Rowan and Ash Lament for Bovaglia (part 1)

Chapter 3 of ‘Deeside Tales’: Rowan & Ash Lament – Bovaglia
I expect this to be a difficult chapter to write, not because I am blinded by my love of Bovaglia, that is certainly true, but because the voices on the Bovagli braes reach out with such prevailing sadness. The stories left behind haunt the scene, and you must be warned of the desperate content. I have wrestled with my conscience for I wish to upset none, but to truly capture the realms of the prodigal Bovaglia, I must be inclusive of the good and the bad. There is much to say so please read on.

Leaving the elbow of the Camlet, follow the ‘Bovagli Roadie,’ and you will find it is a relatively short approach. The first signs of a settlement are the ancient, gnarled, and wind ravaged ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) trees, which mark out the corners of the old kailyards. There can be fewer finer locations in Deeside than that of Bovagli, for it literally embraces the southern end of the Girnoc, peering out-towards the majestic highs of Lochnagar. Here the Girnoc track cuts away sharply, disappearing eastwards through the woods of Bovaglia, and onwards to the Genechal, the Distillery, and then beyond to Royal Balmoral.

01BovaglieFigure 3.1: Bovaglia – the stories left behind haunt the scene

Bovagli (Both Faicille) translates from the Gaelic as Guard-house. What a perfectly formed name – for that is just what Bovagli is: timelessly watching guard over the land that it surveys right up to the sharp rise of the Lochnagar massif. Adam Watson went further; he felt that the derivation came from true days of old when Bovagli served as the guard-house to the cattle herds which were vulnerable to the stealth of the cattle thieves.

Bovagli has seen seven centuries come and go and made its first appearance in the records long before The Camlet with the earliest reference dating back to medieval times. In 1358 it was known as Botwaglach, but by 1607 had become the more familiar Bovaglich. In all the guard-house has carried, quite remarkably, at least twelve different spellings, but for this account I have adopted my favourite – Bovagli(a) – which I feel conveys a sense of the ethereal elegance and magisty of the farm.

1358 – Botwaglach
1607 – Bogvaglich
1666 – Balbaglie
1698 – Bavaglich
1725 – Bovaglai
1764 – Bovaglack
1782 – Belvaglech
1799 – Bevaglie
1806 – Bavagly
1822 – Balvagley
1848 – Balvagly
1860 – Balvaglie.

Bovaglia has an impressive history – a history that literally seeps as sap of its surrounding wood. Sometimes I am guilty of emotional overstatement, but I guarantee one visit to Bovagli’s wood and that historic ambience will evoke. It is impossible not to feel its spirit. It is hard now to truly know what sort of woodland copse Bovaglia originally was. In one of Butterworth’s best watercolours the wood is represented as scattered and gently delicate birch (Betula pendula) but it is likely that the truly ancient copse was its succession species – oak (Quercus spp.)

Butterworth-BovaglieFigure 3.2: Butterworth’s finest – Lochnagar from the Bovagli birches

One cannot talk of the ancient Bovagli Wood, which ‘happed Bovagli’ like a plaid’ without returning to James Scott Skinner. ‘Bovaglie’s Plaid,’ his immortal tune, has a romantic basis. Skinner had heard of the story how a Scottish Laird had secured his farm by placing a plaid on a rock as payment, it reminded him of the tune ‘Roualeyn’s Plaid’ but (not surprisingly) swept him back spiritually to his friend Bovagli. That was how James, the ‘Strathspey king,’ brought the guard-house to folk well beyond the upper reaches of Deeside. I have heard that original recording many times and jaunty it is not. Rachel, my six year old daughter, felt it ‘sad.’ Skinner somehow sensed Bovagli’s innate loneliness and brought that to his fiddle – yes Bovagli had reached deep, both then, and now.

Born at Banchory, Aberdeenshire, James Scott Skinner (1843 – 1927) composed over six hundred tunes, was a favourite violinist among royalty and common folk, and was technically the ‘most formidable’ of any Scots fiddler that ever lived. It was Queen Victoria that introduced him to Bovaglia. Skinner’s recognition as the Strathspey King arose because nobody ever played the tunes like he did. For Scotland he was the first world wide musical superstar. When Skinner died on the 17th March 1927, Aberdeen City Streets were lined for his funeral.

Bovaglie's-PlaidFigure 3.3: Skinner’s Bovaglie’s Plaid

James Scott Skinner felt Bovagli’s spirit in the same way as I did. It is indeed a secret jewel of a place, but with a reaching, embracing, and unabating sadness. I share not a shred of Skinner’s musical talent, but innately, and curiously (and even with a century’s passing) we emote akin. That may sound strange, but like Skinner, I ‘feel’ a place before I understand it. Skinner’s most favourite retreat in Scotland was the wondrous estate of Auchernach in Glen Nochty. Of all the Donside estates the lost grandeur of Auchernach and its overgrown Walled Garden moved me similarly – but these days, as a yearn fashioned from Sleeping-Beauty. Skinner loved the place and his friend Major McLennan wrote a 6/8 time March for the Laird called ‘General Forbes – Rose of Auchernach.’

