MAR LODGE ESTATE
A potted history of the staff on Mar Lodge Estate
As told by Robbie Mitchell.
Robert [Bob] Lane Scott was born on Mar Estate in 1903, but it was not until sixty years later that he employed me, Robbie Mitchell, as his ghillie on the Derry beat. Bob spent his whole life on or around the Estate, apart from during WW2, and I worked there until I retired in 2006.
Bob’s father was a stalker on Mar, one of the last people to speak Deeside Gaelic. Bob never learnt Gaelic, his mother died young, and as he said, “You aye learn from your mum.” Well that’s his excuse! One of eleven children, Bob was born in 1903 in Linn of Dee cottage. He attended school at Inverey where there were two schools in those days, one Protestant and one Catholic. He used to boast that when he came out of school he would go along the road and “thrash the Catholics”. I’m sorry to say that in some ways the world has not changed in the last 100 years. Bob started work young, as soon as he could lead a pony or throw a fishing line on the river, and then took seasonal work as a stalking or fishing ghillie between stints at the Lion’s Face quarry and winters with the roads department of Aberdeenshire County Council. He had a shed full of shovels at Luibeg, all stamped with ACC on the handle!
On joining the Royal Engineers at the onset of the 2nd World War he saw service in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Austria. He survived being torpedoed twice on route for Africa. In fact he delighted in telling everyone that Hitler had a personal grudge against him! After the war he married Margaret, a lassie from Aberdeen, and in 1947 took the stalkers job at Luibeg on the Derry beat where he remained, latterly as Head Stalker, until he retired in the early seventies.
Following the death of Princess Alexandria [the Duke of Fife’s eldest daughter] in 1959, Mar Estate was inherited by Capt. Alexander Ramsay. Due to enormous death duties the Estate was split into two and the area north of the river Dee became Mar Lodge Estate. In 1962 it was bought by two Swiss business men, Gerald and John Panchaud from Lausanne. They immediately embarked on some pretty ambitious projects, turning the Lodge into a sporting hotel for shooting and fishing guests, developing Creag Bhalg as a ski centre, and introducing a large suckler cow herd, among other ventures.
My father worked at The Royal Lochnagar Distillery at Crathies as a joiner/cooper and we lived in a distillery cottage. However he died quite young, when I was a teenager, and we had to leave our tied cottage. That was when my mother moved us to Braemar.
In 1963 Bob was needing a ghillie for the season, and having heard that my sister was experienced with ponies, he called in at our house in the village. I answered the door and the conversation went a bit like this. Bob said “I believe your sister kens a wee bit about horses?” “Aye, aye, I think she does.” “Would she be interested in a job ghillieing?” I said that I’d put it to her. So I did, however Isabel had taken a job in Edinburgh so, much as she would have liked the job, she had to say no to Bob’s offer. When I met Bob in The Fife Arms and gave him this message he said, “Well, would you come yourself?” I thought about it as I was pretty free at that time, I only had a temporary job driving a timber truck for the Forestry Commission. So Bob collected me in his landrover and I was deposited at Derry Lodge where I slept. My meals were provided by Mrs Scott and I had to be over in Luibeg before seven for breakfast, otherwise I didn’t get any!
I was probably the last estate employee to live in Derry Lodge and it has been empty since the lease to the Cairngorm Club ended in 1966. Graham Ewen has written a detailed history of Derry Lodge covering three centuries.
Prior to the Panchauds acquiring Mar Lodge most of the sporting guests were English gentry, landowners or ex-military types. Most of these were very fit and good shots, and knowledgeable about the sport, but when it came to tipping they were a great disappointment to the stalkers and ghillies. One of the wealthiest of them and also the meanest was Col. Pilkington of Pilkington Glass. He was allowed 40 stags off the Derry beat. A local ghillie, Norman McGrory, and I once took 4 stags that he had shot at the far end of Glen Derry to the larder at Derry Lodge. We were still skinning them at 9pm by the light of a Tilley lamp when Pilkington came in with Bob and said, “I’ve had a wonderful day Scott, I think we deserve a dram.” He took the top off a hip flask that was no bigger than our thumbnail, filled it with whisky, drank it, filled it again and gave it to Bob. When Bob had scoffed it Pilkington proceeded to screw it back on the flask. When Bob said what about the ghillies, Pilkington replied “I don’t believe in giving young men strong drink” I won’t repeat Bob’s response to that! However this didn’t stop Bob’s daughter Eileen going to Lancashire to work as a nanny for the Pilkington family.
I’d only been at Luibeg a few months when Bob slipped and hurt his back on the hill and had to go into hospital. Mrs Scott went with him and I was left in charge of the horses, the dogs, the hens, the lot at Luibeg. One of his last instructions, just as he was being loaded into the ambulance was “Mind and do up them bloody hikers, and its 1/6 a night. You’ve to be out there early to get your money, or they’ll do you.” The bothy had been there a long time, Aul Beattie ran it long before Bob moved up the Derry. However I got it wrong and thought it was 2/6, which is what I charged them, but the hikers pointed out the notice on the wall which said 1/6. So I said, “But Bob’s last words were 2/6, he must have forgotten to change it”, and duly charged them 2/6. So there was a tidy little windfall when Bob got back home cos the bothy was pretty busy at that time. I guess they reckoned it was worth it, but they kind of made it up as they used to nip into the hen house at times and take eggs, they got their money’s worth!
In Bob’s early years at Luibeg the bothy had been an important source of extra income. The Estate was factored from Banff and a tight grip was kept on spending. The house was in a poor condition and Bob was not given a suit. His first vehicle was an ex WD pickup truck. He didn’t get a landrover until after the Panchauds took over. In the severe winters of the late fifties, when the pickup could not cope, he would take the horse and sledge down to the stable at Linn of Dee cottage, from where Alec Rae would take the womenfolk and Bob down to Braemar in his car. The womenfolk went to get their messages while Alec and Bob regaled themselves in the Fife or a neighbour’s house. They came back up the road, had their tea at the Linn of Dee, and then on to the sledge and back up the road again. The horse of course knew the way himself, so even if Bob had had a few, they always got home safely.
It must have been in my first year, before the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team was formed in 1965, that I was involved in a rescue with Bob. Then the local police coordinated stalkers, shepherds, and anyone who knew the hills when help was needed. This guy’s companion came down to the bothy at Luibeg to report the injury. He wasn’t fit to walk back up, I think Mrs Scott entertained him with cups of tea. I don’t think Bob had the phone at that time, I just don’t remember exactly how we got word down to the village, but in no time at all Smiler, the local bobby, was up with a couple of estate workers from Invercauld. We set off out past the Pools of Dee to locate this fellow. He was in a lot of pain, and Smiler just looked down at him and said, “My good man, if you could have had this unfortunate accident 50 yards further north, my colleague in Avimore would be dealing with this and I would be home in bed with my good wife.” Where upon Bob said “Well, we can aye drag the bugger over the march!” Even with 4 or 5 people it’s a fair old burden, and times it was impossible to walk abreast, so there was only one at each end. This incident had a happy ending, but this was not always the case.
