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Glenbuchat Heritage

132 Glenbuchat 1906
The Glenbuchat Image Library
132 Glenbuchat 1906

The following is a description of the Glen in 1906 by its laird Mr James Barclay, taken from the Book of Glenbuchat. It is a good description of the way of life in the glen at that time. Compare it with the descriptions of the glen in earlier times.
Statistical Accounts

The Glen And Its Folk
By James W. Barclay
of Glenbuchat, M.P.

(written in 1906)

The: Glen runs west-north-west from the River Don to the ridge of the mountains that divide the counties of Aberdeen and Banff, and comprises the whole of the valley drained by the Burn of the Buchat. The watershed along the ridge of the enclosing hills bounds the Glen on three sides, and on the fourth side—about a mile in 1ength—flows the River Don.
The estate of Glenbuchat comprises the whole parish except the glebe, and also crosses the watershed on the west into Glen Nochty, in the parish of Strathdon, its boundary on the west being the Bum of Nochty and the march with Banffshire.

Of the parish the area is 11,083 acres, and of the estate 11,078 acres in Glenbuchat, 2250 in Strathdon—together 13,328 acres, whereof about 1500 acres are arable. The altitude above sea-level varies from 800 feet at Bridge of Buchat to 2521 feet on the summit of Meikle Geal Charn.

The turnpike road up Donside to Corgarff follows the river closely along the east-south-east boundary of the estate, and the fortieth milestone from Aberdeen is just over the Bridge of Buchat. The road up the Glen branches off the turnpike before it crosses the Bridge over the Buchat, which it follows as far as the Shooting Lodge - a distance of 6 1/4 miles; there it turns to the south, and crosses by the saddle on the ridge into Glen Nochty and returns to the turnpike at Bellabeg, The old drove road follows the Buchat north—west above the Lodge, and crosses into Banffshire by the Ladder (so-called) at the top of Little Glen Nochty. At the foot of the Ladder the Glenbuchat trail is joined by another that in former times evidently carried much the larger share of the traffic. This other trail followed the Nochty from Bellabeg to Duff Defiance , where the Little Nochty joins the main stream, and then passed along the hill to the Ladder.

These drove roads or trails, along with the Lecht Road in Upper Strathdon, made by the Hanoverian Government in 1754, were the main lines of communication from the Spey to the Don and thence with the south country. In the early years after the ’Forty-live the officer in command of the troops stationed at Corgarff Castle, to overawe and pacify the Highlands, reported that the trail through Glenbuchat was one of the routes by which the wild Highlanders, called in the Lowlands " Caterans" drove the cattle they lifted in the south to fastness’s in Speyside where it was dangerous to pursue them. Besides the droving of cattle and sheep, there was considerable intercourse over the Ladder trail between Donside and Glenlivet, arising partly by intermarriage and partly by trade, but this intercourse practically ceased with the opening of railway communication on Speyside, and now the infrequent traveller is probably a tramp on his summer tour up Donside taking a short cut to 'Tomintoul or Glenlivet on the way to Inverness.

About two miles up the Glen another public road branches off at the Public Hall, crosses the Buchat southward over the saddle at Deskry, and joins the turnpike at Mill of Newe.
Besides the Ladder, another trail crosses Creag an Sgor to the head- waters of the Deveron, which it crosses at the Rough Ford going down through the Cabrach. Near the road over Creag an Sgor, on the south side of the hill, is a cairn of stones raised in memory of Alexander Davidson , a noted poacher, who was found dead here on 24th August, 1843.
A rough cart road passes by Easter Buchat over the hill into Glenkindie. The old road up the Glen left the Donside turnpike at Delfrankie , opposite the Castle, and there stood a public house now in ruins.

The principal and most characteristic, as well as the most valuable natural product of the Glen, is grouse, for which its moors have a high reputation, being, for their extent, among the best in Scotland. The bag has varied greatly. In 1872 10,000 brace were shot, and in 1900 7402. The average for the last twenty years is 2000 brace Grouse live chiefly on heather—in summer on the young shoots, and in winter on its seed, which adheres to the stems till July in the following year. When the ripening seed is killed by an early frost this winter food is destroyed : starvation follows, and the birds are attacked by what is called grouse disease, which probably corresponds to famine fever in man. Many die, and in the following season the bag is greatly reduced. But for grouse disease, the stock of grouse on these moors could not be kept down by shooting; for when after a frosty year good seasons return, the bag steadily increases from year to year, until another season of early frost destroys the heather seed.

