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Braemar Highlands
Part the First - Chapter VI

Abergeldie Castle—Druidic Remains—St. Nathalan—Glen Muick— Glengaim—Pass of Ballater—Kirk of Tullich, and Legend—Loch Kinoird—Hill of Mulloch, etc.

AFTER passing the bridge connecting Balmoral with the north side is the Parish Church of Crathie, in a fine situation. Two miles farther down the valley is the Castle of Abergeldie, on the south side of the river. It is an ancient-looking castle, in the old baronial style, but now considerably enlarged and modernized. As is well known, it is now part of the Royal demesnes, being held upon a lease of forty years from the family of Gordon—was occupied by the lamented Duchess of Kent, and now by the Prince of Wales. A curious rope-and-cradle bridge connects it with the north side.

Craig-na-ban, i.e. Rock of the Woman, a noble hill, which forms part of its background, gained considerable celebrity when witches were rampant. The last one in the district was burnt there. The date is rather indefinite; but here is the tradition:—

At the time when witches were all over Scotland, and honest people burnt as many of them as they could convict, an old woman who lived by the Dee was accused of witchcraft, and condemned to die. An old man of like character, and under the same sentence, was confined with her. One dark night the witch made her escape; the warlock engaged to bring her back, on condition that he would be pardoned.

He had not travelled in search very far, when he saw a hare, which he knew to be her. Transforming himself into a greyhound, he gave chase; and just as he was about to seize her, she transformed herself into a mouse, and ran into the crevice of a dyke. Instantly the greyhound assumed the shape of a weasel, pursued, and brought her out. The two then assumed their proper shape, and the old woman, delivered up to her enemies, was burnt on the top of Craig-na-ban.

After passing Abergeldie, the road leads through the wood of Coillie Crich. But I should notice first a range of hills on the north side of the river, the highest point of which is called Geallaig, or White Mountain. About the base of this hill, not far from the road, are some traces of a Roman Catholic chapel, and a large upright standing-stone, said to be the remains of a Druidical temple which existed there before St. Nathalan introduced Christianity into Braemar, or according to others, an old French priest.

There are some curious legends about this St. Nathalan, the patron saint of the lower part of Braemar. One of them states that he sprang from a noble family near Ballater; but that being the case, all the legends make a sad omission in not telling how he himself became acquainted with the Christianity which they say he introduced. Here is one of the legends:—

St. Nathalan belonged to one of the noble families on Deeside, near Ballater, yet differed from them so much as to prefer the quiet pursuits of agriculture to all the glories of rapine and war. So exceedingly devout was he, that he spent the most of his time in divine contemplation and acts of beneficence.

During a great scarcity he fed his starving neighbours from his own abundant stores. But of course they could not last for ever; so, when spring-time returned, St. Nathalan was without seed for his ground. But there could be no fear for a saint like him : so he gathered a quantity of the finest sand that could possibly be had, and with it his lands were sown; and when harvest-time came round, never was such a crop seen as loaded the fields of St. Nathalan.

After the generosity he had shown his neighbours, it was little enough that they should assist him; so they turned out en masse, and began to reap in right earnest. While all were thus busily engaged, the heavens grew black, and anon the murky clouds poured forth tremendous torrents. The Gairn and Dee rose, and rose, until at length their ruthless floods swept the whole of this wonderful crop into their devouring vortex.

The shock was so sudden, that the saint so far forgot himself as to be very angry, and utter some unguarded expressions. Just then the heavens grew serene, and St. Nathalan at the same moment became convinced of his great wickedness in murmuring against God, and resolved also to expiate his great sin by a penance correspondingly severe. So, getting a heavy iron chain, he bound it round his ankle, and fastened it with a padlock ; then threw the key into the Dee (that particular part being still known as the Key Pool), as it was not to be unlocked until he did something at Rome—I forget what.

After a weary pilgrimage he reached his destination ; and having performed his vow, was walking along the street in quiet meditation. A boy selling fish, however, caught his attention. He bought one, and, strange enough, on opening it there was the identical key he had thrown into the Dee among the Braes of Mar. Of course he concluded that this was a sure token that his sin was pardoned, and took accordingly all the comfort flowing from such a legitimate source.

After this brilliant affair he remained several years at Rome, edifying it with his wonderful piety. But, as was natural, he began to have a strong desire to revisit his native hills. So, enriched with the Pope’s blessing, and invested also with some wonderful gifts of healing, etc., he returned home; and having built several chapels, spittals, etc., at his own expense (among the others, the chapel at this place),  he was forthwith hailed as the patron saint of the Braes of Mar! He must have been content, however, with a limited diocese, as St. Andrew held that honour in the upper part, or what is now known as Braemar.

