The Cabrach

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I hae a kintra caa’d the Cabrach

The folks dabrach

The water’s Rushter

An’ the corn’s trushter.

(Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon 1748-1812)


The Cabrach is not known as Cabrach but always ‘the Cabrach’ – like ‘the Lecht’.

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It is an abandoned, wild place, like a ghost glen where remnants of lives once lived remind us how much this country has changed.

The old forests were cleared and bogs were drained – hard, hard labour went into creating a land able to sustain animals and crops and as well as the farmers who occupied the land there were others who provide services for those farmers and their families: masons, shoemakers, tailors and the like.  That was way back then…


A hard life is what people think when they cross the  Cabrach with its exquisite grandeur and where snow lies deep in winter. There’s little surprise that one by one the farms and homes which litter its 8 miles have fallen idle and empty. But sometimes things are not what they at first appear and for all its desolate beauty the story of how life has been draining out of the glen has a more  earth-bound explanation.


The undulating landscape of thin soil lent itself to cattle and sheep rather than growing crops but still farmers struggled to bring on barley, oats and wheat and potatoes and other vegetable, presumably Scotland’s ubiquitous kale provided families with winter vitamins.

There is a hill on the Cabrach. It’s called the Buck  and is 2377 feet high.

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Carvings of intertwined fishes are carved onto a rock on The Buck but the derivation of the carving is unknown.


This area has been populated since at least Neolithic times and the tools and jewellery of its early inhabitants -arrowheads, bronze celts , spear heads and scrapers, rings and armlets  have been picked up amid the peat and heather.

It was here that a Danish invasion of Scotland was defeated at the Battle of Mortlach during the reign of Malcolm II.

How many have lived there over the millennia no-one knows but in 1814 around 800 lived in the glen and early in the 20th century some 107 families shared its 34 000 acres as tenants of the area’s lairds.


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Troops opposing the Lord of the Isles met with men under the Earl of Huntly and other barons at the Cabrach on the evening of Monday 18 July 1411 on their way to Harlaw near Inverurie to resolve contesting claims to the crown. 

In the aftermath of the battle it was said the –

‘coronach* was cried in ae day from the mouth o’ the Tay to the Buck of the Cabrach, that ye wad hae heard nae other sound but that of lamentation for the great folks that had fa’en fighting against Donald of the Isles.’

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*traditional laments for the dead


 Plenty whisky distilling went on in the Cabrach which attracted attention from the gaugers empowered by government to discover illicit whisky making in the glens of Scotland – for tax purposes.

Word that a gauger was in the district quickly spread through the glens so that stills would be dismantled and hurriedly hidden from the tax man, pushed deep into thick heather or concealed in holes in the peat.  


Physical  assaults were not uncommon. Adam Gordon a farm servant from the Cabrach was accused of murdering a gauger by shooting him dead, in error he claimed as his intended victim was the man’s horse. He walked free from court after maintaining silence throughout and it was claimed he was innocent and the  actual shooter was a schoolmaster called Robertson.

The Cabrach’s undulating and narrow tracks were just one of several around the country used as whisky roads. Here the route went from Donside to Speyside and men walked it under cover of night – their cargo loaded onto the tough Shelties (Shetland ponies) reared in the area. They moved silently over the rough ground in fear of discovery by the authorities.

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This was no insignificant hobby. Whisky distilling around Scotland was a thriving black economy. Around the Cabrach area alone there were estimated to be around 400 stills operating in early 19th century.              


In May 1934 lambing went well in the farms dotted along the Cabrach. The weather was fine and oat sowing was well advanced but in 1937  late snows in spring spelled problems for Cabrach farmers.  DSC03271Better fortune arrived the next spring with good fine, dry  weather which brought hope of a successful harvest. 

However rain arrived later in the year and those high expectations were dashed by  unexpectedly wet weather in October. Worse was to follow, with heavy drifting snows in December which trapped several cars along the length of the narrow glen road.

By the side of the road at Kirkton Upper Cabrach, on the route taken by the area’s whisky smugglers lies the old school. It went up in 1875, as it shows in a plaque above one of the doors and will fall down in the not-too-distant future by the look of it.


Don’t imagine this was the first education offered to bairns in the Cabrach for they were taught in churches until its first public school was erected in the 1760s.

Private schools also provided some learning but only during winter months as the children were required to work on their parents’ farms during the rest of the year.


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The monastery of Cloveth (Cabrach) along with five churches was part of the revenues of the bishopric of Aberdeen – one of Scotland’s 13 medieval bishoprics. Possibly Mortlach was the original site of the bishopric which is thought to have moved to Aberdeen in the reign of King David I.

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St Mary’s Kirk Auchindoir is an early 13th century kirk which though a ruin  unusually has retained several of its early features and is a category A listed building.


It is worth visiting this kirk with its transitional Norman doorway with chevron markings and pillars set into an angle and its bell capitals. 



In the church you will find a 16th century sacrament house shaped like a monstrance inserted into a lancet window.   On its roof is written:

Hic est Corpus Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Virginis Mariae (this is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary).

See below.

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14 aug 13 015 A grave slab dated 1580 dedicated to OLHM and AS which is associated with the Gordons of Craig.


Auchindor or Auchindoir Church was built in the early 19th century as a replacement for St Mary’s and stripped of just about everything in the 1990s.

Built in the Gothic style it has a fine bell-cot on its northwest gable – but someone has taken the bell.

