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The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845)
Volume XII - Aberdeen
Parish of Strathdon


PRESBYTERY OF ALFORD, SYNOD OF ABERDEEN.
THE REV. ROBERT MEIKLEJOHN, MINISTER.

I.—Topography and Natural History.

Name, Boundaries, &c.—The original name of this parish was Invernochty, so called from the church being situated at one period, it is said, at the confluence of the Nochty and the Don. The etymology of the modern name is sufficiently obvious, and descriptive of the locality of the parish, which lies chiefly in an extended strath stretching from the source of the Don down its course, from west to east, to the influx of the Kindy with that river.

Strathdon is the most westerly parish in the synod and county of Aberdeen, and conterminous on the west with Kirkmichael, and the district of that parish now allotted to the Government church at Tomantoul; on the south, with Glenmuick and Coldstone; on the east, with Migvie now annexed to Tarland, and Towie; and on the north, with Glenbucket, Cabrach, and Inveraven. It is about 23 miles in length, and from 3 to 8 in breadth.

The parish is extremely irregular in its figure, both from the mountainous nature of the country, and from being intersected by other parishes. A portion of Tarland parish, 4 miles long and 2 broad, containing a population of 231, is situated in the very centre of it. At the junction of the Bucket with the Don, Glenbucket intersects Strathdon for about three-quarters of a mile; and where the Deskry falls into the Don, Migvie juts in, scarcely three miles from the church.

Topographical Appearances.—The appearance of the surface of this parish is singularly diversified, and, at many points, of great beauty—now presenting all the luxuriance of a fertile strath, and again all the wild and rugged scenery of the Highlands. One feature of beauty is the river Don winding prettily through the main strath. Along its banks, there is a considerable extent of arable land, including some fine haughs subdivided into well cultivated fields; while, in the lower half at least of the parish, the sides of the hills are covered with thriving plantations. Farther up, the scenery is of a different, but not less beautiful character. The strath becomes narrower, the mountains rise up precipitously, and on their sides, reaching almost to the river, here and there are clumps of coppice-woods, composed chiefly of birch, interspersed occasionally with pines and aspens, which are in fine contrast; and in spring and autumn the whole is beautifully tinged with shades of almost every varied hue. The highest district consists almost entirely of moorland and mountain, and is of a bleak and barren appearance, particularly toward the source of the Don.

Besides the strath of the Don, there are five or six glens, wild and sequestered, indeed, but not destitute of beauty and interest, which generally lie nearly at right angles to the main strath, bending towards the west at the upper end. Except in Glenkindy, the lower part of Glenernan, and the plantations of Auchernach in Glennochty, there is little or no wood in them, unless it be some detached hushes (clumps) of natural birch; yet these glens, in the stillness of a summer afternoon, with the clear streams flowing through the soft green glades, and the mountains rising abruptly on either side covered to the top with long thick heath in full bloom, afford a richness of beauty rising almost to grandeur.

Situated in, or in a branch of, the Grampians, the glens just mentioned are separated by masses of mountains, many of which are of considerable altitude ; yet there is little either in their conformation or character that requires particular notice. The most remarkable mountain, which, although not actually in the parish, lies contiguous to the southern boundary, is Morven, 2880 feet (according to Dr S. Keith) above the level of the sea. The principal mountains in the parish are Scroulach, 2700 feet, resting towards the west on the Glaschill, over which the old military line of road passes from the south, by Corgarff Castle to Fort George. Cairnmore, and Ben-Newe, each 1800 feet; and Lonach, [Lonach is the slogan or watch-word of the Strathdon men. On the summit of this hill, a large cairn was erected, in 1823, by the tenantry in honour of Sir Charles Forbes's elevation to a Baronetcy, with an inscription.] 1200 feet. There is also worthy of notice a mountain named the Green- hill, so called from the absence of heath, and the north and south-east side being partially covered with verdure. It is composed of serpentine. A quarry has recently been opened on the north side, from which large masses are with little difficulty extracted. It is easily dressed for building purposes, and looks well in coursed ruble-work when newly built, but, after long exposure to the weather, it assumes a dingy grey appearance. Any attempts that have been made to employ it for finer purposes have not been attended with success, as it is too soft to admit of a very high polish. On the south-west of the hill, the serpentine crops out in masses of considerable height, having, at a distance, the appearance of the ruins of old castles. On the western extremity, asbestos is found in abundance, lying on the surface of the different eminences. Upon the whole, the mountains of this parish are much inferior in picturesque effect and rugged outline to the sister district of the head of the Dee.

