The following is not meant to be definitive or necessarily totally historically correct, but simply to give anyone visiting this site an overview of St. Cyrus and how it evolved.
If you wish a detailed history of St. Cyrus, buy “Portrait of a Parish” by Duncan Fraser, ISBN 0 900871 35 0. Hogg’s bookshop, the High Street, Montrose would be a good starting point.
St. Cyrus is a small village in the NE of Scotland mid-way between Aberdeen & Dundee. We have 3 miles of glorious sandy beaches and the area adjacent to the beach is also a National Nature Reserve.
The village and its surrounding area have a population of 1,000 or so. Montrose is the nearest large town some 6 miles (10 km) away, with Aberdeen the nearest city some 35 mile north.
St. Cyrus has a rich history, and over the centuries various lairds (landowners) have claimed rights to land. The most prominent lairds to the south belonged to the Graham family, who can trace their rights back to King William The Lion, some 500 years ago. One of the Graham clan, James, became the Marquis of Montrose, a great royalist leader.
The Carnegies were also prominent lairds and Lady Magdalene Carnegie became the wife of the Marquis of Montrose. It is recorded that the day before his wedding The Marquis played golf at Montrose; someone had their priorities right!
The Marquis of Montrose was eventually hanged in Edinburgh, but the Graham family of Morphie made sure he received a belated funeral ceremony in 1661.
To the north of St. Cyrus, the Stratons were a prominent family whose history can be traced back to the early 14th century. They built Lauriston Castle, and David Straton rather begrudged having to give a tenth of the fish his servants caught in nets to the Minister of Ecclesgreig. The Stratons, after almost four centuries, lost Lauriston in 1695, never to regain it, but they did become tenants.
Another castle, lost to the sea, was the Kaim of Mathers built in the early 15th century by the Berkeley (Barclay) family. Built on a rocky precipice, the sea eventually took its toll, and bit by bit the castle fell into the sea. Small parts of it remain.
Between the Grahams, Berkeleys, Keiths and Stratons they, at one time, owned virtually all the land to the north of St. Cyrus.
Hard to believe, but two hundred or so years ago the land around St. Cyrus was uncultivated – save for a few acres around a gentleman’s country mansion. Cattle and sheep roamed free, the main arable crop was oats and bear (an early form of barley), with potatoes and turnips for both cattle feed and human consumption. Fertiliser – other than from animals – was unheard of.
In the 18th century farming started to take off and land owners and tenants used oxen to plough their land, followed later by horses. With the advent of animal power came what would be now termed redundancy. Yes, it was a factor even this far back, but the terms of redundancy would be somewhat different from those today.
Eventually oats predominantly gave way to barley, for making whisky, and wheat. Turnips allowed cattle to be fed during winter months, thus saving the need to cull the herd with the onset of winter.
It is difficult to describe the living conditions in the early seventeen hundreds where humans and animals co-habitated, and this continued up until the early eighteen hundreds. Food consisted of oats, ground by a local miller, and used as porridge or oatmeal biscuits and in the evenings washed down with a local whisky. Meat and fish were a luxury to the average person, and these were usually only consumed at local fairs.
Weavers were also plying their trade and what came off a sheep’s back ended up on farm workers or their children.
Clearing land to make it suitable for farming was back breaking – the Laird of Ury, near Stonehaven (this estate is now owned by John Forbes of Slains Park) cleared 100,000 cartloads of stones from his 900 acres of land.
Other agricultural pioneers emerged from the area – the Scott family farmed between Lunan Bay and Benholm and their experimentation with fertilisation of the land with lime and other minerals bore fruit with a vast increase in arable output to the detriment of cattle production.
Robert Scott MP, rented Lauriston Estate and set up commercial lime quarrying and kilns on the coast at Miltonhaven, which has its own slice of history.
Miltonhaven is, or should I say, was, midway between St. Cyrus and Johnshaven. It used to have a weekly market day and twice a year a four day fair. The village, latterly, was divided between in-bred fisher families and those working the limestone. In the years when Miltonhaven was just a fishing village, smuggling was a good line of income. Large boats sailing to Montrose would ‘lose’ the odd bail of tobacco over the side – akin to ‘falling off the back of a lorry’ – and it would find its way to the coast on the tide.
From 1760 onwards, press ganging robbed Miltonhaven and many small villages of their youngest and ablest men. Feuding between the fisherfolk and the limestone workers, related to smuggling activities, was prevalent.
With the quarrying taking place on the waterline and at low tide into the sea, the village was becoming vulnerable to changing sea conditions which seemed to be getting worse year on year. Between 1790 and 1795 the sea overcame various fortifications and engulfed the village which is where it lies, submerged, some 100 yards offshore to this day.
