My talk for the Deeside Heritage Society

I have been asked to give a talk for the Deeside Heritage Society and will be giving this in Aboyne on the evening of the Thursday 19th October 2017.

My Gordon forebears came from Glen Girnoc where their “inextricable sibness” had once been legendary.

The Girnoc carries us back in time: it has no tarmacadam running through it, just a rough, stony and twisting path. Follow that path and listen closely for the whispering voices on the braes; carry on further towards Lochnagar, and you will come across one abandoned farm-toun after another. In this talk I will present some of these stories and hope that I might learn of more.

I have collected these stories in a home-published book: ‘Deeside tales: the Stories of a Small Glen’

As well as being a doctor and scientist, I am a philosopher, ethicist, and artist.


Where do I begin? Well with great aunt Mabel of course:

Mabel Gordon (1908-1993) used to recall family lore that we were of the “wrong side of the blanket” of the Abergeldie Gordons.

The Motto of this ancient family is “God with us”:

In 1961, after the death of the 20th laird, an advert was placed in the Scotsman stating that Abergeldie was looking for its heir.

This spurned my family into researching our past:

My sisters thought it was funny as we came across one dead Peter Gordon after another:

Glenmuick churchyard:

This Peter Gordon was born at Bovaglie in 1798:

Søren Kierkegaard said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

I was a backward learner and used to talk about myself as if I was an object rather than a person. Identity, and what is in a name, have been of fascination to me ever since:

My mother was my greatest teacher. She used to read to me every night.

This Ladybird book was my favourite: with a porridge pot that kept on making more porridge. This could be metaphorical for the once ever-expanding population of Gordons of Deeside:

This was the original family tree that my father annotated with further information supplied by great aunt Mabel. At this stage we were hopeful that it would be relatively straightforward to link our family tree to the 600 year old family tree of Abergeldie:

Our family belong to the Girnoc, a small glen which is part of the Abergeldie estate.

The Girnoc sits between Balmoral and Birkhall.  Unlike its neighbours it remains thankfully unknown.

It is a beautiful place without a proper road and has high Lochnagar as its backdrop.

This is a painting of the Girnoc by Howard Butterworth:

Here is a map of the Girnoc showing the principle farm-touns. They are all now deserted:

When my father first visited Glen Girnoc, a sign to the Camlet still survived:

However by the time of my first visit with my wife Sian, and baby son Andrew, the sign was gone. I did however find a few broken letters amongst the heather:

My son, Andrew Robert Gordon was born in March 1997. On the night of his birth the comet Hale Bopp was bright in the sky. We named his teddy bear “Hale Bopp”:

Here is Hale Bopp at Bovaglia. He is a well-travelled bear. Paddington would be envious and might have fixed him with a ‘hard stare’!

Hale Bopp travels with us as a family and features in many of my films. He is more than a “transitional object” (between us and not us) as he represents the impossibility of experience being fully “captured”.

My friend, the author Candia McWilliams had a teddy:

My son Andrew is now a young man. He is studying at the University of Edinburgh. Before commencing his studies Andrew spent a whole year doing voluntary work teaching in Guyana:

Andrew has a younger sister Rachel who is soon to go to University herself:

And here are their parents: Peter and Sian (getting older):

And here are my parents, Stuart and Margaret Gordon, taken by the river Dee in a year sometime past:

And here is my father walking in the Girnoc and on his way to The Camlet:

Here is my father at the time of his marriage to my mother. This being 1964:

My father was a banker and worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland:

Here is my father as a boy alongside his father, Henry M Gordon:

Here is Henry Gordon, my grandfather on a trip to the river Forth. My grandfather died in 1961, six years before I was born:

My grandfather was also a banker:

The days of saving books, branch offices and bank managers – who knew the families that they personally served – are sadly gone:

In this family photo, my grandfather Henry M Gordon is the baby. He was born in 1901:

This is the family home in Musselburgh where my grandfather spent his childhood:

Including myself, four generations of my Gordon family have lived in Edinburgh.

Alexander McCall Smith has described Edinburgh: “This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”

You will have realised that I am following the wisdom of Kierkegaard. I am taking you back through time. We will get to the small glen soon, but not yet.

