16th Century Tain

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An article by Margaret Urquhart on 16th century Tain.

There seems to be no plan/map showing the layout of Tain prior to the Boundary commission’s map of 1832, apart from William Roy’s Military Survey map c.1750 and Sangster’s plan of 1750 drawn to show the extent of the lands perambulated by Tain magistrates and citizens.  On the former, the street pattern and overall shape of the town seem to be too regular and the orientation is wrong.  The latter only shows a schematic representation of Tain as the town itself was not the purpose of the plan but it does provide much more detail of the surroundings and some idea of the general shape and the main axes and road links.  It seems unlikely that 1750 Tain would be all that more extensive than Medieval Tain during its heyday of Pilgrimage prior to the Reformation.

The only buildings of Tain that would have formed part of 16th Century Tain remaining visible on the ground are the 3 ecclesiastical buildings – 

1. - the ruined chapel on Knock/Chapel Hill; 

2. - the building used as a “Chapter House” [and later used as a Ross Chapel]; 

3 - The Collegiate Church, built between c1370 and c1458; raised to collegiate status in 1487; confirmed by papal Bull 1492; 

Opinion varies somewhat as regards 1 & 2, as to when they were built, what they were used for and which was the one destroyed by fire; traditionally it was 1 that was set alight c1427 but some believe it was 2; curiously, in 1726 the will of Charles Manson, Town Clerk,  included the request to be buried "within the old parish church of Taine, commonly called St Mary’s Church”; matters are not helped by the fact that in documents all three churches are referred to as the Church of St Duthus (or Duthac); however, his resting place does not show up in a survey of the kirkyard.


1588 – a Decree of Council mentions a schoolhouse beside the College Kirk and Chapter House; The schoolhouse on record from 1588, apparently an old foundation, had ceased to function after the Reformation.

MacGill refers to a schoolhouse that was attached to the Collegiate College which “still stood till the early 19th C at the western wall of the burying ground, close to the entrance” but had entirely vanished by his day, but it is not clear when it was first established.   1765 - schoolhouse in a bad state…schoolmaster had to desert it…had to hire a house for the school;

OSA – 1790s – ‘the inhabitants of the town speak the English but also the Gaelic or Erse;

Parish school still occupying cramped premises in the churchyard; 1765 – in poor condition; 1776 - roof needed re-thatching; however, standard was better in ER than in neighbouring Highland areas;


Documentary information is also rather lacking.  The picture of Tain gained from extracts from charters, sasines etc, for the 16th and early 17th Centuries in MacGill,  is one of small tenement plots (probably in narrow strips) with or without houses, inter mingled with rigs of arable land with perhaps a slightly more solidly built core centred around the Collegiate Church*, the tollbooth/court buildings, mercat cross and High Street, where probably most of the merchants and tradesmen lived, but as No. 423 in MacGill illustrates many of these were also farming some land.  Several tenement plots were often owned by one person and sometimes people from out with Tain.  [No. 53] It is also a picture of constantly changing ownership and landscape.   We also know that most buildings had thatched roofs.  If they conformed to most Scottish Burghs (see MC&T), the walls would have been of rubble* and most windows would have had no glass, only wooden shutters; also they probably had no front gardens and were generally terraced.   Household waste and effluent were thrown out of the windows and raked up with animal droppings into a dungheap (midden) by the door (there are several references in MacGill together with the name “matach” to support this.)  The insubstantial nature of most of the buildings plus the ruinous state of Tain at various times during the 17th Century and early 18th Century, partly due to ravages of fire, (see Poverty & Ruin file) suggests it is unlikely that much, if any, of Medieval Tain has survived.

*Indications are that Leich/Lower Tain formed a more substantial part of the town than at present and into the 19th C.

The documents do mention some specific buildings/features that were probably/possibly there in the 16th Century – 

Provost Nicholas’buildings -  MacGill  Nos. 7 & 936  - in a parchment dated 1560 – a tenement with buildings and garden……in the south part of Tayne below the stream-gully (cavum torrentum) on the W, the common lane on the E and the tenement with buildings (of Provost Nicholas) on the south (which latter must be on the site of the then (i.e.1909) FP church according to MacGill).