Grouse is the natural crop of the Scottish Highlands. They cannot live without heather, and both grouse and ptarmigan are truly wild, for they cannot be, or at least they never have been, either fed or bred like pheasants or partridges. Grouse do practically no damage to crops. Only in late seasons do they attack the com in stocks, and in such seasons the grain is usually of little value. Since mutton and wool fell to the low prices current three or four years ago, the Highlands of Scotland would be of little value were it not for the grouse. On mixed Highland estates it is the rent of the grouse moors that builds the crofters’ houses, and if the landlord had to choose between the shooting tenant and the crofters, the rent paid by the former would be by far the more profitable. Practically there is no serious conflict between the laird and his tenants respecting damage by grouse, and any grievance would be acceptably met by a contribution of seed com after bad seasons. Since railways have reached Aberdeen and Inverness, the rents of grouse shootings have increased enormously, and have to some extent compensated for the fall in value of the moors for sheep grazing.

The fourth Earl of Fife used to come to the Glen occasionally to shoot grouse, and for his accommodation a very modest room was added to the house of Backies, opposite the present Lodge. Afterwards the Glen was let to shooting tenants, of whom Lord Craven was the first. He lived at Colquhonny, and was followed by the Duke of Buckingham, whose rent for the Glenbuchat and Glen Nochty shootings—except Auchernach, which then belonged to Forbes of Skellater—was £200. The first Lodge, a small house, was built for the Duke. Sir Robert Harvey came after the Duke, and then Colonel Walker and Mr. Behrens, a Jewish banker of Manchester.

Henry Burra , a banker in Sussex, bought the estate in 1883. He died in 1886, and in 1891 his trustees let the shooting to Mr. Percy Hargreaves, who enlarged the Lodge in 1899 at a cost of £3000. Besides grouse and black game, there are on the moors white hares, and in October and during winter, red deer. On the lower grounds are roe deer, brown hares, abundance of partridges, and some pheasants and other game. In consequence of rabbit warrens on the contiguous estates of Glenkindie and Newe, rabbits have overrun the Glen and form an insuperable obstacle to tree planting. An earnest effort was made to exterminate them in this Glen in the fall of 1905, and about 3000 were killed. But Glenbuchat cannot be protected from rabbits so long as the neighbouring warrens are kept up, for although the ground be fenced the rabbits get inside the fences in snowstorms.

The Don, that bounds the property for about a mile, provided good sport for salmon until the weir at Stoneywood Paper Works diverted the whole stream at its usual volume from the bed of the river and so prevents the salmon ascending except in floods. Confident hopes are entertained that the salmon fishing will again become satisfactory when the weir at Stoneywood, as the outcome of the recent decision of the House of Lords is removed sufficiently to allow the salmon to ascend the river at its ordinary flow.

The trout fishing both in the Don and in the Buchat has always been considered very good.

The Glen carries little timber, of any size. The Craig Wood, about 42 acres in extent, and the Knock Wood, about 8 acres (where a rookery established itself in 1904) were planted by the Earl of Fife. Most of the Craig Wood was cut down and replanted by Mr. Burra’s trustees in 1898-9. The Clash Wood, 22 acres, and also 29 acres above Newton were planted in 1885-6.

When Glenbuchat Castle was built there had been no large timber in the Glen, for the wood for the Castle was dragged from Rothiemurcus up Glenlivet and over the Meikle Geal Cham, where the trail made by the logs through the heather can still be seen. But at some remote time the Glen had been well wooded, and that up to a much higher altitude than fir timber grows at present; for along the trail over the flat below the Ladder, at an altitude of 1850 feet, are to be seen large holes out of which the natives dug the resinous roots of fir trees that provided light in the winter evenings.