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Upper Cabrach Church occupies a fine elevated site, favoured by rabbits by look of the extensive defences built to protect flowers laid at graves.
The old manse is a very fine looking building now in a sorry state of disrepair. Here a great granddaughter of Robert Burns lived with her minister husband and she is buried in the graveyard.

When the presbyterian church split in the 18thC the first secession minister was Alexander Troup, said to be a grand preacher. His first sermon after the split was in the Cabrach.


One convert, a Mr Joiner who farmed in the Cabrach was persuaded to go to Elgin to live where he could attend the sermons of Mr Troup. He said he was content to ‘bade good-bye to the land of Sodom’ and so ‘turned his back upon the land of Gomorrah.’  That was in 1760. Whether or not the Cabrach retains such a reputation I cannot say.


There were some rum people around not least among the clergy.

In Edinburgh in April 1743 ‘Mr David Strang, late Minister of the Gospel at Cabrach was ‘once more’ committed to the city jail, for ‘clandestinely celebrating Marriages.’

Parishioners of the Cabrach churches raised money in support of Aberdeen Infirmary  in the late 18th century. The people of Auchindore Kirk  collected £1. 5 shillings on Sunday 18 February 1798.



The 1790s was a testing time for the government of Britain with the French Revolutionary wars and the coast of Scotland regarded as a high risk area for advancing republicans – so men of the area were balloted to serve in local militias. Most men had better things to do with their time than march up and down on parade or stand gazing out to sea in search of French men ’o war advancing o’er the foam.

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Evidently John Mackie of the Cabrach thought so for he was named on 11 March 1799 for failing to attend a meeting of Lieutenancy in Aberdeen in February, in defiance of the Militia Act (presumably made by men unfamiliar with the challenging conditions of the Cabrach in winter.)  He wasn’t alone – 30 others were similarly named and threats made against them as deserters.

On Friday 8 November 1918 the local newspaper provided a list of 5239 men and 364 officers killed and wounded in the Great War including the death of Cabrach man Private Thomas Simpson of the Black Watch who had previously been employed at Balvenie Distillery  who had died of wounds.


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In November 1918 the names of Cabrach men killed, missing and prisoners of war were read out at services in the Parish and United Free Churches.

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Those Cabrach men and boys who survived the First World War were welcomed home to a supper and dance by the community in May 1919.


In September 1805 several stone masons were injured while finishing off the arch they were building into a bridge at Blackwater – it’s telling not only of the dangerous conditions people worked under but also the numbers employed compared with the present day – 20 men on top of the bridge fell to the ground and 13 were crushed in the fall of masonry.

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Sheep stealing wasn’t unknown. In 1899  William Gordon a flockmaster from High Cabrach was charged with stealing two sheep from a neighbouring farm.  The Cabrach was largely an unfenced muir and so animals wandered at will. In his defence it was said in court that the sheep had come to Gordon and that what with his weak eyesight and such (his frail mental condition) and it being the gloaming on the evening concerned, the shepherd had mistaken them for his own sheep, sold them on then realised they weren’t his and handed over the money he’d been paid to their real owner.  Despite some reluctance in the court to make a big issue of the case, Gordon was placed in the clanger for a month.

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Through the 19th century if appears life was a struggle for the people inhabiting the Cabrach. So great was their distress that in 1880 a petition was presented on their behalf to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, laird of the Cabrach, for him to lower the high rents on their farms. The 1879 harvest had been poor and the autumn cattle prices at market were low so the farmers’ incomes were much reduced and families were struggling to get by.

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Despite the harshness of the Cabrach there are many who love its bleak beauty and would want to make their home there. However while times have changed in many ways over the last few hundred years the ownership of much of Scotland’s land by a few wealthy families is a constant.

The present owner of the Cabrach, what an anachronism that sounds, is Christopher Moran. I googled him and discovered several references including an article from the Sunday Herald from September 2009 by Rob Edwards.

“A landowner worth £237 million with a chequered past is set to make a killing from hosting one of Scotland’s most controversial wind farms, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

Christopher Moran, a self-made financier from London with links to the Conservative Party, owns the 40,000-acre Glenfiddich and Cabrach estate on Speyside south of Dufftown. A plan to build 59 wind turbines on the estate is due to be considered by Moray Council at the end of this month.

Moran has been reprimanded for business misconduct in the past, and his estate has one of the worst records for wildlife crime in Scotland. Yet now he stands to make more than £20 million from the wind farm over the next 25 years.

The revelation has provoked an angry response from national campaign groups and local residents. They accuse Moran of having “his nose deep in the renewables trough” and of neglecting his estate.

Moran hit the headlines in 2006, when it was reported that he was one of the donors to whom the Conservative party had returned millions of pounds in an attempt to keep their identities secret.

It emerged that in 1982 he was expelled from Lloyd’s of London for “discreditable conduct”. Four years later he was censured by the Stock Exchange, and in 1992 he was fined $2 million in New York for insider dealing.

 According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), between 1992 and 2006 Glenfiddich was the scene of numerous breaches of the laws aimed at protecting wildlife.

In just five months during 1998 a joint investigation by the RSPB and the police recorded ten incidents on the estate. The estate’s gamekeepers were successfully prosecuted for wildlife crime offences in 1998 and again in 2006.”

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On Mr Moran’s own website he thanks local dignitaries: Moray Council’s Chief Executive Roddy Burns and Councillors Pearl Paul and Mike McConachie for attending a ceilidh he organised for the people of his estate.


A website with some lovely photographs of the Cabrach


2 Comments to “The Cabrach”

  1. Really interesting blog and great photos, too. I’ve recently returned to Australia from a visit to this area and can picture the landscape very well. Thanks!

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