HISTORY OF NEWPORT AND THE PARISH OF FORGAN ; AND RAMBLES ROUND THE DISTRICT, by J. S. Neish, 1890
PART II. ORIGIN OF NEWPORT - THE OLD BOATMEN OF THE TAY
In the year 1713 the Guildry of Dundee, at the suggestion of the Town Council, resolved to take steps to establish a regular ferry from Dundee direct to the south or Fife side of the Tay. Previous to this there was a Ferry at Woodhaven, but, as a want began to be felt for more direct communication between Dundee and Edinburgh, passage boats occasionally plied to 'Seamylnes', lying between the new pier and the old harbour of Newport. From extracts of the minutes of the Guildry, published in A. J. Warden's 'Burgh Laws', it would appear that the Incorporation in those days was a public-spirited body. The suggestion of the Town Council was heartily taken up, and ground purchased from the estates of St. Fort and Inverdovat (now Tayfield), on which a pier was built, and also a house for the tacksman, which was to be used as an inn and horse-hiring establishment. Previous to the purchase of these lands there was only one house there, and great delay was often experienced by strangers seeking a passage across the river to Dundee. The property acquired by the Guildry comprised about six acres. Three and a half acres were purchased from Mr. Hamilton of Inverdovat, at £924 Scots ; and two and a half acres from the estate of St. Fort, at £693 Scots. The place formerly called Seamylnes was then named New Dundee, and afterwards Newport Dundee, and latterly was changed to Newport. Piers, and a house and offices, were forthwith erected, and two years later, viz., in 1715, the accounts were laid before the Court, the works having been completed in about eighteen months. The total sum expended in this enterprise is not very clearly stated, as there are some inaccuracies in the accounts, but, as far as can be gathered, the cost was somewhere about £4,640. But the Guildry did not rest satisfied with the construction of a harbour for 'boats and yals' at New Dundee. Through their exertions a public highway was made from Newport to Kirkcaldy, the cost having been defrayed by subscriptions raised in Fife and Dundee, and in the towns to the North as far as Inverness. Thus direct communication was opened up between the Metropolis and the North of Scotland, by the passage of the Ferries on the Forth between Leith and Kirkcaldy, and on the Tay between Newport and Dundee.
The Guild Merchants of Dundee, in the beginning of the last century, must have been shrewd and far-seeing men. Doubtless they had expected that by the new route opened up a stream of traffic would flow so steadily across the Tay that in a few years a flourishing town would spring up on the Fife side of the river, and form a new outlet for the enterprise of the traders of Dundee ; but their anticipations were not realised, and we find that in the year 1777 the Guildry resolved to sell their property in Fife.
From what we can gather from the extracts taken from the minutes of the Guildry on the subject, it is abundantly clear that 'New Dundee' had turned out a bad spec. The subjects were first let for a term of years at 6 per cent - on the outlay, probably, though that is not definitely stated. In May, 1716, the house and pier were advertised to be let within the Tolbooth at the yearly rent of 400 merks Scots; but, as the reserve price was not bid, the Guildry bought it and afterwards sublet it to a tacksman at the yearly rent of £20 sterling. In August of the following year a Mr. Gentleman, vintner, offered 8,000 merks for the Guildry's interest in New Dundee, but the Court, by their vote, refused to sell. Troubles had early begun in connection with the property. Only a few months after the property had been acquired the minister of Forgan summoned the Guildry for an augmentation of stipend on their new purchase. The piers had not been very substantially erected at first, for by the year 1717 they had broken down two or three times, and various sums were spent on repairs. In 1725 the tenant complained that he was doing very little business in horse-hiring, though he had six good horses for the service of the public. The shore dues leviable from small vessels loading and discharging at the Harbour had not been well paid, and the tacksman had to be authorised to collect them. The rent never exceeded £20 a year, and was often not well paid; while, from the continual outlay for repairs and other charges, the Court began to consider that the place was a great burden on their stock. In 1749 the property was offered for sale, but at that time no purchaser came forward. Twelve years later, in 1761, it appears, from an entry in the Guildry minutes, that Newport had been sold to a Mr. Maxwell of Bogmiln, but, as the price had not been paid, the Dean was instructed to confer with Mr. Maxwell, with the view of getting the money out of him. The result of that conference is not stated, but it proved a failure, as we find that twenty years later (1782) a Mr. M'Nab, a writer in Edinburgh, paid £340 to Maxwell's trustees for the interest they had acquired in Newport, which sum was handed over to the Guildry in payment of part of the debt Maxwell was due to the Court. From details of this transaction it appears that, with the consent of the Guildry, the subjects were put up for sale by public roup by the trustees, and that they were bought on behalf of Mr. A. Duncan of St. Fort and Mr. John Lyon of Inverdovat, each proprietor getting back the portion of land which had been originally purchased from his respective estate. It further appeared that, after deducting the sum realised by the sale, Maxwell was still due £189 principal and £192 interest on the lands of Newport. By the year 1787 this balance had been reduced to £21 14s. 9d., on which sum the Guildry accepted a composition of 10s. in the £, and thus the Incorporation got rid of their 'White Elephant' of Newport.
