Lochnagar: stoneballs

Chapter 9 of ‘Deeside Tales: the stories of a small glen’
This chapter, let me say at outset, carries neither political correctness nor respect of authority. You see whisky, Deeside, and the Gordons all go back time immemorial, and as bedfellows of outlaw, they carried on in blatant disregard of any propriety.


Whisky, and its illicit production, was a way of life for many of our Deeside families. Several Acts of Parliament made Law in the mid 1820’s brought an end to the sma’ stills; and the smuggling trade, once vital in the small glen, was in peril. A few hardy souls clung on during the desperate years that followed, in what proved to be, a busy time for the Gauger. Telling the story are the extant papers (though not precognitions) of Donald McPherson Smuggler in Bovagli and Charles Gordon in Tilfogar. My own family (recorded testimony of James Gordon in New Zealand) fled the Gauger on horse in 1826 and never returned to the Girnoc. And lest we dare forget, there was Alexander Gordon whose infamy as a smuggler spread country-wide. Alexander ended up in Perth prison but escaped twice – a resourceful glen-lad if ever there was!!

Now it seems there were several key characters – notorious on Deeside – that left the illicit stills behind and formed the Distillery at Lochnagar.


Figure 9.1: Lochnagar Mountain

James Robertson (1789-1837) was certainly one of those. His father Charles had operated an illicit still at Mill of Balmoral up until his death in 1812, after which the family went over the Coyles to Glenmuick and took tenancy of the Spittal. It was there that a bond of friendship was struck with John Robbie (1770-1829.) Both Robbie and Robertson operated illicit stills and transported their wares by night over the Mounth to Cortachy and beyond. John Robbie knew the route well – after all, Fettereggie in Glen Clova was the home of his family. His wife Barbara Stewart, was from Bovagli, and instrumentally she brought the Girnoc folk into the wider distribution of the illicit liquor!

It was then that an embracing Act of Parliament was enforced and, most suddenly a way of life came to an end. At last the Guager could fine the Abergeldy Laird. Smuggling ceased for all but the brazen. Surviving records from Abergeldy confirm that the Laird of Abergeldy knew all too well that his tenants were smuggling:

‘I approve much of the resolutions of the different countrys regarding Licences for distilling. I think the Act of Parliament as it presently stands is oppressive and hope the Scots members will be unanimous in endeavouring to get it altered….’

Recorded in a letter by Charles Gordon Twelfth Laird of Abergeldie

It is my belief that out of a bond of understanding, successive Abergeldy Lairds ignored this illicit trade. Afterall their tenants were poor subsistent farmers living in scattered but n’ben townships. Droving was gone (the turnip and the train had done to that!) Upper Deeside folk were desparate and sheep alone could not provide sufficient income to sustain large families. It was no wonder, that after the liqor went, that the last of the glen cleared!

If only we could have shared a dram with John Robbie of the ‘Bobart, for like no other on Deeside, he had the‘keenest wit’ and as a raconteur his stories have been recalled for their wicked animation! John Robbie hated the Gauger and as a smuggler himself must have known his trafficking comrades intimately.

It was whilst John Robbie was Innkeeper at Inchbobart that a gauger came to investigate illegal distilling. The weather had turned stormy and the exhausted gauger had to seek shelter in John’s house. The blinding snow was preventing further travel and blocking his way home. As he settled down comfortably by the fire the gauger remarked that it was not a good day for anyone to be out. John Robbie was quite pleased to think that the gauger had experienced such an unpleasant journey. He had hopes that the gauger would be in no hurry to return, so he did his best to paint a picture of deep snow, closed roads, unpleasant conditions and the unwelcome attentions of ‘spookies.’

One can only wonder what further marvelous stories John Robbie could have revealed to us! Sadly shortly after he moved to the Spittal, whilst riding home from Ballater, Robbie’s horse was suddenly startled and as a result he was thrown and received severe injuries. Robbie was taken back to a Ballater Inn, where he lingered a few days before dying there. That was in the summer of 1829.

Over the last few days, despite my greater understanding of their roguish ways, I have found myself praising the Deeside smugglers for turning the spring water of Deeside into something far more interesting and profitable! These people were resourceful if not hardy! But seriously, the production of illicit whisky had become to them an essential way of life – droving was finished, and grazing of sheep was not enough to support families – especially in unforgiving reaches like the small glen. Although improper it was the only way of a sure income, and whilst the Parliament continued such heavy taxes on whisky it was always going to be profitable to make it and sell it illegally. In 1823 the Government saw light and reduced the whisky tax, and in the following years, by further Acts of Parliament, they gave the Gauger much greater powers of penalty. The aim was simple – to stamp out illicit distilling of whisky. In this matter, history has recorded a Parliamentary success.

The turbulent years were principally between 1823 and 1830, and the records of many skirmishes with the Excisemen survive from this period. With livelihoods at stake, conflict was not uncommon. When Donald McPherson of Bovagli’ was caught in 1824, his smuggling party was a boisterous gathering from the Girnoc; and armed with cudgels and other weapons, they traversed the Mounth with a trailing convoy of ponies laden with kegs of contraband whisky. Little did they know that at Tarbrax Tollhouse the Gauger, Mr Tawse, with a company of Dragoon Guards, awaited them. Somebody it seems had tipped them-off! It was the dreadful skirmish that followed which inspired the poem ‘Din-raisin wi’ Donald.’  The poaching gang, as many as thirteen in number, pelted the poor Exciseman Mr Tawse with large stones. Donald McPherson threatened the Dragoon ‘tae blow ther brains oot if they laid violent hands’ upon his gang. Aye, he was brazen and never feart! Then Donald threatened to run auld Tawse-the-Excise ‘throo the body wi’ a pitch fork.’ It was then that he Dragoon Guard surrounded Donald McPherson and apprehended him along with James Gordon the Abergeldy Gamekeeper. They were taken to Perth prison but confessed their guilt (no doubt knowing that the evidence against them was overwhelming.) Donald McPherson served twelve months, but it seems James Gordon was served more leniently

The others, ‘to the number of nine or mair’shared that nervishness –
but plied theirsels’ wi’ ther ain coontraband:

aye, fou  an fleein’ tae loosen that fear!