St Stephen’s Manse – 1604 “The Ward [enclosed field] in the north of Tayne called St Stephen’s biggings between the common lane to E and common way to W, St Stephen’s Manse to S and common green to N” (which according to MacGill seemed to be properties to NW of the British Linen Bank – now the Bank of Scotland – the “common green lying N of the present Chapel Street”).  If MacGill is right in his assumptions, this is consistent with the triangular-shaped site between Chapel Street and Tower Street which is now occupied by a row of houses and the present St Duthus Hotel.  So if St Stephen’s Manse lay south of this that would tie in with the site of the alleged “oldest building in Tain” at the foot of Quarry Lane.   However, there is no mention of a manse on the actual site being granted in the charter, to substantiate the possibility of the site of the present St Duthus Hotel being once occupied by a manse.

The Ark – so-called by more recent citizens of Tain because it was reckoned to be the oldest building in Tain.  It backed onto Academy Street with the front of the building facing south and occupied most of the space between the foot of Hill Street and Well Street.  [In what was Little Tain.  LT is shown on Roy’s Map c1750 but in 16th C may have been much smaller or an open field site.  The name does not appear in any of the extracts from 16thC documents in MacGill, although there is in 1621 a reference to a road from Little Tain to Morangie.]

 Information given to the museum, by Dr N Carter, stated that it was reputed to have been built during the reign of James II - 1437-1450 and was the residence of one of the early Clerical Provosts of Tain.  What the actual date and purpose of its erection was, we don’t really know but if it was indeed the residence of a Clerical Provost that would explain its size.  However, one might have expected the Provost to have had his residence closer to the Collegiate Church, perhaps, as has sometimes been suggested, Tain “Castle” from which the names Castle Brae, Castle Street and Castlehill are derived.  It appears as “the Old Castle in Tain” in the 1812 Valuation of Burgage Property and appears to have been demolished c1820.  The first OS maps of the 1870s show its supposed site.

The property known as the Knight’s House which was transferred to the St Duthus Masons in1777 to make way for the first mason’s lodge (built in1783) on the site of the present Royal Hotel, may perhaps have dated back to this period although the first known reference is in 1666.  In the 17th and early 18th C documents, we have references to “great dwellings” in and around the High St/St Duthus Street/Tower St junctions.  As with the tenements, crofts, arable land etc. mentioned in the charters, it is difficult to be sure of the exact locations as no names of streets are given in early documents.   They were probably irregular, not proper streets and most probably did not have names.  Instead, locations are given in reference to existing properties – (1) by naming owner; (2) land marks; (3) compass directions (often just the 4 cardinal points and vague statements such as in the “west pairt of the burgh”); (4) by giving the name of the piece of land/croft etc. – names unfortunately long forgotten; King’s high way was a general term for any road as opposed to a rough street, lane, vennel etc.  Other expressions – common land; common way; common lonnigis (loanings/paths); common braes; common moor; common green.   

The Mercat Cross was of course pivotal to 16th Century Tain [from “Historic Tain” - Market place at W end of High Street marked by the Mercat cross in existence by 1483]; although most of it no longer exists and the 1895 restored/reconstructed version has a different location.  MacGill deduced its original location from references in the documents and a photo taken from the Royal Hotel during the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887, showing a fountain on what would appear to be the original site of the cross.  Apart from it being the focal point of the marketplace, a place of public pronouncements and punishments, we have e.g. in 1561,   “a jury inquest into heirship of property was made at the Mercat Cross”.    From the Council Minutes of 1778 we are told the cross was a nuisance to wheeled traffic so was to be taken down & the long stone & lion to be replaced on a pedestal on the same spot; masons repairing the Council house to take down the walls around the cross and use the stones.  According to a newspaper article at the time of its restoration, when the marketplace was moved to Market Street [late 18th/early 19th Century?), the cross was moved to “west side of the door leading into the old tower which was then a prison”.  Then c1840 it was demolished “in a drunken lark” and the pieces seemingly were dumped somewhere on the Links.

