THE final day of my mid-September 2023 trip saw me alighting from a train at Montrose railway station at an unsociably early hour, keen to continue southwards towards Arbroath. The weather felt slightly less warm than it had been but the skies were mostly clear and good conditions were forecast, so my sartorial choice of a t-shirt and shorts was not being brought into question. Except, maybe, for the small but excruciating detail that said shorts would potentially bring my legs into full contact with every single stinging nettle on the route. Again.
I was immediately distracted from anticipating urtication by an unexpected vista upon alighting from the train. The evening before, when I left Montrose, I had done so under the cover of darkness and so had not appreciated the railway station’s position, which was right beside the shoreline of Montrose Basin.
The basin is the tidal estuary of the River South Esk but is unusual in being almost circular with a peninsula of higher ground partly separating it from the sea. Montrose occupies that high ground, overlooking these tidal mudflats:
I spent several minutes gazing out over the basin and failing to see most of the 80,000 migratory birds that make it their seasonal home. A mere handful of seagulls stared back at me, no doubt in the hope I was carrying tasty chips.
From the station, I made my way back to the High Street, where I had previously bought the chips that the seagulls never saw. It being daylight made quite a difference to my own powers of perception, as I was now able to properly appreciate the Town House, which dominated that street.
The Town House was the headquarters of Montrose Burgh Council from 1764, when it was built, until 1975, when local government changes reorganised the burgh out of administrative existence. The burgh had been founded by David I (c. 1084-1153) between 1130 and 1140 and its High Street laid out on a shingle ridge that formed the highest part of Montrose’s peninsula.
As constructed originally, the Town House had only two storeys but its top floor was added in 1818. The building was refaced with stone in 1908, gaining its current appearance:
While the north face of the Town House sports a clock, the west face bears the old civic arms of Montrose. These are strikingly simple, comprising a single red rose upon a silver field. The full achievement of arms, as recorded in 1694, also includes a garland of roses as a crest above the shield and helm, and a pair of mermaids as supporters. The use of a rose is an example of canting arms – i.e. a heraldic pun – possibly influenced by folk etymology purporting Montrose to mean ‘mount of roses.’ The name actually comes from moine (‘peat bog’) and ros (‘promontory’).
Old Parish Church
The magnificent spire looming over the Town House in the photo belongs to the Old Parish Church. Despite its current name containing the word ‘old,’ it is almost three decades younger than the Town House, having been built in 1791, albeit on the site of its own 12th-century predecessor.
Standing in front of the Town House were a couple of statues, one on a high pedestal and the other on a much smaller base; this pretty much corresponds nicely to the relative social standing of the men portrayed, though I doubt that was in any way deliberate.
The chap on the high pedestal is the Montrose-born surgeon and radical politician Joseph Hume (1777-1855) who entered politics after a tour of service as a military doctor in India and earned a reputation for challenging and bringing to a vote every single item of public expenditure, which is commendable for its demonstration of commitment and adherence to principle but must have been absolute hell for trying to get anything done.
In addition to being immortalised by a statue in his birthplace, he was also commemorated for a century or so in the form of monetary slang. In 1836, at his suggestion, the groat – a four pence coin – was reintroduced for the convenience of London bus passengers, 4d being the fare at the time. These were then nicknamed ‘Joeys’ after him and, when the groat ceased production in 1888, the nickname was transferred to the silver 3d coin until 1941, when they were replaced with brass coins which did not inherit the name.
The statue was sculpted in 1859 by William Calder Marshall (1813-1894), who pretty much made a career out commemorating the great and good of his age in statue form.
Bill the Smith
The other sculpture is titled Bill the Smith and was sculpted in 1937 by Montrose-born William Lamb (1893- 1951); he was one of the ‘lost generation’ who grew up just in time to be scarred, both mentally and physically, by participation in WW1. In Lamb’s case, he was wounded three times, crippling his right hand and forcing him to relearn his art left-handedly. Bill the Smith is pretty strong evidence that he succeeded.
The statue depicts William Windsor Laurence, nicknamed ‘Bill the Basher,’ an ordinary blacksmith who worked for Harry Maiden’s smithy in the town. The statue was installed in it current place in 2001 as part of an effort to better celebrate the town’s heritage.
Perhaps surprisingly, Harry Maiden Ltd still exists as a steel fabrication and welding firm and remains headquartered in Montrose.
101 & 103 High Street
Montrose High Street contained a number of Georgian and Victorian buildings but my eye was caught by one a few doors north of the Town House, to which Bill the Smith had turned his back. Though now empty and forlorn, this building – 101 & 103 High Street – was pretty clearly a former bank branch. The most obvious giveaway was the hole where the ATM had been but other clues could also tell a story for anyone who had the right knowledge (I was not such a person at the time, though subsequent research may have changed that).
National Bank of Scotland
The building was erected in 1864, as a datestone under a window helpfully declared. It was originally a branch of the National Bank of Scotland (est. 1825), which was headquartered in Edinburgh.
The National Bank of Scotland was bought by Lloyds Bank (est. 1765) in 1918 but continued to operate as an autonomous entity. In 1959, Lloyds divested itself of most of its shares and the National Bank of Scotland merged with the Commercial Bank of Scotland (est. 1810) to form the National Commercial Bank of Scotland, which is a bit of a mouthful. 101 & 103 High Street was still an open branch at the time and remained so, changing its signage accordingly.
Just ten years later, the National Commercial Bank merged with the Royal Bank of Scotland (est. 1727) and 101 & 103 High Street remained an RBS branch until 2018, when it closed. It has sat empty since.
