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Rothiemurchus
Chapter 6 - Kinrara


THE names given to various localities on the banks of the Spey — that river of wondrous reels and strathspeys—are very musical. They have a poetical charm which captivates the imagination and suggests ideal pictures. Cairngorm, Rothiemurchus, Rebhoan, Altdruie, Kinrara, speak of an older language, of a haunted past, and of traditions of romance which inform all the scenes. Kinrara sounds like one of the names which the poet Campbell gave to his mystical creations of Highland lore. When we hear it we think of Lochiel, and Culloden, and Glenara. I remember the first time I came across the name. It was in the midst of the forest of Rothiemurchus, near Aviemore, that I saw it, inscribed on a white board of the Scottish Rights of Way Association with an arrow pointing the way to it to the tourist across the rough Lang Pass from Braemar. At the head of Loch-an-Eilan, farther on, I saw the magic name again on a similar board with a similar arrow indicating its proximity. But it seemed to me to retreat the nearer I got to it, like the foot of the rainbow, and it was not till some time afterwards that I was able to locate and visit it. I then found that the reality behind the name did not belie its melodiousness. It recalled fair visions that were quite in harmony with its musical sound.

The horizon of Kinrara is quite different from that of Rothiemurchus, the district that lies next to it on the north. Rothiemurchus obtains its name from the dark, continuous forest of firs which covers the extensive plain at the foot of the Cairngorm mountains; whereas Kinrara is covered mostly with birches, which give a much softer aspect to the scenery. The principal hill of the district, which rises behind Kinrara, called Tor Alvie, is covered with birch-trees, and many fine specimens of this tree, self-sown, occur among the woods, with pure white stems and long, drooping branches. The woods are all natural. They climb over rocky ground with whose rugged features their mottled stems of black corrugated bark, below hoary with lichens and showing milk - white smoothness of stem above, exquisitely harmonise. Here and there they gather into thick, shady clumps or open out into sunny glades, where shadow and sunlight play over the mossy ground and freckle the sward with delicious wavelets. The landscapes partake of the character of wild, disordered, natural scenes and carefully-dressed park scenery. The situation of Kinrara House is exceptionally fine. Overshadowed by the birch-clad hill behind and shrouded by groves of ornamental trees, it seems to have too much seclusion, and yet the policies cover such a wide space that they afford ample room for all the trees that crowd around. The trim and velvety lawns gradually lose their formality and merge imperceptibly into untutored wilderness. The view in front from the elevated terrace is over open and widely-extended ground on to the huge masses of mountains from the Sgôran Dubh to the dark blue hills of Glenfeshie in the distance, comprehending a vast variety of scenery within its bounds. Ridge after ridge seems to come down from the blue firmament in ever-graduating shades of deeper blue; the far horizons are full of peaks and plateaus whose vast spaces and intervals are so crowded and foreshortened that they can only be distinguished by their varying colours, and look like a wondrous mosaic built up against the sky. In late autumn it is a painter’s palette; every shade of green and red and yellow is to be seen in the foliage. The house is not visible among the trees from the public road. It has no beauty of architecture, being a plain square building, depending for its effect entirely upon the loveliness of its situation.

