Saturday, 13 January 2018

Posing As A Ghost in the 19th Century

   Newspaper reports from the Victorian era sometimes throw up peculiar side-lights on the pastimes of the inhabitants of that age.  I've posted before about the strange habit of some individuals to pose as ghosts in their communities and scare hapless members of their own communities (see links at the bottom of the article).  The fashion for this went away for decades, until it was bizarrely resurrected in recent times by the hilarious trend of Scary Clowns chasing people with axes, etc.  Luckily, this social past-time has also now receded.

   It was rare for supernatural pranksters in that bygone age to be actually caught and prosecuted for their hilarious japes, but such was the fate of one such person, reported by the 'Courier' on 23 September 1879:

A Forfar Ghost Story.

At Forfar Police Court yesterday - before Bailie Ferguson - Alexander James Harrison Robertson, from Edinburgh, was charged with disorderly conduct by having, between the hours of 8 and 9.30 p.m. on Thursday last at the Junction of Brechin and Prison roads... wantonly and unlawfully disguised himself by wearing a white shirt, and woman's petticoat or skirt over his clothing, also by wearing a slouched hat, for the purpose of annoying, frightening, and alarming the lieges, and by time and place foresaid annoying, frightening and alarming and putting in great fear Jane Caldwell, dressmaker, and others named in the complaint and others of the lieges unknown to the complainer. From the evidence it appeared that a company in two brakes were driving from the east...when at the junction...they observed an "object" dressed in white, and the cry at once got up of "Springheels" and "a ghost".  The most of the lady part of the company said...that they were a little startled at first, but being all together they were not at all afraid...Mr Watson, draper, seemed to have taken the first words with the peace disturber, for he went up to him (he was at this time inside the avenue leading to the prison with the gate closed), and through the bars asked "What's up," when accused said it was a bit of fun. When witness saw he was speaking with flesh and blood he went away...[Some other gentlemen caught the accused.] The "Ghost" was stripped of his ghostly apparel...[but the man] commenced to blubber and whinge, and did not behave like a respectable ghost at all...
   Apparently the joker was staying inside Forfar Prison as a (non-convict) guest and a warden had seen the man and a friend go out into the street.  Yet the magistrate solemnly stated he had no doubt that it was a bit of fun, 'but from fun often proceeded danger.  He had no right to go outside unless properly clothed in male attire'.  The sentence was a fine of £1 or ten days' imprisonment.  The wording of the article is fully as entertaining as the story; love the mention of 'most of the lady part of the company'.

   Ten years earlier the same newspaper reported another, possibly more intriguing incident in Dundee (the 'Courier', 17 May 1869).  Not long before dawn a policeman patrolling the Hilltown saw a tall, thin figure gliding before him, rapidly approaching.  It was certainly gliding and did not seem to possess any feet.  The policeman stood his ground - for a while - then issued a dreadful yell and bolted.  His scream summoned several other bobbies, who all saw the same thing.  Yet they all took the shelter as the apparition sped down the Hilltown towards the town.  It passed down the Murraygate, Reform Street, and 'Some say that it vanished in a ... flame in the Howff burial ground', while others maintained it entered a nearby establishment.  The reporter was more convinced the figure was either a 'velocipedestrian somnabulist' or a certain 'Dashing Young Flesher' who had been seen in a certain part of Dundee days earlier, and whose occult disguise was a ruse to cover his attempted elopement with his neighbour's wife.

Terminus for the Ghost? The Howff.

   The third and final selection from the 'Courier' comes from 8 February 1883 and is entitled 'Ghosts at Lochee':

Our Lochee correspondent writes:-  For more than a week past there have been whisperings that a "ghost" had made its appearance in certain quarters of Lochee.  For a time the ordinary residenter was inclined to pooh-pooh the idea that such a pretended ethereal personality was actually making Lochee the theatre of his nefarious and despicable foolery.  However whispers have now developed into articulate language, and the air is full of the "doings" of the "ghost".  That there is an individual going about during two or three of the hours preceding midnight is widely asserted, and generally believed in.  the haunted localities appear to be the eastern and western extremities of the village, and many stories are afloat of persons having seen the "ghost" in these parts.  A boy delivering milk the other night at the west end was almost frightened out of his wits by a ghostly-looking figure coming across his path.  On Monday night two ladies, while proceeding through a pretty thickly-wooded part of the north-east of Lochee, were terror-struck to behold suddenly emerge from behind a tree a tall individual wearing a loose-hanging garment and slouched hat.  The pretended apparition stood in front of the parties.  The elder lady, however, though in a state of great trepidation, managed to express his detestation of such dastardly conduct, at which the "ghost" speedily disappeared behind a tree near by.  The following night a working man belonging Lochee was returning home from seeing a friend at Butterburn, and when nearing Lochee by the road to the north of Law Hill he was brought to a sudden stop by a figure appearing in an instant in front of him.  It stood for a few seconds, and then disappeared as suddenly as it came.  The man was momentarily stunned by the suddenness of the strange visitant's approach, but from the short glance he got he could state that the "ghost" was attired in a light waterproof overcoat, while over his shoulders was a white muffler.  An ordinary cap covered his head, and the appearance of the face was frightsome in the extreme...Feelings of thorough indignation against the rascally dastards who are the perpetrators of this heinous offence against the peace and comfort of society have been aroused among the sterner portion of the Lochee community, and unless they speedily take end we believe bands will be organised for their capture and punishment.  The matter is certainly a serious one, and ought to be put down immediately, for the amount of excitement and fear in the minds of young people, and women folk especially, is undoubtedly great, many being afraid to go out alone after nightfall.

Previous Related Posts

Monday, 1 January 2018

Plague and Pestilence Down the Centuries

   Early Records 

One of the most iconic moments in the folk memory of Dundee is the image of the Protestant preacher George Wishart preaching in 1544 from the walls of the burgh to the unfortunate victims of plague shut outside.  Though represented as fact (by John Know), nobody is sure that the event actually happened and if it did , that it was from the particular place – the Wishart Arch in the East (Cowgate) Port – which has been uniquely saved from the  whole-scale demolition of Dundee’s early architecture because of its association with Wishart.  Some have suggested the arch in fact was built in the 17th century. (This portion of the city wall has been extensively rebuilt and remodelled, but is likely to sit on the original place where the Cowgate Port stood.)

