Colliding with the past must be a hazard of my being of which I have no explanation. Certainly I am nosey, but some stories just come from nowhere; this is just one.
Readers of the Leopard may recall that I wrote about my befuskert rogue of an uncle who pedalled his counterfeit notes from Deeside into Angus before gasping his last whisky-fumed breath in Perth jail. Donald was a shepherd, and with the guile borne of generations, he had ‘way-finding’ more innate than any satellite-navigation system. If need be Donald, could have found his way over the Capel Mounth, both inebriated and blind-fold.
I have spent a fair bit of my spare time in Glen Clova; and as a volunteer for Scotland’s Rural Past I have befriended the custodians of the glen – Dave Orr and Flora Davidson. Whilst pulling coils of rusty wire at South Inchdowrie, I asked Dave about Jock’s Road, the track connecting Deeside with Angus. I should have known that in that moment, my fascination roused, I was to follow Jock, step by very step.
Jock’s Road winds its way upwards out of the Glen Doll forest, rising steeply in places, by the white water to the two Munro peaks of Tolmount (3,143 feet) and Tom Buidhe (3,140 feet). From here the Callater opens up into Deeside, reaching past the loch; Jock’s Road takes you to the falls of Auchallater and the famous farm there besides. It is a 14-mile route that takes a good seven hours to trek.
It was by Jock’s Road, from Auchallater, that 19-year-old Malcolm Bruce decided to trek through deep April snow of 1956 to meet his skiing pals in Glen Doll lodge. Jock’s spirit seems not to have accompanied Malcolm; losing his footing on Creag Caorach, the Crag of the Sheep, he landed on a large boulder. It took his comrades a week to find his body.
Three years later five ‘young but experienced’ hill walkers, were also abandoned by Jock. Well-equipped, they mistakenly set out rather late in the day to make the traverse from Auchallater, and in the darkness were overwhelmed by the ferociously cold wind.
Davie Glen, the bearded man of the hills, dug his way to the plateau trying in vain to find the last two bodies. It was for this reason that Davie was later to build the shelter past Lunkard, now preserved as Davie’s Bourach.
In truth, Jock’s story starts centuries ago, but I want to take you to the year 1883. In that year, from Lord Southesk, Duncan Macpherson Esq. bought the Glen Doll estate in Angus. Glen Doll, a tiny but stunningly beautiful glen, sits at the head of Glen Clova, and leads by the scrabbling and twisting track known as Jock’s Road into Royal Deeside.
Southesk, a poet and scholar, was no ordinary literati, for when he purchased Glen Doll in 1877 he had just returned from exploring the Rockies frontier, mapping the un-chartered prairie.
Duncan MacPherson’s beginnings were on a rickle-stane croft in remote Laggan. Yet in 1883, when he returned from Wangarrata, Victoria, Australia, with his much younger wife and four small children, he was a man possessed of a fortune.
So it was that Duncan MacPherson bought the finest barony of the day: Findynate on Strathtay, in Perthshire. Curiously, Findynate was familiar to me. Whilst browsing through the Sunday property supplement, peeking the key-hole of every ‘unaffordable’ (admit it you do it too!) that I came across Findynate, listed as number one of one hundred of the most desirable homes in Scotland in 2007.
This was the first time since Macpherson that the 1,365-acre Findynate estate – including baronial mansion, nine estate houses, and three hill lochs and beat on the river Tay – had been on the market and with an asking price of over £4m. Needless to say, I did not put in an offer.
Duncan MacPherson and family enjoyed 10 short years of grandeur at Findynate with a ‘village’ of staff to wait upon their every need. They even had a resident piper, and a kilted Gordon, at that.
But MacPherson was not easily satisfied, and as a keen hunter he sought for himself a Scottish glen, where he could take his weekend shooting parties. MacPherson was more than a keen shot.
In Wangarrata the threat of desperate Bushrangers had left him extra vigilant; in April 1865, the farm of his brother Ewen had been ambushed by the crook-nosed, ringlet-festooned ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan, who had forced his way into the Peechelba ranch and captured Ewen’s wife and little baby daughter Christina. Mad Dog, sleepless through five nights of rampage and slaughter, wished to be soothed, so with revolver to her head, he forced Mrs MacPherson to play the piano for him.
The following morning, a rescue party, alerted by the nursemaid, arrived just as Mad Dog was mounting MacPherson’s best stallion. He was shot dead by a single bullet through the back of his head. His body was taken by MacPherson to Wangarrata, where his head was severed, to be forwarded to the professor of anatomy at the University of Melbourne.
