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Spotlight on Forfar, Angus, Scotland

Local teacher, Ken Bruce, takes us on a historical guided tour of his native town,
where kings were content and witches burned.

THERE ARE two theories regarding how Forfar, the (former) County Town of Angus, came by its name.  One belief is that it is from the Gaelic ‘for fuar’, meaning a cold place, while the other means the slope of watching, derived from ‘foither’ meaning slope and ‘faire’ which means ‘watching’.

Imagine almost the entire site of present-day Forfar covered by a huge loch and you see the area as it once was.  The loch of Forfar stretched from Lunanhead in the east towards Glamis in the west.  Great forests rose to the north and stretched far into the Angus glens.  All that remains today is what you can see between the Leisure Centre and the Kirrriemuir/Glamis bypass, but a keen eye can still pick out the banks of the loch in and around many spots throughout the town.

The Leisure Centre is erected upon reclaimed marshland while William Low’s supermarket is built on a bank of the loch.  Other banks can be seen rising from the East Greens to Victoria Road and to the south and east of Goosecroft.  Indeed, when men were digging the foundations for the houses of Goosecroft back in the early 1950s, the shell of a wooden canoe was unearthed.  If I recall correctly, it was taken off to a museum in Dundee.

Early settlers no doubt dwelt along the shoreline of Forfar Loch from earliest times.  As well as providing a rich source of food, the loch would have provided these early dwellers with a means defence.

By the 4th and 5th centuries the enigmatic people the Picts, had settled in the area.  Many no doubt lived in wattle huts constructed from wood and turf spending their time hunting, fishing, cultivating crops and tending livestock the rich farmland.

Two islands stood above the loch.  On was the site of a castle and is known to this day as Castlehill; the other was the Manorhill and is known today as Manor Street.  We don’t know whether Forfar Castle was built of wood or stone but it did have a defence, being surrounded by a loch.  Sometime during the Scottish Wars of Independence (1308) the castle was burned to the ground either by, or on the orders of, Robert the Bruce.  The site can still be visited today and is accessed from Canmore Street.

Street names are always a good starting point for a town study.  Canmore meaning ‘big head’ Street was named after King Malcolm III who married an Anglo-Saxon princess, later known as Saint Margaret.  Forfar seemed to be a firm favourite of this royal couple.  During their time in Forfar (11th century) it is said he built a manor house for his queen and had the gardens around the manor laid out for her pleasure.  The Manorhill in Forfar is probably the oldest cultivated area within the burgh bound­ary.

Legend has it that there was a third residence built on the Inch, where ladies of the court could seek refuge should the castle defences be threatened.  The area is still known as St. Margaret’s Inch.

Canmore Street’s older name was the Limepots - limepots being the name for pits where the tanners cured animal skins to make leather for the famous ‘Soutars of Forfar’.  The site of the new Abbeygate Co-operative superstore was known as the ‘Tails’ because animal skins hung over wooden structures during tanning and curing processes.

Other Scottish kings, particularly Malcolms III and IV, Alexanders II and III, and King Robert the Bruce, favoured Forfar and the hunting areas around the town.  This is reflected in place names such as ‘Hawkerstown’, now spelt ‘Halkerton’, and the hunting area, Kingsmuir, which seems to have stretched from Halkerton to Dunnichen in the east.  Several monarchs loved to enjoy the sport to be had on the 70 royal estates which stretched from the Carse of Gowrie in the south to the Mearns in the north.

By the mid-l2th century and because of royal connections Forfar was created a Royal Burgh.  At this time everything that came into towns came in through the ports, and tolls would be payable on these goods, but Forfar’s status meant goods bought by burgesses travelled freely throughout Scotland.  The charter also created the still-existing sheriffdom, bringing a system of law and order.  Unfortunately Forfar’s written records and original Burgh Charter were lost (circa 1295).

The oldest building in the Forfar area is Restenneth Priory, about a mile east of the town on the Montrose road.  The first building on this hallowed site was a Pictish church erected in 710AD.  Nechtan was then king of the Picts and, having been converted to Christianity, craved a place of worship.  He sent to the Abbot of Wearmouth asking for the famously pro­ficient masons from Northumbria.  A missionary, Boniface, was sent and sailed into the River Tay estuary, whence he began to spread the gospel amongst the Picts, who had once been sworn enemies of his people.

