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Glenbuchat Heritage

169 Lifitng Stnes and associated events
The Glenbuchat Image Library
169 Lifitng Stnes and associated events

Lifting Stones

1. Map of the Glenbuchat Lifting Stones
2. Photo of mist shrouded hill with the Lifting Stones
3. Pointed rock at site of Lifting Stones.
4. Peter Martin on the hill

An email contact from Peter Martin, whose father wrote a book on ‘Lifting Stones’, enquiring about the ‘Lifting Stones’ at Glenbuchat, raised the awareness of the presence of ‘Lifting Stones’ in Glenbuchat. More details about Peter and his visit to Glenbuchat later.
Further enquiries lead to the exploration of the history of lifting stones, and highlighted also the existence coffin roads, celtic funeral rites and even the duties of the bellman.

Coffin Roads:

Until the 18th Century, there were no significant roads in the Strathdon area. Journeys were made on foot or occasionally horseback. Paths were narrow and followed rivers or through the hills over a number of passes. From Glenbuchat people could travel over to the Cabrach and along the Deveron to Huntly, across the ladder hills to Speyside and over the Don and on to Deeside and the south.

In the 18th – 19th century there were about 500-600 people living in Glenbuchat. With a life expectancy on average of 30-40 years, this meant that there were one or two deaths per month. Funerals were therefore a common event in the Glen. Coffins therefore had to be carried from the place of death and to their place of burial. This might be in the church burial yard in their parish or in a neighbouring parish, or even in a family plot or Clan plot. In Gaelic culture burial did not have to be in a religious place.

This meant that occasionally coffins had to be carried to the local Parish Church or over to another parish. “The coffin was carried by eight men at a time, with all of the men of the community having the chance to help carry it. The procession was usually solemn but it could also be wild. Due to excessive drinking at the feast by the men, unexpected events occurred. Sometimes the procession would lose the coffin or even get in fights with other funeral processions, which were headed toward the same churchyard.

Rest stops were at places where 'cairns' were built for resting the coffin. At each of these stops, for resting, switching pall bearers, or sharing whisky, the men would throw a stone at the side of the road as a token. Even today one sees these heaps of stones by the roadside.” (From; Scottish Burial Customs).

Glenbuchat Church was Protestant and there were Roman Catholic priests in the Cabrach and Glenlivet thus bodies may be transported to the burial place consistent with their religion. Some families may also have wished to have the deceased join other family members over the hills. Thus occasionally funeral processions travelled quite long distances over the hills, no mean feat with a coffin and dead body.

It was the tradition that the men of one Glen carried the body up the hill and were met by the men of the other side who took the body down. However it did not always go to plan.

“Carn Mor is the high point of the Ladder Hills and a little beyond the start of the "Ladder" path there is an old tumbledown cairn. In the old days coffins were carried across the hill from Strathdon to Chapletown for burial and it was agreed that the Glenlivet bearers would meet those from Don-Side at the head of the Pass. Alas the pallbearers from Glenlivet imbibed too much of the whisky from the Ladder Hills and got no further than Ladderfoot.

The Don-Side men were not pleased to have to carry the coffin down the hill. Harsh words were exchanged and fighting broke out.

The cairn marks the spot where they settled their quarrel again with the aid of a prodigious quantity of whisky from the Ladder Hills.” (From: ‘Dream Drams‘)

The scene was therefore set that, when two teams of strong men from opposing glens met at the top of a hill, often fortified by whisky, they should vie with each other to test their strength. This may have started the competition of stone lifting at that site, but stone lifting is probably much older than this and may have developed independent of funerals.

This may be the reason for the site of the ‘Lifting Stones’ noted in the above map, half way between Glenbuchat and the Cabrach.

A brief look at Scottish Burial Customs puts in place the function of coffin routes, lifting stones and the Bellman.



19th Century

Below are some of the Scottish burial customs with origins in old age superstitions that existed in many cultures of the world. These superstitions were more predominant the further north one went into the Highlands. Superstitions surrounded making sure the soul departed and could not find its way back home.

