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Chapter 1 - Rothiemurchus

OF all the districts overshadowed by the extensive Cairngorm range the most magnificent, by universal consent, is Rothiemurchus. It is a region entirely unique. There is nothing like it elsewhere. If Scotland as a whole is Norway post—dated, this part of the country is especially Norwegian. Scotland is famous for its artistic colouring, which Millais compared to a wet Scotch pebble; but here the colouring is richer and more varied than in any other part of the country. The purples are like wine and not like slate, the deep blue-greens are like a peacock’s tail in the sun, the distant glens hold diaphanous bluish shadows, and a bloom like that of a plum is on the lofty peaks, which changes at sunset into a velvety chocolate or the hue of glowing copper in the heart of a furnace. A day here in October is something to be remembered all one’s life, when the tops of the mountains all round the horizon are pure white with the early snow, and their slopes are adorned with the brilliant tints of faded bracken, golden birch and brown heather, and all the low grounds are filled with the unchangeable blue-green of the firs. At Rothiemurchus the landscape picture is most beautifully balanced, framed on both sides by heath-clad hills, which rise gradually to the lofty uplands of Braeriach and Cairngorm, with the broad summit of Ben Macdhui rounding up its giant shoulders behind the great chain itself; all coiffed with radiant cloud, or turbaned with folded mist, or clearly revealed in the sparkling light, bearing up with them in their aged arms the burden of earth’s beauty for the blessing of heaven. All the views exhibit the most harmonious relations to one another, and each is enhanced by the loveliness of its neighbour.

Rothiemurchus is a high-sounding name. It is a striking example of the genius which the ancient Celtic race had for local nomenclature. It means "the wide plain of the fir trees," and no name could be more descriptive. Nothing but the fir tree seems to grow over all the region. It has miles and miles of dark forest covering all the ground around, and usurping spots that in other localities would have been cleared for cultivation. You see almost no trace of man’s industry within the horizon. Whatever cornfields there may be are entirely lost and hid within the folds of this uniform clothing of fir-forest All is Nature, primitive, savage, unredeemed. In the centre of the vast plain rises the elevated upland of Tullochghru, about a thousand feet above the sea-level, whose farms have a brighter green, smiling in the sunshine, contrasted with the surrounding brown desolation. It seems to emerge like an island out of an ocean of dark-green verdure flowing all around its base, and breaking in billows far up the precipices of the Cairngorms. The scenery as a whole is on such a gigantic scale that the individual features are dwarfed. The huge mountains become elevated braes or plateaus, and miles of mountainous fir-forest seem to contract into mere patches of woodland. No one would suppose that the hollow which hides Loch Morlich in the distance was other than a mere dimple in the forest, and yet it is more than three miles in circumference, and opens up on the spot a large area of clear space to the sky. The eye requires to get accustomed to the vast dimensions of mountain and forest to form a true conception of the relative proportions of any individual object. Nothing can be more deceptive than the distances, which are always supposed to be much shorter than they really are.

The crest of the Grants of Rothiemurchus is a mailed hand holding a broadsword, with the motto, "For my Duchus." Duchus is the name which they gave to their domain. It is a Gaelic word meaning a district which is peculiarly one’s own. Rothiemurchus was always regarded by its proprietors as standing to them in a very special relation. Very touching expression has been given to this sentiment in that popular work, The Memoirs of a Highland Lady, published some few years ago. The attachment of the authoress, who was a daughter of Sir John Peter Grant of Rothiemurchus, to her native place was unbounded. She constantly speaks of her beloved "Duchus"; and when about to accompany her father to India, when he was made a judge in Bombay, she gives a pathetic picture of her last walk in the "Duchus" with her youngest sister. Her fortitude gave way when she heard the gate of her home closing behind her, and she wept bitterly. "Even now," she says, after long years of absence, "I seem to hear the clasp of that gate; I shall hear it till I die; it seemed to end the poetry of my existence." Even the casual visitor feels this strange spell which the place exercises upon him; and if one has spent several summers in wandering among its romantic scenes, the fascination becomes altogether absorbing. Season after season finds your feet drawn towards this charming region; and no other spot can replace it, no other scenery surpass it in its power over the imagination and the heart. There is little reference made in The Memoirs of a Highland Lady to the natural characteristics of Rothiemurchus. The book does not describe the grand mountain scenery, or give any account of the deer-stalking in the forest, or of the climbing of the great peaks of the Cairngorm range. It is occupied entirely with the mode of life and the social relations of this remote region at the beginning of last century. But you feel conscious all the time of the presence of the mountains. You feel that the grand scenery is not the mere background of human action, but mingles with it in the most intimate manner; and all this makes the reading of the book, so full of artless simplicity and natural piquancy and humour, peculiarly delightful.