Earlier, while looking at a map, I had spotted a road – Traill Drive – that looped around past Montrose Beach and I was determined to go stroll its length before heading out of town. I thus headed up the High Street into Murray Street and then took a left towards the coastline via North Street and Dorward Road. The latter was something of a pleasant tree-lined avenue (well, along one side at least), onto which faced Dorward House.
Both Dorward House, and the road in which it stands are named for a successful merchant, William Dorward (1765-1848) who, in 1838, wrote to the burgh council offering to build a ‘House of Refuge’ for the poor and destitute of Montrose and neighbouring Ferryden. He subsequently made good on his offer, donating £10,000, which was equivalent to about £916 k today. The house it built provided accommodation for a hundred people and remains in operation today as a residential care home for the elderly.
The end of Dorward Road abutted onto Traill Drive and was crossed, at their junction, by both another road and National Cycle Network route 1, which I had been following on my last walk. The cycle path was following the alignment of the Montrose & Bervie Railway (M&BR), which was opened in 1865 and closed in 1966.
As my intention was to get a lot closer to Montrose Beach than the M&BR had ever done, I simply noted it for what it was, crossed over it and pressed on along Traill Drive towards the dunes.
Traill Drive conveyed me past Montrose Golf Links – which date back to at least 1562 and thus comprise the fifth oldest golf course in the world – and the somewhat newer Montrose Skate Park, which was so new and shiny that it wouldn’t officially open for another two days! The road then took a hard right turn in order to avoid running right across the dunes and into the sea. While I couldn’t fault its caution, I figured that I dared get a little closer than that…
Montrose Beach might have been deserted when I visited it, but it has not always been the case. In the inter-war period, Montrose was one of the most popular holiday resorts in Scotland to the extent that, at the height of the holiday season, the beach was so crowded as to be almost impossible to get on it. Not a problem on my visit.
Returning to the road, I soon happened upon a building that, while narrowly predating the beach’s inter-war heyday, no doubt contributed to it. This was the Traill Pavilion, named for two brothers – John and David Traill, of Melbourne and West Bromwich respectively – who hailed from Montrose and, in 1912, wanted to give something back to their birthplace. What they actually gave was £2,000 and, while this was not in the same league as William Dorward’s largesse, it still had almost the spending power that £200 k would have today. In a time when labour was cheap, it easily paid for the construction of Traill Drive and the pavilion.
The pavilion opened in 1913, having cost half the donation, i.e., £1,000.
It has since had several purposes, including bowling pavilion, ice cream bar and tea room, the latter being its current identity following its controversial sale to private owners in 2019 after 106 years of public ownership. It is now the property of local hotelier Norman Braes, who previously leased it from Angus Council and who has been restoring it to former glories.
Promenade & Viewing Platform
Opposite the pavilion was a promenade and, continuing along it for a handful of metres, I came to a low viewing platform which I could not resist ascending to see if the view was any better from up there. It was, marginally, but you’ll have to take my word for it because, seven weeks after my visit, high tide and coastal erosion took a five-metre-deep bite out of the promenade, taking the viewing platform with it.
A little further along from that was another William Lamb statue, titled Minesweeper and commemorating the minesweeper crews who trained in Montrose during WW2. The original was sculpted in 1944 but this copy was installed in 2000 and narrowly escaped going for a swim by being just beyond the point where the erosion took its toll.
Provost Reid’s Road
After the Minesweeper statue, Traill Drive began a slow arc inland, passing by the South Links Holiday Park as it looped its way back towards Montrose proper. Branching off from it was Provost Reid’s Road – named for John Reid, who was Montrose’s provost (equivalent to an English mayor) from 1884 to 1887, during which time the road in question was made.
Pausing at the junction, I carefully considered my onward options…
My decision to go left was quickly endorsed by NCN 1, which emerged from under a railway bridge and came off the old M&BR alignment in order to join me on the road.
Had I stayed on Traill Drive it would have ended atop the bridge, becoming Marine Avenue upon the other side. Interestingly, while the bridge appears on the relevant Ordnance Survey 1st edition map (published in 1865, the year the M&BR opened), neither Traill Drive nor Marine Avenue existed at the time and both sides of the track were still links (i.e., duneland). In other words, the bridge was just built to provide a safe crossing point and both roads were lined with up it later, when they were made.
South Esk Ferry
Provost Reid’s Road was mainly residential in character but things were starting to look more industrial by the time it came to its end. This occurred at a three-way junction, giving me two possible directions in which to continue. One was to the riverbank via Ferry Road, The alternative was to stick with NCN 1 and follow it east along Caledonia Street, aiming vaguely for Montrose Bridge. Ooh, decisions, decisions!
The South Esk Ferry between Montrose and Ferryden (which partly gave the latter its name) ran from at least the 12th century, its charter having been granted to Arbroath Abbey by King William the Lion (c. 1142-1214) in 1178. It persisted until 1795, when the first Montrose Bridge was constructed, but had resumed by the time of the OS 1st ed in 1865 in spite of the bridge’s existence, hanging on until the 1940s before finally ceasing for good.
Port of Montrose
A series of streets led me around the back of Montrose’s docks, flanked by massive warehouses. Montrose has been a port since its 12th-century founding, that being its purpose right from the very beginning.
After a while I found myself in Wharf Street which faces, as its name suggests, directly onto the quayside. At the western end, this had become a riverside promenade outside the working port area and it was there I encountered a big bronze dog…
The Bamse Memorial was unveiled in 2006 and was sculpted by Alan Beattie Herriot. It commemorates Bamse (1937-1944), a St Bernard owned by Captain Erling Hafto (1900-1976) of the Royal Norwegian Navy during WW2. Bamse, whose name means ‘teddy bear,’ was bought in Oslo in 1937 and accompanied Cpt Hafto when he took command of the minesweeper Thorodd.
