Where eagles soar (part 1)

Chapter 2 of ‘Deeside Tales’: Where Eagles Soar – The Camlet
The Camlet goes back to Abergeldy’s earliest days with a tied history stretching back to at least 1635, when it was listed, along with the other Girnoc farm-touns, in a schedule of Abergeldy teinds belonging to the seventh Laird of Abergeldy. However, this apart, extant records are few, and thus we are left to muse at a millennium of bustle’ that has long been forgotten. The neighbouring farm of Bovagli, in contrast, was mentioned in a record as far back as 1348, and taking this, along with surviving archaeology of post-medieval farming, one can be fairly sure that the folk of the glen were inextricable as far back as the middle-ages.

The first character of The Camlet, for which records survive, is Charles Stewart. He came to the Camlet in 1693 from Argyllshire, taking flight after being with Argyle’s regiment, at the massacre of Glencoe. Incredibly he lived to be 95. The Camlet air has always revitalized. His grandson, Donald Stewart, appears in the Macleay watercolours, of the Highlanders painted for Queen Victoria. He too lived to a great age.

At one time the Camlet had as many as a dozen ‘thakkit-clay biggins’ each with heather thatched roofs. By 1760 these rough built ‘long-houses’ were the sole preserve of the Gordons. However that had not always been the case, and the first recorded tenant, John Finlay had wide infamy and was put to the horn in 1634 for robbery. Examination of the early old parish records for Crathie reveals other tenants: for example in March 1747 James Edward in Camlet and Elspet McDonald his wife had a son called Peter.

The Gaelic derivation of The Camlet is quite straightforward, for Cam stands for ‘curved or crooked’; and Leathad for ‘side.’ Indeed the farm, as described, sits within a central elbow of the glen, rising high in a sweeping bend above the ‘little rushing burn.’ I have always found myself attracted to the Camlet name – it has that prosaic sense of importance, perhaps it has always been the self-appointed seat of the Girnoc – the capital of the glen. Certainly it sits higher than any other farm-toun in the glen, and it has been recorded that it was the Abergeldy Laird’s very favourite farm. One can understand why, as it occupies its own secret armchair, has an eagle protectorate, and still guards the little rushing burn with such unyielding resilience.


Figure 2.1 The Camlet by Peter Gordon

But The Camlet is now on the fade and soon it will be lost. That is what time and nature can do and the farm’s clearance will never be reversed. So let us here recreate the Camlet of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and bring back the hushed voices to its sweeping braes.

The Camlet comforts its slope, and nestles under the crags of the eagle, which help protect it from the worst of the ravaging north-westerlies. The crags also make safe the‘Skylich,’ the secret and lost pathway to The Genechal. In his 1806 map, John Innes indicated that it passed alongside the high ridge to the west of Camlet, before joining, at it’s midpoint, the ‘Butcher’s walk.’ According to John Robertson: “The last lad to use it wid’ve been the postie. That wis aye the wye he went to Bovaglie. He used tae push-bike up through there it was as good a road as that.”

I am one of few to have walked the ‘skylich.’ A path un-tread by Gordons in a hundred years. It is now, like so much of the small glen, lost in the heather, and tracing its south-westerly course to its confluence with the Butcher’s walk, is an arduous, almost impossible venture. Indeed, I was not to complete the quest as I was confronted in the long glass, by a hissing adder and innate fear forced me to retrace home to The Camlet.

These days it is hard to imagine that the postie ever used the skylich as a regular shortcut – but that he apparently did – and in wintertime sometimes on skis!

The adder (Vipera berus berus) is at home in the Girnoc, and on the Camlet’s elbow you must prepare yourself to meet Scotland’s only venomous reptile. Charlie Wright, a former Gamekeeper for the Royal Family at Balmoral, recalled a stalking trip: The-Skylich-in-1806Figure 2.2: The Skylich in 1806

“Ben Nathraichean, yon hill opposite the Camlet, we used tae stalk that. I wis stalkin there ye ken. We were among foxes, and had four terriers when we saw a these adders. That’s a long time ago since I seen that. Archie Wilson and me, heaps o adders, there were hunders o them. Apparently there’s very few seen this. It wis a very fine day, and ther wis literally hunders o them. I’ve never seen that again.”

The Camlet adders are relatively short and robust with large heads and a rounded snout. The red-brown eyes have vertical elliptical, rather then round, pupils – a feature of all venomous snakes. Females are brown with dark red-brown markings that are less prominent than in the males. Both sexes have a zigzag pattern running along the back. On rare occasions, Melanistic (black) individuals have been found on the Lochnagar massif.

Adders use venom to deadly effect on prey such as lizards, amphibians, nestlings and small mammals. After striking their prey, they will leave the venom to take effect before following the victim’s scent to find the body. This is an economical way of hunting, avoiding any damage that could be caused by struggling with prey. Adders are active during the day, spending time basking until their body temperature is high enough to hunt for food. They enjoy the cradling armchair of the Camlet that focuses the sun’s heat. Mating takes place between April and May, with males often fighting for females. They rear up at each other and try to push the head of their opponent onto the ground. Eventually, one male will give up and search for another mate. The Camlet adders will hibernate from September to March when the temperature dips below nine degrees Celsius, often using the many deserted rabbit or rodent burrows that surround the farm, especially on its eastern side. They sometimes hibernate communally. Males emerge 2-5 weeks before the females and shed their skin before setting off in search of females.

