It happens that one of my favourite walks takes me through the Craigmyle estate – an estate that has had connections with Crathes since at least the seventeenth century. Since it is a circular walk of three to four miles from my door it is ideal for Lockdown exercise. Craigmyle lies to the east of the village of Torphins which is about eight miles from Crathes. The sunrise on the day of my recent walk had promise. In the event the weather didn’t oblige, but it was dry and pleasant enough if rather gloomy.
It’s after ten before I start. I live at the top of the village and I am soon cutting through the Torphins wood. At this point I am walking through the Learney Estate, which belongs to the Innes family. On my right is the Mid Deeside Parish Church which now serves the former three parishes of Kincardine O’ Neil, Lumphanan and Torphins. There is a new, much used in normal times, extension that was recently added to the original design. I always think of the main kirk (1874-5 by J Russell Mackenzie) as an Arts and Crafts style but maybe it is a little early for that; it is certainly unusual. The tall roofline is described as ‘Burgundian’ (relating to Burgundy).* I am pleased to note that the volunteers at the church have planted some apple trees in the re-designed grounds. Unfortunately the protection erected to discourage deer has not been effective and bark has been stripped off the lower main stem. We occasionally get deer in our garden and I know that they are very partial to apple trees.
Crossing over to Monboddo Road I think about Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) – James Burnett – a judge and philosopher. Highly intelligent, eccentric, and a man of the Enlightenment, he was inclined to parade around naked on his estate near Laurencekirk. He suggested that humans might be descended from orangutans. His original paper ‘of the Ourang Outang, & whether he be of the Human Species’ can be found in the National Library of Scotland. He was the great-grandson of James of Craigmyle (whom we shall hear of shortly) and, through his grandmother, great-grandson of Alexander 2nd baronet of Leys. To explain: Crathes Castle was the main seat of the Leys Estate before Crathes and its immediate surrounds was given to the National Trust for Scotland in 1951.**
As I pass two facing cottages I think of the people at the other end of the social scale to Lord Monboddo. These cottages are labelled as the ‘Poorhouses’ on the 1st edition OS map (surveyed 1866). I wonder about the lives of the ‘Paupers’ – as they are described on the censuses – but its not easy to imagine life over a hundred years ago. Behind the cottages the rooks in the wood are calling noisily – soon they will be building their nests. The snow that crunches underfoot is particularly welcome as it is easier to walk on than the ice which has kept me indoors recently.
Opposite the lower end of Monboddo Road there is a footpath leading across the fields. Not far along the lane a bridge crosses the burn which for convenience I will call the Learney Burn.
This burn is the previous boundary between the Learney and Craigmyle Estates. It flows down from near Learney House – where it is named ‘Learney Burn’ – collecting the run off from two, now unused, mill dams and passing a number of old mills on the way. Further down the hill it will pass the Learney Mill. The Gownie Burn that runs down the Avenue also flows into this burn.
I have long been fascinated by the interconnected burns and ditches of this valley that once served the mills of the Learney and Craigmyle estates. It was a time when gravity, clever engineering and the hard labour of local folk – digging the ditches without modern machinery – provided the community with much of its energy requirements for thrashing and grinding corn, for sawing wood and for waulking wool. A line of trees across the fields marks the progress of the burn as it flows onward – we will meet it again later.
Suddenly there is excitement: clouds of small birds in the sky – two hundred or more – moving in murmurations, swooping and turning in amazing co-ordination then landing in the stubble field, twittering incessantly, until taking to the air again. They are too big for starlings and I am pretty certain they are linnets although I cannot see the details in the low light. Later when I consult the bird book I learn that there might be a few twites in amongst the linnets, and a recent post on social media states that bramblings have been seen with linnets locally. There is another bird noise which makes me look more closely at the hawthorn bush full of linnets. A harsh rasp and a thrush like shape alerts me to the one solitary fieldfare feasting on the haws.
On the right of the lane there is a new venture – a substantial deer fence surrounds a large area half of which is newly planted with apple trees. I love this project: flowers for the pollinators, fruit for us humans and a carbon sink for the planet. And I know from watching my own apple trees that the small birds will find plenty of insects to help them through the winter.
Behind the orchard you can see the steading of another old mill , that of Milltown of Craigmyle.
As I approach the end of the lane I can see the Craigmyle West Lodge. Designed by Robert Lorimer (1902) its Dutch gable ends echo the Dutch wallhead gable of the much earlier Craigmyle House (from 1676). Lorimer rebuilt Craigmyle House in 1902, but he retained part of the old house.*
The west drive gates are impressive and chained, but open enough to let walkers pass through. The lane I have just walked along and the drive I have now entered did not exist in the 1st edition OS map (surveyed 1866). There was not much of a village of Torphins to visit at that time.
