Filming on The Cabrach

Cabrach

I’m just back from a morning’s filming with the BBC up on The Cabrach, that most remote community that spans the high moors of West Aberdeenshire and Upper Banffshire. The BBC’s magazine series on rural Scotland, Landward, broadcast a special on April 11, 2014, to explore the effects of World War I on rural Scotland.

As any self-respecting North-easter knows, The Cabrach is Scotland’s obvious testament to the waste of young life in wartime. The great numbers of tumbledown crofts and steadings you see in that triangle bounded by Dufftown, Rhynie and Lumsden happened not because of land policy or the Depression or a series of bad farming years. They happened because virtually all the fighting-age men and boys went off to war in 1914. Many did not return.

They believed politicians and newspaper leader-writers who said that the more men who joined up, and the quicker they did it, the sooner the enemy would be defeated and the earlier they could be home. It was the original “home by Christmas”.

We all know now that it didn’t happen that way. Many died either in battle or because they succumbed to measles, to which they had no immunity because they came from such a self-contained community.

The women, children and old folk they had left behind to keep the crofts ticking over for the implied four months could not survive beyond a second Cabrach winter and eventually had to find accommodation and work elsewhere. They abandoned the crofts, and what you see a century later was once described by a Dutch academic historian as “the biggest war memorial in Europe”.

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  1. Margaret Young says:

    We love “Landward”, Norman, and will look forward to seeing this programme, although it will be very sad.

  2. grace stewart says:

    As an ex Cabrach quine I will be watching with great personal interest.

    • Norman says:

      I hope you approve, Grace. The filming was done in February in briefest snatches of calmer weather during a classic Cabrach blizzard. My eyes are red; my nose is running, and my hair is aa ower the place, but I think we managed to tell the story properly in the two minutes of air time allotted to us.
      It always astonished me that such a high proportion of men and lads from The Cabrach, Dufftown, Rhynie and Lumsden volunteered in the first weeks of the war. There are no exact figures, but the Imperial War Museum suggests several hundreds; most of them lost and unidentified in France and Belgium, either to combat or to measles.
      Very sad, and the physical evidence is still only too apparent, 100 years on.

      • Anne says:

        Is there a physical war memorial in The Cabrach? All of the names on the Glass memorial mentioned that all men returned.

        Will be watching keenly on the 11th.

        • Norman says:

          As I understand it, Anne, there were two war memorials in The Cabrach, both located within churches. When one of the churches was converted into a private residence, its memorials were removed. I also understand that the memorials were woefully incomplete and listed barely a dozen men; far below the true number who gave their lives.
          In the mid-1980s, when my late colleague Pearl Murray learned that one of her relatives from Auchindoir had died in battle in Belgium, she set about finding out more about him and, along the way, unearthed the full story of the Cabrach sacrifice in World War I.
          With the help of the Imperial War Museum, she managed to establish that more than 800 men and teenage boys from Dufftown, Rhynie, Lumsden and all points in between, including Cabrach, signed up, making it possibly (but not provably) the highest proportion of war loss suffered by any rural area in Scotland in wartime.
          I remember Pearl being professionally very upset with us, her colleagues, who found such a high figure hard to believe. We suggested that surely she had got the numbers wrong, and that more likely it must have been “more than 80″, not “more than 800″. It seemed, however, that the larger number was correct.

          • Anne Murray says:

            Thanks Norman, last year I walked the River Deveron from the Sea to the Source. The Cabrach, where the River becomes the Allt Deveron, left a lasting impression on me, it’s so beautiful yet haunting. There are houses that were abandoned more recently possibly the 1970s or 80s going by the decor.

            There are enough stories about The Cabrach to make a feature length film and still have some left. Im concerned that they disappear as the inhabitants and their families leave the area.