Meteorology.— No regular account has ever been kept, so far as is known, of the meteorology of this district; but it may be mentioned that the highest temperature, indicated by the thermometer within the observation of the writer, during the last seven years, was 83º Fahrenheit in the shade, on the 7th July 1833, and he has been informed, on unquestionable authority, that in 1826, at Auchernach, it stood at 90° in the shade. On the 14th February {1838), at 8 o'clock p. m., it stood at 8° below zero, or 40° below the freezing point. *

* The writer has not a self-registering thermometer, and may not have observed the lowest degree of temperature that occurred during this very severe storm. It is unnecessary to give the temperature of every day, but it is worthy of notice that the thermometer did not average higher titan 24° at 8 o'clock a. m. from the 15th January to the end of February. The following are some of the more excessive degrees of cold that were remarked, viz.:—

No storm of such severity has been known since 1814, as that in the beginning of the year 1833, which continued from the 8th of January, with only partial mitigation of rigour, till the 19th of April.

The range of the barometer is extensive. On the 29th November 1838, it fell to 27.50 ; and on the 7th January 1839 to 27.20. The highest point reached, that we have observed, is 30.50, on the 10th April 1839. It is subject to very rapid depression and elevation, rising or falling sometimes three-fourths, or a whole inch in twelve or twenty-four hours; and hence it would prove a fallacious guide to trust, irrespective of contingent circumstances, to the rising and falling of the barometer as an index of foul and fair weather. With a strong easterly wind, we often see a sudden start of 5/8 or ¾ of an inch, while a three days' torrent of rain follows. Again, a sudden fall with a north-west wind often indicates a coming hurricane, as during the series of remarkable high winds in spring 1837, when the barometer fell 27 8/10 inches without rain.

The aurora borealis is very common, especially during the winter months, and of great brilliancy. Twice in the course of the last five years, a beautiful luminous arch shot athwart the zenith, at right angles with the magnetic meridian, irradiating the heavens with a vivid light. Towards the end of 1837, the polar lights assumed a new appearance: the fitful dancing of the streamers was exchanged for a deep red glare, resembling the vivid reflection of an extensive moor-burning. On the 25th of January 1838, when the thermometer stood at 2°, the aurora was unusually bright, and the hissing sound (about which so many people are still sceptical) remarkably audible.

Climate, Diseases, &c.— The elevation of the river Don, (according to the authority already quoted,) at a point about two miles above the church, and 47 from Aberdeen, is 950 feet above the level of the sea, while at its source it is stated to be 1740 feet, We, therefore, necessarily experience a keen atmosphere, but the climate is, nevertheless, bracing and healthy; so much so, that valetudinarians frequently come to reside in the strath during the summer months for the benefit of the pure air, and it is believed the influx would be greatly increased, were there more convenience of lodging, &c. The climate of the upper or Corgarff district is distinctly different, and much inferior to that of what may be termed Strathdon proper. The parish is liable to the most serious injury from spring and autumnal frosts, especially the latter; but the Corgarff district, in an aggravated degree, suffers from this calamity. Few harvests pass in which the crops are not partially injured, but in many they are entirely ruined. It is true, for the five years previous to 1836, frosted grain was almost unknown in the parish, and fond hopes began to be entertained that a beneficial change for the better had taken place in the seasons, and various sage theories were propounded satisfactorily to account for the fact. That year, however, the crop in the upper district was almost totally lost, [It is a feet worth notice, connected with this subject, that it is a universally received opinion amongst the inhabitants of this district, founded on accurate observation, and verified by experience, if the strath escapes frost from the middle to the end of August, and more particularly about the 20th, they count upon the crop as safe for the season.] and in the present crop, (1838,) there is not one boil of safe seed in the parish.