Just to the right of the drive is the millpond of Milltown of Craigmyle. It was much silted up until the present owners excavated it and made it into an attractive wildlife haven. There are more drains and burns leading from the fields, passing under the drive, and feeding into the millpond. I can see beehives near the pond. Further up the drive there are plantations. Badgers are active here. I have not seen them but often see their activities including their distinctive little toilets – just a shallow hole containing the droppings.
At the top the drive joins with the Craigmyle complex of buildings. Turning left I can see the Hill of Fare in the distance. The Lorimer Craigmyle House was blown up in 1960 and replaced by a modern house that incorporates the arches of Lorimer’s extension, although we cannot see that side of the house which faces south-west.
Old photographs show the ‘Darnley’ ash tree which also fell in 1960.
The legend is that Darnley passed by in 1562 after the victory of Mary Queen of Scots at the battle of Corrichie, on the Hill of Fare, but there is no evidence to support this. Darnley is thought to have been in England at this time.
To the north, and somewhat lost in amongst other trees, are the remnants of a double row avenue of lime trees.
At this point I turn south. The Hill of Fare is now to my left. This hill gives shelter to Crathes as well as Craigmyle. It always surprises me how large it is when I walk on the top – not high, just long and wide. The baronets of Crathes used to own and shoot on parts of the hill.
James of Craigmyle (c1590 –c1644) was a brother of Thomas the 1st baronet of Leys. Like Thomas he was a Covenanter, and like Thomas reported to be of a peaceful nature. He acquired Craigmyle by marriage, but it is unlikely that he ever lived here. Mostly he lived at Muchalls or Fetteresso near Stonehaven.** Maybe his son or grandson – both called Alexander – built Craigmyle House which is said to date from 1676.* There have been many different owners of Craigmyle since the end of the seventeenth century when the Craigmyle line became ‘extinct’ because Alexander had no sons. Some of the estate farms have now been purchased by the Leys Estate. Sometimes I try to imagine men on horseback in doublet and hose galloping up the south drive perhaps with urgent news, or carriages bumping along carrying weary travellers home.
I used to have to climb over the modern farm gate that crosses the south drive, but a compromise has now been reached and walkers are able to bend over and step through a gap in the gate. Once through there are more ancient lime trees on my left. There is a big loop in the drive at this point – probably to keep the gradient suitable for carriages – so I turn east and then double back, with the mews of a buzzard for company. A deer-fenced area is full of young Sitka spruce, I think, but some old beeches remain especially on the steep bank I avoided.
Eventually the drive straightens out and I am walking south with an old plantation on my left and a recently felled area on my right. The gale of 1953 devastated much of the woods around here, but grants were available for replanting. The replanted trees are now maturing, which explains why there is so much felling going on just now.
I can see the South Lodge of the estate now and, through the cleared woods, Beltie Hill in the distance. At the gateposts – no gates here – I turn sharp right to walk back towards Torphins along Craigmyle Road.
On my right the houses become more frequent. At Kirk Brae (near the site of the original Free Church) the road zig zags through the now removed railway bridge. Torphins grew up round the railway, but now, like many villages, it is bereft of its station. It would be such an asset to go to Aberdeen by train instead of taking the bus which takes an hour and a quarter at best.
Before long I am back in the village and crossing the Learney Burn again, although I am not sure of its correct name. Since I crossed it on the lane it has collected water from the Craigmyle millpond and now rushes down a small waterfall before crossing the fields to join the Beltie Burn, which joins the Canny Burn before entering the River Dee at Invercanny and thus to the North Sea. There were more mills between here and the Dee.
A short distance and I turn north again passing back through remains of another railway bridge and by the Japanese cedar Cryptomeria japonica – it’s thanks to Crathes that I know this tree. And so back to the beginning of the lane; then left into Monboddo Road with the anticipation of lunch and a lazy afternoon beside the fire.
Since this walk, with the snow compacted, some rain, and more freezing nights, it has been difficult getting out and about. Shoe grips are ordered but not yet arrived. The lane is now like an ice rink. Between the ice and the new emphasis on staying at home it’s hard to remember that spring will be on its way whatever, and that the vaccines will shortly come to our aid. Take care everyone and stay safe.
* Geddes, Jane, Illustrated Architectural Guide Deeside and the Mearns (2001)
** Bailey Eileen A, (Ed), The Holly and the Horn (2005)