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Braemar Highlands
Part the Second - Chapter I

Visits of the Romans—Introduction of Christianity—Giants.

IN A.D. 81, when Agricola invaded North Britain, it was possessed by twenty-one tribes of aboriginal Britons. One people evidently in origin, they spoke the same language and followed the same customs, yet had no political connection.

The Vacomagi, one of these tribes, inhabited the southern side of the Moray Frith, from the Dovern on the east to the Ness on the west; their territory comprehending the shires of Banff, Elgin, Nairn, the eastern part of Inverness, and Braemar in Aberdeenshire.

According to Roman historians, these tribes, though little acquainted with the arts of social life, were yet such a brave and hardy people, that, but for the fact of their being divided into clans and tribes, without any political union or amalgamation of interest, they would have proved a formidable enemy even to the Romans.

The next historical notice of Braemar is in 138, when Lollius Urbicus extended his' arms as far north as the Varar, or Moray Frith. When roads were formed from the Solway Frith to the Frith of Clyde, and from thence to the Burghhead of Moray, and stations were established in the most commanding places, Iters were then conducted along the road. One of these, of which there is special mention made, proceeding from Burghhead of Moray, had its first I station at Forres, a distance of eight miles. From Forres it proceeded to the Spey at Cromdale, a distance of eighteen miles. It then proceeded southward along Strathavon, by Loch Beauly, to the junction of the Dee and Cluny, where historians say they crossed the commodious ford in that vicinity, and took their course southward through Glenshee, etc.

Being curious to know if any traces remained of these Roman visits, when in the locality I sought out one likely to possess the desired information. ‘ Oi aye,’ was the hearty response to my queries, ‘the | Romans were up as far as this. Do you mind yonder, whare ye crossed in the boat aside the castle, a lot o’ big stanes that mak’ a kin’ o’ a rush in the water—the j Croy they call it ? Well, that’s the place where the Romans crossed.’

‘But if there was a ford, why put in stones?’ I queried.

It would be much easier for them, as they would only have to step from the ane to the ither, and so get over dry. But a gey job they must have had to get that great stanes put down yonder: ye may ken that, when a’ the floods and floats frae that time to this hasna moved them oot o’ the place: only they are mostly under water now ; but since I mind they were quite visible. The way they did was this : they brought one of the big stanes to the side of the water, and put it in; then they brought another, and rowed it ower the head of the first; and so on, till they got to the ither side. And that made a fine passage to them; for ye see they had some gey sharp battles, and were driven back and lost a good many men.’

I know not if my old informer be correct or not, but we do read of the Romans losing 30,000 men in one of their northern campaigns, through fatigue, the severity of the climate, and the incessant and harassing warfare kept up by the Caledonians. And one old historian quaintly remarks of a general, that ‘having the good fortune to carry his arms farther than any of his predecessors, he yet had the moderation not to go much farther, as they met with nothing but blows, cold, and hunger.’

From 446, when the Romans finally quitted their possessions in North Britain, to 843, is known in history as the Pictish period. During that time forty kings reigned, and Christianity was introduced by St. Columba. It was doubtless a considerable time ere it penetrated to the Braes of Mar. The only traditional account I can find of its introduction is the following legend, which emanates from the Roman Catholic part of the population :—

Long, long ago, an old man wearing strange apparel, and speaking a strange language, came journeying up the water of Dee. He went from door to door begging a crust of bread and the hospitality of the owner; but his emaciated appearance, weary gait, and sad countenance, showed that the supplies he received were scant, and the sympathy little.

The old man toiled on,, however; and at length, footsore and weary, he entered the clachan of Inverey. Weary as he was, he began to speak to them of a new religion, explaining it as he best could; for he had but a mere smattering of the Celtic, which he had picked up on the way. But here he had less sympathy than ever, for they refused him even a cup of water to quench his thirst.

So again he went on, and crossing the Ey, he climbed up the hill on the other side. Here he found I a spring of the most pellucid water in a hollow near the top, and, seating himself on the grass, he drank copiously of the living stream. Feeling himself invigorated in no ordinary degree, in gratitude he devoted the well to the blessed Virgin; and seating himself beside, it, became so fully engrossed in meditation, that he did not observe the approach of another person.’

‘Curse the fountain which gave thee the life-continuing draught!’ cried the new-comer.

‘Curse it not' replied the stranger, ‘for I have blessed it, and blessed it shall be.’

‘But I do curse it, and insult it, and the blessing thou hast given it.’ And then, bending down, he took a handful of mud and dashed it into the eye of the fountain. For a moment the eye seemed to sparkle with anger, clear and pure through the muddy water, and anon it bubbled up no more.

‘Friend' said the weary stranger, ‘the fountain did thee no harm, and I have done thee no wrong.: why dost thou curse and insult us?’

‘I do it because I am a Druid priest, and because thou tellest the people of a new religion.’

‘And I tell thee,’ said the stranger, rising up and speaking with authority, ‘that as this fountain shall again spring up through the dark mass of earth that covers it, so shall the truth which I speak as a servant shine with primal lustre on your heart, and to the whole world/ And as he spoke, the fountain again sent out its stream in a new place, purer and sweeter than before.    .

‘Master, master!’ cried the Druid, ‘the power of the Great Spirit is with thee, and I am thy servant.’ From that time the French priest prospered, and the Druid became one of the most active in propagating the truth. Druidical superstitions vanished, and little chapels arose in every rugged glen, for Christianity had now assumed its beneficent sway.