Trunks of large trees may also be seen at an altitude of 1600 feet in the moss of Badenyon.
The soil of the Glen is admirably suited for growing timber, and the present laird has planted about 225 acres, chiefly with fir and larch, but with warrens on the contiguous estates the rabbits cannot be exterminated or the young plants protected by wire netting, for in snowstorms the rabbits get over the fences and eat the tops of any trees that appear above the snow. A considerable portion has been replanted, and vigorous efforts made to exterminate the rabbits, but it is doubtful whether many of the trees will be allowed to grow up.

The Folk
The earth house on Milton Farm shows that the Glen had been inhabited before the dawn of civilisation or authentic history. The early settlement was probably due to the natural fertility of the soil formed by the disintegrated metamorphic rocks and to its easy cultivation. Judging by the place- names that are almost all derived from the Gaelic, the first inhabitants to leave intelligible traces of their existence were Celts. But the ancient tongue died out about the middle of last century, for at the census of 1901 there was but one inhabitant who could speak only the Gaelic, and to-day it is doubtful whether any in the Glen can speak it fluently.

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century the people lived for the most part in clachans , irregular groups of ten to twenty " Fire—houses," that sheltered, very indifferently, as many families, usually related. The houses were set down anyhow in a group, and were built partly of stone with lime and clay and having thatched roofs. Hovels still more wretched, made of " divots," chiefly provided for the " bestial." The principal clachans were Easter Buchat, Beltamore, Belnacraig, Belnaboth, Upperton, Peatfold, and Badenyon, but they are rapidly disappearing, being replaced by the houses erected by the new laird, who has already built or reconstructed over twenty.

The old houses were wretched abodes unfit for human habitation. When the present laird called at Tullocharroch, he found water running out by the front door, and this seemed normal. At Tarntoul adjoining, the roof had fallen in, and the tenant was living with relatives on a neighbouring farm. Peats were burned in open tires with large hearths and chimneys in some cases ten feet wide. At each side of the fire, inside the chimney, were cosy comers : one the recognised seat of the head of the house . The floors were of earth or clay beaten hard, but reeking with moisture and the roof was blackened by the smoke that not infrequently filled the house to an extent that made the unaccustomed eyes smart. The furniture consisted of what was called a " breast of plenishing' a sort of framed wooden partition across the house. In this breast of plenishing were doors or sliding shutters three or four feet square, that by day concealed the box-bed within and sometimes also the sleepers by night. A bed-closet usually intervened between the kitchen and the room at the other end of the house which might be called the sitting room, although people very rarely sat in it, Here again was another breast of plenishing with a box—bed, and perhaps a kind of wardrobe. The kitchen was called the “ ben " end and the other end the " but." In the kitchen, the prominent features in most houses were the " deece " or wooden sofa and the dresser with a rack for dishes above it. The roof of some houses was framed like a ship, but upside down. The rafters of the few couples did not rest on the top of the walls but were built down into them, to within a foot or so from the ground, and had a bend at the top of the wall to form the sloping roof. Thus the inside, looking up, had somewhat the appearance of an inverted ship. Of such houses, only Beltimb now (1906) remains.

Since the estate was bought of John Gordon the Jacobite in 1737 by Lord Braco, an ancestor of the present Duke of Fife, no laird has lived in the Glen. The policy of that family in the management of the estate was to leave the tenants very much alone. Rents were seldom raised, but then the tenants had to provide and maintain their houses with usually a gift of the necessary timber in the forest, and latterly in one or two cases slates were also supplied at the quarry.

Mr. Burra unfortunately died soon after purchasing the property, and his trustees having little power of expenditure pursued a policy similar to that of their predecessors. The natural consequence was that the houses and steadings built by the tenants were of a very unsubstantial makeshift character; and, with only two or three exceptions, the whole of the houses in the Glen have had to be rebuilt by the present laird, who has changed the old policy and now provides houses and steadings, of which the tenant has only to perform the necessary carriage of raw material from Bridge of Buchat.