General Charles Forbes (1730-1794) the founder of Auchernach was Barrack Master at Corgarff Castle. His son Nathaniel had the ‘Regency’ Auchernach Mansion House built in 1819. It was sadly demolished last century but its twin ‘The Ferryhill House Hotel’ survives good and strong in Aberdeen. The walled garden was Auchernach’s glory and had Indian Colonialism underpinning its very being, with a crenellated clock-tower resembling an Indian Hillfoot. Yet The Forbes family traveled wider still and the Italianate influence is in the architecture. This was the Villa d’Este of Nochty – neh Donside! A Willow tree was planted to drape ‘Napoleons’s Well’ and was grown from a seed brought home by General Forbes from St Helena. So when, a century later, Scott-Skinner was invited as the most welcome house-guest, after ‘damping the doorstep’ with a dram, he was brought to another world – a landscape dream. No wonder that he penned some of his melodies at Auchernach. It was inspiring. Today that inspiration continues in the magnificent gallery of ‘Lost’ by Peter Goodfellow. The Forbes family would have welcomed Goodfellows wide cultural diversity brought to Scotland’s only ‘Lost.’


So it was that James Scott-Skinner brought Bovagli to Auchernach in a Dee-Don alliance. That bond feels right as both are now sentinel ghosts of the past, and their, now faltering beat, can still embrace the soul. I was not surprised then when I discovered how the Forbes family of Auchernach shaped the Girnoc and Bovagli in particular. Yet I was to be shocked at the tragic circumstances of that bond.

Auchernach met Bovagli in the house of my distant grandfather Peter Gordon. It was a simple biggin with nout-but but n’ben ends and to imagine the scene we have to travel back beyond the now scattered stane –rickles of Bovagli to the spring of 1824.

Peter Gordon, the Bovagli Shepherd was born at The Camlet in 1793. He was far away in the Angus glens of Clova when the most shocking event in the history of the Girnoc took place in his very own house.

It all started on the afternoon of Saturday the 13th May 1824 when a brother and sister, Elspet and Peter Gordon, came across horror. Floating face down in a pool of water in the Bovagli Moss of Monour was the yellowing body of a bloated and naked baby. Horribly, birds of prey had eaten between the legs, and it was not obvious whether it was a boy or girl. Returning to their town-ship Elspet screamed for her father, and in that instant, all of Bovagli understood.

For many months the Bovagli town-ship folk had been gossiping about the appearance of Janet Stewart the young servant girl to Peter Gordon, who was considered rather too ‘stout.’ Janet, when asked, denied she was pregnant and even her kindly neighbour Anne Bowman could not share her precious confidence. Janet refused to accept that she was pregnant, she was not in wed-lock, and she had already lost a bairn. She maybe thought that her secret was safe, but the physical changes of pregnancy were hard to conceal, and all of Bovagli ’ken’t weel.’

Gossip was rife that the father was a certain Benjamin Forbes, Servant at Crathienaird. Benjamin Forbes, though illiterate, was the son of Auchernach, his father Nathaniel Forbes was of that great family but chose Deeside over the Don. Benjamin had the status and charismatic appeal that poor Janet Stewart had not, and his various precognitions won over the Abergeldy Laird, Alexander Sinclair Gordon. After the baby was found the whole of Bovagli was summoned to the Castle for interview.

Dr Robertson came to the glen and found the body of the baby in 2 to 3 feet deep mossy water in a ‘pot’ ¼ of a mile distant from Peter Gordon’s house – the nearest house to the pot. Arthur McHardy then took the body to Balnacroft where it was kept overnight until being taken the next day to Dr Robertson in Ballater who performed a post-mortem. He confirmed that the aseptic qualities of the bog water had prevented putrefaction; the child’s body was yellow, and was considered to have been in the bog for 8 or 9 weeks; Hawks and birds of Prey had pecked away around the groin and it was not possible to establish if it was a boy or girl. Dr Robertson concluded that the child had almost certainly survived delivery and drawn several breaths at least. Dr Robertson wondered if death was the result of haemorrhage from the untied umbilical cord (he found the baby’s major blood vessels were empty of blood.) However he felt he could not rule out suffocation as a cause of death.

Benjamin Forbes claimed that he had no idea that Janet Stewart was ‘with child’ and that he had in the last five years ‘never been within three miles of Bovagli.’ On pressing, Janet Stewart changed her submission and stated that Benjamin was the father, dating from a time when they were both servants in Crathienaird. Furthermore she stated that Benjamin came to the house at sunrise and shortly after she delivered the child the baby ‘cried twice’ and in a state of ‘insensibility’ she watched Benjamin Forbes ‘take the child away’ and that she ‘never saw or heard of it again.’

Statements were taken from William Rattray the Ferryman at Boat of Monaltrie and William Reid the Clachinturn Boatman. Both confirmed that on the morning of question the Dee was in spate and un-crossable. Poor Janet, her testimony was just not holding up. That very day she was sent from Abergeldy Castle to the Aberdeen jail where she was examined by a Midwife and found to show the bodily signs of recent childbirth, with stretch marks, and milk expressing from her ‘glands.’