Bit not oor Donald, fa he
wis high-heedit,an seemingly baithered by nout –
not aiven a fearsom rainstorm risen michty faist

wid brak his smugglers course!

Michty me he
wis blin tae danger –
Michty aye!

It has been recorded that James Robertson first set up his distillery in Glen Fearder. However I have found nothing to corroborate this. It is possible that there was some distilling in Fearder before 1826. At this date, on the outer perimeter of the Balmoral estate, James Robertson established the Lochnagar Distillery. At that time he was living on Abergeldy Croft (near Balnacroft) with his wife Elizabeth Gordon (c1784-1857) and three young children. No doubt, with new found family responsibilities, James Robertson knew that to risk smuggling, with a new vigorously enforced Law, was to risk jail or even transportment to a foreign penal Colony. James Robertson was well placed to consider the risk as his brother-in-law, Donald Gordon (born at Crathienaird in July 1785) could not let go of vice. Donald was a hardened scoundrel, a drunk, a smuggler, and counterfeiter. He was, if we go by his trial of 1830, utterly brazen. Inn after Inn, County after County, he pedaled his forged notes for whisky. Donald’s trial had so many witnesses that the case-papers form a large wedge soot-hardened in time! In all 32 separate precognition statements were taken all across the eastern half of the country from Aberdeenshire to Fife! Inside that wedge survived one of Donald’s forged Guinea notes! It was the one he gave to Mary Webster-Bruce the Auchinblae Innkeeper. It was a strange sensation for me to hold Donald’s note, and in my minds-eye I was transported back to Auchenblae, Donald, and his foul whisky breath!


Figure 9.2: Donald Gordon’s forged note spent at Auchenblae

Reading between-the-lines the authorities had been out to catch Donald Gordon for years! Certainly the lengths they went to catch him were extraordinary! He was apprehended at thebridge of Murroes just outside Dundee. I have found no trace of Donald Gordon after 1830. I find myself wondering if he survived his prison sentence (he was 46 years at the time of the trial.)  Quite possibly he succumbed to delirium tremens in prison. Certainly in Aberdeen I was involved in several fatal cases – all brought about by the abrupt withdrawal from alcohol.  A shriveled cirrhotic liver would leave Donald merciless! Incidentally the youngest victim of hard drinking that I have found was a policeman from Victorian Ballater who died in the village aged just 26 years! The dangers of drink go back forever.

Our befuskert smuggler was born in 1785 at Crathienaird, son of Donald Gordon, farmer and Phemie Smith. Intuitively one would be inclined then to place him with the Crathienaird family founded by Thomas Gordon of Myreton. However this was not so, Donald our smuggler, was almost certainly from the family of Tilfogar.

The siting of James Robertson’s second Distillery, first built in 1826, was on the very lowest slopes of Lochnagar, and was but a stones-throw from Tilfogar. This long lost farm-toun thathas become so familiar to me was the smugglers den. Of that there can be no doubt!  Curiously, like no other Abergeldy farm settlement, Tilfogar – once bustling in eastern and western ‘villages’ – just disappeared overnight. Perhaps then, we now have an explanation; for surely shame and hardship combined to empty Tilfogar. It was a township pulled in a tug-of-war between the legitimate and illegitimate distilling of whisky. The former won through and in deep shame Tilfogar ‘shut up shop!’ What little survived of the eastern community was rebuilt and renamed Buailteach.  Nature then quickly reclaimed the rest and Tilfogar, by 1871 was gone.

Given its history, it is surely no surprise to learn that Tilfogar sired generations of Innkeepers. After John Robbie’s untimely death in 1829, the Spittal Inn was run by his wife Barbara Stewart. The neighbouring hostel at Inchnabobart was under the proprietorship of John Gordon of Tilfgar. His son, also John, had married into Robbie’s family of Fettereggie.

Auld John Gordon of ‘Bobart seems to have been well liked, but was yet stealthy, and under the mask of night, he was sentinel and gatekeeper to the Mounth road south. Yes, whilst extant records lack, I believe he was the principle lookout for the smuggler. John Gordon was still at the Bobart in 1841, though by then he was a widower aged at least seventy. In the following decade he must have died and disappears from the records.

Tilfogar as a community arose, in part from the Gordon family of Balnakyle in Balmoral. The detail of this family evolution has escaped any scribes draught. However, also from Belnakyle came the Duncan family and it was the son of Alexander Duncan and Rebackah Gordon who established himself as Innkeeper at Potarch, up the Dee river and into the parish of Birse. Alexander Duncan as an Innkeeper served his new parish all too briefly. First, in 1849 Alexander’s wife died, broken-hearted Alexander followed her within a year, leaving behind eight little orphan children.


Figure 9.3: Alexander Gordon (1810-1889) of Tilfogar & his daughter

Tilfogar also embraces the Stewart family. A picture, charmingly sweet survives, of old Granny Stewart, sitting outside Buailteach. However she was perhaps the last smuggler of her generation, indeed it was not uncommon for the women-folk to work the stills whilst their partners distributed the ware. The Stewart family was from the Camlet. Grandfather Stewart had fled to the Camlet in 1693 from Argyllshire after being with Argyle’s regiment, at the massacre of Glencoe.  The family later took tenancy of Bovagli, before marrying into the Gordons of Tilfogar.


