Famous Gable Endies recalled in exhibition

Provost W. Douglas Johnston, Mrs Johnston and other dignitaries at the opening of the New Bridge
Provost W. Douglas Johnston, Mrs Johnston and other dignitaries at the opening of the New Bridge

Straying into the museum last week I found they had a new exhibition set up entitled ‘Portrait of a lady’, which celebrates the life of Montrose woman Rosemary Hall, nee Johnston.

Rosemary, the daughter of Provost William Douglas Johnston, was a regular contributor to Gable Ender, although her input often involved guiding me on her family history.

Her great grandfather was Joseph Johnston, the man who founded the salmon fishing company of that name. When he died, his son, Rosemary’s grandfather William Douglas Johnston senior, erected the Memorial Halls in Baltic Street in memory of his father.

It was the fact that there were two William Douglas Johnstons that caused me difficulty. Her grandfather was notable in public life, as was her father, but it was her father who eventually became provost.

When WDJ senior died in 1915, an appreciation of the deceased, tantalisingly for my purposes, stated that “His benefits to the town are too well known to require mention.”

Two benefits were however mentioned by the writer, Mr Johnston’s contribution to the free library, which he suggests, “would never have come into being at all save for his generosity” and the Memorial Halls, which “have been a boon, not only to his own church, (Congregational) but to the general community”.

WDJ had been in contact with Andrew Carnegie for a number of years regarding a library for the town and he wrote to the millionaire, sounding him out on the possibility. On July 25, 1901 he received a reply stating: “I should be very glad indeed to comply with your suggestion and consider it a privilege. If Montrose will adopt the Free Libraries Act and provide a suitable site, I shall be glad to provide money for the building.” (The Free Libraries Act had been passed to encourage authorities to provide such facilities.)

Mr Carnegie’s reply gave no indication of how much he was willing to provide so that the size and type of building to be built was left to the Council’s discretion.

Although there was a strong lobby for the library to be built beside the museum, Mr Douglas Johnston expressed a preference for the site occupied by the Union Inn and the Brown Mansion.

One of the points that interested me was that WDJ senior wanted the library to be open in the evenings to take the groups of young men of the streets. That was in 1904 so obviously little has changed in some respects.

The project duly went ahead and in 1914, WDJ senior was made a freeman of the burgh for his services to the town.

It was Rosemary’s father, WDJ junior, who became Provost, serving from 1925 until 1931. Interestingly enough though, Provost Melvin (1900 –1906), who presided at the opening of the library, was her maternal grandfather.

WDJ junior was also very generous in his contributions to local causes and he gave two handsome donations towards the cost of a bowling green on Rossie Island and, of course, the Johnston Bequest. He too was made a freeman of the burgh in 1946.

This week’s photograph shows Provost W Douglas Johnston, wearing his chain of office, and Mrs Johnston at the opening of the New Bridge.

Rosemary herself was born in Aberdeen but spent her early years in Montrose. She also contributed much to public life, although much of her work was done far from Montrose.

Nevertheless, Rosemary never lost her own love and interest in her native town and she bequeathed numerous family heirlooms to the museum, many of which are on show in the exhibition

Educated at the little Academy, Rosemary was later sent to school in Edinburgh but with the outbreak of wwar she and her fellow pupils were soon evacuated to Grantown-on-Spey. Rosemary later became a personal assistant to a partner in a firm of chartered accountants and she married architect Eric Hall in 1952.

A fervent Scottish Nationalist, Rosemary took on an honorary public relations post in 1965 before becoming national organising secretary. She served as director of the election campaign in 1974 when the SNP took 11 seats.

Rosemary always had a strong Christian faith and followed the family tradition of worshipping in the Congregational Church during her time in Montrose. In Edinburgh, she joined the Church of Scotland and was ordained as an elder in 1987. In 2009 she was appointed the first female Moderator of Melrose and Peebles Presbytery.

My first contacts with her were by letter when she picked me up on a number of matters, but on meeting her I found her rather less formidable than I had expected. In fact, she had wonderful sense of humour and she chided me when I reported her elevation to Moderator in a column headed ‘Witchcraft in Montrose’.

The exhibition features numerous items from the Johnston family, such as the freeman casket, Black Watch memorabilia and a painting showing Montrose from Craig, also known as ‘The Timmer Brig’, by Robert Monro (1794 – 1829), drawing master at the Academy.

Monro, who designed the background for George Beattie’s play John o Arnha, drowned in the Basin. Readers may recall that John, who was outraged by his depiction, prophesied that all those connected with the production would die untimely deaths.

The exhibition, which I’m told finishes in mid April, also includes a display of wedding dresses and portraits of several women with Montrose connections, including one of the notorious Lola Montez.