Ordnance Survey large scale Scottish town plans, 1847-1895

MONTROSE (surveyed in 1861-2)




Montrose is built on a plateau between the North Sea and the tidal Montrose basin, on the east coast of the county of Angus. The name, which is derived from Scots Gaelic moine ('moor' or peat bed') and ros ('promontory'), means 'the peat moss of the promontory'. The town was part of King David I's ambitious programme of town planning, and was granted its royal burgh charter between 1124 and 1153. The natural harbour formed by the River South Esk, which bounded the town to the south and linked Montrose basin with the sea, ensured that Montrose prospered as a trading centre and grew steadily through the centuries, despite being affected by outbreaks of plague and caught in the crossfire of the civil war in the seventeenth century. The population of the parliamentary burgh of Montrose, including the old royal burgh boundaries and some newer suburbs, was measured in 1861 at 14,563.


Town Planning

The layout of Montrose is one of the best examples of early burgh planning in Scotland. The long High Street runs along a natural ridge, broadening out at its south end to an open marketplace, around which are grouped the town house and the parish church (sheet XXXV.2.18.). A castle once sat further to the south west, overlooking the river. For a period the medieval layout of the town was obscured when a row of houses, the Rotten Row, was built down the middle of the lower part of the High Street, but this was demolished in 1748 and the town restored to its original design. In common with other towns on the east coast of Scotland, many of the older houses were built with their gable ends facing the street and the sea, to afford added protection against the strong winds.


Trade and Industry

Montrose in the early- to mid-nineteenth century was a diverse and successful manufacturing town. The principal industry was flax spinning, and the town contained five flax mills, employing over 2,000 people. On the River North Esk, close to the town, there were an additional three flax mills, and two bleaching works. Handloom and power-loom linen weaving was a also a significant industry in 1850s Montrose, employing approximately 1,400 people. The town contained three starch-making factories, two tan works, two iron foundries, two machine-making factories, a soap factory, two rope works, a shipyard, several breweries and miscellaneous workshops. Montrose was also a market town for the surrounding agricultural area, and weekly grain and produce markets were held on Fridays, in addition to fairs at Martinmas and Whitsunday. The principal exports out of Montrose harbour were manufactured goods, fish grain and cattle, and the main imports were coal, lime, slate, iron, flax, hemp and timber. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, trade and industry in Montrose suffered during an economic slump, and the population of the town fell.



Farming in the area around Montrose was predominantly arable, and the sandy nature of much of the soil meant that it was not particularly rich farming country. The most consistently profitable crops grown in the area were grass, wheat and turnips. The water that surrounded Montrose on three sides was probably a greater provider of wealth to the town. Montrose basin was a rich source of mussels, and the South Esk contained a pearl fishery and salmon fisheries. Sea fishing had been an important part of Montrose's economy throughout its history, and in the nineteenth century three vessels from Montrose were involved in the whaling industry.


Religious Life

The existing parish church of Montrose was built in 1791, on the site of the original parish church, and holds 2,500 people. Despite the vast size of the parish church, there was a second established Church of Scotland building in mid-nineteenth century Montrose, known as the Melville Church. There were in addition two Free churches, St John's and St George's, two United Presbyterian churches, a Scottish Episcopalian church, an English Episcopalian church, two Independent chapels, a Baptist chapel, a Wesleyan Methodist chapel and a Glassite church. The Christian community of Montrose was later to become a significant theme in the novel Imagined Corners, by the Montrose-born author Willa Muir (1890-1970).


Schools and Education

Montrose Academy (sheet XXXV.2.19) was built in 1815 on the Middle Links, a strip of sandy parkland that separates the old town centre from the later industrial areas by the sea. In the 1850s the staff of the academy comprised a reactor, a rector's assistant, four masters and a mistress. The subjects taught at the academy were Latin, Greek, natural philosophy, physical geography, mathematics, arithmetic, ancient geography, modern geography, history, English grammar, composition, modern languages, writing, drawing and needlework. Other schools in the community at this time included Dorward's Seminary, which had two masters; the Loanhead Sessional School, White's Free School and Stratton's Free School, which were each conducted by one master; St John's Free Church schools, where English, writing and industrial studies were taught; the burgh infant school, whose staff was entirely female; and the Castle Street schools, which were for children of the lower classes and established on the principles of ragged schools.


Other Institutions

The grandeur of some of the public buildings that had been erected in Montrose by the mid nineteenth century, such as the academy and the parish church, reflect the prosperity the burgh had enjoyed over the centuries. The current town-house, built in 1763, was another example, its elegant façade with clock and pediment dominating the view down the High Street. The trades-hall was built just to the north of the town-house, on the east side of the High Street. The nineteenth century also saw the construction of a new prison, a new infirmary, and an enlarged psychiatric hospital, or 'lunatic asylum'. Various courts were regularly held in the town, including a police court, held every Thursday morning and presided over by the burgh provost, and a sheriff small debt court on the third Friday of most months. In the 1850s Montrose contained branches of seven different banks, twenty-nine insurance offices and a marine assurance association. There were two weekly newspapers, the Montrose Review and the Montrose Standard, published every Friday. Rail first reached Montrose via branch line from the main Aberdeen line in 1848, although it was not until 1881 that a through line opened in Montrose, eventually linking the town to Edinburgh and London in the 1890s.


Culture and Society

Montrose had rich and varied cultural and leisure facilities in the mid nineteenth century. There were three public libraries and three public news-rooms in the burgh in the 1850s. Montrose Natural and Antiquarian Society had its own museum, which was particularly valuable for its natural history collections, and was open to the public at a small charge. Other societies included a horticultural society, a choral society, a Bible society, and various philanthropic societies. The town had fine public swimming baths, a long-established golf club and a curling club, and at one stage had had a racecourse, although this had fallen into disuse by the 1850s.


A View of the Character of the People of Montrose from 1845

'When, a few years ago, cholera threatened the town, great exertions were made to promote among the lower ranks attention to cleanliness, the want of which was then ascertained to exist to an extent of which previously many had no idea; and, although some may have been thus brought to see and to feel its advantages, yet there is still considerable room for improvement in this respect.' (from the Statistical Account)





Groome, Francis H. (ed.), 1894-5. The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland; a survey of Scottish topography, statistical, biographical, and historical, 2nd ed., (London: William Mackenzie)


Mackay, George, 2000. Scottish Place Names (New Lanark: Lomond)


Smith, Robert, 2001. The Making of Scotland: a comprehensive guide to the growth of its cities, towns and villages (Edinburgh: Canongate)


Wilson, Rev. John Marius (ed.), 1857. The Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland or Dictionary of Scottish Topography (Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co.)


Edina Website – Online Statistical Accounts of Scotland - http://edina.ac.uk/statacc/