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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXX. The Great Flood of Twenty-nine

MUCH has been written of the Flood of ‘29 by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder and others, but something of interest may yet be added bearing on Abernethy. The Dell house stands near the verge of a broad dale or haugh. To the south and east lies the farm land, bounded by the Nethy. On the north is the garden, which slopes towards a hollow, through which runs a tiny stream, fringed with birch and alders, probably an old bed of the river. On the night of Monday, the 3rd August, two boys, of the ages of seven and four, my elder brother and myself, were sleeping in the nursery, which was in the west wing of the house. It had rained without ceasing for two days, and the gloom was terrible. Our parents being from home, we were thrown upon the care of servants, who did their best for us, telling us stories by the fireside and lulling us to sleep with the sweet lilt of Crochailean. But our rest was rudely broken. I have a vivid recollection of my nurse, Kirsty Ross, coming in early in the morning, while it was yet dark, catching me up and carrying me out in her arms, and the strange sound of her feet plash, plashing in the water still lives in my ears. The explanation was that the Nethy, driven across by the Dorback, had broken the bulwarks below Tomghobhainn, and swept down in great force through the fields, not only filling the hollow to the west of the house, but flooding the lower apartments to the depth of about a foot. The maid servants had been sitting up all night in fear and trembling, and when the water burst in they had hastened to take us children from the nursery to the main house, which stood on a higher level. Another memory is very clear. When we had been dressed and fed, with the light hearts of childhood we began to amuse ourselves with the waters. Standing on the step at the parlour door, we caught at the sticks and bits of wood that came floating about in the passage that led to the lower wing, piling them up like logs, or building them into liliputian rafts. We said we were playing at floating. When the waters had subsided, we were taken to the kitchen, and were much surprised to see two or three English sheep in the back corner. Sween Robertson, one of the farm servants, had found them taking refuge on a hillock amidst the waste of waters, and with much difficulty had succeeded in bringing them to a place of safety. Later still, my nurse carried me out into the garden, and shewed me the dark muddy stream rushing past in the hollow, fearful to look at, and the cuts and gashes made in the walks and the ruin wrought in the plots by the cruel flood. As I have mentioned, our father and mother were from home. They had gone to the Dell of Rothiemurchus to visit our grandfather, Mr Mackintosh. The following account is taken from a note-book of my father’s, and is of special value, as written at the time by an eye-witness

"For three days rain had fallen without intermission. The rivers rose rapidly. On Tuesday, 4th August, the Druie broke out and overflowed the lands round the Dell, even threatening the house. We were exceedingly anxious about our own home, and home concerns, and left early in the morning in our gig. We found the road at Pytoulish partially covered, and the stream, strange to say, running from the Spey into the Loch, instead of, as usual, from the Loch into the Spey. This shewed the enormous rise of the Spey. The bridge at Croftrnore was also covered, and the Kirk of Kincairn surrounded by water. The sweep of the river past Kinchirdy was magnificent. What was usually still, deep water, was now turned into mighty surges, rolling on in awful majesty; and the roar was terrible. When we came to the Mains of Garten we were astonished to see the meadows one sheet of water, the houses of Caolachie surrounded, and the public road submerged. Further progress seemed impossible; but we got the help of two lads, who went before us on horseback, and piloted us round by the old road above Croftronan. One of them, Sandy Gow (Smith), had a narrow escape. His horse stumbled into a hole made by a cross current, and, between the rush of the water and the struggles of the horse, he was like to be smored. We found the road at Tomchrocher overflowed, and the view from one of the heights was very impressive; Spey had been converted into an immense lake stretching from Boat of Garten to Inverallan, skirted on the one side by Tullochgorm and Curr, and on the other by Birchfield and the Culriachs, while here and there Tombae, Broomhill, and Coulnakyle stood out as islands in the midst of the waters. When we arrived at Bridge of Duack, about 8.30 A.M., we observed a cottage, that of Alex. Mitchell, tailor, a little above Nethy-Bridge, swept off. This was a sample of the destruction going on. The road between the two bridges was flooded, but, guided by our brave lads, we got safely through. When we turned in the direction of the Dell, our difficulties increased. The Nethy was fast cutting into the land, and the air was dank and heavy with the smell of earth from the falling banks. Hardly had we climbed the hill at old Bridge End, when the very road over which we had passed was swept away, and we shuddered at what might have been our fate. The saw-mill at Straan-beg had been carried off a little earlier. The Nethy, forsaking its old course by the foot of Balnagoun, had made a new and straighter channel, carrying off the mill. Down it sailed for some distance, quite entire—a wonderful sight—and then, coming into contact with a bulwark, it was dashed to pieces. The state of things was becoming more and more terrible. People were to be seen in all directions, some looking on mournfully dejected, nay, even stupified; others helping neighbours or busy removing their effects to places of safety. Only one house had as yet fallen, but others were in danger. The Nethy having cut through the land to the west of the bridge, and gradually undermined the foundations, the west arch fell in about 10 o’clock with a great crash. It was hoped that, the water having thus got freer scope, the cottages on the Coulnakyle side might be saved; but a clump of alders below the bridge threw a strong current to the east side, and three poor cottars had their dwelling-houses, and much of their belongings, swept away. This happened between 11 A.M. and 4 P.M. The work of destruction had now been going on for hours. The bonnie banks of Nethy were broken up, and the little haughs, with gardens and cornfields lying here and there, had been laid waste. The mischief was not limited to the lower districts, as the vast quantity of all sorts of property seen floating down the stream plainly shewed. Nethy was at her greatest height about 10 A.M. of Tuesday. The river was noticed to rise and fall more than once in the course of the morning. This was probably owing to outbursts of rain on the hills, and the alternations caused by the shorter run of the Dorback. At times there were terrible thunderings and appalling noises in the mountains, as if some convulsion of nature were impending. Though much land and property were destroyed, providentially no lives were lost. At the same time, the shock and trouble of these dark days were hurtful to many, and injured their strength beyond recovery."

