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History of Montrose
Chapter I. - Introduction—Early History


THE ancient name of Montrose was Celurca. Its modern name, Montrose, is derived from mom a moss, and ros high, or promontory of the moss; whether we understand the promontory to mean that bold headland terminating in Montrose Ness, or that the site of the ancient town had deserved to be called high, more than it now does, in relation to the adjoining land and sea. Although we might never suppose, from the appearance of the soil, that there ever had been a moss here, yet there is as little at Balnamoon, which means the house of the moss; and many of us remember, that Borrowfield close by was very boggy and mossy, where we used to go for loch reeds.

But after all, it matters little to us what was the nature of the land,—the “local habitation,” as the abode of men, is what creates all the interest, and awakens our sensibilities as natives of the place.

The finest landscape in the world would be indifferent to us unassociated with the homes of men; and the wildest country, if only there we spent our childhood, would be to us the dearest spot on earth. With these sentiments agree the words of the paraphrase—

"With joy I saw the abodes prepared,
Which men were soon to fill.”

Home recollections are strongest, when we are far away among strangers. Sir Alexander Burnes spoke of the pleasure he felt when arriving out at India, he saw “Arbroath” on the sail of a ship in the harbour; and many a time have I gone to the quayside at Aberdeen when at college, to see the Montrose ships that came there; and afterwards at Sunderland, if I had seen “Montrose” oh the stem of a ship, it was like a sight of home—the same at Port Dundas when at Glasgow—and when I fell in with a Montrose captain, who could have given me the news, it was a very great treat. Once on a time, old Mrs Brydon called upon us at Sunderland, and plain and homely as she was at all times, her truly friendly visit was something to talk and 'tell about for a long time afterwards.

Friendships formed in youth, too, are awakened with fresh and glowing interest when the parties happen to meet away from home: as was the case of a relative of mine, when he met his old chum, the late James Beattie, Esq. of Hillside in Ayrshire, the one, after spending many happy hours already with his companion accompanying him home, and the other doing the same by him—in fact, they convoyed each the other all the night till morning came. I remember myself walking all the way to Aberdeen from Bervie, (27 miles), and running at last to see the scenes and the friends of my youth, in 1844. The Duke of Wellington, too, touched the strongest chord, when in the thickest of the fight he said, "What will they think of you at home!”

“The school boy or girl, when holiday time comes, with what anxiety do they not look forward to the time of the chaise’s arrival, which is to take them ‘home!’ They both think of the approaching happy meeting with all their affectionate family,—the encouraging smile of the proud father,—the overwhelming kisses of the kind mother,—the vociferous welcomes of the delighted brothers and sisters. Visions of well-merited praise bestowed on the different exhibitions of the neatly executed copy-book; the correctly worked sums; the well recited Latin lines; and the horribly hard translation, pass before Mbmind. She anticipates the admiration that will be elicited by the display of certain beautiful needlework, which, at the expense of shape and eyesight, is perhaps brought to such perfection, as exactly to imitate the finest 4 Brussels.’ ”Ah! happy childhood, thus spent in fitting the one Tor the 44 busy pursuits of active life,” and the other for adorning her own happy home, and training her younger sisters to habits of industry.

The appearance of Montrose from all sides must be familiar to a native, or to one who has for any length of time been resident in it; but for the sake of others, a short description may be given.

Montrose, when looked down upon from Rossie Brae, on the south of the South Esk (forming its southern boundary), at a point at the side of the road between the house of Inchbrayock and the Barns, from which the best views are taken, is like the rough shape of a triangle: of which the base, or greater side, is the river lino, extending about a mile from the pier of the Suspension Bridge on the west, to the Upper Lighthouse on the east; the other two sides seeming to meet at a small distance behind the Steeple of the Parish Church, about which the denser part of the buildings appears to be grouped together. The side of the town on the right, towards the east, has along its outline the Upper Lighthouse and the tall chimneys of the public works—here and there, at irregular intervals, rising up among the other buildings—this side, having between it and the German Ocean, a small strip of the Links, bounded by the Bents, stretching from the mouth of the South to that of the North Esk, between which sandy ridge and the town lies the whole of the northern and southern Links. Extending the view, the margin of the sea appears to be a right line, joining the point at the Lighthouse, and the innermost comer of the Heughs of St. Cyrus, from which the line of coast runs straight to Johnshaven at the extremity—this line and the north side of the South Esk river being parallel—the line of the sea margin bounding the whole level part on the east for about three miles.