Figure 9.4: Wester and Easter Tilfogar on the Innes Estate map of 1806

Few now recall now that the hillwalker used to have to trudge the way to Lochnagar by Easter Balmoral, passing the Genechal and over the Gelder Shiel. That all changed when in 1971 when a car park was sited at the Spittal of Glenmuick at the end of the glen road enabling visitors to get much closer by car and considerably shortening the walk to high Lochnagar. As the preferred mountain gateway, the Spittal quickly became a victim of its own success, with more than 40,000 cars per annum and the main car park habitually overflowing every weekend. It was not uncommon on public holidays for up to 160 cars parking down the road at any one time.

Yet not one of these visitors can recall a time when the Spittal was the Grand Auld Man of the Glen, when it sang of prosperity and refinery, and had no vulgar sea of cars to pollute its magnificence. Indeed looking at the Visitor shack today grandeur seems remote, for true time of the Spittal, you may be surprised to learn, goes back as early as the seventeenth century.

When David McDonald-Guies died in May 1744 he had out-survived not just his wife but all his children. His empire was the Spittal and he was a man ofgreat wealth, it may be that this had come through marriage into the family of the Farquharsons of Invercauld, but that is speculation. David knew he was dying and prepared a 36 page Inventory which he entrusted to six Executors, none of whom were close family. David was clearly a man of great benevolence and gave out money to glen folk wide and far, to help them in times of need.

The Inventory is detailed and hard in places to decipher, but reading it I was left with the impression that David ‘the Grand Auld Man of the Spittal’ was swindled and his estate creamed off by his supposedly trustworthy Executors. His ‘specially fine’ house was dismantled piece by piece and sold at Auction by Samuel Gordon of Milntoun of Braichlie and Alexander Stewart of Aucholzie: ‘Then bit-by-bit the fine house was completely disassembled. Everything was sold from, a bath tub to a barn door. It was ruthless clearance and proves that David had no close family around.‘ The cost of David McDonald’s coffin was an incredible six Scots pounds made from the very best Aucholzie wood. And gosh the funeral party drank! 30 pints of Ale and thirty gills of brandy were consumed by the ‘Company of Men’ who carried his ‘Corps six miles’ to Glenmuick Churchyard. They charged the deceased twenty five pounds Scots for this and then some more for food. Then a further Codicil was added for five and a half pints more of brandy at £1.10/- a pint, plus four dozen pipes, and three pounds of snuff. Gosh this funeral was like Hogmany celebrations in Edinburgh!

The Spittal and the Bobart were lively bedfellows in their day and frequented as Hostels by drovers and smugglers alike. Gatherings, particularly at the Spittal, were simply legendary for revelry. In 1763 at Inchnabobart James and Charles Stewart had between them twelve sheep and sixteen lambs. Sometime soon thereafter the Gordons of Tilfogar moved in. The Hostel at Bobart, the highest in Scotland, gave way to the Spittal. However by 1850, the revelry ceased and, both townships retuned to shepherd outposts for Aucholzie. It was at exactly this date that another grandson of Tilfogar, James Gordon (1819-1905) and his wife Isabella Sim, had a daughter born at the Spittal. Yet within a year of little Jane Ann’s birth, they crossed the Mounth to Clova.  No other Tilfogar loon was to surpass this John. His farmer’s intuition and great skill brought him into the service of the Earl of Airly’s and soon he was to become principal farmer for Airly.


In 1858, our Airly farmer had his fourth child and by chance I came across his tombstone in Kirriemuir. Strangely, in that moment of discovery, I sensed James was Tilfogar. However, what really thrilled me was discovering that he was a Gardener. My passion for horticulture has carried me buoyantly in life and in 1992 I left Medicine to study Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh University and I was honoured to be awarded the Scottish Chapter Prize as best graduate. Since then I have designed many gardens, but ‘my Airly’ was Tillybin by Fraser Castle.


Figure 9.6: Tillybin Garden by Castle Fraser

So it was, with much curiosity, that I set off to Airly Castle to see if any of James’ garden survived. I prepared myself to be disappointed as I understood the Airly Lords lived at Cortachy Castle and so considered it likely the garden, after a century of neglect, would be wild in disabandon. I was very fortunate, for at the Lodge House I met the current estate gardener. He was so kind and interested in my story. Had I not met him I would not have got further than the lodge. He took me up a wonderful and winding, and truly ancient beech avenue, to most beautiful garden. The current Head Gardener told me that the old Castle was partly destroyed in the late 17th Century but, 70 years or so before James Gordon was Gardener, the Earl of Airly rebuilt within the old ruin walls a ‘nestled’ castle. It rather reminded me of Caerlaverock’s Nithsdale Lodging, cradled as it was inside the old! I have a deep love for formal walled gardens with topiary yew, and box. In Airly they nestle quite magically within a glorious and ancient woodland. Perched above such a steep and wild ravine they are the lost wonder of Angus and speak of Man holding back nature. That is a contrast I love and certainly a theme I have explored within ‘Deeside Tales.’


Figure 9.7: Airly Castle a Garden of Delight

The Bonnie Hoose o’Airly is still a popular ballad about the Castle and its history, and tells of the trials besieged upon its pink sandstone walls. The castle was bought by the Ogilvy family in 1432, bringing with it the finest defensive position in the Angus foothills. AirlyCastle remains the official seat of the Earl of Airly, the title being granted in 1639 to the Ogilvy family when James, the eighth Lord Ogilvy of Airly became the first Earl of Airly. The Earl of Argyll burnt the place to the ground in 1641, during the Bishops’ Wars. AirlyCastle was then left neglected and the Ogilvy family moved to nearby Cortachy Castle. There is an Ogilvy traditional folklore that the ghost of a drummer boy haunts AirlyCastle and can be heard beating his drum when an Earl of Airly is about to die. I am glad to say as I roamed the wondrous gardens I heard no drums.