   The historian Richard Oram notes the charitable awarding of two bolls of meal on 8 November 1545 by the Graniter of St Andrews to 'certain poor dwellers in the town of Portincraig' (Broughty Ferry) who could not sustain themselves and were suspected of having plague. Three years after Wishart's iconic act, Dundee was again hit by the 'pest', though whether this was bubonic or pneumonic plague is unknown.

   It is not known exactly when the first victims fell to the Black Death in Angus, any more than it can be known the numbers and names of the victims over the centuries.  The first mentions- such as an outbreak in 1348 - are scanty.  But more is recorded in the Early Modern era, when authorities tried their best to prevent the rampant spread of the contagion.  Typical is the regulations enacted in Arbroath on 26 August 1565/6, which recognise the potential risk of infection from strangers:

Anent the ordour tayn for eschewyng the pest, it is statut and ordanit that na maner of parson within this broich resauve ane stranger or out man within thair hous day nor nycht without lecens askit and optenit of the bailyeis, onder the payn of tynsall of his fredom and comon landis; and the brekeris heirof to be haldyn as suspect; and the quarter maisters to pass nychtly and wesy thairefter gyf ony beis strykyn with infirmitie or rasaue strangers, and schaw the samin to the bailyeis. [Arbroath and its Abbey, Miller, p. 283.]

   In 1585 there appears to had been a significant occurrence of the plague in Dundee.  The royal cunyiehous (mint) had been been moved in June from Edinburgh to Dundee (and the set up costs of getting it operational in the city was a significant sum of £551), but disease in October necessitated its further removal to Perth.  On 30 November 1585 the council minutes state that a section of that body met in the open air to the west of the burgh, at Magdalen Green, as a precaution against infection. But, on 30 July 1588, the burgh authorities had reports of the plague breaking out in the south of the realm and were desperate to prevent an outbreak in the town:

It is statute that, in respect of the last infectioun of the plague or pest within the toun of Leyth, that this burgh sall be substantiouslie attendit to and watchit, as far as is possabill, for preservatioun of the sam, and first, that thair be four quarter-maisters electit for visiting daylie, in the morning betwix  fyve and sex, of all personis within thair quarteris quha  sall immediatlie report gif thair be ony seik or diseasit personis, to the baillie of thair quarteris. [History of Dundee, Thompson, pp. 278-9.]
   The division of the town into quarters to aid administration had come into effect several years earlier.  During the winter of 1587-8 the plague had erupted at Leith and was blamed on 'the opening up of some old kists'.  Instances of the disease followed in Edinburgh and other places, but Dundee was apparently spared.  The only reference of it found by local historian Alexander Maxwell was the payment of £20 the following winter to a man named George Robertson for 'the laubours and pains tane be him in the time of the visitation of the burgh with the plague of pest'.

   Other records of plague from this time are less official, but no less affecting.  The Rev Buxton Fraser recorded a tradition of the Wood family of Bonniton (associated with Maryton parish from 1493 to the 18th century):
...there is a tradition, deserving of notice... It is that during one of the visitations of plague two members of the family (it is said by some, the laird and his wife) were seized when walking on the hill of Bonniton and died in a very short time.  Their bodies were buried on the spot where they had died, and the place is still known as the "Pesty's Grave". [St Mary's of Old Montrose, p. 89.]

The Seventeenth Century

   In the year 1600 the town of Elgin authorised the employment of a expert from the south to manage the pestilence in their own town.  A message was sent 'to bring Bell the cleinger out of Dundey'.  That Dundee at this date employed a professional to manage sanitation and thus, hopefully, control the plague, was a measure of the dangers that Dundee recognised itself to be in.  An act was passed in Elgin to levy a tax to pay the considerable fee's of Dundee's cleanser.  The plague reappeared in the south of Scotland in the spring of 1602 and spread up the coast of Fife, forcing the council of Dundee to take security measures again to prevent the deadly incursion.  On 2 March 1602 it was enacted that:
during the continuance of the pest, the inhabitants dwelling in the south quarters sall bear the chairge for keeping the water side, and those in the other pairts, that for the three ordinary ports;  and that none sall receive ony person at back yetts or ony other entry nor the ordinary ports,under the pain of dead; and forder, that na neighbour sall reset ony stranger in lodging efter seven hours at nicht, without he first signify the same to the Bailie, under the pain foresaid. [The History of Old Dundee, Maxwell, p. 372.]

   This time the disease did not enter Dundee.  King James VI took the precaution to flee the south and reside for a time in Brechin. (Parliament fled for a time to Perth in 1604.) On 18 October 1602 the following year John Lovell was ordered by Dundee council to 'attend upon the keeping of the south side of the water [the Tay], and to suffer nane to have passage except sic as sall present ane sufficient testimonial fra ane unsuspectit place'.There is the following mention from the records of Aberdeen in 1603:  'To Caddell the post to gang to Brechin at command of the Provost for inquisition of the pest at Killimuir, 1 lb 10s.' In 1604, only three ferry boats at a time were allowed into Dundee's harbour.  But plague still came again in 1606.  In 1607, those infected with the plague were housed in makeshift riverside huts in the Sickmen's Yards to the east of the burgh (see below) and cleansers were appointed to separate infected goods.  Orders were given to prevent people visiting those suspected of being infected and who were confined to their homes, but this regulation was flouted, sometimes violently.  William Strathauchine, a Dundee cordiner:
abused ane of the quarter-masters appointit to attend upon persons infected, by saying that he had usurpit the office, and be giving him of the lie; and theirefter provoked him to the combat, and passed to his awn house and returnit seeking him with ane drawn sword. [The History of Old Dundee, Maxwell, p. 376.]

   William was made to crave forgiveness on his knees at the town Cross and another cordiner who had assisted him was also punished.

