Chapter 7 of ‘Deeside Tales’: The Muckle Inventors – Littlemill
This chapter takes us to the life-blood of Deeside, for its capillaries, like the Girnoc, all flow into the silvery river Dee. Littlemill has a unique bond with the Dee which rises at 4000ft on the plateau of Braeriach, the highest source of any major river in the British Isles, and stretches 88 miles to its outlet at Fitdee. Littlemill acts as the gatekeeper to the returning Girnoc salmon and the SEPA trap has been sited there, just below the bridge, for 40 years now.
The saddest list – the river Dee
Peter Frankie – drowned 1823
Barbara Brown – drowned 1823
William Skene Gordon – drowned 1831
Patrick Duncan Begg – drowned 1848
George Milne – drowned 1848
John Milne – drowned 1848
The Dee is a glorious, and the south Deeside journey by its banks, arguably the most beautiful in Scotland, yet any reach of water, especially when it is fast-flowing and in-spate, can be treacherous. The list above then makes sad reading.
There is an old superstition that the Dee is certain to kill three people a year:
Each year needs three,
But Bonny Don,
She needs none
Alexander Gordon of Littlemill was just five years old when the Dee ripped the heart out of its upper reach, for in the spring of 1823, Barbara Brown, the Flower of Deeside, was swept away with her new husband when the coble by Abergeldy suddenly snapped. Babby’s body was found the next day but Peter Frankie, her husband, not for a further week, by which time he had been swept to Coilacreich.
This incident indelibly hurt Deeside. The most painful account of this was rehearsed by the bride’s father, the auld Sennachie, in the original and best ‘Deeside Tales.’ Young Alexander Gordon of Littlemill made a vow; when he was rich and successful, he would span the Dee by bridge and so prevent further heartache.
Alexander Gordon was far from Deeside, in his London home celebrating his fiftieth birthday, when history repeated itself. This time the Dee greedily snatched two young brothers in a misfortune of truly awful proportions. A third brother was left watching helplessly as 19 year old John Milne, a Druggist’s Clerk, was swept under at Poolbuie while his 25 year old brother George, a Gunpowder Manufacturer, was himself struggling. The Dee in spate was mighty, and Robert, the younger brother was helpless and so clambered up the bank, searching in vain for assistance. The next day, far from his Old Deer home, and without his father, he had the sad duty of identifying the bodies of his deceased brothers.
Alexander Gordon’s resolve was steely, after all he was an Engineer to trade, and his acumen in business had brought him a wealth unheard of in his native Deeside. Alexander Gordon was born at Littlemill, the foot of Girnoc, on the 3rd of January 1818. His father George was a wool-dyer and ventured to the metropolis of Edinburgh, where he died in 1834. His grandfather, Alexander Gordon (1727-1809), whom he was named after, is commemorated on a Glenmuick tombstone. His grandmother was from Birse. The Littlemill stones sit in a row between Abergeldie and Camlet.
The origins of this Littlemill family remain obscure but not without speculation. To do so we must go back to Abergeldy in the mid seventeenth century, for there is good evidence to suggest that John the younger brother to the wayward Alexander Gordon the Seventh Laird of Abergeldy set up home at Littlemill. You will recall the castle was ruinous having been under fire during several periods of the seventeenth century and the Laird was resident himself in Ballogie House in Birse.
This John Gordon of Littlemill is first mentioned in 1642 when as Lieutenant Colonel he ‘schippet’ men from Aberdeen for Lord Argyll’s Regiment in France. This was almost certainly the John Gordon in Littlemill who had been in perpetual service against the Covenanters – fighting at Inverlochy, Kilsyth and other places, first as Captain, then as Major, and then as Lieutenant Colonel. He appeared before the General Assembly Commission at Aberdeen to ask for pardon.
Like Dr Bulloch, I am fully satisfied that Littlemill was a cadet of Abergeldy stemming back to this John Gordon the raging Covenanter. Nevertheless in 1865 Alexander Gordon (1818-1895) our Engineer and Bridge Builder registered his Arms with the Lordy Lyon as a descendent of the Great family of Braichlie. This may have been mistakenly based on the work of William Anderson in his book of that year ‘Genealogy and Surnames.’