From what has been already stated it will be seen that the house and piers of Newport came into the possession of the proprietors of Inverdovat, and subsequently to Mr. Berry of Tayfield, when he became proprietor of that portion of the old barony. Although two direct ferries were maintained between Dundee and Fife, the one at Woodhaven and the other at what is now known as Newport, the former passage had always been the most popular; and, notwithstanding the exertions of the Guildry, it continued to be most resorted to by passengers down to the beginning of the present century. In 1770 a new turnpike road was constructed to Woodhaven, and that gave an impetus to the traffic by that passage. According to the Statistical Account of the parish, prepared by the Rev. Charles Nairn in 1838, through the exertions of Mr. Berry of Tayfield and his son, another turnpike road was made from Newport, communicating with the road from Woodhaven to Cupar at a point about four miles from Newport, known as Michael's Wood. From that time Newport became the principal route for passengers journeying from the South to Dundee and the North East of Scotland.
We have said that previous to the Guildry of Dundee establishing a harbour at 'Seamylnes', there was only one house in the locality. The building of the inn and the improvement of the road were calculated to attract settlers, but we find that after the lapse of a century very little progress had been made in that direction. In the beginning of the present century Newport consisted of about twenty cottages, scattered here and there on the braes and cliffs. These cottages were chiefly occupied by the boatmen employed at the ferries and their families, the whole population not exceeding one hundred souls. In addition to the boatmen and their families, there were a few tradesmen, such as shoemakers and tailors, who had been attracted to the settlement. Almost on the very spot where the present inn is built was a thatched cottage inhabited by Tibby Landsman, who carried on business as a sort of general merchant, her house and shop being combined under the same roof. The slope now occupied by the inn stables and stableyard was then a fine grassy beach, some parts of which were utilised as 'kail yairds' by the villagers. Two cottages stood on Seacraig Cliff, one of which was occupied by a shoemaker ; while further east, at Craighead, and on other points of the coast, salmon fishing stations had long been established. Since then the aspect of the place has been entirely changed.
Up to the year 1820, when steamboats were, for the first time, put on the passage, the communication was maintained by a fleet of sailing boats, owned and manned by those hardy boatmen. The ferry boats were of two kinds - yawls and pinnaces. The yawls were large, strongly built, and sloop rigged, carried a good spread of canvas, and were adapted for transporting horses, cattle, carts, and carriages. They were fitted with a half deck at the stern, while the fore part was open, the keelson being covered with paving stones, which gave a strong flooring and could be easily cleaned. An inclined plane led from the bows to the bottom of the hold, where the live stock and vehicles were stowed away during the passage. It was not an easy matter to get horses and cattle shipped on board these vessels, and ludicrous scenes were often witnessed at the ferries between bipeds and quadrupeds, especially on market days. The pinnaces were a smaller class of boats, adapted only for the conveyance of passengers. They were smartly built, and were fitted with masts, and carried lug sails like fishing boats. With a good breeze and the tide in their favour, they flew through the water with great speed, and under such circumstances they made the passage in less time than the steamers take to cross. At that time the two landing places on the Fife side were known as the 'West Water' and 'East Water' ferries. About the year 1815 there were somewhere about twenty-five boats plying on the two ferries, giving employment to about one hundred men and boys. The boats were generally owned by their respective crews, who shared in the profits according to the amount of capital each man had invested in the craft. Each boat was under the command or a coxswain or skipper, but beyond that they owned no authority. The crews of the various boats were all independent of each other, and like Hal o' the Wynd, 'fought for their own hand'. An agreement existed amongst them by which they took turns of sailing, and no boat would start from either side unless they had as many passengers as made up a fare of not less than 4s. 6d. There were no fixed hours for sailing, and as the boat would not start until the full complement was made up, the public were often put to great inconvenience. A weary traveller coming from the South, and anxious to reach Dundee by a certain hour, would perhaps arrive at the East or West Ferry expecting to get an expeditious passage across the river, but was often chagrined to find that, though a boat was at the pier, he was compelled to wait till a sufficient number of passengers was made up to make it worth the coxswain's pains to cast his moorings adrift. The stream of traffic across the Tay in those times did not flow so continuously as it does now The boatmen lounged about the pier while waiting for passengers, much the same as cabmen loiter on the cabstances. Time often hung heavily on their hands, and, as Dr. Watt says 'Satan finds some mischief still For idle hands. to do'. It was not to be wondered at that the boatmen resorted too frequently to the inn to ' wet their whistles' and kill the lazy hours. In their anxiety to get as full a complement of passengers as possible, they used to station a man on the face of the brae to watch the road, and, if the sentinel caught a glimpse of a solitary individual wending his way towards the beach, he would wave his hand and shout to the traveller to 'come on, we're just gaen across i' the noo'. Thus abjured, the traveller quickened his pace and reached the pier perspiring and breathless, only to find that the boat was not likely to sail for another half-hour at least.