Another evil the Strathdon farmer has to contend with is the high winds. From the funnel shape of the strath, the wind (being confined by the mountains on each side) may be said to blow only in two directions. From the west, varying a point or two north and south down, and from the east up the strath. The latter, however, except in spring, is comparatively of rare occurrence, and generally only lasts three days, bringing continued heavy rain. But by far the most prevailing wind is from the north-west, which often sweeps down the valley with tremendous violence, in the more exposed situations shaking the standing corn, so as to leave the straw completely thrashed, and sometimes actually overturning the stacks that have been led into the barnyard.

Epidemic distempers are seldom known, and there is no endemical disease. Stone or gravel is mentioned in the former account as very prevalent. It is now confined chiefly to one glen, (Nochty). A few years ago there were five or six cases at one time in that glen. One individual, in 1832, 73 years of age, went to Liston in Edinburgh, and had three stones the size of a hen's egg extracted. In a few weeks he returned cured, and at this day retains perfect health, walking three miles to church every Sabbath, and discharging his duties as an elder, which he has been in the parish for upwards of thirty years. Hernia is not uncommon. In several instances young men are afflicted with it. The former account states that "consumptions are very rare." There is no reason to believe the parish less healthy at the present day than forty years ago, but it cannot now be truly said consumption is rare. In its various forms, with the diseases resembling and connected with it, not a few fall victims to its ravages. Of these diseases, unquestionably scrofula is most predominant. One family in the parish, consisting of a father and four children, have been cut off by it, and the childless widow is a helpless cripple. There is one decided case of bronchocele, as distinctly marked as the writer has often witnessed it on the Cretins in Canton de Vallois in Switzerland. There is, however, no Cretinism or fatuity in this case. The woman has a numerous family, but the disease has not hitherto appeared in any of her offspring. It is a singular circumstance, that the woman lives in the glen already mentioned as the locality where calculus prevails. It would be an interesting subject of inquiry, whether or not the common origin of both diseases might not be traced to some peculiar impregnation of the water in the glen. Still, on the whole, the quantity of disease is small, unusually small, when the extreme variations of temperature, already referred to, and the insufficient protection that the dwellings and clothing of the poorer classes too often afford against the rigours of winter, are taken into account. Many of the pa-rishioners have from time to time reached an extreme old age. About four years ago, one man died in the 103d year of his age. When the present incumbent became minister of the parish, his session consisted of six elders, the youngest of whom was about 70. Not many years since, nine Forbeses, born within the sound of the kirk bell, met at Bellabeg, whose united ages were 750 years.

Hydrography.—In a parish possessing so much of mountainous character there are, of course, innumerable springs, the mean temperature of which has not been ascertained with sufficient accuracy to warrant a statement being given. With one or two exceptions, none of them merit particular notice. In Corgarff there is one remarkable for its copiousness. During the whole year, it discharges a volume of water sufficient to turn a mill wheel. The burn of Loinhcirie is entirely supplied by it. Its size, accordingly, is nearly the same at its source as when, after its course through its little glen, it joins the Don. At Glenconry, there is a chalybeate spring, but, so far as is known, it has never been properly analyzed. There are several others that show impregnation with iron, but in so slight a degree that particular notice is unnecessary.

