This is a full transcript of my book on the history of Glen Girnoc(k) where my Gordon family came from. The glen nestles in Royal Deeside: between Balmoral (Scottish home of our Queen) and Birkhall (Scottish home of the Prince of Wales).
Deeside Tales can be purchased here (the author makes no profit):
My film on Glen Girnoc is called ‘Bundle & Go!’ :
All drawings and sketches by Peter J. Gordon, except the watercolour below which is by Howard Butterworth.
Chapter 1: Dwine’t awa an Deid
The Highland Clearance – we know the history; and why should it be any different for this small glen? Well just for now take my word, the Girnoc has a rather special story, and its clearance was utterly unique to its Highland homeland.
As writer of this book I acknowledge here that I cannot match Amy Fraser Stewart’s ‘Hills of Home’ which in my opinion remains unsurpassed in breathing the life into a glen facing extinction – in that case Glen Gairn. Amy Stewart’s book was spell-binding for her childhood recall of a way of life long gone. I have no such fortunate vantage; I am simply, an odd-job historian, without the Doric that I so dearly wish. Yet I feel that my family place in the Girnoc is as spiritual and free as any before, and that my cast is centuries, not decades. Perhaps then I am a talisman (of sorts) for the glen, garnering the voices on its braes; voices which reach out from the heather and bracken, and search desperately beyond the barricaded and shuttered windows of now ghostly farmsteads
“There’s Naebody noo in the glen – lang since dwine’t awa. Dwine’t awa an deid.”
In this book I hope to resurrect the glen as it was in days of bustle, bring back its glory and sorrow, and retrace the dying footsteps of its inhabitants. It is an ambitious cast of many centuries but is a journey worth taking, and just perhaps, it will entice you to walk the glen and to become with me the inextricable.
The first exercise must be to annotate you to the small glen. As stated in the ‘Introduction’ the Girnoc glen is neighbour, and runs parallel to, the larger Glen Muick, separated by the mighty range of the Coyle mountains. The Girnoc can be approached from three directions; two by road, and one by mountain track. The true approach is from Woodend, a woodland copse at the foot of the Girnoc huddled around the bridge and Littlemill. It is here that one finds the salmon trap, and the soon to be erected eel-trap. Woodend of Girnoc is approached from theSouth Deeside Road, crossing theDee at Ballater.
The other approach is from behind Bovagli – to do so you must cross theDee at Balmoral and follow the signs for Lochnagar Distillery. Rising high behind the distillery is a private road to Buailteach, at the end of which is the Deer gate to Bovagli, passing en route Tilfogar, and the Genechal.
The last approach is by the mountainous track from Inchnabobart which brings the back-packer past the castle of the old women, the Castel na Caillach, to the ancient copse of Bovagli. Inchnabobart has a long association with the Girnoc. It was here that in the late eighteenth century that the smugglers used to stop under the genial host John Robbie a man of quick wit who had ‘no liking’ for excise men. Inchnabobart had ceased to operate as an Inn by 1841 but nevertheless must be celebrated here, for sitting at 400 metres above sea level it was by far the highest Inn to be found in Scotland. Inchnabobart now has infamy of a different sort – as Prince Charles’ Royal Howff.
For this book I am going to introduce the Girnoc from Woodend. The journey starts at Littlemill, where a solitary gable hangs over the little rushing burn like a giant smokeless lum. Hidden behind, and nestling the contour, is Littlemill, once home of the Engineers and Inventors of Deeside. On the other side of the Girnoc Brig, following the track through the plantation of Woodend, you come to the modern house of Girnoc Shiel. Here lives the ‘Grand Lady of the Glens,’ Dr Sheila Sedgwick, local historian and author of, amongst others Legion of the Lost and Recalling Glengairn. It is right that Dr Sedgwick lives so close to the Victorian Girnoc Schoolhouse – for she is truly the authority on the area and is the academic who everyone returns to when investigating upper Deeside. Dr Sedgwick is the curator of the Kirk Sessions for Glenmuick, Tullich & Glengairn, as well as those for Crathie.
A short walk from Dr Sedgwick’s house, southwards along the tumbling Girnoc brings thetraveller to the Cosh Mill. These days the wheel is gone – but there are still folk in Deeside who remember it. The Mill of Cosh is aptly titled for in etymological terms this is the ‘mill of the hollow’. It occupies a flat basin at the foot of the Girnoc between the fir covered Creag Ghiubhais (the Sister Hill) and Creag Phiobaidh (Rock Hill of the Piping), both peaks that rise above 450 metres.
Just beyond Mill of Cosh, and through a native birch wood, one comes to the deer gate at the southern end of Girnoc. At this point the track, consisting of no more than bare rubble and sand, rises and curves up towards Lochnagar, though it is not until the Scots Pine trees (Pinus sylvestris) of the Lynvaig copse appear that one gets a view of the majestic mountain. Just before you reach deserted Lynvaig the rickles of lost Newton of Girnoc lay scattered to the east, in rabbit shorn grass. At Newton it is just possible to see the footprints of at least five longhouses and beyond, a track that sweeps down towards the little rushing burn through a wonderfully delicate native birch wood (Betula pendula) which bedazzles in prolific lichenous growth. Lost in the heather on the other side of the burn is Linquoch – it was a settlement abandoned late in the eighteenth century and its history almost totally lost. These days it may only be the salmon-trackers that ever come across it, as it is the only Girnoc community to have been located on the eastern side of the glen. The heather has reclaimed an old track, once an important route reaching up the north of the Coyles to Loinmuie, a farm-toun that lay half-way to Birkhall.
Lynvaig (now known as Loinveg) was the last of the Girnoc farms to empty yet every time I close its gate, winter inclemency has revealed it a little more derelict – this is none truer than with the steading, and old thresher house, which in the winter of 2005 lost their roof after a very heavy snowfall followed by the severest of gales. Yet palpably, despite such attack, it is a farm that oozes a determined will and one that could be brought to work again. But perhaps this is somewhat fanciful as a farm of this size is surely too small to be sustainable in the twenty-first century – and that may be why John Howard Seton Gordon, the current, and 21st Laird of Abergeldy, has given some of the glen away to woodland plantations. The first plantation fills completely the Camlet boundary, but following the recommendations of theCountyArchaeologist, has no tree planting within 10 metres of the ruins. Lynvaig has escaped plantation and so retains its own special ambience, due in part to the tall sentinels of Scots Pine that contrast darkly with the rusty red tin roof of its out-buildings.
Within 400 yards of Lynvaig, now almost lost in the heather, the first arm, the southern one, of a sweeping track up to The Camlet appears. It is at this point that one fully realizes why the postman used to deliver post to The Camlet on skis! Incredibly an old Austin, belonging to John Jolly, dating from 1935 used to make it up and down this steep, rough and twisting path. The path winds in a double ‘S’ bend through the heather, into bracken and then out into a steep climb on a western slope that has green rabbit grazed grass and stane dykes rising skyward towards the Hill of the Eagle (Sgor an h-lolaire.)
It was on my last visit to the Camlet with my eight year old son Andrew, that we, the Gordon boys, were escorted by a rather special companion, for soaring high over the abandoned farm was a solitary large bird of prey, a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) perhaps it could not be, but, perhaps you might understand, it was to us! A protectorate for those inextricable souls this bird was truly majestic as its soared, looped and plunged ‘The Camlet’ the capital of the Girnoc. There could be no better home for this bird, favouring as it does remote, wild and open upland moorland. It left me feeling
Today The Camlet is abandoned, like all the Girnoc farms, and gapes utterly forlorn out onto the black massif and patchwork purple grouse-butts of the Coyles of Muick (Hill of the Snakes). In many ways it is a sorrowful sight and nature, as is its right, is relentlessly reclaiming it. Within a decade the Camlet ruins will be lost within an elbow of coniferous forestry plantation. A decade on and surely they will be lost forever. Perhaps that explains a need to bring back to you here the farm-toun in its hey day, when there was up to twenty thakkit-clay biggins with lums reeking merrily, and inhabitants battling the elements with kail soup and illicit liquor as their onlymeans of fortitude!
I shall return you to The Camlet in the next chapter, for it has a cast of stories spanning over four hundred years, and some rather marvelous surprises for all that, but for now it is time to follow that sweeping Camlet road to Bovagli.
Where the curved Camlet track, hugging the contour of Cap na Cuile returns you to the main Girnoc track, there was once a gate. It was at this point that I found, a decade ago, scattered in the heather, the broken letters of ‘The Camlet.’ A sign erected in the 1960’s blown down and iron letters scattered like dust. In that moment I understood that The Camlet was beyond even palliation.
Continuing in that tight curve around Cnap na Cuile one is first greeted to Bovagli by its truly faithful guard – the weathered stumps of its ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and rowan kailyards (Sorbus aucuparia.) These trees are reluctant to abandon their master – and that seems proper. The visitor to Bovagli is struck by the sheer volume of scattered stone, all cast aside, in the long shadow of Lochnagar. The rickles here are everywhere – footprints of two lost farm-touns and their bounded kailyards. Amidst it all is the fading glow of Victorian splendour; a farmhouse of manorial grandeur, but shuttered tight just like every other Girnoc farm. The peeling green woodwork and lifeless cables tell the story. It is hard to believe then that only two decades ago it was a busy working sheep farm as upper Deeside’s most extensive holding of 2000 acres of hill pasture.
Bovagli and Camlet were once truly hand-fast, and as such were more than just neighbours, but compatriots of the Girnoc; tounships, communities, and the life-blood of a small-glen. Their days are now forever past. But in their history there is much to tell: of Bovagli there is its link to HallheadCastle and its most principled farmer, Donald or ‘Auld Prodeegous;’ then there is the lost Manuscript and the poems of ‘Crovie John.’ In The Camlet we have of course Abergeldy, but not just! Cortachy and Airly Castle have a place, as does a distant Priory in Fife. Then there is the auld ‘Minister of The Camlet’ and his zealous and sanctified ways. John Brown, Queen Victoria’s Highland Servant has a maternal place in the history of The Camlet, and the Leys family in particular take the Girnoc back to Glen Gairn. Yes, as you can see, there is much to tell.
The great Strathspey musician, J. Scott Skinner, wrote a tune called Bovaglie’s Plaid, inspired by a local saying that the wood ‘haps, shelters, Bovaglie ferm like a plaid.’ Today the wood is a shadow of its former glory with evergreen aforestation replacing the mixed hardwoods of ancient copses. Leaving Bovagli, past the Dew pond and through the leaning Scots Pines, one takes the main track towards Balmoral. Auld Prodeegous knew this traverse well – his cart passed it daily, whether it was mutton for theQueens larder, or a less than covert trip, to the Inver Inn, for his favourite stoorum!
It was just beyond Bovagli and towards Craig Megen that a Gamekeeper died in a sitting position with his flask at his side, held statue like, with pipe and matches still in his hand. Bovagli’ and her natural powers had reclaimed her own. Bovagli has always been good at that!
Like two broad shoulders the‘Hill of the Eagle’ and ‘The Genechal’ separate the Girnoc from Khantore and the Cabrach. John Robertson (fae the Spittal of Muick) told Ian Murray, who was researching for his book – The Dee from the Far Cairngorms – about a path that used to link Khantore with Bovaglie. They called it the ‘Butchers Walk,’ it was down this track that they carted the best wethers (young sheep) for Queen Victoria’s Mutton Larder. The path is gone now and forestry plantation covers part of it. At The Genechal, the southern end of the Butchers Walk can just be found, as it descends that first shoulder.
The Genechal, like The Camlet was always described thus, preceded by ‘The’ making it a definite article. I was once humourously chastised by Margaret Kennedy the last widow of Camlet; ‘it’s The Camlet ye ken’ she retorted in her doric tongue. The Genechal has a story all of its own, one hard to believe today, as it stands pathetically forlorn, slateless and lost in its wood. The story of its two front doors is beautifully rehearsed in Robert Smith’s A Queen’s Country, but I have discovered much more to that story, so you must read on. The Genechal does have a place in the Girnoc – as it is literally its back door, and was once specially linked to The Camlet by a track known locally as the ‘Skylich.’
It is from The Genechal that you can return to the main track between Inchnabobart and Easter Balmoral. These days the track is well maintained presumably by the Balmoral Estate for the Grouse shooting, indeed just beyond the Genechal there is a mock stag carved in wood, it presents for target practice from the track. The young Princes’, William and Harry, have no doubt practiced here. Follow the track down and theDee valley opens up with the distant turrets of Balmoral castle rising forth. At Builteach there is a cattle grid and deer gate, but to the east, in the direction of Princess Beatrice’s Cairn, and in the cast of Tom a Chuir, one finds the lost community of Wester Tilfogar.
Tilfogar is a much corrupted name so we are fortunate that Adam Watson in his comprehensive ‘The Place Names of Upper Deeside’ was able to explain it’s variation. The name derives from Tulach Chòcaire, which rather charmingly translates as ‘hillock of the cook.’ The Tilfogar farmtowns are listed on the Abergeldy estate map drawn up by John Innes in 1806 (and preserved in a hand coloured canvas on the south wall of Abergeldy Castle’s Great Hall.) On that map they are listed as Dalfouger (Easter & Wester) and draughted as of 28 and 26 acres respectively.
At some point Easter Dalfougar was absorbed into the farm of Buailteach, but whilst Buailteach still thrived, Tilfogar was soon, like so many of its counterparts, no more. These days it is just stones in the heather, only the Chòcaire burn marking out where its stanes once stood.
Tilfogar, like Linquoch, has become forgotten history. In this book I hope to rectify that, for Tilfogar was central to the smuggling system of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. That story will be rehearsed in the last chapter of this book, and whilst it is true that Tilfogar is not strictly Girnoc, it had a key crossover with the small glen that could only leave its omission glaring. Mention has been made of the gloriously bearded Adam Watson, and he surely represents the grandfather of the ‘Deeside Detectives’ a colloquialism that I have coined for a whole array of researchers in love with Upper Deeside, all of whom have made it their lifetime gift to pull old Deeside together in an historical amagam of prose and print. The appendix will contain a dedication to these detectives, without whom many of the stories in this book would have been lost for all time.
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.
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: Figure 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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!
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.’
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.
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 wis
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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’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?
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.
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.’
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Now Queen Victoria brings my mind to a rather special and dear cousin of Bovaglia – none other than John Brown, the Queen’s devoted Highland Servant. The bond comes through John Brown’s mother, who was a daughter of the Leys family. For years I had heard the whispers about John Brown and the Girnoc, but his place in the history of the Bovagli was only confirmed much later by an elderly relative.
“An elderly relative who used to visit the area met Gordon relatives when she lived in Berkshire. Some of them moved there when Queen Victoria bought the estate as they worked at Windsor Castle. John Brown’s mother or grandmother was a Gordon and he was related – so they told her.”
This all goes back to Camlet John and his brother Camlet Joseph. Their mother was Barbara Leys of Balindory. Detail is lost as the early parish records are so poor, but there can be no doubt about the coalescence of the two key families of the district – the Leys and the Gordons. It was matrimonial bonds between these two families that served as a long bridge between the small glen and Crathienaird.
In the summer of 2004, whilst on holiday, I was to stay at Crathie Manse with my young family. The bedroom was at the back, immediately next to the old churchyard. Little did I know that my bedfellow, on the other side of the wall, was none other than Francis Leys of Inver (1712-1787). This man was the old patriarch of the Deeside family of Leys. His tombstone, flat, prostrate and lost in the grass, was the first in a long row to the family. To make the tombstone readable I had to borrow the coloured chalks of my dear children Andrew and Rachel. This Francis Leys was the brother of Barbara (the mother of the Camlet Gordons.)
Francis Leys was a farmer and Innkeeper. His son James Leys, known as ‘Civil Bonnets,’ followed family tradition and became the best known hotelier in the district – at the Inver Inn. His story is perfectly recounted by Robert Smith in his book A Queen’s Country published in 2000. Francis Leys also had a daughter called Mary who lived to the good age of 94 years. On the 1851 census she appears with the Brown family of Crathienaird and is described as ‘formerly an Innkeeper.’ I have often found myself reflecting just how well this family knew their whisky! Quite handy when you think of the smuggling Gordons of the Girnoc!
In Crathie churchyard tourists from near and far tred the well worn grass to the tombstone of John Brown. No wonder, for the story of how Queen Victoria, the world’s most powerful woman and John Brown, a simple Deeside lad, entered into such an extraordinary friendship is both compelling and humbling. The portrayal of John Brown by Billy Connolly in John Madden’s 1997 BBC film was nothing short of brilliant and matched only by Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.
This stone is erected in affectionate and grateful remembrance of JOHN BROWN the devoted and faithful personal attendant and beloved friend of Queen Victoria in whose service he had been for 34 years. Born at Crathienaird 8th December 1826 died at Windsor Castle 27th March 1883.
That friend on whose fidelity you count, that friend given you by circumstances over which you have no control, was God’s own gift. Well done good & faithful servant.
The very next tombstone (to that above) is to John Brown’s mother and father. His mother Margaret Leys was revered by the Queen as grand-old lady of the glens. Margaret was daughter of the Ballachlaggan blacksmith Charles Leys, and granddaughter of Francis Leys of Inver. Ballachlaggan at the foot of the Fearder glen was where eighteen bonnet lairds were hung from the rafters of a ‘gyrt barn’ for upsetting the Laird of Invercauld. The story of Margaret Leys, mother of John Brown, is rather special and for those interested there is an article about her in the Leopard Magazine of 1998. It is again by Robert Smith and is entitled ‘The Other Mrs Brown.’
A photograph of Margaret Leys survives seated outside Bush of Crathienaird, with her son Archie. Now if you look closely, only just visible on Margaret Leys left hand is her wedding ring. There is reason for pointing out what surely must seem obvious – for this ring had a rather incredible fate.
When John Brown died at the end of March 1883, Queen Victoria, in a state of mourning, took his mother’s ring and wore it as her symbol of enduring love. It never left her finger. Unknown to the Queen’s close family the ring was on her wedding finger when she was interred within the ornate marble Mausoleum of Frogmore. So that was how the ring of Margaret Leys was to eternally grace Queen Victoria. Deeside’s reach was indeed wide and far.
It is time now to reflect on the glory years of the farm, when it prospered like no other in the district, and when the Bovagli sheep were renowned at the market for their quality and health. So whilst all the other small glen farms stuttered into subsistence (especially the Camlet) Bovaglia flourished. This reversal of fortune has been hinted at before in this chapter but it was all down to Queen Victoria and her Balmoral Mutton Larder.
Bovagli became Royal territory – true it was never owned by the family – but they did have three consecutive forty year leases of the Abergeldy estate which only changed with the coming of John Howard Seton Gordon. ‘Auld Prodeegous’ has been introduced earlier in the chapter; he was also known as ‘Red Donald,’ for unusually for a Gordon, he had red hair. He was the brother that displaced Crovie John. Bovaglia was where these two titans of temper clashed. Literally the scattered stones that survive today represent their battle ground. It is worthy of reflection here that the mother of these two Gordon boys was a Camlet quine, Elspet Gordon, so arguably some of this ferocity of spirit came from the elbow!
In the time of ‘Auld Prodeegous’ the farm was transformed, from the pocket sized 18 acres of pasture in 1826, to the truly extensive holding of about 2000 acres of hill pasture just forty years later. Donald had a faltering start to his career as Royal ‘flumgummer.’ In 1850 he had an illegitimate son John. He was born at Bellamore and seems to have been utterly disowned by his father. Indeed there is nothing to suggest he saw any of the riches that later came the way of Prodeegous.
You may recall 1860 was a sad year in the history of the Camlet. It was at exactly this time that the fortunes of the two farms ran in opposite directions. By this date Bovaglia was on the up. On the last Friday of a cold 1855 January, the forty three year old Prodeegous married his distant cousin Margaret Smith. By 1860 their new farmhouse was built and it was by far the grandest in the glen.
The boarded and long-abandoned Bovagli farmhouse is depicted in Figure 3.19, yet somehow its original grandiosity manages to present itself. In this house Donald’s bairns were born and raised. The view from the sitting room on Christmas morn to a snow-capped Lochnagar must have been truly special. The small glen must have been a wonderful place for the Gordon children to play in free abandon. Daily they would have walked the Bovagli Roadie, passed the Camlet, and Lynvaig, onto the new schoolhouse at the Bridge of Girnoc which was mastered by Patrick Kidd and his sister Margaret. By the time of the 1871 census Donald Gordon was listed as head of his family, aged 59 years and farming a massive 2000 acres of arable land. By this date, he was employing ten shepherds, and five servants. It was not just Crovie John that was reeling, can you just imagine the envy of the Kennedy family on the floundering Camlet. That was indeed the sad demise of The Camlet, ‘Capital’ of the small glen!
What startles me most about the small glen is that it is a glen of secrets and contrasts especially with the opposing fates of the chief farms: Camlet and Bovaglia. This contrast was never more obvious than with ‘Auld Prodeegous.’ For while he prospered, his wider family ran into trouble; especially his three cousins; James, Francis, and Peter Gordon. These boys had indeed some infamy! They were the most notorious cattle thieves in the district and spread their ploy wide and far. In 1833 they were the subject of an interdict raised by Lord Panmure. The interdict stated that the hill grounds in the parishes of Edzell, Lethnot, and Lochlee had “been infested by a gang of poachers of the most desperate character”. The interdict was extended in 1834, 1835, and 1836.
Auld Prodeegous (1811-1897) had a liking for a dram (or two) and used to take his horse and cart through the Bovagli wuid, past the Genechal, and Tilfogar, down the glen to Easter Balmoral and along the Dee to the Inver. On the way home he would sometimes have a sleep in the cart whilst his understanding horse would take him home on its own. One day two boys were waiting for him and they unhitched the cart from the horse, with Donald still sleeping soundly, and then hitched it back together – after first passing the shafts of the cart through the spars of the gate. They then hid and waited eagerly. A dazed Donald Gordon studied his predicament before he was heard to say himself…
“I doobt the diel himsel has been at work here the day!”
Donald Gordon had the prosperity, the Royal patronage, and the largest farm on Deeside. He was the Eighth of his family to farm Bovagli and had easily surpassed any of his forebears. He had even become wealthy enough to be a laird in his own right. Yet look at his picture above (Figure 3.20) in which he looks stern and miserable. It surely presents a much truer cartography of the man, especially if you compare it to the romanticized coloured, lithograph portrait of Donald in Clan tartan painted by Kenneth Macleay for Queen Victoria in 1868 (Figure 3.21) I must say that I cannot see the true ‘Prodeegous’ in Macleay’s picture, which encompasses a softness of feature, that I truly doubt was defining.
The Notice on the reverse of this RSA painting states:
“Donald Gordon (aged 57 – 1868) occupies Bovagli. As the Estate of Abergeldy is leased to the Queen, he is personally known to Her Majesty and ‘turns out’ with the Queen’s Highlanders…. He holds another Farm, Wester Morven, on the Marquis of Huntly’s Estate (which was considered locally a great catch for him to get). The family have lived for Eight generations on the Abergeldy property”
For a long period ‘Prodeegous’ was well known at all the big sheep fairs and must have been quite distinguishable with his red whiskers and paunch. With success, Donald later bought a property in Dee Street in Aberdeen, which he used during the winter months. That must have presented quite a contrast for his children. It is recorded that Donald was an elder in Crathie Parish Church, and that he ‘was greatly respected as a clear-thinking, upright and far-seeing business man, and as possessing wide sympathies and largeness of heart’. Again I find myself wondering what Crovie John would have made of these sentiments? A fierce reaction surely!
These days Auld Prodeegous’s farm is utterly desolate. One cannot review it without feeling an all-prevailing sadness. The guard-house, simply guards no more. It looks out blindly to Lochnagar: both sight and spirit long gone. The painted woodwork is flaked but still shows through an original emerald green gloss. The porcelain toilet lies outside the shuttered windows. It is shattered in three pieces – the throne of Bovagli. The gate has rusted, but still squeaks open; the slates have dropped, one by one, from the roof. The moss is rampant, and fungi crop from every corner.
That ‘largeness of heart’ was the one that Donald was truly to need, for despite his relative prosperity, he (and his wife Margaret) did indeed have sorrow – the deepest of sorrows. I first became aware of this many years back when I encountered a lichen encrusted stone in old Crathie churchyard. It was a very plain stone erected by Donald Gordon to three of his children lost at Bovagli to smallpox: John lost aged 2½ in 1860; Mary lost in 1864 in her ninth year and David in 1870 aged ’11 months and 20 days.’ Yes it must have felt as if the Guard-house was losing its role as protector. It was no wonder that Donald bought his property in Dee Street, Aberdeen to shelter his family in the winter months.
Somebody out there is still a friend of Bovagli, because when I returned to Crathie churchyard some years later to take a picture of the Bovagli tombstones I found that they had been cleaned back to sparkling granite (Figure 3.29.)
The old Victorian farmhouse has two large south facing public rooms, which look out onto the majestic and shimmering ridge of Lochnagar – an outlook of incomparable beauty and at the envy of every other home in Deeside. A tour within this now shuttered and boarded farmhouse reveals this former splendour: beautiful Victorian fireplaces, with mahogany carved lintels that match ornate plasterwork ceilings. The last of the Bovagli Gordons to live in the house was Miss Lizzie Gordon (born in the house in 1865), who continued the Bovagli tenancy until the pre war years (WWII), and who, as a spinster, entrusted the management of the estate to Victor Cook of Counteswells House, Bieldside, the son of her sister Victoria.
Incredibly, Victor Cook was to beckon me from the grave, in the form of a dream in which he gave me a tour of Counteswell House (his home) and recounted the story behind a cascade of child portraits hanging on the wall. Victor, you see, was no ordinary son of Bovagli and whilst never a father himself, he was to become a ‘welfare custodian’ to Scotland’s children. A remarkable man of compelling vision his legacy was to roll on like a Bovagli stone gathering selfless good. When he died in March 1990, Victor left his vast fortune (four Million) to the trust he had set up a quarter of a century before. That trust was named in honour of his mother Victoria Gordon and so it was that on the 18th February 1974 in Aberdeen ‘The GORDON-COOK FOUNDATION’ was born.
Sunday 28th January 2007
Bill Gatherer’s book on Victor is wonderful. It really brought this champion of a man alive. After reading Bill’s book I dreamt of Victor showing me around Counteswells House!
I was in Aberdeen from 1985 till 2001. I wish now that I had spoken to Victor about his family, his life, and his Trust.
With two of my own children at Primary School I cannot help feel buoyed by the work of the Foundation and Victor’s lasting legacy for the moral good of the children of our nation. It somehow feels right that that legacy comes from Bovaglia!
Victor pioneered Moral Education for schools. It was his personal crusade to encourage the good in children. This was a vision of extraordinary foresight but was initially received as old fashioned, naïve, and of the Baden-Powel mould. Yet Victor, at times inflexible yes, had stoneball belief in his moral code. He gathered, in his Foundation, a group of astounding minds, all personal friends, in whom he placed his trust – Bill Gatherer was one of those. Bill later wrote Victor’s biography ‘Pioneering Moral Education.’
Victor had the mind of an Engineer; like the shining brilliance of polished steel, yet, rigid as the mould. He had the combined strength of his grandfathers: Donald Gordon (1811-1897) ‘Auld Prodeegous’ and Charles Cook (1836-1918). These two men, the DNA structure of the Gordon-Cook Foundation, are pure upper Deeside
We have heard all about Donald Gordon, but what of Charles Cook? Well can you imagine how they met? Well it was over a dram at the Invercauld Arms, where Charles Cook was the venerable host. That ‘Stoneball’ tipple had indeed, reaching powers!
Charles Cook’s fortune was turned at Invercauld. He was a canny-man of vision and 1889 he bought an Iron Foundry in Aberdeen and started the Company of Barry, Henry and Cook. Victor’s parents were married seven years later and even by then business was flourishing with the family investing widely. Then suddenly came loss, not financial but bodily.
Figure 3.24: The Invercauld Arms of Charles Cook
In 1918 peritonitis took away grandfather Charles Cook, and two years later, to the very same condition, father Robert Cook died. He was just fifty. So it was that young Victor was left to oversea the vast Engineering Works. Victor turned to his mother Victoria Gordon, a woman of true substance, and a woman born of Bovagli.
Victor never left his mother again, and when his only brother Norman was killed tragically young in a motorcycle accident in 1927, he set up their home in Counteswells House. From that day forth, mother Victoria, and son Victor, formed an unbreakable bond. Their home was in Bieldside, but that beating-heart was still Bovagli. Victor took over the management of his Mother’s farm a place in which he felt a belonging. Even in his nineties he used to drive his car up the steep four mile track from Balmoral to visit Bovaglia. Indeed he was known to take his friends on the Royal tour. It was a journey they never forgot!
Do you know, I am not often accused of fancy, but when I visit Bovagli I hear the chattering excited voices of the children that once festooned the farm. It is my belief that Victor heard the whoops and laughter too, and that Bovagli was the spiritual guide to his pioneering Foundation. Perhaps that is nonsense, but one cannot deny the spell-bound relationship between, Victor, his mother, and the farm!
I do hope that one day Victor Cook will be as recognized a name as Baden-Powell. For I like to think, Victor’s reach out to children, will impact future generations in a way that his Victorian-counterpart may never do. However, in truth, I know this to be most unlikely. Some ideas have redundancy as mankind moves on, but a code for moral good, and citizenship, are as fresh as the blossoming bulbs of Bovagli.
The following code is pure Victor – yes it has an Edwardian naiveté but also it is the foundation of a Trust. A cause, that now far more sophisticated, reaches every schoolchild in our land. At last the ‘Bovagli Code’ has become curriculum. Victoria Gordon would have been proud of her son.
As a postscript I would like to tell you of Victor’s longevity. He died in March 1990 age 93 years, his mother Victoria lived to 94 years, and his ‘Bovagli Granny’ to 97 years.
Earlier in this chapter an oblique reference was made to the great walled garden of Auchernach and the ‘Gardener of Bovagli.’ Strictly this statement was misleading, for the man in question, David Morrice Gordon, was great-grandson of both Bovagli and Camlet. ‘One Man’s Dream’ tells the life story of a man whose life (somewhat remarkably) spanned three centuries.
David Morrice Gordon, like Victor Cook, was a true pioneer in his field and invested his incredible lifelong drive into his native memorial – Myall Park Garden in Queensland, Australia. Yes for although vastly different characters, there was a commonality about these two loons well beyond their remote Girnoc beginning. It is indeed interesting to reflect that both men were thrown head-first into grim-responsibility when their respective fathers succumbed fatally young to illness. In David Morrice’s case he was left at the age of fifteen to run the farm and provide for his family, his only brother Jack serving his country in the First World War.
It was David’s grandfather, Joseph, that left Scotland for Australia in the 1850’s and his father James Morrice who first settled in Queensland at the century’s turn. They Gordons settled in the Lagoons but the land was poor and the prickly pear was the widespread curse of the incoming farmers. At that time the settlers invested all their energies into clearing the land by poisoning, burning, and hacking. But in 1910 on his free-holding on the river, James Morrice Gordon did not follow the popular line. The bush to him was like a garden. Trees along the river were left, and grand and unusual trees grouped for shade. Neighbours, all around, thought the Gordons were mad and could not understand why they revered such ‘poor’ trees as the Boonarees and Gums.
James Morrice Gordon recognized the challenge ‘I have a hard job to hoe here.’ On hearing his comment I chuckled to myself, thinking that his Girnoc grandfathers would have understood! There is indeed something about the Gordons, harsh-terrain, and a challenge! James Morrice Gordon worked unsparingly on his land but as time went on he became increasingly aware he was ill. Having only just started his venture, and with a family of nearly all daughters, James doggedly continued but was eventually forced into hospital where he died. That was the summer of 1914, the start of the war, and the making of young David.
David Morrice Gordon lost not just his father but also his role model and hero. Early responsibility was thus thrust, without choice, his way and David coped by turning to what he understood – the land. Tall and athletic in frame, he supported his mother, and his many sisters, before in 1932 they moved upstream to Myall Park. It was to become David’s ‘Dream.’ His energies saw no bounds; he built a new house on the hill, cultivated the 52,000 acres of land, preserved the best of the native flora, and planted many more (mostly Eucalypts.)
David’s passion masked an emotional reserve. He was a stern man of few words and to emote was seen by him as a measure of weakness. His connection was with the land, the plants, and the soil. It is remarkable then that he ever found love – but he did. He was heading towards bachelorhood (like Victor) when aged nearly fifty, he met, on the neighbouring homestead of ‘Braemar’ a young seventeen year old ‘wildflower artist’ called Dorothy. He was smitten, but it took the reserved David, five years to seal his betrothal. In 1952 they were married and over the following decade four children were born.
David, always interested in his Scottish homeland, commissioned Donald Whyte F.H.G, Chair of The Genealogical Society, to draw up a Manuscript on his family ‘The Gordons in Upper Deeside.’ It took two decades in production, never made print, but has since surfaced as the template for all further research. In honour of his Gordon forebears, David named features in his Myall Park garden after ancestral seats like ‘Terpersie’ – the Gardener’s cottage. Unfortunately David had high pretensions and in his commissioned research many leaps-of-faith were made. This saddens me somewhat as I recognize there is no shame in ordinariness. The Girnoc Gordons should, I think, always be inextricable. It matters not whether we have Terpersie, Abergeldy, Glenbuchat, or Hallhead blood. It has taken the writing of this book to make me realize that.
Nevertheless the Terpersie Ladies were renowned for their beauty. David’s oldest daughter Robyn was ‘true Terpersie’ and even as a tiny child she took interest in her father’s garden. She was the apple of his eye, and understood the plants as innately as her father. Thus when Robyn took ill, David’s world stopped.
There is something about a sick child that reaches out to everyone. Robyn, loved by all, aged seventeen slipped, through cancer, from her father’s clutches. Her funeral service in Glamorgan brought out the whole neighbourhood in a collective out-pouring of grief. From the church the cortege took solemnly to Myall Park, where Robyn was buried in her favourite spot overlooking the lake.
With Dorothy beside him, David weathered this dreadful time. David could not talk of Robyn with others. He could not ‘talk through’ his grief. Talking was not his way. There was only one way – working the Garden. And he threw himself into that with his considerable energy.
By now in his sixties, David turned to natural hybrids, and when a beautifully delicate, yet vivid Grevillia came along, he dedicated it to his lost daughter. Grevillea Robyn Gordon turned the tide of Australian preference:
“before Grevillea Robyn Gordon, no grevillea had so much going for it. Semi-prostrate, large flowers all year round, hardy and adaptable to a wide climatic range and soil types it is a delight for the native, nectar-eating honeyeaters and parrots. Market-wise it is was a winner. The public readily gave it a place in their gardens. Landscapers looked upon it as a ‘gift from above’ and it was planted by tens of thousands.”
Australian Horticulture (May 1984)
There could not be a better way to be remembered; and with Grevillea Robyn Gordon David had swayed the opinion of the average Australian gardener towards including native plants in their home gardens and parks.
In 1985 David and Dorothy Gordon made a pilgrimage to the Girnoc. They visited Bovagli, The Camlet, and the Cosh and Dorothy sketched what she saw. David would have understood the Girnoc. Tragically, just days after their return journey to Australia, Dorothy was killed in a car accident.
The ‘Grand Old Man of Australian Flora’ died in Surat on the 21st July 2001 and was buried in Myall Park beside his daughter Robyn and wife Dorothy. As a champion of native conservation it is surely right that he was a loon of the ‘Small Glen.’
“As a child I remember a stern, unsmiling man who only talked of plants.”
As a postscript I would like to say that I feel a coalition of spirit with auld David. My love of plants took me out of Medicine for three years, and some would say, despite my current profession, that I am better with plants! I have designed, created and planted several gardens, notably Tillybin and Mossgrove.
David did call a Grevillea after his son Peter Gordon. However, young Peter, hated being called after a flower and it was changed to be named after his sister Merinda. At any rate that hybrid was notorious from straying from its pure form, and universally disliked by Nurseryman. Such was the fate of Grevillea Peter Gordon!
It was Joseph Gordon who brought that first cart to the Girnoc in 1813, and we can only imagine how much the small glen children must have enjoyed getting a ride on it. “We used tae think it was great getting a lift in the cart. Fan we were kids we used to open the gate for the folk that used tae come up and doon fae Bovagli and sometimes they would throw ye a penny” Modernity had at last encroached the glen and gosh they must have been glad of it! 150 years later and the small glen had its first, last, and only taxi – it was Wollie Merchant’s old Massey-Ferguson! The Merchant family took over Bovagli from the Gordons, and were there during the war years, when the Girnoc’s depopulation was welcomely reversed with evacuees from Glasgow.
Bovagli has returned us to its resting souls in Crathie churchyard many a time; John Brown, the Bovagli bairns, and Francis leys of Inver. One stone however gives no indication of the heartache it represents. That is the stone to the Merchants of Bovaglia.
