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Deeside Tales
The Burn of Torgalter, with an Account of the Flood of 1846.

About a mile beyond the clachan of Micras, and just before coming opposite the castle of Abergeldie, the Ballater and Braemar turnpike, in rounding a comer, crosses a small stream, which in view of more interesting objects is very likely to escape the tourist’s notice. It would have claimed more attention sixty years ago. No public conveyance, and very few private ones, would then have passed a little stub-thatched cottage, situated on the roadside, not fifty yards from the confluence of the stream with the Dee, without stopping to draw upon the hospitality of the gudeman, or, in his absence, of his equally liberal co-partner, the gudewife. It would perhaps not be quite correct to designate these two worthies by the modem titles of landlord and landlady, for they neither had nor sought a licence to authorise them to entertain the needy or wayworn passing their doors. This privilege they took upon themselves in virtue of a law of Highland hospitality to the effect that it is sinful to turn the stranger from the door, without supplying his wants, especially if these lie in the direction of something to drink.

This hospitality will appear all the more needful when the exigencies of the traffic of the district, as there and then carried on, are duly considered. Very few bridges as yet spanned the Dee; often there was not one of any description between Potarch and Braemar, a distance of 35 miles.

Sometimes, indeed, there was one at Ballater, but more frequently there was not A fine bridge built there towards the close of last century had been swept away by a flood in the year 1799; and it was many years before another was erected. Its successor, after some years of usefulness, shared a similar fate during the memorable flood of 1829, and there was again a considerable interpontium. Fords were therefore the staple thoroughfares across the river. They might be damaged, but they were never quite swept away by any flood. After the waters receded to their normal dimensions, a day or two spent in repairing them, by those interested in their efficiency for traffic—and they comprised hundreds of families—generally sufficed to make them as good as new, or even better.

Whilst they possessed this advantage over bridges, that if damaged, they could be easily repaired, it must be allowed that the river exercised over them a somewhat despotic and capricious sway, which often seriously interfered with the convenience of the natives, sometimes to the risk, and even to the loss of their lives. It was therefore found necessary to have help at hand, in case of any sudden exercise of the above jurisdiction, on the part of the treacherous river; and accordingly prudence and humanity had dictated the propriety of having a human dwelling at one entrance at least, if not at both. It is probable that it was for this humane purpose the stub-thatched cottage, above referred to, had originally been built; for right in front of it was the AanfuiU^ the principal, if not the only ford for wheeled carriages between Ballater and Braemar. Nor was its usefulness confined to cases of risk of life.

It might have been a nice enough thing for a hardy Highlander to cross by the ford on a fine summer day, when the stream was reduced to a silver thread in mid channel; but to take the water in winter either by night or by day, when the river was not only strong but speckled with grue (floating snow), required no small courage, even in a Highlander. It was therefore deemed expedient—necessity is the mother of invention—to have appliances at hand to raise the requisite amount of resolution for taking the ford, and after having dared it, to take away the chill consequent on the adventure, so as to prevent evil effects following. Very naturally then the human dwelling soon became a hospice. Its existence in such circumstances was justified, if jusification it required, for the same reason that we justify the erection of similar establishments on the Grimsel and Furca passes. Besides, there had at one time been, and probably there still was sixty years ago, a boat here for the convenience of such passengers as did not care to breast the torrent; and it was considered contrary to all rule that the boatman should be dry.

When the boat, which had been kept principally for the laird and his people at the Castle, was supplanted by the cradle—still an object of great curiosity to Deeside visitors— and the ford had become obsolete, through the erection of the chain bridge at Crathie (1834) it was not found necessary to discontinue the hospice which supplied true Highland refections, though under ban of the Excise, till a very recent date. Many a queer scene and many a wild one were here enacted; but at length a combination of the territorial and imperial authorities (lairds and gaugers) was formed to put a stop to its illicit and now unneeded trade, and succeeded so well that in the place where it existed there is not now one stone left upon another.

