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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXXVIII. Forest Fairlies

ABERNETHY has for ages been famous for its pine-forests. The remains of great trees in our mosses, and the blocks, sometimes three, one on the top of the other, found in improving land, tell of the glory of the past, and so far as is known, though there have been changes, there has been no break in the continuity from the most ancient times. Long ago, the lower parts of our parish seem to have been swamps and morasses, the haunt of wild beasts, and the home of savage desolation, while the higher grounds on the slopes of the hills were occupied by the people. The hut circles and the marks of furrows on the moors show this. It is now nearly the reverse. The lower grounds are cultivated, while the higher have been given up to wild animals and to sheep. About the year 1760, we find Sir Ludovick Grant greatly concerned as to the state of the woods. In an advertisement by himself, and his eldest son James, yr. of Grant, to their tenants, he says that the woods are of great value, and that their destruction would be of the greatest loss to him, and to his vassals and tenants, "yet within the last half century, through the malice and negligence of evil-minded and thoughtless people. the best and greatest part of said woods have been destroyed and rendered useless both to Heritors and Tenants" by burning of heather and otherwise. To prevent such practices, it was intimated that they (he and his son) "were determined to put in execution the several salutary laws made against stealing, cutting, and destroying woods, and raising of Muir-burns; and likewise against the Destroyers of Deer, Roes, and Black-Cock, and other game within their Estates." The advertisement then gives warning that any person found guilty of the crimes set forth would be duly punished, and it is significantly added, the said person shall also forfeit any favour that they might otherwise have expected of the said Family." This may refer to promises of land and such like for service rendered. The Baron-bailies were required to send in lists of persons convicted. New Foresters were also appointed, and strict instructions given to them. "Whereas the very greatest abuses of every kind for many years have been committed in all my Woods of Strathspey, by stealing, cutting, barking, and otherwise destroying them to such a degree that if some effectual remedies are not provided against such villanous practices in time coming, they must all be soon ruined," and for these reasons they were enjoined to take all due measures to protect the property that was being so wantonly and wickedly destroyed. These measures seem to have been so far successful, but it was many years before the evils complained of were thoroughly stopped. In 1819, the Woods and Wood Manufactures on the Grant Estates were placed under the charge of the late Mr William Forsyth, The Dell, and by his management, extending over twenty years, great improvements were effected, and large annual profits secured.

Roads have been made passing through the woods in various directions. There are also walks and cross-paths on Craigmore amid the Torr. It is easy, therefore, not only to saunter about at one’s own sweet will, but to walk or drive for miles and miles through the vast wilderness of woods. What will be seen depends mainly on the seer. Some complain of the dulness and want of life, but to the ‘ quiet eye" there is always a rich harvest." Sometimes a tree may be observed, standing out from the others, eminent for its size and height, or remarkable for some other peculiarity. A little beyond the Dell gate, near the Moss, there is a tree called "The Queen." It is a splendid specimen of the ancient pine. About a mile further on to the right there are two or three trees of an unusual kind. The normal habit of the fir is to grow up straight and stiff, but these have the droop and bend of veritable "weepers." Another "fairlie" is the variegated fir, so called from the golden tinge of the needles or leaves. Of this rare kind there are some specimens in the forest. The biggest trees remaining are to be found at Carn Chnuic, Sleighich, and Craigmore. One of these in the last named locality bears the name of "Peter Porter."

The Grants at the port or ferry of Balliefurth were called "porters," and it is said that one of them of the name of Peter had taken a contract to cut down a certain number of trees on Craigmore, but that when he came to tackle with this giant of the wild, he shrunk from the task. It would not pay. So the tree stands to this day, bearing his name, and an object of admiration to hundreds of visitors from year to year. It is 80 feet in height, 14 feet in girth, with huge branches and wide spreading cable-like roots, and must be about 300 years old. Perhaps the largest fir of which we have record was that called ‘‘Maighdean Coire—chungiaich,’’ at Baddan-bhuic, in Glenmore. The following notice is taken from the Journal of Forestry and Estate Management for September, 1877 :—-

Through the kind interest which Sir Robert Christison, Bart., takes in all things arboricultural, the public have now an opportunity of seeing, in the National Industrial Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh, a curious relic of the ancient forest of Glenmore, and of judging of the quality and valuable properties of the native Scots fir timber. At the request of Sir Robert, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon has sent for exhibition in the Museum a plank of Scots fir, 5 feet 7 inches wide at the bottom, which was presented in 1806 to the then Duke by the person who purchased and cut down the whole of Glenmore forest. It bears its rather curious history on a brass plate affixed to its face, of which the following is a verbatim and literal copy : —

"In the year 1783 William Osborne, Esq., merchant, of Hull, purchased of the Duke of Gordon the Forest of Glenmore, the whole of which he cut down in the space 22 years, and built during that time at the mouth of the River Spey, where never Vessel was built before, 47 Sail of Ships of upwards of 19,000 Tons burthen. The largest of them, of 1050 Tons, and three others but little inferior in size, are now in the service of his Majesty and the Honble. East India Company. This Undertaking was compleated at the expense (for Labour only) of above 70,000£.

To his Grace the Duke of Gordon this Plank is offered as a Specimen of the Growth of one of the Trees in the above Forest by his Grace’s

"most obedt, Servt.
"W. Osbourne.