This retired spot was chosen by the celebrated Jane, Duchess of Gordon, as her summer residence for many years. She was devotedly attached to it, and drew to it, by the charm of her manner and her brilliant conversation, crowds of the highest nobility of England and Scotland from July to November. In London the duchess was the life and soul of courtly circles. She greatly delighted George III. by her wit and vivacity; and his household was charmed by her personification of the provincial peculiarities of the natives of Scotland and Ireland. Knowing a few words of Gaelic she could represent the nasal pronunciation and vehement gestures of a Highland minister in the pulpit, and give examples of the Scottish dialect and Aberdonian intonation, which always threw the royal listeners into convulsions of laughter. Her influence at Court was used to help on candidates for military or civil situations from the Highlands; and the ministers of state could not resist the earnestness of her pleading when she espoused the cause of some rural protégé from Badenoch or Strathspey. Pitt, "that heaven— born minister," as he was called, was often cajoled into placing her favourites in high positions in the Treasury and Horse Guards. She was of the utmost service in increasing the military forces of our country during the Napoleonic wars. She fanned the ancient martial spirit of the people, and by the powerful patronage of the Gordon family she helped to produce a host of brave officers whose honourable deeds will long live in the annals of the British army. Dressed in Highland bonnet and feathers with tartan scarf and short tartan petticoats, she appeared on festive occasions in the district, and raised recruits by offering to dance with any likely young man to the music of the bagpipes; and at the end of the reel she handed to her partner a guinea and a cockade, in the name of King George and the Duke of Gordon. It was even said that she did not hesitate to bestow a kiss as a reward to those who enlisted in this way; and thus many scores of young men, the finest in the countryside, in spite of the remonstrances and lamentations of their female friends, were decoyed into the military service of their country. By devices like these was formed the famous 92nd Regiment or Gordon Highlanders, which added fresh glories to the national banners in every country and clime. Mrs. Grant of Laggan wrote a song in connection with this regiment, which has always been very popular:-

"Oh, where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone?
He’s gone with streaming banners, where noble deeds are done.
And my sad heart will tremble till he comes safely home.
Oh, where, tell me where, did your Highland laddie stay? 
He dwelt beneath the holly trees, beside the rapid Spey, 
And many a blessing followed him the day he went away."

At the southern extremity of Tor Alvie, a high cairn of stones was erected by the late Duke of Gordon, the son of this famous duchess, with a tablet commemorating the brave officers belonging to this district who fell at Waterloo—Sir Robert MacAra of the Black Watch, and Colonel John Cameron of the 92nd Regiment, and their valorous countrymen. On the eastern brow of the hill is a rustic hermitage, commanding a most magnificent view of cultivated valley and heath-clad brow, dark forests and frowning mountains. Here there is also a pillar to the memory of the last Duke of Gordon, the popular chief and landowner, which stands out prominently above every other object in the centre of the vast landscape and is seen from all directions.

The Duchess of Gordon was as much at home among the humble cottages of the poor on her estate as among the splendours of a Court. She was greatly beloved by all her tenantry, and delighted in making others sharers in her own happiness. Mrs. Grant of Laggan said of her that "she presented the least favourable aspect of her character to the public," and that "she showed most in her Highland home, where her warm benevolence and steady friendship were most felt." There is a sprightly song in Fraser’s "Gaelic Airs," which records the gaieties of the times when she was the leading star of the bright social firmament. Correspondingly great, therefore, was the gloom and sorrow when the news came that she had died on 12th May 1812 ; and Mrs. Allardyce of Cromarty wrote the following elegiac verses regarding the sad event:-

"Fair in Kinrara blooms the rose,
And softly waves the drooping willow,
Where beauty’s faded charms repose,
And splendour rests on earth’s cold pillow; 
Her smile, who sleeps in yonder bed,
Could once awake the same to pleasure,
When fashion’s airy train she led,
And formed the dance’s frolic measure.

When was called forth our youth to arms, 
Her eye inspired each martial spirit;
Her mind, too, felt the Muse’s charms,
And gave the meed to modest merit.
But now, farewell, fair northern star,
Thy beams no more shall Courts enlighten, 
No more lead youth, our youth, to war,
No more the rural pastures brighten.

Long, long thy loss shall Scotia mourn,
Her vales, which thou wert wont to gladden, 
Shall look long cheerless and forlorn,
And grief the minstrel’s music sadden;
And oft amid the festive scene,
Where pleasure cheats the midnight pillow, 
A sigh shall breathe for noble Jane,
Laid low beneath Kinrara’s willow."