The railway station for Rothiemurchus is Aviemore, which has entirely changed its aspect in recent years. In the old coaching days it had hardly a single building except the inn, where the horses were baited and passengers on the way to Inverness halted to refresh themselves. This quaint hostelry, looking like an ancient Scottish peel, is still standing but is no longer used as an inn. Its upper garden wall marked the height to which the Spey rose during the celebrated Moray floods, which Sir Thomas Dick Lauder so graphically described, when living sheep were brought across the river and left in the trees of the garden by the overwhelming waters. The whole country was inundated and became one great lake, and the face of the hill behind was seamed with white roaring waterfalls, and a dense mist filled all the air. Aviemore is now a busy junction where innumerable trains in the summer months pass north and south, and passengers from all parts of the world meet each other on the platforms. A row of new villas is built along the line and a modern hotel, with a noble background of hills and an incomparable view in front of the Cairngorm range where all the great peaks are seen grouped together in the most effective manner, occupies the rising ground behind.

The lands of Rothiemurchus are bounded on the west by the Spey that flows past Aviemore, at the foot of Craigellachie. This storied rock is not included in the possessions of this branch of the family, although it formed the slogan or war-cry of the whole clan, "Stand fast, Craigellachie." It comes out boldly from the general line of hills, and forms a most conspicuous feature in the landscape. It is composed of mica-slate broken into ledges and rocky slopes, and in some places is quite precipitous. It is covered mostly with purple heather, interspersed with weeping birches and bushes of willow. The bare spaces are clothed with bracken, whose golden tints in autumn are indescribable; and even the hard exposed rock is weathered and frescoed with yellow and hoary lichens. It is a rich feast of colour to the eye at all seasons of the year, and exhibits a poetry of fleeting hues fairer than an equal portion of sky, which it blots out, would show. By a poetic instinct it was chosen as the symbol of the clan, and its enduring steadfast character shadowed forth their unchanging faithfulness amid all the strains of life. The fame of this rock in the landscapes of their native region has always powerfully impressed the imagination of the warlike people. It has been the scene of many a gathering of the clan in times of war and foray; and from this central spot the fiery cross used often to be sent round to summon the clansmen together. Ruskin, during his visit to this region, greatly admired the picturesqueness of Craigellachie; and he speaks thus of its associations: "You may think long over the words ‘Stand fast, Craigellachie,’ without exhausting the deep wells of feeling and thought contained in them—the love of the native land, and the assurance of faithfulness to it. You could not but have felt it, if you passed beneath it at the time when so many of England’s dearest children were being defended by the strength of heart of men born at its foot, how often among the delicate Indian palaces, whose marble was pallid with horror, and whose vermilion was darkened with blood, the remembrance of its rough grey rocks and purple heather must have risen before the sight of the Highland soldiers— how often the hailing of the shot and the shrieking of the battle would pass away from their hearing, and leave only the whisper of the old pine branches, ‘Stand fast, Craigellachie.’"

THE Spey, as it forms the western boundary of Rothiemurchus, has a somewhat diversified course, being mostly swift and shallow, with extensive margins of white pebbles in its bed; but where the high road from Aviemore crosses it by a modern iron bridge, it expands into a deep and wide pool as black as Erebus, as if it concentrated in itself all the peaty waters of its source in the bogs of Drumochter, and gives one an impressive idea of the might of the river. The Spey is not a classic stream. No poet has sung its praises, but the murmur of its tide has found articulate expression in the beautiful strathspeys which echo the swiftness of its pace and the swirl of its waters. It has been associated as no other British river has been with our national dance music. Its tributaries from Rothiemurchus, each "a mountain power," swell its volume and add to the beauty of the scenes through which they flow. They traverse the whole extent of the region from east to west, from the bare, bleak heights of Braeriach and Cairngorm to the rich green meadows which the Spey has made for itself in the low grounds. The vast pine-forests would be oppressive without those voices of Nature that inform the solitudes, and destitute of those silvery pools which mirror the alders and birches. The Luineag issues from Loch Morlich, and exposes for most of its course its sparkling wavelets to the open sky, and the Bennie, uniting the stream that comes from the Lang Pass and the river which carries off the surplus waters of Loch Eunach, hides itself in the depths of the woods, whose green folds hush the soliloquies which it holds with itself. They form together at Coylum Bridge—which means the meeting of the waters, or literally the twofold leap—the Druie, a capricious river that often shifts its channel and converts much fertile land into a wilderness of sand and gravel. With its vagaries have been connected the fortunes of the House of Rothiemurchus, which were to be prosperous so long as the course of the river continued the same, but disastrous should it change its bed and work out a new channel for itself. Twice, at least, this change has happened, when the property passed from the Shaws to the Grants, and during the great Moray floods which devastated the whole district.

