Not from St Cyrus after all …

More family history news:

The family history legend had been that we had been tenant farmers for a very long time. Obviously not every son got to be a farmer, so some had gone off to do other jobs.

So far so good.

Now I’d kind of assumed that all this had happened in the St Cyrus area as that’s where the immediate family connections were, and where I knew my great grandfather had had a farm.

Not a bit of it.

The 1871 census recorded place of birth as well as where people lived and my great grandfather’s place of birth was Forfar.

My great grandmother was listed as being born in Montrose.

My great grandfather was listed as being a crofter, so I’m guessing that sometime in the 1860’s he moved to the St Cyrus area to take up a tenancy.

Now obviously there’s a bit more work to do here, but I had a bit of luck.

I’ve been using a free account on one of these commercial ancestry sites, MyHeritage, as I find their family tree graphing tool fairly intuitive to use. and what’s more they allow you to export your data in Gedcom format, which most genealogical software can read.

Now, quite often they tell you about possible matches in an effort to get you to sign up, but this time they offered a free match to a family tree based on my great uncle, which took me back a generation, to 1814 no less, when my great great grandfather was born in Kinettles near Forfar.

The information is a bit sketchy – birth marriage and death records where not kept officially until 1854, and there are only partial census records before 1841 – so there’s going to have to be a bit of detective work to fill in the blanks.

It’s also complicated because the land tenure system was such that most of the farms were let to tenants, and the tenant farmers would in turn hire – fee in Scots – farm workers – who were termed farm servants – and other sorts domestic servants for a fixed term – often six months, sometimes a year.

The consequence was that people did move about in their area between fees and tenancies.

But what we do have is the Horse Tax and Male and Female servant tax records, organised by parish, from the 1790’s.

A quick and dirty search shows a number of Moncurs – both male and female employed as servants in the area, and at least one man, Peter Moncur of Kirkton by Tealing, who had to pay the horse tax, and who I might guess to be a tenant farmer.

However more work, much more work, is required …

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No castle, but an island …

Back on the family history front again …

A few days ago I received an email from another Moncur – actually a Moncure – who’d found my blog posts and wondered if we might be related.

The answer, of course, is possibly, but how close is difficult to say – I’m still working on my father’s chain of descent to see who is connected to whom and who the various siblings were.

But one question that came up was whether the Moncur Castle by Inchture was anything to do with us.

Surprisingly, the answer is probably not.

Now I’ve driven past Inchture innumerable times and there used to be a sign for Moncur Pigs, and given our family’s farming connections in the area I kind of assumed we must have some vague connection to a pig farming business in the area.

What I didn’t know as there was actually a castle – or more accurately a ruined renaissance period tower house – called Moncur Castle.

A quick search of the web suggests however that the name is coincidental – the 1860 large scale Ordnance Survey map shows the area quite clearly:

moncur castle 1867 survey map

there’s a farmstead called Moncur, a Moncur burn and a ruined castle Moncur  – all of which kind of suggests that it’s the location that is called Moncur – perhaps after some previous leaseholder who’s dropped out of the historical record. It also means that the pig farm was named after the location and not the owner, and most probably has no family connection.

The Historic Scotland record is quite clear that the house and the land was in the hands of the Kinnaird family, which was still the case in the 1820’s as in this 1819 gazetteer entry for Inchture:

1819 gazateer for Inchture

But there is a Moncur island – actually two islands, East and West Moncoeur Island, first recorded by Lieutenant James Grant of the Royal Navy in 1800.

In his account of the voyage, he is quite clear that he named it for Captain John Moncur of the Royal Navy:

moncur's island

According to the New Jamaica Almancack of 1801, there’s only one John Moncur, listed as a serving naval officer, so I’m guessing that’s our guy.

Irritatingly John Moncur does not turn up in the Royal Navy Service Records held by the UK National Archives, most likely due to the fact that records before 1840 were not maintained systematically, but he has left a long enough tail behind him in other sources to get the rough shape of his career, as well as some evidence he shows up on the various genealogy websites, but if he is a relative, I can say we have an island or two …

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My very short career as a re-enactor

A week or so before Christmas I posted the following tweet:

Annotation 2020-01-10 144707

of me looking vaguely Dickensian.

At the time it probably looked like a bit of festive fun – which it was.

Recently they have restored the Victorian Fountains in Town Hall Gardens, and one of our friends who is a stringer for the local paper, the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, had the idea of recreating this photograph of the fountain from the 1880’s to coincide with the official event commemorating its restoration:

beechworth fountain original

Well it didn’t happen. The day was over 40C and the photoshoot was postponed, but the day before New Year’s Eve, we all dressed up to have our picture taken as Victorian gentelmen.

another reenactment picture b w

My inspiration was the famous photograph of I.K. Brunel standing in baggy pants and muddy boots at the launch of the Great Eastern:


but for some reason this time  I looked more like the Cat in the Hat than a nineteenth century speculator, but hey the show must go on.

fountain article

As it was, the article only came out in this week’s edition, but I think it works, even though we look rather more like local worthies than the council grounds staff who featured in the original picture.

Just for fun, I used pixlr to antique the photograph, and I think we look pretty good

fountain restoration sepia

even though the image doesn’t have quite the softness of some early glass plate photographs …

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Goosefoot and ground elder

Earlier today I posted the following tweet:

Annotation 2019-12-26 154232

in response to an article on that suggested that goosefoot could form an important food source.

Well, if you’ve had amaranth in an Indian meal, or eaten quinoa, you’ve eaten Chenopodium. Goosefoot is not these, but a wild form that used to be foraged by early farmers in Europe.

We know they ate it because we’ve found the seed in their cess pits, mixed in storge pits and even preserved in the stomachs of bog bodies.