The remains of the Duchess of Gordon were brought north from London when she died and laid in a spot which she had often indicated in her walks as the place where she wished to be buried. It lies not far from the mansion house in a spacious park on the banks of the river where it has a quick clear current and fills its banks from side to side, murmuring a perpetual requiem as it flows past, deepening the peace of the dead. There is no other grave but her own in this quiet resting-place; but the secluded spot was an ancient graveyard connected with some chapel dedicated to St. Eda, which disappeared ages ago, and of which not a trace now survives. Who this St. Eda was is not known, some supposing that he was the Bishop of Farus in Ireland, but the probability rather is that this is a dedication to St. Alden corrupted into St. Eda—the celebrated Celtic saint of Lindisfarne, who was highly popular throughout the Highlands, and had many churches consecrated in his name. A handsome monument, in the shape of a truncated obelisk, formed of granite from the neighbouring mountains, was erected on the spot by her noble husband, and on it is commemorated, at her own request, the names of all her children, with the exceptionally brilliant marriages which they had made; her own name being inscribed on a plain marble slab covering the grave. Lord Huntly planted some larches round the enclosure which have grown into fine trees and cast down an appropriate funereal shade on the sod; and Lady Hundy laid out a beautiful shrubbery and extended the larch plantation, making paths through it. To the charming scenery around Kinrara this lonely tomb gives an air of tender sadness. Sleeping there, far from the stately mausoleum where the dust of her illustrious kindred reposes, she has taken complete possession of the spot, that was so dear to her in life, by her ineffaceable memory which mingles with every object around, sighs in the wind, and syllables her name by the airy voices of the solitude, by the waving of the trees and the flowing of the river. One of the distinguished visitors at Kinrara during the lifetime of the duchess was Prince Leopold, the husband of the lamented Princess Charlotte, and subsequently King of the Belgians. On the day of his arrival he was taken up to the top of the Tor Alvie, and there he was surprised to meet the Marquis of Huntly, who at a preconcerted signal summoned his clansmen from their places of concealment among the heather and birch-trees around, who rose in their plaided array to give the prince a right royal welcome. "Ah!" exclaimed the prince, surprised and greatly pleased at the sight, "we have got Roderick Dhu here"—alluding to the scene in the Lady of the Lake where— 

"The mountaineer then whistled shrill,
And he was answered from the hill;
Instant, through copse and heath, arose
Bonnets and spears and bended bows;
And every tuft of broom gave life
To plaided warrior armed for strife!
Watching their leader’s beck and will,
All silent there they stood, and still."

It would take several weeks to exhaust all the varied beauties of Kinrara. Tor Alvie, the wooded hill behind the house, affords endless walks and outlooks on the surrounding scenery. Paths through the birch-woods leading to lovely seclusions of Nature; large lochans and sheets of marshy water covered with myriads of waterlilies; dark sweeping forests of fir that skirt the bases of the mountains, and rows of pine-trees crowning an eastern height, every one of whose spear-tops the rising sun flashes into a sort of sudden presenting of arms to the celestial potentate along the whole sky-line; the rapid Spey flowing between beaches of white pebbles accumulated here and there by its waters, and under graceful trees whose light foliage throws down flickering lights and shadows on its dimpled surface; and here and there some rustic farmhouse, with its cultivated fields and picturesque steadings—all these details of the landscapes, contrasting with the trim walks, the rich gardens and the trailing vines of the mansion house, make a paradise in the wilderness. Kinrara is now the shooting-lodge of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, and has been occupied for a number of years by the Earl of Zetland.