In 1746, after the Jacobite Rebellion, King George II confiscated what was left of the charred AirlyCastle. The exiled Lord Airly was allowed to return from Versailles only years later and he undertook the task of rebuilding the castle. He arrived with a retinue of French masons and whimsically added a Georgian country house to the castle’s remains. Queen Mary was a frequent guest at Airly when her close friend was the Countess of Airly.

The next significant change was made in late 19th century when Blanche Airly, decided to transform, what was essentially a walled vegetable patch, into an elaborate topiary garden. James Gordon (1858 – 1935) grandson of Tilfogar, was the man that guided her inspiration. The garden is now the pride of the castle and a lasting tribute to a Lady and her Deeside Gardener. In July 1878, Blanche Ogilvy invited her friend James A. Whistler to come and stay and to sketch her garden. Sadly those sketches have been lost, and that is heartbreaking for me, as Airly was now my favourite ScottishGarden and Whistler, had long since been my favourite Artist. The Arrangement in Grey and Black, his most famous picture of his mother, had me transfixed motionless when I saw it in Paris. There is no better painting of contrast, like the starkly opposing forces of Man and Nature, in Airly and its garden.

8th July 1878
I am going this very next week right off to the Airlies in Scotland where they have asked me and where they want me to make some etchings portraits – They promise to see that I get over to Susie’s on the 10th  or 11th  all right – So you see Jack that will be all jolly and as it ought – and also you see that if you send your cheque tomorrow how jolly well it will come in.

Ever yours
J A McN. Whistler
[butterfly signature]


Figure 9.8: Whistler sketches Blanche Airly’s Garden

For sometime now we have marveled at the longstanding and steadfast bond between Abergeldy and Birse. Having completed a recent history of the Abergeldy family I would say that this goes back to at least to the early seventeenth century when the most wayward figure of that great family domiciled the parish at Ballogie. I am talking here about Alexander Gordon the seventh Laird of Abergeldy who died in 1655. He was a rebel of fierce temperament, who drank copiously, and squandered his entire estate – down to his underclothes! He all but lost Abergeldy, had it not been for his brother-in-law Thomas Nicholson, a most adept Lawyer and Advocate. Alexander Gordon will be remembered as a bully, and like many such pathetic beings, he took the worst out on his wife Katherine. He regularly beat her, left her in poverty, yet crawled back to her when in need. If it had not been for the kind folk of Birse parish, who took pity on her, she and her children would not have survived.

It is interesting that the bond with Birse is particularly tight with the small Girnoc glen. I remain forever certain that this must be to do with Abergeldy. When Charles Gordon of Tilfogar was caught by the Guager in early spring 1821 he was defended by the Abergeldy Solicitor. Sadly the precognitions of this case have not survived, and that is such a shame as they would surely have revealed much about Tilfogar of the time. The three comrades of Charles Gordon the smuggler were all from Birse.

It is time now to return to Lochnagar and the story of Deeside’s only distillate. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the date of James Robertson’s first venture into legitimate distillation, may have been as early as 1824 and you can only imagine the resentment felt amongst those smugglers who were determined to continue a way of life. Not surprising then, that by the veil of night, this first Distillery was burnt to the ground. These were turbulent times but James Robertson was resolute in his turn to absolute propriety. So in 1826, next to Tilfogar, and not far from Abergeldy Croft his home, James Robertson built a new distillery and called it Lochnagar. No doubt threats continued but James was not put off. The lease of the Distillery, land, and its catchment from the Lochnagar massif, cost James £12 per annum payable to Charles Gordon of Abergeldy.

You might be as interested to learn that Lochnagar was sited beside some truly ancient stone artifacts that had remained in that Deeside nestle for millennia. On top of Craigbeg, three stone cists were discovered each containing ash and human bone, and just inches away a truly unique stone-ball was found (see picture.) This ball with its pattern of six opposing discs had never been seen before. In the obvious metaphor, James Robertson, for surviving rile and the smuggling saboteurs, was Lochnagar’s first ‘Stoneball.’

So it was that amidst troubled times, Lochnagar established itself and with further improvements, expanded. But then James Robertson’s health began to fade and amidst his distillery empire, ‘Stoneballs’ rolled off Lochnagar’s braes. He died in May 1837, and with no Testamentary provision, his entire estate was put to Roup. The collected sale duties amounted to more than £342 and that went to his widow Elizabeth Gordon. For some reason, his two sons, John and James, adults by then, did not enter the business, though both never left their homeland braes.

Elizabeth Gordon, widow of James Robertson the smuggler-turned-good, lived on for fifteen more years at Abergeldy Croft. Her death certificate raises an eyebrow, for the informant, her son John, was circumspect, recording his mother as ‘widow of a ———‘(left blank.) As he was able to read and write, this has left me curious as to why John did not record his father as a Distiller? Was it that his reputation as Deeside’s smuggler had gathered infamy? We shall never know, but can surmise that it is curiously indicative of the 1857 climate. Personally I am not surprised. The shame of smuggling in my branch of the family left my proud Victorian great-grandfather with a total denial of his family’s illicit past. If his only daughter asked of her Deeside roots he used to bellow sternly ‘Get on with your studies and keep out of the poorhouse!’ His rigour was not just Victorian, but truly the silence of shame.

By 1841, the Farquharson family from Old Machar in Aberdeen were very much ensconced on Lochnagar. What brought this family to the Distillery has eluded my research, but I am inclined to believe that a past generation had roots in the great family of Invercauld. Certainly we know that the Farquharson family married into Abergeldy and took helm of Balmoral as early as the 17th century.

Three Farquharson siblings were all instrumental in the running of the Distillery – Alexander, Joseph, and Isabella. All were born in Old Machar in the early years of the nineteenth century, the children of Robert Farquharson and Agnes Davidson (who had married in Old Machar in 1795.)

