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History of Montrose
Chapter II. - The Old and New Steeples


THE Bell-Tower of the Old Steeple was of great antiquity, and is supposed to have been built by the Picts. It .was 54 feet high to the bottom of the parapet, which was 5 feet high. Its form was square, 25 feet over walls, at the surface of the ground, and reduced by three intakes, at nearly equal distances to 23 feet under the parapet, which projected over the wall about 6 indies, and was finished with embrazures, three on each side. A stone spout for discharging the rain water, projected at each comer under the parapet, in the shape of a dog with its fore feet over the wall, as if it was to jump, grinning on the passengers underneath. Inside the tower were bells and a clock, and on three of the sides of the parapet was a wooden dial-plate, about five feet square, with hands to indicate the time.

The tower was built of trap rock or scurdy from the south side of the river, with freestone dressings, and was stuck all over with oyster shells. It was within this tower that John Erskine of Dun killed Sir Thomas Forster, a priest of Montrose; and afterwards, in 1566, on its top, a large fire blazed in honour of the birth of James VI. The lower storey was used as a place of confinement—a dark, ugly dungeon it was, and well named the Black Hole. At a small narrow window fronting the arch of the town-hall, sat Jamie Stephen, perched up to watch the first appearance of the minister, when, at his signal, the bells instantly stopped ringing. At a comparatively modem period, probably not more than two or three hundred years ago, an octagonal spire was built on the top of the old bell-tower. It was 18 feet over at the bottom, and 46 feet high, with a weather-cock and vane about 10 feet higher,—the weather-cook and vane and the works of the clock are now in Montrose Museum, the date 1694 is on the vane. The spire was built of freestone from the neighbourhood, and had a number of iron hooks fixed into it, perhaps for the purpose of easier access to its top, but they were utterly useless for that purpose, being nearly eaten through with rust. The present church was built in 1791, and the old steeple was pulled down in 1830 or 1831. Shortly afterwards, in 1832-3-4, the present magnificent structure was built, from a design by Gillespie Graham of Edinburgh, on the site of the old tower. The tower rises to the height of 108 feet from the surface of the ground, to the under part of the parapet, exactly twice the height of the old tower. An entrance to the Parish Church is in the west side, formed by an ornamental arch of fine proportions. The spire rises 92 feet above the tower, also exactly twice the height of the old spire, with a vane and other ornaments rising about 10 feet above the spire. Four pinnacles, one at each corner, 32 feet high, each connected with the spire by flying buttresses, produce a fine effect. The work was first contracted for by John Forsyth, South Queensferry, and built to the height of three or four feet above the ground, when having discovered some mistake in the measurement, he abruptly left it. The work was afterwards undertaken by Bailie Smith, Montrose. The inspector, suspecting that the part built by Mr. Forsyth—although founded at the same depth as the old tower, five feet under the surface— had not a firm foundation, on examination, this was found to be the case, and the whole was ordered to be taken down. It was then discovered, that the new foundation, and also the old tower (a small portion of which had not been removed), were built above an old church-yard! The site was excavated to a depth of five feet under the old foundation, through three tiers or layers of bodies, closely laid side by side over the whole site and surrounding ground. The lower tier rested on the original sea-sand, mixed with large shells, at a depth of ten feet under the surface, and at that depth the foundation of the present steeple was laid. A narrow strip, about half an inch wide, of a darker colour than the rest of the ground, around each of the bodies, pointed out the size and shape of the coffin. The teeth were quite sound; and the grave-digger, who collected the bones each day for re-interment in the kirk-yard, generally pulled out a number of teeth from the jaw-bones, and consigned them to his pocket—possibly many of them are again in use. One of the bodies had two urns at its head, two opposite its breast, and two at its feet-—six in all. They were made of burned clay, and had pieces of charcoal inside, underneath the sand, which had afterwards fallen into them. One or two of the urns are in the Museum, the rest fell to pieces on exposure to the air. Another body of large proportions had an oak stake driven into its mouth through its skull, and into the ground underneath; and a similar stake was driven through its belly, and also a considerable way into the ground. The skull was riven in all directions: it was of a large size and had excellent teeth: it was afterwards taken away by the Rev. Mr. Liddel of the Chapel-of-Ease. One of these skulls, now in the Edinburgh Museum, the Rev. Hugh Mitchell supposes to have been that of a High Dignitary of the Church, or possibly of a Druid Priest, being the most ancient relic of Montrose. These bodies must have been interred at a very early period—long before the bell-tower was built; and it is astonishing how the builders of the tower should have chosen for its site, had they known such to be the case, the surface of an old church-yard. These facts were stated to me by Bailie Scott, long one of the late Bailie Smith’s foremen, who carried on the building department of the steeple. Human bones were also found when they were digging into the foundations of the old house that belonged to Mr. Barrie, tinsmith, closeby.

When the last stone of the spire was laid, a well-known eccentric merchant, Sandy Fullerton, in fulfilment of a promise made to the masons who built the spire, ascended to the narrow shoggy scaffold at the top of the spire, when he produced from his pocket a bottle of whisky, and all present joined him in drinking King William’s health with great gusto, and gave three hearty cheers in honour of the occasion. The scaffolding was all removed, and the work almost completed without any serious1 accident, when two masons were left to finish some inside work—one of them, John Dickson, a fine young man, having occasion for a short ladder, went to fetch one about seven feet long, the top of which was securely tied to a piece of wood laid outside across the door at the bottom of the spire: he ascended the ladder a step or two, and cut the lashing that secured it with his knife, when it fell backwards, and he was thrown down the hatch to the bottom, a distance of upwards of 100 feet. He was taken to the hospital, and died next day. His open knife was lying on the ground beside him where he fell.

A handy, fearless man, Alick Macandrew, erected the most of the scaffolding, and took it all down again. One morning (after everything was removed from the outside of the steeple), in a drunken frolic, he went up the crockets to the top of the spire, and turned about the vane, and came down in safety; at another time, seeing a little girl in danger, he slid down a rope, although there was a ladder at hand, and saved her from her perilous situation.

When the north tower of the Suspension Bridge was completed, one of the labourers, Alexander Mowat, climbed up to the top of the cranes, which were placed above the top of the tower, and stood on the crown of his head, with his feet straight up in the air, on a plank about 12 inches broad that connected the two cranes, and came down again in safety. A young lad, John Sturrock, fell from the top of the south tower to the bottom, where luckily there was a small pool of water, into which he fell. One of his arms was broken; but he soon recovered, although he fell about 70 feet. He struck a plank in his way down which broke his fall.

One of the following verses supplies an omission as to the supposed age of the steeple:—

“Like some auld veteran, worn and gray,
Despised in life’s declining day,
Auld Steeple! thou wast swept away
Frae thy foundation,
That yon tall upstart, young and gay,
Might fill thy station.

* * * * *

"I’m sure a thousand years, an’ mair,
Thou stood a stalwart sentry there,
Begardless o’ the rout and rair
O’ mony a blast,
And storms that tirred the riggins bare,
Thee scaithless passed!

“Wha biggit thee is kent by no man,
If Scot, or Piet, or Dane, or Boman;—
In ancient times ’twas nought uncommon,
We needna doubt,
Frae thee to skelp auld Danish foemen,
Wi' mony a clout!”

—Elegy on the Auld Steeple, from Smart's “Rambling Rhymes”


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