Posts tagged ‘Deeside’

October 26, 2017

Timber Rafting on Scotland’s rivers

 

Spey floaters c 1900

In my blog on the Braemar poacher Sandy Davidson there was a reference to the practice of floating timber down river to sawmills to sell on for – shipbuilding, houses, furniture, barrels, cart and carriage wheels, bridges later for mine and railways sleepers  and a host of other uses and it was suggested I write more about this unusual method of transportation, so here goes.

Forests which supplied timber for industry were often some distance from where timber was required. Wood is heavy and awkward to move and before railways and indeed roads in many instances taking great tree trunks, some very old and very very large, was a mammoth task which would have been carried out noisily with much shouting, laughter and not a few oaths uttered in Gaelic, the language spoken by the many of the lumber men who lived in simple wooden shacks which they erected in a matter of hours in each area of forest they worked. Their food was frugal for such physical labour –  doubtless a bowl of brose to begin the day and during working hours they were sustained by bannocks (similar to oatcakes) and cheese  washed down with drams of whisky.

In Scotland, certainly around the rivers Dee and Spey as well as in places around the world, Canada, America, Sweden, Germany the answer was to get these huge logs to a river and let them float downstream where incidentally the value of a felled tree doubled by the time it left a sawmill. Given the sheer bulk and weight concerned a good flow of water was needed and anyone familiar with the Dee will know it isn’t a large river by any stretch and so floating had to be carefully planned to take place in spring when snow melted on the high hills up Deeside or after sufficient rains swelled the river.

Floating timber down the River Dee

St Devenick’s Bridge over the Dee

Floating banks were constructed where the river water was naturally deepest and at these spots the adjoining banks would be cleared of trees and rocks so tree trunks, their boughs and branches having been trimmed off, might be prodded by long poles and rolled down to the water from where they were piled up at the top of the bank. Imagine this hard labour on a freezing cold morning when frosty logs were slippery and hands attempting to shift them numb with cold. Creating open runs for the timber was no easy task for the banks themselves were thick with trees and huge boulders and had to be painstakingly cleared to make slides and even before this part in the process the timbers had to be taken from where they were growing in forests often far afield and up hills closer to the river.

Every stage from tree felling, dressing the tree by stripping of all those unwieldy branches to dragging each trunk to the river bank was carried out by man and horse power. The land wasn’t exactly co-operative for in the 18th and 19th centuries this part of Scotland was dotted with large pools and gigantic boulders, remnants of the last ice age when pieces of rock split, splintered and slid vast distances till finally grinding to a halt in the most awkward places. Tracks, rough drag roads, were cut through forests along which small armies of men and horses trudged with their loads – some so heavy they pushed at them from behind determining the speed of both horse and man. The loss of horse shoes was an everyday occurrence for the going underfoot was so uneven and difficult and with no time to get to a distant blacksmith the foresters learnt to replace shoes so the work could continue without interruption.

At last the river was close and the tree trunks were uncoupled from horse chains and stacked near the slope where the bank dropped to the river in preparation for the float. Certain points and features were used to estimate the depth of water, for example at the Boat of Kincardine when a distinctive large black boulder was submerged floating could begin. At Glen Derry a dam was constructed in 1820 for water to accumulate in preparation for floating timbers.

Floating islands

One by one the stacked trunks were rolled from the top of the riverbank down into the river. There raft men waited waist deep in freezing water to arrange them for the float. Each raft was made up of two halves forming two rows each containing about twenty trees lined up and lashed together with ropes, strung through rings on iron dogs that had been driven into the trunk ends. Where trees were much thinner at one end they might only be strapped together with rope wound around a smaller tree set horizontally and used as a cross spar. Each timber raft had a forward and stern and was roped up to enable the raftsman who would be balanced on top to steer it with an iron pole. It was essential to get this right as the Dee had its share of rough waters – the Falls of Potarch (where one raft rider was drowned in a floating accident and there’s an amusing [sorry] anecdote on this in the chapter Gentlemen Drank Deep in Secret Aberdeen), the Salt Vat at Cairnton and the Mill Rush nearer to Aberdeen.

