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History of Montrose
Chapter XI. - Ship-Building, Shipping Trade, Wood Trade, Cabinet Making, Shipping, &c.

LITTLE can be said of this trade till towards the latter end of last century, when it was mainly carried on by one Thomas Findlay, who had his yard near the west quay, which was then the sea-beach. He built the brig “ Aurora.” Now, it is actively carried on by several firms, the principal of which is that of the Birnies, who for four generations have been in that trade, and from their long standing have gained an extensive influence. Mr. Charles Birnie has also for many years been an extensive wood-merchant, and now employs upwards of 100 men and boys. The firm of Messrs James & David Birnie, who succeeded their uncles, also carry on an extensive business, and are soon to lay a keel for a vessel of about 1000 tons. Mr. Joseph Birnie carries on with much success his father's business, and has just launched (July 1, 1865) the largest vessel ever built in Montrose, of 700 tons. He employs about 50 men and boys, and is at present building a large vessel of 850 tons. They have now erected large sheds, in which their men can work in all weathers, and so lose no time. x Mr. James Strachan and Mr. James Petrie, who were originally in a company together, started by journeymen when trade was slack and employment scarce, have also got into notice as shipbuilders. They have now each an establishment of their own, and employ about 30 men and boys. Duthie $ Cochar offered at one time to get on well, having begun in a large yard, made out of what was once the Greenland Whale-Fishing Company’s boil-yard; but Mr. Duthie went back to Aberdeen, where he is doing a large trade, and Mr. Cochar has retired, from the business, and turned farmer.

Boat-building has for many years been actively carried on by the Messrs J. & W. Waddell, at the Bridge-end. They build large fishing-boats, for the deep sea fishing and the herring trade, and have customers far and near. They are also block-makers, and employ about 20 men. Mr. William Waddell has just retired with a fortune. Mr. Bums also carries on the trade of boat-building on the river side, and employs a number of men. He is now building a splendid cutter for the Forfarshire Militia Staff.

There are three trades in Montrose, which have descended from father to son to the third or fourth generation, viz. —The shipbuilding-trade, the wood-trade, and the cabinet-making-trade. The first is carried on by the Birnies, the second by the Millars, and the third by the Japps,—not to speak of others who have not yet got that length, but who, it is to be hoped, may yet tread in their steps, and who have at present flourishing businesses. How pleasant it is to see industry, prudence, and skill thus rewarded! Although it is agreeable to see land descend in the same manner, yet, though the laws of entail were to cease to-morrow, these three would supply their place well, and the city magnates would vie with the lordly barons in wealth and in the number of their retainers. And who would grudge them their reward, when they see that they have devised schemes to raise their workmen in the scale of society by helping them to provide comfortable homes for themselves, as is now proposed to be done by certain millowners and others, who are going to lend their aid in building suitable dwelling-houses for the working-classes in Montrose 1 It is only doing what the country gentlemen have already done, and are continuing to do, for their people. Nothing next to Christianity, as was so well set forth by the Bey. Mr. Sutherland at the Saturday evening meeting, would meliorate society more, and produce that genial glow of goodwill which ought to subsist between the employers and their workmen ; and if all who employ labour would act in this way, there would be no danger in extending the franchise, for all would be contented and happy. At the sametime, this is not meant to interfere with private enterprise, for, indeed, there is room for many more houses than we have in Montrose.


Montrose has always been considered an important place for shipping. Favoured by nature with an excellent harbour, its merchants have been enriched by the sea, thus verifying the first part of the town’s motto, “Mare ditat,” the sea enriches; neither does it fail in the second part, of the adornment of the rose, for many of its citizens have been eminent florists, and obtained prizes at the flower shows. It has always had, for its population, a large quantity of merchant ships. In the end of the last century there were 33 sail of vessels bound for slave ports lying off Gibraltar. In the year 156 B. C., the mariners of Montrose were a daring set of savages, who in their prows put to sea and robbed the Fife shore. They lived on shore in rather a primitive state; just dug a hole and shoved in. Only think of a family or tribe lying in the ground to rest all night! Brechin at this period was the hunting ground of the ancient Celtic marauders, who dwelt on the sea shore. Montrose, some forty years ago, had about forty sail of sloops, a fleet of Greenland whalers, and three brigs, about 80 tons register, which were the Baltic and Archangel fleet. An improvement commenced when a brig of 150 tons was brought from Shields by Captain John Young, and it was such a wonder to see such a large ship bought for the Baltic trade, that people came from far and near to see her. The next vessel that created a sensation was built and owned by James Birnie, and commanded by his son, James. She made a Montreal voyage each year. It was the custom for this vessel for a week previous to sailing to lie off the Pier-end, and entertain the friends and dignitaries. At ten o’clock every morning she fired a gun, and, man-of-war style, let fall her fore-topsail. After this date the shipping gradually increased, till now Montrose has upwards of 20,000 tons of merchantmen; and there is no doubt that our energetic and enterprising Provost, in conjunction with our great member, Mr. W. E. Baxter, will have the influence to get the Board of Trade to give Montrose a Marine Board. This is her due when she reaches 30,000 tons, but a strong representation would give us this even now.


