In 1734 a new Town-House was completed on the former site of St Clement’s Church, which we know today as City Square.  The building was a fairly grand structure, as was indicative of its multiple uses, with beautiful arched piazzas which looked out onto what is now Reform Street.  It was locally referred to as ‘the pillars’.  Markets were held under the safety of the piazzas in bad weather, and it was a place of general hustle and bustle.  Atop the already-impressive building sat a spire which housed a bell, used for calling meetings or tolling proclamations.  A fire in 1773 occurred on the roof of the building – the source of which was never determined – and it caused the frames holding the bell to crash into the rooms below it, causing considerable damage.

Shops took up the majority of the ground floor of the building, with the exception of one room for town officers to stay in, if they needed to. On the first floor were the offices of the Dundee Banking Company, who remained in the building for over 50 years, as well as an apothecary which was also said to have been well established and often-visited.  Above all of this, on the second floor sat the Town Council’s Hall, described to be spacious and elegant, and also another hall (not as nice as the Town Council’s Hall) for the use of the Guildry for meetings and also for the Sheriff and Justices of the Peace to hold courts.

In 1788, a gang robbed the Dundee Banking Company by breaking into the Guildry Hall and ripping up the floor, allowing them access to the bank via its roof.  Dropping into the bank from above, the gang made off with their loot in a daring night time robbery.  Six people went to trial over the incident, and, despite only circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a man who was later sent to Botany Bay for forgery and subsequently hanged aboard the ship for trying to start a mutiny, 3 men were sentenced to death for the robbery.  The guilt of those accused was something of a contentious issue at the time, with many people unconvinced.  As robberies go, it was a fairly gutsy move by those involved – even more so because the Town Hall also housed the jail!

The main jail was on the third floor and was divided into 5 spacious rooms 24 foot long, 12 foot wide and 8 foot high. 2 rooms were kept for debtors, who were expected to provide their own bedding, candles and coal, as well as pay fourpence a day for running fees.  The jail was said to be of a very high standard of cleanliness throughout.  The ‘Iron House’, or jailer’s storeroom separated these 2 rooms at the front of the building from the 2 rooms at the back, which were for criminals.  These rooms were strengthened, with the outer walls being fortified with iron netting, double sets of bars on the windows, and the doors braced with iron rods.  Criminals were dealt with differently to those in debt, being allowed only a straw mattress and two rugs to sleep on. Above this part of the jail, in the attic space, a further 6 jail rooms were situated to account for overflow of prisoners, but by the 1800’s, it was used as the women’s prison.  As with the male jails below, these were also kept to a very high standard.

Whilst hangings were uncommon, they still did occur from time to time.  Murder and rape topped the list of offences, with 5 of the 6 recorded hangings listing this as the crime.  The first hanging recorded was for housebreaking and theft, with the perpetrator being hung to make an example of him.  Our list of hangings is here if you want to take a quick look.  During the time of the Town Hall, hangings took place outside one of the east windows of the Guildry Hall, looking onto the High Street. John Watt, David Balfour and Mark Devlin all hung from the east side of the Town Hall.  By the time the new police station was built at Ward Road/Lochee Road, executions were held there.  Arthur Woods, Thomas Leith and William Bury all met their fate at the hangman’s noose, with Bury being the last man hung in Dundee.

Whilst the Town House jail was said to be fairly secure, it had been noted that the attic cells were slightly easier to break out of, hence it was offered up as the female jail.  For anyone needing a bit of a special time-out, there was a frightfully dank and dark space in the basement for them, aptly named the “Thief’s Hole”.  It wasn’t just people who were flung in there – sometimes property was held there…and once, even a tree!

For almost 200 years, the Town House sat in its prominent position before it was torn down to make way for City Square in the 1930’s.  Attempts to save it, and even provide a new location for its re-erection proved to be fruitless, and it became yet another building Dundee lost to time.

References:

‘Dundee Delineated’, Printed by A Colville for self and Alex M Sandeman, 1822, pp 109 – 112

‘Undiscovered Dundee’, B King, Black & White Publishing, 2011, pp 1 – 5

‘Historical description of the town of Dundee’, C Mackie, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1836 pp 66 – 67

Canmore Town House entry

Image of Town-House flagstone by Jim Glover

 

If you’ve seen any really old maps of Dundee, you might notice that there’s no mention of the Overgate as we know it, or indeed, the Nethergate.  Known back then as Argyllsgait (Argyllgait) and Flukergait respectively, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 1500’s that the new names came into play, not long after the time period set on our map.  Originally no more than a few wooden houses, Argyllgait slowly grew over the centuries, slowly spreading towards the lower Flukergait and beyond.

