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Rothiemurchus
Chapter 2 - Loch-An-Eilan


LOCH-AN-EILAN is one of the loveliest bits of scenery in Scotland, and the special show-place of the district. All roads in Rothiemurchus therefore lead to it. But the high-road goes round from Aviemore by the Doune, which is the residence of the proprietor. Doune House is a square, modern building, substantially constructed, in the midst of spacious parks and richly-wooded policies, on the banks of the Spey, whose soft, cultivated beauty contrasts strikingly with the bare rocks and brown, heath-clad mountains around. A high mound crowned with trees lies to the east, from which the mansion received its name. It was originally a fort, and tradition says that it was inhabited by a brownie which faithfully served the household for many years, probably a personification of the protection which the mound afforded. This family seat was occupied for many years by the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess was the daughter of the famous Jane, Duchess of Gordon, who lived on the neighbouring property of Kinrara, and seems to have inherited the vivacity of disposition and the active benevolence of her mother. A large number of the leading men of the day were entertained in the Doune during her occupancy, among others Lord Brougham. A dispute arose one night among the visitors as to whether the Lord Chancellor of England carried the Great Seal about with him when he travelled. The Duchess put the matter to the test at once, and marching at the head of her friends to the bedroom of Lord Brougham, who was lying ill at the time she persuaded him to imprint a cake which she had just baked with an impression of the Seal, which, of course, settled the question.

Rothiemurchus originally belonged to the powerful family of the Comyns, who owned all the lands of Badenoch. With the displacing of the Comyns is associated a tradition of the Calart, a wooded hill to the west of the little loch of Pityoulish. In the pass close to this loch one of the Shaws, called Buck Tooth, waylaid and murdered the last of the Comyns of Badenoch. The approach of the Comyns was signalled by an old woman seated on the top of the Calart engaged in rocking the tow, and Shaw, with a considerable force of his clansmen, sprang from his ambush and put them all to the sword. The graves of the Comyns are still pointed out in a hollow on the north side of the Calart, called Lag-nan— Cumineach. Unswerving tradition asserts that this Shaw was no other than Farquhar, who led thirty of the clan Chattan in the memorable conflict with the thirty Davidsons of Invernahaven, on the North Inch of Perth, in 1396. His remains were interred in the churchyard of Rothiemurchus, and a modern flat monument with an inscription, and with the five cylinder.shaped stones, the granite supporters of the original slab, resting upon it, indicates the spot. Tradition says that these curious stones appear and disappear with the rise and fall of the fortunes of the House of Rothiemurchus. During the Duke of Bedford’s tenancy of the Doune, a footman removed one of them to test the truth of this tradition. But he was obliged speedily to restore it, owing to the indignation of the people. A few days after putting back the stone upon the grave he was drowned in fording the Spey, and his death was considered in the district the just punishment of his sacrilege.

The Shaws held possession of Rothiemurchus till they were finally expelled by the Grants of Muckerach in 1570. On account of their frequent acts of insubordination to the Government, the Lands of the Shaws were confiscated and bestowed upon the Grants, "gin they could win them." Many conflicts took place between the two rivals, one of them in the hollow now occupied by the large, well-stocked garden of the House. Though defeated and slain, the chief of the Shaws would not surrender his rights, but even after death continued to appear and torment the victor, until the new laird of Rothiemurchus buried his body deep down within the parish church, beneath his own seat; and every Sunday when he joined in the prayers of the congregation he had the satisfaction of stamping his feet upon the body of his enemy. The last of the Shaws of Rothiemurchus was outlawed on account of the murder of his stepfather, Sir John Dallas, whom he hated because of his mother’s marriage to him. One day, walking along the road near a smithy, his dog, entering, was kicked out by Dallas, who happened to be within, when the furious young man drew his sword and cut off Dallas’s head, with which he went to the Doune and threw it down at his mother’s feet. The room she was in at the time is still pointed out, and the smithy where the murder occurred is now part of the garden. It is said that on the anniversary of the tragedy, every August, the scent of blood is still felt in the place, overpowering the fragrance of the flowers.

