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Strathmore Past and Present

Nature has been particularly favourable to the inhabitants of East Perthshire—for they live in the most magnificent valley that Great Britain contains. Strathmore (or the Great Valley) is an almost uninterrupted plain of from one to sixteen miles in breadth, stretching for eighty miles from Aberfoyle to Stonehaven. But the Strath proper, from Methven to Brechin, can be easily taken in by the eye on a clear day from any of the lesser heights on the northern slope; whereas the “Howe of Strathmore,” to which we are to confine ourselves in these articles, may be considered generally as extending from Kettins, Cupar-Angus, Bendochy and Kinloch on the west to Kirriemuir and Forfar on the east; the lower Grampians bounding it on the north and the Sidlaws on the south; altogether, according to Edward in 1678, “the most plain pleasant and fruitful part of the whole of Strathmore.”

What an enchanting panorama is before one, when he looks at Strathmore from Barry Hill in Alyth Parish! How beautifully variegated with wood and pasture-land among the highly cultured fields—in front the wooded Sidlaws; behind the heaven-kissing Grampians ! With all his passion for Nature, Christopher North could not have exaggerated the varied beauty and fertility before him. Studded with small towns, its teeming population —with all the wild dance of insect life in late spring— lends enchantment to Nature’s beauty. Elegant mansions, embedded in warm, wooded spots, give evidence of the numerous proprietors who love to dwell in this picturesque plain. Well could Nature’s poet, Thomson, have written of Strathmore :—

“Enchanting vale ! Beyond whate’er tho Muig
Has of Achaia or Hesperia sung!
O vale of bliss! O softly swelling hills,
On which the power of cultivation lies,
And joys to see the wonders of its toil!"

And beautifully conspicuous in this earthly Paradise lies the lovely town of Blairgowrie. Approaching it from the east on a clear June evening, we know no more enchanting scene. Virgil has some descriptions of natural scenery which, in his matchless harmony of song, seem aptly fitted for this rural scene. The harsh grandeur of the Northern and Western Highlands is here supplanted by a cheerful mildness and a sylvan joy. The giants of Highland story give place here to the elves and fairies who ever trip about from dewy morn to heaveri-flushed eve. Rich pasture-lands with lowing kine; lusty swains and laughing maidens in mutual labour at the hearty hay making; knots of wood with their unscorched green foliage; extensive fields of freshly-shot corn and darker-hued potato, surround the happy town, basking in the golden light, which the western hills have mellowed and cheered and freshened by the constant flow of Ericht’s rapid stream.

The name of Blairgowrie is by some derived from the Gaelic blar—ghobhar "the plain of the wild goats;” but we think more simply and more reasonably by others from blar, a place where moor and moss abound, and gowrie, tho ancient name of the district possessed by that unfortunate family. The contour of the parish (quoad civilia) is very irregular, being frequently intersected by the parishes of Kinloch, Bendochy, and Rattray; and its area is about 10½ square miles. Since the Highland portion of Persie and the south-western portion of St. Mary’s have been removed as new quoad sacra parishes, the original parish has become more regular and manageable. In the original parish the upper division extends for several miles along the west side of Glen Ericht, a marvellously romantic glen, through which, in the stormy wars between the Highlands and Lowlands, many a chivalrous band passed. The Marquis of .Montrose went through this in his hostile descents from the Highlands. The Ericht, called “Ireful” on account of its rapidity, flows through the glen, in a very rocky channel. About two miles north of the town the rocks rise perpendicularly to the great height of 300 feet, and stand like hewn walls of 700 feet in extent. The place where this phenomenon is presented is called Craighoch, or “The Eagle’s Crag.” At the base of this rock is a cave which seems to have been cut out by the violent removal of masses of rock. Here the scenery is awe-inspiring, one of the most grandly romantic in North Britain. Suddenly at this precipitous point the scene changes with kaleidoscopic variety. Strangely savage does Nature now appear. The rocks, commanding and irregular, overhang a deep and sombre chasm, at the bottom of which the Ericht forms a sullen and inky pool of great depth. No wonder that, in the strongly imaginative mind of the Highlander, these weird associations created a mysterious legend to charm the romantic scene. On the very edge of the precipice, and on the angle of the rock, the remains of a circular tower are still discernible ; ruins which show that the building must have been of great strength and height. It went by the name of Lady Lindsay’s Castle. According to the legend, some centuries ago a daughter of the valiant house of Crawford had committed some deep and deadly sin. Nothing but the expiation of His Holiness at Rome could restore her peace and the honour of her house. And this pardon was granted only on condition of a life-time’s penance. The lady submitted, and was confined within that gloomy tower for the remainder of her life. On the other side of the river is the mansion-house of Craighall, to be described in the article on Rattray.