After waking early on the morning of the 14th June 1940, Charles Merchant, a sixty year old farmer, got out of bed from his grand Victorian farmhouse of Bovagli. He went to his gun store, picked up his shot gun, and quietly left for an out-building. He left behind his wife, peacefully sleeping in bed. With a single shot he brought his life to a sad and premature end. His death, by suicide, was certified by Dr William Newlands of Ballater who made an external examination of the body. Charles Merchant junior had to make the sad duty of informing the Registrar.
Ten years to the day passed. That was when they found Charles junior floating in a small lochan approximately 400 yards south-east of Loch Builg, in the upper reaches of the Gairn. Glen Builg the chosen spot was the remotest reach of Deeside that Charles could find. The second generation of Merchant, and the second son of Bovagli, was dead; again by suicide.
I have wrestled with my conscience as to whether include this account of the most terrible loss of Charles Merchant, father and son. Yet I feel it is right, as difficult as it may be, to be open. Helen Crawford, Merchant wife, and mother, carried that pain with her all her days. She soon left Bovaglia and with her son Wollie flitted by the Skylich to Khantore. In her latter years, perhaps as a defence against the deep hurt of such painful memories, she demented. She spent her last years in Royal Cornhill Hospital, in a long-stay bed for the insane. Not only did she die in the hospital in which I trained for ten years, but she also left her memories behind the year I was born.
The sadness of the Merchant family has made me realize why nature has tried so to completely heal Bovagli’s scar.
Wollie Merchant was one of the Girnoc’s favourites. He was a character of loveable qualities, and scattered vagrancy, yet remained a life-long bachelor. His nephews, the ‘Ellis boys,’ used to love visiting him at Bovagli, and in the years between the wars, they joyously helped out on the farm. One memory was of Wollie dousing the young lambs mouths in Jeyes fluid as antiseptic to the wounds opened up by adder bites!
James Esson was the very last to farm Bovagli (from 1957 till 1981). He ‘knocked about’ in the six bedroomed farmhouse, with only his wife for company. The current laird of Abergeldy remembers him well and recalls how his wife Gillian used to help him out on the farm! In 1981 the Bovagli front door was closed by James Esson for the last time and in that moment seven centuries of occupation came to an end.
After Farmer Esson the farm was let out by Abergeldy to graziers. However no agreement could be reached as to whose responsibility it was to maintain fences, and so in the summer of 1994, grazing stopped. A year later ‘upper and lower Bovagli,’ under a Forestry Commission grant, were planted with an evergreen carpet.
There is something innately beautiful and peaceful about Bovaglia. It has an understated brilliance that radiates in the glow of Lochnagar. It is the sorrowful gem of the glen. Yes nature is doing her best, as she always does, to reclaim seven centuries of man – but there will always be the scattered rickles of the Bovagli stanes to remind the visitor of the days of hustle and bustle.
Even on my first visit to Bovaglia I felt that so familiar clasping emotion. I was sitting on a cold February morning on the old doorstep beside a currant bush, when I noticed in a small patch of snow, almost reaching out and growing before my eyes, the first glowing buds of a daffodil. It was as if the Bovagli folk were speaking: ‘Please don’t forget us. Please.’
“If their outward life was grey and rough they had within them, as all true Celts have, an inner world of dreams and joyous imaginings which gave a charm and beauty to their character”
Chapter 4 of ‘Deeside Tales’:
Abergeldy has become a dear friend to me and perhaps in another life I would be fortunate enough to be its chatelaine. Yet that is nonsense, I am of humble stock and of the small glen, and long since have I given up seeking the thread of gold.
What is it about Abergeldy that invigorates such a pull? Well that pull was first exerted upon Dr John Malcolm Bulloch at the turn of the last century and it never let go. Bulloch was besotted with the estate and returned to it frequently in his long and busy life – and he even wrote a final piece about Bovaglia on his death bed. It is true to say that without Abergeldy, Dr Bulloch would not have ventured into the mighty House of Gordon. Literally, Abergeldy was the glowing ember of a clan.
“I have an unusual affection for Abergeldy family, in as much as it was with it that the House of Gordon started its tortuous career eight years ago.”
One fact is quite incredible: Abergeldy has the longest single family stewardship of any castle in Scotland – unbroken in nearly 600 years. John Howard Seton Gordon, the genial twenty first laird, continues this family tradition and serves both loyally and true.
“The continuance of these Gordons is remarkable in view of the pressure of their environment, especially in the case of the Farquharsons, who were to a far greater extent the real inhabitants of the district.”
Over the years I have transcribed much of Dr Bulloch’s Abergeldy archive. It was Edward Gordon of Cairnfield who continued Bulloch’s work and whose two million word Gordon manuscript was safely deposited with Aberdeen Special Archives. Cairnfield’s work is truly an unrivalled feat of endurance! In 1925 Reverend Stirton completed his book Crathie and Braemar which contains an evocative and detailed chapter on Abergeldy. Certainly I have absolutely no ambition to present two million words here! Indeed I am rather tired of the genealogical tables that underwrite so much of the landed families. You will have gathered by now, that it is not lists of names that appeal to me, for they are without the stories, the place, and the life; and as such are truly uninteresting. This chapter shall therefore focus on the colourful characters of the Abergeldy family and will strive to place that stewardship in the happenings of the small glen.
This chapter shall also briefly explore the Royal family’s association with Abergeldy which continued with three consecutive forty year leases. In years to come, I envisage that the Royal family will lever Abergeldy out of the clutches of the Gordons. John Howard Seton Gordon, and his wife Gillian, are getting old, and they have no family. On my last visit to them in January 2008, snow had smothered the Abergeldy Park, and the place glistened in the reflected light of Craig nam Ban. That sparkle was soon disowned, as huddled around a 1930’s radiator, inside the windowless vaulted kitchen I found the laird and his wife Gillian. It was a scene as forlorn as it was penniless. Leaving the castle, up the crisp snow covered drive, I felt a true sadness. It pervaded my being for days.
The usual approach, in the review of landed families, is to start with the earliest known generation. However I am not going to be slave to genealogical tradition and will break that ploy. That may be, but to truly understand the Girnoc, the beating heart of Abergeldy, we must return to the early eighteenth century, and introduce Abergeldy’s saviours; Captain Charles Gordon, and his wife Rachel Gordon, tenth of Abergeldy, who to this day, hang in oil portraiture above the fireplace of the Great Hall.
It was my Great Aunt Mabel had who maintained family-lore, that we were ‘off the wrong side of the Abergeldy blanket’ – in other words, that Camlet was an illegitimate son of Abergeldy. The archives indicate that this has something to do with Captain Charles Gordon, who married Rachel Gordon, tenth heiress of Abergeldy in 1698. When this couple arrived on the estate, as newly-weds, it was in absolute tatters. Abergeldy castle had been garrisoned by troops for all of the previous decade and had become the Deeside focus of great disturbance. The castle was ruinous, and the estate, for 15 miles around, had been ransacked and burnt. The scene was desolate. It was Captain Charles and wife Rachel who brought Abergeldy back to any long lost vitality. It was upon this Captain’s coat-tail that many new Gordon families arrived in Deeside: such as those helmed by Nathaniel Gordon of Ardoch (originally from Noth in Rhynie) and Thomas Gordon of Crathienaird (originally from Banff.)
This explains why the early eighteenth century saw the Gordon clan proliferate in giant rippling circles from Abergeldy. The Gordons, it must be stated, were not popular in upper Deeside, especially with their counterparts the Farquharsons & Browns, indeed they were always to be regarded as in-comers! Michie, in his Deeside Tales made no attempt to hide this long-felt district animosity. Yet today, the irony presents itself, that John Howard Seton Gordon, the current and twenty first laird, carries that family record of 600 hundred years unbroken stewardship.
So it was that the Gordons came to dominate the glens – particularly Glen Muick and Glen Girnoc, but also to a lesser extent, Glen Gairn. The parable of the old fairy–tale: the Magic Cooking Pot describes all. Captain Charles brought with him to Deeside several Magic Porridge Pots: “cook little pot, cook!” and they did just that. Of all the glens the Girnoc was the most notorious – and from it, that porridge flowed stolidly thick. So much so that Deesiders of the day were to remark for any puzzle “that’s as inextricable as the sibness o’ the Gordons o’ Girnoc!”
It was many years ago that I first wrote to John Howard Seton Gordon. After that he became a friend. It was obvious to me, from our early conversations, that the laird was a man who devoted himself to his estate and to the tip top husbandry of his farm. Many years passed by and life moved on. Fatherhood came again and cast its unrivalled joy; for nothing, absolutely nothing, can beat the joy of that. This time, to join the brightness of my son Andrew, was the radiance of Rachel.
A few more years passed, and as befits the un-retiring, dreamy thoughts drifted back to Deeside. It was then that I recalled the laird telling me of the painting of Rachel hanging above the fireplace of the Great Hall. Curiosity began to stir. It must be said that we had not chosen my daughter’s name because of Abergeldy – rather because it was a name that enveloped the beauty of her being.
It was this curiosity about Rachel that brought about a summer invitation to the castle. This visit was recorded by me in my diary:
“It was Andrew, the magical Andrew, that 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.’
Above the fireplace was a plaster painted and gilted crest – the crest of the Abergeldy Gordons with the motto “God With Us” The laird explained it had originally been on the ceiling. Either side hung two oil paintings in gilt frame. To the left was Rachel Gordon the 10th heiress of Abergeldy and to the right Captain Charles Gordon her husband. It was fitting that they sat so prominently for it was this couple that restored the estate for the family, and brought renewed life to upper Deeside. In 1715 they completed the build of Birkhall and it was Rachel and Charles who restored Abergeldy Castle to its former glory.”
The laird was a wonderful host that day but was sad not to see little Rachel. ‘One day perhaps’ he said, ‘you will bring little Rachel to me.’
Like a defining mark, Rachel Gordon, separated two distinct chapters in the life of the estate: pre- and post-Rachel. Had she not married Captain Charles Gordon of Minmore the family seat would have been broken.
The plan for this chapter is to start first with Rachel’s story and then step back in time to the more interesting of her early forebears. This whole exercise is difficult for there is much to include that is of interest and the generations that follow Rachel are just as crammed with incident. The aim is not to be inclusive – if you want a comprehensive account I would respectfully suggest you return to the work of Dr Bulloch and his Abergeldy Monograph (and other associated manuscripts – listed in the Appendix.) The transcribed work, in fact my whole Deeside archive, will ultimately be left alongside Bulloch, in Aberdeen University’s Special Archives.
Abergeldy, the name, is derived from ‘abhir gile’ or confluence of the clear stream, and lies on the south bank of the Dee, some six miles by road west of Ballater, and one and a half miles east of Crathie Church. The castle is cradled in the very footprint of Creag nan Bam, and on the north side, by the farm of Torgalter. These days the castle is hard to spot as the wood around it has grown so much that its pink rendering, clock tower, and cupula, are barely visible from the road. The white footbridge to the castle is just as hidden, and lies rusty and padlocked; forlorn in its neglect.
In researching Abergeldy I was left to muse over its derivation: the confluence of the clear stream: in many ways this seems apt for the Gordon family. This was a family of clear thinkers not sportsman, a family who used intellect over guile, wisdom over instinct. There was no great good, no national cause, but there was a true humanity, generosity and passion. The Farquharsons may still have had the upper hand in the district – but the Gordons had those characteristic genteel features nursed by admirable purpose.
As early as 1378 Abergeldy was described as one of the Aberdeenshire castles ‘of most respect’ and was accordingly fortified and equipped with a moat, which together with the river, gave it an almost island site. Its position beside the Geldie confluence, was strategic indeed, and had always been the fording-point in the river Dee, southwards to the hills of Angus. The moat has now long since vanished, and inevitably the house has suffered, but ever steadfast, the Keep has survived as an original tower-house.
The sheer antiquity of Abergeldy can be measured by a large standing-stone monolith on the riverside lawns; clearly Stone Age man had seen the advantage of the site. These days this icon is lost in over-grown garden shrubs and a mixed plantation of ornate trees. At one time Abergeldy had a truly ancient Larch tree that was the envy of the district. The Larch (Larix decidua) with its soft and bewitchingly delicate green, is my favourite conifer, especially when grown as a specimen tree. Apparently one of the Lairds of Invercauld asked the Laird of Abergeldy how he came by such a fine larch tree outstripping his own in size. The reply came, ‘It’s just ane o’ yours, Invercauld, that I put in ma pouch lang sine!’
Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, once established at Balmoral, wished to buy Abergeldy, but the Gordons would not sell. In his book, Balmoral: The History of a Home, Ivor Brown gives a rather benign view of the Royals which my research would refute: ‘Royalty, at least during recent years, has not had these powers of Seizure, and would be too humane to use them if it had.’ In 1878 The Queen bought Ballochbuie Forest – the ‘Bonniest Plaid in Scotland’ from the Farquharsons for £100,000, but the Gordons, in defiance, were only prepared to lease their castle and estate.
The Abergeldy property was at one time an extensive one, extending on the south to the White Mounth (Lochnagar), eastwards to Glenmuick, where it included Strathgirnoc and Stering or Birkhall, and west and south-westward, to Glencallater. Much of the estate consisted of no more than moor and rough pasture, and as such, apart from its best farms lying along the Dee, it offered poorish returns. In 1696 the lands in Crathie parish were valued at £600, in Glengairn at £140, and in Glenmuick £430.
The Castle has been much altered and added to, but still retains the original tower which formed the nucleus of the whole, and which, with its rounded angles, crow-stepped gables and somewhat elaborately corbelled angle turret, is a good example of the 16th century manor house. The West wing which was an extensive assemblage, largely of the Royal family, has now gone. The current and twenty first laird, found that the building was ravaged by dry-rot. The repair cost was exorbitant and beyond his means and so he had it demolished in 1967. So today we are left with the original tower-house, lime rendered and pink, and crested by its cupula. In some ways it is a strange combination, but it is rather endearing for it.
When, in 1902, Dr Bulloch was writing his monograph there was much heightened interest in Abergeldy because of the Royal lease which had continued from 1849 with both King Edward VII, and King George V, having occupied it when Prince of Wales. It is recorded that the rent of Abergeldy in the early years of the twentieth century was £4500 a year. Before that time Queen Victoria rented the castle for her mother the Duchess of Kent. Within the Abergeldy walls Edward Prince of Wales must have truly feasted, with his renowned gigantean appetite, satisfied by five meals per day. Indeed I nearly fell of my bench laughing when I came across a lost picture of the Abergeldy ovens for truly they were necessarily large for the appetite of a King! It seems likely, that it was his son George (later King George V) that had the external Abergeldy tower clock assembled and installed; for you may recall that he had an obsession with time-keeping that cast pedantic discipline over his whole life and that of his family! Certainly the clock at Abergeldy, seems to me, otherwise incongruous.
“The Prince of Wales liked to be outdoors as much as possible and he devised the idea of ST – Sandringham Time. The idea was to make the most of the winter daylight hours for his passion for shooting and so the clocks all over the Sandringham Estate were advanced by half an hour. King George V maintained this custom during his lifetime.”
Birkhall, with an estate of 6,500 acres was bought from the Gordons by Albert the Queen’s Consort. He gave the property to his son, Edward Prince of Wales, but Queen Victoria claimed it back in 1885. The Abergeldy rumour has long whispered that the Laird lost Birkhall in a card game! After his marriage in 1863, Edward Prince of Wales stayed every year at Abergeldy Castle, and there made holiday with shooting by day and cards by night. In 1871 he asked Mr Gladstone to drive over from Balmoral to dine. Gladstone was charmed by the Prince’s manner, but not so happy about his morals, at least in the small matter of gaming. I was saddened that the entry in Gladstone’s diary does not record who won the card game at Abergeldy – or how much!
It is rather amusing to think that Birkhall, rumoured, lost in a game of cards, became the setting for six Royal honeymoons. Such is fate!
Today the tourist has long since forgotten this historic Royal association with Abergeldy, though there is greater appreciation that Birkhall (Abergeldy’s offshoot) is the true highland home of Prince Charles the current Prince of Wales.
Birkhall brings us to Rachel Gordon.
Mystery surrounds the period of time in which Rachel Gordon became Tenth of Abergeldy. We know that she married before March 1690 Captain Charles Gordon of the 1st Regiment of Scots Foot Guards for at the beginning of that month there is a charter of resignation by her as his spouse of the land of Abergeldy. This is intriguing as her only brother John (the ninth laird) was still alive at this time and lived for another eight years. This charter was lost in a fire in 1812 and thus we are left to speculate. One assumes that Rachel signed only her rightful share of Abergeldy to her new spouse unless, for some reason or other, her father had left the whole Abergeldy estate to her instead of to her brother.
As a historian I have absolutely no time for conspiracies but do have an innate feeling of trouble relating to this Abergeldy juncture. John Gordon the ninth laird, and older brother to Rachel, has you see absolutely no archival presence. He lurks as the most ghostly of figures and then simply disappears.
John Gordon, the ninth laird, married Elizabeth Rose, daughter of (the late) Hugh Rose, XIV of Kilravock. The marriage contract of December 1694, was witnessed at Kilravock by, amongst others, Captain Charles Gordon in Pitchaise. Elizabeth Rose followed her vows by entering a marital agreement which she signed as Betty Rose in a ‘sweet Roman hand.’ Her brother, Kilravock, instantly made payment of 7,000 merks in name of a tocher, and instructed that Betsy is to be “infeft in 1,400 merks of yearly rent out of ye barony of Abergeldy, and to have the manor house of Abergeldy to live in if she becomes a widow during the life of Euphemia, Abergeldy’s mother, and after Euphemia’s death to have the house of Knock as a dowery house.”
It is then recorded, withoutfurther detail, that in 1698, four years after his marriage, John Gordon the ninth laird, died without leaving issue. He was the last of the ‘Seton’ Gordons but was succeeded by his sister Rachel. It has to be important that this instrumental period in Abergeldy was set amidst the strife of national religious unrest which escalated up to the abdication of James II of England and VII of Scots on 11th December 1688
James II of England and VII of Scotland (1633–1701) was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign. Religious tension intensified from 1686: James controversially allowed Roman Catholics to occupy the highest offices of the Kingdom and received at his court the papal nuncio, the first representative from Rome to London since the reign of Mary I. Many of James’ subjects distrusted his religious policies and despotism, leading a group of them to depose him in the Glorious Revolution. He was replaced not by his Roman Catholic son, James Francis Edward, but by his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary II and William III, who became joint rulers in 1689.
The belief that James—not William III or Mary II—was the legitimate ruler became known as Jacobitism (from Jacobus or Iacobus, Latin for James). James made one serious attempt to recover his throne, when he landed in Ireland in 1689. After his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in the summer of 1690, he returned to France, living out the rest of his life under the protection of King Louis XIV.
Adherents of the deposed King James II, led by John Graham, Viscount Dundee, now began to take up arms against the new regime of King William and Queen Mary.
The leader of the Government forces, supporting the cause of King William and Queen Mary, was General Hugh Mackay. Born in 1640, he was the third son of Colonel Hugh Mackay of Scourie in Sutherlandshire, and like Viscount Dundee, had for some years been serving with various regiments in Europe. In January 1689 Mackay, now elevated to Major-General by William, Prince of Orange, was in command of the British regiments who supported William. As Major-General of all the forces in Scotland, General Mackay now faced the task of subduing the unrest which Viscount Dundee was advocating.
The deposed King James’ son James Francis Edward Stuart (The Old Pretender) and his grandson Charles Edward Stuart (The Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie) attempted to restore the Jacobite line after James’s death, but failed.
All this unrest was to affect Abergeldy, and occurred in the period when John Gordon succeeded as the ninth laird. It was clear that John Gordon the Abergeldy laird had catholic leanings and supported the deposed catholic King. John apparently survived the difficult times without arrest as it was recorded in the Balbithan Manuscript that he did not die until 1698 and he was to appear in the Poll Book of 1696 as follows:-
1696: John Gordon, Laird of Abergeldy, Crathie, Mrs. Bettie Ross (Rose) his lady.
Shortly before John Gordon the ninth laird of Abergeldy’s succession, General Mackay had set out to arrest Viscount Dundee who had declared for James II & VII. Dundee escaped to Glen Ogilvy thence to Braemar where he was protected by John Farquharson of Inverey ‘The Black Colonel.’ As Inverey house was very small, Dundee transferred to the stronghold of Abergeldy and from there organized his forces. After Dundee had left the district, Mackay advanced there, ‘and harried the country for 12 miles around Abergeldy destroying 1400 houses.’ Mackay burned Inverey and then descended on Abergeldy, the castle of which he garrisoned with 72 of his soldiers.
‘By November, 1689 General Mackay’s troops had over-run the area around Braemar and Abergeldy burning the land for twelve miles around including a large number of crofts on the estates, the official estimate being one thousand four hundred dwellings. General Mackay garrisoned seventy two of his soldiers in Abergeldy Castle to keep watch on the activities of the Farquharson Clan.’
It is most surprising to learn the name of the officer in charge of the garrison of soldiers who had overrun the Abergeldy Estate and occupied its Castle – it was none other than Captain Charles Gordon of Pitchaise. His sympathies were clearly protestant and his actions targeted directly against his brother-in-law John. Captain Charles had been a member of ‘Lauder’s Troop.’ Lieutenant-colonel Lauder, with his party of two hundred elite troops were with General Mackay at the Battle of Killiecrankie in July 1689, and were one of the first to escape from the carnage.
Viscount Dundee was killed in the moment of his victory, at the Battle of Killiecrankie in July 1689, destroying all hope of returning King James II of England and VII of Scotland to the throne. The death of Viscount Dundee saw the end of the Jacobite campaign and it fizzled out after losing the battle of Dunkeld in August 1689.
General Hugh Mackay who had been so badly routed at Killiecrankie and, but for the death of Viscount Dundee on the field of battle, the whole future of Scotland may have been dramatically changed, was himself killed at the Battle of Steenkirk in August 1692, fighting in Europe for King William III.
Most frustratingly, the life of Abergeldy, amidst this pivotal time, was lost in the charter chest fire of 1812. That is a true shame, for this escapade, suspended in such religious unrest, reeks of family divide. I have wondered if it was this ‘divide’ that ultimately brought an end to John Gordon, the last Seton laird of Abergeldy? However a list of Ten Commandments by General Mackay has survived, and what stands out is the ruthless rigour of the grim destruction to upper Deeside. The small glen in particular, the beating heart of Abergeldy, would have suffered badly. The Camlet and Bovaglia were ransacked and burnt, and their cottertowns laid to ruin. The small glen had not escaped the dire imposition of national religious divide!
The INSTRUCTIONS given by General Mackay to Captain Charles Gordon while in occupation of Abergeldy which have been preserved in the Abergeldy Charter Chest may be read as follows:
1. Furnish the garrison with corn, cattle and sheep to be taken without ‘tack’ or payment and terrify the country with parties while the enemy were about.
2. Burn the houses and crops of such as would not come in and give up arms and houses where arms might be found.
3. Protect those that delivered up their arms and took the oath of allegiance.
4. Correspond with the master of Forbes, taking direction from him and advising him of what he might need.
5. Take the nearest corn from those in rebellion to repair what damage his mother-in-law had received and destroy and burn the rest unless submission was made.
6. So behave only in the influence of the service that no accusation could be brought against him in following any relation on the opposite side.
7. Burn the district of Braemar, but wait until he could do safely.
8. Do his best to capture or kill Farquharson of Inverey in which event the General would intrude for the interest of the latter’s children, nephews of Charles, and would lead to Charles own preferment.
9. Obtain witnesses against the Laird of Abergeldy (John) to prove that he had joined the rebels in Arms which case Abergeldy would be secured for John’s sister, wife of Charles.
10. Treat Farquharson of Monaltrie and his tenants with the same rigour as the rest, it being apparent that the tenants have been in arms and Monaltrie a hypocritical loaming conniving of their perjury and rebellion.
For Rachel Gordon what an eventful decade the last of the seventeenth century had been. This decade had started with her marriage to Captain Charles, who was in command of the Garrison that was close to seeing an end to Abergeldy destroying, burning and pillaging all around. At the same period of time her brother John was cited for his Jacobite sympathies, but appears to have survived both arrest and hostilities. In 1698 John died and Rachel became rightful heir. This was a pivotal hour in the Abergeldy calendar and nobody could have predicted what was next to come.
Captain Charles Gordon and his soldiers seem to have stayed at Abergeldy for quite some time and no wonder the castle was in a ruinous condition in 1732 as noted by Sir Samuel Forbes.
You will see from the above that General MacKay specifically commanded Captain Charles to ‘Do his best to capture or kill Farquharson of Inverey.’ Also known as ‘The Black Colonel’, John Farquharson of Inverey was a violent man in a violent age. Outlawed in 1666 for the murder of a Ballater laird, he became a hunted man, but nevertheless spent much time in his own castle of Inverey, and fought at the battles of Bothwell Bridge and Killiecrankie. Cornered on one occasion by redcoats in the Pass of Ballater, he ensured his own immortality by escaping on horseback up the near precipitous north side of the defile. Eventually a redcoat ambush was laid for him at Inverey, but forewarned, he escaped, and watched his castle burning. He thereafter took refuge in the ‘Colonel’s Bed’, below a rock overhang in a gorge in the River Ey, where his light o’ love, Annie Ban brought him food. Before he died, about 1698, he instructed that he was to be buried at Inverey, beside Annie Ban, but for some reason he was instead buried at Braemar. The next morning, his coffin was found on the ground beside his grave, and was re-buried. On the third occasion this happened, the coffin was taken to Inverey for re-burial, and was heard of no more.
The ransacked Abergeldy estate was, despite such terrible destruction, still of value, as delineated in the 1696 Poll Book where it was valued for Glenmuick as £430 out of the total of £1,122. Who was it that had the energy, drive, and finance, to restore such a forlorn concern? Indeed Abergeldy’s future looked dismal and many feared the end of the Gordon estate. The knight in shining armour that came to Abergeldy’s rescue, hinted to above, and presenting perhaps the greatest of ironic twists, was none other than Captain Charles Gordon of Pitchaise.
Pitchaise was no bedfellow of Abergeldy and how it came about that Rachel met Captain Charles is simply unknown. Pitchaise was a small estate, far away from Deeside, on the southern bank of the Spey River belonging to the Grants. In the same Strathaven district was Captain Charles Gordon’s family of Minmore.
Captain Charles Gordon belonged, through his father, to the Gordon family of ‘Jock’ Gordon of Scurdargue, and through his mother, Janet Gordon, (daughter of Sir Alexander Gordon, 4th of Cluny) to the Ducal Gordon line. So he had an interest in both Gordon lines and as a relative, could mix readily with either side of his Gordon family.
Sir Alexander Gordon, 4th of Cluny, the maternal grand-father of Captain Charles Gordon needs mention here. He was a man who bowed to no-one except his King and Chief, to both of whom he was related. He seems to have been continually in debt, even facing imprisonment in 1630 when he was forced to sell some of his lands to satisfy his creditors. Although he had debts amounting to 39,000 merks in 1633 he still had duty of tour, first to England and then on to Europe on business for King Charles I, not returning to Scotland until 1638. As an ardent Royalist supporter in the years leading up to the Civil War he brought to Aberdeen a large shipment of ‘arms, muskets, pikes and other weapons.’
The remaining years of Sir Alexander Gordon were spent as he had always lived, full of excitement, intrigue and danger. One opponent at the time described him as, ‘ane incendiarie and mane informer of the Marquis of Huntlie.’ Because of his political leanings, Sir Alexander Gordon spent some time in confinement, until released by the Earl of Montrose in August 1645, after what was Montrose’s last Royalist victory at Kilsyth. Sir Alexander Gordon, 4th of Cluny died the following year in November 1646.
Captain Charles inherited his grandfather’s dynamism and purpose. After those ill years, a curious twist of fate had returned him to Abergeldy, and to the very castle he had once garrisoned. From 1698, Captain Charles and his young wife Rachel brought a new regime to Abergeldy, and a steely determination to right a wrong. Not so many years before, under the orders of General Mackay, he had sent out his troops from the castle to pillage, ransack and burn ’12 miles around.’
One researcher has described Captain Charles in somewhat prosaic terms as having ‘swept into’ Abergeldy from Pitchaise in 1698 ‘like a breath of fresh air.’ However surely there must have been much uncertainty about his arrival. It is my belief that the Girnoc folk must have been fearful of Captain Charles, as not so many years before they had seen his troops overrun and lay-to-waste their farm land, scatter their cattle, and destroy completely their crofts. However such fears were not to be borne-out. Captain Charles had, by the inheritance of his wife Rachel, been given an opportunity to put it all back in order again. That was how, on the threshold of a new century, a whole new community was started on the Abergeldy estate.
What Captain Charles Gordon needed most in 1698, was money and skilled workers. He required a reliable workforce for his projects, who could help him re-establish the Abergeldy estate; labourers, artisans, stone-masons and journeymen and loyal tenants who would be rewarded eventually, with grants of land and crofts. He started by re-establishing the Abergeldy farms and building the House of Birkhall on a small estate which had formerly been called Stering in Glenmuick. It has never been recorded before, but has become clear to me, through years of detailed research, that this workforce came principally from Strathdon, and in particular, from Glenbuchat.
There is some uncertainty but it seems likely that Rachel’s mother Euphemia Graham was still going strong at the seventeenth century’s turn and that she occupied Knock castle. Abergeldy castle itself was ruinous and so what became of ‘sweet’ Bessy Rose, the childless widow of John Gordon, the ninth laird, is unknown. She had brilliance for sure, but was probably swept aside by her energetic brother-in-law.
In 1700, Charles Gordon signed a bond for the Earl of Aboyne insuring the peace of the country. He seems to have retired from active service late in 1703 or early 1704 for, in the latter year he was made a Commissioner of Supply. Charles Gordon was described by Dr Bulloch as a ‘capable man of affairs’ and was appointed arbiter in local disputes. In November 1705 he was in Edinburgh on some such business for Lord Mar when his wife Rachel wrote to him from Abergeldy:
“I shall wish ye make all haste to come home ye can. Your children are blessed be God in good health. Wishing the Lord may be with you, and restore you and those in company with you to your own again, grant us a happy meeting.
I am, my dearest, your most affectionate spouse.
P.S. My dear, with all the trouble you have, buy me an apron of coloured Irish (Highland) tartan or calico.”
Charles Gordon had a dispute of his own in the matter of grazing rights with the Earl of Aboyne as superior of the forest of Breckach which belonged to the Earl, all except such parts held in ‘feu ferme’ by the Lairds of Abergeldy as sheilings and grazings, a dispute which had been going on for a considerable time, as shown by the following document written after 1702:
“This totall subversion of the ordinary use of this said wholl forest and shealings both by superior and vassals into a grasing for low country cattol did not exterpat the King’s deer and utterly ruin the poor country round it for want of the usuall pasturages for their proper crofts, but created such animosities and misunderstandings betwixt them, particularly betwixt, Charles, Earl of Aboyne, the present Earoll his grandson, and Alexander Gordon, then of Abergeldy, and John Gordon then of Braichlie, that what by processes, dryrings, law borrows, and other mutual acts of bad neighbourhood, they was all put to considerable charges and troubles and were never reconciled, or that affair anyways adjusted loam the day of all their deaths.
Therefore what, by reason of the Late Earl Charles, his minoritie, the revolution and army about that time a praye to all grazing cattoll, the late John Gordon of Braichlie going wrong in the head, and imprisonment, and consequently incapable of looking after any business, and then the monage and death of the late John Gordon of Abergeldy, things stood much as they were without any noticeable occurrence or variation until after the death of the late Errol (who died in 1702) that arose a fresh process put upon the old score of grazing upon Glengusachin betwixt the present Earll’s tutor and the present Charles Gordon of Abergeldy, which yet depends and has already stood the family an hundred pounds sterling of charges which will be clearly seen by the tutor and his factor’s accounts, although come to no issue to this day.”
You can glean from the above that it was Rachel’s father Alexander Gordon and John Gordon of Braichlie who had first disputed with the Earl of Aboyne over grazing rights. So acrimonious was the fall out that legal proceedings continued over two decades – such were the ‘mutual acts of bad neighbourhood.’
Captain Charles brought several Gordon cadets to Deeside and two families in particular stand out. The first is the Gordon family of Crathienaird who were to be of some standing in the district and indeed were Executors representative for Abergeldy. It has been convincingly argued that this Crathienaird family came to Deeside from Letterfourie in Buckie. The progenitor was Thomas Gordon of Myreton who married Anna Hamilton. Their son Thomas Gordon is the proposed first of Crathienaird. Their daughter Mary is also of much interest for she married (probably in the same year as Captain Charles) Nathaniel Gordon of New Noth in Strathbogie.
New Noth and Abergeldy have a special hand-fist bond of that there can be no doubt. Captain Charles’ brother Alexander of Glengarroch inherited half of New Noth in a charter of 1667. The estate was shared with Nathaniel Gordon
Nathaniel Gordon of New Noth (c1646–1721) was well-to-do and prosperous. He was Chamberlain to the Marquis of Huntly from 1690 till 1699 during the time of the Marquis’ wanderings in Europe, practically an exile after the Revolution of 1689. As his Chamberlain, Nathaniel Gordon had charge of the Marquis’ domestic affairs in Scotland.
Nathaniel Gordon lived at Noth with his wife Mary and her family. This included Thomas Gordon (his sister’s brother) who was later to be first of Crathienaird. The family appear in the 1696 Poll Book for Rhynie parish as follows:
Nathaniell Gordon, gentleman, Newnoth, Rhynie, and his wife, and Anna and Jean his children; Agnes Hamilton, his mother-in-law; Thomas (Gordon) her son
Nathaniel Gordon gave up New Noth in 1714 and went to Deeside where he lived at Ardoch with his wife, Mary Gordon and one of his daughters. Ardoch was neighbour to Crathienaird. It seems highly likely that Nathaniel’s relocation from Rhynie to upper Deeside was related to the historical events which began to develop in August 1714 with the death of Queen Anne; and the proclamation of George, Elector of Hanover as King George I
History tells us about the ‘Hunting Party’ of interested persons, meeting in Braemar and arranged by John (Erskine) Earl of Mar; the formulation of plans for an Uprising, made at Lord Gordon’s Aboyne Castle; and the defining act, the Standard raised at Castletown of Braemar on the 6th of September 1715 for King James VIII, who became known as the ‘Old Pretender.’ It is reasonable to suppose, that Nathaniel Gordon was involved in some capacity, in these momentous events.
Nathaniel Gordon died November 1721, at Ardoch. He left a widow, Mary Gordon and two daughters, Anna Gordon and Jean Gordon. Although Nathaniel apparently left no male heir – the name Nathaniel Gordon continued in upper Deeside, at both Toum in Glen Gairn and at Wardhead in Glen Muick. The latter has been claimed as the progenitor of The Camlet.
There is a fascinating account relating to Drumel stone which is to be found at New Noth. In 1823 this stone was dug up and moved about 20 feet. At a depth of 3 or 4 feet under an urn was found containing ashes, a piece of tartan too decomposed to be identified, and copper and silver coins dating from the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. The urn was reburied in situ.
Mrs Kathleen Davidson remembers the Drumel stone of New Noth from the early twentieth century:
‘Sixty years ago I used to go for holidays in Aberdeenshire with my grandparents. Grandfather was a shepherd in the Glen O’ Noth, Gartly. There was an old stone standing in a field on New Noth Farm which I passed every day when going for milk. It was supposed to mark the grave of an old warrior. The story I was told was that one year they were building a new cow house and took the stone to use as a lintel. The first night after the cows were shut in, they made a great rumpus. The farmer and my grandfather went out the next night to stand guard with guns. They never told what they heard or saw, but the stone was taken out and put back in the field.’
Let us now leave New Noth and return to Deeside. Though placed by Alistair and Henrietta Taylor among the Jacobites of 1715, Captain Charles Gordon does not appear to have taken any active part in the rising, and indeed was opposed to it as appears from a letter of the 1st of September to Lord Polwarth in the Marchmont M.S. –
“Upon Friday last the Lairds of Invercauld and Abergeldy deserted and went off from the Earl of Mar.”
His connection with the latter no doubt accounts for his presence at the Aboyne Castle meeting two days later, but he was not admitted to the council of leaders and was so far distrusted that a guard was placed over him.
Captain Charles Gordon and Rachel, tenth of Abergeldy had three children: Peter, Alexander and Joseph. Shortly we shall return to Peter the eldest child who succeeded his father as eleventh laird of Abergeldy, however it is worth briefly portraying the lives of his brothers Alexander and Joseph.