Floating was a rough, tough, hugely physical and dangerous occupation and liberal imbibing of whisky taken by floaters to see them through their task. They would pull in at each of the riverside inns on their way downstream such as one run by Meggie Davidson, sister of the Braemar poacher Sandy Davidson who at one time bought a piece of forest at Glen Derry and had the dam mentioned above built. He hired a squad of men and provided them with ropes, dogs, poles and so on to float down the Dee but at the end of the day he never got paid – but that’s another story. Deeside’s floaters were hard-drinking men and much boozing went on during their stops down river and they whiled away time playing the cairts such as Bawbee Nap, till ready to move on.  

Possibly the best known of the floaters was the artist John Blake Macdonald whose father ran a timber business on Speyside and Macdonald floated there for him but he also did several stints on the Dee. Well-known as a portrait painter his reputation spread among wealthier farmers on Deeside who employed him to paint their portraits.

'Lochaber No More', Prince Charlie Leaving Scotland

John Blake Macdonald’s painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie leaving Scotland, Lochaber No More

Where there were great unwieldy timber rafts on a fast-running river there were dangers not only to life but the bridges in their way. Scotland’s narrow rivers spanned by arched stone bridges were vulnerable to damage in a collision. At Potarch near Kincardine O’Neal a bridge under construction by Alford builder William Minto in 1812 was badly damaged by fast travelling timbers on the Dee. Actually the trees that took down the bridge weren’t bound together and weren’t manned but had been released tree trunks sent in to float down on their own. Because of the risks involved in this practice an act was passed in 1813 to prevent damage to bridges by banning floating of unmanned timbers in certain Scottish rivers and generally controlling floating.

In that entertaining and informative book Memoirs of a Highland Lady, 1797 – 1827 by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus there is a fine description of the number of lumber men involved in logging and floating timber – “a busy scene all through the forest, many rough little horses moving about in every direction, each dragging its load…” and she wrote of a floaters ball in a barn at Christmas with woodsmen and their families, some 100 of them. For hours before the ball men would play a game – the ba’ – an early form of shinty in which piled up plaids set out the goal boxes. The ball began with a meal of beef and mutton followed by a dance with music supplied by fiddlers and thirst quenched by punch made in washing tubs. The thumping noise of the dancers’ feet reportedly heard a mile away.

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It was around 1881 that floating timbers down the River Dee ended for by then there were safer and alternatives means to move the area’s forests.

Just a final word on wood. Apparently the best timber comes from felled trees while wind-blown trees tended not to have the same quality – I imagine but don’t know that a weaker, more sickly tree is easier blown over. When major changes were being made to the land in Scotland during the 18th century under estate owners such as Farquharson on Deeside and most famously Archibald Grant on Donside at Paradise Woods new species of trees were introduced here from abroad. It is thought the first larches brought to these islands, at the beginning of the 18th century, were taken, possibly as seed, from their native Russia and certainly a muckle larch estimated to be some 150 years old was blown down at Invercauld near Braemar in the great gale of 1879. It was bought by David Gray, a cartwright from Aberdeen, who used one of its sides to make a large wagon two feet deep to carry traction engines.

 

 

October 22, 2017

Who owns this landscape? The Braemar poacher who would not be a rich man’s flunkey.

The year is 1843 and on the 25th of August a party of gunmen come upon a corpse; cold and stiff on the moors of Glencairney at Creagan Sgor in the wilds of Glenbuchat, a pointer dog docile at its side.

“Brave Sandy, art thou dead?” Word spread like wildfire through the Highlands.

Sandy – Alexander Davidson – a poacher, famed, renowned, notorious and, aye, a dancer of great reputation had lain down one last time never again to rise up at first light and set out over the springy heather to claim his dinner.  

