Pictland. There is mention too of a third brother, Kenneth or Cinaed, who was slaughtered in unknown circumstances in the year 713, along with the otherwise unknown 'son of Mathgernan'.

  Angus himself may have been militarily active in our area. The following notice, from the Annals of Tigernach, in the year 729, may refer to a skirmish which took place at Kinblethmont, not far north  of Arbroath:

The battle of Druimm-Derg- Blathung [took place] between Picts, namely Drust and Angus, the king of the Picts; and Drust was killed there, on the twelfth day of the month of August.

The Ninth Century

   According to one version of the foundation story of St Andrews, there was a royal site on the Angus coast, at 'Moneclatu, which is now called Monichi [Monikie]'  It was here that Pictish queen Findchaem (or Finchem) gave birth to a daughter named Mouren. The place has not been identified archaeologically and it does not seem there was a continuing royal site here which was used by rulers after the union of the Picts and Scots. To the west of here however is the parish of Monifieth, which was associated with the early church. There was a settlement of Culdees here and the land was gifted to them by the Celtic Earls of Angus.

   There is precious information about the Pictish twilight in our area, or whether the mormaers, or 'great stewards' who controlled the area on behalf of the Scottish king (and who gradually became earls), had Pictish as well as Gaelic blood. While there may have been some Irish infiltration into Pictland at an early date - perhaps in the 5th or 6th century - we can probably say that Gaelic did not become the primary language in Angus until the late 9th century. It only enjoyed a primacy of around three centuries before it started to retreat.

Some Previous Posts on the Picts

Illustrations in this article are from Kirriemuir Pictish stones in John Stuart's Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856).