Camlet-adderFigure 2.3: A female adder nestles in the calluna and rye of The Camlet

Males follow the females around until she allows them to copulate with her. This takes place in April-May. Adders have a 3 to 4 month gestation period and are one of the few snakes that are viviparous (give birth to live young). In late August females give birth to between 5 and 20 live young. The young remain close to their mother for a few days, before going off in search of food. Females do not breed on consecutive years, as they do not have time to build up sufficient fat reserves to produce another set of young from one breeding season to the next.

The Camlet slopes, home to the adder, are literally scattered like an asteroid collision with stone. Now much is lost in heather and long grass, whilst tumbling stane dykes will soon be smothered by a new forestation of spruce (Picea sitchensis.) It is without passion that I mention the introduction of Sitka to the small glen. Yes it is true, that as a solitary specimen it can be a rather tall and graceful tree, but in large forestations, such as planted around The Camlet, it becomes an alien blanket, of non-native, arboriculture. It smothers the life out of the natural flora and that would surely appall David Douglas who introduced it from Alaska in 1831. Coincidentally that was the year that the grand old man of The Camlet – ‘Camlet John’ was said to have retired as head of his township.

Before any forestry planting was allowed on the Camlet slope a detailed archaeological field survey was summoned and this was duly completed in September of 1991. This was based on previous work undertaken by Ian Shepherd the Grampian Regional Archaeologist. The report would indicate at least four separate town-ships within the Camlet boundary, all of which probably co-existed, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Furthermore there were at least two separate areas of Clearance cairns, which one assumes came from cleared biggins.

You will see from the 1949 aerial photograph below that the four town-ships all in outline can be picked-out on the vertical image. It is likely, that in their hey-day, each wee community had its individual name and being a little brazen myself, I have allocated names back to those that have long since been forgotten. These, it should be stressed, are not historical, but should evoke the memory of the lost family groups.

Township 1:  ‘Sgor-an-holaire’ – village of the eagle
Township 2:  ‘Abergeldy’ – the village of the Laird
Township 3:  ‘The Minister’ – the village of Sanctified men
Township 4: ‘The Skylich’ – the village tae Heaven

Camlet-tounshipsFigure 2.4: Archaeology of The Camlet (aerial photograph from 1949)

Adjutting the northern dyke one can clearly see in the aerial photograph a series of ‘rigs.’ These are unique to the Camlet for their sheer width and spacing. The rigs are almost 30 metres long but were as wide in some places as 9 metres. The regularity of the 5 metre spacing to my mind makes these anthropogenic in origin. Man, it seems, has been at The Camlet for a very long time indeed!

There is at least one unexplained Camlet structure whose imprint remains ever clear to the eagle – it is a huge platform measuring two or three times the size of a long-house, and is cut into the slope of the hill, and embanked downwards to the south-west. Its purpose evokes nothing but speculation but it seems likely that it belongs to the post-medieval period of pre-improvement farming. However, having read Reverend Stirton’s tome ‘Crathie and Braemar,’ I can see his eponymous ‘Minister of ‘The Camlet’ lecturing from the platform to his sanctified men. Yes, surely this was the Pulpit to the Glen? Fantasy aside, it is an embracing and unheralded landscape feature.

The Camlet boundary is utterly organic in shape, but from above, in its true eighteenth century form, it appears as if the outline of an eagle, wings half outstretched east-to-west. How fitting that is.

Eagle-shape-of-The-CamletFigure 2.5: The Camlet of 1806 super-imposed upon the current OS map

The shape of The Camlet has metamorphosed just like the Dalradian rock on which it sits (though obviously over a much much shorter time frame.) Figure 2.5 above represents a detail of The Camlet taken from the original hand-coloured 1806 Abergeldy Estate Map of John Innes. To demonstrate two centuries of change it has been super-imposed upon the current ordinance survey map. What is immediately obvious is that the original Camlet was at least one third smaller than the boundary that garners it in today. Furthermore the main approach track of 1806 (in black) ran at right angles to the current entry, passing from the huddle of three longhouses on the eastern boundary, to the Camlet limekiln at the foot of the copse. At the other end (the north-west corner) the skylich path can be seen clearly marked, running as it does under the nose of the eagle crags.

Of the four Camlet farm-touns, the ‘Skylich’ and the ‘Minister’ were probably always the smallest. On the Innes 1806 map, the ‘Minster’ has gone altogether, and a small grouping of three houses are marked to represent the Camlet ‘Abergeldy’ and six houses to mark ’Sghor-an-holaire.’ Furthermore, as if guarding the approach to the path to Heaven, there are two houses out further to the west that were part of the original ‘Skylich.’

By 1806 The Camlet was already in decline – the clearance was well under way – so it is likely that Robert Smith’s estimate of ‘twenty long-houses’ (based on the surviving stone footprints) is not inaccurate. In truth the number of houses may even have once exceeded that. Camlet, in its four wee clusters, was after-all a town of its very own. Yes, as I have already mooted, The Camlet was the capital of the small glen.

It may have been the capital of the glen and under its eagle protectorate but The Camlet suffered from the middle of the eighteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth century from the poverty that afflicted all of upper Deeside and its cotter-folk were pressed perpetually against the edge of subsistence. Fortunately The Camlet folk were supported by the Abergeldy Laird, and were offered tack in return for a teind for working the land. There was a strong sense of loyalty. Yet the farming of the Camlet could never bring enough means to survive, and so the tenants were pushed to less proper means of revenue, and especially to the illicit production and smuggling of whisky.

