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Glenbuchat Heritage

113 Upperton Today
The Glenbuchat Image Library
113 Upperton Today

Photgraph supplied by Professor Nisbet along with the following udated text about Upperton.

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The little group of ruins of what was once the 'fermtoun' of Upperton in Glenbuchat by Strathdon has recently been designated a 'listed site' by Historic Scotland. The site has a long history dating back to the 1696 Poll Book which recorded Upperton as one of 14 ‘fermtouns’ or clachans in the parish of Glenbucket (as it was spelt then). Seven families were recorded as living there:
'John Moir tennent and his wife, John Provest tennent and his wife, Alaster Callan
and his wife, Alexander Michy and his wife, Wiliam Moir tennent and his wife, John
Hay tennent and his wife, William Hay his son and his wife'
-- 15 adults in all (children below taxable age were not recorded).

At this time Glenbucket Castle was held by the Gordons, and 'Old Glenbucket' himself played a prominent part in both the '15 and the '45 Jacobite Rebellions. He was of formidable build, with red hair and beard, and it is said (no doubt spuriously) that the English king George had nightmares and woke screaming 'Old Glenbucket is coming to get me!' After Culloden he fled the country and his estates were forfeit. The glen (and much of the North-East) was subsequently bought by John Duff, who later became Earl Fife of Duff House, Banff, and as Laird he and his successors granted 'tacks' (lease of land) and collected rents until the end of the 19th century.

Conditions of life were fairly primitive. The land was worked on a communal basis using the 'runrig' system (intermingled strips so that they all had a share of the best land), on the stony
areas between the lower marshland and the higher moors. As Upperton lies high in the upper part of the glen (about 1100 feet), the growing season was short and a wet autumn could prove calamitous. In the famine of 1740-41 when crops failed: a group of seven people were found dead from starvation at the holy Well of Culdearg, above Upperton.

Weather records of the time can give only a hint of what life was like. In 1782 ('the black aughty-twa'), for example, heavy snow fell from 1st to 14th February, and hard frosts persisted for eight weeks. There was another great fall of snow from 11th to 28th March. After the short summer, snow returned on 15th September and again on October 31st: oat crops were ruined and it was Christmas before the crop was cut -- and even then it was only fit for cattle feed. Severe weather may have prompted the emigration from the Glen which began in the 1820s. 1810-19 was the coldest decade since the 1690s. In 1812, there was drifting snow in North-East Scotland, followed by a wet summer when crops failed; the snow in January 1814 was the worst for 20 years; and 1816 came to be known as 'the year without a summer'. There was deep snow every year between 1834 and 1839 (9 feet deep in 1835, blizzards in 1837, and snow in June in 1838.

The Glen was famed for the illicit distilling of whisky; Glenbucket whisky was reputed to be as good as Glenlivet over the hills. Glenlivet became legitimate and flourishes to this day, but the Glenbucket trade was stopped by the excisemen. When they appeared in the district, the news was flashed through the glen and the 'worms' were hidden away, until one day (so the story goes), disguised as women, they surprised the distillers at work.

The start of the 19th century brought a move towards what was called 'improvement' of estates, as landowners saw the opportunity for development and increased rentals. The run-rig system ended and was consolidated into a series of 'lots', enclosed by dry-stone dykes, many of which still stand today. In Glenbucket this major reorganisation of leases occurred about 1810: this seems to have been a gradual process without serious disruption, but elsewhere (in Upper Deeside, for example) it often resulted in evictions.

Nine families lived in Upperton in the 18th and 19th centuries: Hay, Beattie, Michie, Allanach, Reid, McGregor, Walker, Anderson and Gauld. In addition, a branch of the family Ross is recorded at Upperton in the 18th century but they are not recorded after 1815. From old parish records we know some of the events of these families up to the first national census in 1841. After that, census data every ten years enable us to follow in more detail the fortunes of the families at Upperton.

The houses in which these families lived can still be identified on the hillside within what is now the listed site of Upperton fermtoun. Today all these buildings are in ruins except one.

