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Rothiemurchus
Chapter 3 - Glen Eunach


ROTHIEMURCHUS is essentially a sporting estate. More than three-fourths of its lands have no agricultural or pastoral value, and are fit for no other purpose than a deer forest. The vast upland regions and luxuriant fir-woods would hardly yield any subsistence for sheep or cattle, and the climate is too bleak and cold for them. But they are admirably adapted for the antlered denizens of the forest, which frequent in large herds the mountain corries, where the patches of grass have a peculiarly fattening quality and the deer thrive well. The deer forest of Rothiemurchus has always occupied a high place in the estimation of sportsmen, and commands a large rental. It has often been held season after season by the same tenant, and the result has been uniformly satisfactory. For the accommodation of the deer-shooters, a very elegant and commodious lodge, Drumintoul, has been built on the other side of the Druie, not far from Loch Pityoulish, from whence access is obtained to the high grounds by a capital driving-road through the woods. Glen Eunach forms the principal part of the deer forest, and from this circumstance its magnificent scenery is not so well known as it ought to be. It is naturally the object of the proprietor and tenants to keep the glen secluded to avoid the scaring of the deer. But before the stalking season commences, parties are allowed to visit the place with certain necessary precautions. To the vast majority of visitors to the district, however, it must obviously be a sealed spot.

Entering by a gate at Loch-an-Eilan, over which the Scottish Rights of Way Society has fixed a board indicating that this is the commencement of the public road to Braemar by the Lang Pass, you skirt the northern shore of the loch, which you soon leave behind, and proceed through old fir-forests around the base of the bare mountain mass of Creag Dubh, one of the outer spurs of~ the great Cairngorm range. This hill is well worth ascending for the sake of the splendid view which the top commands of the whole region. A pathway leads to the summit, the fir-trees becoming more dwarfed and stunted the higher up you climb. Near the top of the first height there is a gully where the deer often resort, and the ground is torn up by their combats during the rutting season. In this place I have several times found a curious moss which grows only on the droppings of deer, a species of Splachnum, which has a very fine appearance with its large red capsules and bright green foliage. Developing only on animal substances, it seems to reverse the great rule that plants precede animals in the scheme of creation. On the highest ridge the ground is remarkably bare and storm-scalped. The winds rush over it with almost irresistible fury, even on a comparatively calm day, and sweep everything before them. The vegetation that clothes this bleak altitude is Polar in its character, rising only an inch or two above the soil, or creeping along and holding firmly by its roots. Arctic willows and azaleas form the only patches of verdure among the large heaps of white granite debris; and over the tangled masses of dark mosses and lichens that cling closely together for mutual help against the common foe, a curious stringy lichen of a straw colour, the Alectoria sarmentosa, unknown except in such Polar situations, forms tortuous knots. A bit of ground with its characteristic plants from this ridge would remind one of a spot in Greenland or Spitzbergen.

The Creag Dubh, though looking like an independent summit over Loch-an-Eilan, whose skyline it forms, is in reality the elevated foot of the Sgòran Dubh, a lofty hill opposite Braeriach, and only two or three hundred feet lower in height. The easiest way to ascend the Sgòran Dubh is over the long-extended ridge at the back of Creag Dubh, rising higher and higher by gentle elevations to the sharp conical summit. On the sky-line, not far behind the ridge of Creag Dubh, is a huge boulder left by glacial forces on this exposed point called the "Argyll Stone." After the disastrous battle at Aberdeen, Montrose fled across the country to the Spey, intending to make use of the ferry-boats on the river to pass over to the other side. But finding them removed and an armed force waiting to oppose his passage, he marched his army back through the forest of Abernethy, where he remained for several days, and then proceeded through the forest of Rothiemurchijs over the hills down into Badenoch. Argyll followed fast upon his heels and caught sight of the vanishing host at this point. Learning that many of the natives had joined the standard of Montrose, Argyll took vengeance upon the whole district, which he laid waste with fire and sword. Not far from the Argyll Stone there is another large boulder called Clach Mhic Allan, or the Duke of Atholl’s Stone. The Duke was taking refuge behind it, when he was set upon and killed near the summit of the ridge.