The ‘Sghor-an-holaire’ settlement was chosen strategically, and like all fairm-touns of the glen was situated beside a water course, in this case the Camlet burn that fed into the little rushing burn just below the lime-kiln. One can see, from the detail opposite, the two central longhouses mirroring each other in a vertical embrace with a shared enclosed kailyard. Surrounding that is an area for grazing, and perhaps some fertile ground for the most basic of cultivation.


Figure 2.6: The Sghor-an-holaire (Western Camlet) in 1806

The Camlet houses (biggins) were most simply made, with no founds, but simply rough stone walls rising to head height and secured with divots and clay infilling. The ‘thakkit’ roofs were made of straw and secured on a wooden frame with stra’ ropes. The final treatment was with heather or turf made watertight with clay. The biggins nestled into the Camlet like man-made molehills with hangin’ reekin’ lums. The 1991 survey by Shepherd measured each building imprint as archetypal and stretching 10 metres by 3 metres with walls at least 30 centimetres thick.

The poorer Camlet houses had only one room, with a waist-high partition separating residents from animals, but mostly the dwellings formed a ‘But an Ben.’ The But served in multiple ways; as a room for living, eating, and sleeping. The space between the two rooms, if there were two, was the Spence. This was a ‘pantry’, or a storage place for meal, milk, or ale. On occasion it did duty as the children’s bedroom. The Ben, less often used, was for entertaining visitors, sometimes the Laird, but often the Minister, or at times of funerals.  Walls of the biggins were rough hewn and carried no plaster and rushes or heather, or sometimes straw, covered the floor.

ThakkitFigure 2.7: Thakkit-clay biggin

For nearly all of the houses, the windows were small and glassless, and it is known for example that when the Window Tax was introduced in 1695, none of the Girnoc folk had glazed windows to necessitate payment. In reality it was only the Abergeldy Laird that had property large enough to necessitate payment with houses with 8-11 windows asked to pay l/- while those with 12 and over to pay 1/-6d. The Act was finally abolished in 1851, so that many of the newer houses that came with improvements in farming, and built in the mid Victorian period, did not have window tax to pay (Bovagli Farmhouse being a good example.)

Bovagli and The Camlet amassed Gordons at the same time, and the clan literally spilled over, from magic porridge pots, from these two Girnoc strongholds. That all began in the very early days of the eighteenth century, with the Bovagli Gordons a cadet family of the Hallhead Castle (next to Craigievar) and the Camlet Gordons, in all likelihood an illegitimate offshoot of Abergeldy. Yet in truth, The Camlet has held ever so closely to its secret, and as will be discussed in a later chapter, its early underpinnings have foiled even seven esteemed Aberdeen Professors! Suffice to say for now, the key to the Camlet lies with Captain Charles Gordon, tenth laird of Abergeldy and his shared link to Glenbuchat of Strathdon.

7-Aberdeen-ProfsFigure 2.8: The Seven Professors of Aberdeen could not solve The Camlet

So that was how, in the words of Reverend Stirton, the Gordons were once the occupants of the small glen almost without exception.  They considered themselves under the special protection of their Abergeldy Laird; a proprietor that held a ‘similar feeling towards them, and allowed them the sole tenancy of their estate for generations.’

In his estate map of 1806 John Innes had measured every Abergeldy farm and delineated them in Acres (A), Ridges (R), and Furrows (F) and divided each into several land-types: ‘Cornland, Wood, Moss, Water & Muir & Pasture.’ Both The Camlet and Bovagli occupied similar ground and both embraced nearly two Oxgate of Cornland. In fact The Camlet measured 23 Acres, 3 Ridges, and 8 Furrows exactly. In terms of the Abergeldy estate overall, both The Camlet and Bovagli were of an average size, and dwarfed only by Abergeldy Mains (124 acres of Cornland), Strathgirnoc (47 acres of Cornland) and Balachalloch (47 acres of Cornland.)

These old land measures were based on ploughing. An oxgate was 13 acres, considered to be as much as oxen could plough in a day. Two oxgates or 26 acres was a husbandland. Both the Camlet and Bovagli were one husbandland each.

The Camlet folk, of up to a dozen families (during its height) shared land, and so the ‘Camlet toun’ was divided into sections known as rigs. In the heather today, some of these rigs can still be made out. Between these rigs were never cultivated strips called ‘baulks’, which generally harboured all types of weed. Rigs, at first glance, would seem to have had a somewhat haphazard arrangement in The Camlet, but in the early years of the eighteenth century these would have been based on an organized system with each family having some good and some bad land. However the land was frequently reallocated and this resulted in further impoverishment of the soil. Farming the Camlet was already made difficult by large stones that had to be cleared and by lack of even drainage. Known as run-rig farming, it was anything but satisfactory.

The Camlet on the decline by 1806, was to suffer rather severely, especially when compared to its compatriot Bovagli, which in a contrasting twist of fate, flourished. Yes Bovagli was to be adopted by Queen Victoria, and under her counsel, became the most extensive sheep farm in upper Deeside, reaching out in all directions to an impressive 2000 acres of hill pasture.

Innes-measures-GirnocFigure 2.9: John Innes delineates Abergeldy in 1806

Despite the voices of the Camlet folk clambering for attention, to really understand their farming way of life, I have returned often to a well-thumbed copy of Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century by the author of Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk. This is a tremendous piece of work completed in Aberdeen in April 1877. Rich in detail it evocatively recreates the way of life of our lost farm-toun folk. It covers everything from simple farming practice, religion, superstition, and smuggling.