Departure of the Soul
At the moment of death the windows were thrown open for the purpose of easing the departure of the soul. The window remained open only for an instant for fear the soul might return.

Mirrors in the house were either covered or had their faces turned to the wall and all clocks in the house were stopped. This is said to be done to prevent puzzling or misleading the ghost in its efforts to leave the house.

Ringing of the Death Bell
Death was a community event. The bell-ringer (bellman) would stand at the town square, ring his bell, and then announce the death of the deceased. This announcement served as an invitation for the entire community to attend a feast and funeral at the home of the deceased. In some cases the door of the home was painted black and decorated with white tear shapes.

Cleansing and Kistan
The women would prepare the deceased for burial - washing the body -, which symbolized the purification of the soul. The body was then dressed in 'dead clothes' more commonly known as winding sheets. Once completing the washing of the body the women would 'kistan' the body - that is lay the body in the coffin.

Wake Vigil
For several days the body was "Waked" - Members of the family, numbering 2 to 10 people, usually the young and unmarried, would watch over the body around-the-clock, to keep the spirit from falling to the Devil. Curtains or blinds were drawn until after the funeral.

Family and friends of the deceased would come and pay their last respects. Readings were made from the Bible, along with the singing of hymns, and conversing in low hushed tones. Neighbours would help by bringing extra chairs for the watchers or extra peat to help heat the house throughout the "Dead Days."

On the day of the funeral, a seven course feast of food and drink commenced. The deceased family was responsible for providing a feast. If they could not afford the feast, an auction was held afterward, selling off the deceased assets in order to pay for the feast and funeral. The men and women would separate; the men go to the barn and feast, while the women would feast in the house. After feasting a ceremony would be held to commerate the deceased individual. Each person would have the opportunity to toast the deceased and his or her family and friends.

Paying last Respects
Adults and children alike filed past the coffin, touching the deceased's brow or breast, lest they be haunted by the corpse's spirit later. After all had paid their respects, the coffin was closed and eight women relatives would take the "First Lift." When the coffin was lifted up, the chairs on which it rested were carefully turned upside down for fear the ghost might be sitting on them. The coffin was carried through the house to the men waiting outside. The casket leaves the house, 'feet first' so that the soul cannot find its way back home.

Funeral procession
The funeral procession commenced at 3:00 p.m. Processions were traditionally on foot, a custom that persisted into the 20th century. The coffin was carried by eight men at a time, with all of the men of the community having the chance to help carry it. The procession was when unexpected events occurred. Sometimes the procession would lose the coffin or even get in fights with other funeral processions which were headed toward the same churchyard.

Rest stops were at places where 'cairns' were built for resting the coffin. At each of these stops, for resting, switching pall bearers, or sharing whisky, the men would throw a stone at the side of the road as a token. Even today one sees these heaps of stones by the roadside.

Only men attended and completed the burial at the cemetery. Close relatives lowered the coffin in to the ground.

Women followed the casket only to the entrance of the cemetery church gate or would stay behind at the house to look after the children and prepare the food for the after-funeral feast called a "Dredgy."

These texts introduce the actions of the bell ringer or the ‘bellman’ as he was known in Scotland.

The Bellman;
The Deochry was a clachan (group of houses) on the road between Glenbuchat and Newe. There is a rhyme about the Deochry folk from around the mid to late 19th century which is still recited today:

Elder Begg and Bellman Beattie
Scott Stewart and skirlin Eppie
Beardie fierce and Robbin strong
And that completes the Deochry throng.

