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Castle Hill, Antiquities, and Points of Interests around Forfar, Scotland

The Hill

From the tower on top of the Castle Hill it is easy to imagine this commanding height, (230 feet above sea level), surmounted in mediaeval times by a stronghold from which control could he exercised over Strathmore and the glens to the north.  The Hill was indeed the site of the Castle of Forfar, with which the town may have had its beginnings and around which the ancient burgh gradually developed.

The Castle
Hector Boece, (1465-1536), in his "History of Scotland", (1527), refers to a strong castle within a loch at Forfar where the kings of the confederate tribes met to consider how resistance might be offered to the Romans, who invaded the district on four occasions between 83A.D. and 306, but never established any permanent settlement.

In the ninth century A.D., Alpin, King of Scots, laid siege to Forfar Castle which Feredith, King of the Picts, sought to relieve.  Battle was joined at Restenneth, a mile to the east, and the Scots were victorious.  Feredith was slain, possibly near "Ferryton", and was buried at Forfar.  Kingsmuir and Cunninghill may derive their names from this king whose burial place one historian calls "Agroforfariensis", (Auchterforfar?).

Forfar Castle was used as a base by Malcolm II for raising an army to repel the Danish invaders under Camus, resulting in victories at Aberlemno and Barry in the year 1012.

The Castle of Malcolm III Canmore, (1057-1093), is reported to have stood on an island at the east end of Forfar Loch.  In those times the Loch was much larger than it is now and the Castle Hill was very probably an island at its cast end.  The mound formerly known as "the Hill", to the west of Castle Hill, has since time immemorial been known as "The Manor" as place names continue to testify.  This area, too, in early times, may have been an island but its gentler slopes support its traditional role of "Queen's manoure" or "pleasaunce".  Castle Hill is slightly higher and has the support of tradition for its claim to have been the site of King Malcolm's Castle, to which he repaired soon after his victories over Macbeth and where in the year 1057 he held a "Parliament" at which the title of Earl was first conferred on the Scots nobility.  Forfar may have been created a Royal Burgh on the same occasion.

The peninsula on the north side of the Loch, known as Queen Margaret's Inch, may also have been in those days an island where a small castle might have stood.  Having regard to the extent of the site, and the size of the same Queen's Chapel at Edinburgh Castle, it seems more likely that, as tradition has it, it was the location of the devout Queen's Chapel.  A new castle was certainly built at Forfar in the reign of William the Lion, (1165-1214), on the eminence called Castle Hill. About 1291 this castle was surrendered to Edward I of England.  The Governor, d'Urnfraville, was careful, before submitting, to secure an indemnity from all the parties concerned in the dispute about the Scottish throne, an early example, perhaps, of Forfar "canniness".  Edward visited Forfar in 1296, describing it as "une bonne ville", and lodged in the Castle from 3rd to 6th July.

Sir William Wallace (dubiously portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film "Braveheart"), Governor of Scotland, took the Castle in 1298 from the partisans of England who held it, and in 1306 it was reported to Edward that Forfar Castle had been destroyed.  He authorised its restoration in 1308, but in the same year Philip, the Forester of Platane (to the north of Forfar) scaled its walls, took it. and held it for Bruce.  He accomplished the capture during the night, scaling the wall "with ledderis all prevely", and opening the gate to admit his men.  Later, Bruce ordered that the Castle be razed to the ground and it was never rebuilt.

Pieces of armour and other antiquities have been found from time to time near Castle Hill and may have been relics of the struggles for possession of the Castle.  About 1760 a kettle-like vessel and some arrows were found and a pit of hewn stone about eighteen feet deep was discovered.

No trace of any castle is now to be seen on Castle Hill although ruins were visible about 1684 and remains are mentioned as late as 1843 at which time it is recorded "a stone wall of great thickness and strongly cemented encloses the Palace, and a moat at least twenty feet broad and twelve feet deep encompasses the whole".  In the course of excavations at the beginning of this century when extensions were being made to some of the shops facing Castle Street, evidence of an ancient building was found, including portions of a wall of great thickness, part of which appeared to be a gateway.  Some relics were found also, but these apparently fell to dust when lifted.  In 1935, when an adjacent site was being levelled for a house, a very thick wall was uncovered to the extent only of its outer edge, further excavation being, unnecessary for the immediate purpose, and the full extent of the wall has not so far been ascertained.

