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Forfarshire
Chapter 18. - Antiquities


In cave-dwellings and in tombs there have been found throughout Scotland arrow-heads, spear-heads, and axes made of flint, the weapons of the men of the Stone Age. The Bronze Age followed but did not at once supersede the Stone Age. When the Iron Age came, the Caledonians would have abundance of material within their own land for their uses, though the puzzle is how they could produce the intense heat necessary for smelting iron ore. As in the case of the earlier periods, it must not be assumed that bronze or even stone weapons at once became obsolete on the discovery of iron. Various places in Angus have yielded swords, daggers, spear-heads, besides implements and personal ornaments.

In the conflicts between the Romans and the Caledonians, the invaders seem to have employed two routes through the county. The main route ran along the middle of Strathmore ; the other, which would secure communication with the sea, began on the Firth of Tay and skirting the eastern heights of the Sidlaws joined the central road some distance from the point at which it entered the Mearns. There are remains of the former road, now nearly obliterated, in the parish of Airlie, and there was a camp at the junction of the Dean and the Isla. Another situated about a half-mile north-east of Forfar, was capable, according to the estimate of experts, of containing 26,000 men. In the parish of Oathlaw, at Battle Dykes, are the remains of another camp, stated to be three times as large as the famous camp at Ardoch. Yet another camp on the main line of communication through the county had its site at War Dykes, or Black Dykes, three miles north of Brechin. The chief camp on the southern route was probably that of Haerfaulds, near Kirkbuddo. It measures 2280 by 1080 feet and is believed to have been capable of holding 10,000 men. The two routes may have had their junction at Aesica, which was probably situated on the South Esk. Time, the utilitarian ignorance of early builders, and agricultural improvements, have removed most of these Roman remains; and in particular all traces of the southern route have been obliterated. Even as late as the end of the eighteenth century many of these relics were much more easily seen than they are now. Fortunately measurements of camps and ramparts that have now disappeared were made in time to record their existence. An aureus, or gold coin, of the reign of Antoninus Pius was found in the parish of Kinnell in 1829.

Of the mysterious monoliths, often called Druidical stones, Angus contains many examples. When the stone monument consists of two or more uprights supporting a horizontal slab, it is styled a cromlech. This is usually found to be a place of burial. Cromlechs are rarer than the single stones; and it is therefore specially noteworthy that there is a fine specimen on the Sidlaws in the parish of Auchterhouse. Another curiosity of the same class is the rocking-stone, a huge block delicately poised on another, so that it may easily be set in motion without being dislodged. There used to be specimens at Gilfum-man in Glenesk and on Hillhead, Kirriemuir.

Besides such gigantic memorials there are numerous other sepulchral remains—the cairn, the barrow, the tumulus, the mound—all of them monuments of the honoured dead. These, it appears, are found neither in mountainous districts nor in carse lands, but in pastoral regions of the centre and the north. In Forfarshire such primeval cairns are found in most parishes. At one time it was enough to open one of these to find relics of the ancient dead.

Weems are specimens of very primitive architecture. They are built against the slope of some hill or under flat dry ground, but so completely covered up as to make their discovery accidental. A low entrance which must be crawled through leads by a crooked passage to a chamber dark and airless but for a small aperture or chimney in the further end. The floor slopes down until it is possible in some cases for a man to stand upright, though in others the height of the structure is only five feet. One of the most perfect of these weems, or Peghts’ houses—perhaps the best in the kingdom—was found on the farm of Barns in the parish of Airlie. It is 70 feet in length. Another exists in the face of a brae at Ruthven. In a weem accidentally discovered in 1871 in a field at Tealing were found horses’ teeth, a piece of Samian ware, a bracelet, bronze rings, pieces of burial urns, and ten querns, or hand-mills for grinding corn. These by no means exhaust the instances in Forfarshire of these dismal but interesting abodes.

The county, too, has its specimen of a lake-dwelling or crannog. A crannog was an island, wholly or partially artificial, situated in a loch and sometimes joined to the shore by a causeway that might easily be submerged or destroyed. Such structures, to judge by remains found in them, were not merely fortresses but dwelling-places for one or more families. The first Scottish crannog to be brought into prominent notice was discovered in the Loch of Forfar when it was partially drained in 1780.

The kitchen-midden already mentioned as having been discovered at Stannergate near Dundee contained no fewer than twelve stone cists, eight the full length of a human body, and four shorter ones in which the corpse had been doubled up. In one cist was a coarse urn. When the Dundee and Arbroath railway was being made more than half a century ago, other cists were found in the same neighbourhood, showing that the place must have been an ancient grave-yard. Twelve feet under the cists, the workmen came upon large beds of shells. Amongst these were two antlers of red deer and a piece of flint. This deposit is probably the oldest of the kind in the district.

