This story is of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, “who beautiful in their lives, in death are not divided.” These beauteous lassies were said to have charmed the heart of all the local laddies. They are still fondly remembered to this day, in song and by the naming of hills after them all over the world. This is a sad story charged as would they say with a tender pathos. It is the tale of two local girls who tried to run away and take refuge from the danger during a very dark time.
Once, long ago there were two bonnie gentry lassies, who built a bouir (bower) in a secluded spot to isolate themselves from the plague which was raging with great fury throughout the land. Some say that it happened in 1666 but is more likely to have occurred in late 1645 or early 1645. The location of this tragedy was the romantic spot of Burn-Braes, on the side of Beanchie Burn, just northwest of Dalcrue Bridge, which is west of Pitcairngreen.
The first four lines of the local ballad about them survived:
Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses,
They biggit a bower on yon burn brae,
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes.
The rest has been lost, except the concluding stanza:
They wadna lie in Methven kirkyard,
Amang their gentle kin;
But they wad lie in Dronoch Haugh,
To beek fornent the sin.
Bessie and Mary both had the same admirer they say, a youth who was romantically in love with both. On finding that they were starving, eating one account said, black snails, he made it his duty to deliver daily, food from the borough town of St. Johnstoun (Perth). But one day, he also brought the pestilence, Bessie sickened right away, and Mary nursed her until she to succumbed and died.
The youth was said to have informed Mary’s father of the tragedy and he hired ‘cleansers’ to move the bodies to the Gray family vault in Methven Collegiate Church. Fortunate survivors who had recovered from the disease and were the immune ‘cleansers,’ they were the only ones who could safely look after the dead. The ‘cleansers’ carried the bodies towards a ford over the river Almond where their passage was opposed by apprehensive local people, they were concerned about the further spread of the disease. The bodies of the girls had to be left at the foot of the brae of Dronach Haugh, near to their bouir.
According to custom in cases of the plague, the bodies could not receive parochial sepulchre in a church graveyard. They could only be left to lie in the open, in a sequestered spot and “beik fornenst” the sun. That is until the flesh had disappeared and only the skeletons remained. They were later properly buried when the plague subsided, at the spot where they lay, by the banks of the river Almond.
The young man’s name is unknown, it is thought he was a laddie from Monidie (Moneydie), in some accounts he is said to have died with them and was laid at the feet of the girls. Later visitors to the grave could find no marks indicating a third grave. Another story goes that the youth bought the girls a gift he bought from a pedlar, that they received a pearl necklace, or a lace handkerchief which was stolen from the body of a plague victim. It is also possible that the youth was just a later addition to the story, to include into the songs and nursery rhymes, a courageous hero character.
The Plaque was principally spread by the mass movement of people, and it is more likely the deaths of Bessie and Mary were after the Battle of Tippermuir or during Cromwell’s Army occupation of Perth (Cromwell’s army occupied Perth from 1651 to 1658). The major Royalist and Covenanters Battle of Tippermuir (War of the Three Kingdoms) was fought in the September of 1644. The Battle of Tippermuir took place between Tibbermore Church and Glendevon Farm (Noah’s Ark), about 5 miles southeast of Dronach Haugh. Thousands of soldiers marching up the Burghmuir Road in Perth and onto the Old Gallows Road, must have been quite a sight. An excellent account of this battle can be found on the madeinperth.org website.
Battle of Tippermuir ~ 1 September 1644 – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155
The ‘pestilencia’ was commonly known as the Black Death and visited Perth in the 1350’s and again in 1584/5, as well around 1645 and again in 1652. Perthshire was ravaged quite often by this highly contagious pestilence. Some six known devastating plague epidemics were known to affect Scotland. An estimated fifty million people in Europe died during the 1347 to 1352 epidemic.
Perth city in those days was very often unsanitary, the Town Lade (watercourse) was not only used as the city defense, but as a sewer and a source of drinking water. The plaque in 1645 reduced Perth’s population by one-sixth. On 24 July 1645 the Scottish Parliament moved to Perth after the plague had reached Stirling, eleven days later the first Perth victims were reported. People in Perth refused to bury the dead and corpses were left to rot in the streets. During one epidemic in Scotland, a third of the population are thought to have died. In England during an epidemic, nine-tenths of the population were thought to have perished. The plague was described in those days as the ‘Terror of Scotland.’