In the early days of George Brown, there were the rudiments of a Highland clachan at this now deserted comer. Besides the boathouse or alehouse, or whatever else it might be called, there were several small dwellings, and a manufactory of oatmeal, well known in the district for its wonderful achievements in the way of grinding. A manufactory it was in the original acceptation of that now perverted term, for, with the exception of turning the stones, and not always that, all the other operations required to convert the raw material into serviceable oatmeal, were strictly performed by the hand. The producer of the grain regularly sent his wife and daughters to the mill to sift the shillin, that is when he was not disposed to go himself to have a crack, and perhaps something else with “Boatie” and the miller. On such occasions the amount of work performed at the mill was by no means astonishingly large ; and it is believed to this day, that what bits of machinery the establishment could boast of were contrived with the special object of affording the miller opportunities of pretty lengthy sederunts with his customers in Boatie’s without reducing him to the necessity of turning off the water. It is even on traditional record that, when on one occasion he and a drouthy shepherd had adjourned as usual to Clinkum’s, Collie, being more hungry than drouthy, had preferred the mill to the alehouse, and quietly betaken himself thither. Planting himself in the bin, his appetite had so far outrun the supply reaching him that, when his master and the miller, after satisfying their wants, which generally took a good hour, returned to the mill, they found to their dismay, the voracious animal had licked up the whole proceeds of an hour’s grinding, and was wistfully eyeing the spout for further store.

All had now passed away. The mill was removed higher up the stream to what was considered* a more advantageous position, and Clinkum’s, after a period of free trade, was also obliged to succumb in the manner already stated; so that this once bustling comer will now attract no attention, and the mountain stream which passes it, and which once performed such feats of grinding at Buckie Mill, issuing timidly, as it now does, from the comer of a larch plantation, and babbling feebly as it struggles with the huge boulders that stud its channel and impede its course to join the foaming river, will scarcely be noticed by the passing stranger.

But though its banks are desolate, there are many places on Deeside now much frequented by tourists that are less worthy of a visit than this same tiny stream. Should a stray naturalist pause on his way, to examine its features, he would find not a little to interest, perhaps something to instruct him. He might be led to inquire whence came the great blocks of granite and gneiss that lie scattered around, or are piled upon each other in huge cairns. Evidently from their polish and rounded forms they have been subjected to much wear and tear and tossing to and fro. Have they been floated hither from a distant shore on the back of some huge iceberg which chanced to be stranded on this particular promontory in the days when the valley of the Dee was but a long fiord from the German Ocean? That mode of conveyance will hardly account for their rounded and water worn outlines. Are they then a deposit from some Mer de Glace that once filled the corries of Black Geallaig, and gathering the fragments of the higher rocks upon its bosom slipped them gently down and heaped them up in rounded moraines in the valley below? It is probable that an amateur geologist would take this view of their deposition here, especially if he had seen the similar deposits in the Grindelwald, and had read in books how large heaps of rocky fragments are gathered on the surface of glaciers, and sinking into crevasses, get played upon by surface streams and so in time become waterwom like those around him. “Quite true, my amateur geologist,” I feel myself sorely tempted to reply, “there may be such deposits on Deeside—perhaps the knolls of the Tornadoes are of this origin—but in regard to these, you have, like Oldbuck, gone on altogether too old a scent Unfortunately for your fine theory my knowledge is of the Edie Ochiltree type—for, glacier here or glacier there, I mind the laying down o’ them.”

Ah! tiny streamlet, playing teet-bo here and there among that wild chaos of shattered rock that bestrews thy path; here with an eddy like the dimple on the face of a child you slip beneath a boulder or two, to babble out yonder with infantile prattle. Ah! tiny streamlet, I know you have not always been so gentle and lamb-like as now, and those who know thee not may little suspect how at times thou canst play the lion too, and roar and tear at the mountains most savagely. It was at no distant geological period that these boulders were rent from the mountain side and deposited here.