At the point where this scene is spread out, the high grounds of St. Cyrus to the north, the Hill of Garvock and the Hill of’ Rosemount to the north and west, bound, the view, and the latter hill gradually slopes down to Montrose, which is built chiefly on the western side of the tongue of land, or peninsula, formed by the German Ocean on the east, the Esk on the south, and the Basin on/the west. This lagoon, which adds greatly to the beauty of the surrounding scenery when it is full tide, improves the harbour, by making deeper water in the river, and clearing away the bar of sand at the entrance, so that vessels of a large size can come up, and find accommodation in the Wet Dock, on the north side of the river. The Harbour Commissioners are very jealous, on these accounts, of any encroachment on the Basin; as were the conservators of the river Tyne, when it was proposed to drain Jarrow Slake on the south side of that river, a little way above South Shields; and what they did at last, was to build a Wet Dock in the place where the water spread. If the people of Montrose Were to follow their example, the back sands would hold the largest fleet that ever swept the seas. It was indeed attempted at one time, about 1670, to drain about 2000 acres of land, said to belong to the estate of Dun; and a dyke, called the Dronner’s Dyke, was raised, to cut this portion off the back sands.

The laird disposed of it to a company who were ruined by the project, lor the embankment was no sooner raised, than Meggie Cowie, the last witch that was burned on the hill, put in her finger, and a storm arising, down it tumbled. The Btorm had been the witch. The remains of the dyke are still distinctly visible, a little way behind the Infirmary.

Scotland was in early times much infested by the Danes, who often entered it with armies, and fought with, and plundered the inhabitants. The remains of a Danish camp were visible in the Links. We read of Montrose being twice visited by them. On the first occasion, in 980, they gathered together a large army, purposing with their fleet, to make a descent upon the next coast of Albion, where they should happen to arrive; and being on land to destroy all before them, except where the people should submit and yield 'themselves unto them. This navy, being once got abroad, in a short time arrived at that point of land in Angus, which is called Bed Braes or Bed Head. Here the Danish fleet first casting anchor, their captains held a consultation what they were best to do. Some of them were of this opinion, that it was not most expedient for them to land in that place, but rather to pass from thence into England ; for, from the Scots being poor, and yet a fierce and hardy nation, there was small good to be got, being accustomed to give more overthrows than they commonly received. Again, the soil of that country was but barren, and overgrown with woods (as it was indeed in those days), with few towns, and small habitations; and these so poor, that no man knowing the same, would seek to fight for possession of them: whereas, England was so fruitful of com and cattle—so rich in mines, and replenished with so many notable cities and towns, inhabited with men of great wealth and substance, that few were to be found comparable thereto. So that the matter being well considered, they could not do better than to sail into Kent, where they might be sure of rich spoil, without any great resistance. Others held that this expedition was attempted by the counsel of their superiors, only to revenge such injuries as the Danish nation had received at the hands of the Scotsmen, and not to attain riches or any dominion. The Scots also being a cruel people, and ready to fight in defence of other men’s possessions (as in the wars of Northumberland it well appeared), would surely be ready to come to the aid of the Englishmen into Kent, even so soon as it was known that the Danes were on land in those parts: so that by this means, they should be constrained to have to do both with the Scotsmen and Englishmen, if they first went into Kent, where, if they set on land here in Scotland, they should encounter but only with the Scots. Therefore, the best were according to their first determination, to land among the Scots, since chance had brought them into those parts; adding, that when they had somewhat abated the arrogant presumption of their enemies there, then might they pass more safely into England, after a lucky beginning of fire and sword, to proceed against their adversaries in those parts as fortune should lead them. This device was allowed of the greatest number, being glad to get beside- the water. Whereupon the mariners (upon commandment given), drew with their ships into the mouth of the river called Esk, which in those days washed on the walls of a town in Angus, called then Celurca, but now Montrose. Here the Danes landing, put the inhabitants of the country thereabouts in great fear, so that with all speed for their safeguard, they got them into Montrose; but the town being quickly assailed of the Danes, was taken, put to the sack, and after razed, castle and all to the bare ground, not one living creature being left alive of all such as were found within the same.