In passing through the beautiful wood of Collie Crich, a curious fact may be noticed. Most of the trees along the side of the road, and in every other situation where exposed to the northern blast, are minus branches on that side. The scenery is still magnificent, though the hills are lower than those farther up the river. Near a very beautiful one, named Craig Youze, i.e. Hill of the Firs, a small stream falls into the Dee on the south side. It is the Girnock. The glen through which it flows is called Strathgirnock. A terrible tragedy took place there in olden times. In modern days a much more pleasing association has been linked to it, and lately made known to us by Her Majesty the Queen.

Next comes Knock Hill' also on the south side. On it are the ruins of an old castle (25), also connected with the tragedy of Strathgirnock. A little below 'Knock Hill Muick opens into Strathdee from the south, and nearly opposite Glengairn opens into it from the north, so forming the third great pair of ribs branching out from the great back-bone of the Dee.

Glen Muck, which contains the finest and most diversified scenery of all the glens in Braemar, commences in the corry of the Duloch, between Cairn Taggart and Lochnagar. Its upper portion, where the mountains are entirely granite, is narrow and elevated, very rugged and bare; but from the foot of the loch it is much more open and level.

In this latter portion are the remains of many old houses. The only habitable ones, however, are the gamekeepers’ shielings, the shepherds’ bothies, and Ault-na-guisach Cottage. At the Linnt about nine miles from its head, the glen contracts very much; but again expands, and continues to do so until it reaches its greatest width, between the hill of Knock and the ridge of Panannich, where it joins Strathdee. The Water of Muick is the largest tributary of the Dee from the south, and, as before stated, has its source near Cairn Taggart. After issuing from the Duloch it forms a succession of noisy cataracts, then expands into a loch, about two miles in length and half a mile in breadth.

Loch Muick is surrounded by lofty ranges of steep hills, deeply furrowed by mountain torrents; while in some places the frowning precipices of Lochnagar hang darkly over it. Its scenery at every point is grand, but towards its head it rises into the sublime.

The Water of Muick, while a tributary of the Dee, has in turn its own tributaries, the principal of which is the burn of the Glassalt, on which is a beautiful fall some 160 feet in height. About nine miles from its source the Muick rushes through a linn, in the heart of a beautiful fir wood ; and after clearing the wood, it hurls itself over a high precipice into a foaming pool beneath, and after a course in all of some fifteen miles, it falls into the Dee.

In the mouth of Glen Muick, about a mile and a half south from Ballater, stood the Castle of Braichley, a place of much renown/ as the Deeside Guide states, on account of a mournful tragedy which took place here, and is recorded in the old ballad, The Barrone of Braichley. The Castle of Braichley is now altogether demolished, nothing thereof remaining but one or two small fragments. A hollow is still pointed out, between two small knolls, where the Farquharsons fell upon the baron, and killed him.

Glengairn, which is nearly opposite, is the largest on the north side of the Dee, being about eighteen miles in length. It commences in a deep hollow, between Ben-Aun and Craigandal. Its upper part, which is very bleak and bare, contains only one habitation—a shepherd’s bothie.

About Corandavon Lodge, a shooting-box for the deer forest of Ben-Aun, the first traces of cultivation appear. From this point all the way to its mouth, it preserves a pretty uniform character, occasionally contracting or expanding as the hills. encroach or recede. Compared to the other glens of Braemar, its scenery is tame; yet occasionally there is a dash of the picturesque. Towards its mouth there is a considerable number of farm-houses.

We are now nearing the verge of the Braemar Highlands. The only entrance to them formerly was through the Pass of Ballater. Now a road, not so direct, but more convenient, winds round the base of Craig-an-Darroch, i.e. Hill of the Oaks, to the village of Ballater, which is beautifully situated on an extensive plain, formed by a great curve in the river Dee.

‘The Pass of Ballater, it has been said, presents scenery in some respects unsurpassed by any in Scotland! The road seems to go right through the heart of the mountain, which looks as if it had been split asunder. The cloven sides, rising up almost perpendicularly, form a gorge of surpassing magnificence, leaving little more than space for a road, and a small stream which runs along its side.

Craig-an-Darroch, on the south side of the Pass, is 1400 feet in height. The view from it is exceedingly fine. The village, in particular, appears, to great advantage, yet so small as to give the impression of a child’s toy lying on a miniature plain,—the railway, trains, etc., all looking equally diminutive. The hills alone look truly great and grand.