Mr Forsyth goes on to tell of the depredations of the Nethy and its tributaries, and also of the loss of timber and the breaking down of banks and bulwarks; but this part of his notes need not be quoted. He modestly refrains from telling how he reached his home; but this has been done by the graphic pen of Sir Thomas Dick Lauder:-

"Unable to proceed in the gig, Mr Forsyth walked up the river-side, large masses of the bank tumbling every now and then into the torrent. After getting near the corner of his garden, where a rill two feet wide and two inches deep was wont to run, he found his further progress arrested, and his home surrounded by a broad and powerful current of so great a depth as to be quite unfordable. He saw the back of his house about 60 or 70 yards from before him. In it were his children; and he had no means of knowing what might be the extent of the operations of the river beyond. A half-rotten paling, that had as yet resisted this sudden foreign flood, appeared dipping from either bank into the stream before him. What it might be in the middle he did not know, for there it was already submerged. The hazard was tremendous; but, goaded on by his anxiety, he took his determination. Poising a long ladder on the quivering poles, he made a desperate adventure. By God’s providence he achieved it, and found all safe in the house, though the water was a foot deep in it."

Sir Thomas then explains how the breach in the Nethy bulwarks had been made by the Dorback, and how the newly-created river had played havoc with the turnips and other crops of the Dell. He also describes Mr Forsyth’s mode of embankment:-

"Three rows of strong piles are driven down, sloping slightly to the river, and are left above the ground of the height of the intended embankment. Two feet intervenes between the rows of piles, as well as between the piles of each row, and the piles of the different rows cover each other individually, as rear rank men do those in the front rank. Young fir trees, with all their branches on, are then laid diagonally across between the piles; but differing from Colonel Mackintosh of Fan’s plan so far, that instead of the points of the brush being turned down the stream, they are hid so as to oppose it, by which means they arrest the sand and mud brought down by the river, and each successive stratum of them is covered by it in its turn. Six inches of gravel is laid over each layer of brush, between the piles, and whole fir tree logs are placed along between the rows over the gravel. These layers are repeated till the work is of sufficient solidity to the mass, which speedily assumes all the appearance of a natural bank. I saw this embankment, which in a few days excluded the water, and perfectly withstood the appendix flood of the 27th August"

The sufferings and losses caused by the Morayshire floods excited much sympathy, and a committee was formed at Elgin, with Mr Isaac Forsyth as convener, to raise funds for the relief of the poorest class of sufferers. Reports were obtained from the nineteen parishes in the county, and aid granted according to the exigencies of the particular cases. The sum of £67 was allocated to Abernethy, which was divided among the following persons:—1st Class—Lewis Grant (aged 47); John Grant (67); May Glass (62); Elizabeth Grant (62); Roderick Mackenzie (47); Alex. Mitchell (32); Wm. Reid (45); Ann Grant McEwan. 2nd Class (crofters)—Duncan Murray (50); Alex. Riach (80); James Riach (60); James Macdonald (70).

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