          • Kate Howie says:

            I live in lower Cabrach,it’s a beautiful place to live. Look forward to tonight’s programme

          • Neil Sheed says:

            Hi,

            the names on the two memorials are here:

            http://www.threestones.co.uk/memorials/upper.html

            http://www.threestones.co.uk/memorials/lower.html

            Do you happen to know if Pearl Murray wrote any of her research for the P&J Norman ?

            thanks,
            Neil

          • Norman says:

            I’ve noticed there are lots of Sheeds in the Cabrach churchyards and surrounds, Neil. Yes, Pearl wrote a full 1,000-word personal column, or perhaps two columns, on her Cabrach research for The Press and Journal. From memory, it appeared on a Saturday some time in the mid-1980s.
            I remember the content more than I remember the date. She had learned in casual conversation with her family that one of her great-uncles from Auchindoir had been killed in Belgium. This prompted her to try to find out more about him with the help of the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
            She garnered only basics, and I think was disappointed to find that he was not commemorated anywhere. According to the museum, this was because nobody really knows how many men signed up to fight in World War I since there was no great record-taking 100 years ago. For that reason, every statistic related to World War I is only the roughest estimate in a way that does not apply to World War II, by which time full records were deemed to be crucial.
            They did say that most WWI memorials woefully underestimate the number of men and boys who were killed. Partly, this is because the carnage was so great and identification impossible, and also because unless men were identified as having been killed in battle, it was thought at the time that it would not be proper to put them on a memorial.
            That means that men from the Dufftown/Rhynie/Lumsden triangle, or what most people would call loosely The Cabrach, who died of diseases such as measles because they had no community resistance, would not have been recorded formally as “war deaths”. We would think differently today, of course, but this explains why the war memorials make it look as if only a couple of dozen Cabrach men gave their lives. The true figure is far, far in excess of that.
            At that point, Pearl’s journalistic instincts kicked in. She might not have been able to find out much about her relative, but she noticed in passing that documents gave exceptionally high estimates for Cabrach families who had lost men and boys early in the war. She unearthed the story with the help of the Imperial War Museum and by interviewing older former Cabrach residents at Huntly and Rhynie in their 80s and 90s then (possibly even your own forebears), most of whom told the tales of their mothers and grandparents having to abandon their crofts and farms just to survive. This explained why the Cabrach was still littered with tumbledown remains: not land policy or bad farming practice or famine but World War I.
            Pearl’s work with the Imperial War Museum established at a rough guess that more than 800 fighting-age men and boys from Dufftown, Rhynie, Lumsden and all points between signed up and went off to fight within the first few weeks. There must have been a fervour whipped up to defeat the enemy to which Cabrach men responded instantly.
            I remember she was very upset with her colleagues at The Press and Journal when she wrote and presented her feature which mentioned that more than 800 had signed up. We all knew Cabrach and the surrounding villages well, and as we thought of that comparatively depopulated area, we simply couldn’t believe her. “Don’t you mean 80?” we all said. Pearl didn’t suffer her professionalism being questioned very easily and showed us her notes and check-notes with no small indignation. She pointed out briskly that Cabrach in the 1980s was not the place it had been 75 years previously.
            I did my best before the programme to track down Pearl’s feature. The problem is that personal columns in those days were not cross-referenced to the library-card system in the Press and Journal library in the same way that news, business, farming, sport and features would have been. The only filing would have been in bound copies of the full paper, a month at a time, and the only way to research them is to read every paper until you find what you are looking for. You can imagine how difficult and time-consuming that would be.
            Electronic filing did not arrive until the late 1990s and work on retrospective filing has not begun, so everything between 1748 and about 1998 remains on paper only. This makes unindexed material, such as personal columns, virtually impossible to find.
            I’m sorry not to have better news, but I hope my recollections of Pearl’s column and what led to it help to fill in some of the blanks.

          • Neil Sheed says:

            Yes, the Sheeds and the Cabrach have had a long association (still going on).

            Ok, thanks – I’ll add it to the list of things to keep an eye out for when I’m trawling for Cabrach history.

        • Jean Read says:

          the threestones web page has details of war memorials in the cabrach with names on them.

  3. Frances Johnstone says:

    My granny used to tell me of women during then1st world war collecting Spagnum Moss from Badnaman Moss – it’s just at the turn off for the Burn O’ Craig. She said they used it to cleanse wounds!

  4. Corrie Cheyne says:

    Really looking forward to this, Norman – away to share it on Facebook now!