This cottage, Craigroy cottage, was nestled in the Altyre Estate near Forres:

It was here that my great-grandfather John Gordon (1864-1922) was born and spent his childhood:

John’s younger brother, Peter Gordon, was Dux of Forres High but on leaving school became a shepherd. John was of the view that this was a terrible mistake and left Altyre to seek his way in Edinburgh, where he became Secretary of the Edinburgh Collieries Company. John Gordon was strict with his children and insisted each night that they had to study “to keep out of the poor house”.

This is a picture of Peter Gordon (Dux medallist) brother of my great-grandfather:

And here are the parents of John and Peter, namely:

Peter Gordon, Shepherd for Altyre and his wife, Euphemia Ferguson:

Peter Gordon, my great-great grandfather died suddenly in 1899:

This is a typed notation of the family tomb in Rafford churchyard in Moray. It is almost as remote as Glenmuick churchyard in Deeside:

However, we cannot yet go back to Deeside. The patterns of life are not so easily seen:

My great-great-great grandfather John Gordon, pictured here with his wife Ann Selby was a shepherd:

He raised his family at Collairniehill, Fife. It is a remote hillside farm, now deserted and roofless.

Here is a picture of my mother and father at Colairniehill:

My great-great-great grandfather John Gordon, died in 1899, a few months after his son Peter (my great-great grandfather, Shepherd at Altyre)

John Gordon’s death was noted in the newspapers of the day where he was described as a “remarkable, well-known and much respected farmer”. The obituary goes on to say that John Gordon had a “wonderful fund of humour, combined with an ability to retail reminiscences of his early days, that made him much sought after at his somewhat inaccessible home”

My grt-grt-gt grandfather, John Gordon was born at Bovaglia, Glen Girnoc in 1816.

Here is a gallery showing him beside his son and grandson, all my direct line:

John Gordon grew up with his sisters in Bovaglia. They lived in a thackit-biggen and not the grand house that still survives today. Bovaglia was a cotter-toun and Peter Gordon, John’s father was a shepherd for the Laird of Abergeldie. Peter Gordon (my 4x great grandfather) knew his way over the hills by the drove roads like few others. He met his wife Margaret McPherson in Glen Clova. It was here that he brought farm stock to be sold at Cullow Market:

Peter Gordon (my 4x great grandfather) died before the era of photography. However I do have his signature as he had to sign a statement in May 1824 after his servant, the maid Janet Stewart, was accused of “child murder”.

This is how Bovaglia was depicted on the Abergeldie Estate map of 1806. There was no grand hoose at this time:

Peter Gordon had two younger sisters, and like Peter they were born at Bovaglia. Below is a picture of Peter’s sister Jane taken when she was an old woman. The hand written poem about Bovaglia was written by her cousin who compiled the Bovaglie Manuscript:

When memory paints my youthful 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 Bovaglie’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

Sometime, shortly after 1824, Peter Gordon (my 4x great grandfather) suddenly flitted Bovaglia.

Peter took his family downstream of the river Dee, to Balnacraig estate, in the parish of Birse:

At Braeside of Blanacraig Peter Gordon died in May 1842.

Braeside of Balnacraig is another roofless biggen. Here is my son Andrew running in the field in front of it:

I had wondered why Peter Gordon took flight from the Girnoc?

Here is a clue:

Family papers have since been found. They describe, in first person, the circumstances of the sudden flit from the Girnoc.

My family were involved in the illicit making and smuggling of whisky. At one time there was said to be at least 12 stills in the upper Girnoc. The Excisemen caught several Deeside smugglers and the penalties were not insignificant and could result in jail or even transportation.

My family survived by riding away on the Girnoc horse – the only thing of value that they had:

The National Archives have precognitions of a number of trials of Deeside Gordons for smuggling. They make fascinating reading. I do not blame my family for making and smuggling illicit whisky:

It was James Scott Skinner, the celebrated fiddler, who wrote Bovaglie’s Plaid. It is a sad tune.

Bovaglie still “guards” Lochnagar but it does so sadly:

This is a sketch I made of Bovaglie in 1998:

Here is Donald Gordon, or “auld prodeegus” as I called him in my poem about the Girnoc. He supplied the mutton for Queen Victoria at Balmoral. Fond of the “stoorum” he was first cousin of my family and of James Brown, the Queen’s Highland servant:

Donald Gordon’s son, also called Donald Gordon continued at Bovaglie – as his family had done for at least six generations.

