It was late afternoon on Saturday 20th December 1873 when the flames were first spotted from the windows of the calendering department halfway down Sugarhouse Wynd in Dundee’s Cowgate. By the time they had been seen, the fire had already caused significant damage. The Fire Brigade were called, but despite their attendance and protracted efforts, the building suffered greatly, the gable wall collapsing under the strain.

Before you think this was a building that dealt with calendars, we should clear this up. Calendering is a process of finishing fabrics; smoothing or coating them and then subjecting them to stress by the use of pressured heated rollers (thanks, Wikipedia). For some more info on the building, check out this link. Calendering has moved on significantly over the decades, and includes plastics and various other materials too (but we digress).

Back to the fire; rumours quickly spread that one of the firemen had died in the resulting gable wall accident, but, this time, nobody died. When the wall collapsed, it was very close to a team of firefighters, but everyone was unharmed. Folk love a good rumour and a gossip so it’s easy to see why stories spread almost as quickly as the flames did. With people also piling into the streets for a good look (probably because this was the most exciting thing going on in the centre at that time), the firefighting efforts were said to have been severely hampered.

Despite this, the men fought for hours to control the blaze, under the ever-darkening December skies. A news report in the Dundee Courier and Argus a few days after the fire stated that “the flames lit up the Eastern sky with a deep crimson glow, magnificently contrasting with the surrounding darkness, and which was distinctly visible for miles around. The buildings destroyed were two storeys in height and occupied almost a square, extending in the one way from Sugarhouse Wynd to Queen Street and in the other almost from the Cowgate to the Seagate.”

The origin of the fire remained entirely unknown. When the works stopped for the day at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon, all the workers left the building, with only the 2 foremen in charge remaining. After determining that everything was in good order, the foremen left an hour after clocking-off time, at 3pm. Whilst the fire must have started sometime after they left, and before it was noticed around 4:30pm, the fire was of such an intensity that it must have burned for a good half an hour at least before it had been noticed – and continued to burn for hours afterwards.

The other buildings in the area remained relatively unscathed, thanks to the small streets dividing properties. Whilst the Dundee Calendering Company had been dealt a heavy blow (the damage to the building were estimated at around £20000, which is roughly around £1.5million in today’s money), there were no fatalities…and some of the building remained untouched. Silver lining, and all that…

Fires were prevalent in mills and factories – it was just accepted as part of the everyday hazards of industrial living. Between hot machinery, straw or hay-covered floors and the ever-present risk of flammable materials and substances (and no health and safety to speak of), it’s a small wonder any of us managed to survive. Homes weren’t free from the threat either; there are a whole host of stories about fires we may one day get round to tackling. If you’ve not read the burning of the city churches post, you can read it here  or you can read about another fiery tragedy here.

Refs:

www.archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk, Dundee Courier and Argus, City Library archives, Wikipedia

 

 

 

The Rough Wooing was a very tumultuous time in Dundee’s history, during which almost the entire town was destroyed.  In 1543 England was feeling trapped and surrounded by Catholic powers. Scotland was still part of the ‘auld alliance’ with France and Catholicism still reigned here, so the English worried about the potential for invasion from France via Scotland.

The Treaty of Greenwich laid out a plan for peace between England and Scotland, including a marriage between the then infant Mary, Queen of Scots, and Edward, Henry VIII’s son. The Regent Arran, acting on behalf of Mary, initially agreed to the treaty. But after meeting with Cardinal Beaton and upon pressure from Scots who didn’t want the marriage or alliance to go ahead, rejected the treaty and all of its terms. This caused the fury of Henry VIII to be aimed squarely at Scotland. Five days later, war was declared in Edinburgh.

The war began with an attack on Edinburgh on 3 May 1544, led by the Earl of Hertford. Hertford had instructions to burn Edinburgh and issue Henry’s proclamation which laid the blame on Cardinal Beaton’s “sinister enticement” of Regent Arran. Henry’s instructions for the invasion force were to;

“Put all to fire and sword, burn Edinburgh, so razed and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what ye can of it, as there may remain forever a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God lightened upon (them) for their falsehood and disloyalty.”

This was the last big conflict between Scotland and England, and with the two countries at war Dundee suffered greatly. While the name for the conflict might be a little whimsical, there was an awful lot of rough, and not very much wooing going on. The name ‘Rough Wooing’ was first introduced many years later, the war itself was too bloody and savage a for such a name at the time. Historian William Ferguson points out the juxtaposition of the name with the violence of the conflict:

“English policy was simply to pulverise Scotland, to beat her either into acquiescence or out of existence, and Hertford’s campaigns resemble nothing so much as Nazi total warfare, “blitzkrieg”, reign of terror, extermination of all resisters, the encouragement of collaborators, and so on.

