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Issue 59 - Kirks, Crosses and Pearls

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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Kirks, Crosses and Pearls

John Hannavy recreates a 1772 journey

Thomas Pennant started the second volume of his Scottish travels at Loch Fyne and, in the very first chapter, told a story which reminds us of how the waters around Scotland’s shores must have changed in the past two and a half centuries. Of Loch Fyne, he told his readers: “The tunny frequents this and other branches of the sea, on the western coast during the season of herrings.” Tuna, off the coast of Scotland. This was probably not ‘Euthynnus alletteratus’, also known as the ‘little tunny’, usually a much smaller fish than the imported tuna we eat today, but once common in the Atlantic, for, as Pennant recounts: “One that was taken off Inveraray, when I was there in 1769, weighed between four and five hundred pounds.” Now that’s some fish. At Loch Awe, he marvelled at the scenery and the remains of Kilchurn Castle. When visiting the “magnificent pile, now in ruins”, he was more impressed by the view from the castle than the castle itself: “The view from it of the rich vale, bounded by vast mountains, is fine; among which Crouachan soars pre-eminently lofty.”

Our travellers then journeyed inland, reaching Glendochart and Killin, where, said Pennant: “Here is an excellent inn, built by Lord Breadalbane, who, to the unspeakable comfort of the traveller, established others at Dalmalie, Tyndrum, and Kenmore.” Some of his observations – like the tunny at Inveraray – may seem surprising. Of the River Dochart, Pennant observed “The pearl fishery in this part of the river, some years ago, was carried on with great success, and the pearls were esteemed the fairest and largest of any.” Pearl mussels – which can still be found in the River Tay – are amongst the country’s most endangered species today, and it is believed that about two thirds of the world’s remaining freshwater pearl mussels are in Scotland. As the mussels are very susceptible to changes in the river’s ecology, their wellbeing is closely monitored within the River Tay Special Area of Conservation.

From Killin to Dunkeld, he directed his attention to the fauna and flora of the area, but on arriving at Dunkeld, turned his attention to the magnificent ruins of the cathedral – “Except for the choir, which serves as the parish church, the rest exhibits a fine ruin amidst the solemn scene of rocks and woods.” Leaving Dunkeld – which he described as “exiting the Scottish Alps” – Pennant and his traveling companions made their way to Perth and then on to Crieff and Innerpeffray, where he was impressed by the local library, housed – as it still is today – in a fine building built specially for it. This was the first public library to be established in Scotland, founded by David Drummond, 3rd Lord Madertie in 1680 when, in an unusual gesture of generosity, he made 400 of his family books available to the public. Initially the library was set up in the loft of the adjacent St Mary’s Collegiate Church. Madertie stated in a will written in 1680 that the library, and the school which was set up at the same time, were “for the improvement and education of the population particularly the young students.” Both library and church can be visited today, Wednesday to Sunday, March to October.

Next stop was Drummond Castle, perched on the rocky edge of a long extinct volcanic crater, which Pennant dismissed in a few lines – “The house is very unequal to the situation, being both mean and small; nor is it of any great antiquity.” Today, both the house and the ornate Italianate garden laid out at the foot of the crag, are a magnet for visitors. To be fair to Pennant, the Duke of Perth’s family had hit very hard times after 1745, the 17th century gardens had become overgrown, and the house – little over a hundred years old at the time – had fallen into in decay long before his visit. Both were restored in Victorian times.

Onwards to Dupplin, then to the Roman camp at Ardoch, and back to Perth, where Pennant was honoured by being given the freedom of the city, before making his way to Fife.

First to catch his eye in the Kingdom of Fife were the ancient ruins of the medieval abbeys at Lindores and Balmerino, but he ventured no deeper into the county at that time, travelling instead back across the Tay and north to Dundee – where he gave his readers a detailed account of the city’s varied industries. These included fishing, whaling, and the manufacture of ‘Osnaburgs’, a fabric originally made from flax, but in Dundee made entirely of jute. The manufacture of Osnaburg – introduced only in 1747 – had almost completely taken over from the city’s earlier woolen trade, and in 1773, the year after his visit, Pennant told his readers that almost four and a half million yards of the material had been woven in Dundee’s mills. “These are shipped for London, Newcastle, Leith, Burrowstoness [Bo’ness today], and Glasgow,” he noted, “from whence they are sent to the West Indies and America, for the clothing of slaves.” Osnaburgs, or “brown linens”, reported Pennant, had been manufactured at Arbroath – Aberbrothic in his day – long before Dundee got in on the act, and more than 700,000 yards were still being woven in and around the town each year.

But, he wrote, “the glory of this place was the abbey” whose key role in Scottish history also caught his attention. “In this monastery”, he wrote, “Robert Bruce convened the nobility of this kingdom, who here framed the spirited letter and remonstrance to Pope John, dated April 6, 1320.” The Declaration of Arbroath, as it is now known, reaffirmed Scotland’s independence, and asserted that the Scots would resist all attempts to subjugate them under English rule.