Figure 2.10: Rural Life in the Eighteenth century

At The Camlet, as in medieval times, there was an Infield and an Outfield. Gushetneuk described this system in detail. The Infield, nearest to the farm, covered as much as a fifth of the land and was cultivated annually. Two thirds produced oats, the rest an inferior barley or bere. One part was manured each year. The yield was poor. In the Outfield were faughs and folds, each split into ten. Every year a divot dyke was built around one part of the fold, to retain animals grazing. So each bit had some manure every ten years. For five years after manuring, oats were grown, and then grass for five years.

The Outfield crops were often too poor to harvest and too full of weeds for animal food. In fact by the end of the eighteenth century agriculture was, in upper Deeside, in a period of stagnation. Without the support of the Abergeldy Laird, the Camlet tenants would have suffered and were particularly prone to periods of unforgiving weather – such as the terrible harvest years of 1747 and 1782.

By the mid eighteenth century the Camlet farmers would have been more aware of the need to in-rich the soil, principally by rotation of crops, but also by the addition of Lime. Shelter was also found to be important and trees were planted – these would have been native trees such as birch, ash, and rowan. Despite all this, the pace of change was slow in upper Deeside. However The Camlet strived hard and had built, beside the Camlet burn and at the foot of the copse, a lime-kiln. Lime was vital for fertility and this central kiln confirms that the small glen wanted to develop as much as anywhere in the district of the upper Dee. The Camlet lime-kiln survives to this day, nestling in the heather; but it has forgotten its purpose, and stares one-eyed out onto the little rushing burn. In its day it would, it surely would have known all the Camlet gossip and one can only imagine how the children must have loved to play in it!

Camlet-limekilnFigure 2.11: The Camlet Lime-kiln

The Camlet lime-kiln is circular, about 10 feet in diameter, and was probably at least 8 feet in depth. Its roof has now partly collapsed. The limestone would have been fired using timber, or charcoal, as fuel and at the base of the pit there was one draw-hole through which the fire was lit, fed, and the ashes and lime, extracted.

At the time of ‘improvements’ the system of Infield and Outfield variation gave way to crop rotation and the land was enclosed. By the mid eighteenth century the larger farms all had a seven or eight year crop rotation system – turnips, barley, grass, grass, grass, oats, oats, oats.

It is unlikely that The Camlet had its own plough – in all likelihood one was shared between The Camlet, Lynvaig and Bovagli, with each providing four oxen to pull it. This communal plough was known as the twal ousen plough. The author of Gushetneuk described its importance to the rural life of the glen:

“Twelve oxen pulled it, with its long bear and short stilts. If it encountered a big stone, the ploughman was easily upturned or the plough smashed. Besides the man guiding the plough a man or boy often had the job of keeping the plough from getting choked with weeds, roots or stones and he had to adjust the cut when necessary by leaning on the beam. The gadsman or gaudsman would go up and down the team urging on the oxen with a whip or generally prodding them with a stick. At the head of the team, often walking backwards was a man or boy to lead the beasts. The ploughman was often expected to whistle a psalm tune to the oxen.”

It is not hard to imagine the scene: large reverse S-shaped furrows produced at The Camlet because of the awkward and stony terrain on which it was incredibly difficult to turn oxen without making a very wide sweep. Some maturity was needed in the beast, to make good for the plough, and they were best when 6 or 7 years old. Dr Sedgwick has commented that in Glen Muick the twal ousen plough was in general use as late as 1874, when oxen were superseded by horses. “My Granny was a small girl then, and told of watching her grandfather plough with 12 oxen at Crofts (Crost) in Glen Muick.” There can be little doubt that the Girnoc matched this rather late departure from the twal ousen plough – the subsistence farms of the Girnoc, on the decline (except for Bovagli) could not manage the expense of equine labour, and the Camlet folk had little experience of handling work-horses with a plough. It is likely, that after 1874, a ploughman was brought into the Girnoc from another area.

There can be little doubt the terrain in the small glen was, like the rest of upper Deeside, really better suited to sheep than to cattle, but in the early days small black cattle were raised and sold at southern ‘trysts.’ The Girnoc drovers took their beast south via the Spittal, and Glen Clova, to Kirriemuir which was the best known route, and the one by which other cattle from more prosperous areas went to the trysts. This became more worthwhile to local farmers after the Act of Union in 1707 which gave a much needed impetus to the trade with England. There were other drove roads, notably by the Spittal of Glenshee to Perth; and another by MountKeen, to Lochlee, and the Esk, to Brechin.

Droving was no easy occupation, and required both alertness of mind, and physical prowess. Drove roads were nothing more than grassy or stony paths with few bridges and no fences. Water had to be available, and along with terrain was often the determining factor in the route of the drove road. If the track was very stony the blacksmith had metal plates made to nail to the beasts feet – but still injuries were frequent. The drovers aimed at covering ten miles per day, and thus it took a couple of days to travel from the Girnoc to Cullow Market in Cortachy, Angus.

The biggest cattle fair was at Crieff, though this changed in the early years of the eighteenth century, as an account of 1723 speaks of the free grazing on the way down being gradually stopped. Sometime after this date Falkirk took over, and Crieff was used for horses only. From 1750 onwards Falkirk Trysts enabled southern dealers to meet Highlanders. 20,000 to 30,000 black cattle were for sale every October, and there were two other trysts there each year.

