Monday, 29 August 2011

Montrose meanders

I’ve found myself in the last week thinking particularly of the landscapes around Montrose in Angus. Last weekend I was visiting a sister-in-law – and did some ‘family history’ things for her. Since then I’ve pursued this line, and have been preparing, for her, a detailed report. This has involved downloading a new 'typesetting' programme and has occasioned conflicting feelings, on the luxury of playing with that together with annoyance that the text generated by my genealogy software was more ‘clunky’ than I’d like, and my knowledge that I could, with what I’ve found, have written a much better worded account in about the same time. But then, all the work in chasing this line has been facilitated by electronic resources, by websites designed to give and websites designed to get me to buy, and by electronically-shared experience and knowledge of ‘times past’ that is forming its own virtual communities. And I've learned a new skill.

I’m caught here between the experience of new media, the electronic buzz of chasing clues and talking online, and the embodied senses that are involved even in imagination, the scent of sea air, salt breeze and seaweed, the screaming gulls and the remembered calling skeins of geese flying to Montrose Basin.

I was there only fleetingly as a child, taken on a visit, and a couple of times while very young to the nearby Lunan Bay. Much more recently (though not recently enough) I was back at Lunan, and visiting a restaurant in Montrose with my Lunan hosts. Now, in chasing my sister-in-law’s people back to her sea captain ancestors David Keith and his father Walter, and beyond, I’m theorising links between virtual constructions of landscape and meaning, and the intense belonging, topophilia, generated by the ‘actual’ physical space, a palimpsest, changing and overwritten.

Montrose had a name for being quite intensely Jacobite, associated with the brief ‘15 rebellion as well as the ’45. In 1715, James the Old Pretender left from there.  David Keith appears to have been Jacobite, judging by family names, with a son born in 1749 named Charles Edward and a grand-daughter Clementina. However, that is one strand of meaning among many others. Montrose was a major port and Royal Burgh, involved in trading with the Hanseatic League in the middle ages, continuing to develop trade links from that time. Exports developed from salmon and skins to wheat and malted barley, imports grew to include trade with Portugal and other countries, though Montrose was also a centre for smuggling, of salt needed for fish processing as well as the more glamorous casks of brandy. Through both modes of trading, customary and contraband, and through the import of flax and export of cloth, Montrose grew rich. Through the export of its people and expertise, it made notable contributions to banking in both Edinburgh and London, through the Coutts family from the late 17th century onwards, and in the early 19th in Sweden, through David Carnegie who founded the Carnegie Investment Bank there.

And beyond today’s extensive harbour, the mile-long mouth of the South Esk, there is Montrose Basin, the tidal lagoon that attracts tens of thousands of pink-footed geese each year, part becoming mudflats at low water. Today it’s a naturalist’s paradise and wildlife reserve, through which the South Esk passes on its way to the sea. The combination of the basin and the harbour of the South Esk led to the development of Montrose’s wealth through shipping. Until the 19th century some ships would pass into the basin, and long before, Old Montrose, west of the town and the basin, was the ancient port.

The writer of the First Statistical Account of Montrose described the South Esk thus: ‘After many beautiful meanders, gliding though the basin and passing by the harbour of Montrose, this river falls into the German Ocean about a mile from the town’ (

A landscape with many meanings. And now, with climate change, the area of the basin is under surveillance. What will follow?

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