In 1916 the Bovaglie shepherd, George Coutts, took his life. His two sons were in action in the World War.

Bovaglie is a place that  is not unfamiliar with sadness.

But Bovaglie is not defined by sadness alone as it has a sense of place like few others.

The grandson of Donald Gordon, Victor Cook, inherited Bovaglie.

Victor (named after Queen Victoria) was a very wealthy businessman and used to be driven to Bovaglie from Balmoral in his Rolls Royce:

Victor Cook had no children of his own. He left his vast estate to improve the welfare of children.

Here is my daughter Rachel Gordon at Bovaglie in 2012:

Here is the Bovaglie Thresher, still ready to use in the barn:

Jimmy Esson and his wife Janet were the last to farm Bovaglie and to live in the mansion house:

Here is Jack Slea at Bovaglie in 2009.

Jack used to keep his sheep at Bovaglie and Jack was master of the roup: as Bovaglie was shut up for the last time.

This is my film about the Girnoc. It begins with the end: the footage of the roup at Bovaglie:

Bundle and Go! from omphalos

Sadly, it  time to leave Bovaglie:

In Glenmuick Churchyard there is a worn stone to my family. It is now lying flat on its back.

John Gordon and Euphemia McAndrew were parents to Peter Gordon of Bovaglie.

John Gordon married Euphemia McAndrew in 1782, the month after Captain Peter Gordon of Abergeldy married his sweetheart:

The year 1782 was remembered as “the black aughty twa”:

This is my sketch of the Camlet as drawn from the Skylich in 1998:

This is how The Camlet was depicted on the 1805 Abergeldie Estate map by John Innes:

The wallpaper of the front room of Camlet had been lined with newspaper. With the penetration of weather the wallpaper had peeled and underneath this section was revealed: “she’s the pride and joy of the glen”:

My son Andrew Robert Gordon at the Camlet in 2009:

The Camlet now has a gaping door but even in its decline it has beauty:

As newly weds (Peter and Sian)  bought a run-down farmhouse called Tillybin.

Tillybin was not dissimilar to The Camlet and had an equally exposed position.

This is my painting of Tillybin in the snowstorm of December 1995:

This is my favourite old photograph from the Girnoc.

John Kennedy was son of Peter Gordon Kennedy.

[I have to thank Edith Kennedy for letting me copy the Kennedy photographs from the Girnoc]

I am not sure when this photograph of the Camlet was taken, but if you look closely you can see Peter Gordon Kennedy (who died in 1923) standing by the gable wall:

This is a marriage photograph of 1901: Peter Gordon Kennedy and his wife Adeline Cooper. At the Camlet they lived happily together and raised their family:

The Camlet harvest:

William Kennedy (1828-1912) was one of Queen Victoria’s Gillies. He never married but had three children to three different woman. He never left The Camlet:

Edith Kennedy told me that this car belonged to Jock Kennedy. I have always wondered how it made its way up the steep glen path to the Camlet:

My nephew Duncan Gordon exploring the Camlet car in 1985. Shortly after this the car was removed:

Peter and Andrew Gordon at the Camlet in 2006:

Andrew spotted an eagle soaring above the Camlet:

We stayed overnight at The Camlet:

“The upstairs the boarding had come off and the room was bright and pink. The view was spectacular.”

“It was then that I received a phone-call from my mother! The first Gordon to Gordon telephone call the Camlet had ever had. This would have warmed the hearts of the inextricable. Two worlds, modern and ancient, collided in my mind, but the voices on the braes sang, and all felt good in the world of Peter.”

[below is the Abergeldie telephone box at this date. It was no longer in use]

My father, Stuart Gordon, looking up towards the Camlet:

My wife Sian, and my uncle Ken Gordon at Loinveg:

The Girnoc “the little rushing burn” as it enters the birk wuid of Loinveg:

This is an old poem written in Victorian times. It was published in the Press and Journal:

I had an article published in the Leopard in 2006:

There’s Naebody noo in the glen – lang since dwine’t awa.
Dwine’t awa an deid.

Littlins lachter, sing-sang, chirm and diddle
As sailent noo as the shuttered plaid o’ Bovagli’.
An the reevin win nae langer cairit the waxin’ lyrical
o’ Camlet’s auld Minaister.