There was also a great deal of propaganda during the war, as the idea of an alliance with England had some wavering support – some didn’t like the French interference with Scottish affairs, and others wanted to use the alliance to further reformation of religion towards Protestantism. To this end, George Wishart was sent from England along with a group returning from negotiations, as he had been a preacher in Montrose and was to return and continue spreading the protestant faith.

Just after the war began, in 1544, Dundee was ravaged by plague, and it swept through the town with a fatal severity. So many of the townspeople died that the next year when a call was put out across Scotland to gather an army to defend against Henry VIII’s forces, no one from Dundee was able to join. While Dundee was under the blanket of plague, in its darkest hour, George Wishart preached to the Dundonians afflicted with plague, banished from the town and left to die outside the gates. He was loved by the people, and it is his influence that is said to have caused the change in religion in the city which led to the destruction of the old monasteries of the Friars.

Henry VIII had also asked Hertford to destroy St Andrews, the home of Cardinal Beaton, but the distance proved too far with so many of their resources in the war further south. Henry was too distracted with his troubles with France, so any attacks north of Edinburgh were shelved for now.

After a victory at the Battle of Ancrum Moor, the Scots were included in a treaty which had also brought the end to the Italian War of 1542-6. This brought peace between Scotland and England for 18 months. However, in 1546 Fife Lairds had murdered Cardinal Beaton at St Andrews Castle, and held up at the castle hoping for support from the English Military. After the death of Henry VIII, Hertford, now Protector Somerset wanted to continue the war and it was to be even bloodier than before, still determined to force the marriage between Edward and Mary. He fought and won at the Battle of Pinkie, crushing the Scots, gaining control of the whole of southern Scotland.

It wasn’t until 1547 that the war came to Dundee. The English fleet sailed up the Tay, led by Andrew Dudley. Instead of attacking Broughty Castle with force, they only fired a few parting shots as the castle had already been given up by the traitor Lord Gray. The English then garrisoned the castle, then a place of great strength in a commanding position to defend against invaders.

The Regent Arran and then the Earl of Argyll tried to capture the castle on 22 November 1547 and then in January 1548, without success. But again treason was to be Dundee’s downfall, when Argyll made a truce with the English it gave them the opportunity to reinforce their garrison by sea. He then ‘retired’, having received a bribe of one thousand crowns of money from Lord Gray, given to him by the enemy. This left Dundee in a very vulnerable position.

An account of the invasion of the town is given by a French gentleman who took part in the attack. He says that the English, after being strengthened:

“seized upon a little hill distant from Broughty nine hundred paces, and here they built a very fine fortress, and spared no cost to render it admirable, and to furnish it with men and ammunition of all sorts.” From this position, “they sent betwixt sixteen and seventeen hundred lances, both foot and horse, to Dundee, which they entered without opposition: For although this last is one of the most beautiful, rich, and populous towns in the kingdom, and though ’twere easy to render it impregnable, yet, as the Scots have ever been careless to fortify their country, those in Dundee had no other defence than the walls of their private houses.”

Although an army was raised at Edinburgh to march north to surprise the English and take back the town, news of this reached the English, who then abandoned all of the fortifications they were building in the town, and during eight days looted all the could from the town and its houses, set the town on fire, and then retreated to Broughty Castle. When the Scots army got to Dundee they found nobody around, just a few peasants left to try and put out the fires, the town razed to the ground.

Dundee lay in ruin for a long time after the rough wooing, the destruction left behind decimated the whole area – St Mary’s Church, the tolbooth, steeple, alms house and many other common places were completely ruined, along with the history of the town in its most ancient texts and records, which burned along with the tolbooth. Because the English could aid Broughty Castle by sea, they managed to hold possession of the castle for another 2 years. Finally, in February 1550 a fleet of French and Scots ships and armies managed to siege and retake the Castle.

During this time, the young Mary was taken to safety and betrothed to the Dauphin in France in August 1548. This made it clear, even to the English, that any marriage between Mary and Edward was not going to happen. Internal strife in England caused the Downfall of Somerset, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. His successor, Warwick, was more concerned with his own position than continuing the war with Scotland. The Treat of Norham in 1551 formally ended the war, and the English Military withdrew from Scotland. After the war ended many Scots were accused of assurance or collaboration as a crime; 192 citizens of Dundee were acquitted in 1553 and the whole town of Dumfries received a pardon.

But, for a time at least, there was peace. Dundee did eventually rebuild and up until the mid 17th century was one of the most prosperous burghs of Scotland, second only to Edinburgh. They had certainly learned their lesson about defending the town, and a wall surrounding the town was complete by 1592. While this made the job of invaders more difficult, it was certainly not the last time war would reign down on Dundee’s streets.