After the destruction of Montrose by the Danes above referred to, we find that on their landing a second time, with a powerful army at the same place, Red Braes or Rubrum Promontorium, the town remained still in ruins, for it is said “Camus their General, being once landed, got him to the next hill, and beholding the ruins of the town of Montrose, which a few years before had been destroyed by the Danes, he rejoiced not a little.”

The next notice we get of dates is that of the Castle,— that William the Lion made it an occasional residence, and dated charters from it between the years 1178 and 1198,— which was built upon the Forthill, near the Bridge, about a mile above the fall of the South Esk into the sea, and about where the Infirmary now stands. The hill which stood there always got the name of the Castlehill, and was latterly Constablehill, a place where the people in the neighbourhood got sand for their houses. There were at that time human bones found in it, and some ancient coins. A seaman, with his companion, when they were boys, found in their play a gold ring, with an inscription on it, “Get me, guide me,” and lion rampant, which they took to the house of Dun, and got 5s. for from Miss Erskine. The channel of the Esk, at one time, had been much narrower than it is now, on the Montrose side, for in the old statistical account of the town, drawn up by the late Rev. Alexander Mollison, about 1793, it is said, “The main current of the river probably flowed in former times on the other side of the island of Inchbrayock, and it has evidently made considerable encroachments on this hill. A well was discovered a few years ago on the brink, and when the water is clear and smooth, another has been seen a good way into the river. Both of them, in all probability, had been once within the fort.” The inhabitants, at that time, remember that the river at the Forthill was not near so deep nor so broad as at present. Tradition says, that in ancient times persons on the opposite banks could almost shake hands.

“Edward, King of England, in pursuit of King John Baliol, visited the Castle of Montrose in the summer of 1296, and received his submission at Brechin, where ‘he did render quietly the realm of Scotland, as he that had done amiss.’ Returning soon after to Berwick, a Bailie and twelve burgesses of Montrose went there and took the oaths of allegiance to Edward for themselves, and the community of the town. Soon after this, ‘Edward passed over into France with a great navy of ships, intending to make war against that nation, trusting that the Scots would not stir, since of late they had sustained so many overthrows and sore losses, one after another, by the last wars.’But‘ the lords of Scotland got them all together immediately, and assembled in council at Stirling, where, by agreement, twelve noblemen were chosen to be governors of Scotland, who appointed the great William Wallace as ruler, under John Baliol, to deliver his country from bondage of the English nation., After many heroic exploits, and receiving the army that John Cumin, Earl of Buchan, had led before, he passed forth with great pursuance against the Englishmen, who held sundry Castles within Scotland, and with great hardiness and manhood, he won the Castles of Forfar, Dundee, Breohin, and Montrose, slaying all suoh soldiers as he found within them.” This happened in 1297, after which time no mention occurs of the Castle, although King David was frequently at Montrose in the latter years of his reign—on one of these occasions landing at Craig Davie, he constituted Bervie a royal burgh, and holding south, met with the Council in the old Council House, at the back of the Old Kirk.

As already mentioned, Montrose was a town in the tenth century, when it was destroyed by the Danes; and in the time of Malcolm IV., it had both mills and salt-pans. It was one of the principal towns which were consumed by fire in 1244, as recorded in Dalrymple’s Annals of Scotland.

