08 February 2014

Ever since I was knee high to a grasscutter I’ve been fascinated by History - so fascinated, in fact, that I gave it a capital letter there, did you notice?  I once went out with a Scottish History teacher, but her idea of a good time was 1314.  Yes, I digress.  The subject of this month’s article is, indeed, Local History, with two capital letters meaning it’s really important.
Long long ago in the days before television, this part of Perthshire was home to a race called the Picts who knew it as Birkavia, which translates as “land between the pylons and the turbines”. 
They weren’t a warlike race unless upset and would wander gaily (when it meant happily) through the green glens and straths, tearing down any road signs which used the word “valley” instead.
My story begins on the slopes of Ben Lawers, the highest mountain in Perthshire and the tenth-highest in all of Scotland.
It’s pronounced  LAW-ERS and not LAW-YERS, despite what The Corries sing on The Loch Tay Boat Song and it was long thought to be over 4,000 feet in height. But when it was inspected in the 1870s there were gasps of horror all round as the tape measure showed it to be some 17 feet short of this figure. So, in 1878, twenty men spent the whole day building a large cairn on the summit to reach the magic figure of 4,000 feet.
Alas, or perhaps thankfully, the cairn weathered away, but it doesn’t really matter because the men who ran the Ordnance Survey at the time ignored it, saying sniffily that it was “an artificial structure that was not truly part of the hill“, so it wouldn‘t have counted anyway. Then they took their ball back and went home. 

“...The shielings were areas of high summer pasture, and excavation of several shieling sites (easier to read than say) produced radiocarbon dates from the late 16th century
until about 1840...”

Ben Lawers is owned by the National Trust for Scotland but they let you play with it if you ask nicely although it‘s designated as a National Nature Reserve. 
The earliest evidence of human activity there came from findings at the Ben Lawers Nature Trail which were dated by radiocarbon to the Mesolithic period.  They were a packet of Walker‘s crisps and a rusty can of Irn Bru.  No, I wrote that to see if you were still awake.  Are you?
The shielings were areas of high summer pasture, and excavation of several shieling sites (easier to read than say) produced radiocarbon dates from the late 16th century until about 1840.  So, for at least two hundred years, people were moving there each summer to graze their cattle. It was mostly women who did this; obviously no glass shieling in those days.  Which takes me to the story. 
There’s a very large spring or burn which rises in the Corrie of Carie, on the south-west side of Ben Lawers on the site of one of these shielings.  Once upon a time - yes, it’s a sweet old-fashioned story - this burn was kept secure by a strong door with a huge lock and an equally huge key.
Near the burn, on the hillside, was tethered a great herd of cattle looked after by a dairymaid whose job it was to supply the cattle with water each evening. “Oh just a wee drop for me, Catriona, or I’ll be up all night.”
Well, put it down to stress, or short-handedness or the Can’t-Get-Staff Anywhere syndrome, but one evening after giving the cattle their nightcap she was so harassed that - oh no! - she forgot to lock the door guarding the burn. The burn flowed all night (and they were longer nights in those days) and when people looked out of their windows next morning the whole valley was filled with water.
They called out in their native Gaelic tongue: “Loch Tatha!  It is a loch!”  and that’s how it all began.  Incidentally, there’s a non Gaelic-speaking place further east in Scotland called Loch Bugger Me: I Don’t Believe It!, so it must be true. 
Till we meet again, fondest greetings from Birkavia.

Alan Brown



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