Such was the attraction of Argyllgait, that the Mercat Cross was uprooted from its position in the Seagate and moved in the mid 1400’s to a new position where High Street met Argyllgait.  Trade and commerce swiftly followed, making it a hive of activity.  Many rich and wealthy people began moving to Argyllgait, making it a very desirable place to live.  The Seagate ceased to be the main centre of trade whilst still retaining its unique character and vantage point near the river.  The Mercat Cross remained there until the late 1700’s.

The naming of Argyllgait is claimed to be either down to the occupants of the area at that time, who came to stay in Dundee from the Highlands, or from a wealthy family – the Campbell’s of Argyll – who were alleged to have resided in the area.  By the turn of the 16th century, Argyllgait was almost beyond what we can imagine by looking at the area today.  A very good place to live, it boasted not only the majestic City Churches, but an array of well-built, stone houses, in which dwelled the rich and the noble.

However, as its popularity rose, those who sought to steer clear of the ‘common’ folk soon began to move to larger estates on the outskirts of the town.  The houses at Argyllgait had lovely gardens, so it wasn’t like people were living on top of one another at that point, but the allure of the outskirts of town, with even larger expanses of land were too appealing to the rich, and they soon abandoned their homes in the heart of the town.  Losing the nobility didn’t do anything to dent the character of the Overgate, as it soon became known.  In fact, if anything, the heart of the town only beat harder.

As more and more working class people moved into the Overgate, they set up shops, stalls and workshops in the free space around the buildings.  Some even built their own housing on the land, and by the 17th century, the era of Argyllgait was well and truly over; nothing more than a passing memory making way for the ever-expanding Overgate.  Many notable people from Dundee’s history, both famous and infamous have lived in the Overgate, such as Grissell Jaffray, David Balfour, the Duke of Monmouth and Mary Brooksbank, to name but only a few.  It’s also fair safe to assume that, considering its longevity, anyone notable throughout Dundee’s entire history will have stood on these grounds somewhere, from royalty and robbers to warriors and murderers.

When the Earl of Huntingdon landed upon Dundee’s shores following a storm in 1190, he had the Church of St Mary built over a period of many years as thanks for his safe landing. Throughout the ages, endless attacks by English armies forced us to fortify our walls and solidify our defences, to the point where we held the majority of the wealth of the Earls and nobility of Scotland within our confines.  Unfortunately, this ended tragically for us during the siege of 1st September 1651, when Monck’s troops stormed the town after Governor Robert Lumsden repeatedly refused the city’s surrender.

The word “gait” means to walk, or, more specifically, the pattern of movement of the limbs during locomotion.  We learned on Lost Dundee that the word “gate” is derivative from the Norse word ‘gata’ meaning road or street.  As Overgate was the higher of the two thoroughfares running alongside Dundee’s City Churches, thus it was named.  Flukergait, being the lower of the two, was renamed Nethergate.  Our Lady Warkstairs was a timber-fronted building, reported to have been built sometime in the 15th century and connected to the Church of St Mary, perhaps as an almshouse.  It was situated where Primark sits now, looking down Crichton Street. At the time of the building’s construction, however, this street would not have been there.

On the other side of Primark, which faces towards the corner of Reform Street sat the Duke of Monmouth’s house – a substantial building, constructed around the same time as Our Lady Warkstairs.  This property was famous for a few reasons.  This was the house in which General Monck set up his Headquarters whilst in Dundee during the siege of 1651 which we touched upon earlier.  During this period, the Duke’s daughter was born in the home; Anna, Duchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth.  It was also used as the Town House for a while, earning it the nickname “The New Tolbooth”.  Its stature, position in the centre, and a handy wee turret made it a very attractive property indeed – and it certainly saw more than its fair share of action.

Whereas nowadays, the Overgate area is fairly open and easy to navigate, it was not always this way.  Streets and pends ran all up and down this area, like a warren of narrow paths, crammed with overpopulated housing.  With the boom of the textile industry in the 19th century, the population of Dundee also grew considerable, with many of them living in and around this area.  So dense was the population, that it was reported there were around 400 people per acre in the Overgate, compared to a city average of 36.  Thorter Row, Tally Street, Barrack Street, Lindsay Street, Tay Street, Long Wynd, Church Lane, Mid Kirk Style are only a few of the myriad pends and streets which formed part of the Overgate’s impressive portfolio, including closes such as St Salvador’s Close, Argyll Close, Mint Close, Methodist Close and the legendary Beefcan Close (not it’s official name).