    • Norman says:

      Thanks, Corrie. It’s a two-minute segment in a 30-minute programme covering all aspects of World War I’s effects on rural Scotland, including individual tales of loss, requisitioning of horses for transport on the Western Front, and how harvesting of trees changed the country for decades later.

  5. jim gray says:

    I always wondered why upper cabrach had so many rundown and empty crofts and the school buildings in a terrible state, fortunatly the church has been renovated and saved . Many of the gravestones had war dead noted on them with few names added after. So beutiful an area and worth a visit before it all disappears in time.

  6. I’ll look forward to watching that. As a hobby I take photographs of abandoned communities and have been to Cabrach often. Sadly the landowner does not like people going on to his land and there are many stories of people being stopped by estate workers and questioned.

    • Norman says:

      Yes, we were quizzed by two people who turned up in a Land Rover. It was all good-natured once the director, the cameraman and presenter Dougie Vipond explained what we were doing.

  7. Andrew Macpherson says:

    I’d better tell my mum. She was born in 1935 at Ballochtown. During WW2 there farm was part of an anti tank gunnery range

  8. Joanna Thomson says:

    Yes love the Cabrach, most of my dad’s side of the family lived in and around the Cabrach, Glass, Bridgend and Huntly.

    What time is the programme going out.

    When ever I come to Aberdeenshire I always go to the Cabrach.

    • Norman says:

      I believe it’s 1930 on BBC2 Scotland.

      • Joanna Thomson says:

        Thank you Norman.

        As I said previously most of my Great Grandparents and Grandparents grew up in the Cabrach area.

        I will also pass this on to my Aunt and get her to watch it to.

  9. Gary Greig says:

    Brilliant, Norman. Being a ‘toonser’ fae Aiberdeen it was only recently I became aware of The Cabrach and some of its history. Fell in love with the place the first time I drove through it. People always talk about the natural beauty of Deeside and the Don Valley but the Cabrach has a unique beauty and atmosphere that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

    • Norman says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Gary. There’s a photograph everywhere you look in every direction at every time of year.

  10. Ian Rigby says:

    “The Soldiers’ Cairn” and “The Glen’s Muster-Roll” by Mary Symon of Pittyvaich, Dufftown, sum up the devastation caused in rural communities in WW1

  11. Very interesting Norman and will watch Landward I go over to Ypres in Belgium each year to visit the war graves (off over on the 5th may) with a few ex Gordon Highlanders from Turra so may even walk past some Cabrach loons by the way I lived across the road from you in Alford

    • Norman says:

      Neil, I remember you fine. I still see your mum occasionally, although she doesn’t get out quite so much now. Best wishes. Norman.

  12. Andrew Ross says:

    My great aunty Lottie lived in the Smiddy at Upper Cabrach in the late 1940s. She went to live there after my Father’s uncle Sandy died. They had a croft around about Chapel of Garioch,or towards Monymusk.I drove around the Cabrach a few years ago, but the Smiddy is now derelect.My old school friend owns the garage in Lumsden by the way.

    • Lesley Robertson says:

      Is anyone familiar with the Mitchell and/or Burgess families?

      • Fiona Carson says:

        Isabell Burgess (b 1717/21-1801) married John Gordon in 1739 who is buried in Upper Cabrach churchyard (d 1771) farmer Auchmair. Her father was Alexander Burgess b pre 1700 and resident in Upper Ardwell Cabrach in 1738 Alexander was witness to their daughter isabell Gordon’s birth in Auchmair in 1747 still in Auchmair in 1752 when Patrick born and Anna in 1758 and Elspet in 1762. What i want to know is who was the father of this John Gordon ?

  13. Joanna Thomson says:

    Watched the programme on I-player really enjoyed it.

    The picture that came up that Neil Sheed had let you use in the programme of Bridgend where the old shop/post office was now derelect the Mitchells had it at the time that was done, but after the first world war sometime my great-granddad Alexander Thomson took over with his wife Jessie and their children Alexander, Jessie, Robert and Lily, Alexander’s wife Jessie was illegitimate to John Sheed of Upper Ardwell and Jean Beattie. Even though Jean and John never married Jean gave Jessie the Sheed name. Then Jean went onto marry a William Harper who was a shoemaker at Bridgend.
    Was up in the Cabrach in November and visited the Cabrach Church looking at all the graves, it is great that the Church is being maintained, but it is so sad that the most of the buildings surrounding the area have fallen into disrepair.