After the demise of the Pictish race Restenneth Church fell into disuse.  In 1153, either King David I, or Malcolm IV granted rights for a cell of Augustinian Canons to use the site and they built Restenneth Priory on an island in the Loch of Restenneth.  The only means of reaching the priory was by boat or on foot over a causeway.

The house flourished under the order of Augustinians.  They owned vast tracts of land from Little Perth to Kinnaber.  Sometime between 1159 and 1163 the priory became a subordinate cell of the great Abbey of Jedburgh.  It has been said that because of its proximity to England, Jedburgh was constantly being attacked, so many of their valuable books and muniments were brought to Restenneth for safekeeping.

In 1241 a chapel, under the auspices of Restenneth, was set up in Forfar, on the site now occupied by the East and Old Parish Kirk, and dedicated to St. James the Great.  Thus the Priory was the mother church of Forfar.  By the 15th century, though, the Priory had almost ceased to exist, land-holdings were shared out amongst several local lairds and the chapel in Forfar took over as a place of worship.

Forfar had lost most of its importance by the end of the 14th century, the last parliament being held here in 1372.  At this time Forfar was still a very small place.  The heart of the town comprised the Cross, West Port, (where St. Margaret’s Church is now), East Port, which is now East High Street, the Castlegait, now Castle Street, Canmore Street and the Manor.  West High Street and Little Causeway seem to have been one broad street.  The large loch seems to have stopped the town expanding.

The town was at this time dirty, unpleasant and smelly.  Hygiene had not yet been invented and rubbish was simply tipped out into the earthen streets for pigs, dogs and hens to feed from.  You can imagine the state of the streets after a heavy downpour.  The people lived in small wooden houses thatched with reeds from the lochside and the town was several times burned to the ground.  In 1244 it was said only the castle remained standing.  Latterly it was common for ladders to be left propped against buildings so that people could fight rooftop fires more quickly.

While Forfar’s political importance waned after the Reformation, it developed as a market town and still thrives in this capacity.  Weekly markets were held at the Mercat Cross.  People brought goods from Montrose, Arbroath and many rural villages and set up stalls, as there were no shops in the town.  Wool, leather goods, metalwork, pottery and food items such as herring, salmon, butter, cheese, honey and animal meat were commonly traded.  The Buttermarket still stands to the rear of the Town House today, and here would be situated the Tron.

The Mercat Cross can be traced back to 1230.  It is first mentioned in that year when a baby daughter of a rebel citizen of the town had her head struck against the Mercat Cross until she died.

The Reformation gripped the country after 1560 and Forfar was affected along with the rest of Scotland.  Restenneth Priory ceased to be important, and bishops and priests were replaced by low-paid ministers.

In 1625 Charles I succeeded James VI and tried to unite the Scottish and English churches.  This was resisted by many Scots who, feeling so strongly about this situation, signed a petition against such a merger which came to be known as the National Covenant.  Forfar folk remained loyal to the Crown and the town became a meeting place for those who resisted the Covenant.  Cromwell’s troops, under General Monck, torched the town in 1651, pillaged and looted, freed political detainees from the luckenbooths and destroyed the burgh charter.  This should have provided the inhabitants with a prosperous future - it didn’t.  Civil war and its aftermath of low wages, high unemployment and highly-priced goods stifled any progress.  The Reformation had given the Scots a new religion.  Protestantism.  People lived in constant fear of God, forced to attend church and facing a beating for taking the name of the Lord in vain.  Church laws were strict and civil laws even more so.  Witch hunts were a common feature of burgh life at this time.

The area known as the ‘Playfield’ between Victoria Road and Carseburn Road witnessed the burning of many ‘witches’ in the mid-1600s.  Place names such as the Witches Howe and Staikie Racie remind us of these infamous times.  The Witches Howe is no longer visible, but you can still walk to the Playfield area via the Staikie Racie, although young Forfarians once raced each other to be first at the stake.  Other punishments included nailing an offender’s ears to the Tron for simple offences.

The Luckenbooths were behind the Town and County Hall.  Poor unfortunates would be kept there until their execution.  Many were hanged from the upper window of the east side of the Town and County Hall (the window has now been built up but is still visible from the 'Light Bite' corner shop).