Thorodd escaped to Britain when Nazi Germany invaded Norway and became part of the Free Norwegian Forces, operating out of Dundee and Montrose. Bamse, who would stand guard in the forward gun tower during action, wearing a specially-made steel helmet, quickly became not just a beloved mascot for Thorodd’s crew but an icon for the Free Norwegian Forces as a whole. He also became something of a local character in Montrose, not least for his habit of catching the bus unaccompanied (with a bus pass attached to his collar), on his way to retrieve crewmembers from their favourite pubs!
Bamse died on Montrose dockside from heart failure in 1944 and was buried near the shoreline with full naval honours just over half a mile east from where the memorial stands.
Visible behind Bamse in the photo above is the current iteration of Montrose Bridge, over which I now crossed. This is the fourth bridge to occupy this site and was built in 2006 after structural faults were found in its predecessor. It was built by the American company Balfour Beatty Construction (est. 1933) to a design by the Danish Carl Bro Group (est. 1959) and is arguably functional rather than aesthetic.
Its immediate predecessor was more visually striking, being a 1930 cantilever bridge constructed from reinforced concrete and was designed by Sir Evan Owen Williams (1890-1969), who was also the principal engineer for the original Wembley Stadium. This bridge had in turn replaced an 1828 suspension bridge designed by Cpt Samuel Brown (1776-1852), who in 1820 had also designed the Union Bridge across the Tweed, that being the first vehicular suspension bridge in Britain. We have seen Cpt Brown’s work before, in Aberdeen.
The first Montrose Bridge was the so-called ‘Timmer Brig,’ it being fashioned from timber. This was erected in 1795 but only lasted for 35 years before becoming so riddled with shipworm damage that replacement was urgently required.
South Esk Viaduct
Barely visible in any of the images above but definitely standing just upstream of Montrose Bridge was the South Esk Viaduct, opened in 1881 to carry the North British Railway (NBR). This too was not the first bridge on its site, that being one constructed in 1879, just two years earlier.
The first viaduct was designed by Sir Thomas Bouch (1822-1880) and constructed by Gilkes Wilson & Company (est. 1843). However, just a few months after its completion, huge doubt was thrown upon it when the Tay Bridge Disaster saw the year-old Tay Rail Bridge – also constructed by Bouch and Gilkes Wilson & Co – collapse beneath an NBR train killing all aboard. The shocked and horrified NBR had the South Esk Viaduct rigorously inspected and it too was discovered to be unsafe.
The viaduct was dismantled and rebuilt to a design by William Robert Galbraith (1829-1914), with new contractors – William Arrol & Company Ltd (est. 1873) – carrying out the work. This remedial action clearly succeeded as Galbraith’s viaduct is still carrying the East Coast Main Line today.
Rossie Island, also known as Inchbrayock, used to be an actual island and is clearly shown as such on many old maps. It sat in the exit of Montrose Basin like a loosely-placed cork in a bottle, with the South Esk flowing as the main exit channel to its north and the smaller Inch Water flowing to its south.
The Inch Water was filled in over a three year period (1973-1975) to reclaim the land for oil industry use. This completely buried the Inch Bridge (built in 1799), which now lies beneath the Ferryden Roundabout, and the Inch Water channel to the east of it. The short section of Inch Water west of the bridge was left largely untouched, leaving what had been its western entrance as a sort of shallow embayment.
The Ferryden Viaduct carried the NBR across the Inch Water’s western entrance and continues to do so today. This was another bridge designed by Sir Thomas Bouch but was found not to require the same urgent replacement as its northern neighbour. Consequently, it persists and is, in fact, the last remaining operational bridge designed by him.
The viaduct was a fairly eye-catching feature as I followed the A92 southwards from Montrose Bridge to Ferryden Roundabout.
Old Ferry Point
From Ferryden Roundabout, I headed east along what would once have been the southern shore of Inch Water but is now just a road with industrial buildings to its north. After about half a mile, I passed the eastern edge of Rossie Island and found myself gazing back across the South Esk from what used to be the southern end of the South Esk Ferry crossing.
Maersk Mariner is sadly lacking in enormous St Bernards, whether named for soft toys or not. She is, as I said, an offshore supply ship serving the North Sea oil industry. She was built by the Kleven Group (est. 1939) in Norway but is Danish-flagged, operated by the shipping company Maersk (est. 1904). She is 95 m long and 25 m broad and has a top speed of 16 kts, though speed is not what she was built for. She is, in fact, specifically designed to be able to anchor in deep water in order to support deep-water oil rigs.
I continued along the shoreline of the South Esk for a couple hundred metres, unaware that I was heading for a dead end and should have turned off along a more inland road. Ahead, I could see the mouth of the river, as it spilled out into the North Sea.
The Lighthouse Road
Fortunately, I’m not the first idiot to discover that the road on the shoreline is actually a dead end. A helpful sign directed me up onto Beacon Terrace and the Lighthouse’s single-track access road, which is also a dead end. In its case, however, that end was where I wanted to go.
The access road was perfectly pleasant in itself but elevating it into the category of delightful were some things to look at on the way. These included a wall topped with many painted pebbles and two navigational daymarks – known as ‘the Beacons’ – which predate the 1870 lighthouse, having been erected in the 18th century.
The Beacons are placed such that if you line them up on approach to the South Esk’s river mouth, you should be on a safe course, avoiding rocks and suchlike.
Scurdie Ness Lighthouse
Before long, the road came to an end at Scurdie Ness Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was built in 1870 by two of the brothers from the Lighthouse-building Stevenson family: David (1815-1886) & Thomas (1818-1887). Although it has been painted white for visibility during most of its existence, it was painted black during WW2 to thwart the Luftwaffe using it as a navigational mark on bombing runs. In 1987, the light was converted to automatic operation and the adjoining keepers’ cottages sold off.