Alexander Gordon chose to live at the head of Glenmuick at Aldihash (Altnagusach). He was educated at the Grammar School, Aberdeen and was at Marischal College between 1706 and 1710. He went on to become a successful Advocate and Merchant in Aberdeen and acted as a tutor and guardian for his nephew, Charles Gordon (the twelfth Laird.) One of Alexander’s servants, Charles Davidson, was imprisoned at Aberdeen for taking part in the rebellion of 1745.
Alexander died at Aldihash in November of 1751 he had just entered his sixtieth year. His nephew Charles Gordon of Abergeldy was his executor dative qua creditor. Charles had paid over £165 for his grave linen, coffin and funeral expenses; and £36 to a physician “for his pains and trouble in coming about 18 miles and attending the defunct during his sickness whereof he died.” The inventory contains the sum of £225.8s Scots, as the value of his household furniture, cow, calf, an old horse and other effects, rouped on Christmas Eve 1751, by Samuel Gordon in Milltown of Braickley and Charles Farquharson in Drumnapark, Joseph Gordon in Birkhall being judge of the roup.
For sometime I have wondered why Alexander, a successful Advocate and Merchant in Aberdeen, chose remote Aldihash as his home. It was, in his time, a humble farm-toun and had apparently no signs of outward prosperity; the itinerary of his death roup would apparently confirm this.
However Aldihash has forever remained dear to Abergeldy’s heart, and from the late eighteenth century onwards, served as a favourite refuge for shooting parties. A small cottage was specially built for the purpose with a shelter of deciduous Larch trees (Larix spp) to protect from the cold Lochnagar sweep. It was at this time that Aldihash became affectionately known as ‘The Hut.’ Alexander’s old home was renowned for its beautiful setting, its clarity of air, and its peaceful ambience. Autumn shooting parties were lavish affairs, and over the years, the Hut was expanded to provide greater servant accommodation. Aldihash was a spot where the eagle was frequently sighted. Queen Victoria and her family regarded ‘The Hut’ with special affection. Alltnaguibhaich – the burn of the fir tree, was a favourite picnic place. However, after Albert died Queen Victoria built the Glasallt Shiel and frequented that instead.
Perhaps then we can understand genteel Alexander. He had seen the beauty and serenity of remote Aldihash, and had watched the eagle soar its heights. He was in love with a home completely removed from frenetic Aberdeen. It is heart-warming to think that the warm glow Alexander felt for Aldihash was to live on in the heart of Abergeldy and was to envelop even Queen Victoria herself.
Joseph Gordon was the youngest child of Captain Charles and Rachel Gordon. Whilst his brother Peter inherited Abergeldy, he was left the family home of Birkhall, built by his parents in 1715. Over the entrance lintel to Birkhall, a typical, but now much extended Ha’ House of the period, is the inscription 17 CG RG 15.
Joseph Gordon has long since captured my fascination. Some years back Joseph was introduced to me by letter as ‘the mysterious and shadowy Joseph.’ No researcher to date has managed to reveal the life behind Joseph and it is indeed unlikely that they ever will.
What then do we know? Well apparently Joseph liked to be known as ‘The Judge.’ He had it seems a touch of auld Prodeegous! It is also clear that Joseph loved his Deeside estate and was living at Birkhall with his wife in November 1735 (when he acted as Executor to his deceased brother Peter) and was still there in December 1751 (when he rouped his deceased brother Alexander’s effects.) Joseph married in 1734 Elizabeth Gordon, daughter of James Gordon of Tilliefour. Her family descended from the Terpersie Gordons (the Terpersie castle seat is at the heart of the Correen hills about three and a half miles north west of Alford – it is now ruinous.) The ladies of the Terpersie family were renowned for their beauty and stature. The contract of marriage between Joseph and Elizabeth outlines vast prosperity, with each bringing more than 5000 merks to the bond, and securing it for their future children. Together, it is documented that they had a ‘family of six’ but we only know of three children; Charles, Alexander and David.
Nobody has ever recorded the death date for Joseph, but I am inclined to believe that it may have been as late as 1768. To understand this you must understand that there was an unexplained thirty-one year delay in serving heir to Joseph’s nephew Charles. Aged 15 years (or there-about) Charles was served heir in 1737 to his father Peter Gordon the eleventh laird. However he was not served heir to his grandfather Captain Charles, well not in 1737. Indeed, and most curiously, he had to wait until 1768 to be served heir to his long dead grandfather. It is my belief that Joseph retained title to Birkhall up until this, his date of death.
There is reason for all this detail. Some years back speculation arose whether the Camlet Gordons were sired by the ‘mysterious and shadowy’ Joseph of Birkhall. You may recall that Camlet John had a brother called Joseph and also called his first son Joseph. The fanciful muse was that Joseph Gordon of Birkhall, an ardent Jacobite, was in hiding in the small glen after the 45’ rebellion. In order to avoid forfeiture of his estate his hiding had to be absolute and any children born in this period might well have been hidden. Could two of these children have been none other than Camlet John and Camlet Joseph? This is a theory that I now think unlikely but not impossible.
It was Joseph Gordon’s wife Elizabeth who sheltered the Oliphants of Gask, when the latter were in hiding after Culloden. Joseph was by then already in hiding himself. Elizabeth had reason to support the catholic claim to the throne as her father James Gordon of Tillyfour was killed in the 1715 uprising. Elizabeth helped Old Gask (Laurence the sixth laird of Gask) hide in the moors near Birkhall for six months under the name of ‘Mr. Whytt,’ while his son, the seventh laird, took the name of ‘Mr. Brown.’ A passage was arranged for them, and other prominent Jacobites, to Sweden, where they landed in October 1746. The escape was planned by Elizabeth Gordon of Birkhall as recounted below in a letter to Gask’s wife. They later fled to France, and set up a more permanent residence. They were allowed to return home in 1763 to Gask, although they were still considered outlaws, and their attainder was not reversed.
The bearer, John Glass, tould me you asked him for a mare I should have of Gasks. When I had the honour of seeing him first, he had a big brown mare. He desired me either to sett her att liberty in the hills, or send her to any place I thought she was safe in. Andrew Forbes, younger of Balfour, came here two days after I gott that mare. He took her along with him and put her into Parks in the Mearns. One Baillie Arbuthnott att Edinburgh proved the mare to be hiss. Your nephew the Master of Strawthallan knew all the story and seed the threatening letters I gott about her.
My nephew Abergeldy when he has the honour of seeing your ladyship will inform you likewise. Andrew Forbes sent me an account from the time off Culloden to August for keeping the mare in Parks, which account I have not paid nor do I desire to pay, because 1 think it reasonable the gentleman who has the nag ought (to) pay that himself. If you please to inform yourself concerning the mare, you will find all to be Truth I have wrote you. All 1 have belonging your husband is a silver snuff box, which he oblidged me to take as a memorandum off him. Whenever you please to call for it, I have it ready. No doubt there might have been some small things lost, as I was oblidged to remove them oft times from place to place. If it pleases God to send Gask to his Native Country, he will do me the justice and honour to acknowledge me one of his friends. His watch which I caused mend, he sent an express for it two days before he left Glenesk. I seed a letter from a gentleman, written from Gottenborg, who writes me Mr. White and Mr. Brown is in very good health. I trust in Almighty God you’l have the pleasure off seeing them in triumph soon, and I am with regard and esteem
Your Ladyship’s most humble servt.
Laurence the seventh laird of Gask had a daughter Carolina who wrote great Jacobite laments, written to cheer the wounded spirits of her father and grandfather, who never really recovered after the rebellion. Her most famous song was ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again?’ a lament to Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Bonnie Chairlie’s noo awa’,
Safely ower the friendly main;
Mony a heart will break in twa’,
Should he ne’er come back again.
It is time now to leave the Jacobite cause and to return to Peter Gordon the eldest son of Captain Charles and Rachel Gordon. This Peter was to become the eleventh laird of Abergeldy
It is time now to leave the Jacobite cause and to return to Peter Gordon the eldest son of Captain Charles and Rachel Gordon. This Peter was to become the eleventh laird of Abergeldy.
Peter Gordon the eleventh laird was born circa 1691 and entered Marischal College in 1706. In his short life, he married three times, and completely replenished the Abergeldy farms. Yes Peter the eleventh was apparently a man of vigour and did much in his forty years on this earth. He had at least six children all but one of whom were daughters. It is not clear to which of Peter’s three wives the children were born, though it is most likely that most were born to his second wife, Elizabeth Gray, daughter of Lord Gray.
The Gray Family were well known feudal superiors of Broughty Ferry & Benvie. The father of Elizabeth Gray (born c1695) was Lord John Gray, the ninth Laird of Liff. He was for sometime resident ‘in Aberdeenshire’ (his name appears in a 1670 testimonial) but subsequently received a charter of lands of Benvie from James, Earl of Panmure in 1713 and began to build the house of Gray at Nethertoun in 1714.
It should not seem curious to you that Abergeldy’s affairs had drifted so far away from home reaching out to the southern most aspect of Angus. For all of the previous century there had been a communal arrangement involving Angus. Peter’s grandfather Alexander Gordon, the eighth laird of Abergeldy, had married Euphemia Graham of the great family of Morphie. This was to be the first broach into Angus, as Morphie sat on the border beside the river North Esk. The castle of Morphie has long gone but a standing stone, at least ten foot tall, stands resolute amidst the busy mechanical goings-on of the present farm. Euphemia Graham of Morphie, later Lady of Abergeldy, had maternal roots in Angus as her mother was Elizabeth Ogilvy born at Inverquharity Castle on the ridge of Gask. This brought the family into the realms of Airly and Cortachy.
Before this diversion, rehearsal was made of the many wives of Peter Gordon the eleventh laird of Abergeldy. It was at the most beautiful and elegant House of Gray, that in the high summer of 1717, Peter Gordon married Elizabeth Gray.
“Peter Gordon younger of Abergeldy, Eldest Lawful son to Charles Gordon of Abergeldy in ye parish of Crathy in the shire of Aberdeen & Mrs Elizabeth Gray, third lawful daughter to ye Right Honourable John Lord Gray in this parish were contracted.”
House of Gray, in the country environs of Dundee, took Lord Gray just two years to build and had only just been completed when it celebrated the marriage of Lord Gray’s second youngest daughter Elizabeth. It must have been a wedding of utter splendour for young Peter Gordon and have warmed his heart, after the early loss of his first wife, Margaret Strachan.
It seems surprising to me that more has not been made of Gray House. Artistically, it is as far from its name as seemingly possible, being a manor house of grace and mirrored proportion. With its facing ogee towers it sits sublimely in its two hundred acres of Woodland Park. I would regard it as the undiscovered treasure of Liff.
Liff became a bolt-hole for later generations of small glen Gordons. Both children, and grandchildren, of Camlet John and Camlet Joseph, ended up in the parish. Indeed it was in Liff parish, at North Binn farm that John Gordon (1816-1899) my great-great-grandfather raised his family. One assumes, rightly or wrongly, that there had been the helping hand of Abergeldy in this flit from the small glen.
It is worth rehearsing that the Gray family played a part in the history of the small glen. Within Register House there is a short Will and Testament dated 1746 of James Gray of Spittal Glenmuick (next to Inchnabobart) with the executor his son John Gray. I would suggest that this James Gray of Spittal, who died 1746, was the brother of Elizabeth Gray (second wife of Peter Gordon the eleventh laird.) If so this James Gray can be found in the Liff Parish Birth Register of September 1685. Furthermore I would suggest that his son (& executor) John Gray was the one at Bovagli mentioned in the parish register of 1737:
1737 John Gray in Bovaglick.
1737 Alex Gray & Isobel Donald in Bovaglick
In all we know of six children of Peter the eleventh laird. The first was his only son Charles Gordon who was to succeed his father to Abergeldy, as twelfth laird in 1737. This Charles carried both the spirit and name of his grandfather Captain Charles and devoted his married life to the improvement of his Deeside estate.
The next five of Peter’s children were all daughters. It was during this period of time that the Hunter family of Burnsyde married into Abergeldy with Peter’s, first and last child, selecting spouses from this family.
Burnsyde (by Rescobie loch and Restenneth) was an estate glowing in attributes and was to prosper well beyond Abergeldy. Burnsyde will be briefly returned to later in this chapter when illuminating the life of Charles Gordon, twelfth of Abergeldy.
Elizabeth Gray, Peter’s second wife, and mother of most of his children, died young. In the late 1720’s the eleventh laird married for the third and last time. His new wife Margaret Foulis was the daughter of Sir George Foulis of Dunipace, and sister of Sir Archibald Foulis, who assumed the name of Primrose and was executed as a Jacobite on bonfire night 1746 at Carlisle at the same time as the laird of Terpersie:
“That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.”
This laird is my namesake and as such I hope you may excuse a moment of reflection. Looking into Peter’s eyes I feel a steely determination. He was at the time of sitting aged 38 years, the exact same age as I am now. I like to think that I have fared better than my namesake!
Within four years of the portrait, September 1733, Peter was dead. He left his widow as his executrix. His will was confirmed in November 1735, with his brother Joseph Gordon in Birkhall as cautioner. The testament lists items sold at a roup at Mains of Abergeldy. The sale was incredibly thorough and emptied Abergeldy almost entirely of livestock. It was prevailed over by the Crathienaird Gordons (Thomas Gordon Portioner of Crathienaird and John Gordon his Son.) In retrospect the roup highlights just how much Peter had invested in his Abergeldy farms. This was a hands-on laird, of that there can be no doubt, and well would he have been familiar with his small glen tenants, at both the Camlet, and Bovagli.
Peter the eleventh laird’s estate was valued at £1,660 Scots; apart from the value of his land. There were many debts owing to him and these were principally arrears in rents. Tilfogar cotterfolk seem to have been particularly behind, but The Camlet and Lynvaig also seems to have struggled.
Peter had extensive livestock, particularly black cattle, which along with hundreds of sheep, were sold at the roup, securing over £775 for his widow. That is truly quite an incredible sum and would equate Peter the eleventh laird with a millionaire farmer of today. The farm crops for the year 1733, despite ‘the High Country being for the most pairt very bad’ were also sold at a great profit of £250.15s.
Certain items were listed for a specialist roup and sold, including a bay riding horse ‘being Abergeldy’s best horse’ which raised £108. Peter’s other horse, a gray riding horse ‘fell immediately ill and quite wrong by a sudden distemper’ that rendered him ‘almost useless’ and was sold for the drop-down fee of six pounds. A later Eik to the testament, delayed for some reason by seven years, by which time Peter’s widow had remarried to Lumsden the Laird of Cushnie, described a third horse, a yellow stallion sold for her gain at £9. It confirms to us just how good Abergeldy’s best horse was – to have sold at £108!
It was like a bolting stallion that ‘Mosstown’ appeared in the affairs of Abergeldy. I have, ever since the first day I heard of ‘Peter Gordon first laird of Mosstown,’ considered it no accident that he carried forward the name of the eleventh Abergeldy laird. Peter Gordon the first laird of Mosstown died exactly sixty years after the eleventh laird. The question we must ask was Mosstown an illegitimate son of Abergeldy? Dr John Bulloch was captivated by the mysterious first Laird of Mosstown and simply could not understand how his vast wealth had come about:
‘When a man starts life at zero and ends it as the owner of a landed estate with over a hundred and fifty of his fellows in his debt, curiosity is piqued, especially in a generation which regards the accumulation of money with enormous admiration on one hand and the gravest doubt on the other. That is why Peter Gordon of Mosstown is interesting; one only wonders why he and his should not have been passed in review before.’
In his article in the Buchan Observer of 1911, Dr Bulloch comments that Peter Gordon first of Mosstown, had ‘family tradition’ that connected him with the Gordons of Bovagli. The Mosstown laird was said to have made money by sheep farming, and it was that which brought him down to Buchan, for the wintering of his flocks. I must say that I am decidedly unconvinced of this! Such a meteoric rise of a small glen cotterboy seems implausible to me.
What then do we know of Peter Gordon first of Mosstown? Well he was born in 1714 in Deeside (at that date Peter the eleventh would have been twenty three years) and married twice. He was at Ballaterach in Deeside when he married his first wife Elizabeth Michie in 1754. Here that mirror reflects a family pattern: The Mosstown laird had five children to Elizabeth, but only the first, Charles, was a son. That pattern matches exactly the family of the eleventh laird. However, in the case of Mosstown, the only son and heir, Charles Gordon predeceased his father.
It was not until the 23rd of December 1767 that Peter Gordon acquired the estate of Mosstown in Logie Buchan from John Duncan Provost of Aberdeen. This date is especially significant and has been overlooked by every single Deeside Detective. It was at exactly this date that Charles Gordon, twelfth of Abergeldy was finally served heir to his grandfather, Captain Charles. The delay, one might speculate, was due to wrangling of brothers and brought to a head by the death of Joseph of Birkhall. Charles succeeded to Abergeldy, and here I would suggest, Peter the ‘outcast brother’ was left to create his own dynasty at Mosstown. Let us then return to the words of Dr Bulloch:
“Perhaps Peter imagined, like Scott, that he was to found a family of lairds of his name. But like Scott, he was disappointed. In the first place, his only son Charles died: in the second, some of his daughters made “improper” marriages. So on the 9th of February 1788, he made his will and executed a deed of entail.”
Peter Gordon, first of Mosstown appointed as the trustees of his entail, Charles Gordon of Abergeldy, and the latter’s sons – together with the Rev. Thomas Gordon of Crathienaird. His will was proved at Aberdeen in March 1794, the executors being the aforesaid Charles Gordon of Abergeldy and his son Peter.
The deed of Entail contained the condition that each heir on succeeding should take the name of ‘Gordon’ and the designation ‘of Mosstown.’ Peter’s appreciation of contingencies was wise, for heir after heir failed, until it was broken by Peter Ettershank Gordon, fifth of Mosstown in 1896.
Nothing is so interesting about Peter Gordon’s story as the large number of loans he had made and perhaps bad debts he had accumulated. The inventory of his will contains the names of an extraordinary list of 150 debtors. This man was a benefactor to the common folk of Deeside and his reach of compassion saw no limits – at his death, four decades after the majority had been granted, most of the loans had not been repaid. This suggests Peter had not sought reimbursement from the folk he felt kindred. All this adds to the speculation that Peter of Mosstown was the displaced laird of Abergeldy?
It should be recorded here that at least two of the Deeside Detectives have suggested an alternative theory – that Peter Gordon was a son of Crathienaird. That, I would suggest is plausible but unlikely. Dr Bulloch recorded in 1911 that descendants in Aberdeen had a portrait of Peter Gordon, first of Mosstown. I would love find this and to look closely for those steely eyes, for that, just might, confirm my view: in Mosstown we have Abergeldy.
Whatever the circumstances I still tip my hat to the Mosstown laird. He was a man of benevolence of that there can be no doubt. He epitomized the dichotomy of being ‘Peter Gordon’: to seek a place in history but to be remembered for goodness and compassion of heart. I guess that I aspire likewise in an uncanny coalition of spirit. A coalition separated by the long span of two centuries. Mosstown was founded by Peter Gordon in 1767 and this writer was born in 1967. Sometimes fate conspires to celebrate anniversaries in such unexpected ways – and there could be no better example than this.
It is time to return to the established Abergeldy pedigree and to explore the crossover between Abergeldy in Deeside, and Burnsyde in Rescobie. There was indeed a long tradition between these houses grasping upper Deeside and taking it into the clasp of Angus. The patriarch of this generation was Charles Gordon (1724-1796) twelfth laird of Abergeldy. He was the boy tutored by Alexander of Aldihash, and who succeeded his father (Peter the eleventh) in 1735 and his grandfather (Captain Charles) in 1768.
In 1749, Charles Gordon married Alisone Hunter of the great family of Burnsyde. Together they had seven of a family born between 1751 and 1762. Alisone Hunter was a cousin of Charles Gordon and it seems that this was through the Graham family of Morphie.
In Glenmuick churchyard there is an obelisk raised to Charles and Alisone with a marble plaque stating that:
“They lived together nearly half a century on this part of Deeside. The best parents, giving good example in every way and serving to the utmost of their power all who stood in need.”
Charles and Alisone Gordon devoted themselves to Abergeldy and it certainly appears that they tried to protect their tenants from the relentless wave of Clearance that was sweeping the Highlands during their reign. Inevitably however the farm-towns on the estate did witness ‘renewal’ and many of the small glen folk were enticed by the promise of a new life overseas particularly to Australia and New Zealand. There was also considerable movement within Scotland and Lady Gordon (Alison Hunter) in particular appears to have helped loyal tenants find new beginnings in Angus.
That Burnsyde bond was tight. Nine years before Charles married Alisone Hunter, his younger sister, Barbara Gordon married David Hunter seventh Laird of Burnsyde.
This Burnsyde laird was an ardent Jacobite. David Hunter the seventh laird served as Captain of Prince Charles’ lifeguards from Preston to Culloden. Together with Lord Elcho and Lord Ogilvy he joined the ‘45 rebellion and fought at Culloden. David Hunter of Burnsyde escaped after Culloden with Lord Ogilvy and Forbes of Pitsligo in a party of twelve or thirteen persons. After hiding in Buchan, they fled to France by boat, and were taken prisoner and imprisoned at Bergen by the King of Norway. They escaped and fled to Denmark and walked to Paris, arriving in a sorry state. David lived in Venice for some time, and was killed fighting a duel over a lady in 1758.
It is worth pointing out that David, Lord Ogilvy of Airly was a companion of David Hunter of Burnsyde and both suffered greatly after Culloden in 1746. This bond of friendship may have explained how Joseph Gordon of the Camlet family was introduced to the service of Airly.
David Hunter, Seventh Laird of Burnsyde, sold land at Burnsyde to George Dempster prior to leaving to fight in the ‘45 Rebellion but retained half of Restenneth Priory as the burial ground for his family. The Jacobite cause was to prove the true worth of our Abergeldy quine, Barbara Gordon, or Lady Burnsyde as she had become, as she was left in the unenviable position of overseeing the Hunter estate whilst her husband was in exile. The sad truth of all this is that women in the eighteenth century did not generally have such responsibility in law; fortunate then, that General David Hunter reckoned on his wife’s guile. History proved him right. Barbara was truly a woman of substance and without whom the Hunter estate would have been forfeited after the defeat of the rebellion at Culloden.
It is interesting to note that the Missive signing over General Hunter’s estate to his wife Barbara, written at Forfar on the 4th April 1746, was witnessed by Charles Gordon of Abergeldy and William Gordon, sadler in Dundee. This would indicate that Charles Gordon (twelfth of Abergeldy) had Jacobite leanings. Furthermore one wonders if the William mentioned was his brother? As you may have gleaned from what has already been written, particularly on the Mosstown laird, I have long considered it likely that Peter the eleventh of Abergeldy, had more than one son. Perhaps he also had William?
The Hunter family archive has been catalogued and transcribed, from its original two deed boxes by the Graham Hunter Foundation. It is kept safe at Restenneth library by Rescobie and as such is lodged in the heart of the old Hunter estate. The Restenneth papers highlight the business acumen of Barbara, Lady Burnsyde.
The Hunter archive describes how the Burnsyde estate was originally known as Dod. The papers also underline the extended family bond with Lord Gray of Crichie (page 102.) The reader may recall that the mother of Lady Burnsyde was Elizabeth Gray. A portrait of Barbara Gordon, ‘Lady Burnsyde’ was in the possession of her sister Janet Gordon who died in Edinburgh in 1813. I would love to see her portrait and wonder, if just perhaps, she had those ‘steely eyes’ of her father (Peter the eleventh of Abergeldy.)
12th February 1740
Discharge by John, Lord Gray for the love and regard which we have and bear for Mrs Barbara Gordon our cousin german do by there presently exoner and freely discharge the said Mrs Barbara Gordon of all that we can ask claim or cleave of her for her Board aliment and education in the family of Gray.
Lady Burnsyde lived in the House of Grange, Monifieth, but her oldest son Charles Hunter (1740-1802) returned the family to the Burnsyde estate and built, for his wife and family of eleven, the mansion house of Burnsyde on Dod Hill. It is this Charles Hunter, eighth of Burnsyde, that is the central focus of the Hunter archive. An account of Charles is well beyond the reach of this book but he was, by a stretch, the greatest of the Burnsyde family. His sons ventured all over the world. Their letters provide fascinating snapshots of colonial life in the Far East and the New World.
John the youngest son of Charles Hunter apparently caused much scandal after he eloped in the autumn of 1794 with Elizabeth Ballingall. It was the talk of the district and a bundle of letters survive to tell of the disquiet. A member of the Gordon family, deliberately identified as only ‘Mr Gordon’ was apparently present at the Inn when the marriage ceremony took place. One of the staff of Burnsyde, Mr Milroy, was targeted as having facilitated the marriage and paid by his instant dismissal. The father of the runaway bride, Colonel Robert Ballingal of Drumgley, was furious, as his daughter’s act of love had estranged him from his feudal superior and despite her wish for reconciliation with her father, he simply ‘abandoned’ his daughter to her fate.
The Hunters of Burnsyde commissioned the Architect David Neave to draw up a feuing scheme for the eastern reach of Broughty Ferry. This was completed in December 1823 and the original lithograph plan is kept safe within the Dundee University Archive. The plan included Hunter Square ‘for Charles Hunter of Burnsyde’ and new streets with housing. You may be interested to learn then that Camlet Joseph came to Broughty Ferry and died there in 1850. Perhaps he had help from the Burnsyde, indicating that Camlet Joseph was closer to Abergeldy than anyone has previously realized.
It is time to return to the older brother of Lady Burnsyde and heir supreme to Abergeldy, Charles Gordon the twelfth Laird. He seems to have led a quiet life devoting himself to the improvement of his property and the restoration of Abergeldy Castle. He was also able to extend and consolidate his lands, getting in 1750, from the Earl of Aboyne, the Forest of White Mounth and Haugh of Achallie in Glenmuick, and exchanging with James Farquharson of Invercauld, Dalliefour, Broghdow and Glencallater for Toldhu, Tombreack and Aultonrea in Glenmuick. He wrote several letters to Lord Fife, and his factor William Rose, which have been preserved and which throw some light on conditions in the Crathie district in his time.
The first dated 10th November 1783, to Lord Fife, reads:
“I shall at any time be ready to inquire after your wood stealers. ….the weather is surprisingly fine, work of all kind going on very briskly, particularly ploughing and planting. Peter (his son) and I will want some meal if your Lordship can spare 40 or 50 bolls and send it to Glenbucket any time in the spring or beginning of summer. We will take it at the price you sell your farm meal at, and it will save us application to others….”
This insight would seem to confirm that Abergeldy had farmland not just on the upper reaches of the Dee. In 1783 Glenbuchat was still in the day to day affairs of Abergeldy. I have recorded already, that Captain Charles, grandfather of the twelfth laird, brought, in the early years of the eighteenth century, much of his estate workers from the Buchat.
Charles Gordon the twelfth Laird, like his father and grandfather before him, devoted all to farmland husbandry. His cattle in particular brought his true concern. That farming passion has echoes to me of the current and twenty-first Laird, John Howard Seton Gordon. Here then is a fragmentary moment of my visit, with son Andrew, to Abergeldy in July 2004:
“…what one really could not escape were the piles of paperwork – all in assorted piles occupying much of the floor space of the room. ‘My passports’ the laird told us – and then beckoned Andrew over. Do you see this pile – that is from 1998, for each cow on my farm. He opened up the passport and pointed out to Andrew how you could tell which of his cows it was, who its parents had been, and the various veterinary stamps required. He was so passionate about this and brought it all to life for Andrew. The tales of a farmer.”
Let us then kaleidoscope back in time to November 1784 and the reign of the twelfth laird. Here, in a letter to Lord Fife, Charles has equal passion for his beast.
“We have had very inconstant weather. Sometimes snow, frost or rain; a good deal of cows are still out on the late and glen places. Mine has been all safe got in a month ago. I hear a good deal is still out in the mearns and Angus and in the low part of this country, but in general a good crop.”
However it is the comment made by Charles regarding the whisky tax that really stands out amidst the letters. You must understand that Upper Deeside, and the small glen in particular, were industries of liquor. To survive, Abergeldy tenants, almost certainly to the full knowledge of their laird, worked their sma’ stills. There was in the late eighteenth century growing antipathy to such distant Parliamentary interference which constantly threatened new and greater taxes. As a result a smuggling trade blossomed with ‘thirteen smuggling brothers’ harbouring in the small glen. This was finally put a stop to in 1826, when a further Act of Parliament gave the Excise Officers (and their Dragoon Guard) powers of Enforcement which allowed them to financially penalize the Laird. Prior to this date enforcement was patchy and was usually just a small fine to the smuggler himself.
“I approve much of the resolutions of the different countrys regarding Licences for distilling. I think the Act of Parliament as it presently stands is oppressive and hope the Scots members will be unanimous in endeavouring to get it altered….”
Aged 72 years, Charles Gordon, the twelfth laird of Abergeldy, died in March 1796 at Birkhall.
Charles Gordon the twelfth laird of Abergeldy and his wife Alison Hunter had seven sons and one daughter.
The eldest son Captain Peter Gordon succeeded his father as thirteenth laird in 1796. However with stewardship came trouble and the following year he was attacked and severely injured by some men from the Braemar district who resented the passing of the Militia Act. On the 17th September, Lord Aboyne wrote to the Lord Advocate:
“I am sorry to acquaint you that, so far from the spirit of tumult and disorder having subsided, the men yesterday at the head of this county (known by the name of the Braemar men) rose in large numbers to the amount, I am told, of five or six hundred, and proceeded to the place where they supposed the Deputy Lieutenants were assembled. We had fortunately postponed our meeting in order to give time for the circulation of certain printed papers explanatory of the Act issued by the Duke of Gordon. Consequently, they were disappointed in their object. On their return, they went to the house of Mr Peter Gordon of Abergeldy, one of the Deputy Lieutenants, maltreated him exceedingly, and with some difficulty allowed him to escape with his life.”
Permanent lieutenancies had been established in 1794 by a royal warrant which ordered the development of volunteer forces for the defence of Scotland. For Aberdeenshire the lord lieutenant appointed by the monarch was Lord Aboyne. It was Aboyne who had appointed Abergeldy as one of his deputies. The duties of lieutenants included provision for the protection of their counties in the event of invasion, threat or civil uprising. They directed volunteer forces and, after the 1797 Militia Act were empowered to raise militia forces. Captain Peter Gordon, thirteenth laird of Abergeldy, was astute enough to realize that to carry the Militia Act into effect he would need military assistance. Sadly for him it arrived too late. He was beaten to within an ‘inch of his life and with effusion to his head.’ He was, by accounts of the day, never the same again.
Captain Peter, the thirteenth laird of Abergeldy married in 1782 the same year as Camlet John. Indeed the parish register for Crathie, has their oaths sitting together. After his marriage Peter drew-up a deed of entail settling Abergeldy on his male heirs. He need not have bothered, neither his first wife Mary Forbes, nor his second wife, Elizabeth Ann Leith of Freefield, had any sons. Indeed Peter had only one daughter Katherine who died in London aged just 18 tender years.
A.T. Devis painted a portrait of the fresh faced Peter the thirteenth laird. It hangs in the dining room of Abergeldy castle overlooking the ‘cow passports.’ It is my belief that Peter would have been happy at this, for it was who continued to run the Estate farms up until his premature death in 1819.
It was in Peter the thirteenth’s time that Sir Robert Murray Keith wrote in 1811:
“Abergeldy abounds in so many natural beauties as are seldom to be met with in one place; and it is at least doubtful whether the present venerable mansion would not in this Highland district be preferred by a person of taste and sensibility to a modern house of the most correct architecture.”
Sir Robert Murray Keith ‘the brilliant Ambassador at Vienna’ was a man of letters, and corresponded not just with Peter, but also with Peter’s two brothers, William and Charles. He visited the family at the castle and was clearly besmitten. This was indeed Abergeldy’s finest hour, producing two soldiers, in William and Charles, both intrepid and brave. The influence of Burnsyde, from their mother Alisone Hunter, had served them well. Dr Bulloch wrote a marvelous piece on William Gordon (1765-1793) but gave it an understated title: ‘An Enterprising Aberdeenshire Officer.’
Twenty letters sent by William Gordon to Sir Robert Murray Keith, between 1783 and 1786, have been preserved in the archive of the British Museum at Bloomsbury. The only living person to have read them, other than Sir Keith, was Dr Bulloch. His enthrall was not misplaced:
‘The letters have all the qualities of the best correspondence. They are full of good gossip, which is never cruel. They breathe the spirit of a man who missed nothing wherever he was, and present vivid sketches of the moment in Germany, Holland, London, Scotland and Ireland. They show that Gordon had a fine sense of gratitude and his charming reference to his “old father and mother,” lonely at Abergeldy, while their sons sought fortune throughout the world, are among their most pleasant qualities.’
Sir Robert Murray Keith was described by William Gordon as his ‘cousin’ though the exact relationship has never been fathomed. Sir Robert descended from the Keiths of Craig in Kincardineshire and his sister, Anne Murray Keith, was a favourite of Sir Walter Scott. Indeed in the forward to his Chronicles of the Cannongate, Walter Scott explained that Mrs Bethune Balliol was:
“. . . the interesting character of a dear friend of mine, Mrs. Murray Keith, whose death occurring shortly before, had saddened a wide circle, much attached to her, as well for her genuine virtue and amiable qualities of disposition, as for the extent of information which she possessed, and the delightful manner in which she was used to communicate it. In truth, the author had, on many occasions, been indebted to her vivid memory for his Scottish fictions, and she accordingly had been, from an early period, at no loss to fix the Waverley Novels on the right culprit.”
It is possible that the Keith family had seeded into Deeside from Kincardine. Quite possibly, though far from established, Captain Charles Gordon may have enticed his friends over the mounth whilst regenerating his Abergeldy estate. In the spring of 1747 in Glen Gairn a George Keith married an Ann Gordon.
However there is another theoretical family bond between Abergeldy and Sir Keith. Peter the thirteenth laird’s youngest sister, Margaret Gordon married in 1769 Dr George Skene, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College. He was the youngest ever Philosopher of his day and he was even to influence Darwin. All from the cold grey reach of Aberdeen! At around this time the Reverend Dr. Alexander Keith, one of the Ministers of the 1843 Disruption had two sons: George Skene Keith and Thomas Keith. These two brothers became eminent surgeons and set up a private hospital in Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh. It has never been established why one of the Reverend Keith’s son was called ‘George Skene.’
For the above reasons I have found myself wondering if there was a family bond between Dr George Skene, the brilliant philosopher (husband of Margaret Gordon of Abergeldy) and Sir Robert Murray Keith.
George Skene Keith was a pioneer photographer, a prominent member of the Photographic Society of Scotland and a keen daguerreotypist. He was also a member of Sir James Young Simpson’s Research Team that pioneered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.
The narrative has drifted again. You may recall that it was the correspondence between Sir Robert Murray Keith and William Gordon our young enterprising Abergeldy soldier that was under scrutiny. Sir Robert Murray Keith (1730–1795) was appointed major in the Highland Foot Regiment which had recently been raised for the war in Germany, and though composed entirely of raw recruits, they and their young commander gained great distinction by their conspicuous gallantry in the campaigns of 1760 and 1761. It was for his long and successful diplomatic career, however, that Keith was chiefly noted. In 1769 he was appointed by William Pitt as British Envoy to the Court of Saxony. Two years later he was transferred to the Court of Denmark, and was fortunately residing at Copenhagen when the Danish Queen Caroline Matilda, sister of George III, was made the victim of a vile conspiracy, and would in all probability have been put to death but for Keith’s spirited interference.
William Gordon was born at Abergeldy in 1765 and was a tertian and magistrand at Marischal College between 1778 and 1780. Then he entered the King’s Royal Rifles. He was captured on the 19th October 1781 at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, where he commanded his light infantry company.
The Scots Magazine recorded:
“It was owing to Major Gordon’s gallant conduct at the head of the storming party composed of a small column of light infantry, who dashed into the enemy’s walls and forced the commandant to surrender at discretion, that the island of Tobago was captured.”
On returning to London in 1785, after his long tour abroad, young Gordon tells the Ambassador all about the wonderful ‘Talking Pig’ which could spell out the word Nebuchadnezzar. In one of his letters to Sir Keith, young William recounted (partly in German and partly in Greek) an unusually salacious story about the Prince of Wales and Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon. So revealing was William’s account of the young Prince, and heir to the throne, that Dr Bulloch, even after the passing of so many years, felt he could not publish it. However, rather enticingly he did let slip that Jane Maxwell, the Duchess, ‘came out of it in a very favourable light.’ Given that Jane Maxwell was the original wild child that leaves us to consider much about the future King and his behaviour! The Duchess was evocatively described by Rosemary Baird in her book ‘Mistress of the House’
‘Her parties never finished before 6am. In a society bound by class and shackled by social respectability, she laughed in the face of convention. In her lusty Scottish accent, she was cheeky to kings and compassionate to commoners. Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon, was a one-off.’