Benjamin Forbes was though not absolved and was similarly taken to the Aberdeen Tolbooth to be confined till the day of the trial four months later. Sheriff Simpson, in hearing the precognitions, and other submissions, concluded that Janet Stewart’s story was ‘completely unfounded.’ He immediately ordered that Benjamin Forbes be set at liberty from the Jail. He then found 22 year old Janet Stewart ‘guilty of Child Murder and the Concealment of Pregnancy.’ She was imprisoned for a further four months and never returned to Deeside again.

On my last visit to Bovagli’ I found myself pondering what happened to Janet Stewart. Not well spoken, and illiterate, she chose to lie – that was her un-doing. Benjamin, with his Auchernach connection, was always going to fare better. It was with some shock that I later discovered that in the following year, 1825, Janet Stewart appeared in Perth Court accused of another child murder.  Bovagli has since kept her secret and wrapped it up in its wuid. If you visit you may just feel the shudder yet.

Benjamin Forbes never left the Girnoc and took up home at Woodend, where he became a Sawyer, and raised a large family. Ironically illegitimacy was a feature of his family throughout his children; wed-lock was a rarity.

Auchernach-&-LostFigure 3.5: Auchernach’s old walled garden on the way to Lost

Auchernach’s Wall Garden must have been utterly magnificent, with no such parallel in wider Aberdeenshire. Remote, it now nestles forlorn and neglected in its own woodland copse, which, in the last few years, has been cut back by sword to give just a hint of its former glory. It is the true sentinel of Lost. Bovagli carries similar sentiment and both were once the home of the Garden Keeper. Later in this chapter you will hear of Bovagli’s Gardener and his span as a truly great Centenarian.

Today the Bovagli wood is just a shadow of its former glory with evergreen aforestation fast replacing the mixed hardwoods of ancient copses. Sometime in the early twentieth century, the shelter was made wind-fast by block planting of Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). Today these trees dominate as the guardsmen of the guard-house. Deer love to shelter in the Bovagli Wood, and the summertime rubbing of velvet from their antlers, has cored the old telephone and power supply poles. As you can imagine, wind has done the rest. A forlorn attempt to save the power supply can still be seen, for one of the few poles to survive, has only done so because of the ingenuity of the Bovagli farmer, who many years ago, wrapped wire tightly around it to put an end to the deer rubbing.

John Howard Seton Gordon of Abergeldy told me that he and his wife Gillian liked to come to Bovaglia to celebrate their summer wedding anniversary, to watch the sunset over Lochnagar, and to raise a glass of champagne in celebration. It truly is a beautiful spot. Apparently they had thought of restoring the farmhouse, with the intention of living at Bovaglia in the summer, before retreating to the Castle of Abergeldy in the winter. However the prohibitive cost of restoring the electricity line four miles up from the Lochnagar distillery, made them rethink this notion. Indeed the estimate to do so, back in the late 1976, was at least £30 000, which was too much, even for the Laird of Abergeldy. That was the beginning of the end for Bovagli. After that death was inevitable.

So for the last two decades the chatelaines of Bovaglia have not been human, but a rather healthy mammalian population of Scottish Red Deer (Cervus elaphus scoticus). The Bovagli deer, like all the red dear of the Lochnagar massif, are primarily crepuscular and so are active predominately at dawn and dusk. That is Bovagli’s favourite spell! Every visit I have made to Bovagli I have found red deer feeding or ruminating in groups in the wuid. However in the small glen, during the summer months, the primary daytime haunt for the deer is the high ground well above Camlet where there is new heather growth. Typically, the deer move down to the lower parts of the glen during the winter months. Interestingly the Red deer sexes live apart during most of the year, with hinds monopolizing grassy area, and stags confined to nutrient-poorer heather regions.

In appearance Red deer have, in the summer months, a distinctive red-brown coat but in the winter months this becomes a more earthy grey. The rump patch is a yellowish colour and the stags develop a mane during the winter months. Generally speaking, Red deer are gregarious animals living in groups of, at times, sixty individuals. Red stags have large antlers that are shed and re-grown each year, reaching their maximal growth by August.

The Girnoc deer are omnivorous opportunists and will feed catholically on the higher ground on grasses, heather, lichen, and shoots, but in the autumnal and winter periods they occupy the woods of Bovaglia and Newton and will feed on, bark, leaves, native herbs, rushes, buds, nuts, fungi, fruit and berries and even bramble. Red Deer are poly-ruminant, having four chambers to their stomach. This allows them to break down cellulose which is a very hardy protein and requires more effort than most to digest

Groups of Red deer hinds in the open upper reaches of the small glen tend to have a hierarchical system, consisting of a single dominant hind with her yearlings and mature daughters from previous matings. Stag groups seem to be far less stable, comprising of unrelated individuals. During the mating season, the males disband and move with the hind herds, which they will try to defend from the amorous advances of other stags. Males engage in roaring contests during the breeding season along with rutting. This involves parallel walking, rearing on hind legs and kicking with front feet as well as the act of locking of antlers. The stags are so focused on rutting that they frequently lose more than 10% of their body weight over the breeding season.

The Red deer mating season covers September and October, with only a single calf being produced after an eight month gestation. The majority of Red deer calves are born in the first or second week of June, although births may begin as early as May. The calf will be suckled for eight or nine month and is usually independent by the end of its first year.

