Glenbuchat is stunning. More rolling countryside than majestic mountains it sweeps and dips and is a tonic to the eye. But behind the magnificence lurks a darker tale.
Raptor Persecution UK mentioned in a blog in 2014 that the Convenor of the Cairngorm National Park Authority (CPNA), Duncan Bryden, wrote to the Environment Minister about incidents of raptor persecution and “disappeared birds” – notably the first fledged sea-eagle for 200 years in Scotland had disappeared over the eastern area of the Park and such incidents he said, “threatens to undermine the reputation of the National Park as a high quality wildlife tourism destination.” Perhaps this is the point it should be pointed out North Glenbuchat Estate operates a grouse moor within the National Park.
The “disappeared” young sea eagle, hatched miles away on the northeast coast, is not the only victim to fall prey to Strathdon’s equivalent of the Bermuda triangle. Other satellite-tagged eagles have also perished here, in a National Park of all places, just vanished – well, not just vanished. The remains of one eagle was discovered, poisoned, in 2011.
Eagles are not its only victims. Various species have suffered a similar fate including the protected short-eared owl whose numbers are at risk – one was found shot dead here, its corpse hidden beneath a boulder. Another way of disappearing. Courts are still unwilling to curb the behaviour of rural criminals who wilfully destroy the nation’s wildlife.
Land reformer and now Green MSP, Andy Wightman, investigated the North Glenbuchat Estate, also in 2014, “one of a number of notorious hotspots of wildlife crime”. Andy has worked tirelessly to throw light on the shady world of land ownership in Scotland and delving into the murky world of who owns Scotland – precious few it seems – he found that in 2008 the Estate was purchased by the 4th Marquess of Milford Haven, George Ivar Louis Mountbatten. Take a few minutes to read Andy’s work on this area: From Glenbuchat to the Turks & Caico Islands.
It is odd to think, perhaps not odd in post-Panama Paper times, that Scottish glens can be owned by companies registered in far-away places with exotic names – such as the case with North Glen Estate Ltd. There is a deceptively similarly named company North Glen Estates Ltd which is registered in the UK.
Tracking down who owns what in Scotland would put a le Carré novel to shame. It is high time land ownership in this country was simplified and out in the open. Andy’s well-researched informative articles are illuminating which is more than can be said for our current land registration. Also please read the comments that follow his blog on Glenbuchat.
The North Glenbuchat Estate takes up part of the glen. In the 1960s death duties forced the break-up of Glenbuchat Estate and this is when the North Glenbuchat Estate was created and bought by a Major Michael Smiley of Castle Fraser who was connected by marriage to the Cowdrays of Dunecht, also into buying up properties in the area. Part of the original estate was retained by the Sole family, whose most prominent member is possibly David Sole, former Scottish rugby captain. In 2015 the Soles sold off their holding and so, too, did the Dunecht estate.
Z-plan Glenbuchat Castle rubble-built with beautiful stone
Glenbuchat lies between the River Don and the Ladder Hills, 6 miles west of Kildrummy and just over 30 miles west of Aberdeen and was once a Gaelic-speaking area. At the end of the 16th century the estate incorporated Glen Nochty in Strathdon and at the end of that century John Gordon of Cairnborrow had a Z-plan tower house or castle built on a magnificent site over the Don whose crumbling remains are now in the hands of Historic Scotland, Alba Aosmhor.
Gordon was implicated in the murder of the Bonny Earl o’ Moray (Murray as in Andy not as in the eel) that gave rise to the popular ballad.
Ye Hielands and ye Lawlands
Oh whar hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
An’ layd him on the green
He took part in the Battle o’ Glenlivet at which Catholic clans resisted attempts to curb Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Huntly Gordons, Hays, Comyns, Camerons and Cummings though greatly outnumbered by troops led by Protestant forces under the Campbells of Argyll along with Murrays, Stewarts, Forbes, Macgillivrays, Macleans, Grants and Chattans appear to have been the victors.
The last Gordon to own the castle was the famous Jacobite general, “Old Glenbucket” the mispronunciation coming from the German prince who became King George II of Great Britain and the monarch Jacobites hoped to throw out in favour of the Catholic James Francis Edward Stuart. Apparently “Old Glenbucket” gave the Elector of Hanover nightmares from which he woke up screaming “De great Glenbucket be coming” although I have to say that sounds like German via a Holywood interpretation of a house maid from Alabama.
Glenbuchat then became Glenbucket. It has since recovered its softer pronunciation with a “ch” as in loch not as in lock. Take your time to pronounce it and keep the throat open, don’t close it and you too can say it as it without sounding like some cranky old monarch.
William Duff aka Lord Braco aka Earl Fife bought the estate in 1737. Duff was on the opposite side from Old Glenbucket, and an enthusiastic supporter of George II’s son the notorious Butcher Cumberland whose troops tirelessly hunted down and savagely killed men, women and bairns following the Battle of Culloden – for decades. The flowers known as Sweet Williams were named after him, a name hugely offensive to many Scots, but here in Scotland, they are still sometimes referred to as Stinking Willies.
