Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Ossian Stone or Clach Ossian in the Sma’ Glen near Crieff

The Ossian Stone or Clach Ossian in the Sma’ Glen near Crieff

The A 822  road running from Crieff to Amulree takes  one through the picturesque Sma Glen amidst  some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable . Apart from its  natural rugged  beauty  the road is steeped in Highland history. It was used by the drovers a s a gateway to the lucrative markets on the periphery of the Lowlands. Places such as Fowlis Wester and most notably Crieff where the annual Michaelmas Tryst was a magnet for sellers and buyers alike. Much earlier in time it was the Romans who realised the potential dangers that this natural route could bring and constructed their “glen blocker “fort and watch tower at Fendoch where the Glen truly begins or indeed ends! It was however a professional soldier from Meath in Ireland who transformed the rough tracks into a well-engineered roadway. Major General George Wade had carried out and a study of Highland Scotland in the aftermath of the   1715 Jacobite uprising and had been appointed “Commander of the Forces in Northern Britain “by George I. It was in 1730 that he started work on the Crieff to Dalnacardoch road which extended to some 43 ½ miles or 70 kilometres. This road and the present highway share much of the same route. Coming from Fendoch  the road  twists  and turns all the  way to Newton Brig .About a mile   before  the bridge as the  road  borders  the  tumbling waters  of the Almond , you suddenly espy an enormous  standing stone . This is Clach Ossian or Ossian’s stone!

Much has been  written  about this megalith by a wide variety of  people including Sir Walter Scott and Macaulay. Both these accomplished  writers  did  however rely  on the  writings of an earlier scribe  by the name of Edmund or Edward Burt . Burt is  something of a mystery . His narrative  was  entitled “ Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland “ and were written about 1725/1726 but were  not published  until after his death . After his death it was written that  he was an engineer officer who served with General Wade in Scotland in 1724–28; an army contractor, and an illiterate hack-writer who ended his days in dire distress. War office records fail to show that Burt held military rank. The Scot’s Magazine  published in 1755 declared in  the review of his  book that he had died  : “At London. Edmund Burt Esq; late agent to Gen. Wade, chief surveyor during the making of roads through the Highlands, and author of the letters concerning Scotland.”

Whatever the true background of Burt , he nevertheless made an impression on both Scott and Macaulay It was in 1736  he wrote thus :

“ I have so lately mentioned Glen Almond , in the road from Crief ( sic )  northwards , that I cannot forebear a  digression , though at my first setting out , in relation to a piece of antiquity that happened  to be discovered in that vale not many hours before I passed  through it in one  of my journeys  southwards.

A small part of the way through this glen having been marked out by two rows  of camp – colours , placed at a good distance  one from another, whereby  to describe  the intended  breadth and regularity of the road  by the eye , there happened  to lie directly in the way  an exceedingly large stone , and ,  as it had been  made a rule from the beginning, to carry on the roads in straight lines, as far as  the way would  permit, not only to give them a better air , but  to shorten the  passenger’s journey , it was resolve d that the stone  should  be removed , if possible , though otherwise  the work might  have been carried out along on either side of it.
The soldiers  by vast labour , with their levers and jacks or hand- screws, tumbled  it over  and over  until they  got it  quite out  of the way , although it was not  such an enormous  size that  it might  be  a matter of great wonder  how it could ever  be removed  by human strength and art, especially to such who had  never  seen  an operation of that kind , and , upon their digging a little way  into that part of the ground  where the centre of the base  had stood , there was found  a small cavity about two  feet square , which was guarded  from the  outside  earth  at the bottom , top and side , by square flat stones .
The hollow contained  some  ashes , scraps  of bones , and half burnt  ends of  stalks  of heath , which last  we concluded  to be a small remnant  of a funeral pile . Upon the whole, I think there is no room to doubt but it was the urn of some considerable Roman officer , and the best  of the kind that could be provided in their military circumstances  and that it was so seems  plainly  to appear  from its  vicinity  to the roman camp, the engines  that must  have been employed  to remove  that vast  piece of rock , and the unlikeliness that it should , or could, , have ever been done  by the natives of  the country . But certainly the design  was to preserve  those remains  from the injuries  of rains or melting snows , and to prevent their being  profaned  by the sacrilegious hands of those they called  barbarians , for  that  reproachful  name , you know, they give  to the people  of almost  all nations  but their own .
As I returned  the same way  from the Lowlands I found  the officer  , with his  party  of working soldiers , not far  from the stone , and asked  him what  was to become  to do so ;  the urn.
To this he answered , that he had  intended  to  preserve  it in  the condition  I left  it , till  the Commander  - in- Chief had seen  it , as a curiosity , but that  it was not in his power to do so ;for soon after the discovery was known  to the Highlanders , they assembled  from distant parts, and  having formed  themselves into  a body, they carefully  gathered up the relics , and marched with them , in solemn procession , to a new place  of burial , and there discharged  their fire – arms  over the grave, as supposing  thee deceased had been a military officer .