On the Glen Eunach Road

At another index board of the Scottish Rights of Way Society in the heart of the forest two ways meet and cross each other. The one to the left leads through the Lang to Braemar, the other to the right is the path to Glen Eunach. Near the point of divergence there is a small shallow lake, which in hot summers is often dry. For about a mile and a half the road proceeds in a straight line on a uniform level through the well-grown plantation which has superseded the old aboriginal forest of giant trees. In this wood I have several times seen and heard the crested fit— a bird which is now almost wholly confined to the Rothiemurchus forest and is becoming more rare, though once it was abundant wherever the ancient Caledonian forest extended. By and by you come to the pass of the glen, where the precipitous banks on either side contract, and the stream, deep down below, forces its way with considerable difficulty, roaring and foaming, over the great boulders that fill its bed. Directly opposite on your left hand is the bare, elegantly-shaped cone of Cam Eilrig, which rises to an imposing altitude from this point. It is the "sanctuary" of Rothiemurchus, where, in former times, the deer escaping into it were not allowed to be shot. This humane practice, however, no longer obtains. This hill, like a grand, solemn sphinx, is set to guard the portals of a mountain region of mystery and romance. The murmurs of the stream in its bed are all-pervading. You hear them a good way off—filling all the air like the voices of a multitude. The steep rocks on either side, according to the folk-lore of the place, are inhabited by two different "brownies," perpetually quarrelling and shouting at one another. Wild shrieks and mocking laughter are heard, especially when the belated pedestrian approaches the pass at twilight, and recalls, with fear and trembling, its uncanny reputation. No mortal was ever the friend of the one "brownie" without deeply offending the other, who manifested his anger in very offensive ways. The sound of many waters at the pass accounted for a good deal of this supernatural superstition. Beyond the pass the last solitary firs of the forest contend with the elements, and are twisted and dwarfed by the severity of the struggle; but you hardly notice them, for they are extinguished by the universal magnitude of the inorganic masses and forces around. From this point the pass opens up a wide treeless waste of utter solitude. Terraces of moraine matter, broken and gleaming white in the sunshine, indicating the different levels at which the stream formerly ran, bank up its course, and little rills coursing down the mountains from both sides fall into it to swell its volume. This region has never been animated by human life. It is above the zone of cultivation. No ruins of hamlets, with nettles growing round the cold hearth-stones, cluster on the spots where the turf is softest and greenest among the heather, to testify of forcible evictions and heart-broken farewells, and of the new homes of exiles far away across a world of seas. The peace here is not the peace of death, to which man’s works return, but the peace of the primitive, untamed wilderness. From time immemorial the region has been dedicated to the noble pastime dear to the old kings and chieftains of Scotland. Large herds of red deer frequent the corries; but you may wander for days over the boundless waste without seeing a single antler, when all at once you may behold on the ridge over your head a score of deer standing motionless, gazing at you with their horns piercing the skyline like skeleton boughs. It is a grand sight, but it is only momentary, for, scenting danger, they disappear over the shoulder of the mountain, noiselessly, like a dream, into the safe shadows of another glen.

On the right-hand side, shortly after the pass is traversed, a solitary pine may be seen on the high ground isolated at a considerable distance from the last straggler, which marks the spot where the old inhabitants of Rothiemurchus used to take leave of their friends when they went to the summer shielings. This was considered an important occasion, and several old-world ceremonies were performed in connection with it. A large company helped to lead the cattle and to carry the dairy utensils and household bedding of the women who were to stay behind and occupy the rudely constructed bothies, where they carried on the manufacture of butter and cheese for winter consumption. After seeing to their comfortable settlement in the huts, usually constructed in some green sheltered place beside a mountain rill, the friends would depart to their own farms down in the low grounds, and at the end of three or four months, the women of the shielings would return home laden with the products of their summer industry. Glen Eunach, as I have said, was never inhabited. It had no agricultural capabilities, but here and there beside the streams there were green spots that grew very nourishing grasses, which enabled the cows to give large quantities of milk, and the shielings of Glen Eunach in ancient times were justly celebrated. On the left-hand side of the stream there is a large extent of ground principally covered by moraines, which is hid from the visitor along the road by the elevated terraces forming the banks of the stream. Among these moraines is a small lake, marked on the Ordnance map by the curious name of "Loch Mhic Ghille-Chaoile," which means the loch of the lean man’s son. It obtained this curious name from the circumstance that a native of Rothiemurchus was killed beside it long ago, in connection with the raiding of the cattle in the summer shielings of Glen Eunach one Sunday morning by the Lochaber reivers. The herdsman in charge of the cattle, as the Rev. Mr M’Dougall graphically tells us, rushed to the church of Rothiemurchus, where the people were met for worship, and informed them of the robbery. Mac Ghille-Chaoile, who was the fleetest of foot, because of his hereditary leanness, outstripped his companions in the pursuit, and came up alone with the marauders at the little loch in Glen Eunach, where he found the cattle gathered together in one spot ready to be removed. Here a fierce altercation took place, in consequence of which Mac Ghille-Chaoile was slain. Taking up his body and hiding it in a hollow near at hand, called "Coire Bo Craig," the raiders decamped, so that when the rest of the pursuers arrived they saw no trace either of their companion or the reivers. Some five or six weeks later, a Lochaber woman visiting Rothiemurchus told the people of the manner of Mac Ghille-Chaoile’s death, and of the spot where his body was concealed, as she had been told by the reivers, whereupon his friends brought down his remains and laid them devoutly in the churchyard. The loch after this became associated with his name, and the discovery in recent years of an old rusty dirk beside the loch, with which probably the ruthless murder was committed, gave confirmation to the story.