The Don, the second river in the county in point of magnitude, takes its rise in this parish, on the very confines of the counties of Banff and Aberdeen, and takes its course from west to east, dividing the parish into nearly two equal parts. [It is a singular fact, that the source of the Don has lately been actually turned into the Avon, in order to turn the neighbouring farmer's mill-wheel.] It runs nearly two miles through peat moss before it assumes the appearance of an ordinary burn. Then, augmented by the Vannich and other mountain-streams, it continues its course about ten miles, without attaining any considerable magnitude, till it receives the tributaries of the lower district. The most considerable of these are the Conry, the Ernan, the Carvy, the Nochty, the Deskry, the Bucket at the intersection of Glenbucket already noticed, and the Kindy, the eastern boundary of the parish, all which take their rise in the glens of their respective names. [In a curious old poem entitled "Don," printed in London, 1655, the tributaries of the Don in this parish are described.] At the manse the Don is about 70 feet wide, and is of very considerable velocity. The Don, as well as the lesser streams, is here justly held in high repute for angling, few places perhaps in Scotland affording better rod-fishing. The trouts are not large in general, perhaps not averaging three-fourths of a pound; although instances are occasionally met with reaching three, four, and even sometimes five pounds. A few salmon every season find their way up, but the number is so small, that it is only in trouting that the angler can find amusement.

Rising in the mountains, and receiving so many mountain tributaries, the Don often " comes down" with amazing rapidity. The most destructive inundation in the memory of man, was in 1829. The keystone of the arch of Pooldhulie bridge is 25 feet above the river, and on that occasion the water, it is said, reached within a few feet of it. Much is now doing in the way of making . embankments, to guard against the devastation of the more ordinary floods. They have been more frequent since 1829, which is believed to be occasioned by the shiftings that then took place in the channel of the river. [Two or three years ago the proprietors of machinery on the Don contemplated building three extensive reservoirs in this parish, for a constant and regular supply of water; one on the head of the Don, a second on the Nochty, and a third on the Deskry. Surveys were made, and, it is said, L.30,000 was to be expended. Whether I the idea is now abandoned the writer cannot tell.]

Geology, &c.—The prevailing rock in this parish, and particularly along the line of the Don, is sienite, generally of a granitic appearance. It is composed of white felspar and hornblende. These minerals are oftentimes in pretty large crystals; and in veins the hornblende is to be found in large crystallized masses. Veins or beds of compact felspar are found in this sienite. Garnets also occur in some places. The most remarkable vein, however, by which this rock is traversed, is one of graphite, about four feet wide. This graphite is intimately mixed with dark-green chlorite, which may be partly separated from it by rubbing in a mortar, diffusing the powder in water, and allowing subsidence to take place. The difference in specific gravity, and the scaly form of the chlorite, cause the powders to arrange themselves in two distinct layers. The graphite is not compact, but like soft clay, probably from this intermixture of chlorite. The rock on each side of the vein is in a very shattered state, and has assumed a schistaceous appearance.

On the north-west of the Don, there is a great ridge of serpentine rock, having in it small disseminated crystals of chromate of iron. It is about a mile in breadth adjoining to the sienite; this is in contact westwards with mica-slate, in which are found beds or veins of primary limestone. To the mica-slate, clay-slate succeeds, and lies upon it.

In Glenkindy again, in the lower end of the parish, there is another great dike, or vein of serpentine, between four and five miles eastward of the former, and apparently running nearly parallel to it. It seems scarcely so broad. It is in contact with graphic granite, which probably is connected with the sienite in its vicinity. A red granite is found in abundance on the other side of the hill, which certainly conjoins with the sienite, although its junction has not been laid open.

In this serpentine of Glenkindy, there is at one point a considerable deposit of bright green, scaly chlorite, and immediately below, masses of compact white chlorite of a beautiful appearance.

In the line of the first mentioned serpentine dike at Corgarff, in the south-west end of the parish, the serpentine and limestone intermixing form a marble exactly similar to the Glentilt. And it is deserving of notice, that the serpentine at Portsoy has connected with it the Glentilt marble and the graphic granite. The Portsoy vein or dike has been traced in a direct line towards Corgarff for thirty miles, and at about twenty miles from Portsoy, it seemingly divides into two dikes, which, at the distance of thirty miles, are at about five miles from each other, just as in this parish, as above stated. What seems further to prove the identity of the Portsoy, Corgarff, and Glentilt vein, or at least to call for investigation, is that, if a ruler be laid on the map of Scotland, (in the maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,) on Portsoy and Corgarff, Glentilt will be found within less than four miles of the line. The graphite vein in this parish also points to the identity of the Portsoy serpentine, and the dikes of that mineral here; as graphite is found in several localities along the directly traceable course of the Portsoy serpentine dike. [For the above notice, the writer is chiefly indebted to his friend, a learned pro-lessor, who declines allowing his name to be given.]