The story of the Hay family is most fully documented, thanks to research by Doug Hay, one of his descendants, now living in Alberta. John Hay, listed in the 1696 poll Book, was granted the tack (lease) of Upperton in 1705 for 19 years (the customary period) at £40 Scots (£5 English) annually. This was renewed from time to time: a copy of the lease (or 'tack') to John Hay in 1765, signed by him and the Earl of Fife, is preserved in King's College Library (MS 3175/829 1748-1783). John Hay had three sons, two of whom moved to other farms in the glen, and when John died in 1715, the youngest, Adam, took over the lease. Adam and John were the favoured names in the family: these names in turn farmed Upperton, John from 1750, Adam from 1790, and subsequently John and Adam. This Adam had eight children, one of whom (also called Adam) at age 21 was on the passenger list of the emigrant ship Earl Durham to New York in 1836. However, in the 1841 census he is back in Upperton as farmer and head of the household: possibly the death of his father left the lease open to him. He held the lease for the next thirty years and had eleven children. One of these, William, took over in 1871, but the others moved away: one, also Adam, became an itinerant ploughman and later joined the police. In the 1901 census, William is still farming Upperton, with his father (now 85) and mother (74) still resident with him; but he died in 1921, thus ending the long record of the Hays of Upperton.

The fortunes of the other Upperton families were mixed. The larger 'lots' were farmed by the Beatties, the Allanachs and the Gaulds, passing from one generation to the next until the end of the 19th century. The other families in the fermtoun, Michie, Reid, McGregor, Walker and Anderson, leased small strips of land running down from the rough grazing to the river.

The Michies were among the less fortunate. Jean Michie, living alone in one of the Upperton cottages in 1841, is registered as a 'pauper'.

When the head of the Reid family died in 1824, his widow and family emigrated to Canada, except for one son, Adam, a shoemaker, who stayed on in Upperton, alone and unmarried, until his death in 1875.

The McGregors were the Upperton blacksmiths right through into the 20th century. Four McGregor brothers fought in the 1914-18 war, but only two returned: William in the Gordon Highlanders died in 1915, and Alexander in the Seaforths in November 1918, just before the armistice – he was 19.

Successive generations of the Walkers were also shoemakers, and they and the Andersons had small crofts. In 1837, Peter Anderson and Jane Walker had an illegitimate daughter, also called Jane. She was living with her mother in the 1841 census (recorded as 'niece'), but by 1861 she has taken the name of Jane Anderson and has taken over the croft. She died in 1901 and is buried in Glenbuchat Old Kirk graveyard alongside her mother, Jane Walker.

Today the old fermtoun is deserted and in ruins. The decline was beginning to show in the census records towards the end of the 19th century. Although periodic harsh weather and disastrous harvests occurred from time to time, it had been generally a period of prosperous development of agriculture in rural Scotland, which continued until 1870. Then the onset of a depression in agriculture ended the relative prosperity, and the younger folk left to find employment in the towns. The census population of the Upperton fermtoun was 38 in 1841 and again in 1851, rising to 63 in 1871, when it began a sharp decline (to 27 in 1881 and 34 in 1901).

A new laird bought the Glenbuchat estate in 1901, James Barclay. When he saw the farm properties he was appalled by their condition. He wrote: 'Only a few dwellings were slated, the rest were thatched and mostly in a condition more or less unfit for human habitation. The housing of the livestock was correspondingly bad.' He began to make improvements reconstructing many of the buildings in the Glen. But Upperton was in the higher part of the Glen, and the 1901 census showed that it was already in a state of decline: only five of the original families were still in Upperton, and the majority of the remaining residents were elderly.

Who then were left at Upperton after 1918? The last families were Hay and McGregor: the Allanachs had already left in 1917. The last of the Hays, the family who had lived there for over 225 years, were William and Jessie who left in 1922. Alexander McGregor also left in 1922. That year marked the death of the old fermtoun.

A vigorous community continued into the 60s in the lower part of the Glen, with a shop and post office (now gone) and community hall; but in the upper part only the larger farms survived and smaller buildings fell into ruin or were preserved as holiday homes. Upperton was set well back from the road; it was high on the hill and cold, and by the end of the 1939-45 War, only the main farm buildings and one red-roofed cottage remained. Mrs Grant, widow of the estate gamekeeper who died in 1926, lived there till 1946, with three of her sons in neighbouring farms, Upperton, Netherton and Smithyford. In the 50s the cottage came into our family, and we have kept it as it was. It is now a listed building, and the fermtoun is a listed site.

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Picture added on 06 October 2011 at 00:15
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