Jane Maxwell is worthy of diversion of narrative. Although the daughter of a baronet, Jane Maxwell had a rather unfortunate childhood as her parents separated when she was very young and she and her sister went to live with their mother in a second-floor tenement in a dank Edinburgh Close. This must have been a far cry from the genteel elegance of the emerging New Town. Jane and her sister enjoyed nothing better than the rough and tumble of play, and were often to be found riding on the backs of pigs being driven to market! One day Jane lost a finger in a game which involved jumping from one cascading cart to another.
Nevertheless, Jane’s potential was seen from a very early age and a judge, and family friend, Lord Kames, took her education in hand. Jane had an innate drive to better herself and quickly demonstrated that she was a girl of formidable intelligence.
Jane blossomed into a true beauty, with a fresh face, and brown beckoning eyes. She was widely admired but in 1766, aged just seventeen, caught the loving attention of a young army officer and was soon engaged to be married. However her suitor was sent to fight in America, and within the year reported missing in action, presumed dead.
Jane turned down a stack of aching-hearted admirers before she was invited to a ball hosted by Charles Gordon for his young relation Alexander, the fourth Duke of Gordon. A shy and reserved 24-year-old, the Duke insisted that he had nothing suitable to wear, and no-one to dance with, but Charles had taken care of that. He produced a suitable outfit and a blind date: Jane Maxwell. Rosemary Baird comments that “she was beautiful and the Duke was transfixed.”
As the daughter of minor nobility who had fallen on hard times, Jane had married well. Jane and the Duke had only just completed their honeymoon, and were on their way back to the marital home in Gordon Castle, near Fochabers in Morayshire, when Jane received a letter in her maiden name. The young soldier had returned from war and wanted to marry her. Jane read the letter and was ‘found prostrate with grief.’ That lost love cast a long shadow over her marriage to the Duke, but nevertheless Jane threw herself into her new role as ‘Lady.’ She and the Duke undertook improvements together on the immense Gordon Estate. In 1776, when they decided that the village of Fochabers was too close to their castle, and they arranged to move it further away!
Jane had the first of her seven children, and seems to have loved nothing better than to make the great house reverberate with guests. One neighbour described her as “the life of all circles she entered”. Her own children were joined by several of the Duke’s illegitimate offspring – he had nine – who were welcomed by Jane. Two sons, both named George, were differentiated warmly as “my George” and “the Duke’s George”. Jane has since been renowned for her own affairs but in truth, it must be recorded, she was never as unfaithful as her husband. In later life, when attempting to arrange a marriage for her daughter Louisa to the Marquess Cornwallis, the issue of hereditary madness in the Gordon family was raised. Ever frank, the Duchess pronounced that there was “no need to worry about Louisa, she doesn’t have a drop of Gordon blood in her!” Yet it is clear that Jane also had compassion and for this she was deeply loved. She has emerged as a character as kind as she was unconventional. There is a lot of evidence that she particularly liked people who weren’t grand, that they were amazed at how long she spent talking to them and how kind she was.
Jane, with flamboyant and joyful energy, took seriously her role as mistress of the house and applied this not only in Morayshire but also to the Duke’s residences in Edinburgh and London. Yet that joyous naivety was ridiculed in the papers of the day – one scathing rhyme went: “The Duchess triumphs in a manly mien – Loud is her accent and her phrase obscene.” In Edinburgh, Rabbie Burns was a guest at her supper parties and was invited to Gordon Castle in 1787, when he described her as “charming, witty and sensible”.
However there was more to the candescent Jane than simple joi de vivre. In London, she was especially popular, and the Tory leader, William Pitt the Younger, admired her for her ‘political adeptness.’ Her London home became a centre for Tory activity. She charmed the London socialites by encouraging the dancing of Scottish reels, and made it fashion to wear tartan. She rarely waited to be asked to dance, as would have been expected of a lady, but requested the pleasure of the man of her choice.
As the mother of five daughters, Jane considered it her duty – very like Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice – to find her girls respectable husbands. Jane aimed high, and though she failed to bag William Pitt, and the son of the Empress Josephine, she succeeded in attaining three Dukes, a Marquess, and a Baronet!
George, the eldest son of George III, was born in 1762 and had rebelled against his father’s strict discipline. At the age of eighteen he became involved with an actress, Mrs. Perdita Robinson. This was followed by a relationship with Lady Melbourne. By the 1780’s the Prince of Wales had become a gambler, a womanizer and a heavy drinker. He was deeply in debt and when Parliament agreed to increase his allowance, George III remarked that it was “a shameful squandering of public money to gratify the passions of an ill-advised young man.”
This brings us to Jane Maxwell entertaining George, Prince of Wales at Gordon Castle and how our Abergeldy soldier William was to record greater scandal never rehearsed in public till now!
By the early 1790s, Jane Maxwell and the Duke were spending more and more time apart. He had installed his mistress, Jane Christie, at Gordon Castle, who had borne him a son. Soon, Jane announced her intention to build a separate residence at Kinrara, near the Spey, south of Inverness, and spent increasing amounts of time there, first in an old farmhouse, then in an elegant new house which she had built to her instructions.
Even in her final years, with her eyesight failing, Jane found parties irresistible. At Kinrara she was not at all tamed. All her parties went on till six in the morning. She liked to have masses of people to stay, sometimes sleeping on the floor. In this respect one simply has to agree with Rosemary Baird, Jane Maxwell ‘was always extraordinary, unconventional.’
Jane was ultimately reduced to living in hotels, and she became increasingly eccentric. She was involved in an acrimonious dispute with her estranged husband over money, and she died in 1812 at Poultney’s Hotel, Piccadilly, London. Her hearse was drawn by six black horses all the way to Kinrara and she was buried at the old Celtic Chapel by the banks of the Spey. There her husband carried out her final wish and erected a monument to her on which were recorded the marriages of her children.
The narrative has drifted from Abergeldy once again, but as in the case of Jane Maxwell, very often the true chatelaines of the estate were the wives.
Rachel Gordon, tenth of Abergeldy, may not have had the passion of Jane Maxwell, but she as clearly resolute, and matched her husband Captain Charles step-by-step; without Rachel Abergeldy would have been lost and the estate left behind ruinous. Lady Barbara Gordon of Burnsyde demonstrated equal fortitude; her business acumen, and legal where-with-all, were outstanding and she was unenviably placed at the helm of the vast estate whilst her husband was in exile after the rebellion of 1745.
Burnsyde returns us to our two Abergeldy soldiers, William and Charles. The former was under discussion before the diversion into the affairs of Jane Maxwell, ‘Duchess of the North.’ Let us recap. William Gordon was born at Abergeldy in 1765. His father was Charles the twelfth and his mother Alisone Hunter of Burnsyde. In 1780 William entered the army and sailed for America, only to get fever and ague ‘my old friends,’ as he called them, and to find himself a prisoner with his elder brother David, and the rest of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown in October 1781. It was around this time that he met Sir Robert Keith Murray in Vienna and so started a special correspondence with William writing from all quarters of the continent.
Sir Robert Keith found that his young protégée was eloquent and gifted and willing to exchange views on the political affairs of the outside world. William nearly always found a story to tell the Ambassador, and was clearly not a creature of home, he was rather too intrepid for that, and he wrote from Abergeldy in November 1785 that “it is rather a difficult matter to find the subject for a letter in the Highlands of Scotland.” All the letters, however, betoken a youth (he was just in his twenties) of remarkably quick perceptions, and present a living picture of his ‘wanderjahre.’ William wrote to Ambassador Keith from Dresden, Strasburg and Metz. He complained bitterly that despite being the youngest Captain in his regiment he had been reduced, whilst on his leave of absence, to half-pay. William thus considered seriously the advice of Sir John Stepney to go to the West Indies.
Metz was a favourite rendezvous of William Gordon. The presence of his countrymen there made him remember his nationality. “The French officers,” he wrote “always plague me by saying – ‘Il y a beau d’Anglais,’ and upon my telling them there is not but several ‘officiers Britannique,’ they reply ‘c’est egal.” The note of criticism, and the fact that the commandant did not invite the Scots to dinner, did not deter William from “going over once more a course of military mathematics” with the Professor of the College Royale. A little later he was back in Scotland, hoping that all his brothers would be able to sit round this family table at Abergeldy where they, had not been for 18 years. These sentiments were the last recorded by William, as in 1786 the letters to Ambassador Keith come to an end.
The last days of William’s brilliant career were spent in the West Indies. It has already been told how young William captured the island of Tobago on the 14th April 1793. William, basking in glory was then commissioned to capture Martinique, and set sail from Barbados, where he had proved such a success that the House of Assembly presented him an ‘elegant sword’ and the people stocked the man-of-war, in which he sailed, ‘with every kind of refreshment.’ He reached the Leeward Islands, where he displayed ‘intrepid spirit’ by pushing six miles inwards, exposed to the enemy’s fire, and despite the incessant rain and long spells of starvation. Then he went on to Dominica, arriving there on the 6th of July 1793, where he succumbed in a few hours to the fever which decimated the troops. The brilliant Abergeldy loon was dead and Martinique did not fall till the next March.
It was an untimely, almost an inglorious end to such a promising career, for he had accomplished so much in his eight and twenty years that the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ declared that ‘by his death His Majesty and the service have lost as valuable and brave an officer as Great Britain ever could boast.’
Charles Gordon was given the epitaph ‘the most distinguished of the Abergeldy Gordons.’ However I would say that he should share this honour with his brother William. Charles was born in 1756 and aged nineteen years he entered the Army, and with the Fraser Highlanders went to America arriving in New York in July 1776. Fraser’s Highlanders wore short red coats faced white, topped by the traditional highlander’s bonnet as they were at the Battle of Brandywine. Trousers were considered more practical than kilts for service in America. Their leather waist belts with single frogs for bayonet were black, unusual for British troops.
Fraser’s entered the war in the summer of 1776 as the largest British regiment that served in the American Revolution, but suffered enormous casualties before returning to England in late 1783. When this regiment was disbanded, Charles Gordon looked for other foreign military appointments, and soon found himself serving for the Prussians under the Duke of Brunswick.
In 1787 the Prussians invaded Holland and Charles Gordon had the pivotal role in the capture of Amstelveen, which was the key defence of Amsterdam. It was recorded of Charles that ‘he possessed a perfect acquaintance with the topography of Holland and spoke several continental languages.’ As an attack to the front of Amsteleeven was impossible the Duke determined to take the enemy in the rear. To determine if this was possible, Charles Gordon, “who had acted as a volunteer throughout the expedition, was directed to proceed in a boat along the Harlem Meer and make as accurate a survey as possible of the ground behind Amstelveen. This dangerous but important service was executed with courage, ability and success, and our countryman passed several of the enemy’s batteries” Charles’ intrepid gallantry won favour with the Duke and he was rewarded with command of the attack. Under the direction of Charles Gordon not one boat was overset, nor one man lost.
The Duke of Brunswick never forgot Charles Gordon. The Duke was a great soldier, but was also wise, economical, prudent and kindly. He fought in the Seven Years War for the King of Prussia and was at pains to make his regiment a model one. He became a recognized master of warfare of the period, was a cultured and benevolent despot, and later married Augusta, a sister of George III. Brunswick’s ‘clean sheet’ was significantly tarnished however by his actions during the French Revolution. His first act was to issue the ‘Brunswick Proclamation’ given at Coblenz in July 1792, threatening war and ruin to soldiers and civilians alike, should the Republicans injure Louis XVI and his family. Intended to threaten the French public into submission, it had exactly the opposite effect. It helped begin the French Revolutionary Wars.
The Duke of Brunswick returned to command the Prussian army in 1806 (aged 71) but was routed by Napoleon’s marshal Davout at Auerstedt. Galloping at the head of his troops, he came too close to French sharpshooters and a bullet struck through his left eye. The Duke died three weeks later from his wound.
For his gallantry in the capture of Amsterdam Charles Gordon was to be awarded the Prussian Order of Military Merit. He was at the time the only foreigner on whom this decoration had ever been conferred. The King of Prussia gave Charles Gordon ‘the strongest letters of recommendation to the Sovereign of his country’ and Charles was subsequently knighted by the King. Charles Gordon then went to Ireland from where he wrote to Sir Keith and complained bitterly of the dryness of his duties. Charles was desperate for the excitement of military campaign and was ever keen to prove himself as the best soldier of his day.
In 1793 a large expedition (4,891 strong) went to the West Indies under Sir Charles Gray and Admiral Jervis. Charles Gordon was one of the three brigadiers who commanded the attack on Martinique. He was then instrumental in the capture of St. Lucia and was made Governor of the island. Difficulties and disputes as to prize rights in property in the captured islands led to the charges of confiscation and extortion against the commanders of the expedition. Charles Gordon was court-martialled. He survived his dismissal more than forty years Mr. Hugh Gordon, the seventeenth laird of Abergeldy, recalled “him visiting at my father’s house at Blackheath, when I was a boy, as a fine, upright old gentleman, and I have a good portrait of him painted some years earlier.”
It is time to leave behind our intrepid Abergeldy soldiers Charles and William. Certainly, I hope you agree, it has been a fascinating insight into their careers spent so far from the fresh pine forests of Abergeldy.
The narrative has been widely embracing and so it seems an appropriate juncture to recap.
The soldiers were the sons of Charles Gordon twelfth of Abergeldy and his wife Alisone Hunter of Burnsyde. At Birkhall, in the spring of 1796, Charles the father died and Abergeldy passed to his son, the handsome and fresh-faced Peter. Within a year of his inheritance Peter was attacked and severely injured by the ‘Braemar Men’ who resented the passing of George III’s Militia Act. Peter survived, but only just, and continued as thirteenth laird up until his death in December 1819. He had two wives but only one child, Katherine, and she died aged just eighteen. Peter’s second wife, Elizabeth Anna Leith of Freefield was Godmother to two of the Camlet bairns. It has never been established why.
Chapter 5 of ‘Deeside Tales’: Under the Cosh – Mill of Cosh
Abergeldy has taken us on quite a journey meeting the good, the great, and the not so great of Scotland, and has reminded us that the happenings of the secluded small glen were still set amidst the political and religious affairs of the country as a whole.
The Cosh is the natural greeting point of the small glen, and forms a flat river basin between the fir covered Creag Ghiubhais (the Sister Hill) and Creag Phiobaidh (Rock Hill of the Piping), both peaks that rise above 450m. Cosh in etymological terms translates as the hollow. That seems to be very fitting indeed, for the Mill nestles in its very own basin as a natural collection point for the little rushing burn.
I have to say that when I first visited the Cosh I felt an unexpected draft of dispirited emptiness. That was an unusual experience for me.
Midnight on the 8th May 1860 and the hollow echo rang deep. Mill of Cosh was to be the reaper of not just meal but also of grim. That night, a twenty-two month old bairn, tottering on his first steps, walked free from his pine-cot. At midnight he was found by his mother – he had tragically fallen into, and drowned in, the adjoining mill-lade. Nothing was ever the same at the Cosh after that, and just ten years later, the father and miller, Charles Leys, left his family behind and sailed aboard the ‘British Monarch’ for Australia. He was never to return and left behind in the hollow his surviving bairns and wife. Truly, that must have been impossibly hard.
Later in this chapter we shall return to the Leys family and explain their claim on Glen Gairn, but for now it is time to explore the first recorded family at the Cosh. Whilst the true history of the Cosh goes back, at least, to the early seventeenth century, the chronicles do not survive. The lightness of the archives has meant that the Crathie biographer has never had it easy, except perhaps for Reverend Stirton, who garnered a mighty tome from all reaches of his parish. However Stirton wrote his account back in 1925 and now, it must be acknowledged, it appeals to few, and sadly it seems to lack in life what it has in volume. As a writer, it is my fear that you might conclude similarly for Deeside Tales.
The first family of the Cosh were catholic, and had their roots in Auchindryne, in Braemar. At one time their Catholic priest was an unrelated Gordon – ‘Peter Gordon.’
The first clue to this family came from an isolated tombstone in Braemar churchyard. That being the tombstone to Margaret Farquharson who died at Mill of Cosh on the first day of April 1812. The tombstone was erected by her son Donald McDonald (1792-1855) who married Jane Gordon, daughter of ‘Camlet John’ (chapter two.)
In memory of MARGARET FARQUHARSON, spouse to DONALD McDONALD, late in Mill of Cosh who died 1st April 1812 aged 63: also CHARLES their son, who died 20th August 1811 ages 26; also 2 sons and 2 daughters who died in infancy, done by their son DONALD McDONALD.
Figure 5.2: The stone to Margaret Farquharson, Mill of Cosh
Margaret Farquharson was daughter of James Farquharson of Auchindryne and came from a wealthy family which held an estate covering more than half of Braemar. Her cousin, Lewis Farquharson, inherited Balnacraig and Ballogie from the Innes family and added that name to his own. This was one of the instrumental relationships that brought the Gordons of Girnoc to Birse.
However, for sometime I have remained curious, as to what brought Margaret Farquharson to Mill of Cosh in the Girnoc. I would suggest a bond between Abergeldy and the Farquharsons, who in years long-by had been fierce rivals in a feudal baronship of upper Deeside. One link however does seem obvious and that was the Catholic determination of both families. The small glen, you must recall, was not a catholic strong-hold and had a rather different community to that of the more ardent catholic reaches of Braemar and Glen Gairn.
Donald McDonald, son of Margaret Farquharson of Auchindryne and later Mill of Cosh, was a well-to-do and able man. His wife Jane, was a Camlet lass, and bonny for it. Their first few children were born at the hollow. The baptisms of two of their children appear in the Catholic Register and tell us that they later lived at Boat of Polholloch (by the old crossing over the Dee) and later still (c1828) at Toldhu in the heart of Glen Muick. Sometime soon thereafter they moved to Birse, under the good auspice of their uncle Lewis Farquharson Innes. They were to honour the laird by calling their son, born in 1835, Lewis Farquharson McDonald. By the time of the 1841 census the family was at Haugh of Sluie.
1823 December 4th
Donald McDonald and Jane Gordon, Boat of Polcholak, a daughter Mary Leith, born 20th ult. Sponsors: Ipse and Miss Mary Leith, Abergeldy.
What is of some interest here is that the Godmother, and namesake, to Mary Leith Gordon was none other than Lady Abergeldy. This close bond has never been explained.
Lewis Farquharson Innes (1763-1830) of Balnacraig deserves special mention. He was born in the old castle of Balmoral in 1763. His father Alexander Farquharson was a gentle laird held in affection by all his tenants and ‘at Balmoral he dispensed a true Highland hospitality – all classes being made alike welcome.’ Lewis was never to inherit Balmoral, Inverey, or Auchindryne; as the family estate, on the death of his father in January 1786, passed to his brother James. This was at best unfortunate, as being extravagant in his tastes, James became bankrupt and was compelled to sell Inverey, Auchindryne, and Balmoral, to his neighbour Lord Fife. This trail explains how eventually, half a century later, Balmoral castle was purchased by Albert, Prince Consort from Lord Fife.
Lewis Farquharson had none of his brother’s extravagant tastes. He left, with his wife Margaret, for Canada where they lived for some years but returned in 1815 to Deeside when his cousin Lewis Innes died. It was this cousin, having no family of his own, that restored Lewis to a family seat, this time in the parish of Birse. Having acquired the ancient seat of Balnacraig and Ballogie, Lewis Farquharson, out of deepest respect, added the name of Innes to his own. Lewis Farquharson was a tall, singularly handsome man, who always wore Highland dress. He held no bitterness towards his brother James, who had lost Balmoral castle, and all of the once extensive Farquharson estate. Indeed as Stirton put it, Lewis Farquharson-Innes ‘inherited all his father’s kindliness of disposition, and was most considerate as a landlord.’
When Lewis succeeded to Balnacraig, he kindly made sure that his elderly cousins; Father Henry Innes, and Miss Jean, and Miss Betty Innes, were allowed to stay in the old house of Balnacraig. They never forgot this and left Lewis all their private possessions as well as transferring him the right to manage their affairs. Lewis replied ‘I am your most grateful humble servant…..I shall certainly do everything in my power to direct the management of your farm and (as is my duty) ease you of your trouble.’ What forward thinking, for this act was a true fore-runner to the Power of Attorney so commonly called upon by this writer in his day-to-day work.
It was Reverend Stirton who presented a talk in January 1921 on the Innes family of Balnacraig. He had a deep bond with this family and had been left by Mrs Chisholm of Glassburn, last of the Innes family, a number of relics including a little Prayer Book dating from 1685, and belonging to Lewis Innes, Almoner to Queen Mary of Modena, Consort of King James II and VII. Stirton also described how a portrait, and a lock of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s hair, came to the Innes family. Mrs Chisholm recalled:
’Bonnie Prince Charlie’ came safely. It is a true likeness of the Prince; a large, old-fashioned picture I remember so well as hanging in the dining-room at dear old Ballogie, and it now hangs in my drawing-room, near my mother, whose people all fought for him, and some died at Culloden.’
‘The portrait came into our family through Claudia Innes, the Prince having given it to her uncle Lewis. Mr Rule tells me it is probably worth £500.”Mr James Faed, the late well-known Scottish artist, examined the portrait and pronounced it to be one of considerable merit and the work of an Italian artist. The picture is that of a youth in his teens, of fair, open countenance, with large, beautiful hazel eyes and full ruddy lips…’
In reading his manuscript I was struck by the esteem in which Stirton held the ‘tall and handsome’ Lewis Farquharson-Innes. This respect came to Stirton from all the old folk of upper Deeside who he served and visited as parish minister – many of whom recalled the benevolence of Lewis the Laird. Simply, Deeside could not let that whisper of affection dissipate.
I have to say that I feel a similar disposition towards Lewis Farquharson-Innes, for it was he who helped my distant grandfather, Peter Gordon (born at The Camlet in 1793) re-locate from the small glen, to Braeside in Balnacraig. His kindliness saw a family in need, and did not dwell on the circumstances which involved smuggling.
Lewis Farquharson-Innes often attended the annual Gathering at Braemar and was usually encompassed by old Balmoral friends. They addressed him as Innes, but Lewis always said “I am Innes at Ballogie, but I am Farquharson in Braemar.”
It is extraordinary to think that Lewis Farquharson-Innes was the last of any gentry to be born at Balmoral castle. I think that as tribute, to this great and kindly gentleman, that his picture should hang in the Queen’s castle.
In chapter four much was made of the Lady of the manor. Balnacraig presents us another woman of substance in the form of Catherine Gordon. Only two Deeside houses, ‘visited’ by Cumberland’s troops, appear to have escaped destruction during the Jacobite campaign – Balmoral Castle and Balnacraig. It seems the Government Officer felt the decrepit Balmoral was not worthy of pillage (!), whilst Balnacraig was saved from ruin by a clever piece of subterfuge by it’s lady, Catherine Gordon, wife of James Innes of Balnacraig (a Jacobite).
On a very warm afternoon in August, 1746, a party of Hanoverian troops under Captain MacHardy – the officer responsible for the burning of several Deeside mansions – arrived at Balnacraig. It seems certain that Catherine Gordon was forewarned of the soldiers approach, and appreciating that an army marches on its stomach, she prepared a great reception for the visitors, unwelcome as they were.
Exhausted by the heat and thirsty after their march, the Red Coats halted before the house. Captain MacHardy then addressed himself to Catherine saying he had come for her husband, reported to be disaffected against His Majesty King George II. He demanded to see Innes and being told he was from home, searched the house. MacHardy then read the Indictment against Innes and the Order for burning Balnacraig. In reply, Catherine Gordon pointed out that her son Lewis was the owner of the property, not her husband, and if the house was burnt, the Government would be held responsible as no Indictment stood against the owner of Balnacraig. This created a problem for MacHardy and Catherine Gordon suggested they have some refreshment.
The Captain and his men were royally feasted and before long the cellars were emptied of their whisky, wine and beer, and when the Red Coats eventually took their leave, they staggered off, as one eye witness records – ‘dredfa fu’ –the rear being brought up by a very intoxicated sergeant wearing a clay pig on his head! One of the most interesting spectators of this unorthodox military display was James Innes himself. He had quietly emerged from his hide out to watch the fun.
Thus Balnacraig was saved from destruction and the old house stands to this day.
When I last visited Balnacraig House it was surrounded by scaffolding, the owners, Malcolm Nicol and his wife, in consultation with Historic Scotland were attempting to right a wrong. Many generations ago the original lime finish had been replaced with a hard, dense, and impermeable cement harl coat. As a consequence a number of defects had become apparent. These included moisture entrapment within the walls, internal dampness and decay of timbers such as joist ends and internal lintols. The solution, that was felt to be most sympathetic, technically sound, and aesthetically acceptable, was to reinstate the traditional lime harl coat. This has now been completed and the restored Balnacraig House is beautiful once again, but more importantly has a breathable rendor negating the terribly destructive effects of trapped moisture.
I have strayed far from the hollow. The Cosh Mill should not be forgotten that easily. Let us recap how we got this far: the first notable family of the Cosh were the McDonalds. They had a strong catholic faith and had descent from the Farquharsons of Auchindryne. At the Cosh, their son Donald met Jane Gordon, a Camlet lass; and a few years after getting married they moved to the parish of Birse. It is almost certain that Lewis Farquharson-Innes was instrumental in all this.
The Cosh tombstone in Braemar Churchyard to Margaret Farquharson is rather solitary, and forlorn, in a bluish cast of marble, but is within the shadow of a far more celebrated individual – ‘Auld Dubrach.’ This man deserves his place in history, but very few people know much about him. His name was Peter Grant and he was the very last surviving Jacobite soldier of the ’45.
Peter Grant was born a crofter’s son the year before the 1715 Jacobite Rising, in his father’s croft at Dubrach near to the village of Braemar. Peter grew up to be a tailor to trade. In 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart arrived on the shores of Glenfinnan on Loch Shiel in an attempt to put a Stuart back on the throne. Many highlanders were sympathetic to the Stuart cause, and Peter Grant was one of them. He joined the Monaltrie’s regiment of the Jacobite Army as a Sergeant Major, took part in various engagements and was decorated for bravery at the Battle of Prestonpans. He then took part in Culloden and though he survived the battle he was taken prisoner to Carlisle Castle. But Peter Grant managed to somehow escape and he found his way north, back to Deeside.
He had to lie low for many years, and there was no record of him being recaptured, even though he had a price on his head. He even managed to return to his former trade as a tailor. This says a lot about the people of the Braemar area, not all of whom had Jacobite sympathies. Whatever side they had supported, they looked after their own. In later years he married a girl, many years his junior, from the village of Braemar. Her name was Mary Cummings, and apparently Peter made her christening bunnet after her birth! She bore him a son and a daughter.
In the summer of 1820 two wealthy gentlemen were walking the Glen Lethnot hills when they met Peter by chance. By then he was known as Auld Dubrach, after the croft he resided in. They were astonished to find out that he had fought in the ’45 Rising, and was in exceptional health for his age. He invited the gentlemen into his cottage and recalled the events and experiences of being a soldier in the Jacobite army for them. He even showed them how to use the broadsword! The two men were so taken aback at the exploits of Auld Dubrach they decided to do something to comfort him in his advancing years. A petiton was raised and he was presented to King George IV in Edinburgh. When he was introduced to King George, the ruling Monarch exclaimed:“Ah, Grant, you are my oldest friend”, to which Auld Dubrach replied:
“Na, na, your majesty, I’m your auldest enemy.”
Auld Dubrach died in his son’s home at Auchendryne on the 11th of February 1824 at the incredible age of 110 years, as the last surviving Jacobite of the 1745 Rising. Over three hundred people attended his funeral and it is said that an anker (about 4 gallons) of whisky was consumed before the coffin was lifted. At the graveside a piper played the Jacobite tune, “Wha widna fecht for Charlie’s richt?”A stone tablet was erected over his resting place and was suitably inscribed:
“The old, loyal Jacobite was at peace. He had kept faith with those whom he thought were his rightful Monarchs all of his life, a hero and man of honour to the last.”
Returning to the Mill of Cosh, we have there, in the early 1800’s, Donald McDonald and Jane Gordon with their first two children. By 1830 they had relocated downstream to Birse. In 1835 their last son, Lewis Farquharson McDonald, was born. Two years later Donald and wife Jane appear in the affairs of the Potarch.
Whatever you may think, in writing this, I am most conscious that I should not lose narrative to detail, yet of that, I well realise, I am already guilty. I am, after all, a Gordon! But with the following little escapade into Potarch, it is hard not to be enticed into a mesmerizing circle of friends all centring around one industry – the spirit trade! Later in this book (chapter nine) we shall explore a few more of the Inns, and of course Lochnagar Distillery.
Coilacreich Inn on the north Deeside road gapes into the small glen, yet it is perhaps the least accessible. In truth the folk of the small glen had their home-produced liquor and drank within their farm-toun bounds. Make no mistake about this, liquor was all about. Perhaps it was a drop of the ‘naftie’ the explained the introduction of wee Georgina Gordon to Potarch?
Birse Parish Registers:
April 30th 1848
Margaret Duncan unmarried woman in Potarch had a bastard child baptized named Georgina. Witnesses: Alexr Duncan her father and Mrs George Hunter, father was Francis Gordon Crathie.
Why you ask is the appearance of this wee, illegitimate baby girl, of any significance, and why include her on a chapter that purported to deal with the Cosh? Well the Duncan family, helmed by Alexander Duncan the Potarch Innkeeper, and his wife Jane Rattray, had a family group of eight children. Well, the witnesses to the birth of a Duncan child, were none other than our Cosh McDonald’s – Donald McDonald and his wife Jane Gordon (of the Camlet). The Birse Kirk Sessions revealed more detail and identified the father of Georgina as Peter Gordon.
Birse Kirk Session 13th February 1848
Church of Birse. Session being met.
Compeared Margaret Duncan, a young unmarried woman dau of Alexr Duncan Potarch and declared that she had brought forth a child in uncleanness and delated Peter Gordon lately residing in Potarch and presently at Aboyne as the father of it. She was admonished and dismissed for the sin. The Kirk Officer was ordered to summon said Peter Gordon to appear before the Session and answer to said charge. Session closed.
This Gordon father disappeared in the scandal. His true origins will never be known, but note that the original Parish entry states he was from Crathie. It seems inconceivable that he was not of the small glen! The clues are all there: Jane Gordon of the Camlet as a witness; and Mrs George Hunter (mother-in-law to Camlet.)
The Duncan family had true misfortune. In April 1849 the mother, Jane Rattray died. Within a year, and before the following spring, Alexander Duncan the father, patriarch and Innkeeper was also dead. The eight bairns were now all orphans. A tombstone in Crathie Churchyard reminds us that this family were not originally from Birse, indeed their seat was Belnakyle, a long lost farm-toun that once stood in the environs of Balmoral estate. It is interesting to note that Alexander Duncan, the Potarch Innkeeper, was born at Belnakyle in 1794. His father was Alexander Duncan and his mother (just to add to that inextricability) was a Gordon – Rebackah Gordon.
It is time to leave this detail behind. However I believe little Georgina has highlighted the strong links between the small glen and Birse, and that both the Farquharson family, and whisky, were instrumental factors in that bond!
In all three Camlet bairn’s domiciled the Cosh. They were all children of Camlet John:
1. Firstly, as rehearsed above, there was Jane Gordon and her husband Donald McDonald.
2. Secondly, there was John Gordon and his wife Mary Downie, who had their only two sons, John and James, born there in 1822 and 1826 respectively. These boys went on to farm Lynvaig for all of their days.
3. Thirdly, there was Joseph Gordon the eldest son of Camlet John, born at the Camlet in 1782. Joseph married circa 1806, Nicolas Gordon, youngest daughter of Bovagli.’ Together they had eight children though two were lost in infancy.
Much of the remaining chapter shall be spent telling the fascinating story of Joseph Gordon and his family. Two of his daughters Elspet, and Helen, emigrated after 1850 to Australia. Joseph was Miller at the Cosh during the years following the enlightenment when the understanding of farming practice underwent unparalleled development; with the liming of land, multure with clover, and the winter fattening of cattle with turnip. In Joseph’s time the twal-ousen plough became an historic artifact. As a miller, Joseph was dependent on the Abergeldy tenants and the successful cropping of land. The terrible harvest of 1782 had not been forgotten and the small glen in particular, was ever prone to severe inclemency.
According to Dr Sedgwick ‘the miller was often disliked – because he had to be paid, often in kind,’ there was no other choice for the farmers of the glen: grain had to be ground at the Cosh, and a mill multure had to be paid. Both the Abergeldy laird, and Joseph Gordon, the miller, gained. However there must be serious doubts that this could explain Joseph’s relative prosperity. Donald Whyte was prompted on discovering Joseph’s legacy to state that he was ‘industrious and frugal.’ Joseph, on his death in March 1858 left an estate worth £443.17s.9d.
The true reason that we know much about Joseph of Cosh is that his eldest son John Gordon (1807-1876) became a Mormon. It seems that John had been inspired by visiting American Elders, who had come to Scotland to preach the gospel. John, and his wife, Jessie, ‘gladly accepted their message’ and in Arbroath in September of 1849 were baptized members of The Mormon Church. So five years before his death, Joseph Gordon, witnessed the wholesale conversion of his son, and his son’s family.
It has been recorded within the family, that one day, sometime in 1852, a lady with two small girls was passing, and seeing Nicolas Gordon, the wife of Joseph Gordon (who would have been 73 at this time) in the garden, asked if they might come in and rest. The lady was wearing a brown merirec dress, and a white bonnet trimmed with brown ribbon. The little girls both wore dark dresses with full skirts reaching to the tops of their high shoes, and dark poke bonnets. There was a large pot of broth on the hearth which was shared with the guests. The lady praised it, and asked for the recipe. When they were leaving, the lady very graciously said she had enjoyed herself, and Nicholas Gordon learned that she had entertained Queen Victoria and two royal princesses!
Though the names of the princesses have not been preserved in this tale, there is a good probability they may have been her fifth child, Princess Helena, who would have been six, and her sixth child, Princess Louise, who would have been four. If this is correct, Queen Victoria would have been 33. Her seventh child, Prince Arthur, would, at age two, be too young for such a walk, and it would be another year before she gave birth to her eighth child, Prince Leopold, in 1853.
Auld Joseph never met the Queen, but she would, one imagines, have marvelled at his Highland dress, as recalled in the moving story of his death by his granddaughter:
“Sometime in February 1858 and Joseph Gordon was now quite old, but still walked to Arbroath to visit his son John and family. On this particular journey he wore his kilt and a tartan of Gordon plaid and a very large Glengary bonnet of dark blue woolly cloth, with bindings and streamers of black ribbon about two inches wide and a fur sporran, from which he would give the children pennies. The children held him in great awe, and every time he put his hand in the pouch, each of the several children would wait anxiously to see who would get the penny.
John was pleased to see his father, and presented him with a pair of new shoes, of which he was very proud. Shortly after his arrival he became very ill, and wished to go home. He was too ill to go alone, so John procured three donkeys and mounted his father on one, his wife, Jessie, on the second, and took the third one himself so they could begin their journey.
They rode a long distance, and then the way became too steep, even for the donkeys, so while John was making arrangements for the care of them until his return, Joseph started up the mountain alone. The way was steep, and there was plenty of snow. He carried two staffs for climbing, and he tied the new shoes to one of them to make the carrying easier.
As John and Jessie followed him up the trail they could see that he had become very tired or ill, and after standing the staff with the shoes on upright in the snow, he would lie down to rest with the other staff beside him. Then he would get up and stagger on again, for shorter and shorter distances. They finally overtook him and assisted him the rest of the way home. It proved to be his last illness.”
Within a year of his death his son John left with his family for Zion. Joseph would not have approved – he felt that the gospel zeal of the Prophets had stolen his son, and converted him from plain Presbyterianism. I find myself imagining auld Joseph chastising the prophets as he undertook his arduous trek to visit his grandchildren in Arbroath. The irony presents itself that Joseph, on his death, left such a rich legacy, shared out amongst his bairns, that he undoubtedly helped finance his son’s emigration to Utah.
John Gordon and family, except for his two oldest sons who refused to go, embarked for America from Liverpool on the 7th April 1859. The vessel on which they traveled was the William Tapscott under the charge of Captain Bell. Nearly nine hundred passengers were crammed aboard. John took with him his second wife Jessie Bissett and his seven youngest children, including Kitty, aged three years, and Mary, just seven months
John Gordon was fearless and determined. He had a resilience built of The Camlet. He was born there in 1807 and spent his entire childhood on the farm. So what sort of bairn had the Camlet sired? John Gordon somehow garnered an education well beyond the rudimentary norm, but he also had flair and ability. In his thirties, he was elected a Burgess of Forfar, and was a prominent citizen of that town. John Gordon also had the reputation of being a very studious man. It has been said of him that he was ‘always studying something.’ He was interested in short-hand, and stenography, and became very proficient in it. He was, at one time, a court stenographer.