Sandy was a mountaineer – a mountain man – whose home was the purple heather-clad hills of Scotland. He rejected the habiliments (clothing) of the Sassenach preferring ‘the garb of Old Gaul’ which he would close about him at night under the shelter of a rock or thicket to sleep the sleep of the just, his dog Charlie a quiet and attentive guard.

deer stalking 2

It’s easy to romanticise the poacher of the past and in truth there is a difference between those who took an animal from need and those men and women who take to the hills for the thrill of the kill, a handsome payout for a saddle of venison from a none-too-fussy restaurant owner or in other parts of the world those who indifferently help wipe out whole species for the sheer fun of it or slaughter to satisfy a yearning for horn for remedies or decoration – and I accept some of that is done by very poor people who have few alternatives to scrape a living.  

I like to photograph the graceful roe deer I encounter near here and hate to hear blasts from rifles I know are targeting these little creatures and shake my head when I come across their tiny hooves and discarded hides at a roadside. I’m fairly sure I know someone round here who does this, and it isn’t from want.

Poacher and Dancer

Alexander Davidson was born at Mill of Inver by Crathie (close to Balmoral) in 1792 and as a child was put to learn the art of gamekeeping possibly with Farquharson of Finzean*. Farquharson was a reluctant politician preferring to while away his time taking pot-shots at game on his lands. He was great friends with Lord Kennedy, a fellow ‘sportsman’ by choice who one October (of many) was ‘much amused with a wild boar hunt’ at which he shot both tusks off a fine specimen eventually felled by volleys of shots from his gentlemen companions ‘but so tenacious was he (the boar not Lord Kennedy) of life, that he did not yield it until after receiving six shots through the head and body.’

In a normal week of ‘sport’ Kennedy, Farquaharson and their gentrified mob would bravely slaughter several ‘very fine red deer’ from the safe end of a rifle and at the end of a good season would go on to celebrate at a grand ball in Braemar’s Fife Arms Inn.

Sandy Davidson also loved the thrill of a chase and kill but he had the misfortune to have been born into poverty and not upon a soft bed belonging to a family whose lands and titles came to them because of battles fought long ago or ‘arrangements’ between similarly fortunate families. Having grown up knowing these people Sandy developed a healthy loathing of toadyism and proclaimed he was not designed to doff the cap to the gentry, “sooner than be in any way a flunkey, I’d rather go and beg my bread” – admirable sentiments which upped my opinion of the man, albeit he was a poacher. And being something of a Sabbatarian, though lapsed due to his way of life on the muirs, Sandy Davidson objected to being ordered out to shoot on a Sunday by the laird so turned his back on paid employment as a gamie. Having to live somehow, Sandy – Roch Sanie – turned to smuggling of which opportunities were ample up Deeside and Donside – for venison but mainly for whisky and while his new occupation was fraught with more dangers than that of a rich man’s flunky it was very lucrative and did not involve humiliating himself in the service of another man who regarded himself superior.  

Sandy was fit, well-built and handsome with a ‘finely chiselled face’ and ‘hairy as an ox.’ In summer he dressed himself in a kilt, cotton shirt and thin tartan coat with Forfar brogues on his feet and when winter came he changed into trousers; a style of clothing he adopted out of patriotism to Scotland he explained and possibly for that same reason he generally spoke the native Gaelic although his English was very good. Gaelic was the language of the glens up Deeside until the ’45 and the Union of Parliaments determinedly set about undermining it by insisting on English being spoken in schools until most traces of it, bar place names, were near completely eliminated.   

Sandy was also renowned as a dancer; a graceful dancer with great lightness of feet and wouldn’t that be an advantage in a poacher? His Highland reels and other dances won him prizes at Highland Games and competitions around Scotland including the Caledonian Hunt Club in Edinburgh, an organisation designed to preserve Highland culture – dance and games – after decades of attempts by government to snuff it out.

At a time when Deeside’s forests provided vast amounts of timber for building and ships felled tree trunks were dragged to the banks of the River Dee strapped together in great rafts and floated down river with men on board to provide timber for Aberdeen’s shipbuilding yards. Sandy Davidson leased a section of forest from the Earl of Fife at Glen Derry and hired men to help with the treacherous river journey but this attempt to earn a legal living came to nought when the Earl of Fife was made bankrupt and failed to pay Sandy.

