Rait, like many of the villages in the Braes of the Carse of Gowrie, has a long and interesting history, shaped in part by its proximity to Scone and Dunsinane, the capital of the Picts and later, the Scots. For a very small village, it has witnessed many of the significant events and personalities of Scottish history. The Rait Burn has flowed past Picts, Romans, Scottish Kings and Queens; Wallace, Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots and the Old Pretender – to name but a few. Traces of Rait’s early history are fortunately still around in early source documents such as the Retours of Scotland, which talks of a “Rath” in Gowrie in 1129. Glimpses of yet earlier pre-recorded times can still be seen in the few stone “monuments” and other evidence of Rait’s inhabitants over the preceding 2 or 3 millennia.
Before the Carse was drained in the 16th, 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, Rait was a coastal or esturial settlement – at one stage on the very frontier or boundary of Pictland. An early form of boat or canoe thought to be 2000 years old was found last century just along the “shore” at Flawcraig, complete with a rope tying it to a ring in the rock.
A route to the heartland of the Picts or Caledonia was afforded from Fife across the river/marsh, through the village and Glen of Rait, around Swirlhead and across the Dalreich muir toward Scone, Coupar Angus, etc. The fort, which still stands at the crossroads at Rait, is clear evidence of the importance of this strategic route. It is hard to imagine today, as motorists head up to the village from the A90 and the modern flyover, that 2000 or more years ago, that whole area would have been under water and an approach from the south to the crossroads may well have sparked off a hostile attack. The early Picto-Celtic word for a defensive structure or stockade is Rath and it is likely that Rait’s name derives from its strategic defensive position.
In Ireland there are numerous Raths, mostly associated with protective structures around holy sites. In Rait there is a range of evidence of early religious sites. The ruined church, which was destroyed by Cromwellian troops camping at Swirlhead prior to the sacking of Dundee in 1651, is clearly pre-reformation in structure and it is likely that there was some church building there in the first millennium AD. Certainly, the Rait or Rath church is listed in connection with Scone Priory in the 12th century. There are 2 holy wells in the vicinity: St Peter’s on the driveway of Fingask Castle and at Ladywell (Our Lady’s Well). At the latter, there is a carved 5th or 6th century Christian “chri-rho” stone.
Beal Hill has association with pagan worship. Some writers have claimed that the name derives from Beltane the God of Fire, whilst others that it is simply from Bal meaning a settlement or farmstead. On the top of Beal Hill are said to be the remains of an early form of death row. Still visible are pits where it is said human sacrifices were held prior to their ritual killing. Certainly, as late as the 19th century, there was a record of villages attending a bonfire on top of Beal Hill at the autumn equinox carrying lit torches from it to their own hearths. It was considered good luck to keep their own fires lit from that flame all throughout the ensuing winter. At the spring equinox there was a tradition of a further ceremony – welcoming the summer, which to some extent continues to this day. A few Rait families will be seen rolling Easter eggs on Beal Hill on Easter Sunday.
Perhaps the oldest monument at Rait is the cup and ring boulder in the car park of Rait farm steading – currently the Antiques Centres – which was carved around 2000 BC. Little is known of the function of these stones which are dotted around the west and north of Scotland. The one at Rait is a rare southern example.
The Romans passed through this area and there are records of them sailing up the Tay, which is said to be named by them, after their own River Tiber. They described the Carse as the “Pictish Marshes”. It is thought they camped on Rait Hill.
The medieval period from approximately the 12th century onwards sees Rait continue to flourish. In the thirteenth century a Norman influence is discernible. The Normans, who invaded England in 1066 and indeed came up to the banks of the Tay at Abernethy, under William the Conqueror, to “treat with the Scots” had a huge influence on Scotland.
This perhaps echoes the way in which American culture is very invasive in our society today. Anyone who was anyone was at great pains to Normanise themselves. Thus the proprietors of Rait at the time styled themselves “de Rait” and it is likely that “Gasconhall” in some ways owes its name to Norman influence. John de Rait seems to have been a fairly influential person at Court in the 13th and early 14th centuries but either he or his son of the same name lost his lands to the crown in the 1360s, resulting in the Rait family moving to Hallgreen Castle in Angus where they remained for the next 400 years.
