Sunday, 9 March 2014
Pestilence and Arson in 17th Century Strathearn
One often assumes that the Great Plague which hit London in the 17th Century did not reach into the hinterlands of Strathearn . There are however a number documented incidents which make it quite clear that the Plague or to give it it’s correct designation - Bubonic Plague - was indeed around in these parts of Perthshire at the same time .
The Bubonic Plague spread to Europe from China in the 14th Century and remained a scourge for a some three centuries thereafter . It mainly attacks rodents but fleas can pass the disease to humans and it has devastating affect once contracted . The disease struck and killed people with terrible speed. The Italian writer Boccaccio said its victims often "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.". In the mid 1300s it’s affect in Europe was devastating . In winter the disease seemed to disappear, but only because fleas--which were now helping to carry it from person to person--are dormant then. Each spring, the plague attacked again, killing new victims. After five years 25 million people were dead--one-third of Europe's estimated population .
The ancient Abbey of Inchaffray at Madderty to the east of Crieff was burned in the 17th Century . Although it had ceased to be used for religious purposes after the Reformation , it was still occupied . It transpired that a young lady of means had arrived from London to escape the Plague and together with her servants had taken up residence in the old building . Shortly afterwards one of her retinue fell ill with what transpired to be the “ plague ”. Taking matters into their own hands the local populous set fire to the building and the terrified occupants duly perished in the all consuming conflagration . This however was not the tragic finale as two young local lassies Betsy Bell and Mary Gray became something of folk heroines after perishing from the plague . This account was published at the end of the 19th century .
"Bessie Bell and Mary Gray were the daughters of two country gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Perth, and an intimate friendship subsisted between them. Bessie Bell, daughter of the Laird of Kinnaird, happening to be on a visit to Mary Gray at her father's house at Lyndoch, when the plague of 1666 broke out. To avoid the infection, the two young ladies built themselves a bower in a very retired and romantic spot, called the Burnbraes, about three quarters of a mile westward from Lyndoch House, where they resided for some time, supplied with food, it is said, by a young gentleman of Perth who was in love with them both. The disease was unfortunately communicated to them by their lover and proved fatal; when, according to custom in cases of plague, they were not buried in the ordinary parochial place of sepulture, but in a sequestered spot called the Dronach Haugh, at the foot of a brae of the same name, upon the banks of the River Almond."
Three and half centuries on -smoke marked
stone indicates the fire that was !
The tragedy is recalled in the following song that today is still sung by folk musicians .
Betsy Bell and Mary Gray
They were bonnie lasses
They built them a bower on yon burn-side
They theeked it all over wi' rashes (theeked - thatched)
They theeked it all over wi' rashes green
They theeked it all over wi' heather
The plague cam' from the borough town
There is however a relic of these sad times not far from Crieff . At the extreme westerly point of Loch Monzievaird near where the old sluices were once located , there is an interesting note on the older ordnance survey maps which states “ Burial Place of Persons who died of the Plague / 17th Century ”. Check it out on the digital map produced by the National Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/view/74428174 Once you have opened the site click on the map which magnifies and navigate west of Crieff to Loch Monzievaird .
More details about this were covered in a fascinating book published in 1880 by Oliphant of Edinburgh . The book was entitled Historic Scenes in Perthshire and was written by William Marshall an erudite Minister of the Church of Scotland from Coupar Angus . I duly quote from the good Reverend’s text :
“At the west end of the Loch of Monzievaird is a large mound, to which a melancholy historic interest attaches .The victims of the Plague which ravaged the district in the reign of Charles I were buried there .The visitation was severe , and , of course , proportionally alarming . It is on record that the gentleman of the district caused many huts to be erected , and ordered all the infected , as soon as any symptom of the pest having touched them appeared , to repair to the huts . The family of Ochtertyre , in particular, were singularly active , vigilant , and beneficent in the season of trial .They sent provisions of all kinds to the sick in the huts ; but they caused observation to be made every morning , from which direction the wind blew .If it was from the east , their servants had strict orders to lay down the provisions they carried a good way to the east of the huts ; and, if it was from the west , they had like orders to lay them down a good way to the west of the huts .The ‘ cleansers’ took them up after the servants were gone , and carried them to the diseased .”
Virtually all has been forgotten of those far off days when the people of Strathearn suffered not a little in the devastations of the dreaded Plague of yesteryear .