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A Glimpse Of Old Arbroath

photograph of Arbroath Harbour
Arbroath Harbour

The town of Arbroath nestles on the east coast of Scotland midway between Dundee and Montrose. It was originally known as Aberbrothock because of its location on the Brothock Burn, but by the mid-nineteenth century the more colloquial pronunciation of Arbroath was formally adopted.

Arbroath owes its existence to its abbey, established by King William the Lion in 1178 and dedicated to the memory of St Thomas a Beckett. St Thomas was the patron saint of the town, and today the tomb of King William the Lion can be seen in the abbey. Arbroath Abbey consisted of 40 monks of the Tironesian order whose purpose was to perform divine service. A burgh of regality was established along with the abbey, giving the monks the right to hold a weekly market, dispense basic justice and to create a harbour, which they did in 1394. A village grew up surrounding the abbey to supply its needs and a fishing hamlet developed around the harbour.

Arbroath Abbey is internationally famous as the site of one of the key events in Scottish history. On 6 April 1320 Scotland's nobles gathered in the abbey to sign a declaration of Scottish independence addressed to the Pope. The abbey came to worldwide prominence again in 1951 when the Stone of Destiny, which had previously been stolen from Westminster Abbey, was discovered in front of its high altar, draped in the Saltire flag.

photograph of Wardmill Road Arbroath
Wardmill Road Arbroath

After the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1560s, Arbroath Abbey was allowed to fall into decay, its monks ignored and its buildings quarried for stone. In 1559 the town's rights and privileges were reconfirmed by King James VI in a charter of novodamus, at which point it became a royal burgh. A provost, bailies, treasurer and a council were empowered to run its affairs. Later, trades incorporations and a merchants' guildry were set up to regulate commerce and craftsmen.

For most of the following centuries, the small town of Arbroath had three principal streets, High Street, Marketgate, and Millgate. In 1742 its population numbered approximately 2,500. Fishing was important, as was the coastal shipping trade, while smuggling played a significant role in the vitality of the local economy during the eighteenth century. It was in the latter part of the 18th century that Arbroath's economy received a boost from the Industrial Revolution. It had previously been developing as a centre for handloom weaving, and this industry was augmented by steam-powered flax, textile and engineering works which were built along the Brothock Burn. By the late eighteenth century over 1 million yards of osnaburg cloth and brown linen were stamped as being produced in Arbroath. Sailcloth weaving alone supported 5,000 jobs and attracted many workers from the surrounding rural parishes. By 1875 there were 34 spinning mills and factories operating 1,400 power looms and producing 450,000 yards of cloth annually. In addition, bleach fields, tanneries, calendaring works, asphalt and tar manufactories, chemical works and shipbuilding yards flourished. The large influx of workers resulted in Arbroath's growth, with the areas such as that once known as the Wyndies being built especially to house handloom weavers. In 1839 the arrival of the railway allowed an easier two-way traffic in workers.

photograph of Miniature Railway Arbroath
Miniature Railway Arbroath

The new harbour was constructed in 1725 and resulted in increased in maritime trade. It was deeper than the previous anchorage and allowed larger ships to use the port, giving a boost to international trade. Arbroath's merchants responded enthusiastically. Fishing was vital to Arbroath for centuries, and from 1799 fishermen from the neighbouring village of Auchmithie were encouraged to relocate to the town's safer harbour by Arbroath Town Council. By 1826 only three fishing boats had taken up the offer, prompting the council to extend their offer to the fishing communities of Shetland and Bervie. Land for building homes was offered to the fishermen, who chose to settle at the foot of the town near the harbour. During the nineteenth century there was a steady drift from Auchmithie to Arbroath and by 1880 Arbroath's fishermen numbered 150. The fishing industry entered a serious decline in the twentieth century due to dwindling fish stocks, although the Arbroath Smokie is still a much sought-after local product.

Today Arbroath is enjoying a resurgence of interest in its rich and varied heritage, as illustrated by the revival of the Arbroath Abbey Pageant and the establishment of Seafest. Robert Stevenson's Signal Tower is now a popular museum examining the many facets of Arbroath's rich ecclesiastical, industrial, and seafaring heritage.

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