Angus Coastal Path
I rested briefly beside the lighthouse and considered my next move. A pair of signs pointed along a coastal route to the farmstead of Mains of Usan. I did, however, have reason to doubt their precision.
Nonetheless, I was happy to give it a go and see which sign might be more accurate…
Usan & Dunninald
Between Scurdie Ness and Mains of Usan wasn’t the cottage of Marywells. By which I mean that, while it was shown on early OS Maps, it disappeared from them sometime around the 1920s and there was no obvious trace of it as I ambled past where it had once been.
Mains of Usan
The coast path ended – approximately 1200 m from the Scurdie Ness signposts – at Main of Usan, proving that the unofficial sign had been the more precise one, while the coast path sign had been rounding up to the nearest half mile.
Mains of Usan had been described as a ‘large and superior farm’ in the OS Name Books, which were used to help compile the 1st ed. Standing in front of it were some ruined structures that had formerly been Chapel Mill, a corn mill belonging to the Usan Estate (of which Mains of Usan was a part).
There was a farm track leading onwards and I could probably have followed it to Seaton of Usan, but it seemed to lack official inclusion into the Angus Coastal Path. That being so, I decided to take to the road, as the coast path seemingly intended.
The road led me, not to Rome, but past the cottages of Inverusan and then to the gates of Usan House. There, I was thankful for the broad approach with its millstone mini-roundabout as otherwise I’d have been competing for road space with an enormous Angus Council dustcart that suddenly came around the corner.
I say ‘dustcart’ because that’s the name I was taught as a child but it occurs to me that for some, that might conjure images of something on the size and scale of a mere wheelbarrow. I should perhaps have said ‘bin lorry,’ or what my American friends might call a ‘garbage truck,’ namely a whacking great vehicle with a compactor apparatus at the back. I’m not sure if I heard it first or smelt it but suddenly it was in the road and taking up pretty much all of it. That I met it outside Usan House, where we had room to pass each other, was pure serendipity.
The current Usan House is a two-storey mansion erected in 1820 and extended in 1880 and is the centrepiece of the Usan Estate.
Usan was originally part of a wider Rossie Estate but passed to the Leighton family in the 13th century and remained theirs for over three centuries. The estate passed out of their hands in the mid-17th century and it was wrapped back up into a larger Rossie Estate which was later purchased by Patrick Scott (1623-1690), son of James Scott of Logie (1593-1643). His Scott of Dunninald successors held the estate until the early 19th century when it was sold to property speculator Robert Spears, who subsequently sold Usan to George Keith (d. 1836) in 1817.
It was George who had the new house built, possibly on the site of the Leighton’s mediaeval Tower of Usan, which had long been demolished.
Cotton of Usan
At the gates of Usan House, the road turned a corner, heading northwards. I followed suit, heading up past the house’s West Lodge and then taking the turning for Cotton of Usan, which is basically a cottage and some barns. The OS 1st ed seems to indicate that it may have once had a second cottage, though the Name Book was less than helpful about what was actually there, focussing instead on etymology:
‘The cot-town of Usan is the meaning of this name which is well known & widely used both by the proprietor & the people of the Parish. Cotton is a common contraction of the word.’
Immediately past Cotton of Usan, I took another turning just before the road would have crossed the East Coast Main Line. This meant that I had essentially done three sides of a square in order to resume my journey south.
Usan Signal Box
The road I was now on ran roughly parallel to the railway line, separated only by a narrow field. Glancing across this, I thought I saw the remains of a removed structure and wondered if Usan had once had its own station. The answer, it turns out, is ‘no’ but there was a signal box on the site until 2010:
Installed in 1906, the signal box had originally controlled signals to a passing loop on the single-track NBR line. Later, when the line south of it was doubled, it was kept to control the merge back down to single track required to cross the Ferryden and South Esk viaducts (which would have been prohibitively expensive to widen). While this track situation remains, modern technology allows for signalling to be remotely controlled from fewer, larger control centres and so the box was removed.
Seaton of Usan
The road headed south to a junction, where through traffic and NCN 1, which had joined me near Cotton of Usan, would take a right-hand turn but there was a straight-on option to Seaton of Usan. This name belonged to a farm, which would be the first thing encountered upon that road, and a concrete barn displayed it proudly along with the year 1972. This is presumably when the barn was erected, as the farm was already in situ when the Name Books were compiled (1857-61).
Fishtown of Usan
Beyond the farm was a small hamlet also going by the name of Seaton of Usan, its residents having apparently preferred this over its original designation as Fishtown of Usan. And who can blame them?
The hamlet was laid out in 1822 by George Keith of Usan and at one time boasted a school and a coast guard office, both now long gone. It also possesses a square signal tower that looks like it lost an attached church, but which was built with the village as a navigational aid for fishing boats.
I thought about popping down to see the tower but decided I wasn’t all that fussed.
Moving on, I crossed the railway line via a stone overbridge that I assume dates to 1881, when the NBR line opened. Beyond this was a junction offering an unnecessary diversion to the farmstead of Scotston of Usan, should I want that, but I wanted no such thing. I was quite happy following the road I was on, which was known to Angus Council’s road maintenance people as the U478…
Yup, leaving it would doubtless be a terrible mistake.
The side-track was absolutely fine and not at all knee-deep in nettles either. Indeed, it was so easily progressed along that I almost wondered if I had accidentally teleported to a different part of the country. It led, passing under the railway, to the Rock of St Skae, also known as Elephant Rock on account of resembling that animal’s trunk.
