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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXIV. The Golden Groves of Abernethy


THE "York Buildings Company" were remarkable for enterprise and daring. They took in hand the raising of the Thames water for London, and engaged in various other great schemes. How they came to Speyside is hard to say. Two hundred years ago Abernethy and Strathdown must have been as little known in London as Lapland and Kamskatca. The probability is that the adventure was due to Aaron Hill, the poet. He had travelled much, had written many books, and held a good place in London society. Besides, he was well known for his "sanguine belief in his own gifts, both for literature and speculation." In 1713 he had a scheme as to the wool trade. In 1718 he started a ‘colony in Georgia, and he had a share in various other enterprises. Probably he had seen the report by Captain John Mason, who had a lease of the Woods of Abernethy for 40 years, to the Commissioners of the Navy in 1704 as to the size and quality of the trees in Abernethy as "likeliest to serve His Majesty’s Government." Perhaps he may have met the Laird of Grant in London or Edinburgh, and heard from him of the vast resources of his country, and the possibilities of fortune-making in these fields and pastures new. At any rate, he seems to have come north in 1726, and to have reported so favourably to Colonel Horsey and the "York Buildings Company" that they were induced to enter upon the scheme. In 1728 they obtained Royal Licence "to trade in goods, wares, and merchandise of the growth and produce of that part of the kingdom." Their first object was wood manufactures. By an indenture dated 5th January, 1728, between James Grant of Grant, Esq. (afterwards Sir James Grant, Bart.), on the one hand, and the Governors and Company of Undertakers for Raising Thames Water in York Buildings on the other, James Grant, Esq., sold 60,000 fir trees of the best and choicest of the fir woods besouth the River Spey, belonging in property to the said James Grant, and lying in the united parishes of Abernethy and Kincardine, with power to them to cut, sell, transport, and to their own use and behoof, apply the said trees at their own charge and risque "within 17 years, and that every tree wounded by them shall be deemed one of the number hereby sold."

They were to have free entry, and to be protected by the Baron Bailies "from every manner of insult, oppression, theft, bad usage, to the utmost of their power." No other person or persons were to be allowed to cut any of the said fir woods, "except for the upholding Tenements Houses, and labouring the ground according to the use of the country and for upholding the Duke of Gordon’s Dwelling-houses, according to the tenor and conditions of the infeftments by his Grace to the family of Grant." The price was £7000 sterling, to be paid in instalments, the first £1000 on or before August, 1729. The Company further obtained use of the sawmills upon the Nethy, with leave to build as many more as they might deem necessary. They had also a Tack of Coulnakyle, with the mains and meadows, at a rent of £25 yearly. All differences and disputes were to be referred to Robert Grant of Lurg as oversman. But more than this, and to make all sure, a bond was given by Colonel Samuel Horsey, of Mortclach, and John Ewer, of the parish of St Martin’s, Westminster, goldsmith, by which they bound themselves to pay the penal sum of £14,750 failing the fulfilment of the deed. And all this was done regularly in the Scotch form. The company duly took possession. They made a brave start. Could we look in upon the gentlemen at Coulnakyle in the autumn of 1728 we should find them in the highest spirits. The Laird of Grant has been most hospitable. They have found the people of the country friendly, and ready to help them in their enterprises. Even the Duke of Gordon has not forgotten them. He sent an order to Robert Stewart, his forester in Glenmore, to supply them with a stag, and this has been done. We may imagine Colonel Horsey and his friends at table, with Captain Burt as one of the guests. Aaron Hill may have improved the occasion, after the manner of Goldsmith—

"Thanks, dear Duke, for your venison, for finer or fatter
Never roamed in a forest or smoked on a platter."

Excited by the good fare, and the accompanying viands, they would talk with much confidence of their schemes and prospects. Hill would quote his own lines :—

"High on the mountains of her northern shore
The gummy pine shall shed her pitchy store;
Tall firs, which useless have long ages grown,
Shall freight the seas and visit lands unknown,
Till the check’d sons of Norway’s timbered State
Learn love by force, while we disarm their hate."