Such detentions occurred most frequently on the Fife side, the victims being generally solitary pedestrians, who were compelled to 'grin and bear'. The Dundonians were more wide awake to the tricks of the ferrymen, and knew how to manage them better than strangers did. On the Dundee Fair days, when the traffic was great, the boatmen did not scruple to take advantage of the necessities of the public to raise the fares; but on other days, when 'things were slack', they were glad enough to take passengers across on their own terms. There was no regular tariff of fares, but the understood charge was 9d. a head for passengers; but in the competition between the Woodhaven and Newport boats they often accepted 6d. and sometimes 4d. a head rather than lose the chance of a hire. The competition, however, was felt to be ruinous to both parties, and ultimately an agreement was made to the effect that no boat would sail for a less sum than 4s. 6d. a trip.
When this arrangement was adopted, the Dundonians resorted to little subterfuges to outwit the ferrymen. Parties intending to cross the river, on business or pleasure, clubbed together, and having subscribed the orthodox sum, one of the company was despatched to the pier to hire a boat. No stipulation having been made as to numbers, the boatmen discovered, when too late, that they had been 'sold' ; but as they were not a class to submit tamely to such impositions, a row invariably followed, in which 'Billingsgate' compliments were freely bandied on both sides. Such scenes were of daily occurrence at the Craig, but they were invariably wound up by the boatmen giving in, and quietly taking their revenge in another way.
A Fifeshire farmer who had engaged a band of shearers in Dundee, hired a boat at the minimum rate, keeping his thumb on the number that he wanted ferried across. When he brought down his ' hairsters' the boatmen demurred and wanted to back out of the contract, but the farmer took possession of the boat and shipped his passengers, and bullied the captain till he was glad to yield. The pinnace was loaded to the gunwale, but she was pushed off; and her sails trimmed for the passage. A stiff breeze was blowing against the tide, and the water was rather 'lumpy'. The captain put the light craft before the wind and away she sped, plunging her bows into the seas and throwing the spray over the poor passengers. After tacking about for half an hour, drenching the passengers to the skin, and almost frightening them out of their wits, he landed them at Woodhaven instead of Newport, declaring that the state of the wind and tide prevented him from making the latter pier. The farmer and his 'shearers' were only too glad to get ashore after their perilous voyage, even though they had an extra mile to travel.
Soubriquets or nicknames were common amongst the ferrymen, as they are still in all the fishing villages on the coast. A boatman named Johnston, better known by the title of 'King', was one day invited by a brother boatman to dine with him, being promised 'pot luck', a phrase which is understood as an apology for an indifferent entertainment. The 'King' accepted the invitation, as his friend's cottage was nearer than his own, and they were then with their boat at the harbour for passengers. When they entered the cottage they found that dinner was not quite ready, but a huge pot boiling on the fire, and sending forth a savoury odour, promised something worth waiting for. Before the gudewife thought it time to 'dish up', a messenger came in haste and informed them that a lot of passengers were waiting at the pier. There was nothing for it in the circumstances but to obey the summons, and leave the dinner to a more fitting season ; but the 'King' was equal to the emergency. He seized a stick lying at hand, and, whipping off the pot lid, he dived the stick into the heart of the boiling mess, and fished out a huge oatmeal pudding tied by the ends in the shape of a ring. 'Ha, ha!' he laughingly cried, as he swung the stick and the pudding over his shoulder and hurried off to the pier, 'pot luck is gude luck, this'll keep our teeth frae watering or we get hame again'.
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