   In July 1608 many houses in Dundee were touched and so many magistrates had succumbed to death that the Privy Council had to appoint replacements. The notary Robert Wedderburne noted that:' the pest come from St Bartillis market in Franchland to Dundie at the first fair thairof in anno 1605 and zit continueis to this present day, the first of November 1608.  In the quhilk thair depairtit 4000 personis'.  It did not just originate overseas apparently, as in August it was spotted in Strachan on Deeside.  Dundee's  two expert clengers again went north and charged the sum of 500 merks.  Dundee, Perth and other places suffered a fresh plague outbreak in 1607 and 1608.

( *** The fascinating and unique record of Peter Goldman who wrote a personal account of the plague in Dundee at this time will be considered in a forthcoming post.)

   Another large outbreak swept across the whole nation in 1644-1648, with entry in Edinburgh in autumn 1644 possibly caused by the return of infected soldiers returning from a plague-hit area in north-east England. The illness spreading through the eastern Borders, then northwards. Menmuir parish was badly affected (by fear if not actual outbreak), so that there was no public worship in the parish kirk for several months in 1647 (as reported by the Rev. William Cron in the New Statistical Account in the 19th century). Menmuir's Session records report on 11 April that 'because of the forthbreaking of the plague in Brechin, the minister preached in the fields, therefore no collection'.  The entry is repeated every week until 26 September.

   The plague entered Montrose in May 1648 and raged until the following February.  Crowds fled from the infected into the countryside.  In the Links north-east of the town there was a large tumulus pointed out for many years as the place where many victims were interred.  On 15 October that year the burgh of Montrose was the thankful recipient of £42, 14s 2d collected by the people of Brechin 'for the distressed people of Montrose'.  Brechin itself was suffering the tail end of a fearful outbreak (see below).

   It appears that the 1640s outbreak did not substantially affect Dundee.  Towards the end of 1645 the disease had been noted in Fife and in the Carse of Gowrie, but for some reason - providence perhaps - there was no immediate outbreak in Dundee.  Fear and watchfulness continued.  In June or July 1645 it was recorded:

The Counsall takand consideratioun that the plague is now spotting in Meigle, as also how it is daily increasing in Leith, Edinburgh, and other places... it is ordained that thair sall only be two portis keiped oppen, and those gairded be the inhabitantis of this burgh... and for securing the passage be water they have ordained Robert Stirline and Walket Rankine to goe to ffyffe, and thair to cause transport hither all boatis and yollis in ffyffe.

Alexander Maxwell believes that the following prophetic rhyme was coined at the time as a result of this respite:
                      Between Sidlaw and the sea, pest or plague shall never be.

   But there was an alarm on 22 August 1648 when:
The Counsall, being convened to tak som course anent the death of a foottman, laitly come from Aberdeen, who being visite be the peysitiones is found to be suspected to be dead in the plague, [and] hes resolved that Andro Nicol, stabler, in whose house he died, shall be put furth, with his familie, in the fields to abyde ane tryall, and the thesaurer ordained to cause put up the lodge for him.
   Another panic occurred in October 1653 when a Queenburgh vessel entered the Tay and was suspected of harbouring plague; it was quarantineed 'quhill the change of the moon be past'.  A watch by two townsfolk was kept at the Craig in Dundee for incomers two years later with signs of the plague, following news of its outbreak in England, but Dundee luckily escaped.

A Place for The Dying:  The Plague Huts of Murlingden

   Murlingden, near Brechin, is a place I have never visited, and I'm not sure what my reaction to it would be if I ever did.  For if ever a place deserved to be haunted on the basis of a concentration of misery there, this spot would surely be.  When the plague came to Brechin in 1647, it disrupted the entire civil and religious life of the ancient city, as the records show:  25 July, at Buttergill hill.  No meeting [of the Presbytery] since the first of Aprill till this tym becaus of the pestilence in Brechin.'  The Presbytery took the same precaution of convening at the same place on 9 August. On 9 September it was recorded:
The Lord visiting this burgh with the Infecting seikness, thair was no session holden from the seventh of Aprill till the day and moneth wnderwritten, but when it pleased the Lord that the seikness began to relent thair wer som persones contracted and maried.
    So life, as ever, continued, but so did the fear of contamination.  On 23 and 30 November there was 'No session be reason the moderator and remenanent sessiones feared to convene vnder one roof.'   Cleansers were imported into the town from Edinburgh to carry away the dead and fumigate the streets by dragging blazing tar barrels up and down them.  A stone built into the churchyard wall at Brechin sombrely records the fact that 600 souls were taken by the disease.  

   The disease continued into 1648, perhaps after going into abeyance for a time.  On 2 and 23 August it was recorded that there was 'No session be reason the infection was begun again in the toun.'   The strange fate of some of the town's people is recorded in a Session-book note written on 2 January:  'Given to William Ros lying in the seikness in ane hutt, xxxs'. William and other unfortunates known to be infected were transported several miles outside the town and made to survive, as best they could, in makeshift dwellings in a deserted landscape (now part of the gardens  to the east of the Georgian mansion of Murlingden House,  just north of Brechin). A second individual who received charity but evidently escaped infection herself is named in the Brechin records on 1 March (recorded by Jervise in Memorials of Angus and the Mearns, 2, p. 310): 'Given to ane poore woman in the Craigend of Auldbar, who lost all hir gear by cleansing thairof the tym of the infection, called Janet Mitchell, xx lib.'

   Provisions for those living (and dying) in the Murlingden huts continued to be made:
Oct. 6.  Payit for meall for the people in the hwtts, 59s.
Oct 22.  Given to buy malt and meall to those in the hutts, 3 lib. 12s. 

   William Marshall, in Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (p. 227) tells us:
The infected were separated from others, and put into huts erected on the common moor; and these were in many instances pulled down over their corpses, which was all the sepulture they got.  The knolls thus raised might be traced till recently, when they were effaced by laying out the garden of Murlingden... Those of its victims, whose dust was carried to the churchyard, were buried in a plot by itself, which received no new tenant till as lately as 1809; not for fear of the dead being infected, but for fear of the plague, which was thought to be buried in the graves of its victims, escaping if these were touched, "in the form of a bluish mist or vapour," and overspreading the country!