Alexander Farquharson, born 1801, the eldest of this sibling group, took over the established Lochnagar Distillery after the death of James Robertson in 1838. Just three years later he appears on the census return with his ‘foreign’ (English!) wife. He was listed as the sole Distiller. One has to chuckle a little to read of the man Alexander had appointed as his ‘Brewer in charge’ – it was none other than Charles Stewart (1816-1877) of Buailteach! All Charles’ skill had been garnered, of course, from the illicit stills of Bovagli and Tilfogar. Yes that smuggler influence was at the beating heart of Lochnagar Distillery and Charles Stewart had brought with him his family recipe! A recipe that has survived to this day!


At this time, the running of Lochnagar Distillery, was very much a family affair. Alexander’s sister, Isabella Farquharson, a laundress, brought her husband James Reid (1809-1842) to the distillery campus. Details lack, but at outset James Reid was the Maltman, yet within just a few short months, he seems to have entered into partnership in the Distillery with his brother-in-law Alexander Farquharson.

Alexander Farquharson gave home at Lochnagar to his younger brother Joseph. This brother was familiar with the trade and was listed on that very same census as a ‘Spirit Dealer.’ He was newly married to Ann Rattray and by the date of the following census was at Balnacroft with a family of six and by then had become the ‘Lochnagar Brewer.’

So it was that by 1841 had Lochnagar had become a significant local industry. A new family underpinning had brought both prosperity and success. I concluded that the haunt of the smuggler was at last over and the Exciseman long since redundant. Yet this, my summation of the 1841 scene, was to be exposed as benevolently naïve.  On the 12th May 1841 the Aberdeen Journal reported the following calamity:

‘FIRE AT LOCHNAGAR DISTILLERY – at Thursday morning last at four o’clock, the premises were discovered to be on fire; and not withstanding the greatest of exertions, the whole of the distillery house, malt barn, kiln, and store-rooms, with all their contents, were reduced to embers. Where or how the fire started remains a mystery . . .’

One could read this in many ways for further factual detail simply lacks. My inclination is to assume deliberate sabotage by the cover of night. Seemingly ill-feeling was still about and the haunt of the smuggler yet to be busted! The Farquharson family were not to be easily put off – at least not this early in their venture. A month later, in June of 1841, when the first census enumerator visited Lochnagar, those at the enterprise were listed as below. In all there were five Farquharson children on the campus, helmed still by their mother Agnes. Research has indicated that the family moved ‘en-famile’ from Old Machar when they purchased the Distillery in 1838.

The following year personal tragedy struck at the heart of the management. Aged just 33 years of age James Reid died. Less than a year had passed since he had entered partnership with his brother-in-law Joseph. A plain tombstone in Crathie Churchyard records the grief of his wife Isabella Farquharson. This poor lady knew much of loss with several of her children lost in early childhood. One has to wonder if that grimmest of reapers, tuberculosis, was about. Sometimes even the freshest of Deeside air could not dispel such heinous bacteria and at Balnacroft the bacilli won through.

Let us now recap: the Farquharson family must have started their Distillery enterprise with the promise of a fresh start far away from the closet of Old Aberdeen. However, such buoyant spirit was soon vanquished, virtually at outset, by a devastating fire.  Then the following year, one of the partners, James Reid, was dead. It was a miserable start for the family and certainly not what they had dreamt of.

Following 1842 the Farquharson family persevered at Lochnagar but hearts were broken. The rental of the Distillery from Abergeldy was renewed in 1845, but not by the Farquharson family – business now flagging they no longer had the funds to pay such high rental. It was at this juncture that John Begg (1803-1882) entered the scene. He was to be like a knight in sShining armour for the flagging Distillery.

John Begg was born in Glen Tannar; his father Samuel Begg, farmed at the cotter-toun of Boggenglack, a hamlet that once deserted was cleared by the Victorian landlord William Cunliffe-Brooks. The Begg family, amongst a legion of lost Glen Tanar folk, would surely have cursed the aristocratic Cunliffe-Brooks, a retired English banker, who came to this upper reach of Deeside and wiped clean its past. The Begg family though were resourceful even beyond the grave, and when Brian Begg-Robertson, a family descendent visited some years back, he was taken to the site of Boggenglack by the old Estate Gamekeeper Jimmy Oswald. Hardly a stone remained.  However the site was peppered with mole hills, and Brian noticed broken pottery in the earth-spoil, examining it more closely he found an old clay pipe. What a marvelous way to call back family! Samuel Begg was resourceful from the grave – and in my view, that is a hallmark of his descended family.

Ever the curious I started to wonder what brought the son of Boggenglack to Lochnagar? John Begg was to shape, and form the Distillery in his own name, and brought what was a fading enterprise to a world well beyond Deeside. His business skills, given his beginnings as a crofter’s son, were to be proven astounding. What shaped this man? Well I have started to wonder if his mother who shaped in him such ferocious drive? Indeed it was probably a family link, on his mother’s side that brought John Begg to Lochnagar. His mother, Isabel Farquharson was surely kin of Robert Farquharson the father of the Lochnagar brothers. It may be that this Farquharson family go back to Logie-Coldstone, and before that Glenbuchat, but research has proved difficult, and certainly well beyond the reach of this account. Whatever the truth, I believe that the Farquharson family had money and that surely returns them to Invercauld; but that of course, is speculation on my part.

An old tombstone in Glentannar Churchyard spells the love John Begg had for his mother Isabel Farquharson. He was just fifteen years old when in May 1819 she died at Boggenglack. Time and time again, I have seen the child who lost a mother, turn despair into drive. John Begg may be the embodiment of such tragic circumstance. When John erected the Glentannar tombstone in 1838, he was already a successful ‘Merchant in Aberdeen.’