You will believe that the recital of all this ceremony led me to ask the reason of such homage to the ashes of a person supposed to have been dead almost two thousand years. I did so; and the officer, who was himself a native of the hills, told me that they (the Highlanders) firmly believed that if a dead body should be known to lie above the ground , or be disinterred by malice , or by the accidents  of torrents of water , &c and care was not taken to perform to it the proper rites , then there would arise  such storms  and tempests as would destroy their corn, blow  away their huts , and all sorts of other misfortunes  would follow  till  that duty was performed  and you may here recollect what I told you so long ago, of the great regard  the Highlanders  have for the remains  of their dead ; but this notion is entirely Roman . “

Wades Bridge over the Newton Burn

There are a number of points Burt’s article raises. He was advised of the actions of the Highlanders by their officer in charge who too was a Gaelic speaker. The incident occurred about 1736 and no mention was made of the name Ossian being attached to the stone. Who, then, was Ossian? Ossian  was in fact invented  by a gentleman called James MacPherson who claimed  to have found  manuscripts of parts of Gaelic poems written by “ Ossian “ and published  by him  as a translation around 1760 .These  proved  immensely popular  although they did  arouse the
doubt of none other  than Samuel Johnson  who insisted  that MacPherson produce  these documents  for scrutiny . How then did  the name Ossian become associated  with this  stone and grave in the heart of Glen Almond ?    Author  , Thomas Newte writing  some  fifty years later in his  book “ Tour in England and Scotland “ reported that he was  told  by people living in the Glen that:

the people of the country , for several miles around , to the number  of three or four score of men, venerating the memory of the Bard rose with one consent , and carried  away the bones , with bag pipes playing, and other funeral rites, and deposited them with much solemnity  within a large  circle of stones , on the lofty summit of a rock, sequestered and  of difficult access, where they might never more  be disturbed  by mortal feet or hands , in the wild recesses of  Western Glen Almond  "

What then is the factual evidence  concerning this isolated megalith ? It  is in probability a glacial erratic  having been deposited at the en d of the ice  age . It is  substantial in size  being  some 7 ½ feet high ( 2.29 metres ) and  approximately  5 feet  square . What about the allegations that the buried  remains  are those  of a Roman officer ? Again  quite improbable . Yes  indeed  the Romans  had a “ glen blocker “ fort  and watch tower at Fendoch further up the Glen but the  remains   appear  to pre date this period  and again in probability are those  of someone of  much greater antiquity .

This  extract in the “ Northern Antiquarian “ is illuminating and refers  back to 1834  when the stone was  part of a stone circle :

Described in some of the archaeology texts as just a ‘cist’, this giant stone is obviously the remains of much more.  For a start, as the 1834 drawing illustrates here (coupled with several other early descriptions of the place), other visible antiquarian remains were very much apparent at Ossian’s Stone before a destructive 18th century road-laying operation tore up much of this ancient site.  A marauding General Wade of the English establishment was cutting through the Scottish landscape a “military road”, to enable the English to do the usual “civilize the savages”, as they liked to put it.  This curious “Giant’s Grave” was very lucky to survive.