It was at the end of my first season that Mrs Scott took very ill. It was pretty serious and the doctor tried to get hold of a helicopter to take her into Aberdeen, but there was very low mist and cloud that day which caused a long delay. I forget if she died before she got to hospital, or if she died just shortly afterwards, she had a heart attack. It was on 31st October 1963. Shortly after that Eileen came home to look after her father.
We had a hard winter in 1965. Bob had been in the village under the pretence to get groceries, but stayed a little bit overlong in the Fife, despite everyone’s advice “You should be getting up that bloody road, Bob”. Anyway he got part of the way up, stuck the landrover, and got Gordon Fraser to come along and pull him out. He got a bit further but stuck again at what we call the splash, half way up the Derry road, and walked home. The next day Gordon Fraser and I skied up but couldn’t find the landrover despite the fact that we knew the lay of the land pretty well, it was completely buried out of sight. We walked up to Derry Lodge to get some avalanche poles and poked about until we got it. It was actually about 4ft under the snow, and we had to dig a long slope down to get the back door open, we got the groceries out and trailed them up to Luibeg on a sledge. The Derry road was blocked for weeks, Dougie and I had to ski up with messages. In fact there was a tractor stuck just inside the gate, a TD6 stuck about a mile further up, and two landrovers stuck further up than that!
Another time I remember one of the first minis getting stuck. At that time the public were able to drive up to Derry Lodge if they paid half a crown or so. I don’t know how a chap expected to get up there with a mini even with a minimal amount of snow. Anyway he tried it and got stuck, and Bob couldna get past him and had no option but to give him a pull. Bob wouldna have taken the tension up on the tow rope, he would have just gone for it, and the result was the car was virtually pulled in half. I don’t know what the final outcome was because at that point Ackie said, “Come on I think we’re better out of here!”
About this time we started getting a new type of sporting clientele, they came from France, Germany, America, Spain and Italy. Some were friends and business associates of the Panchauds. They brought their families with them, who, while the client was out shooting, spent very freely in the village shops. Many came year after year and became good friends rather than just clients.
With some foreign guests, communication could be a problem, sometimes resulting in a better stag being shot than the one indicated by the stalker. Bob Scott was no respecter of position or wealth, he spoke to everyone the same, employer, client or ghillie. Once, after returning to the bar following a day’s stalking, he was asked who his stalking guest was. Some old mannie he replied. It was Richard Todd the actor! At his third attempt to shoot a stag Todd said to Bob, “Where did I hit him Scott?” “Hit him!”, Bob said, “Ye didnae even hit the hill he was standing on”.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s we had experienced winters of heavy snowfall in Braemar, skiing in Scotland was booming, and the Panchauds saw great potential in attracting skiers to the Estate. Two T-bar tows were installed on the hillside behind the Lodge and a lot of local men were employed to clear the slopes of rocks and roots. Work went on over a hectic eight month period, staff were recruited for the bars, restaurants, tows, ski-shop, and ski-school. Compressors and pumps for snow guns were installed and loudspeakers providing music were slung from trees and pylons, and on 21st December 1963 it was opened to the public. The runs catered for all abilities, with the suicide run zig zagging down through what’s now known as the Maple Leaf Wood. I know of only two guys who completed that run safely.
For a few weeks conditions were absolutely perfect, hard frost at night and brilliant sunshine through the day. The crowds rolled in and the bar and restaurant did a roaring trade in venison burgers and mulled wine. We even had a resident band, The Eagles, and then Billie Jean and the Scots Boys who played in the bar and in the Stag Ballroom for the Saturday night dances. These were very popular, attracting busloads of dancers from all over the country. They continued after the demise of the skiing until they because a victim of their own success when an element of rowdiness and vandalism crept in that brought it to an end. The skiing continued to flourish until the temperature rose and a lot of snow cover was lost. The fact that the slope has a southerly exposure did not help.
The snow guns were brought into use to supplement the natural snow and fill in the runs. These only worked in sub zero temperatures so it was often after midnight before the operators could start spraying snow over the hill. At one stage, some young inmates from a borstal institution were drafted in to operate them, however they spent so much time in the pub that they sometimes fell asleep at their post and instead of getting an even spread of snow, ended up with large heaps like tattie pits. That made for interesting skiing.
The temperature fluctuated greatly, sometimes showers of sleet or rain would be followed by hard frost then the whole slope would become a solid sheet of ice which made for even more interesting skiing. However the milder conditions prevailed and the project had to be abandoned. The tows were dismantled and later erected at Glenshee. The possibility of developing Beinn a’Bhuird for skiing was considered, but it was decided to be somewhat impractical. We did on some occasions drive members of the Aberdeen ski club up there in landrovers and tractor carts. For some people there was still fun to be had in the snow.
Shortly before the skiing started the Panchauds introduced a herd of nearly 300 Hereford X Angus bulling heifers with Aberdeen Angus and Hereford Bulls. The plan was to calve them in the autumn and sell the calves the following October at Aboyne Mart. This was one of the first attempts to out winter large numbers of cattle at this elevation, and the first winter was a bit of a disaster as many calves were lost due to pneumonia and scour. The winter of 1963 was even worse. The stable buildings had been gutted out to accommodate some of them but the poor ventilation caused them to sweat through the day and freeze at night. They ate large quantities of hay until early summer when they were driven up Glen Geldie and Glen Derry, freeing up the inbye fields to make hay and silage. If grass came early and the weather was reasonable, the cows were content to stay up the glen and grazed out as far as our march with Glen Feshie and Blair Atholl Estates. Their feeding on the rough vegetation improved the grazing for the deer. If however, it turned wet and cold they would come bellowing back down the glen and it was very difficult to turn them back. They paid no heed to men or dogs and it took a horse to shift them. The cows and calves did exceedingly well on the large variety of grasses and herbs on the hill and the calves frequently topped the sales at Aboyne. The same buyers came for them year after year.
On joining the Common Market we lost the grants that made the operation viable. There was also a demand for bigger calves so Charolais and Limousin bulls replaced the traditional breeds. The downside to this was that we had more calving problems with subsequent losses, cows calving life was shorter, and feeding costs went up dramatically, not to mention transport charges for hauling fodder. Herd numbers were reduced until the project was abandoned in the early eighties. The grazing was then let to neighbouring farmers, though we still continued to make some hay and silage for feeding deer.
Previously we re-seeded up to 40 acres every year and put down a nurse crop of oats. They were cut green and ripened in stooks. An agricultural student who had been my ghillie remembers turning the stooks after returning for the Ghillie’s Ball in 1974. He was just finishing a season as ponyman at Forest Lodge on Blair Atholl Estate and persuaded the stalker, Ron McGreggor, a local worthy, to ride through the glens to the Ball. Ron and Bob had long heard of each others reputation, but had never met. By the end of their first dram they were inseparable for the rest of the evening! The next day Ron, unused to riding, had a sore backside and elected to walk home, so Bob drove him up to Bynack Lodge to shorten the journey. Peter gave me a hand to turn the stooks, but neither of us was really fit for the job after the night before. He took both ponies home the next day.