William Wallace is known to have lived with his uncle, Crawford of Kilspindie Castle, from the age of 16-18. Without doubt the great Scottish hero would have been familiar with Rait’s landscape. Crawford and his family were known to have hunted deer and other game extensively in the hills and woods on the west of the Glen of Rait so as Eton’s playing fields were the training ground for the battles of the First World War so it could be argued that Rait Glen was the training ground for the Scottish Wars of Independence.
In 1396 the King, Robert, the third grandson of Robert the Bruce, granted the Barony of Rait to his Bruce cousin, David Bruce. The Bruce family held all the lands of Rait on both sides of the Burn including Fingask and a further estate at Clackmannan until the 19th century. They occupied the small castle or keep that stood at Gasconhall (where the farm is today) and they also built a substantial village house where Hollydene and the Neuk now stand, behind the village hall. Fragments of a marriage lintel stone and a sundial from this house are built into the garden wall of Hollydene and behind the plasterwork in the walls of the Neuk can be discerned archways of what have been that house’s undercroft or ground floor.
The Bruces were a significant Scottish noble family closely tied by blood to the Scottish Royal family. The Bruce house at Rait would likely have witnessed visits from Kings and Queens based in nearby Scone as well as from other major players in the Scottish political scene. A younger son of the Bruces (styled a cadet) built or improved the much less important Fingask site for himself but through time his descendants fell out with their Rait cousins. The dispute between them led to a splitting of the Estate and a pitched battle/brawl over the ownership of Over Fingask.
In another example of rough justice in the 15th century, Sir David Bruce of Gasconhall took the law into his own hands when forced to pay taxes for goods passing through Perth. He retaliated by removing goods from travellers on the Glen of Rait road at Swirlhead.
There is a record of the Bruces sending to Ladywell, which at that time was a possession of Dunkeld Abbey, for healing water from the well. In the absence of other medical care, wells were seen as a source of healing – literally “well-being”. Robert the Bruce put his partial cure of leprosy down to the waters of Scotlandwell.
There is also a legend of an exceptionally beautiful daughter of the Bruces living with her family in Rait. She apparently had many suitors including one rejected lover in Perth. Out of bitterness he sent her a parcel of silken clothes which he had had contaminated with the plague – Perth being virulent with the Black Death at that time. She opened the parcel and became unwell.
Without contacting either her family or servants for fear of infecting them, she ran up the Glen to Ladywell for a cure. Then, only temporarily refreshed, she set off across the hills towards Perth to confront her spurned lover. Sadly, she collapsed and died by the bog to the east of Beal Hill where she was later found. Villagers mounded earth over her body and the mound can still be seen today.
The main turnpike road between Perth and Dundee passed just below Rait at the modern day crossroads and there were cottages which went down the “Rethie Brae” from the Antiques Centre to the south. Rait in those days boasted at least one Inn and as the village was well placed being half way between the 2 cities, it was a popular place to gain refreshments and rest the horses. Mary Queen of Scots is known to have travelled this route in 1568. Oakview, formerly the Stevenson’s shop, was at this period the Rait Inn. Reputably it was a busy place and was the scene of a notorious murder in the 18th Later the Inn moved to the Little Rait Farm House site. century.
1700 to the Present Day
By the 17th and 18th centuries Rait had begun to evolve into what is recognisable today. The Bruces started to pull out of the village retreating to their Clackmannan estates. In the 17th century the Fingask Bruces sold off the eastern side of the village and lands beyond to the Thriepland family and a century or so later the western side and the Glen of Rait was sold to the Moody Stuarts (who claimed descent from James IV). A dispute over the exact boundary between these 2 halves arose at this time and the then proprietor of Glencarse House was called in to adjudicate. He left a detailed description of the march which is now in Perth Library and also a series of around 40 numbered stone markers one of which is opposite the village hall at Laurelbank cottage and another in the woods at Ladywell. Perhaps as a result of this split the village began to look to other sources of income (other than farming) to keep it viable.
Cloth milling and weaving became the industry of Rait. Most of the old houses in the village would have been touched by the cloth trade but the most obvious links that are still visible today are the ruins of the old Lint mill at the north western edge of the village – where Charles Spense the famed “bard o’ the Carse” was born. Next door to it is Weavers Cottage whose name speaks for itself. There were said to be around 20-30 looms in the village at one time and examples of Rait linen were to be found in the best houses in the country.