Murlingden House.  The plague huts were to the east of the present day house.

   Jervise (Memorials of Angus and the Mearns, p. 202) further informs us that the market at Brechin was also removed outside the burgh:
... instead of the weekly markets being held in the town at the time, they stood upon the estate of Kintrockat, about two miles to the westward, also that a cauldron was used for purifying the money which was exchanged on these occasions.  In commemoration of that event, a late proprietor is said to have had a mound raised upon the site of the reputed market place.
   More recent opinion, however,  believes that the mound, to the north west of Kintrockat House, is an ancient burial cairn.  At one time, many stone bows were evident here, supposedly receptacles for payment for goods left on the mound.  It has been said - and it is not improbable - that the source of the entry of the plague into Aberdeen in April 1647 was a woman visiting from Brechin who crossed the Dee surreptitiously at night and doomed a good population of the city.

Kitntrockat mound: memory of the plague or more ancient?

Dundee's Sick-men's Yards and Other Sites

   As noted above, Dundee's plague stricken were, for a period, made to live beyond the eastern boundary of the burgh.  In this area, near the Dens Burn and comprising part of the lands of Wallace-Craigie, was situated St Roque's Chapel.  Probably the plague victims who died here were buried in this kirkyard.  Not co-incidentally this saint was the patron of those afflicted with the plague.  To the east of this, even further outside the town, was the Holy Rood Chapel, also called the Chapel of St John (the Evangelist) 'of the sklait heuchs', so named because it stood on a grey slate outcrop adjacent to a slate quarry. (The rock was anciently called Kilcraig, church on the rock, suggesting a very ancient foundation, and stood near the Tay shore, just east of Carolina Port.  The successor to this church and kirkyard is to the south of the current Broughty Ferry Road.)  As early as 1442 there was a hospital for the afflicted here and later plague victims were also put to rest in the kirkyard. The burgh actually rented out the kirk lands to a man named James Black and again for agricultural use in 1561, which, suggests historian Elizabeth Torrie, that the kirk itself was in dereliction. A few years earlier than this official re-usage, someone had illegally occupied these lands were were properly to be used for drying of fishing nets, common pasturage and 'for the lodges to sick folks in time of pest, as they were of before past memorie of man'.  The illegal crops were trampled down.  But by the start of the 17th century a new wave of plague sufferers were living in the Roodyards.  According to James Thompson's History of Dundee:
In the course of the 19th century, and perhaps earlier, the churchyard, open and neglected, was used as a place of interment for seafaring people not belonging to the town, for strangers, and for those whom accident or violence brought to a premature end. It was also the family burial place of the Kyds, formerly designed of Craigie, who acquired that estate about or before 1660; and as a place of interment it was still used, particularly by that family of Craigie (who erected a vault in 1829, at nearly the centre of the ground), and by several other families possessing a right of sepulchre within its precincts, either as feuars of parcels of the lands of Craigie, or by purchase. The area is limited, a large part of the south side having been quarried away many years ago; but what remains is substantially enclosed, and tastefully planted with ornamental trees and shrubs. [History of Dundee, p. 228.]

     While the bubonic or pneumonic plague were periodic visitors to the scene, there was an ever present risk of leposy in town and country, plus other diseases such as cholera to contend with (which may account for some 'plague records').  Dundee's leper house, first recorded in the 15th century, stood on the banks of the Den's Burn and was well recorded in the 16th century.  It was one of four hospitals which served various illnesses in the medieval burgh.

   There is an elusive tradition that there was a plague pit situated beyond the western boundary of Dundee, near present Tay Street, in an area called The Devil's Green.  This has never been satisfactorily explained or investigated, though it may be connected in some way with the Witches' Knowe nearby.

Selected Sources

Black, David G., The History of Brechin to 1864 (Brechin, 1867).

Coutts, Walter, Historical Guide, Brechin and Neighbourhood (Brechin, 1889).

Edwards, D. H., Around the Ancient City (Brechin, 1904).

Hume Brown, P. (ed.), The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (Second series, vol. 3, Edinburgh, 1901).

Inglis, Rev. W. M., Annals of An Angus Parish (Dundee, 1888).

Jervise, Andrew, Memorials of Angus and the Mearns (revised edition, 2 volumes, Edinburgh, 1885).

Lythe, S. G. E., Life and Labour in Dundee from the Reformation to the Civil War (Abertay Historical Publication No. 5, Dundee, 1958).

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

Maxwell, Alexander, The History of Old Dundee (Edinburgh and Dundee, 1884).

Miller, A. H., Haunted Dundee (Dundee, 1923).

Miller, David, Arbroath and its Abbey (Edinburgh, 1860).

Montrose Basin Heritage Society, Ebb and Flow, Aspects of the History of Montrose Basin (Balgavies, 2004).

Oram,  Richard , "It cannot be decernit quha are clean and quha are foulle." Responses to Epidemic Disease in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Scotland, Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Reforme, 30 (4) (2006).

Ruxton Fraser, Rev. W., St Mary’s of Old Montrose, or Parish of Maryton (Edinburgh and London, 1896).

The Municipal History of Dundee (Dundee, 1878).

Thompson, James, The History of Dundee (new edition, Dundee, 1874).

Torrie, Elizabeth P. D., Medieval Dundee, A Town and its People (Abertay Historical Society, Publication No. 30, Dundee, 1990).

Warden, Alexander, Angus, or Forfarshire (volume 1, Dundee, 1880).

Friday, 22 December 2017

Whisky & Beer & Seasonal Good Cheer!

At this time of the year one’s thought turn mainly to...alcohol.