I was lucky to work with Charlie Illingworth for many years. He was a jolly old chap, always looking for a laugh, and very reliable. If one came home from Braemar late at night and saw a torch in the field, it would be Charlie going about checking on the calving cows. I think he started in 1966, employed as stockman for the new herd of cows. His passion was football.
Charlie’s daughter Mary helped in the hotel kitchen. She was another good steady reliable person who was rarely seen in the bar. She went home straight after her shift to look after her dad [her mother had died] and her children. Mary looked after Charlie until his death. She is now in her mid seventies and living in Braemar.
The late sixties were a particularly busy time on the estate with so many different activities going on, and to add to the workload, we started an extensive tree planting programme in 1967. Ploughing, fencing and planting trees all over the estate in plantations ranging from 35-160 acres. These were intended primarily for deer shelter and now that most of the fences have been removed, deer and the public have access to them. Because of the great diversity of activities ongoing at this time estate staff had to develop a wide range of skills. John Henderson the chef was a great exponent of multi tasking. He was also a gardener, painter and decorator, saw miller and carpenter. Others were equally versatile.
One person I would like to mention, he was a bit rough, but an awful nice guy, is Peter Weems. Peter bulldozed many of the tracks on the estate. He made the track to the top of
Beinn a’Bhuird, quite a steep and dangerous undertaking, and also I think, the track from Geldie Lodge to Carn Ealar. Sadly Peter died when his machine overturned as he was adjusting a track on a relatively level bit of ground in Glen Ey.
When the National Trust bought the Estate they took the politically correct decision to reinstate the tracks, including the one up Beinn a’Bhuird and in Glen Derry. I heard recently that they are now having logistical problems distributing the large quantity of native tree saplings. Helicopters are too expensive and the all terrain vehicles damage the ground.
In 1967 two friends answered an advert for work in a highland hotel. Lassies with office jobs in Dunbarton, they were looking for a change and a bit of excitement. They duly arrived at Mar Lodge to do bar work and help at reception. They found their excitement, Theresa met a young stalker on Mar Estate, she and Kip are still together, and Bunty met me. The rest is history … well as Bunty says, “I became pregnant, so there was no going back, my parents were strict Catholics! However it’s all worked out for the best, and that was 52 years ago!”
Over the years there have been many ghillies at Mar Lodge. Some stayed only a short time and are long forgotten, but others returned time and again and became good friends. When I started I shared Derry Lodge with a 15 year old Jonny Warchol. Over the years we did several trips with ponies around the Cairngorms, with the most ambitious across two ferries to Tobermory on Mull. The hospitality we encountered on the route was incredible. There were offers of accommodation and grazing all along the way.
Another venture that could have been a big success was pony trekking which started in 1968. We used to hire stalking ponies from Cameron Ormiston. I’d be driven to Newtonmore to pick up a string of six ponies and take them back through Glen Feshie. Then we started breeding our own and so, with some we bought from Jimmy Archibald in Ballater, we had about 16 and started our own Trekking Centre. It had everything going for it, we had the stabling accommodation, we had ample grazing and we had a great variety of scenic routes for half or whole day treks. When the school holidays started it got really busy, however this coincided with the start of the stalking season when ponies were required for the hill and much of the estate became a no go area for fear of disturbing the deer. It became impossible to take bookings and sadly it had to end. Although the trekking had to be abandoned, ponies continued to play a big part in Estate life. Carrying deer carcases from the otherwise inaccessible parts, dragging timber and ferrying fuel and equipment for footpath maintenance.
Incidentally, it was on one of these treks that I was asked about the oddly shaped section of wood behind Mar Lodge. It had a vague resemblance to a maple leaf so I said perhaps the Canadian lumberjacks who were here in 1941/42 left it as a memento of their visit. Since then it has been known as the Maple Leaf Wood. The truth is that that area of the wood was flattened by gales in the 1920’s. It was cleared and replanted but the trees were too small to be of any use when the Canadians arrived to fell most of the woods. It might be better to let the myth stand!
Callum McFarlane-Barrow was the factor when I started. A flamboyant character, he always wore the kilt unless he was stalking. He was also a typical West Coaster, who if a work situation got tough, used to say, “We’ll just throw down our tools and have a ceilidh.” One day he came to me and said, “I’ve engaged two ghillies, Alec and Joe MacDonald, they’re from Stornaway, they sound like wild kinda chaps so they should fit in here.” He was to meet them at the airport and give them some money to get messages before they got paid at the end of the week. He said, “If you could come up in the evening, I’m going to put them in Mar Forest bothy, I’ll introduce you, and you can take them to the hill tomorrow to show them the ropes.” So we duly went up to the bothy and Callum knocked on the door. There was great confusion inside, there was a crashing of chairs, a bit of swearing and someone eventually came to the door, but they didna open it very far, and this squeeky voice with a strong Lewis accent said, “Who is it, who is it?” Calum replied, “The factor.” “Oh, come in, come in, you’ll have a dram?” There was a bit of splashing about before they got some candles lit, as Mar Forest did not have electricity at that time, and we could see the situation. They must have got a bit of a fright, they’d been drinking, they hadna spent much on groceries at all, just bread and whisky. In their panic the whisky bottle had been knocked over and spilt, and here was Joe, busy with a loaf torn in half, sponging up the whisky off the table and squeezing it into a glass. And this is what we were offered for a dram! I had to take them to the hill next day, up Beinn Bhrotain, and they were awful dry, must have consumed the whole bottle after we left. Beinn Bhrotain is pretty steep, the German guest was slow, but they were lagging well behind, and every time they came to a stream their heads were down drinking up water. The guest said, “Vhat is it with the ghillies? Vhisky drinking is it?” He got that one right. They were good lads, but they were a bit wild!
Callum was the last resident factor, after he left in 1971 the Estate was run by land agents from distant offices. Bunty remembers babysitting Callum and Mary-Ann’s four children, she says, “They were a loving family, great kids, always quiet and nice.” It is their son Magnus who founded Mary’s Meals, the organisation that now feeds over a million hungry children every school day. Callum, now in his late 80s, is an artist and recently climbed Ben Nevis. See his paintings here.
Another ghillie come estate worker was Alex Smith. One day when we were coming off the hill together we came across a tent beside the path, foreigners I think. Just as we were passing the woman came out of the tent stark naked, quite unabashed! As I passed I mumbled something like “It’s a fine night isn’t it.”, but then I heard Alex behind me say, “Midges ‘ill get you.”
Skitts was here on and off over several seasons. Once when John Panchaud shot a kestrel Skitts exclaimed, “That bird is protected!” Panchaud blew the smoke from the barrel of his gun and replied, “That one wasn’t.”
One stalking memory sticks out for all the wrong reasons. On a fine Friday morning I took a Swiss guest, a Mr Capoulade, and his wife up Glen Derry where he shot his stag early in the day. Next morning Mr Panchaud’s son Paul approached me and said, “Father is not very pleased with you Robbie, Mr Capoulade complained at dinner last night that he was home too early, so you’ve got to take him a longer walk today.” Bob Scott heard this and said, “Tak the bugger tae the Buidheanach if he wints a lang walk.” The Buidheanach is an area between Cairn Toul and Devil’s Point that hadn’t been stalked for years. So that’s what we did.