The decline in the population of the Glen has not been caused by evictions. There is no record of evictions by the former lairds. The decrease has been due principally to economic changes outside the Glen that indirectly affected its inhabitants, and to the higher standard of living among country people that has obtained in the last fifty or sixty years, to which the produce of the Glen did not respond, For instance, at one clachan, Peatfold, where now there is only a single croft, there were, in the middle of last century, five shoemakers and two tailors, while now one shoemaker in the whole Glen has to supplement his shoemaking with the duties of post runner , At one time there were three meal mills and two waulkmills , now there is only one meal mill; two blacksmiths, now only one; several weavers, now only one carries on a precarious trade}

(There is no meal mill working now in the Glen, and no weaving has been done since James Hay the old weaver in Belnacraig, died over twenty years ago. There is still a blacksmith's shop in the Glen rented by Mr. Riddell, blacksmith, Glenkindie, but he opens it and works in it for one day a week only. . . There is only one Merchant's shop in the Glen now, whereas there used to be four, all of them being licensed for the sale of whisky."—Information kindly furnished by Mr. Walter C. Davidson , General Merchant, Glenbuchat, 10th October, 1941.)

Every farm had its patch of lint which, steeped and heckled, was spun by the womenfolk and woven at the lint mill at Glenkindie, to provide the family linen. The wool from their own sheep was also spun by the women and woven in the Glen into blankets and webs of rough tweed which a perambulating tailor called " Whip—the-cat " made up, staying at the different farmhouses till he had made the clothes of the household from their own webs. The wool was also dyed in the Glen by dyes gathered in the Glen.

Then there was pretty extensive quarrying of lime, as the excavations at the Balloch show. Every farm had its lime kiln, for lime was then the only extraneous manure, and burning lime for home as well as for sale outside involved a large consumption of peats. The quarrying and burning of lime provided employment for a good many hands during three-fourths of the year. But in the early part of last century smuggling was, perhaps, apart from farming, the most extensive and profitable occupation in the Glen. It is not too much to say that every man in the Glen was directly or indirectly interested in smuggling, either in making whisky or in transporting it to the low country; and many were the stories of thrilling adventures with, and hairbreadth escapes from, the officers of the excise -gaugers as they were called-in prosecuting their illegal trade, which The Highlanders did not regard as immoral. The smuggling bothies were chiefly in the higher glens that branch off from the main Glen, and over the watershed in Little Glen Nochty. The smugglers in the Little Glen were, on one occasion at least, so numerous that they defied the supervisor and his men who attempted to enter the Glen by the Ladder trail . The supervisor, as the story goes, after having a bullet through his coat, deemed it prudent to beat a retreat and claim support from the garrison at Corgarff; but when he returned with the soldiers the Glen was silent. After effectually concealing their implements, the smugglers had disappeared.

In those days every house had its hiding—place for the still and its produce, not infrequently a vault carefully concealed under the deece. It is rumoured that a complete still might yet be found in the Glen, but, knowing the penalty attached to such a possession, those in the secret would be slow to disclose its whereabouts.

Great changes took place in the habits, food, and comforts of the Glen folk during the last century, especially in the latter half. Down to the middle of last century the food of the people was meagre, coarse and scanty. All the household sat at meals round the same table or pot. The breakfast was usually at nine o'clock and consisted of porridge, not always with milk. In its absence, the porridge was washed down with raw sowens, followed perhaps by cauld kail, bannocks of oatmeal, or barley scones. Sowens is a dish made of the line flour of oatmeal left adhering to the sids or husk of the oat kemel sifted from the meal. The sids were put into a bowie (barrel open at one end) with water, where in a few days the mixture soured and the swollen flour fell to the bottom. The supernatent fluid was then poured off, the residue was passed through a sieve and called " raw sowens." When boiled, the compound, of a similar consistency to blanc•mange, was called " boiled sowens." Some resourceful Scotsman, who probably had known sowens in his youth, introduced this dish made from crushed oats to feed the Kadirs at the siege of Kimberley, 1899—1900.

Two o’clock was the dinner hour and the fare was frequently kale brose ` or boiled sowens, with milk when it was to be had, and if not, with raw sowens. This latter combination was called " withern tithem."