References:

The History of Old Dundee, Maxwell – p 26-27

Rough Wooing: James V Trilogy 3, Tranter

 

Wikipedia page on Rough Wooing

The site of the city churches, St Mary’s and The Steeple, which sit surrounded by the Overgate shopping centre, has been the home to a church since the very beginnings of Dundee as a town. When the Earl of Huntingdon landed here in 1190 he founded the ‘kirk in the field’ dedicated to St Mary, after his time in the crusades. More on this exiting backstory later… for now we have been looking at the incidents throughout the history of the Church when it was ravaged by fire which happened several times over the years. It is a testament of the dedication of the town to the Church that it was rebuilt, restored and extended every time.

The first destruction of the church came at the hands of Edward I when Dundee was attacked and the church was torched in 1303 during the Wars of Independence, the Scottish side led by William Wallace. All the town records had been taken there for safety before the invading army arrived, but all were either taken off by Edward’s men or destroyed in the fire.

It took until the early 15th century before work had begun to rebuild the church, but on such a large stone building work was slow. With a bit of new investment the work was completed and a final square tower completed the new building in 1480, which is the only part of the building which still stands today known to us as ‘The Old Steeple’.

This new church had a short life, as in 1547 the English army had captured Dundee and used the church for stables. Whether caused by an accident or on purpose, the church was set on fire and the nave was destroyed along with the transepts. Only the tower and the choir were saved from the raging inferno while the nave remained a charred, roofless wreck until 1789.

The roofless, fire damaged parts of the church were removed and the choir was built upon and then established as the first reformed church in Dundee, and called St Mary’s Kirk. Later in the 16th century the Town rebuilt the south transept which accommodated a second church known as the South Kirk. For a while in the late 16th century the choir area was used as a jail, and part of it was also used as a library.

In 1651, General Monck laid siege to Dundee, but although he set a fire to smoke out General Lumsden from the Steeple Tower, the church mercifully remained unharmed. The chaos surrounding the church during this siege left its mark, with remains uncovered periodically around the site, likely victims of Moncks massacre. On the south wall there is a dent in the base wall which is said to have been caused by a cannon shot fired by Moncks army when they laid siege to the tower.

The north transept was rebuilt and this third church was known as the North or Cross church, with finally a fourth church rebuilt in the nave which was St Clement’s or Steeple Kirk. From 1789 to 1841 the site was the home of four separate churches under one roof, each with their own ministers but sharing one tower and bells.

In early 1841 a fire broke out in the heating system of the East Kirk, again destroying the fine buildings, although this time by accident. The tower survived, along with the nave. The destruction of this fire was immense, with the fine gothic arches and pillars destroyed, the exterior walls shattered by the heat. The Chapter house adjoining the church was also destroyed, along with a library containing over 1800 volumes including ancient works in Greek and Latin, many dating from pre-reformation clergy.

The North or Cross Church moved to another place of worship and the fire-damaged buildings of the East and south Churches were rebuilt and opened again in 1844. Two of the three remaining churches, the Steeple Church and St Paul’s and St David’s (The south church) amalgamated and the premises of the South Church now form a community centre, dedicated to the Dundee-born missionary Mary Slessor. Thankfully the churches have remained fire free for many years now.

 

When the Scottish Reform Act was finally passed into law in 1832, none were more jubilant than the folk of Dundee.  Known as a ‘radical toon’, Dundee is said to have been of significant help to the cause of Reform.  Once the news had hit the town, it quickly spread to the Radicals, who prepared to celebrate with an ‘illumination’.  An illumination was the preferred way to celebrate events, and involved lighting up pubs and homes until they were as bright as they could be.  Usually, gunpowder would be ignited in the streets to add further illumination and excitement.

The Reform Act sought to change the way the landscape of politics and voting was to be decided, so, as you could imagine, many of the self-appointed burgh officials weren’t particularly keen on the new legislative changes.  This being said, there was no “official” celebration of the Act – the illumination celebration was very much a public affair.  The weekend proceeding the news of the Act’s passing was one of excitement, happiness and a great deal of fun.  It was the end of June, and a perfect time for an outdoor celebration.  Pubs and Inns took part, helping to light up areas of the centre as people partied into the early hours.

Despite all the revelry, some believed that this party was not quite up to the standard of such a prominent event, and preparations were soon under way for a party on Monday night, much bigger and brighter than the first.  Arguments against allowing this new party to go ahead were heard by the Town Council, but it was decided to allow the celebrations to continue without interruption unless things got out of control.  Perhaps, already sensing their loosening grip on the city, the Town Council agreed purely to avoid a rebellious riot.  Whatever they were thinking, nobody could have foretold the events that soon unfolded.