The guest and his wife, Peter the ghillie, and myself climbed up from Corrour bothy and on to the plateau where we spied and stalked a group of stags. We selected one which he shot cleanly, but before I could stop him, he fired again and shot another. We couldn’t raise the pony ghillie, who we later discovered lost his boot in a peat hag when the pony trod on his heel. This left us with no option but to pull the stags down ourselves. I told the guest to take his wife down the track we came up while we continued pulling the stags down a steeper and rough more direct route into Glen Geusachan. We hadn’t gone very far when I heard a cry for help and saw the guest stuck on a ledge to our right, with loose scree tumbling down into the glen below him. He had ignored my advice to go back the way we came and was now in a right old mess. He was rigid with fear and became hysterical when he saw the scree slipping under my feet as I tried to reach him. He wasn’t prepared to move so I went back down and asked Peter if he would stay with him while I went to find a rope. Back at Mar Lodge I phoned Louis Murray, then Mountain Rescue Leader, to see if he would bring up a rope. Louis, instead of coming alone, brought the whole rescue team. As we toiled back up the hill we met Peter coming down with the guest. Peter is a cool and collected kinda guy and he managed to calm the chap down and get him out. Back at Mar Lodge the guest was obliged to pay the chef to provide a meal for the whole team.
Next day, Sunday, we went back to retrieve the deer carcasses but they had sustained too much damage on that extremely rough descent and had to be abandoned and left for the hoodies or the eagles. If Mr Capoulade ever goes stalking again he would be wise to follow his stalker’s instructions!
Around the mid seventies Alph McGregor was training as a stalker. He spent the long winter evenings writing poems, that is when he was not gaining inspiration in the bar! They were very good, so here are a couple that include characters working at Mar Lodge at the time. The Raid is very loosely based on an actual event, and The Great Stag of Mar Lodge captures the idiosyncrasies of those mentioned to a tee!
Alph eventually moved to Rothiemurchus in Speyside where he worked as a Countryside Ranger. He is now semi retired and has been writing a book about amusing incidents during his stalking days. This he hopes to publish.
The moon shone high in the heavens
And snug was our wee drinking den
We drank and told many stories
Of who and of what and of when.
But Lorna looked out of the window
Her face was filled with dismay
She said: “I see a police car
And the bloody thing’s headed this way!”
The lights were switched off in an instant
We rumbled about in the dark
Confusion was total and utter
But some folk were quick off their mark.
Alph grabbed his pint and just bolted
But Robbie was two times as fly
He ‘rescued’ two glasses of whisky
He was worried in case he ran dry.
We scurried like rats to a hideout
George was behind with his loot
The bar door shivered and trembled
As the policemen put in the boot.
Torchlights stabbed out in the darkness
The victims were crouched in the gloom
Ackie, Bill, Willie and Alec
Sat calmly awaiting their doom.
Before long the bobbies departed
Survivors were white-faced with fright
And mindful of the plastic bag
They slunk off on foot in the night.
They met in a group down at Robbie’s
And cursed all those blasted police
Who can’t keep away from a ceilidh
And leave people drinking in peace.
14th December 1975
Lorna Dempster, Acky’s wife.
Alph McGregor – trainee stalker and poet
Robbie Mitchell – farm/forest/estate/stalker on the Derry beat
George Anderson – ghillie/estate worker [died in an unexpected snow storm walking to Glen Feshie]
Ackie Dempster, head stalker, Geldie beat
Bill Loban – barman
Willie Forbes – taxidermist/stalker at Luibeg after Bob Scott
Alec MacDonald – ghillie from Stornaway
Dougie Dempster – stalker on the Quoich/Beinn a’Bhuird beat.
Skitts – Robert Rae a keen birder from Aberdeen.
Dick Eyres – a ghillie for 6 seasons.
Paul Watson– a forestry student.
THE GREAT STAG OF MAR LODGE
Bob Scott once told an incredible tale
Of a mighty great stag as big as a whale
Bob told us all ’twas bigger by far
Than any other stag seen ever on Mar
“Awa’ Bob, ye’re kiddin’.” Was the general cry
“I’m damned if I am!” Was his ready reply.
While out shooting grouse we all got a fright
When this huge shaggy monster hove into sight
Its eyes were like saucers, its horns were like trees
The sight of the beast made us weak in the knees
Back to Mar Lodge all us ghillies did fly
And in our pure terror we drank the pub dry.
Well, Ackie set out to kill this great beast
He was up on Carn Ealar, wi’ the wind in the east
He stalked into the stag and the beastie did grin
As six, seven bullets bounced right off its skin
The stag said to Ackie: “You’ll have to try harder
Before you’ve got my corpse hanging up in your larder.”
Then Dougie prepared to slay this great deer
With gun and a knife and a huge stock of beer
Douglas spied north and Douglas spied east
But ne’er saw a trace of this crafty old beast
The stag drank the beer while he was away
Doug burst into tears and called it a day.
Then big Wullie spoke and Wullie was grim
He swore that the stag’d be no problem for him
For the beasts reputation hadna twa hoots
He’d run it to death with his over drive boots
But the stag finished Wullie that’s really what matters
Wullie wore out his boots and his clothes hung in tatters.
Then the ghillies spoke up and said they’d try too
They went into the pub to decide what to do
Skitts said he’d spear it, Dick said a knife
Gordon said gelignite would deprive it of life
Paul said a hand grenade would blow it to hell
Alph said a bazooka would do just as well.
The ghillies advanced and they really looked tough
The stag took one look and said “Christ that’s enough!
These Mar Lodge stalkers are a bad enough bunch
But I’ll no’ face their ghillies when it comes to the crunch!”
The stag took to flight with a thunder of hooves
From the safety of Atholl it didna dare move.
The stag said to its mate with a sigh of relief
“I’ve had an escape that’s beyond all belief
The stalkers may be tough and they may be mean
But the Mar Lodge ghillies are the roughest I’ve seen
From the Atholl Sanctuary you never should budge
You’ll be slain by mad ghillies if you go to Mar Lodge.”
Meanwhile the public bar was still going like a fair. Numbers at the weekends were boosted by campers and caravaners from the unofficial Canadian campsite at the confluence of the rivers Dee and Lui where the Canadian’s sawmill had been sited during WW2. Mr. Panchaud couldn’t charge for camping because there were no toilet facilities etc. but he was legally able to impose what he called a parking fee.
There was quite a bit of musical talent about at that time. Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics worked as a housemaid for a while. The Tannerhill Weavers, a folk group from Glasgow worked a few seasons as ghillies and entertained in the bar. Dougie Dempster, whose wife Sandra often kept the bar, needed no persuading to give auditions of Andy Stewart and Calum Kennedy songs, and many impromptu ceilidhs started out of nothing. It was Dougie who defined a ghillie as a receptacle for whisky, placed at regular intervals on the Scottish hills, whose capacity was unknown. Bill Lobban the barman, foreman on Mar Estate, was often dispatched home for his accordion and sometimes Mrs Lobban too accompanying him on the piano. Alph was resident poet. There were also some wild characters about at that time, but I’m happy to say that most of them matured into responsible and respectable citizens, even Alec McDonald from Stornaway, wildest of them all. Alec became a born again Christian and he and wife Jessie regularly took aid in the form of clothing and food to Romania.