Whilst this added a whole lot of hustle and bustle to the area, it also meant that they were never short of a drama in the Overgate.  Described as a bit of a circus, the area was literally heaving with people, shops, pubs, flea-markets, entertainers and religious preachers.  Fights would often break out – and not just between the men – and alcohol, gambling and women of ill repute were never far out of reach.  Despite its reputation swiftly gaining notoriety, the Overgate was the only place to go to be guaranteed a good time; so much so that the area has been coined in many a local phrase and song.

With some of what was claimed to be the worst housing in Dundee, the Overgate also had five properties which were used as common sleeping places for the homeless, where (mostly drunk) people slept in hospital-style beds in a dormitory fashion, sleeping on their possessions to avoid robbery.  Outside toilets were used by dozens of people, and conditions were far from sanitary.  Having so many people crammed into such a small space made it very easy for diseases to spread.  In 1832 and in 1849, Cholera struck Dundee.  Cholera is spread mainly by water and food products that have been contaminated with human faeces containing the disease.  In 1845, piped water first became available in Dundee.  Shortly after, the 1848 Public Health Act was the first step in the right direction to improving what was said to be squalid conditions.

 

In 1910, plans were developed to completely change the way the Overgate looked, in an attempt to reinvigorate it and clean up its image both in terms of image and reputation.  Unfortunately, both World Wars put a halt to regeneration attempts and funding until the 1960’s, when a concrete monolith was erected in place of the dilapidated housing.  It wasn’t the nicest looking thing in the world, but it was beginning to change the way people looked at the Overgate and the surrounding area.  During the demolition, everything was destroyed with exception of St Mary’s Tower and the City Churches.

Overgate2

Despite its best intentions, and boasting a hotel as well as a decent range of shops, the Overgate began to lose favour to the new Wellgate Centre, which was constructed in the late 1970’s.  Fortunes turned for the Overgate as shopkeepers could not afford the rents and moved out, damaging its reputation once again.  As the years progressed, the Overgate became a ghost of its former lively self until the question of redevelopment became a talking point.  By the late 1990’s, work was underway to change the face and the reputation of the Overgate.  A multi-level shopping mall was built, housing many well-known retailers, and brought positive attention (and, more importantly, revenue) back into the area.

Whilst many things have changed over the centuries with regards to what we now know as the Overgate, what has never changed is the resilience of the city – no matter what happens, we always bounce back fighting.  Whilst we don’t profess to know what will happen to the Overgate of the future, we’re pretty certain that she won’t be going anywhere any time soon!  The next time you’re wandering about the Overgate, just have a wee think of all the things that have happened there over the history of the town…and all the dead bodies that lie right under your feet!

Images courtesy of City Archives, Wikimedia and Lost Dundee.

George Mealmaker was a Dundonian, born in 1768 from a humble background, but gained some affluence as a hand-loom weaver. He was most famous for his radical activity in forming the ‘Friends of Liberty’ in the 1780s, a group formed in support of the ideals of the French revolution. Mealmaker was an active and extreme member of this group, producing writing containing radical and revolutionary ideas, as well as holding regular meetings and speeches, decrying the current political agenda.

In 1793 Mealmaker wrote Dundee address to the Friends of Liberty, in which he criticisted the ‘despotism and tyranny’ of the British Government. Despite admitting that it was he who wrote it, his friend and fellow founder of the Friends of Liberty Thomas Palmer was arrested and found guilty of preparing the text for publication and circulating it. The authorities claimed that the pamphlet was “calculated to produce a spirit of discontent in the minds of the people against the present happy constitution and government of this country, and to rouse them up to acts of outrage and violence”. For this, Palmer was sentenced to fourteen years penal transportation to Australia.

Mealmaker continued to be outspoken and published several writings on revolutionary ideas, and after being made secretary of the Dundee friends, he spread propaganda urging the militia not to fight against France. Although he was brought before the magistrates for this, no charge was laid against him. Others across Scotland in groups such as the Friends of Liberty including Thomas Muir, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald all met the same fate and were transported to Australia, and were collectively known as the Scottish Martyrs to Liberty. After this period of several outspoken radicals being deported to Australia, radical activity quietened in the next few years, no doubt the desired effect of the deportations!