 Let me conclude  with a somewhat unconnected point of information ! Just some  two miles  further on from Ossian's Stone and over the Newton Brig lies a   small field . It was  her  that scenes  from the  hit movie  "Chariots of Fire "were shot  depicting a  young Eric Liddell  !

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Viscount Melville his monument and the beauties of Dunira

Having recently moved  home  from Crieff to the picturesque  village of Comrie  some  seven miles  to the west, I am enjoying  a wide  variety  of different  walks with Bo my border terrier as well as exploring  a number of  new  places in and round the village . Comrie has an interesting heritage having played host over the centuries to Picts and Romans and a diversity of others. The name reveals its Highland and Gaelic origins meaning the confluence or  joining of  the rivers – the Earn, the Ruchill and Lednock .

Interestingly I have a regular encounter with one of the areas better known historical characters, namely Viscount Melville aka Baron Dunira or to go back to his  roots – Henry Dundas . Although he has long since departed this mortal coil, his memory and influence lives on in the spectacular obelisk that was erected in his memory atop Dun More, the steep crag lying immediately to the north of the village. It  dominates all around  and indeed, it is  the first  thing that catches  my eye  when I open  my door of a morn !

Who, then, was Melville? Born in 1742 to Robert Dundas, fourth Laird of Arniston in Midlothian and his second wife. His father was a powerful political figure in his own right, being appointed Solicitor General for Scotland in 1717 and Lord Advocate some three years later. Young Henry was  thrust into legal politics at an early  age on the  background  of his father’s  power  and influence and  became Solicitor  General  for  Scotland  when a  mere 24 years of age despite not having  qualified at the bar and being un elected politically ! It appears that politics of that day were more than a little into favours, intrigue and corruption! Dundas married into money and the estate of Melville Castle and became a Member of Parliament for Edinburgh. He became closely aligned with the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. His influence and power were considerable. As Lord Advocate of Scotland he had the right to determine which Scottish Peers should sit in the House of Lords and as a Tory grandee he was empowered to choose Tory candidates for election to the House of Commons. His abuse of power continued when he appointed himself as Lord Privy Seal with a salary of £4 000 per annum!

British politics  are complex  to understand and indeed interpret particularly in the 18th and  early 19th centuries . The “ United Kingdom” parliament  was  established in 1707 when the Parliaments of England and Scotland united to form  a combined Parliament based in Westminster . Up until then Scotland  had its own Parliament based  in Edinburgh and  comprising the “ Three Estates “ , that is representatives of the Burghs, the clergy and the nobility .It  was  unicameral , that is it  consisted of one chamber or house  unlike that of the English Parliaments  which was  by tradition bicameral that is two chambers or houses , namely the House of Commons  which was elected  and  the House of Lords  which was unelected . This latter institution comprised Peers of the Realm and Church of England (Anglican) Bishops. There was  considerable opposition  within Scotland  to the Union of 1707 fomented  by the passing  in 1705 in the English Parliament of  The Aliens Act  which threatened , failing  a Union  , to regard  all Scots  as alien and  to prevent Scotland trading  with England .The Scottish Parliament capitulated somewhat readily when it transpired  that a large  sum of  money would  be  paid  to Scotland  to compensate for their having  to absorb the English National Debt . In fact this  money , some £400 000 was paid  out  to members  of the Company of Scotland who had been shareholders in the Darien Scheme , Scotland’s  failed  attempt to establish a colony in Central America. Most of the members of the Scottish Parliament had been involved thus the pay back materially benefited them. This money in modern terms was equivalent to £60 million pounds sterling! The “ new “ Parliament  was  decidedly  lop sided  from  a Scottish view point having only 16 Scottish Peers elected   by their fellow Scots Peers to sit in the Lords and 45 elected Members of Parliament to sit in the Commons .

It was in this environment that Dundas managed to build a political power base. His close  relationship with Pitt , the Prime Minister  saw him achieve a variety of top posts  ranging from Secretary of State for War  to Treasurer of the Navy and First Lord of the Admiralty . In 1803 Dundas was created Baron Dunira and Viscount Melville. In Scotland  his power  and influence was such that  he was often referred  to as “King Henry the Ninth “ or the “ Uncrowned King of Scotland “ !