Having been burned once too often by the titled and wealthy estate owners Sandy picked up his bag and gun and for 20 years roamed the Highlands as a ‘free forester’ of ancient times claiming privilege of the unalienable right of a free-born Scot.

Each March found him fishing the best salmon pools on the rivers Dee and Spey and fearlessly he would walk into the water, up to his neck, irrespective of the cold and wait till he caught something or it became clear he would catch nothing.

Charlie was trained to remain quiet at the approach of strangers for the last thing Sandy Davidson wanted was to alert a gamie of his hiding place when he was in possession of a bag filled with hare or fowl. But one time Charlie did his job too well and Sandy was discovered fast asleep in the heather by a laird who demanded his name.

“My name is Alexander Davidson; what is your name?”

“My name,” replied the other, “is George MacPherson Grant of Ballindalloch, and I require you to follow me.”

Sandy was duly taken to court and fined £5. In retaliation Sandy made sure he poached the moors of Ballindalloch thoroughly after that.

He was polite and his manner encouraged the gentry to treat him with more care than they might otherwise but their laws were there to protect their property so they wouldn’t let him away with taking anything that had a price. On his ‘annual tour’ around estates he would sometimes approach a big house and ask permission to cross the land, to keep to a straight line and only kill what he required. Any laird who refused him could expect him to take his revenge in bagging as many animals and birds as he was able for cross the estate he would irrespective of an officious owner.

Said to be fearless, generous and kind-hearted Sandy Davidson became the stuff of legend.

His foot was foremost in the dance,

His laugh the loudest rang;

Nae e’e could match his mirthful glance,

Nane sung so sweet a sang.

 from Norman MacCaig ‘s A Man in Assynt

Despite tensions in his relationship with lairds several had a sneaking regard for him and invited him to entertain their guests with his dancing; his notoriety no doubt adding to his attraction.

Many a chase on a muir ended with him slipping into a bog, a moss-pot, his nose all that remained above the water till a perplexed gamie gave up the chase. But he did not always evade them and whenever he was overcome he offered no resistance but would go with the laird’s lackey for another appearance before the law. The last time this happened Sandy Davidson was apprehended near Dufftown and taken by his pursuers to Elgin via every public house along the way.  

This “perfect child of nature – as complete a Hawkeye of the old country as the times would admit of” had no home but everywhere was his home across the broad bonny face of the Highlands. One day his gun would ring out in Perthshire, another in the wilds of Lochaber, or on the muirs under the black shadow of the Cairngorms, around Inchrory where the Avon** and Don gather water or at Strathspey and the hills of Moray and Inverness.

Like Walter Scott’s Bertram he possessed:

“The steady brain, the sinewy limb,

To leap, to climb, to dive, to swim;

The iron frame, inured to bear

Each dire inclemency of air,

Nor less confirmed to undergo

Fatigue’s chill faint, and famine’s throe.”

 

In 1820 Farquharson of Finzean and Lord Kennedy had a £50 bet – £50 in 1820 was worth around £1500 in today’s value – with Davidson that he would not run without clothing from Barclay Street in Stonehaven to the gate of Inchmarlo near Banchory, a distance of around 20 miles, within a given time. Davidson had almost made it but the men had paid a posse of women under the stewardship of a Mrs Duncan to guard the Brig o’ Feugh at Banchory to prevent Davidson crossing. Duncan was paid a generous 20 shillings and the others something less to fill their aprons with stones and other missiles to chuck at the exhausted man as he attempted to run over the bridge. Mrs Duncan was also armed with a heavy knotty stick she intended to use against Sandy Davidson. As Davidson neared the brig and paused to catch his breath he noticed the trap and at the same time his enemies spotted him and began pelting him with their stones but bounding with renewed vigour the fleet-footed Davidson evaded them and crossed to the other side of the river. Later Mrs Duncan complained Sandy Davidson to be “not a man but a beast” whether from his hirsute appearance or from peak because he had foiled her efforts who knows. At any rate Sandy Davidson reached Inchmarlo within the given time and pocketed the £50.