Bridge of Alvie and Tor Alvie

The way to Kinrara from Aviemore skirts the foot of Craigellachie, and opens up many charming vistas of the surrounding scenery. At the foot of Craigellachie, immediately above the village, is a little lochan, concealed in a field of green mounds, called Loch Balladern. Its surface is covered with the large floating leaves and red mottled spikes of Potamogeton and with the little lemon flowers and neat round leaves of the Nuphar pumila, the smallest of the water-lilies, found only in a few of our lochs. The lochan is a lovely mirror for the birch-clad rocks that rise precipitously above it, and is full of small sweet trout. Strangely enough, during the earthquake of Ljsbon, its waters were greatly agitated, dashing about in its little shrouded basin in a way that made a deep impression upon those who saw it. Almost at the gates of Kinrara is the charming Loch Alvie, of which one gets the most tantalising glimpses from the railway in passing along. The name of this little lake is derived from the fact that in former times it was visited by wild swans on their southern migratory flight from the Arctic regions. It is about a mile in length and half a mile in breadth, but has an irregular outline, forming a large promontory at the western end, running far out into the water, on which is picturesquely situated the church of the parish with the manse and glebe, which are almost surrounded by the loch. The Church of Alvie occupies a knoll on which there was a religious cell from the time of St. Columba. It is even older than the knoll of Adamnan at Insh, for tradition ascribes its dedication—if not its actual foundation—to St. Drostan, the nephew of St. Columba, to whom there are many dedications in the north and north-east of Scotland. This famous saint founded the Monastery of Deer, as the Book of Deer, the oldest MS. in Scotland, tells us, built a church and lived a hermit’s life in Glenesk, Forfarshire, where he wrought some miracles and died. Under the floor of the Church of Alvie, when renewed some time ago, 150 skeletons without coffins were found—the remains probably of some ancient local battle. They were re-interred in the churchyard. The charm of the surrounding lake consists not in its magnitude or grandeur, but in the blueness of its surface when the sun shines, reflecting the shadows of the birch—trees around it, and the clouds lying still as itself above it, in the purity and transparency of the little wavelets that ripple to the shore with a placid murmur infinitely soothing to~ the tired spirit, and in the sheets of dazzlingly white water-lilies that cover large spaces in the quiet bogs with the most refined bloom and verdure. From its eastern end a pleasant little burn flows through the woods, round the base of Tor Alvie, and falls into the Spey. It has sometimes happened, when swollen by the autumn storms, that the waters of the loch have risen so high as almost to cover the promontory on which are situated the church and manse; and on one occasion, during the unprecedented flood of 1829, the ministers who had been assisting at the communion on Sunday were detained on the spot till the waters abated on Wednesday. Near the top of the hills on the north side of the loch the dwarf birch, Betula nana, which is one of the rarest of our Alpine plants, and one of the most diminutive of our native trees, grows in considerable abundance among the bogs. One of the ministers of this parish, the Rev. William Gordon, lived to the advanced age of 101 years, remarkable for his generous nature and noble life. When the clans fled from Culloden, many of the fugitives came south past the manse of Alvie in a state of destitution and applied for relief to Mr. Gordon. The Duke of Cumberland, hearing of his beneficence and suspecting his loyalty, summoned him to his presence at Inverness by a military guard, when Mr. Gordon stated that he was straitened between two contrary commands. His heavenly King’s Son commanded him to feed the hungry; his earthly king’s son commanded him to drive them from his door. Which of these two commands was he to obey? The duke, taken aback, replied, "By all means obey the command of the Son of your heavenly King," and dismissed him with several tokens of the royal approbation. In the middle of an arable field at Dalfour, about a mile west from Loch Alvie, there is a nearly perfect Druidical circle, forming a ring about sixty feet in diameter, enclosing another ring of stones of smaller size, set on end, about half that diameter. Connected with this remarkable relic, there is in the immediate vicinity a stone pillar about eight feet high, without any sculpture or inscription, recording some event which has long passed into oblivion. Beyond Loch Alvie there used to be a dreary moor, covered only with stunted heather, and incapable of being cultivated, owing to the shallowness and stoniness of the soil. The Duchess of Gordon planted it with Scotch firs, mingled with larch-trees, which have thriven and greatly relieve the barrenness of the waste. The hostelry of Lynwilg, for many years the only inn on the road past Kingussie, is welcome as a resting—place for the weary traveller. This whole district was once part of the ancient Barony of Dunachton, which passed into