Respecting this legend, it would be difficult to decide as to whether it is a coincidence of invention, or merely an imitation of the legend of the Sludach, a spring in the parish of Cromarty ;in which legend not a Druid and Catholic priest, but two farmers, bearing a not very good will to each other, were the actors in the scene; and the only other difference is, that the insulted spring withdrew its waters for a considerable time, and still only presents them occasionally, and always at a time when they are not much needed.

The spring on the banks of the Ey has shown, however, a much better spirit, as its waters not only continued to flow permanently, but in many instances gave out a healing virtue, no doubt owing to its being taken under the patronage of ‘Mary.’ Tober Mhoirel St. Marys Well, was long a celebrated spot, to which those who had any special favour to ask of her resorted, some instances of which I may notice as I pass along.

In more modern times it was known better as the ‘ Well of the Prins,’ i.e. pins, from the fact that every devotee, as at the 'Priest Well ’ at Glen Callater, dropped in one. By the cutting ofa new road ‘Tobar Mhoire' was interfered with seriously, as it went right over it, of course filling it up; but the spring made an opening for itself a little farther down the hill, where it still remains, but quite devoid of all its wonderful qualities.

Before proceeding further, I must notice some traditions belonging to an age still more remote than even the Druids or Romans. It has been remarked that the oldest of all the traditions of Britain is that which represents it as peopled by giants, which one Brutus, an Italian, succeeded in extirpating. He had not penetrated so far as Braemar evidently, as they have a different manner of accounting for their extinction there. However these legends may have originated, they run thus :—

At one time there was a people inhabiting Braemar, so tall that they could step from hill-top to hilltop, without taking the trouble of descending. They could even slake their thirst from wells at their base, by bending down and using their long arms, etc.

They spent their time chiefly in hunting wild boars, which at that time were of a size quite worthy their gigantic prowess. These boars must have been peculiarly dangerous creatures, for they were covered with vast bristles or spines, hollow, and full of a substance so poisonous, that if it pierced their skin so as to draw blood, it was death most sure and certain.

Their mode of hunting was peculiar. Those engaged in the chase took their place on each hill-top: some of the giants then uttered a sound that roused the animal from his lair, who at once made for the

place whence the sound proceeded. But ere he had time to reach that hunter, another giant emitted a similar sound, on hearing which the boar immediately turned and made for him, and so on, until the creature was quite wearied out, when he fell an easy prey to his captors.

It so happened that a sort of rivalry broke out among these mighty men. One of them was not only more handsome than the others, but was also, according to their views of things, endowed with many good qualities. But, above all, he had succeeded in winning the heart of one of their fairest maidens—a prize for which the competition had been very keen.

On all these accounts, therefore, there was a secret grudge, and some plan was wanted by which they might get rid of him. Where the will is, there will soon be a way; so they speedily discovered that, if they were only to forbear turning the boar when he had to shout, they would soon get rid of him.

Next hunting expedition, it so happened that he took his stand on the hill, now called Cairn Turc, all unsuspicious of the misfortunes awaiting him. The boar was roused, as usual, and passed from one to another several times. At length the plan was put in operation, but the gallant giant came off victorious ; and when the others came up to him, the monster lay dead at his feet.

Many excuses were made for their negligence, and great admiration expressed for his bravery; but, as a further test of it, he was asked by the chief giant to measure the boar, which he did, and yet escaped unscathed. Now, when you have done so well in measuring the length, measure it round now, that we may know the breadth of it/ said the chief. The poor giant again obeyed, but was so unfortunate as to pierce his hand with one of the bristles, and he was soon no more. The mountain on which the tragedy took place was, from that circumstance, called Cairn Turc Hill of the Boar.

From that time a blight fell on the race of the giants, and they dwindled away, until only one of them and his wife remained. I suppose the wild boars had dwindled away too, or the giant’s tastes had altered strangely, for he descended so low as to become a pilferer. And a sad pest he was to the poor people; for, no sooner. was their grain ready for use, than he Came by night and took it away, etc.

Many plans were made to rid themselves of him, but all were unsuccessful, until a second Judith offered, on condition that they gaye her what she required, soon to rid them of the giant. Her requirements were few: only a large fire in a barn well supplied with grain; a very large pot full of water, and sids, i.e. the outside of the grain; a large ‘cog' similar in shape to that used in milking. So the fire was kindled, the pot was put on, and boiling bravely, and the woman sat down to her stocking.

Soon after midnight the giant made his appearance. After crawling into the barn, and seeing things so comfortable, he coiled himself up before the fire, to have the benefit of it fully; and when comfortably laired, the woman came in for a full share of his attention. At length he asked her name. ‘ Mysel’ and Mysel’,’ was her tart reply.

The giant, after remarking what a brave fire she had, wished to know what was in the pot. ‘I’ll let you see,’ was the reply. And taking off the lid, and filling her cog with the boiling sids, she dashed them about the giant’s feet and legs; and filling it again as fast as possible, repeated the application until the huge giant was bellowing with pain. And as his dimensions prevented him getting quickly out of his untoward position, the woman made her escape.

It was a considerable time ere the giant could take his departure-—minus grain, of course. His wife had been waiting for him on a neighbouring hill; and seeing his deplorable condition, wished to know who had been the cause of it, that she might be revenged. ‘Mysel’ and Mysel’,’ was all that the poor giant was able to say. ‘Weel, weel,’ responded his spouse, ‘if it was yoursel’ and yoursel’, it cannot be helped; but had it been any other body, I would have made them suffer.’ Thus died the last of the giant race among the Braes of Mar!

I need scarcely say that this legend, though still existing in the memories of many, is not believed. They seldom give it but in mere fragments. I had no little difficulty in getting the whole, fearing lest I would suppose they attached any degree of credit to it.

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