Black cattle prices went down badly in the late 1760’s, principally because Galloway cattle were flooding theLondon market. Fortunately, soon after that, demand increased because of naval consumption and the French wars.  The Camlet Gordons would have benefited from this demand, much needed as it was during years of utter subsistence due to weather ruined harvests.

However droving was soon to be at an end, and all because of an unlikely duo; the turnip, and the steam-engine! The wholesale cultivation of the turnip, which first started in the late eighteenth century, made the winter fattening of cattle possible and by 1810 the weight of the beasts had doubled. Droving hung on as a livelihood until around 1830, as by that date, winter fattened cattle, could be transported by rail. This marked the real decline of the small glen and the life of the cotter-toun was perilous.

With the loss of droving, The Camlet-folk suffered. The land around them was subsistence at best; stony and largely uncultivated, and cattle no longer brought a meaningful income. It was at this time, the mid to late eighteenth century, that the illicit manufacture of whisky became a means-to-an-end.  Prior to 1725, the tax on grain was slight and most households principally brewed ale, but after this date the tax steadily grew and so in an attempt to make ends meet many households resorted to the illicit distilling and smuggling of whisky. It was considered a duty, and even honourable, to outwit the gauger. After 1824 an Act of Parliament gave the Exciseman (gauger) clout, allowing him to charge the Abergeldy Laird penalties for any of his tenants caught with contraband. This brought the smuggling trade to an end and was the final assault that saw most of the inhabitants of the Girnoc leave for the lowlands or much further afield to the colonies.

Reverend Stirton understood how important this illicit trade had become to the Girnoc, and we know (from the Bovagli Manuscript), that ‘thirteen smuggling brothers’ operated in the small glen (see chapter nine).  Without a shadow of doubt the glen of the little rushing burn was the secret homeland of the smuggler and in this regard its reputation became unrivalled (but more of that later.)

“Nothing, in short, roused the Celtic blood more intensely than any interference of the Sassenach with the old established free manufacture of his favourite liquor.  In every glen the sma’ stills smoked, and on every hand the warlike Gael had warm raveledds and were never short of customers. The amount of whisky made in the Highland glens was enormous.  As late as 1821, in consequence of the increased duty, it is said that two millions of gallons of whisky were smuggled in this country alone.” 

Improvements in farming came to the Camlet late – and certainly not before the first half of the nineteenth century. The drainage of the land was improved, land was properly enclosed, stones were cleared and new implements eased the daily husbandry. The Abergeldy laird oversaw these improvements, and by 1875 cultivated area within the Girnoc had increased considerably. The Camlet, Bovagli, and Lynvaig each had a horse-driven thresher mill incorporated into old farm buildings. By now the old farmtouns (east & west) of Camlet had been abandoned.

Given the number of families who found their home at The Camlet it is surely surprising that only one tombstone to The Camlet was ever inscribed. The stone has now fallen and is worn to the point of being virtually unreadable. Grass and moss cover what remains. The stone sits mid-row down from the Abergeldy obelisk, separated only by the Littlemill stones. It should be pointed out, that inextricable as the Girnoc Gordons were, the Camlet and Bovagli Gordons, were laid to rest, in repostes, entirely separate. The Bovagli Gordons were buried in Crathie Churchyard, whereas the Camlet Gordons rest in Glenmuick Churchyard. This is not chance – it reflects allegiances; The Camlet Gordons to Abergeldy, the Bovagli Gordons to Balmoral.

Camlet-tombstoneFigure 2.12: The Camlet stone Glenmuick Churchyard recorded by D.S.R. Gordon

The Camlet stone has faded like its farm. Nature’s reclamation is unyielding to that family story. Fortunate then that ‘Deeside Detective’ number one cropped up. David Stewart Ramsay Gordon (DSR) having prospered as a Merchant in Chili was feverishly enthusiastic on tracing his Deeside origins. DSR in the early years of the century’s turn, ransacked Parish registers, spent many days over tombstones in churchyards, and resided for weeks at Ballater, where his burly figure in the Gordon tartan kilt was a well-kent sight. And then most suddenly he died – leaving notebooks bulging with patient notes. In Chapter six we will discover how DSR promoted the tireless Dr Bulloch into the House of Gordon and just how important Abergeldy was to the success of that project.

So who was Euphemia McAndrew (recorded on the tombstone) and what of her husband John? Well it is time then to clarify. John Gordon, who died in 1834, was known as ‘Camlet John.’ He was a central figure in the history of The Camlet, and survived into great old-age, as the farm’s true protector and overlord.

It has been passed down in my family that we were ‘aff the wrang side of Abergeldy’s blanket,’ suggesting that at some point, way back in history, that Camlet was an illegitimate branch of Abergeldy. Family tradition is notorious for flimsy inaccuracy and so steps in research have been taken most warily.

DSR-Gordon-on-picnicFigure 2.13: David Stewart Ramsay Gordon on a Deeside picnoc c1899

Camlet John lived a good span, of that much is clear. His first wife Euphemia McAndrew hailed from the neighbouring farm of Lynvaig – where the McAndrew clan had once stood tall. Euphemia bore at least nine children for John, born over a twenty year period from 1782 onwards. DSR must have mis-read a faded stone, for Euphemia was certainly not 71 years of age when she died, in fact she may well have been in confinement, and was probably no older than in her early forties.