So it seems that with their Distillery in free-fall, the Farquharson brothers of Lochnagar turned to the rescue of their cousin John Begg. This son of Boggenglack was a saviour and brought with him acquired wealth as an Aberdeen Merchant and sharp acumen as a business trader wide and far.

1845: This was the pivotal point in Lochnagar’s long history. That was when John Begg arrived and started afresh; he demolished the old mash house and distillery buildings, which had been hastily rebuilt after the fire of four years previous. In place he built a whole ‘New Lochnagar.’

That new beginning was chartered not just by immense skill but also by the most perfect timing. It is back to that old adage – the right place and the right time!’ Three years into his new business, Albert, the Prince Consort, having searched wide and far, took Victoria, reigning Majesty of Britain, to Balmoral. A love affair began and ever since Balmoral has, as we well know, become the Scottish home of the Royal family. John Begg must have blessed his cotton socks!

Within days of the Royal Family’s first stay at Balmoral, John Begg handed in a note inviting them to ‘see round his works’, rather impudently hinting that if they did not get there by 6pm the following evening, they would miss seeing the distillery in operation. Nothing could say more of John Begg: he was bold if not imperious, and surely rather brazen! Ye John Begg was to be Lochnagar’s next ‘Stoneball.’

John Begg’s Diary Entry:
‘I wrote a note on the 11th September 1848 to Mr G.E. Anson the Queen’s Private Secretary stating that the Distillery was now in full operation and would be so until 6 o’clock the next day, and knowing how anxious H.R.H. Albert was to patronise and make himself acquainted with everything of a mechanical nature, I said I should feel much pleasure in showing him the works. . .’

‘The Next day . . . I observed Her Majesty and the Prince Consort approaching. I ran and opened the door, when the Prince said ‘We have come to see through your Works Mr Begg.’


The Queen and Prince Albert could not resist tasting Deeside’s best distillate. It is not hard to imagine the scene! The tall, straight-backed Begg, with mesmerizing ease, enthralling his Royal party, whilst he explained, in the glimmer of his shining copper still, the distillation of Lochnagar’s fresh spring water. Begg would, no doubt, have made no mention of the murky smuggling past of his enterprise! He then encouraged the Queen and her Consort to dip their fingers in his new Lochnagar spirit to taste, while the little princes ‘chased each other in and out of the rows of casks.’ When, moments later, mature whisky was taken from the bond for sampling, Prince Albert was ready to drink it down in one gulp; but fortunately Begg quickly reminded him that it was cask-strength and very strong!

Within days of that Royal visit Begg was permitted to describe his distillery as ‘Royal Lochnagar.’ The day after he had a Royal warrant: ‘Distiller to Her Majesty’. Over successive years, further Royal Warrants followed. As one contemporary put it ‘sending that note was the best thing for business Begg ever did!’


Figure 9.10: Regent Quay – the Aberdeen enterprise

It seems highly likely that John Begg spent much of his time between Aberdeen and Lochnagar; continuing his merchant links on Regent Quay in Aberdeen Harbour. For the first ten years at least, he left his cousins Alexander and Joseph Farquharson, with the day-to-day running of the Distillery.  Sometime after 1851, Alexander Farquharson mysteriously vanishes from the scene. His last appearance was on the 1851 census living at Khantore, not with his wife, but with his sister-in-law. On that census Alexander Farquharson was listed as ‘Distiller and Farmer employing six labourers.’ However his family are nowhere to be seen.

The Farquharson brotherhood came to an end in 1868. In the summer of that year, the youngest brother, Joseph died aged 56 years of a burst stomach ulcer. He had been unwell for four months. As a doctor I cannot help wondering if Joseph had an awful liking for his malt?

John Begg was a man of business and as a most successful Merchant understood that he could exploit the new paddle-steamers that were entering AberdeenHarbour to distribute his Royal malt wide and far. This was to turn a local industry into a flourishing country-wide enterprise. To oversee it all he built an imposing granite-terrace house overlooking the harbour and adjacent to his bonded warehouses. With much to do in Aberdeen, and being quite unable to split himself-in-two, John Begg realised he needed trusted hands to manage his Distillery back in Lochnagar. My speculation is that he did not trust such responsibility to either of his Farquharson cousins. It is impossible not to wonder if Alexander Farquharson huffily quit his dear Lochnagar when John Begg appointed the retired Chelsea Pensioner James Alexander as sole Distillery Manager.

James Alexander, a native of Crathie parish, was 64 years old when Begg appointed him as Manager of the Distillery. He brought with him from Stobhall in Maryculter, his young wife (easily young enough to be his daughter) and his one year old son John. But within two years James was dead. So it was, in March 1853, Begg had to find a replacement in which he could place his trust.


Figure 9.11: Contemporary sketch of John Begg’s Distillery

Alexander Jamieson was to be that replacement. In this appointment Begg made perhaps his finest move. Jamieson was to prove himself as solid and dependable as the Lochnagar massif. Reliable and trustworthy he became more than just a Manager, but a true friend of the family. Jamieson was 26 years of age on his appointment and continued for thirty years as Manager. He was married to Eliza Gordon the illegitimate child of Bovagli. Eliza’s father Peter Gordon was brother of ‘Auld Prodeegous.’ We should not underestimate just how much spirit flowed in this family.

John Begg was the same age as I am now when he turned Lochnagar’s fortune. Fifteen years before, at Old Machar, he married Jane Leys. Together they had nine children all born in Aberdeen between 1831 and 1852. The family lived at 9 Regent Quay, Aberdeen but it appears whilst at Lochnagar, stayed within the large Distillery Manager’s House which Begg had specially built. It survives to this day.