Muckerach Castle, some three miles from Grantown, and now in ruins, was the earliest seat of the Rothiemurchus family. The lintel-stone of the doorway was removed and built into the wall of Doune House. It has carved upon it the date of the erection of the Castle in 1598, and the proprietor’s arms, three ancient crowns and three wolves’ head; along with the motto, "In God is all my trust" Several members of the Rothiemurchus family greatly distinguished themselves in the world of diplomacy and politics. Sir John Peter Grant, a clever barrister, was first M.P. for Great Grimsby and Tavistock, and in 1828 was appointed one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of Bombay. His son was Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, and ultimately Governor of Jamaica, and for his valuable services was knighted. His sister, who married General Smith, of Baltiboys, in Ireland, wrote the charming Memoirs of a Highland Lady, giving a social account of Rothiemurchus in the early years of last century.

Not far from the garden of the Doune, on a knoll which commands an extensive view, is the mansion-house of the Polchar, where the late Dr. Martineau resided for many years. The house has long sloping roofs and low walls, and is well sheltered by trees from the blasts which in winter must blow with great violence here.

From June to November the venerable divine was accustomed to come to this place from London, and the change no doubt helped to prolong his valuable life. When he came first to Rothiemurchus he found that everything was sacrificed for the sake of the deer forest. Old roads were shut up, and the public were excluded from some of the grandest glens. Dr. Martineau set himself to counteract this spirit of exclusiveness, and in a short time he succeeded in securing free access to the loneliest haunts of Nature. Of an extremely active habit of body, he climbed the heights and explored all the recesses of the Cairngorms. In his later years, however, he seldom moved beyond the scenes around his own door. His refined face and earnest manner always impressed one. I shall not soon forget his look, when I called upon him on his ninety-second birthday to offer my congratulations and good wishes, as of one already a denizen of another world, who had brought its far-reaching wisdom and experience to bear upon the fleeting things of time. The family of Dr. Martineau have done an immense amount of good in the locality, having founded a capital library for the use of the inhabitants and visitors, and a school for wood-carving, with an annual exhibition and sale of the articles made by the pupils, which has stimulated the artistic taste of the young people in a wonderful degree.

Passing the low-browed manse, whose situation in the shadow of Ord Bān is exceedingly picturesque, a beautiful path at the foot of the hill conducts the visitor to Loch-an-Eilan. A stream flows all the way from the loch beside the path, which is over—arched by graceful birch-trees, such as MacWhirter loved, and which he actually painted on the spot several years ago while residing at the manse in a series of studies of the Lady of the Woods, exceedingly beautiful and true to nature. The slender trees here hang their long waving tresses overhead and cast cool shadows over the white path, while the murmur of the stream soothes the senses and makes one see visions and dream dreams. In a little while the northern shore of Loch-an-Eilan comes in sight, embosomed among dark-green fir-forests. It occupies an extensive hollow, overshadowed on the east by the bare round mountain mass of Creag Dubh, one of the outer spurs of the Cairngorm range, while on the other side rise up the grey precipitous rocks of the Ord Bān, clothed with birches and pines to the top. Ord Bān is composed mostly of primitive limestone and bands of micaschist very much bent and twisted by the geologic forces to which it owed its origin. It is easily ascended, and the view from the summit, owing to its central position, is both extensive and magnificent, including the two horizons to the north-east and south-west, with their clothing of dark fir-forests in one direction, and of birch-woods in the other. Loch Morlich shows itself distinctly in its wide basin glancing in the sun, while far over the wild mountains that surge up tumultuously in the south-west, Ben Nevis storms the sky with its broad summit.