"Hull, Sepr 26th, 1806."

Sir Robert Christison has, with his usual accurate criticism, examined the plank, and reports to us as follows regarding the tree from which it had been taken:-

"The tree must have been 11 feet in girth at the bottom of the plank, and 16 at top, 6 feet 3 inches higher up. I can make out 243 layers on one radius; seven are wanting in the centre, and seven years at least must be added for the growth of the tree to the place of measurement. Hence the tree must have been about 260 years old. The outer layers on this radius are so wide that it must have been growing at a goodly rate when it was cut down."

The marks of burning may be observed on the bark of some of the oldest trees. Great fires sometimes broke out, from accident or malice. Mr Thomas Baylis, one of the York Company, wrote to Sir James Grant, 12th August, 1731, complaining of a fire that had been maliciously raised to the east of Balnagown, and which had been very destructive. He says that not only had the Company lost much wood, but that it cost them "43 bottles Ferrintosh and 39 of Brandie," given to the men who were employed in stopping the conflagration. It is probably this fire that is referred to in a Gaelic rhyme of the period.

Soraidh slan do’n t—Shearsonach
Chuir teas ri Culnacoille,
S’ dh’ fuadaich mach na Sasanaich
A dh’ firiaraidh ‘n leasach bheurla,’’

i.e., "Hail to the forester, who set heat about Coulnakyle and drove out the Sassenachs, to seek the better English." Rev. Lachlan Shaw mentions another great fire that occurred in 1746. The tradition as to this fire is, that a certain smith who had his forge at the verge of the forest was complaining one day of the trouble he had with horses that went astray in the dense woods. A Lochaher man who heard him said, "Make me a good dirk, and I’ll take in hand to save you from such trouble." He agreed. Next day the forest was in a blaze, and a wide clearance was soon made. The Cameron disappeared for a twelvemonth, but then he came quietly and claimed his dirk. This gave the name Tomghobhain, i.e., Smith Hill, to the place. Another great fire is referred to by Sir Walter Scott (Letter to Lord Montagu, 23rd June, 1822), when the Laird of Grant is said to have sent out the Fiery Cross for help. Five hundred men assembled, "who could only stop the conflagration by cutting a gap of 500 yards in width betwixt the burning wood and the rest of the forest. This occurred about 1770, and must have been a tremendous scene."

The woods are on the whole marked by lonesomeness, but now and again signs of animal life appear. Perhaps a robin pops out from a juniper bush, as if claiming acquaintance; or a squirrel crosses the path and nimbly climbs some fir tree near, from which it looks down upon you with mild surprise; or a startled roebuck bounds into the thicket, and you watch with delight its graceful movements, and perhaps remember the beautiful promise, "The lame man shall leap as an hart." In winter red deer may often be seen singly, or in groups quietly feeding in the glades. Black game are numerous, and sometimes the rare and singular sight may be obtained, as at the grass parks at Rhiduack, of the cocks strutting and fuming, with tails erect, in all the bravery of their spring plumage. It is interesting to watch them. They not only strut like turkeys, but they prance and leap in a sort of dance, and with a curious cluck, and have sharp fightings for supremacy. Black game do not pair like others of the grouse species. There is an old pipe tune which refers to this curious custom, "Ruidhle na Coilich dhubh, ‘s dannsa na tunnagan, air an tulaich laimh ruinn"—the reels of the black-cocks, and the dancing of the ducks on the sunny knolls near by. Sometimes on a winter day or in early spring, on the outskirts of the forest, or where the birches and firs intermingle, you may come upon a company of tits feeding. It is a pretty sight. The tits are fond of society. Generally several kinds go together. There may be the common " blue," and the rarer long-tailed," and the still rarer "crested," and along with them creepers and golden wrens. They have their different habits and ways. One perhaps carefully scans a stump, another clings with tenacity to a twig, while others are perched about in all sorts of attitudes, some near the top of a tree, others swinging on the branches, and others again hanging on in some wonderful way to the bending sprays, but all seeking their food with patient care. They make the air lively with their twittering and their brisk activities. But if you stand and watch, you will soon lose sight of them. Having tried one tree, they are off to another, and so they pass on, seeking pastures new. Perhaps a creeper that has been paying special attention to a decaying birch, winding round and round, and stopping here and there for tit-bits, seems left behind. But no. He sees that he is alone, and quickly rejoins his friends. What a sweet picture of ompanionship! What a delightful lesson of cheerful content and industry!

"The birds around me hopp’d and play’d,
Their thoughts I cannot measure;
But the least motion that they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be nature’s plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man."— Wordsworth.

In the pine forests in our northern climate there is a marked difference between one season and another. Visitors who roam the woods in summer speak with rapture of the play of light, the rich colouring, and the sweetness of the scented air, but let them come back in winter or spring, and they will find a woful change. No doubt the woods, even in time of snow, have their charms but they are then more picturesque than salubrious, and when the thaw comes, and the air is dank and cold, and when passing through you get a bath that chills you to the marrow, it will perhaps be realised that the woods are not always a safe and pleasant haunt, that they can breed colds, catarrhs, and rheumatisms, as well as throw out sweet scents and healing odours.

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