Crossing the stream by a wooden bridge you come to the first bothy, built of timber, for the use of deer—stalkers. Here it is customary to leave the road and climb Braeriach, over heath and peat bogs, by a foot-track by the side of a tributary burn that comes down from the heights. From this point you do not see the full pro-. portions of the mountain; you see only a part of its long-extended sides rising tier above tier to the sky. You must go farther away in order to take in the whole view. Perhaps the best point of observation is the railway station at Aviemore, where you see the huge mountain rising up from the extensive fir-forest of Rothiemurchus in a long, swelling, massive slope, with immense rounded shoulders, catching alternate sunshine and shade from the passing clouds, and exhibiting, even under sudden gleams of light, a peculiarly grey, barren aspect. About a thousand feet from the summit the uniformity of the slope is broken up by two great corries, divided from each other by a narrow neck or ridge connecting the shoulders of the mountain with the top. One of them is occupied by a bright green transparent tarn, perhaps the highest lakelet in Britain, into which a streamlet trickles down the face of the cliff in a series of waterfalls, a mere slender thread in dry weather, but presenting a magnificent sheet of unbroken foam when swollen by a storm. The corries look at a distance, when filled with the afternoon shadows, like the hollow eye-sockets of a gigantic skull. In the rifts and shady recesses patches of snow linger almost throughout the whole year, and appear dazzlingly white by contrast with the dark rocks around.

The loneliness of the wooden bothy is oppressive. I have rested in it both in storm and in calm. Even on the brightest summer day it is desolate in the extreme; and the rivulet that murmurs past has a forlorn sound, as if it missed the cheerfulness of human habitations. This one bothy emphasises the solitude, as a single tree does in a treeless wilderness. It reminds you of social instincts and companionships for which there is no gratification in this glen. I remember spending an hour or two in it along with the Master of Balliol and Professor Jones, having been compelled to take refuge from a wild storm which shrouded all the mountains in a dense, leaden mist, and soughed in fierce gusts among the corries, raising the voice of the stream that flowed behind to a loud upbraiding. A cheerful fire of wood dispelled the gloom and made us warm and cosy in one recess there was a rude bed, with a shelf and candles and tea-cups, proving that the hut was often occupied at night. You can imagine the eeriness of the solitary tenant, especially if he had a superstitious mind filled with the ghost stories of the district. The very coldness of the night would give him a sensation of the supernatural, such as might precede the advent of a spectre, and the wailing of the winds would seem like the voices of the dead. A feeling of expectancy would take possession of him as if some mysterious being were coming out of the vast darkness to hold commune with him. The very room itself would be filled with some unknown presence, some one of the powers of darkness. It is a wonder that anyone can be found hardy enough to pass through such an experience. One must be matter-of-fact and unimaginative indeed to do so. But a summer day in such a spot is a delicious sensation, when the whole glen is filled with a subdued and softened light, and the mountain sides seem as if a blue smoke were rising over them like a veil, giving them a spectral charm, and the ripple of the streams is musical, and the purple heather just beginning to bloom and to tint the bogs has a faint odour, a "caress of scent," the very soul of perfume.

