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Braemar Highlands
Part the First - Chapter I

ABERDEENSHIRE, one of the most extensive and populous counties in the north of Scotland, was anciently divided into five districts: Mar, Formartine, Buchan, Garioch, and Strathbogie.

Mar, the first and largest of these divisions, was again subdivided into two subordinate districts: Mar proper, the lowland or level portion; and Braemar, the highland or mountainous.

Braemar was still further subdivided into six parishes, which were, St. Andrews, Crathie, Glengairn, Glen Muich, Glen Taner, and Birse; the sixth, Invernochty, in Strathdon.

These arrangements, so far as merely arbitrary, are now completely altered, as the ancient parish of St. Andrews, known also as Kindrochit, now usurps to itself exclusively the term Braemar;and, besides, this modern Braemar is no longer a distinct parish, but in union with Crathie forms one under the latter name.

In the following description of Braemar, I intend using the term in its widest sense, not in the modern or limited one. But before entering into the details of its particular localities, I will first endeavour to trace out briefly, but as distinctly as possible, the conformation of the great physical features which distinguish it.

As no other district in Britain can boast such an array of giant hills, they of course form its leading characteristic. In looking upon its mountains from any of the central peaks, they seem to rise up on every side, in interminable maze, their huge forms intersecting each other at every point. But notwithstanding these apparent irregularities, there is order in their disposition; but it is only after continued observation that their natural classification into groups is recognised. However, therefore, local and merely arbitrary arrangements in Braemar may have altered, its mountains now, as in former days, resolve themselves into four distinct groups, geographically separated from each other by glens of sufficient width to interrupt the series.

Let the reader imagine a great square, or, more correctly, trapezoid. Its longest side, lying to the north, having an extension of some twenty miles from west to east, is formed by theCairngorm and Glen-gairn ranges. Its parallel or southern side, extending also from west to east some sixteen or eighteen miles, is formed by the Lochnagar and Glen Ey ranges.

In the north-west corner is Ben-Macdhui, the highest point in the Cairngorm range; while opposite, in the south-west corner, is Cairn-Eeler, the highest point in the Glen Ey range. A line drawn between them would be nearly straight, and give a length of some ten or twelve miles.

In the north-east corner is Morven, the highest summit in the Glengaim range; while opposite, on the south-east, the classic Lochnagar raises its stately head. A line drawn between these two summits would make an angle somewhat acute, and give a length of from eleven to thirteen miles. The area within this supposed figure includes most of the district formerly known asBraemar, excepting perhaps the parish of Invernochty, in Strathdon.

These higher peaks do not, however, stand isolated. In the Cairngorm range or group there are five principal summits, all more than 4000 feet above the level of the sea; while the huge forms of Ben-Ann, Ben-a-Bhourd, etc., which run out from them in an easterly direction, form, with the Glen Ey range, a continuous chain on the north side, with innumerable lesser heights sloping down from them towards a central valley or basin.

The Lochnagar range, which ranks next in height to the Cairngorm group, has a similar conformation, as the contiguous mountains are only separated from the central one by narrow ravines; and, as on the north side of the valley, huge mountain masses connect the group with the Glen Ey range, and form a continuous chain on the south side.

As Braemar not only possesses the highest hills in Britain, but also the purest water, it naturally comes next under consideration. Its principal river is the Dee. In the north-west corner of the trapezoid, near the summit of Brae-Riach, in the Cairngorm range, it has its source at a height of some 4000 feet, in five springs of beautifully limpid water.

The stream formed by these springs runs into a corry or hollow, over the precipitous sides of which it again falls to a depth of at least 1000 feet. Recovering from this unceremonious descent, it hurries along its still descending course, gathering up innumerable rills and streams, as they come babbling down from the contiguous mountains.

The relative position of the Dee to the other mountain ranges can be conceived pretty correctly by recurring to our figure. From the north-west corner it flows southward some four or five miles through a glen of terrific grandeur, formed by the mountains of the Cairngorm group. Then, taking a sudden turn to the east, it flows right through the central basin before described, and so continues to flow until, its mission accomplished, it flows into the German Ocean at Aberdeen. Briefly and beautifully are the last two paragraphs epitomized by Professor Blackie in his lines,

‘The young river leaps from its sheer ledge,
Then sweeps with a full-flooded face to the sea.'

Along the beautiful valley locally termed Strath-dee, the Dee lies like an extended back-bone, from west to east; while the glens, each with a tributary stream, which open into it from north and south, are like so many ribs, entering it sometimes almost at right angles, but oftener oblique.

In addition to the highest hills and the purest water, Braemar also possesses the finest pine forest in Britain. For nearly the last hundred years the woodmans axe has by no means spared the trees, yet a sufficiency of noble ones remain to justify its claims to such pre-eminence.

On the north side of the Dee lies the forest of Mar; on the south, the Balloch-buie. Extensive as both appear, they are but vestiges merely of the old Royal Forest, or ‘Sylva Caledonia' where in days of yore the kings of Scotland loved so well to chase the deer. Besides the pine forests there are many beautiful and extensive birch woods; but some notice of their situation, etc., will come in more suitably afterwards.

Thus far the characteristic features of Braemar. It has been pertinently remarked, that ‘a correct geographical description of a locality often throws much light on its history.’ I have endeavoured, therefore, to give as correct an outline of Braemar as possible, in the hope that it, with the more particular description which follows, will furnish a sort of key to the better understanding of the historical and traditional legends,—those shadowy footsteps of its earlier age.

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