Mealmaker did not remain quiet however, and continued to be outspoken. He delivered sermons in London and continued to produce writing, and was quick to join the ‘United Scotsmen’ in 1796 who began to organise in imitation of their Irish namesakes. Mealmaker himself wrote the group’s constitution which asserted its whole aim to be ‘to secure Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage’ – a very radical aim in the eyes of the current political elite. He also published The Moral and Political Catechism of Man in 1797, his most famous and influential work, which promoted such radicalism at length. The powers that be reacted, and in January 1798, Mealmaker himself was tried for sedition and administering unlawful oaths. After a very prejudiced hearing, at which the two charges were not distinguished, he was sentenced to transportation to Australia for fourteen years.

You can read the full text of his trial here, and also the trials of the Scottish Martyrs to Liberty Here. This quote from Mealmakers address to the court after his sentence has been passed is telling enough:

“He said he thought his sentence hard, considering it had only been proved against him that he had published Catechism, which he solemnly declared was merely intended as simple or abstract political propositions, and with no view to injure the country. He said, however, he saw that he was to be another victim to the pursuit of a parliamentary reform; but he could easily submit, and go to that distant country, where others had gone before him. He did not fear it. His wife and children would still be provided for, as they had been before; and the young Mealmaker would be fed by that God who feeds the ravens – As to the Court, he had nothing to say, but, he thought the Jury had acted very hastily, for if he was rightly informed, they had only taken half an hour to consider the whole of his case. They knew best whether their conscience said they had done him justice; but there was a day coming, when they would be brought before a Jury where there was no partial government, and where the secrets of the heart were known. – He begged now to take his leave of them all.”

When Mealmaker first arrived in Australia at Sydney in 1800, he upheld his political interests. There were rumours of convict rebellion, but he claimed not to be involved. He was no doubt looking forward to being with the other members of the Friends of Liberty who had been transported earlier. However, only Maurice Margarot of the original five Scottish Martyrs was still in captivity. William Skirving, Joseph Gerrald and Thomas Muir were dead and Thomas Palmer had finished his sentence and was just about to travel back to Britain.

It was his weaving trade, and not his political beliefs which shaped his new life. Mealmaker made a success of the weaving industry there, and received a conditional pardon for his work there. Unfortunately, Mealmaker’s life did not have a happy ending. In December 1807 the weaving factory where Mealmaker was supervisor was destroyed by fire. On 30th March 1808, Mealmaker, destitute and apparently a drunkard, died from alcoholic suffocation.

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Back before Castle Huntly became a prison, it had a history all of its own – and a couple of its own ghosts, to boot. There are two ghosts alleged to still haunt Castle Huntly; the White Lady and that of a young boy. When researching the ghosts of Castle Huntly, it became apparent that there is some confusion between Castle Huntly and Huntly Castle (which is in Aberdeenshire), and, as such, the ghost stories of which White Lady belonged to which castle seems to get a little skewed.

We’re going to stick with the story of the young woman being a daughter of the Lyon family, the Earls of Kinghorne (which was later changed to Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne). The title Earl of Kinghorne was actually created in 1606 for Patrick Lyon, and when Castle Huntly was acquired by the Earl in 1614, he had the name changed to Castle Lyon. It was not until the castle was sold in 1777 that the name was reverted back to Castle Huntly.

Whether the woman in the story was the first Earl of Kinghorne’s daughter or granddaughter, we do not know, but, from what we have read, it appears as though she may have had an inappropriate relationship with one of the castle’s manservants. It wasn’t all too uncommon for sexual relationships to form between social classes, as privacy was hard to come by, and servants were often put in sexually vulnerable positions by their masters or mistresses, as well as by lodgers, guests and each other. Remember there wasn’t a lot to do back then!

When they were found out, the pair were separated. Whether the manservant was imprisoned, tortured, murdered, or all three, we cannot say for sure, but it’s pretty clear that, in those times, he wasn’t just going to be sent on his way with his wages and his P45 in hand. Whoever he was, he very likely met a grisly end. The nameless Lyon daughter was locked in a chamber on the upper levels of the castle, and it was from the window of this room that she is said to have met her doom. Her body was found, broken and bleeding on the grounds directly under her bedroom window, with nothing that could be done to save her.

 

To add a twist to an already murky story, whilst some may say that she killed herself as a result of a broken heart or at being imprisoned in her own family home, others have whispered that she may not have taken her own life and may, in fact, have been pushed. There are a lot of facets to this story that don’t quite add up (which we tend to find with a lot of the older ghost stories), hence their origins as legends and not actual fact. What did happen to the manservant? And why can’t we name the Lyon daughter on who the tale is supposedly based? And the big question – did she fall, or was she pushed? We’ll just never know.