Some years on, Tangleha was built to the south of Miltonhaven to replace it, but it never reached the 50 houses and 170 or so population of Miltonhaven. Kirktown became the largest parish in the area.
Other quarrying in and around St. Cyrus produced both a red stone (locally called freestone) and white sandstone used in building. A number of the houses in Montrose and Edinburgh are built of St. Cyrus stone.
One major transformation to land came via Sir Alexander Ramsay of Balmain & Fasque who planted the beech tree avenue at Fasque House and reclaimed acres and acres of land in the Garvock area by using lime. Land prices increased once the land was transformed.
Gentlemen farmers built their mansions, which coincided with whale oil etc, arriving in Montrose to be turned into fuel for lamps, etc. The average farm cottage was still constructed of a single room of stone and turf or clay. This was pretty typical up until the early nineteenth century.
Most of the early houses in St. Cyrus would have been fisher workers’ cottages, each within their own small parish. We first came to St. Cyrus in 1979 and bought the house of Kirkton (formally Kirktown). The main house was originally the Coach House, the garage was the Three Bottle Inn, and the house opposite (then owned by Johnny and Ethel Wood) was a stable for the horses. The road in-between was the main coast road between Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Houses on The Wynd and Long Row would have been farm workers’ cottages. In the picture below, Kirkton is the second house from the right on the horizon and the school is on the left then the church. The two storey house on the far right on the horizon used to be a ‘poor house’ is no longer there.
In addition to farming, salmon fishing was a major activity for the area. It still is to this day, but not anywhere near the scale of the eighteenth century when the fishermen packed and salted in barrels and exported from Montrose to the Baltic, Netherlands, The Med and Adriatic. Local salt, from the tidal saltings at St. Cyrus, could not be used and it had, by regulation, to be Portuguese salt.
Salting gave way to packing in ice and this was pioneered by George Dempster from Angus. Ice houses were built locally – there is one just below Woodston Fishing Station on the path to the beach (where donkeys were used to carry the fish from the salmon nets) and another at Kirkside which was used, until recently, as a restaurant. Ice meant salmon could be transported to, for example, London, and still arrive as fresh fish.
Salmon fishing at St. Cyrus in its heyday employed between fifty and sixty men. When we first came to the village, there were perhaps a dozen men working the nets from Montrose to Woodston, just north of St. Cyrus. Now it’s just a handful of men, and the netting season has shortened considerably. The fish were and still are of the highest quality – note, Halliday and Lloyd, a local concern, whose smoked salmon in recent years has been voted the best in the world. Salmon fishing by net and rod is still carried out on the river North Esk, and catches in recent years have been on the increase; despite the season for fishing having moved to considerably later in the year.
Sir Alexander Straton bought the alehouse on the top of the cliffs (probably ultimately the Three Bottle Inn) in 1628 – our old house, Kirkton, is noted in local maps dating back to 1624, which leads to this presumption. His son, John, died and instead of burying him in the churchyard at the foot of the cliffs, he buried him on the cliff top overlooking the sea in what is the current churchyard. This would appear to be the first burial in the churchyard and Sir Alexander then went ahead and built a church. Part of this old church still survives and its highest point is the burial vault for the lairds of Lauriston.
The old Churchyard, no longer in use, is now part of the Nature Reserve – the area was known as Ecclesgreig (which was the older name for St. Cyrus) and is now known as Kirkside, with the churchyard being named Nether Kirkyard.
One famous grave in the Nether Kirkyard is that of George Beattie, a local lawyer and poet who, in 1823, committed suicide in the Nether Kirkyard by blowing his brains out. The suicide was caused because Beattie was spurned by his lover, a Ms. Gibson, but reading between the lines it would appear that social standing and class played a part. Ms. Gibson’s parents weren’t best pleased about the association – certainly for matrimonial purposes – and when Ms. Gibson inherited a substantial sum from an uncle, this made her parents more determined to deter Beattie, although there was no evidence that he was a money grabber, quite the contrary. The reverberations of the suicide rattled around the area for the next century; especially as Beattie had put pen to paper on his reason for committing suicide, which left neither Ms. Gibson nor her parents in a good light. Hell hath no fury like a poet scorned!
During Beattie’s lifetime, a number of events took place. The river North Esk burst through dunes at Kirkside to form a tidal loch (The Saltings). In the time we have lived here the loch has been reclaimed by the land, and the coast around the mouth of the river is ever changing. The changes to the mouth of the river are important if you are a salmon fisher as the centre of the river determines the start or end location of a company’s fishing rights along the coast (more beach means more nets can be put out), and skulduggery in days gone by to alter the river course was not unknown.