Chapel of St Skae
Overlooking the rock is a 19th-century burial ground built upon, and possibly from the ruins of, a 12th-century chapel dedicated to an otherwise unknown St Skeoch. The New Statistical Account of Scotland (publ. 1845) had this to say of it:
‘A very picturesque spot on the coast is usually called the Chapel of St Skay, but no ruins remain to mark the existence of any former edifice. A small burying place is preserved around the spot, which is occasionally used for interments and the site of the manse is still pointed out in an adjoining field.’
The cemetery contained a handful of gravestones and a small mausoleum in which were interred several of the Keiths of Usan.
According to my map, the track continued along the coastline to Boddin Point and I was delighted to discover that the situation on the ground matched this exactly. I strolled merrily along the cliff top, mercifully unstung by nettles (a nice change from the previous two days).
Almost before I knew it, I was passing a row of ruined cottages at Boddin and could see the old lime kilns near the tip of Boddin Point.
Black Jack Castle
Boddin was the site of a castle but only for about a century. Black Jack Castle was built by Andrew Gray of Dunninald and occupied by him from at least 1579 – when he was besieging Red Castle down the coast in Lunan – until about 1590 when a manor house was built inland. A younger son of Patrick Gray, 4th Lord Gray (c. 1518-1584), he had acquired Dunninald in 1539. The castle was later demolished and its stone recycled to help build nearby Dunninald Castle on the site of the manor house.
If you’re wondering why a man named ‘Andrew Grey’ would call his castle ‘Black Jack,’ it’s not because he wished his name was darker. Black Jack is a prominent rock below the cliff on which it stood.
The Gray arms don’t feature any grey, but that’s because it’s not a normal heraldic tincture. I could find no record of differenced arms for Gray of Dunninald so either Andrew and his descendants used a version I don’t yet know about, or they used his undifferenced paternal arms as shown here. If the latter, then he shouldn’t have as his eldest brother inherited those, but Andrew wasn’t too hot on obeying the law – he was outlawed at one point for his attacks on Red Castle – so he may have just done as he pleased.
Re-joining the Road
At Boddin, I rejoined the public road system and headed north, passing by Boddin Farm and then over the railway before meeting back up with the road I had diverted from earlier.
Close to the junction was a side-gate to the grounds of Dunninald Castle & Gardens, a gate lodge loyally standing guard beside it.
Andrew Gray’s successors lost Dunninald pretty much immediately, leading to its acquisition by the Leightons of Usan in 1617. It then passed through marriage to the Allardyces, who were forced by mounting debts to sell it to the Scotts of Logie, giving rise to the Scotts of Dunninald. It was later sold to Robert Spears along with Usan and was sold by him to Peter Arkley (1780-1825), who promptly commissioned architect James Gillespie Graham (1776-1855) to build the current structure. This was completed in 1824.
Today, the castle is owned by the Stansfeld family, to whom it passed through marriage.
From the gate of Dunninald Castle, I followed the road westwards for about a quarter of a mile, to where it lazily looped over Dunninald Den and passed Smithy Cottage, the prior purpose of which is pretty much given away by its name. In times past, the small burn flowing along the bottom of the den had been the boundary between the parishes of Craig (containing Ferryden, Usan and Dunninald) and of Lunan.
Another quarter mile after that, it arrived at a crossroads where the NCN 1 made a left turn to head south. I saw no reason to dispute that decision and did likewise. This soon led me past the farmsteads of Nether Dysart and Buckiemill, the latter of which is close to the site of a small prehistoric hill fort on the cliffs.
Nether Dysart farmhouse was originally a mansion house of the Melvilles of Dysart and bears datestones showing the years 1594 and 1714. Subsequent modernisations to its appearance conceal its age, however.
The Melvilles of Dysart were an influential family that provided numerous burgesses and ministers to the region. Most prominent amongst their number was the outspoken religious reformer Andrew Melville (1544-1622), who was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a while.
The Melvilles of Dysart inherited the arms of their predecessors, the Melvilles of Glenbervie, which comprised a red fess between three red crescents (two above and one below) all upon a silver field.
Braehead of Lunan
I passed over the burn that runs down Buckie Den almost without noticing it – there was no bridge, it was merely culverted beneath the road – and was immediately faced by a sign telling me that I was entering Braehead of Lunan.
This is a tiny hamlet of cottages and bungalows, albeit a slightly larger one than when the OS was compiling the relevant Name Book circa 1860. The Name Book took pains to distinguish the ‘few detached dwellings’ of Muir of Lunan on what was then the new turnpike road (now the A92) from neighbouring Braehead on the ‘old turnpike road,’ which the Name Book added was ‘now a parish road.’ The latter is now known to Angus Council as the C45.
Col Blair’s Monument
At the southern end of Braehead of Lunan was Imrie Cresent, which was really a broad cul-de-sac of bungalows facing a memorial obelisk. The monument long predates the bungalows, which popped up sometime around the 1950s, it having been erected in 1856.
The monument commemorates Lt Col James Blair (1792-1847), who was born in Lunan and served in the Bengal Army. He died aboard the ship Madagascar on a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope which, ironically, he had undertaken for the sake of his health. The monument was erected by friends and fellow officers.
From Braehead, I followed the C45 downhill. On the way, it passed a tree-lined track that formed a back route to Lunan Lodge, which had once been the parish manse. The Name Book had described it thusly:
‘A superior dwelling with offices and glebe lands adjoining. This is the only manse in the parish, there being only the parish church or established church in Lunan.’
Lunan Bay Station
About a quarter mile on from the monument, I crossed the East Coast Main Line via a bridge. Just east of this stood a cottage that had formerly been part of Lunan Bay railway station, which was in operation between 1881 and 1930.