The Braichlie family is of interest for it passed out of the Gordon hands in 1708 (after being in their possession for 240 years) and into that of the Farquharsons. No doubt Anderson would argue that at this date Braichlie family took up home at Littlemill, and the frequent use of the ‘Knockespoch’ Christian name ‘George’ in the lower ranks of the Littlemill pedigree might give credence to that. The Last Gordon of Braichlie, John, was the son of the murdered Laird and was quite brilliant. Duncan Gordon in Wardhead, who was present at his baptism, stated in 1665, that John Gordon of Braichlie was ‘seaven yeirs of age.’ He was educated at the Grammar School of Aberdeen, where he won the silver medal for archery.
Oval, silver medal: 8 inches in length; made by Alexander Galloway, goldsmith, admitted a craftsman in Aberdeen in 1671. Obverse: within a laurel wreath border the arms of John Gordon of Breachly – three bears’ heads erased: helmeted and mantled: no crest: over the initials I.G., and below all – of Breachly. Reverse: within an engraved laurel border – dlitiis non itur ad astra – Ionnes Gordonus Sexto Vicit. 1672 – Agr.
Figure 7.1: The Braichlie Archery Medal of 1672
This last Laird married Ann Alardyce, and was recorded as still living in 1723, still in Deeside. He was by then 64 years old. We may never know if he was indeed the patriarch of Littlemill as Anderson would suggest – but my inclination says not.
‘For the Baron o Brackley is dead and awa.’
Well our champion Archer’s father was murdered in 1666 when young John was just eight years of age. The Braichlie family were said to be companions of death and Anderson records oral tradition that ‘a line of nine Barons, all of whom, in the unruly times in which they lived, died violent deaths.’ This makes of course good reading but is improbable at best.
The ballad of the Baron of Brackley is equally misleading and it must be realized that it was not in any printed form until 1806, and came to embody particulars of two separate vendetta murders (in 1592 and 1666). That should not trouble us unduly for there are extant records which nevertheless depict the true circumstances of the 1666 murder.
The murder is best taken from the vantage of the Minister Reverend Ferguson who was unable to give sermon on Sunday the 16th December 1666 ‘being in Edinburgh as witness upon Bracklie’s business.’ What was this business that took the Crathie minister so far from his home parish? Well the two notable families of the district, ever inclined to feud, the Farquharsons and the Gordons, were at it again. The dreadful day was the 7th September 1666 and John Farquharson of Inverey, the ‘Black Colone’l and at least nineteen other members of his clan (if we go by the Privy Court Records) came to Brackley Castle and killed the Baron, his brother William, his Uncle Alexander, and cousin James of the Knock.
At the instance of Margaret Burnett, relict of the murdered Baron, a High Court trial took place which demanded the presence of all the Farquharson accused under penalty of 200 merks. Farquharson of Finzean was accused of invading Brackley’s lands ‘with eight score persons armed with swords, and weapons invasive, with a view to driving away the Baron’s cattle;’ and it was alleged that when Brackley and his retainers sought to rescue their property they were ‘shot and wounded, and immediately died upon the place.’
That is why the weary Minister was delayed in returning from Edinburgh for three further weeks. Be that as it may, before the Court, neither Ferguson’s evidence, nor that of any other, was enough to make the issue clear. In this not very satisfactory fashion, the case against the murderers of the Baron of Brackley appears to have taken end.
The spot where the Baron fell was long pointed out and according to Dr Sedgwick a small cairn stood on the west bank of the burn about four hundred yards above the old castle. Part of the foundations of the old castle of Brackley were still visible in 1870 when Sir James MacKenzie had his House of Glenmuick and garden built over it in simple disregard of the ‘speckled hillock’ from which Braichlie got its name.
John Farquharson of Inverey, the Black Colonel was redoubtable, colourful and violent, even in exile. History’s imbalance is that he has continued to be recalled in the stories and folklore of upper Deeside longer than the Baron he murdered. Aye ‘for the Baron o Brackley is dead and awa.’
Doon Deeside came lnverey, whistlin and playin.
He’s lichted at Brackley’s yett at the day dawin.
Says: ‘Baron o Brackley, it’s are ye within?
There’s sharp swords at your yett will gar your blood spin.’
It is time to return to Littlemill, perhaps not as a cadet of Braichlie but rather of Abergeldy.
As has been recorded in chapter four of this book the Gordons of Abergeldy, were one of the first of the Landed family in Deeside to supplement their rent rolls by trade. This venture into business was founded by two marriages between Gordon brothers and Biddulph sisters. In 1789, David Gordon Fourteenth Laird of Abergeldy, married Anne, the daughter of Michael Biddulph of Ledbury; and in 1793, his brother Adam Gordon married her sister, Penelope. Gordon and Biddulph was the name of the firm which arose, as Iron Manufacturers, Engineers and Shipbuilders. This firm, based in London, was to become huge, and ensured the continuity of the Gordons of Abergeldy, but as absentee Lairds.