Brig o Feugh

Behind occasional sport of this kind Davidson’s chosen lifestyle was fraught with danger. He had to go out of his way to make himself into a character to evade the tyranny of Britain’s Game Laws passed by members of parliament who as landowners created laws to benefit themselves and preserve their property rights including the wildlife that passed across the lands they claimed as theirs. Their lackeys, game keepers and river ghillies, rarely shied away from carrying out their duties irrespective of whether a rabbit or bird was being taken to prevent a family starving. For those caught a hefty fine awaited and for any who repeated the crime the prospect of transportation somewhere across the oceans. Magistrates and sheriffs fulfilled their roles to serve the wealthy, their own people, and rarely extended sympathy to the impoverished and desperate brought before them.  

Temptation must have been great for a parent living close to land teeming with food denied to them wholly on grounds they were the property of one family and were wanted for sport, a pastime, for their exclusive enjoyment. Out of necessity many risked capture and the courts to take something for the pot, and sometimes more, from under the noses of the gentry and were loudly and soundly condemned by the great and the good who regarded poaching as the nursery of robbers and murderers and poachers as desperate characters who infested the hills.

As for Sandy Davidson he lived a charmed life in many ways. He refused to kowtow to those accidentally privileged whose fortune was to be born with political rights they could use to enhance their own interests at the expense of the rest of the population.

John Stuart Blackie

John Stuart Blackie

 

Radical, humanitarian and Scottish nationalist John Stuart Blackie commented in the mid-1800s on how far removed were the privileged few from the morality of the New Testament. He was writing about the hypocrisy of the landed interests who trotted into church on a Sunday to sing psalms and pray about goodness and mercy who went back to their mansions to dine while their lackeys denied a starving child a mouthful of food. And Blackie implicated the church for its willingness to conspire with the ruling classes to maintain such inequality.

“A minister of sacred things,

He bound together, by higher ties than human law,

The men that shared his faith with awe;

He had his seat at power’s right hand,

And lords and ladies of the land

Did call him brother.”

 John Stuart Blackie’s The Cottage Manse

Sandy Davidson has long gone and so too has John Stuart Blackie but their sentiments that emerged from a different time have echoes today for here in Scotland the landed estate maintains its swagger as it endeavours to retain the privileges of power of a rotten system of elitism and inequality.

“Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?”

 from Norman MacCaig’s A Man in Assynt

(Sandy Davidson 1791 – 1843)

*Finzean – pronounced Fingin

** Avon – pronounce An

See also for John Stuart Blackie – O Albin! O my country!

 

 

March 21, 2017

‘Have you anything for me?’ the story of Ballater airman and the 1937 boat plane, Capricornus

 

Tucks IA No 48

Boat plane Capricornus

I am addicted to looking around graveyards. Some, I admit, are more interesting than others for many give only the name of the dead and tell nothing of a once active life of the corpse buried below. What I am looking for are the ones that will stop me in my tracks.  This is what happened one sunny and cold Sunday when I found myself staring at a tall grey granite gravestone topped by a pair of wings – not angel wings but stylised wing of an aircraft popular in the 1930s. The inscription confirmed this. A young man killed in an air accident at the age of 29 years.  

gravestone of paterson

 

Flying was still in its infancy but growing in popularity in the 1930s. Faster than merchant ships for transporting goods, military materiel and mail – as well as a few passengers – a network of early flight paths soon connected Britain’s far-flung colonies. Imperial Airways took its name from the British Empire it served and among its expanding fleet were 28 flying boats ordered from Short Brothers of Belfast (the first production aircraft company.) 

These flying boat aircraft, Short Empire four-engined monoplanes,were being turned out at one a month with the first completing its initial flight in July 1936. Designated as C class each aircraft given a name beginning with the letter C. The intention was to fly them between Britain and its colonies- to Australia, British-run parts of Africa and North America.