We know therefore that Beattie was the bellman. I assume that this is John Beattie (Jnr), christened 1836. John took over the family farming at Deochrie. He never married, but nieces Sophia and Jane McPherson resided in the household from a very early age. Also in the household when his mother was alive were niece Helen Palmer and nephew John Beattie

Details of Beattie Family:
John Beattie (Snr)
Birth Abt. 1792/3 in Aberdeenshire,
Death - Duchrie 15 Feb 1853 a 58y
Sophia Michie1806 - 1895 M - Sophia Michie 28 Aug 1831
Sophia was born between 1803 and 1809, the daughter of John Michie and Henrietta Moir.
She died at Deochry December 9, 1895
Jean Beattie1833 - 1910
James Beattie1835 - 1835
John Beattie1836 - 1913
Helen Beattie1838 - 1843
William Beattie1841 - 1894

John Beattie (Jnr)
Birth 07 Aug 1836 in Deochrie, Glenbucket,
John Beattie1796 –
Sophia Michie1806 - 1895
No Spouse or Children

1861 Scotland Census about John Beattie
Name: John Beattie
Age: 26 Estimated birth year about 1835
Relationship: Son
Mother's name: Sophia Beattie
Gender: Male
Where born: Glenbucket, Aberdeenshire
Registration Number: 200 Registration district: Glenbucket Civil Parish: Glenbucket County: Aberdeenshire
Address: Dochry
Occupation: Lessee's Son Ag Lab
Household Members: Name Age Sophia Beattie 50 Jean Beattie 27 John Beattie 26 Hellen Beattie 2

1881 Scotland Census about John Beattie
Name: John Beattie
Age: 45 Estimated birth year: about 1836
Relationship: Son
Mother's name: Sophia Beattie
Address: Dooehry
Occupation: Crofters Son
Household Members: Name Age
Sophia Beattie 71
John Beattie 45
Helen Palmer 22
Sophia McPherson 16
John Beattie 12

1891 Scotland Census about John Beattie
Name: John Beattie
Age: 55 Estimated birth year: about 1836
Head Mother's name: Sophia Beattie
Household Members: Name Age
John Beattie 55
Sophia Beattie 81
Sophia McPherson 26
Jane McPherson 13

1901 Scotland Census about John Beattie
Name: John Beattie
Age: 65 Estimated birth year: about 1836
Relationship: Head Gender: Male
Address: Deochrie
Occupation: Crofter
Household Members: Name Age
John Beattie 65
Sophia Mcpherson 36
Jane Mcpherson 23

The duties of the bellman can be found in the following passages.

From Bellman and Beadles

“An Englishman, Ray the Naturalist, a widely travelled man for his day, visited Scotland in company with his friend Francis Willoughby. He thus describes a Scottish burial : " When anyone dies, the sexton or bell-man goeth about the streets, with a small bell in his hand, which he tinkleth all along as he goeth, and now and then he makes a stand and proclaims who is dead, and invites the people to come to the funeral at such an hour. The people and minister many times accompany the corpse to the grave at the time appointed, with the bell before them, where there is nothing said, but only the corpse laid in."

Another traveller, Thomas Kirke, wrote a book in 1679 called, "A Modem Account of Scotland by an English Gentleman." He, too, describes a Scottish funeral : " When anyone dies, the bellman goes about ringing their passing-bell, and acquaints the people therewith, in form following: ‘Beloved brouthrin and susters, I let you to wot that there is an fautful broothir lawtli departed awt of this prisant varld, aut thi plesuir of Aulmoughti Good (and then he wails his bonnet) his name is Wolli Woodcok, third son to Jimmy Woodcock, a cordinger; he ligs aut thi sext door wethin thi Nord Gawt, close in thi Nawthwr Rawnd, and I wod yaw gang to hus burying on Thrusdau before twa aclock,’ etc.

"The time appointed for his burying being come, the bell-man calls the company together, and he is carried to the burying-place and thrown into the grave (as Dog-Lyon was), and there’s the end of Wolli. Few people are here buried in their Kirks (except of their nobility), but in the kirk-garths, or in a burying-place on purpose, called the hoof, at the further end of the town (like our Quakers), enclosed with a wall, so that it serves not only as a burying-place, but an exchange to meet in; perhaps in one part of it the Courts of Judicate are kept; in another are butts to shoot at for recreation.

As the bellman was also the beadle he was responsible for overseeing the graveyard and had many other duties in the kirk. During the Sabbath ‘preachings’ he patrolled the church to wake up sleepers, stop people taking snuff and control unruly children. He held a set of kirk keys and acted as the kirk officer, summoning miscreants to be disciplined by the Kirk Session, and some of the Dunfermline bellmen were also officers for the Presbytery.”

