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The Royal Burgh of Montrose

Foundation In 1140

Sleazer print of Montrose

Montrose was founded about 1140 by King David I as a burgh and port serving Angus and Mearns. The site of the town is unique, the High Street, the oldest planned settlement, being laid out on a shingle ridge forming the highest part of a peninsula between the tidal basin and the North Sea. To the east is windblown sand, to the west clay, hence the names of the old burgh crofts, Sandhalf and Clayhalf. The highest point near the parish church is about 40 feet above sea level. The burgh was founded as Salorch or Sallork changed before 1178 to Munross or Montrose.

The natural harbour and rich agricultural hinterland enabled Montrose to flourish as a port. Early exports were skins, hides and cured salmon. From the 17th century exports of wheat and malted barley became important while timber and flax were imported from the Baltic, wines, fruit and salt from France and Portugal. Rich merchant and landowning families dwelt here. They built many fine private and public buildings giving the town some of its present elegant appearance. The elegant Georgian and Victorian facades hide much earlier buildings tucked away down closes.

Layout of the Burgh

Salorch

The Royal land grant to Montrose was 4 1/2 ploughgates, roughly 590 acres. This was the area of land which four and a half teams of oxen could work over a year. This area could vary in size throughout the country depending on the soil and the terrain.

Within this area lay the town proper, which would have been walled or at least surrounded by a ditch. Montrose had a slope on the west to the Basin and seems to have had a fosse or deep ditch on the northern boundary. The walls which sprang up along the western boundary were originally feal-dykes, feal being turf cut from the links. These gave way to stone dykes, built up considerably from the seventeenth century. Montrose still has a well preserved line of old walls on the west side of the burgh.

Inside the burgh walls there was a central street known as Murray gait and later the King’s Heiway or the High Street. This led from the south port to the north port of the burgh. Each port was a gate which was closed at curfew or at any other time when danger threatened.

The south port had additional protection, for in the centre of the street was the burgh Tolbooth - originally where the tolls or dues were collected, but later carrying out a wide variety of civic functions from Council meetings to harbouring offenders in the jail. In 1377 King Robert II granted the town permission to build a new tolbooth, some 80’ x 40’ on this spot, and it survived until it was removed in 1835 in a fit of enthusiasm for ‘improvements’.

Royal Visitors

The earliest monarch who we can be certain graced Montrose’s castle with his Royal presence was William I. William sealed no fewer than 20 of his charters at Montrose, and another two at nearby Charleton. Forfar Castle was another favourite Royal residence.

King Edward of England stayed three nights in the castle of Munros on the 11th, 12 and13th July 1296 during the Wars of Independence. Montrose had to entertain and feed him and his 30,000 men. Edward extracted oaths of fealty from all the nobles and barons in the area and representatives of each Royal Burgh. King John Baliol was forced to resign the crown of Scotland to Edward in nearby Stracathro Churchyard. Twelve Montrose burgesses signed oaths of fealty for the burgh to their new English overlord during this time.

The site of the old castle is marked by the later mansion built on the site called Castlestead, famous as the birth place of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. It is now the town’s local job centre.

Markets

The length of the street between the two ports was reserved for the various markets where all sorts of produce could be sold, both imported items from abroad and locally grown or crafted goods. This was the main purpose of a burgh from the point of view of the royal founder and would aid the whole country towards greater prosperity when a whole network existed up and down the land. Montrose held a market every Friday when the town would become very busy with locals and country folk buying and selling food and fancy goods.

The Mercat or market cross stood just north of our present Town House, its site still marked by a cross of pebbles on the modern brick-laid pavement.

Churches & Closes

Holly House

The other dominating building in the town was the parish church. It earned pride of place by being almost in the centre of the burgh on the highest point of the knoll upon which the town was built. Until the new Town House was built in 1763 the kirkyard stretched, in an oval shape, almost to the middle of the highway and this fact is preserved by the vault containing gravestones beneath the Town House on its south-eastern corner.

The main part of the ground within the burgh walls, was however given over to strips of land, running from their frontage with the high way down to the walls at each side of the burgh. These burgage plots very quickly became built on, houses springing up along their length as the original owners sold or sub-let their property. These gave rise to the closes between each burgage for which Montrose is now well-known.

Down each close we would find stables for the horses of the gentry and merchants, each also with a cow to provide milk, while lower down would be the kitchen gardens where some vegetables could be grown. Inevitably hens would be kept here, some pigs and again the better off may have grown fruit trees.

Many exceptional fine houses are hidden at the bottom of closes such as the Retreat, Straton House and Holly House, built by wealthy merchants or as the town houses of the local gentry. As you walk down Montrose High Street look down the closes for tantalising glimpses of these wonderful reminders of the rich heritage of Montrose established 800 years ago by Royal Charter.

Further Reading

The Early History of Montrose cover

The Early History of Montrose,
Norman ATKINSON, Forfar: Angus Council 1997

Norman Atkinson has written a lively and entertaining history of the early years of Montrose. He looks at the layout, organization of the burgh, plus the history of the church, the Hospital and the Blackfriars. It is an entertaining and lively look at a little known aspect of Montrose history.

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© Angus Council 1998 - 2014

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