    • Norman says:

      I’m glad you liked the programme, Joanna, and it’s interesting to hear some family tales from the earlier part of the century. As for the buildings, I agree completely. I’ve always thought the manse, or Deveron House as it is now, is a wonderful building. It’s coming up for 210/220 years old, I believe, and it’s sad that it has fallen into disrepair and that some of the windows are broken and the front door is flapping open. The satellite dish looks anachronistic. With a bit of love it could be a fine and classic piece of North-east architecture again. I believe it’s on Scotland’s endangered-buildings list. In the meantime, it would make a fine setting for a horror film. How about a spooky moonlit story connecting the kirkyard and the manse?

      • Gary Greig says:

        Great idea for a ‘filum’, Norman! The manse seems to sit on it’s own mini promonturum. (I think ‘at’s a word I hivna seen in ony o’ yer Doric books) I heard a rumour some time ago that it was available for lease, but the laird was asking for silly money given it’s current state of disrepair.

  14. Margaret Young says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the programme, Norman, but it was heart breaking to think of all those young men going off to war and never returning. It would have been hard enough to lose one’s husband or son but I can’t contemplate how anyone could cope with losing six sons.

    Glad that the programme inspired Dougie Vipond to read “Sunset Song” – or perhaps the BBC told him he had to read it as part of his “homework”! It is certainly one of my favourite books and my husband and three “children” love it too. The two boys studied it at school but my daughter didn’t, since her English teacher was English! I wonder what the large-screen film of “Sunset Song” will be like? I read that part of it is being/has been filmed in New Zealand! Typical!

  15. Peggy says:

    Norman, I am in the US and just watched the Landward episode via Tunnelbear. Very well done. I had just finished Sunset Song last month. Now I want to re-read it after learning more about that time. I will see it with new eyes. Such loss. When I visit Scotland I want to see Cabrach. Thank you.

    • Norman says:

      Peggy, you might not know that Sunset Song was voted Scotland’s favourite book of the 20th century, so you have excellent taste. I have re-read it every five years or so since school and have always found it brings something new to me each time. Not wishing to spoil it for anyone who has not read the final part of the trilogy, Grey Granite, but Ma Cleghorn is one of the finest-drawn character studies in any literature, and her final scene is heartbreaking in its simplicity. I hope you do get to Scotland and that you find the Cabrach as affecting as we do. There is a memorial plaque in one of the old churches to a boy of 14 who signed up as a young seaman two weeks after leaving school and was on his first voyage when his ship was sunk in mid-Atlantic by a German cruiser. Such a waste.

  16. June Riddell says:

    Really enjoyed the programme Norman,pity it hadn’t been longer.My great grandmother was a Duncan from Alldivalloch,have never been there but seen photo’s of many ruins in that area and Tornichelt where my Kellas ancestors came from,it’s hard to believe that so many people from that area went to war.Must have a look for some books on the subject. Do you know of any records kept for Leochel Cushnie area? My grandfather Andrew McDonald apparently joined the Gordon Highlanders at the age of 17 poss at the begining of World War 1 in 1914,we think he very rarely spoke about it and now that I am doing my Family History would like to find out more of what happened.

    • Norman says:

      June, I think the parish records might help you, but whether they are still held at the kirk (unlikely) or at the council (more likely), I am not sure. A quick call to Anne at the Alford office of Aberdeenshire Council might at least get you started in the right direction (01975 562421). The bulk of Pearl Murray’s Cabrach research was done in pre-Internet days with the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as outlined in other replies in this thread. You might also want to contact the Aberdeen and North-east Family History Society at 164 King Street, Aberdeen (01224 646323), and Scotland’s official online genealogy record at Scotlandspeople.gov.uk. Good luck with your research and I’m glad you found the programme interesting. Everyone on the production team was a delight, and Dougie Vipond, the presenter, is an absolute gent.