The horrific flashback of Mad Dog never left Christina MacPherson of Peechelba. She never trusted a man in matrimony; but she did carry her mother’s musical gift, and wrote the music for Waltzing Matilda.
All this seems so distant from peaceful Glen Doll, one of the secret gateways to Scotland’s highlands. In 1883, in a handshake between friends, Glen Doll was to become privy only to the very rich. In some ways, it was a capture not dissimilar to Wangarrata.
Perhaps I overstate the case, but my belief in such tyranny is based upon a suitcase that belonged to the Secretary of the Scottish Rights of Way Society and is now preserved in the national archives.
That suitcase was owned by E.W. MacPherson, namesake of the new laird of Glen Doll. In that suitcase, letters, newspapers, accounts, legal papers and precognitions survived to give a first hand account of a dispute that started on Jock’s Road, but traversed out of Angus, into wider Scotland, and ultimately to Westminster.
The final Lords’ ruling of 1888 on the Glen Doll case has never achieved proper recognition; for without it, we would not be free to roam our native land.
This account is based entirely upon the contents of that MacPherson suitcase. The very first letter I was to pull out, dated 5 August 1885, was sent by the Writer of the Signet on behalf of Duncan MacPherson, and addressed to the Rights of Way Society. I quote:
_Mr Duncan MacPherson of Glen Doll has been consulting us regarding a board put up by your Society on the road leading to his house. There is no such road or path through Mr MacPherson’s property as that indicated on the board which is to be removed at once.
We have now to intimate to you that should you or any other member of your Society be found trespassing on Mr MacPherson’s lands, prosecution will be taken against you personally and them._
MacPherson, though, had no patience for procedure. Before the letter had even been written, he had pulled down the signpost, snapped it in two, and shattered its plate.
A brewing dispute had come to a furious boil. Duncan MacPherson wanted Glen Doll as a shooting estate, principally for deer, and from the first day of occupancy set about fencing it off.
Glendoll Lodge, an ‘ornate without being fussy’ shooting lodge, built by Lord Southesk, was now a private realm, hidden behind its distinctive back-boards.
The gate was secured, padlocked and patrolled by the keeper, so blocking access to Jock’s Road to shepherds, crofters, walkers and botanists alike. Within weeks of MacPherson becoming proprietor, the post box of the Rights of Way Society in Edinburgh was beseiged by complaints.
By late 1884, James Farquharson, principal shepherd for Auchallater, finally lost his patience. Assisted by three others he cut through MacPherson’s fence and led his sheep through Glen Doll and into Clova. These were to be the only sheep ever to pass through Glen Doll in the time of MacPherson.
So it was that the society, James Farquharson, and various other local people, raised an action in the Court of Session against Duncan MacPherson and Colonel Farquharson of Invercauld, owner of the Callater side of the Tolmount, to have it declared as a public road, or right of way.
In the three years that followed MacPherson fought the action ‘tooth, nail and claw’, using every procedural device in the law books in an attempt to have the action dismissed.
Contrary to the usual procedure in Right of Way actions, he contended that the case should be tried without a jury, who might have been prejudiced by correspondence in the Scotsman and London Standard. He won this round and the court directed that proof should proceed before Lord Kinnear without a jury.
The Scotsman (date probably 1886): Surely the Scottish people will not abandon the glens and mountains which are the greatest glory of their Native land.
Farquharson of Invercauld removed himself from national acrimony with a curt telegram to the legal office stating that he recognised Jock’s Road as a right of way, and that the route that ran through his Deeside estate was open to all. He consented to a signpost but stated that ‘the Society’s name must go’.
Undaunted, MacPherson carried on as sole defender of the action, but one of his close circle, uncomfortable with the campaign, sent an anonymous telegram to the Rights of Way Society outlining that MacPherson was proposing a contrary argument that the true right of way was actually by Loch Esk and Bachnagairn.
The society, at huge cost, sent out scouts to take statements from the shepherds of Clova and the shepherds in Deeside.
Sifting through the papers, I was impressed by the rigour of the Society. They took statements from the previous proprietors of Glen Doll – Lord Southesk and Donald Ogilvy, Earl of Airlie – both of whom had ‘understood and believed’ Jock’s Road was a right of way.
It was the 57 separate witness statements of the shepherds, however, that sealed Lord Kinnear’s decision. These statements form a perfect narrative as to the last days of the peripatetic shepherd. No cattle drovers survived by this date and smugglers were hardly mentioned, ‘but their footsteps, man and beast, tred wi’ Jock jist as much’.