   Shockingly, there is – to my knowledge – only one major distillery in Angus still commercially producing whisky at the moment.  Brechin’s Glencadam Distillery (owned by the London based Angus Dundee who also own the Tomintoul distillery) was founded by George Cooper in 1825 and currently produces a single malt variety; though past issues have included the pertinently named Taranty malt.  Water for the whisky is sourced from springs at the Moorans and whisky expert Michael Jackson summarises the 15-year old Glencadam as ‘a little shy but sweet and satisfying’.

   A close neighbour of Glencadam was the North Port Distillery (founded in 1820, mothballed in 1983, officially closed in 1985, substantially demolished in 1994).  A more elusive lost brand and distillery was Glenesk, whose ever-changing names and even different output (sometimes grain, sometimes malt) make it difficult to pin down.  Based at Hillside, Montrose, this distillery closed its doors in 1985.  Founded by the magnificently named English wine merchant firm Septimus Parsonage (in partnership with James Isles of Dundee) in 1897 within a converted flax mill, it was initially named Highland Esk.  It became North Esk in 1899 upon acquisition by J E Caille Heddle.  After World War I the distillers was re-named North Esk Maltings, and then became simply Montrose.  By 1964 it was producing malt whisky under the moniker Hillside, changing its name finally to Glenesk in 1980.  The distillery was dismantled in 1996.  Some, rare bottles from this distillery are doing the rounds for figures fluctuation between the low hundreds and four figures.

   Dundee’s active association with whisky bottling ended in the 1990s when the Stewarts Cream of the Barley plant on the Kingsway closed down.  Alexander Stewart, trading from the Glengarry Inn in Castle Street, started blending in 1825.  The brand still continues and remains Northern Ireland’s favourite blended Scotch whisky.  Other Dundee companies which had a share of the early whisky business included the Seagate based James Robertson and Son Ltd (which owned Coleburn distillery on Speyside) and its neighbour James Watson and Co, founded in 1815, which owned four northern distilleries.  The Seagate was also home to George Willsher & Co, based in premises named Black Bull House.  Their principal brand was therefore named Black Bull whisky, and it survives today, albeit the product of a company based in Huntly.
(Lovers of whisky, incidentally, might want to drop into the Glenesk Hotel in Edzell,which has over a thousand whiskies for sale, something of a record.)

   Another spirits merchants in the city was George Morton Ltd, who traded not only whisky and brandy, but also imported rum, most noticeably the famous OVD (Old Vatted Demerara), first imported from Guyana in 1838 to Morton’s in Dock Street.  Now owned by William Grant & Sons Ltd, the Dundee connection with the spirit is, alas, long gone.  Such enterprise as surrounds production of spirits locally is now very minimal and, perhaps surprisingly, is not purely whisky centred. The Gin Bothy at Peel Farm, Lintrathen, produces fruit infused gin, while the Arbikie Distillery in Inverkeilor produces gin, vodka and whisky (though the production of the latter has not yet produced bottles for the market as yet - hurry up, please!). Another proud local producer is Ogilvy Spirits, based in the Sidlaw Hills, which specialised in potato vodka. 

Historic Illicit Whisky Production

   Like the producers of peat reek whisky in the Angus glens, I have dabbled in this subject in the past (and will do again), as the lure and romance of whisky making and smuggling is too much to resist.  But the reality of Angus whisky production does not appear to be as venerable as one might suppose. In The Flower People, Duncan Fraser depicts the sudden illicit business of distilling peat reek whisky coming to Glen Isla as demand for the product and knowledge about its production came into the area in the 18th century.  There is the memory at Delnamer of  an exciseman finding whisky hidden in a sheep bught here.  Another exciseman hoped to follow up this discovery and came here with a gang of soldiers.  Though they searched, further whisky was not found.  The soldiers let their horses eat the scant grain in a store here and an outbuilding was set ablaze.  The locals wrote a furious letter to the authorities, stating that the sergeant of Dragoons had threatened them with a drawn sword after their complaint and say no more about their corn or he would satisfy himself with their blood.  'If the fiscal of the county doth not put a stop such barbarous practices,' their letter ended,'Blood for Blood must be allowed.'

   The Rev Andrew Burns, incumbent of Glen Isla 1806-1823, used to note when the authorities arrived at the opposite his manse and would wander the glen, using biblical language to warn the people to hide their whisky:  'The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!'  The whisky was of course conveyed south surreptitiously at night, not in barrels - which would have been too bulky and conspicuous - but in smaller, makeshift vessels, such as animals' bladders.  Fraser states:
Until about 1830 the whisky-making was the glen's chief industry and then it was suppressed by the Government.  Even a local minister admitted a few years later  that at first this was 'bewailed as a great parish calamity', for most of his congregation had depended on it for their livelihood. [The Flower People, p. 88]
   To the east, the same author reports that the people of Glen Esk also proved amenable to this industry.   'There was no depopulation in Glenesk, all the time its whisky-making lasted.  Over the hills in Glenisla there was none either.  But when the stills were closed Glenisla lost almost half its inhabitants.' [Glen of the Rowan Tree, p. 27.]  For forty years here and in the side glens whisky was illegally made.  Again, the church in the area seemed to see it as a harmless, perhaps even an essential, occupation.   A key ally was the Episcopal minister Peter Jolly, of Lethnot and Glen Esk, had his manse at Stylemou, on the track known as the Whisky Road.  This was almost within 'sniffing distance' on the still on Rowan Hill.  Fraser advises that the ruins of one mountain whisky bothy can be seen high up Glen Effock, beside a burn.  Most of the production from this site ended up in Forfar.  One of the larger operations was hidden among the hills in Glenlee, between Craig Buck and Craig Terran.

   People in this eastern glens were notably superstitious.  Duncan Fraser notes that, at Burnside, near Arsallary:
in bygone days they used to keep the peat fire burning day and night - for two hundred and fifty years until the 1930s - to prevent ill luck befalling them.  And the odd thing is that near the foot of the glen was another house where they carefully put the fire out each night for the same sensible reason. [Glen of the Rowan Tree, p. 31.]

