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Issue 58 - Smokies, Fireballs and the Honours

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011


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Smokies, Fireballs and the Honours

Part three of our series on Scotland's coastline takes us on a journey along the east coast from Dundee to Stonehaven.

Continuing north on our journey from St Andrews takes us across the Firth of Tay, a wide inlet dominated by an infamous disaster which took place while Victorian engineering was at its zenith.

When the Tay Rail Bridge was completed in 1878 it was the longest in the world at nearly two miles. Its engineer, Thomas Bouch, received a knighthood for its innovative lattice work design.

But on the night of 28 December 1879, the central spans gave way during a storm and the bridge collapsed into the icy water, taking with it a train and all 75 lives onboard. This disaster sent shockwaves through Victorian Britain, and remains one of the most famous bridge failures of all time.

A second bridge opened in 1887, parallel to the original bridge. But you can still see the stumps of the original bridge piers above the surface of the Tay, even at high tide.

Dundee This ancient settlement is now a thriving city, the fourth largest in Scotland.

In the mid-16th century, Dundee entered what could be described as a Golden Age. It was already well-established as a centre for the wool and linen industries and, with its important harbour, ranked second only to Edinburgh in wealth and prestige.

Dundee has been described as owing its fame to ‘jute, jam and journalism:’ jute, a coarse vegetable fibre was imported from India and processed in Dundee’s mils; jam-making arose because of the activities of the (now famous) Keiller family who originated a recipe for marmalade made from Seville oranges; and journalism because of the D. C. Thomson publishing house, which today turns out more than 10 million newspapers, magazines and comics each week – including the Beano, Dandy, The Sunday Post and Scots Magazine.

By the late 19th century, Dundee was one of Britain’s largest whaling ports and a major shipbuilding centre, building over 200 ships each year. Today this maritime history is splendidly represented through two of the world’s most famous wooden ships, permanently docked on Dundee’s waterfront: Captain Scott’s RRS Discovery, and HM Frigate Unicorn, the oldest British-built ship still afloat.

Nearby on the coast is Broughty Ferry which is a seaside resort developed in the Victorian era. The town was once occupied by wealthy textile barons and it was reckoned to be one of the wealthiest places in Britain. Today it is a laid back resort with splendid views of the Tay estuary.

Arbroath Follow the long sandy beaches up the coast from Dundee, and you’ll run into Arbroath. A settlement which became a town following the founding of Arbroath Abbey in 1178, when the monks were permitted to set up a burgh, hold a market and to build a harbour.

The town grew considerably during the Industrial Revolution and by the 20th century, Arbroath had become one of the larger fishing ports in Scotland.

It is famous as the home of the Arbroath Smokie, a pair of haddock tied at the tails and smoked in square barrels. Under European law, the Arbroath Smokie has been given the same protection as Champagne: if it’s not from Arbroath then it’s not an Arbroath Smokie.

The town’s other significant claim to fame occurred in April 1320, when the Abbot drafted the Letter of Arbroath, thought by many to be the most important document in Scottish history. This was a letter written to Pope John XXII, who had given his support to Edward II and excommunicated Robert the Bruce. It was signed by the Scottish nobility and urged the Pope to put pressure on Edward II of England to recognise Robert as the legitimate King of Scotland. It said: “For, so long as a hundred remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English. Since not for glory, riches or honours do we fight, but for freedom alone, which no man loses but with his life.” Montrose This pretty little town is a busy mix of port, market town and seaside resort. Montrose sits intriguingly between the North Sea to its east and the Montrose Basin to the west, a two square mile tidal lagoon considered a nature reserve of international importance.

In 1716 the Jacobite rebellion ended in Montrose when James Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender) escaped back to France. A Jacobite army moved through the town in 1745 and the following February the largest naval battle of the war was fought in Montrose Harbour.

Stroll along the harbour today, and you’ll not see much evidence of this 18th century battle, but you will see a large bronze statue of a St Bernard dog in a hat. It’s actually a lovely story to do with a Norwegian sea dog called Bamse. The St Bernard was a bona fide crew member of the Royal Norwegian Navy Minesweeper Thorodd, moored in Montrose during World War II.

The dog’s exploits were legendary. In stories the great hound would put a stop to bar fights involving crew members by getting up on his hind legs and, at over 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, clamping his paws down on the shoulders of the trouble- makers. It is said he once rescued a crew member from drowning, and saved another from getting knifed by pushing his assailant off the quay.

Bamse was often seen padding from pub to pub around Montrose, guiding the drunk sailors back to the ship before their curfew ended. The crew even made a collection for Bamse’s bus pass which hung around his neck in a plastic wallet, making it easier for him to get about the town. Bus drivers stopped whenever they saw him and Bamse clambered straight up to the top deck (dogs were not allowed on the lower deck, you see).

Whenever the Thorodd was in action, Bamse would stand bravely at the bow, wearing a tin helmet made especially for him by the crew, who were concerned for his safety.

On the dog’s death in 1944, Montrose schools were closed and 800 children lined the route to his grave on the sand dunes. More than £50,000 was raised for the statue, which was unveiled by Prince Andrew in 2007.

Stonehaven Continue up the coast, and you’ll pass charming villages like Johnshaven and Catterline, small villages that still rely on fishing for their survival, as it has always been.

Stonehaven is a large harbour town bustling with character and intrigue. Nowhere is this more acutely felt than at Dunottar Castle, a mile south of the town.

Perched on a rocky outcrop and surrounded on all sides by 160ft cliffs, this formidable site has been inhabited since Pictish times and later became home to one of the most powerful families in Scotland, the Keiths.

In 1296, King Edward I of England took the castle, only for William Wallace to reclaim it in 1297, burning down the church in the process with the entire English garrison still in it.

In 1650, following the hasty coronation of Charles II, the Scottish crown jewels, the so called ‘Honours of Scotland’, were taken to Dunottar Castle to hide them from the rampaging Oliver Cromwell. Having already destroyed the English crown jewels, the Honours of Scotland were next on Cromwell’s hit list. Following an eight month siege, the castle fell. But the precious sceptre, sword and crown were smuggled out and lowered down the cliffs to a local woman pretending to be collecting seaweed. They were whisked away to the village of Kinneff, further down the coast, where they were buried under the floor of the old church where they remained hidden until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Stonehaven’s unique spirit is further underlined each Hogmanay with the Fireball Festival. Every year, around 40-50 participants parade up and down the high street swinging flaming globes around their head before throwing them into the harbour. This atmospheric annual festival has its roots in the Middle Ages, and continues to attract thousands of spectators each year to this very unique, very intriguing corner of Scotland.

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