Little Jessie, aged nine years, remembered many things about that ten week trip, like the sickness amongst the women and children, the death and burial of someone while at sea; and a bad storm that delayed the ship many days. Like the other children, she had a ‘pankin,’ a flat tin cup, suspended from a string around her neck, from which she both ate and drank. She was given a spoon at meal time, and no other dishes were necessary. Her best dress was black, with trimmings of black piping, and the skirt hung about to her shoe tops. She wore a black poke bonnet with a black and white ribbon tie under her chin. This ribbon also circled the crown and hung down in streamers at the back.
The journey across the ocean was a very long, tiresome one. But in spite of it all, there were many interesting things that happened. One of them was the rescue of a young girl by the name of Mary Madden, who was found in the ocean floating on some wreckage. She and her sister had embarked for America together, but the ship upon which they had taken passage, was shipwrecked. The sister was drowned, and Mary was rescued by the crew of the William Tapscot. Mary, while in her terror-stricken condition, was warmly taken into the family circle of John and Jessie Gordon. So good were they to her and so attached did she become to them, that she requested that they adopt her. They did not do so but, on arriving in New York they made sure that she was safe and well. Within a year she was happily married
One of the first things John Gordon did after arriving in New York was to become a citizen of the United States. His declaration of Intention was sworn on the 3rd of November 1860. Thus the ‘Camlet loon’ became an American, and willingly, left the distant small glen hardships behind.
The family lived in New York for two years. During this time everyone toiled, early and late, and saved every penny that could be spared to finish their journey to Utah, ‘the Land of Promise.’ At last everything was in readiness and the family boarded the train in New York, for Florence, Nebraska.
Little Kitty was about five years old at this time, and just when the train would begin to slow down for a stop, her father would tell her to pull on the arm of the seat. She would brace her little legs, and pull until her breathing would-become laboured and her little face as red as cherries. At about this time the train would stop and the innocent Kitty would really believe she had stopped the train. Then about the time it was to start again, her father would tell her to push and she would push, and push and push, and finally get the train started again. Kitty really believed it was up to her to stop and start that train! There isn’t a great deal of difference in fathers, regardless of what time they lived! John was no exception, and was still a boy at heart. This was impish Camlet fun, in a loon, that like his little daughter had never traveled on such a mechanical fire-breathing beast before!
It took them eleven days to reach their destination. Since they had nothing to eat, but dry food, they were sick by the time they arrived. They stayed in Florence for six weeks whilst they made preparations to join one of the wagon trains for the final trek across the plains
The desert trek was started on Independence Day 1861 and was headed by Captain Horn. It was to match, in days, the transatlantic crossing. Each person was assigned to a certain wagon, and was expected to remain in and with that wagon all the way. There were 16 people to each wagon and the cost was 41 dollars per person and half price for children. All who were able had to walk, and only those too old, or too young, or otherwise handicapped, could ride. They camped out on the grass and lived in tents, while their diet consisted of beans, black bread, and salt pork. They had a few potatoes at first, but these soon gave out.
John Gordon, age 54, walked every step of the way and even Jessie, now 13, said she could not recall riding any. Little Kitty, aged six, said the only time she got to ride was when Captain Horn would take her up on his horse with him and give her tired little legs a rest. Each of the older members of the family took turns carrying baby Ellen. The trip was made in the hottest part of the year. They suffered greatly from heat and thirst. John’s oldest children would get so desperately thirsty that they would often stoop down and drink water that had accumulated in the cow or buffalo tracks.
John Gordon nearly lost his life during this trek. The rule of the day was that every able-bodied man should walk. John, being very independent, was determined to obey orders. When they came to the Green River, he proceeded on, contrary to the advice of the Captain, and waded out into the river, rather than ride a wagon. He lost his footing, and was washed out into the deep water. He would have drowned had it not been for quick action on the part of captain Horn. Later the family liked to boast that he walked every step of the way from Florence, Nebraska, to Utah, and swam all the rivers, which ‘really impressed the grandchildren.’
John Gordon was an accomplished stonemason, and not only did he build the family home in Tooele, where they settled after Grantsville, but also many of the municipal buildings in the town. By this time the Civil War had been fought and was over, and the country was in the throes of a great depression. Prices were very high and even plain flour sold for 12 dollars a cwt. Apparently John Gordon would think nothing of walking all the way to Salt Lake City to carry home a bag of flour on his back.
Through nothing but determination and sheer hard work, John Gordon eventually owned about three half blocks of property in Tooele. Edna Richardson, his granddaughter, recalled that when, as a little girl, she used to skip and run that he called her ‘fleet foot.’ Apparently he spoke in a tongue that was broad Scots. It is somehow rewarding to think of John Gordon, and his touch of Camlet Doric, in far-off Tooele!
It was through John Gordon that Camlet hit the world-wide map. In 1873 he submitted his family for baptismal endowment and in doing so listed his family back to his great-grandparents. It confirmed, that the founding parents of The Camlet, were from Balindory in Glenmuick, namely Peter Gordon and Barbara Leys. This was a missing piece of the puzzle and made sense of a lot; the brother of Peter in Balindory, being ‘Wardhead Nathaniel’; and their father, almost certainly, John Gordon of Drumnettie in Glenbuchat. The farm of Drumnettie is on the estate of ‘Lost.’ It is funny, surely, that ‘Lost’ solved the Camlet, when the seven Professors of Aberdeen, could not!
In his seventieth year, the resilient John Gordon of Tooele, was felled. Apparently his big toe got frost-bite, became infected, and this subsequently led to his death. That was the fall of 1876. Edna his granddaughter remembers her last sorrowful goodbye:
‘Grandfather sat near the door step with his chin on his cane. Mother asked me when we were half way to the gate if I had kissed him goodbye. I said no and she told me to go back and do it. I wanted to but was sort of self conscious I guess. Mother didn’t insist so I didn’t do it, but my conscience troubled me because he looked so sad.’
Having dealt with the passing of John Gordon it is time to leave Tooele behind, however I hope you agree that it was worth sharing the story of that transatlantic journey from far off Camlet. Regardless of your religious determination, you must agree that John Gordon should be regaled for leading his family with such stoicism.
Back at the Cosh, Nicolas the grandmother continued to send out whatever money she had to Zion. She was so selfless, that she died penniless in her ninetieth year in ‘reduced circumstances.’ The mill was then run by her son-in-law Charles Leys. This returns us to where this chapter came in.
The mill wheel stopped turning on the night of the 8th of May 1860. Most cruelly Charles Leys, and his wife Jane Gordon, had lost their third toddler in no more than a handful of years. The circumstances were awful; the poor wee bairn had drowned accidentally at midnight in the mill lade. That grief has transcended the generations and haunts the Cosh yet. It is visceral and biting. The hurt never left Charles Leys and the Cosh became a most sorrowful home. One can understand that this was why, a few years later, Charles Leys left his family behind and emigrated to Australia alone. His surviving daughter, Elizabeth Gordon Leys, stayed behind with her mother at the Cosh. Her job was to look-after her mother – the black widow. She did well, for Elizabeth lived into her hundredth year. She died the year I was born.
Sometimes stories from the past come back for a reason and when my dear friend, and fellow ‘Deeside Detective,’ wrote to me about her trip to north west Victoria I was left to ponder this. Sharon Jameson wrote an extraordinary piece about the town of Birchip and her footsteps in the past just curled off the page in bristling heat. Birchip was the adopted home of lonely Charles Leys.
Charles Leys arrived in Australia in December 1870 on board ‘British Monarch,’ following route of four of his brothers, and a sister who had already chosen Victoria as her new home. Charles left behind in the small glen his wife Jane Gordon, and two young daughters, Margaret aged 10, and Elizabeth aged 5. He was never to see them again.
Birchip is a sleepy country-town in north-west Victoria. It hovers in the heat of the past, with a long wide main street and sun-parched verandahs. You can probably imagine the arrival to the town, on a crisp-dry plain of straightness:
‘From Warracknabeal to Birchip is sixty-two miles of straight road. There are no bends, no rises and falls in the countryside to distract the driver’s attention from the endless broken white line down the centre of the bitumen.”
It is impossible not to wonder what Charles Leys made of this his new homeland? No scenic contrast could be greater than to his small highland den in Deeside. All of Charles siblings had settled in Talbot but Charles chose a solitary life as a shepherd on a Birchip farm. He was there for 25 years, and was seemingly befriended by few, apart from the proprietors of the Birchip Licensed establishments! Yes Charles was fond of his liquor, and perhaps having abandoned his family, it was the only comfort. When he died his liver was swollen double and rotten through drink.
It is fascinatingly grim to record that Charles, a native of the cold, was to succumb to heat. In fact in an alcoholic stupor, on a September night of 1899, Charles collapsed in his fire grate, and was horribly burnt alive. The Birchip Constable of Police gave the following statement:
‘On the morning of the 12th inst I received information about the death of Charles Leys. I proceeded to the Gap reserve about 5 or 6 miles from Birchip and found in a hut the body of the deceased. The body was fully dressed and way lying on face downwards on the right side. The right hip was in the edge of the fire. The garments and flesh were burnt. There was no appearance of a struggle. The saucepan near the fire contained stew and deceased had apparently fallen down when taking it off. Nothing in the hut was disturbed. I had the body conveyed to Honaus Hotel and arrangements made for inquiry and burial. I communicated with his friends at Evansford and received a reply from them stating they could not be present but that they would pay six pounds on account of burial.’
Ostracized by his siblings, Charles Leys died a pauper, and was buried in an unmarked grave. It seems only the hotelier, and police constable, attended his funeral. When he died he only had the 13/6 owed to him in wages – he had drunk the rest!
Sharon Jameson, ‘Deeside’s true friend’, revisited Charles Leys in 2007. It was a calling from the grave, and a story shared privately, between two correspondents across the world. On leaving lonely Birchip, having been the first visitor to the grave of Charles Leys, Sharon looked up to the signpost on the dirt-track which she was following, and the signpost told her she was on ‘Leys Road.’ Sharon was moved to shed a tear.
The Leys family occupies a fondness in the heart of the writer. At one time they formed the beating heart of Glen Gairn – but now they are all gone. Like the small glen the ruined cotter-houses tell the story of an inexorable clearance. The Leys family all stem from the patriarch Francis Leys of Inverarder, and his wife Mary Gordon. His weathered tombstone was described in chapter three. One son, Thomas Leys, established his family at Torran near Richarchie, whilst another son, Alexander Leys (c1765-1847) settled at Sleach. A further son Charles Leys was a blacksmith at Ballachlaggan (Glen Fearder) and had the most interesting family of all. His grandson was John Brown, the personal Highland Attendant of Queen Victoria.
Sleach is a special place. Always remote it has clung on to its history like tattered rags in the wind. One day I will tell the story behind this, the ‘elbow of the Gairn;’ it deserves that.
The sadness of the Leys was redirected towards caring, and the Cosh Mill, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, became a home for the poor and the invalid. Although not officially recognized, it was to become the poorhouse of the small glen. Between 1870 and 1890 there was about a dozen old folk who saw out their days on the peaceful Cosh meadow – with the trickling rushing burn as their dearest companion.
After the Leys, Cosh Mill was tenanted by Alexander McPherson, who relocated his family from Kirkstyle in Glen Gairn. His wife Fanny Grant was from Richarkie. In all, three generations of Alexander McPherson; father, son and grandson, acted as the miller at the Cosh.
Willie Downie remembered the first Alexander McPherson (1837 -1921):
‘McPherson wis aboot the last one that had the mill up there (Kirkstyle, in Glen Gairn) they came doon tae Girnoc tae the Mill of Cosh (pronounced Hosh). I mind fa’n I wis a little loon he used tae dae cairtin and the like o that and he used tae go through the ford at Abergeldy tae keep the right of way ye know at Torgalter yonder. He was going to go through it ye see to keep the right of way.’
Sometime between the Great War and WWII the Mill of Cosh was badly burnt and grandson McPherson passed the missives over to ‘a lad called Reid.’ The Mill was rebuilt, and put back into working order but apparently it did very little after that. John Robertson of the Spittal, recalled the last working days of the mill:
‘I was often there when it was rinnin. The dam was away out the Girnoc. The dam was opened on a wire connected to a chain wrapped around a drum. It was a fair sized dam at one time but to look at it noo it’s nothing. The whole things grown in, there’s trees growin in it noo. They took the water oot the Girnoc to supply it. They just used the dam tae top up the Girnoc fan the mill wis workin.’
Having wandered all around the Cosh I have found that the old topography is almost impossible to interpret. The main lade is still obvious, but there is no sight of subsidiary channels, or of the dam. All have been enveloped by the downy grace of a native copse of birch, where thoughts of grindingly large mill mechanisms seem vaguely ridiculous. Once again nature has worked her wonder and the mark of man has all but been removed.
In the last few years I have penned, to and fro, letters to a new young friend of the Girnoc. This lad’s name is Alistair Repper and aged 15 years he set about studying the small glen for his Duke of Edinburgh award. Alistair was to prove himself as a truly worthy ‘Deeside Detective.’ He has explored the glens of upper Deeside, retraced the old cotter-towns, spoke to folk with childhood stories, and garnered from all quarters folklore of true local fascination. In Glen Gairn, Alistair, is one of just a handful to have found the remains of an old ‘black bothy.’ It seems even after one hundred years he had out-gauged the Guager. For that Alistair must get our heart-felt applause!
In chapter four mention was made of the ‘mysterious and shadowy’ Joseph Gordon of Birkhall who went into hiding after the 45’ rebellion. For sometime now, I have wondered if Joseph went to the small glen to hide after first living overseas. It was Alistair Repper who suggested that Joseph might have hidden in a secret cave to be found near the hollow, in a gully on Creag Ghuibhais. It would seem fitting that the ‘Sister Hill’ should embrace Joseph, as long as the ‘Hill of the Piper’ (sitting opposite) did not announce his presence!
Long has the Cosh wheel stopped turning but let us not finish on a sad note, for it is so good to know, that while ever young ones like Alistair Repper have an interest, the Girnoc and the other Deeside glens will never be empty!
Chapter 6 of ‘Deeside Tales’: Wolf McAndrew – Lynvaig
It was a curious yet stirring dream. It all started at the Cosh with a vintage car rally of which I was the leading participant. I was, of course, driving the old Austin of The Camlet.
The true marvel was how these beautiful old cars made it up the small glen track. But that they did! Exhilaration peaked at Lynvaig, for there, just beyond the copse; Lochnagar magically peeked above the elbow of the glen.
As one rises steeply out of the birch woods, heading southwards, the main Girnoc track leads first to the scattered remains of Newton farm-toun, a farming community that was deserted in the 1840’s, and then to Lynvaig, a farm one-and-a-half miles on from the Cosh. Lynvaig has an equally lengthy history, though unlike Newton, was farmed up until relatively recent times.
Lynvaig, as it was known, has a rather romantic Gaelic translation (lòn na bhfiodhag) ‘meadow of the bird-cherry’ though Adam Watson believes that the true Deeside etymology is ‘little enclosure.’ I would never argue with Dr Watson whose understanding of upper Deeside surpasses all, however I cannot help returning to that Gaelic translation.
These days Lynvaig has become a sanitized ‘Loinveg.’ I prefer the former and shall preserve it for this text. The woodland around Lynvaig, on the south-westerly side, is a beautiful native copse, principally of Birch (Betula pendula) but scattered with Alder (Alnus glutinosa) and Bird Cherry (Prunus padus). It is as beautiful a woodland as you will ever find – light, airy and deliciously fresh.
As I have told you I have a love of trees, but easily my favourite native is the Bird-Cherry (Gean). To look at it does not command the authority of the hardwoods, but like them it is deciduous and incredibly tough. It can survive easily on the high reaches of the small glen. That is in itself a measure of robustness! Yet it is a delicate tree, never more than ten metres tall and in May is crowned in glorious white flowers with irregularly toothed petals. The sickly almond scented flowers attract many insects, particularly bees and flies. The fruits, which are like small cherries, are rich in tannin, and despite their bitter taste, are eaten by birds, like robins and thrushes. Hence the name.
The bark of the Bird-Cherry was gathered in the Middle Ages to make an infusion used as a tonic and sedative for stomach pains. One can only imagine, given its proximity to the wood, and the natural larder there-in, that Lynvaig was the ‘medicinal centre’ of the small glen. However to me the Gean is at its best in the autumn, displaying rich russets and oranges, which seem all the more brilliant in the midst of the muzzy purple-brown of the feathery birch.
Lynvaig was the birthplace of Euphemia MacAndrew (the first wife of Camlet John.) Her tombstone in Glenmuick, sits just beside her parents; John MacAndrew and Isobel Roy. Examination of the old parish register reveals that there were several MacAndrew families in Lynvaig throughout the eighteenth century with the head of household carrying names such as Donald, James and John. Bob McAndrew a retired pathologist from Dunkeld in Perthshire, described in a letter how ‘the density of family groups in Crathie parish points to it being one of the focal points of origin of the name.’
The McAndrew name crops up in an unusual Deeside tale, which was recently rehearsed by Dr Sheila Sedgwick in her book ‘The Legion of the Lost.’ The last Wolf in Deeside was probably killed in Glen Gairn in 1744, but before then they would have been common within the district, and were noted particularly in Glen Muick and Glen Girnoc. According to Dr Sedgwick, about 1890 an ‘old man’ used to tell a story of a young child being ‘carried away by a wolf’ many years previously. The small child was nourished by the wolves in a den on Lochnagar. He grew to be of considerable size and seemed to be of a wild disposition. Once the men of the glen discovered the den of wolves they set out to capture the boy. They finally succeeded and after the boy had been in human company for some time he became ‘socialised’, even if not completely civilized. He did however retain an excessively hairy appearance and that trait was said to continue through his descendents, who were known as the Wolf McAndrews.
On the 22nd of April 2006 an Episode of the new Dr Who series was aired called ‘Tooth and Claw’ the storyline of which (about a Werewolf Disorder and Queen Victoria) prompted a furious reply by Dr Sedgwick of Girnoc Shiel who alleged the idea had been stolen from her. Given that the viewing figures that night were in excess of 10 million, the cynical might say there was motive in Dr Sedgwick’s claim! In fact the title of this episode comes from a favourite poem of Queen Victoria written by Tennyson in 1850: ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw.’ This particular poem was a special comfort to the Queen after Prince Albert’s death.
Werewolf Doctor Story was Stolen!
A Scottish author has threatened to sue the BBC after saying it nicked her storyline for an episode of Dr Who… Dr Sheila Sedgwick MBE has sent a strongly-worded letter to BBC lawyers demanding an explanation.
In 1999 Dr Sedgwick, 81, of Ballater, Aberdeenshire, wrote an historic Victorian account of a “wolf boy” in her £12.50 book The Legion of the Lost. The youngster lived in a cave on the 3,800 high peak, Lochnagar, on the Balmoral Estate. Now Dr Sedgwick is convinced the plot idea for the werewolf storyline on TV is from her book.
I come from a family of men renowned for their swarthy beard-growth and perhaps now we can explain why?! Through Euphemia McAndrew we inherited wolf blood. The best family beard was displayed by John Gordon (1816-1899), who was the grandson of Camlet John and Euphemia McAndrew.
In March 2004 I wrote a poem about a burn in Glen Muick. That burn is called Allt Darrarie but is known locally, and in folk-lore, as Aultdrachty. You may ask why include a burn from Glen Muick when this book’s remit is the Girnoc? Well the answer is simple; time and time again Aultdrachty returned us to Lynvaig. Folklore beckoned a poem, and so the tied histories, became one. The Aultdrachty Rauchle is about the unique rattling noise the burn makes as it rushes down towards the Spittalof Muick. Its torrent may have never ceased but the glen it served emptied. Aultdrachty encapsulates the story of unfortunate whisky smugglers, a fatigued packman, and most curiously of all, the umbrella makers of Lynvaig (they appear there on the 1891 census!) But it was ruthless murder that was Aultdrachty’s grim secret. That burn was as fearsome as the wolf that roamed its banks. I have decided to include the whole poem here as its narrative seems to deserve.
The Aultdrachty Rauchle.
Naebody mynds Aultdrachty noo,
though lood it rattles still.
Yet Aultdrachty’s watter wis’nae awas clear,
an it hods a muckle saicret.
Sae hearken, an hear the feech
o’ the packman, shepherd an the whisky smugglers.
An beyont the reevin win’
the toon-folk, michty-me,
brought forth their ceevil brolly –
Fit mare eesless cud there be!
Stapit foo’ wi dram he wis,
oor Packman on’t fairst erran –
oor hapless loon had’nae heed Aultdrachty’s rowt
on such a loamin’ nicht.
The snaa it came ower the Moonth, a bin-drift,
like nane afore.
Poor loon, asleep aside Aultdrachty,
his lum still a reekin’ was berit.
Lynvaig, wis the hame of McAndrew: anither mither’s loon –
lured by Aultdrachty’s cackle.
Then risen fae a halla, a sleekit naisty beast,
seelenced by Aultdrachty it pounced.
Aye Aultdrachty saa it’ fearsome.
Aultdrachty’s rauchle had a’ thirst that widnae slack.
Half a’ loam smugglers naixt tae the slauchter,
theer bellies reed-het wi’ watter distillate,
jeelous Aultdrachty cud’nae hae that!
Aye the watter wis nae awas clear.
An then Aultdrachty reeled its maist keerious,
the hapless, stupit toon-folk,
the umberella loami:
fit an’ earth tak them tae Aultdrachty, nane will ken,
nane but Aultdrachty.
Fit a spleeter o’ weet,
A shooer like nane
eesless brollies, blan in-bye-oot,
sae they huddled by Aultdrachty.
The watter it fell oot fae the heeven fur days, an nichts,
an fullt the quaich o’ Aultdrachty welt beyont the brim,
Ceevil folk, wi brollies, had nae chance.
That’s how lood wis Aultdrachty’s rattle
an sae its keerious tae think
the glen it ken’t has lang since ceased to roar.
It is strange is it not, what inspires one to write a piece. In the course of writing this book I was most surprised to discover that, completely unknown to me, one of my favourite Doric story-tellers had written her own poem on Aultdrachty called the Burn of the Stunning Noise. It is wonderful, evocative and rather special but does not carry the sinister rauchle!
Slaverin, slubberin, gibberin, gabberin,
Roon wi a wallop, a sklyter, a sweel
Yonder’s the burn – in its bairnhood, it’s blabberin –
Heich-lowpin loamin, wi virr in its heel!
Bellied an dauchlin, it’s tashed an it’s trauchlin,
Beached in a bog, like a biblical whale;
Hashin an dashin, it’s up an it’s clashin,
Skelpit an skytin, like chaff frae the flail.
Come the fey nicht, fin the loaming is glysterie,
Lang as a note on a tenuous string,
Black as a swan, o’ immaculate mystery
Doon rowes the burn, on a sang an a wing.
Dulcet as Chopin, Menuhin, Beethoven
Jinkie’s Stravinsky, as breengin as Bach
Syne, wid I bide b’ it, thirled an tied tae it,
Drink o its music a strang willie-waucht!
Lynvaig was, in the early nineteenth century, to become the home of Francis the younger brother of ‘Camlet John.’ Francis Gordon has also been given the Camlet eponym for he raised most of his family there before flitting, sometime before 1816, to Lynvaig. His first wife, Margaret Glass, died in childbirth in January 1790. The Glass family strike at the heart of The Camlet with a truly inextricable bond. Fly the crows-nest to the Forest of Birse and you come to another lost farmstead – Auchabrack, the home of the Glass family for nigh on two centuries. It is fact that several generations of Auchabrack married into the inextricable Gordons of Girnoc.
Sharon Jameson has been the best of Deeside compatriots and nobody has done more than her to pull together the historical fabric of the parish of Birse. It was Sharon who specially brought Auchabrack back to the Camlet.
The forefather of Auchabrack was Donald Glass who died in March 1797. His eldest son Charles Glass continued at Auchabrack, and in December of the following year, married Jean Gordon. This was probably how small glen blood first flowed into Auchabrack. Frustratingly however Jean Gordon has cowered in obscurity, and when she died just a year or two before the date of civil registration, the last chance of definitively proving her origin was lost.
Charles Glass of Auchabrack and Jean Gordon had a large family, but two of their first three daughters, Charlotte and Jane, married Gordons. Charlotte Glass married John Gordon, a man many years older than her; he was already 64 years old when in 1832 they married in Aberdeen. Here we have another unidentified Gordon who marries into Auchabrack. Charlotte Glass and John Gordon were buried under a distinctly impressive memorial in Nellfield Cemetery in Aberdeen. The other Auchabrack daughter, Jane Glass married Peter Gordon (1804-1859). In Peter we have at last an identifiable Gordon; Peter was the son of Camlet Francis.
If I could travel back to the nineteenth century, I would chose first to meet the three Glass sisters of Auchabrack: Ann, Charlotte, and Jane. These sisters died before the era of portraiture and had it not been for Sharon Jamieson, their story would have been forever lost. Charlotte, as we have learned, married a man old enough to be her father, if not grandfather. John Gordon her husband was 73 years of age when they had their last child in 1841. Ann Glass, the eldest of the sibship had a child each with three different fathers – a laird, an Advocate and a gentleman. It is easy to imagine her as a betwixing yet adept beauty. Like her sister Charlotte she first married a much older man, Henry Grassie, who was more than forty years her senior.
The Glass-Gordon bond was stretched taught in the spring of 1832 when a Gordon loon (son of Camlet) and a Glass loon (son of Auchabrack) were both indicted for telling lies. The whole case revolved around the purchase of a horse from a further cousin who lived in Wardhead. It seems that John Glass of Auchabrack did not give the full purchase price of twelve pounds to Wardhead. Furthermore, John Glass and his cousin, John Gordon (the youngest son of ‘Camlet Francis’ and born at Lynvaig in 1816), concocted a story together to cover themselves of any wrong-doing.
It is hard to fully disentangle the story as the Case Papers are incomplete and the precognitions do not survive. Furthermore, the legal language is dense, and there is much confusion over the many Glass and Gordon proponents! In many ways, it seemed to me, like a lot of fuss over not very much, but then I had not appreciated the real value of a horse at that time. It was, if you recall, a stallion that had previously saved the Camlet family (chapter two). The confusion of the GLASS HORSE case stands as a metaphor for the two families, for you can see from the complex annotation above that these two families had an inextricable bond.
THE INDICTMENT OF APRIL 1832, ABERDEEN.
JOHN GORDON, alias GEORGE YOUNGSON, presently prisoner in the jail of Aberdeen, and JOHN GLASS, of Forest of Birse, farmer or crofter, now or lately residing at Auchabrack, Forest of Birse, parish of Birse, and shire of Aberdeen, you are Indicted and Accused at the instance of Francis Jeffrey, Esq his Majesty’s Advocate, for his Majesty’s interest:
THAT ALBEIT, by the laws of this and of every other well governed realm, PERJURY; and also SUBORNATION of PERJURY, are crimes of an heinous nature, and severely punishable:
I have found myself re-writing this section over and over again. The temptation with Camlet Francis is to convey the detail, but given the complexity of the inextricable Gordons, that surely risks tedium. You may not be surprised to learn then that the second wife of Camlet Francis was also a Gordon! She was called Margaret and speculation has surfaced that she was the daughter of Nathaniel Gordon of Toum (in Glen Gairn).
What do we know about Camlet Francis? Well the most obvious fact pertains to Lair 1309 in Nellfield Cemetery, for it was here in September 1839 that he was buried aged 89 years. Over the next two generations twenty-two of his family were to join him in this a most crammed resting place. Lair 1309 has thrown up many mysteries, but serves particularly to remind us of the relentless clearance of the small glen, and in the case of Camlet Francis, nearly an entire family to the metropolis of Aberdeen city.
Further detail about Camlet Francis emerged in 1905 when Dr Bulloch, researching for the House of Gordon, contacted Mr David Burnett Gordon, who served with the Grenadier Guards in the Crimea. In a letter of response he told Dr Bulloch:
‘I was born at Lynvaig. My father’s name was Francis Gordon, farmer and cattle-dealer. My grandfather’s name was Francis Gordon. He was farmer of the home farm of Abergeldy, for three nineteen years, previous to 1834, the year I was born.’
This would indicate the closest of bonds to Abergeldy. The indefatiguable Dr John Malcolm Bulloch was compelled, on hearing this, to place Abergeldy’s small glen and its many Gordons.
When I first started my Deeside quest a decade ago, I was directed to the ‘Gordonology’ of Dr Bulloch, which was all published in Notes and Queries. I mused then what had fired such obsession in a man, to continue lifelong research into a family in which he did not even belong? It has taken me a further decade to uncover John Malcolm Bulloch’s story, and as a result, I have discovered we share much. If we had belonged to the same century, there can be no doubt, John Bulloch and I would have been dear friends. After all we were both graduates of Aberdeen University, and we both became bewitched with Deeside. The glowing embers of our passion were borne of that Abergeldy hearth. I find myself reflecting that Bulloch, like me, did not distinguish himself in Aberdeen academically; simply we were not the greatest alumini – yet I think we both carried a passion that enveloped our beings. Yet an interest should not sit alone, and whilst I distinguished myself in Horticulture and Architecture; Bulloch learned to tread the theatrical globe, and became the eminent Pall Mall theatre critic of the century’s turn
In every way Bulloch’s reach has out-spanned mine. I could never be his match. There can be no doubt, Bulloch used his obsessional traits, mighty as they were, to good purpose. The obituaries to him, in 1938, credit his work in the history of the Gordons. Yet I find myself congratulating him for his incredible diversity. It is creditable indeed to exceed in one field but to go far beyond marks immeasurable brilliance. In my opinion Dr John Malcolm Bulloch was one of Aberdeen’s greatest sons and we shall certainly ‘not see his like again.’
Yet behind every genius there lies weakness. A pervasive discipline underpinned Bulloch’s being and he failed to recognize the intense toll of such. He thrust himself into the hectic hey-day of Pall Mall. It is recorded that as the ‘Nation’s favourite Theatre Critic,’ Bulloch saw first the good in performance. That, I think, is the essence of an Aberdonian. Yes he was critical but not cynical. What better qualities could a Theatre columnist have? When he died, he left every first-day revue and program to the British Museum. I have found myself wondering, if in this our modern world of digital instancy, Bulloch would have been at the media helm?
Yet Bulloch, I think, had an awkwardness that transposes every photograph I have seen of him – at any age. He has that self-conscious look, that heavy upper philtrum (perhaps born of his parents’ consanguinity) that suggests awkwardness. He was small in stature and I imagine that in company he may well have covered timidity. Not surprising then that in books, manuscripts, literary out-pourings, he was at home. With them he needed no company but his own.
John Malcolm Bulloch was born exactly a century before me. He arrived to this world at Springbank Terrace, Aberdeen on the 26th May 1867. His parents were cousins sharing ‘Malcolm’ grandparents. Baby John was the third generation to carry the name, and in his University years Bulloch added ‘Malcolm’ to his name in honour of his mother’s family and to separate his literary genius from that of his father and grandfather. It should be noted that his grandfather John Bulloch (1805-1882) wrote, whilst in Aberdeen ‘Studies on Shakespere.’
Bulloch’s family was originally from Baldernock in East Stirlingshire. Mittie Bulloch the mother of Theodore Roosevelt was a relation. She was a striking beauty. The Baldernock Bullochs had probably gone there from the Isles, for they were originally MacDonalds, descendents of that Donald who was known by his nick-name ‘Balloch,’ the Gaelic for ‘freckled.’
Bulloch’s grandfather, a Brass-founder was brought to Aberdeen by chance after reading an advertisement in the summer of 1829 for two vacant positions in the silver city. He arrived by sea on July the 20th aboard the paddle-steamer ‘Velocity’:
‘My first sight of Aberdeen was a very enchanting one – the sea beach, the arched tower of King’s College, and the spires of the Aulton Cathedral. We anchored in the Bay, and were taken ashore in a small boat.’
Two decades later that paddle-steamer, by then bravely entering the harbour, was wrecked in stormy seas upon the jutting north-pier. The story of Fittie’s wrecks is extraordinary and can be read in the Leopard article ‘Fittie’s Tragic Harbour Master’ (issue 335.)
John Malcolm Bulloch’s grandfather (on the Malcolm side) was the teacher in Leochel-Cushnie and graduated at King’s College in 1821. It was thus surprising to learn that when John and William were first sent to the Aberdeen Grammar School, they were regarded as ‘unsatisfactory pupils’ and were transferred to the Old Aberdeen Grammar School, popularly known as ‘The Barn.’
William, Bulloch’s brother, was a year younger and was also to be an Aberdeen graduate. He is worthy indeed of mention, for as a student of Medicine, he took every accolade going and graduated as the class Gold Medallist. The ‘Barn’ would have been proud indeed and how wrong, we now muse, was the Grammar School to throw the Bulloch brothers out!
As a Bacteriologist, William Bulloch (1868-1941) helped Dr Joseph Lister developing anti-serum for typhoid, cholera and diphtheria. ‘Verify your references’ was his invariable and salutary slogan, a stickler for detail, he used to despair at slack student standards: ‘fatheads’ an exasperated Bulloch was often moved to call them. Dr William Bulloch could be brusque and unbending if he scented pretence, and the notice on his private door “THIS IS MY BUSY DAY’ was certainly not encouraging, but that demeanour served ‘only as a cloak of defence for at heart that was said to be straightforward, kindly and hospitable.’ Nevertheless, as an Aberdeen graduate in Medicine myself, I am glad that I did not come under his tutelage for likely I would have been one of his ‘fatheads’ and I simply have no time for bullies in whatever guise.
It is interesting to reflect on the driving force that underpinned these two brothers; in later years, in a fashion very similar to his brother, John Malcolm used to annonce at the end of a busy day in the office ‘I’m going home now to work!’” Dr Bulloch’s first contributions to journalism were made when he was a student. He graduated M.A. in 1888 and in the following year became a sub-editor on the staff of the ‘Aberdeen Free Press.’ Four years later he went to London as assistant editor of ‘The Sketch’ of which he ultimately became editor. Forty five years in London, his love for Aberdeen, never abated, in fact it gathered an even greater intensity:
‘It is my proud boast that I know nearly as much about Aberdeen and its people today as I did forty years ago when I left the north for the Metropolis. During all these years I have endeavoured to keep in intimate touch with Aberdeen and the Nor’-East, not only through the many visitors who come down south, but also be frequently returning to the city itself, for I believe that it is as necessary for a Scotsman to maintain association with Scotland as it is for a Salmon to return to the sea each year.’
‘If it were possible I would spend all the daytime in my Aberdeen over my hobbies, with a good look at the sea – which I miss intensely – and all my nights in London, where the flash of Girdleness would be replaced by the lamps of Piccadilly and the whole romance of the Metropolis after dark.’
Whilst in London Bulloch lived initially in Pall Mall and later in Doughty Street, next door to Charles Dicken’s old house, and he loved to give guests a tour of the district and could freely rehearse every theatrical and literary association of each abode. A visit with Bulloch to Bloomsbury was unforgettable. From 1893 onwards Bulloch went to every first-night theatrical production – in forty five years more than three-and-a-half thousand! He was beloved as a reviewer and regarded for his couthie warmth, and succinctness of prose. How he found time in his life one simply cannot fathom, for as well as his day job as an Editor, he read six to a dozen books each week. Each book reviewed, he would print inside the cover a book-plate and monogram, before donating to Aberdeen University Library: ‘To Aberdeen University from her grateful son, John Malcolm Bulloch.’ Latterly these books came in to Aberdeen at the rate of about 600 per year!
Bulloch also liked to pen verse, and simply loved his native Doric. At university he coined himself ‘The Jack-daw of Rhymes.’ My favourite Malcolm Bulloch work returns him to Old Aberdeen in 1928 and his University dedication:
It’s mair than forty year since we gaed doo
The Spital Brae.
An’ heard the auld bell dirlin’ oot a soun’
That seemed to say,
Come in-by here my loon!
Reading this I felt the echoes of his grandfather who saw the arched tower of the auld college. There can be no doubt he would have been proud of his grandson.
John Malcolm Bulloch brought Thomas Hardy, his friend, to Aberdeen – a friendship that remained till Hardy’s death in 1928. It was undoubtedly Bulloch who campaigned for the University to confer an honorary degree on Thomas Hardy. Bulloch described his modest friend after a visit to Aberdeen in 1907:
‘Nobody would have dreamed from his conversation that he had anything like the philosophical grasp which distinguished him. He was intensely shy. But Aberdeen soon put him at home’
‘The great novelist was up early enough this morning to join a group in a smoking-room before the train reached London. With a smile in his pensive, sad eyes, he listened to the vivacious talk of his friend Mr John Malcolm Bulloch. . .’
Thomas Hardy’s last reference to Aberdeen is in another letter to Bulloch, dated 6th October 1918: ‘I am glad to hear about old Aberdeen. To me it bears, & always will, a curiously romantic aspect. I suppose I shall never see it again’. Hardy never did return to the city which awarded him his first degree.
