Sunday, 9 March 2014

Pestilence and Arson in 17th Century Strathearn



The Black Death Strikes Hard




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 .
A solitary gable is a sad reminder of what was an iconic symbol of another age


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
And slew them both together







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 .


The  Shores of Loch Monzievaird  Once a Refuge  for Victims of the Plague 



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