Towns beside the Firth of Tay that ring in Scottish history
The country about the Tay is certainly not of the Highlands, but it is not quite Lowland either. Even though the Carse of Gowrie is a gentle and fertile plain, it is backed by the dark swell of the Sidlaw Hills. So it is a fitting setting for the beginnings of Scottish nationhood -for abbeys and palaces, for struggles for political and religious freedom, for kings and heroes and for tales of high courage and desperate treasons. (T) LEUCHARS
Anywhere in the village the thunder of the jets taking off from RAF Leuchars comes up through the soles of the feet and rattles the teeth, and aircrew in bright overalls move purposefully about their business.
Si Athernasa Church, Leuch
Serene above it all stands the church of St Athemase, one of the loveliest Norman parish churches in Scotland. It was built by a Crusader, Saier de Quinci, at the beginning of the 13th century, and much of the exterior, the arcades, arches and great rounded apse remain as the masons left them 700 years ago; indeed the marks of their axes on the stone can still be seen. The interior is carved with grotesque heads and Crusaders’ crosses, but is otherwise very plain; among the few monuments is a charming one to ‘ane lantern brycht’, Sir William Bruce, who fought at Flodden and died in 1584, having built the nearby manor of Earlshall. The manor still stands.
Once the ferry port for Dundee, Tayport declined with the opening of the Tay Bridge, but it is still a pleasant, busy place with a harbour for yachts and small coasters. Offshore is a beacon light called The Pile, and beyond, on the other side of the Tay, is Broughty Ferry, with its great, solid block of a castle. Tayport’s church of Ferry-Port-en-Craig is chiefly famed for its 17th-century tower, which has a distinct list to one side.
To the south-east lie the dark miles of Tentsmuir Forest, part of which is a nature reserve. The Forestry Commission has driven rides through the conifers, and established a parking and picnic place on the coast beyond the forest. Morton Lochs, just south of Tayport, are an important stopping-off point for migratory birds.
Regency and Victorian stone houses, ornamental and plain, recall the days when Newport was a harbour and ferry port for Dundee, where many businessmen built their villas. The town is still a popular residential area, and the villas are lovingly preserved. There are marvellous views of the delicately slim road bridge, completed in 1966, which put the 800-vear-old Newport ferry out of business.
Wormit, 2 miles west, is the southern end of the even more majestic railway bridge, built in 1887. The piles breaking the surface all the way across are all that is left of an earlier bridge: whose central span fell into the river during a violent storm in December 1879, taking with it an engine, six coaches and 75 passengers and crew. A court of inquiry found that the bridge had been badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained, and laid the blame upon its engineer, Sir Thomas Bouch. But what happened at the exact moment of disaster will never be known.
Beautifully situated on a hilltop, the fragile remains of the abbey look over the pale-streaked pewter of the Tay to the farmlands of the Carse of Gowrie and the backdrop of the Sidlaw Hills. The abbey was founded in 1299 as a daughter house of Melrose Abbey by Alexander III and his mother Queen Ermyngarde, who was buried there; it was brutally sacked by an English raiding party under Sir Thomas Wyndham in 1547, repaired, then sacked again at the Reformation.
The attractive grounds contain a venerable Spanish chestnut whose writhing boughs are supported on props. It is said that the tree was planted by Queen Ermyngarde at the abbey’s founding in 1299, but borings into the trunk suggest that it is no more than 425 years old.
The town named by Edward III in 1266 rises up craggy Ormiston Hill and looks down on the head of the Firth of Tay, and to mud-flats that bear such names as Carthagena, Peesweep and Sure as Death. These are important bird sanctuaries, while MacDuff’s Cross, an ancient monument south of the town, was, in the Middle Ages, a sanctuary for murderers. An assassin could expiate his crime by touching the cross, washing himself nine times in nearbv Nine Wells and offering as recompense nine cows, which had to be tied to the cross.
The royal burgh grew up around Lindores Abbey, whose substantial red ruins may be seen at the eastern outskirts. Endowed by kings, it contains several royal graves, and was the headquarters in Scotland of the Inquisition; trials for heresy held there frequently concluded with the accused being sentenced to the stake.
The country about Newburgh is soothing and serene, with steep green straths sweeping up to apparently sculpted crags and gracious woods.
Much of what the world knows about Scotland seems to have taken place in and around Perth, and the characters and events that the city and its surroundings knew are like a pageant of the nation’s story. Macbeth, Robert Bruce, Mary of Guise, John Knox, Charles II, Montrose, Cromwell, Prince Charles Edward and the Fair Maid are all players in the pageant, which includes seven sieges, the theft of the Stone of Scone, the clan battle on the North Inch, the murder of James [, the Ruthven Raid and the Gowrie Conspiracy.