It is impossible not to be gobsmacked at Bulloch’s diversity. His breadth was astounding; a small, pawkish man he had an innate humanity that his brother had not. He was insatiably curious about other people’s jobs, and was perfectly happy chatting with a bricklayer about bricks, or a milkman about milk. Indeed he had friends in every walk of life.
As a child Bulloch helped his father to accumulate material for his Historic Scenes in Aberdeenshire. The turning point for young Bulloch came with the 1897 Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria, for that year, Bulloch aged thirty, was asked to write a piece on Lord Byron. Bulloch grasped the challenge and was inspired to find the north-east roots that sired such waywardness in Byron. And that is how his first ever Gordon piece was borne, and that Gordon journey, first tread:
‘ . . and before I knew where I was I found myself in the possession of a great mass of collateral information, much of which had never been coordinated into readable form.’
So it was that the Romanticism of Byron first pulled Bulloch towards the Gordons. The House of Gight, and Byron’s mother Catherine Gordon explored, next came Abergeldy and a passion was fired. Sorting that inextricable Gordon sibness, the good, the great and the not so, was to be Bulloch’s Everest. When he died in 1938 he left his 230 volumes and 47 boxes of ‘Gordoniana’ to the University Library. The House of Gordon in three volumes was to be an unparalleled piece of work; the opus of a tireless researcher. Even today, with the resource of the internet, few have surpassed Bulloch.
Both Dr Bulloch and I share that obsessional streak. Call it drive if you want. It is a trait that brings much good but also leads to premature death. We also share an understanding, that in our work, many will not appreciate our passion. I differ from Bulloch on Gordonology – for the pursuit of one name brings no reward to me. I like the stories that hang on the names; a string of ancestors is simply dull to me.
At his funeral, in the beautiful Old Chapel of King’s College, on the 9th March 1838, a wave of flowers swept over Malcolm Bulloch’s coffin stretching from almost one side of the chapel to the other. In attendance were poets, artists and literary folk, as well as his school and university friends. The many sorrowing hearts then followed the cortege of the Gordon Highlanders up the auld toon to his grave where a memorial recorded simply the death of a favourite alumni, a son and Aberdonian; ‘a critic, a poet, historian.’
Sir Alexander MacKintosh: ‘Malcolm Bulloch was full of vitality. He never seemed to get old.’ ‘I think he was the most helpful man I have ever met. He would go to endless trouble to help anyone. The telephone bell in his room was always ringing with inquiries about some abstruse and obscure piece of information, and the more obscure it was the better he liked it. He hunted down the facts with the same zest that a hunt follows a fox.’
Writing to Dr J. Tocher, a fortnight before his death; Bulloch at his desk immersed in work: ‘I shall be with you in Aberdeen at the end of March and we shall talk of our joint enterprise and of cabbages and kings.’
As a postscript to the story of the life of Dr Bulloch, I would like to acknowledge how unassuming he was. Just getting his portrait took me two years. The University Library which he loved, and to which he left his vast collection, have only the barest fragments of his life story. I was saddened looking through the library, as so many of the books there, were once Bullochs, and yet the Library knew not a jot about him. I plan to put that right with this biography and to have his portrait framed for the University. I agree with Bulloch about the Salmon returning to the sea (page 195.) It is interesting that this was the subject on which I opened ‘Deeside Tales.’
It is time now to return to Lynvaig. The farm was run throughout much of the twentieth century, not by the family of ‘Camlet Francis,’ but by the children of his brother ‘Camlet John.’ The tenancy of Lynvaig passed from Francis to John around 1834. We shall, for the sake of avoiding confusion, call the son of Camlet John, ‘Lynvaig John.’ He moved there with his wife, Mary Downie (his second cousin) and two young children John, aged 12 and James aged 8. Interestingly both boys were born at Mill of Cosh, indicating that for some years after their marriage, John and Mary lived there.
Mary Downie, wife of ‘Lynvaig John’ was born at Crathienaird in May 1789. Her mother was Mary Leys (1757-1851) and she, like many in her family, was an Innkeeper. She is remembered on a prostrate tablet stone in Old Crathie Churchyard. Her father Francis Leys (1712-1787) was Innkeeper at Inver and his (assumed) sister was Barbara Leys of Balindory.
‘Lynvaig John’ (born at the Camlet in 1787) farmed 26 acres of lower Girnoc. Both he and his wife Mary died before civil registration in 1855, but as he appears as a 64 year old widower on the 1851 census. At the point of his death, his two sons, John and James, continued the tenancy of Lynvaig farm. It appeared that both brothers were to remain confirmed bachelors, until early 1881 when John (who was then nearly sixty) married Helen Anthony, a local girl and laundress. Helen, a widow, was of a similar age to John, and beyond the age of child-rearing. Sadly she enjoyed only four years of marriage, dying at Lynvaig in December 1885 after battling pulmonary tuberculosis. In the 1891 census, the two elderly brothers, John and James, had three lodgers, several of whom were described as ‘Umbrella Makers’ – this seems amusing to me, for the weather in the Girnoc would surely be far too harsh for the ‘civilised brolly of the toon folk!’
The farm of Lynvaig is now, like all the Girnoc farms, deserted. Its windows are boarded and doors padlocked. The steading roof with dislodged tiles, now sags, and in a storm of 2005, was prised open by an autumn gale. Within a decade, there will be no more than ‘stane rickles’ to remind us of Lynvaig’s past. It is sad then to think, that it was the last farm in the glen to be tenanted, and then as recently as the late 1980’s.
Within Lynvaig’s steading (which was originally one of a number of ‘longhouses’) are the scattered remains of old farmhouse furniture; rusty iron bedsteads, chest of drawers (with mouldy lining paper), and an empty tin trunk. There is also an old horse-drawn thresher machine, which is now riddled with woodworm and rot; on its wooden drum, survives some ancient graffiti. John and James Gordon have signed their names in pencil, and in what appears the same handwriting, the following is scribbled:
“Lost last night, Emma Gordon, last seen going down the road with Fred Duncan’s clothes on. Any one giving information on her where-aboots will be rewarded.”
Though I have not the rigour of Bulloch, I do confess having tried to tackle the inextricability of the Girnoc; yet still, I have no idea who this Emma Gordon was, or why she was wearing Fred Duncan’s clothes! We may never know.
That horse-drawn thresher has intrigue all of its own, in the form of its Victorian doodles; defaced over decades, it is a reminder of life where now it has gone. My mind was unexpectedly brought back to that thresher and the Lynvaig homestead last summer when I was passing-by Robert Gordon’s School in Aberdeen, for outside the entrance stands a bronze statue, by T. Stuart Burnett of General Gordon of Khartoum (1833-1885). Over his head some drunken student (no-doubt) had lodged a large fluorescent orange traffic-cone. I found myself vaguely wondering if this was to do with a recent revision, that had outed both Baden-Powell and General Gordon as paedophiles. However, what struck me in that instant was how little I knew about General Gordon. Sure Khartoum was familiar to me, rehearsed no doubt at school, but what did I know of this Victorian hero? Not a lot. I felt ashamed; for I knew Dr Bulloch would not stand such ignorance.
Today, even in Scotland, few people could say precisely who Gordon was, what he was doing in the Sudan, why and by whom he was murdered. Still less could they say what there was in his character and acts to justify his becoming ‘the Stainless Knight of the century.’
When General Charles George Gordon was speared to death at Khartoum in 1885, Queen Victoria was said to have ‘had difficulty in speaking.’ ‘Grief inexpressible’ she wrote to Gordon’s sister. ‘Indeed, it has made me ill!’
The authors Hanson who wrote the paper from which I have gleaned the life of General Gordon made a solid reputation with biographies of the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot, and appear all too fair and balanced to want to debunk Gordon. They state at outset ‘a man without fault is dreadfully dull and also extremely improbable. What … we asked ourselves, was this man really like?’ Well, he was a small, blue-eyed Scot whose charm was so great that even his enemies forgave his furious temper and Messianic pomposity. He detested formal society and despised money: often his first act on taking new office would be to cut his salary. He led scratch armies to victory all the way from Nanking to Equatorial Africa, but he never came near to winning his private battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Gordon drew two circles on paper, one marked ‘Body,’ the other ‘Soul.’ His whole faith consisted in believing that everything in the ‘Body’ circle was foul and contemptible, and that only in the ‘Soul’ circle was there ‘the indwelling of God.’ But like most people who dote on going round in circles, Gordon was always flying off at tangents.
Gordon read the Bible ceaselessly, pressed on members of Gladstone’s Cabinet copies of Dr Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Promises, and never wearied of asking God to carry him out of this world into ‘he very bright, happy land with beautiful sights and glories.’ But he also reveled in brandy, tobacco, the thrills of war and the company of handsome youths and boys. At best, this contrast between Gordon’s beliefs and acts resulted in savage self-hatred.
Fanatical activity was Gordon’s main answer to his troubles. He was only a captain of Engineers when he hit China like a bomb and smashed the power of the Taipings, a host of rebels who were destroying both their own government and British trading rights. A brilliant sapper and artilleryman, he blew gaps in walled towns that were deemed untakable and led his skimpy armies through the breaches, puffing gaily on a cigar and waving a bamboo cane. He parleyed with his enemies, but if they resisted both God’s word and Gordon’s charm he turned scarlet with rage, called for a Chinese dictionary, and laid a trembling finger against the word ‘idiocy.’ He sent home the most extraordinary dispatches ever received by the Foreign Office. ‘Anyhow, it matters little,’ he concluded a report on the Turkish Empire. ‘A few years hence a piece of ground six feet by two will contain all that remains of Ambassadors, Ministers and your obedient, humble servant.’
None of this appealed much to Mr. Gladstone. But the old Queen, and the hero-worshiping public, knew nothing about Chinese Gordon’s ‘Body’; they saw only the ‘Soul’ personified, defeating and converting heathen hordes and making his name the terror of African slave traders. When Egypt was threatened by the Mahdi (a Sudanese who believed he was the supreme prophet), there was uproar in Britain when Gladstone refused to send Gordon out to deal with him. Not until the Mahdi had built an army 300,000 strong did the Gladstone government bow to public pressure and order General Gordon to Khartoum.
Gordon sent the garrison a typical telegram: ‘You are men, not women. Be not afraid; I am coming.’ On reaching the city, in February 1884, he told the despairing commandant: ‘Khartoum is as safe as Kensington Gardens.’ For some months he actually convinced the Sudanese that he was right; even the London Times correspondent lost his head. ‘The way he pats you on the shoulder when he says ‘Look here, dear fellow, now what do you advise?’ would make you love him . . . . He is … the greatest and best man of this century.’ But Khartoum became a besieged city.
Gordon ordered all dogs and cats and donkeys to be killed and eaten, rats to be caught and eaten. The gentle Gordon changed into a holy terror – ‘an old man, white-haired . . . kicking, shouting, punishing.’ A new and terrible burden of guilt now rested on him: he knew that by defying the Mahdi’s orders to surrender, he had made sure that every inhabitant of Khartoum would be slaughtered if no relief force arrived.
He spent hours on the palace roof, his telescope trained down the Nile in search of the smoke of gunboats. But he saw only the white puffs of the Mahdi’s cannon. ‘I am quite happy, thank God,’ he wrote his sister in his last letter, ‘. . . and have tried to do my duty.’ Before dawn on Jan. 26, 1885, the Mahdi forced his frightened troops over Gordon’s land mines and the Arab army poured into the city.
The screams of dying citizens rang in Gordon’s ears as he stood unarmed at the top of the palace steps. A party of Arabs, their ‘bloodstained white robes [swinging] brightly in the dim light,’ swept up to him and halted. ‘Where is the Mahdi?’ demanded Gordon. They made no reply.
‘Where is the Mahdi?’ he asked again. This time, the leading sheik answered with a shrill scream: ‘Oh cursed one, your time is come!’ and drove his spear through Gordon’s body.
As a postscript the British press put the blame of Gordon’s death on Gladstone, who was charged with excessive slowness in sending relief to Khartoum. An acronym applied to him, G.O.M. (Grand Old Man) was changed to M.O.G.(Murderer Of Gordon). This led to his resignation. Queen Victoria never forgave her Prime Minister.
General Gordon of Khartoum goes back to the Baronetcy of Park, a castle and estate in Banff.
So there we have it, Gordon of Khartoum’s curious Memorial in Lynvaig. Soon it will be gone. The ‘artists’ that festooned that old horse-drawn thresher certainly had a sense of humour, for tucked away in one corner was a little label “The Scottish Footballer Machine!” So this was where our players were borne – manufactured at Lynvaig and fit for a Nation?!
Returning to the estate plan drawn up by John Innes in 1806, it is clear that Lynvaig was originally one member of a triumvirate community; the others being of course, the farms of Newton and Linquoch. The latter being the only community within the Girnoc to be situated east of the burn.
Newton, which is pictured below, was deserted before 1850, and the last farmer to occupy it was John Lamond with his wife Ann and four young children. The last child born at Newton was little James Lamond born in September 1844, but in the following few years the family were gone, and seem to have left Scotland’s shores in search of promise that the small glen could not.
Through the heather, and garnered by a delightful birch wood, the remains of John and Ann Lamond’s little community of Newton, still survive. Now however they are no more than stone footprints, and one has to work hard to conjure-up an image of how this huddle of longhouses must once have appeared. Nature has made an even better attempt at reclaiming Linquoch, and only the most intrepid of souls would ever chance upon it. One such individual was Robert Smith, who was the first to alert the present writer to Linquoch’s existence:
‘Below Lynvaig, across the Girnock Burn, I was looking for another ‘lost’ settlement. The first time I heard about it was when I was searching for Loinmuie in Glenmuick.’
Although the 1869 Ordinance Survey map confirms that an old track once connected Linquoch (in the Girnoc) with Lonmuie (in Glenmuick), it only names the latter. So by this date, Linquoch had long since been abandoned. This seems surprising, given that this had probably been one of the key routes linking the two glens and thereby opening the route over the Capel Mounth to the south. Linquoch is the name given by John Innes in his estate map of 1806, but other similar names have been described, including Lynefork and Loinn a’ Chorce.
The approach to Linquoch is lovely, meandering as it does through the airy and scented Birk Wuid of Lynvaig, before coming to a halt at an old wooden bridge over the Girnock burn. From here it appears as if the path suddenly stops, but closer scrutiny reveals the familiar pattern of ruined buildings lost in the heather on the opposite side of the burn. A survey carried out at Linquoch by Ian Shepherd, the Aberdeenshire archaeologist, showed a settlement with different styles and dates of dwellings. Longhouses, a corn-drying kiln and the faint remains of several kailyards were found. The ruins lie on two levels, with a superb view up the glen. A series of superb aerial photographs were taken in November 1988 with Linquoch buried under snow, with the relief highlighted in the low winter sun, revealing an incredibly intricate (and rather beautiful for all that) arrangement of cotterhouses in an utterly organic form. With the eye-of-faith one could just make-out the path leading upwards through a gap in the hills to Lonmuie.
In 1966 John Cooper Kennedy moved down from The Camlet to Lynvaig. It must have felt like the civilized south! Yet still there was a dispute with the Laird about the School Car which he forbade traveling up the track from Woodend. As a result the Kennedy’s granddaughter Carol had to walk. She did so as the very last generation to return to the Girnoc from School on foot.
In the 1970’s Loinveg became a summer-let and was occupied by the family of Anna Oddie who went on to become the teacher of young Alistair Repper and helped him complete his Duke of Edinburgh Award on the small Girnoc Glen. Her memories focus not on the silent glen but on its vivid calls of nature. Lynvaig was awash with sounds and from her pillow Anna used to hear Mr Esson of Bovagli calling in the sheep from the hill, with the whistle and dog working overtime! More frightening to a child was the loud roars of the Red Deer who gathered in the copse behind Lynvaig. Each stag had its own distinct bark and the competition over status was spectacularly loud! Then, far more delicate, were the visiting Snipe (Gallinago gallinago), small dumpy birds with long straight bills, they would dive in zig-zags over Lynvaig making a distinctive drumming sound (a bit like a lamb bleating) which they produced by air vibrating through their spread tail feathers. The steeper the dive the louder the sound! To Anna it must have sounded like an air-raid on remote Lynvaig!
Oh and as we leave this chapter on Lynvaig can I make a plea, next time you visit the Girnoc, keep a look out for Emma Gordon, and if you do see her mind now to tip yer hat!
Chapter 7 of ‘Deeside Tales’: The Muckle Inventors – Littlemill
This chapter takes us to the life-blood of Deeside, for its capillaries, like the Girnoc, all flow into the silvery river Dee. Littlemill has a unique bond with the Dee which rises at 4000ft on the plateau of Braeriach, the highest source of any major river in the British Isles, and stretches 88 miles to its outlet at Fitdee. Littlemill acts as the gatekeeper to the returning Girnoc salmon and the SEPA trap has been sited there, just below the bridge, for 40 years now.
The saddest list – the river Dee
Peter Frankie – drowned 1823
Barbara Brown – drowned 1823
William Skene Gordon – drowned 1831
Patrick Duncan Begg – drowned 1848
George Milne – drowned 1848
John Milne – drowned 1848
The Dee is a glorious, and the south Deeside journey by its banks, arguably the most beautiful in Scotland, yet any reach of water, especially when it is fast-flowing and in-spate, can be treacherous. The list above then makes sad reading.
There is an old superstition that the Dee is certain to kill three people a year:
Each year needs three,
But Bonny Don,
She needs none
Alexander Gordon of Littlemill was just five years old when the Dee ripped the heart out of its upper reach, for in the spring of 1823, Barbara Brown, the Flower of Deeside, was swept away with her new husband when the coble by Abergeldy suddenly snapped. Babby’s body was found the next day but Peter Frankie, her husband, not for a further week, by which time he had been swept to Coilacreich.
This incident indelibly hurt Deeside. The most painful account of this was rehearsed by the bride’s father, the auld Sennachie, in the original and best ‘Deeside Tales.’ Young Alexander Gordon of Littlemill made a vow; when he was rich and successful, he would span the Dee by bridge and so prevent further heartache.
Alexander Gordon was far from Deeside, in his London home celebrating his fiftieth birthday, when history repeated itself. This time the Dee greedily snatched two young brothers in a misfortune of truly awful proportions. A third brother was left watching helplessly as 19 year old John Milne, a Druggist’s Clerk, was swept under at Poolbuie while his 25 year old brother George, a Gunpowder Manufacturer, was himself struggling. The Dee in spate was mighty, and Robert, the younger brother was helpless and so clambered up the bank, searching in vain for assistance. The next day, far from his Old Deer home, and without his father, he had the sad duty of identifying the bodies of his deceased brothers.
Alexander Gordon’s resolve was steely, after all he was an Engineer to trade, and his acumen in business had brought him a wealth unheard of in his native Deeside. Alexander Gordon was born at Littlemill, the foot of Girnoc, on the 3rd of January 1818. His father George was a wool-dyer and ventured to the metropolis of Edinburgh, where he died in 1834. His grandfather, Alexander Gordon (1727-1809), whom he was named after, is commemorated on a Glenmuick tombstone. His grandmother was from Birse. The Littlemill stones sit in a row between Abergeldie and Camlet.
The origins of this Littlemill family remain obscure but not without speculation. To do so we must go back to Abergeldy in the mid seventeenth century, for there is good evidence to suggest that John the younger brother to the wayward Alexander Gordon the Seventh Laird of Abergeldy set up home at Littlemill. You will recall the castle was ruinous having been under fire during several periods of the seventeenth century and the Laird was resident himself in Ballogie House in Birse.
This John Gordon of Littlemill is first mentioned in 1642 when as Lieutenant Colonel he ‘schippet’ men from Aberdeen for Lord Argyll’s Regiment in France. This was almost certainly the John Gordon in Littlemill who had been in perpetual service against the Covenanters – fighting at Inverlochy, Kilsyth and other places, first as Captain, then as Major, and then as Lieutenant Colonel. He appeared before the General Assembly Commission at Aberdeen to ask for pardon.
Like Dr Bulloch, I am fully satisfied that Littlemill was a cadet of Abergeldy stemming back to this John Gordon the raging Covenanter. Nevertheless in 1865 Alexander Gordon (1818-1895) our Engineer and Bridge Builder registered his Arms with the Lordy Lyon as a descendent of the Great family of Braichlie. This may have been mistakenly based on the work of William Anderson in his book of that year ‘Genealogy and Surnames.’
The Braichlie family is of interest for it passed out of the Gordon hands in 1708 (after being in their possession for 240 years) and into that of the Farquharsons. No doubt Anderson would argue that at this date Braichlie family took up home at Littlemill, and the frequent use of the ‘Knockespoch’ Christian name ‘George’ in the lower ranks of the Littlemill pedigree might give credence to that. The Last Gordon of Braichlie, John, was the son of the murdered Laird and was quite brilliant. Duncan Gordon in Wardhead, who was present at his baptism, stated in 1665, that John Gordon of Braichlie was ‘seaven yeirs of age.’ He was educated at the Grammar School of Aberdeen, where he won the silver medal for archery.
Oval, silver medal: 8 inches in length; made by Alexander Galloway, goldsmith, admitted a craftsman in Aberdeen in 1671. Obverse: within a laurel wreath border the arms of John Gordon of Breachly – three bears’ heads erased: helmeted and mantled: no crest: over the initials I.G., and below all – of Breachly. Reverse: within an engraved laurel border – dlitiis non itur ad astra – Ionnes Gordonus Sexto Vicit. 1672 – Agr.
This last Laird married Ann Alardyce, and was recorded as still living in 1723, still in Deeside. He was by then 64 years old. We may never know if he was indeed the patriarch of Littlemill as Anderson would suggest – but my inclination says not.
‘For the Baron o Brackley is dead and awa.’
Well our champion Archer’s father was murdered in 1666 when young John was just eight years of age. The Braichlie family were said to be companions of death and Anderson records oral tradition that ‘a line of nine Barons, all of whom, in the unruly times in which they lived, died violent deaths.’ This makes of course good reading but is improbable at best.
The ballad of the Baron of Brackley is equally misleading and it must be realized that it was not in any printed form until 1806, and came to embody particulars of two separate vendetta murders (in 1592 and 1666). That should not trouble us unduly for there are extant records which nevertheless depict the true circumstances of the 1666 murder.
The murder is best taken from the vantage of the Minister Reverend Ferguson who was unable to give sermon on Sunday the 16th December 1666 ‘being in Edinburgh as witness upon Bracklie’s business.’ What was this business that took the Crathie minister so far from his home parish? Well the two notable families of the district, ever inclined to feud, the Farquharsons and the Gordons, were at it again. The dreadful day was the 7th September 1666 and John Farquharson of Inverey, the ‘Black Colone’l and at least nineteen other members of his clan (if we go by the Privy Court Records) came to Brackley Castle and killed the Baron, his brother William, his Uncle Alexander, and cousin James of the Knock.
At the instance of Margaret Burnett, relict of the murdered Baron, a High Court trial took place which demanded the presence of all the Farquharson accused under penalty of 200 merks. Farquharson of Finzean was accused of invading Brackley’s lands ‘with eight score persons armed with swords, and weapons invasive, with a view to driving away the Baron’s cattle;’ and it was alleged that when Brackley and his retainers sought to rescue their property they were ‘shot and wounded, and immediately died upon the place.’
That is why the weary Minister was delayed in returning from Edinburgh for three further weeks. Be that as it may, before the Court, neither Ferguson’s evidence, nor that of any other, was enough to make the issue clear. In this not very satisfactory fashion, the case against the murderers of the Baron of Brackley appears to have taken end.
The spot where the Baron fell was long pointed out and according to Dr Sedgwick a small cairn stood on the west bank of the burn about four hundred yards above the old castle. Part of the foundations of the old castle of Brackley were still visible in 1870 when Sir James MacKenzie had his House of Glenmuick and garden built over it in simple disregard of the ‘speckled hillock’ from which Braichlie got its name.
John Farquharson of Inverey, the Black Colonel was redoubtable, colourful and violent, even in exile. History’s imbalance is that he has continued to be recalled in the stories and folklore of upper Deeside longer than the Baron he murdered. Aye ‘for the Baron o Brackley is dead and awa.’
Doon Deeside came lnverey, whistlin and playin.
He’s lichted at Brackley’s yett at the day dawin.
Says: ‘Baron o Brackley, it’s are ye within?
There’s sharp swords at your yett will gar your blood spin.’
It is time to return to Littlemill, perhaps not as a cadet of Braichlie but rather of Abergeldy.
As has been recorded in chapter four of this book the Gordons of Abergeldy, were one of the first of the Landed family in Deeside to supplement their rent rolls by trade. This venture into business was founded by two marriages between Gordon brothers and Biddulph sisters. In 1789, David Gordon Fourteenth Laird of Abergeldy, married Anne, the daughter of Michael Biddulph of Ledbury; and in 1793, his brother Adam Gordon married her sister, Penelope. Gordon and Biddulph was the name of the firm which arose, as Iron Manufacturers, Engineers and Shipbuilders. This firm, based in London, was to become huge, and ensured the continuity of the Gordons of Abergeldy, but as absentee Lairds.
Dr Bulloch argued credibly that the Engineering enterprise of Abergeldy sired offshoots in upper Deeside, and so emerged pockets of mechanical Inventors, seemingly otherwise implausible, from such a remote reach. The Gordons of Littlemill must surely be the best example of this rural conflaguration, but we must not forget the Aucholzie Gordons, and in particular Mr Gordon of Arabella’s wonderful patented farm machinery. The most celebrated Aucholzie invention was a contraption that sifted potatoes – in its modern form it is still used today.
Alexander Gordon born at Littlemill in 1818 became a brewer in London, practically founding the firm of ‘A. Gordon and Company,’ brewing among other drinks ‘Empire mild ale’ and oatmeal stout. The firm was commissioned as brewers to Edward the Prince of Wales, and worked their own artesian well. Gordon never forgot his native home. It is interesting to note that he was educated by his Uncle William Gauld at Logie-Coldstone, and at the age of just eighteen was already managing a brewery in Aberdeen, whilst assisting the Farquharsons at Lochnagar.
Three of Alexander’s brothers, George, Duncan, and William, left for the Coffee Plantations of Ceylon but sadly his younger brother George died at sea. The brother Alexander was closest to, both in age and outlook, was John, and shouldering new adventures they left together for London. John was a brilliant Engineer and whilst in London, brought out patent after patent. Much was done in the industrialization of coffee production and with Ceylon; this became a most successful family affair. Their works in London became known as ‘The Pulper,’ after the patented coffee grinding machine he had invented. John was ahead of the game, coffee was becoming the taste of the Nation and when electric light started to prosper he patented a disc-dynamo. John Gordon had five sons all of whom became Engineers. They were a remarkable family.
Alexander was just as prosperous, in fact more so. His Brewing business had an imperious hold of London and the widest of markets. His wealth gathered like a rolling stone down the glen and he never looked back. He had several homes, thirty domestic servants, and ultimately a graceful Mansion House called ‘Southwood’ near Hildenborough, complete with its own clock tower!
Ceylon, through the Littlemill Gordons had a lasting impact on Deeside, with one house in Invercauld Road, named Beredwella after a Ceylon coffee plantation. William Gordon, brother of Alexander, retired home to Littlemill but after his death his wife moved to the ‘Jungle,’ Ballater!
Alexander Gordon contributed largely to the parish kirk of Ballater, built in 1873, at a cost of £3500, the Polhollick Bridge over the Dee, and the Gordon Memorial Institute at Ballater. After his death the Cambus O’May brig was completed to the same design as Polhollick. They are beautiful bridges with a further example, now rusty, neglected and padlocked at Abergeldy. The graceful elegance of these paedestrian bridges has made me wonder if they were engineered and designed by Alexander himself.
In the deed of gift, this Institute was to be managed by 23 trustees. During 1909 some newspaper correspondent severely criticised the trust. Gordon died married, but childless, at Southwood, Hildenburgh, Kent in September 1895 and when his wife died 6 months later, his estate went to his Enginnering nephews.
Thanks to Alexander Gordon’s generosity, Ballater has a fine set of public halls which are much used. Between 1985 and 1992 great energy was devoted to collecting funds for their refurbishment with the Albert Hall being re-opened by HM Queen Elizabeth in 1987.
Turning now back to the environs of Littlemill, David and Hamish Kemp recall a ‘Community Hall’ for the Girnoc, which during the war used as a Canadian army camp, but saw a new lease of life after it was transported about 100 meters up-stream from the Bridge. It was quite a feat moving it, and Muckle Fleeman himself (see below), would have been proud. The Kemps recall spirited nights in this hall; playing cards, ceildh dances and also the Burns Supper Nights (and more!) Indeed the War Years saw evacuees come to the Girnoc, and briefly that relentless depopulation was put in reverse. It was, of course, not to last. Still it is nice to think of children, now grown old, with happy memories of the small glen.
As has been described in chapter five the Cosh was a sentry for the glen, a role shared by the small community of Na Cearr-lannan ‘the awkward left.’ This was a huddle of 18th century cottar houses, all long since gone though some remnants exist, as is to be found in the garden of a Girnoc Shiel, a modern dwelling built by the foremost parish historian Dr Sedgwick. In an old edition of the Leopard Magazine, Dr Sedgwick of ‘the awkward left’ wrote a fascinating account of history of the Girnoc Brig. Her article was entitled ‘The Greystone Weaver.’ In it she reminds us that the Gordons, who were ubiquitous in the Glen, were far from universally popular, with a rivalry and competition that often descended into murderous feuds. Never more so than with the Forbes of Knock.
Dr Sedgwick does not like the Gordons and her outlook goes all the way back to Muckle Fleeman, a giant of mighty strength from Greystone, opposite Abergeldy. Fleeman, with giant strides, could wade the Dee in a span, was a friend of all, and had that gentleness of being that comes with such a benevolent Giant. Yet despite this, he could not, and would not speak to a Gordon. Never! Muckle Fleeman had a great friend, a man of swarth and flashing armour, known as BlackAirter, who had inherited the seat of Strathgirnoc through his Forbes family. Black Airter was also a man of great strength and had similar dislike of the fair Gordons who had been his sworn enemies for many years.
Muckle Fleeman, a weaver of cloth by day, champion of strength by night, had been busy working on a plaid for Black Airter of the ‘Girnoc. One fine summer’s morning he delivered his newly spun and bright yard of cloth. On such occasions it was usual for the men to have a try at the ‘sweertree.’ This was something like a wrestling match, with each to lift the other off his feet. Black Airter had never managed to beat Fleeman so this time he resorted to a trick. He told his packman to stand behind him and to put all his weight on his coat-tails.
Fleeman was a mighty giant and never had a doubt, certainly he had never failed to lift anyone before, so he put in little effort. To his astonishment nothing happened. So he tried again with a bit more this time. Still nothing happened. This was most unusual and Fleeman became angry. He gave a great heave. He lifted the laird, but the coat-tails were left on the grass.
That was just as Black Airter, a most cunning of men, had planned and he declared: ‘You may be an expert at the sweertree, Fleeman, but you are a very poor weaver. Your cloth doesn’t stand the pull of an honest man. If you can’t weave stronger cloth, I’ll give all my trade to Johnny Gordon o’ Scurrystane.’ Muckle Fleeman hated Scurrystane – he was a Gordon and boastful for it! Scurrystane a weaver himself, felt nothing of telling one and all about his ‘superior’ cloth. Gosh how it angered him to think that Black Airter would wear a cloth woven by such a useless fellow!
Gad aye Airter was cunning, for un-beknown to Fleeman he had enlisted the mightiest of bodies against the Gordons. That wud sort them!
Even these days folk prefer to travel to Ballater by the road on the south of the Dee, the journey is far more pleasant and the scenery the reward. From Balmoral past Abergeldy, you come to the Girnoc Brig. Today it is spanned by a Victorian arch, but its predecessor played its part in the feud between Gordons of Knock and Forbes of Strathgirnoc. The Bridge was essential as the only means of traversing the river to the peat bog, and for Knock castle to have a roarin’ fire he needed his men servants toget across with a cart. However Gordon was sleekit and wanted to deprive Black Airter of the peat, so when the Bridge was swept away in spate he refused to allow a new bridge to be erected. So it was that without consent of Gordon, Black Airter put up a bridge of strong logs. Gordon was furious and had his men destroy all trace. The Brig of Girnoc was the new focus of hatred between the clans.
Impasse followed (to put it mildly!) before Black Airter finally agreed to meet Gordon. The meeting was anything but friendly and words crossed the Girnoc like arrows. Shouting to one another across the river, Black Airter finally put up a challenge and insisted ‘that with only one man to help, he would build a bridge that even four Gordons could not move.’ Gordon, confident that this was an impossible feat, agreed to the challenge, and furthermore promised that if Airter succeeded he would let the new Brig stay forever!.
Black Airter was a man of depth and new the Girnoc well. Years back he had spotted a stane on Creag Phioabid that he considered would make a wonderful bridge over the Girnoc. The trouble was it was such a mighty slab that just nobody could carry it down the hill into position. The North East is full of speeshal folk and Airter was one of them. Black Airter puzzled over his predicament but then thought then of Muckle Fleeman, the giant who cudnae stand a Gordon!
Fleeman, roamin fearless, set up Creag Phioabidh in nout but a buckled plaid. By morning a great stone spanned the burn. Local folk had started to gather at first light to see the new bridge. Gordon and four others tried, with might and main, to dislodge the stone, but all their efforts were in vain. The brig was there to stay and there was nout Gordon cud dae aboot it!
Chapter 8 of Deeside Tales: The Forgotten Door – The Genechal
It was with very great interest that I read chapter seven of Robert Smith’s book ‘A Queen’s Country’ published in 2000 as it was about a deserted and slateless cottage that had long since stirred my curiosity. My first meeting with The Genechal brought me over the hill of the eagle, from The Camlet. Of course the skylich is not the easiest route, but as a traverse steeped in history, I was determined to find my way by it.
Robert Smith has a way with words that I do not, and I found myself admiring how he embodied the Genechal in prose; ‘the Genechal has a bold, martial ring to it, almost as if it was a stronghold built to guard the hills and moors around it.’ In etymological terms the meaning is rather less prosaic, with a derivation from the Gaelic Seann-choille, meaning the ‘old wood.’ When John Gordon, Laird of Abergeldy, beckoned me to examine more closely the Estate Map of 1806, hanging full length on the wall of the Great Hall, I was curious to find the Genechal. Yet it did not appear on the map, and there was no indication of an old wood. Certainly the skylich path to The Camlet was marked but the only indication of settlement was a faint and amorphic field marking.
Today the wood is an unsympathetic blanket of spruce and the Genechal is smothered and few know of its existence.
Robert Smith in his book teased from the outset: Why, he asked, did this cottar house have two front doors? Well, he presented a rather grand reason; indeed a story all of its own; yet my research, in the dusty basements of Edinburgh, was to offer a less than magnificent story; for at the Genechal there was murder, mystery and mayhem.
Figure 2: The Genechal over the skylich from the Camlet
The second time I visited the Genechal I took the track by Khantore, I was on bike and the route was overgrown, rutted, lime green with moss, and hampered every few yards by low horizontal conifer branches. I survived such hazards but arrived at the Genechal dripping in sweat. It was an inglorious meeting, and the Genechal I recalled as mighty, looked forlorn and pathetic; slateless, and prised open mercilessly to the elements. It was with sadness that I found myself remembering the forgotten families of Genechal – the ones commemorated on the old stones of Crathie.
In 1841, before the double-doored house was built, there were two cottages at the Genechal; one occupied by a newly pensioned Army Officer Peter Reid, and his family; the other by John Morgan a thirty five year old tailor.
John Morgan came from a long-line of Crathie tailors; his father also John, was born in 1766 and spent his long life supplying the farm-toun folk with new apparel. It was a respected trade with skills passed down from father to son. ‘Genechal John’ met his bride Johanna Cameron in the foothills but together they set up home in the Genechal, and between 1824 and 1841, had eight children with an exact split of four boys and four girls. It seems the Genechal has always down doubles! First two biggins, thakkit clay and rough; then two families; and later, sometime after 1848, a mirror image bothy with double doors.
Queen Victoria built her bothy specially. Her son, Edward Prince of Wales, had always preferred the Abergeldy Estate, and the Genechal sat perfectly on the moor towards the head of Girnoc. It was the perfect picnic point for the shooting parties, and nestled midway between Balmoral and Abergeldy. The cottage was solidly built of local granite to an unusual design. Rather more squat than the traditional north-east farmhouse, it was yet completely symmetrical and in fact composed a perfect mirror of halves: one door for the Queen, and one for the Morgans.
