The History of Montrose and its Surrounding Parishes
House building goes on apace on the site opposite the Distillery, I wonder how many people who pass recognise that this takes place on an estate closely linked with Montrose town for over 500 years - the site of Newmanswalls.
The Montrose Basin Heritage Survey is slowly trying to untangle the history of the area and while some interesting things have been discovered, a range of questions still remain to be answered. Most notably when did people first start to live in this area?
Physical remains from the area are limited - one flint arrowhead, perhaps 4000 years old and a large handful of medieval pottery both reported from Renny Crescent. Apart from the scanty remains of the post medieval landscaping of the site, we have to rely on old documents, maps and aerial photographs.
The name itself is of interest. Spelling changes over the years, but the first reference appears to be in the l6th century when we have Newmannis wallis. Does this mean that a new house (a newhame) had been built about this time or have we still not tracked the earliest references to it?
The element "walls" is also of interest. In some parts of Britain this place name survives attached to early forts. In the case of Montrose it is suggested that it is misspelling of "wells", because there were ancient public wells on the estate. Indeed in 1613 there is reference to the laird of Newmanswalls destroying the "great dyke which fenced the common wells".
So who were the owners of this estate? Early details are shadowy, but it is suggested that in the medieval period the lands were farmed by tenants to provide income to support a hospital in the town. For some reason this building seems to have declined early. Possibly this may have been for lack of income as influential tenants kept the rents for themselves. But by the 15th century (at the latest) we have evidence that a local family of note, the Paniters, were managing the estate.
The Paniters were not aristocrats, so seemed to have derived their wealth and influence by seeking important posts in the church. They were closely involved with the Dominican Friary that lay a little to the north of the town walls - one Paniter was the Prior in 1296 when Edward I made his unwelcome visit. In the early 15th century another was Abbot of Arbroath (one of the richest religious houses in Scotland) for about 30 years. More prosaically there is also evidence of them marrying into the powerful local families of Erskine at Dun and Carnegie at Kinnaird.
In the first decade of the 16th century another Paniter - Patrick - came to national prominence. He rose to become the Abbot of Cambuskenneth, but that did not stop him remaining heavily involved in the affairs of Montrose.
He was responsible for the re-foundation of the hospital and the restructuring of the Dominican Friary, which he seems to have linked. The Newmanswalls estate (with valuable fishing rights on the North Esk) was to fund these two establishments. Guarding his own interests, it was arranged that the post of the Hospital Master (and salary) was to be hereditary and held by the Paniters, with reversion to the Town Council if they were to become extinct. Newmanswalls was then feued to his nephew David.
It is not known what the house would have looked like at this time. Substantial, with good outbuildings and gardens and grounds probably. Possibly part stone and timber with good internal fittings, but hard to tell now with certainty. It has been suggested that the "Paniter panels" the finest woodwork of this type now surviving in Scotland and held in the National Museum - may have come from the house. Keep your eyes peeled it is expected that the Panels will be loaned to Montrose Museum next spring.
The Paniter family faded and Newmanswalls did indeed pass under the management of the town council, who would be paid rent in both money and kind (beer and oatmeal). Exceptionally, although Newmanswalls is part of the landward portion of the parish of Montrose, it was taxed as part of the Burgh, so the accounts can be traced through the council records for the centuries since, The estate was tenanted on long leases usually linked with one family.
With the last of the Paniters, the estate passed in, 1636 to the Scotts. James Scott of Logie was active in Montrose and was provost on several occasions. As well as Newmanswalls, which he seems to have used as his country living, he also held Castlestead as his townhouse. This site, now converted to the Job Centre, was once the site of the old royal castle of Montrose. He and his sons were heavily involved in the trade and commerce of the port, first in hides and tallow and then in corn and grain.
He managed to acquire a substantial fortune. With this he bought estates for each of his six sons around the Montrose area. James his eldest was to retain Logie- Montrose (which included Newmanswalls), Hercules was given Brothcaton, Patrick Craig and Rossie, John had Commieston, David had Hedderwick and Robert was given Benholm. Four daughters were dowered and also married local landowners. For the next few generations the Scotts married closely within their own family and a group of local landowners, making tracing their family history and landholdings a nightmare for local historians. But it seems that Newmanswalls passed in a relatively direct line until the early part of the 19th century.