Unlike horns, antlers are shed each year and new ones re-grown, with the beginnings of the new set visible only a few weeks after loss of the old set. Most deer cast and re-grow their antlers in the spring, when food is plentiful. The antlers are made of bone and develop from a point on the top of the male’s skull called the pedicle. The antlers can grow at an extraordinary rate, sometimes up to 2½ inches per day. The antlers are covered in a grey-to-purple coloured membrane during their development referred to as velvet. The velvet carries nerves and blood vessels to the developing antlers and, should the velvet become damaged, the antlers can become deformed. For sometime now I have known of the medicinal properties of the velvet and have wondered if the old cotter-folk of the small glen had knowledge of its restorative powers?

Landseer-stagsFigure 3.6: Landseer’s painting of Red deer

An increase in testosterone levels in the male deer, probably related to increasing day length, causes the blood supply to the antler velvet to be severed, as a result the velvet begins to die and dry out. Dry velvet is usually removed by rubbing the antlers against trees and bushes. During this rubbing, the antlers become stained with tannins and sap from the trees and saplings, causing the antlers to change from white to a polished brown colour. It was this Bovagli-brown that finally did for the guard-house with the coring of the electricity supply.

Come April or May, the antlers are shed and the cycle begins all over. Shed antlers are sometime eaten or licked by deer and other animals, providing a source of calcium and phosphorous and, hence, it is my advice that it is best to leave the antlers if you find them in the Bovagli wood. Indeed, the antlers and velvet represent a veritable goldmine of nutrients for many animals.

Let us leave the crepuscular happenings of Bovaglia behind and instead return to the history of the place. Bovaglia was, in its hey-dey, home to many many cotter-families, and as such was easily the most complete farm-toun of the small glen. It had the space, and aspect, which the Camlet did not have in its taut elbow.

Bovaglie-in-1806Figure 3.7: Balvagly – as good an example of a farm-toun as you will get

Examining the detail of the draughtsman John Innes in his 1806 estate map, one can see that Bovaglia once bustled like no other, with a collection of at least sixteen longhouses scattered around three wells. It was in its time a singular community, a township, the heart-beat of the small glen. In the early years of the eighteenth century the Bovagli community had families of the name of Gray, Donald and Stewart. The last family – the Stewarts – retained a strong foothold on the Abergeldy estate and were secure there for at least a couple of centuries, but they were never to match the Gordons for that inextricable sibness!

The Stewarts moved to Buailteach (Tilfogar) and attracted infamy for their run-ins with the Exciseman. As smugglers they were perhaps second-to-none. Tilfogar became centre of the cause (Chapter 9) and garnered some of upper Deeside’s most desperate folk. Even John Robbie of the Inchnabobart joined Buailteachs arms! You must believe me that these folk were thick-as-thieves! In Figure 3.8 the auld couple look quaintly endearing – yet Mrs Stewart of Buailteach was caught smuggling whisky with ‘granny Thomson.’

smugglersFigure 3.8: The Stewarts of Buailteach

The Gordons of Bovagli were quite distinct. Yes it is true, they married into the small glen, but their true footing was further removed, from a small castellated estate, near Craigievar. This was the estate of Hallhead (Hawheed) situated five miles north-east of Tarland.

Hallhead-castleFigure 3.9: Hallhead Castle outside Tarland

For as long as I have raked around for folk long-since-gan, I have found mention of the illustrious Bovagli’ Manuscript. In particular, the tireless and remarkable Dr John Malcolm Bulloch, in the years around the century’s turn, made several references to it. Generally I am an optimist at heart, but overtaken by the gloomy cast of Bovaglia, I believed that the manuscript mentioned by Dr Bulloch had been lost for good. No archive knew of its whereabouts. Every track from Bovaglia led nowhere. Years passed and I let-go of my wish to blow the dust of the Bovagli Manuscript.

You will have started to realize that a surprise was awaiting me, for in the early autumn of 2001 the Bovagli Manuscript was recovered from a dusty Edinburgh attic. It was found by the great-grandaughter of David Stewart Ramsay Gordon (our founding Deeside Detective – see page 39.) Here follows the words of Marion Moir the great-grandaughter:

“I have been typing all day and I am sure you will understand all this once you start into it. It is numbered in generations. At the front is a page of poetry to his father. The back had a wonderful story of the Factor coming to get them off the land and how they fought it but then it stops, as the exercise pages have been torn out of the book. I am sure that the Bovagli Gordons were forced off the land because of the Royal Family not wanting neighbours, I think that is how the story goes in our family.”

The Bovagli’ Manuscript was written by one of the Guard-house’s most colourful characters: John Gordon, later of Crovie. To aid clarity, with so many Gordons about, I have coined him as ‘Crovie John.’ The manuscript was written at Crovie House, Troup (on the east corner of Gamrie Bay, in Banffshire) in September 1872 and has been opened only a handful of times since.

Crovie John was an extrovert, and his family were said to be ‘rather wild.’ He was a man who was forthright, uncompromising, yet felt a tremendous passion for his homeland braes. He was rendered absolutely seething when his brother Donald (‘Auld Prodeegous’) displaced him from the Bovagli homestead (which as the eldest he thought should have rightfully passed to him.) Compounding the misery of this brotherly rivalry was the fact that Donald subsequently became one of Queen Victoria’s personal favourites.