BEYOND the first bothy the scenery becomes grander and lonelier. The glen contracts, the slopes of Braeriach on the one side and those of the Sgòran Dubh on the other become steeper and loftier. Nature is more awe-inspiring, and seeks to impress us more and more the nearer we approach to her heart. In a short time the great precipices of the Sgôran form peaks and spires of indescribable grandeur. The face of the perpendicular cliffs, more than two thousand feet in height, is broken up into deep rifts, with long trailing heaps of debris at the foot, and great outstanding buttresses of rock, as if these mighty masses required additional support; and the colour of the granite is a rich dark blue, like the bloom on a plum. The rocks have caught this hue from the sky during untold ages of exposure to sun and storm. The effect of these gigantic rocks with wreaths of mist and cloud writhing up their sides, and revealing more and more of their great height and steepness, cannot be described in words. The stream at the foot of these precipices flows darkly and sluggishly over a wide peaty hollow amid the stumps and tortuous roots of old pine-trees, testifying that this place was once densely wooded with the primeval forest. How these trees could exist then, and why they cannot flourish now, is a problem not easy to solve. It is not that the climate or any of the conditions requisite to the growth of the pine-tree have changed. The probable reason is not the height of the spot, or the bleakness of the climate, but the exposure of the individual trees, when planted, to the prevailing storms. When once a gap was made in the serried ranks of the pines as they grew in the original wood, they yielded one by one to the force of the tempest; and the reason why we cannot now make our planted firs to grow in such a situation, where we see thousands of their fallen progenitors cumbering the ground with their bleached remains, is that we cannot imitate the slow, gradual method of Nature in giving them the shelter which, through long centuries of mutual crowding together, they afforded to each other.

Precipices above Loch Eunach

Farther on the picture is complete when the first glimpse of Loch Eunach is seen at the next bothy, which is built of stone, and is meant for longer habitation. There a waterfall tumbles down from a huge bastion of Braeriach, the sound of which is lost in the immeasurable silence; while beyond it the mountain ascends out of sight, plateau above plateau. Loch Eunach reposes in the hollow between the great cliffs of Sgòran Dubh and the gigantic sides of Braeriach, whose gloomy shadows are cast down upon its waters. From its situation it is exposed to all the winds of heaven, which often come in immense sweeps, lifting the water in blinding spindrift far over the shores. A universal darkness sometimes gathers over it on the brightest day without a warning, in a moment, and torrents of slanting rain descend that sting your face and wet you through and through. But the clouds and the mist vanish as rapidly as they appear, and an azure world is revealed in the clear depths below, unflecked and dazzling, and the clouds, even when they again form, are suspended overhead in soft, ethereal masses in reposeful majesty and calm, and the waters are broken everywhere by multitudinous swift-flowing ripples, that seem like shuttles working backwards and forwards, weaving the sheen of the waves that glance in the sun like watered silk. The lower end of the loch is dammed by huge banks of granite sand of the whitest hue, formed by the disintegration of the rocks around by the ever-restless waters; and here a walk along the shore reveals tufts of Alpine vegetation, Oxyria and Alpine Lady's Mantle and rare Hieracia, such as delight the botanist’s eye and heart. Loch Eunach, like many of our Alpine lochs, abounds with delicate char, which make excellent eating.

The head of the glen, beyond the loch, is shut in by a lofty and rugged amphitheatre of cliffs called Corrour, which pass across between Braeriach and Sgòran Dubh, and down whose dark faces are long streaks and patches of light green, marking water-courses. Between the loch and these cliffs there is a large tract of level land, of wonderful smoothness and verdure, which is a favourite haunt of the deer. Here they may often be found in the earlier and later seasons of the year, cropping the rich grass in security, while in summer they seek the higher elevations for the sake of the cooler air. This spot used to be included in the shielings of Rothiemurchus. One summer, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, Lady Mary, the wife of the famous laird, Patrick Grant, surnamed Macalpine, accompanied the maidens to the shielings of Corrour, for change of air; and there, without nurse or doctor, in a mere hut tenanted by the cattle, was suddenly born her second son John, who got the name of Corrour from this circumstance. This son had a distinguished career as an officer in the army, and died abroad after a good deal of service. This incident has been commemorated by the name of Corrour being given to a large villa recently built by a relation of the present laird on the way to Aviemore. In all the district there is not a grander spot than Corrour. There are very few that can come up to it in all Scotland. The scenery of the deep conic recalls that of Loch Coruisk among the Cuchullin Hills in Skye, and Loch Eunach equals, if it does not surpass, the wonderfully wild view of Loch Avon from the heights of Ben Macdhui above it. In that weird caldron of the storms, that den "where," as Wordsworth boldly says, "the earthquake might hide her cubs," the imagination could revel in the most dreadful shapes of ancient superstition. We do not wonder that before the Highland fancy, in such lonely places, visions of water-bulls and ghostly water-kelpies should shape themselves out of the gathering mists.