The year after Begg took reign of Lochnagar, his sixth son was born, and in honour of the Abergeldy Laird, from whom Begg rented Lochnagar, he named his son Charles Gordon Begg. Had Begg known that the Abergeldy family would, in perpetuity, refuse to part with Lochnagar, he might have thought again! The Abergeldy family, despite being absentee Landlords for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, were smart enough not to sell any of their land, instead offering renewable tenancies. That gave Abergeldy much leverage, and at free will they raised the rental. By 1938, long after the Begg dynasty, Lochnagar was paying Abergeldy a whopping £1000 per annum!

John Begg would have been well versed in the smuggling folklore of upper Deeside, for his chosen wife, Jane Leys, was from a family long since bonded in the trade. The patriarch of this family, has been well rehearsed; Francis Leys, Innkeeper at Inver, whose worn tombstone, now recumbent in overgrown grass in Old Crathie Churchyard is the first in a long row of Leys stones. His grandson Charles Leys ‘Civil Bonnets’ was Innkeeper at Inver and his niece, Mary Leys, Innkeeper at Crathienaird. It is worthy of note, that John Begg, named his third child Frances Leys Begg.

The Leys and the Gordon family were to be entwined in a handful of mid eighteenth century matrimonies. Ever prominent in the upper reaches of Deeside, especially the Gairn, it is likely that both these families were involved in the illicit production and distribution of whisky. Unfortunately few records survive from this period and so much is left to speculation. We do know, however that the successive Abergeldy Lairds of this period were well aware of the widespread production of contraband whisky on their estate, but without fearing any penalty, were able to turn a blind-eye to it.

In the shiny Distillery brochures much has been made of the bustling development of the Distillery during the first five years of Begg’s stewardship, a period in which he gained the commendation of Queen Victoria and was granted by her a Royal Warrant. However look behind the fabric of this success and the story that emerges is of the worst family tragedy that I have encountered. Till now this has been the hidden pain of Begg.

It was in his second year at Lochnagar that John Begg and his wife Jane received the saddest news: their first-born son John had died somewhere off the Coast of Brazil. He was just fifteen years of age and still a child. The pain of this loss was inscribed on the family tombstone in NellfieldCemetery but the detail of his dire circumstances lost for all time. It is impossible not to read of this without question. What was the 15 year old son of a prosperous Merchant doing so far away from home?

Over the last few days I have dwelt on this dreadful loss imagining the hushed words of the dockers around Aberdeen Quayside as news was brought by returning vessel of the tragic death of young Begg. It is just as well that nobody was to know what was to happen next.

So it was that when Begg gave his Royal tour in September 1848 he was still in grief for his little son lost. What a well-needed boost it must have been for him to gain such Royal approval. But such buoyancy was to be short lived for family tragedy struck again. Two months to the day of the Royal Tour, on the 11th of November 1848, Begg’s second son was drowned. Patrick like his brother John before him, smothered out of the world aged 15 years. Water the source of Begg’s fortune was proving to be an unspeakably cruel chatelaine. It is not clear where little Patrick drowned – but it seems likely it was in the Dee – somewhere between Regent Quay and way up-stream at Lochnagar. The next time I take a dram of Royal Lochnagar, my toast will be to ‘John and Patrick Begg, the little boys lost . . .’

The 1851 census return is worthy of note. John Begg is living at 9 Regent Quay, Aberdeen with his wife Jane and three of his surviving children, the youngest being Robert aged 4 years. Interestingly there was no sign of his youngest son Charles Gordon Leys who would have been only two years old (and neither does he seem to have been on Deeside.) Given the terrible loss of their two oldest sons, you would have thought John and wife Jane would have not let any bairn out of their clutch? It is also interesting to read that John Begg informed the census enumerator that he was a ‘Wine Merchant’ – no mention of Royal Lochnagar. One assumes his original business still fared better than his new venture.

John Begg must have despised Autumn. Leaf fall was to have no romantic recall for him. In the year following the census of 1851, John’s third son, Frances Leys Begg took ill and on the 22nd of October 1852 he died aged just seventeen. What a dreadful tally, with three sons all lost before manhood, and all in an aching remembrance of Autumn. You may be surprised to learn that Francis succumbed to influenza, yet as a doctor, I am well aware, that even in 2007, influenza is a killer. These days it strikes at the elderly and we earnestly encourage vaccination for the vulnerable, but in the mid-nineteenth century this omnipresent pathogen, struck all ages. It was a terribly malevolent visitor to many families. And the Begg family, who had no troubles to seek, must have cursed its hideous call on number 9 Regent Quay.

Despair can easily translate into hapless withdrawal. That, John Begg would simply not allow, and whilst there is no first-hand recollection of his outlook, I think it likely he subverted his grief into the cause of his business. By 1861, he was still based at Regent Quay and his family fortunes had turned. He was at this time channeling all his energies into Lochnagar and business was booming. The paddle-steamers entering the harbour were distributing his Royal-tipple wide and far. Steam also funneled from the trains which had grown in importance in that distribution. As a distiller and merchant, Begg was well placed, and such prosperity was his for the taking. His children, schooled in Aberdeen, were growing fast, and in 1858 his eldest daughter Isabella Farquharson Begg married John Robertson. His oldest surviving son, Henry Farquharson Begg emigrated before 1861 to New Zealand. This was a happy period, as two years before, Begg’s daughter Eliza Jane married William Mitchell in Crathie. William Mitchell was a good catch for Begg’s daughter; he lived in the imposing Elmbank House and served as Aberdeen’s Postmaster General.

Research does not find the Begg family at home in 1871, neither at Lochnagar nor Regent Quay. Perhaps then they were overseas, and given the wide travels of their sons, it is surely likely that they were, as a family, in the custom of going overseas.