The Druie in snow

The subject streams of Rothiemurchus, which are the size of rivers and speak powerfully of the great range of mountains in which they rise, gather to their generous heart the whispered wanderings of a hundred rills. They bring down the grand music of the mountains, the roar of the tempest, and the sigh of the wind and the swoop of the mist in the wild corries, and the soft murmur of the upland brook. In the rhythm of their song may be detected all the mystic tones in which the mountains converse with one another. The Luineag is the stillest water, for its bed is least rugged ; but the Bennie is full of large granite boulders over which it rushes with a swift, clear current, whose harshness is made musical by the listening air. It is the sound of the Bennie alone that is heard, when the night deepens the oppressive stillness and lonesomeness by hushing all other noises, and the great mountain range looms on the horizon beneath the stars—a gigantic silhouette, a geological dream, a vision of the primeval ages, whose shade inundates all the landscape, and turns all the amphitheatre of valleys black as ebony.

Nowhere are there more magnificent fir-forests than those of Rothiemurchus. These forests, about sixteen square miles in extent, are the relics of the aboriginal Caledonian forest which covered all this region with one unbroken umbrageous mass; and there are here and there many of the old giants which the hand of man never planted, still growing in the loneliest recesses, and giving an idea of what the whole primeval forest must have been in its prime, ere the woodman, about a century and a half ago, invaded its solitudes and ruthlessly cut down its finest trees to be converted into timber. Most of the trees that now cover the area are of comparatively recent planting, and though well grown do not display the rugged picturesqueness for which the fir in its old age is so remarkable. A plantation of young Scotch firs is as formal as one of any other species of the pine tribe, and presents an orderly and monotonous appearance; but as the tree grows older, it develops an amount of freedom and eccentricity of shape which no one would have expected of its staid and proper infancy. Its trunk loses its smoothness and roundness, and bursts out into rugged flakes of bark like the scales on the talons of a bird of prey or the plates of mail on an armed knight. Its boughs cease to grow in symmetrical and horizontal lines, and fling themselves out in all directions gnarled and contorted, as if wrestling with some inward agony or outward obstacle like a vegetable Laocoön. Its colour also changes; the trunk becomes of a rich tawny red, which the level afternoon sun brings out with glowing vividness, and the blue-green masses of irregular foliage contrast wonderfully with this rusty hue and attest the strength and freshness of its life. Such old firs are indeed the trees of the mountain, the companions of the storms that have twisted their boughs into such picturesque irregularities, and whose mutterings are ever heard among their sibylline leaves. They are seen to best advantage when struggling out of the writhing mists that have entangled themselves among their branches; and no grander background for a sylvan scene, no more picturesque crown for a rocky height, no fairer subject for an artist’s pencil exists in Nature. While the rain brings out the fragrance of the weeping birches, those "slumbering and liquid trees," as Wilt Whitman calls them, that are the embodiments of the feminine principle of the woods, it needs the strongest and hottest sunshine to extract the pungent, aromatic scents of the sturdy firs, which form the masculine element of the forest.

Rothiemurchus Pines

The fir is an old-world tree. Its sigh on the stillest summer day speaks of an immemorial antiquity. Its form is constructed on a primitive pattern. It is a relic of the far-off geological ages, when pines like it formed the sole vegetation of the earth. It is the production of the world’s heroic age, when Nature seemed to delight in the fantastic exercise of power, and to exhibit her strength in the growth of giants and monsters. It has existed throughout all time, and has maintained its characteristic properties throughout all the changes of the earth’s surface. It forms the ever-green link between the ages and the zones, growing now as it grew in the remote past, and preserving the same appearance in build and figure.

It is a novel experience to wander on an autumn afternoon through the unbroken forests of Rothiemurchus. The Scotch fir usually looks its best at this time, for the older leaves that have a yellow withered hue have been cast and the new ones developed during the summer shine with a beautiful freshness and greenness peculiar to the season. Wherever a breach occurs among the trees, the ground is everywhere covered with a most luxuriant growth of juniper bushes, some of which are of great age and attain a large size. The grey-green of the foliage contrasts beautifully with the dark blue-green of the firs. A dense undergrowth of heather, into which the foot sinks up to the knee, clothes all the more open spaces. Where the trees crowd together more closely the heather disappears, and in its place the ground is carpeted with thickly clustering bushes of the bilberry and cranberry, whose vivid greenness is very refreshing to the eye. The huge conical nests of the black ant, composed of withered pine-needles, are in constant evidence; while on the forest paths, when the sun is shining, may be seen myriads of the industrious inhabitants passing to and fro on their various avocations. The labour involved in the construction of these nests must be enormous. Many of them are old and abandoned, and over these the cranberry and bilberry bushes, which are ever pushing forward their roots on new soil, spread themselves so that they are half or wholly covered with a rank, evergreen vegetation, indicating their origin only by the undulations they make in the ground. The aromatic smell that pervades all the air is most refreshing. It stimulates the whole system as you fill your lungs with its invigorating breath. The sanative influence of the fir-forest is most remarkable. The plague and the pestilence disappear, the polluted atmosphere is deodorised, and with an effect as magical as that of the tree which sweetened the bitter Marah of the wilderness, the presence of the Scotch fir purifies the most deadly climate.