Angle turrets contained turnpike stairs and turrets were supported by flying arches
The Duffs built up a fortune through acquiring land across Scotland; a quarter of a million acres in and around Aberdeen, Banff and Moray. They were not alone. By the end of the 18th century land ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few families. Though the Duffs acquired Glenbuchat Castle their seat of power was Duff House at Banff, to the east, not in Glenbuchat.
The isolated glen was opened up when a military road was pushed through early in the 19th century. Previous to this there were only tracks and drove roads used to walk cattle over the hills to markets, across to Speyside and farther down country to the south. Agriculture was, of course, the main occupation of glen folk. Their isolation from markets forced them into self-sufficiency which restricted the population the glen could support and delayed its adoption of modern agricultural practices when most other areas were responding to innovations of the Agricultural Revolution. In the glen animals continued to roam freely and improved crops were slow to replace traditional bear and oats.
While cattle were raised in the glen they were rarely eaten by its tenant farmers whose diet was mainly restricted to cereals and vegetables. Animals were reared to sell to those who had the money to afford meat and went to markets in the south for their flesh as well as for their leather hides and the sheep’s wool. Limestone quarrying was also carried out in the glen and remains of old lime kilns still exist.
It was possible to earn money while living in the glen but as incomes improved so their lairds realised an opportunity to squeeze more from their tenants and rents were increased. Of course during economic depressions rents did not go down but inflicted greater hardship on the poorest of communities scraping a living in Glenbuchat.
Glenbuchat Castle was protected by a heavy wooden door and a yett and set at an angle in the building to secure the house from enemies. Over the door was inscribed Nocht on Earth Remain Bot Fame. Its ground floor housed the kitchen and cellars while the laird’s accommodation was on the upper floors.
The nature of their existence forced people to co-operate with one another and farming in the glen was organised as self-sustaining communities – sharing tasks, equipment and animals in their ferm touns or clachans.
Late in the 17th century the glen had one shoemaker, a miller, one walking mill (a process in cloth-making – here it was woollen cloth from their sheep and linen from locally grown flax or lint), and three weavers. There were four weavers working in the 1840s as well as three wrights, three masons, three blacksmiths, two shoemakers, tailors and two wood manufacturers (perhaps carpenters?). Three meal mills operated early in that century and two waulk mills. The last of the mills finally closed in 1927.
It was into the 1960s before mains electricity made it into the glen. Up till then heating and cooking was by open fire – peat, timber and presumably later coal once roads permitted the transportation of imported supplies from Aberdeen harbour.
Lighting at one time when no wax candles were available was by burning roots, sliced into strips and dried. As with every impoverished and isolated community the people of the glen were dependent on their immediate environment for all their needs, certainly in the days before roads. Apart from the castle and homes of wealthier individuals, buildings were constructed from dug-up turf, divots, piled on top of each other and so too were roofs covered with divots over a timber framework. Tiny homes of two rooms, the but and ben with earth floors and an open fire where smoke eventually found its own way out through the opening in the roof, the lum. No luxury and certainly no privacy and horribly smoky.
When wine became taxed beyond the pockets of all but the wealthy in towns and cities so a taste for whisky grew and here lay opportunities for glen-dwellers to enhance their paltry incomes. Or would have done but then the potential of taxing whisky meant the government went to great lengths to ensure no ordinary spirit producer in the glen made anything from it. In 1821 a raiding party searching for illicit stills charged and took away 39 Glenbuchat men – some to jail. Imagine the impact this would have had not just on individual families but on the work of the glen. Not everyone was prosecuted for producing whisky locally, only the poor and vulnerable folk – ’twas ever thus.
Of the 138 people who lived in the glen in the 1960s only 91 remained ten years later. Making a living was more difficult than ever in a world of changed consumer habits.
But one person’s problem is another’s opportunity. What was big in the glen? -apart from its hills and they aren’t that big. Wildlife. Which brings us back to where we started.
Some people value our wildlife and others say they do but what they really mean is they value it for the buzz they get from destroying it. Hunting stirs the blood of some. They lust after the brutal pastime. Birds and animals in their gun sights are not, well birds and animals, but game. Game was not/is not for ordinary people to take and eat, no matter how destitute they may be, game is property – of the laird and for entertainment or sport.
By 1820 Glenbuchat had become a shooting and hunting paradise – and co-incidentally a good earner for the laird – better than impoverished tenant farmer rents.
With property comes laws and regulations to limit who can get access to wildlife – and to preserve these laws and regulations gamekeepers were hired to look after the interests of the laird’s nice little earner.
Go into Glenbuchat and admire the scenery, the little old kirk and churchyard and the remains of Gordon’s castle but leave the wildlife alone, please.
Finally, let us push for major land reform that is in keeping with the 21st century and stop tugging the forelock as though we still exist in the 19thC.
The local Rev. Robert Scott was a collector of local ballads – see The Glenbuchat Ballads – https://folkloreforum.net/2008/11/05/david-buchan-and-james-moreira-eds-the-glenbuchat-ballads/