The brotherly dispute arose first on the death of their father Donald senior, the Bovagli’ patriarch, in March 1854. It became a feud of unedifying proportion, so much so that the brothers were only to communicate through their respective lawyers.

“But I had always a different way of working by which brother Donald had, for I could not stand to be selfishly inclined, else Father had neither the sheep nor the glen in his power to give to Donald past me . . . brother Donald had that selfishness about him that shows what he was and has been to me all along of having the ability and honour of creating the first bankruptcy, first of my sons John and Peter his own officials at Crovie and last of all his own elder born brother John which I shall say is the greatest disgrace. I consider it far worse than all the loss of the whole capital that I had on Crovie belonging to me.”

Crovie John lost the legal battle, and by 1879 had massive legal arrears amounting to £6000 which left him and his young family ‘homeless and penniless.’ John proclaimed to his dying day the unjust and selfish cause of his brother Donald and wished the world to know of what he regarded as ‘Bovagli’s greatest disgrace.’

Whatever the truth, one cannot help feeling sorry for Crovie John – he had been ousted from Bovagli, and quite cleverly at that, by his pious brother Donald. According to Crovie John, his brother never demonstrated any remorse. That family divide apparently fuelled discord in Crovie’s own family, who having passed through childhood years, all took to the seas, sailing to far corners of the globe and in particular to New Zealand. Those children that did not travel died young from tuberculosis.

Crovie John had an illegitimate son before marriage. This son was known in the small glen as ‘Geordie’ and he went on to run Dalraddie sawmill at the foot of the Girnoc. Geordie was well known to Queen Victoria and his couthie manner made him a Royal favourite. Geordie’s son Frank became a deerstalker on the Royal estate at Glasallt Shiel. In this way Crovie John, was to live on in the upper reaches of Deeside.

Introducing his Manuscript Crovie John presented two of his poems. It is true, Joseph the Butler might not have been impressed, but you must recall that Joseph undoubtedly had higher pretensions! I rather likes Crovie’s first poem but find the second rather religious and cloying (it was dedicated by Crovie to his father Donald.) The first poem had no title – it was ripped out (the pages seem to have been torn from the exercise book in which they were written and what survived started at page 15 and ended just as abruptly.) Clearly there is much that is missing. One wonders if someone deliberately censored Crovie John? I must say that I am inclined to think that likely, after all Crovie was seventy years of age when he wrote such painfully honest words. He was recording the hurt, the love, the family divide, without any need to edit. In giving that poem a title I have taken a line from it– Upon Bovagli’s Braes – to secure it where it belongs:

Upon Bovagli’s Braes
Tho twenty-five years have o’er me fled
Since I first saw the light
When memory paints my youthfull days
My soul feels young and bright
Fan would I swell old Scotius strains
Among my kinsfolk in the Glens
And see again my native lot
Not far frae Lochnagar

But o that lot loved Parents home
Upon Bovagli’s Braes
Now lies a shaplis heap o ruins
Pride of my youthfull days
Those happy days for ever gone
There joys seem newly fled
And many of my comrades then
now sleeps amongst the dead

It is my hope that Crovie John would not disown me for being a tad ruthless with the editor’s pen. For I have included only a fragment of his poem – the rest being rather morose. I have dwelt rather heavily on Bovagli’s ambience myself, and Crovie’s need to pen shared:

At Bovagli’s door Peter sits aside an auld currant tree,
Son-afore-the father.
Heevenly scent – speeritool yet waesome
Heid foo, an greet-hertit, o’ days gan by.
Aye Bovagli, oh so buitifool – lochnagar’s secret jewel:
strikes melancohly an’ wonder in equal measure.

Yes it is true that Bovagli brought melancholy to the poet but what really strikes me about Crovie’s poem on Bovagli was that even by 1872 the farm-toun was a ‘shapeless heap of ruins.’ That is a sharp reminder of just how abrupt and ruthless the clearance of the small glen had been and how quickly nature had got on with her business of reclamation.

When Crovie John’s father, Donald Gordon, died at Bovagli on March 13th 1854 the Aberdeen Journal in recording his death, stated that he was the “seventh of the race on the land of Abergeldy since they left Hawhead of Lochlee.” This has eluded the challenge – no Deeside researcher has yet explained what brought the Hallhead Gordons to Bovagli. For many years now I have assumed that Hallhead had a family link with Abergeldy, but this bond, if it existed, must have been well before the time of Captain Charles Gordon, who brought new-blood and complete renewal to the estate in the early years of the eighteenth century.

