Alexander “Dundonnachie” Robertson
Dundonnachie as we know him was born Alexander Robertson on January 1st 1825. He was born in the Cross House (now the Dunkeld Mortgage house) and was one of six Alexander Robertsons’ in Dunkeld at the time. At the age of sixteen, after Studying at the Royal School of Dunkeld, Dundonnachie became a Clerk at the Commercial Bank of Scotland in Tay Terrace. Five years after this, he was appointed as the accountant of the commercial bank in Cromarty. In 1853 he began to publish works including one under the pseudonym R Allister entitled Barriers to the National Prosperity of Scotland. After this Dundonnachie became a rather successful business man with several ventures under his belt, he built his large house named Dundonnachie in 1859.
The Dunkeld Bridge was built by Robert Telford in 1805, opened for Traffic in 1808 and was completed in 1809. This seems rather backwards but final approval was not given for the bridge until after traffic had already begun to cross. The bridge cost a total of around £27,000 despite initial cost estimates being closer to £15,000. This money was attempted to be reclaimed in tolls by the fourth Duke of Atholl and his heirs eventually leading to the bridge toll riots of Dunkeld. This toll was decreed by the courts and initially the residents of Dunkeld cooperated. By 1853 there was growing public discontent regarding opinions that the Duke had taken sufficient tolls to pay back his investment in the bridge and was now charging the fees out of personal greed.
By 1867 a group had gathered to discuss and protest the Duke’s bridge tolls and Dundonnachie was elected as convener by the group. By February 1868 Dundonnachie’s protests had begun, he walked back and forth across the bridge on the 8th and 10th of February declaring he would not be paying what he was legally due in protest of the tolls. On the night of the 10th of February the toll gates were torn from their hinges and thrown into the river Tay, they were later found downstream at Caputh. After this incident the gates were replaced (an action that had to take place several times). Dundonnachie was reported the night of the tenth by the toll Collector as standing by the gates “with his bonnet in his hand… begging for a penny for the poor Duke”.
After a lull in events, a meeting was organised on the 16th of June 1868 underneath the Birnam oak, this meeting lead to an attack on the gates of the bridge with saws, hammers, axes and more in order to break them down, onlookers including the local police were left flabbergasted and multiple arrests were made in light of these actions. Fifty-five special constables were hired after this attack however the peace did not last long. The third attack on the gates occurred on July 7th 1868 in which Dundonnachie attacked the bridge with an axe in one hand and a copy of the bridge act in the other, after a dramatic reading of the Bridge act Dundonnachie started his assault on the toll gates. Despite this dramatic start of the attack, it is reported that Dundonnachie’s axe broke into bits long before the gates met an untimely end. The fourth attack upon the gates was undertaken on July 11th, by 2am all gates and signs and most of the collectors office had been swiftly removed from the bridge showing even more determination to remove the Dukes tolls than other attacks.
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The violence and thoroughness of the last attack meant that the police and special constables were overwhelmed leading to a detachment of the Black Watch arriving in Dunkeld in an attempt to control the locals. This militarisation lead to local protests heading over the bridge, of course without the protestors paying the mandatory toll. Interactions at this point however remained shockingly amicable. During the visit of the black watch soldiers, the locals remained friendly and law abiding and for the next 10 years they did not attack the toll gates!
During this period of relative calm Dundonnachie experienced his own personal issues, predominately a series of court cases against him in which he represented himself. These began on the 18th of July 1868 on a charge of assaulting the toll keeper. He was then charged again in 1870 with “murmuring (criticising) a judge”. He was arrested for this crime on the 12th of January but was not taken to trial and held without bail until the 12th of march. He pleaded guilty and was offered two sentences; one month in prison and a £50 fine or two months imprisonment. He chose the latter offer and held a strong grievance against his sentence as he was sentenced under a law from King James V which had not been enforced for 300 years. This imprisonment caused Dundonnachie to attempt to seek rectification for his grievance for the rest of his life.
Despite having been imprisoned Dundonnachie remained a popular local character and was greeted with a warm welcome upon his return to Dunkeld. However, during his stint in prison, his businesses mostly failed and Dundonnachie fell into bankruptcy which lead to the eventual sale of his house (also named Dundonnachie) which in turn lead to his move away from Dunkeld and subsequent ventures in London. In 1881 he went to the United States and Canada where he lectured on Scottish life and other similar topics. After this stint abroad he returned to Scotland and moved to Edinburgh, stewing angrily about his injustice of imprisonment in 1870.
On 24th December, 1871, the Court of Session, after an appeal to the Inner House, gave their final judgement on the Action raised by Alexander Robertson and others against the Duke of Atholl. The Duke lodged a counter claim, a figure of £65,000 given by the Lord Advocate in the House of Commons. His right to levy tolls was confirmed but his claim was reduced to £18,116.Although the Action failed in an attempt to abolish the toll, it was in other respects a substantial victory for the protestors. Eventually in 1878 the Roads and bridges (Scotland) Act, which removed the tolls, was passed. The Act came into operation in 1879, and in the middle of the night in May 1879 the Bridge Gates were finally and officially removed. For a number of years they were stored in one of the chambers under the bridge, and then in 1942 were removed in the wartime drive for salvage
By 1891 Dundonnachie had become completely irrational about his grievance and on the 21st February he assaulted Lord President Inglis on his departure from the Court of Session. Lord Inglis received a blow to the back of the head, knocking his hat off. Dundonnachie was arrested, admitted responsibility, saying he had no intention of causing injury, but wished to draw public attention to his case. The legal process followed and it became apparent from the beginning that Dundonnachie was suffering from Monomania. On the 30th March, 1891, Dundonnachie was confined on her Majesty’s pleasure in the Lunatic Wing of Perth Prison.
Dundonnachie died in Glasgow on 29th October, 1893, aged 68 and on the 1st November was buried in the Nave of Dunkeld Cathedral.
Henry Labouchere, M.P., wrote :
“Dundonnachie, when in his prime, was an eloquent speaker and a forcible writer, and , if he had never concerned himself with the Dunkeld Bridge grievance (or even if he had conducted the agitation with more discretion), he would probably have found his way into Parliament. He had the courage to profess and to advocate the most advanced Radical principals at a time when they were exceedingly unfashionable and in a district where all the influence was on the Tory side …..”.