The History of Montrose and its Surrounding Parishes
Montrose Basin Research Project
The Montrose Basin Heritage Society have explored the history and archaeology of the Basin area, initially concentrating on the four parishes surrounding the basin - Montrose itself, Dun, Maryton and Craig. The aim was to have a much clearer picture of exactly what happened in the area at any time in the past.
Larder for man
The area is both a nationally and internationally important site for wildlife, but there are also archaeological sites already recognised as nationally important around Montrose Basin. It is possible to see that collectively the area is of much significance and has been since earliest times.
The Basin, together with the River South Esk with its fisheries, must always have been an important natural larder for man. This has allowed larger than average populations to grow and made landholdings in the area particularly valuable throughout human history. As a result we see buildings indicative of wealth, and more unusual sites being located here.
The aim of the survey was to understand all aspects of activity - settlement, agriculture, industry religion, defense, transport - back through all periods. This involves gathering dispersed pieces of information and analysing them so we can build a three-dimensional jigsaw of knowledge about the area.
We link the information on local maps to individual sites. This information is passed to both the County (sites and monuments record) and the National Archaeological Record.
The starting point is to examine all the written sources that can be found about this area. After all there is no point duplicating any work that has already been done. These might be books and antiquarian reports on local history and archaeology for instance and the reports of any previous archaeological work or surveys.
A comprehensive bibliography can then be built for each site or building in the area. We will then have to start to fill the gaps in the written records.
A good place to start is historic maps. Because of the importance of the town, harbour and local fisheries, there area number of these dating back as early as the eighteenth century. They show the area as it was in the past. We can see buildings, field systems, roads etc which are now altered or gone. But more importantly maps also show elements of the landscape that are much older than the map itself and help us understand what survives on the ground now.
Maps are the skeleton on which we can hang much of our other written information - the 'primary sources'. This is a diverse range that dates from the early mediaeval period onwards. It can be something as important as a land charter (explicitly spelling out ownership and extent for example) to the mundane, such as a bill listing goods for a specific house or farm for example.
Anything written in fact can be assessed - personal diaries, accounts for a business, records for the local law courts, building accounts, loading accounts for the local docks and customs lists to name but a few. These records bring us closer not just to the sites themselves but to the people who lived here in the past.
Old illustrations, paintings or photographs can help us understand the maps and written information. Our earliest image identified so far is the 17th century view of the town by John Slezer, but inevitably there are a lot of others to work through.
Not all of them are in public ownership either. Most, however, appear to be of the town itself with little of the more rural parishes. Although they are unlikely to throw light on the very early development of the area, they will give a good flavour of both the 19th and 20th centuries.
Buildings are another source of information and some in the area are many hundreds of years old. The Chapel on Rossie Island is mediaeval in date, but is believed to overlie another that may possibly date back to the seventh century. Craig House - a mediaeval castle - dates back in part to the 13th century. Many other buildings around the Basin lie on sites that may have been occupied for over a thousand years.
Something as simple as a placename can hint at early history. 'Dun' itself implies a major defensive site, or fort, in the prehistoric period. This apparently has not been identified yet. The names 'Bal-' and 'Pit-', widely scattered over the survey area, are indicators of later Pictish settlements; the former indicating a farmstead and the latter a larger or more important estate centre.
Some early sites still survive as earthworks of course. Maryton Law is one, a major feature against the skyline overlooking the south side of the Basin.
The myth has grown up that this is a mediaeval motte and bailey castle, but recent excavations have proved that this is not the case. What we have is a large Bronze Age barrow - burial mound - dating back perhaps four thousand years.
On the other side of the Basin at Dun, not only is there the enigmatic 'Gallows Knowe' beside the drive to the house, but also the 'Fordhouse Barrow', a little further to the north. Rescue excavations here by the National Trust produced exceptional results. The Bronze Age burials - with their wonderful pots - overlay earlier features. These included the remains of a timber structure of the Neolithic period, possibly dating back to more than 3000BC. Equally unusual, a stray Viking had been buried in the top of the mound thousands of years later. Without the full remains of his skeleton it is impossible to say exactly what he died of, but it is unlikely that the local residents regretted his passing and may actively have helped him on his way.
Older finds do not of course come to light just through archaeological excavation. Later development can uncover things and earlier sites disturbed by later ploughing for example allow the chance finder to encounter all kinds of goods. Many have ended up over the years in the Montrose Museum, where those of most interest are on display.
Finds are particularly useful for identifying, locating or dating earlier sites. For example, the important Pictish Inchbrayoch stones were discovered in the cemetery on Rossie Island in the last century. They were the first indicator of the existence of an early chapel in this area. Two of the stones are in the Montrose Museum, but one disappeared late last century and remains a mystery.
Smaller finds also abound - stone artifacts survive the best and a good collection of prehistoric arrowheads, polished axes and other tools have found their way to the museum. More unusually there are also locally found Bronze Age axes and swords dating back three to four thousand years in the collection.
Perhaps the most interesting collection of information about early sites, however, is not held within Angus at all.
There is important new evidence coming to light annually through flying for aerial photographs. These collections are held nationally by the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments, Scotland, in Edinburgh. Buried archaeological sites can affect the crops growing above them and if a suitable crop is grown and if the weather conditions are right and if a flier is available at the appropriate time, sites can easily be spotted from the air. Some are very distinct and can be dated. Others need further research to be assigned to a period.
Overflying the Basin area started for this purpose in the late 1960s when researchers were trying to track Roman camps (and thus invasion routes) in Scotland. A 1st century AD naval supply base was discovered on the north side of the Basin, away from the line of land-based invasions. Because this was so rare, further photography followed in subsequent years and it was discovered that a broad range of other sites of various periods could be identified. These included sites as diverse as occupation enclosures and ploughed out barrow cemeteries. But then a rare Neolithic cursus or ritual enclosure was identified.
Now it is believed that archaeologists can largely build a picture of the prehistoric landscape at the west end of the Basin, particularly if more of the sites can be individually dated through fieldwork.
Our work has been publicised in our books (see Publications) and regular exhibitions, and we hope that local people are aware of - and take pride in - how important the area is archaeologically and historically.
Hilary White (adapted by permission of the author)