This trade ranks next to that of Greenock, which is the highest in Scotland. It is chiefly carried on by Messrs Robert Millar and Sons, and Charles Birnie, Esq., who together employ a very great number of men and boys in and about their wood-yards; and if the crews of their ships, in connection with this trade, be taken into account, it cannot be said that they give employment to much fewer than 1000 men between them. This trade got a great start some years ago in consequence of the wood required for our Australian Colonies; but now, besides supplying the home trade, it is exported all over, and the saw mills employed do their work very expeditiously. Deal boards for flooring, are not only sawn, but grooved and planed by machinery. The shore-dues have been vastly increased by the trade, and more dock accommodation is required for the shipping. No vessels now leave the port in ballast, if they are of the size to perform a London voyage, for they are loaded with deals, and bring coals back.

In the commencement of the century the shore-dues were under 300 a-year, and then rose to 400, when Bailie Smith gave 800 a-year. When his lease was out it was taken by our enterprising townsman, Mr. James Fraser, for six years, at 1500 a-year. Our present shore-master—a man of great activity, keen penetration, and indomitable energy—was appointed collector twenty-nine years ago; and the harbour-dues have so increased under his management, that at the rates exigible twenty-nine years ago would now yield upwards of 10,000 per annum. So wonderful has been the success, that there is scarcely a parallel to it in the history of this country. One must cross the sea to Australia, or the fast-rising republic of the States to find so wonderful statistics.


The Messrs Japp, as stated before, have long carried on this trade in Montrose. Many of us remember when they had only the large house at the foot of Crawford’s close for a work-shop, and their dwelling-house below, and the large logs of mahogany at the door that were said to cost so much. Since then, they have had for many years an extensive range of work-shops opposite, and below them as large show-rooms, where furniture of every description may be seen, fit to cope with any produced in London—indeed, more substantial as Scotch furniture is allowed to be; and they have of late years added to their business large works, where everything of wood that can be cut or carved, is, and will yet be more, extensively done by machinery, set in motion by steam. Hard wood of considerable thickness, with curved lines for the shape marked out in chalk, is guided against an upright saw, which goes through it like paper. All sorts of handles for implements, felloes and spokes for wheels, feet and backs for chairs, &c., are turned out, and they send away the articles far and near, to Glasgow and such like places. Mr. John Sorrel in Bridge Street has also a large cabinet trade, and is more than any one else employed as an undertaker. His neighbour, Mr. John Smith, is also a very enterprising, industrious man, and deals largely in furniture. There are also the Messrs Maconachie, who have been long established in trade as cabinet-makers and upholsterers, who have their show-rooms at the Port.

Long before lighthouses were erected (about 170 years ago) to guide the mariner past the hidden rocks and treacherous sand-banks on our iron-bound coast, a fleet of foreign ships, called by tradition the “Cattesou Ships,” were wrecked between the mouth of the Southesk and St. Cyrus, when all on board perished. One struck upon the rocks at Milton of Mathers, and another upon the Inchcape Rock. It was never known where they came from, or where they were bound to* From the variety of useful articles of all descriptions they had on board, it was supposed they were loaded with supplies for some new colony. Chests of drawers, tables, and other furniture, all made of oak; white pease, and other provisions ; besides a large number of small yellow bricks, formed part of their freight. The bricks were well known in Montrose by the name of the Cattesou bricks, and numbers of them have been made use of for chimney-tops and other purposes in the old houses between the steeple and the shore. After a storm, a few of them may occasionally yet be found on the beach. The size of the brick is 6 inches long, 3 inches broad, and 1 inch thick. They were made of very fine clay, remarkably well burned, and will last for ages, the weather having no oppression on them whatever. The whole are well shaped. Various articles of the furniture were to be seen in this locality not many years ago. An old woman, Helen Spence, who lived in a cottage in the Ride of Kinnaird, had a chest of Cattesou drawers in her house about 40 years ago. In consequence of a bad crop a great scarcity prevailed when the ships were wrecked. The corn was full of the seeds of a weed which, when ground with the com into meal, had the effect of making those who partook of it drowsy and sleepy, and the meal of that year was called “the sleepy meal” The white pease were eagerly taken possession of by the inhabitants, and ground into meal, which was the first thing that relieved the scarcity.