Throughout this period the tide of national history did not leave the village undisturbed. Following the beheading of Charles I in London, Cromwells’ troops under General Monck laid waste to those parts of Scotland still holding out to the Royalist cause. In September 1651 prior to the bloody and brutal siege of Dundee the troops camped at Swirlhead and sent raiding parties into the village. They unsuccessfully attacked Fingask but burnt the thatched roof off the village church –presumably because it had not converted to the rather severe form of Protestantism favoured by the Roundheads and lit the thatch on a number of other village houses. They then destroyed Ladywell, which had the misfortune to be just below their camp – and probably also because of its name and links with Dunkeld Abbey (it too must have smacked of Popery).
Rait at that period seems to have been staunchly Catholic, Episcopalian and Jacobite. Presbyterian traditions seem to have been more of a Victorian fashion unquestionably encouraged by the Moody Stuarts. It was certainly not till the 1860s that there was a place of worship again in the village. The Rev Kenneth Moody Stuart opened a chapel in what is now ethe site of the Village Hall. This seems to have been a sect of the devout Protestant church that was established in Scotland following the “Disruption” of the Church of Scotland in the 1840s. The chapel closed its doors in 1888 and the Rev Moody Stuart wrote the following verse:
“How can I say farewell, sweet little Church,
I loved thee, oh! I cannot say how much:
With thy sweet face so honest and so plain,
Walls free from paint, Pulpit from varnish, Pews from stain,
Where shall I ever see thy like again?!
It 1716 Rait witnessed another piece of history following the death of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne. The desire for a Protestant successor led the throne to pass to a distant German relation who became George I. The more direct but Catholic heir, James VIII or III – otherwise known as the Old Pretender - landed on the east coast of Scotland to claim his throne.
On the night of 7th January 1716, he reached Fingask Castle where he was treated to a banquet and having spent the night in a fine old oak four poster bed, he set off on horseback down past the village of Rait and on to Scone where he was crowned. The people of Rait were amongst the very few witnesses to a Coronation day of a King of Scotland whom history determined was never to reign.
The Thrieplands were also loyal supporters of the Stuart cause in 1745 when the Old Pretender’s son, Bonnie Prince Charlie, returned to claim his inheritance – with the same disastrous result. The Thrieplands lost their lands at that point to the Crown as did many other Jacobite supporters.
The Moody Stuarts, who took possession of the village in 1805, sought to build a new estate house named after a previous family house in the west of Scotland “Annat”. They in fact built two; one on Kinnoull Hill above Perth which still bears the name “Annat” today which they occupied whilst they built a second “Annat”, above the village to the south of the by now ruinous Gasconhall tower. General Stuart who had amassed the family fortune in the Middle East, intended to build a large Gothic mansion (the plans of which are now with the Archives section of Perth Library). He got as far as laying out a large walled garden to go with it but then – or so the story goes - he fell out with this son whom he considered a spendthrift and so instead built Annat Cottage, a large thatched one storey house which he evidently felt was inheritance enough.
The cottage burnt down in the 1960s and a modern house of the same name has since been built on the site. The Moody Stuart lairds continued to live at Annat until the 1920s when the Laird moved into Ladywell (which he extended at that time). The last Laird of Rait died there in 1937, thus ending over a thousand years of Lairdship in the village and Glen of Rait.
His widow and sister who lived in the cottage next door moved out in 1963. The ornate mausoleum to the Moody Stuarts can be seen to the rear of Kilspindie church. The Moody Stuarts were much respected in the village and when the estate finally broke up in the Fifties and Sixties, many of the tenants bought their farms and cottages. These include Shandry, Gasconhall, the Shieling, Cruikiesneuk, Hollydene, Fernbank and the Neuk.
Today the village is a thriving community successfully blending families who have lived there for generations and those who are more recent arrivals. The architecture of the village has changed in recent times as indeed it has always done. The row of cottages were destroyed by fire in the middle of the last century and the present post office is now built on part of the site.
On the Fingask side of the Burn wooden forestry worker houses were built in the 1920s and more recently modern bungalows have replaced cottages or been built in their gardens. Nonetheless the sense of an unspoilt “lived in” village continues with a community that centres as it always has done on its firesides – which of a winter’s evening will still be seen to be sending up a welcoming spiral of smoke above the village rooftops.
(Text by kind permission of Graham Nicholson, Ladywell, Rait)