the possession of the Laird of Mackintosh about the year 1500, through his marriage with the daughter of the baron. The new proprietor was a man of high character and conspicuous ability, and was much regarded by his tenants; but a conspiracy was formed against him by a treacherous member of his own clan who wished himself to rule, and so murdered his chief. He and his lawless band took refuge in a castle on an island of Loch Alvie, since burnt down, but the enraged clan besieged him there and put him to death. A few miles farther on is the romantic, richly-wooded village of Kincraig, at the end of a spur from Craigellachie, which gleams forth like a beautiful oasis in the wilderness. Here a profusion of graceful, natural birches rises up among the knolls and rocks picturesquely grouped together and hides the fashionable villas which have recently been built upon the spot. At Kincraig the Spey expands into a large lake called Loch Insh, which is a mile long and half a mile broad. Nowhere does the combination of loch and birch-wood appear so beautiful as here. The blue waters shining through the small glistening leaves, and between the silvery colonnades of the trees, produce the most exquisite effects, especially when the multitudinous ripples on the surface laugh in the breeze and sparkle like jewels. At the foot of the loch, where the Spey flows out of it, there are two large knolls covered with fir and other trees. When the river is in flood these knolls are completely surrounded by water, and, converted into an island, are shut off from the mainland. This circumstance has given origin to the name of the loch, which means the loch of the island. On the northern mound called Ion Enonan, or Adamnan’s Island, is situated the Church of Insh, whose ancient name proves that the conditions which prevail at present during spates of the river have prevailed from time immemorial. The church is the most interesting object of antiquity in the whole district. Its foundations go back to the days of St. Columba, who visited the Picts north of the Grampians, and is said by St. Adamnan, his biographer, to have converted Brudeus the King in his Court at Inverness. The dedication of this church to St. Adamnan in 690, or thereabouts, was a consequence of this visit. Previous to its occupancy as a place of Christian worship, the fir-crowned knoll had a religio loci, as a site of Druidic rites. It was the place where for ages the people had been accustomed to meet and practise the adoration of the sun, and other acts of Nature-worship, and the consecration of the heathen altar was continued to the Christian Church, and the people met as of old in the same spot, with a different religion, and the Sunday of the former dispensation became the holy day of rest of the new. In a basin carved out of a slab of granite forming the sill of one of the windows of the church is preserved a very ancient square bell of cast bronze, which is one of the series of early Celtic bells still existing in Scotland. Its shape and size are like those of the bell of St. Fillan in the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh. It has an oval-shaped handle and a moulding round its mouth, and a big iron tongue protruding from its mouth. The basin-shaped depression in which it rests was probably the font of the original church erected on the knoll, or belonged, it may be, to the system of cup-marked stones peculiar to sun-worship, which occupied the spot in pagan times. There is a tradition connected with the bell similar to that associated with the bell of St. Fillan, that if carried away from the locality it breaks out into a constant cry of "Ion Enonan, Ion Enonan," which ceases not until it is brought back to the knoll on which the church stands. In all probability the bell is as old as the time of Adamnan, and was blessed by him in person. The saint’s day was originally a holy day of worship, but it became, as was generally the case, a fair, called Feil Columcille, or St. Columba’s Market. At this fair it was the custom of the women of the district to attend dressed in white garments ; and the late aged minister of the church remembered an old woman showing him the white dress in which in her young days she went to the Fair of St. Columba, and which she carefully preserved in order to be buried in it. No doubt this was an unconscious survival of a ceremonial usage of the Early Church, in which candidates for baptism required to appear clothed in a white dress; and the custom came afterwards to be associated with the festival day of the saint, as commemorative of his Christian work. The spot on which the Church of Insh stands, I have said, has been a sacred spot from time immemorial, and the church itself is the only one in Scotland in which Christian worship has been carried on continuously from the seventh century to the present day. The present building is no doubt the last of a series of buildings often renewed on the spot, but the lowest part of the walls shows traces of much older structures; and until recently, when the internal fittings were completely restored, the galleries, seats and pulpit made of fir, warped and wizened by age, were of very primitive forms and had been suffered to fall into a state of considerable dilapidation.