The Beers and Breweries of Old Angus

   Brewing and selling of beer had an older heritage and a longer life than whisky distilling in the county.  But it was no less under the eye of the authorities.  The records of the Privy Council, for instance, in December 1627, cautioned John Gray, burgess of Dundee, under 500 merks, not to sell any English beer at a higher rate than £6 the tune.  Other Dundonians simultaneously warned were Patrick Baxter, James Small, Patrick Kinloch, James Bowar, and Robert Stirling.  

   Piggott's Commercial Directory for 1825-6 names only two commercial breweries in the burgh - the Pleasance Brewing Company and Thomas Miller, Perth Road.  Arbroath, by contrast, had five named brewers - James Anderson, Robert Gilchrist, John Knight, Robert Lindsay & Son, George SheriffForfar also had five named brewers - Patrick Barry, Skene, Blair & Co, Thomas Morris, William Potter, Alexander StarkMontrose also boasted five - John Alexander, William Black, Henry Farquharson, James Potter, William Ross & Co  (Other brewers listed for Angus included three in Brechin: Alexander & Co, George Reid, David Scott; plus Alex Brown of East Haven and Alex Dean of Broughty Ferry.)

   Currently, Dundee's brewing business is undergoing a bit of a blooming renaissance, and about time too.  There are two wonderful beer making enterprises in the city:  The Law Brewing Co. and 71 BrewingWe wish both these businesses well (along with the micro-brewery Mor Brewing, based in nearby Kellas).  Barring brave, independent beers like the Hawkhill- Ballys venture in the 1980s, there has not been a major brewing operation in Dundee since the demise of Ballingall's, founded near the Lochee Road in 1750 as the Pleasance Brewing Co. and taking over by the Ballingall family a century later.  It survived another century plus before being bought out by Drybroughs and assisted into extinction in 1968. (A Scottish photographer named Oliver Pilcher bought the rights to the brand name Ballingall's in recent years, with the intention to resurrect the brewery, but as yet it remains moribund.)  The heroic Alfred Barnard visited Ballingall's in the late 19th century as part of his monumental odyssey around the breweries of Great Britain and Ireland.

   Ballingall's had originated as The Pleasance Brewing Company around 1750.  William Ballingall took over the business in 1844 and his son Hugh, a prominent local politician, inherited the firm.  He built the new Park Brewery, across the road from the existing Pleasance Brewery (separated by aptly named Hop Street).  Mr Barnard left a very detailed and technical account of the brewing operation here and seemed very impressed by the buildings and the produce:

Ballingall's New Park Brewery, Dundee.

We first sampled the porter and stout (manufactured by the firm for their local trade), which we found quite equal to any we had tasted in Glasgow and Edinburgh; but the firm's reputation is based upon the superior quality of their Scotch pale ales, which are sold all over the North of England and throughout Scotland, depots for supplying the same being established at Newcastle, Liverpool, and other places. The firm's special brand of pale ale, which was exhibited in the Paris Exhibition, is certainly as delicious as any we have tasted. Without being heady it is highly nutritious, bright and sparkling, and tastes well of the hop. Some of the old beers were too strong for a general beverage, and a wine glassful was as much as we dared tackle. It may here be stated that the firm have been awarded medals at the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1886, and the Paris Exhibitions of 1867, 1878 and 1889 (gold and silver). The bottled ales, although of less strength, possess an aromatic flavour, and are most agreeable to the palate...In front of these ancient remains [of the 18th century brewery] there is a plot of ground, through which runs a stream, known from time immemorial as the "Scouring Burn." It formed a part of "The Meadows" referred to by a Dundee historian, as "being drained in the early part of the eighteenth century, and enclosed with stone walls, the grass-land thereon being laid out for the washing and bleaching of the inhabitants, and a road was made through it," which was probably the Lochee Road of the present date. This piece of ground will shortly be covered by the extensive buildings about to be erected by the proprietor, to enlarge the new brewery.

   Dundee's brewing heritage, despite the strange paucity of evidence in the early 19th century, stretches back into medieval times.  The Maltmen were one of the largest incorporated trades in the burgh in the early medieval period.  Dundee's population in the early 17th century may have been around 6,000-8,000, and out of these there were 100 Maltmen.  In the period of 1661 to 1700 there were 240 registered apprentices in the trade in Dundee.  The trade of course flourished because of demand, beer of course being preferable to the frequently disease ridden general water supply.  Following the Reformation the authorities, bolstered by the power of the Kirk, tried to regulate the consumption of alcohol, but it was doubtless a losing battle.  In January 1558 or 1559 the authorities in Dundee ordered a 10 pm curfew and banned 'drinking in any ale house or wine tavern efter ten hours of the nicht, under the pain of forty shillings'.  A few years later 9 pm was the cut off point for 'dancing, drinking, playing or sic vain exercise'.  Brewers' produce was also checked for quality, and in October 1564 the council found that 'the ale brewen be David Spankie's wife be sufficient'.

   The historian Anthony Cooke has uncovered much of the hidden history of drinking dens in Scotland in the 19th century and in particular the prominent part women played in running unlicensed shebeens in the closes and back-alleys of Dundee and other cities.  In 1861, Cooke tells us, four Dundonian women were jailed for keeping illegal shebeens.  Several years later a woman named either Isabella Forbes or Smith was prosecuted for operating a shebeen/brothel in Couttie's Wynd.  

Montrose and the "Newkie Broon" Urban Legend

   Here's a garbled tall tale for you.  Some years ago I was informed (in a pub, by an unreliable source) that the world famous Newcastle Brown Ale - of which I was once keen - was in fact a Scottish product, a secret Angus beer in fact, which was shipped from Montrose to Newcastle, then bottled and labelled as a local product.  The truth appears to be somewhat different.

   James Deuchar Ltd were a brewing enterprise based in Monwearmouth in the north-east of England.  By the beginning of the twentieth century they acquired the Lochside Brewery in Montrose, formerly owned by William Ross & Co and other concerns in the Newcastle area. 
Brewing was concentrated in Montrose and the Monkwearmouth brewery was used for storage and bottling. In 1957 brewing ceased in Montrose and was moved to the old Robert Deuchar brewery in Duddingston.  When Newcastle Breweries bought James Deuchar in 1959, production ceased.  Meanwhile the actual premises at Montose, which were founded in 1781, were bought by Macnab Distilleries Ltd, producing the Sandy Macnab brand.  The distillery closed in 1992.  So while there was some connection between Newcastle Brown and Montrose, the truth is more concoluted than the legend.  


