History of the priory

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Angus residents will be familiar with the ruined Priory situated just outside the town of Forfar, .

Photographs abound in books and on-line, while the history of this important religious site is less well-known.

At the well-attended February meeting of Forfar and District Historical Society, members of the audience were privileged to listen to a presentation by Professor Richard Oram, a Scottish historian who is deputy head of the School of Arts and Humanities and Professor of Medieval and Environmental History at the University of Stirling, and an honorary lecturer in history at the University of Glasgow.

Professor Oram has had an interest in history from an early age, and admitted that he had partly developed this interest from a habit of rescuing history books, including a volume by A Jervaise, which would otherwise have landed in a skip!

There has long been speculation that the priory was established by Nechtan, king of the Picts, around 715, but it is more popularly believed that the oldest part of the building dates from the 11th century, which makes it one of the earliest standing pieces of stone architecture in Scotland.

There is little written history until the 12th century, when it received the patronage of King David I in the form of the grant of royal estates by which the work of the priory could be financed.

Professor Oram, somewhat ‘tongue in cheek’, likened this practice to a form of ‘fire insurance’ rather than beneficence, the object (hopefully) being the saving of the soul of the patron from ultimate consignment to eternal flames, due to his previous misdeeds!

In 1162, the priory gained more importance when King Malcolm IV placed it under the guardianship of Jedburgh Abbey.

The occupants of the priory are often referred to as ‘monks’, when they were actually canons of the Augustinian order who chose to live in a monastic style.

The granting by the king of considerably more land and other income from in and around Angus ensured the viability of what was a comparatively small priory, otherwise dependent on the mother-church at Jedburgh.

One surprising source of income was the fish-market at Forfar, which the speaker explained as being a centre for eels and fish caught in Forfar Loch (then much larger than today) and other nearby inland waters.

Eventually, the priory fell into disuse, having become somewhat eclipsed by the emergence of the more grand abbey founded at Arbroath, while the priory’s Chapel of Ease in Forfar became the Parish Church, on the site of the present East and Old Church.

This must have been an enormous relief to the worshippers of the town, whose attendance at Restenneth during winters such as we had last year must have been a trial of endurance.

It is perhaps appropriate that such an important historical site should now be the home of Angus Archives, on whose website can be found an excellent concise history of Restenneth Priory.

There may also have been a link in the popularity of the area among royalty, having regard to the former castle situated in Forfar’s Castlehill, described as one of the most important royal residences of the time.

The next meeting of the society will be on Thursday, March 1 at 7.30 pm in the East and Old Parish Church Hall, Chapel Street, when Miss Nora Craig will speak of ‘Researching the Carnegys of Lour’.