The occasion was one which will long be remembered in this part of Deeside, and is not unworthy of a passing notice, when attention is being called to the scene where it occurred. But first let us take a survey of the bed of the stream from the river to the mountain. Passing through the larch plantation we come at once to a deep cut in the rocks, which is so narrow and so overhung with hazel and other bushes as to be almost invisible from above. At the upper end of this cut there is the unfailing linn of such places. Then a more open space where the stream takes a turn over a bouldery channel. Then the rocks, the outer timbers of the adjacent mountain, are again struck. Then more linns, deep pools and precipitous banks for a considerable distance, till the moorish upland is gained. Through this region of boulder drift, which slopes backwards to the steep hill sides, the stream has cut for itself a narrow trough, to the depth of a hundred feet or more. The geologist who wishes to study this rather puzzling formation will find here an immense excavation ready for inspection; and perhaps from a careful study of it he may be able to determine whether it be a deep sea formation, brought thither by icebergs, or a glacial accumulation, or the eroded materials of some mighty Alp, of which the neighbouring hill is but the decayed weather-beaten stump, huddled together in this once rocky valley by the torrent and the avalanche. At all events, he will find a new field to explore which may probably yield a new fact to science.

The little stream which has laid open to the foundation this large bed of diluvial drift must have had many a spate since it first began the work of excavation. Perhaps, like human excavators, it wrought more vigorously in its youth than now. Perhaps, too, great climatic changes may have attenuated its body and crippled its energies, so that no estimate of its years can be made from the amount of its labours. Of what it may have done in the vigour of youth we may, however, form some conjecture from a consideration of what it really did accomplish not more than a quarter of a century ago in its green old age.

The morning of the 8th of August, 1846, broke with unusual, almost unnatural brightness; but ere the sun had ascended far in his course, heavy masses of clouds began to gather round him. At intervals, he shot his beams through the openings between them with intense splendour, and displayed the huge proportions of their volumes. Gradually their thickening masses shut out the whole sky; and though the day was calm, a filmy mist drifted along from the southeast under the dark clouds, and at no great distance above the ground. As the gloom deepened, the growling of distant thunder behind the Grampians was getting more loud and continuous. Rain began to fall, at first not heavily, but like a thick mist with a few heavy drops now and then. Soon, however, the mist changed into a drenching drizzle, the thunder became louder, and with every successive peal there came a rush of very heavy rain for a second or two. Before noon the thunder was deafening and the forked lightning played almost incessantly. The heavy rain was no longer fitful but constant, and every minute increased the intensity of the watery discharge. The streams began to break from their channels, and channels that had been dry for months, now carried floods. The whole population without exception of age or sex turned out with what implements they could find to keep the bums from breaking out and carrying off the arable soil, and depositing in its stead the stones and gravel with which they were charged.

So intent were all on this work, and so severely did it tax their energies, that no one thought of a little cottage, situated on the very brink of this same stream, or of the poor bed-rid occupant, who in her day and station was a character, though not of the amiable stamp. Terrified by the glare of the lightning, the rattle of the thunder, and the scarcely less loud though duller roar of the stream, Janet had screamed for assistance till no voice was left her, and then wrought herself into a fury of rage at the neglect she suffered. As yet her little dwelling was not thought to be in danger, and her splenetic fits were too common to be much heeded, even had any one been by. About 2 p.m. an unusually heavy and prolonged roll was followed instantly by a discharge from the murky clouds that made those exposed to it gasp for breath as if they had been under a shower bath. Immediately the streams broke off from their channels with a violence that made human efforts to restrain them utterly contemptible, and they were abandoned as useless. Great mounds of mountain ddbris were hurled together on fruitful fields, and the Dee flowed black with soil. After this there was a short lull in the storm, but an ominous lull, for the darkness still increased. All at once the gloom was broken by the most vivid flashes of lightning playing athwart each other on the hill-side. Then two or three terrific peals of thunder, and the clouds seemed to lift immediately, disclosing the whole mountain as if covered by a heavy shower of snow. Then came a rushing sound like that of a whirlwind in a forest, followed soon by a hoarse rumbling noise in the upper comes.

“Janet’s house! oh auld Janet’s house! ” shouted some females who were the first to observe that the torrent had surrounded it, and was fast undermining its foundations.

Though their cries could not be heard for the roaring of the stream, their wild rushing towards the spot attracted attention, and in a few seconds a little crowd had assembled on the bank.

“Can nothing be done to save the poor body?” cried the women imploringly. No human strength could by this time reach the door; but two or three daring fellows seized a spade each, plunged into the roaring waters, tore open a hole in the roof behind, and bore the poor creature foaming and raging to the bank in safety. It was not a moment too soon. The rumbling noise first heard in the upper corries was fast approaching.