In 1975, the track immediately west of the road bridge was the scene of a rail disaster when a passenger express train broke down there. Its guard walked back down to a lineside telephone near the station site and promptly informed the signalman but, in a moment of confusion, told him that the train was at Letham Grange, five miles further south, instead of Lunan Bay.
A second locomotive was duly dispatched from further north to rescue the stricken train. This was told to pass a stop signal at Usan (set to danger because the broken train was occupying the section) and did so, proceeding at about 60 mph in the expectation that it would not encounter said broken train until Letham Grange.
What it actually did, of course, was encounter that train with impact. The second train’s brakes managed to slow it down to about 25 mph before it hit but that was still enough to shunt and derail the first train, injuring 38 passengers and four crewmembers – two of the latter were scalded by hot coffee in the restaurant car – and killing one particularly unlucky young woman.
Lunan House & Farm
From the railway line, it was a mere third of a mile into the village of Lunan. There, I took a side road towards Lunan Beach, which carried me past the back of Lunan House and several buildings belonging to Lunan Farm. One building appeared to claim unusual occupants…
High up on a nearby wall, I spotted the stag crest of Clan Blair:
The reason for the Blair crest is that the Barony of Lunan was held by the Blair-Imrie family from 1759 until just after WW2, when financial woes forced them to sell the estate. This must have rankled badly, however, as Hew Blair-Imrie made a point of repurchasing the house in 2016, returning the family to its old home.
As one might expect with a name like Blair-Imrie, the familial arms are those of Imrie and Blair quartered. The 1st and 4th quarters are Imrie – three fusils (diamond shapes) on a black and silver barry (horizontally striped) background. The fusils are counter-changed, meaning they swap the colours of the field The 2nd and 3rd quarters show the Blair arms, which are also black and silver, comprising nine silver mascles (voided diamond shapes) on a black saltire on silver.
The Fortunate Dream of William Imrie
Lunan House has an associated story concerning William Imrie (d. 1798), the first of the family to own the estate. It relates how he ran away from home to avoid being forced into life as a farmer. Sleeping rough on his first night of freedom in the ruins of Red Castle, he had a vivid dream that he went to London, married a wealthy woman, became wealthy himself and returned home to become a laird.
Upon waking, he made his way to London where the dream slowly became true. He did indeed marry a wealthy woman, became a hotelier on the Strand and eventually returned to buy the Lunan Estate.
Tea & Cake
Upon entering Lunan, I was harbouring my own modest daydream, which was to acquire tea and cake and a lengthy sit-down. This too unfolded exactly as foreseen, courtesy of the Lunan Farm Shop & Café.
Feeling refuelled and refreshed, I returned to the C45 and crossed Lunan Water by means of Lunan Bridge. This was of early 18th century construction – no doubt built when they made the parish road – but repaired circa 1850 and tarmacked from the 1930s onward. I could find little specific information about it and even the Name Book only had this to say:
‘A county bridge of two arches carrying the parish (formerly a turnpike) road over Lunan Water.’
Well, yes, I could see that:
From Lunan Bridge, the road curved around to run parallel to the coat, becoming tree-lined as it did so. Just before my view became completely obscured by foliage, I caught my first glimpse of Red Castle peeking over the hedges from atop the hillock on which it sits.
I was in two minds about whether or not to take a closer look until I walked past the start of a narrow footpath climbing up to the castle ruins via an incline of alarming steepness. Going up that was clearly a stupid idea.
The castle was constructed for William the Lion in the 12th century and was used by him as a hunting lodge until he gave it to his Lord Chamberlain, Walter de Berkeley. Upon his death it passed to his son-in-law, Ingram de Balliol (d. 1244), who rebuilt it. It was confiscated from his successors by Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) in 1328, as he punished his enemies and rewarded his supporters by reallocating the property of the former. He gave it to Hugh, Earl of Ross (d. 1333).
In 1544, James V (1512-1542) gave the castle to Elizabeth Beaton and her husband John Stewart, 4th Lord Innermeath (d. 1569), she being a discarded former mistress of the King. In 1572, John having died, she married James Gray (d. 1586), son of Lord Gray and brother to Andrew. This would prove a terrible mistake.
There are two versions of what happened next. The popular version says that he fell in love with his step-daughter, while the attested account is only a little less problematic – James had an affair with Elisabeth’s niece, Isobel Beaton, who became pregnant as a result.
Elizabeth, understandably, was not overjoyed by this development and threw him out, seeking a divorce. but James was not about to let go of her considerable wealth quite so easily, which is what led to he and his brother repeatedly attacking the castle. In 1581, they exploded the gatehouse with gunpowder causing one of the occupants, Marjory Stewart, lady of Vayne, to miscarry. Elizabeth’s divorce was granted that same year and the Gray brothers were outlawed and attainted as traitors for their actions, though politics dictated that Andrew would eventually be pardoned.
The Grays’ attacks obviously inflicted great damage but the core of the castle survived intact until the mid-18th century before finally crumbling into ruin.
From the castle, I made my way down another steep footpath, this time overgrown and not entirely without nettles. So much for Red Castle granting my dreams! At the bottom were a handful of cottages and a path leading out onto the beach that had been looking at from on high just a few minutes earlier.
As I splashed bootlessly along the water’s edge, avoiding the occasional dead cormorant – the area had sadly been affected by bird flu – the tide waxed and the dunes got taller, leaving me with only a narrow slice of beach.
I was having a thoroughly great time as I made my way along the bay.
Lunan Bay turned pebbly just before it ended, blocked by cliffs at the south end of the bay. Here, I found the settlement of Corbie, which was a tiny cluster of wooden shacks and holiday houses. Behind them loomed Corbie Knowe, an artificial mound once used as a lookout by smugglers – ‘corbie,’ meaning ‘crow,’ was a nickname for such rogues.