Close to the town, the Ericht has a considerable descent to the valley of Strathmore, and forms a natural cascade, considerably improved by art, called the “Keith." This is peculiarly adapted for obstructing the salmon in their ascent for spawning. The river then flows on, bounding the parish, till it joins the Isla on its course to the Tay. The Hill of Blair is the first of a series of elevations which rise steeply from the plain. On its summit is finely situated the Parish Church, which commands a grand view. Close behind is a deep ravine, finely wooded, descending precipitately to the bed of the river. Again there rises higher another ridge, called Knock-ma-har, partly cultivated and partly planted with Scotch fir, sloping abruptly to tho Lornty burn. Beyond this is a still higher and more extensive ridge, called the Maws, on which are well-cultivated and good grain-producing farms. "West of this lies the ancient lairdship of Drumlochy, the ruins of whose fortress are still seen in the enormous thickness of the loopholed walls. Above this again is the great peat moss of Cochridge, which, in the “dry year” 1826, was accidentally set on fire, and continued to smoulder underneath the surface till extinguished by the following snows. The northern extremity of the parish is called Kingseat, on the west side of the Hill of Colliemore, 1000 feet above the level of the sea. The lower division of the parish stretchcs south of the town to the middle of the Strath, where there is an extensive tract of flat moor, called the “Muir o’ Blair,” partly wooded, and partly laid out with fields of strawberries, for the Dundee and Glasgow markets.

There is a chalybeate spring in the Cloves (cliffs) of Maws called the “heugh well,” the water of which has been found very beneficial for skin diseases and derangement of the stomach. Six lochs adorn the parish, especially Stormont Loch, which in winter is the scene of many a tussle at the “roaring game.” On an island in the middle of it are the remains of an old building, in which tradition says treasures were concealed in perilous times, thus acquiring its name. Some antiquarians are of opinion that the battle between the Romans under Agricola, and the Caledonians under Galgacus, was fought in the Stormont in A.D. 84. Skene, in his “Celtic Scotland,” considers the Mons Grampius of the Roman historian to be the Hill of Blair, 690 feet high. There are many places called “Cairn,” as Balcairn, Cairn Butts, &c.; and as it was a custom with the ancient Britons to raise these cairns or heaps of stones as monuments for their fallen chiefs, it is not improbable that these antiquarians are correct. Moreover, early in the last century, there was dug up, out of a moss bog in the neighbourhood, the body of a Roman soldier in full armour and in an upright position. There is no doubt, at anyrate, that many of the Highlanders, when forced to yield to superior weapons and discipline, were killed in their flight through the parish.

On a wooded knoll, about a mile west of the town, near Ardblair, are the remains of a building which has some tradition connected with it. Newton Castle is a good specimen of the seventeenth century mansion-house, with a fine prospect, occupying an elevated site, and visible for a great distance. It was rebuilt on the foundation of the old house, said to have been burnt down by Oliver Cromwell. Many gentlemen were miraculously saved in a vault of the old house while it was being burnt down. Superstition makes a ghost haunt the apartments of the Castle. It is in the shape of a lady dressed in green silk, who, as “the green lady,” has scared many more than children from the ancient building.

“For still, at the darksome hour past e’en,
When lurid phantoms fly,
A hapless lady clothed in green Illumes the earth and sky.”

Close beside the Manse there is a circular mound, where, according to tradition, the Earls of Gowrie and their predecessors held their regality courts. A quarter of a mile to the west was the necessary concomitant, the “gallows bank,” where the condemned criminals were immediately executed. From remains of charred wood and ashes and unctuous-looking mould, found at the circular mound, it is supposed that witches were formerly burned there. About 1832, a coin of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (in the beginning of the second century) was found in the garden of the parish schoolmaster, which is situated near one of the largo cairns before mentioned.

Historically there is little to say about Blairgowrie. In 1G34 it was made a burgh of barony by Charles I., in favour of the proprietor of the estate of Blairgowrie. In 1809, by a charter from its feudal superior, it was made a free burgh of barony, with power to elect a Bailie and four Councillors. At the time that the Militia Act first came into operation, the lower ranks there, in common with others, were so greatly discontented with the balloting of the Justices (Macpherson of Blair and Ramsay or Banff), that they confined these dignitaries in the inn, till a bond was signed to exclude the men of Blair from being pressed into the army. On their release, however, the Justices got the military to seize the ringleaders, regardless of the quasi-bond. George Drummond, who was born in Newton Castle, was the Provost of Edinburgh when the North Bridge, the Royal Infirmary, and the Royal Exchange were projected.