As keepers of the Queen’s bothy the Morgans must have bristled with pride. Yet it brought them mixed fortune, the way that life often does. Like Robert Smith, I found the Genechal a forlorn monument to such a unique past. The double doors now blown-in, and the house rendered merciful to natures recall. Yet I could not help imagining the Queen warming her hands by the fireside as the Morgan children chattered in busy excitement on the other side. Further, I wondered, had their father made them ‘speechal goons’ for the Royal visits and had they enough time to change into them!
The locked door, between the two mirror rooms, was hanging by a hinge, with no hint of the Royal guest it once separated. The Highland Journals of Queen Victoria were edited by David Duff and there appears only one reference to the Genechal, from a shooting party with Albert on the 3rd of September 1849:
‘At a quarter past eleven we drove (the three gentleman going in another carriage) to the road along which we went with Lord Portman the other days, and up a small path, where I mounted my pony, Albert and the others walking. We came to Geannachoil, and Albert was much pleased with the splendid view. The light was most beautiful, but the heat was overpowering and the sun burning.’
This bright September day in 1849, one reckons the silver flask filled with John Begg’s finest, was of much comfort; for the Queen claims to have seen a Witch. There is some dispute where the sighting took place, but I am in agreement with Robert Smith that it was probably around Bovaglia.
‘Albert was turned back by the sudden appearance of an old woman who, looking like a witch, came through the wood with two immense crutches and disturbed the whole thing. Albert killed the roe just as she was coming along and the shot startled her very much. She was told to come down which she did, and sat below in the glen, motionless, having covered her head with her handkerchief. When two of the beaters came down and were told to take up the roe, they first saw the old woman, and started, and stared with horror – which was very amusing to see.’
It was the Morgan bairns greatest fear; not the sniping spirit of Katy Rankin’ Abergeldy’s Witch – but the beast of the Camlet. You see in their childhood days they used to hike the steep skylich as route to theGirnocSchool. But they did so warily, for as the came over the Eagle cliff they knew the territorial and snorting Camlet Bull was waiting for them. He was a fearsome beast with nae liking for children!
Two of the Morgan sons, John and James, entered the Queen’s service at Balmoral, but it was the elder of the two that had the prestigious role as her personal Gamekeeper for a year short of forty. Like John Brown, he is remembered by the Queen on a Crathie tombstone, with twelve lines of verse. James, his brother, is depicted as a man of swarthiness in the series of Clansmen portraits commissioned by the Queen, wearing kilt of Balmoral tartan, and standing against a background that looks suspiciously like the view from Genechal. In 1871 James Morgan ‘left’ the employment of Prince and Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein following a ‘misunderstanding,’ and returned to Queen Victoria’s service, first acting as gillie, later as footman, and finally as Livery Porter.
I have to say that I find it difficult to imagine James, the burly son of Genechal, finding home in civilized Frogmore, serving the Queen’s second youngest. It was never going to work, and Schleswig-Holstein dismissed the burly Scot with Germanic authority. Obviously Queen Victoria did not agree as she immediately took James back into her service at Balmoral. She had, it seems, a softness for the Genechal family.
It is sad to note, that in 1890, the Morgan brothers, both now in the lodges at Balmoral, died within days of each other. No wonder the Queen recorded in verse her dear friends ‘the Morgans of Genechal.’
At 7pm on the 16th of January 1867, John Morgan, the father died, he was just sixty two but the circumstances of his death have been lost as he had no medical attendant. I found this a surprising situation as his son, the Gamekeeper for the Queen, was present. This situation did not arise again, for when ‘Widow Morgan’ died at the Genechal thirteen years later, she was attended in her last illness, by the Queen’s Personal Physician; Dr Alexander Profeit. He treated her for death-bed asthma with her last gaspless breaths taken at the Genechal.
Figure 3: James Morgan, the burly son of the Genechal
Dr Alexander Profeit (1834-1897) was appointed first as Surgeon, and later Commissioner to Queen Victoria at Balmoral. He was born in Nethertowie, Strathdon in 1834; the son of a farmer and after graduating in Medicine returned to Donside to serve its upper reaches. Alexander was a close aide of the Queen and became, as well as her personal physician, factor to the Estate. The Queen corresponded with him freely, and trusted him so deeply, that she judged it safe to disclose personal matters, including John Brown her beloved Highland Servant. When Dr Profeit died at Balmoral in January 1897 he had served his Queen for twenty-two years. His final illness was in good part due to cirrhosis of the liver as he was awfully fond of Lochnagar’s stoneballs! (see chapter nine)
In the attic of Craiggowan, in an old tin-box, Dr Profeit had preserved three hundred letters written personally to him by the Queen. He wished them kept private, but his son George saw Profit not just in name, and in 1905 he wrote to Edward King of Britain, asking for a huge sum of money in return for the letters. The King was blackmailed for his mother’s secrets. Sir James Reid recorded the moment:
‘At 3pm George Profeit came and delivered over to me a tin box full of the Queen’s letters to his father Dr Alexander Profeit about John Brown, for which he has blackmailed theKing’.
Sir James Reid handed over immediately the letters to a grateful monarch. There wereover three hundred of them, many, as he noted in his diary `mostcompromising’.
Sir James Reid might have been in the contest, but it is my inclination that Dr Profeit was the true forerunner of the Queen’s trusted ‘Physician-in-Ordinary.’ His influence was wide on Deeside (and beyond) and it is recorded he had time for everybody, from lowly parishioners, destitutes, to those of the Landed families within whom he freely mixed. The Queen clearly loved his Scottish couthieness, styled as it was on the braes of Nethertowie, and in Dr Profeit she felt she had a trusted friend.
Sir James Reid, himself a local north-east lad, had grown up in thevillage of Ellon, the elder son of the village doctor James Reid. He was nearly a generation younger than Dr Profeit, but was brought to him because of his brilliance at MedicalSchool, graduating as he did from Aberdeen as Gold Medalist and as the most distinguished scholar of his generation. On the 8th of June 1881, Dr Reid had an interview withthe Queen at Balmoral, three days later he went to London to see SirWilliam Jenner, the Queen’s Physician-in-Ordinary, to whom forthe next 10 years he was responsible. At the age of 31 ‘this Scot of humble origin was catapultedinto a position of the utmost importance.’
An admirer of the couthie lilt of the Doric, the Queen was delighted to appoint a north-east lad, who retained his distinct accent, but having spent some time in Vienna was also fluent in German. What a perfect incarnation to meet her household needs. Dr Reid, brilliantly quick of mind, and charming with a cosy wit, took easily to his position and must have learned much from Jenner, and it wasn’t long before the Queen beseeched him to ‘enliven her dreary dinners.’ When Sir William Jenner became ill, and was forced to retire,the Queen, instead of looking for a successor from among theeminent medical men of the day, chose her personal medical attendantto succeed Physician-in-Ordinary.
The story of Dr Reid has been brought vividly alive by Lady Michaela Reid, in her book ‘Ask Sir James,’ and represents as true an account as you will find of the Royal Household. The book was the result of five years of painstaking study of Sir James’ diaries, scrapbooks, and letters. It was an unrecorded archive with not even the separation of the Genechal chimney between it and the truth!
Like Dr Profeit before, Sir James enjoyed unparalleled intimacy with the Queen, during the last years of her life. It is fascinating to note that, despite such trust placed upon him, Dr Reid was never allowed to see the Queen undressed, or approach her with a stethoscope. Nevertheless he was summoned by her four or five times a day, and was trusted with her worries from within, and without the Royal Household. At a time when opium addiction was a curse of the genteel society (Laudunum) it was Dr Reid who was responsible for persuading Princess Christian to give up her addiction; he also had to cope with John Brown’s alcoholism, as well as informing his unruffled royal employer about her Indian secretary’s gonorrhoea.!
According to Lady Reid, Queen Victoria would ‘open her heart to Dr Reid in conversations varying from whetherdogs had souls and an after-life to her hatred of Gladstone,and her son Alfred’s drunkenness. When she was approached with variousqueries her reply as often as not was `Ask Sir James’. She could alwaysrely upon him to provide the right answer and smooth over any difficulties. Even when he was on holidaythe Queen wrote frequently to Reid giving a detailed accountof her movements, bowels and otherwise.’
Figure 4: Ask Sir James. The go-between
On the 25th March 1883, eighteen months after Reid had arrived at Court,John Brown awoke with erysipelas of the face and was `quitehelpless all day’. Reid noted that by the evening of the 26th March,Brown was worse and suffered from delirium tremens. On the 27th, March Reid wrote to his mother `Brown is dead. The Queen is in a greatway about it.’ Reid signed the death certificate.
There was another Dr Reid in Crathie living and practicing at Ballater, of the name Alexander, and he appears on the 1841 and 1851 census. He married in January 1851, a Glenmuick lass called Jane Clark and then left to return to his parish home Templeton in Kildrummy. As far as I have been able to establish, he has no relationship to Sir James.
Ballater had at least two doctors in the mid nineteenth century, in the years before Royalty made their presence felt upon upper Deeside. Dr Sheriffs was one of them and had more charisma than is decent with the finest carved face in the district. As for Sir James and her Majesty they would have choked at the mention of his name, for Dr Sheriffs, you will discover, had no ‘dreary’ dinner parties.
Dr William Sheriffs was a cousin of the Lunatic Asylum Keeper in Aberdeen yet it is unlikely he tred its corridors as I once did, for William Sherriffs was a man of the country; gallant, tall and utterly forthright. In truth few glimpses of his character have survived, but his great-great granddaughter Brenda Brown said of him ‘I am a direct descendant and can confirm that all the males in the family – my father, grandfather and great grandfather, also my one male cousin, all had striking features and I have no doubt that William Sherriffs was the same and with him being a figure of some authority in Ballater the ladies may well have found him to be irresistible.’
Yes there can be no doubt that Dr Sherriffs was irresistible, for in three different parishes, by four different lasses, he had seven illegitimate children. Although he was enumerated as a Widower on the 1851 census that was surely a cover, for he was never married. Yet Dr Sherriffs was a man shrewd in his investments, and owned nearly all of Gerrard Street in Aberdeen as well as all the best feus in Ballater. Dr Sherriffs had the ladies seem of Deeside falling at their knees for his charm. He is the flawed hero of classic literature that we so like to read about. It is good to know that Brenda, his great-great-grandaughter has forgiven him, just as the good folk of Ballater did back a century ago, but has since acknowledged, that ‘successive generations had higher moral standards!’
Letters belonging to Dr Sherriffs survive and in one he writes to the father of his latest conquest giving a pitiful attempt to explain how Ann Forbes came to be pregnant by him; the letter concludes “honestly, I don’t know how this has happened.” And a man trained in anatomy – one has to laugh! No wonder he left Kincardine O’Neill for Ballater, my only surprise is that he did not trek further!
Dr Sherriffs, could not resist his own biology and Ann Forbes, Jane Grant and Helen McLaughlin, (and surely others) he sired a legion of illegitimate bairns. Nearly one in every glen! In every case, before the Kirk Session, Dr Sherriffs shouldered his responsibility and offered to give ‘every satisfactory security for the aliment and maintenance’ of said children. When Dr Sherriffs died in 1857 he left the estate of a multi-millionaire, and asked that all his property, goods and chattel be rouped. He divided his estate evenly amongst his scattered polygenes, and on his death-bed added a codicil to acknowledge two further illegitimate sons, Kenneth and Alexander, leaving them his ‘Grand houses in Gerrard Street, Aberdeen.’
As I stated Dr William Sherriffs was the cousin of the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum Keeper, though the exact nature of their consanguinity remains unclear. The Archives of the Aberdeen Asylum are an untouched goldmine rich in poignancy of forgotten and deeply personal stories. No other Institution in this land has extant records from such an early period. Dr Sherriffs saw all walks of life in his Asylum, from the impoverished syphilitic, with madness brought on by General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI), to the florid Mania in the days after childbirth. One poor gentleman, an Aristocrat called Thomas William Bailey was urgently admitted to the Asylum in the summer of 1872. He had just returned from Aga in India and was candescent with emotion, and had been for three years, since the death of his wife to ‘sun-stroke’ three years before. He never recovered and died in the Asylum in 1901. The stories of the Asylum carry sadness that betrays the oft said and glib, ‘Good Old Days.’
One of The Keeper’s patients was a young woman called Margaret Gordon who was incarcerated into his Asylum and, apart from one week, never to leave. On a dark December morning of 1860, thirty year old Margaret with ‘ruddy complexion and dark skin’ was sectioned. Dr Reid had to travel all the way from Ballater to Milntown of Aucholzie and was followed later that day by Dr Jamieson of Hutcheon Street, Aberdeen. Poor Margaret had broken down after the still-birth of a child 10 weeks earlier, which was followed by a bout of scarletina. She was a fretful skeleton of a woman pacing excitably and morbidly suspicious of all those around her. It was noted that she was hallucinating and lashing out at her family. She was disrobed and had been fleeing naked amongst the hills all around.
The Asylum had no cure, but restrained the flailing and feeble Margaret; then bled her and purged her of melancholic humor. Six months later, in late May 1861 ‘being far advanced appearance in a state of pregnancy she was removed by friends in a somewhat excited condition.’
Within that following week Aucholzie saw turmoil and Dr Reid was called out once again from Ballater. Margaret was so deranged that she was ripping her clothes off, and had tried repeatedly to drown herself in the mill-dam. Her eyes were noted to be vacantly staring and her countenance hostile, believing that all her family, including her husband William Coutts, were all dead. Under a further Certificate, written in Dr Reid’s own hand, she was admitted back to Dr Sherriffs Asylum. Two weeks later, on the 14th of July 1861 she delivered in the Asylum a still-born child. Margaret spent the rest of her life in the Asylum. She died an emaciated skeleton of a woman having suffered cancer eating her stomach. Her misery was put to an end aged 61 years. It is a heartbreaking story in itself, but further accursed when you realize that when Margaret was first admitted to the Asylum in 1861 she left behind four daughters aged between 3 and 9 years.
Margaret Gordon was herself an illegitimate child born in February 1829, the daughter of John Gordon of Ley of Lickley and Barbara Robertson. The Robertson family always protected poor Margaret, especially her uncle the Reverend William Robertson of Aboyne, and whilst the Gordon phoenix remained in the fire, Margaret’s great uncle was Donald Gordon (1678 -1776.) I have yet to find a Donald Gordon who did not have a connection to the spirit trade, and this Donald was to be no exception, for his finely etched Logie tombstone carries a charming epitaph raised by his nephew William Gordon, Vintner in Dundee.
Donald Gordon died 1776 aged 98 years:
Altho’ this tomb no boasted tittles keep
Yet silent here the private virtues sleep;
Truth, candour, justice, altogether ran
And formed a plain, upright, honest man.
No courts he saw, nor mixt in publick rage,
Stranger to all the vices of the age;
No lie, nor slander did his tongue defile –
A plain old Britton free from pride and guile.
Near five-score years he number’d ere he died,
And every year he number’d he enjoy’d.
This modest stone, which few proud Marbles can,
May truly say, Here lies an honest man;
Ye great whose heads are laid as low,
Rise higher if ye can.
Figure 5: Dr Haldane (far right) served Crathie and Bridge of Allan. He stands next to Dr Alexander Paterson
It is almost time to return to the Genechal and the Morgan family, but I cannot let go a curious coincidence.
In my Stirlingshire village, there is a grand house on the Hill called ‘Viewforth’, which is to me magisterial in the way it purveys the carse of Forth below. To discover it was the home and surgery of Dr Haldane was extraordinary to me and I would never view it again without reflecting on the life of Crathie’s best surgeon. It was on the lawns of Viewforth, that Robert Louis Stevenson played roly-poly whilst the doctor was away serving Deeside.
Dr Haldane has engendered a kindred state in me because of the similarity in our life pathways – and that despite the passing of generations. Dr Haldane graduated in Arts in Edinburgh, as did I; and we both also ventured into Medical Science; I graduated as a doctor in Aberdeen and Dr Haldane in Glasgow. I do hope you can forgive the narsicsm of this muse but I have the need to express such shared venture. With our two homes; Deeside and Bridge of Allan, our two degrees and our span of two centuries, Dr Haldane and I must be considered cousins! It was delightful then to meet his grandson Ian G. Stewart, Retired Professor of Economics, and feel in him the charm of his grandfather long before. Speaking to Ian I could sense the affectionate counsel of his grandfather who had tended my own grandfather as a boy weak with scarletina. Ian then fished around in an old drawer and pulled out a dusty photograph. There before me, rather resplendent in horse-drawn carriage, was Dr Haldane outside Viewforth with his children, including Ian’s mother greeting his arrival home.
Figure 6: Dr William Haldane in a carriage outside Viewforth, Bridge of Allan
Sunday 15th April 2007
I wanted to tell you of an unexpected connection with the past. As you know I was researching the Surgeons of our upper reach for ‘Deeside Tales.’ I have done quite well in tracing several, however one doctor stands out for a special reason.
The doctor in question is William Haldane (1847-1914) he served as doctor on upper Deeside for quite a number of years before returning to his home village of Bridge of Allan. Incredibly he has thus served both my father’s family (from Crathie) and my mother’s family (from Bridge of Allan). I then discovered that Dr Haldane died in one of Bridge of Allan’s finest Mansions called ’Viewforth’ – it has an unrivalled view over the Carse to Stirling Castle. It is now a Nursing Home and must be worth 2 million!
Forgive me revelling in this connection. It is a bit of fun really – nobody else will have the slightest bit of interest! The first doctor in Bridge of Allan was my forebear Dr John Stewart Rutherford (1808-1849). He was involved in the Burke and Hare body-snatcher shenanigans and took to a ship to escape the scandal. He renamed to Bridge of Allan two years later (1822) but died of cholera in 1849. The next doctor in Bridge of Allan was Dr Alexander Paterson (1822-1898) – he was our best village character and his hobby was collecting natural-history artefacts, curios and orchids. Dr Alexander Paterson had the skull of Darnley, a piece of Sir William Wallace’s fetters, a fragment of Robert the Bruce’s coffin and the key of Loch Leven Castle! His vast collection was housed in a special museum built by a rich Bridge of Allan benefactor. Dr Haldane was bom in the house next to Dr Paterson. A generation younger, William Haldane, must have seen Dr Paterson as his true role-model.
Several reminders of Dr Paterson survive to this day! The Museum Hall of course (my mother saw ‘The Beatles’ play there before it was shut due to subsidence – it now lies empty), the Paterson Clock and a large portrait of the man himself with flowing white locks down to his shoulders!
So it was that William Haldane brought me home – in more ways than one!
Yours aye, Peter
Dr Haldane was good friends of Gilbert Farie, the village’s rather peculiar Apothecary. Gilbert was seasoned in every way yet not one of his own remedies could satisfy his needs. In his fifties he was caught on peeping with a spy-glass on the good ladies of the village. The village Elders carried him bodily to the Bridge over the Allan water where they suspended him upside down until he repented. Robert Louis Stevenson was also a frequent visitor to Farie’s the Chemist, still in business today as Strathallan Pharmacy. A visit with the chemist proved to be a traumatic experience for young Robert Louis, writing in 1880 that he was ‘a terror to me by day and haunted my dreams by night….’ Edward Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is based on Farie.
Figure 7: Robert Louis Stevenson, Gilbert Farie, and Jekyll and Hyde
Dr Haldane was personally selected by the Earl of Fife for the post as Deeside’s Surgeon. Perhaps the doctor’s physicality helped, as he was immense, and this was said to be in keeping with his character ‘big-bodied, big-brained, and big-hearted.’ The Girnoc track was taken by him many times a year tending the poor cotter-folk of my father’s family. In my mind I picture him traversing the zig-zag sweep on horse back, broad-shouldered and knight-like, on the way to The Camlet’s rescue.
Anybody that knows me well has heard my pathetic lament that first surfaced in a letter to an aunt in her 99th year. You see Aunt Ena told me how she had enjoyed my visit to Hill of Orchard her home and that she reckoned as busy doctors and parents that my wife Sian and I should get well returned. Ah, but not like pop-stars she mused and laughed. I thought in that moment of Dr Paterson and his protégé. They were village stars, celebrities, successful collectors and philanthropists. ‘Do you know Aunt Ena,’ I said ‘these Doctors, with their flowing locks, had Streets named after them – not to mention Clocks and Fountains!’
Figure 8: Dr Paterson clock, Bridge of Allan
Aunt Ena could always remind me of what is important, and nobody was more eloquent. Memories fade and street names representless; as is the aspiration of money.
‘I am almost as I was when you saw me, if perhaps, slower and smaller! Lack of mobility is the drawback to any more active interests, but at 98½ one has to realise that even engines wear out. On my Census form I have put a tick at ‘good’ for health! So many of my friends of following generations have problems which I have escaped and I count my blessings.’
You may be surprised to learn that I did not struggle to think of a present for a 99 year-old. I knew exactly what I wanted for Aunt Ena – something for her Orchard Hilltop. The choice was simple – Christopher Lloyd’s unsurpassed Well Tempered Garden. Sadly before the book was opened Aunt Ena had passed on. Her engine had simply worn out
Do not forget completely Robert Smith’s glowingrecall, yet it is bloody violence that really returns us to the Genechal. A new week had begun for the Morgans on Abergeldy’s braes and the evening of Monday the 28th July 1886 should have been just like any other summer night. Margaret Morgan awaited anxiously the return of her husband John James Calder who worked at Dallyfour as Sawmiller for Abergeldy. Yet the Genechal’s doors were not to hear his knock that night. Fretful hours passed, and Margaret, overtaken by darkness waited vigilantly for husband John. It was 8amthe following morning on her way to Balmoral, and just out of the Genechal wood, that Margaret made the grim discovery. Lying dead in the heather, by the side of the track, was her husband John. Rigor mortis had set-in and the birds of prey hovered opportunistically above.
John’s body was taken by carriage to Aberdeen where a post-mortem was performed by Dr Mathew Hay The cause of death of 38 year old John Calder was reckoned to be ‘effusion of blood within the head compressing the brain the result of violence applied to the head probably through misadventure.’
Curiously no investigation appears to have followed, certainly no extant records can be found, and there is no mention anywhere of precognitions. Conspiratorial minds might wonder if Queen Victoria pulled a blanket over her dear Balmoral. ‘It would not do,’ to have a Murder on the edge of one’s Estate. However, more likely, the misadventure was brought about by a drunken stooshie. Stoneballs after all could do that!
We shall never know the truth – Queen Victoria’s door has kept tightly hold of its secrets.
The murky happenings of the Genechal returned my mind to Crathienaird and a young twenty year old lad called Robert ‘Robby’ McIntosh. It is worth closely studying the aerial photograph of Crathienaird for it conveys, through the stane rickles and crop marks, an impression of a once busy fairm-toun. Indeed if you went back to Robby McIntosh’s time, the early nineteenth century, it literally bustled like no other fairm-toun on Deeside.
Robby McIntosh was executed on Thursday the 31st of May 1822 in Aberdeen’s first double execution since 1752. He had been found guilty of the murder of his forty year old fiancée Elizabeth Anderson who was pregnant by him. He had cut her throat from ear to ear. His gallows companion 45 year old William Gordon, a fishing net maker from Aberdeen, had mortally stabbed his wife through the femoral artery with a sharpened poker.
Figure 8.8: Crathienaird farmtown in cropmarks (Vertical photograph taken 1992 by RCAHMS)
McIntosh’s courage seemed to forsake him on the scaffold and a glass of water was brought to him by his Executioner. This was all witnessed by a buzzing mob of breathless whisperers, indeed the largest crowd Aberdeen had ever seen. After completing his private prayer with his minister, the Reverend Charles Gordon of Braemar, McIntosh stepped forward and mounted the drop and at 20 minutes past three, was ‘launched into eternity.’ The sufferings of his scaffold partner, William Gordon, terminated most quickly, but owing to the rope having been improperly placed, McIntosh struggled considerably and convulsed for some minutes. It was an awful end and the crowd shouted in an angry display of ‘disapprobhation.’
Robby McIntosh had committed a barbaric murder. He was employed by Donald Symon as a Farm Servant at Crathienaird and had formed there an intimacy with a woman of the name of Lizzy Anderson who was twice his age. Lizzy resided with her 85 year old mother in a Crathienaird house next door to the Gordons. On a Sunday night in October 1821, Lizzy had come into her mother’s house and had sat down beside her to read her Bible by the fireside, when a voice called her out. Soon after this, Lizzy’s mother heard a ‘sair skirl,’ which she knew came from her daughter, and which ‘went to her heart.’ Being frail she could not rise and fell asleep. The next morning Lizzy’s mangled body was found by the neighbour Helen Gordon, lying on the floor in front of the bed. Her throat had been cut from ear to ear and the bed was drenched in blood. Lizzy’s mother awoke with Helen’s shriek ‘Is that you Lizzy?’ she shouted, but Helen had fled to get her brother Thomas. In the meantime however, the invalid and paralysed mother contrived to crawl out of her bed, and got to the other end of the house, where she found her daughter lying murdered.
This was Crathienaird’s darkest day. Within days of the Murder, but not before she had given her precognition statement, Lizzy’s mother died – it was an inglorious and tragic end to two generations of Crathienaird women – one at the hands of a murderer the other from a broken-heart.
A letter was found in Lizzy’s chest signed by Robby McIntosh in which he promised to make her his wife:
‘Hear is my faith and promise to you, Elizabeth, that I will be as good as promise gin the time appointed. I tak God in witness, I will be your lawful husband.’
Dr Andrew Robertson surgeon in Bridgend of Crathie was summoned and arrived that Monday morning to inspect the body of Lizzy. He found a large incision or wound in her neck dividing the windpipe and the gullet and the vessels on the left side had been cleanly cut through to the bone. He concluded that life must have been immediately extinguished. A later post mortem found that Lizzy was pregnant with a baby of 8 to 10 weeks in gestation.
Many witnesses came forward to establish that McIntosh, in the days before Lizzy’s murder had been courting another woman and that he had endeavoured in vain to make Lizzy give up the letter which he had written to her. Duncan Stewart’s evidence was damning for he said that eight days before Lizzy’s murder, McIntosh had said that his intimate relations with her would ‘soon be over;’ asked what he meant, McIntosh told him ‘You’ll soon hear.’
Another witness, Peter Grant, confirmed he was a friend of McIntosh and recollects having lent him a razor on the wedding day of a mutual friend, but McIntosh never returned it. On the Sunday of the murder, McIntosh had been in the company of John MacDonald, and had taken a razor out of his pocket and asked him if it was sharp. It was. Some hours later, but before nightfall, a Braemar woman spotted McIntosh returning home with his sleeve heavily blood stained. A coat was later found hidden behind a peat-stack near McIntosh’s home, somebody had tried to wash off the blood stains. The distinctive white ‘fustian’ coat was quickly identified as McIntosh’s.
When Lizzy’s body was found Mrs Symon took Robby McIntosh aside and spoke to him ‘O’ Robby what is this you have done? Lizzy Anderson in the Bush is murdered and they are alleging you have done it,’ and Donald Symon gave him what wages were due (four pounds) and told him to go away to Auchallater, and that ‘from the town of Crathienaird he must go.’
When McIntosh was apprehended, there was a scratch, as if made by a razor, on his cheek below his left eye.
Lord Meadowbank at the High Court Trial summed up all the evidence to the jury in a speech which lasted an hour and forty minutes. The Jury however, needed only brief minutes to make their collective decision, and McIntosh was found guilty of Murder. Lord Meadowbank then addressed the unhappy man in a speech of the‘most impressive and affecting nature’ and warned him of expressing any hope of mercy. During his confinement, it was said that McIntosh was sullen and untroubled by the burden of his guilt and a week before he was due to be executed he made an attempt to escape jail. On the Tuesday of that final week he signed a declaration which he took with him to the Scaffold and there put in the hands of the Lord Provost:
‘It would ill become such a sinner, such a scandalous sinner as I have been, to presume to offer advice to the meanest creature on earth; but from the bottom of this frightful dungeon, if groaning under the weight of these enormous irons, which have kept me riveted to the stone floor for six long weeks, whilst death, ignominious death, with all its horrors and appalling circumstances has, day and night and night and day, been staring me broad in the face – if situated thus, I could be permitted to raise my thrice wretched voice, I would say to all, and young people in particular “Look to my sad sad misfortunes, consider my untimely end, and learn wisdom’
Aberdeen Jail 29th May 1822 Robert McIntosh
On Thursday morning, McIntosh received the sacrament of the Eucharist from the Reverend Charles Gordon. On that day, his aged father, who had gone to London for the purpose of endeavouring to get a remission of the order to have his son’s body given to Dr Skene and Dr Ewing for Public Dissection at MarischalCollege. He returned in time to hear his son lead out to the Scaffold while the 51st Psalm was chanted solemnly. It was his last farewell.
Kaleidoscoping through time, on the best part of two centuries, I came to study anatomy using the preserved bones of McIntosh. Uncannily, the doctor who instructed me over the corpse was none other than Dr Skene. That was how McIntosh bones, Crathienaird, and Dr Skene taught me anatomy. History, I am sure you must agree, does indeed have the most curious ways!
Murder has had me stray from Genechal’s path, yet this, Crathienaird’s dark secret, surely beckoned to be told in ‘Deeside Tales.’ Robert Smith in his chapter on Genechal painted a wonderfully evocative account of the MacDonald family of the Genechal – the family who followed the Morgans. I am not going to commit his work here for reprint but urge you to read his tribute to a scholastic and Christian family who worked for the Queen. In the series of photographs below you can see old Granny MacDonald seated outside the Genechal with her Bible in hand. Prim, pretty and serene is her daughter Christine standing outside the two doors. The image preserved is of plain country folk of utter respectability – yet they knew, that with the Genechal, that had not always been so, for the house had been attainted by the last of the Morgans.
Figure 8.11: A picture of genteel Victorian hospitality. The McDonald family.
I feel uncouth sharing this next story with you and hope you will forgive any unintentional glibness in the telling. You may be glad to know it is the last story of the chapter.
I will pull no punches, for the harlot of Crathie was undoubtedly Margaret Morgan (1844 – 1906.) Yet I find myself having much sympathy for her, not for her waywardness but for the vulnerability of her being. Nobody now recalls Margaret and that saddens me. She was the youngest child of John Morgan and Johanna Cameron and had it not been for the 1881 census return I may have passed her by. My eye was first drawn to the fact that she was alone as the head of The Genechal household. I quickly realized that her mother Johanna had died the year before after attendence by the Queen’s personal Physician Dr Profeit. However scanning down the Genechal children I immediately assumed some error by the Enumerator, for each child had a different surname.
I had no intention of besmirching Margaret and her weans, but I did wish to understand Genechal.
1881 – Genechal (in Gaelic – Geannachoil)
Margaret Morgan, age 37 years, head, formerly Laundress, born Crathie
James Petrie, 12 years, son, scholar, born Crathie
John Ross, 8 years, Son, scholar, born Crathie
Mary Kennedy, 2 years, daughter, born Crathie
My discovery was stark: Margaret Morgan had three children born to three different fathers and none in wedlock. Did the Queen know? Did mother Johanna hide the truth till the day she died? I think the likely answer to both suppositions is yes! The first son, James Petrie, was born in 1868, his father was John Petrie; the next son was John Ross, born in 1872, his father was Peter Ross; the last child was Mary Kennedy born in 1872, her father was the bachelor William Kennedy of the Camlet. The bull did have a son after all!
Perhaps now you can understand my teasing introduction at this chapter’s outset – that other door had another purpose – to hide a den of night trade. I shall say no more, but surely the Queen was ‘not amused.’
In 1883 Margaret at last found wedlock. John James Calder, her husband, as we have heard, was murdered just outside the Genechal in the high summer of three years later. Somebody it seems was looking for the guilty pleasure from behind that second door and John Calder would not have that. Oh no.
Chapter 9 of ‘Deeside Tales: the stories of a small glen’
This chapter, let me say at outset, carries neither political correctness nor respect of authority. You see whisky, Deeside, and the Gordons all go back time immemorial, and as bedfellows of outlaw, they carried on in blatant disregard of any propriety.
Whisky, and its illicit production, was a way of life for many of our Deeside families. Several Acts of Parliament made Law in the mid 1820’s brought an end to the sma’ stills; and the smuggling trade, once vital in the small glen, was in peril. A few hardy souls clung on during the desperate years that followed, in what proved to be, a busy time for the Gauger. Telling the story are the extant papers (though not precognitions) of Donald McPherson Smuggler in Bovagli and Charles Gordon in Tilfogar. My own family (recorded testimony of James Gordon in New Zealand) fled the Gauger on horse in 1826 and never returned to the Girnoc. And lest we dare forget, there was Alexander Gordon whose infamy as a smuggler spread country-wide. Alexander ended up in Perth prison but escaped twice – a resourceful glen-lad if ever there was!!
Now it seems there were several key characters – notorious on Deeside – that left the illicit stills behind and formed the Distillery at Lochnagar.
Figure 9.1: Lochnagar Mountain
James Robertson (1789-1837) was certainly one of those. His father Charles had operated an illicit still at Mill of Balmoral up until his death in 1812, after which the family went over the Coyles to Glenmuick and took tenancy of the Spittal. It was there that a bond of friendship was struck with John Robbie (1770-1829.) Both Robbie and Robertson operated illicit stills and transported their wares by night over the Mounth to Cortachy and beyond. John Robbie knew the route well – after all, Fettereggie in Glen Clova was the home of his family. His wife Barbara Stewart, was from Bovagli, and instrumentally she brought the Girnoc folk into the wider distribution of the illicit liquor!
It was then that an embracing Act of Parliament was enforced and, most suddenly a way of life came to an end. At last the Guager could fine the Abergeldy Laird. Smuggling ceased for all but the brazen. Surviving records from Abergeldy confirm that the Laird of Abergeldy knew all too well that his tenants were smuggling:
‘I approve much of the resolutions of the different countrys regarding Licences for distilling. I think the Act of Parliament as it presently stands is oppressive and hope the Scots members will be unanimous in endeavouring to get it altered….’
Recorded in a letter by Charles Gordon Twelfth Laird of Abergeldie
It is my belief that out of a bond of understanding, successive Abergeldy Lairds ignored this illicit trade. Afterall their tenants were poor subsistent farmers living in scattered but n’ben townships. Droving was gone (the turnip and the train had done to that!) Upper Deeside folk were desparate and sheep alone could not provide sufficient income to sustain large families. It was no wonder, that after the liqor went, that the last of the glen cleared!
If only we could have shared a dram with John Robbie of the ‘Bobart, for like no other on Deeside, he had the‘keenest wit’ and as a raconteur his stories have been recalled for their wicked animation! John Robbie hated the Gauger and as a smuggler himself must have known his trafficking comrades intimately.
It was whilst John Robbie was Innkeeper at Inchbobart that a gauger came to investigate illegal distilling. The weather had turned stormy and the exhausted gauger had to seek shelter in John’s house. The blinding snow was preventing further travel and blocking his way home. As he settled down comfortably by the fire the gauger remarked that it was not a good day for anyone to be out. John Robbie was quite pleased to think that the gauger had experienced such an unpleasant journey. He had hopes that the gauger would be in no hurry to return, so he did his best to paint a picture of deep snow, closed roads, unpleasant conditions and the unwelcome attentions of ‘spookies.’
One can only wonder what further marvelous stories John Robbie could have revealed to us! Sadly shortly after he moved to the Spittal, whilst riding home from Ballater, Robbie’s horse was suddenly startled and as a result he was thrown and received severe injuries. Robbie was taken back to a Ballater Inn, where he lingered a few days before dying there. That was in the summer of 1829.
Over the last few days, despite my greater understanding of their roguish ways, I have found myself praising the Deeside smugglers for turning the spring water of Deeside into something far more interesting and profitable! These people were resourceful if not hardy! But seriously, the production of illicit whisky had become to them an essential way of life – droving was finished, and grazing of sheep was not enough to support families – especially in unforgiving reaches like the small glen. Although improper it was the only way of a sure income, and whilst the Parliament continued such heavy taxes on whisky it was always going to be profitable to make it and sell it illegally. In 1823 the Government saw light and reduced the whisky tax, and in the following years, by further Acts of Parliament, they gave the Gauger much greater powers of penalty. The aim was simple – to stamp out illicit distilling of whisky. In this matter, history has recorded a Parliamentary success.