A footpath led behind some of Corbie’s chalets and up onto the cliff tops at Bird’s Knap. From it, I could look back up Lunan Bay to Red Castle and beyond.
The footpath was unmarked on my OS map and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. As it turned out, it led only far enough to connect to the road to Ethie Haven, where it wanted me to head inland instead.
Ethie Haven is a sheltered coastal hamlet at the foot of the cliffs. Formerly a fishing community, its cottages are now holiday homes. Picturesque as this might be, I was also pretty sure it was a dead end, and I knew I didn’t really have the time for that.
I did as a coast path sign indicated and followed the road as it climbed 40 m to North Mains, and then continued past the cottages at Ethie Greens to meet the road to Ethie Barns.
Ethie Barns is pretty much what the name says it is, a collection of agricultural buildings. As I passed them, I was greeted by a cheerful young lad in a tractor who enthused about the weather and being outdoors and so on and confirmed that I was, he thought, going the right way.
Immediately southwest of Ethie Barns was Ethie Castle. I could see the latter from the former but that was close as I was going to get to it, as the coast path didn’t go that way. And even if it had, I would probably have taken the route that I did take anyway.
Ethie Castle dates back to the turn of the 14th century, when monks from Arbroath Abbey built a sandstone keep. It later passed to the de Maxwell family before reverting to the Church in time to become the country residence of Abbot David Beaton (c. 1494-1546), sixth son of John Beaton of Balfour. He later became a cardinal and Chancellor of Scotland and remodelled the castle circa 1530 in order to entertain James V. The cardinal was murdered by Protestant conspirators in St Andrews in 1546 after which, it is said, Arbroath’s monks hid their riches in the castle walls.
Earls of Northesk
After the Reformation, the castle was bought by the Carnegie family. I found conflicting accounts that claimed that this was in either 1565 or 1665 and one of those is clearly a copying error. I’m inclined to believe the earlier date. For one thing, it’s right in the Reformation and Arbroath Abbey was already being dismantled in the latter half of the 16th century despite not being formally dissolved until 1608. And, for another, John Carnegie, 1st Earl of Northesk (1611-1667) was created Earl of Ethie in 1647, which implies they already owned it at that point. He relinquished that title for the Earldom of Northesk in 1662. His elder brother David Carnegie (1575-1658) had been created 1st Earl of Southesk in 1633, so between them they had both of Montrose’s rivers wrapped up.
The 7th earl, William Carnegie (1756-1831), extensively modernised the castle into a substantial country residence, though he was often not there on account of being a naval officer. He rose to be an admiral and served in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), French Revolutionary War (1792-1802), and Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). In particular, as a rear-admiral in 1805, he was third-in-command at Trafalgar under Nelson.
The 10th earl, David Carnegie (1865-1921) commissioned architect , Sir Robert Rowand Anderson (1834-1921) to make further substantial alterations in 1892 but his son and successor, David Carnegie (1901-1963), 11th earl, sold it to the Glaswegian artist and antique collector William Cunningham Hector (1875-1929) in 1928. Hector died there the following year.
In 1978, Ethie Castle became the seat of Clan Forsyth when its then-owner, Alistair Forsyth, was recognised by Lord Lyon, King of Arms as its first clan chief since 1672, when Charles II had instituted a public register of the clans – Clan Forsyth had refused to participate and so had been stripped of official recognition.
The castle was extensively restored and served as the clan’s seat until it was sold around the turn of the millennium, when Alistair emigrated to Australia.
The arms of Forsyth of Forsyth as granted by Lord Lyon in 1978 closely resemble older Forsyth arms, which also comprised an engrailed red chevron between three crowned blue griffins. There is a slight difference, however, in that the griffins’ arms and claws are black, whereas older versions of the arms employed other colours.
The castle is now a family home and hotel owned by the de Morgan family.
The road had been surfaced with asphalt as far as Ethie Barns but, as I continued southwards, this gave way to an unsurfaced road, though still well-made and clear of overgrowth.
The track led me around to what had been the farmstead of West Mains but now looked as though its buildings had been converted into homes. A datestone on the gables of one gave its year of construction as 1849.
By reaching West Mains, I had also come to the five-mile limit from Arbroath Town House within which Arbroath Smokies – a type of hot-smoked haddock – must be made to qualify for the Protected Geographical Indication status they gained in 2004. Not that is the only criterion, of course; they must also be prepared by traditional methods from fish sourced from certain designated markets. The thought of them made me hungry.
The Track Less Trodden
The track continued after West Mains but became altogether grassier as befits one that only sees occasional farm traffic rather than the cars of West Mains’ residents.
For just under half a mile, it made its way along a field boundary and then stopped at what my OS map told me was a junction. To the left, a track ran down the edge of a field towards Rumness where the map claimed there was still a building but satellite photos show there now is not. Meanwhile, the Angus Coastal Path continued dead ahead. Well, sort of:
The overgrown path was tame by local standards, with only moderate nettles and almost no thorns. I forced my way through it for 300 m, after which it took a hard turn to the left and continued for a similar distance.
I emerged with relief, mild stinging and minor abrasions to find the rickety remnant of a wall, which is all that remains of the farmhouse of Rumkemno. This already had been abandoned by 1859, as noted in the Name Book:
‘Formerly a farm steading but now unoccupied. It is the property of the Earl of Northesk.’
Auchmithie & Seaton
The farm track led ahead, straight as a die, to Mains of Auchmithie but, halfway along, the coastal path took a left turn to visit Auchmithie instead. This former fishing village lays claim to being the actual birthplace of the Arbroath Smokie before the better harbour at Arbroath stole away its fishing fleet.