He would also hint at "subterranean riches" rivalling those of Mexico and Peru. So sanguine was he that, with the bright fancy and hopes of a poet, he used to date his letters to his wife from the "Golden Groves of Abernethy." But Burt, who was of a more practical matter of fact turn, was not so confident. He would suggest caution and enquiry. In his letters, he says—"None of them (the trees) will pay, for felling and removing over rocks, bogs, and precipices, and conveyance by rocky rivers, except such as are near the sea coast, as I believe the York Building Company will find in the conclusion"—(Vol. I., 283). Colonel Horsey and Aaron Hill were not satisfied with the manufacture of wood. They heard that in the Hills of Strathdown iron was to be found, and they conceived a grand scheme for turning this to profit. There was iron in the Lecht, but no wood. At Abernethy there was wood, but no iron. Why not bring them together? And this was what was done. Works were erected on the Nethy, smelting furnaces at Balnagown, and a mill for forging and other purposes higher up, near Causair, where the foundation beams, with their cross-bindings and broad-headed iron nails, may still be seen in the bed of the river. Houses also were built for the workmen, with pleasant gardens, on the Straanmore. Some scores of men, with 120 horses ("garrons"), were employed in carrying the iron ore in panniers from the hills of the Lecht, beyond Tomintoul, and many others were engaged in driving wood and working the mills. Pillars, 9ft. and 16ft. long, were cast, some marked with a cross and date 1730, others with the letters Benj. Lund, and heaps of pig iron were prepared for exportation. Other enterprises of a similar kind at Poolewe, in Ross-shire, and at Glengarry, Inverness-shire, had failed, but it was hoped that the Abernethy works would be a great success. The manufacture and export of wood went on, for a time, at a great rate. Aaron Hill, with his inventive mind, effected a great improvement in the mode of floating timber on the Spey. Instead of the clumsy and dangerous way of guiding the raft by means of a "curragh" (wicker boat covered with skins holding one person), he brought into use solidly-built rafts, managed by two men, with long oars, one sitting at each end. The following quotation from a case in the Court of Session, 1784, gives a fair account of the proceedings of the Company :—"This operation upon Sir James Grant’s woods was considered as a matter of such public: concern that the Company applied for and obtained a premium by Act of Parliament for furnishing masts and other timber of such dimensions as were not to be found in any other part of Great Britain. The York Building Company finding this part of Sir James Grant’s Estate a most eligible situation for carrying on other articles of trade and commerce, they erected a furnace for casting iron and several forges for making it fit for the uses of the country and for exportation. They made into charcoal immense quantities of wood, which was used in their furnaces and forges. In short, they carried on works in this part of the country to such extent and magnitude that they sent from England a gentleman of the name of Stephens (of that rank and condition in life that he had been in Parliament), with a suitable salary for superintending the works. He acted as their agent and chief manager, and such was the credit and influence of the Company, at least for some years, that the notes of hand of this Mr Stephens passed for cash, just as current as the notes of the Bank of Scotland or Royal Bank do at this day."

But although there was great activity and lavish expenditure of money, the Company were unable to fulfil their engagements. Rents were not paid, debts and difficulties increased, and at last there was a complete collapse. The Rev. John Grant says in the old Statistical Account:—"Their extravagances of every kind ruined themselves and corrupted others. They used to display their vanity by bonfires, tar barrels, and opening hogsheads of brandy to the country people, by which five of them died in one night. They had a Commissary for provisions and forage at a handsome salary; and in the end went off in debt to the proprietors and the country. But yet their coming to the country was beneficial in many respects, for besides the knowledge and skill which were acquired from them they made many useful and lasting improvements. They made roads through the woods. They erected proper sawmills. They invented the construction of the raft, as it is at present, and cut a passage through a rock in Spey, without which floating to any extent could never be attempted." In 1735, Sir James Grant of Grant raised an action in the Court of Session against Solomon Ashley, Esq., Governor of the York Building Company, and others. The summons is dated and signetted 13th July, 1735; Islay Campbell Advocate for the Complainers, and Patrick Hamilton Advocate for the Defenders. Decreet of Horning was issued in 1740. The case dragged on, but no decided advantage seems to have been obtained. In 1780 the claim was renewed by Sir James Grant of Grant, as against Mrs Martha Grove and others, creditors of the York Buildings Company, but this action also seems to have come to nothing. A hundred years have passed, and what remains? Colonel Horsey and his allies are forgotten. Aaron Hill, though he wrote much, is only remembered as one of the poets satirised by Pope in the Dunciad, and as the author of the famous epigram:-

"Tender-hearted stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains,
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.
‘Tis the same with common natures,
Use them kindly they rebel,
But be rough as nutmeg grater,
And the rogues obey you well."

These lines are said to have been written with a diamond on a window pane in a border inn on one of his excursions to Scotland. Probably they express his experiences in dealing with the men of Abernethy. Hill must have been fond of the "nettle," for he has another epigram addressed to a lady, in which it is introduced.

"Revenge, you see, is sure though sometimes slow.
Take this—.’Tis all the pain I’d have you know.
There’s odds enough yet left betwixt our smart,
I sting your finger, and you sting
my heart."

It may be also noted that Aaron Hill was one of the first to call attention to Gaelic poetry. His "Ronald and Dorna," by a Highlander to his mistress, is marked "From the Gaelic." And what of the works? As Edie Ochiltree asked, "And a’ the bonny engines, and wheels, and the coves and sheughs doun at Glen Witherskins yonder, what’s to come o’ them?" As at Glen Witherskins, so at Abernethy, there was scattering and plundering. Where once there were the rush of waters, and the roaring of furnaces, the clanging of hammers, and the stress and bustle of a vast enterprise, there is now silence. The only remains of the great Company are the foundations of the mills, the empty watercourse, some beams and pillars of cast-iron at the Dell and Nethy-Bridge, and the spring at Aldersyde that bears the name of John Crowley.


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