I recently came across this photo of the Ghillies Bog which has reminded me of the occasion, but I can’t for the life of me recall exactly what it was all about. I think the ghillies must have been banned from using an inside toilet, but I’ve no idea which one or why. Maybe someone will remember. It’s 1971, when there were over thirty permanent and seasonal staff, so here’s a round up of photos. Apologies to those without names.
The Dempsters worked on the Estate for many years. Their father Alex came over from Speyside to a job as stalker on Mar. Dougie was already doing estate work on Mar Lodge when I arrived and started ghillieing about same time I did. He took on the Quoich beat and turned into a very good stalker. Like myself he got moved from beat to beat. If the guest wanted to be with you, but wanted a change of ground, you had to shift about a wee bit. It made it more difficult going to a different beat because if you were on the same ground you know where you left deer, or where they are likely to be depending on the wind. Dougie married Sandra and they had a son John. Sandra was a hard worker and did many jobs in the hotel, in fact she was housekeeper for the Kluges until the National Trust took over.
John started working for me during the summer from about the time he left Braemar Primary School. He was involved in everything that went on, in fact he describes his early years as a “Huckleberry Finn life”. So naturally he started full time when he left the school and was with us for about three years before he went to New Zealand. He came back in 1992 and had another spell on the Estate working with our son Rory. His mum booked Mar Lodge for his marriage to Marita and they have since moved to the south of England. I believe that at the moment he works at Pinewood Studios.
Dougie’s brother Acky, with his wife Lorna, followed two or three years after I started from Advie Estate to take on the Geldie beat. He very much made the Geldie his own and became Head Stalker when Bob retired. Lorna took the job of Head Housekeeper and ran the Lodge. However Acky always wanted to stalk on Glenfeshie Estate so when an opportunity came up he moved on in the mid seventies.
There were also some less than savoury characters who worked at Mar Lodge. It was just the end of the stag shooting season as I remember, an awful mild October. Sandra, who worked in the lodge at that time, alerted us to the fact that a kitchen porter who had worked there during the season had, with the help of a colleague, somehow managed to get the safe out of the office, and they were wheeling it down the back road on a sack barrow. So we immediately alerted everyone, got the landrovers, blocked off all the exits and informed Louis Murray the local bobby. Louis came up and jumped into my landrover because I had radio contact with the others, and we drove about but couldna see them anywhere. Then the stags started roaring, and they were very very close and had a real loud echo. These two fellows were terrified and they came out of hiding, and I think Ackie and someone else got a hold of them. Over the radio came the cry, “We’ve got them. We’ve got them.” Louis Murray quickly replied “For God’s sake dunna touch them, dunna touch them!” So we collected Louis’s landrover and he put these two lads in the back where there was a metal bar behind the seats. He handcuffed each hand of these fellows to this bar, left the interior light on, doors wide open, and said to Dougie, “Do you think Sandra would give us a dram?” “I’m sure she would,” he replied. So we settled in the bar for the duration. By the time we eventually went back out they were driven demented by the midges, one side of each face, that they could rub against each other, was rubbed raw. I’m not sure what sentence they received in court, but I’m sure it was nothing as bad as the night with the midges. In fact when Louis threatened to leave them for longer they admitted other bits of mischief around the country, so several crimes were solved that night. It was after this incident that I received a letter of commendation from the Chief Constable in Aberdeen.
In the early seventies Bob Scott was in his late sixties and, although officially retired, arrived for work every day during the shooting season. He did little if any stalking, but took the guests to the river and was always involved in the grouse shoots where he liked to be the centre of attention. Bob was always ready to help out, shifting landrovers, boiling heads, and helping skin stags as he heard how the days stalking had gone. He would then make his way to the bar in the hope that someone wanted to buy him a dram and hear his outrageous stories. Often still there at closing time he was chivied to leave by his daughter Eileen who wanted home to her bed.
Bob was nae a respecter of persons. He used to come down from Luibeg in the morning and drive round to the front of the Lodge. Sometimes Panchaud was out on the balcony, spying across at the other side or simply sitting there having a coffee. Bob would say, “I need a word with him.” And he’d shout up, “You’ll have to put someone up to sort the derry road. It’s breaking all the springs on my landrover.” I don’t think Panchaud understood half of what he said, so he’d mumble something like, “That’ll be alright Bob.” This went on for a few mornings, and latterly if Panchaud saw the landrover coming round the corner, he just nipped inside! Bob had a rough exterior, but he was a big bloody softy really. When it came to dogs and horses he wouldna tolerate any unkindness towards animals. In the early years he used to say to me, “How’s your mither for firewood? We’ll have to put a load down to her. You’ll have to look after yer mither, you ken.” When we were cutting up a beast in the larder he’d say, “Put that bit aside and I’ll tak it doon to yer mither.” Of course he aye got a dram!
Bob left the Derry in the early seventies moving to the cottage beside the Quoich. Even after he’d been there quite a while, on leaving the bar he was seen to turn right towards the Derry, rather than left to the Quoich! He continued to help a little and feed deer through the winter until his health started to go downhill and he had to give up driving. Eileen drove him locally, the posties were very kind to him and took up a lot of messages, and then Ackie, Doug or myself would drive him to ever more frequent hospital visits. Although Bob was failing quite a bit by the late 70s he still used to hold court to a lot of visitors over the weekends, rattling off his tales of the time he was in Italy during the war. He always seemed to acquire a bottle of whisky or two, and he was still capable of posting away a substantial amount himself. Finally Bob was in hospital in Inverurie and then with his daughter Margaret in Oldmeldrum, which is where he died on 26th July 1981.
Eileen moved from the Quoich to a council house in Braemar, but sadly she developed a brain tumour and didn’t live very long after that. She had a very abrasive manner, much like her father, but as Bunty says, “She was always very kind to me, I felt dead sorry for her. I think she did not want to be stuck away up here looking after her father.” Eileen’s word was law in the bar. She used to put the fear of death into Sandy Munro the kitchen porter. He was a mild mannered wee fellow and he could be quite interesting company, but if he got too much to drink he was just a horror.
I have already mentioned the time that I was in charge of Bob’s Bothy in my first season. It is probably the best known one in Scotland. I don’t know when it was first used, but certainly from the 1940s when Aul Beattie was stalker at Luibeg. It has housed climbing legends like Dr. Tom Patey who was for a while locum in Braemar during the early 60s. Then there were the Ham and Eggers, the guys who didn’t do much climbing but talked a lot about it, the Munro Baggers, and some weird and wonderful eccentrics. Bob had a great interest in nature and the landscape and did not have much respect for Munro Baggers. When he met them coming off the hill, he’d say, “Well you’ll have had a grand day, saw nothing but the taes of yer beets’, lads?” The strangest occupant was probably a young reindeer bull who wandered over from Cairngorm with 17 of his cows. The tinkling of their bells frightened the deer and created havoc with the stalking, some guests had to be restrained from shooting them! We managed to lasso him and locked him in the Bothy until Mikel Utsi, the Finnish reindeer herdsman, collected him with a horsebox. The cows then made their own way back.