Barnard, Alfred, The Noted Breweries of Britain and Ireland (4 volumes, London, 1889-1896 [volume 3, 142-67 for Ballingall's.]).
Cooke, Anthony, A History of Drinking:  The Scottish Pub Since 1700 (Edinburgh, 2015).
Fraser, Duncan, Glen of the Rowan Tree (Montrose, 1973, reprinted 1974).
Fraser, Duncan, The Flower People (Montrose, 1977).
Hume Brown, P. (ed.), The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (second series, volume 2, Edinburgh, 1900).
Jackson, Michael, Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (5th edn., London, 2004).

Thursday, 7 December 2017


The fishing village of Auchmithie, three miles north of and inextricably linked with Arbroath, remains a living community, albeit vastly changed from its origins as a place which subsisted entirely on one centuries old trade.  The pulse of the place still beats, albeit its character has changed. (Compare it, if you will, with the ghostly desertion of the Fishtown of Usan, to the north.)

   Fishing’s heyday in Auchmithie coincided with its incidental fame as a setting in Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary.  But more lasting fame has been guaranteed the village for being the birthplace of the renowned Arbroath Smokie.  By the time that the wider British public deigned to become interested in the hitherto invisible fisher folk their way of life was likely on the wane.  Yet the descriptions of intrepid Victorian writers are still fascinating for what they reveal of the commentators no less than the ‘natives’.  James Bertram had a keen interest in the conditions of the coastal communities around the entire British Isles.  Here is his impression of Auchmithie from his book The Harvest of the Sea:

One customary feature observed by strangers on entering Auchmithie is, that when met by female children they invariably stoop down, make a very low curtsey, and for this piece of polite condescension they expect a few halfpence will be thrown to them.  If you pass on without noticing them they will not ask for anything, but once throw them a few halfpence and a pocketful will be required to satisfy their importunities...

Are we looking at them, or are they looking at us?

Bertram was impressed by the inhospitable geography of the village as well as its fisher-folk:

Entering the village of Auchmithie from the west, and walking through to the extreme east end, the imagination gets staggered to think how any class of men could have selected such a wild and rugged part of the coast for pursuing the fishing trade... there are in all about seventeen boats’ crews at Auchmithie.  Winding roads with steps lead down the steep brae to the beach...there is no harbour or pier for the boats to land at or receive shelter from, and this the fishermen complain of, as they have to pay £2 a year for the privilege of each boat...Fisher-life may be witnessed here in all its unvarnished simplicity...I have seen the women of Auchmithie “kilt their coats” and rush into the water in order to aid in shoving off the boats, and on the return of the little fleet carry the men ashore on their brawny shoulders with the greatest ease and all the nonchalance imaginable, no matter who might be looking at them.

   In the same author’s The Unappreciated Fisher Folk he writes in broader terms about the society of the coastal community.  The settlement of Auchmithie, Bertram wrote, had hardly changed for many generations when Walter Scott visited in the early 19th century and still, in Bertram’s own day, provided a unique opportunity to study a particular lifestyle:

It is certainly in Scotland (and in Cornwall as well) that the life and labour of this hardy and industrious class of persons can be studied to the greatest advantage, and in some places even yet their daily round of existence rolls on much as it did a century ago.  In Scotland, the patriarchal system of work is still largely maintained; in many Scottish fishing villages the family fishing boat is as much an institution as a family walnut-tree is in France...In Scotland, the fisher communities seldom receive any accession of new blood...The fisher folk intermarry in their communities, and so preserve those traditions of labour and the observance of those social customs which have become stereotyped among the people who go down to the sea in fishing ships.

   This extreme insularity in a small community obviously brought problems, both inside the isolated village and those who looked on from outside, even in a kindly way.  Speculation was that the inhabitants of Auchmithie, and indeed other Scottish fishing villages, were so different from the locals further inland that they must have originally come into the country as a distinct, foreign race.  But there is absolutely no proof that this is the case.  The strangeness of the fisher folk in all the Angus communities was picked up by the county historian, Alexander Warden, focusing on their reluctance to associate socially with others:

The several communities almost invariable intermarry amongst themselves, and it is a rare occurrence for the son of a fisher to take an alien to the craft to wife, or for a daughter to marry outwith the fraternity.  Indeed so clannish are the fishers of each village that they seldom go even to neighbouring fishing communities for spouses...The affect of so much intermarrying is to degenerate the race, and in most of the fishing villages there are generally a proportion of the inhabitants affected with scrofula or other diseases, and several having a weak intellect.

   This insularity, in terms of marriage, was undoubtedly a fact and not a misconception by others regarding fishing communities.  The anonymous contributor to Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, who visited Auchmithie in the autumn of 1843, was of course inspired in his journey by Walter Scott.  He was rightly impressed during a boat trip around some of the nearby coastal caves, but less so with the actual conditions in Auchmithie, both in terms of the physical state of the place, but also the inhabitants:

I took a survey of the village, and am forced to own that such places are most endurable in novels.  Imagine a narrow street of low and irregular cottages, the whole way, excepting a very narrow crooked passage, being occupied by groups of men and women engaged in preparing fishing lines with bait, the latter being in the most revolting state of filthiness and dishabille, while heaps of fish offal, and the refuse of the nets, lie tainting the air in all directions.  The people of the village are quite isolated from general society, and their tribe-like history is attested by their being only four names or so amongst them.  But one instance is remembered of an intermarriage with the neighbouring rustic people taking place, and in that case the female, who was the daughter of a fisherman, was cut by the whole fraternity, and regarded as a lost person, though the disadvantage seems to have chiefly been on the other side, as this poor woman was totally unfitted by her previous habits, and by her ignorance of house-keeping, for acting as a plough-man’s wife.  The whole economy of this village impresses one of a surviving example of society at the hunting stage, the first in advance from pure savagery.  And of this the broadest and most unmistakable feature is the slave-like condition of the women.  These poor creatures have to gather and carry bait, dress the lines, carry their husbands on their backs out to the boats, and back again when they return; and finally, to them falls the duty of transporting heavy back-burdens of fish to the neighbouring towns, in order to convert it to money. Under such circumstances the softness of the feminine constitution, bodily and mental, is extinguished at an early age, and they become as hardy, ungainly, and muscular as the men.