Now we come to the matter of ‘Lifting Stones’ in General and later the Glenbuchat Stones in particular.

Lifting Stones

‘Lifting Stones’ also have cultural significance beyond the carrying of coffins.

The following is correspondence from Peter Martin, which explains about Lifting Stones and his interest in them.

My name is Peter Martin. My late Father (also Peter) in 1996 wrote a book called "Of Stones and Strength" which, published in the USA was on the subject of traditional stone lifting....that is lifting heavy stones which was part of Gaelic culture centuries ago.

After my father died a number of years ago, and being initially involved in his book, I decided to continue a rather more detailed research into the culture of stone lifting in Scotland. From an initial 6 or so stones, I have now a database of just over 100 with approximately one third still extant and which has allowed a far greater insight into a "Gaelic strength culture".

You will be aware of the "Lifting Stones" of Glenbuchat near to the Roch Ford. They have been mentioned in a number of books, which seem to provide only a hint of the lifting culture and along the way also provide some dubiety over the number of stones that were lifted.

The actual name "Lifting Stones" is probably a direct translation of the Gaelic "Clachan Togail" and the Dwelly Gaelic dictionary defines these as stones lifted in weight lifting competition. Although strength related, in Gaelic culture, heavy stones were lifted to prove manhood (somewhere between 10 and 14 years of age), as trials of strength to become as Martin states "the bold armour bearer to the Clan Chief", as part of Hogmanay celebration and for the more ostentatious, to be remembered by.

On Skye, below the Fairy mound of "An Sithean", a number of stones were known to have been lifted by local men in the late Victorian period but the site is devoid of a plinth. In the Sma Glen in Perthshire, a curious stone lifting game called the "Saddlin Mare" was based on 3 stones of increasing weight being placed on a sloping plinth stone which was angled and at such a height that there was a danger that the heaviest stone of circa 220lbs could slide back on top of the lifter.

These sites are similar but different, and perhaps reflect the complete lack of a generic within Gaelic culture although the current worldwide strength enthusiasts try to fit Gaelic strength into simple rules and strictures.

Further east and not too far from Glenbuchat, and curiously linked by a number of paths, there is a lifting stone in Glenlivet. It was rediscovered just last year by Malcolm Jones of Tomintoul, and it is marked on again, the original map, as "Clach Neirt" being Gaelic for stone of strength. Situated on the Convene Muir the stone sits adjacent to a known coffin road to Chapelton with many remembrance cairns seen by the roadside. By far the majority of the lifting stones that have been uncovered have been found on known "coffin roads", the assumption being that they were lifted before and after Sunday service with the road being the usual means of reaching the church.

The lifting stones site at Glenbuchat is more interesting however due to the existence of nearby summer shielings which I recall number some 15 and I suspect that the proximity of the shielings may have had also an inference on the reason why the stones exist in their present location. In McCombie Smiths book he mentions a lifting stone in Glen Tanner at the head of the Boonie Burn, which is an area where shielings were known to exist, and in Glen Roy, 2 lifting stones have been pointed out by the remnants of the Glen's Gaelic community, which are also located near to summer shielings.

Throughout Scotland there is no generic (perhaps) regarding the nomenclature of the lifting stones. A number of stones on both the mainland and the Hebrides are known as Clach followed by a name, usually that of an area or person. A number of stones on the islands are called "Ultach" which in the various Islands dialects means "arms length" or "fold" and hence a clach ulatch is a heavy stone lifted into the lap or fold. When the word Clach is dropped, it then defers to either meaning a "weight" or "burden". However on the mainland there are no such stones with this nomenclature with in many areas, such as Perthshire, an Ultach being a burden carried on the back. In Perthshire the lifting stones were known as "Pullaid" which in other areas was written as Pullag or Bullag but the majority of Aberdeenshire stones are known as "Clach Thogalaich". In many mainland areas, what would appear to be the generic - clach-neart is found related to a number of stones from Balquhidder to Sutherland and from Aberdeenshire to Argyll but there are no lifting stones known by this on the islands

The different nomenclatures, obviously due to the various dialects also throws up a complete lack of a generic lifting style and the lifting stones at Glenbuchat demonstrate this in abundance with what historically has been stated as a requirement to place one heavy stone atop the plinth then another on top and yet another. This method is replicated no-where else in the country and makes the lifting stones at Glenbuchat even more unique.