It has been suggested that the burghers of Forfar utilised the ruins of the Castle as a source of prepared stone for building the original Steeple, the west entry to the old Parish Church and a large number of houses in the town.

The Cross, Forfar
The Cross, Forfar
The Cross
The enclosed area on top of the Hill, measuring some twenty-five yards by sixteen yards, is part of the site of the Castle and now contains the tower which bore the Mercat Cross of the burgh and originally stood in front of the old Tolbooth in the street still called The Cross.  The Tolbooth was replaced in 1781 by the present Town and County Hall and, a few years later, the Cross itself was moved from its site in the centre of the town. Its location is still marked out in coloured causeway setts now hidden under a coat of asphalt.

Situated at the point where the road leading to the Castle of Forfar joined the main highway through Strathmore from Perth to the north, the Mercat Cross in early times was the traditional centre for the transaction of business and the focus for the life of the town.  There proclamations were made and news disseminated.  It was the custom to read out annually at the Cross the Acts of the Town Council which were in force within the burgh, and King's Messengers were frequently at the Cross proclaiming death or outlawry for the King's enemies or mustering men for war.

In the year 1230, after a proclamation by the public crier, the infant daughter and the last of the line of Gillescop McWilliam, a claimant for the kingship of Scotland, being a descendant of Malcolm Canmore and his first wife Ingibiorg, was put to death by having her head struck against the column of the Cross of Forfar.  In 1557 the "legis" between the ages of sixty and sixteen were called to assemble at the Cross with provisions for forty days.  Musters were also called at the Cross in June 1572 and at various later dates.  In 1661 the Council ordained that on 23rd July at 5 a.m. "the whole of the inhabitants appear at the Cross with their arms" for the Riding of the Town's Marches.  Proclamations are still made at the Cross, for there, with due ceremony, the death of the Monarch is announced and his successor proclaimed.

When lands at Westfield and elsewhere were feued out by the Town Council in 1568 part of the reddendo required of the feuars was "carriages of horses in times of encampments and war and at other times for the benefit of the community for building a church, Mercat Cross and Tolbooth . .

The building of "a very stately'' cross, presumably a replacement, and almost certainly comprising the tower now on Castle Hill, is referred to in the burgh records on 9th October 1682.  In 1683, after having, inspected the Mercat Cross in Dundee with the Provost of the town, Alexander Adam was contracted to build a cross in front of the old Tolbooth of Forfar for 600 rnerks.

The Burgh accounts for the year 1684 contain a record of the expenditure on the work, including the hewing of the stone, its transport from "Glames", and the loan of James Gordon's "extrie (axletree) to bring home the said stone, James Guild having broken his extrie in the cause".

In 1799, however, the Town Council found the Cross to be "a piece of elegant antiquity" and resolved to rebuild it upon the Castle Hill because it was "a great inconveniency and obstruction to the public road in its new direction to Brechin".  It was to be built there in a manner as near as possible to its old form. but only the tower is erected on the hill.  A suggestion at that time that a powder magazine be built under the Cross was not pursued.  The pillar of the Cross cannot now be found, having, possibly been taken for use in some other building.  The carved finial, hewn out of hard stone and about two feet high, which surmounted the Cross, was in the form of a castellated tower, rather than the unicorn bearing a shield with a Saltire which often decorates burgh crosses in Scotland.  The finial was found built into a garden wall in the town, and placed at the base of the tower, but there it was damaged and had to be removed. Now it cannot be traced.

The Town Council purchased a road to the Castle Hill through a yard belonging to John Smith in 1801 and, in 1828, decided to enclose the Hill with stone walls and to plant trees there.

The Tower
Octagonal in form, the tower, fourteen feet high and nine feet in diameter, has been re-erected on a rendered stone base six feet in height, making the total height twenty feet above the ground and two hundred and fifty feet above sea level.  Its adaptation for use as an outlook tower and a base for a flagpole has led to the provision of access by a necessary but unsightly iron stair affixed to six of its sides.  Raising the tower has produced a structure of awkward proportions.  It has also been fully exposed to the elements and the sculptured panels on the topmost part of the tower are now rather weathered but the designs can still be made out.

Forfar Seal 1582
Seal of Forfar, 1582

Burgh Seals
The representation of a castle is the heraldic device adopted as a badge by the Royal Burgh of Forfar and may depict the ancient castle.  Its design and date suggest that it represents a step in the development of the Burgh coat of arms, for the earliest seal, (1562), now the badge of Forfar Academy, bears a castle with one square central tower.  On the panel the central tower is rather squat, perhaps because of the space available, and flanking turrets have appeared, which are also found on the 17th Century seals of the Burgh, on which the central tower, too, is turreted.  The castle on the present day coat of arms of the Burgh has three main towers all turreted and watch towers at each end of the battlements.

