Scotland: The Heather and the Fern


Mt KeenA pile of travel diaries sits on my desk. Most are mine, two are not. My grandfather’s 1937 and my mother’s 1951 diaries augment my stack. All New Zealanders of Scottish descent, it is 150 years since our ancestors emigrated but we have all felt the pull to Scotland. The cat jumps on my desk and knocks the pile. My diary from 2009 falls open …

The land rover bumps and lurches over the uneven ground as we grunt up the hill. Mike the ranger turns to make sure we’re not getting too battered and bruised and in his soft Scottish burr assures us that we’re almost there – he thinks – he hasn’t been to this area of the estate before. While he stops to consult his photocopy of a Victorian map we gaze around at the hills of Glen Tanar.

It’s spring in the heart of Deeside, Queen Victoria’s favourite holiday destination, not far from Balmoral. We’ve seen daffodils and crocuses on our trip up the valley from Banchory but there’s a nip in the air; it is the Highlands after all. ‘Over there’ my sister calls excitedly and we see above us on the hill the remains of a small hamlet. Pulling up we get out and wander around. The Highland air blows crisp and cool. The ruins feel abandoned and sad, but there is beauty in the lichened grey stone. The walls around the perimeter remind us of those in Central Otago.

These are the remains of Walternaldie the birthplace of our great great grandfather, his father and how many before him? Huddled in our thick coats we gaze over the fields, down the valley to the river Dee below. The wind gently whips and whistles as we feel the isolation of this place and meet the family ghosts. We imagine what life here was like and can almost smell the peat fires and oatcakes cooking. The black faced sheep which were the livelihood of so many highlanders after the Clearances are everywhere, hardy but scrawny. They watch us as we nibble the buttery homemade shortbread and drink the flask of coffee provided by the estate’s cook.

Back down the glen to Correyvrach which sits at the foot of Mt Keen on the old drovers’ route from Paisley to Aberdeen. Here our forebear moved not long before seeking his fortune in Aberdeen and then emigrating. Mt Keen is popular with today’s adventurers, the most easterly of the 282 Munros to be ascended and ticked off the list by the keenest climbers. There are still patches of snow on its lower slopes; it looks bleak and barren. The Scottish palette of colours – browned heather, yellow green tussock with the blue sky and grey stones gives the area a haunting beauty.

Further along the Dee River, clear and cold, flows merrily with a stone bridge leading to the last remaining portion of an ancient Caledonian pine forest. The sun is out and the water twinkles as Mike tells us of the efforts being made to preserve what is the only one of its kind in the UK.

He drives us back to the Glen Tanar homestead and modern day Scotland. We are entranced by the 19th century ball room, popular for weddings we are told. It has tartan curtains and a parquet floor as well as stags’ heads on the walls and over 600 antlers decorating the ceiling. There are masses of books, a grand piano and cosy armchairs. It exudes an air of comfortable, almost homely elegance. This is a far cry from the ruins we have just visited.

We climb into our car and head off back down the glen, feeling grateful to those ghosts. Grateful that they could leave this beautiful place, their home and their family. Grateful they did leave. Grateful we could return and experience it.

I push the cat down, close the diary and step out into the bright New Zealand sun.

About the Author: Clare Gleeson is a New Zealand historian, librarian and travel writer who enjoys exploring her own country as well as those further afield. She has a travel blog so you can read more.

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