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Perth Floods

The River Tay is very subject to sudden overfiowings. Occasionally the river has been known to rise 15 feet perpendicular height above the ordinary level of the stream. On which occasions the Inches and the lower stretches of the town (Perth) are under water,”
observes a local Perth historian.

The earliest recorded inundation of Perth by the Tay was in the year 1210. It is described by Fordun, who says: “A heavy rain at the Feast of St. Michael, coupled with a spring tide from the sea, caused it. The bridge, a substantial wooden structure, was destroyed. (This bridge spanned the river at the foot of the present High
Street). Half the town was swept away, the north part being at the lowest level suffered most.” The castle of Perth, then the royal residence of King William the
Lion, was badly damaged. This castle was a favourite residence of early kings prior to the foundation of the Dominican Monastery.

In the 13th century the castle and St. John’s Kirk were the two most important buildings in Perth: they were linked by the Skinnergate. Cowan, the historian, says that the castle is unlikely to have been earlier than the 6th century, and it may have been a headquarters of
Pictish kings, alternative to Scone and Abernethy. In the flood disaster of 1210, King William escaped by boat with
his son Prince Alexander (later King Alexander II). Another son, Prince John, 14 domestics and a number of townsfolk, however, perished. The next extensive inundation of Perth occurred in October 14, 1621. Calderwood, in his “History,” says: “The stately Bridge of
Perth, newly completed, consisting of 10 arches, was destroyed by the high swelling of the river Tay. “The town was environed by water for five or six days, nor could the inhabitants go from house to house for the water in the streets. Young children were let down at windows by cords into boats.”

Another historian remarks: “The like fearful inundation of water was never seen in man’s living remembrance. Great plenty of corn was carried away by the water, and horses, kye and sheep drowned.” A religious significance was read into this disaster. Thomas Hunter, in his writing, “St. John’s Kirk, Perth,” says of the flood: “In consequence of this fearful inundation of water the Brig of Tay was haillillie (sic) dung down, except only one bow. Mr. John Malcolm (minister) exhorted the people to repent of their sins ‘which had procured the said judgement of God to come upon the city’.” Afterwards, miraculously, the waters decreased and the people gave thanks to God for His mercy to them. After the bridge was washed away in 1621 no attempt was made to build a new one for 150 years, although James VI contributed
40,000 merks for the purpose! “People’s money and their faith in bridges had apparently dried up,” we are told.
Until 1771 communication across the Tay was by ferry, presumably a ferry that plied from the North Inch. On October 13, 1776, the foundation stone of Smeaton’s Bridge was laid by Thomas Hay, Earl of Kinnoull, the bridge being opened to the public on October 31, 1771. Marshall tells us that it cost £26,631 : 12s : 5d, of which apparently the Crown contributed £11,000. It was not long before the new bridge was thoroughly tested. In
1773, the Tay was frozen over by a frost which lasted from January 1 until February 11. When the thaw came, the river was choked by ice, and water spread over the North Inch and uprooted a row of trees in Dunkeld Road. Great blocks of ice were lodged in the High Street, and on gardens in the Watergate. Five ships in the harbour were thrown ashore. At 9 p.m. on February 14, the ice
barrier began to crack and the floods subsided.

A similar type of inundation occurred on February 17, 1814. As a result of ice blocking the Tay, the river rose to an “alarming height.” The High Street was flooded to the Kings Arms, and communication was only by boat.
The water continued to swell over the weekend. One ship was sunk in the harbour, and five were washed ashore, but no lives were lost. A family was rescued from Moncrieffe Island by crossing the river perilously on broken ice. On Monday morning the Tay withdrew to its proper channel. The Perth Courier for February 17, 1814, reports: “We are happy to observe that in consequence of the elevated situation of the depot for prisoners of war, there was no inconvenience felt nor any damage
done to the works there.”

The upsurge of water in 1847, like that of 1621 was caused by excessive rainfall coupled with a south-east wind. Rain fell from 8 p.m. on Tuesday to 5 p.m. on Thursday, and the river rose rapidly. That part of the town most deeply inundated was the North Port. The Perth Courier for October 14, 1847, remarks: “Workmen made a good thing of conveying people to their homes through floods. But if the negotiations which they opened for remuneration in the course of their passage were not satisfactory they dropped their burden, without hesitation, in the midst of the flood !“ When the Edinburgh mail arrived in Perth in the early hours of the morning, the passengers were awakened by the guard’s horn to find the coach, “ploughing the deep” along the South Inch and Princes Street—and, though it was 3 a.m., to find the town as busy as if it had been day.
The Inverness mail got off through the water in Charlotte Street with difficulty “with water up to the shoulders.”
The leaders broke off along into Rose Terrace, so the coach was nearly overturned, but eventually all was got right! A local historian says: “From Friarton on the extreme left to the River Almond on the right, a stretch of four miles, the country presented one vast lake, with farm-houses, hamlets, as well as the city of Perth itself in the midst of it.” Fortunately the floods soon began to subside, but not before much damage to property had been done.

The Perthshire Courier for February 13, 1894, reports on the most considerable flooding of the Tay since 1874: “After continuous rain, both Inches are completely submerged. Marshal Place, North Port and Rose Terrace suffered greatly, as did Lower Commercial Street, in Bridgend.” At the height of the flood a hothouse was swept past on the swollen Tay, with flowers in it! And the gas lamps in St. Leonard’s Bank were burning in broad daylight, “the lamplighters not having learned the art of swimming.” Fortunately, this flood subsided before major damage was done.

An interesting footnote, however, appears in the same Courier, in the form of a boot-shop advertisement. Headed “Flooded- Water nearly as bad as fire,” it offers flood-soiled men’s shoes for 5/- and women’s boots for 4/6d. In these inflationary days it is shattering to read further that the prices of sound, undamaged stock were only a shilling or two more than these prices!

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