Monday certainly lived up to its hype.  The hills of Fife burned with celebratory fire as Dundee’s harbour was festooned with sailing vessels covered in flags, illuminated by a multitude of buildings and fires all the way into the centre of town.  Still in need of more illumination, a tar barrel was placed inside and old boat and the barrel set alight.  From there, the burning boat was hauled up Union Street to the corner of Nethergate as people whooped and cheered, shooting pistols into the air.  Whilst it all seems a bit crazy to us, this was just how our ancestors partied!

The atmosphere was said to have been one of happiness and relative peace as the fire was topped up and the boat pulled in a circle through the Nethergate, Tay Street, Overgate and then High Street, nearby where the Town House stood at this time.  As the party roared into the latter part of the evening, people began to disperse – it was Monday night, after all, and many would have had work in the morning.  As late evening turned to night, things took an unexpected turn that had disastrous consequences.

The Police Force, alongside Special Constables, commandeered the fire, pouring water on it to extinguish not only the flames, but the party, too.  By this point, it is estimated that there were still around 200 people enjoying the party, which had, by all accounts, been fairly incident-free.  As people tried to prevent their fun from being stopped, it is alleged officers handled the revellers somewhat roughly.

This did not go down well with the people of Dundee, and they turned from party animals into an angry mob, pelting the Police with sticks and stones, forcing them away from the fire.  The sudden disruption saw approximately 40 people arrested and put into the cells overnight; the party now well and truly over.  In the morning, almost everyone was let away by the Justices, with the exception of three men whom the Justices were confident had assaulted Police Officers the night before.

Many people took objection to this, and, as news spread of the three men’s detainments, crowds began to gather outside the Town House.  It did not take long for things to get as rowdy as they had the previous evening; crowds threw rocks, stones and threats at the doors of the Town House, but the Justices refused to budge on their position.  In scenes that echoed those of less than 24 hours before, a flaming boat was heaved from the harbour once again and placed against the doors of the Town House.  Here, the story seems to take an unlikely turn which was instrumental in what was to become total chaos.  It is said that when one of the Justices went to the Police Offices to release the men and quell any more tension, the key to the cells could not be found.

The already-mad crowd became as inflamed as the fires they had set and tore along to the Police Offices filled with rage.  Grabbing a thick plank of wood, they relentlessly battered at the locked doors of the Police Office until they finally yielded.  As the doors flew open, anyone who wasn’t a prisoner fled through the back doors, fearing for their lives.  The mob, by now completely uncontrollable, released the prisoners and began tearing the place apart.  The office itself was completely destroyed, with everything that could possibly be removed taken into the street and set alight.

Meanwhile, some of the men had broken into the Superintendent’s house, smashing all his windows, destroying his belongings and throwing things out into the street before attempting to set the house on fire.  Thankfully they didn’t succeed, but destroyed a grocery owned by another Police Officer on their way back into the centre.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Dundee was still at the hands of the rioters.  With not enough officers to suppress the mobbing men, Police presence was non-existent and reinforcements had been called in from Perth in the form of the 78th Highland Regiment.

The Lord-Lieutenant of the County at the time, the Earl of Airlie arrived on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the arrival of the 78th Highland Regiment, in an attempt to try and bring about some peace and order.  Amidst the burnt rubble and wreckage of what used to be the Police Office, he stood talking to the angry mob as they continued to shout at him and throw things at him from the charred, cooling remains of the fire.

Surprisingly, things took an unexpected turn, and the mob seemed to eventually warm to the Earl and began to settle down.  The 78th Highland Regiment made their presence very well known that day and night, just in case it all got a bit rowdy again, but it seemed that a 2 day riot was enough for any one person, and the streets fell quiet.  Although many people, including Police Officers were hurt, there appears to be no mention of any deaths as a result of the riot, which is unusual considering how out of hand it got.

7 men were eventually singled out and tried for the outbreak; the three original prisoners who had been detained for the first attack on Police Officers, and 4 others who had been identified as being involved in the jail-break and destruction of the Police Office.  The first 3 were lucky; Thomas Kettle, James Barnet and John Jolly were sentenced to 6 months in Dundee Jail after pleading guilty to rioting, but the other 4 pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty anyway.  James Findlay and John Tomlinson were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay for 14 years.  17-year old George Haggart was sentenced to transportation for 7 years.

In returning their guilty verdict, the jury had recommended mercy for the 4th accused, watchmaker James Findlay.  It was unclear his level of involvement, and his alibi was more credible than the others, but they were still certain he had something to do with it, however minor.  He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in Bridewell Prison.

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