Loch-an-Eilan

Charles V. said of Florence, "It is too beautiful to be looked upon except on a holy day." The same might be said in a truer sense of Loch-an-Eilan, for it is a sanctuary of Nature. Its beauty touches some of the deepest chords of the heart. It is not a mere landscape, it is an altar picture. It is a poem that gives not merely a physical or intellectual sense of pleasure, but awakens the religious faculty within us, creating awe and reverence like a holy hymn. One of its great charms is its unexpectedness. It comes upon you with a sense of surprise in the heart of the woods. Its water is the spiritual element in the dark fir-forest It is to the landscape what the face is to the human body—that which gives expression and imagination to it,—and therefore it lends itself easily to spiritual suggestiveness. It is the face of Nature looking up at you, revealing the deep things that are at the heart of it. All around the loch are fir-woods, miles in extent, in whose depths one may lose oneself. But here at the lochside one comes out into a wide open space, and finds a mirror in which the whole sky is reflected. There is a sense of freedom and enlargement. One sees more of the shadow than of the sunshine among the fir-trees, and only bits of the blue sky appear high up between the green tops of the trees; but here the whole heavens are seen not only above but below, with the double beauty of reflection. The water makes the blue sky bluer, and the golden sunshine brighter. The sight awakens the thought that it is good to have clear open spaces in our life, in which heaven may be brightly imaged. It is good to have in our souls parts devoted to a different element from that of which our life is mostly composed, in which we may have large glimpses of the world that is above us, the spiritual and eternal world. Life must broaden if it is to brighten. Over the narrow stream the trees arch, shutting out the sky. To the shores of the wide lake they retreat, leaving it open to the whole firmament.

The Castle, Loch-an-Eilan

THE little island which gave the loch its name was originally a crannog or artificial lake-dwelling. After affording a secure retreat for ages to the primitive inhabitants by its wicker huts built on wooden platforms, it finally formed a foundation for a Highland feudal stronghold of considerable dimensions, covering all the available space and appearing as if rising out of the water. Tradition asserts that it was originally built by the Red Comyns, who once owned all the country round about. The lands of Rothiemurchus having been granted by Alexander IL to Andrew, Bishop of Moray, in 1226, the Earl of Buchan, son of Robert II., better known on account of his ferocity as the Wolf of Badenoch, took forcible possession of these lands, and was in consequence excommunicated. In revenge he sacked and burned the Cathedral of Elgin. For this sacrilegious act he had to do penance by standing barefoot for three days at the door of the cathedral, and was restored to the communion of the Church on condition that he would return to the Bishop of Moray the lands he had wrested from him. This castle was one of the possessions which the Wolf gave up. During his occupation we may well suppose that it was the scene of many bloody deeds and crimes. It was afterwards bestowed in lease upon the Shaws, whose chief dwelt there for more than a hundred years without molestation. From the Shaws it ultimately passed to the Grants of Muckerach, who have continued to hold it ever since. One event only has been recorded since they took possession. In 1690, after the disastrous battle on the "Haughs of Cromdale," so long celebrated in song and dance in Scotland, the remnant of the defeated adherents of James II., the followers of Keppoch under General Buchan, fled to Loch-an-Eilan for refuge, and made an attempt from the mainland to seize the castle, which was defeated by the Rothiemurchus men under their valiant laird. A smart fire of musketry greeted them from the walls of the castle, the bullets for which were cast by Grizzel Mor, the laird’s wife, and they were repulsed with great loss. Since then the castle has become a roofless ruin, whose time-stained walls, mantled with a thick growth of ivy, add greatly to the picturesque appearance of the loch. The stumps of the huge fir-trees, from which the timber for the roofing and flooring of the castle was obtained, may still be seen on the margin of the peat-bogs behind the loch from which the people of the neighbourhood obtain their fuel, preserved as hard and undecayed as ever after the lapse of all these centuries. It has been persistently said that a zigzag causeway beneath the water led from the door of the castle to the shore, the secret of which was always known only to three persons. But the secret has never been discovered, and the lowest state of the loch has never given any indication of the causeway. On the top of one of the towers the osprey or sea-eagle, one of the rarest of our native birds, used to build its nest. For several seasons unfortunately the birds have abandoned the locality, possibly because they were not only persecuted by the crows, which stole the materials of their eyrie, but also frightened by the shouts of visitors on the shore starting the curious echo from the walls of the castle. I was fortunate enough, one recent summer, to see the male bird catching a large pike and soaring up into the sky with it, held parallel to its body, with one claw fixed in the head and the other in the tail. After making several gyrations in the air, with loud screams, it touched its nest, only to soar aloft again, still pertinaciously holding the fish in its claws. A seagull pursued it, and rising above, attempted to frighten it, so that it might drop the fish, but the osprey dodged the attacks of the gull, which finally gave up the game and allowed the gallant little eagle to alight on its nest in peace, and feed its clamorous young ones with the scaly spoil. The fish in Loch-an-Eilan are principally pike, which often attain a large size, especially in the eastern bays, being there so little disturbed.