Besides such rude sepulchral remains, traces of ancient forts give evidence of the doings of the old inhabitants of Angus. The tops of high hills were used as places of refuge or of observation, and as suitable points on which to kindle warning beacon fires. Hill forts consist for the most part of mounds of earth or stone or both, running round the crests of hills. A remarkable instance was discovered on the Laws, a rocky, wooded hill near Monifieth. The hill itself is composed of trap, but on the top was a collection of freestones, which neighbouring builders long used as a kind of quarry. Having cleared away what remained, the proprietor discovered a vast series of trap boulders so put together as to give evidence of having been foundation walls of some great building. One circular wall about 18 feet thick is pierced by a passage leading into what must have been a round chamber 40 feet in diameter. The debris contained a stone cup, a coin, an armlet, iron axes, an iron sword, and charred remains of bones, wheat and barley. It is now impossible to say whether these elaborate structures were fortress, temple, or tomb. It is significant that they should have been erected on a spot commanding a wide expanse of country.

A famous example of vitrification as applied to forts exists on Finhaven Hill near Forfar. The height of the hill is about 600 feet, and the dimensions of the fort which once crowned its summit are some 400 by 112 feet. There are traces of internal divisional walls. Many parts of the walls are vitrified, and contain various kinds of stone fused together by the external application of heat. This is commonly supposed to be a Pre-Roman fortification .

By far the most notable instances of hill forts, whether in Angus or in the whole country, are those of the Caterthuns in the parish of Menmuir. Two conjectures have been offered as to the meaning of this name, which is of Celtic origin: cader dun, hill fort; and caither dun, temple hill. These marvellous structures are on two hills about three-quarters of a mile apart and called respectively the White and the Black Caterthun. The White Caterthun may have got its name from its rings of white stone; the other, by way of contrast, is black, the dark lines being scarcely distinguishable at a distance from the hue of the heather. The White Caterthun is by far the more important.

The fortress consists of four concentric circles of stone, the innermost of which is about 80 paces in diameter. “The most extraordinary thing that occurs in this British fort is the dimensions of the rampart, composed entirely of large loose stones, being at least 25 feet thick at top, and upwards of 100 at bottom, reckoning quite to the ditch, which seems, indeed, to be greatly filled up by the tumbling down of the stones. The vast labour that it must have cost to amass so incredible a quantity, and carry them to such a height, surpasses all description. A single earthen breastwork surrounds the ditch ; and beyond this, at a distance of about fifty yards on the two sides, but seventy feet on each end, there is another double entrenchment of the same sort running round the slope of the hill. The intermediate space probably served as a camp for the troops, while the interior post, from its smallness, could only contain a part of them. The entrance into this is by a single gate on the east end; but opposite to it there are two leading through the outward entrenchment, between which a work projects, no doubt for containing some men posted there as an additional security to that quarter.”

Sculptured stones are very numerous in Forfarshire, but it is hazardous to dogmatise on the date or the origin of these. Some, however, belong clearly to Pagan times, others to Christian.

The pillar-stone at Kirkton of Dunnichen, with its Z-shaped ornament, comb, mirror, etc. is evidently of the Pagan period. Cairn Greg, an eminence on the estate of Linlathen, was found on being excavated to contain a cist, within which were a bronze dagger and an urn with ashes. Above this was a sculptured stone pointing to heathen usages and beliefs. The legend of a dragon-haunted well, where nine maidens are said to have perished, is as old as the stone, near Balluderon, carved w'th a transfixed serpent and the zigzag symbol. An inscription on a sculptured stone at St Vigeans has been regarded as the sole specimen of Pictish writing that has come down to us. It speaks of the stone as erected to Droston, son of Voret, of the race of Fergus; and a Pictish king, Droston, was killed in battle at a spot a mile or two distant in 729. This stone, which was discovered about fifty years ago, is a broken cross with interlaced tracery, grotesque figures, and a hunting scene in which a man kneeling on one knee is depicted as discharging a cross-bow at a wild boar. On another fragment are priests tonsured in the Roman manner, not in the Scottish or Irish, a peculiarity pointing to the year 710 as its earliest possible date, when Nechtan put his church under St Peter and adopted the Roman customs. An early Christian monument, discovered amidst the foundations of the old parish church of Arbirlot, has on it a cross, two open books, and a small circle. The sculptured stones of Aberlemno have figures of armed warriors.

Stones have also been found at Monifieth, Kettins, Craig, Eassie, Farncll, Kirriemuir and elsewhere in Forfarshire.


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