Supper hour was seven o’clock and consisted of porridge or brochan (oatmeal gruel) with a piece of cheese floating in it, or of boiled green kale, and any left appeared as cauld kale at breakfast the next morning. In those days tea and sugar were luxuries used only on high occasions. Potatoes were also a luxury and considered so superior to other vegetable food that the memory of their quality still lingers among the older generation, who assert that potatoes were then better and of finer flavour than can now be had. Tumips were by no means abundant and were principally used for human food, and the brose made from the liquor of boiled turnips, concentrated by long simmering over the fire, was considered a luxury.
Down to the middle of last century brose made of oatmeal and milk was all but the exclusive food of the Scottish ploughman, who lived in bothies on the farms where they were engaged. Brose was made simply by pouring a minimum quantity of boiling water over meal with sufficient salt in a basin; the mixture was then quickly stirred into a lumpy mass, over which was poured the milk and then the dish was made. On this dish, with perhaps some oatcake and milk three times a day, the Scottish ploughman lived for years.

Occasionally a sheep was killed and fully utilised. The sheep’s head and trotters, singed, not skinned, and boiled with barley, made a very ‘acceptable broth. The intestines and blood were made into puddings with oatmeal, onions, etc., and in the stomach was made the national haggis, of minced heart, liver, etc., mixed with oatmeal. A small ox, called the yule mart, was killed for the Christmas festivities (old style). Part was made into ham, and provided animal food for the winter. Yule then lasted a week, spent in target shooting, dancing, and card playing.

The farming was of a very primitive order. The ploughs, harrows, and graips were all of wood. After threshing out his grain by the flail, a very laborious operation, usually got through in the early morning, the farmer winnowed the chaff from the grain by the wind blowing through the bam between opposite doors—the barn being built with due regard to the prevailing wind. Great was the prejudice against the introduction of the barn fan. It was a departure from the natural method of the forefathers, and an impious interference with the ways of Providence, who had provided the wind for the purpose.

In the early part of last century, querns were still in use for grinding oats and malt, and later when mills were introduced, the oats were only ground by the mill; the customer had himself to sift the sids from the meal on the shillen hillock beside the mill. The crops consisted of oats, bere, and grass. The bere, producing as it did whisky, was considered the most valuable crop and got all the dung. (Bere, or bear: Barley: a word now used chiefly in the north of England and in Scotland for the common four-rowed barley)

The livestock of the farm consisted of Highland shelties, black cattle, mostly horned, and small Highland sheep. Oxen were used for ploughing, and notwithstanding their meagre food, grew to a great size, or what was then thought a great size, by the time they were seven or eight years old. The whole livestock was turned out on the hills, where for the greater part of the year they picked up a wretched subsistence. There were no large flocks of sheep but everyone had some. The farmer who had most money put out most sheep, and hence the keep was straitened for the whole. The larger farmers sent their sheep to the low country, but the smaller kept them at home, where they had little but what they picked up on the hills, and were in consequence very emaciated in spring, but they were hardy and recovered rapidly when the grass came. There was more grass on the hill in those days, since the cattle and sheep kept down the heather. Cattle were often so emaciated that they were unable to get up without assistance.

When the early frost killed the oat grain in ripening, starvation came very near to the people of the Glen. Their neighbours were in like plight with themselves, Grain could only be got from the low country and not always there. In these circumstances the condition of the people must have been wretched in the extreme, and in the bad years about the beginning of last century cases of actual starvation were not uncommon.

To-day the agriculture of the Glen has greatly improved, although the laird thinks there is still much room for improvement. The Glen turns out first-class Aberdeenshire polled cattle: Glenbuchat and Strathdon seem to be their native country. The ox that gained the challenge cup at the Smithfield Christmas show in 1896 was bred on Milton by Mr. John Wattie ; and high-class shorthorns, as well as polled Aberdeenshire cattle and Clydesdale horses, are bred by Mr. Alexander Fletcher on the Mains. A heifer bred by him recently realised £400 at a public sale in Argentina.

The grain crop is now almost exclusively oats, and some of the farms in good seasons yield as much as seven quarters per acre. The laird says the return ought to be nine or ten quarters. The farmers are always sure of a good crop of turnips. Potatoes are grown only for home consumption.

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