Moving away from the mysterious White Lady, the second ghost alleged to haunt Castle Huntly is that of a young boy, named the Paterson Ghost. He is believed to be the descendant of George Paterson – the man who purchased the castle from the Lyons in 1777 for £40,000, and also the man who gave Castle Huntly back its original name. Fast-forward 150 years or so, to when Colonel Adrian Paterson and his family occupied Castle Huntly.

Their only son, Richard, tragically died in a boating accident aboard the river Tay in 1939, and it is his ghost that is said to haunt the castle. He is said to be seen in the same room as the White Lady wearing a double-breasted sailing jacket. Interestingly, no-one seems to know what colour it is, which, given the “sightings”, you would think that someone would be able tell us at least if it was light or dark. Whilst the White Lady is alleged to haunt the grounds of the castle as well as the room, young Richard is said to appear only in the room once occupied by the fated daughter of Lyon.

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Dundee is currently known as a place of scientific research and discovery, but here’s one Dundee scientist you might not have heard of. Dr Patrick Blair was a Scottish surgeon and botanist, he was born in Dundee in 1680 and practised as a doctor here. And, in 1706 he was the first person to dissect and fully describe the anatomy of an elephant.

dundee-elephant-2

Just outside Dundee on the road from Broughty Ferry on 26th April 1706, Florentina, a female Indian elephant which was being exhibited around the north of Scotland, fell over and drowned in a ditch. It was going to be expensive and difficult for the keepers to dispose of the dead animal and so handed the corpse over to the Provost. The local Dr Blair jumped at the opportunity to be the first to dissect and describe the large animal, and the provost was quite frankly glad to be rid of the problem of what to do with a dead elephant!

Dr Blair gathered the help of local butchers, and one particular assistant was Gilbert Orum, harassed debtor, under-employed tradesman, neglected husband and harassed father. But he was also a skilled copper engraver, and he both assisted with the messier parts of the dissection and made engravings of the internal organs and skeleton of the elephant.

dundee-elephant-1

The locals were determined to take trophies from the elephant or large chunks of meat and an armed guard had to be used to keep the masses away while Dr Blair and his assistants worked on through the night by gaslight. The once majestic beast was measured, dissected and reported on. Blair taking many notes and measurements with Orum making detailed engravings. When they were finished, Blair had the information needed to write an expansive and detailed review of the anatomy of an elephant.

The bones were recovered and the skeleton assembled and mounted as the centre-piece for a new ‘Hall of Rarities’ in Dundee, and the skin was stuffed. Blair was meticulous and wrote up his findings in a paper under the title of Osteographia Elephantina, to the Royal Society of London, published in 1713.

His assistant Orum, seeing an opportunity to further capitalise on this sensational story, also published an account of the dissection. In it, far from being inspired by this historic task, Orum is more concerned with keeping clear of his creditors, or if he can’t avoid them, repaying his debts with anything other than what he lacks the most: ready cash. He uses some of the unusual parts from the dissected elephant as a form of currency in his attempts to pay off the butcher, baker, the chandler, and the blacksmith.

Orum also writes about his family-life. His wife is sickly and suffers from extreme nervousness, as do all his children. He is relentlessly pursued by a no-longer younger woman, who waits only for his wife’s death to capture the widower for herself. He also needs to be swift to avoid the baker’s wife, a large lady who is keen to convert his debt into certain ‘services’, and he feels obliged to look out for his older brother and his chaotic family of ten.

Orum details some of the less serious aspects of the dissection, including Dr Blair’s cook being outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen. Dr Blair retorts: “Never mind, Miss Goag! Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical experiment!”. Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that “Philosophical experiment would rot slowly from its ***** upwards, die painfully and be ******* by Satan forever”.

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And what became of Dr Blair? While he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1712 and received a lot of fame for his elephant dissection works as well as his great work in botany, it was his political beliefs that landed him in trouble.

At the time of the dissection, the Act of the Union was being born. An anti-unionist, Blair compared his own dissections to those of the Comissioners “cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland. Blair’s family were also Jacobites, so it was no surprise when he joined Lord Nairn’s Battalion as a surgeon during the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. He was captured and taken to Newgate Prison in London, where he was sentenced to death. Lobbying amongst friends and other influential scientsts saw a reprive come at the final moment, past the midnight of his pre-execution night and he was pardoned.