The other sculptured device is the thistle, the national emblem of Scotland, with the monogram CR - Carolus Rex - of King Charles II, (1649-1685), who confirmed the ancient Charter of the Burgh in 1665 and was the reigning monarch when the tower was originally built.

Standing on the site of the castle the tower links the Forfar of to-day with the royal burgh of the Restoration period and the Forfar of mediaeval times.

The Panorama
A convenient reference point for the study of the panorama from the tower is the Parish Church of Forfar (Old) which lies south-south-east.  The building dates back to 1790 and was built on the site of an earlier ecclesiastical edifice.  The original church for the parish of Forfar was at Restenneth but a church was built in the town itself around 1568.  The present Steeple, (150 ft. high), was built by the Town Council in 1815 to replace an older structure, the architect being Samuel Bell of Dundee.  On Sundays and on occasions of public rejoicing "Lang Strang" rings out from the Steeple over Forfar, the great bell being a gift to his native town by Robert Strang, merchant in Stockholm, on his death in 1651.

Balmashanner Hill, (572 ft.), seen to the right of the Steeple, may have given Forfar its name, which may be derived from the Gaelic "forfaithir", a high shelving slope.  The Hill is surmounted by the War Memorial, built by public subscription in 1921 and modelled on the Airlie Memorial near Cortachy, itself a replica of the gatehouse of Airlie Castle.

The higher points of the Sidlaws (hills) which stretch west and south are Craigowl Hill, (1492 ft.), with its radio masts and the wooded Auchterhouse Hill, (1399 ft.).  Between the latter and the cone of Kinpurney Hill, (1134 ft.), surmounted by an old observatory, the length of Glen Ogilvy and the valley of Denoon can be seen if conditions are favourable.

To the west, the line of Manor Street in the foreground indicates the higher parts of the ancient "Manor" and its convenience to the Castle can be appreciated.  Beyond lies Forfar Loch, (170 ft. above sea level, 1 mile long and 160/320 yards wide), a natural catchment for the waters arising around the town, which bestrides the watershed in Strathmore.  The great valley stretches beyond the Loch and on occasion the mountains of Perthshire may be seen in the distance.

The neighbouring burgh of Kirriemuir, (450 ft., pop. 4,222), can be seen to the north-west with Cat Law, (2196 ft.), rising behind it.  To the north-east and cast respectively, but much nearer the town, are Finavon Hill, (751 ft.), and Turin Hill, (825 ft.), each of which is a notable prehistoric hill fort site.  To the southeast the short spire of the Lowson Memorial Church (1914) is prominent and the northern slopes of Dunnichen Hill, (765 ft.), which overlooks on its far side the scene of the battle of Nechtansmere where in 687 the Picts defeated the Northumbrians and turned the tide of the invasion of Scotland from that quarter.

Finally the horizon to the southeast is broken by the Peel Monument, erected in 1851 on a knoll in Forfar (Newmonthill) Cemetery to the memory of Sir Robert Peel in recognition of the benefits obtained from the repeal of the Corn Laws.

The old grey town of Forfar still skirts Castle Hill and it is noticeable that only later buildings began to encroach on its slopes.  The old boundary of the Loch or its marshy shores is still evident to the north where the doubtful foundation provided by the East Greens has kept development at bay.  Here, and well within the area now built on, a prehistoric canoe was found in 1955.  Removed to Dundee Museum for examination, this ancient relic of prehistoric Forfar has its rightful place in the town's museum.

Modern buildings hide the lie of the land but the contours can still be distinguished by careful examination.  The mind can then create a picture of old Forfar and capture perhaps for a fleeting moment the feelings of mediaeval man surveying the scene from the battlements of Forfar Castle, on the palisaded mount of Castle Hill with, to the west, at a slightly lower elevation, the pleasaunce of the Queen's Manor, also lapped by the protecting waters of Forfar Loch.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. TEXT FROM A BOOKLET - WRITTEN BY W. S. McCULLOCH; PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FORFAR TOWN COUNCIL;
SKETCH BY NEIL A. ROBERTSON; PRINTED AND PUBLISHED BY OLIVER McPHERSON LIMITED

 

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This page was updated - 22 June, 2013