The last hanging at The Cross was of Margaret Wishart in 1827.  Other prisoners would be driven on an open horse-drawn cart from the Cross up West High Street, in full public view, round the Dundee Loan.  At the top of the Loan they would come to a halt outside the Tollhouse (now replaced by a modern bungalow - Bitterwell, or Butterwell, was occupied by descendants of the Stirling family) where they would be offered a drink of water before being driven to Gallowshade and their doom.

Until 1745 the main occupation of most Forfar folk was the production of brogues.  The souters of Forfar were well-to-do and famous for their products.  The majority were staunch Jacobites, many of them joining the rebel army in 1715, along with the Earl of Strathmore, who fell at Sheriffmuir.  In 1728 another Earl of Strathmore was killed in Forfar outside the Stag Hotel, after a Jacobite argument.  He tried to separate his kinsman Lyon of Brigton and Carnegie of Finavon, but was killed in the tussle.  This event seems to have cooled the hotheads in Forfar, because very few went off to fight in the ’45.

Another trade which grew rapidly at this time was hand-loom weaving.  Forfarians were engaged in the manufacture of ‘osnaburgs’.  This type of coarse linen and its manufacture came from Germany.  Most of the finished cloth was sold and finished up in America.  The industry flourished right through the American Civil War.  Forfar expanded right through the 18th century and many people became really prosperous.  Houses were built at an unprecedented rate; so much so that the Town Council brought in a ruling that no houses were to be built before plans had been submitted to them and approved.  Changes were also taking place in the surrounding countryside and agricultural practices were changing fast.  The runrig system of agriculture was abolished by the beginning of the 19th century and money was now being invested in agriculture.

Power looms and the invention of the steam engine brought factories, and an end to the cottage industry.  One of the problems with setting up factories in Forfar, though this is hard to believe, was the lack of an abundant local water supply.  Not until 1878 was a reservoir built at Den of Ogil, ensuring a steady and reliable source of water.

The manufacture of linen gave way in time to the weaving of cotton and latterly jute.  Flax manufacturers built factories in the county town during the latter part of the 19th century.  Jute became increasingly popular towards the close of the 19th century.  The Franco-Prussian War and the trading agreements with the States caused a boom in the weaving trade.  The quarries around Forfar prospered and men found employment there.  Buildings such as the original Reid Hall in 1869 and then the Meffan Institute in 1898 were erected.

Before 1787 an old tollbooth, or town house, stood at The Cross in Forfar.  It consisted of many parts - a doss, prison, some early shops, and on the second floor a sheriff court and chambers where the town council of one provost and five bailies met, but not even a rough diagram remains.  It was agreed that a new town house was needed and work began building the present Town and County Hall.   The Mercat Cross, which stood beside the Tollhouse, was removed at this time because it was causing a traffic hazard, but it can be seen on the Castlehill today.

The present Town and County Hall was designed by Mr. James Playfair, a London architect, whose father had been a minister in Forfar.  Stone, quarried locally at Craignathro and Glencoe Park (supposedly came from Tolbooth Quarry near Glencoe Park and may have been owned by the Stirling family)  was used.  Not everyone was pleased with this fine new building, however - the parish kirk minister condemned the undertaking as an extravagance.  Early pictures show the Town and County Hall with a belfry, but this was removed in 1879.

The new Town Hall had many functions to fulfill - Sheriff Court, prison, a base for the watch (an early police force), and the first public library in Forfar.  I am sure many ‘loons’ have spent their lives in Forfar and never set foot inside the Town Hall, which is a great pity.  Apart from the Council Chambers, the paintings, chandelier and wonderful stained glass windows, one can see the Coat of Arms.  These consist of a castle - Forfar Castle - a stag and a bull (possibly to represent the tanners and soutars), a tree representing the Forest of Platane, a Saltire, and a lion, the symbol of the early Earls of Angus.

The county town of Angus has always held a high profile in the area, which gave birth to the Scottish nation (read elsewhere about Nechtansmere).  Centuries later during the Civil Wars when all her neighbouring towns and villages took up arms against the king, Forfar remained loyal, and suffered harshly for her ideals.  The town has seen many changes and played its role in Scotland’s history.  Long may she continue to shine in Tayside during the coming millennium.

A proud Forfarian born and bred, I still refer to it as the only place on God’s green earth where the sun shines all day and all night long - but then perhaps I am just a little biased.

Ken Bruce


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This page was updated - 09 December, 2014