Returning home things were more difficult for his practice in the time of the Union. He carried on with his scientific studies and practicing medicine, moving to London, then Boston in Lancashire, where he died in 1728.

Full pdf of the dissection available here – http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/27/325-336/53.full.pdf+html

The Howff is an iconic landmark in Dundee’s city centre, a calm oasis and a peaceful resting spot to sit in the shade of the well kept trees and shrubs. But as well as housing the graves and crypts of Dundee’s great and the good, the land itself also has a dark history.  The land on which the Howff lies was once part of the sprawling Greyfriars Monastery which was laid to ruin during the invasion of Scotland in 1547 when the town of Dundee was stormed by the English under the rule of Henry VIII. During the subsequent Scottish Reformation, the monastery remained in ruins, confiscated by the Crown along with other religious buildings. In 1564 Mary, Queen of Scots granted the land to Dundee for use as a burial ground. At this time, Dundee’s existing graveyards were overcrowded and unsanitary, so Mary, Queen of Scots on the 15th April 1567 granted a charter to the town for the use of the grounds of the Greyfriars monastery, as their new burial ground.  This ground became known as the Howff – ‘howff’ meaning meeting place as it was used for meetings by the Dundee Incorporated Trades.

On many of the gravestones you can still see the engravings of symbols and icons related to the trade of the deceased. The graves and tombs of the Howff and those that lay within tell tales of the dark history of Dundee, such as the tomb of Alexander Duncan of Lundie. He was the Provost from 1681 to 1685 and in 1689, in the absence of the current provost, took command when Claverhouse attacked Dundee. He was also the great-grandfather of Admiral Viscount Duncan, who defeated the Dutch in the famous battle of Camperdown in 1797. It is well-documented that the families of many who died could not afford tombstones, so the dead were laid in unmarked graves, leaving the land as a grassy expanse, which not only made for a great meeting place, but also allowed people to air out laundry and graze their animals.

One of the residents of the Howff, Dr David Kinloch, was arrested by the Spanish Inquisition in Spain while travelling Europe. Luckily he cured the inquisitor general of an ailment and was rewarded with freedom, and returned to Dundee. Other well-known folk buried here include James Chalmers, best remembered as the inventor of the adhesive postage stamp, and James Keiller’s mother (James Keiller was the founder of James Keiller and Sons, and his family are credited as the inventors of marmalade). Several other well known Dundee families have their ancestors buried here including Lyells, Forresters, Muirs and Guthries.

Due to overcrowding, a “new” Howff was built a short walk away from the original site, but was subsequently built over and replaced by Bell Street car park and Abertay library. At the back of the library, it is possible to see a few of the headstones incorporated into the wall. It’s definitely worth thinking about the next time you park your car there or visit the library!

The records of some 80,000 burials at the Howff over 300 years show there were also many infants laid to rest at the Howff. Many of them died from diseases practically unknown today with many of the records showing ‘teething’ as the cause of death. Babies often died during teething periods due to fever, or increased rates of infection while teething due to the practice of cutting the gums open to allow teeth to grow through. Many of the deaths were also caused by diseases such as whooping cough, small pox or measles which are now prevented by vaccines. Water in the head was often recorded as cause of infant death, which is an abnormal build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the cavities of the brain.

Reading the lists, generously provided online by Friends of Dundee City Archives at www.fdca.org.uk makes for very grim reading but in our opinion, is really worth a visit for a really in-depth insight into not only the volume of people buried there, but the variety of ways in which the deceased met their demise.

Several causes of death highlight the tragedies that struck some families. Several entries tell of very young children dying because of their clothes catching fire, which would have been a more common accident in the 18th and 19th century due to the use of fires and candles in a time before electricity. One 27 month old infant was killed by a cart passing over them. These tragic accidents must have devastated families who had likely already lost family or friends to the many diseases that plagued our town in those times, such as the sad tale of William Crookshanks, buried in 1835 at age 3 after falling into a well and drowning or the poor, unnamed son of Thomas Davidson Henderson, who perished after only half a day.

We will leave you on a slightly less morbid note, as there are some buried in the Howff who reached a ripe old age for the times in which they lived. Isabella Abbot was buried in 1850 having died of old age at 93, her last address being listed as Lochee. John Adam, a weaver originally from Kirriemuir also died of old age at the grand age of 90. Even with people dying of consumption, scarlet fever, cholera and dropsy, some hardy critters managed to escape the line of fire and were able to live out long lives, albeit in harsh times.