It’s not really on the menu these days, but about thirty years ago in a moment of archeobotanical experimentation a former girlfriend cooked some up much as you would use amaranth.

Let’s simply say it was uncompromisingly strong flavoured. You would eat it if you have to, but I wouldn’t cross the street for it. Spinach is definitely nicer.

On the subject of spinach, the same girlfriend also experimented on me by using ground elder in place of spinach.

Certainly it was nicer than goosefoot, but still pretty tough and chewy compared to the spinach you either grow at home or buy from the supermarket.

And I think that tells us something – there are a lot of foods out there which are good and nutritious, but need special handling, perhaps because like goosefoot and warrigal greens, they are high in oxalates, or other toxins, or like groundelder, simply havn’t been bred to be the most palatable, which means picking an processing them takes work.

Much much easier to get a bag of prewashed spinach from the supermarket …

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Seventeenth century robustness

Every year, I send out a Season’s Greetings tweet, usually enlivened by an amusing image I have shamelessly ripped off from somewhere.

Nothing quite like the rural pursuits of a restoration Christmas  ___

This year it came from some seventeenth century ballad sheet purely because the last two lines of the first verse read

And to our Christmas feast their comes,
Young men and Maid to shake their bums



(I’ve removed the long s’s of the original for readability).

Now this is actually quite interesting.

Years of BBC classic series have conditioned us to think of sixteenth and seventeenth century dance as mannered and rather formal, with people stepping through the dance in an overly dignified way, yet one thing we do know about seventeenth century dance is that music like that in Playford’s Dancing Master can be played with considerable verve and brio.

They may have been the same dances as the slow and stately ones but I’m immediately reminded of the contrast between the rather twee Ladies’ Country Dance Society and the mayhem of of a bush dance in a barn in Wales that I once went to that featured all the old country dance favourites but performed at double speed.

I’ll let you guess which was (a) more fun and (b) may well have involved bumshaking.

And of course one also has to mention that indispensable fashion accessory, the bumroll.

Now again most fashion history tends to focus on what the upper classes wore, for the simple reason that that is what we have most evidence for.

However, people being people, I’m sure that seventeenth century maids were as likely to dress up as their twenty first century sisters, except that rather than a push up bra they chose a bumroll, possibly a more modest affair than those worn by high society, but still enough of a roll to accentuate the movement of the hips, and that, coupled with energetic dancing, would almost certainly resulted in a decent amount of bum shaking …


(the ballad the passage comes from is the Shropshire Wakes or Hay for Christmas – if you want to see the original ballad sheets there’s a couple online at the Bodleian, and if you prefer the text in a more modern and readable font there’s quite a nice online transcription that gives a bit of background)



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Masque and Commedia dell’Arte

Well it was Christmas Day Chez Moncur.

We had feasted, talked, skyped those we should skype, phoned others and by mid evening we were heading for that Christmas day slump provoked by a combination of turkey, ham, champagne and mince pies.

We thought we might watch a movie, but ended up up watching a BBC Scotland documentary on Prince Henry Frederick Stuart instead.

In the middle of the program, there’s a discussion of the the Masque of Oberon by Thomas Dekker.

Thomas Dekker, was of course mates with Ben Jonson, and may have written some scenes for Shakespeare, however the thing that struck me about the Masque of Oberon was that it sounded a little like some of the passages from Ae Satyre of the Thrie Estatis, and a lot like some Commedia dell’Arte works of the period.

It also bought to mind my post of a couple of years ago about Mary Queen of Scots and Darnley’s death. In it I suggested that really the shenanigans at Hollyrood was really a burlesque performance influenced by Commedia dell’Arte and other robust Scottish theatrical traditions, and so perhaps, just perhaps in the Masque of Oberon, we see this Scots tradition inserting itself into English Jacobean theatre.

This area seems to be under researched – research into Shakespeare and his contemporaries dominate English research into theatre history.

The only authoritative source I could find for the history of Scottish early modern theatre was Robb Lawson’s 1917 Story of the Scots Stage (fortunately digitised and readily available online) which looks as if it will repay reading.

As always there may be other more recent work, but if there is, it’s locked away behind a paywall …



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Langurs and early iron age trade in the Arabian sea

Earlier today, I tweeted a link to a New Scientist report that a monkey in a Minoan wall painting from Thera had been identified as possibly a Grey langur from the Indus valley, a couple of thousand kilometres from Thera in the Mediterranean.

The Indus valley civilization was of course roughly contemporary with not only Minoan Crete but also the rise of Babylon as a great power, which traded widely with other cities over the fertile crescent, including Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast among others.

Ugarit is important, as we have found Mycenean pottery there, which provides definitive evidence of links to bronze age Greece and by implication Minoan Crete.

We also have found Minoan style wall paintings in bronze age buildings in what is now Israel and Palestine, suggesting that Minoan fresco painters may also have been peripatetic.

Importantly, archaeological work in the UAE and Oman is revealing that the Gulf littoral was occupied by thriving bronze age settlement where people mined for copper.

Copper, being an ingredient of bronze, would of course been traded on, both up and down the Gulf.

The result of this is that we can posit a trading network linking the Indus Valley and the Mediterranean in bronze age times.

So, bronze age Greece would have had access to resources from India, in much the same way as lapis lazuli reached Egypt from Afghanistan.

So, while it’s possible that someone from Minoan Crete did visit the Indus valley and see langurs, it’s equally possible that they only got as far as Ugarit or perhaps Babylon and saw captive langurs.

John Masefield in his poem Cargoes may have been more right than he realised, even if the reality was probably some battered coastal dhow making its way up the Gulf from port to port rather than a stately quinquereme –

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
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