The Great Plague of London started in 1665 but it did not spread to Scotland as the Scottish Government on the orders of the Privy Council closed the border and various seaports. All trade was halted with infected countries such as England and the Netherlands, a 40-day quarantine was additionally imposed on goods imported from these places. This 17th century version of a national lock-down worked, no cases of Bubonic Plague were recorded in Scotland at this time.
The actual grave is at the foot of Dronach (or Dranoch or Stronach) Haugh. Dronach can mean brambles and in some texts, it is said to mean sorrowful. Major Augustine Barry of Lednock wrote a letter on 21 June 1781 regarding the two girls. It was published in the “Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” Vol. II, 1822. It gives an account of how he was shown the grave, removed the briars, thorns and fern, enclosed it with a wall, planted flowering shrubs and fixed a stone on the wall inscribed with their names. This was the first ever written account of the story; the tale having only survived being passed down orally and made into nursery rhymes.
Bessie Bell in all probability was the daughter of the Lord of Kinvaid, Patrick Gray. Kinvaid Castle was to the east of Moneydie. Mary Gray was the daughter of the Lord of Lednock or Lednoch, which later became Lynedoch.
Later in time, Mr. Thomas Graham of Balgowan’ “the Gallant Graham, Hero of Barrosa” (1811 Peninsular War, Siege of Cádiz) discovered the grave had fallen into a dilapidated state. He had the remains of the wall removed and a parapet with five feet high iron railings erected. He covered the graves with a stone slab on which had the words inscribed “They lived, they loved, they died.” The railing still stands but the stone slab is no longer visible, at one time being covered with stones brought by many incurable romantics who have made pilgrimages to this shrine, nowadays by earth and leaves.
The 1748 – 1843, Lord Lynedoch (Thomas Graham or Graeme) fought as a General with Wellington in Spain and Portugal, he rests in his mausoleum along with his wife and mother which is in Methven and Logiealmond (Collegiate) churchyard. The Lynedoch Monument is on the North Inch and the Lynedoch Obelisk is near Scone, at the top of the hill, southwest of the Murrayshall House Hotel.
Many hills throughout the world are named after Bessie (Bessy) Bell and Mary Gray. Bessy Bell hill also known as Sliabh Troim (The Mountain of the Elders), is a Sperrin Mountain summit in the county of Fermanagh and Omagh, Northern Ireland. Twin sentinel hills in Staunton, Virginia, USA are named after them and two hills in the Auckland volcanic field of New Zealand were also once named after them. Otara Hill and Green Hill in New Zealand were referred to by 19th century settlers as Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.
The love story of Bessie and Mary became even more famous when it was written as children’s nursery rhymes. It was also translated into English and appropriated (credited), as being about English Kings’ daughters (Elizabeth (Bessy) and Mary). I would recommend the folk song version of the Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, sung by, Cherish the Ladies. Many other folk artists have recorded this song, for example Steeleye Span, Ewan McColl and Maddy Prior.
If you wish to visit the grave site, from Dalcrue Bridge head up along the Almond (north side of the river). As the crow flies, the distance to the graves from the bridge is about 1.5 miles, but access is best obtained by going around the old RN Stores. This will involve crossing fields, some climbing up slopes and going over a fence, it will as well increase the distance by at least a mile or two. The River Almond has steep banks here, at the bend in the river, look down and you will see where Bessie Bell and Mary Gray lie. A pile of stones surrounded by an iron fence marks the graves. To access the Burn-Braes, the bouir spot is quite difficult, you must go all the way round the Dronach Haugh or climb up the steep side. Please respect the countryside and the people who live in that area.
Scotland’s National Bard, Rabbie Burns was invited to visit the graves during his 3rd Northern Tour in 1787. He did not, but he did meet with the Graham’s at Blair one day. Had Rabbie Burns visited the graves, one might wonder what genius inspired song or poem might have been written about these two bonnie Perthshire lassies.
The Dictionary of the Scots Language website, dsl.ac.uk is a great resource for help with the poet Allan Ramsay’s well-known version of the song. It was first published in 1720 (Ramsay was part of the Scottish Enlightenment, as was Rabbie Burns):
O, Bessie Bell, and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses;
They biggit a bouir on yon burn-brae,
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes.