Aye noo the furtive brow belongs tae this dumfoonert loon:
raikin roond folk gan ah so lang –
an caa’d a’ the same as ane anither!

Back then I was hopeful that I was on the way to establishing the family connection between the Gordons of the Camlet and the Gordons of Abergeldie:

I was fortunate as Dr John Malcolm Bulloch had done a lot of research on the Gordons of Aberdeenshire. Gordonology was his passion but thankfully he had other more healthy interests!

Here is The Abergeldie family tree. Surely it bridged the Camlet?

But struggled to find even a rope bridge:

And the volume of Gordonology was overwhelming:

“Cook little pot, cook!’

Deesiders of the day were to remark for any puzzle:

that’s as inextricable as the sibness o’ the Gordons o’ Girnoc!”

In summer 2005 the Laird of Abergeldie invited us to his castle:

“Andrew was to be the star for the laird. Halle-Bop was indeed to shine bright over Abergeldy that night. For Andrew, age seven, Abergeldy and its castle was about to come alive. And for the laird one could truly sense the rising vapour of his lost youthful vigour – a child in his castle and a chance to make it magical – that is what he would do – and that is what he did.

The Great Hall was intimate – not as I had imagined. It was more beautiful. It had a vaulted  roof, limed and painted walls, and two large south facing windows that, on the day we visited, allowed beams of sun to lighten it magically. The light caught the dust and cast hazy clouds – particles dancing as if in delight: ‘visitors at last…visitors at last.’”

I was beginning to realise that beauty belongs to nobody:

Peter J. Gordon at Abergeldie:

Ella Rae, my nonagenarian friend was absolutely convinced that Abergeldie was my castle.

You’ve given me a memory I’ll never forget from omphalos

However, I knew it wasn’t really.  I would have been happy just to be its gardener:

Abergeldie from Craig nam Ban. Photograph by Peter in 2004:

A series of photographs from 1959 – before the Victorian additions were demolished:

The Abergeldie Kitchen. This Range was equipped to feed!

For 150 years Abergeldy Castle was the Highland Home for the Princes of Wales.

The Royal family were tenants of the Gordons:

A Royal party in Abergeldie Castle:

Royal celebrations outside Abergeldie Castle:

Abergeldie in the time of the Royals:

The Game Larder still survives. It is the pagoda shaped building at the back:

The Royal Family at Abergeldie.

Before the suspension bridge there was a rope bogle. Sadly the flower of Deeside was drowned here when crossing the river Dee on this bogle:

The iron suspension bridge:

The suspension bridge as it once was:

The suspension bridge in 2008. It had not been functional for decades:

Then Storm Gertrude arrived in late January 2016. Here is the story:

It happened here from omphalos

The castle was saved. Rocks were brought in to shore the river bank and a steel band was placed around the Abergeldie Keep:

It is my wedding band that has held me strong. I love Sian. We support each other when we are lost.

The farm of Lost is in Strathdon [it was also home to Peter Gordon]

Strong circumstantial evidence – would you believe it –  supports that the Camlet Gordons came from Lost, and before that Glenbuchat:

Here I am in Glenbuchat:

And a few years before – I had no idea that Glenbuchat had any place in our family story:

Peter Davidson described in ‘Distance and memory’:

My family has lived alongside three northern rivers: the Deveron, the Don and the Dee:

It was Rachel Gordon, the 10th and only female Laird of Abergeldie, who restored the forlorn and ransacked estate that she inherited. To help her do so she needed workers. It was Rachel Gordon who brought the Gordons from Glenbuchat to the Girnoc:

Our daughter is also named Rachel Gordon. This was by chance. We were unaware of “Abergeldy Rachel” at the time our daughter was born.

As parents we just agreed that “Rachel” was a lovely Christian name.

Our Rachel has a beauty that is far greater than Abergeldy.

It is silly to chase gold threads.

The Girnoc is silent as light and more beautiful still. Story is there. Somewhere.

2 Replies to “My talk for the Deeside Heritage Society”

  1. nice walk down Memory Lane Peter 🙂

    1. Thanks Sharon,
      I was so fortunate to have you as a friend walking with me and exploring together such beautiful Deeside glens.

      aye Peter

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