Sir Thomas Dick Lauder realised the capabilities of Loch-an-Eilan for figuring in romance, and has given us a vivid description of its picturesque features in his story of Lochandhu. It combines within the small area of three miles in circumference all the elements of romantic scenery. There is no monotony, but, on the contrary, an infinite variety along its shores, which form coves and inlets and low, rocky points and gravelly beaches and open green banks. On the east side the rocky precipices rise almost immediately from the water and fling a dark shadow over it. The path here is seldom used, and one rarely meets a visitor in the solitude. On the nearer or western side there is a large promontory of green meadow-lad, standing out against the richly-wooded background of the Ord Bān, on which is situated an ornamental cottage with a red roof, which in summer is frequented by crowds of visitors who come from all parts of the country in carriages and on bicycles and make delightful picnics on the shore. The site of this picturesque cottage was first occupied by a house which was built by a General Grant for his widowed mother in accordance with her own wishes. This General was originally a turnspit in the kitchen at Doune. Quarrelling one day with the cook, the boy cut off her hair with his knife and then ran off down the avenue at full speed. The cook came crying to her master who shouted after him in Gaelic, "Come back, you black thief, and get your wages." "Wait till I ask for them," was the reply. He then enlisted as a soldier and rose rapidly from the ranks to the highest position in the Indian army and amassed a large fortune. He never came back to his native glen, but he provided for all his relations and gave his mother a pension, on which she lived happily for many years, not priding herself very much on her son’s wonderful career, nor held in any high consideration by her neighbours in consequence. On the promontory below the cottage stands a rough granite monument intimating that at this point General Rice, who did a great deal of good in the locality during his sojourn in it, and whose portrait may be seen in almost every house, was drowned by the breaking of the ice while skating on the loch on 26th December 1892.

The southern end of the loch is formed by precipitous grey rocks in the background, crowned with dark woods, the haunt in former times of the wild cat, and surmounted at the highest point by a monument now almost entirely concealed by the trees, erected by her husband to the Duchess of Bedford, whose favourite outlook was from this place. The shore here consists of magnificent moraines covered with grass, heather and bracken, which produce in their autumnal fading the most gorgeous effects of colour. Beyond these immediate boundaries the open country reveals itself, taking into the horizon the round peaks of the Boar of Badenoch and the Sow of Atholl, and so completing the magic picture of the loch by the ethereal blue colours of the far distance. The quieter bays are white with whole navies of waterlilies, and when the hills and open parts of the woods are crimson with the heather in full bloom, almost changing the water of the loch by the enchantment of its reflection into wine and contrasting with the rich blue-green of the fir trees, there is no finer sight to be seen in all the land. It was feared at the time that the terrible conflagration which ravaged the wooded shores on the eastern side some years ago would destroy for ever much of the beauty of the loch. But while a vast portion of the luxuriant undergrowth of the woods was burnt down on this occasion, the loss was more than made up by the revelation of the varied rocky features of the scene, which this undergrowth had hidden by a monotonous covering of uniform vegetation; and now, after the rains and storms of several winters have washed away the charred and blackened wrecks, the recuperative powers of Nature have already spread over the naked spaces a healing mantle of tenderest green. The woods at the head of the loch were left altogether untouched; and here, by the side of the charming path, which at every step discloses some new combination of beautiful scenery, there is a number of very ancient firs, whose gnarled, exposed roots form the banks of the path, and whose venerable trunks and branches overshadowed the spot long before the castle on the island was built. They are the relics of the great aboriginal Caledonian forest; their huge red boles, armoured from head to foot with thick scales like a cuirass, Nature’s own tallies, record in the mystic rings in their inmost heart the varying moods of the passing seasons.