Heading through the village, I passed the former Auchmithie Hotel, which operated from 1964 until 2002. A datestone in its wall proclaimed its year of construction as 1885, implying a much longer past. It turns out that that it was a youth hostel before its hotel years, and a temperance establishment before that.
I don’t know for certain but, looking at the village, I’d guess its site is the most likely spot for the inn that the Name Book says the village had, which may or may not have been the same establishment as the Waverley Hotel in which novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) once stayed; he used Auchmithie as the basis for the fictional ‘Musselcrag’ in his 1816 novel The Antiquary.
A few paces further on from the old hotel was Fountain Square, onto which faced several sandstone cottages dating from around 1890, with a doocot (i.e. dovecot) with five pigeon-holes built-in above the entranceway. In the centre of the courtyard was not a fountain, which would have been lovely, but a water tower which was less so, though certainly unexpected and therefore interesting.
Making my way to the far end of Auchmithie, I found three options onwards. I could turn right and complete my journey via the road network or I could head straight on along a farm track. Or I could take a dead-end road to where, circa 1860, could be found:
‘A row of cottages with gardens attached, occupied as a Coast Guard station at which resides an officer and five men.’
From there, I could take to a cliff-top footpath if I so chose.
The path was flanked by nettles and brambles, a few of which were leaning in aggressively, but in general it was clear of obstructions and well-made underfoot. This would not be (to my pleasant surprise) yet another urticating experience.
Halfway around Castlesea Bay was Laverock Den. A deep gully cut by a small burn. Rather than bridge it, the path diverted briefly inland to its head beside Tanglehall Cottages. These were described in the Name Book as being occupied by ‘farm servants,’ which I doubt is still the case today.
As the path rounded the headland by Lud Castle, it also passed Gaylet Pot, which is a deep, rocky sinkhole in an adjoining field. This was hard to make out from the path, however, as its negative profile was largely concealed by crops.
Continuing along the cliff top, the path passed above the ominously named Forbidden Cave and then the descriptively-illuminated Dark Cave and Light Cave as it rounded a promontory into Carlingheugh Bay.
Here, the path had unilaterally decided that, one way or another, hikers were going to end up on the shoreline below and, since plummeting helplessly in a landslip is the sort of fun you only get to do the once, Angus Council had diverted the path down some steps to achieve the same end more sedately.
Being at sea level obviated any need to cross Seaton Den, which was described by the Name Book as a ‘ravine.’ I didn’t even need to cross the burn that carved that ravine, as that had disappeared beneath the shingle before it reached the edge of the sea. The downside, of course, was walking on shingle, which gives a good nettling a run for its money with regard to not being fun.
The path climbed back up to the cliff top at the far end of the bay, re-joining the cliff path close to the natural arch of Castle Gate and then continuing on around the small embayment of Cove Haven.
This was both the site of another ancient promontory fort – Maiden Castle – but also the location of a vanished hamlet also named Cove Haven. The 1861 Name Book remarked of the bay that:
‘It formerly gave name to a small fishing village or hamlet which stood on the brae head over it, the houses of which have been removed about ten years ago.’
Just under a mile north-west of my position was Seaton House, a 19th-century mansion whose grounds have now become a holiday park. This estate was held in the early 19th-century by Thomas Renny Strachan (d. 1823) of Tarry, a descendant of David Carnegie, 1st Earl of Southesk. In addition to extensive estates in Forfarshire (as Angus was then known), he also owned two plantations in Jamaica and was therefore a colonial slave-owner.
Having no children of his own, he bequeathed his estates to a relative, John Carnegie (1802-1879) – second son of David Carnegie (1753-1805), 7th Earl of Southesk – who then changed his name to John Rennie-Strachan-Carnegie and set about a programme of rebuilding across the estate.
Seaton House was not on my itinerary and I had no time for mile-long detours inland. The sun was already getting threateningly low in the sky as I drew level with the narrow geo or inlet known as Dickmont’s Den, allegedly named for a smuggler, wrecker and/or pirate.
The geo is the remnant of a collapsed sea cave although lesser caves still branch from it. Note, for instance, the cave entrance on the left, which is known as either the Piper’s Cave or the Smugglers’ Cave, depending whom you ask.
As the sun dipped ever lower, I picked up a burst of speed and fairly rocketed past the natural arch of the Needle E’e and raced onwards to Whiting Ness. Now, beneath an orange sky, I finally set eyes on Arbroath.
The sun had just sunk below the horizon as I descended from Arbroath Cliffs to the eastern end of Victoria Park. For all that I knew I had only twilight remaining, I also knew that I was now safely off the cliff path and could afford to take a short rest to ease my aching feet and get my breath back.
In the end, it was the dropping temperature rather than the falling light levels that spurred me back into action. Glancing at my map, I saw that I could take a footpath along the northern edge of the park but I thought it best to stick with the pavement alongside the road – King’s Drive – as easier to navigate in low light.
As predicted, the twilight fully failed just as I reached the end of King’s Drive and entered Arbroath proper. But that was okay because I was now in a built-up area, which meant it had street lights. I continued straight ahead until I intersected Arbroath’s High Street, whereupon I turned north, aiming for the town centre and, from there, Arbroath railway station.
A couple of assistive Arbroathians who saw me peering at my map volunteered directions to speed me on my way and I was soon standing on the station platform, waiting for the next train.
Been and Gone
Not too many minutes later, I was happily entrained and hurtling past the scene of the Lunan Bay rail crash and then where Usan signal box used to be. I passed quickly over the Ferryden and South Esk viaducts and then, not long after that, I was back in Aberdeen. My day’s adventure was over and my September 2023 trip also at its end. The following morning, I caught another train back home to London but vowed I will be back…
Next time, hopefully, I’ll get to see more of Arbroath in actual daylight.
This time: 23 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,427 miles