Bob, although he was a bit of a tyrant and he was awful hard on the people who frequented the bothy, he was always pretty fair and they did respect him. They took a lot of his abuse and just laughed about it. After Bob moved to the Quoich cottage Willie Forbes, the stuffer [taxidimist] and his wife Lynn moved into Luibeg. He had a different approach, he came down pretty hard on them as well, but he couldna handle it as well as Bob and became pretty bitter. There were a lot of verbals back and forth, and one of the hikers insulted Willie’s wife and one thing led to another and Willie put a match to it in 1986, and that was it. The response was such that Panchaud felt he did not want to create more ill feeling with the hikers because they can respond in a manner detrimental to yourself. He felt it was better to appease them by allowing them to build a new bothy, give them materials to do it and some assistance as well. That sorted things out with a lot of the regulars who frequented the bothy. They were capable of doing nasty things, so I suppose he took the right approach although it went against the grain with Panchaud. At one stage he removed a bridge at Inverey, that the Canadians had built across the Ey, so that the walkers would not have easy access to the Derry. He would have liked to stop them having access altogether, but he realised that it was going to work against him, and he changed his attitude. Unfortunately the new bothy they built was also burned. The fellows had left a fairly good fire on while they went out raking the hill for more firewood, and a spark had got into the floor and there was another conflagration. The third Derry bothy has been designed to be more fire proof. I see on the map that it’s official name is now the Bob Scott Memorial Hut, but it is fondly referred to as Scottie’s by it’s regular users.
Bob worked under three owners, as did I, with the only one in common being the Panchauds. During their tenure the estate had a friendly atmosphere with everyone on first name terms. Staff were happy to work on to get a job completed, and at quiet times it was possible to take extended holidays. However despite the happy atmosphere Panchaud was not that forth coming with money. Sometimes there was an issue with electricity use. One evening Panchaud came home late from an event down Deeside. He saw all the lights in lodge were on and he went in storming about turning lights off, plunging folk into darkness wherever anyone was still up. Next morning he spoke to Lorna Dempster, “I don’t know who’s burning all this electricity. I had to switch off all the lights in the lodge last night. I’m going around the estate houses to see who’s consuming all the electricity.” Luckily Lorna phoned us. I had several electric wall heaters in the Stable Flat, it was a notoriously cold place. So I had just enough time to take these off the walls and get out an old paraffin heater. I had hardly got it filled and set it alight when there was a knock at the door. There was Gerald, he used to put on a beautific smile, “Good morning Robbie.” He didn’t say why he was there. “Is Bunty alright? Can I come in a minute?” He came up the stairs, all the time his eyes were darting everywhere. He chatted away for a while. Never said what it was about, and slipped away again, still with his beautific smile. He then went on to all the other houses on the estate. He went back up to the lodge a bit later and said to Lorna, “I don’t know whose burning all that electricity, but it’s certainly not Robbie Mitchell!
Gerald Panchaud’s first wife died quite young and he was remarried in the early 80’s, I think, by Johnny Stammers the Registrar who had the grocers shop in Braemar. We were all invited to the reception in Mar Lodge. I’d just put some cattle away to the mart and was walking past the lodge on my way home to change and Panchaud said, “Robbie, aren’t you coming to my reception?” So I replied, “Yes, I’m going home to change,” and his response was “No, no, just come as you are.”
After working about 20 years on the estate the Panchauds sold Bunty and I a prime site for a house beside Claybokie for the princely sum of one pound. We built a home with a beautiful view up Glen Ey where we were very happy.
In 1989 Gerald Panchaud’s health was failing and he decided to sell Mar Lodge Estate. This came as quite a blow, as most of the staff had had a long and happy relationship with the Panchauds, and there was much concern as to the future of the Estate. However, later that year it had been bought by a Mr John Kluge, an American media billionaire, and his wife Patricia who was over 30 years his junior. The press had a field day when it was revealed that Patricia had formerly been a belly dancer and featured in pornographic magazines.
These new owners were quite different. Mr Kluge wanted to distance himself from the staff and all communication was through the factors Smiths Gore, but he was generous and stared spending big money. Almost immediately, extensive renovations commenced in the Lodge, estate houses were updated, a new deer larder built, a new maintenance workshop built, a new sawmill installed and a fleet of new Land Rovers and other equipment bought.
The Kluges had a strong interest in carriage driving trials and employed a team of grooms and drivers who completed at international level. These were based at Mar Lodge and new stables built for the Dutch Warmblood horses.
The alterations to the Lodge suffered a severe setback when fire broke out in the attic and raged through the building leaving only the East and West Wings intact. It was never fully established if the fire had been started deliberately or if it was accidental. Much of the stonework had been badly damaged and finding matching granite posed a problem. The contractors were a bit sceptical when I told them that the stone had come from a quarry opposite Woodhill, at the top of Chapel Brae in the village. However they had samples analysed and this confirmed my infomation. It was considered too problematic to reopen the quarry so granite was imported from Italy. After a huge clean up operation the Lodge was restored to almost original condition.
Kluge reckoned that Claybokie was not big enough for an overflow of guests, so he wanted my house, which was also not big enough but didn’t lend itself to being extended. He gave us an offer it was difficult to refuse and demolished it. He then proceeded to build not one house, but two.
Deer stalking and grouse shooting continued on much the same scale as before, but clients now had to find accommodation elsewhere, which was no bad thing for the village hotels and guest houses. Re-generation became the in word and a deer fence was erected to encompass the south face of Craig Bhalg, the hill behind the Lodge. The success of this can be readily seen with different species of trees of varying heights giving it a very natural appearance.
Money kept pouring in for new projects, new water supplies, new sewerage systems etc. but then the bubble burst. Mrs. Kluge had been up to some hanky panky (allegedly), and overnight everything came to a standstill. Grooms dismissed, horses sold, and all projects put on hold. The uncertainty over the Estates future created a worrying time for staff. But in 1995, after much speculation it was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland, and so began a new era in the Estate’s history. It is without doubt, one of the most beautiful areas in Scotland.
The NTS came with a total change of direction from sporting estate to conservation showpiece. Instructions came from desk bound managers in Edinburgh who had to explain their use of public money and appease a large membership. Jobs that I had been involved in over the years were now undone, hill tracks and fences were removed while a majority of the deer were culled. A close eye was kept all projects by professional advisors with letters after their name. This slowed down the work and certainly put up the costs of jobs that previously we had just got on and done.
It is now 14 years since I retired from the Estate. Every day I walk in the woods beside my home in the village and see the symmetrical top of Derry Cairngorm while knowing that it’s eastern slopes reach down into Glen Derry. It was there, almost 70 years ago, that I learnt my trade and formed a lifelong friendship with Bob Scott.
APPENDIX. Local stories not directly linked to Mar Lodge.
Colin McIntosh gave me a hand written copy of his poem The Blue Cairngorms. I think it deserves sharing. He was in the navy during the Second World War, spending much of the time in the Baltic, which is where he wrote this poem. On his return he took a stalker’s beat on Invercauld Estate, was an original member of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team and, as you can see, a piper.