Beyond Loch-an-Eilan is a much smaller loch where the conflagration began, and which, therefore, suffered greater havoc in the destruction of its woods. It is called Loch Gamhna, or the Loch of the Calves, on account of its old connection with the creachs which used to take place along its shores. On the eastern side there is a path through the forest called Rathad-na-Meirlich, or "the reivers’ road," because along it the cattle stolen by the Lochaber marauders in Speyside were driven to the south. There is a tradition that Rob Roy himself took part in such raids, and was no stranger in these parts. An old fir-tree, to which the Speckled Laird of Rothiemurchus, as he was called, tied a bullock or two during these forays, in order to procure immunity for his own herds, was standing until it was burnt down by the recent forest fire. I possess some fragments of this old tree, so surcharged with turpentine that they act like torches, and burn down to the hand that holds them with a steady bright flame. Several of the Macgregors whom Rob Roy took with him from the south to aid in one of these expeditions remained behind and settled in Rothiemurchus, and became allied with the laird’s household. A tombstone preserves their memory in the churchyard. The laird, Patrick Grant, who got the name of Macalpine because of his friendliness to the unfortunate clan Alpine or Macgregors, was greatly helped by Rob Roy in a time of sore need. Mackintosh, the nearest neighbour of Grant, built a, mill just outside the west march of Rothiemurchus, and threatened to divert a stream from Grant’s lands to it. A fierce quarrel arose between the two lairds on this account, and Mackintosh threatened to burn the Doune to the ground. Marching for this purpose with his men, he suddenly encountered the forces of Rob Roy, and fled precipitately. Rob Roy set fire to Mackintosh’s mill, and sent him a letter in Gaelic, in which he threatened to kill every man and burn every house on the Mackintosh estate, unless he promised to abstain in future from molesting Rothiemurchus. A song was composed on the occasion, entitled "The Moulin Dhu," or Black Mill, the tune of which is one of the best reel tunes in Highland music. The Street of the Thieves is the most celebrated of the forest paths of Rothiemurchus; but the whole district is full of paths, used for more innocent purposes. They are most intricate and bewildering to one who does not know the ground, but are easily traversed by the natives. Being covered with russet carpets of pine-needles, as if Nature herself had made them, and not man, they are always dry and elastic to the tread. What heavenly lights and shades from the branches overhead play upon them; and how the westering sun with its level rays brings out the red hues, until the forest paths glow in sympathy with the splendid .Abendglühen on the sunset hills!

The dense mass of vegetation in these forests strikes one with astonishment. Not an inch of soil but is covered with a tangled growth of heather, blaeberry and cranberry bushes and juniper; and feeding parasitically upon the underground stems are immense quantities of the yellow Melampyrum or cow wheat, and pale spikes of dry Goodyera, that looks like the ghost of an orchis. Here and there in the open glades the different species of Pyrola, or winter—green, closely allied to the lily of the valley, send up from their hard round leaves spikes with waxen balls of delicate whiteness and tender perfume.

The one-flowered Moneses grandiflora, exceedingly rare, is found in some abundance in the woods at the south-west end of the loch. And it may chance that in some secret spot the charming little Linnaea, named after the father of botanical science, may lurk, reminding one of the immense profusion with which it adorns the Norwegian forests in July. The mosses are in great variety and extraordinary luxuriance, especially the rare and lovely ostrich-plume feather moss, which grows in the utmost profusion on the shady knolls. The Rothiemurchus forests have always been famous for their rare fungi, especially for their Hydna, a genus of mushroom, which has spikes instead of gills on the under surface of its cap. One species, the Hydnum ferrugineum, is found only in these forests, and exudes, when young, drops of blood from its spongy substance. There are innumerable ant-hills of various sizes, some being enormous, and these must have taken many years to accumulate. You see them at various stages. Some are fresh and full of life, crowded with swarms of their industrious inhabitants. But many are old and deserted, either half grown over with the glossy sprigs of the cranberry, or completely obliterated by the other luxuriant vegetation.