Hallhead castle is quaint – it survives to this day as a fading farmhouse at the end of a long muddy track, It has no pretensions, nevertheless in its day it was the cradle of an important branch of the House of Gordon, that of Hallhead and Esslemont. The simple T-planned building has two storeys and an attic, with a stair-tower projecting eastwards, that rises a storey higher to contain a small watch-tower. There is a small corbelled stair to this tower which projects to the north-east, and sits cozily amidst the crow-step gables.

castle-HallheadFigure 3.10: Hallhead castle in 1999 with scaffolding

When I first visited Hallhead castle I was struck, despite some dereliction, by its intimacy; indeed for a castle it was small and little more than a functional laird’s house. It was just a few days after that first visit, whilst in Aberdeen buying an old map from an Antique shop that my conversation retraced steps to Hallhead. I asked the dealer if he had a print of Hallhead castle – fully expecting the dealer to have no knowledge of it. ‘No’ he said, he didn’t have a print, but seven years earlier he had ‘put in an offer to buy it!’ We both agreed, that its unusual domestic scale, made it the perfect project for a rural Aberdeenshire home. The dealer did not offer enough for Hallhead and the sale did not go through, and the castle was left to decay.

One feature of Hallhead returned me to Bovagli. That was a hidden dew-pond located to the side of the castle. Bovagli, of all the small glen farms, had the best water supply, with at least three wells; however, at some point (probably when the Victorian farmhouse was built) a dew pond was dug to the north of the steading. This guaranteed a water supply for the farm, vital when you realize that, at its peak, Bovagli was a holding of about 2000 acres of hill pasture.

The picture below reminds us of what a busy farm-toun Bovagli once was and it is not hard to imagine bare-foot children such as Crovie John weaving in and out of the haphazard assortment of dykes and kailyards. The houses were the simple heather-roofed biggins typical of the north-east glens. Today these houses are but scattered stanes – it is however the surviving kailyards that even to this day are truly distinctive of Bovaglia.

Bavagly1806Figure 3.11: The haphazard Bovaglia of 1806 

Dr Sheila Sedgwick wrote an interesting piece on these kailyards, explaining that until well after the ’45 Highlanders did not particularly like vegetables. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, the Bovagli folk would have started to grow some greens for family use, including at a later date, the likes of syboes (spring onions), chives, cabbages, carrots, peas and beans. It is interesting to learn just how late an introduction turnips and potatoes were to the small glen – well after many of the other Deeside reaches. It is unlikely that there was much in the way of floral colour, but perhaps in the dying days of the farm-toun some were grown. Dr Sedgwick suggested they were likely to have been old fashioned flowers like marigolds, wallflowers, forget-me-not, honey-suckle, and southern wood (also grown for magical & medicinal properties). As I trained as a Landscape Architect I have a love of gardens, but one plant in particular has my fascination – that is the white Jacobite rose. Given that the son of the Abergeldy laird, ‘the mysterious and shadowy Joseph of Birkhall,’ was in hiding after the 1745 rebellion and indeed helped hide Oliphant of Gask in the glens (perhaps even in the Girnoc), I have found myself wondering if the Jacobite rose was to be found on Bovagli’s braes?

In the corner of the kailyards and near the dwellings was often a rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia), a bour tree (elder: Sambucus nigra) or an ash (Fraxinus excelsior), all planted specifically because they were thought to keep away the witches. Superstition ran deep in the small glen, as it did elsewhere in upper Deeside. The elder tree was also well respected because of its medicinal qualities and there was very strong superstition about not cutting it down. As a protection against witchcraft, its branches were hung in doorways of houses, cowsheds, buried in graves and its twigs were carried. The elder was said to symbolize change and transformation and to guard the entrance to death.

kail-treesFigure 3.12: Bovagli’s kailyard trees

Today these kailyard trees survive as dogged sentinels of the underworld. Despite having little spiritual leaning I cannot help feeling the darkness in their twisted form; yet they carry my respect for standing such resolute guard despite the ravage that time has dealt to the farm-toun which they once protected.

The Bovagli kailyard children must have talked of the most celebrated witch ever to haunt Deeside. Her name was Kitty Rankin or ‘French Kate’ and to this day her spirit is said to pervade the Abergeldy Keep. Les Wheeler wrote for the Elphinstone Kist a lovely piece based on the folklore of French Kate describing how she was ‘a wumman fa a lot o fowk wir feart o.’ In the folk tale, Les Wheeler described how the chief conspirator was the Laird’s wife for she had caught her husband ‘flirtin wi’ the lassies’ and so summoned Kate to cast a spell. The ship which was returning the Abergeldy Laird from France was sunk in a storm. Kate was held responsible and was burnt at the stake.

The Royal family tenanted Abergeldy castle on a forty year lease that was renewed three times. A young George VI stayed at the castle and both he and his brother David were led to believe as children that its bat-infested tower was haunted by Kitty Rankine’s ghost. There is a post on top of Creag nam Ban which is supposed to be the stake where she was burned – and they say her screams can still be heard on dark winter nights. In 2004 John Howard Seton Gordon took Andrew my son down to the cellar to see where Kitty Rankin had been chained to the wall. I clasped Andrew tightly and as we cowered down in the dark, we could almost feel Kitty’s heart-beat as she awaited her final journey up steep Creag-nam-ban. This inspired a short poem about the witch of Abergeldy:

Kitty Rankin’s hairt beat
Aye Deeside fowk wir feart o’ Kate
she had that weasel way
an she was thocht tae be a witch.

Wan day Kate tak coonsel of Abergeeldy
the Laird wis cavorting or so
she saw – a weasel way ah richt!

Kate cast oot her spell, stirrin’ the soup,
an the Laird wis droont.
Fowk kent a’ too weel it wis Kate.
Fit a weasel way. Aye fit!