  17. Fiona Carson says:

    Have you heard the story (told to me in the Cabrach in the summer of 2013) about how the Duchess of Gordon recruited soldiers for ‘the first war’ with a sixpence and a kiss and consequently does not sleep easy in her grave in Kinrara, but gets out sometimes and combs her hair? Is there any historical basis for this story?

    • Norman says:

      Fiona, I think this tale applies to the raising (founding) of the extended Gordon Highlanders regiment in 1794. The British Government had asked the Duke of Gordon to raise a regiment to fight the French Revolutionary Government, which had declared war on Great Britain. The Duke agreed, and his wife, Jane, Duchess of Gordon, supported her husband’s efforts by touring various recruitment fairs in a pseudo-military outfit, offering a kiss to recruits who signed up and occasionally holding a guinea coin (some sources say a shilling) between her teeth for especially favoured new recruits to take. It is said she recruited 940 young men this way.
      Later documents show that the reason she was so keen to recruit young soldiers was because she had bet the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, that she could recruit more soldiers than he or the Government could. She won her bet.
      I’m not sure if she sleeps easily in her grave or not, but it is recorded that she suffered throughout her life from melancholia (depression) and towards the end of her life she was increasingly erratic and eccentric. Some historians have suggested that she was suffering from dementia.
      She and the Duke became estranged. He moved his mistress into Gordon Castle and built his ex-wife Jane a house at Kinrara on the banks of the River Spey.
      She died in a London hotel in 1812 and was buried at the Celtic Chapel at Kinrara. The Duke, however, heeded Jane’s last wishes and erected a monument to her there which bears inscriptions of the marriage dates of their children.

    • Ron Brander says:

      Fiona:
      I don’t know if she combs her hair or not, but I recently came across the following. I’m afraid I can’t put my hands on a source reference at the moment. It was probably from the archives of the Huntly Express.
      The Estate of Kinrara was owned by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. When his estates were sold off in the 1930s to pay death duties, the land containing the grave of the Duchess was acquired by the officers of the Gordon Highlanders. A man of the Cabrach confirmed in that decade that her apparition appeared at the graveside every time before “dire disaster overtakes the Gordon Highlanders”.
      The Huntly-based Deveron Arts organisation has been running a “Hielan’ Ways” project for a year, which is focused on Huntly-Dufftown-Tomintoul-Strathdon-Rhynie and all points between, including, of course, the Cabrach. To complement that project, I was asked to write something on the heritage of that region. The 200-page book stops short of WWI, but will hopefully be published for November. It will include a lot of research from primary sources and covers a diverse range of social history and heritage.
      While walking innocently on ancient drove and pack roads across the 40,000-acre Cabrach & Blackwater Estate, connecting former communities at Glenkindie and Kirkton of Cabrach, artists on the above project have recently been harassed and felt intimidated by a senior employee of the estate. This is contradictory to the letter and spirit of Scotland’s access legislation, as well as ancient precedent, and is all the more unpalatable because of the huge subsidies to be gained by the estate owner for the massive windfarm development which is imminent there.
      It would be interesting to know why this estate was not incorporated as part of the Cairngorms National Park at its establishment, since it is obviously a contiguous part of the very same landscape and heritage as the park, and the very obvious boundary would have been the A941 Rhynie-Dufftown road.

      • Fiona Carson says:

        The story about the duchess’s grave in the 30s is interesting -she still haunts local consciousness to this day. I will check out the Hielan Ways project- thanks, Fiona

  18. Fiona Carson says:

    Thanks. This information is fascinating -also that the story has been adapted to connect with more recent events and losses i.e. the First War . I am making a video about my visit to the Cabrach last summer and would like to quote you about Landward and this if that is okay. I am a descendant of the Yeats family of Redford Upper Cabrach- my great great great grandparents William Yate and Hellen Yeat were living in the farm at that time . Fiona

    • Norman says:

      Happy to help. By all means quote verbally as you need, although if you’re planning to lift video from the programme you would need to clear it with the BBC. Thanks for the courtesy of asking.

    • Anne Murray says:

      We’d love to hear about your film Fiona. If you (and anyone else) want to keep in touch with the history of the area there is a facebook group called ‘Huntly Histories’ that is collating a lot of social history of the area including the Cabrach.

