Two hundred years ago the walk of seven or eight miles from Crathes Castle to the Castle of Midmar by way of the Hill of Fare was nothing out of the ordinary for Robert Burnett 7th Baronet of Leys, and there are many today who can appreciate the pleasure of such a walk.
Robert (1755-1837) kept a diary of his daily travels in the years 1820-21. He was, in February 1821, 65 years of age and, apart from occasional attacks of gout, a healthy man. Much of his diary is about shooting on local estates with details of the game taken, but in February 1821 he travels to the north of England. The first day of February is spent at home at Crathes. On the 2nd he walks to Midmar where his wife’s sister and family live (the Mansfields). He stays at the castle overnight and spends the next day shooting rabbits. Snow falls on the 4th when he walks back over the hill to have dinner at Banchory Lodge beside the Dee (then the home of his brother William and now a hotel). He stays there that night and walks home to Crathes in time for dinner next day. He is home for three nights, entertaining on the 7th. The next day ‘Wm and I drive to Stonehaven take dinner at Collins’s & go to Edinburgh – very windy day – frost this night’. William, his son, had just been appointed to HMS Wye at Portsmouth. They get to Edinburgh in the morning where they breakfast at McGrigor’s Hotel. Over the next two days Robert meets friends and family and dines with his son James. On the 11th he and William take the overnight ‘Mail’ to Newcastle. They breakfast at Newcastle and ‘Go to Hexham by the 4 oclock coach & to Anick Grange (Mr Harbottle’s) in the evening’ where they meet Alexander (maybe another son or his nephew). They stay at the Grange (which is now a B&B) until the 16th when ‘Alex and I go to Newcastle in the mail’. By this time Robert has a raging cold and seems to be bothered with constipation: ‘not at all well Take some Castor oil’. On Saturday 17th he takes ‘the Wellington’ from Newcastle, leaving at 5pm and arriving in Edinburgh at 11pm where he stays for a few days. On the 22nd he walks out and dines with the Horns (his wife’s relatives) at Inveresk. The entry for Friday 23rd reads: ‘Fine day – leave Edinburgh for Crathes by the mail at 7 oclock – Damned bad cold – & hardly able to travel’. He reaches Stonehaven at one in the morning and, after some sleep, the Crathes carriage comes to pick him up. The next day he records: ‘Take Castor oil & not out.’ Despite his cold he attends a ploughing match at Maryfield on the 26th. Snow returns at the end of the month.
Such a journey was comparatively easy for Robert in the later part of his life. Before 1799 there was no nearby bridge over the Dee and he would have had to ford the river just below the castle. When travelling to Stonehaven via the Banchory Bridge he would also need to cross the Feugh – the bridge of which was built in 1790. The turnpike road (North Deeside Road) was completed in 1802, before which the old Deeside Road had to suffice.
Another thirty years or so and travelling became even easier. The Deeside railway had come to Banchory in 1853. Initially there were three return trains a day all of which stopped at Crathes Castle Station which was a private affair to be used solely by people travelling to and from the castle. In 1863 the station became public and ‘Castle’ was dropped from the name. By then there were five return trains a day except when stopped by the weather. The winter of 1874-75 was hard as was recorded in the Crathes Game Book: ‘Awful weather, Snow on the ground for more than a month Railway blocked on Newyear Day’. The Deeside line finally closed for passenger traffic in 1966.
You can still see the remains of the station on the Deeside Way. For some years it was converted for a home and workshop and occupied by Malcolm Appleby, a well-known gold and silversmith. The signal box that remains is a reconstruction.
The railway was used for transporting timber, livestock and other commodities to and from Aberdeen which made trade with England and beyond much easier.
The present Royal Deeside Railway Station at Milton of Crathes is a modern construction. This tourist attraction uses the buildings it acquired from the Oldmeldrum Station. Trains run about two miles between Milton of Crathes and Banchory in the summer months.
Like many old railways much of the track of the Deeside Line has been converted for long distance walking – the Deeside Way.
The Deeside line didn’t reach Torphins until 1866; in fact there was not much of a village before that – the OS map surveyed in 1866 shows the station, an inn, a post office, the old school (now standing derelict), some Home Farm cottages and a few more cottages in the Inchly area. Other than the Poorhouses, there are no houses to the north of the station. With the coming of the railway the Learney estate began to feu out plots for building, those on William Street being amongst the first to be granted, starting in 1876. Torphins, then, is really a railway town, now bereft. The railway went the way of other Beeching cuts and ceased to carry passengers a hundred years after its birth.