The Burgh of Montrose is of high antiquity. David II., by a charter dated 1st May, in the 40th year of his reign, of new grants the Burgh of Montrose to the burgesses and community thereof “ cum territoriis et communi pastura dicti burgi sibi adjacentibus, cum piscariis infra aquas de North Esk, et South Esk, in crovis, yaris, et retibus antiquis, et consuetis et pertinentibus ad dictum burgum, cum molandinis, sive ad ventum sive ad aquam, et eonim multuris, cum tolloneo, parva custuma, curiis, et earum exitibus habendis et tenendis in locis dicti burgi debitis et consuetis, cum moris, maresiis, semitis atque viis, necnon cum omnibus, .aliis et singulis libertatibus, commoditatibus, aisiamentis, et justis pertinentus quibuscumque, tarn infra dictum burgum quam extra, tarn sub terra quam superterram, ad praedictum, burgum spectantibus, sen quoque modo juste spectare val-entibus, in futurum adeo libere, et quiete, plenarie, integre et honorifice, bene, et in pace, sicut aliquis burgorum nos-trorum Scocie *conceditur.”—In virtue of this charter, the petty customs, multures, weigh-house, flesh-market dues, &c., have been levied. About 58 years ago, the meal and malt mills were disused,’ and since then no multures have been exacted. By a- charter of King James IV., dated 20th September, 1493,.that.monarch.gave and granted to “our lovittes, the aldirmen, balzies, consale, and communitie of our burgh 6f Montrose, and their successoris perpetuallie sifc like privilege, freedoun, charges and ankerages, to be raist and taken at the pere, port, and havin of our said burgh, of all schippis, crearis, and botis, pertening to oure leigis, and strangaris, as is grantit and given be our maist nobill progenitors to the ports of Leyth and Dundee, or any otheris within our realme.” In virtue of this charter, the magistrates levy shore-dues, anchorage, and plankage at the harbour, by which they uphold piers, buoys, and moorings within the harbour. The property of the burgh consists of lands, houses, feu-duties, the harbour, shares in Marykirk Bridge, seats in the churches, money lent to the trustees of the Forfar road, and money in the bank: it amounted in 1832 in gross value to 54,442 16s. 7d. In 1833, the revenue was 3184 3s. 8Jd.; the expenditure was 4700 17s. 10d.,— extraordinary expenses having been incurred by important local improvements. The corporation revenue in 1839-40 was 3007. The assessments by authority of Parliament are that for the second ministers stipend, the cess or land tax, and twopence on the pint of ale and beer for supplying the town With water; by authority of charter, the shore and harbour dues, the petty-customs, the weigh-house dues, and the flesh-market dues. The Burgh having several years ago adopted the Police Act, the money required for water, lighting, and watching, &c., is levied by virtue thereof on the rental; and the town is supplied with abundance of water both from Glenskenno and Kinnaber.


From all accounts, we learn that the inhabitants of Montrose suffered much at different times from* the lairds of Dun, who should rather have been their protectors. The causes of these raids were various. “ In 1491-2, the younger Erskine, as tutor for his relative, Henry Graham of Morphie, took possession of certain cruives and fishings in the North Esk, against, the will of the magistrates, who carried the affair t6 a Court of Law, and upon the case going to proof, Erskine was declared to have done i na wrang,* and so kept possession of the property.”* The power which they possessed in the neighbourhood of their estate, was like that of the other barons, extensive and almost arbitrary. The safety of the people lay in having the gates of the town well secured against such marauders: for they took away their cattle, so that they had to be penned up in a part of the High Street every night, when the gates of the Port were shut, which had watch-towers on either side of two storeys for a look-out, but in other respects resembling sentry-boxes; and the Captain of the Port was the officer who managed these matters, and was also at the head of the town-guard. The town of Montrose was particularly under the jurisdiction of the laird of Dun, who, on that account, was the virtual, as he was also made the official, governor of the town. This manner of choosing a Provost for the burgh, was more a matter of necessity than of choice with the citizens. The barons reigned with a kind of petty sovereignty. Those noblemen whose lands lay contiguous to burghs, were generally invested by the prince with the power of constableship, and the government of the forts or castles which protected the towns. In such cases, it was prudent for the citizens to throw themselves under the defence of such powerful men; and therefore the burgesses bestowed upon the barons the highest honour which lay at their disposal. Indeed, without this precaution* the citizens were not safe ; nor were they altogether free from violence, notwithstanding their subserviency to this barbarous system. Both town and country lay open to marauders of every description, whose vigilanoe eluded the feeble arm of the law,—the execution of which was too often entrusted with those very barons, who were sometimes themselves the cause of the citizens’ disquietude. An instance of this kind occurred between the town of Montrose and the family of Dun, about forty years previous to the period of which we are now treating.