Sadly I cannot recreate Camlet John in picture, his era was long before photographic portraiture, but later you shall see a portrait of his grandson John who was born at Bovagli. The earliest record to Camlet John pertains to a debt owed by him to John Gordon in Allanquoich, who died in August 1782. This was the same year that Camlet John married Euphemia McAndrew. The date of the bill however was from the year before telling us that Camlet John was at the Camlet before he married. Nobody has ever managed to explain his link to Braemar and to Allanquoich in particular.

Upper Deeside dealt its worst to Camlet John. He was born into Deeside inclemency, for in the year of his birth, 1747 Deeside suffered its severest winter ever, in the October of which the upper Deeside glens were buried two feet deep in snow. This freeze did not abate and as a result crops were ruined. What little did survive could not be carted in until December, and after threshing, was ‘but dark, acid and disagreeable.’

It is surely just coincidence, but Camlet John married in the same year as Peter Gordon thirteenth Laird of Abergeldy, and his matrimonial bond is listed in the Crathie Parish Records immediately under the Laird. Later the wife of the Laird was to act as Godmother to grandchildren of Camlet John.

1782-banns-GordonFigure 2.14: The marriage of Camlet John to Euphemia McAndrew in Feb 1782

1782 however is recalled for rather starker reasons and certainly not for the happy matrimonial embrace described above. Yes that year saw the latest ever recorded harvest, on the back of an extremely cold and wet summer. Then to compound the misery, a most early frost in September and October, finished off everything and by mid December, it is recorded in the Crathie Parish Kirk Sessions, that there was ‘famine.’

What a terrible start to married life for Camlet John and bride Euphemia and with droving coming to an end, times must have been harsh indeed. However as a married couple they endured, suggesting fortitude, and superior will.

So it was that Camlet John was born, and married into, Deeside’s most miserable. Remarkable then that it did not stop his progress; for he went on to farm the Camlet for more than half-a-century, to marry twice, and to raise twelve children!

SketchGirnocFigure 2.15: How The Camlet would have looked in the time of ‘Camlet John’

The sketch above (Figure 2.15) is actually of The Micras, a farm-toun on the north of theDee opposite Abergeldy. However it draws a parallel with The Camlet, which would, as a farm-toun, have looked very similar. The Micras was also home to the Gordons, whose tied association. in fact, surpasses The Camlet. In 1539, W. Gordon was one of the King’s tenants in Easter Micras (Michie’s ‘Deeside Tales’) this indicates a three hundred year long association. The Micras contemporary of Camlet John was Alexander Gordon of Wester Micras, who for some reason was known as the King of Micras.’ He was so described in a document written by the lady of Invercauld. This Alexander Gordon married in 1804 Janet Macdonald, ‘the Queen of the Micras.’

The sketch allows us to recreate the bustle of the Camlet farm-toun with multiple families and bare-foot children. To better one-self, from such a home-stead, would prove difficult, and for many years I assumed that the Camlet bairns went without education. Of this notion I was to be completely disabused. Indeed, some incredible talent rose from this, the small glens elbow. But more of that later. One character never escaped the scene; he was the Minister of ‘The Camlet.’ Whose influence, it was said, spilled well beyond the Girnoc and with his “sanctified mien and semi-clerical get-up” the Minister saw himself as a true prophet. Apparently the Minister “waxed fiercely eloquent” and liked to set the mark of the beast” and allocated it with considerable abandon to his fellow glen-folk! This is no a lee I’m tellin’ ye” he would say, but he had a “furtive way of looking at you from under his eyebrows and few believed him.”

The Minister must have terrified the Camlet weans, and his presence has often invaded my consciousness, conjuring him as a stern upright gent in black with high collar, and befuskert high on both chaffs. I imagine this sanctified man having the gall to chastise Aberdeen’s Seven Professors for not solving The Camlet! Yet The he, ‘the Minister,’ was to die with the Camlet and his acumenical background, to remain forever, a mystery. This though has not stopped one of the Deeside Detectives trying. This was to take the Camlet trail to Crathienaird with which there had been a long rumoured association.

Thomas Gordon, first of Crathienaird, was brought from Strathdon to Deeside by Captain Charles Gordon. The son of Thomas was John Gordon who married in 1738 Isobel Shepherd. Some researchers have claimed that their second son, John Gordon, born in May 1744, was none other than Camlet John.


This brought the possibility that the ‘Minister of The Camlet’ was the Reverend George Shepherd, the father of Isobel Shepherd, and the grandfather of Camlet John. This is a rather neat explanation, but is not backed by one shred of evidence. Certainly the archives, as they are, do not reveal that George Shepherd was ever at The Camlet. Furthermore it is my steadfast belief that Camlet and Crathienaird link not through the Gordons but rather through a family called Leys.

In short, it seems most unlikely that Camlet is a branch of the Crathienaird Gordons, whatever other researchers may think. Later in this chapter, further clues as to the origin of Camlet John will be briefly explored – not to pull together a genealogical fabric, but simply to shed light on The Camlet, and to reveal further, its handfast relationship with Abergeldy.

According to the Invercauld family papers, and since verified by Dr Sedgwick, there was another small community, lying below The Camlet, between the Kiln and the Girnoc burn. This community was known as the Clayholes.  By 1832 it had vanished; no wonder its existence almost escaped attention. However this is certainly not the only lost small glen community, for in researching this book mention was found in Adam Watson’s dictionary of a small settlement sited on a hillock on the east side of the Girnoc (grid reference: 322953.) It was known as Cnocan Riabbhach – ‘the brindled little knoll.’ So it appears that Linquoch was not the only community to be found on the sparse and tight ledge of the eastern side of the little rushing burn. I have since searched for any reference to Cnocan Riabbhach but have found only one single old parish entry of 1790 describing it as Knockanriach.