Poor Kate she was chained
in the ‘Geeldy cellar
– her hairt beat faster
an brocht oot intae the licht
she cooered doon.

Craig nam Ban stood afore her
and the stake a tap.
Her hairt beat faster
– in a weasel way.

Marched up the hill
her hairt beat faster.
Until the flames a’ licked her.
Aye Deeside fowk wir feart o kate!

Lost in the heather of the upper reaches of the Girnoc are outlying bothies of Bovagli. Nobody has ever studied these lost settlements, and even their names, apart from one – the Clayholes have been forgotten. These days, the only reference to them is on an annotated map by the Archaeologist Ian Shepherd, with each settlement numbered as ‘a possible.’ If anybody is interested in finding the remains of a ‘black bothy’ I would suggest they study the map below and explore this upper reach.

Although the archaeologists will despise such, I have taken the fancy-of-the-poet and named these long-forgotten townships. However, by acknowledging such, I am not changing history. These places, you see, have no names. They have died with the shepherd.

1. The Merchant (OS grid reference OS 293919)
2. The Guard House (OS grid reference OS 293909)
3. The Drap Inn (OS grid reference OS 284950
4. The Croft (OS grid reference OS 288793)

outliersFigure 3.13: The Bovagli outliers named by Peter Gordon

Towards the back of his Bovagli Manuscript, Crovie John abandoned his long lists of Gordon generations, and rehearsed something far more interesting – an account on the life of the small glen. He explained that five tenants had possessed land in Bovaglia and two householders, and all had ‘large families.’ The two householders were named Betty Gall and Jean Stephen. According to Crovie John no tenant was removed ‘but by death, or of their own accord.’

At the end of the eighteenth century Bovagli had five principal tenants. Droving was at an end and sheep farming was the principal farming outlay. Camlet Joseph had the largest tenancy as he had 120 sheep. The rents were at this time ‘moderate,’ but later rose to £2-10 per Scots Acre. The next largest tenants were equally, Donald Gordon senior, and Charles Stewart – both with 80 sheep each. Then with 20 sheep each were Charles Gall and James Gordon the grandfather of Crovie John.

  • Charles Gall 20 sheep
  • James Gordon, grandfather 20 sheep
  • Donald Gordon, father 80 sheep
  • Joseph Gordon, uncle to mother 120 sheep
  • Charles Stewart 80 sheep

Charles Stewart one of the original Bovagli’ tenants (and son of Charles who fled the Massacre of Glencoe, and in 1693, came to the Camlet) had an interesting family. His oldest daughter Barbara Stewart (1784-1855) married John Robbie of Inchnabobart. And his youngest daughter Margaret Stewart (1793-1866) married Donald McPherson the notorious Smuggler. His only surviving son Donald Stewart (1787-1878) married into the Tilfogar Gordon family and he was also a smuggler. For more on this family, and the origins of Lochnagar distillery, please read about ‘Stoneballs’ in chapter nine.

These tenants remained unchanged until Camlet Joseph, circa 1823, relocated to Wardhead farm at the foot of Glenmuick. It was Camlet Joseph that brought the first cart to the Girnoc in 1813; prior to that, all was packed on horse back The small glen would not have had many horses, and those that were available were used for transporting almost everything. The horses were fed on dried grass and dried thistles and as a result often lacked stamina or size. Currachs or creels of wicker work hung from a crook saddle, one on each side of the horse. The load had to be balanced properly. Dung was carried, sheaves, and meal from the mill.

“The Bovagli mode of farming, which was on a three course shift; first bear, then twice corn, and so on yearly being the general rule in the estate of Abergeldy, especially in the Glen district, the bear shift always getting the whole dung, some potatoes in the bear shift, no turnips, no carts, all done by horse back until about 1813, when one cart came to Bovaglie by Joseph Gordon, uncle to mother.”

Crovie John explained that a third of the sheep stock was always sold in autumn and the remaining two thirds ‘wintered at home and when stress of storm, they were fed with fodder in hakes in the sheep cotts, called the Ewes Cott and the Hog Cott.’ It is surprising to learn that for every score of sheep held at Bovagli, there were two herders, each of whom had their ‘own sheiling and ground.’ With 320 sheep in the small glen that meant 32 herders! No wonder the glen bustled. It was this healthy community that Crovie John said ‘well do I remember.’ It also perhaps explains why at this time, the end of the eighteenth century, there were thirteen smuggling brothers in the small glen.

It was my distant grandfather, Peter Gordon, that took over the Bovagli tenancy from Camlet Joseph, and who continued as principal tenant, with 200 sheep up until he was ousted from the glen after being caught smuggling. The story of how his young son James, aged nine years, saved the family on their only stallion is rehearsed in Chapter Two. The family, having been so glaringly shamed, relocated down-stream to Balnacraig in Birse.

Crovie John had reason for presenting in his manuscript the tenants of Bovaglia. He wanted to demonstrate, free from legal restraint, how he had ‘succeeded by degrees’ until he had the rental of the whole of Bovaglia. In 1826 Crovie John had half the small glen with 250 sheep. By 1830 he had the whole of the small glen with 500 sheep at a rent of £25. That same year he took tenancy of Foulzie in Banff, in addition to Bovagli, and that added a further 400 sheep to his total and a further £40 rent.

