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Issue 10 - Taking care of the countryside

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


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Taking care of the countryside


The tiny white church of St John the Baptist is beautiful in its simplicity, yet strikingly unusual with its plain glass windows. It was commissioned in 1913 by the 11th Laird of Rothiemurchus, who deemed that stained glass be abandoned in favour of plain windows “so as not to detract from the glory of the surrounding woodland.”

Putting the countryside first is a way of life for the custodians of Rothiemurchus, a privately-owned estate that thrives in the shadows of the Cairngorm mountains near Aviemore in Inverness-shire.

Covering more than 12,000 hectares of Highland soil encompassing ancient Caledonian pine forests, lochs and moorland – not to mention an unbelievable array of wildlife – the estate works hard to conserve and maintain its natural assets.

Thankfully it does not go unappreciated, as the estate is open to visitors all year for pursuits as diverse as quad biking, cheese tasting, salmon fishing and dog sledding.

The estate has been in the hands of the Grant family for over 500 years, and is run by the 14th Laird, Johnnie Grant.

He has had the double challenge of reinventing some aspects of the estate to continue to appeal to visitors whilst maintaining the beauty and habitats of the land for future generations.

“Whilst we offer the traditional sporting pursuits found on Highland estates such as shooting, stalking and fishing, it has been important to diversify in the lowland areas to ensure that the estate continues to appeal to the wider public,” he says.

To assist with this task, in 1976 Rothiemurchus became the first private estate in Scotland to have its own ranger service.

Stuart Findley is a full-time ranger on the estate and clearly relishes his role. Having already mended a fence at the crack of dawn, Stuart now explains his job as we stroll along an ancient lochside path once frequented by cattle thieves.

“Through themed guided walks, vehicle-based tours and school trips, I ensure that people enjoy themselves whilst learning a little about nature, the estate’s history, the local environment, agriculture and conservation,” says Stuart.

He spots a clump of juniper bushes, explaining that for illegal whisky stills, juniper was burnt during the daytime to produce smokeless fire, thus hiding the evidence of any illegal distilling.

“I’m here to help visitors appreciate the estate’s natural attractions,” he continues. “As many people are interested in Rothiemurchus and the environment in which it survives.”

Making the most of the abundance of natural attractions is easy for Rothiemurchus, and many people visit Loch an Eilein for beautiful walks, mountain biking or picnicking on the loch banks. Meaning literally ‘loch with island’, this loch’s island is home to the ruins of a 13th Century castle.

Many stories surround the castle, and it has been a place of refuge for hundreds of years, firstly for locals in hiding during the Jacobite Rebellion, but more recently it has offered protection for nesting birds, including ospreys and oyster catchers.

Whilst divers have searched the loch in vain for signs of underground tunnels (a suspected means of transporting supplies during barricades), the most long standing legend is that of the old man in the castle.

For decades children have called to him across the loch and listened for his reply – an eerie echo that reverberates around the silent waters, crumbling castle walls and immense forests.

A picturesque cottage overlooks the loch, much admired by passing walkers. It was built in the 1800s as a playhouse for the Laird’s children, a place deemed sufficiently far from the Doune (the Grant family home) that the children’s shrieks would be out of earshot.

During the Victorian era, the cottage became a tea-room and a narrow lochside path was cleared of trees to enable the Victorian ladies, dressed in crinolines, to stroll there for tea, admiring the views whilst their husbands stalked deer in the surrounding hills.

These ladies may not have been so relaxed had they known of the possibility of wild cats lurking in the area. The ‘Cat’s Den’ is an enormous bowl of land off the beaten track at the far end of the loch.

Its grassy crags and rocky outcrops rise to dizzying heights where buzzards circle overhead, the occasional golden eagle passes through and woodpeckers chip away at vast tree trunks.

Although no cats have been spotted in recent times, estate workers occasionally see their tracks in the snow.

Usually the only tracks to be seen are from the estate’s vehicles, regularly used to taking visitors on ‘safaris’, which allow visitors to access the estate’s high ground, stopping en route to see Highland cattle and red deer.

The trip includes a visit to the Rothiemurchus deer farm, offering an insight into the business of managing a free-roaming hill herd.

As many deerstalkers are only interested in stalking stags (for trophy antlers), the does are bred for meat.

“It has to be a very carefully managed process,” says Stuart, “the herd numbers need to be controlled through responsible breeding programmes to ensure that we don’t have more deer on the hills than we can cope with.”

Whilst some Rothiemurchus venison is supplied to national wholesalers, much of it is destined for the estate’s own delicatessen, the Rothiemurchus Larder.

The shop sells offerings from around the estate, including fresh rainbow trout from its fish farm, beef and free range eggs from its traditional farms and locally made jams and cheeses. To appreciate such local produce, one of Stuart’s newest visitor activities is a guided farm walk, which incorporates the fish and traditional farms and an explanation of how each is managed before ending at the Larder with a cheese tasting session.

The delicatessen is housed within one of the estate’s most charming buildings, the Old School in Inverdruie.

Closed down in the 1960s, the Laird restored this Victorian building to its current state in 1980.

It now has a visitor centre, delicatessen, card and gift shop within it, a remarkable nod to modern times for some of the older estate workers who attended school there.

More active visitors have plenty of opportunity to let off steam.

Bridging the gap between traditional country pursuits and more modern activities, this part of the estate has seen the most expansion in recent years.

Perhaps the most unusual activity is a visit to Alan Stewart’s team of sled dogs, kennelled in whisky kegs at Europe’s only sled-dog centre on the edge of the estate at Moormore.

When the weather is cold enough, visitors can join Alan on hair-raising sled training trips, designed to maintain the dogs’ fitness for competitions, hopefully including the next Winter Olympics.

Swapping paws for tyres, regular quad biking and 4x4 off-road trips provide alternative – and bumpy – views of the estate, traversing across moorland and forest in a haze of mud and dust.

The estate also has a clay pigeon shoot where beginners can take lessons or the experienced can brush up their skills. With the beautiful River Spey meandering along its boundary, the estate owns four miles of fishing beats for salmon and sea trout, whilst at the fish farm stocked trout lochs and ‘wild’ lochs are available for trout fishing.

For parts of the year, the most frequent visitors to the fish farm are ospreys which regularly visit the area to nest.

Having spent years catching fish in the rivers and lochs, they have now got wise to the easy prey of trout at the farm.

Their visits are so regular that there are hides beside the farm lochs specifically for viewing ospreys at close quarters.

The region’s natural history has been much publicised, from British nature programmes covering its population of red squirrels, ospreys and pine martens to Canadian documentary-makers racing with sled dogs.

The famous horticulturalist Alan Titchmarsh recently praised the flora and fauna found on the estate’s marshland, chef Rick Stein featured the larder in his television programme and the area is due to become part of the Cairngorm National Park, only the second National Park to be created in Scotland.

Yet the locals seem unaffected by such attention and just enjoy the beauty and natural history that surrounds them.

Recounting tales of the varied wildlife is all part of Stuart’s job as a Rothiemurchus ranger, and as he disappears to prepare for a visiting school’s field trip he laughs that he’s lucky to have such a satisfying job.

And how could anyone disagree?