To be alone on the shores of such a loch during a tempest would be the height of sublimity. All Ossian’s terrors would be seen in the writhing mists and foaming waters and frowning rocks appearing and disappearing through the clouds, and the howling of the winds would seem like the spirits of the lost. Even on the brightest summer day, when sitting on the pure white granite sands on the margin of the loch, one feels as if sitting "on the shore of old romance," and has an eerie sensation as if the veil that separated the seen from the unseen were thinner in this place than anywhere else, and might be lifted up at any moment and some uncanny shape appear.

Braeriach is in the Rothiemurchus forest, which extends to the Duke of Fife’s forest on the Braemar side. It is one of the foremost of the great group of mountains which forms the roof of Scotland, and occupies the most imposing elevated ground in Britain. The boundary between the counties of Aberdeen and Inverness runs along the ridge of Braeriach, and is one of the grandest lines of delimitation in the kingdom. A well-made zigzag path, constructed by the deer-stalkers for bringing down the produce of the chase from the mountain, ascends from Loch Eunach, by which it is comparatively easy to climb to the top. On the way up many fascinating rills cross one’s path, which flow down a course lined with the softest and greenest moss, inexpressibly pleasant to the eye in the desolate wilderness, while here and there cushions of the lovely moss-campion, starred with its numerous crimson blossoms, form a delightful sward by their side. You can hardly tear yourself away from the charm of the little transparent pools and from the sweet gurgling sound they make in the awestruck silence, and the delicious coldness of the sparkling water which you are tempted at every step to scoop up with your hand and drink, infusing new vigour into your parched frame. The granite rock holds these rills like a crystal goblet, and from its hard sides no particle is worn away to pollute the purity of the element or tame its brilliant lustre. The cairn crowning the highest point is only two or three yards from the brink of a tremendous precipice, which forms part of a long wall extending for upwards of two miles, perhaps the most formidable line of precipices to be found in Britain. Cairntoul, which rises up across the gorge to almost the same height as Braeriach, shapes the huge granite boulders of its top into a gigantic cairn, and bears in its highest corrie a beautiful little circular lake; which shows as green as an emerald in the afternoon light, and gives rise to the white waters of the Garachory burn. Near the summit of Braeriach, at the north-east extremity, are five springs, which are perennial, and are called the "Wells of Dee." The rills from these springs unite a little lower down the mountain at an elevation of about 4000 feet, and farther on to the southward join the Garachory. These rills are supposed to form the principal source of the Dee. At this height you cannot distinguish the varied tones of the minstrelsy of the united stream as it breaks into foam among the numerous boulders in its course; but you hear instead an all-pervading sigh or murmur in the air, like the distant echo of the shout of a multitude, which has an indescribably grand effect upon the mind.

The panorama of the whole Highlands of Scotland, from the long broad summit of Ben Macdhui, gleaming red in the level afternoon light, surrounded by the wild grandeur of the crags about Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon, "the grisly cliffs that guard the infant rills of Highland Dee," to the highest point of Ben Nevis in the far western distance, scaling the heavens, and gathering a fringe of dark clouds around its brow, seems to spread out in one uninterrupted view before you—a tumultuous ocean of dark mountains, with here and there the solid mass crested with glistening snow. Gazing on the sublime picture, in which the wild chaos of Nature has swallowed up all traces of man’s presence, and not a single human habitation or sign of cultivation is visible in all the immeasurable horizon, you feel to the full the inspiration of the scene. So quickened is the pulse, so elevated are the feelings, that one hour in such a situation is worth a whole month on the tame level of ordinary life in the city or on the plain. The mind receives a keener edge, and is quick to perceive the interest that lies not only in the great whole of the view, but also in the smallest details of it. The mystery of the mountain is in the eye of the lonely wildflower that strives in a forlorn way to embellish the brown weather - beaten turf, and every tuft of grass that waves in the wind, and every little rill that trickles in the silence, seems to be conscious of the sublimity of the spot. Problems of the original upheaval by some mighty internal force of the mass of primary rock which forms the base of the whole group of mountains occupy and stimulate the mind. The granite detritus, of which you take up a handful from the ground beside your feet, and let it pass through your fingers, seems like sand from Nature’s great hourglass, speaking to you of worlds that have passed away in ages for which you have no reckoning, of universal decay and death; and you are reminded that these seemingly everlasting mountains are perishing, slowly when measured by man’s notions of time, but surely, for, as the poet tells us, they are only clouds a little more stable and enduring that change their shapes and flow from form to form, and at last disappear for ever in the eternal blue.


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