It was just  after his after his elevation to the peerage that Dundas aka Melville ran into stormy waters . He was accused of misusing  a million pounds  when he was Treasurer  to the Navy . It transpired that it had been in fact the money  had  been misappropriated  by someone  he had  appointed but it was his  signature  was on the  paper . The  money in fact had  been  used   for speculative purposes and actually been returned to the Navy Office . Dundas  however  carried the can . Subsequent investigations  revealed that confidential papers  concerning  the use of the  money had  been  deliberately  destroyed .He was impeached  in 1806  before the House of Lords  but with  the  strong support of the Tory Peers , many of whom owed him favours , he was acquitted , never  again , however to hold high office.

Although Dundas / Melville had his roots in the Lothians he apparently was a regular visitor to Strathearn. According to the late David McNaughton in his superbly detailed book” Upper Strathearn: From Earliest Times to Today “ {Jamieson & Munro: Stirling: } Melville would stay at Ochtertyre near Crieff as a guest of Sir Patrick Murray who was “his confidant and  adviser on agricultural affairs “ . More interestingly was the fact that in 1778, Dundas, as he was then, met with the Drummond family whose Earldom of Perth with its extensive lands had been forfeited after the 1745 Uprising. “ The family were in debt and Dundas  came to its assistance , behaving with a delicacy which made him  appear ‘to receive an obligation , in place of  conferring one ‘ .His motives  were , perhaps , not wholly altruistic . Among the Drummond  possessions  was the Estate of Dunira ,and Dundas’s acquisition of this delightful place later , seems  to have been bound up with the Drummond family’s indebtedness to him., and with the restoration  of the forfeited  estates, in which his interest was now revived  and which  he was instrumental  in affecting four years later “ .

Dundas had  earlier leased  Dunira house and its shooting rights  from the Commissioners of the Forfeited Estates  and in 1787 he raised a motion  in Parliament that the post ’45 forfeited  estates  be  restored to their original families . This not only saw  him acquire  Dunira  but enhanced  his  reputation  amongst an influential sector of Scot’s society .
Dundas  died in 1811 and  although his  reputation had  been somewhat tarnished  by his impeachment by Parliament , there were more than a few positive attributes which  more than offset his political follies . His pattern of improvements including extensive  drainage works to Dunira and the subsequent purchase  of  additional land in and  around the estate  were notable . Interestingly Dundas  built  a new  house  for himself in the grounds . In 1852  the new owner, Sir David Dundas of Beechwood demolished this and built a grand replacement . Designed  by William Burn in the Scottish Baronial style it  was an impressive structure . In 1919 the estate was sold to a wealthy Glasgow ship owner Alexander Macbeth who later gifted it to his son William .

Dunira House about 1910

What had  been regarded  as something unique about Dunira  was the garden laid out around the house . This had been commissioned  by William and constructed to a design  by the noted landscape architect Thomas Mawson in the 1920s . It took some three years  to complete  at a reputed cost of some £3000 which in those  days  was a considerable sum .  During World War 2 the house was used as a military convalescent home. In 1947  there  were   still some patients in residence but the Macbeth family were already preparing to move back in . A fire ravaged   the building at this  time and  shortly afterwards in 1948 William Macbeth died . His widow  sold the property in 1950 . It was finally demolished in 2006. Sadly  with  the  destruction of the  house  , the gardens  slumped into decline  reverting sadly to grass. Interestingly Channel 4 Television in the UK ran a  series  entitled  “ Lost Gardens “ featuring  some  eight gardens  which had  vanished from view  and Dunira  was  included amongst them .Sadly  the rose garden which had been recreated  for the programme  has not  been maintained  and allowed  to retreat back to the unkempt . An acquaintance of mine , author  David Robertson ,also included Dunira in his  recent publication “ Lost Gardens of Perthshire “.
                                            All that remains of the gardens

Dunira  has  been split up into a  variety  of  smaller plots and sites  with a well-established  community in residence . It  is  not quite  however that place of the  past – that place  that Viscount Melville  chose to settle in all those  many years ago !