A violent storm occurred about the beginning of the century, during which no fewer than 17 ships were driven ashore between the mouths of the South and Northesks. About the same time (1800), if not the same storm, a small brig, commanded by Captain John Keith, who lived on the Island, sailed from the Firth with a cargo of coals for Montrose. A violent snow-storm overtook the vessel, and the crew lost all control over her. They could not see where she was going, and gave up all for lost. Strange to say, the storm drove the brig in at the entrance of the harbour, and the crew did not know where they were until she struck upon the Scalp, off which she took some more men, who had got there before, and then drifted up and struck upon the Timber Bridge, erected a few years before. The late Mr. John Begbie, being afterwards gardener to Mr. Ross of Rossie, and Mrs Begbie and one child were passengers on board the brig at the time, on his way to enter on his new situation at Rossie. The child, afterwards Mrs John Tulloch, was handed up to some one of the crowd on the bridge, and the parents followed as fast as possible.

Another fatal storm, known as the windy Christmas, about the year 1808, caused immense loss of life on this coast, and on the whole east coast of Scotland. A great number of men belonging to Montrose were lost that day. All the fishing boats of a village, called Stotfield, near Lossiemouth, in the Moray Frith, six in number, with all their crews, were lost; also two boats belonging to a small village a few miles from Stotfield, with their crews, shared the same fate—not a man able to go to sea was left at either of these places, none but old men and boys remained. The inhabitants of Stotfield have never gone to sea on Christmas since. A tablet in the church-yard of Drainie records the loss. One of the men at Covesea had a dumb daughter, and when her father was going away for the last time, she accompanied him to the boat, and used every effort she could think of to prevent him from going to sea. The village of Covesea consists of only six or seven houses, and about twenty years ago they were all occupied by widows, except one, which was tenanted by a man who did not belong to the village. A number of years afterwards, and in the recollection of many yet alive, a vessel, called the Forth Packet, that traded between Aberdeen and Leith, was lost in the bay of Montrose, when all on board, about seventeen in number, were drowned.

Towards the close of the last century, a Whale-Fishing Company was established in Montrose. Three vessels were purchased, named the Eliza Swan, the Montrose, and the Dempster. The Eliza Swan was the sole property of Eliza Swan, the wife of Mr. John Brown. The vessels were fortunate for a number of years; but the Dempster was lost, with all hands, in 1790. She was commanded by Captain David Christie. When last seen she was under a press of sail, and it was generally supposed that too much canvas had run her down. The loss of so many men was a heavy stroke to Montrose. She had a crew of picked men, and a great many widows and orphans were left destitute. The captain’s widow, an English lady, afterwards took up a school, and was long famed for an excellent teacher of sewing white seam, reading, and weaving stockings. A number of people, of both sexes, yet alive in Montrose and neighbourhood, were at Mrs Christie’s school, and will recollect the locality of her place of punishment—the garret. The Montrose was afterwards lost, but the crew were saved. The Eliza Swan still continued in the trade, and in the early part of this century the company purchased another vessel, the Monarch. About the same time another company was formed, who purchased three vessels— the London, the Spencer, and the Hero. The fishing was prosperous for a number of years; but the Hero was lost amongst the ice, the crew was saved. The Spencer was afterwards lost in the same manner. Both the companies got dispirited, and the remaining vessels were sold. The stoppage of this trade was much against Montrose, and was looked upon as a public calamity. All the inhabitants, old and young, were more or less interested in the Greenland ships, and crowded the quays and river side when they sailed and to welcome them back on their return. The Eliza Swan was taken by Commodore Rodgers of the United States’ navy. She was set at liberty on the captain becoming bound to pay a ransom of 2000; the money, however, was never paid. In the last two centuries making malt was carried on to a great extent in Montrose, as a great many bairns, cobles, and kilns still testify. A windmill stood on the top of Windmill Hill, where Mr. Charles Birnie’s property, opposite Hill Street, is now. Besides the large mill, driven by the wind, for grinding malt, inside were some smaller ones, driven by the hand with a very long bar of iron, and a large piece of lead at the lower end, exactly like the pendulum of a clock, for the use of those who brought a peck or two, and drove the handle backwards and forwards themselves till their quantity was ground. All those alive, who were at the New Schools about 40 or 50 years ago, will remember a well and a coble near what is now Hudson Square. The well was driven in a similar manner as the hand-mills, and was well known to all the boys as the “Waggin’-wallie.”

The water was pumped by the pendulum, and the well got many a visit when the boys got out leave. Another windmill stood nearly opposite St. Mary’s Loch, the road to which, called the Mill Koad, still exists,—it is between the Mall and the properties on the east side of the Mall. About the end of last century, a company was formed and a Wet Dock built in the island of Inchbrayock, with a number of other erections-It turned out a bad speculation, and was soon after given up. The large three-storey house, with a front of white stone, was built for a dock-house, on the site of a shipbuilding-yard at the north end of the Suspension Bridge, About the same period the large buildings on the west side of the bridge, partly used at present as Public Baths, were erected by parties in the salmon trade for boiling-houses. At that time the salmon were all boiled before being sent away.

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