The turbulent years were principally between 1823 and 1830, and the records of many skirmishes with the Excisemen survive from this period. With livelihoods at stake, conflict was not uncommon. When Donald McPherson of Bovagli’ was caught in 1824, his smuggling party was a boisterous gathering from the Girnoc; and armed with cudgels and other weapons, they traversed the Mounth with a trailing convoy of ponies laden with kegs of contraband whisky. Little did they know that at Tarbrax Tollhouse the Gauger, Mr Tawse, with a company of Dragoon Guards, awaited them. Somebody it seems had tipped them-off! It was the dreadful skirmish that followed which inspired the poem ‘Din-raisin wi’ Donald.’ The poaching gang, as many as thirteen in number, pelted the poor Exciseman Mr Tawse with large stones. Donald McPherson threatened the Dragoon ‘tae blow ther brains oot if they laid violent hands’ upon his gang. Aye, he was brazen and never feart! Then Donald threatened to run auld Tawse-the-Excise ‘throo the body wi’ a pitch fork.’ It was then that he Dragoon Guard surrounded Donald McPherson and apprehended him along with James Gordon the Abergeldy Gamekeeper. They were taken to Perth prison but confessed their guilt (no doubt knowing that the evidence against them was overwhelming.) Donald McPherson served twelve months, but it seems James Gordon was served more leniently
The others, ‘to the number of nine or mair’shared that nervishness –
but plied theirsels’ wi’ ther ain coontraband:
aye, fou an fleein’ tae loosen that fear!
Bit not oor Donald, fa he wis high-heedit,an seemingly baithered by nout –
not aiven a fearsom rainstorm risen michty faist
wid brak his smugglers course!
Michty me he wis blin tae danger –
It has been recorded that James Robertson first set up his distillery in Glen Fearder. However I have found nothing to corroborate this. It is possible that there was some distilling in Fearder before 1826. At this date, on the outer perimeter of the Balmoral estate, James Robertson established the Lochnagar Distillery. At that time he was living on Abergeldy Croft (near Balnacroft) with his wife Elizabeth Gordon (c1784-1857) and three young children. No doubt, with new found family responsibilities, James Robertson knew that to risk smuggling, with a new vigorously enforced Law, was to risk jail or even transportment to a foreign penal Colony. James Robertson was well placed to consider the risk as his brother-in-law, Donald Gordon (born at Crathienaird in July 1785) could not let go of vice. Donald was a hardened scoundrel, a drunk, a smuggler, and counterfeiter. He was, if we go by his trial of 1830, utterly brazen. Inn after Inn, County after County, he pedaled his forged notes for whisky. Donald’s trial had so many witnesses that the case-papers form a large wedge soot-hardened in time! In all 32 separate precognition statements were taken all across the eastern half of the country from Aberdeenshire to Fife! Inside that wedge survived one of Donald’s forged Guinea notes! It was the one he gave to Mary Webster-Bruce the Auchinblae Innkeeper. It was a strange sensation for me to hold Donald’s note, and in my minds-eye I was transported back to Auchenblae, Donald, and his foul whisky breath!
Figure 9.2: Donald Gordon’s forged note spent at Auchenblae
Reading between-the-lines the authorities had been out to catch Donald Gordon for years! Certainly the lengths they went to catch him were extraordinary! He was apprehended at thebridge of Murroes just outside Dundee. I have found no trace of Donald Gordon after 1830. I find myself wondering if he survived his prison sentence (he was 46 years at the time of the trial.) Quite possibly he succumbed to delirium tremens in prison. Certainly in Aberdeen I was involved in several fatal cases – all brought about by the abrupt withdrawal from alcohol. A shriveled cirrhotic liver would leave Donald merciless! Incidentally the youngest victim of hard drinking that I have found was a policeman from Victorian Ballater who died in the village aged just 26 years! The dangers of drink go back forever.
Our befuskert smuggler was born in 1785 at Crathienaird, son of Donald Gordon, farmer and Phemie Smith. Intuitively one would be inclined then to place him with the Crathienaird family founded by Thomas Gordon of Myreton. However this was not so, Donald our smuggler, was almost certainly from the family of Tilfogar.
The siting of James Robertson’s second Distillery, first built in 1826, was on the very lowest slopes of Lochnagar, and was but a stones-throw from Tilfogar. This long lost farm-toun thathas become so familiar to me was the smugglers den. Of that there can be no doubt! Curiously, like no other Abergeldy farm settlement, Tilfogar – once bustling in eastern and western ‘villages’ – just disappeared overnight. Perhaps then, we now have an explanation; for surely shame and hardship combined to empty Tilfogar. It was a township pulled in a tug-of-war between the legitimate and illegitimate distilling of whisky. The former won through and in deep shame Tilfogar ‘shut up shop!’ What little survived of the eastern community was rebuilt and renamed Buailteach. Nature then quickly reclaimed the rest and Tilfogar, by 1871 was gone.
Given its history, it is surely no surprise to learn that Tilfogar sired generations of Innkeepers. After John Robbie’s untimely death in 1829, the Spittal Inn was run by his wife Barbara Stewart. The neighbouring hostel at Inchnabobart was under the proprietorship of John Gordon of Tilfgar. His son, also John, had married into Robbie’s family of Fettereggie.
Auld John Gordon of ‘Bobart seems to have been well liked, but was yet stealthy, and under the mask of night, he was sentinel and gatekeeper to the Mounth road south. Yes, whilst extant records lack, I believe he was the principle lookout for the smuggler. John Gordon was still at the Bobart in 1841, though by then he was a widower aged at least seventy. In the following decade he must have died and disappears from the records.
Tilfogar as a community arose, in part from the Gordon family of Balnakyle in Balmoral. The detail of this family evolution has escaped any scribes draught. However, also from Belnakyle came the Duncan family and it was the son of Alexander Duncan and Rebackah Gordon who established himself as Innkeeper at Potarch, up the Dee river and into the parish of Birse. Alexander Duncan as an Innkeeper served his new parish all too briefly. First, in 1849 Alexander’s wife died, broken-hearted Alexander followed her within a year, leaving behind eight little orphan children.
Figure 9.3: Alexander Gordon (1810-1889) of Tilfogar & his daughter
Tilfogar also embraces the Stewart family. A picture, charmingly sweet survives, of old Granny Stewart, sitting outside Buailteach. However she was perhaps the last smuggler of her generation, indeed it was not uncommon for the women-folk to work the stills whilst their partners distributed the ware. The Stewart family was from the Camlet. Grandfather Stewart had fled to the Camlet in 1693 from Argyllshire after being with Argyle’s regiment, at the massacre of Glencoe. The family later took tenancy of Bovagli, before marrying into the Gordons of Tilfogar.
Figure 9.4: Wester and Easter Tilfogar on the Innes Estate map of 1806
Few now recall now that the hillwalker used to have to trudge the way to Lochnagar by Easter Balmoral, passing the Genechal and over the Gelder Shiel. That all changed when in 1971 when a car park was sited at the Spittal of Glenmuick at the end of the glen road enabling visitors to get much closer by car and considerably shortening the walk to high Lochnagar. As the preferred mountain gateway, the Spittal quickly became a victim of its own success, with more than 40,000 cars per annum and the main car park habitually overflowing every weekend. It was not uncommon on public holidays for up to 160 cars parking down the road at any one time.
Yet not one of these visitors can recall a time when the Spittal was the Grand Auld Man of the Glen, when it sang of prosperity and refinery, and had no vulgar sea of cars to pollute its magnificence. Indeed looking at the Visitor shack today grandeur seems remote, for true time of the Spittal, you may be surprised to learn, goes back as early as the seventeenth century.
When David McDonald-Guies died in May 1744 he had out-survived not just his wife but all his children. His empire was the Spittal and he was a man ofgreat wealth, it may be that this had come through marriage into the family of the Farquharsons of Invercauld, but that is speculation. David knew he was dying and prepared a 36 page Inventory which he entrusted to six Executors, none of whom were close family. David was clearly a man of great benevolence and gave out money to glen folk wide and far, to help them in times of need.
The Inventory is detailed and hard in places to decipher, but reading it I was left with the impression that David ‘the Grand Auld Man of the Spittal’ was swindled and his estate creamed off by his supposedly trustworthy Executors. His ‘specially fine’ house was dismantled piece by piece and sold at Auction by Samuel Gordon of Milntoun of Braichlie and Alexander Stewart of Aucholzie: ‘Then bit-by-bit the fine house was completely disassembled. Everything was sold from, a bath tub to a barn door. It was ruthless clearance and proves that David had no close family around.‘ The cost of David McDonald’s coffin was an incredible six Scots pounds made from the very best Aucholzie wood. And gosh the funeral party drank! 30 pints of Ale and thirty gills of brandy were consumed by the ‘Company of Men’ who carried his ‘Corps six miles’ to Glenmuick Churchyard. They charged the deceased twenty five pounds Scots for this and then some more for food. Then a further Codicil was added for five and a half pints more of brandy at £1.10/- a pint, plus four dozen pipes, and three pounds of snuff. Gosh this funeral was like Hogmany celebrations in Edinburgh!
The Spittal and the Bobart were lively bedfellows in their day and frequented as Hostels by drovers and smugglers alike. Gatherings, particularly at the Spittal, were simply legendary for revelry. In 1763 at Inchnabobart James and Charles Stewart had between them twelve sheep and sixteen lambs. Sometime soon thereafter the Gordons of Tilfogar moved in. The Hostel at Bobart, the highest in Scotland, gave way to the Spittal. However by 1850, the revelry ceased and, both townships retuned to shepherd outposts for Aucholzie. It was at exactly this date that another grandson of Tilfogar, James Gordon (1819-1905) and his wife Isabella Sim, had a daughter born at the Spittal. Yet within a year of little Jane Ann’s birth, they crossed the Mounth to Clova. No other Tilfogar loon was to surpass this John. His farmer’s intuition and great skill brought him into the service of the Earl of Airly’s and soon he was to become principal farmer for Airly.
In 1858, our Airly farmer had his fourth child and by chance I came across his tombstone in Kirriemuir. Strangely, in that moment of discovery, I sensed James was Tilfogar. However, what really thrilled me was discovering that he was a Gardener. My passion for horticulture has carried me buoyantly in life and in 1992 I left Medicine to study Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh University and I was honoured to be awarded the Scottish Chapter Prize as best graduate. Since then I have designed many gardens, but ‘my Airly’ was Tillybin by Fraser Castle.
Figure 9.6: Tillybin Garden by Castle Fraser
So it was, with much curiosity, that I set off to Airly Castle to see if any of James’ garden survived. I prepared myself to be disappointed as I understood the Airly Lords lived at Cortachy Castle and so considered it likely the garden, after a century of neglect, would be wild in disabandon. I was very fortunate, for at the Lodge House I met the current estate gardener. He was so kind and interested in my story. Had I not met him I would not have got further than the lodge. He took me up a wonderful and winding, and truly ancient beech avenue, to most beautiful garden. The current Head Gardener told me that the old Castle was partly destroyed in the late 17th Century but, 70 years or so before James Gordon was Gardener, the Earl of Airly rebuilt within the old ruin walls a ‘nestled’ castle. It rather reminded me of Caerlaverock’s Nithsdale Lodging, cradled as it was inside the old! I have a deep love for formal walled gardens with topiary yew, and box. In Airly they nestle quite magically within a glorious and ancient woodland. Perched above such a steep and wild ravine they are the lost wonder of Angus and speak of Man holding back nature. That is a contrast I love and certainly a theme I have explored within ‘Deeside Tales.’
Figure 9.7: Airly Castle a Garden of Delight
The Bonnie Hoose o’Airly is still a popular ballad about the Castle and its history, and tells of the trials besieged upon its pink sandstone walls. The castle was bought by the Ogilvy family in 1432, bringing with it the finest defensive position in the Angus foothills. AirlyCastle remains the official seat of the Earl of Airly, the title being granted in 1639 to the Ogilvy family when James, the eighth Lord Ogilvy of Airly became the first Earl of Airly. The Earl of Argyll burnt the place to the ground in 1641, during the Bishops’ Wars. AirlyCastle was then left neglected and the Ogilvy family moved to nearby Cortachy Castle. There is an Ogilvy traditional folklore that the ghost of a drummer boy haunts AirlyCastle and can be heard beating his drum when an Earl of Airly is about to die. I am glad to say as I roamed the wondrous gardens I heard no drums.
In 1746, after the Jacobite Rebellion, King George II confiscated what was left of the charred AirlyCastle. The exiled Lord Airly was allowed to return from Versailles only years later and he undertook the task of rebuilding the castle. He arrived with a retinue of French masons and whimsically added a Georgian country house to the castle’s remains. Queen Mary was a frequent guest at Airly when her close friend was the Countess of Airly.
The next significant change was made in late 19th century when Blanche Airly, decided to transform, what was essentially a walled vegetable patch, into an elaborate topiary garden. James Gordon (1858 – 1935) grandson of Tilfogar, was the man that guided her inspiration. The garden is now the pride of the castle and a lasting tribute to a Lady and her Deeside Gardener. In July 1878, Blanche Ogilvy invited her friend James A. Whistler to come and stay and to sketch her garden. Sadly those sketches have been lost, and that is heartbreaking for me, as Airly was now my favourite ScottishGarden and Whistler, had long since been my favourite Artist. The Arrangement in Grey and Black, his most famous picture of his mother, had me transfixed motionless when I saw it in Paris. There is no better painting of contrast, like the starkly opposing forces of Man and Nature, in Airly and its garden.
8th July 1878
I am going this very next week right off to the Airlies in Scotland where they have asked me and where they want me to make some etchings portraits – They promise to see that I get over to Susie’s on the 10th or 11th all right – So you see Jack that will be all jolly and as it ought – and also you see that if you send your cheque tomorrow how jolly well it will come in.
J A McN. Whistler [butterfly signature]
Figure 9.8: Whistler sketches Blanche Airly’s Garden
For sometime now we have marveled at the longstanding and steadfast bond between Abergeldy and Birse. Having completed a recent history of the Abergeldy family I would say that this goes back to at least to the early seventeenth century when the most wayward figure of that great family domiciled the parish at Ballogie. I am talking here about Alexander Gordon the seventh Laird of Abergeldy who died in 1655. He was a rebel of fierce temperament, who drank copiously, and squandered his entire estate – down to his underclothes! He all but lost Abergeldy, had it not been for his brother-in-law Thomas Nicholson, a most adept Lawyer and Advocate. Alexander Gordon will be remembered as a bully, and like many such pathetic beings, he took the worst out on his wife Katherine. He regularly beat her, left her in poverty, yet crawled back to her when in need. If it had not been for the kind folk of Birse parish, who took pity on her, she and her children would not have survived.
It is interesting that the bond with Birse is particularly tight with the small Girnoc glen. I remain forever certain that this must be to do with Abergeldy. When Charles Gordon of Tilfogar was caught by the Guager in early spring 1821 he was defended by the Abergeldy Solicitor. Sadly the precognitions of this case have not survived, and that is such a shame as they would surely have revealed much about Tilfogar of the time. The three comrades of Charles Gordon the smuggler were all from Birse.
It is time now to return to Lochnagar and the story of Deeside’s only distillate. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the date of James Robertson’s first venture into legitimate distillation, may have been as early as 1824 and you can only imagine the resentment felt amongst those smugglers who were determined to continue a way of life. Not surprising then, that by the veil of night, this first Distillery was burnt to the ground. These were turbulent times but James Robertson was resolute in his turn to absolute propriety. So in 1826, next to Tilfogar, and not far from Abergeldy Croft his home, James Robertson built a new distillery and called it Lochnagar. No doubt threats continued but James was not put off. The lease of the Distillery, land, and its catchment from the Lochnagar massif, cost James £12 per annum payable to Charles Gordon of Abergeldy.
You might be as interested to learn that Lochnagar was sited beside some truly ancient stone artifacts that had remained in that Deeside nestle for millennia. On top of Craigbeg, three stone cists were discovered each containing ash and human bone, and just inches away a truly unique stone-ball was found (see picture.) This ball with its pattern of six opposing discs had never been seen before. In the obvious metaphor, James Robertson, for surviving rile and the smuggling saboteurs, was Lochnagar’s first ‘Stoneball.’
So it was that amidst troubled times, Lochnagar established itself and with further improvements, expanded. But then James Robertson’s health began to fade and amidst his distillery empire, ‘Stoneballs’ rolled off Lochnagar’s braes. He died in May 1837, and with no Testamentary provision, his entire estate was put to Roup. The collected sale duties amounted to more than £342 and that went to his widow Elizabeth Gordon. For some reason, his two sons, John and James, adults by then, did not enter the business, though both never left their homeland braes.
Elizabeth Gordon, widow of James Robertson the smuggler-turned-good, lived on for fifteen more years at Abergeldy Croft. Her death certificate raises an eyebrow, for the informant, her son John, was circumspect, recording his mother as ‘widow of a ———‘(left blank.) As he was able to read and write, this has left me curious as to why John did not record his father as a Distiller? Was it that his reputation as Deeside’s smuggler had gathered infamy? We shall never know, but can surmise that it is curiously indicative of the 1857 climate. Personally I am not surprised. The shame of smuggling in my branch of the family left my proud Victorian great-grandfather with a total denial of his family’s illicit past. If his only daughter asked of her Deeside roots he used to bellow sternly ‘Get on with your studies and keep out of the poorhouse!’ His rigour was not just Victorian, but truly the silence of shame.
By 1841, the Farquharson family from Old Machar in Aberdeen were very much ensconced on Lochnagar. What brought this family to the Distillery has eluded my research, but I am inclined to believe that a past generation had roots in the great family of Invercauld. Certainly we know that the Farquharson family married into Abergeldy and took helm of Balmoral as early as the 17th century.
Three Farquharson siblings were all instrumental in the running of the Distillery – Alexander, Joseph, and Isabella. All were born in Old Machar in the early years of the nineteenth century, the children of Robert Farquharson and Agnes Davidson (who had married in Old Machar in 1795.)
Alexander Farquharson, born 1801, the eldest of this sibling group, took over the established Lochnagar Distillery after the death of James Robertson in 1838. Just three years later he appears on the census return with his ‘foreign’ (English!) wife. He was listed as the sole Distiller. One has to chuckle a little to read of the man Alexander had appointed as his ‘Brewer in charge’ – it was none other than Charles Stewart (1816-1877) of Buailteach! All Charles’ skill had been garnered, of course, from the illicit stills of Bovagli and Tilfogar. Yes that smuggler influence was at the beating heart of Lochnagar Distillery and Charles Stewart had brought with him his family recipe! A recipe that has survived to this day!
At this time, the running of Lochnagar Distillery, was very much a family affair. Alexander’s sister, Isabella Farquharson, a laundress, brought her husband James Reid (1809-1842) to the distillery campus. Details lack, but at outset James Reid was the Maltman, yet within just a few short months, he seems to have entered into partnership in the Distillery with his brother-in-law Alexander Farquharson.
Alexander Farquharson gave home at Lochnagar to his younger brother Joseph. This brother was familiar with the trade and was listed on that very same census as a ‘Spirit Dealer.’ He was newly married to Ann Rattray and by the date of the following census was at Balnacroft with a family of six and by then had become the ‘Lochnagar Brewer.’
So it was that by 1841 had Lochnagar had become a significant local industry. A new family underpinning had brought both prosperity and success. I concluded that the haunt of the smuggler was at last over and the Exciseman long since redundant. Yet this, my summation of the 1841 scene, was to be exposed as benevolently naïve. On the 12th May 1841 the Aberdeen Journal reported the following calamity:
‘FIRE AT LOCHNAGAR DISTILLERY – at Thursday morning last at four o’clock, the premises were discovered to be on fire; and not withstanding the greatest of exertions, the whole of the distillery house, malt barn, kiln, and store-rooms, with all their contents, were reduced to embers. Where or how the fire started remains a mystery . . .’
One could read this in many ways for further factual detail simply lacks. My inclination is to assume deliberate sabotage by the cover of night. Seemingly ill-feeling was still about and the haunt of the smuggler yet to be busted! The Farquharson family were not to be easily put off – at least not this early in their venture. A month later, in June of 1841, when the first census enumerator visited Lochnagar, those at the enterprise were listed as below. In all there were five Farquharson children on the campus, helmed still by their mother Agnes. Research has indicated that the family moved ‘en-famile’ from Old Machar when they purchased the Distillery in 1838.
The following year personal tragedy struck at the heart of the management. Aged just 33 years of age James Reid died. Less than a year had passed since he had entered partnership with his brother-in-law Joseph. A plain tombstone in Crathie Churchyard records the grief of his wife Isabella Farquharson. This poor lady knew much of loss with several of her children lost in early childhood. One has to wonder if that grimmest of reapers, tuberculosis, was about. Sometimes even the freshest of Deeside air could not dispel such heinous bacteria and at Balnacroft the bacilli won through.
Let us now recap: the Farquharson family must have started their Distillery enterprise with the promise of a fresh start far away from the closet of Old Aberdeen. However, such buoyant spirit was soon vanquished, virtually at outset, by a devastating fire. Then the following year, one of the partners, James Reid, was dead. It was a miserable start for the family and certainly not what they had dreamt of.
Following 1842 the Farquharson family persevered at Lochnagar but hearts were broken. The rental of the Distillery from Abergeldy was renewed in 1845, but not by the Farquharson family – business now flagging they no longer had the funds to pay such high rental. It was at this juncture that John Begg (1803-1882) entered the scene. He was to be like a knight in sShining armour for the flagging Distillery.
John Begg was born in Glen Tannar; his father Samuel Begg, farmed at the cotter-toun of Boggenglack, a hamlet that once deserted was cleared by the Victorian landlord William Cunliffe-Brooks. The Begg family, amongst a legion of lost Glen Tanar folk, would surely have cursed the aristocratic Cunliffe-Brooks, a retired English banker, who came to this upper reach of Deeside and wiped clean its past. The Begg family though were resourceful even beyond the grave, and when Brian Begg-Robertson, a family descendent visited some years back, he was taken to the site of Boggenglack by the old Estate Gamekeeper Jimmy Oswald. Hardly a stone remained. However the site was peppered with mole hills, and Brian noticed broken pottery in the earth-spoil, examining it more closely he found an old clay pipe. What a marvelous way to call back family! Samuel Begg was resourceful from the grave – and in my view, that is a hallmark of his descended family.
Ever the curious I started to wonder what brought the son of Boggenglack to Lochnagar? John Begg was to shape, and form the Distillery in his own name, and brought what was a fading enterprise to a world well beyond Deeside. His business skills, given his beginnings as a crofter’s son, were to be proven astounding. What shaped this man? Well I have started to wonder if his mother who shaped in him such ferocious drive? Indeed it was probably a family link, on his mother’s side that brought John Begg to Lochnagar. His mother, Isabel Farquharson was surely kin of Robert Farquharson the father of the Lochnagar brothers. It may be that this Farquharson family go back to Logie-Coldstone, and before that Glenbuchat, but research has proved difficult, and certainly well beyond the reach of this account. Whatever the truth, I believe that the Farquharson family had money and that surely returns them to Invercauld; but that of course, is speculation on my part.
An old tombstone in Glentannar Churchyard spells the love John Begg had for his mother Isabel Farquharson. He was just fifteen years old when in May 1819 she died at Boggenglack. Time and time again, I have seen the child who lost a mother, turn despair into drive. John Begg may be the embodiment of such tragic circumstance. When John erected the Glentannar tombstone in 1838, he was already a successful ‘Merchant in Aberdeen.’
So it seems that with their Distillery in free-fall, the Farquharson brothers of Lochnagar turned to the rescue of their cousin John Begg. This son of Boggenglack was a saviour and brought with him acquired wealth as an Aberdeen Merchant and sharp acumen as a business trader wide and far.
1845: This was the pivotal point in Lochnagar’s long history. That was when John Begg arrived and started afresh; he demolished the old mash house and distillery buildings, which had been hastily rebuilt after the fire of four years previous. In place he built a whole ‘New Lochnagar.’
That new beginning was chartered not just by immense skill but also by the most perfect timing. It is back to that old adage – ‘the right place and the right time!’ Three years into his new business, Albert, the Prince Consort, having searched wide and far, took Victoria, reigning Majesty of Britain, to Balmoral. A love affair began and ever since Balmoral has, as we well know, become the Scottish home of the Royal family. John Begg must have blessed his cotton socks!
Within days of the Royal Family’s first stay at Balmoral, John Begg handed in a note inviting them to ‘see round his works’, rather impudently hinting that if they did not get there by 6pm the following evening, they would miss seeing the distillery in operation. Nothing could say more of John Begg: he was bold if not imperious, and surely rather brazen! Ye John Begg was to be Lochnagar’s next ‘Stoneball.’
John Begg’s Diary Entry:
‘I wrote a note on the 11th September 1848 to Mr G.E. Anson the Queen’s Private Secretary stating that the Distillery was now in full operation and would be so until 6 o’clock the next day, and knowing how anxious H.R.H. Albert was to patronise and make himself acquainted with everything of a mechanical nature, I said I should feel much pleasure in showing him the works. . .’
‘The Next day . . . I observed Her Majesty and the Prince Consort approaching. I ran and opened the door, when the Prince said ‘We have come to see through your Works Mr Begg.’
The Queen and Prince Albert could not resist tasting Deeside’s best distillate. It is not hard to imagine the scene! The tall, straight-backed Begg, with mesmerizing ease, enthralling his Royal party, whilst he explained, in the glimmer of his shining copper still, the distillation of Lochnagar’s fresh spring water. Begg would, no doubt, have made no mention of the murky smuggling past of his enterprise! He then encouraged the Queen and her Consort to dip their fingers in his new Lochnagar spirit to taste, while the little princes ‘chased each other in and out of the rows of casks.’ When, moments later, mature whisky was taken from the bond for sampling, Prince Albert was ready to drink it down in one gulp; but fortunately Begg quickly reminded him that it was cask-strength and very strong!
Within days of that Royal visit Begg was permitted to describe his distillery as ‘Royal Lochnagar.’ The day after he had a Royal warrant: ‘Distiller to Her Majesty’. Over successive years, further Royal Warrants followed. As one contemporary put it ‘sending that note was the best thing for business Begg ever did!’
Figure 9.10: Regent Quay – the Aberdeen enterprise
It seems highly likely that John Begg spent much of his time between Aberdeen and Lochnagar; continuing his merchant links on Regent Quay in Aberdeen Harbour. For the first ten years at least, he left his cousins Alexander and Joseph Farquharson, with the day-to-day running of the Distillery. Sometime after 1851, Alexander Farquharson mysteriously vanishes from the scene. His last appearance was on the 1851 census living at Khantore, not with his wife, but with his sister-in-law. On that census Alexander Farquharson was listed as ‘Distiller and Farmer employing six labourers.’ However his family are nowhere to be seen.
The Farquharson brotherhood came to an end in 1868. In the summer of that year, the youngest brother, Joseph died aged 56 years of a burst stomach ulcer. He had been unwell for four months. As a doctor I cannot help wondering if Joseph had an awful liking for his malt?
John Begg was a man of business and as a most successful Merchant understood that he could exploit the new paddle-steamers that were entering AberdeenHarbour to distribute his Royal malt wide and far. This was to turn a local industry into a flourishing country-wide enterprise. To oversee it all he built an imposing granite-terrace house overlooking the harbour and adjacent to his bonded warehouses. With much to do in Aberdeen, and being quite unable to split himself-in-two, John Begg realised he needed trusted hands to manage his Distillery back in Lochnagar. My speculation is that he did not trust such responsibility to either of his Farquharson cousins. It is impossible not to wonder if Alexander Farquharson huffily quit his dear Lochnagar when John Begg appointed the retired Chelsea Pensioner James Alexander as sole Distillery Manager.
James Alexander, a native of Crathie parish, was 64 years old when Begg appointed him as Manager of the Distillery. He brought with him from Stobhall in Maryculter, his young wife (easily young enough to be his daughter) and his one year old son John. But within two years James was dead. So it was, in March 1853, Begg had to find a replacement in which he could place his trust.
Figure 9.11: Contemporary sketch of John Begg’s Distillery
Alexander Jamieson was to be that replacement. In this appointment Begg made perhaps his finest move. Jamieson was to prove himself as solid and dependable as the Lochnagar massif. Reliable and trustworthy he became more than just a Manager, but a true friend of the family. Jamieson was 26 years of age on his appointment and continued for thirty years as Manager. He was married to Eliza Gordon the illegitimate child of Bovagli. Eliza’s father Peter Gordon was brother of ‘Auld Prodeegous.’ We should not underestimate just how much spirit flowed in this family.
John Begg was the same age as I am now when he turned Lochnagar’s fortune. Fifteen years before, at Old Machar, he married Jane Leys. Together they had nine children all born in Aberdeen between 1831 and 1852. The family lived at 9 Regent Quay, Aberdeen but it appears whilst at Lochnagar, stayed within the large Distillery Manager’s House which Begg had specially built. It survives to this day.
The year after Begg took reign of Lochnagar, his sixth son was born, and in honour of the Abergeldy Laird, from whom Begg rented Lochnagar, he named his son Charles Gordon Begg. Had Begg known that the Abergeldy family would, in perpetuity, refuse to part with Lochnagar, he might have thought again! The Abergeldy family, despite being absentee Landlords for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, were smart enough not to sell any of their land, instead offering renewable tenancies. That gave Abergeldy much leverage, and at free will they raised the rental. By 1938, long after the Begg dynasty, Lochnagar was paying Abergeldy a whopping £1000 per annum!
John Begg would have been well versed in the smuggling folklore of upper Deeside, for his chosen wife, Jane Leys, was from a family long since bonded in the trade. The patriarch of this family, has been well rehearsed; Francis Leys, Innkeeper at Inver, whose worn tombstone, now recumbent in overgrown grass in Old Crathie Churchyard is the first in a long row of Leys stones. His grandson Charles Leys ‘Civil Bonnets’ was Innkeeper at Inver and his niece, Mary Leys, Innkeeper at Crathienaird. It is worthy of note, that John Begg, named his third child Frances Leys Begg.
The Leys and the Gordon family were to be entwined in a handful of mid eighteenth century matrimonies. Ever prominent in the upper reaches of Deeside, especially the Gairn, it is likely that both these families were involved in the illicit production and distribution of whisky. Unfortunately few records survive from this period and so much is left to speculation. We do know, however that the successive Abergeldy Lairds of this period were well aware of the widespread production of contraband whisky on their estate, but without fearing any penalty, were able to turn a blind-eye to it.
In the shiny Distillery brochures much has been made of the bustling development of the Distillery during the first five years of Begg’s stewardship, a period in which he gained the commendation of Queen Victoria and was granted by her a Royal Warrant. However look behind the fabric of this success and the story that emerges is of the worst family tragedy that I have encountered. Till now this has been the hidden pain of Begg.
It was in his second year at Lochnagar that John Begg and his wife Jane received the saddest news: their first-born son John had died somewhere off the Coast of Brazil. He was just fifteen years of age and still a child. The pain of this loss was inscribed on the family tombstone in NellfieldCemetery but the detail of his dire circumstances lost for all time. It is impossible not to read of this without question. What was the 15 year old son of a prosperous Merchant doing so far away from home?
Over the last few days I have dwelt on this dreadful loss imagining the hushed words of the dockers around Aberdeen Quayside as news was brought by returning vessel of the tragic death of young Begg. It is just as well that nobody was to know what was to happen next.
So it was that when Begg gave his Royal tour in September 1848 he was still in grief for his little son lost. What a well-needed boost it must have been for him to gain such Royal approval. But such buoyancy was to be short lived for family tragedy struck again. Two months to the day of the Royal Tour, on the 11th of November 1848, Begg’s second son was drowned. Patrick like his brother John before him, smothered out of the world aged 15 years. Water the source of Begg’s fortune was proving to be an unspeakably cruel chatelaine. It is not clear where little Patrick drowned – but it seems likely it was in the Dee – somewhere between Regent Quay and way up-stream at Lochnagar. The next time I take a dram of Royal Lochnagar, my toast will be to ‘John and Patrick Begg, the little boys lost . . .’
The 1851 census return is worthy of note. John Begg is living at 9 Regent Quay, Aberdeen with his wife Jane and three of his surviving children, the youngest being Robert aged 4 years. Interestingly there was no sign of his youngest son Charles Gordon Leys who would have been only two years old (and neither does he seem to have been on Deeside.) Given the terrible loss of their two oldest sons, you would have thought John and wife Jane would have not let any bairn out of their clutch? It is also interesting to read that John Begg informed the census enumerator that he was a ‘Wine Merchant’ – no mention of Royal Lochnagar. One assumes his original business still fared better than his new venture.
John Begg must have despised Autumn. Leaf fall was to have no romantic recall for him. In the year following the census of 1851, John’s third son, Frances Leys Begg took ill and on the 22nd of October 1852 he died aged just seventeen. What a dreadful tally, with three sons all lost before manhood, and all in an aching remembrance of Autumn. You may be surprised to learn that Francis succumbed to influenza, yet as a doctor, I am well aware, that even in 2007, influenza is a killer. These days it strikes at the elderly and we earnestly encourage vaccination for the vulnerable, but in the mid-nineteenth century this omnipresent pathogen, struck all ages. It was a terribly malevolent visitor to many families. And the Begg family, who had no troubles to seek, must have cursed its hideous call on number 9 Regent Quay.
Despair can easily translate into hapless withdrawal. That, John Begg would simply not allow, and whilst there is no first-hand recollection of his outlook, I think it likely he subverted his grief into the cause of his business. By 1861, he was still based at Regent Quay and his family fortunes had turned. He was at this time channeling all his energies into Lochnagar and business was booming. The paddle-steamers entering the harbour were distributing his Royal-tipple wide and far. Steam also funneled from the trains which had grown in importance in that distribution. As a distiller and merchant, Begg was well placed, and such prosperity was his for the taking. His children, schooled in Aberdeen, were growing fast, and in 1858 his eldest daughter Isabella Farquharson Begg married John Robertson. His oldest surviving son, Henry Farquharson Begg emigrated before 1861 to New Zealand. This was a happy period, as two years before, Begg’s daughter Eliza Jane married William Mitchell in Crathie. William Mitchell was a good catch for Begg’s daughter; he lived in the imposing Elmbank House and served as Aberdeen’s Postmaster General.
Research does not find the Begg family at home in 1871, neither at Lochnagar nor Regent Quay. Perhaps then they were overseas, and given the wide travels of their sons, it is surely likely that they were, as a family, in the custom of going overseas.
The Grim Reaper has never felt mercy and the hapless Beggs could not shake his recruitment. Respite for this family was to come and go most inconsiderately and just days into the New Year of 1865 twenty year old Robert Leys Begg was found dead in the Lochnagar Manager’s House. There is absolutely no indication of what happened to Robert the death certificate simply records that the cause was ‘unknown.’ No doctor had been in attendance and there was no examination undertaken after death. The informant was the Distillery Manager Alexander Jamieson – a man who was to be the unfortunate shadow of death. But more of that later.
It appears that during the 1860’s the Begg family regarded Lochnagar as their true home, and despite their many losses must have felt some comfort in that Deeside cradle. Tragically, Begg was never to be present at Lochnagar when his family took unwell and one would naturally assume he was either in Aberdeen or on business elsewhere.
Four sons had passed on, and prosperity was but weak comfort to such parental loss. Unspeakably cruel, death hovered over Lochnagar like a cloud, and just three years on from the death of Robert, Begg’s youngest son took ill. Charles Gordon Begg had always been a frail child having been brain-damaged from birth. Like his brother Robert he died at his Lochnagar home after ten relentless days of diarrhoea. It is possible that it was cholera, but one hopes, whatever the pathogen, it was not from the water supply! Neither Begg parents were in residence when Charles slipped away aged twenty-one and the sad informant was yet again the Distillery Manager, Alexander Jamieson.
Virtually a year to the day, in late July 1869, graceful Alice, youngest child of Begg, bowed out. The fresh Lochnagar air was not enough to restore her, and aged 17 years she died from congestion of lungs crumpled and airless. She had been struggling to breathe for three weeks. That reaper’s shadow was again the weary Alexander Jamieson. One can only assume John Begg was yet again away on business?
All this death has been awful to recount and lies starkly perverse to the counter rise of the Distillery. It is, most truly, the painful secret of Lochnagar.
Figure 9.12: Royal Lochnagar Distillery
In writing this account of Lochnagar’s History, Brian Begg-Robertson forwarded to me a studio photograph of Begg taken not so many years after his dreadful sorrows. As I had imagined it depicted a straight-backed man espousing fortitude above emotion. A strong nose carved into heavy brows – at first glance one might cast this man as true to the stoneballs of his dear Lochnagar. Yet look a little closer; Begg’s mouth is crumpled, his lids are heavy, and his eyes glazed to a land beyond. Despite all the effort to appear vigourous, resplendent in the best wool coat his Aberdeen tailor could muster, and ivory and silver-topped cane, to me he looks broken. Yes it seems even stone balls can shatter.
As a footnote, I feel compelled to tell you the fate of Lochnagar. John Begg died at Regent Quay alone in May of 1882. His trusted shadow, the Distillery Manager Alexander Jamieson, died two years later. The Begg enterprise, though not brand, was over. Incredibly, John Begg had foreseen the future and invested his last years to developing blends. It seems he was ahead of his game even in death. John Begg left a complicated estate which finally settled upon his only surviving son Henry Farquharson Begg, but ‘lacking his father’s driving energy’ sixteen years later the Begg family enterprise was sold out. Family descendents today still harbour bitterness at such lost opportunity.