Dr Bulloch argued credibly that the Engineering enterprise of Abergeldy sired offshoots in upper Deeside, and so emerged pockets of mechanical Inventors, seemingly otherwise implausible, from such a remote reach. The Gordons of Littlemill must surely be the best example of this rural conflaguration, but we must not forget the Aucholzie Gordons, and in particular Mr Gordon of Arabella’s wonderful patented farm machinery. The most celebrated Aucholzie invention was a contraption that sifted potatoes – in its modern form it is still used today.
Alexander Gordon born at Littlemill in 1818 became a brewer in London, practically founding the firm of ‘A. Gordon and Company,’ brewing among other drinks ‘Empire mild ale’ and oatmeal stout. The firm was commissioned as brewers to Edward the Prince of Wales, and worked their own artesian well. Gordon never forgot his native home. It is interesting to note that he was educated by his Uncle William Gauld at Logie-Coldstone, and at the age of just eighteen was already managing a brewery in Aberdeen, whilst assisting the Farquharsons at Lochnagar.
Three of Alexander’s brothers, George, Duncan, and William, left for the Coffee Plantations of Ceylon but sadly his younger brother George died at sea. The brother Alexander was closest to, both in age and outlook, was John, and shouldering new adventures they left together for London. John was a brilliant Engineer and whilst in London, brought out patent after patent. Much was done in the industrialization of coffee production and with Ceylon; this became a most successful family affair. Their works in London became known as ‘The Pulper,’ after the patented coffee grinding machine he had invented. John was ahead of the game, coffee was becoming the taste of the Nation and when electric light started to prosper he patented a disc-dynamo. John Gordon had five sons all of whom became Engineers. They were a remarkable family.
Alexander was just as prosperous, in fact more so. His Brewing business had an imperious hold of London and the widest of markets. His wealth gathered like a rolling stone down the glen and he never looked back. He had several homes, thirty domestic servants, and ultimately a graceful Mansion House called ‘Southwood’ near Hildenborough, complete with its own clock tower!
Ceylon, through the Littlemill Gordons had a lasting impact on Deeside, with one house in Invercauld Road, named Beredwella after a Ceylon coffee plantation. William Gordon, brother of Alexander, retired home to Littlemill but after his death his wife moved to the ‘Jungle,’ Ballater!
Figure 7.2: Alexander Gordon the Deeside Benefactor: Polhollick bridge; Cambus o’May bridge and Albert Halls
Alexander Gordon contributed largely to the parish kirk of Ballater, built in 1873, at a cost of £3500, the Polhollick Bridge over the Dee, and the Gordon Memorial Institute at Ballater. After his death the Cambus O’May brig was completed to the same design as Polhollick. They are beautiful bridges with a further example, now rusty, neglected and padlocked at Abergeldy. The graceful elegance of these paedestrian bridges has made me wonder if they were engineered and designed by Alexander himself.
In the deed of gift, this Institute was to be managed by 23 trustees. During 1909 some newspaper correspondent severely criticised the trust. Gordon died married, but childless, at Southwood, Hildenburgh, Kent in September 1895 and when his wife died 6 months later, his estate went to his Enginnering nephews.
Thanks to Alexander Gordon’s generosity, Ballater has a fine set of public halls which are much used. Between 1985 and 1992 great energy was devoted to collecting funds for their refurbishment with the Albert Hall being re-opened by HM Queen Elizabeth in 1987.
Turning now back to the environs of Littlemill, David and Hamish Kemp recall a ‘Community Hall’ for the Girnoc, which during the war used as a Canadian army camp, but saw a new lease of life after it was transported about 100 meters up-stream from the Bridge. It was quite a feat moving it, and Muckle Fleeman himself (see below), would have been proud. The Kemps recall spirited nights in this hall; playing cards, ceildh dances and also the Burns Supper Nights (and more!) Indeed the War Years saw evacuees come to the Girnoc, and briefly that relentless depopulation was put in reverse. It was, of course, not to last. Still it is nice to think of children, now grown old, with happy memories of the small glen.