 

Alexander Paterson was brought up in Ballater on Deeside in Aberdeenshire and as a boy he imagined what it would be like to be an airman. On leaving school he became an apprentice with the local Riverside Garage and emerged a time-served mechanic. From farm machinery and the few motor cars that would have been in the area at the time Alexander followed his ambition to work with aircraft. By 1929 he was employed by Imperial Airways and he and his wife set up home in Cairo in Egypt – then part of the British Empire.serveimage

On a clear day on the 24th March 1937 Captain Alexander Paterson took off on G-ADVA Capricornus from Southampton in England for Alexandria in Egypt. This was the inaugural flight for the £40,000, 88 foot boat plane with its 114 foot wing span. It could accommodate 24 passengers and 5 crew on its two decks but that day it carried only one passenger, Betty Coates from Folkestone in Kent, along with its crew of two pilots, radio operator, flight clerk and steward. On board was a large consignment of bags of mail and ten thousand pounds in gold bullion hidden beneath the floor of the cabin.

Over France the good weather deteriorated and atmospheric interference made communications with the ground difficult. As Capricornus flew over Dijon the air controllers there were busy and when finally the radio operator was able to make out a response he assumed it to be from Dijon when, in fact, it was from Tours. It took several more minutes of confusion to correct the mistake by which time Capricornus was way off course.

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Crashed Capricornus with damaged wing

 

Ten hours into the flight with only broken contact with the ground the aircraft found itself in heavy cloud and snow as it approached Marseilles. The pilots could see nothing ahead in the freezing and blizzard conditions and struggled to maintain course. J.L. Cooper the radio operator heard an aircraft controller at Lyon suggest they alter course for it was noted Capricornus was descending on a course of 145 degrees. Suddenly a wing tip hit a tree hurtling the aircraft back into the air out of control and it dropped down careering through a dry stone wall, finally coming to rest in a pine wood.

Traffic control at Lyon was desperately trying to re-establish contact with the plane: at 14.12 pm it requested a bearing, Have you anything for me? Twice more it tried to raise a response but received only radio silence. 

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French people at site of the crash

Cooper was thrown out of the craft and came to dazed and with a broken arm. He searched the wreckage then more or less crawled through snow to a farmhouse two miles away where he raised the alarm.

A rescue party discovered Captain Alexander Paterson and Betty Coates badly injured. She was taken to hospital where she died and Alexander to the farm house where four hours later he also died. The bodies of first officer G. E. Klein, flight clerk D. R. O’Brien and steward F. A. E. Jeffcoate were found in the aircraft.

closeup wings

Wings atop gravestone of Alexander Paterson

 

Alexander Paterson’s mother at home in Ballater heard of her son’s death from a report on the wireless. He had been due home on a visit in the summer.

Lochnagar from Tullich

Lochnagar in March from Tullich graveyard at Ballater

 

Bodies of the dead were returned to Britain by rail and boat and Captain Paterson was buried in his native Deeside at Tullich Churchyard just east of Ballater where blinds in homes and businesses were drawn in tribute to one of their own. Pupils from Alexander Paterson’s former school lined the road for his funeral cortege. Paterson’s widow was not at the funeral as she was still making her way back from Cairo but her mother was among mourners who heard of the bright boy who longed to be a pilot, of his courage and determination and the high regard in which he was held by those who knew him. Any casting their eyes to the mountain of Lochnagar on the horizon would have noticed it patched with snow, a reminder, if needed of the conditions that caused the plane to crash.

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Biblical quote at the foot of A. Paterson’s gravestone

Among wreaths was one from Imperial Airways and another from Paterson’s former colleagues in the airline’s engineering department. A beautiful wreath inscribed Les Aviateurs Miliniques de Bron a leurs camarades Britanniques (Military Airmen from Bron to British comrades.) A wreath, too, from the Consel Municipal of Ouroux in Rhone where Capricornus was wrecked, one from radio amateurs of Egypt and Greece along with those from his family and friends in Ballater including one from pupils and staff at Ballater School.

The fatal accident was raised in parliament when Under-Secretary of State for Air, Sir Philip Sassoon, announced to the Commons that Capricornus had crashed on her maiden trip but when he was asked if the plane was fitted with de-icers, as was the regulation in America, the Speaker intervened and disallowed the question. MPs were reassured, however, that the mail was safe. No mention was made of the secret stash of gold.