Up on Scotland’s east coast between Dundee and Aberdeen, Montrose has a population that barely reaches into five figures. Almost entirely surrounded by water, either the North Sea or a two-square-mile square tidal lagoon and rare bird reserve, the town counts among its illustrious figures botanists, poets and painters.
Montrose is also home to one of the most venerable courses in the history of golf, dating back nearly 500 years.
And yet… football survives, and has done since Montrose was a busy Victorian port. Based at Links Park – note the name – since 1887, Montrose FC bear the date 1879 on their club badge.
That was when a group of locals engaged with their counterparts from Arbroath in a pick-up game on the links. This team progressed pretty quickly to become founder members of the Forfarshire Football Association in 1883 – along with 12 from Dundee.
Soon earning the nickname The Gable Endies, after the continental style of the town’s grand buildings, Montrose gave as good as they got, winning the Forfarshire Cup in 1892 at Carolina Port, the ground of three-time recent finalists Dundee East End.
This was big news in Montrose, regular in-play match reports relayed by telegram, each of the eight goals in the 5-3 thriller followed with cheer or trepidation. But the Gable Endies had Alex Keillor to rely on, a Dundee-born forward whose reputation reached as far as the Scottish FA offices in Glasgow.
Keillor would not only become the first Montrose player to be picked for Scotland but later, again at Carolina Port, the first Dundee one to score for the national XI too. He had returned to his home town a year after the Forfarshire Cup triumph for one simple reason: wages. While there was professional football in the big city, playing in Montrose meant, at best, a few expenses being refunded.
And while the cities of Dundee and Aberdeen later welcomed home European finalists and trophy-winners, even today modest Montrose FC remain semi-professional, running out to three-figure crowds at Links Park. To reach it, first-time visitors, walking past stately Georgian and Victorian townhouses and a pleasant public park, still get the sense of grandeur of Montrose in its earliest footballing days.
The docks and the industrialised at the mouth of the River South Esk also remain, giving Montrose a relatively prosperous air. This is somewhat at odds with the paucity of football many Gable Endies fans would have had to suffer since the 1970s, and the last decent Montrose side to play at Links Park.
Once you arrive in Dundee city centre, a train to Montrose (every 20-30min, £11) takes 30min. From Aberdeen (every 20-30min, £14), it’s 40min. From Glasgow Queen Street, an hourly direct service (£27) takes 2hrs, or change at Edinburgh Waverley (1hr 45min, £20).
Montrose station is beside of the lagoon, a short walk into town and less than 1km from Links Park. Buses, should you need them, are run mainly by Stagecoach (single ticket £1.25, Montrose dayrider ticket £2.40).
Montrose-based Wilco Cabs (01674 672 557) provide local services and airport transfers.
Busy Montrose has several hotels in town, two of them halfway to Links Park from the station. The nearest to the ground, the pleasant, traditional, three-star Park Hotel, overlooks the pretty park in question, no more than two minutes from Montrose FC. Also by the park, just a notch above and in a sturdy building dating back to the 1800s, the family-run Links Hotel is bright and contemporarily furnished, with a carvery set up in its restaurant on Sundays.
The nearby family-run Chapel House offers en-suite rooms but his slightly more basic. You’ll find 15 rooms and two whisky-stocked bars at the Star Hotel http://www.starhotelmontrose.com/, a cosy B&B fashioned from a mid-18th century coaching inn. Also handy, the 25-room George Hotel also contains a popular corner bar and respected restaurant.
Slightly further from Montrose station but still easily walkable to Links Park, the Limes B&B, also convenient for the ground, is a comfortable, well run guest house with loyal repeat custom.
Just over Rossie Island Road on the other bank of the South Esk, Oaklands, surrounded by greenery, comprises seven tidy en-suite guestrooms. Bus Nos.30, 30A and 47 run from nearby into the town centre, or it’s a 15min walk.
Just north of Montrose, the pleasant, family-run Hillside is a nine-room hotel with a restaurant and sun-trap beer garden, all recently refurbished and relandscaped. Bus Nos.9 and 47 run into town two miles away.
The many pubs in the town centre are handy pre-match but have a busy enough life the other six days of the week.
Described by consensus of locals as being the best pub in Montrose, the Market Arms is spacious but cosy, with a range of ales and football on TV. Invariably busy but service is swift and friendly.
Equally traditional, the Northern Vaults also shows the match, and is a popular live-music venue. On the northern outskirts, the Black Abbot, by the Nos.9 and 47 bus routes into town, attracts regulars with its music agenda, TV football, food and beer courtyard outside.
Back in town, there’s more live sounds (and a younger crowd) at lively Sharky’s, a self-named ‘international bar and diner’, always up for a party.
On the quiet streets towards the waterfront, the Caledonian Bar carries a nautical theme while the Neptune Bar (‘The Neppie’) combines all the best elements of any decent local drinkerie, with live music, TV football, food, pool, its own pub football team and, most of all, a convivial clientele.
Close by, in the shadow of the docks, you’ll find the friendly, bustling Anchor Bar, its regulars and its keen darts team. Near the bridge, overlooking the water, the lively Grog House goes big on TV football and drinks deals.