A little below the Pass is the ancient village of Tullich. On the south side of the road, which passes through it, are the ruins of the ‘Auld Kirk of Tullich.’ Connected with these ruins is a very extraordinary legend. I briefly relate what of it I heard from an old Highlander some time ago :—

Most people have heard of the Reel of Tullich. The incident which gave rise to it occurred in this, or rather in an older structure which this ruin superseded. About 160 or 170 years ago, the minister of it lived at the Milton of Tullich, at some little distance; and one stormy Sabbath he, not expecting the people to come out, remained at home.

‘The people gathered, however; and as they-had no such things as heating apparatus, they were very cold. While waiting for the minister, they began, innocently enough at first, to clap their hands and stamp their feet, to get a little warmth. The majority of the people being young, and their notions of Sabbath sanctity not very rigid, this led to more lively action still. It was at length proposed that, as the minister was not appearing, they should have a “fine' of “placks” and “bodies”—moneys then current. Some “gude ale” was then procured, which produced its usual effects, even in the kirk, especially when another and another supply followed.

While all were thus jumping and stamping about, one suggested that it was quite as well to dance in a regular manner as not, and proposed a reel, which was at once agreed to. A musician was procured; then followed a scene without precedent, I suppose in any place set apart for God’s worship: they set a-dancing. Having thus laid aside all restraint, they grew more and more uproarious in their unhallowed glee. One, after ascending the pulpit, was uttering a lot of gibberish; another, occupying the precentor’s desk, was trolling out a bacchanalian song, while the rest were dancing as in a frenzy; and it was during these disgraceful scenes that the “Reel of Tullich” was improvised. .    .

‘Just judgment,’ added my informant, ‘followed this terrible desecration of God’s day and house; for, ere that day twelve months, every one then present lay in their graves.’ For the truth of this account I am not responsible ; only it was related to me as a thing firmly believed by the old people. And certainly one does not look with less interest on the Milton of Tullich, or the ruins of the ‘auld kirk,’ after hearing this sombre story.

We are now in the vicinity of Byron’s Morven of snow, and the rocks that o’ershadow Culbleen. While a little farther down the river, on the opposite or south side, is Ballatrich, where he lived when a boy, and spent his holidays when attending the grammar school in Aberdeen.

Next comes the Moor of Dinnet, and it is a lonesome one, lying along there most drearily. Strange the power by which that gifted one could turn ugliness itself into a thing of poetical beauty, as when he sang :

Land of brown heath and shaggy wood' .

Not many would think that great stretch of brown heath there very interesting.

On the north-west corner of the moor lies Loch Cannor, or Kinnord. On one of its islands Malcolm Canmore had a castle, and a prison on the other. Both islands are artificial. At the side of this moor is a burn, which is, or was, considered the boundary between the Highlands and the Lowlands.

Not far from Loch Kinnord is a smaller one, called Loch Dawin. North from it is a hill with a great cairn on its summit, not conical, as most of them are, but of an oval shape, and flattened on the top. Its antiquity may account for its peculiar shape, as it is said to have been erected in the time of Malcolm Canmore. According to tradition, a bloody battle was fought with the Danes near the base of the hill, while their general, Mulloch, was killed on its summit.

Hence the cairn, and name Hill of Midloch.

Aboyne is the next place of interest. It lies on the north side of the river; and nearly opposite, Glen Tanar opens into Strathdee. This glen at one time must have been densely wooded, as the quantity of wood exported has been enormous; and still it may be truthfully described as a really beautiful and richly wooded glen.

On the north side of the river, a few miles farther down, rises a hill called the Red Cap of Mortlach so named from the fact, traditional at least, that some restless spirit took a great fancy to nocturnal rambles on it. Nor would it walk quietly like a decent spirit, but when it was about midnight; spoke loudly, either to itself or the terrified people, they did not know which, as it used an unknown language. And those who had the temerity to look in the direction, saw an awful vision, and terrible to behold, with something on its head like a red night-cap. This hill is easily distinguished by a monument on its summit.

On the south side of the river lies the ancient house and estate of Fenzean (29). The proprietors were originally from Braemar; and the way in which they are said to have acquired the property forms one of the most interesting legends.

Still farther down the river is the ancient village of Kincardine ONeil built, tradition says, some 700 years ago, by one who figures largely in the early legends of Braemar. Passing many other points of interest, as I am now beyond the boundaries of Braemar, I notice only one other place on account of its connection with Braemar history; that is, the Hill of Fare, a long low range north from Banchory some four miles. There is in its south side a hollow called Corrichie, where a great battle was fought between the Earl of Moray and the Earl of Huntly, the forces of the latter being totally defeated, and himself cruelly slain. Eighteen miles farther down, the Dee falls into the sea near Aberdeen.

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