John Erskine, laird of Dun, and grandfather of our reformer, not contented with the authority which he possessed over .the burgh of Montrose, resolved to compel the magistrates to submit to his tyranny. They, however, though willing to concede much in favour of the baron, would not resign the whole of their power; and, instead of allowing the town to fall under the vassalage of the family of Dun, they determined to keep fast their shadow of prerogative. They had, without any appearance of jealousy, bestowed every mark of respect on the laird, as being the parliamentary baron and knight of the shire, as well as constable of the castle and provost of the burgh; and no submission, whether real or ceremonious, short of absolute servitude, had hitherto been withheld by them from their powerful superior. But still, the magistrates were so far sensible of their official dignity, as to be aware, that much of this honour was mere courtesy, and that in return they had to expect the protection and patronage, instead of the tyranny, of the authoritative baron. Finding admonition and threats of no avail with such obstinate supporters of municipal privilege, the laird had recourse to chastisement and revenge. For this purpose, in the month of September, 1493, he with his sons, John, Robert, Walter, and Thomas, and a number of their vassals and dependants, all mounted on horseback, and armed, some with pikes and spears, and others with bows and arrows, came, in the dead of night, to the burgh lands, and first setting on fire the com which grew there, they afterwards proceeded to the town. Having marched up the High Street, shouting and brandishing their weapons, they challenged the magistrates to come forth, and try by battle, the cause which had been left unsettled by argument. The honest rulers, notwithstanding this call upon their honour, prudently kept their beds—resolving that, if they must fight for their dignity, they should at least have the advantage of day light in combating such powerful enemies.

These violent proceedings having been several times repeated, at length provoked the magistrates of Montrose to apply for redress at the proper quarter. Having assembled in the town-hall, they drew up a petition to the Duke of Montrose, praying for protection: but the bearer of the letter to his Grace having been basely murdered by the retainers of Dun, the magistrates directed that a “bill of complaint" should forthwith be transmitted to King James IV. at Stirling, under an escort of armed men. The King having graciously received the town’s complaint, ordered the Erskines to find bail to keep the peace, and to appear, on a day appointed, before the Sheriffs of Forfar and Kincardine, to answer to the charges preferre4 against them.

Further interesting particulars, showing the rude state of society about the fifteenth century, will be found in the life of John Erskine, from which the above account is taken.

John Erskine, the superintendent of Angus and Mearos, was quite a different man from his grandfather—wise and prudent in counsel, and if his advice had been taken, an alliance would have been formed between Edward VI. of England and Queen Mary, by which Scotland would have become sooner Protestant than it did; and the attack made upon Montrose, which called forth his prowess, as will be seen in what follows, could not have happened—although some accounts say he was wild and impetuous in his youth, and even lay to his charge the murder of a priest of Montrose, Sir Thomas Forster by name, within the campanile or bell-tower; and in consequence, as was the fashion of the period, Erskine granted a bond of assythment or blood-money for the offence, to Forster’s father, who was a burgess of the town. One can scarcely give credit to this account, the whole of his future life was so different, being prudent and moderate on all occasions.

He was also provost of Montrose as his grandfather had been; and on one occasion protected the town from an attack of the English in the time of Edward VI., and drove back the assailants with great loss to their ships. They had before this made a descent upon the coast of Fife, with as bad success; and being enraged at their defeat, sailed northward, and, arriving opposite the mouth of the South Esk, they resolved to attack the town of Montrose, in order to redeem the honour they lost in the Fife expedition.

To make sure of surprising the inhabitants, the English determined to attack Montrose in the dead of night. They therefore kept out at sea, riding in the bay at such a distance, as not to be discovered on shore. But this prudence seems to have deserted them after nightfall \ for, by some unaccountable folly on their part, several lights were suspended about the vessels, as they approached the mouth of the river. It is probable, that being unacquainted with the navigation of the South Esk, they had sent boats on shore, in the twilight, for pilots, who, in order to warn the citizens of approaching danger, had, upon some pretence, hung up those lights, which being seen from the fort, had given time for alarm and preparation against some coming evil.

“Provost Erskine, upon the first intelligence, immediately sent orders through the burgh, that every person capable of bearing arms, should forthwith accoutre himself in the best manner possible, and proceed with all expedition to the links. In the meantime he quickly armed his own retainers and servants, and, having waited the arrival of his troops (who were composed of a few soldiers, and a great multitude of merchants, tradesmen, and apprentices hastely armed), he divided them into three bands, and gave his prompt directions to each. The first division he dispatched to a small hill dose by the river, called the Fort or Constablehill, ordering them to remain concealed behind the ramparts until they should see an opportunity of engaging the enemy with advantage. The second division, which consisted of those who' wore light armour, and were provided with bows and arrows, or with arquebuses (a kind of small hand gun), he himself led straight down to the river, after having directed the third division to lie in wait behind another hill, called the Horologehill, a short distance down the river from the Forthill.

