Local History

St Cyrus

This is the story of St Cyrus, a little windswept parish that slopes down to the cliffs and the sea beyond. From the edge of the cliffs you can pass the time very pleasantly watching the ships go sailing past, the continuing crashing of waves, within, dolphins communicating and rising majestically in their search for shoals of fish or even the solitary seal, basking, whilst removing salmon from the ‘fisherman’s nets’.

Once this parish had a laird who dabbled in cannibalism. But there have been cannibals elsewhere. It once had a protestant martyr too, who died on the scaffold in Edinburgh. But martyrs were by no means uncommon along the east coast of Scotland, although this one was a little more thrawn than most. Both were slightly overshadowed by an even more famous son of St Cyrus, a middle-aged lawyer who went down to the lonely Kirkyard at the foot of the cliffs and blew out his brains for love. The sea swallowed up the only burgh in the parish.

Some folk will tell you that what the River North Esk has been doing is more remarkable than any of these. It was such a dependable river, all the way down from the mountains and across the plain, until it reached this parish and smelt the sea. Now it keeps carving new routes through the sand dunes and changing the last mile of its course, with an almost monotonous regularity. When you think of the North Esk you think too of the old bed that it abandoned last century – the one which has become “the saltings”, a rather special feature of the St Cyrus National Nature Reserve. But there are other corners of Scotland with Nature Reserves.

Not even the agates of St Cyrus are unique. In one or two other places, like the famous Boddin beach, semi-precious stones can be picked up just as easily. There is, in fact, only one really exceptional thing about the parish. At every wedding in the church up on the hilltop the minister brings out an ancient measuring stick and proceeds to measure the height of the bride. That is unique.

You might ask, of course, why anyone should wish to visit such an ordinary place as St Cyrus. There are no gleaming modern factories, no step-and-repeat houses, no roads thronged with cars nose to tail, no hurry, no bustle, no population explosion. And yet oddly enough there are folks who say that, once you get there, there is more to be seen in St Cyrus than on the moon or mars. Some even assert it is more exciting than the average South Sea Island, though the sand and the sea are undoubtedly colder. It is a place where you rub shoulders with all sorts of people – farmers and salmon fishers, old folks and young, and a whole regiment of “ists” – artists and botanists, ornithologists, geologists and an occasional archaeologist, with even a sprinkling of entomologists. But don’t let that put you off. There are some very good homebred philosophers too, for oddly enough this little parish once pioneered an Age of Progress and saw it followed by an Age of Disenchantment. And an experience like that makes people think. St Cyrus, you might say, is the kind of place, which is all things to all people.

The Barons of Ecclesgrieg

The third old castle in the parish – and the most forbidding of the three – stood on top of a precipice overlooking the sea, just north of Woodston Fishing Station, St Cyrus. All through the centuries the waves have pounded on the rocks below and wintry ice has ripped at the cliff until more and more of it has gone crashing down, carrying more and more of this castle, the Kaim of Mathers, with it into the sea. Now only a fragment of the tower and a small part of the wall remain. Once the home of the Berkeleys, it was built early in the 15th century by the most famous of them all, David Barclay, a courtier and man of action in the reign of James I of Scotland.

Barclay was one of several lairds in the mearns who detested the local sheriff, James Melville of Glenbervie. They complained about his high-handed deeds so often to the king that at last in exasperation he replied, in a rather unkingly way, that for all he cared they could go and make soup of their sheriff and sup him.

It sounded rather a good idea. Barclay called the rest of the angry young men of the mearns to a meeting to discuss the details. And since they lived round the windy hill of Garvock – Barclay and his neighbour Straton on the south; Pittarrow and Halkerton on the west; and Arbuthnott, who owned the hill, on the north – they decided to do the deed there in a picturesque gully which is now bridged by the road from Foudoun to Johnshaven. Having invited the unsuspecting sheriff to join them in a day’s hunting, they filled a cauldron with water from the stream and brought it to the boil. Then, having led the sheriff to the spot, they threw him in and one by one had a sup of the broth. To this day the gully is called the Sheriff’s Kettle.
If the grisly lairds expected to be thanked by the king for a job well done, they were cruelly mistaken. Refusing to admit that it was his idea, he denounced them all as outlaws and swore a especially solemn oath that their leader, David Barclay, would get peace to live neither on land nor sea for the rest of his life.