By far the biggest events was the building of the bridges at Marykirk and Kinnaber over the river North Esk, opened around 1775. Prior to their construction the only means of crossing the river was by ferry, or if the water was very low upstream, by fording. Both bridges are still in use to this day with the Lower Northwater Bridge at Kinnaber (on the A92) being reduced to single track and this is the main coastal road link. So much for progress! (yes, this is a moan, as the North Esk bridge has been a dual traffic bridge since ever we have used it, and it still could be. For whatever reason – and there has been no satisfactory or logical one given by Angus County Roads Department – it was decided to make the bridge single file and cause confusion and conflict for regular users. Moan finished!).
The various parishes, in what was to become St. Cyrus, grew in the years following the opening of the Lower Northwater Bridge. The growth, however, did not bring prosperity for all – the industrial revolution in the early and mid 1800’s brought unemployment to farm workers and in particular to the womenfolk. Later on, those 200 or so employed making yarn for sailcloth (flax was grown locally, and St. Cyrus weavers produced a special thread) found themselves out of work because of mechanisation in the mills of Montrose and this, combined with them not being required in the fields at harvest time, was a devastating blow to a family’s economy.
In 1840 poverty affected St. Cyrus badly. Just prior to his death, Sir Joseph Straton changed his Will so that £500 could be used “solely for the poor of the parish”. A more unusual bequest was by John Orr, the Laird of Bridgeton and it is called the St. Cyrus Dowries. Rumour has it that one day John Orr saw a young couple struggling through snow drifts, and he decided to establish a dowry valued at £1,000 (a huge sum in the mid 1800’s) with the interest to be divided into five equal parts. One was to be spent on the needs of old folk, but the remaining interest was to go to the youngest, oldest, tallest and shortest brides of the year. The minister could tell from records who were the oldest and youngest, but he had to measure the brides for height under a special gauge. This tradition still exists to this day and is unique to St. Cyrus. St. Cyrus has bumbled along through the 1900’s with the railway having briefly stopped (and passed through) only for Lord Beeching, as he became, to close it in the late 60’s; along with other rural and not so rural stations. A decision that ripped the heart out of many communities. There is talk of resurrecting some lines in Scotland but in most instances it will not happen – if hard commercial logic is applied.
The railway and roads did bring the odd bonus, and one of these lies about 1 mile north of St. Cyrus just under the A92.The Den o’ Finella. Named after Finella, ‘Queen’ of the Pictish Maermors, who threw herself to her death there to escape the wrath of the King’s men, having contrived the death of King Kenneth III of Scotland in the year A.D.995. If you go about 400 yards past the turnoff to Laurencekirk (B9120), you arrive at a road bridge. On the south west side, go down alongside the bridge, and you will arrive at a tunnel going under the bridge. Go under the bridge and to your left you will see a waterfall at about 75ft in height.
When our children were young the base of the waterfall was accessible by a path built in Victorian days. If you look down towards the sea you will see a super railway bridge. In Spring the Den o’ Finella is beautiful, and local artist Maurice Forsyth-Grant (www.forsyth-grant.com) has captured its glory on canvas.”
Maurice Forsyth-Grant and his family used to own Ecclesgreig Castle (you will recall the name Ecclesgreig from earlier in this text). Maurice still lives in the former grounds of the castle, but the latter is now a disused grain story. What an inglorious end to a magnificent building and superb summer skyline.
What of modern day St. Cyrus? Well, not a lot really. Most people in the village work elsewhere and with the advent of the internet, people like myself, can work from home whilst having an office in Bristol or in fact anywhere in the world. Local agriculture still thrives, mainly arable, but the numbers engaged in this line of work are miniscule compared to days gone by. Having said this, some of the best soft fruits in Britain are grown in the surrounding area and this is a thriving market. Fishing is still part of the local economy with lobster, along with salmon, being exported far and wide.
The coastline is ever changing and the past 20 years or so have seen the beach gain more sand and huge rocks, which our children use to climb and then hunt for crabs in the surrounding pools – Niven’s being one such pool, now virtually covered by sand.
Like any small village, we have our fair share of politics – some would probably deem it local gossip! – but there are lots of groups in the village who endeavour to make it a better place to live, and to cater for all the residents pastimes. An excellent local newsletter is produced which informs villagers of what’s going on and it is now available on-line at www.stcyrusnewsletter.org.uk.
The one thing which has not really changed is the comparative pace of life and the scenery, factors which make St. Cyrus a great place to live.