The Grim Reaper has never felt mercy and the hapless Beggs could not shake his recruitment. Respite for this family was to come and go most inconsiderately and just days into the New Year of 1865 twenty year old Robert Leys Begg was found dead in the Lochnagar Manager’s House. There is absolutely no indication of what happened to Robert the death certificate simply records that the cause was ‘unknown.’ No doctor had been in attendance and there was no examination undertaken after death. The informant was the Distillery Manager Alexander Jamieson – a man who was to be the unfortunate shadow of death. But more of that later.

It appears that during the 1860’s the Begg family regarded Lochnagar as their true home, and despite their many losses must have felt some comfort in that Deeside cradle. Tragically, Begg was never to be present at Lochnagar when his family took unwell and one would naturally assume he was either in Aberdeen or on business elsewhere.

Four sons had passed on, and prosperity was but weak comfort to such parental loss. Unspeakably cruel, death hovered over Lochnagar like a cloud, and just three years on from the death of Robert, Begg’s youngest son took ill. Charles Gordon Begg had always been a frail child having been brain-damaged from birth. Like his brother Robert he died at his Lochnagar home after ten relentless days of diarrhoea. It is possible that it was cholera, but one hopes, whatever the pathogen, it was not from the water supply! Neither Begg parents were in residence when Charles slipped away aged twenty-one and the sad informant was yet again the Distillery Manager, Alexander Jamieson.

Virtually a year to the day, in late July 1869, graceful Alice, youngest child of Begg, bowed out. The fresh Lochnagar air was not enough to restore her, and aged 17 years she died from congestion of lungs crumpled and airless. She had been struggling to breathe for three weeks.  That reaper’s shadow was again the weary Alexander Jamieson. One can only assume John Begg was yet again away on business?

All this death has been awful to recount and lies starkly perverse to the counter rise of the Distillery. It is, most truly, the painful secret of Lochnagar.


Figure 9.12: Royal Lochnagar Distillery

In writing this account of Lochnagar’s History, Brian Begg-Robertson forwarded to me a studio photograph of Begg taken not so many years after his dreadful sorrows. As I had imagined it depicted a straight-backed man espousing fortitude above emotion. A strong nose carved into heavy brows – at first glance one might cast this man as true to the stoneballs of his dear Lochnagar. Yet look a little closer; Begg’s mouth is crumpled, his lids are heavy, and his eyes glazed to a land beyond. Despite all the effort to appear vigourous, resplendent in the best wool coat his Aberdeen tailor could muster, and ivory and silver-topped cane, to me he looks broken. Yes it seems even stone balls can shatter.

As a footnote, I feel compelled to tell you the fate of Lochnagar. John Begg died at Regent Quay alone in May of 1882. His trusted shadow, the Distillery Manager Alexander Jamieson, died two years later. The Begg enterprise, though not brand, was over. Incredibly, John Begg had foreseen the future and invested his last years to developing blends. It seems he was ahead of his game even in death. John Begg left a complicated estate which finally settled upon his only surviving son Henry Farquharson Begg, but ‘lacking his father’s driving energy’ sixteen years later the Begg family enterprise was sold out. Family descendents today still harbour bitterness at such lost opportunity.


Figure 9.13: Begg (1803-1882) The Founder.



Bundle & Go

Bundle & Go! (my film that carries some of the stories of the small glen): https://vimeo.com/43698401

7 Replies to “Lochnagar: stoneballs”

  1. This is fascinating reading – I am John Begg’s great great great granddaughter (descended from his son Henry F Begg). Thanks!

    1. Thanks Diane. It is very sad family story behind the success of Lochnagar whisky. I generally do not drink whisky, but when I do I raise a glass and say ‘Stoneballs’ as a way of couthie remembrance to the Begg family of Lochnagar.

      Aye Peter Gordon

    2. I too found this fascinating – I am descended from Joseph Farquharson and Ann Rattray who ended up in Forres, Morayshire. I have visited the distillery but didn’t find as much information as you have provided. I had traced the family back to Robert/ Agnes Davidson but have been stuck there. Now that I know they were in Old Machar before I’ll try again. Many many thanks! A Norton

  2. I am the direct descendent of Alexander Farquharson Jr who was tried for Robbery etc & sentanced to death by hanging! This was later altered to Life & Transportation to Australia. This Alexander was abt.16-19yrs old at the time of sentencing. His parents were Alexander Farquharson & Anne Dyce. Would love to hear from anyone else re these families e.g. Farquharson/Dyce. All I have is Farquharson’s were from Old Machar have come to a halt re Dyce family. Any assistance would be much appreciated. M E Hudson (Sydney NSW Aus)

  3. Interesting reading! I am trying to trace a Peter Gordon that was born in Scotland around 1765 and there is a Peter born to James Gordon of Tilfogar that was born at the right time. He became a writer, working in Gartmore, then died in Glasgow. I note you refer to James Gordon in New Zealand and I wondered if this was my great great grandfather, James William Hume Gordon. Grasping at straws, but you never know… Dale

    1. I wish I could help Dale but I wrote this long enough ago that my memory of the research is rather not good enough to help you.

      I am interested though to learn more of Peter Gordon, Writer, Gartmore!

      aye Peter Gordon

      1. I have a letter that was written by my Peter Gordon from Glasgow in 1826. He is writing to a member of the Cunningham Graham family complaining of his poor treatment when his employment was terminated after some 30 years of service. In it he states that he worked for them from 1790 when he states he was a “very young man”. He was employed by Robert Cunningham Graham of Gartmore, writer and politician, and then worked for his descendants. On various documents I have seen him referred to as “Writer” and “Factor” and often has Esq after his name. Several of his sons were also Writers. I am having difficulty tracking his birth as there were a number of Peter Gordon’s born within the time frame. Notice of his son’s death was published in the Aberdeen Journal in 1834 which makes me think there was a connection for the family in that part of Scotland. His grandson, James Gordon, and his family came to New Zealand in 1864.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.