It is said in the village that the houses on the south side of William Street all had to face the railway so that Queen Victoria would find it pleasant to pass through Torphins on her way to Balmoral – though I believe she mostly travelled at night.
I much regret that I never travelled on the Deeside Line when I was a student in Aberdeen, but at least I can now walk parts of the line. There is evidence of the station in Torphins, which lay across St Marnans Road, in the name of our local café/gallery/shop: Platform 22. When the line crossed this important road north, Bridge Crescent had to be built to enable people, carts, carriages, and later cars, to pass over the tracks. Nowadays there are houses built where the tracks used to run.
For those that don’t need to travel by car the recent snowy weather has increased the pleasure of Lockdown walks and last week found me on the railway line on more than one occasion. The photographs taken above show the end of the week when the pleasure had receded and the thaw had set in; those below record changes through the earlier part of the week.
Just down from my house I can walk down Cooper’s Lane – we call it the tunnel – where Mr Cooper used to take his horses up to graze in the fields on which our house was built. Turning right I travel along Grampian Terrace stopping to admire the witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, which grows in one of the gardens and does not seem to be bothered by the frost.
The line of the railway is accessible along the south side of the park and westwards for about a quarter of a mile or so. A good fall of snow has made the walking easy – no slipping today. Silver birch have grown up on either side of the path; the patterns on their bark look good throughout the year. I note the honeysuckle twining up a dead willow. The honeysuckle is not dead, its leaves are just beginning to unfurl. The sun comes out and lights up the scene; blue skies ahead.
The line opens up further on and I can look north to Learney Hill. The consumption dyke below is rather loosely constructed. There is a better example near Glassel. Typical of Aberdeenshire, these dykes were just a means of clearing the fields of stones during improvement. There is one at Crathes crossing the Home Farm Fields.
At Wester Beltie the pathway ends. Should I have travelled the track on the train I would have come shortly to the five span viaduct over the Beltie Burn; an impressive construction for a small burn. Unfortunately it was demolished for safety reasons in 1989. I am grateful to Chris Bruce who alerted me to the U tube video of the demolition (Viaduct.mpg) – no health or safety here! And beyond the viaduct was the notorious Satan’s Den, a deep cutting where snow accumulated, often delaying the trains on their way to Lumphanan.
Another day I leave the track and branch up through the woods on to the golf course. The squirrels have left their tracks in the snow.
The snow is deep on the hill and I am glad to walk in someone’s footprints ‘where the snow lay dinted’. To the south I can see Clach na ben, to the east the Hill of Fare.
There are a few snow boarders on the course, but in the mornings it is fairly quiet with the children home schooling. By three thirty there will be a rush of youngsters keen to enjoy the slopes whilst the snow lasts. It is a welcome change to the grind of Lockdown.
The 11th February is an extremely cold day – Braemar recorded minus 23 degrees Celsius overnight. The day begins with bright blue skies. At the end of the railway path I come upon some exquisite frost formations. They are quite bewitching, like fine glass leaves clustered on stems and branches. When the clouds chase away the sun the ‘leaves’ begin to fall all around me. As they lie there, still pristine in shape, I wonder at this brief and fragile beauty that I have been privileged to glimpse.
On the 13th we wake to find that there has been yet more snow overnight. This snow, however, is fine and powdery; it drifts in the wind. Many roads have been closed and some cars have been stuck in drifts. Down in the park all the sledge marks and footprints that criss-crossed the snow have been obliterated, as if a palette knife has been used to smooth the royal icing of a cake.
The thaw comes quickly and there is a worry about flooding; water is pouring off the fields and the burns are overflowing in places. The Dee must be very high.
Meantime at Crathes Joanna has been having her own problems travelling from Aberdeen to look after the glasshouses. She had to go home early on the 9th of February for fear of having to sleep in the bothy! You can see from one of her photographs how the snow was building up; the next day the snow kept her at home, but with James and Andy living on site, the glasshouses were in good hands. The gardeners are all on alert to use the backup generator if required; how easily hundreds of hours of work would be lost in a power cut. There will be heavy use of oil this winter. In January, when many of these photographs were taken, Joanna reported that the echiums were struggling but still alive; but then came the extreme cold of the 11th February, so I doubt they will have survived. The snow drops taken on the last day of January will be fine under the snow; there should be quite a show this coming week.
With the early years of school going back to classes on Monday we begin to think of an easing of Lockdown. Maybe there will be better news by the end of February; whatever happens we know we are over the worst of the winter. The woodpeckers are drumming and we anticipate the spring with joy.
Take care everyone.
Vallance, H A, The Great North of Scotland Railway (1991)
Burnett of Leys papers University of Aberdeen