As has been described in chapter five the Cosh was a sentry for the glen, a role shared by the small community of Na Cearr-lannan ‘the awkward left.’ This was a huddle of 18th century cottar houses, all long since gone though some remnants exist, as is to be found in the garden of a Girnoc Shiel, a modern dwelling built by the foremost parish historian Dr Sedgwick. In an old edition of the Leopard Magazine, Dr Sedgwick of ‘the awkward left’ wrote a fascinating account of history of the Girnoc Brig. Her article was entitled ‘The Greystone Weaver.’ In it she reminds us that the Gordons, who were ubiquitous in the Glen, were far from universally popular, with a rivalry and competition that often descended into murderous feuds. Never more so than with the Forbes of Knock.
Dr Sedgwick does not like the Gordons and her outlook goes all the way back to Muckle Fleeman, a giant of mighty strength from Greystone, opposite Abergeldy. Fleeman, with giant strides, could wade the Dee in a span, was a friend of all, and had that gentleness of being that comes with such a benevolent Giant. Yet despite this, he could not, and would not speak to a Gordon. Never! Muckle Fleeman had a great friend, a man of swarth and flashing armour, known as BlackAirter, who had inherited the seat of Strathgirnoc through his Forbes family. Black Airter was also a man of great strength and had similar dislike of the fair Gordons who had been his sworn enemies for many years.
Muckle Fleeman, a weaver of cloth by day, champion of strength by night, had been busy working on a plaid for Black Airter of the ‘Girnoc. One fine summer’s morning he delivered his newly spun and bright yard of cloth. On such occasions it was usual for the men to have a try at the ‘sweertree.’ This was something like a wrestling match, with each to lift the other off his feet. Black Airter had never managed to beat Fleeman so this time he resorted to a trick. He told his packman to stand behind him and to put all his weight on his coat-tails.
Fleeman was a mighty giant and never had a doubt, certainly he had never failed to lift anyone before, so he put in little effort. To his astonishment nothing happened. So he tried again with a bit more this time. Still nothing happened. This was most unusual and Fleeman became angry. He gave a great heave. He lifted the laird, but the coat-tails were left on the grass.
That was just as Black Airter, a most cunning of men, had planned and he declared: ‘You may be an expert at the sweertree, Fleeman, but you are a very poor weaver. Your cloth doesn’t stand the pull of an honest man. If you can’t weave stronger cloth, I’ll give all my trade to Johnny Gordon o’ Scurrystane.’ Muckle Fleeman hated Scurrystane – he was a Gordon and boastful for it! Scurrystane a weaver himself, felt nothing of telling one and all about his ‘superior’ cloth. Gosh how it angered him to think that Black Airter would wear a cloth woven by such a useless fellow!
Gad aye Airter was cunning, for un-beknown to Fleeman he had enlisted the mightiest of bodies against the Gordons. That wud sort them!
Even these days folk prefer to travel to Ballater by the road on the south of the Dee, the journey is far more pleasant and the scenery the reward. From Balmoral past Abergeldy, you come to the Girnoc Brig. Today it is spanned by a Victorian arch, but its predecessor played its part in the feud between Gordons of Knock and Forbes of Strathgirnoc. The Bridge was essential as the only means of traversing the river to the peat bog, and for Knock castle to have a roarin’ fire he needed his men servants toget across with a cart. However Gordon was sleekit and wanted to deprive Black Airter of the peat, so when the Bridge was swept away in spate he refused to allow a new bridge to be erected. So it was that without consent of Gordon, Black Airter put up a bridge of strong logs. Gordon was furious and had his men destroy all trace. The Brig of Girnoc was the new focus of hatred between the clans.
Impasse followed (to put it mildly!) before Black Airter finally agreed to meet Gordon. The meeting was anything but friendly and words crossed the Girnoc like arrows. Shouting to one another across the river, Black Airter finally put up a challenge and insisted ‘that with only one man to help, he would build a bridge that even four Gordons could not move.’ Gordon, confident that this was an impossible feat, agreed to the challenge, and furthermore promised that if Airter succeeded he would let the new Brig stay forever!.
Black Airter was a man of depth and new the Girnoc well. Years back he had spotted a stane on Creag Phioabid that he considered would make a wonderful bridge over the Girnoc. The trouble was it was such a mighty slab that just nobody could carry it down the hill into position. The North East is full of speeshal folk and Airter was one of them. Black Airter puzzled over his predicament but then thought then of Muckle Fleeman, the giant who cudnae stand a Gordon!
Fleeman, roamin fearless, set up Creag Phioabidh in nout but a buckled plaid. By morning a great stone spanned the burn. Local folk had started to gather at first light to see the new bridge. Gordon and four others tried, with might and main, to dislodge the stone, but all their efforts were in vain. The brig was there to stay and there was nout Gordon cud dae aboot it!