When a French knight stormed Perth’s walls at Robert Bruce’s side, he thought the place ‘a mean hamlet’, but that was a long time ago, and nowadays the inhabitants tend to refer to it as ‘The Fair City’. Its setting by the two road bridges over the swift-flowing Tay is certainly fair, but the city itself, laid out on a grid plan that might follow that of a Roman encampment, is better described as an attractive jumble of periods and styles. There is not much left of medieval Perth – only the old town water-mill, presented by Robert Bruce and now a hotel, and the church of St John the Baptist. It was there in 1559 that John Knox preached his sermon on idolatry, so sparking off a wave of church-wrecking that engulfed the nation; the first casualty was the interior of St John’s. Montrose used the building as an arsenal, and Prince Charles Edward, who was staying in Room 20 at the Salutation Hotel, attended a service in the church in 1745.
PLACE OF KINGS Mart’ than 40 kings have been crowned at Scone, including Robert Bruce in 1306 and his sou, David U, in 1329.
The house of Catherine Glover – the Fair Maid of Perth – looks ancient, but has been much restored and is now a craft shop. A characteristic feature of old Perth is the vennels – Salt Vennel, Meal Vennel, Baker’s Vennel and so on – the little streets that run between the main thoroughfares and add a touch of Scots medieval to the largely Georgian and Victorian scene. The word comes from the French venelle, ‘alley’, and occurs only in one other Scottish town, Dumfries.
Perth’s green places include the walk up Kinnoull Hill to its folly tower and views over symmetrical crags and steep-piled hanging woods to a rich, smiling landscape, and the walk to the North and South Inches, the riverside meadows that border Perth itself. The North Inch has one of the finest sports centres in the country.
Scone Palace, 5 miles north of Perth, is the home of the Earl of Mansfield and a joy to visit; so too are its magnificently landscaped grounds. The mound near the house is Moot Hill, the heart of the Kingdom of the Picts, and later the place where Scottish kings were crowned, seated upon the Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, said to be the stone on which Jacob rested his head at Bethel. The stone was taken to London by Edward I in 1296 and is now incorporated in the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.
Jute, jam and journalism are Dundee’s traditional exports; marmalade and comics are still doing well, but jute is no longer what it was. But this bright, busy city has always prided itself on its versatility, and now it makes many other products as well. With its broad streets, shopping precincts and fine modern buildings, it hardly looks like one of the oldest royal burghs in Scotland, but so it is, with more than its share of battles, and of great men, too. George Wishart, the religious reformer, Admiral Duncan, the victor of Camperdown, and John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, were all natives of the city.
All Dundee and much of the country around it can be seen from the top of Dundee Law, the great plug of volcanic rock – and ancient hill-fort – that rises in the midst of the city. From there it seems that the 35 acres of docks are out of proportion to the city’s size, but they were built in the days when the name of Dundee was synonymous with whaling and with steam whalers, several of which became famous as polar research ships. Scott’s Discovery and Shackleton’s Terra Nova were both built in Dundee. The old ship that lives permanently in the docks is not a whaler, but HMS Unicom, a frigate. Launched in 1820, she is the oldest British-built warship still afloat, and now serves as a museum of the Royal Navy.
The Albert Institute is Dundee’s principal museum and art gallery, and the Mills Observatory in Balgay Park is the only public astronomical observatory in Britain. There is a small museum of the city in the 16th-century Old Steeple; it was there in 1651 that the burghers of Dundee made their last stand against the troops of General Monk, who had besieged the city for six weeks.
Dundee also has a fine swimming and leisure centre, and, at Camperdown Park, a golf course, wildlife centre and nature trail.
Broughty Ferry, an eastern suburb of Dundee, has a busy harbour with a slipway; sea-fishing trips can be arranged, and fishing from the pier is permitted. Broughty Castle was a military establishment and a coastal strongpoint from 1547 to 1945. It was held by an English garrison against a combined force of Scots and French, and was later stormed by Cromwell.
This straggling village offers few points of access to the sea. But it has a caravan site just behind the shore, which consists of dunes knitted together by marram grass. Erosion has made the coast path dangerous. There is an attractive golf course whose roughs look impenetrable.
The rather bland little town guards some of golf’s greatest treasures – the Championship, Burnside and Buddon Links of the Carnoustie Golf Club, whose wide and serene acres have given joy and despair to the game’s greatest personalities for almost a century and a half.
The Yachting Club welcomes new members and has a useful dinghy park.