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Braemar Highlands
Part the First - Chapter VII


Braemar via Perth—Glenshee—Pass of the Caimwell—Castleton—The Gathering, etc.

BESIDES the usual route to Braemar from the east up Deeside, there is another from the south via Perth and Blairgowrie, straight through Glenshee and Glen Cluny, right into the heart of Braemar. So, to finish up my previous description of that locality, I give some cursory notes of a visit to Braemar by that route some years ago.

My travelling companion (a thorough Braeniarian) and myself having reached Blairgowrie, our first*care was to find out some means of transit through the glen; and soon found that a coach ran daily during the months of August and September.

When fairly on the road, with Blairgowrie several miles in the rear, the scene presenting itself was exceedingly striking and impressive. In front, mountain began to rise behind mountain, in apparently endless succession ; their superficial outlines not conical, but rounded and wavy, while all were clothed to their summit in a deep green.

As we drove on, I sat gazing at the interminable maze, wondering where the road could be ; and on inquiry, learned, to my great surprise, that it lay right through the hills ; although every one of them, from our present point of view, seemed to intimate as plainly as possible that there could be no passage that way.

As we went on, the dwellings became much more scattered. Among the last of them was a farm-house of considerable size, and once of some importance, named Feith-nan-Ceann a Gaelic name signifying Bog or Burn of the Heads, and is pronounced Fenny-gang. The name originated thus:

A race of the name of Campbell were once lords superior of Glenshee, and did indeed lord it over their less powerful neighbours, as well as their own immediate retainers. Once a year, it is said, they made the circuit of the glen for the purpose of exacting tribute. Bells were attached to the heads of their horses, so that when the tinkling was heard the oppressed people might bring out their tithes without any trouble to the receivers. By and by their spirit was roused ; and, so the legend goes, James Stewart of Drumforkit, with twelve gallant fellows, instead of bringing out their tithes, made a fierce onslaught on the Campbells, andr after getting the mastery, cut off their heads and rolled them into a burn or boggy place, from that time named Feith-nan-Ceann.

After passing the Spittal of Glenshee, now an inn, the scenery becomes increasingly grand; and as we enter deeper and deeper into this mountain wilderness, not a trace of human habitation is visible. Life of every kind except the vegetable, and that only of the lowest type, has fled the scene : not even a single sheep browsing in any quiet nook can be detected. Such a strange sensation of utter loneliness creeps over one—what a contrast to the strife and din of the fevered city.

We have been gradually but slowly ascending for some time. Now we are come to what is worth the name of ascent, said to be about noo feet. Up this our road winds zig-zag fashion. A peculiarly dangerous part of this road is called the ‘Devil's Elbow', I know not for what reason, except that, while descending, the merest trifle would send the coach with all its occupants spinning down the precipitous sides of the Cairnwell, which is said to rise 3116 feet above the level of the sea. Still, lonely and even dangerous as this place sometimes is, it has a mysterious loveliness—a terrifying fascination peculiar to itself. How cold it is, too, on the bleak summit ! and this the nth of August. Yet there is something delightful in the bracing mountain air:

‘How one bounds along with the living breeze,
For here Ćolus is always blowing!'

Glen Cluny, through which we next proceed, is a continuation of the same scenery, except that the hills have assumed purple robes instead of green, i.e. the grass has given place to heather; and as it is now at its best, in full bloom they really look lovely.

There is little to mark in this glen, excepting numerous sites of ruined dwellings. But as it is rich in legendary lore, busy fancy, ever on the alert, will think of this ruin as being the place whence a hapless little fellow was stolen by a wolf, but strangely spared by the female, and brought up with her young ; or of that other ruin as being the dwelling of the Cam-Ruedh. Who is the Cam-Rtiedh f did you inquire. A famous archer he was, who with his own unaided bow could put a whole host of the Katrin to flight. We have just passed the scene of one of his exploits—‘ the Katrin s Howe,’ the scene of the battle of the Cairn-well, when the Cam by his prowess completely turned the fortunes of the day. With his own bow alone fourteen of them were laid low, while the remainder were soon put to an ignominious flight. The graves of the slain may yet be seen on the opposite or south side of the road ; but more of the Cam and his exploits after.

Now we come upon Auchalatar, within twomiles of the Castleton of Braemar. Here we are to reside for some time. It is well for us that we have not to go a lodging-hunting, as we have happened to visit the village at no ordinary time. To-morrow is the great gathering : the Prince and Princess of Wales are expected to be there, and consequently the influx of visitors is tremendous : lodgings of every kind are at fabulous prices; but more of this anon.

On arriving at Auchalatar, as the day was not far spent, after resting a little we went on to see the village. About a mile and a half farther down the glen, at a slight turn of the road, the beautiful little capital of the Aberdeenshire Highlands lay in all its loveliness before us.

There it lay, amidst an amphitheatre of hills— mountains I should rather term them—covered to their summit with heather in full blossom, like an unbroken sheet of gorgeous velvet; the lovely green of the birch trees, and the meadow through which the Dee was gliding in quiet loveliness, serving as a foil. And, as if to add the last touch to this scene of beauty, the descending sun was steeping the whole in a perfect flood of purple and gold.

As we neared it, however, the spell was partially broken : not that its loveliness was less—its beauties will bear inspection—but it was far from being the quiet spot we expected. It looked rather like a beehive, swarming at every point, and people still pouring in to join those already engaged in a vain search after lodgings.

Before midnight set in there was a near approach to the old Highland custom of pulling a sufficient quantity of the bushy heather, and lying down on it in some quiet nook ; as lofts and every available place were spread with hay, and many, a weary pedestrian gladly stretched himself thereon.

But to some that was a luxury quite unattainable. One poor fellow, out at every point, was fain to creep into an empty cask at the end of the store. Coaches, etc., were in general requisition as bed-rooms; and two ladies found out one of still more romantic character, in the little rustic house at the Falls of Corrymulzie, one sleeping and the other watching alternately.

It is needless to enter into detail ; so, after sauntering about for some time, we turned our backs on the sweet village, into which, though already so full, others were continually pouring.

Morning dawned most inauspiciously. Fierce gusts of wind swept along the glens, accompanied by all the usual premonitions of rain. For a little space it seemed to relent, as if unwilling to cast a shade over Braemar's only gala day. But anon the pitiless storm burst forth, to the great discomfiture of the pleasure-hunting pilgrims.

Before this, surly as the day was, we had started per gig to see some of the ‘lions’ of Braemar. Our road, as already described, lay along the south side of the Dee, past Old Mar Lodge, in front of which the games were to be held that year, not at the usual place on the Invercauld estate, owing to the recent death of the proprietor.

Though it was pretty early, the Highlanders were already astir ; and who could but admire the stalwart fellows in their picturesque dress, with their distinctive tartan, and badge of holly, broom, etc., stuck in the side of their Highland bonnets, so well termed the simple covering of a manly head?'

Before starting, we had no intention of being present at the games; but as my friend had not seen the Princess, and I had no objection, but rather desire, to see the Highlanders en masse, we resolved to gratify our curiosity. The Prince and Princess of Wales soon arrived, with the Earl and Countess of Fife, and many other ladies and gentlemen, and immediately after the games commenced ; and some quarter of an hour after, as the weather continued very unpropitious, we took our homeward route.

Thus far, then, the physical features of Braemar, as looked at with the eyes of an ordinary sight-seer. In the following part of this volume it is my intention to record all that I found remaining of traditions, legends, etc., that still loom out with considerable distinctness from the mist - enshrouded past; not, however, becoming responsible for the absolute truth of these legends, nor for anything further than a correct relation of statements made to me.


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