It was a pitiful scene: poor Janet, now a lunatic, for she had quite lost her reason, lay wrapped in her blanket on the green, jabbering maledictions on her deliverers, while the wild torrent approached with elevated front, dashed against her frail habitation, and swept it before it as if it had been a heap of chaff, leaving not one stone upon another.

Janet was conveyed to a neighbouring house, where, though every attention was paid her, she never rallied from the effect of her fright, and in a few weeks after died.

Between this sad scene and another wholly ludicrous, only a few minutes intervened. Auld Janet was scarcely rescued when the attention of those gathered around her was directed to some people rushing hurriedly in the direction of the turnpike. A nobleman in a grand carriage, driven by red-jacketed postillions, was on his way to his shooting quarters in Braemar, and had passed with difficulty the Torgalter Bum just before its sudden and fearful rise above noticed, but before he reached the next stream, though only a few hundred yards farther on, the full flood was down, rushing in channels from 4 to 8 feet deep through the turnpike. To pass was utterly impracticable. He therefore resolved to return to Ballater; but his retreat had been more effectually cut off than his advance had been barred. Thus trapped, and getting impatient of delay, he kept driving from the one stream to the other in hopes of finding some means of passing either—the postillions meanwhile shouting at the pitch of their voices for assistance. As to the shouting, they might, with as good a chance of being heard, have been whispering in a discharging battery ; but the novel spectacle of red-jacketed postillions driving wildly hither and thither did bring the natives to the rescue. Rescue it was only to the worn out horses and postillions; for the noble animal of the human species who seemed to have more fire in his blood than sense in his brains, refused to leave his carriage, though he was constrained to order it to be drawn up alongside a string of carts that had been caught in the same trap, and were patiently awaiting the subsidence of the spate. When the carriage stopped an old man approached the door, hat in hand, and respectfully requested what was its occupant’s “wull.” “Why,” said he crossly, “can’t you fellows make a passage for me through these torrents?”

“To make a passage through the waters,” meekly put in the old man, “belangs to the Almichty alane; an’ its my thoucht that it’s nae his will that ony o’ his creatures shu’d gang afore him i’ the mids o’ the meantime; but gin ye’ll cause the horses to be lowsed, they can be put up somewhere, and get a feed, an’ ye can rest yersel’ in my house; an’ though I’m no safe to say that it’s free o’ draps the day, ye’se be very welcome to sic shelter as it can gie ye; an’ in an hour or twa we’ll see what can be deen to get ye through.”

“An hour or two!! ” exclaimed the frothy lordling, “wait here an hour or two! I’ll be hanged if I do.”

“Aweel, weel, sir,” replied the other quietly, “your will either way; but it’s my thoucht that ye’re mair likely to be droon’t than hang*t if ye dinna,” and turning aside, remarked to his companions in Gaelic, “Fear nach gabh comhairU, cha ghabh e cobhair” (who refuses advice refuses aid). He was about to move off, when his worship, or whatever else he was, called after him—

“Now, friend, that I think of it, if you could find somewhere to put up these horses for a little, and get them fed, I fancy I shall very soon be able to push through on horseback.”

By this time the postboys were busy unfastening the jaded animals, which they housed in a neighbouring stable; but it was not till nearly three hours had elapsed that the journey could be resumed as proposed; and the carriage had to wait the clearing of the roads some days after.

The generation; and the question is therefore apt to arise, in the unscientific mind at least, whether in the post-tertiary age such rainfalls or even heavier ones may not have been very common. In order to account for the phenomena of even this comparatively recent period, geologists do not scruple to assume conditions of climate far more different from those now experienced than would be required for the supposition that the meteorological state of our atmosphere was then such that rainfalls like the one described were of annual or even more frequent occurence. And if so, it is evident that greater changes in the configuration of hill and dale may have been produced in a century then, than it is now the fashion to ascribe to thousands of ages. Be that as it may, certain it is that not many hundreds of such spates would have sufficed to open in the boulder drift the whole of that immense cut in which the stream now flows.


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