Posts tagged ‘Rothiemurchus’

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.

 

 

August 13, 2016

Reindeer are not just for Christmas

reindeer sled

Reindeer are not just for Christmas although they are intrinsically associated with Christmas celebrations. This relatively recent tradition appears to have come from a poem written in 1822 by an American, Clement Moore, called A Visit from St Nicholas in which he appears to draw on Scandinavian and German legends to create the now iconic image of Santa Claus riding across the sky on a sledge drawn by reindeer.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds

… 

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer

 Most deer sightings in Scotland are of roe, red or sika deer. The reindeer that once roamed our mountain sides disappeared a long time ago – estimates run between 800 and 8000 years. We do have small numbers of them now; semi-domesticated and the results of reintroduction programmes.

reindeer and dogs

According to some sources it was in the tenth century when the threat to our reindeer population materialised and within a couple of hundred years they had disappeared entirely from our forests and mountains. The reasons for this are uncertain but there were attacks on their habitats – pine, birch and oak forests which once grew up to levels of 2,500 feet – were being burned or cut down to create land for crops and grazing animals as well as harvesting of timber for building and boats. Deer were also predated by bears and wolves in addition to the most ruthless killer of all, man driven to kill every one of them until none remained – wiping out the last of Scotland’s native reindeer population.  

In intervening centuries some attempts were made to reintroduce them – in the late 18th century by the Duke of Atholl and in early 19th century a handful of animals were released into Orkney and Aberdeenshire but none of these survived. In 1916 Robert Traill collected three reindeer from the Russian area around Archangel and released them in Orkney but he was no more successful.

Mikel-Utsi-and-Nuolja-1955-300x304

Mikel Utsi and his reindeer

A more scientific approach was taken when in the 1950s reindeer were reintroduced into Scotland following a suggestion by a Saami herdsman from Sweden, Mikel Utsi, and his wife Ethel John Lindgren Utsi, who also supervised the project. They thought conditions in Scotland were similar to parts of Scandinavia, Russia and Canada in that they could provide reindeer with the foods they grazed – lichens and reindeer-moss, a kind of boggy carpet.

An area of forest in the Cairngorms at Rothiemurchus estate was fenced-off for a small number of beasts, no more than 25 plus a herder, for it was understood that rather than releasing the animals to roam wild they would benefit from being semi-domesticated.

Eight deer were shipped in from Sweden and quarantined for six weeks at Edinburgh Zoo then shipped out by train and lorry to their Highland home. One of the eight, a calf died immediately but the rest were then transferred to Rothiemurchus. Soon there were two more deaths, then another. A bull deer then disappeared and it was assumed had been shot by a poacher. By the end of the first winter only three animals remained alive. A major problem was their vulnerability to insect infestation in a climate that was warmer and damper than they were used to.

group reindeer

The small herd of Scandinavian reindeer was given freer rein over tracts of the Cairngorms to try to prevent the problem with insect pests but the weather the following summer was wet and warm, not at all suitable for reindeer and led to an increase in the numbers of black flies, midgies, cleggs and mosquitoes attacking the herd and leading to yet more deaths.

The Forestry Commission offered higher land that was drier and freer of insect pests and when more reindeer arrived in Scotland and were put to this new habitat and sure enough it was more suitable with fewer beasts dying.

last reindeer

Post-mortem examinations of stomach contents of deceased animals indicated that Scottish reindeer had been living on less varied diets than their counterparts in sub-Arctic Russia which had access to birds eggs, voles and bones of carrion (providing them with phosphorus) while Scottish reindeer fed mainly on grasses, sedges, pine needles, dead heather tops and very little lichen and moss. Despite setbacks and early failures the Utsi reindeer did survive in the Cairngorms, albeit in small numbers. Reindeer are built for extreme cold; their coats are very dense and well-insulated and their hooves act like snowshoes so one wonders what the future holds for this Arctic species of deer with global warming heating up the environment.

Whenever plans emerge to reintroduce lost species into Scotland there are voices raised in opposition. In the 1950s opponents to the reintroduction of reindeer described them as ‘vicious beasts’ which had no place in modern Scotland and I suppose if you are a clump of lichen they are but humans have nothing to fear from them. There are also those who deny reindeer were ever native to Scotland or if they were it was too long ago to matter and claim what was thought to be evidence of reindeer was, in fact, red deer – for example bones discovered in Pictish middens. It’s a fair debate for a thesis.

coloured reindeer

Our landscapes, rural and urban, are products of actions taken in the past – the Highlands emptied of people and communities for sheep, then red deer with the rise of the myth of good land management by sporting estates whose gamekeepers act like demi-gods deciding what can live on the land and what must be controlled destroyed. It is all about economics not biodiversity. Scotland would not have the landscape it does today were it not for them they claim. No, it would not. We would lose much of the barren muirs that have wrecked the Highland economy and limited its prospects. We would have a greater variety of wild species living naturally and not persecuted for being rubbish or vermin because they are seen as a threat to artificially introduced species, or product in the lingo of the estates, that can be offered up for slaughter on a Saturday afternoon.

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Slaughter of mountain hares

The Scottish wildcat and several of our owls have suffered from this attitude and recently we’ve seen thousands of discarded carcasses of mountain – heaps of rubbish in the view of gamekeepers. Almost daily we learn of protected species, our golden eagles and other raptors that have mysteriously disappeared – poisoned, shot or trapped on the sly in hunting estates. Of all the many species of birds and animals hunted to extinction in this country a few have been reintroduced and others are in the pipeline: beavers, lynx, wolves, wild boar, red squirrel, polecats, goshawks, sea eagles, ospreys, red kites and pine martins.

Keep your eyes open when you are out and about and report illegal activity you come across that threatens our wildlife. You are unlikely to see a reindeer – or indeed any in the above list – and you may well wonder why though I suspect we all know the answer.