The first three children of Camlet John and his first wife Euphemia were never to leave the small glen. Indeed they were to become key members of the Girnoc community.  Joseph the eldest son, born at The Camlet in 1782, raised his family at Mill of Cosh; Elspet, the second born, married Donald Gordon of Bovagli; and John, the third born, went on to farm the maternal farmstead – the neighbouring tack of Lynvaig.

  • Joseph Gordon of Mill of Cosh and his family story shall be told in Chapter Five.
  • The story of Bovagli, including Camlet John’s eldest daughter Elspet appears in Chapter Three.
  • The story of Lynvaig and John the ‘son of The Camlet’ will be told in Chapter Six.

Arguably, the more interesting of the ‘first run’ of children born to Camlet John, was his daughter Margaret. Sadly Margaret never knew her mother Euphemia as she died shortly after her birth. Margaret’s early years of marriage were remembered for all the wrong reasons – by the greatest tragedy ever to hit the glen: the death of the ‘Flower of Deeside.’

On Bonfire night 1820 Margaret Gordon married her sweetheart George Brown, a Tailor from Greystone, a neighbouring community on the opposite side of the Dee to Abergeldy.  George carried the name of his father, a father that was the most famous Deesider of all time – George Brown: The Last of the Sennachies. This George was a remarkable man of most humble origins; he was entirely self-taught and truly had that touch of genius. To this day his vivid story-telling remains legendary. It is recalled (by Reverend Michie) that whilst still a young lad, George had read and fully mastered every printed volume within miles of Greystone!

“His legendary song could tell
Of ancient deeds, so long forgot”

This leads the way to an event that was to shake the whole of Deeside, a tragedy that involved the Sennachie’s daughter. Barbara, or ‘Babby,’ as she was generally known, was almost as celebrated for her beauty, as her father was for his wisdom and knowledge. With “sweet, features and fair form, she was also gifted with captivating manners and sparkling wit.” Wherever she appeared she won both friends and admirers; so that before she was out of her teens she was universally acknowledged to be, and styled, “The Flower o’ Deeside.”

Barbara had many suitors, including a number of men of some social standing. However, Babby decided to marry an older man, a widower without children, Peter Frankie.  He was good-looking, smart, and had what was considered to be an excellent job; gamekeeper at Altnaguisach. The marriage took place in 1823, four years after her brother George. The couple stayed a few days at Babby’s father’s until the keeper’s house was renovated and made a number of visits in the area.

One Sunday the popular couple were invited to the Smart’s at Abergeldy Mains. Early in the afternoon they left George Brown’s house and crossed the Dee. The water was high but not in spate. There was no bridge at Abergeldy, only a wooden ‘Cradle’. A heavy cable was wound round a windlass on both banks and on it ran the ‘Cradle’, with two grooved wheels.  The ‘Cradle’ was only three planks held by iron hoops and curved like cradle rockers. On both ends there was an upright, joined by a cross-bar. The seating was for two, and the ‘Cradle’ was usually worked by the Abergeldy gardener.

After the couple had spent a happy afternoon they left the castle side of the river about 9pm. By that time the water was higher:

“It was a Sunday afternoon that they gaed across at the cradle. The water was na’ what ye would ca’ in flood, but far ower big for wadan’ in ony place, for there had been a good sup rain the nicht afore. After supper time some o’ our folk chanced to be out about the doors –and came in cryan”

“Men, men! There’s something nae richt about the cradle. There’s lichts ga’an up an’ down the water in a fearsome, like’ way. Run, run, an’ see that naething has happened”


It appears that there was a fault with the windlass and the rope broke, throwing both occupants into the river. It was a dark night and people, including old George, searched the river bank with burning torches. It was not until daybreak that Babby’s body was found, while Frankie was found a week later, at Coilacreich. According to one local story, the gardener-winchman was also drowned. The whole area was in mourning.

“I’ll never forget that night – Women no kenan’ what do, runnan’ about, an’ cryan. Oh! Can naething be done, can naething be done? Babby Brown ‘a lost! Babby Brown’s lost!” There was an enquiry, but no explanation was ever given. What caused that rope to break will never be known. George Brown died four years later. His unmarked grave is in Crathie Kirkyard. In 1885 the cradle was replaced by a bridge.

Peer’ auld George! It would hae melted a heart o’ stane to hae seen him, seldom speakan’ a word to onybody; but what he did say was like a meek an’ humble raveled, as he’ was. Now and then he would step close up to the water edge as gin something had caught his sight in the stream; but we a’ kent it was only to hide his grief, for instead o’ lookan’ into the water he would bring the corner o’ his grey plaid up to his een an’ mony’s the saut tear that fell into’t that sorrowfu’ night.

“She was my favourite bairn, and fain would I that Thou hadst spared her whilst Thou wast pleased to spare me, but not thy will, but Thine be done.’

