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Issue 60 - History and Husbandry

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011

 

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History and Husbandry

John Hannavy recreates a 1772 journey.

What was it about the north-east of Scotland, I wonder, that caused it to be left off Thomas Pennant’s 1772 itinerary?

Dunnottar was about as far north as he got, before heading south again and across the Tay into Fife. So he never even made it to Aberdeen or the towns up towards and along the Moray Firth.

The Montrose area, on the other hand, did attract his attention by virtue of its unusual fishing industry, and when one remembers that 250 years ago the road network was poor and coastal shipping slow, it is surprising to learn that the area had a thriving industry exporting lobsters to London!

More specifically, Pennant was referring to the village now known as Fishtown of Usan, just south of Scurdie Ness. “Incredible numbers of lobsters are taken from this coast,” he wrote, “from the village of Usan. Sixty or 70,000 are sent annually to London, and sold at the rate of two pence halfpenny apiece, provided they are five inches round in the body; and if less, two are allowed for one. The attention of the natives to this species of fishery is one reason of the neglect of that of white fish, to the great loss of the whole country, which by this inattention is deprived of a cheap and comfortable diet.” The production of food figured strongly in this part of Pennant’s narrative, and his enthusiasm for the efforts of Robert Barclay of Urie near Stonehaven filled several pages. While history remembers Barclay’s great-grandfather, the Quaker theologian and writer of the same name, Pennant praised the achievements of Robert Barclay Esq., who, it seems, “by the example he sets his neighbours in the fine management of his land, is a most useful and worthy character in his country.” To Barclay’s example, Pennant directly attributes the widespread modernisation of the agricultural economy of Angus, the introduction of wheat farming, the introduction of beef cattle, and the growing of turnips to feed them! As a result of the turnip crop “the markets are now plentifully supplied with fresh beef, For that of Aberdeen, there are frequently fifty fat beefs slaughtered in one day, from Christmas to the first of July, generally weighing forty stones Scotch apiece.” Down through Brechin, where he marvelled at the Cathedral and its ancient round tower, Pennant arrived at Aberlemno – Aberlemni to him – where he went to see the ancient stones in the churchyard, which he believed celebrated a victory over the Danes. “Mr Gordon”, he wrote, “very justly imagines that this was erected in memory of the victory at Loncarty, for in the upper part are horsemen, seemingly fleeing from an enemy:” Historians now believe the stone represents the battle of Nechtansmere, also known as Dunnichen, a notable Pictish victory over the Northumbrians in AD685 (see Scotland Magazine 51).

Continuing south, he again passed through Perthshire and into Fife where his first stop was Falkland, before moving on to Melville House, where he was the guest of the Earl of Leven.

Melville House, built in 1692, was recently in the news as the most expensive house in Scotland ever to be repossessed by a bank. After spending £2M on restoring the fine mansion, the owner put it on sale for £4.5M but found no takers. The South African bank which held the mortgage offered it for sale in 2009 at £2.5M, but sold it for £1.6M!

At St. Andrews, Pennant indulged his passion for the ancient, visiting the city’s ruined cathedral, the castle, and great churches and, of course, the university. But how times have changed! The range of available student accommodation caught his eye, and he remarked “The price at the professors’, or at private houses, is from ten to twenty-five pounds a quarter. I observed at one of the professor’s, young gentlemen from Bath, from Bordeaux, and from Bern; a proof of the extensive reputation of the university, notwithstanding the students are far from numerous: there are at present little more than a hundred, who during the sessions wear red gowns, without sleeves.” Today, 240 years later, there are 7,200 students, and about 1,800 staff!

Pennant followed the coast round through Leven, Lundin Links, past the Wemyss coalfields to Dysart. Kirkcaldy and Kinghorn. As he passed Wemyss, he observed “The strata of coal are of great thickness, some at least nine yards. Many of the beds have been on fire for above two centuries; and there have been formerly instances of eruptions of smoke visible in the day, of fire in the night. The violence of the conflagration has ceased, but it still continues in a certain degree, as is evident in time of snow, which melts in streams on the surface wherever there are fissures.” He referred his readers to George Agricola, the 16th century metallurgist’s account of similar fires in the area in the 1540s!

At Aberdour he took a small boat out to visit the ruined abbey on Inchcolm, before continuing to Dunfermline and then down to one of the industrial marvels of the age: Charles Bruce, Earl of Elgin’s limekilns near the village of Charlestown. Built in the 1750s, they were still being expanded in number and output when Pennant visited. They were, he said, “the greatest perhaps in the universe, placed amidst inexhaustible beds of limestone, and near immense seams of coal.” The kilns were so vast it took two weeks for the limestone to fall to the bottom of the furnaces and be raked out as lime.

Fife impressed him, describing it as “a county so populous, that, excepting the environs of London, scarce one in South Britain can vie with it; fertile in soil, abundant in cattle, happy in collieries, in iron, stone, lime, and freestone, blest in manufactures, the property remarkably well divided, none insultingly powerful, to distress and often to depopulate a country, most of the fortunes of a useful mediocrity. The number of towns is perhaps unparalleled in an equal tract of coast, for the whole shore from Crail to Culross, about forty English miles, is one continued chain of towns and villages.” Not quite true then, any more than it is today!

Boundaries were different in 1772, for six miles east of Culross, today proudly in Fife, he crossed into Perthshire, journeying along the north shore of the Forth to Stirling, from we shall start next time on the last leg of his tour of Scotland.