There is no wood more durable than the timber of the old Scotch fir. It is proof, owing to its aromatic odour, against insect ravages; and its texture is so hard and compact that it resists the decay of the weather. So charged with turpentine are the firs of Rothiemurchus, that splinters of the wood used to be employed as candles to light up the dark nights, when the people gathered together in some neighbour’s cottage to ply their spinning-wheels and retail their gossip and old stories. These wood torches when set in sconces would burn down to the socket with an unwavering and brilliant flame, and would thus give forth a large amount of light and heat at the same time. The darker days of late autumn were always brightened for us by splendid fires made of old roots which had been left in the ground when the patriarchal trees were cut down, and which contained a vast amount of resin. I know no fires so delightful—not even those made of the pine branches of the Vallombrosa forest in Italy— blazing up at once, as they do, and continuing to the end clear and bright, while emitting a pleasant fragrance which fills all the room, and creating a most healthy atmosphere, which counteracts the noxious influence of the rain and damp. The trees in this cold mountain climate do not grow very rapidly, but they are valuable in proportion to the slowness of their growth; the part of the wood which is exposed to the sunshine being little more than sap-wood of small value, while the part which is turned to the north, and grows in stormy situations and takes long to mature, is hard and solid and very valuable. It is of a fine red colour, and when cut directly to the centre or right across the grain is very beautiful; the little rings formed of the annual layers being small and delicate, and in perfectly even lines. The best part is nearest the root.

About two hundred years ago, such was the abundance of timber and the difficulty of finding a market for it, that the laird of Rothiemurchus got only 1s. 8d. a year for what a man chose to cut down and manufacture for his own use. The method of making deals was by splitting the wood with wedges, and then dressing the boards with axe and adze; saw-mills with circular saws and even the upright hand-saw and plane being altogether unknown. A very old room in Castle Grant is still floored with deals made in this way, showing the marks of the adze across the boards. As a specimen of the immense size of the trees that were cut down in the forests of Glenmore and Rothiemurchus, there is preserved at Gordon Castle a plank upwards of six feet in breadth. The trees when felled were made into rafts and floated down the Spey into the sea. Large heaps of old roots dug up from the peat-bogs and from the clearings in the forest may be seen piled up beside every cottage and farmhouse for household fires; and everywhere the people seem to be as dependent upon the forests as the peasants of Norway. Indeed, what with the forests and the mountains and the timber-houses, one might easily imagine oneself wandering in some Dovrefield valley, instead of at the foot of the Cairngorm range.

For the contemplative and poetic mind there is no more impressive scene than a fir-forest It is full of suggestion. It quickens the mind, while it lays its solemn spell upon the spirit like the aisles of a cathedral. Here time has no existence. It is not marked as elsewhere by the varying lights and shades, by the opening and closing of the flowers, by the changes of the seasons, and the appearance and disappearance of various objects that make up the landscape. The fir-forest is independent of all these influences. Its aspect is perennially the same, unchangeable amid all the changes that are going on outside. Its stillness is awe—inspiring. It is unlike that of any other scene in Nature. It is not solitude, but the presence of some mystery—some supernatural power. How vividly, in the ballad of the "Erl King," does Goethe describe the peculiar spirit or supernatural feeling of the forest. The silence is expectant, seems to breathe, to become audible, and to press upon the soul like a weight. Sometimes it is broken by the coo of a dove which only emphasises it, and makes the place where it is heard the innermost shrine, the very soul of the loneliness. Occasionally you hear the grand sound of the wind among the fir-tops, which is like the distant roar of the ocean breaking upon a lee-shore. Sometimes a gentle sigh is heard far off how originating you cannot tell, for there is not a breath of wind, and not a leaf is stirring; it comes nearer and waxes louder, and then it becomes an all-pervading murmur. It is like the voice of a god; and you can easily understand how the fir-forest was peopled with the dim, mysterious presences of this northern mythology. In its gloomy perspectives, leading to deeper solitudes, there seem to lurk some weird mysteries and speechless terrors that keep eye and ear intent. You have a strange sense of being watched, without love or hate, by all these silent, solemn, passionless forms, and when most alone you seem least lonely.

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