The road on the other side of the Spey winds along the shore of Loch Insh, and at some distance crosses the Feshie by a steep and narrow bridge, where the stream forms a deep dark pool far below. The view is very wild and somewhat alarming at this spot. The parapets of the bridge have been heightened to increase the feeling of security, but the precipitous banks of the river, and the wide Stygian pools which they enclose, excite the imagination and fill it with terror. An accident might easily occur at this place ; as in point of fact one did happen to a carriage, which was upset and life was lost. The Feshie drains one of the grandest and most extensive of the Highland glens, and is a splendid stream with a large volume of water. Owing to the vast quantity of detritus it has brought down from the mountains it has formed a bar which has dammed up the course of the Spey, causing it to expand into a lake, which is now Loch Insh. During the flood of 1829 its waters filled the whole glen. A shepherd’s house high up on the side of the hill, beyond the utmost possible reach of a spate, was overwhelmed by the river, and the inmates barely escaped with their lives in the middle of the night to the highest ground they could reach, where they were imprisoned till the evening of the following day. The scenery of Glen Feshie was greatly admired by Landseer, who left as a memento of his having been in the place a drawing of a deer above the mantelpiece on the wall of a gamekeeper’s cottage in the glen—now shut up in order to preserve it. Thomson of Duddingston also made several sketches of the giant firs of the forest, and during his sojourn in the district was immensely impressed by its sublimity. So overpowered with emotion was he on one occasion in the forest that he exclaimed, "Lord God Almighty!" and said to his host and companion, Sir David Brewster, that "the sky over such a scene seemed the floor of heaven." Macculloch, in one of his letters to Sir Walter Scott, before the authorship of the Waverley Novels had been found out, wrote that the unknown writer should lay the scene of his next story in Glen Feshie. Her late Majesty Queen Victoria passed through it on the way from Braemar to Strathspey, and has recorded in her journal the excited feelings which the memorable journey produced. 

The extensive birch-woods of South Kinrara and Dalnavert, which add so much to the attractiveness of the landscape, were long ago called the Davochs of the Head. They were given in compensation for the head of the Laird of Mackintosh, who was decapitated while paying a friendly visit to the Earl of Huntly in 1556. Sir Walter Scott refers to this incident in an article on the "Highland Clans" which he contributed to the Quarterly Review. He informs us that Mackintosh, in his bitter quarrel with the Gordons, burnt their castle of Auchindoun, and thereby aroused their implacable vengeance. The earl reduced him to such extremities by his constant persecution that he had at last to surrender himself to his foe. Coming to the seat of the Gordons, he found the master absent, but yielded himself up to the countess instead, who informed him that the earl had sworn never to forgive his crimes until he should see his head upon the block. Thereupon the humbled chief knelt down and laid his head upon the kitchen dresser where the oxen were cut up for the baron’s feast No sooner did he make this humiliating allegiance than the cook, who stood behind him with the cleaver uplifted, at a sign from the inexorable countess, let the cleaver fall and severed Mackintosh’s head from his body by a single stroke. Dalnavert was the last remnant of the extensive possessions of the ancient Shaws, the earliest lords of this district. It now belongs to the estate of The Mackintosh. About eighty years ago the local company of volunteers used to assemble here for drill. Both the mother and the wife of the late well-known Premier of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, were born in this place. The mother went from thence after her marriage to Glasgow— where the great statesman was born; but he returned from America for his bride to his maternal country on the banks of the Spey.


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