I hope you have enjoyed a small insight to those stones near to the Roch Ford.

Glenbuchat Lifting Stones

On a very damp and misty day in July this year (2014) Peter Martin, two of his weight lifting friends and a group of interested residents ascended up the track to Roch Ford. Local knowledge amongst the residents indicated that the site of the lifting stones was not the site Peter Martin initially though it was.

The site, which would have been more impressive if it had been good visibility, was well suited to a ‘games.’ After climbing up the hill, the path opens out at the top of the climb to a small valley with a hillock in the middle. At the top of the hillock is a pointed stone with a recumbent stone and smaller pointed stone beside it. The side of the valley is a curved making a natural amphitheatre. You could imagine a group of Glenbuchat and Cabrach residents meeting here either for a funeral procession or just local ‘games’. Unfortunately we were unable to locate any actual lifting stones.

After the visit Peter Martin wrote

“Firstly, I would concede that my original suspected location was somewhat way off the actual position known through local knowledge and I am truly grateful for the local input, as should be the case. What I would emphasise is that almost every stone lifting location is in itself unique and although there is a lack of a generic, with the number of lifting stones that are known, there are definite patterns. I have thought hard about the Glenbuchat Stones and the following comments are simply based on my experience of other stones.

In far better weather I am sure the actual location of the stones would be better appreciated as a meeting place for those that once resided in the numerous townships situated nearby and surveying the contours of the land, the proximity to the main Glenbuchat/Cabrach track would appear to have made this location obvious. Having lifting stones located on a raised hillock is unusual but not altogether improbable even although its steep sides may have been problematical. The nomenclature of the stones, obviously taken from the Gaelic "clachan togail" infers that the stones were lifted in competition rather than in respect of any cultural reason; Trial, Manhood or Remembrance and as such we have to have an open mind as to the dynamics of that competition as there were certainly no generic rules applicable all over the Highlands, the high degree of illiteracy within the Gaelic population up until the mid-Victorian period would have insured that there were no formal written rules and those spread by word of mouth would be open to different interpretations.

Those stones known as Clach Togalaich are few in number....Colonsay, Glen Roy and Glen Lui all have a history of being involved in adhoc competition which bare absolutely no resemblance to each other with the common link being only that they were used in competition. The plinth stone located at the site I do have to say is not one of the better looking plinth stones but then again, those that are known all differ considerably in shape and dimensions from each other but there is one common thread amongst them. Where a plinth stone exists, the heavy stone was lifted onto it but those with exceptional strength were known to have thrown the stone completely over the plinth, which by the location of the Glenbuchat plinth would most likely be impossible. The question of the carrying of the stone up the steep gravel north slope of the hillock was raised and considering that the "stone carry" is a well-known style of demonstrating strength my personal opinion is that this would have actually been more likely than stacking the stones upon each other upon the plinth, considering that in the event of a stone or stones falling off the plinth, considerable effort would be required to bring it back up hill.

There are many add-ons in Gaelic stone lifting and other strength disciplines that attempt to flavour a location and the piling up of large heavy stones upon a plinth, utilising strength and dexterity is as I explained that unusual to the extent that it is conceivable that some flowering up of the sites history has been applied at some point. There is another unique stone lifting site in the Sma Glen north of Crieff where the object was to place 3 stones on a sloping plinth and make them stay there. Incorporating dexterity in this case has reduced the normal expected weight of the lifting stones which in the case of the Sma Glen ranged from 50lbs to the large stone which is still extant at 200lbs. The stone is still a good general lift but too easy but of course the dextrous element of lifting it above shoulder height with outstretched arms and trying to make it "stick" on a sloping plinth makes the weight of the stone relatively redundant.