“The landing place of the river being between these two hills, Mr Erskine led his company there, to attack the English as they came on shore. Seeing a small number of the inhabitants, irregularly equipped to oppose their landing, the English; with great confidence and hope of success, came immediately from their ships, and began to fight their way through the townsmen. The bowmen at first discharged their arrows and small shot at the invaders while coming on shore, and afterwards* met them in a close and tumultuous fight—opposing their irregular weapons to the spears and swords of the enemy, and substituting, for their want of strength, desperate courage and resolution. The Provost, fighting at the head of his men, gradually retired before the enemy; and although the townsmen disputed every step of ground with the English, yet it appeared evident to them, that the undisciplined burgesses were yielding with decency and honour before the more numerous and courageous soldiery who headed the invasion. To flatter the enemy with this idea was the intention of Mr. Erskine’s gradual retreat before them; and the effect was equal to his wish, for the English were thus imperceptibly drawn from their landing place to the ramparts of the Forthill, when, upon a signal being given, the first division of the townsmen rushed from behind the ramparts, and joined the second company under the Provost. For a moment the English paused; but, being encouraged by their leader, they renewed the conflict with redoubled vigour against the increased power of the townsmen, who, possessing now the advantage of the rising ground, as well as an increase of forces, successfully combated and cut down their enemies.

“Although the townsmen, encouraged by the command and example of their Provost, not only behaved with great bravery and resolution, but thinned the ranks of the enemy at every sally, it is probable, that they would not have been able to keep up the fight much longer against so numerous and desperate a band of invaders, had not a deception (somewhat similar to that practised by Robert Bruce at Bannockburn) been made upon the enemy. The English, though several times repulsed with loss from the brow of the hill, seemed resolved, if not to conquer, at least to avenge themselves; and becoming more and more desperate, they continued the fight till day-light began to appear, when looking toward the east, they beheld from the Horologehill the third division of the townsmen, Who, with colours displayed and horns sounding, seemed in ther doubtful twilight, to be a numerous reinforcement* coming to cut off their retreat to the ships. Afraid of being surrounded by a company apparently numerous and keen for the fight, and knowing the military quality of the townsmen from the specimen they had already seen, the English precipitately fled towards the landing place; and being hotly pursued, great numbers of them were cut down in the way, and many more were Slain in the hurry and confusion of embarking. The number of English who landed upon this expedition has been differently stated—probably they amounted to eight hundred; for although their loss in the Fife adventure was great, they had on board at least twelve hundred soldiers, previous to their descent upon the Scottish coast.

“It is supposed that nearly two-thirds of the invaders fell during this skirmish and1 retreat. The loss on the side of the townsmen was inconsiderable. Thus was Montrose at that time delivered, by the prompt measures of Mr Erskine, out of the hands of the English, whose intention was to plunder, despoil, and bum it; and this, too, was almost the last blood shed between Scotland and Jugland as two different kingdoms. The English soon afterwards withdrew their forces from Scotland altogether. This great reformer laboured earnestly in the cause of the Reformation to a great age, being 82 when he died: nor was he less distinguished as a statesman; and when we consider his high standing in the country, as a baron and proprietor of a large estate—for the estate of Dun extended from the North Esk to the hill of Carcary beyond the South Esk, and was bounded on the east by the burgh property of Montrose—we must give him a high place among the benefactors of his country.”

The following is the concluding stanza in the address to Erskine, by Rev. James Anderson, minister of Collace, in the Winter Nighta Poem:—

“I cannot dite as thou hast done deserue
In kirk and court, countrey, and commonweale,
Carefull the    kirk in peace for to preserve:
In court thy    counsel! was stout, and true as steele,
Thy poljcie decores the country well,
In planting trees, and building places faire
With costly brigs ouer waters plaine repaire.”

The old bridge over the North Esk, called the Upper North Water Bridge, was built by a laird of Dun in 1780, who caused the family arms to be embossed on the parapets. The building of this bridge raised the price of eggs, which were mixed with lime for cement, as they were so cheap; for a little before that time, the price at Montrose was one penny a dozen—14 to the dozen, and a leg of mutton, twopence.


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