Stonehaven arcade: Half hidden by vehicles, the market building still has the arcade at the side, designed to hold stalls.
by Pat Jones
Neolithic ring cairns on nearby hills are evidence that Stone Age people considered this a reasonably secure place. The jagged, northern tip of the Highland Boundary Fault, part of this rugged and hazardous coastline, must have caused invaders from the sea to feel apprehensive about landing. However, the existence of Raedyke Roman camp proves that those particular invaders decided it was well worth trying.
On this cold North-East coast, the native inhabitants turned to the sea for their survival and settling at the south end of a bay, they built shelters and primitive boats. Over the centuries, the settlement grew and prospered and was known as Kilwhang. With ‘Kil’ meaning hill and ‘whang’ the name, or sound of a whip, possibly, the name is derived from the cliffs above the original settlement and the sound of wind whistling around their meagre shelters.
At the northern end of the bay, another small hamlet known as Cowie came into being. Eventually this boasted a castle and a church, but although the castle is no more, the church remains as an attractive ruin. Dedicated to St. Nathalan and subordinate to Fetteresso, the ‘mother’ church, in 1276 it was re-dedicated, to St. Mary. The Barons of the Mearns favoured Fetteresso and one fateful day in 1560 they raided St. Mary’s. The church then fell into disrepute and the roof was removed. A local Baron took some wooden beams to use in his own house. They were said to have dripped blood on the cloaks of those who walked below. This gave rise to the name Redcloak in the town.. Wander round the quiet graveyard today and you will see how many people have, since then, favoured burial in this tranquil spot beside the sea.
Clearly in view across the bay from St Mary’s church is Dunnottar castle. There was a Pictish settlement on this cliff which has a history of civil strife. St Ninian supposedly brought Christianity to the Picts and built a church here, mention of which was made in documents when Arbroath Abbey was being constructed. In 1297 William Wallace stormed an English garrison on the rock. The wooden walls were soon ablaze and many took refuge in the chapel to which he also set fire. In later years a stone church was constructed and dedicated to St. Ninian. By 1336 the place was back in English hands again, but unwisely, Edward 111 of England visited and shortly after his departure the Scots, taking this as great insult, stormed the place and held it. In 1390 Sir William Keith, the then Earl Marischal of Scotland, built a substantial castle where his descendents lived in comparative peace until Cromwell attacked in 1651. The crown jewels of Scotland and many state papers were held in the castle at this time. These were successfully smuggled out and buried under the floor of Kinneff church near Inverbervie. The castle never really recovered from Cromwell’s attack and although partly ruined it was used as a prison during the Jacobite rebellion.
The torture and imprisoning of 167 Covenanters was a black part of the castle’s history. Later the execution of the last Earl Marischal for his part in the Jacobite rising, resulted in the castle being confiscated by the government and saw the end of its active history.
This part of the coast like most others in the British Isles has a history involving press gangs, shipwrecks and smuggling. There are many tiny gullies in the cliffs and those without hidden rocks, were obvious places for smugglers to land their booty. Names such as Tremuda and Trelung suggest a connection with Cornwall, for smugglers went anywhere they thought profitable.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many local landowners such as Graham of Morphie, who was interested in heavy horse breeding, Barclay of Urie who improved beef production, Allardice, Keith and Arbuthnott, were all most progressive in outlook and deed. They drained the land, manured it and introduced crop rotation together with clover, potatoes, beans, turnips and new grain varieties. They could be said to have brought farming out of the Stone Age with their new ideas and by using horses rather than oxen for all the heavy work.
Between the villages lay two rivers exiting into the sea, they were and still are known as the Carron and the Cowie. In 1795 when Robert Barclay bought the land that lay between them, the Cowie had been bridged, but to the south, coaches had to ford the Carron and it was quite a hazard, especially in winter.
Barclay drew up plans for a new town, designed on a grid system, with wide streets, a market square and a bridge to the south. He marked out on his plan, rectangular shaped feus, each an eighth of an acre, and these sold steadily over the years that followed. When he died, two years after buying the land, he was succeeded by his son, the famous agriculturalist, soldier and pedestrian, who further improved on the plans.
Robert Barclay Allardice had the market buildings designed and built with a covered arcade for stalls. There were county offices on the first floor and a clock tower. Streets were named after members of his family and most were lined with trees. A strong man, given to showing off his expertise, he walked a mile an hour in 1,000 successive hours for a bet of 1,000 guineas.
Always mindful of enjoyably robust pastimes and concerned for the health of the townsfolk he established a recreation ground beside the Cowie bridge. Gradually, the heath and gorse covered links of 1785 disappeared under the new buildings and developed into a sizeable town with a population of 3,000 by 1831. In 1848 the railway arrived and this established the town as an attractive holiday resort.
Kilwhang never lost its links with the sea and fishing from the old town harbour and also from Cowie village, carried on well into the 20th century, but gradually dwindled to just a few boats. Over time, the two villages became absorbed by the new town, although Cowie is still recognised. There was a rock at the entrance to the harbour, which proved fatal to several ships running for cover in stormy weather. In 1825/6, the engineer Robert Stevenson drew up plans to improve the harbour and this hazard was removed, but not before the name ‘Stanehive’ (or Stonehaven) had been generally accepted for the town.
Gun emplacements can still be seen on the site of the old Cowie castle looking across the bay from the north. It is said that cannons fired from here to welcome Queen Victoria, scared her instead and she was not amused! Beyond on Cowie braes, a ten hole golf course was opened in 1888, but reduced to nine the following year. There were salt pans on low lying land south of Cowie and rope works on what is now the Queen Elizabeth Park. There was also a large woollen mill and the owner’s son, Robert William Thomson, was the inventor of the pneumatic tyre among many other things. Boat building and chandlery prospered and died with the fishing, the cotton and linen mills were gone long before the tannery, distillery and brewery arrived, but always as one trade died, so another took its place.
The Black hill to the south of the bay is crowned by a war memorial, designed by an Aberdeen architect John Ellis, to resemble a ruined temple, which in turn represented the ruined lives of those who died for king and country in WW1. It was erected in 1923 after much squabbling amongst the townsfolk, first about fund raising and then as to what best suited their memory. Late though it was, it soon became a treasured local landmark to which, sadly, more names of the fallen have had to be added in recent years.
Today, Stonehaven is a friendly, lively town with a population of around 11,000. There is much to interest and attract visitors. The townsfolk are strong supporters of all local endeavours and proudly undertook the refurbishment of the Olympic sized, Art Deco swimming pool. The Carron Restaurant built in the same era, was born again in recent years and is true to the period in its furnishing.
A plaque has been erected on the house where Robert Thomson was born and in June the market square in front, is filled with vehicles, when the annual vintage rally is held in his honour.
On the first Saturday each month there is a farmer’s market in the square and occasionally continental markets are held. Numerous cafes, pubs and restaurants as well as hotels ensure that eating out is easy and pleasurable and there are good take-aways too. Shops come and go, but most things are obtainable and Stonehaven seems happy with its lot.
Reputedly, Stonehaven has the most photographed harbour in Britain. This is the scene of the popular fireball ceremony each Hogmanay, burning off the bad spirits of the old year and bringing in the new. Perhaps this ritual is the secret of Stonehaven’s hidden strengths, for it really is… a most significant place.
PAT JONES was brought up in England, came to Scotand in 1977, and has lived in Nigeria and Holland. A teacher and catwalk model, she is keen on writing and painting and local history.Tweet
This is an article from the May 2007 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.