      • Fiona Carson says:

        Dear Anne ,
        thanks for the interest – I will check out Huntly Histories . My project comes in fits and starts -it has got overly long and according to my partner, too literary and confusing so it is resting until I figure out what to do next. Fiona

  19. Neil Middleton says:

    Hi Norman, it’s Neil Middleton here again. Just a follow-up on my last post: I have just returned from Ypres which I go to each year with some friends. I will be returning again in August to take part in a parade to remember the Scots who fell. I would be willing to try to find any grave of any of your readers and take photos; lay a small cross with poppy, and send them on to the families. We go to Ypres and The Somme. If anyone would want me to try to find relatives, they could contact me through your page. Hope all is well with you. Neil.

    • Norman says:

      That’s a great offer, Neil. If any readers want to take you up on it, they just need to post a message here. Many thanks.

  20. Fiona Carson says:

    Any suggestions as to how I acquire some music topical to Cabrach that I could use in my video and what it might cost me . I have come across words but not recordings e.g. the wife of Aldivalloch, the Buck, songs by Mary Symon of Dufftown ? Fiona

    • Anne Murray says:

      Hello Fiona,

      I recently walked the Deveron River from the Sea to the Source and my collaborative partner Jake, walked from the Source to the Sea. Whilst I did a cultural survey and recorded the histories of The Deveron (including the Cabrach area), Jake recorded the songs of the Deveron.

      A publication has just been issued which may give you some of the information you are looking out for. It can been purchased in The Linden Tree in Huntly

      Best wishes

      Anne

  21. Maggie Rollo says:

    Hi could i ask Neil Middleton if he would mind laying a poppy at the Menin gate in rememberance of my great granda Alexander Wright of Clatt, there is no grave just his name on the memorial wall.My family and his wife Edith all descend from the Cabrach, the Duncans of mount Pisgah and Aldivalloch, thankyou.

    • Norman says:

      I’ll pass that on to Neil, Maggie. I’m not sure if his August trip was to coincide with last Monday’s centenary of the declaration of war, in which case it’s unlikely that he’ll get your request in time. I have e-mailed him directly, just in case. I’m sure he’ll be happy to help you; if not this time, then on his next trip.

  22. Neil Middleton says:

    Hi Maggie. It will be my pleasure to lay the poppy. We go over on Thursday the 13th so you timed it well. Can you send me all info you have: ie Regiment, army number (if you have it)? If you could let me know your email address, I will take a photo and send it on. I will be laying a wreath at the Menin gate on the Friday night and taking part in a ceremony to remember all the Scots who fell in WW1 on the Sunday, so your great-granda will be in my thoughts at this time. Neil. (You can email me your info to neil@nullthe-middletons.co.uk)

    • Norman says:

      Many thanks, Neil.

    • Maggie Rollo says:

      Thanks Neil i have sent an email,
      In Memory of
      Lance Corporal Alexander Wright
      266179, 6th Bn., Gordon Highlanders who died on 31 July 1917 Age 24
      Son of George Wright, of Hardgate, Clatt, Kennethmont, Aberdeenshire; husband of Edith (Duncan) Wright, of Old
      Upper Towie, Botriphnie, Keith.Father of Mary Ann Duncan Summers Wright who was just a baby when he died but his memory lives on in the many many children and grandchildren of Mary.

  23. Neil Middleton says:

    Hi Maggie. Thanks for that. It will be my pleasure to lay the poppy and salute a hero. I will be wearing my Gordon’s glengarry as it also served in The Gordon Highlanders. I’ll email photos to you when I return. Neil. BYDAND

  24. Pamela Stuart says:

    Hello,
    My ancestors, William Stuart and Elspet Kellas, lived at one time in the Cabrach. They ran the Grouse Inn and also lived at Nether Ardwell next door in the mid 1800s. Would anyone recognize this family? Also, one of my Grandfathers’ brothers was in WWI and survived, but he contracted a disease coming back and died only days later. This Stuart family lived in Tininver House, Dufftown. Looking forward to hearing from anyone who may know of my Stuart ancestors in the area. Another name would be Scott. I missed your program and would have been interested in seeing it, but I live in the USA. Again, if anyone is familiar with these families, I would like to hear from you. Thank you.

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