If you searched the world for a place to answer that description, you would find it hard to discover a better one than the Kaim of Mathers, that almost inaccessible eyrie, poised between land and sea on the cliff top near St Cyrus. There the cannibal laird spent the rest of his life, enjoying a more normal diet. He was safe enough. It is known that two centuries ago the Kaim was almost inaccessible as it is today and probably even in his time a clear head, a sure foot and a friendly host were needed to get you safe across the narrow ridge from the mainland to the Kaim.

Woodston Fishing Station

For centuries, directly below, in the bay, salmon congregate, after their journey from Iceland, awaiting the rainfall to raise the river sufficiently in preparation for their spawn run. (Poetically uncomplicated). As these majestic fish travel along the edge of the beach, in search of their birth place they are still, even today, caught in Salmon nets during the summer season.

Hundreds of years ago these salmon were boiled and prepared in vinegar and salt, for the local and London market. A Mr Dempster pioneered and changed St Cyrus fishing’s forever. From artificial ponds on his estate he cut out blocks of ice in the winter and stored them in ice-houses through the summer months, And, instead of boiling or pickling his salmon, he laid them in long wooden boxes with pounded ice all around for the journey to London. It was a phenomenal success. No one had ever tasted fresh salmon in London before and the demand was tremendous. But Mr Dempster’s discovery did not only bring fresh salmon on to the menus of London’s most exclusive hotels. Nothing was wasted. People were quick to observe that the white wines had never before tasted so deliciously cool at the height of summer – ice-cool, with the smell of fresh salmon still on the ice.

The methods which Mr Dempster pioneered was introduced to Woodston Fishing Station, where a vast under-ground ice-house was built into the cliff. But not all the catch was being packed in ice. Some of it was still being boiled “in a proper preparation of vinegar and salt”, before being sent to the London market.

The value of salmon was rocketing by that time. In the 1790’s the proprietors on the banks of the North Esk were getting a rental of no less than £850.00 a year for the river fishing’s, and at least half of them were in St Cyrus parish. But that was only the beginning. By 1807 the fishing’s on the Mearns side of the river were being let for upwards of £2400 per annum and still the price was rising. Thirty years later the Mearns fishing at Commieston and Kinnaber alone were said to have been let for almost £3000, an almost incredible figure. Ordinary local folk were no longer getting tired of salmon. It never crossed their lips.

The gulf between the earnings of the rich and the poor was widening every year. Between forty and fifty men were employed at the fishing’s in St Cyrus parish, in the 1790’s, from Candlemas to Michaelmas. They manned fourteen boats in the summer and about half a dozen in the spring and autumn. Usually a skipper earned £6 in the season, with four bolls of meal and an extra seven shillings for drink. But sometimes he was put instead on a bonus incentive scheme, with a basic £5 instead of £6, plus a halfpenny for each salmon he landed. As one contemporary writer very aptly remarked, it gave the skippers “an interest in the success of the fishing, which makes them exert themselves and must be an advantage to their employers.” The ordinary fisherman got 3/9 a week with two pecks of meal and no extra halfpennies, and it was remarkable how much they could buy with their 3/9 in those days.

It might seem at first glance that the owners at least would be pleased with their lot, but not even they were entirely contented. When salmon were worth their weight in gold, it was exasperating that they should have to be shared with the hungry seals, and the seals were in fact being troublesome. They chased the salmon up the river and, with a tameness that was almost maddening; they jumped over the net or slipped through under it to seize their prey, before the very eyes of the fishermen who were trying to haul in the catch. If the seals became entangled in the meshes of the net, they were even more destructive, for they bit their way out and ruined it, as they do to this day.

Woodston Fishing Station provides a fascinating insight into ‘years gone by’ and stands as a great reminder to the decades of wealth and prosperity that was enjoyed for all of those years.

We look forward to sharing with all, ‘our story’ and ‘our home’ which we hope you will all agree, boasts one of the most beautiful views on the North East Coast of Scotland. ‘Our history’ with Victorian villa, The original Bothy, captain’s quarters, Vaulted Ice-House, original stable for the pony that used to haul up the salmon from below and an incredible beach, with netted stakes, graveyard, waterfalls, protected natural habitat that takes you strangely ‘back in time’ is yours to enjoy and experience.

Woodston Fishing Station

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Woodston Fishing Station
St Cyrus. DD10 0DG