Abergeldie-bridgeFigure 2.18: The white bridge at Abergeldy that replaced the cable

With beauty comes the beast, and there is no escaping that the small glen new all about beastly adventure. Droving, by the time of Camlet John’s children, was all but over and the physical transhumance of beast had given way to the ethereal spirit. Yes droving was insidiously replaced by the copious, and illicit production, of whisky. Of all the children of Camlet John it was his middle son Peter that worked the still. Yes he was, by all accounts, master of the bothies.

Peter Gordon, born at The Camlet in 1795, had much to hide, for in the struggle to sustain his family within the small glen, he mustered a resourcefulness that at best was improper, but in truth was unlawful. This was not to be talked of. My great-grandfather used to scold his bairns if they enquired of their Deeside roots, and would bellow fearfully “Get on with your studies and keep out of the poor-house!”

In 1824 Peter Gordon was finally caught red-handed by the Gauger. With Margaret his wife, and his five young children, he was forcibly removed from the glen – never to return. Their nine year old son James never forgot that sorrowful eviction and was indeed instrumental in rescuing his family from poverty and moral destitution.

“The Gordon family fortunes were suffering in the unsettled times. They had been trying to help themselves by working a ‘whisky still.’ Excisemen came to seize stock. Somebody, unnoticed put James, the nine year old son of the family, on the back of a valuable stallion. They directed the child to ride to a friend’s place. He did so, and the friend hid the horse. The value of the horse thus saved, was helpful to the family


The story of young James, and how he saved his Camlet family, is remarkable in more than just one way. For James’ childhood recollection was as good as lost – had it not been for one of the most remote islands on the planet – the sub-Antarctic island of Campbell Island. The Camlet and Campbell Island, what strange bedfellows! Bedfellows of utter remoteness separated by the reach of the oceans of the world!

This most surprising trail started with the discovery of three rusty tin boxes perched on the rafters of an old woolshed. The Campbell l Island historian, Mr Norm Judd, described this most exhilarating find:

Old woolshed on Captain Tucker’s Makauri estate:
Ted Ellmers had gone in and had a good look around to see if anything of value remained inside.  He spotted three old, zinc-coated biscuit tins up in the rafters, covered in dust and cobwebs. When he climbed up and brought the tins down Ted saw they had been soldered shut – hermetically sealed.  He opened the tins with a can opener and found two contained small boxes of glass plate photo negatives.  A third held old papers; diaries, letters and statements, all dated between 1897 and 1903. The papers were parchment-like, dry and brittle and all related to the running of the
Campbell Island farm. 

When I had catalogued about 150 of the 250 plates, I picked up a plate that made me pause.  Apart from the oval paper frame glued to the face of the plate, which was the first of this type that I had seen in the collection, there was something different about the picture.

When I held the plate up before the light in Ted’s kitchen, I saw that it was of a group of eight or nine people sitting or kneeling on a lawn before the front porch of a house.  By their clothes I guessed that it had been taken about 1900.  A woman kneeling in middle foreground was dressed in what appeared to be an elaborate light coloured gown and markedly, her head was bowed as if she didn’t want to be photographed.  In rear left sat a man who appeared to be in his 60’s, dressed in light coloured sports jacket and white tie.  This subject was different – different that is from the general run of well heeled individuals who appeared in the other plates.  Even though the plates were negative the man had a strong presence.  Without any supporting information or any real rationale, I wondered if this was James Gordon.

Campbell-Isl-James-GordonFigure 2.20: James Gordon, back-left on the sub-Antarctic Campbell Island

James Gordon was a leader in little known event that became a milestone in New   Zealand’s subantarctic history.  James Gordon became Campbell Island’s first lessee when all of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands were auctioned for pastoral lease in 1894.  In April 1895, James Gordon left his family on their small Gisborne farm to take sheep, men, and materials, to Campbell Island and, in so doing, became the only lessee to successfully pioneer a farm on any of  New   Zealand’s subantarctic islands.  The lessees who followed Gordon expanded on his work until the farm collapsed in ruin exacerbated by the Great Depression of the ‘30s.  By the time James Gordon quit theIsland, for the final time in 1903, he was 60 years old.  Long absences, and lack of profitable returns, impacted on his family’s welfare, but through it all, they held together.  Descendants of James Gordon live in the Poverty Bay district today.  The photo above is the only one known to exist of a man who played a key part in one of New Zealand’s least publicized histories.

Had it not been for the rusty tin-box, and its parchment-like contents, and glass-plates, the story of the Camlet run-in with the Exciseman would have been lost forever. Never could I have imagined that when I first explored the small glen, that part of its lost story would materialize from an island distant even to New Zealand!

With the Camlet, I have that terrible habit, of kaleidoscoping time. Yes listen to the voices on the braes of Camlet and one hundred years becomes just yesterday. The story of young James, saving his family on the stallion, gallops my mind to Peter Gordon the eleventh laird of Abergeldy. It was this laird (or his brother Joseph) that brought the Gordons to the Camlet. When the eleventh laird died suddenly in September 1733, an Eik to his testament appeared making special provision for his favourite yellow stallion. In the poem ‘The Dumfoonert Loon’ the fancy of the poet has been evoked, and one story blended into another; that of young James, escaping the Gauger on the laird’s yellow stallion.

A yellow horse – a gowden jewel shimmrin gainst Lochnagar
Wis the laird’s very own ye ken.
Then unexpectit the laird
gan – jist drappit deid:

an tae The Camlet cam his shimmrin Stallion.

Fit chancy; nae but surely heeven pre-ordainit:

on the back of yellow, young James Gordon, a loon jist nine,

galloped awa fae the ragin’ gauger.

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