Associated with the Mercat cross was the Tolbooth where the tolls and customs were collected – an important source of income to Tain as it had a number of trading rights; Tain has had a number of tollbooths and council houses on roughly the same site; there are references to “ye tolbuith” in the 1580s & 1590s but nothing is known about it including when it was built; the fact that the documents destroyed in the fire c1427 were being stored in whatever chapel was burnt suggests perhaps there was no tollbooth at that point; whatever form it took it was replaced c1631 by a seemingly square building with turrets with a lower adjoining building possibly a courthouse.  As to its site the following appears in a fragment of an 18th-century paper:- “Petition (…….) vacant place in the Kirkyard where the steeple of the burgh formerly stood (….) for a burial place.”  MacGill using documentary information, came to the conclusion that the Old Tolbooth was located “between the present Tower and the Churchyard and from probing, the ground there, found a space of at least 16 feet square, which seemed “full of stones at a depth of a foot or so below the sod.”  This building preceded the current tower.

The site on which Tain was built is crucial to understanding Medieval Tain.

Numerous cellars etc. exist under the current buildings along the main Tower Street/High Street/Lamington Street axis.  The existence of all these cellars etc. can easily be explained by geomorphology.  On the north side of the High street, you have the steep edge of the raised terrace and on the south side, there is also rising ground, albeit not so steep.  The only way to build into the sloping ground is to have some parts of the building below ground level.  Two main burns and one or two minor ones crossed this terrace so would have cut down into the surface – how deeply and widely cannot be judged today but would have meant bridging and later filling in and some levelling of the main east to west streets.  Between these burns, which still function as Tain’s main drains and sewers, the streets are unlikely to be much elevated above their original levels, despite apocryphal tales of people entering at one end of the High Street and emerging at the other.

Current buildings were possibly built on foundations of older ones and some buildings may have occupied part of the banks of the burns so the cellars are possibly showing traces of an earlier Tain, some parts of which were originally above street level.  (Whether any of these remains are Medieval, is not currently known.)

The levelling no doubt took place over a long period of time (minor levelling was still taking place in the 19th C) and just exactly what and when is difficult to reconstruct except for that which took place in the latter half of the 19th C when a coordinated system of sewerage and drainage finally took place.   Because of the number of burns which passed through the town, the high ways running W-E (or more precisely NW-SE) along the line of the raised beach, were bound to be anything but level and bridges must have featured from early times. The main filling in and levelling would obviously have taken place at and around these bridging points so any remains of earlier buildings are most likely to occur at these sites. It is difficult to know today just how deeply the burns cut into the edge of the raised beach and thus how much levelling was involved.  

There are references at various times to the following bridges – the most substantial bridge must have been the one which crossed the Eastern Altmatach and now links the High Street and Lamington Street  (possibly known as the Aultmatach Bridge) with 2 smaller bridges lower down, one at the foot of Crammond Brae and one carrying the way to the Chapel; there was also the Little Bridge taking the continuation of the High Street (now known as Tower Street) across the Little Burn; a bridge at Little Tain across the Western Altmatach and a bridge lower down carrying the way that led to the shore.  


The early bridges would no doubt have been wooden structures.  No. 1172 in MacGill* suggests some kind of stone-built structure being built/improved/added to, over the Eastern Altmatach in 1655 - the date of the current structure is unknown (but may be the original one with some rebuilding.)  It is my opinion that the structure at the foot of Geanies Street was built 1789/90 with a later extension c1812/13; at some time between 1832 & 1871, a bridge was built creating a more direct link between Queen Street (Back Street) & Stafford Street and forming the triangle at Cadboll Place.  

*1655 [1172] – (   ) compeirit John Fead measson wha…..electit frie burgess and gild brother, for the qch (    ) is obleist to build and (     ) the commone brigg in the south east pairt of the sd bruch wt ane piece of brocher work consisting of 14 foot in the breadth betwixt both batteries and the batterie on eche syd to be twa futt in height, with ane litel brig on the watter passing betwixt Walter Durrie (?) his tenement and the tent if the aires of ….. Jacob Cupper, the magistrates ffurnicheing the sd Johne clay and lyme for the service and materials for the entrie of the over brigg ……