Still it is difficult to be sure what the house and grounds look like. We get occasional references in passing to the house, but no descriptions. For example in 1648 we are told "ane fearfull persewing pestilence entered into the citie inlarging and spreading itself daylie distroying and cutting down many whilk occasioned ane scattering and outgoing of all the members of the session to the landward for their refuge and saiftie".
In short, the rich scattered to their country houses and the poor had to stay and face the plague. We know that James Scott was at Newmanswalls, as in August a Kirk session was called at the house. Not to deal with the appalling death rates in the town and hardship that followed but to deal with an unmarried woman from the estate who had a baby un-married. Establishing paternity transferred the financial burden of supporting her away from the parish! Such financial robustness meant that the Scotts continued to flourish for another century or so.
By the latter part of the 18th century several of the main Scott estates had passed out of the direct line, but passed to related families of the neighbourhood and it appears that his also happened to Newmanswalls. There is no clear consensus among previous researchers about how this happened, but by about 1809 the house was in the hands of the Renny- Tailyeours. This confusion may have arisen as in the latter part of the 18th century the house and parkland seems to have been split from much of its surrounding estate. The Tailyeours held the adjoining ancient estate of Borrowfield, so the 1809 sale brought a wider estate back to the Newmanswalls.
It might of course seem that a new family had taken over the estate, but the Renny line was from Usan and was closely intermarried with the Scotts. The Tailyeours had been closely liked with the Scotts in the Montrose and had been business partners with them in the grain trade since the mid 17th century. These close contacts and interests can subsequently be seen in the development of the Newmanswalls estate.
James Low the local antiquarian writing in a newspaper article in 1909 tells us that the house was rebuilt in 1790. Unfortunately he does no tell us where he got this information and so far the Montrose Basin Survey has been unable to track down any illustrations or photographs of the house for confirmation. Montrose Museum has a series of architect’s drawings for proposed alterations to the house, but they carry no date. They do bear a remarkable likeness to the ground plan of the house we see on later maps and aerial photographs.
They show that the main portion of the house was 3 storeyed, with porticoed entrance and a fine double staircase inside. Two ground plans contradictorily name all the ground floor rooms and show the scale and affluence of the family. Extensive wine cellars and "beer rooms", rooms for housekeeper and butler, even a separate room for visiting servants. Organisation of these and other rooms was a problem - one plan has the menservants dangerously close to the wine and beer, the other overly close to the maidservants. Interpreting these plans, it seems we can see an early house being altered and the front door being moved from one side of the house to another. Unfortunately we cannot tell if the house is just 1790 build or contains earlier elements.
In the 1860s we are told that the house was surrounded by a number of old trees and shrubbery which give an air of dignity to which it is well entitled. The OS map of 1865 confirms this; it also shows a large walled garden to the north west of the house and tree planting schemes that included fine avenues.
There is an intriguing plan by George Robertson dated 1815 for improvements to the garden and park. Not all of this could have been undertaken as the main entrance is shown onto the Montrose road (not the Brechin road). The fact that Robertson was chosen as designer is particularly interesting. From the latter part of the 18th century a few far-sighted landowners were experimenting in the improvement of lands and estates (agriculture, industry and landscapes). The Scotts were apparently very closely linked to this.
It appears that Robertson - a leading author on land improvement - had been encouraged to move to the area by Scott of Brotherton who offered him a tenancy there. Obviously his expertise was being employed by a number of local families. It would be interesting to know which new garden fashions he recommended.
Eventually the house was allowed to decline. Aerial photographs taken by the RAF in the early 1960’s show that the house and grounds were intact. But the town would eventually encroach onto the site. By 1963 distillery stores had been built in the grounds and the house seems to have been demolished as new housing was appearing More and more housing has been built since, infilling the entire park.
So what do we have of this ancient site now? A few documentary references, buildings marked on old maps, a scatter of finds, a sprinkling of old trees among the later buildings and if you look carefully, parts of the old boundary walls of the park on both the Brechin and Borrowfield Roads. The residents of Westbank also live in older buildings that were once part of the of "Farm offices" of the estate.
It might be possible to discover more with time and the help of local residents. Surely there is somebody in the town with old photographs of the house and grounds. Is there anything interesting - remains of old pottery, stone tools etc - in the soil of your flower beds?
The Montrose Basin Survey would be interested to hear about anything new via the SWT Wildlife Centre, Rossie Braes, or anything of interest can be dropped off at Montrose Museum.
Hilary White as "Gable Ender" in Montrose Review 26th July 2001
(by permission of the author)