If the stones at Glenbuchat were as McCombie Alexander stated, pilled on top of each other, the stones I am more than sure would have been far lighter than the expected median weight for a lifting stone of about 250lbs. The Glenbuchat stones may have been lighter than 250 lbs. Of course if the dextrous element was removed the stones would have been far heavier and my inclination is that, in the knowledge that there may well have been at least 3 stones, that these would have been lifted individually onto the plinth and would have had differing weights but would have been far heavier.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Glenbuchat site is that plinth stone and the shape of the stones lifted onto it. The plinth as far as I am aware is the only of two stone lifting plinths in the North East and although I dare say that others probably did exist, it is still unique in respect that it is the only one known. Most of the known lifting stones in the North East have a common feature in that they were to some degree or other, rounded. The Inver Stone, Clachan- neirt Achernack and the Putting Stone of the Clans are almost completely oval in shape and the Crawford Putting Stone also has roundness to it. The general stone type, granite, makes the lifting dynamics far more difficult and even today stone lifters are fully aware that one of the major aspects of stone lifting is the availability or rather its lack, in assessing a difficult stone. In comparison, the Clach-neart Glenlivet is also rounded but in no way is a perfect oval shape and has a flattened and rough underside. There is an obvious plinth stone nearby, pointed and angled but less than 3ft in height by no means the lowest plinth in height with one in Glen Lyon being a mere 6 inches. The Glen Lyon plinth however and the known history of its lifting stone is that it was used as a test for proving manhood which, as a consequence of the lifter being in puberty, was a simple lift to achieve putting the "wind underneath the lifting stone".

This all said, and with obvious patterns, I am still at a loss over the Glenbuchat stones although I would say that they were almost assured to be granite stones due to the nearby availability of this type of rock. This was the chief clue to finding the Glenbuchat stones and I have no doubt they would have been obvious......had they still been there and this leads me to the reason why I think that some research is still possible.

The stones are clearly marked on the Victorian 6 inch to one mile map and strangely are indicated with 3 marks for stones (Hill of Three Stanes?) so it can be confirmed that they were still in situ circa 1850 and were in fact recorded such in the OS place-names book.

Moving onto recent times -

‘The lifting stones in Glenbucket are beside the way to Cabrach near the Roch Ford. They are a group of stones of different sizes; the task, no easy one, being to pile them on top of a pointed rock. The Glenbucket and Cabrach men used to have contests there. ‘


‘The Lifting Stones are beside the track on the south side of the ford.’

Taken from William McCombie Alexander's book on Aberdeenshire Place-names, the narrative infers that the stones were still extant in 1952 when the book was published and for this reason my optimism on finding these stones was founded. The question has to be asked is: where are the stones now because I can certainly say that they are no longer there?

I am more than inclined to think that the stones are not hidden in the heather or have submerged under the peat but have however been transported somewhere else. What we have to account for is that the stones may well have been used locally as lifting stones by local men, especially if they were that well known up until the War Years and that a great deal of knowledge was lost to the war in many aspects of social life which on its termination, the world was now altered. Over the years the knowledge of the stones would have seriously diminished but resurrected recently. Perhaps through working in an occupation that on the whole takes a rather cynical view on how people work, I can state that I have had on occasion came across instances where all the evidence points to the existence of a lifting stone but for some reason or another an individual wishes to covet it.

My own personal feelings, and taking into account concerns either side regarding land ownership, I think that someone associated with the Estate may well have a knowledge of the location of these stones that exceeds ours combined. Call it Police intuition or whatever but the lifting stones are not where they should be and, if discarded close to the site, I still think that the recent knowledge as per the 1952 text implies that they have been removed, perhaps adorning someone's driveway? Who knows?

All said and done, the visit was not in any way without success and the pointing out of the area where "games were played" is in itself of historical value and again just underpins how necessary it is to record these facts for future posterity.”

So if anyone has any other information about the Glenbuchat lifting stones, you can contact this site using the email address in the introduction page.

Picture added on 08 August 2014 at 15:43
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