All through the forest you see little mounds covered with blaeberry and cranberry bushes, which clearly indicate their origin. They were originally ant-hills. Each particle of them was collected by the labours of these insects. If you dig into them you will find the foundation to be composed exclusively of pine-needles, and you can trace the tunnels and galleries made by the ants. It is a curious association this—of plant and animal life—a kind of symbiosis. The struggle between the two kinds of life is seen here in a most interesting way. The wave of the undergrowth of the forest, in its slow, stealthy, irresistible progress, encroaches upon the ant-hills, and forms at first a ring round their base. Gradually it creeps up their sides, and you see one-half of the ant-hill covered with cranberry bushes and the other half retaining its own characteristic appearance of a heap of brown fir— needles with the ants swarming over them, busy at their work. But the vegetable wave still advances and finally extinguishes the last spark of animal life on the mounds, and rolls its green crest over their buried contents. In this remarkable way the soil of the forest is formed by a combination of the labours of plant and animal life. Looking at the vast mass of animal and vegetable life, you feel that there is something almost terribly impressive in this rapacious, ever-splendid Nature, tirelessly working in its unconscious forces, antagonistic to all stability. You have an overpowering conception of vital energy, of individual effort, upreaching to the sun and preserving the equilibrium of Nature!

One has no idea from the uniform clothing of the fir-forests of the extraordinary irregularity of the ground, except here and there in the open parts and places bare of timber, where the ups and downs of the landscape may be seen to perfection. Huge moraines and heaps of river-drift show what elemental forces were at work, in the later geologic periods, in moulding the aspects of the scenery. Volcanic forces first piled up the gigantic granite masses of the mountains on the horizon, and great glaciers planed down their sides and deposited the debris over the low grounds where the forest now creeps. The past here seems to be all Nature, a theatre where only the physical powers have been operating. Human life at the beginning must have been on too small a scale to contend with the mighty natural forces, and was soon wiped out and effaced. In a fir-forest, with its heather and juniper, man could find almost no subsistence in his primitive state—no kind of scenery could have been so inhospitable to him. And yet over the green upland slopes of Tullochghru, where the ground has not been broken for centuries, great quantities of burial cairns and circular dwellings and artificial mounds or places of popular assembly show that there was here, in far-off times, a large population. At a place called Carn-rhu-AEnachan, near the Croft, where evidences of glacial action are most striking, there is a green hillside which must have been the earliest clearing in the great aboriginal forest, on which lies a half-hidden stone with three cup-marks rudely hollowed out on its surface by a flint implement, surrounded by faint traces of human habitation. These cup-marks are as significant as the footprints which Robinson Crusoe saw on his lonely island. They are the only ones I have been able to find in all the district. They people the past for us, and give it that human interest without which the grandest scenery becomes desolate and uninviting. They show that where man had made a home for himself in the primeval forest, there beside it he prepared an altar for the unknown god of his unconscious worship. Older far, and of happier memory than the castellated lair of the Wolf of Badenoch on Loch-an-Eilan, these primitive cup-marks speak, not of man’s inhumanity to man, but of man’s reverence and upward look of soul, and of the peace that binds heaven and earth. The eternities of the past and the future are associated with these rude symbols. We feel that the persons who scooped them out with their flint tools were men of like passions with ourselves; that they had similar experiences and similar fears and hopes. Their dust has utterly disappeared, their memories have altogether perished, but what they dedicated to religion has survived, has shared in the immortality of religion; and Nature has here preserved the first feeble steps of primitive man along the upward path with sacred inviolability amid the inhospitable waste.


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