Ecclesiastically we are not in possession of many important notices. In 1170 William the Lion granted the Marsh of Blair to the Abbey of Cupar. In 1201, at the Synod of Perth, an agreement was entered into between the churches of Blair and Cupar. King Alexander II. in 1235 exchanged for the Marsh of Blair two and a half ploughgates of land in Meikle Blair. In the Taxatio of 1250 the church of 'Blair gave 24 merks to the Priory of St. Andrews. King Robert the Bruce in 1309 confirmed to the Abbey of Cupar a charter by Sir David Lindsay, bestowing upon it the lands of Blair, Under Cupar there was a chapel of St. Mary at Caille (Cally). In 1473 the tacksman of Cally church -lands had to be forester of all the woods of Strathardle. In 1474 the Abbot of Cupar had a mansion at Campsie (in Cargill); and in 1479 the tenants of the church-lands there had to “cultivate the land of Blar and of the Forest within the walls as much as they can, sowing annually sixty bolls of corn.” In 1508 “the hale Blair abone the wod of Campsy is set,” and in 1517 “the quarter of Blare is set.” Before the Reformation, Blairgowrie is said to have belonged to the Abbey of Scone. In 1605 John Ross was minister, who, going to the meeting of Assembly in Aberdeen, arrived after they had met and risen; “yet he approved of their proceedings.” Ho was afterwards summoned before the Privy Council and confined in the Castle of Stirling, but was soon liberated. Many good stories are told of him. He was a very athletic man, using force to compel his people to go to church. Failing in this, he adopted the strange method of establishing a market at the Kirk-gate every Sunday afternoon after divine service, when household necessaries were sold. This plan proved more successful. However, young men were in the practice of playing at shinty on Sunday between sermons; and often he warned them of their bad conduct, but to no effect. One Sunday, however, he appeared, and taking off his coat and placing it on his staff’ which he had stuck into the ground, he solemnly exclaimed :—

“Stand ye there,
As minister o’Blair,
While I, John Ross,
Get a game at the ha’.”

Keenly then did he enter into the contest, but, instead of striking the ball, he, under pretence of being exceedingly blind in his aim, struck the shins of the youths, till he sent them all limping home. There was no more desecration of the Sabbath with this game. In 1689 Gilbert Blair was deprived of his office by the Privy Council, for not reading the Proclamation of the Estates.

There are some curious entries in the old Session Records, illustrative of the strict discipline of those days. These go back to 1647, but from 1658 to 1702 there is a blank. In a very late harvest in 1648 three men were summoned before the Session for shearing corn on the Sabbath, though after sunset; and were made to do penance for such an awful sin. The ciders were good financiers, for, in order to raise funds, they proclaimed in the same year that “every taverne keeper, or seller of aile, qulio runs aile in tyme of sermon, or ye whole day in ane excessive manner to any, sail pay hereafter as much as ye drinkers, toties quoties, it sail be found they are guiltie therein.” One seller of “aile,” being dealt with for his absence from church, naively gave the excuse that “he had but ane playd betwixt his wife and him, and that she had the use thereof that day;” but it was of no avail, he was reproved and “ordained to keep the kirk in tyme cumand, under ye paine of censure.” On August 16th, 1649, the records bear that “we are to mourne for the continuance and increase of sinne and provanitie, especallie of the abominable sinne of witchcraft.” On the 10th of October, 1652, intimation is given of a collection “for the sadd condition of the toun of Glasgow, being half-brunt.” Under the date of 12th December, 1653, “There was na Sessione, in respect the elders were withdrawin in attending some of Glencairne’s souldiers, who were ranging throu the paroch.” On the 12th August, 1649, in the case of an unfortunate, who had appeared twenty-four times before the Session in public penance for adultery, the minister “aggravat his sinne and exhorted him to sorrow and griefe of heart for the same, and continued him to give farther evidence of ye truth of his repentance.” A remarkable case of charity is here recorded, “Feb. 17, 1650—Given this day, to Sir Robert Mubray, sometyme laird of Barnbougall, now become, through indigence, ane poor supplicant, twentie-foure shillings.” The Sabbath following has this entry: —"The Presbyterie Act anent brydalls, ordaining thair sould not be above eight persons in ye syde, that thair sould be no debaucht pipars nor fiddlars, nor promiscuous dancing, nor excessive drunkennesse, was lykeways intimate out of ye pulpit.” And on the 19th July, 1650, it being reported to the Session that a certain person had “most despytefullie and devilishlie railed against ye Sessione, cursing minister and elders,” the common practice of “nailing be ye lug” was changed for the more honoured “put into ye jouggs, till the culprit obeyed and repented.

A very great change has within the last fifty years come upon Blairgowrie. An insignificant village of mean thatched houses has become a town with good streets, good houses, and the stirring business of ten mills employing two thousand hands. Half the land is now under cultivation. A railway is up to its door. Three first-class hotels invite visitors. A weekly newspaper, printed in it, gives it some social importance. Eight or nine churches show some strong religious energy. Auction markets draw excellent specimens of cattle. Banks are thriving. The old complaint of ague, occasioned by the bad drainage, is now little known; though the rheumatism, in the low rimy parts at times shows itself. Rents have very much increased; the valued rental being now £26,378. The population has in little more than a century increased from 1596 to 5000. Now it is a grand start-point for the Royal drive to Braemar; and an excellent and healthy resort for summer visitors from the sea coast. It is to be feared that, as with all other country parishes, the morals of the people have not improved with corresponding social and economic improvements; but we must wait patiently till the waves of heathenism and pessimism, now sweeping over our whole land, have departed and given place to better times.

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