It is becoming transparent is it not: Crovie John seethed at the injustice of having been displaced from Bovagli by his younger brother Donald. It seems that even decades later he could not let this go. He died bitter and twisted and in his lifetime, how many times, I find myself wondering, did his family hear his tirade? In his writings I have felt the spitting hatred Crovie held for his brother. I have been left to reflect that the farm may have long gone, but divide, can still be felt at Bovaglia.

Bovaglie-gateFigure 3.15: Bovaglia may have gone but families never change

It is sad to think that many of the Bovagli field names have been lost in the amalgamation and regeneration brought about by a new breed of farmers. In the days of the cotter-town, the inhabitants had names for every burn and hillock in the small glen – sadly this was never put down on paper, and what lived on only in peoples mind, has been lost forever.

Entertainment in the Bovagli farm-toun was entirely home made. There would have been dancing on the grass or in a barn, to pipe or fiddle. Cotter-folk would have held their own ceilidhs, and other competitive pastimes such as ball games, racing, throwing a weight, and wrestling. Fairs were a great attraction. Details of the coming attraction were announced on Crathie church door. The small glen folk were part of Crathie parish, though as mentioned in chapter two, the Camlet and Abergeldy folk were buried in Glenmuick churchyard.

For all my gathered understanding of the small glen, I remain unsure of just how church-abiding my Gordon folk were! In all likelihood they probably were not, and I am inclined to accept Dr Sedgwick’s words that, ‘if the truth be known, religion did not mean a great deal to them.’ I also recall Dr Sedgwick telling me that the Gordons were frequently before the Kirk Session for indiscretions such as prophanation on the Sabbath or dishauntening of ordinances (missing the church sermon.)

The Kirk session had surprising authority over the glen-folk and Girnoc would have been no exception. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the discipline of the Session was particularly stern, but by later dates there seems to have been slight easing of that control. Illegitimacy from pre-marital fornication was well known in the glen and was indeednot unusual. I have struggled to get a true picture of this because of the gaps particularly in the Crathie Register. It seems that the Session Clerk for Crathie was very frugal and watered-down his ink, and as a result much of his work has faded to an unreadable state. Furthermore the Kirk Sessions, at least what exist, have remained in the private hands of Dr Sedgwick. However the Registrar General’s record for 1850 indicates that neighbouring parish of Glenmuick was near the top of the list for illegitimacy rates. That should surprise us not. The Church Session saw it as their imperative religious duty to clamp down on this and as such there was specific punishment aimed at disgracing the guilty party – nearly always, and unfairly – the woman.

The chastisement saw little mercy and the guilty lass would be lead into church as the bell tolled with the church officer escorting the ‘culprit’ to her seat. She would have been made to wear a sack-cloth garment as a sign of repentance. Sitting on the stool was supposed to improve morals and show true repentance. After an admonishment, and a few Sundays on the stool of repentance, the young lass would have been absolved. Failure to accept discipline would have meant excommunication: no baptism or wedding, and loss of civil privileges.

Suprisingly the Kirk Session had little influence over the smuggling trade which carried on regardless until the summer of 1826. After that date the Excise Officers, through an Act of Parliament, could fine the Abergeldy laird for any tenants caught smuggling. Before that date, the enforcement was weak, and even the women-folk turned their hand to work the illicit stills. The Girnoc had, of course, more stills than any other in the district.

Recently I was fortunate enough to be allowed to open a box of Court papers un-touched in 175 years. The sooty contents were to depict a moment of long forgotten Bovagli mischief. The first precognition statement identified ‘James Gordon of Abergeldy,’ cousin of Crovie John, as guilty of smuggling whisky over into Forfar. At the time James, unmarried and aged 26 years, was Gamekeeper for David Gordon the fourteenth laird of Abergeldy. James Gordon, despite his position, had a fearsome reputation. On this jaunt, he was accompanied by, Donald McPherson of Bovagli, and Lewis Grant of Balmoral, as well as at least six others (all from the Girnoc.)

At the Tollbar at Tarbrax the Excise Officers Mr Tawse and Mr Rose, and a company of Dragoon guards, were awaiting the smuggling party. It seems they had been tipped off. A most violent stramash followed in which Donald McPherson threatened tae ‘blow ther brains oot if they laid violent hands upon him’ an to run auld Tawse-the-Excise ‘throo the body wi’ a pitch fork.’ By this time Donald was joined by the Gordons who started to throw ‘large stanes’ at Mr Rose.

It seems all of the party escaped except Donald McPherson of Bovagli. He was found guilty and was still in Forfar prison two years later. As for James Gordon, well his fate was unclear. It looks as if he may have disappeared from Deeside for a few years, but by 1828 he was back as Gamekeeper for Abergeldy. It is recorded in the Churchyard of Crathie that James lost his three year old son in 1834, having drowned in the river Dee. His eldest son Charles was a brilliant student, and turned his father’s misadventure into academic pursuit. Having been schooled locally at Ballater School under Reverend James Smith he went on to study at Marischal College and took his MD at Kings College in 1850.

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