It may only be further noticed on this head, that the distinctive peculiarity of appearance of this section of the Grampians is the covering of gravel and debris which rests on the sides of the hills, and generally forms the bed of the Don. The gravel varies from a few inches in depth to upwards of 100 feet, with occasionally interposed strata of sand, and assumes the form of terraces and low truncated hills in some localities, as at the mouth of the Nochty, in the vicinity of Pooldhulie bridge, and in Glencarvy. These have been formed by the action of water. Nearly half a mile below the junction of the Nochty with the Don, there is a ridge of sienite, traversed by a vertical dike of felspar porphyry, which runs right across the valley. At Pooldhulie there is another similar. Previous to the disruption of these dikes, the waters must have been collected in vast lakes, in which deposition of the washed down sand and gravel would take place. As these dikes gave way, the waters would cut for themselves passages through the deposited gravel, and hence occur those terraces, tablelands, and low truncated hills.

Soil.—The prevailing soil in the arable part of the parish is a good loam of considerable depth. In the haughs, being alluvial, sections of gravelly loam occur, and traces of former beds of the river are distinctly marked. The loam is generally superincumbent on gravel, a crust, technically termed a pan, in many places intervening, so hard and impervious, that it requires laborious pick-work to penetrate it. After it is cut through, gravel or sand and sometimes sandy clay succeeds, which generally yields to the spade. This description of the subsoil will show the urgency of drainage to carry off the surface water. An improvement which is yearly being more attended to.

There are some peculiarities with regard to the soil worth notice. It is invariably deeper on the north than on the south side of the hill or mountain, and by consequence the north lying farms are generally supposed to be the best in respect of soil, although the advantage is counterbalanced by deficiency in point of climate. Again, the best quality of soil is not found in the haughs, but on the sides of the hills, and the higher up, as far as cultivation can be carried, the soil is said to improve. This is markedly exhibited on the farms on the right side of the Nochty. But on the very tops of several of the hills good soil is found, and in many instances where they are now covered with heath, traces of the plough can still be seen, although the exposed situation, and the risk of the crop not ripening, probably led to the abandonment of their cultivation. Still, the more elevated fields on the hill side often escape the August frosts, that are so destructive to the crops on the margin of the river and rivulets. Last season every potato field on the banks of the Don was ruined early in autumn, while those at the very head of the glens escaped without injury. This may be partly accounted for by the vicinity of the water, but the visitations of this scourge are involved in much obscurity. Some farms, apparently in every respect as favourably situated as their neighbours, are proverbially "frosty places." Nay, sometimes one field on the same farm and with the same exposure, is more liable to be affected with frost than another only separated from it by a fence.

Connected with the soil, it may be stated as a fact, probably of some interest in a geological point of view, that the peat mosses are all situated on the tops of the hills,—many of them of vast extent and very great depth. The peats taken from the different mosses are as various in point of quality and value, as the coals from different seams in a coal country. Some of them supply a rich black peat, which, when properly dried, becomes almost as hard as coal, and makes excellent fuel burning with brightness, and throwing out a very strong heat. In Corgarff and Glen-Nochty moss-fir is found. It was, and not at all rarely still is, the practice for some of the poorer classes, who cannot afford other light, to go to the moss, and with a long probe something like a rude auger, search for trunks of trees buried perhaps six or eight feet deep. These, often of a diameter of 12 or 13 inches, are dug up, carried home, and cut into splits. Then being dried on the kilchan, or on a kind of round brander with spiral bars, they are made use of in place of candles, thus illustrating the passage in Ovid,

"Flammifera pinus manibus succendit ab Ætna."

A good piece emits a strong resinous smell, and when lighted, the rosin boils out at the root of the flame like a torch. In provincial language they are termed candle, or fir-candle, in contradistinction to a tallow-candle, which is denominated "white candle."


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