THE BLUE CAIRNGORMS
The Blue Cairngorms are forever in my dreams
With their corries and tarns and turbulent streams
I dream of them oft’ as I wander afar
Mountains of majesty, the guardians of Mar
I see them in spring with their burns in spate
I hark, as the ptarmigan calls to its mate
The red deer are feeding on the foothills below
On the young heather shoots newly freed from the snow
I see them in summer, through a shimmering haze
Cairntoul and McDhui seem proud at one gaze
Loch Avon a jewel as it scintillates and gleams
Loch Etchachan dark as the devils own dreams
I see them in autumn in all their gay splendour
A sight which the writer shall ever remember
Tis the season in which many strangers appear
To conquer your peaks and your corries each year
I see them in winter, neath a mantle of snow
With their ice covered burns and lochans below
Lifeless except for the ptarmigan and hare
As cold as the arctic – so travellers beware
Your fame has been mentioned in verse and in story
And the writer here cannot add much to your glory
But he longs for a sight on a clear summer morn
Of those mountains of grandeur the Blue Cairngorms
Erika “The Nanny”.
This has certainly sent my mind off down Memory Lane!
It was such a fabulous summer. I arrived along with my dog, Rock to be the factor’s nanny several weeks before the rest of the staff arrived and it was a bit lonely to start with. They were looking for more staff so I suggested Janet and Co. from home and soon the place was buzzing. I was mainly outside or up at Claybokie looking after the kids, especially in the evenings so guess I missed out on quite a bit of what went on inside the lodge. Which gives me the excuse for being hopeless at remembering names of indoor staff!
There is one lady I will never forget…….Mary who worked in the kitchen. She was a real star. She helped me by saving scraps for my dog and covering for him when he knocked over the dustbins! Her father farmed sheep on one of the home farms. Rock my dog stayed with her and her dad when I went to Art College until I could find a flat for us. He had a great time but before I could collect him he had managed to get the working collie pregnant! They were very nice about it and I went back to see the pups. Sadly I have no photo of her.
Robbie is such a great guy. I dropped in on him and Bunty quite a few years after that summer when I was going through a bit of a crisis and needed an escape. Robbie let me go for a ride around the estate on his Garron which was just what I needed and I slept on their couch. So grateful for their kindness. Oh, and never did get Robbie and Peter back for that time you two soaked me in stag’s blood after we had been up the hill!
Just a wee bit though as you have mentioned Magnus….Seumas MacFarlane, the wee boy snuggled into my left side in the nanny photo and now living in Ireland is a very successful artist. He paints Scottish and Irish landscape in a very evocative style. Love his work. Seumas was a wee sweetheart.
I live in France now but miss Scotland very much. I am grateful to you for stirring up all these memories Peter. Good luck with the project and please give my best wishes to Robbie and Bunty.
Stay safe and kindest regards, Erika.
Calum “The Factor”.
I really enjoyed Robbie Mitchell’s excellent account of his days at Mar Lodge – very well written and such interesting stories; I can add a few as the memories come flooding back!
Mary Anne and I arrived at Mar Lodge in May 1962 having just returned from our honeymoon on the Isle of Skye. I was keen to start work on the estate which had so much to offer and we were both delighted with ‘Claybokie’ the house which went with the job. It was truly a lovely house with superb views over the River Dee and up Glen Ey and we lived there very happily for the next 10 years raising our family. It was near the end of that time that Erika was such a good help as a nanny and it was so good to see your post Erika! We decided to leave in 1972 with future schooling being one of the main reasons.
One of the first stories I heard was that of Jimmy Kellas. Jimmy was the farm manager at Allanquoich the home farm. His really big day of the year was the annual sale of his calves in the Aboyne mart and he got himself into a real sweat days before the event. This particular year, sometime before I arrived, Jimmy was asked by his good wife to make sure to bring back the day-old chicks they had ordered. The sale was a good one and Jimmy’s ‘calfies’ did really well – and Jimmy did pretty well too when it came to celebrating the sale! After a good head of steam he made his way back to Braemar and finally reached the ‘ferry’ [a boat one rowed oneself] where he had to cross the River Dee opposite Allanquoich. How he made it I don’t know but he managed to get out on to the bank on the other side along with the box of chicks. By now it was really dark and he managed to drop the box with the result that the chicks escaped. Poor Jimmy, he spent the next while capturing the chicks as he heard their ‘cheeps’ in the dark. When he eventually reached the farmhouse his wife had gone to bed but he was concerned because the chicks had got really chilled and he decided to put them in the bottom oven of the Aga which was going out. Next morning Mrs Kellas came downstairs – (no; don’t think of it but luckily she didn’t light the fire!). However, she heard the ‘cheeps’ coming from the oven; she opened up the box and behold 12 lovely little fluffy chicks; but there was also a stranger among them – a puddock! Jimmy had mistaken a ‘croak’ for a ‘cheep’! You might say that’s a rather ‘cheap’ story but that’s the way of it!
I remember early on that Bob Scott had to take a young Englishman out for his first stalk. I can’t remember the boy’s name but we will call him ‘John’. He was a bumptious fellow and swaggered into the deer larder the day prior to his stalk. Bob had just finished skinning a stag. John proudly wanted to show off his cromag, which he had just bought in Braemar. As the boy walked across the concrete floor of the deer larder the ferrule on the stick made an ominous metallic click (a stalker’s nightmare – if stalking on a scree slope that metallic click can so easily give the show away as it will be heard by deer a long way off especially if the day is calm). “That’s a jolly good stick, Bob, isn’t it”? Bob said nothing and made no comment and then “Could I hae a look at the stick”? Bob then calmly reaches up for the handsaw, lays the cromag across the skinning stool and cuts off the ferrule much to John’s protestation and indignation. But that was not the end of it – John was wearing a gleaming white peaked cap. “That’s nae muckle of a hat tae gang to the hill wi’” says Bob. “It’s a perfectly good hat” says John “I bought it in Harrods and, I promise, I will be ever so careful on the hill”. Bob just grunts and says nothing.
The next day they set off for the hill to stalk the north Geldie. They had had a long tiring day and by now were not very far from the Feshie march when they came on a parcel of deer some distance below them. The cover was not good but fortunately they came on some very deep peat hags which lead downhill to where the deer were feeding (I knew those peat hags well and had used them myself for cover). They slowly edged their way down until they were within range. Bob very slowly and carefully peered over the bank to assess the situation. There, within a 100 yards stood a good old stag and what’s more standing broadside on. Bob looked back and down at John urging him to draw a little bit closer. But Bob knew that awful gleaming white peaked cap could spoil the whole thing so he stretched out his hand and yanked the cap of the boy’s head. John was about to protest and explode with indignation but Bob raised his finger to his mouth indicating that SILENCE was imperative. Bob then scrunched the hat into the peat, stirred it round a bit until it was really dark and then plonked it on to John’s head and then, and only then, would he allow him to venture up on to the bank from where he could take a shot. Bob had timed his intervention to a tee! Fortunately, John dropped the beast with a good clean shot so all ended well!