Bessie Bell I lo’ed yestreen,
And thocht I ne’er could alter;
But Mary Gray’s twa pawky een
Gard a’ my fancy falter.
Bessie’s hair’s like a lint-tap,
She smiles like a May mornin’,
When Phœbus starts frae Thetis’ lap,
The hills with rays adornin’
White is her neck, saft is her hand,
Her waist and feet fu’ genty,
With ilka grace she can command:
Her lips, O, wow! they’re denty.
Mary’s locks are like the craw,
Her een like diamond’s glances;
She’s aye sae clean, redd-up, and braw;
She kills whene’er she dances.
Blythe as a kid, wi’ wit at will,
She blooming, tight, and tall is,
And guides her airs sae gracefu’ still;
O, Jove, she’s like thy Pallas!
Young Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
Ye unco sair oppress us;
Our fancies jee between ye twa,
Ye are sic bonnie lasses.
Wae’s me! for baith I canna get;
To ane by law we’re stentit;
Then I’ll draw cuts, and tak’ my fate,
And be wi’ ane contentit.
Research by Ken Bruce
The naming of the Staunton hills was by an Irishman, John Lewis, who migrated from the province of Ulster to Staunton in 1732. One day he had been ordered to vacate his leased property in Ulster by his landlord, Lewis got in a gunfight with him. The property owner killed Lewis’ invalid brother and wounded his wife. Lewis decided to leave on the first ship to America and was later joined by his recovered wife. Once he established Staunton, Virginia in the Shenendoah Valley, he honoured the memories of the Scottish girls by bestowing their names on two hills. Washington DC is about 150 miles Northeast of Staunton Virginia.
Perth was also hit by a Cholera epidemic in the 1830’s (The PRI opened in 1814).
Rabbie Burns connection
The first four lines of the song were from a long-forgotten poet, is all that exists of the original poem today. The next lines or the whole poem could have been written by the Poet, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe. The first publication was by the Poet, Allan Ramsay. He is also believed to have either written this entire song or created it by expanding an older one. It is also said that it was written down by Ramsay from the singing of two elderly persons, one of them a native of Perthshire. It was first published in 1720, Ramsay was part of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The Scottish Enlightenment notables include Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, Joseph Black and James Hutton. The fields that rapidly advanced during this time were philosophy, political economy, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, law, agriculture, chemistry, and sociology.
Josaih Walker who was known as the biographer of Robert Burns, wrote a long letter to Burns from Blair Castle, it contained the following passage: When you pay your promised visit to the braes of Ochtertyre, Mr. and Mrs. Graham, of Balgowan, beg to have the pleasure of conducting you to the bower (graves) of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, which is now in their possession.
Rabbie did visit Ochtertyre in 1787 on his third northern tour. I can see no record of a visit to the graves, it appears he did not stop and deal with the story. He did meet with Neil Gow on arrival in Dunkeld where they adjourned to the Inver Inn. On the following day Burns dined with the Duke at Blair.
At Blair, according to the book, Life of Robert Burns by John Stuart Blackie, he had the good fortune to meet Mr Thomas Graham of Balgownie (Balgowan, west of Tibbermore on the old Crieff Road), and his beautiful spouse, a daughter of Lord Cathcart, and sister of the Duchess of Atholle, the Honourable Mrs Mary Graham.
Thomas Gainsbourgh painted Mrs Graham in 1777, she was one of his ‘beautiful ladies’. The Gainsborough portrait is on display in the Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh. It was donated on condition it never left the country. Thomas Graham earned a peerage in 1814 as Baron Lynedoch of Balgowan (Lord Lynedoch). After her death, Thomas could not look at Mary’s portraits and they remained in storage until after his death. He did wear her wedding ring until his own death in 1843 at the age of 94, outliving her by over 50 years.
The Honourable Mrs Graham died from consumption in Spain in 1792.
This excerpt is another example from the version in “Mother Goose’s Melodies for the Nursery,” 1878 by William Adolphus Wheeler.
Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,
They were two bonny lasses;
They built their house upon the lea,
And covered it with rashes.
Bessy kept the garden gate,
And Mary kept the pantry;
Bessy always had to wait,
While Mary lived in plenty.
Research by Ken Bruce