The oldest shepherd to appear before Lord Kinnear was John Gordon of Bovaglie who gave the most salient account, describing in perfect recall ‘every year from 1826 till 1836’ when any sheep not disposed off at the spring and autumn marts in Braemar were taken by Jock’s Road through Glen Doll, down the Clova glen to Cullow market, ‘this being the shortest route’. John Gordon explained that, for this very reason, the Cullow mart was always held two days after the Braemar mart.
Jock’s Road was a right of way; so concluded Lord Kinnear. That clarity of decision was ossified by the 57 shepherds of Deeside and Angus, most of whom were elderly and frail. In Edinburgh, they each had their turn before Lord Kinnear. The first and last Baronet of Spurness, Kinnear recognised endeavour in the shepherds despite the failing health of many; and in their collective presence was struck by the real truth – that we share our land; nature, man, and beast alike.
It is easy for a writer to cast protagonists as good and bad, black and white – for this is a magic formula in story-telling. You will not be surprised then to discover that Duncan MacPherson was to appeal Lord Kinnear’s decision not once, but twice. This was no surprise to the society, but their funds were spent and they were merciless to the dictat of MacPherson and his fortune. The Appeals of 1886 and 1887 were rejected and the Scotsman Correspondent was certain (in his front-page report) that MacPherson was defeated.
In a letter dated 18 March 1887, the Rev. Duncan debunked such premature optimism: “I have just been reading Lord Kinnear’s latest decision which seems sensible. It is, however, just such as will tempt your illustrious namesake to appeal. He has often bragged that he would spend £2,000 to have the road closed.”
Grasping nettles at South Inchdowrie, I thought of Duncan MacPherson: he had the wealth to cut swathes without any blisters to himself. Yet he could not let go. Perhaps wealth had made him imperious, such that he prepared to take his action against the society to Westminster.
A doomed cause. In May 1888 four lords concluded in favour of Jock’s Road. It was, and always had been, a right of way.
If MacPherson had read history, then he chose to disregard the wisdom of Scotland’s greatest laird, Sir Walter Scott. On his Abbotsford estate he erected his own signpost ‘Rod to Selkirk’ which gained him great popularity in the neighbourhood: “The public road is not far off, and this leads through the centre of my grounds, but I never could bring myself to make that a reason for excluding any person who finds it agreeable or advantageous to take over the hill if he likes. But although my practice in this respect had always been well known the actual admission of it as a right by sticking up a sign-post was received as a kind of boon, and I got a world of credit for it”.
The Westminster lords ordered that MacPherson pay all the judicial expenses. History records that this left him bankrupt, but this was not so; by today’s standard he lost about a million pounds. This certainly dented his wealth but threatened not his way of life, and he lived on with his family at Findynate until his death in August 1893.
Just months before his death MacPherson erected a new fence around Glen Doll Lodge, and whilst it did not completely block the approach to Jock’s Road, it narrowed it to such an extent that droving was no longer possible.
The Rights of Way Society died in the fight. It had to pay the huge costs of two legal teams in Perth and Aberdeen, in the order of £650. A public appeal called The Glendoll Guarantee Fund raised only £260. A desperate society placed an open letter in the Scotsman of 1889, stating: “… the Directors believe that the trial has had important results – not only the success of preserving a very fine old road, but the more important benefit of proving that there is a public body willing and ready to defend Public rights even against a very wealthy and very determined opponent.”
Donations did arrive, alas too little, too late, and the society was declared bankrupt in 1893, the year that Duncan MacPherson died. A sole campaign continued through James Bryce, one of three Parliamentarians on board the Society; he sponsored three Access to the Mountains (Scotland) Bills, but without success.
And who was Jock? His story is as ethereal as the mist on the Tolmount peak, and his time is back a further century.
Jock Winter was not one of the 57 shepherds that took on MacPherson the Imperious. Jock, a shepherd for Invercauld, and his flock of sheep were trapped for months in high Doll as his master and Lord Aberdeen disputed the rights of the road.
But it is not circles of history that occupy my mind, rather the stark irony of this landmark case. Duncan MacPherson Esq., of Doll, started out as the child of a lowly cottertown in remote Laggan. There is no shame in that.
When, as a young man, he arrived in Australia with his brother Ewen, they were described as “fine looking Scotch shepherds”.
Yes, Glen Doll was, himself, a shepherd.
Dr Peter Gordon trained in Aberdeen as a doctor. He now works in Bridge of Allan, where his wife Sian is a GP.Tweet
This is an article from the August 2010 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.