I remember Bob telling us about Ian Grant who had a croft in Inverey and who in fact was the last indigenous Gaelic speaker in that little village. Bob did not have much time for Ian who was a very, very quiet man. They rarely saw each other until one day Bob had to help a neighbour in Inverey lift her tatties. He was adjacent to Ian Grant’s croft who was also lifting his. In spite of not having seen each other for over 6 months not a word was shared between them, and Bob says he could stand it no longer and he shouts across to Ian “Fits a dee”. There was a long, long pause and eventually Ian replies “Nae muckle” and gets back to work – and those were the only words spoken all day! Bob was disgusted with him and later said to us “Fit kinda o mon is thon” (“What kind of a man is that”)
More than 20 of us (stalking guests and family friends, stalkers, pony ghillies, and walking/travelling ghillies) would assemble in front of Mar Lodge in the morning after breakfast to sort out the day’s arrangements. One day a French guest said he would particularly like to have the services of the German stalker. We were wondering to whom he was referring until he pointed out Bob Scott – he mistook Bob’s doric for German!
Another time when we were allotting pony ghillies a German guest shouts out “Could I have zi ghillie girl?” – he was referring to Robbie’s sister Isobel who had been drafted in to lend a hand.
I remember offering to go as a walking ghillie for Bob when he was stalking on Feith na Sgor – I did not know the beat well and wanted to get more acquainted with it. We had a pony gillie, John, I think from Skye. He was an elderly man and lead the garron keeping a good distance behind us in case we suddenly came on deer. We reached the ridge at the top and eventually Bob spotted some deer further along on Sgor Mor. I was a bit behind Bob and his guest and he indicated to me that I should really crouch low still being out of sight of the deer myself. I did this and looked back to warn the pony ghillie who was on the ridge miles away – well probably about 500 yards! I was so amused because John seriously went flat down to the ground but of course his pony, a white garron stood beside him all of 14.2 hands – upright, proud and white on the horizon and John still flat as a pancake. Perhaps he expected the horse to do the same! Bob’s guest was one of a party of 4 Frenchmen. He was a notoriously bad shot – his 3 mates were already up 3 stags a piece shot on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and this poor guy had messed it up on all three days. This was the Thursday and things were getting desperate for our friend – they each had paid for an expectation of 4 stags in the week and as yet he had none and his mates had begun teasing him. I watched Bob getting his guest into a position for a shot but the guest declined and then he suddenly gave the rifle back to Bob along with a very healthy tip and said “Vous tirez, vous tirez”.
When we eventually got back to the larder with the stag our guest’s friends were already there having added to their count. They found it hard to believe our guest had actually shot one – Bob and I just quietly gave each other a wink!
Some lads staying in the bothy at Luibeg realized Bob’s hens’ eggs were much tastier than the eggs they had brought with them so they surreptitiously swapped some of their eggs with his. When accosted the lads protested innocence but Bob said “Ma hens dinna lay STAMPED eggs”! [From 1956-1971 the Egg Marketing Board stamped a small lion logo on the eggs.]
Bob and myself, and two others were returning from a ‘stalkers conference’ on the Isle of Rhum off the west coast. We broke the journey home and stayed in the Strontian Hotel on Loch Sunart. During the course of the evening a ceilidh developed in the bar with the best of the local pipers contributing. The piping was outstanding and Bob was so impressed that he said “Thae Deeside pipers micht as well throw their pipes in the River Dee”!
Although Bob was regarded as a bit of a Sergeant Major his bark was much stronger than his bite. He had a really compassionate heart underneath it all and I will never forget an incident on the Yellow Moss, an extensive plateau lying just below ‘munro’ height. A party of young people, I think in April unbelievably, experienced the most awful conditions with cold driving sleet, rain and mist and at that altitude they not only got lost but suffered hypothermia. A search party went out and Bob Scott came on a young man from the party who had just descended into upper Glen Derry. Bob met him on the footpath and within minutes the poor boy collapsed and died. Bob was visibly moved recounting the death and said that afterwards he went back up and built a cairn of stones in memory of the boy.
I always saw Robbie as a daring young man and not only was he very good with horses, but was also a very good stalker. I remember him taking a guest out on Creag Bhalg who was only interested in getting himself a really good trophy. Robbie, I seem to remember, got into a herd of about 16 stags. He stalked them carefully and to his dismay discovered that they were really all too good to shoot ranging from young ‘royals’ up to ‘imperials’ and even a ‘monarch’. He and the guest were in a really good ‘safe’ position for a shot where they could study the deer carefully. Robbie eventually decided that one could be culled; the least good head which was also rather mis-shapen. It was near the centre of the group with an ‘imperial’ just on the right of him. Robbie carefully explained to the guest the one to take; Robbie watched him line the sights up on the stag and told the guest to shoot when he was ready. Robbie watched closely and just as the guest was about to pull the trigger the guest quickly swung the rifle on to the imperial – he was so desperate to get a good trophy. But he was just a bit too smart for he shot at the stag’s head and too high and as a result the antlers fell apart and he had ruined his illicit trophy!
Another time on the same hill, Robbie’s guest wounded a stag which sadly could only go downhill. It landed in the River Dee just below Claybokie and Robbie jumped into the river to finish it off. However, as he was about to put the knife in, the stag moved and flicked the gralloching knife out of Robbie’s hand which spun round and pierced his thigh. The blood just gushed out and I was very impressed how Robbie had the presence of mind to immediately make and apply a tourniquet to staunch the flow which may well have been the saving of his life.
Our time at Mar Lodge was very special and I am very grateful to Robbie, and also Erika, for their great reports and allowing us to reflect on ‘those good old days’ and I wish them and their families all the best in these very difficult times. [December 2020]
Calum [who supplied the photos below]
THE VOICE OF ALLANAQUOICH
We are reliably informed that the person on the left is the person on the right! Yes, we have Nashville, Tennesdee’s resident Father Christmas aka Mike Illingworth. If hearing is believing try River Dee Radio Country Club
These stories were recorded and transcribed by Peter Muskus who first met Robbie in 1971 when working as his ghillie. More recently, while holidaying in the Lodge, Peter read a brief history of Mar Lodge Estate written by the National Trust for Scotland. It recorded the previous owners of the Estate and the provenance of the furniture in the Lodge, but made no mention of any staff. Unlike the owners the staff lived on the Estate 24/7 and formed the community that stretched back generations. Hence the ambition to record the life of two stalkers whose linked tenure lasted over 100 years. Please share your memories, and send photos here. November 2020.
Copyright © 20th Nov. 2020 Robbie Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please ask if you wish to use any of this content.
Another of Peter’s interests has been editing and publishing his grandmother’s memoir. Here you see it at No. 3 on Amazon surrounded by names that are foreign to Peter! The Long Bridge is about the 16 years that Urszula was a prisoner in Siberia. Many readers find the book uplifting and detect a spiritual element in the writing. Urszula does not dwell on the hardships, but records her friendships with prisoners, guards and bandit molls, the work and daily life, and the constellations in the night skies. She was always ready to help those in more need than herself. Please read the reviews, either on amazon.co.uk or https://3650daysinthegulag.com/reviews/
He is also interested in the history of his ancestors from Banchory-Devenick. Adam Still was born at Easter Ardoe 1782, married in London 1804, died 1857.