   It was true that there were very few names in the settlement:  the predominant families were Smith, Swankie, Cargill, and Spink. (In the Aberdeen Journal in December 1859, it was reported that 123 out of Auchmithie’s total population of 375 were surnamed Cargill.)  The Chamber’s correspondent noted the difference between Auchmithie and the nearby, smaller community of the coastguard station:  ‘...where all is neatness and propriety, the children clean and fully dressed, and gardens are cultivated in front of every house.  But the most of these strangers are English, and that amply accounts for the difference.’

Walter Scott 

   The fisher town of Auchmithie was given to Arbroath Abbey by King William, the abbey’s founder in the late 12th century, and after the reformation the lands of Ethie, including the bvillage, passed to a series of lay owners, and eventually the Northesk Carnegie family.  The first record of the village is in 1434.  In the nature of things, no-one was much interested in Auchmithie or indeed any other fishing village in the British Isles until the modern era.  Walter Scott published his novel The Antiquary in 1816, and it was his own favourite as well as one of his most acclaimed work.  Set in the late 18th century, Auchmithie features as Musselcrag in the book, while Arbroath is Fairport.  Allegedly Scott wanted to set another novel in the area, but this never transpired.  The Antiquary is only partially set in our area.  The incidents surrounding the Mucklebackit family in the novel, and particularly the description of one of their number, has been much praised.

Movement of Fishermen to Arbroath

   The virtual bondage of the inhabitants of Auchmithie was challenged by some of the inhabitants who burnt their houses down in the late 17th century.  Nearby Arbroath managed to entice some fisherman, most from the Cargill family, to move there in 1705.   But the Earl of Northesk successfully legally challenged the movement of his fishermen to Arbroath and the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, backed his authority to keep his vassals where they were.

   There was a possibly apocryphal story, recorded by William Fraser (and later by local historian Alexander Fraser), that the fisher people of Auchmithie lived in worse than mortal fear of their feudal superiors.  Rather than be confined in the vast and dismal dungeons of nearby Red Castle if they seriously transgressed, they begged the Carnegie lord to cast them into the sea off the cliffs of Red Head.  Despite the recent vassalage (or possibly because of impending freedom of movement), the English traveller and cleric James Hall found excited crowds of villagers thronging to meet him in the early part of the century – but only because they mistook him for a much anticipated cobbler.  He ungallantly commented that the women’s feet were habitually bigger than the men’s.

    Following a change in law in 1799, fisher families were allegedly free from the old bondage system and could, in theory, go where they pleased.  The author of Arbroath: Past and Present stated that migration from Auchmithie to Arbroath began in earnest in 1929-1830, and before that period there were only around 6 fishing boats in Arbroath.  The settlers lived in the Fit o the Toon in Arbroath.  Another source states there were only three fishing vessels active in Arbroath in 1826 (double the number there were in 1772).  There were, in 1880, still 40 boats working in Auchmithie (a number confirmed by the author of Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, who noted between 30 and 40 boats in 1843), but only 10 were active by 1929.  Even the provision of a proper harbour in the last decade of the 19th century failed to halt the decline.

The Mystical Smokie

   No-one can agree on the origins of the Arbroath Smokie, other than the fact that it originated in Auchmithie.  The same fallacy that regards the inhabitants as Auchmithie as undoubted immigrants, albeit possibly medieval ones, says that the smoked haddock here is a relation of similarly smoked Scandinavian fish.  Other names for Smokies have included The Lucken, Closed Fish or Pinwiddies.

The classic method for Smokie preparation is described by Bertram (The Harvest of the Sea, p. 346):

They use a barrel without top or bottom as a substitute for a curing house.  The barrel being inserted a little distance in the ground, an old kail pot or kettle, filled with sawdust, is placed at the bottom, and the inside in then filled with as many fish as can conveniently be hung in it. The sawdust is then set fire to, and a piece of canvas thrown over the top of the barrel:  by this means the females of Auchmithie smoke their haddocks in a round state, and very excellent they are when the fish are caught in season.

   Apart from the dodgy Scandinavian origin myth, the most widely believed tale about the beginning of the Smokie states that it began accidentally when a cottage containing drying haddocks burnt down and the smoked fish were found in the ruins of the building, as a kind of compensatory culinary miracle next day. 


‘A Day Amongst the Scenery of “The Antiquary”’, Chambers Edinburgh Journal, No. 617, 25 November, 1843, 357-8.

Bertram, James, G., The Harvest of the Sea (London, 1885), 344-6.

Bertram, James, G., The Unappreciated Fisher Folk (London, 1883), 2-3.

Fraser, William, History of the Carnegies, Earls of Southesk, and of their Kindred (volume 1, Edinburgh, 1867), lxxxii.

Hall, Rev. James, Travels in Scotland By an Unusual Route (volume 1, London, 1807), 283-6.

Hay, George, History of Arbroath to the Present Time (Arbroath, 1876), 376.

McBain,J. M.,  Arbroath:  Past and Present  (Arbroath, 1887), 71-78.

McBain, J. M.,  Eminent Arbroathians (Arbroath, 1897), 37-38.

Nadel-Klein, Fishing for Heritage, Modernity and Loss Along the Scottish Coast (Oxford, 2003), 27, 29, 47, 58, 60, 82.

Neish, J. S., In the By-Ways of Life (Dundee, 1881), 55-58.

Warden, Alexander, Angus, or Forfarshire (volume 1, Dundee, 1880), 109-12.

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